Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I took the Madison Avenue bus home from work last night.

Distance: 2-point-something miles.

Time taken: Two-and-an-effing-half-hours!

The problem: In a word, diplomats. Last night New York was crawling with them. In a way it was like waking up in the middle of the night, stepping into the bathroom for a glass of water, and finding the sink crawling with cockroaches.

The great un-diplomatic Manhattan traffic tieup

Somebody – NYPD, Secret Service, FBI, or for all I know the Iranian Secret Police – was making a huge show of tying up traffic for the security of various nations’ diplomats, including our own, while they go to and from the UN blabbing and blubbering to no effect I can detect other than annoyance. Meanwhile, it’s New York’s citizens who got shafted.

So a dude who happens to be a diplomat wants to go for a ride. Does that mean you have to clear all streets of all traffic in a four block radius while the guy checks out of his hotel, loads his baggage into a huge chauffeur-driven SUV, ambles out the hotel’s front door, picks his nose, blows a kiss, and gets in?

I live a few blocks from the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue, a deluxe joint favored by people who live off the taxpayers’ (or slave owners’) money around the world. The Carlyle is on Madison Avenue between 75th and 76th. Why did that justify blocking off Madison Avenue from 73rd Street to God-Knows-Where, the side streets between Madison and Park on 75th and 76th Streets, and who knows what else?

Why did some diplomat’s temporary residency justify freezing several bus loads of passengers for twenty minutes. The bus couldn’t move forward. The riders couldn’t get off. We were prisoners of diplomacy! Out-effing-rageous!

The curse of Leona’s ghost

Earlier, the same bus that I was riding got caught in a different diplomatic security log jam in front of the Palace Hotel, on Madison at 51st Street. That’s the hotel that used to advertise that Leona (“Only the little people pay taxes”) Helmsley was their “Queen.”

Well, Leona’s now pushing up daisies, but her ghost still haunts the block. Nothing moved. Nothing budged. You could almost hear Leona cackling. Or sneering. Or gloating that “Only the little people ride busses.”

Secret technique of the
Not-So-Secret Service

For those of you who are security buffs, I did notice one interesting technique that some U.S. security service is using. (I say it’s a U.S. security service because it happened in a van with U.S. Government license plates.)

They’re using hatchback SUVs. And before any diplomat goes out the hotel door with his finger in his nose, they open the back hatch. One of those buzz-cut, conservatively-suited, funny button-in-the-lapel, doo-hickey-in-the-ear, sunglasses types sits down in the back, cross-legged like Chief Sitting Bull, facing out the rear window.

Can you see him once the hatch goes down? Nope, because they use that one-way glass that prevents you from seeing inside the vehicle. But you'd better believe he's there. I saw him get in. I saw him sit down.

Is he armed? I couldn’t tell you that. I didn’t see a weapon. But I’d be willing to bet a two hour traffic jam he’s carrying iron.

I mention this just in case you’re a terrorist, planning to sneak up behind a diplomatic vehicle and start shooting. Fuhgedaboud it, dude. They’ll blow you a way before you have a chance to call home on your cell phone and say goodbye to Mom.

On the other hand, I do wish the Secret Service (or whomever) would stop deploying secret agents in full public view. But I guess that’s what happens when you tie up traffic. Everybody in the vehicle stranded next to yours gets to see exactly what you’re doing.

Uh oh, it just occurred to me that if somebody in the Secret Service reads this, they may insist we commute to and from work blindfolded from now on.

Revealed: The Crank’s
for improving
diplomatic efficiency

Look pal, I’m for security as much as the next person. And I’m probably more in favor of diplomacy than anybody else you could name. But diplomacy in Manhattan simply doesn’t work. With cranks like me running around grumbling about needing over two hours to go two miles, and how late it’s getting, and how hungry we are, diplomacy here is counter-vibrational.

So here’s what I suggest. Get hold of an airplane hangar out at JFK Airport. Run a partition down the center. One side ought to be a dormitory, with none-too-comfortable upper and lower bunks, just like what they have in the army. The other side ought to be a conference room.

