Being mostly some rants about our local mass-transit system: SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority), but also the beginning of accounts of our trips to Bar Harbor and Paris.
Letters of Transit: SEPTA
I haven't written much about SEPTA for a while. Basically, I've given up chronicling the annoyances for the moment. If SEPTA annoys you, too, you may be interested in this site. I don't feel that strongly, but I can sure sympathize.
Wednesday, November 6, 2002
There was an accident along my route driving to the train station, so I missed my usual train. When that happens, I just take the next inbound train in hopes of "catching" my train. Since the next train makes fewer stops, it can sometimes overtake the train I intended to take, even though it starts out seven minutes behind. Sure enough, my train was listed as being seven minutes late when I got off in town, and I actually had to wait a couple of minutes for it to arrive. I usually gripe about Septa trains' lateness, but I admit that this time it was convenient. Sometimes I'm lucky.
Thursday, October 24, 2002
While waiting for the train tonight, I noticed Septa's slogan "Serious About Change," which they have been using for years. It may have made sense at one time (back then, they were serious about tokens, too), but I don't believe they even accept change anymore. Change of any kind, that is. At least, I don't notice things improving.
Friday, August 30, 2002
A few months ago I noticed a bunch of new railroad ties lying along the tracks at Trevose Station. I never noticed the ties being installed (I don't use that station every day), but I just realized that these are new, "seamless" rails. The rails on the Septa system (and I guess on every system) are joined every thirty feet or so by a pair of plates fastened with bolts that clamp the rails in alignment. The slight gap where the rails abutt accounts for the characteristic "clickety-clack" sound that trains make. But the new rails in Trevose are seamless, or at least I couldn't find where they are joined together. That should provide a quieter and smoother ride, at least for a few hundred yards. It's a start.
Wednesday, July 17, 2002
One thing about Septa: when you really need them to come through, they always let you down. I take two trains that get me to work by a few minutes before 9:00 AM. Usually. But this is Septa. This morning, I especially wanted to be on time so I could watch Steve Jobs deliver his keynote address at MacWorld. The first train was about ten minutes late, which would still have been early enough to make my connection (I take two trains to get to work), but the train that arrived was not the regular 7:20, which is an express, but the one before that, which is a local. Since this exact situation has occurred a number of times before, I should have just driven to work as soon as I learned the train would be late. Worse, the local train had two fewer cars than the express, so it filled to capacity (every seat taken and no room left to stand, either) after only a few more stops. In fact by the time we got to Jenkintown, no more passengers could get on (it was impossible), but we stopped anyway. Worst, because the train was off schedule, we had to stop and wait at random places to wait for signals to change. The train finally arrived in downtown Philadelphia 30 minutes late. Naturally, I missed my connection by about ten minutes, but to add insult to injury, the next connecting train was ten minutes late!
May 16, 2002
Just a random thought... Septa often posts a train as being "1 minute late." This strikes me as absurd. I don't expect them to keep track of their trains to this kind of accuracy, and as often as not trains run much later while being listed as "on time."
February 28, 2002
Tonight I got off the train at Suburban Station to buy my monthly Trailpass. Every month I have to interrupt my journey home, simply because I need a Zone 4 pass, and Septa won't sell me a Zone 4 pass at a Zone 3 ticket office. Frustrating. And inexplicable, frankly.
Members of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers were out in force, handing out leaflets about proposed seat specifications on new rail cars. Basically, they contend that the seats at 18 inches wide will be too narrow. Maybe so, but I'm not sure that's the problem. If Septa gets new cars with wider seats that only seat four across instead of the current five, then we can be sure of two things: the people who get these seats will be more comfortable than they are now, AND all the people who used to sit in the fifth seat will be standing. I'd think I'd prefer to have to squeeze in a little than to have to stand for the entire trip. I think the real solution is to add more cars. We would need more cars anyway to keep the number of seats the same, since the newer cars would be losing one-fifth of their seats. If they could add more cars, then they really wouldn't need the wider seats, since only two people would sit where three used to squeeze in. But more cars certainly seems unlikely...
This sign greets travelers entering Maine from New Hampshire on I-95. I can't quarrel with the sentiment!
Since first visiting Bar Harbor in 1990 (and falling in love), I try to get to somewhere in the state at least once a year.
If you have never been to Maine, I would recommend going first to Mount Desert Island. MDI is home to Acadia National Park, one of the most beautiful areas in the world. I think you'll enjoy a visit there even if you don't like "nature." I've only stayed in three areas in Maine: the area called "downeast," which includes Mount Desert Island and Acadia, the Rockland area, and the southern coast, specifically Ogunquit. Each area has its own charms, although all share Maine's cool, clear air and, of course, lots of lobster.
We only had two days to spare for a Maine vacation this year, but we decided to go anyway, despite the fact that it's a 12-hour drive each way. I didn't regret it: this was the best time I've every had in Maine, and we did quite a lot in just those two days.
