Archive for September, 2011

Chicago

September 28, 2011

I spent a lovely weekend in Chicago. I don’t mean “lovely” in the throwaway sense that English people use it — a lovely marmalade is whatever’s on the table, a lovely woman is anyone who’s not a bitch, and just plain “Lovely!” could mean anything from “Thank you for the flowers!” to “Okay, been nice talking to you, I need to wrap this conversation up now!”

No, I mean the American “lovely” — a word that’s so soft and sweet you don’t trot it out for any old thing. You have to really mean it.

Anyway, my weekend was so lovely I forgot to take pictures. But I did get this one, which proves I was there.

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Views

September 28, 2011

Pittsburgh has lots of bridges. This is one of them.

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This is the clock outside Kaufmann’s department store. It is something of a Pittsburgh landmark, and back in the day, people used to meet “under the Kaufmann’s clock.” Sadly, Kaufmann’s is now a Macy’s — the same blah fate that befell Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Woodward & Lothrop in Washington.

Mr. Kaufmann, you’ll remember, commissioned Fallingwater. In its heyday, his store was the Amazon of Pittsburgh. You could get anything there, including a milkshake at the Tic Toc diner. The 11th floor was a luxe dress shop with the latest European fashions. There was even an infirmary, which looked after employees and the occasional overwhelmed shopper.

But all that’s left now is the clock.

Pittsburgh

September 27, 2011

I’ve been wanting to visit Pittsburgh since I read “An American Childhood” by Annie Dillard. Here’s what she says about its beginnings:

The wilderness was uncanny, unknown. Benjamin Franklin had already invented his stove in Philadelphia by 1753, and Thomas Jefferson was a schoolboy in Virginia; French soldiers had been living in forts along Lake Erie for two generations. But west of the Alleghenies in western Pennsylvania, there was not even a settlement, not even a cabin. No Indians lived there, or even near there…

In 1753, young George Washington surveyed for the English this point of land where the rivers meet. To see the forest-blurred lay of the land, he rode his horse to a ridgetop and climbed a tree. He judged it would make a good spot for a fort. And an English fort it became, and a depot for Indian traders to the Ohio country, and later a French fort and way station to New Orleans.”

And later still, Pittsburgh became a steel town.

By the 1890s, Andrew Carnegie, the founder of Carnegie Steel — who was born some tiny place in Scotland, and whose first job was on the floor of a bobbin factory — had become the richest man in America. Pittsburgh was booming. During World War II, it produced 95 million tons of steel. Take that, Nazis.

By the 1970s, it was all over. The entire industry just — poof — disappeared. Only the pollution stuck around: Pittsburgh had smog back when LA was still a bunch of orange groves. It started out rich and ended up filthy.

But don’t worry, this isn’t a story with a sad Detroit ending. After a few tough decades — the 80s were bad for everyone, and not just because of the hairdos — Pittsburgh now has a booming tech industry. The downtown is packed with offices, hotels, and theaters. Of course, Pittsburgh’s never been a glamorous city — how could it, with that name? (It could be worse; it could be called Fartsville.) But it still has the hills, the rivers — clean now — and the gritty-pretty skyline.

I’ve been wanting to see Pittsburgh since practically forever. Now that I’ve been, I want to go back.

Vroom

September 27, 2011

The drive to Bear Run Creek is beautiful, a narrow road over rolling wooded hills. On the day I went, it was made even more picturesque by the oncoming traffic, which was mainly cars old enough to be called “automobiles.”

It seems an association of classic car people was out for a spin — actually, a several-hundred mile road trip across the Alleghenies — and Fallingwater was one of the stops. The parking lot was jam-packed: Pontiacs and Packards, Chevrolets and Hudsons. I took some pictures for my brother-in-law, because he is a car nut and I wish he could have been there.

Also, it’s only decent to point out that the people on my tour — the ones I was making fun of, remember? — were part of this group. They’re the ones who restore and maintain these amazing machines. So while they might not like walking per se, they are not lazy. They bring more energy and enthusiasm to a hobby than I sure ever have.

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Edifice

September 24, 2011

The arduous path.

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The most famous view of the most famous house; when you’re on the tour, they tell you where to stand to take this picture.

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These stairs connect the living room to the creek. I had heard that the water literally runs through the house, which isn’t exactly the case. Still, you could mix yourself a gin and tonic upstairs, then come right down and sit with your legs in the water. Not a bad way to spend a summer’s day.

Fallingwater

September 24, 2011

Yesterday I went to Fallingwater. It’s arguably the most famous house in America; based on my tour group, I’d say it’s especially popular with people over 60.

You get to the house on a short path, through woods filled with rhododendron and moss. About halfway there I could hear two things: 1) Bear Run Creek, which is what gives Fallingwater its name and 2) old people complaining.

“Getting my exercise today!”

“It’s all downhill. You know what that means on the way back!”

(How could they resent a five-minute stroll? Would they prefer a Fallingwater with a view of the parking lot? But in fairness, most of them were fat as well as old.)

Anyway, I’d seen a few Frank Lloyd Wright buildings before, and never really understood the hoopla. Now I do.

I think Fallingwater is better because of Wright had a better client — Edgar Kaufmann (more on that later). Sure: kudos to the architect for perching the house right over the stream. Great idea! But what I really loved was the Kaufmanns’ stuff. Their art! Their objects! Their taste in pillows! It was all so personal — it felt, I swear, like they’d just left the room a moment ago.

