A Day in Queens

Last weekend my friend and I tried out something new. We went all the way from Brooklyn to Queens!

Now this might sound unexciting to some of you. “Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, isn’t it all the same?” you might think. “Isn’t it all pretty darn close to each other?” No no, I have to tell you, it is not. You can actually spend a good 2 and a half hours of travel from the midst of Brooklyn to heart of the Bronx, and this is by means of normal subway (as I told you, most folks don’t have or need a car here).

So getting to Queens from Park Slope was very … interesting. Since it was a Sunday, the train schedule was messed up, of course. Trains usually arrive every ten minutes on weekdays and Saturday, but on Sunday they like to show up every 20 minutes, which is about three times an hour. Once we finally hopped on the F, we traveled all the way up to Roosevelt Av and switched to the 7-train. The 7-train is basically the connecting subway from Queens to Manhattan and it stops at Times Square. I rarely take it as I don’t have any reason to go to Queens. Indeed, I recall, the last time I jumped on it was exactly a year ago, and that was when I was looking at a room around Jackson Heights.
Anyhow, the 7 is tricky as it goes local or express. Local means it will halt at every useless stop. Express is the better option. After one and a half hours we finally breathed in fresh air when getting off at the Mets-Willows Pt stop. Destination: Flushing Meadows Park!

Flushing Meadows is a well-known park, as it is right across from the Mets stadium (football freaks!) and as the US Opens court is directly in the heart of all the green. Regretfully I’ve only made my way out once since I’ve been here. This was last fall and I had a good time shooting a few lovely pictures, taking in the last rays of the autumn sun, and watching Mexicans play soccer. Then a tragedy happened and in February I lost all the pictures I had taken in New York due to a hard drive failure.

Shit happens.

Now I am slowly rebuilding my path from last year without getting lost on its way.

So I definitely had to check out Flushing Meadows in October again, just to retake those infamous, beloved photos. My friend had never been and I considered this to be a great occasion to show him around.
We started walking towards the well-known emblem of this park. You know, the first thing you notice when watching an episode of “The King of Queens,” which by the way is completely shot in LA and, therefore, not really authentic. Back to the story. We started walking towards the Unisphere, illuminated by the sun shining through the metal bars of the back of the figure. This year as in last year there were many Latinos out, playing their soccer and having fun in the sun. It was an unexpectedly warm day outside and we didn’t need the jackets we had brought with just in case. But this time I didn’t know whether I should be happy or sad. Mexicans in New York definitely deserve a separate post, so I won’t deliberate too much on them here. It’s just so sad to see them playing out and knowing their life is better than the small village they came from in Mehiko but that they are still not being treated unbiased by the people here. More of this in a later post, though.

We shot some excellent pictures of the Globe. Basically, we had our own private photo session in front of it and I reveal to you some good photos worth posting.

The one and only Unisphere

Then I showed my friend where the US Opens are being held and we carried it on from there, walking around, until we got to a river-like structure. I still didn’t know whether to feel sad or happy. The murky water was filled with trash and I doubt any animal would survive in it. Families were posing in front of this pile of junk and acting as if it were a great scenery. Then the pigeons which were fed by passerbys. The few Orthodox Jewish kids who were running around in a minority compared to the Middle-American crowd. On our way out I passed a dancing group of teenagers. I think they were trying out the some Salsa steps and I couldn’t help but take a picture.

On the subway ride back we got off at Jackson Heights, as I remembered a block that was called Little India in the midst of Queens. I was eager to check it out and we walked right into an Indian street fair. Seems like we were at the right place to the right time, as it happens quite often. Since it was 5 PM already, some stands had wrapped up, but most were still open, advertising their good food, their colorful shawls, and other Indian exotics. I helped myself with a buffet, my friend got a cold dish the name of which I’ve forgotten made up of chick peas and various vegetables served in a sauce layered with bread. Both were really good. For dessert I sneaked around a kettle in which something resembling fried calamari was swimming around. Turns out these were traditional Indian sweets called Imarti. I bought a small bag and took a bite. Pure sugar mounted on top of fried pastry but very good indeed. I don’t think my teeth will like this dish in the long run, but it was worth trying.

It had been a long day. We were tired. Off to Brooklyn we went. This time I wanted to take a different way, so we stopped at Bryant Park and walked to the F from there. Then we had to wait those full 20 minutes until the next train showed up. So it was another one and a half hours back to the Slope. The colorful day had made up for the tedious trip, though!

For more pictures on Flushing Meadows, go to A Picture Every Day.

THE BIG 25 and Other Thoughts

It was my friend’s 25th birthday yesterday.

A quarter century of life packed into that day. 25 years, twenty-five years… And seven years ago, when we were 18, it seemed to be such an adult age. The time at which you have your own family and a steady job. The time at which you are finished with your studies, don’t feel insecure about yourself and will be good to go in life until you the day you die. Also the time at which you develop your first wrinkles and start slacking off body-wise.

Or maybe it was only me who imagined the future to be like that? Turns out that 25 years is actually a pretty young age. It’s three good years past the Bachelor’s, right into a Master’s or PhD degree, which my friend is currently pursuing. I would also like to generalize that this is not the typical time anymore at which my generation marries and has children. At least in my circle of friends it has stayed like this. And my body is still pretty fit when I use the treadmill in the gym. I haven’t found consistent wrinkles in my face yet, either. But who am I, to talk about 25 years of age, for I am only 24. Things can change in less than a year, or so I have been told!

Throughout the past, friendships have stayed, and many more have been formed, but surprisingly some valuable good ones have resisted the storm of the youth. When asking me seven years ago if I would have thought to still be in touch with the same clique I am friends with now, I would have highly doubted this. But, most importantly, I consider this to be a good thing, when looking back at the time invested into these relationships. Now if it only felt that way, but it often does not. It seems like time from high school has only been a blink away and all of a sudden everyone has grown up but somehow not really.

