11/23/2008

Pedestrian story #55: AMTRAK's impromptu delivery

I had walked up to JPA Fast Mart to get a beer, as a way of taking my dog Billy for a very long walk. The kids were in bed and I wanted to exercise. The night sky was beautiful and I wanted to get used to the cold. I had a mission that satisfied many objectives, and so off I went. I walked down Cherry Avenue and up Highland before heading over the JPA Bridge to the store.

I stood in the Wayside Deli's front-yard while texting someone, and had to pull a bone out of my dog's mouth. He was in heaven. I tied him to a post next to the pay-phone while I went in.

After the mission accomplished, I began the journey home. I didn't even notice the cold anymore. On the way back, I took a right onto Shamrock, even though I was worried about walking down that road at night because of the at-gun-point mugging that happened last week. I decided to go that way anyway, because I figured my dog would keep any attackers at bay and because I really didn't want to give in to fears.

Besides, I kind of wanted to see a train.

Sure enough, as I climbed the hill, I could see a train light illuminating the tops of the trees, and the presence of a train was confirmed by the slight rumbling I could feel vibrating through the air.

Would it be an Amtrak? Whenever I see Amtrak, I get hope that maybe this world can be more like England, with passenger trains hurtling every which way with some level of frequency. I would love to be able to visit relatives via the train on an easy and reliable fashion. I also love the romance associated with the knowledge that these are strangers shuffling through our town, traveling through as opposed to traveling above.

As I approached the tracks, I still had time to cross to the other side. A man driving a van stopped before the guards came down, but decided to risk it. I could have run across, but I wanted the chance to just stand back and watch the train roll through town.

Amtrak engines are pretty ugly and beat-up. They don't look very nice, or very healthy. They don't seem to inspire confidence. Of course, my frame of reference here is England, where the trains are a little brighter, a little more colorful. Trains also travel through much more frequently, something you might imagine is more likely in a country with the population of California in the geographical footprint. There are also very few at-grade crossings. Trains occupy their own universe for the most part.

After the first engine rolled past me, its chiming quiet bells were joined by a screeching sound as the brakes were engaged. The train moved slower, and I got to see the details of undercarriages. I was shocked by how rusty and dirty the wheels seemed. I got to glimpse the insides of the sleeping cars. There appeared to be two levels, and it all seemed kind of steam-punk in a way.
I got to look inside a couple of regular passenger cars, which looked a lot like the ones you see in England and I was filled with memories of traveling around that country aimlessly.

Finally, the train stopped and I could hear people on the train! There was an argument of some kind.

Billy started barking at the train. He hadn't noticed it until it had stopped. Now, I could see a pair of feet on the other side of the train, on the other side of Shamrock. I figured that someone must have run up to the train and yelled at a conductor to move the train out of the way. The feet went away.

Then, slowly, the train started rumbling away. Billy's barks intensified, and I laughed at the train with him, glad I had walked down Shamrock. I am most certainly a trainspotter, but for a moment, I felt overjoyed to have had that brush with Amtrak.

And then I started walking again.

At the first house past the train tracks, a woman frantically walked from the front porch to the sidewalk. I quickly saw that it was the same pair of feet I'd seen, clad in white sneakers. What was going on, I wondered?

"Excuse me, where is the station? Can you please help me? They just dropped me off the train. My kids are on that train and I need them to know I'm okay," she said.

Turns out, she had been putting her kids on the train when it began to roll away from the station. So, they stopped the train at Shamrock, opened the door to let her off the train, and yelled at the window as the train rolled away: "Call the station! Call the station!"

The woman was from Harrisonburg and had driven here to put her kids on the train so they could take the journey to Charlotte. She asked me if I could help her get to the station, because she doesn't know town very well.

Of course, as you might know, there's no way to walk from Shamrock to the station on West Main unless you take the tracks, which is frowned upon by ordinance. So, I told her if she was able to walk back to my house, I could give her a ride to the station. It was a bit of a hike, up two large hills, but it was likely her best option.

She decided to take the risk of walking with a stranger, and that's how I spent my evening and the second half of my walk. I had to tell her that Shamrock was a busy road despite its appearance as a sleepy neighborhood street. She had a tendency to walk in the roadway rather than on the sidewalk.

What else could Amtrak have done? What is the procedure for this type of thing? She didn't hear the warning. But, to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere?

Along our way through the dark, we had a nice chat about trains, planes, the Philippines, Taiwan, teaching overseas. She kept trying to call her kids on the train, who must have been worried sick about her. There's no signal pretty soon after the train tracks head south out of town. She kept trying anyway. Finally, she gave up and we walked along towards Cherry Avenue and back to the house.

Eventually, her kids got in touch with her and she decided not to tell them that she was walking with a stranger back to the station, but I had to tell her to walk a little faster as she crossed Cherry Avenue as a car was fast-approaching. We go to the car, and I had her at the station two minutes later.

As I was dropping her off at the station (which was closed and would have been of no help to her if she had called) She said she thought it must be pretty cool to live in Charlottesville.

And you know what? It is.

11/17/2008

Live-blogging City Council

I'm messing around with a live blog of City Council. Want to extend the range of services we provide. Will likely be here until 9:30 PM. Early meeting tonight.

