12/18/2005

same shtick, shorter url

Starting tomorrow, I'll be blogging at www.t-rage.com

Same shtick, just a slightly shorter url.

Join me there, won't you? It'll be such fun!

And check out my other blogs, too: www.mennonno.blogspot.com for all of my op-ed pieces from the Boston Metro, and www.mennonnotes.blogspot.com for random thoughts.

See ya there!

12/17/2005

JFK-Arlington/Downtown Xing-JFK

Yesterday morning gets my vote as nastiest day of the season so far (it'll soon be superseded, I have no doubt). Sheets of icy rain are worse than snow, in my humble opinion. The wetness was such that it made the parts of you that weren't wet feel wet, like there was really no earthly possibility of drying out--ever.

But by far the worst thing was when the train came and the windows were all fogged up. Not only can you not see which car is most crowded (a minor thing, since at rush hour they're all pretty much disgustingly packed)--no, the worst part is you can't pretend, as you can when the windows aren't fogged up, that people aren't breathing on you. You're walking into a hothouse of disease, and you can't deny it. All that condensation? It comes from human exhalations! Makes me shiver just thinking about it.

It's like when you can see people's breath--you know, when it's cold enough out. I like it in movies when you can tell the actors are actually out in the real world and not on a sound stage. Nothing undermines the verisimilitude of an outdoor winter scene like the absence of ruddy red cheeks and seeing the actors' breath. But then I am a sort of naturalist when it comes to movies, if not so much in real life.

I hate it, for example, when the story's supposed to take place in, like, the early 18th century, and everybody's got great teeth. Like this new version of Pride & Prejudice. Check out Richard Sutherland's choppers!

A good movie for grubby naturalism is Patrice Chereau's La Reine Margot. All the actors and actresses are drop-dead gorgeous, but through the course of the film become so irredeemably filthy you have to hold your nose while watching. Vincent Perez conveys the stink of stale sweat like no other actor in the history of cinema.

Anyway. Amoebas. That's what I think of when I step onto a train with fogged up windows this time of year. And I'm not particularly germaphobic, either. I took the test and the result was I'm a swine. It's just, what else are you gonna think of when you see that slimy coating of condensation on the windows? Seriously.

On my way home in the evening (it was around seven) the rain had stopped, and the trains weren't very crowded, but I seem to have stepped onto the LSD Express, or something. Everyone looked like they were being refracted in a fun house mirror. You know, if you look at enough of 'em, you realize that on the whole people are really freaky-looking (except for you and me, of course). And I have a feeling that the later in the day it gets the freakier-looking they become.

During my evening commute there were five people sitting opposite me, two young men and then one young woman and then two middle-aged women. The two blokes on the left looked like they were tripping their balls off and were both talking to themselves, though they were obviously together and could have been talking to each other. One had a very big head, but a small face, and looked very calm. The other had a look of abject terror on his face reminiscent of Laocoon in the famous sculpture. But it was funny how quickly he could turn it off. One second he looks like he's incurred the wrath of the gods and is being strangled by giant sea serpents and the next he's smiling politely and reminding another commuter not to forget her umbrella when she gets off the train.

Then there was a very strange little woman in her early twenties I'd put her, with a somewhat jowly, lozenge-shaped face, who decided she would start mouthing something to herself, too, since it was obviously the in thing to do. And none of them were wearing headphones, either. She was weird-looking but knew it, and had taken steps to be even more weird-looking so you'd know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she knew.

I have seen it before. I had this female friend some years ago in a little village in Eastern Hungary where I was teaching who was well over six feet tall, big-boned, and frankly very manly. Her name was Rita. I have always liked that name, maybe because of the Rod Stewart song "Stay with me," where he sings "well, I know your name is Rita/cuz your perfume's smelling sweeter/Since when I saw you down on the floor." That song was on the soundtrack to my earliest childhood.

Anyway, Rita was so conspicuously freaky, she would have garnered reactions regardles of how she dressed. The fact that she chose to dress in the freakiest manner she could think of seemed somehow empowering. Like saying, "look, I know I'm a freak--I certainly don't need you to tell me that." It sort of pre-empts and neutralizes the taunts.

