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Archive for 2011

Victim Compensation Funds

After my Christmas Eve experience, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that New Jersey would be buying me a new iPhone. I wasn’t about to turn down the offer, but it seemed, as a couple of commentators pointed out, rather a frivolous use of tax money to recompense me for a phone that, honestly, I could afford to buy myself and should have taken insurance out on anyway. So, I looked into the scheme a little more closely.

New Jersey’s Victims of Crime Compensation Office is just one of many variants upon the general concept of governments looking after victims of (generally, violent) crimes. These schemes have come about in many ways, in the European Union member states have signed an agreement to implement them, whereas in the US they have been implemented in a more ad-hoc manner at a state level, often due to public demand. The State of Washington offers a nice example of this:

Washington’s Crime Victims Compensation Program began primarily as the result of a series of editorials in the early 1970′s in the state’s 2 major newspapers.

The theme of the editorials was that criminals were having their room and board and medical needs met by the state’s prison system while victims were left with medical bills and other costs because of the offenders’ crime.

The EU system is a wonderful example of when member-state co-operation is both actually implemented (without the French objecting and blockading any ports) and also, as far as I can tell, efficiently and effectively run. Council Directive 2004/80/EC states:

Crime victims should be entitled to fair and appropriate compensation for the injuries they have suffered, regardless of where in the European Union (EU) the crime was committed. This directive contributes to this by:

  • Requiring Member States to provide in their national legislation for a compensation scheme for victims of violent intentional crime committed in their territories;
  • Setting up a system facilitating access to compensation for victims of crimes in cross-border situations (possibility of making an application in the Member State of residence, designation of central contact points in Member States, etc.).

Perusing the EU directive and the US’ National Center for Victims of Crime, which lists the various schemes now available in every state, it becomes clear that NJ is unusually generous in refunding ‘economic loss’, so I looked into quite how much this is costing them. In a quick breakdown of their figures for 2011, roughly:

$4.95 million was paid for medical/dental [bills]; $2.72 million was awarded for economic loss; $1.27 million was paid for funeral/burial services; and $.71 million was paid for counselling.

At first glance, it seems this money is taken from a rather strained state budget of around $4 billion. However, charitable donations to this fund actually reduce the burden on the state to a much smaller figure – well under $1million – mostly used to pay the administration costs. This disbursement of $10million seems a fair average for a state the size of NJ. Similar-sized states I could find figures for include Washington, North Carolina, Michigan and Massachusetts.

The majority of these schemes, in the US, therefore, are aimed towards helping with medical costs incurred in violent crimes, and counselling for the victims, together with much smaller costs to recompense travel or short-term accommodation for those testifying against their attackers, or those who have to move to get away from domestic violence or similar situations. Within the EU, where high-quality, free national heath schemes are the norm, the award is effectively disposable income, although in actuality is often be used to offset wage loss or other costs incurred as a result of violence.

Finally, it’s interesting that the UK seems singular in explicitly stating their unwillingness to help in a number of circumstances. Having looked up some examples, it seems the last point isn’t so much of a penalty for tardiness, which would be very harsh in cases of domestic abuse where the victim takes time to speak up, but is more aimed at those who attempt to use a historic incident to revenge themselves for a more recent slight.

We may also refuse or reduce an award because of:

  • Your behaviour before, during or after the incident in which you were injured
  • Your criminal record
  • Your failure to co-operate with the police or with us
  • Your delay in informing the police or other organisation or person of the incident

It was very uplifting to discover the wealth of support available, but I hope it never proves useful information for anyone reading.

Xx

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A Christmas Story

I was mugged on Christmas Eve. I’m fine — the only upshot is that the State of New Jersey are kindly paying for me to replace my stolen iPhone with a slightly newer model, and also for me to repurchase a wonderful book I’ve been reading on and off for the last few months. But, that said, there’s not much I can think of that’s worse than the thought of getting mugged whilst changing trains on Christmas Eve. Other than spending Christmas Day in jail with a black eye, perhaps.

But, let’s start at the beginning.

I was heading out to a lovely part of New Jersey to spend Christmas with my housemate’s family;- the folks who so kindly hosted me for Thanksgiving and Christmas last year. Unfortunately, this involved transferring trains at the not so lovely city of Newark, NJ, which is famous for race riots; for having every one of its mayors since 1962 criminally indited whilst in office; and for having an airport which isn’t too far from New York City. It’s the 23rd most dangerous city in the US, and after March 2010 had a celebration to honour their first full calendar month without a homicide in the city since 1966.

I probably should have picked an alternative route.

