Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Best Things About New Jersey

I've now made the trek over to Jersey four times, so I think that I'm as qualified as anybody to tell you what the best parts are. So today I bring you the first installment of what may or may not be a recurring feature of "Things I've Learned in New York City" called "The Best Things About New Jersey." My idea is that each time I go across the river I'll discover one of the best things there is to discover in the good ol' Garden State.

So, without further ado, I bring you part one of "The Best Things About New Jersey."

The best thing that I've discovered about New Jersey thus far is the Manhattan skyline. Yes, I realize that the Manhattan skyline is not actually in Jersey, but the view is pretty incredible. Better, I'd say, than a lot of places in the city itself. See, the difference is like the difference between being at an NFL game and watching it on TV. Sure, everyone will tell you they actually want to be there, but the truth is it's a whole lot easier to see what's going on when you're not. And the traffic's a lot worse when you're there.

For example, when you're within a few blocks of the Empire State Building, you look up to see it and say to yourself, "Wow, that's an incredibly tall building." Then you look at any of the six buildings closest to it and you say, "Wow, that's an incredibly tall building." From Jersey, on the other hand, once you see past all the New Jersey air, you can really get a sense of how it towers over the other buildings. Even all the way into Newark the view is great.

Then again, you can say the same thing about Brooklyn. And probably Queens. Oh well, it's still a pretty good view.

Monday, September 21, 2009

EU and Me

Before moving to New York, my experience with Europeans was limited. Sure, the was Martin in junior high, who would mispronounce curse words at me and a few who shall remain nameless that I've had to clean up after from time to time, but in general I haven't dealt with them much.

Enter The Spot Hostel in Harlem, where I spent my first week in New York. There were folks from Down Under all over (not European, but foreign, white, and with accents that sound almost British. Gimme a break), a brigade from Britain, more Germans than at a David Hasselhoff concert (I realize two Hasselhoff references in a month is probably excessive, but I had to do it), and a general assortment of other Europeans.

It was awesome.

Now you may be wondering why I'm so excited about all the Europeans. After all, New York is full of people from countless cultures, why not be excited about people who are even more different, like that guy from South Africa, or the one from Alabama? The answer actually has nothing to do with expanding my horizons, or anything remotely noble. Basically, I've learned that European women like me a lot more than American ones do.

First, there was the cute Welsh girl (who, admittedly got a lot less cute once I realized she looked a lot like my friend's younger sister). She was probably the first person in New York that I had a legitimate conversation with. Then she flew home. Then there were the four German girls I mentioned earlier (see my note about the Hoff references). That wasn't a case of me inviting myself mind you, they wanted me to go with them to the Empire State Building. Let me shorten that. They wanted me to go with them. Let me shorten that again. They wanted me. But it didn't stop there! Then there was the Frenchwoman. We met when we both went to a Broadway musical during Columbia's orientation. It turned out to not be the same musical, but by the time we figured that out we were already fast friends. I'd describe to you what happened when we ran into each other at another event later in the week, but I don't want to make you blush. Okay, It's not so much that as I don't want to make you say "Dude, you were just there. That doesn't even come close to meaning anything."

Let's compare this to the interactions I've had with American women. To make this quicker and less painful, I'll limit it to those I've me in the same time period. This part's tough to write about, because I don't know which of the women I've met and then been ignored by to bring up. Really the best example is one I met this weekend. After finding out that we went to college an hour and a half away from each other, both grew up in the Bay Area, and were even born in the same hospital, she had to run. Something about washing her hair. Even I know what that means.

While I'm on the subject of Europeans, I have to share something else that happened over the weekend. I was waiting in an hour and a half long line for some overrated pizza, when part of the group I was with asked if I was from England. Because I didn't immediately know how to turn it into a joke, I said no. Then they asked where I was from, and out of that same lack of humor, I said California. Their response? "No, like, originally." Apparently I have a European accent.

