Category Archives: Shopping

Reasons why New York is great (part 2 in a long forgotten series)

If there’s one word you could never use about New York, it’s ‘predictable.’ The fact is that you just never quite know exactly what’s going to happen when you walk out of the door in the morning. Actually, that’s not strictly true. You know that you will be delayed on the subway for ten minutes longer than is strictly necessary. You can guarantee that at some point during the day you will get shouted at or pushed out of the way by a random stranger. And you can be 100% sure that it will be cold enough to cause all your bodily functions to begin preparation for cryogenic freezing. But apart from that, it’s pretty damn unpredictable.

Yesterday, I started the hunt for a new diary. Or schedule, or calendar, or journal, or whatever word it is that Americans insist that I call it these days. You might say that I started the process a little late this year, but let’s face it, nothing ever really happens in January. Particularly as I’m on my annual, self-imposed, month-long alcohol abstinence (or Liver Aid, as Bob Geldof and Bono would probably dub it).

Anyway, the point is that I needed a diary, and I knew just the place to get it. Half a block away from my place of work is a tiny office supplies store that has clutter piled from floor to ceiling. This is not a place to browse. You go in, ask for what you want, and hope that they’ve got it. Nothing has a price tag – the owner just decides what to charge you according to whether he likes you, or how he’s feeling that day.

Indeed, what makes this place quintessentially New York is the owner. Transplanted from Tel Aviv more than thirty years ago, the guy is marginally interested in selling stationery, but obsessed with storytelling. What started with me rushing out quickly to pick up a diary ended up with me sitting down for thirty minutes being told a story that encompassed everything from the Holocaust to Marlon Brando to Langley Park in one seamlessly woven analysis. And all because I’d happened to praise him on his choice of The Guardian as a newspaper.

I studied history at university, and like to think I have a pretty strong background in European world affairs. Yet much of the conversation involved him asking me (rhetorical) questions on various shadowy figures in the American, British or German intelligence network, and I ended up showing as much knowledge as an ill-educated squirrel. A dead ill-educated squirrel.

I left the shop half an hour later, bewildered but enlightened. It could have been much much longer had another unsuspecting customer not walked in looking for an envelope. He looked in a hurry, but I suspect he’s still there now.

Oh, and I walked out without a diary. He didn’t have one in stock, so ordered it for next day delivery. I’ve got to go back to pick it up today. If there’s no blog entry for the next week or so, you’ll know where I am.

Putting a price tag on health

After twelve straight hours in the ER last Friday, my friend was finally admitted to the hospital. I manfully stifled my laughter as he was put in a wheelchair and slowly wheeled around the medical corridors like an 85 year old war veteran by a man in maroon overalls. I wouldn’t normally have controlled myself so well, but the look on the face of my friend suggested that he wouldn’t have been averse to getting out of the wheelchair and putting me in my own ER cubicle if I didn’t keep quiet.

Wheeling through the hallways of the ER, and into the main hospital itself, I looked puzzledly at the porter. Had he possibly made a wrong turn, and accidentally taken us through an adjoining door into the Brooklyn Hilton? After all, the floors seemed to be vaguely marbled, and the walls had dark wood panels that wouldn’t have looked out of place at some gentleman’s club in Pall Mall.

To be fair, the presence of a number of wheezing old ladies suggested that we’d either wandered into the host venue for the “Lucky Strike for Seniors” convention, or else the guy knew what he was doing. Before we knew it, he’d put the brakes on the wheelchair and left us infront of the door to one of the rooms.

Now, I’ve stayed in a few hotels. This time last year I was kicking back in a two floorduplex affair in the Greek islands, with an infinity pool just outside the French doors and the sea only a few short yards further away. I know the things that hotels can include just to make you feel like you’re in the greatest place on Earth.

Last time I checked though, that list of perks did not include ‘a bed containing an old bloke with a hacking cough’. Admittedly you could only rarely hear the cough, but that was largely because his television was loud enough to be audible in Georgia.

Given that it was almost midnight by now, I had to make my way back home. But before I pushed off, my friend asked if I could make my way down to the foyer to pick up some bottles of water for him. After all, we’d already watched in horror as the old man had drunk directly from the water jug provided for the room, and neither of us fancied supping on ‘eau de pensioner’.

With a security guard having given me the dubious stares reserved for somebody who seemed to be visiting four hours or so after visiting hours had finished, I wandered the corridors looking for some Poland Spring. It was only then that I truly realised that I was in America.

