Sunday, November 30, 2008

Near Rests the Lodging: Tales of China

Yeah!! I'm blogging again. Limited Internet access plus difficulties logging onto Blogger in China (think the government had something to do with that? Hmm? Hmmm??) made blogging impossible but I had a great trip and am here to tell all.

Right now I feel like Ross Perot's 1992 running mate -- who am I? More specifically, where am I -- and what time is it?

Got back from China last night and right now the body is suffering some major jet lag. My mind and the clock say it's 3:30 PM but the body says it's 4:30 AM and, like so often in life, the body will probably triumph over the mind shortly. Anyhoo, a short recount of my trip, then this blog will get back to its regular NYC-oriented business:

1. First stop, Beijing. Saw the usual tourist sites: the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Mao's Mausoleum, and the Ming Tombs. Climbed the Great Wall and walked around some of the city's lovely parks. Engaged in a Chinese tea ceremony. Beijing certainly has great stuff in it but, as a city as a whole, it's pretty dull.

Thing learned: the Dragon is the historic symbol of China's power, hence the Emperor's Dragon Thrown. The Chinese Dragon is actually a composite of the following most powerful animal parts: the head of a lion, the antlers of a deer, the claws of a bear, the body of a snake, the tail of whale, the wings of a bird, eyes of a hare, the scales of a fish, and some others I can't remember. Also, the number 9 is the symbol of power since it is the highest individual number. Go into any Chinese palace and most staircases will have no more than 9 steps. Hence the reason old world China didn't have many tall buildings.

2. Next stop: Pingyao. This is an ancient city, almost 3000 years old, surrounded by a 700 hundred year old wall. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city is largely preserved as originally built. We visited the enormous Wang family compound and walked on top of the entire city wall, looking at this amazing piece of living history from every vantage point. We also visited numerous temples and learned more than I can remember about each Buddhist god. As we were leaving, we visited another old compound where they filmed the movie Raise the Red Lantern. To top it all off, this city surprisingly offered some of the best food on this trip. Pingyao Beef is easily one of the very best dishes -- Chinese or otherwise -- ever created by man. In NYC they'd charge $40 a plate for it or something but it was less than a $2 a plate in Pingyao.

Thing learned: Pingyao is located in Shanxi province, one of the most polluted places in the world. If you ever go there, take a mask for your face and lots of facial and body scrub.

3. Yantai: my family has some connections there and this was the most emotional, happiest part of the trip. I may write about this sometime in the future but, for now, would prefer to keep private.

Thing learned: Chinese Communist officials can be very nice people.

4. Tsingtao: this a gorgeous coastal city that was once a German colony until WW1, then later was occupied by the Japanese until after WW2. Thanks to German influence, Tsingtao is most famous for Tsingtao beer and the highlight of our time here was a visit to the Tsingtao Brewery where, amongst other things, we saw the bottles being processed, went through the drunk walk, and samples some beer. We also visited the German Governor's mansion (beautiful) and Mount Lao which is one of the highest points in all of China.

Thing learned: people off the street in China will come up and talk with you like they've known you forever. Be prepared.

This short recap doesn't do justice to the full experience of this trip but it gives you a good idea. I hope that every person in the world has a chance to visit China once or twice in their life. It's a life changing experience.

P.S. You might be wondering about this blog entry's odd title "Near Rests the Lodging." This was from a sign I saw in Pingyao giving directions to a hotel. Most store fronts and street signs in China are both in Chinese and English but the English translations are poor and sometimes incomprehensible. Hence we saw signs directing us to "Beauty Saloons" and other interesting non-existent things. A couple of other favorites:
  • A beauty salon in Beijing that was probably trying to say it was a unisex salon but, instead, billed itself as "a sex shop."

  • Another sign at a restaurant in Pingyao sold what it simply called "a round mass of food."
A good English proofreader could make a fortune over there.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mr NYC Goes to the Orient

Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart. - Confucius

So I'm packing my toothbrush and a pair of comfortable shoes and getting ready to leave for the land that invented ink and paper (and the noodle), China.

