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Alphie’s Choice

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s Weight Watchers training comes in handy on book tour when he has to make Alphie’s Choice.

My Weight Watchers training helps me look svelte, and make smart choices! Photo by Jamie Beck

Weight Watchers was excellent training for book tour—and not just shedding pounds to make me look svelte in photos.  The program trained my brain to think in “points”—assigning numeric values to things.  And even though I haven’t actively been on Weight Watchers in a few years, I find my mind evaluating all of my choices when on tour in terms of a number.  One specific number: 15—the cost of an Alphabet City book.  Just like on Weight Watchers when I would ask myself if a food choice was, “Worth the points?”—every time I lay out cash on tour, I think, “Is it worth the book points?”

As a writer-preneur, it all comes down to how many units of Alphabet City I can move in order to cover costs.  A recent dilemma: $75/5 book points car transfer to JFK airport from home vs. $10/less than 1 book point Subway/Long Island RR/Airtrain.  Choice: Extra time on subway worth the 4 book points savings!

The point system has forced me to be strategic.  Take my current trip to Lubbock, Texas.  Rather than an easy connection through Dallas at cost of over 25 book points, I utilized JetBlue’s generous support of the Alphabet City Book Tour, flew to Austin, endured a long layover, and connected to cheaper Southwest Airlines flight for 10 book points round-trip.  To be fair, that decision was made easier by JetBlue’s non-stop service to Austin—one of my favorite routes from the airline—it definitely encourages me to visit the Lone Star capital more.  Getting to catch-up on all my trashy Bravo TV on board is an added bonus.  But saving all those points, made me feel okay about spending 2 book points on the upgrade to an exit row seat—for a 4 hour flight it’s worth the added stretch room for my ailing back (and unlike Continental, they keep folks from moving into the row without paying)!

Rental car in Lubbock: 5 book points per day for 2 days = total of 10 book points!  Yikes!  Priceline.com to the rescue—my accepted bid brought the price down to 4.6 book points for 2 days!  I had never used Priceline.com before and am now a convert.  My bid was even accepted by my preferred company National, and although I wasn’t in the system as an Emerald Member when I went to the counter, as soon as they punched in my i.d. it came up on the screen—scoring me an upgrade!  A good use of book points.

Just like Weight Watchers, I even bank points for future use.  On layover in Austin, I had lunch with my friend Valerie and the host of one of my book parties Tammy, who sweetly paid for my lunch.  Nice!  I saved 2 book points that I cashed in later when my flight to Lubbock was delayed and I needed to buy dinner.  The great thing about the Austin airport is that local choices abound—Salt Lick BBQ or Mexican Food?  Hey, I banked book points at lunch—I can have both!  I’ve started calling those excruciating false choices on the Alphabet City Book Tour—not Sophie’s—but Alphie’s Choice.

As of yet, no real Alphie’s Choices in Lubbock.  The Overton Hotel—a Westin-like hotel infused with Texas charm—is definitely worth the book points.  Especially since they hand out free copies of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal which has a terrific feature on me and the book tour today!  Hand down, it’s one of the best stories of the tour.   The writer William Kerns did a terrific interview, read the book, had great questions—a tremendous interview.  It gives me hope for American newspaper publishing!  Check it out here—the only thing you’ll miss from the online version is the subhead, “Straight women biggest buyers of the book, rather than gay men.”  Which is true—and I just love seeing it in big bold print.

In fact, I like the story so much, I think I’ll splurge a book point and bring home some extra copies.  At 75 cents each, I can get 20!  Totally worth the points.

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Exit Row War

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul takes on Continental Airline over a matter of fairness.

An issue of fairness raised itself on our recent trip to Mexico.  It had nothing to do with gay marriage—Mexico City allows it, most of the US does not.  And it didn’t come courtesy of Mexican Customs’ seemingly inefficient requirement that everyone entering the country push a stop-light button before proceeding: Green means go, Red means a thorough luggage search.  It’s laughable the number of times I’ve been held up with a small wheelie bag while others fly by with carts suspiciously piled high with luggage, TVs, microwaves, and other assorted taxable imports.

