Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Tally 2011

89 trick-or-treaters. No idea on the tonnage of candy moved.  That number is little more than half of the 170 kids I had last time I gave out candy, back in 2009.

I wasn't expecting to be able to do this tonight. I was scheduled to work tonight, but the busy season seems to be winding down, and as a temp I'm among the first to get laid off. So I had the day free, and found myself without candy. Target came through - they've been my primary candy source for the past few years, great selection of quality stuff at reasonable prices.  Reviewing my 2009 post I see I passed out animal crackers to the infants, which would have been a good idea this time. We all know that the parents get their candy anyway, so may as well provide something for the babies. I'll have to remember that for next year.

I got to my house a little after 6:00 and the streets were already full of kids. I think I probably missed a few dozen between 5:30 and 6:00. I set myself up on my rocking bench with a punchbowl full of candy, another punchbowl-full in reserve, my tally counter, a phone, and a pseudo-Snuggie to wear on top of my coat.

Damn, it was cold. Most of the snow from this Saturday's storm has already melted, but temperatures certainly dropped after sundown. I don't know if the kids noticed it, since they were dressed up and moving. But sitting on my porch, I sure felt it.

There were only two other houses on my block that I could tell were passing out candy, and one of them seemed to be having a party - a lot of the kids who went there, stayed there. As the evening wore on I remembered that I hadn't eaten anything since lunch and started to dip into the punchbowl for the occasional Snickers, Twix, Mr. Goodbar, Almond Joy, or Starburst.  By 7:30 traffic had dwindled to the point that I decided that I would shut things down at 8:00. A few more kids and their parents showed up at 7:45, but by 7:55, with 74 kids having come and gone and the night getting colder, I couldn't stand it anymore. I dumped the remaining candy into a bag, carried the punchbowl, tally counter, phone, and fake Snuggie into the house, reset my alarm, and prepared to leave.

I immediately realized as I closed and locked the door that I had forgotten to turn my porch light off. Then I saw more groups of kids approaching like hungry zombies. I passed out candy quickly to ten more kids, then dashed inside to get my tally counter. A final group of teenagers arrived at  the end, including one buxom brunette wearing an ill-fitting blonde wig and a barely-fitting replica of Marilyn Monroe's halter-top dress from "The Seven Year Itch" - one false move or quick turn and she would have been having a Coming Out Party. She was #89 for the night.

By 8:05 the streets were vacant again, so I re-opened the house, disabled the alarm, shut out the light, re-activated the alarm, locked up the house again, and headed out to the car. On the drive back across town - where I saw dozens of kids still on the streets - I realized I had left a bag containing all the empty bags from candy slung over the back of my rocking bench. So I drove back across town to retrieve it. Several groups of kids looked my way hopefully, but I just grabbed the bag-of-bags and headed back to the car.

I had two Luigis for the night, but no Marios or Warios. One of the most popular outfits for girls seemed to be "slightly older teenagers." Two girls showed up in wigs (I think they were wigs) with heavy makeup and lip rings. "Are those real piercings?" I asked. "No!" they responded, seemingly aghast at the thought.

Only one group of kids showed unbridled greed - I was trying to pass out three pieces of candy to each kid, figuring if I had 500 pieces total and got 170 kids like last time that would be just about enough. Some little kids got extras, or wanted to pick their own. One mixed group of kids ranging from about two to seven years old came up. I gave candy to the older kids first, but the youngest one wanted to take his own, and I let him - which the older kids took as a signal to take their own, too. After one kid grabbed half a dozen pieces I suggested he might want to leave some for the other kids.

I suppose if it had been a bit warmer, more kids might have been out. Maybe if I had gotten an earlier start, or had stayed out later, or had more neighbors passing out candy, I would have gotten more kids. Whatever. I guess I'll just have to eat the leftovers!

October Surprise 2011

What happens when a late flush of roses meets an early snow? This.

Royal Highness rosebush, Nanticoke, PA, October 29, 2011.

When it was all over, we had about six inches of wet, slushy snow - much more in higher elevations. And once again, thousands of people lost power. That's starting to become a running theme with extreme weather situations.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

2011 visitor's guide for people attending the Sideshow Gathering

Once again, this is just something I'm putting together, and is in no way endorsed by the Sideshow Gathering or any of the businesses mentioned.

I think everything I talked about in this post last year is still valid. If you're looking to get something to eat, some Starbucks coffee, looking to buy books, or chocolate, or music, or need to go to the hospital, you can follow those directions.

However, there were several omissions I need to take care of:

BEER, WINE, and LIQUOR: Folks from outside of Pennsylvania may find themselves confused by Pennsylvania's arcane liquor laws. (Even people from Pennsylvania find them confusing!)

Bottles of wine and liquor are sold only in state-owned stores, formerly called "State Stores" but now generally called "Wine and Spirits Shoppes." The closest one is technically located at 2136 WILKES-BARRE TWP, WILKES-BARRE, PA 18702-0000, but it might be easier to just look for the Wilkes-Barre Township Marketplace, the plaza that contains Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Starbucks, and several other stores. It's there, conveniently located next to the Chuck E. Cheese. ("You kids go and have a good time, daddy needs to do some shopping...")

To get there from the Woodlands:
- Turn left (south/west) on 315
- Take 315 about one mile until it becomes Business 309
- Take Business 309 about one mile
- Make a left on Mundy Street and follow for about a half mile (this is actually the second intersection with Mundy Street; you can get there by following the first, but then you will make a left in the next two instructions)
- Make a right on Highland Park Boulevard and follow for about half a mile
- Wilkes-Barre Township Marketplace and Starbucks will be on your right

Beer is sold in cases only at beer distributors, and in smaller quantities elsewhere. Many places that sell prepared food are also allowed to sell beer by the six-pack, and I believe the law limits purchases to two six-packs at a time.  Beer by the six-pack can be purchased at most pizza places and delis, though a wide selection can also be bought at Wegman's supermarket at 220 Highland Park Boulevard. (To get there, follow directions above to Wilkes-Barre Township Marketplace, but continue past the marketplace on Highland Park Boulevard and make a right at the traffic light in front of Wegman's. You can also access Wegman's directly from Business Route 309.) You can also get a huge selection of local beers by the six-pack (including make-your-own mix-and-match) at the Georgetown Deli next to the Giant Cow on 309, 720 Wilkes-Barre Township Boulevard.  For an excellent selection of beer by the case (because, really, when is 12 bottles adequate?) continue just past the Georgetown Deli to Wychock's Beverage at the Four Keys Plaza, 730 Wilkes-Barre Township Boulevard. (Other beer distributors are nearby, but feature only pedestrian brands.)

