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

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Take a look at the images of the New York City of the 1970’s and ‘80’s and have a look today. The difference is huge. The level of voluntary compliance and civic pride in the City has soared and the crime rate has plunged to the City’s lowest levels in history.

It is unfortunate that few cities throughout the world have adopted these methods of policing. With the reduction in crime in New York City by over 75% due to the efforts of Mayor Giuliani, Mayor Bloomberg, Police Commissioners Bratton and Kelly, the NYPD and our own people, New York City has enjoyed a spectacular renaissance, one that hopefully continues for many years to come. One hopes that when New York City falls on difficult economic times, such as we had experienced in 2008 through the present, our leaders will not permit a backslide by attempting to balance state and city budgets by slashing funding for those strategies that have gotten us out of that mess a generation ago. It simply is a self-liquidating investment. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Sure, you can save money today by slashing budgets, however when the tax base flees, businesses close, unemployment rises, people become desperate and do stupid things that will, in the long run, cost us much more blood and treasure. The lessons of the past are clear. Investing in the City is the path to prosperity and the failure to “fix broken windows” leads to the inevitable failure of urban life. Let’s hope that history doesn’t repeat itself and that our governments, our courage and will to invest will provide the means to propel New York City to continue moving forward.

New York City in a Blizzard

Blizzards are uncommon here. So are earthquakes, hurricanes, avalanches, tsunamis and tornadoes. We do have plenty of awful weather and at times we suffer. Predicting weather in New York City is difficult, iffy. The unexpected is common and unwelcome. Typically, weather is so changeable when it’s consistent here it’s a little bizarre! Don’t ask me why. I’ve never cultivated a love of meteorology growing up in an age prior to satellites, and sophisticated weather forecasting technology is still a hit and miss science and art. It’s been a long time since I got the weather from Carol Reed, the CBS weather lady back in the late ‘50’s, and our ability to predict it accurately has improved only slightly. Besides, as has been said, “weather, you can’t do anything about it, it just happens”. In a town where you can always dip into a subway station, normally not too far, purchase an umbrella on the street for as little as three bucks, why bother to track the weather? Manhattanites don’t drive. We ride and walk. Manhattanites have no snow tires or chains, that’s for suburbanites and snow plows. Manhattanites don’t worry about finding a parking spot we have no cars, well, most of us anyway. And New Yorkers wardrobes are about 90% black, bad for hot summer weather, never mind that!

New York City was blessed, not everyone would agree, with a huge blizzard in January of 1996. According to the official weather bureau records 20.2 inches of snow fell on Central Park and over 30 inches were reported in some of the outer boroughs. At the time, I was living on West 57th Street, between 8th and 9th. This was the first time I had the opportunity to experience such an astonishing event. In New York City, blizzards do not pose the same inconveniences for those who live in the hinterlands, the outer boroughs, because our major mode of transportation is underground. Sidewalks are cleared because building owners are responsible for that and City snow removal services are most often quite good. We’re New York City, we’re prepared, usually! Right Mike!

It was predicted, the weather reports were coming in, that a possible record breaker, the biggest snowstorm, or at least nearly the biggest, in New York City history, was about to fall upon us. It turned out to be number four; March 12-14 in 1888 was the second, December 26-27 in 1947 was the third largest and The Blizzard of ’06 (2006) kicked in as the largest at 26.9 inches. Records have been kept since 1869.

It was late afternoon when the first evidence began to descend. Only once before had snow of this magnitude blanket the City during my lifetime. I recall my parents talking about the blizzard of 1947 for years. In those days we were not equipped to remove the snow as efficiently as we are now. It was always the granddaddy of all blizzards. This time we were ready. I do recall that there were elders talking about hearing their predecessors, when they were children, who couldn’t stop talking about the blizzard of 1888. That’s the blizzard that led to the submergence of our electric and telephone lines reinstalled below ground!

