Sunday, June 28, 2009

Turn Left at Naypyidaw

I'm beginning to feel like Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina. One minute I'm hiking in the Appalachians and the next I'm in Argentina.

If you are not living in America you probably don't know the latest goss on the guv. Those people can click on the link below. You others, just read on ...

For a well-traveled woman, I'm surprisingly hopeless when I am forced to make a change in my vacation travel plans.

In 1969 to 1970 I traveled 'overland' from Melbourne to London. And you'd think that anyone who could do that, could travel anywhere, any way. But no. THAT trip was easy. You only ever had to know the next town. From Melbourne go to Darwin and then look at the map for the next place. It's Bacau, Timor. OK. Go there. And so on. If water was involved, get a plane. Otherwise bus or train. Simple. There was only ever one destination.

When it comes to traveling I'm a linear kinda gal.

Complicated travel plans are not my scene. Pouring over brochures, making decisions is not fun for me, though I do understand that others love doing so. Travel-planning brings out the neurotic in me, and I'm neurotic enough without having my neurosis-quota topped up.

I'd rather just stay at home unless something in the way of a vacation crops up. And then if it sounds good, I'll be in it.

So when Alice suggested staying in a little village in Sweden with her relatives, I was all for it. Count me in, I'll be there with bells on, I thought.

I imagined waking up to the sound of Swedish-speaking roosters and strolling to the nearby lake. Perhaps I'd sit under a shady tree and read a book or two. Ten days of relaxation away from the sounds and stress of the city. Bliss.

And then it changed. "There's no room," Alice said, "in the family car. It holds only five and we are six altogether. We'd better rent a car. You will drive." Huh? Moi?

Anyone who has driven in car with me as the driver knows I am not your natural motorist. I can't even parallel park in my home town of Melbourne where people very sensibly drive on the left. One reason I love New York is that private cars are useless here. I haven't owned or driven a car since the turn of the century. I could not imagine myself driving around Sweden with Alice and her family.

I explained my position. "It's like riding a bike, you never forget," argued Alice who has never driven a car herself.

But eventually she was convinced. "We can get cabs," I said. "And buses."

The scary images I'd been conjuring up of me squinting at road signs with Umlauts and god knows what else, while listening to people shrieking in Mandarin in the back-seat, faded. It was back to the Seurat-like scenes of me lazing near a lake beneath a parasol, a book lying carelessly in my hand as I doze off ...

Not so fast, girl. No sooner had the parasol scenes crowded into my now-relieved mind, than my cell phone beeped. A text message. Oh no! Text messages, like ancient Greeks, rarely bring good news.

I opened up the little screen and read,

Well what about Barcelona and Poland?

Christ! I nearly dropped the phone. I calculated. Get to Stockholm. Travel to cute village. Turn around. Do not pass GO but go to Stockholm and then airport. Next day in Poland. Then to whatever in Barcelona. And after all that, do it all over again but in reverse. It wasn't working!

I tried to get into her mind-set. Sweden, Poland and Barcelona. Apart from all being in Europe what do these three places have in common? What sort of mind could conjure up such a ten day tour. Certainly not one I wanted to accompany.

"Count me out," I texted.

Seconds later the message came back, "I think you are over reacting. It'll be cool."

Yeah, whatever.

So now I'm stuck with a non-refundable return ticket to one of the most expensive cities in the world. I imagine Stockholm as like New York except that the people are blond and the wine costs more. Why on earth would I want to go there alone?

I wouldn't. I turn on the telly to blot out the world. The South Carolina governor is crying about Argentina. I join him and weep for Latvia.

Enjoy planning your vacation, people tell me. Why not pop over to Italy? Or the UK? Or even France.

Where is their logic? If I didn't want to go from Stockholm to Barcelona, why on earth would I want to go from Stockholm to Florence? Florence in July! If I want to experience Americans I can stay right here in New York.

"The Baltic States!" another suggests. Now at least that's a bit more realistic. I google away. Castles, museums about the Iron Curtain. Fun fun fun. Hotels with unlikely names advertising free Internet access. I have Internet access at home.

