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If I’m So Smart part two …

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Continuing on from part one …

So it’s 1982. I’ve walked away from managing the band and I’ve walked away from working in my cousin’s TV store. I really have no clue as to what to do next. I did a few projects out of Mark Moogy Klingman‘s studio, nothing that really amounted to anything, public access cable TV stuff. I got hired by some company to do income tax preparation but one day of that was all I could take.

I’d always told myself that if I couldn’t get any other job, I could still drive a taxi. So I went out and got a taxi license. It was easier in those days because you would just pay the taxi company a percentage of what you booked on the meter rather than having to lease it out by the week or the month. As a new driver, I had to work Saturdays and Sundays, my shift was 5 AM to 3 PM. My first day was super embarrassing – I picked up some guy who wanted to go to JFK airport and I got lost going there. Yeah, I lived in New York my whole life but how often had I gone to the airport? At that point, maybe once. I ended up driving the taxi for a year (I believe I’ve posted tales about this before). Four celebrities, a lot of hookers and drunks, and NYC traffic day after day after goddamned day. I had an uncle who had done this his whole life and now I understood him a whole lot better.

On my days off, I went to electronics school, figuring I could study for a year and get a job as a radio or TV engineer. The first month of that was easy but once the math started getting more intense, my brain switched off and I dropped out from the class.

My wife was working full time, but it was a relatively low paying office job. She was lost as well. She’d graduated with a teaching degree, but a month before graduation she decided she didn’t want to teach. We were living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Rent was a hell of a lot lower then than it is now, plus we were living in a 300 square foot studio with a loft bed. We stayed in that apartment for 10 years.

I was a crappy taxi driver and I was earning next to nothing. I had all those credit card debts from the band and I couldn’t make the payments. The bill collectors were calling every day and I was sinking deeper into depression.

March 2, 1982 is the day that Philip K. Dick died. I read mostly science fiction in those days and following his death I probably read everything he wrote. It’s arguable that Dick was schizophrenic – well from 1974 onwards there’s really little doubt. And he wrote a lot of himself into the characters in his books. So here I am, sinking into depression, reading books written by a schizophrenic, and I decided I must be schizophrenic as well. I think I self-diagnosed to somehow justify to myself why there were an increasing number of days when I couldn’t even make it out the front door of our apartment except to buy cigarettes. My wife never mentioned a word about any of this. I’m honestly not sure if she didn’t notice it or if she did but didn’t know how to deal with it – or perhaps 30-odd years later it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember it as being. At any rate, the debts got to the point where the banks were going to take my wife’s salary, which would have really left us with nothing. I tried to negotiate better payment terms but they all basically said they’d prefer it if I just declared bankruptcy. And so I did.

As a life-long record collector, all the record shop owners in the village knew me. One day I parked my taxi in front of my favorite shop, to take a break and see what was knew, and the owner told me he was going to open a video store with a partner and asked if I wanted to stop driving the taxi and work there instead. Yes please.

While I’d like to report that by working in a video store I became Quentin Tarantino, or at least had a life and career similar to his, you all know that’s not how things worked out. What I can say is that I really enjoyed working there and it snapped me out of my depression. With its prime Greenwich Village location, we had a lot of celebrity customers, everyone from Daryl Hall to Rod Steiger. One night Sigourney Weaver came in with Wallace Shawn – she was looking at all the titles while Shawn seemed to be smiling and laughing and going, “I’m with Sigourney Weaver!”  Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren were frequent customers and every time I’d deliver to them, I’d end up hanging out at their place playing with Grace’s kid. Grace was the total opposite of her image – warm and smiling and sexy. We asked how she and Dolph met and she told us that one night she saw him at a party and walked up to him and said, “I’m going to have you.”

The store was just off Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. At least 2/3rds of the customers were gay and of the staff, only the owner and myself were straight. The store did a huge business because it stocked and rented the latest in gay porn, right alongside all the newest releases and deep, deep catalogue of classic and foreign films. If I wanted to go out with my co-workers after work, it meant going to gay bars, and this led to my doing the video systems for almost every gay bar in the Village.

I was also at Ground Zero when AIDS started to really hit New York. Every time a friend got sick, the fear was that it could be AIDS. I’d go visit friends in the hospital, holding their hands or hugging them, so the nurses all assumed that I was gay and that I also probably had AIDS and they treated me like shit. Relatively little was known about the disease back then but I wasn’t about to desert my friends. It was a time of incredible emotions and irrationality. Some friends went monogamous, some went completely celibate. All were living in fear.

At some point in 1985, I went back to my friend the record store owner and suggested that he and I open a store together selling only CDs. And so we did. It was the second CD-only store in New York City and the first one to sell used CDs. There were lots of problems. Tower Records was just blocks away and I was trying to compete with them on price but I didn’t know enough about business to be able to do a budget or base my prices on anything other than pure guesses and my partner, who had demanded 51% ownership in return for letting me use his name and logo, offered little or no help. Perhaps he assumed I knew what I was doing but actually I was pretty clueless. For six months we barely made enough to pay the rent.

Problems kept mounting up, not the least of which was this ring of crooked United Parcel drivers. They basically stole everything they wanted from their trucks every day. They figured it was covered by insurance and therefore a “victimless” crime. One day they stole a bunch of CD players so now they wanted CDs. They told me I should make a freaking huge order from my distributor, that they’d steal it off the truck, take out what they wanted and then sell me the rest for half price. I said, “Don’t you think it will stand out to them that I’m placing an order 5 times the size of my regular order? And don’t you think I’m the first one the police will come to when it goes missing?” I refused to go along with their little scheme. To try to get revenge, and since I paid my bills mostly in cash, they then tried reporting me to their managers and the police as having received orders without paying for them and accusing me of theft. But it was such a stupid story that the spotlight very quickly was on them instead of me. I was in the clear. I believe they were all fired and at least one went to jail.

Then, as luck would have it, I made a connection in the UK. He would call me every Monday and read me the list of the latest releases. I’d get a box from him every Thursday. Back then, some major stuff was coming out in the UK weeks or even months before the US, stuff like Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode. I’d get this stuff a week or two before any other import store in the village and I was selling the imports at a reasonable price. Word got out and soon I had people driving a hundred miles or more to come to the shop to get their hands on this. I even started “wholesaling” to other shops. The money was rolling in.

The problem with this was that it was all illegal at the time. Parallel imports. Some nearby record store, jealous of the business I was doing with this stuff, reported me to the RIAA. They sent me a cease and desist letter. My partner panicked. His vinyl stores were doing a huge business – and what he was doing in the stores (and in the back of the stores) wasn’t entirely legal either. All the big DJ’s of the era shopped at his stores, all of them. And when Madonna did an in-store in New York, it wasn’t at Tower Records, it was at his store. So when I got the cease and desist, he was afraid that if I tried to fight it, the inspectors wouldn’t just stop with the little CD store, they’d go across the street to the vinyl stores and start looking around. So he ordered me to stop selling the imports. I had no choice but to comply and within a couple of weeks, my business dropped off by 75%.

Technically speaking, what he did to me was also illegal. He couldn’t purposely hurt one business to try to save another. But that didn’t stop him. He “fired” me and offered me no money at all for my 49% of the store, saying it was essentially worthless. So I sued him. And he counter-sued me.

For awhile we were deadlocked and it seemed as if it was going to go nowhere. Until one day when we sat down across the table from each other with our lawyers. His lawyer opened the proceedings by telling me I had no case and I would never see a dime and I should just walk away. Before my lawyer could open his mouth, I pushed him away and started talking. Here is what I remember telling them that day:

“I happen to know that you’re paying your lawyer $150 an hour. See my lawyer? That’s not just my lawyer, that’s my buddy Joe. I love Joe. We’ve been best friends since college. He’s charging me $50 an hour. Joe and his wife wanna have a baby and I don’t mind giving Joe money so he and his wife can have money for their kid. And if I have to pay Joe for the next three years, I don’t mind. And I know whatever I pay Joe, you’re paying your lawyer three times as much, so even if I never get a penny, it’s worth it to me knowing how much it will cost you. So go fuck yourself and the horse you rode in on.”

The lawyers quickly pulled us into separate rooms. Joe said to me, “I’m not charging you $50 an hour, it’s $53. And don’t ever again tell anyone what you’re paying me.”  Meanwhile I think my partner’s lawyer must have said to him, “This guy’s fucking nuts. Let’s just settle and get it over with.” So minutes later they came back with an offer to repay me every cent I’d originally invested in the business, and I accepted.