HARBOR FREIGHT TOOLS: Ses Carny called it "A sideshow performer's shopping center," and that sounds about right. The nearest one is located at 1074 WYOMING AVE (Route 11), Wyoming PA, 18644. Unfortunately, this is about six miles away from the Woodlands, and getting there can be tricky.

Simplified directions:
- Turn left on 315
- Turn right onto 309 North (NOT Business Route 309)
- Turn right onto Route 11 East (follow signs carefully for the first few hundred feet)
- Take Route 11 to the MIDWAY SHOPPING CENTER
- Harbor Freight is to the left of the center of the parking lot

Complex directions (adapted from Google):
1. Turn left on PA-315 S toward Motorworld Dr
2. Turn right to merge onto PA-309 N - 2.7 mi
3. Take exit 4 toward US-11/Kingston/Forty Fort - 0.3 mi
4. Turn right onto Rutter Ave - 256 ft
5. Keep left at the fork - 92 ft
6. Continue onto Welles St - 0.4 mi
7. Turn right onto Wyoming Ave - Destination will be on the left - 2.1 mi

Coming back is a little trickier:

1. Head west on Wyoming Ave toward Stites St - 2.1 mi
2. Turn left onto Welles St - 0.4 mi
3. Welles St turns slightly right and becomes Rutter Ave - 0.2 mi
4. Turn left to merge onto PA-309 S - 2.4 mi
5. Take exit 1 for Pennsylvania 309 Business S toward Pennsylvania 315 N/Dupont/Wilkes-Barre - 0.3 mi
6. Keep left at the fork, follow signs for PA-315 N - 331 ft
7. Turn left onto PA-309 BUS N - 0.2 mi
8. Continue onto PA-315 N - 0.5 mi
9. Turn right -Destination will be on the right - 62 ft.

There is also a HOME DEPOT on Business Route 309 in Wilkes-Barre (technically 41 Spring Street) and a LOWES in the same plaza as Barnes & Noble (see last year's directions.)

If there's any other sort of place or thing people would like directions to, please let me know!

The Sideshow Gathering 2011 is coming!

A decade ago, Franco Kossa presented the people of Northeastern Pennsylvania with a gift. To his already-established Inkin' the Valley Tattoo Convention, he added an amazing side offering: the Sideshow Gathering, a one-of-a-kind gathering of sideshow performers from all over the country - held in, of all places, Wilkes-Barre, PA! Since that time Franco has persevered to present this area with what I have called an annual once -in-a-lifetime event, as an ever-changing array of sideshow performers and members of what is known as "the variety arts" gather to swap stories, put on shows, and mingle with fans and each other in a way that simply isn't possible throughout the performing year.

This year marks two milestones: it is the Tenth Annual Sideshow Gathering, and it is the first Sideshow Gathering to be held without Franco at the helm. Franco passed away earlier this year, and management duties passed on to his widow, Kim.

The Sideshow Gathering is being held this year on November 4, 5, and 6 at the Woodlands in Plains Township, PA, just outside of Wilkes-Barre, as it has been held for the last several years.  For full details and a roster of performers, see the official press release here.

Text from the press release:

CONTACTS: Kim Kossa (855-570-4653) or Jill Fisher Fleet (202-459-1148)
The Woodlands Inn & Resort, 1073 Route 315, Wilkes-Barre PA



WILKES-BARRE PA – The Annual Sideshow Gathering — the world's only sideshow convention — returns to northeastern Pennsylvania with its unique and shocking blend of weird, wonderful, and wacky entertainment. From November 4th through 6th, the strange takes center stage when showmen and genuine sideshow freaks from across the country descend on Wilkes-Barre's The Woodlands Inn & Resort to celebrate the giddy thrills of the carnival sideshow. Over the course of three days, many of today's best sideshow performers will walk on glass, swallow swords, eat light bulbs, put hooks in their eyes, attempt to break a world record for the largest simultaneous ten-in-one sideshow, and otherwise risk bodily harm for the sake of twisted entertainment. The Sideshow Gathering is the premier networking event for performers, fans, collectors, and historians. The Sideshow Gathering has steadily drawn increased attendance year after year, and is an unsurpassed weekend of gasps and laughs.

This year, the Sideshow Gathering’s 10th anniversary, is especially poignant as it also marks the passing of its founder Franco Kossa, who died suddenly last May. With Franco’s tragic death the future of the Sideshow Gathering looked uncertain, but a dedicated group of friends, performers, and volunteers have worked steadily to ensure the event will continue this year in grand style. “Franco himself will be present, in spirit and body,” said artist James Mundie, who has designed a special memorial banner to be unveiled at the Sideshow Gathering. “Franco’s ashes will preside over the event, and patrons will have a unique opportunity on Friday night to ‘visit’ with them. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s perfectly appropriate for this event and Franco would have loved it.”

Attractions at the 10th Annual Sideshow Gathering will include:

The weekend's emcees, Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill of The Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow — named “Best Sideshow Duo” by Washington City Paper; FreakShow Deluxe, Hollywood's own and only carnival-style sideshow; Coney Island Chris, the hilarious one-man ten-in-one seen on America's Got Talent; Philadelphia's Olde City Sideshow, featuring Danny Borneo, Martin Ling the Suicide King, Reggie Bügmüncher and special guest GiGi Holliday of Baltimore's Sticky Buns Burlesque; the incomparable Harley Newman, professional lunatic; Cheeky Monkey Sideshow, featuring Swami Yomahmi, Sally the Cinch, Mab Just Mab, and tantalizing guest Cherríe Sweetbottom; Keith Bindlestiff, co-founder of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and alter-ego of presidential candidate Kinko the Clown; Knotty Bits Sideshow, and many more! Additionally, vendors such as Col. Hunsley's Freaks and Oddities and James Taylor's Shocked and Amazed! will display genuine freak animals, memorabilia, rare books, and original show banners. Step right up to the Sideshow Gathering for a weekend of entertainment and diversion you will never forget!

