Sunday, June 9, 2013

To kill or not to kill

In 8 days it will be 2 years since my last blog post. That's not exactly prolific now is it? I wasn't even sure I'd still have the password to log back in. Obviously the novelty of this whole blog thing has worn off, which makes me wonder if I shouldn't just kill it off and be done with it. This brings into play two of my most charming personality traits:
  1. I tend to start things. A lot of things.
  2. I hoard things.
It's fair to say that I won't be deleting this blog - but I don't know that I'll giving it much more attention (and let's be honest, I couldn't give it much less).

I would, however, like to at least tidy up a loose end. My last post was part 2 of New York, from our 2011 USA trip. From New York we flew back to the west coast for a week in Hollywood. No mention of that on the old blog was there? Worse still, I've been back to Disneyland this year (being back in Disneyland is not a bad thing, but not blogging about it is a damn near tragedy).

So, for now, I'll pick out a few highlights from the remainder of our 2011 trip, just to close that door. (In fact, I've been working on my novel for the last 2 hours. Another long project with no end in sight. Updating my blog suddenly seemed like a bloody good idea).

Here goes ...

We purchased a New York City pass. It's so long ago now that I can't remember the cost, but it gave us access to many of the city's attractions and was well worth the money (but requires careful planning because the pass only lasted 3 days, and there was a lot to see). In our case it got us:
  • Madame Tussuad
  • Radio City Music Hall (including meeting a Rockette, which would have been very exciting if I was 60 and knew what the fuck a Rockette was)
  • Top of the Rock (as seen on TV. More specifically, as seen on 30 Rock)
  • Empire State Building (including a slightly dodgy virtual fly-over narrated by Kevin Bacon)
  • Harry Potter exhibition
  • A boat trip past the Statue of Liberty
  • Dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe
  • Bike hire for a cycle around Central Park
  • The Bodies exhibition

I remember Jez getting tireder and sicker as the trip wore on. She slipped on wet pavement on the way to Radio City Music Hall and hurt her bum. She fell asleep on a subway station platform.

I remember squirrels is Central Park and Madison Square Park.

I remember break dancers on the subway and in Union Square.

I remember spending and hour playing the Roland V-Drums at the Sam Ash music store not far from Times Square.

I remember cupcakes from the Magnolia bakery.

I remember catching the subway to Coney Island, finding it closed and catching the next subway back to Manhattan.

I remember eating at The Olive Garden on Times Square and at TGI Fridays.

I remember crowds of media flooding the city after Osama Bin Laden was killed, and again a couple of days later when Obama came to lay a wreath at this site of the twin towers.

I remember so many tourist gift shops selling cheap trinkets, and camera shops, and wondering how they survive.

I remember eating a Twinkie in Times Square.

I remember a great Jazz band called Tin Pan Alley playing in Central Park, and a great sax player. New York has a better quality of busker than San Francisco. I remember a sexy figure skater and an old guy dancing to music only he could hear.

I remember visiting Grand Central Station, and the financial district.

I remember pushy spruikers for bicycle hire and comedy clubs.

I remember caricaturists of dubious merit with booths showing pictures "found" on the internet from genuine artists like Tom Richmond and Sebastian Kruger.

I remember buying an ice cream and the girl behind the counter asking if we could translate for some french customers who didn't speak any English - because we're foreign!

I remember being the only person in the city (possibly in the whole country) not wearing a North Face jacket.

I remember the streets being filled with yellow cabs and Lincoln town cars. Very few private cars.

I remember loving New York city and not wanting to leave - but when we did, the subway to JFK was much easier than the bus, three flights of stairs and subway that we needed no arrival to get from La Guardia to our motel.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

New York - Part 2

So where was I? Flew into New York. Crap airport hotel. Subway to Soho. That’s right, we’d just checked into our hotel and already we were impressed. The dining room was open all day so we could drop in whenever we liked for a juice or a hot chocolate, or just somewhere to sit and eat a sandwich.

