Slices of "The Big Apple" This is New York City Wit, Reflections & Amusements: Cliff Strome

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How could they have told me that it was done? Who and on what basis? What authority, procedure and how was that possible? Why seven months? How many people had crossed that intersection, in harm’s way, before the DOT took care of it and how many people were “near hits” due to the inexcusable inaction of the DOT? Wana kill a person? Call the DOT and tell them to change an incorrectly set crossing light and in about seven months, they probably will, well maybe eight.

Clearly, as traffic flowed south on 9th Ave and some of the vehicles took right turns on 59th while people were “granted” permission to cross via the “Walk” signal, the City had put thousands of people’s lives in danger daily.

Running a City like this must be a nightmare. The point is this: with citizens who do something, say something and are pro-active; we have a better chance of making New York City even better and safer. And that folks makes this New Yorker feel a lot better too.

Look both ways, and when the sign reads "WALK" look first because you never know whom else, if anyone, including the City is looking out for you! How often people cross the streets here without looking because they rely on the accuracy of a mechanical device that may provide information that could kill them. Why? Because they are installed by people, people who “work” for the DOT. I must admit however there are nearly 12,000 traffic signals in New York City and the overwhelming number of them work just fine but, don’t be the one who crosses the street without looking, you never know! Careful now!

One mistake . . . and you’re “road pizza”, and that’s not the kind of pizza New York City is famous for!!

Shop $mart!

You can purchase just about anything you can imagine in New York City. For those who sell; retailers, wholesalers, street hawkers, newsstand clerks, artisans, crafters, food vendors and all the rest will provide you with limitless choices. “Caveat Emptor" as the saying goes and in New York City you are, to some, their prey, open season here, where the unscrupulous ply their trade, side by side with the righteous.

You can get “screwed” “rooked” “ripped off” “taken” “snagged” “tagged” “flipped” “gipped” or “beaten” in a heartbeat. How would you know? How can you find out?

As Syms, a clothing retail chain, which recently filed for bankruptcy, chanted its mantra, "An educated consumer is our best customer". You too have got to do your homework or you’ll find out the hard way. "The Big Apple" can be rotten to the core, not too sweet. Here's how to ensure you're getting your money's worth and avoid getting “ripped off”.

Electronics such as video, audio, photo, binoculars, and similar items can make you vulnerable, a real target so “you better shop around”! Independent stores located in tourist areas such as Times Square have a reputation for being "tourist traps". Many of my clients have purchased cameras there that sell for approximately 40% less at B & H Photo (34th Street and 9th Avenue, closed Saturdays) or J & R (Park Row near City Hall). P. T. Barnum of circus fame, a New Yorker had said, “There is a sucker born every minute.” There are exceptions, be one! Sometimes there are two or even three born every minute! In Times Square they swarm like ants!

Be aware of the old “bait and switch” scam. That’s the oldest “game in the book” used by unscrupulous retailers who display cameras, computers and the like in well lit store windows at incredibly low prices to lure you in. Once you enter and express your interest in a specific item with an unbelievably low price they tend to “push” a “similar” item extolling its superior benefits and begin espousing the flaws or defects of the item that had lured you in.

I have spoken to many visitors who have lamented their disappointment by purchasing the right item at the wrong price or vice versa. Don’t be impressed by the “Licensed by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs” sign, on display in the window. This has no more value than the Parent’s Magazine Seal of Approval, or the Better Business Bureau sticker either! It’s worthless junk and provides no “currency” whatsoever unless you’re prepared to wade through the system of protection and that takes time and persistence. Don’t even go there, the DCA is asleep except on payday! Try Consumer Reports, friend’s recommendations and your brain. That should work. Follow your instincts.

