Friday, May 24, 2002

I'm starting this blog out of sheer desperation, to have someplace central to post my trip reports and anything else I may come up with as I go along. Don't expect super-frequent updates, at least not at the beginning. I can, however, be nagged, cajoled and flattered into posting more regularly.

Let's just jump into it, shall we? This blog begins with my recent four-day trip to New York City to meet a bunch of people I knew from the online forum ("Television Without Pity" ). We were meeting for TARCon 2, a somewhat impromptu convention to watch the final episode of "The Amazing Race 2." And with that...

TUESDAY, MAY 14, 2002

My flight was to leave at 7:30, so I left work early (at 4:00 or so) to get to Milwaukee by 5:30. Unfortunately, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would be driving straight into Milwaukee’s rush hour traffic. It took just an hour to get to the outskirts of Milwaukee, and then ANOTHER full hour to get through Milwaukee to General Mitchell Airport. (Grrrr.) So I reached the Midwest Express check-in desk just before 6:00. But it turned out okay, since the whole airport looked deserted anyway and there wasn’t a line.

I had exactly $27 cash on me, with no prospect for getting more cash from any source before payday on Thursday, so it was vital to conserve my cash stores. (This becomes important later.) I perused lots of great used books in the Renaissance Bookshop, and was going to get a couple of (cheap) books to read on the plane, but they didn’t take credit cards, so I was out of luck. Whiled away the rest of the time before my flight looking through my NYC visitors’ guidebook (full of useful information, and invaluable for the compact subway and bus route maps alone! Get yours free here today!) and the stuff I’d printed out from the Web. This was very much a spur-of-the-moment trip for me, and I only had two weeks to obsessively collect information about my destination (instead of the months I prefer), so my cache was fairly small, at least for me.

The flight was delayed half an hour because of high winds at La Guardia, so we didn’t take off until 8:05. Once we were in the air, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the great service I got! The seats were only two across on each side of the aisle rather than three (though there were three light bulbs and three fans, indicating they’d retrofitted the plane), and there was ample legroom. There was dinner served, and the food was actually decent – served on porcelain plates and with cloth napkins, yet! And it may have been just that the plane was fairly empty, but the flight attendants were very friendly and attentive. This was my first-ever time flying Midwest Express, and I just can’t recommend it highly enough. If you ever have the chance to fly Midwest Express, they have my personal Seal of Approval.

The flight to La Guardia was uneventful, and we finally spiralled in over the lights of Manhattan (seated on the left side of the plane, I got a dazzling view) and touched down across the river in Queens. (This was also the first time my bags ever BEAT me to the baggage claim area.) I got my 17-pound suitcase and headed out to catch a cab – I’d been practicing my “of COURSE I’ve been to New York before, I’m a jaded New Yorker, so please don’t drive me from Queens to Manhattan through Connecticut or anything” attitude. It was ruined when I gave the driver the address on 7th Avenue and he said “Cross street?” in a thick accent and I didn’t understand him. A real jaded New Yorker wouldn’t have needed to be asked. All the cabbies in the movies are always very talkative, so I was surprised that my driver didn’t say a word to me the whole trip. Of course, he may not have had the English for it. (And here I always thought that was a cliché.)

The cab ride over, I held out my credit card to him. “Oh no, we don’t take credit cards.” The trip (counting tip and a $3 toll for the Queensboro Bridge) was $25.00, which I handed over. For those keeping score, that means I had $2 in cash left to get me through until Thursday morning. Fortunately, the cabs were apparently the only people in New York who didn’t take credit cards.

