Category Archives: New York City

Exercise in Futility

It’s been rather a while since I last wrote something here.  I’ve been frantically busy at work.  Until this year, I had exactly one instance where I had to pull an all-nighter (actually a bit more than that, as my all-nighters typically start around 7:00 am) in the service of my career.  This summer, I had four.  Such, it seems, is the way of the world….

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Exercise Your Right to Vote

Recently, message boards have been installed in the subway stations that indicate when the next train is arriving.   On the whole, it’s a good thing.  But yesterday morning, I looked up and was reminded to ‘exercise my right to vote.’  It bothered me.  If a friend reminds me to vote, it’s OK; if the League of Women Voters reminds me to vote, they’re doing their job.  But when the people who run the subway feel the need to remind me to vote, I have to wonder what the racket is.

Alas, voting seems an exercise in futility.  This year, NYC elects a mayor.  The incumbent, Bill de Blasio, is almost certain to be re-elected, not so much for his stellar achievements, but because of a dearth of opposition.  The Republican candidate, Nicole Malliotakis, doesn’t seem to have much of a platform other than that she isn’t de Blasio.

I don’t like de Blasio: he’s an echo of the leftist mayors of the past who ran the city into the ground in the 1970s and 1980s.  On the other hand, other than his influence-peddling scandals, I can’t see that he has actually done anything terribly wrong.  The wheels have not fallen off the city; crime is still at historic lows; we still have something that vaguely resembles prosperity.

But that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

The other major item this year is a referendum to hold a state Constitutional Convention.  The US constitution is short (20 pages, give or take), concise, and to the point.  The New York State constitution runs to about 300 pages, and includes all sorts of things that should properly be in the domain of the state legislature.  As a result, the actual state legislature is reduced to nibbling around the edges, and a legislature with nothing useful to do is truly the devil’s workshop.

One of the provisions of the State Constitution is that, every 20 years, there should be a referendum on whether to hold a Constitutional Convention.  Such a convention could propose amendments which then would go before the voters.

There are many who are opposed to a convention.  Civil servants, for example, don’t want anyone to change the provision that civil service pensions are sacrosanct: they can be increased at will (which the politicians will do when they’re feeling flush), but never decreased. And even if you believe that the State Constitution needs a kick in the pants, the Convention will likely not be much help, as it will be filled with the current political class, with a vested interest in the status quo.

Still, hope springs eternal.  I made the effort and got to the polls in a driving rain.  I voted for Nicole and for a constitutional convention, even though I know they’re both losing propositions.  I got an ‘I voted’ sticker, something that has appeared in NYC voting places in the last few years:
I Voted

I have to wonder what the point of the sticker is: my fascination with stickers started to wane… when I was six.

Ghostbusters 2016

Yesterday, my wife and I went to see the new Ghostbusters movie.  I’ve grown accustomed to present-day remakes and ‘reboots’ being a disappointment, but in that respect, the new version did well.  The characters fit the story, and the story flowed well.  I was entertained.  To its credit, the movie contemplates aspects of the Ghostbusters story that the original skipped, like the characters’ pasts, and the development of the tools.

To be sure, the movie turns, like most modern remakes, on overwrought computer-enhanced visuals rather than dialogue.  It has its funny moments, but lacks the sparkle and wit of the original.  I waited in vain for someone to say something like, “When someone asks if you’re a god, you say ‘YES!’!”  The scenes set in the subway were a bit lame, as well: I used to work for the outfit, and know how things are supposed to work.  But on the whole, I was enjoying myself, so these are minor quibbles.

What’s more distressing is in the details, where we see how the world has changed in the last 30 years.  It isn’t that the Ghostbusters are women this time around: it’s that they don’t know to call themselves ‘Ghostbusters’ until someone on television calls them that.  The original Ghostbusters entered the trade to ‘get rich,’ i.e. to make a productive living: the new ones don’t worry about that.  And the relationship between the Ghostbusters and the government is different: in the original, the Ghostbusters are left alone until an EPA bureaucrat decides they may be harming the environment; in the new version, they’re called before the Mayor before anything really happens, and are told to go about their business, even though they will be denounced as a fraud.

It’s a pleasant entertainment for a Saturday afternoon, but, alas, you can’t go home again.

Gender, Reconsidered

I’ve had a ‘well, maybe’ moment.

Look Past Pink and Blue

The graphic above is part of a publicity campaign from the city government.  While I’ve been railing against the notion of equal access to restrooms, it has, in fact, been the law in New York City since 2002.  It hasn’t been a problem: in fact, it’s been such a total absence of a problem that I didn’t even know that we had such a law until this graphic crossed my desk.

So I must withdraw my objection that allowing equal access to restrooms is a license for perverts.  It hasn’t happened, at least not to an extent that would suggest a problem.  I stand corrected.

Being able to go to the bathroom should not be a civil rights issue.

And yet, I wonder about the animus against the binary notion of male and female.  ‘Look past pink and blue,’ the ad says.  But for more than 99% of us, our reality is that we are pink or blue, female or male, one or the other, not both, and not neither.  And even for the transgendered, the notion of ‘pink or blue’ persists: a person is transgendered if his perception of himself as male or female does not match his equipment.  ‘Charlie,’ in the graphic above, seeks to present himself as male, whatever his origins.  If I met him on the street or at work, and didn’t know the back story, I ’d think of him as a dude, and not consider the matter further.

What is so horrible about pink and blue?

The Ninny State

Mayor DeBlasio: Stay Indoors!

Yes, it was cold last weekend.

When I was a kid, we had a name for that.  We called it, ‘winter,’ and expected that every year would bring a week’s worth of really cold weather requiring one to bundle up, think warm thoughts, and, yes, not go outside without a good reason.  There were also snowstorms, and the one or two oddly warm days that made one believe that beach season was only a week away.  We accepted it all as normal, and somehow got through it without guidance from our political leaders.

So I’d like to believe that anyone with half a brain can figure that it’s cold and it’s best to stay inside without a pronouncement from our Dear Local Leader, Mayor DeBlasio.

Does he really think his citizenry is that stupid?

But then again…

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Variations of the above image, with straight and gay couples, have been plastered everywhere in the city.  They are on subway stations, trains, buses, and advertising wraparounds of the free newspapers that one picks up on the way to the subway.

