Aprilmayhem 14

This wonderful shot of the dragon belching fire above Gringotts Bank Daigon Alley was taken by ace photographer Michelle Lia McEwing.

After our near-signup experience with the holiday club we took our hard-won admission tickets to Universal Studios twin theme parks and began another trek through buffeting crowds in 34-degree humid sunshine.

Universal is a mammoth money vacuum. Not only does it charge over $200 per person to get in but the minute you are admitted you are bombarded with other categories of wealth reduction in the form of food, drinks and merchandise. The rides are free, but even on a moderately busy day you stand in line for long periods.

The standouts for us were the Harry Potter villages. The whole fantasy film set, including crooked buildings, have been recreated as Daigon Alley. If you want even more Harry Potter you have to take the Hogwarts Express from platform nine-and-three-quarters. The destination, Hogsmead, is another fantasy in the form of a snow coated village with the Hogwarts school perched high above on a rock face. This is in the adjoining Universal theme park and relieves you of another admission fee.

That aside, along with the queue and wait for the train, the trip is very clever. The realistic steam train arrives at the station, people get in and sit in old world train seats. The window looks out on to the brick wall of the station, the train blows its whistle and it moves off. Here’s the trick: the window is actually a movie screen and the passing scenery is a projection. Thus you appear to be going through the magic countryside to Hogwarts school. Hagrid is out there on his flying motorbike and he waves. You pass rivers and forests until the school comes into view and you pull into the station.

Another great illusion is the dragon that has landed on top of Gringotts Bank. Every so often it roars and breathes out a fireball that draws cries of appreciation from the crowd. Confectionery shops sell all kinds of Harry Potter lollies. I bought a block of coconut ice and couldn’t stop eating it, even though I felt sick halfway through. I washed it down with butter beer and felt even worse.

Michelle went into the wand shop and was confused by the variety. After some help from the wand consultant she selected one for her mum. We are going to train Naomi to manifest gold bullion, since we have been unable to achieve this ourselves by conventional means.

I’d like to return to Universal to pick up where we left off when foot failure threatened. I think you could spend two full days there and not cover it all. Yes, it is expensive, especially for young families, but this is a high quality experience.

Hotel Toaster Review


A rare find: a Double Black Mariah.

Based on the Hyatt’s free breakfast, this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to review a hotel toaster. I was delighted to find a Double Black Mariah, a rare model covered in Derek Breadchamber’s famous treatise on the subject. Breadchamber says that the Double Black Mariah was developed by master Italian hotel toaster designer, Giuseppe Crispintini, who was inspired by two passing hearses in 1998. The DBM is unique in that in addition to neat front load and delivery, it has no knobs. The user has no say in heat or belt speed. “Automatico!” Crispintini declared as he presented his prototype to loud applause at the company’s 1999 marketing conference

Michelle was keen to visit the Morse Museum which took us to the suburb of Winter Park. Even if there had been no museum the main street was worth seeing; it was like a movie set of an idyllic American tree lined brick paved roadway. I expected to hear “and . . . action!” whereupon a brass band would come oomparparing around the corner and children would stand and eat apple pie as they watched. The shops were all immaculate and quaint. They also had clothing that lit up Michelle’s face and she gave her credit card an outing.

The Morse Museum is devoted to the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848 – 1933) who didn’t only design glass lamp shades but was an architect, interior designer, jewellery maker, painter and potter. Although he is best known for his lamp shades, his stained glass windows are mind blowing. There is a whole chapel reassembled at the museum after it had been exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. He produced so much outstanding works of art I can’t see how he had time to go to bed. His daddy was super rich – which gave him a good education and the ability to indulge himself in his artistic pursuits. He also designed and built some huge, wonderfully decorated houses.

We arrived at the museum about eleven o’clock in the morning and were advised not to pay the five-dollar entry fee because the museum was free after 4 pm. In other words, they don’t need the money. Instead, we were invited to see a museum-sponsored film about the contribution made by female artists in the 18th century. We entered a large, well-appointed room stocked with senior citizens hoeing into free buns and drinks. We joined them of course and then settled down to watch the doco. It was enthusiastically presented by a fraffly emphatic English woman who outlined the lives of female painters and designers who’d fought the blokes for a go at the fame barrel. No doubt riveting viewing for a worthy audience, I kept nodding off, dreaming about overdressed women and being prodded awake by Michelle.

