Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Gentleman or the Abyss

Last week, I went to the Apollo to see the Prez. Let me repeat that because there’s something magical and ridiculously unlikely in that sentence.  Obama, is, of course, the first sitting president to ever come to the Apollo.  Ten or fifteen years ago, Harlem was much less safe and chic than it is today, and a presidential visit to the theater would have been unthinkable.  But then, to paraphrase Tom Tomorrow, if Dr. Who had landed in 2001 and announced that in 2008 America would elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama president, it wouldn’t be the time travel part that would sound crazy.

Today 125th street has tour buses and chain stores, but still the feeling of history, and the Apollo is history.  Tickets were reasonably priced, starting at $100, far less than a Broadway show or a concert.  This was not a big donor crowd, just enthusiastic constituents, still proud of their President though some may have been a little disappointed that he hasn’t always been as forceful as we’d hoped.  (As someone said to me recently, “I still love the President. I’m just not in love with him anymore.)

Our politically savvy cousin (a former campaign manager for a sitting senator) who accompanied us, reviewed the President’s speech as a “incoherent, but exciting.”  Obama was trying out different things, honing his message for the coming election. He was in training.

The speech reminded me of why we had expected so much.  He hit the right populist notes, sounding like Jimmy Stewart in the never released Capra sequel, President Smith Runs for Re-election. He talked about the economic mess he inherited, how hard it will be to pull ourselves out, the need for the same rules to apply to everyone, and that we are all in this together. He talked about the good that government can do and referenced social security as well as health care reform.  He mentioned the GI bill, which his grandfather had used to go to college after the war.  My father also went to school on the GI bill.  In his case to attended optometry school at Columbia, although  before the war he’d  gotten a bachelor’s degree at City College (also in Harlem, USA), which back then didn’t charge tuition.  Imagine that!  A free university education.  What a country we once were back when that socialist FDR was in charge.

Obama talked about his opponents and how much the republicans had changed, referencing both Lincoln who created the Internal Revenue Service and Teddy (Bust the Trust)  Roosevelt.

But the moment that would be immortalized on YouTube was when he first came out, after the Reverend Al Green, and he began to sing Let’s Stay Together.  The crowd went wild.  Obama beamed that big smile, the one that inspired crazy Pam Geller to speculate that Malcolm X was his biological father (my absolute favorite conspiracy theory, not only for its absurdity and physical impossibility, but because I kind of wish, if only.)   At the time, I just enjoyed the moment.  It only hit me hours later that of course the singing was staged.

When the stakes are this high, nothing is left to chance.  I can imagine Obama with his advisers planning the marathon of his New York night — three dinners and a show.  I could see him being told that the entertainment would include Al Green, prompting an impromptu song burst, followed by one of the bright not-so-young men saying, “You’ve got to do that!”

I accept that he is after all a politician, an incumbent running for re-election in a tough economy. The line that has haunted me since Thursday wasn’t the musical interlude, it was when he said that this is not the same Republican party he ran against in 2008, that back then he ran against an opponent “who agreed that we should ban torture, believed in climate change, [and] had worked on immigration reform.”

Here’s what it comes down to. On one side are the republican candidates left standing. There’s  Romney, a rich man who can joke about betting $10,000, and about his being “unemployed,”  then turn earnest about corporations’ being people.  If he didn’t actually exist, Stephen Colbert would have had to invent him.   There’s Gingrich who doesn’t just pander to racists, he incites them while playing the victim. And Santorum is still in the race, a man openly disdainful of science, education and contraception.  Here are people advocating policies that would rid us of even the small safety net that exists, who would happily gut social security, rescind health care reform, destroy public education and leave an economy in shambles, men who talk about limiting government while advocating its entry into our bedrooms.

Before the show, as we waited on line (this being New York) that cold winter’s night.  Across the street, there were the usual motley band of protesters, occupy Wall Street types with signs about corporations and Guantanomo, proclaiming their status as part of the 99%.   Of course this was an event for the 99%.  Ironically, many of us had probably at least visited Zuccotti Park.  While some will argue that there isn’t much difference between the parties, at this point that’s unaffordable nihilism.   Maybe Obama is too “centrist” for some or too much of a gentleman when times call for a street fighter, but we are all standing on a precipice and it’s either him or the abyss.

