Sunday, June 23, 2013

What's the deal with parking in Scranton on a Saturday?

Ever since I began taking part in the weekly Saturday meetings of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective in Scranton I have been faced with the question: to pay, or not to pay?

The streets of Scranton are lined with parking meters, decades-old pieces of hardware with fancy new electronic displays for letting you (and parking enforcement officials) know when your time is up. Times and dates of operation are printed inside the half-domes enclosing the parking meter head, but these are usually too clouded by pollutants and ultraviolet radiation to be able to see clearly. When I first began attending meetings at the old location of the Vintage (then the Vintage Theater) the proprietor advised me after I had dropped a fistful of quarters into the meter that parking was free on Saturdays. That would have been in October 2011. Since then the Vintage has relocated to 326 Spruce Street in Scranton, the Scranton Parking Authority has been dissolved and parking meter management has been placed in the hands of outside vendors, and there has been some discussion of changing the hours of operation of meters in Scranton to include Saturdays.

The thing is, according to little slips of paper helpfully inserted into the half-domes of parking meters, those hours are already in effect.

It's hard to see in the original, but in this enhanced view you can read the two inch long slip of paper:


There's a website helpfully included at the bottom of the slip of paper for those seeking more information, Anyone visiting that URL is helpfully informed that the website may be available for purchase, but is otherwise inactive.

I've only ever received one ticket of any sort in my entire life so far, and that was a parking ticket for being at a meter too long. It was when I was parked at the Pennsylvania CareerLink in Wilkes-Barre, also known as the unemployment office. As I was unemployed, I had carefully doled out my coins for the typical length of one of our weekly Job Club meetings, plus a fifteen minute buffer. I did not realize that the guest speaker we had for our meeting that week was going to go on at great length with whatever it was she was presenting. I nervously checked my watch as the minutes dragged by, watching the time when my meter would run out approach, arrive, and pass by. As soon as the speaker finished I leaped out of my chair and gathered my stuff to head for the door. "Oh, am I keeping you from something?" she said sarcastically. "No, I need to feed the meter," I replied. "Don't want to get a ticket." But by then it was too late. The Wilkes-Barre meter attendants are particularly predatory when it comes to the meters outside of the CareerLink office, and will wait to watch a meter expire so they can ticket the offending vehicle immediately. Several other people at that Job Club meeting received tickets that day - including the guest speaker.

That was a sore spot for me, and I wound up giving the City of Wilkes-Barre ten dollars I could have used otherwise, ten dollars which I am sure did not go to any good use. I'd really rather not be paying money to the City of Scranton, either. Yet week after week as I arrive in downtown Scranton for our Saturday meeting, I notice cars sitting at meters that show remaining minutes - meters which have been fed. On a Saturday. Do these people know something I don't? I've been reasoning that they might, and the past few weeks I've been dropping two hours' worth of quarters into the coin slot. Better to waste two dollars than get fined ten, or twenty, or whatever the going rate in Scranton is.

The City of Scranton has not really done anything to clear up this matter officially. The city website is silent on the matter of parking (and does not have a search function built in to make things easier), and the website, as previously noted, does not exist at the time of this writing.

So what is the official position on the matter of parking in Scranton on a Saturday? The local newspaper says that parking is free on Saturdays, but articles in local newspapers are rarely seen as having the force of law. The little slip of paper inside the meter says parking meters are in effect on Saturday, but that slip of paper may be a relic of a bygone era - or a foretaste of things to come. Short of having an official, current, published pronouncement, it's anybody's guess. An officer of the law who chose to write tickets for vehicles parked at expired meters on a Saturday meed only poke a thumb at the little slips of paper in the meters to make his case for giving you a ticket.

I think Scranton has decided to have it all ways by officially keeping things vague and confusing. Without an official declaration that the meters are in effect on Saturdays, no one has cause to complain. Any ignorant fools who choose to feed the meters on Saturdays are providing the city with a little extra revenue. And anyone a police officer doesn't like the looks of may very well find himself on the receiving end of a fine for not putting coins in the meter during clearly posted hours of operation. It's a win-win-win situation - for the City of Scranton, at least.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Moon and Supermoon

The thing about the "Supermoon" is that it really isn't that much larger or brighter than a typical, non-Super full moon. The pictures making their way around the Internet in the weeks leading up to tonight's full moon were deliberately misleading: zoomed-in shots of the moon looming gigantically on the horizon. Heck, you can take a zoomed-in picture of, say, a pseudoscorpion, but that doesn't mean that we're in imminent danger of being eaten by gigantic versions of creatures whose earliest fossils date back over 400 million years.