UPDATE: Well, it was a lot of fun, definitely. I will be taking down the item from public view at some point tomorrow, as it was not quite meant to be an official product of Charlottesville Tomorrow. I need to make sure that we have the guidelines in place to make sure it's up to our editorial standards. I was able to get some interesting feedback, and I hope to be able to do it again soon.

11/14/2008

Charlottesville Tomorrow stories in Google News!

For five years, I've used news.google.com as my home-page. It's become the equivalent of my newspaper, as I use it to skim and see what the biggest stories are at the moment. I think it's a very efficient way to get a quick overview of what's happening.

Now I'm pleased to report that our stories at Charlottesville Tomorrow are now appearing in the results for Charlottesville. This is a big deal to me, to know that the work I do is showing up in my virtual newspaper.

Also, the stream was a success last night. I'm hoping we'll do more of that.

11/13/2008

Tonight's band: Archers of Loaf

So, I just ditched my Rhapsody subscription after four years in order to save money. It was such an awesome service, but I can no longer justify it. I canceled the $13 a month payment in part because there are alternatives to sample music.

Tonight, I wanted to hear some Archers of Loaf. I first heard "Wrong" on WUVT in 1992 or so when I was still a freshman at Virginia Tech.



Of course, none of my roommates had any interest in the same kind of music as me, and neither did anyone at the student newspaper at which I worked. I only met one other person who had even heard of the band, a guy who wasn't even a student. Of course, I had a friend at UVA who also shared the same interest in the band. I think at one point I'd hung out with him and he'd played this song, "Might".



The videos aren't so hot a decade and a half later. As a matter of fact, watching isn't really advised. The songs are much better without watching a visual companion. But, wow, it's pretty amazing that we're at a point in society where I can hear these songs whenever I want just by going to YouTube. This next track is from their second album, VeeVee, and is one of my favorite songs of all time. It's a great anthem that for some reason just hits me and takes hold of me and makes me want to be alive, years after hearing it for the first time:



I have to take something back that I said above. The videos could be good. VeeVee ends with a track called "Underachievers March and Fight Song" which I love, and this video totally does it justice:



Now, before I go on to their later albums, I'll conclude this post with a link to a video that's not a video. I think this was actually the first Archers of Loaf song I ever heard - "Plumbline" which is the one that contains the line "she's an indie-rocker and nothing's going to stop her"

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Again - if I want to wax nostalgic, I can do it for free without Rhapsody. Which is all I was using it for, anyway. This means I'll likely buy more albums, though. Maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Now streaming: South Fork Rivanna Reservoir Task Force meeting

I've been experimenting with providing live audio of events I cover for Charlottesville Tomorrow as a beta project. Now I'm streaming the latest meeting of the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir Task Force meeting. Listen in here using Winamp or iTunes. Check out the agenda here. Would love feedback. I'm also twittering updates as it continues. Here until 8.

UPDATE: It's over now, of course. Do check in on that feed from time to time. You never know what you might find.

11/01/2008

Charlottesville Dancing


View Larger Map Amy had come to pick me up to take me to an appointment. We were in a hurry, as always, given that I always need to arrive at Place B as quickly as possible.

The sun was shining in Court Square, and the perfect light of autumn makes the bricks glow with a sense of civility. The sky was a perfect blue, a bracing wind was blowing, and our gold car was beginning to move towards our destination. We didn't have much time. Yet, I was somehow able to spare a minute in an impromptu dance that made my day.

Let's freeze time for a second to describe the scene.

As I had left my building to jump in to the car, I held the door for another man who was leaving another office. Amy was parked on the stubby end of East Jefferson Street. I hopped in the passenger seat. She backed up and turned to head west.

The intersection of Park Street and East Jefferson is an odd one (see map), as the road continues for another 30 feet or so before hitting my building. Every day I witness from my second floor window a delicate ballet as traffic dances through the square.

On this occasion, there's a car that's come south on down Park Street trying to turn right. We're trying to move forward, but we had been stationary, so the car trying to turn left onto Park Street from East Jefferson also wants to move, and there's no clear signage pointing the correct way to dance. The man who left my building is crossing Park Street so the man has stopped, and he seems somewhat irritated.

Amy and I are quickly communicating the best route to get to our destination, slowly tiring forward while we wait for our minor traffic snag to resolve itself. We are four or five single objects all trying to get to our own individual Place B.

I see a flash of white from the corner of my eye. The man who left my building with me has dropped the folder he was carrying, and papers are scurrying everywhere in the wind. I did not see the exact cause of the explosion, but I told Amy to stop the car in the middle of our vehicular ballet. I jumped out of the car and said I had to help the man get his work back.

Now I'm running around Court Square picking up this man's papers, which seem confidential, some sort of legal case or contract. Many of the papers are notarized, and it all seems pretty important. I'm running around my car, and I've noticed that both the driver of the car trying to turn left onto Park Street has also stopped and is running around as well. Some of the papers were trying to escape down 6th Street, but I managed to head them off. In doing so, I noticed a woman had jumped off her bike to assist in the rescue. We smiled at each other.

Even the man who had seemed grumpy a split second earlier was out of his car, and we were all dancing in Court Square, frantically trying to help this man get to his Place B with everything he was supposed to be taking there. Our dance was quick and it got the job done and then we all went our merry little way.

I love moments like that, sudden bursts of collective energy when we realize we're all pretty well connected.