Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gridlock Alert

I love the lights of Times Square, but I try to avoid going there during tourist season and the holiday season. It's amazing how many people you can fit in a 10 block radius.

But I can be convinced to go there by the New Year's Eve ball drop, which I will brave the crowds for, or NASCAR. Yes, NASCAR. I love my drivers and every year in the week leading up to their annual awards dinner they do a parade around midtown called the Victory Lap.

The top 12 NASCAR drivers in 2007
drive the Victory Lap towards Times Square.

They go up Madison, across 53rd, down 5th, and end up at the "Good Morning America" studios. I'm not sure when this tradition started but I just found about it last year. Really I'm a new NASCAR fan anyway (driven to it, ha, by an ex-boyfriend but now loyally addicted). With my favorite driver Dale Jr. not in the top 12 this year the events have a bit less luster for me. But one of my favorite parts of NASCAR is how accessible the drivers make themselves to the fans. (Note: It was the top 10 but this year they expanded to the Top 12...)

I have been to three races -- Pocono, New Hampshire, and Kansas City back in college -- and each time I've seen drivers take hours out of their busy schedules to sign autographs, pose for photos and generally be very nice to the adoring masses. I once saw an MLB player carousing around NYC (we'll keep his identity unknown to protect the assholes). A young child and his dad approached the player to ask for an autograph. The player's reply? "I don't do free autographs, kid." And then the player walked away. Ouch. You'd never hear that from a NASCAR driver.

Matt Kenseth (17), Kyle Busch (5) and
Jeff Burton (30) arrive in Times Square.

I knew I'd never be able to stay for the whole event, which started at 8 and continued all day. But I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 and went to the East side part of the parade route so I could at least see the cars. Antsy to get to work, I watched all 12 slowly drive by at around 8:30, wished I had called in sick so I could join the Times Square festivities, and then went to work.

As the morning dragged I realized I really wanted to go back, so I started my lunch break a little early and made my way back to Times Square. Last year I got Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne to sign items for me, but Dale Jr. never made it over to where I was standing.

When I arrived, the crowd was thinner that it looked on TV in the morning but still impressively large for New York City. And the drivers were still there, smiling in their firesuits as their tired hands continued to sign autographs. It was too crowded to squeeze up front, so I stood back a little and just took it in. I had rooted for Jeff Burton this year so it was a big thrill seeing him. Martin Truex Jr. revved his engine a few times, Kyle Busch looked smug as usual, Jimmie Johnson (the repeat Champ this year) made humble statements while Jeff Gordon ate humble pie.

Not too long later, the drivers were called to another event. An audible "awww" went up through the crowd but the announcer rattled off a list of other events we could see the drivers at. That was nice. I overheard some businesspeople walking by complaining about NASCAR drivers being in midtown and closing so many streets on one of NYC's "Gridlock Alert Days," aka don't even think about driving here. Awww, tough break.

The second awesome event of yesterday came long after sundown -- the Rockefeller Tree lighting! A couple of my friends and I have gone the last few years. Last year, we avoided flipping the switch time in favor of Bailey's hot chocolate at the W hotel, but this year we decided to brave the crowds. And crowded is an understatement. It's like being an ant trying to plow through the area over a dropped sugary Popsicle stick. You have to budget an extra hour to work your way in and out of the area and I'm not exaggerating.

Yet it is completely worth it. They had all the normal corny music, followed by Nick Lachey and some lady I didn't recognize smiling and kvetching. Finally, the switch was flipped and voila! The tree was lit. It's always so pretty, with extra white sparklers that randomly light up around the tree. The many allusions to snow have been almost comical the last two years as we're not even close to snow weather. But it was pretty chilly last night.

Christmas at Rockefeller Center.

The crowd immediately thins somewhat after the lighting, but there were still plenty of people around as we made our way around to the parade of angels. We'll go back another time to hit the ice skating rink. We took some photos, warmed up a bit at Starbucks, and called it a night. Most of the buildings around there will put up their decorations and outdoor installations. There is one place -- Saks 5th Ave., I think -- that has a light-up snowflake show on the facade of the building, complete with music! I imagine it's perennially annoying for the businesspeople who work late nights around there as it goes off every 30 minutes, but I love it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Friends don't stiff friends

I hate money issues.

I'm in kind of an awkward situation at the moment. I am still owed my deposit from my last place. Except it's not the landlord who owes me; it's one of my friends. We had an open lease and the deal was you paid the deposit to the person who lived in your room before you. Coincidentally, the guy I replaced ended up moving back in. When I moved in he was kind about giving me some time to give him the whole deposit. I paid him half when I moved in, and the other half two months later.