(Joe and I are still friends to this day. He has two lovely daughters whom he has wisely kept away from me.)

So fine. I got my money back. And fortunately my next job was already waiting for me. One of my steady customers in the store was this guy who produced a syndicated radio series of hour-long rock concerts. He would come in the store every week and ask me a hundred questions about CDs – when is something coming out; which sounds better – the US, the UK or the Japanese release, and so on – and I could always answer his questions. So a lightbulb went off in his head. “What if the entire country could ask Spike questions and get answers the way I do?”

So he hit me with this proposal to start up The CD Hotline. And I got somewhat fucked in the process. See, there were to be two owners. The radio guy and his partner, the grandson of an extraordinarily famous writer. The radio guy knew how radio worked and had all the connections. The writer’s grandson had connections and real estate. When I asked, “So do I get some shares in the business?” I was told only if I put up some cash. My lawsuit wasn’t settled yet and I had no money and so I got nothing. If I’d been smarter back then, I might have countered that they wouldn’t have any business without the knowledge in my head and that should have been worth something. But I was stupid and desperate for a job and so I went along with it.

The majority of the seed money ended up coming from the Grateful Dead Pension Fund. Who had any idea back in the 80s that the Dead were so well organized financially? Well, they were.

We sat there and divided up who was responsible for what between the three of us. They pointed at me and said I was in charge of computers. Why me? Because I had an Atari, which was more than either of them had.

So I sat in the basement of radio guy’s brownstone for six months, typing everything I knew about CDs into a database. The database software had been written by this genius quadriplegic guy who lived way upstate. He basically taught me everything about computers over the phone since he couldn’t come down to NYC.

Meanwhile radio guy set about trying to sell the concept. The initial idea was a one hour syndicated program in which we’d review CDs, take questions and play music. But the feedback from program directors was unanimous – they had a million guys trying to sell them one hour shows but the idea of the database was unique. (Keep in mind this was the 80s and there was no www back then.)

So the idea morphed into a 2 minute thing. Radio stations could brand it as their own (“The WXYZ CD Hotline!”) and do an announcement for it every hour, giving out an 800 number to call, and giving us a minute or two of commercial time to sell every hour.  The program director from WBCN Boston came down to the basement and quizzed me hard. Every question he asked, the answer – the correct answer – was already in the database. Sold. And soon after more than 100 radio stations across the country signed up.

At that point we moved into a warehouse in Williamsburg. We had 20 people answering phones and a computer network that was probably pretty advanced for 1987 running. I got my phone lessons from the distant programmer in DOS, dBase III and C and I taught myself Novell Netware. It all came really easily to me. I was supervising the database entry by half a dozen staff, training new staff and keeping the computer network running.

The problem for me was that the money was rolling in and I was just a (low) salaried employee. I was earning more than I ever had before. But I was watching the two partners go off to their summer rentals in the Hamptons and they’d ask if they could leave their dogs with me for the weekend.

(One time, the writer’s grandson invited my wife and I up to his compound in Vermont for a weekend. We had our own little bungalow there. The grandson had a lot of celebrity friends. He was known to spend weekends in Aspen skiing with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis and fucking Playboy Playmates. But the closest person to a celebrity I met that weekend was Mrs. John Oates (of Hall & Oates). She’d been a super model before getting married and for some reason my wife became convinced that she was coming on to me. I said, “What are you, nuts? She’s a super model married to a racing car driver rock star, she doesn’t even know I’m here.” But we left after just one day there. So much for the High Life.)

I guess at this point the only good thing about the job was that it got me on the mailing lists for some record companies. I was getting dozens of CDs a week for free.

Also, since the 70s, I’d been writing professionally on the side. I started out writing for college newspapers and magazines. After that I wrote for a large variety of smaller magazines – record reviews, videocassette reviews, things like that. I started publishing my reviews to various forums on CompuServe, where I served as “co-sysop” on RockNet and the Consumer Electronics Forum. I also picked up some part time work consulting to RCA Records on their back catalogue, but I was never able to turn that into anything permanent. One person I met was Bill Levenson, head of back catalogue at Polygram. Bill first came to fame when he produced the Eric Clapton Crossroads box. Bill told me he’d started out as a computer programmer, was working for IBM, got assigned to a project at Polygram, got hired by Polygram, and moved from programmer to producer. This was a life I wanted.

My mom, meanwhile, knew this guy who owned a toy company that had been bought out by Universal. So my mother suggested that I should write to Universal (MCA) Records and say that I know this guy and ask if there might be a job for me. A week later I got a call from Irving Azoff’s secretary. He was coming to New York and wanted to meet me. It seemed that he was looking for a new head of back catalogue. He was impressed by my knowledge of and my love of music. I thought the job was mine. The problem was, I don’t think my mother every called that toy company guy to let him know what was up. So when Azoff’s people called that guy to check on my references, that guy probably said he had never heard of me. And I never heard from Azoff or MCA again.

The money kept coming in at CD Hotline but I wasn’t seeing what I thought should have been my share. These guys had the idea to license the database to places like Tower Records, which had kiosks with computers where people could use our database to look up stuff. Long after I’d left the company, my database became the first database Amazon used when they started selling CDs. Eventually the two of them sold off the company and I’m sure they cleared a very comfortable amount of money in the process. I never saw a penny of it.

I had no idea what I was going to do next. I thought at best I was qualified to be a $5 an hour stock boy at Tower Records. Then one night my dad called me up. “Kid,” he said, “you ain’t getting anywhere with this art shit, are you?” “Um, no dad, I guess I’m not.” “You seem to like fooling around with computers. You ever think about going back to school and studying that and then doing that for a living?” Well, my father almost never gave me any advice, so on those rare occasions when he did, I paid attention. “No dad, I never thought about it, but that’s a damned good idea!” And I meant it.

See, I had no idea that there was any value in what I’d already learned about computers. I didn’t know that I could take what I already knew and was doing and get some corporate IT job somewhere. It came so easily to me, so naturally, that I figured it had to be the same for everyone, wasn’t it? I later found out no, it wasn’t.

So I started looking around for classes I might take. I thought I’d take a month-long course in something like dBase or FoxPro and then try to sell myself as an independent programmer, much like my phone buddy in upstate New York.

But one afternoon I wandered into a presentation from Columbia University. The guy was talking about all of this stuff I had never heard of. At the end, I raised my hand and asked, “But what about dBase?” The answer I got was so informative and so patient that I said to myself, “That’s the guy I want to have as my teacher.”

My father wasn’t thrilled that I was going to go to a year’s worth of classes rather than a month’s, but he gave me the money for the tuition. For the next year I still worked day time at CD Hotline while going to school at Columbia 3 hours per night twice a week, and most of every weekend spent in their computer labs.

So I took six courses in a year, mostly having to do with relational databases but also structured design and the system life cycle and some general programming courses as well. We went from Assembler all the way up to C, which was about as modern as it got back then. Databases came easily to me, perhaps because I’d already been working with them for a few years at the CD Hotline. Third form normalization? I could do that in my sleep. My final project was a 200+ page document representing a redesign of the CD Hotline database and application. I was never much of a student in my youth so I was probably more surprised than anyone else when I graduated with 5 A’s and a B.

Okay, that’s the end of part two.

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If I’m So Smart, How Come I’m Not Rich?

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I’m coming up on my 17th anniversary in Hong Kong. A little further down the line is the 10th anniversary of this blog. I’m in a bad mood this morning. Consider this post therapy. Or a list of bad decisions.

Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12, I decided I wanted to be a movie director. Looking back at it now, I think I reached this decision because I loved watching movies and it gave me an excuse for that.

When I was in high school I joined an independent filmmakers cooperative on Rivington Street, when Rivington Street was the exact opposite of the upscale hipster location it is today. A few times a week after school I’d take the subway down to this area where I had to step over and around broken glass, used hypodermic needles, junkies and drunks to get to this storefront “school” where they taught me how to use a 16mm camera and a Moviola. I don’t recall ever actually making any films there. Actually I don’t recall much from those days at all.

