Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On The Train To Toulon

    It was Bastille Day in 1964 when a young sailor boarded a liberty boat to go ashore for a day exploring the environs of Théoule-sur-Mer not far from Cannes. Since there were no piers long enough nor waters deep enough to tie up a warship, the frigate remained at anchorage off shore.

    The first images through his eyes arriving at the city pier were of young beauties sun-bathing in the warm July of south France. It was immediately apparent that French girls unashamedly revealed to the world that their breasts did indeed have nipples and that bikini tops were merely an option rarely used. "Ah yes", he thought, "The joys of foreign travel".

    With these young sun bathers never out of mind and frequently glanced at he found it difficult to think about food but with concession stands nearby this French language illiterate could browse the food stands and still enjoy viewing the 'beauties of the beach'.  Before long he discovered that French food merchants already knew that Steak and Eggs would be a favorite among any sailors of any language.

    Lunch comfortably taken, the exploration continued toward la gare to catch a train for a ride through the countryside of the Riviera. Toulon was less than 100 kilometers distant and for relatively few francs, Toulon was his destination for this day.

    Once on board he noticed that unlike American railroad cars, this passenger car had a series of compartments along the one side of the car and a passageway the length of the car on the other side. Since his passage was 'economy class' and unreserved, he made his way forward looking for a suitable seat. The next compartment he came upon had only one occupant. A young girl who appeared to be about his age. No further searching was necessary. This was his compartment.

    Navy white hat in hand he entered uncovered quietly and sat on the bench facing the opposite direction. She was at the window facing front. Not wishing to be too forward with this attractive young French woman he nodded and greeted her with a "Bon jour, comment allez vous" and assumed her response was the appropriate counter greeting but since he had already exhausted his entire French vocabulary with his greeting he relied on her facial expressions which seemed friendly.

    This young woman's delicate beauty compelled him to seek some way of communicating with her. The ride to Toulon would last only an hour or so. He searched his brain to find some common ground that would not need spoken words. Music, perhaps a tune hummed which might find a spark of recognition. He quickly dismissed that lacking any instrument or radio. What other common ground do all cultures share beyond music?

    He pondered this question for a while as the French countryside whizzed by accompanied periodically with the monotonal scream of the train's shrill whistle. They exchanged curious glances as the kilometers behind them grew and the ones ahead shrank. He was still young and a bit shy; she was circumspect and demure but it was clear to both of them that they were enjoying their chance meeting. Then it hit him. Math.

    Math? Of course. Even simple arithmetic might be the non-verbal ice breaker for the rest of their ride to Toulon. He composed a simple algebraic problem on a slip of paper and with a smile offered it to her. She looked at it for a moment and after retrieving a pen from her purse quickly solved the equation and, with a smile, handed it back to him both of them now relieved at having found common ground.

    For the remaining kilometers they engaged in a kind of Anglo-French game similar to the TV game show "Win, Lose or Draw" which would become popular many years later. They'd draw a sketch of some recognizable object and name it in their own language, hand it to the other who would upon recognizing the object add the name in their language; he in English, she in French. It was a kind of Rosetta stone approach to communicating.

    It ended ultimately with the exchange of addresses before arriving at her station east of Toulon. They were able to assure each other that someone at home was fluent in the language of the other and that letters sent would be translated.

    Several letters were sent and received, translated and answered in their turn. Until the one that was never answered. She had revealed that she was an avid skier and would whenever possible spend weekends at the resort village of Val d'Isere which, sadly, was prone to serious avalanches.

    He never knew whether she might have been there on the fateful day of a fatal avalanche. Au revoir, Mlle Richir. Dieu vous bénisse!
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Piano Saga Reviewed

    As the end of September draws near, I've begun counting the days until the removal of the damnable piano which, on top of the ever-present, ambient street noises one expects in a city, has been a source of vexatious intrusion of unwanted sounds from morning until night and, at times, into the wee hours of the morning.

    After numerous police calls which yielded no results, I learned the police are under strict instructions to NOT enforce the noise ordinance because the mayor finds the street corner pianos throughout the city to be elevating the city's culture quotient and that they bring much-needed money to the city.

