Sunday, November 04, 2007

Scooby Snacks

The American sandwich lives in a world unto itself. It's certainly not like anything you'd expect in Europe.

The first obvious difference in the experience is the sheer number of questions that you'll face when ordering what you thought was a simple food item. What kind of bread, what kind of spread, eat here or takeaway, toasted? It becomes an inquisition, and you often wonder what exactly it was that you did wrong.

The concept of butter on a sandwich is alien. It just doesn't exist. I don't like mayonnaise, so I usually take my sandwich dry.

The size of the sandwich is another consideration. Not only is the containing bread usually oversize, but the amount of filling seems to be the result of a competitive spirit in the deli-worker. I counted fourteen slices of ham in my sandwich the other day. I've tried asking people to hold back, but they insist on loading the thing up.

I'm also almost always asked whether I want a pickle with my sandwich.

I almost always answer "no".

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Scary Monsters

Halloween is big business in the USA. Many weeks before the actual event, the shops are full of skeletons, pumpkins, witches, cobwebs and ghosts. Apparently it's the second largest holiday in terms of dollars spent; second only to Christmas.

It's a little disquieting how seriously it's taken over here. The restaurants start putting pumpkin in everything, little kids solicit sweets from unlucky neighbours, and people really enjoy dressing up.

I went to the Halloween parade in Greenwich Village three years ago and was stunned by the scale of the event, and the amount of effort some people put into their costumes. Apart from the one lady I saw whose "costume" consisted of no costume at all. Yep, she was in the middle of the parade with nary a stitch on. That's a different kind of freak show altogether.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

England, Half English

I went to see England's very own Billy Bragg in concert in New York last night. He played a wonderful set of oldies, Woody Guthrie numbers, songs from an upcoming new album, and buskers' classics.

The banter between songs was the usual seemingly ad-hoc mix of anecdotes and political messages, and he somehow managed to resist being too anti-American.

There were lots of English voices in the audience, but also a loyal hard core of US fans, too.

On the way to the gig I was complimented on my apparel, a zippy-top with the ironic word "Marylebone" across the front. The gentleman who delivered the remark was wearing a t-shirt with "Kings Road" on the front. Geography is indeed a common bond.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"In" Crowd

Manhattan is a busy place.

It seems that no matter what time of day, or where you are, there will be a crowd of people purposefully striding from once place to another.

As some of you know, my job occasionally requires me to get up pretty early. Manhattan is busy. And sometimes I can be a bit of a night owl. Manhattan is still busy.

I'm getting a little more used to the crowds, and weaving my way through them, but it can sometimes still be a pain. Luckily our neighbourhood is one of the quieter ones, especially at weekends.

Pity this poor guy who didn't go with the flow.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Television Man

On the way home from work tonight I passed a homeless man who was propped up against a shop window. Nothing too unusual.

Then I noticed a strange blue light on the pavement which led my eye to a television.

He had somehow managed to remove the cover from the base of a streetlamp, had plugged in his TV, and was busy whiling away his evening watching a few shows.

Pretty enterprising.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Clap Hands

Now that I've taken a few internal flights in the USA I've started to spot a pattern. The passengers like to reward the pilot with a round of applause for a successful landing once they bring the old bird down safely. The level of applause seems to be inversely correlated to the bumpiness of the landing.

I find it all very strange. The pilot is payed top dollar to get that hunk of tin up and down in the right place, and in reality computers probably control most of it.

These people don't applaud the train driver on their daily commute, the newscaster, or the out-of-work actor who takes their order in the local restaurant.

I wonder why planes are different?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Street Life

Continuing our predilection for off-beat entertainment we went to the third annual New York Street Vendor Awards last night (affectionately known as "The Vendies").

The set up was pretty simple. Take the top five street cart food vendors (as voted for by the public of New York), put them all in the same park, charge people an entrance fee that covers all the food and an open bar, eat, and vote.

We arrived about an hour into the event and chose our first cart: the Taco Guy. The line was long, but the food was worth the wait. We ate slowly and deliberately and then lined up for more.

Shawarmas, dosas, lamb pitas. We ate it all. Everything was good, but the dosas were remarkable. They were fresh and light, and vegan to boot.