After the white stuff, thick, fluffy and very dense, had stopped after the ’06 blizzard and laid claim to the City I dressed up for the occasion with long johns, gloves, ear muffs, boots, and hat, “the works” and ventured out around midnight. I had entered a time warp!

Not a car, cab or bus was in sight. The noise of the City had completely vanished and there were very few people out there, A few horses were visible with mounted police officers. A man was cross country skiing in the middle of 57th Street, dogs were roaming, unleashed and the city had fallen into an eerie quiet that may not have occurred for over 100 years. The City, muted, desolate and still was quite a contrast from the norm that we knew in the late 20th century. No other event could have caused that. It was the quietest and most pure, beautiful and pristine that Manhattan had been since the Lenape Indians had ruled.

It took me back to a time that I thought that I could only have imagined, read about or seen in old black and white movies, or photographs. But, no image, no photograph, could have captured the silence that I had experienced. It was bizarre, very strange, surreal, as if I had become deaf and was pulsed by a time machine. The lack of noise amplified the sights as it is said of those who have a sensory loss and their other senses acquire greater acuity.

Gazing at fifty story buildings and virtually no one in sight void of vehicles, horns honking was dreamlike an incongruent experience as if I had landed on another planet. No odor of engine fumes, no sirens blearing, a city stood still as though it was 1888 without the clip clop of horse hooves, without the hasty gaits of people in a hurry, this urban landscape was all a kaleidoscope of 20th century steel frame buildings rising into the haze and it was mesmerizing.

How fortunate I was to experience this weirdness, knowing that the switch would flip with morning’s light and the City would inevitably trudge back to normal. I was glad about that too.

This snapshot of a slow paced, quiet and peaceful New York City was a treat and for who were fortunate enough to step outside, into the past for a brief moment the experience was truly worth the effort. I do hope to slip back in time again. Until then, I will enjoy the City that I love, just the way it is. Hopefully, down the road, I’ll be talking about the blizzard of ’19 with a wide-eyed little child who will hear another old man recalling the blizzard of ’06! “I remember that yes, I was there. Were you here too little one?” Surely, you’re too young to remember. You would have loved it.

Food Shopping, Manhattan-style

Many times people, who do not live here, have asked me a strange question. “How do you go food shopping in New York City?” It never occurred to me that this topic would evoke curiosity. What’s so strange or unusual about buying food for the pantry in New York City? After reflection, I realized that we actually don’t buy our groceries the like most of our fellow citizens from other places.

Typically, people from other locales drive their cars to the supermarket and purchase a week’s supply of food and household needs. They’re done. That’s not possible in Manhattan unless you have a car and a place to put it all when you arrive back home. When you leave the supermarket you’ll need to have four pairs of arms to load and unload your bounty. Modern day food carts are frequently equipped with brakes that lock the cart’s wheels when it is beyond a close proximity of the supermarket. No solution there!

The risk of putting your vehicle in front of your home in New York City, typically a building that is some distance from your parking lot, if you have one, may cost you a ticket for the violation and the combined cost of your food bill with that parking ticket will make you wish you had eaten out more often, as many New Yorkers do. You’d have wished that you had eaten most of your bounty on your way home. Hey, with 24,000 restaurants in this town some folks still can afford to eat out!

Most New Yorkers limit what they buy to all they can carry, no more. Therefore, they shop for food almost daily. Buying weekly provisions, at one time, is out of the question. Rather, it’s most often bringing home what is needed until tomorrow. It’s about “fill-ins” on a day-to-day basis. As a result of these limited choices, I see younger and younger people using granny wagons, those foldable steel cages wheelies to move their food from the market to their door. I have one but I refuse to use it. I feel that it’s an assault to my efforts to guise my age.

In my neighborhood, 97th Street off Columbus Avenue there are choices. If I choose to buy my daily needs and go south of 96th Street I will pay more. For example, a one-liter bottle of Canada Dry Club Soda is priced at $1.69 whereas at 100th Street a two-liter bottle costs $1.25. That’s a 63% difference in price!