Having settled in, we headed off for our first “real” day in New York. We stopped for lunch at an Italian restaurant close to the hotel in SoHo. The food was fine, but the service was disappointing. I like to imagine our tip was received with similar disappointment. Then we jumped aboard a Subway and headed north.

I quickly became very attached to my subway map, and soon learnt the various routes and stations with savant-like exactitude. What I didn’t master was finding my way out of the subway stations. Those subway stations are huge. They are usually at least the size of city block and two levels deep. I’d suggest that people who enjoy using the word labyrinthine would certainly describe them as such. They were labyrinthine (see what I mean?). It is very difficult to predict which street you’ll end up on, and which way you’ll be facing, when emerging from a subway station.

We got off at 42nd St and headed to Times Square. It may be a geometrical misnomer (I’ve seen squares, and that there ‘taint one), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a terribly exciting place to be. Mind you, there’s only so much of having a 20 foot tall Daniel Radcliffe grinning maniacally overhead that even the most durable of constitution can stomach.

If you weren’t aware, Times Square is where it all happens in New York on New Year’s Eve. People gather to watch the ball descend atop the New York Times building. The ball in question is some monstrosity of coloured lights that really didn’t excite me. But I guess that really sums up the fundamental problem with New Year’s Eve. The excitement and anticipation is always just a little more that the reality can sustain.

I’m told (well actually I read) that one million people gather in Times Square to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve (and yes, I’m smirking when I write about the ball dropping an descending, but can we please just move on). Now, Times Square is essentially an intersection. If one million people are going to be standing at an intersection to watch a ball drop (stop it!) then I think I’d prefer to be somewhere else. In fact, I’m also told (well, overheard in this instance) that the smart people head to Bethedsa Terrace in Central Park.

Central Park. Now there’s something. I had no idea just how big it is. And how full of healthy people doing healthy things. Things like running and riding bikes and skating about on rollerblades and rowing boats on lakes. Except for one guy who’d evidently pushed the healthy activities a little too far and so on our first foray into the park we were greeted by a guy having a good old chunder.

I also had no idea how many huge rocky outcrops would be scattered through the park.

But it’s the size that really amazed me. 834 acres. Let me put it into perspective for you. Take a regular photograph. That’s 6 inches by 4 inches. It’s a lot bigger than that. But, if you take that photograph, and cut it in half lengthwise, and then in half again – you’ll have a long and skinny photograph. Now, take about 28,000 of those photographs and lay them side by side to form one row. Then, make about 28,000 rows just the same. That’s how big central park is.

If that didn’t do it for you – check this out. I’ve laid Central Park across North Melbourne. You probably want to click on this to enlarge it ...

Now do you get it?

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Before I continue with my loosely chronological reflections on our US trip, I’d like to pause for a topical sojourn in tipping town. No? Not working? Well, I just thought I’d write something about tipping.

If you had me pegged as the type to object to tipping, you’d not be alone. And you’d be in good company – for I also had me pegged as a tiny tipper. However, you’d be wrong. You and me both. I am a big fan of tipping.

Why the seemingly inexplicable about face in my stance on tipping? Well, let me firstly correct your mistaken notion. I had no stance on tipping. I thought I had a stance, but it turns out I didn’t. Secondly – it’s all about service. In theory, tipping provides incentive for good service, and empirically, it seems to work. Sadly, very rarely in Australia have I experienced or witnessed the quality of customer service that is so commonplace in America.

In fact, outside of New York, the customer service was almost always excellent. Service in New York was a little more variable. We still had some excellent service in New York, in fact probably some of the best for the trip, but we also had some pretty average service. I have a theory that this reflects the nature of tipping in New York. I believe that city people are more inclined to tip as a matter of course without regard for service. In fact, tips are often included on the bill in New York – which I very much dislike. Once tipping becomes so entrenched and accepted without regard for service, it no longer acts as an incentive.