At the same time, I was playing piano and bass. My parents started me in on piano lessons around the age of 7 or 8. In junior high school, where my choice was between school orchestra or shop, I took up the double bass. I chose this because everyone wanted violin or clarinet (go figure), no one wanted bass, and I thought I could stand out this way. I did. The shortage of double bass players meant that somehow I got into a high school orchestra while I was still in junior high. It was the Bronx Borough Wide Symphony Orchestra and it was a year in which they (we) would play our annual concert at Carnegie Hall. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice!” I didn’t practice much. There just weren’t many bass players to choose from. So I played Carnegie Hall when I was 14. I also got a cheap electric bass guitar and despite having zero understanding of it at all, I tried to join or form a band. I even had an ad in Rolling Stone (which at the time did free classifieds for musicians) about wanting to form a band modeled after the Bonzo Dog Band, a huge favorite of mine at the time. That never got off the ground, no big surprise.

For college (or university, depending on where you’re from) I had my heart set on going to UCLA or USC but my parents said California was too far away. So I got into NYU’s film school, I was accepted for early admission, which was sort of a big thing.

My first semester, there was a course on still photography that went for 8 hours a day, twice a week. Second semester, there was a course “intro to filmmaking” that also went 8 hours a day. The teacher decided that this would be perfect for the entire class to do mescaline together, as he saw psychedelic drugs as essential to understanding the film experience. The dean kept rejecting his request for some reason.

I got a summer job working at the restaurant at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. The guys running it had a kosher deli nearby and hired me because they owed my parents a favor. They hated me and I hated them. Eventually they tossed me out of the restaurant and had me pushing a hot dog cart through the park. By early August I quit and took off for London for 3 weeks with a friend.

Second year at NYU, I had the legendary Haig Manoogian as a teacher. He’s one of those people not easily forgotten. (Raging Bull was dedicated to him.) I remember doing a documentary on my then-piano teacher Barry Goldberg and a moody thing shot in a hundred year old synagogue using Tim Buckley’s Star Sailor as a soundtrack. I don’t think Haig was impressed by my stuff. I started spending most of my time at WNYU, the school’s radio station, dj’ing a couple of times a week. I’d also shot some photos of David Peel and he liked them so I occasionally hung out with his odd assortment of friends.

I was also working part time as a grillman at this bar and restaurant called Hungry Charlie’s. It was right down the street from NYU’s “main building.” Since I was commuting to school rather than living in the dorm, I thought this would be a good chance to meet other students. It turned out that this was more of a lowlife sort of spot, lots of dealers, junkies, hookers, scammers and the occasional odd celebrity. One day I was driving through the east village and spotted a junkie hooker in a doorway and thought to myself, “Oh yeah, I made her a cheeseburger last night.” And then I thought to myself, “Time to get out of New York.”

But first, a summer job. I got this list of every film production house in New York, divided it up geographically, put on a suit and tie, and knocked on every door and left a resume at the front desk. I got hired by Larry Lindberg Productions. They were doing a weekly 30 minute sports magazine show for CBS called CBS Sports Illustrated. I was hired as a gopher and assistant editor and ended up cutting one piece that got on the air. Larry was an interesting guy and the two “real” editors there taught me a lot, including how to use one of the newer flatbed editing machines. One of the things there was that they needed music as soundtracks to their 5 minute segments but they didn’t know anything about current music. I brought in a lot of my records; they liked Deep Purple and Yes. They told me I could have a job there again the following summer but for some reason I never went back. I should have.

I had friends going to school in Boston so I looked for a Boston school where I could major in film and found Emerson College. The film school was pretty shitty there and I think in two years there I made one 5-minute vampire movie. Back in those days Boston had a lot of repertory movie theaters, double bills of classic movies for $1, and I went to the movies almost every day. I almost never went to classes. I also started working for Boston promoter Don Law; I was head usher for awhile at the 3,000 seat Orpheum Theater and did security at another theater, name I can’t remember, and also the occasional show at the much larger Boston Garden. Basically I got to see just about every band that came through Boston in those two years – and got paid for it.

Somehow, I graduated on the Dean’s List. I say “somehow” because I don’t think I went to too many classes in those two years.

Back to New York, reading the trades, and I got a job as a production assistant on a kung fu/monster/blacksploitation film called The Devil’s Express, which was mostly shot in the subway tunnels in Brooklyn.

When that finished, I took an office job at a place called Physicians Radio Network. Doctors would fill out these postcards in medical magazines, this company would send them these free crappy radios that only played their network, filled with ads from drug companies. I sat and did something with filing these cards all day long.

Another ad, another film job, somehow I ended up as assistant cameraman on a 35mm feature film – an XXX-rated hard core porn called Rollerbabies. The director was this guy who had a PhD in chemistry but decided he wanted to make movies. The only people who would hire him were Mafia types who’d give him 25k and he’d give them a movie. So the budget was low as his “salary” was basically whatever was left over from that 25k after the film was made. The script was written by a guy who was moonlighting from Mad Magazine. No one in it could act so most of the jokes were jettisoned. The director’s “trademark” was a pull-out-slow-motion-cum-shot. He got busted on his next film for using under-age talent.

Meanwhile I couldn’t get busted and I couldn’t get a job. So I took a summer job as a camp counselor, a camp in the Poconos, and that’s where I met my first wife.

Back after the summer, I put on the suit and tie and started banging on doors again. This time a lot of places told me I needed to be in a union. None of the film unions would accept me, even as an apprentice, because I either didn’t already have a job or I didn’t already have relatives in the union.

Eventually I got hired part time by Bob Gaffney Productions. Bob was a director/cameraman doing TV commercials – Clio-award winning commercials for global brands. First they brought me in to edit the house reel – splicing together commercials so they could send reels of film to ad agencies to get jobs. Yeah, it was like that once.  I got to PA on a few location shoots too. Then they started calling me to fill in as the receptionist whenever their full time one got sick. When she quit her job, I asked them to give me the job permanently. “But it’s not a film job, you won’t be happy, you won’t get to go on shoots.” “But I’ll be happy getting a regular paycheck!” So they agreed and I had my first full time job at the age of 24, as a receptionist. I’m sure my parents were thrilled.

One day the phone rang. “Bob Gaffney please.” “May I ask who is calling?” “Stanley Kubrick.” WTF?

And so I learned a bit more about Bob’s history. Bob started out shooting March of Time documentaries. He’d done work for the CIA – which he told us about and which I will not write about here. He directed Orson Welles’ first TV commercial. He directed cult favorite Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.

For Kubrick, he’d shot second unit stuff for Lolita, Strangelove and 2001. He was the producer for the never-finished Napoleon. He’d designed the super low light lenses for Barry Lyndon. Working on Napoleon soured him on feature films and he decided doing commercials was easier. Every time Stanley would start a new film, he’d call Bob and try to get him to come to work for him again. This time the film was to be The Shining. Barry Lyndon had tanked at the box office and Stanley thought he needed a sure-fire hit otherwise he’d lose creative control and final cut. He hated the book and thought if he filmed the ending as written the audience would run out of the theater laughing. So our first task was to read the book and suggest alternate endings.

Stanley thought he might move back to the U.S. to shoot the picture. Since he wouldn’t fly – and since there was no Internet – I had to collect every train schedule and every Mobil Travel Guide and mail them to him in the UK. He stayed in London. We tested the Steadicam for him and our office served as the office for the second unit crew whenever they were in transit between Oregon and London. Whatever work I did on this film was not enough to rate a screen credit. I did get to meet a lot of people who’d worked with him for a decade or more. Few had any good things to say about him yet they kept working for him film after film.

The other thing with Stanley that he was convinced that as a famous American living in London, he was a potential target for the IRA. He thought they would try to kidnap his children. So every two days he had his phone number changed. I have no idea why he thought that would be effective. So every time he called it was always, “Hi Stanley, what’s your phone number today?”

Gaffney decided to promote me away from the receptionist desk. I was told that I would either be trained to become an associate producer or business manager. I had no say in the matter. His current business manager was his father-in-law, approaching 65 years old. So guess which job they gave me? I became business manager of one of the top ten commercial director/cameramen in the U.S., with absolutely no background for it. Why? Because I worked cheap. However, it seemed to seriously piss him off that I would show up for work every day in jeans, t-shirts and cowboy boots but that I could get short-term bank loans at lower interest rates than his father-in-law had done.

I didn’t much like the job and I didn’t like other things going on in the office that I don’t feel comfortable writing about. I left there after four years. And I was screwed. No production house in New York wanted to hire me as a business manager because they didn’t believe that someone so young and unqualified had done that job. No production house in New York wanted to hire me for film work because I hadn’t been on a shoot in more than two years. And the unions still weren’t willing to take me.

