One of my favorite pastimes is people watching. I’m what they call a people person – I like people a lot. I like to watch people, I like to look at people, I like to eyeball people, I like to stare at people. I like doing all kinds of these things with people. I guess I just really like people.
And there’s no better place to spend time with people than New York City, home to some eight million inhabitants. The best part about people watching in New York is that there’s a very good chance that some of the people you’re watching are famous. As some of you may know, the Latin term for people watcher is Homos Opticus, and as any good H.O. can tell you, it’s much more rewarding to watch celebrities than to watch the general population. I mean, if I want to stare at some working class schlub with ill-fitting jeans and frizzy hair, I’ve got a full-length mirror and all the time in the world.
On my recent trip to New York, celebrity sighting topped my list of things to do, and Vivian guaranteed that she could deliver. Vivian has a frightening ability to spot celebrities from a great distance, despite the clever techniques they may use to disguise themselves. She loves to tell me about all the celebrities she sees on a daily basis:
“Lenny Kravitz lives in that building. Sarah Jessica Parker and Hilary Swank both live down that street. I saw Courtney Love get hounded by paparazzi in that store. Salma Hayek ate lunch right next to me last week.”
The list went on and on, so clearly, my expectations were high for this trip. I had a notepad with me at all times, and kept a running log of the celebrities we encountered:
Some guy from some soap commercial
A part-time anchorwoman from CNN
“Okay, Viv – what the hell is going on, here? You promised me famous people, and I get a guy who played the sleepy husband in a Zest commercial from 1997? And I don’t have cable, so how do I even know that woman is on CNN?”
“Just trust me, will you? These two are just priming the pump. Patience, my dear. Patience.”
And then it began. From across a crowded street, we saw our first real celebrity.
Viv grabbed my arm and leaned in, “Over there, talking to the woman in the hat? That’s that guy who did the Michael Jackson documentary, Deepak Chopra.”
“You mean Martin Bashir?”
“Yeah! That’s him.”
I squinted, as we crossed the street, and said, “Oh, yeah. It is him! Okay, he’s famous. And timely, given the trial and all. Okay, he definitely counts.”
So I wrote his name down in my journal of celebrities. Any H.O. worth her salt will tell you that you need to keep accurate records of all your celebrity sightings, in order to establish migratory patterns, observe their socialization habits, and identify mating behavior.
Later that evening, we went out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Vivian’s neighborhood, but were a little disappointed at the long wait. But it was cold out, and we were hungry for fajitas, so we decided to stick around. Suddenly, Vivian turned to me and gave me the wide-eyed, “Don’t look now, but there’s a celebrity next to me” look. I played it cool, because I was in New York, and casually peered over Viv’s shoulder to see none other than the hilarious star who got his first big break on Bosom Buddies!!!!
No, it wasn’t Tom Hanks.
But it was none other than that other hilarious star who got his first big break on Bosom Buddies, Peter Scolari! Right there! Eating chicken enchiladas and sipping iced tea with a group of friends. He totally seemed like the kind of guy you would want to hang out with while eating chicken enchiladas.
Day four brought the mother lode of celebrity sightings. After another long day of museums, gag reflexes, and shoe shopping, we hopped on the subway to go back to Vivian’s apartment. A voice came over the intercom, telling us that, for some unintelligible reason, we all had to get off at the next stop, because the train was skipping the three stops after that.
Everyone grumbled and groaned, but fortunately, it was only one stop early for us, so we didn’t have to walk too far. As the droves of people climbed up the stairs, I noticed Viv zeroing in on someone. When we got off the train, she grabbed my sleeve and said the words that any card carrying H.O. could wait a lifetime to hear: “Jenny. Be cool. It’s Shandi from America’s Next Top Model!”
I couldn’t believe it at first, so I had to get a better look. She was walking in the same direction as we were, so I picked up the pace, sidled up next to her, and casually glanced over. It was unmistakably Shandi! And what I’m about to tell you will rock the entire modeling world, and possibly put Tyra Banks out of a job: Shandi is only 5’8” at BEST! I consulted the official ANTM website, which claims that she is 5’10” – ha! LIARS! Now I’m not even sure I believe she worked at a Walgreen’s prior to being discovered. Everything I knew to be true is false.
All in all, I considered this to be one of my more successful people watching experiences. And for all you aspiring H.O.’s out there, don’t give up just because you run across a few too many D-List celebrities. As Vivian taught me, success in this sport requires patience, dedication, a pocket-sized notebook, and a friend with really keen eyes.
I was about to start a rant about how I can’t handle the fact that this cold weather won’t go away, but then I remembered two things: 1) even I’m not interested in hearing what I have to say about the weather, and 2) complain as we may, Midwesterners secretly take great pride in our ability to deal with sub zero temperatures. Sometimes we even go out for ice cream when it’s 10˚ below zero, just to thumb our noses at Mother Nature. It makes us feel tough, like survivalists. Like Jeremiah Johnson, even.
My recent trip to New York confirmed my long-held suspicion that New Yorkers share a similar mindset with my people – not about how cold it is living in New York, but rather how tough it is to live there. I think New Yorkers all derive a certain amount of satisfaction from the fact that they can successfully navigate around the biggest, most diverse city in the US.
