Monthly Archives: November 2008

Once, twice, three times a New Yorker

New York and its population come with a certain reputation for fieriness. To be fair, some of that is deserved. Hell, I even perpetuate it myself, telling tales of being whacked in the arm by an old man and his umbrella, or being pursued around a supermarketgrocery store by a woman with rage management issues. But like the dog that’s had its teeth removed and replaced with foam molars, New York’s bark is much worse than its bite.

The problem is that it’s not as good a story to say that the people of New York are essentially fine upstanding citizens who love their mothers and do a lot of great work for charity. It’s so much easier to stick with the notion that all New Yorkers are impatient and crazy, and more-than-capable of dropkicking a cat more than 60 metresmeters at the end of a particularly bad day.

Thankfully, every so often (generally just when you think you’re at the end of your tether) New York musters all its strength to give you a demonstration of why it’s actually not that bad after all (and why you shouldn’t allow yourself to be affected by the stereotypes). And the last couple of days have given me some great examples to reassure me of New York’s loving intent.

1. The car crash victim
Walking to the opticians on Friday, the idyll of a bracing stroll through the streets of Chelsea was broken by the sickening crunch of metal on metal. Looking up, I watched as two cars pulled into the side street to survey the damage caused by an accidental low-speed crash. This being New York, I readied myself for screaming and shouting as the ‘wronged man’ stepped out of his car to survey the damage. With swearing expected at the minimum, and full on flying fists as a distinct possibility, surrounding pedestrians waited for the theatreer to begin.

Instead the driver looked at the minor dent on the bumper of his car, smiled understandingly at the quivering wreck of a man sitting in the car behind, and waved him on his way. New York was robbed of another drama, and Friday evening went on undisturbed.

2. The chorus line
A couple of blocks down the road, I looked up to see a crazy young(ish) woman around fifty meters away, walking towards me ranting at the top of her voice. Here we go again, I thought – I’m about to be verbally abused by a mad woman who hasn’t been seen in the same postcodezipcode as ‘sanity’ since 1987. Denied the opportunity to cross the road by fast-moving oncoming traffic, I readied myself to put my head down and hope for the best.

Then two small children skipped out from behind the woman, and I quickly realised that, far from being crazy, the three of them were actually giving a full on walking Broadway version of one of the songs from Annie. It was like seeing a female Von Trapp trio traipsing through the cold city streets, content in each other’s company and happy to fend off the cold without a care for what anyone else thought. Damn them for their cheeriness, I thought, before quickly self-flagellating myself for my grumpy New York attitude.

3. The patisserie lady
Last night I went into a high-end grocery store to pick up a dessert for a dinner party we’d been invited to. The queueline snaked past the patisserie counter, making it difficult to tell a pecan pie from an apple tart given the vast array of coats, scarves and bags obscuring the view. My plaintive mumblings of ‘excuse me’ were ignored by every single member of the line, with each one clearly fearful that I was using my desire to buy pastry-based products as some sneaky way of cutting infront of them.

Just as I was giving up hope, a lovely looking old lady looked at me, and backed away to allow me room to see what delights were on offer. She seemed to smile as she did so, a knowing glance between us regarding the sad state of affairs that is modern manners these days. As I started to look into the cabinet, I took a second to remember that New York is all too willing to show you its softer side, if you just give it a chance.

Then the crotchety old bag stuck her head right in my face and shouted at me to back off and not push infront of her, before ranting mercilessly about the ‘youth of today’.

Ah New York, it never lets you down.

Unknown at this address

Ever since I first went into the tiny computer room at my college back in the day, I’ve been a relentless email devotee. Sure, most of it’s spam offering to help me ‘make her sigh’ or trying to give me approximately $8 million dollars from a mysterious account in Ghana, but such fripperies don’t put me off. Like the schoolkid waiting eagerly for the postmail to arrive in hopeful anticipation of an unexpected package, I metaphorically sit under my virtual lettermailbox waiting for an electronic treat to plop onto the mat of my inbox.

Email has played a central role in my life over the last fifteen years or so. I’ve been offered jobs, resumed friendships, found out about births and deaths, and even helped stave off the pangs of being separated by an ocean from The Special One. Without email, it’s doubtful I’d even be living in New York today.

