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Archive for April, 2010

Flashback

As I do most evenings now, I rode the Link train into downtown Seattle after work. I had to run for it and ended up in a seat I usually do not choose – facing across the train as opposed to in the direction of travel.

As we entered the transit tunnel, I was confronted with my reflection in the window opposite. I was not startled. The light was forgiving and I wear a hat that flatters me. But I suddenly felt as though I had taken a trip back almost 30 years in time to London in 1982.

I dropped out of college that year. I had been studying aeronautical engineering at Imperial College – but life got in the way:) At first, I just goofed around and made little effort to find a job. I was still living in student housing and continued to hang out on campus. But then I needed money rather badly, and had to find a job. The economy in 1982 was abysmal and the job market the worst since the Great Depression (sounds familiar doesn’t it?) The day I embarked on my job search, the headlines on the newsstands announced that the number of unemployed in the UK had passed 2 million for the first time ever. And in the Job Center, there were only a handful of jobs posted. I did find one to apply for. I got it. I couldn’t believe my luck! It was interesting too – with a company that did digital mapping for the oil industry, years before geographic information systems existed.

I had to work rotating shifts, including 11pm-7am. That put rather a dent in my social life. I was disappointed that my friends seemed to disregard my schedule when making plans. And when I had to finally move out of student housing, no one seemed inclined to offer assistance. It was a sad time. But I didn’t realize that I was experiencing “moving on” for the first time.

I moved to a bedsit in a rather awful part of North Kensington and commuted on the Underground to my job near Picadilly Circus. I quickly lost touch with my college friends and found a new existence. I bought a weekly pass for the Underground and started taking random trips on weekends, going anywhere within the zone for which it was valid – just to get out of my place. It was back then that I became a transit geek. I also had a very well-worn library card. That was the summer of 1982. Reading library books and drinking cheap wine in my bedsit. And riding on the Underground, contemplating my reflection in the window opposite – wondering who that person really was. Just a year later, in the summer of 1983, I was in Santa Barbara, California, with the man I would shortly marry. I never saw that coming.

I never saw any of it coming.

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I almost always take a walk for my lunch break. I need the air, the exercise, and the wonderful solitude that can often be found in the midst of urban noise.

But I am coming to love my afternoon walk to the SODO Link station even more. First Avenue South is a little bit of everything. It is corporate – Starbucks (I get my morning coffee at the coffee shop in the Starbucks Center), but also home to small bakeries and diners. It is industrial – PSF Industries and Northwest Casting, but also dotted with small workshops. It is big retail – Sears and Home Depot, but you find many specialty stores here. New restaurants and bars are starting to appear. However, there is one thing I would never have expected to find in SODO. Barbecue.

Just to the north of the Starbucks Center is Pecos Pit Barbecue, a homely shack of a place where customers line up outside to pay cash only and eat at picnic tables that are rather exposed to the elements. Despite the austere conditions, Pecos always has a lengthy line at lunchtime, so I gather it must be good.

There is another barbecue place a few blocks north, closer to the stadiums – not as remarkable as Pecos. But the one that really caught me by surprise is Jones Barbecue at Second and Lander, for it is housed in what looks rather like an office building, set back from the street a little. Right at the street corner, there is an old smoker set up
– to draw the attention of passers-by, no doubt. Boy does it make some smoke! Smells good too! And while Pecos serves lunch only (and only on weekdays from what I have seen) Jones looks to be still open when I walk by just before 5pm, and the smoke was going strong one Saturday afternoon. I wonder who eats there.

This is one of the things I love about SODO. The expected rubs shoulders with the unexpected.

I have an anecdote about Pecos that has nothing to do with barbecue – except for the customer who was so excited at getting his takeout order that he was not paying attention when leaving the small parking lot, and reversed smack into the bus I was on. (There us a bus stop right outside.)

Well I don’t have an anecdote now! Seems I’ve told it already!

