Tipping Point JohnnyFox September 19, 2013 Other Writing I think my love affair with New York may have reached a plateau. It’s 35 years since I first visited and in that time, of course, we’ve both changed. Maybe we should see other people. It’s not you, it’s me. But actually it is you. I’ve stayed for weeks, weekends and when I worked here, a year; I’ve visited alone, with friends, with lovers, with every long-term partner I ever had, when the pound’s at par with the dollar and when it was two-for-one, and in every season from socked-in blizzard to volcanic ash cloud to hellish heat and humidity (like this Tuesday). Anywhere you know that well should have a comforting familiarity but this time the familiarity is actually discomfiting: I’m seeing as ugly the polarization of the city into a privileged playground of Fifth Avenue shopping, luxury dining and ‘exclusive’ club-level premium-rate access to practically everything, contrasted with an almost slave-labouring underclass managing the humping, shifting, cleaning, driving and catering that underpins New York’s ability to function. That the people who do this are ethnically, socially and linguistically divergent from the ones they serve is disturbing, as is the fact they all live far from the island of Manhattan and their daily journey to do these menial jobs is long and early and arduous. Also cluttering the sidewalks and subways are the in-town-for-two-days tourists from States with square corners whose ignorance and taste afflicts the cultural life of the city to the extent that 90% of available entertainment has to be dumbed to their level. At the ticket booth in Times Square you queue two hours for a jukebox musical, two minutes for a stage play. I took a guided walk round Central Park – fountains, statues, a bit of history about Frederick Law Olmsted and the city fathers who let him reclaim the swamp. At a statue of Columbus a woman in a golf visor with the projection of a shop awning shading a low-budget chemical peel and tuck asked “are you sure he was Italian, he doesn’t have a very Italian name”. Taking a guided walk wasn’t a new experience for me, but I’m having to try too hard to find things to do: on TripAdvisor’s list of ‘must sees’, I got to number 83 before I found something untried. The Rubin Museum of Art. No, I’d never heard of it either. But it has a Himalayan restaurant with ‘Buddhist Chickpea and Paneer Salad’ for $11. How do they know the chickpeas were Buddhist? The harmless faith of the chickpea aside, everything here seems expensive. Even with the £ at $1.55, pretty generous to us Brits, it proved almost impossible to find a clean, decent hotel room under £300 a night: and since my shopping so far has been a couple of Brooks Brothers shirts and a dozen coffee mugs from Crate and Barrel on which I saved about £40 by not buying them my own side of the Atlantic, there’s not exactly a lot of offset. Although as a critic I get London theatre tickets for free, I’m constantly concerned about evaluating shows from the viewpoint of the paying punter, whether it’s £12 in a room over a pub in Camden, or £70 in Shaftesbury Avenue. The median for Broadway now seems to be $140, plus various taxes and charges rounding a typical spend up to £100 and that could be a seat three rows from the back of the Stalls in some of the gigantic theatres. Sight lines are good, mostly better than the pillar-strewn West End. You get a free ‘Playbill’ (programme) which saves you £4 on Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s prices, but a woman in front of me bought two bottles of water and a modestly-sized bag of M&Ms, for $23. Plus tip. Which comes with such intimidation techniques it can no longer be considered ‘optional’. Once when eating in an unimpressive hamburger joint on a previous visit, the service had been dismal: I left about ten percent and the waitress followed us outside … my Upper East Side Jewish American Princess guest (who had been the one to complain loudly about the service) still laid on the guilt with a trowel: “It’s okay, don’t think about it, I’ll just never be able to come in here again.” I know there have been countless treatises on the convention of not paying employees serious salaries but expecting them to glean their income from voluntary service charges. This time, I actually had a waiter deliver a bill with the Ukranian-Bronx accented message “a recommended gruh-too-i-tee of 18 to 20 puhssent is nyot inclyuded”. Since waitering requires the same skills whether you’re in a restaurant that charges $25 for pizza or $150 for ‘fine dining’ and native Noo Yawkers habitually tip ‘double the tax’ or about 16%, I’m surprised their unions don’t demand a more equitable regime of compensation. When I was stuck here during the volcanic ash cloud, I did an interior design job for my involuntary host, a successful investment banker. He was comparatively charming but it was hateful because the Sloane Ranger ‘project manager’ who’d lured me into it with champagne and blandishments in London was a woman we’d both worked with but who I suspected he’d also been shagging, and with whom I had to cohabit in Richard Gere’s recently-vacated and totally empty apartment for four unpleasant weeks till I could get a flight home. He took us out to dinner frequently to soften the blow of living in 8000 square feet of unheated Gere vacuity, once to an impossibly pretentious place in the West Village where five of us were ushered into the ‘club’ room and served indifferent food round what felt like an ironing board, for four thousand dollars, including a two thousand dollar bottle of immature Chateau Showoff on which he paid a $700 cash tip separately from the service charge. So the waiter earned more from an hour and a half’s fawning than I did for a whole day on the design project. Whether it’s the inequities that are making me uncomfortable, or the oppressive heat and humidity, I’ve had enough and am off to Washington to cool down for my last couple of days.