Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Time: 11:33 a.m.
Location: Manhattan Bridge Promenade
Steps taken: 9,724
I could smell my neck burning.
Call me masochistic, or idealistic, or SPF-challenged, but on this June day, as the sun blazed hot over the Manhattan Bridge, I had pledged to walk 12.4 miles to get Diddy cheesecake.
The mission was simple but lofty: I, Ryan Joseph, would recreate the infamous cheesecake walk from the Making The Band 2′s season two premiere in honor of its impending 10-year anniversary. The episode—forever inscribed in hip-hop lore—showed Diddy commanding his newly assembled group, Da Band, to fetch him a slice of Junior’s strawberry cheesecake after they pissed him off. “Start walking,” he said, giving no other directions than that.
So Da Band—consisting of Ness, Sara Stokes, Chopper, Fred, Dylan Dilinjah, and Babs—did just that, but not without all manner of complaining, fights, and breakdowns along the way. MTV caught the entire thing, airing the episode in June 2003, and America watched as the motley crew trudged through midtown Manhattan to the Flatbush Avenue extension where Junior’s has resided for 63 years, birthing a television moment that was one of MTV’s most memorable of the last decade.
Da Band returned with the cheesecake in five and a half hours, although by that time Diddy had already left. In my quest, I wanted to beat that time and get Diddy his cheesecake. But I also wanted to see what it was like to actually walk the nearly 12 and a half miles from Manhattan to Brooklyn.
Growing up, I watched a lot of MTV in my parent’s basement. I remember receiving the news of Aaliyah’s death during a sleepover and witnessing my first female breast—Lil’ Kim’s pasty-covered tit at the 1999 Video Music Awards—while being babysat. I recall the cheesecake walk, but surprisingly, I couldn’t find it immortalized in a YouTube clip online. I wondered: Had cat memes buried a part of my childhood?
Surprisingly, MTV didn’t initially have the tape when I reached out to the network; they had to order the episode from an archival service, which would have cost $100 to digitize. But they were gracious enough to watch it for me to fill me in on details of the walk, which I confirmed by interviewing those close to the show. Here’s what I found out:
– Da Band started walking at night, from Bad Boy’s former offices on 44th Street and 8th Avenue, without adequate time to hydrate or carbo-load.
– The trek, as noted, took five and half hours.
– Everyone walked the route in its entirety, except for Fred and Dylan, who cabbed back to Midtown.
My route differed slightly: I started my walk from the Empire Hotel at 63rd Street and Broadway (I was crashing at my mom’s hotel room), and I went out in daylight for better photos. I used Broadway as my guide through Midtown, before taking 4th Avenue and then Bowery in Lower Manhattan to reach the Manhattan Bridge. Once over the bridge, I jumped briefly to Jay Street before getting onto Flatbush Avenue. I downloaded a pedometer app on my phone to track my steps. I started at 10 a.m. and brought only an iPod and notebook.
Babs’ manager, whom I had been in contact with all week, emailed me encouragement: “Just keep me posted bro and have a good work out. Hahahah.”
Time: 10:30 a.m.
Location: Corner of 44th Street and Broadway
Steps Taken: 2,676
I’m a fast walker. I’m short and so are my strides. It has taken me five minutes to move three blocks down Broadway, and there will be no relief from the thick summer crowds until I pass Herald Square.
I’ve only lived here a year but I’ve already adapted the New Yorker ethos of avoiding Times Square at all costs. My method in dealing with the madness: drop a shoulder and barrel the fuck on through.
Eventually, I hurdle through Herald Square, shifting from Broadway to Fifth Avenue and back to Broadway again, passing a Buddhist monk who probably says something genuinely nice to me although I’m in too much of a rush to acknowledge. Below 34th Street, Broadway narrows among the older, stately buildings of Koreatown and I jump every “don’t walk” signal that I can. I stop for nothing.
I’d never noticed it before, but the Flatiron looks like a 22-story slice of cheesecake.
Around 27th Street I start jotting notes. A store mannequin to my right displays a novelty t-shirt that depicts Trinidad James’ famous chorus to his song “All Gold Everything”: “Popped a molly, I’m sweatin’.” Curiously, it includes no “woo!” That seems necessary, right? Without it, you’re just indicating that you’re having a bad trip.
But I am sweating. Profusely. I find the displayed t-shirt prescient since I’ll spend the majority of this day perspiring and smelling like my high-school gym bag. But I’m too into beating Da Band’s time to pick up anything that’d help avoid the epic sunburn I’ll acquire later on, even though I’m ahead of schedule.
Outside Madison Square Park, at the intersection of Broadway and 23rd Street, I look up and see the Flatiron, the skinny mini-skyscraper that hovers over the busy street and Shake Shack below. I’d never noticed it before, but the Flatiron looks like a 22-story slice of cheesecake.
Flashback to two weeks before the walk, when Junior’s owner Alan Rosen and I are sitting in his office when we start talking about music.
“I was thinking about this the other day,” Rosen said. “Someone emailed me and said that our music’s terrible and we should change it. And I reply back to him, ‘yeah, no thanks.’”
Frank Sinatra’s playing when he mentions this anecdote, so you have to take Rosen at his word: Since Alan’s father, Walter, and uncle, Marvin, opened Junior’s on Election Day 1950, the restaurant has remained unabashedly unchanged, from the food to the clientele to the building itself. Junior’s is New York City nostalgia embodied.
Hearing Rosen tell it, there are two important events in Junior’s history that led to popularity spikes. The first occurred in 1973 when New York Magazine published an article by Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder that crowned the best cheesecake in the city, based on a blind taste test.
