Monday, February 28, 2011

Part II: The Weekend of Disaster on Amtrak

The short answer from Continental is no. With the exception of a few rare documents I don't possess, there's nothing other than a Passport that will allow an American to leave the country on an airplane no matter what the entry requirements of the destination nor how much body cavity searching you can tolerate. Predictably denied, I booked myself on the next flight to Bonaire, 24 hours later and turned towards the trains to track my bag into New York City.

A return trip on the people mover and I was waiting on the train platform in a chilly breeze waiting for the NJ Transit train to Penn Station. I phoned my dad and brother who had been waiting at the gate for me to join them on the airplane to share the bad news and also checked in with Jill for her latest process with Amtrak security. In the dark below the platform a peculiarly large rabbit lopped across the train tracks, squeezed through the hurricane fencing and disappeared into the gloom of Newark airport.

The NJ transit train was a half hour late and these were probably my grimmest moments, sitting there beating myself up with how different things could have been if I'd only been paying attention. Calls ahead to Penn Station and Amtrak were fruitless and all I could do was wait and hope that someone kind and responsible would retrieve my belongings and help them get back to me.

Following up in person did me no better as I got weary repetitions of their archaic 'lost and found' operations that are only open Monday-Friday from 8am-4pm excluding holidays, which did me exactly no good at 11:30 Friday night with a long weekend in the offing. The train I'd been on had come and gone to a train yard for cleaning and the best I could expect was my bag returning to the office Tuesday morning, which means I'd miss the Saturday night flight to Bonaire, and thus the entire vacation since flights from Newark go out on Friday and Saturday nights only.

I left Penn Station after midnight, dressed for morning touchdown in the Caribbean, feeling ridiculous and stupid and under dressed for the cold. With my huge check-on bag in tow, I hailed a cab and met up with some friends in the East Village to drink away the pain. Over beers and shots of Jameson we brainstormed ideas to get me to Bonaire on the Saturday night flight ranging from a new passport via expediter to buying  new ticket in a friend's name and assuming their identity. Ultimately, the passport processing idea only works mid-week on a 24 turnaround time at great cost and borrowing someone else's passport amounts to some kind of fraud and probably ends up with problems for both the borrower and lender. I was perfectly screwed and with no one really to blame but myself.

Still, I  held out hope of a 'good samaritan' recovering my bag and taking one of the ample clues inside with my contact info in the recognition of its personal and time-sensitive importance. (Most of us don't casually travel with Passport and every owned, portable electronic device at once.) But this didn't happen in time to salvage the trip and with each passing day is looking less likely at all. A disappointing side note on society these days, I guess. I would have accepted anonymous return of the passport and diving certification cards in exchange for the electronics.

Defeated by the combination of my own goof, the incompetence and undesire of Amtrak and the low scruples of whomever has my bag, I returned to Philly on the Saturday afternoon Amtrak where Jill cheered me up with tamales and micheladas at El Rey.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Weekend of Disaster on Amtrak

Tuesday morning as I shoveled my car out of the 5 inches of snow that fell in Philly overnight, I mumbled some a curse at the Universe beneath my breath since by rights I should have been in the Caribbean this morning on a scuba adventure with my dad and brother.

Rewind to Friday night after a crazy week of work and I'm scrambling to wrap up my business affairs, spend a last few quality minutes with Jill and catch the 8pm, 138 Northeast Regional train from 30th Street Station up to Newark to catch the red-eye to sunny Bonaire.

I make the train and we sit there next to the platform for about 30 minutes without moving. The conductor comes on to explain something about the 8:35 pm train breaking down and its passengers needing to board our train. Not a big deal, but I actively chose the 8pm train because the 35 minute difference might mean something on an international flight. Still, I'm not panicking as we pull out of 30th street at 8:35 and begin the journey.

Under normal circumstances I'd have been on the platform at Newark airport at about 9:15, which would have been plenty of time to catch a midnight flight. But the train keeps slowing down and even stopping and we're getting up there past 10pm and still not there, so I'm starting to get a bit anxious.

