Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Does AMTRAK comply with the Disability Act?

On my recent trip to Massachusetts, Elaine did not accompany me, even though she wanted to, because she is temporarily in a wheelchair because of a broken foot, and we couldn't get assurances that she could manipulate the chair on the train.

AMTRAK said that they could provide a ramp to get up and over spaces between the train and the station floor. That's ok, but what about when she got on the train? In most coaches there is an open area near the entrance, and in the business coach it is marked for disabled people. However, the spacing to get there is very narrow, especially on the area before the entrance door. Also, space between the seats is much narrower than her wheelchair and she would therefore be restricted to the open space, whose seats do not have footrests.

She would probably have had to stay seated in the wheelchair for the whole 7 hours and suffer the rocking and rolling of the train. Also, there are two toilets in most coaches. One is hardly big enough for a non disabled person. The other, marked with a disability symbol, is bigger, but still not big enough for a wheelchair. I wonder how a scooter is handled.I wonder if anyone has complained about this. Perhaps trains do not have to comply with the Disability Act.

And what about planes? I haven't flown since 9-11. Surely, wheelchair bound persons have to fly sometimes. And what about Greyhound buses? Some local buses where we live have wheelchair lifts.

While on the train, I did not see any passengers using assistive vehicles.

Monday, March 30, 2009

AMTRAK in the Year 2009

For several years I was a member of NARP (National Association of Railroad Passengers) which is an organization devoted to improving train travel throughout the U.S. I quit my membership a couple of years ago when I decided that it wasn't lobbying harder for more rail lines. Travel to the big cities in Canada and see how massive their systems are.

Anyway, I still love to travel by train. When I was stationed in Europe for close to four years, I traveled extensively by train until I won enough money in blackjack to buy a little green jeep (that's a subject for another blog.) I always traveled 2nd class (they had three classes then). First class was too expensive for me, and in 3rd class, you had to sometimes share your seat with goats and pigs and people who ate lots and lots of garlic. (Many people had beautiful leather briefcases.... filled with their lunches of sausages, bread and wine.)

I often took the Orient Express to Cologne (Koeln) and it was always a fun time. With people playing guitars, sharing wine, singing and telling jokes. Whenever I couldn't get the Orient Express Eilzug, I would get stuck on a langsam Zug and have to spend the night in Gerolstein. (Yes, there is music relating to this town.) I always stayed at a Pension that had wonderful feather beds. If you have never slept on a feather bed, you are in for a great treat someday. I highly recommend it. Anyway, I wish that travel on U.S. trains were as much fun.

A few years ago, when I had to travel by rail to Providence, I upgraded my coach fair to business class. It was amazing! The seats were separate from each other, there was lots and lots of room to stretch out, the chairs reclined almost to beds, an attendant brought a free newspaper, another attendant brought a free beer and snacks, another attendant offered to shine my shoes....I thought that I had died and gone to train rider's heaven.

I had upgraded because of something Arthur Godfrey (you remember "the old redhead") used to say: "Pay a little extra and go first class!" I heard him say that in 1958, so it didn't help me earlier in Europe. But I am glad that I followed his advice on that trip.

So, on my recent trip to Providence on AMTRAK in March of 2009, I once again upgraded from coach to business class.. there was no higher class on this train. I expected great things and was a little disappointed to find that the seats were 2x2 and looked to me like coach seats. I later confirmed that this was true. The seats in coach were exactly the same, as far as I could see. Business class had pull down tables, so did coach; business class had electrical outlets, so did coach; business class had blue reclining seats, so did coach. What did business class have that warranted the extra charge?

A complimentary 8 ounce ginger ale (but only on the return trip).

However, there was one big plus for business class: it was not crowded and I did not have to share my seat with anyone.

There was a long walk to the snack bar and one of the coach cars was the "silent car". In that car, people were discouraged from making loud conversation or talking on cell phones. That seemed like a good innovation. Even though I was in business class (or because of it) I was subjected to a DC couple loudly rehearsing how they were going to convince Congress that they needed to give that lucrative contract to their company.

The price of snacks on the train was a bit high, but expected. Snacks in the Providence train station were priced reasonably.. but in the Baltimore station..... unbelievably high and outrageous.

While getting a coffee in Providence, a lady in a parka kept looking at me and smiling. Finally, she got up enough courage to ask me if I was in the movies. (!) I told her that I had been in a few local videos, but definitely not big time stuff. (Elaine is the movie star, not me.) I asked her if she thought I was Wilfred Brimley... you know, the fat old guy with a walrus mustache. No, she said she was thinking of somebody else. She was a singer from Portland, Maine and we had a nice talk about Barber Shop Quartets and the Sweet Adelines, of which she was a member.

