February 10, 2016

Talking Transportation: The Feds Deep Dive into Metro-North

Jim CameronIt was worse than we’d ever known. Metro-North was almost an accident waiting to happen.

That summarizes the Federal Railway Administration’s “Operation Deep Dive” report issued last week, following 60 days of probing into every aspect of the railroad’s operations. All of this comes on the heels of collisions and derailments in the past year that have taken the lives of four commuters and two railroad workers.

The 28-page report confirms that what was wrong at Metro-North was not just old equipment but a failure of management with very misplaced priorities. “On-time performance” was what mattered most, even at the expense of safety.

Among the report’s findings…

• Half of the personnel who dispatch and monitor the trains have less than three years’ experience, are not properly trained and are so tired they make mistakes

• The railroad’s “safety culture” was “poor”. Safety meetings went unattended.

• Fatigue by train engineers, track workers and dispatchers may have affected performance.

• The trains themselves are in good shape, but the tracks are not.

I’ve been following Metro-North for more than 20 years, so much of this is not news to me but just a substantiation of my worst fears. Still, the report makes for interesting reading because it cites many examples as proof-points for these findings:

Metro-North has known for a decade that they were facing a “retirement cliff” with 20% of its employees, those with the most experience, reaching their 30th anniversary of employment to retire on fat pensions. But the railroad was clearly inadequate in hiring and training their replacements.

Fatigue becomes a factor because soon-to-retire veterans grab all the overtime they can in their final year to increase their income and their railroad pensions. They are among the oldest employees and least resilient.

Metro-North’s management wasn’t even enforcing its own rules. The report says employees were “confused” about cell phone use on the job. Any teenager studying for his driver’s license knows not to use a cell phone while driving, but track workers at Metro-North got away with it.

Additional funding for staff and infrastructure are important and must be found. But turning around a culture of lax enforcement and lip-service to safety is going to take more than money.

Only a month on the job, espousing “safety is our top priority” at every turn, the new President of Metro-North, Joseph Giulietti, recently saw the first fatal accident on his watch: a track worker, 8 years on the job, was struck by a train just outside the Park Avenue tunnel. Why?

There are no quick fixes to this mess. It took years of invisible neglect for Metro-North to slide into this abyss, and it will take years to rebuild the railroad and regain riders’ trust.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

 

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Letter From Paris: A Week Like No Other in French Politics

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was at the center of an extraordinary week in French politics.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was at the center of an extraordinary week in French politics.

It has been a week out of the ordinary in French politics, to say the least. A summary of the sequence of events may help the foreign reader in deciphering the situation.

It all started March 2 with a few revelations about the UMP (Union for Popular movement) right wing party. Jean François Copé, UMP president, was denounced in the weekly magazine “Le Point” of surfacturation (over billing) of expenses incurred during the 2012 electoral campaign. A “dot.com” company had obtained the contract without preliminary invitations to tender. Copé, looking wan and thin, reacted almost emotionally to the attack. He announced that all the accounts of the UMP would be locked in a sealed room contingent upon the other political parties as well as the media, doing the same .

Then, on March 3, the whistle-blowing satirical newspaper, “Canard Enchainé,” reported that Patrick Buisson, a collaborator of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, recorded the latter’s conversations. Buisson was part of Sarkozy’s first circle and his closest adviser. He made the recordings himself for hours on end, from morning to evening, with an old-fashion dictaphone carried in his pockets. Some of the recorded conversations took place just prior to a planned cabinet reshuffle — in other words, they were politically sensitive.

The question was: who gave the recordings to the press? Buisson’s lawyer vouched that his client did not. But what was suspicious was the fact that Buisson told his son (father and son have been estranged for two years) that those recordings were a “life insurance” and that cela peut toujours servir (One never knows, it might be useful someday)

But this was just the beginning. An avalanche of revelations, which followed – all involving the wiretapping of Nicolas Sarkozy to hamper his return to the political life – was even more serious and turned into a full blown political crisis reaching the top level of the Executive and of the Judiciary.

Four legal cases or “affaires,” which had been dormant, were resurfacing now: the 2008 arbitrage-granting of 403 millions to businessman and former minister Bernard Tapie by the Credit Lyonnais; the “retro- commissions” obtained from Pakistan after the Karachi terrorist attack in 2002 ; the alleged financing from Libyan president Gaddafi in 2007 ; the funds given by Liliane Bettencourt, one of the richest women in the world and heir to the l’Oreal company.

These four affaires share the common factor of suspicion in involvement of the illegal financing of Sarkozy’s electoral campaigns of 2007 and 2012. Last October, Sarkozy was cleared and received a non-lieu (no ground for public prosecution) in the Bettencourt affaire.

On March 6, the headlines of the daily “Le Monde” were a bombshell: the former president’s phone had been tapped since April 13 by orders of the judges d’instruction ( investigating judges running preliminary inquiry) – a totally unprecedented occurrence in the French Republic. In early March, the judges opened an inquiry for traffic of influence and corruption against Sarkozy, his lawyer Thierry Herzog, and Gilbert Azibert, general counsel at the Cour de Cassation (highest judiciary court in France).

An aggressive perquisition (search) was conducted in Herzog’s Bordeaux residence. Ten police and judges showed up at eight in the morning. The lawyer’s computer and his portable phone were seized. The taking of the former president ‘s personal “carnets” (agendas) created a great commotion. In a television talk show, the president of the Bar commented that these actions were reminiscent of the Stasi.

Up to that point it was all bad news for the former president. The socialist government had remained prudently quiet. The wiretapping of Sarkozy was legal (he did not have immunity any more) as long as there was a suspicion of infraction. However, the accumulation of proceedings against him was beginning to be seen as harassment. By coincidence, Eliane Houlette was appointed in the new position of “National Financial Attorney” on March 3 in order to deal with corruption and tax frauds. The first case was to be Sarkozy’s.

Then the blame game seemed to move from the opposition to the majority. As a journalist commented, the government turned this gold – Sarkozy on the run – to lead, with the government violating the independence of justice. The Garde des Sceaux or Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, a high-spirited and smart woman, born in Guyana, was put on the defensive and even accused of lying.

Did she know the content of the recordings? When did the prime minister and the minister of interior (Secretary of the Interior) know? Their evasive and even conflicting answers made them appear guilty when their main sin was probably just to be disorganized.

By the end of that memorable week, “Le Monde” published a letter, co-signed by the most eminent members of the judiciary corps, calling for moderation. The letter praised transparency, but said that lawyers were not above the law, and that wiretapping was only legal if carried out by independent judges. It also demanded a return to one of the basic rules of the French (and American) institutions – the separation of power between Executive and Judiciary.

HeadshotAbout the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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My Take on Embattled Ukraine

KievI’ve been getting one e-mail after another: “John, what you think about Ukraine? What’s it all about?  How do you feel about it?”   Why those emails?  Because many of you know that I served my Peace Corps hitch–the full 27 months–in Ukraine. And that was barely four years ago.

I never dreamed this awesome historic event would happen.  That I’d see the Ukrainian protestors —revolutionaries, in fact–storm into Kiev and topple the government. See their hated president abandon his office and take off to Russia to save his life. See the revolutionaries take over their parliament, the Rada. And set the country on a new and so-longed-for course—toward affiliation with the West and the European Union!

Read Full article on John LaPlante’s blog

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Letter From Paris: US Academy Awards Spark Thoughts on ‘Le Cinéma Francais”

Nicole Prevost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The ceremonies of the 86th “Oscars” and of the 39th “Césars” took place this week within two days of each other. In comparison with the glamorous and giant show of the American Academy Awards, the French Césars seemed almost like an intimate affair. But for the French it is very important as a way to evaluate the status of the film industry and for professionals in this field to reassert their contribution to the country’s Culture (note that ‘Culture’ is usually spelled with a capital “C” in France.)

In recent years – and this a very personal opinion – the French art of making films has been losing its edge as a leader in the industry, as it did for instance during the days of the Nouvelle Vague associated with the names of François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard in the late 1950s. Nowadays, the subjects of the films are so specifically French as to be un-exportable. Too often they turn into crowd-pleasers with simplistic plots and actors, who seem to have become the pet actors for the foreign market.

“The Artist,” which received multiple prizes in several countries in 2012, is the best illustration of this remark. It catapulted Jean Dujardin from a second tier actor in France to a star. Moreover, giving the award to a silent movie represents a negation of what makes French films special — that is, the thought-provoking ideas (such as Men and Gods, 2011) or the humor (such as the Intouchables 2012.)

Cecile de France, hostess of the 2014 Césars was most entertaining. She kept the proceedings at a fast pace and had several funny quips. She remarked, “Nobody’s perfect ” about the Belgians. This obviously alluded to her own origins and also to the fact that the director of the best foreign film was Belgian. Taking advantage of sexual orientation as the main theme of the evening, she addressed the audience thus, ” If there are any heteros in the theatre, it’s OK. There are still a few among us who are.”

Francois Cluzet, the President of the Cesars, as he appears (left) in Les Intouchables,François Cluzet (the lead actor pictured above, who plays a wealthy quadraplegic in the Intouchables), who was the chairman of the ceremony, made a few political comments to support the ongoing crusade of the intermittents du spectacle (show business workers) to defend the exception française (French exception.) For them, special unemployment benefits are at stake.

Guillaume Gallienne’s,”Les Garçons et Guillaume, à Table was voted as the best film and received five Césars. Gallienne is a societaire from the Comedie Française, the prestigious theater company founded in 1680. He developed the idea of his film from the one-man show he created. It is a funny, but mostly touching, story of a boy, who was brought up as a girl by a chain smoking and insensitive mother.

Mocked at home by his two older brothers and ridiculed by all, he survives years in French and English boarding schools. He continues to be the suffering nice guy always wearing a big smile on his face, until one evening at a roof party. The hostess calls out, ”a table, les filles et Guillaume” (“dinner’s ready, girls and Guillaume.”) He finally realizes he is not a girl. The film is centered on the brilliant acting of Guillaume, who also plays his mother, using the same voice.

The day after the Césars, Alain Resnais, a monument of the French cinema, died at age 91. He will be remembered by many movies, including, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, 1958 (after a story by Marguerite Duras) and ” Last Year in Marienbad“, 1959 (after a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, who was the champion of the Nouveau roman.)

HeadshotAbout the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: The Complex Conundrum of Ukraine

The future of Ukraine remains uncertain and the problems multiple.

After three months of violence opposing the people of Kiev and the government of Viktor Yanukovich, the situation culminated in a bloody clash on February 19, leaving over 60 dead and hundreds wounded. Why did the confrontation last so long? The West holds part of the responsibility. Some voices from abroad were just throwing oil on the fire, such as an inflammatory piece of Bernard Henri Levy entitled “Vive l’Ukraine Libre” in the Huffington Post. Besides, the European Union’s position was unclear and some of its members made unattainable promises.

The EU may have been slow in acting but when it did, its stand was tough enough to force the Ukrainian government to back down. Brussels mandated the ministers of foreign affairs of Poland, Germany and France to act as mediators, then announced immediate sanctions -cancelling visas of government officials, freezing assets of Ukrainian oligarchs abroad. At the same time, Angela Merkel, the chief mediator, was on the phone with Putin, both of them conversing in Russian and German. As early as five days after the peak of the violence, a few signs of appeasement began to turn the situation around. US secretary of state John Kerry said what needed to be said: there should not be a partition of Ukraine; the Ukraine should not be put in a position to have to chose between Europe and Russia. Even more promising was the statement made by Sergei Lavrov , the Russian foreign minister: “We want Ukraine to be part of the European family in every sense of the word” .

The Yanukovich government collapsed overnight. In rapid succession, the mayor of Kiev, the minister of defense ,the whole police force of Lviv in Western Ukraine, the president of the parliament and 40 of its deputies defected. Calm returned to Maidan square. One thousand policemen were escorted peacefully out of the city by the insurgents. An interim coalition government was rapidly formed and general elections were to be held before the end of the year. As to president Yanukovich, he just vanished.

Ukraine is not an easy country to govern. The politicians’ class is rampant with corruption and can be violent. Since it acquired its independence in 1991, at the implosion of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine has been in a state of turmoil marked by the “orange revolution” of 2004. The government’s way to deal with the opposition has been either to poison its members ( every one saw on the television the pock-marked face of former president Viktor Yuchtchenko allegedly poisoned by dioxine) or throw them in prison (prime minister Yulia Timoshenko was condemned to seven years behind bars in 2011). Fights in the Rada (parliament) are not uncommon. Seats in that assembly are for sale to the price of one million dollars. Deputies may be offered a large amounts of money to change camp.

Therefore it is not surprising that the people, who put their lives on the line during the civil war, refused to trust their politicians. The reaction -or rather the lack of reaction- of the crowd when Yulia Timoshenko appeared in a wheel chair on Maidan square and made an emotional appeal, is very revealing.. One might have expected a wild clamor of support. Bu no, it is not what happened. The people stood, almost frozen, listened to her politically-clever words but did not seem to buy her message.

Many foreign pundits, apparently influenced by the continuous media coverage of the events on Maidan square, seem to forget the other half of the Ukrainian equation -the Russians. It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the fact that Ukraine is part of the historical past of Russia and also of its culture. Therefore it is not only Putin who refuses any interference in the territorial integrity of Ukraine , it is also the Russian people.

Historically and culturally Ukraine is the cradle of Russia. The Russian nation started as a Kievan state. In the 10th century AD, Slavic prince Vladimir ruled over a huge territory including Novgorod, was baptized in 989 and absorbed the Byzantium culture. The magnificent mosaics and icons in St Sophia cathedral, completed in 1041, attest to those beginnings.

The cultural heritage of the Russians is also linked in many ways to the Crimea. The great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva joined other writers, like Osip Mandelstam and Andrei Bely. in the writers’ colony of Koktebel, in the eastern part of the Crimea. The short story “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov, which takes place in Yalta, is practically memorized by every Russian child in school. Based on a Pushkin’s poem, the ballet entitled The Fountain of Bakhshisarai (a town in central Crimea) is part of the permanent repertoire of the Bolshoi.

The violence which started in Simferopol only one week after the end of the uprising on Maidan square is a reminder that the situation remains explosive in the area.

What will be the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis ? A federation of autonomous republics, similar to the Crimea whose status was recognized by Russia in 1997 but only for a period of 10 years?

Another thought. Joseph Beuys, (1921-1986) is probably the best known artist in Germany to-day. As he was flying with the Wermacht in 1944, his plane was shot down over the Crimea and saved by a Tatar “shaman” . Beuys’ installations and other works are inspired from that unique experience. This is what Ukraine may need- a Tatar shaman .

Editor’s Note: This piece was written prior to the invasion of Crimea by the Russians.

 

 

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Letter From Paris: Monsieur (le President) Hollande Goes to Washington

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

For the first time in 20 years, a French President was invited for a State visit to the United States. François Hollande was greeted with the highest honors, including a colorful pageant on the White House Lawn.

There was no better way to emphasize the historical ties between the two countries than a visit to Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. Jefferson, ambassador to France from 1785 to 1789, was an ardent francophile. But he was also a brilliant statesman — particularly when he bought Louisiana from France in 1808, which probably represented the best real estate deal of all time.

In happier days, French President Francois Hollande and then companion Valérie Trierweiler. (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

The logistics of the official dinner at The White House were the source of an intense “buzz” as to who would be sitting next to the American president in the absence of a French “First Lady,” after the recent break up of Hollande from his long-time companion, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, shown above together in happier times.

The meeting of the two presidents in Washington had a strong symbolic importance aimed at reinforcing their respective statures on the world scene. France is one of the staunchest allies of the US today. It has an aggressive foreign policy demonstrated by military interventions in Mali and Centrafrique and the essential role it played during the international, ongoing negotiations regarding Syria and Iran.

Last summer the attitude of Obama was widely interpreted a slap in the face for Hollande when the latter was left high and dry after his offer to provide military assistance to the US against Syria. Laying out the red carpet in such a manner on this visit might be interpreted as a form of gratitude toward France.

Most of the difficult questions were asked during the press conference, but both Obama and Hollande chose to avoid contentious topics; criticisms were muted. The resentment felt by France and the rest of Europe about the NSA surveillance was not brought to the forefront. However, Obama did express his discontent about the untimely presence of a group of French businessmen in Iran even before any agreement was signed with that country.

Unlike Sarkozy, Hollande was not invited to speak in front of the US Congress. This is not entirely surprising since the presence of a socialist leader could have ruffled too many conservative feathers.

Since the major press conference Hollande gave at the Elysees palace on Jan. 14, it seems that a government plan to turn around the French economy is developing. The declaration of a “Pact of Responsibility” between the state and the private sector, by waving the obligation to finance social benefits (a reduction of 49% of the cost of labor), constitutes a substantial stimulus for the economy.

This new policy was reaffirmed by Hollande’s remarks made during his stay in California. In fact, many thought he looked as if he were becoming more “Liberal Democrat” by the hour. The exposure to Silicon Valley, dynamic French companies and start-ups, successful young French computer scientists, the stimulating atmosphere of flexible working conditions and the surprising remarks about “crowdfunding” were all, in the minds of many, like fresh air blowing from the West coast.

The French President enjoyed having lunch with the CEOs of giant internet companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Mozilla and Twitter. In 1984, the French President Francois Mitterand similarly enjoyed meeting a certain Stephen Jobs, then 29-years-old.

The stay in California triggered a real “digitalomania” (my own neologism) in France. The media offered multiple talk shows about robotics, artificial intelligence, bio genetics and the like. Analysts pointed out that the information technology was the key to the restructuring of the French economy.

While a major snow storm impacted 49 out of the 50 American states, the French president, flying the northern route, ended his short, but definitely positive, visit to the United States.

HeadshotAbout the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: The Commuter Manifesto

“The Commuter Manifesto”

“Quit your moaning!”  “You’re not a railroad person, what do you know?”  “You don’t like the train, try driving.”

These are the reactions I get, especially from railroad employees, when I have been critical of Metro-North in the last few calamitous months.  They think I’m a “moaner”, though I try just as hard to be positive about the railroad as to criticize its failures.

But it’s not about me.  Mine is not the only voice calling for sweeping changes at the railroad.

So in launching the Commuter Action Group I knew it was important to be specific about riders’ expectations of service… to define a few basics of what Metro-North customers deserve in return for the highest rail fares in the US.

Thus was born, “The Commuter Manifesto” which I ‘nailed’ to the waiting room wall at several train stations:

We, the riders of commuter railroads in Connecticut, are tired of deteriorating service, rising fares and indifference and ineptitude from Metro-North.  As customers and taxpayers we deserve better and expect change.  Our expectations are few, and simple:

Safety First

We expect a clean, safe, on-time, seated ride on trains with heat / AC and lights.  Don’t treat us like cattle making us ride on railcars you wouldn’t ride on yourself.

We want to know that you make our safety your top priority.  Make every employee understand that responsibility.  If they do anything that jeopardizes safety, discipline them or fire them.  There is no excuse for stupid mistakes.

Fast, Accurate and Honest Communication

When things go wrong, immediately tell us what’s happened, why and when it will be fixed.  When you make a mistake, admit it.  Stop making apologies; get things fixed and don’t repeat the same errors over and over again.

Responsive Customer Service

When we see a problem, give us an easy way to report it to you.  Then get it fixed and follow up with us to tell us it’s been resolved. Our complaints shouldn’t fall into a black hole.

Train your employees to be courteous and efficient, treating us like valued customers.  When they don’t meet those standards, train them again.  There should be zero tolerance for rude behavior by employees … or commuters.

Open and Transparent Operations

Let us know how you make decisions that affect us by opening all of your meetings to the public and media.  Share your goals and self-evaluations and ask our opinions as well.  The way you run the railroad affects our lives and we should have input.

Leadership That Listens

Meet with commuters on a regular basis at times and locations convenient to us.  Hear our complaints and suggestions and answer our questions.  We will listen to you if you will listen to us:  we’re in this together.

 That’s it.  A few simple expectations the commuters of Metro-North have of their railroad.

The reaction so far?  Enthusiasm from commuters… back-patting by the pols… but from the CDOT and Metro-North, silence.

Really?  Are we asking for so much?

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Letter from Paris: There’s Something About Sochi

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

xxii-winter-olympics-logoAfter a few weeks of a media coverage of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games saturated with predictions of terrorist attacks, confrontations and unpreparedness, it felt a relief to watch the opening ceremony on Feb. 6 proceed without any significant hitch.  The smiling and happy faces of the athletes parading inside the stadium before the beginning of the show were the promise of two great weeks on TV. (Close to four billion viewers watched the last winter games of Vancouver).

The sheer number and size of the national teams are astounding. Compared to the 250 sportsmen from 16 countries who participated in the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, today more than 3,000 people make up the delegations from 87 countries. Women have come a long way since the 1900 games when their appearances were limited to tennis and golf.

The German president of International Olympic Committee(IOC), Thomas Bach, defused the feared boycott caused by the Russian government’s homophobic position.  He declared that no discrimination would be tolerated toward any group of people.  President Putin of Russia made the shortest -10 second – speech of his career when he declared open the XXII Winter Olympic Games.

The opening ceremony was a grand scale production – Russians have always been good at those – that evoked the nation’s history.  It started with a short film showing Slavic tribesmen in a small vessel.  Actually the scene looked rather like ancient Greeks on their mythical quest to find the Golden Fleece on the distant shores of the Caucasus.

After a romantic 19th century program exalting Russian literature, music and ballet , the post-1917 era was introduced by dozens of young dancers wearing costumes straight out of a Malevich painting. The message was clear: the Russian establishment had reconciled itself with abstract art which had been vilipended for so long.

The host country of the 2014 games had to show its pride in the most glorious event of its history: the orbiting around the earth of the adulated “cosmonaut” Yuri Gagarin.  The patriotism toward the country’s achievement intensified when five heroes of the past walked in, bearing the Olympic flag.

Among them was Valentina Tereshkova , the first woman in space in 1963 (she was a beautiful young woman when I met her at a reception given at the French embassy in Moscow in 1965).  The youthful appearance of tennis champion Maria Sharapova, who trained at the Sochi sport center until the age of seven, was obviously directed at the modern audience.

The Sochi games have been organized at a high human, financial and environmental cost: corruption, expropriation of local population, damage caused to the “Sochi National Park” and to the “Caucasian Biosphere Preserve”- a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Nordmen Firs, which are the tallest trees of Europe (close to 300 feet high) grow in those areas .

Some of the blogs against the Sochi project have been so vitriolic as to be uninformative.  It is better to read well-researched pieces like the one published by David Remnick. Remnick was the Washington Post correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s and now is the editor of the New Yorker.

Soviet and Russian leaders have cherished the sub-tropical coast of the Black Sea. Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov and Yeltsin all had their summer residences in Sochi prior to Putin.  It was on his return from his dacha in Pitsunda, in what is today Abkhazia, that Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown by Brezhnev on Oct. 15, 1965. Gorbachev’s dacha was located west of Yalta in the Crimea (we were boarded by an armed patrol craft for allegedly sailing too close) .

We circumnavigated the Black Sea on our 44-foot ketch in the summer of 1991. We had obtained visas for Sochi.  In retrospect, our visit to Sochi was a preview to the 2014 games.  In an outdoor theater, we happened to watch the production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” by the Rock Opera St Petersburg Theater.  It was the first Russian-staged production of that musical.  There will be a repeat performance during the games.

We stayed at the very busy new marina called coincidentally the Center of Sailing Sports or “Olympic Centre.”  Or was it a premonition on the part of the Russians that there would be Olympic games one day in their town?

HeadshotAbout the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: All Things Braque and Beautiful

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The Georges Braque retrospective in Paris – the first in 40 years – just closed its doors after four months at the Grand Palais. Braque is best known for being one of the creators of cubism. But it would be an error to overlook the rest of his creative life, which was in constant metamorphosis from “Fauvism” at age 24 to his art studio and magnificent birds series from the 1930s onwards. He was one of those rare artists to be recognized during his lifetime since honors were lavished on him.

Georges Braque (1882-1963) was a tall, handsome man with a quiet manner. Instead of joining his father as a painting contractor, he left Normandy and moved to Paris to study art. Soon he joins the Fauves (Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck) and his paintings at l’Estaque, or La Ciotat, on the Mediterranean, are an orgy of colors.

Then, after a two-year period, with the same apparent ease, he absorbed the geometrization of nature approach that Cézanne was the first to introduce. The old master had died just one year earlier. Braque turned houses and vegetation into stylized shapes, devoid of any detail. His colors are muted.

In 1907, Braque went to the Bateau Lavoir studio of Picasso in Montmartre. Since 1905, Picasso (two years his junior) had been feverishly working on the “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Braque sees the preparatory studies Picasso had done, and is stunned.

From that time until the beginning of the Great War, a relationship – unique in the history of art – is formed between the two artists, based on mutual stimulation without any trace of rivalry. They were like mountain climbers roped together, to use Braque’s own words. Braque’s “Le Grand Nu” of a heavy set woman, with a distorted body, the face like a mask, shows the same understanding of African art that Picasso imbued.

In 1908, art critic Louis Vauxelles commented that Braque’s painting were reduced to cubes — thus, the word “cubism” was born. Braque and Picasso were about to create the most important aesthetic revolution of the 20th century.

In the next few years, cubism evolved through several phases: “analytic” with the de-multiplication of the object into facets, absent of perspective. A second phase, called “hermetic”, followed. It is austere, to the point of being illegible, with colors reduced to camayeux (monochromes) shades of grey and ochre. During the final “analytic” phase, the artist introduced clues to help the onlooker: letters from wine bottle labels or newspapers, or parts from a piano, guitar or mandolin (Braque had a passion for music.)

During this period, Braque and Picasso were also to invent totally new techniques to be emulated by many other artists: first the method of “collage ” using a variety of materials like sand, metal shaving, ground glass or dirt. In his key painting titled, “Compotier, Bouteille et Verre, “(fruit dish, bottle and glass) of August 1912, he introduced the method of “papiers collés” (glued papers) serving as “trompe-l’oeil.”

In 1914, Braque is called to the European front. In May 1915, he is seriously wounded in the Artois battle and undergoes brain surgery. After coming out of his “trou noir” (black hole), he begins a long convalescence. Not surprisingly, given his personality, he feels no bitterness, nor anger .

He returned again to cubism, but this time his paintings are vibrant with colors and, in spite of their abstraction, easier to read.

In the 1930s, his series of still life paintings in his art studio setting is so complex as to be called “studio landscapes.” A charming chaos seem to lift fruits and objects and pile them on the ubiquitous “guéridon” (round table.) An exuberant humor replaced the austerity of his pre-war cubism. American collectors, like MOMA or the Phillips gallery, are enthusiastic about his new works.

In the mid 1950s, the artists introduces a new theme : a bird floating above the apparent disorder of the studio. In “Nid dans le Feuillage” (Nest in the foliage), the bird flies over an eerie mountainous landscape toward a nest lit in a frigid light. The emptiness of his very last painting,”Sarcleuse,” is overpowering. Under a black sky, golden wheat undulates in the breeze. The metal wreck of the “sarcleuse” (agricultural machine) left on the beach is a final message of human activity.

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: The George Washington Bridge

The George Washington bridge is the busiest vehicular traffic bridge in the world.

The George Washington bridge is the busiest vehicular traffic bridge in the world.

We’ve read a lot about the George Washington Bridge (GWB) in recent weeks.  And the scandal over who ordered closure of approach lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., only underscores how crucial this bridge is to the entire region.  All of which got me thinking about the GWB and its history.

Surprisingly, the GWB was not the first bridge design to cross the Hudson River.  As early as 1885, there were discussions of building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at about 23rdSt.  A later design in the 1920’s foresaw a double deck, 16-lane-wide roadway (with 12 tracks for railroad trains on the lower level) at 57th Street.

But it was in 1927 that work began on the GWB much farther uptown at 179th Street.  The $75 million single-level bridge carrying six lanes of traffic opened in 1931 and was widened by two lanes in 1946.

Originally the bridge was going to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise (really!), but it was a campaign by school kids that ended up honoring our first President.

The original designers had planned for the future and, in 1961, the lower level, six-lane “Martha Washington” bridge opened to traffic, increasing total capacity by 75%.

Because we usually approach the bridge from the east or west, it’s hard to appreciate its enormity until you’re right on the structure.  But from any angle it’s a beautiful bridge, showing its bare criss-cross girders and bracing, which were originally to have been clad in concrete and granite.

The GWB is recognized by civil engineers and architects alike as one of the most beautiful in the world.

In its first year of operation the bridge carried five million vehicles.  Last year it carried 102 million.  On opening day, the toll was 50 cents each way.  Today the one-way toll for autos (only collected eastbound) ranges from $9 (EZ Pass off-peak) to $13 (cash).  But pedestrians can still walk across for free (when the sidewalk is open).

Those walkways, while affording a wonderful view of the city, also have a dark side as the GWB was scene of a record 18 suicides (and 43 attempts) in 2012.

On an average weekday, 17,000 bus passengers rely on the GWB’s own bus terminal built atop the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (not the Cross Bronx) on the Manhattan side.  There they can catch the A train or the Seventh Avenue IRT.  The bus station is undergoing a $180 million renovation.

The bridge itself is a living thing.  It creaks and groans, moves and sways and it needs constant maintenance.  In 2011, the Port Authority announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace the bridge’s 529 vertical suspender wire ropes.  In addition, lanes on the upper level are being closed (at night) to replace steel plates on the road surface.

All of which means more jobs and, eventually, higher tolls.

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at Jim@MediaTrainer.tv  

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Letter From Paris: ‘French-Bashing’ Doesn’t Add Up If The Numbers Are Wrong

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The latest round of “French bashing” has been circulating on the internet, touching a nerve among the French social networks . On January 3rd, Newsweek journalist Janine di Giovanni published on the magazine’s website (Newsweek has ceased to appear on news stands for around a year) an article titled, “Fall of France.” She is a successful correspondent covering the war scene in the Middle East, but her only qualification to write about France is that she has been living in Paris for 10 years. Two days later, the Newsweek editor reiterated its attack on France in another article, this time, “How a Cockerel Nation became an Ostrich.” That article, in fact, repeated the recommendations addressed by the European Commission to the nine countries of the EU (European Union), France among them.

Di Giovanni’s general message is that the decline of France has greatly accelerated under the Socialist government of François Hollande and that the “French model” of a providence state (the author calls it a “nannie state”) is not sustainable. This is not an original point of view and the French themselves are frequently criticizing their own system and trying to modify it. The American-born journalist has written an entertaining and clearly poorly researched article. She backs her arguments with a mixture of true, false and, sometimes, outrageous information, which make the piece quite entertaining.

Challenges, a well-established French weekly magazine dealing with economy, and reliable web sites, such as Decodeurs.com, have gone to the trouble of analyzing point by point di Giovanni’s story.

The most glaring mistakes she makes concern the excessive taxes. She writes: ” Since the arrival of the Socialist President François Holland in 2012, the income tax and social security have rocketed. The top rate is 75 percent and a great many pay in excess of 70percent.” In fact, in 2011 (that is under Nicolas Sarkozy) the top income tax bracket was 43.7 percent and today it is 45 percent. The tax of 75 percent is only paid by the very rich with an income of over one million Euro.

By decision of the Conseil Constitutionnel, the tax of 75 percent is not considered as a separate tax bracket. It has only been paid by 11,960 households. Furthermore, the tax is not paid by the individuals, but by the firm which employs them. Finally the Newsweek journalist may have mixed up income tax with the amount paid by the employer (including social benefits), which resulted in a doubling of the numbers.

Commentators had a field day with some hilarious statements made by di Giovanni. There is no word for entrepreneur in French, she claims. Apparently she forgot that the word entrepreneur is French! Another is quoting the price of a liter of milk as being six euros when it is only 1.33. An online reader commented that the author must shop at the most expensive gourmet Grande Epicerie of the luxury department store of Bon Marché.