At Home She Feels Like a Tourist

Through a series of unfortunate circumstances we wound up not traveling this past anniversary, and instead decided to simply take a day or two off and do some stuff on the island in which we live.  We are not snobs and would have been happy to travel to the bigger long island nearby or even the mainland up north or to the west,  but as it turned out, we stayed close to home.

So, in case you may be visiting, here are few tips from our recent travels:

Getting Around

In really inclement weather, when especially tired, the better half and I have been known to hop into a cab.  Taxis are expensive and depending on where you are going and when, they can be slow, but they are plentiful.  Despite Sex in the City, most real people take trains and buses most of the time. The “yellow” cabs all use meters.  If you happen to be staying north of 110th street or in the boroughs, and a strange black car pulls up beside you, chances are the driver is not a serial killer.  If the license plate says: TLC, then it is a livery or “gypsy” cab.  It is technically illegal for them to stop and pick up passengers on the street, but it’s commonplace especially in neighborhoods that aren’t served by a lot of cabs. They have set prices although who knows what they are?  Generally, you can negotiate a bit with the driver.  They may not be willing to take you too far out of their comfort zone.

The subway is generally the best choice. There are parts of Manhattan that may be a few long blocks east or west from the station, but most New Yorkers are walkers and can handle it.  While the bus system is great, buses are amazingly slow and if I were a tourist with a limited amount of time, I’d avoid them altogether.  There used to be good discounts for buying Metrocards costing $20 or more. They’ve now lowered the discount to a flat 7% on all cards costing $10 or more, so those cards aren’t as much of a bargain.  If you think you’ll be using the system at least one round trip each day, then invest in a seven-day unlimited Metrocard for $29.

While I don’t want to get sued if you get stabbed or killed on the subway, I will tell you that the subway is very safe and runs frequently 24/7.  Weekends, however, things get weird as a lot of repair work gets done and this causes route changes and delays.  The MTA website offers updates and travel advisories. There are maps in every station and in most train cars.  You can use the “trip planner” on the MTA site or on HopStop for directions.  As a native, I’ve found both these sites a bit hinky, but Hopstop offers a little more flexibility.  You also should not be shy about ASKING a New Yorker if you aren’t sure what train to take. New Yorkers LOVE to talk and will be happy to give you directions. If they know languages, they LOVE to speak them, so even if you are a fluent in English, you can always mess with us by speaking something else and seeing if there’s anyone who can help you.


There’s no reason to see a film in New York City.  There are better things to do that you can’t do at home.  Back in the day, there were tons of revival and art houses in the city where one could watch film “classics” and foreign films on big screens.  The revival houses are long gone.  Most of the smaller art houses as well, but there are a couple of places left that still show foreign and indie films.  Our two favorites are the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film CenterLincoln Plaza, which the better half and I have taken to calling the Lincoln Plaza Home for Adults, because it tends to skew old, is located near Lincoln Center, barely north of midtown on the southern tip of the Upper West Side. It’s not that far from us, but it’s not the one we’d be most likely to recommend to tourists.  Ever since the nearby Barnes & Noble closed, there’s not much to do if you get there early or need to meet someone. The lobby is small and crowded, and the employees tend to be a surly bunch.

Angelika on the other hand, makes a night at the movies a worthy destination.  It features a lobby level cafe with plenty of tables and no ticket required. Though the coffees may be overpriced, it’s located on Houston Street at the border between the East Village and Soho, with big glass walls that allow for street watching.  The staff is helpful and friendly.  When I balked at a $4.00 charge for bottled water, I was given a paper cup with cold water free of charge. While that may seem like a small thing, believe me in this town, it’s anything but.

Personally, I think they could better use the space, add a bookstore, or throw in a small laundry service where locals could drop off, go to a movie and pick up their stuff when they leave, but that’s just my obsession with maximizing real estate.  The theatres themselves are small, but well designed and clean.

Times Square and the Theater

I get it.  Most tourists want to go see a Broadway Show.  Whatever.  There’s a lot of live theatre to be seen in New York that’s not on Broadway.  Actors live here.  You can see plays that aren’t on  Broadway for the fraction of the price, but over the last few days, we went to see a Broadway show, so I’ll give you the scoop on discount tickets.