Once inside my host Jeff’s building, I got past the suspicious doorman (who couldn’t quite pronounce my name, and couldn’t quite make Jeff understand it over the intercom either, until I helped) and went upstairs to meet Jeff. He greeted me with open arms and unfolded the sofa-bed for me. Jeff has a one-bedroom apartment in Chelsea that was quite lovely, though outrageously expensive by any other standards but Manhattan’s. (Let’s put it this way – you could rent 5 or 6 of my Sun Prairie 2-bedroom apartment for the same price.) He had to get to bed, since he was getting up at 5:30 every day for the remainder of the week (yiccch), but he had taped that night’s crucial “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode (the one where sweet Willow went batty with the witchcraft and flayed the guy alive – don’t ask), so I was able to watch that before I went to sleep, around 2:00am New York time.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 15, 2002 – PART 1, MUSEUMS (7am – 3pm)

This was the Long Day. As arranged, Jeff woke me up at 7:00 as he was leaving for work (he teaches mathematics and engineering courses at DeVry Technical Institute); I showered and got ready. I started with breakfast at Eros Café (recommended to me by Jeff), just down 7th Avenue from Jeff’s building. Breakfast was comparable to any diner back home, much to my surprise including the price! (I heard later that restaurant prices were down all over town: whether because of a dearth of tourism or some other factor, I don’t know.)

I then made my way to the subway for the first time – I bought a 7-day Metropass (good for unlimited bus and subway rides) and followed Jeff’s instructions (the 1-2-3 subway line to 86th Street, bus across Central Park, walk up three blocks) to get to my first destination: the Guggenheim Museum. (I had been pronouncing the first syllable “gug” to rhyme with “bug” instead of “goog” to rhyme with “droog,” much to my shame, but fortunately Jeff corrected me before I embarrassed myself to anyone else.)

I was going to the GOOGenheim because it was included on my CityPass – for $38, you get admission to seven different museums and attractions in New York which would normally cost you $85. (Get yours now right here.) Since I didn’t have the money to see Broadway shows (which would have been my first choice), and I didn’t want to just hang around and do nothing, I figured the museum trip was the most cost-effective use of my time and money. Anyway, the main exhibit at the Gugg was a history of Brazilian art; I had also gotten a tip from one of the online people I would be meeting that night that though the Guggenheim usually arranges its exhibits going DOWN the spiral ramp from the top, this one went from the bottom up. More embarrassment saved – it’s good to have friends. I timed it just right, and was at the museum right at 9am for opening, missing the crowds. The Brazilian exhibition was wonderful, ranging from painted views of the new colony by some of the first (Portugese) settlers, to religious artwork covering 200 years of cultural mishmashing (Catholicism, native tribal religions, and African/Caribbean religions like Voudun brought to Brazil by African slaves), to the newest 20th century Brazilian art. Fascinating stuff. I also got to see most of the Gugg’s regular collections, which (needless to say) were cool.

Next it was down another couple of blocks and back onto the bus, back across Central Park (I was disappointed – the buses basically take a modified tunnel and you can’t really see the park as you cross it. I’ll just have to go visit one of Wisconsin’s 44 state parks or 8 state forests, which cover a total of 556,151 acres! Poor me!) to the American Museum of Natural History. This was a little bit of a disappointment after I had been wowed so thoroughly by the Guggenheim. Like Chicago’s Field Museum, there are sections that have been recently updated with cool interactive exhibits and the latest information – and then there are exhibits that look as though they haven’t been changed since 1950. Dioramas and the like. But the new parts were quite impressive, for what it’s worth. The Rose Center for Earth and Space (the new wing of the museum) had an excellent (and psychedelic) new planetarium show narrated by Harrison Ford, and there was a Butterfly Garden exhibit where beautiful specimens would flutter right around you and even land on you! The only thing that really marred my enjoyment of the AMNH was that, it being early afternoon by this time, there were HORDES of school groups touring the place. LOUD school groups. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought all of America’s schoolchildren were kept sedated on Ritalin at all times these days? Obviously, there has been a flaw in the system.

Anyway, I finally ate lunch in the museum cafeteria (the Upper West Side not, according to my guidebooks, being known for “cheap eats”) and took off for Letterman.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 15, 2002 – PART 2, LETTERMAN (3pm – 7:30pm)

The subway took me to within a block or two of the Letterman (oops, I mean the Ed Sullivan) Theatre on Broadway, between 53rd and 54th. I knew the Amazing Race party was going to be at the Manhattan Chili Company, which I’d heard was right in the vicinity of the Ed Sullivan. As it turns out, the Manhattan Chili Company is NEXT DOOR to the Letterman theatre, which meant I would have some serious lag time between the Letterman taping and the Amazing Race party.

