Some thoughts, observations and brainfarts from my most recent trip:
NOTE: I actually wrote this post a week ago, but I’ve been trapped in bed ever since with fevers, migraines, hacking coughs and all kinds of nastiness. I feel like I’m finally recovered enough to sit at my desk and hammer the publish button. But, I’m not gonna lie, some grapes or a massive outpouring of public sympathy would be nice. I’ve got a hell of a lot of catching up to do in my inbox when I finally get back to work.
New York City really does feel like the center of the world. You can be walking aimlessly while stumbling in to celebrities, faces and events that are usually reserved for Hollywood and TMZ. There’s an incredible vibe in the city. I’m not sure I’d want to live in Manhattan, but I can imagine how inspiring it must be to work there.
New York also has the aura of people ‘making it happen’ at the height of their professions. Everybody is walking somewhere with purpose, you’re never more than a stone’s throw from some good hustling, and the city reeks of opportunity. If I lived in a small town in America, I would move here like a whippet to give myself the best career chances.
Visiting the 9/11 memorial is a surreal experience. It’s tough to bridge the disconnect between seeing the terrible events that unfolded on a television, and imagining them happening on the ground you’re standing on. I’d drunk multiple cocktails over lunch before getting to the memorial, but I sobered up almost instantly on reaching the entrance. There’s an aura to the site that brings you crashing to your senses as soon as you enter.
Tipping in New York City is messed up. I’m sorry, but it is. This made me laugh though:
“Wait, you’ve got a problem with our tipping? Then get the f- out, you limey prick!“
My problem with tipping in New York City is simple. It’s a massive pain in the balls. Should I tip 18%? 20%? 30%?
Where I come from, tipping is a bonus for going beyond the call of duty. At the risk of sounding like Mr. Pink reborn, I should point out that I’m more than happy to tip in line with a foreign culture, even if I don’t agree with it. It seems that many employers in New York City adopt a policy of underpaying service staff (often below minimum wage) on the assumption that those workers will make the money back in tips.
That’s not really a problem when you go out to dinner. You can just add the tip to your bill and have it whacked on the credit card. But Jesus mothershagging Christ, how many people require tips out here?
There’s the guy who carries your bags, the guy who calls you a cab, the maid who tidies your room, the delivery guy who brings your pizza…. endless hoards of servicemen and women waiting to be tipped a fixed percentage, or a few dollar bills, for something that is nailed down in their job description. It shouldn’t be this way.
I simply don’t have enough dollar bills in my wallet to tip every last act of service like it’s some kind of noble gesture I haven’t already paid for. When you pay for a hotel room, you expect somebody to deal with your bags. When you pay for a cocktail, you expect it to be made for you.
I’m sorry New York City, but you’ve got it completely wrong when it comes to tipping.
Pay your service staff a proper wage. Add a fixed 20% to every bill if need be. Pass that money on to your workers and allow me to reward them with a tip if and when they go beyond the call of duty. Don’t expect me to be reaching in to my pocket for dollar bills that don’t exist. I aim to charge my way out of this city on plastic, damn it!
That said, paying by card in America seems fucking dangerous. All this swiping nonsense strikes me as an open invitation to fraud and mass panic for anybody who’s lost a wallet. Chip and pin may not be as direct, but it’s a lot more secure.
I like how much more willing people are to talk to each other in America. You can get in to a lift and somebody will say “Good morning“. In England, that somebody is more likely to unravel a broadsheet copy of the Financial Times, smack you in the chops, and mutter something in to his coffee about ‘getting in the way’.
Americans are generally quite friendly to approach. I admire how you guys get on a plane and treat it as an opportunity to recite your life story to the guy in the next seat. It makes me feel pretty unsocial for wanting to plug in my headphones and go to sleep.
The Hotel Elysée has to be the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. We had a huge suite, complete with balcony overlooking 54th Street Manhattan. The room even had a piano in it, which is a first for me. If you’re looking for a luxury stay in the heart of Manhattan, definitely check out the Elysée.
Walking from the World Trade Center to 50th Street is not sensible tourism. I’m not sure why I thought a 4 mile stroll across Manhattan would be smarter than catching the subway, but 2 hours later, after shoving and barging my way through Times Square, I knew better. The adrenaline of just seeing Chelsea win the European Cup on penalties kept me going, but my shirt was soaked through with nervous sweat and titty-chaffing regret. Not a good look.
Why do the toilets in American ‘restrooms’ have a gap of about a foot at the bottom of each cubicle? What kind of privacy is that? You can see twisting, contorting feet and gray sweat-stained undies in the cubicle next to you. The thing is already half-built, right? Surely one more square foot of material can’t be too much to ask? I resent intimacy when it comes to ‘restroom’ design. Or is America so paranoid about terrorism that bombs are expected to be found in restaurants and bars?
“Downtown” Indianapolis reminds me of “Downtown” Des Moines. A couple of taller buildings and the occasional red light. And yet many locals are terrified of driving downtown because ‘the streets are so busy’. Very strange. I like the lack of crazy clueless map-waving tourists though.
Anybody scared of driving in America should definitely avoid driving in Europe, or worse yet, the streets of Cambodia. The only people who go driving in Cambodia are sadists with a fancy for Mario Kart.