Concurrent with the 18th Annual Inkin' The Valley tattoo convention at Wilkes-Barre's The Woodlands Inn & Resort, the Sideshow Gathering begins at 3:00 PM on Friday, November 4th, with live sideshow performances starting at 5:00 PM. The convention floor opens again at noon and performances will resume from 3:00 to 6:00 PM and 10:00 to 11:00 PM on Saturday, followed by a special auction of original art and rare carnival and circus items. On Sunday, there will be encore performances from 2:00 to 5:00 PM. Admission for the entire weekend is only $15.

"Legacy isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think of sword swallowers and fire eaters and people who eat broken glass,” said James Taylor, publisher of the journal Shocked and Amazed! On & Off the Midway and someone who has attended the Sideshow Gathering from the beginning, “but it was for the late Franco Kossa when he created the annual Sideshow Gathering, and that yearly convention has shown for a decade that Kossa's heart was in the right place when he had legacy in mind. Hey, I told him not to do the Gathering when he first came to me about it, and his reaction was perfect: ‘Yeah, but...’ And he did it. We're all in debt to him."

Ten years ago, tattoo business owner Franco Kossa wanted to add sideshow entertainment to his annual convention, Inkin’ the Valley. These art forms shared a common history, so it seemed an ideal pairing. “Tattooed people have been exhibits forever,” Kossa said. &lqduo;Sideshow history and tattoo history are conjoined.” However, at the time the popular acceptance of tattooing was on the rise while sideshow was on the decline. It was while talking with legendary showman Ward Hall, co-owner of the World of Wonders, about the wholesale disappearance of sideshows from America’s fairgrounds that Franco hit upon the idea of starting a convention for sideshow performers. The idea was that for one weekend a year showmen and carnies from across the country could gather to ‘cut up jackpots’. It would be like the old showman’s clubs, but the public would also be invited in. From those humble beginnings, the Sideshow Gathering – the world’s only sideshow convention – was born and in time became a much anticipated annual calendar event for veteran showfolk and a training ground for the next generation. Tim O’Brien of Ripley’s Entertainment and Ripley Radio said, “I come every year to find new talent for Ripley’s. This place is a cornucopia of oddities and bizarre acts!”

“Frank was a generous and loving man who created for this group of people a haven where once a year we could gather… to share the love of our different lifestyle, and our respect for one another,” said Ward Hall, who was himself once honored by Franco Kossa at the Sideshow Gathering with an Ambassador of Wonder Award for his many decades in the sideshow industry. “Through his compassion for those who wished to present themselves to the world in unusual ways, Frank provided a method for us to gather together and get to know him and each other as no one else was ever able to do… I expect that he is now working to assemble a Sideshow Gathering in Heaven for all our people who have gone on before us.”

Kossa’s dedication to this art form has proven that public interest in sideshow is in fact alive and well. Over the years, the Sideshow Gathering has attracted a great deal of media attention – especially for the world records that were set there for mass sword swallowing and human blockhead – and attendance has steadily increased year after year. The 2010 incarnation of the event was the most successful to date, and seemed to indicate that the 10th anniversary in 2011 would be its best year yet. But then in early May 2011, Franco Kossa suddenly died and the fate of his beloved event seemed to be in jeopardy. Franco Kossa’s widow, Kim, was left with mounting debts and a considerable ‘nut’ to cover for Inkin’ the Valley. If the Sideshow Gathering was going to continue, it was going to need help. “The Sideshow Gathering for Franco meant bringing something he loved to his home town and sharing it with those around him,” said Kim Kossa. “Cost didn't matter, he just wanted to share the fun. It also was about bringing like minds together. Sideshow acts are on the road so much, they rarely get a chance to see other acts and be among their peers.” Like a big extended family, friends and volunteers stepped in to lend a hand, the most visible effort being several benefit performances held during mid-October in Washington DC and Baltimore under the name “Seismic Sideshow” that helped raise much needed funds to cover the expenses of putting on Franco’s creation.

“I believe in the afterlife here on Earth,” said Tyler Fyre of the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow, “that a person lives on through the deeds they did, the lives they touched, and the legacy they leave. Franco lives on through the Sideshow Gathering, and by bringing us all together each year his legacy will live forever.”

Don't miss it!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

This is disconcerting

I've been back at work on a temporary basis since the end of September. The schedule I'm working is called a "4x4": Four twelve-hour nights of work, followed by four days off. (The first day off doesn't really count because you spend most of it unconscious.)

If you sit down with a calendar and try to fit this eight-day schedule into a seven-day week you'll find something interesting and counter-intuitive: this schedule results in four calendar weeks in a row with four nights of work in them. followed by four calendar weeks in a row with three nights of work. Any work rotation that begins on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday will have four consecutive nights of work in it. Weeks that begin on Thursday will have three consecutive nights of work, plus one night (Sunday) spilling over into the next week. The next rotation will only contain Friday and Saturday in that same week, giving three non-consecutive nights of work for the week. The following week will have Sunday and Monday spilling over from the previous rotation, plus Saturday from the next rotation. The next week will have spill-over days of Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, and the next rootation will begin on Sunday of the next week.

Any calendar week with four nights of work is worth 52 hours of pay - 40 hours "straight time", plus 8 hours at "time and a half", the equivalent of 12 hours of pay. Any calendar week with three days in it only pays 36 hours straight time. Additional days over the first four are worth 18 hours each - 12 hours at time-and a half.  Thus, for three days you get 36 hours pay; four days, 52; five days, 70, six days, 88, and the Holy Grail - seven sonsecutive days in one week - is worth 106 hours of pay, for a mere 84 hours of work.