For the next two weeks I'll be walking on the Great Wall, wandering around the Forbidden City, sampling beer at the Ching Dao brewery, visiting the Ming Tombs and Temple of Heaven, and seeing lots of really amazing stuff. Obviously blogging, particularly in a country that likes to sensor the Internet, won't be easy to pull off but I will try to if possible.

Otherwise I'll be back on December 1st, ready to tell all. New York City will, I'm sure, do just fine without me. So for the next fortnight call me Mr China!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Welcome to NYC: The Real America Starts Here

The always great Kurt Andersen has a wonderful article in this week's New York magazine about the election of Barack Obama. You might also want to read my exclusive interview with Kurt from January where he said that this would be the most fascinating presidential election of our lifetime. How right he was.

One of the points of Kurt's article, and of a blog entry I did the Friday before the election, is that NYC and big cities in general have largely been marginalized in America politics. Cities like ours might be rich and fun to live in but, when it comes to influencing les affairs d'etat, we've taken a back seat to mostly rural states and the South for the last few decades.

Until now.

Think about it: the President to be is from Chicago, the Speaker of the House is from San Francisco, and two of the powerful people in Congress are Charlie Rangel (Chairman of House Ways and Means) and Senator Chuck Schumer -- New Yorkers both. The electoral map indicates that America is swinging in a more liberal direction, and the South and rural areas -- the "real America" -- are becoming less and less powerful in American politics.

Naturally people in the real America are freaking out. "Oh no!" the Republican culture warriors cry. "What's happening?"

Well, it looks like the "real America" is shrinking. Or maybe they aren't the real America anymore -- we are. Might need to dig up those signs in the boonies that say "The Real America Starts Here" and plant them in NYC.

They're losing the culture war.

Starting with the election of Richard Nixon 40 years ago, the culture war has been effectively used by the Republicans to divide America and put them in power. Play on middle class fears and hatred of taxes, gays, abortion, race, immigrants, and losing their guns -- plus throw in a lot of jingoistic chest thumping and religiosity -- and that'll get people to vote against their economic interests.

The late, great George Carlin put it perfectly: "That's the way the ruling class operates in any society -- they try to divide the rest of the people. They keep the lower and the middle classes fighting with each other so that they, the rich, can run off with all the f******g money. Fairly simple thing, happens to work."

And it worked for a long time. The Republicans won a lot of elections using the culture war. But now Americans are sick of it. They've seen the horrible economy, disastrous war, and broken government the Republicans have given us and they've run gagging to the polls to throw them out. That's why conservative places like Virginia, Indiana, and Colorado have been swinging hard to the Democrats in just the last few years. They're leaving the "real America" behind and coming over to us.

Now we're the real America and they're not -- nah nah nah nah. The culture war, like the Iraq War of the War on Drugs, is not "over" by any means. Sadly, it'll probably never end. But for right now, we're winning. And let's pray -- haha -- that this continues.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Avenue Q Rules

It's hard to believe that the Broadway musical Avenue Q is more than 5 years old now. This is easily the funniest show ever produced -- and it won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

This is a grainy, out of focus video from a live performance but it's still worth watching. The audience's laughter reminds me of what fun, pure joy this show is. And this song, well ... what else is there to say? "The Internet is for ..."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Special Veteran's Day

This Veteran's Day we remember and thank those men and women who have served our country and kept us free. We owe them a debt bigger than we can ever imagine and that we can never repay.

This is also a special Veteran's Day because, coincidentally enough, it's the 90th anniversary of the end of World War One. On this very date -- November 11, 1918 -- the armistice was signed to end "The Great War" or "The War to End All Wars."

