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Saturday, February 18, 2012

My New York bus station story

This week our writing group's prompt was "I was waiting for a bus in New York City..." and I was immediately reminded of my one and only New York City bus story from back in 1990. I don't think I've ever told this story before. It's totally true, though the dialogue has been recreated from memory and may not be completely accurate.


This is a true story, so I'm not going to worry too much about plot, or characters, or the fact that, like most of my stories, it doesn't really have an ending. It ends the way it ended, and it never really ended, because I'm still here. So at least you know that I didn't die in the story, which sort of ruins any real tension. ...Spoiler alert, I guess.

I was in New York. I started out in New Jersey. I'm not sure why. I think it was for an engagement party of some friends who have now been married for over two decades. I think it was the same trip where I had taken a train from Delaware to New York – I was living in Delaware at the time, back in 1990 – and when I got to Penn Station, I was totally befuddled as to where to go next, but I knew that wandering around like the lost and clueless out-of-towner I was would be a sure way to get killed or worse, so I stepped off the train, chose a likely-looking direction, and purposefully marched that way to get to the main waiting area or wherever I was supposed to meet my friends who were picking me up. I strode along with grim determination and tremendous confidence until I got to a place where the only direction I could go was up a flight of stairs. I ascended the stairs, army surplus backpack over my right shoulder, small suitcase in my left hand, and kept on going until I hit the gate at the top of the steps barring any passage.

Crap, I thought, I hope nobody saw that. I then turned to head back down the steps and begin marching determinedly in some other direction, and nearly smacked right into the dozen or so luggage-toting train passengers who had followed me up the stairs. Because, apparently, I looked like someone who knew where he was going.

I didn't take the train back to Delaware after the engagement party. Instead I was planning to take the bus back to Wilkes-Barre. For some reason it wasn't possible or practical to take a bus from Newark or some other location in New Jersey, so I had to leave from Port Authority in New York City. Port Authority is huge, I guess, but I really didn't really pay attention to that. I just focused in on the place where I was and tried to break the situation into bite-sized pieces. Locate my bus, get on my bus, go home. Or to Wilkes-Barre, which was close enough.

My friends drove me to Port Authority after making sure I was prepared to face the horrors of the Big City. I had my wallet in a side pocket instead of in a back pocket to make things marginally more difficult for pickpockets. I had a spare ten in the other pocket – emergency money in case my wallet got stolen, or money I could use without having to bring out my whole wallet. They gave me stern instructions: Don't make eye contact with anyone. Don't talk to anyone. And whatever you do, don't look lost.

I strode into Port Authority, projecting confidence and determination, and immediately realized I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I marched up to the nearest information desk and asked, as deliberately as I could, “Where do I pick up the bus to Wilkes-Barre?”

The man behind the counter looked up at me from whatever he was doing. Reading, I think. He looked at me over the top of his glasses like he was sick and tired of all these stupid people coming up to his desk and asking him for information. Didn't they know that he was too busy to dole out information all day?

That's Wilkes-BARR,” he said, and said no more.

OK, fine, whatever. Wilkes-BARR. I heard it pronounced that way all the time in all the K-Tel commercials for The Twenty Greatest Polkas of All Time and Boxcar Willie and Slim Whitman and Zamfir, Master of the Panflute, and I guess folks in New York City did, too. This guy was the gatekeeper, he had the information I needed, and I wasn't going to get anywhere without his assistance.

OK, Wilkes-BARR,” I said.”Where do I find that bus?”

It leaves from platform such-and-such,” he said, though not exactly, so for the sake of this story let's pretend he said “It leaves from platform 27.”

OK,” I said, “Platform 27. And how do I get there?”

He sighed, a long, heavy sigh at the stupidity of these people not intimately familiar with the intricacies of Port Authority. “Go straight through that doorway and take a left, a right, go straight, take the third left, second right, go straight again, and then right. You can't miss it.”

I got as far as “Go straight through that doorway” and became completely confused by his directions. I tried my best to commit them to memory – no way in hell was he going to say them again – and decided to wing it. I had a while before my bus left.

