Monthly Archives: September 2007

Breakfast In America

After a long lie-in this morning, Soon To Be Wife and I headed down to The Donut House on Court Street for a revitalising breakfast before some wedding schlepping. I’m not really a breakfast kind of person – never have been – but when it comes to Sunday breakfast, in either the US or the UK, I’m always up for it.

The Donut House is the Carroll Gardens equivalent of a British greasy spoon. The menus have seen better days, as have the formica tables. And the tomato ketchup bottles bear the hallmarks of a thousand egg and bacon breakfasts. But that’s exactly what I want from my breakfast establishments. Who needs organic mushrooms and handmade sausages, when you can have a mug of steaming hot tea and a huge breakfast for less than a fiver?

Serving at The Donut House is an old-ish guy who looks like he could have been working there for forty years, and wouldn’t be averse to giving you a quick slap if you stepped out of line. When I asked for rye toast as part of my breakfast, he gave me a look which indicated that I was almost certainly some kind of Flash Harry or Johnny Come Lately whose mother should have taught him that bread comes white and white only. The smile and a wink he gave Soon To Be Wife was clearly one of pity, and a non-too-subtle indication that she should dump the rye bread eating loser and replace me with a more mature gentleman with extensive catering experience.

The only problem with eating breakfast in America is that everything comes with eggs. Eggs with salmon, eggs with salsa, eggs with corned beef, eggs with eggs. Which is all well and good, unless you don’t like eggs.

I don’t like eggs.

As a result, whenever I go into a diner, I always have to order from the lunch menu. Which today meant having a club sandwich with french fries and deep fried onion rings, and half a giant gherkin on the side. At 11 in the morning. So much for the wedding diet, huh?

Radio free state

I realised today one of the things that I miss most about not being in the UK (after family and friends of course). It’s not HP sauce as I can get that here, nor is it Waitrose or Waterstones. And while I miss holding the British papers in my hands, I can just about deal with my Guardian separation issues.

No, what I’m really having trouble with is not being able to listen to British radio. It’s odd not waking up listening to Today on Radio 4, or Nicky Campbell and Shelagh Fogarty one-upping each other on Five Live. I miss late night comedy session on BBC 7, or cooking a roast dinner with the soporific tones of Magic FM in the background. Hell, I even miss Alan Green’s Premiership football commentaries.

Of course, I hear you cry, I can listen to some of these stations on the internet, but there’s something odd about listening to programming that was intended for a wholly different time of the day. I mean, who wants to be listening to The World At One as they’re getting up, or the Greg James early breakfast show as they’re going to bed?

British radio is simply ahead of the game. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some cracking stations here (if you like classic rock, you’ve got to give the “progressive sound of WEHM” a try), but it’s only when you’re away from Britain that you realise how much you miss the BBC in particular. Maybe some people have a problem with “the unique way the BBC is funded”, but £135.50 a year seems a bargain right now if you ask me.

Anyway, I’m off to iTunes to download podcasts of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s respective radio shows. Maybe it’s not quite the same as listening to the programmes live and in the flesh, but at least it’ll bring a little bit of the UK to my subway journeys next week.

Reasons why America is great (part 2 of a series)

As I stood on a subway train today, heading back from getting a wedding licence at City Hall, I noticed a burly guy sat down on a nearby bench seat with a number of big heavy bags. The train slowly filled as we headed uptown, with more passengers piling into the busy carriage.

As we pulled away from one station, Burly Man gestured to another man three seats away from him, asking him to attract the attention of a woman stood a further two people away. When Burly Man finally had her attention, he asked her to ask the elderly woman standing next to her if she wanted his seat. She must have been a good five metres away at the time, but still he’d spotted her and wanted to offer his seat (which she actually politely declined).

Why didn’t he just get up to ask if she wanted the seat rather than go through rigmarole of chinese whispers? Because somebody would have stolen his seat within seconds. You can’t beat the city, eh?

