Monday, December 20, 2010

The Wandering Blues Travelogues: New York State of Mind

I'm sitting in a Gainesville hotel writing about New York. I'll be in Baltimore when I write about Gainesville. Then I'll be in Worcester, writing about Baltimore. And mispronouncing Worcester. 

---------

I grew up in Pennsylvania farm country. While growing up dirty and barefoot may have certain advantages--being able to regale wide-eyed suburbanites with tales of horseriding, fishing, and John Deere Day (the holiest of holy days when my alma mater used to let the kids drive their tractors to school), it was also ideally located for day trips to Baltimore, Philly, Pittsburgh, DC, and NYC. So I'd been to the Big Apple about--15?--times before.


Of course, this still makes me about a Threat Level Red on the Obvious Tourist Scale. But every time I board that NJ transit train I know I've got about 40 minutes to transform myself from the chattery uncoordinated country girl to a lean, mean, jaywalking machine. Generally, the New Jersey commuters help a lot with this transformation by staring incredulously at me for the entire trip.

I mean, you can't really blame them for staring. I board trains with the grace of a spindly three-legged foal wearing tap shoes. A spindly three-legged foal wearing tap shoes with luggage.

But by the time we hit Penn Station, I'm a sunglassed and high-heeled warrior. The armor's up. I walk fast, I don't yield, I weave in and out of crowds like a guided missile. It's why I worry about ever living in New York. That armor? It's pretty hard for a girl to carry. Especially when she usually walks like a baby Labrador.


-------

This trip was an odd blend of business and vacation. I'd write in the morning, explore, edit in the afternoon, and explore again at night. 

It was also an odd trip because I was operating on a shoestring budget. Not even a shoestring budget. A no-string budget. We're talking Stove Top made with the coffee maker-- like regular Stove Top, only crunchier. Given that I'd just spent 2+ hours in 18 degree weather, that crouton-like Stove Top tasted better than a steak at Sardi's. 

At one point I tried to make a grilled cheese sandwich with the iron, but realized I didn't have foil or wax paper. 

So I tried a washcloth.



 ---------


 My cheap Koreatown hotel rented out its rooftop to one of the best-kept secrets in Manhattan, the Mé Bar. Cheap drinks, indoor and outdoor seating, hot spiced cider with rum or whiskey (get the whiskey). Best of all? It's right next to the Empire State Building. 



The bartender spent about a half-hour telling me about the time he got lost in Amish Country: Lancaster, PA (near where I'm from). 

He said the f word thirty-six times. I loved him.

-------

"You can get beer anywhere in NYC," I was told. "Definitely don't bring it in."

You can get beer anywhere in NYC. If you want to drink Miller Lite, that is.

I tried three different drugstores, all with dismal results. But you can get beer anywhere in NYC, I insisted. One more stop before I gave up: a Korean supermarket.

The labels were all foreign, the prices all in Korean. But the beer selection? Compared to the rest of NYC, it was godly. I grabbed two cans of Guinness and tried to memorize the Korean characters for beer. I failed. But no language barriers existed for the age-old equation of cash=beer.

-------
I'd definitely recommend the La Quinta Inn Manhattan if you want a cheap hotel within walking distance of Penn Station and you don't mind that your hotel room will be the size of a large closet.

It's a wildly popular hotel for European visitors, so I'd also recommend it if you want to be sitting on the lobby couch beside an elderly Cockney couple passionately arguing about tissues, as I was.


--------


 I saw Chicago. Rush tickets scored me seventh-row seats.
The seats were awesome. The show was disappointing.

--------

The Christmas department store displays were cheesy and crowded as usual, but I love them. You'd love them too. Don't believe me? Exhibit A:
I actually have a record called "Disco Noel."
Synthesized, disco-ized Christmas carols.
I didn't know how to describe it until I saw this.
It's this. Exactly this.

Check out those PANTS.


A Very Merry Disco Christmas.

You're welcome.