"Have fun planning!" my husband emails. I HATE planning! That's what I do all day at work. Plan. Where's the fun in planning?

I'm going bananas. It's like that part of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four where the torturers discover your worst fears/phobias and deliberately put you in the very situation you dread.

No. I refuse. I'll make a stand on this one, folks. Like the ducks and Noah's ark, I'm NOT GETTING ON!

And if anyone asks me where I'm off to on the 16th July, I'll tell 'em, I'm going hiking in the Appalachians.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Mean People Suck

Cartoon of actual scene I witnessed near Times Square some years ago
I used to have a small poster that simply read, "Mean People Suck". I don't know where it is now; probably mislaid in one of my many moves. But if there was to be a theme for my week it would be this.

Mean People Suck.

Mean in spirit, that is.

Last night I was in a garden. It is a communal garden for the residents of our apartment block. Very attractive. Leafy. Green. Fountains. Garden chairs and benches. Flower beds. Space. Gated. About fifteen of us were meeting after work to discuss some issues with the building's management. I normally don't attend these meetings but yesterday the sun was shining for the first time in weeks, and I was home from work. So I sauntered across to the park around sixish.

I introduced myself to my fellow residents and we shared our food and wine. And then ...

Two little boys, obviously brothers and obviously from our apartment block wandered in. They were some distance from us, say ten meters or so, and were playing ball. Now it wasn't a cricket ball, but some soft baby-sized pretend base-ball and the boys were maybe five and seven years old.

The ambiance around the table of food and wine turned from happy to bitter. It was as if vinegar had been poured into the very souls of the majority of the people there, people who just minutes ago had been friendly, laughing and breaking bread with each other.

"Who has a cell phone handy?" a woman asked. "I do," I replied. "Phone the building and REPORT THOSE BOYS!" I was told.

I was aghast. I was new to this group and although I'm no sheltering violet I like to stay in the background until I get to know people. But enough is enough!

"I'm sorry," I replied. "I cannot do that."

Now it was the demander's turn to look shocked. "Why?" she demanded in her demanding tone.

"Because they are kids," I said. "They aren't hurting anyone."

"BUT IT IS DANGEROUS," chimed in a man opposite. "AND IT IS AGAINST THE BY-LAWS," he added in the manner of practiced courtroom prosecutor summing up.

"I'll talk to them," I compromised, and walked over to the older of the two boys. I explained to him that the people at the table were worried, and would they try to stay a bit further away and to be careful when throwing the ball. He looked puzzled and handed me the ball. It was a squishy sort of ball. A bit like those rubbery relaxer things people use to un-tense their fingers. I was beginning to think of some better uses of the ball, but handed it back and returned to the waiting table.

"Well???" I was asked. I explained that the boys would be careful and that they were very polite boys who, it they cared to look had moved right away.

Not good enough was the consensus, although a few of the more sensitive-looking apartment dwellers threw me sympathetic looks.

"So are you going to call?" the Demander asked again. "I already told you, I cannot," I replied.

"We could have our eyes knocked out," a man said.

Now I was angry. No longer the newcomer. Enough is enough. My aussie heritage came into play. Don't let the bastards get you down, I reminded myself. "Sure," I said. "I know a woman who lost her leg because a cab ran her over on Madison Avenue. Should we ban cabs?".

I finished my wine and poured myself poured myself a red. And drank it. I was pissed - in both senses of the word.

And then I saw that the meeting was adjourning. Food was being gathered up, glasses emptied out onto the ground. We were to go inside to some person's apartment in order to form a committee to sue someone. "I think I'll go home," I told the woman next to me. "I don't think I belong."

"Oh no, we need people like you," she insisted.

I'd write more on this but I have no desire to be SUED!!! Sheesh!

After the meeting I watched the news about Michael Jackson who had died several hours after Farrah Fawcett. Apparently he could not live without her. Poor MJ. I'll never forget his "Thriller" album. And oh yes he went a bit batty toward the end, but so what.

And so I was somewhat shocked to read today that there are some people who think the world is better off without him. Yes he was weird. But he was still a human being. And his album "Thriller" and his dance and song were pure art.