Perhaps I’m an old fudd, but I’ve always believed (even when I was a young fudd) that sex is best enjoyed in the context of a committed relationship.  I have to question the wisdom of the city government encouraging people to swing from the chandeliers (as long as they play sure!) when it apparently believes those same people don’t have the sense to get out of the cold.

And then again…

A while back, I went to the Department of Health offices to get a copy of my birth certificate.  It’s an ordinary enough government office, and the process is simple enough: get the form, fill it out while waiting on line, hand in the form with $10 (may have changed of late) and your ID, and walk out with the document.

But in addition to the stacks of forms, the Department of Health office was also stocked with fishbowls full of condoms.  I had to wonder: were some people overtaken with desire that they had to do each other on the spot?  And should the government be encouraging such activity?

Riddle me this…

Some observations over the last few weeks:

  • El Paso, on Houston Street, was one of our favorite restaurants for many years.  It was where my wife and I had discussed various ideas that led to me going into business for myself, and of course, we really liked the food.  Last spring, we went there on a Friday afternoon to find the place closed up.  I imagined that perhaps the owner had died or something.  But then, earlier this month, my wife and I were eating in the Village, and one of the waiters at that restaurant had worked at El Paso.  He told us that the landlord had substantially raised the rent, and the restaurant closed.  After lunch, out of curiosity, we went back to the site.  It looked exactly the same as when it had suddenly closed.  There was no trace of a new tenant, and not even a ‘For Rent’ sign.
  • Figaro was a sports bar near my office.  It was a pleasant spot for a business lunch without going too far afield.  At the end of 2013, on New Year’s Eve, I went there for the last time for lunch.  “This is our last day,” the waiter told us.  Their lease was not being renewed.  There was a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window for a couple of months, and then, a while later, an announcement of a sushi restaurant opening last fall.  But fall came and went, with no new place (even though I’d have preferred a sports bar).  Last week, the door was left opened.  The place was a wreck.  The next day, new signs covered the plate glass windows, with the name of the building that the storefront belongs to.  But no ‘for rent,’ no telephone number, nothing.
  • Not far from my office, on Fifth Avenue, is a building that went up fairly recently.  The storefront on the corner is a Chase bank, and the space next to it has been mostly empty for several years.  It has held temporary stores for Halloween costumes and Christmas decorations, and was used for a week for some kind of new product event, but there has been no permanent tenant since the space was built.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the owners of commercial real estate seem to be sitting on their properties, holding out for top dollar.  It seems counterproductive: an empty space not only gathers no revenue, it’s inherently an eyesore.  Get enough of them in one place, and the area–even if it’s midtown Manhattan–starts to look as if it’s going down the tubes.

And then there’s the Radio Shack.  It was a stone’s throw from my office; it saved my ass more times than I care to count as a spot to pick up a cable or a toggle switch or a soldering iron.  It closed at the end of February.  In fairness, it’s too soon to moan about yet another empty space.  But even if the store doesn’t stay empty for very long, I’m sure that whatever replaces the Radio Shack will be nowhere near as useful.

Snowjobbed

The spectacle of the Exploding Meteorologist has been a fixture of New York City winters for at least the last twenty years: the weather reporter breathlessly telling us about the monster snowstorm, which ends up yielding, perhaps, two inches.   Of course, every once in a while, a real snowstorm shows up, and the Exploding Meteorologists do their thing.

But this time, the Exploding Meteorologists were joined by an Exploding Mayor.  Yesterday’s morning news included this item:

Yeah, right, whatever.

I rearranged my schedule to get through my meetings earlier, and walked out of my last meeting at 12:20 pm.

Back in the office, I put on  WINS, the go-to radio station in New York City for bad weather.  I found that the Exploding Mayor had been joined by our Exploding Governor, Andrew Cuomo.  He admonished us, like little children, not to go out in the snow, and ordered all non-essential vehicles off the road at 11:00 pm.

I left the office about 5:00 pm, and had a pretty normal ride home, except that the trains were not as crowded because most people had left work earlier.  Back home, I learned that the ‘travel ban’ also included the subways.  Usually, the trains keep running when it snows, and during NYC’s worst snowstorm ever, in 2006, the subways kept running.  (I know, because I was travelling that day.)

At 11:00, ready to sleep, I looked out the window: there had been a substantial lull in the storm.  So much for the Exploding Meteorologists.

In the morning, my wife noted that the G train was running: we can see the viaduct from our windows.  Slowly it dawned on me: the subways could have kept running, and perhaps did to some extent. But we, as passengers, were not allowed to ride them, by order of the Governor.

The morning news reported that the storm had moved off to the east, and the travel ban had been lifted.  NYC got about a foot, although snow is continuing to fall, and New Jersey got 2-3 inches: hardly worth complaining about.  The subways are starting up and will run on a Sunday schedule for the rest of the day.

In another time, the Mayor and Governor would have declared states of emergency, ordered private vehicles off the roads, and left it at that.  Why did they feel the need to shut down mass transit?

Don’t tell me it was to protect the public: we’ve had many, many snowstorms, and this was the first time it was felt necessary to shut down the subways pre-emptively.  (Usually, in a really bad storm, lines that run outdoors are shut down on a case-by-case basis as conditions worsen.)

Is it a case of liability making cowards of us all?

Were they simply asserting their authority because they could?

Are they getting us in practice for martial law?

Whatever it was, I’m sure it wasn’t good.

Learning Something New

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It’s a beautiful clear morning. I’m out for a morning ride, the endorphins are flowing, and I pause at the former Grand Street ferry landing (now a charming little park) to write a few lines.

I recently started playing with, er, testing, Microsoft Office 365, which comes with an app for my phone with pocket versions of Word, Excel, etc. So let’s give it a shot, I thought.

I had tried opening a couple of files that I had stored on OneDrive (Microsoft’s cloud service) with no problem, but couldn’t find out how to create a new document.

Some frantic Googling revealed the answer: from the very first Office screen, tap the symbol with the plus sign somewhere in it. If it had been a simple plus sign, I would have figured it out with no trouble.

It’s so simple, so very simple, that only a child can do it….

