Monthly Archives: March 2009

Going green, New York style

It’s probably not unfair to say that – in the past at least – America has shown more collective concern for the result of the Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race than for the environment. Sure, there’s an occasionally impressive recycling programme in some cities (in New York it’s effectively handled by the homeless, keen to get their hands on the five cents you can receive returning for beer cans and soda bottles), but when it comes to the wider picture, there has traditionally been more enthusiasm for a twenty seven year old repeatrerun of an episode of Diff’rent Strokes.

That’s not to say that Britain is some glorious eco-aware capital which leaves no environmental footprint. Far from it. This is, after all, a country that is currently attempting to expand Heathrow, which is already one of the busiest airports in the world. But, from the outside at least, there seems to be a consistent pattern of measures that are being introduced to significantly reduce the UK’s impact on the environment.

Much of it is down to the European Union, who appear to have given up on attempting to ensure that – say – all bananas sold in the region have to be straight, and are instead attempting to impose sensible environmentally conscious measures. Banning incandescent lightbulbs and forcing people to use long-life energy saving bulbs instead isn’t necessarily going to save the world, but every little helps. Obviously, having a romantic dinner lit by one of the new bulbs is broadly akin to dining under the glare of the Old TraffordYankee Stadium floodlights, but European bureaucrats clearly don’t need artificial lighting to get their partners in the mood for lurve.

For the average man or woman on the British street, the most noticeable change has been the effective abandonment of the disposable plastic carrier bag. Given that 13 billion of the bags have been given away every year, and the majority take around 1000 years to degrade, any move to reduce their distribution has got to be a good thing. Some supermarkets now discourage their use by charging for them, while others reward reusing old bags. And the measures are apparently effective, without any real customer dissatisfaction.

Sounds like a plan that could be introduced in the States, right? Wrong.

While the French took to the streets to bring about the downfall of the Ancien Régime, and 100,000 people flocked to Tiananmen Square in 1989 to protest the autocratic nature of their government, revolution in America would truly be caused by the removal of shopping bags from US supermarketsgrocery stores.

I should check up on this, given the immigration requirement to pass a US history test, but I believe that the 28th amendment to the US constitution enshrines the rights of the people to use plastic carrier bags to excess. Walmart stores have weird carousels that seem to allow the intellectual giants at the checkout to spit out bags to shoppers at an approximate rate of six per second. And if you happen to go to a supermarket for just one forgotten item, the look you get when you say a bag isn’t necessary suggests you’ve just accidentally accepted responsibility for every unsolved crime within a thirty block radius.

The strange thing is that most of the cheaper supermarkets have worked out that they spend a not-inconsiderable amount of money on bags every year, and have responded to that by making sure the bags are the cheapest they can possibly find. Indeed, so cheap are the bags that scientists have been forced to reassess the size of individual molecules in order to take into account the thinness of these (no doubt) Chinese imports.

Still, at least this means that there’s less plastic being used, and the landfills have less material being placed in them? Sadly not. The thin bags are singularly incapable of holding more than a single tomato without splitting irreparably and dumping all your shopping over the ground. Staff at the checkouts have to double bag everything to give you any chance of getting your groceries home intact.

It’s almost as if environmental policy was being handled by AIG, isn’t it?

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Regular readers will know that I have a small obsession with the sandwich. My reputation is obviously beginning to precede me, as Toni and Mike at Pond Parleys have asked me to give my view of the American sandwich on this week’s post (which will be posted at some point today). I am my usual fair and reasonable self, as I’m sure you can imagine…

New York cranks it up to 11

There’s no getting away from the fact that New Yorkers are loud. Whether they’re talking to a friend on the street, or snarling out curses like SmartiesM&Ms to passers-by who have the temerity to cross the road infront of them, New Yorkers have a volume control that is set at least 25% higher than the rest of the world’s. Their idea of an intimate conversation is just one in which they don’t bother to use the megaphone.

Of course, this is all grist to the mill of the accidental voyeur. Back in London I had to use all manner of devices and props, from newspapers to earphones attached to an iPod that wasn’t turned on, in an attempt to listen in to other people’s conversations. Here in the US, you just make sure that you’re on the same block and you’re in with a shout. Quite literally, in some cases.

Since moving here, I’ve heard all manner of bizarre chats between New York residents. I’ve heard more about people’s love lives than I ever needed to know, listened to a man on his phone threatening to wreak all manner of damage on his ex’s house if she didn’t go out and find his cat, and effectively sat in on a brainstorming session between two ad execs planning a campaign for a drug to combat high blood pressure.

