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Car Search

Car Search

It’s hard to believe I had basically closed on a car way back in November. All that was left was to write out the check and drive the thing – a white 1992 Nissan which I hadn’t bothered to christen yet – back home. Unfortunately, a family tragedy closed that deal off when I had to spend my car proceeds on a trip to Buffalo. But here I am now back on the car market, wondering why the hell everything just can’t be as easy as it was last time.

Last time, I lucked out. It was my second or third viewing, and an immediate fit. I didn’t think I would end up getting that lucky again, but the whole process of searching for the right car is getting frustrating. I keep thinking of giving up, then the next day, I roll out of bed again, eat my breakfast, walk out the door three hours before I’m supposed to start my shift, and then remember why I need a car in the first place. Up, down, around trying to get back and forth and having my journey stretched out to an insane length…

See, I’m doing pretty much all of my searching on Craigslist, vis the recommendations of my Father and one of my housemates, two people who know. And their Craigslst methodology received an added boost by the fact that I visited a couple of used car lots and was told that if I ain’t buyin’, they ain’t sellin’, please get lost.

Craigslist, of course, limits my options. But then again, so do used car lots, and I’ve noticed that Craigslist tends to have better offerings than the standard used car lot choice of either paying a truckload or buying a fixer-upper. My housemate and my Father have both chimed in with their own two cents; the short list of cars they say I should be looking at includes the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, a type of Nissan I’m always forgetting the make of, and a couple of others. Long-term reliability is the name of the game here, and much to my surprise, I’m finding that Craigslist is pretty accommodating with the brands I want. I browse the car sales list every day and can usually find a couple on my desirables list.

After I find something I want, though, the hard part comes: I have to initiate some form of contact. Since a system of blinking is clearly out, that usually means I’m sending out a short email to the seller. Then the wait begins. Half the time, I don’t get a response. The times I do aren’t always a good response. One person told me he had already sold the car. Another kept sending me nearly dodgy, single-word responses to my questions. (Those were tough questions: Where is your address so I can view the car, how do I get there, you know, things no one would be expected to know about a car they were selling.) Finally, he got around to admitting that if I wanted to, you know, move the car I would have bought to my home, it would have to be towed there.

Creating appointments to look at those cars presents another problem. Since I don’t have a car, it’s tough for me to cover a wide-reaching area in search of someone selling one. My preferences tend to lean toward people in North Seattle or Snohomish County. Anywhere south of Downtown Seattle and I may be looking at a day trip. So my appointments have to be scheduled for weekend days, when the busses are being sent around less. Then we’re going into negotiation and debating over terms.

Yes, this is a process which would drive a lesser person insane. Hell, its got me halfway there myself. But between the labyrinth I have to navigate to get back and forth to work and the times I’m always getting up in the morning, I figure getting my hands on the car of my dreams – which, right now, is something I would describe as “something that runs reliably” – I think this will all pay off around the time I go shopping for my straightjacket.

A Response to Seattle Met: Why I am Buying a Car

A Response to Seattle Met: Why I am Buying a Car

The Seattle Met recently wrote an article about how more and more Seattleites are forgoing the follies of the local public transit to move themselves around in their own cars. It was a whine that didn’t feel like a whine, but they weren’t totally off. Traffic here is a capillary jam. They did, however, choose to conveniently ignore a few things about the Seattle area public transit which might help them understand what’s going on.

Seattle’s transit goes through about nine agencies in some three or four counties, and the Met decided to focus strictly on the King County transit. It makes you wonder if the Met thinks Seattle exists in some sort of little capsule. What, is everyone in the general area a vampire, they can’t get into Seattle proper without invitation? Because last time I checked, there were a lot of people living in various places outside Seattle who venture in and out of the city for work. Back when I was working my night shift, I made friends with a co-worker who made a nightly commute from Olympia. That means Tacoma wasn’t out of the question.

Seattleites voted to expand their public transit system. I give them all the credit in the world for that – its been at my attention for some time that Nashville recently voted down a railway expansion for its MTA because it would bring “the wrong sorts of people.” (Read: Minorities would be able to, you know, go places.) But I’ve also made the recent decision to end years of being a holdout radical to go out and buy a car of my own. Why? Because I have an hours-long commute in both directions which the I-5 is only partially responsible for.

Okay, it’s only the second-longest commute I’ve had to get to a job since I moved to Seattle, but the longest and most difficult commute I had took me into Bellevue for my night shift. But that one can be easily hand-waved; I live in Everett, and no one would expect a half-hour drive from Everett to Bellevue no matter how they’re going about it. My current commute, however, only goes into the U-District. Not only is that a lot closer, but the way there is just a straight shot down the I-5… Yet it gets drawn out to over two hours – not much quicker than my old transport to Bellevue – because two transit systems in the area have randomly decided to emasculate themselves!

What’s more is that there is a perfectly normal bus run that makes a dash right across the part of the U-District I need to be in. The problem is that the bus line that takes me straight the way there only starts up at 9 AM. Think about that – I don’t work weekends, and the easiest, smartest bus route in the King County/Snohomish County transit plays dummy. It goes straight to Downtown Seattle, hitting a handful of the big hot stops on the way in, including the place I need, and it starts making the runs well after workers need it. You would think the problem would be solved when I leave work and make my way back to Everett, but it actually gets worse. That great route I just told you about only runs until about 2:30 PM, when it just stops… And starts back up again an hour and a half after my shift ends!

