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Friday, January 24, 2003

Taking the Anti Train

Coming a week after a pleasant train trip I had the misfortune of traveling to Chicago by plane. My flight was fairly early so I had to ignore my more frugal instincts (both monetary and environmental) and take a $30 cab to the airport. As soon as you open the door of the cab at the airport they start with all of the threats and warnings that are supposed to protect us from the TERRORISTS! If I can just interject here and give a few words to all of the homeland securers: Ease up at the airports, fuckos. All of the precautions don’t make me feel safe and I doubt that any of this stuff will make a difference.

As I was standing in the cattle line waiting to be X-rayed, I told the guy next to me about my train trip to Portland. We both agreed that if there was a train that could take us speedily to our destinations no one would suffer through the indignities of air travel.

I had a direct flight from Seattle to Chicago O’Hare on United. Thank God for that--one small plus in a sky full of negatives. I noticed right away that people aren’t very friendly on planes. The confined space sets off peoples’ passive-aggressive tendencies and petty territoriality notions. You are given barely enough space to stow your carcass, the food is atrocious, and the in-flight movie starred Reese Whitherspoon.

Try this sometime: Try watching a few minutes of a bad movie (Sweet Home Alabama, for instance) and you will quickly see how unskilled most Hollywood people are at their craft. I watched about five minutes sans sound of this Reese gal screwing up her face in pathetic contortions that, I would presume, were meant to be subtle nuances of human emotion. Reese is to acting what an airline meal is to food.

I lucked out and had a great book for the flight. The gal at the used bookshop in my neighborhood recommended Dispatches by Michael Herr. This $2 used paperback saved me from immeasurable discomfort on the three and a half hour flight.

A former correspondent for Esquire, Herr was a young guy himself when he volunteered to go to Viet Nam to cover the war. He was mostly scared shitless, just like every one of the troops he talked to and spent time with. Herr wrote about the Army tradition of writing on helmets and flak jackets (now forbidden in the new, more professional Army). GI’s would write the names of old operations, or girlfriends, or their own war names on their gear. Stuff like LESS THAN FEARLESS, HELL SUCKS, and my favorite JUST YOU ME AND GOD—RIGHT? I think that Herr probably embelished a lot of the stories he tells, and I don't think that there is much in the way of journalism in Dispatches, but I read the whole damn thing on the flight.

It is, like, five fucking degrees here in Chicago and I don’t mean five degrees of that fucked-up European thermometer celsius crap. I mean five fucking degrees. I am also far north of the city of Chicago in suburbia. Shoot me please. I am writing this from the Hyatt in Deerfield. I am looking out the window at a suburban wasteland so incredibly vast that it truly boggles the mind.

Interstate 294 lies directly behind the hotel and the next bit of civilization is probably ¾ of a mile away. There isn’t a bar, a restaurant, a store, or anything else that might be of use to a human being staying in this hotel. You couldn’t possibly walk anywhere from the hotel (even if it wasn’t five fucking degrees). Why would anyone build a place that isn’t fit for human beings?

Thursday, January 16, 2003

The Only Way to Travel

I wake up at 9 o’clock and my train leaves at 10. If I woke up an hour before a flight there is no possible way that I could make it to the airport, let alone have time to shower and pack. I shower, pack, AND make a cup of coffee. I could take the #55 bus to the station 20 blocks away in Pioneer Square but I indulge myself with a $6 cab ride.

To say that Seattle’s King Street Station isn’t the best looking train depot I’ve ever seen is an understatement. I arrive five minutes before my train leaves so it’s not like I have much time to consider that station’s aesthetic shortcomings. I find my seat on the train—more room than in any airline’s first class section. Trains are comfortable.

The fare is $23 one-way to Portland from Seattle. Round trip is double that at $46 (I cater to readers who suffer from math anxiety). Try getting a one-way fare from an airline. Book this fare one month in advance and it’s $23, step on at the last minute and it’s $23. No Byzantine pricing schemes, no price-gouging for last minute travelers. Trains are cheap.