Philadelphia to Bar Harbor is a long drive to make in one day, although it's certainly possible, especially if there's someone to share the driving. Instead of making the drive straight through, we decided to set out after work on Friday evening, getting as far as Connecticut. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich, which was very nice, although a little too fancy for my tastes.
The Hyatt features a large central atrium with a brook and trees. We had breakfast in the "open air" restaurant nestled among the trees. Our waiter took our order without writing anything down, then came back to confirm what we had ordered, because he had forgotten. Even with that, he got both our orders wrong. It's not the first time I've seen waiters take an order without writing it down. What's the big deal about not writing down an order? Our breakfast was delicious, however.
We stopped for lunch at my favorite destination in Maine, Barnacle Billy's in Perkins Cove. (See my Lobster Roll page for more information.) Perkins Cove never looked more beautiful, and of course the lobster roll was perfect.
We arrived at our destination, the Mira Monte Inn in Bar Harbor late in the evening, but fortunately before they locked the doors for the evening. We've stayed at the Mira Monte twice now and highly recommend it, although it's not cheap. I think that if you visit Mount Desert Island, and you want to do anything in Bar Harbor, you should try to stay someplace right in Bar Harbor. The reason is that traffic congestion and parking in Bar Harbor itself is very heavy, so you can leave your car and just walk into town. Other places on the island are far less crowded. Even at the peak of the season when we were there (mid-August) the roads outside Bar Harbor were almost empty. Parking at some of the most popular attractions (such as Jordan Pond) can be limited, but we managed to find a space fairly easily.
After arriving we set out in search of dinner. One place that was recommended by an online guide to Bar Harbor I discovered as being open late was the Lompoc Cafe. (Incidentally, I just learned that Lompoc, California is the home of the giant floral flag.) We couldn't find it and had to ask directions because the street it was on seems to make a turn. The Lompoc Cafe was very lively this evening with a trio of musicians fully engaged, but there was no food to be had. Although Bar Harbor is not a late-night community, we didn't have to go far to find dinner, however.
(to be continued)
An American in Paris
Working on this piece off and on... last updated January 10, 2003. Added a picture February 27, 2003.
Two Americans, actually, because Paris is where Anne and I chose to spend our honeymoon. What follows is my account of our first trip to Paris. It is anything but an expert's guide to surviving in Paris, but you may encounter a few nuggets of valuable information nonetheless. Before continuing, I would just like to say that we didn't have one unpleasant experience during our trip. It was as perfect a honeymoon as anyone could hope for. That's not to say there weren't some challenges to overcome, but we had a great time. So, while you may have problems during your trip to France, we didn't.
Preparations: Learning French
There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to have at least rudimentary French ability for this trip, but I wasn't sure how that was going to happen. It wasn't as if I had no French at all, but what I remembered from school was minimal. About all I could remember was how to say hello and good-bye!
My last French instruction was in college around 1992. When it came time to choose a foreign language, I had to decide which language to study. Of course, Spanish would be the most practical, and I had already studied German in high school, but in a mad, impetuous moment I chose French. I think I always wanted to try to learn French and was fascinated by France and French culture, but never tried in high school because I thought it would be too hard. Well, it was very hard. I had trouble with everything, especially pronunication, and I didn't particularly enjoy anything about the two years I spent studying it. Even though I resented the amount of time I had to spend on French assignments, it turned out that a lot of what I was taught actually stuck with me.
We used the French in Action course developed by Pierre Capretz, and our French teachers were very good. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but I think the course did give me a solid foundation. I'll never forget my final oral exam. I entered a room and was surprised to meet not my teacher, but a total stranger who was a native speaker (none of the teachers were native speakers). He was probably here studying English. Ha! We actually conducted an entire conversation in French. It went pretty well, I thought. That was the peak of my French achievement, so far at least, and even though I was beginning to enjoy French, I was glad to leave it behind.
To brush up my French, I was looking for a private tutor so I would be forced to speak and not be able to indulge my usual tendency to hide in the back of the class. I felt that my main problem was a lack of confidence. If I could just have a few positive, confidence-building experiences, I would be OK. Based on the recommendation of a friend, I contacted the Lingual Institute and registered for lessons. (Their minimum course is a block of ten lessons; I didn't have time for more.) Although I met with my teacher twice a week, I only had time for eight lessons before leaving for the trip. During lessons we talked as much about survival and cultural tips (in English) as much as spoke French. In the end it turned out to be the perfect education. French customs are quite different from American, and I was grateful to have at least the beginnings of awareness and sensitivity to them.
In addition to the cultural tips and information I was learning from my teacher, a friend lent me two books on French culture, Culture Shock and Savoir Flair. These books were a revelation and taught me so much I can hardly describe it. (If you only want to read one book, make it Savoir Flair.) The books contained abundant detail about a myriad of social situations and how to cope with them. One might think that Paris would be like New York, for example, except that everyone speaks French, but it's not like that at all. France and the French really are very different from America and Americans in their habits and customs, even their very outlook on life. I didn't need to assimilate every nuance of the differences, but I did want to know enough to survive, and, most of all, not to offend.
