Twas the day before Christmas

Into the woods

I don’t like queueing in traffic. I don’t like shopping when it’s busy. In the build up to Christmas these are the modest first world problems we must face. My trip to the supermarket was played out in slow motion as the chaos unravelled all around me.

Shoppers teetered on the edges of their patience apart from a delightful calm frail old lady, wide eyed and static amidst the frothing sea of madness as if waiting for somebody to lead her across a busy road. Here’s to her! I wonder what she thought of it all…

Twas the day before Christmas
Last chance to shop
I had bought all the presents
This was no time to stop

The food now needs buying
A list had been made
Now out to the supermarket
In the rain I’m afraid

The traffic was portentous
Never such queues
I suppose it was obvious
This day all would choose

To stock up their larders
With seasonal fare
So I held my breath
And for battle prepared

The cars they went nowhere
So I parked up and walked
Past drivers tight lipped
And passengers fraught

A walk through the car park
Though huge, with no space
And into the foyer
Last basket, worried face

Such scenes I have never
Encountered before
Trolleys were bashing
Like uncut Robot Wars

Gripping my basket
I dodged down the aisle
Weaving staccato
Through chicanes with guile

Couples with trolleys
Piled to the hilt
Are they feeding an army
Or feeding their guilt

Screaming young children
I know how they feel
Dragged here unwilling
You got a raw deal

Bewildered old granny
Waiting in line
With patience unworldly
For sherry and wine

To add to the carnage
A bottle is dropped
And aisle 9 is coned off
Until it is mopped

The air hums with tension
And shoppers are stressed
Perish the thought
If it’s not Sainsburys Best

Staff work like trojans
On endless till lanes
Cliff Richard on loop
How do they stay sane

My wait for self-checkout
Is mercifully short
Unrecognised item in bagging area
That didn’t scan like I thought

I fall through the exit
And rain hits my face
I made it in one piece
Survived the rat race!

Twas the day before Christmas
A tale of our time
When we see friends and family
It’s all going to be fine

My thanks to Clement Clarke Moore whose considerably superior parable Twas the night before Christmas was a source of inspiration.

Merry Christmas!

The Sky’s the limit

Hooray for the weekend! Is it really? Every day here has felt a little bit like a weekend and now it’s here for real. A quick pit stop at my 108th corner deli for tea, WiFi and fruit and I’m city bound.

Top Of The Rock is the name given to the observation desk atop the 80 year old Rockefeller centre on 5th Avenue. It is one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan at 70 floors and it is accredited with the best views over Central Park and Midtown. Nowadays it is best known to the average American because Saturday Night Live is filmed there. The lift journey takes 43 seconds and there is a light and sound show on the way that leaves me recoiling with flashbacks to Hollister (see yesterdays blog entry).

View north - Central Park
View north – Central Park
View south - midtown
View south – midtown

The views are commanding even with todays slight haze. It is a worthwhile trip but if I’m feeling a little underwhelmed it is because you are so high that it all seems unreal. Nothing is close enough to allow you to feel vertigo.

Bottom on the Top Of The Rock
Bottom on the Top Of The Rock

It’s the same “show” on the lift down which is a pity because it is begging for a Monty Burns voiceover: “Smithers, release the hounds. Throw these peasants off my property”. It does leave me with that churn them in, throw them out feeling although really they are just being efficient and everybody makes you feel welcome.

Fifth Avenue is closed to traffic for a street market and it’s unclear whether some thing is being celebrated or whether they do this every Saturday. It provides a pleasant enough stroll south if you don’t mind the developing sensation of walking through a cartoon chase sequence. It’s the same dozen stalls repeated ad-nauseam on each block.

Lunch in the cool green oasis of Bryant Park is regenerative. It provides a soothing contrast to the surrounding monolithic madness that can’t fail to capture your heart. Sure, you can still hear the traffic horns but you can also hear birds and the sound of water flowing from the park fountain. A carousel takes kids for a ride. Men play boules beneath the shade of the trees. It’s a magnet for anyone wanting to escape it all and prams, picnic rugs and newspapers set the tone here.

Lovely Bryant Park
Lovely Bryant Park

The park hosts numerous events throughout the year including outdoor cinema and fashion shows. I almost sit in a free chair next to a chain smoking middle aged woman. This would have been a mistake. The next guy comes along and sits there only to be subjected to her life story including tales of her monsterous husband, a guy I increasingly like the sound of. This is the time for that legendary NY rudeness. “Look lady, quit your jibber jabber. I couldn’t care less.” – is what I want to hear the guy say. Truthfully you can’t feel snappy in a place like this.