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Ever been cut off by a bus running a red light? Or been blown away by a bus going well above the speed limit? Wonder if cops ever pull over transit buses to give the driver a ticket? Well, they sometimes do!!

One of my coworkers was on a speeding bus this morning. A cop pulled it over and ticketed the driver. The bus was held up for 20 mins while the cop waited for a Metro supervisor to arrive on the scene. It reminded me of a crazy bus driver I rode with several years ago.

I knew there had to be something questionable about this bus driver when I saw him come out of the Starbucks at Alki. He had a venti frappucino (pink). Most of the drivers I know would not be caught dead in uniform with such a frilly drink.

The bus wasn’t leaving for a while, but the driver let me on. He took his seat, looked at me via his rearview mirror and told me about something funny that had just happened on his drive out to Alki. An old lady had literally run up the block and across the street near Pike Place Market to get his bus. She just made it – but then insisted he lower the ramp for her – to which he replied, “Lady! You’re in better shape than I am!” He was smiling at me in the mirror the whole time. I couldn’t quite place his accent, which had tones of both New York and Boston about it. Anyway, I took him for one of those outgoing, east coast urban types. I would find out just how outgoing, east coast urban this driver was once the trip downtown was underway.

He was fine in West Seattle. He was OK going over the bridge. It was when he turned off the Spokane Street offramp to head up First Avenue that it got exciting. Perhaps he was inspired by the sight of the downtown “skyscrapers” straight ahead of him. Or maybe the frappucino had got him wired up! He became a different person!

He started honking on the horn and shouting at people in adjacent vehicles. He kept up a running commentary about the ineptitude of the other road users around him. He waved his arms and made obscene gestures. Then all of a sudden he had to hit the brakes really hard – followed by a full 30 seconds on the horn – followed by a perfectly New York-accented “Lady! You can’t drive!”

Back then, there were several more stops on First Avenue South than there are now and it was late Saturday morning, so he had to hit evey one of them. Most drivers stay in the right-hand lane, but not this idiot. After each stop, he barged out into the left lane and floored the accelerator, only to then brake hard and pull back into the right lane to make the next stop. By insisting on executing this maneuver, he managed to cut off the same vehicle three times in succession. The vehicle was a long horse trailer. A Seattle Police Department horse trailer. I knew I wouldn’t have to call the guys at Car Talk to know this driver was a whacko!

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I have just a few more weeks until the ramp from First Avenue South to the West Seattle Bridge is demolished. The reroute of my buses home involves crossing some very busy railroad tracks. I think most people are being over-optimistic when warning of 10-15 minute delays at rush hour. I see absolute gridlock mayhem every afternoon. I hope I am wrong!

I plan to just go home via downtown Seattle and have been doing so several nights a week for the last two months, experimenting with various transit options. It has become a routine that I rather enjoy.

This afternoon was the first time I faced this commute (a) in inclement weather and (b) not adequately prepared for such weather – the rain showed up earlier than expected:(

I have had a transit ace up my sleeve all this time and I finally made use of it today. The one bus that can take me all the way home, almost literally to my front door, leaves from downtown Seattle and goes nowhere nearby my workplace. Even connecting with it is not always convenient so I have never had much opportunity to take advantage of it.

So, this afternoon I took a bus downtown, rather than getting wet walking to the Link Light Rail, and had coffee just a block away from where I would catch my bus home. When OneBusAway showed it coming in 5 minutes I headed out. It was a real treat to ride all the home:)

I usually have a 30-40 minute walk after getting off the bus, and that is no problem most days – it’s how I make sure I get some exercise. But it is nice to have an easier alternative when the weather is bad. Next December, when it is windy, rainy, chilly, and dark so early, I doubt I will miss my old commute home much at all:)

This is one of my coping mechanisms for life in general, and urban living in particular. When change is forced upon me, I try to find at least one way by which my can be made better as a result.

