Lizzie: As inspiration for this newsletter, which is about a birthday party, I started researching well-known birthday moments in movies, to see how the birthday celebrations that I experience in my life stack up to those in the cinematic universe. I found IMDb’s “25 Most Memorable Birthday Scene in Movies,” which offers helpful descriptions of said birthday scenes. Excerpts include “Schindler’s birthday party where he is kissing every woman present” in Schindler’s List, “Damien’s 5th birthday” in The Omen, and “Birds attack on Cathy’s birthday” in The Birds. These are dark birthdays! Even the description of 13 Going On 30 (“Wakes up being 30 years old woman on 13th birthday”) has an air of inevitable trauma.
In general, birthdays are not as bad as Hollywood via IMDb makes them out to be. In broad strokes, there’s typically a social element and some kind of dessert, two things that are probably on a hierarchy of needs somewhere. In particular, one birthday is always a top-tier event for me and Kait. I’m talking about the birthday of our very dear friend Ashley, who has made several appearances in this newsletter, and who turned a new age this month.
Kaitlyn: Yes, Ashley has turned 28, 29, and 30 in past issues of Famous People (pre–Atlantic “acquisition”), all at an apartment in Ditmas Park that she then shared with our friend Colin. Each celebration was much better than those Lizzie has just listed, even the one that was “socially distanced” and simply a handoff of gifts on her stoop. Though she no longer lives there, Colin agreed to host Ashley’s 31st at his place so that life can have some continuity for once.
Ashley’s birthday weekend was a weirdly big weekend for birthdays—it was my friend Julia’s birthday, Tamar’s boyfriend Alex’s birthday, my college roommate from Staten Island’s birthday, just to name a few. It was also my friend Annie’s (from Kentucky) birthday, and she was hosting a Kentucky Derby watch party at a bar in Bed-Stuy. I was sad to RSVP my regrets to that one. I was interested in participating in Derby culture, because my grandmother used to take me and my cousins to the local racetrack at the end of every school year. As a reward for completing the latest installment of our education, she would give us each $10, which we were free to spend on hot dogs and candy or on placing small (illegal) bets on whichever horses had the funniest names. I always picked the latter and lost, which is good for me to do once in a while so that I relearn the lesson about gambling: It’s gambling. Lizzie was also interested, but that was because she is obsessed with victory, as previously established.
On Saturday morning, I texted Ashley a bunch of birthday emoji and fumbled my way around a website specifically for dog- and horse-race betting. I ended up with four different bets totaling $18 on a horse named Summer Is Tomorrow. (It had been cold and raining for an unbelievable 48 hours!) Then I went over to Lizzie’s house to get ready for the party and to place her Derby bet for her because she was struggling with her computer. I never noticed it back when we worked together in a laptop-based work environment, but she really has no patience with the things—whenever a page loaded any slower than instantly, she would start clicking around at random, then become confused and offended when she ended up someplace undesired. It was a long process, but we eventually managed to put a modest amount of Lizzie’s cash on a horse she called “Mo something,” whose full name turned out to be Mo Donegal.
Lizzie: There may have been some “user error” involved in my trying to place a bet, but the uselessness of the TwinSpires website didn’t help. Plus, I’ve dropped my laptop off of various four- and five-foot-high surfaces at least dozens of times so it doesn’t always work correctly, and it has lumps in it. Yes, lumps. Imagine metal lumps underneath my keyboard as I’m typing this, and you’ll probably be impressed that I’ve managed to do anything at all.
Anyway, the cake. Last year we made Ashley a highly decorative cake inspired by the popular Instagram cake aesthetics of 2021 and held together with sprinkles, food dye, and Swedish Fish. This year we thought we should try to top it. The problem was, we had no good ideas, which I’m personally finding to be the cause of most of my problems recently. During our planning phase, I texted Kait “bagel tower” to imply that we could try to make a tower of bagels for the party, as Ash is a documented lover of bagels (this came after “big cake, both of us inside it” was deemed too difficult to achieve in the time frame). This brought us to (and you can see how the creative threads really start coming together here) the idea of a “bagel cake.” A cake that looks like a bagel! Everyone at the party who had recently watched the Netflix original series Is It Cake? would have the same question.
