Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Sounds of the Night

The last day of May, and we finally felt like running the air conditioner for a time, to cool off the upper rooms of the house. This house retains heat quite nicely, which is a virtue in the long, long winters, but not during the brief summers.

The day was warm and the night quite cool at the Marshall State Fish & Wildlife Area over the weekend. The camping area was divided into two lobes, one with electricity, one without. RVs parked in the electrified area, tents sprouted in the other; $12 per night for one, $8 for the other. A gray-haired park employee -- ranger might be too fancy a description -- showed up late in the afternoon to collect the fee. When we pitched our tent in the early afternoon, there was only one other inhabited site, occupied by a young couple. A young childless couple. According to Yuriko, they eyed us grimly at the introduction of noisy kids to the site.

Turns out, though, that the real noise that night was produced by three middle-aged fellows -- a little older than me, I think -- who showed up after we did, set up a tent that looked too small to hold all of them (someone was sleeping in one of their cars, it seems), and promptly turned on a radio.

A radio. At a campsite. This is like taking a ViewMaster to the Louvre. I’m not going to yammer on about missing the marvelous sounds of nature, the song of the whippoorwill, etc., but really. Whether or not you care anything for birdsong or those throaty bullfrogs we heard at sunset (away from the campsite), you’d think one of the pleasures of camping is to get away from items like the radio. I’d think that, anyway.

It wasn’t a bad station. It was playing all ’80s. And it wasn’t all that loud—just background noise. We turned in an hour or so after dark, and it was still on. We all drifted off anyway. Then a big crack of wood woke me up, and the damned radio was still on. The men were breaking wood for their campfire, talking, drinking, and listening to the radio. It was about midnight.

I fumed for a few minutes, but eventually unzipped my tent door. Being rude would have backfired, of course. So this is exactly what I said, in a measured tone: “Gentlemen, could you at least turn the radio down?”

Other than nodding hello, that was the first thing I’d said to them. Sure enough, they turned off the radio, almost at once. Then I had the sound of their fire to fall asleep to. Which I did. Perfect.

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Monday, May 30, 2005

Small Travels

A road with some contour, even hills, but no hairpin turns; lush springtime greenery by the roadside mixed with newly planted fields occasionally; views of a river nearby, fading in and out of sght; and little traffic. Such is the stretch of Illinois 26 through Marshall and Woodford counties I drove, especially on Sunday.

I found myself driving that road because we’d acquired a tent this winter, larger than my bachelor tent, and determined recently to test it in actual campground conditions. I was responsible for destination selection, so I looked around with a number of things in mind. It had to be someplace that probably wouldn’t be full up by Friday night, since we wouldn’t get there until Saturday—and not early on Saturday, since it’s nearly impossible to get out the door for anything early on Saturday.

Also, I’d prefer somewhere new, both as a campsite and near a new destination. And it couldn’t be a long drive: no more than about four hours away. Three or so would be even better.

I settled on the Marshall State Fish & Wildlife Area, a unit of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, for an overnight destination. It straddles the Illinois River in Marshall County, roughly 30 miles north of greater Peoria, with the campgrounds near the road but also near the river. I’d visited other parts of the Illinois River a number of times, especially in LaSalle and Grundy counties, closer to Chicago, but never so close to Peoria.

Moreover, I’d never visited Peoria itself, for all the time I’ve lived in northern Illinois. Just never got around to it, even though it's only 170 miles away, according to my Rand-McNally mileage table. So we made the trip, only one night in a tent this time, two adults and two kids sleeping on the ground; and we saw Peoria and a handful of smaller places. Not an epic, but merely one of the little trips that I hope will conflate with others to form some pleasant memories, especially for Lilly.

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Sunday, May 29, 2005

French Leave

Friday proved so all-consuming that I forgot to post a No Blogging note for my handful of readers, to let them know that I was taking Memorial Day weekend off. But I think I'll start posting again tomorrow--tales of the forgetful waitress of Henry, the campers who had to have their radio, Lilly on her first fishing expedition, bullfrogs, a tall tower, a winding drive and the discoverer of Pluto.


Thursday, May 26, 2005

Commencement Soap Bubbles

As I was wandering around campus trying to keep up with Ann last week, I realized that my nephew Sam’s graduation from Washington University was the first commencement ceremony I’d been to in a long time. For a while, I thought the last one I attended was my own from Vanderbilt—Friday the 13th of May, 1983—but later I remember attending my old friend Tom J’s graduation from UT Austin in May 1988.