I moved out in August and I haven't received any of my deposit back from him. To be fair, he moved in mid-September. I'm friends with one of my old roommates and my replacement and it's been kind of weird. They let me go back up there to do my laundry. We always go out and party and we all always drop some coin. But lately I've been getting fed up because my replacement hasn't even made a good faith gesture (i.e. talking to me about repaying me).

The situation is further complicated because he originally moved out to start his own business, and while the business is now doing fine, my friend lost a ton of money and had to go back to his old job while his partner runs the business. So he's still trying to pick himself back up financially. I feel bad and don't want to press him because of this. But I was in a similar situation when I moved in -- my college loans were close to defaulting and I was struggling to pay my monthly bills. I still managed to put half my deposit in up front. When he asked me for the rest, I gave it to him immediately. He has not responded in kind.

The deposit is not huge but it is a good chunk of change. I feel like our friendship is being strained by it. It's the 800 lb. gorilla in the room...and other raging metaphors. I mostly feel like it's so lame that I have to be the one to press this! The guy is in his 30s and should be more responsible than this.

Part of me wishes I was rich enough to just let it go...but I feel like I shouldn't even have to. It's the passive aggressive bullshit that kills.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Are outdoor fireplaces legal in New York City?

I never thought this was a quandary I'd have to face, but I really want to know if outdoor fire places are legal in New York City. It all started the weekend before Thanksgiving. I was in New Jersey visiting some friends who had just bought a new house. They grilled in their lovely backyard, which had a nice deck, glorious landscape...and an outdoor fireplace.

I was instantly in love. Of course, the one they have is huge and would never fit in my backyard. But thanks to my love of HGTV and all things home improvement I know that there are smaller outdoor fire bowls for sale at places like Target. (My favorite part of the reviews for the bowl at Target are the ones about using it indoors. You must be kidding, right? What part of outdoor fire bowl do you not get??!)

My backyard has a perfect round concrete area that would easily fit the bowl, plus four benches around it to sit on. I can already see cozying up with friends and a hot guy around the fire during the winter, making smores in the grand forest that is my backyard.

My side of the backyard last summer,
before the overgrowth got really bad.

Actually, I didn't even know I had the round patio until I did some fall yardwork. I know, fall yardwork in New York City -- it's been a grand source of amusement for my friends. But as I was starting to feel better I looked out back and saw leaves everywhere, and the neat fern beds in the photo above were overgrown.

So I went out back and cleaned my side of the yard. I swept the leaves into a pile, and cut back the trees and shrubs on the right and the left sides. There's also a tree that's dying back there. Several branches had dropped. With no woodchipper around, I had to place them in the fountain bed the old tenant had left behind. That was a bit of a bummer.

After transferring most of my piles into a big trash bag, I discovered was a nice, round sitting area about 12 feet in diameter. Flash forward to me in Jersey, and I mentally put two and two together. I asked my friends how I could find out about having an outdoor fireplace in the city. The consensus? This sounds like a job for 311!

Back in the city, I called 311. I listened in bemusement as a recorded message said, "please, if this is an emergency, please hang up and dial 911." Soon after I was connected with an operator, a woman.
Me - "Hi. Do you know if it is legal to have an outdoor fireplace in New York City?"
Woman - "You mean like a grill?"
Me - "No, like an outdoor fire bowl. I live on the Upper East Side and I have a backyard. I'd like to purchase an outdoor fire bowl to use in it."
Woman - "Ma'am, it is illegal to have camp fires in Manhattan."
Me - "No, no, not a camp fire. It's iron bowl that you can build small fires in. Kind of like a grill I guess, but open...."
Woman (confused) - "I'm not sure what you're asking. Yes, it is legal to have a grill in Manhattan. But you cannot have brush fires."
Me - "Well, it's not a brush fire --"
Woman - "Maybe you should go the FDNY website and check there. They break down many of the city's regulations. I'm sorry I can't be of more assistance."

I applaud the operator's patience, as I wasn't able to articulate what an outdoor fire bowl is. I browsed around the FDNY site a bit but wasn't able to find what I was looking for. I'm not even sure where to look next, but I must know if I can put the bowl on my holiday list or not, and soon.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Return to Wonderland

I'm finally back to life! My flu is not totally kicked -- I have still have a nasty, persistent cough. But I feel 90% better. Thanksgiving came at a great time, giving me a few days off from work to recover. Work has been very busy as all of our clients want to launch projects before the new year. Wednesday afternoon could not come fast enough.

I gave thanks for my return to health on Thursday. It was gorgeous in the morning: sunny, mild and fall-like. I spent most of the morning in Central Park with Foxy, an NYC Shiba Rescue dog I watched for the weekend. We entered at 76th and 5th and walked north, then south, then west. We'd gotten there around 8:30, and a little while later, I heard the unmistakable sound of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which starts on Central Park West in either the 70s or the 80s. Foxy and I made our way west until we emerged to the site of giant balloons and marching bands.

