Sunday, September 27, 2009


[The College stories start here.]

This story fits into a series about college, but I'm writing this one out of order. There were a few things I forgot before, and one thing I remembered that didn't fit into the other stories.

If you haven't read the College Stories, and you are obsessive, and you have some time on your hands, you will want to start at Drop and work your way forward following the link to the next story at the bottom of each one. You'll come through here at a reasonable point in the storyline, and then continue on to the stirring conclusion of the arc.

The main things I need to say to catch you up on my middle years of college are that I worked in the university library and that I had an inexplicable attraction to a girl called Mary whom I did not totally get along with. Maybe you had one of those things going once. I don't know how many people that happens to.

You must at least know how an obsession goes. You keep trying to think of other things, but you keep coming back to the object of the obsession. Come on, you know how it is. No one wants it. It just happens. I'm not saying it makes sense.

I did lots of things that had nothing to do with Mary.

Life can only be understood backwards ; but it must be lived forwards.

—possibly Søren Kierkegaard

And that's if we ever understand life at all.

We drift through a seemingly endless childhood only to go over the falls into the confusion of young adulthood. We've pushed away our parents and started to realize how badly we need to replace them with someone of our own generation. Instinct doesn't inform us what to do, but just pushes us onward. Look! Maybe she's the one! Or maybe she isn't. Something like that.

We go through steps in life. Maybe it's necessary to walk down some weird roads to reach a good place. Maybe it's necessary, or maybe it's just the way it happens. And walking down those weird roads, we go one step at a time, into the darkness of an unknowable future. Maybe things will work out.

We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.

—Criswell, Plan 9 From Outer Space

That popped into my head. I think it means I'm starting to write like Ed Wood, so let's move along.

I mentioned once that the library I worked in staffed a branch called Philosophy Library, but we had another one too, called Paterno. Paterno wasn't in the same building or even in the main campus block, but lay across the street in a special building called Casa Italiana that had been donated to promote Italian studies. Charles Paterno and his brothers built apartment houses all over Morningside Heights.

Paterno was a pretty sizable collection of Italian books on all subjects. It was run by one man, but when he was on vacation we had to cover it. There wasn't much business, so there wasn't much to do. I had time to pick up the current magazines like Oggi and that other one I can't remember the name of, that had the barely dressed Italian actresses on the cover.

It was culture shock, the easy European attitudes about what was appropriate in popular magazines. The women looked pretty good. I just wouldn't have expected to see that much of them in a general American magazine. But never mind that. The shock is really not so much what the difference is, but that there is any difference at all. There are whole nations full of people whose take on life is fundamentally different! Everything that comes along, they have a slightly different take on it. Whoa. It's like the world is full of things you don't expect to find.

This reminds me of a story we learned in Greek class back in Huge Hall. I'll tell you why in a minute, but first here's the story.

A young man in ancient Greece wanted to learn Philosophy, and after learning a little about the different schools, he decided that the Stoics fit closest to what he believed. Nothing to excess, everything in moderation. They taught that keeping oneself well balanced and avoiding extremes was the way to live a good life.

The school of the Stoic philosophers was in another town, so the young man set off. Some days later, as he drew near the town, he heard a commotion going on. At the gate he asked someone if this was where he would find the Stoics. Yes, he was told, go down this way and turn that way. Every step brought him closer to the noise. He heard music, shouting, laughing.

He came to a large building in a walled courtyard. A drunken man at the doorway confirmed that this was the School of the Stoics. As the young man entered, he saw men lying on the ground in wine-stained clothing, messy tables of half eaten food, men chasing young women and young men, and people singing bawdy songs in off key voices to the playing of tottering musicians. This could not possibly be the Stoics.

An older man approached and asked the young man if he'd come to learn from the Stoics. But what is all this, he asked ; I thought the Stoics did nothing to excess. The answer he was given was this. If we never did anything to excess, that would be taking "everything in moderation" to excess, so rather than fall into that logical trap, from time to time we have a party. Have some wine. We can talk philosophy tomorrow.

Maybe that's what the Stoics really did, or maybe I fell for a joke they told two thousand years ago.

Am I losing the thread? No, I am not. I just wanted to bring out how confusing the world looks to you in college. You think you know pretty much what you're going to get, but it's not high school part 2. The steps we take in college are different. We get exposed to so many things that are foreign to our experience. It doesn't need to be foreign as in another country, although getting a wider view of the world is part of a good education. It can just be different points of view. Or friends different from the ones we had before. Like Mary.

