Sunday, 27 June 2010

#20 The national pastime.

On paper, it sounds like a terrible sport. There are generally around five 'scores' a game. A three-hour-plus game yields six minutes of play. A tiny handful of countries play it, so there are no real international championships. There is a very real danger of suffering serious injury as a spectator. It is unusually dominated by a small group of franchises (the New York Yankees have won the World Series 27 times - that's a quarter of all championships since their 1903 beginnings).

So, I stepped into Citifields, the home of the New York Mets (New York's slightly-less-successful-but-still-pretty-good franchise) today with some reservation. I expected boredom, poverty (as is de rigeur in professional sports spectation, refreshments are seen as an opportunity to lavishly rape fans with 1,000%-plus mark ups on soda, beer, etc.), and lots of obnoxious loudmouths.

I wasn't disappointed. There were lots of obnoxious loudmouths. Food and soda was exorbitantly-priced. There is, shall we say, a lot of downtime. Nevertheless, baseball has more to recommend it than you may at first imagine.

Firstly, just like cricket in England, it serves a crucial social role - a place where men can go and get royally plastered over several hours and excuse it as a cultural experience. Other sports - a soccer game, for instance, or rugby - are just too brief. There's too much going on. You are forced to chug beer demonically, or watch the game seriously, but never both. What do you say to the wife when you get home? 'Did you see the goal Barry?' 'No, I was having a downing competition with Eric'.

Baseball has so little going on that you could cook several courses of classic French table d'hôte and still keep up. A mishit ball whacked a girl a few rows in front of me in the head in the first innings, seemingly knocking her unconscious, and I think she still managed to keep track of what was happening.

Secondly, it is a cast-iron opportunity to feel sartorially superior to almost everybody. I went in a filthy beer T-shirt and some threadbare canvas shoes, and I felt a bit overdressed. I wasn't even wearing any trousers. I was really. I made that up. But still, everybody looks like knobs. Especially the players.

I sat there being grumpy, quiet and not-too-gently wilted (New York is currently breaking 90 degrees daily) for three hours, refusing to stand for national anthems and generally being a dick. They play the national anthem AND 'God Bless America' at every league game, incidentally. Isn't that hilarious? Everyone takes their hats off and stays silent, too. Like, for real. And they know the words.

The most irritating thing of all for curmudgeons like yours truly - even more irritating, if you can fathom it, than people who say 'yours truly' - is the Organised Fun. Now last time I was at a European sports event (rugby, if memory serves), chants, Mexican waves and other crowd revelries arose spontaneously. Not so at a baseball game. The event managers in charge have clearly determined that baseball fans are so monumentally cretinous as not to be trusted with the responsibility of having their own fun. Chants are initiated by a pre-recorded obnoxious loudmouth over the PA system.. The crowd are frequently called upon to be as loud as possible, encouraged by a clearly-faked decibel meter. Every little tiny bit of entertainment is sponsored by some company with no discernable link to baseball ('Lincoln, The Official Town Car of the New York Mets!' 'Bridgestone, The Official Tyre of the MLB!'), and features one of a cast of thousands of cretins smiling dumbly and clutching a McDonald's alarm clock.

© Howard Schatz

Really, I quite like the game. As cycnical as I am, they are amazing athletes. I throw like a girl with rickets, so I find their 100mph, 50-yard gunshots to be rather impressive. You can almost hear humeri shattering as hits are made. The wounded in the crowd (another plus, incidentally - I expected fear of litigation to have long taken any risk out of being in the left field bleachers, but apparently not) are testament to how fast the ball moves. And there is a familial, playful atmosphere which I grudgingly admit to being Quite Nice. The open, daggers-drawn hostility of the football (soccer) field was nowhere to be found. Maybe people were just too full of hotdogs and pretzels to move.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

#19 Under the sea.

If you ever want to fall (back?) in love with humanity, go to a mardi gras. A parade. A carnival. Something camp and colourful and trashy.

This weekend Coney Island (the wonders of which I previously illuminated here) hosted the annual Mermaid Parade, a celebration of everything that is aquatic, oddball and technicolour. It was started in 1983 by Dick Zigun, whose life's work has been the preservation of American carnival and sideshow acts (and amen to that).

The place was heaving. Times Square on a sunny Saturday doesn't compare. I've not seen such a pulsating mass of humanity since India. They were thinner in India, though. And ate less hot dogs. Come to think of it, that's probably why they were thinner.

Against the backdrop of ferris wheels, rollercoasters and coconut shacks marched an unlikely cast of thousands - fetishists, drag racers, cosplayers, protestors, homosexuals, clowns, men, women and children. As the name suggests, a broad theme is the life aquatic - mermaids, jellyfish, and, topically, oil-covered environmentalists constituted the plurality. The crowd - at least four deep along the entire several-mile length of the Coney Island seafront - were the happiest group of people I ever did saw. We gawped, cheered, laughed, shared quips and beers with strangers, feasted our eyes and our stomachs.

All but the lone (as far as I saw) evangelical, holding a placard telling us to 'REPENT OF SIN'. Bless 'im.

So mark 18th June 2011 in your calendars, people, and no one will ever rain on your parade.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

#18 The grass is always greener.

Fishing Pier, Lemon Creek Park, Staten Island, 2010

I've whinged about Staten Island on these (*ahem*) hallowed pages before. Let's recap: an apartheid-era wasteland of poor black communities abutting rich avenues of pristine, clapboarded, white middle America.

Well, there are nice bits, too. Take one of the tangle of bus routes from the ferry terminal (Staten Island's only, tenuous link with the rest of New York - it hangs precipitously below the city and is for all intents and purposes part of Jersey), and you are transported - at length - to some lovely beaches. BEACHES WITH HORSESHOE CRABS!