    Failing that solution, I sought out the principals responsible for the placement of the piano and pleaded with them to remove the offending instrument. I received, after several back and forth, good faith communications an assurance that the piano would be removed by the end of September. A separate email from one of those principals [copy included, with my comments] dated August 8, said 50 days or less which places the removal date on or before September 26.

        Aug. 8, 2013

        I am sorry they were playing late last night when you returned home at 2:30. Man, you keep late hours! [True but not pertinent and not anybody else's business.]

        I have been really struggling with what to do with the piano. Finding the proper, balanced response has not been easy.

        I have discussed the issue with at least 30 people, including the MFE [Music For Everyone] board. And to be quite frank, not a single one of them advised me to move the piano. I know that is easy for them to say as they do not hear the piano at late hours. [Hear, hear.]

               But they also said that thousands of people enjoy that piano where it is. 
[Thousands? I'd like to see that list and know where they live and what time of the day or night they enjoyed this piano and how much money they brought to the city solely because of the pianos, specifically the piano at the Prince street parking garage which has troubled me all summer long.]

        Here are the reasons they provided:

        We have placed a note on the piano, urging people not to play after 10:00.
        [The noise ordinance states 9:00 PM as the time limit.]

        While that certainly has not eliminated all of the “knuckleheads” who can’t or refuse to be courteous, it surely has cut it down a good deal.
        [For a little while until one of the aforementioned knuckleheads ripped it off and discarded it.]

        Also, this exhibit will not be there forever. It will be removed in less than 50 days. [August 8 plus 50 days is September 26. That's tomorrow.]

        Most significant, every person I asked, felt that this is a case of balancing the interests of the vast majority versus one individual. In some cases, when it comes to such “community events", sometimes the individual has to cede his or her individual comfort for the good of the whole community.

        [I did not cede my individual comfort. It was unceremoniously robbed from me, however, I did cede my individual comfort for the good of the nation by serving four years honorably in the United  States Navy but that doesn't count. I'm only one person against the vast majority. Vast majority? Much more than 50%? I doubt it.]

        Also, many felt that such “disturbances” are simply a part of living on the city. And that most citizens,at some point, have to endure certain “discomforts” of  city living, as that is simply a part of the deal.

[You are referring to the sounds of your pianos as "disturbances"? Disturbances are the reason cities have noise ordinances. Disturbances are NOT simply a part of living in the city.  Horns honking, tires screeching, stereos blasting, loud one-sided cell phone conversations and loud face-to-face conversations between pedestrians as they walk past are street noises which though objectionable are ambient. But are they NOT "discomforts" I've endured on a daily basis? They go away. Street corner pianos are anything but ambient. I have lived in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Boston, Minneapolis and San Francisco. I resent being talked down to as though I am some country bumpkin just in from the farm. To date, Lancaster with its perpetual construction projects with jack-hammers and concrete saws and gas-powered generators to light warning signs and pianos is, by far, the noisiest city I have ever lived in. Have any of the members of the board ever endured "certain discomforts" for the good of the whole community? Have any of the members of the board ever suffered ANY discomforts? Their specious reasoning sounds well-grounded in the elitism which is pandemic among the moneyed class.]

        While I want to do what we can to meet your need, we’re going to have to ask you to be patient and understanding. We’ll move the piano at the end of September, as scheduled.

        Again, I am terribly sorry. I assure you that your complaint was not taken lightly. [Words are cheap.]

        I truly struggled with what to do, but believe that, on balance, this is the correct course of action. [Which has been no action at all. Maintain the status quo. Dismiss the old vet as an irrelevant piece of chaff. After all, he's only one person, one voice crying out in the wilderness.]


Signed by one of the MFE (Music For Everyone) principals

It's been said many times over the years that "It's an ill wind that blows no good". In this case the good is that I have learned more about pianos and their usual three pedals. The left pedal played with the left foot is called the Una Corda (One cord or piano string instead of all three) and has acquired the label "Soft" pedal.

The middle pedal, if installed, played with the right foot is called the Sostenuto and is referred to as the "tone sustaining" pedal.

The right pedal also played with the right foot is the Damper pedal. When it is depressed, it lifts the dampers on all the strings and has thusly become known as the "Loud" pedal.