But typing on my phone actually works better than I expected. I’ve always found answering e-mails on my phone to be annoying and clunky, but Word on my phone just seems to work.

I only hope that I can retrieve this when I get back home to post it….

A Foul Mood

I was in a foul mood last week.  I think I was on the edge of coming down with a cold, and I was teaching a class, so I had to be bright and chipper through the workday, only to come home and want to just drop into bed.

But beyond that:

  • It seems inevitable that Bill deBlasio will be our next Mayor: so inevitable, in fact, that I didn’t bother to cast an absentee ballot (more on that later).  He promises ‘a break from the Bloomberg years.’  I take that to mean a break from low crime and competent city administration (except for the snowstorm a couple of years ago).  Meanwhile, he promises to fight the good fight to reinstate the ban on large sodas.  I remember the ‘bad old days’ of the 1980s.  It didn’t bother me so much back then, as I was in my 20s and felt pretty much indestructible, but now I’m worried.  Moreover, deBlasio is a community activist, with no experience running either public or private enterprises, other than his own office as Public Advocate.  And we all know what happened the last time we elected a community activist to executive power….
  • Across the nation, the reality of Obamacare is seeping in: that if you’re not covered by your employer, you’re required to pay out of your own pocket for health insurance.  In NY, many of the requirements of Obamacare were already state law, so premiums in fact may be going down a few ticks.  But elsewhere, premiums are skyrocketing.  And then there’s the thought that, if you live in one of the states without a state insurance exchange, you’ll have to go to healthcare.gov, and tell it all your personal secrets.
  • One of the items on the ballot this year is a state Constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling.  I used to think that casinos were cool, until my wife and I went to Las Vegas and got bored with it after about an hour.  (I also can’t bring myself to wager more than about $10 at a clip on a game I know is rigged in favor of the house.)  The modern casino is a factory performing the industrial process of separating patrons from their money.  The particularly galling thing, though, is that the state wrote up the description to play up the benefits of casino gaming (more money for schools! whoopee!), rather than a more neutral description, as that way people would be more likely to vote ‘yes.’

I attend a professional conference the first week of November.  For the last couple of years, I made it a point to cast an absentee ballot, but was just too busy over the past few weeks.  But the election seems a lost cause anyway.  Tomorrow (Tuesday) is the first day of the conference.  I was going to be a tourist today with my wife, but we’re both feeling rotten.  At least I can catch up on some paperwork.

Arthur and August for Mayor

Arthur and August

About three weeks ago, two kittens, later christened Arthur and August, interrupted subway service on the Brighton line in Brooklyn.  NYCT staffers shut off power not once, but twice, and stopped train movements in order to retrieve them.  (They’ve since been adopted.)

The next weekend, the Republican candidate for Mayor, Joe Lhota (who since won his primary and is now the Republican candidate in the general election in November), who previously ran the MTA (the umbrella organization for mass transit in NYC), noted that he wouldn’t have interrupted subway service for kittens.

That was a foolish thing to say.  The issue isn’t the kittens: it’s the passengers, one of whom might take matters into his own hands and attempt to retrieve the cats himself, possibly getting hurt or killed in the process.

In another time, NYCT might have sent two guys with orange vests and flashlights to chase after the cats between trains.  They would have left the power on, so that one guy would chase after the cats, while the other would watch out for trains.  But by current rules, that’s unacceptably dangerous, so now they stop the trains and shut off the power, and what was a minor event turns into a major production.

Joe Lhota, in spite of his remarks, will probably get my vote this November.  The alternative is Democrat Bill deBlasio, who was nowhere in the primary race until he started running campaign commercials featuring his 15-year-old son.  (DeBlasio is white; his wife is black; his son is appealingly halfway, very telegenic, with a surprisingly deep voice.)

DeBlasio is running as a traditional Democrat: raise taxes on the rich and spend it on government goodies.  He says that it’s time for a break from Republican Mayors who ran the city for the past 20 years.  (And gave us a city that works, with crime a small fraction of what it was in the 1980s?)

For my part, I’d vote for Arthur and August if they were on the ballot:

  • They’ve shown that they have what it takes to survive in the big city.
  • They don’t stop when they get frisky.
  • And they won’t raise taxes.

Everything Old Is New Again

When I was a kid, on Election Day, my parents would sometimes take me inside the voting booth to see what went on.  Back then, there were mechanical voting machines, with a lever for each candidate.  Push the lever, see the little ‘X’ pop up, and when you were finished, swing over the big red lever, and all the little ‘X’s would disappear into the belly of the machine, and your vote would be recorded.  It felt simple, sure, positive.

It isn’t really fair to call that a childhood memory, since the same machines remained in service until about five years ago.  In 2009, a new system went into service, in which one would mark one’s votes on a paper ballot, and then feed it into a scanner.  It was really clunky: if you wanted your ballot to really be secret, you would have to slip it into a folder after filling it out, and then deftly pass it into the scanner so that nobody could see your votes.  The scanner would then cogitate for half a minute or so before accepting the ballot.  Still, it seemed more modern than the old machines.

This year, we will elect a new Mayor, which means that there will be primary elections in September.  If there is no clear winner for each party, there will be a runoff election shortly after.

These elections will be conducted on the old voting machines, because the election officials insist that it would not be possible to certify the results of the primary election, establish the need for a runoff, and then reconfigure the system should a runoff be necessary, in three weeks.  (It’s normally two weeks, but that day would fall on the Jewish holiday Sukkos, so the runoff was pushed a week later.)

So we’re back to the future with our old voting machines.

Now, if there were only a candidate that I’d actually want to vote for….

New York’s Next Mayor

This November, we will elect a new Mayor for New York City.  But whom?

In 2008, Mayor Bloomberg got the City Council to change the term limits law, allowing him to run for a third term.  My previous experience with third-term mayors (Ed Koch) is that the third term is when the wheels fall off.  There were two referenda for term limits in the 1990s, and I voted for them both times.

On balance, Bloomberg has been a good mayor.  I’ve bristled at his nanny-state moves, like the effort to ban large sodas, but he had been a good manager and has tried to stand up against he public employee unions.  If there had been a referendum in 2008 to change the term limit laws, I would have voted for it: in the ten years since the previous referenda, term limits haven’t actually changed things very much.