The commencement speaker at the UT event was TV journalist Bill Moyers, who gave a good speech, though I can’t remember a particle of it. As for my own graduation, I don’t remember that there was a special commencement speaker, but there must have been. Which only confirms what anyone who sits through such a speech knows, that they have the longevity of soap bubbles.

Wash U invited Richard Gephardt, former Congressman and lead-balloon candidate for U.S. President, to be the ’05 speaker. I heard him as I might hear parts of a televised speech as I entered and left a room. Ann saw no reason to sit with the rest of us at the back of the quadrangle on one of the folding chairs provided by the university, so she set off to explore. I followed. She managed to find a set of exciting outdoor stairs—hard concrete, so I was sure some tumbling would come of it, but none did—long academic hallways (heavy doors, office-hour notices, bulletin boards, cartoons taped to the walls), an elevator usually reserved for the handicapped, sidewalks, grass, a group of commencement volunteers who cooed over her, and a basement with university workers in their cubicles, who were ignoring the thousands of people only a short distance away. In one hallway near a door leading to the quadrangle, paramedics were attending to a woman in a stretcher. She must have been about 60, a mother or grandmother or aunt or some other relation of somebody among the crowd, or all of those things to scattered members of the crowd. She was conscious and talking, so I expect she survived whatever it was that got her temporarily laid up.

As I said, I didn’t hear all of Gephardt. But as near as I can tell, his speech came down to, “time flies, things change.” Here’s something that won’t change: this man will never be President of the United States. Never mind his politics. He just doesn’t have a presidential name. It was the same thing that sidetracked the late Paul Tsongas in 1992 in favor of Bill Clinton.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Hot Dog Man Stands Tall

Lincoln, Illinois, which I mentioned yesterday, was named after who you think it was, but not for the martyred president or even the president when he was alive, but Abraham Lincoln, esq. In the 1850s, it seems that Lincoln did some important legal work for the developers of the town, so they named it after him. So, in some alternate universe in which Stephen A. Douglas won the election of 1860, or William Seward had bagged the Republican nomination for president that year in the Wigwam, and thus many other things are different from our world, Lincoln, Illinois would still be Lincoln -- and would be a name about as obscure as most of the other places named for 19th-century figures.

As we were leaving the town of Atlanta, Illinois, I glimpsed Hot Dog Man. At about 20 feet tall, this fiberglass statue of a Paul Bunyonish man holds a really big hot dog in a bun in front of him in his two hands. I had to get out and look at that. Ann was occupied with a coloring book, so I crossed the street without her and stood in front of Hot Dog Man for a minute or so.

He reminded me of the Gemini Giant, who stands in front of a restaurant in Wilmington, Illinois, not far south of Joliet, except that GG wears a space suit and helmet, and holds a rocket. Anyway, it’s no coincidence. The same company made many of these fiberglass giants, most with the same mold. The story of these vernacular sculptures, generically known as Muffler Men, is told by the invaluable Roadsideamerica.com.

As for Hot Dog Man, he stood in front of a hot dog restaurant in suburban Berwyn, Illinois, for about 30 years, though I never saw him there, since Berwyn is fairly far from my beaten tracks in metro Chicago. Only in 2003 did he end up in Atlanta, in a story told better once again by Roadsideamerica.com.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Another Atlanta

On this trip to St. Louis, I also managed to visit Atlanta. With a population of about 1,650, Atlanta, Illinois, is just off I-55 a few miles northeast of Lincoln, Illinois, which is up the road from Springfield.

We stopped in Lincoln for lunch on the way back from St. Louis on Saturday. Lincoln, the seat of Logan County, has a courthouse square that I’d been to before, though I didn’t remember that until I got there. For lunch, we did our little part to support non-chain, small-town eateries. I wish I could remember its name. But if you’re ever in Lincoln around lunchtime (no dinner), look for a plain room with about a dozen seats, including some whitewashed booths, tucked away in the courthouse square. The hamburger’s pretty good there, complete with that sign of non-standardized preparation, a ragged patty edge. Also, all the other customers know the waitress.

On the road again, I noticed a sign I’d seen many times before: Grain Elevator Museum, Exit 140. I’d passed by it many times before, too. This time I decided to stop, and before long Ann and I were face-to-face with the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum, a stone’s throw from the library of Atlanta, in whose gravel lot I parked. Alas, the museum is only open for a few hours after every lunar eclipse, or some such limited schedule. So we saw the reddish exterior, more barn-like than silo-like, broad for a couple of stories, then tapering upward, which must have been state-of-the-art for grain elevators when Teddy Roosevelt was president, since the information leaflet tells me J.H. Hawes built it in 1903.