From her bourgeois apartment near the Luxembourg garden in the 6th District – the most expensive in the capital – she has a strange perception of what real life is like for the working population. Talking about nurseries, for instance, she writes that they are free, can be found in every neighborhood and provide free diapers. In fact, only some 13 percent of the middle class can afford nurseries and they have to pay roughly 9 percent of their income for using them.

The French seem to regard such “bashing” as stimulating … and it certainly keeps them on their toes.

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: Top Ten Things I Like About Metro-North

Jim CameronDespite what you may think, I don’t hate Metro-North. Sure, I am outspoken about its many failings, but always with a goal of making it better. So, to prove I’m really a fan of the railroad, I’m kicking off the year with my “Top Ten Things I like about Metro-North”:

10) New Stations: Reflecting expanded demand for rail commutation, CDOT added new stations (and parking) at West Haven and Fairfield Metro in recent years.

9) Lost & Found: Metro-North runs one of the biggest and best Lost & Found operations in the country handling, over 50,000 items a year.

8) Package Tours: You might not realize it, but the railroad offers all sorts of package deals for big-city events, combining train tickets, admission and even hotel stays.

7) The Bar Cars: Metro-North is the only commuter railroad in the US that still offers patrons a bar car. There are only a handful of bar cars left, soon to be retired and possibly not replaced, so enjoy ‘em while you still can.

6) Online Tickets: You still can’t buy a ticket on the train using a credit card, but you can buy them online (and receive them by mail)… and they’re even cheaper (by 2%) than purchasing them at a ticket machine or Grand Central.

5) The TrainTime App: Forget about those old paper timetables and get yourself the new TrainTime App (for iPhone, iPad and Android). Not only does it show train times, but track numbers, any delays, fares and station information. And it’s free!

4) Expanded Schedule: The trains may be running slower, but there are more of them than ever before. Service on weekends has been expanded as ridership has grown and more cars were added to the fleet.

3) Grand Central Terminal: There is no more beautiful rail station in the world. And for the next 269 years it will be managed by the MTA, parent of Metro-North. Their renovation of the station completed in 2007 has turned a station into a destination. The shops, restaurants and open spaces are the envy of commuters everywhere… especially the poor “Dashing Dans” on the LIRR who arrive in the squalor of Penn Station.

2) The new M8 Cars: Years late in their design and delivery, the newest cars in the Metro-North fleet are clean, comfortable and much appreciated. With power outlets at every seat (and someday even WiFi), the first 300 of the M8 cars on order are proving themselves dependable even in winter weather.

1) On Time Performance: No matter how great the destination, how comfortable the train or how expensive the fare, nothing matters more to commuters than getting to their destination on time. Until recently, Metro-North had an enviable on-time performance in the upper 90%’s, a number I’m confident they can achieve again.

For each of the items mentioned above Metro-North deserves credit. Can each be improved? Sure. But let’s see the glass as more than half-full and give the folks at the railroad their due.

I still love Metro-North. I just want to be able to love it even more.

About the author: JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years. He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at Jim@MediaTrainer.tv

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Letter From Paris: A Pope for the People

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

After nine months as the leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics, what changes has Pope Francis made in the people’s lives ? That question can be answered on different levels.

On Christmas Eve, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was absolutely packed, with standing (and sitting on the ground) room only. Believers and visitors from around the globe wanted to share the most important time of the church year. The senior prelate of the cathedral, who was celebrating the Eucharist, instead of standing solemnly at the lectern to give his homily chose to walk through the nave all the way to the back of the church. A photographer and a sound engineer followed the priest as he mixed with the people in order to record the event for the nationwide televised program.

From the very start, Pope Francis has been reaching out to the people, with simplicity and a joyful manner. His popularity was immediate and the crowds on Saint Peter’s Square multiplied. There is definitely a heightened fervor among the faithful and his style is spreading through the churches.

To understand the impact of Pope Francis on more substantive levels, one has to study his exceptional background. Born from Italian immigrants in Argentina, he is the first pope coming from the New World. At the same time, he has strong ties with Europe since he wrote his thesis in German. Besides that language, he speaks French English, Italian, Portuguese, and, of course, Latin.

But the most important factor is that he is the product of two intellectual currents existing in the catholic church: Jesuit and Franciscan. To become a Jesuit, one has to study theology and philosophy for 15 years. This Catholic order, founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, follows a strict obedience to the doctrine. At the same time, as a significant departure from his intellectual origins, he chose to be called Francis – a first for a pope.

This symbolic choice made him the spiritual heir of St. Francis of Assisi. This background explains why he combines an unshakable attachment to the traditional doctrine regarding, for instance, the celibacy of priests, the excommunication of divorcees or the rejection of abortion, with his intent to be the “Pope of the Poor” and his openness to others.

His first action will be to put the Catholic Church in order, following a number of human and financial scandals, which have shaken it over many years. Probably the easiest reform to implement will be to reorganize the Vatican’s administration and reduce the size of the Curie. With his own dislike for ostentation, he, himself, will be the best role model.

Finally, he has an immense potential of influence in international affairs. He seeks dialogue with both Judaism and Islam. Vatican specialists describe him as the most charismatic and powerful personality in the world, particularly after Nelson Mandela’s death.

It remains to see whether — and how – he will exercise this influence.

Nicole Prévost Logan, resident of Essex Meadows in the summer, Paris in the winter.

Nicole Prévost Logan, resident of Essex Meadows in the summer, Paris in the winter.

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter from Paris: Merkel Warms French Hearts

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

The integration of Europe moved forward this week following important events.

On Dec. 15 Angela Merkel was reelected for the third time as German Chancellor. Her victory was made possible with the coalition of her Christian Democrat party (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD).

The composition of her new government gives an indication on the future policies of Germany. Among the nine CDU ministers, Wolfgang Schauble will remain as the indispensable minister of finances and as such will guarantee a certain continuity. The crucial post of economy/energy will be occupied by an SPD member. So will foreign affairs, to be headed by pro-European Walter Steinmeier. It is interesting to note that for the first time a woman will be in charge of Defense: Ursula von der Leyen, 51, is close to Angela Merkel, French-speaking and a mother of seven. The ministry of immigration is also to be headed by a woman who, even more significantly, is of Turkish origin.

There is no deep ideological difference between the CDU and SPD parties. French analysts stress that it would be a mistake to assimilate the German social democrats to the French socialists. The former are “center left” rather than “left”.

According to tradition, Merkel’s first official visit abroad was to France. Her next stop was Brussels to attend the summit meeting of the European Council. Arduous negotiations led to important decisions – as important, some experts say, as the creation of the Euro currency.

Merkel will not abandon her general policy of financial discipline, but will relax her hard austerity line. Germany’s economic policy will be slightly less liberal. A minimum wage of 8.5 euros is to take effect within three years. The new program will reduce the number of “poor workers” and should give a boost to the domestic consumption. It will also alleviate criticism expressed by other European countries of unfair competition on the labor market.

A banking union and the European defense were the main topics of discussion. The creation of a banking union is intended to put a stop to the bailout of failing banks at the expense of the tax payers. So far financial support for countries in trouble like Greece or Spain has been supported by only 27 percent of Germans, and even less – 20 percent – of the French.

Merkel has always been against the “mutualisation” of the sovereign debts. The new directives give greater power to the Banque Centrale Européenne (BCE – Central Bank of Europe) over the banks in order to prevent speculative investments. The BCE will also oversee the creation of a “funds of resolution,” financed by the banks, which will amount to 55 billion by 2026. Brussels will only intervene in case of urgent crisis. Obviously it will be hard for many of the states to lose sovereignty over their own budget.

The other subject of discussion in Brussels was the European defense. For Germany, defense is almost a taboo and most European states – except France – are unwilling to interfere in foreign military conflicts. Some progress though was made in specific areas such as cyber security, refueling of planes in the air, the use of drones by 2025 and controlling piracy along the Somalian coast. A limited amount of logistical and financial support is likely to be welcomed, particularly by France, who acted alone in both Mali and the Republic of Central Africa.

The Franco-German ” couple” appears now to be returning to center stage. As seen from France, the new developments are generally well-accepted by economists and other specialists. Overall, they seem to be impressed by the pragmatic behavior of the Germans and believe the German vote was a smart one – indeed, a rare mark of approval to be found in French opinion of German politics.

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Letter From Paris: Seasonal Signs in the City of Light … and Beyond

The Champs-Elysees in Paris with Christmas lights (file photo.)

The Champs-Elysees in Paris with Christmas lights (file photo.)

France is very festive at this pre-Christmas time. I just returned from a short visit to the village of Sanary Sur Mer on the Mediterranean. The grandiose gold and silver decorations contrasted with the bright colored “pointus” (small fishing boats) tossing about in the port.

Our next stop was Aix-en-Provence, which was also getting ready for the holiday season. It is a pleasure to look for shops wandering through the pedestrian streets of the old town and discover the 17th century architecture with its elegant courtyards and stairs. Rows of prefabricated chalets selling glühwein and regional pastries lined the Cours Mirabeau (the heart of the city) ending in an illuminated fountain. A hot chocolate in the old fashioned terrace of the Grillon cafe was a must.

If Paris ever deserves its name of the “City of Light,” it is at Christmas time. Each arrondissement has its own style of illuminations. They range from the elegant avenue Montaigne where trees and lights match the costly look of the main fashion houses to the more popular Bastille (where I live), which turn into an amusement park offering a stomach -curdling ride in the highest contraption of Europe.

The sight of the Champs Elysees is spectacular. This year the decorations consist of blue lights circling the trees. The computerized lighting of the Grande Roue (ferris wheel) overlooking the Place de la Concorde makes it look as if it is exploding in the sky. For many years, it has offered the best view over the city.  The Eiffel Tower stands aloof and sparkles for a few minutes every hour on the hour.

The Eiffel Tower decorated for Christmas.

The Eiffel Tower decorated for Christmas.

Borrowing a tradition which used to be more common in Germany and Central Europe, Christmas markets are now found every where in Paris. Their alpine look make up for the absence of snow. The esplanade of the Hotel de Ville attracts visitors with free skating ring and merry-go-round.

And, of course, there is the Christmas shopping, including the most popular toy of the year: the clone. I thought it was a good time for me to discover the latest and largest shopping mall in downtown Paris. The modernistic glass facade of Beaugrenelle is part of the group of skyscrapers built in the 15th arrondissement by the Seine river. As a sign of times, the budget of many families been has been reduced to 300 euros per person. As a result, shopping online and the use of newly-created second-hand supermarkets have exploded.

Oysters, foie gras and a good bottle of champagne are still the favorite with the French for their reveillon (meaning ‘the eve.’) On the 25th itself, the celebratory meal will be planned around a goose and end up with a bûche de Noel (Christmas log.)

HeadshotAbout the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter from Paris: ‘La Conversation’

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

La Conversation” is the kind of play Parisians love: a brilliant exercise of actors just talking and conversing on all the subjects of their time.

The scene takes place in the Tuileries palace in 1802 between First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte and Second Consul Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès. Bonaparte is a young general of 34, impatient to acquire more power. Vladimir d’Ormesson, dean of the Academie Française (a learned assembly of 40 “eternal” members, whose role is to perfect the French language), wrote an imaginary dialogue carried out in an elegant style.

The tempo of the conversation is rapid. The topics move from the mundane to the lofty. At first, Bonaparte discusses food, then becomes animated when telling a funny anecdote of a family fight over a shawl. The conversation touches on Bonaparte’s relations with women, including a beautiful blonde he met in Egypt during the 1798 campaign. When he speaks about Josephine, it is with a tangible emotion.

Although Bonaparte’s seven siblings are hard to manage, he acknowledges how much they serve his ambition of becoming a ruler over Europe. A current exhibit at the Marmottan museum shows the striking personalities of his three sisters. Elisa, grand duchess of Tuscany, is an enlightened patron of the arts and a powerful brain. Caroline, the wife of dashing general Murat, is the ambitious and plotting queen of Naples. Princess Pauline Borghese was so incredibly beautiful as to be called the “Venus of the Empire”. She was also very generous and sold all her assets to accompany Napoleon during his exile on St. Helena.

The conversation flows along revealing Bonaparte’s personality, his ambitions and his accomplishments. Cambacérès just acts as a sounding board. Meekly he expresses opinions which are swiftly bulldozed by the first consul. Bonaparte is proud of his military victories like the Pont d’Arcole, or Marengo. He considers himself at the service of the French and for them has created a legal and administrative system (which still exists today.) He brought down the monarchy of the Ancien Regime and wants power, but not as a king. He looks at Rome, and what does he see? Ceasar and the Empire. Yes, this is what he wants: be the emperor.

In the small theater, a captivated public savors the references to their common historical past. The uninterrupted conversation is a refreshing break from the modern world of texts and smart phones.

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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A Letter from Paris: Art Déco in the Air

Nicole Prevost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

“When Art Déco seduced the World” is one of the most popular exhibits of this season in Paris. It celebrates the artistic movement which bloomed in the 1920s and the 1930s. Monuments of that period can be seen around the world — from Moscow to Shanghai or Brussels and particularly in New York City.

What is Art Déco? In the lineage of late 19th century Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement, it is a celebration of “total art” forms with the use of multiple materials: glass, wood, ceramic, wrought iron, and the introduction of reinforced concrete. The style even included the production of furniture featuring textiles and fashion made famous by designer Paul Poiret.

The architecture and sculpture were characterized by geometric and stylized forms. Completed for the 1937 international exhibit, the Palais de Chaillot, also called Trocadéro is probably the most imposing monument of Paris and is built along classical, but very sober lines. It replaced the much-maligned neo-moorish former Trocadéro.

Art Déco was the artistic expression of modernism. It was emblematic of the relief felt after the end of World War I. Artists had a field day applying their creations to the most visible buildings of urban life like swimming pools or stadiums.

But what they enjoyed most were the department stores. Their elegant cupolas, grand staircases, decorated with colorful ceramic, their crystal chandeliers dazzled the new consumer class. In Paris, the department stores multiplied, including Le Bon Marché, La Samaritaine or Le Printemps. Les Galeries Lafayette even orchestrated the publicity stunt of a small plane landing on its roof.

Modern times meant an ever faster pace of life. Nothing was more dashing than a Bugatti sports car surrounded by elegant “flappers” ready to take the wheel. The new era also meant traveling the world. On May 29, 1929, the Normandie, the largest, most luxurious ocean liner ever built, made its maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York. The ship turned into a “floating embassy” — a showcase for the diffusion of French art around the world. Lalique, the master of glass carving, created the panels of the Normandie’s first class.

In New York, the 14 original Art Déco buildings of the Rockefeller Center still stand. One cannot miss the Alfred Janniot’s sculpture placed above the entrance of the Maison Française. The gilded bronze bas-relief represents the meeting of the American and the European continents.

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Letter From Paris: Immigration Woes, Thanksgiving in France

Nicole Prévost Logan in Paris.

Nicole Prévost Logan in Paris.

The pressure of immigration into Europe is growing. Thousands of immigrants are seeking refugee status for economic or political reasons. The television showed an incredible scene of young men climbing over barbed wire like swarms of insects, falling down, being shot, to be followed by hundreds more. It was not a scene from the July 2013 Brad Pitt’s science fiction film “World War Z,” but of the electrified fence erected by the Spanish government to protect its borders from African migrants. Other walls exist around Europe. The next one will run along the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

The tragic drowning of 300 people near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October shocked the European opinion. The problem of immigration, if studied case by case, and not in terms of statistics, triggers strong emotions.

It was also the theme of “Welcome,” a 2009 French movie . A well-educated and determined 17-year-old boy from Kurdistan wants to join his girlfriend in England. For weeks he is stranded in an inhospitable refugee camp near Calais, in the north of France. During his first attempt at crossing the Channel hidden under a truck, he is caught by the police, almost asphyxiated by CO2 fumes, his head inside a plastic bag. His next plan is to swim across the English Channel. With the help of a compassionate coach, he learns how to do the crawl. At his first attempt, he is pulled out of the water by fishermen and brought back to France. He tries again, but, just in sight of the British coast, a police boat spots him. He drowns, while trying to escape.

Western Europe represents an Eldorado for all these asylum seekers. By granting various allowances to the new migrants, France has become particularly attractive . But its social structure is becoming unable to absorb the ever growing numbers. This year there were 70,000 requests for asylum as compared to 60,000 in 2012.

In October, the Affaire Leonarda (the case of Leonarda) illustrated the problems with the immigration policy in France and caused a political crisis. Leonarda is a 15-year- old daughter of a Kosovo national (Kosovo is located in the Balkan Peninsula of Southeastern Europe and recognized as a sovereign state by 106 member states of the United nations, though its status is still disputed.) After living in Italy for 17 years, with his Italian wife and seven other children, the man decided to move to France in 2009.

Since then he has made four attempts to obtain refugee status, all of which were rejected. The work load of the French judicial courts make the process so slow that the family had plenty of time to settle in France and put the children in school. Time was on the side of Leonarda’s family given the rules on naturalizations: children born in France of foreign parents become French automatically at age 18 after spending five years in France.

In mid October, as Leonarda was getting off the school bus, the police arrested her and sent her back to Kossovo with the rest of the family. The public opinion reacted in a fury, blaming the Socialist government of breaking the sacred rule of non-violation of the schools.

To the surprise of many, President Francois Hollande was the one to address the nation on TV. He started by saying that the police had broken no law in arresting Leonarda, nor used any violence. Then, during the last two minutes of his speech, in an unexpected switch, he concluded that, because of humanitarian considerations, he would let Leonarda return to France, but alone – an impossible situation for a 15-year old. His position satisfied almost no one.

A brief word on a more cheery subject — American expatriates in France are very attached to Thanksgiving and celebrate it between friends and relatives, usually on the weekend

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Letter From Paris: Taxing Times in France

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In spite of lively street scenes in Paris, crowds strolling in the Tuileries gardens, restaurant terraces full of people enjoying a copious lunch and long lines at museums and movie theaters, the ongoing austerity measures imposed by the Socialist government contribute to a morose mood in France .

In the past two years, new taxes have multiplied. More people have to file income taxes, some retirees are struggling to survive on their pensions, the Taxe sur la Valeur Ajoutée (TVA – the equivalent of sales tax in the US) on restaurants — after being lowered — is going up again to reach 10% next January. Corporate taxes have also increased.

The population was encouraged to invest its savings into special accounts. Promises of a guaranteed interest of 3 percent on these savings accounts have gradually vanished. It is today below 1 percent.

The northwest region of Brittany is in in uproar following a new “eco-tax” imposed on truckers, fishermen and farmers.

A tax of 75 percent on annual incomes higher than one million will hit particularly the stars soccer players, who threatened to go on strike for one week-end in November. When one knows how fanatic the public here is about its soccer matches, one might expect violent scenes.

The TV series called “A Village Français,” now in its third season, continues to enjoy top ratings. It shows how the average French people behaved during the German occupation. It depicts the whole spectrum of the population, ranging from despicable collaborators to courageous “resistants” with — in between — the vast majority just trying to survive and protect their families. The show is done with honesty, avoiding black and white judgments. By 1943 the French became more daring , as their spirits were lifted by the London broadcasts.

This is a great idea: for a small fee, courses in the English language are offered to the passengers riding the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV – high speed train) from Rheims to Paris – a facility to be extended to other railroad lines.

About the Author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Transportation: Slow Orders for Metro-North

Jim CameronNo, it’s not your imagination.  Service is getting even worse on Metro-North. And there’s no sign of short-term improvements.

This has been a terrible year for Metro-North and its 120,000 daily riders in Connecticut:  the May derailment / collision, the death of a track worker and the September “meltdown” because of a failed Con Ed feeder.  But the repercussions of these problems still affect us, months later.

Trains are late on a daily basis, even after the railroad adjusted the timetable in August to reflect longer running times.  What used to be a 48 minute ride from Stamford to GCT is now scheduled for 55 to 60 minutes.  But in reality, with delays, it takes more than an hour most days.

Why?  Because of “slow orders”.

After the May derailments, Metro-North brought in some high-tech rail scanning equipment and checked out every inch of track in the system.  Of immediate concern were the below-grade tracks in the Bronx, long subject to flooding.

Concrete ties installed between 1990 and ’96 needed to be replaced due to deterioration.  Ties and fencing were also replaced in a job so large that, at times, three of the four tracks were taken out of service.

Admittedly, it’s hard to run the busiest commuter railroad in the US with 75% of your tracks out of service, but the work was necessary and commuters were asked to be patient.  At last report, the Bronx work was 80% completed.

So that means train schedules will soon return to “normal”?  Sorry, but no.

It turns out that the Bronx is just one of the causes of the current delays, something Metro-North didn’t tell us.

With new timetables coming out on November 17th, some train runs may be improved by a minute (yes, 60 seconds), at best. It seems that all those high-tech track inspections since May turned up many spots where work is needed.  And until that work can be completed, the trains running over those tracks are operating under system-wide “slow orders”, in effect cutting their speeds from 85 or 90 mph to an average of 60 mph.  Don’t believe me?  Fire up your smart phone’s GPS next ride and see for yourself.

The railroad still blames daily delays on the work in the Bronx and wet leaves, but the truth is far worse.  At recent NTSB hearings on the May derailment, Metro-North admitted they are far behind on track maintenance, inspections and repairs in Connecticut but couldn’t explain why.  Until the tracks are fixed, trains won’t be allowed to run at full speed.

One thing they did acknowledge to investigators is that they don’t have the experienced staff to do the needed welding and repair work, having lost so many veteran workers in recent months to retirement.

The slow orders make sense.  Safety should always come first.  But why can’t railroad executives be honest with us about why we are suffering with these delays, how long they will last and what they are doing to minimize the disruption to our daily commutes?  Remember:  winter is coming, adding another layer of misery and delays to our commutes.

Sadly, my mantra from five years ago has proven correct:  Things are going to get a lot worse on Metro-North before they get better.

 JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com  or www.trainweb.org/ct

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The Shockingly Unthinkable Has Happened – A Library With No Printed Books …

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It’s like going to the moon.  Unthinkable when I was a boy.  But it happened …

Now something else totally unthinkable to me has happened.  A brand-new library has been built but with zero printed books.  It’s filled with digital books– only e-books.  Can you believe it?

This isn’t a science-fiction fantasy.  That e-library is a reality, here on this planet and now, with its doors open to the public as I write.

It’s in Texas, in San Antonio, which is in Bexar County.  It was designed and built just for this radically new purpose, so it’s futuristic looking, of course.  Take a good look at the photo I’ve included.

Read full story on John’s blog

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Jim Schneider the Super School Traffic Cop

IMG_0165Old Saybrook, CT– It’s a nice, sunny afternoon. I stand on the corner in amazement. Jim Schneider is the traffic cop here.The school day is over and the loaded school buses are filing out from the Goodwin School, one after another. Also parents who have picked up their kids. Soon teachers and staff will be driving out. It will be a hectic 40 minutes or so.

I say in amazement because Officer Jim is doing his thing. Right out there in the middle of the intersection, mind you. And nobody does it better. He’s 72 but as agile as an Old Saybrook High varsity tennis player. And just as determined and energetic.

I’m one of his fans. I stop by the town library on many afternoons. It’s just up the street. I like to stroll over at 3:15 now and then to watch him. He is really something to behold.

Read the full story here

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Transportatation: Metro-North Meltdown

Jim CameronFirst of all, despite what some commuters may recently be thinking, the folks who manage and operate Metro-North are not stupid.  Inconsiderate and uncommunicative sometimes, but not stupid.

Metro-North managers and employees are railroad professionals, justifiably proud of the 96+% on-time performance they achieve on one of the busiest commuter line in the US.  They want to run a world class railroad.  But they can only achieve as much as the states of NY and Connecticut fund them to do.

In recent years our legislature gave MNRR $1+ billion to buy badly needed new railcars, a very visible manifestation to commuters that the state was investing in the railroad.  But sufficient funding for inspection and repair of the tracks, the catenary and our 100- year-old bridges is still lacking.

New cars are sexy.  Giving them safe tracks to run on and wires to power them, not so sexy.

What happened when Con Ed’s back-up feeder cable failed at 5:30 am on Wednesday Sept 25th was not an act of God, but human error.  The two agencies knew the main power cable was going to be out of service and calculated, very wrongly, that the single back-up cable would be sufficient.

This raises a number of questions:  Did Con Ed monitor that back-up cable for signs it might fail?  Was it wise to save $1 million by not constructing a back-up for the back-up?  Does Homeland Security know or care that the entire Metro-North and Amtrak Northeast Corridor were depending on this calculation? How many other power sub-stations are in similar danger?

The effects of this outage are many:  the inconvenience to 125,000 daily riders, the economic impact on those commuters’ businesses, and longer-term, the economic recovery of our state and nation.

Governor Malloy quickly called this outage just the latest black eye for our state in his efforts to attract businesses to set up shop in the Nutmeg State.  Even if they can tolerate our high taxes, do relocating CEO’s really want to rely on Metro-North to get their employees to and from work or fight the perpetual rush-hour crawl on I-95?

I fear some individual commuters may be reaching the tipping point.  There are plenty of other New York suburbs with good schools and more reliable transportation.  If fed-up Connecticut commuters decide to vote with their feet and move to Westchester or Long Island, they will take their taxes with them.  Remember that Fairfield County pays 40% of all state taxes in Connecticut, so anything that makes our neighborhoods less attractive, hurts the entire state.

And it hurts our house values too.  People live in the towns served by Metro-North because they need to rely on those trains to get to high-paying jobs in NYC.  When that trust is broken, those towns and their houses become less attractive.

If housing values sag, town taxes will have to go up.  The schools will suffer making our towns even less desirable for those leaving the city for the good life in the ‘burbs.

Reliable train service at an affordable price is what makes Fairfield County thrive.  When you begin to doubt the ability of the railroad to keep operating, let alone be on time, it may be time to rethink where you live.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com  or www.trainweb.org/ct

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Deep River Residents Enjoy Homesteading Life in Maine

Richard and Maria on top of their new world, happy in their fields of wild blueberries.  Visible  below are their home and barn, and far back, Lake St. George. She picked the flowers on the walk up

Richard and Maria on top of their new world, happy in their fields of wild blueberries. Visible below are their home and barn, and far back, Lake St. George. She picked the flowers on the walk up

Liberty, Maine–Is it possible for two people in middle-age–late middle age –to change just about every aspect of their lives and find fulfillment in a new life style?

I said just about every aspect. Here is what I mean. To change the person they would live with. Where they would live. What they would do for a living. How they would spend their money. And so many other aspects that spin off from these.

Well, I know a couple who have done exactly that. And I have just seen them up close in this new life of theirs. Nothing on this earth is perfect, and that’s certainly true of human relationships. But from what I have witnessed of these two, I would say they are happy. In fact, surprisingly happy.

I am speaking of Richard and Maria King. Richard is from Deep River, Connecticut, which is my town. Maria is from Poland. They met online and then in Warsaw and quickly became convinced that they shared many aspirations.

Read the full story here

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Talking Transportation: Public Hearings or Political Theater?

Jim CameronI believe passionately in open, transparent government.  The public has a right to know what their elected officials are doing and comment on it before it’s done, usually by way of mandated public hearings.

So I was thrilled to see that the Government Accounting Office has issued a 56 page report sharply critical of the Port Authority of NY-NJ for raising tolls without public input.

In 2011, the Authority jacked up tolls by 50% on bridges and tunnels three days after a single public hearing, held on a weekday during rush hour.  And even at that one hearing, comments were taken without an explanation of the proposal.

It’s as if the Authority went out of its way to avoid criticism, constructive or otherwise.  And for that the GAO rightly criticized them.

We’ve seen this same thing happen many times in Connecticut:

  • The CDOT plans a rail fare increase, baked into its legislative budget, then holds public hearings.  Nothing said at the hearings can affect the decision to boost fares (except possibly to cut train service).
  • The state’s Transportation Strategy Board holds a public hearing on a million dollar study of over a dozen different possible scenarios for tolling on I-95, asking for comments but without ever explaining what the study said.
  • The state chooses to develop land under the Stamford garage in a secret negotiation with developers without ever seeking input from commuters on what’s planned.

The formula is simple, but backwards.  Lawmakers decide what they want to do and then hold a pro forma public hearing to get comments from those who will be affected.  Too often the decision has been made and, for political theater, they just go through the motions of asking for comment.

Here’s a novel idea:  why not hold a public hearing first, asking constituents, commuters and customers what they think?  Explain to them the necessity of a fare hike or development plan and then ask for their reaction.

Decisions by government-run monopolies should be made with input from all the stakeholders, not a handful of bureaucrats.  That’s how you build a consensus in a democracy.

But there is good news.  Recently in my town of Darien the pattern was broken.

A planned parking rate increase at the town’s two train stations, Darien and Noroton Heights, came up for a public hearing before the Board of Selectmen.  A final vote on the plan was on the agenda for the same evening.

But a handful of dismayed commuters who knew no details of the plan (boosting day-parking rates by 66%), turned up at the hearing and protested. They said they had not been warned about the proposal, that commuters had not been told of the public hearing and they had a slew of complaints and concerns about other aspects of the parking lots and stations.

I guess I was the one responsible for that turnout, as I’m the one who posted signs at the station and leafleted cars in the parking lot, something I told the town fathers they could and should have done.

To their credit, and my surprise, the public hearing was continued for another week and the rate-hike pushed back until more commuters could be heard.  Signs were posted at the stations informing commuters of the proposals and the chance to be heard.

The Board of Selectmen was not required to do that, but they did.  And they deserve credit and our thanks for listening first and voting second.

 JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 23 years.  He is a member of the new CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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A New Life in a New Land With Challenges Aplenty

Tarek and Elena  are all smiles as they get started in Quebec. They have faced  problems  before. He especially.

Tarek and Elena are all smiles as they get started in Quebec. They have faced problems before. He especially.

Longueil, Province of Quebec – I just had a wonderful visit with Tarek and Elena in this suburb of Montreal. Met their three cute little daughters, ages 3 to 10. They are brand-new immigrants from Ukraine, so eager to start a new life with much brighter opportunities.

I thought I’d be with them an hour or two. Well, it was more than three. So fascinating to hear what they went through to get accepted here, and how they’re making it. Not easy!

I got to meet Tarek and Elena when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. They worked at Headquarters in Kyiv, the capital. He was a pharmacist in the medical department. I’d meet him when I went to see a doctor there. I served a full-hitch of 27 months so that happened quite often.

I found out he spoke French, quite a rarity there. He had to speak good English for that job, of course. But he was also fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, which I expected, but also in Algerian. Quite a feat! Sometimes I’d poke into his office just for a little chat in French with him.

His wife Elena was the travel assistant. She was Ukrainian and a university grad. She handled arrangements for Headquarters staffers and Volunteers on official travel. By plane, train, bus, or any combination. In Ukraine and to any other country. All my travel was on my own, and I traveled quite a bit, in Europe and even to China. She didn’t have to be but was always cheerfully helpful.

They had good jobs. They were both in their 30s. I took it for granted they’d be there till they retired. Imagine my surprise when I got an email from him a year ago. In French, by the way. He told me they were moving to Canada. Wow!

He asked me if I had any contacts in Montreal. They didn’t know a soul there. I said yes, and put him in touch with a couple. He was very appreciative.

More than once I wondered, Why did they make this enormous move, and with three little kids? Leave family and friends, and of course lovely Kyiv? What made them decide it was worth facing all the difficulties and challenges they were sure to run into in Quebec?

So when I decided to come up here in my van, I lost no time asking to stop by and visit. He promptly and enthusiastically said yes.

I had bad luck. I showed up an hour late, and through no fault of mine. I had hardly parked when all five came out to welcome me. They had been at the window, watching for me!

It was the first time I saw Lisa, Sofia, and Amalia. What sweet little girls.

I knew that Elena didn’t know a word of French, which is the official language here. That was something to cause them concern. And the little girls would be facing that challenge, too, plus other tough adjustments.