Then I am a bit less disgruntled:)

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Something I have never seen before: a Jehovah Witness at an intersection holding up copies of Awake! I wonder if Real Change vendors will reciprocate by going around knocking on doors:)

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I have mentioned before that grocery-store coffee shops are the best places to watch people. I was just at Metropolitan Market, and this place never disappoints! On Sunday, I generally wait until after noon to go for coffee – let the crowd thin out a bit. However, you then find yourself running into the lunch crowd.

This is a very popular place for lunch, despite being rather expensive. The coffee shop seating area is often full. Outside is a covered patio with heat lamps. As long as the wind is not blowing directly into that space, it can be surprisingly comfortable, even in the middle of winter. You can usually find a seat out here, although you may suddenly find yourself surrounded by rather exuberant longshoremen:)

Over the years, the lunch crowd has grown in size, prompting Metropolitan Market to put out ever more tables and chairs wherever possible. Outside the main entrance is a flower stall and a “garden” department centered on a covered area. In spring and summer, this area displays planters, hanging baskets, plants and potting soil. In the fall, there are pumpkins. During the Holidays, you find pointsettas and wreaths and so on.

The “garden” area has been accumulating tables and chairs over the last couple of years, and now provides overflow seating during busy periods. It is actually a rather lovely place to sit when not too windy, especially in summer when you are surrounded by plants and flowers.

Today I managed to get a table in the coffee shop, where I enjoyed a latte and muffin and listened to a podcast. But then the lunch crowd started to show up – people carrying trays of soup and sushi and salads and sandwiches – and looking around forlornly for a place to sit. As I was done with my muffin, I decided that I did not need to take up a table, so I vacated my spot and went outside to finish my coffee. The patio was a little busy so I went down to the garden area, which was empty.

I picked a table and resumed listening to my podcast, last Wednesday’s election-special broadcast of The Now Show. (There is a general election in the UK on May 7.) Very shortly, I was joined by a rather fussy middle-aged lady. She proceeded to rearrange the furniture in the corner where I was sitting. She moved several chairs to another table and then moved the table she wished to sit at. Then she sat down – only to get up a couple of minutes later, move another chair, and drag her table a few feet further. I exchanged glances with an elderly gent who seems to live in the Metropolitan Market coffee shop. (No matter the time of day, he is there. He must take all his meals there.) He had just taken a seat near us and was rather amused by this lady’s actions. Meanwhile, I took a moment to take stock of his knit hat – which had a sizeable hole in it right on top – and it looked as though it were intentional! I was wondering what purpose it might serve when the lady got my attention again. She had finally got settled and begun to enjoy her coffee and muffin. Then I realized what the furniture arranging was about. That corner had a tiny little area that was not shaded, and she had moved her table so that she might sit in the sun. I wondered why she had not gone to sit in the sun on the south side of the store and save herself the trouble. But then she took some insurance papers out of her bag and proceeded to fill them out…….. after which it all made sense to me:)

The podcast I was enjoying was extremely funny, and I felt OK about laughing out loud. I thought I might as well give her something to wonder about in return:)

Hardly an exciting story, I know. But it’s little stuff like this that keeps me entertained on the most uneventful of days. It’s probably why I’m never bored.

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OneBusAway

I frequently comment on how much I enjoy my iPhone. I knew I would love it and find it useful, but held off on getting one for a while because I really felt I couldn’t justify the larger monthly phone
bill. Now I wish I had got it sooner! I still encounter people who insist they would have no use for a smartphone… And I find it hard to believe! Perhaps they are influenced by portrayals in the media of iPhone users as addicted texters, tweeters and Facebookers, and think that is all that a smartphone has to offer. Too bad. This is how I have made use of my iPhone today:

– checked weather on Weather Channel app
– checked status of morning bus commute via OneBusAway and Metro’s Twitter feed
– did an I Ching reading (well, some people read horoscopes, I do something a little more obscure!)
– read through the news headlines on MSNBC
– fed my Tapfish
– listened to podcasted stories from last night’s PBS Newshour
– looked at some new Hubble images via the NASA app
– used OneBusAway to plan my homeward commute
– entered purchases I made into a budgeting tool
– listened to a podcast of a BBC radio comedy show featuring the ongoing election campaign over in the UK
– browsed through a couple of blogs I follow
– now composing a post for my own blog

Sure, I Ching readings and Tapfish visits are just entertainment, but the other things I did with the iPhone today really make my life easier and/or better.

