May 2, 2013
How I Became A Manhattanite

You know you’re in Manhattan when someone who looks like a harassed, overweight father-of-three knocks you aside as you ascend onto the Avenue of Americas from the subway station below. 

I had been attempting to make conversation with the besuited businessman, as he barked numbers into a cellphone and barged through the crowds of human traffic. We were on 40th Street and 6th Avenue, a busy crucible of stressed-out Fed-Ex personnel, slovenly construction workers in Timberland boots, and coffee-clutching power-suited commutati who use the word “Hamptons” without sneering. “Could you tell me where the nearest record store is?” I asked, as he walked away. “Or, like, a place to get drip coffee?” But he was gone, the scent of Old Spice still lingering in the cinerous morning sunshine.

O, city center! How best to navigate your overstocked sidewalks and honking lanes of chrome machinery? You can swim upwards like a salmon in a stream, hoping not to be grasped by one of the brown bears at every corner. Or you can sink like a sea-monkey, performing your own brand of cryptobiosis for an audience of none.

But maybe there’s another way — which is why, in the time-honored way of lazy journalists everywhere, I dressed in a fucking suit for a day to educate myself about Manhattan’s rich, overfed, depressed bourgeoisie. Manhattan is now a byword for a wealthy wonderland of tourist kitsch, where out-of-towners press their faces against tour bus windows to get a glimpse of the locals’ decadent Sex in the City lifestyles. In Brooklyn, however, it is little more than the name of a drink.

Given how strange it is to live across the river from a place that is no longer a cultural reference point and can’t quite get over that fact, I decided to embed myself among the frathouse powerbros of Murray Hill, the disillusioned thirtysomething professional women of the West Village, and the God-fearing immigrants who I can only assume live in hostels and crack-dens across the city, to see what their slow, lingering retreat from cultural relevance could teach me and my Brooklyn compadres.

First I needed to outfit myself. Bergdorf and Goodman was too crowded, and so was Saks Fifth Avenue. I shoved through the crowds of tourists at Prince Street to find some overpriced art gallery masquerading as a clothing store. A bored-looking Italian salesman hustled me into buying a suit for $1,400. While waiting at the cash register, I picked up a pastel-colored tie from a basket. “Are these factory made?” I asked. “Straight from Bangladesh!” said the salesman. I tossed them in the plastic bag, and he rang up the $199 sale, smiling like a factory owner plastering over the splintering lines in his basement ceiling.

Then, I shaved myself in a McDonalds bathroom with an electric razor bought on the Bowery.

Next, I realized that to get the true Manhattan experience I would need to hire a cab. A frazzled-looking young gentleman preaching the gospel at West 4th Street station told me all the cabs had bedbugs, and were controlled by an army of lizard men who lived in the moon. Nevertheless I stuck my hand out in the fashionable Manhattan manner, and was soon being driven uptown in my own private automobile. “Driver, your clock is going awfully fast,” I said. “And the time appears to be 11.45, not 13.75.” Once I learned these digits represented the price of my journey, I decided to walk the rest of the way. Whatever bearded bureaucrat controls these prohibitively costly vehicles should be shot at dawn.

My lack of wheeled transport meant I had to pass up lunch in Troppocaro, the Michelin-starred eaterie where some twat from Europe grills steaks in a midtown hotel and charges $90 a plate. Instead, I dropped into one of Manhattan’s wonderful “Subway” restaurants, which is presumably named after the underground railroad of the same name. “I was sort of hoping you spoke English,” I said to the Middle Eastern-looking gentleman behind the counter. “I do, he said. “I am American.” What jovial wit our foreign friends have brought to these shores! My meatball “submarine” set me back just $5, despite measuring almost twelve inches, and its rich tomato flavors transported me to the verdant fields of Sicily. Troppocaro can wait for another time.

And what trip to Manhattan would be complete without a journey to the heart of New York, where all the residents of this city feel truly at home — Times Square, where grinning merchants rub shoulders with costumed entertainers of every stripe. It seemed as if there were some kind of public event on, or perhaps an artisanal street fair, for it was filled with New Yorkers of every shape and color. Many wore matching T-shirts saying “New York 2013” and almost all were enthusiastically photographing the lurid neon advertisements. Aha, I thought. Perhaps this is one of Manhattan’s famous “flash mobs”, where locals dress as tourists to fool onlookers? I didn’t want to miss out on this classic Manhattan experience, so I joined in until a man dressed as a Sesame Street character began humping my leg. Dazed with the exuberant joy of it all, I hopped back on my fixed-wheel bicycle back to Brooklyn.