Going in and out of Seattle requires navigation of a transit labyrinth. In the morning, I have to make jumps from Everett to Ash Way before hitting the bus that gets me to 45th. You would think going back would be a run of that same route in the other direction, but here’s the thing: My transit source for the main leg of the journey, Community Transit, runs about half of their intercounty busses in the morning. The other half only runs in the evening, and none of the evening routes put me anywhere near my station n Everett. So I have to get on the first bus to Lynnwood, hop a second bus for a five-minute ride to 99, then catch the Swift to get to my cross-street. The way back is made even more of a pain by the fact that my bus options for the short stretch along 200th don’t synch up with the Swift times and there not being a stop right on 99. I get to 99 just in time to miss the Swift, and since the Swift chooses THAT time to switch to its non-business schedule, I get left with 20 minutes to kill while I get soaked.

Review that ride home: The Swift switches to its non-business schedule a half hour to an hour later, I get home at a more reasonable time. Community Transit places a stop on 99, I get home at a more reasonable time. The bus I take on 200th leaves three minutes earlier, I get home at a more reasonable time! Got all that? I didn’t even have to bring Everett Transit into it, because – despite its circulator runs being sore spots – they don’t really have anything to do with this.

The tipping point came on one of our “esteemed folks” bank holidays earlier this year. Now, on normal holidays, damn near every system running around Puget Sound switches to a Sunday schedule. But Martin Luther King Day and Presidents’ Day are, for whatever bullshit reason, not normal holidays. And Sunday schedules usually offer all-day service. But here, we can’t have that, because it would only make sense. Therefore, the transit gets to avoid switching to a Sunday schedule and just make service cutbacks. And by “cutbacks,” I mean they just plump STOP a handful of the routes I need. The morning proved to not be much of a problem; I was able to find an alternate way through Lynnwood. The evening run, though, forced me to stand for the full 90 minutes waiting for the Soundtransit bus to finally arrive and take me straight to Everett.

That sound like fun?

Yes, I’m glad to see that while a lot of cities are cutting transit, Seattle and the areas surrounding it are willingly voting to add to it. But those Link extensions will be years in the making, the Sounder is the most useless train on the planet, and the Swift is only working on one extra route at the moment. In the meantime, I can go crazy or get a set of wheels so I can roll out of bed at a reasonable hour.

Trains, Planes, but No Automobiles: The Ultimate Travel!

Trains, Planes, but No Automobiles: The Ultimate Travel!

I’ve gotten a respectable distance through the United States. I’ve been from the extreme north to the extreme south, extreme east to extreme west. And here’s a kicker which people these days may not believe: My journeys to the extremes all took place on land. There were some buses and cars involved, but I’ve mostly become known for my primary reliance on a form of old-fashioned travel which is so forgotten that a lot of people don’t even realize it’s still around: Train. It was the Amtrak that opened up the vast expanses of America for me and allowed me to view and experience firsthand the sights we sing about in all our popular National Anthems.

This didn’t happen because I had anything against air travel, per se. Except my fear of heights. But I always knew that sooner or later, I was going to have to get over that. And when my sister got married, I found myself nestled on an Alaska Airlines flight to California asking “Is this really so much better than the train?” So let’s do this! Trains vs. airplanes. One day, I’ll learn.

Efficiency
The point of both trains and planes is to get passengers from one point to another. Now, everyone knows the fastest way between two points is a straight line, and that how airlines operate: They fly from point A to point B in the straightest line they possibly can. Furthermore, they can frequently make those flights in a matter of hours with minimal interference. Trains are land-based, and can only travel on sets of parallel rails, which means that if things are crowded, they can’t simply turn onto the next rail because it’s moving faster. Trains also move slower than airplanes – yes, they’re faster than cars, but they still take a matter of days to make trips airplanes cover in hours. Of course, you’re allowed to get off a train to stretch when it stops.
Winner
Airplanes. There’s virtually no way trains are superior to airplanes in pure efficiency. I saw very few delays in the airports that I was in, while trains will frequently get held up for the slightest of reasons: They can’t keep the tracks clear, there’s a shift change, the engineer channel-surfed into a rerun of Battlestar Galactica that he really liked. Furthermore, the primary train system in the United States – Amtrak – is a government-run passenger train which is forced to run on privately-owned freight tracks. If you can’t guess what gets the priority on the freight lines, you’re probably not an American. My first-ever train journey was delayed three times because of this.

Service
Good service can make a long ride a little bit more pleasant, and both trains and airplanes have certain kinds of service. Trains have their conductors, who walk from car to car taking tickets, writing down ticket information, and giving passengers notice of what stops are coming up next. Trains also have service exclusive to the dining and lounge cars – two different things – and they all excel at their jobs. All the dining car service I ever experienced was faster than The Flash; after placing my order, I had my hot food placed down within a few minutes. The lounges don’t have roving service, but the server standing behind the snack counter has always been very fast. Instead of a handful of different kinds of servants handling designated roles, airplanes make do with their flight attendants. The flight attendants are in the business of doing a little bit of everything, from handing out little trinkets to serving drinks and snacks as well as being a line of first aides who present safety procedures. It’s the flight attendant who greets you as you board and cheerfully sends you off after the flight. In between, the flight attendants perform all kinds of services, from giving out complimentary snacks to taking food orders to cleaning up your garbage. And they all do it with a politeness which is almost superhuman.
Winner
Much as I like the service on the train, the flight attendants take this one because they’re asked to do a more impressive number of tasks in a much smaller space. Flight attendants are the be-all-and-end-all on an airplane. Not only that, but they also bring the service to the passengers rather than standing in one place so the passengers have to get up and approach them. Also, I frequently found myself looking to them for how calm they are in the face of everything a flight can go through. After all, they make their living on the airplane, so they’ve seen it all.