My Brooklyn grandfather fought in World War One and was hit by mustard gas at one point. Fortunately, he survived and came home to marry my grandmother. He served bravely in a machine gun unit and saw some really nasty stuff. Whenever he had time, he would travel around the French countryside and organize baseball games with fellow soldiers and Frenchmen. And he gave up the one opportunity in his life to visit England when he traded his R&R pass with a British solider who wanted to visit his family. He was a great guy.

So on this special Veteran's Day, I remember him.

In Astoria Park, you can visit the Long Island War Memorial dedicated to the veterans of World War One. It was built in 1926 and stands there proudly to this day.

Oh dear ...

Sarah Palin: God will help me decide what to do in 2012

Let's hope He treats you better than the McCain campaign did. Good luck.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Best Arepas in NYC

I've had Venezualan food twice in my life, once at a fancy restaurant in the East Village and once this weekend in Long Island City -- and the one in LIC was easily the best.

Arepas Cafe is located on 36th Avenue at 33rd Street. It's very small, only has about three or four tables, and it's laid out more like a deli than a restaurant. However, the menu has lots of options and the average cost of an arepa is about $6. And they are so good!

Served in little corn pockets with melted cheese, you can get arepas with a variety of shredded chicken, streak, and pork, some of them made with vegetables as well. It takes a while for your order to arrive because they make them fresh, but the ingredients are of such high quality and they are cooked so perfectly, that it's worth the wait. I could have stuffed myself silly with them and almost did. My mouth is drooling right now just remembering how good they were.

Getting to Arepas Cafe is really easy -- just take the N/W to 36th Avenue and walk straight down it to 33rd street, just a couple of blocks away. The place is rather inconspicuous and no frills but, when you bite into one of these juicy, luscious arepas, you'll agree that it's as good if not better than anything you'll get at a fancy place.

Anthony Trollope @ Duane-Reade

In NYC, you see everything, and I mean everything. These things can be good, bad, naughty, nice, legal, illegal, whatever. And sometimes these things are just plain imaginative.

To whit: the new Duane Reade pharmacy in Manhattan on Grand Street and Broadway. Nothing special about that. But when you look through the huge glass windows, you see the following quote emblazoned on the wall, making all shoppers and passersby take notice:

"No other American city is so intensely American as New York. -- Anthony Trollope"

Naturally, I agree. But what amazes me is that in a Duane Reade of all the unspectacular places, you can actually find a quote by a nineteenth century English novelist thrown into your face. I don't know whose idea this was but it was brilliant and very, very classy. And it has an only in New York kinda feeling. It's cheezy but I like it all the same.

If you want to find out more about Anthony Trollope, you should visit the Trollope society website. His most famous novels are The Way We Live Now, the Palliser series, and The Small House at Allington. Many of these have been made into BBC miniseries and, interestingly enough, one of Trollope's biggest fans is failed Supreme Court nominee and archconservative intellect Robert Bork.

But since I think he lives in DC, I doubt he shops at Duane Reade.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

King of New York

If you want to see a really gritty, violent, and profane New York movie -- plus yet another film where Christopher Walken acts memorably crazy -- then you must see Abel Ferrara's King of New York.

Released in 1990, it's a brutal look at the drug trade in late 1980s NYC. Walken plays Frank White, a drug lord who just got out of prison and who returns to NYC to wipe out his competition and share his drugs profits with the poor and sick.

This movie not only has Walken as the star but also features (as he was known then) Larry Fishburne, David Caruso, Steve Buscemi, and Wesley Snipes in supporting roles.

While it's not a great movie, King of New York is a real New York movie. You get a visceral feeling for the dangerous streets and pace of life in this city, and you really feel what it's like to go into the back alleys, the low-rise buildings, and the dirty subways. This is not some souped-up, Hollywood version of NYC, this is brutal truth.

Also, this movie was bravely ahead of its time, boldly declaring long before movies like Traffic and shows like The Wire that the drug war was a stupid idea and miserable failure.