10:15PM we finally pull into Newark and I grab my checked bag and hurry off the train to get a ticket for the strange people-mover type train Newark uses to get people from Amtrak to the airport. I settle onto the people mover, in a small car all by myself and as the glass doors seal me in and the train leaves the station I realize that I've left my carry-on bag with my passport, iPad, digital camera, prescription glasses, sunglasses, antibiotics, and scuba diving certification cards on the Amtrak bound for New York City.

The rush of panic I felt just then was about as serious a jolt as I've felt since watching Jill nearly bleed out on our couch. As I realized that I'd probably just screwed myself I went into a rage and gave the glass door of the people-mover a few good head butts before picking up my phone to call Jill, to get her working from home with the advantage of a good Internet connection, and then Amtrak to see about tracking down my bag.

Meanwhile, I'm still puttering on at slow donkey pace toward the Newark Airport terminal while my precious bag and passport are flying down the tracks in the opposite direction towards the mean streets of New York City.

First of all the Amtrak Police are completely useless. Don't even bother calling these guys. I'm not sure what they respond to, but unless someone's entrails are hanging out already I'm not sure they'd bother with the situation. They tell me 'we don't do that kind of thing,' (like, help people?) so I have to call sales and support through the 800 number. My heart sinks. I picture the Amtrak cop hanging up and smiling at his buddies over their steaming styrofoam cups of coffee and saying some poor fuck just left his passport on a train and thinks he's still got a chance of flying tonight.

The 800 number is predictable, polite computer voice recognition maze of sales oriented dead ends that takes 10 minutes to speak with an agent despite my dire, loud screams that yes, I'd like to speak an agent. I'm sorry, I didn't quite get that, it sounded like you said you'd like to speak to an agent. Who finally, also informs that she has no way to get in touch with the train, but I could phone up ahead to Penn Station in New York to alert them and have them look for my bag.

The people mover stops and I get off at the terminal in Newark. The Continental line isn't too long, maybe 10 groups ahead of me in sandals and Hawaiian shirts with their passports poking out of the front pockets. I'm still on hold with Penn Station's customer service line when I get to the check-in and the guy there does a double-take as I inform him in an increasingly hoarse voice that I don't have a passport but is there any amount of body-cavity searching I can submit to that would get me to Bonaire?

To be continued...

Monday, February 21, 2011

That is Philly in the Cedar Rapids Trailer

Here's the screen grab from the 25th second of the Cedar Rapid's Trailer on IMDB, and that is definitely some old* b-roll of Philadelphia from somewhere over the Art Museum being passed off as Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Here's the actual Cedar Rapids skyline for comparison:
Not quite the same.

*Old, because the Comcast Center is conspicuously missing form the shot meaning two things:
1. The footage is definitely pre-2008 when the Comcast Center was completed, but maybe even older since there's no tower visibly under construction either.
2. The filmmakers saved a buck or two on some outdated, canned footage of a city skyline, still the choice is mystifying for lack of any real good reason to use it. The shot doesn't contribute to the general theme, which I suspect is central to some of the comedic set up of the film, of Cedar Rapids as a bit of a backwater.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Selected Scenes From Philly Thundersnow 2011

In addition to being the night of the East Coast's last freakish weather event, aka Thunder Snow 2011, January 26 was also when I watched 'Exit Through the Gift Shop.' The street art subject matter of the film got me feeling a bit mischievous and coupled with the interesting weather outside, motivated a midnight adventure armed with Flip Video and digital camera. I've already shared the motion picture account of that evening, which featured such unusual moments as drunk bastards snowboarding down Market Street, but here share a quieter sampling of my favorite still shots of the city transformed by more snow than most Philadelphians have seen in a generation (unless of course they were here last winter).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Results: Beer Stein of Change

That's $0.01 shy of $95 dollars.

The poll closed with 12 votes and most of you deeply underestimated the value of quarters. A full half the field estimated $45 in change in my Lowenbrau beer stein and only one reader took the high and accurate road of $95. So much for the wisdom of crowds. Or maybe 12 doesn't quite make a crowd. I think Surowiecki's point had something to do with random individuals and large sample sizes, neither of which we produced here. It's clear form the poll results that I just know a few skeptics.

