Monday, August 20, 2007

Service Changes

Looking at this image, one might imagine that it's a postmodern interpretation of a bowl of spaghetti, or perhaps a flowchart representing a baboon's thought processes. Maybe it's an outline of the capillaries in one's pancreas, or maybe it's the circuit board on one of those new Japanese vibrators, the ones that simutaneously tittillate and download the latest top 40 hits.

It's hard to imagine that this seemingly random hodgepodge of lines and dots could possibly be intended to convey information, much less direct a confused traveler on the best route between two points. However, that's exactly what this image is intended to do. You see, this is the famous New York City MTA map. Personally, I'm starting to be convinced that this map is designed to obscure the fact that, using the subway, it takes almost half an hour for my wife to travel the two or three miles between our home and her work. What's even more telling is that my wife often brags about the brevity and speed of her commute.

I'm not going to comment on the weirdness of the subway, or the byzantine set of rules and favors that underlay its almost fractal structure. No, that's well-trodden territory, and I am taking a pass. More to the point, I still don't really understand the beast, so I'm taking the wise route out and letting it lie.

One thing I have noticed is the havok that a rainstorm can wreak on an apparently stable and well-ordered system. Recently, my wife has regaled me with tales of the disastrous service she's had to endure. Apparently, the horrifying weather has flooded many of the tunnels, so the city has been shutting down subway lines at a moment's notice, re-routing trains, making local lines express and express lines local, and generally making life a lot more exciting. In a bad way.

At any rate, she sent me this piece on subway lines in New York. Anyone who has ever found himself or herself sitting in a car in massive traffic because of road work should be able to relate. If you live in the city...well, it isn't really a joke, is it?

MTA New York City Transit

Service Alert

Posted on:8/8/2007 4:27:05 PM

Due to a single droplet of water falling from the sky mistaken for rain that was actually condensation from an air conditioner in a 17th floor apartment, there are delays on the following subway lines:

1 trains are running between 14th Street and 18th Street in both directions.

2 and 3 uptown trains will terminate at 96th Street, as they are afraid to go into Harlem.

4, 5, and 6 trains will be making two loops around Central Park before getting you to your destination, because they need some fresh air.

7 trains are enjoying a hot dog and beer at Willets Point-Shea Stadium and will resume normal operation once the game is over.

A, B, C and D trains are not running at all, because they really just don’t have time for your crap today.

E trains are running express in Manhattan, enjoying the nice cool breeze they get from going 30 miles an hour.

F and V trains are stuck in some neighborhood in Queens that you’ve never heard of.

G trains are currently experiencing an inferiority complex and will not run until further notice/counseling.

J, M, and Z trains are running normally, of course, since nobody ever uses these trains.

L trains are running between Princeton Junction and Hoboken. We really can’t explain how they ended up there.

N and Q trains are currently running on the Cyclone track at Coney Island-Stillwell Ave.

R and W trains are feeling nostalgic right now, and are currently running over the Brooklyn Bridge.

S service is suspended between Times Square-42nd Street and Grand Central-42nd Street. You can just walk. You do have legs, don’t you?

We would apologize for the inconvenience, but we like to watch you suffer. Thank you for riding with MTA New York City Transit!

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hot Times in the Hood

I moved to the neighborhood in the first week of July, which means that I've only been in New York for a little over a month. Although I have yet to witness a fatality (knock on wood), I have seen two rainstorms that were massive enough to flood out the subways, a tornado that chewed up Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, an underground explosion that blew off two manhole covers and took out a car, a shooting, and an apartment fire in Harlem. Worst of all, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority has decided to refurbish all the Bronx stations on the 4 line and is completely restoring the B and D lines.

Gentrification, I fear, may be on the way.

My biggest problem with this massive improvement program is that I feel a little responsible. The facts are on the table: shortly after my wife and I arrived here, the City of New York began spending millions of dollars to greatly improve the aging infrastructure of the Bronx. Personally, I think that someone told them we were coming. The trouble is that neither I nor my wife wants to be an agent of gentrification; frankly, we moved here to get away from annoying white people, not blaze a trail for them. I have nightmares about a Starbucks moving into the area. As it stands, I get my cafe con leche (dos azucares) from the grocery store on the corner, where it costs fifty cents and is prepared by a psychotically grinning Dominican who can't quite get over the crazy gringo and his freakish tendency to tip. I don't know if I could handle a double decaf half caf caramel macchiato with two percent milk, easy on the whipped cream. I think my head might explode.

