Thursday, 22 March 2007

5. US mail

I wrote a reference for a former student today. He wants to do an MA in War Studies. I had to take it to the Post Office. I had some stamps, but I wasn’t sure how much it weighed and indeed didn’t know the maximum weight for the standard letter to Europe. The queues, or lines as I should say, are always long in the week. But there is a little room straight off the street at the Post Office on Third and 55th (or thereabouts) where you can weigh the mail yourself and pay for it by debit card without any human contact, so I thought I’d give that a go.

I get to the place and see through the glass walls that one of the three machines is free, not even a line. But there is a dog tied by its lead to the door handle. I have never really liked dogs. I’m a cat man. But it was only a small one. A pug, I think, from my knowledge of the Rupert Bear books, not really like Algy Pug, more anxious, smaller, more the size of Pong-Ping the Pekinese, and black and white, but near enough for me to call him son of Algy. I tentatively lean across to pull the door gently towards me and son of Algy having less than two feet of rein, so to speak, immediately scoots through the door and inside the Post Office, or as far as he can, which is about two feet. I pull the door a bit wider and son of Algy is dragged back and then decides to use his limbs to move in my direction and let me inside. I sense that someone else behind me held the door as I slid through.

I lost sight and sound of son of Algy for a while. It was fairly easy to weigh the letter, push a few touch-screen buttons and discover, mercifully, I had the right amount in stamps. So I decide to exit and find a post box. Then I am stopped in my tracks by a booming and … I think the term is strident, if that does not contradict ‘booming’, voice. A woman, I sensed.

“Is that your dog? That dog does NOT belong tied to the front door of a PUBLIC Post Office. You cannot do that!”

I turn round, no one in sight, she is obviously not talking to me, because the voice is coming from the inner room of the ground floor office.

“You can NOT do that, the dog’s nearly strangled itself, twice!”

I can’t hear a response, but a lady emerges from the inner office, head bowed as if in shame, opens the door and starts feverishly to release son of Algy from his door handle. She is followed by someone who reminds me of Dorothy of the Golden Girls for her size and demeanour. Golden Girls is on cable TV for an hour every night at six. One of the better programmes. One featured dizzy Rose as a volunteer dummy for local firemen’s first aid class. At the thought of mouth-to-mouth ressuscitation Blanche turned green. Did you ever see that one? But I digress.

Dorothy repeats her imprecations as son of Algy and owner exit stage right. A man is holding the door on the outside and says to Dorothy: “Are you finished?” in a surprisingly soft and mild manner, I thought, so not as a reproach but maybe as a genuine question. Maybe her husband.

“No, I’m not, I gotta go back in,” say Dorothy frustratedly, “I had to bawl out that woman. Did you ever see such a moron? Tying a dawg to the front door of a Post Office. She’s pregnant too.”

I hadn’t noticed. Or perhaps she meant son of Algy, in which case it would have been daughter of Algy. The dog didn’t look pregnant to me. But would I notice?

“Would she do that to a child!?” she adds, still incredulous.

Hmm, I ponder the proposition. Is it likely she would put a leather leash round a child’s neck and tie it to a door on a main street in Manhattan, while she went into a shop, indeed a public Post Office. No, on the basis of this one example of her behaviour, I don’t think we can necessarily make that inference. For one thing, I imagine children are not banned from Post Offices here. Or perhaps they are.

“I’ve never SEEN such a moron!”

You should get out more, luv. In “Sex in the city”, it’s called multitasking. But it’s a good job Bill Badger didn’t come on the scene. “Sex in the city” is on cable TV every night too, later than Golden Girls. I wonder if Rupert is on the Children’s Channel?

I exit and enter another door to take the escalator up to the main Post Office, passing the splendid plaster of Paris busts US Mail has bought or commissioned. I can’t imagine the Royal Mail or whatever it’s called these days – Letters ‘R Us? – doing anything similar. (By the way NEVER use the Royal Mail redirection “service”, but that’s another story.)

I look for the post box that seems to be the one that takes most types of mail, since you come across so many interdictions on some of the boxes that you don’t know what to put in where. There is a new, large, capitalised notice above it.


I say ”new” but it may be the last line only that is new, it is in a different type. It makes me hesitate before offering up the student reference, wanting to avoid it being cancelled. I read it again. “Effective from April 1, 2004”, well that certainly means it’s effective now, so I must be careful. Mail must be deposited by 7 pm. It’s not yet mid-day so it could certainly affect the letter I’m about to drop in. “For same day cancellation”. Hmm, can it mean that if you put a letter in the box you can change your mind and stop it going up to 7 pm? If impulse-buying habits are spreading to letter writing, that might occasionally be useful, but surely not? It must be another Americanism. “Cancellation”, I conclude, must mean something like franked or just sent. I drop in the letter, weighing up the odds, which I decide are more in my favour than not.