Back in the movie set street we shopped, ate and returned to the Morse at four o’clock. I’m generally not a lover of museums, but this one was a knockout. Tiffany was revealed as an extraordinary man and I intend to read more about him.

Aprilmayhem 13

 

Brooks Brothers where you only get a hot deal if you buy four shirts.  Were they joking? Would I buy four shirts when I only didn’t really want even one? I therefore bought four shirts.

Orlando is well known for its shopping, especially direct factory outlet stores. We were keen to unload money to this worthy cause, but first we had to check into the Hyatt Place. Our Filipina Uber lady driver had trouble in actually being able to get to the hotel although we could see it wizzin’ along de road. The reason was that our Hyatt, along with some other hotels, is marooned in the middle of massive roadworks and you have to take tricky detours to make landfall. When we eventually did, I thought about my plans to drive a Mustang to Miami. The turnpike would be fine but how do I get on to it and then off it and into an airport? I feared we might never get out of the Orlando building site. I grew chicken wings, flapped them, and decided on Uber rather than selfie Mustang.

Michelle has now mastered the art of Uber and it is a godsend. The cars are cared for, sanely driven and the drivers are friendly and chatty. In the case of our Filipina lady, during the hour she drove us from Cape Canaveral to Orlando, she provided us with a monologue covering her family history, her friends, what she said to her husband, what her husband said to her, what she nearly said to her husband but didn’t, what her husband said to her but shouldn’t have. She talked non-stop for an hour. We have booked her for the four-hour drive to Miami. After that, we’ll know even more of this riveting story.

Our hotel room is spacious and nicely appointed except when it comes to the bathroom, which is so small you have to step around behind the door and then squeeze past the toilet bowl and shower screen to get out. A fatter person could easily become wedged between the door and the shower screen. The shower rose is especially annoying because you only have a choice between a piddle of warm water or a blast of cold.

Having unpacked, we hightailed it down to the Premium Outlet Mall, credit cards huddling in fear in our wallets. I didn’t intend to buy anything but that all went off the rails. I ended up with shirts I didn’t need, and shoes that I needed even less, with shorts to match the shirts I didn’t need in the first place. I soon had a needless bagful while Michelle couldn’t find anything desirable apart from presents and a pair of sandals. While we were in Saks Fifth Avenue I spied a sparkler on ‘extra special’ and bought it for her. My credit card needed a defibrillator to get it going again.

The mall is actually a large number of crisscrossing open walkways with shops lined up either side. They cover most brands familiar to me plus a whole lot more we don’t have in Australia. It is very tempting to pig out. I was tempted. I pigged out. About the only clothing I really did need were white tennis shorts. When I asked for them in the brand shops the sales people thought I was crazy.

“You really mean white sir? You want to play tennis in white? Hey, dis guy wants white tennis shorts! Never hoid of nuttin’ like that. The closest we got to white, sir, is black.”

I persevered. The Nike welcoming man said his store definitely didn’t have white tennis shorts, but to his astonishment, Michelle found them. They are a bit odd but made in some new miracle fabric that plays most of the game for you and carries you back to the clubhouse.

While we were trawling the designer shops we came across a kiosk selling tickets to the Universal Studios theme parks (high on our have-to list) at a saving of US$140. There was a catch. We had to pick up the tickets at a resort hotel after sitting through a travel club presentation that would only take an hour. We would be given breakfast as well. Beside the saving, the travel club sounded interesting. We signed up.

This morning we turned up at the resort hotel and were fastened on to by the most aggressive selling team I’ve ever experienced. ‘Breakfast’ comprised a choice of an apple, banana, watery coffee or cereal and we were asked to hurry along because the show was about to start. This took place in a little side building where a guy who could double for Usain Bolt went through an alternatively shouting and whispering harangue with lots of face pulling and the aid of a big screen showing idyllic holiday destinations. If we joined at a cost of US$9,900 we would get eight weeks of cheap holidays a year. When we blanched at that, the price dropped to $7000 if we signed today, followed by a specially tailored offer, because we were nice Australians, of $4000. I do not have $4000 with me, I said, nor is my credit card ready for such an assault, especially after the sparkler. It has to keep us eating for the next three weeks, I added. They were not interested in our possible starvation. “Okay, okay, tell you what, gimme $300 to cover the registration paperwork and I’ll hold the deal until you get back home and wire us the money.”

We sprinted for the exit after three hours of deal deflection and then had to get our reduced price tickets to Universal after being passed around between icy-faced officials. Was it worth it? O course not. However, our visit to Universal certainly was. All coming next time with the first, much awaited, hotel toaster review.