Normally, when I have encounters like this, I offer the person a membership in the Joe Vaughan Fan Club. I should have done so.. she would have been my only Maine member.

Back in Baltimore, I observed a "sign of the times": the man who runs the shoeshine stand in the Pennsylvania Station had a laptop nearby, and he was networking on Facebook as he waited for customers.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Providence, Rhode Island Adventures

In my youth, I always dreaded driving through Providence, Rhode Island. It was so easy to get lost. Like Boston, the streets were apparently former cowpaths. When Interstate 95 and 195 came along, it suddenly became easy to get through the city, as long as you didn't try to go downtown.

Several years ago, I took the train from Baltimore to Providence where I was to connect with a rental car for the rest of the trip to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The weather was beautiful when I left the Pennsylvania Station in Baltimore, but when I got to Providence, they were having a mini-hurricane. The rain and wind were overwhelming.

As instructed, I called the rental office to have them pick me and my luggage up at the train station. The clerk informed me that she no longer had anyone available to pick me up, but since the rental office wasn't too far away (a half mile or so), I should try to walk there.

An elderly lady and I were both scheduled to be picked up and there was no way she could walk that distance, especially in the hurricane. I went outside to get a cab. Plenty of them went hurrying by, but none would even slow down. So, after a while, I got tired of the game and ran out in front of a Checker Cab and he had to stop. I pulled open the back door while he cussed me out and let the drenched old lady in and I jumped in, dripping rivers of water, much to the consternation of the preacher who thought that he had a dry cab all to himself.

We got to the rental office, tipped the driver appropriately (then he stopped cursing) and went up to the frazzled clerk, who looked like she was about to have a seizure. She took care of the dripping old lady, who disappeared into the attached parking garage to obtain her car. (Should elderly people be driving in Providence? Subject of a separate blog, I think.)

The clerk logged me in and gave me the car keys and told me to go to the third floor of the parking garage and get my car. I put my luggage in the back seat, started the car and began my descent to the street and the raging weather outside. At the exit, a large angry looking man asked for some piece of paper that the clerk had neglected to give me. His face got bright red while he made me get out of the car, put my hands on the roof, and submit to a body "frisk".

He was about to call for backup so that I could be appropriately arrested as a car thief. After much pleading, he allowed me to go back to the clerk for the document. I had to leave my wallet and my luggage as collateral. So, it was back through the wind and rain to the clerk, who said, "oops, I forgot". Then, it was back to the parking garage attendant (who was a police officer doing his second job)... I still was looked at by him as a "miscreant" who had tried to get away with something, and was growled at as he gave me back my personal effects. Now I was able to drive off into the hurricane through the mostly unmarked streets of downtown Providence and eventually get to my destination.

Thinking about this experience, when I set off for Providence on the train again last week, I checked the weather to make sure there would be no hurricanes predicted. However, I didn't read the forecast closely enough, because when I got to Providence, it was 28 degrees with a 30 mile gale. At least it wasn't pouring. (I wished I had brought an overcoat though.)

In planning the trip, I had downloaded walking instructions to the rental office, since there is no longer a pickup service, and cabs probably aren't interested in train travelers there (not like at Baltimore). So, when I arrived in the Providence station, I tried to follow my walking instructions... well, there is massive construction where I was supposed to walk, no sidewalks in other parts, no cabs in sight, no street signs, ..... The first person I asked for directions was from Massachusetts and didn't even know where she was. The second person was the proprietor of a cleaning store... she didn't even know the name of the street I was on. The third person told me to go a way that would have taken me back to the train station. The fourth person was a cop on a horse who was too busy to talk to me. The Fifth person sent me off to the "Kennedy Complex" whatever that was... but it had green roofs, so I could see it in the distance. When I got there, I was able to find the street. Now, there were no numbers on the buildings.. and I was looking for number 1. After I went three blocks in the wrong direction, I backtracked and found that the street turned around a corner and went a different way, but there it was.. number 1.

I got my car finally.. it was parked outside of the parking garage so I didn't have to fight with a moonlighting cop again. The car as supposed to be an "upgrade". It stunk of cigarette smoke. It was "sporty".. which means, whenever I got in, even though I'm short, I would bang the top of my head.

Now I could drive out of Providence, just get on 195 and I would be in great shape. You guessed it, the on-ramps were under construction. So, I had the privilege of driving through East Providence and some small towns for a while.

I'm not even going to tell you about my trip back to downtown Providence..... you wouldn't believe it.

