Monthly Archives: September 2008

Trains cost…and right here’s where you start paying

Everybody likes to get something for nothing. Whether it’s the complete stranger walking up to you outside a cinemamovie theatreer and offering you tickets that they can no longer use, or a snack company giving away sample products on the streets, there’s no greater bargain than ‘free’.

But like a junkie desperate for just one more fix, the joy of the occasional complimentary Mars bar sends some people into a desperate downward cycle to get everything for free. Whether it’s a few illicit music downloads or a pad of Post-It notes from the office, no ill-gotten cost saving is too small for the true freeloader.

I don’t have categorical proof, but I bet Buster Edwards and the rest of the Great Train Robbers pinched a pint of milk or two off Mrs Miggins’ doorstep when they were mere nippers. And if Jesse James worked as an intern in Corporate America today, I’d say there’s a fair chance you’d need to pay closer-than-normal attention to your paper clip supplies in the stationery cupboard. The acorn of today is the oak tree of tomorrow. Actually the acorn of today is still an acorn tomorrow, but I think you take my point.

Most freeloading I can deal with. That’s not surprising given that I work in the entertainment industry, the whole foundations of which would fall apart if it weren’t for the phrases ‘guestlist’ and ‘plus one’. But sometimes, the something-for-nothing brigade really just get my goat. Especially when they’re breaking The Rules.

The Special One often tires of my unwillingness to break The Rules. She’ll happily get up on a plane when the seatbelt signs are illuminated, or smuggle food into the movies, leaving me to harrumph quietly in the corner. She thinks her refusal to play the game makes her a maverick. I tried to point out that mavericks don’t read the Pottery Barn catalogue, but she was too busy plotting her next coup d’etat to listen.

In any case, I’ve got no problem with rule breaking. It’s just that if I’ve got to pay for a product or service, it’s pretty galling to see somebody next to me taking the same thing for free. Particularly when it comes to public transport.

In London, the fare evader generally takes one of two forms. There’s The Athlete, who looks at the ticket barrier in the same eager-to-jump kind of way that Colin Jackson or Ed Moses used to look at hurdles on a sports track. If you see somebody travelling on a tube train casually carrying around a pole vault pole, you can pretty much be sure that they’re just planning to do a runner when they get off at Edgware Road. Well, either that or they’re Sergei Bubka, obviously.

And then there’s The Close Companion. It may initially seem that The Close Companion is attracted to you by your irresistible scent or ability to pull off that ‘just stepped out of a hedge’ look. But don’t be fooled, he’s just trying to get through the ticket barrier in the same 2.8 seconds as you. By the time you realise what’s happened, you’re either flat on the floor or you’re being sworn at by a scrawny man with ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles.

Here in New York, the fare evader takes on a completely different guise. Sure, there’s the occasional student jumping the barrier, or the otherwise well-to-do person who forgot their Metrocard and hasn’t got time – or more likely, the inclination – to go home for it. But when it comes down to it, the ultimate New York fare evader is The Parent Of A Six Year Old.

Apparently travel on the subway is free until you reach the height of 44 inches. But given that there’s no Alton TowersSix Flags style height measurement by the turnstiles into the subway, it’s difficult to prove who is or isn’t entitled to travel for nothing.

The ridiculousness of the whole thing reached new heights this morning when a kid who was practically as tall as me was prompted to duck the barriers by his mum. Such was his size, he practically had to slither sniper-style to get underneath. It was like watching Shaquille O’Neal’s mother forcing him to duck under the turnstile on a shopping trip to the Big Apple.

With the desire for free stuff so strong among New Yorkers, most parents seem to shove any child they can lay their hands on under the turnstile paddles in an attempt to beat the system. Don’t even think of crouching down to tie your shoelaces near the entrance to the subway – you’ll be mistaken for little Johnny and thrust under the barriers before you can say Harry Potter.

Two pieces of bread and a whole load of turkey

I’m proud to say that I come from the home of the sandwich. You can’t beat a simple sandwich, freshly made with great bread and quality ingredients, and preferably accompanied by a bag of crisps. Admittedly the Earl of Sandwich probably didn’t go for cheese and Branston Pickle butties with an accompanying pile of cheese’n’onion flavour potato-based snacks, but I’m pretty sure that he would approve. If he hadn’t been dead for 200 years, that is.