Vivian certainly falls into that category. As she led me around her fine city, I kept saying how much I love New York. I love admiring the architecture, and I love watching New York children get on the subway with such confidence, and I love how everyone seems more intelligent and cultured there. I told Viv that if I weren’t so happy in Chicago, I would consider moving to New York. Perhaps fearing a repeat of my ill-fated romance with Seattle, Vivian tried to rein me in:
“You think you know New York, but trust me, you don’t know New York. I thought I knew the city before I moved here, but knowing where good restaurants are in the Village and maneuvering your way through the city day after day are two very different things.”
Viv put me through a mini boot camp while I was visiting so I could get a real feel for New York. We trekked from Harlem to the Upper West Side, from Chelsea to SoHo, from the Village to Chinatown, barely stopping for food or water.
Everything was six blocks away, no matter where we were.
“Vivian! My legs are numb!” I whined, as I hobbled toward the Whitney in my not-yet-broken-in shoes.
“It’s only six blocks away.”
“You said that twenty minutes ago! Do you even know where we’re going?”
“Of course I do. But is it on Lexington? Yeah, I’m sure it’s on Lexington.”
“See – if I had my cane, this would all be going so much more smoothly.”
“My god – will I ever live down the cane incident?”
“Depends on how long these next six blocks are.”
“And besides – it’s no colder here than it is in Chicago. You should be used to this.”
“Yeah, but in Chicago I’d be wearing my ultra thin silk long underwear. Fashion takes a back seat to comfort in the Midwest – don’t act like you don’t remember that.”
Vivian told me about how she studied maps of Manhattan when she first moved there, learning the boundaries of every neighborhood, and the quickest routes to each of them. As we sat in a bar later that night drinking tequila mojitos, Viv drew me a map of the city, detailing all the major streets that slice up the island. Then, as we hiked around the city the next day, she kept quizzing me on where we were.
As we sat on the subway, she asked, “Okay – now we just passed 14th Street. What neighborhood are we in?”
I tried desperately to picture the map she had drawn on the napkin, and said, “Uh… Hell’s Kitchen?”
“Wrong. The Village.”
A few minutes later, she’d ask again.
“Okay, now we’re south of SoHo, so where does that leave us?”
“SoSoHo?” I giggled.
Vivian sat silently, shaking her head.
“No wait – Chelsea! We’re in Chelsea, right? Battery Park?”
It was a bit like an Abbott & Costello routine, with Vivian playing the perfect straight man Bud to my bumbling Lou.
“Jenny, how could we be in Chelsea when we are going south?”
“Did we circle back maybe?”
As I spent more time under the fierce tutelage of Mme Vivian, and finally realized that Houston is not pronounced like the city, I began to feel more confident in my ability to find my way around the city. Particularly if I hopped in a cab.
So once Vivian saw that I had begun to understand the subject of geography, she presented me with another great challenge of living in New York. As we were walking around looking at the galleries in Chelsea, she said to me, “At least once every day, I see something that triggers my gag reflex.”
I scoffed at her claim, and told Vivian that there are disturbing things in any big city, and now she was just trying to pretend to be “street.” Although I had to admit that I was occasionally disturbed by the overwhelming smell of raw chicken and urine that hung in the air in certain neighborhoods, I still rolled my eyes and mocked, “Oh, yeah! New York is sooo tough! Whatever. Did you ever think that maybe you just have a sensitive gag reflex?”
Vivian just raised her eyebrow, and started to say something, but I continued my rant: “I mean, Chicago has way more murders than you do. You’re not so tough. I saw a homeless guy throw up one time.”
“Okay, that’s gross, but really, who hasn’t seen that?”
“Well, Vivian – how about this – once I saw some cockroaches eating a dead rat in the alley.”
“You are so full of crap. You never saw that!”
“Well, maybe I didn’t, but you know it happens all the time. Okay, but this would make you gag – one summer, Natasha, Seamus, and I found a dead body down by the river.”
“Jenny, that wasn’t you. That was those kids in Stand by Me.”
“Oh, well… my point is, I think you’re just exaggerating a bit. You were a theater major, you know.”
“I’m just telling you. Gag reflex. At least once a day, Jenny. Like clockwork. It’s a reality when you live in New York.”
I dropped the subject as we continued our stroll. Just as we walked out of one of the galleries, I saw a man with two giant Rottweilers standing in the middle of the street. I thought it was odd, but there really wasn’t any traffic down these narrow streets, so I thought that maybe it was just more convenient for him to walk in the street rather than through the crowds of hipster art lovers roaming the sidewalks.
But then he stopped, and my throat twinged a bit.
It suddenly became clear that the reason the man stopped was that the larger of his two enormous dogs had either eaten too much fruit, or perhaps just returned from a trip to Mexico, as he relieved himself in the middle of the road. For about half a block. And then the man and his two dogs just walked away.
I glanced over at Vivian, who said nothing, but gave me a knowing look.
“Okay, yes. That was gross. But dogs will be dogs. Sometimes dogs get sick. And sometimes people have to witness that. Still – I think that was just a coincidence.”
