My daughter’s old school in NW3 had a big thing about manners. It had the rules about good manners emblazoned on the walls of the dining hall and I have to say, I thought this was a real strength of the school. I’m British, I say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ and ‘cheers’ a lot. No one says cheers in New York, it’s what marks me apart. I say thank you when someone gives way to me and my buggy on the pavement; I do the same when someone let’s me in a shop, holds open a door or does something nice. New Yorkers don’t. I am sort of getting used to it, but it does seem pretty rude when you give way, hold a door or whatever and you get nothing. And yet when I am in a lift (must remember to say elevator) and someone gets out they bid me ‘have a good day’. When I go in a shop, a cafe or anywhere in fact, I am always greeted with ‘hello, how are you?’ and it sounds sincere. I always respond ‘good, thank you’ and then swiftly move on to what I want, having failed to ask them the same. If I’m feeling New York enough I will respond with a ‘how are you?’ I have come to the conclusion that actually no one cares how I am, these are just words that are used to greet you, it’s just a bit of a verbal dance to get to the main attraction. I will keep trying to respond spontaneously and I think if I say ‘thank you’, ‘please’ and ‘cheers’ enough, someone may actually do the same.
I’ve been reading about Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York. He is worth $25 billion! Blimey. Nice to see that he declined his salary and takes a notional dollar in payment. He made his cash in financial information. He has just given Johns Hopkins University a multi million dollar gift which takes the total he has donated to his alma mater over $1 billion. Incredible isn’t it? Bill Gates had already given away $28 billion by 2007 and says he will give away 95 per cent of his fortune, so it looks like he’ll be donating many more billions over the years, given he’s only 57. Philanthropy is big here and goes back a long way. There’s Andrew Carnegie, born in Scotland in the 19th Century, but who spent most of his life in the US, who gave away $350 million by the time he died in 1919, that’s $4.7 billion in today’s money. He gave loads to UK libraries, including a dozen built in London. Other big names include the Mellon family, the Rockefellers (not just for Christmas!) and Stanford. Most of their wealth seems to have gone to higher education and it’s no coincidence that universities here have massive endowments built up over centuries. The Mayor is up for re election later this year and it’s unlikely that Bloomberg would be able to run for a fourth time having changed the laws last time so that he could have a third go. I doubt the new Mayor will have quite so much cash, but you never know!
I like your paper, I only buy it on a Sunday because the rest of the week I am fond of the New York Post and I don’t have time to read both of you. But there is one thing I really dislike about you. It is really irritating when you start an article on one page and then finish it off on another page. I understand when you do this on the front page of the main news section as there are lots of stories and it sort of makes sense. But in the Arts and Leisure section you start a review of the new TV show Americans on page 20, pause it half way down the page to then tell me to turn to page 23. The reason for this is another article on an actress called Brett Butler and this article ends with a request to turn to page 23 as well. So on page 23 we have the remnants of both articles. Just jiggle the page layout to get the articles to start and finish on the same page, please. Your current approach, which is littered throughout the paper, makes no sense.
I listen intently to Radio 4 on the Internet each day and follow the typical British response to the recent snow. Supermarket shelves emptied in a frenzy of panic buying, schools shutting and travel chaos. Same as usual then. You might think that it would be the same in New York but no. Here it is bitterly cold, temperatures last night went down to minus 9 degrees. I had considered going out for a pedicure last night until I realised I’d be walking back up the street in my sandals on the coldest night of the year so far and be in considerable danger of losing a toe. But still, there’s no snow and no chaos. The padded coats are out in force, everyone is in a big hurry to get out of the cold and in particular the wind. You can tell which direction it’s coming in because of the grid structure of the streets. Walk along the street and get knocked down by the wind then it’s East/West; walk down an avenue and get hit by the wind, then it’s North/South. But it’s deceptive when you’re in a warm apartment, high up, looking out at the blue sky, crystal clear and bright. Lovely. I am gratified that New Yorkers comment on the weather as much as British people do and even they think it’s cold.
When I went to university it was free, in fact I got a grant to pay for accommodation and living expenses. It wasn’t much, but I did leave university with no debts. There were no tuition fees back then either. In last week’s New York Post, which is a bit like the Daily Mail crossed with the Sun, they were very excited at the high number of New York University students who had enrolled with a sugar-daddy dating site called seekingarrangement.com. The article is pretty superficial and full of comments from people who only gave their first name, probably out of sheer embarrassment. The Sugar Daddy Blog on the front page of the website rather cleverly wrote about the high numbers of students and provided the figures by university to the media which resulted in some great free publicity as not only did the Post pick it up, but USA Today, Cosmopolitan and the Huffington Post.
I looked up the cost of undergraduate tuition at NYU and for one semester in the Arts and Science Faculty, the fees are a staggering $22,000. Multiply this by three for the three semesters per year and then over three years and you get tuition fees of around $200,000 just to get a degree! And of course, don’t forget, they have to then live, so it’s no wonder that students here in New York need to work or find some way of earning cash through sites like this one to get by.
I am in shock. I have just paid the bill for J’s 1 year check and MMR. It is huge. So huge, I cannot bring myself to type the number. In the UK I would have taken J to the rather run down health centre and waited in a bland room filled with plastic chairs, peeling paintwork and been reluctant to touch anything. But it was free. Every part of J’s medical life had been free, my prenatal care and his birth at one of the best teaching hospitals in central London, the checks by the health visitor and all his immunisations. If I wanted to weigh him, all I had to do was turn up at the clinic and do it myself. If was concerned about his health, I just made an appointment with the GP who may or may not have been that interested, but I hoped would know more than me and send me away reassured.