We hung out for a bit, but Foxy only had so much patience. We made our way back into the park. I was admiring the leaves falling and wishing for my camera...then I realized I had my camera with me.

A few weeks ago I realized I live right by the Alice in Wonderland statue, which is one of my favorite spots in the park. When I was a kid, one of my friend's Dad used to always quote the Walrus and the Carpenter whenever we got too silly.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

That particular quote wasn't one of the ones around the statue, but the ones that did make the cut were equally memorable. What a peculiar place Central Park is - a zoo, statues ranging from political to artistic to whimsical, a museum, and lots of green. I couldn't believe how green the lawns were. As a kid I remember Central Park as being kind of seedy, but I've walked through there at all times of the day and night with no problems. It's a testament to the NYPD and the Central Park Conservancy. Plenty of people had their dogs off leashes, and many of the lawns had openings in the fencing to let dogs play in. It was tempting, but Foxy didn't seem interested in playing with other dogs. She was more into sniffing every tree we came across.

Afterwards, I went home to prep for Thanksgiving. I skipped the family events in favor of having some friends over for turkey. I'll see them soon enough for the holidays. I wasn't nuts enough to cook. Dinner was catered by Whole Foods. My friends were nice enough to split the cost, and it worked out to about $12 per person for 10 people. We had turkey, New England stuffing, sweet potato mash, regular mashed potatoes, cornbread, and of course cranberries (which no one ate but we insisted on having them anyway). My dining table fit three people, three more on the couch, and the rest of us sat on the floor around my coffee table. It was quite a sight, and a wonderful time. We watched some football, played some games and chatted well into the night.

We also shared our thanks for the year. So much to be thankful for this year: my wonderful job, my apartment in New York friggin' City, my newly returned health and my family's health, and some cool trips I took this year.

No Thanksgiving is complete with a Black Friday follow up. Two of my friends wanted to line up at Best Buy in the hopes of getting a GPS and maybe a 40" LCD. My little CRT TV is slowly dying so I decided to tag along to see what kind of deals I could find on 32" flat panel LCDs.

We went to the branch at 86th St around 3 AM on Friday. I expected a line, but we were all surprised to see what looked to be over 100 people. It turned out the store was opening at 4 AM, not 6 AM as we'd thought. When the doors opened there was probably a mad rush, but by the time the three of us were able to get in the door everyone was already milling about inside for their deals. The store has only cell phones on the top floor - you have to go downstairs for everything else. There are registers on both floors, and when I saw the line, I decided to hold a spot for the boys. We'd be on line for hours if I didn't. So much for staring at the pretty TVs.

They ran off. G came back a short while later with his GPS. The line had barely moved. Soon after T dejectedly returned, saying the LCD flat panel he wanted was gone. Bummer. We waited on line for about 45 minutes but made it back to my apartment and crashed. Black Friday became Blackout Friday -- at least until 7:30, when Foxy woke us up.

Monday, November 12, 2007

I get by with a little help from my friends

I hate to keep harping on the fact that I'm sick, but well, I am. Sick that is. Also harping. I have had this flu now for 3 weeks and it shows no sign of evacuating my body. Germ fiefdom, or something. I psych myself up for work but then by Friday I'm pretty much wiped out. My friends J and P say the same thing happened to them during their first cold season in NYC -- it's like the germs preyed on me for being fresh meat.

It's been more than a little annoying because I've missed out on the last few fun weekends (although I did go to a party, which was probably ill-advised). On Saturday a bunch of my friends went to Wollman Rink and had brunch at Brasserie. I stayed home to sleep. We have plans for a walking tour this weekend -- no way I am missing out.

Despite being left out of the fun, my friends have not forgotten me. Saturday evening I was lamenting my severe lack of groceries or anything edible in my apartment. Not that I've really been hungry but when appetite does strike I've been surviving on peanut butter sandwiches and plain bagels. Then came the knock at my door...okay, a buzz of my buzzer. I pretty much flew off the couch, but recovered to open the door.

Waiting for me on the other side was a delivery man from Fresh Direct, with two bags for me. I was very excited. There was a note from some of my friends: "We knew you wanted to try them anyway, and we know you probably don't want to cook. Feel better chica!" I love New York City at times like this. Fresh restaurant meals delivered to my door. Awesome.

I eagerly took the bags inside and unpacked them. There were a couple of 4-minute meals and almost a week's worth of nuke-and-eat yummy looking dinners. There was also one large meal -- a prepped but uncooked rotisserie chicken with fixings. Way too much for me to eat in one sitting. I stowed in my fridge but then felt too tired to make anything. I decided to take a nap and then give it a try.

