Close Encounters of the Yellow Cab Kind

I love reading fellow blogger Nina Mishkin’s accounts of her day-trips into New York with her husband. They bring to mind my first, and so far only, trip to New York, many years ago.

nyc-taxi-439741_1280At that time, I was in the USA three or four times a year on business and I was more accustomed to touring the meeting rooms of gleaming office towers and sprawling business campuses. But this particular trip was pure vacation, albeit a challenging one, as it involved three locations – New York, Atlanta and New Orleans (plus, as bad weather conspired against me, an unscheduled and thoroughly disagreeable stopover in Chicago, more of which another time).

It was the mid 90’s and I had never before been to New York. I was due to stay with my cousin but all I had was an address, in the Stuyvesant/Peter Cooper towers on the East Side. So it happened that I hauled my luggage out to the taxi rank at JFK (or was it Newark?) after a seven-hour flight. As a Brit, my first culture shock was the inexplicable absence of an orderly queue. We Brits queue for anything and everything. To us, it makes perfect sense – it’s orderly and equitable and, unlike the airport cab rank, it has nothing to do with survival of the fittest.

It was like trying to get into a lifeboat on the Titanic. As each Yellow Cab screeched to a momentary halt at an angle to the kerb, revving to maintain the ferocity of the fumes belching from its exhaust, people would take a run at it, sling their bags through the door and leap in before it wheel-spun away in a cloud of grit and dust. Okay, I exaggerate, but only very, very slightly.

I stood, bewildered, incapable after seven hours in the cheap-seats of heaving my own half-ton of luggage into any vehicle in the three seconds apparently allocated, especially one already pulling away from the kerb. A dozen cabs came and went and I didn’t even get close. I was beginning to look like the weakest cub, the runt of the litter that gets left left behind to die.

But then everything changed. Another cab ground its tyres into the gutter. A muscular giant of a man with no visible neck flung the door open, lurched out of the driver’s seat, grabbed my case from my hand and threw it into the trunk without so much as looking at me. I had no choice; I had to jump in before he disappeared with it. I slammed the door shut behind me and heard the locks set. I found myself on a rigid bench in, basically, a cage, which was by then accelerating at warp speed down the ramp.

‘Where ya’ goin’?’ the driver boomed through the steel mesh and bullet-proof plastic which separated us and imprisoned me. I told him. He grunted.

It was about three minutes before I realised he hadn’t set the meter.

Now, I’m a worldly-wise woman. I’m from a big city myself. I’m accustomed to transatlantic travel and not generally lacking in confidence. I’ve cheerfully driven solo on the wrong side of the road (for me) across Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. I’ve negotiated public transport in countries where I have only a half-dozen words of useful language; I’ve even shared a cab with a total stranger in Hong Kong. But to say I was unsettled by this incredible hulk, propelling me into the New York suburbs in a cage from which I was unable to exit without his permission, at speeds I didn’t know Yellow Cabs were permitted, or able, to achieve, and apparently not expecting to charge me an officially sanctioned sum, was an understatement.

I looked around for the driver’s licence or cab number – something, anything. I couldn’t see it.

It took another few minutes before I summoned the presence of mind to breathe. At this point I’ll say I’ve definitely watched too many movies. All mature logic and common sense seemed to have deserted me. I think my blood was giving my brain a miss too. I actually thought, where is this all going to end up?

When I eventually found my voice, I squeaked, ‘Is your meter not working?’

‘Ma’am, it’s a flat rate into the city,’ he replied. ‘Don’t use the meter for the city.’

Under the circumstances – or at least, my interpretation of the circumstances – his use of the word Ma’am was absurdly comforting; even more so his revelation. My heart-rate begun to decelerate, as, eventually, did the Yellow Cab. As he drove towards the city, the cabbie chatted amiably about my visit and what I was hoping to see, grumbled about the traffic and eventually dropped me off on the street-corner I needed and directed me into the estate of red brick towers.

My view of NYC had been coloured by decades of stories of hostility and rudeness, violence and gang crime. I’d begun my journey from the airport thinking I was entering a war-zone. I’d ended it feeling, frankly, a little foolish. The cabbie got a generous tip.


Farewell to a Summer of Foxes

I’ve had a wonderful time this summer, watching foxes relax in my garden. But now it’s over.

2014-07-27 10.54.56My flowerbeds bore witness to my garden visitors long before I first saw them. Shrubs starting out on their summer growth flattened; my neat bark overlay was mysteriously pushed off the flowerbed and scattered. At first I assumed an army of local cats were doing what cats need to do – but I was happily wrong.