And if you don’t like that one, I have another theory. Serving staff on the west coast are much poorer than in New York. Whilst the purchasing power of a dollar may be the same coast to coast, that does not mean that it’s value is the same to everyone. Someone fighting to keep their family fed will work harder for a dollar than someone with a comfortable living.

And if those two still don’t do it for you, let me try one more. Serving staff on the west coast are predominantly Mexican. Could there be a cultural factor in play? Is there too much drumming into the heads of white American children that they are better than anyone else and should never feel inferior to another person? Doesn’t great customer service require that you put the customer’s interests first? Occasionally we came across a waiter in New York with that air of superiority as if to have us believe we were privileged to be allowed within their hallowed halls. In such cases we tipped very poorly.

And that’s the other beauty of tipping. One the one hand, it generally drives good service - but when the service is poor, there’s some satisfaction in leaving little or no tip. Just leave the cash on the table and scarper.

I wonder how precise most people are with their tips. If, like me, you get most of your American culture (is that an oxymoron?) from television – and more specifically from sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends – then you would expect that tipping involves a reasonable about of deliberation and calculation. We typically rounded to the nearest five dollars. Up or down.

In further support of my belief that tipping works:

  • You don’t tip for takeaway
  • Service at takeaway places is generally pretty poor (much like in Australia)

I have also wondered whether tipping could work in Australia, and for four reasons, I don’t believe it could.

Firstly, to initiate a tipping culture without raising costs requires that basic wages are reduced. I really can’t see that happening because …

Secondly, Australia is a welfare state with complex employment laws. Australians by and large feel a sense of entitlement. Entitlement to a job. Entitlement to fair pay. The balance of power between employees and employers is much different in Australia to America.

Thirdly, Australians reject any notion of class. This is the same cultural issue that I suspect drives better customer service on the west coast than the east coast of America. The problem with excellent customer service is that nasty word “service”. To genuinely put a customer’s needs ahead of your own is very difficult proposition for a culture that rejects notions of class and servitude. It also makes Australians difficult to serve, because many Australians feel just as uncomfortable having something perform menial tasks for them as they would performing menial tasks for someone else. When a washroom attendant handed me a paper towel to dry my hands, I was torn between appreciating the service but at the same time feeling that I was taking advantage of a less fortunate individual.

Now, as a multicultural society, this aspect is not insurmountable. There a plenty of cultures represented in Australia who don’t have the same hang-ups preventing them from subserviating themselves to customers.

Finally, I don’t believe tipping could work in Australia because I’ve seen it in action. Many, if not most restaurants offer at the very least a tip jar. Some even add gratuities to bills. But I’ve not witnessed any appreciable difference in service from such establishments, and certainly nothing approaching the standard quality of American service.

Before I sign off, let me offer a final two observations and tie them back to tipping.

  • Most Australians have a fairly jaundiced view of American people.
  • Most American people I met or otherwise observed in America were pleasant, friendly, and not in the least loud-mouthed and obnoxious.

What’s going on here? My theory is this:

  • Pleasant and friendly American person comes to Australia for a holiday
  • Australian customer service is exceedingly poor by American standards
  • Once pleasant and friendly American becomes increasingly grumpy as they are faced with consistently disappointing customer service.
  • Now gumpy American begins complaining
  • American has accent
  • Nearby Australians witness this gumpiness, find the accent a little grating, and create mythology about what terrible people those bloody yanks are.

Monday, May 16, 2011

New York - Part 1 (and a touch of San Francisco)

For better or for worse, we’re home from our trip, and for the very life of me I can’t conceive of how that could be better. So, for worse, we’re home from our trip. However, blog years are something akin to dog years, and in blog years we’re still leaving San Francisco on a plane headed for New York city.

But before I proceed, I forgot one last highlight from San Francisco. Actually, I’ve very likely forgotten plenty of tasty nuggets, but one that recently re-emerged in my mind is walking up Lombard St.

For those who don’t know, Lombard St is famous for one block with a 27% incline and eight hairpin turns. For those who do know, the same applies, you just don’t need me banging on about it. Although, to be honest, I was pretty succinct in my description, so I don’t know where you get off accusing me of banging on.