After some annoyance with getting a new security badge (which didn't happen until the second day of my second rotation) I began signing up for as much overtime as I could get. In my first calendar week I worked just my four scheduled days. In my second week I worked my scheduled days plus one of overtime, for a 70 hour paycheck. In my third week I worked six consecutive days, my four scheduled plus an overtime day at the beginning and the end - but only five of those days were in one calendar week (for another 70 hour pay) and one was in the next calendar week. My fourth week - the most recent one - I had the one overtime day from the previous rotation, but was not able to get overtime for the day before our rotation. So I worked three scheduled days plus one of overtime, for a four day, 52 hour pay.

I had hoped to get back into the swing of things this calendar week, with one scheduled spillover day from the previous rotation (Sunday night), two nights of overtime (Monday and Tuesday), and then two more scheduled days (Friday and Saturday) for another five-day, 70 hour pay.

Unfortunately, my overtime was cancelled for both Monday and Tuesday nights, leaving me with a measly three-day, 36-hour pay.

OK. Fine. I've been running hard. I  could use a break, right?

As I said, usually your first day off when you're working twelve-hour nights is a wate - you wind up sleeping most of the day, or zombified. But usually you can snap back into what I call the "daywalking lifestyle" by your second day off. Or, at least, I used to be able to.

I slept yesterday from about 9:00 in the morning to about 1:45 in the afternoon. I was up, fatigued but conscious. Stayed at home. Paid a stack of bills. Back in bed by 3:00 AM. Up again just after 8:00 AM to verify that the message I had heard the night before about my overtime being cancelled hadn't changed. Stayed in bed until after 9:00. Gathered myself together, got a start on the day. Out of the house by noon to go grocery shopping. Back by 2:00. Unload the groceries, quick change of clothes, then out of the house just after 3:00 to get to WBRE for PA Live! to do the 90-second NEPA Blogs Blog of the Week segment. Do it, elect to hang out at the show until the end and get a slice of sweet potato pie. Find myself falling asleep as I wait.

I parked at Boscov's. Parking there is $2.00 for the first three hours, or free if you buy something worth $2.00. I picked up a buckwheat hot/cold pad for $1.99 and an viricidal spray for $0.29, got my ticket stamped, and headed home.

I drove home, noticing all the pretty girls from the Wilkes University track team jogging all over Wilkes-Barre. Pulled up to the house as Soundgarden's "Burden In My Hand" came on the radio. Decided to sit through the song in the car. Picked up the viricidal spray and began to read the instructions on the back.

...and realized I could not make it through a single sentence without experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations. Woolgathering, so to speak. My mind was making things up, words and phrases that simply weren't there, as I was falling asleep with each sentence.

I realized I had to get out of the car soon or I was going to wind up sleeping there.

I came in the house and had something to eat. Thought I woke up a bit. Then I went on Facebook and wrote this:

Having a very hard time adjusting to daywalking. I think I like working overtime not just because of the money, but because it gives me an excuse to be disoriented for a day or two. With four consecutive days off, I fear I might resume aa daywalkiiiinh schhhedduule
That last sentence was supposed to read "...I fear I might resume a daywalking schedule, only to have to suddenly switch back to night shift when I go back to work." Only, as you can see, I began to fall asleep as I was writing it, with my fingers lingering on each key too long.

After midnight tonight I began to rouse again. It's now close to 2:00 AM and I think I'll head to bed.

I'm wondering if I am no longer capable of easily transitioning between being awake at night and being awake during the day. At work I have no problem staying awake: the place is brightly lit and full of sounds, things to do and things to check - a very stimulating environment. I could run all night on pure adrenaline, but I realize I need some food in my system for the drive home.

So is my body stuck on night shift? Can I function properly during the day anymore? Or will I find myself falling asleep the moment I become under-stimulated?

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I've been trying to follow along the Occupy Wall Street movement as best I can. As far as I can tell, this is a genuine, grassroots expression of public discontent with the status quo.  It is largely disorganized and leaderless. Its biggest criticism is that it has no single, coherent message: not like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Egypt, where the goal was the removal of President-for-Life Hosni Mubarak and the establishment of a democratic state, nor like the Tea Party, whose goal is the removal of democratically elected President Barack Obama and the establishment of a Republican state.

Still, some themes are emerging from Occupy Wall Street. The economy is a mess, and people want elected leaders to work to fix that - not work to block any possible improvements for fear they might actually benefit the incumbent. People want jobs that pay decent wages, not the ongoing destruction of the middle class while the wealthiest 1% gets ever richer at the expense of the other 99%.

The "Occupy" movement has moved beyond Wall Street. It's moved into cities all over the country. People are pissed off, and they don't want anyone to pretend or imagine that all is well, that things are just fine the way they are. Naturally, there's been some push-back from the people who benefit from the status quo, and from their toadies and allies and sycophants.

Occupy Nanticoke would mean...something else.

Nanticoke has all the problems the rest of the country has, but worse. We're well ahead of the curve when it comes to economic devastation. Decades ago a decision was made that Nanticoke would be primarily a residential community, not a community focused on commerce or industry. As the coal mines and cigar mills and garment mills shut down, no new industries moved into the city. As the industries shut down, the businesses did too. The Leader Store and Leventhal's, Woolworth's and J.S. Raub Shoes, clothing stores and sundries shops, all closed their doors between the 1970's and 1990's. Our two hardware stores closed and were torn down, as was our decades-old theater, which had been closed since the early 1980's but was not torn down for about fifteen years. (When the wrecking ball hit the State Theater the first time, it bounced off.) The long-vacant Duplin Mill was turned into a skating rink and bowling alley in the late 1970's, and burned down in the early 1990's. It remains a burned-out hulk, repurposed for a time as a marijuana-growing operation a few years ago, until someone noticed that the property wasn't zoned for agricultural purposes.

(And the banks closed, too. Nanticoke was once famous for its many large, granite banks. Now one of them is a shuttered pawn shop. One or two have come back as smaller, less opulent banks housed within the shells of the old banks. The rest have been torn down.)

Nanticoke was reimagined decades ago as a bedroom community: people would come here to sleep, but would work and shop and play somewhere else. And many of the children of those who came here to sleep decided to move away the first chance they got, leaving older and older sleepers behind, until they died in their beds - or, more often, in strange and lonely beds in hospitals or nursing homes.