This new situation came courtesy of Continental Airline’s “Guaranteed Extra Legroom Policy” a.k.a. airlines’ efforts to squeeze more pennies out of travelers.  On the way down, I happily paid the $85 offer to upgrade to business class—I considered that an amazing bargain, especially since the extra bag I was going to check would be free instead of the $50 for a coach passenger.  Hoping to score the same deal on the return, I logged on 24 hours in advance to check-in but was presented with a different offer—$75 to get “Guaranteed Extra Legroom” a.ka. sit in the Exit Row.  In comparison to a comfy seat and warm cookies in the front of the plane, that seemed like less of a deal.

But I get it.  Many airlines are charging these fees.  Since I don’t hold elite status on Continental—always flying a few thousand yearly miles under the radar point screen—I figured paying for the Exit Row would give me a little more comfort on the 4 ½ hour journey.  Especially on one of my least favorite aircrafts: a cramped 737.

Turns out, I was the only sucker who took Continental up on its “offer.”  When the boarding doors closed, only one seat out of 12 in the two exit rows was taken—by me.  Lucky me—I paid for the privilege and now had even more room.

But as soon as the cabin doors were “cross checked,” a steady stream of passengers filled every seat.  Now wait a minute.  Why should I have to pay when everyone else gets the privilege for being bold and aggressive?  If Continental is going to sell those seats, then shouldn’t it be incumbent on them to monitor their usage as well?  They don’t just let folks take any open First Class seat because it would undervalue them.  To me, the same holds true for the Exit Row fees.  I seethed all the way to Newark unable to enjoy the in-flight “entertainment” Valentine’s Day.  Well, I’m not sure I can blame that on the airline.

On the ground, I did some research and discovered that other airlines have figured out this issue.  JetBlue told me

“Customers can move into unsold Even More Legroom seats onboard the aircraft, and our inflight crewmembers collect payment using our “cashless cabin” device.”

Don’t you love all the specially created marketing jargon that allows everyone to talk around an issue?  But JetBlue’s policy seemed right on target to me.  And I wanted my money back from Continental.

As I hit send on the online customer “feedback” form, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hear back anytime soon.  So I made some outreach to the media relations team at Continental playing up my credentials as a “respected” blogger and freelance travel journalist just to see what their policy was on this issue.  Frankly, I wanted to know if they had even thought through this problem.  It took a few days of back and forth with the PR team, but I did get a response,

“Customers have embraced our new premium seat program and clearly value the ability to reserve premium seats up to 24 hours prior to departure. Based on your comments, though, we may need to reevaluate certain aspects of the program to ensure we are meeting our customers’ expectations and providing optimal service.”

A day or so later, I got a call from someone on the Customer Service team.

“They told me to call you and tell you that we are refunding your $75 but that this is not our policy and a one time only event.”

I particularly loved the genuine customer service attitude of “they told me to call.” But alas, Continental did respond.  Although it sounds like if you didn’t flash around some blogger credentials, you’d be out of luck.

And I’ve now figured out that I’ve expended way more time and energy and valuable blog space on this issue than the original investment of $75.  So here’s my tip: unless Continental changes the policy soon, book yourself a seat in the row immediately in front or behind the exit row.  And as soon as you hear the cabin door close, make a run for the border.

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Mind the Gap

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul dabbles in LA’s Gay Pride before finding out what Hollywood thinks of his book.

New York and Los Angeles are two cities on opposite coasts that might as well exist in opposite worlds.  New York, the World’s Financial Capital—compact yet tall with the odor of money.  Los Angeles, the World’s Entertainment Capital—sprawling yet short with the smell of celebrity.  But cross-country flights act like an umbilical cord for these city twins separated at birth—remained inexplicably intertwined in ways that can only be comprehended by someone who lives in either, and has cause to frequent the other.  Growing up in Dallas, smack dab in the middle of the country, a three-hour plane ride to Hollywood seemed like a journey to the end of the Earth.  But New Yorkers think nothing of using the dozens of hourly trans-continental airline crossings like a commuter railway.