 

Entrance to Gullible Land.

Aprilmayhem 12

The girl’s got class – and a pet alligator

While we escaped New York without being mugged, intimidated, or seriously ripped off, the parting at La Guardia was not so pleasing. The place is being rebuilt and is therefore more a massive building site than an airport. We spent our money on a first class fare to Orlando thinking we would wait in an elegant lounge and load up on free drinks and food. Not. First class domestic Delta gives you no access to the first class lounge unless you have ‘joined’ for $80 or you are travelling on an international flight. This depressing information was relayed by a laconic check-in girl who couldn’t be bothered looking at us but preferred to speak to our luggage. Thus were thrust in with the great unwashed in a dingy concourse offering greasy food, tipping for no service (it is all electronic ordering), bored staff, and dim lighting. When I ordered a sandwich I was given a metal fork and spoon, but a plastic knife. Airport security has determined you can kill somebody with a blunt, round-ended steak knife but not a metal fork or a spoon. Put into life or death struggle I’d take the fork every time.

I can see the in-flight television drama unfold as the bad guy rises from his seat and the hostie yells “he’s got a spoon, but thank God it isn’t a round-ended, saw-toothed steak knife.”

The electronic food ordering system is in the form of a screen sitting in the middle of the table on which you select what you want to eat: fast food at close to fine-dining prices. It also encourages you to play gambling games in case you have any money left after the meal; the bill strongly petitions patrons for an 18% tip. Fearing poisoning, I paid the tip but Michelle didn’t – in protest. My chicken a la conglomeration arrived promptly but her very ordinary burger took the scenic route, bringing with it a silent rebuke from the kitchen.

Delta has slipped further down my list of favourite airlines after changing the departure gate without telling us, having the smallest toilet in the history of aviation and having the least interested cabin crew. One of the stewards sat on his seat for much of the two-and-a-half-hour flight and nodded off a few times. We didn’t crash – for which I suppose we should be grateful.

The young driver who picked us up from Orlando airport to take us to Cape Canaveral asked if we had alligators in Australia. We told her about our fearsome crocodiles but she trumped that with a story about a Florida woman who has a six foot, 15-year-old pet alligator called Rambo who sleeps in her bed, goes out with her on her motor bike, plays with her dog, watches television and is toilet trained. She dresses up Rambo, including sun glasses, to protect him from the elements and slathers on sun screen she fears he might get sunburned. The authorities tried to take the alligator away from Mary Thorn but she fought against it, saying that Rambo could not survive in the wild. They gave her a special permit to keep him, probably on the condition that it doesn’t eat anybody, but they have discouraged other people from keeping alligators as pets. There are plenty to enjoy in the waterways throughout Florida. We were assured that while they will chew up small children or dogs they are scared of adults.

When we opened the door of our room at the Radisson hotel in Cape Canaveral Michelle was aghast for having booked it. I didn’t think it was so bad, but admittedly it is odd. The fittings are flimsy, the shower is over a bath behind the ubiquitous cloying curtain and is just above floor level, the wardrobe door has gone rusty, but the bed is the saving grace. It is huge and comes with a motorised hardener. I don’t know whether that also applies to the male occupants. I certainly hope so.

The NASA Kennedy Space Centre is a remarkable place in that it is a working facility for building rockets and firing them while being a superb theme park for people to come for a look. Rocket firings are relatively frequent especially since private enterprise now uses the range for commercial space shots. The latest status symbol of extreme wealth is not just to have your own plane but your own rocket.

I could hardly believe the size of the Apollo rockets that did most of the moon shots. When they are built in the biggest single storey building in the world the come out on a ‘crawler’ that takes them to a launch pad at a dizzy one mile per hour along a road base track made for the purpose.

The shuttle program, which finished in in 2011, was based on reusing the shuttle plane and the two separate rocket engines that took it into space. The only part discarded was the fuel tank. When the shuttle returned, it had to glide in at a hot 285 mph, the fastest landing speed for a plane ever. Possibly the most exhilarating presentation of the entire centre was standing in a theatre showing the designing and building of the space shuttle, and then finding that the screen was transparent as it raised to reveal ‘Atlantis’ the real thing, suspended in a gigantic room, its cargo door open and the burn scars from re-entering the earth’s atmosphere on its last mission.

The space shuttle Atlantis. The real deal.