New Yorker Skate boarder
New York Skate Boarder
Van Gogh was weird too. As was Caravaggio. Spike Milligan was extremely weird. Indeed some people believed and the man on the donkey into Jerusalem was off his scone. And that Chinese guy who stood alone in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989. What sort of idiot does that? John Lennon and Yoko. Most strange. Eddie Izzard with his breasts and cunning use of jam.

Some people even think New Yorkers are weird. ASIF!

Yes some cut off their ears. Some defy tanks. Others like Susan Boyle can't handle the stress of being on the world stage scream and yell.

Better weird than boring I think to myself as the working week ends.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind..." John Donne. Weird?

RIP Michael Jackson. I for one will miss you.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Slowing the circle down - like a rolling stone

And they tell him, "Take your time. It won't be long now.
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down"

Joni Mitchell, The Circle Game ©1968

"Bloody walking frames! If I ever get to that stage I will crawl, or even roll rather than use a fucking walking frame!" - a comment by my very own bro on last week's LFNY, A Home for Alice. Yeah, I can just imagine. Like a Rolling Stone. The baby boomers will bring a new meaning to the words, "Rock 'n Roll". It may well come to be said that we were "reelin' and a rockin' till it was time to go" ...

HaHa, yep the baby boomers are getting old. Not that I'm laughing, being one myself.

I can't remember exactly when I first heard a joke about aging baby boomers, but I do remember what it was about; something about the producers needing wheelchair access for the Rolling Stones concert at Madison Square Gardens circa 2003.

Rock Art

Then last year, Eddie Izzard and his Stone Age ramble, with some old guy muttering that he preferred clay to stone 'like in the sixties, man!' Stoned pre stone-age.

During last year's U.S. presidential election, Obama who turned six during the Summer of Love, distanced himself from the baby boomers. As John M Broder (the New York Times) put it in Shushing the Baby Boomers , "The time has come, Senator Barack Obama says, for the baby boomers to get over themselves." Mr. Broder was reacting to Obama's statement that Americans hunger for "a different kind of politics," one that has moved beyond the tired ideological battles of the 1960s.

Once the voice of the revolution, the age of Aquarius, we were suddenly relegated to the back-stage, along with the fuddy duddies who we'd rallied against all those years ago. Huh? What had happened? What was once hip was now has-been. The new generation-whatever even took our word (OK, we borrowed it from the fifties' Beats ...) 'cool' and turned it into a generic ACK. "I'm going to the movies." "Cool." "I bought an IPhone." "Cool." "See you tomorrow." "Cool."

And if that wasn't bad enough, they even took credit for electing Mr. SuperCool himself, Barack Obama, aka No Drama Obama.

Campaign Badge

And so good old Bill started to look distinctly uncool. The campaign badge from last century, now looks like a joke thing. Here's one I picked up at a flea market in Connecticut. Now positively antique.

Yep, we are so-last century. It's no longer the dawning of the age of Aquarius but its long over-due demise. Could it be that we have simply run out of steam? Certainly that's how I feel at the end of my three block walk to the bus stop. A huffing and a puffing and singing that song.

Yet there are times when I glimpse that Summer of Love feeling. I'll see someone from My Generation. And yes it's that same old song, people just trying to put us down. Talking about My Generation, I'll pass the Second Avenue panhandler with his long gray hair and his sign, "Give me money for pot". Or I'll look across the aisle of the bus and see one of my many sisters who have chosen to let their hair turn gray, naturally. We'll exchange conspiratorial looks. Yes, we know. We were there.

And the rest of you post-last-century, post boomer people, you just don't know what you missed!

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Home for Alice

I'd forgotten how hard it is to rent an apartment in Manhattan. It's been almost a decade since I've had to. But recently, my friend Alice has been put in the position of having to find a place.

We've had several dinners together recently - half of them being to celebrate "Alice's new studio". A studio is Manhattan for "bed-sit" which is English for a room with sleeping and eating accommodation.

"Cheers," we'll say and clink glasses. "I'm so excited," says Alice. "I can hardly wait to have my own place". Up till now Alice has been sharing two-room apartments with transient Australians.