So, in the upcoming month of November, three other of my good friends will be celebrating their birthdays. Another big 25. One happy 26. And even a lucky 28. The third 25 will come around in February, four months from now. I cannot stop myself from thinking that this is the second time in a row I am missing out on all of these special days. Last year I was already here and this year I am still here, a continent and an ocean away from the crowd.

It’s not that I regret being so far away. But on occasions like these I wish I could just hop on a plane and spend a weekend at home. When thinking about my own 25th birthday coming up next year, I am pondering on what to do. As you might recall from Birthday Bash, my last birthday did not go too well in terms of being surrounded by friends. Next year I want to actively change the necessary ingredients about this, shake them up, and throw them into the air to create a fine day.

Certain birthdays are mile stones in our individual history. Sweet 16, Independent 18 (for Europeans), Legal 21 (for Americans), Big 25, and Dirty 30, to begin with. It would be nice to share these with the right kind of people. But lately it seems as if the clique is more and more dispersing, with exchange semesters, jobs abroad, and other adventures going on. So I suppose the next time we really do come together will be a fine occasion to celebrate all these birthdays in unison. To value the time spent with each other. And to look forward to an age during which we might not be separated by space and can cheerfully celebrate in a group again.

NYC Subway and Street Performers

New York –the epitome of creativity and artistry. Not surprisingly also the dream destination for many singers, musicians, break dancers, and other creative minds. Canadians, Europeans, Asians, South Americans, even US Americans find themselves on their way of travel towards the metropolis of the Northern continent. Filled with hopes and plans of how to start out with the right teacher, meet the right producer/director/manager and eventually become “famous” when swimming in that pile of gold…. Well, those would be the dreams of many!

But no matter what the initial plan was, everyone will soon enough find out that the Big Apple is certainly not a “piece of cake” and that you have to scramble to get your gigs together.

Also not astounding the fact that to become famous, sometimes you have to start at the very bottom.
Now street performers cannot be necessarily called “the bottom” of the ladder. Indeed some very much enjoy the roughness of the subway station, the authenticity of the performance, the proximity to the crowd.

However, it doesn’t take much to wrap out the music gear in a train station or above ground and start performing. It’s more about the emotional willingness and courage it takes to really do this in front of the faceless crowd.

I used to live with a street performer when I first moved to the City. She was originally from Canada and had moved here 8 years prior. While I am not sure when exactly she started taking out her musical talents on the street and in the subway, I believe at one point in her shattered career path she met someone who knew someone who introduced her to someone who told her to try it out. So she started in her early 30ies with a group of teenagers who were break dancing around her while she sang along to tunes of mixed tracks.
Gradually she became accustomed to performing in front of strangers and for money, and started coming up with her own “shows”: Songs mixed with a funky beat which were played on her own boom box and to which she provided the necessary vocals. Her shows grabbed everyone’s attention alright, as her songs were well-known (classics such as “Stand by Me”) combined with some new creations. I am not sure if it was her voice that peeked out more or the level at which her stereo sounded through the station of Lexington Ave and 53rd Street. Either way, as it is so common in New York, some days were good, some not so. I think the best days brought in a good 200 bucks within the time frame of 4 hours, which relates to $50/hour – not bad at all. The best time to perform, according to her, was from late morning or during the day. She never performed at night, as she thought this to be not only worthless but maybe even dangerous for a lonely woman.

Performing in the subway

I didn’t even realize the problems street performers have to deal with until she told me about a normal day at work. The occasional rivalry between spots and time struck her as annoying. I guess there is no order as to who plays when but it is dealt with according to first-come first-serve rule. When someone had been performing for a time considered too long, they were scorned upon by the other candidates who desperately wanted to get their show on. So a good day could quickly turn into a rushed half hour performance out of the blue.

Other dangers to look out for are the occasional arrests the NYPD likes to handle. My roommate called Tuesday “Undercover Cop Day” and tried to stay away from the subway station during this time. She had her share of hours spent in jail – in her opinion due to “cops who have to make their quota meet and take it out on the people they consider low-class.” Stories from arrests of the famous Mexican trio showed up at the same time all of this went down, which provoked a big wave of protests among the people of New York. I guess the officers try to take away the money the performers had “rightfully” earned before the time of arrest and this made many persons angry. The absurdity about these arrests is not so much the reason but the inconsistency paired with the current mood of the law enforcement, which seems to be an even measure throughout this city.
To clarify, individuals performing on the streets or in the subway legally require a license to do so. However, I haven’t run across one musician or dancer who has had a license, ergo I consider the percentage who is legally allowed to play to be very low or non-existent. Many cops know of this, of course. It is most likely to see performers at the same spot during the same time almost every day. If police officers truly wanted to bring their point across and arrest for the purpose of law enforcement only, they would simply arrest the artists every single day until no one would dare to perform anymore (this is also known as “cleaning up” as seen with jaywalking under Giuliani). However, the fact that there are only a few arrests made every other week or such contradicts the purpose of “fighting illegal street performance” and, therefore, does not make too much sense.

Enough of the political side, though.

There are many motivations why people perform on the streets and in the subway. Another brief roommate of mine had taken out her passion for the guitar at the Union Square station for sole purpose of re-uniting with other performers and entertaining the crowd. I am unsure as to how many street performers really perform to make ends meet but I would assume the percentage to be very high. Sometimes you see how passionate the musicians are, though, and you can see the glimmer in the dancers’ eyes when they move around on their floor, motivated by the enthusiasm of the crowd. Two of my favorite performers are indeed two very different groups: A group of musicians from Eastern Europe who go by the name of Moon Hooch and a group of pantomimes dancing to soul-touching music. Both perform at Union Square: The young guys are down at the L-Train and blast out their trumpets and horns in such a lovely manner that it makes me forget where I am at. They recently had a show in Williamsburg and I hope it went well for them.

A crappy picture of the one and only Moon Hooch

The dancers perform on the upper level, the most common site. They grab the crowd’s attention by putting on black clothes and white masks, thus disguising their origin and unifying for the sole purpose of the show. They then climb on and swarm around each other in ghost-like manner, capturing everyone’s looks when passing by. I believe it must be tough to divide those hard-earned dollars between 4 performers, but I am sure they make much because of their ability to fascinate the people.