The middle-aged ladies were weird-looking, too, but had obviously reconciled themselves to it and learned to live with it as we must by middle age. One looked very much like a basset hound and was barking a great deal, to boot.

Anyway, we all got off at JFK, so there must've been a party in the 'hood I wasn't invited to.

12/13/2005

curbside seating

Pet peeve: the whole chair thing after the first big snow to preserve your parking spot. I know it's slightly off-topic, but actually it's somewhat related to public transit, since you don't need to do it if you don't have a car in the first place. I have never seen this anywhere else I've lived, by the way. I know it bugs the mayor, too, though I don't know exactly why. There are aesthetic considerations, of course, but the custom really cuts to the core of what's so very unappealing about Boston's bad attitude, in general, aside from looking trashy.

What bugs me, personally, is not so much that people do it the day of a snow storn, after they've labored to dig out their vehicle, thus clearing a spot, but that even well after the entire street is cleared they continue to claim that spot. This shows their true motives and mentality. They just feel entitled to a spot, period. And a little snow gives them a perfect excuse to claim it in perpetuity.

When a friend of mine dropped me off a couple days after the whole street had been cleared, I was going to invite him up, but it was around five, and the free spots on the street were all "claimed," with a chair or a pylon or a wastepaper basket to mark them, and he said, the thing is they'll key my car if I take "their" spot.

And that's how it is here all winter long. People just lying in wait for an excuse to attack. Yes, that chair looks inviting, but it's not for sitting. It's really an invitation to rumble!

12/09/2005

A polite "hello" from South Beach

So I'm in Miami for a few days at my buddy D's. He's got a place in South Beach. Amazing. I mean, the weather--it's, like, in the low eighties. In Boston it's in the thirties with blizzard conditions. I'm sitting here in nothing but shorts, flip-flops, and my RayBans. The day's about an hour and a half longer here than up North, too. Light and warmth. Can't beat 'em.

Just before I left Boston last Thursday, I was walking down Washington Street on my way to Downtown Crossing. It was not yet five o'clock, but already dark, and a bitter wind was a-blowing. Some street vendors were packing up, and one came darting across the street with a pushcart, right across my path. For a split second, we were at an impasse, and the mutual loathing was palpable. Since the sidewalk belonged to both of us equally, there was no earthly reason either of us should yield and let the other pass, but both of us obviously felt the other should. We could have remained there forever, like in the Dr. Seuss story about the North-going Zax and the South-going Zax who found themselves in a similar predicament, and both refused to budge--forever. All I had to do was show symbolic submission by stepping to my right ever so slightly, and he pushed ahead triumphantly. How many times a day does this happen?

Of course, these kinds of petty incidents happen all the time, every day in Boston, especially this time of year. Immediately afterwards I had this flash of busting some jujitsu move on that cunt, and making him beg for mercy before letting him get on his way again. You know, that's what being in this milieu does to you. And all it would take to sidestep that rage that flares up is just a minimum of courtesy.

I'm not suggesting, by any means, that my move with this street vendor was courteous. I moved because I wanted to avoid a rage-event, pure and simple. I could also sort of understand his perspective, petty and short-sighted as it was. He plowed ahead mostly because he works on the street, and like truck drivers and cabbies, they think that means the streets belong to them. They're the pros, the rest of us are merely amateurs. Pathetic, yes, but that's what in their view entitles and enables them to behave so badly. The street vendor's look said, "I deal with you amateur pedestrians all day! I'm the damned expert and I'm sick and tired of it! Now get the hell out of my way!"

The larger problem in this city is the air of entitlement and exceptionalism you find everywhere. Bostonians aren't gracious on the whole, because status so dictates social interaction here. Everybody is clawing to get to the top of the heap in every little interaction on the street. This street is more mine than yours! My appointment is more important than yours is! I'm more American than you are! And so on, ad nauseam. I'm exempt from that red light! When I behave obnoxiously, it's not obnoxious like it is when you do! I mean, that's human nature, but in Boston it seems to be taken to its social-Darwinian extreme.