If I were asked to name one iPhone app that has really made my life easier, it would have to be OneBusAway. No longer do I have to wait in bad weather for a bus with no idea of when it might actually arrive. I now have the luxury of waiting until it is just a couple of minutes away before I go out to wait. And I no longer have to play guessing games. I can know which buses are coming in the next 30 minutes. So often, I have let buses go by because I hoped that the one I really wanted would be by shortly – only to find myself still standing there 20 minutes later and wishing I had taken that other bus when I had the chance!

I was able to use OneBusAway with my old cellphone, but it was only of minimal use compared with what I can do with the iPhone. I would really be bummed out if I had to go back to life without it!

The Weather Channel app is another I use often – primarily the local radar map which shows where it is raining, how hard, and the direction and speed (via the loop) of motion of the rain. I have managed to avoid being caught in downpours by checking the map frequently.

I could live without an iPhone… but I would really miss it. Urban bliss might be somewhat more elusive:)

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I haven’t been in Google Earth for a while, so I hit it briefly this morning over coffee while I was at a WiFi hotspot. This time I headed for Norilsk, in Arctic Russia. Several years ago, I made reference to Norilsk in a short story I wrote about a futuristic Earth after global warming has melted the ice caps and sea level has risen by around 300 feet. I should mention that I have a research background in climatology (and a PhD in geography). Quite a long time ago, I formed the opinion (which could be wrong) that climate change may well have reached the point of no return, and that nothing we might do can stop it now. And rather than arguing about whether it is happening or what may be driving it, we need to consider what our world might be like in the extreme case scenario of a complete polar meltdown – and how we would deal with it. But my viewpoint is not very fashionable, which is why I have withdrawn from that whole field of inquiry:)

Norislk has several dubious claims to fame. It owes it existence to massive deposits of nickel in this region of Siberia. It was home to numerous Gulags, the unfortunate inmates of which did hard labor in the mines. Smelting operations have made Norilsk the fourth most polluted city in the world, and the city has been closed to foreigners since 2002. If that isn’t enough, Norilsk endures more than a month of darkness during the winter, and the weather has to be about the worst that any urban resident anywhere has to contend with! There are some great videos on YouTube of Norilsk winter weather, but the one embedded below is the most amazing. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a bus commuter – or driver – in that city. Norilsk residents must be seriously hardened folks:)

In Seattle on the other hand, we’re just a load of big wusses, myself included! (I can’t believe I used to live in New England.)

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Well, to start with, major road construction projects (including one that seriously affects my commute home from work) threaten to bring Seattle traffic to a standstill this summer. People no longer feel safe downtown. Today’s editorial in the Seattle Times suggests the city elected an incompetent boob (as I would paraphrase) as mayor. AND, to crown everything, we now have a garbage strike to contend with! I can see that Urban Bliss is going to face some serious challenges in the months ahead! But I will resist all temptations to just rant, and leave that to other malcontents.

Take the garbage strike. The announcement on my neighborhood blog attracted dozens of comments in no time – none of them helpful. The commentary quickly disintegrated into flaming remarks about labor unions, overpaid garbage men, underpaid teachers (and other such worthy people) and the usual Great Recession rhetoric about how people should just be thankful to have any job. I refuse to take part. However, I will consider very carefully what I buy while the garbage is not being collected, so that I don’t add any more to the pile than absolutely necessary.

