Friday, March 31, 2006

'Tis the Lenten Season: So many fish fries, so little time!

You will clearly see that the Binghamton area is FULL of Catholics, of all different ethnicities (Irish, Slovak, Ukrainian, Italian, . . .) During Lent, this apparently makes for some mean competition between all the Friday evening fish fries. Consider tonight's offerings, as listed in the local paper:

Beer-Batter Fish, Pirogi or Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, American Legion Post 1700, 305 Maple St., Endicott. 4-8 p.m.

Fish Dinner, First Ward Senior Center, 226 Clinton St., Binghamton. 4-7 p.m. $6.50 (under 12, $4).

Fish Dinner, American Legion Post 1194, 1373 Chenango St., Hillcrest. 4 p.m. until sold out. $7.

Fish Dinner, Dormition of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church, 53 Baxter St., Binghamton. 4-6:30 p.m. $7 (seniors, $6; 5-13, $4; under 5, free).

Fish Fry, Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church, 203 Oak St., Binghamton. 4-6 p.m. $6.

Lenten Fish Dinner, American Legion Unit 974, 119th Street, Whitney Point. 5-7 p.m. $7 (5-12, $4; under 5, free).

Lenten Fish Dinner, takeout available; Christ the King Church, 1501 Davis Ave., Endwell. 3:30-7 p.m. $7 (5-12, $4; 4 and under, free).

Lenten Fish Dinner, St. Anthony of Padua Church, Odell Avenue, Endicott. 4-6:30 p.m. (takeout starts: 3 p.m.) $7 (under 12, $4; under 5, free).

Lenten Fish Dinner, takeout available; Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Kent Street, Windsor. 4-6:30 p.m. $6.50 (children, $3).

I also love this listing, because, come on, who doesn't want to go to a themed party that only costs $1??:

Ham & Turkey Party, with food and beverage; Elks Lodge No. 70, Route 11 and Trim Street, Kirkwood. 7-11 p.m. Advance, $1; at door, $2.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

"Authentic Mexican Food" found!! well, maybe not

Today is a lazy Sunday. John and I went out for breakfast and then to the super-sketchy Giant grocery store on Main Street. I was in the market for some light ice cream, and almost had to settle for fat free frozen cool whip (a pathetic alternative), until I chanced upon something truly fantastic.

Like the unicorn of lore, I found "authentic Mexican food" right there in the frozen desert bin. It was "Perry's Light Ice Cream" and the flavor was - are you ready?- MEXICAN SUNDAE. Now, I'm from Los Angeles, and I've never heard of this taste delight: basic vanilla ice cream with a cheap chocolate swirl. It definitely did NOT have my "taste buds dancing," as the ad promises. But at least I have solved the riddle: Apparently, it is "Mexican" because it has oily "Spanish" peanuts in it.

Someone should tell Perry that Spain is nowhere near Mexico, and that NO ONE in Mexico eats this.

p.s. I like saying "Mexican sundae" so much that I really wanted to make up a definition for Urban Dictionary, but all the things I thought up were too racey or generally offensive for this PG-rated site. :-(

Thursday, March 23, 2006

DMV Saga, Part II (of many)

Two days ago I posted a piece about how going to the DMV in Binghamton was analagous to a good day at the bank, in that I was in and out, with no appointment and friendly and courteous service, in about 10 minutes. Yesterday, I returned to give the (or so I thought) necessary paperwork to obtain a New York state driver's license.

Thanks to my recent marriage and concommitant name change, I was sent on a paper chase that, I was told, would not only require me to get a brand new passport and social security card (both of which can be done in Binghamton), I would also have to deal with Los Angeles County to obtain a certified copy of my birth and marriage certificates!

Here is the kicker- it took me a grand total of - are you ready?- FORTY MINUTES (start to finish, including driving time, no appointments) to visit and complete my business at the DMV, Social Security, and passport folks (post office).

