Monday, March 30, 2009

of woofs and tail-wags

Clearly there’s no shortage of dogs in the city. Daily you meet them being taken for their walks. There are the single pooches, from tiny Dachshunds, chihuahuas and primped and powder-puffed poodles. Then there are the fans of leads attached to packs of Weimaraners, St Bernards and bloodhounds, all taking their walkers for a brisk goose-step across the city.

However, you’re able to retire to your apartment in the safe assurance that these dogs will be seen and not heard. Here in New York City, the rules in place to protect local citizens are rules that are enforced. Oh, it’s a pleasure to live in a city where the noise laws are among the most strictly adhered to. The point of all this is, I can’t describe the bliss of leaving behind the neighbourhood dogs of Harfield Village, Claremont.

Okay, so in their place I have honking horns, wailing sirens and hissing hydraulics, but they are impermanent, temporary and passing. They’re in your face, then they disappear. They don’t go on and on like the Chinese torture of those repeat loops of muzak on phone hotlines.

And they’re sooo not like the high-pitched screeching of the diminutive white runt behind our home in Harfield, or the looong mournful yowling of the lonely border collie next door to the runt, or the yanking of two bored malamutes confined to a narrow yard behind me. Let’s not forget the booming bark of a cooped-up labrador on the west side, the interminable yap-yap of a Maltese poodle on the east side and the froth-at-the-mouth assault of three bull terriers restrained by a barred gate down the road. You could call it a 24-hour woofing symphony in a 360-degree arc around our home.
Compared to this, New York’s sirens are balm to my ears.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Technical Meltdown

Yes, yes, this is the land of possibilities. Particularly when it comes to technology, internet, Wi-Fi, hotspots. . . but, oh, it can be sincerely frustrating too. Not being internet-connected in our temporary apartment, I decide to investigate Starbucks’ Wi-Fi zone. I’ve seen plenty of individuals playing on their laptops in the coffee shop chain, so why not me? I say to myself, bravely.

Take 1
With the help of techno-smart H. and a guy tapping away at his computer in a corner of the coffee shop, we purchase a $5 Starbucks card -- my open sesame to the Wi-Fi zone, using AT&T telephone company. First we have to log into the Starbucks site (hence the need for our new computer friend ‘cos how can we get there if we ain’t connected?), register online, set up a user name and password, and with lots of fiddling and clicking and messing about, finally we’re in. What it feels like to be connected! MTN, I miss you!

The next day I log on but a balloon message blocks me – I haven’t completed the registration procedures, it says. Would I please reconfirm my e-mail address? Well, of course, now I have to allow for the delay while it’s sent to AT&T, logged in, recognised, and a confirmation message sent back to me. So I up and leave, grinding my teeth and swearing under my breath.

Take 2
Another day, and my second try. With panic rising and my heart in my mouth, I wait with bated breath for my log-on to bomb once again. But praise the universe, I’m in!

Take 3
Third day, third try. Now I’m feeling really confident! I assertively log on. My password is rejected three times, despite rebooting and refreshing my connection to the Net. An impertinent message informs me it doesn’t recognise my password.

What to do? There’s an AT&T helpline I can call … but having been in the city for less than a week, I haven’t quite got to purchasing a Blackberry like every other person in NYC. So, no phone, no communication. Back to the apartment where I unleash my frustrations on H., highly impatient at the end of the telephone line. He finds me the helpline, and I settle in for an unconfirmed while to tackle the inevitable computerised prompts. A discombobulated voice throws a string of questions at me that offer so many options and alternatives, when it’s finished I’ve no idea what to select to get me out of my mess.

I stay on the line, silent. Next I get: Do I have an AT&T account? The voice politely requests that I state my answer loudly and clearly; no matter there’s no real person at the other end. What’s the zip code I’m calling from? Huh? I know about zipping and unzipping computer files, but this eludes me. (Believe me, when you do understand the concept of zip codes -- it’s like an area code, except honed a few more notches to be much more localised -- you get to learn that zip codes click up a digit every 20 blocks or so as you move uptown. So am I really gonna know what mine is?) I’m just a little South African, seven days into my visit in the big city, staying in someone else’s pad, with no fixed address…

Next question: What is the phone number I’m calling from? Do I know the telephone number? Hell, no, there’s no record of it on the receiver or phone stand … I’m simply camping out in this beautiful pre-war building with pressed ceilings and hand-painted floor tiles while I trawl the whole of Manhattan for furniture and fittings so I can eventually live in my own NY apartment.