The Dosa Guy won the overall event, a well deserved victory.

The other competition seemed to be who could eat the most. I think we made a suitable bid for the title. I'm still full.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)

I went to buy some clams on the way home from work tonight. I had a vision of linguine alle vongole that I needed to realise.

I popped into the local "high-end" food store and wandered over to the fish counter. Little neck clams, $5.99/dozen. Perfect.

"I'd like 18 clams, please"

"I'll have to charge you more"

"Huh? Do you only sell them in multiples of a dozen?"


"I'd like eighteen, then, please"

"I'll have to charge you more"

"If I get eighteen, will you charge me for two dozen?"

"No - I'll charge you for eighteen"

"Er... I'll take eighteen, then"

I'm still perplexed by this transaction, but at least I got my clams (all eighteen), was charged the right price, and dinner was good.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I'll Wear It Proudly

There's a rather unpleasant habit amongst Americans who own portable electronic devices: they insist on wearing them on their belts for all to see.

It doesn't seem to matter what the device in question actually is, nor how many of them are owned. I regularly see people with both BlackBerry and mobile phone proudly displayed side by side on the belt.

There's the obvious security issue with advertising the fact you own one of these devices; but there's also the fact that you look like a dork.

What's wrong with a pocket?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Maximum High

For the "long" flight from London to Las Vegas we decided to splash out on a slightly better class of cabin. It turned out that the business-only carrier MaxJet was opening up precisely that route the day before we wanted to travel, so we took the plunge and forked out the small fortune for the tickets.

Check in was pretty casual, and the lounge had all the required amenities (but was perhaps a little busy due to the three MaxJet flights departing in quick succession at that time of day). Our plane was about 90 minutes late in taking off, but that didn't seem like such a big deal when we had 11 hours in the air to endure.

The seats on board were pretty comfortable, and although they didn't recline to full flat bed positions, they went far enough back to allow for some shut-eye. They also give you a portable media player to watch movies on. Whilst in principle this is a good idea, they probably need to invest a little more in the quality of the programming to make it really work. Still, it did help while away the time we were in the air.

The food and wine were good. The service was great - friendly and attentive.

All in all, I think it was worth the money for that kind of trip. We were able to walk off the plane and go straight to the casino and lose some money without feeling too groggy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Viva Las Vegas

Having just returned from Las Vegas, I'm glad to report that the town is the same town that I visited about four or five years ago.

Same 24 hour city. Same slobby, unhappy people feeding quarters into slot machines. Same free cocktails at the blackjack table. Same ironic anti-gambling posters dotted around the place.

What's not to love? At least for 24 hours at a time...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Leader Of The Pack

I recently undertook a slightly aggressive travel schedule that required me to fly from New York to London to Las Vegas to New York in the space of just nine days. The trip saw me attending the wedding of a good friend, playing blackjack badly, and hiking in a couple of national parks in Utah. My packing would need to be eclectic.

The hiking/Vegas part was easy - the dress code is not too dissimilar in either place and I just threw a few things in my bag. The suit for the wedding, however, was going to be a bit more of a challenge.

Having decided not to take another bag on to the aeroplane, I did some Googling on the Internet Machine and came across the following solution.

The clever combination of inversion and gentle folds allowed the suit to travel the 11,ooo miles in the hold of an aircraft and still be ready-to-wear.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tailor Made

I've been wanting to get a bespoke suit made for a number of years now, and I've finally decided to engage the skills of a good tailor.

I went to get measured the other day which was a somewhat bizarre experience. The little Italian man was barely tall enough to reach my shoulders, and as he buzzed around he converted from inches to centimetres by turning his tape measure over and over.

He also had a special secondary tape measure for my inside leg. It had a stiffened end so that he could post it towards the top of my leg without having to actually get his hand too close.

Didn't stop him from touching my bottom, though.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Guitar Man

Some of you may have detected a distinct "air guitar" theme in our lives.

We went to the national finals in the UK last year, and to the regional finals in New York back in June. This month it was time for the American national finals.

