Monthly Archives: November 2007

On the streets

When I was a kid, we’d often spend our Saturday afternoon taking a walk through the shops in and around Chester’s famous Rows (or “that crazy double decker shopping mall thing” as one American once described it to me). I never really minded going shopping, to be honest. I’d happily wander around Our Price for hours trying to the agonising choice between the new T’Pau album, or the secondsophomore album by Tanita Tikaram. Heady days, indeed.

As the one of biggest centres for shopping in the North-West, Chester attracted huge throngs of people to its cobbled streets every Saturday. And wherever there are large groups of shoppers with money burning a hole in their pockets, you’re always guaranteed to find one thing – buskers.

The Chester buskers – or street entertainers as I should probably call them, for fear that Americans have some kind of strange name for them – were almost uniformly amazing. None of your run-of-the-mill Pavarotti rip-offs here, but instead twenty minute shows involving anything from magic to acrobatics. One guy in particular always stood out, so much so that I can still remember what he looked like more than ten years after I last saw him perform. He was a juggler, and a very good one at that. And I should know. Anybody who attended my wedding will know that I was – once upon a time – a professional juggler whose talents were in demand across the world. But this guy didn’t just juggle. He juggled clubs of fire. On a unicycle. A unicycle that had a ten foot ladder up to his precarious perch.

Not only did he put on an incredible show, but at the same time he always managed to have enough patter to make sure that the crowd (generally 200 or so people had been attracted by the end of show) paid up, and paid up big.

Now I’m in New York, where you come across a whole different kind of busker. Of course, there’s the usual collection of saxophonists, violinists and average caberet singers – you get them in any city you care to mention. On a couple of occasions I’ve seen a group of four old guys who wander through trains singing 60s classics in close harmony, and they are nothing short of astonishing.

But the buskers who stand out for me in New York are head and shoulders above the rest – and for all the wrong reasons. There seems to be a unique band of percussionists who’ve decided that traditional drums, cymbals and tambourines are too conventional for them – and instead they’ve opted to use a collection of general all-household rubbish to beat the hell out of as a way of expressing their art. This weekend I’ve witnessed a man using drumsticks to play a wide range of upturned buckets and containers. Another had taped an old saucepan lid to his chest, a telephone directory to one knee, and a random piece of plastic to the other, and used his heavily gloved hands to beat out a ‘tune’ that could only have been attractive to the mutant dogs of hell.

The strange thing was that at one point he burst into song, and he had a voice that could have you in tears within seconds. Yet somewhere along the line, he’d clearly had a conversation with a friend who must have said something along the lines of “You know, your singing isn’t getting you anywhere quickly – have you ever thought of strapping your muom’s saucepan lid to your torso and a Yellow Pages to your knee, and seeing what comes of it?”

I’m all for people expressing themselves, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. And as the old Chinese proverb says, “If you’re including a telephone directory in your caberet act, it’s time to get a proper job.” Now, where did I put those juggling balls?

It takes two

When I was a kid, I used to see people – let’s for the sake of argument call them “Europeans” – kissing friends on both cheeks, and think that it was the height of sophistication. After all, I used to just get sloppy kisses on the lips from relatives, rather than the exaggerated ‘mwah’ of a two-sided peck.

Then of course I grew up and realised that it wasn’t just the French who took a two-for-the-price-of-one approach to the greeting smooch – it was most people I knew. While the housing estate I was brought up on maybe wasn’t the natural home of the ‘ambicheekstrous’ approach to the welcoming snog, as soon as I moved to university and then on to London, I was offering up double kissing value with the best of ’em.

Fourteen years on, and it’s suddenly like I’ve stepped back in time. With a new family, a new job and a new city of people to get to know, I’m probably meeting more people since the days of trying to persuade fellow first-year girls at university to join me for a pint of IPA and a packet of cheese’n’onion crisps. But that just means making a whole series of social faux-pas as I network my way around New York.