---------


I can't go to New York City without visiting Bryant Park. I had a favorite hole-in-the-wall pizza joint on 42nd adjacent to Bryant, tucked in the back of a corner market. I'd take my two slices, both bigger than my head, and I'd grab a table at Bryant, eat my pizza, and people-watch. Let my armor down for a while.  This trip I found out they tore my pizza place down for some new skyscraper. I very nearly cried, right there in the middle of Bryant Park.


 ----------
Screw Rockefeller. Bryant Park at Christmastime is my favorite thing in the city.







Christ, I love New York.







Next stop on the Wandering Blues Travelogues: Gainesville, Florida.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wandering Blues (The Littlest Birds Sing the Prettiest Songs)

You pass through places and places pass through you
But you carry them with you on the soles of your travelling shoes

Well, I love you so dearly
, I love you so clearly
I wake you up in the morning so early just to tell you
I got the wandering blues
I got the wandering blues
And I'm going to quit these rambling ways one of these days soon


 Hello, blogosphere.

Please now picture me standing on a NYC balcony, arms outstretched, singing, "Don't cry for me, fellow bloggers! The truth is, I never left you! All through my wild days, my mad existence, I kept my promise. Don't keep your distance."

I know you haven't missed your weekly dose of Loaded Handbaggery because my posting is as random as a Rorschach blot. BUT I'm usually a much more faithfuller reader and commenter, and my Google Reader currently runs 250 deep. 250 unread posts, that is. I'm currently rambling about the country, staying in budget hotels and eating out of a cooler. Any and all free time/wifi access is locked into worktime. Naturally, every single one of my clients have picked exactly this time to bombard me with work. I know, I know, shut up and be grateful, Nicki.



But my darlings, your posts will be read and commented in the order they are received, and I may be playing catch-up for a while, so my apologies if you get comments on month-old entries. And expect a Wandering Blues Traveling Series soon. First stop: NYC!

Amour, Amor, Amore,
Nicki

Monday, December 13, 2010

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (Spoiler Alert: It's Phil Collins)

Setting: I'm visiting home and writing an article entitled "10 Classic 80's Rock Love Songs."

Cast of Characters:
Nicki: Our heroine. Our neurotic, overexcitable, classic rock-loving heroine.
Mike: Nicki's stepfather. Hunter. Mechanic. Tinkerer. Strong-handed, guitar-picking country man with a mighty love for Clint Eastwood, Led Zeppelin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Mom: A woman of formidable strength and brilliance. Acclaimed engineer. Mother of two. Tough as nails, sharp-witted, paper-thin with a warm smile. Cannot sing to save her life.

Editor's note: all quotation marks indicate a character is singing. Poorly.


Mike: Sweet Child O' Mine.
Nicki: Got it. Oo, I'll do Patience too.
Mike: That ballad by Kiss.
Nicki: Beth. I think that was 70's, but I'll check.
Mike: Foreigner.
Nicki: I Want to Know What Love Is AND Waiting for a Girl Like You. Got 'em both.
Mike: Amanda by Toto.
Nicki: Toto doesn't sing Amanda.
Mom: Yes they do. A-maaaa-anda, a-maaaa-aaaaanda.
Nicki: No. That's Rosanna. "All I wanna do when I wake up in the morning is see your eyes, Ro-saaaa-na, Rosaaaaa-na."
Mike: That's not it. It's AMANDA.
Nicki: You're thinking of Amy. "Aaaameeeee, whatchoo wanna doooooo, I think I could stay with you..."
Mike: NO.
Mom: What's that song with Phil Collins about breath?
Nicki: I'm not putting Phil Collins anywhere near my list of ROCK SONGS. What, do you want me to add "Total Eclipse of the Heart" too?
Mike: It's by Boston.
Nicki: No, that's "More Than a Feelin'." Enough about Amanda.
Mom: No, Phil Collins, maybe when he was still with Genesis, and he sang about breath.
Mike: Nicki. Google Amanda.
Nicki: I DON'T CARE IF PHIL COLLINS WENT ON TOUR WITH KISS, I AM NOT PUTTING HIM ON MY LIST.

