Monday, April 28, 2008

Greater DC's Last Tram (And It's Dutch)

Want to ride a tram in America? There are one or two cities that kept a few lines as tourist attractions, but in Washington DC and its suburbs they axed the entire system in the early 1960s. They must have been slowing down too many senators and congressman as they rushed by car from Capitol Hill to capital whorehouse. But there’s still a way to ride the tram if you know where to look – it’s in a field in the middle of nowhere in Montgomery County, Maryland.

That’s where you’ll find the DC trolley museum, and that’s where we went yesterday afternoon. What counts as a cheap and efficient method of getting around town in hundreds of cities across the world is, for DC area residents, a 30-minute drive for a brief, historical trip down recent memory lane. And a painful reminder of the short-sighted ignorance that now makes any journey by car in or around DC a slow, frustrating and climate-wrecking experience.

The only working tram is not actually a DC museum piece, rather it’s a Dutch model (interior shot, left), built in 1972, which was bought by the museum at the start of this century. It takes a clunky ride through some woods running parallel to a busy road, does a quick loop, and comes back again to the little faux station with some exhibits and a souvenir shop filled with sepia-tinted books that document the trains, trams and trolleys of yore. Most heartbreaking of all are the 1930s maps showing that public transport was accessible across the region, and that it reached out to almost every suburb and settlement in and around the city.

The entire infrastructure was in place, and the city destroyed it to make more room for cars at a time when, for most commuters, the privacy of your own space and the pride of owning an automobile presumably made driving to work the more attractive option. But you’d be hard pushed nowadays to see much joy or pride in vehicle ownership in the faces of the thousands of commuters I see stuck on the Beltway every afternoon as I do the school run in the opposite direction. That run, I confess, involves a 15-minute, gas-wasting drive, but if the kids tried to come home by the currently available public transport, it would take them the best part of two hours.

In the meantime, the DC area has lost the sense of community to be gained from seeing and talking to your neighbours on public transport, and from linking one neighbourhood directly to another. The roadways are clogged with loud, dangerous, carbon dioxide-pumping cars that make walking (pedestrian deaths from speeding vehicles are as regular a local news item as drive-by shootings) or cycling either unpleasant or plain impossible.

Although DC has an underground train system, it has nothing like the reach or capacity needed to take cars off the road. But with petrol at almost four dollars a gallon, the talk in recent years about rebuilding the tram system may rise up the transport agenda. We had the technology one hundred years ago, but cheap oil apparently rendered it obsolete. While the city and its suburbs continued to grow, mass transit remained a great, but wholly forgotten, idea.

Never mind Jesus - here’s a second coming that could actually make a difference to millions of lives. America, resurrect the tram.

* To give you an illustration of what mass transit advocates in the US are up against, the Action Committee For Transit is a local body that has sought for decades to build a light rail system that would run close to my house, linking the suburbs of Silver Spring and Bethesda. The disused railway line, now a cycle trail, already exists to build the proposed Purple Line. But house owners adjacent to the line have over the years let their gardens encroach so far back on to the proposed route that they claim there’s no space to build the line and allow the cycle trail to remain. They also say they want to preserve the trail for the sake of nature. Conveniently for them, it also runs through the golf course of Columbia Country Club (induction fee – a non-refundable $70,000), where the wealthy are not keen to have quiet but pleb-carrying trains disturb their concentration at the ninth hole, and have lobbied accordingly. Wish us luck.

** Recommended further reading: The End Of Oil by Paul Roberts
The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Music Inspires...Health?

Ari Hest and Ingrid Michaelson were heading the bill at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium last night, and although it’s a sit-down theatre with no atmosphere and, even worse, no bar, I’d mercifully been given the night off because the wife and kids were off watching the daughter of some friends take part in an amateur school production in a land far beyond the last metro stop.

Yes, I went, even though there was no bar. The last time I can remember going out on a Friday evening and there being no bar, I was 15 years old at a disco in Tealby Village Hall, where they were serving pop and crisps to raise funds for the local youth club. But at least there was the consolation of having a bottle of vodka hidden in the bushes outside. If you tried to hide a bottle of vodka in the bushes somewhere in downtown DC, someone would assume you were hiding a Molotov cocktail, and you’d find yourself face down on the floor of a helicopter heading for Guantanamo Bay with a marine’s muscular knee grinding the back of your manhood to bollocknese sauce.

