Thursday, February 21, 2013

Creative Writing Exercise

One of my favorite childhood memories is of how my father used to take the family to the Balloon Park once in a while. We would all pile into the old donkey cart and off we'd go.

The Balloon Park was the place you went in those days if you really liked balloons. If you had a balloon of your own you would take it along to show off, especially if it was a really nice one. If you didn't have a balloon of your own to take along, it was still really fun to go and admire the balloons that other people had brought.

Better Times

You could also rent a balloon if you wanted to. There was a guy named Old Jake who ran a balloon rental stand, where you could rent a balloon by the hour. Old Jake wasn't really old, and his name wasn't even Jake, it was Herman Joseph; he just liked everyone to call him "Old Jake". He was kind of short and skinny, but we all had respect for Old Jake, because it was common knowledge that he had done hard time, once for impersonating a fire hydrant and another time for multiple counts of hair fraud. He had a tattoo from prison too, one of those homemade jobs that looked from one angle like a steam locomotive and from a different angle like a straw basket full of fluffy kittens.

Old Jake didn't charge that much for his rental balloons, but he did expect you to treat them as if they were your own—keep them away from sharp objects and never insult or humiliate them. To make sure that you took proper care of them, you had to leave a deposit, or "hostage", as he called it, which was usually my little brother Sam. I always sort of wondered what would happen to Sam if I brought the balloon back damaged in some way, or went over the mileage limit, but I didn't really care that much, because I liked balloons more than Sam anyway. But since Mom and Dad brought us up to respect and honor balloons whatever the circumstances, it was pretty unlikely that we ever would have even had a chance to find out.

The Balloon Park didn't actually start out as a balloon park. It was originally just another city park, with the usual trees and benches and porcelain and meat. Then some guys started hanging out there with their balloons, and  more and more balloon enthusiasts started showing up, and then the next thing you know there's a big fancy sign put up by the city and the mayor showing up in an antique fire engine to show everyone what a regular guy he is, and one day you wake up to find out that the Balloon Park is now an officially sanctioned, taxpayer-supported city recreation facility.

In its heyday the Balloon Park attracted balloon lovers from all over the country and even overseas. It was one of the nicest facilities in America dedicated to the enjoyment of balloons and balloon culture. Occasionally you might even run into a celebrity, like that guy who was in that commercial for some stuff. It made me proud to know that this was all happening in my own hometown.

I don't recall exactly when it was, but the trouble started the time some people showed up with a kite. I can't possibly imagine what they were thinking, but there they were, all the same. They took that thing out, and one of them held it up facing the wind while another one held the string taught, and up it went. They really should have known better. People stood and stared in disbelief. I was still kind of young and naive back then, so at first I didn't really understand what was going on, but then I remembered how my father had once explained to me about how kites cause halitosis and divorce and despair, and I started to feel a little scandalized too. It wasn't long before the police came and put a stop to it, but the damage was done. We had lost our way, and there was no mistaking it. 

From there it was just a slow downward spiral. There was a brief craze for balloon animals, but it made a lot of people really uncomfortable. Some people thought it was the kind of innovation that promised to revive interest in the Balloon Park. But a lot of people thought it was just abuse. Dad said, "If they'd do that to a balloon, where does it stop? Are they going to start twisting up their own kids like that and call it art?" Most of us felt confused and weren't sure where we really stood on the question. It was all so perplexing.

Balloon Animal Cruelty

Later some guys started showing up with those new mylar balloons, and that's when people started feeling like they really had to choose sides. Most of us felt that if it's not natural latex, it's not a proper balloon (although I will confess that I too briefly felt the lure of the forbidden), but there was a pretty vocal minority that said this is the future of balloons, so get used to it. Fights broke out periodically and the cops were coming all the time, and Dad said it really wasn't safe to go down there anymore. When the guys with the puppets and the tubas started hanging out in one corner of the park, nobody even did anything about it. It was like people were beyond caring at that point. I think I was the only one in the family who was still even interested by then, since the rest of the family had discovered that they preferred spending their leisure time taking turns sitting on a damp washcloth.