Above the babble and din as I wandered through Chelsea Market at lunchtime, I heard two guys bantering after presumably bumping into each other on their lunch hours. As usual, raised voices were the order of the day, despite the two guys awkwardly hugging and standing mere inches apart as a result.

“How are you, asshole?” laughed the first guy.

“Dude, I don’t even know you,” shouted the other.

I walked alongside the first guy as the pair separated, his smile fading as he turned around to take another look at his friend.

“S**t, it wasn’t even the guy I know after all,” he muttered to himself as he walked off, his face reddening.

Embarrassment and shame – a very private error in the rest of the world, open-air theatrical performance for the benefit of everyone in New York…

Would you like cheese with that?

America is the land of the inappropriate combination, maintaining an unparalleled ability to put together two things which really can’t work in partnership, and insist that they can. Take peanut butter and jelly, for instance – no, I mean it, somebody just take it away and never let me see it again. Not since Nick Leeson and Barings Bank have two more unsuited partners been brought into close proximity.

Then there’s the weird couples that the United States throws up from time to time – Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon (don’t worry Britain, America doesn’t really know who he is either), Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, and of course Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty. I know that they weren’t strictly speaking a couple, but let’s face it there was always a frisson there despite her protestations. I know, she could do SO much better…

The strange thing is that America turns its collective nose up at some time-honoured classic combinations. Like ‘building a toilet’ and ‘using enough construction materials to make sure that people can have a dump in private’. Or ‘the letter H’ and the ‘collective name for the likes of coriandercilantro, parsley, rosemary and sage’.

But if there’s one combination that annoys me more than anything, it’s the US penchant for putting cheese on top of chilli.

I love chilli with all my heart. She Who Was Born To Worry used to make a classic chilli when I was a kid, although she still hasn’t forgiven me for telling my sister that it was actually chilli and not “savoury mince”. I’ve spent the years since leaving home trying to perfect my own chilli recipe. Being in the US, I’ve learned more about the legendary spicy stew than I ever thought I could, and my own recipe is beginning to develop as I taste more and more variations. Put simply, I’m open to change, and if that means experimenting with more smokiness, or a few chunks of chorizo, then so be it.

However, when it comes to putting cheese on top of my chilli, I draw my experimental line. Eat chilli at a friend’s house, and you’ll no doubt be offered little bowls of grated cheese and grated onion to sprinkle on top. Order a portion of chilli from a takeout place (as I did last week) and you may be unfortunate enough to find melted orange gloop all over the top of your joyous mix of ground meat and spices.

Of course, sprinkling cheese on stuff is practically America’s number one sport. From servings of vegetables to bowls of soup, there’s nothing that an American citizen regards as off-limits when it comes to grated cheese. If you see somebody scattering shredded mozzarella over, say, a building site or an elected official, you’ll know why.

Some mothers do have ’em

For the first eighteen months or so of my relationship with The Special One, I became an expert at sleeping in two sessions. Given that we were on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and she would often be working until well into the night, our first opportunity to speak might not come until 11pm in New York, which was 4am in the UK. Being the perfect partner that I so clearly am (ahem), I was willing to go to sleep for a few hours, be woken by the phone at ungodly o’clock, and then put my head down for another three hours or so of kip when we were done talking.

Though I was generally pretty good at it, there would obviously be occasions when I wouldn’t get back to sleep at all, and as a result I’d turn up at work the next morning looking like a cross between Bernard Madoff and Widow Twankey. Sometimes (particular after one too many port and lemons), I’d sleep blissfully through the repeated phone calls from The Special One, happily snoozing as my beloved tried to get in touch. Coincidentally, the amount of alcohol necessary to reach that point was enough to create a hangover the next morning that made me look like a cross between, well, Bernard Madoff and Widow Twankey.

The key – when I actually managed to be awake enough to take the calls – was always ensuring that the two sessions of sleep were roughly similar in length. The closer the phonecall came to the time that I was due to be getting up anyway, the less likely it was that I’d get a good night’s sleep. And as a result, the periods when there were only four hours time difference between New York and London – as we’re experiencing at the moment – were always like manna from heaven.

Time is, of course, a key difference between life in the US and life in the UK. For example, we’ve finally reached the point here in New York where it’s still joyfully light outside as people leave work (unless you’re a lawyer working late, but there’s probably not many of those left these days unless playing Solitaire has become a billable event). But as the year wears on, I know I’ll become wistful for the days of sitting in sunny and light London pub gardens until 10 or so at night.