Worse still, this wasn’t any old pop concert. Barely mentioned in the publicity, it was being sponsored by Kaiser Permanente and an organisation billing itself as Music Inspires Health. I am serious, and I’ve got the free t-shirt to prove it. So not only did you have to abstain from alcohol on a Friday night, but between acts you had educational videos on wearing a condom, not drinking yourself into a coma, and on how to talk to your bulimic friends when they’ve spent a suspiciously long time in the bog after dinner. And then endless talks from the dull young man running the whole thing, who thanked everyone he’s ever known, and also let us know where he met his girlfriend and how far along she is with her medical studies.

Now I know how the homeless feel when they want a bowl of soup from the Salvation Army, but only after they’ve said their prayers and listened to a pious lecture on their low-down homeless ways. Except that here we were paying twenty bucks for the privilege, and being asked to fill out a survey asking us our opinion of Kaiser Permanente, and whether tonight’s event would change the way we thought about our health.

Admittedly, I’m no longer in the target age range for this kind of event, but even so. There’s something not quite right about pop and rock singers going on a tour aimed at telling young people not to smoke and get hammered. Of all the things music is supposed to inspire, I’d put health somewhere below ‘world peace’, ‘further studies into the history of calligraphy’ and ‘a better attitude towards your superiors’. And way below ‘going out on a Friday night, getting off your head, getting your ears numbed while shaking your brains out close to a tower of amps, and finding out both good and bad things about yourself, life and the universe.’ But then I'm an old fashioned guy in that respect.

Ingrid Michaelson was very funny and entertaining, but the concept behind the evening was way too worthy to make for a good time. I was, however, inspired to leave early, walk out into the warm, moonlit night, and then into the nearest bar to sink a pint of Sam Adams’ Summer Ale. It was the best way I could think of to toast everybody’s health.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Gym Rules

Suburbanites are so opposed to being seen on the streets of their neighbourhood that instead of taking their recreational exercise outdoors, they pay for the privilege of going to specially enclosed indoor day camps filled with torture instruments that make them grimace and sweat while at the same time deluding them they’re going to live longer. Otherwise known as the gym.

There are certain rules at the gym. The main rule is: don’t look at anybody, you pervert. Even though gyms are about as sexy as bank managers. Because although everyone’s striving for the perfect body, it’s all about the journey – none of us have got there yet, and most of us never will. If we had, we’d be living in California showing it off, not suburban DC with its cold, grey winters and close, clammy summers that last from May until October.

Second rule: don’t talk to anybody, except to grunt when asking if you can ‘work in’ with them on a torture machine. When grunting, don’t look them in the eye. Usually when someone talks to me and makes a vague gesture, I’m listening to my iPod and have to take the earphones out to ask them to repeat themselves, which makes them irritable. What else would they have been asking other than if they could ‘work in’, stupid? Do you always sweat like a bison? Do you really think this is ultimately going to enhance your sex appeal? The only time I talked to anyone was to tell a genial old bloke how much I liked his t-shirt, which showed Bush and Cheney above the caption: Meet The Fuckers.

But there’s no room for politics at the gym (just like everywhere else), which brings me to rule three: talk sports in the locker room. When you get the lunchtime jock crowd, rushing in for an hour of pumping and heaving between manly business deals, they use those five minutes of changing time to talk about last night’s game, usually to complete strangers, the assumption being that if you’re in a gym locker room then you’ll know all about last night’s game. There’s always been a game the night before, somewhere, in some sport, so it’s easy to bluff along. “Yeah, amazing play,” you can venture. “What a finish.” “Can’t wait for the playoffs.” “He came out of Duke, right?” “But thinking about it, what a supremely pointless waste of fucking time for all concerned.” Careful with the last one, though.

Final rule: use as much energy as possible, and not necessarily your own energy. Until we’ve burnt every last atom of available fossil fuel, it is our duty as human beings to exhaust our dwindling supplies in line with the President’s attitude on climate change – which is, we don’t give a fuck because the energy crisis is going to be a problem for the next generation, not mine. Yesterday I was on an exercise bike behind a woman walking on a step machine. Not only was the apparatus using electricity to aid her stationary perambulation, but she was on her mobile phone for 25 minutes, and watching the TV screen attached to the front of the machine too. That’s three sources of energy wastage while doing a simple activity – walking – that she could have done on the street outside, for free.

Which begs the question why I wasn’t out on a real bike instead of sitting on one fixed to the floor of the gym sneering at soccer moms on step machines. But if you ask such questions, you don’t understand the nature of suburbia. I’m no rebel. I’m just keeping a low profile out here, abiding by the rules, and keeping the streets free so cars can drive faster.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Squeaky Whinge

“It’s a squeaky hinge that gets oiled,” was the catchphrase of an Australian girl I used to work with in a London office. When it came to squeaking, she was the queen, and would badger our employment agency for higher wages so often - every week, when she went to pick up her pay - that they would cave in just to get her to shut up and leave. In that respect, her policy worked. (Either that, or she was using an antipodean sexual metaphor that went right over my head at the time.)