That I couldn't figure Mary out might say something about me, or not. I am on the fence about this. I don't claim uncanny abilities to sense people's point of view, or as my pal Lisa would tell me more directly, I can never read people. I know that, for soft values of "never". But was Mary a person who was very hard to read? That would be nice to think.

Mary was not my only problem. You shouldn't think I went along happily and then hit the wall only when I ran into her. Freakin' college. Walk into a class where the instructor thinks we already know things most of us never learned, or get a vague paper assignment that gets graded tough on adherence to some rubric that we were supposed to guess. Or go to work thinking at least that will be just the usual stuff (especially if Mary's not working that shift), and, wham! Here it comes!

You know, jobs for high school kids are usually pretty much do this, do that. Once you're older they start to think you can handle a little more. Sometimes management has to throw somebody into the pool without lessons, and they might pick you, kid. Look out.

I had a special assignment one day. Someone was needed to cover Columbiana for the afternoon. It's a special collection about the history of the university itself, related to the Rare Books and Manuscripts division, who normally covered it, but they must have been very shorthanded this one day, and the finger of fate pointed at the Boy Genius.

I had never even been in Columbiana. This was not a step I wanted to take. It was going to be weird. I guess I can fake it with the best of them, but I hadn't learned yet that I could have fun with it. Hey, somebody might come in and ask me something I have no idea about! Rabbit in the headlights! That bugged me then. I don't worry about it now, many steps down the road. Nobody knows it all anyway. Cop an attitude, you know plenty of things but just not that one thing you are being asked about. In fact the more things you know, the easier it gets to say you don't know something. I have a classical Greek story about that too, but I'll save it for the next time I'm telling you how much I don't know.

Columbiana is in the Low Library building, which sounds like the place a library would be, unless you know that Low hasn't been the university library building since the 1930s. It's where the bigwigs keep their wigs now. The Trustees Room, the Office of the President, and on down. Maybe Columbiana is still there in case the Provost or the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences needs to run in and check historical precedent once in a while.

I was going to Columbiana mainly so it could be open as advertised. If anyone came in who did not already know what they were doing, I could try to give them general advice, and if that wouldn't do it, I could call over to Rare Books, and they'd find the answer for me.

There was one phone inquiry. For publication, what was the middle name of Daniel D Tompkins, sixth Vice President of the United States? He was a graduate of Columbia College, class of 1795. Perhaps the university had some record that would show the middle name that had so far eluded the researchers. This was a good one. Someone was being very thorough. I had no idea of the answer, but it seemed totally professional to say I'd check and call back. I took the phone number. And I called over to Rare Books.

They must have duplicate copies of some Columbiana material over in Rare Books, because when they got back to me, it wasn't to tell me what publications I should take a look at, but to give me the answer. I still remember it. It turns out that there were two young men called Daniel Tompkins at Columbia at the same time, and this one had added the D so that his name would be different. He had no middle name and it was thought that he had just repeated the D for Daniel. (This explanation has eluded even the Wikipedia writers.)

That was the highlight of that day. Really. Look, it has stuck in my head, and I am a person who can remember only four of the five things my family want me to pick up at the grocery store. Some day I will hear someone say, "Vice President Daniel D Tompkins... gee, I wonder what the D stands for?" I will know the answer. Maybe then I can consider the wisdom passed along, and forget it, and reuse the brain cells for something practical.

Did I really try to figure out Mary?

Yes, one day I really did. One evening. I had to talk her away from the communist apartment and get her to come out to Low steps with me. She was grumbling all the way. No time, have to study. But she did it for me.

I'd like you to picture the setting for this, if I can put it across to you the way I can still see it in my mind. The stone steps are about 150 feet wide, leading down to the big plaza in front of Low Library, right in the middle of the campus. It was pitch dark out. There are lamps around the edge of the plaza. We wore jackets. There are always students out on the steps until very late, except in the dead of winter. It's the front stoop of Columbia. It's where we hang out. And it's a huge expanse, so if two people want to have a quiet conversation, they can find a spot away enough from people. You can sit on those steps and looking out across the big empty space, toward the library where Mary and I worked.