And of course, email has revolutionised the way I work – indeed, the way in which the vast majority of us work. It’s enabled quick decisions to be taken, measured responses to be made, and helped communication become much more effective. Sure, it’s made the fax machine as useful as the whistle and light on a airplane lifejacket, but email has clearly marked a step forward in the way that businesses operate. Certainly, no Chief Executive could manage without it in this day and age.

Unless you’re the Chief Executive of United States of America Inc, that is.

Because of both freedom of information issues and fears of hacking, the president of the United States doesn’t traditionally use email, it would seem. In 2000, George W Bush bade an emotional email farewell to his 42 friends via his AOL account after realising he would no longer be able to send his regular ‘Friday funny’ out (the quality of his jokes may actually explain why he only had 42 friends). And now self-confessed Blackberry addict Barack Obama, who famously used email and the internet to rally his supporters to victory, may be forced to cease ROFLing at some picture sent by Rahm Emanuel and cancel his own email account too. He’ll still be able to get a faxed copy of Colin Powell’s a**ea** as taken on the photocopier after the Oval Office Christmasholiday party, so all is obviously not lost.

Now, some might say the lack of email would explain a few things about the George W Bush administration over the last eight years. And I have no doubt that the president has plenty of minions to do his emailing for him. But how can you appoint someone to the most important ‘business’ role in America (possibly the world), and tell them that they can’t use the most rudimentary technology to get their job done?

And don’t talk to me about the difficulty of reconciling national security with the democratic right to read written presidential communications. I’m not allowed to be on the line when Obama calls Nicolas Sarkozy (or even when he calls for pizza) so why should I be allowed at some point to see his emails? And as for hacking…it really cannot be beyond the ability of man to come up with a safe system for the president to email without a 14 year old from Scranton breaking in and sending Angela Merkel an email saying ‘You is like wel fit. Lol!!!!!!!’

Having run on a platform for change, I hope Barack Obama sees sense and insists on becoming the first emailing president of the United States. It’s in the interest of the country, and it’s in the interest of common sense defeating anachronistic principle.

Can we get a supply of presidential Viagra? Yes we can.

The real price of food in America

It’s the time of year when American turkeys are looking nervously over their shoulder every time that the farmer comes anywhere near them. If their heads are not already hundreds of miles away from their shoulders, that is. With Thanksgiving less than ten days away, old family recipes are being dug out of dusty drawers across the country as people prepare to make stuffing or cranberry sauce for their gathering of relatives.

The weird thing is that for a fair number of people, Thanksgiving dinner is one of the few that they actually bother to cook, or indeed where the family gathers together around one table. Mainland Europe still tries to cling on to the principle of the family dinner, but in the UK and (especially) the US, the concept of sitting down as one at a given moment is sadly disappearing quicker than ice cream at a five year old’s birthday party.

In the United States at least, that’s hardly surprising. At the end of my road in Brooklyn are a butchers and a diner. On the diner’s window, there’s currently a big sign advertising their Thanksgiving Dinner for 10-12 people, listing all the trimmings including stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, cranberry sauce, gravy and so on, at an all-in price of $169.99. The butcher has a similar sign on their window for their Thanksgiving deal, featuring a turkey big enough for 10-12 people and all the various sides that you could hope for. Hell, they’ll even cook the turkey for you so that you won’t have to spend three days soaking the roasting pan afterwards.

And the price for this do-it-(vaguely)-yourself feast? $199.99. That’s thirty dollars more expensive than cooking for yourself at home, even though the restuarant will be providingyou with all the cutlery, crockery and waiter service – and doing the washing up afterwards.

It’s not true outside the big cities, but in New York and other metropolitan centrescenters, there are plenty of people who don’t cook their own food because it’s cheaper to order it in. Sure, they may be eating meat made primarily of corn, and consuming their own bodyweight in monosodium glutamate, but who cares when you can get a giant helping of General Tso’s Chicken for six dollars, eh? Ordering in food is a treat for me and The Special One – for many people in New York, it’s become a way of life.