A Crime Against Nature

Today all that stuff is gone. After the big balloon manufacturers pulled their sponsorships, the mayor said the city really couldn't afford to maintain it as a Balloon Park any more. Now that plot of land is just another ToadMart, like the ones you can see in practically any other town in America. It's too bad, but I guess that's progress. Still, I can't help but feel a little touch of teary-eyed nostalgia whenever I come across one of those old reruns of "Balloons, Ho!" while I'm aimlessly channel-surfing late on a Friday night.

Friday, February 1, 2013

On The Right Track

I'm sitting on a train home from New York City. To be more precise, I'm returning from Jersey City, NJ, via NYC. I have a client whose offices are in Jersey City, the part that is directly on the Hudson and is really just sort of an extension of Manhattan. I go down to spend a few days there every 2–3 weeks.

When I go to NYC I do my traveling on Amtrak. I could fly, but it's a gigantic hassle, costs more, and, measured by elapsed time door to door, doesn't actually get me there any faster. I instead take an Amtrak Acela train from the Boston area down to New York Penn Station, walk a block or so and then take the PATH train across (or I guess under) the Hudson to Jersey City.

I was sort of dreading this trip based on the experiences of the last trip I took a few weeks ago. I catch the Acela at the Route 128 station, which is the last station in the Boston area and pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It's a miserable place to get the train. In the winter the platform is cold and windy and wet; from spring to fall it's warm, but because they seem to have built the station in the middle of one of the swamps that are pretty common in my part of New England (oh, wait, I think we're supposed to call them "wetlands" nowadays) I spend most of my time on the platform swatting mosquitoes.

I leave my house around 40–45 minutes before my train is scheduled to go and drive to the station. I take an early morning train, so traffic isn't a problem, and there's usually plenty of parking, and I am in the station usually about ten to fifteen minutes before my train goes. Last time everything went as usual as far as getting to the station, but when I stepped into the station a little after 6 AM, around twice the usual number of people were crowded into the little suburban station's waiting room—not a good sign. Looking at the video display that lists all of the trains I saw that the train that was supposed to go an hour before mine was delayed, so these were obviously the passengers waiting for my train plus all the ones who were still waiting for the previous one. 

My train was listed as on time, though. Mulling this over, I decided there were two possibilities. Possibility one was that the delayed earlier train was going to show up after all, and my train would end up delayed by around an hour as well. Possibility two was that the earlier train would be cancelled, and everyone from that train would be trying to get on my train; not just at that station, but at the two preceding ones as well, so it was going to be really crowded. I decided that I should probably head out to the platform and hope my train would at least be on time.

As I was heading out the door, it was announced that the earlier train was cancelled, so we were now into possibility two territory. The whole mob followed me out to the platform. It was the first week of January; the thermometer showed 24º F as I left home, and as I stepped onto the platform it was probably no warmer. I had on my slacks and blazer, and my reasonably professional-looking overcoat, adequate clothing if I can keep moving over short distances in that kind of weather, but not really the recommended attire for just standing around waiting for a train that may or may not eventually be coming. Around fifteen minutes after the scheduled departure time of my train they announced that the earlier train, which was disabled, was offloading passengers at another stop onto my train. They of course said nothing about when my train would actually be arriving. Hooray for Amtrak!

This posed a bit of a dilemma. I could have gone into the station and waited there in warmth and comfort until they announced that my train was about to arrive. But I expected that whenever it did arrive, it was going to be pretty full, since it would contain all of the passengers from the disabled train as well as the ones who were booked on my train. That spot right at the front of the platform in the place where the door to the first car usually opens up (something I know from having taken that train literally a hundred or more times previously) was going to be valuable real estate that I would live to regret having relinquished; I would get on the train, but I might end up standing or sitting on the floor in an aisle for the three-and-a-half-hour trip to NYC. I stayed on the platform and hoped for the best.