Terminals
If you have to wait, you should at least be comfortable while waiting, right? And trains have stations that resemble palaces in certain locations. The train station in Albany is a modern glass and steel structure with all the amenities of a western skyscraper. Grand Central Station in New York City and Union Station in Chicago offer giant underground networks filled with restaurants and kiosks, comfortable waiting rooms, and even vehicles which span for several blocks and protect travelers from the elements. Unfortunately, those fortresses are rare, and if you’re in some backwoods outpost like Rugby, North Dakota, or Elyria, Ohio, your train station is more likely to resemble a quickly-assembled tool shed. Its amenities will include virtually no security, bathrooms which offer no reason to trust them, and a few vending machines. And there are cities with the aforementioned palace stations that don’t even have their palace stations anymore: Buffalo and St. Louis both ran train stations which were art deco masterpieces before they were left to decay. Both have been rescued, but Buffalo is struggling to find a new purpose for its old station while the St. Louis station is nothing more than an odd gathering of random food outlets and small outlet stores. Airplanes park at airports, which take up enormous tracts of land and provide an aesthetic beauty which is less than underwhelming. Douglas Adams once wrote that it’s no coincidence that in no language exists the phrase “as pretty as an airport,” and he was dead on. Airports are built more for functionality, and that makes up for their ugliness. Most airports offer a bevy of places to eat and buy newspapers and souvenirs. More importantly, an airport can hold several different flights going to many different places at the same time, while the average train station will be a single train stop for five minutes while some people get on and others get off, which is why there are so few trains that go in and out of any given city per day.
Winner
Airplanes. The good train stations are too few and far between, and they’re actually becoming less common with fewer people taking long-distance train rides. In any case, even the largest train stations can hold a handful of trains at once. Airports have a lot of terminals and are built to get a lot of people to their flights. Airplanes aren’t as large as trains either, so airports are built to be convenient for a bunch of different airplanes to dock at the same time.

Price
Prices on both the train and airplane tend to shift according to how many people are traveling. I’ve seen prices for both run close to $300 for round trips. The difference is that for the train, a price like that could take you across the country while an airplane ticket with that price tag could take you a couple of states. Oh, and there are these other differences too: After you pay the ticket price for the train, that’s the end of all monetary transactions unless you decide to buy the food on the train. Otherwise, you show up at the station, collect your ticket, get on the train, get off the train, and that’s that. With airplanes, the ticket prices tend to waver a lot more on a day by day basis. Then you go to the airport, and pay to have the pass printed, and to have your luggage checked, and to get most of the food. Although I did notice that the airplane food you have to pay for is cheaper than the train food.
Winner
Train. Maybe you could make an argument that the airplane offers better advantages for the higher prices, but given unlimited time and money, do you think that’s going to matter? Cheaper is going to be better in most cases, and the train is one of them.

Sightseeing
There’s a reason trains and airplanes have windows: It’s so the people traveling can get some sweet views of the outside scenery. The great thing about airplane windows is that there are covers which easily slide over them if you think too much sun is getting let in. Trains have curtains, but they’re a pain in the ass to move. Airplanes offer some incredible views which you’ll never find anywhere else – if you overcome the height, you’ll get to see entire coastlines, whole mountains from above, and big cities which you can cover with your hand. It offers a chance to see things in an entirely new way. The view from the train is dramatically different. It offers more of a pioneer point of view as it takes travelers, ground-level, over expanses of land which a lot of people will never get to access in their cars. Trains tracks are built in a way which allows them to cover any kind of weird stretch of terrain, no matter how unlikely. The kinds of things they’ve done with steel rails are still things no one has really attempted to do with asphalt, because a train needs only a narrow confine to move around, and that leads to incredible sights as travelers are taken across swamps, along canyon bottoms, and even through cities.
Winner
Trains. While an airplane can give travelers a unique view from above, it offers its best upon takeoff and landing. At some point, the level is just about perfect, and that can be before the airplane levels out. Also, train travelers don’t have to try to look through cloud cover the way airplane travelers do. There’s a lot more to see, and you can easily view the little details which lend color and artistry to the landscape. But what really takes points away from the airplane here is that the best views of the scenery are only available to the people next to the windows. This isn’t a problem on trains, where windows are very large and you can head to the lounge for a view of everything the surrounding scenery has to offer.

Food
Trains serve both regular meals and snacks, but they use two different cars to do so. The lounge car offers several snacking staples – a little alcohol, pop, and some small, cheap, handheld sweets. They also offer more lunch-like treats like burgers and hot dogs, but those are wrapped up and thawed in the microwave. In my book, that makes them no good, since parts of them stay frozen anyway. The food in the dining car is actually pretty good, and served nice and hot. And in all honesty, Amtrak serves one of the better cups available anywhere. Airplanes serve complimentary snacks and drinks – at least some of them do. They also have full meals available, but the trouble with this category is that I haven’t eaten a full airplane meal. I’ve heard the food in first class – which I’ve never flown in – is much better than the food in whatever non-first class is called, but having never eaten either, I don’t think it would be fair for me to judge the nice train food against a couple of bags of mini-pretzels.
Winner
Incomplete. Ask me again after I’ve made a longer-distance flight. Actually, I’m just including this for completion’s sake – I tend not to order full meals during lengthy travels. Even on the main leg of my journey to the west, I subsided mostly on a loaf of bread from Whole Foods and Amtrak’s coffee.