It’s rather like the “Post no bills” notice I saw soon after arriving. I was behind a post box on a hoarding. I was about to drop in a cheque to pay off a Barclaycard bill and had to reason myself through it to make sure I wasn’t about to do something I’d regret.

Before leaving the Post Office, I look across to the line that snakes left and right in front of the counters. I was wise not to try that. People are still walking as slowly as Edward Trunk from the front of the line when they are indicated to go to a free counter, and they may have to go 20 yards to the left or 15 yards to the right depending which one is free. I do find that Noo Yoikers walk slowly in the street, but they all eat so fast, in restaurants. Perhaps the two things are related. But which came first, the chicken or the triple egg sunny side up? It’s rather like wondering what on earth are boneless buffalo wings. I’ve never dared ask, it’s just one of those questions that gnaw away at you, but you know it’ll really show you up if you blurt it out in company.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

4: The Empire State

A fine morning and I decide to do the Empire State Building. I had seen queues winding round the outside of the building at weekends during the day, so I guessed an early weekday start might save me time. But what with breakfast and getting a bus (limited stop, of course) down 5th Avenue to 34th Street, I arrived at the (once again, sadly) tallest building in New York, grateful to see no people waiting outside. As I stepped inside I looked at my watch: 9.45 am. More or less straight up the elevator by a sign saying Tickets for Observatory, I emerged, frowning, into a big roomful of 150 people winding round the ubiquitous roped queue lines towards (I assumed) the ticket office(s). I had heard the lines move quickly.

10.0 am I reach an airline-type security gate and take everything out of my pockets and put my camera into the box, almost forgetting my keys. Beep, beep, beep. Oh! No, not my shoes? No, I had forgotten the notepad in my shirt pocket was metal ring-bound. Phew. Into another similar sized room with identical roped lines winding towards, yes, it looks like ticket offices. We pass notices indicating the offers: one adult $14, or a “new” item: “an upgrade for your Empire State Building experience”. When I see the word ‘experience’ I reach for – my notepad. When you get an upgrade in an airline you tend to get better seats and champagne at no extra cost. Here, the upgrade cost an extra $6. For $20 we could “actually see more by listening [sic] … to Tony’s Audioview.” Hmm. I wasn’t convinced, and I wanted my hands free to take photos. But Tony was an authentic retired New York cabbie. That settled it. I’d go for Observatory only.

But we were still in a line, with kids impatiently trying to slip past and being dragged back by their parents. Another sign offers us a further novelty, a New York Skyride, a high definition digital “motion” film as if we were flying over Manhattan. Not just after breakfast, thank you.

We come to another sign giving further ticket options. For $53, in addition to the ESB Observatory, I could get free entry to five other New York tourist hotspots: MOMA (I am a member already and get free entry, queue jumping and free films), the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier-museum (well, we might go, I suppose), the Natural History Museum (probably not), a 2-hour Circle Line boat trip (already done a three-hour one around Manhattan), and another attraction that was probably the Statue of Liberty (but the best view is from the free Staten Island ferry)? By 10.10 am I have my ticket.

Suddenly, to our left, a glimpse of a lift, but we are guided by more ropes a long way past them and as we advance the lifts get further away. We are moving very quickly now and trot past a sign saying 45 minutes to Observatory. What? Let’s hope it means if the queue is stationary. Having lost time at the security check I am now behind a British-Asian family of five presumably from Merseyside since the youngest child was wearing a Liverpool FC shirt and being teased by his teenage sister about wax in his ear (not that the latter is confined to the north west). I sympathise with the lad. The teenage girl turns to her mother and says: “We could have gone into five shops by now.” I sympathise – with the mother.

10.27 am A lift door closes five yards ahead of me, I am held at a turnstile – temporarily, it turns out and I am allowed to join my compatriots in one of lifts number 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, and 10 – by the look of them the original lifts. Up we go, my ears pop at the 60th floor, as I hang onto my trousers and my breakfast. The British-Asian lad grimaces. We get out at the 80th. I’d thought it was higher. Another line, but we glimpse a bit of skyline through a window. We all have to pass an individual or family group photo shoot and I almost end up in the Liverpudlians’ picture. “Smile please!” I make a note in my note book that it is 10.34 am and an Eastern European-sounding woman in uniform makes some sarcastic remarks about all the trivia I must be recording. Indeed, luv.

We turn a corner and … more roped lines to get to … the next bank of lifts. We pass some coloured photo menus advertising a cafeteria. 10.37 am. “Mum, I’m hungry.” – the teenage girl. This is getting like a Billy Graham revivalist meeting, building up tension and expectations by forever making us wait for the main event. We pass people coming down, looking rather shell-shocked, or goggle eyed, I thought. But one minute later we are out of the second lift and emerging into the Empire State Building Observatory souvenir shop, then out onto the viewing platform and the bright sunlight … and the heat – 53 minutes after setting foot inside the building.