That said, I do want to get back to a comment by reader 'Iceman' that read:
Coinstar is for suckers....go to any TD Bank and they'll sort your change for free.
Cold, Iceman, but true. I didn't do my homework going in and was only mildly surprised (as in, I should have expected this) the Coinstar tries to fee-gouge you to the tune of 9.8%. And after that just gives you some kind of 'cash voucher' which must create a second layer of inconvenience as you find a way to redeem it. I was picturing some kind of mail-in and wait 6-10 weeks for a check, but didn't go down that road to find out for sure. Perhaps someone else can comment?

So I went with Plan B, which in Coinstar terms is taking the full dinero amount in the form of a gift card with one of their pre-selected partners. This is also a pretty sly deal and I'm sure Coinstar's getting a tummy scratch on the back end of this too, but at least you get your full value and some of the vendors are pretty good. I chose but you could have iTunes, The Gap or a few others. Surprisingly, Wegman's wasn't one of the vendors.

Adding in poll results for posterity and because I wanted to remove the widget from my left-hand nav:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gritty City: Philly's Got Your Back

This is an incredible story wherein Philly tough guy Joseph Lozito ended the killing spree of a New York City serial stabber in a spectacular subway car knife/karate fight: Philly guy fights off NYC serial-stabbing suspect.

The article and picture confirm Lozito as 'burly.' I know we don't respect the judgment of serial killers as a rule, but in a subway car full of people it didn't occur to him to attack someone other than the 6'2" 260lb martial arts buff with the shaved head, fu manchu and biker tattoos?

Still, glad he did. One leg sweep later and Philly did New York a solid and justice has been served.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Second Act on Google Street View

I was pretty stoked back in 2008 when my car appeared on Google Street View parked out in front of my folks' house in Boise. However, being that said car was parked there from June to September 2007, it was as likely as not that should the Google camera-car drive by sometime that summer, my car would be there ready for its cameo. What are the chances lightning strikes twice?

Flash forward, probably last spring some time, and my amigo Ben and I spotted one of these Google Street View camera-cars rolling down 2nd street in Old City with its conspicuous roof-mounted gantry. Here's the moment of recognition captured in digital perpetuity:

Spotting the opportunity from the cross-walk....
We makes it pay off big time, brah!
I made a mental note of the corner: 2nd and Market, not too hard to remember, and just happened to check back in with Google Street View yesterday. To my surprise and delight here we are looking about as douchey as we do in real life, proving once more that Google is succeeding in its mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. Avoid us at all costs it says.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Beer Stein of Change

What is the dollar value of loose change contained in this beer stein from the Lowenbrau in Munich? My guess is $60, Jill's guess (after watching my scientific estimate-building process) is $75. We're heading to Wegman's in Cherry Hill, NJ where there's supposedly a Coinstar machine to convert this into crisp paper bills and will report back on results.

But, first how much change do you think is in here? Submit your best guess in the poll at the top left of the blog and see whether you get it right when I report back next Monday.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gritty City: Murder Map

Fortunately for moi, Old City where I live is in the eastern end of the little valley between 'Point Breeze' and 'Strawberry Mansion' which are both summits of killing in this captivating visual rendering of murder by numbers in Philadelphia. True to its flat topography in this map, I haven't heard of a killing in Old City in the year and a half that I've lived here.

So it was hard to fathom that Philly's been nearly as deadly to Americans over the last decade as 7 years of open warfare in Iraq, but when there were 7 murders last weekend alone, it felt a bit more real. Nearly all of these were gangland-style, multiple-bullets-to-the-head brutality. Yikes!

This got me thinking about whether it's more dangerous in Philly compared to other prominent American cities. The data is readily available and in terms of per capita rate of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, Philadelphia is tied for 9th place with esteemed peers Cleveland and Memphis with .2 instances per 1,000 residents, or about 300 per year. This is below the rates of familiarly violent cities New Orleans (#1 with .50 murder-death-kills per 1,000 residents), Detroit (.46) and Washington, D.C.(.24), but well above Boston (.08), San Francisco (.06) and New York (.06).

For reference, my hometown of Boise, Idaho doesn't even rank in the available data set. Which might not surprise anyone.