We went up near the statue of Alma Mater and sat on the steps. And I attempted to say a few things, whatever it was I had planned to say. You'll think I'm being evasive now, but I really don't remember the verbal content. I remember only the feel of the thing, and one sentence, "this is scary". It was. I wanted to say something to her and I had no clue how she would react.

I was looking up at the black sky. She was looking at the stone steps and squirming with her shoe. I must have told her I was confused. Aren't we all?

A kind trick of memory has blotted out any more than that. I walked her back to her building. The event neither ruined nor helped whatever our weird relationship was. I had transmitted a message into the void. I could not read her. We had gone up the steps and come back down.

Now you say you're leaving home
'cause you want to be alone.
Ain't it funny how you feel
when you're finding out it's real?

Oh to live on Sugar Mountain
with the barkers and the colored balloons.
You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain,
though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon.
You're leaving there too soon.

—Neil Young, "Sugar Mountain"

PS: Funny thing about that Søren Kierkegaard quote: I couldn't source it. I found a few scholarly books on Kierkegaard that give the quote without attribution. In the introduction to an edition of his selected letters, the editor gives the weaselly attribution "as Kierkegaard said elsewhere"! Maybe it's something he should have said.

Photo of Low steps as seen in 1986.

[The next college story is Anthem.]

Next time:
Stone House II.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Helen and I were standing near the railing at the edge of Niagara Gorge, just downstream from the Falls. We could hear the roar of the falling water. I leaned over the rail and far below I could see the angry water rushing over the rocks, and the white foam, the tourist boat approaching the falls, and people in yellow raincoats on the walkways of the Cave of the Winds Trip.

"Come on, look down! It's amazing", I told Helen.

"I don't like heights", Helen said.

"So this was a good place to come then."

This fact about her had not come up, or maybe it had and I forgot. Probably the latter. Oh, wait. She told me the same thing when we were at the top of the World Trade Center.

Helen and I were on our first vacation trip together by airplane. Our first trip at all was to Boston by train, and by this time we'd gone to Washington by train too. But when you have to go way out to the airport and go through all the rituals of air travel, it becomes a bigger deal. We were grownups now.

As this was 1984, we had actually been official grownups for a time, and married to each other for most of it, but shut up, you. We were grownups now. We had flown in a plane, and found the airport shuttle from Buffalo International Airport to the Niagara Falls hotels, and checked in using Credit Cards. We were in a place neither of us had been before, and we were going to go exploring.

You might expect that as grownups, we would rent a car too, but it would have done us little good. Helen had learned to drive once but had not actually driven a car in a good long time, while I, the city kid, would not see the need to learn at all until 1997 when we bought a house in New Jersey. One of the nice things about Niagara Falls is that if you pay a little extra to stay close to the falls, you can walk to all the overlooks and to some other things too.

For example we went to the Schoellkopf Geological Museum. You might think that's boring until you learn that it stands at the edge of the cliff overlooking the gorge, right next to where a huge rockslide broke off in 1956 and destroyed a power station. Maybe it will happen again and you can be part of it! Inside there are rocks, photographs of rocks, and exhibits about water falling off rocks. The World Wide Web (on the rare pages that have been updated) tells me it is now known as the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center. That will bring the crowds.

We also went to the Turtle, a museum of Iroquois culture. This I thought was pretty good. A lot of art and craft was on display, and in a performance space people in traditional dress were showing ceremonial dances. Exhibits told about the Iroquois nation and the relations between natives and settlers from Europe. It wasn't crowded. And it closed some years ago.

But it's really best to go see Niagara Falls while you're there.

Helen and I spent a fair amount of time wandering around in the state park looking at rushing water. It's hard to explain why this is, but there is something amazingly impressive about the rush of the water. Probably it's the sheer power of it. In deference to Helen's dislike of heights, we skipped the observation tower, but she decided she could take the Cave of the Winds Trip.

The Trip, as it is called, starts in a stone building on Goat Island. You go in and take a raincoat, and then you go down an elevator inside the earth to come out close to the bottom of the gorge.

Then it gets crazy. You have to go out on wooden plank walks getting hit by spray from the waterfall, which is right there next to you. I thought this was great.

Many years ago there was a thing down there called the Cave of the Winds, where you could actually go under hanging rocks behind the falls, but spoilsports had it closed when part of the roof collapsed, and were proved right a few years later when the rest of it came down. Oh so they were right. But they've still got the plank walks, and I really recommend it. Even Helen liked it. It wasn't high up— it was deep down.