The players of this piano seemed always to find only the "Loud" pedal.
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Sunday, September 22, 2013


    The fleet frigate now robbed of mobility and with a gaping hole in its outer skin perched high and dry in the only still-used dry-dock in a disused shipyard in South Boston. The metallic banging of a door on a discarded locker was played by a hot off-shore wind as un-orchestrated percussion in an otherwise quiet symphony of tide testing the dock’s gate and the distant rumble of an MTA subway headed for Dorchester and the fringe suburbs of the capital city.

    A short walk brought the young sailor to the street for an uptown visit to the Boston Common and adjacent Public Garden. Dogs patiently walked their captives and the swan boats meandered lazily around the Duck pond on a clear summer day.

    This virgin sailor had yet to taste the wonder and terror of the sea and the bitter taste of unrequited love. New to life away from small town roots, this new world of strange city and enticing girls was a mélange of curiosity, awe and trepidation.

    Not yet of an age to enjoy adult beverages but wishing a break from exploring this new world, a coffee shop was the choice so back to Tremont street to search for refreshment. The Copper Kettle was less than a block from the notorious Washington street area known as the 'Battle Zone' where of-age sailors plied themselves with alcohols of one form or another as they mingled with B-girls, hookers and other 'strip' personae.

    Ordering a chocolate shake (shades of Radar O'Reilly's grape Ne-Hi) the young Navy man was disappointed to find that in this new world, a chocolate shake was nothing more than syrup stirred into a glass of milk. His waitress, Margie, was about to begin a small epiphany for this far-from-home sailor in a strange place.

    Margie, quite likely Irish, was a delight for this newbie to the real world. She patiently schooled the young tar that a milk shake was called a 'frappe' and coffee with cream and sugar was a coffee regular (pronounced reg-uh-lah) and she seemed as taken with this handsome young man as he with her.

    Though probably the same age, this young lass mesmerized him with her worldly-wise manner and confidence. That she was also pert, perky and pretty added to the fetching aura. Waiting for her shift to end he was delighted when she allowed him to escort her home to Cambridge, a too-short ride away on the Lechmere car.
    They chatted comfortably while walking the short distance from the car stop to her home. He learned her last name. Their lingering shared glances led to the inevitable embrace and good night kiss. The sweet kiss was soon over but not before being punctuated with a most unexpected and never-before-experienced love nip on his lip. It was the end of an exciting and unforgettable day of hope building within.

    Before she went inside, she revealed that she would be leaving Boston to live with her father in Michigan. Sadly clinging to hope and clutching the note paper with her Detroit address, this dejected sailor navigated his way back to the shipyard.

    His letters to her were never answered.    
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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Trains, Trucks, Cars and Bikes

    In vehicles, the protocol for staying out of each others way is generally dictated by the laws of Physics: The smaller, lighter, more vulnerable vehicles avoid conflicts with the larger and heavier. In most cases, the smaller, lighter vehicles are more maneuverable and easier to stop.

    Trains have the right of way, as a matter of law, because they are larger and have more moving inertia and take much longer to stop. Trucks, cars, bikes and people stay out of their way to avoid sudden death or maiming or to avoid a fine which could decimate a bank account.

    Trucks are larger, heavier and take longer to stop than a car. Cars, bikes and people stay out of their way to avoid sudden death, maiming or loss of driving privileges.

    Cars are faster than people and take longer to stop than a pedestrian. People stay out of a cars way.

    Bikes on the other hand have become contrary to the protocol. Cars now have to avoid bikes. Wait a minute. What's wrong here? Trains have Rules for the Conduct of Transportation which they must abide by to avoid derailment or colliding with another train. Trucks have the Regulations by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration which they must adhere to or risk a heavy fine or being placed out of service.

    Cars have licensing and registration and insurance requirements which must be scrupulously obeyed or risk loss of license and registration. Bikes also have regulations which include licensing, lights fore and aft and instructions to follow the rules of the road.

    Why then do I see most bikes without lights and their operators blatantly ignoring the rules — riding northbound in the southbound lane, riding southbound in the northbound lane, crisscrossing all lanes or intersections and ignoring stop signs or red lights meandering freely wherever they wish to go and it is my responsibility to avoid them?

    With the potholes, the surface depressions from poorly filled post-excavation trenches and the higher-than-surface utility access covers from incomplete repaving, when you add avoiding bicyclists this city could have the slogan, "Welcome to Lancaster. It's our pleasure to swerve you".
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