But Bloomberg got the City Council to change the law without a referendum.  (It’s a fair question how long a decision made by referendum should stand, but that’s a subject for another day.)  I thought it was a dirty trick, but in 2009, I voted for him anyway: his opponent was just another Democratic politician, ready to raise taxes, give the store away to the public employee unions, and step back from the policies that have made New York the safest big city in America.

Now it’s 2013, and Mayor Bloomberg is not running for a fourth term.  While the wheels haven’t come off like they did for Ed Koch, it’s still time for a change.  But the field is a disappointment:

  • Most of the Democratic challengers are career politicians who currently hold one office or another, and all seem to promise the same things: more government goodies and higher taxes on the rich to pay for it.  (Unlike Federal taxes, there is very little headroom for raising local taxes, as it’s easy to move somewhere else.)
  • I liked Anthony Weiner in 2009, but he didn’t make it through the Democratic primaries.  After he left Congress in disgrace for Tweeting lewd pictures of himself, the bad jokes practically write themselves.
  • Joe Lhota, the former MTA head, is probably the most promising candidate right now.  But it’s hard to tell what he stands for: I fear that he may be so used to building consensus that he will not be able to make the tough decisions.  His opponents will also be able to paint him as responsible for MTA fare hikes.
  • John Catsimatidis, owner of the Gristedes supermarket chain, is a New York success story: the immigrant kid who made good in the Big Apple.  But as a politician, he comes across as inept.
  • George McDonald is an interesting Republican candidate, but I can’t see how he can get traction.
  • Adolfo Carrion is a lifelong Democrat, but this year is running on the Independence Party ballot line, sidestepping the Democratic primaries and guaranteeing him a spot in the general election.  How that actually recommends him for office, I do not know.

We’ll see….

Snarled City

On Wednesday, it took me about two hours to get to the office, and return home, mostly walking.  Yesterday, with the alternate bus and subway service, I was able to ride most of the way, but it still took two hours each way.  Con Ed says they’ll restore power in lower Manhattan by Saturday, and with that, hopefully, we can get trains over the Manhattan Bridge.

Still, I’m lucky I don’t drive, or else my life would be overtaken by the search for gasoline.

I was transfixed by the network news last night: I’ve seen disaster reports from other parts of the world often enough, but not from my own backyard.  A woman from Staten Island, which got hit badly, complained that her neighborhood was not getting help from the city.

But as far as I can tell, the city’s plans emergency plans did not include bags of goodies for people whose houses had blown away.  You were encouraged to stay with friends on higher ground, or failing that, go to a shelter.  But if you own a home, fixing the damage is your own responsibility, with the help of insurance, or possibly federal disaster relief money.

Most of the residential areas subject to flooding in NYC are occupied not by the very poor or the very rich, but by middle-class homeowners.  Their woes may be just beginning.

Back to Work

Last week, when I knew the storm was coming, I thought I’d have a couple of quiet and productive days at home.  It didn’t work out that way: just turn on the tube, and there’s a gush of urgent reports about the storm, 90% of which I had heard the first time.

But it’s an ’emergency,’ demanding one’s immediate attention.  Yeah, right.

I had to go back to work, in my office.

The reports indicated that local buses would be running on a weekday schedule yesterday.  Simple enough, I thought: take the local bus to the Manhattan Bridge, walk across the bridge, then get a bus on the other side.

The first two parts went well enough, but it turned out that the local Manhattan bus was mostly a creature of myth and legend.  And while I cursed my laziness for getting out at 6:30 a.m., it turned out to be just the right time: lower Manhattan was still blacked out, and I crossed the bridge just as dawn was breaking.

On the way back from the office, I hopped a bus for part of the way in Manhattan, then walked across the bridge, and after waiting 20 minutes for a bus back in Brooklyn, walked the rest of the way home.

Today bits and pieces of the subway are running.  There are no trains to lower Manhattan because either the tunnels are flooded or there is no power.  I can take a train to downtown Brooklyn and get a bus over the bridge into Manhattan.  I seriously wonder how this scheme will hold up under the onslaught of even half the normal volume of passengers.

We’ll find out….

Sandy, Day 2

I stand corrected.

When I heard about ‘Frankenstorm’ last week, I was derisive: here come the Exploding Meteorologists, again, gushing about an approaching storm that would turn out to be underwhelming, just like Irene last year, Floyd in the 1990s, and at least one overhyped snowstorm every winter.

But this time it was real.  To be sure, my little corner of the world was pretty much untouched: we lost cable TV and Internet overnight, but it was up and running again this morning.  The lights stayed on, and in my travels today, the worst victims were temporary construction fences and a couple of uprooted trees.  About half the restaurants in my neighborhood were open, doing a brisk business.

But much of the city was not so lucky.  A transformer blew out in Manhattan last night, plunging 300,000 into darkness.  Over 100 houses in the Rockaways burned down last night: the area had been evacuated, the fire whipped by the wind, and there was little the Fire Department could do about it.  Parts of the subway system are still underwater, and while the politicians suggest that service might be restored in 3-4 days, in reality, they’ve only started to pump out the water.  The evening news included an interview of New York Governor Cuomo on the World Trade Center PATH platform, with the water lapping in the tracks a few inches below the surface of the platforms.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to my office in Manhattan.  It’s about a two-hour walk from my home, but the buses should be running tomorrow, so maybe that will help.

Sandy, Day 1

As I write these words, the lights have flickered for a moment, but are staying on.  Cable TV went out about 15 minutes ago; I have a pocket Internet hot spot that enables me to write this post.  The wind is blowing hard outside, but there has been relatively little rain.  It’s close to high tide, and the maximum storm surge that it’s supposed to bring.  That’s more of a concern than the rain and the wind, and if that’s peaking now, it’s one less thing to worry about.

At about 8:00 this morning, I went out to the Gowanus Canal, my handy spot for measuring storm surge.  A couple of taxis passed me on the street: I could have gone to work today!  The water was about five feet over its normal high tide, about the same as when Irene hit last year.