Departure

September 22, 2011

Present be damned. Tomorrow I’m launching into a new future.

Here’s the rough itinerary for my road trip:

Midwest

Marketing firms like to call the midwest “America’s Heartland.” This is about as razzle-dazzle a nickname as you could come up with. The midwest doesn’t have the romance of the South, the urbanity of the East, or the swashbuckle of the West. It’s not even clear if you should capitalize it. Midwest? Or just midwest?

Nevertheless, I’m fond of it. I went to college there. It’s flat, and the roads are straight. And even by American standards, midwesterners are really nice.

West

Cowboys, Indians. Vast skies, open spaces.  And a lot of geology.

I’m looking forward to seeing buffalo, but I’m scared of bears. According to the newspaper, there’s been a higher-than-usual number of grizzly attacks this year. I’d dismissed that as newspaperish fear-mongering, but then I talked to someone who just got back from Yellowstone and saw a grizzly eating an elk carcass. Right next to the road! In this scenario, the wolf who wandered in to scavenge another elk was the least scary thing.

California

I have never been to Big Sur. This will be rectified.

Adjustment

September 22, 2011

Ages ago, I started imagining what it would be like to take two whole months off work:

I’d spend mornings lounging on the sofa, dozing over a novel. I’d go to art museums with my mother, have dinner with friends. I’d wander the streets of New York. All the harried New Yorkers would pass me by; I’d be lingering by shop windows, eating an ice cream cone — just fast enough to keep it from melting down my fingers. The weather would be perfect. Indeed, an unusual portion of the day would be suffused with the kind of light you only see right before the sun sets. In my imagined future, I was completely relaxed. Languid.

Now that this future has — abruptly — arrived, I can report that I’ve been doing what I’d planned. Sofa, check. Dinner, check. But it’s not the same. There’s been rain and estate agents. I keep waking up at three in the morning. Languid? In the middle of major career change and geographic dislocation? As if.

I dislike this feature of the Future: No matter where you go, or how carefully you plan — once the Future arrives, it’s always remarkably like the Present.

Metuchen

September 20, 2011

Hello, readers in England! I thought you might like to see pictures of Metuchen, the town where my sister lives.

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I love Metuchen. It is exactly my idea of what an American town should be: it has a Main Street, with an ice cream parlor and a used book store and several pizza places. (Also an uncountable number of nail salons and psychotherapy offices. After all, this is 2011.)

It has an old movie theater with a fancy marquee. It has cicadas and grassy lawns and a cemetery that dates to the Revolutionary War. Best of all, it has an old-fashioned train station.

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But Metuchen also has a lot of wonderful qualities from non-picket-fence America: It’s not all white. You can go to an Indian grocery or a Korean supermarket or a Vietnamese sandwich shop. The one thing citizens have in common is they’re all New Jerseyites. This means they have the sense of humor and no-bullshit directness you associate with New Yorkers, minus the attitude. It is impossible to be snotty and be from New Jersey.

Despite the Parisian Café.

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Gouge

September 20, 2011

Now that I have some time off work, I wanted to try a new hobby. “Creative handicrafts with battery acid” didn’t sound fun enough, so I took up “Getting my security deposit back from my estate agents” instead.*

Estate agents are the used car salesman of England. Everyone hates them.** Mine in particular are sort of like the Gambino family, without the professionalism and moral compass. Here are some of the things they’re trying to charge me for:

  • Broken blinds

These are broken because they were broken when I moved in. They stayed broken for the next 20 months, despite my desperate requests to have them effing fixed already.

  • Missing vacuum cleaner

This is missing because the apartment came with two vacuum cleaners, and I gave away the one my estate agents said didn’t belong to the landlord.

  • One missing teaspoon

Okay, but are you 5 years old?

  • Broken drawer

This is my favorite. The reason the drawer doesn’t open is because it’s not a real drawer. It’s one of those false-front drawers you often see installed below a sink.

As Shakespeare once said, “O emerald isle! Thine estate agents got the stumpy end of the bell curve.”

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* “Estate agent” is the English word for “real estate agent.” You pretty much have to go through an estate agent to rent an apartment. It’s very rare to rent directly from the landlord or an on-site manager. I’m convinced this is the real reason that Great Britain has such a high rate of home ownership: It’s the only way to exorcise the estate agents from your life.

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** And yet everyone puts up with them. Stiff upper lip, etc. I’d like to beam a message out to the English people: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. In America, you can rent an apartment by signing a one-page lease and handing over some dough. They run a credit check and presto, you’re in. There’s no 38-page contract you have to sign on every single page. No letter from your employer. No inventory. Also, when you leave, the landlord makes sure you didn’t trash the place, and then you get your deposit back. No quibbling about teaspoons.

The only time I didn’t get my full deposit back — including all the times I painted the living room and didn’t paint it back before I left — was once when I was 24, and I had thrown out the landlord’s mirrored plant stand. This piece of furniture was ugly and tacky in a way that is hard to put into words. So even though the $300 they dinged me was painful (because $300 is a lot when you’re 24 years old, and also, come ON, $300 for a mirrored plant stand?) — I was able to be philosophical about it. Our planet is an infinitesimally more beautiful place without that plant stand. So the three hundred bucks was practically a charitable donation.