Well, Tarek filled me in about everything.

First, about him. He was born in Ukraine and grew up in Algeria, and that’s why he’s so good at French in addition to the native Algerian. His mother was Russian and his dad Algerian. They met in Moscow when they were students.

In Algeria, he decided he wanted to be a doctor. I asked him why. A lot of doctors go into medicine primarily to make money and enjoy prestige. That’s well known. “No, no,” he said. “I wanted to help people.” I believe him. He graduated from medical school in Algiers and passed the credentialing test and became a certified M.D. there.

There was a war going on. He wanted no part of it. He moved to Ukraine. He had relatives there. He found out that he couldn’t practice medicine there because of a crazy technicality. That’s how he got to work at Peace Corps as a pharmacist.

Along the way, he met Elena again. Love! Marriage! There three kids were born there.

So why did they decide to move to Quebec? “We have three kids and we wanted for them to have more opportunities in life, and grow up in a multicultural environment. We spent a long time deciding. We’d move to another country. It hasn’t been easy. But we’re very glad we made that decision.”

I said to him, “You were turned down by the United States, is that what happened.” In my work in Ukraine I had run into many people who thought about emigrating, and the U.S. was always their first choice. They thought of our country as Paradise on earth. I always agreed with them that we’re a very wonderful country, but we have problems, too. We’re no Paradise.

“No, we never considered the United States,” Tarek told me. That astonished me. I took it for granted that the U.S. had been their first choice.

“Why not?”

“It’s a fine country, but Canada is better. It is less aggressive, that’s for sure. Children can grow up with less worry about having to go off somewhere in the world to fight in a war.

“And Canada, like the United States, is made up of people with all kinds of backgrounds, but Canadians seem to be more accepting of one another. There’s less discrimination, it seems to us.

“Taxes are much higher here, but there’s more money spent on services for people. Canadians don’t have to worry as much about good health care, for instance. Or good care when they’re old. Or their children getting a good education that will be affordable. We researched all that. And that’s how we made our decision.”

I knew that he was studying to be a pharmacist in Montreal. “How is that going, Tarek?”

“No, not a pharmacist. That takes five years and leads to a doctorate. I’m studying to be licensed as a pharmacist technician. That takes one year full-time. I’ll complete that by Christmas.”

“Gosh, why assistant? That surprises me.”

“I just turned 40. I have to earn money! Elena is studying French full time in a College—a special program of preparation for immigrants. She enjoys it. Is learning French. Quebec history and culture. Many practical things. Important things.

“And I intend to be a doctor again. That is my dream. It is possible, though there are many steps and it will take time. I will achieve it faster this way. Five years in pharmacy school would make it impossible.”

I remembered that back in Ukraine, Tarek was completing a fellowship in radiology, including nuclear radiology, at a major hospital there. He’d be a radiologist now if they had stayed there. Imagine that. They’d have a good life over there.

I looked around as we spoke. They had a nice apartment on the first floor of a six-apartment building in a lower middle class neighborhood. It was safe and comfortable and clean and had all the basics. Even hot water and a washer and dryer and a TV and full computer set-up, but it’s not the place a couple with their credentials would normally live in.

Elena was a warm and caring person. She kept coming out with something for me. A cup of hot tea with mint and ginger. Delicious. Then she came out with a supper plate of toasts with scrambled eggs. She knew I didn’t eat flesh of any kind. She had some wonderful herb in those eggs. Then a piece of cake. Then a baked apple.

I kept thinking that had been a prestige job she had back in Peace Corps. I wondered about her feelings now. She did seem radiantly happy in her role and mother. The two of them certainly had a close and caring relationship. I could see that.

She spoke fine English, but I knew she didn’t speak French. In an email, I had asked Tarek if I should speak in English or French when I was with the family.

“French, please. It will be good practice for them.”

So French it was. I had to compliment her. I could tell she was following our conversation. Even joining in.

It had taken them three years to get through the admission process. A lot of suspense. They had to agree to a lot of things. One was to send the children to French Schools. Another was to arrive with $5,000 dollars—Canadian dollars–in their pocket. That’s a lot of money for Ukrainians. A teacher earns about $2,000 a year, as I remember it.

“That $5,000 is to keep an immigrant family going for the first three months,” he said. “If we had gone to Ontario next door, we would have needed $10,000. But Quebec is what interested us.”

He thought a minute. “It takes at least $20,000 per year to get by here. Just get by. We bought that nice computer in the living room because it was absolutely essential. We use it every day. It’s so useful so many ways, including my studies, of course.”

Elena spoke up. “I speak to my father in Ukraine every day! By Skype. On the computer!” She beamed as she said that.

I asked her, “Do you like snow? There’s an awful lot here!” I was sure she’d say no. I myself got tired of snow many years ago. Had to shovel too much of it. Drive in it too often. Many people feel as I do.

She laughed. “We love snow!”

They have no car. He takes a bus every morning, then switches to a subway to get to school in Montreal. Does it in reverse to get home. Takes an hour each way. They chose this apartment because it was close to all the important things. Thy walk, walk, walk. In 10 months they haven’t had the time or the money to visit anything beyond the range of city transit.

It’s a hectic schedule. He goes to classes every day. She goes to her own classes. The two older girls are in primary school. The youngest is in a day care. The weekends are precious.

With all those languages, what do they speak at home. Russian and French. Those are the most important for the girls right now. Hopefully the others, too, some day.

He brought up the subject of money again.

“It costs a minimum of $20,000 a year for a family to get by here. That’s a lot of money. And pharmacy school is expensive. We do get financial help. I receive a study grant from the provincial government. A check every month. But it is for a limited time only. I will have to pay back a small percentage of it. That’s all. And there’s also a program of family assistance. So much for each child. We receive that every month, too. It is very helpful.”

He smiled. “It is a challenge! We expected it to be a challenge. We are doing fine. My job prospects are very good. One step at a time. When I get a job, we will buy a car. I will take lessons. Elena will take lessons. And in due time we will be full Canadian citizens! Our little girls will grow up in a free and democratic society.”

And he would be a medical doctor, I felt quite sure.

I brought up the question of politics in Ukraine and in Canada. A natural question. But he didn’t want to get into it. I could understand that.

It’s only when he mentioned how he and Elena planned to take driving lessons that I realized they had never learned to drive. It really was a different world back there in Ukraine.

I felt so good to see what a good and loving home life they were enjoying, despite the difficulties. And how they were going all out to make it even better with their little daughters in this new world so different.

I was positive that if Quebec had extended such a welcoming hand to them, with assistance of this kind and that kind, it was because Quebec was sure that they would become very valuable new citizens.

Quebec was as determined to make a better future for itself as they were for themselves.

A win-win situation in the making!

 

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Talking Transportation: Saving Money on Metro-North

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Whether you’re a daily commuter, an occasional day-tripper or have friends visiting from out of town this summer, everyone can save money when you go into NYC on Metro-North by following this time-tested advice:

TRANSITCHEK:  See if your employer subscribes to this great service, which allows workers to buy up to $245 per month in transit using pre-tax dollars.  If you’re in the upper tax brackets, that’s a huge savings on commutation.  A recent survey shows that 45% of all New York City companies offer TransitChek which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries.

GO OFF-PEAK: If you can arrive at Grand Central weekdays after 10 am and can avoid the 4 pm – 8 pm peak return hours, you can save 25%.  Off-peak’s also in effect on weekends and holidays.  Your train may be less crowded, too.  These tickets are good for 60 days after purchase.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE: Buy your ticket on the train and you’ll pay the conductor a $5.75 – $6.50 “service charge”… a mistake you’ll make only once!  (Seniors: don’t worry, you’re exempt and can buy on-board anytime without penalty). There are ticket machines at most stations, but the cheapest tickets are those bought online.  And go for the ten-trip tickets (Peak or Off-Peak) to save an additional 15%.  They can be shared among passengers and are good for six months.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES:           Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50% over adult fares.  Or pay $1 per kid on board (up to four kids traveling with an adult, but not in morning peak hours).  Seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare get 50% off the one way peak fare.  But you must have proper ID and you can’t go in the morning rush hours.

FREE STATION PARKING: Even stations that require parking permits usually offer free parking after 5 pm, on nights and weekends.  Check with your local town.

CHEAPER STATION PARKING:  Don’t waste money parking at comparatively “expensive” station garages like South Norwalk ($ 10 per day) or Stamford ($10 for 8 hours, M-F).  Instead, park at the day-lots in Darien or Noroton Heights for just $3.  But be sure to buy a scratch-off ticket in advance.

Once you’re in the city, you can save even more money.

METROCARDS:  Forget about the old subway tokens.  These nifty cards can be bought at most stations (even combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offer some incredible deals:  put $5 on a card (bought with cash, credit or debit card) and you get a 5% bonus.  Swipe your card to ride the subway and you’ll get a free transfer to a connecting bus.  You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a week ($30) or a month ($112).  There’s now even an ExpressPay MetroCard the refills itself like an EZ-Pass.

IS IT CHEAPER TO DRIVE?:  Despite being a mass transit advocate, I’m the first to admit that there may be times when it’s truly cheaper to drive to Manhattan than take the train, especially with three or more passengers.  You can avoid bridge tolls by taking the Major Deegan to the Willis / Third Ave. bridge, but I can’t help you with the traffic you’ll have to endure.  Check out www.bestparking.com to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination.   Or drive to Shea Stadium and take the # 7 subway from there.

The bottom line is that it isn’t cheap going into “the city”.  But with a little planning and some insider tips, you can still save money.  Enjoy!

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Past-Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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Enjoying Old Route 66. Or what’s left of it

Nothing I saw was this beautiful.  But some things I saw along 66 I’ll never forget.

Nothing I saw was this beautiful. But some things I saw along 66 I’ll never forget.

Hello, all. This is my 72nd day on the road and I am in Dayton, Ohio, a city which is a dramatic story in itself but for a later time.

I just  looked at my odometer. I have driven 3,675 miles and I am finally in the Eastern Times Zone!  So, I am getting closer. If I made a mad dash.I could make it home in two days. But I won’t do that. Still have places I want to see. And I’m still having fun.

If I had taken Interstates all the way home in the most direct way, I’d be home by now and would have saved a lot of gas money.
Yes, since the start, I’ve driven some short stretches on Interstates. Not because I prefer them. No, no, no. Only because it would be silly not to.

Whenever it made sense, I’ve chosen state roads–secondary highways. Some four lanes, some two. All in mostly good condition. but some bumpy ones, too. But, believe me, what a relief not to be tailed by a parade of huge trucks, which all choose the Interstates. What a relief to cruise at a calm 50 or 55 rather than frantic 70 or 75.  What a pleasure  to again see occasional houses and people and little businesses and even small towns.

Now, about Route 66

It was a historic highway. Truly historic.

Much of it is gone, yet I’ve traveled hundreds of miles on some of its remaining stretches. Some of it has been dull. But much of it wonderful and very worthwhile.

Familiar with it? Old Route 66 is sometimes called the Mother Road. Sometimes called America’s Highway.  As you may know, Route 66 has been celebrated, in fact immortalized, in countless books and movies and songs and videos. It’s as American as apple pie.

It was our most famous highway in pre-Interstate Highway times. It remains an indelible part of our romantic past.
It was built in the 1920s as our very first paved highway for its whole length–paved  for automobiles,  of course, which were the flivvers of those day. It was not a state highway. It was a U.S. highway. What a huge and important break-through that was.

It was our longest highway by far, more than 2,000 miles in all. It connected Chicago on its eastern end and Santa Monica on the California coast at the other.

Before it was created,  no way could someone in  a flivver attempt even a ride of 50 or 100 miles across that terrain…too many flats and break-downs. Let alone think of  crossing two-thirds of the USA! Which Route 66 made i possible to do, and quite comfortably.

It changed everything. Businesses boomed. Commerce took off between towns and cities and states. Markets opened up. People’s views of life and work and country expanded. We  became bigger. For the first time really, people became Americans instead of just citizens of this town or that county or state.

And a remarkable thing happened. All along Route 66 sprang up gas stations and restaurants and boarding houses and hotels–and then the newfangled motels.

Route 66 was a two-lane road in the beginning, sometimes black-topped, sometimes concrete. What a pleasure it was to drive on a smooth surface, and with no fear of having to ford a little stream or break an axle on holes and ruts.

Route 66 was impressively engineered with reasonable grades up and down. It offered solid bridges with no annoying planks to clatter when you crossed over. Astonishing road cuts in hills to make the going easier and safer.

It was as significant for the dawning Automobile Age as the transcontinental railroad had been half a century earlier.

Of course, Route 66 was imitated by other states for their highways. All built to similar high standards. And before long, all states agreed on common standards for their highways. Finally we had a system of highways making it possible to venture far and wide. What a feat!

Then bad things happened for Route 66.

President Ike Eisenhower came along and began pushing his idea of federal interstate highways. He said they were essential for our national defense, he said,  and, of course, for our expanding economy.

His Interstates would have even higher construction standards than Route 66 and the other state roads like it. The’d have understandable markings-be even-numbered for the stretches east and west, and odd-numbered for those north and south.

And free! Well, except for a few exceptions such as the Massachusetts Turnpike, which charged tolls.  It was my home state then. How Massachusetts  and the others—Connecticut was one–got away with that, I don’t know.

But! What happened is that Route 66 and its many imitators suddenly became painfully quiet.

People flocked to the new Interstates. They loved whizzing along with no traffic lights. Loved the easy on and easy off.  Loved traversing even large cities in  mere minutes, or just skirting around them. What time-savers the Interstates were. And they made road shipments of goods of all kinds so much easier and faster—even faster than the railroads could do the job.

But dire consequences, too. For one thing, countless communities shriveled up.” Out of Business” and “For Sale” signs began appearing.  It was a death sentence for some communities. And for many others, a humbling one—few people stopped by any more.

Some sections of the Interstates replaced sections of Route 66. In other places, the Interstates paralleled it. Route 66 became far less important. Fell into decline. So, after many years, Route 66 was “de-commissioned”! Route 66 is no longer a federal highway. How many times has that happened? Not many.

I got to really sample the old highway

Many sections still exist. I have ridden numerous sections of it. Now and then in deplorable condition—so bad I couldn’t wait to get off it. But in other sections, especially in creative-thinking communities, their sections of the old route were hailed for their promotional value for business in general, and especially tourism.

I’m pleased to tell you Route 66 has been a wonderful treat for me especially in Oklahoma. I’ve traveled it happily for mile after mile. So enjoyable. Through many small towns, some with populations of only one or two thousand.

I’ve stopped at small country stores to buy a few bananas or glance at local newspapers. Any excuse to poke around and stretch my legs. I’ve stopped to walk up and down a quaint main street. Explore antique shops and check thrift stores; what fun. Visit local libraries, of course—some tiny ones with just a room or two, and I’ve been welcomed at all of them.   Yesterday I stopped to enjoy a flock of goats in a small pasture–white bodies with brown heads. So identical they seemed factory-made..

I stopped again this morning, this time to enjoy cows in a lush field. About30 or them. I’ve seen lots and lots of cows. These were different.  Usually they’re all black or all brown or maybe all white. These were mixed, like us Americans!.

I took out my camera. Hollered at them to get their attention. They ignored me. Hollered again. Only one or two looked up, but just for a second. Then they got a signal, I swear. They all turned their tail and started walking away from me. I felt insulted. And I had made a U-turn to come back and be friendly and say hello. How impolite.

Things got different at the Oklahoma line.

Crossing from Texas into Oklahoma was dramatic. It’s the right word. For many days I had been driving over vast stretches of geography often with nothing in sight. No houses, no ranches, no trees, no people, no animals except a bird now and then.  Just a car whizzing by in the opposite direction once in a while.

Several times I stopped to take a picture showing nothing on any side. Nothing. Just endless flat land! That’s a strange experience, believe me.

The chane in Oklahoma was so fast. I began top see grass–green grass. And clumps of trees, small and then bigger. And even a little pond (wow!). Then groves of trees. Then a forest. Hey, it made me think of Connecticut. All in just a few miles! It’s as if somebody had drawn the  Texas-Oklahoma state line right there because they were  struck just as much as I was by the huge contrast.

I’ve crossed practically the whole state on Route 66. Along the road I’ve noticed numerous historic markers about it. It’s surprising how many pamphlets about it I’ve picked up, and about things to see along it.

I just remembered I should tell you this.

It happened at the Motel 6 in Santa Few, New Mexico. I had put up there for a week when I got ill.

I heard unusual noise in the parking lot at 8 a.m. I peered out. Many Harley Davidson motorcycles were parked out there. Unusual.Their riders were getting ready to take off. Men and women in their 40s and 50s in leather—leather helmets, boots, gloves, the works. The men sported beards and tattoos. The women huge earrings and tattoos. Quite a sight.

I opened the door. A big, burly rider was right there. “Where are you from?” I asked. “Where are you going?”

He said something but I didn’t understand. His strange accent. He noticed. Repeated for me.

“From  the Czech Republic! We are riding Route 66!” He smiled at the thought. A great adventure, obviously. He was so happy.Yes, riding Route 66 all the way.  It would take them 21 days.

They were packing their stuff into a big white van–their support van for the whole trip. In minutes, the lead driver gunned his throttle and they all started up. You should have heard the roar! And off they went.

I went online to learn more. Companies offer  motorcycle travel fans, and they advertise them here and abroad. A typical package includes the round-trip air fair, the rental bikes, the motel stays, the support van, and other basics.

But there are many extra costs. Gasoline, and insurance,  many meals, and fees at parks and museums and special amusements.

That 21 days could build up to $10,000 per rider.

I got to see Oklahoma’s two proudest cities

Route 66 took me through huge Oklahoma City and only slightly smaller Tulsa.  I arrived in both around 5:30 p.m. as planned. I wanted to arrive after most folks had gone home. Just to drive around slowly and savor the two cities.

For years, Oklahoma City was a big cattle town and Tulsa a huge oil town. You can still see many signs of this history in them. They have a lot more going for them now.  They are greatly diversified now, and you can tell they are prosperous.

Most Midwest cities have common features and I saw that clearly in these two. Their streets are laid out in grid patterns. In New England our street patterns are so wild and crazy. And Midwest cities have wide streets and keep them very clean. So many of our cities back home do not.  It seems a matter of pride for these cities. And these cities look fresh, safe, wholesome. Can’t say that about some of our cities.

Both have  big, tall buildings. But what big big city does not? Methinks it’s all about keeping up with the cities in your league. The way so many of us do our utmost to keep up with the Joneses.

The tallest buildings are the newest, of course, and they feature lots of glass and aluminum and stainless steel. The big buildings of the previous generation are less tall, and they feature fancy masonry and concrete. They didn’t have today’s technology back then.

It’s fun to speculate what the next generation of big buildings will look like. I’m sure architects are scratching their heads to come up with something different that will be bold and exciting. The temptation is to design buildings taller and taller . To me, such thinking is foolish. Those big buildings de-humanize us. Make us feel insignificant.  And they’re dangerous. I wouldn’t want to work or live way in one of those monsters.

As expected, both cities boast fine museums and shops and parks and restaurants. I would have given both more time and attention a few years back. I’m still interested, but it’s so hard so find parking spots now! Don’t giggle; I think you get my drift.

A day never, never to forget

In Oklahoma City, it was my Day 34. The sky was gray and threatening.  Sure enough, I soon felt a few drops, but coming down faster. My very first rain  in 34 days! It felt good. Then it came  down hard and I was so glad I had packed an umbrella.

Well, tornadoes hit the area, as you know, including a humongous one. It killed 25 men, women, and children or so in tiny Moore. Injured many, many more. Destroyed property in the multi millions of dollars. A huge calamity.

Strangely, I was very close to all that. Just 10 miles or so away. I say strangely because I never saw any tornado. I was totally unaware this big one was raging.. Then I saw two police cars whiz by at 80 miles an hour, red lights and sirens on.  I still didn’t know why. Very soon I got emails from family and friends worried about my safety. Some said they were praying for me. How wonderful. But that’s how I found out!  It was a pleasure to send out word I was fine.

Of course, the risk of so many tornadoes every year is scary. Oklahoma averages more than a hundred, more than any other state.  It’s a big state and tornadoes hit usually just small areas, but still.

I know that sales of pre-built steel Tornado Safety Closets are attracting buyers.They run $5,000 and up. People buy one for their basement and consider it a smart buy. And many people consider tornado insurance a must.

Who thinks of such things in Connecticut? Of course, tornadoes could hit us, too. Imagine what even a small twister would do to little Deep River!

Those poor Okies back during the Dust Bowl

More than once while driving through Oklahoma I thought of the awful Dust Bowl here in the mid-Thirties.That’s what they called that incredible disaster. Long periods of drought, poor agricultural techniques, and record-high temperatures–110 degrees and higher–led to the Dust Bowl–the topsoil got blown away! Massive crop failures. Bankruptcies. Countless families threw in the towel. Packed up what they could and headed west. Left Oklahoma and never looks back. An awful chapter in the state’s history.
Another disaster like that seems ruled out because of numerous improvements, plus the fact modern agriculture is so much smarter.

Now let’s hope the day will come when Oklahomans will say, “Tornadoes are a thing of the past! We know how to control them!”
Meteorology is making great strides. Science has brought us so many wonders that we once thought impossible. Science will triumph again. The question is, when?

Leaving Tulsa, I had to abandon Route 66.  It was heading northeasterly. I had to head east, toward the northwest corner of Arkansas.  I said goodbye to Route 66 with regret.

My impression of Oklahoma all the way across is that it’s a great big beautiful lawn. And that Oklahomans are nice people.
Well, I’m glad  I favored Route 66 . I got a much better look along it and got to enjoy the ride so much. It’s wonderful that Route 66 is being remembered so fondly.

If only we had done as much for our Route 1 from Maine to Key West, Florida! It was historic, too.

Adios!

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Talking Transportation: The July Gas Tax Increase

Jim CameronThis week marks the 30th anniversary of the Mianus River Bridge collapse, which killed three people.  That accident on I-95 in Greenwich was attributed to years of neglected inspections and maintenance, the inevitable result of penny-pinching in Hartford.

Will the recent Metro-North crash (which injured 76 passengers) also be tied to long-postponed repairs?

Last week, the CDOT’s Commissioner testified before US Senator Blumenthal that Connecticut has spent $3.2 billion in the last decade on the New Haven rail line, while Amtrak spent just $64 million.  And all that spending still couldn’t prevent the May 17 derailment.

But Commissioner James Redeker also said there’s another $4.5 billion needed to bring the line into a “state of good repair” in the short term.  That includes work on the catenary and replacement of four movable bridges, some of them 100+ years old.  Layer on top of this $130 million to meet the federal mandate for PTC (Positive Train Control), and you can see the problem.

Where’s the money to come from? 

Well, it will come from you and me.  On July 1st we will all start paying an additional 4 cents per gallon for gasoline, tax money that will go into the Special Transportation Fund (STF), supposedly to be spent on rails and roads.

But remember that it was Governor Malloy who (again) balanced this year’s state budget by raiding $110 million from that STF, something that, as a candidate, he swore he would never do.  Voters will decide if that makes Malloy a hypocrite… or just a pragmatist.  Either way, future Governors won’t be able to do it again as the legislature has voted to put the STF into an untouchable “lock box” starting in 2015, after the next election.

Over the past decade various lawmakers and Governors have stolen a billion dollars from the STF.  So not only are we about $4.5 billion short on needed funds for rail repairs, but the STF has been treated like a petty cash box and drained it at will.

How sad it is when we have to balance our state’s budget by taking money targeted for keeping our rails and highways safe… not to mention starting a state-wide Keno game, basically a “tax” on those ignorant enough to play it (with odds of about 9 million to one of winning the jackpot).

Kudos to Senator Blumenthal for pushing safety as a top priority.  Maybe he can also get Amtrak to start paying its fair share for running trains over our (state-owned and maintained) tracks.

But it’s not just our rails that are in bad shape.  This week the group Transportation for America released its annual report on the deterioration of US highway bridges:  one in nine of those bridges is structurally deficient and in need of repair or replacement.  In Connecticut, that number has grown, not declined, since last year.

Yet, our DOT is still moving forward with a half-billion dollar rebuild of the structurally sound Waterbury “mix-master” where Route 8 crosses I-84.  Why?

So, next time you’re filling your tank with the priciest gasoline in the Northeast, pick-up a Keno ticket.  You might have a better chance of winning there than ever seeing your taxes spent on improving transportation safety.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at jim@mediatrainer.tv  or www.trainweb.org/ct

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Zigging and Zagging My Way Home to Deep River

Veteran cross-country traveler John Guy LaPlante gives another update on his extraordinary journey by minivan from California to Deep River, Conn.

All alone on the road, for miles and miles, along a parched and empty land.  Ever experience that?  It can be the case on the High Plains of Texas.  Good thing I enjoy my own company.

I’m moving along happily, always ready to  jump off the Interstate  to go see something interesting.

As I write this, I have entered green and beautiful Missouri.  So refreshing to see real green!  It’s making me homesick for Deep River.

I have driven 2,285 miles to date. It’s surprising how little has gone wrong.

My adventure is continuing as well as I could expect.  As you know, I’m not doing this just to get home.  I’m crossing the USA  to enjoy the ride and have fun.

I keep a journal every day.  Just raw notes, hand-written.  I have done this for every significant trip and, in fact, many significant undertaking in my life for many years.  Our memory plays tricks on us.  Important to write down the facts.

The journal-keeping is a job in itself.  I’ve just finished my last entry for today at a Burger-King.  It’s 10:35 p.m. and it will close at 11.  I’m the only customer left in here.

I’ve been here for more than two hours–my typical evening routine.  A clerk—a nice young gal—is now giving me dirty looks.  Twenty minutes ago I went up and ordered one more thing.  An ice cream cone.  Mostly to keep her smiling.

I still have to find my way a few miles up the road to a Super Walmart—meaning one that never closes and sells just about everything, including full food and groceries.  Even gasoline at some, and always cheaper.  You may not know it, but it takes 600 employees—excuse  me, associates–to do the job in a store this big.

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My road atlas tells me the Walmart is there.  That’s where I’ll sleep tonight.  I’ll be lucky to slip into my bunk by midnight.  In the morning, I’ll go in, use the bathroom, and buy a few things.  This trip would be impossible without Walmart.  I mean it.

My trip is fun, but there’s a heap of work (notice the Western expression?) to a trip like this.  Yes,  work.  I’m busy from morning until night.  I do take a nap every afternoon.  As some of you know, I nodded off on a highway some years ago.  In mid-afternoon.  Doing 65.  For just three seconds, maybe five.  Awful!  I ran of f the highway and bounced off the rear left corner of a parked car.  It had a flat or something.  The three in the car were standing off at the side.

My airbag exploded.  I smashed the windshield.  Police, ambulance, the works.  No injuries but I totaled my beautiful Buick.  Damage aplenty to the parked car.  I was not penalized in any way.  Talk about good luck!

If I had hit that car square, I’d be dead.  Once like that is more than enough.  I’m not embarrassed to tell you I take a mid-afternoon nap.

As I look over my journal, I see far more in my many entries than I can tell you about without exhausting myself typing it up.

So, this report is not complete.  The reason is that I’ll be sending you  reports soon about three big experiences I’ve had.  One is my cruising Historic Road 66 for hundreds of miles–the Mother Road, our first modern highway across a vast stretch of the U.S.A.

The second is about my four days in Bentonville, Ark.  It’s the small, very ordinary little town where Sam Walton started Walmart and where he continued to live all his life, although he got to be worth multi-billions and could afford to live in a palace in the glitziest spot that suited him in the world.

And how small  Bentonville is now the world capital of Walmart and Sam’s Club, which he also started.  And how Bentonville has been vastly and beautifully transformed because of all the Walton and Walmart money.  And what a good time I had exploring Bentonville and soaking up all I could about Sam.  Four days was too short …

The third was my visit of several days in Independence, Mo.  Another small and indifferent city.  And how that has been transformed by another remarkable man, Harry Truman.

President Truman was a poor farm boy who never went to college.  Getting into politics and rising steadily, he was chosen to run with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in FDR’s fourth and final presidential election.

How Roosevelt spoke to him only once after the election.  And how after only 82 days as VP, Harry Truman suddenly found himself President of the United States of America.

Everybody thought Harry was in deep, deep water.  I think he thought so himself.  But he startled everybody with a dramatically effective tenure of seven years.  A tenure with truly historic moments that brought great changes.

How he retired to little Independence, which he considered the center of the universe.  How to his dying breath he remained deeply in love with his wife Bess.  And how he steadfastly refused to make a dime off his service as President, contrary to numerous other Presidents.

And how today he is regarded as one of our truly great Presidents.

Well, Harry transformed Independence just as Sam Walton transformed Bentonville.

My time in Independence was too short, too.

But now, let me tell you some highlights of my trip as I mosey along from California across America home to Connecticut.  I hope these highlights will give you a good idea of the good time I’m having.

My first time in a pawn shop in 60 years!

Dumas in the Texas Panhandle is a nice, very neat little city of 15,000.  On Main Street, I spotted $EZPawn.  That’s how it spells its sign. I hadn’t been in a pawn shop since I was 20.  I stopped in.  Small but very clean and well laid out.  I was surprised.  Hundreds of items.  Only one clerk, Sonia, about 28.  Taking inventory.  I said hello and she smiled back.

I was amazed by the wide variety of stuff—electronics, tools of all kinds, musical instruments, household appliances, tools, cameras and binoculars and jewelry, auto stuff—just about anything of value.  But no clothing or shoes.

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You’ll understand in a minute why I felt I had to stop in. Many pawn shops out here. None close to Deep River. We could use one.

I told her this was only my second time in, yes, more than 60 years, and she was amazed.  “So many people use pawn shops …”

$EZPawn is a regional chain, she said.  This store has been in business 40 years.  The only one in the area.  Solid reputation, she said.

“We do two things.  We lend people money on stuff they bring in, and we buy things from them.  Mostly we pawn.  Lend them money depending on the value of the item.

“And yes, prices can be discussed.  It’s a fact.  We try to work with people.  We hear lots of hard luck stories.  That’s expected in this business.”  I pointed to a nice electric drill, only $16.  And a small digital camera.  Only $8.  “Such low prices.  Are these things guaranteed?”

“We test everything.  Make sure it works.  And we give people 24 hours.  They can return anything.  After that, sorry!”

“What’s the usual pawn deal?”

“The stuff they pawn is the collateral.  We give people 30 days to pay back the money we lend them.  And two days of grace.  We charge interest, of course, but the rates are controlled by the state.  If they come in late to reclaim something, even one day late, sorry!”

“When you buy something, how do you set the price?”

“We look at it.  If we’re interested, we get a model number or a good description of it.  We go online.  To Google or Bing or others.  We check going prices.

“That’s our starting point.  Then we go up or down, depending on the  condition.  We try to be fair.  It’s the only way to stay in business.

“If something doesn’t move, we mark it down.”

“Do you yourself buy stuff here?”

“Of course!”

“An example, please.”

“An i-pad.  Excellent condition.  $199.”

“Wow!”

“Yeah.  The price was good to start with.  And I got my employee discount.  But you said you used a pawn service years ago!”

“Yes, I did. I was 20.  I was crazy in love with Pauline.  A big college prom was coming up.  Had to take her.  She was counting on it.  I was short of money.

“My Uncle Jack had just come back from World War II.  He was a grunt in the Infantry, fighting through France and Germany.  Like every GI, he came back with souvenirs he scooped up.  Gave me a pair of German Army binoculars—Carl Zeiss.  World-famous name.

“Well, I pawned them.  Got enough money for the prom.  Pauline was radiant.  She was chosen prom queen.  I had 30 days to get those fine binoculars out of hock, as you explained.  Never came up with the money.  Lost the binocular!”