The most important thing I learned--and the only thing I think you need to know if you don't want to learn the language--was basic politeness. In Savoir Flair, Polly Platt described the basic rules and expectations of courtesy in every conversation you will have, and what she described in her book seemed borne out in my conversations and those I overheard. You always (always!) begin every conversation with a friendly greeting: "Bonjour, Monsieur!" or "Bonjour Madame!" (substitute "bonsoir" for bonjour in the evening). By the way, "mademoiselle" is only used to address little girls, not, as one might think, for young, unmarried women. If you're not sure, just loiter and eavesdrop to see how it's done. I sensed that most people seemed to appreciate this start and this made the subsequent conversation go more smoothly. I should add that you should even acknowledge people in the room even if you aren't intending to speak with them. For example, if you enter a shop (especially if it's small), make a point of greeting the clerk or cashier. On more than one occasion we were greeted by them as we entered, and I felt that we should have been the ones to initiate the greeting rather than just returning it.
It's all very well and good to get off to a great start by greeting someone politely, but then what? There won't be any further communication if you both can't agree on a common language. The next step, if you don't know any other French, is to ask them if they speak any English with a simple question such as "Parlez-vous anglais?" (Be prepared for a negative answer, by the way. Not all Parisians speak English, although it seems that many do.) I think that a foreigner armed only with the basic greetings and a friendly manner would probably do just fine.
Although I think you would be well-treated in Paris if you only remembered to greet everyone you meet with a cheery "Bonjour!" I wanted to do more than that, and after eight weeks of lessons, I had revived enough of my French to survive, if not thrive. I could handle a number of simple situations such as asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant, or buying something. But how would I cope with the fabled Parisian arrogance? I had always heard that Parisians would switch to English rather than enduring a foreigner's fractured French. Well, you shouldn't believe everything you hear. I began practically every conversation in French with a cheerful greeting and following up with a well-rehearsed question or opening line I had composed immediately beforehand. I know I wasn't fooling anyone with my French, but nevertheless almost all of the conversations were conducted entirely in French. Admittedly these conversations were very short and limited, but still very gratifying. The few exceptions were usually in busy restaurants where some details of our order were repeated to us in English for confirmation. The French seem perfectly happy to speak French to Americans, even when the American's French is as halting and labored as mine is!
I believe that the French are just as proud of being able to speak Enlish as we are of speaking French. When Parisians spoke English to me, I felt I was being treated courteously and without condescension. In fact, some might have welcomed the chance to show off a little. The English we heard was mostly excellent--not only grammatically correct, but idiomatic and spoken with an authentic accent. If I spoke French as well as the French speak English, I'd want to show off, too!
On the other hand, I was perhaps too insistent on speaking French. Rather than admitting my limitations by speaking English, I chose to limit our activities to situations that I could handle. We were fine sightseeing and ordering in cafes and brasseries, and making simple transactions like buying tickets at museums or for the Metro. But that's about all I could do in French. Because life in Paris is so different, I had no confidence to try anything else. For example, it would have been interesting to go to a club in the evening to try to hear some music, but I was simply afraid to try it. I mean, how do you say "cover charge" or "two drink minimum" in French?
Preparations: Travel Arrangements
When we began planning our trip, we visited some of the big travel portals (Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz) and were dismayed to find how expensive airfare was (around $1200). The Air France web site offered some tempting air fare/hotel packages and this would be my recommendation for the cheapest (not to mention simplest) way to plan a trip to Paris. That's not what we decided to do, however. Although there were a number of hotels to choose from among the packages, none of the hotels were very "interesting." That is to say, none of the quaint hôtels de charme we read about in our guide books or online were offered. Since this was our honeymoon, we decided that staying in a nice hotel was more important than saving money, so we decided to build our itinerary ourselves.
The first decision we had to make was which area of the city to look in for a hotel. Paris is roughly oval in shape and bisected along the long axis by the River Seine. The half of the city to the north of the Seine is called the Right Bank, while the section to the south is called the Left Bank. The city is divided into sections called arrondissements arranged in a spiral shape starting with the 1st arrondissement on the Right Bank, which is approximately in the geographic center of the city not far from the Ile de la Cité, the island in the middle of the Seine that was home to the first settlers of Paris some 2,000 years ago. The 1st is not only in the center, but also contains some of Paris' most famous landmarks, including the Jardin des Tuileries and the Musée du Louvre. Since our initial list of destinations included sites scattered all over Paris, it made sense to stay somewhere near the center of the city. The Tuileries Quarter contains a number of fine luxury hotels, including the world-famous Ritz, but we decided that palaces such as that would not only be too rich for our budget, but also not our style. Without looking further for more modest accommodations, we ruled out the 1st.