The two below are views from Goat Island, which is in the middle of the river, dividing Niagara Falls into two falls.

This first one looks west to the Horseshoe Falls. You can see part of the huge plume of water drops that forms above the falls. That's Canada on the far side. Helen is standing in the middle of the picture, and it's hard to see, but I think she's waving.

The one below looks east toward the American Falls, which is a just a white blur as seen from here. That's Rainbow Bridge.

One day we walked to Canada. It was right there, over Rainbow Bridge. I don't know what argybargy you have to go through now to walk across ; probably undergo a background check in advance, show a passport and three forms of identification when you get there, wait while they check your name on The List, take off your shoes and get sniffed by dogs, and sign a document swearing that you are not now and never have been a member of Al Qaeda. We just told the Canadian people we were visiting for the day, and told the American people on the way back that we were citizens, and they just nodded their heads. No one asked about drugs.

Below are two photos taken from the bridge. I wonder whether they allow photography now.

The first one is a breathtaking panorama made by expertly combining the other two. It looks as if I had one of those panoramic cameras, doesn't it, instead of the little 110 Instamatic. Really though, this is what you see. Left to right: American Falls, Goat Island, Horseshoe Falls in the distance, and the coast of Canada.

The American Falls. The small separate section on the right, next to Goat Island, is called Bridal Veil Falls. The Cave of the Winds Trip is immediately to the right of it, but all the plank walks are blurred away by the mist.

The Horseshoe Falls, mostly obscured by the plume. The international border runs through the Horseshoe Falls channel of the river. I think the two dark lumps in the water are Maid of the Mist tour boats.

The first thing we did in Canada was look at the Niagara Falls Museum. This was incredible. It was founded in 1827, and although it had been moved a few times in the 157 years before we saw it, it still had a lot of that grand old concept of a Museum of Curious Things. It did have relevant exhibits like a few of the barrels and capsules used by daredevils who went over the falls. But they also had a humpback whale skeleton, taxidermy of freak animals, a section of a giant sequoia tree acquired secondhand from the 1901 Buffalo World's Fair, a set of shells collected by Louis Agassiz, and most remarkably, nine Egyptian mummies. Have you ever seen unwrapped mummies close up? Well, you could have seen them there, ancient dead bodies, inches away from you, behind glass, under questionable climate control, 120 years after they'd come to the New World. They were later sent off for modern academic study in Atlanta, and when one turned out to be Pharaoh Ramesses I, it was returned to Egypt where Zahi Hawass can see it any time he wants.

The museum later closed, and parts of the collection have been dispersed, like the mummies and the daredevil items. A remnant is now open at another location.

We walked around a lot on the Canadian side. I remember calculating that we did eight miles for the day. Because the river bends about ninety degrees after dropping over the falls, you get a much better view of it from Canada. We ate at a large restaurant overlooking the falls, and by the time we left Canada we could see the evening display of colored lights.

Below, this is what the Horseshoe Falls looks like from Canada, with Goat Island in the background. That's a lot of mist. See the rainbow? It was in the air for a long time. With this much mist around, maybe it's there a lot. They did name the bridge after the rainbow.

Now, I have been saving the best thing for last. I did something in Niagara Falls that was a turning point in my life. I had a slice.

Pizza is not meat and potatoes, or meat on bread, so we had none of that in my house when I was growing up. I mentioned in Slumgullion that I had learned to eat pasta with meat and tomato sauce before my last year of college, and this put me in good stead when I started going out with Helen, who'd had Italian food regularly at home.

Helen worked on me to the point where I'd happily go down to V and T's with her and enjoy several of the "food" dishes on the menu (pizza places tend to describe their offerings as two categories, "pizza" and "food"). I even liked Stuffed Peppers with Meat, despite it being a partially green food. I think it had become an acceptable food item from Helen nudging me to put some cut green peppers into pasta meat sauce.

So there we were, looking for food in Niagara Falls, New York, and deciding to go into the Rainbow Centre (sic) mall that was right there down the block, with the idea that we'd find a food court. And it was in that ordinary place, a mall like you'd find anywhere in America, that Helen pointed to a pizza counter and suggested we grab a couple of slices. What could be more humdrum?