In another context I was doing some research on rudeness, and came upon the rudeness, interrupted blog. I have to hand it to Laurie Puhn, the proprietress of the blog, for trying to increase awareness of the epidemic of rudeness in society, though it is probably just a natural function of the social-political-economic milieu we live in. On the one hand, it is the lowest common denominator thing at work. But rudeness also subverts social hierarchy. In a monarchy, say, with an aristocracy, or any highly hierarchized organization (like the Church or your typical multinational corporation), you are compelled by many constraints to show deference to your social betters. In a strictly hierarchized or "vertical" society (or organization) the force of gravity is at work: boss shits on subordinate, who in turn shits on his subordinates, who shits on his, and so on down the corporate, clerical, or what-have-you ladder. But in even a superficially democratic society, the shit's just flying, and when it hits the fan, it spatters anyone and everyone in the room. In the war of all against all, don't forget your goggles and shit-guards.

But it's not insignificant that the democratic thing is becoming more and more meta. I think part of the frustration that results in so much rudeness amongst strangers is, in fact, due to the ever-increasing transparency of the charade of democracy in an ever-more rigidly hierarchical society (and Boston is about as rigidly hierarchical as it gets). There has been a massive redistribution of wealth over the past quarter century that has picked up speed over the last half-decade. We live in a more stratified society now than we did at mid-century, and, as follows, in a more strictly hierarchized one most of the day. When we are at the office, we have to stifle our urge to bitch-slap the supervisor or tell the boss what a butthead he is. So when we get out in the unconstrained "free-market-democratic" world, anything goes, let 'er rip!

The funny thing about rudeness, as I've said elsewhere, is that everyone seems to think it's everybody else being rude. This is more of our silly exceptionalism. Reading the comments on the "rudeness, interrupted" blog reminded me of the megachurch mentality. It's them, not us. We're the beacon of righteousness and courtesy. They are evil, and rude, to boot! I mean, all the comments were along the lines of (actual comment): "Yesterday alone - a cab driver, a waitress, and my aging mother (!) all were rude to me. I try breathing a lot, and a little silent compassion - but it takes patience and true grace under pressure to remember to do that all the time." They were probably rude to you because you were breathing in that annoying manner all the time, with that look off righteous forbearance on your puss. Know what I'm sayin'?

I used to know this kid. He was totally annoying. Objectively speaking. I mean, way outside the norm when it came to just being annoying. I had nothing against him, personally, but I was a foreman at a New Hampshire orchard where he was a seasonal employee, and he was on my crew, so I had time to observe him, fairly dispassionately, and I was like, damn, he's annoying, even when I wasn't personally all that annoyed by him. I think you can tell without necessarily being effected. Just like you can see that the sky is blue without bias. The problem is when it is a judgment and not just an observation, and in human relations that's a problem of ego. There is truth even in subjectivity, though.

Anyway, he was always preening and picking at things. And always eating with his fingers and licking and sucking on them. His behavior and physiognomy were in perfect synch: He had wide-set, somewhat suspicious eyes and a long, sharp, foraging nose to match his thin, spindly form and impossibly long, thin, disturbingly flexible fingers. It was not Seckel Syndrome, in which case he could be forgiven. In truth it was impossible to tell whether his birdlike behavior was turning him into a bird, or whether his birdlike appearance and people's implicit expectation that he act like a bird was conditioning his behavior.

Anyway, the point here is, he fancied himself a very spiritual person, and he was always doodling little shivas doing back-flips. He had a whole arsenal of magical beads and crystals. He liked to boast about his travels in India, and once told me a story about how he was made to take off his expensive hiking boots before he entered a temple there. He tried to hide the boots under a shirt off in some corner somewhere, but when he came out someone had stolen them. He assumed it was an Indian, firstly, which revealed something of his character, and he also assumed that it was a problem of the thief's karma, not his own. He saw the effect clearly enough, but could not acknowledge a cause, where it implicated him. But they were his shoes. Clearly he was implicated, karmically speaking.

That's just how people are with rudeness. It is a huge cause-and-effect. Everybody--everybody--is rude sometimes. Because rudeness is a social disease. It's a meme. It passes from person to person. It cannot survive and propagate in isolation, but in the Petri dish of the city it spreads like wildfire through the entire organism. No one is exempt.

