Sunday, December 17, 2006

What a Difference A Little Bit of Jesus Makes . . .

What, pray tell, could these two photos possibly have in common? Well, they are of the same thing: our landlord/next door neighbors' front door. Both are taken on the occasion of big festive holidays, and yet the older couple who lives there clearly feels very differently about the 2: one is obviously from Christmas, and the dark one? Halloween. All you can see is the glow of the doorbell piercing the darkness.
You see, the reason I took the photo of their front door on Halloween was because it was so hysterical to me: Halloween is a HUGE deal on our low-traffic, kid-friendly street- we had over 150 kids at our door and had to run out for candy replenishment. Yet theirs was the only house on the entire street that was pitch-dark. Not even a porch light on. I don't know what the Halloween-equivalent of "Bah Humbug" is called, but this is it, in visual form.
The week before Halloween, I had the occasion to speak with the lady of the house, our landlord, who warned me about the evils of Halloween around our neighborhood: "Nothin' but kids by the busload, I tell you. They drive in from all over just to come to our block. Begging candy like homeless people. And the parents! Shameless. The parents drive in from the wrong side of town and carry an extra sack for candy, 'For the baby in the car,' they say. Ha! A likely story. They just want more free candy. Constant door-bell-ringing all night. You can't even have dinner. I'm sick of it!"
It was such a nasty, vicious tirade she went on, that I literally started laughing at her right in her face. After a few seconds, I think she started to see what I was laughing at- her hatred of all things child-related and poor-people-related - and she and her husband both started to laugh, too. It was priceless. (Thank God they ended up laughing!)
Yes, you guessed right- they have no kids themselves. Never wanted 'em, don't have 'em. And cats and dogs? She hates them. She also likes to say mean things about the nice teenaged-boy down the street who has Down Syndrome, "Have you heard the sailor mouth on that boy? I tell you, I wouldn't trust him!" So needless to say, Halloween and all its damn kids? Not so much for her.
Christmas, however? Now THAT is a whole different ballgame. She is Slovak-Catholic and he is Armenian-Catholic and boy do they live at the local Slovakian Catholic church: he calls bingo every Thursday, she is always making holubky for the fundraisers. I guess that is why they go all-out for Christmas (as opposed to Halloween) with their decorations: Halloween is about candy-grubbing kids, but Christmas, now THAT is about JESUS!

Our Binghamton Christmas

In case anyone was wondering how we decorated our house for Christmas . . . we didn't. Unless I find some lights at a garage sale for $0.50 (like I did with the halloween jack-0-lantern string of lights) or something, it's sort of hard to justify investing in holiday decorations that aren't likely to get more than 2 or 3 uses before we leave. And since we're going home for the holidays, we didn't want to buy a tree that was going to become a fire hazzard while we are gone.

Not to be totally kitsch-free, however, I did break out the few ornaments we have collected together, and used them to adorn a sego palm that I bought because it reminds me of Los Angeles and the one my parents have at their house. The result is a pretty sad-looking "Christmas tree" but it does the trick, since it makes us laugh.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

What's going on at THIS church?

Too good to be true. Sort of like Jesus giving me a lay-up; a little reward, if you will, for finally showing up to mass. A blog entry waiting for a scribe, right there in the church newsletter.

OK, I admit that these are two of the blurriest, least legible photos of text, but I've been studying for the Bar exam all day and I'm not in the mood to fuss with images. Just trust me when I say that the first one says, "Rev. George Dyer, S.T.D."

First, What, pray tell, is an "S.T.D." degree? And how does one achieve that dubious distinction? Get your mind out of the gutter! This is not an indicator that Rev. Dyer has engaged in activities unbecoming of a man of the cloth. Rather, the "S.T.D." in this case refers to a Doctor of Sacred Theology. Why they continue to call it an S.T.D., and not a D.S.T., is beyond me.

Really makes you think that the Catholic church may be a victim of its own failures of marketing: no wonder they have hardly any new priests entering the seminary! You are signing up for a life without sex, but if you study really hard, you might wind up with an S.T.D. at the end- hardly a wise trade-off!

The next photo is of text that announces a meeting of the "Nocturnal Adoration Society" at 10 pm. I have never heard of such a group, but they meet way too late at night to be up to anything pious. Sounds like happy hour with sacrificial wine and Jesus-wafer/Body-of-Christ snacks, to me. With Reverend S.T.D. and his late-night meetings, I am getting suspicious about what goes on at this church!

"Jesus Saves" . . . But not on heating bills

Bad Catholics that we are, I've lived here since February and, despite best intentions, had yet to make it to one of the many Catholic churches around here for Sunday mass. First, a little background on the Catholic scene in Binghamton: Los Angeles is certainly a "Catholic city" because it's majority Latino, and is actually part of the country's biggest archdiocese, with 5 million congregants. Binghamton is part of the Diocese of Syracuse and, as you might have guessed, not quite so many parishioners as L.A. - only 350,000.

These numbers are misleading to me as a resident of the area, though, since I didn't feel like I interacted with a lot of Catholics around me, personally, in my daily life in Los Angeles (aside from the millions of Latinos, of course). Sure, they were present, but so were Jews, Muslims, etc.

Here in Binghamton? The Catholic church pretty much seems to have a lock on the local religious market. When I moved here, it seemed to me that there was a Catholic church in just about every neighborhood; that, just like the local dive bars, there was one for each little enclave.

Apparently this perception was dead on: The little city of Binghamton (about the same population and geographic size of Rancho Palos Verdes) has no fewer than TEN Catholic churches, each with an enrollment averaging about 2,000 people. That means that 20,000 people, or nearly 1/2 of the population of the entire city, is a registered parishioner at one of these ten churches.

And it is true, in practice. It seems that EVERYONE around me is Catholic. In fact, a lady at the gym the other day was shocked that I didn't know what a "feast day" was (it's an east coast Italian Catholic thing, apparently, and sounds very idolatrous to me). She exclaimed, "What? aren't you CATHOLIC?" well, I happen to be, thanks for assuming, lady.

These many, small churches are based on an immigrant model, with each one typically catering to an immigrant population that lived in the enclave (recall that waves of immigrants came over in the first part of the 20th century to work in the shoe factories and as cigar rollers). That means we have St. Cyril's for the Slovaks, St. Patrick's for the Irish, St. Anthony's (pronounced "Saint Ant-nee's") for the Italians, St. John's for the Ukrainians, etc.

The reason I know all these Catholic church fun facts is that the Diocese of Syracuse right now is having to get serious about possibly closing and/or merging some of these churches. With the population at 1/2 of what it was 50 years ago, and also a dramatic decrease in the number of priests, the church simply cannot support these parishes.

Which brings me to my story for this morning: I chose to go to St. Patrick's (photos above) not just because it is a lovely 10 minute walk from my house (there are so many churches, I could easily walk to several of them!), but because it is the oldest one and has the most incredible architecture. Isaac Perry was the architect, and he also designed a lot of important structures like the N. Y. State Capitol in Albany and the Binghamton Psych Hospital back in the 1870s.

As I sat there in mass, awe-struck by the 100+ foot tall vaulted, fanned ceilings, I was impressed with the sheer volume of the airy space. I guess I'm starting to think like a local, though, because I was thinking that their heating bill must be thousands of dollars (our house, in the winter months, costs $400 to keep it barely non-icy!) and no wonder they cannot afford to maintain all these churches around here.