We got as far as the entrance to the Atlanta Library, a handsome octagonal brick building, but Ann had other things on her mind, and I had to keep her from wandering off into the street in front of the library. There wasn’t much traffic in Atlanta, but there was some.

As we were driving away, I saw Hot Dog Man. This was a surprise. No signs guide people to it. Grail elevators are fine, but Atlanta ought to be advertising this site on the Interstate instead. More about which tomorrow.

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Monday, May 23, 2005

One Small Zoo

Before I go anywhere, I consult a map. Even though I know the route to St. Louis and back cold, and I even remember the streets of St. Louis well enough to get from downtown to Washington University, I looked at a few maps before I went. I was rewarded with the discovery of the Henson Robinson Zoo.

Springfield, Illinois, is well known for its many Lincoln sites, including his house and grave and now a spanking-new interactive edutainment museum. Lincoln’s name is on every other brick in Springfield, it seems. But I needed something to break up the trip with a toddler, and Lincoln wasn’t the thing. On the map I saw a red point-of-interest dot, the zoo, not too far off I-55, and decided that if we were going to stop in Springfield, it would be there.

The Henson Robinson Zoo, a unit of the Springfield Park District, isn’t large. It isn’t famous. In the zoo world, it must be the equivalent of a community college. But I didn’t want an all-day zoo experience; I needed something worth about two hours’ of my time; and I found it. Since it was small, it wasn’t tiring, and it had a lot of shade, so I was able to keep Ann from getting too much sun. It was a Thursday afternoon, so it wasn’t crowded. Admission: $3.25 for me, nothing for Ann. That’s about right. Megazoos, the San Diego Zoo and their ilk, tend to gouge their visitors. Hey! This is the world-famous San Diego Zoo, as seen on TV! Cough it up.

Ann actually paid some attention to the animals. I wasn’t sure she would, but she did. A small zoo has small animals, mostly, and we saw spider monkeys, wallabies, lemurs, foxes, various birds, assorted cats, a couple of small bears, prairie dogs, otters, alligators and some other creatures -- nothing too big, no elephants or herds of zebra or fat sea lions in huge tanks. Their absence didn’t bother me or Ann.

There were at least a dozen peacocks wandering around the zoo grounds, not confined anywhere, sometimes with plumage fully open, sometimes not. I even saw one way up in a tree, and heard several being noisy. Ann had her most fun feeding ducks and geese in one of the ponds. Palmfuls of pellets were available from a machine for a quarter, and I spent two quarters that way.

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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Travels With Toddler

I’ve been to St. Louis so many times now, I’ve lost track of the number. Only a few other places, among those I haven’t lived in, have that distinction, such as Indianapolis and Kyoto. I went down to St. Louis on Thursday to attend my nephew Sam’s graduation from Washington University. He now holds a BS in Architecture from that institution, cum laude. Hard to believe he was once the wee one I taught, while babysitting him when he was a little less than a year old, how to open and close an audio cassette player.

The most direct route from metro Chicago to metro St. Louis is I-55. It’s easily broken into thirds, this drive. Bloomington/Normal is roughly one-third of the way, Springfield two-thirds, if you’re going south. Under ideal driving conditions, it takes a little less than five hours.

Conditions are never ideal, of course. Sitting in my back seat was an unpredictable two-year-old, my own wee one, Ann. Yuriko stayed behind to work, and Lilly to go to school, so it was Ann and me together on the long road. We took her on some longish drives in the summer of 2003, but she was an infant then, with simpler needs and less sophistication in noisemaking, disruptiveness and other toddler arts. So I had no idea how this trip was going to go down.

I’m glad to report that, on the whole, she traveled well. No extended crying. No biochemical mishaps en route. Only one major food spill, an overturned tube of potato chips. Make that two spills -- there was a yogurt incident just before the graduation ceremony, but that wasn’t on the highway. Her presence did mean, however, that I had to stop a number of times, both at rest stops and in a few towns along the way. I made the best of it, and in two cases at least, managed to entertain myself as well as Ann. More on that later.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Back on Monday

This was a busy day. I've been trying to wrap up an article that I've been working on too long, and doing a half-dozen other things that needed doing as well. At least everyone's asleep at the moment -- pushing 11 p.m. pretty hard. I can finish some of my tasks.