Our next choice was suggested by a guidebook recommended by my sister-in-law, who had been to Paris in late 2001. (I knew nothing about Paris when I started and collected quite a pile of guidebooks from our friends. It seems like everyone had been to Paris except us. Fortunately for us, they all bought different books!) The book was written by travel writer Rick Steves (he has a web site as well). Rick singled out three neighborhoods, one of which was the Marais, which straddles the 3rd and 4th arrondissement. Our other guidebooks concurred that the Marais was now one of the most lively and fashionable neighborhoods in Paris. The Marais (literally, "marsh") includes such attractions as the Musée Picasso (high on our list of destinations) and one of the most beautiful public squares in Paris, the Place des Vosges.
So we started looking at hotels in the Marais. From our guidebooks and web surfing we compiled a list of likely candidates, all relatively small hôtels de charme. I was too timid to make telephone inquiries, rationalizing that the expense of long distance was too great, so I wanted to use the Web and e-mail as much as possible. Even though such hôtels are not listed on any of the big travel portals, the hotels were remarkably easy to contact; a few even had their own web sites. I was hoping to find the French equivalent of Expedia and did find a few smaller versions, but didn't know which ones I could "trust." I visited a number of sites, but my favorite was Paris Hotels.
(Web sites such as this only levy a charge if you book a room through them. There is no charge or obligation for an inquiry.) We checked about ten hotels, including the Hotel de la Bretonnerie, the Hotel Vieux Marais, and the Hotel de l'Abbaye. As one after another hotel reported they were fully booked, we became frustrated. It's no wonder we couldn't find a hotel, since we had a number of strikes against us. We were only looking at small hotels whose limited number of rooms would tend to fill up fast, and we only started our hunt a scant three weeks before leaving. In addition, our first choices were both popular and well-known. After all, if we had heard of them, then the whole world had, too.
We expanded our search and began looking at more expensive hotels in areas other than the Marais. We were also resigned to the necessity of moving once during the week in case one hotel could not house us for the entire six nights. With our newfound flexibility, we now considered a recommendation a friend had already given us for a place that was not only not in the Marais, but was also rather beyond our budget. The hotel he recommended was the Hotel du Jeu de Paume on the Île St. Louis.
The Hotel du Jeu de Paume.
His strong recommmendation overcame our objections about the price, so we decided to see if there were rooms available. Rooms were available for five of the six nights. Woo-hoo! Then we had only to do do some soul-searching regarding the price. We had a budget of $150 a night (you don't have to spend that much to stay in Paris, but this was our honeymoon and we were looking at 3 star hotels) and the Jeu de Paume was $250. We hemmed and hawed, but in the end we rationalized that the difference in price of about $500 for the week wasn't that significant (and we were tired of looking!), so we decided to go for it. For the missing sixth night we booked a room at a Radission near the airport. (Funny how easy that was. There are plenty of rooms out by the airport!) We had a morning return flight, so this allowed us to be very near the airport on the morning of our departure. Except for the price, we were very satisfied with our choice (and even more so when we actually saw the place), because Jeu de Paume was so ideally located, nestled on quiet street in a predominantly residential neighborhood yet only minutes from Notre Dame.
With air travel and hotel reservations taken care of, the only detail that remained was deciding what to pack. We had learned from previous trips to pack lightly, and we wanted to fit everything into two small suitcases besides. As the day of departure approached, we began checking the weather, which looked to be cooler than our weather at home. We both packed "autumn" clothes (no shorts) and each had a light jacket. It turned out the sun was out most of the time, and we were quite comfortable without our jackets. I had heard somewhere that it rains often in Paris, but there was only a little rain on one of the mornings. The rest of the weather was gloriously clear with deep blue skies.
We thought about taking the train to the airport, but in the end we decided it was much simpler to drive even though we would have to pay to park the car for an entire week. We were traveling as light as we could; we each had a small rolling suitcase and I had a backpack with my cameras. I haven't taken an international flight in a very long time so I don't know whether our experience with Air France was typical... or just typically Gallic. In any case, the flight was very nice. The safety film was a little surreal: it featured real actors but a computer-generated environment. The French and English announcements didn't seem to be quite in sync. The English version was much shorter than the French. It made me wonder what they weren't telling us! Dinner consisted of smoked salmon and green salad followed by either beef bourgignon with parslied potatoes or filet of sole with Chardonnay sauce accompanied by a sauteed vegetable medley, cheese, fruit compote, and apple cake. During the long flight (when the movie wasn't playing), the monitors showed the plane's current position and other vital statistics on a map. I thought that was cool. Unfortunately, neither of us got a lot of sleep. We arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport at 6:22 AM. The city was still in darkness, but we were finally in Paris!
(to be continued)
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Drinking Our Way Across Pennsylvania
Nothing breaks up a long car trip like good food and drink, so we were looking forward to trying some new places on a trip to Erie over the Fourth of July weekend. The detours added at least three hours to the travel time, but made the trip seem shorter and certainly far less grueling.