Eventually my train did arrive—45 minutes late. I could no longer feel my feet by then, and I could feel the effects of hypothermia setting in; not the worst way to die, or so I have heard. But against all odds I survived long enough to board the Acela, and not a minute too soon, since I am kind of fond of those feet. It was crowded, but as one of the first passengers to board, I got a seat. I was thankful not to be one of the lost souls left wandering the aisles, hoping against all hope to eventually find a place to rest, the Flying Dutchmen of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Acela service.

Amtrak's Acela service is kind of a curious thing. It was introduced with much fanfare in 2002. High-speed train service from Boston to Washington DC! Just like in Japan, or Europe! But the reality is different. In theory Acela can travel at speeds in excess of 150 mph. In practice, there are only two short stretches of track between Boston and Providence, RI where it actually does travel at that kind of speed. The rest of the way it just kind of putts along at the same slow speed as the regular Amtrak regional train, because the tracks aren't laid out for carrying anything moving faster than that. The convenience factor makes it the only profitable route in all of Amtrak, if I'm not mistaken (which I might be; believe anything you read here at your own peril), but it's not a real high-speed train. For my money it's not even as comfortable as the Amtrak regional trains, which I also ride occasionally.

An elaborate practical joke?
I have ridden real high-speed trains, so I know what we're missing here. Most recently, which was three or four years ago, I took the German Intercity Express (ICE) to Paris. For most of the trip it traveled at around 175 mph. I wish we could have something like that here, so I could be in NYC in two hours or so, but that would require infrastructure investment and a thing called "planning ahead", which we're unfortunately not so good at, and which I am told just leads to socialism anyway.

The impending arrival of the train in NY Penn Station is signaled by its entry into the Queens Tunnel, which, as the name implies, takes you from the borough of Queens under the East River directly into the heart of midtown Manhattan. You step off the train onto the narrow underground platform and then try to figure out where you are and where you need to go. As you walk along the platform you pass various stairways and escalators. If you've been there as many times as I have, you know where to go; if you haven't, you may be in for a longer journey than you were expecting. Between the crowd of people exiting the train and the various support columns, stairways, escalators and freight elevators the length of the platform, it's hard to see down the platform and there isn't much in the way of signage telling you which way you should go. You pick an exit and hope it's the one that will get you reasonably near to where you need to go. Eventually you end up in the main area of the station, one level below the street. If you're me, which I am, you exit via the escalator that disgorges you onto the corner of 7th Avenue and 32nd Street.

If you've never been there before, or even if you have, it's sort of jarring when you step off the escalator onto the street. You're right there in the middle of the concrete canyons of midtown, with throngs of people charging up and down the sidewalk with a look of determination in their eyes and the traffic, which seems to consist mainly of those iconic yellow taxis, featured in one of my earlier posts, whizzing down 7th Ave. If you arrive during the morning commute, as I normally do, you will enjoy the added treat of those guys who distribute the free commuter newspapers shouting and thrusting them at you as you walk by.

To get to my ultimate destination, I walk a block down 32nd St. to the 33rd St. PATH station (which may sound odd, but the station has entrances on 32nd St. as well), trundling my little black suitcase behind me, dodging the crowds of pedestrians and navigating as best I can around the panhandlers, street vendors and trucks offloading their morning deliveries. The PATH train takes me across the Hudson (or under it, actually) to Jersey City and the office in which my client is located. The whole trip generally takes about four and a half hours door to door.

Going home means reversing the aforementioned process, but leaving from NY Penn Station introduces another element of excitement and suspense. As I was alluding to earlier, NY Penn station contains multiple subterranean levels. The sheer size of the place is pretty amazing, although in the summertime parts of it can feel a lot like the bowels of hell; the platforms in particular get stiflingly hot then. Incidentally, in case you're wondering why I keep referring to it a NY Penn and not just Penn, it's because there is also a Penn Station in several other eastern seaboard cities in which the Pennsylvania Railroad originally operated.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here
Anyway, from the street level you descend about one story down to the main area of Penn Station. Coming down the stairs or the escalator from 7th Ave., you pass by the ticket and waiting area of the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and various shops selling food and magazines and various (mostly) travel-related items to the main waiting area and the ticketing windows of Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. In this area there's another set of stairs and escalators leading down to a second subterranean level. Here there are yet more shops, ticket vending machines and stairways leading down to the third level, which is where the tracks and boarding platforms actually are. There are 21 tracks in all, distributed in overlapping fashion among LIRR, Amtrak and NJ transit. In addition, from this second underground level you can get directly access the A, C and E subway lines at one end and the 1, 2 and 3 lines at the other. My description here doesn't really convey the size of the overall structure, but for my money it's pretty massive.