The Department of Consumer Affairs is mandated to regulate sightseeing guides too. I have never seen an out of city sightseeing guide or an unlicensed guide get snagged by a City official. I’ve written letters to the Mayor that we, licensed New York City guides, have demonstrated our competency, passed the required test and paid our money. They allow out of towners and unlicensed locals to take work away from licensed guides right in front of their noses. Those who are supposed to enforce the laws do not and who might that be? Hum? The cops don’t know this? Humm . . . Let’s allow cops from elsewhere to make “collars” too. Why not hire out of town cops, unlicensed to work here? Sure, when hair grows on my palm. NYPD, thanks for your support, sincerely, licensed guides.

Rise Up! The City employees couldn’t care less if you are “hustled” or scammed. Who’s paying them to not protect licensed New York City sightseeing guides? Good question! If you have a problem, sure, run down to 42 Broadway, fifth floor, and complain to a DCA employee! Whether they’re awake, have a pulse or their eyes are opened, or evidence of life can be revealed by breath fog on a mirror. You’re in for a long ride, or perhaps an unlicensed tour!

Fill out some forms and get on the plane, train, bus or car back home, minus the $750 that you paid for a $250 camera or a tour with an unlicensed guide who doesn’t know The Chrysler Building from The Empire State. Adios amigos! Your fault!! It’s too bad but you should have known better! Honestly, there are exceptions at the DCA but don’t waste your time. As George W. Bush said, “Fool me once shame on me! Fool me twice, ah ah shame on a a a duh me?!#% ){:-}. He should be our next commissioner! “Scammers Wanted Dead or Alive” Vote for Dubbyah! “Bring ‘it on! Eehaa!” George, there ain’t no basement in the Alamo! Yes! Pee Wee Herman for next DCA Commissioner!

Souvenirs! That's another story that requires a little common sense before you plunge. Canal Street is the best place to buy "I Love NY" T Shirts, hats, knock off bags and watches, all made in, you guessed it, downtown Ching-Chong, as in the sound of their cash register, or in the back hills of a country that you may never have heard of!

Be careful about buying those high-end knock-offs because it’s illegal to do so and they’re made by young children who work long hours for pennies. You could get arrested for buying Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Channel bags or Rolex watches, etc. I’ve seen it happen! The NYPD have their hands in the pockets of some of these luxury brand companies who are determined to “protect” their brands. I’ve heard from a very reliable source. Very! Currently, The City Council is considering passage of a law that would impose up to one year in prison and a one thousand dollar fine if you buy such goods. The prison sentence doesn’t bother me but the $1,000 fine has me shakin’!

If you are suckered into a basement or a sequestered room behind a store or even a van, with blackened windows parked on a side street, by rouge vendors, most often Asian, to buy “knock-offs”, you are taking a big risk! I know of an experience when the police had arrested several tourists, and they spent the night in jail, got into a whole bunch of trouble, not to mention a ruined vacation. Canal Street, sure, go for the bargains, but be careful, you’re taking a chance on the copies!!

Try bartering with vendors on Canal Street. You usually can save money besides, what’s the harm of trying? Do everything you can to appear and speak like a New Yorker. If they perceive that you are a tourist, then your chance of cutting deals gets slimmer. “They see you coming!” I've seen this in action and my intervention has resulted in big savings. They know when you're a New Yorker; they get it right most of the time. Practice saying "cauffee" and "becauuze"! Tawk, the tawk and wawk the wawk. Who could blame them? They’re the biggest scam artists on the planet in the opinion of some.

Macy's is an excellent place to make a purchase. The quality is good, the selection is huge and the World's Largest Store has built its reputation on very good value and low prices. If you get screwed there you're deaf, dumb and or blind; stay in your room! Try to “catch” Saks, between 49th and 50th Streets on 5th Avenue, when they are “on sale”. The staff is predatory, most are paid strictly commission, but if you seek, you "may" find!

If you have tons of money, don't like money or just love to get rid of it, than Madison Avenue, New York City’s Rodeo Drive, is the place for you! Was Rodeo Drive, named to drive money from your wallets as if you’re at a rodeo, yee haa! Although the prestige brands are there, and the quality is right up there too, as are the prices. So, if paying top prices is not a factor then bring a fat wallet to Madison Avenue and you'll go home a lot lighter. Fifth Avenue has the same effect as does Soho and The Meatpacking District. Talk to your money, “Bye bye!”

