2016 has only just started and already there is shocking news…at least for New Yorkers: Doctor Zizmor is retiring! While the information that a cosmetic dermatologist is finally hanging up his collagen and moving to his down-sized mansion in the suburbs to study Talmud is not necessarily interesting in and of itself, anyone who has lived in New York City in the last quarter century will be instantly galvanized. “Dr. Z” had an oversize reputation in the city because of his omnipresent subway ads. They were as quintessentially a part of New York as egg-creams, the Warriors, and Wall Street.
Although conceptually located in the late eighties (or early nineties), Zizmor ads had a sort of timeless snake-oil feeling to them. To be blunt, the advertising always seemed somewhat dodgy. It featured a “before” picture of an acne scarred woman in bad light and an “after” picture of the same woman looking mostly the same (but wearing makeup and smiling). Also there was a discount rainbow and some scary stuff about “chemical peels” and a suspiciously young picture of Doctor Z himself looking like a big serene glob of tallow that just dripped off a particularly lucrative candle. In our world of computer aesthetics and grim graphic formalism, the old-timey shysterism of the ads was rather refreshing.
I had a friend who always looked up at the ad and said “Hold still while Dr. Z gives you a chemical peel!” It always made me laugh, but, since I suffered from painful eczema, I always looked at the ads with a measure of longing too—an infidel staring at the shrine of Saint Anthony. Even now they engender a sort of bemusement: Should I tag this post as “Invaders” (since the ads certainly invade our collective space) or “Color” (they feature a scaled-down rainbow) or “science” (since apparently somebody gave Dr. Z a real M.D. despite all his grubby grabby talk about chemical peels and payment plans)? Or maybe Dr. Z belongs in “Deities of the Underworld” since he was a (lesser) deity of healing and avarice who drew his believers from the chthonic realm of the subway?
Cover of the New York Observer (Zina Saunders, 2012)
In New York City everything is in constant flux. Neighborhoods come and go overnight. Since I have moved here, the best pizza place has been replaced with a bank branch, the best bar has been replaced by a bank branch, and the best bookstore has been replaced with a bank branch. Yet I always assumed that Dr. Zizmor’s ads would last forever. I guess I assumed Dr. Zizmor had already died back during the Crimean war…or never even existed… and the ads were simply an incomprehensible but immutable part of the cultural landscape. Yet according to the internet, the ads only started in 1991. They marked my youth now lost forever into the hurly-burly of Gotham. Although I am sure another rapacious dermatologist will move into his niche, I can’t imagine he will display the same level of Kanye West style narcissism or Old West advertising flair.