Union Square pantomimes

Another common spot for artistic performances is Washington Square Park, with their oh-so-common jumpers: A trio of black men who lure six women into a row and then jump over them, but only after an endless-seeming amount of time. Sometimes they don’t even jump, because they consider the “donations” given in advance not high enough (too bad for whoever gave more tha $5). Tricky group, indeed!

A great dance floor is the top level of Union Square, of course, and Herald Square close to Macy’s. Breakdancers, native Mexicans, and other musicians like to play beneath Macy’s. I even once saw a harmonica in the stations of the “posh” Park Slope, but I suppose the performance didn’t make enough money to come back.

Native South Americans performing at Herald Square
Union Square artist

An artist who I consider very talented and also sad at the same time is the probably ten-year-old child who is masterly hitting the keys of his transportable key board. He captures everyone’s attention, of course, but I am not willing to put a dollar in his bucket as his father is standing right behind him and most likely the driving force to all of this. Child labor or not, the boy loves to play, as can be seen in his face, but I don’t think it ethical of his parents to drag him down to the subway station and make money off his talent.

Child labor, yes or no?

And one last thing to mention, a thing which always aggravated my former roommate: People who stand by, take pictures, shoot a video but never pay. It is common courtesy in New York to give the artists a symbolic dollar whenever the music or dance is appreciated. I myself didn’t know of this until being here for well over three months. Many Europeans do not follow this rule, either, as in Europe street performers rarely go on the streets to pay their bills (and thus don’t necessarily perform for money). Over here they do. A difference in mindset. So if you ever find yourself entertained by street music, please step forward and hand over that green bill. It will be well appreciated.

Oh, and those huge bands who tend to play around every big holiday in the underground station of Times Square? Highly commercialized groups of people and not entertaining in comparison to others. Walk away fast and go make your way to another station!

Street performers in New York: They can turn a gray commute into a colorful ride. They can feed your hopes on many artists who have not yet been discovered and who exist in the underground of this city. They are indeed an entire group of artists by themselves.

Breakdance beneath Macy's shopping paradise

Exploring Brooklyn: Red Hook

I can picture the look on your face! “Red Hook,” you might be thinking, “What on Earth is there to see in Red Hook?”
What, has this never been on your top priority list of things to do in New York? No?!

I hope not. The only reason fellow New Yorkers know of Red Hook is because of the one and only Ikea in this area. It can be reached via ferry from the Manhattan side and through a bus shuttle from Brooklyn (Queens and the Bronx are out of luck on this one!).

A coworker recommended I go check out Red Hook. Unknowing of the area, I decided to do this on a warm early fall day – just the right time to go take my camera for a walk and shoot some pictures of the neighborhood. The trip over there was already part of the adventure: I got in on 5th Avenue and 10th Street, after searching for the mysterious bus number B77, which seems to not be running from the Slope to Red Hook anymore. Then I asked a little boy next to me for directions to the “bars and restaurants” in that area and he looked completely overwhelmed. After I had turned away and silently cursed myself for asking a little boy of ten years, he tapped me on the shoulder and cheerfully claimed that there was indeed a bar right next to “his” apartment! What a goofball!
A young man’s fantasy certainly did not make me want to get off the bus, as the route goes directly through the “ghetto”part, which is an area filled with brown stones and prone to bad history. Poor boy, I hope he doesn’t have to be cautious of fights or prove himself every day he wants to get back into his place!

A stop later I finally got off, determined to check out that “culinary mile” in Red Hook my coworker had mentioned. But before getting lost for the second time I carefully asked some passerbys who looked at each other confusedly and then pointed me in the direction of Van Brunt Street. When approaching it, I ran past many cute houses originating from another century. The area is obviously geared towards family life, I would assume. Another drawback for especially younger people is that Red Hook is hardly reachable by subway, so you have to rely on an unsteady bus schedule or own a car (which most young people in New York do not have!).
Van Brunt Street is cute to look at even though there is not much to see. I think I came across one fisherman’s bar and one other restaurant. A cute wine shop had opened up along that area and hosted a cute selection of domestic and foreign bottles.

Since I was determined to prove that I hadn’t made the trip out for nothing, I just walked down Van Brunt all the way through to the end, past the huge grocery store Fairway, past some seedy looking smokers staring at their feet, and even past the notorious IKEA, until I came to a lovely harbor area. There was nothing to do here, not a store or a bar could be found, or anything else to walk into, but I had a nice view onto the East River and I also saw old-school New York subway cars in tram wagon style. As I drew closer, something rustled in the inside and all of a sudden a drunk homeless man staggered out of it. Yicks! Scared to death I ran off, down Van Brunt Street again, until I found the first bus stop.

Trying not to be discouraged by the past hour I had unsuccessfully searched Red Hook for a culinary highlight and still confused at where Red Hook’s flair lies I gave it another shot and asked a group of young people if they knew of any good restaurants in this area. They told me to take the bus with them until Columbia Street and then get off there.

So, Columbia Street is supposed to be another recommendation and indeed they do have a temptingly-good-looking Middle-Eastern, an Italian, and an Asian restaurant, but I am unsure if this belongs to Cobble Hills already or can still be categorized under “Red Hook.”

To come back to my previous first sentence: I came to Red Hook, I saw Red Hook, and I am still not impressed. Guess the general opinion is right: There is not too much going on over there. But don’t hesitate to hop off the bus earlier and explore Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, the neighboring areas! They are very awesome!

For a few more shots on Red Hook, go to A PICTURE EVERY DAY.

The Phenomenon of Dollar Stores

Have you ever been in desperate need of dish wash soap? Have you ever cared to look for bargains on house shoes? Or have you ever wanted to purchase bathroom products without having to drive around for miles to buy them?