Pseudoscorpion: Not actual size.

I got home tonight shortly after moonrise. I spotted the moon briefly as I maneuvered into the driveway. I realized that, Supermoon or not, every moonrise is special, and every moonrise should be observed. Remember the quote from The Sheltering Sky that Brandon Lee recounted in his final interview before he was killed on the set of The Crow:

 Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless...

So, after unloading the perishables from the car, I grabbed my tripod, attached my little old Nikon Coolpix L4, and went out to find the moon.

Summer moons rise low and stay low. I had to photograph this one through a gap between my neighbor's house and his shed. It's very difficult for me to photograph the moon with my little point-and-click camera, since the sensor is easily overwhelmed by the light of the moon. Fortunately it was early enough in the evening that the sky was still relatively bright. I set the camera to Sports mode, which does a series of high-speed shots - shorter exposure times reducing the saturation of the sensor - and clicked away.

I was not displeased with the results, even at a tighter zoom.

One thing I didn't do was see if I could blot out the Supermoon with a pencil eraser (the eraser that comes installed on the end of a pencil) held at arm's length. Most people seriously overestimate the apparent size of the moon. Even I might say it's no smaller than a quarter held at arm's length. In fact, it's much, much smaller than that. As soon as I'm done writing this I might run out and try the pencil trick.

If you missed tonight's moon, tomorrow's moon won't be much smaller. Or you could try next month. Just make a point to see it sometime soon. How many more times will you have the opportunity?

UPDATE, 6/23/2013: I did get out later, much later, to try the pencil trick, with a pencil from a bank that ceased to exist nearly twenty years ago. I held up the pencil at arm's length, maneuvered it to blot out the moon, and looked in surprise as the edges of the moon squeezed out all around the eraser. I have said that the difference in size of the Supermoon to a "regular" full moon was slight enough that observing it would require calibrated measurement instruments.  Well, I guess a standard-sized pencil eraser held at one personal arm's length is good enough. Now I'll have to try the same thing during another full moon.

I made an error in this post: FULL moons ride low in the sky in summer, but during other phases the moon will ride high and everywhere in between. This was pointed out in Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar 2013 entry for this full moon.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A poem for the last day of Spring

Last night was the monthly Third Thursday Open Mic Poetry Night presented by my writing group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective. As it was the last day of Spring, I thought it would be nice to read something appropriate for the occasion. So I wrote this. Less than two hours later I was reading it aloud at the Vintage in Scranton.

Springtime by the numbers

A three at the top of the page meant
cold, windy days, wet weather,
weeks of eating fish on Fridays and giving up candy

Four brought with it brighter days
and frosty mornings
a feast of chocolate
and a sense of change

Five meant things were wrapping up
the tests had a special sort of urgency
Flowers for the Virgin
put there by little girls in white dresses
Sunny mornings and sunnier evenings
that beckoned us to put our homework aside and play

Six, though, six was special
even the nuns didn't feel like working anymore
and they gave us extra sessions of recess to break up the day
A six at the top of a page or a test or a quiz thrilled you
and made you feel like it was a bad joke
Blue skies and cool breezes
Afternoons after school spent on the swing set
listening to the birds and watching the clouds drift by
and wanting to stay there forever.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Nickeled and dimed and dollar-fiftied

Or: the rich get richer by causing the poor to get poorer.

Today's Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice brought a story so shockingly outrageous that...well, you should read it for yourself:

Former worker sues McDonald's franchisee

OK, that's not exactly the most exciting or informative headline. It's the reason for the lawsuit that makes it so outrageous: A former employee of a local McDonald's franchise is suing her former employers because they only gave her one option for collecting her pay: not by paycheck, not by direct deposit, but by debit card. A debit card laden with fees of all sorts, fees for almost anything you could imagine. From the article:
The J.P. Morgan Chase payroll card carries fees for nearly every type of transaction, according to the lawsuit, including a $1.50 charge for ATM withdrawals, $5 for over-the-counter cash withdrawals, $1 to check the balance, 75 cents per online bill payment and $10 per month if the card is left inactive for more than three months.
$1 to check the balance? And that $1.50 charge is for ATM withdrawals at a Chase ATM - it's higher at "out of network" ATMs. The problem is that the closest Chase ATM to the person filing this suit is in New Jersey - more than sixty miles and at least one tollbooth away.