Firstly, the vending machines contained every manner of crisppotato chip known to man. From TGI Friday’s cheese and bacon flavour potato skins to onion and garlic snacks, it was a veritable high fat, high cholesterol temple. Don’t get me wrong, I grabbed myself a bag of something salty and sickeningly unhealthy for the trip home, but that doesn’t mean I condone it.

But even the snack factory couldn’t prepare me for the sight of the gift shop. Yes, you read it right. The gift shop. Stand aside Disneyland, back off Alton TowersSix Flags. You’ve got nothing on the American medical system and its desire to shift souvenirs on the ill and infirm. And what better for the friends and family of the sick to take their mind off their troubles than a little bit of retail therapy?

Given the late hour, the gift shop was sadly closed and as a result I can’t comment on the range of products available for purchase. I might go back this weekend though, and if they don’t have “Welcome To Brooklyn” colostomy bags and clothing with the slogan “My Grandma Had A Heart Attack And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt”, I’m going to be very disappointed.

Be your guest? I don’t think so…

For the most part, I love high(er)-end/speciality food shops like Whole Foods or Balducci’s. Having been spoiled with Waitrose or Marks & Spencer’s food hall all my life, there’s something thoroughly decent about being treated like a discerning food lover once again. With lovingly prepared foods, a shockingly good cheese counter and fruit that doesn’t look like it’s been through a ten round battle with a sledgehammer, these places feed my inner foodie.

But what I can’t stand – nay, truly can’t abide – about these stores is their absolute stubborn pigheaded blindingly irritating insistence on referring to me as their ‘guest’. Every time I reach the head of the queueline, and get called forward to pay for my products, I’ll be greeted with the plaintiff cry of “next guest please” as if I’ve been personally invited into the home of Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca. And the practice is spreading – this weekend, spotty Bernice at the Gap deigned me with “guest” status as I waited to pay for my holiday shorts.

Look, I know you’re all just trying to be polite, and really I should be grateful at any pleasantry in a city where a grunt of sheer indifference is the closest you get to a term of endearment. But, let’s be honest, you don’t really view me as your guest, do you?

If I’m your guest, and you invite me to fill my trolley with as much gourmet grub as I like, I presume you’re not going to make me pay for it before I walk out? After all, I’m your guest, and which host with the most treats their guests like that?

If I’m your guest, I’m going straight to the tea section to help myself to some PG Tips, and then I’ll happily wander into the food preparation area to put the kettle on. Don’t worry, I’ll ask if anyone else wants a cuppa – I was brought up properly, after all.

And if I’m your guest, I’m sure you won’t mind if I pop in and borrow a shirt and a pair of jeans when I get soaked to the skin in an unexpected rainstorm. I’ll bring them back, obviously. It might take a couple of months, admittedly. Many apologies if that white top is a little bit pink, by the way – those red socks get everywhere, don’t they?

Death, where is thy sting?

After two long flights, and a lot of late nights with work and with friends, I’ve found myself encumbered with an early summer cold. Not the slight sniffles of a borderline hay fever attack, but the full on “I need thirty tissues to get through every hour” man cold, which could conceivably bring about my death in the next thirty six hours.

It’s bad enough trying to get myself understood in this city at the best of times, but when I’m bunged up with a cold I may as well be talking in Swahili for all the good my voice does me. Simple requests such as “can I have a glass of water” turn into “get the bath, I’m passing borders”. Which would be useful if I was, say, on the verge of entering Mexico and needed a scrub down. But not so much when I’m parched and desperate to get liquids into my system.

My sudden descent into languagelessness is at least an incentive to get better quickly, and with that in mind, I made the trip to Rite Aid at lunchtime to pick up all the potions and concoctions I could carry.

Rite Aid is a strange shop. I know it has been a pretty successful chain, but I have no idea how it managed to persuade people to shop there in the first place, and it’s now clinging on to its former glories. Their stock levels can only be described as pitiful, and their commitment to customer service is barely higher than Kraft’s commitment to producing one-off artisanal cheeses. I swear I stood waiting in a queueline for fifteen minutes today. There were only two people ahead of me.

But it’s not their ability to engender irrational hatred that bothers me, it’s their weird choice in products. Now, bear in mind that this place is a glorified pharmacy. Sure, they’ve got hairsprays, toothbrushes, deodorants and photo printing, but essentially it’s all about the vitamins, pain killers, creams and ointments. Things to help you get better if you’re ill. Items that will aid your recovery from trauma, and get you back on the road to fitness and health. A cornucopia of wellness restoration.

And beer.

Great big fridges of the stuff. Bottles and bottles of Corona, Heineken and Miller, chilled to perfection and waiting for a willing high blood pressure/broken arm/mosquito bite sufferer to take them home and numb the pain away. It’s like putting the Algerian branch of Agoraphobics Anonymous in the middle of the Sahara.