My nap was rudely interrupted a short time later by another buzz at the door. This time it was two of my galpals. "We're here to cook you dinner!" they said. Amazing, said I.

We chatted for a few minutes but I was still pretty tired, so I excused myself to bed to sleep some more. It didn't last though, because the next buzz at my door came from the boys. When I opened the door to let them in, they were all wearing surgical masks and gloves. Ha!

P was hiding something behind his back - I peered around and saw a box. The other three all had Xbox 360 controllers with them. I groaned and rolled my eyes. "You came over to have a Halo 3 tournament on my internets?" I teased. "Yes," replied P, "and to play Guitar Hero III!" He unhid the box to reveal the game.

My sleep plans were suddenly abandoned. I helped the girls finish prepping the food while the boys groaned about Shotty Snipers on Live. Once the food was cooking, all 7 of us took turns doing battle in guitar hero. P had bought two guitars (one came with the game). We universally sucked for the first couple of songs, except for M and W who are both pretty much pro gamers.

After a couple of rounds, we started improving. Soon we were showing off, using the whammy bar and doing hammer-ons. A quick break for food, then back to the game. We kept at it until pretty late, by which time I was exhausted all over again.

I sat on the couch and started falling asleep. P asked me if I was having fun. "I'd rather be out shopping," I replied groggily.

"Yep, she's feeling better," M joked and we all laughed. I poked him in retort. I dozed off not too much later, and the only way I knew it wasn't all a dream the next morning was that Guitar Hero III was still sitting by my TV the next morning. That's how I spent my Sunday indoors. Not too bad of a weekend. Still, I'm looking forward to getting out and enjoying fall in New York.

Anyone know any good flu kickers?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Coffee talk

"OMG, we need coffee talk," my friend A emailed to me, G and F. "Girl chatter. Please. I need estrogen!"

A is a scientist working at a chemistry lab uptown. It's her and six guys and she goes crazy at least once a month.

Serendipity 3

We met up at Serendipity 3, which has been in the news because it created the world's most expensive dessert. The group decided to go for something a bit less expensive but tasty nonetheless. I got a hot chocolate to warm up -- fall has finally come to Manhattan. After a few sips and bites, we immediately started chatting. And didn't stop for hours. I love girl's night out. We caught up on boyfriends, work, anything and everything.

F was particularly livid about an article that the gals at her work had passed around. A speed dating study at Columbia University had found that men did not want to go out on dates with women who were smarter or more ambitious than them.

"That's pretty much every woman in New York City," she snarked. "What the hell is the big deal?" She wondered why men wouldn't like a smart woman.

"They don't want to be threatened," A, who is married, responded. "It's OK to have a little healthy competition but most men want to be the breadwinner."

"The worst are the women who pretend to be dumber than they are," F said. "It's completely wreaking havoc on the system."

The girls continued to debate for a little while. Finally F cocked an eyebrow in my general direction. "You're awfully quiet," she said. I smiled weakly. Finally, I admitted that I had played dumb to get dates with cute boys before.

The girls groaned. The general sentiment was 'How can you do that?' I shrugged. I told them that it's not a pissing match and any boy can find out later how smart and ambitious I am. I don't want them to feel overmatched. Lull them in, I said, and then reveal.

"It's not like it's worked out well for me anyway," I half-joked with a smirk. More groans.

We moved on to a debate about why so many male scientists do studies to disprove the intelligence of women, or to try to qualify lame actions like cheating through biological factors. The subject later completely changed to Thanksgiving plans, and then holiday plans.

Hours later, we'd had our fill of tasty treats and yummy drinks, and it was time to go home. We gathered our coats and said goodbye. As I stood up and started to put mine on, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I wheeled around and was shocked to see my ex-boyfriend D smiling at me.

"Hi!" I said, more astonished than anything to see him. We'd dated for a few months last year casually. We'd broken up because my last job made me miserable to be around. He greeted me with a warm hug and asked how I was. We chit chatted for a couple of minutes. He was leaving too and offered to walk me out.

The girls waited off to the side as D and I caught up. Finally, he said, "I overheard you ladies talking about playing dumb for men." I blushed but confirmed. "So...did you do that with me?" He asked. Oh lord. How could I answer? I tried to think of a response, but had to be honest.

"A little, yeah," I replied. "It's just part of the game. Like you literally bumping into me at the bar as an excuse to buy me a drink." D laughed. "I suppose," he murmured, giving me the once over. "You shouldn't do that."

We just kind of stood there for a minute in that awkward do we want to hang out or not moment? Luckily my gals swung in to rescue me. As they pulled me away, I shouted goodbye to D and once around the corner we sank into a fit of giggles.