No sooner had I had the thought, than it was time for the collection. The lady announced that the first collection would be for the church, as normal, but the second collection would be for . . . the heating bill! No joking- I couldn't make that one up. Needless to say, I was happy to contribute to both, and happy for a warm place to enjoy the architecture and soak in a little Jesus at the same time.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Southern Tier "Graphic Design"

Sometimes, a simple sign can really convey so much more than its mere text indicates. For example, a well-designed logo with a cool image can tell you a lot about a company or a business- that it is creative, or traditional, serious, or fun-loving.

This general rule certainly holds true in Binghamton, but no one is going to be hiring any of the "graphic designers" who make the business signs around here. We are continually amazed by the actual functioning businesses that seem to get by with - not only a hand-made sign- but a poorly hand-made sign, at that. (John and I call these "Southern Tier Specials," in reference to the Southern Tier region in which we live.)

Today I had lunch at the sole ethnic food place downtown. I think people just call it "the Indian place" because that is sufficient to distinguish it from all the other dining establishments, but really, shouldn't a proper restaurant - where you are going to pay money and put the food in your body - shouldn't it have a proper sign? Understand, my dear readers, this "CURRYs of INDIA" homemade thing is the ONLY signage on the entire restaurant.

I don't know how long the restaurant has been there- maybe not that long since the sign isn't faded out like the other photo- but don't you think they could invest a little bit of money in something as important as a SIGN for their business?

Which brings me to the other sign pictured above. Now, if you wanted to sell a piece of real estate, do you think you might want to do a little more than take your sloppy hand-writing, slap together a few pieces of notebook paper, and tape them in the window for God knows how long, as they faded in the sun? I'm tempted to call the phone number, just to tell them how crappy their sign looks.

You should see the building it's taped onto - a real eyesore, right in the middle of downtown. Really sends a great message to future investors by screaming "Please buy this piece of shit dilapidated building that the owner cares so little about, he hasn't even made the effort to use his best hand-writing in the homemade sign from circa 1984." It's an old printing business that I can pretty well guess made a fine living up through the 1970s, spewing pollutants into the ground on which it stands. I guess if you buy the building, they throw in the toxic liability for free!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Al Qaeda infiltrating the Los Angeles County Assessor's Office?

I just went online to see if my property taxes were paid on the Hermosa Beach house- In case you didn't know, you can easily look up the size, year built, and last purchase price of virtually any house in Los Angeles County by going to the County Assessor's awesome website. This site is so great that I used to use it instead of Mapquest to find people's houses.

Every time I saw County Assessor Rick Auerbach at a political event, he remembered who I was because I always gushed about how great and powerful the website is! Want to see what houses in your neighborhood are going for? Type in your address and then click on "search for recent sales" after your own property info pops up.) Yes, it works for famous people's houses, too- public property records do not keep their owners' secrets!

Anyway, I started to see about paying my taxes online using their secured method, and was asked to type in the letters that I saw in the box- you know how they do that for encryption or online security purposes and the word is something like "magic" or "poodle"? Well, this time my secret word that popped up, for me to view and type in, was FATWA!

Last time I checked, a fatwa was a really bad thing for western civilization. It came up in the context of things like, "Visitors to the Middle East should be warned that the Ayatollah has issued a fatwa against all things western." Perhaps Los Angeles County could find better randomly generated passwords for us? Rather unsettling, to say the least.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Millennium Dress Code

I took this photo a while back when we were visting friends in Syracuse. Although it has fallen on hard times in general, Syracuse still has a pretty nice nightlife scene in a sort of revitalized historic district.

It seems that the local proprietors want to make sure that the "wrong" kind of people (like the Olsen twins, apparently- read on) don't start hanging out in their carefully-crafted renewed urban core, because I came across this gem of a dress-code sign.

It's hard to read, and I couldn't hope to capture the whole thing in my cheezy cell phone cam, but here's what you are looking at:


As we saw with the link above, it is clear that the "no excessive baggy clothing" prohibition will do wonders to keep out the Hollywood-homeless-dressing-twins crowd, but I still want to know- Who is wearing "oversized chains or medallions" in 2006? Maybe I'm just getting old, but that sounds very Mr. T or Flavor Flav circa 1983 to me.

And "do-rags"? Is this a real phrase now? Apparently so, but I would still love to hear what my mom would say if you asked her what a "do rag" was. (By the way, that do-rag link is definitely worth poking around-the photos are awesome- someone please point out the difference between a "do rag" and a "sports do rag" because it is not apparent to my eyes.) After poking around the internet, I can see that apparently non-homies wear them now. I guess I am getting old.

Moving along now . . . has our society slid so far into the toilet that we now have to direct people to put their baseball caps on straight? Has that awful look so infiltrated the American mainstream that it has to be explicitly barred?

"No torn or soiled clothing" . . . where is the fun if you can't go out on the town to chat up members of the opposite sex if you can't don your grungiest, most soiled, stanky clothing? Again, see link to Olsen twins.

OK, enough blogging for one day- it's been about 3 hours and only 3 blogs to show for it- and you guys think this is easy! Soon enough, I'll be studying for the New York bar and then you'll really miss me, you'll see.

Every new wife gets ONE incident like this, right?

This Thanksgiving, John's mom came to visit us for a week. Although we spent Thanksgiving dinner at the Binghamton Club ($20.95 plus service charge- we couldn't cook at home for nearly that cheap!!), we did do a bit of cooking at home over the weekend.

Before I left L.A. and my parents' nest, I made sure that my mom gave me a lesson in how to make those tasty gravies she is always pulling out of . . . uh, nowhere. Scrape the drippings, add the Wondra flour and Kitchen Bouquet, some wine and some orange juice, a bit of boullion maybe . . . voila! I've made probably 20 gravies since living here and they have - without exception- rocked the palate.

In my best effort to impress my mother-in-law with my new-found kitchen skillz, I was all excited when we decided to roast a chicken on Saturday night. Pyrex baking dish full-o-bird, the leeks, onions and anise stuffed all around, I took the thing out of the oven, removed the bird and veggies and popped the dish onto 2 hot burners on the stove top. Now I was cookin' with gas! or, electricity, as it were . . .

However, there's something my mom didn't tell me, apparently because it is so obvious that she didn't think she needed to: that is, one does not put a glass baking dish on top of a hot stove to cook the gravy, or one will have gravy-magma all over one's kitchen!

Yup, my huge lot of tasty gravy- orange juice, wine, boullion all melded so nicely and almost finished- exploded and sent pints and pints of molten gravy all over my stove top. Oh, and this would be a good time to mention that our house here has - ready for it? CARPET in the kitchen. Who puts carpet in the kitchen? It's literally impossible to clean it. We call it the "chicken carpet" because you can slop all sorts of infectious kitchen detritus - like salmonella-filled chicken juice- all over it and it just magically disappears, absorbed and seemingly gobbled up by the creepy carpet. YUK.

I didn't take a picture because I was too freaked out- I'd just walked away when it exploded and barely escaped having boiling grease all over my body. It pretty much looked like this, but with gnarly looking gravy pouring all over the avocado green stove and running down the front of the stove, sprinkled with vicious bits of glass. I guess I'm not alone, at least. I found a really good article about the phenomenon of exploding pyrex, which appears to be happening more frequently. Anyway, I think I've used up my one "Back when we were newlyweds living in New York, I was cooking for your grandmother and did the dumbest thing . . . "

Chicago's Millennium Park

Due to Thanksgiving and other generalized laziness, I have not been so great about blogging. So forgive the lag in my entries. As I last wrote, we were in Chicago the weekend before Thanksgiving, and I still have some cool photos, so I'll pick up where I left off.