I made a snap decision that I will never forget. I would do it. I was on vacation, and it was time to go crazy. I would have a slice.

I mentioned the incident to Helen today and got a surprise.

"Do you remember what you had on it?" I shook my head. "Peppers."

"Green peppers? Really?"

"They were green and red. I don't know why you didn't get some kind of meat."

Helen should be writing these articles. She actually remembers things. I like to think though that my half baked versions are more fun. That's what I tell myself.

Anyway I ate the slice and it was good. And this was cheap mall pizza. It probably helped that I was hungry.

Before much longer I must have had a taste of V and T's pizza back in New York, and that was it, man. I still eat there with my friends sometimes and I think it's the best you can get. My favorite at V and T's is sausage and pepper. I had totally forgotten that pepper was on my first slice, but maybe that explains half of my favorite. They give you sliced disks of sausage, not the usual crumbled sausage filling you get almost everywhere. Mmmm.

Some years ago I resolved to have pizza one day a week. You know why? So that I would stop having it more often. That's the reason.

The Rainbow Centre has been closed for years now, a victim of the depression in Niagara Falls, New York.

Do you think the World Wide Web has everything? What do you think are the chances of finding an image on the web of an ordinary food court pizza counter in an abandoned shopping mall? Well, here you go:

Thank you to Erica Hayes, photographer, and If they tear down the mall, which might happen, there will be nowhere to put the little oval plaque noting the place where Joe B had pizza. This blog post will be the only commemoration.

Photos are mine, except the two small ones and the last one. Maybe you wish they were larger (if you click them) but they're on grainy 110 Instamatic film and this is about as large as you'd want to see them.

Next time: Steps.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


October 9, 2001, Birmingham, England.

You might ask why I flew to Britain's second-largest city four weeks after 9/11, but let me save that for another time. The good news was, the plane wasn't crowded, so I had a two-seat to myself, and they let me have two little bottles of red wine to have with dinner. And the British soldiers who met us at the gate with serious-looking automatic weapons made me feel that I wouldn't need to worry about pickpockets in the airport. I tried to act normal, really I did. I was allowed into the country.

I had made plans so that following the convention I attended, I would have two whole days to play tourist. The first day I took a train up to London, because it is hard for me to get within two hours of London and not want to go there. It's like New York, and yet very different. It's as if two teams had been charged with designing a top world city and had had very different ideas about what to do. I love being in both cities. But that's not what we're here today to talk about either.

This second day, I knew where I wanted to go. I left my city hotel and went across the street to New Street station and purchased a Cheap Day Return to Whatstandwell.

New Street in 2003 was voted the "worst station for customer satisfaction" in Britain. It reminded me of Penn Station in New York, and trust me, that is not a compliment. At track level, it is a crowded, curved space below street level. Above it is a Brutalist station building completed in 1967. The main front faces away from the Birmingham city center and the namesake New Street. Above the station is an even uglier shopping mall called The Pallasades (sic), through which passengers may reach New Street and most of the city. Here is a fine description of the experience that I just found on a web page called Itchy Birmingham:

If you're coming into Birmingham city centre by train then depressingly there is no avoiding this place. With a pan pipe rendition of Hit Me Baby (One More Time) ringing in your ears you'll soon find yourself sprinting for the exit. As you reach daylight the farewell sign will say 'Thank you for shopping at The Pallasades'— refrain from sticking your fingers up and shouting 'I had no bloody choice! I just got off a bloody train.'

What does this look like? I never took a picture from the city side, but here is a good one posted to a discussion by "Feltip".

The Pallasades was originally called Birmingham Shopping Centre as seen here. Aside from the name, this is exactly how I remember it looking in 2001, right down to that McDonald's franchise on the left. This is the view from the corner of New Street (the street) and Corporation Street, which I would call the two main streets in the city, as you approach the busiest railway station in Britain outside of London. Can you find the entrance? Can you even tell that the station is there?

Below is the fine front entrance that they built on the back side of the station. I took the trouble to walk around to here, but as you can see, not many people do. Below that is a closer view of what some architect considered a welcoming entrance. I admit I took this one at night, so it's a little dark, but really, look at that. How would you rate this for customer satisfaction?

It's hard to get a good view of the track level from anywhere, but this night shot will give you some idea.