She laughed.  I laughed, too, but not as much as she did.  The memory still hurts.  I’m glad my Uncle Jack never heard about it.  It would have killed him.

“You learned a lesson!”

“And how …  I swore I’d never pawn anything again.  I never have.  But I’d buy a few things here. But I think I’d try not to think of how bad people must feel when they come in to pawn something.  They’re desperate, I’m sure.”

“Yes.  For sure.  But we do offer a good service.  Lots of people come in.  May sound strange but we have some regulars.”

Ever see a Sonic Drive-In?  I hadn’t.

I’m still in Dumas.  Cruising main street.  I noticed a Sonic Drive-In.  Its sign was so tall and the Sonic was so busy that I couldn’t miss it.  It was at least the umpteenth Sonic I’ve seen on this trip.  I pulled in.

A classic drive-in.  We don’t have them back home.  You nose into a parking spot facing the restaurant, park, and stay right there in your car.  Each parking slot has its own big bright menu offering a thousand choices.  Select what you want.  Pay with a plastic card right from your front seat.  Relax.  A clerk in a nifty Sonic outfit brings you your order.  Pay him with cash if you prefer.

You can enjoy the food right there in your car.  Or drive away with it as take-out.  Rain or snow won’t be a bother.  Not much of either of those here, anyway.  No need to worry about whether you’re dressed sloppily or anything like that.  Plenty of advantages to choosing Sonic.

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Sonic has become the classic American drive-in. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Seem as popular as McDonald’s. For folks of all ages. Why not some Sonics in Connecticut?

But you can also go inside to order and eat, or eat on the covered patio.  My server was Ruben.  I saw his name on his badge.

Just out of his teens, I guessed.  I liked him right away.

“Ruben,” I said.  “Know what?  This is the very first Sonic I ever come in!”

“Honest?”

“Yep.  We don’t have them where I come from.”  I explained a bit.

“Well, welcome, Sir!  We have an awful lot of Sonics out here.  Folks love Sonic.  All kinds of people come in.  Especially in the evening.  Our floats are half price …  We keep hopping!”

“This is nice service you give.  Do people tip you?”

He paused.  “Some do.”  But I could tell right away that tips are rare.

A huge list on the menu, as I said.  Ice cream items are big.  Soft drinks, too.  But burgers of all kinds, too, fries, corn dogs, salads, on and on.  Breakfast all day.

I told him I wanted to take a picture for my family and friends.  Sonic would be interesting to most to them.  Would he pose for me?

He didn’t like the idea but agreed.  A nice young fellow.  And I took a shot of him by the big menu.  He was smiling, which was great.  I showed him the picture and I saw he was tickled.  Then off he went back to work.

In a minute he came back with a big, jolly man in a Sonic shirt.  The manager.  Again I explained this was my first Sonic ever, and he could see I’ve been around a long, long time.  Nice guy.  He dug into his pocket and gave me a fat plastic coin.  Red and white, with the Sonic logo.

“This will give you a free Sonic soft drink,” he told me, and smiled.  “ We have a thousand combos of flavors.  You tell me your pleasure.”

I don’t drink such things, but I didn’t say that. “I’d love one. Got a dietetic one?”

“Sure.  What’s your favorite?”  He pointed to the long list on the menu.

“You choose.  Give me your most popular flavor!”

“Ruben will bring it right out.”  He shook hands (Ouch!), gave me another smile, and went back inside.  Ruben tailed him in.

A couple of minutes and Ruben was back.  He had my drink.  Cherry something, he told me.  I took a sip and licked my lips.  “Great, Ruben!  Thank you!”

Big smile.  He was pleased.  I was pleased.  Glad I stopped in to check out the Sonic.  I don’t think I’ll ever cash in that plastic coin.  I’m going to hold on to it as a souvenir.

~ ~ ~

Too often folks don’t appreciate their home town.  I think it’s so sad.

I’m still in Dumas. It’s a small town and I’ve taken a good look around.  I like it.

In town after town I’ve said to folks, “I’m just passing through. What should I see here?” Including here in Dumas.

They think and think.  They’re hard put to think of something good to tell me.

Twice here somebody has said.  “Go see our history museum!”  I’ve done that and I enjoyed it.   I’ll tell you about it in a minute.

It’s curious they can’t think of something worthwhile.  I believe it’s because they haven’t seen many places.  Don’t have much to compare their town to.  They’re blind to the nice things they have.

Here, for instance.  If they had gotten around more, they’d realize that for a place its size, Dumas is impressive.

It has a busy shopping center with just about everything that’s needed.  Fairly prosperous, I think.  One reason is that Valero—Valero Gasoline—has a very big plant nearby.

Two people told me another big reason.  Next door in small Cactus –that’s the town’s name–is one of the biggest meat-packing plants in the world.

Another is tourism.  It’s all-important here for sure.  All the hotels and motels and restaurants and shops of all kinds on the main street tell me that loud and clear.

I noticed that it has a hospital and nice schools and a branch of a community college and banks and a library, and even that nice museum and art center.  I’ll tell you about them in a minute.

Dumas is carefully laid out and the streets are in good repair and the houses are well kept on street after street that I’ve looked at.  Nothing ritzy, but nice, neat working-people homes.

On my way here for more than 100 miles I went through only three itsy-bitsy little towns.  Just three!  Not a big grocery store in any of them.  Not even a McDonald’s or Burger King or Subway.  How about that?  I was so happy finally to ride into a community that, small as it is by our standards, offers so much.  Dumas here, I mean.

True, I wasn’t asking these folks if they liked Dumas or not.  I was asking them what I should make sure and see.  If I asked if they liked it here, they might have quickly said, “Yes, sir, Dumas is a nice place.”  But maybe not.

Somebody should be doing more hometown PR for folks here.  But I believe that’s true in community after community.

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I had no idea how hugely important the chuck wagon and the windmill were in making life better out here. How far we’ve come!

About that gem of a museum that few people bother to go see.

You never know when you’ll find a gem.  That small history museum which two people told me about was a gem.

This is a small city so I expected a small museum.  This was a big museum, in its own building, with a big parking lot.  Right on the main drag.  Right across the street from the impressive Visitor Center.  It stood out clearly from all directions.

The museum was the centerpiece of a huge outdoor exhibit with all kinds of big and interesting things.  Most related to farming, which is big here, and oil.

It was 11 a.m. on Wednesday morning when I pulled in.  Only one solitary car in the lot.  The museum is closed, I thought.  But it was indeed open.

A cheery woman greeted me.  “Come in, sir!  Come in and cool off!”  She had good reason to say that.  It was already in the 90’s.  “Enjoy our museum!”

One glance around and I knew I would.  The exhibits went on and on.  All truly beautiful.  This was not an amateur volunteer operation.

I allowed myself an hour.  But everything was so interesting that I went on for an hour and a half, then two.  I paused at this exhibit, then at that one.  So much to learn here.

I did skip some, just to make time.  An exhibit on women’s clothes over the years here on the High Plains.  Another on kitchen stuff.  Another on native wildlife, as well done as it was.

Some exhibits riveted me.  One on barbed wire.  We don’t think much of barbed wire but that was a key invention in the settlement of the West.  Finally a rancher could fence in his livestock.   Didn’t have to go riding all over the place on his horse to find them …

Amazing how many kinds of barbed wire got invented.  Hundreds.  Maybe thousands.  Each slightly different, but different enough to get patented.  The museum had tray after tray of samples.  A huge job to put this exhibit together.  It deserved to be in the Smithsonian!

Another on hand and power tools.  Tools that I never imagined.   The ingenuity behind all this! Another on farm tractors—they had a collection of hundreds of perfect toy models.  Again the ingenuity …  Another on windmills, another huge invention.  They harnessed the wind to suck water out of this parched land day and night.   The only labor involved was minor upkeep.

A ranch chuck wagon.  That sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it was another enormous invention.  It carried the cook’s whole supply of equipment and food on those long cattle drives over sometimes hundreds of miles.

The cook finally had a real kitchen on wheels, even a prep table.  And besides the food, the wagon carried the cowboys’ bedding and sparse extra clothes.  Fantastic.

The museum went on and on.  I could have spent twice as much time there, all of it exciting.  But I had to leave.  In all that time, I was the only tourist.

I was about to depart when that nice lady said, “Sir, you must go look at our Art Center!  You’ll see what talented artists we have here.”

I was pressed but I said okay.  The Art Center was very nice.  But it didn’t hold a candle to the museum itself.

I stopped by to thank that nice lady and express my terrific satisfaction.  She was the director.  I said, “How many people stop in?”

Without hesitation, and proudly, she told me, “Five thousand a year!”

I was appalled.  That was only 100 a week.  Aghast!

“You should have  50 thousand!”

She looked as me as if I were nuts.

“You’ve got so much going for you.  This is a four-star museum!  The town is so lucky to have it. A perfect location. You have such talent as curator and exhibitor.  The place has great visibility.  Wonderful easy parking.  Right across from the Visitor Center.  Close to all the big hotels.”

I couldn’t help myself. Started making suggestions of things the museum might do. Hey, for many years I was a PR consultant. Used to get paid to sound off like this. Many of my suggestions didn’t require a ton of money.

“So, so interesting!” she told me.  “I’ll mention them at our next board meeting.  Thank you so much!”

“This really is a gem.  All that’s needed is promotion.”

She smiled.  I smiled.  I walked out.  Somehow I got the feeling not much would change.  Hope I’m wrong.

~ ~ ~

About that meat-packing plant I didn’t want to go see.

A waitress was the first to mention it to me.  She said it was in the next town, Cactus.  That’s really the town’s name.  It’s a huge plant, she said.  A Swift plant, she believed.  Swift is a giant in meat-packing, of course.

I asked whether they did cattle, or hogs, or sheep.  Cattle, she said, but maybe the others critters, too.  Wasn’t sure.

I said, “Could I tell what they do there if I rode out to take a look?”

“No.  It’s just a great big factory, sort of.  Lots of semis, though—you know, big trailer trucks.  Bringing in animals.  Taking meat away.”

“Does it smell?” I asked.  I still remember when I visited Battle Creek, Michigan, long ago.  It’s famous for Kellogg and Post and other big cereal smakers.  The minute I got close I noticed a strange smell.  But I liked that smell a bit

Of cereal cooking, of course.  Being converted into corn flakes and bran flakes and oat flakes and rice flakes and all the others.  We never get to smell that.  In Battle Creek it’s part of life day and night.  The ovens are going all the time.

A big meat-slaughtering plant must give off a smell, I thought.  She smiled sheepishly. “Yes, it does.”

Maybe a good smell, but the way she hesitated, I didn’t think so.  Believe me, I have no interest in driving over there.  I don’t even want to think about what they do there.  I feel good that I’ve stopped eating animals.

~ ~ ~

 I’m so glad I didn’t skip the PPHM!

I’m in Canyon, Texas now.  It’s up there in the incredibly flat and treeless Texas Panhandle.  So sparse.  The High Plains, it’s called.  Look at a map of Texas and you’ll see why this is called the Panhandle.  Elevation more than 5,000 feet.  A strong wind all the time, it seems.  That wind must be razor-sharp come winter.

The wonderful museum I’m talking about is the Panhandle and Plains Historical Museum (PPHM) here.

This small town, by the way, is like my hometown in Connecticut, Deep River.

It is named Deep River because it is located on the Deep River, a small stream but it provided all the power for our big piano factory to do its work a century ago.  That factory was the high-tech center of the piano industry back then when every middle-class family had to have a piano in its living room.

The factory is a nice condo now, and I’m happy to live there.  Quiet corner unit.  High ceilings.  Great big windows.  I look down on the dam and sluice that drove the huge turbines in the factory.  Lots of sunshine.  Nice neighbors.  Well, 97 percent of them.  But that’s a higher percentage than average, I suspect..

Well, this town is named Canyon because there’s a huge canyon here.  It’s the Palo Duro Canyon at the nearby state park by that name.  The Palo Duro is the second largest canyon in North America.  I was surprised to hear that.  And I nearly skipped it …

This little town is about 20 miles south of Amarillo in the Panhandle.

I went out of my way to come here because of  the PPHM Museum.  That’s what the locals call it.   It impressed me in the AAA handbook about Texas.

The PPHM is a separate great big building on the campus of West Texas State University, which has a  campus more impressive than I expected.

It turns out that the PPHM is the biggest history museum in all Texas.  And Texas is the biggest of our 48, as we know.  And by far.  With huge cities, and many history museums.

Through no fault of mine, I got to the museum at 3:45 p.m.  And it closed at 5 …  Should I bother, I wondered?  Then I realized it would be closed tomorrow, Sunday.  So I went in.

The ticket seller saw my problem.  “Come in, sir!  Be our guest.  But you’ll have to rush.  There’s an awful lot here!”

He was so right.  What hit me right off was the scale of everything in here.  No teeney little exhibits about this and that.  All the exhibits were big.

Right off I beheld a real, full-size derrick to drill oil, moved here from its last big drilling job in Texas.  It was 87-feet high.   Wow!  A special wing had to be built for it.  Massive timbers.  Huge pulleys and gears—bigger than on the biggest steam locomotive.  Ropes and cables as big as a strong man’s bicep.  A mighty machine capable of punching a hole 3,000 feet into the Texas rock—a hole big enough to drop a cantaloupe down it.

I just had to stand back and stare at the cleverness and the huge size of it.  This at a time when the petroleum industry was just getting started here.  As we know, oil and gas were big in this huge state.  And still are.

That derrick exhibit set the pace for all the exhibits in the museum’s many halls.

Then a wonderful exhibit about windmills.  They still mark many parts of the parched West, using the force of the wind to draw water up from the bowels of the earth.  How they made life possible.  Some were incredibly huge.

It took skilled mechanics to keep them running smoothly.  Windmillers, they were called.  Look in phone books here and you’ll still see windmillers offering their services.

Here’s a fact that will surprise you folks back in Connecticut.   The windmill that opened the West to settlement was the invention of a Connecticut man, Michael Halladay, in 1869.  He took his idea West to where it was needed most, and it took off.

Then I went onto the remarkable geology of this part of the country, and its incredible Ogallala Aquifer.  That’s the water that the windmill made it  possible to suck up.

That aquifer is the huge and broad unseen reservoir of water that lays deep under this enormous state and its neighboring states, too.  But a reservoir that we are slowly and steadily draining to meet our increasing demands for water.  And I had never heard of it

The message is clear.  If we don’t get smarter about using water, we’ll run dry.  Guaranteed!

Then a super-size exhibit about the nearby canyon, the Palo Duro.  Another about the amazing weather that makes this area so difficult to live in—the dearth of rain, the frequency of violent tornadoes.  Texas gets a lot of tornadoes, which are often deadly.  And hail storms, too—hail as big as ping pong balls and even tennis balls.  So destructive.

Then the museum has a  super-size exhibit on the native people who migrated here and managed to survive by sheer wit and tenacity.  Another on its natural history and prehistoric animal life, so varied.

The museum was enormous.  I rushed and rushed, and was sorry when I had to quit.  I was the last person out.  I thanked the young clerk at the door, who was counting the money in the till.  “So, so glad you told me to come in,” I told him.

He smiled. “We’re very proud of it here in Canyon!”

On the way out, I felt it was so appropriate the PPHM adjoins the university.  As a student, you could easily get the equal of a bachelor’s in a lot of these subjects.  All you’d have to do is come in and soak up all this knowledge.  It would be a lot more fun than leafing through a dry textbook.

One result of my vist it that I made another trip out of my way the next morning.  I drove on the big flat empty land to look at the Palo Duro Canyon.  So glad I did.

~ ~ ~

Texas has its own Grand Canyon!

The Palo Duro Canyon outside small Canyon here is greatly touted, as I’ve mentioned.  Shoud I go?  After all, I have been to the Grand Canyon–the biggest in North and South America–twice.   To both North and South Rims.  Why go out of my way to see another hole in the ground?

I went.  Amazing.  I was on a vast, boring flat table land.  Nothing around.  Nothing.  Suddenly, this huge hole.  Really huge.  So impressive.  Why this hole?  How come?  It’s another of so many mysteries.

I entered the park, paid my admission, but still had misgivings.  Was I wrong?  I realized that the minute I reached the first overlook and stood on the edge of the 600-foot drop.  That’s a lot deeper than it sounds.

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Sorry, folks. I wanted to take a photo that would show you how awesome this canyon is. This photo doesn’t do it. So use your imagination!

Gosh, much more vegetation down there than up top where I was.  Even great big trees.  I made out a paved road threading its way way down there.  Sun reflected off tiny cars down there …

The sun was perfect to study the canyon.  On its enormous walls I could make out the many different layers of geology…like a huge multi-layer cake.  Many different earth colors, especially a brilliant rust, but whites and grays, too.

To my surprise the road I was on led me way down there.  A sign said, “Go down in low gear!”  Glad I listened.  The road snaked down, going close to some frightening drops.  Here and there chunks of rock had tumbled down.  Imagine being hit by one of those boulders!

At the bottom I found buildings–all park buildings–and many hiking rails going off this way and that.  I saw some young people starting on them.  Not very smart.  They should have been wearing hats and sleeves.  And carrying water.  That Ol’ Man Sun was sizzling.

I knew there was a river down here.  That’s why the vegetation was so thick and green.  But I never got to see it.  Where was it hiding?

Other cars were down there.  People were picnicking and lounging and playing ball.  At the end of the road I pulled into a nice small campgrounds.  RVs and tenters there.  I parked under a tree–what a blessing!  Great big hickory trees, with wide branches thick with leaves beyond number.  So cool and refreshing.

Enjoyed a nice picnic lunch in my van, with the windows and big side door open.  So pleasant.  I even stretched out on my bunk.  Just 20 minutes.  But I got up a new man.  I love my van.

Then, slowly I turned course and drove up and out, gawking all the way.  The park seemed so much busier suddenly.  The ranger had told me 25,000 people a month come in.  Even more in the summer.

The reason hit me!  Nearly all those visitors live on that vast, flat, hot mesa up top.  No trees.  So little up there of interest.  They come down here for the beautiful trees and verdant growth and the refreshing breeze and the many shady spots.  I’d do the same if I had to live here.

On the way out I finally found out what Palo Duro means.  Hard wood!

And there’s a fascinating historical tidbit about the Palo Duro Canyon.  When the pioneers came here and discovered it, a very smart young guy rushed and claimed a chunk of it for himself.  At the very bottom, where, because of that river that I never got to see, it was green and lush.

He raised thousands of cattle down there where they grew big faster and brought prime prices.   He loved living in this hole.  He was the envy of the other ranchers who weren’t as far-seeing as he was.

The State of Texas took possession of the canyon  many years ago.  By eminent domain, I suppose.  A wise move, I think.  Now everybody can enjoy it.  Even somebody like me from Connecticut.

Hey, if we didn’t have the wonderful Grand Canyon in Arizona, all the huge crowds there would he here, enjoying the Palo Duro instead.  Gosh,you can’t drive to the bottom of the Grand Canyon!

It sure would have been dumb of me to skip Palo Duro.

~ ~ ~

I see a lot of big trucks here we never get to see where I come from.

Out here in the High Plains, you see the livestock trailer trucks coming and going.  What they are is giant steel cages on wheels.

Coming, they’re full of animals.  Cattle, or swine,or sheep—I believe the different kinds get delivered to different slaughter houses but I’m not sure.  Going, the trucks are empty–on their way to get another load.

Even more of these trucks at night.  Maybe it’s easier on the animals.  Maybe the lighter traffic is a factor.

When you see a loaded truck go by, you know the four-legged passengers are running out of time fast.

At these plants, they’ll be quickly shoved off to run a gauntlet of steel-helmeted men in white coats and pants, with heavy boots, and armed. Armed with stun guns and big saws of a kind you’ve never seen.

In minutes these animals will be dead.  With their heads and legs sawed off and their bellies ripped open to spill the blood and guts and excrement.  I’ve never seen it.  Never want to.  But I’ve read about it.  That’s enough.

Soon they will be meat.  Quickly loaded on big reefers kept chilled to a precise coolness for delivery to meat lovers all over the country and abroad.

I spotted such a truck in a rest stop.  Empty.  The driver was standing by the cab, relaxing with a cigarette butt.  I walked to him.  And smiled.  He looked me over.  Friendly enough.

“We never see trucks like this where I come from.  I’m from Connecticut.”

“Where?” he said.

I could see he knew scant English.  “Connecticut.  Con-nec-ticut.”  And I pointed to the East.  “Way over there. On the other side.”

He shook his head and threw up his hands.  It was clear he didn’t know where Connecticut is.

He told me he delivered 45 head of cattle in his truck.  Big ones.  Then he held his right hand down by his knee.  “120 little ones.”

A good job but not easy.  Had to load them on fast and safe. Didn’t want them to break a leg or something.  Had to take care not to brake hard.  Had to get them all to the plant in good shape.  Didn’t want to have one dragged onto the killing floor.

I noticed his soiled boots.  And his jeans.  Some of  the work involved was messy.  But it was a living.

He finished his butt, then stomped on it with his boot.  He started his truck, gave me a curt wave, and pulled out.  To get a rest at home and pick up another load, I’m sure.

~ ~ ~

It’s okay to slaughter cattle, hogs, sheep, chickens, turkeys.  But not horses, some think.

Back in New Mexico a few days ago, I spotted an unusual story in a big newspaper.  A long-time meat man was preparing to open a slaughterhouse to process horses.  Not for pet food.  And not for sale in the U.S.  For foreign markets.  He saw a good market for horse meat.  And it would help the local economy, of course.

Readers were angry.  Everybody thought the idea was horrible.  The paper wrote an editorial. “We will not tolerate killing horses for human food!”

Well, it’s a fact that many people in the world enjoy eating horsemeat.  In lots of countries considered highly civilized.

In World War 11, I remember horsemeat markets in the U.S.  I remember my Aunt Bernadette serving a big thick horse steak.  My Uncle Jack loved it.  I pretended I liked it.  Already I was building up my aversion to meat.

In France, “equine markets” are not an extraordinary sight.  I’m not speaking of years years ago.  I mean right now.

In my opinion, if you’re a meat eater, you should be open to eating any kind of meat.  Of course you can prefer this kind or that cut, but you should not be offended by some people enjoying all kinds of flesh.  I mean, from any animal.

It’s not that long ago that Americans ate buffalo.  You know what their favorite part of the buffalo was?  The tongue.  Who eats the tongue of anything now?

Not long ago that Americans relished all kinds of game.  Including rabbits and squirrels and crows and eel and anything else they managed to shoot or hook or trap.  And glad to have it for dinner.

To me, from what I have seen, it’s the Chinese who are the most rational about it.  They will eat anything with legs or fins or that crawl or slither.  And any parts of them.  Not just the white breast or a drumstick or a nice filet.

Visit a Chinese meat market and you’ll see ducks and turtle and gulls and octopus and squid and snakes.  And dogs and cats and bunnies.  Some of these things will be slaughtered on the spot for you to take home.  That way you’re guaranteed it’s nice and fresh.

~ ~ ~

 Eat Steak Tartare? Not me!

This isn’t completely relevant, but I’m reminded of a personal experience years ago.  On our first or second trip to France.  We were celebrating with dinner at a nice restaurant in Paris.

We studied the large menu.  Most of the items had little meaning for me.  I found it a guessing game.  I was a meat eater then.  But queasy.  I spotted Steak Tartar.  Sounds good, I thought.  Ordered it with a glass of red wine.  The others chose other things.

In due time the natty waiter appeared with my dinner and with a graceful swirl of his hand placed it in front of me on the gorgeous tablecloth.

“Bon appetit, Monsieur!” he said, and started back for the kitchen.

I was shocked.  Absolutely shocked.  What I was looking at was a neat mound of raw hamburg, crowned with a raw egg yolk!  Red, fresh hamburg!  With a sprig or two of parsley.

“Garcon!” I said to him.  “Wait! Wait!”  And he came rushing back.

“Please!” I said, throwing up my hands in disgust.  “Please take it back.  I did not understand.  I am an American tourist.  Cook it!  Fry it!  Please!”

Now he was shocked. “Monsieur! This is a classic dish. Delectable! Merveilleux!” And he kissed his fingertips—the Frenchman’s supreme gesture for delicious!

And couldn’t resist adding, “This is the very finest beef, Monsieur! Thevery finest!”

But reluctantly he went off with my plate, shaking his head in disbelief.  I hate to imagine what he said about me when he got to the chef.

My companions were totally sympathetic, by the way.  They were so glad they had not chosen Steak Tartar.

Well, he brought my dish back.  Fried.  I ate it. But somehow the evening was spoiled.

People at other tables had seen it all, of course.  I don’t think I helped the cause of Franco-American friendship at that fine restaurant.

For sure the Chinese would have been shocked by my behavior, too.

~ ~ ~

Well, I’m doing fine so far.

I’ve made it all the way through California, New Mexico, and Texas and Arizona in fairly good shape.  You’ll be hearing more about this the next time, as I told you up top about my traveling for long stretches on Route 66.

I’ve had plenty of small problems.  How can you get through an adventure like this without problems?  If I wrote a list, it would run right off the page.  The good news so far is that all have been small.

One small one persists.  I believe there should be a place for everything and everything in its place.  At home.  At work.  Everywhere.  I’ll bet you agree.

It’s vitally important on a ship, even more so on a little boat.  I know.  I’ve had small sailboats. It’s also vital in this nice van of mine.

The minute I started packing it for my trip, I found a perfect place for every single thing.  But a day or two later, I would find a better place for something and would make the shift.  And would do it again a day or two later.  And I’m still doing it, many days into the trip.

One result is that now I go reach for something and then find I put it in another place.  Oh, the frustration of it!

But I’ve become neurotic about it.  Can’t help myself.  I’m always finding a better place for the salt or my socks or my stash of extra cash.  Some mornings when I go searching for something, I feel I’m going nuts.

While I’m at it, let me tell you about my problem with GPS.  Mike Malvey, the nice guy who sold me the van, bought me a new Gamin immediately when I told him the bad news that the navigation system in the van wasn’t working.

I’ve experimented with the Gamin and I’ve given up on it.

“You what!” I can hear some of you yelling that right now.  “John, what’s the matter with you!”

It’s a long story.  Let me just say I have a big hearing problem.  Let’s leave it at that.

One result is that I’m continually searching for somebody that I can ask directions of.  Very hard.  For the simple reason that it’s rare to find someone on a sidewalk any  more.  Who ever goes for a walk on a sidewalk?  Do you?

But I persist.  Have to.  Otherwise I’d never get anywhere, despite those huge accordion-fold maps that AAA still hands out but hopes you’ll never ask for because they cost.  I have 14 of them, for every state I’ll transit, I also have my big road atlas, and my smaller road atlas, and all the AAA guide books I have for all the states.

But something dawned on me.  If I used the Gamin GPS, one consequence for sure is that I would get to speak to far fewer people.  I might cross an entire city or even an entire state without talking to anybody, except a gas station attendant or a clerk in a store.  That would be awful.  I’ve told  you that I count on Serendipity to get me into interesting situations.  Well, Serendipity would have much less opportunity.

I’m keeping my Gamin in the glove compartment for the duration.

~ ~ ~

 A wild idea I got.

My happy bottom line is that I’m still glad I’ve undertaken this trip.  I’m still having fun.  And I’m learning so much.  Including a thing or two about myself.  Yes, at my age.  That’s really exciting.

Just a few miles into Arkansas, my odometer rolled over to 2,000 miles.  That’s an interesting number.  Because the shortest mileage from Newport Beach, CA—which was my departure point—and my home in Deep River via Interstates is 3,050 miles, give a mile or two.

Well, my odometer will reach 3,050 miles long before I get home.  As you know, I’m zigging and zagging quite crazily.  How long before is the big question.

Maybe I should start a lottery exclusively for you, my friends.  Let you pick my total mileage getting home to Deep River.  The one of you with the closest number to my total mileage would win $500 cash.  Tickets only $20, three for $55.  (That would help pay for the humongous gas bill I’m running up.)

Sorry, I would not answer any queries about where I plan to go and what I hope to see before I turn off the key in Chateau for the final time.  Truth is, I’m tempted to change my route every time I look at the map!

All ticket buyers would be invited by email to a wine-and-cheese party at which I’d announce the owner of the winning number.  Perhaps you!  And let you all look over my beautiful and comfy Chateau!  I’d let you behold the luxurious accommodations she has provided me for my sleeping and eating and recreational comfort and pleasure these many miles.

And, oh, one more thing.  Even the emergency toilet which I invented!  Still haven’t had to use it, by the way.

And I won’t try to impress you by cleaning  up Chateau in any way or organizing things in her better.  I’ll let you see her the way she really is.  But I’m really not a bad housekeeper.  Chateau is truly my happy little home on four wheels.

I’m just joking about the lottery.  But gosh, it’s such a good idea that I may re-consider …

Adios!

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About Jains for Folk Who Know Absolutely Nothing About Them

I should have written that headline differently. I should have said, “For folks who should know something about Jains!” I’ll tell you why. Bear with me.

Jains are Indians—meaning India Indians. A small minority but India is one of the most populous countries in the world. So Jains are numerous. And the Jains have influence and power far beyond their numbers. They’re big in business and they are big in government and big in academia.

They have unusual but important beliefs. One is ahimsa. It means non-violence. No violence of any kind, in thought, speech or act.The great Mahatma Gandhi totally changed India by his non-violence. He wasn’t a Jain but he learned what ahimsa could accomplish from Jainism.

Read the rest of the story on John Guy LaPlante’s Blog

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Home I Go, and Very Slowly – John LaPlante

Happy Ending: Mike, me, and Antonio as I prepare to drive off. In back is  my blue and silver beauty–van turned camper!

Happy Ending: Mike, me, and Antonio as I prepare to drive off. In back is my blue and silver beauty–van turned camper!

Newport Beach, CA — This morning at 9:30—after the massive freeways here have been relieved of their crushing commuter traffic—I’ll climb behind the wheel of my new little camper van and start the long ride home to Deep River.

I’ve been here far longer than usual on my annual get-away from the ice and snow of Connecticut. This has been my 18th winter here with milady Annabelle, lucky me. It happens that she has lived in this warm and sunny place all her life. (If some really icy place were her home, I suspect I’d make it up there to be with her.)

Anyway, tomorrow is when I get going. A kiss and embrace and I’ll start the engine, and with a final wave and toot, begin another long solo trip. One of many I’ve racked up.

The most direct route home is about 3,200 miles. No way will that be how I’ll go. I plan to zig and zag. Take as few Interstates as possible. Stop here and stop there, Look at this and that. See famous sites and little-known ones. Avoid the very big cities—I’ve seen many of them. Don’t want to put up with all the traffic and headaches getting in and out of them.

I’ll be camping most of the way. I expect to stay at a motel now and then. More to my liking would be a hostel, For a rest, a chance to soak my body and do my laundry and  hang out with some interesting folks.

I have no specific “must-sees” in mind. But I’ll visit parks big and small, and museums, I hope, and factories that welcome visitors, and for sure, senior centers and libraries and universities. And get to meet people. That’s a priority.

I’ll be driving on a California permit that gives me two months to get home. If it gets tough and isn’t fun, I’ll be home in two weeks. But I hope to make the most of the trip and get home on the last day of my permit. Why not? There’s no rush. I’m looking at is as maybe my last hurrah. And I’m leaving it up to serendipity.

I flew here in late December, which has been my routine for some years. And I expected to fly home, as usual. What the heck happened?

~ ~ ~ ~

I have to go back about seven years to explain. Annabelle and I did a house swap in France.  I got the idea deep in Chile while on my solo trip around the world. I met a French couple down there. He was an M.D. with a specialty in psychiatry. She was a professor of nursing. They were there for some light mountain climbing.

When he told me they came from Poitiers, I got excited. It’s a small city about two hours southwest of Paris. Famous for an ancient university. But more important than anything else for me is that the Poitiers area is where  my ancestor LaPlante came from—my great, great, great, great, great grandfather, I think.  He was a soldier in New France–the present Quebec. He was one of about 1,100 who arrived in June 1665. Their mission was to protect the colonists from the nasty Iroquois from what is now up-state New York.