When I was working on the downtown L.A. revitalization, I was involved with the planning and development of a 3-decades-in-the-making, it's-gonna-be-L.A.'s-Champs-Elysee development called Grand Avenue. All the while, the developers kept referring to Chicago's Millennium Park as their model because it was just sooooooo great. With all that talk, and the fact that hardly anyone seemed to have actually experienced the mythical "Millennium Park," I figured it must actually be quite lame.

No so, my friend. If you ever get to Chicago, Millennium Park is not to be missed. The giant bean-looking thing above must be 30 feet tall (the impression on the underside alone is like 10 feet tall) and is hands-down the most impressive sculpture I've ever seen. It took over a year to polish the steel to that kind of fun-house mirror finish and the thing, formally called "Cloud Gate" but colloquially known as the Bean, is something that literally looks different every time you look at it, and from every different perspective. It's just ridiculous gravy on top that it reflects Chicago's incredible architectural skyline and blue skies.

The other photo is of one of these giant glass-block-covered video screens- 2 of these face each other- that are also like 40 feet tall. The best part- and you can't see it in the photo- is that the screens have a spout at the mouth level so it looks like the faces are spewing water out onto the concourse, where people can frolic. Un-freaking-believable park. And I haven't even mentioned the ice skating rink or the 6,000 person outdoor amphiteather.

OK, so where am I going here? You know that I couldn't step 10 paces into the park without being knocked over by the fact that there were NO homeless people anywhere to be found. I flagged down a roving park security guard who drives, get this a SEGWAY! (soooo "millennial") and asked him where all the homeless people were. How do you manage to have NONE?

The strapping, cute young white guy- who stood about 7 1/2 feet tall on top of the Segway- when pressed replied, "Well we don't beat them up or anything. I mean, it's a public park and all!" To which I had to explain that No, I was not looking for his military tactics at bruising the poor to keep them out. I just meant that, well, I was from L.A. and we have them in every public park you can find . . . was the secret in keeping the park well-programmed so there are always lots of "regular" folks in there . . . ah, forget it, I had already horrified the fresh faced young guy with what he thought I was suggesting . . .

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Welcome to Midwestern America

I was talking with John about how I was glad that people in Binghamton aren't extraordinarily huge and fat, as they are in much of middle-America. I think that is because the really huge people are descended from farmer stock- the big Germanic people who came over to America to pull ploughs and such.

Our people in Binghamton (did I just say that?) are more descended from the manufacturers who came to America around the turn of the century to work in the shoe and cigar factories. John didn't quite understand what phenomenon I was talking about, and I said "Oh just wait until we get to Chicago. You'll see. There will be HUGE people."

As if on cue, this man was sitting near us at our first meal here. I'm not trying to be mean, just wanting to point out that different parts of our country have different body types. I don't think you'd see a man this big in L.A. Not only thick, he was also very tall- I wouldn't be surprised if he was pushing 500 pounds!

Urban Campers in Binghamton

After working for a couple of years in Los Angeles' Skid Row, I am quite familiar with the "urban camping" phenomenon. So when I see a line of tents on the sidewalk, I immediately grab for my sanitized handi-wipes and steel myself to enter the sphere of filth and disease that proliferates in an environment full of human waste, highly infectious disease, syringes, and crazy drug- and mental-illness-induced behavior.

Not so in Binghamton. This was the scene outside of our local Target on Wednesday night. Apparently Play Station III is coming out or something, and all these dorks camped out in the brrrrrrrr cold at least 2 days ahead of time. A police car cruised right by, but, alas, somehow this kind of camping is acceptable, apparently.

"Men" Who Knit

This weekend we are in Chicago, where John is attending a psychological conference and I'm tagging along. We flew through Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. On that leg of the trip, we picked up travelling companions Senator Barak Obama and also a very nattily-dressed young "man." He was wearing a pinstriped coat, tie and tie clip, snappy leather cap, and . . . knitting needles?

First of all, these needles were metal and freaking HUGE. After all that time in (92% white) Binghamton, people were already starting to look like terrorists to me, and then add to it this strangely-dressed person with huge, metal, pointed sticks? How is it that those can come on board, along with Senator Obama no less, while others can't bring their hair gel?

Alas, some of the mystery was possibly solved when we were at the baggage claim and John observed that it was not a man at all, but more likely a young woman. I think that once he saw her in action, the feminine hands were a give away.

I went through a weird emotional process at this point: I was conflicted because I couldn't figure out if I found it more disturbing that a) a woman would be dressed as a man (and fool me so easily), or that b) a man might actually be a knitter. I think this makes me a bad person for some (as yet unidentified exactly) reason, but I believe that I was more freaked out by the notion that a man was knitting. In some weird way, that violated my ideas about gender roles more than a woman dressed as a man.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Broome County Voting

We went to vote tonight after work, and I have to admit it's the first time I've ever voted at an actual voting booth, since I've always done absentee ballot (OK, my mom always voted for me, I admit it.)

First, let me regale you with exciting local voting "fun facts" and tell you that I did not do absentee ballot because I was pretty certain that voting, like everything else around here, would require no waiting in line and be extremely convenient. No letdown here: Binghamton's 45,000 residents have no fewer than 30 voting locations to choose from (Broome County's 195,000 residents have 129 locations, in total), no lines to speak of.

My voting machine looked pretty much exactly like this, but with much uglier flowered/striped curtains that looked like an old lady's kitchen curtains. It was circa 1960-something and the big old lever cracked me up. I had to call the lady in a couple of times to help me out. Kind of embarassing but I'm getting used to being an idiot since I moved here, anyway.

The best part, though, was the well-dressed middle-aged woman who was really irate the whole time she was there voting. See, New York state is absolutely freaking ridiculous in the government jobs it funds, and that especially does not go over well in an area like Broome County where the economy has been in the tank for decades, people are fleeing in search of jobs, and the old people left behind are really getting poorer and poorer.

Anyway, the lady sounded exactly like me!! She was going off about how angry she is that Broome County has nearly 20 school districts and each one has a superintendent who makes . . . are you ready for it? . . . OVER $130,000!!!

To put this into perspective, a starting lawyer at the top-paying law firm in the region makes $56,000. That same lawyer at an analagous firm in Los Angeles might make around $130,000 (of course they would work twice as many hours, but bear with me). So, by that ratio, it would be like a school superintendent in Los Angeles making $400,000. And having TWENTY of those jobs!! Each school district only has a few thousands kids in it, at most. Just crazy that the highest paying jobs in the county are public school executives . . . who don't even produce or sell anything . . . and just suck up taxpayer money.

This is yet another reason I'm so glad we didn't buy a house here and have to pay like 4% in property taxes each year, only to watch the house not appreciate in value.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Found Him: The Most Powerful Man In Binghamton!

If you know me, you know that I have a knack for sniffing out the influential people in the organization. This came in handy when I was lobbying. For example, one of the most powerful people in Los Angeles City Hall, at least as far as the lobbyists were concerned, was Louie the parking lot attendant. "Parking lot attendant" is really not adquate to describe him; he is literally a gatekeeper, in his post at the guard shack at the entrance to the parking lot inside the bowels of the City Hall building itself.

Having an "in" with Louie, and the few coveted parking spots he guarded for the Mayor, the City Council members, and a few lucky others meant the difference between leaving your car in climate-controlled, covered comfort, and walking literally 2 steps into the building . . . or parking in one of the far-flung lots that have sprung up to inconveniently accomodate cars in the modern era (in 1928 when L.A. City Hall was built, they didn't plan for these things too well).