Can anybody tell that I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma at the moment?

Now, time to dig out my world-famous gravy recipe in preparation for next week. Oh, and spare a thought for those (pasture raised) British turkeys who are currently sitting around in their barns laughing smugly at the fate of their American counterparts, and haven’t yet realised that December is just around the corner…

The curious incident of the missing letter

Anybody who knows The Special One will be well aware that she has an ill-disguised competitive side. Whether she’s playing a game of charades or just tossing a coin, she hates ending up on the losing side. As a result, she has an incredibly quick learning curve which, for example, has allowed her to win cash in poker games on three of the four occasions I’ve ever played with her. Some people would call it beginner’s luck, but I’d call it an abject refusal to be beaten. And woe betide anybody who gets in her way.

Of course, that means that I enter into any games with her with a certain amount of trepidation. After all, it can be particularly cold if you have to spend the night on the sofa due to an inadvertent victory at Mastermind.

Nonetheless, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to play Scrabble on Saturday night. And it quickly became apparent that Americans are the laziest people on earth. Not because The Special One couldn’t be bothered to pick up her own tiles (and brought in a local schoolkid to do it for her instead), but because they drop letters from any word that they (think they) can get away with.

Clearly, I’m well aware of the American propensity to drop u’s like they’re going out of fashion, and can easily deal with a bit of color, honor or behavior. But from yoghurt to chilli, and fillet to gauge, give an American half an inch and they’ll kick any letter they can out of perfectly spelled words, just to save the 0.12 seconds it would have taken to type or write it.

The problem is particularly acute in the world of medicine and the body, with words such as anaesthetic, foetus, caesarean, calliper and oestrogen all suffering a from a cruelly dumped letter. Although to be fair, most doctors have such bad handwriting that all of these are possibly just clerical/transcription errors of the kind that only get picked up when a patient realiszes that for the last six years they’ve been taking the contraceptive pill to fight excess gas.

In many ways, the American spelling changes make a certain amount of sense. After all, who really needs the extra ‘a’ in anaesthetic? Language should, I guess, be made to fit our needs and ease, rather than being rigidly rule- or tradition-based. Although given this, it seems strange that a nation so obsessed with litigation and legal action would continue to issue anything as peculiar as a subpoena…

When you’re playing Scrabble, of course, a dropped ‘a’, ‘h’ or ‘l’ can mean the difference between a triple word score and a humiliating four pointer. Or worse, allow The Special One to fit ‘feces’ into a tight space, and romp home with 27 points and the game. Damn America and its lackadaisical approach to scatological wordsmithery.

Still, at least I got to sleep in my own bed on Saturday.

Important pan pipe update

If you read or commented on the post regarding the pan pipe/pan flute man who ‘graces’ the L platform at 14th Street/Union Square, you need to know that the non-performing busker plumbed new creative depths this morning. Nobody – and I mean nobody – needs to hear a pan pipe version of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from The Lion King first thing in the morning. And certainly not being mimed to by a recorder-wielding man put on this earth to torture poor unsuspecting commuters. My ears are still bleeding, half an hour later.

Oh, and that rumbling noise you hear in the distance is Elton John and Tim Rice rolling in their graves. Dying first, obviously, then rolling in their graves.

I used to be such a tolerant man

When I’m heading back to the depths of Brooklyn each night, a seat on the N train is as a rare as an Alaskan governor at a meeting of MENSA. Given that the N is an express train, and goes particularly quickly by New York standards (by London standards, it’s faster than the speed of light), I’ve been forced to perfect my balance to allow me to do simple things without falling over. Like breathing, for instance.

Of course, when a seat does become available, the frenetic charge towards it by upwards of ten commuters is enough to have the manufacturers of crutches and support bandages rubbing their hands in glee. I’ve been elbowed in the back, (wo)manfully and forcibly held back and generally been pushed around more times than I care to remember.