Comfort
The most hated and disrespected form of long-distance travel in the country is probably the bus. There’s a reason for that: Buses are cramped, loud, slow, and have very little space to move around. Imagine that same atmosphere in the sky. Okay, that’s not fair to airplanes – airlines do everything they can to make the flight more pleasant than any bus ride will ever be. They offer refreshments, and the flight attendants are always around in case you need anything. But that doesn’t change the fact that airplanes have to cram a lot of people into a small space, and there’s going to be a little bit of discomfort on a few levels like that. The seats tend to be on the smaller side, it’s difficult to walk out of your row, and having your carry-on bag by your feet can make you feel a little cramped. Trains, well, the dining cars don’t have a whole lot of space available, so you may sometimes be asked to share a table with someone you’ve never seen before. And like on airplanes, there’s a risk of slamming your head against the overhead compartment. Airplanes seat people three to a row, unless hey paid for a first class ticket, in which case it’s a roomier two to a row. Trains offer two to a row in coach, with large seats and sizable spaces to get in and out – which train travelers use to move around in the car quite often. The aisles on a train are significantly larger, and two people can easily get around each other. And although trains don’t call it that, they do offer a first-class spot for people willing to pony up the cash; it’s called the sleeper car.
Winner
Trains. There isn’t a spot I can think of where airplanes are more comfortable than trains. Even the first class goodies on airplanes don’t come off as any more comfortable than the average coach seat on a train. Furthermore, the room trains have is important on long trips, where passengers will want to get up and stretch their legs a few times. Even if a passenger feels crowded in a seat, they can easily get up and spend a few hours in the lounge car reading, using the internet, or watching the world go by. Airplane passengers also have more engine noise and turbulence to deal with, while the train is almost silent and makes little more than gentle rocking motions.

I don’t intentionally write these things to be ties, you know. I try to be as honest and objective as possible, even if my preference isn’t what comes out on top. (That was the case in my Cleveland vs. Buffalo sports curses post.) But, for a third time, I’m not able to place one above the other. Airplanes and trains both have their merits.

The Battle of the People: The CTA vs. the NFTA

The Battle of the People: The CTA vs. the NFTA

Well-known fact about myself: I hate driving. I can do it and I’m perfectly willing to do it; it’s just that I prefer to have other people do it for me. Unfortunately, since I’m not a rich person with a personal limousine, I don’t have ready access to anyone with a car who can drive me anywhere whenever I want to be someplace else. That’s where public transportation comes in. There are whole citywide networks of buses and subways which are conveniently there to ferry me from Point A to Point B in the event that a ride isn’t available.

Cities don’t share public transportation systems, though, and that leads to that interesting phenomenon that some cities run better transit systems than others. I’ve resorted to getting around on public transportation in Buffalo and Chicago, so now it’s time to compare these systems to each other to find out which one is better. Chicago has the Chicago Transit Authority – the CTA – a large system of buses that goes with its legendary rail system, the L. No slouch in taking people across town itself, Buffalo responds with another system of busses and a lightrail – the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority, better known as just the NFTA. So let’s do this! The CTA vs. the NFTA. One day, I’ll learn.

Size
Chicago has about 2.7 million people. Buffalo has around 250,000. Logistically, you’re not going to create a public transit system for Buffalo which is the size of the CTA. So I guess the question here is how far someone would have to walk in order to reach the bus or subway stop. If you were walking through Chicago, even in the parts closer to the edge of the city, bus stops never seem that far away. Usually about four blocks is considered a long walk to a bus stop, and the walk to an L station won’t be so bad either. However, there are a lot of bus routes that force you to transfer just miles before the edge of the city. (42 Western, ahem.) These can be a pain because the connector busses to the city limits don’t come around quite as often. In Buffalo, four blocks is usually considered a close walk, unless you’re downtown, where the busses seemingly have stops on every block the closer they get to City Hall, even though they don’t need to be there. Routes in both cities can take upwards of an hour to get where they’re going, but Chicago’s sensical grid layout means it’s easy to figure out what bus goes where. Buffalo’s busses go in squiggly patterns designed to cover the most space they possibly can, and if you end up in a place you don’t know, it can be hell to orient yourself and find out how to get where you need to be. Also, Buffalo’s subway is a single line – a straight shot up Main Street from Harborcenter to UB South, and there was never any courtesy expansion across the Buffalo River so the people in South Buffalo and the First Ward could get on the lightrail every ten minutes.
Winner
The CTA. The NFTA is not only smaller and less convenient in terms of relative size, but they’re going to keep making service cutbacks until they don’t exist anymore and South Buffalo secedes from the rest of the city just so it can function. Also, there are a few spots where the CTA is good about taking people into the suburbs: Oak Park, Cicero, Skokie, and Evanston are all touching L lines. Do NOT expect the NFTA to take you very far into the suburbs, especially if you live in the southtowns.

Price
I’ve read numerous long essays by prominent economists, and let me tell you this: If privatization is supposed to drag prices down, the CTA fucking blew it. They blew it big. The only thing the privatization of the CTA resulted in was jacked-up fares and an inconvenient credit system with which turnstiles are known to frequently refuse to let customers through while still draining their accounts. Maybe it would help if the CTA had some real competition, but competition or not, all that extra convenience and efficiency which is supposed to follow privatization didn’t come about, and now Chicago is stuck paying fares which would disgust people in Manhattan. The prices of the unlimited passes in particular have skyrocketed over the last few years: The one-day pass is $10 now, double what it was when I lived there. The two-day pass was cut entirely. The single-fare rides on the bus and L are different, too. One stop on the L? That’ll be $2.25. A stop on the bus is merely two dollars. The NFTA doesn’t have quite such a finicky system; both bus and subway rides are two dollars for one. The NFTA charges half the CTA’s price for a day pass, three-fourths of the CTA’s price for a monthly pass, and anyone under 17 years old can get a pass for the entire summer for $60. The closest price comparison is with the seven-day passes, which run $28 for the CTA and $25 for the NFTA.
Winner
Lesser is better. The NFTA wins this round. You can argue that the CTA charges more because Chicago is a bigger city with a bigger transit system, but with economic inequalities in both cities and the liberal ways they both cut routes, people who regularly ride public transit don’t give a flying shit about bang for the buck as long as they can get where they need to go. So all those economic arguments in favor of the CTA are pretty much meaningless when someone has limited funds.