The suit is being filed because Pennsylvania law requires that wages be paid in "lawful money." Unfortunately, Pennsylvania law doesn't really define "lawful money." And then there's this:
In 2005, the state Department of Banking concluded the use of payroll cards did not violate any laws within its jurisdiction.
So, legally, this may not even be an issue. But wait, there's more:
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation estimated that $60 billion in wages will be distributed through payroll cards next year.
Walmart, the largest private employer in the U.S., switched to paperless pay in 2009, with about half its 1.4 million employees receiving direct deposit and half receiving paycheck cards. The Home Depot, Lowes, United Parcel Service, FedEx and hundreds of other large employers use payroll cards. The Chicago Public Schools system uses them to pay more than 4,000 student employees.
And that's the really outrageous part. Not only is there precedent to suggest that the use of fee-heavy debit cards as a means of distributing wages is legal, the cards are already in widespread use - to the tune of sixty billion dollars projected for next year.

I took a few minutes to absorb this over breakfast this morning when I realized that I've already had experience with this sort of thing myself. Not as a wage-earner - quite the opposite. Sometime before I lost my job in 2010, Pennsylvania changed its Unemployment Compensation system over from using paper checks and direct deposit to debit cards and direct deposit. I was wary of the direct deposit system (for some irrational, unexplained reason - was I afraid of the State of Pennsylvania getting access to my checking account? Like they don't already have that information?), and I opted for the debit card. I was aware of the fees involved, so I used the card in a way that would minimize the fees being charged. I saw the fees as the price of collecting unemployment - from a system I had been regularly paying into for the previous eighteen years - and didn't complain.

But I had a choice to use direct deposit if I wanted it. The employees of companies that offer no options but debit cards don't have a choice. And the financial institutions behind these debit cards enrich themselves by means of those fees, chipping away at the meager wages of the folks forced to use debit cards, quietly redistributing wealth seventy-five cents and a dollar and a dollar fifty and five dollars at a time. Sixty billion dollars worth of wages tied up on debit cards are bound to generate quite a lot of fees.

How soon until fee-laden payroll debit cards are the only way that wage earners will be able to collect their paychecks?

Sunday, June 09, 2013

New shift

Tomorrow I start a new shift at work: 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM. I can't recall when the last time was that I worked a shift like that...maybe back in 2009, in my former place of employment, when I was doing some special statistical analysis stuff for a few months on a temporary basis. Even then, the commute to and from work was at least 40 minutes - which meant leaving an hour ahead of time to allow for traffic and construction. Now my commute is more like ten minutes, and I allow an extra five to ten for school buses and slow trucks and things like that.

I'm looking forward to seeing the sun rise tomorrow morning! And I've already got plans for my first few afternoons!

Saturday, June 01, 2013

New fiction: The Lamentation of Cats

Here's my latest piece of fiction for my writing group. It still needs some work, but it was well-received. More notes follow the story.

The fluffy gray kitten played with the ball of yarn. She rolled in ecstasy, purring away with the pure joy of being a cat. She planned to play with her ball of yarn for a long time, and then maybe take a nap. Maybe two naps.

"Princess," said a voice. "We need to talk."

Princess stopped playing and looked up. It was Sugar, the Senior Cat. She had a very serious look on her face.

"Am I in trouble?" Princess asked.

Princess wasn't a kitten, not anymore. But at nearly fifteen months she was the youngest cat in the house, and she had chosen to hold onto her kittenhood as long as she could.

"No, you're not in trouble," Sugar said. "Though I do want you to stop pooping so much by the front door. You need to use the litter box."

"But I like pooping there," Princess protested. "And besides, Mom doesn't mind."

"Yes, she does. And you're making a lot of extra work for her, work she shouldn't be doing. But let's wait for Slinky before we discuss more."

"Here I am," came a muffled voice from the hallway. A young tabby padded out of the dark with the stealth that had inspired his name. He held something in his mouth, but set it down before he approached the other cats. "I was just checking on Mom," he said. "She's taking a nap."

"She sure takes a lot of naps lately," Princess said.

"Yes, she does," Sugar said.  "That's something I wanted to talk about today."

Princess cocked her head and looked at Sugar. Why would she want to have a meeting about Mom taking naps?

"Princess," said Sugar, "Mom is getting old and tired. She's taken real care good care of all of us, but someday - maybe soon, maybe not for a while - she won't be around anymore. We have to talk about what we're going to do when that happens."

Princess looked back and forth between the two other cats, confused. Sugar sat there, dignified as always, while Slinky chose that moment to start licking at his leg.

"What do you mean, 'won't be around anymore?'" Princess asked. "Where would she go? Maybe out to the country to visit Tommy and the kids?"

Slinky stopped licking and shook his head as if he had a bug in his ear.