I guess that explains the allure.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Universital Truths

One of the reasons I chose Columbia for graduate school is because it's so different from Cal Poly. One is on the West Coast, the other's on the East. One is public, the other is private. One is incredibly diverse, the other has a higher concentration of white people than a Dave Matthews Band concert. But in spite of these differences and countless others I decided not to bore you with, I find more and more things that are exactly the same at both schools every day. Since the schools are about as different as two universities in the United States can be, I've decided that these things must be true at every university, everywhere, ever. "Universital Truths," if you will.

The first of these truths is that every university has to have sleazy salesmen peddling posters and credit cards. To me, this made far more sense at a school like Cal Poly, where the student population is almost all undergrads and therefore the freshman are plentiful. There's clearly a buck to be made off of the newbies who want to make their dorm rooms their own by buying any four of the same eleven posters that all of their peers are buying. But Columbia is primarily graduate students, and surely by the time a guy finishes his undergrad degree he already has a poster of Bob Marley, an Andy Warhol painting, "The Kiss," and either Fight Club or The Boondock Saints. And surely every graduating woman already has her hands on posters of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Starry Night, and at least one shirtless firefighter. So where's the demand? And as far as the credit cards go, the same problem exists. Sure, there's a few freshies whose parents are footing the bill (no shame in that, I was fortunate enough to have my 'rents pay for my undergrad... thanks again!) and wouldn't mind running up some debt for kicks and giggles, but is the "you need to build your credit" sales pitch really going to work on grad students? I somehow think that most of us realize that with the tens of thousands in debt we're going to graduate with, lunches and some occasional Yankees tickets on plastic aren't going to be the difference between getting approved and denied for a mortgage.

The next truth I noticed was about elevators. The ones for lazy people, not the ones for short people. As you may have noticed that last time you were in one, they have inspection reports indicating that they have passed some sort of test and have been deemed safe until a certain expiration date shown. At Cal Poly the expiration dates were generally a year or two before the current date. At Columbia I've yet to see one that expired more recently than 2002. Enough said.

Finally, and most unfortunately, there is "that guy." Now, "that guy" could mean a number of people, but I'm referring to a specific one: question guy. You know the type, that guy who shows up in class and thinks he's smarter than everyone else (probably because nobody else bothers to speak up in class), so he decides to let everyone else know how smart he is. But he doesn't want to look like he's showing off, so puts it in the form of the question. In physics, it sounds like "But Dr. Vandelay, that doesn't account for the curvature of the earth." I'm getting irritated just thinking about it, so I'm going to stop.

There's more of course. Other ways students act, facilities things, and the like, but I've covered the most interesting. If you can't make it to a real college, buy a poster, get into debt, risk your life, and hang out with an egotistical jerk (send me an email if you can't find one), and you'll get most of the experience.

Friday, September 11, 2009

World Peace & Violence

I believe that the way to peace is going to be through violence. No, I'm not talking about the absence of conflict caused by mutually assured destruction. I'm talking about violence on a much lower level. I'm talking about groups of people unified by violence, wearing their colors on there sleeves and fighting with all their might to beat another group because those people are wearing a different color. That's right, I'm talking about the National Football League. I've been a fan of football for many years now, but only last night did I truly begin to understand the power that it has to bring people together, even people who are fans of different teams.

It began last night at about midnight. I was waiting in a dingy train station in New Jersey, trying to get back to The Bronx. Not knowing the train schedule, I had no idea whether I'd be waiting for seconds or hours. Then I saw three men of varying levels of intoxication wearing Steelers jerseys, so I decided to see if they were interested in a chat to pass the time. "What a sloppy game," I said. "Bet you're happy to get out with the 'W' though." Over the next 40 minutes I bonded with those men. Though the conversation started with football, we discussed everything from general sports to our personal histories to the economy and the effect it's having on those we care about, to politics. They were genuinely happy and congratulatory when I told them I was getting my master's degree at Columbia. I felt their pain as they recalled the days of Kordell Stewart. And though they accused me of being a "liberal who's in love with the President and best buds with Nancy Pelosi," because I'm from California, they took me at my word when I said it wasn't true.

We started the night as complete strangers, but as I disembarked the train, I was genuinely sad that odds were I'd never see them again. Truth be told, the time I spent with them was about as good as any other I've had out here.