I went straight through that doorway and realized I once again had no idea where I was going. I looked to the overhead signs to see if I could extract some hint as to which way I should go to get to Platform 27.

Hey, man, you look lost,” came a nearby voice. “What you lookin' for?”

I looked at the owner of the voice. Looked him in the eyes. It was a man, late twenties, maybe early thirties. Beard, moustache. Smaller than me, but most people are. Not someone who worked for Port Authority. Dressed for the outdoors. He did not look dangerous, and he appeared to be unarmed.

Platform 27,” I said in my most confident voice.

Platform 27? Wilkes-Barre?” he said, pronouncing it correctly. “Yeah, I can get you there. Follow me.”

He led me along, following a set of twists and turns that seemed to have nothing to do with the official Information Desk instructions. We went along corridors that seemed disused, through doorways into poorly lit areas. I fingered the strap of the backpack slung over my right shoulder, its buckles and belts flapping as I walked. The backpack can be used to block attacks from his left, I thought. The small suitcase in my left hand can be used both offensively and defensively against right-handed attacks. And I had my feet free, elbows, knees,...my head, good and solid, excellent for butting...

I had just about decided that it was time to end our troubled relationship when the man led me through one more badly-lit corridor and into a larger chamber which was mostly empty except for a single, idling bus with the words WILKES-BARRE displayed across its front.

I turned to the man, astonished.

Wow,” I think I said. “Thanks.”

The man seemed to then grow embarrassed.”Hey man,” he said. “maybe you can help me out. Me an' my old lady, we had a fight, and she threw me out, and all I got is what I'm wearing, so maybe...”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the ten. I pressed it into his hand, which wasn't outstretched in supplication.

Hey...uhh...” he said, looking at the ten. “That's, umm, too much...”

Take it,” I said. “You earned it. And thanks!”

I approached the bus and the driver stepped off, checked my ticket, and loaded my suitcase underneath. I then hopped onto the bus. It felt like home, like an embassy in a foreign and confusing land. It wasn't full of criminals being sent into exile in Pennsylvania, or drug-dealing pioneers seeking to establish new trade routes in relatively unexplored territory. No, this bus was full of people from Northeastern Pennsylvania, people who were going home and would be glad to see New York City slip away behind them.

I found a seat, plopped down my backpack, and sat down heavily. I was heading home. I had never been so happy to be on a bus in my life.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Blogger mother lode

Over at NEPA Blogs I specialize in brute-force searches for bloggers. If you're a blogger and mention something like "NEPA," "Northeastern Pennsylvania," "Nanticoke," "Wilkes-Barre," or "Scranton," I'm going to do my best to find you and link to you. (Unless, of course, you're just talking about, say, the National Environmental Protection Act, or the Nanticoke, Ontario coal-fired power plant.)

Problem is, not everyone who blogs in Northeastern Pennsylvania feels the need to mention Northeastern Pennsylvania on their blog. So then I have to look for other ways to locate bloggers from NEPA. Fortunately, Blogger has provided a tool for locating bloggers using the Blogger platform based on location information they have included in their profiles. So, for example, I can locate any bloggers who list their location as "Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, United States" by going to my own profile and clicking on the word "Nanticoke." I get this link:

http://www.blogger.com/profile-find.g?t=l&loc0=US&loc1=Pennsylvania&loc2=Nanticoke

which, at this moment, lists 29 different profiles. Unfortunately, not everyone spells out "Pennsylvania." So modifying that URL to the postal abbreviation of PA, I get

http://www.blogger.com/profile-find.g?t=l&loc0=US&loc1=PA&loc2=Nanticoke

with another 61 profiles.

By changing the "loc2" value in those two strings to Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Pittston, or West Pittston, I have located hundreds of previously undiscovered bloggers. Considering the sheer number of named population centers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, there's a lot more digging to be done.

Thing is, I have done these searches in the past, and the results have been frustrating. Profiles without blogs, or dead blogs, or single-entry blogs, or blogs that stopped updating long ago. And that was the case again during this search. But I also found dozens of blogs that  had been updated in the last week or two.