Prices vary quite a bit from neighborhood to neighborhood based on retail rents, competition, the willingness of shoppers to compare prices and buy cheaper, the distance from their homes and the motivation to walk a few blocks out of their way to save money. Retailers perceive what they can “get for each item” and charge the highest price that people are willing to pay without suffering a significant loss of trade. As with running any business isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? Most New Yorkers will not run around the neighborhood buying watermelon in one store and their club soda in another; less so since the crash of 2008 which, as I understand is now the crash of 2012.

I have become much more conscious of food prices since then and have saved a bundle. Then the obvious question pops into my head, “So, where’s the bundle? Don’t know. It just never seems to surface!” Money falls through the cracks. It talks to me, it says “good-bye!”

Whole Foods, terrific food merchandisers, with new stores opening throughout the City, have a huge nitch. Their prepared foods are excellent, the quality and selection of their products are unbeatable, especially for an operation that size. It’s most impressive, but their organic mantra eliminates such items as NABISCO Orioles, Heinz Ketchup and Hellman’s Mayonnaise. Whole Foods is organic, “green” and minded. They display their wares extremely well and are thoroughly organized. They have the longest lines and the fastest check out system ever seen. It’s truly amazing how fast they get you out of there. Express lines flow in lightening speed, most often, aided by staffers who direct shoppers to the next available register together with a spectacular high tech system that creates order and efficiency. Medium size boiled and peeled shrimp are about $17.99 a pound whereas on Canal Street it’s $5.99 a pound, but once frozen. I generally buy shrimp, if I have the urge, only when I happen to be in the Canal Street area. You can also get three live lobsters there for about $21.00. Lobsters hate Canal Street. They think they’re worth more than that!

Recently, while at Whole Foods, I had gathered seven items, went straight for the “10 items or less” line directly to the front. No one was on line, no big deal. A woman entered from my rear and challenged me to get behind her because I had entered from the front and not from the proper entrance, the rear! “The Enforcer” had arrived! You know the type! “Lady, you have about 16 items!” I told her. She was indignant and complained to other customers about me! I gave her a New York City retort, “Who are you, my principal? Just keep your lid on, get a grip, and get on the right line ma’am”. Truly, she was an exceptional woman!

Big Box stores have just started invading Manhattan. Perhaps it had been zoning laws, the high cost of the space and the recognition that there’s not enough parking, therefore; how much can a Manhattanite carry out of a store and take home that had prevented them from building stores in Manhattan? The average purchase per shopper, per trip, is unlikely to meet the retailer’s business model, therefore, Big Box stores do exist in the outer boroughs where real estate is far less costly, with parking lots that take up vast amounts of space. Costco has a few stores, in Brooklyn and Queens, not too far from Manhattan and one that opened in East Harlem a few years ago, east of Pleasant Ave, is about 4 long blocks from the Lexington subway line. Word is that their sales are still disappointing and I’m not a bit surprised. Who’s going to shop there? People from out of Manhattan will not drive here because they’ve got the same stuff in the outer boroughs and Manhattanites are nearly 80% carless, per family, the least percentage of car ownership of any County in The United States.

The prices at the big box stores are terrific, the quality is up there and the selection is fine. However, unless you need to buy huge bulk quantities of spaghetti or corn chips, etc. then this is not the place for you. Besides, where is the average Manhattan resident going to put all this stuff? The bathtub or terrace, if you have either one it will work, if you don’t bathe yourself and shop in the middle of the winter. Those are the only places I know of to stash it all unless you park your bootie all over your apartment.

Fifth Avenue, Tribeca, Park Avenue, Westend Avenue, older uptown prewar buildings, Central Park West and Sutton Place residents have the space, but they also have lots of money therefore Costco is not their likely place of choice to shop. Next time I’m seated next to an odorous person on the bus or subway I’ll just suspect that they have food and cleaning products stored in their tub. Could be, I’ll be kind and just change my seat, or stand.

In most cases those folks who live in cavernous apartments don’t do their own food shopping anyway. They have hired help to do it for them naturally, or don’t have food at home at all. That’s what restaurants are for!