But my brush with New York taxicabs wasn’t over. In fact, one traveling down Seventh Avenue knocked me clean off my bicycle, without even a hoot of apology. I picked myself up and wandered into the nearest building in search of medical aid. Lo and behold, it was only the New York Times headquarters! A pleasant middle-aged man named Henry Alford sat me down to help with my injuries, and quizzed me how I had ended up coming all the way from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He seemed very interested in my quest, and it struck him that perhaps his own publication might feature a story about my fabled borough. “Be careful though,” I told him. “Your article could easily end up being a smirking, patronizing hack job that would make your dead tree employers look out-of-touch and irrelevant.” I feel confident he heeded my advice.

It’s been a month since my Manhattan sojourn. The few hours I spent there taught me many things, but among them this: Manhattanites are actually just like us! They eat food, and occasionally travel in wheeled vehicles, and drink costly alcoholic drinks. They may disdain small enterprise, fashion and anything which might be represented as an alternative lifestyle, but gosh darn it these folks are fine by me. So the next time I want to pick up a “hot dog” — actually a german sausage, boiled in stock, and served in a brioche bun — or visit an authentic, American 7/11, I’ll know exactly where to go. And I’ll probably wear a suit.

(With apologies to The New York Times)

April 4, 2013
American Things I Just Don’t Understand #1: Seamless

I’ve been living in the U.S. for over three years now, and have attempted to assimilate as best I can with American culture and society while remaining English in character. It’s a tricky balancing act sometimes. As any English ex-pat in America can tell you, you begin to translate yourself pretty quickly — the bother of having to repeat yourself every time you say “trousers” or “aubergine” tends to drum those words out of your vocabulary. It’s harder to adjust to certain shared American experiences that you have never been privy to. The example I always reach for is Dr Seuss, whose books are so ingrained in the collective American childhood that his characters have entered the slang. I never read a Dr Seuss book, so far as I can recall, so references to Sneetches, Grinches and the like float over my head. I do feel, however, as if I’ve inwardly digested a hefty portion of Americana since 2009. Linguistically I go all the way — it’s all soccer, pants, and soda for me, now — while I’ve happily learned to enjoy American holidays and pastimes from Thanksgiving to baseball. 

But some parts of American life will forever remain incomprehensible to me. I will never say the word “Graham” as anything other than Gray-am despite the American diminution to Gram. I use the word infrequently enough that I don’t feel the need to conform just to be understood first time. I’m happy to repeat myself for Gray-am. My girlfriend is baffled by my dislike of coke floats. I just can’t understand why anyone would put ice cream in a glass of coke. Have one or the other, fine, but don’t spoil them both by combining them. To me, it makes about as much sense as dunking a burrito in a pint of beer. 

This column, then, is the first in a series dedicated — as the title so subtly suggests — to American Things I Just Don’t Understand. I’d like to begin by writing about Seamless. To those of you unfamiliar with Seamless, it is a website/app which acts as a portal to order food from local restaurants in city centers like New York, Washington D.C, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The idea is you can browse menus on a single website rather than having to scour the internet to actually find a restaurant yourself, then order through them and not go straight to the source. It’s a one-stop-shop for ordering “take out” food, and makes money by taking a small cut from each transaction. And it makes a lot of it; Seamless generated an extraordinary $85 million in revenue last year, and is expected to top $100 million this year. All for doing what, exactly? Saving customers what can only be a few minutes of their time to order food without the hassle of speaking to anyone. How is this one of America’s few businesses successes of the past few years?

Seamless exists for people who can’t be bothered to cook; can’t be bothered to spend time finding a restaurant they like; and order food so often they don’t want to think about it. On all three counts, I am not one of those people. I cook almost every night. I enjoy it. On the rare occasions I do order in food, I want to spend time finding a place I like. And once I’ve found it, I’ll use it again. I also don’t mind spending a few minutes on the phone ordering it myself. Maybe it’s not Seamless I don’t understand, but the very concept of “convenience food” as it exists in America. In England, an entire market exists for “ready meals” you can prepare yourself in minutes. It runs from low-end frozen meals in Tesco and Asda to do-it-yourself duck a l’orange and shrimp jalfrezi in Waitrose or Marks and Spencer. That upmarket, costly segment of the market does not really exist here; microwaveable or ready meals are nearly always strictly junk. Evidently, to much of the American middle class, convenience food means having your food cooked and brought to your door. So popular is it that an entire sub-industry exists to service it. That’s a level of convenience my penny-pinching English soul just can’t comprehend.  

