The Parking Space Imbroglio

A film crew came to our street last Friday to shoot on location.

I don’t know if it was for a television series or a movie, but whatever it was, they had to go and make a big production out of it.

There were trucks and equipment and assistants with important-looking cappuccinos strewn all over the place.

Idly watching the cast and crew at work got me all choked up with tears of schadenfreude. These folks were were real friendly, too. One of the actors let me pet him.

But best of all was the craft services table. The food was to die for, at least judging by the slightly-used bagel I found on the sidewalk after everyone was gone. Just imagine. I ate––and later pooped––something that once belonged to someone tentatively associated with the entertainment industry in New Zealand! A good day was had by all.

Where the stars are borne, and the stuff of stars is born, on a regular basis.

But to tell the truth, Jacquie and I were relieved to see the crew pack up and go. We don’t take truck with theater people. The idea of those types lurking about the neighborhood after dark made us glad to live in a modern, paranoid society.

So imagine our disgust when we came home Sunday evening from one of our tedious hikes in the woods only to find all the parking spaces on our street taken up by traffic cones.

It was obvious the film crew intended to return Monday morning to do more of its dirt.

We didn’t know how to react at first.

But then I remembered that I come from the scariest democracy in the world.

And then I thought to myself: my great great great grandfather––Admiral Buck “The Nucular F**k” Eskow––did not die face-down in his down comforter just so that some punk foreigner could come and take away my God-given right to a parking space directly in front of my rented house in New Zealand.

So I got off my ass for once, got out of my car and marched right over to the cones whilst playing Yankee Doodle on my fife, because some principles are worth making an ass of yourself for.

“Please don’t go near the cones,” a voice said. “Thanks, mate.”

I turned around. That was when I first saw him: the Overnight Location Guard, the lowliest of the lowly assistants to the Second Assistant Location Manager. His job was to stay up all night drinking Mountain Dew to make sure nobody parked where the crew would be filming the next day.

Like the cicada, the Overnight Location Guard appears for a limited time and purpose. After gestating underground for 17 years, the fully mature Overnight Location Guard emerges for two weeks of courtship, mating, laying eggs and dying, all while telling people they can’t park in front of their own house. But that’s just how the circle of life works.

The circle of life. The clockwise or counterclockwise drainage of the circle of life is not determined so much by the coriolis effect as it is by whether or not you've been having a shitty time.

I moved one of the cones.

“Hey, I said you can’t park there,” Overnight Location Guard said.

“Look man,” I said. “I didn’t sit through Saving Private Ryan just so you can tell me what to do.”

This confrontation was shaping up to be a regular David-versus-Goliath story. Only the Goliath here was more like another David, because the Overnight Location Guard didn’t have any power of his own. Let’s face it, neither did I. So our standoff was really shaping up to be one of those classic David-versus-a-guy-evenly-matched-with-David-and-oh-what-a-coincidence-that-guy’s-name-is-David-Too stories that you hear so much about.

I decided to take a new tack. I learned a long time ago that when life gives you lemons, complain as much as possible in as loud and whiny a voice as you can muster.

“But where am I supposed to paaaark my caaaaaar?” I said. “You have all the parking spots on the streeeet blocked off already.”

Just then, I found a space two doors down from my house.

But I wasn’t going to let this major inconvenience pass without a fight. The universe may not be fair, and it may be cruel but damn it, the universe is not going to be unfair and cruel to me.

But what could I do that was more effective than whining? I had to take real action. This production needed to be destroyed once and for all…from the inside. And to do that, I had to go undercover and join the cast as an extra.

Last night's closing credits.

The next day I woke up early and made an appointment with a casting company.

The Waitakere Agency, or TWA, as it calls itself, specializes in casting extras.

But more importantly, TWA teaches combat training, which was exactly what I needed for whenever I finally infiltrated the Overnight Location Guard’s team and terminated his command, allowing anyone to park anywhere they wanted and thus ruining the entire production.

The agency’s headquarters are located about 6 klicks west of downtown Auckland. I plotted my route and prepared for the drive over. To demonstrate my eagerness to enter combat training, I decided to wear a headband like the one that actor Rambo wore in his movie Rambo and also to camouflage my face in case I needed to blend in if there were any ferns or ficus plants in the TWA office.

I could not find camo makeup in Jacquie’s cosmetics bag. However, I did come across a nice Intensive Lifting Eye Cream I used to offset the aging effect of my crow’s feet.

Next, I applied just enough Stila Convertible Color to subtly add height and definition to my cheek bones without being obvious about it.

