Monday, April 25, 2016

A Right Royal Letdown at Regal

I haven’t seen any dancing in the streets with the news that rice and legumes are now acceptable foodstuffs to eat during Passover. None of my Jewish friends are breaking out in an excited sweat and rushing for the red lentil stew.
Despite being an atheist, I am totally respectful of anyone’s faith and some observances that are attached to it (by no means all); but anything that tells me what I can put into my stomach, and when, is never going to get my religious vote. I have friends who give up things they really enjoy for Lent, and they go through hell. In fact, hell would be a walk in the park compared to what they go through when giving up alcohol for Jesus. 

Now, excuse me for being picky, but I’m pretty sure Jesus had wine at the Last Supper, which would have taken place during this period, so quite why Christians decided that going teetotal would absolve them of their sins is anybody’s guess.
This week, I had my own little contretemps with an establishment trying to dictate the contents of my stomach when I went to see my friend's movie. I've followed her from the moment she had the idea, through the writing, and now to the screen. I could not have been more excited had I been collecting my own Oscar. Then the cinema blew it.
Over a year ago, when Regal cinemas decided to start serving alcohol, they announced that profits had rocketed. Good for them. I’m pretty sure that wine is better for you than Coca Cola (just ask Jesus), so it seemed as if Regal had moved into the 21st century.
But, I discovered, it’s not that simple. When I went up to the counter at their Battery Park establishment, I was second in line, but it took a good five minutes for the person in front of me to be served. She had ID, was donned with a wristband, which was then marked by the server, and, out of earshot, I could conclude only that the woman was a VIP.
Not so. When I asked for two beers, I was told I was allowed just one, even though I was buying for my friend, who was already in the cinema. Next, I had to produce my passport (luckily, I carry it with me at all times, as we Brits are not required to carry ID cards). My bottle of Stella was poured into a plastic cup, but before it was handed over, I had to have a wristband, on which I noticed two circles.
“What are those for?” I innocently asked. 

“That one is for your first, and that one for your second drink,” I was advised, as a condemnatory big black X was placed in the first.
“So people can buy just two drinks a night?”
“Yes, but you can come back tomorrow and have another two.” Geez. Thanks.
I asked if it was because the cinema is almost next door to the World Trade Center and these were extra security measures, but was informed that no, Regal has a strict two-drink-per-person policy when it comes to alcohol. How old do I look? Seven?
I’ve never once thought about having alcohol in the cinema. I don’t drink sugary drinks and hate the smell, not to mention the noise of popcorn; I go to the cinema to watch a movie. But on a hot day and feeling thirsty, I really fancied a beer. When I was told I was allowed only two, I wanted three. Of course.
When I went back for my second drink (you'll find out why shortly), I had to go through the whole ID rigmarole yet again, even though my wristband was clearly evidence that my ID had already been monitored.
In Britain, we would call this kind of policy-making part of the “nanny state” that dictates to adults how they should behave in situations in which the government claims to know better. While I know that over-imbibing of alcohol causes all sorts of problems, personally, professionally and socially, I have never, in over 50 years of cinema going, seen one person drunk and misbehaving. I’ve seen loads of kids, high on sugar from soft drinks, misbehaving, but never adults.
You can’t have it both ways, Regal. If you’re going to serve alcohol, serve it; but don’t hold up queues with people who are in a hurry to take their seats, by policing everyone with ID and wristbands and holding them to ransom by zealous alcohol monitors.
It would be easier just not to serve alcohol at all. I’m pretty sure most people can go 90 or so minutes without having to take a drink (although not if watching The Revenant; even two vineyards were not enough to get me through that hell); heck, I’ve been known to go months. And for people who can’t, I’m pretty certain they’ll just smuggle it in – because, and here’s another thing, Regal: $13 for a plastic glass of really shitty wine? 

You’re taking the piss, as well as serving it.
But of course, it’s all about profit and, having found a lucrative hole in the market, the cinema chain is exploiting it. Their “rules” are merely a way of justifying to themselves that they are acting responsibly. They’re not. Alcohol, candy, Coke . . . the cinema is an artery waiting to burst.
So you can keep your wristbands and your circles and your overpriced drinks, as I’m happy to go to an alcohol free establishment in which I can buy my bottled water and take my seat without feeling like a criminal.
And, while we’re at it, here’s another thing. How about you spend some of those profits on lighting up your stairs better, so that by the time I reach my seat I haven’t lost three quarters of my Stella en route and have to return for my second circle?
If Hugh Glass thought he had life tough wrestling that grizzly bear in The Revenant, he should try negotiating with Regal for two Stellas. 