I was not familiar with places outside the southeastern corner of the Keystone State, so for guidance we turned to Lew Bryson's dead-tree compendium “Pennsylvania Breweries,” an iPhone app called Find Craft Beer and, of course, beermapping.com.
The first stop was Selin’s Grove Brewing which had the most imaginative and best-executed menu of any place on the trip, including many vegetarian options. Their beer was good, too. We sat outside in perfect weather. A delightful experience, and only a mere three hours from home!
Next was Blue Canoe Brewery in Titusville. Blue Canoe occupies the building formerly occupied by Four Sons, which we had visited in years past; not much has changed. More good food and beer and even live music.
Considering its size, Erie itself disappointing, almost devoid of craft beer, at least according to our references. We had lunch at Matthews Trattoria & Martini Lounge. Fine food, but macros only. From there, we walked a few blocks to the only brewpub, The Brewerie at Union Station, which, in the middle of Friday afternoon was basically empty. Andy’s Pub had an acre of pool tables, but only two beers on tap: Bud Lite or Miller Lite. Fortunately, their bottle list included some winners even though they were out of many of them.
On the way home we stopped for lunch at Otto’s Pub & Brewery in State College. They had the best beer of any place and fine food as well.
Overall, we liked Selin’s Grove best followed closely by Otto’s.
National Train Day
I don’t know much about the history or genesis of National Train Day (I think this year is the first one), but I do know that May 10th was selected as the date, because it is the anniversary of the driving of the “Golden Spike” in 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, which completed America’s first transcontinental railroad. I’ll be heading down to 30th Street Station to partake in the celebration (and probably slip into Bridgewater’s Pub for a pint at some point).
Speaking of trains, mere SEPTA has been a huge success—I think upwards of six people have used it. :-) I wasn’t able to add all the features I had planned for National Train Day, but did make some incremental improvements. The most visible change is that it now shows the train number and endpoints for each train. I also reworked the connection algorithm, which has two benefits. Gone are the spurious connections that showed up in certain situations, and it now shows how to make a connection between stations on the same line that are skipped by express trains.
mere SEPTA: Regional Rail Schedules with Train View
Besides my daily commute on SEPTA’s R5 line, I sometimes take the train at odd hours at night and on the weekend, so I was thrilled when iSepta was released about a year ago. It is a model of good design and is by far the nicest of several third-party schedule apps out there.
Eventually I noticed that iSepta didn’t support trips that required a connection. I don’t need to make connections that often, but when I do, it involves juggling two SEPTA schedules. Another nice-to-have would be data from “Train View,” which reports each train’s on-time status. (Train View is annoying to use as is, because status is reported by train number, which makes it a pain to figure out which status applies to your train.)
I thought it would be fun to try creating a web app that supported connections and integrated Train View data. And it was, um, “fun.” So, while it’s not very pretty or full-featured, it does what I need. I hope others find it useful as well.
Although I am still tinkering with it, today seemed like a good time to make it public since SEPTA just updated five of its regional rail schedules. I’ll call this version the “beta.” I hope to have a final release ready for National Train Day on May 9. Meanwhile, please let me know if you have any suggestions or find any bugs.
To use: Go to merecat.org/septa/, pick a start and then an end station. That’s it. You will see a list of trains for the next three hours or so. If a train’s scheduled time (plus any delay from Train View) is a couple minutes in the past (meaning you can probably still catch it), then it will still show up, too. Train View delays (if any) show up in red right next to the scheduled time.
Standard Disclaimers: While it should work on any web browser, the app was tested primarily on iPhone. I am not affiliated with SEPTA in any way.
Quiet Car Thoughts
SEPTA has been campaigning for quieter rail cars for quite some time, asking that riders “be considerate of others and set phones on vibrate or mute, limit cell phone usage, keep conversations brief and speak using your ‘inside voice’.” In January, they cranked up the volume with a pilot program called QuietRide where one car is designated silent—no cell phones, no conversation, no exceptions.
That’s all well and good, and I wish my fellow riders in the quiet car all the best. I, on the other hand, enjoy the hubbub of conversation, and the occasional cell phone ring doesn’t upset me. In fact, I usually sit in the last car, which is typically the noisiest. That’s not to say that noises don’t bother me—some definitely do. If the car is otherwise quiet (as it usually is in the morning) and there’s just one person yapping on a cell phone, that’s annoying. And I hope there’s a special place in Hell for those people who use push-to-talk phones, where you get to hear both sides of their conversation, not to mention that stupid chirp.
But the real problem with this quiet car program is that SEPTA doesn’t even address the sounds I find most objectionable. I’ve spent the last few years doing extensive field work collecting examples that should help make my point. Enjoy. [8MB mp3 6:39]
SEPTA’s Train View
I didn't bring a proper coat for the raw, blustery weather today and didn’t want to wait on the train platform any longer than necessary, so I decided to check SEPTA’s Train View before leaving work. My train was reported “on time.” Yay.