Relaxing in Bryant Park
Relaxing in Bryant Park

I’m leaving when I see a guy with a laptop and I ask them if there is wireless connectivity in the park. “Sure, I sometimes work from here”. Now that makes me jealous!

One hop to Union Square where by chance there is another market – a more organic affair than on 5th with produce for sale. It’s a smaller space than Bryant Park and there is less only a thin strip of threadbare grass but it’s a people magnet all the same. There’s a queue in the NE corner snaking into the newly opened Nordstrom outlet that’s been hyped on local TV this week. They sell branded items at discount prices – presumably end of ranges, awkward sizes and the clothes the designers regret cobbling together at the end of a long day when they weren’t really concentrating. Being English I am conditioned to join the queue.

Feeling a little edgy. Tired? Dietary pay back? It’s crowded everywhere, there are slow people in my way and I would like to be rude to them but can’t bring myself to do this. Time for a change of scene.

Earlier this week I visited the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park only to discover it was closed so I’m headed back now. It’s a C-list museum – small and inexpensive – so I don’t want to be too critical but it’s disappointing that it lacks narrative and engagement. You want to know the progressive history of high rise locally and globally, get insights into the iconic buildings, learn about the construction techniques and understand the cultural aspects of these mini-cities. A third of the display relates to buildings primarily based around Wall Street up to the mid 1900’s when the conurbation was growing and while this sets a social backdrop regarding conurbation growth and the drivers for supporting an increase in population density this isn’t really central to Skyscrapers, plus much of the material is dry and disjointed.

There are then some dated models and information panels regarding high-rise and skyscrapers which are more engaging but again it’s as if somebody has thrown together a bunch of material without any thought to structure or presentation. It’s still worth a visit if you are in the area and you do leave with a little more knowledge but it feels like an opportunity missed and this is clearly down to funding, plus the competition from a million and one other attractions here.

Battery Park outside Skyscraper Museum
Battery Park outside Skyscraper Museum

It is my last night, volcanic ash depending, and I can’t possible leave without visiting McSorleys. When I walked by one afternoon this week and looked through the window it was almost deserted but now it is packed. I ask the bar dude if it’s always like this in the evening and he says it’s relatively quiet. They serve just 2 types of beer – light & dark. It’s $5 for either and you get served 2 half pint glasses of ale with a liberal element of froth. CAMRA wouldn’t stand for that.

Tim and bar dude at McSorleys
Tim and bar dude at McSorleys

The dark ale is really fine stuff. This iconic pub has what amounts to a long and influential history in this city and I’m not going to attempt to do it justice here but if you google it there is a mountain of interesting information out there.

The street outside is closed for what turns out to be the 36th Ukranian Festival. I know this because a lady tells me her daughter is presently dancing on-stage. It’s a whole lot of community spirited fun with stalls selling wooden eggs, folk CDs and religious ephemera for the older generation – and there’s McSorleys for those a bit younger. I’m exaggerating a little. There’s a real sense of pride and tradition that spans all age groups – a glimpse of nostalgia for those who perhaps remember their former home and those who have just been told about it.

Ukraine folk dancing
Ukraine folk dancing

Now I’m confused. A guy is knocking out Robbie Williams “Let me entertain you” in Ukranian. There’s a girls duet that resemble the less hirsute members of ABBA but sound like the Venga Boys. It has all gone a bit Eurovision after a solid folky start to the music.

Ukranian ABBA
Ukranian ABBA

Hungry, but not in the mood for sauerkraut and dumplings. The away walk takes me back into Greenwich Village. I meet an interesting 60+ year old artist cum Forest Gump character called Rico Fonseca who tells me about his travels and bemoans that in 1965 he was kicked out of the UK when he tried to visit. He has many tales to tell and I’m sure he does tell them many times, with more than a dash of fiction most probaby.

Oh bugger, I’m back in my now-regular MacDougal street basement bar a couple of blocks away. How did that happen? I explain to Maria behind the bar that I’m not stalking her but I like the bar and I was genuinely in the area. She is a great ambassador for New York City. She hails from Russia, looks Asian, has a Spanish name and a native New York accent. We need more like her, if only to confuse the BNP.

Once again the bar delivers. Manhattanite Liz and best friend Eileen from New Jersey are funny and insightful company. Liz likes Mighty Boosh is overjoyed to find somebody else who has heard of them or understands them.

