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.