Joy Bergmann

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What Mexicans Can Teach Americans

Sinaloa Girls
Mexico – despite political/criminal turmoil – remains a fantastic vacation destination. Great food, dramatic history, inexpensive hotels, all good reasons to go. The best motive head south? Mexico's caring, joyful people.

I traveled through Chihuahua and Sinaloa this past spring, looking to witness Semana Santa (Holy Week) ceremonies leading up to Easter. Read God's Middle Finger by Richard Grant to understand the glorious mayhem; I booked seconds after finishing it.

The proceedings lived up to their wild telling by Mr. Grant. What I most remember about the trip, however, was how incredibly kind Mexicans were to me, a solo female traveler. Not because they had to be. Just because. 
Good Friday Revelers

Three stories of Mexico's superior customer service and the lessons Americans need to learn:

Choose to trust the customer's story.  Chihuahua's ultra modern Vivebus service uses swipe cards and subway-style loading platforms to board dozens of riders at once. After my first trial ride, I was hooked and loaded up my card with 50 pesos (about 9 rides worth) at the digital kiosk.

On my next swipe, the card malfunctioned. My 50 pesos hadn't been loaded. Three Mexicans would come to my aid. The platform attendant saw my frustration and sent me back into the kiosk lobby for assistance. The kiosk attendant tried to find a paper receipt in the nearby garbage that would match my 50-peso purchase. Failing that, he marched me into the nearby office where a secretary heard my story. Nodded. Took my bad card and swapped it for another 50-peso card. Done.

Did they have to believe me? Did I have a receipt in my hands? They chose to give me the benefit of the doubt. And I have been raving about Chihuahua public transit ever since. It is a great service staffed by lots of attentive people. Listen up, MTA.

Cevicheria, El Fuerte
Do what needs doing. Taking El Chepe, the Copper Canyon Railroad, through arid NW Mexico proved relaxing. Getting tickets for El Chepe? Not so much. I managed to buy my first journey the day-of, despite it being a peak Mexican travel week. I spent a couple  days in lovely El Fuerte puzzling over how to get my return fare. There are only ticket offices in Chihuahua and Mochis the start/end points, online proved unwieldy, and well, did I mention it was Semana Santa?

I asked the clerk at Hotel El Fuerte about any travel agents who might be able to help. She dialed a few numbers. She then said she'd have her manager pick me up a ticket in Mochis that afternoon. Wait. What? That's equivalent to a hotel manager driving from Flushing, Queens to Newark, New Jersey or further to do this task for a customer. I thanked her and spent the rest of my day thinking about an appropriate gratuity.

When I returned to pick up the ticket, the manager handed it over and I paid her the ticket price plus 30% extra as a tip. She handed back the tip. And refused to take it despite my insistence. She was just doing what her guest needed doing. Stunning.

Remember your humanity. Waving goodbye. I didn't expect the universal farewell from the ground crew at Chihuahua airport. But as my 6am flight turned toward the runway, three men waved and smiled at the passengers. Waving back I got a little choked up.

Miss you already, Mexico.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How to Use Craigslist Housing Swap: 5 Steps to Your FREE* Vacation

While the New York attorney general and Airbnb fight it out, let's discuss a cheaper and I'm-not-a-lawyer-so-this-is-not-legal-advice seemingly legal way to enjoy exotic vacations on the cheap. Craigslist Housing Swap listings.

Ohmygod strangers in my house and they'll rob me blind and hold orgies in my breakfast nook and eew my mattress and my Xbox and that is just crazy.

Interesting. Weirder than sleeping in a hotel previously inhabited by whom doing what exactly? And what about that stranger you had in your bed four months ago, did you call the FBI first? Have you forgotten the term is "swap" not "pillage"?
Hawaii swapper

Let's return to the facts:
  • You have what thousands of travelers want:  a bed in New York City. You may also have an operating shower and toilet. Bonus.
  • You may have the thing travelers desperately want:  an apartment in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens.
  • You may need to grow a pair to take advantage of this situation.
  • You aren't putting anything at risk that your fellow swapper isn't.
  •  You won't regret it.

My boyfriend and I are three-time swappers having traded our Hell's Kitchen apartment for Christmas holidays in the Ebisu area of Tokyo, an art-filled week in Berlin's Kreuzberg and a two-week winter getaway just steps from Waikiki Beach in Oahu. Not a penny changed hands; we were letting "friends" stay in our place and we in theirs. Upon return, the only thing different in our place was finding, say, a carton of leftover milk in the fridge or a thank-you note on the table. Terrifying.

