Sunday, September 28, 2008

Notes from the road: Shoe-Leather Democracy

(Image copyright Image Comics. All
rights resererved).

Last Saturday, I did my bit for the cause of hope. I went door-to-door doing voter registration for the Obama campaign.

Pennsylvania is a swing state. If Obama clinches it, he’s probably going to be elected. Obama got a 9-point bounce in the polls after the debate last Thursday, so things look good right now. However, we know from past experience that nothing ever can be taken for granted. We also knew that Obama lost here to Hilary Clinton in last spring’s primaries. If McCain wins in November, given the state of his health, the net result will most likely be a know-nothing moose-hunting beauty queen in the White House for 8 years or more and a Supreme Court completely owned and controlled by corporate CEO’s and television ministries. So a dozen or so of us upstate New Yorkers took up clipboards and pens, grabbed stacks of Pennsylvania voter-registration applications, piled into cars and headed for the Rust Belt city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, about an hour and change south of us. I rode with our organizer, Donna (not her real name, protect the innocent, etc.). I think she was channeling Mario Andretti that morning as she piloted her subcompact car down Route 81, its check-engine light blazing all the way. We got to town in record time.

Obama headquarters is in a theater building not far from Boscov’s department store. Here we briefly mixed with locals working on the campaign as Donna checked in with one of their honchos. There were bagels and cream cheese, which I attempted to avail myself of until I realized that what I thought was a sesame bagel turned out to actually be a garlic bagel. I threw it away because no way did I want to go pitch for Mr. Obama with a breath that could stop a vampire. I had half of a whole-wheat bagel instead. Anyway, Donna soon hustled us back into her car and headed out for our designated turf.

I’ll tell you, if you ever need driving directions, forget Google Maps. It sent us here and there just to make a simple turn. It left street names out on maps. A drunken gas-station attendant could have seriously done a better job. But eventually we got to where we were going, a housing project on the edge of town. I set out with Donna for one side of the street while another volunteer, Harvey (again, not his real name), who’d ridden with us covered the other side.

I knew that convincing people in this particular economic class to register and vote was going to be a very tough sell. I’d attempted to register voters in the projects in my own hometown several years earlier, and while the people a fellow volunteer and I met were by and large decent to us, they made it abundantly clear that they had absolutely no interest whatsoever in participating in a system which they probably believed was keeping them in poverty.

The cross-section of the population of the housing project we arrived at last Saturday was African-American, lots of Hispanics and some white elderly people. The houses themselves were boxy brick-and-wood duplexes, and others containing four apartments each which looked a suspiciously like double-wide trailers. We met several Hispanics who politely told us in broken English that they weren’t interested in voting. They were citizens, not illegals, so there was no issue with immigration, but they were just plain not interested. Donna managed to turn some of these people around and register them anyway (we made a note to bring more Spanish-language registration forms with us next time).

Single mothers proved to be our toughest clients. One was an attractive woman in her late twenties with three children who made a living (though I still don’t see how) working at a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant. She was knowledgeable and apparently paid attention to political developments, but was simply turned off to the idea of voting, period. She preferred to leave things up to chance, and that was that. I told her that I believed even voting for the lesser of two evils was better than letting the worst of them win by default. Donna reminded her of how many times John McCain had voted against raising the minimum wage in his career as a senator, but even this argument wouldn’t wash. After trying to convince her to at least register, for over 10 minutes, we bid her goodbye and set out for the other homes in the projects.

Our easiest sells were people over 65, some of whom had no doubt gone through the Great Depression of the 1930's. Many of them were Obama supporters, though we did meet one die-hard Republican who told us that Obama was trailing by 50% or so after last Thursday’s debate. His friend or housemate who was standing nearby reminded him that Obama had in fact gained several points. Donna and I suspected that the guy had been watching Fox News. The most bizarre encounter of the day was a buxom woman of about 60, who appeared outside her front door dressed only in a worn, ripped body-length T-shirt which didn’t hide very much. She proceeded to rant incomprehensibly about Hilary Clinton. She basically repeated the same sentences over and over, ignoring whatever Donna or I said. Finally, Donna and I politely excused ourselves and took off to the next home.