Reasons why America ‘sucks’ (part 1 of a series)

As I’ve said before, customer service is an utter fallacy in America. There are fantastic waiters and shop assistants across the country, but in general their bosses couldn’t give a damn whether you’re fundamentally satisfied or not. And, in general, you’re not.

No more so than this morning. One of the perks I’ve given myself since moving the States is giving up ironing wherever possible, taking my shirts to be laundered and pressed instead. I wouldn’t have thought of it, but for the fact that each morning I see dozens of men walking to the subway carrying handfuls of shirts ready to be dropped off. It’s almost as if there has been some well-publicised ironing-related mercury poisoning scare in the New York area, or every bloke has been told that Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche (And They Certainly Don’t Do The Sodding Ironing Either).

Anyway, I’ve been infected too. But when I went to put on a nice crisp and fresh shirt this morning, the top button popped off in my hand. Of course, I don’t really use the top button (much to my mum’s chagrin – she’s still hoping I’ll get a job where I need a briefcase) so I pressed on down the shirt. But incredibly, every button fell apart pretty much as soon as I touched it.

It’s not the first time it’s happened either. I’ve lost the odd button or two on about five shirts so far, including three in the last week. And finally this mild-mannered janitor decided that enough was enough, and it was time to confront Armando.

Armando, as I’ve mentioned, is the Italian dry cleaner who will happily give you a smile and a pleasantry, as long as you don’t say anything that’s even vaguely contrary to his opinion. Step out of line, and it’s horse’s head time. But I couldn’t let the loss of seven buttons on three shirts go without comment, so after a jaunty hello as I walked into his Smith Street store, I related my tale of woe.

As you can imagine, Armando was very sympathetic, and immediately agreed that he would replace them. And charge me $1.50 for the privilege. For every single button.

Slightly flabbergasted, I protested that it was actually his fault that the buttons had been broken in the first place. But rather than a sheepish bowing of the head and a reluctant scratching out of the charge, Armando merely stuck to his position. Apparently, if he “replaced every button that fell off, it would mean closing down.” Such is his commitment to breaking buttons, he would “have to employ two people just to sew buttons on all day”.

Angered by now, I pointed out that it was unfair that he could break my property and then charge me for each repair. And that’s when he pointed out the smallprint on the receipt:

“We assume no responsibility for shrinkage, fading, trimmings, pads, buckles, beads, belts, buttons, or goods left over 30 days.”

And then (in capitals):

“NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR FIRE OR BURGLARY.”

Now fire and burglary I can understand. Goods left over 30 days, maybe. Even removable things such as pads, belts and buckles. But buttons? I mean, a shirt without buttons is simply a perilously thin cardigan. A shirt is unable to fulfil its function without them. But dear old Armando can knock ’em off left, right and centre if he likes, safe in the knowledge that not only does the customer have no comeback when his shirt is left with no buttons, but he can even charge them cash just to put each shirt back to its rightful state.

My threat to never come back fell on deaf ears, and I left the shop knowing that the next time I returned, I’d have to fork out $26 for five shirts, three of which would probably have neon pink buttons placed on them out of spite.

When you think of it, the whole thing’s actually a genius money-making idea. No doubt Donald Trump or Siralan are signing Armando up even as I write.

Front row seats

On the way back to the apartment from the airport earlier this week, the taxi I was flying down Atlantic Avenue in pulled up at a set of traffic lights. Alongside us was a black van/people carrier with blacked out windows. Nothing remarkable about it, but for two things:

1. Both the driver and the passenger were watching a DVD on a small screen on the dashboard of the van. I mean, I still find it astonishing when people have built screens into the headrests of their seats so that their kids can watch DVDs in the back. But surely there’s got to be some law against drivers and their fellow front seat passengers kicking back and watching a movie. I wouldn’t mind so much if the movie had had some cultural relevance, but these adults were watching Aladdin…

2. The back panel of the van had two bullet holes in it. Admittedly both holes had been sealed up, but the unmistakable signs of pierced metal were there for all to see. Maybe somebody else had been equally offended at their choice of cinematic experience?