Anyway, you now know something of Lombard St, which leaved only for me to reassure you that we walked up it. And we did. Be assured of that. We stood at the bottom and looked up. We walked up. We stood at the top and looked down. There’s really not much else to do.

But back to the task at hand, which is to continue onto New York. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. Gotham City. The Melting Pot. The Jolly Splendid Metropolis.

Our journey was a lengthy one for three reasons. Firstly, we stopped over in Denver for almost three hours. Secondly, New York is three hours ahead of the west coast. And finally, let’s not forget that it’s a bloody big country to be flying across. 4,152 kilometres with a landing and take-off in the middle equals over 6 hours of flying time. Add all these together, and we left San Francisco at 9:00am, and didn’t land at La Guardia until 9:00pm.

In the interests of saving money and confusing our pursuers, we booked our first night at an airport hotel. It seemed like a good idea at the time, being the time I booked it, but not so much at the other time – when we arrived. Our first taste of New York was slightly disappointing. We waited forever in the restaurant at the hotel to be served the worst pizza I had ever eaten (a title later lost to Hollywood, but that’s not for now). I was also surprised to find that the drapes didn’t close fully. The tracks stopped with about an 18 inch gap in the middle. (I was even more surprised to find that the drapes in our other New York hotel were the same. Is this to ensure that the city never sleeps?)

Still, I don’t imagine it would be fair to judge any city on the basis of a cheap airport motel.

There’s a lot to love about New York, and one of the things that particularly appealed to me was the public transport. Sure, there are more comfortable and convenient ways to get about, but there’s nothing like public transport to really get yourself embedded in a new city. After our first night, we shuttled back to the airport, where we bought 7 day metro cards and began our journey. We caught the M60 bus from LaGuardia to Astoria Blvd in Queens, and rode an N train across to Manhattan, leaving a 15 minute walk to our hotel. The only downside was lugging our cases up the stairs to the platform in Queens, and then up the stairs again from the Prince St subway station. We later discovered that the Canal St station was closer to our hotel.

And so we arrived at the Hampton Inn in SoHo (that’s South of Houston if you’re wondering). Whilst the room was not so luxurious as the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco, this was our favourite accommodation of the trip. The tone was set when we arrived, well before check-in time, and were greeted with “Hello. Yes your room is ready. Would you like some coffee or juice?” The staff at this hotel were delightful, and the buffet breakfast was a welcome relief from cereal in paper bowls. Our only complaint – those blinds that don’t close.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

San Francisco - Part 3

I start this post in a phenomenally bad mood – having just finished typing it and then losing it. Bloody stupid Blogger. And what I’d written was so insightful, witty and elegant. You’ll need to trust me on that because the spark has gone and all I can hope for now is insipid, tedious and ungainly.

So where was I? I recall three final highlights from San Francisco – in no particular order.

Firstly (remembering this is in no order), we discovered Ghirardelli chocolate. More importantly, we discovered that Ghirardelli were running a promotion and handing out free chocolate squares as we entered the store. Now, I like to think that I enjoy chocolate as much as the next guy, but I have no idea who the next guy is. What I don’t believe is that I like chocolate as much as the next girl – particularly if the next girl is Suzy. Anyway, I still prefer good old Cadbury with its glass and a half of full cream milk in every 200 gram block. However, I would never knock back a free chocolate, and so we made sure to visit all three of the stores within Ghirardelli square and accept our free chocolates in each. The kids made sure to complete this circuit many times during our stay.

Secondly (still in no order), we visited Alcamatraz. And how is it that the officialdom of nomenclature overlooked that middle syllable? Two little letters that alone may be baby’s first word, yet in Alcatraz can raise a word from a bit of fun phonetic frottage to an exquisite oral joy. Let’s say it together now – Alcamatraz. And I have Jesamine to thank for introducing me to this pleasure, just as you may now thank me.