When the diplomats get off their airplanes, they should be herded into the hangar and forced to stay there and negotiate until they get something settled. Anything settled, come to think of it.

Until then, they’d have to sleep in a common hall, listening to one another snore and fart and whatever else all night. And they'd have to eat Army food. Does the army still service creamed chipped beef on toast – what soldiers at Fort Dix used to call shit-on-a-shingle – for breakfast? Good. Serve them that. Every last morning. Until they solve problems like Darfur, Iraq, and nukes in Iran and North Korea. Betcha it wouldn’t take more than a week.

Did I mention that I advocate having just one toilet for the entire diplomatic corps? Well I do. As well as one common shower room. And if one of those nose-picking diplomacy hacks is bending over for the soap when Congressman Larry Craig comes through on a Congressional junket, tough luck!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Subway fares, overcrowding, off-peak idiocy, clueless Bloomberg, and the insanity of letting people who ride to work in limos set transit policy

Hello, suckers! If you live in New York, you’re on the verge of getting smacked in your wallet again. Good and hard.

A big subway fare is in the works because the Metropolitan Transit authority is crying poor, even though they’ve got a billion dollar budget surplus this year. So says the New York Times this morning

Yeah yeah, I know a billion bucks isn’t what it used to be. But even with some of the crappiest Manhattan co-op apartments going for a piffling million dollars these days, a billion bucks is still real money. Or at least real enough to avoid forcing the MTA board to go to soup kitchens for lunch and sleep in cardboard boxes on a church step.

So what’s the problem at the
Metropolitan Transit Authority?

From their limos and office aeries, the high muck-mucks who run the system have decided to compete with Mme. Galzorist, the often off-base fortune teller on the block where the offices of The New York Crank are located.

The transit moguls say a money shortage is coming – they can see it in their crystal balls. It’s going to be caused by all the pension benefits they’ve negotiated, debts they’ve decided to take on, and an “anticipated” decline in income from real estate transaction taxes.

So okay, I’ll tell you what. Let’s say their crystal ball is 100% correct. Let’s forget about who negotiated and planned us into the financial tsunami that the Transit Authority insists is just down the road. Instead, let’s focus on some new stupidity.

Transit planning peak freaks

Some genius at the Transit Authority got the bright idea that while they’re probably going to raise fares by double-digit percentages, they ought to reduce fares for off-peak use. That way, goes the thinking of these geniuses, they’ll reduce peak hour use of the subway.

Small problem with that, dudes. Peak hours are peak hours because those are the hours when the bosses insist that everybody show up for work. Or the hours when everybody gets to come home from work. The average working stiffs have as much control over when they use the subway as they do over high tide in Upper New York Bay.

It happens when the boss says it’ll happen. So don’t even bother practicing excuses like, “Sorry I’m three hours late, boss. I was waiting for off-peak hours to kick in.”

Or better yet, “Honey, I’ll be home at 11 o’clock tonight. No, it has nothing to do with the blonde in the next cubicle. I’m waiting for off-peak hours.”

Transit capacity maxes out

But Transit Authority bosses are desperate. Says the New York Times article this morning:

Overcrowding is a growing concern for the authority. It is undertaking customer surveys for its subway lines, and initial results show packed subway cars a major complaint among riders. But the century-old system has little capacity to add service.
Which brings me to the next doofus in the New York Transit mess – Mayor “Mike” Bloomberg. As crankily complained about on this blog back on August 1, “Mayor Mike,” who takes two limos to the subway sometimes, wants to slap an $8 fee on drivers in midtown to keep them off the streets, presumably so they’ll take mass transit to work.

Mike, Mike, Mike, if the subway is already jammed just about to capacity, what’s going to happen when you coerce even more people to use it?

Right. You guessed it.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Political, partisan, petty, censorship-championing Rudy.

Hey, do you think Rudy Giuliani would make a the White House anything other than a truth-be-damned propaganda organ of the Republican party?

Think again.

Back in May I reminded you of Rudy’s “you have to take a bullet for me” mentality and tendency to pass the buck for his own mistakes.