Providence seems like a nice city.. my cousin, Charlie, graduated from Brown University and he likes it. And Roger Williams was a good guy, except perhaps for his persecution of Protestants who didn't agree with him. But the Roger Williams park and zoo were nice places to go when I was a kid. Also, the fine company, Cape Cod Ladders, had a plant there. This was the company that I worked for a bit some time ago.. but at the New Bedford plant where I held the record for mismade ladders... but I digress. I have also had some fun flying Southwest into the Providence airport, but I'll leave that for another time.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rolling Shakespeare

About twenty years ago, a public radio station in Washington, DC, featured a great call-in show with a guy named Fred Fiske. One of his pet peeves at the time was people who said "I mean you know" in every sentence. At the time, this add-on phrase was being used by people almost everywhere, including on radio and tv. Fred began a campaign to let people know how dumb it sounded and eventually (somewhat thanks to him).. it died out. However, I still hear a few people who haven't gotten the message.

Now, for the past few years, another popular phraseology has taken over our American language: the use of "like" in all kinds of contexts.. such as: "When I saw her, I went like 'WOW'!" or "He was like 'Lend me some money.'" You get the idea. What ever happened to the word "said"?

Is this just a young people phenomenon? When I overhear teen-agers talking to each other, the "like's" flow like water between them. I guess I'm just an old man and set in my ways about language. But couldn't young folks pick some other, more colorful way of talking. Such as, for example: "When I observed her beauty, I was overwhelmed and uttered the popular phrase 'WOW'." (I know, this sounds even dumber than the "like" example.)

We don't want to get as "hung up" on proper English as the French do with their language. (They are mad with their leader right now about his use of slang. But, after all, he does spend his summers in the US in New Hampshire, I believe.) But... we don't want to abandon proper English altogether.

George Bernard Shaw said that English hasn't been spoken in America for generations. However, as a "melting pot" we have a constant rich supply of words from other languages and slangs. And, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, people come to America speaking only their native language.. and shortly later, their children are speaking English like all of their neighbors, including all the slang, and overused words. So I guess I shouldn't get excited by the overuse of words like "like" (!)

Shakespeare had a great way of saying things. For instance, instead of saying: "Tomorrow I think I'll get up a little early to get some important things done." .. he said: "The sun shall not be up so soon as I, to test the fair adventure of the day!" Now, isn't that better?

Mr. Shakespeare is probably rolling over in his grave when he hears the way the language has changed in 500 years, and maybe he might suggest that we use the word "like" a little less.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Back to my Blog after a long delay.

Well, I just got back from a trip to the funerals of two relatives, where I was reminded of the fleetness and uncertainty of life. I was asked to say a few words and read some poems at each funeral and I took that as a great honor. Let me recap a few of the subjects that I tried to talk about.

My Aunt was 95 years old and had lived a long and interesting life. I first remember her flipping upside down in a cartwheel at a clambake. She loved to do cartwheels. She also loved to sing, having been in a singing program in the early thirties with my mother on the radio. She also always sang in the choir at the First Baptist Church. She taught herself to play a pump organ and would often serenade her neighbors at 3 am with old time hymns, sung at a bit of loudness. But the neighbors never complained, at least not to her face.

She had a wonderful way to tell her age as she got older. She would reverse the numbers. When she was 91, she said that she was 19. At 92, she was 29... and so on. At her passing, she was only 59 (and I am 57.)

She also always had a smile and a cheerful outlook. She liked to say: "Things look swell, when you use Prell!" (Old-timers will remember Prell.) I often use the phrase as well now, when I feel a bit depressed.. and it cheers me up.

In 1948 (!) when I graduated from Junior High School, all the boys were asked to wear suits for the graduation ceremony. I was a poor kid. I didn't own a suit, or anything that looked like a suit. I did work at several jobs, but I had to contribute to the family and n
ot much was left for frivolities (like fancy clothing). My Aunt found out about this, came over to where I live, handed me a Sears Roebuck charge account card and told me to pick out a suit and pay her back at one dollar a week. I did pay her back, but she would not have cared if I had not.

I will miss my Aunt greatly.

The second funeral was for my sister's partner of 23 years. A real nice guy who helped my sister care for our mother for many years. Meanwhile he worked at least two jobs while getting up early every morning to care for up to 24 horses on his property in the country.

One of the jobs he had was as a "Lumper" for 30 years! For those of you who don't know what a Lumper is.. picture a man (or in one case a woman..) putting on a rubber suit, hip high boots, long gloves and an oversized fisherman's rain hat. Picture this man grabbing a long heavy shovel as he jumps into the stinky hold of a large fishing boat where he meets with tons of fish, eels, lobsters, crabs, and whatever else you can think of, in addition to tons of ice keeping the catch from spoiling. Then picture this same man shoveling everything out of the boat hold. This has got to be the toughest job in the world.

This was a MAN!

He was only in his sixties when he passed away and he will be sorely missed by my sister and all of the hundreds of his friends who attended his funeral.

So.. the world lost two wonderful persons last week. But of course, they will stay alive in our memories for the rest of our lives.