Monday, 26 July 2010

#26 It's not all Smucker's and roses.

I don't want you to get the idea that I love this country. I like this country. A lot. I like Krispy Kremes and silly stop-start sports and pretty women with pretty accents and the movies and the predominance of the colour yellow. Well, I guess the last one is really just New York. But still. I like it.

But I don't love it. There is a lot that I really don't like. Here is a nonexhaustive list of bête noires, which I will add to in comments whenever I come across more/have had a bad day:

1. The whole point of America to me is right there in the Declaration of Independence: all men are created equal. Clearly this is something that everyone can sign up to. Indeed, most Americans purport to. Now I'm not going to write a whiny left-wing rant about the betrayal of these egalitarian values (if you're interested, look up anything else I've ever written); but I am going to moan about how every American tries desperately to pretend that he isn't American. "I'm Italian". No you're not. "I'm Irish". No you're not. "I'm African". So is everyone, dickhead. JESUS. (He wasn't American, incidentally.)

2. How hard is it, pray tell, to calculate the tax levied on a particular product or service, and add it to the bill? Why do businesses confined to New York still not show tax? They never sell their product with any amount of tax other than that levied by New York City and State. So why not let us in on the secret? And chains tend to charge more in New York, anyway. So not including sales tax on the price tickets isn't saving them any time. It's just infuriating consumers and generating awkward amounts of change of which you can't rid yourself. Who wants to hold up a queue counting cents whilst the cashier glares at you? The homeless of Manhattan would be screwed if shops showed tax on price tags, because people would actually bother to spend their change.

3. Stop wearing sneakers. They are not acceptable work wear. And, if you've chosen to wear black trousers (despite the fact that it's ninety fucking degrees out), please deign to wear black shoes. You wouldn't want to look like a fucking dishevelled cretin now, would you?

4. Whilst we're on the subject of clothes: Yankees caps. I want to see into the mind of any of the two million New Yorkers who has walked into a sporting goods store and thought: "You know what would make me look cool, distinctive and unique: a Yankees cap! Truly I will stand out as both an individual and a discerning sports fan. By allying myself with the most successful franchise in any sport's history, I will subtly induce a halo effect. Passers by will notice my affiliation and determine that I am successful, ruth-less (see what I did there? I'm quite proud of that joke) and unstoppable, in life as in sport. On and off the field, this symbol of sporting prowess will invoke fear and respect. Who cares if I haven't been to a home game in two years, and actually last month I went to see the Mets because it's cheaper?"

More to follow.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

#25 Run this town.

Central Park, May 2010

Michael R. Bloomberg, the esteemed Mayor of this city, has famously pledged that no New Yorker will live more than 10 blocks from a park by the end of his tenure. Well, the boy's done good. New York is bursting with green spaces. Admittedly, some of them are a little small. Hell, many of them make your average village green look like Yellowstone. But they are there, and they are public, and they're fab for a spot of lunch.

I live four blocks from Central Park, the grandaddy of New York's parks, and two blocks from the terrapin-infested Morningside Park. I'm Bloomberg's publicist's wet dream. Anyway, since I'm cheap and city parks are free, I tend to use them to their fullest.

It's a strange park, Central Park. Bizarrely large for an island so chronically short of space, you feel slightly guilty using it. Does New York really need it? I'm all for green spaces, but I bet real estate prices would be a bit lower if Central Park didn't exist. And getting across town would be easier. And there would be less tourists. And John Lennon memorials. And overpriced hot dogs. And surely it's not a very green green space? If Central Park were razed, less people would have to commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, so there would be energy savings. I bet they use a sickening amount of water irrigating it.

Anyway, I'm quite a keen runner, if you didn't know. The four runs per week of my youth have ebbed to one or two, in truth, but I'm still out there pounding the pavement with reasonable frequency.

I generally run alone, in the countryside, passing maybe one or two people in an hour. I run like Paris Hilton after an oestrogen injection. Not slowly, you understand - for someone of my build, I'm pretty nippy - just in an hilarious, let's-get-a-photo-of-this-mincing-idiot style. Central Park is to running what the hajj to Mecca is to Islam. So colour me a little self-conscious.