Then I put on some Daring Rose Color Fever by Lancome to give my lips a classic 1940s movie star richness, for maximum kissability and texture.

Oh, also, I couldn’t find anything like Rambo’s bandana in Jacquie’s drawers but there was this beautiful turquoise pashmina that I just couldn’t resist throwing on as I ran out the door.

TWA headquarters: guaranteed to be the closest shave you've ever had from a disposable razor or your money back.

There were two people at the agency. To make a long story short, they loved me. Oh, they just ate me up. I mean, they told me that one day I could be as famous an extra as Malcolm Flannelwitz or even Zoe Smith-Mackerel. I was like, “Where do I sign?” But, as it turned out, I couldn’t work for them because I never got my Internal Revenue Department number and so my plan was ruined and by the time I got home, the crew was packing up, having finished shooting in our corner of the world. If only my papers had been in order, this never would have happened.

An Actual Visit to Martha’s Backyard

A few weeks ago, Jacquie and I were swilling buckets full of the local vintage with our friend Rob, an American who moved to New Zealand when he was a teenager, and never looked back. Or if he did ever look back, it was only to make sure nobody was following him.

Anywho, Rob had just returned from a visit to the States where, as he told it, he ate a lot of the sort of food you just can’t find anywhere else on Earth. Or in New Zealand, for that matter. Rob said the only vegetables he ingested during his trip were onion rings.

Inevitably, the conversation got around to the subject of pickles.

“The only place to get a decent pickle in Auckland is from Martha’s Backyard,” Rob said.

“What a coincidence,” I said. “I wrote an authoritative piece about Martha’s Backyard for my insanely popular and internationally acclaimed blog.”

“Oh, so you’ve been to Martha’s Backyard?” Rob said.

“Never,” I said.

“So you espoused a strong opinion based on hearsay and not on the weight of empirical evidence?”

“Well, I’m mostly writing for an American audience.”

Rob convinced me that it was time to go on a fact-finding mission. I needed to see Martha’s Backyard for myself so I could figure out what I’d been talking about.

Martha's Backyard. Technically, there is no backyard. Unless you count Stonefields, a defunct quarry at the foot of Mt. Wellington, which is slowly being turned into a gruesome-looking subdivision.

Martha’s Backyard wasn’t like what I’d expected it to be. It was the only shop in a dusty strip mall beside a gigantic housing development that had been under construction for almost four years but seemed to have run out of credit before a tenth of it was built. Naturally, I was overcome with homesickness. Then, when Rob and I went inside the shop, I was overcome with regular sickness. For stretched before me, as far as the eye could see––about 60 feet to the back wall––was a row-and-a-half of good old American-made (mostly*) junk food.


Say "cheese product."

And all along I thought you couldn't get a decent pizza in New Zealand.

We looked around but to our disappointment we couldn’t find any pickles. Then we brought our stuff up to the cashier.

“Hello,” Rob said. He pointed to me. “This is an American.”

“Oh, sorry,” the cashier said. “No refunds.”

I paid for the things that I’d grabbed off the shelf at random, to tell the truth. I bought an eight-pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups*, a “family sized” bottle of French’s yellow mustard and some bunting to spruce up the apartment, all for about $17 (U.S.)

Then Rob and I drove up to the top of Mt. Wellington where we got a decent view of the $2 billion, 270-acre (less than half the size of Prospect Park in Brooklyn) housing development which some day 6,500 people may call home if the developers ever get around to finishing it.

Stonefields Urban Village. Never will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Then I went home and inspected my booty.

And seeing that my booty was good, I then looked at the stuff that I bought at Martha’s Backyard.

These colors don't run. Most likely because they're filled with emulsifiers. Most of the 1.3 kilograms of Americany Goodness you see here was actually made in America*.

Then I ate the peanut butter cups*, the Fritos and the Bugles.

Then I washed them down with some mustard.

Then I ate fried chicken made with the Progresso bread crumbs.

Then I…oh, whatever. You get the picture.

All in all I was glad Rob took me to that shop, but I probably won’t go back. Not unless they get a shipment of decent pickles.

Otherwise, I think I’ve about had it with American-y Goodness

*Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups: Hecho en Mexico.

Home is where the Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate is

Members of an online expatriate group recently heaped a midden of praise on Martha’s Backyard, a local importer of American crap. The store, according to its Website, features “genuine US brands at reasonable prices AND AMERICAN FOOD ITEMS.” (Martha’s emphasis).