The suspense factor is, or so I am guessing, a function of the relatively limited amount of space down on the platforms. It's chaotic and crowded enough when I get off the train and try to get off the platform; if there were also dozens or hundreds of people also waiting on the platform trying to get on at the same time, it would be complete pandemonium. As a result, which track a given train is going to be leaving from is a closely-guarded secret that is only revealed around fifteen minutes before the train actually leaves. Now, normally NJ Transit uses tracks 1–16, Amtrak has 5–16 and LIRR is on 13–21. But to find out which track from within that range your train will be on, you need to wait until it's announced over the PA and posted on the video monitors in the second level and the big board on the first. There is usually a big throng of people gathered around the video monitors on the second level, which is where I also wait. As soon as a train is announced, there's a mad dash by a large part of the crowd to whichever track has just been communicated as the departure track for that train.

Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances
Apparently most Amtrak passengers board from the first underground level, where the Amtrak waiting areas and ticket windows are located. As soon as the track for their train is announced, they queue up in a long line at the head of a down escalator that descends at a maddeningly slow speed directly down to the third level where the platforms are, and the struggle to find a decent seat begins. It's bearable if you're traveling alone, but if there are two of you, unless you're the first ones down the escalator your chances of finding a seat together are not great.

I did this exactly once. The next time I traveled home from NY Penn I discovered the aforementioned second level and the stairs that lead down to the platforms, which gave me a jump on the bulk of the passengers who were still putt-putting down the escalator as I stepped onto the train. With time I came to know that they announce the track about five minutes after the train actually arrives, presumably to let passengers disembark before they let anyone else onto the track. I also observed that my train will usually arrive on one of the tracks from 7 to 12, mostly on 7 or 8, and only rarely on 5–6 or 13–14.

So now my way of gaming the system is to arrive 20 minutes before my train is scheduled to depart. I peer down the steps onto each of tracks 7–12 and make a mental note of which ones are empty and which have trains sitting on them. Then I listen for the ding, ding, ding of the warning bell of a train pulling up to a platform and check the tracks I noted as empty, looking for an Acela coming in, pointed in the direction that indicates it will be heading to Boston (because the train from NY Penn to Washington, DC also leaves and departs at the same time). Then I just bop on down the stairs and as soon as the exiting passengers are off, I'm on with a wide choice of seats. Occasionally I don't guess right as far as the likely track, or don't hear the train coming in, but at least I still have a bit of a head start on most of the other passengers.

Occasionally my family has come down during a school break to run around NYC and do touristy things while I'm down there on business, and then we've traveled back together. I am sure they think that Dear Father is a bit of an obsessive nut as I run back and forth between tracks, trying to anticipate where our train will come in, but as mentioned before, two or more people don't have great chances of finding a seat together, and as the group grows larger, the probability of sitting together decreases exponentially. I have watched too many families searching desperately for seats that are at least in the same car to want to do that with my own family, especially when my kids were smaller.

Of course, Amtrak will still occasionally find ways to mess up my perfect system. On my last trip home, I was sitting smugly in my seat as one of a half-dozen or so passengers in my car who were already on the train before the main crowd arrived. While I was getting comfortable a guy in an Amtrak uniform knocked kind of urgently on my window and motioned toward the other track. I couldn't figure out what he wanted; I guessed that he was trying to tell me that I shouldn't be on the train yet, but I ignored him. They can take my seat when they pry it from my cold, dead butt. But then there was an announcement that this train would not be traveling beyond NYC; everyone should get off and board the regional train that was waiting on the track on the other side of the platform. Arrgh. That other train was already crowded, but I got one of the few remaining seats. Because it was a regional train that makes a lot more stops than the Acela, it also took me an additional 45 minutes to get home.