Last of the famous international drinkers

When it comes to being stereotyped, the British are always amongst the first in the queue. Every Hollywood blockbuster thriller has a snooty Eton type masterminding the evil and dastardly plot – or at least a British actor playing the part. Each and every one of us has teeth that would keep orthodontists in highly paid work for thousands of years. And our ability to drink is unmatched by any race anywhere on earth, to the eternal bafflement of scientists across the world.

Now most right-thinking Americans would probably accept that the majority of Brits aren’t crazed killers or unhinged psychopaths. And some would perhaps be forced to admit (under extreme sufferance) that they’ve met British people whose dental work hasn’t been all that bad.

But when it comes to drinking, the British are apparently in a league of their own. Sure, Americans have frat boys with their kegs, but no other nation has the long term commitment to drinking that the British can muster. From the thirteen year olds at the bus stop swigging their illicitly-gained bottles of Diamond White through to the merry bands of pensioners supping halves of stout in the last remaining old man’s boozers, Britons apparently have a cradle-to-grave attitude to booze. Put simply, if Alcohol Inc were to have an awards show, most Americans would wager their sub-prime mortgage on the fact that Britons would be accepting the inaugural Lifetime Achievement or Outstanding Contribution gong.

Of course, it’s not without justification. You can’t open the Daily Maila mid-market newspaper in the UK without reading some story about binge drinking among the nation’s youth. And the streets of many of the country’s major cities at throwing out time on a Saturday night can bear an uncanny resemblance to war-torn Afghanistan.

But the more time you spend in America, the more you realise that the Americans love a drink as much as the next man. And in this case, the next man happens to be Oliver Reed.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh. But the fact remains that – on the whole – Britons may like a drink, but their drinking seems to be more a function of community and socialising, than a desire to get drunk. One thing may often lead to the other, but drinking to get drunk is still frowned upon.

In the United States, there is undoubtedly less alcohol consumed per head of population, but drinking can be more of a solitary thing. Sitting in a bar at JFK on Friday, the man sitting on the bar stool next to me ordered a beer, and was offered any accompanying shot of his choice for just $3. In Britain, that would be seen as irresponsibility. Here it’s seen as upselling genius.

Soon To Be Wife and I have our wedding in twelve days, and – as is the custom at American weddings – the bar will be free all night. It would be interesting to see which nationality drinks the most during the course of the evening. Knowing the British as I do, I’ve no doubt about who my money will be on. But it could be a closer thing than you’d possibly imagine.

Climate unchanged

A brief interlude over the weekend, as I returned to the UK for the first time since upping sticks and moving to New York. As ever it was great to see family and friends, and to find that nothing much changes – even when you’ve moved 3500 miles away.

And nothing changes less than the British weather.

Despite the furious claims of London colleagues that the weather has actually been pretty temperate since I left, I woke this morning to one of the biggest downfalls of rain I’ve seen in ages. And by ages, I mean ‘the morning that I left the UK to move to America’. Sure, the sun is now shining, but it’s a fair bet that the underground system won’t be working properly for the rest of the day.

Put simply, Britain isn’t equipped to cope with bad weather. Which is pretty inexcusable given how long we’ve been coping with the stuff. I took a cab to the office this morning, as I didn’t much fancy sitting in wet jeans on a seven hour flight back to the US later today, and a journey that should have taken fifteen minutes took more than an hour. Traffic ground to a standstill as the rain beat down on the car, and pedestrians passed by like rapidly drowning rats.

Statistics say that there’s as much rain in New York each year as there is in London. If that really is the case, I can only assume that it rains incredibly heavily while I’m in the toilet, as I’ve barely seen it rain once since I’ve been heading across the Atlantic on a regular basis. Admittedly there was a storm that brought the subway system to a halt last month, but these things happen about as often as Paris Hilton has a quiet night in.