At my old job, we literally paid Louie off: gift certificates at Christmastime, I think we even sponsored some advertisement or something on his uncle's local access TV show or some craziness like that. It all sounded sleazy to me, paying off a public servant for the use of public space, but I admit that I looked the other way because it was worth it, whatever the price.

So you can imagine my sense of accomplishment when I finally zeroed in on him: The Most Powerful Man in Binghamton. His name is Gary. He doesn't need a last name. He is . . . the guy in charge of maintaining the lanes at the Binghamton Club's private bowling alley.

I immediately caught on to Gary's magical powers when I sat with John's new bowling buddies on the first night of the bowling season a few weeks ago. The half-dozen guys sitting around the table were all relative big-shots around here, but the conversation focused not on business or even sports, but on Gary and their predictions about how he was going to oil the lanes next week, and the next.

Would it be "extra oily," in which case the ball gets less traction, spins less and therefore curves less? Or not-so-oily, in which case the ball will roll with more of an arc, which must be compensated for by the bowler? Enquiring minds wanted to know! And speculate. And, knowing these guys, most likely take bets on it.

At the end of the day, Gary the somewhat-mentally-challenged guy in charge of lane maintenance at the Binghamton Club wields more power than he could possibly know.

But I know!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Those wild and crazy turkey parties . . .

Below is an actual listing from this weekend's Press & Sun Bulletin. It left me extremely curious about what goes on at these so-called "Turkey Parties" that they are expressly barring minors from them. For the $2.50 fee, it can't be free booze, can it?

The mind conjures up disturbing images of naked turkey revelers in some sort of Bacchanalian feast, ladling cranberry sauce on each other or throwing stuffing-balls across the room in an Animal House-style food fight.

OK, I know, I need to get out more, but I can't make this stuff up. Here it is:

Annual October Turkey Party
West Colesville Fire Company
1305 Colesville Road, Binghamton
Doantion at the door $2.50, per person
Doors open at 6:30pm,
Turkey party starts at 7:00pm.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Majoring in Combating Terrorism, Minoring in Cosmetic Mule-Ass Shaving

Last weekend, I drove the 150 miles to West Point to meet up with my brother's family for a football game. The drive was gorgeous on a crisp fall morning, and the West Point campus is ridiculously beautiful. As we got a guided campus tour from Eric's buddy, we noticed a few indicators that this was not your normal college campus. My favorite was the sign for the building that offered classes both in English and in Combating Terrorism, both of which, I'm sure, are majors offered there.

The whole campus seems very student-run: one assumes, for example, that the public restrooms are cleaned with toothbrushes by "plebes" working off their demerits, for example. So later in the day, when we were at the game, I couldn't help but laugh when I saw that the school mascot, the "Fighting Mule," had a lovely "A" embossed in its hindquarters quite artfully and expertly: a big patch of hair was shaved almost to the skin, then hair in the shape of an "A" was allowed to grow back extra-long, then the "A" was carefully died blonde, for added contrast.
It left me to assume that a student had performed this feat of equine coiffing, and I wondered, does someone from West Point "minor" in something like Cosmetic Mule-Ass Shaving? It's certainly an important job, since everyone looks at it and it's a source of school pride, so whoever performs the task certainly has it on their resume somewhere.

But how is it worded? The military has such funny ways of describing stuff, is it called something important-sounding, like Veterinary Honor Guard Command Operations? I'm not feeling creative this morning, but I bet there's no end of fancy ways to describe the job of shaving and highlighting the hair on a mule's ass, and no matter how you describe it, it's probably not what the guy was envisioning when he signed up to be an army vet.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Columbus Day is a holiday: who knew??

In all my 33 years, I do not ever remember Columbus Day being anything other than an excuse for a sale at Wicke's Furniture or something. I honestly was shocked when I came to work this morning and saw that Court Street outside my office window had been transformed into a parade route.

Apparently Columbus, in addition to discovering the New World on this day in history, must have been a big fan of really bad high school marching bands, because Columbus Day seems to have transformed into an excuse for small town Battle of the Bands all over the country.

Upon further thought, I am pretty certain that I haven't heard a peep about Columbus Day in recent memory because it is not considered politically correct to memorialize the white European male who came to America, spread his syphilis to the natives, and ushered in an era of total European domination over the dark-skinned locals. In fact, I'm POSITIVE that's why I haven't heard of Columbus Day being acknowledged when I lived in L.A.

That said, I am well aware of Cesar Chavez Day, MLK Day, and, my personal favorite, Mexican Independence Day, which I am pretty certain is a holiday for the City of L.A. because my old boss used to rant and rave about that. I also am aware that the Big Jewish Holidays, Yom Kippur and/or Rosh Hashana, fall in September because I always thought it really funny that USC Law School had the Jewish holidays off, but USC Business School, the next-door building, did not.

When I am President of the Universe, I cannot wait to pick my own holidays: Date of Invention of Frozen Yogurt, Birthday of Guy Who Discovered Mascara, My Birthday, my old dog Daisy's Birthday, etc.

p.s. I spoke with my smart, 50+ year-old secretary after writing the above. I commented that I thought maybe Columbus Day wasn't so politically correct in California, but that we certainly had Cesar Chavez day off. She asked me, "What's a cesar chavez?"

Yes, that's right, yet another example of California being so far out of step with the rest of the country that it gives an entire state holiday to a man that probably 95% of the country could not identify. All because politicians are too chicken to vote "no" on the creation of more holidays, out of fear of looking racist. Ugh.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

What do Richard Nixon and silky pineapples have in common, you ask?

What do these 2 items have in common, you ask? They are both fabulous finds I got at garage sales this morning, yes, indeedy!

This past week, the weather has taken a dive and it's been in the 40s when we get into the car in the morning. The leaves are JUST starting to turn orange, so I determined that this period would probably be that fleeting period known as "Autumn" which, around here, should more aptly be called "That one week at the end of the muggy/rainy summer when the sun shines and the air is crisp, just before Binghamton slides into 6 months of darkness and stinging cold."

That was my wake up call that we must be nearing the end of my other favorite season: Garage Sale Season! Damn, I mean Yard Sale Season (Not too many garages out here, but LOTS of yard, you see)

Last night, I staked out my plan of attack by perusing the local newspaper and plotting the route of the 3 closest sales that are also in better areas of town. Lucky for me, all within a few blocks of our house. You know they are going to be good when they start at 8:00 am and use their precious little advertising space to warn "No Early Birds!" And believe me, they are serious about that, as you will see . . .

I sprung awake at 7:00 am this morning, just like when I was a little kid and couldn't drag myself out of bed for school yet miraculously popped awake early for Saturday morning cartoons. The smell of "bargain" hung heavy and low in the air on this sunny, chilly morning, you betcha.

I arrived at the first sale at about 8:10 and I'm not exaggerating when I say that there were already 25 people there in the back yard, poking through 30 years worth of other people's junk. I first noticed the vintage 1981 "Diana, Princess of Wales" set of books, and the "Christmas 1980" paperweight, and thought it was going to be a bust, but no, my friend, the true bargain hunter can see through the junk and keenly spot the gems.

Which leads me to the photos above. OK, I lied: I bought the silky pineapple pillow at a garage sale 2 weeks ago. It made me laugh so hard when I saw it, with its stupid floppy green crown and faux elegance, that I shelled out the $2 (it was marked for $3) and brought it home to John. I fully expected him to prohibit me from all future garage sale-ing, but instead, he laughed even harded than I did and now we have this stupid pineapple perched on the trunk at the foot of our bed, like it's a pet or something, and we both crack up every time we see it. PLUS it has the added bonus of actually matching nicely with our "newborn" colored yellowy walls. $2 well spent if you ask me. It's truly a "gift that keeps on giving" . . .