Now Nanticoke is a city filled with vacant houses. Well, not all vacant:  some are being rented out to drug dealers, or being used as crack houses or meth labs. Not all industry and commerce has left the city.

But many of the best and brightest have. There are no jobs around here, not any that pay a decent living wage. The ceiling on most wages in this area is $10 an hour - and that's in Northeastern Pennsylvania, not just Nanticoke, where there really aren't any jobs to be had, outside of the schools and the hospital and a few machine shops that haven't moved away yet. While this is well above the minimum wage (currently $7.25 an hour), it still translates into an annual pre-tax pre-deduction income of only $20,800, assuming fifty-two forty-hour weeks.* In what decade was that a living wage?  (When I asked this question of an employment professional, he replied that that is why so many people have second jobs.)

This has all resulted in an increasingly aging population of retirees and social security recipients generating little or no income ("Occupation") tax for the city. Most taxes are property taxes and school taxes (which go to the school district, not the city, which goes to pay for the education of students in the Greater Nanticoke Area, whose boundaries extend far outside the city itself.) Many vacant houses, many old people, and an increasing population of resident drug dealers and manufacturers. Vacant houses make a tempting target for scrappers who treat the houses as copper mines, just loaded with copper and iron pipes (and sometimes brass fixtures and aluminum siding) that can be removed and sold to one of the many scrapyards that dot the outskirts of this area. (Business is booming at these places, especially the ones who don't ask too many questions about where the latest load of copper pipes came from.)

There is a vicious cycle at work, in Nanticoke and in all of Northeastern PA. Fewer and fewer good jobs are available. More and more of the population leaves the area for greener pastures. Those left behind are either unwilling or unable to move, or have decided to stay and work for a better future, or have decided to stay and exploit the decrepit present. Houses become vacant.  The tax base shrinks, the population dwindles, employers leave the area, and new employers stay away and fail to fill the void. Even fewer good jobs are available. More of the population decides to leave. More houses become vacant. The tax base shrinks. More employers decide to pack up and move away.

There's a way out, I think. But it's not easy.

Elected officials need to step up and work to attract businesses to the area. With a dwindling population, this doesn't seem easy. But we do have a secret weapon: schools. Colleges. Universities. They actually count as one of the largest employers in this area, and the student population is a significant fraction of the residents of any area in which a college or university is based. These students come here from all over, from Northeastern Pennsylvania and Southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey and New York and even points beyond. But they don't stay here; as soon as they get their degrees they get the hell out of the area and go to where the jobs are. If the jobs were here, some of them might stay. Maybe. If the jobs were here.

Unfortunately, the newly-elected Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, has made a single industry his top priority: gas drilling. He wants to see Pennsylvania become the Texas of the natural gas industry; so apparently he dreams of a devastated landscape, an environmental ruin brought on by unregulated industrial exploitation, where wildfires race across the the state annually. And its not like the state would see any direct benefit from the gas extraction industry: to make the state more attractive to drillers, he has taken a strong stance against any taxation of gas extraction. Any economic benefit from gas drilling would have to come from revenue generated by income taxes on workers, and sales taxes on products purchased by people employed by the industry, and business taxes on businesses that expand to serve the industry.

But this support is fairly exclusive. Support for alternative energy investment by the state has gone away. No energy is being put into attracting other industries to this area. And other Republican politicians, elected in the wave of anti-incumbency that swept across the nation last November, have not bucked Corbett's lead.

Those of us who live in Northeastern Pennsylvania know where economic monocropping leads. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, we were one of the most important sources of anthracite coal in the world. Most of the people of the Wyoming Valley were employed by the coal industry. Coal mines were everywhere, even where you couldn't see them, even where they shouldn't have been. Much of this area is literally "undermined" by abandoned coal miles, much to the surprise of the Army Corps of Engineers, who declared during the September flood that this is some of the most complex topography that they have ever had to deal with, with floodwaters suddenly vanishing into mines unexpectedly - and suddenly popping out of mines elsewhere unexpectedly. Giant culm banks still cover the landscape. Mine fires dot the region, impossible to extinguish by conventional means. Mine subsidences occasionally suck up parts of houses, or even whole houses. Individual homeowners are responsible for carrying their own mine subsidence insurance. The coal mining companies moved away long ago and disclaimed all responsibility for the consequences of their actions. And when coal mining in this area came to an abrupt end on January 22, 1959, the economic monocrop went away - as did the primary source of income for the area.

Regardless of whether the people of Pennsylvania ignore this lesson or not, we need jobs in this area. Relying on a single industry is foolish and shortsighted in the extreme. And the gas industry is not exactly the sort of industry that would persuade college students to remain in the area. So let's imagine that maybe some politicians get a clue and decide to work to bring other jobs to the area. What next?

Well, now these people will need places to live. In areas where the gas industry is "booming," such as Wyoming County, this is actually a problem: all available housing has filled up with roughnecks and drillers and truck drivers and other employees that the gas drillers have brought with them from out of state.** So when locals in these areas found their homes wiped out by the September floods, they also discovered that there was nowhere in the area where they could stay. No vacancy. And even if there were, the prices had inflated to a level the market could bear, with rental rates set at what people in the gas drilling industry could afford - not what suddenly flooded-out locals could afford.

Nanticoke has housing. Vacant houses by the score. Granted, some of them need some work. Some of them need a lot of work, especially ones where all the copper water pipes and iron gas pipes and copper electrical wiring and aluminum siding have been cut out and torn out and torn off and sold to scrap-metal merchants. In these cases it might be better to tear down the houses and connect the empty lots to nearby un-ransacked buildings, making them more attractive to potential buyers who might prefer to have spacious yards.

New residents, residents with jobs, and incomes, incomes in excess of ten dollars an hour, will help increase the local tax base. As the tax base grows, the city's coffers will fill. More improvements will take place, perhaps expansions of the fire and police departments. Perhaps more time will be invested by the police in identifying and removing drug dealers and crack houses and meth labs. As these places are shut down and removed, property values will rise. The desirability of property will rise. Fewer people will feel compelled to abandon Nanticoke to seek a better life elsewhere, More people will make the decision to move into Nanticoke to snatch up some extremely affordable housing.