The plan was that I would make the cake components and then Kaitlyn would help turn them into a bagel. I made two layers of funfetti cake and some cream-cheese frosting, figuring that all Kaitlyn and I would have to do was carve the cakes a little, poke a hole through the center, and slap some frosting in the middle. I was almost right, in that that’s what we ended up doing, but it didn’t exactly work.
Kaitlyn: I feel bad. I was totally on board with the idea of “bagel cake” due to, of course, my recollection of Gigi Hadid’s 25th birthday party at her problematic mother’s horse farm. But as soon as I saw the two cakes stacked on top of each other with the intentionally-lopsided hole that Lizzie and I had carved into the middle (we thought this would be more authentically “bagel” than a perfectly round hole), I panicked. It looked nothing whatsoever like a bagel. It looked like a cake with a lopsided hole in the middle. “Can we put a Barbie in there?” I asked, recalling those ’90s cakes where the cake serves as a Barbie’s skirt. “Can we put a skinny little vase and a flower in there?” I begged, recalling the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding in which the mom isn’t familiar with Bundt cakes. “Can we frost over the hole?”
Hearing the panic in my voice—and also hearing Lizzie yell, “Matt, please help!”—Matt came out of the bedroom and used a bread knife to trim the cake down into the exact shape of a bagel in a matter of literally seconds. This didn’t solve the problem of the cake’s coloring, which was not like any bagel you’ve seen unless you’ve found a bright-white, rainbow-flecked bagel someplace, but it was something. Ten minutes later, we had smushed some brown sprinkles “resembling” (generous use of word) poppy seeds into the top and were out the door, waiting in the rain for a ride to Ash’s house.
Then we were in hell, lol.
Lizzie: It’s not couth to complain about the quality of your experience being chauffeured around in a stranger’s Toyota Camry, but you can’t always be couth. This was the situation: Our Lyft driver was a devotee of the Black Ice scent of tree-shaped air fresheners. The freshener purveyor Little Trees calls it “a mysteriously enticing masculine scent of woods and citrus,” but in reality it’s more like a grandfatherly aftershave with a drydown of melting tire. The interior of the car was also 95 degrees, and our driver’s seat was tilted so far back that he was nearly horizontal, barely able to swipe the steering wheel with the tips of his fingers as he encouraged the Camry to point toward Ditmas Park. By the end of the ride, I was noseblind and holding in a dry heave. Time to party!
Kaitlyn: Sorry, I’m laughing! This ride was a tough one. (Can you believe we’re not even at the party yet?) We had Lizzie on the verge of fainting, and we also had, though you may be surprised to learn it at this late stage, about 40 “lychee martini” Jell-O shots that I had prepared the night before, which were now skittering around a large aluminum serving tray every time we rounded a corner. While fighting to keep every Jell-O shot upright, I noticed that one of them had a mysterious blue fiber suspended in it, which got more disturbing the longer I thought about it.
To distract herself from her body, Lizzie talked about the cake. “If we ask people what they think it is, they’re definitely going to say, ‘It’s a bagel,’” she said. I was not optimistic. I was like, “Uh … I don’t think we should ask people that.” Finally, after 20 minutes of torture, we were mercifully spit out into the fresh air of green-tree Brooklyn. Ashley met us at the door and waved us upstairs with fingers newly birthday-manicured—little rhinestones glued to them!
Lizzie: Colin’s apartment is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been (and I’m from New Jersey). Everything has a place; no drawers are overstuffed. In fact, there’s little need for any drawers at all, since it’s the kind of apartment where you can’t imagine a stray scrap of paper or a can opener ever existing. If you watch people walk in for the first time, you can see them start to mentally calculate how much it would cost to completely change the decor of their own apartments, to which they have, up until this very moment, been wholly committed. Years of carefully collected tchotchkes trashed in an instant, in exchange for the dream of living in their own Colin’s apartment.