More pertinently right now, it’s Mother’s Day in the UK on Sunday, and given that there are still six weeks or until it happens over here in America, it is pretty damn impossible to get a card to send to your mum. Last year I think I crossed out the word ‘birthday’ on a card intended to wish someone many happy returns, and this year I’ve opted for a nice view of New York. But it’s hardly the best way to tell your mum that you love her, let’s face it.

Fear not though, I think I’ve come up with the perfect solution.

Mum, if you’re reading this, can you buy maybe three or four Mother’s Day cards from the shops this weekend, and then post them to me so that I can send them back to you each year from here on in?

Pick some nice ones, though – I don’t want you thinking I’m cheap.

The luck of the Irish

Now, before I start, I need you to know something: I have nothing against a good celebration. I am, after all, the current holder of the South London All-Comers record for Most Wine Glasses Inadvertently Smashed On A Good Friend’s Floor In One Night, a record I’ve held since New Year’s Eve 2002. And I’ve forgotten more summer bank holidays than most of you have had hot dinners, thanks to a predilection for the occasional babycham and lemonade.

Put simply, give me a poor excuse to party, and I will rip your arm off and swing it around my head like a spring break reveller with an eighteen year old’s thong in his hand.

But you have to draw the line somewhere. And for me, that line stops right before St Patrick’s Day.

Clearly I’m getting more cantankerous as I grow older. Last year, St Patrick’s Day seemed remarkable, but not annoying. Twelve months on, and I’ve crossed to the dark side.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the Irish (or their close descendants) celebrating their patron saint’s day. But yesterday New York was jam packed to the gills with people wearing emerald green clothing, and buskers playing fiddle-dee-dee music on violins that were last tuned when Nixon was in power. If I heard one more person say something like “top o’ the morning to you” in a voice that makes Dick Van Dyke and Don Cheadle seem like accent experts, I may have been forced into using shamrocks for something that nature certainly never intended.

The fact is that most of the drunken party-goers heading back towards Bay Ridge at about 7 o’clock last night have probably never even met someone from Ireland, let alone have any Irish family background. And that’s despite the fact that 40 million Americans claimed Irish ancestry in the last census.

Let’s face it, those jester-hatted folk throwing up in the gutter probably don’t even know that St Patrick’s Day is a celebration of all things Irish, and the rest of them almost certainly couldn’t point out Ireland on a map of the world. That may be something to do with the amount of Guinness they’ve poured down their collective necks over the last twelve hours, admittedly, but that’s hardly the point.

The strange thing is that I was asked on numerous occasions why I wasn’t wearing green yesterday. I tried to explain that it’s because I’m not Irish, but I just got a slightly quizzical look that suggests the person can I hear that I’m speaking English but is incapable of understanding the words coming out of my mouth.

I’m thinking of finding out when Canada Day takes place, and then going out into the city dressed as a lumberjack and tutting in the general direction of anybody not dressed in red and white.

I’m not eating caribou though, and you can’t make me.

Coming to terms with shame

I’ve been in hiding for a week or so, as you’ll have noticed by the lack of posts on here. It’s not because I’ve lost any of my desire to give you witty, charming and considered tracts on life in New York (one day I hope to deliver on that dream), or because I just don’t get the love or validation that I so desperately need having been a New Yorker for all of 19 months. No reader, it’s not you – it’s me.

Embarrassment, you see, causes me to shrink into the background – to bury my head and not re-emerge until I believe that the coast is clear. Any vague sense of shame essentially leads me to retreat to my metaphorical nuclear bunker, never to return unless I think I can nip down to the shops without having my arm mutate into a three foot proboscis. Or without people pointing and laughing, more to the point.

Such enforced exiles only happen from time to time, it has to be said. Like when I was a thirteen year old and walked into the ladies changing rooms at a department store, much to the open amusement of a gaggle of schoolgirls standing outside it (less amused, it has to be said, was the woman inside wearing only a bra and a frown). Or the time when my baffled friends looked on as I told the Queen that I had two years left at school, despite having only about a week to go. And especially the time when I got so drunk at a Christmas party that I knocked the DJ’s decks off a table, causing the glitterati of London’s media world to turn around and stare. You can only imagine their looks when I did it for the second time a few minutes later.

Now New York has inflicted an embarrassment on me that has had me wanting to disappear under my duvet (or whatever it is that Americans call that thing that you put on top of your bed to keep you warm at night), and only emerge when the house is completely empty. And it’s all the fault of a slice of pizza.