About ten minutes later, I saw a woman and a man get out of a cab carrying their tiny Chihuahua. Even though they’re the “it” dogs now, and it’s annoying to see all the celebrity girls carrying them around in their Gucci dog carriers, I still think Chihuahuas are pretty darn cute. So I smiled as I watched the woman kiss and cuddle her dog, and fuss with its fancy little collar.
But then she set the dog down on the ground, and my throat squeezed tighter.
How can I say this delicately? It’s just that – I’m not a dog person, so I don’t really know how they work, but when the woman set the tiny dog down, a few things became apparent to me: 1) this was definitely a male dog, and 2) he really, really loved that woman. A lot. The sight of a tiny canine fully aroused is something I hope to never see again.
I told Vivian that I needed to erase those last two images from my mind, and didn’t want to risk the chance of running into another dog, so I dragged her into one last gallery. We were pleased to find some amazing paintings and sculptures in this one, and I felt content as we walked toward the door, planning where we would go for dinner that evening.
“Ooh – should we have Mexican? Or maybe Italian? I could really go for some pasta!”
But then I looked at the wall to my left, and my throat clamped shut.
Above the reception desk was a fifteen foot tall black and white photograph of an eighty year old woman. She was naked. And she was breastfeeding a baby.
I grabbed Vivian by the arm and covered my mouth as we ran out of the gallery.
In between gagging, Vivian and I let out bursts of laughter. If only my throat would have opened, I could have eaten my words. I conceded that yes, in fact, New York was more disgusting than Chicago, and asked Vivian if she was finally happy.
She said that she was, we went out for Italian, and never spoke of that day again.
Whenever I visit New York City, one of my favorite activities is trying to pick up on all the latest fashion trends. It seems as though almost everyone in the city has a sense of style, and is not afraid to express it. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I might actually be the one to start a fashion trend. It appears that there is a first time for everything.
Vivian and I were on our way to see what would be one of the most amazing art exhibits ever at the Whitney (Tim Hawkinson), when I noticed something sticking out of a garbage can. It was an old wooden walking cane that had been carelessly tossed away. The stain was all chipped and rubbed off from years of use. Of course, I was instantly intrigued.
“Viv! Check out that cane in the trash. I need that!”
“What? Okay, you’re joking, right? You are not going to dig a nasty old used cane out of the trash and start walking around Manhattan with it.”
“Why not? It’s totally cool! Look – you know there are people who are paid to scout out new street fashion – I could start the next trend. Versace will be making pimp canes next fall, I guarantee it.”
I was convinced that this cane could become my signature. No longer would I have to be just that curly-haired girl. Now it could be:
“Which one is Jenny?”
“You know – she’s that girl who walks with a bad-ass cane like Dolemite.”
“Oh yeah! She’s so cool. I wish I could be her friend.”
That could be me.
Vivian got a stern look on her face and said, “Seriously, Jenny. I don’t know how they do things in Chicago, but here in New York, normal, sane people do not fish germ-infested broken down canes out of the trash and pretend that they are high fashion.”
As I was preparing my rebuttal, which started out with a commentary on how Vivian did know how they do things in Chicago since she grew up here, out of the corner of my eye I saw two Latina teenagers walk up near us and start talking. The one with the blonde and red highlights spied my cane in the garbage can, snatched it out, and started doing the exact same pimp walk that I planned on doing once I had Purell-ed the handle of the cane.
“Yo – check out my pimp cane!”
“That’s cool. Take it!”
Vivian was still rambling on about what is and is not appropriate New York behavior as it relates to trash cans, when I bugged my eyes out at her and nodded in the direction of the hipster youths.
“So… tell me again how people do things in New York?”
“Okay, well… Jenny. Those were kids. You need to hold yourself to a little higher standard.”
“You just don’t get it, do you? Of course they’re kids, because kids always start the cutting edge fashion trends. They have a sixth sense for this kind of thing. It’s just like Tyra Banks always says – if you want to make it in the fashion business, you need to be fierce! That cane was fierce, Viv. I could’ve been fierce, for once in my life. Fee-erce!”
For the rest of my trip, everywhere we went we saw people carrying hip canes. I would make a point to call Vivian’s attention to them wherever we were.
“Cane, ten o’clock.”
“Man with dog-head cane coming out of Starbucks.”
“Eight women with canes, Viv. Eight – count ‘em.”
“Jenny – that’s a nursing home.”
“Still, you see my point.”
“Fine! I promise I will NEVER stop you from dumpster diving in New York City again. Are you happy?”
“That’s all I wanted.”
So on my next trip to New York, I’ll be ready for the trend scouts. I’ll be scouring all the trash bins and alleyways for the next hot fashion trend. Maybe you’ll see me pushing a broken walker, perhaps sporting a stained neck-brace, or even dangling a used inhaler around my neck.
But as god is my witness, I will never, ever miss my chance to be fierce again.
I can’t really explain why I was surprised to hear that my flight to New York had been delayed an hour, even though the weather in Chicago was perfect, and according to the Weather Channel, it was equally perfect in New York. I’m actually not sure that I’ve ever been on a flight that has left on time. I should just learn to accept that the scheduled departure time is much like a scheduled doctor’s appointment – that’s the earliest you’re ever going to leave, but you should expect to sit around reading magazines for at least an hour.