The setup was the same: one minute performing to music of your choice, acerbic judging, the top 5 contestants going through to a final round performing free-style to music they hadn't heard before. There was an enthusiastic crowd and a high density of groupies.

An interesting twist this time round was that one of the judges was non other than Malcolm Gladwell. Whilst he's not particularly famous as a proponent of the genre, he certainly seemed to judge fairly and attentively.

I found myself firmly rooting for the New York finalist, William Ocean, who put in a sterling performance. I'm very pleased to say that he won the whole contest and will proceed to represent the nation at the world championships in Finland in September.

You can't make this stuff up.

I do face a minor dilemma, however. Do I support the US or the UK in the finals?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ain't Going To Goa

We went for a curry last night. The restaurant is a single block from our apartment and we've walked past it many times, but never gone in.

As we sat down I noticed a higher than normal density of English accents amongst the patrons.

It's funny how some people revert to type when they're travelling.

Oh, and the food was pretty good.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Stuck With You

Once you start to notice them, they're everywhere.

The streets of New York are covered in literally millions of small black marks where people have discarded chewing gum that no longer has any flavour. The density of the spots is particularly unnerving in the subway stations. Just how long does this stuff last?

I've seen little men valiantly attempting to clean up the debris using high pressure hoses. Their machine seems to be reasonably effective, but the sickly sweet smell that it unleashes is equally frightening. Presumably the gum that is prised off the pavement is sent to some god-forsaken landfill to while away eternity next to a myriad plastic bags and nappies.

Given the longevity of the little skid marks, I hate to think what happens if you accidentally swallow some gum.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Deeper Underground

New York is a city that is never quite "finished", it's always undergoing repairs of one sort or another. I spotted an open manhole cover the other day, and nearby was a van from the local electricity supply firm. A very large, round man was waddling around in company overalls and looked intent on getting in the hole. There was clearly no way he was going to fit.

This isn't the first time this has happened. Last year I was walking by Macy's with my parents when we saw pretty much the same situation unfolding. Again, the man was never going to get through the hole. Or at least wasn't going to get back above ground if he did manage to squeeze through.

Unfortunately I haven't quite been in the right place at the right time to see how the endgames of these scenarios play out - but it does seem like a hazardous occupation for a gentleman of a larger than average girth.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Walk This Way

I am fortunate enough that I can walk to work. I manage to do this about 90% of the time, with the odd subway ride mandated by inclement weather, or simply by being late.

On my 25 minute walk I see a bunch of familiar faces, and sometimes some very odd behaviour. This blog entry begins an occasional series chronicling the things I see.

This evening on the way home I saw a delivery man on a bicycle. He was ringing his bell rather aggressively at a small group of people who were crossing the road in front of him when the pedestrian crossing was clearly indicating that they should wait.

Good man, I thought, until he turned the wrong way into a one-way street and was nearly squashed by a truck.

So much for the rules of the road.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Some of you may have read about an explosion that happened in midtown a couple of weeks ago. First indications were that a generator had blown up, but it later emerged that the loud bang was actually due to the rupturing of a steam pipe under the city. The explosion erupted with such force that a nearby building lost 16 floors of windows to the blast.

New York runs on steam. Apparently it's an efficient way both to heat and to cool high rise buildings. There are seven steam manufacturing plants in the city pumping some 30 billion pounds of the stuff through a system of old, rickety pipes. (Can you tell that I've been reading wikipedia again?)

In the wake of the explosion, the local power supply company is now checking the steam supply to our building, and this might cause interruptions to the hot water, heating and air conditioning services next week. Oh, joy.

Who'd have thought steam could be so disruptive?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


We lost our Internet and telephone service for 48 hours last week. It's very weird how dependent I seem to have become on the electronic world. How was I going to find out what was happening back in the UK? How was I going to find out what was on at the cinema? How was I going to find a suitable restaurant to eat in that evening?

I spent a good few hours angling my laptop in various positions around the apartment and out the window to try and hijack a neighbour's signal - a feat I managed for about 5 minutes at a time.

The nice man from the cable company came as promised on the Friday afternoon, unplugged the modem and plugged it back in again, and we were back in business.

