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First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Bathroom Attendants

New York's new tech era may not be so great for the local economy

 Last week, Business Insider impresario Henry Blodget wrote a blog post saying that the bathroom attendants at Balthazar, a fashionable eatery in downtown Manhattan, make him uncomfortable. “I always forget that Balthazar makes a guy stand in the tiny bathroom all day, so whenever I open the Balthazar bathroom after breakfast, I am hit by the same series of unpleasant emotions: Annoyance, guilt, pity, uncomfortable invasion of personal space, and then... extortion.”

Blodget no longer has to worry about whether to tip a man who has watched him urinate (or so Blodget presumes, with the traditional male assumption that everyone is just as fascinated by his penis and its various workings as he himself is.) Because Keith McNally, the restaurateur behind Balthazar and a number of other influential Manhattan spots, read Blodget’s post and decided to fire Balthazar’s bathroom attendants. 

When Balthazar opened, in 1997, New York was solidly a Wall Street town, and Blodget was beginning his rise as a star analyst at Merrill Lynch. Now, one big scandal and a couple recessions later, Blodget is a tech-world guy, and while finance remains the dominant industry here, tech is booming quickly. It’s now city’s second-biggest sector.

People like McNally become successful because they are able to intuit or observe what rich people want. Wall Street likes excess and a culture that’s a bit of a throwback: suits, steak, women in high heels, bathroom attendants. Tech culture, which has traveled west to east, prides itself on a lower pitch. The tech man thinks of himself as unfancy, regular. He gets his hair cut at a random barber shop in Park Slope. He’s not the kind of person who needs a towel handed to him by a uniformed service industry worker.

For all their sins, one strong argument in favor of the Wall Street banks has always been that they bring a great deal of secondary income to New York. Finance wealth gets redistributed locally, albeit in small ways. Tech, on the other hand, has not had quite the same effect in Silicon Valley. Many of the apps of which the current bubble is comprised were created, effectively, to eliminate low-paying service jobs, which are “inefficient.” This removes uncomfortable reminders of inequality without actually eliminating inequality. In fact, probably, it increases it. Blodget has promised to offset the bathroom attendants' firing by creating three new positions at Business Insider; it's doubtful the pool of applicants will be terribly similar, though. The New York City of the tech era will not have bathroom attendants, but it will still have lots of very poor people, and lots of very rich people, like Henry Blodget.

Update: McNally now says he won't fire the bathroom attendants, after much Internet uproar, including from Blodget. A Business Insider employee tweeted, "Keith McNally has done what @hblodget has asked 100% of the time he's requested something."

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