As soon as I heard the delay announcement, I realized that this left me an extra hour to be alone with my thoughts. Shortly after that, I recognized that my thoughts and I should not be in the same room together for any period of time, particularly since I was flying to New York for the weekend to escape them.
I decided that the best thing to do would be to document what was going on inside my head during those few hours before I landed in New York. Perhaps the act of writing down the thoughts might allow me to put them to rest. At least that was the theory.
6:04pm – I decide that I might find handlebar mustaches attractive on the right person.
6:06pm – I question whether “handlebar” is the correct term. I mean the kind of mustaches that curve down toward the chin, and would almost become a goatee if the two ends connected. Not the kind that twirl up on the ends, a là Rollie Fingers.
6:14pm – There’s a woman in front of me who is elegantly dressed and impeccably groomed – could be a Kennedy, or at least a Shriver – and she’s eating a Quarter Pounder with cheese. I like her a lot.
6:15pm – I’ve never had a Quarter Pounder with cheese. I wonder if they’re good, but do they have too much sauce on them? Probably.
6:16pm – The plane starts to board. I feel happy inside.
6:24pm – I take my seat and note gleefully that no one is sitting in the two seats next to me. But I don’t buckle my seatbelt yet because I don’t want to jinx myself.
6:25pm – Pilot tells us that we’re delayed even further due to air traffic control issues at LaGuardia. Come on, New York! Pull it together!
6:48pm – After having eaten half of my tropical trail mix, I determine that coconut, raisins, pineapple, and papaya are distinguishable only by their texture.
6:50pm – Wish I had more banana chips.
7:03pm – Do I need to pee? No. No, I don’t think I need to pee right now. Should I try to go just in case?
7:10pm – Although I am inclined to despise American Airlines for this delay, even though it’s LaGuardia’s fault, I am pleasantly surprised to discover new adjustable headrests that curl up around your head to prevent embarrassing head bob.
7:13pm – Does it bother me that this headrest cradled countless other heads, many of which were probably greasy and unkempt?
7:14pm – Not really.
7:17pm – Taking off! Fastest lift-off ever! I love this pilot!
7:18pm – Is that burning I smell? Is something burning? Something is definitely burning. What’s burning?
7:19pm – Okay, it seems to have dissipated. Maybe nothing is burning.
7:22pm – If I had a laptop like that guy, I wouldn’t be working on Excel spreadsheets, that’s for sure. I’d be playing The Sims. By the time I got to New York, I would have become a doctor, gained 11 friends, married, and accidentally killed my wife (she would drown because I forgot to build a ladder in the pool – she swam herself to death, poor thing).
7:33pm – Okay. Attractive prematurely grey-haired man across the aisle from me has finally dozed off. I can now stop reading The Economist and go back to my People – Oscars Edition.
7:38pm – For the second time in eight minutes, I accidentally touch the overhead light bulb while trying to adjust the vent. Note to self: hot water burn baby!
7:48pm – Holy crap! The pilot sounds exactly like my landlord! I wonder if he’s moonlighting. That would explain why it takes him eight weeks to respond to any of my maintenance issues.
7:55pm – These pants really ride up when I’m sitting down. Bad choice of plane attire.
7:57pm – Are these pants highwaters? Oh my god – I’m totally wearing floods! Remember to buy long pants while in New York.
8:15pm – My eyes. Heavy. Burning. Neck is so loose… wonder when we’ll…
9:43pm – My landlord announces that we’re making our descent into New York City. And tells me that he’ll fix my clogged drain next week. Wait – which part of that was a dream?
Yay! I’m now in New York City, where there’s far too much going on for me to ever have to be alone with my thoughts again! Except, of course, at night, when I’ll be confined to my solitary guest room. Not even the sirens and car horns can drown out the night thoughts. Oh, the night thoughts. They’re the worst. Hold me?
One of the reasons I was so excited to visit New York City, aside, of course, from hanging out with my friends, is that New York is the fashion capital of the US. Although I could hardly be considered a fashionista myself, I do have a severe weakness for nice shoes. I only own one pair of jeans, but I somehow have amassed over 24 pairs of shoes in my closet. The funny thing is, almost all my shoes look alike: clunky, masculine, thick soled, square toed, and unbelievably comfortable.
As a child, I must have missed the section in home economics that taught little girls how to walk in high heels without looking like they were stepping on broken glass. Apparently, it’s not seen as “chic” to walk with your arms out on either side for balance, with your body hunched forward, and your brow furrowed with intense concentration as you walk down the street in Manolo Blahniks.
Look, I’ve seen America’s Next Top Model, and I know that not everyone was born with the ability to walk in high heels. But barring a surprise visit from that guy on the show who has trained all of our most famous supermodels to strut down the catwalk with attitude, I’m probably going to have to be content to just schlep along in my comfortable shoes for the rest of my life.
And fortunately for me, New York is a city that truly understands the need for comfortable shoes. No other city on earth (yes, I’ve visited them all) has as wide a selection of shoes that are made to endure intense walking, yet still look hip and trendy.