"No, Princess," Sugar said. "I mean Mom's getting old and tired and is eventually going to die. Then she won't be around anymore to take care of us."

Princess tucked back her ears and put her chin on the carpet. She began to meow plaintively. "But...if Mom's not around, what are we going to do? Who's going to feed us, and change our water bowls, and clean up our poop?"

"There'd be a lot less poop to clean up if you used the damn litter boxes," Slinky said.

"But if Mom's not there to feed us, we'll starve!" Princess howled softly. "Unless...wait! I have an idea! We'll find a bag of food, and tear it open, and eat it!" She brightened up. "We've done it before, we can do it again!"

Sugar shook her head slowly. "It doesn't work that way, Princess. Somebody needs to buy those bags of food from the store and bring them into the house. Without Mom, there won't be any new bags of food."

"Then we're doomed," Princess cried. "Mom's gonna die and we're gonna starve."

Slinky chewed at his back foot for a little bit, then looked at Princess. "Maybe, maybe not. Sugar and I talked about some scenarios here. We figure there's three ways things can go, with variations of each."

Sugar nodded. "The first possibility is that after Mom dies, Tommy will take us to live with him in the country."

Slinky scratched at his ear and let this statement settle in. "Now, we'd like to think that this is the most likely scenario. But we've got reasons to think it's not gonna happen."

"Why?" asked Princess.

"  Tommy found you when you were a newborn kitten, abandoned in his barn. From what I hear, you were darned cute as a kitten."

"I still am," replied Princess.

"The point is, he didn't keep you then. What makes us think he would take you in now? Plus an old cat like Sugar and a part-feral like me. It would be nice, but we've gotta consider that it might not happen."

"I like Tommy and the kids," said Princess.

Sugar and Slinky exchanged a glance. Sugar began again. "Scenario two is less pleasant to consider: After mom dies, we get sent away to the pound."

"What's a pound?" Princess asked.

Sugar thought a moment and responded "It's a place where unwanted dogs and cats get sent so other people can see them and adopt them."

"Well, that sounds nice," Princess said.

Slinky scoffed. "Sure, it sounds nice. Truth is, there's too many unwanted dogs and cats for them to handle. They need to free up space. If you don't get adopted in a few days, maybe a week, they put you to sleep."

"I like to sleep," said Princess.

Slinky hissed and spit. He was about to say something but Sugar interrupted. "'Put to sleep' doesn't mean what it sounds like," she said. "It means...well..."

"Dammit, it means they kill you," Slinky said. "Jab you with a needle or gas you in a box, then toss your body in a furnace with all the other cats and dogs they 'put to sleep.' And there's no waking up, not ever."

Princess began to whimper and cry. "First Mom dies, then we die? But I love Mom! I just want to take a nap and forget about all this."

"Slinky, you've frightened her."

"Dammit, Sugar, this is frightening stuff. It scares the hell out of me. I don't want to end up stuffed in a furnace either. So that brings us to scenario three."

"Is it worse than being put to sleep?" Princess asked.

"No," Sugar said. "If Tommy isn't going to take us, we wait until people are coming and going through the doors. They'll do that when Mom...when Mom is gone. And we wait for our chance, when maybe someone has a door open a little longer than usual, and we run away."

"Run away? Where?"

"There's a stable colony of ferals in this neighborhood," Slinky said. "I used to be a part of it. There's a lot fewer left than there were before, thanks to the poisoner who lives next door. We'll take our chances with them accepting us into the colony. If not, we move on."

"What do you think our chances are of being accepted?" Sugar asked.

"I...don't know." Slinky grew somber. "I was sick and dying when I left them last year. Mom took me in, made me better. But...I think they resent me for having left them and come in here. They might be more willing to accept the two of you. Or maybe none of us. Still, it's a better option than the pound."

The three cats sat in silence for a while. Finally Sugar spoke.

"That's a lot to think about, I know. And it might not happen for months, or even years. But we have to start thinking about it now. And there's more we need to discuss."

She looked at a reflected sunbeam on the ceiling for a moment, then continued. "If Tommy comes, he might want to take just you, Princess. He might decide to send me and Slinky off to the pound."

Slinky looked at her. "Well, we'd just run away then. Let Tommy take her, but the two of us can stick together."

Sugar shook her head. "I've been with Mom for fourteen years now, but I was already a grownup cat when she took me in. See, I was a pet who belonged to the people across the street. They let me wander the neighborhood. I got knocked up. I was almost ready to have my kittens when I found out my owners had moved away and left me behind."

Princess forgot about her problems for the moment. "But, why?" she asked.