Sometimes though, just sometimes, a seat frees up right next to you, and even the Carl Lewis’s of the seat grabbing world are powerless to stop you from making it your own. One glorious orange plastic seat, moulded to fit your capacious buttocks, and only marginally harder than an exam in advanced astrophysics. A place to relax, wind down from the excesses of the day, and dream of the roasted chicken and perfectly chilled white wine that awaits at home. A refuge from the high-speed hurtling through the city that constantly threatens to throw you into the lap of that fat guy holding the kebab featuring dubious meat of uncertain origin.

Yesterday, that seat was all mine.

Needless to say, as soon as I sat down, the Nintendo DS playing numptyteen sat next to me began chewing gum with a ferocity that suggested he’d been informed that the kinetic energy he was producing was being converted to electricity to power the train on its homeward journey. His mouth was open throughout, obviously, making him sound like a cud-munching cow on speed. And we all know what that sounds like.

After five minutes (and a number of furious looks in his direction), I couldn’t stand it any more. Leaving my beautiful seat behind me, I stood up and put myself at the mercy of the train’s violent lurching once more.

I’m sure that the kebab sauce will come off my shirt eventually.

Out with the old, in with the new. Eventually.

I haven’t passed comment on the election since the historic events of November 4. After all, I don’t even have the vote, let alone an inside track on the political machinations that led to the Democrats winning Virginia, so sometimes it’s just best to keep quiet. All I can say is that I stayed up on a sofa in Brixton until 5.15am watching events unfold thousands of miles away, and went to bed happy in the knowledge that America had given itself a new start.

But after an interminably long election process that seemed to begin shortly after Bush robbeddemocratically defeated John Kerry in 2004, we’re now faced with two and a half months of sitting around waiting for the dawn to break. It’s like ordering a sofa for a brand new house, then having to sit on the floor for nine weeks while you wait for it to be delivered. Call me old fashioned, but since when were the supply chain problems of Sofa Workshop a good model for the democratic process?

In the meantime, The Squinty Little Man With The Former President For A Dad gets to experience a lame duck session as he goes through his cupboards to find all those weird scrappy bits of legislation he’d forgotten about over the last eight years. Any suggestions that lame ducks should be shot to put them out of their misery is not for this blog, thank you very much.

Of course, if the experience of the Clintons is anything to go by, he’ll have his beady eyes on some souvenirs from the Oval Office as he starts packing up his boxes. Although given that George Bush Jr (as he apparently hates to be called) has spent more time on holidayvacation than any other President in living memory, one of his aides will first probably have to point out where the Oval Office is.

The sadness is that by having this weird interregnum, America is denied one of the great delights of the British political system. Every time a Prime Minister loses an election, or is forced out of office by his own party, they’ve essentially got to get out of 10 Downing Street that day to make room for the new arrival. Nothing brings a politician back down to earth quicker than the arrival of a removals truck with a few hundred boxes to be filled full of tin sculptures (gifts from the Mongolian government) and framed pictures of the family standing with Bono and Richard Curtis.

Rumours that Gordon Brown was spotted picking up packing tape and bubble wrap at the weekend could not be confirmed at time of going to press.

A tale of two pasties

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and never more so than in the kitchen. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve gone to cook a well-loved recipe like fish pie, only to realise that I have forgotten to buy some of the vital ingredients. Like fish, for instance. The Special One is well used to me ferreting through the fridge and freezer looking for alternative foodstuffs, and to her credit, she doesn’t bat an eyelid at my culinary creativity even when it involves the unlikeliest of combinations. In retrospect, she should probably have put her foot down when it came to ducks feet with mango, but you live and learn.

When miners in Cornwall needed an easy to handle hot food to keep them going during the long and strenuous days of extracting tin from below ground, creativity and invention gave rise to the pasty. For those who haven’t been fortunate enough to come into contact with a pasty, it’s essentially a pocket of pastry containing diced steak, onion, swederutabaga and potato. Served hot, it’s like a flat pie with a thick crimped edge which allowed miners to hold it easily without contaminating their food with their dirty hands.

Of course, when the Cornish invented the pasty, they had little idea that it would become one of the great British convenience foods of modern times, with particular appeal as an alcohol-soaking hangover food. Such is the popularity of the pasty among non-mining everyday Brits that a number of chains have emerged peddling all kinds of strictly untraditional pasties such as chicken balti, cheese and bacon, and steak and stilton. Ducks feet and mango is not yet available, but it’s only a matter of time.