The problem with buying shoes, or any clothes, in a city as fashion-forward as New York is that you may return home only to find that they now look absurd when placed in your small-town, country mouse setting. My friend Kim and I found this out the hard way during our first visit to New York a few years ago. During one of our many shopping expeditions in Greenwich Village, I somehow convinced her that suede fire engine red platform tennis shoes with a giant number “8” on the side of them actually looked cute on her. I mean, we saw the sales clerk wearing a similar pair, and she looked ultra cool in them. Of course, it didn’t really hit us that this woman was at best, 5’2”, and probably wore a size 6. Somehow, when you explode that same shoe up into a size 9, it loses its charm, and my friend ended up looking like she had two boxes of Special K on her feet.
Nevertheless, we were convinced that Kim was going to be ahead of the Milwaukee fashion curve (which isn’t all that difficult) and everyone in the Midwest would be chasing after her to find out where she got these amazing shoes. Now, aside from the size 9 issue, we also had to contend with the credibility shift that happens when you cross over from the Eastern time zone back into the Central Standard time zone.
Magically, as the plane passes somewhere over Indiana, your lose your fashion Spider-sense, and you realize that, although these clothes looked completely hip on New Yorkers, you will look absolutely ludicrous when you try to walk down the streets of Milwaukee in them. Call it mob mentality, if you will, but in New York when you see five other people wearing fire engine red shoes, you feel like you’re part of something cutting edge. Back in the Midwest, when you see thousands of people wearing brown Bass penny loafers and you are the one person wearing fire engine red shoes, you feel like Frankenstein’s monster, and start checking over your shoulder for signs of people carrying torches and pitchforks, screaming “OUTLANDER!”
Needless to say, shortly after our plane touched down at General Mitchell International Airport, the red clown shoes took up permanent residence in the back corner of Kim’s closet, where they collect dust to this day, unopened.
I don’t want to give the impression that New York is some sort of utopia for shoe lovers. Although it comes close, there are definitely some downsides to people being obsessed with looking hip, and I can sum that up in two words: flip-flops. I will never understand it, but for some reason, young people living in big cities think it is a good idea to wear beach flip-flops as normal street footwear. I run into this same frightening phenomenon in Chicago as well. Aside from the fact that flip-flops are just plain homely, it’s not exactly sanitary to have your bare foot only millimeters above all the grime and filth that is a big city street.
My aversion to flip-flops was never as apparent to me as it was last Saturday while I was having coffee with my friend Penny in a little grungy café in the East Village. A couple of hipster gals were hanging outside and drinking their cappuccinos, letting their flip-flops dangle off their toes in the mid-day heat. Suddenly, I looked up from reading The Onion to see one of these women walking into the café barefoot. I thought maybe she was just going to grab a newspaper, or a pack of sugar. But she kept walking. Toward the back of the café. I thought, “No. There’s no way she’s going to do what I think she’s about to do.” But then she did it. She went into the bathroom of a bustling New York City coffee shop – barefoot.
Now, New York is known for a lot of things, but sterile bathrooms are not one of them. I visibly shuddered at the thought of this girl’s feet being attacked by all sorts of weapons of biological warfare that were breeding on that bathroom floor. I couldn’t look as she walked back to her table, for fear that her feet had become gangrenous from the sheer toxicity of the bathroom floor.
Even though I wanted to just forget this entire scenario, I felt like I had to do something. This girl was in crisis, and clearly needed some guidance. On my way out, I handed her a napkin with my email address on it and said, “Honey, have I got the shoes for you! How do you feel about fire engine red?”
Filed under: Postcards from New York on August 4th, 2004 | Comments Off
How can I sum up a city as vibrant and diverse as New York in only 1,500 words? Actually, fairly easily, thanks to my highly efficient strategy of forming broad opinions about an entire group of people based on limited experiences with a few individuals. So for those of you who have never visited New York, you can consider this a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of the city. If you like what you read, I say pick up the whole novel, or just move to Manhattan and see for yourself.
Based on a long weekend spent with my dear friends Penny and Aggie, and the people we interacted with throughout my trip, I can confidently make the following assessments of New Yorkers as a whole:
I’m not going to go into great detail on each of these points – I think you’ve come to trust me by now – but I do want to share a few specifics that led me to each of these major conclusions. I feel that this is really important information for non-New Yorkers to have. And frankly, I have high hopes that this blog will make its way across Mayor Bloomberg’s desk, so that he may begin to repair the great divide that exists between his fine state and the entire Midwest. I’m building bridges, one state at a time. So after tempting me with all these glorious shows, do you want to know what we ended up with? A PBS special on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Some of you may be asking, “Is there really a shortage of umbrellas? Why haven’t I heard about this before?” Simple. New York doesn’t want anyone to know about it, lest the rest of the country start stockpiling all the umbrellas they can find. I personally wasn’t aware that there was a shortage either until I walked into my friends’ apartment, tossed my suitcase on the floor, and immediately noticed that they had nine black umbrellas sitting in a box near their front door. I’m not kidding. Nine umbrellas.