Judging by comments left on the expat group forum, Martha has tapped into quite a niche market. For instance:

(Martha’s) is a fantastic place. Prices are a little high but you have to remember, she’s shipping it over from the US. Can of Manwich sauce is $5, box of Cheerios is $8, bag of Goldfish is $6. She also has…great seasonal stuff…I got pumpkin cans and made some pumpkin pie!…I wouldn’t be surprised if she had Peeps for Easter! She has an email list so that you can get updates when new stuff arrives, and there’s also a special email list for when Twinkies come in (apparently they sell out in a day or so).

Something about this effusiveness bothers me. I understand that most of the items mentioned are technically considered food in that they can pass through the digestive system without causing too much permanent damage, at least in the short run. But I find it hard to imagine an adult working up an appetite for this shit, let alone shelling out extra dollars for it.

It’s not that I oppose to eating junk food completely. We’ve all been through bouts of desperation. I myself have had my moments with Cheerios from time to time, I ain’t ashamed to admit, but I swear I didn’t like it. And I’d be a liar if I said I never paid $6 for a bag of Goldfish out of a vending machine when I was working one of my night shifts at the New York Post. And though I’m not familiar with the product, I gather from context clues that “Manwich sauce” is not a euphemism for a residue that must be refrigerated at a fertility clinic soon after its client “pops his can.”

So while I’m generally familiar with the sophisticated refinement embodied by these quintessential American products, I still can’t understand why an adult would go out of his or her way to consume any of it. Surely there are quicker, easier ways to kill yourself. I mean, Twinkies a best-seller? Twinkies are the reason why I left America. I’ve applied for refugee status in New Zealand because of what Twinkies did to my family.

It seems too obvious to state, but homesickness and sentimentality are the essential motivating factors at work here. If it were simply a desire for something engineered to exploit our  innate cravings for fat, salt and sugar, Martha’s would be out of business. There are already plenty of disgusting foods to choose from at the supermarket, including some American brands and other American products packaged for the New Zealand market.

The wrapping is the key to Martha’s success because what really matters to the homesick American is not the junk food, but the familiarity of the package it came in, the “genuine US brands” where genuine is taken to mean “the same exact shit you grew obese up with.”

The Liquor Aisle Fiasco

I was going to post something about how I went to purchase some wine the other day at the supermarket and the cashier asked if I was drunk, but I’m really not up to that right now. I feel so angry and shaken up about the incident that I’ve decided to post a few unrelated photographs instead.

You see, the whole thing was a misunderstanding. I wasn’t drunk. (Oh, yeah, the picture above was taken at the historic homestead of John Logan Campbell, a Scottish adventurer who outlived all his contemporaries with his flowing white locks and beard known finally as “The Father of Auckland,” according to the Auckland Parks Website, which does not make it clear if it was the man’s beard and white locks that were known as the “Father of Auckland,” or if it was the man himself, nor does it explain how his white locks and beard helped him outlive all his contemporaries, but therein lay his tremendous prestige and courage. Note the original Christmas tree, preserved in the condition it was in the day John Logan Campbell fell off his ladder while trying to place the Star of Bethlehem high above his head on top of it (the tree, that is, not his head)) At least I don’t remember being drunk.

What happened was this: early last Saturday afternoon, I had to do some shopping. I’d been writing all day, which I do not deny always makes me appear drunk to other people, as I usually imbibe in two or three glasses of whatever’s at hand while I’m working. But no more than that. I mean, let’s be reasonable, it wasn’t even 2 p.m. by the time I left the house to go to the supermarket in my more or less sober state.

I put a few of the day’s necessities in my cart, including a loaf of bread, a bottle of club soda, a roll of toilet paper and 12 bottles of chardonnay. (The above was the first piece of graffiti to appear on an Auckland wall since the time of John Logan Campbell, who died in 1912. His Worship the Mayor John Banks has promised to nip this graffiti epidemic in the bud. It’s curious to note that the above image is based on the last night in the life of John Logan Campbell, who died in a tragic accident while attempting to place the Star of Bethlehem on top of his Christmas tree after drinking one too many bottles from his wife’s back-woods still, uttering his famous last-words, “Merry F!#k?*g Xmas” as he fell to his doom.  The graffitist here has paid especially loving attention to the accurate depiction of John Logan Cambell’s flowing white locks and beard, the Father of Auckland). My shopping complete, I pushed my heavily laden cart of daily necessities toward the cashiers.

The express line was very long and everyone was growing impatient.

Except for me. I’m always happy to stand anywhere for hours on end doing absolutely nothing. (A poster advertising a costume shop for people who like to dress up for Guy Fawkes Day, named for one of the mercenaries in a failed attempt to kill King James I and install a Catholic king in 1605. As the poster indicates, New Zealanders love to dress up as John Logan Campbell in the various stages of his multifaceted career. Campbell was, in turn, a roller skating disco clown, Superman, the fourth member of ZZ Top, a rabbi and a pre-teen girl in a cat costume.)