And maybe stores and businesses will return to downtown Nanticoke, providing even more jobs and even more tax income.

It's not a pipe dream. There are plans to make it happen, although from another direction entirely - an approach which in no way precludes this one. I've been asked to be a part of the group investigating this possibility, and I have said yes. That approach, however, is a downtown-centered one, one which will begin to rebuild the downtown of Nanticoke independent of the rest of the city, or the region. It's a good vision, and one that could work.

But my dream is broader in scope. Bring back jobs to this area. Jobs that pay well. Convince college graduates to stay in the area. Provide them with highly affordable housing. Build the tax base. Drive out the druggies. Bring up property values.

And not just in Nanticoke. This approach is necessary for all of NEPA. It's something that a boom-town economy from a natural gas rush won't provide sustainably. It requires effort by elected officials to bring jobs and employers to this area. It requires a lot of courage and resolve from the residents of Nanticoke to stand and fight rather than to run off to greener pastures. It requires persuasive efforts to convince the best and brightest not to abandon the area. And it requires determination from police officials to crack down on the drug problem that's been allowed to flourish unchallenged.

For years - decades - the trend has been to vacate Nanticoke, vacate NEPA. Abandon it to the criminals and scumbags and druggies. It's time for us to reverse this trend.

Occupy Nanticoke.

Occupy NEPA.

* Minimum wage will get you $15,080 a year.  Good luck living on that.

**Yes, that's another fun aspect of gas drilling: it provides jobs - but not to locals. Instead the jobs go to trained workers from out of state, many of whom have homes and families out of state, many of whom send a significant portion of their paychecks back out of state - so once again, Pennsylvania sees very little economic benefit.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Where I've been

When last I posted, more than two weeks ago, I noted that I had recently returned to work on a temporary basis. While my classification is "Temporary / Casual Employee," this doesn't mean that I'm working less than full-time hours (though without the benefits that would accrue to a full-time worker.) In fact, I'm working more hours than I was in the weeks before I was laid off last December. And, for various reasons, the days are longer, too.

I was brought back to my old job as a DVD Mold/Bond operator at what is, on the surface, an increased rate of pay. Since it does not include benefits, any actual calculation of my bottom line has to take into consideration the amount I am spending on insurance and other expenses. Overtime is virtually unlimited, so I am taking as much as I can handle. How much exactly that amounts to is something I am working out every day.

My first rotation on I worked four twelve-hour nights. Monday night through Thursday night, and then took my four days off to take part in the Pages & Places Book Festival in Scranton. After four days off, I then worked another four-night rotation, Tuesday night through Friday night, and added on two nights of overtime: one on Saturday night after the end of that rotation, and one on Tuesday night before the beginning of the third rotation. This gave me two days off, though the first day is spent almost completely in a state of recovery and adjustment, considering that I have just gotten out of work that morning. My third rotation consisted of six consecutive days, Tuesday (the overtime day), then Wednesday through Saturday of my regular rotation, then Sunday night as overtime. I tried to also get Wednesday night before my fourth rotation, but it was unavailable. So now my next rotation will be Thursday through Sunday nights. Maybe I'll be able to tack on overtime for Monday and Tuesday nights, too.

After the major layoffs at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, the plant went through some reconfigurations. The most  significant one to the employees was the closure of the front parking lot. While this produces what I have hiply dubbed "bad optics" - a major factory with a completely empty lot out front - it also means that all employees are packed into a deep, narrow, three-tiered parking lot in back, resulting in much longer walks to and from cars at the the beginning and end of the day, almost all involving flights of steps. This is a significant consideration for production workers who have been on their feet and running for the previous twelve hours.

My typical work day goes something like this: out of the house between 5:00 (ideally) to 5:08 (this is the most typical time for me to leave, based on observations.) Crawl through the school zone and down the hill to Main Street. Get on the Sans Souci Parkway and take the exit for Route 29. Take Route 29 to Interstate 81, optimally getting on 81 by 5:14. Continue along 81, passing the last Wilkes-Barre exit by 5:20 and the Pittston exit by 5:24. Hit the Montage Mountain bottleneck at 5:30 and stop. This bottleneck is the result of poor highway planning; an increased number of office buildings (mostly call centers and insurance agencies) have located in the new developments at Montage over the past ten years, and many of them release their workers onto 81 between 5:00 and 5:30. This sudden increase in volume on an already-crowded highway results in a choke-point that lasts two or three miles between the Montage and Scranton exits, which are also choked with construction. Highway traffic travels between 5 and 35 miles per hour for this stretch. Once we have moved past Scranton, traffic moves freely once again. Assuming no additional delays, I arrive at work - at the parking lot at work - no later than 5:48. Then the next phase of my commute begins.

I leave the car and begin my trek to the building. This is about a five minute walk, faster at the beginning of the rotation, slower after a few nights of work have left me sore. We are not allowed to punch in earlier than 5:53, so if I manage to hit the first time clock before then I just keep moving until I get to the next one. As a temporary worker I don't have a permanent home, so I stop at the supervisor's office to get my assignment - usually a set of presses on the far end of the building. I then begin the long hike across the huge plant, hoping to get to the presses by 6:00 so I can get a turnover.

From 6:00 PM to 6:00 AM I work. Changing stampers, pulling spindles of discs, responding to alarms, running tests, making adjustments, getting techs for assistance, cleaning dirty stampers, running across the plant to get new stampers when necessary, keeping the area clean. Some days are rougher than others. Changing stampers I don't mind so much anymore, but the alarms get to you after a while, especially when all the techs are busy with other things.

You're entitled, technically, to a 30-minute lunch and two 10 (or is it 15?)-minute breaks. It doesn't really matter; no one has time for breaks anymore, and the most that you can hope for is a few minutes off your feet, and maybe a chance to drink some water or grab a snack. Most people eat lunch at their machines, since there's really nobody left to cover for you when you go to lunch. I aim to take lunch between 2:00 AM and 4:00 AM, but most nights that doesn't happen. Lately I've been wolfing down meals between alarms at about 5:00 in the morning. One day last week I ate lunch between 5:59 AM and 6:04 AM, while shouting out a list of issues to my day-shift replacement. In any event, you must be punched out by 6:07 AM. I usually punch out at a clock near to my machines, and then begin the long hike out of the plant and through the parking lot.