"Ugh, I know like five guys in this city and one just happened to be sitting behind us listening to me admit my game," I cried. "Or lack therof," A said. More giggles.

I swear, my life is a sitcom and I'm the only one who can't hear the laugh track.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Chicks dig videogames too

Why does the media hold on to stereotypes for so long?

The video game industry is finally starting to wake up to the fact that chicks dig videogames too. To the tune of billions of dollars per year. And when we play, we don't want to be limited to puzzle games. We want action. We want shoot'emups and button mashers and horror games and everything that the boys get. We want female characters without ridiculous proportions that are fun to play as. But the media still acts like it's 1995...talking about what games the guys want this holiday season, how menboys line up for games days before they're released...whatever.

I used to go to GameStop and get asked if I was looking for a present for my boyfriend. Cute. Now at least they ask what I'm looking for (if they talk to me at all). And for the record, hot chicks play videogames too. I for one enjoy playing games with my boyfriend. I consider it good bonding time.

I have two gal pals who share my casual video game love. Yesterday, H sent K and I a link to a wonderful article about what a video game system says about your man. All she said was "You have got to be kidding me -- link." Here's what I got out of the article - men who own PS3s and Xbox 360s are rich, men who have Wiis are poor. PS3 owners are loyal (uh-huh); Wii owners are social (sure) and Xbox 360 owners will consistently ignore you for Cortana (somewhat likely for the next couple of months).

Besides the sheer stupidity of the measurement (Material possessions are the biggest clues! Judge a man by his things! Not by who he is!) I found it sexist. I mean, if you're going to make blanket statements about one sex without any basis in fact, it's only fair to do it to the other.

So boys, I'm here to help you out. I've assembled a crack panel of ladies to help me make broad, inaccurate generalizations as to what your girlfriend's video game system says about her.

Let's meet our crack panel...
R, a snarky Internet Project Manager
P, a 30-something married mother of 2 in suburbia
W, a female professional gamer/calendar girl
J, editor-in-chief of 'Women Game On!'
S, a comedienne
If your woman owns a PS3...
P: She has way too much disposable cash. She doesn't value money and will raid your wallet when you're not looking.
W: She doesn't care if the controller vibrates as long as the game looks good. She's superficial and always needs a new toy, or boy toy. It's not important to her if you don't let her hang out with her old boyfriends.
J: She's probably loyal and ignored the reviews of her friends. Though you spend time with your old girlfriend, she pretends not to care that you won't let her meet the former flame. She is still hoping for good games to come out of this relationship. She'll stay true to you as long as you're in it for the long haul.
S: She'll be your Sugar Cougar.

If your woman owns a Wii...
S: She's probably 15. That means she's not legal yet, not that it matters these days.
R: She has a short attention span but is really good with her hands.
P: She is in touch with her inner child. Probably a bit too much. She wears pigtails and enjoys beating things.
J: It's hard for her to be serious about anything. She probably has communication and commitment issues. Run now.

If your woman owns an Xbox 360...
R: She can probably kick your ass in Halo 3 multiplayer. She will strip you of your manhood and embarrass you in front of your friends, and laugh while doing it.
W: She is forgiving when things don't work as expected, and patient when they break. She's willing to take a chance on something that may have red rings of death. She wants someone who can express when they need to be sent in for repairs.
P: She likes things that don't tie her down or don't need her to be within 30 feet all the time. She thinks variety is the spice of life. She talks constantly and is online a lot.
J: She sees everything in black or white terms. She can be drawn into tossing you for a bigger hard drive easily. She's a peripherals master.

If your woman owns an oldie (PS, N64, Dreamcast)...
S: She stays with things wayyyyy too long.
P: She doesn't know how to upgrade and is afraid to be alone.
R: She likes the underdog. She's counterculture. She doesn't mind if something has a lot of hype but turns out to be a little disappointing.

If your woman owns a classic (Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo)...
J: She appreciates things that are predictable. She wants her life to be linear. She likes her routine.
S: You don't have to be 3-dimensional to date her. Or she's broke.
W: An old boyfriend asked her to hold onto it. 15 years ago.

If your woman owns a retro machine (Coleco, Intellivision)...
S: She's old. She's a cougar!
P: Like a fine wine, she knows things get better with age. She likes the older men.
J: She doesn't adapt to new technology well. She doesn't own a cellphone and has probably never heard of a computer.
R: She likes her joysticks to look like joysticks - straight with one button.

If she plays games on a PC...
W: She's probably got 5 online boyfriends. Good luck with that one.
P: She's single and calls in sick to work a lot. She either answers the phone on the first ring or doesn't answer it for days. Her eyes are bad.
R: She buys a new computer every two years. She'll trade you in at the same time.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Of cellphones and jamming

What is the big deal about cell phones? Personally, I hate the damn things. I have one, yes, currently a Samsung Blackjack that I use to keep constantly connected to work. To say I loathe it is putting it gently. I buy a new phone once every three years or so. I couldn't care less about watching video on my phone, listening to music on my phone, or really anything besides making phone calls. And even that I don't do very often.