The soldiers beat the Iroquois back and restored peace. After thee years the king recalled the regiment home. But there were only 2,500 or so colonists in New France—most living in what is now Quebec City. The troops were given the choice of staying—more strong Frenchmen were essential to get this tiny settlement going. My ancestor was one of the third who stayed in that harsh but welcoming new land.

But his name was not LaPlante then. It was Savignac. A strange thing happened. For some reason still debated. Many of those guys decided to take on new names. To symbolize a new life? Maybe.

He chose LaPlante. All it means is ‘the plant.” So, nothing romantic. Others chose other common words like that as their name—words starting with “La” or “Le.” But I know his name was Savignac because church records were meticulous—the records of baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and deaths. That’s why I also know he came from the Poitiers corner of France, and that his outfit was the Regiment Carignan-Salieres. Those were the names of two colonels.

My two new French friends in Chile laughed off the idea of a house swap when I first mentioned it. “Risky!” they said. “How can you be sure what kind of people will be moving into your house?”

Back in Deep River, I kept up an email correspondence with them. Sent them photos of our pretty town. And my nice little condo, And news about typical events. And we made the swap happen.

We swapped residences, of course—their home and my condo. And everything in them, of course—the kitchen stuff, the books, the computers, the TVs and other electronics, the whole works. Also their big VW wagon and my Buick sedan.  Plus their network of relatives of friends and mine—how important that turned out to be.  I joke now—everything except the ladies! We agreed on a six-week swap. I wanted 12 weeks. “Impossible!” he said. “I’m still practicing.”

It worked out fine in every way. They drove my Buick to Niagara Falls. We drove their VW to Paris—had a picnic lunch in it under the Eiffel Tower—and down through the rich wine country to the Med.

Oh, I was a Rotarian. So in Poitiers I went to the weekly meetings of the big Rotary Club there. Four times the size of our Deep River club. Annabelle came along. And that was marvelous.  I had a ball speaking French and really getting to know what life over there was really like. Annabelle had studied French long ago and was a good sport about it all.

~ ~ ~ ~

 A bit of background. I was born in the U.S.  My parents were immigrants from Quebec. I’ve been there often. Still have a few relatives there. So I have a great interest in Quebec..

I speak French well and enjoy using it. You have to use a language or you’ll lose it.  One thing I do is listen to Quebec radio via the computer. Streaming radio, it’s called. I listen to two fm stations, one in Montreal and one in Quebec City. They offer light classical music, and their announcers speak good French—contemporary French, with current idioms and slang. Wonderful.

So! I got the idea not of a house swap up there, but of a home stay. With a Quebec family for a month or so. To talk the language, enjoy the culture, experience their life.  I’d gladly pay. I wrote to the two stations, then to a big Rotary Club, then to a university. Didn’t get a single bite.

What to do? I decided I’d go on my own. It was now late October, and the weather was getting cold and the days short. I’d go for two weeks. Drive up. Annabelle chose to stay behind in California and I understood that.

Not long ago, I would have started on a trip like this without hesitation. But bad things have happened to me of late.  Nothing calamitous. But challenging enough to make me feel my age.

On the morning that I got into my Hyundai Sonata to start out, I looked in the mirror and spoke to myself.  “Is this wise? To go with no companion?  What if something goes wrong? Something could.”

And I spoke back to myself. “I really want to do this. Time is running out. I’d getter do it while I can. Something bad could happen at home. I’m going!”

And I turned started my car and headed north. I traveled some 1,500 miles in all.  Crossed into Quebec at a small custom station in Vermont.  Just a mile or two into Quebec I made out big Mount Sutton. It rises beside the small town of Sutton.

That’s where my grandparents lived. My grandfather Michel LaPlante had a maple operation on the flank of Mount Sutton. Tapped trees and made maple syrup every early spring.  On the rise on the opposite side of the village was his farm–an old-fashioned self-sufficiency homestead.  Thirty milk cows. Sunday was the day of rest but they still had to milk the cows twice that day, too. A vegetable garden and small orchard.

My grandma had a big cast-iron stove…baked a huge pot of beans every Saturday for the week. Served her large brood  21 hearty meals a week. She had a handpump for water in the kitchen. Every fall they filled the cellar with firewood they had sawed and split. There was an outhouse in the backyard.

On Sunday mornings my grandfather hitched the family horse to their Sunday carriage. The horse that pulled his plow and hay wagon. And drove them to the little Catholic church they could see in the valley below. They sat through Mass and then lingered on the church steps to greet and chat with their friends. It was their big outing of the week.

Yes, that little church where they had attended so many weddings and baptisms and funerals. I did that when I went with my dad and mom. And later as a grown man visiting up there.

So on this trip, Sutton was my fist stop. I had a nice visit with Tante Rosanne, the last of my aunts. She was so surprised and pleased! I visited  the church, then the church  cemetery. Saw a whole row of my kin resting side by side. Visited the farm, of course. The house had been knocked down and a beautiful expensive country home stood in its place. Sutton has become a famous ski resort, and this was the country home of a wealthy Montreal family. The barn still stood. It had never looked so good. But now it housed riding horses instead of cows.

I visited in the village and got into little talks. Sutton has been transformed. It’s a tourist town with cafes and art galleries and pricy restaurants. If my grandparents and parents could have seen this!

I went on to Montreal and Quebec City and half a dozen small cities. All familiar to me.  Stopped and looked and talked time and again. Stopped at mom-and-pop motels on most nights. But it was just me and the TV set. That’s not my favorite thing, even in French. But found three cozy hostels to stay in. I was so old I wondered whether they’d let me in. They did. Nobody looked at me crossways and I had fun. I spoke French all day.

On Quebec highways, tourist information stations are indicated by a big question mark. Yes, just a huge ?. I stopped at every one I spotted. For tourist advice, but that was my excuse. What I wanted was a little chat. It was magic when I mentioned I was of Quebecois descent. They made me feel like a prince.

I finally made it home to Connecticut with not a single bad thing happening to me. And guess what? I felt  20 years younger.

~ ~ ~ ~

 Here at Annabelle’s two months ago I began thinking of my return flight to Connecticut. And remembered my splendid road trip to Quebec. I wondered, why not drive home? Yes, why not? In the same casual and  relaxed way. And that’s how I got the idea of making the long ride home to Connecticut in a little camper.

I chose a good moment to mention it to Annabelle. She’s certainly chalked up a lot of adventures of her own. But she’s getting along in years, too. She declined. Understandable. She didn’t have the same interests of language and family

Then I spread the word to family and friends. Nobody was ecstatic. They advised caution.  Great caution. I’m sure some considered me nuts. That didn’t surprise me. But as I’ve said, doing it is important to me. And here I am, ready to go.

Oh, I had to find a camper.  A must was a rig that I could park in a single parking spot. So many are so huge! Offer nice amenities but what a challenge driving them around.

I started searching while I was in Morro Bay with my daughter Monique and her hubby David at Christmas. No big argument from them. Just “Caution!”

David was a big help in feeding me leads about promising vehicles. When I moved down here to Annabelle’s, he continued to send me leads. He made a hundred-mile round trip to check one out for me. He was disappointed.

A friend up there named Martha also steered me to a couple of possibilities. They didn’t pan out.

I searched here at Annabelle’s. Looked at this one and that one. Studied Craig’s List time and again. With Annabelle, I made a 120-mile trip up to the city of Riverside to check one rig that sounded perfect. Disappointing.

One day online I read of a 2002 Ford van called the Chateau. It wasn’t a camper. It was a seven-passenger van. It was loaded with nice features. Even a ceiling drop-down screen to watch DVDs. There were photos of the van. It looked terrific. The price was $4,900. Definitely in my budget.

It was for sale at an outfit called FamVans.  Just a 25-minute ride away. I called and spoke to a salesman named Mike Malvey.

He told me the Chateau model was the top of the line. Was in excellent condition. Had 180,000 miles on it.  Wow! That’s something to think about! But I went and looked. The photos had not exaggerated. It had a tiny scrape on one side. And a small ding in the front bumper, and another at the back. It was better than I expected.  I was excited.

I told him about my cross-country plan. He looked dubious. I understood that. I’m no kid. But I gave him details about some of my long-distance travels and her perked up.

“Tell me,” I said to him. “What’s wrong with this van?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it.”

That’s not a surprising thing to hear from a used-car salesman.

“Let  me explain how we do business,” he continued. “We have a complete staff here, including good mechanics. We check every vehicle. We sell 20 per week, week in and week out. More than a thousand a year. Have been in business more than 20 years. But I want you to check us out.”

He smiled. “Look! I understand your concern. Take it for a day. A weekend. Take it to any mechanic of your choice. Have it checked thoroughly. We’ll pay for that. Then show us his written report. We’ll take it from there.”

“Sounds good. But I don’t know any mechanic here.”

“No problem. We’ll take it to a Ford agency near you. They’ll do the checking. Give you their report. We’ll pay for it. Then you decide.”

Very fair, I thought. He did that. I got the report. The form had some 30 items on the check-off list. Every single one got checked off as “Good.”  Remarkable, I thought..

At my next meeting with Mike—yes, we were using our first names now—I asked about the whopping 183,000 miles. Who wouldn’t?

“That’s really much for a van of that age.  We got one in the other day. A Ford. Owned by an airport shuttle service. Its odometer said 900,000 miles. And still in service.”

I whistled at that.

I was curious about one thing. How come the Chateau looked so good. I put the question to him.

He turned to his computer. Looked up the Chateau. “This is the second time we sell it. The first time was when it was about 18 months old. We chose it to a Japanese man for family use. He traded it in for another. That’s the story. Not that unusual.”

“A Japanese man, you say. Well, I’ve been to Japan. I know how people over there take care of things.”

He nodded. “You’re probably right.”

“Well, I’ll pay $4,500.”

He smiled. “Sorry. The price is the price.”

“How about at least a senior discount?’

He smiled again. And shook his head. “Sorry. No.”

I test-drove it, of course. I used to drive a van of this size routinely at Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, Conn., when I was the director of its Elderhostel program. Often filled with passengers. That kind of driving all came back to me now.

I had searched for a high-rise model, with more headroom. In this one I couldn’t stand fully.  But adapting wouldn’t be difficult.

Mike and I discussed some details. I had no place to keep the van till departure time. I had to make modifications. Could I keep it at FamVans? I had no tools. I might need a hand on some jobs.

“Not a problem.  Keep it here. Just ask and we’ll let you borrow whatever you need. And we’ll help you find a young guy to help you as needed.”

One more question. Did I have to register it in California? I’d register it in Connecticut when I got home. It would be crazy to have to register it in one state, then the other.”

“We know the law. There is a simple solution. I’ll give you a document. You’ll have a permit on the windshield. You will be able to drive it to Connecticut with the previous owner’s plates. They’re on the van now. You’ll be allowed to make that single trip home. Nothing for you to do here. No California sales tax to pay. You’ll register and pay the tax in Connecticut. That’s all there is to it.”

There was considerable discussion, but that was the essence of it. We shook hands on the deal. I paid a deposit. It worked out just as he said. I kept the Chateau at FamVans for more than a month. He let me use his dealer’s plate to do errands with the van.

He introduced me to one of his workers, Antonio—Tony. Mexican. Born there. About 35. Working at FamVans for 13 years. Took a liking to him. He was talented and enthusiastic.  He called me “Senor John.” I liked that.

Nearly all the employees were Mexicans. They impressed me. And I liked the culture of the place. They worked hard. Seemed to enjoy their day. Were friendly.

One small detail. I spotted a popcorn machine in the office. It was filled fresh every morning. I love popcorn.

Mike was one of three brothers. His older brother was president. He was the sales manager. A younger brother ran the huge parts department.

FamVans had 200 vans and cargo trucks on the lot. Very busy. This was really a full-service place. Twenty workers doing everything from A to Z, including complete engine changes and rebuilds. Every vehicle got scrubbed and washed when it arrived. And spiffed up for delivery.

Antonio said “Yes, senor” to everything I asked.

Here are some of my changes to the van.  I removed one of the two big seats in the second row. I had the second one turned around, so it faced backward. I was going to remove the 3-passenger back seat. But I moved it back 18 inches and adapted it into a bunk. Got a 4-inch foam mattress custom cut for it.

Installed two three-drawer cabinets. Built a shelf along one side. Put in a one-burner propane stove and an ice chest. Even a homemade potty, for emergencies only. The carpeting was very clean. I put in carpet runners to keep it clean. Built a wooden step to rest on the ground by the big sliding door. Made it much easier for me to get in and out. Did this and did that.

Oh, important. Behind the back bench I installed a big plywood shelf. It was the width of the van and  two-feet wide. I could store suitcases and boxes under it. I had lots to take home. And loads of  everyday stuff on it. I am delighted with it.

The Chateau had tinted windshields. I liked that. People couldn’t see in. But the tint on the window by the driver gave a distorted view when I looked out at an oblique angle. That was a problem..

Antonio used a razor to make a crescent-shape cut and peel off that corner of the film. Excellent. Then did the same thing on the other side.  I asked why he bothered. “Not good if they look different, senor!”

Oh, I forgot to mention that the van had a gps navigation system. At the last minute it was discovered it had a problem. Not fixable. Mike gave me a new Garmin instrument. I’ve set it up.

Antonio made even more small changes that I requested when I picked it up. He installed two brackets for me. I’ll hang my clothes neatly on them.

I had one final request.  I asked him to drive the Chateau to the front of the lot and park it there, with the big FamVans’ sign showing right behind. And had Luis, the foreman, to

take a photo of Mike and Antonio and me side by side. They were busy but good sports about it. I wanted it as a souvenir of this very nice experience.

We shook hands.  I was glad I had tipped Antonio. He deserved it. Mike had kept his word in every way. We shook hands and promised to keep in touch. They were waving to me as I drove off.

I would be departing in three days. They knew that. Mike said, “If something comes up, don’t hesitate to call me.” This was a no-warranty deal. But his words made me feel good.

Well, tomorrow morning is the big moment. I’ll get home to Deep River when I get home. Maybe in a few days. Maybe in several weeks. We’ll see.

I’ve never lived in a chateau. But now I have a nice little one on wheels to live in.

Gosh, I’ve written a lot of words to tell you all this.  God bless you if you’ve reached this last paragraph!

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Talking Transportation: Cruise Ships: The Devils on The Deep Blue Sea

Jim CameronIn the eight years I’ve been writing this column I’ve never found a reason to write about cruise ships, one of my favorite ways to travel.

Since my Dad took me as a passenger on freighters through the Caribbean when I was a kid right up to our now-annual cruises to the same area, I’ve always loved the high seas.  There’s nothing easier than driving to the pier in New York City, hopping on board and kicking back for a week.

A few years ago my fascination with cruising brought me to a great book, “Devils on the Deep Blue Sea” by Kristoffer Garin which detailed the formative years of the cruise industry, especially the start-up of Carnival Cruise Lines in 1972.  It was a rough start, but today Carnival owns 10 cruise lines (almost half the cruise ships in the world) including Cunard, Holland America, Costa, P&O, Princess and Seabourn.  At one point they even had their own airline ferrying passengers to Miami and San Juan, their biggest embarkation ports.

By segmenting the cruise market, just as hotels do, they offer everything from singles-filled party cruises to upscale trans-Atlantic “crossings” on the Queen Mary 2 (which is where I was while reading Garin’s book in 2006).

But more recently Carnival’s had some very bad PR.  Last year it was crash of the Costa Concordia in Italy (whose Captain abandoned ship).  Then, the February stranding of the 4,000-person Triumph for days in the Gulf of Mexico (without power, food or sanitation) was just the latest in a series of engineering problems.  Last week another ship, Fascination, failed a Center for Disease Control (CDC) health inspection, the fourth of their ships to do so this year alone.

Last week demand for cabins was so low that Carnival was offering cruises for $38 a night per person … less than the cost at Motel 6.   And that price includes all meals (assuming those CDC inspections don’t hurt your appetite).

Admittedly, this is a weak time of year for cruising, but Carnival knows it’s always best to sail with a full ship and make money on the booze and ship excursions.

In my view, the real problem isn’t Carnival or its ships’ safety, but the fact that they pay no taxes … and yet, depend on the US Coast Guard for their numerous rescues.

Micky Arison, son of the founder of Carnival (and owner of the Miami Heat), is the richest man in Florida.  Last year Carnival brought in $15.3 billion in revenues.  But they paid just 0.6% in US, state, local and international taxes last year while socking taxpayers for millions in US Coast Guard expenses for 90 different rescue missions in the last five years.

Senator Jay Rockefeller says Arison is a “cheater… treacherous and wrong” and wrote him asking to do the right thing and pay-up.  Carnival declined the invitation, prompting Rockefeller (the Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee) to call their response “shameful”.

Shameful, perhaps.  But perfectly legal and the result, even Rockefeller admits, of sloppiness by Congress.  So, expect some grandstanding, a few hearings and maybe some face-saving philanthropy by Arison.   But don’t expect many changes in the cruise industry, especially in higher fares that reflect the true cost of being a “devil on the deep blue seas.”

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 22 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: TSA – The Toughest Job in Transportation

Jim CameronWho do you think has the toughest job in transportation?  Airline pilots?  Long-haul truck drivers?  Metro-North conductors?    To my thinking, the toughest job is being an airport TSA agent.

Forget the recent furor over revised Transportation Security Administration rules soon to allow small knives in carry-on luggage.  The plastic knives the flight attendants distribute in snack packs in-flight are already sharp enough to slit a throat.  By not worrying about every pen-knife and nail clipper, TSA agents should have more time to concentrate on truly lethal weapons.

A far bigger threat to aviation security is liquid explosives and non-metal knives.  Ceramic knives are undetectable on magnetometers, which is why the TSA brought in those full-body scanners we love so much.

But I think the biggest threat to aviation safety is the public’s anger at the TSA agents who are just doing their job.  After a thorough TSA screening at an airport last month I saw an angry passenger literally curse at the agent.  That passenger wasn’t pulled aside and given a retaliatory body cavity search. To her credit the agent kept her cool and didn’t get into even a verbal fight.  Could you be so thick-skinned?

It’s been 12 years since 9/11.  Have we forgotten what can happen when determined, armed terrorists take over a plane?  The TSA screens 1.8 million passengers a day.  If just one of those fliers got an undetected weapon onto a plane and blew it up, imagine the uproar.

Remember the holy triad of service:  fast, good and cheap.  You can achieve any two of those, but not all three.  Clearly, the top priority is “good” security.  So in this age of sequestration we’re unlikely to see quality compromised for speed.

If you want to fly, put up and shut up:  put up with the long lines while the agents do their jobs properly to keep you safe and keep your mouth shut.

Passenger protests have brought some TSA screening changes which seem arbitrary.  Like the recent rule allowing passengers over age 75 to keep their shoes on.  Terrorists can’t be that old?

And what passes for the rare TSA inspection of Amtrak passengers is more for show than real security. Unless every bag is opened, the rare and random briefcase examination or quick dog-walk through a moving train seems to be just “showing the colors”.

What do all these TSA inspections do, aside from create long lines and frustrated fliers?  They turn up an amazing amount of weapons.  The TSA’s weekly blog makes for fascinating reading.

In one recent week alone the TSA intercepted 32 firearms, 27 of them loaded, and ten stun guns. There were clips of ammo, brass knuckles and (no surprise) sheer stupidity:  a passenger flying out of San Juan told the ticket agent that her bag contained a bomb and she was going to blow up the plane. After an inspection by the TSA, her bag didn’t have a bomb. But as a result of her threat, the ticket counter, checkpoint and terminal were closed for nearly an hour, inconveniencing thousands.

And there were, as the TSA blog put it, “consequences” for the flier.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 22 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Gov Malloy Seeks To Kill the Commuter Council

Jim CameronShortly after he came to office, I wrote something critical of newly elected Governor Malloy.  Nothing new there.  I’d certainly questioned Republican governors in years past, usually to little response.  But this time the reaction was different.

A Malloy confidant, a senior State Senator from Fairfield County, took me aside and threatened me.  Not physically, but legislatively.  “You know, we could eliminate the Commuter Rail Council if you keep this up,” he said in Machiavellian tones.  “Bring it on,” I said, half-shocked at this political threat.

Well, it took a couple of years (and more criticism), but the threat has come true.  The Governor has submitted a bill (HB 6363) that would wipe out the existing Metro-North Commuter Rail Council and its 15 members.  In its place, a new Council would be appointed and the Governor, not the members of the Council, would choose its Chairman.

Further, the new Commuter Council’s mandate would turn from investigation and advocacy on behalf of fellow commuters to a PR advisor to the CDOT.  While the current Council has the power to request information and is required to receive cooperation from any state or local agency, that power would be eliminated under Malloy’s bill.

The Commuter Council isn’t the only pro-transportation group affected by the bill.  The CT Public Transportation Commission would also be eliminated along with the last vestiges of the Transportation Strategy Board (killed off by Malloy last year), the TIA’s, or “Transportation Investment Areas”.

This obvious power-grab by the Governor has so far gone unchallenged in the legislature, buried in a 66-page Christmas tree of a bill.  If it becomes law, my 15+ years as a member of the Commuter Council (the last four as its Chairman) will be history.

But why is the Metro-North Commuter Council singled out for such harsh treatment?

It’s not that the Commuter Council has been wasting state money.  We operate on a budget of zero dollars, even dipping into our own pockets to pay for design of a logo and pay for postage.  And I don’t think it can be argued that we haven’t been doing our jobs… meeting monthly with Metro-North and the CDOT to address commuter complaints and push for ever better service.

No, I think the real problem is that we’ve done our job too well, calling out CDOT, the legislature and yes, even the Governor, when they did things that we felt screwed commuters.  That’s our mandate.

I guess Governor Malloy didn’t like it when we pointed out that as a gubernatorial candidate he promised to never raid the Special Transportation Fund to balance the state’s budget, but then did just that when he took office.  And I guess he wasn’t happy when I noted that his budget took new fare increases from Metro-North riders but didn’t spend the money on trains, in effect making the fare hike a “commuter tax”.

And I’d imagine the Commissioner of the CDOT… the fifth Commissioner in my 15+ years on the Council… would be happy to see the current Council gone, critical as we have been about their Stamford Garage project which we see as selling out the interests of commuters to private developers.

It’s sad that the Governor feels the way to answer legitimate criticism is to eviscerate those who question him.  But I can promise you that his proposed elimination of the Metro-North Commuter Council won’t silence me.  Bring it on, Governor.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 22 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Did Jesus have a wife? New evidence says “Yes.”

Dr. King shows the sample of papyrus at a conference of scholars in Rome. –from the New York Times

Dr. King shows the sample of papyrus at a conference of scholars in Rome.
–from the New York Times

Eagle Rock, CA  — Milady Annabelle and I were visiting Occidental College. She’s an alumna. It’s a fine private, coed college, one of the oldest on our Pacific coast. Just a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

We were strolling the beautiful grounds. I noticed a newspaper box and, news junkie that I am, took out a paper—the students’ Occidental Weekly! A freebie. Never saw it before.

A big headline on Page 1: “Former Occidental Professor debates possible existence of Jesus’ wife.”

Couldn’t resist it. Read it right there. Every word. Seems that Jesus did have a wife. Gosh! But the headline was mild compared to the story itself. In her talk to Occidental students, the professor wasn’t “debating” anything. She said she had strong evidence that suggested yes, Jesus did have a wife!

I handed the paper to Annabelle. She feasted on it. “Sensational,” she said.

Both of us had heard allusions of this over the years, whispers, so to speak. But nothing like this. Nothing this firm. And that’s why I’m sharing it with you now.

Imagine our learning of this in a student newspaper!

The professor, Dr. Karen L. King, had moved on from Occidental and was now a professor at Harvard U. Divinity School. She had had come back to give to give her talk about this astounding development.

And she had first-hand info—she had done the research to come up with it.

She had gotten possession of a scrap of ancient papyrus. Just a tiny thing—the size of a business card. It had pieces of Coptic writing on it. Translated, one of them stated, “Jesus said  (to his disciples), “my wife….” That’s all.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the sentence was missing.

The story we were reading was written by student Clark Scally—students produce the whole paper. I was impressed by it. I noticed Scally had also authored two other articles in it. A busy young man. To my eye, quite professional.

His story about Dr. King’s talk had a juicy tidbit. He wrote, “In the Gospel of Philip, discussed by (Prof.) King in her lecture, Jesus speaks of marriage and sexuality extensively. He also refers to Mary Magdalene as his close companion whom he kisses more often than his other disciples, much to the concern of Apostles Peter and Matthew.”

That tickled me. For the simple reason that over the years I have come to think of Jesus as a man, as a very great teacher, one of the greatest ever, but just a man. And this certainly makes him look manly. I like that. Besides. I had never heard it said that boldly before.

In her talk, Dr. King said that scrap of papyrus was believed to have come from the fourth or fifth centuries.

She said an anonymous donor who collected such things had given it to her at Harvard Divinity School.

She had made thorough efforts to authenticate that exciting bit of papyrus. Had shown it to numerous scholars. Had discussed it with them. Had double-checked everything as carefully as she could. Had slept on it. Had decided it was legitimate. But she said more analysis is going on.

Certainly she’s a lady and professor of high repute and attainment. She left Occidental to join Harvard Divinity in 2003 as the Winn  Professor of Ecclesiastical History.

Six years later she made history when she became the first woman to be the Hollis Professor of Divinity. It is the oldest endowed chair on our shores, dating back to 1721.

She has received research grants from prestigious foundations. Has written many articles and half a dozen scholarly books. So, she is no lightweight.

I find the titles of two of her books tantalizing, The Secret Revelation of John and The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle.

She spilled this about Jesus and his wife at Occidental on Feb. 7. But that came after a storm of controversial announcements and newsbreaks about it.

Initially, Dr. King had traveled to Rome with the papyrus and displayed it to a group of New Testament experts. She came back sure that it was authentic, though apparently the scholars were not all agreed.

The Vatican blasted it as counterfeit. A columnist for Britain’s eminent Guardian newspaper disagreed loudly. Declared the papyrus document a fraud and explained why. It boiled down to a typo.

It is known that the notion that Jesus did not have a wife developed only a century after his death. It is said that numerous people of Jesus’ time believed that he was indeed married. How about that?

To announce her findings to the wide public, Dr. King staged a press conference at the Divinity School.. It got attention. The New York Times was there, among others. It followed up with a detailed story. And it stirred up scores of comments, pro and con.

I read many. Scholarly and impressive. Regardless what side they were on, these people seemed awfully knowledgeable.

I’m not sure what to believe. I’d like more than a scrap of evidence. But again, deep down I like to believe that Jesus was a married man. That’s so natural. That’s what most of us want to do and end up doing. More and more of us get married more than once!

And now we have men marrying men and women marrying women! Legally.

Getting hooked seems to satisfy an inner need.

The public reaction was more than Dr. King expected. She says shat she is not saying Jesus had a wife. She is saying that the papyrus said he did.

I found it dramatic that this red-hot story was appearing in the student newspaper of a college of strong Christian origins. Occidental was founded by staunch Presbyterians and was totally Presbyterian for a century or so. It has been liberalizing in the last decade or two. I wonder how the old-timers would feel about this.

For sure one would be the Rev. Dr. Hugh K. Walker, D.D. He was a long-time chairman of Occidental’s board of directors in its earliest days. He set the school on a firm path.

He was the minister of the leading Presbyterian church in Los Angeles.

Why am I telling you this? Because of a terrific coincidence. Dr. Walker was milady Annabelle’s grandfather on her mother’s side. And that’s why her mom and dad enrolled her at Occidental.

In fact, her dad also was a Presbyterian minister. But he gave that up and became president for many years of the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital… in time also became president of the U.S. Protestant Hospital Association.

Occidental’s fine reputation has become even more widely known of late. A big reason is that it was the first college in our continental U.S. that young Barack Obama, freshly arrived from Hawaii, attended. He lasted two years, transferring to Columbia U. in New York.

That’s something Annabelle shares with him. She jumped after two years, too, and probably for the same reason—to experience a broader undergraduate experience. She went on to the University of California at Berkeley and graduated from there.

One more thing about Clark Scally’s piece in the Occidental Weekly.

At its close, he wrote: “A member of the audience asked Dr. King how she was handling the attention and its pressure.

“’I lost eight pounds in the first week.’ Dr. King answered.

‘The Divinity School arranged a panic button in my office due to concerns for my physical safety. Most of my job since this has come out is to throw cold water on everything.’”

I liked young Scally’s including this quote.  it shows that it’s not so easy to be a professor. At times you must really profess.

Maybe he’ll wind up on the New York Times someday.

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Talking Transportation: The Great Train (Ticket) Robbery

Jim CameronIf you had a contract with someone and paid them in advance to do a job, only to find they never provided that service, you should get your money back, right?  Otherwise, by keeping the money and not delivering on the bargain, that person would be committing fraud.

Well, that’s exactly what Metro-North does to weekly and monthly ticket holders when it sells those tickets but cancels train service.  The railroad refuses to give those riders a refund.  That’s wrong.

For years the CT Rail Commuter Council has asked Metro-North (and its boss, CDOT) to rethink that policy, but they have refused.  We even approached Attorney General Jepsen, making a consumerist’s argument, but he wasn’t interested in helping.

Clearly, it’s not Metro-North’s fault when tropical storm Sandy or winter storm Nemo leave the tracks buried.  In some cases they can attempt substitute bus service, in which case refunds shouldn’t be required.

When the Commuter Council last year pushed for a “Passenger Bill of Rights” we asked for refunds when service was out, but the railroad said “impossible”,  though they did allow refunds on one-way tickets, which is not the problem at all.

One-way tickets are good for sixty days.  If the train’s not running, you can use them next week.  But weekly tickets are only good for seven specific days, Saturday through Friday.  If the train doesn’t run, you’re out of luck.

Look at the Waterbury line during storm Nemo.  Train service was halted Friday night and wasn’t resumed until the following Wednesday… four days.  A commuter who’d bought a weekly ticket from Waterbury to GCT paid $125 but lost 4/7ths of the ticket’s value and was denied a refund.

This year we’re pleading our case for fairness to the state legislature with the help of State  Representative Gail Lavielle of Wilton.  At our behest she introduced HB 5127 which would require Metro-North and CDOT to offer credit for unusable tickets when service is cancelled for more than 48 hours.  That credit could be made by extending the validity of a ticket, offering replacement tickets or maybe even a refund.

Fifteen commuters submitted testimony in support of the bill, making a very simple argument:  if the railroad can’t provide train service (or buses), ticket holders should be made whole.

When the airlines cancelled thousands of flights due to the blizzard, they honored passengers’ tickets on later flights.  When Metro-North cancelled trains, they just kept the money.

In his testimony on the bill, the Commissioner of the Connecticut Dept of Transportation said the refund plan wasn’t feasible.  And weekly / monthly commuters already get a discount, so why are they complaining?

And Metro-North, in one of its more arrogant moves of late, thumbed its nose at the Connecticut Legislature saying that as a NY State agency it was immune from Connecticut law.  That, in New York, is what they call chutzpah.

It’s not too late for commuters to support this bill by calling their elected officials.  Because while Metro-North deserves credit for much improved, usually on-time service, it should not be allowed to pick our pockets by selling us tickets when it cannot run trains, for whatever reason, but then keeps our money.  That’s just unfair.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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Off to Germany at 68 with Great Hopes

He’s garaging his beloved bike. But I’ll bet he has his heart set on getting a second one when he returns

He’s garaging his beloved bike. But I’ll bet he has his heart set on getting a second one when he returns

Morro Bay, CA—My new friend Don is rushing to meet his new love.

I’m visiting my daughter Monique here. We say New Year’s Day is the golden opportunity to turn a new page and start a bright new life. Well,  Don is really resolved!