You’ve probably heard of the half-price day of the show, TKTS booth. Not all shows area available, and those that are, aren’t necessarily half-price, but it’s still a great resource. The website will even tell you what was available within the last week.  (There’s an app that gives you real time information about availability.) There are now satellite counters in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan that offer matinee tickets a day in advance.  The discounts range from 30-50%.  A particular show might only have a discount of 30% and only on the most expensive seats, so you still may wind up spending a lot, especially for musicals.

Even if the show you want to see has been available at TKTS, that doesn’t mean that the day you get on the line it will be available, so if you really want to see something specific, you might consider just getting your ticket online before you come to town.  Generally, on a weekday especially in lousy weather, if you get to the line 50 minutes before it opens, you won’t have to wait more than ten minutes once it opens.  If you arrive later, you could be waiting more than an hour.  If you do come later, some of what was available might be sold out, but sometimes new shows are added write before the curtain goes up.  One feature that’s relatively new, or that I didn’t know about is “Play Express.”  Play Express is a separate line for non-musical plays at discounted prices.  Because most tourists want to see musicals, the Play Express line tends to be very short, and availability is pretty good.  We saw Chinglish with 8th row orchestra seats, and completely enjoyed the show, which unfortunately will close January 29th.  So if you are a “culture vulture” who just wants to see great (non-musical) theatre and doesn’t want to spend your whole afternoon waiting in line, Play Express is the option for you.

Times Square itself is a nightmare.  It’s like some horrid outdoor mall in hell.  Gone is any trace of grit.  It is Disneyfied and family friendly, although absurdly overpriced.  There are no good restaurants in Times Square, but if you have to use the bathroom there are a couple of McDonald’s (including an extremely large one on 42nd street).  There is also a homey Starbucks with clean restrooms across from the TCKTS booth.  Feel free to ignore any signs suggesting that bathrooms are for customers’ use. If you’ve ever bought anything at a McDonald’s or a Starbucks, you are a customer.

I would avoid at all costs the “Discovery Store.” We got to Times Square before TCKTS opened, but then decided to use Play Express, so there was no need to wait on line. (In New York you wait on line. You skate in line.)  One of the giant billboards was hawking “the Dead Sea Scrolls” at Discovery Times Square, so we decided to check it out.  The admission was a whopping $27.00 for adults and $19.50 for kids 4-12.  Maybe it’s a great exhibition, but there are many terrific museums with outstanding regular collections and special exhibitions in this city.  None of them are this overpriced.  Some are by donations.  Some have special  “free” days or evenings.  By all means enjoy our museums, the real ones, not the Discovery Store or Madame Toussand’s.

(Tip: If you want to go to a museum between the time you pick up your evening tickets and get to the theater, MOMA is walking distance (or a very short cab ride) from the TKTS booth. They have “free” Friday nights starting at 4:00.  So if you get to TKTS before it opens at 3:00, and then go to the museum for a couple of hours, you’ll still have time for dinner before the show.)


Real New Yorkers are appalled by chains, with the possible exception of Dunkin Donuts which is local.  There are a few Applebee’s mostly in outer borough malls or Times Square.   There’s an Olive Garden in Chelsea that people eat at ironically, but I’m not sure that’s good for your digestion.  Generally, the better half and I go for ethnic food in Queens because chances are it will be more authentic, better and a whole lot cheaper than in Manhattan. However,  I’m trying to stick to our recent tourism, so  I’ll tell you where we ate this week.  On our movie night at Angelika we had planned to go to Angelica Kitchen, no relation, a popular vegan/organic place.  It was packed. I’m not sure whether or not they take reservations, but I’d recommend calling to check and/or being prepared to wait.  Because we couldn’t go there, we went to our favorite place for comfort food, Veselka’sVeselka’s describes itself as Ukranian soul food and was in the East Village when the East Village had edge — still easy on the wallet, and authentically delish.