When it was finally my turn at the register, the cashier looked at me strangely. (Above: Agapanthus flowers on the pathway leading to our flat, planted by John Logan Campbell.)

“Have you been drinking?” the cashier said.

I was displeased by her question. Who was she to presume I’d been drinking? (I can’t believe people live in this building designed by John Logan Campbell in 1911).

“No, I haven’t been drinking,” I insisted.

I made sure she understood how peeved I was by her question. I rolled my eyes and clucked my tongue three times (The first time because I was angry and the second two times to emphasize my anger, sort of like the way I put three exclamation points at the end of a sentence to make sure everyone knows that I really really mean what I’m saying!!!) (Above: the Parnell Library, designed, constructed and financed by John Logan Campbell, who not only donated the entire volume of 16,000 books, but wrote every single one of them as well. In long hand!!!)

“OK, OK,” the cashier said. “I was just asking.”

(Or did she say, “I was just joking?” I don’t know. I was a little drunk.)

“You want me to recite the alphabet backwards now too?” I said. (The Shangri La flats).

“No, that really isn’t necessary,” the cashier said.

“No, it’s my pleasure,” I said. (Malibu Flats)

So I started to recite the alphabet backwards. “Z, Y, X, W, S, no wait…”

The person behind me said, “No, listen: it’s Z, Y, X, W, V, U, T, S, R, P…”

“No, no, that isn’t it,” somebody else said. “Does anyone have a piece of paper?”

Pretty soon, there were four or five of us gathered around the cash register trying to figure out how to recite the alphabet backwards. It took us about five minutes, but we got it down pat eventually, which just goes to show you there’s nothing you can’t do if your name is John Logan Campbell.

Driving While Incompetent

For Christmas this year, Jacquie and I got a dent in the rear bumper of our used car. Thanks New Zealand! It’s what we always wanted. We’re not sure who exactly gave us this gift because our particular Kris Kringle didn’t leave his contact information in the windshield. An understandable oversight, I’m sure, as it was his busy time of year and there were many more cars to destroy.

The good news is the bumper was easily repaired, as it is made of cardboard. A few more swatches of duct tape and you could hardly tell the difference.

The bad news is that the drivers in New Zealand are the worst in the world.

That isn’t just my opinion. Everybody here says so. The funny thing is none of them will admit to being a bad driver. I’ve been in a car with a driver who was tailgating the car in front of us while decrying that very same irritating habit.

In the interest  of full disclosure, I got caught speeding by a hidden camera my first week in Auckland because I wasn’t paying attention to the signs (such as they are, but that’s another story.)

But unlike the Kiwis, I have a legitimate excuse for my bad driving. I got my New York State license back in September after having let it expire in 2003 due to lack of interest in driving. To prepare for the test, I took a bunch of refresher lessons. My instructor spent the entire time on his blackberry. He looked up at the road only if he saw a pedestrian that interested him. Once he saw two men going down the street on roller skates. “Homosexual,” he said. It was the first thing he’d said in ten minutes of driving. A couple blocks later at a stop sign, a woman in tight jeans crossed in front of us. “Oh, thank you God,” the instructor said. He made some kissing sounds and as we crossed the intersection, I could see from the corner of my eye that he was still watching the woman. “I love America,” he said.

So, at least in my case, there’s no such thing as a bad driver, just a bad driving instructor.

But seriously, New Zealand does have a high “road toll,” as the Kiwis refer to traffic fatalities. The official total number of traffic fatalities in 2009 stood at 384 on New Year’s Day, with three fatalities on December 31 alone. That seems like a small number, but its 19 more than the previous year, and proportionately speaking, the rate is high.

New York in 2008 had 1,160 traffic fatalities statewide, which for a population of 19 million means that there were 6.28 traffic fatalities per 100,000 population. In New Zealand that same year, the rate was 8.8 per 100,000 population (365 fatalities out of a population of 4.4 million).

So at least from a statistical standpoint, New Zealand is a more dangerous place to drive than New York.

A Touching Christmas Story

Last week I called my mother who lives 14,198 kilometers away (or .0473 light seconds) in the far-off wintry latitudes of the New York State Thruway. It was Christmas morning there, and the snow fell gently upon the quiet world outside.

Dear mum sat by the fireplace, quietly darning her work sock in the warm glow of the Yule log. The light on her face seemed to brighten when she heard the telephone ring. She had a premonition that her son would be on the line.