The train was actually seven minutes late, although Train View still insisted it was on time. Right after we boarded, the conductor announced that we would not be leaving the station because there was debris on the tracks ahead of us. [1.2MB mp3 1:16]
I kept checking the Train View page and finally noticed a big red alert at the top of the page (“30 minute delay on inbound service due to weather-related problems at Rosemont”), but my specific train was still “on time.” Amazingly, we did start moving after about 30 minutes. Eventually my train disappeared from the Train View listing, around the time it should have if it was actually on time, although we were still far from our destination. Clearly I can’t rely on Train View at all. (That seems true of the entire SEPTA system—it works fine most of the time, but you just can’t rely on it.) Train View does seem to be working for some lines in that there are always some trains that show a delay, but I wonder how Train View actually works since it did not show any delay at all for my train. I think I will start logging the Train View status for my regular commute. That should net me a Pulitzer, don’t you think?
New York Stories
If New York has a reputation for unfriendliness, it is undeserved. At least, that has been my experience. Sure, driving in Manhattan can be a little competitive at times, and you would think the teeming masses of humanity flowing by couldn’t care less about you and your little problems—until you stop and look like you need help. Usually you are then only a handful of heartbeats away from someone stopping and offering a helping hand. Maybe it’s just me, however, since I look helpless on many occasions. Anyway I was the beneficiary of yet another random, senseless act of kindness last Saturday night.
I was working in the upper Seventies near Fifth Avenue. In this neighborhood, parking garages are rare and while street parking is available, it’s unusual for spaces to open up at that hour. I slid into a gap to unload, blocking a fire hydrant in the process. Between trips I noticed a space opening up, and as I was running back to move my car, I realized that the random stranger I had just passed was standing in the space to save it for me. I thanked him profusely, and he wouldn’t take anything for his trouble even though he had probably just saved me 20 minutes. When I thought about this later, I began to wonder if I am being watched over by a Parking Angel. The night of the Michael Jackson toast, I parked on 2nd Street near the Standard Tap where the street is very wide and cars park at an angle instead of parallel. That night, a Parking Angel advised me to back into the space, because police ticket cars that pull in head first. Right or wrong, I definitely didn’t get a ticket that night. With my parking problems solved, I may just give up on taking the train.
Pleasant Evening Buzz
SEPTA has been running a program to try to curb what I guess they feel is rampant cell phone usage. Little posters in every car urge everyone to use their “inside voice” (what the heck is that?) on the phone. I guess it’s a problem sometimes, but it depends on the circumstances.
The morning train is dominated by a grim, funereal, almost oppressive silence so any conversation stands out. For example, one morning recently I was dimly aware that someone was droning on and on (I was concentrating on writing a post), and I didn’t really notice it until someone called them on it (the complainer was trying to concentrate on a crossword). In that case a single conversation can be hard to tune out.
Contrast that to the dynamic of the afternoon when most people are heading home. It’s practically happy hour by comparison—there’s a pleasant conversational buzz, the mood is lighter, and there are a lot of younger students on the train. If you’re really trying to concentrate, I find it’s much easier to tune out the buzz than a single conversation. Whether I am concentrating or not, I really prefer the buzz. Tonight for example, I was heading home from dinner at Gullifty’s in Rosemont, and the R5 was especially lively and pleasant. Check it out. [1.5MB mp3 1:36]
Flower Show 2007
Another year, another Flower Show. No, I don’t take it for granted. This year’s was a particularly good one. I think this was the first show I went to unencumbered by a camera.
SEPTA managed to distinguish itself in the eyes of a small group of passengers at the Market East station. Understand that during the Flower Show, SEPTA gets a lot of business from suburbanites who would otherwise never set foot on a train, so you would hope they would be on their best behavior, or maybe that’s just their excuse not to care. Anyway, the R5 heading to Doylestown was still labeled “Thorndale” (where it was coming from), so even though the regulars knew where the train was going, someone unfamiliar with all this naturally asked about it. The conductor tried to make a joke about it, but the intent was to dismiss the question. I have to admit that the vast majority of conductors are professional and helpful and even this guy wasn’t rude, but come on, how hard is it to flip the sign? Way to go.
Tonight I tuned up my niece’s shiny new MacBook (it came with 10.4.6, so I installed updates and stuff). She’s headed off to college this weekend. *sniff*
The MacBook is nice; I was concerned about the keyboard and the glossy screen, but I liked them both. I’m not in the market at the moment, but it’s still fun to play.
On the way home, I heard a portion of This American Life. The show’s theme was “Americans in Paris.” Such praise for the City of Light! A feeling of giddy exhilaration welled up in me. I had a mad impulse to drive straight to the airport. Yes, take me to Paris! Now!!! I am a mad, impetuous fool. Well, actually I’m not; I went straight home. There’s still time, though, to pour a nice apéritif of pastis, light up a Gauloise, and listen to the whole show from the beginning.