But for now, it was just 3pm and time to stand in line for my ticket. I had called a couple of weeks ago to get on the reservation list, not expecting anything to still be open by that time – but then they called back just a few nights before I left, putting me on “Mitch’s Gold List” (as I was instructed to tell the CBS page) and setting me up with a reservation. I now found out that even though I was on “Mitch’s Gold List,” I still had to stand in line with all the other proles waiting for same-day tickets WITHOUT reservations. Fortunately, with the line open between 3 and 4, I was right near the front and so (it turned out) I got a good seat anyway.

Along the way, as we snaked into and out of the theatre in a slow-moving line, we were greeted/berated by a gang of indestructibly perky and fresh-scrubbed CBS pages, all of whom seemed to have arrived right off the bus from Christian Day Camp. But nonetheless, they all thought they were incredibly cool, hip, and New York chic, because they were working for Letterman. I admit, they may have had a point. But still, I’m from the Midwest, and I know Midwesterners when I see them – and there’s nothing phonier than cool, hip, “New York chic” attitude coming from a 19-year-old with Iowa written all over his face.

The actual registration process was as simple as checking my name off a list (presumably Mitch’s Gold List). So I found myself back out on Broadway at 3:15 or so, with an hour and 15 minutes left until I had to report back there at 4:30 to get seated for the taping (at 5:30). An hour and 15 minutes? Not enough time to go back to Jeff’s apartment and change or relax; not enough time to fit in another major tourist attraction; too much time to just hang out at the theatre. And I wasn’t going to eat dinner until the party that night at the Chili Company, so that was also out. (Besides, who wants to eat dinner at 3:15?) So I wandered up and down the streets, over to Rockefeller Center (no NBC tours going on, I checked), the NBC store, and up and down the street looking through the trashy souvenir shops. My friend Rob wanted a T-shirt that said “Feck New York,” so I looked for that – but all the T-shirts these days are Patriotic and We Love New York More Than Ever, etc., so I soon realized there was no chance of finding a “Feck New York” shirt except possibly among al-Qaeda operatives, whom I wasn’t anxious to seek out.

With one thing and another, I whiled away the time until 4:30, and proceeded back to the theatre. My feet were beginning to scream obscenities at me (between walking at the Guggenheim, walking at the Natural History Museum, walking back and forth from bus stops and subways, and doing the Ratso Rizzo Walking Tour of Broadway), so “standing still” was proving to be increasingly difficult. So from 4:30 until about 5:00, I stood still, in line. [Grrrr.] Our tickets were all numbered (according to our place in line that morning; I was #40) and we stood in various sections out on the sidewalk One group of people had “blue dot” tickets – they were in a special line of their own and got let in about 15 minutes ahead of everyone else. (I explained to the people around me that those were the ones who had slept with the producers.)

Finally around 5:00 the doors opened and we filed into the lobby of the Ed Sullivan, only to get backed up into a mammoth line at the studio doors. We were switched back and forth like at Disney World, to use as much space as possible, and it got pretty claustrophobic – not to mention hot and smelly, since everyone else (like me) had been out walking around in the 70 degree sunny weather all day. While we waited, and waited, and waited, the Perky Page Patrol came out in force once again, to drum the following things (OVER and OVER and OVER) into our pathetic, dense little skulls:

1) Cheer, applaud, and laugh a LOT. If you’re not sure whether something was funny, laugh anyway. They actually implied that if we weren’t a responsive enough crowd, Dave would save his best material for another night.

2) Don’t yell out anything idiotic during the show like “We love you, Dave!” Although to the best of my knowledge, someone has shouted out something idiotic like that at roughly 60% of all Letterman shows.

3) Don’t make the high-pitched “woo” noise or the high-pitched hooting noise or the Arsenio dog-bark noise, because the audience mikes will explode or something. Yell “Yayyyyyy!” if you want to cheer, but nothing high-pitched or lives will almost certainly be lost.

