Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hanging on the Telephone

Hey boy that's Balwyn calling
Get off the phone and get out of Balwyn - Skyhooks - "Balwyn Calling"

There's something about me and phones. I grew up in phone-less houses and didn't live anywhere with a phone until I was about 34.

First I didn't have a phone as my mother only earned half the wage of a man because until the seventies, women were not considered to be equal in Australia. After I left home I didn't have a phone because I was a poor university student living with other poor university students. And then it was because I was doing the post-university Australian thing of traveling around the world.

And then I married the-man-who-doesn't-believe-in-washing-machines-or-phones ... Ten more phone-less years went by until we divorced and I had the phone put on.

Of course now I have several phones but still I seem to experience phone weirdness. Take today for example, when my friend Samantha called. My Australian friends call me and ask me to call them back, as it costs me not a cent, and overseas calling is still relatively expensive from Australia. "It's Samantha please call me back," she said.

I never remember my friend's phone numbers and usually just look them up on whatever electronic device is closest to me. But this time I was feeling lazy so asked Samantha for her number. She rattled off a number and I wrote it down on a piece of paper, then dialed it. An elderly gentleman with an Australian accent answered. He appeared to be deaf. He certainly wasn't Samantha and I just didn't have the energy to explain that someone had given me a wrong number. So I just hung up on him and looked up Samantha's number on my computer. It was nothing like the one she'd given me.

So I called her back, and told her she'd given me the wrong number. I read it back to her.

That's not my number, what IS my number?" SHE was asking ME!!!

"I don't know," I snapped at her. "But you just called me," she answered in a puzzled voice.

Turns out she'd given me her parent's number. Yes, I have been told that I have unusual friends ...

In America when someone calls you, they just say, "It's me," when you answer the phone. Sometimes they don't even say that, but just launch straight in about whatever it is that they have phoned about. It isn't as bad now that caller-ID is commonplace, but this practice used to really annoy me way back a century ago.

It's almost as annoying as when you phone customer service somewhere and after an interminable wait on hold at last you get a human and are greeted with inane questions such as "Hello, my name is Brittany, how are you feeling today?"

Or people dining alone at restaurants who talk loudly into their cell phones. There's a wonderful Larry David "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode where Larry is sitting alone at a table with a diner also alone at the restaurant, conversing loudly into his cell phone. Annoyed Larry starts his own conversation with an imaginary companion. You can see it here on the left.

Or people with long recorded greetings on their voice-mail boxes. Or people who have their little kids give the greeting, punctuated with 'ums' and 'ahs' and giggles.

But perhaps the most annoying greeting I've heard about is one a friend told me about. She has a friend who never picks up and the recorded greeting is, "Hi, this is Jenny, please call me back."

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Bridge and Tunnel People

"Hey, Bridge and Tunnel Boy, chill out!" - Man in a crowd of "broker types", in a Manhattan bar to Chris, after he complains of about his rowdiness - The Sopranos (season 2)

"These are nonexistent streets, which do not actually appear until you're standing on the other side of Central Park" - Scott M. Stringer, borough president of Manhattan

For a spatially dyslexic person such as myself, Manhattan means never having to say you're lost. Well, North of 14th Street that is. South of 14th the place is a nightmarish tangle of streets with names like "Broome Street and "Bowery". Not to mention Greenwich Avenue and Greenwich Street. I can never remember which is which.

I favor north of 14th. There the streets are named with numbers and are laid out in a grid. Streets run east-west and avenues run north-south. I can always find my way.

I do get confused though about "Alternate Side Parking". What does it mean? Luckily I don't have a car. I imagine it means "park on the other side" though, that cannot be right. A tad bit recursive ... "Alternate Side Parking is "suspended on certain days, mostly on religious holy days such as Idul-Fitr and Simchas Torah. Why would this be? So confusing.

I still find it hard to remember that in American, "street" means "road". What we in Australia and in almost every country I've been to, one walks on the street, meaning in American, "on the sidewalk". The road is where the cars go.

