Category Archives: America is great

Lost and found

When I first came to America in 1994, my mum insisted that I should try to stand behind tall people at every opportunity. Not so that I wouldn’t be able to see the sights of cities such as New York or Boston, but actually so that I would reduce my chances of being shot. Given that I’m 6ft 2in tall, and I don’t have many NBA stars in my address book, I’ve had to take my chances over the years. Just don’t tell my mum, OK?

The fact is that there are plenty of people in the world who think that America is a land of crime and misdemeanour. After all, US law and forensics shows suggest that murder is a central part of day-to-day existence, and even Scooby Doo has a plethora of amusement park owners who would have got away with everything if it wasn’t for some pesky kids. Sometimes though, something happens that just restores your faith in American humankind.

Moving house last week, The Special One and I rented a Zipcar to move our valuables safely from one place to the other. At least that was the theory. In reality what happened was that I got distracted by the fact that we were blocking the entire pavementsidewalk as we unloaded the car, and may have unwittingly left my work bag and expensive camera behind the passenger seat by accident.

(Of course, it could conceivably be argued that The Special One might have considered checking the car when she dropped it back at the car parklot, but when I began considering formulating this admittedly flimsy line of defence, The Special One activated her ‘Don’t Even Think About It’ forcefield, and I dropped the idea with immediate effect.)

With Brit Out Of Water Senior in New York this weekend, and the Zipcar in question seemingly booked out on a near permanent basis since we returned it, I’d kind of given up on ever seeing the bag or camera again. After all, the whole point of this service is that you just rent it for an hour or so at a time, so a dozen or so people could have been in the car since we left it.

As a result, it was a bit of a surprise this morning to find that somebody had been through my bag, found my business card, and left a message for me at work letting me know that she had found my stuff in the car, and had put it in the boottrunk for safety. The car had even been taken for a service by Zipcar all day today, and the items had still remained firmly untouched.

The tragic thing is that the only British experience I have to compare this to is a recent trip to the UK for work. Despite flying British Airways business class, and being the last passenger to leave the weird little upstairs cabin, there was strangely no sign of my brand new iPod when the cleaning staff came to clear the plane shortly afterwards. British Airways didn’t bother responding to my email of complaint, and their lost property agents Excess Baggage denied all responsibility in a terse twenty-word email. Customer service – you can’t beat it.

And yes, I should probably be more careful with my valuable in future. If I have to be on the receiving end of one of The Special One’s unique ’equal measures of disappointment and disbelief’ looks again in the next few months, I might be back in (deep) water before I know it.

Reasons why New York is great (part 1 of a series)

I’m not afraid to admit that I’m slightly scared of the ‘revolving door’ turnstiles on the subway that envelop you completely as you push your way around into the real world once again. The exit I use at Carroll Gardens station gives me no option other than to enter the tiny swinging cage, unless I want to spend the night on the dingy platform that is. And each night as I give the bars a push, I feel the person behind me swing it faster than my not-so-little legs are expecting, threatening to twang me through 360 degrees into the unyielding metal gate on the other side.

But the fear is even greater when I’m entering the subway at 14th Street to make my way home. For a start there’s only one revolving turnstile, and everybody queueslines up ‘patiently’ to use it, tutting mercilessly as each person gets to the front to swipe their Metrocard, only to remember that their card is in their purse buried somewhere at the bottom of their 120 litre rucksack7322 cubic inches backpack.

And then of course, there’s the fact that once in a while the swipe device decides not to work for every fifth commuter or so, leaving you repeatedly swiping and swiping as the muttering behind you turns into a cacophony of grunts and pffft’s.

Tonight was one such night. You can always tell it by the long line of people trailing all the way back up the steps and onto the street above. And sure enough, when I finally got close enough to the gate, a succession of disgruntled wannabe passengers stood holding their non-working cards, resentfully watching on as other commuters merrily swipe their way through and wondered what all the fuss was about.

So why does this make New York great? Well, clearly it doesn’t. It just makes it another failing of a system that has more flaws than a plan to rob Fort Knox using sixteen small rubber bands and a half-chewed eraser. What makes New York great is the Hasidic Jew who, having watched one man move aside to allow others through after unsuccessfully attempting to swipe his card fifteen or so times, swiped his own card to give the unlucky man access to the subway while everybody else just looked after themselves.

I’d have probably looked after myself too, if I’d reached the front of the queue and the unfortunate commuter was still standing there. Hopefully this random act of kindness, in a city where people are all too ready to focus on number one, will encourage me to act differently next time.