NO BLOGGING till next Monday. A full report after that.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Down Mexico Way

There are scholars who keep track of children’s rhymes, as well there should be. But all I want to do here is record one Lilly brought home from a field trip today. She and the rest of the first grade went to the Shedd Aquarium in downtown Chicago to ogle the fishes and monsters of the deep. Definitely a cool destination. Wish I'd had something like that around when I was that age, though I did see a world’s fair, but not as a school trip.

Anyway, the kids entertained themselves on the bus, as kids do. After Lilly returned for the day we headed out, and from the back seat of the car I heard:

“I don’t want to go to Mexico any more, more, more.
There’s a big fat policeman
At my door, door, door.
He grabs me by the collar
He makes me pay a dollar.
I don’t want to go to Mexico any more, more, more.”

For all I know, this could be something filtered down from some cartoon I’ve never watched, like South Park, or one I’ve seen sporadically, like The Simpsons, or any of a number of others, or some movie, or some song. I’ve missed a lot of pop culture since about 1980, and I don’t care who knows it.

I ran some of the keys words of the rhyme through Google, and no link to the mass media turned up. A couple of sites did mention it, however, including one that said it has been popular with black kids in recent years, and perhaps originated from something called “I Don’t Want to Go to Macy’s,” recorded in the 1930s. But no further information about that turned up; my source didn’t even say whether that was a mainstream song or what.

But it’s enough to know that it’s a bone fide children’s rhyme, and one I’d never heard. It contains a nugget of lore too, at least when it comes to Mexican law enforcement’s reputation for petty (or not-so-petty) corruption.

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Monday, May 16, 2005

Unsuitable for Children

Getting warmer, slowly warmer. It’s nearly May-like and we still have half the month to go. Still, the heater kicks in at night. A comforting sound, but it’s time to switch over to that parallel whoosh of air-conditioning.

We have the DVD version SpongeBob SquarePants: The Movie for the time being, and I discovered today that it carries a PG rating, “for mild crude humor.” A PG rating warns us generally that “some parts may not be suitable for children.” If so, those parts are suitable for no one, since SBSP is entirely for children. Besides, “mild crude humor” seems about right for kids, so the parental guidance I’m providing is leaving the room when the movie’s on.

Thus I haven’t watched the whole thing myself, only parts. Parenting busybodies advise us to watch what your children watch, the better to… turn our brains into bouillabaisse, maybe. Funny how no one who seems worried about the ill effects of TV on impressible minds offers this advice: don’t get cable. But I’m not completely against cable. I just think it belongs in hotel rooms.

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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Item from the Past: Hopestill Barns

Some notes I took after my first visit to Boston on May 10, 1982. Later, I spent a lot more time there, but I still remember this first walkabout pretty well, and especially making the acquaintance of Hopestill Barns, who is a permanent resident of the city. Purcell’s, as far as I could tell later, vanished sometime after my first visit.

Spent most of the day in downtown Boston, a place where pedestrians cross whenever and wherever they want. Today was moderately cool and slightly rainy, a persistent drizzle, but it didn’t interrupt my walking.

Downtown: little shops, old graveyards, big shops, cast iron, brick streets—delightful for walking. I found a place to have lunch, a thoroughly good meal, Purcell’s, a cafeteria in an alley next to the courthouse. Remarkable meatloaf & potatoes & veggies & milk, for $3.50

I hung around King’s Chapel graveyard a time, reading the names on the old and weatherbeaten tombstones. Meanwhile, the good people of Boston wandered by. They’re used to the stones. For quite a while, I was the only living soul in the whole cemetery. On a stone the size of a spiral notebook, I found this [all caps, bullet points between all the words, including the inconsistent 17th-century spelling, or maybe I wrote it down wrong]:


There are more famous people buried there, such as John Winthrop, but I was struck by Hopestill for some reason. Death at 24 impresses me even more now than it did when I was younger than that. Taken away by a disease no one in Boston dies from any more? Died in childbirth, a common fate almost too horrible to think about? The tombstone makes no comment. If I ever return to downtown Boston, I’ll try to drop by again.

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Friday, May 13, 2005

Kingsport Plaza, International

Recently I took a closer look at the Kingsport Plaza in Schaumburg, an ordinary suburban strip center. Why does it need closer observation? No reason, except that I get a kick out of anything that belies a stereotype.

The stereotype in this case is the homogeneous suburbs. If such a thing were ever true, it was at least 30 years ago or more, but that only shows the staying power of received, but not carefully examined, ideas.

