Monday, September 29, 2008

Breaking and Entering: Gary, Ind.

I learned two things this weekend. The first is that Gary, Indiana is, indeed, what is appears to be from the highway - a crumbling shell of a city. The second is that tromping through a falling-down city feels a lot different than tromping through the falling-down country.

Ogling an old barn feels like poking through somebody's trash - point and stare all you want, they're long gone. Ogling Gary, on the other hand, felt like throwing rocks at a cripple.

Gary, Wikipedia tells me, was founded in 1906 by the United States Steel Corporation as a home for its new plant. It was named after Elbert H. Gary, the company's chairman. Here's Elbert now, perched smugly in front of City Hall, one of the only kept-up building for blocks. Don't look left, Elbert. It ain't pretty.

Elbert's old digs are still up and running - turn left at the highway off-ramp and you run smack into a wall of border-like U.S. Steel security - but since the '60s, the plant has gotten by with fewer and fewer workers. Folks lost their jobs and left, or lost their jobs and stayed. Most left. Nearly 180,000 people lived in Gary in 1960; it's about half that today. Eighty-four percent are black.

Downtown is a long stretch of once-upon-a-time barbershops and department stores sporting optimistic fonts from decades past.

Off the main drag are block after block of squat brick houses and a few burned-out apartment buildings. There aren't a lot of street signs.

Gary is the hometown of the Jackson family, hence this sad promise on the marquee of the Palace Theatre, which shut down in 1972.

Here are more sights from around town:

Train station, we think

Inside the train station

Gutted motel sign

Gutted motel

Shores of Lake Michigan, with smokestacks

Gas station

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The end of suburbia

"The whole suburban project, I think, can be summarized pretty succinctly as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world."

That's James Howard Kunstler in "The End of Suburbia," a great 2004 documentary about how dwindling oil will inevitably shatter life as we know it in this country. The film points out that all this concrete - laid after World War II, when auto giants ripped up the train tracks that had dotted the country until then - isn't going to do us a damn bit of good when we can't go anywhere.

Kunstler warns us that huge chunks of tract housing will wither and die when people can no longer hop in their cars and drive 10 miles for a gallon of milk. We'll have a nation of ghost towns, followed by reorganization on a massive scale and, eventually, a return to more communal living.

The moral: it might be wise to start growing some veggies. And befriend a bike mechanic.

In the meantime, you can find out just how screwed you are with this nifty little website. It tells you how walkable - and how sustainable - your neighborhood is based on its distance to grocery stores, bars, schools and parks.

My old Chicago apartment rates as a "walker's paradise" with a score of 94, while my mom's house in Bristol, Conn. scores a painful, car-dependent 12. It's a really good thing she gardens.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Home sweet home

Home again, home again

After an unbelievably fast month in Portland, Bailey and I boarded a red eye Friday night to make the cross-country trek to the east coast -- me on the plane, and Bailey in a crate somewhere in its nether regions. I don't care to relive the flying-with-pet experience, especially the bit where I knocked Bailey, crate and all, face-first off a SmartCart in the Portland airport. So let's just say it sucked and move on.

This week I'm back in Connecticut, in the house I grew up in, and life is easy. Dog wants to go out at 6 a.m.? Somehow it's taken care of; I get up at 9 and Bailey's long gone, working off some beefy homemade breakfast with a romp through the garden. Hungry? I take a walk to the kitchen, where my mother's whipped up two panfuls of eggplant parmesan while I dozed and read a chapter of Chicken Soup for the Deadbeat Daughter's Soul.

I'm not complaining, but it's tough to be a grown-up in these conditions -- which is probably why I regress 15 years every time I'm here. I can see why my mom finds it hard to believe that I'm a functional adult; judging from the inane things I say and do here, it's a wonder she trusts me to cross the street.

Take that eggplant parmesan. I was entrusted with one step in its preparation -- to turn off the sauce an hour after my mother left for work. I'm watching Family Guy reruns and downing the last of the Amstel Lights that I found tucked in the back of the fridge when the phone rings two hours later.