When we went to the show, the plan was to dine after the theater, and we wanted to stay in the area.  This does not mean we would consider Times Square itself.  46th Street starting at 8th Avenue is known as New York’s “restaurant row” and is a short walk from the Broadway theaters.  There are some very good restaurants there that aren’t tourist traps.  MenuPages offers tips and “real people” reviews for almost all. .  We chose to avoid the row and head for 9th Avenue away from the hubbub. This is the area now called Clinton that used to be known as Hell’s Kitchen.  Like the rest of Manhattan, it’s ridiculously safe for a major city.  While plenty of people may go to 9th Avenue, it’s not a tourist trap.  We had a craving for Indonesian food which isn’t as ubiquitous as other cuisines.  We chose Bali Nusa Indah and were not disappointed.

Honestly, I don’t write enough about things to do in the city or getting around.  Seriously, if you are planning a trip and have some specific questions, write me, I’ll either blog about it or get back to you via email.

Who Still Buys Hardcovers?

My loyal readers (both of you) know that I keep an eye on the publishing industry, and try to make sense of pronouncements and prognostications, especially as they regard e-books and the future for those of us outliers.  But here’s something that still mystifies me:  Who buys hardcover books?

The better-half and I are book junkies.  We have far more DTBs than anyone living in a cramped apartment ought to.  But very few of these are hardcovers.  A quick perusal of the stacks shows that the b-h has more hardcovers than I do.  Mine tend to be graphic works — Mondo Boxo, by Roz Chast for example, or movie books like Lulu in Hollywood, badly damaged by certain bored kittehs who used it as scratching post.

The b-h has more hardcovers than I do reflecting his varied interests — eco-systems, travel, botany, geology, etc.

Both of us have a smattering of fiction and biography in hardcover.  Generally, these are books that were purchased used, gifts or found in the laundry room.  It is exceedingly rare that either of us buys new hardcovers.  Generally, when we do it’s a question of impatience.  The last new hardcover I bought, I purchased shortly before I got my kindle.  It was The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, the last of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. I came late to the series.  I’d devoured the first two books, and the third one had just come out in hardcover. I broke down and bought it after finding out that I would be 504th on the New York Public Library waiting list.

Here’s the thing: hardcover books aren’t just expensive, they are big and bulky.  I’ve never seen them as “better” from a reader’s point of view.  I bring this up because there is a constant debate on the Kindle forums regarding the price of e-books.  Much has been said about the “agency pricing” model and how Amazon wanted to cap prices for ebooks at $9.99 but got outflanked by big publishing.  Many readers complain that e-book prices for new books often exceed the paperback prices, but that doesn’t matter much to me. As a consumer, and avid reader, I’m likely to buy the cheapest version of a book I can get. I prefer to get books from the library (since I’m likely to only read a book once) or to get them used or free from my laundry room and then “recycle” them by leaving in the laundry room when I’m done.  Usually, I can wait for a book from the library or to be discounted, but on the rare occasion when I don’t want to, getting the book on Kindle at a lower price than I’d pay for a new hardcover feels like a bargain to me.

I finally paid more than $9.99 for an e-book when I decided I “had to” read Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  The initial Kindle price was $26; apparently this was an “enhanced” version, which included some old CBS footage of the Kennedy assassination.  That was more than I was willing to pay, but once the price came down to $14.99, considerably lower than the hardcover, I grabbed it.  It’s now back up to $16.99.  My reasoning was simple:  I wanted to read it.  I wanted to read it THAT SECOND.  I wanted to read it at the lowest available price and without having to leave my house or wait for a delivery.

What I don’t get, however, is who, under normal circumstances buys hardcover fiction when less expensive e-books are available?

I took a quick look at the Publisher’s Weekly hardcover bestseller list.  The first 17 books listed were mostly mysteries, thrillers, or fantasies, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, even the very late Michael Crichton was represented.  General fiction as represented by Nicholas Sparks came in at number seven and Janet Evonovich at number 9.  It’s safe to say that none of the books represented would be considered literary fiction or serious fiction.  So is it all people who simply can’t wait to read the next one by _______?  Or do people prefer to read hardcovers because they think they are more “classy”?  What happens to these books once they are read?  Are they resold? Given away?  Placed proudly on bookshelves for years to come?