Punctuality and Frequency
Transport is worthless is you can’t get where you’re going on time. Fortunately, the NFTA is pretty good about showing up when it’s supposed to. That’s something even the most adamant CTA booster admits the CTA royally sucks at. The thing about the CTA’s little punctuality problem, though, is that where it flounders in ETA, it more than makes up for in frequency. CTA busses are schedules to run every 10-15 minutes, so if you end up getting to your stop a little late, all that’s required is for you to stand around waiting for the next bus. The L can be a little bit worse, but not by enough to cause concern if you’re not already running late. As for the NFTA, it’s in the habit of forgetting there are people who have places to go. Busses in the most packed areas of the city get sent around twice an hour, and it only goes down from there. If you’re in a suburb with a bus stop, don’t expect to ever see another bus come after mid-afternoon. The subway is great at running on point, but the problem there is that the points have a habit of firing upward if there’s construction and a track gets shut down. If things are running smoothly, trains come by in ten minutes. On one track, that time doubles.
Winner
The CTA by 500 miles. The NFTA has it in for the city, especially if you live anywhere south of the Buffalo River. Anyone who’s lived in Buffalo for awhile has either never been to South Buffalo or is well aware of the weird on/off cultural flip that happens when they get there. South Buffalo is wildly different from the rest of the city – it’s sort of a localized version of Texas in that getting there is like landing on a whole different planet where the people have only a general sense of what happens anywhere else in the city, although they claim to be among Buffalo’s most fervent boosters. Furthermore, the NFTA has taken a beating from intellectual types who blame it for being one of the causes of the nasty racial rift that exists in Buffalo. And although the racial divide is starting to disappear (however slowly, but it’s still progress), no one is giving the NFTA any credit for it.

Cleanliness
Let’s face it, public transportation can be a hostile environment. Not violent, mind you; just very unpleasant. There can be any manner of unidentifiable liquids and unseemly substances on public transportation, and there are times when it can smell godawful. The CTA claims that it cleans out its busses and train cars twice a month with high-powered chemicals. Of course, given the volume of people who use the CTA on a daily basis, chances are you don’t know the difference by the time you get on the bus or into the L car. The NFTA busses and train cars are infinitely cleaner; you still wouldn’t eat anything off their floors, but you’ll rarely have to hold your nose and endure an offensive odor. Furthermore, the NFTA is a lot nicer to look at, bad color schematics and general designs aside.
Winner
The NFTA. I’ll grant that part of the reason why is because the NFTA goes out of its way to keep people from riding its busses or lightrail line, but clean is clean.

Cool Bands Named After
The CTA ended up inspiring the name of a band called Chicago Transit Authority, which shortened its name to Chicago after the real CTA threatened a lawsuit. Describing themselves as a “rock and roll band with horns,” Chicago proceeded to sell over 40 million units in the United States alone. Their infectious mix of rock, jazz, and rhythm and blues music resulted in earworm singles like “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” and “I’m a Man.” The NFTA, according to a Google search, doesn’t have any musicians at all named after it. You could maybe attribute Buffalo Springfield to a band named after a city, but that’s pushing it.
Winner
The CTA. After all, Chicago took listeners to the park one Saturday. With the NFTA, you’ll never get to the park.

This contest is decided in favor of the CTA, and since I basically knocked this out in a few days on a loose deadline, I should also mention it would have been far more one-sided had I taken my time. While the NFTA certainly has its fans… Aw, hell, I can’t even finish that sentence with a straight face. The NFTA doesn’t have any fans. Even the Buffalo government hates it. And yes, I complained frequently about the CTA; but I never forgot how much worse it could get, either.

The Worst Travel Story Ever

The Worst Travel Story Ever

My arrival in Chicago went exactly as planned, and I rolled in on the Amtrak right at 9 AM on Friday morning, just as I was supposed to. Except it wasn’t 9 AM, it was actually 9 PM. And I wasn’t riding in on the Amtrak, but some charter bus service called Lakefront. Or maybe it was Lakeshore? Lakeside…. Lake…. Well, there was definitely a Lake prefix, that much I’m certain of. I’m also well aware that my starting this odd little journey was on a real train. Much as I would love to write off everything that happened as a nightmare, I have the train tickets in my suitcase to prove everything happened.

It would have been really cool to run around telling everyone how my Amtrak train pulled a sudden, Transformers-style morph into a charter bus in an effort to chase down Megatron. That fact that that’s not what happened, however, probably doesn’t make this story any less horrifyingly compelling.

My original train was scheduled to depart from the Buffalo/Depew station at 11:59 PM on Thursday night. In other words, it was scheduled to leave on Friday morning. And what would you figure, I can honestly say that Friday morning was exactly when it left! I like to imagine the thinking of the people in charge of the trains running on time looked at the departure times and said Whatever, Friday morning is Friday morning, right? No one will ever notice the difference! The difference in question ran about nine hours, so midnight was seen and acted upon as a 9 AM departure. You may remember that 9 AM time from the first paragraph up there. So, basically, I was just pulling away from the Buffalo station at the very same time I was supposed to be pulling into Union Station in Chicago. There’s barely a difference, right?