We go to Kingsport Plaza occasionally to buy kimchi from a Korean bakery called Rice Bakery. Among other things, they sell these enormous glass bottles of kimchi that Yuriko’s partial to. (Kimchi is rendered as ki-mu-chi in Japanese, because the rules of the language require two syllables like ki-mu instead of a single syllable like “kim.”) When I feel like heating up the roof of my mouth, I eat kimchi myself, though not quite as much as Yuriko.

A Korean establishment does not international variety make, but besides that, the strip center has an Iranian restaurant (called Persian), an Indian grocery and video store, a Chinese restaurant, a German bakery and a Jamaican restaurant. There are also assorted other shops without ethnic identities, but I’d say that’s a good variety. I’m especially eager to try that Jamaican spot.

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Lilly's Soda

The chill of May continues. Drizzle and occasional showers too. This has the happy side effect of postponing lawn-mowing another day at least, but I think the time will come on Saturday.

Ann development note. In the afternoon, we went to the nearby park, Lilly on her bicycle, Ann in her stroller, me on my feet, immediately following Ann, the better to propel the stroller. Lilly went on ahead, but put a can of soda in the bin at the bottom of the stroller before she left. Ann came along, saw the can, and said, “DeeDee?”

Asking, in other words, if it was Lilly’s can. “DeeDee” is what she calls her sister, or at least I hear it that way: her version of “Lilly” spoken with a Japanese flavor. Yuriko doesn’t claim to hear “DeeDee” but I do. Anyway, it was the first time I’d ever noticed Ann acknowledging that something could be someone else’s. I answered “Lilly’s” to her question, and she left it alone for the time being.

Unemployment note. Joblessness, on the whole, isn’t a good state to linger in too long, but it has temporary upsides. Namely, if I want to I have to time make a real breakfast for myself (and Ann, though she doesn’t appreciate it). Last week I bought some bacon for this purpose. Hadn’t had any bacon in the house for some time. Fried some up this morning. With eggs, over easy, and toast and strawberry jam. Followed by tea, and the day’s off to a fine start.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Sure enough (see my prediction on May 6), cold air blew through northern Illinois along with thunder and rain in the morning. Pleasant to lie in bed, half asleep, half awake, and listen to the rain on the roof and mid-distant thunder just as dawn breaks. The rest of the day was cloudy and distinctly cool—maybe 30 degrees off the previous day. Spring in the North is a series of ever-weaker blasts of cold air.

Spent some time the other day doing multiple-choice puzzles, for reasons that I will elaborate on some other time. By puzzles, I mean figuring out patterns in sequences of numbers and letters.

Some were easy: 5, 10, 6, 9, 7… next? Some took a few moments: 60, 30, 20, 15, 12… next? And one I puzzled about for about 20 minutes before I figured it out: 23 to is 3,983 as 32 is to (a) 3,839 (b) 3,994 (c) 4,874 or (d) 9,599. I tried all sorts of things on that one, till the answer popped into my head. At least the puzzles weren’t timed, since I needed time to think about some of them. Which makes me wonder about time limits on standardized tests. I've long wondered about them. A few problems in life require immediate attention, but number puzzles aren’t one of them.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Elmers Past

After Lilly came home in the afternoon I took both kids off to Trader Joe’s to buy the things that grocery chain does well. It’s a bit of a drive, so we only go once every three or four weeks. But it’s worth it for the shredded pork with barbecue sauce, in the convenient one-pound tub, if nothing else. We got two tubs. They’ll last about a week. Lilly will have some in her lunch box several times in that span.

Then McDonald’s. By special request of daughter no. 1 for about a week now. She has a way of wearing me down like that. But at least dinner for the three of us was only about $6. Two kid’s meals, both with hamburgers, and since Ann wasn’t interested in her burger much, I pirated it for myself.

It was so warm that we stopped in a park on the way home, a square block in Arlington Heights whose formal name I can’t remember, but it’s a few blocks from the town’s commuter rail station. It has lush landscaping, a central fountain, and a small but small-child-friendly playground. Meaning that nothing is too high, and there’s a cast-iron fence on three sides, the better to keep the whelps out of the street.

Elsewhere, near the fountain, I noticed a set of named bricks as part of the pavement. Usually, this sort of thing is for sale: give some money for a certain cause, often the rebuilding of a place, and you get your name on a brick. These names are probably worn away by the elements over a half-century, and in the meantime almost everyone ignores them.