Tadaaa, I am hereby introducing to you, the phenomenon of Dollar Stores! Now to all fellow Americans, disregard this post, as I heard you can find these shops throughout the entire United States. However, the first time I came to New York, I was flabbergasted by the so-called “cheap solutions”: 99ct stores popping up all along Flatbush, big and small, with various products I needed and most I didn’t. During my first move, after I had unpacked all my things, I was stuck in the midst of Brooklyn, and had to urgently buy a few products before making a trip out to the City. A hair dryer was one. Body wash another. Simple things I cannot live without.

My roommate told me to just walk down to Flatbush Avenue (remember, I was living in a different area back then) and to go check out a Dollar Store before taking a train up to Target. Well, so I did, and the first thing I noticed when poking my head around that Flatbush Ave corner was one 99ct store after another. Bargain Hunters, one was called. Great Buyers another. I decided to try my luck with the first one to my right and entered this unimpressive looking shag. Turns out the Dollar Store was a bit bigger than I had thought.

The first thing that came to my mind was to grab some comfy looking house shoes for laughable $2 from the first counter. Then I saw 99ct facial tissues I desperately needed. After finding a suitable hair dryer for less than 20 bucks and some first-class soap I thought I could use, I finally got out of that store, already having purchased things I knew I wouldn’t use. For example a zebra-printed handheld duster, even though we already owned three of these devices. It had just looked too cute!

Gradually I became accustomed to the idea of Dollar Stores and started comparing various items in different stores. Bargain Hunters was good for every-day devices, such as cotton swabs and tissues. Great Buyers seemed to be a better fit for dish wash and cleaning tools. And my first choice for roller blinds was still Ikea, of course, but since Ikea is so far away in Red Hook, I bought some $6 ones from the 99ct store.

So 99ct stores were definitely my spot to go to in the beginning. Then I started to compare prices and saw that a good amount of things was not really cheaper than elsewhere. For example, body soap and shampoo, at least the good stuff, is more economical to purchase at Target. Also, in the long run, I would stick to buying electronic devices from a certified store which has a longer guarantee than one week. My first hair dryer actually lasted pretty long, over a year, but I wouldn’t have had the option to exchange it for a new one after two months in case it had broken down. Target has the nice option to return your goods up to 90 days after purchase, which I really value (still not comparable to that 2-year-warranty German stores give you, but you can’t have it all!). And then I had this problem of wanting to return curtains which looked dead-ugly when I unfolded the package. But of course the Dollar Store does not issue refunds on “used” items (even though I made sure to tell the clerk I had only bought it one hour ago), so I never got my money back but had to buy something else in their store. Just another annoying issue. Clearly, now that I know the rules, I know how to play along.

When I moved to the Slope I already figured that I would have to give up the concept of Dollar Stores, since I thought these to be a part of poorer neighborhoods. How wrong I was! They are all over New York, matter of fact! But the ones where I lived are not owned by Haitian natives or Latin-rooted entrepreneurs. They mostly belong to Asian families who employ their teenage sons and daughters as cashiers or stockers (and some only do this with a sour expression on their face). However, down towards 9th Street you can still find plenty of Latin-owned 99ct stores, who offer a variety of paper party cups and plates and not to forget the obligatory back-to-school notebooks (even off-season). They helped me out when I was in dire need of a knitting kit and some basic screw drivers to fix up my room. As it turns out the screwdrivers wore out after three uses already and didn’t turn the screws tight enough anymore.
And then, one day, I bought a cute pair of flip flops made of bast, thinking they might break down after a few uses. One week passed and they never gave in to my prediction, so I bought another pair, which are still buried in my room somewhere. However, one summer day it started to rain and as I was walking up towards Duane Reade I slipped and almost fell against the glass wall. Puzzled at why I was the only one who had troubles gaining a grip on the cement floor, I tried to walk again and slipped another time. And from there on I was very careful not to fall down the subway stairs by holding on to everything I could. So the 99ct store flip flops might have looked cute at first but they turned out to be some lethal weapons on wet ground. It sorta took out the joy of wearing them after this, as New York weather changes sporadically and I didn’t want to be caught in another deadly rain shower again while wearing them.

Other than a few pitfalls, the Dollar Store is a fun place to be. It is crammed full with many cheap things, which I didn’t even know existed, and the bright colors of their merchandise heighten my mood when I walk in on a gloomy fall or winter day. I sometimes have to catch myself to not buy too many things I already have in abundance I won’t ever use so lately I haven’t really been down to the Dollar Store anymore. I understand that New York is dependent upon all the individually owned shops and they belong to the culture of this city like Sacks on Fifth Avenue.

Pets in New York

They come in all sizes. They come in all shapes. To some they are a necessary accessory, to others a die-hard friend. Sometimes they are owned, other times the streets own them. Whatever the matter, one thing is for sure: You cannot avoid the PETS OF NEW YORK!

People in New York are surprisingly open to having pets. When looking for a room, I encountered many candidates who were living with cats, dogs, or other animals and were happy to room with other fellow pet owners.

Now I myself have not owned a pet in my adult life. My family had the cutest dog in the world but unfortunately she had to be put to sleep when I was 13. Such is life, and ever since then I have not considered living with animals for various reasons (mostly the cost and expenses connected to them I couldn’t afford with my student allowance).

However, the first apartment deal I landed over here was coincidentally with a girl who was very much into pets. Little did I know when I saw the first cat peek around the sofa that I would get myself into living not only with one cat, not even with two cats, but with three cats at once (in addition to the two roommates already there). As it turns out, these cats were the cutest entertainment I had during some lonely days and nights.
It took me about a week to get used to them and to find out that, indeed, they do not resemble dogs in the slightest manner, as they ignored my pathetic attempts of calling their name and expecting them to show up. We got along quite well and I was especially fond of one: A striped, tiger-like monster with the name of Sweet Pea. She was the sister of a black cat who, nicely phrased, was a bit on the heavy side. Or, as my friend had the nerve to point out, was obviously fighting obesity, but who would ever blame the poor cat for this. He and Sweet Pea were always in a hurry to diss the third cat: A shy, undernourished fella my roomie had picked up from the streets. The Stray Cat did not let anyone come closer than two feet, even after having been fed by her master for well over a year and living in her apartment for about the same amount of time. However, the other two siblings thought it most amusing to chase the Stray Cat around and not leave her alone until they were both tired of running after her.

