Monthly Archives: May 2009

Why New York is head and shoulders above the rest

Sometimes, New York is a beacon of normality. Perfectly sensible people, dressed in perfectly normal clothes, going about their business in a way that can only be described as, well, normal. It comes as a welcome reminder that the ways of life are the same in cities across the globe, and that New York truly is the ‘melting pot’ that acts as a metropolitan United Nations for the world.
 
But then sometimes you see people that make you realise that New York is completely unique, and that if New York didn’t exist and some writer or filmmaker invented a city that had all of its attributes, he or she would be dismissed as an irrelevant fantasist.
 
After a long weekend spent in “upstate New York” (a tag that is essentially as useful as saying “north of Bournemouth”) where normality is identified by the smell of newly cut grass and chirruping birds, the return to the city came as a small culture shock. New York had laid out the red carpet though, in the shape of four separate and unassociated people walking past me in the space of a few yards with haircuts that could only be seen in New York and its immediate environs:
 
1. The Reverse Flock of Seagulls
Nobody knows the name of the lead singer of the Flock of Seagulls (it was Mike Score, before the pedants get tapping on their keyboard) but everybody knows his haircut. Frankly, it would be hard to forget that four inch flop of hair over one eye. Nonetheless, it appears Mike inspires people to this day. A victim (I’d call her a fashion victim, but there was nothing fashionable about this) had clearly taken a look at some 80s videos on VH1, and decided that while she couldn’t pull off the Full Seagull she still had to find a way to pay homage. Duly, she invented the Reverse Seagull – the same flop of hair, attached to otherwise relatively short hair, but only down one side of her neck. To say it looked like she had a ferret on her head that was making a spirited attempt to flee down her back would be to give the style too much credit. The irony, of course, is that an actual flock of seagulls perched on her head would have been much more impressive and fashion-conscious than this abomination.
 
2. The Nuclear Fall Out Shelter
To be fair, this one can be spotted in plenty of American cities, but its presence in New York is oddly reassuring. Only women can sport this haircut, and you generally have to be 45 or above to pull it off. Essentially, imagine the kind of style that uses at least a can of hairspray for every square inch of hair, and you’re well on your way to understanding the look. With a width of at least twice the size of the bearer’s head, and a shape that’s vaguely reminiscent of an upside down wok, the hair do is impervious to anything that is thrown at it. Riot police should start having their hair done like this when they’re going into a siege situation. When somebody pushes the red button and plunges the world into a nuclear winter, it’ll be these women who survive to populate the world again with the help of that strange guy from IT who we all laughed at when he said he was stockpiling cans of beans in the hideout he’d built 200 yards beneath the surface of the backyard of the house he lives in with his mummom.
 
3. The 50s Throwback
Look, everybody likes dressing up now and then. I mean, we’ve all got our secret ‘Heidi the orphaned granddaughter of a goat herder’ outfit lurking at the back of our wardrobecloset, let’s face it. Oh, just me then? But there’s a marked difference between going to a fancy dress party, and walking to work with a heavily sculpted quiff. I’ve seen less grease on political spokespeople as they try to explain why education cuts are a good thing for the nation’s children. That leather jacket does not make you look like a T-Bird, and you’re impressing no one.

4. Words Cannot Begin to Explain
Sometimes you see a haircut that just makes you happy to be alive, or proud to be an American. Even if you’re not one. When I first looked up, I saw a guy ahead of me wearing a (frankly regrettable) snow washed denim jacket, and sporting a rather bushy afro. Having momentarily averted my gaze, I turned back to see another man in an equally regrettable snow washed denim jacket, but sporting a natty skinhead. Huh, what were the chances of seeing two such jackets on one day, I thought casually to myself? Zero, as it turned out, when the second man turned directly towards me in order to show the true glory of his half afro/half skinhead look. If he doesn’t have conversations with himself in the mirror, turning through 180 degrees for each bit of the dialogue, I will be severely disappointed.

Ah, the wonders of normality, New York-style.

Ten things you can learn about New York City from the subway

Newton’s little-known fourth law of motion states that all city dwellers shall complain about the transport system that gets them to work in the morning. Londoners have more reason than most to moan, with a Northern Line that resembles Calcutta on a bad day, and weekend engineering work that means any trip from Leicester Square to Covent Garden has to go via Cardiff.