I'm typically ready to roll at 6:20 AM or so, having consumed a can of diet cola and the first of several apples for the ride home. I will take a second apple once I hit Pittston, and crack open a second can of diet cola as I get onto route 29, which is also when I begin a third apple if I need it. I need to be awake and alert when I get to Nanticoke, because my commute now takes me through an active school zone, complete with crossing guards and little kids crossing the road.

I get to my mom's house at 7:00 AM, run to the bathroom, brush my teeth, wash my face, and pick up the neighbor's cocker spaniel that we've been dogsitting. I will walk him a bit, then take him back to my car. I strap him into the passenger's seat and go around to the driver's side and get in the car, by which point he has usually jumped out of the car, leaving me sitting on his leash. I wrestle him back into the car and drive across town to my house, where I walk him again a bit, then take him inside to go to bed. We're usually in bed by 8:00 AM. My alarm goes off at 1:45 PM, and we're out of the house and back at my mom's just after 2:00. I then begin the process of getting ready for work, as well as trying to do all the other things most people usually take for granted every day.

(On Tuesdays this schedule is somewhat compressed: I need to be out of the house by 3:00 to get to the WBRE studios by 3:30 to do my weekly 90-second spot on "PA Live!" I park at a meter along the street and take a change of clothes with me. I'll get changed into my work clothes right after my segment and leave for work around 4:40 PM, which usually gets me in the parking lot by 5:20.)

Used to be that I could squeeze in some blogging before or after work, but that's not possible anymore. In addition to the demands of taking care of the neighbor's dog, the longer walk to and especially from work means that I've now lost an extra half-hour of "home" time to "work/commute" time. In addition I'm sleeping on average an hour or so longer than I used to; I used to squeeze by on four to five hours of  sleep a night, but now that just seems stupid and dangerous.

So that's where I've been. That's what I've been up to. That's why I haven't been posting much lately. It won't last long; this job is only temporary, and who knows when I'll be able to find another one - especially one that pays a decent wage, and doesn't require an even longer commute.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Pages and Places Book Festival, Part 1: Workshops

Several weeks ago I was extended an invitation to participate in a Bloggers' Roundtable discussion at the Vintage Theater in Scranton, speaking both as the founder and co-administrator of NEPA Blogs and as the blogger for (among several other more-idle sites) Another Monkey. (Accounts of this event are here and here.)

I did minimal research into this event before I went, going in with an "any publicity for NEPA Blogs is good publicity for NEPA Blogs" attitude. Fortunately I did not find myself being indoctrinated into a cult, whisked off to the Middle East to serve - after some small changes - as a harem guard, or brought before a tribunal for crimes against humanity. Instead I learned that the Bloggers' Roundtable was actually a sort of opening shot in the Pages & Places Book Festival that would be happening shortly thereafter. After the Roundtable I met the two co-directors of the Festival, Elizabeth Randol and William Black, who extended to me and to all of the participating bloggers an invitation to the Festival, with the promise of a free all-access pass.

That promise was acted upon a week later during the Fall Blog Fest at Rooney's in Pittston. I tucked away the postcard-sized pass and started making plans to attend.

In the meantime a complication had arisen in my life: starting last Monday, I would be back at my old job on a temporary basis, just to help with the Christmas busy season production. I would be back on nights, 6:00 PM to 6:00 AM, working for four nights and then having four days off.  Fortunately my first rotation would be over Friday morning, and I would be able to attend the Festival.

Unfortunately, the transition from night-walking to day-walking was not smooth enough to allow me to attend the big fancy Prologue Party Friday afternoon and meet, among others, Michio Kaku, who would be speaking in Scranton in a related event that evening. I am generally terrible at cocktail party chit-chat, and would have probably managed to say something devastatingly insulting to anyone I met at the event. As it was, I was unconscious until well after the party was over.

I reviewed Saturday's scheduled events and noted that I was most interested in two workshops and two panels, all of them taking place in the afternoon. I considered going to another workshop (on Publishing, led by Lee Sebastiani of Avventura Press) that would take place at 11:00 in the morning, but I couldn't pull myself together in time to go there.

I made it up to Scranton and to the Vintage Theater (where the workshops were being held) with literally minutes to spare; I think I pulled up at 12:58 for the 1:00 workshop. This workshop was Non-Fiction Writing, led by folklorist Debra Lattanzi Shutika from the Folklore Studies Program at George Mason University ( I presented my pass, exchanged greetings with fellow blogger Mandy Boyle (who recognized me) and took a seat just as the presentation was beginning. I pulled out a notebook and began to scribble some notes as Debra spoke:

- The Writer's Chronicle
- Toolkit - Field Work
- Sheet of Regional Resources (this was a handout she had passed out, with links to  numerous useful sites for anyone interested in folklore studies)
- Verbal Histories of NEPA

That last one should have been "Oral Histories"; this was something that occurred to me as she spoke.. For years - decades - I've kicked around the thought of collecting oral histories of this area. With each day that passes without doing this, more of these oral histories vanish from the Earth as the people who could tell the stories die - or continue to live, but in a condition where they are incapable of telling their stories. Go out and buy a cheap little tape recorder and get started, Debra exhorted us. I developed a sense of urgency as I thought about all the stories that I could have captured over the years but have subsequently been lost forever.

I've realized that, in a sense, NEPA Blogs is an attempt to capture - or at least provide a gateway to - the ongoing oral histories of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Individual bloggers write blog posts, and NEPA Blogs points to them, sometimes even saying "Look at this! And look at this!" Debra reiterated that Folklore is "the history of the present," and in many cases that's exactly what blogs are, too.

