#189: Bull in the Heather
Around this time last year, I attended the US Open, which resulted in an essay about how the tournament’s grounds are basically an outdoor airport terminal (paywalled for subscribers—you could be one of them!) This isn’t to say the event isn’t a great time. I love airport terminals too. I went to the US Open again this week and experienced the same effect even more strongly, noticing how every concession stall features a big flat screen displaying current match scores, in place of the airport’s ubiquitous arrival/departure screens. Upon arriving this year, I also noticed something else: Everywhere I looked, someone was wearing a dark blue Chase Bank baseball hat, which were clearly issuing forth as free merch from the company’s sponsored lounges. I became fixated on getting one of the hats, mostly because the thought of sporting a Chase hat in the future, anywhere but on the US Open grounds, seemed amusing (the hats barely even referenced the tournament, aside from a small logo on the side). They were funny in the same way that this Halloween pumpkin with the Chase logo carved into it was funny (which could mean: only funny to me).
Sadly, I didn’t come away with a hat. The lounges were all at capacity, and I didn’t actually care enough to waste precious tennis-watching time on such a stupid pursuit. After leaving Flushing Meadows and returning to my regular environs, I start noticing a different kind of merch: Hats and shirts that proudly pledge allegiance to Zabar’s, Fanelli’s, and other hallmarks of NYC authenticity, that most elusive prize, a resource that is always depleting yet somehow also constantly regenerating itself. I imagine a future in which Chase Banks symbolize the Real New York—the bodegas of the future, fetishized by visitors and transplants—with me as the only person who had the foresight to grab a hat when they were easy to get and then hang onto it. Chase bank branches, long synonymous with the corporate standardization of the city’s built environment, may in fact be at the nadir of their appeal right now—they are fundamental elements of the city’s infrastructure that will only be less essential as online banking more thoroughly replaces the brick-and-mortar version, and as cash itself continues to fall out of favor. Today, I notice more bank branches closing than opening. In May, New York City dismantled its last functional pay phone booth, concluding another chapter of the city’s infrastructural history and sparking a momentary outpouring of nostalgia for an obsolete technology (and like pay phones, physical bank branches have remained more useful to marginal populations such as the elderly during their decline).
I’m mostly kidding, of course, although I’m starting to talk myself into this idea. Stepping back, however, I’m amused by the sequence of postmodern cultural distortions that made it possible for me to desire a free hat displaying the brand of a global megacorporation about which I feel no emotions (despite being a longtime customer). Beneath the layers of irony in which it’s wrapped, that desire is probably a trauma response to the ceaseless onslaught of corporate branding in the physical environment and an expression of a hopeless need to reclaim agency, or at least the illusion of agency, by voluntarily embracing the brands’ symbols. Chase is the perfect object of that practice—its brand has so saturated the physical environment that it has become virtually invisible. But I didn’t even get a hat, so I failed to reclaim any agency. While my prediction about Chase becoming a nostalgic icon was a joke, it does seem that its status as shorthand for inescapable “brand pollution” is already fading, and giving way to more complex and promiscuous forms. We are too aware now; capital needs a more presentable facade. Blank Street Coffee exemplifies the new approach, proliferating through yuppie neighborhoods like an invasive species, just bland enough to escape notice as a thin veneer for VC money in search of somewhere to go (although many are still noticing) and selling mediocre coffee as a peace offering. In these conditions, a hat advertising Chase Bank would be the perfect sartorial statement: something honest enough to announce exactly what it is.
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