Now this in an e-mail sent to me by Richard Rosenthal, a New York journalist and advertising copywriter who specializes in bicycle-related subjects and found himself justifiably teed off last week when Giuliani pretended to take offense at the “General Betray-us” ad run by It's enough to make you think Rudy studied politics on the lap of Karl Rove:

Today's Times has an article, "Angered by an Antiwar Ad, Giuliani Seeks Equal Space". In 1998 I was hired by the NYC Department of Transportation to create ads promoting bicycling in the city in conjunction with Bike Month. Cycling is a non-partisan activity. The DoT is a non-partisan agency. Funding for the ads was paid by a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, a non-partisan agency.

After the NYC DoT turned down ads that said cycling was better for the city than driving because bicycles were non-polluting, quiet, and reduced congestion--they wouldn't permit me to say that--I submitted an ad with the headline, "We Bike Here." Around it were the names of hundreds and hundreds of New York cyclists, possibly with their professions: doctors, lawyers, professors, journalists, laborers of all stripes, even a subway repairman and a bus maintenance man--all in small, 6 pt. type.

The DoT pored through the names and pulled out the names of Ruth Messenger (Manhattan borough president), Fernando Ferrer (Bronx borough president), and John Kennedy, Jr., all of whom rode bikes in the city, and said I would have to remove them, then asked me if Robin Williams was a Democrat and, if so, I would have to remove his name, too.

Why, I asked? Answer: Because we can't have anyone identifiably a Democrat in the list. The names have to be vetted at City Hall.

The DoT was not amused by my asking could they vouch that young Andrew Giuliani, the son of the mayor, rode a bike here. If so, I would be glad to add his name. (I quit rather than comply.)
While Rosenthal had the backbone to tell Giuliani’s little hatchet men to take a flying leap, I wonder how many Republicans will follow in his footsteps?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Laura busted in men’ room, Bin Laden gets his kidney dialysis here, and other previously unreported news

The news that a former French news correspondent, Alex Debat, (that’s him at left) faked interviews for the pretigious French magazine Politique Internationale and may have done so as a consultant for ABC News brings joy to my heart.

If the “professional” journals are no more reliable than the blogsphere, why can’t we blogists fake a few interviews, too?

Below, my suggested submissions of major news stories, based on authentically faked interviews and genuinely made-up facts:

Minneapolis: First lady Laura Bush was arrested for disorderly conduct today in a Men’s Room of the Minneapolis airport. Mrs. Bush denied the charges claiming that in the first place she wandered in by mistake thinking it was the ladies room, that in second place she was entrapped, and that in the third place the motions she was making only had to do with a practice run at applying her lipstick, and fourth, she thought that if she pled guilty to disorderly conduct and went home, the whole thing would go away. Furthermore, she said, “I was only looking for George…”

Washington: In an exclusive interview, top terrorist Osama Bin Laden revealed today that he has been getting regular kidney dialysis treatments at Walter Reed Army Medical Center under the auspices of the CIA. The super-secret U.S. intelligence agency, he said, thinks his name is Hassan Ben Gladhand, and that he is an informant from Beirut. “During my last debriefing,” he said with a chuckle, “I told them I had definite information that Bin Laden was in Iraq running an Al Qaeda operation there, and also that they are definitely ‘winning’ the Iraqi war. The dummies bought it hookah, line and sinker…”

Washington: Faced with continued gloomy news about public support for his Iraq policy, President George Bush today revealed that the nation “needs me too much” to replace him and that therefore he has called off the Presidential election, declared martial law, and named himself President for Life. “This is the only way we can continue our winning policy and war against terrorism,” he said in an exclusive interview.

Complaining that his rival Hillary Clinton is “too pushy and taking all the attention away from me,” Former New York mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani threw a temper tantrum in front of an interviewer, lay down on the floor and kicked, then held his breath until he turned red. Finally, he began to spit. "Hillary is part of a vast conspiracy to elect Hillary," Giuliani complained bitterly, "but if the electorate wants a woman, I'll run as a woman."

New York: “We’re tired of tabloids, dumb headlines, false and misleading news about us, paparazzi and gossip,” a group of celebrities declared today. They included Tom Cruise, Brittney Spears, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and others. The celebrities had set up a joint press conference to declare, “We will no longer cooperate with the press.”