OK, enough ragging on poor New Street station. I avoided it in rush hours, and at the times I was there, I had no difficulty at all with the practical matters of buying tickets, seeing train information on the big boards, and finding my track. But damn, it's ugly.

Before we leave, you might like to see what New Street, the street, looks like. I took this on a rainy day. I have other photos of monumental buildings in Birmingham but this one gives you the best idea of what things look like if you wander around downtown. I thought it looked pretty good. The shops are all rented out and even on this day they seemed to be doing business well enough.

The street there on the right is called Needless Alley. There has to be a story but I don't know what it is. I can imagine a landowner who has the whole block and wants to build on it, being told that he has to provide at least a narrow street through it, to which he disagrees, but provides it anyway, and names it Needless out of spite. But Birmingham was known for the manufacture of metal "toys", meaning small commodities, and I wonder whether needles were manufactured or sold here. I don't know the answer.

On we go.

I was going to ride two trains. The first one was on a through route called Cross Country, which means it does not go to London, but rather comes from south Wales or southwest England via Birmingham to points in northeast England and Scotland. My train would leave at 09:06 and arrive at Derby at 09:51, leaving me plenty of time for the connection, a local train leaving Derby at 10:31. I expected to be able to have a quick look outside the station at Derby, but the train was almost a half hour late.

The ride passes through a few suburban towns and then across fields. The only large town before Derby is Burton upon Trent, which is dominated by huge brewery tanks. Evidently the local water is very good for brewing beer and ale. Bass Ale comes from here, and so does a popular bitter in England, Worthington.

It was along here that I overheard two young men with shaved heads discussing things. They were on their way to a football match. At length they fell silent and looked out across the fields. One of them then made an interesting observation. But first I have to describe how to say it.

Pronounce "cow" by starting to say the "ca" in "care", and then add a long "o". OK? "ca-oh". Pronounce "massive" with an "a" as in "cat". And pronounce "benign" something between "buh-nine" and "buh-noin", something like a Long Island accent if you know how that sounds. He said this:

The cow is a massive beast. But it's benign.

I almost burst out laughing. The setup was the accent, but the punch line was the unexpected word "benign", which in the States is a fancy word used almost exclusively to describe tumors. I did not actually burst out laughing because these two looked like they'd break your nose before they'd bother finding out why you were laughing at them. They got off at Derby too, to change for Nottingham.

The train was late, but I had still arrived at Derby in time to make the connection. As I expected, the local train was a DMU, a set of diesel-powered cars of uncertain vintage, standing at one of the platforms. There weren't many passengers.

Derby 10:31, Whatstandwell 10:52.

The branch line was single track. I got off at Whatstandwell, and and after the train disappeared into a short tunnel, I took this picture looking forward to where it had gone. Is this the most amazing rural station scene possible? Don't people go to railway museums to see things like this?

I was the only passenger who chose to get off at this remote location. It was the middle of nowhere, or maybe just outside of nowhere. To the left, there was a small parking lot and a road just beyond, signs of civilization, but there was not a building to be seen other than the little shelter you can see there on the left.

I didn't notice until later on, when I looked at the photograph, that there was a totally overgrown platform on the right, for another track that was no longer there. Some research told me that this had once been a through route from London to Manchester, although it was now a dead-end local branch line.

Do you like that arched bridge? I sure do. There was no sign to guide me, but the map I had printed out from the web, before I left New Jersey, told me that it was the way to Whatstandwell.

Here is what I saw as I went up the steps to the bridge.

The arch bridge goes over the railway, and once had steps down to the long-disused other platform. From that point, there are steps going further up. They go over a canal, parallel to the railway but higher up.

Here, I've gone up those steps, and I'm looking back down to the railway and the arched bridge.

I didn't take a picture of the canal. Once I was over the canal, I was on a footpath bordered by stone walls, that led up to the village of Whatstandwell. Here's the path.

At the end of the path, I was on the main road in Whatstandwell, which was almost the only road. It was the main road. Its name is the Main Road. I am not joking. You can look it up.

Above, from Google Maps, with my annotations.

I didn't snap a picture of the Main Road, but what I recall is that it was lined with grey stone buildings and stone walls. Wikipedia provides us this view of Whatstandwell, a little ways down the Main Road.

From the footpath, I crossed the Main Road, turned right, and then went left into the side road. It went uphill like this, past more grey stone buildings.