Sweet Pea, the cutie
She is a bit shy in front of the camera

Soon after this I moved to an apartment that didn’t host any pets. But rather sooner than later my roomie got a hamster, or rather a dwarf hamster: A tiny, gray fur ball which was nagging on everything in its cage and began snapping at our fingers from an early stage on. I guess some people thought it funny to compare this little monster to a mouse or a rat, but, truth being told, I really do not know the difference as I am unsure what to do with a hamster. He rolls around in a ball sometimes and works his wheel in the middle of the night (which happens to be the time all of us like to sleep), but it’s not like he offers comfort or a shaky paw when we need it. To date our hamster still has no name. Heck, we can’t even decide if this pet is a male or female, as the store owner sold it to the Roomie as a male but my Austrian friend is convinced it is a female. He even took pictures of “her” and showed them around to various experts to get a second opinion on this matter. However, the others are used to the idea of calling him a “he.” An inexplicable disaster, really!

The dwarf hamster

The Wonderful Elena once asked us to watch her cat while she was off exploring the West Coast and we hosted Simba for one entire week. During this time he made contact with our little monster which furiously bit Simba’s paw and attempted to snap his nose off if he dare stuck it into the cage again. It was quite a funny sight: The big cat scared of the little hamster (as it kinda gave the situation a Tom and Jerry feel)! Aside from being afraid of the dwarf hamster, Simba liked to hide in Trader Joe’s paper bags when they were empty and he loved to wake us up at the mysterious hour of 6:10 AM – every single morning. He was such a cutie, though, and a very mellow fellow, not scratchy, bitey, or mean in any way! It made us think of getting a cat ourselves, but then our plans sorta fell apart once he was gone…

Simba in his favorite hiding spot

Now, you might wonder why I haven’t mentioned dogs yet? Because dogs are a pain to look at in New York! I feel that it is a torture to have a huge mastiff running around on the hard cements of the City or a Yorkshire terrier poop on the gray streets of Brooklyn. Dogs want to be free, they want to be owned by farmers, they want to chase rabbits, they want to run around in a forest and be bitten by ticks. They do not want to be dog-trained on a leash and avoid other dogs, they do not want to poop on a man-made road, they do not want to be locked away in tiny apartments no one can afford.
Even if they go to the park once in while, it doesn’t seem like the real thing or an animal-friendly compromise. Cats are fine to entertain inside, even though they want to go outside, too. But dogs, no, I cannot look at dogs in New York anymore without feeling compassion or hurt.

To see things a bit from the bright side, at least New Yorkers are willing to care for a creature other than themselves. I believe it crucial for especially older people to turn to some living animal for comfort and company. And sometimes it is good to have this normal life with a pet: Somebody who is waiting for you when you enter your door and who cannot hide his excitement when being stroked by you.

Yes, the pets of New York: Good this city has you, it would be one lonely place without you fellas!

A Word on Creativity

Creativity is triggered by an unbelievable amount of things. Once in this phase of seeing everything in nothing, there is truly no limit to what your head can come up with: A simple word, a thought crossing your mind, a picture you’ve seen in your early childhood years, a long-lost idea you worked out in your dreams.

But one thing I have come to find is that albeit creativity can be easily triggered, it can also be harshly suppressed to a degree at which the artist feels locked in a room or caged in a situation, wanting to escape but not knowing how.

My current job is a great example of the feeling described above. It’s mind-numbing work with not too much upwards-crawling and does not suit my current needs of expressionism. We all know what kind of job I am talking about: Whoever has been stuck in a dull position without any prospect of growth or inflexibility to learn other sides of the industry, whoever has strived to achieve great results and then has frustratingly dealt with the crushing outcomes, whoever has been committed to work not aimed towards a career but simply moneymaking or paying the bills – whoever has done all of this, knows what it feels like to be on the wrong path of life.

What I have come to find is that even though I have plenty of downtime in my current position, I barely get two thirds of the things done I would be able to achieve if I were to have a fully challenging work. Absurd enough the amount of free time I have, but even more paradox the fact that I’d rather spend it on mindlessly surfing the internet, facebooking, or checking out other social networks. Rather than actively using it to my own benefit and applying for other positions or writing up some high-quality blog posts.

This being ironic by itself I have discovered that whenever I have been fully challenged the entire day, I am able to write about topics in about half the time I am here and I achieve more things throughout a two-hour period (perhaps in the morning before I leave the house) than I do here in twice the time. I dwell well on pressure – have always been this way, one of those fellows who wrote up their college papers six hours before the deadline. However, when I know I will do exciting things throughout the day or something that has a high fun factor, I am more willing to focus on the works I want to achieve that particular day.

Has anyone else ever come up with the logic to this absurdness? I guess creative situations stimulate you to a higher degree then dull circumstances which you know are just wasting your time in New York.

Perhaps there is a good explanation to all of this. We all have times during which we feel we can come up with new ideas in a second and then we have times during which we cannot figure out a simple thought or draw a stroke on a blank piece of paper. An article I read recently gave some great tips on how to improve your writing and one of these was to read challenging works before hopping into the writing process (Go to James Altucher’s blog to read them in depth.) . Others’ creativity has the potential to inspire you. Such as other’s indifference and unoriginality can pull you down, if you’re not displaying the right strength to resist the negative influence…

A glimmer of hope is that at least I am still using my valuable but wasted time to produce something I can express myself with and keep for future references – yes, even interact with people all over the world. When I look at my fellow coworkers, who simply utilize this time for dull internet shopping or talking to their friends on the phone, I feel fortunate I am not trapped in their mind set – yet.

So, to all of those fellow artists, writers, bloggers, who have been experiencing difficulties in expressing themselves lately: No worries, I am sure it will fade soon enough and give way to something superior.