Streets and sidewalks are very important to Manhattan people. There has been talk of dividing them into lanes like on highways. There would be a slow lane, reserved for tourists. I think a tourist lane is a good idea.

I wouldn't be surprised if they made a law requiring the bridge and road people to use the tourist lanes. Or perhaps they should be given their own bridge and road lane, as I suspect they walk a little faster than the tourists. Yes we should put them in the middle of the road.

A Melbourne "Road" called "Bourke Street"
Bridge and Tunnel people are people who come into Manhattan via a bridge or a road. People who originate from outside of Manhattan, including the four "outer boroughs" as well as Westchester County, Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. In Australia we call such people bogans. In Melbourne we call them "people from Geelong".

Down the middle of Manhattan runs Fifth Avenue. We know it runs north-south because it is called an "Avenue". Anything west of Fifth Avenue is west Manhattan and anything east is east Manhattan. So if someone says, meet me at 323 East 79th Street, you know straight away that it is east of Fifth Avenue and because it is 323, it will be between First and Second Avenues. Furthermore, because 323 is an odd number we know it will be on the north side of the street. Not that I would advise going to 323 East 79th Street to meet anyone. I was there just over a week ago and do not recommend it to anyone who values their cell phone!

There is a special algorithm called a "street locator" which will estimate cross streets for any address on a numbered street in Manhattan. It does not work for downtown streets as they are not numbered. To find the approximate cross street, take the address number and divide by 20; then add (or subtract) the magic number from a table. For example, 660 Madison Avenue would be 660/20=33 plus the Madison Avenue index from the special table (+27), 33+27 = 60th Street. Simple!

Fifth Avenue
Occasionally however things get blurred. Recently when the Manhattan borough president was walking along Fifth Avenue by Central Park he noticed that the bus stop signs were confusing.

A stop across the avenue from East 84th Street was identified as "5 Avenue & West 84 St." Same for all the bus stops along the length of the park.

Now I know the borough president must have been walking south down Fifth, as the park must have been on his right. So HE thought he was in East Manhattan. But it turns out that maybe he was wrong.

As the New York Times put it, "Since these signs sit on the west side of Fifth Avenue, they are technically in the western zone of the street grid. So can West 84th Street exist on the west side of Fifth Avenue, even if the street itself begins on the other side of Central Park?"

I am confused. Who is to say WHERE a street "begins". Also, if the borough president was walking south, on the east side of Fifth Avenue, how could he see the bus signs on the right?

Or is my spatial dyslexia getting the better of me?

I think I'll have to actually go there to understand the borough president's problem. Like I have to turn maps around and face the right direction to navigate whoever is unfortunate to drive in a car with me as a passenger.

Fortunately GPS has solved THAT particular nightmare. I used feel sick in the stomach when some unsuspecting person would ask me to "look at the map".

Stay tuned ...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Cell Phone, the Waiter, and the Mink Coat

What I gained by being in France was learning to be better satisfied with my own country. - Samuel Johnson

Now I'm not going to tell you the restaurant's cuisine, and no I don't have a photo of the place. What I DO have is a cartoon that an Australian friend did for me for a LFNY post a hundred years ago. It is sort of apt ...

Friday evening. A Manhattan restaurant.

It'd been a long hard week and the three of us sat down to wine and dine and chat and relax. Which we did. The food was so-so. The wine was good, and if a little pricey, only to be expected. After all, it WAS the Upper East Side. Three New Yorkophiles, two of us Australian. All women. Sitting quietly discussing a range of topics from the Australian film industry to the New York - pre-sanitized New York, before the days of mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg.

Now I've been to restaurants in Europe where patrons plonk their cell phones on the table when they dine out. But even in New York, and especially on the Upper East side, it is definitely not de rigueur to use cell phones in company. But one of us - let's just call her "Lucy" - had just that evening, bought a new 4G Samsung Android phone. As I own the 3G model of the same brand, I'd helped her set it up with the basics when she'd arrived at the restaurant carrying it still in its pink and white T-mobile bag.