As for no longer feeling safe in downtown Seattle… I can’t remember a time when I ever felt safe there! I am not afraid as such, but I am always vigilant. I worked in Pioneer Square from 2003-06, sometimes not leaving work until after 9:30pm. I was always tense walking to my bus stop at 1st and Marion. The Yesler stop was actually closer but I felt safer at the next stop north because of the two bars there (Contour and Fado). It was back then that I got the idea to wear a tiny purse, just large enough to contain my wallet, keys, bus pass and cellphone – and to wear it UNDER my coat, out of sight. Even so, I always had my bus pass ready at hand so that I did not have to open my purse to get it. I freak out when I see people standing on the street downtown opening a wallet or purse! Or a woman with her purse just slung over her shoulder – so easy to just grab. I have a larger bag in which I carry essential, but non-valuable items, such as a coffee mug, my lunch, umbrella, hairbrush etc., and I wear this over my head and across my body. Once I had it just over my shoulder and someone was about to grab it – but my bus came just in time. I do not listen to my iPhone through headphones. I want to be aware of my surroundings and I do not want to draw attention to the fact that I possess such an item. Anyway, after I changed jobs in 2006, I rarely went downtown. It is only in the last few months, after an absence of over three years, that I have been going downtown several times a week….And I honestly do not see that it has become worse.

The traffic nightmare I am just going to have to deal with. I am a lucky person in that I do have time for creative routes home. So when I find myself facing a bus delay, I will be thankful that I am not one of the poor folks hoping to catch a ferry to Vashon or Southworth. I have also loaded up the iPhone with apps to keep me informed of traffic delays and entertained while I am stuck in them.

As for Mayor Mike McGinn, I probably should pay more attention! If he’s as bad as the Seattle Times editorial suggests, he might just be presidential material.

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My Tapfish

I do have a real pet – a cat called Princess. I’ve had lots of pets in this life, but when I set up home in Seattle, I found myself pet-free for the first time in ages – and I enjoyed that for a few years. But then a co-worker was looking for homes for some kittens. I said I’d think about it – and she took that as a yes! That was six years ago, and it has been a happy little relationship. My cat is kept indoors, and most of the time she is happy with it. I have very mixed feelings about dogs and cats in urban areas, and the two years I spent working in pet-care retail only made me question it even more. I think city life is too stressful for most dogs, and too hazardous for most cats! Just my opinion.

Pets involve a committment that I am becoming more cautious about as I get older. I even consider the possibility that Princess may be my last cat, even though I should only be in my early 60s when she eventually dies. That’s looking a little far into the future!!

Anyway, I realized I had a committment problem a couple of months ago when I decided not to install Tapfish on my iPod Touch… I was worried that I would not make it to a WiFi hotspot often enough to feed them and clean the tank, and that they would be dead in no time. THEY AREN’T EVEN REAL FISH!!

But then a co-worker who has Tapfish on his iPod Touch showed me his tank and confessed that he had let his fish die over the weekend when he was busy watching basketball, but that he had been able to revive them (for
a price). I do not advocate such a cavalier attitude with real animals, but that reassured me and I stopped for coffee on the way home and got myself a tank and a few green snappers to start.

It drew me in immediately! Everytime I passed a hotspot I could connect to, I checked on the fish. And I managed to keep them alive! But then I got the iPhone, and when I synced it for the first time, Tapfish found its way to the iPhone – but alas, the fish didn’t, and I had to start over. (The fish on the iPod Touch are, I’m afraid, floating lifeless at the top of their tank. I am just leaving them at peace.)

My co-worker is busy racking up points and fishbucks and adding tanks. But I am not interested in being competitive with this app. I really just want virtual pets in my iPhone. My biggest complaint about Tapfish was that there was no way to name individual fish. Imagine how thrilled I was when last week’s update added that feature! I now have a sea turtle called Dale and a little fish called Percy who was bred from a green snapper and a clown fish. The rest of the fish are unamed as I will sell them when they are grown and buy or breed more little pets. I check on them many times a day. The colorful tank is always a cheering sight, and the bubbling sound is actually very relaxing to listen to. Visiting the tank relieves a lot of stress:)

I am told there are other virtual pet experiences on the Internet or iPhone. And then there are the ZhouZhou pets. But I think I am going to stick with the Tapfish for now. It’s about all the committment I can handle beyond my cat. Speaking of the cat….