The Nixon image is from 1 of a half-dozen vintage Time and Newsweek magazines I bought, all from 1973 and all covering the Watergate scandal. That was such a historic period in our history and we really didn't learn much about it in school. Plus, the magazines are exactly contemporaneous with our recently-acquired cache of vintage Playboys, which we are still working through slowly and hysterically, so we are really going to be immersed in that era. It will be so interesting to see how the two publications write about the same issues and play off of each other.

I'm hoping that, as the weather gets colder and the residential garage sales dry up, the ol' Church and Fraternal Club circuit will kick in with their holiday "craft fairs" (or "crap fairs" as some husbands call them) and I can indulge my need for poking through mounds of junky/smelly/chipped/worn stuff while simultaneously picking up a few hand-crocheted doilies. You can NEVER have enough of THOSE!!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

How sorry ARE you, Senator?

When we were in Albany last week, we were struck by the offering of balloons at the flower shop in the retail area underneath the state legislature's complex of office buildings. There were TWO balloons that read "I'm sorry." How sorry do you really have to be to go the extent of not only sending flowers, but proclaiming your contrition in mylar and floating it in the air for all to see (my research indicates they can stay afloat for up to 14 days)?? VERY sorry, we concluded.

Having worked in politics, though, it was readily apparent to me why they would have a wide variety of "I'm sorry" gear- this flower shop is catering to politicians! Many of the politicians I've had to work with would do well to keep a stock of "I'm sorry" paraphernalia on-hand, because, with the virtual 100% rate of infidelity among state legislators, there's got to be a LOT of groveling to the wife that goes on.

On a related note, I had looked into possibly staying at a city club in Albany that has reciprocity with our Binghamton Club, but has overnight accomodations available. When I called to ask about the rooms, they told me that they were more like dorm rooms, with a single bed and shared bathroom. The woman told me that they were geared to visiting legislators, who would be travelling alone. Literally the first thought I had was, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard- where would the visiting politicians put their HOOKER?" Ahh, 33 years old and already so cynical . . . or is it "wise"?

Putting the Porn Back in Garage Sales

Garage sales in Binghamton are serious business. (I should probably call them "yard sales" since yards are in far greater supply than garages in our area full of 100-year old homes.) In the summer months, there are literally hundreds listed in the local paper. Whole streets will get organized and have a block-long yardsale. We just got "Craig's List" in the area a couple months ago and it definitely has not caught on yet, so the locals still firmly subscribe to the old "put your unwanted crap on the lawn and hopefully someone will pay you money AND take it away" school of thought. We love that many times the ad will say something like "9-4 pm, NO EARLY BIRDS." Apparently, eager bargain hunters aren't afraid to knock on the door in the wee hours of the morn.

Anyway, this morning, I was reading the paper and found a couple of "good" listings- that is, the addresses indicated that they probably had big houses attached and therefore better quality junk than the average, middle-class garage sale junk.

John was not especially pleased about my desire to go out and spend money and other people's junk. "Don't we already have enough of our own junk?" he pleaded. No. Absolutely not. You can NEVER have enough junk. And now we have a whole basement waiting to be filled with stuff we'll never use, so I was off . . .

The first sale had a unique attention-getting gimmick: to catch the eye of passers-by, they had strapped a stuffed Santa Claus to the telephone pole (see photo above). The result was disturbing: Santa looked like a flaccid Jesus impaled on the pole. Definitely not good marketing. Inside, the bad-marketing continued. At one point I was inspecting some piece of what-not and the man-of-the-house said, "If you decide you don't like it, you can always sell it at YOUR yard sale!" Yeah, not a good sales tactic. But I did end up buying the totally ridiculous silky pineapple pillow, and any houseguests will see it on the guest bed.

A couple of sales later, I came upon the holy grail of yard sale finds: an entire box full of vintage 1960s and 1970s Playboy magazines. John and I had just watched a biography of Hugh Hefner from which we were interested to learn that Playboy was really a world-class literary magazine in its earlier decades and that virtually every important writer of the last half of the 20th century (Ernest Hemmingway, Tennessee Williams, Ian Flemming, Gore Vidal, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.) had published in it. It is also had some of the most cutting-edge and historic interviews- particularly ones with politicians like Jimmy Carter.

Needless to say, this had piqued my interest in vintage Playboy and I shamelessly bought 7 from the collection ("Do you want a bag for that?" the guy asked me. "Yes!" When I arrived home this morning, I came in with an armload of yard sale loot. Just when John was giving me a disapproving look, I proudly proclaimed, "I brought back PORN!"

What a good wife am I? I went to yard sales and came back with Playboys? I think I just earned myself carte blanche to scour garage sales for at least the next ten years, since this was the kind of treasured find that keeps people addicted to the hunt.

We started reading them right away and, between the sweet vintage '70s ads for things like below-the-belt "masculine deodorant spray" and stovepipe-cut Broomsticks brand polyester trousers, we were hooked. We went back and bought the rest of the box, and are now the proud owners of 2 dozen of the greatest publications ever. The articles, discussion forum and letters to the editor are fabulous- all about the equal rights movement, abortion, homosexuality, the Vietnam war. I was shocked by how many "Letters to the Editor" were submitted by rabbis and ministers.

Another funny thing struck me: was it really worth it to this guy to have all his neighbors pouring over his porno collection for the $15 he got for it? Pretty bad judgment on his part, I think. But I guess he didn't want to throw them away, and he couldn't exactly donate them to the library or the church rummage sale!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Albany: Governor Rockefeller's "edifice complex"

This 3-day weekend we decided to take a little trip to our new state's capital: Albany. Sounds like a boring, dead-on-the-weekends, bureacrats' town, I know, but nerds like us were lured by the politics, architecture and history of the place. It did not disappoint!

The most breathtaking part of the whole weekend was coming into the city at night- the skyline is incredible, thanks to the efforts of Governor Nelson Rockefeller (Gov from 1959-1973). Apparently, good ol' Nelson pretty much spent his tenure as Governor working on a massive building campaign that, among other things, resulted in the State University of New York increasing its enrollment 10-fold (with scads of new campuses and buildings to match).

His crowning achievement, at least in the way of building, was the Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, which you see pictured above. The Empire State Plaza is adjacent to- and stands in stark contrast to- the outrageously ornate and expensive (a cost of $25 million was spent over 3 decades before NY Gov. Theodore Roosevelt "declared" the building finished in 1899, without the dome ever being built!) state capitol building, which is worthy of a trip to Albany all by itself.

Rockefeller Plaza is really remarkable, though. Here is the recipe:

1. Wipe yourself a new urban canvas: In true 1960s "urban renewal" form, he started by wiping out almost 100 acres of "blight" (today we would more likely call the area "historic neighborhoods full of quaint but probably a bit shabby brownstones"); then

2. Take your sweet time: Undaunted by the highly controversial way in which the existing residents and property owners were unceremoniously displaced (we have MANY laws against this type of manuever these days), the Plaza took 13 years to build (1965-1978); then

3. Pick the most offensive style of architecture available: Although the Plaza is defensible today, with almost 40-years of perspective, its style - described as "International Power Style of the '50s"- was certainly not widely embraced in its day. Let's be frank, it looks like a 1960s-era medical office building on steroids: all sharp angles, cold colors (black & white) and materials (marble), and huge modern art installations; finally

4. Make sure it costs an unimaginable amount to build: $1.7 billion when all was said and done. 'Nuff said.

The first thing that came into my mind when I saw Rockefeller's pet project was "edifice complex" followed by "he must have been REALLY short!"

