Iceland Sends Europe Another Message

In 2008, Iceland let Europe know it had helped fleece cash from, and was now defaulting on investments made by such doughty institutions as the Leeds Union of Teaching Professionals and individuals like, say, a hypothetical Frau Heirlein who probably thought she was getting in on a good thing in Icelandic derivatives almost as if it were a solid as Bernie Madoff’s twelve percent per annum. Iceland went under and all the defrauded/deluded legion demanded recompense–not sure if they got it.

In 2010 Iceland sends Europe a message about self-reliance and the value of exhaustive examination of possibilities before investment of (in this case) time spent at an airport. I am referring to the Great Icelandic Plume that has plunged Europe into a seeming Dark Age at least for travelers now stranded for many days at airports in a populous arc reaching from Shannon to Bratislava.

Forgive me for going all “American” on these folks (and there are no doubt plenty of Americans among them), but how about a little ingenuity? In a week I am pretty sure most of them could have figured out a land route to an airport not affected by the plume and somehow gotten home; or, if both ends of their route were under restriction, figured out a combination of train, boat and omnibus that would have accomplished the same.

I cite a couple of personal examples (not expecting laurels):

1) Several years ago my family and I were on our way back from Morocco to Spain and Madrid for a flight back to the States. The flight from Seville to Madrid was canceled and, so it would seem, our plans to take our scheduled flight home from the capital. Instead of sitting on a suitcase and looking like puppies had crapped in my breakfast, I decided we would somehow get to Madrid on time. Our transportation took the form of the fast train AVE, Spain’s underappreciated answer to France’s mighty TGV. A couple of phone calls and a taxi ride later, we boarded at Seville, were whisked through the Spanish countryside at great speed, and deposited within distance of another taxi ride to the big airport in Madrid. We got there earlier than the connecting flight would have arrived.

2) Several years before that I was setting foot on a ferry from Bari, Italy to Greece when the workers called a wildcat “Sciopero” (strike) and thus stranded a hundred or so hapless travelers late at night on a dock in southern Italy. One silly American student got upon a wooden crate and harangued the crowd about “our rights as Americans” and soon was bundled off in a car full of Italian policemen. I decided to sit in a cafe until early morning and then walk to the car rental shop. There, I rented a car, drove away from Bari, forgot my plans for Greece, and ended up in a wonderful ancient town called Taranto the driving in which terrified me until I gladly handed over the keys to the local Avis man down an impossibly small byway which barely was able to accommodate the tiny car I had rented.

There are other examples (for instance, if the Lexington Avenue line is crowded, just take the Seventh Avenue and walk). I don’t want to pile on.

My point is: get a grip travelers! The plane is not coming! Unless you have no access to credit (the only excuse I know of), get in gear and get home somehow. A volcano typically makes an unsatisfactory travel companion, and, this being generally known and understood, travelers can claim little excuse for the current impasse.

My City Within a City

Few locations in the world offer the opportunity to communicate between major edifices several blocks apart without going outside, and fewer still between buildings of grandeur and great moment. I have long used an office in one of these places, in a landmark building sitting atop the dozens of railroad tracks forming the terminus at New York’s Grand Central Station at 42nd Street.

Without question, this is one of the world’s great urban cores and arguably is the commercial heart of New York City. Connected via a multitude of warren-like tunnels, passageways and certain very grand interior spaces are the astonishingly urbane and majestic Grand Central Station with its barrel-vaulted ceiling of stars and granite balconies; the stainless steel art-deco masterwork of the Chrysler Building nearly a thousand feet high at its needle (braced at its corners by stainless steel gargoyles unseen by most); the Met Life building (formerly Pan Am), a monolithic flattened octagonal imposition some sixty stories in height around which flows the fabled Park Avenue two or three stories above street level–its multi-tiered marbled lobby leading from 45th Street down to Grand Central’s elegant confines; the jazz-age New York Central Building (now named after a later, uninteresting owner) across from and via tunnel connected to the Met Life tower and Grand Central and sitting atop the tracks of its builder’s New York Central railroad and through which Park Avenue travels by a pair of granite, vaulted tunnels, the lobby of which building is a baroque masterwork of marble and brass, the elevators of which are red and gold and their ceilings painted with sky and clouds unlike any elevators perhaps anywhere in New York (the building’s facade is of palatial elegance with massive caryatids and its peaked,copper roof is crowned with a great lantern); the Lincoln Building, a sixty-or-so story oddity of brick and hopeful Gothic fenestration; the Graybar Building, an art deco massif with huge floors but no great height; the Hyatt which used to be the Biltmore; to the south a busy nondescript building that houses what remains of an old Airline Ticketing lobby and connects to a marvelous interior that used to be the lobby of the Bowery Savings Banks (and now hosts “events”); to the north deep passageways lead to glass and steel Park Avenue corporate behemoths as they begin their march up that seemingly endless boulevard of wealth and prosperity.