Buying books on the street can be a great bargain. The best street book sales are on Broadway, on the Westside of the street, from 72nd Street up to and passed Fairway toward 80th Street; on Sixth Avenue just south of Barnes & Noble, south of 8th Street in “The Village” too. Some vendors sell hard cover best sellers for a lot less than Barnes & Noble and Borders. No tax either! They’ll tell you it’s included in the price. Sure it is!

Watches: Take 57th Street and subtract 10. That equals 47th Street and the discounts are huge, but if you buy used merchandise, be careful. Get the documents, matched up the serial number on the watch and compare the goods with the documents, not always available. You could save 30-40% or more on a slightly used watch compared with the retail price for new. “Just be smart!” Pretend to be a New Yorker! Shop around; put together some comparative prices. Don’t flaunt your love for the item. Play the game, “I have another one that’s very similar to this”, “It seems just a little too big.” “It’s over my price range a bit.”

Diamond Jewelry: The Gemological Institute created a system that grades similar types of diamonds, weight, color, flaws, clarity, table (depth), etc. If you are seeking a specific size and type of diamond then go to 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue and visit a number of vendors. Bargain with them because the first price is not the “last price” as in “give me your last price” and there’s a big difference between the two, your money! It’s the culture. Let them know that you're shopping around and leave. If you return then let them know that you are ready to buy but you're still somewhat apart in price, but close. You like “the goods” but the price is a bit too high. Ask, “Do you want to do business right now?” Give them the choice, not the other way around. Try to take control of the sale. They'll come down, be patient. If you come back they will assume that you’ve shopped around and coming back is a sure sign that you haven’t found anything better at a comparable price and let them know that, without enthusiasm, that you are interested in their merchandise. “Don’t seem anxious, play poker!” Use your wife or significant other and apply the “good cop bad cop scenario”. She’s anxious and you’re not. Say things like, “What do you need it for?” “We’ll call Harry when we get home; he’s been good to us.”

Never accept the first price offered in an establishment that can cut the price. Never make your buying decision in the first store you enter if you are buying an expensive item, especially a “blind” item like diamonds. If they don't have a reputation you can trust or don’t know or, if the deal seems too good to be true, than it is! Watch out for shills. That’s someone who works for the vendor, stands on your side of the counter, pretends to be a loyal customer who praises the merchant as honest, a fair trader. Follow your instincts. Get the hell out of there. Most often, if a buyer gets screwed it's just as much their fault as the vendors. “It takes two to tango”. Do your homework before you buy and remember that these merchants are even more anxious to make the sale then you are to buy. You can walk around all day and buy nothing. Your life doesn’t depend on it.

The point is, find the bottom price or a price that you are willing to pay. Respect their need to make a profit. Generally, you can sense when their price has hit bottom and if your homework reveals that the comparisons you’ve made convince you that you’ve got a good deal then make the right decision. After your due diligence you should be able to sense the right deal.

If you are seeking an expensive diamond then ask for the gemological certificate to get some comparison prices. If they’re honest, why shouldn’t they accommodate your request? If not, “bye buy”! Then, use that information as a tool to make comparisons up and down the street. Remember, you’re not buying insulin. You can always live without it especially, if you’re unsure about the article or price. Remember, if you don’t buy, you’re stuck with your money and then you’ve lost nothing.

Crime, Way Down and “How”!

Any city, large or small, thrives, shrivels or simply dies, depending on their crime rate. All other things being equal, a well educated populace, good affordable housing, effective education, adequate and available medical care, an competent government, will result in a doomed city if an out of control crime rate compels its tax base to flee the city in large numbers and drives investment into a void. This results in further reductions of vital services and a continued hastening of a downward spiral that creates a city that goes right down the tubes.

