Friday, March 30, 2012

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What Is a Rice Ball?

Rice ball, split in half and quartered

Enter a pizza-by-the-slice place in New York City -- which is about 90 percent of all pizza joints here -- and you'll be offered a wide selection of pre-made pizzas, all ready to be reheated. You can choose a classic slice like marinara, or maybe something you can't find back home, like lasagna pizza. What the heck, make it one of each.

They'll also have your basic mozzarella sticks and, more than likely, a softball-sized breaded hunk of ... something.

That's a rice ball.

A rice ball is basically a large ball of rice laced with tomato sauce and cheese and stuffed with ground beef and a few peas. It's coated and fried and, when ordered, reheated in a giant pizza oven.

It's bland, not spicy at all. In fact, it could do with a few red pepper flakes. It's also not very crunchy, although I suspect the homemade versions probably are. You can't taste the peas at all -- they must be there only for color.

What rice balls lack in delectability they make up for in availability. You can't stumble into a pizza place around here without tripping over a tray of rice balls. And even though they aren't that great, Paul and I continue to recommend them to visitors. They're not bad, after all, and they're just so different. But if you're looking for different and delicious, skip the rice ball and go for another slice of lasagna pizza. Yum.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reading "The Hunger Games"

I started "The Hunger Games" on Thursday, just a few hours before the movie opened at midnight. The timing was accidental, kind of. The book was published in 2008, but it was only recently that I got sick and tired of hearing references to the books that I couldn't understand. So I finally reserved the book at the library, and a couple of weeks later it finally arrived at the Fort Hamilton branch. I picked it up after work Thursday.

I finished it Saturday morning. Now I have two regrets: (1) that I waited so long to read it in the first place and (2) that I hesitated to reserve the second and third books in the trilogy before I had received the first. As I write this Sunday evening, I'm 290 on the list for "Catching Fire" and 303 for "Mockingjay." Luckily the library has more than a hundred copies of each, so it shouldn't be too long before I receive them.

I'm proud of the variety of books I read, so I'm not ashamed to admit that I like a good Young Adult book now and again. In fact, I just read "Ender's Game" -- another YA dystopian book -- earlier this month, and I wasn't introduced to Harry Potter until college. It also makes me wonder: When did YA as a genre begin? Would at least some of the books and authors we consider classics today (such as my own favorite, Jane Austen) have been in the "young adult" category, had it existed 200 years ago?

My newfound fondness of "The Hunger Games" is also yet another lesson that I should pay more attention to new, popular books. It's a lesson that started with Harry Potter, when I read the first book some two or three years after it was published, and continued with Stieg Larsson's Millennium series (I read "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" last year, three years after its English publication, and "The Girl Who Played with Fire" in January. Only the third book in the trilogy to go!) Obviously it's a lesson I need to learn over and over again.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Theaters of George Abbott Way

The line of theater marquees stopped me in my tracks, and I pulled out my phone to snap a photo before crossing the street.

But by the time I transferred the photo from my phone to the computer, I had forgotten exactly what street had made me pause. I figured it would be easy to determine, however, and it was. A Google search of the theater names in the photo brought me to a Wikipedia page on the intriguing view. This section of 45th Street near 8th Avenue even has a name: George Abbott Way, after the Broadway producer.

You don't have to enter a theater to enjoy having them around.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Another Spring Begins

Spring officially began yesterday, but in reality it started days -- maybe weeks -- ago.

With temperatures regularly in the 60s and sometimes even the 70s, yesterday was certainly a mere formality. And with a winter so mild that I saw only two or three days of snow (and since we're talking about seasons, I can't fail to say that one of those snowfalls was actually last autumn by the calendar), it's almost as if there was never really a winter to shoo away. Is this how people in the Carolinas feel? No wonder we northerners like to move there.

Still, there have been signs over the last week or two that spring has arrived, officially or not. The flowering trees are in bloom, the time has changed and I'm leaving my scarf at home more often than I wear it to work. Not only am I trying to choose my route to the subway each morning based on which side of the street is sunniest, but my pace has slackened -- that is, if I'm not running late for the train.