If they start improving the schools, we're hitting the bricks.

One weird thing is the huge number of police in my neighborhood. While I'm glad that they're here, I'm a little disheartened by the fact that they need to be here. Also, I'm not too excited about the condescending attitude that they adopt when wandering through my neighborhood. This, combined with the fact that they tend to move in packs of two to five and all dress in blue, makes them seem like a gang. Well, a gang that has the ability to leave parking tickets. I've already gotten two, and am keeping them in the hopes of building a collection of origami ticket terns.

One bright side to the explosion in my neighborhood is that it has given me a great excuse to take pictures of my street. Since my friend Alex has been asking me to show him where I live, I am hereby proud to offer a glimpse of Bainbridge Avenue and 194th Street!

The first two pictures are establishing shots of the flaming manholes (I just realized how gay that sounds). In the pictures, you can see the front of my building and a few of my neighbors, who congregated outside to watch the fireworks.

And here are a few other pictures of the fire. As you can see, it created quite a traffic jam. I particularly like the one of the female firefighter standing underneath a "Drugs Crucify" sign:

And here's a little movie of it that I shot on my digital camera. There isn't any sound, and I apologize for the shaky camera work.

Later that night, as I walked down to the grocery store for some milk, I passed two young policemen who were standing on the corner, watching ConEd workmen fixing the problem. I asked them what had happened and one, an excitable irish kid who couldn't have been more than 22 or 23 told me that the heat set off one of the manholes, which made a car explode, and consequently set off the "secondary." He then went on to tell me that it was "really cool." When I raised my eyebrows, smirked, and said "really cool?," he put on his game face and told me that it was "um...really terrifying." His partner laughed loudly and I wished them a good evening.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Year in Da Bronx

I was recently trying out for a writing position at an online magazine that reviews outrageously expensive consumer goods. My job would have been ghostwriting pieces for a fictional character who is extraordinarily wealthy, tends to name drop, and has the sexual morals of an alley cat. As I don't really have access to luxury goods right now, I decided to write a review of some of the street food in my area. Here it is:

What: Empanadas
Where: The corner of Fordham Road and Webster Avenue
Price: $1.00 each and up.
Why: Sustenance and a nifty hangover cure

It doesn't happen often, but last weekend a combination of fresh mojitos and a latino jazz combo conspired to make my Saturday night a complete blur. I awoke to find myself in a strange bed north of 145th Street, again. While I tried to convince my timid driver that a passport is not necessary for traversing the Triboro bridge, I noticed that the combination of dirty dancing and clean rum had left me more than a little dehydrated. After surrendering my favorite pair of boxer shorts, which the young lady was quick to place on a homemade altar composed of three candles and a velvet painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I made my goodbyes in the broken Spanish that functions as the lingua franca of the area. Walking down the street, I happened across an empanada saleswoman on the corner of Fordham Road and Webster Avenue. While she initially offered her wares at the bargain-basement price of one dollar each, I quickly talked her up to ten dollars for two. In return for this princely sum, I received a fresh, crispy crust with a lightly-spiced, meaty interior. The saleswoman assured me that the contents of the empanada came from a local grocery store, not the pound. A few minutes later, my driver appeared in the Hummer, sporting a taser and what appeared to be a flak jacket. A greasy smile on my face and a stomach full of empanadas soaking up last night's mojitos, I settled back in the seat and awaited my return to civilization.

Although this is tongue-in-cheek, I think it gives a pretty good impression of my neighborhood. I have discovered that the Bronx isn't, in fact, located in New York. Rather, it exists in a mythical space, somewhere between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It is a bizarro world, where Spanish is the native tongue, the pizza and Chinese food are inedible, and the tacos are worthy of religious devotion. In Bronxland, every street corner features a salesman selling helado, a delicious tropical ice cream, and the English comes with a hispanic accent and a hefty dollop of four-letter words.

Whenever I take the fifteen-minute subway ride to Manhattan, I am surprised to discover that I don't have to go through customs or have my passport checked. All of a sudden, I no longer have to speak in broken Spanish, and I am shocked to find myself surrounded by white people dressed in conservative, concealing clothes. En mi barrio, people tend to be tan, clothes tend to be minimal, cellulite is worn proudly, and I look like an albino.