The Special One and The Young Ones are particular fans of the pasty, and take any opportunity to get their hands on one when we go to the UK. Sadly, while you can apparently get a pasty-esque creation in some parts of the States (and you can buy the British version in a few very select shops), the United States is yet to embrace the pasty fully to its hearts.

Clearly I would dearly love to set up my own pasty kingdom, to convert my adopted nation to the way of the baked pastry delight. Unfortunately, I’ve got a feeling that there may be a small amount of rebranding to be done beforehand. Given that in this country the word ‘pasty’ apparently describes the adhesive device used to cover a stripper’s nipples, I’m not sure that the folk who wouldn’t mind a pasty in their mouth are the kind of people I want to call customers.

We even have electricity

I know that it feels like America has been living in the dark ages for a while, and that Tuesday evening saw the re-emergence of this country as a respected player on the world stage. But it wasn’t until I went home to the UK this weekend that I realised just how far some people believe the United States has slipped behind.

Having questioned me at length about different British and American names for certain vegetables, Little Sis furrowed her brow and asked:

“Do you have apples and pears in America?”

This country’s return from the brink can’t happen soon enough, clearly.

London’s dirty secret

I think it’s probably fair to say that there’s a common perception among the global community that Americans are pretty direct. And that’s no bad thing. For example, I’d say that most Americans are pretty intolerant of poor service, and aren’t afraid to make their dissatisfaction known. As a sweeping generalisation, Americans aren’t known for delivering bad news with a spoonful of sugar, either. It’s the kind of directness that allows utility companies to tell you that there’s going to be a ten day wait for your gas/electricity/phone to be restored, and then remind you in the same breath that prices are rising by 25% next week.

The British are more of a nation of shrinking violets. Clearly, the natives of India wouldn’t necessarily have agreed during the years of colonial expansionism, but the British are essentially more reserved. Or “emotionally retarded,” as some more unkind American commentators would probably describe it.

As I’ve detailed in entries before, most Americans would need an ever-present translator to understand the difference between what a Brit says and what he or she actually means. “It’s fine” generally means “I hate it but I don’t want to cause a scene”. “We should do this again” translates as “It’ll be a cold night in hell before I agree to go for dinner with you again.” And “it’s a really interesting color” is roughly equivalent to “who in the love of all that is righteous and holy would have a urine yellow sofa?”

However, one area in which Britain isn’t shy and retiring is its approach to communicating issues of public safety in and around the transport system. Having taken the train to London on Monday, I was confronted outside the station by an advertising campaign to warn people of the dangers of ignoring the barriers at level crossings. Let’s just say that this thing doesn’t pull its punches. Unsurprisingly, having read an advert demonstrating the eight points on the line where they found the person who jumped a barrier, I wasn’t quite so in the mood for my morning bacon buttysandwich.

Over the next three days, my tube journeys to and from meetings were delayed three times by “passenger action” somewhere in the London Underground system. “Passenger action” is the oft-heard euphemism for somebody jumping into the path of a fast moving train in an attempt to kill themselves.

Except transport bosses have decided that this phrase is not – excuse the pun – hard hitting enough, as they now consistently say that there are delays on the system due to “a person under a train” at a particular station. Talk about not pulling punches. At least with “passenger action” you can naively convince yourself that it’s a result of a teenager pulling the emergency cord, but with “person under a train” all you see are the flailing arms of the ‘victim’ and the horror of the helpless driver. And with three ‘jumpers’ in three days, clearly the credit crunch is taking its toll in London.

In New York, subway suicides are almost never ever mentioned, swept under the carpet like those bits of fluff and cat hair that you can’t be bothered to vacuum. In many ways it’s the public transport equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and saying “La la la la la la” when you don’t want to hear something.

Strangely though, it seems like New York probably has the right approach. With 1.5 billion users of the subway system every year, there were only 26 subway suicides last year; London has a third less commuters every year, and twice as many suicides. If you ever needed a macabre demonstration of the power of advertising, you just found it.