How embarrassing. I probably should give up the day job.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Pump It Up

On my way to work the other morning I saw something that made me shudder.

We live in an apartment block that has a 24 hour McDonald's on the ground floor. As I walked past I noticed a truck with a hose running out the back to a connector on the wall of the "restaurant". I looked a little closer and noticed that the truck was delivering cooking oil. A lot of cooking oil.

Rationalisation is easy. McDonald's fries a lot of food, they're going to need a lot of oil. I just think that seeing it all in one place conjures up a rather unpleasant image.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Hot In The City

Preserving the theme that an Englishman can always talk about the weather, I am pleased to report that it's hot. Damned hot.

Forget all this "dry heat", "humid heat" nonsense: it's just ridiculously hot. Temperatures are well into the 30s, and show no sign of respite.

It still seems odd to me that, due to the air conditioning that is absolutely imperative in these conditions, my electricity bill is higher in the summer than the winter.

I'm melting.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


The 4th of July seems to be quite a big deal in the United States. I was just looking forward to the day off work, but ended up being impressed by how "into it" people seemed to be.

Flags were fluttering on every possible pole and building, the local news showed various barbecues and parades, and I read somewhere that America would be spending $2 billion on food for the occasion. Mostly burgers and hotdogs apparently.

At 9:20pm Macy's sponsors the country's biggest fireworks display. 40,000 rockets were fired upwards from four barges in the East River over a period of about 25 minutes. Not even the rain could dampen that show.

The odd part is that fireworks are illegal in New York State (along with a reasonable number of the other states, too). Maybe that goes some way towards explaining why 3 million people turned up to view the spectacle last night.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

London Calling

We had dinner at Gordon Ramsay's first New York venture, a restaurant called Maze at the London Hotel. Large fluttering Union Jack flags welcomed us as we stepped into the elegant hotel space. We were dining in the bar (rather than the full restaurant), and this gave us opportunity to sample more of the smaller plates that are offered in this area.

The food was really good. Rich flavours and well sourced ingredients gave each small plate a real lift. Highlights included a verdant asparagus risotto, perfectly fried sea bass, and the "essences" of a BLT served in a martini glass. This may have been Ramsay-by-numbers, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The price was right and the service mostly spot-on, yet the place was surprisingly quiet. Maybe it's the location in an anonymous part of midtown, maybe it's the fact that Ramsay's reputation in the states is based only on the US version of his foul-mouthed and abusive Hell's Kitchen, rather than his cooking. Either way, I can't see the restaurant lasting a long time in its current incarnation unless a few more guests show up.

If you're in town soon, snag a table.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sell, Sell, Sell

New York City has a remarkable number of opportunistic salespeople. I often see clusters of men selling surprisingly realistic fake handbags and sunglasses out of cardboard boxes around the World Trade Center site, and whenever it rains people pop up at the entrances to many subway stops selling super cheap umbrellas.

I saw an innovative salesman last weekend. It was pretty hot in NY, and downtown was busy with open top tour buses. This gentleman had fabricated a stick with a collection of small buckets at the end, and was waving bottles of ice-cold water under the noses of the folk on the top of the bus, asking only a single dollar for instant refreshment.

I didn't hang around to witness a transaction, but I would imagine that the dollar bill was placed into the same receptacle that the water bottle came from. Genius.

America. Land of opportunity.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Weather Report

The weather in New York appears to be remarkably predictable. When the man in the radio tells me that it will rain in the early afternoon, lo and behold the skies open up at 2:30pm. When he says that the temperature will reach 73 Fahrenheit, it rises to within a degree or two.

This is in stark contrast to my experiences of London's weathermen who seem to wave their hands about a bit and say that it might rain a bit sometime later in the week (maybe), and the temperature could be "seasonal". Perhaps.

Apparently it's to do with the fact that New York's weather is mainly driven by the American land mass, whereas the UK's is at the mercy of the vagary of the surrounding waters.

I now have a Pavlovian reaction to the word "rain" in the weather forecast and pack an umbrella: I know I'm going to need it.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Move Over Darling

I took a domestic flight this weekend from New York to Portland. The thing that amazed me most about the procedure was the length of time it takes to get from one side of this country to the other: a good six hours.