March 28, 2013
On bad reviews

The Germans probably have a word for the joy of reading bad reviews. Schlechteberichtfreude, or something. Anyway, it deserves a word. An accomplished castration of a dumb Hollywood blockbuster can be both amusing and edifying. Amusing: I always remember Time Out’s review of Leviathan, written in the style of a letter to Hollywood producers. Edifying: check out David Edelstein’s recent review of Olympus Has Fallen, which links Hollywood’s fetishistic love of violence and revenge with America’s gun culture. Up this week is GI Joe: Retaliation, a typical slice of brainless artifice designed to sell toys, burgers and video-games. My old employers at Little White Lies have already chimed in, with a review by David Jenkins stuffed with good lines. “Militaristic horse puckey” indeed. I’m sure other stinking reviews will follow (A.O. Scott always seems to review the most stupid films of the week; it’s almost as if the man has a masochistic streak.), as I doubt this film has much to recommend it to highbrow critics. I’ll enjoy reading them.

But as much as I love a good appraisal of a film’s widespread failings — and quite like writing them too — I do wonder what purpose it serves for critics to review films like this week after week. Movies like GI Joe: Retaliation aren’t designed to appeal to critics, nor to their readers. Its intended audience is the male pre-teen and young adult demographic, apparently the only slice of the populace still willing to spend $20 on a movie ticket and some popcorn. No doubt their willingness to spend a further $50 on GI Joe tie-ins makes them a still more attractive demographic to the moneymen who bankroll banal, special effects-heavy blockbusters based upon existing franchises.

I think we’re getting to the point where we should stop calling these things “films.” This species of blockbuster shares certain characteristics with actual movies: both, however tangentially, feature scripts and actors saying lines. You go and see both in a movie theater. But the GI Joes and Battleships and Transformers of the world are so far removed from the art of film-making — continuity editing that tells a story; real, human characters; a coherent narrative arc — that it might be time to introduce a new word for this form of entertainment, having crossed the line from movie to spectacle.

And yet, movie reviewers are still expected to spend hours of their week sitting through the latest sequel or remake or feature-length toy commercial, before assessing it through a sharp critical lens. Many of these people have graduate degrees in film criticism, able to deliver lectures on Eisenstein or Godard or Malick. They know the difference between fill light and key light. Why are we sending these people to review Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance? We don’t send theater critics to review Disneyland rides, or dispatch restaurant critics to appraise Taco Bell’s Dorito Locos. Yes, it’s fun to do those things occasionally, as a kind of high culture-low culture clash (That infamous Pete Wells review of Guy Fieri’s restaurant last year springs to mind). But what is the point of doing it week after week, beyond sneer value? A.O. Scott’s readers aren’t going to go and see GI Joe: Retaliation. They might enjoy chuckling at whatever pap the flyover masses are consuming this week, but that’s about as far as the value of these reviews go. Surely we might be better off devoting more space in our newspapers and websites to small or independent films or documentaries that need the coverage. Schlechteberichtfreude can be fun. But our cultural arbiters probably deserve better content to chew on. 

 

February 28, 2013
Cause and Effect

image

Yes it is a start — it’s the start of our spiral back into recession. This is sadly typical of the view in certain quarters that government spending ought not to be considered part of our economy, and that all those federal employees are somehow keeping good private sector people out of a job. Federal dollars aren’t a means to an end. Every dollar that the government pays to, say, a FEMA worker goes back into the economy, whether it’s through the gas they put in their car, the food they order at a restaurant, or the electricity bills they buy from a local provider. So firing 170,000 people would actually strip a whole lot of money out of the economy, in one abrupt yank. That will do none of us any good — not least the people who are relying on those jobs to feed families and pay mortgages. People are free to rage about how the government got so large, and discuss ways to make it smaller or more effective. But celebrating the loss of 170,000 jobs (though I can’t believe it’s actually that many) is both heartless and ignorant, no matter which side of the debate you’re on. 

February 27, 2013
A Beehive For Montana’s 5th Congressional District

This is a humorous column recently rejected by McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Read, and laugh as you see fit.

A Beehive For Montana’s 5th Congressional District

Every four years, the Rocky Mountain Express-Courier is presented with the opportunity to endorse a candidate for Montana’s 5th Congressional District, the 157-square-mile octagon of land that we are proud to call home. For the last twenty-four years, we have been pleased to endorse Steve Duncliffe for the job of representing this district as a Republican in the U.S. Congress.