I met him because of the bike he was riding. I love bikes. Rode actively for decades.

But his wasn’t a bicycle. It was a tricycle. A recumbent—he sat low on a seat, not a saddle, leaned way back, and worked pedals not under him, but straight ahead. He seemed as comfortable as in a TV chair. He was towing  a neat little trailer.

Don was an unlikely rider– 65 or so. Six-four. Rumpled. Twenty pounds overweight. A mustache a bit out of control. Very sharp  eyes.

He was sitting with two friends outside Spencer’s, the local supermarket. It offers free coffee. They were sipping coffee out front in the sunshine. So, it attracts a lot of seniors. It attracts me. I like to take a walk and run into people. And I like a free coffee.

I paused. All strangers. I broke into their talk. Focused on him. “Quite a bike!|” I said. He nodded. But he was  busy talking with his buddies. I went on for my coffee and a bit of shopping. When I came out, they were gone. I was disappointed. This was two days before New Year’s.

I ran into him again three day after New Year’s. Downtown, a mile away. I was on a walk.  He was parked on the sidewalk, lounging on his trike in front of a store. He recognized me. But no smile. I began talking bikes again. Now he began talking. But in clipped sentences. Offered nothing more.

Said he had owned the trike five years. No longer had a car—didn’t need one—especially with the trailer. He could carry groceries, books, lots of stuff. He had a balance problem and the trike was much more stable than a bike.  And it had 27 gear possibilities—“I could climb a wall if I had to!”

I tried to guess his occupation. Not easy. He was big and muscular. But his hands didn’t show hard work. He was smart, but he spoke too few words to tip me off about his education. He had a friendly face but seemed determined not to smile.

“Got to go!” he said finally and pedaled away. Down a slope. Coasting, not pedaling.So nice and easy. I wished I could see him come UP the hill. How easy would that be?

My third encounter was again at Spencer’s. This time he hailed me! “Ah, the newspaperman!” What a change! And we had coffee together out front. He smiled a bit. I talked bikes again. And now he opened up.

“This is my all-around vehicle. Haven’t had a car in 20 years. I just don’t like cars. I like bikes. Good exercise. Cheap to own and use. Especially in this nice weather year-round here.”

I tried broadening my questions. “Don’t interrupt me!” he said. “I’ll fill you in. But let me tell it my way! I grew up in Kansas. Graduated from the University of Kansas. Moved out here. Went to grad school at Berkeley.”
Graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley–that impressed me. “For a master’s?”

He shook his head. “No, a doctorate.”

I pressed him.

“Yes, I have a Ph.D. In classical languages.”

“Oh? Latin and Greek?” He nodded.

I couldn’t resist. I began conjugating the Latin word for “love” in the present tense: “Amo…amas…amat…amamus….”  And I added, “I studied Greek, too.”

He put up his hand to stop me. “Yeah! Yeah! I became a teacher of Latin and Greek. Taught in quite a few places. Was fired at half of them…but I won’t go into that. I loved Latin and Greek. I was hooked as a kid! Am still fascinated.”

I jumped in. “Don, you’re smiling! You said you don’t smile. You’re smiling!!!”

He stopped me again. ”I don’t smile!”

But he was wrong. He had been smiling. He went on. “I’ve done other things. Picked olives in Greece for more than a year. Knocked around. I’m retired now. But!” Suddenly he was excited. “In four days I’m going to Germany!”

“Germany?”

“Yes, Leipzig. Yes, my first time to Germany. All because of a website. It’s called Libri Vox—www.librivox.com.  It offers free audio books. You know, books you listen to. Volunteers read them and record them. Many languages. Including Greek and Latin. I’ve been listening to readings of old Latin writers on Libri Vox. Virgil. And Lucretius. And others.”

He told me that through Libri Vox, he had met a woman reader of Latin texts.  She lives in Leipzig, They have talked and talked.  Not only about the ancient authors. About all kinds of things.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Half my age. Not a problem! We’ve discussed all that. And I am going to Germany to meet her!.”

He didn’t have to say any more. He had a dream. And his dream was to bring her back to California. And he was  determined. At 68!

“God bless you, Don!  And God bless her! I hope, hope it works out!”

He smiled. Broadly! Wow!

We shook hands.  I couldn’t stay longer. My daughter was waiting for me.

Now Don is over there. What a great New Year’s story. The rare opportunity for a fresh start. And he grabbed it. It’s inspiring, really. Don’t you agree?

Don said he’d e-mail me. I can’t wait. I’m praying for a happy ending. I’ll let you know. I hope she’ll take to a trike like his, too.

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Talking Transportation: The Five Biggest Lies About Highway Tolls

Jim CameronLike it or not, get ready to pay tolls on our Interstates and Parkways.  Transportation officials in Hartford say there’s just no other way to raise badly needed money for over-due infrastructure repairs.  Tolls may not be popular, but neither are collapsing bridges.

In the last decade’s debate on highway tolling, here are the five biggest lies that opponents have used to stall the return of highway tolls:

1)    The Federal Government Won’t Let Us:  Also known as “We’ll have to return millions in federal funding”.  Not true, as US DOT officials told us at a SWRPA-sponsored meeting in Westport years ago.  The federal government regularly allows tolls to be used as traffic mitigation and revenue raising tools.

2)    Our Highways Should Be Free:  So should ice cream and donuts.  Nothing is free, including the cost of repairing I-95 and removing snow from the Merritt.  Gasoline taxes come nowhere near to raising the needed revenue. Driving is a privilege, not a right. It should come with a cost.

3)    Tolls Will Slow Traffic:  It’s not 1965 anymore.  Tolling doesn’t require highway-wide barriers with booths and gates.  Just look at the NJ Turnpike or Garden State Parkway, where barrier-free tolls using EZPass allow you to pay at 55 mph.

4)    Tollbooths Cause Accidents:   See #3 above.  This happened once, 29 years ago, in Milford, and was used as an excuse to end tolling in the state.  If toll barriers are unsafe, why don’t fiery truck crashes happen daily at the hundreds of other toll barriers around the US?

5)    Highway Tolls Will Divert Traffic to Local Roads:     This may be true, for about the first week.  If people would rather drive for free on the Boston Post Road than pay 50 cents to save an hour by taking I-95, let ‘em.  Few drivers are that cheap, or stupid.

Trust me, I know about tolls and toll booths. I spent three summers in college working as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge.  Back then the toll was only 50 cents to cross the mighty Hudson, but people still didn’t like paying it.  (Today the toll is $5).

Connecticut pioneered toll roads as early as the late 18th century.  But today our state is facing billions in over-due bridge and highway repairs.  And federal aid for transportation may be cut by a third. So why are we in this current mess?  Who’s to blame?  Us!

We’re the ones that stupidly pushed CT lawmakers to cut the gas tax 14 cents a gallon in 1997.  And we’re the ones making it political suicide for legislators today to say they support tolls, even though they know tolls are inevitable.

Pick your poison:  “free” driving on pothole-filled highways with collapsing bridges… or pay a few bucks for a safe, speedy ride.

I vote for the tolls.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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My crazy trip to California! Part 2

Amtrak-trainIt was crazy! I thought I’d be flying on a Boeing. Instead, United Airlines put me on Amtrak!

In brief: I missed my long cross-country flight! Through no fault of my own. And other bad things sprang up, too.

First, a Flash Back: For nearly 20 years I’ve been taking off to California for Christmas and to re-unite with milady Annabelle. She lives in a sunny place with no ice and no snow.

Recently I sent you a post saying that I was all set for this big trip. Had booked my trip on tried and true United Airlines.

Told you that my getting to California always involves three flights: a short flight to a major air hub, then the long flight across the country to California, then a short flight to San Luis Obisbo. My daughter Monique lives 15 miles north of there, in Morro Bay.

But! My confirmation from United showed something totally surprising: my first leg was going to be not a flight, but a train ride on Amtrak! And this also surprised the people at Old Saybrook Amtrak—they had never heard of such an arrangement.

Now the sequel!

Well, that Amtrak ride provided by United was from New Haven to Newark Airport. Amtrak stops there. But how would I get to New Haven from my Deep River? That’s a good one-hour ride.

What turned out to be the easiest was to buy a ticket on that same Amtrak train from Old Saybrook to New Haven. That way I’d ride the train right to Newark Airport.

On my departure morning, my friend Woody Boynton gave me a ride to the depot in Old Saybrook. That turned out to be the best thing that happened to me all day. The bad things were still to come.

The train was already quite full. Every row of seats had at least one seat taken. So I chose a seat next to a small person. Success.

I had a lot of stuff. I had to have a lot. I wasn’t going for 3 days. I was going for more than 3 months!

So, I had a big suitcase jammed as full as United would accept without overcharge. Plus a big handbag also jammed full, and as big as I could squeeze into the plane’s overhead bin. Plus my laptop computer and many accessories jammed into its own shoulder bag.

Furthermore, I was wearing a warm zippered vest and winter jacket and a hat. And I had my walking stick, which I need for any serious walking–this would take much serious walking! So I was loaded down.

In New Haven, I stayed on the same train, of course. But the conductor had changed. He shook his head when I showed him my United confirmation. Was baffled. He pocketed the letter and said he would get back to me. He returned in 20 minutes and said I would not have to pay—he was satisfied the United Airlines confirmation was legitimate.

Some people love riding a train. I’m happy for them. I’ve used trains a lot, in the U.S. and other countries. I can’t get excited. Tracks are laid out to be the most practical…meaning to avoid all hills. Not to show us the best views and give the most interesting ride.

In cities, all you get to see are the worst neighborhoods…the backyards of the factories and warehouses, plus the backyards of houses in some of the worst neighborhoods. New York City is an example. Ride into New York City on a train and you get an awful impression. You’d say, “No way would I want to live there!” Well, that’s how I feel about it.

And the backs of the seats are so high that you cannot see ahead. It’s awful. If you’re 6’6” tall, you can. But I’m not 6’6”. And I hate being boxed in that way.

Plus, walking on a train in motion is dangerous! Much rocking and bumping even on an Amtrak com! There are times when you do have to walk and risk your life—to get to the toilet and the food car, and sometimes to get to an exit on the train. I’ll bet a surprising number of folks fall and hurt themselves in a year.

In my opinion, inter-city buses are much better. More interesting. More comfortable. On a bus, looking through a window gives you a more representative view of the country you’re riding across.

I’ve ridden Greyhound all the way across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific three times, plus to other locales, plus nearly all the way across Canada. I favor Greyhound. It’s more of an adventure. It’s also cheaper, by the way.

Finally we were approaching the Newark Airport stop. An announcement said, “Next stop in 3 minutes!” By now every seat was taken. Many were getting off here. Many leaped up while the train was rocking along. Began grabbing their suitcases and stuff.

No way could I do that. I have a balance problem now—the result of going deaf in my right ear a year ago. I’d be nuts to dare stand before the train came to a dead halt.

When it did stop, I got up. The aisle was jammed with people. I had a hard time retrieving all my stuff. My jacket was pushed far back on the rack above. I had to get a tall guy to reach up and take it down for me.

Now everybody was pushing to get off the train. I was at the end of the long line, which was moving slowly. Just as I got to the door out the train, it closed! I tried and tried. No way could I get it to open. The train began rolling! I was frantic! My flight would be taking off in 1 hour and 40 minutes! Would I miss my flight to San Francisco? And my public talk in the morning?

At 10:30 a.m., I was booked to give a long-arranged talk at the Morro Bay Public Library. It’s the hometown library of Monique and David. They had arranged the talk for me. I give such talks quite often.

But a young woman had seen my plight. She ran to get the conductor. He wasn’t in our car. She rushed on to the next car. She came back and threw up her hands in frustration. Bless her! Finally he showed up.

“We gave you a 3-minute notice!” he told me sternly. He looked irritated. I’m the one who should have looked irritated!

“Impossible!” I said to him.” Too many people trying to get off! I tried! Do you think I would have missed the stop on purpose?!”

“Get off at the next stop!” he told me. He ordered to to sit down. I had been standing with all my stuff by the vestibule, leaning into a corner to make sure I didn’t fall. The tracks always look nice and smooth and flat. You expect a nice smooth ride. Not so!

“I’ll come back when we stop,“ he snapped. “I’ll tell you what to do then!” And he stormed off.

I kept hoping the train would stop at any minute. I needed every minute to make my flight! It took a long time, whatever it was…10 minutes, 12 minutes. The conductor returned just in time…ushered me off. I had so much to carry. He pointed to an elevator 75 feet away….told me to take it down…then walk across to the other side of the tracks…take the elevator up…stop at the ticket office on that side and explain…then take the next train back to the Newark Airport stop. But how long would all that take?

I did as he said. Walked to the elevator dragging all my stuff. Not easy. I was alone at the elevator. I pushed this button and that one. None of the buttons was marked. Finally the door opened and I got in with everything.

Inside, 6 buttons! Maybe 8! I was so anxious it was hard for me to notice. Not one said “Down” or “Up.” I kept trying for the Down button. No luck. Unbelievable. I looked for help. No help around. I kept stabbing the buttons. This was crazy. I was losing precious time. Finally, finally I got the car to start Down!

Somehow I got out. Dragged everything through the tunnel to the other side. Went to the elevator there. A woman was getting in. She held the door open for me, thank God. She pushed a button. We started Up. She did it all so easily it made me feel like a klutz.

Up top, I dragged everything into the ticket office. Surprising I wasn’t having a heart attack. The clerk was busy with a customer. More time wasting! Finally I explained to her. She shook her head unbelievingly. Made me, 83 years old and going on too soon to 84, feel like a naughty kid. Handed me a complimentary ticket.

In four long, long minutes the train pulled in. I managed to get on with everything. Found a seat near the door, lucky me. The train started. I kept looking at my watch. Rushed to get off at the next stop. Shouldn’t have rushed. Dangerous. But made it all

Big mistake! This was not a through train! This was a local! I had two more stops to go! What!!! No choice. More precious minutes drained by. Finally the next train pulled up. It, too, was a local, of course, so slower. I struggled and got on. I kept thinking, What’s the use of continuing this mad rush? No way would I make my flight. But I had to try!

A young woman had noticed my difficulties. And my anxiety. She was getting off at the airport, too. She had one suitcase of her own to handle plus a giant handbag. But she insisted on taking my big suitcase in hand. God bless her! She was no Amazon. Anything but. But at our stop, she hopped off. So nimble! With all that stuff! I had to be extra careful. Embarrassing.

On the platform, she said, “Let’s go! Let’s go !” I followed her as fast as I could without breaking my neck. She led the way into the big station. Found an Amtrak guy and explained my problem. “That way!” he said, pointing. She steamed ahead. I struggled to keep up. At one point I was 15 steps behind. Then 30. She kept looking back. Realized I was trying hard. Then we entered the terminal She led me right into the huge airport terminal.

She asked for directions. Led the way to an airport train. It rides a long circuit from gate to gate. No driver on board. All automatic. We had to wait for it. I asked her about herself. She had a foreign accent. I tried to guess what it was. Couldn’t.

She was sweet. Told me she was a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at Rutgers University. Had won a scholarship of some kind. Mechanical engineering! She looked so feminine. The world IS changing.

She was from Turkey—Istanbul! She told me that very proudly. I understood. I’ve been to Istanbul. Such a grand city. Unforgettable. I mentioned the Blue Mosque. The Grand Bazaar. Istanbul—the exact midpoint between Europe and Asia!

She smiled appreciatively. She was pleased by my enthusiasm. Besides all that, this was a very happy day for her. She was ao excited. She was about to meet her mother. For the first time in nearly a year! It had been a long time for her.

Now she found a United official for me. A woman. I rushed through an account of my miserable story for us. She wasn’t the least bit flustered. She had heard every possible crazy story, I was sure. She asked me for some specifics, typed on her computer, peered on the screen. She didn’t make any comment. But I was sure the news wasn’t good.

She took me hand and put me on the train when it glided in. Told me where to get off. “Don’t miss your stop!” she told me pointedly. I couldn’t help noticing her emphasis. My Good Samaritan lady engineer patted me on the shoulder. “Now you will be all right!” she told me sweetly. “Merry Christmas!” And turned to head on.

I stopped her, “”Thank you, Miss! Thank you!” And gave her a peck on the cheek. She laughed. I could see she was pleased. She gave me a pat on the shoulder. And took off. I was sorry to see her go. Really was. I stepped on the train. Was lucky and got a seat. The doors closed. The train slid ahead.

I didn’t miss my stop this time. I was right by a United counter. Went to a clerk. She studied her computer.

“ You’re too late! Way too late! But let me see what I can find for you!” She kept scanning her monitor and working her mouse.. About to take off. And you still have to check your bag and get through security!”

Finally she said, “I have another flight for you. It’s to Los Angeles rather than San Francisco. Then a short flight north to San Luis Obispo. Not south, as would have been the case on your previous itinerary. You will get San Luis 2 hours and 10 minutes later.” She smiled.

“And it’s good news.” I could tell she was trying to put a bright spin on this fiasco. “You’ll still be able to get a full night’s sleep! And keep your speaking commitment at the library in the morning!”

I thanked her profusely.To myself, I thought, “It’s going to be a very short night!” And I had another urgent matter. I had to call Monique and David and tell them about this screw-up. And my new arrival time. I have no cell phone.

“No problem!” she said and placed the call for me. In a minute she said. “Your son-in-law is on the line.” And gave me the call.

I explained to David. He took it calmly. “No problem, John! We’ll be there to meet you!” he said. “Relax!” What a huge sigh of relief I let out.

The lady agent wasn’t finished. She insisted on walking me to the long United desk. Placed me in the shortest line. Got me signed in and my big suitcase checked. Then summoned a wheel chair for me. As proud as I am, I did not decline. I was bushed. She told me where to sit and wait and wished me good luck. I thanked her profusely. She deserved profuse thanks!

In eight minutes a big cheerful gal in uniform rolled up with a chair for me. I gladly got in. She took charge of my handbag, my computer, my walking stick, my coat, everything, and began pushing me. Fast.

“Where to now?’ I asked.

“To Security!” She didn’t waste a minute. Double-timed!

I was puzzled. Why Security? Didn’t pursue it. She worked me into the check-in area. Long lines waiting. She bypassed them all. Pushed me right to the head of the line at the far left. . Then into a special lane. Only two people ahead of me. Helped me get all my stuff into the plastic buses and onto the moving conveyor belt.

But I did not have to take off my shoes. Hurray! It’s a new rule for older people. A TSA agent ushered me through. Frisked me. Made me stand in a glass chamber. Ordered me to place my feet on two specific spots on the floor. Told me to hold my hands straight up. Stare straight ahead. I heard a click. Heard someone say, “Okay, sir. Now step ahead, please!” I completed the whole miserable process. Began gathering all my stuff on the other side.

But my attendant with the wheel chair had followed me through. “No time to waste!” she snapped. “Please sit down.” She took charge of all my stuff. She rolled me right down the long ramp. Right to the door of the plane. Now I realized the flight the flight was being held for me. Gosh! I got on. But not without taking a minute to dig into my wallet and give that hard-working gal something for her strenuous efforts.

The plane was jammed full. It turned out I was in a row of three seats. The flight attendant led me to my row half way back. Only the middle seat was available. The awful middle seat! A heavy woman was ensconced in the aisle seat.

Instantly the attendant ordered her to move to the middle seat. What’s this, I wondered? Well, the heavy lady had thought only two of the seats in the row would be occupied.Her ticket was for the middle seat. It was nearly take-off time. So she had eased herself into the better aisle seat. Hey, I would have done the same thing. Very reluctantly she shifted over. I settled into the aisle seat and got settled.

We took off. Every seat had a TV monitor. Once up at flight altitude, ! turned on a movie. I needed to relax! Something called “The Campaign.” A silly, crazy comedy but with a serious theme.

Two men campaigning for a seat in Congress. A long-experienced Congressman very slick and sleazy whose guiding principle was to win re-election at any cost, meaning to use any underhanded strategy he thought would help him.

And a nice guy, ordinary looking in every way, but a family man with a loving wife and kids, who was running because he felt Washington was a mess and he wanted to help the people in his district. Loved the movie.

Then my screen went dead. An attendant came, studied, tried to reboot it. My TV remained dead all the way across. Every other TV on the plane kept working fine.

The crew served us a beverage. Period. Not even the usual bag of peanuts. Then later they came around with cups of water.That’s typical airline service today, as we know.

Two thirds of the way across, the captain came on. “Tough winds ahead. Heavy turbulence. Stay buckled in! Buckle in tight, please! No standing! No walking!”

It was ominous. Scary. Dead silence on the plane. We waited for the awful bouncing to start. And waited. Braced ourselves. !t was a false alarm. Maybe the pilot circled around the heavy winds. Not sure. Felt no turbulence of any kind. And we landed in San Francisco right on time Amazing.

Now I had a 50-minute wait for my next flight. I parked all my hand stuff. With my walking stick, I spent the whole time walking a circle around the gate area I was in. Around and around. Needed the exercise..

By magic, another wheelchair attendant approached. Insisted I be seated. Rolled me down one flight on an elevator and out the rear of the terminal. Right onto the blacktop where the planes were parked. Dark out night. And cold out! Br-r-r-r!

Rolled me out to a much smaller plane a hundred yards away. It had only two engines. A turbo-prop , it looked like. Pushed me right to the base of the rolling stair that led up into the plane. I made it up to the top and in. Nice and warm inside. Good.

Just 40 seats at the most, I’d say. I was the first on. I took a seat right by a window. I knew we’d be flying up the coast. I wanted to look down on the coast, not out on the vast, empty Pacific. Another 15 or 20 passengers got on. One engine sputtered on, then the second, and we took off.

This was real flying–not the smooth, predictable, so powerful take-off of the big jets. This plane was surging and bucking and fighting its way up. Which I happen to enjoy. You knew the captain did not have this plane on automatic—which I know the big planes use routinely once they’re aloft. Maybe even on takeoffs? That for sure he had his hands on the yoke and was really steering this thing and bossing it.

I had chosen the good side. It was a clear, beautiful evening, with a perfect quarter moon. I enjoyed the the lights in cities and towns along the shore, with the long dark stretches in between. And the lights of ships and boats making their way below. The hour went by quickly, and the pleasure of this brief flight made up for the boredom of my long flight across the whole U.S.A.

We landed on time. I managed the long walk into the terminal and up to the main floor. Monique and David were there waiting. Big smiles and open arms. A nice ride home.

It was nearly 2 a.m. by Connecticut time when I got to bed—and I had gotten up at 5 a.m. I had been up 21 hours.

But I managed a solid seven hours of good sleep and got up to a good breakfast and a nice, sunny day.. And I made my speaking engagement at the library the next morning. Which went well.

If United Airlines ever offers me another ticket starting with a train ride, I’ll think six times before I accept it. You be cautious, too!

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Talking Transportation – Connecticut’s New Railroad

Jim CameronLast week, China opened the world’s longest high speed rail line.  From Beijing the line runs 1,428 miles south to Guangzhou, roughly the distance from New York City to Key West.  At an average speed of 186 mph, the 1000-passenger, 16-car trains will cover the distance in eight hours.  Trains depart every 10 to 12 minutes in each direction.

Though construction of high speed rail only began in 2007, by 2015 China will have a national network of over 11,000 miles of high speed rail lines carrying more than 3 billion passengers annually.

Envious?  Sure.  Why can’t we build something like that in the US?  Lots of reasons.  But consider what we are building.

By 2016, Connecticut will have a new commuter rail line, its first in decades, running 60 miles from New Haven through Hartford and on to Springfield MA.  The $647 million project is fully funded ($388 million in Federal money, $259 million in state bonding) and is on, if not ahead of, schedule.

The double track line will eventually offer trains every half-hour, carrying an estimated 1.7 million passengers a year.  Today, Amtrak diesels chug along the line on a single track offering eight trains a day carrying 380,000 passengers a year. (PS:  It remains to be seen who will run this new state-owned railroad, Amtrak or some other operating agency.)

While most Amtrak passengers are connecting in New Haven to Northeast corridor trains, this new “Knowledge Corridor” line will offer not only seamless cross-platform connections to Acela, Metro-North and Shore Line East, but point-to-point service among its 13 stations.

At three stations there will be connections to CTfastrak (the new $567 million bus rapid transit system opening in 2015).  And at Windsor Locks you’ll be able to hop off the train, onto a shuttle bus and be at Bradley airport in just minutes.  Eventually there may be through trains north to Montreal and east to Boston via the inland route.

There are plans for 200 – 300 parking spaces at most stations.  But the real hope is that TOD (Transit Oriented Development) will work its magic and people will be able to live, commute to work and get back home without a car.

The economic potentials are amazing:  work in downtown Hartford or New Haven but live, shop and eat in Wallingford or Windsor and never have to own a car!  Already the land around the proposed stations is being grabbed up for development.

Another issue for the communities served by the new rail line will be the 32 grade crossings.  More trains will mean more gates dropping across busy roadways and more warning horns being sounded.

One thing the new rail line will not be is “high speed” (125+ mph).  Earlier hype about bullet trains running parallel to I-91 has been replaced with more reasonable expectations:  the new trains will cover the 60 miles between New Haven and Springfield just eight minutes faster than existing Amtrak trains (thanks mostly to raised platforms and less ‘dwell time’ at stations).  But what they lack in speed they will more than make up for in frequency of service.

For more information on Connecticut’s newest rail line, visit their website: http://www.nhhsrail.com

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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At the Supermarket, Use the “Scan It!” and be Done With it!

First: At the Scan It rack, shopper Debra Mals scans her Stop & Shop card, then picks up a Scan It device from one of the nests.

First: At the Scan It rack, shopper Debra Mals scans her Stop & Shop card, then picks up a Scan It device from one of the nests.

If you have the chore of doing the shopping at the supermarket, use a Scan It!

A Scan It! will save you time. Give you more control over your spending. And speed you out a lot faster, not even having to deal with a clerk.

The Scan It! is the latest digital device that I’ve come across. As we know, there’s been a frenetic roll-out of electronic devices–escalating every year and changing our lives in remarkable ways. I’m delighted to have discovered the Scan It! It’s already changing the way I shop.

(Note: The Scan It! with the exclamation mark is a registered brand name. But to make your reading easier, I’m going to delete the exclamation mark. You’ll appreciate this as you continue reading.)

I go grocery shopping only for myself, and I’m not a technological nut by any means although I do own far more electronic gadgets than I ever imagined. A cell phone that I use little, a computer that I use a lot, a hearing aid (just recently), which isn’t helping me much. Plus an IPod, an e-book reader (two!), a DVD player, a camera, all unbelievably “smart.”

In truth, I’ve gotten along fine without the Scan It. But I recognized the advantages of this remarkable device get in the blink of an eye. Excuse me. Make that “at its very first scan!”

Of all the digital marvels I’ve mentioned, the Scan It is unusual in an interesting way. You don’t buy it or lease it. You borrow it. And only for when you’re really shopping in the store that makes them available.

And it has another distinctive feature. Its purpose is not only to make your life easier. It’s to make that store more profitable. Yes, the Scan It will help you in several ways. But it will let that store make more money by ushering you through your buying spree faster and without needing a clerk at checkout. The store will reduce its payroll.

You can breeze into the store, pick up a Scan It, cruise the aisles and pick up everything you need, then check out at a self-service register. You’ll get it all done and walk out without talking or interacting in any way with another person. Except maybe a clerk in deli or the fish or meat departments if you want something special.

I came across the Scan It at the Stop & Shop in Old Saybrook. I buy at three or four supermarkets in the area–wherever I happen to be when I need to pick up a few things. To my knowledge, Stop & Shop is the only one that has adopted the Scan It. And they have it only in select stores.

I know I’ve got you wondering, What the heck is the Scan It? Let me tell you. It looks like an odd-shaped cell phone, but bigger. It is hand held, easy to use, not heavy, and you use it for every item you want. But the item must have a barcode.

Stop & Shop has a display of Scan Its right by its two front doors. Two racks of 24 of them, each in its own nest. Each one has the word Motorola on it, by the way. They are silently charging, awaiting you. You take one and use it as you wander through. And you leave it behind when you check out. You can put it back. If you don’t, the store will do it, and the Scan It will immediately pep itself up for the next borrower.

No charge of any kind for you to use it.

I was standing there studying one of the racks. Had never noticed it. I had seen a gal using a Scan It on a previous visit and I became fascinated. Now, all the other shoppers were just walking by, ignoring the devices, or not being aware despite Shop & Shop efforts to promote it. All 24 were there idling, so to speak, not getting the attention they deserve.

Then Debra Mals strode in and picked one up. Right next to me. She did it so fast and so naturally that I was sure she was a Scan It expert. My big opportunity! Maybe I could entice her to become my personal Scan It tutor. And I succeeded.

It took me only two minutes to explain that she could help countless folks around here who know zilch about the Scan It. How? Just by letting me walk around with her, see how she uses it, take a few pictures at key moments, and let me write this report for you.

What a good sport this Debra! An interesting gal. She is a dance instructor in the Old Saybrook Park and Recreation program. Lives in Old Saybrook with her husband Peter and their college-age daughter. Debra does all the shopping and does it all in just a single visit per week. She comes in with a shopping list, not on paper but in her brain, and, I found out, gets the job finished with supreme efficiency. Then out she goes, all done for another week.

I asked her one question after another. She was suspicious at first. Of course. Who wouldn’t be? Then she smiled. “Sure,” she told me. “More people should know about the Scan It.” And we started out. Before long, I could see she was enjoying our Scan It ramble as much as I was.

She said, “I discovered Scan It about two years ago. When they were brand-new. Well, I think they were new. I’m not a digital person. Oh, I use a cell phone and computer and things like that. I just saw how useful this thing was. And so easy to get the hang of it.”

Here are the basic steps she went through as we walked along.

The Scan It rack has a scanner dead center at chest level. She swiped her Stop & Shop member card into it. That’s all she had to do. The Scan It computer now knew her. Then she picked up a Scan It and we started down an aisle. She kept the Scan It in hand as she guided her cart. The cart was as big as they come. “I usually fill it!” she said.

Second step: She selected an item, shot its barcode with the Scan It, then put the item in her basket. The Scan It kept full details.

Second step: She selected an item, shot its barcode with the Scan It, then put the item in her basket. The Scan It kept full details.

She knew the store cold. She stopped in the detergent department. She found the kind she wanted. She held the Scan It as she would a pistol, and scanned the item’s barcode by clicking a button. And put the item in the basket. Actually, in a heavy fabric bag. She had brought several.

And that’s all she had to, in aisle after aisle. The name of the item was not important. It’s its barcode that was all-important. For custom orders, fresh seafood for instance, the clerk puts a printout with a barcode onto the purchase.

And that’s how she proceeded through the whole store. She went at it fast and smoothly and her purchases piled up in her cart.

What will she do when she gets to produce, I wondered. Bananas, say. Or grapes.

No problem. She knew a trick. In fact, she did need bananas. She picked out exactly eight. I wondered why eight. “One for every day of the week,” she said with a smile. “And one as a spare.”

Third step: For loose produce, she weighed it. The scale spit out a receipt with a barcode. She shot it with the Scan It.

Third step: For loose produce, she weighed it. The scale spit out a receipt with a barcode. She shot it with the Scan It.

Then she showed me the trick. She carried the bananas to one of the digital scales. Put the bananas on it. Quickly tapped in the data the scale needed: she clicked Fruits, then Tropical, then Bananas, then Print It. The scale spit out a receipt. The receipt gave the price per pound and the weight and the total price. And it had a barcode. She just scanned the barcode and that was it!

Now came the dramatic finale. She pushed the cart to one of the self-service checkouts. Each one has a Scan It “target”. She aimed her Scan It at it and shot it. I asked her why.

“This tells the computer to add everything up!”