A trio of reynards have been relaxing in my recreation space for weeks now. At first I photographed them whenever I saw them. I amassed a huge file of iPad/iPhone snaps before I acknowledged their appearance was not rare but commonplace. I looked out for them every day, and – apart from a few days when I had some heavy-duty cutting and pruning done by a local gardening firm – I saw them several times a day. I began to take my vulpine visitors for granted.

They saw me too. They would watch me, watching them. They were happy with my presence, but only as long as there was a door or window between us. They would stand me watching from an open window upstairs – far enough away not to be a threat – but would only tolerate a closed window downstairs. The slightest twitch of my fingers on the door handle would put them to flight. So I kept an eye out for them. I made sure not to open my windows too noisily; I refrained from emptying anything into my dustbin whilst they were around. It was just too lovely to see these beautiful, delicate wild creatures enjoying my space.

2014-06-12 10.46.57But last week, they disappeared.  At first I had no idea why; but I was chatting to my neighbour at the weekend and it turns out that as delighted as I was to welcome my feral friends, so my neighbour was dismayed. The foxes accessed my garden via her own – and where mine had become their sleeping zone, my neighbour’s garden was, yes, you guessed it, their toilet. To be fair, I wouldn’t have been that thrilled either.

My neighbour has apparently blocked all access to her garden and in barricading her fences, has deprived my foxes of their now trusted rest area. I understand why she’s done it, but I’m sad at the thought that I won’t see my foxes again – at least, not until they can figure a way around or under the barricades.

Meantime, I do have a host of photos and for those animal lovers amongst you, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites, and a few seconds of video too, as a Farewell to Summer. Enjoy…

2014-05-06 14.16.492014-05-13 09.45.092014-05-16 17.54.302014-07-27 17.34.45

Can you tell what it is yet?

Do you like this picture? It’s not an original, only a limited edition print, but I think it’s stunning. At least, I did.

Darwin Dawn by Rolf HarrisI loved it the moment I saw it, four years ago. At a few hundred pounds it cost more than I’d ever spent on a picture before – it was a real treat to self. I was thrilled when it was delivered, beautifully mounted and framed and complete with authentication. Since then it has hung on my landing, half way up the stairs and away from natural light which might damage it. And I have enjoyed and treasured it every day.

Every day, that is, until last week.

Look closely at the signature on the mount to the bottom right of the picture and you’ll realise why my feelings for this slice of creative endeavour have tarnished.

Yes, this is a print of a painting by Rolf Harris.

UK and Australian readers of this blog will be more than familiar with Rolf Harris, one-time television presenter, children’s entertainer, singer-songwriter, master of curious musical instruments (wobble board, didgeridoo and stylophone), artist of some note and – of course – gold-plated national treasure. He was a regular on television throughout my childhood at a time when the whole family watched together at Saturday teatime. His impish humour made us laugh; he would paint inexplicable splashes and splats with decorating brushes and black emulsion, which morphed mysteriously into magnificent panoramas. He carved a niche for himself as a popular artist (even though the snootier art critics would always rubbish him) and migrated to presenting programmes about sick animals and grandiose public art projects. He even painted the Queen.

That was then.

And this is now. As of last week, in a spectacular fall from grace, 84-year-old Rolf Harris is now serving time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, having been convicted of multiple indecent assaults on young and teenage girls.

My picture – it’s called Darwin Dawn, by the way (although apparently it shows not dawn breaking, but a sunset) – remained resolutely on display as the trial ploughed on towards its almost inevitable conclusion; innocent until proven guilty and all that. But the conviction changed things.

Since the trial much has been written about the fire-sale of Rolf Harris artwork – you won’t be surprised that I was looking out for opinion pieces on this topic. The internet is now awash with listings of his pictures at a fraction of original value. I understand completely the desire of many owners to divest themselves of these tainted artworks, even though they’ll take a hit, financially speaking. I considered it myself.  I thought long and hard about it but I’ve decided I don’t want to sell.

But  before you rush to judge I’ll tell you, it doesn’t feel good or right or proper to have this picture hanging on my wall. I’m not comfortable being that intimate with it anymore; I don’t want to walk past the signature every day; I no longer feel the glow of joy at owning this picture; and I don’t want friends and other visitors to wonder why I’m displaying the art of a child molester. This beautiful piece of art taints my home.