Multiple vacation swap sites exist, but Craigslist is free, global and has worked for me. 

Here's the basic, risk-reducing tutorial:
Tokyo swapper

1.  Answer someone else's ad rather than post your own. 

The poster is taking the first step, ergo, is taking the first risk, not you. Look both on the New York Craigslist and on the local Craigslist of the place you seek. Your friendly reply should be brief, stating your interest in trading places, your timeframe and basics on what your housing offers. If the poster is serious, s/he will get back to you within 24 hours.

2.  Exchange a couple of emails about the details of what each of you want and offer. 

It's like online dating:  you need enough information to take it to the next step, but not everyone's life story. During these emails you learn and reveal:  everyone's full name, the address of each property, the mutually agreed dates of travel, pictures of the apartment interior and a time to have a phone/Skype conversation. This voice contact is crucial - even if everyone does not speak perfect English - you need to hear this person in order to trust, and vice versa. You will also be Googling your swapper and Google mapping the property to see if all stories line up.

3. Speak to your swapper, then buy the airline tickets. 

This is the moment of truth. The moment you trust that this swap is going to happen and that you can drop a bunch of non-refundable ticket money. Ideally, your fellow swapper is also making this purchase at the same time (though some posters know they are coming to NYC and seek swaps for specific dates). With our Hawaii guy, we hung up from our conversation, all bought tickets and then exchanged email confirmations within the same 15 minutes.

4. Be helpful to each other prior to swapping:
    Berlin Wall swapper
  • Email about how to exchange/pick up keys (we've mailed keys, met people as we left, picked up keys under a doormat, whatever works)
  • Create and send a guide to your building and neighborhood listing MTA stop, laundry options, WiFi password, grocery stores, super's name or a local contact and whatever you want to know about where you're staying. Leave a copy in your kitchen, too.
  • Notify your doorman and/or immediate neighbors that your friend "Ron" will be staying in your apartment for a bit so they don't call the cops.
  • Clean your apartment - duh. Put fresh bedding and towels out. Check the toilet paper supply. Stash away all valuables in a secure location or with a friend. Nothing is going to happen, but you'll feel better.
5. Savor your free vacation home. 

Let your swapper know when you've successfully entered their place, and have them email you the same. No need for daily phone or email contact, but keep lines of communication open. We had a freak rainstorm in Hawaii that caused a flood in the living room. Our swapper said, "No worries. It happens once a year or so." We mopped and went back to snorkling.

OK. Get a move on already. Today's Craigslist postings have Copenhagen, Milan, Taos, Kona, Sydney and the Catskills on offer. You better click before I do.

*Not quite. You will have to purchase transportation, food and Hudson News magazines.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance Detroit-style

Now available on DVD

Attention Psych 101 adjuncts:  When the syllabus hits "cognitive dissonance" cue up chapter eight of the documentary-as-dirge Detropia

Tommy Stevens can teach this topic far better than you.

In this scene (titled "China Can Do") Stevens, a retired Detroit school teacher and current blues bar owner, tours the North American International Auto Show with his wife. He's thrilled to get a close-up look at the new Chevy Volt. "I like it!" he says, telling a GM flack, "This car is built down the street from my business." If the Volt does well, Stevens will too. 

Next, the couple visits the booth of Chinese car manufacturer, BYD (slogan:  Build Your Dreams), which has its own battery-powered vehicle with a sticker price clocking in at $13K less than the Volt. 

You can see Stevens' USA-USA-USA confidence start to crumple. "That's interesting," he says, leaning in to read BYD's display. He rears back, exclaiming to his wife, "It's a better deal!" 

Like a latter-day Paul Revere, he scoots back to the GM flacks, asking if they have seen what BYD offers. Nope, they hadn't even looked at it; besides, the Chinese car surely doesn't have all the options of the Volt. Incredulous, Stevens shouts, "This global economy stinks!"

Calming, he then schools the GM guys on history. This is Honda déjà vu for Stevens. "'Honda was junk', they said." We all know what happened next. 