Around ten-ish we were starting to get ready to ask for the check when Lucy rummaged in her hand bag for her wallet. I didn't hear her phone ring but it must have vibrated. Or perhaps she just wanted to look at it - it being new. Whatever. In any case Lucy removed it from her bag and stared at it.

Suddenly out of nowhere, one of the waiters swooped on her, and saying how cell phones were banned, snatched it from her hands and proceeded to change the settings.

Lucy was speechless. I was furious. "Don't alter her phone," I complained and he laughed. I insisted, but to no avail. He changed something on it, and only then did he place on the table. He seemed to find the situation très amusant. We didn't. He started to argue with me and then the third member of our party, let's call her "Cordelia", not known for her reticence in calling a spade a shovel, came to my defense. Volubly. It was all too much. The waiter continued to stand there, giggling inanely. The disagreements and the witticisms from the council for the defense on my left, seemed to be never ending. I couldn't handle it. By this stage the restaurant was nearly empty, and I left.

Although I'd told my companions I was leaving, apparently they didn't hear me, and assumed I'd gone to the bathroom.

I found out the next day when we were having our postmortems, that they waited some time before they realized I'd gone. By then the waiters had gathered around the bar. Cordelia gave them a good dressing-down and then she and Lucy called a car service and left.

But that wasn't the end of it. On getting home Lucy decided to look at her new phone in the safety of her own apartment, and was puzzled when she saw she had a very long voice mail. It was no other than the the restaurant conversation between the three of us and the phone-snatching waiter. Quelle horreur! "How had that happened?" she asked me the next morning. I had no idea.

Later, Cordelia phoned to tell me she'd left croissants she'd bought before meeting us at the restaurant. That and a canister of designer tea.

"I'm going back for them," she told me. "Oh no!!" I was aghast.

"I hope it is cold enough. I'll go on Sunday and 'make an entrance'. AND I intend to wear my mink coat," she explained.

I laughed.

And knowing Cordelia, she'll do it with panache!

C'est si bon.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Art of Dining in, and of Dining out, in New York

Who bothers to cook TV dinners? I suck them frozen. - Woody Allen

The Next Two Day's Meals
It's taken me sixteen years, but now by George, I've got it. At last, even though it has taken sixteen years, I've got it.

How can people afford to eat, let alone eat out, in New York? It's always puzzled me. And now I know.

I've been content to "order in", cook the occasional meal, and to dine with a friend at a restaurant. But it hasn't been cheap. And yet every day, coming home from work, I pass hundreds of people eating out in restaurants - restaurants that line the streets of Manhattan - so much so that I'm reminded of Kuta Beach in Bali. Where all the world's a restaurant, and all the men and women merely diners.

And then last night, the penny dropped.

I was having dinner with a friend at the retail-up-market restaurant - David Burke's @Bloomingdales. Yes, they've even put the "@" sign on their brand-name in their menu. So 21st century. Well, maybe ....

For some years I have observed that it is apparently socially correct in New York to ask for a "doggie bag" to take home what you cannot, or choose not, to eat. In light of this, I was rather taken by the episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm", where Larry David is incensed when a waiter insists that the contents of David's "doggie bag" not be given to a dog. Surely, it's implied, a doggie bag from a Michelin-rated restaurant is merely a euphemism, and not to be taken literally.

Yes "doggie bag" means "people-who-want-to-eat-it-the-next-day-bag". At least here in New York. Elsewhere the practice is frowned upon. Indeed, in Australia, if not illegal, it is at least discouraged. There's no "use by" date on doggie bags. Perhaps the restaurant could be sued, should the eater of a doggie bag fall ill, five days after devouring last week's left-overs.