For the last month or so, I’ve been dreaming of roast chicken, one of the few dishes I know how to make, but haven’t had the time for this fall.  Today was the day: I prepared the chicken, threw it in the oven, and realized: if I want to have a really nice lunch, we need a bottle of wine.

Going out at 11:00 a.m., the weather felt like an ordinary autumn storm.  The sky was grey and the wind was blowing the drizzle into my face, but it wasn’t really raining.  The liquor store in my neighborhood was doing a brisk business at what I’m sure is normally a relatively slow time.  Usually, we have festive lunches at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so now I’m prepared for the holidays.

We all enjoyed the roast chicken, and then I nodded off for a while.  Later in the day, I went for a brief walk with my wife.  The wind was stronger and it was now really raining, but still more wind than rain.  The liquor store was closed for the day, but a little grocery store was open.  My wife wanted some strawberries, which they had.  And as we passed the Chinese restaurant near our apartment, we saw a guy head off on his bike to make a delivery.  Indeed we saw more bicycles than cars out on the street.

The news was nonstop Sandy reports.  A crane atop a building at 57th Street had collapsed; coastal areas were very soggy; Governor Christie of New Jersey, looking like a plumber in a running suit embroidered with ‘Chris Christie, Governor,’ berated the people who had disregarded mandatory evacuation orders, and the mayor of Atlantic City, who had opened shelters in public buildings that were subject to flooding.  He looked ready to send people to bed without their supper.  There would be no rescues, he said, until daybreak tomorrow.

So now I think I’ll watch a movie….

Sandy, Day 0

Governor Cuomo directed the public transport to shut down, and as I write this, the last train has gone by my window.  For how long?  Nobody knows.

I’ve thought about disaster preparations, and always been stymied by the thought: what am I preparing for?  I’m worried that, in the longer term, the economy will become unglued, with shortages and widespread power failures and civil unrest and God knows what else.  How do I prepare for that?  If I arm myself to protect my property, isn’t that a lost cause to begin with?  (Besides the fact that getting a pistol permit for one’s house in NYC is genuinely difficult.)

But what I’m preparing for this time is much simpler.  I expect that my family and I will be stuck in the house until Wednesday. I don’t expect damage to my apartment: I live in a stout concrete building.  I don’t expect flooding to affect the building, although there probably will be street flooding nearby.  Cable TV is the most likely utility to fail, although it held up when Irene hit last year.  A power failure is possible, but unlikely.  Water or gas failure is implausible.   (New York City’s water is delivered by gravity, and restarting the gas after it had been shut off would be such a major production that it would take something catastrophic to get it shut off in the first place.)  The latest weather maps suggest a total of 4″ of rain in the city over two days: nothing the sewers haven’t handled before, so I don’t expect trouble there.

My wife and I went to the supermarket to pick up some final items.  The store was busy for a Sunday, but mostly normal.  The shelves were being restocked, and we were able to find what we were looking for.

I get ham sandwiches from a local deli for lunch.  They have about twice as much meat as usual.  Like me, they’re expecting not to do business for a few days.

“We need water,” my wife remarked.  We have a case and a half on hand, but I’ll let her exercise her paranoia.  The Lowe’s sells cases of water for $4. She also wanted some garden items for her house plants.

Heading back from the Lowe’s, I was buttonholed by Steve the barber.  He has a tiny shop on Ninth Street that doesn’t get much business because the subway station nearby has been closed since March.  I’ve been running around like a maniac these last few months, and haven’t had time to go for a haircut.

“Do you think it’s the end of the world?” he asked me while clipping.

“If it’s really the end of the world, do you think I’d bother with a haircut?”

No, the world is not a more dangerous place than it was 15 years ago.  We’ve just been led to believe that it is.   And if this turns out to be the end of the world, or the end of New York City, at least I’m looking sharp for the occasion.

I was going to write about how we’ve wimped out: can we expect now that every storm will come with a state of emergency and a subway shutdown?  But after dinner, I find a Web site with an ’emergency preparedness checklist for perfect storm Hurricane Sandy.’  By the standard of the list, I’ve failed miserably.  I have nowhere near enough food or water stored; I haven’t boosted my intake of superfoods, immune-boosting herbs and nutritional supplements; and I have no way to defend the house against the marauding hordes that will come if there is an extended power failure.

Well, we shall see….

Soda Pop and Apartment Leases

Today, the NYC Board of Health voted to outlaw ‘sugary drinks’ larger than 16 ounces from being sold by restaurants and other businesses regulated by the Board of Health.  Six months hence, my preferred warm weather wakeup of a large iced coffee with milk and sugar will be illegal, unless it has no more than 25 calories (a packet and a half of sugar) per eight ounces.

Large diet sodas will still be legal, but I can’t imagine a fast-food chain trusting its employees to obey the law and use the big cups only for diet drinks, so we’ll all be stuck with smaller portions even if we don’t drink the sugary stuff.  However, 7-Elevens, and the self-service soda fountain in the Walgreens in Times Square, will not be subject to the law as they are not considered restaurants and not regulated by the Board of Health.

For the last six months, I’ve been meaning to send in the renewal of my apartment lease.  It’s not that I have anything against my landlord: it’s that the renewal lease is a pile of papers to be signed in duplicate, requiring eleven signatures and three initials in each copy covering:

  • Indication of the new rent, with an acknowledgement that I’m renewing the lease and choosing to renew it for one or two years;
  • An addendum to the lease, which is in fact unchanged since we moved in back in 2003;
  • A second form indicating the new rent for the renewal lease;
  • A second form in which I select whether I’m renewing for one or two years;
  • An advisory about window guards, in which I indicate whether or not children under ten years old live in the apartment;
  • An advisory about lead paint;
  • A form to indicate whether I have children under six years old, so that the landlord can inspect for lead paint (seems pointless: the building was converted from other uses about 2000, long after lead paint was outlawed);
  • And advisory that the landlord is not responsible for air conditioners, Venetian blinds, or the dishwasher (our apartment has one, but we never use it);
  • An advisory that we are not to keep a dog or other animal without the landlord’s written permission;
  • An advisory that the apartment rent is regulated because the building owner took advantage of a tax abatement, and that when the abatement runs out (in 2015) the rent will no longer be regulated (which, again, I knew back in 2003);
  • Finally, an advisory that there have been no bedbugs in the building.