As I was sitting in the waiting room at the deserted station (it was cold out,) texting drivel to some friends, I noticed a couple of people walk past me, and barely looked up. They left the waiting room and a third walked in, and it was a little harder not to notice him as he punched me in the face a couple of times and demanded my phone and wallet. Now, any Cardiff boy will naturally know the correct response in this situation: I stood up and hit him back. Unfortunately, it seems the first two were simply playing lookout and one of them came in and hit me too. He looked a fair bit smaller than the first chap, so I punched him as well, but after the third lad ran in and pushed me backwards over the chair I’d been sitting in, it became quite clear things weren’t going to go my way.

They ran off with the bag I’d had by my feet, and the phone I’d dropped, but weren’t inclined to try and get my wallet from my pocket, and (scandalously) decided not to take the flowers I had with me back to their mothers for Christmas. Clearly these boys hadn’t been brought up very well at all. Chasing them down the stairs and onto the streets of Newark didn’t appeal too strongly to me, so instead I headed to the nearest payphone and dialled 9-1-1, just like on TV.

The Newark cops and transit police were wonderful. They were all local guys, and once they’d quickly established I was fine (a couple of bruises aside) they got straight to work manning the security cameras and driving around. Sure enough, the biggest of the culprits – the one who’d attacked me first – was to be found walking the streets four blocks away with his distinctive striped ‘do-rag‘ hanging out of his back pocket and, slightly more tellingly, my bag on his shoulder. Now, it’s possible that he was also a big fan of The Strand book store and, indeed, I’ve often seen other people on the subway with the same bag as me, but evidently the Newark PD thought it worth looking into.

They got him (the ‘possible suspect’) to stand on the side of the street as I (the ‘victim’) was driven past in the passenger seat of a police car. Sure enough, it was the right guy, now with the beginnings of a wonderful black eye, and once I’d identified him (making him the ‘suspect’) the cops took me back to the main station for a proper statement and all the various paperwork involved.

Back at the station I was reunited with my bag, somewhat more blood-splattered than when I left my apartment. I guess my second punch was a good one. The police weren’t able to recover my iPhone, and also missing was the heavy paperback book (Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid) about metaphysics and intelligence. Clearly they’d stashed these two items safely immediately upon getting away: I’m told both have a very high resale value in the Newark projects.

After giving a written statement about the whole thing, and filling out the various forms, including the one that means I’ll be updated by post about the suspect’s criminal case, I sat back with the local police and watched the canonical American Christmas film, A Christmas Story, which runs on endless loop over Christmas on TBS, whilst we waited for a detective to come and take my verbal statement. During this time I got to overhear some radio traffic and banter, and discovered that (at least) one of the two that got away was a juvenile, and that when the police arrived at his mother’s door looking for him, the first words out of her mouth were “He did it! I know he did it!”, which perhaps shows the low expectations she’s developed for her son.

All three of them are apparently on probation, and the one they caught was in violation of his probation due to the fact he was not wearing his house arrest ankle bracelet. Although, presumably, robbing someone in a train station would also count as a violation of his probation.

The whole thing seemed endless, but only took a little more than two hours from start to finish, when my wonderful housemate arrived to whisk me away to a glass of scotch and Home Alone 2. A couple of bruises on my face and hand aside, there was no lasting effect: I still enjoyed Christmas just as much and got a story and a new phone out of the experience. The money for that comes by way of the Crime Compensation Fund, which will simply write me a cheque for my losses once I exhaust all other options: namely insurance, which I didn’t have; and considering suing the protagonist, which will be pointless as he won’t be able to pay.

Maybe this is a sign that next year I should try and actually make it home for Christmas.

Xx

n.b. this does not supersede any of my statements to the police and should never be taken as evidence or sworn testimony in a court of law etc etc etc

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A Tip for Christmas

There are few things the British enjoy more than complaining. Tea, perhaps, and a lazy Sunday afternoon in the sunshine watching the cricket or tennis, but complaining is definitely up there.

A common topic of complaint is tipping in America; that one might have to pay a fifth of the entire restaurant bill again simply for the pleasure of having the food moved 50 metres from kitchen to table. Realistically though, this is idiotic. Tips are factored into the staff’s wages and with minimal mental acuity can be calculated when initially reading a menu. One can still choose to leave a little extra for good service and, with the baseline now set above £0.00 for the majority of services, can also choose to leave a little less for a poor experience.

As such, I offer short shrift to any visitor that cares to complain, but even so I was surprised to receive the latest instalment in the ‘how to be an American’ guides I get semi-regularly from one of the companies that my employer hired to help out with my international transfer. In this holiday tipping guide, mixed amongst what seem reasonable suggestions to me such as giving your regular hairdresser a little extra, are the following gems.

Mail/Package Delivery: Gift
United States Post Office workers aren’t allowed to accept cash. Consider a small gift or home-baked treat worth less than $20.