But what really showed me the uniting potential football has was the way they treated the Titans fan that meandered by. Sure, they hassled him a bit, and who can blame them? An hour before their respective teams had been fighting tooth and nail over every inch of turf at Heinz Field. But what they said after he'd gone by was inspiring. They said that they had to give him credit, that they respected him for being willing to paint his face, put on a jersey, and watch the game in a bar full of Steelers fans. Despite the teasing, which was all in good fun, they really respected that man, not just in spite of but because of, his willingness to stand up proudly for views that they despised.

If only we could all be as respectful to one another as a handful of drunk Steelers fans.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I'm Missing My Shortz

Today was my first day of class at Columbia University in the City of New York, so I suppose it's fitting that I write about something I learned today. Don't worry, this isn't going to be about computer networks or programming languages or anything like that. In fact, it's about something that computers have been killing off recently: newspapers.

Columbia University actually has several publications distributed around its campus. But one of them is written in some sort of Asian characters that I can't even identify, much less read, so that one's out. Actually most of them are out, since I only picked up one while I was on campus.

Before I got to campus, however, I did take a paper from a guy on the street. I was ready to walk straight past him avoiding eye contact, and thereby avoiding being the vehicle that moves whatever he's offering from his hands to the garbage, when I heard what it was he was offering me: a fresh Onion. For those of you unfamiliar with The Onion, it's a satirical newspaper that features fake news. It's popularity has resulted in a number of fake books and even a fake movie. Truth be told, I didn't even know they actually printed it, I thought it was an online only kind of thing. I excitedly took the newest fake news and tucked it away for the four hour gap in between my classes, and when the time came it did not disappoint. Articles about a "totally hot chick who's, like, really crazy" and a student at Penn State who will be wearing the same clothes all year were particularly interesting. The only problem is that I peeled through the pages too fast and was left with over an hour to kill before class started again. I was so upset about it I even teared up a little bit.

And so, having already digested The Onion, I went for what looked like Columbia's version of Cal Poly's Mustang Daily. I wasn't terribly interested in reading any articles, even though I was quite certain they would be better than those in the "Mistake Daily." No, all I was really looking for was a New York Times crossword puzzle and maybe a Sudoku. I quickly flipped through looking for it, and found the crossword within a couple pages (come on, they're not idiots. They know why people get the paper). I looked at the top to see whether it was today's or if it was several months old, like the Daily's used to be. And that's when I noticed something was missing. I didn't see the words "New York Times" or "edited by Will Shortz" anywhere on the puzzle. That's because it wasn't from the New York Times or edited by Will Shortz. No, I sat there in the middle of New York City looking at a crossword puzzle from the L.A. Times. Ladies and gentlemen, I could not make this up if I wanted to.

I doubt I'll ever know why that paper uses an inferior crossword from 3,000 miles away. I've got a better chance of finishing a Friday crossword than I do of finding out the truth, and I won't even be on campus on Fridays. If I ever do find out, I'll be sure to inform you. Till then, I hope you've at least learned something about news, fake news, and crosswords.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cash - Not Just for Slang

Before I arrived in New York, I thought the only reason cash still existed was because if it didn't, we'd all lose a lot of great nicknames for money. I mean, come on, "it's all about the plastic cards with 16-digit numbers" just doesn't quite have the same ring to it as "it's all about the Hamiltons." But it turns out that people here actually use it, and not just old people who are afraid of new technology or the "too cool" kids who don't want to do anything that more than 5 people do or the crooks who want to stay off the grid. It's regular people like you and me too!

In fact some places insist on you using cash (which thanks to one of my larger responsibilities at my last job, I keep accidentally spelling "cache" and then going back and fixing. Thanks a lot, Dave). I found this out the hard way at Tom's Restaurant, which is famous for being the exterior of the fake coffee shop that our dear friends Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer spent so much time in. Well, now should I ever become more famous than Seinfeld (hey, it could happen), it will be famous for being the place where Jon Avery had to scurry out to a nearby ATM and come back to because he ate a meal he didn't have the money on him to pay for. You know, I understand the little holes in the wall not taking credit, but come on! That place has to be a giant tourist trap, given it's famous for no reason at all. Come on, it's the Paris Hilton of New York restaurants, it shouldn't have a problem with plastic.

