Friday, May 31, 2013

Arlene's Travel Tips (some are for the birds)

Flying Tips

1.     Hungry before your flight and thinking of trying that hot and spicy mystery sauce? An hour prior to departure on that overseas flight is not the time to experiment with something new from the airport cuisine. I know. I once scarfed down a roast beef sandwich with horseradish just before a flight to Ireland. My stomach rebelled just as the engines kicked in and lasted until well after we landed. I spent most of the flight out of my seat and chatting with the flight attendants, who had their own seats nearby. We were practically on a first name basis. As I waited my turns, one told me about her years of service with different airlines and how their pensions have dwindled. The conversation would never have happened had I not been trotting up and down the aisles. Was it worth it? Not really.

2.     Purchase water and snacks before boarding. Okay, these things are overpriced. But on one flight the drink cart was just two rows before me and then – the pilot announced turbulence, the cart was put away and no water or soda or drinks for anyone. By the time the turbulence subsided it was too late to bring the cart out again. This doesn’t always happen. But just in case it does, you'll be prepared.

3.     Sit as close to the front of the plane and on buses as you can. Nothing worse than hobbling through the entire bus, banging backs of seats and people with your bags. Or not hearing the bus driver recite important information.

4.     Be friendly to your flight attendants: a hello, thank you and goodbye and only ring the call button when necessary. On a recent flight, an announcement was made before boarding that this was a full flight and passengers in Zones Four and Zone Five were being asked to check their carry-ons. Well, you know where I was! Zone Five. But of course!

Well, I was traveling with a laptop in my handbag/overnight bag and a carry-on with photography equipment and there was no way I was going to check that. And if I tried to sneak past – well, don’t try and get anything past a flight attendant. I politely approached the counter and said, “Hello. As luck would have it and I’m in Zone Five. My bag has camera equipment in it and I’m afraid to hand it over. What would you suggest?” The flight attendant didn’t miss a beat. “Come see me after the Zone Three has boarded.” Not only did I board earlier than my fellow Zone Fivers but my bag was placed right above me, not 20 rows back. Hooray!

5.     Turn off your cell phone. One flight attendant told this story, in her most charming Southern accent but in a tone that could cut a table in two, to one recalcitrant male who refused to turn his off in spite of several announcements and personal warnings from her. She was on a plane, she said, when an FAA inspector boarded. Every person he caught with his or her cell phone on, she explained, received a fine. One man angrily announced that he would not pay it. “That’s your choice,” the inspector said. “You’ll be banned from flying on every domestic flight.” That, she said, was the end of the conversation. The man on my plane turned his phone off. That was the end of THEIR conversation. But, in the meantime, a woman sitting next to me was busy texting to her traveling companion one row over.

“Honey. Honey,” my now favorite flight attendant said. “Please turn the cell phone off. These are FAA regulations.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” the young woman protested.

“Yes, you did,” the flight attendant said with an elegant firmness. “You chose to ignore it. Turn the cell phone off. You have two choices. You can either turn it off or someone will be meeting you at the gate.”

She still didn’t turn it off. “Yeah, yeah,” she said without looking up.
"Completely off or we can have someone meet you at the gate.”
My fellow passenger finally turned it off and stashed it in the seat pocket in front of her and closed her eyes with a sigh.

The flight attendant would have made a great dean. I thanked her as I departed the plane. “You handled that beautifully,” I complimented. "I just wanted to let you know that someone noticed.”

6.     Save a stash of old clothes, socks, and underwear for traveling that are still presentable and dispose of them instead of bringing them home. Makes for a lighter suitcase and more room for souvenirs.

As a Houseguest

7.     Always bring a gift.

8.     If you have cookies, I will find them.

9.     Be careful of what you eat. It turned out that peanut butter cookies were a treat for the birds. This might explain why Oscar, the African gray parrot that whistles the theme song from Jeopardy, gave me murderous looks and bit me twice.