A few probing questions later, I discovered that including the umbrellas they had by the door, the ones in their closet, and the ones they had left at work, they had 23 umbrellas between the two of them. Twenty-three umbrellas for two people. If you assume they are typical New Yorkers, that’s 11.5 umbrellas per capita, multiplied by the population of New York City of 8,008,278, equals (I’m doing this in my head, so bear with me) approximately 920,765,230,475 umbrellas for the city of New York alone. Conspiracy?
You really don’t need any fancy statistics to prove this one. Just go there yourself and see. It is perpetually 89 degrees with 100% humidity in New York City, except when you’re waiting for the subway, when the additional body heat adds 24 degrees and 50% more humidity.
Penny and I were shopping for new jeans, and I actually had to buy a pair of jeans that didn’t even fit me because I couldn’t get them off. I had to walk out of the store with the legs dragging on the ground, pools of sweat rapidly forming in the cuffs. I’ve been politely asked not to return to the Levi’s outlet in SoHo.
Within 15 minutes of my arrival at Penny and Aggie’s apartment, I had my first celebrity sighting. We went to eat at a diner down the block from them, and who walks in, but Joan Allen! Much taller than I would have guessed. She ate a tuna melt with no cheese and had an iced tea mixed with lemonade. As I walked out, I stole her straw and the lemon rind off her table, and am now selling them on eBay in case anyone’s interested.
The next day, we saw the Asian guy from Smashing Pumpkins. Don’t know his name, but I never forget a face. He has bad hair and is much shorter than Joan Allen. Nice shoes, though.
Finally, on my last day in New York, Aggie swears that the man who passed us on the street was the guy who played Grady on Sanford & Son. Now, I realize that show has been off the air for about 20 years, but this guy looked nothing like Grady, who by my calculations would be about 103 years old. And as I was searching the web for this picture of him, I found out he died in 2001. Sorry, Aggie.
I’m actually going to hold off on this one until we get to Number 7, when I will discuss New Yorkers’ inability to be sympathetic to Midwesterner’s emotional needs.
I walked all over that crazy city, and didn’t find one single tap dance nightclub. Not one. I didn’t even find a tap-dancing street performer. What a colossal disappointment.
What I did learn, however, is that Aggie’s sister Cheryl used to date a guy whose ex-girlfriend dated another guy whose cousin worked with the son of the late, great tap legend Gregory Hines. So really, through the six degrees of separation theory, I am actually now dating Gregory Hines’ son. And no one can take that away from me. Not even his wife.
We counted seven unique incidents where bike riders were clearly trying to kill me. Because traffic is so horrendous in New York, many people bike to work and to get around the city. Part of the reason that bicycle riding is such a fast means of transportation is because bikers completely ignore all traffic rules. I tried on numerous occasions to assert my pedestrian rights, only to have a near-miss with an errant biker, who then gave me a dirty sneer. Never trust a man with padded shorts, I always say.
Okay, here’s where the trip got a little touch-and-go. After spending three days of nonstop activity in overwhelming heat, we needed an evening to simply relax. So Penny, Aggie and I decided to just hang out in their apartment and watch TV. They have digital cable, so that gives them 745 channels. As some of you may recall, I don’t have cable TV, so it’s a rare treat for me to actually be somewhere with that many viewing options.
After Penny flipped through no fewer than 275 of the 745 channels, I saw at least 142 shows that piqued my interest. But would she stop flipping? No. I know I’m just a farm girl from the Midwestern cow pastures, but where I come from, we accommodate our guests’ every whim, even if it means letting them watch a hot dog eating contest on Spike TV.
And it wasn’t just the hot dog eating contest. Here’s a VERY short list of the shows she refused to let me watch:
I don’t know, I guess it was a combination of fatigue, dehydration, heat exhaustion, and Kevin Bacon withdrawal, but I just snapped. When I get in that emotionally delicate state, I become prone to hyperbole, so a lot of what I said to them was slightly exaggerated. When I recap it below, I’ll put the actual figures in parentheses. It went down something like this:
“Okay, you have got to be kidding me. The Brooklyn Bridge?! PBS!? Listen, ladies, I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I did not spend $1,000 ($215) on a plane ticket to fly halfway around the world (900 miles) just so I could walk 45 miles a day (4) in 104 degree heat (89) only to come back and watch some lame-ass documentary on PBS (PBS) that I could have watched for free back in my centrally air-conditioned apartment (window unit)!
Do you know what the ‘P’ stands for in PBS? PUBLIC, as in FREE! Like public bathrooms or public schools – they’re crappy because you don’t have to pay for them! You’re paying for cable, but you don’t even deserve it. If I had digital cable, I would use it!”
At that point, I fell off the couch and started convulsing. When I woke up, I had a cold towel on my forehead, a wallet shoved between my teeth, and the latest issue of People Magazine clutched tightly in my hand. I guess Penny and Aggie saved my life that evening. No, actually New Yorkers saved my life.
So now that I’ve had a day to reflect on this experience, I’ve gained a new perspective on New York City. For all its heat and pigeons and renegade bike messengers, for all its excessive umbrella consumption and cable neglect and singing crazy folks, I guess I learned that New York is filled with people who just really care about each other. We’ve all heard the expression that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in my case, a picture is worth closer to 1,500 words.