Nicki Googles Amanda. 

Nicki: OH! "I'M GONNA TAKE YOU BY SURPRIIIIISE, MAKE YOU REALIZE, AMANDA."
Mike: That's it.
Mom: Oh, there's that ballad by Kiss, what's that called?
Nicki: "I'M GONNA TELL YOU RIGHT AWAY, I CAN'T WAIT ANOTHER DAY, AMANDAAAAA."
Mom: I know Phil Collins did that song for a movie with Madonna. It was a big hit.
Mike: Led Zeppelin had a song called Hot Dog.

Nicki: "I'M GONNA SAY IT LIKE A MAN AND MAKE YOU UNDERSTAND, AMANDAAAA."
Mom: Nicki. NICKI. That song by Kiss.
Nicki: Mom. MOM. It's Beth. That wasn't the eighties. Maybe I Was Made for Loving You was in the eighties.
Mike: What's that Whitesnake song where Tawny Kitaen crawls around on a Jaguar?
Nicki: Cherry Pie. OO, MY, CHERRY PIE. Not a love song.
Mike: NO. It is not Cherry Pie. It is a Whitesnake song.

Nicki googles "whitesnake song where girl crawls around on car." She's delighted to find a Yahoo Answers question phrased in the exact same way.

Nicki: Here I Go Again. Not gonna work.

Mike: Look up "When I'm With You." Play that one. It's by Sheriff.
Mom: I don't think Cher would be a good fit for this list.
Nicki: SherIFF, Mom, SherIFF.
Mike: It starts out cheesy but it gets good at the chorus.
Mom: How about Sister Sledge?

Nicki finds "When I'm With You." She quickly decides there's no way in hell she's putting it on her list, but keeps listening and nodding appreciatively to appease Mike.

Mike: Awww, yeah. This is it. This is IT.
Mom: What about Devo?
Nicki: ON WHAT PLANET IS WHIP IT A LOVE SONG?
Mom: You know, this really doesn't sound like Cher.
Nicki and Mike: SHERIFF.
Mom: Oh. Sheriff. You don't have to yell.
Nicki: Okay. Guys, I have fourteen songs for this list of ten songs. Thanks for all your help. Really. I've gotta start writing it now.
Mom: Okay. But what's that Phil Collins song? You know, with the drum part that goes DO-do, DO-do, DO-do-da-do-dodo.

Mike and Nicki stare in amazement.

Nicki: Holy crap. She means In the Air Tonight.
Mike: That's not a love song.
Nicki: Definitely not a love song.
Mike: Nope.
Nicki: Isn't that about someone drowning?
Mom: IT IS NOT. It's that movie with Madonna and it was a big hit from the movie. HUGE hit.

Nicki begins dutifully listing all Phil Collins songs.

Mom:  AGAINST ALL ODDS! THAT'S IT! It's from that movie! Against All Odds!





A minute passes. Mom is smiling triumphantly.

Nicki: (softly) That wasn't Madonna.
Mom: Shut it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gratitude

Let's just get this right out of the way. I'm thankful for being healthy, for being mentally sound, for being fed, clothed, watered, sheltered.

But there's a lot more to life, no?



...like chilled raspberry wine, cast iron skillets, lit fireplaces with firewood you gathered yourself.

The strange looks you got when you hefted logs up the stairs to your third floor apartment.


Dancing in your socks, coloring in your pajamas, impromptu swims with your clothing still on.



A new pair of boots, soft and suede.


Dark coffee. Seared scallops. Licking vanilla ice cream off a spoon.



Building a beach on the balcony.


Homemade margaritas.


Theatre that makes you cry.



Day trips. Weekend excursions. Seafood festivals with hot crab cakes.


Live blues. Red lipstick.


Throwing back shots with the dive bar regulars.


White flowers tucked behind a pretty girl's ear.




Ellipses, concrete nouns, hyphens, semicolons. 




Fosse and Sondheim.