Maybe Britain doesn’t have an infrastructure that can deal with severe weather because nobody puts up a fuss? In the US, the closure of the transportation network for even an hour causes an almighty outcry, with sheepish bosses dragged out in front of the media to explain their failures and possibly sacrifice their first born child. In London, an hour-long system failure is often a service improvement, provoking public rejoicing and much clinking of champagne glasses in the executive dining room at London Underground Towers.

When it comes down to it, the British love to complain. This entire blog is the perfect demonstration of that, surely? If we didn’t have anything to bitch and moan about, we’d lose our entire raison d’etre. And if you look at it that way, rain isn’t the bane of our existence – it’s actually the thing that keeps us going.

Anyone got an umbrella though?

A slight return

I’ve been in New York for one month and one day, and now I’m sat in terminal 7 at JFK Airport awaiting a flight to Manchester to see family and friends. So I thought it would be a good chance to look back, and see what I’ve discovered about (American) mankind over the last few weeks.

Among the pearls of wisdom that I have garnered are the following:

• Fresh milk comes in cartons big enough to flood small villages in Wales, and will allegedly not go bad for about four weeks. I don’t even want to think about the number of chemicals that requires.

• Some American women are capable of incredible vanity. One girl that Soon To Be Wife and I walked past last night actually turned to her friend and used the phrase, “You know, I think she f***ed us over because we’re hot.”

• Asking for still water in a restaurant will earn you some very blank looks. I still think that requesting ‘flat water’ suggests that you’re going to get previously sparkling water that somebody mistakenly left the top off overnight.

• Complaining about the weather is difficult when it’s still well into the 80s in late September.

• Britons struggle for small talk when they can’t complain about the weather.

• Fitting the stereotype perfectly, any American mocking your British accent will sound like Dick van Dyke. But they’ll still sound more convincing than Don Cheadle in the Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen movies.

• New York has the best bagels in the world. No question.

• Swearing in the workplace is a rare mistake, rather than an occupational necessity.

• If cutting up shop-bought salads for lunch is just too much work, you can ask the person behind the counter to chop it for you. Sadly, however, most waiters won’t cut up your steak and feed it to you, no matter how difficult a day you’ve had at the office.

• There are probably more people from Britain in New York than there are in Swindon. Clearly US immigration’s standards aren’t as high as they used to be. And I should know.

What I’ve also finally learned is how to use Typepad’s stats engine properly, and it seems that quite a few people are reading this blog, for some unknown reason. I’ve been blogging properly for about 30 days, and already there have been well over a thousand page impressions. Admittedly most of those are probably my mum refreshing the site just to make me feel good about myself, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

Anyway, to those who are reading, or that have sent me emails saying that they’re enjoying it, thank you. Please do pass on the link to anybody you think might find it vaguely entertaining, and feel free to leave comments if you’re seized by the desire. I’m actually really enjoying writing on a regular basis again, but it would be great to have even more people reading.

In the meantime, I’m off to the UK. Don’t tell anyone, but I might actually miss this city while I’m gone.

Have a nice day

It’s said that America is really the home of customer service. If you want your dressing on the side, or no tangerines in your Asian peanut salad, that’s no problem. Return something without a receipt? Of course, sir. And, as I discovered today, removal men have no issue with taking away super king-size mattresses that are superfluous to requirements. As long as you grease their palms with plenty of greenbacks, that is.

But when it comes down to it, the concept of customer service in the United States is just that – a concept. It’s certainly not based on any sense of reality. Well, not from what I’ve seen so far anyway.