I’m not going to go into great detail on each of these points – I think you’ve come to trust me by now – but I do want to share a few specifics that led me to each of these major conclusions. I feel that this is really important information for non-New Yorkers to have. And frankly, I have high hopes that this blog will make its way across Mayor Bloomberg’s desk, so that he may begin to repair the great divide that exists between his fine state and the entire Midwest. I’m building bridges, one state at a time.
So after tempting me with all these glorious shows, do you want to know what we ended up with? A PBS special on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Filed under: Postcards from New York on August 3rd, 2004 | Comments Off
First of all, let me apologize. I’m very sorry this entry is coming so much later than my normal posts, but I promise, I have a valid excuse. I realize that you all have jobs, and don’t have time to be checking out silly blogs during your work day. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. I suspect that a large portion of you are at work right now, reading this when you should be approving some invoice, or checking inventory, or leading some important meeting, or entering some numbers into some spreadsheet. In fact, according to a recent Wired Magazine survey, over 92% of Americans surf the Internet for personal use during business hours, with the most frequently visited sites being online book retailers and sports websites.
Okay, I totally just made that up, but according to a recent Blogspot Readers Poll, over 89% of you just believed me.
All kidding aside, if any of you read my last entry, you know that I went to New York City for the weekend to visit my friends who, for the purposes of future blogs, shall be known as Penny and Aggie. I’ll be sharing details of my trip in a later post, but first, my excuse for such blatant tardiness.
I flew on American Airlines from Chicago to New York, in part because the United Airlines terminal in O’Hare kind of overwhelms me. Also, I usually like to take the underdog airline whenever I’m flying out of a major hub airport. I feel like I’m somehow supporting the little guy, fighting against the big bully… okay, really, American was just the cheapest.
So anyway, after a fun-filled trip to the Big Apple (does anyone from New York actually call it that?), I was packed and ready to head back to the Windy City (yes, people from Chicago sometimes do call it that.). About an hour before I was about to head off to the airport, I got a call on my cell phone. It was an automated airline customer service line telling me that my flight had been delayed two hours (Aside: although irritated about the delay, I did think it was pretty cool that a robot called my cell phone).
After numerous calls to the American Airlines customer service desk, and about 20 minutes on hold being told how much they valued my business, I finally got a live person who told me that even though my flight wasn’t leaving until 10:00pm, I still needed to check in at the airport at 6:00pm.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but I don’t know the exact reason for the delay. They told us to advise passengers to check in at their normal time.”
“So, you realize that this means I need to check in at the airport four hours before my actual departure.”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m sorry. But that’s the direction they told us to give everyone.”
I’ve never understood why people feel that creating a sense of helplessness makes for better customer service. This must come from the highly effective, much appreciated, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do” school of thought.
I really would have preferred that she tell me, “Jenny, this is entirely my decision, and it is very important to me that you show up at LaGuardia four hours early. I know this sounds crazy, but I really do need you to be here at 6:00pm. Is that going to be a problem?”
If Jackie from American Airlines Customer Service had actually said that to me, I would have thought, “Wow! Jackie really needs me! There must be something important going on. Maybe she needs my help with something. I should probably get there at 5:30 just in case.”
But alas, that’s not how it went down. Once I got to the airport, I was met with a sea of disgruntled customers who were equally irritated with Jackie from American Airlines Customer Service. But actually, after my pleasant cab ride through Spanish Harlem, I had pretty much calmed down, and was now determined to make the best of a bad situation by spending my four hours constructively.
I started by checking out the food court selections – Chinese, pizza, French bakery, Sunglass Hut. I finally decided on the Famous Famiglia Pizzeria. What really drew me to them was the impressive array of autographed celebrity photos plastered behind the register. I mean, if Katie Couric and the brother from Everyone Loves Raymond ate here, it must be good.
Plus, while reading their napkins, I learned that Famous Famiglia serves over 15,000 pieces of pizza a day throughout New York City. Oh wait – I mean “slices” of pizza. Apparently we only call it a “piece” of pizza in the Midwest, probably because we don’t usually cut pizzas into slices like a pie, but into little squares, hence the “piece” moniker. For more details on that riveting debate, please refer to my “Painfully Dull Anecdotes” blog.
After filling my belly, I decided to see if I could buy a Yankees hat for less than $40 since I forgot to buy one from the street vendors in SoHo who were selling them at two for $18. Of course, upon closer inspection, I did notice that “Yankees” was spelled with only one “e” on their hats, but in Chicago, who’s really going to notice?
Once I finally made my way to the gate, I still had a good two hours to kill. I had read all my magazines, and yet still wasn’t sure whether or not Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner were dating. As I was zoning out watching the Weather Channel, I suddenly heard the four magical words you so long to hear while delayed at the airport. No, it wasn’t “Flight is on time” or “Drinks are on me” or “American Airlines public flogging.”
It was the angelic voice of a ten-year old Asian boy yelling, “They have Ms. Pac-Man!”