Here in the States, the sandwich is equally revered, but over-complicated. It’s like comparing a 70s prog rock double headed guitar solo with the beautiful simplicity of an acoustic guitar track. By law, every US sandwich must have 73 ingredients, of which 18 are legally required to be cheese. Lettuce and salad can be included if absolutely necessary, but this can sometimes result in only a two inch thickness of turkey being added rather than the statutory four. The Subway chain gets around this by making sure every sandwich filling is actually made of turkey. Including the tomatoes. The only exception is the lettuce, which has to be cut at least six days before being used to ensure that it develops their patented Brown & Unappealing™ look.

Americans make a big play of the fact that they don’t put butter on sandwiches, while neglecting to mention that they smear so much mayonnaise on everything that Brooklyn alone ensures that senior Hellman executives have earned their annual bonus every year since 1934. The inhabitants of some small villages in the Cotswolds have a lower collective calorific intake than the consumers of certain New York sandwiches.

Most egregious of all, as I have indicated before, is the American obsession with putting peanut butter on sandwiches. Peanut butter is neither big nor clever. It is the devil’s food, and its combination with jelly (or ‘poor man’s jam’ as I like to call it) is simply wrong.

In fact, the only good thing about peanut butter is that it ensures that I never drink too much on a weeknight. The Young Ones love peanut butter on the sandwiches they take to school, and even the thought of making them while nursing a large hangover is enough to make me nauseous.

Going back to school the expensive/American way

I never really minded going back to school when I was a kid. I lived a fair way from the rest of my schoolmates, so it was always good to catch up with friends. And besides, I always had a relatively immature fascination with getting a new pencil case, and filling it with HB pencils, a four colour crayon pen, and a rubbereraser that I’d probably picked up as a souvenir from Rhyl or Porthmadog.

Fast forward 20 years, and The Young Ones are currently in bed ahead of their first day back at school after more than eight weeks of blissful freedom. To say that they’re less keen on the first day back (and for The Youngest, the first day at a new school) would be an understatement. I’ve seen happier inmates chomping down a last cheeseburger on Death Row.

The dismay they’re feeling right now is nothing compared to what I felt trooping around Staples on Saturday, seeking all the items on a school supplies list that covered two sides of a fairly large piece of paper. From a set square that The Youngest will categorically never use in her life right through to a remarkable sixty ballpoint pens, I’ve seen shorter Oscar acceptance speeches than this list.

Some of the requirements made no sense. Is there really any need for two pencil sharpeners, for example? The Young Ones are pretty damn talented, don’t get me wrong, but even they draw the line at sharpening two pencils at once.

The thing that I quickly realised is that all the pens, mechanical pencils and paper aren’t even for the individual use of The Youngest and The Eldest. The school they both attend is extremely well-regarded and successful, but like most state-funded schools in the US it would appear, the phrase “state-funded” doesn’t actually mean that much. And it certainly doesn’t mean “we’ll buy pens and paper so that your kids can get a basic education.” Luckily, if the government gets parents to buy all this stuff instead so that the class can have a well stocked stationery store for the year ahead, it can afford to spend that little bit extra on new air fresheners for tanks in Iraq. Makes me proud to be a taxpayer, I can tell you.

With the whole of New York seemingly heading back to school on Tuesday, one of those tanks would actually have been useful in navigating the aisles of Staples. Imagine the carnage of the JanuaryThanksgiving sales, but with the unmistakeable candy-induced violent blood-curdling screaming that can only brought on by being unwillingly dragged around a store. Luckily the effect of the Skittles I’d eaten wore off eventually, and I calmed down long enough to engage in a lengthy discussion with The Youngest about the dubious merits of buying left handed scissors when you’re distinctly right-handed.

All I want to know is why we didn’t have to buy a protracter or a pair of compasses? I’m guessing that trigonometry is dead. Who needs angles when you’ve got the Jonas Brothers, eh?