But in Manhattan, who cares about law suits. They're a dime dozen, and so restaurants are only too happy to supply "doggie bags" to diners who are in a hurry and who wish to vacate chairs that can be used for other hungry New Yorkers. After all, it means that the diner will leave without actually eating the stuff. Same price, same profit margin. Less the overhead of flatware and chair "real estate". Let them eat from doggie bags; let them eat at home!

From The Box - David Burke@Bloomingdales
David Burke's has a "Prix Fixe" menu. Good value. Especially if you only want a main course in situ.

Here's the thing - you order the appetizer, the main course, and desert. But you only eat the main course. The rest doesn't even have to make it to the table. "We'll have it at home; please put it in a doggie bag," we ask. And the waiter obliges.

And so a $25 "Prix Fixe" meal serves to feed one for three nights.

It's taken me sixteen years and I've only just begun to understand why so many of my of my fellow New Yorkers can be seen leaving restaurants carrying plastic bags. I HAD thought they were for their dogs ... to clean up after their pets had emptied their bowels. I now know they are containers for their human meals. Forget the dogs! Doggie bags are for human beings!

I'm starting to think that this practice must be based on the premise that we are all equal under the law in America.

Doggies are people too.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Baby Boomers' Dream

The soul is born old but grows young. That is the comedy of life. And the body is born young and grows old. That is life's tragedy. - Oscar Wilde

I was dreaming of the past
And my heart was beating fast
I began to lose control - from John Lennon, "Jealous Guy"
When was typing in the title of this post, I hesitated - on where to put the apostrophe. Was I about to write about MY dream - the "Baby Boomer's Dream", or of our collective "Baby Boomer's Dream"? I decided on the latter.

Lately I've been fixated on something that's been increasingly commented on explored and dissected in the American press. It has taken many forms but is best summed up with the rhetorical question, "What has happened to the 'American Dream'?"

Now I really can't remember, but I suspect there's an Australian equivalent of the "American Dream", and that it means more or less the same thing. The idea that for all citizens of America (or Australia), it is possible to own a house, have steady job that pays enough to raise a family of 1.2 kids, and to retire gracefully.

The reason the question is being asked, in America at least, is that along with the recession-depression, have come foreclosures, lay-offs and a reduction in publicly-funded vital services such as education and commuter transport. But was it ever just "a dream" or was it what could be reasonably expected in reality. My guess is that for the bulk of Americans it has always been a dream, and that the reason that journos are decrying the "loss" of the dream, is that the gap between the dreamers and the dreamed is becoming larger, and that they, themselves, are becoming dreamless. And in any case, a dream is just that; a dream.

Me, in Iran, 35PF (Pre FaceBook)
But I'm not so interested in the American or the Australian "dream". I AM interested in the baby-boomers' dream. And more so lately as I find more and more of my old peripheral friends popping up on FaceBook. The "lefties" of Sydney and Melbourne. Still going strong. Posting YouTube videos of Jethro Tull and Sonny and Cher songs of the 1970s.

Enabled by Mark Zuckerberg, we are all there, on FaceBook, 'liking' each others' music clips that are all pre-circa-1972. The "summer of love" may be almost 50 years away but we are still around.

We have survived. I'm always amazed when I check an old friend's FaceBook friends. There's invariably someone I knew a hundred years ago. I click the "ask xxx to be your friend" link and to my amazement they always accept my cyber offer. Do they remember me, or do they just look at my profile pic and gauge my age, and being people who were brought up in the fifties and sixties to be polite, accept?

Dylan, aka Robert Allen Zimmerman, has been taken over in interest and in "followers" by Mark Zuckerberg. Ever adaptable, we boomers have overcome! No longer rebels or dreamers, today's young have chosen to conduct their personal and political life in cyberspace. And we have joined them.

I remember marching down St Kilda Road in Melbourne in 1969, protesting against the war in Vietnam. We actually had to leave our houses to do this. Now people can Tweet and FaceBook from the comfort of their own bedrooms.