The best one, by far, was the social security office. In Los Angeles, I had been dreading and postponing getting a name change because the office is located in MacArthur Park (which is virtually 100% Latino, mostly brand new and very poor immigrants of varying degrees of legal status). If you've ever driven by, you know that there is literally a line, two blocks long, at all times. When I went to the Binghamton SS office, it took me- ready?- eight minutes from the time I walked in the door, took a number, showed my documents, and walked out with the new paperwork. Eight minutes. Oh, plus the 2 minutes it took me to drive there AND park (across the street at a meter that cost $0.25/hour.) AND the guy was really nice to me.

I'm starting to get very spoiled by the quality of life here. It would have taken me days to accomplish in L.A. what I did in 40 minutes here. Now, let's see how I fare with the ol' Los Angeles County Office of Records for the birth and marriage certificate. This part should be fun . . .

"The $5 Economy": Skid Row vs. Binghamton

In Los Angeles, I was very involved in helping create policies that would clean up America's biggest Skid Row, which consists of 55 blocks and somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 (depending on who you ask and how you count) "homeless" people.

In my talks with the LAPD, I learned that we have a very strong "$5 economy," as they call it. That means that $5 is sort of a lowest common denominator, a sort of "Skid Row Nickle" or something. For $5, you can purchase the following things on Skid Row:

* A baggie of Heroin
* A hit of Crack
* Various sex acts
* [anything that can be readily stolen from a car, e.g., a cell phone, and anything that can be readily stolen from an industrial business, e.g., a wooden palet]

It is not a coincidence that these prices correspond, since people are willing to commit a sex act for whatever amount of money it will take to score the next hit.

In Binghamton, I have observed that we have our own "$5 economy," but that's only because things are so cheap here. Here's what my Skid Row Nickle will buy me in Binghamton:

* Hamburger, fries and drink at Nico's, the sit-down restaurant overlooking the river ($5.75)
* New heels put on my work shoes, complete with complimentary shoe shine
* All of the buttons resewn onto my overcoat (these are heavy buttons that take forever to attach)
* 2 glasses of wine at our favorite "special occasion" restaurant, called "What's Your Beef?"
* Entrance and free refreshments at the Binghamton Moose Lodge "Casino Night"
* Spaghetti with Meat Sauce dinner at the Johnson City Elks Lodge fundraiser

What a difference a culture makes . . .

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Binghamton Experience: "DMV Chapter"

I never would have thought that a trip to the DMV would shed such light on The Binghamton Experience. My story today is two-fold, so I think I'll make it into 2 separate posts (because I'm CRAZY like that!)

First, why/what the DMV:
I received a jury summons in L.A., which means that I have to prove that I don't live there, which prompted me to finally go about getting a NY driver's license. Now, this is a bit traumatic because I JUST endured The DMV Experience in August, for the happy reason that I needed to change my name to "Williams" (yeah!). I also took a damn good picture for once, so it was a double bonus to have the new name with the new hot photo. More importantly, I had just recently experienced one of the Layers of Hell, which IS the Los Angeles DMV Experience.

In case you don't know, Los Angeles County has about 10 million people (literally). There are 29 DMV locations serving that population, which means there is about 1DMV site per 350,000 people. To be totally blunt, it sometimes feels (especially in the core of LA County, where I live) that probably 340,000 of these people might not come from this country and, as a result, do not speak English or at least not "well." This makes processing times MUCH slower. I had to make an appointment, online, nearly 1 month ahead of time, TWICE, to achieve my goals at the DMV in L.A. 'Nuf said.

Anyway, I had seen the Broome County DMV in passing, because it is located in the middle of "Antiques Row" on Clinton Street in Binghamton. (This is another posting in itself, because the lack of "antiques" or even a "row" might be the biggest "bait and switch" around, but I won't digress.)

So I pop into the small building on a small, very retail- (or now, saloon-) oriented street and find myself in the lobby of a lovely, vacuous space that feels just like a bank lobby. I am the 2nd person in line, which gives me just enough time to look around and see that this is, in fact, a bank lobby, complete with exposed vintage vault and tons of unused space where the "personal banking" used to take place at fancy desks.