In this case, the park board for Arlington Heights decided to honor themselves — or at least all of their predecessors. Every past member of the park board from its creation on June 9, 1925, had a brick with his or her name and years of service. There was clearly room for more bricks, so in that way the board members who decided to honor their predecessors had themselves in mind as well.

I was fairly occupied with minding Ann, but did have time to read some of the names, and note a couple of trends, minor and major, reflected there. Minor: No fewer than two board members in the 1940s were named Elmer. Even if there were no Elmer Fudd, I suspect that name would have passed from fashion — in fact I suspect it had passed for little boys by the time these men were grown and on the park board. Major: The first female board member took her seat in 1972. After about 1980, the board seemed about half male and half female.

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Monday, May 09, 2005

VE and me

About 30 years ago, I saw a framed front page from VE Day hanging on a wall. I have no memory where I saw it or which paper it was, but it must have been one of the major dailies, and I knew enough to know the significance of the date. The headline, 72 points probably, said: NAZIS QUIT WAR.

Not VICTORY! or THE WAR IS OVER. It struck me as odd. Nazis Quit War? “We’ve had enough, we’re going home. You Allied chaps can keep the ball. See you next time.”

It still strikes me as a little odd, but I’ve since seen that verb used that way occasionally, and maybe there’s a nuance from the 1940s that I don’t know since I wasn’t around then, hearing the language and reading newspapers. Or maybe it was just the only word the editor could fit in the space. Headline writing, especially before a computer spaced everything, was certainly a tricky art.

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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Item from the Past: Notes on the Back of an Envelope

May 2002

A few notes on Montreal, since it's an enjoyable destination, full of flavor and life, and we're doing it in our vacation style, that is, a lot of walking around and seeing things, buttressed by stops to eat or resting ourselves on benches.

I suppose a lot of people do their trips that way, but I have heard of people (two in my office, as it happens, on recent trips) who fly off somewhere (Las Vegas, the Bahamas) and park themselves near water for a week or even longer. That counts as a form of rest, but I can’t really understand it. Then again, some people are more naturally kinetic than I am in their everyday lives, and that is one way to press the pause button. More phlegmatic ordinarily, I go somewhere to be kinetic. Of course, this has its drawbacks, such as the fact that it takes several days -- some of them here at work -- to readjust to everyday life.

Yesterday, while both Yuriko and Lilly were getting their hair styled at a Chinatown salon, I made my way down Rue St. Catherine, a busy commercial street well occupied by shops, cafes, restaurants and even the vestiges of Montreal’s adult entertainment industry. Also, I saw a woman beside a folding table on the sidewalk hawking Lyndon LaRouche’s ideas in French -- this I knew from reading the signs taped to the table, which included his name. I passed by a Jesuit facility on that walk, and read the English plaque at the entrance, a companion to the French one. Even in English, it referred to the transfer of Quebec sovereignty from the French to the British in the 18th century as “the Conquest.”

On Wednesday, after I returned the rental car that we used for a day trip to Ottawa to a site near Dorchester Square, perhaps a mile from our hotel, I walked back. It was about 10 pm, and I stayed along Rue Levesque, a major street. At the intersection of Levesque and -----, I saw young men, not quite homeless-looking but perhaps at risk of it -- with squeegees “cleaning” windshields of cars stopped at the light. I have seen this before, of course, but I’ve never seen the cops drive up suddenly and tell the squeegeers to stop. Or so I assume, as it was in French, but there were barking as cops sometimes do. And the squeegee men got lost.

Besides the many times she went to the hotel pool, and the one time we went to the vast Olympic pool, I believe Lilly’s favorite part of the trip has been throwing rocks in the reflecting pond near the entrance to the Biosphere, a geodesic dome on Île Sainte-Hélène in the St. Lawrence River, a Buckminster Fuller creation and relic of Expo 67.


Friday, May 06, 2005

50% Off, Come 2015

Exceptionally busy today. I think a regular job would be less work, all things considered. Had a job interview, an article to finish up, an interlude during which we thought Ann was going to be seriously ill. Fortunately, she seems to be better now.

Finally, at last, it’s unambiguously warm, the way May should be. This means that we’re certain to be blasted by a cold front next week. Call me a pessimist. I’ve lived here long enough.

Another letter from Best Western came today. This one was from the hotel we actually stayed at, with its distinctive parrot-decorated return address. It was from a new general manager, one Laurie Ward, who apologized again and offered us half off our next stay, upon presentation of the letter.