(Somewhere along the line I wrote "The End of Textbooks." That is not related to her presentation at all, but will be the subject of a future blog post. Simply put, the rise of electronic readers in school and the increased drive toward standardization in the wake of No Child Left Behind may spell the end of textbooks in elementary schools as texts become nationally standardized and available electronically, ensuring that, for example, all U.S. students are studying the same subject matter from the same "text" in third grade American History. If the powerful textbook publishing industry allows this to happen, that is. Textbook publishing is probably the last major source of revenue in the book industry, and cutting the legs out from under it may actually lead to the collapse of the entire industry and the end of books on paper.)

Along the way I remembered a folklore project that has long fascinated me: the folklore of pre-adolescent children. There's an entire corpus of knowledge, information, and folklore that is available only to children (and dimly remembered by some adults): stories, songs, memes, what have you that are taught by older kids to younger kids - the art of making mud pies, songs like "Great Green Globs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts," the optimal way to swing a Tonka truck for maximum impact on an opponent (OK, that one is gone, as the all-steel Tonkas I played with as a child were replaced decades ago with lightweight plastic imitations with rounded corners and no sharp edges.)  These are things that kids learned almost as soon as they became verbal, and forgot as soon as they hit adolescence and discovered more important things in life. So this knowledge continues to tumble among children between, say, ages four and twelve, caught like a piece of debris swirling in a rapids, remaining more-or-less in place even as the water pours around it and beyond it. I mentioned this to Debra after the presentation, and she suggested that I look into the work of Brian Sutton-Smith, who has studied the folklore of children.

Throughout Debra's presentation I heard voices coming from behind us, from a back room. Unfortunately, due to the layout of the Vintage Theater voices from this back room project better than voices from the stage up front, which is backed by a sound-absorbing curtain and flanked by sound-muffling columns of speakers. After Debra concluded her presentation and I spoke with her briefly, I decided to check out who was in the back room. Approaching it, I spotted someone I thought I recognized - one of the members of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Poets and Writers, whom I had seen presenting poems in the hours following the Bloggers' Roundtable. (Thanks to my mild Prosopagnosia, or "face-blindness," I had to confirm his identity by his boots - black military-style high boots that lace practically to the knee.)

As the group took a break before the next workshop, I noticed a young woman emerge from the direction of the Poets and Writers group. She was rather fancifully dressed, and had a ribbon in her hair with a bow on it. My pattern-recognition software cranked into action again, and I began to strongly suspect that she was a local bow-wearing blogger whose blog I had been following (more or less) for some time. As the next speaker prepared to begin, I rose and approached the young woman, asking her if she was the person I thought she might be. She confirmed that she was, but looked at me with some bewilderment and apprehension. I chuckled and pointed out that she and I had actually exchanged a brief flurry of messages online some time ago. I drew out a blog card that I had made up for Another Monkey, handed it to her, and then excused myself as I  took my seat for the next workshop.

This was a workshop on Fiction Writing led by Laura Ellen Scott, also of George Mason University. Again I scribbled notes throughout the presentation.

- Uncanny Valley Press: This is an online journal in which Laura publishes some of her more "out there" pieces. Much of her discussion throughout the workshop ranged around online journals vs. paper journals. Surprisingly, the most respected paper journals have gradually transformed themselves into places where writing goes to die. While publication in a well-known and well-respected journal may be a mark of distinction and a badge of honor, there is also a good chance that nobody will read your published article - at least, not unintentionally. Online journals and publications - blogs, even - make serendipitous discovery much more likely, especially through the use of search engines.

- Successful novels have a three-pronged approach:
  • Very interesting, rich characters - "Characters you would watch shop for shoes."
  • Really interesting setting.
  • The "What if?" element
The first two of these were for the most part self-evident. The "What if?" element may represent a trend of the moment. It is a bleeding-over of the genres of science fiction and fantasy into other forms of stories. The trick is to use the "What if?" element without letting it dominate or dictate the story (unless, of course, that's the point.)

(I immediately thought of the Machine of Death anthology, in which stories were built around a common "What if?": What if a machine existed that, through a simple blood test, could predict your manner of death? What effect would that have on society, on individuals? Some stories were built around how people deal with predictions, or how predictions might change lives, for good or for ill; some dealt with how the machine might be marketed, or how individuals might react to the machine itself. My own submissions dealt with how predictions might alter the behavior of airlines to become more risk-averse while at the same time welcoming individuals with non-flight-related death predictions, and how an out-there death prediction could offer a glimmer of hope in a depressed economy.)

- Modular stories: This is an approach to storytelling that does not necessarily involve the normal follow-through we have come to expect. Laura offered an example of a story involving a twelve-year-old boy watching his parents' marriage fall apart, and the same boy some thirty years later watching his own marriage fall apart.

- Flash stories: Ultra-short stories, created with the assumption that individuals would not be willing to sit and read even short-short stories from the display screen of an electronic device. In a world where entire books are being read - preferentially - from the display screens of electronic devices, we now realize that this assumption is not necessarily correct.

She also presented a lengthy list of online resources for writers. I'm hoping she might have an online version tucked away on her site somewhere...

(As her presentation went on, the driving beat of techno music began to leak through the wall from a neighboring building. The techno beat would alternate with what seemed to be a polka beat, and then a familiar vocal scheme:

Buh duh duh
Buh-dup budup buh-duh budup
Buh duh duh
Buh-dup budup buh-duh budup
Buh-dup bow, bow, bow
Buh-duh budup
Buh-duh budup

After a second repitition of the chorus, I realized that this was a techno/polka - or Tejano? - remix of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." It stopped soon after.)

Laura covered many other topics, but at some point I simply put down my pen and enjoyed her presentation. Her novel Death Wishing has recently been published - a story set in post-Katrina New Orleans, a place and time where some people have acquired the power to alter reality with their dying wishes.

I originally set out to present a complete account of my experiences at Pages & Places in a single post, but I have realized this account would be more coherent if I were to split it into one post on the Workshops I attended and one post on the Panels. And by "coherent" I do not mean "better structured" or "having a more continuous flow"; I mean "not degenerating into incoherent ramblings due to sleep deprivation." So the account of the Panels will have to wait for a later post.

As I was writing this post, something came up that may allow or even require me to put into action some of the things I learned at one of the panels. I had best start reading one of the books I purchased yesterday!