You just have to trust your qualities of being creative and your ability to create. Both of these which we need so badly in our world today!

What to Do on Rainy Days in New York: Museums (I)

It’s that time of the year again. Not only has fall showed up but with it a few rainy days already, during which I have come up with some ideas of how to spend my time indoors. Rainy days in New York are not as bad as elsewhere, I believe, for there are plenty of things to keep one entertained in the city of 8 million.

This post focuses a bit more on the cultural side, because I myself have had a few days off during which I have looked forward to explore the most significant museums history-wise.

One day in late September I finally made it out to the Museum of Natural History. I was joined by three Russian fellows who were interested in physics and chemistry – just the right mix for a psychology major like me. First we went on a tour, which was hosted by an elderly American who was eager to tell us more about the black hole, dinosaurs and the hidden gems of stones. One hour is short to show significant land marks in this museum and the guy did a great job shoving us into just the right rooms and explaining important matters to us. We started out in the science room, which was boring to me but exciting to the others, naturally, as this was their major (except for Elena, who is simply curious). From there we were rushed onto the 3rd floor to see the “fake” skeletons of dinosaurs (it was quite surprising to me how many of the exhibits are fake, but I guess you can’t have the authentic pieces lying around when thousands of people want to touch them all the time.)

Off to the whales and sea mammals – the blue whale being the biggest living creature in the world (even exceeding dinosaurs in size) and after this I got lost when looking at other beautiful sea exhibits, such as oversized shells. But luckily I reunited with the group just in time to say good-bye to the tour guide, bypassing the hall of meteorites and the mineral room. The Museum of Natural History is worth going just because of the learning side to it all and it encourages interaction with children, as there are many playful sites at which kids can have a good time and simultaneously learn.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is worthwhile, too. A good tip is to go on their long Fridays, as the dim light shines down on the exhibits in a great way and some unusual events are hosted, such as a musical concert on the top floor (which you can observe and listen to from a distance away on the balcony opposing it). The atmosphere is great, as soon as you enter the main hall there is much hustle and bustle going on. I’ve only been to this museum twice and still haven’t seen half of it. I highly recommend to explore the pyramids and other pieces of old Egypt. One time a teenager was trying to enter the main pyramid and hopped over the loosely strung rope, thinking he would not get caught. A significant “beep” sounded until the museum guard told him to move away as soon as possible. So their stuff is definitely secured, is what I am saying (and my, what ideas these young people have sometimes…).

Other floors of interest to me were not so much European history (we have plenty of that in Europe) but the American side to it all, so American furniture and houses from the 17th and 18th century are quite appealing to look at (and trigger thoughts on the dark history of slaves etc.).

Both, the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, work on a “give-by-donation”-entry charge, which means the fee of $25 dollars is recommended but no one really pays attention to this. I do know that the cashiers tend to give you a dirty look when you hand them a one-dollar-bill, so if you want to avoid this, give them 5 bucks.

Now, I don’t want to bore you with other detailed explanations, but other museums I have been able to check out are the National Museum of the American Indian, which is for FREE and close to City Hall. It is relatively small but is filled with many inspiring drawings and historical facts I hadn’t known of.
The Brooklyn Museum extends well over 5 floors and has a special event going on every first Saturday of the month, called “Target First Saturdays.” There is no cover charge and a party with a DJ from Harlem playing African-American soul beat is going on after 8 PM (the museum is open until 10 PM). I have been there two times before but still haven’t made it through every room. On these first Saturdays there are many interesting programs, and I consider them worth checking out again once winter swooshes in (or maybe next month).

There are many more museums that are in dire need of a visit. One thing I have noticed, though, is that I am not a patient person when it comes to spending time inside dead historical buildings. Two hours, maybe three is the maximum amount of time I can take without getting a nervous breakdown and wishing I would have never went. So eventually I will get around to the famous Guggenheim, MoMa, and other pearls; it just takes the right amount of rainy days and time…

For more pictures of the Museum of Natural History, go here.

For more pictures of the Met Museum, go here.

The Hidden Gem of Mexican Food: Diablo Royale

(photo via Diablo Royale Web site)

Mexican food in New York – ah yes, there are a handful of joints worth trying out. Of course you won’t ever see the standard achieved in California, not to mention Mehiko. You won’t ever top the authentic flavor and fresh ingredients found in the West and maybe Texas. However, New York is home to 290,000 Mexicans (according to the 2007 census) – not counting the dark numbers of illegal immigrants- and therefore certainly has some spots which offer food worth mentioning.

Two weeks ago a friend invited me to join him for dinner and blindly led me down the curved roads of the West Village. When I found my orientation back we were standing in front of a rather insignificant looking small pub, or so I thought, from which some loud voices were incoherently yelling out broken sentences. I should mention that we went on a Saturday night, which is a day the entire Bridge-and-Tunnel-crowd makes its way into the City, being hardly representable of a good night-out in New York during the week.

The inside of the restaurant is fairly large compared to my first impression and it is segregated into a bar area (where most of the “rowdies” sat) and a fine dining area, which was filled with animated discussions buzzing from every table – a typical weekend night, so far.

Dining area and bar (via Diablo Royale Web site)

We didn’t have reservations but only had to wait 30 minutes until the hostess had a table for two waiting for us. In the meantime we simply got a “Diablo Ricky” at the bar and chatted away. This drink was a newbie to me, as it is made of beer and frozen margharita (double calories, girls, not that it matters, though), which might sound disgusting at first but once you try it you will agree that this is the best idea the Mexicans have had cuisine-wise. I have to add that two of these can get you tipsy, and that no one should underestimate the results of a large beer and a cocktail mixed together.

Once seated at the table, we were offered a bowl of chips with salsa dip for free and started right off. I tried it and almost flipped: The salsa was one of the best I had tried in the past two years! Freshly made, chopped up, spiced up just to the right amount. Not the bottle-and-can-stuff you can get at any supermarket. Very exotic indeed. And when my friend added a bowl of guacamole to it all, we already had our ideal little appetizer. I do prefer the salsa, if I had to choose between either one, but the combo of spicy salsa with medium guacamole goes hand in hand!