At this point all I can do is nervously ignore the disembodied tone’s repeated requests and eventually the voice gives up on me. ‘I’m sorry,’ it says in a sing-song voice. ‘I can’t help you. I will connect you to the next available consultant who will be able to deal with your problem.’
Victory! My live consultant’s modular teutonic vowels make me wonder if he’s sitting somewhere in Germany. I’ve got through to the wrong department, he informs me gently, but hearing my choked hysteria he kindly agrees to connect me to the Manhattan-based Wi-Fi support. ‘Bear with me, please’ he says patiently a number of times. And I get to understand why. For five minutes I listen over and over to a repetitive music loop, then another real voice comes on the line.
I need a kewpon, the consultant says after I’ve established my problem. A kewpon? I’m not that technically literate but I can pick out a new term when I hear one. ‘Can you spell that for me?’ I ask politely. ‘Spell it?’ he asks incredulously in his NY drawl.
It was a ‘coupon’.
Righty-o, then. Give me that darn kewpon. I’m quoted a string of numbers and letters to bypass the connectivity problems AT&T are experiencing. After trudging all the way back to Starbucks, I punch the code into a blue prompt button on Starbucks’ homepage. At the second try (my heart all a-flutter once again), I’m miraculously in. Wired and connected.
Panic over for day 7 …

Take 4, 5 and 6
Fourth day of being connected, or so I think. This time the blocking messages are wireless network-related and my internet icon shows very little signal strength. Assuming that once again it’s an AT&T problem, I beat my path home to call the helpline. The operator is so flustered by the number of Starbucks clustered in my area, she can’t pinpoint its exact location. I’m also not on-site with a cellphone clipped to my ear which makes it difficult to help me, she says… She suggests that she send a message to the store, notifying them of their internet problems. And that I try another Starbucks.
I test one out in a Barnes & Noble Store. The homepage doesn’t recognise my login password and I get rejected 3 times (getting used to this). Back to the apartment and the helpline. The very clued-up consultant can see online, via my user name, all the problems I’ve been experiencing and says the hiccup this time is that Barnes & Noble’s Wi-Fi hotspot interferes with Starbucks’ hotspot. And why don’t we try a new password? she suggests, since Starbucks so clearly doesn’t dig my old one. So we do.
It’s early evening, I’m back at my regular stand-alone Starbucks, and whaddaya know? I’m in, I’m hot-wired to cyberspace. Success feels very, very sweet.

Facts you need to know!
* To make use of any Starbucks Wi-Fi hotspot, buy a Starbucks card for $5 for unlimited internet access (time-wise, though, limited to 2 hours daily). You can use the card as a credit card (to buy lots of Starbucks coffee!), and you must load funds onto it within 30 days of logging on to keep it active.

* AT&T helpline (or visit 1-888-888-7520.
Be prepared to wade through a multitude of options before getting a live operator. Try saying ‘Wi-Fi support’ clearly and loudly if you get to the bit where you have to speak into the phone to no-one in particular.

* After logging on for the first time, you receive an e-mail some time later from AT&T Wi-Fi service with a link on it. You need to click on this to complete your registration. You may also be asked to reconfirm your e-mail address. If you don’t, you can’t access the internet the next time you log on. There is a delay before your e-mail confirmation is received at the support centre, logged and acknowledged.

* Every time you use the Wi-Fi hotspot in Starbucks, when you click on your internet icon or browser, the Starbucks homepage comes up. You need to enter your user name, select the wireless network (AT&T) from a dropdown box and enter your password. Finally, click the box saying you accept the terms and conditions of the site, then click the Log In button.