The first weekend of March, Paul and I walked from Times Square south to one of our favorite restaurants in the Lower East Side, a trek of some 3+ miles along Broadway and Houston Street. I wore a scarf and gloves, but it was cozy all the same -- very unwinterlike and a harbinger of a pleasant spring to come.

Monday, March 19, 2012

How to Annoy People on the NYC Subway

Most of the people riding the New York City subway are just like you and me: pleasant, quiet, clean, everyday folks minding their own business and hoping that others do the same.

But there are certainly outliers, and sitting next to them can ruin an otherwise fast and fine commute.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the people who interrupt my morning commute on a regular basis. This post is about a different class of people -- the ones who aren't trying to interrupt your books or daydreams by asking for money or playing a harmonica. These are the people who think they're not bothering a soul. They probably aren't even trying to bother anyone. Or maybe they just don't care. Here's how to become one of them:

1. Play a game on your smartphone with the sound on. Once I thought there was a kid nearby playing one of those rainbow-colored toy xylophones. Looking around, I finally narrowed the sound down to a fellow commuter tap-tap-tapping away. Put on some headphones! Or better yet, turn the sound off.

2. Crank up your music. Yes, earbuds are certainly more convenient to cart around the city, but they bleed music like crazy. Either get better headphones or turn down your tunes. Admittedly, I'm more lenient about this when the person is listening to music I like. That isn't very often.

3. Smell. You can sometimes see this person before you smell them. It's the man (always a man) who's bundled up, often asleep and taking up an extra seat for a bag filled with his worldly possessions. Yes, he's probably homeless, and I do feel sorry for him. But sitting next to him, even a few feet away, can make you nauseated within a stop or two. He's surrounded by empty seats.

4. Eat obnoxious food. Your sandwich stinks, and you're probably going to spill your coffee all over me.

5. Have a loud conversation. It's even worse if it's interesting, because then I'm really distracted. Note that this does not apply if you're speaking a language that I don't know. If I can't understand you, then it's just white noise. Carry on. Note #2: Applies only during morning and evening commutes. Evenings and weekends are fair game.

Kids -- even crying infants -- don't bother me. They don't know any better, and their parents are generally trying their best to hush them up. Tourists are fine, too -- I don't mind at all explaining the difference between Court and Cortlandt streets or letting them know how far away their stop is. I try my best to be polite. That's simply what I'm asking of everyone else, too.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The New York Times & Times Square

The New York Times lent its name to Times Square, but it hasn't been the newspaper's home for quite some time.

The Times has a magnificent building on a dingy block, just across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. It's only a few blocks from Times Square's neon lights, yet you'd rarely have an excuse to see the building unless you're about to catch a bus -- or accompanying a friend to the Port Authority to catch a bus, as I did a few weeks ago.

Seeing the building and its ladder-like facade reminded me of the men who tried to climb the building, with some success. Putzing around Wikipedia, I found out some more about the New York Times and all of its headquarters.

The current building became the New York Times headquarters in 2007, moving just two or three blocks south. It began life, however, in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from where I work. Its first locations in the mid-1800s were on Nassau Street, followed by a building on Park Row, once nicknamed "Newspaper Row."

In 1904 the New York Times moved way north, to Longacre Square, renamed Times Square. Fun fact: The Times started the annual tradition of dropping a lit ball on New Year's Eve. It still occurs on the top of the former Times building at One Times Square.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How to Get the Cheapest Broadway Tickets

"Book of Mormon" ticket lottery

For last-minute discount tickets to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, the Times Square TKTS booth isn't so much an open secret as an in-your-face must-stop for every single visitor to New York City. The booth is in a can't-miss location smack dab in the middle of Times Square, underneath glowing red stairs that offer a nice respite for aching feet.

The deals are there -- 50 percent off, more or less -- but not for every single show. And I'm not sure the discounts are ever on the cheapest seats (which are still pretty expensive). Instead, the discounts always seem to be on the really expensive seats, and slashing the prices in half often still make them pricier than the cheap seats in the back of the theater. So you basically have a choice: (1) Plan ahead and get the cheapest seats furthest away from the stage, or (2) wait until the last minute and get fairly good seats that are a bit more expensive.

The best Broadway deals, however, come from shows that offer "rush" tickets. But these tickets are far from assured and are inconvenient to boot.