The abyss for New York City was the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. There was no foreseeable way out. The City was on the verge of bankruptcy, forced to turn to Washington, D.C. for help; loan guarantees, not money. Albany, the seat of our state government, didn’t love us either, even though New York City is a cash cow for the State. Taxpaying citizens fled New York City in terror seeking refuge in the suburbs where schools were better, so we were told, streets were safer, taxes, in total, were lower and the quality of life far, far better albeit much less exciting. This mass exodus exceeded over 700,000 people, the largest migration out of New York City in history.

“The Bronx is Burning,” “Fort Apache,” The Taking of Pelham 123,” “The Con Ed Riots,” “The Son of Sam,” targeted innocent young couples, terrorizing the City, random shootings, committing a vicious series of heinous crimes that put a grip on a City that was already going down the drain. These and other horrors of daily “life” left people trapped in an urban environment that was on the edge, a cesspool of squalor, crime, corruption, madness and mayhem.

The Con Ed Riots, the result of a society on the edge, a populace seizing the “opportunity” as an invitation to loot, burn neighborhoods and businesses had exposed years of pent up anger and aggression that had been festering in The Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem most of all, for nearly a generation. It was the night of the most arrests in the history of New York City even more then The Draft Riots, the largest civil insurrection in U.S. history! New designer drugs, made on the cheap, given away to twelve and thirteen year old kids, snagged them into a downward spiral, and then the inevitable conversion to paid drugs pushing the crime rate up through the roof! Street gangs roamed, street gangs ruled and they used the subway as a tool to venture into the best neighborhoods that were ripe and easy pickins!

Places that had previously attracted the wealthiest, the most beneficial taxpaying solid citizens on the planet could not have been lured back, even if their apartments were free!

Streets were filled with trash. Abandoned cars remained for months on the streets providing housing for rats and vermin. Most of these “car-cases” were shells, without wheels, or seats, missing fenders and various parts that thieves removed having found a means to sell the “junk” to buy “junk” the lexicon for heroin. It was a routine and accepted part of the urban landscape that would not be tolerated today. We have the tools to prevent this. Back then we did not. We were totally out of control.

Discipline was a “joke” in the City’s school system. Kids did whatever they wanted. Teachers and administrators had their hands tied behind their backs by mandates that restricted their disciplinary tools, resulting in diminished expectations driving results and morale throughout the entire Board of Ed to new, never before seen low levels. Most children, in ghetto neighborhoods learned little or nothing. Only a precious few had the good fortune to be admitted to the City’s best upper grade schools and receive a good education in the dwindling number of good neighborhoods with solid homes, where good parenting was the norm.

Massive layoffs by the City administration, across the board, were rife; fire, education, sanitation, police, health and hospital, public assistance, referred to as “welfare” back then. Transportation, infrastructure maintenance, potholes went unpatched, graffiti was everywhere, public trash cans were left overflowing, parks were a mess, it was a no man’s land, store owners were harassed by agents who ticketed them for littered storefront sidewalks to raise needed cash, and on and on; a scam created by Mayor Abe Beame who desperately needed to raise revenue in a cash starved City. This was a City on the verge of complete collapse, pure and simple.

Big MAC, not the kind that McDonald’s serves, was the first break to find a solution. The Municipal Assistance Corporation, led by Felix Royhaton, with Federal guarantees in place, issued billions of dollars in bonds to fund the City, improve its credit rating and rebuild itself. President Ford finally got it. New York City was the best investment out there. If this City went belly up, then the entire country would tank. Imagine The United States without NYC! That’s just not possible.

The ’80’s were a disaster too. Crack and crank were both big hits on the illegal drug shopping list. In the late 80’s and early 90’s Mayor “Do Something Dave” Dinkins finally did something about crime but it was too little too late. His administration was beyond rescue. He had hired 5,000 additional cops but, due to the untimeliness of his decision, it was not possible to get them trained and on the streets before his run to another term as our mayor, the first and only African American mayor of New York City. He has acquired the singular distinction of being the only mayor of a major American city to loose his bid for re-election. “Good job Dave!”

The Crown Heights Riots exploded into a violent and horrid stain on the City. As the mayor stood by idling and turning the other way we were void of leadership and decisive action. What the hell was he thinking about? Nothing!