Obviously regardless of whether I’m meeting a man or woman for the first time, I offer to shake hands rather than offering a kiss – I’m British after all, so it takes at least a thirty minute conversation to break through our social repression. But when I’ve known a woman for a while, and I’m saying hello or indeed goodbye, I inevitably go to kiss her on one cheek, before swiftly moving to kiss the other.

Now that I’m in America, such a move will on 95% of occasions result in me finding myself accidentally missing their cheek and ploughing headlong into their hair instead. Put simply, the object of my greeting will have moved on after one kiss, leaving me to make a bigger spectacle of myself than the time I poured water down my shirt rather than into my mouth in an important job interview.

Americans just don’t get the two kiss thing, and frankly I don’t think they ever will. Most people give me a demented stare that makes me think that they suspect me of attempting to put my tongue in their ear. Others just give me a glance that clearly states “Look, we dislike the French as much as the British do, so why are you even bothering with this charade?”.

I’ve now taken to flagging up ahead of time that I’m going to kiss them twice, claiming that my European origins demand it of me. It doesn’t mean that I make myself stand out any less, but if it means that I don’t end up with yet another mouthful of split ends then it can only be a good thing.

Two out of three ain’t bad

Two friends from the other side of the pond were in the city earlier this week, necessitating a trip to a couple of bars in the general vicinity of the office in order to put the world to rights. Britain isn’t falling apart without me according to The Best Man and Sickly Child, although I struggle to believe it personally.

The second of the bars we visited was a relatively empty Chelsea drinking den, struggling to fill its glitzily-decorated interior with enough people to pay for a spare toilet roll let alone good staff. With The Best Man opting to grab a cheeky fagcigarette on the pavementsidewalk before walking inside, it was left to Sickly Child and I to get a table.

Yet despite the place being near empty, and the two of us being able to point to our soon-to-be wining and dining partner standing on the other side of the glass a few yards away, the waitress insisted that she couldn’t seat us until the whole party was present. She didn’t seem particularly embarrassed at her intransigence as she brushed aside our protests, and instead directed us to the empty bar to sit for a whole two minutes while The Best Man finished his cigarette. At least the barman had the good grace to roll his eyes in contempt.

The New York commitment to customer service: you can’t beat it, eh?

Still, we did manage to sneak in a shared starterappetizer which was served on the kind of three layer silver platter that you normally see stacked with cucumber sandwiches and fondant fancies in a swanky London hotel. Being that we are in New York though, the bottom layer contained deep-fried calamari, the middle layer had quesadillas and the top was laden with a pyramid of crispy golden onion rings.

Who needs high tea when you’ve got a deep fat fryer, that’s what I say.

Bah humbug (or a guide to rampant commercialism)

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Yes, it’s November 14th, and yes, the sight you see before you is a full-on Christmas extravaganza, found in the building which also holds my office. It’s actually been up all week, and I only managed to get round to photographing it today.

Generally in the United States, the arrival of festive decorations comes a couple of days after Thanksgiving. But with Thanksgiving still a week and a bit away, and retailers feeling the pinch due to the far-from-buoyant American economy, Christmas truly has come early this year.

Next year, Father ChristmasSanta Claus will be wearing a pair of red Speedo’s while he delivers his presents on a jetski.

Poop

Given most people’s view of the current president, it’s probably rare that any blog posting would feature the words ‘American’, ‘politician’ and ‘refreshing honesty’. But then it seems that Brooklyn city councilman Simcha Felder isn’t your average politician.

Sidestepping the key issues that face Brooklyn residents such as healthcare, education, taxation and housing, Felder has decided to wage war on pigeons. Apparently there is an excess of pigeon droppings at numerous D, F and J subway stations, with piles of bird crap reaching up to six inches in height (please never introduce me to the saddo measuring this stuff). Apparently the key to the problem is to appoint a “pigeon czar”, who will handle all pigeon-related complaints and impose a $1000 fine on anyone caught feeding the flying rodents.