Then she passed her Stop & Shop card under its scanner. Took only a couple of seconds. Magically her whole order flashed up on

the big monitor. She could see the total price and whatever tax was required. But this was no surprise: she had already seen that on her Scan It. She tapped “Okay.” Then she told me, “Now I can pay with cash, or a credit card, or a debit card.” She used a credit card.

Now I saw why she had brought in her own bags. She said, “This way at the end I don’t have to bag everything in their plastic bags. Besides, better for the environment!” She smiled and gave me a wave, and pushed her cart out the door. She had saved a lot of time. Excuse me. She would have if she hadn’t had to explain everything to me.

I’ve got to tell you I could not have found a better tutor!

Debra had also explained a few other things as we worked our way through.

“If I’ve put something in my cart and change my mind, all I have to do is take it out and then delete the item from the Scan It.

“And on the Scan It I can review the list of everything I’ve bought and make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. And if

I want to stick to a tight budget, easy!”

“How?”

Final step: At the register, she shot a “target.” This told the computer she was done. It showed her every item and the total cost. She paid with her card. Then out she went in jig time.

Final step: At the register, she shot a “target.” This told the computer she was done. It showed her every item and the total cost. She paid with her card. Then out she went in jig time.

“Let’s say I don’t want to spend more than $50. I keep putting things in my basket and checking the total. Finally the total is $49.75. Then I spot the pineapples. They’re on sale for $2.50. A good buy. I want one! But it will blow my budget. How do I handle this?

“Simple. I review my purchases on the Scan It I and decide on something I can live without. The box of green tea, say. Click and I delete it from my list! Ads leave the tea behind. Then scan the pineapple and put it in my basket. My new total is $49.64. Problem solved!’

I stayed behind. I wanted some grapes and half a gallon of milk. I picked up a Scan It and started out. Nothing to using it. Now I saw other interesting features. On sale items, the device showed me the saving every time. I pushed another button and the device showed me six items on special sale for Scan It customers only.

One was a freebie: Muller Greek Corner yogurt with strawberries, 5.3 oz. I like yogurt. When I went for my milk, I picked up a container of it. Its price was $1.49. Who doesn’t like a freebie like that?

I discovered one more advantage. Some purchases can be embarrassing when you go and face a live checkout clerk. I’m sure you can think of some such items. Using the Scan It avoids that. No clerk will get to see what you’re buying.

It turns out that you can use your Ipad or Iphone or a device using Android to do the job.

Another thought: maybe the Scan It means so much to Debra that she would refuse to spend her money in any store without the device. If that is so, the Scan It gives Stop & Shop a strong competitive edge.

One thing I noticed on this whole experiment: I did not see any other customer using a Scan It. Remember, Stop & Shop has been offering the devices two years or more. How come such indifference? Is it because people are intimidated by the technology, which turns out to be so easy to use. I don’t know.

Got to tell you that I’ll use the Scan It the next time I go in that store. As I look back, I think it’s one of the best things in the retail food industry since the invention of the grocery cart back in the 1940’s, which I remember.

But I can look ahead, too. In 10 or 15 years, I see something else. No need for a Scan It. We’ll email our shopping list to our supermarket. If we’re not sure what we want, we’ll be able to examine each and every aisle of the store on our computer monitor. We’ll see every shelf close up, every item! We’ll type our selections on our keyboard and see how much they total! Then click “Send”!

At the store, a humanoid robot will assemble our order and put it on a truck which will take it to our door. I know Stop & Shop offers this service already, but with humans, not humanoids. But the humanoids are coming!

I won’t like shopping like that. I have other reasons to go to the big stores besides buying stuff. I like the exercise walking the aisles. And seeing people. So, so interesting.

Speaking of that, I know some folks found it very interesting to watch Debra tutoring me!

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How My Flight Suddenly Became a Train Ride

I expected to fly out of Bradley. But United Airlines decided I should start on Amtrak!

Here’s what startled me. I just bought a three-flight trip to California. It always take me three flights to get to my daughter Monique’s. But the first flight on that ticket suddenly turned into a ride on Amtrak!

I didn’t plan it. Didn’t want it. It happened automatically. Has this happened to you of late?

It was time to book my traditional flight to my daughter Monique’s for Christmas and New Year’s.

She lives in Morro Bay, CA. I’ve been making this trip every year for 20 years or so.

The trip invariably involves three flights. I did the usual. What millions of Americans do every day. I sat at my keyboard and went to a travel search engine.

First Kayak. Then Expedia. Like 99 percent of us, I checked for the best deal. And the best time of departure. And the best price. Those are the essentials. The rest means little to me. I believe that the big difference among main airlines is the paint jobs on their planes.

The tricky part are the times of leaving and arriving. California is three hours behind us, of course. But other factors weigh in.

My wonderful sister Lucie in West Hartford invariably picks me up and drives me to Deep River. A flight at 9 a.m. seems reasonable on the face of it. But we’re told we must be at the airport 90 minutes before our flight. Right? And it’s a ride of one hour door to door from here to Bradley. It’s one hour for Lucie from home to here. Allow 30 minutes for contingencies. And allow her one hour to get up and breakfast and dress.

That means she must rise at 5 a.m. She’ll do it, and willingly. Has done it often for me. But I try to make it more convenient. You’d think the same way, I’m sure.

That’s the problem at my end. My daughter Monique has a time problem at her end, too.

She and her hubby David have busy days. Must rise early. Not unusual for the third of my flights to arrive in San Luis Obispo at 10 p.m. Even later. Their home is a good 30 minutes of fast driving from the airport. Allow 30 minutes at the airport to greet me, get all my stuff and me into their car. Then 30 minutes to their home. My plane may be late. It might be midnight when we walk in the front door. Not good. I do my best to minimize that headache.

Of course, the search engines offer flights that range from the ridiculous to the absurd. One such offered a departure at 2 a.m. and a price of $940. That’s in economy. Come on!

I went to a third search engine. CheapOair. Had never heard of it. Typed in the usual. Kind of flight: economy. Departure: Bradley. Destination: San Luis Obispo. Some in my family travel a lot. They tell me the best days from my point of my view are Tuesdays and Wednesday. So, I type in Wednesday.

Bingo!

I hit a grand combo. Departure: 9:10 a.m. Arrival: 9:05 p.m. On United Airlines. United is fine. With the usual three flights. The first to Dallas. The second to Los Angeles. The third to San Luis, as the folks there call it. Price: $395 one way.  That seems high to me, but with the huge price rise in gas and other things, I find it acceptable.

CheapOair Air tells me my purchase is non-cancelable. But that’s a routine notice nowadays. I buy the flight with my credit card.

I always buy this flight one way. No, I’m not migrating to California in my old age. After New Year’s, I always take Greyhound south to milady Annabelle’s. (For the record, I like Greyhound! Some folks call me nuts. But they should try Greyhound, too!)

She lives in Newport Beach, an hour south of L.A. I’m there with her till early April. She comes east to Connecticut when the weather warms up here. That, too, has been our routine for nearly 20 years.

So, in late January I sit at my computer again and play the Search-Engine Game again, but in reverse.

 

My flight confirmation from CheapOair arrived within minutes. Shock! I had specified Bradley as my departure airport, remember? CheapOair was telling me that my first flight would not be a flight. It would be a train ride! From New Haven to Newark! In Newark I would board a flight to San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. Then on to San Luis, arriving at.  Excellent!

But the train ride! I like trains. Have taken many, including a long one all across India and one all the way up from Singapour to Kuala Lumpur. But out of the question for a 3,000-mile trip across the USA.

I consider myself an experienced air traveler. I had never run into a situation like this. I recognized that a train on a short run like this might be a good idea. Lucie would not have to drive 80 miles or so to get me to the airport. I would avoid that awful take-off-your-shoes-please hassle at the airport. And all the waiting.

But, how to get to New Haven? Well, I have a friend who commutes to New Haven to work. I could bum a ride from her.  But she boards the train in Old Saybrook. Fine, though that would add an extra charge. But how would I get from the train station in Newark to the airport? Would there be a shuttle? How long would that take? In heavy traffic, might I miss my flight? That would add an extra expense, too.

I found an 800 number for CheapOair and called it. I got a man in India. I’ve been to India twice and have Indian friends. I can detect Indian English at the first word. I like Indians.  So not a problem. Furthermore, I admire Indians and Filipinos and Peruvians who man our off-coast call stations nowadays. They do a wonderful job at work that is truly daunting. Imagine having

I explained my surprise at the train ride. Told him I wanted a plane ride, not a train ride. Said to him, “I have never experienced this before!”

“I am sorry, sir,” he said with the greatest politeness. “One minute, please.” Well, it turned out to be several minutes. But I understand that, too.

He came on again. “I have canceled your flight, sir. I am returning what you paid to your Visa account. But you will be billed $14. That is for canceling your flight.”

“Please waive that $14 charge. Not fair. That train ride was a total surprise. How would you feel in my situation”?

“I am sorry, sir. Our rules prohibit that. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

“No, thank you.”

That was that. I’d re-book again as soon as I had time. No rush. A day or two would make little difference.

But! As it turned out that train ride was indicated when I downloaded all those original details. In my rush, I did not notice that little item. I take the blame.

That evening I called Annabelle and told her the whole story. She was dismayed. She is an experienced air traveler, too. And had worked a long time as a travel agent. Things have changed enormously since those days but she’s still savvy. And my word “dismayed” was the right word.

“Oh, John, you should not have canceled! That was a better deal. In more than one way.”

“Yes, I know. But the problems. How to get from Newark to the airport…”

“The train goes right on to the airport. It’s just a few minutes farther along the track. Nothing to it! In fact, you and I did that once. Right from Old Saybrook to Newark. When we flew to Italy!”

I blushed. I actually blushed. But she could sense it way out there in California. I am sure. Of course! She was right. Now I remembered!”

“Call them back!” she told me. “See if you can re-book that flight.”

I found that 800 number again. I made the call. Got an Indian lady this time. Definitely young, but yes, a lady.

“I understand, sir. I’ll be glad to help you if I can. It will be a minute or two, please.”

Finally she returned to me. “Yes, that flight is still available. But the price has risen. It is now $444.

Shall I book it for you?”

“Is it available on Tuesday rather than Wednesday?” I have found that sometimes a one-day difference can change the price significantly. I’m a retiree. Such a change would not be a hardship. Nor for Monique and David in California either, I was sure.

She went offline for another “minute.”

“Yes, it is available. The price will be your original price, $395. But you will fly to San Luis Obispo from San Francisco instead of Los Angeles. And your new arrival time will be 7:54 p.m. Is this satisfactory?”

“Yes!”

That airport change would be insignificant. Anyway, I wouldn’t get to see either of those cities. Maybe just a few lights down below if I happened to be sitting at a window on the right side of the plane. The new arrival time would make it easier for Monique and David. And me, too.

“Please book that flight for me, Mam. Thank you very much for your help. You’ve been very good.”

“My pleasure, sir.” Soon she came back on. “Your new travel arrangements are confirmed, sir. You will receive an onli. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

An idea had come to me. I said, “As you know, I had to pay a $14 penalty when I canceled. Can that be refunded to me now?”

“Let me see what I can do, sir. One minute, please.”

She came back on. “I have just returned $14 to your Visa account. All this will be confirmed to you. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

“No. I am very happy. Thank you.”

And that was that. Remember, that was a “non-cancelable deal.” I have to salute CheapOair. Don’t you agree?

Talk about coincidences. Two days later, in the New York Times, I read a long article about airline flights with railroad legs. Its headline was “Train or Plane? More Travelers Choose Both.” “Choose” was the right word only if they noticed the train ride on their ticket and approved.

It explained this whole new business was a common practice in Europe. Big cities there are much closer together. Trains travel much faster and more frequently. Yes, it’s a new practice here in the U.S. But becoming popular because easier and more convenient in some ways. Yet not commonly available because we have few railroad stations located within practical distances of major airports.

I have questions about all this, of course. United lost the first of my three air trips to Amtrak. Is United happy about that? I wouldn’t think so. Also Bradley International lost me as one of its passengers. Is Bradley happy about that? I wouldn’t think so. Is Amtrak being paid by United? Or CheapOair? I don’t know. But it’s all so interesting.

Please note: some of the small details above, of flight times and prices and such, may be off a bit.  I am writing this from memory.

We know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well, so is progress.

I’ll try in time to bring you up to date on how all this works out.

So now you know. Take a careful look at the tiny details the next time you okay a multi-flight trip. Before you book it!

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Transportation: High Speed Rail in Japan

I am just back from two weeks’ travel in Asia where I have seen the past and the future of the world’s best high speed rail.  This week, my thoughts on Japan and next week, China.

It was 1964 when the Japanese introduced the world’s first “bullet train”, the Shinkansen.  Using a dedicated right-of-way (no freight, no slow trains), the Tokaido line between Tokyo and Osaka today carries over 150 million passengers a year at speeds up to 190 mph… not the fastest in the world, but easily the busiest.

Now on its seventh generation of equipment, I rode the Nozumi Express from Tokyo to Kyoto and was amazed at the service.  Like Grand Central Terminal, Tokyo’s main downtown station is a dead-end.  As trains arrive, passengers disembark and uniformed cleaning crews have about ten minutes to clean and freshen the equipment for the next run.

The Nozumi runs from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of 314 miles, equivalent to the distance between Boston and Baltimore.  And it makes that journey in 2 ½ hours with trains every five to ten minutes!  Each 16 car train can carry up to 1300 passengers in first (“Green”) class (two by two seating) or second class (three by two… the Japanese are small).

Compare that to Amtrak with hourly Acela service in six car trainsets holding 300 passengers total.  Acela’s fastest run from Boston to Baltimore is just shy of six hours with an average speed of 90 – 120 mph.

The Japanese trains are so fast there is no need for a diner or bar car.  Instead, passengers can buy an “ekiben” boxed lunch from dozens of stores at the station.  Because all seats are assigned, passengers que up at the exact spot on the platform where their car will stop, awaiting permission to board.  When the cleaning crews finish, the doors open, passengers board and the train departs… always on time, and to the second.

As the conductor collects tickets, he bows to each customer.  Train crew passing through the cars always turn and bow to the passengers before going to the next car.  The ride is so smooth as to not be thought possible.  And arrivals and departures are to the second with average dwell time at intermediate stations no longer than 90 seconds.  And, of course, there is free Wi-Fi during the entire journey.

The first class fare on the Nozumi Express between Tokyo and Osaka is $186.  On Amtrak’s Acela, the Boston to Baltimore ride costs up to $279 for business class, $405 in first class.

Japan’s Shinkansen is the grand-daddy of high speed rail, but still among the best.  Next time I’ll tell you about the newest, and to my thinking, the world’s best high speed rail… in China!  And I’ll recount my 11 minute ride on the world’s only commercial maglev in Shanghai.

 JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Surviving Hurricane Sandy

Which candle do you think gives better light?The big one, right? That’s what I thought, too.

Yes, Sandy taught me a big lesson: how much light does one candle give? Oh, not as the centerpiece during dinner. And not on a birthday cake. In the pitch dark! For hours. I had no idea. It was an illuminating lesson. (Pun.) But not an illuminating experience.

History story tells us that one horsepower is the power of one horse. No idea what horse was used to figure that—its size or breed or age or gender or anything else. But it doesn’t matter.

Now how about one candlepower? Well, if 1 hp. is the effort put out by 1 horse, then 1 candlepower must be the light put out by 1 candle. Wouldn’t you agree?  But in practical terms, how much is that?

During the hurricane I learned the hard way. It’s shockingly, disappointingly little. Yet it’s mostly with candles that I managed to get through the three days of that ordeal. Excuse me, the three nights.

Like everybody else hereabouts, I made many preparations for Sandy’s hugely publicized and awesome arrival. One was to buy a couple more flashlights. Another was to dig out my stash of candles. I have a shoebox full, candles big and small, candles never used and candles partly used. Flashlights are more convenient, but candles have more staying power. And Sandy might knock out our power for days.

I live at Piano Works in Deep River. It’s called that because our big 4-story brick building was the high-tech center of the piano industry a hundred and fifty years ago. Mine is one of about 60 condos in the building. I live alone most of the time. I was alone during Sandy.

As we all know, Sandy hit our area with a huge wallop. Worse even than the unforgettable hurricane of 1938. Which I remember, by the way.  We were lucky at Piano Works. The gusts of wind were huge. I could see that just by peering out the window. Even at night. But with my eyes closed, I couldn’t even know Sandy had hit. Our big brick building had survived many big storms over the years.  I felt it could take anything Sandy threw at it, it seemed.

The worst that happened to us at Piano Works is that we blacked out. Everything electrical that we possessed went dead. Speaking for myself, that meant my lights, heat, telephone, TV, radio, stove, fridge, TV, computer, clocks, on and on. Same for you, undoubtedly. I didn’t list them in any special order. Except for the first. My lights. To me that was the most critical.

I took extra pains to prepare for the loss of my lights. I moved anything possible to trip over well out of the way. Footstool, piles of books, hassock, wastebaskets, magazine rack, bathroom scale. To trip and fall could be catastrophic. And I placed candles strategically here and there. A big fat one on my dining table. Another big one by my kitchen sink. Another in the bathroom. Smaller ones here and there also. I had plenty. Why not? I also put matches next to each one. I wouldn’t have to fumble for a match if one of my candles went out.

I own three fire extinguishers. I placed them strategically also. I also placed jars of water here and there. Water is fire’s natural enemy, right? Remember the Grear Chicago Fire and how that started when a cow knocked over a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn? I didn’t want one of my candles to cause the Great Piano Works Fire! This was no time to be lazy. Prepared I would be!

I also placed my flashlights with care. My condo is on two floors. I placed one at the top of the stairs I’d have to use to get out. Another by my bedside table. And so on. And I kept one in my pocket all the time.

Well, Sandy struck. What for me had been about 16 hours of light per day—daylight and electric—and 8 hours of dark suddenly became 12 and 12. Thanks to my planning, my 12 hours of dark included 4 hours of dark that were enlivened by tiny flickers of light from my candles throughout my apartment. The place looked nice and cozy. I thought, If only I had somebody to share this with!

But the candles made me nervous. True. Especially those out of sight. So, I blew out the candles that I couldn’t see from my living room. I sat in my favorite rocker there. Better not waste candles. Sandy’s aftermath might last a long while.I kept only two going. The big one on the table. And a small one on the table by my rocker.

The big one was 10 times bigger than the small one. The small one was the size of a votive candle. In fact it was a votive candle. If you’re not familiar with that, imagine a cupcake. A small cupcake.

The change in the room was dramatic. Dim! It took me a while to adjust. Now my place looked gloomy. And this gloom was emphasized by the sudden loss of something very important in my life. Music.

I realized more than ever how much of my day is brightened by music. I realized that I have music playing just about all the time. This was now so quiet. So still. So uncomfortable.  “Gloomy” was definitely the right word. But one thing surprised me after a while. The two candles gave me enough light to function in the most basic way. I could walk safely. I could eat okay—could distinguish tell the salt shaker from the pepper shaker.

But know what? The small candle gave off more light than the big fat one. I kept checking one against the other. It was true. Both had wicks the same size. The big one was made of red wax. As the flame sank deeper in the wax, it left a ring of wax that got higher. True, this ring turned translucent pink. Very pretty. Very romantic if romance happened to be key. Not this evening. Not for me alone.

But that ring kept the light from spreading sideways. The small candle was white wax. White wax reflected the flame better. As it burned lower, it left a much smaller ring of wax. I didn’t understand why but the flame always stayed level with the brim of the ring. It didn’t sink down into the wax like the other one. So it gave off more light sideways. Who would have bet on that? I was intrigued. I decided to experiment. For an hour, I would not use the flashlight I had on me. I would live by the light of these two candles. That’s all. Regardless of what I had to do in my condo.

Now I had to go to the bathroom. I chose the big candle. That made sense. (This was before I measured its output against the baby candle.) I had placed it in a saucer.  I picked up the saucer and headed toward my dark bedroom. The bathroom is off the bedroom. I moved gingerly. Oops!  The candle nearly slipped off the saucer. Imagine if it had fallen onto the carpet. Imagine if it had started a fire.

A lesson learned!  I clasped the saucer so my fingers keep the candle firmly in place. No chance of it falling. But now I noticed something else. The candle did not cast light on the floor. The floor was dark. Too dark.  And dark might conceal danger.  I put the candle and saucer back on the table. And picked up the small one. It was in a small glass of clear glass. My fingers could hold this one much steadier. Safer. But it didn’t cast light down, either. What to do?I held it slightly canted. That helped. But I risked dripping hot wax onto the carpet. I tried holding the candle much lower—down at the level of my knees and tried to walk that way. Awkward. Very awkward. Very bad.

So? I placed the candle right down on the carpet. Off to one side of my path, out of the way, but halfway to the bathroom.  The light was faint, but it made a big improvement. I could walk to the bathroom and back—in fact—anywhere in my living room—without fear of tripping. And with my hands free. Which meant I could carry something.

To test the light cast by the candle, I walked to my bookcase on the far wall. And searched for a certain book. It took me a minute but I had enough light to locate it. But not really a fair test. I knew approximately where the book was, and what size it was. But still. I was learning.

I was hungry. I hadn’t had supper. I picked up the big candle and placed it on the work counter I have across from my sink and stove. That is, right next to my fridge. And I placed the small candle by the sink. I already had a candle there, but it was dead now. I moved it out of the way.  I shifted both candles with their flames burning.

What to eat? I wanted something substantial. I picked out a can of baked beans. But no way to heat them. I remembered Vinnie—more about him in a minute. I opened the can, poured out half for myself, found some raw carrots and celery in the fridge that I had pre-cut into small pieces. I picked up a spoon and dug into my cold beans.

Now about Vinnie. Important for you to know about him.  Twenty-five years ago I had bought a big, 4-story brick building in Worcester. Bought it at auction. That was what I call the Real Estate Chapter in my life. I had read a book, “How to Make a Million Dollars in Real Estate in Your Spare Time.”  The book impressed me. I already had a going business. But I had a bit of spare time. And I liked the idea of making a million. I put what the book taught me into practice. Buying that empty, boarded-up building was part of that chapter in my life.

Suddenly I owned the building. Wasn’t sure what to do with it. Decided to convert it into condos. The condo craze was catching on. Hired an architect. He drew a plan. I converted the building into a new office for myself on the first floor, and eight condo apartments—two on each floor—above.

A big project. I had to assemble a work crew. The work started in late October, stretched all through the winter. A frigid winter. No heat of any kind in the building. The crew pounded away. Five rugged guys.

At noon they’d break for lunch. Would gather in one empty room in that great big building. Open their Thermos chests. Pick out hot chili, or beef stew, or whatever. Sit side by side on the floor, their backs against the wall, and eat. There in that frigid room. So cold that you could see your own breath. They’d also bring coffee and enjoy that with a donut or slice of pie.

Not Vinnie. He never brought a Thermos chest. He was 32 or so. Married with two kids. A good worker. He brought just a can of baked beans. A big can. He would plunk down next to the others. Open the can. Dig in with his spoon.He kept it next to the fat carpenter’s pencil in his overalls’ bib pocket. And eat his beans. Cold. Right down to the last bean and the last bit of juice. Didn’t even bring something to drink.

He worked for me five days a week, and brought a can of beans, same brand, every day. And ate the beans contentedly. With great relish. Just the beans. No bread. No veggies. Nothing else. He took a lot of kidding. It didn’t bother him. He’d give it right back.
“This will keep me goin’ nice all afternoon. You fellas should do the same. So easy. Saves lotta money. These beans are cold, sure, but they keep me nice and warm. You guys should do the same. But you’re too dumb! And hey, this makes it easier for my missus!”  I’d stop by now and then to say hello and check their progress. I saw this strange scene many times.

Now as I sat eating my own cold beans, I thought of Vinnie. He was right. This wasn’t a bad meal. Not bad at all. I had my veggies. A couple of ginger snaps plus a glass of milk.  The fridge wasn’t working but the milk wasn’t bad yet. And a crisp apple to bite into. Those beans would keep me warm.

Vinnie had taught me a lesson. The right attitude is all-important. Besides, I didn’t expect to have to eat cold beans five days straight as he did. I hoped not!

I hate dirty dishes in the sink. The water was still running, thank God. What a blessing. I washed everything and tidied up. The two candles gave me enough light. I enjoyed the dancing flames.

Came time for bed. I love to read for 15 minutes or so in bed before I turn off the light. I’m a creature of habit. I admit it. I decided to carry on my candle experiment. I blew out my big candle. Set up my small candle, still lit, on my bedside table. As close to the edge as I felt safe. So I’d be close to the candle. Changed into my pajamas and crawled in. It felt so good. I picked up—Noel Perrin’s “Solo,” which I was half-way through.

Perrin wrote terrific essays. He died about 10 years ago. Was a professor of English at Dartmouth up in Vermont. Was a city guy but bought an old, tired farm in the nearby village of Thetford. And took to farming. Got very good at it. Loved it. Became interested in energy conservation and environmental protection. Was fascinated by it. As a  hobby, studied it in depth. He was an expert of Robert Frost and his poetry, but started teaching this environmental stuff on the side at Dartmouth.Very avant-garde guy.

Heard of electric cars. This was some 30 years ago. Decided to buy one. Went to California to a small outfit that was turning out a few. Bought one. It could get only 40 miles or so on one charge. Installed solar panels on its roof as a booster when the sun shined. And decided to drive his new car—he named it Solo—clear across the country right home to Vermont.
A wonderful adventure. He had a hard time. The mountains were formidable. He actually had to buy a truck and tow Solo along some tough stretches. But finally home, he used Solo to commute to his classes at Dartmouth. Installed a solar panels on top of his barn to keep Solo’s batteries charged up. What a story!

Now I opened “Solo” to Chapter 9. Hard to see the type. I edged closer to the side of the bed. As close to the candle as possible. Still not good. I got up, and now using my flashlight, went to my pantry. Ripped off a piece of aluminum foil, then stapled it to a plain, manila office file. I propped up this reflector behind the candle, kept shifting the reflector for the best light on the bed.
Got back into bed, opened “Solo” again. The reading was tough going. I strained. Finished the chapter. But enough is enough. I closed the book and blew out the candle and pulled the covers way, way up. The room was definitely cool now. I pulled the covers right over my head. Wonderful.

I thought of Abraham Lincoln. How as a young guy he would study law books at night in his small, rough house. Study them by candlelight, mind you. Night after night, after a day’s work farming. And how he became the great man that we all admire.
I also marveled at the thousands of generations of people over countless centuries who were born and grew up and worked and lived and died with only natural daylight, so to speak. Oh, they had the light of the fire in their hearth, at night. That’s all. Firewood was precious. They used no more than they had to.

Candles were enormously expensive. And rare. Only the very rich could afford them. These folks got up just before the sun rose in order to make the most of the daylight. And went to bed quite soon after the sun went down. They stayed in bed far longer in the winter than the summer. Had to. They accepted that. No other choice. They knew no other life.

Imagine the world as a big onion. A huge, huge onion. Imagine that onion as the history of the world. Of mankind. And think of this: That thin, flimsy outer skin represents the only period of time in history when we have had real, reliable, effective artificial light, available by flicking a switch. All those generations of people under that outer skin never had it. Couldn’t even imagine it. Their first big break-through was spermaceti oil, from whales they pursued across the oceans. And that was only two centuries or so ago.

The next morning dawned gray. I looked out the window. The branches of the big trees were hardly moving. All the predictions were that Sandy’s powerful landfall would happen last night. I walked to the window. The storm seemed over. Could it be?
I had in mind only one thing. To get to Cumberland Farms the minute it opened. Gas would be running out. I wanted to tank up. Cumberland Farms was closed tight. An employee at the door said. “Go to Cumberland Farms in Centerbrook. They got gas. But don’t wait!”

I rushed there. It was jammed with cars and people. I did manage to tank up. Inside, I got a hot coffee. I had to wait in line for it.
Paying the clerk, I said, “What are you going to run out of first? Gas? Or coffee?” He managed a laugh. “We’ve got plenty of coffee. But gas? Not sure. We get our gas out of New Haven. And that don’t look good!”

I kept busy throughout the day, at this and that. I ate a cold lunch. Not the beans, by the way.n As night fell, I thought of supper. By then I remembered that somewhere I still had a one-burning propane camping stove left over from my camping days.  Plus a can of propane. In fact, two. They were small, but I wouldn’t waste.

Propane is notoriously dangerous. Where to set up the stove? I tried here and there. Finally I placed it right in my kitchen sink. That seemed safest. I put one of my fire extinguishers right next to it. And put a match to the nozzle. The stove fired up instantly–it  hadn’t been used in 15 years! Carbon monoxide can be a killer. But I planned to use it only 15 minutes. I didn’t even consider finishing my can of beans. I made myself a thick, hearty soup. Based on ramen noodles, I admit. Ramen noodles—that’s another great invention. I added chunks of tofu and spoonfuls of beans. Added chopped-up carrots and celery and some leftover cooked turnip and peas. Delicious!

The evening was young. I remembered Bob Johnson’s invitation. There are friends, and there are good friends. Bob is a good friend. We’re about the same age  tut have different backgrounds and that keeps things interesting. I knew Bob had electricity. “Come on over,” he told me. “Don’t be bashful.” Bob is a clever guy. He had anticipated. He has a big portable electric generator and he had it going.  He had lights, heat, the whole works. And I had just candlepower, so to speak..

I drove over. His lights were on. The only one lit up on the street, it seemed.  My arrival was a surprise, of course. But he gave me a great big “Hello! Come on in!” Our big topic was Sandy, of course. He was following the hurricane via the Internet!  progress.  He told me, “Just another hour or  so and we’ll really get walloped!” Scary! We talked and talked. He invited me to check my emails, which I did. How generous. I returned home. The wind was picking up. Trees and branches were swaying. It will be an awful night, I kept thinking.  Sandy was about to hit!

I lit only one tiny candle. It was time for bed. I pulled the covers up high over me.  Some light came in through the window. The branches were going crazy.  I kept thinking, What will it be like out there in the morning? In minutes I was sound asleep.
At dawn, I looked out first thing. How bad it was it? No shrill wind. Hardly and wind at all. No rain. The trees were still. Plain exhausted, I’m sure. This was the third morning—the height of the storm.! The storm seemed over. Gosh!

I had backed-up errands to do in Saybrook. I lost no time. I cleared my windshields of leaves and took off. Deep River was dramatically quiet. Few people out. On I drove.  I braced myself for Old Saybrook. The damage must be awful. But downtown was fine. I stopped by Burger King. Many people ahead of me. I heard about the huge damage along the coast. Two hundred people again had taken refuge in the high school gym for the night. I did my errands.

Then on to the Acton Library. It had been shuttered, of course. Now it was jammed. The parking lot was full. Every seat inside was taken. I understood. What’s more pleasant than a nice, welcoming library under harsh circumstances like these? I spent a long time there. Then I rode around a bit. I saw branches down. A tree or two. People were already out, raking and picking up. I drover closer to the coast. Much more tree damage. But I didn’t get to see any of the destruction and incredible that I later saw in the media.

It was nearly 6 when I returned to Deep River. A few lights were on, but isolated. These folks must have generators going, too. Cumberland Farm was dark.  The Town Hall had lights on but was closed.Our Deep River Library had lights, too, but also closed. But those lights boosted my hopes for Piano Works.  Then Piano Works appeared. A big black hulk, totally lifeless, against the night sky.

How could I explain that, with so many other lights on in town? I could not. What to do? I picked my way along the pitch-black hallway to my apartment with the narrow beam of my flashlight. Home, I lit a candle. Then another. What now? I was hungry. I lit my small burner and made myself a really decent supper.

The thought of  spending the long evening alone here by candle-light had lost its appeal. And I thought my experience with the candles might interest you. I decided to write it up for you. But where?  Impossible here. I blew out the candles, turned on my flashlight, and got to my car. And drove to my friend’s, Bob. His light would be aglow, of course. I brought along my laptop. He could watch TV. I’d sit in a corner and write this for you while it was fresh in my mind.