My assistant at Gaffney had introduced me to a young British songwriter. He had a publishing contract with Capitol and wanted to put a band together. I agreed to manage him and funded the entire thing with credit cards. We found three more musicians, I bought them equipment and a rehearsal space, I got them gigs at places like CBGB’s and used a connection to get them into NYC’s famed Record Plant to record demos.

At the same time, I was working at my cousin’s store that was right on the borderline between Columbia University and Harlem. I was selling TVs and stereos, delivering stuff into the projects, repairing TVs and covering for him while he ran off doing various things that I probably shouldn’t be writing about.

The whole thing sucked. The record companies came down to see the band and they all said the same thing. “They’re good but they’re at least a year away.” The band didn’t want to rehearse, they didn’t want to try and get gigs on their own, my cut from their gigs was usually around $25 a night. I walked away from them, deeply in debt. Eventually they got picked up by King Crimson’s management company and released one EP on A&M Records and, as far as I can tell, none of them were ever heard from again.

This is getting rather long so I’ll take a break here.

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Review – Think Tank Photo My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13

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Photographers suffer from what we jokingly refer to as GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. We get GAS not only for cameras and lenses, we also get GAS for bags. I don’t know any photographer who only has one camera bag. We buy them in all different sizes for all different purposes.

There are plenty of companies making photo bags and I’ve tried lots of them and after several years, the one company that I “follow” is an American company called Think Tank Photo. Their bags are intelligently designed and durable and have stood the test of time for me.

Here’s my “family” of Think Tank Photo bags:

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As you can see, I’ve got six of them, ranging from a small shoulder bag that will hold just my Nikon D800 with a zoom lens all the way up to the rolling Airport Security bag – which I use not just for travel but also for local shoots when I’m taking everything with me.

Think Tank decided to branch out into a new line that they called My 2nd Brain. This is a line of bags that they say are specifically sized for Apple products – MacBooks, iPads, iPhones – though of course they should work for just about any notebook, tablet and phone.

The first series of bags that they introduced left me cold. These were ultra-slim shoulder bags that could fit a laptop or a tablet computer and maybe a few sheets of paper but very little else. They couldn’t begin to accommodate what I carry on a normal work day. I looked at them and wondered if their designers all had 20/20 vision or wore contacts. There wasn’t even space for a couple of regular-sized eyeglass cases, let alone all the stuff I’m liable to carry on an average work day.

So, you ask, what do I carry on a normal day?

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  • 13 inch MacBook Pro
  • iPad Air
  • two pairs of glasses – reading and sun glasses
  • Fiio headphone amplifier
  • Over the ears headphones – most often B&W P5s, sometimes I go for the Bluetooth Parrot Zik headphones, which are also fabulous.
  • a “regular” pen and an Adonit Jot Script pen for writing on my iPad
  • The power adapter for my MacBook
  • a battery-powered electric fan, for all the times I’m waiting for the damned 307 bus in 35 degree heat
  • some sugar-free mints
  • 3 different business cards (day job, photo studio, photo/writing)
  • Keys
  • Battery charger and cables
  • Umbrella
  • Water bottle

And that’s not everything. Not shown in the photo above are:

  • Two mobile phones (one for business, one for “life”)
  • Cigarettes and a lighter
  • Sony RX100 III camera
  • And, occasionally, a paperback book for when I feel like reading on paper vs. on my iPad

Now, take all of that stuff and add on that I’m somewhat obsessive compulsive (as if that wasn’t already evident) and that I don’t want to spend time digging through my bag looking for things. I want each thing to have its own pocket or compartment; first so that it won’t be banging into anything else, and second so that I can put my hands on anything in an instant without digging around.

I have a slim vertical shoulder bag from Skooba that can’t really handle too much stuff. An iPad and two pairs of glasses and the Sony camera leave it bursting at the seams. I have a messenger bag from Crumpler that holds all of the above and more, but it’s just too big – when I’m sitting on the bus it’s really difficult to keep the bag from spilling over onto the laps of the people sitting next to me.

I decided that I wanted some kind of briefcase, to look more professional (okay, granted, I go to work wearing jeans and t-shirts and sneakers, but once in a rare while I have to do “business casual” or even a suit and a messenger bag just doesn’t go with that).

There’s probably a zillion briefcases one can find in Hong Kong, everything from cheap knock-offs to fancy leather cases costing thousands of dollars. I figured I could spend years looking at all of them, trying to find one that would fit my particular mania. But when TTP expanded their My 2nd Brain line to include briefcases, I knew that was the answer I was looking for. The price was right, the size was right and I also knew that this would have all of the pockets and compartments I wanted. So I got the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 in black (it also comes in “Harbor Blue” and “Mist Green”).

(Full disclosure – after not being able to locate the bag in Hong Kong through the local TTP distributors, I approached the company directly asking for a bag in exchange for a review and I was quite surprised when they agreed.)

Let’s start by examining the outside of the bag, starting with the front:

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It’s a very clean, classic design, made from 420D high density nylon with a water-repellant coating. The bag measures 14.2″ wide by 11.8″ high by 4.5″ deep. As you can see, the handle at the top of the bag is well padded. The detachable strap is also sufficiently padded, with those little shiny maybe-silicone bits that keep it from slipping off one’s shoulder.

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There’s even a small buckle on the strap to let you hang a pair of headphones or some other small item with a strap.

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(The above photo is the only one taken from the company web site. Wish I had a nice set-up at home for doing this kind of shooting!)

All of the hardware is durable nickel-coated metal.

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The front flap has two zippers that open to reveal the type of sectioned divider that’s found in almost every TTP bag.

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Note that there’s a deep pocket there good for papers, a small notebook, or perhaps a passport and tickets. (That’s where I put my electric fan.) There’s also a small blue strap with a hook at the end meant for attaching a key ring.

Viewing this same compartment from the other side, there’s another flap that’s the right size for a full-size iPad – in my case an iPad Air in a slim case from Odoyo.

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Just behind that compartment is a zipper that opens to reveal a small compartment meant for a mobile phone.

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There’s also a small webbed pocket in there that will fit business cards nicely. Me, I prefer to keep my phone in my jeans.  I tried putting my Sony camera here but the weight of the camera made this section get all bulgy.  So I’m using this pocket for my smokes. They fit perfectly there and they’re instantly accessible.

Looking inside the main compartment, theres one divider that features 5 expandable pockets:

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And there’s plenty of room to fit some papers or a magazine back there. Still in the main compartment but facing the other direction, there’s another divider that features two clear zippered pockets.

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And again, room behind that for more papers.

What you might also note in the above photos is that there are pieces of fabric along both sides attaching the front of the case to the rear. This is great because it means when the bag is on your shoulder and you open it up on the street, there’s no possibility of the front flipping over and all of the contents spilling out. You also have probably noticed the light grey interior, meaning it’s easy to see every item that you’ve got in there.

TTP include rain covers will almost all of their bags, and the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 is no exception.

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The blue bag contains a black plastic cover. The strap ends with a bit of velcro that wraps around a red elastic hook inside, meaning that you can take the bag out.

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As you can see, the rain cover bag actually takes up quite a bit of space.

Looking at the back of the bag, there’s the zippered compartment for your laptop.

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I don’t know that I needed that bit of cutesy text there. Both sides of the compartment are lightly padded.

Then there’s a slim space that you can drop a newspaper or magazine into.

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There’s also a tight flap that will allow you to put this securely onto the handle of a larger piece of luggage, as shown below with my TTP Airport Security rolling bag.

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Finally, both sides of the bag have zippered, expandable pockets that can hold a water bottle, a folding umbrella, a large eyeglass case or perhaps a kebab from Ebeneezer’s.

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So, yes, this bag holds everything I might possibly want to take with me on a day out, each item in its own place and easily accessible. It’s small enough to fit on my lap and it’s flat which makes it a great “desktop” for holding my iPad while I’m watching my TV shows during my commute.

I’ve been using this bag now every day for about 3 weeks and on the whole, I’m really loving it. It’s the same Think Tank Photo quality that I love in the other 6 TTP bags that I own. It seems strong and durable. It feels as if it will last a lifetime, or at least for several years.

What this bag positively screams is that Think Tank Photo have put the same amount of thought into the organization, construction and details that they put into their camera bags. That’s what I was hoping for in a briefcase from this company and they didn’t let me down.