Many creative types – writers, artists, actors, musicians – have earned society’s disapprobation for crimes, moral weaknesses and addictions. In time we forgive most of them. But sexual assault on children is a step so much further, a line crossed. It’s a place from which there is no return, no rehabilitation, socially or artistically.  Rolf Harris, national treasure, is tainted now and so too is my love of that picture. It’s hardly a crime when compared to what his victims endured, but he’s robbed me and many others – of the pleasure of enjoying his art.

So the sun has well and truly set on Darwin Dawn.  It’ll be taken down and tucked away, safely stored. No danger of it suffering sunlight damage any more, that’s for sure.

Off-message – but on top of the world

On a trip into London and an unexpected high.

River Thames from Millbank TowerOkay, so this is off-message, I know – but WordPress tells me it’s my 100th post, so I hope you’ll indulge me.

I live to the west of London. If anyone except another Londoner asks, I say I live in London because that’s specific enough. But there’s Central London and then there’s the wide band of suburb stretching out in a radius of perhaps 10-12 miles from the centre before you get to the M25, the motorway that encircles the city. And I’m at the far edge.

Mostly I stay away from the centre of the city. It’s crowded, noisy, stinky and dirty like any large city, and in the summer it’s overrun with tourists shouldering hazardous backpacks and stopping without warning every few feet to take pictures of each other. For years I commuted daily to areas in the West End (shopping district), City of London (old financial district before Canary Wharf came along) and Westminster (the seat of power). But as a home-based worker now, my trips into London are rare, perhaps five or six times a year, no more.

Yesterday I was to be in London on behalf of a client, attending and doing the write-up on a seminar at Millbank Tower by the River Thames. As usual I grizzled to myself about the journey; whichever way I try, it never has less than three legs and never takes less than 90 minutes. Choking on the fumes I abandoned a walk from Victoria and took a taxi – the lazy approach, but I didn’t want to arrive unable to breathe. I knew Millbank Tower was tall – the clue is in the name – but I hadn’t realised I was headed up on one of those lifts that zips past the first 15 floors, ultimately to the 29th floor. The venue was called Altitude – I should have realised.

The view that greets you from the 29th floor of Millbank Tower all but takes your breath away. My last trip ‘up’ in London was to escort a friend from the USA on The London Eye (see it in the photos), but on the day in question it had drizzled solidly and the clouds tickled the capsules as they rounded the top of the wheel, smothering the view.

London from Millbank TowerYesterday was different, so I took some photos – of the city I simultaneously hate and love. Down on the ground, it’s an assault on the senses – and not in a nice way. Up there it was magic, insulated from the noise and dirt; an urban panorama harking back centuries and stretching forward – and upward – into the future. The skyline changes year by year as old buildings are dwarfed by structures reaching ever higher. (Can you spot St Paul’s Cathedral? It’s just to the right of the tallest crane.) Individual towers, striking when they were built, become swamped by their neighbours within a year or two. Look closely and you’ll see the scene is cluttered with cranes, as old real estate is levelled and spires of steel and glass take root. It’s a constantly changing skyline. In a weird way it’s not unlike a forest, with its natural balance of decay and renewal.

Anyhow, it fair took my breath away, so I thought I’d share one or two photos I managed to snap before the business of the day got underway. Enjoy.

What a difference a decade makes

Time passesOne of my blogging buddies, the often bemused but sublime Dylan Hearn, blogged on Suffolk Scribblings recently about a friend reaching their 40-year milestone.  I wrote about a similar experience not so long ago, on my now defunct first-pass at a blog (yes, if at first you fail…). Dylan’s blog made me think my age-related musings might be worth a re-airing.  I admit, it’s a bit off-topic but you let me get away with my rant about the colour pink the other day, so perhaps you will indulge me again:

A friend who turned 40 wrote to me: First day of 40, so far so good; nothing fallen off, changed colour or shrunk and no additional wrinkles.

I thought she might like to know what she has to look forward to:

By the time she hits her next Big One, things will be different. There will be crevices appearing, several of them – to call them wrinkles would be to do them a disservice. Valleys of doom, perhaps, canyons of dismay…. not simple wrinkles.

As to colour – her hair will begin to go monochrome in parts – she should not lose heart though, as she’ll be able to pull out the dull ones for a while. But she must remember to stop once the ratio of monochrome to colour turns against her. Where her hair loses, her skin will gain. Her once peach-like flesh will acquire a varied tonality, ranging from pale and pasty to florid, through rashy and spotty, to blotchy. It will flare from time to time in approximate response to something she ate or more likely drank, or when some thoughtless younger person turns up the thermostat.