A clicking typewriter. Mismatched socks.


Audrey Hepburn's eyelashes.


Jukeboxes.


Wild sea lions. My dog's head on my lap. Ginger Rogers.


Fondue parties, braised beef, Bailey's in my hot chocolate.


Someday having Carl Kasell's voice on my home answering machine.




The complete works of Dr. Suess.


Moët on the beach.


Pictures in brushed steel frames.


Family, friends, blog readers, people I've yet to know. 













Oh, yeah, and the Muppets.







(Your turn.)



Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Photoblog: Drought

I know I have a bunch of overdue award posts -- next week! In the meantime:














Monday, November 15, 2010

The Good Ole Spine Cracking Poll

I've been feeling really guilty about something for the past few months.

Okay, so guilt is a norm for me. I was raised Catholic. I also had a poor memory, which meant I'd face the priest with only a sin or two that I could actually recall, so I'd round out Confession with some Dick & Jane type sins like "I kicked Tommy in the shin" or "I pulled Sally's hair." I don't think I've ever pulled a girl's hair in my life. Sure did kick a lot of shins, though, so those Hail Marys were probably deserved.

But now? I feel especially guilty. As a kid, I was the biggest bookworm you've ever seen in your life. All I wanted for Christmas were books (and, once, a Trapper Keeper). My parent's worst punishment, reserved only for very, very special occasions, was to take my books away. I read everything I could get my hands on. This continued even past my English majordom, where I'd burn through a dozen required books a week and still have enough bookworm momentum to power through my suggested Writer's Reading List during summer breaks.

I bought a Kindle, for Chrissakes.


But lately? Whenever I look longingly at my bookshelf, I remember the article I haven't edited yet or the email I haven't sent. I haven't read a damn word. Not before bed. Not in the morning. Not at lunchtime. We all know the second-most repeated rule in Would-Be Writer history (second after "Show, Don't Tell") is "To Be a Good Writer You Must Be a Good Reader." So I've got a shelf full of spines I haven't cracked. What do I do?

I ask you what you do.

I know you, bloggers. You're writers. Which means you were once (and probably still are) readers. How do you do it? When do you do it?

What do you read? 

Who are your favorite authors? Who are your favorite poets?

What are your book suggestions? If you could only pick three books that I need to read before I curl up and die, what would they be?



Now, I'm going to go take a bath with the afterlife. AKA Mary Roach's Spook. Fellow bookworms can find me on Readernaut to see what I've been reading as well as my occasional (pretentious and analytical) reviews. (Readernaut's kinda like a social networked bookshelf. Great way to connect with other readers, but kinda underused. Do you use a different bookwormy social networking site? Lemme know.)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

So This One Time I Went to Mexico

Being a poor travel writer is kind of like being a perennially single girl who writes about weddings.


I write about exclusive resorts. Swim-up bars. Hydrothermal experiences. 24-hour butler service. Complimentary caviar tastings. Honeymoon packages. Private villas tucked into a labyrinth of gilded lilies and breathtaking waterscapes.


Like the divorced wedding planner who sits at the back of the wedding and raises her glass with everyone else. Here's to your happiness. Bitch.


It's not all hydrothermal gilded lilies. I list the cleanest hostels with the biggest shared bathrooms. I write about eclectic Sydney boutique hotels and mod bars with egg-shaped toilets. I could list every show playing in the West End right now.

But someday? Someday I'm going to be a real travel writer. Not some leech who lives vicariously through resort webpages and Fodor's travel guides like a pathetic parasite. I'm going to be the one who discovers the egg-shaped toilets. I'm going to recount drinking a crowd of Mexican waiters under the table or smashing a guitar over someone's head, Roman Holiday-style.


So, in honor of this goddamn article I'm writing about Playa del Carmen resorts--which, in a stunning rarity, is a place I've actually been to--I present one of the few travel essays I've ever written. 