Perhaps this might work in a small village community. I’m not entirely sure it’s appropriate in New York City. But then, maybe that’s why I need this guide.

Teacher: Gift/Gift Cards
“Teachers get their share of body lotions and candles. Be creative and uncover the teacher’s favorite restaurant or shop and offer a gift card accordingly,” said etiquette expert Gottsman. Accompany the gift with a handwritten note from your child.

Because, nothing says Merry Christmas like ‘I followed you home last night and…’

Trash collectors: $10-$20 each
Different rules may apply for public service workers so check first to be safe.

A lovely thought, but there’s no advice on the etiquette. Do I pin a $20 note to the outside of my black bags? Or if cash seems a bit impersonal, maybe I could bake a small pie and leave it on top of the empty pizza boxes.

There’s a lot more of these entries and, naturally, you’re wondering what a New York family would be shelling out if they followed this advice. I’m assuming a family of four with a dog, living somewhere pretty nice and happy to spend a bit more to avoid having to do the boring domestic work themselves. Using the best figures I could come up with and median tips, here’s the answer. Please note that this is simply according to the guide and I have no idea how much that reflects reality.

Babysitter/Nanny: One Week’s Pay = $350 (assuming four sessions per week, $17/hour)
Barber/Hair Stylist: One Visit’s Pay = $140 (whole family)
Super, resident manager: $75 -$175 on average (broad range: $50 – $500) = $125
Doorman, concierge: $25-$150 on average (broad range: $10 – $1,000) = $62.50
Porter, handyman: $20 – $30 on average (broad range: $10 – $75) = $25
Garage attendant: $25 – $75 on average (broad range $15-$100) = $50
Elevator operators: $20 and $50 on average = $35
Dog Walker: One Week’s Pay and/or an inexpensive gift = $100
Landscaper/Gardener: Cost of One Visit = $0 (assume they don’t have one)
Mail/Package Delivery: Gift = $10
Manicurist: Cost of One Session = $15
Massage Therapist: Cost of One Session = $80
Newspaper Carrier: $25 if delivered daily = $25
Nurses/Private Caregiver: Gift or One Week’s Pay = $0 (assuming none again)
Personal Trainer: Cost of One Session = $80
Teacher: Gift/Gift Cards = $20
Trash collectors: $10-$20 each = $15
Housekeeper: One Week’s Pay = $100

That’s a grand total of $1232.50. And you have to bake a cake.

Xx

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Santacon

What is there that’s better than Santa Claus? A portly, festive man who appears only once a year and whose sole purpose is to bestow gifts, laughter and carbonated beverages to the world in a magical sleigh before disappearing again.

That wasn’t rhetorical, I actually have an answer. One thing that’s definitely better than Santa Claus is thousands upon thousands of Santa Clauses running around New York City (or another city of your choice) drinking irresponsibly and becoming ecstatic any time they encounter someone else in costume. Which happens about every 15 seconds or so.

Santacon is a non-denominational, non-commercial, non-political and non-sensical Santa Claus convention that occurs once a year for absolutely no reason.

I saw everything from Run DMC-themed Santa Clauses representing Queens through to Navajo Santas recalling the Santacons of old, before the European settlers arrived, but my favourite costume (that I have a picture of on my phone) has to be the candy-cane wielding Pimp Santa below. Second place goes to the Walk Of Shame Santa that I saw stumbling through Union Square at 11am the next morning with a very obvious hangover. I personally went for a Summer Santa costume which, frankly, was an awful decision given the outside temperature.

Santacon Pimp Santa

Still though, there’s little more fun than running around dressed like Santa Claus for the sheer hell of it and, even if a few children were scarred by seeing Santa Claus smoking, drinking, swearing and getting very intimately involved with Mrs. Claus, I’m sure all will be forgotten on Christmas morning.

Next up on the social mayhem calendar: No Pants On The Subway 2012 on January 8th.

Xx

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An Ode to British Food

The Brits aren’t exactly famous for their cuisine aboard. Or, perhaps more worryingly, in some cases, they are. Take, for example, the joke I overheard an American in Switzerland telling a Frenchman recently:

I once asked a wise man how, when I died, I could tell whether I was in Heaven or Hell. He told me to simply look at the Europeans around me.

If I were in Heaven, the chefs would be French, the police would be British, the mechanics would be German, the lovers would be Italian and the trains would be run by the Swiss.

However, in Hell, the chefs would be British, the police would be German, the mechanics would be French, the lovers would be Swiss and the trains would be run by the Italians.

That’s simply not cricket though. If it were true, why would there be signs up all around the Costa Brava offering ‘Proper British Food’ instead of the traditional Spanish cuisine in the area? Why would so many Commonwealth and European countries have shops dedicated to the stuff?