The entrée options are splendid and one peek to our neighboring gourmands made us realize that there was no way we would snag a real three-course-meal into what was already in our bellies. Both of us were up for the same taste, so I got a shrimp enchilada while my friend teased his taste buds with a vegetable enchilada. Mhmmm, both were so good! The shrimp fitted right in with the beans and melted cheese, and all was covered in a white sauce, delightfully prepared on our plates. I believe this dish is simply called shrimp enchilada with chipotle crema (a very elegant way to describe their sauce). My friend has eaten here before and also recommends the tacos, as they are made-up of further tasty ingredients.

Chips and salsa (via Diablo Royale Web site)
Shrimp Enchilada (via Diablo Royale Web site)

I couldn’t even halfway finish my meal, because I had spoiled my appetite on those chips beforehand, but luckily Diablo Royale gives you a take-out bag in case these things happen. And of course I’ve forgotten to bring my camera with this time, so all pictures are snagged of the restaurant’s Web site. I assure you it really tasted as good as it looks on the photos.

Until recently I had such a hard time in finding good food and it was quite embarrassing when visitors from the Old World wanted to try exquisite, authentic New York cuisine. Now I’ve found some joints that are totally worth listing and will try to elaborate on these in the following few weeks! Cheers to more tasty food experiences!

Coney Island Reloaded

Yes, I know, beach season has long been over. The Hamptons and Montauk as a top destination never came true, regretfully. But I have one last post about this for you: Coney Island reloaded! I wouldn’t have thought I would ever go back to Coney after September (the last time was indeed in August, when it was hot, sticky, and sweaty, and there was no chance to not make that day a beach opportunity). But this time I was on a mission: I wanted to visit the New York Aquarium again, as I had only been there once and this was at least a year ago.

So last Friday afternoon I made my way out to the second last stop on the Q Train. Surf Avenue, here we come! The Wonderful Elena had already waited there and filled her hungry stomach with fast food from Nathan’s. Not a hot dog, though, as I want to point out, even though Nathan’s is the hot dog joint to go to, as they host the annual 4th of July Contest over there (which was won by a Californian this year with the record of 62 hot dogs in 10 minutes).

Back to the story: The Aquarium is a fairly small institution and it had somewhat disappointed me last year, as I had expected a bigger selection of fishies and attractions. Same with the Bronx Zoo, which is relatively unspectacular compared to the other sites you find in New York. I suppose it must be hard to find a decent-sized space for animals in a tank, so Coney Island seems to be one of the only spots willing to host such an attraction (after closing down in Battery Park one century ago). It is one of the oldest locations, too. I am not sure how many creatures it has in total but it is pretty diverse as the selection goes from mammals over birds to reptiles and amphibians. In June of 2010 I was lucky to witness a seal show, during which the keepers were animating three different animals to do various things for about half an hour.

Unfortunately, during our visit in early October there was no such thing going on. Friday afternoon happens to be a give-by-donation-entry charge, as the attraction usually costs $15. Understandably and more so justified by the animal-keeping and related expenses than the actual size it displays. Albeit the show was canceled, we still had fun looking at sharks, which I had missed the other time, and carefully checked out the jelly fish, buried creatures in the sand, and cute little sea horses. I do have to say that these things tend to be more enjoyable when you have company, rather than going by yourself. The penguins were not out anymore, or they were on vacation to the Arctic, but the walruses appeared to be humongous through the glass, when contently swimming around in their pond.

After one and a half hours we had enough (it doesn’t take that long to walk through it), and before we went our own ways I suggested to check out the Boardwalk one last time. You see, Coney Island is so colorful from the Memorial Day Weekend on, but it is a quite depressing and very lonely spot to visit from November to March. Last year I had brought my German visitors here one day before Thanksgiving and I tried very hard to hide my tears of shock, as I had never seen a deserted Coney Island in my life before. But that particular Friday was sunny and kind of warm (of course not suitable for a swim anymore), so a good amount of strollers, tourists, and locals could be found walking around the part we went to. And then the Wonderful Elena and I did something I hadn’t done in the past one and half years I’ve lived here: We had a happy-hour-beer at a random “bar” on Coney Island! Yicks!

I know, this must sound somewhat unexciting to you. Bar = happy hour = beer! But, wait a minute, this is CONEY ISLAND we are talking about. The place you either bring your own bag of booze and save it for the afternoon with your friends in the sand, or the place you go on one attraction after another (Wonder Wheel and Cyclone to be highly recommended) and don’t want to drink anything (with alcoholic substance, that is). Bar culture in Coney turned out to be interesting, I dare say. We mostly found locals there, who were already drunk tipsy, or other foreigners to this area, such as us. And not to forget the homeless, alcoholic people who were simply soaking up the last rays of sun, such as everyone else.

The Wonderful Elena ordered a Star Island Single mermaid creation, which tasted like mushroom, and I had an eagle motive printed on my glass, which wasn’t all too good. Both beers came in a bottle and must have been from Long Island or even Brooklyn. But hey, we went for those fancy stickers on the bottle, and that by itself was worth it. I guess it has some sort of flair to sit in a half-empty bar at the beach in New York and to watch people walk by or take in the waves of the ocean while talking to your friend.

I think this is the first time I have said a decent good-bye to a summer destination I yearn to go back to in less than eight months from now. If I am still here, that is.

Oh Coney Island, you have brought so much joy to my life, I wish I could give back!

Time Out New York: Party Flukes in Chinatown and Tribeca

There is this online magazine called Time Out New York. It is supposed to give you good advice on New York City insider events, music gigs, and, most importantly, parties during the week and on the weekend. When you visit its Web site, you see a brilliantly colorful home page made up of juicy hints and tips of what to do in your leisure time. The make-up of the site is temptingly fashionable and up-to-date, so that it’s quite a joy to read. Therefore, it’s no wonder the Roomie is, or rather, used to be a big fan of this mag.