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A view from the toilet: crankily guarded praise of Parisian short-term rental apartments

I recently returned from Paris where my beautiful girlfriend and I – and another couple – rented a two-bedroom apartment for a week instead of checking into a hotel. It was, as they say, an experience. What kind of experience it was depends on which of us you ask.

While I grew more and more enthralled by the flat, the Crank’s girlfriend grew proportionately disenchanted – a living example of how one visitor’s impression of quirky charm is another’s experience of living hell. Or at least of moderately discomforting heck.

The apartment was a two-bedroom triplex. Our bedroom was on the top floor. It offered a panoramic view of the Paris skyline from seven stories up. (That’s mighty high up in Paris.) The upstairs bedroom had an attached bathroom, with a sliding pocket door.

Let’s start with the upstairs bathroom

Here comes the first of the apartment’s quirks. The door to the bathroom was glass, which raised havoc with the notion that somebody sitting on the john in a roughly $3,600-a-week flat ought to be entitled to a bit of privacy.

One the other hand, as the Crank’s beautiful girlfriend pointed out, not entirely pleased, “This is the only apartment I’ve ever been in were I can shit and look at the Eiffel Tower at the same time.” (The photograph above is an authentic view from the toilet.)

Quasimodo’s staircase

Passage from the living to the upstairs or downstairs bedrooms was via a pair of corkscrew staircases so narrow that I found I could only use them by walking sideways. I very nearly expected on the way up to encounter Quasimodo coming down from an unseen belfry.

Again, I found this quirk charming. But the women were not amused. Not only were the stairs no fun to use in high heels, but there was no way to get our luggage up or down the stairs. We had to unpack in the living room, carry our stuff on hangers or cradled in our arms up and down the corkscrews, and then stash our emptied suitcases behind the living room couch.

Attack dog concierge

In a Paris hotel, the concierge is a usually-pleasant person who makes restaurant reservations for you and commands a staff that manages the bellhops and doormen. In Paris apartments, the concierge is part of an entirely different tradition – one that I’m sad to learn is rapidly disappearing.

Traditionally – and my experience with “traditional” concierges goes back to 1959 – the concierge is a woman of “a certain age” who works for the management of an apartment building as a combination janitor, superintendent and snoop.

She is – one imagines by consequence of some venomous code instituted during the Revolution of 1789 and never repealed – totally humorless, ill-natured and suspicious. Long before the security camera was invented, the gendarmerie of Paris knew they had a reliable record of who came and went in almost any apartment building. That record was the stewing memory of the concierge, tirelessly spying from behind her lace curtained window at the building’s entrance or in its courtyard.

In other words, "the concierge" is a Parisian institution, as integral to the city’s personality as Montmartre or the Seine. Our concierge was all that and more. She was of a certain age plus at least ten. She had all her upper and lower teeth – but only all the ones on the right side of her mouth. Her open-mouthed scowl was a vision to behold, and we beheld it often. She was frequently in an explosive mood. And she had a small, uncheerful dog who never wagged his tail.

The concierge flew into a rage on our arrival because I inadvertently tried to insert the wrong key into the lock that opened the building’s front door.

She flew into a rage again when two members of our party tried to squeeze into the elevator with their luggage on the way up to the apartment. (She professed fear that the weight of two people plus their suitcases would break the elevator cable.)

She put a thumb on our doorbell and kept it there for the full 120 seconds it took me to get to the apartment door one morning. Then she furiously announced that our house phone was off the hook and she could hear every word we were saying. (But she couldn’t understand any of them, since she spoke no English; for all I know, that lack of comprehension was the source of her resentment.)

The concierge’s self-evident ill will had Crank’s girlfriend nearly in tears. I, on the other hand, considered the concierge part of the ambient entertainment. I was no more upset by her than I’d get by watching Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet performing as villians in an old black-and-white movie. In fact, I think she was better than Greenstreet.

Some wag once wrote that it’s silly getting upset because the French hate you – they hate each other just as much. Some Americans may feel annoyed by this. But that's one of the reasons I like going to France.