On a whim, I changed that "loc2" value to "NEPA." Doing that with a "loc1" value of "Pennsylvania" turns up 16 bloggers. Changing "loc1" to "PA" finds another 17. Backing up one more step and deleting "loc2" and replacing "loc1" with "NEPA" lists a whopping 74 bloggers. "loc1" = "Northeastern PA"  gives another 24 results, "Northeastern Pennsylvania" gives 40, "Northeast Pennsylvania" gives 44, "Northeast PA" gives 61, "NE PA" gives 21, and "NE Pennsylvania" gives another (but different) 21.

So. Not every one of these profiles has a blog, and not every blog is "live." Some profiles have multiple blogs. Some of these blogs are already listed.

Bottom line: there's a lot of blogs here in Northeastern Pennsylvania. And it's going to take a while to link them all.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rippling Happiness

This was written for a writing group I belong to. The prompt was "Rippling Happiness" - so, for want of a better title, that's what I'm calling it.

This version incorporates some suggested changes, as well as one or two edits I did on my own.

Ever since he was a boy, Melvin Jones had denied himself the basic experience of happiness.

It wasn't that he didn't want to be happy. He did, very much so, or at least he thought he did. It's just that he was concerned that, if ever he should really and truly experience happiness, something bad would happen. Something very bad.

Melvin Jones was convinced that if he were ever really, truly, completely happy, the universe would come to an end.

He wasn't sure how he got that idea. He just knew he had had it for a very long time. He started to suspect it back in third grade, the first time he had kissed a girl. He had suddenly stopped thinking of girls as cootie factories and had started to think of them as something else, something special. So one day at recess, he snuck off with a girl – what was her name, Mary something? - and kissed her. Then he got very embarrassed, and ran back into the school, back to his empty classroom, hoping he could stop feeling so funny before recess ended and the rest of his class came pouring back in. He sat down at his desk and pulled out his science book and opened it to the chapters in the back, the ones they would never get to by the end of the year, the ones where all the really cool stuff was hidden.

And suddenly, every light in the room exploded.

Well, not exactly exploded; there was a flash, and then the lights were all dark. They said it was a power surge of some sort, from a car accident across town, but he wasn't so sure of that. He wondered if maybe it had something to do with the way he felt after he kissed that girl. Maybe.

It wasn't the last time that sort of thing happened to him. It seemed like every time he was in any danger of experiencing true happiness, something bad would happen to offset it. The bigger the happiness, the bigger the disaster. Plane crashes and earthquakes and terrorist attacks, all seemed to be very personal responses from the universe to momentary glimpses of happiness in his life.

Even that time in college, the time that he heard about the guy who was supposed to have solved Fermat's Last Theorem. Only his solution wasn't simple or elegant; not only would it not have fit in the margins of Fermat's book, it would have taken more than the book itself to hold it. Melvin had been thinking about the problem for years, but had held off actually carrying out his solution all the way. Upon hearing that the prize had been claimed, Melvin once again pulled out his binder of notes and gave the solution another try. In a matter of hours, Melvin had produced a simple and elegant solution, something that would have been within Fermat's grasp and not required a knowledge of branches of mathematics that wouldn't be developed for centuries after his death. Melvin looked at his solution, checked his work, and put down his pencil with a sense of hard-earned satisfaction.

Suddenly the shelf with his bottle collection fell off the wall, smashing the colorful bottles to thousands of pieces. And while Melvin was still trying to take that in, the apartment exploded.

How he managed to survive the explosion of the gas line into the building was anybody's guess, but they found him on the front lawn under a couch, banged-up but mostly uninjured. He saw that as a warning shot from the universe – the fact that somehow, the rest of the building had been uninhabited at the moment of the explosion, that no bystanders were walking through the blast radius or debris field just then, was all too improbable to accept as a coincidence.

He resolved then and there to be more careful in these matters. Because, who knows, the next one might be the big one: the one that would cause all the quantum-mechanical waveforms to collapse simultaneously, the one that would decide that Schrodinger's Cat was not alive and dead simultaneously, but was just plain dead, and would be dead forevermore, the one that would bring on the Big Rip, with reality unraveling at the quantum level in a spasm of destruction that would race across the fabric of the universe far faster than the speed of light. And, really, he didn't want that on his conscience.