I have taken the subway, two trains, switched to a bus, and walked about five blocks, a one hour trip that pays off well to get to the Costco in Queens. Getting back is a different story. When I exit the store, with my wagon filled to the brim, I look around for an old TLC “black car” for hire, taxi or van and get a ride back to Manhattan for about $20. The cost of the ride, factored into the saving, is well worth it and the Latino music in the car is a big plus. I love doing this. It’s so New York City!

Then there’s Fresh Direct, an on-line grocery purveyor. Set up your account online, click in your order and it’s delivered directly to your apartment in a refrigerated truck within a two-hour time frame that you had requested when you placed your order. Your groceries, and prepared foods, if you like, are delivered in corrugated boxes. Their slogan is “Only Our Customers Are Spoiled.” This is a service that’s perfect for hungry New Yorkers. Delivery, that’s how we love to live! You can get anything delivered in New York City, anything!

For me the best “game in town” is Associated Supermarket on 100th Street. If you spend over $30, you can have your order delivered with you as you leave the store, wheeled in a cart directly to your front door at no charge. Naturally, a tip is expected, and appreciated. The prices are terrific because at 100th Street, the only way to survive, for many of the nearby residents, is “ghetto pricing”. When it comes to money nobody is stupid and the poorer among us are no exception.

Small food stores, particularly in lower income neighborhoods, generally provide excellent service. Korean delis are consistently the best, offering excellent service, wide selection and clean well kept establishments. They manage to use their limited space extremely efficiently, with science, clean, well stocked and with good service they stay open long hours. Many are open 24/7 and always have hot coffee to go and many have excellent “salad bars” both hot and cold and thousands take home a pound of food ready to eat. The best one in the City, that I’ve seen, is located at 5th Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets in Manhattan. Take a look. It’s an amazing place, textbook perfect!

Who needs a kitchen? What’s a kitchen? I think my aunt has one. Kitchens exist for people to talk to each other, right? Someday kitchens will disappear in New York City, it’s inevitable. Eventually, they’ll become sub-rentals for those who can’t afford to live here, in the kitchen they’ll go. Or perhaps closet space, which makes a lot of sense. The day will surely come when we’ll be sleeping like horses, standing up!

Gourmet food stores such as Zabar’s on the Upper Westside, Citarella and Dean & Delucca, etc. provide phenomenal selections, great food, about 100 or more varieties of cheese, more than France, prepared foods and exotics however, they are not the lowest priced choices in town. Not at all! They’re worth the price if you’re a gourmet, have lively taste buds and abundant cash, credit or debt cards. Check out the Food Market at Grand Central Terminal at the Lexington Avenue entrance at 43rd Street. That’s the place for the hungry with thick wallets who are thin on extra time!

And then there’s Fairway. That’s another story, the leader in big grocery stores with price, quality and value all way up there, excellent! There are two on the Upper Westside, one beneath the Westside Highway at 125th Street with ample parking boasting a huge selection, a deli and a cold room with varsity jackets hanging outside the door to keep you warm as you roam for fresh fish, juices, milk, meats, etc. There’s a new one in Red Hook, Brooklyn too and enjoys a huge volume of business. They deserve it and the original is on Broadway at 75th Street.

Chelsea Market, a major draw that helped fuel the change of the Meatpacking District, is not only a place to eat but hang out, shop, drink, people watch and kill half a day. Check out the fish, sushi and lobster, but don’t inhale in that store if you hate the smell of fresh fish. Grab a few shrimp and try eating with your eyes open. Ahhhh! This district, The Meatpacking District is now a hangout for the “rich and famous” and others who seek to find mates, matches, fast lane friendship and love. The clubs, bars, rooftop scenes, restaurants have grown like weeds. Perhaps the name of the ‘hood should be changed by Pack-Meeting District!