Overexposure

Chichen Itza, Mexico. It is eighty degrees in March and tourists cluster to gawk at the pyramid. A month ago a woman died climbing this pyramid. Heart failure. Now thick ropes and tour guides prevent us from scaling those narrow, ancient steps. The snarling undercurrent of complaint can be heard among the tour groups: “One rotten heart spoils the bunch,” a man gripes.
Peddlers’ blankets dot every trail through Chichen and my companions stop at each one, marveling to touch the hand-carved frogs, the brightly woven blankets. A mother sees us approaching and snaps her fingers at her daughter. The girl is four or a petite five. She pads up, brushing ragged hair out of her eyes, and thrusts bottled water at us. The mother watches too expectantly. We are a herd of easy targets.
What a pack of bleeding hearts we must seem, all of us seventeen or a young eighteen, awkwardly stepping out into another country like fawns. We are top-heavy from our cameras and wide eyes, and we are eager to bring back souvenirs and photo albums filled with evidence of how cultured our five-day stint in Mexico has made us.
We reluctantly decline the water. Her mother is already snapping her fingers towards a new batch of tourists shuffling down the path. The girl comes up to the pocket of the new man’s neatly pressed khakis, his velcroed sandals scuffing to a halt beside her bare feet. I take the picture.

All day long we have been admiring peddlers’ airy white dresses embroidered with colored flowers. We’ve seen them for sale at every third booth. Jenna stares at a white halter dress, wistfully fingering the material.  She bites her lip.
            “I’m just worried because I can’t try it on, y’know? I don’t know how it’ll fit. I don’t want to spend money on a dress I’ll never wear because it doesn’t fit right.”
            We hesitate. We’re poor, and her logic is sound. A Mayan woman sits in the shade, head bent over her embroidery. We move on.
            Later, we find the same style of dresses at the Cancun Wal-mart. We surge into the dressing rooms, pulling dresses over our heads while price tags wave like surrender flags. The sizes marked in bold are refreshing and the lack of bartering is comforting—-no gringo can be taken advantage of here, no one can unknowingly haggle for a fool’s price. We each buy one for 400 pesos. Later we’ll tug them down over bathing suits and show them off around the hotel pool, flouncing into pool chairs and taking pictures of ourselves reclining like goddesses in our breezy white dresses.
           
Everything is cheaper in Mexico, we were promised. We are eager to hunt out bargains in the Playa del Carmen marketplace. Shops hum with tourists and shopkeepers smiling little fox smiles, displaying jewelry and wares with a flourish of open palms. One is wooing Liz, putting a turquoise necklace around her neck. She motions me over to translate.
            “Cuatrocientos,” he says firmly.
            “40,” I mistranslate. Four dollars. I’m surprised by the price and believe the necklace must be imitation turquoise.  Everything is cheaper in Mexico. Liz widens her eyes and digs out her wallet to produce four ten peso notes. The man bats her hand aside.
            “No, no. Adios. ¡Adios!” he says, shooing us from his table. Embarrassed, we pretend not to understand, innocently scanning the rest of his wares. “Bye-bye!” he manages, and we dart away to another booth.
            Here in Playa del Carmen, the town reeks of tourism. The shops are full of silver jewelry and expensive paintings, the beaches immaculate, the hotels occupying much of the town’s real estate. Everything is tailored, everything sparkles like the Caribbean. It makes us anxious to see The Real Mexico, we tell our chaperones.
            Leaving Playa del Carmen, we experience our first taste of The Real Mexico from behind our charter bus’ tall, thick windows. Here is the gray stone church rising like an obelisk in the town’s center. Here is the town’s market in the plaza, women clucking and gossiping at each other’s tables. Here is the tarnished yellow bicycle-cart with a crate of oranges in the back. Here are the Coca-cola logos plastered on walls, signs, menus, billboards, even roofs; Mexico was built on Coca-cola. Here is the faded salmon paint, the barefoot boys idling near the cars from the seventies; the houses dangerously tilting into one another, as if leaning on each other for support.
            Our cameras click and whir through it all, through the sad eyes and the torn skirts, through the collapsed buildings and cluttered alleys.
            We head into the mountains. This road is a series of deadly turns and our bus careens around each bend wildly, sending thrills through our stomachs. Without warning, the bus slows. A blue truck with a blackened hood is nestled headfirst into a ditch. Thirty faces press eagerly to the window to see an authentic Mexican car crash. As we pass, I see the charred face of the driver, still half-slumped over the wheel.
To my right, I hear the camera click.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Photoblog: Behind the Scenes of Lady in the Water