And looking back downhill, below.

The place I was going to advises:

The nearest rail station is Whatstandwell, from which it is a STEEP uphill walk of about 1 mile.

To myself I belittled the capitalized word in this description. I concentrated on the distance of one mile: that's nothing. I could walk that easily. So it's uphill. But they meant it about being STEEP. As I continued onward, I started to believe that Whatstandwell was in the Grand Canyon of Great Britain.

Here is the road farther up, now in a place called Crich Carr. I stopped here to admire the scenery. Someone was sitting in a chair in the front of a house and I smiled and nodded as if I came by this way every day.

And now, even farther up, here is the view looking back toward Whatstandwell. See what I mean? It's way down there in that valley you can't even see into from here. How about that scenery though? I bet you want to be here. This was the beginning of October too, and everything is still green in the Derbyshire Dales.

The sign points to a public footpath to Wakebridge, stated to be 1/4 mile off. England still has an enormous number of narrow public rights of way for footpaths between towns, a heritage from centuries ago.

And now, finally, the road almost levels off. Speed limit 30, and that's miles per hour, not kilometers.

I was almost there! Just ahead, beyond that house, turn right, a short way, turn left.

Where? Does it matter to you where I was going? Did you like the journey? Maybe I was going to a place you wouldn't have taken all this trouble to go see. But you can still enjoy the journey from the depths of Birmingham New Street to the insane beauty of Derbyshire. And you can do it about two hours. Life is good.

Next time: Niagara.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Twin Towers


September 11, 2001.

You know what happened. I'm just going to give you the story as I experienced it.

I got to work at Columbia University at 08:00. It was a beautiful day. There was a huge hurricane out in the Atlantic pulling crisp cool air down from New England. The sky was a cloudless blue and the temperature was in the low 70s. We had the windows open in our offices to let in the fresh air. It was Tuesday in the second week of a new academic year.

A plane hit the North Tower at 08:46. The only person on our floor with a radio came around not too long afterwards, telling us that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers downtown. An accident of course. It was thought at first to be a small plane. Bad news on a beautiful day.

A plane hit the South Tower at 09:03. When we heard about this, we knew it was not an accident. New York was under attack. By whom, we did not know, and what else was coming, we could only wonder.

We had no television and just that one radio. The World Wide Web was young, and the news media web sites we thought of were overwhelmed and unreachable.

The South Tower fell at 09:59. We learned this by passing along what we were getting from the one radio. What did this mean? Did the 110-story tower fall on its side and take down blocks of other buildings? No, we were told it collapsed straight down. What? The strangeness of that idea made the news even more scary.

The North Tower fell at 10:28. There was a rumor that all of lower Manhattan was on fire. Soon after this, someone thought of trying the BBC web site. We were able to get onto that, and we started getting more accurate information. Images from a distance showed the smoke throughout lower Manhattan, but it was all coming from the site of the towers. The wind was blowing the smoke south. We saw none of it outside our windows.

The subways were shut down, and all bridges and tunnels were closed. We were trapped in Manhattan. I had moved to New Jersey four years earlier. I started to think where I would go that night. Some of my work friends lived in the city, and some of our offices had couches. We heard reports that some bank cash machines were not working, because of the power outages downtown. I checked how much cash I had in my wallet, and it wasn't much.

I was at that time postmaster (at), and back then people who knew email knew that the postmaster address should always work. Parents from far away were sending mail asking if Columbia was all right. Telephone connectivity was bad, but the Internet was still good. I answered all of the messages as quickly as I could. It's about seven miles from here, we're all fine on campus, certainly anyone living near campus is fine too, don't worry. It was my job, but now it seemed a great responsibility.

Sometime after noon, I had to go out. I was going to buy lunch and some extra food, in case the stores closed.

When I got up the street to Broadway, I saw them. People in business clothes, walking north, their blank faces, a few with white dust on their dark suits. At a reasonable three miles an hour, they had left downtown around 10:00 and had now reached the latitude of Columbia. It became real, the way something you know in your head becomes real when you finally see it right in front of you. I looked at them sadly. The sky was still brilliant blue, and the temperature as perfect as you could ask.

I got something for lunch at the corner and went back to the office, and answered more mail. We're OK, and your children on or near campus must be OK too, even if you can't get through on the phone, don't worry. I had to ask someone in management to put a message like that on the main Columbia web page.