On paper, it is not hard to understand our long-standing support for Congressman Duncliffe. Until recently, this Vietnam veteran has served the district well during his time in Congress, sitting on Ronald Reagan’s House Appropriations Committee, and playing a crucial role in winning federal funding for highway I-192, which links Rocky Mountain and Stony Plains.

Sadly, Congressman Duncliffe’s voting record in recent years has shown him all too eager to aid his Washington cronies in the spending of taxpayers’ money. A lifetime within the Beltway has caused him to forget the Montanan values of thrift, integrity and a strong work ethic. We now believe that Montana’s Mighty Fifth deserves a different approach to the tired old politics of the Republican establishment.

Fortunately for the 1,102 residents of this district, there is an independent candidate in this year’s election worthy of their vote. And that candidate is the beehive hanging beneath the oak tree at the Bighorn rest stop on the I-36.

Now, we recognize that the beehive is no ordinary candidate. For one thing, it is not a human being capable of rational thought, and instead a bulbous cylinder of honeycombs housing several thousand bees. But we believe that the beehive has shown greater character and support to the people of this district than Congressman Duncliffe — and without siphoning any new taxes out of their pockets.  

The beehive has long been an invaluable friend to the district’s farmers, happily pollinating their crops for several years now with no demand for recompense. Additionally, its hard-working colony of bees has produced jar upon jar of delicious honey, whose sale at church and school bake sales has provided vital revenue for the neediest in the community. The bees’ decision to build their home here in Granite County, beneath a tree in the Bighorn rest stop, represents the very best of the pioneering American spirit.

While Congressman Duncliffe has shown a lamentable lack of courage in standing up to Washington’s big spending leaders, the beehive has never been afraid of confrontation. Just ask 11-year-old Timothy Wainscot of Flint Mills, whose attempt to shake the beehive out of its oak tree last summer ended in his hospitalization with multiple bee stings. Voters eager to see Nancy Pelosi stretchered out of the House chamber in anaphylactic shock will know which candidate to support in this year’s election.

The beehive would bring no hint of an agenda to Congress, nor any obligations to donors. Happily, it would be unlikely to give even scant support to President Obama’s progressive agenda — again, unlike Congressman Duncliffe, whose vote in support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program bill in 2008 rightly still rankles voters in this conservative district. We doubt the beehive would have voted for such a wasteful use of taxpayer money. Indeed, it would be highly improbable for a beehive to vote for anything at all.

Time and time again, we have heard Montanans speak of sending a message to Congress. We cannot think of a better message to send than the election this November of a confederacy of bees, whose ability to work together for the benefit of their hive shows up the habitual ineffectiveness of our congressional leaders to govern as a unified body. No one understands the quiet art of compromise as well as the humble worker bee.

We had hoped Congressman Duncliffe might have responded better to the upstart candidacy of the beehive — but he has neither produced honey for our district’s poor, nor helped pollinate our farmers’ crops. And in last week’s congressional debate, his voice was entirely inaudible over the formidable drone of his opponent. Montana deserves a strong voice in Congress, not the tired rhetoric of a six-term Washington elite.   

Therefore, our endorsement goes to the beehive, whose persistence, generosity and humility have earned it a term in Congress. Congressman Duncliffe has earned nothing but our contempt.

February 27, 2013
16 months

I can’t adequately explain why the length of my absence from Tumblr is comparable in months to the age of a toddler. In my defence, I have been using Twitter a lot. In any case, I plan to be using this space to do some writing. If you don’t like it, unsubscribe. If you do, spread it around. 

October 21, 2011
At last, a warming hat for your beard. Must-ache Santa for one for Christmas. (Sorry.) (via Beardo)

At last, a warming hat for your beard. Must-ache Santa for one for Christmas. (Sorry.) (via Beardo)

October 20, 2011

itsallgoodmostly:

Maybe you’ve seen these around, Duke Riley’s illustrations for the NYC MTA.

LOVE these. Always grab my attention.

October 20, 2011
Behold, the timballo! Only $65 a head for you and your 14 closest friends, and you will probably not die trying to finish it. (via Grub Street)

Behold, the timballo! Only $65 a head for you and your 14 closest friends, and you will probably not die trying to finish it. (via Grub Street)

October 12, 2011
More retro movie posters, this time from Adam Rabalais. Won’t someone buy me one please?

More retro movie posters, this time from Adam Rabalais. Won’t someone buy me one please?

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