Ms. Pac-Man? It can’t be true! My head snapped to follow the sweet voice that had called my name. And there she was. All pink and yellow and smiling. How did I not notice her earlier? God, she looks beautiful with that bow in her hair. Ms. Pac-Man was sitting right there, in gate D5, waiting for me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the little boy running toward the machine. Everyone but Ms. Pac-Man became blurry, and the world started moving in slow motion. I snatched my bags off the floor, hurdled over two girls playing patty cake with their American Girl dolls, and threw my body against the machine just as the little boy got there.
Boy: “Hey! I wanted to play that game!”
Me: “Yeah, well I wanted to not get to the airport four hours before my flight left, but look at me now!”
Boy: “That’s not fair!”
Me: “Look, squirt, here’s a buck. Go play Golden Tee over there.”
Boy: “But I don’t know how to play that. It’s a dumb golf game.”
Me: “Dumb golf game? Kid, do you think Tiger Woods earns $400 trillion a year because he wasted his youth playing Ms. Pac-Man? Here’s $2 and an Altoid, and that’s my final offer.”
Boy: “You’re mean. And pathetic. It’s really sad when a thirty-something unemployed amateur tap dancer has to shove a little ten-year old boy out of her way just so she can relive her lonely youth spent playing Space Invaders at the local arcade. Maybe you should have taken up golf at my age and you wouldn’t be in the predicament you’re in now – alone and unemployed, gaining weight, and getting cheap thrills by coming up with dirty three-letter words to leave as your initials when you get the high score. It’s just so sad. I pity you.”
Okay, I’m not sure if that’s exactly what he said, but that’s pretty much what I heard. Nevertheless, I gave him my best W.C. Fields “Go on kid, ya bother me” look, and nudged him on his way. I must have plugged about $15 into that machine before I finally heard those other four words I so longed to hear: “Now boarding Section Three.”
This gave me just enough time to maneuver Ms. Pac-Man through that wicked final maze, chomping up cherries and bananas along the way, until… YES! High score again! Let’s see, what can I use as my initials this time…? P. E. E. Ohmigod that’s too funny!
As I strolled onto the plane, proud of my accomplishments, I imagined all the giggles and squeals of delight that my video game wit would elicit from future stranded travelers. My job here was done.
Filed under: Postcards from New York on August 2nd, 2004 | Comments Off
I’m leaving today. I want to be a part of it: New York, New York. So I’m off to New York City for the weekend to enjoy a well-deserved break from all the daily madness and overwhelming responsibility that is childless stay-at-home motherhood. I know some of you are saying, “Wait a minute? Didn’t you just tell us you were going to Atlantic City? Was that all a big fat lie? Are your pants on fire? Everything I believed to be true is false! Is your name really even Jenny?”
I know how this looks, but really, I can explain. I tried to book a last-minute flight to Atlantic City, but the closest I could get for under $500 was New York City. And since I know some folks in NYC, I decided that maybe I should just hold off on my dreams of becoming a world champion poker player for a few weeks, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the Big Apple.
I’m actually hoping that I’ll have a few madcap adventures while I’m there so that I have something to write about when I get back. I’ve got my autograph book ready just in case I spot any celebrities walking down the street. Some people are uncomfortable approaching famous people on the street. Not me. I figure if Will Smith is comfortable asking me to shell out $9.50 to see him trade snarky comments with a robot, he darn well better be prepared for me to send a waiter into the men’s room to get him to sign my Parents Just Don’t Understand CD.
I also like to practice my “subway face” whenever I’m in New York. It’s a technique I perfected while living in Paris. Have you ever seen those 3D posters in the mall that you have to stare at for a really long time in order to actually see the image? That’s kind of what I do in the subway. I relax my eyes so that I’m really not looking at anyone, but am actually looking through everyone. That way, crazy people can be waving and yelling and playing the kazoo right in my face, but I don’t even see them. Then they start to think that maybe I’m the crazy one, and they usually switch cars.
Another goal I have is to finally put to rest this ridiculous feud between New Yorkers and Chicagoans as to which city is truly the hot dog town. Now, I will say that I’m going into this with my mind already made up, but I’ll give New York one chance to prove me wrong. If so much as one person offers me catsup on my hot dog, that’s it. Game over. Chicago wins. Catsup on a hot dog – what kind of an abomination is that?
Finally, I plan on scoping out some of the local tap dance nightclubs to steal some street moves that haven’t made their way to Chicago yet. Then when I go back to tap class and my teacher tries to blow out my kneecap by making me do some sadomasochistic hop-shuffle-hop-shuffle-hop-shuffle-shuffle-shuffle combination, I’ll just push her aside and school her triflin’ ass with some F-train throw down I picked up in the Village. Yeah, that’s right – Momma said knock you out!
So with all this on my agenda, I’m afraid I won’t be able to post any new entries until next week. I’m really going to miss you. A lot. I miss you already. God, I can barely remember what you look like. Maybe I shouldn’t go. Are you sure it’s okay? You’ll see. I’ll be back soon, and it will be like I never left. Be good, and check in on the cats on Saturday, won’t you? You’re a peach.
Filed under: Postcards from New York on July 29th, 2004 | Comments Off