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Over the last few months, I have been so busy enjoying my iPod Touch and then the iPhone, that a once-favorite pastime of mine has been overlooked to a certain extent. I realized this when I was dowtown on Friday after work, and decided to spend the weekend a little less “wired”.

I had quite a few podcasts I had not heard, as well as an audio version of The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, so my coffee shop time was spent passively listening, and enjoying watching the world go by, as opposed to taking voyages of the mind via Google Earth.

Mark Twain is probably my favorite author, and the writer I would have most wished to emulate – although my own style is perhaps more Hemmingway-esque. I am a scientist by training, with a few publications to my credit, and have been conditioned to write in a short, concise manner. I have only published one piece of fiction, and I struggled to make the 7500 word minimum the publisher required!!

I have been attempting to listen to chapters of Tom Sawyer at bedtime, only to fall asleep, so today I decided to listen while taking a long walk on this lovely Sunday morning. Appropriately, I was listening to the chapter where Tom is being kept amused in church by (in turn) a fly, a beetle, a poodle, and an ant. I was wondering if churches at that time were routinely infested with insects, when I was suddenly distracted by a sight that might have come right from the pages of a Mark Twain story. Out from the small garden of a townhouse, a squirrel ran in front of me hauling a rather large breakfast pancake. I’m not sure if the pancake was offered or stolen, but it looked as though it had only just left the griddle. The squirrel was clearly excited by this acquisition and sat down at the side of the road to devour it. I’m kicking myself that I did not take a picture as I will probably never see the likes again. Now, if Mr. Clemens were writing this, he would have spun out a five-page yarn about this squirrel and how he ended up going back to the house to ask for maple syrup!

Along the waterfront of West Seattle, I realized I was the only person headed away from Alki Beach, fighting quite a surge of people going in the other direction – quite the story of my life! I imagine the Alki coffee shops had rather long lines this morning. It was comfortably cool along the waterfront, but there were plenty of people overly eager to get into summer clothes – shorts, tanks, flip-flops, jog bras, even a swimsuit! It might have been sunny, but it wasn’t THAT warm.

Grocery store coffee shops are absolutely the best place to people-watch. Going to the store is such an everyday experience that people are themselves and un-selfconscious. No one is trying to make an impression, and most people are too preoccupied with getting the task done to be aware of being watched. It is also usually easier to find a seat.

When weather permits, I enjoy finding a perch in a public place. A favorite spot of mine is a low wall on the sidewalk near the Husky Deli in West Seattle where I enjoy watching people coming out of the Deli with ice cream. People are always happy when they have ice cream.

Today, I went to a grocery store for a latte. The latte was perfect, and I found a great place to sit where I could listen to more of Tom Sawyer and watch people going into the store. Unfortunately, the piped music was too distracting and I had to find a different spot. I went to the other side of the store, where there are also seats. No music here – but a barking dog provided the distraction. So I had to move on again. I ended up on a bench outside a laundromat on the next block. It was a great spot! But it was in the shade, and I got a little chilly. So I moved on to a bench in the sun outside a bank. Nice for a little bit…until I got too warm! I finally found a good compromise outside the drug store. The bench I sat on was in the shade, but the concrete in front of it was in sunshine, and gave off enough warmth to keep me comfortable while I enjoyed my latte and Tom Sawyer. And there was plenty to watch.

I picked a nice weekend for people-watching. Everywhere I went, the atmosphere was relaxed and happy. I saw no one being angry or even impatient. No children were throwing tantrums and no adults were being childish. It was wonderful. And I didn’t spend the entire weekend at the beach in perfect weather. Yesterday, I rode busy buses, did some serious shopping and contended with some very heavy rain. Yet people were happy for some reason – as though everything in the world was just fine, instead of….

Perhaps I was in a parallel universe!

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