Monthly Archives: August 2007

Work work work

It’s a public holiday here in the US this weekend (I have to stop myself from calling it a bank holiday if I want to avoid the blank stares of my colleagues), and it seems that in offices across the city, people are leaving early to get a head start on their journey to wherever it is that they’re going.

As has been pointed out by many friends (and family), American jobs don’t come with much holiday attached – as little as two weeks, compared to the relative luxury of four to six weeks in Europe. As a result, many Americans make the most of their weekends with two-day mini-holidays, while those in the UK sit around in their pants watching Soccer AM and frittering away their time until Monday.

While the European belief in “working to live” rather than “living to work” is surely a more healthy and social approach to life, you can’t help but be impressed by the work ethic of New Yorkers. The last couple of weeks have seen me leave the office between 6 and 8.30 in the evening, which is pretty similar to the hours I kept in London. But what I’ve noticed when catching the subway home though is that if you’re leaving at around 6 or 6.30, the trains are relatively empty considering how packed they are when coming into work in the morning. If you leave at 7 or 7.30 though, the trains are rammed with people finally heading home.

My experience of London is that by 7.30pm, the big rush is over and people are at home watching Eastenders, or arguing over whether to get a quattro stagioni or a chicken dansak.

Could it actually be that New Yorkers just work harder than Brits? Or is it the simple fact that unlike in the UK, bars don’t close at about 11 so there’s no need to be racing out of the office at breakneck speed to enter the National Binge Drinking Olympics?

Just ask a New Yorker

While I’m in New York, I suppose I fall into that weird world somewhere between being a foreign outsider and a local. After all, I’m marrying a US citizen, and over the last thirteen years I’ve spent more time in New York than any other city in the world other than London.

With that in mind, maybe New York’s new marketing campaign designed to make tourists and foreigners feel more welcome in the city isn’t really aimed at me? I’ve always found people from this city to be among the nicest and most helpful people I’ve ever met, but tourist bosses reckon that there’s a perception that New Yorkers are too busy or rude to help out a visitor who’s struggling or lost. And with a decline in visitor numbers to the US hitting the city’s bottom line hard, they’re determined to do something about it.

As such, they’ve come up with an advertising campaign with the strap line “Just Ask The Locals”, featuring celebrity residents including Robert de Niro and Julianne Moore giving their insider’s guide to the city. Admittedly the vast majority of the adverts appear inside the ‘international’ terminal at JFK, but tourists and locals alike will also be able to see video ads in the city’s cabs (if they get fitted with a GPS system, that is) and at various bus shelters.

The idea is that locals should feel free to idly wander up to strangers and give them some tips on those hidden Big Apple gems, such as Pete’s Tavern (recommended by comedian Jimmy Fallon), the Frick Museum (artist Chuck Close) and the Mediterraneo Restaurant (former New York Giants star Tiki Barber).

Launching the campaign, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said:

“Giving out that kind of advice is something that’s going to come naturally to us. New Yorkers have never been shy or reticent to tell people what they think.”

A couple of things spring to mind, other than Bloomberg’s implicit suggestion that people from New York are rude enough to shove their opinion down other people’s throats regardless of whether they want it or not.

Firstly, while it’s impressive to have de Niro and Moore on board, the rest of the celebrities will barely be recognised on the streets of New York, let alone by foreign tourists from Japan or Germany. Jimmy Fallon’s bid to break out of Saturday Night Live hasn’t exactly rivalled Dan Ackroyd or Mike Myers. Similarly Tiki Barber may be the New York Giants’ all-time rushing and reception leader, but if he hasn’t appeared alongside Jimmy Parrott on A Question of Sport, don’t expect any Brits to recognise him. Maybe getting celebrities that visitors have actually heard of would have been the way forward?

As for Chuck Close, he doesn’t even live in the city, but instead prefers to hide out a good couple of hours away in Bridgehampton. It’s like asking me to dole out advice to tourists on which restaurants to visit in Basingstoke*.

But clearly there’s one easy way to make tourists feel that they’re welcome in this city, and indeed the United States as a whole – do something about those immigration officers. They’re generally the first person that tourists meet once they step foot on American soil, and yet they manage to combine all the charm of a serial killer with the zealous administrative intransigence of a recently-jilted Inland Revenue employee. Hardly the kind of welcome that has you wanting to don a ten-gallon Stetson and perform a quick do-si-do to the ‘Star Spangled Banner’.

Obviously these good men and women have to do their jobs, and make sure that they don’t let any old riff-raff into the country. But is it really too much to ask for a smile?

