In Praise of Small Spaces

I recognize that my mild agoraphobia makes me rather biased in matters of space (I have trouble sleeping in big rooms, especially if the door is open) but every time I go back to Japan I am reminded of how much better bars and restaurants are when they are not gargantuan.  It’s rather ironic that in NYC a lot of Japanese eateries are associated with godzilla-sized boxes like Buddakan, Morimoto and Ninja, the latter being an embarrassing recreation of a Disneyfied Seven Samurai village that makes me want to stab my eyes out with ninja stars.

Back in the motherland, most of the best places to go are the size of a bathroom stall in the Olive Garden.  Yes, that means it’s harder to get a seat and you’ll probably end up smashed in some uncomfortable position while sucking in secondhand smoke from the guy at the next table who is, by the way, sitting 5cm away with his shoes off.  All of this may read like a bad Yelp review, but in actual experience these things are inconsequential inconveniences–all necessary parts of creating that most difficult-to-achieve vibe: an authentic sense of intimacy.

Bistro D'Arbre
Attic Floor of Bistro D'Arbre

By intimacy, I’m not necessarily talking about a Cheers-style exclusivity where everybody knows your name and if they don’t, then you’re in the wrong place (though Japan excels in producing those kinds of places as well).  There are many super-intimate places that I’ve been to where despite it being my first time there, I felt immediately comfortable and at home.  Oftentimes the owner may not even be that welcoming (a silent nod is all you really need), but there’s something in the packed-like-sardines feel of a place, the sheer tininess of it, that makes the atmosphere profoundly appealing for the non-claustrophobic.  Perhaps as urban-dwellers we find the proximity to other people comforting, the lack of personal space somehow nostalgic?

During last month’s trip to Tokyo a friend took me to a teeny, wobbling shack of a place on a Shibuya side street where we were seated on the attic floor, just big enough for two.  We ate our baked onion and sipped our French wine in smoke-filled gratification while crouched on the floor with about 6 inches of space above our heads.  Uncomfortable?  Sort of.  Wonderful? YES!

Another time I was invited to dinner at a remarkable little wine bar called the Ahiru Store run by an adorable brother and sister team who bake their own bread behind the counter to serve with their selection of wines.  The place was just big enough to seat about 6 people at the counter, and also had a couple of barrel-tables for people to stand around in the narrow corridor.  As everything happens right behind the counter, you immediately get a feel for the duo’s relaxed sensibilities; from how they languidly yet efficiently managed to cook for a full house and casually chat with their customers without breaking a sweat.  The whole experience was like going to someone’s tiny apartment for dinner, where you get to snoop around the kitchen and covet their collection of Staub and Le Creuset.

Ahiru Store 1ahiru breadAhiru Store 2

There are countless other places that I can spend all day writing about but basically my point is that most of the time, in matters of drinking/dining spaces, smaller is just better!  And all of this kind of tangentially reminds me of Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic, In Praise of Shadows. A must-read for anybody interested in architecture and aesthetics.  Wow, that was a random jump!

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Hipster Healthcare

doctor_jpI heard Dr. Jay Parkinson give a rapid-fire presentation about his new healthcare start-up called Hello Health last Monday at a Pecha Kucha gathering. Basically it’s the way healthcare should be…well, at least for people like me who are pretty healthy for the most part, hardly ever go to the doctor, and aren’t working for The Man. For a low monthly fee of $35, Hello Health lets you book an appointment online w/ a web-savvy doc who actually gets back to you when you email him questions about that pesky rash. A routine doctor’s visit only sets you back $100, which is like what most New Yorkers pay to get their dogs walked! $100 per visit may sound like a lot if you’re already getting great insurance from your employer, but if you are in “non-traditional” employment and pay for your own health insurance like I do, that’s a way better deal than shelling out $350-$450 a month for something you may hardly ever take advantage of over the course of the year. Obviously, you’ll still want catastrophic insurance in the event that you get hit by a speeding fixed-gear bicycle on the dangerous streets of Williamsburg on your way to see your hipster doctor.

zoclogoAnother healthcare 2.0-ish thing I used recently and quite liked was ZocDoc.  It’s like a Facebook/Yelp for doctors, which is fantastic for judgmental people like myself who like to sum people up in one photograph.  Nah, I’m just kidding!! Sort of.  Anyway, ZocDoc (beta) provides not only a profile photo of each registered doctor, but also features a ratings system that allows all patients who have booked a doctor through them to leave an experience rating and comment. I absolutely love, love, love the transparency. Especially because the existing system of finding doctors/dentists/accountants/lawyers/brokers is so, so, so broken. There’s still a tremendous amount of resistance to this kind of transparency because it makes doctors a lot more vulnerable to attack. But we’ve been familarizing ourselves with crowdsourcing for more than a minute now and I think we can safely say that it’s a largely self-regulating system. In the long run it will be an efficient way to weed out the bad from the good and raise quality standards overall by increasing accountability. Plus, it is so nice to be able to see a doctor’s schedule online and book a time without picking up the phone! Hello Health has that function too, and for that alone I tip my hat!

It’s Customer Service, Stupid!

twc_sucks1

The other day I found myself in a terrible situation. My broadband internet connection was still not working (it had been down for the last 48 hours) and I knew it was not an equipment problem since others in my building were experiencing the same malfunction. So I did what I had to do and called Time Warner to find out what was going on and how I could fix it.  I  dialed the number at 10am, not realizing at the time that I would be on the phone for the next hour and a half, transferred from one useless representative to another in between what seemed to be interminable hours of muzak.  I was verbally abused, brought to the edge of tears, and ultimately NOT SERVED in any way.

After the traumatic ordeal, I still had no internet connection, no explanation (not even acknowledgment) of the outtage, and nowhere left to turn. To add insult to injury, Time Warner refused to credit me for the days of no internet connection as they claimed they didn’t see problems in my area.  They were essentially telling me I was making this up and so were the people in my building.  It was like that “Computer Says No” sketch from Little Britain, only not funny because it’s actually happening to you.

Within minutes of me posting a status update on Facebook (via iPhone since I had no internet!) about how I was trying not to cry over the bad service at Time Warner, I had multiple comments from both friends and distant acquaintances about how they felt my pain and how the Time Warners and Comcasts of the world existed solely to make our lives miserable.  Sure we all know that cable companies are notorious for their lack of customer service despite the fact that we throw them $120 a month for it–but in the torrent of anger that my little status update inspired, I could feel the rumblings of a modern-day Boston Tea Party.  “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” and all that — well, at least “monthly payments without customer service and no alternative options is tyranny!”  Even last night on the Eyewitness News, there was a feature on how a congresswoman was put on hold for 40 minutes by her bank in an attempt to get some customer service! (She eventually received no such thing.)

I’m not asking for a wow moment” here.  I acknowledge that Time Warner is not the Ritz Carlton! But these dinosaur companies really need to shape up and think about what their customers are paying for, especially in this economy, because the second a customer service-driven alternative shows up, believe me we will all be jumping ship.  The Amazon, Nordstrom, and Zappos of the world have given us a taste of how much better life can be without the expectation that the people we give our money to will do nothing but try to make us want to hurtle ourselves out a window.  The era of no accountability is over. If you have a service job, if you’re running a business, it’s high time you start feeling appreciative about the paying customers who make your livelihoods possible instead of acting like you’re doing them a favor by even giving them the time of day. You don’t have to be a genius to recognize that in today’s socially connected Tivo-enabled world, quality customer service is infinitely more effective than any 30 second spot could ever be.