I waited approximately 2 minutes and all of my questions were promptly and concisely answered. I was shocked by the ease of dealing with this county bureaucracy. It seems that Broome County has a population of only 200,000, and, with 5 DMV outlests, that means a mere 40,000 people per DMV!! No wonder there is such fast and easy service. Plus, the lack of any language barrier can't hurt with the ol' "through-put times."

Monday, March 20, 2006

Manhattan and Century City: "A Love Story"

(For some reason, I'm intermittently able to upload my own photos to this blog, so I'm still going to lean on internet links to give a flavor to what I'm talking about here.)

If you want to know what the "future of London" looks like (and then I'll move stateside), there's Canary Wharf. Canary Wharf can probably best be described as the lovechild of New York's Downtown Manhattan and Century City in Los Angeles, in that it has a very brand-new, sanitized, master-planned (and a touch soul-less) feel (like Century City), but it is still awe-inspiring because it consists of 6 million square feet (with another 8 million in planning stages). The history of the project is impressive. Here it is, in a nutshell: From medieval times up until WWII, London's Docklands were the heart of global shipping. By the 1970s, however, the rise of "containerization" (shipping via massive metal containers) meant that its infrastructure was outmoded. By 1980, there were only 3,000 jobs left (from a high of something close to 100,000!).

In the early 1980s, the London Docklands Development Corporation was created, and started urban "regeneration" on a massive scale. After a hiccup or two (thanks to the tanking of the economy in the late 80s/early 90s), over 63,000 people now work in Canary Wharf, primarily in service-sector jobs. (This where companies like Barclay's Bank and CSFirst Boston have their headquarters.) I don't know how many buildings there are, but there must be at least 30 new skyscrapers, as well as scores and scores of incredibly cool-looking loft-style high-rise residential structures, all built along a network of waterways that used to serve as the nervecenter to the world's shipping and trade.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

British dining: not afraid to use those graphic descriptors!

Dining in any foreign country is always interesting, but I really like British food (and restaurant) names because it isn't like there is anything getting lost in translation- it's all there for us to poke fun at. Consider a few of the tasty treats that greeted us from menus on our trip:

"Offals": yep, these are just what they sound like: the unwanted cuts of meat, i.e., the entrails, of a butchered animal. If you are lucky, you can find them used in a "scrapple sandwich," or, in my favorite, the:

"Faggot": this is a kind of pork meatball made out of, you guessed it, offals. Yummy! A popular dish is "faggots and peas" which is really faggots paired with:

"Mushy Peas": These are actually a lot tastier than they sound, since they are essentially creamed peas and have a lot of butter- and I think some mint- blended in. They are a good accompaniment to fish and chips, although for some reason they usually come in a very unnatural, and therefore somewhat suspicious, shade of bright green.

If you aren't salivating for the fine British cuisine by now, consider the favorite "
Toad in the Hole." Although it suffers from a bad name, it's actually relatively benign and consists of sausages placed in a Yorkshire Pudding (big, puffy, egg-yolk-rich puff pastry).
If you get "bad" Toad in the Hole (or "Tow'd in't th'ow"), you might take your food back up to the barkeeper (where you ordered it) and tell him that this is more like "Frog in a Bog" (not a good thing.)

One item that is genuinely yummy, but sounds like a medical condition and not something anyone would want to put in their mouth, is
"Spotted Dick." This is actually a wintertime dessert that consists of rich steamed pudding flecked with dried raisins/fruits (hence "spotted") and, also not helping the visual/name association, covered in a heavy yellow sweet egg cream sauce. Popular with the kids at Christmas (not joking).

Perhaps this bold culinary history accounts for a few of the more graphically-named restaurants we saw and/or dined at. A popular chain of upscale new "gastro pubs" (which is really just a fancy name for "restaurant/bar that serves food other than that which has been described above") is called
"The Slug and Lettuce." TASTE-TAY! I guess the catchy name worked, because it sure caught our eye.