But when it comes down to it, underground systems are a microcosm of the city above, and if you ask me, there’s plenty we can learn about the city above by taking a look at the teeming humanity below. Just one week on the subway in New York is enough to glean some valuable lessons about New York and its itinerant population:

1. New Yorkers have an attention span that is only marginally longer than the average gnat. As a result, the majority of the city’s residents believe that there is a danger of spontaneous combustion unless they are constantly stimulated. People used to prepare for their work day by reading a newspaper; now they watch Gossip Girl on their iPod.

2. The majority of New Yorkers take up at least 47% more space than they think they do. As a result, most commuters never believe that a train is full, even after seeing documented evidence that Norris McWhirter and his fellow Guinness Book of World Records cronies have declared the train the current holder of the award for most people crammed into a confined space in a subterranean environment.

3. Most New Yorkers are hard of hearing, and have to play music at volumes only previously heard in military noise torture tests, in camps that make the Guantanamo Bay experience seem like a day out in Disneyland.

4. At least one third of all the city’s residents are homeless, and are forced to carry around all their worldly possessions in rucksacksbackpacks the size of, say, Mongolia.

5. Aggravated bodily harm is not illegal once you are thirty feet underground. If you need to use an umbrella, a fist or a good old fashioned honest-to-goodness shoulder barge to get past people, that is perfectly acceptable. If you leave your victim cowering on the floor, all the better.

6. The credit crunch means that a lot of people can no longer afford paper. All notes have to be scratched onto the subway windows as a result.

7. 95% of New York men have never seen a pregnant woman. At least that’s why I assume no-one ever seems to give up their seat when they see a gestating female clinging grimly onto a subway pole. It’s either that, or every New York man has had their fingers burned offering their seat to a woman who turned out to be less pregnant, more a big fan of cakes.

8. In Salem, they identified witches by the onset of mysterious convulsions; in New York, the outsiders are the people you see on the subway who aren’t wearing a coat manufactured by The North Face. If you are not wearing a black coat at the very least, you will be chased out of town by men brandishing pitchforks. North Face-branded pitchforks, obviously.

9. The lack of public toilets in New York was made possible by the 1932 Subway Conveniences Act, which stated that at least one subway carriagecar on every train will be required to stink of piss. Any train found to be lacking such a stench is forced to find a homeless guy with a collection of four thousand shopping bags (none of which contain soap) and place him in a carriage as a deterrent to commuters.

10. From the age of 2, all New Yorkers are trained to seek out vacant subway seats by smell alone. It is physically impossible to beat a seasoned New Yorker to a seat, even if you are given a 10 yard start. And your opponent is on crutches.

Still, these sardine cans get me to work, so I can’t really complain. I mean, obviously I will complain. But until someone coughs up for a personal chauffeur for me, it looks like I’m stuck with it so I may as well make the most of it. Now, where’s my umbrella?

Three unacceptable faces of New York (or ‘Am I becoming a grumpy old man?’)

The majority of people in New York are wonderful people who are nice to their mothers, who wash behind their ears, and who open doors for strangers. Those people, however, were not part of my day. Instead I found myself surrounded by the kind of folk who got picked last for school sports, driving me crazy at every street corner. In particular, three stood out from the crowd for their ability to irritate at ten paces:

Sloppy Slurpy Subway Man
If you are a middle aged man with an ability to wear a jacket and trousers in shades of green that are similarly redolent of rotting algae but not quite the same as each other, it’s fair to say that you almost certainly don’t care what other people think. What is less clear is why – given that you plainly didn’t spend much time infront of the mirror in the morning – you were unable to eat breakfast in the comfort of your own home. I was prepared to forgive you when you pulled out a granola bar and ate it open-mouthed while you sat next to me, even though the chewing and grinding were enough to drown out the dubiously mellifluous tones of Hillary Duff coming from the iPod of the woman on the other side of me. But when you reached into your bag, pulled out a second bar and probably allowed the people opposite to see the texture of the half chewed bar in your mouth, I’d had enough. The cheese stick that came out next, and which made you sound like a pasturing cow, was a step too far. As was the second one. And the third, if I’m being honest. By the time you sat slurping on your bottle of water, each glug being amplified by your copious gob, I was ready to take the plastic bottle and ram it somewhere that would almost certainly have rendered the need for recycling completely unnecessary.