The GM flacks refuse his pleas. And here is where frustration, intellect and thwarted love combine across Tommy's face. Detroit businessman-Tommy wants the Volt to win; "average American" businessman-Tommy would also run the numbers and, if it were his purchase, knows he'd likely buy BYD. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald is attributed as saying:  The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

I don't know how well Stevens is functioning these days, but his intellect is unassailable. As he walks away from the GM booth, he shakes his head and tells his wife, "That guy doesn't want to talk about reality. We got our heads in the sand again. This is heartbreaking!" 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Responsive City Zoning Hotline. Believe It.

What's up with the air rights above that gas station? This, dear readers, was the question nagging me on January 2.

My real estate client and I had seen an intriguing condo with lovely, south-facing windows. Windows overlooking a gas station that had been in operation since 1922. My buyer is a cautious fellow who worried about a developer clearing out the petrol peeps and building some nasty high rise that would block his vista. 

Time to investigate. 

We poked around ACRIS, the city's database of building registry documents. It is a vast depository. I'm all for Sunshine Laws and erring toward making all public documents available on the web. 

But here's the thing:  If you're not a real estate attorney, or an old-hand in such matters, how the heck are you supposed to interpret these voluminous records? 

We wanted to know who owned the air rights over the gas station. But "air rights" is a colloquialism. Contracts might call the issue "unused development rights" or other term of art. We didn't know what document we needed. 

Shoe leather is a good strategy for many such quandaries. So, when the Zoning Department reopened on January 2, we were downstairs asking the guard which office to make our inquiry. 

He pointed to a poster listing the Zoning Information Desk hotline number. Ugh sigh. No one ever returns voicemail messages in this city. This will never work!

We moved into the vestibule, called the hotline and left our question on the VM – expecting nothing. As we headed for the door, I saw Amanda Burden, Chair of the NYC Department of City Planning, get out of a SUV and walk in. I smiled at her, wishing I had the right line to cheerfully note our disappointment in not getting to see an actual Zoning person. I said nothing. 

Ninety minutes later, my phone rang but I couldn't pick up. 

Ten minutes after that, it rang again. Same number. Hello?

It was the Zoning Information Desk returning my call. WHAT?! Amazing. Now, the young man did not have exactly the answer I wanted, but he did point me toward the type of documents that typically contain air rights agreements. 

I eventually found some corroboration for our theories. I also sent Ms. Burden a thank you note for her team leadership. 

Imagine the awesomeness if every City agency were so responsive to the citizenry. A girl can dream...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Schadenfreude Click-bait Is Always Thus

New York Magazine recently published an ass-ey (my neologism for an essay allowing the author to make a complete ass of her or himself).

I won't link to it or name its writer (who surely has a Google Alert for all such mentions), but must ask:  Is this the apex of editorial cynicism?

The rambling piece had no focus, and seemingly no editorial oversight, save perhaps some horrible person whispering in the psychosis-inclined ear of the writer, "Yes, do add another un-self-aware anecdote that makes readers loathe you. Show – and tell – us your wreckage without being interesting. Folks love to be enraged by privileged twits. Be bold. Everyone will be trying to decode what the hell you're talking about. And the clicks will be mine, mine, mine!"

I fell right into the trap. 

I sent a message to a writer-friend immediately after choking down all 5500 words. "Be sure to read this before I see you tomorrow. I need to process." She didn't wait. Couple hours later, my Gchat went ding with her shared gobsmackitude. "I don't know where to begin with the WTFs."

The publication had us just where they needed us:  Engaged, enraptured and pissed off. 

As we tried to understand what the hell the writer was getting at, and wondering if ALL the editors had taken Xmas break and simply hit publish upon receipt, I felt a thud hit my stomach. 

Jeezus. They meant it to be this way. The editors wanted to cause a disgusted tizzy. They don't care if this writer never works again, or worse, goes to the end of what appears to be a dangerous downward spiral.

They absolutely don't care about us, their readers. Or our time. Or our mental health being put on a one-way bus to Frustration Crazytown. 

Trust me, read this book
I know this because I read TRUST ME, I'M LYING, Ryan Holiday's excoriation of digital media, blogs and citizen journalism.

Now, Mr. Holiday is no puritanical scold. He rolls with some questionable characters in his professional and personal life. He knows dirty tricks and has perpetrated them on behalf of clients. 

The man is also no dummy, crystalizing the issues better than anyone else I've read. A typical passage, from page 104:

Pageview journalism treats people by what they APPEAR to want – from data that is unrepresentative to say the least – and gives them this and only this until they have forgotten that there could be anything else. It takes the audience at their worst and makes them worse. And then, when criticized, publishers throw up their hands as if to say, "We wish people liked better stuff, too," as if they had nothing to do with it.  Well, they do.