Her advice to me was to do the same and whinge like a hinge. Much as I shared her philosophy that if a thing was worth complaining about, it was worth complaining about at great length, I could only bellyache in the presence of like-minded moaners. I’m the kind of bloke who says that the soup’s shit, then two seconds later when the waiter comes and asks how the soup is, I’ll smile and say, “It’s fine, and thank you very much for asking.”

I’d been thinking about my former colleague every night for the past eight and a half years, because there was a squeaky hinge on our bathroom door, and every time I got up in the small hours to go to the bog, it caterwauled like a smitten tomcat with its nuts caught under a steam-hammer. And every time I thought sleepily, “Owch, I must take care of that sometime. Squeaky hinges should be oiled.” And yes, it’s round about eight and a half years since we moved into this house.

The middle of the night was the only time I thought about the squeaky hinge, which was why it never got fixed. But the other day, I was clearing out my tool box (for the first time in eight and a half years), and came across tons of useful stuff like glues and screwdrivers and wrenches that I never normally know where to find. And a can of something called WD-40, which, according to its own publicity, “stops squeaks.” Why did no one tell me we had this magical substance?

Another week of creaking nights went by before I actually got around to bringing the can of WD-40 all the way upstairs to spray on the hinge. It took me less than five seconds. Amazingly, after a couple of squirts, the hinge stopped squeaking. Now, in the middle of the night, I am struck by the silence when I pull open the door. But while continuing to admire the curative properties of WD-40, I miss the squeak. Thinking about it makes me alert and stops me going back to sleep.

This made me realise that even though I’m a grouch at the best of times, it’s better if I stay that way. Family and friends can tolerate me as an accustomed background noise, but have long since stopped listening to anything I actually say. Imagine if I became all sunny and positive – they’d worry about me and think that I was sick, or up to something devious.

It would be selfish to put them through that, so it’s best if I stay as the kind of hinge that malfunctions just often enough not to bring too much attention to myself. Not completely unhinged, just one that makes the same low-level, negative noise on any given subject. Bloody ’ell, even if they elect Obama, something’s bound to go wrong. It’s not worth Lincoln getting promoted, they’ll just go straight back down. Etc.

Stay away, well-intentioned handymen. Leave squeaking hinges be. They may not sound it, but they really are happy that way.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

On The Tennessee Border

‘Tennessee Border’ is the title of a 1947 Red Foley song that contains the memorable line, “I picked her up in my pick-up truck/And she stole this heart of mine.” It also claims to be the birth place of country music. More specifically, the city of Bristol, whose main street is divided by the Virginia-Tennessee state line, claims this title. Not that they’re really making the most out of it, bar the mural depicted above and a few streets named after early C&W luminaries.

In 1927, Ralph Peer of NY-based Victor Records came here with an early version of the portastudio and recorded a number of local acts who’d made their way in from the surrounding Appalachian mountains to lay down some tracks and get some cash in return. Most famously, Jimmie Rodgers and the astonishing Carter Family laid the musical foundations for all that followed. But it’s a few hundred years out to claim that country music was born the day it was first put on record.

On Monday afternoon of last week, Bristol’s main street reminded me of my home town on half day closing in the 1970s, except that Market Rasen in Lincolnshire has a population of under 3,000, and the population of Bristol is over 42,000. Many businesses are derelict, while the C&W Museum is stuck on the edge of town on the lower level of a shopping mall. Go through JC Penneys and down the escalator and you’re there.

The tiny museum had a handful of interesting artefacts, some pictures and exhibits missing from the walls, and several overpriced CDs. Not that I was looking for anything like Nashville’s Opryland Theme Park, but it was a bit like showing up at Gettysburg to find they’d built a NASCAR track, but left a Civil War souvenir shop down a tunnel and underneath the pit stop.

Back on State Street downtown, there were two businesses of interest. One was the Mountain Aire record shop on the Virginia side of the street, where I spent a happy half hour as the sole customer. On the Tennessee side was the far busier Uncle Sam’s Loan Shop, a massive pawn emporium catering to those in need of instant cash. You have to hand it to the concern’s marketing strategists. By making poverty seem patriotic, they were drawing in more customers than the rest of the shops on State Street put together.