Inside this interconnected urban world I have spent many days especially in winter enjoying temperature-controlled access to hundreds of shops, restaurants, transportation (several subway lines converge), a small transit museum and of course numerous banks and newsstands. On a cold day I can walk from 46th and Madison to 41st and Park (or 42nd and Lexington) without going outside. A brief strategic walk above ground also takes me to the nearby great city-within-a-city, Rockefeller Center (but that is another item altogether).

Among my favorite underground spots are:

-the food court at Grand Central where several very good food stands/sit-down restaurants are always overcrowded

-the underutilized entrance to the Lincoln Building at 41st and Madison

-the lobby of 230 Park Avenue, all marble and brass and designed to resemble a baroque palace in Italy

-a well-regarded watchmaker in an otherwise nondescript passageway far under Vanderbilt Avenue

-a deeply obscure Blimpie sandwich shop at the bottom of the steps near 45th and Madison

-an inelegant passageway that leads to the basement shops of the Chrysler Building where I find my pharmacy just steps inside the black marble hallway

-the cascade of escalators that lead from a high point at 45th street to a low point far below grade at the platform of the 7 train as it connects Times Square with far-flung Flushing and a new-fangled stadium where the Mets baseball team labors ineffectively

-the Grand Central Food Market which is overpriced but often enough provides a good baguette or last-minute dessert item on the way home

-the Baclay-Rex tobacconist in the Lincoln Building

-the former “waiting room” of Grand Central Station that now supports regular expositions and seasonal gift markets

Nearby but unconnected by tunnel is one of my favorite places in all New York, the Mercantile Library where for a pittance I have access to thousands of fiction and reference books and a club-like reading room that makes me feel like I have found a haven of clear-minded sanity in a world half-mad with greed and delusion.

Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to my City within a City is that it has never left me bored.

Meat Eater’s Dilemma

I am not now and have never been a vegetarian. I eat meat often enough with relish (the attitudinal kind) such that I might justifiably be called a “meat-lover”, especially of well-prepared pig and duck. Of steak I can only say “if well marbled and excellently prepared” it may represent a gustatory slice of that locus of eternal reward Christians call “heaven”. Chicken rates pretty low for me, and lamb belongs grilled and sliced on pita with hummus and hot sauce.

That said, and since I am already deploying Christian metaphor, it is a near certainty that if there is a place in hell reserved for those who partake in the suffering of other creatures, then all of us who, at the very least, eat meat that comes from factory farms (and probably all meat no matter its provenance)will be at best getting stung continually by bees and buffeted by harsh wind in Dante’s outer circle.

I say this because I have, courtesy of an unremembered string of internet search references, watched videos of what happens in a factory farm for pigs and also what happens in a factory dairy farm (get ready for hellfire, milk-drinkers!).

Not desiring to tout the lurid, let me say that if the Universe is aware of suffering, then the Universe is very, very aware of, and its wave motions deeply disturbed by, the sheer dumb suffering that takes place in these awful factory farms.

Pigs, as we know, are rather intelligent. Much worse their fate that they are also fat and worse still, tasty to those more intelligent raptors called human beings that are so like unto gods that they can produce the occasional Shakespeare and Jimi Hendrix. For these humans hold pigs captive in crowded, filthy, diseased, cruel, violent, bloody, absolutely hellacious conditions the only merciful escape from which is their inevitable murder to suit the godlike palates of the raptor captors. One can safely assert that there in that living hell, but for an opposable thumb and a few extra cells of gray matter, go you or I.

Cows fare no better of course, and I have only watched a video about cows that give milk. Safe to say, based on my narrow observation, that the notion of the dairy cow in a field of green with a bell around its neck ruminating sweet grass and daisies, is entirely a marketer’s concoction for the milk-drinker’s fancy. These cows too are held captive in crowded, filthy, diseased, cruel, violent, bloody, absolutely hellacious conditions from which they have no escape as they are forced to provide milk on a regular basis, even if they have to be cruelly prodded to stand from weakness and gross physical malfunctions in order to do so.

Does this mean I have the moral strength to stop eating meat? It does not. Do I find justification in the notion that I did not make myself, and that my body seems to require meat? I do. Would I much rather find, at least, non-factory meat and dairy not to assuage my guilt but to actually promote some reduction of pain among the creatures who find their way, cut into pieces or as sucked from their teats, on our plates and in our cereal bowls? Yes.

I have no links to offer, as this is not a screed nor call to action. It is simply a record of the operation of my personal conscience which finds itself torn between a love of roasted flesh and compassion for sentient beings. That it is a dilemma at all–and it is a genuine one, no matter what beliefs vegetarians seem to hold dear–may prove simply that all is vanity.