It’s not Felder’s pigeon policy that should be commended though – it’s his approach to soundbites. Seeking to ward off opposition to his proposals, he commented:

“There should be no one allowed to feed pigeons. If people like pigeons, take them into their homes, feed pigeons in your house and let them crap all over the place in your living rooms.”

If I was a betting man (and I am), I’d guess that Simcha Felder was dumped on by a pigeon when he was on a date with Gisele Bundchen, and the supermodel hasn’t given him a second glance since. And if the pigeon union get wind of his evil plan, the air assault will only get worse before it gets better…

It’s getting better all the time

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that Americans are big exponents of the art of self-improvement. Whether it’s the dozens of shows on television at any one point about fixing up your rundown old house, or the preponderance of surgically enhanced bodies that roam the streets every day, a huge number of Americans apparently believe that they can always do better.*

Which came first of the desire for betterment or the industry that encourages it, is difficult to tell. Whatever the case, however, it’s clear that there are a phenomenal number of businesses whose sole reason for existence is to make people believe that they can always improve their lives – if only they’re prepared to part with a few dollars first.

Reading a free newspaper on the way into work this morning, I was struck by the number of adverts encouraging people to act decisively for change. Inevitably in a country which promotes TV shows such as Extreme Makeover, you can easily find slots advertising reconstructive foot surgery, Botox injections and “facial contouring”.

On top of that though, you could take your pick from retirement and succession planning at NY Expo, or laser hair removal, titan skin tightening and photo facials at a reliable New York clinic. Apparently Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear, rather than a skin condition. No, I don’t understand either.

You can even make a choice between ordinary sex and great sex if you send away for Viapren. All you need to do is slip a “fast-acting strip” under your tongue, and you’ll be “ready in minutes”. What you’ll be ready for is not clear, although presumably more than a cup of cocoa and a quick read of the latest John Grisham.

Tempting above all other things is the “Do This, Get Rich” event at the Jacob Javits Center this weekend. Allegedly, if you’ve got “$15,000 or $1 million” you can “Learn the 52 Best Money-Making Opportunities THIS WEEKEND. FREE!”

As if a page advert wasn’t enough to lure you in, there’s the promise of a series of money-grabbingattracting celebrities to convince you to turn up. There’s David Bach, with his insistence that you can “Become An ‘Automatic Millionaire (TM)’ Homeowner”, or Jack Canfield with his insistent plea that you can “Learn ‘The Secret’ To Achieve Financial Goals Immediately”. And don’t forget “Grill Master Entrepreneur” George Foreman, who can help you start a business. And maybe even teach you how to knock lumps out of your business rival if he gets the better of you.

Among the other things you can learn on Saturday are the “three states where you need to look for foreclosures before everyone else”, “cash businesses you can run in less than 10-12 hours per week” and how to “start a business in 5 days and get cash money in 17 days”. Maybe the event should actually be called “How To Make A Fast Buck With The Minimum Possible Effort”?

Don’t get me wrong, we would all love to get something for nothing. It’s just interesting to see how many people in America have built a business model out of helping us get it. After all, for the British, self-improvement is cleaning your teeth in the morning.

* Hopefully The Special One isn’t reading this and so won’t trade me in for a better model

Trouble in store

The Special One and I have just made our way back from the supermarket, or the grocery store as I now apparently have to call it (though always through gritted teeth, and with two fingers crossed behind my back). And even though I’ve now been living here for almost three months, the trip to do the family food shopping only seems to get more bewildering by the week.

See, I’ve been happily making my way round Sainsbury’s, Tesco or Waitrose for many a year, happily taking my pick from their extensive ranges of Slightly Too Small Gourmet Dinners For Sad Single Men, or Microwaveable Midnight Munchies (Sad Single Men-size). I know exactly which kind of crackers I like for cheese (Carr’s Water Biscuits if you must know, although I have been known to go through a pack of Cheddar’s in a single twenty minute session), and I even have a clear favourite when it comes to making sure that my whites stay white, rather than grey or yellow.