Liz, Eileen and seedy guy
Liz, Eileen and seedy guy

Then in a truly surreal turn of events a promotional guy (this time nicotine) tells me he spent 3 years living in Nottingham and used to work at the Old Salutation Inn and World Service restaurant – the former 50 yards from where I work and the latter physically adjoining my office. This bar has mystic powers.

Something has been bothering me this week. I couldn’t put my finger on it but now I might have it. People are so damn “nice”. I’m not complaining. I have met some wonderful genuine people (in this bar for instance), but where is the dissent? Where is the rebellious attitude? There is plenty of graffiti in the gents here for instance and much of it is amusing but none of it stems from reaction.

American Grafitti
American Grafitti

There is little inarticulate (or articulate) rage or mindless vandalism on display here or many places I have been. Look, I’m not trying to get knifed or share a needle with anybody but I would feel more secure if I felt a bit more insecure. I want to know that young people in a University district in a non-republican city are not swallowing what the media and society constantly ram down their throats. I get the feeling that many students here have had it all lined up for them – the career path, job at the end of it, social groups and expectations. After a few drinks when people are out talking in groups there is no shortage of insincerity on show on the streets. People should be talking about music, criticising local or world authorities, but there’s an awful lot of social posturing going on – carefully chosen words and manipulation of self image. Maybe that’s just how it looks here and now but I can only say what I see.

On the plus side the subway smells of piss. I congratulate the (presumably) gentleman who got away (or not) with this act in a busy public place. To further restore my faith in human nature the D-train serves up a girl with pierced everything, luminous green and black outfit plus six inch (I’m serious) platform shoes. She doesn’t care what the world thinks and so the balance of things is restored a little.

Retail heaven and hell

I’ve gritted my teeth, the day has arrived. I’m going shopping. Hopefully I will be mugged on the way and I can spend a relaxing day in casualty being looked after by nurses. In case you haven’t guessed I’m not usually a good shopper. I’m hoping that the week long mental run-up will set me in good stead.

The destination is SoHo which in a cartographic flight of fancy all too common for New York comes from a street name abbreviation – South of Houston Street. There’s also a NoHo – no prizes this time. Interestingly and irrelevantly, locals pronounce Houston Street as “Howston Street” which seems odd as they pronounce Houston Texas as “Hooston”.

The temperature is up ten degrees on yesterday and I dodge an early shower by sitting in my beloved Amrita until late morning. Lunch and a yoghurt smoothie (they do know how to do a smoothie here) at the perimeter of Greenwich Vilage and Soho and then the retail extravaganza commences.

Soho contains more headline brand names than you can shake a credit card at. You just traverse the streets and it’s one name after another. I have never been that blown away by the more established global names (Armani, Gucci, Versace, D&G, etc, etc) but there are some sensational native New York and American retailers, including Ari of New York. I love almost everything I see in this store – especially a jaw droppingly gorgeous leather jacket that I discover is listed at $1400. The shop assistant is raving about my Pac Man T-shirt (Burton – £8) and I consider suggesting some kind of swap deal.

Although it pains me to admit it I have fallen for this area because there is so much choice within such a small area you just move on if you don’t like the styling or pricing of the store you are in. I’m actually enjoying the whole shopping experience and before long I am clutching bags from Lucky Brand and Banana Republic just like the next retail whore. On every street corner I expect to see a photo poster of some female shopper last seen in the area weeks ago, missing presumed still shopping. It’s not just about the acquisitive buzz however. It is also very much an area to be seen in and expensively dressed people are obviously desperate to be seen by other people as they saunter in and out of the most laughingly extortionate shops. The irony is that I seem to be getting a lot of attention today from people admiring my Pac Man T-shirt! Who needs Paul Smith?

Soho Street - before it got busy

It looks innocent from the outside (apart from the two sales guys wearing nothing but trunks and the girl in just a bikini) but Hollister on Broadway – a kind of Fat Face for American Jamie Olivers – serves up the scariest retail experience of my life. Let me try and explain; it’s going to be hard to do this justice…

Walking into the store is like entering some kind of nightclub after having consumed industrial quantities of alcohol. There is almost no lighting. I don’t mean it’s dim I mean there are areas where it is simply black, so you just head towards areas with the dim coloured spotlights, some of which flash disconcertingly. The store is a labyrinthine warren of small rectangular rooms containing beach clothes. Each one is packed with stock and just to prevent easy transit from room to room (for those with night vision goggles) they have left an assault course of large pot plants and furniture in the passageways. In a final assault on the senses they pump music around the entire store at near nightclub volumes. The overall sensation is like being drunk in a Laser Quest assault course in the bowels of an ocean liner without stabilisers.