Today I stood in a line (did you notice how I didn’t say queue there? I’m starting to scare even myself) at Starbucks, and waited perhaps ten minutes for nothing more challenging than a grande Americano. Maybe I’d annoyed them by deliberately referring to it as a medium Americano, but that’s no excuse for serving everybody behind me their iced chai latte or skinny caramel macchiato before they even thought about giving me my coffee. When I finally plucked up the courage to ask where my coffee was, the confused stare I received suggested the ‘barista’ was still torn between spitting or blowing her nose in my drink.

As for some of the suppliers being paid to provide services for mine and Soon To Be Wife’s nuptials, their ability to return calls or provide information in a timely fashion leaves something to be desired. By which I mean that they may well have moved to Mexico, such is the level of communication we’ve been able to extract from them over the last few weeks. Forgive me for not naming them, given that I would still prefer that they deliver on their promises rather than leaving us racing around on the morning of the wedding looking for socks or cufflinks.

When it comes down to it, customer service is no better here than it is in the UK. And if you’ve ever been to a motorway service station somewhere off the M4, you’ll know that’s no good thing.

That said, I went to the Apple store earlier in the week after one of the buttons of the iPhone gave up the ghost. I believe if you look up the phrase ‘gave up the ghost’ in any dictionary, you’ll find the definition ‘dropped on a metal bar under the passenger seat in a car’. And today, the good folk at the Genius Bar gave me a whole new iPhone, free of scratches and with a fully working button. You can’t ask for better customer service than that, especially given that there were almost no questions asked.

Genius indeed.

Stooping to conquer

After four weeks or so, all my worldly goods have made it across the Atlantic, and are finally due to be delivered to our apartment tomorrow. To be honest. I’ve barely missed anything for the month that I’ve been separated from it. Which is slightly disturbing, given that I’ve shipped almost 34 years of possessions. Who could have known that I didn’t really need that remote controlled car with the leaked batteries, or that the fraying River Island t-shirt (circa 1987) was superfluous to requirements?

With two households now essentially being merged into one, we’ve spent the last few weekends going through the apartment to make decisions on whose stuff we keep and whose we get rid of. It’s kind of like having a divorce before the marriage, as we battle not over who gets to keep the kettle but whose kettle we get to keep. Sadly there seems little point in persuading the other one to take, say, Soon To Be Wife’s copy of ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ or my vinyl edition of Five Star’s seminal ‘Silk & Steel’.

As I’ve been taking the endless bags of rubbish down to street level, it’s struck me how many people don’t throw stuff away in this city. And it’s not that they hoard it forever, although some do. Instead, they just set up a stoop sale, and turn their trash into someone else’s trashtreasure.

(No, I have no idea why Americans feel the need to call their front steps a stoop either. Probably for the same reason we’re pretentious enough to call the eggplant an aubergine).

Not a Saturday can go by in the neighbourhood in which we live, without seeing someone sat outside their home, next to a wallpaper pasting table full of the detritus from years of collecting and keeping. If ever you need a porcelain figurine of a giraffe, a book on world accounting principles from 1993, or a frying pan with a makeshift handle fashioned from a bicycle tyre, may I suggest you start your search in Brooklyn one weekend?

The strange thing is, I’ve never once seen anybody buy something from one of these sales. Admittedly I’ve seen more aggressive sales patter from pacifist monks, but nevertheless you’d think that people wouldn’t waste a day peddling their wares if all they’re going to make from it is $2.37.

A more humanitarian approach seems to be the one that a few other people take, which is to leave anything that’s decent and usable (but surplus to requirements) outside your dwelling, and let someone who wants it to take it away for nothing. It’s kind of like a street version of Freecycle, without the website. I’d barely put a Light Tracer (sci-fi version of Etch-a-Sketch) and a Digimon game out this weekend, before one bloke appeared to ask whether the former came with batteries or the latter had all its pieces.

There’s something vaguely inspiring about people understanding that just because you don’t need something anymore doesn’t mean that’s true for everyone. At the same time, don’t expect to see me sitting outside the apartment selling my Beano comics any time soon.

I mean, have these people not heard of eBay?