When it comes down to it, I’ve always been able to do a weekly shop in about ten minutes flat, because I know what everything looks like. Even if I moved house, the supermarket experience was always pretty generic, with baked beans looking the same wherever you went. Although, as my waistline will readily testify, they always had a better range of pies in South-West London…

Now I’ve moved countries, walking into a grocery store is like taking a long stroll in the dark. Sure, the fruit and veg are at the front of the shop in an attempt to convince you that everything within the building is fresh. But the apples and carrots are essentially where my brand recognition ends. From salad dressings to bintrash bags, nothing is the same. Where tins of sardines were once kept by the frozen food, they’re now by the taco supplies, and don’t even think about asking me where you might find lightbulbs. In fact, there’s only one brand that maintains both its name and identity from UK stores to their US equivalents. Sadly, man cannot exist on Heinz Tomato Ketchup alone.

This doesn’t make shopping easy, much to The Special One’s chagrin. If I get sent off to get, say, a can of lentil soup, there are only two possible outcomes – either I come bounding back enthusiastically with a jar of artichoke hearts, or else she has to launch a full-scale search of the store when I fail to return, and finds me twenty minutes later sitting shaking on the floor surrounded by tinned tomatoes and sobbing uncontrollably.

Shortly before our honeymoon, I was sent on a shopping mission by The Special One to ensure that the kids had enough food for the time we would be away. I had ten minutes to do two weeks of shopping, and to be honest, even if I’d have been given ten hours I would have struggled to correctly pick out everything on the lengthy list I’d been given. To be fair, the children don’t seem to have suffered any long-term effects after fourteen consecutive days of eating only olives and grated mozzarella. Although they admittedly get a look of abject terror if you even walk past them with a jar of tapenade.

Still, getting all your groceries packed and delivered more than makes up for any difficulties in the purchasing process, especially when you live in a fourth floor apartment. After years of lacerating my hands in the UK with shopping bags seemingly made of recycled razor blades, it’s nice to have somebody else carry the twenty four jars of baby food I mistakenly thought were bottles of beer, after all.

The Subway Barger

If there’s one thing that you can say about New Yorkers, it’s that they have a very real sense of purpose. Once they’ve set their minds on something, there’s nothing that can ever get in the way of them ultimately achieving it. Well, apart from their failed bid for the 2012 Olympics, that is.

This single-mindedness and determination to get what they want (regardless of what anybody else thinks) plays out everywhere in the city. Whether it’s restaurant customers ordering their salad dressing be made in a particular way (despite what the chef recommends on the menu) or taxi drivers taking ridiculously convoluted ‘short cuts’ in an attempt to cut through rush hour traffic, nobody gets in the way of a New Yorker.

And no more so than on the subway. As I’ve already mentioned, all standards of commonly acceptable behaviour are suspended as soon as you swipe your Metro card through the turnstile. From then on in, it’s an every-man-for-himself free-for-all, with only the fittest surviving to make it to their eventual destination.

There are a number of people you have to watch out for on the New York subway, if you value your safety. No doubt everyone has come across Last Minute Lunger, the passenger who waits on the platform until everybody has packed themselves sardine-like into the rush hour carriage, before making his powerful leap into a non-existent space inside the car milliseconds before the doors shut.

Then there’s Enormo-Bag Man, who requires at least one whole doorway of space for his luggage, presumably because he’s on a three month trip to Peru and can’t leave the city without enough matzo ball soup to keep him going throughout his whole time away. One such guy in a fake fur coat made his way on to a train on which I was travelling earlier this week, forcing approximately thirty seven people to seek alternative accommodation for their feet. Turns out he had industrial quantities of fake perfume in his suitcases, which he began hawking round to people he’d skittled over a few minutes earlier. Possibly not the best set-up ever to a sales pitch.