10.     Check with your host or hostess as to what is available to eat. My uncle and aunt have a separate refrigerator set out on their sun porch for sodas, drinks, and what I thought were plastic bins of cheerfully colored alphabet cereal. I was a handful away from grabbing a few to munch on when I noticed the beady eyes of Oscar trained on me. I looked at it again and decided to sniff it. Definitely for the birds.

The morale of the story is: Respect the flight attendants and birds, check what you eat whether you’re in the airport or have your head in someone else’s refrigerator, and when all else fails, you’ll be home before you know it.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Prada and Prejudice: My Adventures in Couture

My laborious brown handbag/suitcase/overnight bag with its padded zippered compartments came to me as a couture item from The Container Store, manufactured by Lug and once heartily endorsed by Oprah. It carries the catchy name of Puddle Jumper although mine is packed to the gills and so heavy I’d land, as the Brits across the pond would say, flat on my arse after making a hearty namesake attempt. 

With this bag in hand or rather shouldered, I entered the Prada store in Soho. Why? you ask. For a woman whose style evolution requires a quizzical look plus imagination once you get past the birdcage dangling from her neck, it was certainly out of context. By why not?

Standing on the corner of Prince and Broadway in Soho and sandwiched between endless food carts and gaggles of tourists dressed rather haphazardly, I doubt that anyone shopping at Prada devours much more than a morsel from these wheeled diners, let alone be seen near one. Dresses from the upcoming remake of The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo –You-Know-Who drew me in. It was no longer just a store but an expedition to a museum of style.

Women applauded when I said that I had gained entrance to the hallowed grotto of Prada. After giving this some consideration, I’m thinking that it just may go back to that primal fear of not being good looking enough or thin enough and that we could be rejected. But confidence and nerve go a long way. My biggest fear was that security would wave me away as I staggered in under the weight of my bag. After taking a deep breath, I pulled the door open and cheerfully announced, “Hello! I’m in the neighborhood and came to see the The Great Gatsby costumes and look around.” 

Perfectly coiffed, thin, and dressed in sophisticated black but not overdone, a saleswoman pleasantly pointed out that the exhibit was down the steps and that I was welcome to look around. She looked me in the eye, which means she missed the pen and grape fruit juice stains. Considering the other two tourists there, I was as sophisticated as Holly Golightly. One pudgy woman huddled in a corner next to a mannequin, chatting on her cell phone. A young woman, wearing an outfit that looked like several wrinkled valances sewn together paired with cowboy boots, oily brown hair and bangs, looked confused. Walking down the steps to the bottom and looking up at the mannequins, well, the craftsmanship of Miuccia Prada was stunning, with meticulous details and beadwork.

Saleswomen and men politely eyed my look, which was definitely outré for Prada. Black pants, essential in any stylish women’s wardrobe, can be worn all year round. Mine were plucked from a neat pile of same black cotton pants at Kohl’s. So they were a little wrinkled—
ironing is not my forte—and the ends of the cuffs were a bit frayed from dragging on the sidewalk. Once I came home to find someone else’s candy wrapper hidden in the cuffs. Hopefully, no cicadas will find a home there once they emerge from the soils of the city. Perfectly matching and comfortable shoes hiding my burgeoning bunions were by Merrell so I could pick up and run on a dime, even though nothing costs a dime anymore except the pretzel sticks at Dichter's Pharmacy in Inwood.

A DKNY black tank top started out being tucked into my pants but somehow made its way above my waist. Adding to this swanky ensemble was a beige linen tunic circa Eileen Fisher with two large pockets filled with tissues for my allergies, a five-dollar bill, two pens, and a small notebook. I like pockets. But nothing is called beige anymore. The label called it something like Sahara sand or light stone or sidewalk cement. A streaky blue pen mark added a sense of mystery and the Rorschach style grape juice stain on the bottom hem added a bent of wild abandonment. A black cardigan by J. Crew tied it all together. So far, no one has commented on the pink embroidered circle that hides a hole in the pocket. Martha Stewart approves, since she gave me the idea from her magazine. And, yes, there’s more. A brown Cole Haan jacket that I’m still trying to close was tossed over my look for the finishing touch. Snap!