However, NOTHING could compare to the best restaurant name in the history of all time (aside from my favorite L.A. Skid Row-adjacent "Burgers 'n Sh*t"): Mudchute." No explanation necessary.

We're "home"!!

Present temp: 26 F (although tells me that it "feels like 13"- thanks for the clarification)
Precipitation: YES, although it appears to have just stopped, having left a nice white dusting all over this Sunday morning.

After 10 days of being on the road, we are back "home in Binghamton" (did I just write that??) Our trip to London was great, although it was extraordinarily cold, even by London standards. I think our average daily temp was about 3 C, which sure sounds a lot colder than the "high 30s" that it translates into in Farenheit. We were lucky in that we only had "real" rain on 1 day, but darn that windchill kicked up on a few other days.

Although I could have posted from abroad, the not-so-cheap cost of living in London would have meant spending $$$$ in internet connection fees to do it, and that's not what this cheezy blog is about, right?

OK, we'll see how far I get today, having a lot of topics backed up in my little head and not sure which ones will come out right away. Now that I'm back "home," I'm getting better perspective on some of the funnier/cooler things we saw and experienced on the trip. Read on . . .

"The Gherkin" and other amazing London architecture

In 2004, London's skyline changed in a way that is probably not known to most. That's when the Swiss Re building, a.k.a. "The Gherkin," was completed ("gherkin" is Brit for "cucumber," that's me "licking the cucumber"). It's unlike any building I've ever seen- a 40-story phallus spiking up like a bullet into the sky, right in the middle of London's staid and historic financial district. It looks AMAZING and so innovative, really an architectural inspiration.

Then there's the Millennium Eye, a. k. a. the British Airways London Eye, which unfortunately suffers from very unfortunate names. I say "unfortunate" becuase this is an engineering and architectural marvel that has become the most popular (read "overcrowded") tourist detination in London. I can only imagine what a zoo it is in the summertime! The ride takes about 30 minutes- just for a single revolution- which means that you get to go nice and slow and see the entire city of London from a 360 degree perch that can be found nowhere else in London (that's Parliament and Big Ben over my shoulder in the photo).

I think the (smart) city leaders were trying to create a millennium-inspired viewing platform that would act as an iconic tourist spot, just like the Eiffel Tower does in Paris, or the Empire State Building in New York.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


I'm in London for a 10 day trip. Blog will resume after 3/18, with fabulously witty, internationally informed insights to follow . . .

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


It's quite funny how people respond to me when I say that I "just moved here from Los Angeles." The, sort of, "Joe Working Guy" character gives me two consistent, standard responses: 1) [chuckle/snort/guffaw] "Now why would you do that?" and 2) (after I say how L.A. isn't "all that" because I'm trying to make the guy- and it's always a "guy"- feel better) "Yeah, you have those earthquakes out there. Man, I don't want any part of that." And the guy ends up feeling very fortunate that he is nestled in the safe comfort of the Southern Tier of New York State, far from Los Angeles and its 'quakes, wildfires, mudslides, and - one I hadn't heard until today at Jiffy Lube- "rolling blackouts" (I had forgotten about those, back in 2001! Thanks Gray Davis and Enron.)

This leads me to my own self-realization. I have very few "irrational fears," but in the past few years, I have noticed that I feel very claustrophobic in lots of daily situations. If I can't access a door to the fresh air and terra firma, I get antsy. (When I would visit the amazing highrise lofts in my favorite neighborhood- Downtown L.A.- I would always chafe at the fact that I couldn't get outside. And I don't mean "get to a fire escape," I mean- get to firm dirt in the open air.)