4) You’ll be seeing a warm-up (described below) followed by Mr. Letterman taking a couple of minutes to come out take questions from the audience. Don’t give him a standing ovation because he really only has a couple of minutes.

5) Cover items 1 through 3 again. And again. And once more for good measure.

Finally we filed into the theatre and took our seats. I was seated in the second or third row, way over to the audience left, right behind the band. I immediately slipped off my shoes and felt Utter Bliss as my feet sank into the carpeted floor. Or it may have been a bare concrete floor, I couldn’t tell by that time. It felt luxurious enough to be carpet to me.

By that time, there wasn’t much lead time left for the warm-up, so it got started as soon as everyone was seated. It started with an introduction from Steven Brill, the show’s designated warmer-upper (who has also appeared on the show as a stand-up, or so we were told). Then we saw a video clip package on the studio monitors, which got everyone further into a good responsive mood. To help the responsive mood along, the Perky Pages were stationed along each aisle like Gestapo agents, making sure we whooped it up at a proper level of Funtasticness and Super-Appreciativity. Seriously, I accidentally went “woo!” once as one of the band members was introduced, and the page nearest me (a dark, close-shaved preppy sort who would have been right at home in the Hitlerjungen) GLARED at me in a way I hadn’t seen since the substitute teachers enforced Quiet Time in elementary school. I wouldn’t have been surprised if audience members had been dragged out and beaten in the alleyway – it may even have happened. Like a loyal German citizen, I looked the other way and concentrated on clapping harder.

After the video clip package, Steven Brill did a short stand-up routine, and then introduced each member of the band, finishing with Paul Shafer. Then Dave himself popped onto the stage as though he had been fired out of a cannon – seriously, I’ve never seen him act with such energy before! (I did a moment of the “we’re not worthy” worshipful arm motions before Herr Preppischjunge stopped me with another Death Glare. Was it my fault that wasn’t on their Verbotenliste?) Dave did a quick Q&A session with the audience, welcomed everyone there, and before we knew it, it was time for the opening credits to roll on the monitors – they wasted no time in starting up.

The show itself was pretty fun. (And the Gestapo Pages eventually retreated to the back, apparently satisfied that our conditioning was in place for at least the hourlong taping.) They never did pan the audience, but I was so far over to the camera-right that I probably wouldn’t have been shown anyway. During the “Who Asked For It?” segment, the audience members’ mike was set up just five seats away from me, but again, the camera never panned far enough. And when Alec Baldwin, in a quick gag appearance, ran out of the studio and made for the bar next door, it was the Manhattan Chili Company he went into!

During the commercial breaks, we listened to the band play while the studio monitors showed more clips packages, these consisting entirely of sight gags so they wouldn’t have to compete with the band. They only stopped rolling for a minute or two during the breaks, which surprised me.

The taping finished almost exactly on time at 6:30, and once again I found myself at loose ends. The party wasn’t due to start until at least 8:00, and we’d been specifically warned not to arrive TOO early, lest the waitstaff get angry at us for inhibiting table turnover. So I wandered the mean streets yet again, it being a nice afternoon and just starting to get closer to dusk. My feet had just forgiven me for the first two-thirds of the day, however, and were in no mood to be trifled with. So I walked SLOWLY up and down Broadway, looking at more shops, stopping in at the Sheraton to use the restroom and change my shirt (if I’ve learned anything from Danny and Oswald, the most stylish contestants on the Amazing Race, it’s that good hotels are ALWAYS the best places to go!) and generally puttering about.

Finally it was approaching 7:30, and I lost my patience and made my way back to the Manhattan Chili Company. There was a small knot of people at the front door, and I wondered whether these people were from TWOP (Television Without Pity). I didn’t have to wonder long, as one of them held out a red-and-gold flag (the colors of the show’s ubiquitious flags pointing out clues and destinations) and greeted me. I had met the TWOPers at last.

Coming in Part 2 – the party itself, the aftermath, and the rest of the trip report!