Though I really can't say it's a bad thing that cash is more common here. See, in California, a credit card is almost as fast as paying with cash, but here that's not the case. New Yorkers seem to be a little slower than California at processing credit cards (Yeah! Take that Empire State!), but New Yorkers scream when it comes to dealing with cash. I've seen the guys at the corner deli's (which are called that not because, as you might think, they're on the corner of two streets, but because there are so many of them that it makes people feel cornered) ringing up and taking cash from two or three customers at once, and getting everything right. I've got to say, it's impressive.

My theory is that the skill with which people handle cash in New York is actually the result of training provided by muggers, who realized that by investing in cash handling training early on, they could turn much bigger profits in the long run, as people carry more cash. This added cash then gives the next generation incentive to learn to deal with cash faster (or at least the experience to to it), thus creating a cycle. And they say there are no criminal masterminds in New York.

Okay, I don't really think that, but I am becoming rather fond of this whole "cash" thing. It's fast and convenient. You'd think somebody would have thought of it a long time ago. Oh, wait...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Hooray for Subways, and I'm Not Talking About Eating Fresh (Sorry, Dan)

Simply put, the New York Subway system is the best thing to happen to transportation since the invention of... not the wheel. It's better than the wheel. It's the best thing to happen since the invention of legs.

I've been dependent on public transit for a while now, assuming that your definition of "public transit" includes bumming so many rides off your friends that you know you'll never be able to pay them back for it ever. (No, really, I've bummed so many rides off a couple guys in particular that I almost went into medicine or law, figuring if I saved their lives or kept them out of jail at some point down the line, we would finally be square). But even if you don't include the abuse of those who have their own automobiles, I've still got a fair amount of public transit experience from using the bus to get to and from school for a couple years.

Here's what I've noticed with other forms of public transit: they're lame. Mainly this is because none of the ones I'm familiar with besides the subway run 24/7. In San Francisco and miss the last BART train back? Tough. Find a motel. Went downtown for an adult beverage or four? Tough. Call a cab or a friend who owes you (possibly because you've given him countless rides). Just bit into a brownie only to realize you have no milk? Tough... although that really has nothing to do with public transit. Let's move on.

Buses, the public transit that I'm most familiar with and is probably the most common, also have some more problems. First, they make me hate everyone I see. Every passenger is someone who may pull on that cord and make us stop. Every man or woman on the street is someone who might stand at a stop and make us stop. Every driver of a car is contributing to the traffic that's slowing us down. And the physically challenged? That's the worst part of all. Anything that can make people despise the disabled is a problem. Yet who among us can claim they don't get frustrated whenever they have to wait for that stupid ramp and lift? Also, buses are known to have things on them that nobody likes, like your classmate's vomit, bombs that make explosions when the bus goes less than 50 miles an hour, and Keanu Reeves.

The subway, on the other hand, is glorious. It's cheap. It runs all the time. It makes the city more "green" (as in energy efficient, save the world, save the cheerleader, all that good stuff) and it makes every other city green (as in envy, jealousy, "I want to go to there"). It's convenient. But what I think I like best about the subway is that everyone (with the exception of the physically disabled, who are better than the rest) is equal on the subway. All kinds of people take the subway. Supposedly Mayor Bloomberg himself rides the subway into work. It's him, it's wall street executives, it's tourists, it's students, it's the homeless, it's Joe the Plumber (not the actual guy, like what John McCain meant when he told a crowd "You're all Joe the Plumber!"). And standing there, holding onto the germ infested support bars, all are equal. It's like Denny's at 3 am; nobody is better than anyone else.