Check out King of New York, you won't forget it anytime soon.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

PSA: Watch Out For Stomach Flu

There's a nasty stomach flu flying around town and it's caused a 19% increase in visits to emergency rooms in the past two weeks. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has some info about how to prevent getting it. Bottom line: wash your hands and clean your surfaces!

Save Tin Pan Alley

American popular music was largely born in New York City, and the heart of it was Tin Pan Alley. According to Wikipedia, it was located between 5th Avenue and Broadway and wasn't really an "alley" but five old buildings located at 47-49-51-53-55 West 28th Street. It was the first site for the Music Publishers Association of the United States, founded in 1885.

Some of the most beloved old American songs were composed there, including "The Sidewalks of New York" by Lawlor and Blake, "Give My Regards to Broadway" by George M Cohan, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" by Albert Von Tilzer, "Swanee" by George Gershwin, and "God Bless America" by Irving Berlin (amongst many others).

And now Tin Pan Alley is threatened. These buildings have been up for sale since September (price tag: $44 million) and the plan is to turn it into a luxury high-rise. You can check out the LoopNet listing here.

The great blog Lost City was already writing about this a month ago and has been advocating for city landmark status. Although the lousy economy has made the construction plans fall through, these buildings are still on the market. Fortunately there is a group of committed New Yorkers trying to save historic Tin Pan Alley. I hope and pray they succeed and plan to join this cause. Our city's history is not just in books or on TV -- it's literally in our streets and neighborhoods and is too precious to lose.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Is This a Good Idea?

Triborough Bridge to be named for Robert Kennedy

Don't get me wrong, RFK was a great man but the Triborough Bridge has been the Triborough Bridge for over 70 years and changing the name now seems a little pointless to me. Will most people start calling it the RFK instead of the Triborough? Maybe. What do you think?

Busy City

There's so much going on in this town it's hard to believe -- just because we're going through an historic presidential transition doesn't mean bidness' in this town slows down. Oh no.

The bad economy is hitting our city hard. I heard Mayor Bloomberg on the radio this morning talking about how he's going to make the city adjust to the new realities of it. He's already announced that the homeowners tax rebate is being junked, and now there's going to be a $0.06 tax on plastic shopping bags (obviously he's trying to raise revenues in an environmentally friendly way). On top of that, our Mike is axing parts of the city workforce and cutting other important public services. None of this is pretty or good but at least he's doing the right thing -- if only he could have exercised this same kind of discipline when it came to city term limits, then he'd be the greatest mayor ever. But we should take what we can get (or not, when it comes to this new budget).

On top of that, looks like Eliot Spitzer dodged the legal bullet. Hopefully that means he can now put his life back together. Good luck.

But there is some good news: tomorrow, the Intrepid opens back up. It was removed from Pier 86 on the West Side and totally refurbished two years ago and then returned on October 2. Starting tomorrow, you can begin visiting it again. If you've never been to the Intrepid, you should definitely go. I went when I was a teenager and found it amazing. You really get a sense of what an awesome and unique experience living and working at sea must be like. You'll love it.

So, as always, New York City remains busy. Some things good, some things bad but never boring.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Bravo, America

It happened. It actually happened. Still hard to believe. America rejected the politics of hate and division and actually took a bet on hope, unity, and working towards a higher purpose.

It doesn't happen too often so let's savor the moment. American politics is cyclical and the bad guys'll get power back some day -- but after last night American politics and America will never be the same.

President-elect Obama (can't believe I just wrote that) has a very hard job ahead of him and let's pray that he succeeds. Good luck man!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

New York City Votes

Hope everyone out there voted today. I got to my polling station at 6 AM and there already was a line down the block -- so many people anxious to make history.

The line moved pretty decently until we actually got inside the gymnasium where all the machines were. Once inside, several poll workers mistakenly sent people to the wrong lines and there was much consternation. Fortunately I had my voter registration card and got onto the correct line for my election district. Unfortunately the people working at the tables for my election district didn't seem to know what they were doing so the line got stalled. On top of that there were people doing dumb things like taking cameras into the booth so that slowed things up as well.