When I moved here, I was so surprised by how much I was guided by my own subconscious. Do you know that I can actually put precariously-placed heavy and/or (potentially)sharp objects above 5 feet in my house? Ah! The freedom to hang "real" art (i.e., framed, with glass) above my bed (this was verbotten in my house growing up)! And that I can stack books and china and other such objects in totally inappropriate (by California standards) places? Sooooo liberating.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin: Friday's "Food and Drink" calendar for tomorrow sort of says it all about life around here

Morning Temperature: 20 F
Precipitation: YES! and it's still fluffy and pretty

I walked to the park to get the paper this morning. Friday is my favorite newspaper day because they list all the rummage sales and book sales to be held on Saturdays. Today, however, I was struck by the fact that one could make an entire day out of working the Saturday fund-raiser food circuit around here. I love that there is a three-way rivalry among the various versions of spaghetti dinners: which one will win? My money is on the one "with meatballs" (as opposed to mere "meat sauce"). I also love that you can get your food to take-away, in case you don't want to hang out and eat with your fellow VFW buddies.

I'm just going to paste the whole schedule here, because I think it really speaks volumes about life in Binghamton:

12th Annual Pancake Breakfast, sponsored by the Binghamton Breakfast Rotary Club with Irish/folk music by Java Joe Jammers; American Legion Post 80, 76 Main St., Binghamton. 8-11:30 a.m. $4.

Breakfast Buffet, Christian Fellowship Church, Lisle. 7-10 a.m. Free will donation.

Buffet Dinner, sponsored by Triangle United Methodist Women; Triangle Fire Station, Route 206, Triangle. 3-6 p.m.

Chicken Barbecue Dinner, Elks Lodge, 4212 Watson Blvd., Johnson City. Noon-2:30 p.m. $6.

Pancake Breakfast, fundraiser for homeless in our community; Greenman Senior Center, 37 Pine St., Binghamton. 8 a.m.-noon. $3.50 (6-12, $1.50; 5 and under, free).

Roast Pork Dinner, takeout available; Port Crane United Methodist Church, Pine Street, Port Crane. 4-7 p.m. $7 (6-12, $3.50; 5 and under, free).

Roast Pork or Baked Chicken Supper, takeout available; Van Etten-Spencer VFW Post 8139, Wyncoop Creek Road and Route 224, Van Etten. 4:30-7 p.m. Goodwill donation to benefit the maintenance fund.

Soup AND Salad Night, Vestal Fire Company No. 2, Route 26 S., Vestal Center. 4 p.m.

Spaghetti AND Meatballs, Moose Lodge, 224 Henry St., Binghamton. 5-7 p.m. $6.

Spaghetti Dinner, with live music to benefit Barry Butterfield; Candor American Legion, Spencer Road, Candor. Festivities start at 2 p.m.; dinner served 3-7 p.m.

Spaghetti with Meat Sauce Dinner, fundraiser for Joey Gould; Elks Lodge, 4212 Watson Blvd., Johnson City. 4:30-7:30 p.m. $5.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The much-maligned snow flake (alternate title: "I need to get out more")

I've been inside all day today and it has been snowing constantly. I keep looking out the window to where there is a big lump where my car used to be and thinking, "Dude, where's my car?"

This house-bound day has given me the opportunity to think more deeply about snow than I ever have before (which obviously isn't much). I started to think that snow is really just rain, with the difference being that it "sticks" and stays put when it hits the ground. It's really not the snow that people complain about, it's the way it piles up, gets in the way, and doesn't go away.

That got me thinking: I really feel sorry for the snowflake! Rain, by contrast, hits the ground and MAN, it's OUTTA there! It's immediately mobile and it's on its way to the ocean, thank you ma'am (you will also note that it is the puddles that people don't like about rain, not so much the rain itself.)

But snow is different. It's like the uninvited guest who finds himself at the party with no ride home. He has no choice but to stick around and have everyone ridicule him. Poor snow flakes.

Yes, I know, I need to GET OUT MORE. But indulge me, please.

Welcome to 1997

OK, after overcoming much adversity, we are all hooked up with that new-fangled "infonet" at the house, so I'm an unstoppable blogging machine from now on. No more will I have to drive to the local cyber cafe in my pajamas, heat blaring, and pinch their wi-fi signal from the parking lot in the wee hours of the morning to get on that information superhighway . . . yee ha!