The saving grace for my ego is that Americans run slowly. I don't know why. I overtake almost everybody; people skinnier than me, with better trainers, who never ever smoke and don't fiddle with their iPods continuously. It's like everyone has been hypnotised and/or sodomized by Richard Simmons. I ran the length of Park Drive the other day, passing maybe 500 people, and no one overtook me. It's bizarre and gratifying and ego-boosting and unnerving all at once. Is there a speed limit no one told me about? Maybe they're concerned about waking Yoko Ono, or the zoo animals? (I'm leaving the obvious joke unmade here.)

Sunday, 11 July 2010

#24 American idol.

The word 'hero' is thrown around these days with reckless abandon. Jade Goody is a hero, for dying of cancer. Tony Blair is a hero, for killing thousands of people in the Middle East and destabilising the region indefinitely. Coca-cola are heroes, for abandoning New Coke and sticking to their delicious Old Coke roots. Soldiers are heroes, for pissing on and torturing prisoners. (Okay, the last one is going to upset someone, but since when did doing a job you chose to do and are handsomely renumerated for make you a hero?)

Anyway, with this proliferation of heroes, the question arises: who is really deserving of the title? Well, a huge buzz in New York last week surrounded two bona fide American heroes.

The last few weeks has seen the greatest sports tournament on earth take place in South Africa: the FIFA World Cup Finals. Football, a sport of such simplicity it is understood, played and watched on every continent by several billion people; the only sport whose championships really deserve the 'World' moniker; the beautiful game. This tournament of tournaments was played out in Africa, by far the largest sporting event ever held on that continent, and to many a symbol of Africa's redemption.

What event - what catastrophe, what apocalypse, what alien invasion - do you think it would take, then, to outdo the World Cup? How could the greatest show on earth surrender column inches to anything else?

As it turned out, in America, one man had the power. That man was LeBron James, the most dominant basketball player in the sport's history. Now, 'King James', as he is known, hasn't played a game in months; we are in the NBA's offseason. Nevertheless, James managed to grab a nation's consciousness by bringing to a head month's of speculation, and announcing which team he will play for next season. His contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James' hometown and home club since he entered the league, ended on 1st July, and last week the only issue of note in these United States was where he would go next. The whole debacle came to a head Thursday, when James announced, on a live ESPN special, that:

This fall I am taking my talents to South Beach and play with the Miami Heat. The major factor was the best opportunity for me to win, to win now and for the future also. Winning is the most important thing for me. I feel like this is going to be the best opportunity.

Thank God it's over. The last couple of months has been faintly ridiculous, from Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, publicly trying to woo James, to the Knicks' head couch flying across the country with, I assume, suitcases full of paper and cocaine and strippers. Five teams tried to ensnare James, and the amount of money they spent doing so - as well as the amount that the Heat are going to be paying him - is faintly sickening.

A campaign T-shirt for attracting LeBron to the Knicks. Sadly, it wasn't to be.

I mentioned two heroes. The second was a woman who, for reasons unknown to the sane, goes by the stage name of Lady Gaga. Hailed as the 'new Madonna', Gaga has managed to reinvigorate pop with her brand of virulently infectious electropop. Rising out of the shadow of many another popstar - she worked as a songwriter for years before someone decided her plainness didn't much matter if they dressed her like David Bowie's poodle - Gaga has become monumentally successful, breaking all sorts of records and positioning herself as the champion of the freak in all of us; a sort of latter-day, family-friendly Marilyn Manson.

Mademoiselle Gaga.

Last Friday morning she played a free concert at Rockefeller Plaza, and I was amongst the rabble queuing through the godawful hours of the morning to see her. It was sort-of enjoyable, and I'm sort-of glad I did it, but she reserves her best theatrics for audiences who are paying, and for programming broadcast after the watershed.

So, given the slavish devotion I witnessed all week, have I identified two real heroes? 300 million Americans can't be wrong.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

#23 Baked apple.

Coney Island, Fourth of July

Contrary to what you might expect, human beings don't burn. They melt, slowly, into syrupy nothingness. New York and everyone in it is gradually dissolving. The sky is a ball of haze, and the iced coffee is running out. The once-sharp outlines of the people of New York are now all wibbly, so that I'm not sure where one ends and another begins. Heed my warning, people: the apple has been baked. Please send iced coffee. Or maybe iced coffins.