We were ferried across to the Rock, where we toured the old prison with our audio guide headsets. I’ve not had a lot of experience with audio guides, but I’ve heard enough to know that this was particularly good. The narrations are provided by ex-guards and inmates, with a backdrop of prison sounds creating an immersive experience.

One particular joy was a woman who was clearly not a regular user of headphones, shouting to her husband “Are you up to the bit about the spaghetti?” We knew she was shouting. He knew she was shouting. But she had headphones on.

Third of the unordered highlights - Jesamine had her portrait sketched by a street artist in the Fisherman's wharf area. Not a particularly good likeness, but it was cheap (though of course not as cheap as the signs would have us believe). Which reminds me, when we unpacked our bags in San Diego, the clay portrait Connick had done at Santa Monica was broken - despite being wrapped in an almost full roll of toilet paper. Bummer.

And now, some final observations from San Francisco:

  • I saw quite a few Prius taxis
  • Some of the police cars were in pretty poor condition
  • The buses are insufficient for the patronage they attract. We waited at one stop and watched 3 buses drive past because they were too full to pick us up. We then missed our stop getting off because we couldn't push through the crowd to reach the doors in the 15 seconds that the bus stopped.

We finished our San Franciso visit as it began - at the Les Joulins Jazz Bistro on Ellis St. It was not the same band as on our first night, and they were late arriving. Imagine my disappointment when the piano player turned out to be the same hack from our first night. Strangely, he played better, but the band didn't work together at all. The food was still great though.

This concludes another leg of our epic adventure. Next stop, the Big Apple.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

San Francisco - Part 2

We commenced our time in San Francisco with two days of hopping on buses, and hopping off buses, and hopping on buses, and hopping off buses ... Lucky for us San Francisco offers hop-on-hop-off buses. The accompanying commentary was not great, but it was okay. The big advantage of the bus is the sense of orientation it provides. After a couple of loops of the city, you get a good feel for where things are.

City Hall was one of the first, and most impressive, of the landmarks we passed. The current building is a replacement of the original, destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Apparently the monument on the roof was all the survived of the original building. It later fell off the back of a truck and was destroyed. Now that's a spot of bad luck.

The building stands intentionally taller than the United States Capitol, and displays more than it's fair share of gold leaf. An amazing sight for tourists to gaze upon, but I still couldn't help wondering how the hell the local council structure their budget to be able to afford this granduer without a revolt by the ratepayers.

The building looks like this
(not my photo) ...

San Francisco is filled with beautiful Victorian architecture - including the famous painted ladies on Alamo Square. Which look a little like this (not my photo) ...

Our first hopping off point was the legendary Haight Ashbury district - which may lay claim to primary credit for my adoration of this crazy town. Haight St is just the very place to be if you're shopping for second-hand clothes, smoking paraphenalia, hats, fetish wear, antique clothing, books, musical instruments, and other stuff both weird and fulfilling of wonderous desires. One of my favourite clothing stores on Haight St would have admirably outfitted both Prince (as known presently, formerly, or prospectively) and Captain Jack Sparrow. It sold the most perfectly formed top hats I've ever seen.

From one of the second-hand stores I purchased just the leather jacket that I never managed to procure as an Arthur Fonzerelli devoted pre-teen (though I do recall owning a black vinyl jacket lined in astonishingly scarlet satin). Being a cold city, this jacket was functional as well as smashingly attractive.

In my new jacket, I looked precisely this cool ...

Now if only I'd purchased that second-hand leather cod-piece I had my eye on ...

The Booksmith on Haight St is a bountiful buffet for the bibliophile. A cornucopia of comprehensive composition. It brought my fiscally conservative personality into direct conflict with my love of a good book (or twenty). The result ... despite the apparent evidence of my extensive library - I'm still at heart a massive tight-arse and left empty handed though heavy of heart.

Another stand-out was the Haight Ashbury Music Centre. A music shop as I remember them from a forgotten era. An era when music shops could afford floor stock. Hundreds of guitars hanging on walls. I felt young again to just stand there in slack-jawed wonderment.