I say this because our conversations were largely an offense to the environment in which we had them. There was the body stuff: developing a dowager’s hump; hiding a bald spot; growing an eye fungus after wearing the same pair of contacts for too long.
The brand stuff: Colin’s teenage driving lessons came courtesy of a place called “Drivers 911.” The fate of the crumbling sandwich chain Quiznos was sealed when its only differentiator from competitors was that it could make its sandwiches hot.
And the broken stuff: At one point the top of Colin’s glass coffee table detached itself from one of its legs, sending a cascade of pristine design books (and a nonzero amount of wine) onto the floor.
Kaitlyn: I think I got my first gray hair when that table went down. It was okay, though! Easily reassembled! Lizzie is not lying about Colin’s life-changing apartment. When Jake and Lori arrived, Lori said hello to us and then, “I’m going to throw away all of my belongings.”
As we waited for the party to fill up, we snacked on pigs in blankets and listened to a story that could rivet only a longtime New York resident: A friend of Matt’s once lived in an apartment in Brooklyn for several years without paying any rent, simply because the landlord would not respond to repeated inquiry about where to send the checks. Everyone was amazed and had dozens of follow-up questions. (It also reminded me that I recently looked up the address to which I mail my rent checks—it appears to be a long-abandoned Nike outlet?)
Despite the absurdist weather, it did feel like “summer is tomorrow” once the party got into full swing. Everyone was sipping on Ashley’s favorite Bravo-related sparkling hard tea and slurping effortfully on the very firm Jell-O shots. For not the first time and hopefully not the last, my bad attitude was proved a pointless waste of energy: Everybody at the party knew that the bagel cake was supposed to be a bagel. (A few people asked if it was a donut, but I think they were trolling.) There ended up being three cakes—ours, a Shrek-themed homemade masterpiece, and a spare Wegmans cake that Ashley’s boyfriend, Bran, had wisely purchased as a backup in case all other cakes failed. As you may know, Ashley had multiple cakes at her birthday party last year also. People just live to bring Ashley cake. And why wouldn’t they?
We were having so much fun that we almost forgot to check, but Lizzie and I did lose all of the money we’d bet on the Kentucky Derby. For a moment, I was misled by a “Congratulations!” pop-up I received when I logged in to the gambling website; embarrassingly, the pop-up turned out to be not for me, but for Rich Strike, the horse ... He won the race. (Congratulations.) Naturally, Lizzie was furious about losing, and I was furious about the poor UX design.
Lizzie: To lose again—first at arm wrestling, now at gambling—really hurt. I’m just hoping this doesn’t do any lasting damage to my psyche. Speaking of damaged psyches, we talked about those too, specifically the one belonging to the Puddle of Mudd singer Wes Scantlin. You may be familiar with his unusual take on Nirvana, but that was possibly after he started to get the train back on the tracks. In 2016, he stopped a live show in Ohio to accuse someone in the audience of stealing his house. While the particulars of that situation aren’t super relatable, there might be something there about how it feels to get older. Waking up to someone new living in your house (body). I’ll work on it.
As we talked about other mid-2000s musician breakdowns, Colin shared a childhood memory of listening to a new Creed album on those wall-mounted headphones inside a Borders. “I had to have it,” Colin said, referring to the free access to Creed’s music. And later: “I was probably headed to Coldstone after Borders.” With that, I think, everyone in the room had a shared experience: years of our lives rewinding and replaying—another birthday, another Borders, another house stolen.
Kaitlyn: He really took us on an emotional journey as the night wound down. I would say we spent about an hour listening to Creed after most people had gone home. I’ll admit I had not expected to listen to any Creed at all, but this was obviously the best part of the party, as we no longer had to share Ashley’s attention with other guests.
And on the way out, we learned the secret: By the front door of Colin’s apartment, there is a walk-in storage closet. This is where he keeps all of the unbeautiful, regular things.