New York State Inebriate Asylum/Binghamton Asylum for the Chronic Insane

Morning temp: 20 F
Precipitation: LOTS and LOTS for the next several days. But, since I don't have to shovel it or drive in it too much, it looks like a beautiful white carpet covering the dead grass!

Many of you know that I worked intensively on the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles, and also that I love local history. Well, I've got a doozey of a combo right in my own backyard: my husband works 2 days a week at the Binghamton Health Center, which is a large state mental hospital perched on a hill overlooking Binghamton and the whole river valley. His building is a modern and functional one, but when I went to pick him up the other day, I had a few minutes to kill and decided to drive around the rest of the grounds. . .

This is/was a BIG campus, established in the 1850s as a self-contained 250 acre farm complete with its own generators, morgue, cemetery, foundry, bowling alley, movie theater, dormitories, administrators' housing, etc. There are at least 30 buildings, of various types of function, architecture and states of disrepair.

The centerpiece of the campus is the original mental hospital, the New York State Inebriate Asylum; a massive neo-Gothic (Tudor castellated?) building that was the tallest in the county for a long time, even after the super-tall, spiraling, ornamental turrets were removed in the 1960s for safety reasons. It has been closed since the 1990s because it began to crumble, and let me tell you, it might be the creepiest building I have ever seen in this country.

There is a movement to get the state to sell the long-dormant Inebriate Asylum to a private developer or anyone who will put it to good use. The latest proposal is to convert it to senior housing, which is probably quite appropriate, but apparently the state is being slow and hasn't opened it up for bids yet. There is an excellent website with incredible photos and the beginnings of an oral history of the place, here:

Back to the "Inebriate Asylum" . . . While this name, as well as the follow-up "Asylum for the Chronic Insane" sounds pretty harsh, and conjures images of all sorts of brutish treatment, these sorts of state mental h0spitals were actually very progressive in their day:

In the 1840s, a teacher and preacher's daughter named Dorothea Dix ventured into some women's prisons to teach Sunday school near her home in Boston. She was shocked to find that so many clearly mentally ill people were being commingled with common criminals and treated horribly, simply because society did not know what to do with them. Ms. Dix began a decades-long fight to reform the way society treats people living with mental illness, and the result was the development of "asylums" in the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, particularly in New England. These institutions were premised on the principle that mental illness, as well as alcoholism, are diseases that must be treated compassionately and not criminalized. What they became in later decades is another matter. . .

I find it very interesting to note that we, at least in my experience in California and especially Los Angeles, have regressed to the pre-Dorothea Dix days of criminalizing those living with mental illness, simply because we cannot muster the political will to develop meaningful solutions. I cannot count how many times I was in policy meetings with self-described "homeless advocates" who argued vehemently against involuntary commitment. While I am mindful of the abuses that can occur with this process, the pendulum has swung too far in California and lawmakers need to stand up to the ACLU and acknowledge what the average person knows instinctively to be true: it is far more inhumane to let a mentally ill person suffer and die on the streets than to restrain them against their will and give them appropriate medical treatment for a medical condition. If someone were having a heart attack on the street, someone would call the paramedics and they would administer aid. They would not stop and ask the person suffering from a medical crisis whether or not they wanted help. It's just that simple.

To those who argue against making it easier to involuntarily commit people, I have one statement to which I never receive a rebuttal: We involuntarily commit mentally ill people every single hour of every day in Los Angeles- it's called jail- and that is far more inhumane than giving them the medical help they require.

OK, that was quite a tirade. My past research indicates that New York state is far ahead of California as far as repealing the 1960s-era laws that made it so hard to get people into mental hospitals. I'll be very interested to monitor this topic (New York's "Kendra's Law" vs. California's underfunded and sunsetting "Laura's Law") in the New York news in the next couple of years.