* Try Galletto’s on London Street – their seafood tagliatelle is to die for…

Looking for Trouble

In death as much as life, hotelier and real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley proved that she really was the Queen of Mean. Helmsley, who is famously reported to have once said that “only the little people pay taxes”, died last week at the age of 87. With an estimated fortune of around $4 billion, she might have been expected to spread some love around in her last will and testament which was revealed today. But I somehow doubt that her family will be cracking open the Cristal this evening.

Unless you’re her beloved pet dog Trouble, that is.

Helmsley set aside a $12 million trust fund for the 8-year-old white Maltese dog, who once lived up to her name by biting a housekeeper. It’s interesting that the dog only gets the cash in a trust, rather than getting immediate access to the cash. Presumably Helmsley couldn’t quite trust Trouble not to go out and fritter the cash away on Bonio’s and fast poodles?

Trouble was the biggest beneficiary of the will, narrowly edging out Helmsley’s brother Alvin who was gifted a $10 million trust fund. Grandchildren David and Walter Panzirer each ‘only’ managed to pick up $5 million outright and another $5 million in trusts, but even then they might not pick up a single cent. The provisions in Helmsley’s will state that to receive any money from the trust, the pair must visit the grave of their father at least once a year. And if they don’t? Their interest in the trust will be terminated at the end of that calendar year, and they will each be treated as if they “had then died”.

Jonathan J Rikoon, a member of the New York City Bar Association’s committee on trusts, estates and surrogate’s courts, admitted that the provision was “quite unusual”, and that Helmsley was a woman who “from what I understand, had some family issues”. You don’t say…

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Helmsley’s other two grandchildren were not only written out of the will, but specifically excluded:

“I have not made any provisions in this will for my grandson Craig Panzirer or my granddaughter Meegan Panzirer for reasons which are known to them.”

Given that Leona Helmsley was a woman who once served a jail term of eighteen months for tax fraud, one can only speculate on what Craig or Meegan might have done to deserve their treatment.

The other personal recipient of some Helmsley largesse was her chauffeur, Nicholas Celea. And his reward for loyal service? A cool $100,000. Now don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say no to anyone offering me $100,000. But bear in mind that this is a woman who was worth an estimated $4 billion. Leaving her chauffeur a bequest of $100,000 is rather like me going for a nice meal, finding myself short of change, and leaving a tip of 12p: the thought was there, but in the end, it’s still a bit of a slap in the face for the receiver.

Helmsley was never much of a philanthropist in life. In recent years she donated around $35 million to good causes, but the figure would be more a tax write-off than any serious attempt at charity. The irony is that her refusal to give more money to friends and family means that the vast majority of her fortune will go to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. In death, it seems that Leona Helmsley may become the Queen of Kind after all.

We interrupt this game for a display of patriotism…

I wouldn’t call myself a baseball fan – in fact I’m not sure that I’ve even sat through a whole game in my life. But burning some calories at the gym tonight, I found myself strangely gripped by the Yankees vs Red Sox game on the TV above my head. So much so that I even turned it on when I reached home to catch the last three innings.

In the middle of the seventh innings – the seventh-inning stretch, I think it’s called – just before the Yankees were due to bat again, everything suddenly came to a halt to honour servicemen in action across the world, with a ‘rousing’ rendition of “God Bless America”. Apparently Major League Baseball directed teams to play the song before the bottom of the seventh inning at every game following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. They scaled back the request a year later, saying teams only needed to play the song on Sundays and holidays, which remains the case to this day.

Not for the Yankees though. They still bring everything to a halt two and a half innings before the end of every game, and even use ushers to prevent people moving during the performance with the help of the odd chain or two. It’s like Manchester United playing Liverpool, and the game being called to a halt for five minutes for a performance of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. And fans being stopped from making their way down to the concourse to buy a steak and kidney pie.

They say that the temporary break in proceedings can offer a competitive advantage to the Yankees, with the opposing pitcher unable to warm up while the performance takes place. It certainly didn’t harm them tonight – the Yankees won 4-3 in the ninth innings.

PS They say Americans will never properly ‘get’ football soccer because there are too few goals. But baseball is this country’s national sport, and yet so little ever happens. The Red Sox didn’t even score until the sixth innings, and there were only three home runs in about three hours of ‘action’. Maybe there’s a chance for Beckham and co after all?

Top gun

Look, I’m essentially a vistor here, and as such, I’m in no position to lecture America about its fixation with guns. If I was going to lecture, say, I might mention that firearms were used to commit 10,105 homicides in the USA in 2005, compared to around 46 in the UK. And that this is hardly surprising, given that the latest statistics show that 36.5% of US households happily admit that they have a gun in the building.

But like I say, I’m in no position to lecture the gun-toting citizens of the land of the free.

In a country where such a large proportion of the population have access to firearms, it’s hardly surprising that the police carry guns. And I’m fine with that. What I’m less fine about is the sight that befell me earlier today when I walked into the subway station to catch my train home.