Okay, I lied. That's not what I like most about it. It's the whole being a cheap, fast, and convenient way to get around town thing. Seriously, there's a train like 3 blocks from my place and from there I can get anywhere in the city. It's great.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Miseducation of Jonathan Avery

Martin Scorsese. Woody Allen. Jerry Seinfeld. A guy named "Ham." My mom. These are just a few of the people who tried to give me some insight into what I could expect when I got to the Big Apple. If you tried to help and I've left you off this list (and I've certainly left some people off) I apologize, but once you read what I have to say you may be glad that you weren't named. Also, let the record show that my mother was only passing along information she heard from someone else, so I'm declaring her innocent. I'm also declaring her innocent because she's my mom, and I owe her.

The reason you don't want to be on this list is that a lot of what I've been told is absolute bunk. Hogwash. Bologna. So now I'm here as your own personal Master Yoda to help you unlearn what you have learned.

The first piece of misinformation I was taught was that people will think you're crazy if you go around wearing sandals. As a native Californian and someone who has lived on the coast for six years, this deeply troubled me. I feared my poor sandals would be doomed to a life of being used only in public showers and on trips to the kitchen. But I kept my eyes open, and almost immediately I noticed people wearing sandals. But they were mostly women. Okay, I said to myself, women can wear sandals, but maybe not men. Then I noticed some guys wearing Birkenstocks. Okay, I said to myself, women and hippies can wear sandals, but maybe not men who shower. Then I noticed regular guys wearing sandals. Oh, happy day! That means that during the 4 months of the year when it's uncomfortably hot and I don't want to be outside, I can go outside in my Reefs. Nice.

Another bit of education gone awry is about New Jersey. I was taught that Jersey was... let's say it's Danny DeVito to New York's Schwarzenegger. I actually rather enjoyed my little excursion into Hoboken. Granted, in my mind the bar had been set so low that Jersey would have had to be an Olympic gold medalist in the limbo (do they have that yet? they should) in order to not exceed my expectations. Still, it should be noted for the record that based on my admittedly limited experience, I like New Jersey. Although Princeton can still eat my shorts (Tigers? Psh! Go Lions!)

But the biggest one of all, the thing that makes me want to cry "Shenanigans!" at the top of my lungs is this little myth: New Yorkers are rude. Okay, to be fair nobody ever said that New Yorkers were rude. They would just say things like "People in New York aren't like the people in California, they're, uh, well they..." and then go on to give examples of behavior that everyone would agree is rude. Aside from a woman who was a little crabby about a guy sitting in the "Priority Seating for Disability" section, people here have been rather friendly. And she actually turned into a real sweetheart too, once there was nobody violating federal law and making her stand despite her obvious physical handicap. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say people here have so far been nicer than those in California. Maybe that's because the part of California I lived in is actually the battleground for a civil war between those who think freeway names need "the" in front of them and those who don't. Come on people, what's next? A battle between those who think you should crack eggs on the big end versus those who think you should crack it on the little end? (Too soon?) In any case, years of unnecessary war are bound to make anyone a little cranky, (Too soon again?) even those as historically laid back and cool as Californians.

That covers the basics. Sure, there's still little mistakes about things like pizza and the like, but I've gone on long enough. Some things you're going to have to see to believe (hint hint).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Lessons Learned About the White Man in Harlem

I was raised to believe that the white man was important, and that you should wait for the white man before making your move. One of the first things I learned on the streets of Harlem is that people in New York don't always pay attention to the white man. They cross the street whenever the cars aren't coming, whether the sign has a white man or a red hand.

Wait, what did you think I was talking about?

New Yorkers really have something here I think. Society slowed down a bit the day that "stop, look, and listen" became "Stop, wait for the light to change so that any cars that may or may not be there will not run you down, and wait some more because the stupid light won't change." What's the concern if cars aren't coming? Invisible cars? Come on, even the James Bond franchise realized it went to far when it went down that road.

And what's the downside here? As someone with two legs and zero cars, it seems like the only downside is having to listen to cars honk their horns more often. But the fine city of New York has an answer for that too: honking the horn is illegal. That's right, in the city of New York (or maybe only certain parts of it) it is a crime punishable by a $350 fine to honk your horn except in emergencies. I sense another Law & Order spin off coming already.

So here's the deal: look for cars, and cross. Something tells me if you can't figure it out, well... let's just say there may be something to this whole "survival of the fittest" thing.