Fortunately, I had the sense to call ahead and check my train’s running time, so I got to sleep in my own bed before departure. The next slated departure time was supposed to be at 8 AM on Friday morning. Up and ready I was, ever the morning person, eager to get to the station where the inevitable next delay would occur and last for an hour. It was 9 AM, as mentioned, when the train showed itself.

If there was a bright spot in this so far, it was that a million people abandoned their tickets, so the tickets I waited to buy cost about $70 less. They should have been free. Anyway, I took my usual window spot on the Amtrak, wide-eyed and optimistic in eagerness to once again view the rising skyline of Chicago in person. My giddiness lasted until I got up to make my first pit stop. Upon making my way to the back of the train, I pulled on the handle of one of the doors. It was locked. I turned to the other one and pulled it, and it was locked too. When this happens, the first thought that pops into the train goer’s head is to just move to the next car and use the bathroom there, but hell, those were locked too! Now, at this point, there still nothing wrong in my own little world. It’s unusual for all these bathrooms to be locked at the same time, but there are more people on the train than bathrooms, so hey, it’s possible, right? I tried a few more cars before returning to my seat. Odd, yes, but I didn’t think anything was off until the second time I got up and three more doors were locked before I finally got into one that was open. It was definitely weird. Were there potheads on the train and they all decided to get high at once?

Further use of the bathrooms resulted in me learning there were only three bathrooms open on this train, and two of them weren’t flushing. Amtrak definitely receives a credit for the sheer chutzpah of taking a hundred passengers out somewhere on a double-digit-hour trip, providing ample supplies of coffee, pop, and booze the whole way while subtly telling everyone they had to hold it in. Yeah, it should be pretty easy to guess how the whole episode ended. Two improperly working bathrooms meant two backed-up toilets which apparently no one on the train was qualified to do anything about.

The Lake Shore Limited, however, made steady progress through New York and Pennsylvania. In Cleveland, the usual half-hour stretch break was even waved because there were folks who had to get where they were going. After Cleveland, things slowed down a little bit. After Elyria, they slowed down a lot. Great, so now the passengers were forced to deal with a slow-going train without their bathroom breaks, and the people kept being up to the challenge despite the increasing frequency of train stoppages. I guess the boys at Amtrak were getting a little close to the Union Pacific running time, because the train began making constant stops to let the freight trains flow across our windows. This significantly cut back our progress to Sandusky, and by the time of the Sandusky stop, the train was creeping along like Solid Snake in a ventilation shaft.

It was between Sandusky and Toledo that we received the news: Amtrak had decided to give us up due to frozen track problems. Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve been forced to deal with frozen tracks on the Amtrak, but I do have to wonder: Aren’t there engineers available to take care of stuff like this in a timely fashion? The frozen vortex isn’t an excuse. This is the Third Coast. It gets cold up here. Freezing weather is a fact of life, and yet, every time it happens, Amtrak does the Sun Belt-drivers-in-snow routine and clams up. You would think no one ever had to deal with cold weather before. We were going to be thrown off the Amtrak and placed on charter buses which would go on straight to Chicago.

As the train got closer and closer to Toledo, we were given constant reassurances – and also complimentary beef stew – by the crew that Toledo was only ten minutes away, and that we would soon be off the train and on our way. After this experience, I now officially believe Amtrak’s ten-minutes away line is less a real measure of time than a way of keeping the passengers from rebelling and taking control of the train. We all knew the train could have been moving a lot faster than it was, and it really should have been. Yet, it insisted on rattlesnake shaking its way into Toledo, and those ten minutes must have been symbolic of something. Ten minutes until the next ten minute announcement, perhaps? I made conversation with the passenger in the seat next to me, who used a tablet to look up the precise location of Toledo. We were still 20 miles off when he did that. An Amtrak moving at even a halfway decent clip could have covered that in about 15 minutes.

During the snail ride into Toledo, I started to have my most vivid romanticized fantasies ever about bus travel. I had taken the Megabus from Chicago to St. Louis, after all, and it hadn’t been so bad. Perhaps I was a wee bit rash? Surely a bus, no matter how delayed, could be better than this. Well, when we finally pulled into Toledo, it was past 4 PM, and I immediately made my way to the bus. I got on, took a seat, and slammed my shin against the plastic foot stand. While that might have been a recoverable injury, I sat down by my window, and all those vivid bus fantasies I had got shot to hell. It was cramped. I mean, it was really cramped. When another passenger got on and sat down next to me, it was even worse.

The worst part of this, though, was the fact that the bus driver kept climbing on and off the bus. There was no way this could have served any possible purpose. At one point, he climbed off in order to open up more luggage compartments for checked luggage. And who the hell knows just what he was doing the other times? The bus got delayed for at least a half hour waiting around for this guy to find the damned accelerator. At this point, I was now physically holding myself down to keep from going completely mad, probably scaring the daylights out of the poor passenger next to me. So I tried keeping myself calm in the most effective way I could think of: Whisky. It was a good thing I had thought to store my flask in my jacket pocket before hopping aboard the train.

After god only knows how much longer, the bus finally left Toledo, and the rest of the trip, while uncomfortable, proved to be efficient. Mostly, anyway; there was some snailing along just before the bus climbed onto the freeway. It took us another four hours to reach Chicago, but Union Station was finally sighted around 9 PM…. And we couldn’t get to it because there was an ambulance parked in our zone. Although we were finally in Chicago, that held us up for another five minutes. It was only five minutes, and it was for a very good reason, but even so, five minutes after being crammed on a bus felt like an eternity. I had Cracked podcasts and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to entertain me, but they didn’t make me forget how much my muscles hurt.

Getting off the bus felt like an injury recovery, but you can bet that this is a story Amtrak is going to hear about. Especially once I found out from another tablet-wielding passenger that the following Lake Shore Limited train the next day left on time.