Mom: You remembered to turn off the stove, right?
Me: Oh. Shit. OK. Wait, you mean the little knob over the burner?
Mom: Yes. Turn it to off.
Me: OK. Wait. OK. I did it.
Mom: Very good.
Me: Wait. Should I put a cover on it?
Mom: That would be nice.
Me: OK. Hold on. Wait, Mom, this cover doesn't fit.
Mom: Find another cov...
Mom: You know, I had two kids when I was your age.
Me: I found a plate. The plate fits. Can I use a plate?

I swear, I'm much less of an idiot in real life. But I might as well enjoy this break from reality while I can, right?

Time for leftovers.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Breaking and Entering: Gas Station

On a search for peaches this afternoon in the farms outside Walla Walla, Wash., my friends and I came across this old gas station, tucked with goats and old trucks next to a disheveled-but-still-functional home.

Inside was nothing too thrilling, I saw through a smashed window: boxes of yarn and old lamps galore.

The cool part was both pumps listed gas at 17 cents a gallon. I don't know if I buy it, because the internet tells me that even in 1950, gas was 26 cents. In any case, I liked it.

Walla Walla is lovely. Still on the lookout for those peaches.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Packing nostalgia

I was going through my computer files at work on Friday and came across a blurb I wrote for my Friendster page (remember Friendster?) almost a year and a half ago.

It reads:

"I'm a reporter for a weekly in the middle of nowhere, California. Long story how I ended up here, but here I am. After six months in the Central Valley, here's my report: this place has enough strip malls, developers, gay-bashers and manly-man pickups to keep me consistently aware that I'm out of my element. But it's nice in its own way - there are still fields full of almond trees, and cows, and people talk to you on the street. Plus I'm writing for a living, and people are reading what I have to say. So that's pretty damn cool."

As I sit here in a skeleton of my bedroom, wondrous that all my worldly belongings may actually fit into one car tomorrow, I can't think of a better way to describe it.

You know what's weird? I'm going to miss this place.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Wal-Mart find: Eat this, not that

Watch out, bikini season, here I come.

(You can burn fat and build the body you want – not by eating less, but by making smart, health food choices. And now, the right choices are simple! ... Whether you’re in the frozen food aisle, the fast-food drive-thru, the local Olive Garden or EVEN IN YOUR OWN KITCHEN, you’re faced with dozens of food choices every single day.)

(Did you know an Egg McMuffin is a healthier breakfast choice than a bagel? (You’ll save 210 calories!))

And we're sold.

Thank you, David Zinczenko, for delaying my stroke.

Friday, June 6, 2008

An open letter to my Buick

I remember the first time I laid eyes on you, Buick. It was August 2006 in E's yard in Portland. You were square and maroon and very unsexy - not at all what I had in mind. "No way," was my reaction. "My grandfather owned that car."

It was a hard sell, I admit. What I really wanted was that cute little Cabrio - a zippy little number with the top down - but in the end I came back to you, Buick. I told myself there was something poignant about cruising you into this next, uncertain, suburban phase of my life. The truer truth was, I liked your $900 price tag.

I didn't think I'd have you very long, anyway, judging from the deep growl you unfurled whenever you were asked to do anything. I crossed my fingers that you would even get me and my two suitcases down the coast and past the feeble fountain at the Tracy offramp.

But you got me there, in a glorious, sun-filled, music-blaring drive - I was on my way to love, after all. To the California border, where the fog split and the sun poured down with such immediacy that I had to laugh aloud, and on, southward, into the state's concrete belly.

You got me there. And then you got me through county flats, time and time again, past farms and smokestacks to a newspaper job that I did not know I could do; you got me through random, winding, developer-named streets on going-nowhere drives in some of the saddest, lostest moments of my life; you got me home on dark, twisting highways after late nights in San Francisco when I should have stayed the night. You got me where I had to be, every time.

If you had any luster to begin with, Buick, I've worn it out of you for sure. Your blinker was the hardest to stomach, seeing it dangling out of its socket like an eye. I gouged you on a dumpster next, with that embarrassed woman looking on - we just laughed and waved. Finally the mean Central Valley sun sizzled your rear view mirror clean off, leaving just a square of old epoxy in its place. Along the way, your grumbling got grumblier. Your rattling got rattlier. You've become quite the sight to behold, but still you go on, and I thank you for it.

The truth is, I think we might not have been friends a few years ago. I can't say exactly how I've changed, but I suspect you were as much the cause as the effect.