The size is both a positive and a negative for me. Everything feels as if it has been engineered to military-like precision. The bag is small enough and light enough for me to take it with me every day without feeling as if the bag alone has added 5 or 10 extra pounds to the stuff I carry with me. (The actual weight of the bag is 2.1 pounds.)

It’s also small enough that I can pack it in my luggage when I travel. I know that sounds odd, but generally when flying I want a larger carry on bag (for reasons that I won’t go into here). But once I arrive, I want the smaller bag for my every day walking around stuff. I’ll be able to do that with this bag.

On the other hand, this compactness means that once I fill up the bag, and all of the little inside pockets, there’s not a lot of room left over. This becomes an issue with the power adapter for my MacBook. I’m not sure that the Think Tank designers ever saw this power pack with the huge British plug as opposed to the slim American one – it’s a tight fit and I can’t really use the compartment for this as shown on their web site. I suspect that the bag is strong enough that I could really stuff it beyond the point of sanity and manage to get it closed, but it might get really bulky and uncomfortable to carry at that point. I actually find myself wondering if I shouldn’t go for the 15 inch laptop size – not because I want a larger laptop but because of the couple of extra inches of interior storage space I’d get as a result.

Honestly, that’s about as much of a complaint as I can come up with for the bag. It is 100% the bag I was looking to get. It holds pretty much everything I want to take with me during the week – it holds everything safely and securely and everything is instantly accessible whether I’m standing at a bus stop or sitting at my desk. And, bonus, my wife says that the style really suits me.

The Think Tank Photo My 2nd Brain briefcase series comes in 3 sizes – for 11 inch, 13 inch and 15 inch laptops. Each size is available in three colors – black, “Harbor” blue or “Mist” green.

The My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 that I have retails for US$129.75. You can purchase the bag from Amazon or  B&H Photo.  You can also try contacting Howen International, a great local company that distributes Think Tank products (and other photography accessories) in Hong Kong although at the moment they’re not bringing in the briefcases.

Thanks again to Think Tank Photo for supplying me with this bag in exchange for a review.

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Find My iPhone – Please!

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I’m just back from 6 days in Manila. On the 4th day, I did something that I haven’t done in at least 5 years, maybe 10 – I left my iPhone in a taxi.

Over the years I’ve trained myself to always look back at the taxi seat before closing the door. This time, for whatever reason, I didn’t do that. We got out of the cab, went to a coffee shop, I reached into my pocket to pull out my 2 phones, and only 1 was there. I checked all of my pockets and then called the hotel and asked them to search my room – but I already knew I’d taken it with me when I left the hotel in the morning.

We tried calling the phone at least 27 times but no answer.  We sent an SMS message to the phone in Tagalog offering a reward if returned.

As soon as we could, back to the hotel. After searching the room myself, I called 3 to cancel the SIM card. I went to the “find my iphone” and hit all the settings – play sound, “lost mode,” erase phone. I set the message with my Hong Kong number and an offer of a “big reward” if returned. And then, just to be safe, I proceeded to change the passwords to most of my major accounts – email, iTunes, Facebook, Twitter and so on.

So bye bye iPhone 5S, 64 gig, gold color.

I didn’t lose any data worth mentioning. The phone was backed up to my computer right before I left for the trip. Photos were stored on iCloud. So pretty much just the most recent call logs and SMS messages. And since the phone was password/fingerprint locked – and remotely erased – I believe/hope that my data has not been compromised. So the only real damage – I believe – is the loss of something that cost US$900.

And now my wife finally has an answer to the question she has asked me 100 times – “why do you have a password on your iPhone?”

I don’t want to go out and buy a new iPhone 5S (or try to find a used one in Mong Kok, if that’s possible) because the iPhone 6 is rumored to be announced next month.  So we reversed the “hand me down” order. Every time I’d get a new phone, my old one would go to my wife and her old one would go to her daughter. So for now, the daughter’s iPhone 4S back to my wife, my wife’s iPhone 5 back to me and bought some sort of phone for the daughter.

I got back to Hong Kong on Wednesday. Finally tonight (Thursday night) on my way home from work, Find My iPhone beeped. My phone had been turned on. It is sitting at the Ever Commonwealth Mall, just off Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City.

Supposedly once an iPhone has been put into lost mode, the phone is essentially bricked and cannot be used or erased until you enter your iTunes account and password. But I am relatively certain that hackers have found ways to get around this – especially in the Philippines.

Going back to the iPhone 5 from the 5S, I find I am really missing that fingerprint sensor. Instead of just touching a finger to the button, now I have to hit the button, swipe and enter a passcode every time. (Well, you all know this already.)

Such is life. We become so attached to our gadgets that the loss of one can seem almost catastrophic, even though it’s really just a few steps above trivial. Fortunately Apple (and Google) build in some safeguards for when this happens, and hopefully those work. Life goes on.

 

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London and Me

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July 1st, along with its massive protest march in Hong Kong, has come and feels long gone. I’d meant to write something on it, but I kept stumbling and life got in the way, as it has a habit of doing. Ultimately I ended up on a very hastily arranged business trip to London – a trip with very mixed results from a business perspective but also a trip that further enhanced my love affair with London.

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(Forgive me if any of this repeats old stuff.)

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In the summer of 1972, I’d just completed my first year at college (university to you Brits) and was working an awful summer job – pushing a hot dog cart at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. A school buddy asked if I wanted to join him on a trip to London and my parents gave the okay for me to spend my Bar Mitzvah money on the trip.

We stayed in England for about 3 weeks, starting off in bed and breakfast places that cost only a pound and a half per night – though the beds were so uncomfortable that we ended up sleeping on the floor. Our days were divided between doing all of the standard sight seeing stuff and hitting every record store we possibly could. (I remember buying Roxy Music’s first album and spending weeks staring at the cover wondering what it could possibly sound like.)

Nights were for music - at one point I figured out that we saw more than 70 bands in those three weeks. David Bowie doing Ziggy Stardust at the Rainbow. Yes’s world premiere of Close to the Edge with opening acts that included Mahavishnu Orchestra. Renaissance playing for free in a pub before their first album came out. The Chelmsford Folk Festival, which included The Strawbs, Al Stewart, and Sandy Denny. (Sandy offered us a ride back to London but my idiot friend was too scared to get in her car with her two large dogs.)

We also went to Torquay for a weekend for reasons I can no longer recall – long before Fawlty Towers – where the only thing to do at night was go to a Mungo Jerry concert.

We just about ran out of money long before the end of the trip. We stayed in some park where they’d set up tents with double decker beds, 50 pence per night, one concrete building with lockers and showers, and basically existed on a diet of lentils.

My second trip didn’t happen until 12 years later. My first wife and I were tipped off about the hotel where all the bands stayed. So we’d go see Echo & the Bunnymen in concert and then the next morning we’d be having breakfast with them. This trip was also – believe it or not – the first time I ate Indian food.

In 1990 I started working for Barclays Bank in New York. This is when I first learned about the concept of business travel. I managed to get myself into a position where I spent large chunks of 1992 and early 1993 in London in a service flat in the central City (according to the guest register, the previous occupant of that room was J.G. Ballard). I got to see a lot of great live music (Julian Cope was a standout) and fell in love with a bi-polar poet whom I met at a party one night – my American accent came in handy in a variety of situations.

I knew I wanted to live in London and my boss at Barclays tried to make it happen for me. There were no suitable openings and then she found something in Manchester. I’d never been there but figured with Manchester’s fame as a music center, I’d be okay. The deal fell through at the last minute and I ended up leaving Barclays for the job that would eventually bring me to Hong Kong.

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For the past 20 years and across several jobs, I’ve traveled to London often enough to know my way around and feel extremely comfortable there. Of course these are business trips and I’m staying in nice hotels in central locations (this trip I was staying just off Trafalgar Square) and my expenses are all covered so it’s not quite the same experience as actually living there. This last trip I had lunch with my friend Kevin Westenberg, an American who has lived in London for 30 years, and I got to hear about how crazy expensive London can be when you live there.

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At any rate, I found myself with a decent amount of free time during this trip to London. I walked at least 5 miles each day, usually on a circuit that included Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown and Soho.  I got up to Camden Market, got to the music stores on Denmark Street, spent time in Forbidden Planet and Foyles and browsed in some of the few remaining record shops.

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And as I walked around, I found myself constantly comparing London to Hong Kong.