If someone rages-out on you, unless you are Jesus Christ or Buddha himself, you're going to pass it on, to someone, somewhere, somehow. You may do it all passive-aggressively, you may not do anything, in other words, but rudeness is not always a sin of commission. Often it's a sin of omission. Pointedly withholding courtesy is a very effective form of rudeness. The advantage of withholding it is that when people rude-out on you openly in response, you can wither and whinge and play the victim. Oh why is everyone but me so rude? If only people could be as polite and well-behaved as I always am, and more like me in general, what a wonderful world it would be!

So the first step in addressing the epidemic of rudeness is to get off your friggin high horse and own it. Welcome to the barnyard.

But back to South Beach! The reason I got to thinking about this in the first place was because the weather here is so fantastic, and people just seem more laid-back, more easy-going and friendly. Yes, there's attitude, but it's mostly harmless. It's mostly of the peacock variety that doesn't demand you necessarily insult someone to press the point. In fact, it's almost impossible to get too uptight when the weather is right. If it's too cold or too hot, that's when people start raging-out, seems like.

12/06/2005

JFK-Park-Arlington/Downtown Xing-JFK

I know I said something a few posts ago about morning commutes being preferable to afternoons, somehow, but I may have been wrong. There is something very distasteful about witnessing the public displays of abject desperation amongst morning commuters running for trains with terror in their eyes at Park Street Station. I mean, grown men with terror--real terror--in their eyes, lest they be a few minutes late to work. Is it really worth losing your dignity over?

I know they think no one who knows them will see them in such a state, and we all know that anonymity emboldens people to behave in the most obnoxious ways, but what if someone did see you scurrying through the station with no regard for those around you, pushing your way through the crowd? What would your wife think, seeing you like that? Your children? Your colleagues, friends, neighbors? You yourself, in a more lucid state?

You wonder how people like this would have survived in the Ancestral Environment. These scurriers, with their heightened sense of terror.

* * *

I have to admit that I've about had it with the professional cup-rattlers outside Arlington Church. There's a tall, skinny black guy with sympathetic enough features, who is always there on the corner, sticking his cup in your face as you pass and rattling it at you. I have no idea what he wants. He can't want me to pay him for that. I mean, anyone can rattle a cup can't they? Need proof? Just walk down Boylston from Arlington to Mass Ave. and you'll find about twenty, twenty-five professional cup rattlers. There's one little Asian lady outside Finagle-a-Bagel near the corner of Clarendon and Boylston who not only rattles her cup at you aggressively as you pass, but clucks her tongue the way people who talk to squirrels do, and sometimes hisses at you when your back is to her.

So there are those who give a little extra, I have to admit. There's a bloke whose beat is the corner of Fairfield and Boylston who throws a little wit in: "What's the greatest nation on Earth?" he'll ask you as you walk by, and then rattling his cup at you, he'll say: "Donation!" Which I thought was clever the first time. After hearing it several hundred times now, I'm not so sure. It must be working for him.

I don't know, maybe there is an art to it. You don't realize it until you see obvious amateurs at it. You've got your regulars, and then you've got these scraggly kids who try to glom on to them. Sometimes you'll see your regular and two or three amateurs in the vicinity. They must be thinking, well, cup rattling looks easy, but I think it turns out not to be as easy as they thought. If passersby suspect you are an amateur, or weekend beggar, a white middle class kid on crack or whatever, they won't give you anything.

Begging is at least as venerable a vocation as prostitution and serves some of the same functions as the latter, without the fear of picking up an std from the encounter. Mendicants in China are often seen as intermediaries between humans and deities, who could pass messages back and forth. In India it's dharma you're dealing with, and a class of beggars call sadhus beg only for food, never for money. In Bangladesh the beggars are unionized.

One thing that seems to unite beggars worldwide (aside from the union) is a need, across cultures, to give to them. In America, they offer instant absolution on the cheap. Guilty about spending twelve dollars on your triple-bitch-slap-extra-semen-choco-machocinno? Buzz kill! Why not toss twenty cents to the bum outside the door? Feel better?