I suppose I sound old and crotchety, but I don't really care. My phone has come in handy for a few things. It's a great portable GPS device. I constantly use Google Maps on it to find my way around Manhattan south of Union Square. I take pictures of products at stores (that is, when the clerks don't stop me). I check sports scores when I'm not near a TV. But given the choice between a landline and a cell, I choose the landline every time. I can't hear on cellphones (guess being in a band did this to me). And more importantly, unless it's an emergency, I don't really want to be bothered.

But my biggest cellphone pet peeve is anyone using their cellphone obnoxiously in public. You know this person. They have private conversations in public places. Loudly. They use their cellphone while driving. Dangerously. They make unimportant calls on trains, buses or ferries because they're bored. Annoyingly. They text constantly, they walk badly, they have blatant disregard for anything besides their goddamn iPhone/Blackberry/Dash/Chocolate/whatever the hell you want to call it right in front of them.

Decorum is dead and the cellphone is to blame. In New York City, where privacy is an illusion anyway, the only respite from cellhell is the subway. And even that may soon come to an end. So over the weekend I got a cheap thrill from a New York Times article my friend P sent me about cellphone jammers.

We had been talking about them a few months before. We were watching "Mission Impossible" and during the scene of the Eurostar train in the Chunnel I was chortling as Luther used a cellphone jammer to keep Max from downloading the NOC list. P works for a technology think tank so he's always up on the latest breakthroughs. I asked him if there was such a thing as a cellphone jammer. He laughed and said of course. I told him I wanted one to use on Metro North. In the mornings, the passengers were mostly commuters who followed the conductor's announced rules of etiquette -- use your phone in the vestibule and speak quietly. But in the evenings the train was half commuters and half idiots. I liked to sleep on the ride home and without fail I would always have some jerk (usually a woman, I hate to say) who sat next to me and gabbed on her cellphone the entire way home. The only break came in the dead zone of the Grand Central tunnel at the beginning of the trip. And they were usually gabbing about nothing important! Things that could easily be discussed from home by phone, or (gasp!) in person. No baby births. No family members in the hospital. Just bullshit like "this dress was $350" or "OMG so-and-so is such a dick" or "my boss hates me." Sometimes these people were so loud that I could hear them over my music, no matter how loud I made it.

After a year of commuting I lost all sense of etiquette. First I politely asked my benchmates to use the vestibule. Then I started staring at them until they confronted me, at which time I bitched them out. Finally I would just interrupt them and loudly ask them to shut the hell up and save your unimportant bullshit call for later because no one on the train cares and I just want to sleep dammit. I admit, this was pretty lame of me, but I got an odd sense of satisfaction each of the three times I said it. Etiquette is dead too, it turns out.

The NYT article was particularly interesting because I learned that 1) cellphone jammers can be relatively cheap; 2) they are easy to conceal and 3) they are totally illegal. Now that I don't use Metro North as much I'm not as strung out about wanting a jammer, but when the subways are wired I feel like I'd really want one. If we could all agree to use cellphones only in emergencies on the subways for the good of all mankind, I'd be OK. But somehow I doubt that will happen. Utilitarianism is also dead. At least when it comes to cellphones.

Finally, good karma comes my way

If there is a silver lining in being miserably sick, it's that people feel sorry for you. Normally I am loathe to appear weak but in my weakened state I am glad to have people take pity on me. My uncontrollable coughing fits get looks of sympathy (and contempt) on the subway. On the walk to work from the train I've had people thrice ask me if I need help or if I'm OK. It's touching how sweet New Yorkers can be.

Yesterday after work I had to go see the doctor again. He'd asked to see me because he wanted to make sure my lungs were clear. Since I've missed a bit of work I wanted to work late and make up some time. As a result, I had to get from work into Harlem in about 35 minutes. Not a rush but cutting it pretty close.

My plan was to take the 6, hop onto an express at Grand Central, and then change back at 86th St. But I ended up waiting almost 10 minutes for a train at 23rd St, which threw a monkey wrench into my plan. I lucked out that I was right in front of the door when the train stopped, so I was able to squeeze on. Plan B was to take the 6 all the way. Unfortunately since this was the first train in a while, we got stuck at every station as commuters tried to maneuver in.

It took us 25 minutes to get to 59th St, and I knew I was screwed. I was the last doctor's appt of the day and I didn't want to be late. At 86th St I made the decision to jump out of the subway and take a taxi the rest of the way. I ran out of the tunnel and frantically hailed a cab. I told him the address -- 110st and 3rd. I had almost no cash with me, but now that taxis have those GPS thingies they take credit cards.