Meanwhile, vive le Sixieme!

Our apartment was on Rue de Seine, a narrow street lined mostly with art galleries. The quarter is lively 24 hours a day and extra lively at night when the surrounding 6th Arrondissement, as well as the adjacent 5th, seem to turn into a giant singles bar. Every sidewalk cafĂ©, every restaurant, every ice cream parlor was booming – and at night more with Parisians in their 20s and 30s than with cranky old foreign visitors like me.

With due respect to my political opposite numbers at No-Pasaran – – who find the French largely disagreeable and admittedly have more first-hand experience in France than I can claim – I found that at least the better-off youth of Paris are upbeat and totally counter to tradition and expectations. Alas, if over time the next generation becomes enough like us, there will be no point in going there any more.

Especially not after the last concierge dies off.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Burst housing bubble? Sorry pal, only the “little people” get their bubbles burst.

So I’m just back from Paris and what’s the first thing that greets me in the mail? Why, a report to the terribly, terribly rich from one of their New York real estate brokers, a company called Stribling. (God knows why they think a crank like me possibly could be super rich, or even merely rich. But let 'em dream.)

Entitled, “Mid-Year Luxury Report 2007 – The $5,000,000 and up Manhattan Residential Market,” Stribling's report leaves no doubt whatsoever that the roof is only crashing down on Joe Average and his pathetic adjustable rate mortgage.

Meanwhile the barely-taxed superrich with their $20 million to $1 billion-plus incomes have mega-wads of cash to burn on what Stribling is calling “trophy apartments.”

Says the Stribling report, “…there continues to be an extraordinary amount of money in this market, mostly from the beneficiaries of the hedge fund industry and other areas of Wall Street.”

Hedge fund industry? Aren’t those the guys who keep running to Congress demanding bigger tax breaks for themselves because they’re risking their clients’ money?

Nah, it's not logical. Just greedy.

If you think you just detected a slight flaw in logic, you're right. The hedge fund billionaires want a huge tax break for themselves because they’re risking other peoples’ money. Well hey, if you don’t have the sheer conscience-free nerve of knife-wielding thug, it’s still almost impossible to become a billionaire in this country, the likes of Warren Buffet possibly excepted.

But back to Stribling, the real estate brokers. Stribling reports that in the first half of this year in Manhattan, there were 45 sales of apartments in the cheesy $5 to $10 million range, 18 in the $10 to $20 million range, and six that sold for $20 million and over. That’s for an apartment, dude. You know, one of them things with a living room, a little bitty kitchen for the cook to make your dinner in, a dining room, a couple of bedrooms or maybe three, and perhaps a nice view.

The highest sale so far this year has been for over $33 million dollars. Only five years ago, the highest sale was for $17 million and fewer than half as many people shelled out over $5 million for a place to hang their hats as have so far this year.

"Mortgages? We don't need
no stinking mortgages."

Remember, these are folks whose co-op buildings don’t believe in mortgages. At the very least in most top Manhattan buildings, you’ll be required to put down 50% in cash and to have liquid net worth of at least three times – and I’ve heard of buildings demanding 20 times – what the apartment cost you.

In addition, many of the buildings for the super rich are "all cash" buildings. If you have to apply for a mortgage, the building's co-op board won't let you in.

But $5 to $33 million is still just play money for folks who also have palatial estates in the Hamptons, and travel around in private jets to avoid the nastiness of having to go through airport security lines with their shoes off or have their tranquility disturbed by crying babies back there in tourist class.

It's time to tax 'em
'till they bleed

All the more reason why this nation needs more steeply graduated taxes for individuals whose incomes run in the millions, and an excess wealth tax for people with more than double-digit millions of net worth.

And if you red state readers think you’ll get any love and comfort from the super rich for letting them rob you blind in the stock market and via George Bush’s "compassionate conservative" taxation system that punishes the poor just because they're poor, I refer you to the last paragraph of the Stribling report, which says in part:

“In this global economy, Manhattan should be compared to London, not Lubbock.”

Got that, Lubbock?