I’m imagining that’s it’s an older demographic, but then I wonder who precisely.  Kindle early adapters skewed old, and the main selling point for the “traditional” non-backlit e-readers was that they read like print, not a computer screen, which appeals to people who grew up reading print. Given that the price of e-reading devices has come down and that e-book prices remain below hardcover prices, it would seem likely that more traditional hardcover buyers will switch to ebooks.  I’d like to know why they haven’t made the switch already.  I don’t know what the market researchers have uncovered but my guesses would be (1) they don’t like “e” anything and would prefer to just read their books (2) they like the feeling of “ownership” they get from print books, and on some basic level you don’t “own” your e-books no matter what Toni Morrison says, (3) while they might consider price, they also take into account “sharability”.  They always pass the book along and then discuss it with at least one other person, and so far e-books with DRM don’t provide a good system for doing that.

So here are my prognostications on book formats and pricing:

DRM will continue to have a negative impact on e-book sales since it’s still much easier to share your DTBs, and even circulate them within your family or non-virtual social network.  While having all your books in a “cloud” somewhere may be great insurance in case your devices are stolen or destroyed, there’s something off-putting about a company like Amazon controlling your cloud. It’s not irrational for consumers to be concerned, not just about sharing, but that someday Amazon (or a competitor) will simply scoop up your “books” or impose a new rule: “Henceforth, you will pay to us the sum of $100 a month for “storage” or we will hold captive and eventually destroy your entire library.”

Possibly Amazon’s hedge against this is that we are moving toward what AOL founder Steve Case, referred to as a “sharing economy.” While entrepreneurs like Case, believe that younger consumers are more interested in “use and experience” then ownership, the model that has made Zip Car profitable, might not work for books.  Books have almost always been shared, passed along between friends, stored on shelves where guests were welcome to them.  They are available for free at libraries.  Like movies, most be people don’t mind sharing, and  we may only experience the same book once.  Yet unlike movies, people want to “own” their books, and “ownership” seems to add value even though the same book will probably only be “experienced” once by the same consumer, and most books won’t be resold.  It’s not that people don’t want to “share” the experience of reading a book; it’s simply that they want to do so without the interference of a big company, or with a big company getting a cut every time they share.

It wouldn’t be against Amazon’s self-interest as a publicly “consumer-oriented” company to create a different system.  They could probably even figure out a way to make money from it.  How’s this: Instead of a virtual lending system that is amazingly complex and restricted, why not a DRM that sells you a license that still can’t be copied, but can be removed from the “cloud” and lent a limited number of times before it self-destructs?

Right now Amazon “storage” is free because this sells more books.  People can buy ebooks and read them with the kindle app whether they own a Kindle or not.  That would still be the case.  The difference would be that people could remove books from this “virtual” library without having to have Mother’s permission to do so.

If you could, in fact, actually “buy” your download, then Amazon could, without raising too big a ruckus, actually charge a storage fee. They might offer different pricing schemes for this — book recovery (in case of device loss or damage) for any ebook purchased through Amazon and not purposely removed from the cloud by the consumer, could remain free, but the ability to read books on multiple devices could have a fee that could rise with the number of devices.

Like the current used book market it wouldn’t be so great for publishers or authors, but consumers would love it.  Let’s say you limited a book to five moves before it self-destructed. That would be pretty similar to what happens when you loan someone a book and they loan it to someone who loans it to someone. While that might lead to some online swapping systems that would cut into profits, it could also work out for sellers and publishers.  The “books” themselves would be more valuable (and Amazon could charge more) because they could be loaned or resold, and there’d be no danger of Amazon coming to reclaim them. Amazon could as it does now, get a cut on resales or become a direct seller.

Just as there are now different formats for print books with different pricing — hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, there could be different e-formats as well — a “first run” that comes at a higher price with bonus features (as was tried it with 11/22/63), a lower-priced version that comes out later without the bonus, and a third run, equivalent to “mass market” that’s considerably cheaper but maybe with a more limited number of loans or no free storage.

Granted, the Internet makes a lot of things easy, and it might be very easy to set up a “used e-book” website and offer people money to sell e-books that still had loans (just as it’s almost as easy now to became an online used book seller). But how much would that actually cut into sales given that “used” e-books would have fewer if any “loans” available and couldn’t be stored free or used on multiple devices?  Amazon currently makes a large profit selling used print books, and could continue the trade with e-books.  Publishers and authors could demand something they don’t currently have with print — resale rights and restrictions.

In short, it could be done in a way where almost everyone wins, except of course brick and mortar bookstores.  I have also ideas about that, but I’ll save them for another post.