There is a cool observation car between the passenger cars and the dining car. This train is all double-decker cars and below the observation area there is a concession stand. I grab a coffee, a Heineken, and a roast beef sandwich and watch the mist rise above the south Puget Sound. Did I mention that trains are comfortable?

An announcement comes over the intercom that lunch is being served in the dining car. I’m not really very hungry and I would rather eat in Portland but eating on trains is cool. On trains you are seated with other passengers to fill up the tables. At first, the two guys at the table are a little hesitant about sitting with total strangers, but we are all soon talking. It turns out they are making a documentary film about modern music and are returning home to Portland after seeing Erika Badu perform at Seattle’s Showbox Theater.

They give a bunch of recommendations about Portland and one of them actually calls a friend to inquire about a French restaurant called Le Bouchon (Sorry, closed on Mondays). I remark that I have almost never had a decent conversation on a plane. Everyone agrees. Time flies. Portland pops up out of the left window. The train winds around and the station appears on the right. Not really wanting the ride to be over we say good bye and hurry to get our luggage. It took four hours. I’m always ready for plane trips to end. Trains are fun.

Boarding the train wasn’t preceded by a security check. No one searched my bags, no metal detector or X-ray machine, no questions were asked, and I sure as shit didn’t have to take off my shoes. I heard no dire warnings over the station’s P.A. system about leaving bags unattended. Plane travel is degrading. Trains are sophisticated.

I could have driven to Portland. Driving would have been cheaper, at least at first glance. For one thing, my car is paid off and I can afford to splurge on the train. A lot of people are so over-extended on their car payments that they need to amortize every trip to justify owning a car they truly can’t afford. My contention is our society can’t afford to further subsidize car travel while ignoring trains. Voices on the Right scream about the government giving Amtrak a few hundred million dollars while they are silent to our horrifically expensive subsidy of private automobiles, a subsidy that is expensive in monetary and environmental terms.

Friday, January 10, 2003

With an Eye to the Future

The areas where most Americans live have invested too heavily in the culture of the automobile to be freed from the shackles of cars and driving without a painful period of withdrawal. Most of the man-made landscape of this country has been built to suit the needs of the automobile and not those of its citizens. The automobile is an expensive habit in both monetary terms and in public safety as over 40,000 people are killed each and every year in accidents. I find it terribly odd how we seem to dismiss traffic fatalities as the simple price of doing business.

Imagine if instead of paying for your car you were subsidizing an efficient public transport system--the Washington D.C. and Paris metro come to mind. The city of Seattle recently passed a referendum that will begin the construction of a monorail train that will run from the Ballard neighborhood, through downtown, and on to West Seattle. The price tag is around $1.4 billion and will be paid mainly through a tax on automobile license tags.

The new monorail isn’t the solution to all of this city’s transportation problems, but it is the first forward-thinking transit idea that has come before the citizens of this area. The Paris Metro wasn’t built all at once nor was D.C.’s subway system. Things of this scale must be done in increments. The important thing is to begin building mass transportation as soon as possible instead of the alternative, dead-end solution of building more highways.

The monorail won in the referendum by a few measly votes. I really couldn’t see how anyone could have voted against it even though it will cost each Seattle car owner a couple hundred bucks and the new service won’t service much of the city. It is this sort of investment in the future that the right-wing, anti-government types refuse to support. Seattle was standing at a fork in the road. The city could take the example of Los Angeles and build an unlivable metropolis dominated by the automobile or it could lean more towards our more progressive neighbor to the south--Portland. I am happy to say that Seattle is fairly progressive and chose to side with Portland.

Most American cities won’t even get the chance to vote on whether or not they wish to continue with the insanity of the car culture or move on to more humane forms of transit. Most American cities aren’t really cities to begin with but simply an endless chain of strip malls. The great cities of the world are pedestrian centers, not places to drive cars. As far as I’m concerned, the only cars that belong in a city are taxis.

