When Oscar Wilde wrote, “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination,” he was surely talking about holiday shopping in New York. As with everything else in our fair city, the act of benevolent gift-giving can quickly spiral into a competitive sport. We mean well, sure, but with all the impulses and upgrades of the city at full, wintry fever pitch, choosing holiday presents can all too easily intertwine with our egos and careen out of control. These gifts are also a reflection of ourselves, our ingenuity, and our finances, and that’s what makes their selection so tricky. Kindness laced with ostentation: It’s our New York state of mind.
Nothing captures the art of obsequious gift-giving like the infamous Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, distributed nationally every fall. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the catalog’s most famous section, the “His and Hers” gifts. These are, without fail, a master’s class of extravagance. This year’s commemorative edition includes a timeline of past items for sale, which boasts hot-air balloons, camels, 56-carat yellow diamonds, and personal Beechcraft airplanes. No fruitcake here; these are the pinnacle of outlandish presents and disposable-wealth status statements—and, yes, people have actually purchased them.
In honor of these insane holiday trump cards, the Voice suggests some equally festive but exponentially more affordable alternatives.
Neiman Marcus suggests: Invoking the curse of the mummy on your loved one. A perfect preface for the New Year’s divorce! 1971’s catalog apex was a set of “mummy cases” (or “sarcophagi,” as the arugula-eating elitists at the Met would dub them). Cries Neiman Marcus, “The gift of gifts from the land of mother Nile. These ancient relics were richly adorned and approximately 2,000 years old.” No word exactly about how these tremendously significant artifacts of a much-vaunted bygone civilization came into commercial exchange, nor if the embalmed remains of Cleopatra’s pissed-off entourage remained inside (“I worshipped a cat for this?”). But it would certainly be a memorable gift to the silver-fox sugar daddy who has everything.
The Voice suggests: Appealing to history buffs without desecrating ancient cultures. The best-curated cache of thoughtful, culturally significant gifts can be found at the New-York Historical Society Store (170 Central Park West, 212-873-3400). Items include sterling-silver pendants inscribed, “I meet you in every dream” (the romantic words of Alexander Hamilton to wife Elizabeth Schuyler, $59), ceramic mosaic tiles of past New York subway art ($36), elaborate tomes on Dutch New York and the Marquis de Lafayette ($10 and up), stained-glass table lamps ($100–$480), even a Grateful Dead 12-disc box set per the Society’s recent exhibition ($146). Or just buy the Chelsea Hotel—someone needs to.
Neiman Marcus suggests: Breathing Observation Bubbles. “Bellaqua’s Breathing Observation Bubble, known as BOB, allowed for spectacular visibility of colorful underwater life at depths of up to 40 feet without disturbing the environment!” chirps the catalog. If the picture is still how BOB is making a fashion statement, he owes it to himself to go to Christopher Street, buy some pleather and fake eyelashes, and fully unleash the drag queen within; the suit is an exaggerated, phallic-looking bobble head with superfluous-looking molded crests, a Buzz Lightyear flight suit with Fran Drescher’s shoulder pads. Essentially, it’s a leaden scuba-diving canister for people who want to shuffle around torpidly on the ocean floor. And if that’s you, guess what? You shouldn’t be in the ocean. Even the fish are getting a douche chill.
The Voice suggests: Bequeathing a healthy, fun aquatic adventure without being an entitled whale about it. Village Divers (125 East 4th Street, 212-780-0879) offers beginning scuba-diving classes in a marvelous venue: the sea patch south of Long Island and east of New Jersey, commonly called “Wreck Valley” for its number of, yes, shipwrecks. Pool-based and open water training are both available ($100 and up), and the store also offers equipment rentals and repairs. Save the gift for warmer weather, if you want—it’ll give everyone something to anticipate besides another snow flurry. Or spring for a membership to New York Outrigger ($325 for season pass, newyorkoutrigger.org), a volunteer-driven canoe club, and look forward to a temperate season of informal races and, let’s assume, buoyantly nautical-themed accessories.
Neiman Marcus suggests: Ostriches. So many ostriches. The 1980 catalog boasted sets of ostrich chicks that could be raised until (and this is emphatically noted) they were transferred to a zoo or just kept permanently by the purchaser. In other words, you could let two disoriented African birds meander around your backyard, eat your rose bushes, and grow nine feet high until you inevitably faced the ethical dilemma of either returning them to some semblance of their natural environment or trapping them permanently in an ethnocentric cage. No big deal, just keep them in your bathtub. That honking means they love you.