Monday, 5 July 2010

#22 The magic of Macy's.

Independence Day is a holiday that has never meant a huge amount to me. Maybe it's the rampant patriotism, maybe it's how annoying I find Will Smith, or maybe it's my grudging feeling that it we shouldn't have let a couple of uppity Puritans boss us around. Anyway, it's all new as far as I'm concerned.

If you're in New York when July 4th swings around, there are a couple of Things You Must Do. One is attend the Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Championships - unless you're hung over and oversleep - and another is watch the Macy's Fourth of July firework show on the Hudson. Since 1976, Macy's has sponsored what is probably the large annual fireworks display in the world.

The throngs on the west side of Manhattan number in the millions. Including those on the New Jersey shore, three million people are thought to have turned out. The logistical operation is a massive one: the West Side Highway is closed of by a 50-block police cordon. You have to turn up hours in advance to get a spot.

That is, unless you know one of the heads of the FDNY, in which case you can turn up five minutes before the display starts, be taken in a fire truck through the police cordon, and sit on the waterfront in front of the millions of lesser attendees. OH SNAP.

The display was John's-trumpingly magnificent. What else is there to say? Fireworks just make me melt like a little boy.

Afterwards, we headed (again with FDNY escort) to Hogs and Heifers, which I was informed (and I assume this means something to somebody) is where 'Coyote Ugly' was filmed. There were lots of bras everywhere and the barmaid kept telling people they have small penises and it was all a bit overwhelming.

The other thing Macy's does for the Fourth of July, incidentally, is put on a great big sale. Which suited me, as I NOW HAVE BEDDING. (More on the trials and tribulations of moving to my new apartment to follow.)

Friday, 2 July 2010

#21 A nation obsessed.

Clichés and jokes abound about American national obsessions (communism, fast food, sex, coffee, terrible sports), but I think I have hit upon a novel one. Not completely novel, you understand - rather a new, all-encompassing obsession that explains a bunch of little obsessions.

Americans are obsessed with protein. Utterly obsessed.

Everywhere you go, you can add protein to your food. Smoothie and juice bars invariably - and I mean that in the actual, 'only ever' sense of the word, rather than 'quite often' - offer the option of protein powder for a small additional fee. It is impossible to buy a flapjack other than a protein bar. (Actually, they don't know what a flapjack is if you ask for one, so it's doubly tricky.) 'Muscle Milk' high protein drinks, and various competitive products, are advertised everywhere. Soy versions too, in case you prefer to fuck the Amazon whilst consuming a large excess of amino acids. I went into a diner and ordered pancakes a few days ago, and they were high-protein. PANCAKES. The carb-lover's staple. What the fuck is the world coming to?

Whey protein powder has invaded every echelon of shopping - supermarkets, health food stores, pharmacies. And it's given pride of place in window displays. (Why, incidentally? Do people really walk past and wonder if a health food store sells protein, when every other one in America does? And they're bloody ugly, white plastic jars. Why not put some nice dried fruit and nuts in your window, hmmm?)

And, if you don't want to go down the healthy alley, let's not forget 10% of Americans eat in McDonald's every single day. (By which I mean, unbelievably, one in ten Americans will go into a McDonald's every day of their lives - not just that in any one day 10% of Americans will visit. Presumably many more than 10% step under the Golden Arches on any given day, if you count the fair-weather diners.) You can scarcely order a protein-free meal from any of the major hamburger chains.

Now, high protein foods have a legitimate function. If you're a body builder, you need north of 1.5g of protein per kilogram of body mass daily, which is quite a lot. But do you really need that for yoga class? Did Atkins not die and go to sausage heaven a while ago? Why is every American - fat slob who sits in front of the TV all day watching 'Jersey Shore' and wanking furiously, gym bunny SoHo girl who works in fashion and is size -2, lonely librarian who frigs herself with a ruler - in such a desperate need for a nutrient that America's meat-and-dairy-heavy diet so amply provides? Were people dying of kwashiorkor en masse after 'Super Size Me', and before Muscle Milk was launched?

Let's put this in perspective: less than 3% of Americans have insufficient protein in their diet (Fulgoni, 2007). Most of those 8 million people are elderly females. If even 1% of them has tried Muscle Milk, I'll eat my own protein-rich arm.