I was over in the BU neighborhood and there was a black guy begging outside a convenience store, and a clean-cut white kid, jock-type, on his way out tossed some coins in the beggar's cup and said, rather gratuitously: "wish I could do more, bro!" Oh, but you can! A foot massage, perhaps? A lift to the methadone clinic? A new suit? a three-way with your cheerleader girlfriend? There's so much more we could all do for each other. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, my boy! Don't just wish you could do more, do more! Or don't say you wish you could when it's obvious that you really could. I mean, one day some bum's gonna call your bluff.

12/04/2005

JFK-Park-Hynes/Mass Ave-Downtown Xing-JFK

The first real snow of the season today. Now the fun begins!

Actually, overall I was very pleased with my travels on the T this morning, and they even ended with the rarest of treats: a T car all to myself, from Broadway to JFK, the last leg of my journey. I can't even tell you the wild thoughts that were running through my head, as for what to do with a whole car to myself. Should I kick off my clothes and do sommersaults down the length of the car? Should I sing "Jingle Bells" at the top of my voice, with the naughty lyrics (e.g., "Santa smells/Rudolph ran away...")? Should I rip a whole handful of those informational cards off the Bunker Hill Community College poster, and fill them in with silly names (e.g., George Bush, Jesus, Ayn Rand) and then toss them up in the air with a guffaw? I knew I only had two stops to make up my mind...

But isn't it funny what a little snow on a Sunday morning will do. I mean, it was nearly noon when I returned from a meeting of the Fenway Garden Society (of which I am a proud member), and no one was out.

I did see Frida and Diego for the first time in yonks this morning at JFK. They weren't canoodling this time, though. They were busily scrounging around for scraps of food, poor dears. While I haven't seen them around I have seen evidence of their continued presence from time to time, in the form of their "leavings," shall we call them. They like to sit in the rafters inside the station, which seem to have been designed just for that purpose, and drop little bombs on the commuters below. There are only two benches in the station, and both are usually pretty well spattered. But no one seems to mind all that much. And, you know, birds have gotta poop, too.

Death on the tracks

I was just reading this piece in the New York Times, and thought it was relevant enough to reference here. And remember, people, stay behind that yellow line!

12/02/2005

JFK-Park/Downtown Xing-Harvard/Central-JFK

'Tis the season for the sniffles! I know this is also the season for giving, but if you've got 'em, the rest of us don't want 'em, so keep 'em to yourself, please! Seriously. People can be many, many things: good things like bus drivers, policemen, nurses and presidents, like mommies and daddies and big sisses and little bros, but they are also big, gory bags of disease just waiting to blow their deadly wads all over you on the T. Don't kill the messenger, though. Hate the sin, not the sinner.

It's hard, though, I'll admit. Because when people you don't know are really sick, all you see when you look at them is the potential to spread the sickness they have come to personify. And with the sickness, comes a whole host of inconveniences they represent. So when they enter the car and stumble toward us, it's hard not to glare at them hatefully, but what we're really glaring at is their micro-organisms, right?

Today I saw two commuters who demonstrated why you should ALWAYS, ALWAYS WASH YOUR HANDS AFTER TAKING THE T and before doing anything else with them. And also why you should probably wear a surgical mask and latex gloves while traveling on public transit, even though I know you won't because you'd look like Michael Jackson and people would stare. A huge, hermetically sealed bubble would actually be your best bet, but a little impractical getting on and off the train.

It is, of course, impossible not to touch things when you're out and about. The train lurches--in fits and starts--and you have to hold onto something, but just remember, those stainless steel poles are slathered in disease-spreading goo. There was one kid who, as we approached his stop, and he was getting up, sneezed into his hand--and this is acceptable, though it's preferable to sneeze into your sleeve, because--he then, and I mean in the very next moment, grabbed the pole next to the door to steady himself as the train slowed in its approach to the platform. Another moment, and he was gone, but his slime remained behind, waiting to hitch a ride on YOU and ME.