And of course, above all others, there’s the Subway Barger. The Subway Barger gets on at one end of a crowded train, and decides that he (or she, for the Subway Barger is just as often a woman) has got on at completely the wrong end, and needs to make his way down to the carriage furthest away.

From the speed that the Subway Barger travels, I can only assume that there is some kind of explosive device in his or her bag, and that it can only be neutralised by making it to the subway car at the opposite end of the train within a ninety second period. As a result, anybody who doesn’t see the imminent approach of this Carl Lewis of the subterranean transportation world gets suddenly flung out of the way with incredible force – often with the killer bag being used as an impromptu space-creating instrument.

From carriage to carriage, the Subway Barger sees no obstacle too tall or fat that it can’t be rammed out of their path with the use of a stray elbow or a menacing grunt. Sadly, he is also impervious to the death stare – a killer look which has been known to turn queueline jumpers into stone and make small children cry. Despite the incredible efforts of scientists around the world, there is currently no known way to stop the most determined Subway Barger.

But there will be. Trust me, there will be.

Ethnic cleansing?

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Sauntering back from a lunchtime meeting earlier this afternoon, I saw the above notice slapped on top of some flyposters a couple of blocks from the office. Now, I’m all for a bit of guerilla marketing, and after all, the United States is supposedly the land of opportunity. But for a city that proudly boasts of its status as the world’s melting pot, maybe this just oversteps the mark a bit?

“It Is Time For A Change Because Having Illegal Immigrants In Your Apartment, Condo, Duplex, House, Loft Or Office Isn’t Safe”

Try to ignore the capital letters at the start of every word, and focus for a moment on the willingness to whip up a little bit of racial hatred in the pursuit of a fast buck. With a turn of phrase that the Daily Mail would be proud of, Sweep Away Housecleaning Services have managed to single out house cleaners as freeloaders who shouldn’t be in the country and will walk away with your family jewellery and your pet goldfish as soon as your back is turned. Trust them with your cleaning today, and tomorrow they’ll have run off with your first born.

Speaking to someone about my blog today, I made the point that New York seems to have a better sense of community than London. Seems there’s some way to go before the city reaches any kind of utopian ideal of everyone living in harmony.

Still, however bad it is, it can’t compare with the awful attitude of an elderly former landlady of mine, back when I was living in Wandsworth in South-West London. Having been given two quotes for maintenance work to the cold basement flat in which I lived, she related to me the tale of how one of the builders had given her an estimate that was almost twice the cost of the other one.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” she said. “I mean, he was black.”

All change

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I’d smugly assumed that I was getting used to the subway system, three months into my life as a Brit Out Of Water. I’ve finally managed to get a grip on express trains, and I only get caught in turnstiles once a week on average now. Which is progress, let’s face it.

Today I took the C train home from 14th Street, with the intent of changing onto the F at Jay Street for the short final hop home. The train was emptier than normal as it stutteringly made its way downtown, halting a few minutes longer than normal at every stop. By the time we got to Chambers Street, there was only one fellow passenger left, and even she left in disgust after five minutes of inactivity on the platform.

Suddenly I found myself in glorious isolation, pleasantly alone to consider what I was going to cook for dinner or write on my blog. I even had time to take a photo of the carriage, empty but for a solitary unblemished red apple. I’d never seen an empty carriage before, after all.

It was only after fifteen minutes of waiting that I realised I was actually on an E train that had completed its journey, and was waiting for passengers to get on board for the return trip uptown. By the time I had realised, plenty of passengers had indeed got on board, each one looking at me with that vague mixture of disdain and disgust reserved exclusively for the pathetic trainspotter who has nothing to do but ride the MTA system all day.

If you’ve never seen somebody attempt to frame their facial features in such a way as to say “you know, I got on here quite a while ago to make my way uptown, but now I’ve remembered that I left the iron on at my home just down the road so I’d better get back there as soon as possible before my apartment burns down” then you missed a treat today, I can tell you.