Aprilmayhem 11

It’s goodbye Columbus tomorrow – the New York part, anyway. We fly to Orlando where I will attempt to crank up the internet again. Today we went downtown to make two last assaults on our digestive systems and a took a settling tour in between.

The breakfast scene in Russ & Daughters herring heaven. It is also the scene of an unfolding drama as a patron, having overdosed on herrings and fallen down in a stupor beneath two other counter eaters, wakes up and tries desperately to extricate himself.

Russ & Daughters provided breakfast, at a cafe known for variations on herring, salmon and bagels. But foist da pickles. I’m told they are achieved with salt rather than vinegar and seem to find their way into every dish served in New York. After the pickle prelude came the restaurant’s signature herring plate in which five different versions of this fish temp you to keep going even after you’re herringed up to pussy’s bow. I kept going past pussy’s bow and, like the caviar experience previously, won’t be able to look a herring in the eye for some time to come. Russ and his lovely daughters, who may have been working there but did not identify themselves, then finished me off with my first taste of halva ice-cream.

We needed to escape herrings and come down to earth, achieved with a tour of the nearby tenement district which became the first place immigrants went when they landed in New York in the late 1880s and early 1900s. These five storey tenement buildings would each accommodate 20 or more families living in three room apartments. The families often had more than four kids. After 1905, the landlord had to provide inside toilets, one toilet per every two families. Washing was with water brought in from a communal supply at the rear of the building. The tour took us into a couple of the apartments as they had been more than 100 years ago – along with the history of the people who had lived there. The area became so popular that at one stage it was estimated to be the most densely populated place in the world. This was also the beginning of the garment industry in New York. Not only did families live in these tiny spaces, they ran sewing factories in them as well. We emerged from the tenement tour grateful for our cushy way of life.

Katz’s deli is famous in New York for pastrami. Although it began as a deli it is now a sizeable restaurant and, early Sunday evening, crowded with diners. You more or less have to order pastrami on rye if you want to boast that you’ve been there. We both did, and were hit will the full force of the famous gross serving sizes of New York. A quarter size serving each would have been plenty but pussy’s bow was again violated when we battled to the halfway mark. Like the caviar and herring episodes, I will probably not order pastrami again for some time – delicious as it was from the kitchen of Mr Katz.

On our way into the deli/restaurant we encountered a tall black man holding forth about being hungry and Michelle decided to test him on the way out with half our pastrami which we’d had doggy-bagged. We paid, went outside ready to hand it over but the man had gone. I lugged the food down into the subway, along with me on a noisy train trip and back up to street level again on 57th Street. Michelle spied a homeless man sitting against a rubbish tin and decided he needed to be fed with pastrami. I thought he’d tell us to piss off when we offered the bag, but he took it gratefully and we left him munching into Katz’s special.

Leaving New York has left me with a few random impressions along with the more obvious tourist must-sees. This city is crazy about metal plates that give access to an underground network of drains, sewers, steam making devices and maybe a whole community of white alligators. The pavements are alive with these steel plates, many of them open mesh, affording a vies into New York’s digestive system. The roads all have them too and the cars clank and boom over them as they pass, honking at anything and everything, while their lane changing looks like a motorists’ Morris dance.

Still on the steel theme, all the concrete curbs in New York are finished with a protective steel cap so that if you grind against them with your low profile tires, your rims will be virtually irreparable.

The cars are interesting too. There are plenty of Toyotas which go by different model names to those used in Australia. Nissan (pronounced ‘Neesarnn’) is popular. Of American cars, Cadillacs are everywhere, their design looking as though a kid had been let loose on a pound of butter with a sharp knife. Lincoln SUVs are massive, always come in black and look like hearses – that there are lots of those too. The city traffic cops get around in tiny Smart cars.

Fashion? A few people look elegant and quite stunning but most keep to casual, relatively shapeless dark clothing. Displayed in Bergdorf Goodman’s window was the worst dress I’ve ever seen. It was supposed to celebrate spring, but to me it looked as though the wearer had been mauled by the Blue Liquid Man who has a fetish for breasts.

Aprilmayhem 10

Brilliant District Attorney, Fraser B. McEwing posing for the media scrum after having put four murderers into the state penitentiary.

 

Here I am into double figures already and we’ve only been travelling for less than two weeks. But New York speeds everything up. People walk fast, talk at chipmunk speed and pass money around as though it’s too hot to hold. When we stop in Orlando I hope things will slow down a bit. We are partly to blame, of course. We’re trying to fit it all in before the world blows up.