And, ahem, page 138:  ...the best way to make your critics work for you is to make them irrationally angry. Blinded with rage or indignation, they spread your message to every ear and media outlet they can find. 


So how can a media-junkie help turn things around? Or at least not exacerbate the situation?

Holiday suggests asceticism:  The second you stop and walk away, the monster will start to wither, and you will be happy again. (p.236)

I have not yet succeeded in refusing to click the culture-warpers. But I do not trust them. My laughter and interest now tinged with skepticism. 

It's sad. And it's good.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Escape as Illusion: THE FORGIVEN

Under a shattering sky

Lawrence Osborne, I can't decide if I want to shake your hand or slap your face. 

Your new novel, THE FORGIVEN, has done the unforgivable – and great thing – of shattering one of my last illusions. The belief that – should everything go tits up – I could flee urban America and be healed in some cheap, foreign idyll. 

The nutshell plot:  David and Jo, a middle-aged couple on the skids, head off from London to see their stylish gay friends, Richard and Dally, at their Moroccan compound. Along the way, something terrible happens. Upon arrival, they join a gaggle of ambitious pretenders and hedonistic fatalists, hash in the air, too-loud flirtations on offer, and everyone deciding whether to even bother asking themselves:  Where do we go from here? 

It's a wrenching, worthwhile read. 

I met Osborne maybe seven or eight years ago. Enormously tall with a wooly mop of curly hair and a throaty laugh that shook the rafters, I wonder how he could ever be an unobtrusive observer anywhere. But he's clearly mixed in this desperado ex-pat milieu. 

From page 108:

They went past an open space with people dancing. David watched them as if he were deaf, as if the music didn't exist, which made it a horrible sight. People jiffing about like epileptics. He loved only the smell of the expensive perfume on the women's bodies, sweated off and floating free. Why hadn't they gone to Rome instead? This very moment, they could be sitting down at Ristorante 59 on Via Angelo Brunetti and ordering a nice cold bottle of Greco di Tufa. What a mistake he had made in coming here. But he had made it for Jo, and he was sure it would "mend her," as he so often put it to himself. Everyone can be a fool. 

She needed a break, a real break. She hadn't written anything in years. She was bitterly unhappy, and maybe it was mostly because of him, but there it was – one should never deviate from what one really likes. The whole idea of "exploring" as an earnest moral project is pitifully ridiculous, and it always leads to failure, if not acute suffering. What a fool he'd been. There was no need to travel at all, really, except to go somewhere more beautiful, which for David meant an Italian or a French city with a better way of life than London or New York. Places with better food, calmer dynamics, better architecture. You went there and recharged your batteries. You drank and ate unreasonably, with no though to what you would look like next week with fatter love handles, and that was good. Life was better for a while, so you got your money's worth. Most of the rest of the world, on the other hand, was just hassle. Perhaps he just didn't understand it.

I'm afraid Osborne's internal dialogue for Jo on page 142 is eerily similar to occasional visits to my own rubber room upstairs. It's just too close to reprint. Read it yourself.  And perhaps weep. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Can't Delete the Street

Protesting outside Indian Consulate 9 January 2013

How many people does it take to create an international incident?
Eight, judging by the Indian consulate's skittishness on Wednesday.

VS, a friend and Indian national, had been distraught for weeks about the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey. She organized a protest via Facebook. About 12 others and I signed on for some picket duty on 64th Street across from the New York consulate. 

As I turned the corner from Fifth Avenue, I could hear VS and her crew of maybe five others chanting, "India: Save our sisters!" Selma, it wasn't. But it was important. 

I took a poster from her hand-drawn pile and added my voice. "Fast-track justice!" "India:  Prosecute rape!" "Justice now, India!" 

Honestly, we were a pitiful little cluster. We were infinitely more powerful, however, than an online petition with a thousand signatures. The folks rustling the consulate's curtains – sneaking peeks – could not just hit delete and be done with us. 

Somebody called the cops instead. 

NYPD rolled up and respected our right to assemble and shout. Refreshing!

CNN India took some b-roll; maybe we were on New Delhi TV. No matter.

Our group shape-shifted, adding and subtracting, throughout the afternoon. Being present. Being heard. Being real to the officials across the way. 

Sometimes that is the best we can do. And it far better than fuming in front of screens.