I realize that I must sound like a broken record (Now that’s an expression that is so old and outdated it has liver spots) on this subject of automobiles but I seem to be one of the few voices of criticism of the car culture. The whole “You are what you drive” mentality is, to me, about the saddest, most pathetic statement of our culture. Luckily, I happen to live in a place where that mentality doesn’t exist. Many of my friends don’t even own cars. Many others--like me--drive so infrequently that I couldn’t even tell you what kind of car they have. I am better known for the bikes I ride than for the car I keep parked for weeks on end somewhere on the street in front of my building. That's the way the world should be.

FROM THE COMMENTS: I must note that I have been working in DC for a month and have fallen in love with its Metro. Philly's smelly and inadequate SEPTA service, while, yes, delivering citizens from point A to B, looks shameful next to DC's solution to mass transit. Plus, SEPTA costs more to use than the DC Metro! I have ridden on nearly all of the world's major mass transit systems--Tokyo excepted--and I find the DC Metro to be a splendid example of what American cities could accomplish.

And yet, sadly, outer and inner DC is also crippled by its automobile traffic. How funny and yet so tragic that even our nation's capital can't get it right. Urban planning in major US cities must begin now to plan for mass transit systems that may not get fully in place until the 22nd Century.

--Mat homepage


The only thing about the DC Metro is that it's almost entirely useless for anyone other than tourists. Commuters want speed, convenience, and efficiency; they want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly and cheaply as possible. The DC Metro -- pretty (not to mention squeaky-clean) as it is -- accomplishes none of this.

As far as I could tell when I lived there, very few DC-area workers even use the metro to get to and from work. Almost everyone I knew at the time drove their cars from place to place, as it was the quickest and easiest solution. Instead of being flat-rated, the DC metro charges different prices per ride-length, which is complete shite compared to places like NY, where you can take the subway from Yankee Stadium to Coney Island for $1.50.

Not to mention the fact that the DC Metro shuts down at midnight, so when you're in Georgetown (which, mind you, doesn't even HAVE its own metro-stop because the high-fallutin' ritzy snoot residents keep voting against one), and the clock strikes quarter-of, you have 15 minutes to get your Cinderella arse several long blocks East to the Foggy-Bottom stop before your coach turns back into a pumpkin. Unless you can afford the $30+ to cab it home. Which would defeat the purpose.

San Francisco's BART system is comparable. Only it's a hell of a lot more entertaining, since (at certain stops) ticketing is based loosely on the honor system -- such that you can board the train, under the assumption you've purchased a ticket outside. There are no turnstiles or card-readers. If you wing it, you risk getting fined by one of the transit cops who very infrequently patrol the cars. Otherwise, it's basically a free-for-all. But then again, this is San Francisco we're talking about, so we shouldn't be surprised.

Maybe I'm biased, but with all its quirks and minor tragic flaws, I still say the NYC Transit System is #1, hands-down. Just because the majority of commuters -- whether mailroom clerk or CEO -- actually MAKE USE of it.


Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Café Society

If I had to put my finger on one thing that America needs to import from Europe or Latin America (more European than the States), it would be the concept of cafes. The idea of a café is a difficult concept to explain to someone who hasn’t traveled. We have restaurants with outdoor seating; we have Starbucks for coffee. What’s the difference?

On one hand, the idea of a café is remarkably simple: A public place to sit and have a drink or maybe something to eat. On the other hand, the idea is incredibly complex because the café serves so many purposes in the community. “Community” is the key word here as I think that a lot of American cities have no such notion because--in a society dominated by the private automobile--there is so little interaction between people.

Ironically (or perhaps not), I write this while sitting in the giant Seattle Center House—sort of a town hall mixed with a mall food court without the obnoxious mall part. The Center House is about a block from my apartment and about the closest thing to a café as you will find in Seattle or this country for that matter.