Vacation, Part The First: Oil City
We’re back from Oil City. Actually we’ve been back for a week now, but all posts on mere cat are aged for a full seven days then dry-rubbed in a scintillating blend of herbs and spices for enhanced flavor. Aren’t you glad?
Speaking of flavor, we didn’t eat at the McDonald’s after all, thus striking another blow for “enhanced flavor.” Our getaway weekend wasn’t supposed to be all about food and beer, but it played a big part in how good a time I had. Do I like to eat? I guess maybe I do.
The trip takes about six hours, so that involved one meal on the road. I’m a huge fan of “road food” (out-of-the-way places with great stuff), but turnpikes and interstates are dominated by chains. Although some chains have fine food (I like the sandwiches at Starbucks), I didn't want a hamburger from under a heat lamp. Besides, I was ready for a change of diet from the unending fresh fruits and vegetables.
We made a little detour to Allentown, looking for a place found on the Web that sounded promising, but was closed. I expected a city the size of Allentown to offer more, but other than pizza places, we couldn’t find much happening, and in the “suburbs” we only saw the ubiquitous chains and, of course, a mall. We got back on the road and had the idea to check out Jim Thorpe (the Carbon County seat). It’s a well-preserved little town on the Delaware that would make a good base for biking, hiking, kayaking or rafting. All the restaurants here looked promising, but we chose The Molly Maguires, a pub. It’s a cozy place that inexplicably had about eight TVs showing eight different channels, although no one seemed to be watching any of them. We started with Murphy's Amber on tap and chased that with some delicious sandwiches. I tried putting malt vinegar on my fries as is the custom in the area, but it’s not a taste I’ve acquired yet. A refreshing meal that really hit the spot.
Our next meal was dinner at perhaps the best restaurant in Oil City (which is bereft of fine dining), the Yellow Dog Lantern. Its menu featured mostly dishes that were fashionable twenty years ago, but everything was flawlessly executed. It was good to see that the place was almost full of patrons, although people eat earlier here. By 8:30 the place was empty.
This weekend capped Oil Heritage Week with such diversions as a church carnival, a concert series in the park, and a large parade that included Ed Rendell. We had visited here during the festival five years ago, and on this trip had planned to make side trips to some of the surrounding towns instead. It rained hard the day of the parade, and I never found out if it went off as planned.
Saturday we headed to Titusville, the home of the first commercially-successful oil well. Oil, shmoil, when do we eat? Lunch was on my mind, of course. We stopped at Four Sons Brewery, sampled two of their microbrews and enjoyed two more delicious sandwiches. Who cares that it was pouring rain outside?
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring oil history, first by taking a ride on the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad. The train features some ancient coaches that make SEPTA’s look ultra-modern, but they were charming. The trip is billed as a ride through the Valley That Changed the World, but you really have to use your imagination on the train, because all you see are the picturesque woods of Oil Creek State Park. Apparently 140 years ago it was a different sight—mostly treeless hills and oil everywhere. After the train ride, we stopped at the Drake Well Museum, which required no imagination whatsoever. It includes a working replica of the original steam-powered well that is still pumping oil. I was fascinated by the machinery, but, oops, look at the time. Dinner!
Off we scurried to Franklin, the county seat of Venango County. We found a restaurant there that was the match of most any place in the big city, Bella Cucina. Suddenly we were transported back to 2006 again and enjoyed a delicious and creative meal. Summer House Coffee Roasters was right next door and offered free wifi, but they were just closing for the evening. This was Saturday night at 8:00. We didn’t stick around to watch them roll up the sidewalks. I kid Franklin, but I’m not much for nightlife myself.
On Sunday, we stopped by Spilling the Beans Coffee House right in Oil City. The bacon, egg, and cheese croissandwich is a favorite dish of mine that I usually order from Dunkin’ Donuts. Spilling the Beans made the best one I’ve ever had, and their coffee wasn’t too shabby either. We had another six-hour drive ahead of us, which we broke up by swinging by State College for lunch at The Corner Room, apparently a Penn State tradition or something. I don’t know about that, but they make a mean catfish sandwich, which I washed down with Yuengling. Penn State alums feeling nostalgic should check out the web cam, which offers a view from The Corner Room.
Well, that was a long one. All I can say is, What’s for dinner?
Film at Eleven
Or more like 11:30, and this shot really is film (Fuji Astia slide film). We’re heading to Anne’s home town for a short visit. This was taken in 2001 on our last visit. We actually ate at that McDonald’s then and probably will again. Once every four years can’t hurt you.
Click for larger version.
The Best Ringtone of All
I have a high tolerance for the minor lapses in etiquette and other ill-mannered behavior we all endure on public transportation, mostly because they are rare and trivial. For example, I’ve never seen anything like what Frank witnessed on the R5 recently (we take the same train, but in opposite directions). Not much bothers me, but some people...