Monday, August 28, 2006

Pssst! America! There is a whole STATE of New York!!

This past weekend, John and I went to the New York State Fair at Syracuse, which is apparently the biggest and oldest fair in the country. Who knew that New York was such a huge dairy producing state?? As I had expected, there were tons of 4-H clubs represented and thousands of "show" animals, punctuated by carnival rides, and all tied together with that great American social glue: FRIED FOODS. (I'll write about that later, since it deserves its own entry.)

It was great to see and touch a bit of nature, like the chicks bursting out of their eggs in the incubator. And there were a surprising number of scary-looking rides, none of which I will ever enjoy because I am so freaked out by the drug-addled carnies that throw those things up on a weekly basis in neighborhoods near you, all around the country (I worked on legislation in California that would have provided much better licensing and regulations for this industry- needless to say, it didn't pass!)

The biggest let-down was the butter sculpture, which, although life-size, lacked detail and interest (apparently I'm a connoisseur of this stuff now). The most pleasant surprise, though, was the Cheese Lady, who was whittling a hunk of cheddar into a "Sponge Bob Cheese Pants" masterpiece when I engaged her in conversation.

I asked her if she had any formal cheese-carving training, or if she was self-taught. Flashing a braces-filled smile, she immediately informed me that she was 1 of only 3 cheese carvers in the country (interesting though profoundly unsubstantiated statistic) and that she, indeed, was from Wisconsin (I had not asked).

Taking another look at her, I wondered if it was hard for her to date: the long weeks on the road, traveling from fair to fair with only the carnies to keep her company, the faint but constant scent of whey on her hands, the cheese bow tie she was wearing, you get the picture. However, a quick internet search tells me that we shouldn't fear for The Cheese Lady, because "she is quite reputable in the cheese sculpting field." (However, I do think there might be some serious competition going on this "field," as I found another website for someone who ALSO calls herself "The Cheese Lady"- for the curious, intrigue lurks around every corner!)

I decided that I was DEFINITELY a city slicker, since I asked not-so-smart questions like, "Do the eggs come out of the chicken that size, and then the chicks grow inside until the egg breaks open, or does the egg come out smaller and grow?" DUMB DUMB DUMB. At least I didn't ask if the bunny laid the eggs (although I have to admit that those Cadbury Creme Egg commercials, with the Easter bunny laying the chocolate eggs, really confused me when I was in middle school.)

Anyway, folks, the lesson of the day is that New York is, in fact, an entire STATE and not just a single, famous city with the same name.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Jewish Cats and Eastern Orthodox Dogs?

Now, I don't know much about pet cemeteries, but we have a little one in Binghamton that actually is home to a couple of extremely famous racehorses (that's a great story, for a later blog entry), so John agreed to play tourist with me and we visited "Whispering Pines Pet Cemetery" last weekend.

I couldn't help but crack up at the religious nature of some of the headstones: Was Buffy the Dog really Eastern Orthodox, as her grave marker indicates? If so, did she attend mass regularly? make holupki for the fundraisers? call bingo on Tuesday nights?

Judging by their headstone, Mazel and Yentl were a most pious pair of Jewish . . . CATS! They appear to have their birth and death dates listed in both the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars. I want to know, who is naming their cats "Mazel" and "Yentl"??

Anyway, I think this all speaks to a greater issue that John and I had just been discussing. The question was: What do you want done with your body and where and how do you want to be disposed of after you die? Do you want a grave? Cremation? What?

Of course, John said he wanted to be buried in a '57 Chevy in Arizona or something ludicrous, but we both agreed that we would be dead so we didn't care: we both wanted whatever would be soothing and peaceful for the living. I think this pet cemetery really drove that point home: obviously, the animals weren't religious, but those they left behind were, and it apparently comforted the living souls to see the religious symbols on their pets' gravestones.

So, as far as I'm concerned, you can put a big fat slurpie machine at my grave if it will make people happy to visit and soothed enough to stay awhile!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sketchy Scaffolding outside my window

OK, I know this is a crappy photo, but I took it with my cell phone from out my boss' window. It's a photo of the building, parts of which came crashing to the ground last week

The reason it kills me is that I was sitting in his office on a conference call this morning, looking out the window at the building, and realized that the scaffolding (you can see 2 strong vertical lines on the facade- that's the supports-and then the platform is at the top, 1 story below the roofline) is all the way to the top of the building now. The thing is- it looks like they affixed the scaffolding to the very same architectural element that was falling off in the first place!

When my boss noticed that I was glued to the scene outside the window, all I could say was that you couldn't pay me enough to stand on scaffolding that is essentially being held up by 100 year-old gargoyles and ornamental what-nots. I also found out that, because the sidewalks are so old and there are underground vaults below them, they also had to drill down into the street and make sure the footing of the scaffolding was stable before starting at the bottom and jacking the platform up to the top of the thing. It has taken over a week to get up there. The best part was that we could see that the owner of the building was standing up there, 150 feet up. I guess he was trying to prove that it's not dangerous or something.

Fuhget it!

p.s. the streaky windows are thanks to the peregrine falcons, whose nest is 2 stories directly above this window!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Nothin' plastic about the Southern Tier

p.s. this is a GREAT addition, thanks to my brother, Eric. It will get you in the mood for this blog entry:

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I took for granted all the incredibly over-enhanced/nipped/tucked fake looking people. In LA, it seems almost unusual if someone has NOT had any type of surgical proecedure done. Things couldn't be more different in the Southern Tier of New York where we now live.

It really struck me when we landed at LAX in June after being away for about 5 months. We got off the plane and it seemed like the first thing I saw was an apparently "hot chick" (from the back, at least)- very aerobicized tight body in tight black pants with long blonde "hair" (extensions). By all accounts, this was supposed to be a beautiful young woman. That is, until she turned around . . . the HORROR!!!

Not only was she not a hot young thing, but she was approximately 65, overly toned, overly tanned, and appeared to be formerly-Jewish Beverly Hills lady with waaaaaaay too much surgery to give her that all-American blonde look (NOT).

Anyway, I don't think I've seen a fake pair of boobs or a fake nose or suspiciously plump lips since I got here. With the decreasingly expensive cost of surgery, I think it's more of a cultural thing: unlike LA's bizarre focus on looking younger than you are, it seems like age is actually a valued thing around here.

There are several lawyers in my office who are in their 80s and 90s and literally come in every day. I talked with one of them for awhile yesterday and man is he sharp at 92 years old. He fielded several client calls while I talked to him about the old days, like when his father (a sitting New York State Senator) died when he was 15 in 1929 and his whole family had to go to work to stave off economic doom.

I feel like that same lawyer in LA would never make it into the office everyday, not just because it takes so much energy to brave the 405 freeway just to get to work, but because he might literally be seen as more of a slip-and-fall hazzard/liability than the very wise and cool guy he is.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Watch out for falling architecture!

Last week as John was dropping me off at work, we noticed that the adjacent street was closed off: cops, people staring up at the sky, what was up? Did a peregrine falcon chick fall off a ledge onto the sidewalk again? Turns out it was something newsworthy.