I found out that some of my work friends knew someone who worked in the World Trade Center. He used to work in our group before I got there. Where was he?

In mid afternoon we heard that some of the bridges were being opened, including the George Washington Bridge, providing the only access to New Jersey. And my sister sent me email offering any help she could provide. I could possibly put together a way home.

And our former colleague showed up. He had walked to Columbia, thinking probably people he knew were around. He told us this:

I came to work early, to update a database. Only a few people were in the office. We were in the South Tower. The lights blinked around o8:45, and we said to each other, huh, what was that? Someone looked out the window and saw a big fire up in the North Tower. We didn't think an airplane hit. That would be crazy. We thought a bomb exploded.

I realized I was the senior person there. They were asking what we should do. I told them, I don't know what is happening but I don't want to be near it. I told them all to leave. They were young people and they couldn't believe what I was saying. We can leave? I told them, yes, we are all leaving, and we should walk away from the building, and not come back until we hear it is safe.

When we got to the lobby, the guards told us we couldn't go outside. But after a few minutes, they told us we should leave, on the side away from the North Tower. I walked over to Chinatown, and then I started walking north. I didn't stop until somewhere around 86th Street where I bought a bottle of water.

He had probably saved the lives of his office mates by convincing them to get out right away. It was only 17 minutes between plane strikes, and while I forget what floor he said they were on, I think it was high up. Oh, and he added later, in gallows humor:

The good news is, I never had to update that database.

I did get home that night. One of my work friends offered to take as many as he could in his car across the George. I ended up in the back of the SUV, in that little bit of trunk space behind the rear seat. We figured it was not a legal seat, but on this day, it would be all right.

We went to his house in Teaneck, and he called for some pizza to be delivered. I called my sister. She came in a little while, and had some pizza with us. She took me, our WTC survivor, and another work friend of mine. We dropped off the survivor in Montclair, and me and my friend in South Orange. I then drove her to Dover. On the way back home I got a police car light flash for doing 75 in a 65 zone, on a straight empty highway, but when I dropped speed, he left me alone. It was not a day for petty traffic stops.

That night, there were cars left overnight in the parking lots of our local railway stations. Some of the commuters just couldn't get out of the city. But some of them never came back. Their spouses and friends came for the cars after a day or so. I don't think they were ticketed. There are small memorial plaques now near several of the stations.


The World Trade Center was not a place I visited regularly, but I had been there enough times to be familiar with it, especially the street entrances, the PATH station below, and the large bookstore at ground level.

I didn't go down there for about a year. I wasn't ready to see the hole. When I did finally go, I could feel the open space where there should have been buildings. I had thought about what I would see but the emptiness was still a shock. I looked down into the pit, like the tourists around me. But how many had been there often enough to visualize what was missing? It was hard to believe that those huge buildings were totally gone.

I rode a PATH train from New Jersey into the World Trade Center station sometime after it reopened in 2003. It was the usual ride I remembered until we suddenly came into daylight, in the bottom of the pit. The reconstructed station was in the same place as it was when it was several stories underground. As I went up to the street I had a spooky muscle memory of being there before, because they had rebuilt the passageway and escalators exactly where they had been. Up stairs to a mezzanine (now in the open air), turn 90 degrees, up the short escalator, walk ahead and slightly left, and up the long escalator. But we didn't come up into the shopping mall concourse with the cream-colored stone wall panels and floors. Instead there was just a temporary-looking concrete space. (And by now, 2009, the escalators and concourse have been relocated to new positions.)

I was up in the towers themselves only a few times. Once I went to the New York State tax office on the 60th floor of one tower, to get some rare form we needed. It was a windy day and I could feel the building swaying. And Helen and I went to the observation deck twice. That's a lot considering we lived in the city. People who live in New York put off going to the stupid tourist destinations. If you can go any time, then what's the rush? And you end up never going to some of them.

The photos below are from one of our visits. They're scanned from fading prints made from grainy 110 Instamatic film. The color might seem off but it's pretty close to correct. We were there to see the sunset. Kind of appropriate now. And as you know, I can't go back and re-shoot better ones with the digital camera, so this will have to do.

Photos: Top 2, July 4, 1975. Bottom 8, November, 1977.

Last photo, left center, the statue of Liberty Enlightening the World.

Next time
: Whatstandwell.