Thankfully, I didn’t clash with mannequins adorned with costumes, shoes, and jewelry designed for the movie. The mannequins were so thin that they looked hungry. They’re more dazzling than me but in a more standoffish way. Of course, they ARE a size two and I’m so sure they can be seen if I’m parked in front of them. But no one in the store was there to see moi.

Security men in dark suits peered over the balcony and stood on the outskirts of the exhibit. One directed tourists like me to an alcove where a video was being played. Catherine Martin, the costume designer for the movie, spoke about Prada clothing as clips from the movie framed her interview. I would prefer to see the cutters and sewers and hemmers and fitters at work. It was really a commercial for the movie but you could discover the sense and sensibility of Prada’s 100-year-old style and how the fashion house adapted vintage styles and made it their own.

Seguing over to the retail side of the store, I discovered that there were no price tags on clothing, shoes, purses, jewelry and sunglasses. It goes back to that old axiom that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. A dozen of their exquisitely made purses could fit into my bag, although at this point there’s not an inch for another darn thing.

Let’s face it. I’m not the Prada demographic. Friends of mine think that I’m closer to a size ten but it depends. From each of my four sides, I look thinner. But the dimensions of my circumference do me in.

No one eyed me suspiciously as I moved around the corridors of clothing with just a few items of clothing on each rack. If they did eye me, either in person or via security camera, it was done discreetly, certainly the hallmark of good taste. A salesman wore a sharp dark gray shirt and I could see over the top of his head. I approached him thoughtfully, but he was too well trained to be startled.

“I’m just curious,” I announced, placing my suitcase over my stomach so that

my tunic didn’t look so, well, beige. “What’s the largest size that you carry?”

“We go up to about a 46,” he replied, explaining that this European size translates into an American size 10 or a 12 depending on the cut. And the cut at Prada is quite slim.

“Hmm,” I said, thoughtfully. “What would someone like me do? I mean, I’m a comfortable 12 but usually veer into the 14 and sometimes 16 range. Would I have to lose weight?” I deftly suggested.

“I can’t say that to the customer,” he said, looking around nervously.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” I reassured him with a hearty midwesterness that belied my New York City roots. Cawfee and chawcolate, anyone?

He deftly suggested back: “That could be an incentive if you’d like to wear this line.”

I wasn’t ready to give up just yet.“Perhaps. But would your seamstress or tailor be able to make any adjustments?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “We don’t do special orders.”

Do you believe that? If Nicole Kidman were 150 pounds heavier, they wouldn’t leave her hanging by a thread.

I thanked him and continued to peruse through the racks, gently stroking some sort of hairy stole that WOULD fit and a clear crystal dress that was an outtake from The Great Gatsby. Special order, my fat tuchus. Even if I lost 60 pounds, my hipbones would have to be removed for the garment to glide on. Stunning s
hoes look like they belong in a museum. Shoes with six inches heels or higher look delicate and chic on a size six. A size nine on feet with the previously mentioned bunions connected with someone whose balance is jeopardized by linoleum could be dangerous.

The only item that would fit would be a pair of sunglasses. I thought of Paul Gallico’s novel, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, the story of a British cleaning lady who scrimps and saves every penny for a Dior gown. That’s an idea. Maybe I could start a Kickstarter or Indigogo campaign. But I’m much too practical for that. I could go couture for my next book signing and see if they, meaning Prada or Bergdorf’s, would loan me a dress just like they offer celebrities and other women who can afford it but don’t pay for it.

Or like Mrs. ‘Arris, I could start saving now. But money isn’t the issue. The pastries and croque monsieur (I could eat two) at Francois Payard Bakery on Broadway and 58th Street are too good to pass up. At least until La Marina on Dyckman Street starts serving them again.

Prada will just have to wait.

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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Cat. No Hat. Oh, the things that go on in the subway!

The A train has its share of performers, from the agile teenage boys who shout “Showtime!” and set up a boombox for breakdancing and hit the ceiling with a startling kick, a parade of people begging for money in various states of dress with some shoeless and adorned with a perfume of the ages, rabid preachers, guitarists in sombreros and leather boots. . .they’ve become a staple of the ride.