We broke our fast yesterday at downtown Sadelle’s, a place with a reputation for fish and then more fish. This was also our first attempt at using Uber. We called one but gave the wrong address. While we were trying to set that right we accidentally called another one but he was getting lost when three empty taxis came past and we decided to take one of those. As we reached for the door handle we felt guilty about the poor Uber men and let it go. The closest Uber man, or maybe the one we may have cancelled, but maybe not, took a wrong turn and did a huge loop of the city before finally picking us up. Uno Uber was not encouraging, but we’ll get better at it.

Sadelle’s was busy dealing with a Saturday morning rush of people desperate for fish. Good thing we booked. A well-rehearsed waited brought a menu which could have sent us bankrupt if we’d chosen the most expensive caviar and most expensive Vodka. They ran into thousands of dollars. However, we settled for a manageably priced but substantial serving of trout caviar with various bases on which to spread it. We’d never eaten caviar up to pussy’s bow before, but we did this time. Although it was delicious I will not look at caviar for at least another year.

If you are a fan of Law & Order SVU you would know the famous courthouse building where the forces for good are lampooned by the press and others for being stupid. I wanted to stand on those grand steps and pretend myself into an episode. In the flesh, or I should say in the masonry, the place is not all that grand. It is smaller than it should be, the steps are chipped and stained and the main doorway is a bit shabby. I came away a little disappointed that this shrine of courtrooms and crooks was not pristine.

Macy’s department store came next, with a walking tour inside and out. It was most absorbing, assisted by an excellent tour guide who could breathe in while talking so as not to disturb her machine-gun delivery. It gave me enough material to write my regular Ragtrader column. Here are some excerpts:

“It is a cold, wet Saturday afternoon in April in New York city, not the sort day that would bring people into town shopping. Yet inside Macy’s department store it is crazy-busy. Money is flying on every floor. But this is not because of a clearance promotion, nor is it an especially hectic day. Macy’s, with 2.2 million square feet of floor space on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, is the biggest department store in the US and the second biggest in the world, and on this un-special day, it is vacuuming in customers at a rate that Myer or David Jones would kill for.

“Granted, there are eight million customers within easy visiting distance of Macy’s as against our trickle, but there is more to it than that. Macy’s is making a fight of it – and winning. It is, and always has been, part of the social fabric outside its doors. For instance, it runs an annual Thanksgiving Day parade that closes off New York Streets and attracts four million people to line the route, and hundreds of millions more who find it compulsive viewing on television. Then there is the annual spring flower show that this year saw half a million flowers brought into the store, giving its customers blooms to see from all over the world in a specular two-week exhibition that attracted 25 million visitors.

“Clearly Macy’s most cherished brand is Louis Vuitton – a remarkable company to say the least. It controls a massive number of leading brands in addition to its own, including Celine, Mark Jacobs, Kenzo, Givenchy, Verve Clicquot, Nicholas Kirkwood, Fresh Cosmetics, Guerlain, Tag Heuer, Bulgari and Christian Dior perfume. The list goes on and on, topping out at about 70. Between them, they turn over more than US$38 billion a year. The Louis Vuitton brand alone is valued at US$26 billion. Current profit for the group is more than US$7 billion.

“But here’s a real shocker. Ninety-nine percent of goods sold throughout the world under the Louis Vuitton label are counterfeit. The genuine articles are sold only in its own stores or concessions such as those in Macy’s. Even then, the company serial numbers every item so that it can be proved genuine. Another of its policies is to destroy all raw materials in all of its factories at the end of each day so that illegal overruns are prevented.”

Down the street from Macy’s is a marvellous fabric shop called Mood. Many people go there to buy a few exotic yards and the pat the famous dog who goes by the name of Swatch. Michelle had the idea that I should buy some fabrics to be made into shirts in Hong Kong on the way home. I did not intend to do this, but my love of textiles got hold of me and I emerged with five outrageous patterns that will make me a marked man in Sydney.

Finally, we braved Grand Central Station, a huge art deco cavern that seems too indulgent for a railway station. Much of what goes on there is not railway business. Several wedding parties were posing up for photos and lots of other people, like us, simply stood and stared – without any thought of transportation. The place is also crammed with shops, along with the famous old oyster bar where they sell old oysters that John West rejected. What is most odd about Grand Central Station is its dull lighting, giving the impression of continual dusk, no matter what time of the day it is.