“[The show] turned on a whole new wave of customers and fans.” – Alan Rosen, Junior’s owner
“I mean, everyone in Brooklyn knew about us,” he says. “It was the people outside of Brooklyn—in the other boroughs—who didn’t, and then did.”
The second, and only slightly less noble game-changer for the restaurant: Da Band’s late-night cheesecake scavenger hunt.
“So I got a call from a friend who said, ‘Did you just see MTV,’” Rosen says. “It was the day after it aired and I was in my car. He said, ‘You were on this show Making the Band last night.’ I said I didn’t know about it. So I started checking in on my managers to ask what happened and I remember there was some sort of release form in my mailbox, but I had no idea what it was.”
The episode attracted a sudden, ravenous, young fanbase.
“We had been around for almost 63 years,” he said, “and they turned on a whole new wave of customers and fans. People still come in and ask about it.”
Time: 12:11 p.m.
Location: Junior’s, Flatbush Avenue Extension, Brooklyn
Steps Taken: 14,246
After lunch—a reuben for me; a corned beef sandwich and matzo ball soup for the photographer, Kirsten—food coma set in as we prepped ourselves for dessert. Lethargic, eyes glazing, we consulted guru Anne, our waiter, for advice on the cheesecake. Like she’d had this exact conversation thousands of times before, she ran through her favorite slices and described each one to its minutest detail, like the streusel topping on the apple crumb cheesecake or the layering of the red velvet cheesecake.
Kirsten went with the original slice; I got the apple crumb. Kirsten’s first bite was followed by another long silence before she slowly uttered, “Oh my god, this is good.” I decimated my apple crumb slice, which Anne expertly summarized as being “the perfect middle ground between coffee cake, cheesecake and apple pie.”
While Kirsten and I nursed cups of coffee after dessert—and picked up several additional slices of cheesecake, including Diddy’s strawberry—I asked Anne, “What was your first experience like with Junior’s cheesecake?
She mentioned that she used to work at a small diner in a South Jersey town. After her first bite of Junior’s, she called her former boss.
“Yeah, so your cheesecake’s good, but it has nothing on what I just ate. You might need to rethink what you’re doing.”
Ten years on, there are a couple ways to look at how Making The Band 2 is remembered, even if the show bizarrely lacks an Internet presence.
In terms of music, Da Band made only one album for Bad Boy, Too Hot 4 TV. But that album debuted at number one on the Billboard R&B charts in October 2003, selling more than 230,000 copies. The group officially broke up in 2004.
Perhaps the most powerful factor in its longevity was the Chappelle’s Show parody of the show on its March 24, 2004 episode. Using the cheesecake walk as the arc for the spoof’s structure, Chappelle—an admitted fan of the show—concocted a Diddy that was absurd and instantly quotable. Grantland’s Rembert Browne even nominated Chappelle’s “Making The Band 2” sketch as one of the top-eight Chappelle’s Show sketches of all time.
So how do the cast and crew think the cheesecake walk and the show are remembered today?
“In the Internet world, there would’ve been a louder echo chamber of ‘I can’t believe you let Diddy do that to you!’” Perry Dance, who produced the show, says. “But they really embraced that walk because it symbolized a lot of things about what it takes [to succeed] in this industry and in life.”
Which sounds somewhat corny on the surface, but Babs’ telling of it makes the metaphor stick:
“Like, you got motherfuckers selling their bodies and stripping in the club for a couple of dollars and all I had to do was walk to achieve my dreams,” she says. “If you’ve got to walk a few miles to get to the next step in life, then you take that walk. Matter of fact, you should jog as much as you can and then walk the rest of the way.”
Time: 3:11 p.m.
Locations: Corner of Kenmare Street and Bowery
Steps Taken: 20,400
I’ve only just made it to the intersection of Kenmare Street and Bowery in Lower Manhattan. I’m still over three miles away from Bad Boy’s 55th and Broadway offices and still need to vault the Midtown clusterfuck of Madison, Herald Square, and Times Square close to rush hour.
So I flip out the iPod, toggle to Big K.R.I.T.’s “Country Shit” and sprint.
I can’t recall most of this portion of the walk. It all blurs together: skyscrapers and brownstones, residents, tourists, and peddlers. I’d somehow made it to Union Square in about 15 minutes and then Madison Square in another ten. However, it was nearing 4 p.m. when I reach that section of Broadway that nears Columbus Circle where Bad Boy is located. Everyone on the streets has their heads tilted skywards towards the Hearst Tower, where a cracked scaffolding lagged from the building’s top floor and responders are rescuing two window washers stuck on the platform. Kirsten and I slip inside the offices while everyone gawks.
Unfortunately, we didn’t beat Da Band’s time (we finished closer to six hours because of a two-hour lunch) and Diddy wasn’t in the office. But his executive assistant, Shannon, is more than happy to receive us when we step off the elevator at the building’s sixth floor.
She arms me with a bottled water and then leads Kirsten and me into the conference room, which overlooks Broadway. Shannon apologizes for Diddy’s absence, but he had to go out of town for business.
It’s all good, we tell her, we just wanted to drop off the cheesecake for whomever. I pull out the strawberry slice, which had quasi-melted in my backpack, the strawberry topping crawling off the cheesecake filling and looking more like zombie guts than edible fruit. So I apologize for the slice’s appearance, but Shannon laughs that off: “Someone’s going to eat it, whether it’s me or an intern.”
We laugh and say our good-byes. I Google-map the nearest Duane Reade to buy Aloe vera.