The people on my block are very friendly. Admittedly, some of them ask for money, but they're not too aggressive. I think they've figured out that the white guy in the hood is probably not flush with the pesos, if you get my drift. The tenants in the building tend to be somewhat protective, warning me that "there are bad people in the neighborhood" and to "watch out for panhandlers."

The general feeling tends to be that we are nice, mildly eccentric gringos who are probably a little insane. When we first moved in, the neighbors seemed worried that we were drug addicts. As the super, Ivan, explained, most of the white people who move up here are hippies, druggies, or both. This was brought home to us when my wife was harassed by the local policemen, who wanted to know why a white woman was wandering around this neighborhood at 6:00 AM. After she convinced them that she was not a prostitute, she only had to mildly hint at the possibility of a lawsuit before they let her be.

The wife describes the general reaction as "You do realize that you're white, don't you?" This attitude underlay her run-in with the police, and has characterized all of our interactions with the neighbors. Everyone feels obliged to warn us about the neighborhood, but is surprised when we point out that they live in the neighborhood, too.

It's fair to say that we like it a lot.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

European Threat Levels

(Apologies, of course, to Glamourpuss and Jude).

I try to avoid copying these sorts of things, but this was too funny to resist.

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats and have raised their security level from "Miffed" to "Peeved". Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated" or even "A Bit Cross". Londoners have not been "A Bit Cross" since the blitz began in 1940 and tea supplies all but ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from "Tiresome" to "A Bloody Nuisance". The last time the British issued "A Bloody Nuisance" warning level was during the great fire of 1666.

Also, the French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from "Run" to "Hide". The only two higher levels in France are "Collaborate" and "Surrender." The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France's white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country's military capability.

It's not only the English and French who are on a heightened level of alert. Italy has increased the alert level from "Shout loudly and excitedly" to "Elaborate Military Posturing." Two more levels remain: "Ineffective Combat Operations" and "Change Sides."

The Germans also increased their alert state from "Disdainful Arrogance" to "Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs." They also have two higher levels: "Invade a Neighbor" and "Lose".

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual, and the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

School Colors,


In the Middle of Life, The Author Changes His Mind and Starts Wearing Orange and Maroon

This is a piece that I've been drafting and re-drafting in my head for the past three months or so. It isn't particularly topical anymore, but is like a clog in a drain...I have to get it out in order to write a few other things.

On the other hand, after being harassed by John's friend Andrea for my clothing, I feel like this has a little bit of currency.

Forget the dining hall food, forget the classes. Forget the new places, the unfamiliar faces, the twangy Southwest Virginia accents. Forget the isolation, the cavernous classrooms, and the strange engineering majors. When I first came to college, my anxieties centered around one thing: school colors.

Some of the colleges that I applied to had colors that were simply strong and shocking, like red and white; some went together in a clever, harmonious way, like orange and blue; and some were impressively historical, like blue and gray. Virginia Tech's burnt orange and Chicago maroon, however, had nothing to recommend them. They were neither beautiful, nor historical, nor even particularly exciting. They were just a random mix of colors that no amount of squinting or deliberate eye-gouging could ameliorate. The more I looked at them, the more they resembled scabs paired with highway safety vests.

Still, I was a freshman, and buying into the rah-rah spirit is a rite of passage, so I dutifully forked over my dough and picked up a sweatshirt, a keychain, a couple of shot glasses, and assorted other overpriced pieces of collegiate merchandise. I carefully arranged my clothes to minimize the effect, pairing my Virginia Tech t-shirt with a tasteful crew-neck sweater or making sure to wear my Tech sweatshirt to fundraisers for colorblind students. Even so, sporting the orange and maroon always had a sense of grim duty, like spending Christmas with an insane aunt or singing the Star-Spangled Banner.

As I progressed through the ranks at Tech, my responsibility to the orange and maroon began to fade. Part of this was my estrangement from the sports program. The last football game I attended, during my freshman year, featured a battle between Tech's Hokies and Clemson's Tigers. Braving a late-fall wind in the upper bleachers, I watched my team's manoevres dissolve into slapstick while the guys behind me put away the better part of a bottle of tequila. At halftime, Tech was hopelessly behind, and one of my fellow fans stuck out his tongue to show me a half-chewed worm. By the end of the game, I had hypothermia, Clemson was playing its second string, and the idiots behind me were throwing up.