The Commercial Death Star; The World’s Most Useless Shopping Mall

The Commercial Death Star; The World’s Most Useless Shopping Mall

Anyone who has ever lived in Buffalo, New York knows the city has a notoriously overzealous preservation committee – they’ll fight tooth and nail to rescue tool sheds that have been converted into crack houses. If you know anything about Main Place Mall, though, that not only may provide an explanation for their behavior, but a damn good explanation.

Main Place Mall is plopped right smack in the middle of downtown Buffalo as part of a complex nicknamed Buffalo Place. It has a covered walkway leading into the next-door Liberty Building, and it takes up most of the block from Church Street to Lafayette Square, sitting conveniently on Main Street’s lightrail line. To understand the preservation committee’s eternal worrywarting, you have to understand what that part of the city contained until Main Place Mall was built in 1969. The Erie County Saving Bank Building was there, a magnificent architectural piece which drew influences of European-style castles. There were several other beautiful buildings sitting on the block too, the traditional architectural styles of which can still be seen on certain blocks of Main Street today.

The history of Buffalo is similar to that of most other Rust Belt cities. The city exploded thanks to its ideal situation right at the tail end of the Erie Canal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buffalo was the eighth-largest city in the United States, and one of the richest. The place was an industrial giant with an enormous steel base, and over 70 percent of the grain that got shipped anywhere in the world ended up passing through Buffalo at some point because of Buffalo’s collection of grain elevators – the world’s largest, many of which still exist. Buffalo got hit hard when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened and many of the traders who had to go through the Erie Canal were able to bypass the city completely. There was also the whole suburban White Flight trend that started hitting in the 50’s and 60’s. Everything started deteriorating, and the city officials, in their everlasting brilliance (note: that’s written with the highest possible level of venomous sarcasm), started wiping out everything in their paths in the name of slum clearance and urban renewal. Some of the prettiest buildings in the entire country got the axe, and were replaced by structures which I suppose might have fit some definition of “modern” at the time. The newer buildings on the Buffalo skyline are ass-ugly. Brutalist architecture became a way of life to the 60’s developers, and it’s all punctuated by the 40-floor One HSBC Center, which is the tallest building on the city’s skyline, the most prominent, and the most likely to be mistaken for a giant refrigerator box. It might be the ugliest building on Earth. PS: It’s also largely abandoned these days. Most of the major tenants have run off – including HSBC itself, which occupied 75 percent of the available space in the building. 97 percent of the building will be vacant by the end of this year. There’s a reformation and renewal project in the works for the place which might spring it back to life, but it will unfortunately not involve razing the place, so hopefully the aesthetic remake will at least make it blend better with the rest of the city, or at least not make glancers want to gouge their eyes out.

Main Place Mall was one of those attempts at renewal. It’s a shopping mall which was intended to bring everyone from the suburbs back into the city for their weekend cash-throwing contests. It failed. Man, did it EVER fail.

Main Place Mall looks like the Death Star. I think it’s technically defined as a piece of late-century modernist architecture, but it really doesn’t look like it contains any of the standard giveaways of modernist style. In other words, if you’re looking for something Wright might have designed – Wright being one of the headmasters of architectural modernism as well as a guy who designed a couple of houses in Buffalo – Main Place Mall ain’t the place to start. This place looks much more like a brutalist building made out of metal: It looks heavy and angular, the side beams look like exposed steel beams, and the assembly could easily be mistaken for large slabs. Fitting, because Main Place Mall basically IS a large black slab. Main Place Tower, which is attached to the mall, looks like a giant version of the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If you’re a first-timer in the Buffalo city limits, Main Place Tower is the only part of the building where the entrances are marked. So it’s the only way you’ll know you’ve found Main Place Mall if you’ve never seen the place before and somehow missed any online descriptions or directions: “If you’re walking along the lightrail line and you reach an ugly black slab, you’ve found it!”

Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s pizzeria both have direct entrances from the outside of the mall, which is good, because that means you can visit them both without having to actually set foot in the mall itself. Buffalo Coffee Roastery makes delicious coffee and baked goods. Its main function is just to serve as a coffee joint – instead of a full-time cafe, like a lot of other coffeehouses today – especially if you don’t plan on staying, because the only seats there are along the walls – there are no proper tables. The coffee is quite delicious, though, so it’s very convenient to grab an order as you wait for the lightrail to stop by the Church Street station. Gino and Joe’s is an oddball pizzeria by merit of the fact that it serves New York City-style slices instead of the Buffalo-style which is made by absolutely every other place in the city, save Pizza Hut or Domino’s. It’s damn good pizza, though, and at under $3 per slice, quite reasonably priced.

You now know of the only two places in Main Place Mall worth checking out. There are two floors in Main Place Mall, but no place else worth visiting unless you:

a – Have an unchecked fetish for footwear. I’m not talking about the unique stuff, either; I mean plain, old, average, everyday, ludicrously overpriced footwear. There are a few footwear stores in Main Place Mall, including a Foot Locker and a Payless.

b – Are in dire need of an emergency newsstand or dollar store. There’s one of each.

c – Work downtown and want a conveniently located Key Bank or food court. Let’s face it though, Buffalo is a strict Bank of America city now, despite once being the official capitol of North America for HSBC. And Bank of America is accessible in the next-door Liberty Building.