By far the worst today was a man around my age who stumbled down the car, forsaking other available seats for the one next to me. He sat down and actually spat on the floor (but like you do when you have a seed stuck in your teeth, or something--it wasn't a loogy), and then he sneezed, and then turned to me with a pathetic look and let out a pathetic and totally unecessary little cough. He was holding a wet, wadded-up snot rag, but was not covering his mouth with it. He was so ripe with disease it was dripping off him. You could almost see the triumphant micro-organisms swarming all around him. And there was only a single seat between him and me--between THEM and me.

Well, he didn't have the sense or the courtesy to keep to himself, off in some dark corner, and I was not about to sit there out of politeness, and risk being contaminated by his cooties, but he was Indian, or Bangladeshi, maybe--but very clearly from the subcontinent--and I didn't want people thinking I had moved because of that, of all things. Germs are equal opportunity. So is my misanthropy. There were three free seats in a row across from us and down a ways--far enough, it seemed, to be safe from his micro-organisms, but I couldn't very well switch seats like that, so at the next stop I leapt up and ran to the next car. I had to stand the rest of the way, but at least I wasn't in the cootie zone.

So wash your filthy mitts people! It's for your own good! And remember, when you wash 'em, do it good and thorough-like. Sing "Happy Birthday" (to whomever) all the way through twice, and that should be enough scrubbing, so long as it's with warm, soapy water. You could also sing "God Save the Queen," "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," or the first verse and the chorus of "Love is a Battlefield," too.

* * *

I took a little trip to The People's Republic of Cambridge today, as you can see from this post's title. The T car I was on, the flourescent lights were strobing out on us. So much so that I thought I was going to go all epileptic, but finally I didn't. I rarely go to Cambridge nowadays, but since I am on the red line, it's easier to meet my neurotic Cambridgean tricks--erm, I mean, "friends" than when I was on the orange line.

My first ever trip to Cambridge was twelve years ago, but it seems a lifetime. I decided I would start smoking a pipe in Cambridge, twelve years ago. I mean, there was Leavitt & Pierce right there, beckoning. That's the sort of place you think of when you think of Cambridge. Or at least used to be. Nowadays, when you think of Harvard Square it's all A&F and BoA, Banana Republic and baby Gap. But I don't have a problem with it, really. It's still a kind of fairyland. An elaborate set piece.

People do whatever they have to in Cambridge to shine, to show the world who's who and what's what. It's like Nietzsche once said: great learning and great folly go together under the same hat. That should be Cambridge's motto:

WELCOME TO CAMBRIDGE
WHERE GREAT LEARNING AND GREAT FOLLY
GO TOGETHER UNDER THE SAME HAT

But I suppose Cambridgeans have earned their pretentions. Their neuroses, in which they take great pride. Their eccentricities, which, were they poor and wretched and living in, say, Dorchester, would garner them the more prosaic label of "fool". Because, really, an eccentric is nothing but a garden variety fool with a trust fund.

MEEE-OOOWWW!

What's got into me? There are plenty of things about Cambridge I adore. There's "FRIENDLY EATING PLACE" on Mass Ave & Dana St, where I had my first taste of friendly Cambridgean fare all those years ago. I also like all those "squares" between Harvard Square (which is more of a triangle) and Central Square, which is, like, a trapezoid. But these so-called little "squares" are quaint, in a silly, slightly frivilous, oh-so Cambridgean way, since they don't actually exist. At least not in this dimension. Where, except in the fanciful Cambridgean imagination, is Bunny Smith Square? An intersection is not a square, people. It's an intersection. Except in Cambridge, where 2+2=5 and circles (and intersections) are squares. Wny? Because it's Cambridge, and they can.

But there's a lot to like about Cambridge. Really.

I thought I was going to get an opportunity to rage against the T big time after I'd finished with my trick--erm, "friend," and was on my way home, via Central Trapezoid. There were delays in both directions. "We are moving, but moving with delays," the woman on the PA said. I love it. It's kind of like Bunny Smith Square. Maybe it's the same dimension in which Bunny Smith Square exists that we were "moving," because it sure as hell wasn't in this one. It was rush hour, and the platform was packed, which made it seem like a long time to wait, but in the end it was only ten minutes. The whole trip took 29 minutes, but when you're packed in like that, it sure seems a lot longer.