My own transportation to the West Coast got a little more palatable several years back with the launch of JetBlue—a company I got to know closely in my years of handing out the Condé Nast Traveler Top Airline Award year after year. So they were natural for me to approach for support of the Alphabet City Book Tour, and they nicely sent a few travel vouchers my way.  Alert: that was a full disclosure as required by FCC regulations.  But I don’t think my readers begrudge the support I get from some of my corporate sponsors.  An indie author/blogger girl has to make a living, right?  And I’m going to tell you like it is—including, quite frankly, these vouchers aren’t the easiest to use—a return trip from the West Coast requires 3 stopovers on the way back, ugh.

So here’s my take: having traveled through nearly a hundred airports worldwide, JetBlue has done a genius job of remaking its JFK terminal to look like it belongs more in Scandinavia than America.  The seat back TVs give me a chance to catch episodes of pop culture phenomenons that I have no interest in watching on the ground.  As if my standards plummet at 30,000 feet.   Just ten minutes of watching a painful Bethenny Getting Married? and I completely understood why there’s a question mark at the end of that title.  But give me a Kathy Griffin special and a few episodes of HGTV’s House Hunters International and I’ll forget that I had to pay an additional $60 to snag an Exit Row seat.

My national tour sponsor Kimpton has me staying at Hotel Palomar LA Westwood which earned my love with a just right infusion of ‘70s chic, along with a welcome basil & ginger mojito paired with fresh guacamole and chips.  They even gave me a complimentary ride to the 40th Anniversary LA Gay Pride Parade to meet up with my Texas friend Larry—who agreed to show me how they party in West Hollywood and round up some friends for a Book Party.

I highly recommend visiting any city during Gay Pride festivities—typically reserved boys turn into welcome wagons, and the gorgeous men at The Abbey were no exception.  Many guys stopped to ask me where they could buy the Aaron Krach original designed Alphabet City t-shirt I was wearing, as well as get a close-up look at my Sydney Opera House tattoo.  But the real stars were the acrobatic performers in AussieBums stretching their legs in ways I haven’t seen since Alphabet City’s Episode 13 at the Bangkok bathhouse.

The Pride spirit definitely continued into the next day as I went about spreading the gospel of Alphabet City.  The Four Seasons Beverly Hills hosted an intimate catch-up luncheon with some celebrity publicist pals.  The restaurant Culina that opened last March is a dramatic makeover of the previous space featuring rich woods and the only certified crudo spot in town.  If you’re in the mood for a celebrity helping with your meal, this spot always delivers—Smokey Robinson was in the house.

Task Force Board Member Vince Wong on right, with friends

More entertainment industry friends showed up for the Hotel Palomar LA hosted event benefitting the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.  I was honored that Task Force Board Member Vince Wong showed up since he had just finished organizing LA’s Gay Pride Parade.  Thanks to all my friends who showed their support with generous donations to my non-profit sponsor.

Then it was over the mountain and through the traffic to Larry’s Studio City abode, a drive made all that much easier in my very (eco) stylish Hyundai Santa FeLike Goldilocks, I’m usually never happy with my car situation in Hollywood—they’re either too large and garish, or too small and scary.  But thanks to the team at Hyundai (via my great friends at Ketchum), the Hyundai is just right in every sense of the word.  It has great pick up when I need to get past the irritating truck on the 405, and enough quick maneuvering capabilities when I’m about to miss a turn.  It also helpfully flashes a green “eco” sign when you are in the sustainability zone.  This is a great car for a girl on the go schlepping around books, blow-up posters, faux Oscar statues—everything you need to deliver an Alphabet City Book Club Party-in-a-Box!

Affordable party nibbles from Whole Foods Sherman Oaks

Larry and his partner Mike earn extra credit for turning out a crowd on a Monday night, many of whom were still recovering from Pride.  Whole Foods Market Sherman Oaks East helped out with some affordable and delicious party edibles.  As someone who shops pretty much exclusively at WFM thanks to Chef being a Chef there, I know you don’t have to spend your “whole paycheck” if you plan ahead and know where to look for value.  My hosts rounded out their selection of local cheeses with WFM’s 365 brand of crackers and salsa and olives, along with some other party necessities, all for under $100.

The result?  A happy crowd that bought multiple books as gifts for friends!  That’s what I call Happy Pride.

I’m thrilled to see that Alphabet City is resonating on the West Coast.  Maybe it’s like an ambassador really, helping bridge that divide between New York and LA.

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