Irate Rebel Without A Clue
When you walked into the doctor’s surgery ranting at the husband who was old enough to be your dad, I had a feeling that you were going to get on my nerves. But little could I have realised quite how annoying you would be. It’s one thing to be annoyed at ‘the bitch’ who wasn’t able to help you get an appointment, but maybe I’m old fashioned enough not to be so vocal when ‘the bitch’ in question is sitting behind a desk approximately ten yards from where you’re sitting. Perhaps you’re just angry to be sitting at all, given that you responded to the receptionist’s polite suggestion that you take a seat while she completes your paperwork with the line “I much prefer standing, actually.” You think you’re a rebel who flies in the face of authority, and stands up for the people. You’re not. You’re just an irritating woman who actually lives in one of the poshest parts of Brooklyn, and isn’t afraid who hears you admit it.

The Rotund Narcoleptic
Look, I know it’s actually your glands, and that you’re unfortunate enough to have a slow metabolism. But when you fall asleep on the subway with crumbs around your mouth, people are probably going to start looking at you. And when you start snoring loudly enough for people in Chicago to hear you, you’re not exactly helping yourself out. I wouldn’t mind if it was 11.45pm and you were catching a late train after a long and arduous day in the office. But doing your best Rip Van Winkle impression at 6.30pm seems excessive if you ask me. Oh, and by the way, if in the future your subway sleeping causes you to drop your trashy magazine from your hand and it falls on the subway floor, and somebody picks it up for you, you might want to say thank you instead of grunting in such a way that suggests it was the good samaritan’s fault in the first place.

New York is packed full of characters, and like a dung magnet, it appears I attract them all. If I end up doing a ten stretch at some point during my time in this city, you’ll know why.

It’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right…

Defying American customs that say you will be struck down from on high if you even think about having an alcoholic drink outdoors, this weekend I managed to enjoy my first margarita of the year while sitting outside listening to an old fashioned country rock band. Contrary to New York thinking, no ill befell me, and I didn’t become an unbearable lout incapable of controlling himself. Just for your information, that only comes after four margaritas, and has nothing to do with whether I’m outside or not.

The Special One and I were easily the youngest adults at the event, with the band cracking out covers of venerable classics such as Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover”, Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”* to meet the musical tastes of the gathered throngs. To be honest, half way through the second margarita, they could have knocked out some snuff metal and I’d have been perfectly happy.

Half way through probably the second number that we saw, a man and a woman got up and started dancing in that vaguely self conscious way that you generally see from the people who take to the dancefloor at a wedding reception after becoming tired of waiting for the newly married couple to take their first dance. Their bravery inevitably encouraged others to get up, and before long there were plenty of people, erm, getting their groove on.

At first I thought it was the tequila, but after a while, I began to notice that at least 75% of the aforementioned groovers were actually line dancing – performing exactly the same routine alongside each other, including complicated skips, shoulder drops and head sways in time to the music. And not just one or two people in their own routine, either – more like a dozen or more silver haired dancers racing through an elaborate routine. It was like watching the video for Achy Breaky Heart, back when Billy Ray Cyrus was just a man with an embarrassing mullet, rather than Hannah Montana’s dad.

Line dancing is one of those traditions (on both sides of the Atlantic) that I think should only be performed in an extremely controlled environment. Namely ‘in your own imagination’, rather than ‘in public where people you might know could possibly see you.’ Nonetheless, there is something faintly mesmerising about watching it, and not just because you’re laughing at Norah, the latecomer with two left feet who can’t work out the routine and ends up tripping poor Ernie half way through an unlikely linedancing version of Smells Like Teen Spirit.

The strange thing is that these people had no caller yelling out the steps, but danced a perfectly choreographed routine for every song. They weren’t an organised ‘troupe’, as people came and went over the course of an hour or so, but even so, each person knew exactly which move went where and when. I kept hoping that every change of song by the band would cause each indvidual member to burst out into a different routine, but somehow they all knew inherently that if “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” starts playing, you take two steps to the right and click your heels together.

Such was the level of knowledge that I am now of the opinion that linedancing is part of the initiation procedure into the cult of America. Given that I am now going through protracted immigration proceedings, I am convinced that I am going to be tested by immigration officers not on my knowledge of the American constitution, but which steps should be performed to “Chantilly Lace”.

