A Classic New York Tale – The Taxi Ride

I am headed out in mid-morning to a business meeting downtown on Broadway to which I am anxious to arrive as planned. I exit my apartment building and walk a few hundred feet down West 59th Street to 9th Avenue. A truck is sitting at the curb, so I move to the left, toward uptown, on 9th to hail a cab. There is one right there and I hop in.

He immediately turns right on West 59th. Taxis and Ubers often do this to go downtown on 11th Avenue that is often less congested than 9th, so the turn is not completely unexpected. I am a bit surprised when the driver stops on 59th to consult his phone regarding the route to take to Broadway, but maybe he’s just checking traffic flows.

I settle into the minimalist back seat area left to the passenger from the thick divider that separates the front and back of many New York City taxis and houses various electronics central to a modern taxi service. I pull out my trusty phone and, as often happens, fall into the magical reverie of news and other things that it delivers wherever I am.

Then, something tells me that we aren’t moving as I had expected. I look up. Instead of turning downtown on 11th Avenue, the taxi has turned right on 10th, right on 62nd and is back on 9th Avenue but further uptown than where he picked me up initially! We have been moving for about 10 minutes, there is $5.00 on the meter and I am further from my destination than when I got into the cab!

I ask the driver who at first seems oblivious to my presence but then acknowledges that, yes, we are back on 9th but he’s going to turn east on West 60th. Now I get it. We have circled around multiple blocks so he can enter Broadway at Columbus Circle that happens to house the subway station that I could have walked to and been at my destination by now. We drive through Columbus Circle. The meter now reads $9, just to get as far as West 58th and Broadway that is .2 miles from my apartment! We have driven .9 miles to get to Broadway!

Fortunately for me, the rest of the ride went fairly quickly with the usual dodging, swerving and mutual horn honking that accompanies a taxi in a hurry. The final tab turned out to be $10.80. I resisted the urge to leave a tip, something I hate to do. This was, however, too much to bear. Do I look that much like a tourist ready to be taken for a ride? I suppose it’s possible although I have been approached many times since arriving in this great city by people who were obviously lost or at a loss to navigate the street grid.

It happens even on the subway. I was really impressed the first few times that someone, anyone, would approach me to ask directions, often in a foreign language. A few days before I had taken the subway back to Columbus Circle from somewhere and observed a late-middle-aged couple in the belly of the Columbus Circle subway station clearly unclear as to how to get out and where to go. I offered to help, with a smile to assure them I wasn’t a hostile. They seemed to have German accents and said they were looking for the Plaza Hotel. I said, “You mean THE Plaza Hotel? That’s really a fancy place.” They looked at me like I was an idiot, with no apparent interest in a conversation about their taste in hotels. They just wanted directions. I gave them and left them to their fate. When I emerged from the elevator into the Circle, there they were stepping off in the direction I had indicated. The scales of injustice were balanced.

This story has no moral, though I think it helps explain the popularity of Uber, Lyft and the other ride-hailing services in this city. The cars are generally more comfortable and, in my experience, you don’t generally get the “drive around” because the fee is set before you start. Well, maybe there is a moral. Pay attention!

 

New York City Marathon 2018

Following a night of fireworks in Central Park to honor the NYC Marathon (photos below), we set out on a stunning Sunday morning to photograph some of the fall colors in Central Park and unexpectedly found ourselves standing at one of the few empty spots along the fence less than .2 miles from the finish line of the New York City Marathon. So, why not? We could hear the loudspeakers from the finish line keeping everyone abreast of the runners’ standings. We saw a few of the wheelchair and hand-cyclists come around the curve and head to the finish, everyone pumping hard to get the best time possible. We decided to stay to watch the winning runners come in. The sun was warm, a perfect New York morning for a race.

At first it seemed both the men’s and women’s races would be close battles to the finish, but in the event one woman ran away from the others and finished alone. Her name is Mary Keitany from Kenya and you can see her in the photos below. She was in no apparent distress after more than 27 miles of running and finished with a strong kick. Amazing to see.

The men’s race came down to two runners in the final stretch and they were pouring it on as they approached the finish. Shots of them are below also.

The marathon was a remarkable feat of human endurance for the participants, one that captured the attention of tens of thousands of spectators who waited hours to see them. Overall there were more than 50,000 entrants.

From a spectator point of view, the only thing marring the experience was our attempt to exit Central Park to the Upper West Side. We were told we had to return to Columbus Circle to leave because the exits north were all blocked. We reached the entry point to Columbus Circle to find a narrow fenced in channel with a huge crowd leaving and a huge crowd coming in, facing off in a standstill in a space too small to accommodate two-way traffic. People leaving ahead of us could not exit into the Circle because of the large number of people still trying to enter the Park there. Pictured below. Not a good experience and a really bad example of poor planning and indifference on the part of the police, both city and park.