The Voice suggests: A furry, heartwarming present that won’t sic PETA on your ass. Donate to New York Cares (newyorkcares.org), a volunteer network that frequently services animal shelters, or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (aspca.org). If you want to gift someone with an adorable new pet, search responsibly for an ethical purchase with Animal Care & Control of New York City (nycacc.org) or consult Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind (guidedog.org), based in Smithtown, New York. With the latter organization, canines that don’t complete the training process are usually available for adoption, and they’re already domesticated and smart to boot.
Neiman Marcus suggests: A pair of sleek “Life-Size Robots,” fresh out of 2003’s factories and/or your most vivid dystopian nightmares. Croons the catalog, “Designed and built at International Robotics, these two multifunctional robots were the most advanced adult-size interactive remote-controlled versions out there. With onboard computers for user-friendly functionality in daily use, they stood nearly six feet tall.” First of all, was “most advanced . . . out there” really the most scientific endorsement to come from this company’s exacting technological research? These weren’t toothbrushes, they were the terrifying culmination of a human species enslaved by its own Icarus-like need for advancement. Throw in some stats or something.
And secondly, a present commemorating the deity and/or cult and/or significant other of your choosing shouldn’t be designed to look so moronic. Something that will inevitably gain self-cognizance, turn on you, and crush your head shouldn’t be cobbled into indignity. The two bots photographed for the Neiman Marcus catalog look like bastardized steel grasshoppers: sleek moss-green and silver, with bright, cold eyes inset in pointed, oblong faces. Their short, spindly arms are stretched toward each other in sort of wanton, pre-coital leap. Bah, humbug.
The Voice suggests: Not prompting the Robots vs. Humans superwar just because your husband has enough ties already. This year’s technology is next year’s detritus, so shop affordably for Mr. or Mrs. Vaguely Useless Gadget in the West Village. mxyplyzyk (125 Greenwich Avenue, 212-989-4300) is a cheeky emporium of internationally sourced, spruced-up desk wares. Their popular USB Hubman is a robot-motif cable contraption with four 2.0 high-speed ports for appendages ($20), and the Little Helper magnifying glass and book holder resembles a skinnier, sharper Wall-E ($13). Stereo Exchange (627 Broadway, 212-505-1111) is an audiophile’s paradise of custom speakers, home theaters, top-tier computer units, and overall control systems; their Panasonic plasma TVs, Leon loudspeakers, and Da-Lite projection screens guarantee a flashy unveiling, but will set you back less than a cybernetic Jeeves.
Neiman Marcus suggests: A blindingly expensive camera. Introducing the $17,000 Leica M9 Neiman Marcus Edition Camera! Currently available for purchase, “The rugged Leica M body and matching Summicron-M 35mm ASPH lens are finished in classic chrome. The body is covered in luxurious brown ostrich-leather trim with a matching ostrich-leather strap. The high-resolution 2.5-inch LCD screen is protected by sapphire cover glass.” At least this solves the mystery of what happened to that past year’s ostriches.
The Voice suggests: A quirky, retro camera for the smartphone-wielding aesthete in your life. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Store (Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, 212-570-3894) offers a great deal on quality Diana F+ cameras, the cheeky, sorbet-colored models from the 1960s ($85–$95), and the Lomography Gallery (41 West 8th Street, 212-529-4353) shills a vast selection of Dianas and branded Fisheye contraptions ($50 and up). Or if you’re looking to upgrade a previous professional unit, B&H Photo (Ninth Avenue at 34th Street) is a cavernous photography superstore offering every brand, edition, and accessory fathomable.
Neiman Marcus suggests: His & hers charm bracelets, festooned in diamonds and gold and this year’s relative steal at just $248,000. Swoons the catalog, “Master jewelers crafted [these] from a one-of-a-kind collection of 11 marquise-cut diamonds. Certified fancy and extremely rare.” Pictured charms include a windmill, a robot, and what looks like a Santorum skull but probably isn’t, sadly.
The Voice suggests: Attractive jewelry, period. Solange Azagury-Partridge (809 Madison Avenue) toes the line between wicked rock-and-roll influences and pristine, high-quality craftsmanship; her geometric white gold and diamond “Bi-star” and “Tri-star” drop earrings are gorgeously unexpected, and her precious stones (i.e., diamonds, emeralds, and rubies) are set beautifully in flower motifs and intricate box rings. (Prices available upon request.) More affordable, but still far from common, baubles can be found at tiny, tony Phoenix Roze (39 Eighth Avenue); their gold charm necklaces ($200 and up) and Cabusion rings ($525) are stunning. For a bargain, hit East Village den Jillery (88 East 10th Street, 212-674-9405), which is stacked to the rafters with new and vintage pieces starting at just $1; their most elaborate and eye-catching boho earrings rarely top $40.
Neiman Marcus suggests: A $6,000 handmade gourd ukulele.
The Voice suggests: They get bent.