New York City is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and it’s easy to see why. This is a cool city! I mean, the history! The landmarks! Carnegie Hall! The Chelsea Hotel! Then there’s the Theater District, the Fashion District, the five star restaurants, the Financial District — this city has it all!
Then there’s Times Square; bright, flashy, delirium-inducing-Times Square. At any given hour on any day of the week, this place is choked with humanity. One can’t walk up or down the avenue without having to avoid a gawking tourist frozen in place as they look at some eye-catching advertisement or paean of consumption.
Years ago, a friend and I walked through Times Square not long after first moving to New York. I asked my friend, Telemachus, (remember him? See Experience: Moving) to tell me what made this churning cesspool of retail so appealing.
“I don’t get this place, Telemachus,” I said, dodging people as they stopped in front of me every 10 steps. “What’s so special about it? What is there to do here except look at things and buy things?”
“Corey,” Telemachus replied, “I think you just answered your own question.”
It wasn’t until I paid a visit to M&M World, one of this forsaken valley’s newest edifices of needless consumption (sorry) that I fully understood how far we’ve fallen. It hovers at the corner of 48th and Broadway, like a monolith of chocolatey decadence. A brightly colored digitized billboard beckons us closer. The animated renderings of the yellow and red M&M’s we love from all those clever commercials welcome us in like old friends.
Hey, humor! Cute corporate mascots! This place can’t be such a black hole of commercial misery, can it? Can it?! At the very least, it’s as good a place as any to escape this oppressive heat wave. In we go.
A tidal wave of chocolate aroma washes over me at the front door. The very air is saturated with the fragrance of its product. M&M’s are nice for a treat every so often, but when the very oxygen I breathe is permeated with them, would it cease to become a treat and instead act as some sort of psychological trigger for work-induced malaise? The employees seem to think so. They muddle about this three-level leviathan looking as if they’d sooner subsist on a diet of crickets than ever see an M&M again. The milk chocolate melts your soul, but not in your hand!
I try to chat up the doorman to see how his day is going. He shoots me a look of “please don’t talk to me.” This is the gaze of a man who’s had enough chocolate vapor to last a lifetime.
So far I’m failing to see how any of this relates to New York City, and what the appeal would be for an out-of-towner looking to take a bite out of the Big Apple.
The crowd is a mixture of obnoxious teenagers in the big city from New Jersey and upstate, their faces perpetually buried in their smart phones, no doubt Tweeting their locations and checking themselves in. The others are exhausted-looking parents dragging their toddlers to another brightly-colored cultural landmark. Me, I’m an anomaly here: a disgruntled townie just looking for a place to beat the 100 degree heat. So I take refuge in a chocolate store. Smart.
A towering rotational statue of the red M&M in a disco suit straight out of Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta looms in the center of the first floor. Hey! That movie took place in Brooklyn. That’s kind of New York-ish, right?
I ask my friend the doorman if it’s all right to take a picture. He scoffs and mumbles, “Hey, man, I don’t give a shit.”
Further in, things get a little more NYC-oriented: little candy banks featuring the M&M’s in taxi cabs, a statue of the yellow M & M scaling the Empire State Building like King Kong and the strangely seductive green M&M (the candy equivalent of Smurfette as she seems to be the only female) dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. There are T-shirts, of course, stating simple locations such as “M&M World, New York.” An M&M Bank penny bank for the bargain price of $24.95? Start saving your pennies now, kids. When you visit New York you’ll need all of them to shop at M&M World.
Strange, I think, for all the time spent in this chocolate-scented dungeon, these disgruntled parents probably could have spent just as much energy taking their kids to the actual Statue of Liberty and seen Ellis Island as a side trip. Isn’t that at least educational?
Truth be told, it looks as if no one knows why they’re here. The kids seem just as confused as their parents. What is M&M World, they must be wondering, and why do we need to be in here now? Can’t we be riding a ferry down the Hudson River? Oh, who cares? There are T-shirts to buy and M&M’s to sort. Twenty-foot tall tubes of color-separated M&M’s are available for visitors to mix and match their own grab bags. I wasn’t aware that this many M&M’s even existed in one place, let alone that this many people were fanatical enough to buy and consume them in such mass quantities.
This is when I realize people aren’t this fanatic about candy. They simply allow themselves to believe so from the hypnotic signs beckoning them here. M&M World is a stroke of twisted genius: A store devoted to a lifestyle no one knew existed until the Mars Company decided to erect a monument to it, and they put it in one of the most pedestrian-heavy places in the world. It’s a move of advertising bravado so ballsy, it can’t help but succeed.
Isn’t Central Park just 10 blocks north, though? The main branch of the New York Public Library is two avenues over, and they filmed Ghostbusters there! The kids love Ghostbusters, right? Well, at the least the kids of my generation did. I stifle nostalgic tears as I reach the elevator, having had enough chocolate by osmosis to last me a good long while.
If I sound bitter, it may just be a bodily reaction to an overdose of corporate-packaged sweetness. As I descend to the ground floor, I overhear a child speaking to his father. I assure you, no artistic license has been taken in the following dialogue exchange.
“Dad, when are we going to do something?”
“What are you talking about, we’re in Times Square!”
“Yeah, but all we’re doing is looking at things and buying things.”
A heavy beat. What will Dad’s counter-argument be?
“Well, let’s go to the Hershey Store across the street.”
Maybe the next generation will get it right.