But this life of self-imposed anhedonia grated on him after a while. Years of monastic living, of denying himself the most basic pleasures in life, made him eager to get out and, at the very least, sample a little of what it had to offer. Meet people. Do things.

In one of his experiments at meeting people and doing things, he met someone. Someone who made him feel funny inside. Someone who made him think that maybe it was worth risking the continued existence of the universe. She looked like an angel, like something out of a painting by Raphael or Leonardo, one of those guys. She smiled at him the first time they met, and they even exchanged a few words. The second time they had spoken a little more, and she had hung out with him after the group had dispersed.

Which brings us to here, Melvin thought, snapping out of his reverie. They had been sitting and talking for who-knows-how-long, exchanging life stories or something. He wasn't really sure. But she was sitting across from him, smiling, looking at him, and he realized that it was his turn to say something. He tried to think of something, anything. Finally he settled on it.

So...maybe we could, like, get coffee or something sometime?” he said in a strangled squeak.

Her smile faded slightly. “We're having coffee,” she said, nodding slightly at the mug in his hands.

Riiight, he thought. We're having coffee. This is a coffee shop. That's what you do there. Dumb, dumb, dumb. He felt himself pulling away, pulling back through a tunnel of self.

But...” she said, “there's...there's this movie I'd really like to see, and it closes this weekend. Do you want to go see it tonight?”

The look of embarrassment on his face turned into an idiot grin. He realized he had forgotten to blink for a while. He closed his eyes and felt the universe begin to unravel.

It spread like waves rippling out from his body. First everything went momentarily dim, then all swimmy. Then he felt oddly euphoric, like he wanted to sing and fly and vomit, all at the same time. He felt lightheaded, and like someone had punched him in the gut, and like he was tap-dancing on eggs that would not break.

And then the universe refused to collapse. It spun around him like a carnival ride coming to a stop, and then it snapped to a halt. It stayed steadfastly in place. He felt himself breathe. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the mug of coffee was warm in his hands, a beautiful girl was sitting across from him and had just asked him out on a date, and and all was right with the world. He was happy, while the universe was going about its business regardless.

He realized a response was expected of him.

Sure,” was all he could manage.

And then, regaining his composure, he added: “That would be cool.”

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Some dreams

I've been under rather a lot of stress lately, and I've recently started having unsettling dreams. I figured I'd write them down here while I can still remember them.

1. Batman

The first one was Tuesday morning, and came in at least two pieces. (I know you only remember dreams if you wake up during them; I believe the piece contained in this paragraph ended before I woke up at 4:30, and then the rest happened when I fell back asleep until 6:30.) It was a dream about Batman - or, more specifically, Bruce Wayne. Even more specifically, the Christian Bale version of Bruce Wayne. I don't remember the particulars of the parts of the dream that preceded this part, but I remember I found myself in a small conference room in the headquarters of Wayne Industries, a room just big enough for maybe six people to meet around a small table. The room wasn't designed for privacy, because it had big windows all around, including on the doors, and seemed to be just off a main corridor. I must have been an observer in this dream, because I remember seeing Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne sitting across the table from me, while a young boy sat next to me. The boy looked like young Frank McCourt from the movie version of Angela's Ashes, maybe twelve years old, and he and Bruce Wayne were both wearing wool coats, as if they had both just come in from outside. Bruce Wayne looked troubled, and the boy looked scared. And all Bruce Said was, "Why did you press that button?" I thought What button?, and assumed he was talking about a doorbell of some sort, but then I realized that he must be talking about the secret button that reveals the current hiding place for all of Bruce Wayne's Batman stuff. This kid must have discovered that Bruce Wayne was Batman! I realized that I was sitting next to this Batman franchise's version of Robin!

Then all hell broke loose.