 

 

King Kong on Broadway

I have not read a professional review of this show that we saw last night, so I’m winging it here. Officially, it is still in “previews,” with the full opening set for November 8.

Judging from the audience reactions, and our own, the show was extraordinary in at least one major respect. The stagecraft was over the top. Of course, there was Kong himself. An amazing achievement to bring to life a 20-foot, 2,000 pound (seemed much bigger) gorilla on a stage. But there were a number of others that blew the audience away. I won’t give them away here.

On the slightly negative side, and this is largely just personal taste, the songs were not particularly memorable. We heard nothing that will be in long term memory to evoke the other responses to the show. I was distracted a bit by the “modernity” of the leading lady’s voice. To be sure, Christiani Pitts gave a lot of heart and energy to her role as Ann Darrow, the aspiring actress picked off the streets by the dastardly Carl Denham as the bait to lure Kong from his lair on Skull Island. Her voice was clear and strong throughout and playing the love interest of a giant gorilla has to be a challenge for anyone. Some of her language and mannerisms just seemed out of sync with the 1930s in which the story takes place. Moreover, I don’t know how this “issue” could have been cured by choosing another performer. All that aside, she deserved the standing ovation she received at the end. So did Kong and his “handlers.”

In any case, the staging of this show is over the top and that will be remembered for a long time. The action, especially during the first half, was fast-moving and captivating. I was actually surprised when the intermission arrived at about the one-hour mark.

One more thing; if you’re thinking of taking a child to see this show (minimum posted age is only 4), you should prepare the child for the ending. It seems to take a long time to bring off the violent, inevitable and tragic conclusion to the tale. Knowing what is going to happen doesn’t make it easier to watch.

Bohemian Rhapsody – Ignore the Critics

To be clear, I am not a fan of rock music and in fact mostly “missed” the era of the 70s and 80s entirely while pursuing a nascent career as a lawyer in Washington, DC. Thus, perhaps amazingly, I was really not acquainted with the rock group Queen or Freddie Mercury, its mercurial lead singer.

Nevertheless, my wife insisted that we see Bohemian Rhapsody as soon as possible. It turned out to be opening night of the movie in New York City this weekend and, fortuitously, it was playing at a theater within walking distance of our apartment.

Upon arrival at the theater, I learned why the tickets were so expensive. The movie was in the IMAX Theater. Happily for me, the eye-watering blasts of the previews were toned down to normal loud hearing range for the movie itself. Do overpowering sounds really make people want to see a movie more?

I went in with some concern because I had read a few of the critics’ reviews which were mostly negative, leading to a kind of anticipatory piling on of negative expectations. However, in the event, I must state that I think the critics are dead wrong about this movie. Everyone who enjoys a compelling story of hard work, success, heartache and ultimate resolution, well told and brilliantly acted by everyone, will like this movie. A lot.

To be sure, you’ve likely seen this movie before, or, to be more precise, a movie about a famous star with a remarkably similar story line. The early music savant, a renegade in conflict with a traditional family, strikes out on a path that leads to sudden fame and with it, the demands, gains and losses, that come with it. The great one has what is portrayed as a weakness, a fatal flaw, that threatens to bring him down. In Mercury’s case, I think it was that he believed, as so many famous people seem to, that he could have everything he wanted without risk or consequences. He is difficult but always confident and often overbearing. Personal relationships develop and dissolve. He is alone in the crowd that surrounds him at every moment. Then things really get bad. In the end, the human spirit triumphs and all are lifted up. The movie will, I suggest, rock you.

Here’s the thing. Rami Malek turns in an extraordinary rendition of a complex character. While I was put off by the camera work that seemed always to point at Malek’s reconstructed dental work to mimic Mercury’s overbite (he was born with extra teeth), the essence of the story was one of building tension surrounding the star. Where would fame lead? How could any normal human survive such exposure and remain “normal?” Knowing the end did not diminish the drama, an accomplishment that says, this movie was well done.

I will not give away any secrets about exactly how the story plays out. Suffice that between exceptional acting all around, a compelling story line, great music (yes, I said that), just enough “dirt” to give you the flavor without dwelling on it to the exclusion of the personal side of the singer and those who surrounded him, this movie deserves better than the critics quibbling. Mercury’s conflicted relationship with his wife/friend is laid out but does not overtake the main story line. The casting for the movie was brilliant and many Oscar nominations will undoubtedly result, for Malek certainly, and likely for many of the supporting case.

The critics seem to think that there were major elements of Mercury’s life and personality that were not fully developed but it seems to me that this story is the story that is repeated for every person, like Freddie Mercury, who is challenged and often brought low, at least for a time, by the heavy weight of unimaginable fame. I am, of course, surprised at myself for liking this movie so much, but I am confident that most of the people who see it will find it interesting, fun and, ultimately, satisfying.