Reading and signing the papers takes a half-hour; I’ve been putting it off over and over again.  Last week, I got a nasty note from the landlord giving me 10 days to send in the lease renewal or else, so tonight my wife and I sat down and confronted the pile.

Many of the pages of the renewal waste paper have their origins in city law.  The city is looking out for me, making sure I’m informed.  But the result is a giant pain in the neck.  If the landlord had sent me a one page form, requiring one signature and eleven boxes to tick, the renewal would have been back on his desk the next day.  OK, maybe the next week.

I don’t need the city telling me how much I can drink, and I don’t need fifteen pages of waste paper to renew a simple apartment lease.

Mayor Bloomberg: can you please, please just BACK OFF??

Nanny State (2 of 2)

Yesterday, I woke up cranky, and I had to show up early at a job site.  So I did what I usually do in such circumstances:  I left the house on an empty stomach, stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts near the job site, and purchased my favorite breakfast for such occasions: a large iced coffee with milk and sugar, and two coffee rolls (Dunkin’s name for cinnamon rolls).  It’s just the right combination of caffeine, sugar, and cold water for me to face a morning of icky technical problems and pompous troublemakers.

Our Fearless City Leader, Mayor Bloomberg, is proposing to outlaw sales of sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces.   So my large iced coffee would become illegal.  Delis and fast-food places would not even be able to sell bottled non-diet beverages larger than 16 ounces.  And while one could buy a 20-ounce bottle of diet soda, you couldn’t get it as a fountain drink, because drink cups larger than 16 ounces would be outlawed.

The rules apply to locations where food is prepared for consumption on the spot: restaurants, delis, fast-food places, movie theaters, stadiums, even pushcarts.  Supermarkets, drugstores, and other places where beverages are sold for consumption elsewhere are not subject to the law.

Since the rules would represent a change to existing regulations, no actual legislation is required: the Mayor can simply direct the Health Department to make it so.

C’mon, guys: I get THIRSTY!  And while I usually drink diet soda, sometimes, when I’ve had a long night, I need the energy.

OK, I know, I know: I’ll have to get two drinks.  Or maybe three.

Accessible Taxis and the Crappy Economy

Walking down the street near my office the other day, I found myself contemplating New York City taxicabs.  A few years ago, the cab scene was a monoculture of Ford Crown Victorias; there are plenty of them still around, but there are Toyotas and Ford Explorer SUVs and Transit Connect vans, which are wheelchair-accessible.  (Nothing by General Motors, though.  Weird.)

New York City is under a court order to make all its taxis wheelchair-accessible.  On a practical level, it seems absurd: the proportion of taxi passengers who use a wheelchair is so small that the cost difference for a wheelchair-accessible taxis works out to over $100,000 per wheelchair-using passenger.  Drivers don’t like the boxy vans that are commonly used: besides the issue of maneuverability in city traffic, they’re less conducive to conversation with passengers, which leads to smaller tips.

But we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates wheelchair-accessible taxis and buses and countless other things.  OK: it’s the law, so we have to accept it.

For a moment, I contemplated the New York City I grew up in: the seat of commerce and finance of the most productive and powerful nation on Earth.  We had big Checker cabs that were almost wheelchair-accessible.  It wouldn’t have taken much redesign to make it happen, back then.

If the world had gone forward as we imagined it would in the 1960s, we’d probably have wheelchair-accessible taxis, buses, subways, and everything else by now.   We’d consider it a statement of our power and prosperity that we could make these simple amenities accessible to everyone, and we wouldn’t begrudge the cost.  And if the world had gone forward as we imagined it in the 1960s, I’d be planning my next vacation on the Moon.

But it didn’t happen that way.  After the novelty of visiting the Moon wore off, we stopped doing it.  We stopped being productive, because it’s cheaper to do productive things elsewhere.  The prosperity that would have made such things as wheelchair-accessible taxis effortless faded away.  In its place we have the enforced stinginess of the bean counters.

If we were truly a rich country, we’d have wheelchair-accessible taxis as a matter of the corporate pride of the taxi operators.

But we’re not really as rich as we imagine, so we have wheelchair-accessible taxis by government fiat.

Or, we’ll get them, eventually.

A Little Soggy

I know that Irene caused flooding and wind damage elsewhere, but in my little corner of Brooklyn, it was generally a dud.

It rained late Saturday night through most of Sunday morning, but with much less wind than I had been led to expect.  The power even stayed on.  It seemed like any of a hundred storms with no name and no press agent.

At 9:00 am yesterday, I put on my rain slicker and headed out.  There was moderate rain and some wind, and the Gowanus Canal was about 5′ over its normal level, causing some local flooding, but nothing dire.

In the afternoon, the report came that the subways might not be running for Monday morning.  The MTA posted pictures of flooding of their train yards near Coney Island and in Harlem.

In the evening, I went out for a walk with my wife.  The setting sun was finally breaking through the clouds, and it was windier than earlier in the day.  Weird.

And as I write this on Monday morning, the news reports that the subways are running again.  Let’s hope….

Hurricane Irene

I missed writing about the earthquake earlier this week: I was on a business trip in the middle of Pennsylvania, when the room vibrated for a bit, as if there were a subway train passing underneath.  I suspected that it was an earthquake, but the power stayed on, nothing actually shook, and nothing further happened.  It was only afterward, when I watched the evening news, that the dimensions of the event were clearer.  My wife, in Brooklyn at the time, was unaware of it.

Anyhow, if the debt brouhaha and an earthquake were not enough, today we await the arrival of Hurricane Irene, which is now pounding North Carolina and headed north:

  • The City has ordered the evacuation of locations in Zone A.  The zones are part of the citywide coastal storm plan, but there is no simple logic to them: it’s not like ‘five blocks from the water.’  You have to look it up on the map, or through the City Web site.  And while the map has been printed in the newspapers, it isn’t clear enough to resolve the details.  I live in Zone B: if I were two blocks south, I’d be in Zone A; if I were two blocks north, I’d be in Zone C; and if I were three blocks north, I wouldn’t be in any zone, and presumably safe from coastal flooding.  We live in a stout building, with windows high enough to escape any downed trees; we’re staying put.  I’m sure there will be plenty of confusion about evacuations today.
  • Mass transit, including subways, buses, and commuter trains, will be shutting down completely after noon today.  It’s the first time that I can remember a total shutdown because of weather.

