Monday, May 17, 2010

The Sounds of the Underground

It seems somehow fitting that today I wish to discuss the topic of music. For those who do not know, Sunday was a very sad day in the world of music is one of Rock's greatest legends, Ronnie James Dio, passed away. This man was a pioneer in the metal industry and will be sorely missed as he helped invent a large part of how Rock is today. Personally, my pick for the man's greatest achievement is the invention of heavy metal Charades with the awesome song "Rainbow in the Dark".

Onto slightly lighter matters, the reason I had intended to discuss music today is because living in New York there is so bloody much of it. All my music minded friends, never fear as I'm not against the idea of music just against the bastardisation that you encounter on a minute by minute basis whilst riding the subway.

For anyone who has not been to New York let me explain as the above probably sounds quite silly. For those of you who have had the "pleasure" of riding the London Tube system, you are probably all familiar with the generic homeless guy who sits at the intersection of the tube tunnel twanging away on his banjo. These people used to quite irritate me, not because I have anything against homeless people (I am in fact quite charitable) but because they force you to listen to that god-awful racket whilst you're trying to find you're train.

All I can say is, at least the buskers in London are stationary because the buskers in New York ride the system, literally. In point of fact you simply cannot take a journey on the subway without being harassed by at least one busker and the sad part is that after six weeks I consider myself painfully lucky if in a 20 minute journey I get away with only one person/group trying to bum money. In New York, the buskers make their way down each train carriage or darting between trains meaning that in any given journey you could, and likely will be, made to feel guilty numerous times.

Some critics of my blog have noted that I seem to be portraying New York in a somewhat downward light. To those critics all I can say is that I play 'em like I seem 'em but in order to quieten the masses and avoid any pitchfork scenarios I will point out that New York does upstage London in one aspect of its buskers; New York buskers come in a variety of types.

Whilst riding the tube system in London you are pretty much destined to see what appears to be the same generic homeless men playing the same generic banjo. I have sometimes wondered whether it is the same homeless men who just so happens to be in every single tube station that I frequent (as John would say "it's not paranoia if they are all out to get me"). If you are particularly lucky Mr Banjo will have a dog, though I suspect this is merely to throw us off the scent of the fact that there is an army of cloned homeless men wandering the streets of London.

In New York, although you have substantially more busking encounters every day, I would be very surprised if you saw the same people more than once. In fact, it's kind of like Pokémon: Gotta Catch 'em All. For example over the last week there has been Fiddle Guy, Trombone Guy, Saxophone Guy (who, as a brass player gets an additional D20 against Fiddle Guy who is a string player).

Last but not least, and the main purpose behind this blog, was "The Amazing Bongo Brothers". Five guys each with a Bongo. Now, let's start with the name which I promise you in England would have resulted in a lawsuit under the trade descriptions act. I think most people would agree that if you have the agility and proportional strength of a spider as well as the ability to swing through skyscrapers, it's pretty fair enough to refer to yourself as Amazing. Five guys who cannot play the simplest instrument in the world (barring the triangle) should probably be taken out back and shot just to ensure that the gene pool does not have to suffer their continued existence and potential procreation.

On the other hand, I can potentially see some useful these guys. Thanks to a certain friend who I met on a Job Centre course and shall remain nameless (Becky) I am mildly addicted to the television programme Spooks and there is a certain episode which focuses on the torture of a man by MI5 in order to extract information regarding a potential terror attack. It was an amazing episode but I can't help thinking if they simply came to New York and hired the Amazing Bongo Brothers, set them up in the torture room and told them "go nuts" the guy probably would have cracked in just shy of three minutes because honestly they sucked. That. Bad.

I lied, The Amazing Bongo Brothers are not last and can be upstaged by one individual who, I'm sure, believes himself to be the greatest entrepreneur since Richard Branson. This diabolical genius simply entered the train and walked down placing a hat in front of every person on the train. Let me reiterate: he played no instrument, gave no sob story about how he was attacked and had his ID stolen, he did nothing other than place of a hat in front of people and by gum he made more money than almost any other busker I have seen. If there are any scouts for The Apprentice reading this go to New York and sign him up because this man makes a (relative) fortune with no overheads.

Once again, to satiate the New York lovers out there rest easy because my final example of music encountered whilst travelling is of the polar opposite variety. Having encountered all of the above you can imagine my surprise when I descended the stairs at Times Square station to discover a string quintet by the name of The Elianto Quintet blasting out a truly phenomenal rendition of Viva La Vida by Coldplay. I cannot quite describe how simply amazing these musicians were except to say that they had me captivated in a train station for almost half an hour and I had to drag myself away. I even bought their CD. I've been listening to the Coldplay version almost non-stop for 24 hours and it's just not the same.