I’m packing my bags to go back to the UK already.

* Of course I was joking, and ‘Barbie Girl’ wasn’t sung by the band. It was ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’.

Ten things we can learn about life from American sitcoms

Though my first visit to the United States wasn’t until I’d reached my 20s, I think it’s fair to say that I thought I knew a fair amount about the country through the years of watching American TV. From Newhart to Chips, US telly played an unquestionable (although on some level, highly questionable) role in my cultural upbringing.

More than anything, it was US sitcoms that I loved. Whether it was Willis in Diff’rent Strokes, Balki in Perfect Strangers, or Becky in Roseanne, I took deep into my life the characters that appeared on my screen every week. And to be fair, I think that they – and many others – taught me some valuable lessons and principles about life in America:

Cheers
If you spend a substantial period of your life in the same bar, there is the distinct likelihood that everybody will know your name (Shelley Long is the exception that now proves this rule). Unfortunately, such heavy drinking may mean that you are no longer capable of remembering your own name.

The Golden Girls
If one of your best friends throws a party, you should not spend time carefully planning what to buy as a present. As long as the host sees that the biggest gift comes from you (and you attach a card with a casual inanity such as “thank you for being a friend”) you should be fine. Oh, and old ladies can be sexually active too, apparently.

Seinfeld
Being a neurotic obsessive who is incapable of commitment doesn’t stop you from pulling women if you are a popular comedian. Being a short lackey in the employ of a baseball team is slightly more limiting.

Friends
Close pals do not need to worry about calling each other to check if it’s OK for them to turn up at an acquaintance’s house. They just roll up and let themselves in. Despite all the frequent comings and goings, and the constant crossing of the corridor between your apartments, you will never once be accused of being free loving swingers by your neighbours. Not to your face, at least.

The Cosby Show
If you’re a successful doctor and you’re married to a successful lawyer, and you live in New York City, you will still not earn enough money to live somewhere where two of your kids don’t have to share a room.

Happy Days
If you can make a jukebox play merely by hitting it, you are guaranteed sex. Even if your real name is Arthur.

Will & Grace
Having an incredibly irritating voice should never be seen as a barrier to success if you’re an actress (cf ‘The Nanny’).

Frasier
Fathers can be the most down-to-earth, honest-to-goodness people, and their sons can still turn out like unconscionable pricks. If Fraiser had been my son, I’d have known exactly what to do with that tossed salad and scrambled eggs, and I can absolutely promise you that it would have taken at least ten years of extensive psychotherapy for him to erase the memory.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
If you were born and raised on the streets of West Philadelphia, and a couple of guys (who were up to no good) started making trouble in your neighbourhood, your mother’s idea of punishment will be to send you to live in one of the most expensive areas of the United States. Not only that, despite Los Angeles being 2,712 miles away, she’ll send you from the ghetto in a taxi. Approximate cost – $7,250.

Mork & Mindy
Moving to New York from London is broadly similar to landing on Earth in an egg-shaped spacecraft from the planet Ork. Sadly, greeting staff in New York delis with the words “Na-Nu Na-Nu” does not go down well. And I should know. Shazbot.

A story about swine that doesn’t mention flu

The problem with cuts of meat in America is that they’re so damn large, you have to invite around thirteen people around in order to get through everything. And with The Special One’s family all being caught up with other things this weekend, that left just the four of us to consume an entire pork shoulder. Which is particularly difficult when one of you is a vegetarian.

Of course, I say that I was cooking a pork shoulder, but here in the States, I am forced to say that I had got my hands on some Boston butt. Just to be clear for the purposes of those in the UK, I had not been indulging in appropriate posterior fondling with Barbara Walters, contrary to what you might read in the National Enquirer this week. Instead I was cooking with a cut of meat that usually gets used for barbecue in the US – slow cooked with plenty of smoke, to give you the tenderest bit of pork that you can imagine.

As it was, I don’t possess a smoker, so I had to settle for roasting the meat at a low temperature for seven hours. And it was pretty damn good even if I do say so myself. I even made my own barbecue sauce. Sadly I used enough vinegar to flood a small village in Wales, and my attempts to present the sauce as ‘tangy’ were greeted with sneers. And pursed lips and squinted eyes, if I’m honest.