I didn't want to set too deep of a My Photographs Are Art photoblog precedent. Largely, my photographs are not art. They're of last night's meatloaf or my dog sleeping with his head behind his leg.


Also, I'm a terrible model. As we explained in About the Friday Photoblog, I'm 50% of the only models we have. So for every pretty shot like this one...:


...I have about eighty pictures like these: 
Goddamn paparazzi. 



I'm rubbing the sunglasses mark out. Obviously.

Also note how disgustingly green the water is. Which, at the time, I was pleased with. BECAUSE IT MAKES FOR PRETTY PICTURES. And deformations. Probably.

This is not me posing. This is me falling. WITH STYLE.

Take note of my "The bottom of this lake is ridiculously slimy " hands.




And finally...
This is my "The Water Is Really Cold On My Ladyparts" face.

The Kids Love The Karaoke

The Friday Photoblog will actually be up TODAY, not tomorrow. Try to pick your jaws up from the ground.

--------------------------

This post goes out to all the freelance writers out there. 

Today I'm writing about karaoke. It's not the best assignment I've ever had, but it's definitely not the worst. Hell, I spent the morning profiling a website that sells frozen delivered turducken.

(I was fascinated. It serves 20-25. Costs $136. It takes 72 hours to dethaw. For an additional 3.99, you can add a personalized greeting card. I didn't have to write about any of this. I did outside research.  BECAUSE THEY DELIVER TURDUCKEN. It's the modern version of A Christmas Carol.

Ebeneezer Scrooge just pays some acne'd kid to hop on the interwebz and order up a turducken for the Cratchetts.

...I am changing my name to Cratchett because that just might be my dream Christmas. Especially if it's the Patrick Stewart Scrooge.)

While researching all things drunken and karaoke-y, I came across this: The Kids Love The Karaoke Disney Song

This? This??? This is why we get paid for pennies, folks. Because people are willing to write meaningless keyword-stuffed posts about keywords like "The Karaoke Disney Song." 

But today, I'm okay with it. Because that is the most unintentionally hilarious post I've read since The Relevent Crazy Warning.

Because the kids love the karaoke.

And they are able to grab almost any mimic.

 The kid will not be disappointed by their choice and he will sing all day long in order to impress everybody.

AND DID YOU SEE THE PICTURE OF THE BLACK GUY SIPPING ON COKE AND RUM IN A PURPLE KILT? 

A PURPLE KILT HITCHED UP TO HIS WAIST TO REVEAL GARTERED SOCKS?



If that's what The Disney Karaoke Song is, I want the album, stat.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dear Neighborhood Children,

HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO BE A FLESH-EATING ZOMBIE PIRATE WHO IS TAKING THE NIGHT OFF FROM BRAIN-EATING AND SWASHBUCKLING IN ORDER TO HAND OUT THIS COSTCO-SIZED BOX OF FULL-SIZED CANDY BARS WHEN NOT A SINGLE TRICK-OR-TREATER SHOWS UP??

Kisses,
Nicki

P.S. I don't even like candy.

P.P.S. If you still want to show up in your little Spiderman and Little Mermaid costumes I will still give you candy.

P.P.P.S. No, seriously, you guys. I have a whole box. It's good candy, too. Twix, Milky Way, Snickers. It's not like Necco Wafers or something.

P.P.P.P.S. I am 90% sure Hurricane Earl is behind this.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

(Belated) Friday Photoblog: Lady in the Water

Because I occasionally moonlight as the Lady of Shalott.