As the buskers along Haight St make clear, there are far more people in San Francisco who own guitars than can play them.

Another noteworthy sight from the open top of our tour bus was a black girl being handcuffed on the street by more policemen than was probably necessary. I have no idea why she was being arrested, but Obama is still alive so I'm ruling out presidential assassination.

We crossed and recrossed the Golden Gate Bridge. It can be cold and windy crossing the bridge on the open top of a tour bus, but it can be tolerable when you've got a heavy leather jacket and the foresight to lose your hair so that it doesn't blow into your face.

Did you know that the Golden Gate Bridge is painted International Orange - the same colour as the pressure suits worn by NASA astronauts?

Did you know that the cables supporting the 2km span are almost one metre in diameter, and contain 27,572 separate wires? In total, there are 129,000km of wire in the cables.

I'm what's known in the trade as a trivia-trove.

Anyway, here's what the bridge looks like when Jesamine sits in front of it ...

And at this point, I'll leave it for another day. Goodbye.

Friday, May 6, 2011

San Francisco - Part 1

I've lost count of the days, but at some point we wound up in San Francisco.

Just as I had no idea how much I'd loathe Las Vegas, nor did I know how San Francisco would agree with me. Frisco is my kind of town.

One complaint though - the place seems overrun with Australians.

Our San Franciscan lodgings, the Grand Hyatt on Union Square, were excellent. Large room, comfortable beds, electric blinds on the windows - but no free internet! Something of an anomaly for a US hotel in this day and age.

Having dropped off the rental car, we set out in search of food. In the wrong direction. A couple of dollars to a helpful homeless guy set us off in a better direction.

Homeless people are a feature of San Francisco. Not in the way the entertainment industry would use the word - "Come see San Francisco, now featuring more wretches and toothless crones than San Diego" - but certainly the homeless are prominent and plentiful. Some busk - generally pretty badly - and many just beg. For some, it's a fine line.

The accepted wisdom, as espoused by the travel affionados, is not to give money to the homeless. I don't understand this. Will this make the problem worse? I don't think this is a career choice for these people. San Franciso is cold. Mark Twain allegedly said "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco." Living on those cold streets can not be a choice, no matter how many brothers spare dimes. That said, I would like to sully my frugal reputation by suggesting we were handing out cash on the streets willy and/or nilly - just to the occassional busker or to someone who gave us directions.

On the corner of Powell and Geary, you can likely find a guy drumming on an array of upturned buckets, pots, and pans. He doesn't play as a drummer would - well, not as I would - but he hits away at the various targets with a pair of sticks, and he sings along. He may not sound great - but he's real. (Not my photo)

Another favourite we came to avoid, was this guy (again, not my photo) ...

The internet tells me his name is Norman Yancey, and you'll find him outside Ghiradelli Square. The internet tells me all manner of things about him that may or may not be true. What I do know is that he holds a guitar, he'll strum an A chord and an D chord, and he calls out rhymes. "Hey pappa, you got a dollar for my supper". Then he laughs a little too raucously, but nonetheless infectiously. As you move on, you'll hear the same rhymes called out to the next passers by - and he'll laugh just as hard. I don't know if he can even play the guitar, but he holds it well as we cross the road and he calls "look out for that bus, and bring be back a couple of bucks"

Even along Haight St, where the buskers took themselves a little (even a lot) more seriously, there was not much actual talent. A little disappointing, but still, I love the whole atmosphere of a city where people perform in the open air.

But back to our search for food, and we found ourselves at Les Joulins Jazz Bistro on Ellis St, listening to Bohemian Knuckleboogie. Bandleader Mike Pitre plays a mean pocket trumpet, and sings with real Dr John growl - but the piano player was woefully disappointing.

The meal was delicious.

This concluding our first night in San Francisco, I may need to leave it there. Unfortunately getting out and seeing things on this holiday is making it very hard to find to time to write about things.

Night all