A week last Friday, I decided that some pizza would be the perfect start to the weekend. Ah, the joyous combination of crispy dough, flavoursome tomato sauce and a layer of grilled-to-perfection cheese – excluding the unexpected arrival of Heidi Klum looking for a place to stay, what better way can there be to celebrate the start of two days off?

Sadly my enthusiasm became a little too much for me, and I set about the task with all the indecent haste of an AIG executive banking his bonus. Realising that it was under attack, the pizza instituted emergency procedures and dispatched an area of tomato sauce and cheese (that had clearly been heated through nuclear fission) on a seek-and-destroy mission to the corner of my mouth. Shocked and stunned by the unexpected arrival of a globule of molten lava on my lip, I could barely move – and by the time I had, my mouth suddenly featured a rather fetching crater.

For the last week, I’ve been walking around with what looks like a ridiculously virile cold sore on my bottom lip. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I always think that it’s difficult to foster an air of respect when you look like you’ve got an outbreak of herpes on your face. I try to explain that it’s actually a third degree burn that was inflicted by a maverick Italian snack product, but nobody’s having it.

Thankfully the pain and the scarring is slowly receding, but the emotional scars will last a lifetime. I’ll go out in public again one day, but for the moment it’s back to hiding underneath the bedcovers. I’ve got enough food to last me another week. I think I’m going to need every bit of it before the shame finally fades.

Ticking all the boxes

As you’ll have gathered from my last post, The Special One and I are currently filing various papers to prove that our marriage is bona fide, and not an ill-disguised sham in which I’m using her to gain access to a country with no universal healthcare and no ready access to HP Sauce. I feel like writing on the forms “do you really think I would be associated with such a lifelong duvet hog if it wasn’t for the fact that I love her” but somehow my better instincts kick in, and I dot i’s and cross t’s appropriately.

What I object to is not necessarily the amount of information that the immigration authorities want, or even the pictures, bank statements and lease agreements. It’s the fact that they want to charge me more than $1000 just for the privilege of putting my metaphorical hand in the air and asking “please Miss, can I stay here a bit longer?” And that’s not even taking into account various other forms that have to be filed, or attorney bills that have to be paid.

Bear in mind that this is a process that can take anything from 4-12 months to be completed. And that’s if you’re lucky. While falling in love may have been a whirlwind affair that involved all the speed of Usain Bolt, visas through marriage are very much handled by asthmatic marathon runners with a penchant for chipsfrench fries.

See, if I’m paying a four figure sum for anything, I kind of expect a certain level of service. For $1300, that should include having your tears wiped away by a nubile model, and your forms collected by the sports or musical hero of your choice.

When I am running my own republic, I’ll be offering drive-‘thru’ immigration services, and naturalization tests that include pop quizzes. You won’t necessarily get a higher class of citizen, but anyone who can name three members of New Order is fine by me.

A sign of the American times

Checking out official documents today for the immigration services, I noticed that the forms only provide two lines for the person making the application to list their former spouses. “Hmmm,” I pondered rather formally to myself. “That really doesn’t seem to be enough space at a time when marriage appears to be less valued than any previous stage in the institution’s history.”

And then I turned the page and saw a continuation sheet with specifically reserved space for a further 38 ex-spouses to be listed.

Welcome to America!

Understanding New York’s unique formula

If you ask me – and I know you didn’t – New Yorkers must be the most accomplished numbers-oriented populace in the world. For a start, they know the price of every single slice of pizza in the city, and can calculate the cheese per cent ratio of each one by smell alone. They can generally tell you the cost of a cab journey between any two points in the city, texting you regular updates to take into account rising fares caused by minor traffic problems. And they always know exactly how many inches each person is allotted for the placement of their posterior on a subway seat, and if you exceed it, they can deliver precisely the percentage death stare necessary to ensure that you never even think about doing it again.

They are also the only group of people I’ve ever come across who can accurately time one-hundredth of a second in their own heads. That is, after all, the only way that they can manage to hit the car horn so quickly after a traffic light has turned green and the car infront of them has failed to move on within the aforementioned time period.

What has been frustrating me over the last few days is that I think natural-born New Yorkers have access to a secret mathematical formula that I just can’t quite work out. They are able to take a combination of a number of factors and combine them in such a way as to calculate whether the action they take will save them time without getting them physically assaulted or ‘accidentally’ bumped off by the people that they annoy in the process. Such factors include (but may not be limited to):

– the size of the gap that they want to squeeze into, whether as a car attempting to use every lane possible in an attempt to gain ground, or a person defying the oncoming group of fourteen people getting off a subway as he or she gets on. Note that whatever the mode of transport, the size of the gap will always be at least 50% smaller than that used by any reasonable human being.