I freaking love horseshoe crabs. They are nature's survivors, having hung around for 500 million years to see the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, Rome and Adolf Hitler. They are generally physiologically fascinating (the 1967 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded for studies done on horseshoe crabs' peepers). But much more importantly, they have really, really, really silly names, in that they look absolutely nothing like horseshoes at all. My elbow looks a lot more like a horseshoe than a horseshoe crab. And they don't look anything like crabs, either, nor are they related to them. Only when my dog - ghost white in hue, and incapable of finding chicken in a KFC - received the name 'golden retriever' was the horseshoe crab outdone in the silly name stakes.

So Staten Island was off to a good start when I arrived on its - lets be honest - bleak, barren shores. It was the sort of moody, overcast morning that made me feel right at home. (Oh Lyme Regis, how I've missed you!) The crabs were dead, but intact, which is the ideal crab state for an enthusiastic but wimpish explorer like me. I took some snaps (to follow), then proceeded to go fishing.

I'm not big on fishing. I sort of don't agree with it both of welfare and environmental grounds. However, the park rangers assured me I was almost certain to catch nothing, and the acid yellow rubber bait backed them up. I waggled my rod around for a bit (oh shush), caught some seaweed and an empty clam shell, and headed home contented.

The Staten Island Ferry is also a lot more fun when you don't have to catch it daily. And it's a nice day. And you have company. And iced coffee.

That's all, folks. Some snaps are attached for your delectation.

Staten Island Ferry, 2010

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

#17 Love me chicken tender.

Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits, a major Louisiana-based fast food chain, serve up rafts of the fried chicken so beloved of Americans (and especially the African American community). As greasy disgustingness goes, it's far better than KFC, not least because I can chalk it up as a necessary cultural experience, whereas I can go to KFC in my hometown in Cheshire.

They serve their chicken with 'biscuits', in what has proven to be the most taxing of my linguistic hurdles so far. American biscuits are similar to what we would call savoury scones - doughy and buttery - and are traditonally served with other Southern fare, particularly chicken. They are lovely, but complete decadent madness as a filler - the potato dauphinoise of breads. I've become something of a Biscuit Monster (see what I did there?) since moving here.

Unrelatedly, Dave asked me to expand on the culinary delights of Chinatown. The place we went to together was lent an air of authenticity by us being the only white people there (out of maybe 100), and the presence of the following menu items:

- Jelly fish (cold)
- Jelly fish head (cold)
- Shark fin soup
- Fish maw (that's swim bladder to the rest of us; yeah, I'm totally going to eat something referred to as a 'bladder')
- Salt and pepper duck intestines
- Frog twin flavor

(Incidentally: no, I wouldn't have eaten there if I'd realised they served shark fin soup before we'd already ordered other stuff.)

We plumbed for the latter (well, Dave did; I bought something much more tedious/sensible), and were treated to...bones, mostly. The thimbleful of meat we had tasted a lot like chicken. Except when we ate it we turned into princes.

Popeye's biscuits.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

#16 Welcome to the stock pot.

Brits find it easy to mock (or 'take the piss out of', if you feel like bemusing our Transatlantic cousins) American food. Almost as easy as the rest of the world finds it to mock ours. The jokes are all already written. Great - herein lies an easy blog post.

The first thing to note is that my dining experience in New York is unquestionably esoteric. I eat as much Chinese, Italian, etc - made by actual sons of those countries, of course - as I do 'American'. The second point, to contradict myself, is that this is American food. It might be cheating, but America can lay justifiable claim to all kinds of variations on foreign foods - pizza pie, New York bagels, Tex-Mex, New York-style cheesecake, California rolls, and so on. Apple pie is no more American than deep dish pizza. Both are as American as tikka masala is British. Welcome to the stock pot.

Fast food? You betcha. But since 'Super Size Me' things have changed. McDonald's advertises mostly at the morning coffee crowd these days - 99¢ lattes are the new Big Macs. Their competitors are Dunkin' Donuts' same-price offering, and Starbucks' premium product. In New York, Starbucks' weird fetish-seamonster girl feels like a much more oppressive presence than the Golden Arches.

Supermarkets are plain weird. On the one hand there is the unquestionable brilliance of Whole Foods - sort of like Waitrose, but earthier: expensive enough to keep out the riff-raff, locally-sourced enough to keep the greens happy. They still sell Chiquita bananas, for shame. Being British, I thought I'd tell you how bloody brilliant the queueing system is. The Manhattan locations are horrifically busy, so queues are subdivided into colour-coded streams that feed to many different tills - one from the red line, one from the blue line, one from the yellow line - balancing fairness with throughput. You also get told that 'you are now entering the green line' in a quietly thrilling Twilight Zone homage.

Next up is Trader Joe's, complete with irritating nautical/Victorian/farmgirl theming, cheaper prices and a Queuing Disaster. The queue snakes around the entire store, so you have to plan out all of the things you want from where the queue runs and remember to get them as you queue. Indecision is not an option.

Finally you have the Waitroses and Targets - carbon copies of the larger outlets of our Tescos and Asdas.

I touched upon the weirdest thing about American supermarkets in an earlier post. They don't sell wine. They don't sell rum. Hell, they don't even sell strong ciders: a store must possess a 'liquor licence' to sell beverages with an ABV topping around 8%. A supermarket cannot possess such a licence. So if you want a bottle of wine with supper you have to go elsewhere. It's tedious, backwards and irritating.

One more thing: everything has corn in it. Everything. The average American gets 10% of his daily calories from corn syrup. But we'll touch upon that some other day.