It took me almost an hour to vote and, while I was happy to do it, it was annoying that it took so long and it could have been avoided. That said, I won't be a baby about it -- as Americans, we're lucky that we can vote at all.

So now all we can do is hurry up and wait. The first polls close in about 5 minutes and the first big state, Virginia, closes in about an hour. Fingers crossed, breath held, eyes closed, America is about to make a big giant leap into the future.

P.S. I was included in a mass e-mail from Philip Leventhal of Columbia University who's plugging the new edition of The Almanac of New York City. He gives a short history here about how New York City has historically voted in Presidential elections, and it includes a few surprises.

Monday, November 3, 2008

It's Done

Bloomberg signed the term-limits extension into law today. Fortunately, he was forced to listen to why this was a bad idea.

After an Earful, Mayor Signs Term Limits Bill

Not that it'll change anything but hopefully it'll plague his conscience.

Election Eve

America tonight is one big raw nerve. We await impatiently to find out who our 44th President will be. Hopefully tomorrow night we'll know for sure. In the meantime, it's getting loony out there. Here's the round-up, and it's New York related as well.

First, you gotta check out the stupid attack ad posted above. Mitch McConnell is the Senate Republican leader and he's in danger of losing his seat out in Kentucky. So how does he think he can win? Oh, just a little good ol' boy, vaguely anti-Semitic New York bashing. (Listen to the laughably bad Jewish accent in this ad -- no Jew says "baddabing-baddabam-baddaboom." In fact, no one says "baddabing-baddabam-baddaboom." But try telling it to these yokels.) Anyway, the ad is blasting Chuck Schumer, our senator, and not his opponent, some guy named Bruce Lunsford. How pathetic and loathsome. Don't know how this race will turn out but the New Yorker wishes Mr. Lunsford well.

Second, a bit of sad news. Senator Obama's grandmother died today. While I hope to send him my congratulations tomorrow, I send him my condolences tonight.

Third, the latest polls: Obama is ahead. 270 electoral votes are needed to win the presidency and CNN gives him 291 with McCain at 157 and 90 in the toss-up category. Obama is holding all of the Gore 2000/Kerry 2004 states plus he's ahead in Virginia and Colorado. It's also in a dead-heat in Ohio and Florida. Obama just needs to get one of those 4 states to win. John McCain can only win by scoring all of them. Unless the polls in these 4 states are very wrong, it's mathematically impossible for McCain to win. But only time and the voters will tell.

Fourth, as it does for every presidential election, Rockefeller Plaza will become Election Plaza tomorrow night. A map of the United States will be projected onto the ice skating rink and the electoral wins will appear on it. Check out the video from the Today show about it here.

Fifth and finally, what makes living in a democracy so great? Elections are yet another excuse to party! The New York Press has list of election night events and has one as well (not 100% sure where I'll be tomorrow night but it'll probably be at the beer garden in Astoria).

So please all go out and vote tomorrow. It's never been more important.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Congratulations to ...

... the winners of the New York City marathon.

Brazilian and Briton Are Fastest to the Finish

And good luck to the rest of the runners still out there trekking away.

"Curiosity Did Not Kill This Cat": Farewell to Studs Terkel

As America heads into its next chapter, it's sad that Studs Terkel won't be a part of it. But he'll have helped write it. A voice for working people for more than half a century, he was an author, thinker, entertainer, and activist. He hosted a radio show in Chicago for over 45 years that addressed the concerns of the common man. His books Working, Division Street: America, and The Good War (which won Studs a Pulitzer Prize) among others, are classic studies of American life. He will be missed.

Although he became a Chicago icon, Studs was born in The Bronx more than 96 years ago and lived here until he was 8 years old so ... we have a small claim on him as well. RIP Studs.

Studs Terkel dead