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Of course there’s the big stuff. The beautiful architecture, monuments and parks everywhere. On the one hand, one might say it’s merely reminders of Britain’s history of empire and imperialism, the spoils of war and conquest. I think it’s more than that. There was an aspiration to greatness, individually and collectively. And to let everyone share in that aspiration, at least by surrounding people with beauty, even if their own lives were drab.

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Hong Kong has none of that. There are no world class museums here. There are very few buildings left to reflect the 150 year history. Skyline? Yeah, it’s a bunch of drab office buildings gussied up with neon and lasers that is only impressive because of the water in the foreground and the mountains in the rear.

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(Tacky, right? But a step up from the fake Buddhist monks scamming for change all over Hong Kong.)

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The cultural diversity of London is staggering when compared to Hong Kong. You see this walking down the streets, you see it in shops, you see it in the selection of restaurants everywhere you go.

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And then there’s the commercial aspects of daily life. Everything from banks advertising their credit cards based on competitive interest rates and telephone companies advertising no additional charges for data when roaming globally (HK’s Three is one of those companies; meanwhile for HK Three customers, one could buy a special “deal” for roaming data for HK$198 per day). This is what happens when you have true competition and a level playing field – something Hong Kong does not offer on almost any level.

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(Outdoor seating at a pub in central London. This is actually illegal in most of Hong Kong.)

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The buses are hybrid buses – the seats are set a decent distance apart (seats in Hong Kong buses mostly offer less leg room than economy class flights) and the windows are not covered with ads. The trains may be old but at least they do not have video screens blasting advertisements at a captive audience.

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(Here’s a minor pet peeve – as a photographer who follows dozens of photography blogs, I always see the companies whose equipment I use offering rebates and cash-back offers. These offers are never valid in Hong Kong.)

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I think the things that get to me most are the lack of choice and diversity combined with the second rate status of ordinary citizens.

Yes, mass transportation is pretty darned good here – it’s cheap and runs on a predictable schedule and the consumers of the transportation system are for the most part treated as captive targets of loud advertising that isn’t even clever.

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Taxes are low. That’s thanks to the revenue the government collects from real estate transactions and also, perhaps more importantly, because Hong Kong doesn’t have to support an army, navy or air force. We get that from China – it’s an army that has already proven once that they will fire upon their own citizens when so ordered to, and the odds are increasing that one day it will be used against Hong Kong citizens for daring to request that they might have a say in how their home is managed and getting fed up with receiving nothing but meaningless sound bites in return.

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Oh, new flats measuring all of 200 square feet are going on sale in Tai Po this weekend and expected to sell out. And Monday I’ll go back to the office and have to make my way down the streets in between hordes of mainland shoppers dragging suitcases behind them. And that’s after waiting 20 minutes for the bus standing in the blazing sun or the pouring rain because a simple thing like a decent bus shelter is a joke here.

I live in a town of 250,000 and there is only one supermarket out of dozens here that sells simple things like dijon mustard or Italian salami or bacon not made in China or a crusty baguette. (Said supermarket is a mile from any bus stop and offers all of 8 parking spots.) The only place in this town that has a half-way decent hamburger charges US$20 for it and the pizza is mostly embarrassing. Thai, Japanese and Korean food around here has been localized to an extent that renders it almost unrecognizable. I’m exasperated not by the fact that the only interesting new restaurants open in Sheung Wan or Kennedy Town but by the fact that there seems to be practically no demand for them almost anywhere else.

Look, I get it. If there was a utopia, everyone would move there and then it might not be so utopian after that. I always say that every place has its issues and compromises and if you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where you live, then you choose the compromises you’re more able to deal with. And for many years, Hong Kong was the place for me.

But right now I feel that today is the best that Hong Kong is ever going to be. And by that I mean that I feel that the quality of life in Hong Kong is devolving to the point where each day is going to be worse than the day before. Each day will bring its share of corruption, greed, humiliation and assaults upon the daily existence of every day people.

There are days that I give serious thought to living almost anywhere else except here. Well, I never consider a return to the U.S.  But the list of places that I think I would enjoy living in more than Hong Kong seems to grow almost daily.

It’s a funny thing. The grass is always greener. I’ve got this friend, he’s American, he used to live in Tokyo and travel throughout Asia. Now he lives and travels all over Europe. And half the time he blogs about wanting to get back to Asia and posts Facebook comments about being jealous whenever I mention anything on bars (and women) in Wanchai or Lan Kwai Fong. I’d trade places with him in a heartbeat.

Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood today? I won’t say it’s impossible. I am a moody bastard, you all know that.

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Weight

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Graham Elliot, chef and one of the stars of the US version of Masterchef, has lost 155 pounds. I may have found some of them. My trip to the U.S. tomorrow won’t help matters. Diet starts once I return from the U.S. – and after I finish off all of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups I’ll probably be bringing back to Hong Kong.

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Please Don’t Make Me Fly Philippines Airlines Again & Other Tales

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And it’s not because they’re a bad airline. It’s because they fly into and out of Manila’s NAIA Terminal 2, which is a disaster.

See, my Manila trip this week was a business trip. My company normally books Cathay Pacific for the route.  Cathay Pacific flies into and out of NAIA terminal 1, as do most international flights. So it’s not only a crappy old terminal but the lines at immigration can be ridiculously long and slow moving.

I asked my company if I could fly Cebu Pacific instead. It flies into and out of Terminal 3, which is a new terminal and not heavily used. You zoom through immigration. Plus it’s the closest terminal to where I’d be staying. And it’s a “budget” airline. The ticket price would have been at least HK$1,000 cheaper than CX.

But I was told this is against company policy. We are not allowed to book our own travel. The company only uses a single travel agent and that agent can’t book Cebu Pacific. And, no, they can’t make an exception for me, even if it would save the company money.

As it turns out, there were no available flights on Cathay for my return flight, so they booked me on Philippines Airlines instead. Same price as Cathay.

Hong Kong to Manila

Philippines Airlines doesn’t get to use Terminal 1 at HKIA, it uses Terminal 2, which is not really a terminal, it’s a series of check-in counters surrounded by a crappy over-priced shopping mall. After you check in, you have to go down two sets of escalators, walk under the train tracks, and up three sets of escalators to get to Terminal 1 to go through immigration and security and go to the gate.

On arrival at NAIA Terminal 2, it took one hour to get my luggage.  The staff said the bags were being x-rayed, and apparently this was one bag at a time, and I don’t know why this was even necessary. Weren’t the bags x-rayed before they were put on the plane? Did they think that terrorists somehow snuck on the plane in mid-air and hid bombs in the suitcases?

Oh, and there was no air conditioning there either. Finally one woman, Asian, started screaming at one of the staff there. She was holding her young son. “How can you do this to us? Look at the babies! Look at the babies!” Well, she may have been right, but she was screaming at a guy who just worked the luggage belt.

So someone else, Caucasian with an eastern European accent, started screaming at her. “Don’t use that bad language! What’s wrong with you? You come here and you think you can yell at people because this is the Philippines? You wait like everybody else!”

Bags arrived, entertainment over.

Then you walk past customs and you’re immediately outside.  Where there are no ATMs. There are only currency exchange counters giving you crappy rates. I changed just enough to cover my taxi ride to the hotel, since I already knew there’s an HSBC in the same building.

And then there are no meter taxis. Only “coupon” taxis, which charge on average 2 to 3 times over what a metered taxi would cost for a ride into town. And even if I’m getting reimbursed for the taxi fare, something in me won’t let me pay those kind of stupid rates. So I had to schlep upstairs to the departure area and grab a taxi that had just dropped people off.

Manila to Hong Kong

The World Economic Forum is meeting in Manila. Roads are closed and there’s gridlock everywhere. Even worse than usual. But I know this in advance and so I head to the airport plenty early.  At one point, when the taxi was stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on EDSA just before Makati, the driver turned to me and asked me what time is my flight. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “We’ve got plenty of time. You can see I’m sitting here relaxed and not nervous.”  It ended up taking 90 minutes, which was the exact amount I thought it might take.

But once I got to the airport, it took more than an hour to check in and go through immigration. And yes, you guessed it, no air conditioning.  It was 35 degrees outside and within 30 minutes I was a sweaty mess. I think I would not have wanted to sit next to me on the plane.

So you line up to check in. Then another line to pay your airport tax, because apparently they can’t figure out how to collect this when you pay for your plane ticket, like almost every other airport in the entire world. That was a short line.