Barber Shops of New York

When I lived in Northern Virginia, barber shops seemed to be on their way out. I worked for the government in the late 60s, and there was a true barber shop in the basement of our building on Connecticut Avenue. It was as bare bones as you can get. Usually two barbers. Mike, the owner, was much younger than the other barber and seemed to be the favorite for most customers. There were five or six well worn and uncomfortable chairs with a small collection of Playboy-genre magazines to keep your mind busy while you waited. Often there were one or two older men in there, using the place as a social scene, just hanging out and occasionally saying something or other to Mike who was a young man of very few words. He was not into extraneous conversation but did what was necessary to be civil and not discourage these men who would, from time to time, actually get a haircut.

I continued to visit Mike’s barber shop for years after leaving the government but eventually it became too inconvenient. I believe that when that government agency closed around 1985, Mike’s business there ended as well. As is true for so many of the people who play some part in our lives for a while, I have no idea what happened to him.

I ended up going to women’s hair salons for haircuts, a practice that continued, with one interruption, until I left for New York City. The interruption occurred when a friend who was then getting “buzz cuts,” for reasons neither of us could explain, told me how inexpensive his lady barber was. And her shop was just down the street from my office at that time. I went to her three times, I think. The haircuts were no better than fair, but the last two visits she spent the entire time with a phone crooked on her shoulder, cutting my hair and talking loudly to a friend. The thought of what she might inadvertently do to my hair ended our “relationship” and I returned to the much more expensive salon in my office building.

Now to New York City. One of my early questions about moving here was “what is it going to cost to get a haircut in New York City?” And where will I find a salon? Unknown to me at the time, barber shops are plentiful in The City. And they charge half what I was paying the salon in Virginia.

I found one close to our apartment and just walked in. They were not bothered by the fact that I was pretty shaggy by then. The barber was free asked me whether I wanted “scissors or clipper,” a question I had never faced before. In my salon the primary tool was always scissors and I never questioned it. In any case, I am now a regular at Gotham City Barber Shop:

The inside of this classic place looks like this:

Here are some of the tools of the trade, precisely laid out like the instruments a surgeon might use:

 

 

 

 

 

The outward presentation of New York’s barber shops is as varied as the population. Here are some examples:

This one is below ground.

Some are located deep inside office buildings like Rockefeller Center or even subway stations:

And some have ingenious, if somewhat mysterious, names:

Just another example of the staggering variety and availability of personal services in the megalopolis.

 

 

 

Right & Wrong At the U.S. Open

Since I usually end up cheering for victories by underdogs, I admit I wanted Naomi Osaka to win the U.S. Open. She was facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in Serena Williams whose prior victories showed she had more experience, more powerful strokes and, ultimately, a preternatural determination to win based in part, I suspect, on her awareness that her time of dominance in women’s tennis is in its final phase.

Sadly, mostly for Osaka, the match was marred by controversy that could have, and should have, been avoided.

First, and I think most important, Serena Williams knows the rules of tennis. After so many years and matches, she is conclusively presumed to know the rules as well as she knows anything. She therefore knew that the rules forbade coaching from the stands and don’t depend on whether the player “knew” about the coaching. Her coach admitted he was sending her hand signals to move into the net more aggressively. So, Serena “broke” the coaching rule and was properly, in the technical sense, assessed a warning, the first stage of an escalating set of penalties for repetition of rule breaches.

Now, and this is really the crux of the matter, the “no coaching” rule is a joke. It is violated routinely for decades in matches great and small without actually assessing a penalty, though that does occur at times. And that is the real problem. Could the Chair Umpire have handled the coaching differently? Of course, but the root of the problem here is the rule, not the particular umpire.

If there is going to be a “no coaching” rule, it should be enforced all the time or abandoned. Given the difficulties of enforcement in any evenhanded way, abandonment is the better outcome. Why have a rule that is randomly and erratically enforced, especially when it affects the outcome of a match? Imagine what would have happened if the coaching yesterday had been detected on match point against Serena and the Chair Umpire stopped the match short of playing the last point. As a tennis fan, you would get the chills thinking of such a situation but it is entirely possible with the current coaching rule.

Second, Serena surely knows that destroying a racket is an automatic penalty and that if it’s a second violation in the match, it results in award of a point to the other player. She has done it a number of times in big matches and, despite penalties that would blanche players with less wealth, she has joked about it. https://bit.ly/2wLFQ3b

Yes, yes, it was an emotional moment and all that, but Serena Williams is the dominant player in women’s tennis and should be able to avoid destroying a racket on the court, no matter how frustrated she might be. If she was completely out of control of her emotions, she could have requested an injury timeout to get some time to calm down. So, the second penalty was clearly correct.