Hollister yesterday
Hollister yesterday

I see a top that I like affixed to a dummy but I can’t see the item on the shelves, although technically I can’t see the shelves. I yell at a shop assistant to ask where I can find the top and he shouts back that he has seen a pile of them somewhere but can’t remember where. Fine then, I’ll just stick with the green T-shirt I have in my hand, at least I think it’s green, and I’m fairly sure it’s a T-shirt. Where are the tills? He points skyward and shows two fingers which I take to mean the second floor. If anything things get worse in the stair well. There are hordes of lost customers milling around interspersed with scantily beach clad sales kids but you can see the stairs because they are lit from beneath. Unfortunately you can’t clearly see the edges of each stair and people are tripping up all over the place. They may be screaming for all I know – you just can’t hear yourself think. Holding onto the hand rail I edge my way to the second floor and soon I’m lost again in what could be the ladies section or possibly the stock room. Everywhere looks the same. I find a supervisor and ask them which direction the tills are in. They look a bit puzzled and slowly turn 360 degrees before telling me that they think I should go right. Two rooms to my right is a dead end and I eventually find the tills simply by following somebody else. I’m not making this stuff up!

Goods paid for and exit eventually found it occurs to me that such a place would never be allowed to operate in the UK. Never mind DDA infringements but able bodied people are at risk in there and if there was a fire people wouldn’t know how to exit. I can only imagine it’s exempted from Health and Safety regulations because the FBI take terror suspects there for disorientation now that Guantanamo is on the wind down. Funnily enough I recount my Hammer House of Hollister ordeal to a supervisor in another store (one that now seems so well lit, spacious and customer friendly) and she rolls her eyes and tells me she always order from them online even though they are just across the road.

Postscript: I checked the website myself. You can chose the playlist to listen to as you surf their stock. Enough said.

My newly found shopping addiction reaches its peak in a store called UniQlo. That seems wrong even as I type it but that’s what it’s called. Perhaps that was the only domain name left. Just don’t ask me to pronounce it. The stock appears to be western styles aimed at Japanese customers. Basically it’s fairly simple well designed but unbranded gear at fairly low prices. Think Primark with a little designer input, stir in a touch of Manga and multiply by 10. The bottom line as I exit the store after some considerable time is that I’m straining under a weight of bags I never expected to be carrying in a sweat inducing street, hot and sticky with the sun and traffic fumes. My intention to go directly onto the Brooklyn Academy of Music café for a free gig tonight is no longer practical, which is a shame because I had been looking forward to it but now I just want to get fed and showered.

Chinatown joins onto Soho so food won’t be a problem. How many shops selling tourist tat can an area like this sustain? The answer is “a great many”. There are also a plethora of herbal stores, massage parlours (legit I think) and fresh seafood stores. It’s an intense mix of sights/sounds/smells, only a shame the close sticky evening air is making life uncomfortable, although it’s still not in Hong Kongs league in any of these respects.

Fresh seafood in Chinatown
Fresh seafood in Chinatown

Where to eat in Chinatown? Conventional logic would be to find the venue packed with Chinese people and go there. Instead I squeeze myself onto a table for one in an otherwise deserted restaurant. This because (a) it has a recent positive review posted in the window and (b) it has air conditioning. The place next door was packed with sweaty looking tourists and the myriad of glowing reviews were dated from 1998 to 2003. Maybe the last good food they produced is now seven years old?

My order of soup, dumplings and sea bass will not be too much for one person my waiter assures me. Turns out he was wrong (or maybe he thinks I AM Pac Man) and when my order arrives the half dozen unoccupied serving staff are all looking over at me and laughing in a way that is intended to be discrete but fails, making it really blatant. The dumplings are superb and the bass is great too. The soup is OK but mostly untouched. By the time a very modest bill arrives the place is half full of people who look like they have been here before and not been deterred from returning so I’m feeling vindicated.

Evening plans scuppered by my earlier extravagances it’s the B-train home for an urgently needed shower. Tonight’s subway entertainment: the snappy MTA official who told me my week long metro card didn’t work because it expired on the 8th but eventually let me through when I explained that not only had I only bought it on the 8th but I had successfully used it two hours ago. She was really having a bad day. Also, the shifty looking dude in my carriage with a sports bag, surreptitiously folding up a huge wad of money who suddenly realised that everyone sat nearby was watching, then got really edgy and almost ran off at the next stop with his bag of drugs, erm, I mean sports items.

Sorry for short changing you today on the photo front. There’s only so many pictures you can take of shops. Besides, they don’t tell you the full story.