Then onto the miles long line for immigration.  The sign simply said “Immigration” with an arrow. After 10 minutes on the line, a guard told me that line was for FIlipinos only and not for foreigners, and that I had to go all the way to the other end of the terminal. “Where’s the sign that says this line is Filipino only?” I asked. I knew it was pointless, he’s just the guy standing there, not the guy in charge of signs.

The foreigner line was even longer. I’d say easily 100 people on the line for just two counters. And then for some reason they let a tour group of about 20 people cut the line. All I could do was stand there and sweat.

The only saving graces were that once I finally got through immigration, the security line moved fast and there was a well-air-conditioned smoking room right next to my boarding gate.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. I know the Philippines is a poor country, the government is rife with corruption and a lot of people avoid paying their taxes, leaving precious little left over for decent infrastructure.

But on this trip I also went to the new SM Aura mall at the Fort, which was huge and modern and everything worked perfectly. I went to Greenbelt, which is always a great place for shopping, eating, drinking, hanging out.  And at the SM Mega Mall they added an entire new higher end building and even though it wasn’t finished yet, the bits that were working were all world class.

Maybe what they need to do in Manila is let SM and Ayala build the airport?

Telephone

Oh, since I was asking about some roaming alternatives in a previous post, I guess I should let you know that I went the path of least resistance and decided to only go with a local SIM card. The problem then was that I had to go to 6 different 7-11s and Mini-stops till I found one that had the nano SIM that fits the iPhone 5s. It was from SMART and half the time I couldn’t connect to the Internet at all (even with good reception) and when I could get online, it was mostly so slow that it was next to useless. So a waste of money, but just a couple hundred pesos, around US$5, no big loss.

A Fun Taxi Ride

Taxi rides in Manila are always fun. Actually I never have a problem getting a driver who will use the meter (except when it’s raining). Mostly they’re nice and we have good conversations.

Thursday night, I waited to go out until almost 9 PM. I was hoping that the traffic around Ortigas and along EDSA might have died down by then. But with the World Economic Forum and lots of road construction, it was still seriously bad. I had to wait 15 minutes for a taxi, and the driver told me it was gridlock everywhere and that I was lucky to get a cab in just 15 minutes, at the malls they’re waiting 2 hours.

So, yes, he hit the meter right away, but he didn’t want to take EDSA and he didn’t want to take C-5. He took me through back streets and barangays, down roads filled with kids playing ball in the street and cats lying out in the middle of the road scratching themselves. Every time we’d hit a main street he’d cry out, “Oh my god, traff-eek!” But I had to say to him, “You really know Manila!”

And then we got to Rockwell. And all of a sudden he practically started crying. “My stomach hungry, sir! My stomach hungry!”

No, he wasn’t trying to hit me up for money. He wanted me to get out of the taxi in Rockwell and switch to another so he could go eat. “So many other taxi here sir, easy for you. My stomach hungry!” At first I refused. I tried telling him that I hadn’t had dinner yet either. That didn’t mean anything to him.  Then as we turned onto the road that leads from Rockwell to Burgos, and it was bumper to bumper, he started up with the “Oh my god, my stomach hungry sir!” again. So finally I paid him and got out.

So I get another taxi and finally reached Greenbelt. There was a massive line of people standing there at 10 PM waiting for taxis. I felt lucky to have reached there while some restaurants were still open. I had no idea what I wanted to eat and ended up having some surprisingly good pasta. Then I thought I’d go and have a drink or two over at Sticky Fingers, but the cover band there seemed to have received a list of all the songs I hate and by the time they got to 99 Red Balloons, I couldn’t take it any more and got out of there as fast as I could.

Fortunately, by midnight, things had gotten somewhat back to normal.  I had to fight off the swarm of ladyboy hookers who congregate around Landmark late at night, as always,  and the first taxi driver that stopped for me had no idea where I was going but the second one was the best driver I had the entire trip and I told him that, handing him 200 pesos and telling him to keep the change (the meter was at around 113).

Anyway, I’m glad to be home.

 

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Random Thoughts on My 60th Birthday

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I always thought that by the year 2014 I’d be rich, famous or dead, or some combination of those. Instead I am poor, unknown and still alive. Then again, I’ve just passed my one year anniversary at a job that actually does not suck, just passed the five month mark on my marriage and have a few good friends on whom I can absolutely rely. So I suppose it’s not a total loss.

Thursday May 1st and Tuesday May 6th are holidays in Hong Kong, so I decided to take the 2nd and 5th as vacation days, giving me a 6 day weekend. (Ha! So far I’ve spent a decent amount of time working on the 1st and 2nd, albeit from home.) However, it would not be possible to get on a plane and go somewhere because my wife couldn’t take off from her job.

I don’t drink alcohol very often any more.  Go back a decade and I was getting drunk 6 nights a week; these days it’s a big deal if I drink more than 2 or 3 times a month.  I often note that some of my Facebook friends’ timelines seem to be a celebration of inebriation and I find that less than inspiring. However, just for the hell of it, I declared that I would celebrate my birthday via “Six Days of Drunkeness,” one day for each decade that I have walked the earth.

Wednesday night was bar-hopping around Wanchai. I ended up at The Wanch where Tommy Chung was playing. If you don’t know Tommy, he’s a rousing blues guitarist and I always enjoy his playing. I’d even go so far as to say that I enjoyed what he was doing more than I enjoyed Robben Ford’s set the previous night.

But after the second song, I got a message from my wife telling me she’d finished working and needed my help to carry stuff home. I zipped over to TST to find that some friends were drinking at her restaurant, I of course joined in, and that stretched out into another couple of hours before we hopped a taxi home.  This was a night of a lot of Jack Daniels and Coca Cola.

Thursday we had a BBQ party at home – hence all of the stuff that we needed to carry the night before. My wife was able to buy a lot of the ingredients for our party wholesale through the restaurant and the chefs there gave her some preparation tips. So we served our guests parma ham with melon, pasta salad, potato salad, pancit, lumpia and fried chicken wings, followed by BBQ steaks, pork ribs and chicken. Not a bad spread although in what I’m told is true Filipino tradition, we probably had enough food for a small village. One friend baked a cheesecake for me.  As soon as the cooking was over, I bypassed all the bottles of wine and cans of beer and grabbed a bottle of Patron Anejo tequila, double shots with ice, and I found that a most pleasant beverage for passing the rest of the evening.

Friday was more bar hopping in Wanchai. (Seriously these days you practically have to drag me kicking and screaming to get me to go to Lan Kwai Fong or Soho.) I had this idea that I wanted the sizzling chili prawns from American Restaurant (a really old, old school Beijing style place)(I know, the place was probably never great to begin with and it ain’t what it used to be but I have a real fondness for this spot).  But then a pick-up truck pulled up in front of Spicy Fingers. They had a charcoal BBQ on the back and started grilling up – and giving away! – cheeseburgers, and really good ones at that. They were all gone in well under 30 minutes, long before any police might pull up and chase them away. It was a promotion for a new burger joint that will be opening in Wanchai in around 2 weeks and these were tasty burgers indeed. It was a welcome novelty in a place that so foolishly bans food trucks. So no chili prawns necessary. I’d thought this would be a whisky night but somehow I got started on Jack Cokes again and so Mr. Daniels remained with me for the balance of the night.

We spent a long period of time at the Wanch, about ten of us at one of the two outside tables they’ve got. Later, we were headed to Thai Hut for a late supper but we got tagged by one of the staff at Rio, a guy we’ve known for awhile, and he insisted that the food there was good and we should try it. We descended into the basement of this place and, okay, the food was decent enough. But they were playing the kind of disco music I stopped listening to ten years ago and at ear-shattering volumes. There were hardly any people in there and I suspect this is the kind of place that doesn’t get busy till after 2 AM – assuming that they do get busy at some point.

Tonight, day 4 of 6 and my actual birthday, I met my wife after she finished working and we went to a nearby favorite, Brick Lane Gallery, where I’d booked an outside table. Brick Lane (two branches in TST, one near Admiralty) is sort of a British gastro pub and their Gallery branch is on a quiet dead end street that has several restaurants and late night clubs. We had a long leisurely late dinner with a nice bottle of Italian red wine. (As I get older, I find that beer and wine hit me very fast and can leave me with a headache, whereas I can go all night with no problem on distilled spirits. Tonight was no exception. I wasn’t wasted from half a bottle of wine but I was really glad I’d left the car at home.) We then scooted over a couple of blocks east to Sticky Fingers for another few drinks while listening to their not-horrible cover band.