We do things differently in New York City and no matter how you slice it, we have choices that are unbeatable. That’ you, unlike your wallet, may fatten up a bit too! Bon Appetite but one bus or subway seat per customer!! Consider, New York City consumes the equivalent of a fifteen-mile long freight train filled with food, daily. Mangia, fres, munch, dine, chew and swallow New York! Burp!

Take a Hike and Watch for the Bike!

“Look both ways!” and “Don’t cross the street in the middle of the block, in the middle, in the middle in the middle of the block”! That was a jingle for a commercial that blanketed the airwaves for years way back in the 1960’s. Those commercials heightened our awareness of the danger of cars while crossing streets and that’s nothing compared with the danger brought to you by many of those bicycle messengers who plague the streets of New York City!

“Walk” and “Don’t Walk” signs won’t help you. Looking before you cross, in the direction of the oncoming traffic won’t help you. Praying won’t help you and body armor, that won’t help you either. What will?

Your only defense from bicycles, especially messengers, is to look both ways and get back on the sidewalk, where there are fewer bicycles, but they’re still there. Bike messengers aren’t your only potential danger. They are extremely aggressive because the number of “runs” they are compensated based on the number of runs they complete. Therefore, they are always in a hurry. They routinely disobey the traffic laws; run through red lights, pedal in any direction they please and many use “road” bikes that have no brakes! They stop by not peddling and putting pressure on the back pedal, which slowly brings their bikes to a gradual stop. Stopping slowly is an iffy proposition if you happen to be in their way. It puts you in grave danger as in danger of the grave!

They speed through throngs of pedestrians crossing intersections with little or no regard for the safety of those who are in their path. They weave in between people crossing the street anticipating where the pedestrians will be when they arrive in approximately a half a second and provide no warning. Some, who are more considerate, yuck, shout or whistle a warning that is seldom heard above the street noise barely missing numerous people who glare or shout at them in the process. Occasionally, they’ll turn around and confront you angrily in an exceedingly intimidating and threatening way. You just don’t know whom you are dealing with. It’s best just to keep your mouth shut. Many cycle messengers are angry people and when you’re in their line of fire, you could lose, bit time. Yell, shout, scream at them and they may confront you! I know from experience. Don’t let it happen, many of them are nuts! They hit you and they’re pissed at you because you’ve slowed them down. Never mind your injury, it’s their time, and in that business time is money, and nothing else matters, nothing.

Being hit, head on, by a bicycle carrying a man weighing two hundred pounds, together with the weight of the bike moving at high speed, with enormous momentum, is potentially life threatening. There’s plenty of evidence for that. On average 300 people are hit by bike messengers yearly. That’s a low number that is just not believable. Too many of the injuries are extremely serious; kneecaps removed by bicycle pedals, fractures, concussions, heart attacks and organ damage. My doctor told me recently that he is putting his kids through college from income derived due to pedestrian and cyclist injuries. There is no doubt that walking is now the most dangerous means of conveyance in New York City, if you don’t watch out. Fact: last year over 500 people were hospitalized in Manhattan alone who were hit by bicycles.

Bicycle messengers run their own marathons whereby they map out an itinerary of various routes competing for prestige amongst themselves, racing through the streets challenging others, demonstrating who among them is the fastest messenger therefore, the most reckless and dangerous. Brilliant!

When crossing a street in New York City make it a habit of looking both ways, always. Stand aside, let them go by. Don’t take any chances. Many bikers use the sidewalks all the time, especially food delivery messengers, and they come up from behind you, silently! Don’t shift “lanes” on the sidewalk without looking back, walk straight! The streets are often too crowded and narrow for them therefore, they take the liberty of doing whatever they want and sidewalks are the solution.

Where are the police? Who’s enforcing the traffic laws? Why are they allowed to do whatever they please? Round up a few hundred bikes, take them away from violators, return the bikes when the fine is paid and if a biker piles up more than three fines then lock ‘em up! Licensing with photo ID’s should be mandatory and a point system must be instituted, as with motor vehicle licenses. Throw in mandatory insurance coverage too and enforce it!

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