– the amount of time that is saved by performing such a manouevremaneuver, whether three seconds by pushing ahead in a queueline for a subway turnstile, or three minutes by taking the cafe latte that was actually intended for the person who turned their back for three milliseconds. Note that any time saved will be used for swearing and cursing at random strangers.

– the irritation level of the person slighted by the action of the New Yorker, on a scale of one to ten. Level one might involve a small ‘tut’ or a roll of the eyes, while level six involves verbal intervention and a knowing look to those around them. Level ten has been responsible for at least 59 deaths in the tri-state area already this year.

– the smugness of the person carrying out the act, again on a scale of one to ten. Level one sees the perpetrator almost imperceptibly lick their lips as they perform the act, while level eight (generally reached only by men) features a visible turn towards the victim and a full-on game show host-style wink. Surely no court in the land could ever convict somebody for stabbing such an inveterate winker?

What amazes me is that New Yorkers can gauge all the variables, and work out the formula in a matter of seconds. Such speed allows them to decide against the procedure if they think they really can’t get away with it, or to reduce the smugness of their reaction in the case of the most irritating actions in order to avoid defenestration or a similar fate.

I can only assume that they’re taught it at school, and then practice it religiously for the next eighty years. We outsiders can only look on with an equal mix of horror and amazement. 

And serve our time in jail with grace and remorse.

The one where A Brit Out Of Water becomes a criminal

Having been brought up on a TV diet that included regular feedings of ‘Cagney & Lacey’, I have to say that I was pretty nervous on my first trip to New York City. Not because there was a possibility of being forced to spend an evening in the company of Tyne Daly and her long-suffering Harvey, you understand. But for this sheltered youth who had spent most of his formative years in a small town in North Wales, it seemed that the streets of New York were paved with people whose sole mission was to relieve me of my cash. Or my life.

To be fair, New York wasn’t exactly a sleepy little village fifteen years ago. Giuliani had only taken control of the city the year before, and the area around Times Square was still a den of pornographic iniquity. Not that that was necessarily a bad thing for a hormone-heavy youngster, obviously. But while crime rates were beginning to fall across the country, New York still had plenty of hoodlums and gangsters to call its own.

As it was, the only criminal I came across was me, convincing a barman to serve me a beer or three despite the fact that I was only 20. Nonetheless, my perception of New York as a city where crime never sleeps lived on for many a year.

After last night’s commute home, I wonder if that feeling will ever truly go away.

Stepping onto a train at West 4th Street, a tall woman pushed me out of the way as she narrowly avoided the train’s closing door. No crime there, obviously – barging people around is practically a legal requirement in this city, after all. But it did mean that I least noticed her, particularly as she quickly gave me an evil stare as if to question how I had dared to get in the way of her aggressive shoulder charge a few seconds earlier.

The good thing about the New York subway is that if you happen to find yourself in the same carriage as someone slightly irritating, it’s a fair bet that they’ll be getting off in a few minutes. Not this woman though. In fact, she stayed on board for a full thirty minutes, finally getting off at the same stop as me. Still, there are plenty of trains coming through that particular station, and as I stood waiting for my connecting train, I thought no more of her.

Until she stepped through the same door onto the same train as me a few minutes later, that is. And then got off the train at the same station as me about six stops later. And turned the same direction as me once she reached street level. And proceeded right exactly like I did at the first junction. And crossed the road in the same direction as me across the nearest avenue.

Given that I was following her this whole time, I suddenly became convinced that she was going to think that I was stalking her. After all, I had effectively followed her all the way from Manhattan, following her merciless bashing of me in her attempt to get on a train. Now she could easily be thinking that I was tracking her down to exact my revenge as soon as my opportunity came.

Unfortunately for me, my ‘target’ then proceeded to walk directly down the street that leads past my house. Despite being frozen to my core, my paranoid New York crime-aware self kicked in, and I forced myself to take a long detour just to prove to everyone around me that I was no criminal. I almost felt like taking out a loudspeaker and broadcasting “I am not following this woman” in order to clear up any confusion.

Just to be on the safe side though, if anyone sees Sharon Gless in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn over the next few days, do me a favour and drop me an email. They’ll never take me alive, I tell you.