I should point out that the comparison between this amazing group and the buskers described above is a little unfair as I have since discovered that the quintet are in fact all students at the Juilliard School. For those of you unaware this school is one of, if not the Premier School for classical musicians in the world. Long story short, if any of you ever get the opportunity to listen to this group at any stage of your life I would thoroughly recommend attending. And if any of you are ever lucky enough to catch these guys performing in a subway be sure to put some money in a case as I guarantee you a concert worthy performance.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Anarchy in the USA (Part 2)

For those of you who tuned in last week you may recall that we left our daring adventurers (i.e. Dave, myself and Dave's colleague who has asked to remain nameless) recuperating after being mobbed by crazies in a bar following a Marine insurance dinner reception.

The story picks up the following morning when our intrepid heroes decided to head to midtown in order to do some sightseeing. This being the Financial District on a weekend the subway was of course out of question as the 2 & 3 trains are offline. I'm not quite sure why the people running New York seem to think that the Financial District ceases to exist on weekends but it seems grossly unfair, particularly for the poor whelps in lower Brooklyn who's only option for getting to Manhattan is to brave the roads.

So, being unable to utilise any of the subway stations in the immediate area, we set off for a walk to the nearest working subway station. This turned out to be quite pleasant - walking up Broadway is certainly an amazing experience and if we had not had to take this route we would have been denied the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of viewing the funniest named place I have ever seen: People with AIDS Plaza. Whilst I admire the thought behind this dedication, words cannot profess quite how strange it is to see it written on a road sign. Also, whilst I appreciate that it is fantastic that the city of New York has dedicated a Plaza to every single person who has AIDS, I always assumed that generally speaking these kinds of dedications only really work when named after a specific individual.

The rest of the afternoon proceeded relatively well and we saw a number of amazing sights such. One of these was the New York public library which not only has the dog statues outside familiar to anyone who has watched Ghostbusters but also offers the chance to see the actual Gutenberg Bible. Following this, we found the Rockefeller Centre and decided to go to the Top of the Rock attraction which is possibly the most well hidden attraction in the entirety of New York. I think this is largely why people go to the top of the Empire State building instead: because you can bloody well find the thing.

For anyone who has not visited the Empire State building you can walk around the outside of the building and there are approx infinite entrances, each staffed with a small army of individuals trying to get you to part with your hard earned cash in order for the privilege of queueing across four floors before you actually reached the observation deck. The Rockefeller Centre on the other hand offers much greater views and non-existent queueing time. The reason is because that the entrance to the Top of the Rock attraction is more elusive than the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Honestly, I think Sauron had more chance of finding the One Ring than the average person has in finding the entrance to the Top of the Rock unassisted.

Having had a busy day finding and visiting each of these attractions we turned our attentions to potential evening activities. All eyes were on Mr Buckingham and suffice to say he did not disappoint. The Three Amigos set off for a bar with seemingly no name other than the street intersection upon which it sat. If asked to provide a name, my suggestion would be the Elysian Fields because this place seemed fit for Gods.

Essentially, this was the classiest establishment I think I have ever been or even seen on TV. It is the kind of venue that would be featured in programs like 90210 or Gossip Girl where all the rich kids hangout. The primary attraction being that the upper floor was a rooftop garden with ensuite bar. To give some indication of the view, this place is situated slap bang in the middle of the New York skyline, very close to the Empire State building which was, along with the rest of the skyline, fully lit up. The only downside being that we were on the 20th floor and as such the wind was bracing to say the least, however this was covered by the numerous patio heaters installed throughout the floor and the complimentary dressing gowns which made the entire affair look somewhat like a frat party/death cult.

Perhaps more amusing than the venue itself was the clientele which was once again like walking on to the set of the shows mentioned above. The disparity between the men and the women was quite frankly hilarious as the women were all dressed up as if this night was second only to their wedding night. The cocktail dresses were out in force, the hairstyles looked like they had taken longer to craft than the Pyramids took to build and the shoes were sleek and high-heeled making the wearer look like a goddess. Cue the Wedding Ring of Damocles stage left as Dave's companion was doing his level best to maintain his composure.

Contrast this with the appearance of the men, most of whom turned up in average jeans and an average T-shirt and enough gel in their hair to support the Brooklyn Bridge. Yet amusingly it was the men who had the last laugh because the majority of people naturally chose to spend their time on the rooftop deck, clothing was largely irrelevant as it was hidden under at least one layer of dressing gown. And while the trowel approach to hairstyling may have looked slapdash to begin with, the guys hair at least managed to maintain composure against the force nine gale outside.

The following day was Sunday and whilst Dave's companion was still in mourning for having to leave the wonderful venue of the night before, Dave was hungry and that could only mean one thing: we were headed to a bar. One thing you'll notice about New York, there are very few American bars. In fact, there are so many Irish bars that it's a wonder Ireland has any Irish people left in it at all.

Having found ourselves a pleasant little Irish bar we decided to kill some time before our baseball game by getting some food and watching "soccer" on the TV. Dave's colleague was the first to order and decided to go for the Irish breakfast. For those who have never visited the US, ordering food is about as simple as conducting a triple heart bypass by remote control and viewed through a kaleidoscope. For a country that requires you to specify precisely which type of tea you would like, the poor chap had no hope in ordering a simple breakfast. When asked how he would like his eggs done, his baffled English mind could only respond "in a frying pan". On the bright side, it did at least take his mind off the rooftop bar for a minute.