First you have to determine if the Broadway show you want to see offers rush ticket lotteries. This page from Playbill is useful and frequently updated.

Rush policies vary by show, but here's how the shows we've wanted to see generally run their lotteries:

Get to the theater 2 1/2 hours before the show starts. Complete an entry card provided by the theater. The drawing takes place two hours before showtime. About two dozen seats are available for around $25 or $30.

If you're a student, you have it a bit easier. With a high school or college ID, you can often get discounted tickets when the box office opens. We arrived in New York too long after earning our diplomas to take advantage of that, however, so I'm not sure how many tickets are generally available or how easy they are to get.

As for the lottery system, we've had mixed success. The very first time we tried, we got two front-row tickets to "In the Heights" for $26.50 apiece. But I tried to get a rush ticket to "West Side Story" when Paul was out of town with no luck, and last weekend we failed to get lottery tickets for the popular "Book of Mormon." There had to be more than 100 names in the hopper.

On another occasion, I tried to get rush tickets for "A View from the Bridge," but there was no lottery system. Instead, you wait in line before the box office opens and hope tickets are still available. After waiting in line for two hours on a cold February morning, the last of the rush and standing-room-only tickets were gone four people in front of me.

So all in all, I would not unequivocally recommend trying to get rush tickets. If you have extra time and the weather is at least halfway pleasant, it can be a good deal and not a bad wait. But more likely it'll be a great waste of time.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Another Type of New York City Hot Dog

The "Ito"

It's debatable, but I would say the food most associated with New York is the hot dog. You could argue that the title belongs to pizza, but who doesn't see hot dogs in a hot vat of water and not think of New York City?

But the hot dog I recently tried is far from the ones you can buy on every other Manhattan street corner. Asiadog is much more creative, and much more delicious.

Asiadog has a storefront in Nolita, but I tried it for the first time at its stand at the Brooklyn Flea. What makes Asiadog different? For one, you can choose your meat (or lack of it): beef, chicken and vegetarian options are available.

But, as you might expect from the name, it's the toppings that really make an Asiadog. I ordered an "Ito," so my beef hot dog was topped with Japanese curry and kimchi apples. Sweet and spicy and everything so nice. Next time I'll try the "Sidney" -- Thai mango relish and peanuts.

At $4.50 per dog (or two for $8; organic: $5 apiece or two for $9), it's kind of expensive and not all that filling. But hey, everyone's gotta make a living, and I think the Brooklyn Flea is known more for its unique offerings than its good deals anyway. In any case, an Asiadog is infinitely better than a soggy street dog pulled from greasy water.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Fallout Shelter Signs Around the City

While I've noticed only a couple of fallout shelter signs in Bay Ridge, they're much more common that I realized in New York City at large. In fact, this website has a collection of 100+ photos of fallout shelter signs throughout the city.

I have yet to see the inside of a fallout shelter in New York, although Paul and I did tour one in Berlin when we went to Germany in 2005. I mainly remember that it was dark and cramped, and the bunk beds were so close together that it would have been impossible to sit up. I believe the guide also mentioned something about how much it would've stunk had the shelter been fully operational and crowded.

No matter how far I crane my neck around the buildings with fallout shelters in Bay Ridge, I can't even begin to guess what they could look like inside. Still, it's interesting to see remnants from decades ago hovering right over my head.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Things That Mess Up My Morning Subway Commute

The best morning commute on the New York City subway is the silent one. Unfortunately, that's not very common. It's difficult to go a week without sitting by at least one person with a way-too-loud iPod.

But on the hierarchy of morning subway annoyances, inadequate headphones are on the minor end. Here are the three things that start my teeth grinding before the workday even begins.

3. People Asking for Donations.

I'm not even talking about the homeless or others down on their luck. The people I have in mind always enter the train and loudly announce that they've got peanut butter sandwiches for anyone who's hungry, making sure to clarify that you don't have to be homeless to be hungry. (That part always makes me roll my eyes. Does any well-dressed, white-collar worker on the way to Wall Street select a sandwich to make up for a skipped breakfast? Yeah, right. For that matter, I wonder if anyone takes a sandwich at all.) Oh, and they also accept donations, of course. Of course.