* Note that if there are other coffee or food stores next door to your location that have their own Wi-Fi hotspots, you might find their webpage comes up instead. If this is the case, their frequency is interfering with Starbucks’ and their homepage won’t recognise your log on details.

fashion -- savvy 'n' streetwise

I lie in bed and listen to the sounds of New York – the honking of the taxis, the grinding, braking and hissing of the hydraulics on the Metro buses, impatient hooting of irritated motorists, and sometimes the mournful wailing of a siren. All these sounds set up a constant refrain that flows and ebbs, near and far, carried easily upward to the 8th floor of our apartment.

A day earlier, out on the streets, I’d been thinking how everyone outside of New York constantly glamorises their image of the city, talking about the pace, the energy, the vibe. When you get down to street level, though, the reality is it’s gritty, dirty and noisy. City people are loud and aggressive, they elbow and jostle their way in and out of subways, crowded stores and along bustling pavements. The sheer need to survive in this pulsing, 24-hour non-stop city, though, makes this all perfectly understandable. And, certainly, these days the crusty edge has softened; people are a little more courteous – I’ve had plenty of doors held open for me, which is a refreshing aspect to the Big Apple.

I head out for another run in Riverside Park and decide I have to swallow the words I said about NY’s dirty streets. With the melting of the snow, they’re transformed. They’ve been brushed and swept and cleaned, and the piles upon piles of garbage bags that were heaped along the sidewalks (ready for garbage day) have been whisked away. As I enter the park along the Hudson River, this time around the lacy tracery of the trees is reflected back at me in puddles of melted snow. Whatever veneer of snow is left on the paths is icy and dangerously slippery. The air is a whole lot warmer than my first run and I end up taking off my gloves. The beanie stays on.

Later, I stop off at Starbucks for my coffee fix and there is a seat free at the window, so I grab the opportunity to linger awhile. It gives me time to ponder on the hottest styles being paraded on city winter streets. You get to understand how NYC has coined the term Street Fashion. People walk miles on these city streets, marching to and from work, bolting out for a quick half-hour to get a bite, catching a cup of coffee, racing off for a rendezvous. It’s nothing to walk 10 blocks, let alone 20. So fashion has to be fluid, functional, and layered (especially in winter when you’re yo-yo-ing from frigid exterior to toasty interior and out again).

The quilted jacket is the most visible clothing item, in every shade of white or cream through beige, brown and black, worn hip length, three-quarter or to the ankles. If you don’t own one, you’ve never watched Style File.

Black leggings or opaque tights are everywhere (whether you have the legs for them or not). Worn boldly in savvy street style, they’re often paired with nothing else but a short jacket or longer coat, and look great on long slim legs tucked into knee-high boots (another winter staple). Otherwise boots run the gamut from flat riding boots or suede Ugg-styles (ever seen Pamela Anderson in hers?) to high-heeled calf-length or knee-highs.

And then there are hoodies, definitely a street uniform. But in this case the hood’s not a decorative part of the garment; it is worn – to ward off snow, rain, or simply keep the ears warm.

A weekend trip downtown to Soho (so called because it’s South of Houston Street) is great fun but incredibly crowded. Coming from Cape Town it’s hard to believe the jam-packed streets filled with New Yorkers and tourist sightseers, throngs of people escaping from their apartments to enjoy an unusually warm spell in-between the snow and sleet. You have to elbow your way through an outdoor organic market (much like you do at a Cape Town cocktail party), past pavement stalls with colourful earrings and along street after street of boutique designer stores. We pass Anya Hindmarch (read: covetable unique handbags), Anna Sui and Vera Wang (designers to the stars), Prada, Miu-Miu, Louis Vuitton, Armani Express, Mont Blanc and Camper shoes … the list goes on. There’s even a very smart Carrol Boyes store here.

It strikes me that the coolest and most stylish of the street walkers are the petite Asians with their artfully up-swept and side-swept hairstyles (the males, in particular!).

Then when your feet are sore and your stomach’s got a hole in it the size of a fist, you visit Dean & Deluca for a gourmet double-decker sandwich.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Van Morrison Concert

It's only Day 2 in NYC yet here we are, joining animated throngs outside the newly remodelled Beacon theatre on Broadway, a couple of blocks from our temporary apartment. Inside, at the centre of the foyer hangs a gargantuan, near-blinding crystal-refracting chandelier. In the amphitheatre, the walls are decorated with patrician profiles of Roman emperors and, in ornate gold leaf, elaborate symbols and motifs of the Roman empire. To either side of the stage a pair of gigantic gilted staffs holds up stylised drapes.