A thug slammed open the door of the conference room and began shouting at Bruce Wayne. Business, I thought, and took note of the man: mid-thirties, big, heavy, balding with dark, maybe chestnut frizzy hair, a greasy moustache and goatee, wearing a gray wool topcoat over business clothes. He was shouting with an accent, and there were two other thuggish-looking guys behind him.  Russian mob, I thought, and Wayne Industries security showed up and pulled the guys out of the doorway. Bruce Wayne returned to questioning the boy when suddenly alarms went off and the hall outside the room took on a sickly yellow hue. Wayne muttered under his breath and got up and exited the room into the hall. Very quickly he turned around to come back into the room, but he seemed to be having trouble moving. He didn't open the door, but instead moved one arm as though he were attempting to break the glass in the door. His arm hit the door, very slowly, and there was a sound of smashing glass, but the door didn't break, and he stood there, wide-eyed, on the other side of the door, frozen in place.

The boy rushed to the door and opened it, and he and I pulled Bruce Wayne back inside. The hall outside the room was full of alarms and shouting, and felt very weird, and everywhere there was that sickly yellow light. Bruce Wayne felt cold and stiff, and even his clothes felt odd - crinkly, almost brittle. We got him onto the table but he was frozen in the position  he had been in outside - dead, as far as I could tell, and dead for some time; yet his eyes were still wide open and clear.

The boy went to the door again and left the room to confront whatever was going on outside, but like Bruce Wayne, he also didn't get very far. He froze in place a few steps from the door, and I was just able to tug his stiff and seemingly lifeless body back into the room.

Great, I thought. Batman's dead, Robin's dead, and something out there will kill me if I leave the room. What could I do?

I woke up, and never found out.


2. The Flood

Back in 1972, the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania saw a flood of historic proportions. It is known by the name of the Tropical Storm that fed it: Agnes. Thirty-nine years later, another of these once-in-a-lifetime events happened, and the valley took on tremendous damage from the September 2011 flood.

In this dream from last night, we were hit by another storm, even worse than anything that had preceded it. It caused flooding throughout Nanticoke, which is a city built (for the most part) on hills, and generally above any realistic projected flooding. (Unless all of the storm drains were to stop working; then the streets would flood very rapidly, and some have done so in the past.)

I don't remember many of the particulars of this dream, which I only remembered because of a precipitation forecast map on television. I remember helping people to evacuate, and re-evacuate, and watching waters rising higher and higher.

The reality is: last year's storm hurt us, badly. It caused a lot of devastation in a lot of places. We didn't see a repeat of the utter devastation seen in Wilkes-Barre in 1972 because of improvements to the levee system there that had been in the works since the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936, but weren't completed until 1996 or so. But the 2011 flood put these levees to the test, and came within inches of overtopping them, and actually drilled under them in various "boils" which, to the layman's eye. looked a heck of a lot like leaks and breaches. All that stress damaged the levees. They wouldn't be able to withstand another flood of that magnitude without major repair work, repair work that will require allocation of funds from the U.S. Congress. Funds which are not likely to be forthcoming in the near future.

So, bottom line: if this area is hit with another flood of this magnitude in the next year, or five years, or maybe decade, or perhaps quarter-century, the levee system will not be able to protect Wilkes-Barre or the surrounding areas again.  And this nightmare will be a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of people.


3. Late for work, and a forbidden cell phone

Today would have been my day to go back to work if I were not once again on layoff. In this dream I found myself racing in to work at the last minute. I parked my car, raced down two levels of steps across the parking lot, and made it into the plant. I was about to pass through the metal detector at the entrance to the plant when I realized I had my cell phone in my pocket. This is a major no-no at work, and I decided to risk the possibility that there had been a rule change: could I leave my phone with the guards, rather than take it back out to my car and be late for work? After some discussion among themselves they agreed that I could, but I wouldn't be able to punch in as normal, swiping my badge through a reader. Instead I would have to carry an old-style time card. Only this wasn't a normal time card; it was more like a giant library card, with the names of everyone else who had carried it before me written on it. So I took the time card, and went through the turnstiles, and got halfway to the place where I would get my work assignment for the day, when I realized 1) I was still carrying my forbidden cell phone, and 2) I was late anyway!

I woke up, and checked the message on the system that would tell me if I was working or not. And the answer this time was "not." Maybe tomorrow. Or the next day, or the next...