When will that be? Who knows? Five or ten years might be reasonable estimates, if then. But I have files. This letter will find a home in my files, and if the time ever comes, I will take it to Florida and demand my 50% discount.

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Thursday, May 05, 2005

More on the Choo-Choo

At about 1 o’clock on a moderately warm spring afternoon, the Choo-Choo Restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois, was alive with kids, mothers, grandparents and an occasional father — I was one of two. A small place like that, stocked with kids, is bound to be loud, and it was, with the addition of the clatter of dishes and the special whirling wheel-sound a model train makes. The place smelled good, too: the smell of short-order cooking.

The gimmick at the Choo-Choo is that a model train loops around the counter and back into the kitchen, where it picks up food to be delivered to the patrons. It’s a larger model, I think Model O, since it needs to be large to haul the meals. The engine said GE AC 4400CW, and pulled four flatcars fitted with plastic baskets, the kind in which hamburgers and French fries are served. It must have made the circuit a few dozen times while we were there, sometimes going around without food.

The train is actually on a track recessed a bit from the counter at which people sit on stools, and on the left- and right-hand sides of the counter were a few booths. We sat at the furthest booth on the left. A young man took our order — cheeseburger for me, kid’s grilled cheese for Ann — and a few minutes later, the train came by with our food. How did it know where to stop? Each booth or seat had a number, so I suppose the cook could set the train to go to the number. I was still looking at the menu (it had the Story of the Choo-Choo on the back), and before I noticed our food, the employee who’d taken our order handed it to me from off the train (I tipped him).

A pretty good cheeseburger. The patty had an irregular shape, like you might make for yourself. The shakes were also supposed to be good, but I passed on them this time. I suspect that they would have been delivered by hand.

According to menu, James and Marilyn Ballowe started the place in 1951, with Mr. Ballowe wearing and engineer’s cap and red bandana, and blowing at whistle sometimes. They ran the place until the late 1970s. The text implied, but did not say, that James passed away some time ago, and that the restaurant closed for an unspecified time, but was now open again with new owners — with Marilyn’s approval. Perhaps James’ shade still shows up now and then to watch the trains go ’round too.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Choo-Choo No. 1

It’s like a dimmer switch being turned up. In this case, up means spring heat. Broke the 60s today. Tomorrow, warmer still. This can mean only one thing. Time to get the coolant replaced in the older Toyota. Ah, true spring.

Today in the course of my work, writing articles that is, I went with Ann to Des Plaines, a major blob of a suburb east and a little north of where I live. I was planning one thing, but I saw another, and changed plans — for lunch that is. Haven’t been out much for food since unemployment began, but I figure if I eat every meal at home, it won’t be worth the aggravation.

What I saw was the Choo-Choo Restaurant, on a side street not far from Des Plaines' “downtown.” I’d heard of it before, another thing learned tangentially. I looked at a web site once, and liked its design, so I clicked on the designer’s logo. Another client of his was the Choo-Choo Restaurant, a name intriguing enough that I looked at its web site too (www.thechoochoo.com), which features the menu. But I seldom go to Des Plaines, so I never made it to see the actual place.

The Choo-Choo doesn’t look like much from the outside: a small rectangle with large glass windows on three sides and brick in back, Inside, it’s as plain as a diner should be, with a counter seating about 10 and a half dozen booths. Originally opened in the early 1950s, it closed later and then re-opened, though I haven’t been able to pin down the timing, since the woman in charge looked too busy for a leisurely talk about the rebirth of the Choo-Choo. Anyway, the place makes use of a model train that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Ann and I enjoyed the sight. More on that tomorrow.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Gripe for the Day

The door to warmth from the cage of endless winter swung open today, just long enough for the inmates to marvel at the sight of greenery and feel the tickle of the afternoon sun outside when — slam. Shut again. Frost warning again tonight. This is why tomato planting is contraindicated even in early May, here in northern Illinois.

Am I complaining about the weather? No, just griping. With a complaint, you have some hope of redress. Griping is for griping’s sake.

Speaking of griping — complaining, actually — it took a month, but my letter to Best Western, “the world’s largest hotel chain,” finally resulted in a reply (see April 5 for details about our last day at the Best Western near Busch Gardens). It was a suitably apologetic letter, which is good, but it also included $100 gift card, worth about a night’s stay somewhere in the chain, which is much better.