His experience was small beer by comparison.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Price of Freedom

The noose has gone.

I’m waking up without a mortgage. 

For the first time in 30 years, I’m waking up without a mortgage. The relief is enormous. It’s also sad, because I don’t have a house, which was what I believed was my prize possession for many years of hard work. But my blood pressure, which had rocketed to a dangerous 156/106 is down to 120/82. I have gone from a six bedroom house in Cardiff to a one bedroom apartment in New York. I could not be happier. 
Before Christmas last year, I was rushed to A & E (well, I say rushed - the ambulance took three hours to get to me) with a non-stop nose bleed. I had returned from the US for Christmas to spend time in Bristol with my mother, who was due to undergo radiotherapy following a recurrence (although not secondary, thank goodness) of breast cancer. I’ve spent every Christmas with Mum, bar one, ever since my Dad died in 1990, and it really is no chore. I love seeing her and her dog Maddie, and despite the hassle that Christmas brings, it’s still a magical time of year for me. 
But this one began with my spending two days in hospital with what turned out to be stress-related hypertension; I literally had burst a blood vessel. You can lose a lot of blood in 48 hours - more than I even thought I had in me - and, as this was my first ever hospital stay, I was frightened.
I nevertheless made some important decisions while lying there, the main one being that even if I had to take a big hit on my house, which had been on the market for four years, I would do it. The mortgage and bills had been a drain since 2009, when I lost my lucrative job as TV critic on the Mail on Sunday. While I still had my Soapwatch column in Weekend magazine on the Daily Mail, I had been living comfortably on two salaries that were now reduced to one. 
I could have - probably should have - stayed in the house until it was sold, and after two years spending much of my time in LA, I returned to Cardiff with the intention of doing just that. However, a burglary in the middle of the night while I was watching TV in my living room, freaked me out, and I barely spent a night in the house after that. I returned to LA from where, two years ago, I moved to New York. 

Yes, I know that people will say that I incurred an unnecessary expense in doing that, but I’ve always been a risk taker, and I operate better in the US than I do in the UK. The latter is still my base and my legal home, but as an older woman, New York offers a lifestyle that is non-ageist, fun, and packed with more activities and people than one could ever hope to experience and encounter in one lifetime. 
The only thing that has prevented me from enjoying it as much as I might have has been the lack of money - some weeks, no money for food or even toilet paper. Yes, that bad. But I held on, avoided bankruptcy, and now, hopefully, the Seven Year Bitch as I’ve taken to calling it is at an end.
I didn’t have the exhilaration I thought I would, though. Yes, selling the house was a relief; clearing debts an even greater one. But last night, I was in tears. We invest so much in bricks and mortar; we build our nests around us; our stuff accumulates over many years and gives us pleasure, excitement, even a sense of worth as we find ourselves able to afford bigger and better.
The meaninglessness of that stuff became apparent when I tried to sell so much of it. I had to throw away most of my books - in the ease of the Kindle world, nobody wants the printed page anymore; I couldn’t even give the things away. The same with my old TVs and speaker systems - all of them great quality, Panasonic and Sony, but too big now for the world of the slimline electronic revolution. 
Clothes went to charity shops, furniture to friends and the new occupants; jewellery and old video cameras (who needs to carry a brick around when an iPhone does the job better?) had to be binned. 
The things I wanted to keep have gone into storage, and, as I have been living more simply for some time, I doubt I will miss any of them. As I look around my apartment, I have the basics - bed, desk, sofa, one bookcase (I know - how quaint; you never know, they might make a comeback), cooking equipment and utensils, and, of course, my beloved Apple desktop and laptop. I look out over the Hudson to New Jersey and, in a few hours, will watch the sun set over the river and marvel, as I always do, at the beauty of nature.
The sun is bright today, and it’s finally getting warmer. I’m going to walk to Central Park and feel the spring air as if for the first time, without the chaos of sums that don’t add up tearing around my brain as they have done for so many years. 

I will look up at the sky, which in this city is the purest blue punctured only by the glorious buildings that send the eye always reaching upwards. 

I’m going to have lunch out and not worry about whether that second glass of wine is a luxury I can ill afford. 
Most of all, I’m going to think about the family, friends and even complete strangers, whose friendship, love and support, both emotional and practical, has been central to my survival; because all the stuff in the world cannot compensate for the essence of humanity that makes people care for one another and reach out to those in need.
Becoming mortgage free was a practical solution to what had become an insurmountable problem. 

The enormous debt I owe to the people around me is something I can never hope to repay.