What would an American make of Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction?
…or Swindon’s Magic Roundabout? I know you guys love those!
New York City is infinitely easier to navigate than London. Blocks of streets and nice orderly numbers are a good idea. It’s too bad London was designed for horse and cart or we’d be on that shit too.
Mad Men has to be the greatest show on television today. How awesome has Season 5 been so far? It’s nice to watch it ‘live’.
America does a much better job of selling through the television than we do in the UK. Ads seem to be catered for direct response. I have to admit, I did get a little sick of seeing commercials for every medical condition imaginable. Shouldn’t medical recommendations be left to a doctor?
TV advertisements for cars are insane out here. There’s no mention of the car’s full price, just the cost of getting it on finance (e.g. it’s yours for $289/month). How is that even legal?! It’s more relevant, I get that. But a pretty damning depiction of the debt culture that is shagging America as we speak.
Indianapolis has some of the most relaxed dress sense I’ve ever seen. I went to a wedding and was stunned to see a few of the guests turning up in plain t-shirts and shorts. Admittedly, it was hot as hell. But still. Is that… normal?
Indianapolis also has one of the weirder pieces of art on display in a city center. It’s called Ann Dancing, and it features a woman (Ann?!) gyrating in an LED display.
It’s amusing to hear tales of drunken Indy guys hitting on Ann for her shapes, especially the kick back down to earth from their friends. “Dude, she’s electronic. You’re not getting any.”
Indy, like most places in America, does breakfast well. Stacks of pancakes, waffles and mega-omelettes… plus seemingly endless refills on whatever you’re drinking. It beats the crap out of my local Masterchef.
Starbucks really does seem to have a monopoly on the coffee shop business in America. Here we have Costa, Caffe Nero and many other competing chains. In America, the closest competition to Starbucks is… the Starbucks on the next block. I fell in love with the Iced Caramel Macchiato on this trip.
Mass Avenue (where I was staying in Downtown Indy) has a bakery for dogs. I found it pretty mesmerizing. Freshly baked doggy treats that look just like the real human thing. I bought some for my pups, but they’ll be lucky if they receive them. The chances of me traveling 3000 miles without ripping in to a pack of strawberry kisses are slim.
Everybody speaks about America having a problem with obesity and over-eating. Maybe that’s true, but there’s no shortage of healthy options in the supermarkets if you go searching for them. The choice is amazing. And excellent value too.
Healthy options aside, Taco Bell is immense.
What’s with the attitude from taxi drivers in NYC? I asked for a ride to JFK (in rush hour admittedly), and his response was, “You better pay some good money. You don’t have cash? Yeah, you can pay by card but you’re pretty dumb for not carrying cash. Always carry cash. You better leave a real nice tip. This is rush hour. It’s busy. You’ll see. You leave some good money, alright?“
It furthers my point about tipping. Why should anybody receive extra for an agreed service when their attitude stinks of entitlement? I found myself longing for South East Asia where tips are seen as unexpected and generous rewards. One of the first things you notice about the service industry in Thailand is that people take great honour and enjoyment from serving their customers. It’s par for the service. And that makes it rewarding to tip somebody.
In New York City, the sense of entitlement made me feel pretty uncomfortable at times. It’s intimidating for a tourist who doesn’t want to offend the local customs, and I can only imagine how confusing it must be for those from foreign cultures where tipping is actually frowned upon.
The New York Public Library is pretty damn impressive. The sort of place where you hide your Kindle for fear of disgruntling the Book Deities.
My girlfriend took a fencing lesson outside the library. She was praised for being particularly aggressive. “It’s good. It’s how you win,” said the instructor.
I’m happy for her. So happy that I’ve decided to replace our cutlery with plastic.
I was mighty chuffed to finally meet a polar bear at Central Park zoo. I guess it’s not the same as seeing one in the wild, but I did manage to leave the scene with my balls in tact. Beggars can’t be choosers, right?
I also made it to the kid’s zoo for no other reason but to feed some goats. There are a million and one things to do in Manhattan, and I chose to spend $2 on the activity you can do for free in Wales every day. That either says a lot about my priorities, or a lot about my appreciation for the smaller things in life.
But, obviously, not my appreciation for the 3 small kids I booted out of the way to get to the goats. They were expendable.
I find it amazing that so many people in the Midwest opt to build their own houses, often as a first step on to the property ladder. How lucky are they?! Designing and building your own home is a distant dream in London. I would love to be able to design a home from scratch. Unfortunately, the UK’s massive overpopulation makes that a rather expensive proposition. We’re lucky to design our own kitchens.
All in all, America is definitely one of my favourite places to visit. It has everything that I’m used to in London, but on such huge and often ridiculous scale. Besides a few skirmishes with taxi drivers, I found it surprising how friendly and welcoming most people were. In London, you sense people are mutually delighted to avoid eye contact. In America, you feel a much greater sense of camaraderie.
Next on my schedule of places to visit in America: San Francisco, California, Las Vegas, Chicago… Anywhere I’m missing?
CREDIT: Photos jacked from Lela London’s blog and iMac.
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