Personally I think Rite Aid are in cahoots with the makers of Tylenol in a desperate attempt to bump up sales. Buy two six packs and they’ll thrown in some liquid capsules for a dollar.

Taking control

Possibly because this is supposed to be the land of opportunity, most people living in America take some kind of ‘you only live once’ approach to life in general. Working on the principle that if you don’t ask you don’t get, the population of New York (and in my experience, most other places in America) makes sure that it always asks. And generally ends up more than a little upset if it doesn’t get.

As a result, most people in this country tend to speak their mind. Given that I come from a country where the majority of people say what is expected of them (and then silently seethe for at least fourteen years afterwards), that comes as a bit of a shock to the system to say the least.

For instance, when asked by a waiter how a (particularly poor) meal was, most Britons would inevitably say “it was great thanks”, “wonderful” or “really good”. In America, such a question might result in a five minute diatribe invoking at least two of the constitutional amendments, and a suggestion that the parentage of the waiter might be in doubt.

Nothing wrong with speaking your mind and not swallowing your pride, though. Such forthrightness and willingness to stand up for what you believe in is why there’s a Stars & Stripes flying over Florida today rather than a Union Jack, after all.

But being deprived of your social norms is difficult to come to terms with, to say the least.

Today I wandered the streets of Brooklyn in search of orange oil. I’ve no idea what orange oil is either (although if pushed I might guess that it was oil derived from an orange). But our new cleaner insists it’s the only thing she will use to clean our floors, so I had little choice in the matter. Only in America can you get bossed around by your cleaner.

But that’s just a disconcerting aside. The fact is that I went into about twelve shops in search of this elusive orange oil, only to be denied every time. Eventually I walked into what looked like an alternative health foods/products store, only to find that it was actually a swanky organic cosmetics and potions place.

Now, placed in the same circumstances, most Americans would turn on their heels and walk out. But given that I was born in Britain, I had to head all the way into the store, pretend to have a look round, and then frame my features in such a way as to say “you know, this is exactly the kind of thing that I was looking for, but I’ve just remembered that an electrician is coming to my house in five minutes, so I’d better hurry back in case I miss him.”

As tends to be the case in these circumstances, the woman behind the counter asked if I needed any help. And, giving a textbook answer, I responded with “No thank you, I’m just looking.”

Now, in any other country, such a response would lead to a polite smile from the assistant, or maybe even a “Well if you need any help, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Not in New York. Barely had the words left my mouth before she countered with “Well you shouldn’t walk so fast if you’re looking, should you?”

Obviously I shot her a look of disgust, told her in no uncertain terms that I would never frequent her store again, and marched out with my head held high.

Oh who am I kidding? I slowed down, started picking things up and reading the ingredients, and almost ended up buying some ridiculously over-expensive white tea.

That showed her who was boss, I can tell you.

A tale of two vending machines

The Special One and I spent the holiday weekend back in the UK, engaging in a whirlwind tour of friends and family. I think most of them are starting to ask questions about whether I’ve actually left the country given how much I seem to be back there. Maybe I should change the name of the blog to “Brit Mostly Out Of Water”?

A weekend spent 3458 miles away from New York inevitably necessitates spending a fair amount of time in airports, particularly following the British Airways crash landing in London – not to mention apparent 150mph headwinds awaiting us on the way back.

Time in airports these days seems less about interminable waiting and more about interminable shopping. And if ever you needed a powerful demonstration of the difference between New York and London, maybe these two pictures of airport vending machines could provide it. Firstly, a machine found at London’s Heathrow:

Heathrow Airport

These machines first started appearing a year or so ago, offering travellers the chance to buy a book to occupy their minds when there’s only The Bourne Ultimatum on the inflight movie channels. Admittedly Russell Brand’s ‘My Booky Wook’ isn’t necessarily Shakespeare, but it’s got to be better than seven hours of sudoku.

Now the vending machine at JFK:

JFK Airport

When I was a kid, vending machines had bubble gum in them and you put 2p in to get something out. Now it seems that you use them to part with $250 in order to pick up cutting edge music players. Have we reached the point where iPods are considered spur-of-the-moment impulse purchases, to rank alongside a Coke, a packet of Doritos or a Mars bar?

Obviously, you’re not actually going to be able to use the iPod on your flight unless you’ve brought a computer and your music collection with you, and you’re able to find somewhere to charge the battery.

Of course, if you really can’t find a power source to charge your brand new device, you can just unplug the iPod vending machine and use that outlet instead. Other travellers will just have to content themselves with that book after all.