There are a couple of other stores, but basically there’s nothing in Main Place Mall worth visiting. Now, I know what you’re thinking: It’s a shopping mall, Nicholas! Even if the retailers are bland, it would still be easy to visit the place and grab a new suit shirt should something happen to the one I’m wearing! Just go into the JC Penny’s or Macy’s or…. Hold it. Shut up. Let me stop you right there. I don’t disagree with that sentiment. But when I said there’s nothing in Main Place Mall worth visiting, you were probably thinking the emphasis was on the “worth visiting” part, like a lot of other people would. That’s not the case. My emphasis was actually on the “nothing.” My little bullet listing up there wasn’t an emphasis; it was a summary of stores that are open in the entire place. I think there’s also one clothing store, and I know there’s a place for Buffalo-unique collectibles and T-shirts and a place to buy chocolates. Those are all on the first floor. However, it’s very easy to get to similar places all throughout the city – Buffalo collectibles are easily located on nearby Elmwood Avenue, sweets can be found anywhere within the nearby Elmwood Village and Allentown neighborhoods, and as far as the clothing store goes, even people in the suburbs probably live within easy distance of a strip mall with clothes stores in bunches.

Yes, the majority of the first floor is empty space. There are a large number of closed storefronts, most of which have been that way for a long time. The really depressing part, though, is how much of that space is NOT actual storefront. Anyone who frequents shopping malls is aware of the fact that malls have a habit of placing plain whitewall over spaces that haven’t been rented out to tenants in a long time. A good chunk of the first floor consists of that if it’s not closed storefront.

The second floor, however, is even worse. Outside the food court, there are no stores whatsoever. Just a hulking balcony. In the worse old days, there was a walkway to the building across the lightrail line, but that building has somehow managed to become even more useless than Main Place Mall, and so it’s now completely close – which means the entrance to the walkway is also boarded up. The eastern side of the second floor has closed storefronts. The western side? Entirely whitewall.

The one part of Main Place Mall which would make Main Place Mall worth a visit – besides Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s – would be the food court, but only if you happen to work downtown, and even then it’s pretty inessential. About half of the food court is whitewall. One of the food court restaurants is Gino and Joe’s – the very same place on the first floor, serving the very same food at the very same prices. Everything else is there just to satisfy hunger pangs. The food there does the job. It’s not exceptional, but it’s probably the only reason Main Place mall is still open.

Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s need to be given their own spots. Once that happens, Main Place Mall needs to be demolished. Aside from those two places, the only halfway decent thing I can say about Main Place Mall is that, with One HSBC Center just a couple of blocks down the street, it doesn’t look quite as ugly as it is. Some Buffalo tourism sites advertise Main Place Mall as one of the city’s premier shopping centers. That’s a bigger lie than any of our local politicians is even capable of telling.

Adventures in Smashing Cars with Sledgehammers

Adventures in Smashing Cars with Sledgehammers

It isn’t as easy as everyone makes it look in the movies, but damn if it ain’t fun!

Deep in the superconscious parts we don’t talk about, we all have these destructive fantasies of joyfully taking a sledgehammer and smashing some object of our ire until it’s smashed good. The University of Buffalo is having a Spirit Week, complete with all kinds of fun things to do. Today’s fun thing to do? Take a sledgehammer and smash a car! Anyone who thinks I would let this happen without my own participation just doesn’t know me very well.

The demolition was controlled. Everyone who wanted to take sledge to chrome had to sign a waiver and wear goggles, just in case a ricocheting piece of car backlashed the other way and hit us across the brow.

I arrived late for the festivities, but all that meant to me was that I didn’t have to wait very long, even though the car was already smashed in pretty good. Yeah, of course my great plan was to just take the hammer and go to town. As I watched some of the others in front of me in line, I tried to create a plan of attack: Number one, the back hubcap looked a little bit too pretty and un-smashed for some reason. Step two: Find the smaller, looser parts of the car and practice my long-dormant home run swing. Step three: Time to perform a little bit of body work! (I wonder if The Hulk ever pre-planned any of his smashing sprees.) My plan was quickly revised, though, after I decided to go with the crowd bandwagon and take my shot at finishing off the windshield frame, which was just a few good hits away from collapsing. Even the guard sign-in guy for the event seemed to be encouraging it.

My turn came. I made a beeline toward the pretty hubcap, wound up my golf swing, and took a hard, clean shot which hit the hubcap smack in the outer rim! There was a loud, muffled-sounding clang, and my sledgehammer vibrated, and after that…. Nothing. The damned hubcap wasn’t even dented! I figured my shot might have been a bit too far off the sweet spot, wound up, and socked the cap in the center. Still no damage.

Okay. I got the message and decided it was now my time to start gunning at the windshield frame. I move up to the front of the vehicle, taking a couple of good, hard cursory shots at the roof along the way. The whole time, the crowd watching had been encouraging everyone who partook in the beating to get angry. Now it was my turn to get angry, and lord knows it wasn’t difficult to come across my motivation. I was fucking standing right in front of it. Go back to my acting lessons and think of something that pisses me off: Bicycling in the Buffalo suburbs and getting assaulted by motorists! I got into a nice rhythm as I started regularly winding up and hitting away and, for the first time since I started, doing a little bit of visible damage. I got a few very nice shots at the frame, and I think the crowd was impressed that such a little guy could wield such power with a sizable sledgehammer.

The problem with window frames, though, is that they’re small targets. Sledgehammers are heavy, and they’re not going to be aimed the right way the entire time. So after a few good strokes, I missed a couple of times, hitting the little cross section at the frame and the roof. Then I missed with the hammerhead completely, and hit the neck of the hammer. The force behind that drive was so strong that I thought I saw a very slight bend in the hammer’s neck. There’s the waiver sense. I tried to point it out, but no one thought anything of it, so I finished up my turn.

It was fun, and I can now say I smashed both a car AND a house with a sledgehammer!