The latest reports suggest that the storm is weakening somewhat, and will probably hit the city as a tropical storm.  I figure that we have about a 50% chance of losing cable TV, and 30% of losing power.

Well, we’ll see.

Quickies

  • This week, the New York Post raised the price of the daily paper to 75 cents from 50.  I’m sure its chief competition, the Daily News, will follow suit before the end of the summer.
  • The back of my MetroCard features the word ‘optimism:’
    Optimism?
    A line at the bottom of the card gives credit to Reed Seifer, under the MTA’s Arts for Transit program.  I’m compelled to ask:

    • Is this really art?
    • Did Reed Seifer actually get paid for suggesting the word ‘optimism’ on the back of a MetroCard?
    • If so, did the person responsible for that at the MTA lose his/her job as a result?  (Last I checked, they were crying broke!)
    • Are you now filled with optimism after reading this?
  • For the last year or so, New York City has been giving restaurants and other food establishments ratings of ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C,’ based on their sanitary inspection results.  A restaurant in my neighborhood got written up in the newspaper for hiding their ‘C’ rating.  The next week, the sign was back up, but the orange ‘C’ had faded into invisibility.  It looked as if the sign had simply faded in the sun, but still I have to wonder….

Snowstorm Recovery

A couple of thoughts about the snowstorm that arrived Sunday and dumped about two feet of snow on the city:

  • The storm tied for sixth place among all-time snowfalls recorded in New York City in the past 150 years or so.  Among these seven greatest storms, four of them were in the past eight years, while the fifth was in 1996.  It’s definitely gotten snowier since I was a kid.  I don’t know if it’s global warming at work, or the coming of a new ice age, or God knows what.  But then, since I don’t drive, I actually like the snow.
  • Everyone’s moaning about how long it is taking to clean up afterward.  The F train was out for a day and a half (and it usually keeps running), and even now, three days later, there are a lot of unplowed streets out there.  It’s funny: those other storms in recent years took place under the same mayor we have now.  And it surprised me at the time how quickly the streets were cleared.  What happened?

Glass Bank

Glass House Bank

One of my earliest memories of midtown Manhattan as a little boy, besides obvious things like the Empire State Building, was the glass bank building at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street.  I most keenly remembered the safe deposit vault at street level, that used to be opened during business hours.

Glass Bank Vault

As I grew up, it remained in my mind as the essential image of what a bank ought to be.  When I was a young man, it was a Manufacturers Hanover, which got swallowed by Chemical, which then got swallowed by Chase.  The ATM lobby was added as the machines came into use.  I don’t remember exactly when they stopped opening the vault during business hours, but it hasn’t been opened in a while.

It was pretty clear that the sleek, modern bank building had become an anachronism: a horrific waste of value to have a four-story building in midtown Manhattan.  It became clear that the end was near when Chase set up a new branch in an office building one block north.

Today was the last business day at the glass bank.  I don’t know what will happen next: perhaps some other bank will set up there, but I rather doubt it.

Cordoba House

It’s been a while since I wrote.  I’ve been occupied with other things.  I’ve been able to kick the blogging software in the pants so that others can register and post comments.  If you register and don’t post a comment within three days, your registration will be deleted.

*          *          *

The big  issue this summer has been the proposed mosque and community center about two blocks north of the World Trade Center site.  An Islamic group bought a distressed building, damaged when the landing gear of one of the planes hijacked on 11 September hit it, and is currently using it for prayer services.  There is now a plan to build a shiny new mosque and community center on the site.  It used to be called ‘Cordoba House,’ but the developers of the plan are now calling it ‘Park51.’  No matter: I’ll stick with the former name, as I believe it’s more honest.

My first thought is if the local Islamic community is pooling their dollars to build this facility, we in the larger community have no rational basis to oppose it.  It’s their building and their land.

And the  First Amendment to the Constitution begins ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;’ which seems fairly straightforward.  We don’t have to like Cordoba House; we don’t have to support it; but we must grant its right to be there.

Opponents of Cordoba House make three points:

  • Funding for the mosque is currently unclear: it may be coming from Saudi Arabia, and not the local community.
  • Islam, in addition to providing moral and spiritual guidance, posits a political and legal system.  Cordoba House, consistent with history, represents the political aspect of Islam ‘planting the flag’ in New York City.
  • Since the 11 September terrorists were followers of Islam, it’s disrespectful to have an Islamic center so close to the death and destruction of the World Trade Center site.

While all these points may be true, none of them represent a valid exception to a basic First Amendment right.  The First Amendment says nothing about what a religion is, or how it may be funded, a requirement to be ‘respectful.’  Islam may have its political aspects, but it would be a major effort (and probably not realistic) to establish that it is not actually a religion.

Still, people seize on the last argument to suggest, ‘perhaps it could be built somewhere else.’  If Islam is really the dark, powerful force that some imagine it to be, such moaning would only make us look weak and stupid.

What really bothers me about Cordoba House, more than its funding or its imagined political intent, is that when it is finished, the World Trade Center site will still be a hole in the ground.

Bicycle Paths

Recently, the city has had its contractors running around painting the streets green in my neighborhood to designate bicycle paths:

Ninth Street Bicycle Paths

But my neighborhood is just an instance of a larger pattern.  New bike paths are being set up all over the city.  In some streets in Manhattan, pavement markings call for cars to park in what seems to be the middle of the street, so that the curb lane can be given over to cyclists.

On the one hand, I’m a bicyclist, and I appreciate anything the city can do to make my trip easier and safer.  But given that the city supposedly has a budget crisis, there are other things that I’m sure would be a better use of scarce funds.

Maybe it’s stimulus money: our tax dollars at work.  At least it’s work and jobs for people.

Still, I’m suspicious of this flurry of activity.  Are there plans for gasoline to go up to $50/gallon next year so we’ll all have to ride bicycles?