Sitting in my own safe seat as one of the first passengers on, I get to observe the same peculiar behavior repeated over and over. The trains I travel home on are evening trains and they are always crowded. And yet I observe plenty of people who will wander up and down the car, passing one empty seat after another, even as the car is filling up, as if they think that the longer they look, the more likely they are to find the perfect seat.

I have my own peculiar habits as far as seat choice goes, honed over what is probably well over a hundred NYC–Boston trips at this point. I always sit in the rear half of the car in front of the dining car, since the door at that end will usually open up right in front of the escalator that I need to ride when I reach my destination. I sit on the left side, because I like to look at the view of Manhattan that is visible for around five or ten minutes after exiting the Queens Tunnel, heading north. I sit in an aisle seat, because there is a vent next to the window seat that is always blasting a steady stream of freezing cold air, seemingly regardless of the season.

And finally, I avoid sitting in or even near any of the sets of two side-by-side seats seats that face each other, with a table in between. I don't sit in those seats because I end up with a choice of either taking turns stepping on each other's feet with the person seated across from me, or keeping my feet uncomfortably tucked under my own seat. I don't like to sit near them because they tend to attract the occasional lucky group of travelers who will spend the ride unwinding by drinking one expensive beer after another from the dining car, getting louder and more obnoxious as the trip wears on.

One of the side advantages of sitting in an aisle seat is that there is a better chance that the other seat of the pair on that side of the aisle will remain empty. Apparently people are more inhibited about asking someone in the occupied aisle seat to grant them access to the empty window seat than they are about plonking themselves down in an empty aisle seat next to an occupied window seat. It's nice to be able to stretch out a little more with an empty seat next to me. An empty seat also means having potentially missed the opportunity to have been stuck next to some enormous guy who offends me in an olfactory manner (as, I regret to report, on this present trip), or possibly even next to a Republican.

Occasionally I find myself seated next to a sweet-smelling, fashionable young lady. You might think that I would prefer that to an empty seat. But based on experience I have concluded that I would almost prefer to sit next to the big stinky guy, for such fellow passengers often come equipped with cell phones, the kind that are covered with little hearts and rhinestones and such and are apparently also equipped with unlimited battery capacity. I will not attempt to recount some of the inane three-and-a-half-hour-long conversations that I have been treated to exactly one half of, but they are far more than I care to consider.

This whole system of boarding the train at Penn Station, or on Amtrak in general, really kind of baffles me. I have ridden trains all over Europe, and I can't recall ever being in a station of any size in which it was not known until the actual arrival of the train what track it's going to be coming in on. Trains run on a schedule, even here in the land of individualism; it's not exactly a mystery when they are going to arrive and when they are supposed to leave again. Surely it must be possible to make arrangements for a given train to arrive and depart on the same track every time, as is done in any other modern, industrialized country. What lunatic sociopath came up with this crazy system of train roulette?

The other thing that sort of mystifies me is why they can't just offer reserved seating on Amtrak. If I could reserve my seat, I wouldn't be in such a panic about getting on the train as one of the first passengers; even if I were the last guy on, my seat would still be there, patiently awaiting my bottom. In Germany, where I have my most extensive train riding experience, not only do trains miraculously arrive on the same track every time they come, they also give you the option of reserving a seat on any long-distance train. Your ticket tells you which numbered car, and which numbered seat within that car is yours; on the track, there is a kind of visual directory (the Wagenstandanzeiger—one of my favorite compound nouns) that tells you in which section of the track your car will be stopping. Why can't we have that here?

Ordnung muß sein

But I guess I'm going to have to leave you to ponder that on your own. My train is about to arrive at my stop, so it's time to close up shop. Happy trails to you.