Thanks to the power of modern technology I was able to check in online, and also select my seat with the help of that marvellous website seatguru. This site suggests which seats on a particular carrier's aircraft are better or worse than average. I snapped up 5E for the extra legroom it provided (forgoing a clear view of the movie screen).

They called the passengers to board from the back of the plane first, and by the time the last five rows were beckoned forward the plane was pretty full. As I made my way on board my heart sank.

The lady in 5D was enormous.

She was so big that she literally oozed into half of my seat. SeatGuru had already warned me that the middle seat in row five was a little narrower than normal, but that was a small price to pay for the extra legroom provided by the shift in configuration from steerage to business class at that point of the plane. It was going to be a long flight.

I eased myself into the seat, wedged myself under a large part of her torso, and tried to focus on pleasant thoughts. I think I managed to snooze for a while, and she periodically shifted around just enough to give me some breathing space.

The real moment of truth came at about hour number four. "Am I squashing you?". At this point any flag waving American would have felt obliged to let rip. Not the Englishman. "Oh no, it's quite alright". What was I thinking?

This place clearly isn't home, yet.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Anyone Can Play Guitar

Having enjoyed the UK Air Guitar Championships in London last year, it didn't take much encouragement for me to think about attending the New York regional competition.

The event was held at the Bowery Ballroom, and was hosted by serial air guitar failure Bjorn Turok. It took a little while for the things to get going, but once they did the usual mix of hair metal and mayhem was unleashed on an unforgiving audience.

Highlights of the evening included a 65 year old who should really have known better, a man in a complete cow costume, an air-violin interloper and lots of very tight spandex. The stage names were also pretty inspired: Shreddy Mercury was a personal favourite, and Bobba Frets (including full helmet) gave a damned good workout.

The overall quality of the competition didn't seem to be up the same standard as the UK event, but I'm holding out hope for the national finals in August.

For those about to rock, we salute you.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Credit to the Nation

It looks like I've finally managed to secure a credit card in the United States.

I applied shortly after I got here, and because, to a large extent, I didn't exist, I couldn't get one. I recently received another invitation to apply and this time it looks like I was successful. I haven't actually been sent the plastic as yet, but my online account now shows a linked credit card.

The mildly amusing thing about this application is that my credit limit is almost exactly 2.5% of the amount I have in the UK. I understand the reasons for this, but it does all seem a little pointless.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Soul Man

I took a couple of pairs of shoes to the local cobbler this week. I'm a big fan of owning a good shoe, and having it repaired as appropriate.

I was very pleasantly surprised by both the level of workmanship, and the price. I asked for a small rip to be repaired, and they not only fixed that hole, but relined and strengthened all three other sides of the pair of shoes at the same time. And they were shined to within an inch of their lives, too.

When I went to collect my shoes I had to wait a good ten minutes as the little man hunted through his collection of finished work. Each bag of shoes had a numbered ticket attached, but for some reason they were not sorted in any logical order. He inspected the ticket on each bag until he found the right one.

An interesting approach, but room for some improvement.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Food Glorious Food

Last Saturday we went to a street fair just outside the apartment. $40 bought us a ticket to the Taste Of Tribeca festival where 60 neighbourhood restaurants set up stalls to allow us punters to sample their food.

The proceeds from the entrance ticket went to local schools, and gave us the opportunity to have six "tastes" from whichever stands we chose. In between the light spring showers we wended our way from stall to stall to see what we liked the look of.

The more famous restaurants had long lines, so we deliberately picked the smaller venues. I had a fantastic pulled pork bun with barbecue sauce, smoked salmon, a country terrine, a wonderful lamb kebab, a ricotta cheesecake, and two empanadas from our local Argentian restaurant. Yum!

It was a busy event and as we negotiated the crowds we were entertained by live bands. My favourite was The Dueling Elvis's (who played alternate Presley and Costello covers). Another highlight of the event occurred when we went up to our local sushi restaurant's stand. We said hello, we were given heaps of food, and they refused to stamp our ticket.

Proof positive that you can inhabit a friendly neighbourhood in New York.