The cooking extravaganza hadn’t begun well, after I showed The Special One the naked butt. Again, I’m still talking about the pork, folks, so please try to stay with me. Like all good bits of pork, the skin still showed a few pieces of hair, as I believe that getting out the Gillette Mach 3 was probably the last thing on the pig’s mind when he woke up and read “Monday – fieldtrip to abbatoir, Tuesday – no plans” in his schedule for that week. But while the occasional chicken feather seems OK to her, The Special One apparently draws the line at stubble in her meat products.

The fact is that Americans like meat, and many of them can deal with fat, but the vast majority of them would scatter to the four winds if asked to eat any of the more challenging parts of your average animal. The Special One still rails in horror at the idea of black pudding (or blood pudding as she still insists on calling it, just to ensure that she can never give in to its magical ways), and I’m guessing that haggis is off the menu after we saw a programme detailing its manufacture. I’ve seen the occasional mention of tripe in the US, but am yet to meet anyone who has tried it, while liver and kidney is much less prevalent over here than in the UK.

But what drives me most beserk is the unwillingness to eat pig skin. To me, crackling pork skin – heavily salted, and crisped up to bubbly perfection – is probably the best reason to eat pork in the first place. Back in my bachelor days, I was known to roast the occasional joint of pork just because I knew that I would be able to have crackling. And don’t even get me started on my love for pork scratchings, or the look of horror when I told The Special One that the tiny foil packets contained just salty pig skin and fat.

Pork skin is conspicuous by its absence in America. Most bacon comes rindless, and pork chops are trimmed to within an inch of their (former) lives. ‘Suckling pig’ in a restaurant I recently ate at had all of the porky goodness, but none of the porcine epidermis. I went home happy, but marginally disappointed about the opportunity that had been denied to me.

As it was, yesterday’s slow roasting meant that the skin wasn’t suitable for eating anyway, and besides, the sight of three people vomiting at the table as I ate might have been too much for me. The search for crackling continues.

Brit On The Water

new-york-skyline1

Despite the protestations of The Special One, I’ve never quite been able to understand the point of a holidayvacation on board a cruise ship. The idea of being surrounded with 2000 people whose idea of a good time is spending their evening watching some underworked and slightly camp ‘entertainers’ perform The Birdie Song is enough to send me racing into the arms of a passing Somali pirate. I have a recurring nightmare about pulling out of port and realising that I have no escape from Nigel and Doris (and their hilarious stories of the time that Nigel accidentally washed his hair with mayonnaise).

No, the cruise is simply not for me.

Of course, like all the best over-the-top generalisations, my loathing of cruise liners has absolutely no basis in knowledge. I’ve never stepped on a boat of that size – indeed, I don’t think that I’d even seen one particularly close up until this weekend when we saw the Queen Mary 2 blocking out the sun in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Sadly, all that has now changed. I am now a cruise veteran.

To be fair, there seems to be a lot going in a cruise’s favour. I was admittedly working pretty much round-the-clock at a business conference, the swimming pools had been drained, and I barely went outside for three days. But nonetheless, I can see why some people would possibly get quite into the idea. The ship was enormous, with numerous restaurants, nightclubs, bars and even a casino – as well as a basketball court, a golf range and an art gallery among many other attractions. I’m sure that kids – if any had been allowed on the boat – would have been thoroughly entertained by a crack squad of children’s entertainers. And who can argue with a team of maids who turn your towels into elaborate sculptures of frogs, rabbits or dogs?

All in all then, pretty bearable. Apart from the music, that is.

Never before has such a collection of terrible tunesmithery been gathered together in one place. From the piano player on night one, to the ill-advised Chinese trio on day two, to the over-the-hill male and female combo on the final night, the entertainment was enough to have half of the conference delegates running for the lifeboats, and the rest desperately hoping that the boat was actually called the Titanic.

The first song I heard being played as I walked out on to the deck was – no word of a lie – Lady In Red. And it was downhill from there. Seasons In The Sun, Hello, Chiquitita, Everything I Do (I Do It For You), Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You – rarely can there have been a less enticing set of songs played for a group’s ‘listening’ ‘pleasure’.

The entertainers did have the good grace to look embarrassed, occasionally casting their eyes around the stunned onlookers to make sure that they didn’t know anybody.

At least I think they did. I’d jumped into the Atlantic by the time they played Wind Beneath My Wings.