The national dish (curry) aside, there are at least three inimitably British meals that can bring a tear of joy to any expatriate. Let me elaborate.

Every year, I go walking with some lads from University, and instead of aimlessly ambling, we use the opportunity to celebrate the majesty of British cuisine. After (and ideally, during) a day of jumping around on hills we retire to the alehouses to try their selection of local beers and foods, all the time aiming towards the source of a regional delicacy.

For the latter, we’ve had success at Bakewell, been sent to Woolworth’s in Kendal and copped out on location specificity a little to enjoy a fantastic Cornish pasty. This year’s jaunt was to Cheddar which, I was glad to discover, actually features a local dairy that makes cheddar in the town. It’s lovely.

But, cheese aside, the trip also offered a prime example of the first item on the British menu: a proper fry-up in the pub at which we were staying. I’ve enthused many times about the heart-stopping thrill of eating an American breakfast, but when my stomach feels a bit homesick, the best I can get is an ‘Irish Breakfast’ (delivered to my door if I wish,) which has many of the right ingredients but never fails to disappoint. The sausages are too small or too big. The bacon is too meaty or too fatty. It’s difficult to describe — even a bad fry-up in the UK still feels somehow right in a way I’ve never quite found abroad.

Fry-up

Hours later and a bit more covered in mud, we arrived in Cheddar proper where, after a pot of tea and a sit down, it was time for Sunday lunch. I’d missed my favourite new holiday, Thanksgiving, so I was more than happy to find a carvery in Cheddar where, for a wink and a smile (and £8) I could get a plate loaded with meat, crackling, veg and gravy.

Carvery

It may then, have been wise to leave the final intrinsically British meal for another day, but when “anyone for a cup of tea?” turned into “oh they do Cream Teas here” it was rather difficult to abstain from the scones and cakes on offer. Every time I get eat an American breakfast my soul rises, my heart soars and my arteries clog up a little more. Thanksgiving and Sunday brunches more than make up for the lack of Sunday roasts during the year. But, there really is nothing that comes close to Afternoon Tea.

English Afternoon Tea

The pot of beautifully brewed tea (and let’s not forget the one of hot water on the side). The perfectly arranged jugs of milk, dishes of jam and clotted cream. The impeccably precise crockery and cutlery. All this is matched only by the unspoken knowledge of the ritual and the wordless conversation carried out with eyes and hands to determine quite when the tea is ready to pour.

Fortunately, the homesickness passes quickly once I realise I have a pack of American bacon in the fridge and no responsible adult to tell me I can’t fry and eat it.

Xx

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Whiskey & Shots

A couple of hours after arriving back in Britain, I was the proud beholder of the wondrous sight of a pint of cool cider in front of a roasting hot open fire, inside a real country pub. The West Country landlady was giving me sound hiking advice (a pint of cider in my coat pocket and a flask of whiskey in my trousers) and her husband was off getting me some lunch. Perfect.

Pint by a country fire

Alas, we forgot both of those key ingredients for messing around on hills, and perhaps more disturbingly also forgot to bring a compass, which meant sometimes we weren’t sure if we were coming or going.

Coming Or Going

This led to some rather interesting situations for us. Stumbling across gunfire and paint-splattered trees was a bit unnerving, but thankfully none of the paintballers on the range we’d come across were particularly interested in shooting at us. A little more worrisome was coming across an amateurish ‘Shooting In Progress’ erected at the edge of a field that lay right on our walking path. Especially when Timothy’s prediction “it’s 12:20, they’ll be at lunch” was followed by 6 gunshots. All was well after we exchanged waves of ‘please don’t shoot us’ and ‘get off our field’.

Shooting Sign

I have no experience of guns in America yet. They’re fairly common in the countryside in Britain and my American friends from rural areas have a range of experiences. Some of them think nothing of the family gun collection and going out shooting on the weekends, whereas others know that their father has a gun but have never really seen it. Aside from a couple of people here who’ve larked about on an indoor shooting range (like frustrated cops or scared housewives on American TV), I’ve not even heard of any guns in the city. Maybe that’s just my cosy little bubble though.

I really want to go to somewhere in the Midwest where I can buy whiskey, guns and bacon in the same place. Apparently Wal-Mart offers this (and a lot more) but I’m thinking of somewhere made entirely of wood where the conversation will come to a complete halt if a stranger enters. Maybe even somewhere where the owner will drawl “Y’all ain’t from around here, are you boy” whilst fingering the trigger of his rifle. I’m still trying to work out where the line between fiction and reality actually is.

I’ll give an update when I finally get around to travelling around some of the less civilised states.

Xx

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