Here's the deal: there are 2 turn-of-the-century "skyscrapers" in downtown Binghamton: my own Security Mutual building and the adjacent Press Building. My building appears to be fully occupied- my own firm has been a tenant for over 100 years, and now takes up 5 floors (Security Mutual takes up the other 4 or so). The Press Building on the other hand, while it is certainly more beautiful and ornate, has had a less consistent occupancy. This is leading me to the Big News from last week . . .

Turns out that the street was closed because a CHUNK OF THE ROOFLINE FELL OFF! The Press Building is about 10 stories/150 feet tall- you do not want chunks of debris falling from the top! No one was hurt, probably because it happened at night, but apparently debris fell on a car parked on the street and did some serious damage.

Anyway, if you look at the roofline from my office (or look at the photo posted in the intro), which more at a level elevation to it, you can see that the whole structure of the building is really sagging up there; this wasn't just ornamental gargoyles dropping off or something like that. I don't know how you can fix something as fundamental as the roofline!

The building is absolutely gorgeous and was up for sale for about $1.5 million last year. It caught my eye because I couldn't help but think how crazy it was that someone could own a historic, iconic gorgeous national landmark like the Press Building for about the same price as the average 3 bedroom condo in Playa Vista. Now, however, I can readily see the downside of owning such a structure, and why they go for so cheap: UPKEEP! What a liability a building like that can become.

The poor guy who owns it- who is about my age- had to go on television and give interviews and defend that his building wasn't going to fall on anyone! Makes me wonder if the structure will turn out not to be economically viable and if they might have to tear it down because it costs more to keep up than it's worth. Now that would be tragic for Binghamton.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

"Ethnic Food" revisited: Ukrainian Festival

The long-time reader will recall my horror when I initially arrived in Binghamton and realized that I was going to be completely out of luck as far as getting any kind of Mexican food for the duration of my stay here. Since then, I've learned that not only is there no Mexican food, there is no spicy food of any culture- not Indian, not Korean, not nuthin'.

Instead of focusing on that, I've tried to have a broader definition of what constitutes "ethnic food." To that end, John and I went to a Ukrainian Festival at a local church a couple weekends ago. Now, I always say that Binghamton has tons of ethnic diversity, since we have just about every flavor of white European immigrant you can think of: Italian, Irish, Greek, Slovak, Ukrainian, Russian, and the list goes on.

So I should not have been surprised when John and I were driving around looking for the distinctive onion-domed church in Johnson City when we asked a woman walking her dog, "Do you know where the Ukrainian Church is?" to which she replied, "Which one- Orthodox or Catholic?" Yep, there were 2 Ukrainian churches in the same 1/2 mile area. Anyway, above is a photo of the "ethnic food" we ate for lunch: cabbage and potato pierogies, potato salad, cole slaw, kielbasa, holuptsi (stuffed cabbage)- tasty! But not spicy, and definitely not Mexican food.

What the heck is "Spiedie Fest"??

What in the world is "Spiedie Fest," you ask? Nothing short of the biggest even to hit the Southern Tier of New York each summer. In a county of 200,000 people, with neighboring counties having an even smaller population, Spiedie Fest attracts something like 100,000 people over the course of 3 days.

Let me back up- a "spiedie" is just about the only thing (sadly) that Binghamton can still claim bragging rights about "inventing." It is really just a marinated meat sandwich. Basically, you marinate some lamb, chicken, beef, whatever, grill it on a stick, throw it into some fresh Italian bread and - voila!- behold the spiedie. Grilled onions and peppers are optional.

So about 20 years ago, some of the local spiedie restaurants got together and decided to have essentially a "spiedie cook-off" in a huge park along the Chenango River. Today, it is technically "Spiedie Fest and Ballooon Rally" since there are a ton of balloons of all shapes and themes that also take part. I spent 3 hours wandering around the park on Saturday and was amazed at how many people were there, how many food and craft booths, balloons taking off, etc.

So, there you have it, a "taste," as it were, of Binghamton's local culture- we don't have much of it, so I'm glad that 100,000 people came out to witness it. Oh, and did I mention that a bunch of the American Idol runner-ups performed, as well as a bunch of people I've never heard of? That's BIG NAME TALENT around these parts!

p.s. If you want to see what the locals think about who has the best spiedies in town, here is a link to a discussion on the good ol' "BC Voice" online posting board.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

California obsession

Whenever I travel, I find it funny how California/Los Angeles-obsessed people seem to be. It's definitely the case here. We have "L.A. Weight Loss," "California Sun Daze," "California Fitness," "California Grill" - all of which I can understand, but "California Hair Crimpers"?? That one has me stumped.

Not sure what "California" has to do with that ugly hair style, so I'm going to chalk it up to my initial premise: that people are obsessed with all things California and it doesn't matter that there's no connection.

"California Plumbing & Heating" . . . "California Bee Removal" . . . "Cakes by California" . . . damn, I'm good.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

LAPD: Its infamy knows no borders

This baby is the companion piece to the I Hate Binghamton one below. Who knew that the LAPD was so famous?

However, now that I think about it, I tend to think that the "author" of this message is a big fat liar, because NO ONE around here travels much, it seems, and you have to be really fancy to make it as far as Los Angeles.

That said, I was reading a newspaper article from the 1980s (don't ask) about train-riding hoboes, and this grafitti WAS at the local train yards, so maybe an itinerant vagabond was one of the few Binghamtonians to stradle the East Coast/West Coast divide and return to give a cautionary message to his train-hopping bretheren?

(That started out as a joke but I actually think I might not be too far off base!)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Sometimes, a picture truly is worth a thousand words . . .

We shot this little gem at the railroad tracks just outside of Downtown Binghamton. I love that these words are scrawled on a surface that so perfectly describes WHY young people hate it here: the rusty, crusty, railroad trestle is such a powerful statement about this Rust Belt city, what it used to be and what it has become.

I was at a meeting where the city was trying to come up with a good slogan or something for the city's key gateways, something that would give visitors a sense of place. A neighboring village, Johnson City, has big 1920s-era concrete arches that say "Gateway to the Square Deal Towns."

Not helpful for you, the casual visitor, right? It is actually a reference to Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company, which was just about the biggest shoe manufacturer in the world for the first half of the 20th century, churning out 50,000 pairs of shoes per day and outfitting virtually every soldier in WWI and WWII. After bringing in generations of European immigrants to work in the tanneries, and building loads of housing, parks, hospitals, theaters, and other public buildings, the company fizzled out as manufacturing moved overseas in the 1960s and 70s.

The much-revered founder, Harry L. Johnson (or just "George F" and "Harry L" as they - and seemingly 1/2 of the streets, parks, museums, etc. are called locally) believed in the "square deal"- that is, an honest day's work for an honest day's pay, I think.

Anyway, it's not "Home of the Square Deal," it's even 1 removed from that- it's the GATEWAY to the (even lamer) Square Deal towns.

OK, so back to the meeting where they were thinking of a slogan for Binghamton's gateways, and all I could think was, "Welcome to Binghamton: Gateway to the Rust Belt" or "Welcome to Binghamton: Northern Gateway to Appalachia."

Damn, I'm good. I should be in marketing.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Peregrine Party Platter

As you'll recall, I have written before about the rare and very cool Peregrine Falcons that have a nest on the top of my office building (which is just about the tallest building in the county and region, so these cliff-dwelling birds like to call it home.) Most days, I notice a little wing or leg or other pigeon-part on the sidewalk outside the front door, below the nest. Lately, I've noticed that the birds are really loud (my window is just below the nest, so I have a bird's eye view of their activities) and exceptionally active.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation ranger told me that there were some fledglings getting ready to leave the nest, and there are presently six birds in it, four of them basically hungry teenagers. Well, I can attest to that much . . .