The preachers are the most annoying as they shout to save us from salvation and a fiery ending. Apparently, we are all sinners. I’ve decided that the next time one shouts out for redemption in my subway car, I’m going to direct him to the next one with an impassioned plea: “Thank you but we’re all saved in this car. But look at those poor souls in the car next to us. They need to hear you. Look! They’re waving. I can hear them calling you. Better rush over!”

But there was no preacher on this Tuesday evening in May, about nine in the evening, An African-American man, maybe about 60 or so, dressed in a clean t-shirt and jeans and wearing sneakers, yelled into my ear. Not intentionally. He might not have seen me even though I stood next to him. You know how this goes.

“I’m sorry I have to yell but you have to hear me!”

I cringed and changed from the pole position to nearer the closed subway car door. Two men sitting on the sherbet orange seats smiled at me in sympathy. But they didn’t offer me their seats, it should be noted.

Another evening on the uptown A train.

“I’m a homeless veteran. . . a fire. . .wife and two children. . .I served this country. . .”

He walked up and down the car.

 “. . .need help. . .anything you can do. . .”

A chunky man sitting in a corner seat stood up, his face red, and pointed angrily. The diversion was startling.

“Shut up! Shut up!” he yelled. “I don’t want to hear this!”

By this time, I had crossed to the door on the opposite side of the train and ended up in the direct path of these two.

The man asking for help walked over and yelled back, standing by the pole which was swiftly vacated.

“Who the fuck do you think you are? I’m going to light you up! Mother fucker. I’m from Bed-Stuy. Who do you think you're talking to!"

"I don't want to hear this!" the other man shouted back. "You're lying!"

The man requesting assistance raised his hands and his fists. The other man sat down.

A woman who appeared to be his wife came between them and gently pushed her husband back.

Was this going to be a rumble? What should we do? We didn’t move, fixated on the two combatants. No one stepped in to break it up, even though there were men, younger and older, bigger and stronger. 

“C’mon. Let’s go,” the wife coaxed. 

There was no place to go because we were moving between 59th and 125th Streets, the longest part of the trip.

“It isn’t worth it,” I said to her in a low voice, envisioning the two of them locked up in Central Booking for a fight they hadn’t expected and leaving their two children without parents for at least a night.  I couldn’t think of anything diplomatic or even humorous to say, because, like my fellow travelers, I was afraid that the anger would take a turn and be directed at me.

The two men continued.

“I don’t want to hear this!” the second man shouted again, his face turning red. He was a doughy guy who didn’t seem to present much of an opponent, even for me. Our fellow passengers looked alarmed and one woman stood up and nervously stuffed some money into the beggar’s hand, perhaps hoping he would go away. 

“I’m going to light you up!” he shouted. “I’m a Viet Nam vet!I served this country.”

He pulled out his wallet and held up a card that not one us could read, but I imagined it was an identification card attesting to his status.

“I have lung cancer. I’m gonna light you up!”

A younger African-American man walked over and the two men fist bumped.

The wife noted, “He's’ going to help you out,” she said loudly to her husband.

But the indignity of having to beg strangers for money coupled with a challenge apparently was more than he could bear. His wife pushed him out the door when the train finally arrived into the station. He cursed at his new enemy as the train pulled away.

The crowd still looked nervous, perplexed at the exchange and what would or could happen next. The antagonizer still sat with us when the door closed and the A train left the station.

“Hey, everyone!” I called out from my spot facing the crowd, hoping to lighten the mood. “I have cat pictures!”

I held up my cellphone, a headshot of a contemplative white cat named George looking into the camera, one of three white house cats who lived with a friend in Philadelphia.

My train companions looked startled at first and then smiled and laughed. The man sitting in the corner had no reaction. Just my luck, I thought to myself, he’s probably getting out at my stop.

I was right.

When the train stopped at Dyckman Street, he stood up to get out.  I walked behind him as he went right and I went left. Up the stairs and onto the street.

George the cat lives on as a screen shot on my computer and now on the Internet, for all to see. And that is that.

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