Third, the sting of the first penalty lingered with Serena who continued to harangue the Chair Umpire for an apology about the first penalty that Serena believed impugned her integrity as a player and was discriminatory. Again, while her exasperation was understandable (the coaching rule, as argued above, should be abolished – it inevitably led to this moment), it strikes me that making a social issue out of that situation was inappropriate. Serena’s emotions were out of control. Serena has never called her coach down for a court-side consultation even when allowed by the rules, but this might actually have been a good moment to request that help. I get the “go it alone” thing, but sometimes it’s smart to ask for help.

Finally, while I believe Serena Williams was ultimately responsible for the situation, I also believe her post-match maturity and grace toward Osaka was remarkable. I suspect she realized her responsibility and understood she should set aside her own anger and grief to try to recapture the moment that Osaka had earned. Osaka was plainly mortified at the situation she played no part in creating. Serena tried to comfort Osaka putting her arm around her shoulders with a smile. She asked the crowd to stop booing and recognize Osaka’s victory as legitimately earned. Those acts of sportsmanship, along with the brilliant, steely performance of a 20-year old in her first Grand Slam final, are what should be remembered about this match.

And please, please, change the “no coaching” rule. Help save tennis from itself.

How the Other Half Lives

Well, maybe not the other half. Maybe the 1 percent. Or the 3 percent. Or … I really don’t know. For present purposes, let’s just say that the people who buy or rent the places I am about to describe are well off in the extreme. No other explanation fits the facts. Buckle up.

First, some background. I acquired an early interest in the price of real estate in New York City when my wife and I started looking for a place to live when we moved here for her new job. We were not interested in owning anything and our price range to rent had been thoroughly discussed, calculated (holy moly!!) and recalculated (ouch!). Nonetheless, as you search the listings for livable space in livable neighborhoods, your eye can’t help noticing the listings for properties that blow your mind. More than a few examples follow.

My first reaction to this was similar to what I experienced when we dropped into a neighborhood diner for breakfast and got a bill for more than $50. Yes, yes, we ate too much, but still. Breakfast. In a diner. In a scene repeated several times at dinner and even later, we saw many, many people of apparent limited means (judging, perhaps inappropriately, by their manner of dress and general demeanor) consuming equivalent or larger meals with no apparent concern for the cost. In many cases the servers and managers knew these people as “regulars,” so it seems they do this often. Where, I wondered, do these folks acquire the resources to live like this?

Then, I opened the Real Estate section of the Sunday New York Times to which we subscribe. Here is what I found. Really, voyeurs, buckle up.

Back in March a property in the East Village was listed at $7,995,000 which may seem high but it had eight, that’s 8, bedrooms and “5+” bathrooms.The accompanying photo showed brick walls, fireplace and beamed ceiling. Eight bedrooms!

Also in March, what appears to be a townhouse in the Upper East Side was advertised at $21,000,000 with nine, yes 9, bedrooms and ten, really 10, bathrooms.

For comparison, also in March, a 10,442 sq. ft. house in Bronxville, NY (17 miles and, allegedly, a 30-minute drive from midtown Manhattan) was listed for only $6,900,000 and offered 9 bedrooms and 5.1 (??) bathrooms on 1.36 acres. I confess I don’t know what a tenth of a bathroom is but that was the offer. Zillow says it’s a half-bath so that’s probably it. The stone-sided Tudor style home was built in 1849 and has three stories. [BTW, it’s still on the market for $6.9 million if you’re interested]

For people looking for a more vertical lifestyle, there is also One Manhattan Square, “Waterfront Condominium Residences From $1.2M” and going up to about $4.5 million for a 3-BR with 1,667 sq. ft. On the Lower East Side at New York Harbor. But the really interesting thing is the amenities package:

  • 360 degree views
  • Fitness center
  • Squash court
  • Basketball court
  • Spa with Infrared Sauna
  • Studio classes
  • Screening & Performance Theater
  • Bowling Alley
  • Golf Simulator
  • Pet Spa
  • 1 Acre Landscaped Private Gardens

Now, I am not particularly surprised at the price levels for real estate in Manhattan. There is, after all, only one Manhattan and it is one of the most important (if not the single most) cities in the world. Space is at a premium so you can expect to pay premium prices. What surprised me and still amazes me is the scale of some of these properties in the heart of the city. Nine bedrooms?!?

To close this exercise in “holy cowism” and property envy, I commend to you the “Gold Coast” of lower Manhattan, the seven-block stretch of Fifth Avenue between 14th Street and Washington Square Park. A good description and history can be found in the New York Times at https://nyti.ms/2mhFdcJ On offer, as I write, is a “55’ Wide Grand Mansion Fifth Avenue & West 10th. Renovated “Gold Coast” single-fam w/aprox. 16,560 SF indoor/5,690 outdoor, elevator, movie theater $59.5M.” listed by BrownHarrisStevens.com. What can I say?