Last night, the person sitting next to me was auditioning all the ringtones on their (presumably brand-new) cell phone. I kind of couldn’t believe it. I might expect a callow youth to play thoughtlessly with their new toy, but this was a well-dressed adult. Of course, I said nothing, but what I was thinking was, “I think you’ll find that ‘vibrate’ is the best ringtone of all.”
Amtrak Outage [nanoblog]
Add another service to those that deserve a Temporarily In Service sign: Amtrak. A large outage on the Amtrak system affected part of SEPTA’s system as well and hence me. I was stuck on a train for a mere 20 minutes and eventually was able to get home and drive to work. I consider myself very lucky. A real, red-blooded blogger would have written this post on the train in the heat of the moment, or better still, posted live from the train as Rick Klau did. Clearly I’m more comfortable with the Wordsworthian tack of “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Even at the time I wasn’t too upset, and now two days later, all I can muster is a heavy sigh. This time at least, it wasn’t SEPTA’s fault.
SEPTA Strike Notes
Even though I ride SEPTA every day, I haven’t commented on the strike. Frankly, I felt guilty for how little the strike has affected me personally. The trains are not only unaffected by the strike, but they are even less crowded than usual because they’ve added extra cars to every train. And because I take the train right through Center City, I’ve never had to stand in the long lines that queue up each evening to board the outbound trains. I’ve got it easy, I admit.
Tonight (day 4 of the strike) was different. I started writing this while trapped on a train just outside 30th Street Station because of “wire problems.” Whatever. We finally limped into the station where I got a first-hand look at what people have to deal with to take a train out of Center City. Pretty horrendous. The folks on our train (an R5) we’re somehow deemed “special,” and we were let through the incredibly long lines to meet another R5. Heck, we’d already waited over an hour. This just serves to remind me that even when the strike is settled, the regional rail system won’t be any better than it is now. We’ll still have plenty of wire problems and delays to look forward to.
As a union member myself, I naturally sympathize reflexively with my union brethren, but really I haven’t closely examined the issues. I have read that the major sticking point is the health insurance premium and co-pay. All I can say about that is I would love to have the deal that SEPTA is offering its workers—a 5% premium and a $10 co-pay. That would be great. But that’s not the point; I know it’s way more complicated than that.
I knew we were in trouble when the train stopped at Fern Rock station, and the conductor announced with exasperated sarcasm, “Welcome to Friday. Everybody off the train!” I soon gathered that all SEPTA trains heading inbound from the northern suburbs were stopping here thanks to “police activity” at Market East station. When I finally got to work, I learned what that activity was—a bomb-sniffing dog had targeted some guy’s backpack. The object that the dog objected to turned out to be a propane nozzle. I guess it didn’t help that the suspect was reportedly wearing camouflage clothing.
I don’t know... it seems obvious to me. Somebody wearing camo with a propane nozzle? it’s pretty clear what we have here is a pastry chef on his way to scorch some crème brûlée, although I could be wrong; he might have been an artist (like Tremain Smith).
Back to Work
Ugh. It was back to work today after a blissful week in the southern part of Maine (aka Vacationland!). Except for one rainy day (thanks to the remnants of Ophelia, I believe), the weather was perfect. Although the trip was built around lobster-roll destinations, we spent more than the usual amount of time away from civilization discovering new trails through the many wetlands and preserves.
As enjoyable as that was, neither of us could quit the internet for a whole week, so we found an internet cafe not far from our place called Sister Mary Catherine’s. Rich coffee, delicious scones, and high-speed access. Woo-hoo! (Sounds just like home, actually.) Still, this was a vacation away from computers, so we only stopped in twice, and I had no trouble taking a break from blogging.
Herewith, then are a few highlights of the trip in photographs taken mostly by Anne. I restricted my photographic efforts to documenting the 17 lobster rolls I enjoyed (reviews of which will trickle into the food section eventually).
A wetland that is part of the Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm.
The Portland Head Light photographed by Anne—my favorite picture of the trip.
One view of Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier in Kittery Point. Not one of the best lobster rolls, but one of the most picturesque settings.
Watching the sunset at the top of Mount Agamenticus in York County.
Fun day for regional rail riders. (That would include me.) When I left work at around 5:30, no trains were running due to a power outrage. (Is that spelled right? Yeah, I think so.) I took it in stride, as all long-suffering commuters must do when entrusting SEPTA to deliver them to their destinations. My wife was kind enough to rescue me, and the disaster didn't ruin our evening. We couldn't rescue any fellow travelers, because for one, the car was full of mulch bags, and for another, everyone else had already struck out across country in search of alternatives.
This might be a good opportunity for any of you perhaps disgruntled SEPTA customers to take a survey being conducted by PhillyRiders (as seen on PhillyFuture). Vent that spleen; you'll feel better. That is, if any of you PhillyRiders are home yet. Godspeed!