I was at Bob’s in five minutes. The whole house was black! What a disappointment. He must be at his son’s, Bob. What now? I really wanted to write this. To Burger King in Saybrook! It would be open. I even knew where I’d sit with my coffee.  There was a table and a chair at the far back—right next to an outlet. I could plug in there. Good. I needed an outlet. My netbooks battery would die in a jiffy.

I made my purchase and hurried to that favored table. Oops! A young guy was sitting there, his computer going, and it was plugged in. But it was a double outlet. Maybe I could plug in to the second outlet. But he had had something else connected there, too.

What frustration. A new idea. I returned to my car, put my laptop in it, and picked up a pad and pen. Chose another quiet corner. And began writing this the old-fashioned way. Longhand. And got it written. Well, in draft form.

By the time I was finished, it was bedtime.  I looked back. The young guy was gone. Maybe long gone. The plug was available. I had never noticed. So engrossed. I’d still have to type this. When power returned. That might be a few days off. Home I went. I expected nothing new. The same cold, bleak blackness. But! Piano Works had lights on. Not only at the front door. In many windows here and there. Wow! I Inside, the corridors were lit! had power in my place! I flipped on lights. Turned up the thermostat. After three days, life was back to normal. Hallelujah!

My experience was irritating. Yes, definitely. But I was so much luckier than so many others.  Some friends went without power for another two days.  And so many other folks suffered so much, as we know. Experienced devastating losses of property. Face a long struggle and severe financial challenges to fully recover.  If they all eventually do. Maybe you are one. I hope not. Two blessings.  One was that our local water supply did not seem affected. Mine ran strong and clean. And we didn’t have a severe cold snap. Like this recent one. That would have made Sandy even tougher.

And it made me appreciate Thomas Edison as never before. He gave us the modern electric bulb. How marvelous. Sandy reminded me of that. He gave us 100-candlepower bulbs! 200-candlepower! And with little risk of fire!

As I think back, Sandy taught me more than just what one candlepower is. I’m grateful for that.

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PMLE – The Sun is now Sally’s Great Enemy

Boston—I had spoken to my dear friend Sally on the phone now and then but hadn’t seen her in quite a while. On a visit here I was stunned to see the horrors she has been going through lately.

Awful!

As you know, we read of new medical breakthroughs all the time. Fantastic, incredible breakthroughs.

Well, it turns out there are also terrible new afflictions coming up all the time. Dreadful afflictions impossible to imagine.

Sally has an awful one. I never heard of it. She told me about it, but only after I noticed how strangely she dressed she was to go outside. It was a nice day—late September at its best. I had stayed with her at her townhouse overnight. Now, breakfast over, we were going out for a little walk.

The sun was behind a cloud for the moment. It was warm out and I was fine in my short sleeves. I had left my tie off and my collar was open.

But Sally was going out so over-dressed. She was wearing long pants. She had a long-sleeved blouse on with the sleeves and the collar buttoned. In fact, she had three layers on. Plus a long-sleeved jacket with the collar buttoned and in fact the collar turned up. Plus a scarf wrapped around her neck.

Sally will venture outside now only when protected to the maximum this way

She was also wearing long gloves, and had carefully tucked them into her jacket sleeves.

Finally she put on a hat. It had a big, wide brim all around. And just before she opened the door for us to step out, she pulled her jacket collar up as high as possible. Pulled the brim as far down all around as possible. And adjusted the scarf to cover as much of her cheeks as possible.

As I say, this was a nice late-summer day. I was sure that nobody, nobody else in all of Boston was dressed this way. Oh, maybe a nut. Or some criminal hiding from the law maybe.

I was startled by her get-up. This was not the Sally I remembered. And she noticed.

“Yeah, I know I look strange. I have a medical problem, John.” She said it matter of factly. As if not news. “It’s called PMLE.”

“PMLE! What the heck is that?”

“That was my reaction, too. I was surprised just like you when my doctor told me. I had never heard of it. It stands for polymorphous light eruption.”

“Polymorphous what?”

“Polymorphous light eruption. Yes, it’s an awful name. A real mouthful.”

“I never heard of it. And I’m up on such things.”

“I’m sensitive to UVA ultra-violet light. Sunshine! Yes, sunshine! I’m extremely sensitive to it. It does an awful job on me. I have to shield myself against it. I dress like this to walk to my office. I dress like this to do anything and everything outside. It has really, really changed my life.

“I used to love the sun. Now the sun is my enemy. I don’t dare step outside without an outfit like this. I go out as little as possible.” She took the brim of her hat and pulled it down even tighter.

“And it’s such a nuisance to have to dress this way. I plan everything so I go out as little as possible. Not just to buy a newspaper. Or to take out the rubbish. Or to chat with a neighbor. I’ve stopped all that.

“In the house I make sure I don’t let the sun shine in, ever. I’ve had a special coating put on all my windows to shield me. I need protection even when the sun is behind a cloud, like this right now. Yes, when I’m in my own house. It’s an awful way to live. But I have no choice. Otherwise I’d be a mess. In fact, I’ll show you when we go back in.”

Now, the truth. Sally is not her real name. I’ve called her Sally to protect her privacy. In fact, she insisted on that. She’s a professional lady. Sometimes people misunderstand. She’s trying to minimize her problem. Not easy when she has to take such extreme and publicly visible precautions.

I’ve changed some of her other details, too. All she’ll let me say is that she has a profession. “I’m lucky that in my work I have limited contact with the public.”

And she’s had a committed relationship with a man for ten years. “He’s supportive. Very supportive. I’m sure it’s very hard for him at times. So, I’m lucky that way, too.”

We had a good talk about all this.

A big outbreak. Very uncomfortable. It takes a while of no exposure for this to calm down

Inside again, I whistled when she showed me pictures of herself suffering from PMLE. Pictures of her bare back and upper chest. An awful rash. Never knew a rash could be so extreme and so devastating. Red, burning, itching skin. Very hard to live with.

She pointed to her neck and shoulders in one picture.

“This was at the height of one attack,” she said.  “But I have avoided this level of severity for 10 months. Thank God! By going out as little as possible. And you saw how I dress when I do.

“I take meds every day, too—two different anti-histamines. Sometimes I worry about possible side effects.”

It became even more fascinating when she told me background stuff.

“I was severely burned when I was 21. Sunbathing! I loved going to the beach.

“That seemed to be the start of this. Afterward I had odd reactions to being out in the sun. Red, blotchy outbreaks like this. I couldn’t figure it out. It was bad but I didn’t go around moaning. It got worse.

“I mentioned it to my primary care doctor, of course. He made suggestions. I was a good patient. Then I went to a dermatologist. Felt I had to. He figured it out. PMLE! That was a year ago. Bad news. I live with PMLE every day.”

It turns out you can have various degrees of it. There are light cases. Often they go away after a while. Then moderate cases. Then severe cases.

Sally discovered an online PMLE group. It has close to a thousand people.  All backgrounds. Many different places. Most in places with lots of sunshine. She checks in often. “We learn from one another.”

One thing she’s learned is no known cause for MBLE. It seems that her terrible sunturn years ago had nothing to do with her MBLE. That seems strange. Studies are continuing.

She’s found out that she must layer her clothes. Choose very dense fabrics. One layer isn’t enough. “The rays can penetrate!” In fact, she buys some items especially made to be protective against UVA.

She’s even had her car windows coated. So she can’t drive with the windows open any more.

She went on. “Summer is most difficult. All those clothes! It gets awfully hot. And I stand out a lot more. Some people stare. One good thing is that it’s very rare for anybody to remark about it or ask questions. I’m sure some are tempted.

“So, it’s easier in the winter. Much shorter days.  Far less sunshine. And I don’t stand out as much when I go out.”

She’s developed strategies to help her cope. Last January she and her man went to Iceland for a vacation. It’s farther north, of course. Only five hours of daylight a day. And such a relaxing place. A smile. “We had a grand time. It did me a lot of good.”

Again she paused.  “There are worse things, I’m sure. I believe that I have a severe case. I have no doubt about it. Now I’m slowly accepting PMLE better.

“Of course, I keep hoping that it will clear up. But so far I haven’t had any indication that it will.” She managed a thin smile. “What will be will be, I guess.”

I mentioned up top that MBLE is a little-known affliction. Let’s hope that none of us ever get to know it better. Personally, I mean.

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Talking Transportation: The Gestalt of a Railroad

On a recent Acela ride to Boston I tried to explain to a seat-mate why our high speed train was alternately crawling along at 45 miles per hour in Metro-North territory, then screaming northward at 125 beyond New Haven.  I told him (a visitor from Switzerland used to amazing rail service) that a railroad is a great example of “gestalt”… that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

THE TRAIN:   We focus a lot on the age and capabilities of our rail engines and passenger cars in defining a railroad.  Sure, Acela is the fastest train in North America, running an average 125 mph in many areas between Washington and Boston.  But it is capable of much higher speeds, recently being tested at 165 mph in nighttime runs in New Jersey.  Even Metro-North’s old cars, let alone the new M8’s, can easily cruise at 90 mph.  I say “can” because they are capable of those speeds. But there are too many other components of a railroad that often make such speeds undesirable for comfort or safety.

THE TRACK:    Even Acela has a hard time in Connecticut because of old track and a century old right-of-way.  (Think of running a Lamborghini on a pot-holed local road.)

The track must be strong enough to support heavy trains.  In most places, track is welded for a smooth ride, avoiding the clickety-clack sound as trains ride over the joints.

The track sits on and is attached to a base plate which in turn sits on a tie, or sleeper.  For centuries these ties have been made of treated wood, but increasingly are built with concrete.  The ties sit on a roadbed or ballast, usually crushed stone, which distributes the weight of the train above while still allowing drainage. All of this requires maintenance and regular replacement of worn ties and rail to keep a smooth ride.

This is why even Metro-North’s newest cars bounce and creak as they ride along.  The rough ride isn’t the fault of the train but the roadbed.

And because our “right of way” follows the coastline, our tracks curve and bank as they meander along, causing further slowdowns just for the physics of the run.  The line from NYC to Boston has so many curves that a train makes the equivalent of six complete circles on that route.

THE SIGNALS:        Even the fastest trains in the world running on the newest and smoothest roadbed can’t keep up speed without knowing that the track ahead is clear.  And at 125 to 250 mph (US and world-class definitions of High Speed Rail), that requires a signal system that knows the location of every train within a matter of inches.

Like our century-old right-of-way, the ancient signal system on Metro-North is what’s preventing us from running trains at faster speeds and shorter headways (the time or distance between trains).

All US railroads are also struggling to meet a 2015 Federal mandate of “positive train control”, meaning that a train that runs through a red signal would be automatically stopped.

THE  POWER:    Whether Metro-North or Amtrak, our trains need power which comes in the form of electricity pulled from overhead wire, or catenary, some of which is almost a century old.  The railroad and CDOT are midway through a 30-year, multi-million dollar plan to update all of that wiring while still running a full complement of trains each day.  It’s like trying to change a fan-belt on a moving car.

So the next time you’re riding the train, give thought to the many components that make for a smooth, comfortable, speedy and safe trip.  The whole is truly more than the sum of its parts.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Looking for a Special Indian by Lake Champlain

I stopped in Burlington, VT last week for the night. I was on my way back after a long day on the road from Quebec. I stopped because I wanted to see again something very special. An unusual sculpture of an Indian. I remembered that it was located in Battery Bark. It’s a lovely park on a bluff with a spectacular view of magnificent Lake Champlain.

It was dark out and drizzly. No moon. The lake was veiled in fog. I thought I remembered the exact spot. I walked yards and yards to it across the soggy lawn. Not there.

I continued looking.  Hoofed from one side of the park to the other.My feet were getting wet. Not to be found anywhere. Did it rot? Was it vandalized? Not a soul around to explain. Disappointing.

After breakfast the next morning, I drove right to Battery Park. I was on a mission. Gray out. Heavily overcast. I rode the road that parallels the park, slowly, staring out my side window, scanning the whole park. No luck.

I turned onto a side street at the end of the park. I man walking his dog was coming out of the park. Quickly I opened my window. “Tell me, sir, what happened to the Indian sculpture?” “Nothing that I know of. It’s still here.” And he pointed to the far end of the park.  I looked, but I couldn’t see it.

I got out and stood by his side. “See!” He pointed again. “Next to the man and woman walking!” “Yes, sure. I see it now.  Thank you very much!” And I shook his hand. And told him why I was interested. “Glad I could help you. That statue is famous. We all love it.”

Strange. It was close to where I had first looked last night. How come I missed it? Well, here it was. What a shame if it had been lost. The sculpture looked dark. Nearly  black. That is not the way I remembered it.

How can you not be curious about such a strange sculpture?

It’s a very tall, very slender sculpture. I walked to it. Now it looked better. In fact, it looked good. After all, it wasn’t made of marble or bronze. It was made of wood. Carved from a tree. That’s why I have never thought of it as a statue. To me it’s always been a sculpture. Also to Peter Wolf Toth, who created it, that is what it was. A sculpture. And he was carving it way back then when I ran into him doing it. In fact, I had forgotten his name, although I wrote about him and his sculpture and what he was up to when I got home.

I couldn’t remember exactly when that was that I happened to stop by. The plaque at the base of the sculpture said 1984. So that’ s when I saw him making it, in that spring of 1984, again on my way up, or maybe back, from Quebec.

I remembered it was a beautiful day. The sculpture was on its side, face up, supported by blocks.  A huge log is what it was. And he was working on it with mallet and chisel.  Working hard.  With great assurance.  He had a lot done. I could see it was an Indian man he was bringing forth from that log.

This guy was a genuine sculptor. An artist. It was obvious to me. He was working so deft and sure. He was a slim, muscular man, 35, maybe 40. I watched and watched.  I asked a little question. And another. He looked up, but only briefly. He answered, and kept answering as he chiseled away, little pieces and big pieces flying off. Didn’t seem to be annoyed. I noticed a strange accent. Amazing that he didn’t have a sketch at hand to guide him. He could visualize this Indian in his mind’s eye. He seemed happy with the nose and the eyes. How delicately he had finished them .

It was the sculpture of obviously a chief. I could tell by his native finery and his stately pose.  Exaggerated, of course. Had to be because of the limitations of the log’s shape. But noble. Fierce. Impressive. A great chief for sure.

This sculptor had a tent set up nearby with camping stuff around it. A woman was busy there. His wife, I speculated. This seemed to be their camp. Living here while the work was going on. This was a big project. Not a one-week or two-week deal. Months of work, it seemed to me.

He put down his chisel and mallet. I noted he had other chisels also. And other mallets. Axes, too.
He sat on the Indian.  Was taking a break. He answered more questions. He participated willingly. Was generous about it. He must have been pestered often by folks like me. But he didn’t give me that impression.

He was traveling around the country.  Creating an Indian sculpture in every state. He had already done quite a few. A huge undertaking.  He was born in Hungary. Came here with his parents as a kid. That explained his accent. His name was Peter Wolf Toth.  Strange name for an immigrant. Or so it seemed to me. I never thought to ask him about the Wolf part.

Somehow he had become fascinated with Indians. And their culture.  Their many cultures, I should say. Had met Indians. Became aware of all the misery they had been through. Admired them. These sculptures were his tribute to them.

In each state he studied the local tribes and their history and everything he could about them. His sculpture was never of a specific person. It was his representation of the general traits he saw among them.  With details specific to the tribe. And carved it from a local tree. Always a local tree.

He got help. Help was essential. I imagined all the preparatory work he had to do. Finding local Indians. Meeting them. Finding the right tree. Finding a site for it. Studying the tree and creating a design to get the most out of it. Getting permissions.  Setting up his local operation. On and on.

He managed to find help from different benefactors. Maybe a chamber of commerce. Or city fathers. Or some other organization.  Maybe individuals. I didn’t imagine he got rich doing this, although I’m sure he got plenty of local publicity. I imagined lots of folks came by to inspect and marvel.

This turned out to be his 47th Indian sculpture.  I marveled that he had been able to complete so many. Finally I wished him luck and said goodbye and continued on my way. You can tell that it was a great experience for me.  It was the first thing I thought of when I stopped in Burlington on this trip. No way  could  I continue on without pausing to check on the sculpture. I never saw him again. Never heard about him again.

Now, I examined the big plaque on the stone base that the sculpture is set up on. All this was done after I left, of course. So all new to me. The Indian’s name was Chief Grey Lock. The plaque gave many interesting details. I took a picture of it to show to you, and also of the sculpture.

No computers back then. No Internet. Now they exist, of course, and I looked him up online. Found plenty about him.  He picked up the name Wolf from a tribe that wanted to honor him for his work.

His first sculpture of an Indian was chiseled from sandstone. From then on, always a tree. Maybe wood was a quicker medium.
He created more than 74 public sculptures. Major ones (plenty of small ones, too.) Yes, one in every state. All 50. In some states, two, even three. No Indians in Hawaii, of course, so he used a native Hawaiian—one of the indigenous people.  That made sense. He went back to Hungary for a visit. Created a sculpture there of some great Hungarian saint.

As you see, I was greatly impressed. I was so happy to see his Indian still standing. There in beautiful Battery Park, the most beautiful in town. What a perfect setting. And to hear that local folks love it.  Of course I wonder whether there are still native Americans around in Vermont to appreciate how he tried to honor their ancestors.

I haven’t been able to determine whether he’s still alive. Still carving. I hope so.  Maybe you’re wondering, where is his Indian sculpture here in our state?

It’s in Groton. In storage somewhere there. No explanation why. I wonder whether our casino native Americans know that? Methinks they’d be interested in giving the sculpture its due. But we have two tribes. Two nations. Maybe there’s a problem in that. No idea. Just speculating. If you have a clue, please let me know.….

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The Captain of the Mary E isn’t Just a Captain

Captain Matt Culen with one hand on the throttle, one on the wheel, and an eagle eye for what’s ahead

This isn’t just a story about the Mary E. It could be. She is deserving. So deserving that many stories have been done about her.

She is known to us hereabouts as the romantic, beautiful old schooner that ties up at the Connecticut River Museum in the summer and gives boat lovers two-hour excursion rides up and down the river.

She’s more than a hundred years old. She’s been the Mary E all those years though she’s had many different jobs and assignments.The live Mary E must have been quite a lady to the man who put her name on  the ship. When she comes here, she’s certainly the largest sailing vessel.

To me she’s the most beautiful thing floating in the harbor.  I think of everything else out there as a boat, some extremely pricey. But I think of the Mary E as a ship. There’s a difference.

She was launched as a work boat, not a rich man’s plaything. And she was built long before that wonderful but character-less plexiglass came along. Meaning built of good, proud New England wood.

Lots of folks feel they have to come and take a close look at her. Seniors like me. Couples with young kids. Dating couples holding hands. Having her at the dock is a big asset to the museum, I believe.

But really this story is about Matt Curlen. He’s the owner of the Mary E and her relief captain—he drives up from Pelham, N.Y,, to take over when the regular captain is off.

I went out on her last summer. My first time.

I love sailboats. I was a small-boat sailor for years. Owned several. My biggest was my 16-foot  O’Day sloop. Many fine times in it, mostly on lakes and harbors and bays. Never ventured far out.  I get seasick just at the sight of a big wave.

My longest was my 18-foot Grumman canoe. I liked paddling as much as I did sailing. I went paddling whenever I could.  But I had a sailing kit for it, too.  Which is quite rare. A  mast and sail and Dutch-style lee-boards and a rudder with a rope tiller. Wonderful. But strictly for lakes. Not salt water. Great fun.

Before long I realized she’d be good to row, too. So I put on oars. Then added rear view  mirrors on the left and right sides. Rowing can be hazardous. It’s hard to see where you’re going. I loved my mirrors. And I was right—my canoe was great fun to row. We lived near Lake Singletary up in Massachusetts. After work I’d row my Grumman all around the lake. My rear-view mirrors drew lots of attention.

But such  pleasures are no longer possible. That’s why I bought a ticket on the Mary E that day last summer. It was the next best thing for me.

I took a seat at the very stern. I wanted to be close to the skipper. Sail with him vicariously, so to speak.

Matt Culen was the skipper that day. I didn’t know his name. Didn’t know a thing about him.  He turned out to be a lean, pleasant, and totally focused guy. Really knew his stuff. Well, the passengers were on board and he and his crew of two were getting ready to hoist sail. Suddenly he noticed something wrong at the top of the taller mast. That mast is 45-feet high.

Faster than I can write this sentence, he skipped over to one of the ratlines— the rope ladders— and  scampered right up to the top. Like a monkey. Wow! He fiddled up there for two minutes, solved the problem, and scampered down. Then came back to the wheel, ordered sail up, and off we went.

But there’s more to my story. As I had hoped, I was able to chat with him.  Not a real chat because he was so busy. Sailing a big old-timer like this is a challenge. Checking the current and the tide. Calculating the best route to give the best ride with the sails up and get back at the right time. And giving orders to pull in this sail or let out that one—the Mary E can carry up to six sails.

On and on. I’m curious and ask questions. Can’t help myself. He did his best to satisfy me. It turns out the Mary E is not his day job.  His day job is also water-related, but so different.

Matt is a civil engineer, in fact, a P.E.—a professional engineer. And he has a specialty that makes him him spend time under water.  Yes, under water. Far more time under water than on the water skippering the Mary E. He is a diver. Diving is an essential part of his work.

It’s this contrast of sailing on the water and  then working under water that fascinated me. That’s why I’m writing this.

But all that was last summer. I looked forward to another ride with him. This summer she was late in coming back—a humongous repair problem. So my second ride was this Labor Day. The Mary E’s sail time was 3 p.m. but I came early in hopes of a real good chat. I was lucky. He had the Mary E all set and he had time. We sat in his Jaguar, where it was nice and quiet. And I pried out one detail after another.

He owns a company, Hudson Marine Inc., in Pelham Manor, N.Y. He started it. Its main specialties are Engineering Inspections and Underwater Construction.

He was born in Slovakia. He came to New York City when he was 12.  Lived close to the salt water.  Loved it. Quickly got a part-time job as a dock boy. As he entered his teens, be began thinking of a career in the military. The Navy, in fact.

What he told me next surprised me. For college, he went to the Citadel, a military school in South Carolina. He majored in engineering. There seem to be as many specialties in engineering as there are in medicine, and he opted for civil engineering.   When I think of civil engineering I think of highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and sewer systems and things like that. Never of anything under water.

Then into the Navy where he became a diving and salvage officer. The training was tough. He took to the work. He finished his hitch  and it led to his career. He’s been at it for more than 30 years.

He’s built up Hudson Marine with a crew of seasoned divers like himself. Matt is still an active diver, but now his role is more varied, of course. He’s got the whole business to run.

At one point, I said to him. “You know, professional pilots log their flight hours. A captain for Amerian Airlines might say he has 19,200 hours. You must log your hours diving.”

He nodded. “I used to but I stopped a long time ago. I’d be shocked to learn the total!”

I asked him for typical projects. He suggested  his website, www.hudsonmarineinc.com. He describes many of his jobs there. You may like to look at it.

When he started out, all divers wore the heavy, bulky outfits that have become familiar to us through books and movies. The massive steel helmets, the ballon-like suits, the weighted shoes Diving suits have greatly improved. But they’re still designed for heavy work down there, not just swimming around looking for interesting fish and snapping pictures of them.

Often  the diving is in awful water. Foul. Stinking. With terrible visibility and lots of junk around. Hazardous.

I said to him, “I believe that the Mary E is really your hobby. And your running her on excursions like this as a way to make your hobby help pay for itself.”

He smiled. “Yes, that is so.”

He has owned the Mary E for six years. So how did he become interested in her?

“I went on board for a ride,  and one thing led to another. And she became mine.”

He had sailed boats for fun but the Mary E took out passengers. He wanted to skipper her now and then. The skipper needs a captain’s license. So he took it upon himself to pass the Coast Guard’s certification tests.

Now it was time to go on board. Twenty people had signed up. He was pleased. His crew had arrived. The first was Devon Ford of Westbrook. She’s a friendly young gal just graduated from Boston University with a degree in marine studies. She’s still trying to find her niche and this job had sounded interesting.

The crew: Devon Ford and Tim Visel. Interesting in their own way

Matt introduced her as “my second mate.” He said it with a big smile. She seemed surprised to hear that. And pleased.

The fist mate did come along, gray-haired, in work clothes, with an air of know-how and assurance. “Tim Visel,” he said, extending his hand to me.

They helped the tourists aboard. Older people mostly. Many with cameras in hand. All obviously looking forward to a nice ride on the water on Labor Day. The day most of us think of as the end of summer. Vacations are over mostly, Schools have re-opened. Everybody’s getting serious again.

They took seats here and there along the sides. Some insisted on standing. I managed to get my seat at the stern again. Matt began giving orders.

Readying a ship this size and this old is work. This has to be done, and that, and that. His crew got to it. She has an engine, but for propulsion only. Everything else requires muscle.

The captain explains something. Devon finds it funny

The mainsail was hauled up. Matt pushed a button and the engine came alive with a nice purr. The mooring lines were pulled aboard. Matt checked the water for nearby craft. He peered ahead. So many people on board that he had to crane. He turned the wheel a hair  and slowly we left the dock. He had to crane throughout the trip. Lots of water traffic,

I asked and he said yes, this was the busiest day of the year on the river. Boats of all kinds. Mostly motor boats. Of all sizes. All pleasure boats. Work boats on the Connecticut nowadays are a rare sight.  There was a time when pleasure boats were very rare.

What was remarkable to me—and always is—is how few boats are actually moving on the water. There are thousands of recreational boats here. They crowd marinas and boat yards beyond number. But the great majority never seem to go anywhere.

A gorgeous day. Blue sky, nearly cloudless. A good wind—15 miles per hour, he estimated. Perfect, I thought. As always, tide and wind—those were the  key factors.

A great pleasure are all the sights

Matt decided whether he’d head up river or down, and how long he’d have to go in order to return reasonably on time. He headed south, toward the Baldwin Bridge. And we made a long, squished circle, making our way up toward Gillette Castle, then around to get back to the museum dock.

Shortly Tim Visel took a position standing at mid-ship, on the other side. Mot passengers were up there. He began talking. I couldn’t hear him, but I could tell he had lots to say, and he kept people’s attention. He’d be serious, then smile and joke, and point to this and that on the shore and the river.

Second mate Devon came along and I asked her about Tim. “He’s done a lot of commercial fisherman. Has spent a lot of t ime on the water. And he knows so much about local history!” I was sorry I wasn’t closer to him.

As it turned out, we had another crewman on board, Craig Carter. He relieved Matt at the wheel. He was a captain, too, he told me. Just helping a bit.

Matt went midships to talk to the passengers, too. He welcomed them and explainr how a ship like the Mary E makes the most of the wind. Especially sailing against it.

He returned and kept ordering sail adjustments. Kept his eye on a Garmin GPS. That electronic whiz showed him this stretch of the river in detail–its channel markers, landmarks, depth of water under us, wind strength. Indispensable nowadays.

He and Craig would peer at the Garmin and talk. And glance at everything else around.

How did the old-timers manage so well?

There was also a compass nearby, not needed here.

Truly a fine day. The passing boats were fascinating, and the people on board. Many waved at us. The lovely homes along the shore, homes that we never get to see from the road. The beaches and islands. The foliage of endless shades of green and yellow.

Many of the properties are calendar-worthy

A long string of geese appeared  overhead. I followed them until they went out of sight. I spotted three swans, too, far less than usual.

As always, the boaters having the most fun were those in the smaller boats, especially the small sailboats. Well, to my eye.

A lovely catboat skimmed along, gleaming white with s gleaming white sail. Just two women on board, skipper and crew. Moving along so nicely and so expertly. A thing of beauty. I kept my eyes on her.

But for us the wind became a problem. “Very tricky!” Craig told me.  So we used only the mainsail. The other sails never got put up. And the engine was on nearly all the time, but on idle. Just in case, I surmised. Important in a busy waterway like this.

Tim Visel happened to come close. We talked. What a surprise. He was a full professor of things marine and maritime. At the University of Rhode Island and then UConn. Then he had gone back to public education. Told me he had built schools of marine studies. Was now heavily involved with The Sound School in New Haven, part of the city’s public school system.

He dug out one of his business cards. “Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center. Timothy C. Visel, Coordinator.” It all sounded extraordinary. I tucked it in my pocket.

I asked him, “Why the heck are you doing this today?”

He smiled. “This is my son Will’s job. I’m subbing for him. He needed a day off.”  He went off to help Devon. We were getting close to the dock.

Matt got us back right on time. Tim and Devon helped the passengers  get off.  They looked happy and contented. I lingered. Wanted to have a few more words with Matt. But he was busy. He’d be taking the Mary E out again at 6 p.m.

Finally I got his attention. “I’ll be in touch!” I said. He gave me a wave.

For me it was a perfect thing to do on Labor Day. I was glad the Mary E was around to make this possible. Glad Matt had done all this expensive work to keep her running for years to come.

Captain Matt Culen. One ride finished, one more to go. A totally different life tomorrow

In a minute I glanced back at her. The museum dock would look bare indeed without her come fall.

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Talking Transportation: The Bridgeport – Port Jefferson Ferry

Every now and then it’s great to see a transportation system that works really well.  Case in point, the Bridgeport (CT) to Port Jefferson (NY) ferry.

I’ve written in the past about some folks’ crazy idea that ferry boats are the solution to our traffic problems along I-95.  They are not.  But they do prove useful when they take you where the roads and rails can’t, like across Long Island Sound.

The first ferry ran this 18-mile route in 1872.  By 1883 permanent service was offered by a company owned in part by Bridgeport’s PT Barnum (after whom one of the line’s current vessels is named).  In 1980 all-season service began with the line’s largest vessel, “The Grand Republic”.

The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Company is 100% owned by Brian McAllister, a fourth generation seaman and tugboat czar who lives on Long Island.  You’ll usually see one of his tugs in Port Jeff’s harbor.

Each of the line’s three ferries is “RO-RO”, for roll-on, roll-off.  At Bridgeport, cars and trucks drive on from the rear and exit in Port Jefferson by driving off thru the raised bow of the vessel.  The ferries can carry between 90 and 110 vehicles and a thousand passengers.

The crossing takes about an hour and a quarter but you can save considerable time, tolls and aggravation by avoiding driving to New York City and crossing the Whitestone or Throgs Neck bridges.

When it began, the ferries carried food grown on Long Island to industrial cities in New England.  Today you’ll still see an occasional truck ferrying seafood, but most of the traffic is tourists and business people.

In season, all three vessels are in operation allowing for almost hourly departures.  If you’re bringing a vehicle a reservation is a good idea, though on most weekday runs you can just drive right up and catch the next boat.

The vehicle unloading and re-loading process is smooth and when passengers leave their cars they can join foot passengers upstairs at the snack bar or cocktail lounge.  In good weather the sundeck affords a wonderful view.  There’s Wi-Fi available on board and cell-phone signals are strong, even in the middle of the Sound.

In Bridgeport, the ferry dock is a two-minute walk from Metro-North.  But in Port Jefferson it’s about a 25-minute walk from the dock to the nearest Long Island Railroad station.  Taxi service is available at both terminals.

Fares aren’t cheap:  $54 for a car and driver, $15 for each additional passenger.  Foot passengers are $18 one-way, $26 for same-day round trip.  Seniors (age 60+) are $13 one-way, $18 for a same-day return.  Kids 12 and under are always free when traveling with an adult.

There was talk a few years ago of offering additional service from New Haven to Port Jeff.  More recently there was discussion of also running to Stamford and from there to NYC using a high speed ferry, but rising fuels costs sunk those plans.

The current ferries are hardly high speed… just 17 mph according to my GPS on a recent crossing.  But they’re a fun way to travel, avoiding the traffic mayhem of New York City when going from Connecticut to Long Island.

 JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

 

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