A year ago I had never heard of spirulina. “Raw food” meant sushi and steak tartare. I couldn’t bring myself to spend ten bucks on a cocktail, let alone a 16-ounce bottle of kale and celery. Then I spent seven months working at a Williamsburg juice bar.
I was trained by a young woman named Crash. “My hands aren’t dirty,” she explained to me, holding up stained fingers and pulling biodegradable nitrile gloves over them. “I’m a tattoo artist. This is ink.” Crash tossed fruit, some kind of nut milk and cashews into a Vitamix high performance blender with fluid precision. She winked at me and shuffled through the “boosts” lined up on the counter, selecting a canister of off-white powder. “Maca magic. The food of Peruvian warriors. Woo!” In the space of five minutes, she had produced a $10 smoothie.
Crash explained to me that she used to be crazy. You name it, she had imbibed it. Not anymore, though: “I don’t even need this job.” She leaned against the counter and tapped her Doc Martens to a beat in her head. “I make a day’s pay in an hour of tattooing. But I like it here.” Turns out, juice (by way of a new boyfriend) was her salvation. Now she had money, a place to live, and her very own Vitamix. Crash talked like a blind woman suddenly made to see. She felt good. Real good, not drug good. Juicing was her new high.
No cooking took place in our kitchen. It was equipped with a screaming Norwalk hydraulic press. This monstrous appliance slowly squeezed the juice from pulverized fruits and veggies, generating minimal heat. This is what made our juices really fresh – 10 bucks a bottle fresh. Neatly labeled and bottled in 100% post-consumer plastic, the rainbow of tonics gleamed from the store front refrigerator alongside a selection of raw foods. Counter service meant meal-replacement smoothies and shots of wheatgrass. It was all artfully staged in a spotless bright sanctuary just steps from the rat dying curbside as it choked on a petrified french fry. The storefronts of the modern juice bars called out, “I’m clean. Come escape the refuse.”
I learned quickly not to flinch when I rang customers up for our $427 week-long juice cleanse. “This is worth it for them,” the owner told me. He suggested that I try a cleanse myself, adding that he used to require it of his employees. Curious as to why he didn’t anymore, I probed a coworker for more details. He leaned in close and told me that one new hire went berzerk after four days on the diet, started talking to himself and waving the paring knife around. “Did you do it?” I asked, with a perverse sort of curiosity. He shrugged. “Yeah. I don’t know. I was hungry. I like tacos.” I like tacos, too. In the name of my taste buds and blood sugar, I opted out of the week long liquidate.
My customers and I lacked some common ground. After all, I was on the other side of the counter earning minimum wage; my body was ramen-fueled and my juice of choice was Tropicana. And between us was an icy lake of aloofness. Twenty minutes juicing wheatgrass and the guy doesn’t acknowledge me or tip? Fine. I once complimented a woman’s necklace only to have her step back with a bewildered look, murmur something, and then suggest that I had “misplaced” her credit card. Just another day. It was only the miracle of the juice cleanse that ever caught me off guard.
Most cleanses I sold to Monday morning penitents. Shuffling into the juice bar, pale-lipped and dark-eyed, they would peel their sunglasses from their faces and half look at me. Guilty after a weekend of booze, Molly and red meat, they would ask what I had in the way of hangover cures. I thought, “How about some water? And… some red meat?” I offered a shot of ginger root juice, a spirulina-heavy smoothie, and I wait for the nagging shame to prompt a look at the cleanse menu.
Wouldn’t you know it. Within a week, the nightstalkers became health personified. Gliding into the juice bar, they touted the virtues of taking the cure. The head will clear, you’ll drop ten pounds and the irritability goes away once the lightheadedness sets in. I would have balked, but these men and women looked good. They beamed with the contentment that comes from achieving an ascetic lifestyle. All clean and shiny and ready for another weekend of abuse.
I was on the job a week when Crash bounced in and announces that she was leaving. She was boarding a plane for California. Tomorrow. What about the boyfriend? I asked. The great apartment on St. Marks? The Vitamix! Turns out she wanted more out of life now that she had gotten her life back. She cut out of her last shift an hour early.
Without Crash and her unbridled enthusiasm at the wheel, selling the fad started to get to me. I felt guilty dealing the snake oil without believing in it. Then one day, forgetting the specific healing properties of bee pollen, I made some nonsense up on the spot. My customer gave me a satisfied nod and requested an extra spoonful. I started to think the juice bar isn’t about the juice at all. My customers were getting something else out of this.
A lot has been written in recent years about whether or not juicing is actually good for you. And about as much about how annoying an affectation it is. I did feel some vague moral qualm about all the false asceticism. Part of me believes in real, hard-earned, priceless cultivation of mind and body, for example. I saw a whole lot of placebo effect and expensive starvation. But I think I coveted it more than anything else.
The juice bar is the modern-day mineral spa. A lifestyle choice paired well with yoga, meditation and herbal supplements. Juicing provides a neatly packaged cure-all for those willing to pay for it. It doesn’t have to work, it just has to be appealing, expensive and make grand promises. Knowing all of this, I still wanted it. I work hard, play (read: drink red wine while watching NOVA) hard – I, too, wanted to cleanse, repeat. Momentarily retire from the grind and float up to a sugar-induced higher plane. Subscribe to the magical thinking that goes with believing in the juicing life.
So before I finally quit, I did it. I took four days of wages and put it toward three days of juices. Traipsing around turning down food and going to bed hungry, I felt wonderfully superior. And as luck would have it, I blew all of my grocery money! So the fast continued long into the week.
I was ashamed to find that I liked the feeling, that I was literally buying into all of the spectacular claims that juice proponents make. The thing is, I don’t need it. I can’t afford most of the trappings of excess. I can achieve asceticism because I don’t have any money. What I covet – what my customers were really looking for – is control. The juice bar provides exactly that. Convenient, no commitment, thought-free discipline.