Sugar shook her head. "They weren't good pet owners, and weren't ready to deal with a litter of kittens. I had my kittens next door, in the Bad Man's garden. That didn't turn out very well."

Slinky looked at her. "I didn't know. I had no idea."

"Most of them died, either from sickness or from drinking the bowls of antifreeze he put out for us. One or two got to grow up, at least survive long enough to strike out on their own. I don't know what became of them. Maybe one of them is your great-great-great-great-grandfather, Slinky."

She closed her eyes as the first traces of the afternoon sunbeam began to poke through the curtains. "My point is, I'm old. I've lived outside, until Mom took me in, and I'm not ready to live like that again. I'm too old for that sort of thing. Heck, maybe I'll die before Mom does." She looked at Princess with a steely gaze. "The thing is - if I die, or if I get taken off to the pound, you're the Senior Cat, Princess."

Princess looked shocked. "Me? But...but Slinky in older! At least nine months older, maybe more!"

"Seniority is based on years in the house, not age," said Sugar. "You've been in the house longer. Nearly a year longer. That makes you senior to Slinky. He understands this."

Slinky nodded somberly. "So the upshot is, after Sugar dies, I'm going to be looking to you for leadership and guidance."

"But...but if we have to go outside..."

"Then I'll give you whatever support and assistance I can," Slinky said. "But you'll still be the Senior Cat."

Princess meowed sadly and rested her head on her paws.

"Mom dying...all of us getting killed and burned up in a furnace, or running away and living in the wild..."

"This is all a bit much to take in all at once," said Sugar. "Let's adjourn this meeting for now. We can continue our discussion later. The sunbeam is about ready to show up. Why don't we all lay in it for the afternoon?"

Slinky turned away from the other cats and padded over to the thing he had dropped. He picked it up in his mouth and brought it back to where he he had been sitting.

"Lookee what I found in Mom's room," he said. "The catnip pillow we thought we lost last month. I thought we might need it after discussing all this heavy stuff. It's still good." He chewed and batted at it for a minute, then looked at the other two cats. "Want some?"

"No, thank you," said Sugar. "I quit that a while ago."

Princess looked at it sadly. "No, thanks," she said.

"Suit yourselves," Slinky replied, his eyes dilating.  He carried the catnip over to the spot on the floor where the sunbeam was already stretching out.

"Will you join us, Princess?" Sugar asked.

Princess stood up. "Maybe later," she said. "I think for now I'm going to go and check in on Mom. Maybe see if she needs some help taking a nap."

I was happy with my last story, involving a conversation - imagined or real - with a cat in a supermarket parking lot. I wanted to do more stuff with cats. Lovecraft had stories about cats meeting outdoors in the night, and flying off to secret places on the Moon. I had an idea that cats might communicate with each other over the Internet, and that's what they're doing every time they walk on your keyboard. But then I decided to do something simpler: what do housecats talk about while we're asleep? Here I decided that these cats would talk about mortality - both that of their "Mom" and their own mortality - and the consequences of death.

The seniority system in cats (and all housepets) is something I've observed over and over. Animals generally respect it, and recognize which animal has the highest seniority. I have sometimes seen a cat transform from a stunted adolescent into an adult within days of the death of the previous senior animal, much like a bull chimpanzee will develop different physical traits when it takes over its tribe. Some animals fail to respect the chain of seniority and get smacked down and put back in line by their fellow animals.

Sugar was a real cat, and a real sweetheart who would come up to me and nuzzle my legs as I was doing yard work. I knew her name because it was on a tag on her collar. I'm not sure if she was abandoned while she was pregnant, but her owners did move away. She eventually vanished from the neighborhood, as many feral cats do, but she had a daughter we named Socks, possibly with the black cat we called SpookyBear. Socks had Rachel (later Ray) and Gretchen, and then vanished. We took in Rachel and Gretchen after we realized that a neighbor was almost certainly poisoning the neighborhood ferals. Gretchen died as a kitten, but Ray is still with us.

Slinky is a less-lovable version of Homer. Princess is cut from whole cloth, but is based on a lot of cats I know who try to maintain their kittenhood throughout their lives.

Someone remarked that this upends the notion that cats can take us or leave us. But I have known many cats who have shown real concern for their human companions. Perhaps it all depends on the humans involved.

The title is based on something I remember from my childhood. My grandmother on my father's side had worked with children with severe birth defects, and there was one group that had a specific condition that caused them to cry constantly like howling cats. I believe the condition was referred to by a French phrase that translated into "the lamentation of cats.". I haven't been able to get any Google hits for that phrase, but now there will be at least one.