I say all this, Buick, because we've got another journey coming up. In a couple weeks I'll pack you full of everything you'll hold. Bailey will ride shotgun, we'll plug my iPod in your tape deck, and we'll drive north this time. I know you're tired, but I hope you'll stick with me through another trip. And I hope, this time, we reach that border and the fog closes up around us like a zipper.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Manteca PD

First, my apologies for this period of boringness on my blog. For a few days there, I was throwing all my creative juices toward writing a 10-minute play, and then I had two 12-hour work days, and now I think I'm getting sick. Exuses, excuses.

So onto the police blotter. Once a week, I go down to the police station and pick up a thick pile of paper with the hundreds of police calls received that week, and pick out the best to print in the paper.

Sometimes there's some really weird stuff in there. Here are a couple:

May 26, 8:16 a.m.: A woman on the 1400 block of Mezenen Place called to report that someone had killed a rat, spread its blood all over her Ford Mustang and left the rat under the windshield wiper.

May 22, 5:15 a.m.: A woman called from the 1200 block of Northgate Drive to report that her ex-boyfriend had stolen her “dildo” and “X-rated movies.” The caller said her boyfriend’s name was Dean. (Printing this one got us several angry phone calls, including one from the woman with the missing dildo.)

May 16, 1:06 p.m.: A woman called from Planet Beach, 1168 E. Yosemite Ave., to report that a white man had been sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the store since 8 a.m.

May 19, 10:46 p.m.: A man called from the Western Mobile Home Park, 1130 W. Yosemite Ave., and said he thought someone was stealing his pain meds and coffee and soup.

May 5: Someone on the 8300 block of East Southland Road said someone had stolen 300 bales of hay.

Monday, June 2, 2008

That's a conversation stopper

Interview faux pas, #76:

Her: Both my parents died when I was 18, so...
Me: Both your parents died when you were 18? How did that happen?
Her: Murder-suicide. My mother tried to leave my father, so he shot her and then he shot himself.

(awkward pause)

Me: So that must've been rough.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Yup, they're still out there

There's this man. He's pretty well known around here because he used to write a column for the daily paper in town. He was asked to stop writing that column, for reasons that will soon become apparent, but he still writes frequent letters to the editor of that paper and ours.

Let's call this man George.

George is a weasely, bearded, wild-eyed man in a wheelchair who hates liberals almost as much as he hates women. George is also a lunatic. For example: Last fall George came into the office and started screaming that working mothers are ruining the world. I made the mistake of giving him lip, so he latched onto my arm and gave me a piece of his mind. (He was stronger than I expected, what with the wheelchair and all.) I stared at him, slack-jawed and horrified, as he spit out, "Day care ... is no substitute ... for mom!!"

This is the kind of stuff I deal with. Anyway.

George wrote a letter to the editor recently about that I.T. director that I blogged about some time ago. His letter was too long, so I shortened it. As a courtesy, my boss (a man) emailed George the edited version for his approval.

George called and congratulated my boss on doing an "excellent" job with the edits. My boss corrected him, explaining that it was actually me who did the edits. George then informed my boss that the edits suck and never to let a woman touch his letters again.

They hang up. Moments later, George sends my boss an email, proclaiming, "You may as well have signed (the letter) "Sarah O-"; the way she trimmed it up and feminized it, there was little of me left!"

So take note, folks. These men still exist.

But this softens the blow a bit. A few months ago I was perusing Stockton CraigsList (yes, there is such a thing - and, while ill-attended, it's an absolutely fascinating read) and came across this M4W post from a 50-year-old Mantecan.

"If you're reading this, you've at least got a sense of humor and that's good. Let's get right down to brass tacks. It goes in this order: sex first then friendship may follow and finally, if we're blest, love. You should have ample tittage and an enjoyable derriere; want to sit on my face, right away; be intelligent enough to carry on a conversation with understanding of history; like movies, old and new; be a decent cook. Not only should feminists not apply, but you should loathe feminism and abhor the travesty of radical feminism! If you want your ass and tits sucked and the possibility of an interesting friendship, please reply."

This is George. A hundred percent. There's not a doubt in my mind.

Having this little nugget tucked away in the back of my mind has made my occasional run-ins with this piece of shit just a little more tolerable. Because if ever again he latches on to my arm and starts spewing his masogynist rant, I'll know it's at least partly because George ain't gettin' any.