The next day she'll call me. The same story every time. "I didn't get it after all, woe is me what shall I do?" "But you said that the agent said it was yours, definitely", I'll comment. "But he now has someone else better", "It isn't really available yet after all", "Someone else was higher up on the list". Or all of the above.

She's bound to strike it lucky eventually. Her area of choice extends from 100th Street in the north east right down to lower Tribeca in the south west of the island. "Pick one area and concentrate on that," I'll advise her. "I am I am," she'll argue. And mention one of, "The East Village", "Chelsea","Gramercy Park", "Kips Bay", "Murray Hill", "SoHo", "NoHo", Yorkville, "Upper East Side", "West Village", "Clinton", "Midtown East", Midtown West". Or all of the above.

I like it best when she does not mention the Upper East Side. That is where I live. And it's not that I don't want her living close by, but because when the inevitable happens and she doesn't get her latest "find" she'll say, "I am SO glad I didn't get that place on the Upper East Side! The people there are so OLD. It is such a boring area. How could anyone live there?" At such times I am inclined to forget that I have a friend called Alice.

Last week when we were dining out but not celebrating, I glimpsed a sign on the apartment block opposite the restaurant. "Look, Alice, " I said, "there are studios for rent in the building opposite." "Great let's go there and ask!" she replied, grabbing at her hand-bag and ignoring my glass half-full of Malbec. I explained that at ten o'clock on a Saturday night it'd be extremely unlikely that there'd be anyone there to show us an apartment. Besides we'd had a few wines and were likely to bump into each other as we crossed the ostentatiously large foyer of Rupert Towers.

You see, I know the building as I pass it daily on my way to my bus stop. It is inhabited largely by elderly people who get around in wheelchairs or by pushing walkers. About once a week a coach bus come to take residents to bingo joints or perhaps to an art gallery with wheelchair access. And every morning there are Access-A-Ride mini buses waiting outside to take residents to their medical appointments. "HaHa. Up You Alice!" I was thinking. "I'll give you 'OLD'".

Needless to say I didn't tell Alice about the residents and went with her to ask about the accommodation. As we were crossing the lobby, we passed a large notice board crammed with posters with large type advertising excursions for seniors, wheelchair stores and the American equivalent of "Meals on Wheels". Alice didn't seem to notice and I hurried past. A bored concierge sitting behind a large curved desk pointed at the sign "Call 1800 999 XXX for all accommodation enquiries" when Alice asked about availability. I asked a few questions and he was slightly more forthcoming. This seemed to enrage Alice, and as we walked out she commented that he actually SPOKE to me but not to her. "Must be 'cos I'm Asian," she muttered. "Must because I'm old," I thought.

I've tried to give Alice some pointers for success in finding a place to rent. "Flirt," I told her when she popped in last weekend after being shown three windowless shoeboxes. "But then you'd need a man agent," she countered. No so I told her, don't you know about lesbians? She looked down her nose. Sometimes I suspect Alice is a bit of a prude. "But it's easier with men," I prattled on. "Smile a lot and look sexy. Say you'll celebrate over a bottle of wine when you move in. Then don't. That's what I did"

She looked aghast. Obviously she just couldn't believe I was ever young enough to get a man interested. Or sexy enough. Or brave enough to have such chutzpah. Or all of the above.

"Well you have to do something Alice; you need a place". She looked dubious.

I tried to cheer her up. "I once had a place on York Avenue." I describe a dingy studio I once rented, and how when the agent called to have the promised wine I'd just laughed and said ASIF. "I could never get a decent night's sleep there," I went on. "There was always someone making orgasm noises in the next room, every two hours or so. I noticed the tenants changed on almost a daily basis and later found out that it was in a red-light area." Alice just fiddled with crumbs on her plate and didn't answer. Unperturbed I continued, "So I'd make loud sex noises myself and that'd shut them up!" Still no response.

Oh well, I'm hardly Miss Sunshine myself. It's been raining everyday here in Manhattan for the last month, and weird things have been happening on the Upper East Side recently.