Quite a few people already up there, but you can generally make your way round and get a good position to look or snap, despite the tough wire fence and steel bars making it very difficult to throw yourself, or anybody else, for that matter, off into the void. It is a bit misty despite promises of ten mile visibility. However, I take a lot of wide-angle photos – with my proper camera, rather than the digital. You see the bridges over the East River, the UN building looking quite small, the elegant Chrysler, the mid-town skyscrapers, Central Park in the distance, and as I walk round, the Hudson river and New Jersey, nearer the round shape of the new Madison Square Garden Center (round not square, that does puzzle me, and its not a garden centre either, by the way, in case you are not a boxing fan), and the Flatiron Building, quite close but a long way down. As I am scanning the downtown Manhattan skyline against the sun, someone points out the Statue of Liberty in the far distance through the mist (not Tony the ex-cabbie). The one thing missing from the view is the Empire State Building, the most beautiful profile of the lot. New York doesn’t seem complete without it. No doubt it would be on the Skyride. For some of the points of interest I fail to identify, there are helpful names on drawings of the skyline etched in metal. There are also coin-operated telescopes – I guess powered by quarters like everything else here, from parking meters to launderettes.

Before going back into the souvenir shop, I notice a bronze plaque on the inside wall, typical of all sorts of buildings and events, drawing attention to the American flag on the flagpole way above us: “Old Glory atop the Empire State Building dedicated to the Defenders of Freedom … around the world, the ARMED FORCES OF THE USA” [in capitals], inaugurated May 13, 1968 by some rear-admiral or other. That must have been the Vietnam era, and now it’s Iraq. The US’s own white man’s burden (but with a lot of black squaddies), to spread its own view of freedom to the rest of the world, was not born with Dubbya, nor did it die with Johnson or Nixon.

As I move into a corner of the souvenir shop, a woman is leaning with her back to the glass window avoiding looking out, she looks a bit pale – heat exhaustion or a problem with heights? I walk round the whole of the inner glass-enclosed area and find that you are above the height of the people on the viewing platform, you look through antiglare glass – and it’s all air-conditioned! This is the best tip I can offer when visiting here: look out for the two side corridors of the souvenir shop – north and south - for the best views. As I turn my back to the views in these corridors, I see behind me a mirrored wall – I CAN EVEN TAKE A PHOTO OF MYSELF TAKING A PHOTO OF MYSELF THROUGH THE MIRRORS WITH THE NEW YORK SKYLINE IN THE BACKGROUND (a mirror-image of course). When I come round again the lady has changed colour – it looks like verdigris – or do I mean vertigo- no, verdigris is a better description. I mention to her there are toilets around the corner should she need them, then correct myself to ‘rest rooms’.

Resisting the temptation to buy a little, glass Big Apple snow globe with a miniature ESB inside, I venture outside for one last look and realise that I had blotted out until now the noise of the city. The rumble (in the urban jungle) of the traffic and the air-conditioning units – the white noise of New York, interrupted by the horns and sirens of Tony’s fellow professional drivers, since the taxis and emergency vehicles seem to make most of the noise at street level.

I head for the lifts and find the guards are holding a queue of would-be visitors until more people have decided to leave. AND there is queue for the down lift - I say ‘lift’ in the singular since one of the down lifts has stopped working. One of the employees suggests those who choose to could follow him down the stairs. A few of us decide to – remembering it is only five or six floors to the other lifts, but before we are halfway down one flight he comes back up and says we can’t go down that way now. “Why not?” “We can’t get down.” “Why not? “’Cos we can’t.” Ah! He heads for another stairway and a senior uniformed guard says: “You can’t go down there.” The non-uniformed man asks: “Why not?” “’Cos you can’t.” Nobody bothers to ask why.

We wait in the original queue, having lost a few places. But within a couple of minutes we emerge onto the 80th floor and walk past the photo sales site. I see a reasonably good ¾ portrait of myself posing beside a photographic reproduction of the ESM. I look at the price - $15 – and remember I already have a self-portrait in my Olympus OM-1- in principle. There is no photo of the Merseyside family there. At $3 each a family group must have seemed good value.

A short walk further to the six high-speed lifts, no real queue and down we go. I wonder if I would have seen more by listening to Tony’s commentary. Maybe next time. Doors open at the first floor, which I remember is the ground. We exit pasta pizzeria [I have left this typo in], Uncle Louie G’s ice-cream parlour, a Walgren’s supermarket and through the smart lobby to see directly across the street (that is, across Fifth Avenue, for goodness sake) a McDonald’s – great location, pity about the food.