A moment more on hair… there will be a day, one day, when she encounters a firm, unyielding protrusion on her chin. She will prefer to think of it as a hair but it will in fact be her first whisker. Others will follow.  It is an immutable law of nature.

As to shrinkage – my only experience is of the polar opposite, a waistline exploding outwards, a pair of chins blowing up like helium balloons and a cup size heading towards the middle of the alphabet (though this is not going entirely unappreciated). If anything shrinks – anything at all – she must praise the gods.

My friend’s birthday gathering took place at a cool and quirky restaurant – the sort of venue designed to make 50-somethings like me feel properly ancient. A gaggle of women of all ages, the mood enhanced by repeated selections from the cocktail menu, and conversation ranged widely.  Yes, we ladies know how to get to the nub of things, Loose Women stylie; and there’s nothing like a tray of Long Island Iced Teas with champagne chasers to drive the tone of the conversation along ever more intimate highways.

Age played a part in the talkabout, of course it did: the twenty-somethings still expected to meet the man of their dreams (aaah…); the thirty-somethings still hoped to have a family, one day, but not yet, please not yet; the forty-somethings were either experts in GCSE revision topics, or had become the fount of all knowledge on matters concerning the preservation of what remained of their fertile state. Advice abounded, from performing upside-down gymnastics after sex, through womb-level acupuncture to acquiring loose cotton underwear for ‘the boys’.   The fifty-somethings, befuddled on a tiny fraction of what we used to be able to drink, blotchy-necked and sweating from every pore, exchanged tips on the ins and outs of HRT and the best eye cream to ward off the crows-feet.

But it was a riot, yes, it was good – as nights-out go, it was one of the better ones. And you know the best thing? It was lovely to see the many facets of my wonderful friend, our friendship now of some 25 years standing, reflected in this spirited and affectionate gathering.

Pink for a girl?

I’m allergic to pink – from the marrow in my bones to the tips of my un-painted fingernails, even though it suits me (so I’m told), I can’t abide pink.

Pink fairy - Microsoft ClipartA child of the early waves of feminism and equal opportunity, it makes me cringe to see little girls being defined by this one colour, in every shade from powder pink to lurid fuchsia.  If you’re a young girl, it seems you have to be fluffied into pink and preferably adorned with butterflies, fairy wings or glitter.   You only have to wander into any children’s section in any department store anywhere in the country to be greeted by a tidal wave of pink, sparkles and tulle.  I see it and I weep, because of what it represents, and because of the mindset it seems to endorse.

I’m not the only one. Today in the Telegraph, Jenny Willott, the Consumer Affairs minister, bemoans gender stereotyping, which begins, she says, with the way girls and boys are directed towards certain toys, often through none-too-subtle colour coding – pink for a girl, blue for a boy.   I would add, not just toys, but clothes; clothes and princesses and fairies and fluffy-wuffies.  I couldn’t be more against this gender-divisive stereotyping.

Undeniably controversial in some of her comments (just read the article), Jenny Willott says girls are being dissuaded from certain roles and professions through gender stereotyping which begins in their childhood.  She highlights the worlds of science, technology, engineering and maths where she says businesses – and the economy – are missing out on their talent.  Despite the vitriol being poured on her through the comments on this article, I can’t help thinking, she has a point.

Think of the 60’s and 70’s, and back to the Suffragettes and beyond and you will find numerous examples of women stepping away from traditional gender-defined roles and stereotype and pressing for equality and opportunity – and winning it for their own and future generations.  Yet here we are today, so keen to stereotype girls into pink princesses and fairies where the only thing that’s valued across those formative years, is how pretty and sparkly they are.

One of a few ‘golden rules’ I try to follow both as a writer and a woman, is to avoid cliché and stay away from stereotype. So it saddens me to see the work done by many brave and dauntless women of modern history, undermined by today’s predilection for pink, and all it represents in terms of gender stereotyping.

10 things which quite irrationally jerk my chain (today)

  1. Men sporting full beards – I thought we were done with that in the 70’s
  2. Misuse of the apostrophe – in a national newspaper website
  3. Cyclists with no lights at night – actually, cyclists
  4. Tattoos – why?
  5. Sneaky sugar in… practically everything
  6. Noisy leaf blowers, like the one outside right now – what’s wrong with a broom, people?
  7. Sales that are ‘up to’ 50% off
  8. The leak in my roof I didn’t know about – until it rained for 40 days and nights
  9. Parcels lobbed over my back gate – When. I’m. At. Home.
  10. Finding typos in my own work – after I sent it out