The audience is emotionally charged and reactive, roaring with applause as a diminutive Van Morrison walks onto the stage, dressed in a smart jacket and trademark trilby hat. He gives us not a whit of his personality at any time during the show – just his rich gravelly voice and amazing music. An incredible backing band consists of orchestral instruments such as violin, saxophone, trombone and trumpet, along with base and electric guitar, while one of his singers belts out powerful backing vocals that would make Katie Webster proud. The atmosphere is electric as Van Morrison works expertly through his old classics, throwing in a Pink Floyd song as a bonus, against a changing backdrop of swirling colourful stars. From the very first song, people rise up from their seats, cheering, whistling and clapping. Each standing ovation is studiously ignored by the singer, who turns his back on the stage till the next song starts. Whether it’s a result of chronic shyness or an absolute disdain for the adulation that stardom brings is unclear. . .

The second half of the show plays out at a slower pace, it’s more thoughtful and contemplative but intensely acoustic. In one song Morrison and two of his musicians pick and strum and jam together, each on a different guitar; the acoustics are superb and it’s an incredible musical experience, as if we’re sitting in the midst of the guitars themselves with the glorious sound they’re making swirling around us.

It’s a seriously elated audience that finally files out of the theatre.

Info you need!
Ticketmaster USA:

Image from

first impressions of the Big Apple

Day 1 in NYC

Even though for both myself and H. this was a return to familiar territory, the energy of the city is overwhelming, a bombardment of the senses. Nothing has changed … New Yorkers are mad, mad, mad!

Our first visit, of course, is to Starbucks for the day’s first cup of coffee. Happily we find one on Amsterdam Ave, a block away from our temporary apartment. And I’ve found my daily coffee fix -- the perfect substitute for my favourite flat white is a double-shot short latte. (Almost) matches the best flat white in SA.

An entire corner of Starbucks is taken up by a clearly crazy bag lady, a pushcart carrying her few lonely possessions parked beside her. Grimy oversized glasses slide down her nose, making her look like a cartoon character, and toothless gums move silently as she conducts a conversation with herself. Every now and again she lifts her head and shouts out something in an effort to catch someone’s eye, but she’s totally and utterly ignored. Everyone simply goes about their business as if she isn’t there.

In clear audible tones, a well-dressed lady in high heels conducts an interview with a male candidate in a business suit, both oblivious to the coffee drinkers around them. The interviewer even agrees to a couple sharing their table, as seats are scarce… Privacy ain’t an issue here in the Big Apple.

On the sidewalk, an elderly lady dressed in an ankle-length fur coat and matching hat fusses over a baby stroller ahead of us and we have to skirt round her to carry on our way. There is no baby in the pram; it’s a tiny pooch dressed in a tartan waistcoat.

In the subway, as H. and I are figuring out at a machine how to buy a ticket with a specific number of rides on it, another totally mad individual drowns out our voices as he yells abuse at everyone rushing purposefully past him. One of his beefs is the war in Iraq, as is the general decrepit state of society. We have to shout our request to be heard by the lady in the ticket booth; at the sight of our bemused faces, she grins widely and yells back, ‘This happens every day; this is New York!’
It sure, sure is…

On the subway train, a suited, middle-aged Latino guy with headphones on looks searchingly into people’s eyes, trying to engage them as he sings along loudly to his favourite Spanish crooners. ‘Ohhhhh, beautiful, beautiful,’ he declares, then turns and expertly spits into a corner of the train.

Day 2 in NYC…
I write to the constant blare of honking horns and urgently strident sirens winding eight floors below me along West End Avenue of the Upper West Side. Someone yells obscenities at another and somehow it sounds as if it’s all happening right outside my living room.