So two more days to go. I’m going to try to hit Picex, a photography exhibition at KITEC on Sunday afternoon and suspect the night will be spent sitting out on my deck with a bottle of bourbon I’ve been saving for awhile. Monday will be a few more bars, then Tuesday to recover from all the madness and Wednesday back to work.

I’m not certain that it’s entirely sunk in that I’m 60 yet. That’s one of life’s great jokes, isn’t it? Inside I feel the same way I felt when I was 20. My mother will be 93 in a few weeks and I know she feels the same way.

Maybe this is one reason that I consider Henri-Pierre Roché a personal hero. He wrote two books in his life, the first was Jules and Jim and it was published in 1953 when he was 74 years old. The book was not a success until Francois Truffaut found a copy in a second hand book shop and made it into one of the greatest films of all time in 1962 – since then the book has never been out of print. Maybe if I make it to 70 I’ll finally finish my semi-autobiographical book but with my luck if it then gets turned into a film, said film would be directed by the guy who does Adam Sandler’s movies.

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A Hard Act to Follow

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One thing about getting older, when you get some minor sickness it hits you much harder. I’ve been feeling like crap for 5 days now and not certain I will go into the office on Monday or not.

I’ve been doing this blogging thing for close to ten years now – my first blog post was December 4, 2004. Back then I was writing about something a bit different and I was getting pretty high numbers, for whatever that’s worth. Then a couple of years later the blog assumed its current haphazard form and the numbers dropped down and I’ve always been quite okay with that. I get around 15,000 visits per month (not uniques) and I’m always surprised that the numbers are that high. Oh sure, like everyone else, I fantasize about writing something that goes viral and brings me fame and fortune but I know it’s not likely to happen. My posts are written relatively quickly and I spend zero time on SEO. I like writing, I like communicating, and I do it for its own sake.

Then I get something like my last post.  If I normally get 15,000 views a month, that post got more than 14,000 views in about 5 days. Clearly it resonated with a lot of people. Biggest referer? Facebook, by far.

It’s not my first time ranting about conditions in Hong Kong and it’s probably not my best rant either. I would ascribe a lot of the views of that post to the general sentiment one encounters every day – which is one of increasing unrest and unhappiness with the way things are going here. I think some people share my view that the quality of life in Hong Kong is noticeably decreasing and nothing is being done about it. Other people of course do not share this view. That’s life for you.

So one might think that now I’m feeling the pressure to continue in that vein. But the fact is that I won’t. I’ll keep on doing what I’ve been doing – a little bit of this followed by a little bit of that – blogging as the mood strikes me. And I don’t see myself filling up the sidebar with ads or running a lot of sponsored posts (you wouldn’t believe how many inquiries I get every week to run that kind of stuff).  And I’m sure that in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have more rants, so stay tuned if that’s your thing.

Going off on a slight tangent here …. Big Lychee, Hemlock’s blog, infamous in certain circles, right? Well, he’s certainly got his followers. At the moment comments are broken on his blog and his RSS feed isn’t working (I suspect he doesn’t even realize the latter).  Hemlock’s been blogging longer than I have and his posts are more consistent than mine. Every day, 5 days a week, excluding holidays, he writes a thousand words of usually good analysis of what he perceives to be the issue of the day, often served with a side order of how much better he is than everyone else. (He has this annoying habit lately of attacking fashion models in ads for not looking the way he believes people ought to look. I think he believes that’s him being “snarky,” similar to the way he will occasionally go after dogs and dog owners.)

I kind of feel bad for him. I mean, just imagine, waking up every morning, almost every day for more than 10 years, and feeling it’s his mission to find something to be pissed off about (not that that’s so hard in Hong Kong, to be honest). He’s even written a book about Hong Kong political and economic scene, currently at #3,207,282 on Amazon’s best seller list. And then, having written so well and written for such a long period of time, he’s managed to change absolutely fucking nothing, at least not as far as I can tell.

He and I come from a different place and a different era. My experience is of battling the Vietnam War and Nixon and kind of being proven right and yet having lost at the same time. Hunter S. Thompson put it best:

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

I remember that wave breaking. Thompson wrote that book around ’71 so he’s referring to events in the mid 60s.  For me, I think it broke and rolled back in ’72 when despite everything we knew to be true, Nixon was re-elected. Even with eventually managing to drive both him and Agnew from office (and leaving America with a president that no one had voted for), well, things just weren’t the same after that. I guess it’s fair to say that I hunger for a similar wave in Hong Kong and that I’d like to be riding the crest of that wave. But I don’t really expect it to happen.

Anyway, for all those folks who discovered me via my last rant and are looking for more of the same and will get tired of waiting for me to revisit that theme, by all means do check out Big Lychee. There’s certainly no other English language blogger in Hong Kong who is as consistent as him in attacking the status quo.

 

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What Does This Mean?

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I’ve got this friend who goes by the name of William Banzai Seven. I’ve written about him here once before.  WB7 does these vicious satirical political images, here’s his latest:

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He gets his stuff published on this site and all of his images are embedded from Flickr.  The result is that he’s getting upwards of 2 million views of his images per day.  In his case, this is how he earns his living, by selling posters of his stuff. And so, most excellent for him indeed. He’s found his niche and found a way to exploit it and he’s doing very well and I’m extremely happy for him.

We had lunch a couple of days ago and he said that he would do a post embedding one of my photos. Tonight he sent me an email with a link and the words “blast off.” He embedded my Flickr photostream into one of his posts and here is the result after just 30 minutes:

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The image is small so let me explain to you. I don’t pay a lot of attention to my Flickr account. I only upload randomly to it. That means that I usually get somewhere between 0 and 100 image views per day. A few days ago, when I uploaded the photo of the (tastefully) nude tattooed lady I shot over the weekend, I got almost 1500 views that day. This was organic as I did nothing to promote this photo on social media or anywhere else.

So within about 30 minutes of his posting the link, I hit 6,175 views. I don’t know enough about embedding frames from Flickr to be able to say that 6,175 people actually viewed or paid attention to my photo on that page. But if you check these stats:

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you can see that roughly 500 people out of those 6,175 appear to have actually clicked on the photo and scrolled through my photostream – or at least the first 8 pictures, which are my recent uploads (I think this batch represents my first uploads there in at least a month, maybe two).

What do all these views represent to me? Right now I have no idea. I mean, it’s nice.

But the thing is – I don’t really expect any of those people to start visiting my Flickr page on a regular basis. (I haven’t gotten a single email so far “x is now following you on Flickr.”) I’m not selling images through Flickr. If it got people to come to my web site, that would be nice I suppose – the latest images are all watermarked with the URL spikesphotos.com. I don’t have any ads on that site. I don’t have any affiliate links (click here and buy this Leica and I’ll get 10 bucks, that sort of thing). But the stats for Spike’s Photos aren’t showing any bump.

I am selling “me”, my services as a photographer, I suppose. But in the past year I haven’t really done any promoting of those services due to limited time.

So what do all these views mean? Will I get emails asking to buy prints of my pictures or asking me to shoot something on a professional basis? Time will tell. I’m not counting on it.

I don’t want to come off as ungrateful because it’s quite the opposite. I’m thrilled so many people are looking at my images and I hope at least some of them like what they see. It’s just that if there’s a way for me to seize this opportunity and build on it, so far I’m not seeing what that way might be.  Anyone have any suggestions?

I kind of feel like Barkhad Abdi must be feeling at the moment. Everyone probably thinks he’s riding high right now. After all, he went from never acting at all to stealing scenes from Tom Hanks and getting an Academy Award nomination. But he was paid just $65,000 for his efforts and is living in L.A., unemployed, broke, crashing at friends’ places and hoping that something will come of all this newfound fame. Will he get a second acting job that confirms his talents soon? Or will he go back to being just another chauffeur?

So I think I’ll head to bed soon. I’ll check my stats in the morning of course. (I’m approaching 11,000 views after 1 hour, with over 800 views apiece for those 8 most recent photos).

Oh, postscript – I’ve had a number of responses to my previous post seeking more tattooed women to pose for me. I hope to schedule some more shoots in this series soon. I do feel that this could go somewhere but even if it doesn’t, it feels nice to have come up with a theme for the year, rather than just doing the random stuff I’ve done in the past.

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