Rupert TowersFiremen Outside Rupert Towers 17th June
A few weeks ago there was an explosion outside a Starbucks a block away from our apartment. And a few day's later the nearby building developing a lean like the Tower of Pisa. But most apt was the curious incident of the fire engines in the night on Second Avenue and Ninety First. They woke everyone up. I phoned our doorman. What's with the fire engines I asked. "Oh there was a fire at Rupert Towers, " he told me.

"Really?" And yes, so there was. On my way to work I saw what must have been twenty fire engines and scores of New York's bravest hanging around outside the very building Alice and I had been inquiring about just three days ago.

Elderly ladies in wheelchairs and on walkers were everywhere. I even took a photo or two.

I can't WAIT to tell Alice!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Joy of Parenthood

"Are you trying to throw me into deep depression?" I asked my realtor Michael when he answered my call. I was referring to several photos I'd just received in my inbox. Well, it wasn't just the photos, but more of that later.

He laughed. So did I. Better to laugh than to cry.

"Have you received the bill for the replacement appliances?" I asked. "Not yet." It didn't really matter. I could try to work it out. One new fridge plus one new stove plus one new range hood, plus repairs to fire-damage, plus one new microwave plus one new dishwasher plus one new garbage disposal ... Stay tuned, as the story gets better.

The Kitchen Sink
At least she cleaned the sink
"The cleaning bill was better than expected," I said to Michael. "Only $987.00, I was expecting more. But what about the carpet?" "We might be able to salvage that," he told me. "But there's a fair bit of fire damage to be fixed".

I'm in New York. The apartment is in Melbourne, Australia. I'm trying to remember the cost of white goods back in OZ. I KNOW they were never as cheap as in America. Maybe they've become cheaper. Perhaps I can get a bulk deal. It can't be all bad.

I close my computer down and sit on the balcony. My Manhattan balcony. I try to lighten up. But into my mind creeps the thought - how does one trash a FRIDGE for god's sake? I remember my student days when I was more or less irresponsible. I remember fridges in terrace houses - small narrow things we got on the cheap with little freezers - ones that were attached to the fridge's ceiling and did not span the fridge's width. You could never see them, they were always covered with 10 inches of ice. But did we trash them? We wouldn't have known how.

I am snapped out of my reverie by the sound of fire engines. More than normal. God! What's going on? They are all slowing down as they get close. I look down over my balcony. No they aren't coming here but they aren't far off. I go inside and call a friend to blot out the noise. But she can hear them over the phone. The noise is reminding me of how it was on 9/11.

"I don't know what they are doing so close," I tell her. Don't you read the newspapers she snaps at me (she's a New Yorker). Well I've been busy I explain. I'm SORRY I don't read the papers! What has happened?

She explains. Not to worry. The City is building a tunnel down Second Avenue and a six storey building is developing a Tower of Pisa type lean. Oh well, that saves me a trip to Italy. I am learning to look for silver linings.

We finish our chat. I keep glancing at my laptop, wondering what scary surprises are lying in wait in my inbox. I resist the masochistic temptation to turn it on, and I go to bed.

I dream of a little girl. I am in the Australian countryside, making a daisy chain for her to wear in her hair. She's so pretty. We cuddle. "Let's go home and make a gingerbread man," I say. I dream of an Australian sky and of a baby hand in mine. "The wheels on the bus go round and round .." I am singing. The sun is shining. My child smiles at me. I wake up.

There's no sun. I'm in New York. Where's the gingerbread man? I'm confused. Is this the start of Alzheimer's? I panic.

It's OK. I remember my name. I drag myself out of bed. But OH NO! I haven't remembered everything! I turn on the computer! I open my email!

I shut it down.

But it IS Friday. Obama is our President. I don't have Alzheimer's. I am employed. There are funny people in this world - people like Eddie Izzard. The forecast for the weekend is warm, sunny and clear. I have friends. Well sort of friends.

And as for the Melbourne apartment, it is fixable. And perhaps one day the ex tenant will also be. Fixable, that is. The little girl of my dream. The daisy-chained girl. Who is now thirty seven, and living I know not where.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Wheels on the People Mover go Round and Round, Round and Round, Round ...

Billboard advertising the "People Mover"
"We have a monorail but it doesn't really go anywhere", the owner of a downtown Detroit coffee shop explained with a sad face. "It sort of just goes round and round and if you want to exactly go anywhere you don't get on it." Exactly...