Although the previous night’s news report announced it would still be very, very cold … 24ºF (-4ºC) … it’s time to hit the streets running to get rid of the sluggish circulation that 18 hours of flying brings. When I don my running watch, it says 4:30pm South African time. It’s only 9:30am where I am, here in NYC, shivering on an icy street corner as I wait to cross over to enter Riverside Park, an elongation of nature and leafless trees and paths tracking the dull grey Hudson River. As H. says, there’s nothing glamorous about New York in winter -- you walk around with constantly streaming eyes and a runny nose and there ain’t nothing you can do about it…

I look like an earless, dome-headed spaceman in my Nike polyester skullcap, matching gloves, leggings and multiple protective layers. Sincerely unattractive. But as H. reassures me earlier (his wit is snappier than mine), everyone else is wearing beenies so we all look like dorks. I’m just blending right in…

I wind along a path cutting its frosty way through a solid blanket of snow coating the earth, trees, benches, railings. It’s silent, my breath leads me in ephemeral clouds. I’m so removed from Cape Town and South Africa and 36-degree sweltering skies, and this is such a wondrous, magical contrast I’m overcome with emotion. There’s a lump in my throat and tears prick my eyes. The snow is like whipped meringue peaks to either side of me. I’m compelled to run off the path and straight into it simply to feel and experience it. It’s soft and crunchy and granular and yielding under my feet. I sink deep into it. My iPod resonates in my ears with James Laid, singing words that seem so apt for my Snow Queen surroundings and the space I’m in:
‘Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I think I can see your soul…’
A few blocks of snow have solidified and iced up, and lie tossed onto the path like opaque ice cubes. I test them, but they’re rock hard.

I encounter a few other crazy people braving the sub-zero temperatures, and unlike New Yorkers in general, who deign to acknowledge strangers, a few individuals nod and smile weakly at me, as if to admit sheepishly to our shared foolhardiness.
It’s not all beauty and wonder, though. As I return to the busy snow-lined city sidewalks where people are walking a multitude of dogs on leads, I’m reminded of that old Frank Zappa song, ‘Watch where the huskies go, don’t eat the yellow snow …’ Dog pee and pristine crushed granular ice don’t go too well together.

I get a great compliment on this, my second day in this great big city. I’m sitting in Chase Manhattan with H., busy setting up a bank account for myself (thank goodness for H; I’d hate to try to attempt something like this without a credit history. You could become buried by the security checks and balances. US ID, please … an SA ID is no good; next, permanent US address and phone no.; social security number (not absolutely necessary but it helps); some kind of credit history, which is quite difficult if you’ve just touched down at JFK air terminal; someone who knows you and can vouch that you’re no criminal … (okay, I added the last one myself, but it’s all a bit intimidating). A LOT intimidating.

Back to the compliment. I’m dressed against the cold in head-to-toe white -- good old Mr Price fake-fur-lined hooded jacket, white jeans, cream cycling-style sneakers, fleecy mittens and bold white dangly shell earrings (well, that’s my signature, right?). The painted and manicured New York bank lady attending to us looks me up and down, then says almost reverently, ‘Wow! You look great! So very, very stylish…’ Which makes me retort (not unkindly), ‘We also know how to be stylish in that there country in the south of Africa, y’know!’ Okay, so I didn’t quite say it in those words.

NYC -- a new home for two South Africans

4 March 2009

Leaving the fathomless blue skies and blazing sun of South Africa (average 36ºC – that’s 97ºF in the US of A!) on the 2nd March 2009, we just happened to have chosen the coldest day of the year in New York City for our momentous arrival in the great, wild, crazy Big Apple. It was a frigid -10ºC.

Flying low into JFK, Long Island looked like an Austrian village, rooftops weighed down by snow in a shimmering white landscape. On the edge of the runways, snow graders were lined up like Meccano toys. They’d already been busy in the bleak and frosty early hours to clear pathways for incoming and outgoing aircraft, and the snow was piled high to either side. In this magical fairyland, the top edge of black skeletal tree branches were outlined with snow, reminding me of the reversed image in a photograph negative.

As we waited for our vehicle pick-up outside the airport terminal, H. had to restrain me from running into the snow embankments to test what it felt like. I can’t even describe the cold; it seeps into your bones, your breath emerges in ephemeral puffs of smoke and your ears freeze till they burn. My first stop in the city was the aptly named North Face store to buy myself a fake-fur beanie. After that, the world felt right.