So I am mollified. I’m removing them from the Dees Hotel Do Not Stay list. Back up to neutral for BW, since in fact I hadn’t given the chain much thought until I found the location in Tampa to be convenient to our purposes. I’m certain we’ll be able to use the card sometime before a year is up. A year because, if you read the back of the gift card, you’ll note that “after 12 months a monthly service fee will apply.” My italics.

Here’s some griping, then. A service fee on a gift card? This isn’t specific to BW, since certain other retailers have annoyed their customers with the same bad idea. It’s greedy, it’s grasping, it’s gratuitous, to alliterate on the matter. “We need to make the gift cards a revenue center!” management thinks. Boneheads.

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Monday, May 02, 2005

Robert Greig, Movie Butler

It’s still cold. It grates on the nerves, this May cold — down in the 40s during the day, a frost tonight. It’s supposed to warm up this weekend, but still. A lost warm day in May isn’t replaced by one in November.

Knowledge grows tangentially. At least for me, with a good reference work at hand. That used to be dictionaries and other books; now it includes the Internet. Last week as I was tooling around the Internet Movie Database’s entry for Animal Crackers (see April 29), I chanced across the career of Robert Greig, as described there. He played Hives the butler in the movie, which apparently was his first talkie, and one of his first movies, period. It was a charming supporting role, occasionally as funny as anything the Marx Brothers did in the movie.

The imdb says he was born in 1879, another site says 1880, but both agree he was Australian. His life before about age 50 is mostly unrecorded, at least in my cursory look around the Internet, though I’ll bet he takes up a paragraph or two in a film book or two, the sort found in specialized libraries and film-aficionado bookstores (or my friend Kevin’s collection). I imagine he was a stage actor, perhaps in parts of the Commonwealth before drifting to the States and that new employer of actors, movies. So his life after 50 earned him more notoriety than 99.9+% of the human species gets, assuming that notoriety, especially posthumous kind, means anything anyway.

After his part in Animal Crackers, and probably mostly because of the role, he seems to have found his niche. According to the imdb, a lot of his other parts until the late 1940s (he died in 1958) were along these lines: Charles, the butler; Jenkins, the butler; Vance, the butler; Jules, the valet; Oscar, the majordomo; Red Apple Inn majordomo; Brearly, Boulton’s butler; Henderson, Dearden’s butler. (He did have other parts, however, including “Eunuch” in Arabian Nights.) I like to think that he made a nice living from his butler-heavy looks, affected British accent, and ability to conjure a cinematic gentleman’s gentleman.

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Sunday, May 01, 2005

Item From the Past: Hangzhou

May 3, 1994.

Early on Saturday morning, we walked from Hangzhou University over the Geling Hills. Nice walk, leafy green, not many people, though there were a few old men out walking their birds, carrying them along in their cages. Down by the West Lake, famous for its role as an exemplar of natural beauty in Chinese verse, a lot of people were out for the day, both by the shore, and on little boats in every corner of the muddy-brown lake. Bottles and wrappers floated near the waterline.

In the afternoon, we took the No. 7 bus—a tin can—to Lurgyin Temple. The grounds featured a multitude of buddhas, most looking Indian in inspiration, some remarkably large, with huge feet and hands, carved into the side of a bluff. The place was nearly as popular as the West Lake, so the translation of the temple’s name, the Temple of Inspired Seclusion, didn’t apply any more, or at least on warm spring weekends.

After we boarded the No. 7 to return, a woman outside the bus went berserk. Middle-aged, red puffy in the face, a number of men around her restraining her. Don’t know what inspired her noisy, screeching outburst. Garden-variety lunacy? Somebody on the bus stole something from her? Or merely pissed at not getting on the bus, which was jam-packed? Naturally, her language was opaque to us. Just as well, I guess.

Had dinner with Renee, a Singaporean, and Kevin, an Australian studying Chinese at HU. He took us to a small place near the front gates of HU. Exceptionally good food: pork, tofu, veggies. He sounded a little tired of China—been there only a couple of months. His Chinese seemed good to me, however, and he pointed out some things we would not have known otherwise. For example, GA on a license plate means the car belongs to the army. Later, you start noticing how many expensive cars sport such plates. Closer at hand, Kevin knew about a dish of glazed apples served hot, which you dip in water to cool. Delicious.

Postscript: Later we ran into Renee, the Singaporean briefly mentioned above, in the Beijing main train station. We got her address in Singapore and visited her there a few months after that, and corresponded with her for a few more years, though unfortunately not any more. As for the Australian Kevin, I know nothing further.

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