With any luck, any karmic bonus might even manifest itself in my fellow travellers ceasing to push me through the revolving exits at breakneck speeds. I won’t be banking on it though.

Reasons why America is great (part 3 of a series)

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See, I hate tomato ketchup. I was always an HP Sauce kind of boy, with tomato sauce seeming too sickly sweet in comparison to the spicy molassesey goodness of its blue-labelled rival. Of course here in the United States, nobody’s really heard of brown sauce, although you can buy it in some specialist shops. A1 Steak Sauce is a passable (though more insipid) equivalent, but you’ll rarely see it in restaurants – and certainly not in your average diner.

Instead it’s tomato ketchup all the way – you could probably get it in your average Michelin-starred restaurant if you asked nicely enough. From incredible steaks to macaroni (&) cheese, there’s nothing that Americans won’t dollop a bit of the red stuff on.

But the prevalence of tomato ketchup – and even the lack of brown sauce – doesn’t bother me anymore. Because every diner in America seems to carry chili sauce on the table. Who needs ketchup on your grilled cheese sandwich when you can numb your mouth with a bit of tabasco? And why would you bother with red sauce on your eggs benedict when you can have fiery hot condiment to disguise the fact that you’re eating the most vile dish ever invented?

Given that most diners operate on a “never mind the quality, look how much we’ve piled on your plate” approach to cuisine, anything that reduces the ability of your tastebuds to function normally has got to be a good thing.

Sadly, even chili sauce can’t make the coleslaw that comes with every diner meal taste better. It’s good, but it ain’t that good.

Reasons why America is great (part 2 of a series)

As I stood on a subway train today, heading back from getting a wedding licence at City Hall, I noticed a burly guy sat down on a nearby bench seat with a number of big heavy bags. The train slowly filled as we headed uptown, with more passengers piling into the busy carriage.

As we pulled away from one station, Burly Man gestured to another man three seats away from him, asking him to attract the attention of a woman stood a further two people away. When Burly Man finally had her attention, he asked her to ask the elderly woman standing next to her if she wanted his seat. She must have been a good five metres away at the time, but still he’d spotted her and wanted to offer his seat (which she actually politely declined).

Why didn’t he just get up to ask if she wanted the seat rather than go through rigmarole of chinese whispers? Because somebody would have stolen his seat within seconds. You can’t beat the city, eh?

Let’s get one thing straight

A few people have asked me why my blog sometimes comes across as anti-American, given that I’ve made an active decision to live and work here. And the simple answer is that I’m not remotely anti-American. While it may have a morally dubious leader, and an alarming ability to turn fast food into a way of life, I actually have deep affection for my adopted country. Which isn’t surprising, given that I’ve been coming here for the last thirteen years.

When it comes down to it, I love it that you can get hold of pretty much anything you want, even at four in the morning. I like the fact that restaurants always bring you tap water whether you’ve asked for it or not. And I particularly like the fact that everything seems so cheap over here – or at least I will, until the penny finally drops that I’m being paid in dollars not pounds.

That said, when you’re new to a culture and a different way of life, maybe you just notice strange things a bit more than you would when you’re in your home country. I mean, maybe I wouldn’t notice if a man got on to a London tube train and began reciting sub-Pam Ayres ditties in the morning, but here it tends to stand out. At home, if a waiter didn’t understand something I asked for, I’d probably not pay it a second thought. Over here, getting a blank look when I ask for a white coffee (rather than coffee with cream) sticks in my mind.

I’ve now completed three weeks in the US, and while I’m slowly getting used to the different way of life, there’s still so much that makes me scratch my head in wonder. And to be honest, for as long as I’m here, I’m sure there always will be. After all, if I ever get used to saying cellphone or garbage can, something has gone horribly horribly wrong.

Reasons why America is great (part 1 of a series)

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And to think that Americans think that our drinks are weird. Forget dandelion and burdock, dismiss Irn-Bru, and don’t even think about Tizer. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the beer shake.

That’s right, a milkshake made with beer. Or stout, to be a little more accurate. Oddly, it tastes pretty good. Margaret Thatcher would have had every right to be The Milk Snatcher if the school milk she’d been taking from the mouths of infants had tasted like this. Although you don’t want to get ill drinking this stuff – I mean, that would not be pretty.

What’s next – tomato juice and cider, white wine with Coke, or maybe a cheeky little Boddington’s and pineapple??