When we’d finished, Harvey had signed up five people, Donna and I had signed up eight. We went downtown to get some lunch and talk strategy with the other volunteers. I noticed that there was a comic shop nearby, so after finishing my meal, I sauntered on over and bought a few interesting titles, including an R. Crumb book which I’d never seen before. On my way out, I thumbed through the new-release shelves and found the book whose cover is reproduced above. When I showed it to the other volunteers, they stormed the comic shop and bought up every last copy.

I’ll be doing it again next weekend. Film at 11.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Good News and Bad News

Photo creative-commons Wikimedia.

My friend Niles is a railroad buff. He’s constantly collecting books and magazine articles about railroading history, and is a co-author of this post.

Recently, he found an issue of Trains magazine from May 1972 that had an interesting article by George W.Hilton called "The view of the viaduct from in front of the diner", recounting a rather odd incident on the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad in 1961.

According to Hilton's account, a westbound Erie-Lackawanna train from New York to Chicago, which he was on at the time, stopped at Hornell, NY, about an hour west of Corning, where things got interesting. Not even half a minute had passed since the train left the station to continue on its way when the engineer suddenly saw that just ahead was an eastbound freight train about to enter the main line at a nearby junction, which meant that his passenger train would be right in its path. Not a happy situation, to be sure. The engineer realized that if he jammed on his brakes right away, the freight would hit one of his head-end cars (the closed cars up at the front, for baggage or freight) and miss his single passenger coach, which was the last car on the train. As it turned out, one of the head-end cars was in fact hit by the freight locomotive, and the other cars derailed, but the passenger car stayed on the rails, apparently safe and sound. When the dust cleared, Hilton got up and jumped from the rear doorway of the coach.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. Hilton writes:

"What seemed odd to me was that two soldiers were running around,
obviously in some agitation, with their rifles over their shoulders
and otherwise ready for action. I hadn't seen them previously... From
where had these soldiers come, and why did they appear in such distress?”

It turned out that the freight car which had been hit had been carrying nuclear weapons. The soldiers were responsible for guarding them. The railroad very wisely called up the Atomic Energy Commission (or AEC, forerunner of the present-day Nuclear Regulatory Commission), who had good news and bad news for them. The good news was that no nuclear components were on board. Those were shipped separately through other channels. The bad news was that since all nuclear weapons contain a fairly powerful conventional-explosive detonator, there was some risk of a fairly big bang. The AEC cautioned the railroad against building a temporary bypass or “shoo-fly” track around the wreck to let other trains pass until a safety engineer could be flown in from Washington to oversee the safe removal of the detonators.

I think that the incident depicted in this article is a great metaphor for the fiscal train wreck we’re now witnessing on Wall Street. The safety engineers, Mr. Bernanke and Mr Paulson are recommending a taxpayer-financed three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar “shoofly” (the much-talked-about bailout which as of this writing is still not a done deal) for the criminally-mismanaged firms which ran the train off the track in the first place. The porter, Mr. Bush, is trying to reassure the passengers that everything is under control and there’s no reason to panic. Meanwhile, no one knows, or will say how big the explosion from the damaged lead freight car will be, a recessionary fizzle or a 1929-style Armageddon.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Everything I know I learned from record shopping

Some of the least worthwhile stuff ends up being bestsellers.

Some of the most worthwhile stuff ends up in the bargain bins. .

Some of the stuff at the top of the charts (or in the bargain bins) actually deserves to be there.

Whoever said that you can’t judge a book by its cover never worked in a record shop.

Attractive packaging is no guarantee of quality. In fact, it’s often used to hide mediocrity and shoddiness.

Just because the cover is torn and mildewed doesn’t mean the record inside isn’t worth at least one spin.

Life’s too short not to check out some new things.

“Used” doesn’t necessarily mean “damaged”.

“Virgin” doesn’t necessarily mean “perfect”.

Some things aren’t worth having, even for free.

Better a 7-inch vinyl with one really hot 3-minute song on it than a boxed set containing hours of boredom.

Some days you can spend hour after hour digging in bin after bin and not find anything worthwhile. And sometimes, what you’re looking for jumps right out at you.

Always check the goods before you lay down your money.

When presented with two equally-attractive selections, but only able to take one, pick the one that’s least likely to show up again.

There’s absolute garbage at the flashy place in the mall, and great stuff in the basement of that thrift shop just outside of town.

The quality of a band’s output is often inversely proportional to the amount of hype it gets.

Sometimes even the artist doesn’t believe the hype.