You Can’t Go Home Again, Part 2

Yesterday I finally got around to seeing the new version of The Taking of Pelham 123, the story of a New York City subway hijacking.  The original 1974 version, with Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau, was one of the touchstones of my adolescence, and the first R-rated movie that my parents took me to see.

The reviews of the new version were all similar: it’s a good movie, but don’t compare it with the original.  Alas, such a comparison is inevitable: the new version sucks.

When the original was made, the Transit Authority was afraid that someone might actually try to hijack a train.  While much of the movie was actually filmed on the subway, a disclaimer at the end indicated that the TA did not render any technical assistance. Nevertheless, the movie presented an authentic view of the subway and its operation.

The current version was made with the full cooperation of the TA, and they seemed to go our of their way to get the details wrong.  If you ride the real subway regularly, the version in the current Pelham will seem ass-backwards.

Some of the biggest howlers come from the abject rearrangement of the city to fit the script.  There is no Federal Reserve Bank in Brooklyn, and the police car delivering the money appears a half-block from its destination (Grand Central Terminal) before getting wrecked on First Avenue.  And a train can’t go from the Lex line to Coney Island without backtracking.

While John Travolta and Denzel Washington put in good performances, they’re done in by the script.  Travolta is Ryder, a former Wall Streeter who was thrown in prison for embezzlement and now sports a tough-guy tattoo.  He is violent, but strangely philosophical when he talks on the radio.  The real Ryder (like the one in the 1974 movie) would have known to state his demands and shut up.  (But then, of course, there wouldn’t be a movie.)

Denzel Washington is Garber, a manager demoted to the Control Center because of an alleged bribe.  At least the scriptwriters tried to make him a realistic Control Center operator: he talks the talk and looks plausible through the made-up procedures.  But we lose him, too, when he turns into an action hero.

In brief, the charm of the original Pelham is that it feels real.  The new version does not.  The original turns on crisp dialogue, much of which has been replaced with psychobabble.  Perhaps if I had watched it in another frame of mind, I could have laughed at all their stupid mistakes. But as it was, I just found it annoying.

Nevertheless, I’ll probably get the DVD when it comes out, and keep it as a benchmark of how far we’ve gone down since 1974.

Quickies

  • One of the local throwaway newspapers, AM New York, ran a survey with the question, “Do the subway disruptions ruin your weekend?”  Every weekend, NYCT rearranges the service on some part of its network in order to do construction of one kind or another.  They post a list of changes a week before, and while I’ve had some unpleasant surprises, I can’t say that it’s ‘ruined’ my weekend.  Evidently other people’s weekends are far more brittle than mine:  64% of respondents answered ‘yes.’
  • The Dow Jones Industrials dropped below 7000 today, down over 50% from its all-time high, below where it fell when the Internet bubble burst, below where it was when the Internet bubble even started to inflate.  Citibank and AIG have been effectively taken over by the government, which means they’re probably dead.
  • Hulu.com is a Web site with streaming videos of old TV shows and a handful of movies.  Alec Baldwin appears in a commercial promoting it as a space alien looking forward to gorging on softened human brains.  The commercial is very effective: you wonder, for a moment, if Alec Baldwin really is a space alien and Hulu really is a plot to soften the brains of the populace before the invasion.  Nevertheless, they have an interesting selection of TV shows, probably worth the risk of having my brain turned to a ripe banana.

Shea Stadium

Editorial Note:  I know, it’s been rather a while (over a month!) since I last wrote.  Once upon a time, I pretty reliably had at least a half-hour a day for contemplation and… blogging.  But it is a harder world out there, and one of the ways that it is harder is that one has less time for such things.

On Thursday, my work took me out to Queens.  Riding the 7 train, I saw the nearly-completed Citi Field.  But what had happened to Shea Stadium?

I had sort of expected that it would be demolished in a grand theatrical style, but I guess that Citi Field is too close for that. Or perhaps we’re still in shock over 11 September, and can’t stand to see something blown up.

Instead, it was quietly taken down, piece by piece, leaving only piles of rubble.  By April, it should all be carted away and replaced by a parking lot, as one cannot have a modern stadium without ample parking.

Citi Field, the new stadium, looks vaguely like pictures I’ve seen of Ebbets Field.  It’s charming, I’m sure.  But Ebbets Field doesn’t mean anything to me: it was gone before I was born.  My baseball memories all live at Shea.

And now it’s gone, in the name of… what?  A ‘more intimate venue for baseball’?  It’s baseball, dammit, not ballroom dancing!  One can only pack so many seats close to the field: for the rest of us, baseball is something that is inherently witnessed from a distance.

What else is Citi Field supposed to give us?  I’ve bought Mets tickets often enough that they sent me a flyer in the mail:

  • Superior sightlines:  Does this mean, ‘you can see the field better’?  Shea had some really crappy seats with only a partial view of the field.  But from the rest of the seats, you looked out and saw… a ballfield.  Maybe you’ll be able to see it better now, but a billion dollars’ worth better?
  • Wide, comfortable seats:  I never had a problem fitting in the seats, and I’m watching a baseball game, not flying to Europe.  (Or is it that the general population has gotten wider?)
  • Spacious aisles and rows, with generous legroom:  OK, I’m 6′ tall and always can go for a little more legroom.  If you give me a foot more legroom, I’ll be tickled.  But from the pictures, it looks like only a few more inches.
  • Wide concourses that invite fans to move around the entire ballpark:  Why, why, why???  When I go to a baseball game, I make one trip to the concession stand, and one trip to the can.  If I want to go wandering around, I can walk around the neighborhood with my wife: it’s much cheaper.
  • Upscale dining options, including… a climate-controlled restaurant:  Spare me!  Part of the live baseball experience is the concession-stand food, eaten alfresco in the stands.  If you want air conditioning, stay home!  (And if they’ve gotten rid of the sausage sandwiches, my preferred downscale dining option, I may consider becoming a Yankees fan.)

At Shea, there were ten major categories of seats, not counting the really fancy seats behind home plate.  Now there are 26, a feat accomplished by zoning each level into ‘infield’ and ‘outfield,’ and further charging extra for the first few rows. The better to juice the fans, I guess.

Yes, I’ll go to see the Mets at Citi Field.  I may even like the new stadium when I see it.

But for now, I’m ticked.