A short distance from the ticket barriers, the NYPD’s finest were carrying out a routine check of the bags of random strangers – nothing wrong in that, given the July 7 bombings in London a couple of years ago. And all types of people were being checked, from big city lawyers to startled tourists, with no seeming bias towards a particular race or creed.

But standing a few yards infront of the inspection was one policeman – the kind of career cop who has been hitting the doughnuts a little hard recently, and as a result has beads of sweat streaming down his face after even the slightest exertion. Like breathing, for example.

I can only assume that Mayor Bloomberg himself had walked up to this bloke a few minutes earlier, and told him that Osama Bin Laden had just been spotted buying dewberry lotion in the Body Shop on the street above the cop’s head, and that they were expecting him to wander down to get on the V train within the next five minutes. It’s the only explanation for the fact that the officer’s hand was poised centimetres above his gun, his hand shaking and quivering, and his eyes wide with anticipation and fear. If anybody had accidentally popped a balloon within a 500 metre radius, we could have had a bloodbath akin to the final scene from ‘Heat’ on our hands.

After a suspicious look at my bag, our nervous hero decided I didn’t pose a threat to national security, and let me pass without popping a cap in my ass (as I believe they say round these parts). Hopefully he made it through the rest of rush hour without further incident, and he’s at home now watching ‘CSI: Miami’, and dreaming of what might have been.

The whole sorry incident wouldn’t have happened if Horatio Caine had been there, I can tell you.

All the world’s a stage

If you want an out of work actor, the United States is the place to come. Even here, thousands of miles from Hollywood, you can’t order a plate of nachos without being served by a wannabe star or starlet who’s just paying the bills between off-Broadway runs.

Now, as reality TV seems to have affected everybody’s perception of what reality really is, the Royalton hotel in midtown has decided that all the world is a stage – or at least their small portion of it.

The Royalton, which recently closed for a refurb for the first time since its launch by Ian Schrager in 1988, is now advertising for staff in time for the big relaunch at the start of October. But hiring a recruitment agency, or even going back to the people they turfed out of their jobs a few short months ago, isn’t enough for the Morgans Hotel Group that now owns the 169 room hotel.

No, the Royalton is holding a two-day “open casting call”.

According to their newspaper advertisement, potential staff should make sure that they:

“…don’t miss out on being a cast member of the legendary Royalton hotel…”

As far as I’m aware, hotel guests generally look to hotel staff to provide them with a forgotten toothbrush, take their room service order, or help with getting those difficult-to-obtain theatre tickets. What they don’t need is a rousing chorus of “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie, or a knowingly over-acted excerpt from a Mexican telenovela.

Although really it was the following couplet that particularly caught my eye:

“Interviewing for all positions.
No experience necessary for most positions.”

Looks like the cast of Eldorado might be able to get some much-needed work after all.

You talkin’ to me?

So there seems to be a possibility that New York taxi drivers will go out on strike in the coming weeks, over a dispute about the Taxi & Limousine Commission’s decision that GPS technology has to be installed in every single one of the 13,087 yellow cabs that dominate the streets of the city.

The Commission, which provides each taxi driver with the medallion that licenses them to pick up passengers, says that the systems will be used to allow enable customers to view their journey on a special screen, and pay for it by credit card. It’ll also mean that drivers will no longer need to fill out paperwork as they do today, and potentially make it easier to reunite passengers with the property they accidentally leave in the back of a cab. Speaking as a man who has lost approximately 43 umbrellas in taxis over the last twelve years, that’s got to be a step forward.

Drivers are up in arms, as the GPS positioning system can be used to track the whereabouts of a taxi, even when the cabbie is off duty. They claim it’s an invasion of privacy, likening it to the ankle bracelets used by authorities to track criminals. If the threat to strike becomes a reality, it could conceivably bring New York to a standstill.

A couple of things came to mind when I was reading about the whole sorry tale over the weekend. Firstly, one of the complaints of the drivers seems to be that credit card payments can cost them up to 5% of the fare. Fair enough. But let’s face it, paying by credit card can make things a hell of a lot easier, and could conceivably generate even more custom. Paying by credit card in a London taxi incurs a 12.5% service charge to cover all fees, and I see no reason why a similar charge couldn’t be instituted here.

But the even stranger thing about the whole affair is that despite the fact that GPS technology is being installed in every single cab, it won’t be used to aid taxi drivers in their navigation of the journey. For anybody that’s ever been in a yellow cab, that’s a decision that will go down as one of the most ridiculous since Gerald Ratner decided to joke about the quality of the jewellery that made him a multi-millionaire.