Somehow, football games never really regained their cachet.

By the time I got to graduate school, the football team had progressed from a gang of loveable losers to a pack of hired thugs. This was the Christy Brzonkala period, when the gang rape of a female student was splashed across the pages of national papers and was appealed all the way to the Supreme court. While this drama unfolded, the football team regularly attacked other athletes, each other, and random students. Rarely a month went by without some kid showing up at the emergency room sporting the marks of a brutal beating. The football players, of course, were never punished.

As I already pointed out, one needs a very good reason to wear orange and maroon. If it isn't team loyalty, then one must, perhaps, feel a great deal of love for the University. For me, though, this was hard to come by. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that I was accruing a considerable loan debt to attend the school, yet still had to pay exorbitant parking tickets. Perhaps it was the uncaring administrators. Perhaps it was the fact that I once had my account blocked because of a $6.00 discrepancy that later turned out to be the fault of the Registrar's office. Regardless, the University didn't fill me with love. At least, not enough love to convince me to wear orange and maroon.

Later, when I was a teacher, the slogans that they put on the clothes were so horrifying that I could barely stand to look at them in class, much less wear them. Here are a random few:

"Who needs a Benz? We've got a Beamer!"
This one references Coach Beamer, an obnoxious good-old-boy who appears to have a conjoined twin growing out of his neck and makes more money than God. Seriously, Beamer is better funded than several departments at Virginia Tech. I have no love for the man, although I'm impressed by the fact that he's managed to put together a winning football team. It only took him twenty years.

"Get out of our Lane!"
This one references Lane Stadium, the most expensive building on campus. Lane is like a cathedral built to honor Virginia Tech's semi-professional football team. Imagine, if you will, the Statue of Liberty or the Parthenon, except it's dedicated to mammon and mediocrity.

"Stick it in! Stick it in!"
My students repeatedly assured me that this slogan referenced football in some oblique way. However, it is worth noting that none of my male students ever wore it. Not even the gay ones.

So, anyway, I never really felt the need or the desire to wear the school colors. I dutifully put them on for a few years in the early nineties, but my freshman togs eventually fell apart, and I didn't replace them.

Until April 17th.

The day after the shootings, I came to school to try to find my students, attend the convocation, and generally see if I could do anything useful. As I walked to campus, I remembered that I didn't own any Tech swag. More to the point, I realized that wearing the colors would say something to my students, particularly given my outspoken opposition of the past. It was a little chilly, so I bought a maroon and orange striped scarf, which I wore until the afternoon, when it got searingly hot. I later bought an orange and maroon bandanna and a maroon baseball cap, which I wore the next day when I came in. By the time I left for New York, I had picked up a few other baseball caps, a sweatshirt, and an orange polo shirt. I gave a lot of these items out to family members and friends and found that wearing the colors comforted me.

Over the next week or so, I thought about this a lot. I'm not a shop therapy kind of guy, but Tech merchandise was making me feel better. It was like discovering a hitherto-unnoticed congenital disorder or realizing that one really, truly loves Pauly Shore films. I was simultaneously ashamed and comforted.

When I returned to school, I bought a maroon polo shirt for teaching the first day of class. My students noticed it, but we didn't talk about it very much. I told myself that it was for them, but I also realized that it was partially for me. For the first time, I was proud of the colors of my school, although I still didn't understand why.

For the rest of the semester, I trooped the colors. Most days, it was a discreet ribbon or a handkerchief, just a little something to comfort me and make me feel grounded. As graduation approached, I realized why I was wearing these clothes. For the first time in years, I felt a real pride in my school. It wasn't about the football team, which was in the off season, or the administration, which was doing everything it could to cover up its failures. It was about my students, past and present, many of whom were going through the most painful feelings of their lives, yet were attempting to comfort each other. I was struck by the bravery of the young adults that I had helped teach, and the responsibility that they showed for their classmates. For the first time in years, I felt the magnitude of my job, and realized how humbling it is to help a young person become an adult.

Since leaving Tech, I pull out the orange and maroon from time to time. Somehow, wearing it still feels right.

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