When we first roomed together, she always talked about what a great party was going on at this club and that bar according to Time Out, and that one day we should try it out. Well, this one day happened to come around in the spring, on a nice Friday evening in May. Spontaneously we decided to try our luck and go for a spot in Chinatown, not too far from the Canal Street stop.

Now I happened to already have lived here a bit over a year.
The only other experience I had with Chinatown was in my first few months, when my friend and I tried out the infamous “Happy Endings” on a Tuesday night. Happy Endings sounded so promising, so tempting, and yet it turned out to be a true disappointment. Guess it had been a hot insider spot back in the days – five years ago! Or maybe even the summer before. But of course it was out and done with when we stopped by. Only some lonesome drug addicts were willing to share the bar with us, the dance floor had not even opened up. Back to my story: Happy Ending hat not been too promising. So I didn’t really get my hopes up for this joint. After getting lost a couple of times and then finding the right way, we wandered off the beaten paths and slouched closer to the awaited club night. We sort of did wonder why no one was on the streets anymore. After all, this was supposed to be the “hottest thing to do on a Friday night.” But then we entered Lafayette Street and drew closer to the given address. Two lonely cowboys bouncers stood in front of a ragged-up building. We asked if this was Old Firehouse and they said yes. They also said we stood no chance to get inside as there was a private party going on. I had already questioned their intelligence from their previous appearance but when I asked the guy if there was usually something going on here, he just sneered at me and said: “That’s not getting you in tonight!” Rude Bastard! He then yelled “nice body” behind us as we turned our backs and marched off, but I made sure to respond with a well-aimed “Compared to yours it is!,” until we finally vanished around the corner. Thank you Time Out New York for driving us towards the deepest ghetto parts of Chi-town.

Another story I have to share is the one happening in Tribeca: Fast-forward one month and this time I was stupid enough to consult Time Out NY for a Tuesday evening adventure. There was this advertised rock party, “wildest thing going on during the week,” happening from 10 PM on, located close to the Green House. So we got off at Spring St and walked past high-class-restaurants and wide street crossings towards it. The closer we came, the less commercialized the area looked like and the more deserted it seemed. With my heart still filled with hope for a real “grunge rock party,” I drew closer and saw a flickering light in the middle of the road. It must there! But at 10:15 PM, when the doors should have been wide open already, bartenders and busboys were unloading their drinks and still stocking up the bar. No one was inside except for the bouncer who came out after 5 minutes. Didn’t look like a wild party to us! To make matters worse, the bouncer confirmed our suspicion and pointed out that the bar usually opens at 11 PM. No rock music had been played in over a year, he said. What a disappointment! The Roomie just laughed and said it was okay, as she had erroneously misled us to that Chinatown dump the last time, too. So we just walked back, past the Green House, a popular gay club on that night, had a talk with the guys who were standing in line at 10 PM already to get in first (and didn’t think we would fit the crowd, rudos!) and just went on to the Meatpacking District.

So if you ever make the mistake to actually listen to Time Out New York’s brilliant weekend and party tips, do not say I’ve never warned you! I’ve did it in an entire, hand-written post!

The Other 99 Per Cent: Wall Street Protests

Some commotion has been going on in the symbolic streets of the Financial District: For the past three weeks several individuals have grouped themselves together and started a one-on-one demonstration against the fiscal system of America. Within the chaos I saw people swinging signs such as “Break up the banks: Bail out the people” and “The 99 % will not be silent.” While walking past Trinity Place yesterday, I witnessed rows of cops getting ready to offer protection, silent the crowds, and shove some extra handcuffing devices into their pockets. While they galloped away in a disciplined group, other people stared at them in an evil way. Once I heard a man hiss something mean to a standing cop and then run away, the officer glaring after him.

I kept my distance while following the parade of blue uniforms until I entered the main demonstration zone: Entire Wall Street was drowned in masses of people standing on a square or marching around the a few blocks, waving their ideas in front of them as if to justify the commotion.

At first I stood in the still crowd, trying to hear what the chorus was saying. There were workers of the NY mass transit rebelling against banks, as far as I could tell. A common idea was to chant with them when they repeated their rhyme and then throw your fist up in the air at a certain point. Various folks were standing in line to voice their opinions, so I am sure NY mass transit was not the last to speak Wednesday evening.

Then I pushed my way out of the mad groups towards Fulton Street, at which point I landed in the moving crowd: Students, homeless, unemployed, families, even business-suit people forming an open group marching throw the streets, yelling out phrases such as: “Occupy Wall Street, All Day All Week!” and holding up signs stating they are the 99 per cent (who have suffered). I had the feeling that the better dressed individuals had sporadically joined the mass simply after work.

There I stood, next to other curious bystanders and gawkers, fascinated by the turmoil, surprised by the force that had overtaken the people, and stunned when thinking about the length of it. It seemed to be never-ending, this demonstration, and when I finally was able to part from this chaotic spectacle, I walked two blocks over to the closest train station and still witnessed more and more people standing in line to join the walking chanters.

The protests have already been going on for well over three weeks, as they started with simple college students stating their opinions on how they couldn’t find a job after the economy crisis (Where was I? Oh, maybe still in Europe!). Then a wider group of unemployed joined them until now companies from all over the States are sending out their New York-based former employees to Wall Street to demonstrate with the mass. News coverage should have spread all over the world by now, and the bankers should be scared to death. As it has turned out, New York was only the beginning. Demonstrations have infected DC (not surprisingly, when considering the small distance in between these two cities) and bigger cities in the Midwest. The next thing we know the entire country will be under this spell and voice anti-capitalist ideas. Now if they could just come up with some proper solutions to the “problem,” even better.

I have no idea how people working in those streets manage to circumvent these obstacles every day, maybe their offices are temporarily closed. It’s a big amount of pushing, squeezing and hustling through the crowd to get through it. Cameras are flashed everywhere and the police force is doing their 24h/7 duty.
Let’s see for how much longer this will be going on!

For more pictures, visit A Picture Every Day.