The riots were triggered by the accidental and tragic death of a young black child by a Hasidic man, Yankel Rosenbaum, whose car collided into him during a parade memorializing Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubvaitcher Rebbe. A black man, Limerick Nelson, stabbed Mr. Rosenbaun to death at the scene and that ignited a riot that lasted for three days. This was the final straw for Mr. Dinkins and it propelled Rudy Giuliani into City Hall. Without Staten Island, however, having the largest Italian-American population, of any county in The United States by percentage, whose overwhelming number of votes cast for Rudy Giuliani then he would not have succeeded in propelling Dinkins out of office. Amazing! With all that was going on it took Staten Island to save New York City from an administration that was hopelessly incompetent. Smile Dave, your neighborhood is safe now! The man could play a darn good game of tennis and was quite the nifty dresser but a little too many double-breasted threads, eh Dave, could save you? Be well!

On January 1st of 1993 Rudy took over the reins. He began by taking the City back from the criminal elements, from the street punks and the mafia who controlled unions, sanitation, construction, trucking and much more.

William Bratton, the former Boston Chief of Police, was a vigorous advocate of an innovative new policing concept featured in The Atlantic Monthly, in March 1982, “Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities” by Catherine M. Coles and George Kelling provided the framework of the new anti-crime strategy.

The key elements of the crime initiative were these:

“Community policing” a more direct approach, closer and more effective communication, applied concern that compelled the police to change their habitual routine of cruising in cars. More police were assigned to foot patrol, projecting themselves as caring citizens, and connectors with the community. They learned what was going on from the locals, where the trouble was, who the culprits were; they got to know the residents and experience the communities up close. Over time, they had earned the trust and respect of the community and used the information to target crime in a way that was never done before.

The police were told to focus on the “quality of life” crimes such as; public urinating, smoking and selling marijuana in the streets; alcohol consumption in public, jumping over the subway turnstiles, loitering, 170,000 per day, aggressive panhandling, “squeegee boys” hostile men and boys who wiped car windshields for money, street prostitution, etc.

Police Commissioner Bratton converted a number of buses into portable police stations and streamlined the paper work process for arrests as well. Approximately one-third of those who were arrested were either carrying illegal weapons, illegal drugs or were wanted for “priors.” They were removed from the streets and they paid the price. Truly, the City initiated “The Tipping Point” as expressed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book that bears that title.

Governor Pataki signed legislation stiffening the sentencing rules for convicted criminals and all but eliminated the “suspended sentence” rules resulting in the incarceration of thousands of criminals, getting them off the streets, providing further reductions in crime. Those criminals that were taken off the streets had sent a message to their ilk that they too would be next. We had suddenly become a City that just wasn’t going to take it anymore. The mantra, “You do the crime, you do the time” had replaced “first offense, suspended sentence”.

Another factor that complimented these efforts was the legalization of abortion in The United States in 1973 (Roe v. Wade), although in no way was that the intent of the decision. By the early 1990’s many children, who would have been born, many by impoverished mothers in blighted urban ghettos never “hit” the streets. Certainly, Roe v. Wade was not decided on the basis of reducing crime however, there are statistics that confirm that this ancillary effect of the Supreme Court’s decision was a sidecar and remains an incessantly controversial issue.

Another leg of the stool was the improvement of the streetscapes, vitally important for an anti-crime initiative.

If you enter a city that is riddled with graffiti, marred with broken beer, malt liquor, vodka and rum bottles, littered with trash, vacant stores, abandoned cars, large dogs, unleashed roaming the street, etc. that gives people the impression that no one cares and no one is watching. However, on the other hand, if you find yourself in a city that is clean, has no graffiti, no “broken windows” an absence of unbundled trash and a well maintained environment with freshly planted flowers, trees and potted plants, tables and chairs placed in the streets that are intended to reduce vehicular traffic and increase foot traffic then the right message is sent. The impression is that someone cares and someone is watching and that provides a major deterrence to criminal activity according to Keller and Coles.

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