On Saturday, I stopped by my office to pick something up, and was greeted by a scene straight out of a horror movie. WHOLE BLOODY PIGEON CARCASSES spread all over the place. I mean, it was just a pair of intact, fluffy wings still attached to a headless torso that had been totally picked clean! Added to the whole carcasses were the normal bits and pieces, but MAN were these things gross! And EVERYWHERE!

Yes, you can imagine that I was quite lucky that this was on a Saturday when no one was around, becuase I definitely looked like a huge freak putting my cellphone/camera right up to the fly-infested remnants. Lucky readers, you are!!!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Tijuana Smoked Turkey Wrap?? Not even if it were free . . .

I captured this priceless shot on my cellphone camera at lunch in the cafeteria in my office building (yes, people thought I was crazy when I shoved my phone under the "sneeze guard" to take the shot).

There is such a fascination with all places "warmer" than here, that they really don't discriminate. All they know is that Tijuana is in Mexico, and that sounds a hell of a lot warmer and more exotic than Binghamton.

Clearly, whoever named this not-so-tasty-sounding lunch item either a) has never been to TJ and doesn't know that you don't want to eat anything fish-related there, least of all TUNA, or b) doesn't know that there's no such thing as "Tijuana smoked" anything (other than pot and crack) or c) was smoking something himself when he thought of this name. At least they spelled "Tijuana" correctly, which is a huge achievement and not to go unappreciated.

The misleading "100 year flood" terminology

A "one hundred year flood" is not defined as "a great flood, the probability of which will only happen once every century" (or something like that). A "one hundred year flood plain" is an area, as mapped by the federal government, in which there is approximately a 1% chance of flooding every year.

This means that, over the 30-year life of a mortgage, there is actually a 24% chance of flooding. Very generally speaking, the same home has a 9% chance of fire damage over the same period, yet who doesn't buy fire insurance? Something about people's visceral fear of fire, and abstract fear of some "100 year flood," to be sure.

The reason I go into this explanation is because words are powerful (I guess I did learn something from my time in politics) and I believe that this misleading terminology is part of the reason that so few people carry flood insurance (there were only 74 residential flood policies in place in the City of Binghamton, in a city of 45,000 people).

Like fire insurance, flood damage is not covered under general homeowner's insurance and must be purchased separately. It is easy to see why so many (already pretty low income) poeple would skip buying a policy for something that is only supposed to happen every 100 years.

I want people to know that these are not a bunch of dumb hicks who should have known they needed flood insurance. With all the buzz about global warming, I have a feeling it's going to be a bumper-crop year for flood insurance, both here and around the nation. Hey, there must be some money to be made in that observation . . .

Muddy waters rise fast

Sorry, but the flood is all anyone can talk about around here. I've learned some interesting things that I thought it would be good to share: first, I cannot emphasize enough that people here had virtually NO WARNING that there was going to be flooding of this magnitude. I am a news junkie and when we took off from Binghamton on Wednesday morning, I had read that day's paper and I had no good indication that there was going to be flooding, except for a passing reference to historic rainfall and possible flooding (in a very vague sense). The day before we left, the area had the most rainfall in recorded history! But still, what did that really mean?

A friend of mine works in the Planning Department in City Hall, and she learned from the morning news that there was a state of emergency and that non-essential travel was prohibited. Even a city hall staffer wasn't "in the know," so how could anyone else be?

Also, it is the worst flooding since at least 1936, so there is simply no reference point for what happened here. People who lived through some bad flooding in 1972 thought their houses were safe and were shocked to see the devastation to their neighborhoods.

It is interesting that I was going for precisely the duration of the flood drama. It serves as yet another example of me being an "outsider" to the people here. I actually feel guilty that I missed such a defining "Binghamtonian" experience, but, I guess it doesn't matter since I won't be staying anyway.

More flood drama

I thought this photo was so dramatic that it deserved its own blog entry. This is the interstate near our house, and I believe it's also the site where 2 truck drivers died early Wednesday morning (the first day of the trouble, and also the exact time we took off on a plane to Los Angeles) when their rigs plowed into the newly opened crevasse.

I guess one can analogize this disaster to the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake (where the 10 freeway collapsed and 44 people died) except that I think the trauma is felt more deeply here because it is such a small, tight knit community and everyone knows someone who lost everything.

Even me- I've been here only a few months, but my boss' secretary, who lives over the border in Pennsylvania, apparently got hit very hard. Although, I can't tell you for sure because she hasn't been to work since the floods. We are taking donations at work for things like "size 7 women's shoes"- for our own employees. That also really hit home for me, or, at least, as close to "home" as anything can hit me here.

Flood Fallout

We returned to Binghamton on the 4th of July and even though it was midnight and I had to work the next morning, we spent an hour driving around the city, looking at the fallout from the floods. Thanks to warm, dry weather, the water had totally receded, but we definitely saw lots of mud and silt in places that have no business being mucky (like 5 feet up on the windows of businesses).

Although the place didn't look, on its face, as flood-ravaged as I had thought it might, there was definitely evidence that a disaster had hit certain houses. The saddest thing was seeing houses with mountains of brown undifferentiated masses of household items. There were many homes with multiple mattresses, couches, and loads of personal effects just dumped on the curb, sometimes a 5-foot-high stack that ran for 20 feet. You couldn't even see the houses for the mounds of junk (many of which were formerly family heirlooms, to be sure).

And the floods didn't discrimate- although there were definitely lots of trailer parks that got hit particularly hard, many of the most elegant, historic homes sit along the river near our house. It was sort of surreal to see people sitting outside of their stately homes in lawn chairs, surrounded by mud and their own junk. I guess mother nature doesn't care how fancy your antiques are.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Holy Flood!

It figures- the biggest thing to happen in Binghamton in decades, and John and I leave on a plane the night before all the activity. After being delayed by weather on Tuesday night, we left Binghamton early Wednesday morning for a scheduled trip home to Los Angeles for 6 days over the long 4th of July weekend. You can imagine my surprise when I woke up Thursday morning in LA, only to hear the local newscaster talking about Binghamton and the "mighty Susquehana River" and showing video footage of one of the local bridges. I could figure out where I'd woken up! Then, to open the L.A. Times and read about my adopted "home" . . . too weird.

Since people are asking, our house (which we rent) is totally fine, but there is serious, serious damage immediately surrounding our house and offices, and for miles around. I found a photo of our favorite diner, Jane's. Just in that one instance, which will certainly be repeated for thousands of other businesses, I think about the nice older Greek couple that owns the busy diner, and all the sweet young Greek girls who work there. Not only is their restauarant ruined, but all those people are out of work for the foreseeable future. And, as much as I want to support them, I have to say that- given the fact that the local sewage treatment plant is in ruins for now- I'm not eating out for awhile.

The hospital that sits 3 blocks from our house was totally evacuated. I'm pretty sure my office (in downtown Binghamton) never opened, since people couldn't get there. I found so many photos online, where I knew exactly the block or the store, I can't begin to post them. Here is a sample- a street sign John passes every day on the way to work.

Downtown Binghamton sits at the confluence of two rivers: the Chenango and the Susquehana. It's not a very fast or exciting river- just sort of flat with not-very-big slopes. There are retaining walls in spots, but apparently they were breached in 4 places in the city (to the benefit of the downstream areas of Pennsylvania).

Well, I'm not really sure what to write here since a) I don't have personal stories to share yet, and b) there's so much to talk about! Here is the link to our local newspaper, which has very good coverage and amazing photos.