A café is a place to read, write, sit alone or with friends, drink coffee or have a glass of wine, spend twenty minutes or two hours. Less formal than a restaurant, a café can be a few rough tables in a remote Greek mountain village or a chic Parisian hotspot frequented by the rich and famous, and people like you and me who will feel that way simply by being there.

Your coffee comes in elegant china, not a paper cup. Wine seems to actually taste better while sitting on the terrace as you watch tout le monde pass by on the boulevard. Planners have actually designed cities with cafes in mind. Plazas in Europe and Latin America would be fairly pointless without the vantage point of cafes for their enjoyment.

American attempts to duplicate cafes generally fail because there is too much emphasis on consumption. Instead of just leaving you the fuck alone, some overly-eager server will be giving you a schpeel on their special on mozzarella sticks or bullying you to order another beer. In most European cafes, the price of a single beverage is all the rent you need to pay on that table. A lot of cafes are so big that turn-over isn’t much of an issue. The pace is simply different there. You take a seat to slow things down and not to continue the consumerist race to a finish line that is impossible to define.

In other countries, cafes are an integral part of everyone’s life and their importance in the community cannot be exaggerated. It is a place to hang out for teenagers, adults, and families. I miss them terribly and a café is usually my first destination when I go to Europe.

The slow pace and simplicity of cafes are things that a lot of Americans find difficult to grasp on first encounter. Born and raised in this country, I was a little puzzled on my first trip to France as an 18 year old. I would sit down, order a drink, chug it down, pay, and leave. I didn’t get it. I gradually became self-conscious of my haste as I soon noticed that everyone who was sitting there when I arrived was still there as I left.

This was a very pivotal bit of awareness, a gradual epiphany that shaped the way in which I looked at the world. It became apparent to me that life isn’t a race, that being busy isn’t synonymous with living with purpose. I didn’t learn this lesson overnight. To this day I am still learning about how I can live the best life that I possibly can. I just like to have a nice spot to sit down and think about it.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Ugly by Design

Design life is a concept in architecture that projects the life of a structure from construction to destruction. The economic viability of the structure is certainly one of the most important considerations in the building process. Blind adherence to solely monetary considerations does not, however, calculate the true cost of a building.

The Seattle Kingdome, the former home of the Seahawks and Mariners, was all about money. If there was an ounce of thought about the aesthetic value of the Kingdome, that thought was thrown in the trash before construction began. The Kingdome was absolutely the ugliest structure of its size in the city. It was the first thing a person sees when entering Seattle on I-5 from the south. I have seen better looking garbage treatment facilities.

Built in 1976, the Kingdome was to be a multi-use arena for sports, truck rallies, rock concerts, and anything else that requires a big venue. It wasn’t built to last very long and no one shed a tear when it was imploded in 2000. Its design life had expired. It had served its purpose. Or had it?

The Kingdome was a lousy venue for football, even worse for baseball, and dome stadiums are disasters for musical events--a lousy venue and ugly as sin. How could this structure have served the people of this city? How do you judge the value of proper urban aesthetics?

The Kingdome has been replaced by separate football and baseball stadiums. The new stadiums were horrifically expensive to build and I won’t argue here whether their expense was justified. What I can say is that these two structures were built to last and they are both great looking additions to the Seattle man-made landscape. The stadiums stand side-by-side in the Pioneer Square section of Seattle and fit in with the other, older buildings.

The new stadiums are not surrounded by enormous parking lots as is the case with the way stadiums are built in suburban areas where driving by car is the only way to get to the games. Here in Seattle some people drive, others take busses, and many people simply walk from their homes. I can walk there from my apartment in about twenty minutes.

New buildings go up all the time with a design life for the short term or the long haul. The structures that are built to last are generally more expensive to build but they are generally better looking than buildings of inferior materials. We have to look at these buildings every single day. Our urban landscape is one of the most important factors governing our quality of life, something that needs to figure in somewhere in the architectural process