The contrast with New York couldn’t be greater. J doesn’t see a GP in a normal surgery, he has a paediatrician in a paediatric practice (trouble spelling that one). Every step of the 40 minute 1 year check is itemised on the bill. It still has plastic chairs and I’m still reluctant to touch anything or let J crawl anywhere, so no difference there. I speak to a French lady with twins and a 9 month old in the waiting room. She sees me looking wide eyed at my bill and offers her own experience. Her twins were in hospital for 4 weeks after they were born early and for this the hospital presented her with a bill for $350,000 for EACH child. Unsurprisingly her health insurer was reluctant to pay but she said they did, in the end.
I find myself reaching for my political history, reminding myself about Nye Bevan, socialist and youngest Minister in Attlee’s ground breaking Labour administration in 1945. It was Bevan, as Minister of Health, who took the National Health Service Bill through Parliament and is known as the founder of the NHS. I know it’s changed a lot and I don’t pretend to be any expert on what’s happening with it under the current Government and I know it’s paid for through tax and National Insurance. There is something quite comforting about knowing you don’t have to worry about the cost before you access the NHS but now that I know how bankrupting it can be, perhaps the peeling paintwork and dreary waiting rooms in the UK aren’t so bad after all.
One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been in New York is the light. I never really thought about it in the UK, but here in New York the sheer volume of high rise development has had a massive impact on light. It’s almost as if there is light poverty here. If you are lower down in a high rise apartment building you pay less rent and you get less light because you are surrounded by others. You are more likely to be looking across at another high rise building and for that you pay less. Conversely the higher up you are the more you pay and there is a premium for being at the top, in the penthouse. Purpose built apartment buildings tend to be at the end of streets, abutting the avenues, this then serves to create a light corridor along the many avenues going from north to south along the island of Manhattan. Pause whilst crossing an avenue and look south and then north you can see a remarkable feat of town planning with the straight, straight avenue forcing your eye skywards, seeking the light. The Manhattan town house, a 4-6 storey building, probably built around the beginning of the 20th Century, would have been the peak of housing achievement but now, I’m not so sure. Surrounded by other buildings – there is little free space here and if there is, it’s being built on – the reduction in light levels is huge. With a town house you generally get a small garden and the ones we saw when we looked for somewhere to live were so overlooked, so dark, it was just not worth it. Go closer to Central Park then the buildings seem to reduce in size, there is, I believe a real push from those living in the affluent neighbourhoods near the park to ensure that development is sympathetic and that means low rise. We didn’t appreciate the value of the light before we arrived but now that we’re here, living pretty high up, it’s great to bathe in the luxury of light.
I’m not sure how well used this phrase is in the UK and probably not at all here in the US. Property porn refers to the free glossy magazines that come through the letterbox showing all the amazing houses and flats that are completely unaffordable to normal people but I can’t help looking. I loved Fabric, a North London property magazine, with its lifestyle pieces, bought in articles with film stars and ridiculously priced property. I loved the Ham & High’s property supplement on a Thursday. My guilty pleasure at breakfast, leafing through the glossy pages, spotting properties I recognised in NW3 and choking on my tea as I saw the crazy prices. A mere £15 million for a house nearby, in its own one acre plot with a recommendation from the estate agent to knock it down and build your own – for that much money!? Anyhow, my replacement for this void in my life since moving to New York is the Real Estate section of the New York Times on a Sunday. It’s not glossy but it does a good line in what it calls “Big Ticket Sales’. Today’s is a mere $24.75 million (£15.3 million). A bargain as it was originally on the market at $32.75 million (£20 million) in 2008. Blimey. It is accompanied by a “Warmly renovated in homage to blue” – a stately six-story Upper East Side town house for a snip at $29.99 million (£18.6 million). I love the quote from the agent at the end of the article. “All the triple mint house have been sold out. There is not much inventory. That’s we can basically name a price”. But compared with the soon to be marketed penthouse on East 79th Street, which will offered at $50 million (£31 million), it’s a bargain and at least you get a whole house.
I have discovered my new favourite TV show. It’s called Double Divas. Two women from Atlanta have a lingerie shop called Lili Rae and they make all their own merchandise. It’s a cross between Anne Summers and Agent Provocateur. They are huge characters and care deeply about the women they fit – think Trinnie and Suzanna with southern US accents. The series highlight so far is the fitting of Norma Stits, who cannot find a bra to fit her enormous breasts. She leaves happy and elevated. Other customers include the rapping cowboy looking for something for his girl and the completely misjudged batchelorette (hen) party full of ladies who lunch, horrified at the lingerie party put on by Molly and Cynthia. It’s incredibly entertaining and if it’s not in the UK yet, it should be.
I don’t use the subway much, but have started to work out the best place to stand on the platform, the right time of day to be there with a buggy and the best place to sit in the carriage. I do this much aplomb today. I am sitting opposite J, who is wide awake. He and I exchange smiles then I read, he stares. Then the guy opposite me says, ‘oh my Lord, I thought that woman sat next to me (next to J) left without her baby!’ Realising the baby is mine, he looks noticeably relieved as I explain it is better for me to see him this way, than sat next to him. J is getting a lot of attention today. One woman catches his eye, he smiles coyly and to his right another woman goes out of her way to wave at him but he’s too busy with the first lady. We speed on down town and I hear a clipping noise. A man is standing nearby clipping his nails, getting the dirt out with the blade and snipping the rest. Yuck. We are out of range for the clippings but I am not the only one to look on in mild disgust. And towards the end of ride, two older ladies sit beside me and opposite J and proceed to play peekaboo with him the rest of the journey. He is in heaven, in his very own salon.