He was referring to Detroit's "People Mover". There's something very American in the choice of "People Mover" for Detroit's elevated monorail. Direct and primitive - in a Grandma Moses kind of way.

But we got on the Mover anyway - after all, we had nowhere to go and having come a long way for our "Michigan Vacation", we didn't want to miss anything. It was fun. We got on at Broadway Station and got off at Broadway Station. We passed through places with names like "Greek Town Station" (where the Greeks are), The Financial District Station (where the banks are), "Bricktown Station" (where there were lots of houses made of brick) and "Michigan Station" (where no one could figure out what was uniquely there).

Kindergarten names for a definitely un-kindergarten city.

We'd stayed the night at a hotel opposite General Motors headquarters. Fittingly we arrived in Detroit on the day that GM revealed it may file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11.

The Riverside - In Better Days
The crumbling facade of the Riverside Hotel was nothing like the photo displayed on the hotel's website. Inside a few workers were hanging around the reception desk in the huge and deserted hotel lobby - on duty to explain even before we had time to speak, that we didn't HAVE TO stay, that we'd get our money back. That there was no A/C but "maintenance was working on it". Sure ...

We stayed nevertheless. Who would have the heart to go elsewhere? After all, as we were later to learn, the few remaining staff hadn't been paid for weeks and couldn't leave as they would not get unemployment if they did as you can only get unemployment benefits if you don't leave voluntarily.

The next day having "done Detroit" we travelled across country to Grand Rapids. I've heard that name many times in my life and am sure it is a famous place but don't know for what. So we drove through its downtown twice and then left. It is fun being an American. You are spared the effort of thinking of words and you can see places very efficiently. Having "done" Grand Rapids we proceeded to the Great Lake, "Lake Michigan", appropriately named in a Grandma Moses kind of way.

Lake Michigan is magnificent. It's like an ocean. Miles and miles of water, or as a real American would say, a "big bunch of water". The third largest of the Great Lakes (Lake Superior,Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario), Lake Michigan has a combined surface area larger than the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Taken from car using Google's G1 - not bad!
By the time we got to where Lake Michigan joins Lake Huron, connected by the Mackinac Bridge (the third longest suspension bridge in the world) we were laked-out, and so after only four days on the road, we drove back across the bridge towards Detroit on the lake (Huron) coastal road.

The lake landscape changed from being Lake Michigan on the left to Lake Huron on the left.

Jo commented on the barns, which coming from Australia and Europe, he'd never seen. We have "sheds" in OZ, and in Europe the barns have a different shape. I love the American barns. They are straight out of the comic books of my childhood. I always expect to see Huey, Dewy and Louie quacking out of them, in their Disney kind of way.

We'd seen plenty of red barns and lakes, inlets and lakes and bays, orchards, blueberry bushes, and had eaten well.

Fish take out
Fish Take Out and Market, Michigan
Our last dinner meal was a take-out and I can vouch that there's nothing like this in Manhattan! Jo bought some smoked fish. I stayed in the car and took some photos.

We had our last Michigan breakfast in a diner. It was a Sunday and the place was packed with Midwestern churchgoers.

"Why did you choose to vacation in Michigan?" one of the friendlier ones asked, obviously bemused.

"Oh," my husband answered. "It's my wife you see. She does things in an odd way. Last trip she chose Galveston and when I asked her why, she told me it was because of the song. This time she heard about the unemployment in Michigan and thought it's be a good place to go to."

Friendly Midwesterners in Diner
The Midwesterners just smiled in their Midwestern kind of way. I gave my husband a mean look, in my New York kind of way...

The following day we awoke to news of GM filing for bankruptcy. A fitting end to our Michigan adventure. It sort of sewed it up into a bundle with a beginning and a middle and an end.

My English teachers at school always insisted that a good story is composed of a beginning, a middle and an end.

I started this Letter from New York with a comment about the American English language and so, Mrs Rascha, if you are still of this world, please note. I am ending with a comment on American English - AND a picture.

The vacation was truly awesome - in a Grandma Moses American kind of way.