My sister was there with my brother in-law and their three children, and when my mother told them it was me, they all gathered around the hearth with fresh cups of hot cocoa in their hands.

“Oh, son,” my mother said. “It is fitting for you to call us on this, the most family-oriented-holiday-greeting-card-friendly holiday known to humanity. We have not heard from you these many months and there’s so much we desire to learn about your new country. It’s hard even to know where to begin. Tell us, what medium-budget science fiction television series does the Auckland skyline most evoke in your imagination?”

I couldn’t believe the question because that was exactly the thing that had been weighing on my mind, and the reason for my call. I just had to tell my mother, after being out of touch for so long, that ever since the first time I saw the Auckland cityscape, I’d been thinking, “Any respectable low- to medium-budget science fiction television series from Canada would be proud to use Auckland as the model for its establishing exterior shots of extraterrestrial locales.”

A tear rolled down my cheek that Christmas morning and I began to choke up so much, it was hard for me to get the words out that my mother so longed to hear.

“Auckland,” I whispered. “Auckland reminds me of Atlantis from the television series Stargate Atlantis.”

Soon that part of the conversation ended and it was my mother’s turn to tell me what was going on in her life, so I hung up as quickly as I could. But then I felt bad. It seemed after some reflection that Auckland didn’t really look that much like Atlantis from Stargate Atlantis. Then I thought, so what? With a little computer magic, Auckland could certainly be the grand capital city of some alien planet. Or at least a sprawling truck stop where a guy could grab a steak, down some amphetamines and enjoy the services of a prostitute, except in outer space.

I thought, hey, I’m unemployed. Why don’t I see what Auckland would look like after a little tender loving care from my computer, just like they’d do for a medium-budget science fiction television series for Canadians. After developing a graphic algorithm and plugging in the data, the computer rendered this:

Wait until the Canadians see that.

Left Behind: Pathetic Pet-Fawning Photos

Norman and I had a...platonic relationship.

Jacquie picked out Norman (left) from the cat rescuers at the Kips Bay Petco on 22nd Street and Second Avenue in New York. It was a cool, sunny October afternoon in 2006 and we hadn’t gotten over the untimely death of the other cat we’d adopted together, whom we euthanized that June after the old man contracted a rare venereal disease during one of his excursions to Thailand. I remember that we were still wearing our black veils and speaking in somber, monotonous tones, droning on and on about our existential anxieties like some boring Eugene O’Neill drama. We’d been in this state for months, swooning over the loss of our poor, deaf, stinky-assed cat, Puffy.

That’s when Jacquie saw Norman. She asked if she could take him out of the cage. The cat rescue volunteers, unaccustomed to human interaction, ran away from us, hiding and napping in some of the empty shelves in the back, alternately hissing at and grooming one another. Their ways were not our ways. But through sheer patience, we succeeded in getting Norman out of his cage for a closer look.

It was love at first sight.  Oh, Norman. You came and you gave without taking. You kissed me and stopped me from shaving. And I need you today, oh Norman. I knew Jacquie had her heart set on this guy, but I didn’t really want another cat. Not after what happened to Puffy. So we decided to take a walk to clear our heads. But when we returned, Norman was still there, and from that day on, he crawled into our hearts like a big, fluffy parasitic nematode.

And the three of us lived happily together for three years. More or less.

But now all we have left are pictures, and memories and a few extra cans of Natural Balance. Sure, we wanted to take Norman with us to Auckland. We’d planned on it. We started the process in February, 2009, getting Norman tested for rabies, updating his vaccinations. New Zealand is quite restrictive concerning pets, with reason. They’re especially wary of rabies and so they require a series of tests leading up to the very day of departure. The cost to do this by ourselves would be at least $2,000, if not more. There was a transcontinental flight to arrange, a week-long stay in Los Angeles for the final battery of tests and inspections and a month long quarantine in Auckland. Soon we realized that if we made even the slightest error in the paperwork or the procedure, we could end up spending thousands of dollars more to correct it.

We called a full-service company, and their rates began at $5,000. We just couldn’t justify that kind of expense  for a cat when we had other priorities that needed addressing, such as my leather bag fetish, and Jacquie’s ever-growing collection of Smurf tchotchkes.

So we had to find a home for Norman. But that’s a story for another day. Excuse me while I go cry.

So many nights, he'd sit by our window, waiting for someone to feed him some vittles. He was always there when Jacquie and I came home from work. The day we took this picture we were having a sidewalk sale. Norman was hoping to put himself on the market.

Contemplating the origin of his cat food, Norman briefly considers becoming a vegetarian.