Fully sated, we headed off to watch our first ever baseball game: the New York Mets versus the San Francisco Giants. The first thing we learned about baseball is that the New York Mets absolutely suck. Of the nine innings that make up the standard baseball game, the Mets managed to actually score runs in only two of them. When the team paraded out at the beginning I was a little dubious as none of them particularly looked fit enough to run round the pitch. I soon realised this is because none of them ever get that far.

The second thing we learned about watching baseball is to dress as if you are going to watch Pingu Live at the North Pole because the stadium is in the middle of an open area and therefore subject to winds similar to those encountered at the top of the Rockefeller Centre. In the stadium's defence, the temperature in New York had dropped dramatically overnight but still, being there in the flesh it certainly felt like they should have been measuring the temperature using the Kelvin scale. Come to think of it, for those familiar with the concept of Absolute Zero, this may explain the lack of inertia from the Mets team.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Anarchy in the USA (Part I)

It seems I must start this blog with an apology. Much to my surprise it would appear that my exploits have proven of interest to some of you and as a result my blog appears to have developed a small following. As a result, I seem to be getting some pressure to put out these blogs faster than I have been and the gap since the last blog it seems is particularly long. Hopefully you'll understand why when you read this. Before I continue with a description of my exploits over the last week let me just say that I now have some tiny inkling of how George R R Martin must feel. Of course, despite the sympathy the man still really needs to get on with his blasted book.

Today I thought I would explain what I have been up to since my last blog so hopefully you will understand why it has taken so long. I'm sure most of you will have seen films such as "Dude Where's My Car" and "Road Trip" and the like in which some poor American lives through complete anarchy for a few short days for the entertainment of the masses. I'd always assumed these were sheer works of fiction but after the weekend I've had I now realise that these films must be documentaries.

To begin the narrative, I'm going to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of one single individual: David Buckingham. As some of you will know, Mr Buckingham and one of his colleagues came out to New York last Thursday and it's been a rollercoaster ride ever since.

The first highlight of the weekend was Friday when a number of colleagues and I attended the MLA dinner function at the Chelsea pier. This was a wonderful event and a fantastic experience which allowed me to meet a number of individuals in our market as well as proving to me that you really can have decent food at these functions. The one stifling point of the evening was that my colleagues abandoned me and fled to a nearby bar without saying goodbye (apparently they thought I had left). As a result, Mr Buckingham and his colleague kindly offered to share a taxi back to our neck of the woods when we decided to visit a local bar...

The bar in question was a lovely little establishment by the name of Ulysses. As many of you know, I worked for a number of years in the R&B room of a nightclub but I swear to God even in the three years serving a bunch of horny students I never saw anything that paralleled what befell us. Having been in the bar for approximately 2 1/2 minutes David decided to retreat to the toilets. No sooner was he out of sight than a young lady moved in for the kill with me and Dave's colleague.

Many of you are probably wondering why this was a problem? Well, to begin with Dave's colleague is married and was hastily trying to show polite interest so as not to be rude whilst also ensuring that the lady in question knew he was out of bounds. All the while nervously twirling his wedding around his finger with a look of mixed desperation and awe. The second problem was one of age. For those of you who have visited Hull, I think this girl would have been refused entry to Spiders, the almighty haven of underage drinking itself. If I had thought to ID this girl I think she may have produced a Toys "R" Us membership card. And last but not least was a question of consciousness. When asked what she did for a living the "lady" in question could not seem to decide whether she was in marketing or a student. Personally I think saying student was pushing her luck but there you go.

Having deftly fended off the munchkin's advances, we were presented with the second opportunity of the evening. I will point out at this stage we had still only been in the club for approximately 5 minutes. Dave, having returned from the toilet in time to watch the final stages of the previous show decided to return to the toilet as he was feeling ill. Interestingly enough, this was the precise moment we were set upon by a pair of lovely ladies from Minnesota. It's like they were hunting in packs, I swear. These ladies decided that Dave's colleague really needed to remove his tie (we were still suited and booted from the dinner function) and that both he and I must ballroom dance with them.

Dave's colleague was feeling the full weight of the Wedding Ring of Damocles by this point and to his eternal credit (and fidelity) managed to politely decline. I sadly got to embarrass myself thoroughly by demonstrating that not all Englishmen can ballroom dance and thereby defeating the American theory that any male from England is actually Huge Grant. Nevertheless, the ladies were more than happy to oblige until Mr Buckingham returned, at which point it was like a screaming child running through Trafalgar Square scaring all the pigeons away.

That was the end of Friday night but this teen comedy is far from over, however to hear what happened next you'll have to tune in next time as the above events have taken significantly longer to recount than I had thought.

To give you a taste of what is to come, next blog will include the trials and tribulations of ordering a full Irish breakfast, the return of the Wedding Ring of Damocles and a guide on how NOT to watch a baseball game.