Frequency: Almost every commute.

2. Musicians.

The most common musician on my morning commute is a man with one leg, two crutches and a harmonica. He always plays two songs: one that wouldn't be out of place in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" followed by Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence." He shakes a plastic container that at one point surely must have held take-out soup from a Chinese restaurant, now replaced with coins. A few people tend to add to the collection as he expertly moves down the aisle. I admire his fortitude and very specialized skill, but it's still annoying.

Even worse are the mariachi bands. I actually like them in the afternoons and weekends. But before 10 a.m.? Not so much.

Frequency: Each and every day, almost without fail.

1. Students on Field Trips.

The absolute worst: 30 school kids with a handful of teachers and chaperones who pile onto your train. The younger kids can be cute, but with the older ones you have to listen to awkward flirting with each other. All of them are loud. And unlike the musicians and donation-seekers, who move on to the next subway car at each stop, the schoolchildren are in it for the long haul. My subway line goes to both the Statue of Liberty ferries and the 9/11 Memorial, so I can generally count on them messing up a good portion of my 45 minute commute.

Frequency: Once every month or two.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Other Side of Alternate Side Parking Rules

One of the worst things about having a car in New York City is its alternate side parking rules.

Every block is plastered with signs saying when street sweeping occurs. In Bay Ridge, it's a 90-minute stretch once a week, and the day and time differ depending on both the block and the side of the street. For example, it might be 8:30 to 10 a.m. Thursday on the south side of a block, and 8:30 to 10 a.m. Friday on the opposite side. In other neighborhoods, street sweeping occurs twice a week. So it's important to read the signs carefully before you park, particularly if you plan to leave your car in place for multiple days, or even if you plan to move the car the next day, but not until the afternoon.

Now that Paul drives to work almost every day, parking the car isn't nearly as much of an issue as it was a couple of years ago. (But remember that I'm saying this is one who never has to drive or park the car.) Paul nearly always leaves earlier that even the earliest street sweeping (except for the rare sweeps that begin in the 7 o'clock hour). That makes finding a parking spot much easier. On Monday nights, he can park on a block scheduled for a Tuesday morning sweep -- he's out in plenty of time.

Still, there's one thing for street parkers to be aware of. When streets are scheduled to be swept on one side of the street, it's perfectly fine to double park on the opposite side of the street. That means you could theoretically be blocked for 90-minutes. Paul was blocked once before work, but he kept honking his horn until the driver came out to the street and moved his vehicle. Paul thinks that's New York's form of driver etiquette -- OK, you can double park, but you have to respond to the honks.

Sometimes you'll even see drivers in their double-parked cars, engines on during the cold months. Presumably they're waiting for the streets to be cleaned so they can immediately get their prime parking spot back once the street is pristine.

In more than four years of living in Brooklyn, Paul has never once gotten a ticket for failing to meet alternate side parking rules (although there have been a handful of last-minute morning scrambles to move the car). We've been lucky. Orange tickets on windshields are common morning sights.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Dreary New York Winter

I've got a bad case of the winter blahs.

By my calculations, I haven't left Brooklyn on a Saturday or Sunday since mid-January. That isn't to say we haven't done anything. There was the Chinese New Year celebration, for example, and our own dinner party last weekend. But it's still unusual for us not to go into Manhattan for at least dinner for so long.

Paul says that Manhattan's sparkle has finally worn off. I denied this at first, but maybe he's partly right. When we first moved here, a drop in temperature couldn't keep me away from a museum or interesting restaurant. But now we've been there and tried that, and it takes more to whisk me to a subway platform for a 20 minute wait for a train. And as Paul reminded me, I work in Manhattan. A trip to the city doesn't necessarily equal excitement when it's so routine.

I suspect the fog will lift when spring arrives. Ever since we moved here, I've loved combining a walk through Central Park or a Manhattan neighborhood with dinner in the city. But that's certainly not easy to do when it's 40 degrees and dark at 6 p.m.

Until warmer weather and longer days arrive, however, we're reacquainting ourselves with Bay Ridge restaurants, all within walking distance. After all, the perks of living in New York aren't limited to your proximity to Broadway and the ballet. It's also the proximity to good take-out hummus -- across the street.


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