And I have to hand it to my fellow baby-boomers, we have taken to the new media, and have signed up with Twitter and Facebook in droves.

The American and Australian dreams are still - dreams. The Vietnam war has been replaced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Public health, public schools and public transport are still being pummeled into non-existance by conservative governments.

Like Cool Hand Luke, we shall not be moved.

We shall overcome.

But will we?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Where Did All The Compassion Go?

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago - ©1961 Pete Seeger
Happy happy! - New York Bus People
I am immersed my usual reading daze, sitting on the bus. On my way home from work. Suddenly my concentration is interrupted. Someone has taken a seat one seat away from me, and clunked his backpack on the vacant seat between us. His backpack hits me, but slightly. Enough to wake me from my reading state and I look up.

There's something about the Q32 bus on the west-bound run; the run that transports people from Queens to Manhattan. It is always, well late afternoon at least, partly populated by some very strange people. I've never discovered why, and in the normal course of events it doesn't worry me. But this time it was disconcerting.

I'd seen the man before. He's got some medical condition that causes him to involuntary twitch and move his limbs any which way - inappropriately and uncontrollably. Today he's wearing a threadbare coarse woolen gray coat, and except for the gym shoes, he looks like a character from a Dicken's novel. No teeth. Badly shaven. Tortured. A wild look in his eyes. He has a walking stick. He's about 45. He's one seat away from me and muttering disturbing things like, "God help me I wish I was dead."

Bus Stop
I look around. The bus is three quarters full. Young women are chatting hands-free on cell phones, office workers are gossiping. A business man is reading "New York" magazine. The headline on the cover page is "Are You A Sociopath?". Perhaps I should treat the poor soul a seat away as 'normal'. Maybe that's the politically correct thing to do. His backpack is pressing into my midriff, but I persevere in reading my novel, acting as though all is normal. I have decided not to move to another seat. Why draw more attention to the poor fellow.

Yes, I've seen the man before, so I know the stop where he normally gets off. We are approaching it. I stop reading and look at him. He's trying to concentrate and to gather enough control to stand, to get off when the bus stops. The twitching overwhelms him and he collapses back in his seat muttering, "Please help me!" I pretend to read. The office workers haven't noticed a thing. The cell phone people text and talk.

It's the next stop. Clenching his gums the man manages to stand, and lurching uncontrollably, leaves the bus. It continues on.

New York Women on Bus
At Madison I change buses to go north. There's a line of people, waiting to go north on the M3 bus. I join the line. A few feet to my left is a blind man with a cane. He keeps yelling, "There is no one here; how will I know when the M4 comes?" No one answers. He yells louder. "There is no one here; how will I know when the M4 comes?" The M3 arrives and I'm about four people down-line waiting to get on. No one is answering the blind man, and he's getting louder and more agitated. Eventually I speak up. "We are getting on the M3," I explain. "There is no M4 yet, but one will come and someone will be here to tell you. Right now everyone here is getting on the M3 bus."

But instead of calming him, this just agitates him further. "There is no one here! How will I know when the M4 comes?" he wails.

Dakota Fence Gargoyles
I'm still the only sighted person, the only person answering him. But I'm hassled. "I'm sorry," I reply, "but there are no M4 people here right now; I just cannot manufacture humans for you!" I get on the M3 bus.

"My god," I think to myself. "I'm home. I am a New Yorker again. Compassion has flown out the bus window."

My next bus is a "crosstown". I get on and ask the driver a question, but he just snarls at me and at 72nd and Central Park West I get off. I walk north past the Dakota. It's dusk and for the first time, even though I've walked past it - the building that John and Yoko lived in - many times before, on the very sidewalk where Lennon was fatally shot, I notice for the first time, the gargoyles on its black wrought iron fence. They look evil. Threatening. I hurry on. Too creepy!

And then I arrive. At my therapist's.

Yikes! I am back. In New York.