Except the cab I'd been picked up by didn't have the GPS. "Oh no," I said. "You don't take credit cards?" The cab driver shook his head no. "Let me see how much cash I have..." I looked in my wallet and found six mangled singles.

"I have six dollars. Will that get me to 110 st?" I asked. "We'll see how far that gets you," the driver replied. I leaned back as my leg shook with anxiety. There was nothing I could do but wait and see. And cough. Cough cough cough. (pause) COUGH cough cough cough. The running made my already sick lungs more out of breath.

I watched as the meter passed $4, then $5. We were only in the 90s, struggling through heavy traffic on 3rd Ave. We hit $6 at 101st St. I expected the driver to pull over and throw me out. Instead, he asked me "You only got $6, right?" Yes, I replied.

He shut off the meter and drove me the rest of the way. He shut off the meter! He dropped me off at my desired location, where I thanked him profusely and apologized for not being able to tip him. He told me to feel better. What a sweet driver! Nice things do happen sometimes.

I ended up having to wait at the clinic, but I didn't care. The doctor checked me out and declared me still sick, but with OK lungs.

Act 2 of good karma actually came at the end of last week. My apartment is finally (pretty much) done. Since moving in on August 18th, I had only used my stovetop/oven twice, and I'd stopped using my microwave in September when they put it on my stool because it was too tipsy. So I hadn't cooked in my apartment for 10 of the 11 weeks I've lived here.

On October 20th, one of the workers from the contractor's company came and put up my microwave. They did it wrong because no one was monitoring -- the microwave has a fan and light on the bottom and instead of mounting it on brackets above my stove they mounted it on a shelf -- making my fan and light useless, but at least it's up. I could finally cook!

That also meant it was time to pay rent. My non-Super had told me back in September to hold onto my rent until everything was done. Even though it wasn't perfect, I considered the apartment done enough. I called the non-Super four times over the next four days and never got a call back. All this rent money has been sitting in my bank account. If I had known it would have taken this long, I would have invested it in a short-term high-yield interest savings account.

Instead, my bank account balance has been deceptively high with rent money. I could have paid off my credit cards. I could have bought all the furniture I want. I could have bought the TV and speaker system and Xbox 360 I want. Or clothing. Or something else materialistic. But I've been good.

Home sick last Tuesday, I ran into my non-Super outside of my building. She asked when I could pay the rent and I told her to swing by on Nov. 1. I wanted to talk to her about a discount given everything I'd gone through but that was not the time. I was kind of dreading the conversation. I did not want to have a bad relationship with the non-Super, but I felt that I was on firm ground. I was afraid it would become an argument. Come the 1st, I tried calling her to arrange a pickup time but her voicemail was full. Argh. And yet I wasn't really surprised. My anxiety was prolonged.

On Friday she came by to collect the rent. I was incredibly nervous as I planned out how to ask for a discount. I showed her the microwave (she was upset about the shelf instead of brackets) and we discussed some other remaining issues, like the last tenant's name still being on the buzzer. Finally it was time to talk rent. I politely explained that I felt like since I couldn't use my kitchen since I'd moved in, I deserved a break on the rent.

I expected her to fight back, but instead she nodded and asked what I felt was fair. I proposed a half-month discount. She said that was fair. I probably could have asked for more given her response, but that's OK. I was just excited that I didn't have to fight about it. I wrote her a check for the rent owed minus the discount and all was good. Sometimes good things happen.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A cleverly disguised telemarketer

I hate having a new phone number. Even though I've added my number to the FTC's Do Not Call registry, it takes up to 90 days for your number to actually be added. In the meantime, telemarketers can call. And call. And call. And with an ever-shrinking pool of numbers it's a waterfall effect. The calls start at about 7 PM and don't stop until almost 10 PM.

Every once in awhile I make the mistake of just answering the phone without checking the caller ID. Friday night was one of them. I picked up the phone expecting friend M to be on the other end, but instead it was Con-Ed. Or so I thought.

Now, I'm on antibiotics (turns out I have the flu) and slightly delirious, and the woman on the other end had a pretty thick accent. But when she initially told me she was calling me about my power service, I thought that there was a problem. Great, I thought, they're going to shut of my gas again. Turns out the call was actually from a company called Accent Energy. They were calling to pitch their alternative energy program. The official term is ESCO and Con-Ed has partnered with about 15 ESCOs.