Put simply, New York taxi drivers couldn’t navigate their way out of a car park. My girlfriend had to tell a driver how to get to Newark airport a couple of weeks ago – akin to a London cabbie having to be directed to Gatwick. In a New York cab, unless you want to go to an address that has a numbered street and avenue, or the place you want to get to happens to be the street on which the driver lives, the chances of you making it to your eventual destination by the shortest route are slimmer than Nicole Richie a few days after she’s been dumped by a long-term boyfriend.

As long as you’ve got a social security number and have heard of the English language, you can drive a yellow taxi in this city. In London, you’ve got to spend two years (at least) doing The Knowledge, to ensure that you’ve got an encyclopaedic understanding of the 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. Admittedly you’ve also got to have dubious views on immigration and an in-depth understanding of West Ham’s Inter City Firm, but at least you’re likely to be able to get a passenger from Camden to Kensington without going via Clapham.

The thing about the New York situation is that the installation of GPS systems in cabs was approved in 2004, at the same time as a 26% rise in fares, and now it seems that it’s payback time for passengers. More than a thousand GPS systems have already been installed, and anecdotal evidence suggests that those drivers get better tips and longer rides. And if those longer rides are closer to being in vaguely the right direction, surely that’s got to be a good thing?

PS If any taxi drivers are reading, my name’s Violet and I live in Queen’s.

Branded

I had the strangest dream last night, involving the Countess of Chester hospital where I was born. Walking past the hospital with some friends, we realised that the building had been given a new purple look, and was now sponsored by Absolut vodka. Everywhere you looked, there was a new message extolling the virtues of good Scandinavian vodka. With an accident & emergency unit brought to you by Absolut, and an outpatients wing powered by Absolut, it was a marketeer’s wet dream of how to achieve saturation coverage of your brand in one relatively small place.

All I can remember is being outraged at the sponsorship, and attempting to break into the part of the hospital dealing with liver diseases, just to see if Absolut had been sick enough to sponsor the unit dealing with the illnesses that overuse of alcohol can help bring about. I think we may have been caught before I could find out.

I’m not sure whether the dream is a representation of the fact that I now live in a country where branding is everything, or if it’s just that the last two weeks before I got here saw me drink enough alcohol to warrant hospital admission…

False alarm

Maybe it’s just me, but if there’s something that you don’t want to hear your subway train driver say when you’re in the middle of a tunnel, it’s the following:

“Ladies and gentlemen, the train behind us is so close that you can actually see its headlights.”

I’ve never seen so many people getting off a train so quickly once it finally trundled into the station.

Identity crisis

Friends have been going on at me for years about the fact that I don’t have a driving license. Actually, more specifically, it’s the fact that I don’t drive. I actually passed my test with no problems. As long as your definition of “no problems” is passing it second time round having failed the first time for skidding on the emergency stop after it had just started to rain. And for driving too slowly. And for rolling back downhill at a roundabout, and then mounting the kerb when I was taking a left turn. But apart from that, no problems whatsoever.

It’s so long since I’ve driven that I’ve still only got one of those pink paper licenses – the kind that fits in your wallet when it’s folded up, but when unfurled and in its natural state, could conceivably used as some kind of cover for the hole in the ozone layer.

I’ve always justified my driving-free existence by saying that for the last ten years or so, I’ve been living in London. With a tube or train only moments away, who needs a pollution-producing, money-guzzling, dirt-gathering rustbucket? And besides, a journey on the trusty 209 bus across Hammersmith Bridge while the sun was setting was always one of life’s great pleasures.

Now I’m in New York, it should be no different. OK, so the F train doesn’t exactly come with alarming regularity. I don’t think the word ‘regularity’ even features in any New York MTA literature, to be honest. But it gets me from a to b in plenty enough time to get to work, while the congestion charge-less roads overhead are clogged up with belching traffic.

No, the problem’s not that I now need to drive (although my poor suffering girlfriend would probably disagree after she’s driven five hours upstate while I’m merrily popping Skittles into my mouth with liberal abandon), it’s that I need a driving license. And one with my picture on it, rather than my bedsheet of a UK license.

You can’t do anything in this country without picture ID. If you want to buy a DVD with even a 15 certificate in Best Buy, you need ID. Want to use your credit card to get some new CDs at Virgin Megastore, you need ID. If there’s even a vague chance you could be up to no good in the United States, you’ll need ID to somehow prove that you’re actually a good, true and respectable citizen.

Which puts me in an awkward position. Not that I’m not good, true and respectable, obviously. But given that I’m not a citizen, and at the same time don’t have a driving license, even getting into my office building can prove challenging at times. I’ve taken to relying on my British passport. Although given that only 27% of Americans even have passports, the reaction I get when I pass the security guard my little maroon book suggests that I’ve accidentally handed over haemorrhoid cream.

There’s only one thing for it. I’m going to have to take a driving test. America, watch out.