An ESCO is another company that has paid for the right to supply power to a grid, in this case Con-Ed customers. The power grids are so old and overtaxed in this part of the country that this makes sense in theory. Either a power company with excess power or an independent co-op with excess energy should be able to sell power to Con-Ed in order to keep our homes lit. Also, ESCOs use renewable energy like wind and hydroelectric power which is great. Of course, when I was on the phone I didn't know any of this yet.

My drugged brain was still processing that there was in fact no problem with my power, so I did not hang up on the woman from Accent Energy. She asked if I had read the alternative energy supplier fact sheet in my Con-Ed bill. Nope, I replied. She asked me if I was fixed-rate or variable with Con-Ed. I had no idea. She said it was okay and continued. The pitch sounded pretty good: 7% off your first two bills. That would only mean about $4 for me, but for a household that would save some precious pennies. The whole pitch took less than two minutes. It sounded great as I understood it, so I told her to go ahead.

She told me to hold while she transferred both of us to an automated system. That's when alarm bells started going off in my head. Everything in NYC is so cold and bureaucratic, and Time Warner had made me do this before I could get my cable installed. I realized I was about to agree to some serious stuff. The woman came back and told me it was about to start. She said I needed to finish the process in order for it to be complete. That would be an important fact.

At first, the woman did all of the speaking. She stated my name, address, phone number, and Con-Ed account number. She stated her name and associate ID number. Then there were a bunch of questions I was supposed to say yes to. I don't remember the exact questions, but it was something like "is your account number blah blah" which I said yes to; "do you live at blah blah" which I said yes to. Then it was "Do you understand that by agreeing to switch to Accent Energy your rate will initially be fixed for the first three months and then be variable after that, and that Accent Energy rates and Con-Ed rates may differ?"

Bingo. "No no no no NO!" I said. The woman asked me why I said no, and I told her I did not agree to variable rates. She told me Con-Ed had variable rates, but I told her I was no longer interested, and we hung up. Then I did my research. I think the Con-Ed ESCO page says it all...

"These ESCOs have indicated they will supply electricity and gas to residential and small commerical (SC2) customers. They may decide to change their services without notifying us to update this page. ... Switching to a different supplier is your choice. You are not required to choose an ESCO and there are no deadlines for making a move to an ESCO."
That's all I needed to read. Any time a page has a bunch of disclaimers on it (and there are more on the page) it's bad news. The problem is that these energy companies aren't subject to the same regulations as Con-Ed.

That means the ESCOs can:
  • Raise your rates at any time, with little to no warning
  • Decide to pull out of your market, leaving you with no power
  • Call you a lot and send salesman to your door (!!)
In addition, the rate is usually about $.02 more per kWh. You also lose your ability to call Con-Ed customer service for anything except emergency situations.

I have been looking for more information about ESCOs for days, but haven't really found much besides lists of NYC/Con-Ed partners. No one with good experiences or bad experiences to reprot. But I really hate that this company called me and made everything sound peachy and only through the fine print did I find out that this was a Chase-esque deal.

What makes me even madder is that as someone who is all for renewable energy, why hasn't the city government taken steps to regulate this? Who is going to willingly accept paying more for energy just because it's renewable? It needs to be the same price as Con-Ed and there needs to be local infrastructure in place to support it. Mayor Bloomberg is all about environmental issues right now...well, Bloomie, here's one that's half done. Sweep in there and finish this sucker up right.

Oh, and I have no idea how to tell if my Con-Ed rate is fixed or variable. Maybe once I get over this flu. Cover your mouths, kids, and wash your hands a lot.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Things to do in New York when you're sick

Ugh. What a crappy week. My cough from last week grew into a full-on bronchial assault this week, and I've pretty much been out of commission.

When I moved into my apartment I remember thinking that it was kind of like my dorm room sophomore year of college. I had a single in the spring semester which was great, but unfortunately I got really really sick just as school started. It took me hours just to work up the strength to walk to the bathroom.. My RA never once checked on me; thank God I had such great friends who brought me groceries, filled my prescriptions and took me to the hospital. My friend B later told me my skin was grey, unlike anything he'd ever seen.

I got over it eventually and still managed to pass all my classes. Though I don't feel that sick now, the memories keep coming back. I haven't taken any official sick days from work, I've been working from home with spattered naps throughout the day. I can't stop coughing and yesterday I started feeling pretty weak. I knew I had to see a doctor.

I'm kind of a doctoraphobe, owing to the fact that they never seem to know what is wrong with me. And yesterday was no different. They asked me my symptoms, drew some blood, poked around for a bit, and came to the conclusion that I either have mono (oh God no) or something else. I've already had mono -- I thought people didn't get it again? The test results won't be in until tomorrow.

So I schlepped back uptown to my apartment, weak from the blood loss. I missed the annual Halloween party at work, which sucks, and I don't think I moved off my couch for a good 5 or 6 hours. I really hate being sick.