Throwing Rosa Parks From the Train

The train conductor resembled how Lee Harvey Oswald might have looked in late middle age: white, wiry, angry-looking. He prowled rather than strolled the aisles as he took our tickets, wearing the wary and ready-to-shoot face of a cop looking for an escaped felon in an abandoned building.

The passenger was also middle-aged, but black, dreadlocked, overweight, and surrounded by nondescript shopping bags. Was she homeless, or just tired and disheveled? It was hard to tell.

I didn’t notice her until the conductor asked for her fare and she produced a bus token. What happened next still haunts me.

This was about a year ago when I was visiting my mom in suburban Philadelphia. I was on the SEPTA commuter train from her home in the leafy community of Jenkintown to its terminus at the Philadelphia airport, where I’d catch a plane home. The train went through some tony neighborhoods and some rough ones: Fern Rock, Wayne Junction, Temple University. The passengers were similarly diverse, and included sedately dressed matrons, people of all colors in casual weekend clothes, couples lugging toddlers in expensive strollers, tough-looking youths with headphones that did not totally drown out their music. All were minding their own business and lost in their own worlds as the train chugged towards its three stops in downtown Philly and to the airport.

I was thinking about going home, and feeling relieved that I had barely remembered to stop at an ATM for cash before I had stepped onto the train; otherwise I would have had no money for my fare. The conductor’s voice behind me woke me from my own reverie.

“Ma’am that token doesn’t work on this train,” he said loudly.

“But it’s a SEPTA token,” the passenger pointed out.

“I’m sorry, the fare is $7.50,” he said bluntly. “The tokens only work on the bus.”

“But I don’t have $7.50!” she replied. “All I have is this token.”

“Well, you will have to get off at the next stop,” Lee Harvey answered.

The passengers looked up from their Philadelphia Inquirers, from their IPhones, from their toddlers, and looked at one another incredulously.

“I’ve got to get to work,” pleaded the passenger with the token. “I’m a nurse and my shift begins at three.”

“I don’t care if your shift begins at three,” the conductor snarled back. “You need to pay the fare or you need to get off the train.”

He walked away from her for a second, and the couple in the seat behind me pulled out some money. The man stretched his arm wordlessly across the aisle, his offering in his outstretched palm. The conductor’s head whipped around and his face became angry.

“We don’t allow panhandlers on this train,” he said to the woman with the shopping bags.

A small vapor of disgust suffused the train, as passengers murmured among themselves, clearly not happy with the conductor’s attitude. The man behind me spoke up, in a respectful tone, to make it clear that he had offered the lady the money unasked. Another passenger, a black man, walked to the front of the train and tried to talk quietly with the conductor before turning around and stalking angrily back to his seat.

“I’ve got to get to my shift,” the lady with the bags kept saying. “I’m a nurse.”

In the front of the train the conductor was brandishing his radio. He contacted the Philadelphia police and asked for them to be waiting for the train at the next station, Wayne Junction. I heard him say that he was putting a passenger off the train.

The train pulled into Wayne Junction before the police. We sat there for several minutes. The passengers fumed silently. Finally, the black man who had tried before to intervene got up again, angrier this time.

“Excuse me sir…don’t you think this is a little excessive?,” he irately asked the conductor, who just shrugged.

We sat there some more, and mingled with my anger at the situation was the very real fear that I would miss my plane if this dragged on. I tried to squelch it and meditate on the thought that I was witnessing an injustice. Or was I? That train traveled through some dangerous neighborhoods, and I am sure that the conductor had dealt with some tough characters before. Maybe Lee Harvey Oswald was really a guy who had simply become jaded from the situations that arose on his train. The passenger could have been a vagrant, maybe somebody he had dealt with before.

Or she maybe she was just a harried nurse who ran out of time to groom herself before she got on the last train that would get her to work on time. Regardless of what she was, I concluded that she deserved the benefit of the doubt, and clearly other passengers did too, or they would not have offered to pay her fare or reacted the way they did.

Nobody said anything more as we waited. Finally three police officers came on board. They spoke gently to the lady who was maybe a nurse or maybe a vagrant. With a sigh she stood up, gathered her bags and walked heavily up the aisle with them, then stepped off the train. I felt the rumbling of wheels as the train began to move and I checked the time, relieved that I would definitely make the plane.

It was only later that I remembered that I almost had boarded the train myself without any cash. How would the conductor have reacted to a well-dressed white woman with an empty wallet? Would he have smiled and given me an address where I could mail a check for the fare when it was convenient? Or would he have put me off the train at Wayne Junction?

I felt angry at myself for not speaking up, for letting this woman get marched away even though others had offered to pay her fare. I was angry for letting thoughts of missing my plane overshadow the outrage that I was witnessing. How many of us chat about social injustice over pinot grigio in our comfortable homes but look the other way when it stares us in the face? How many of us don’t risk speaking out because it might make someone uncomfortable, angry or inconvenienced? On a holiday celebrating history’s most iconic champion of Civil Rights, it’s something worth pondering.

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Street Names: Getting You Where You Live

Would you ever want to live at an address that sounds less than picturesque? Or that sounds scary, shady, tawdry or downright ugly?

Las Vegas pays homage to the late Tupac in this street sign, courtesy of theawl.com.

Las Vegas pays homage to the late Tupac in this street sign, courtesy of theawl.com.

I ask this because I recently finished a story for our local paper on the history of street names in our town. It got me thinking about how the millions of streets in our country are named. Who thought up names like “Hard Scrabble Road” in New York and “Mosquito Landing Road” in southern New Jersey? Do you shudder at the thought of living at such an address? (That last one makes me itch.)

My thoughts took me to the web, where I found a very funny blog post at the Zillow web site. I learned that Casco, Maine has a Durt Road and Clark Ford, Idaho has a Crummy Road. Norwich, CT, has a Butt Road and, according to theawl.com, Las Vegas pays homage to a late rapper via Tupac Lane.

While my childhood years were spent on the quiet-sounding Church Street (named for the church on it, a common practice in old towns), my street addresses as an adult ranged from picturesque to Dickensian. My most downtrodden place – a threadbare apartment with trapezoid-shaped walls — was actually at one of my prettiest address names: West Willow Grove Avenue, in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Chestnut Hill. Later I “moved up” to a nicer apartment at a not-so-nice-sounding address: Iven Avenue. Terrible!

As I newlywed I lived on Bittersweet Court, a nice Marlton, New Jersey townhouse neighborhood that sounds more downtrodden than it was; and Old Cedar Grove Road (my prettiest-sounding address). We built that house and picked the lot partly because of the address…even though the choicer lots were on a street called Dolores Drive. No offense to anyone named Dolores – it was probably the wife or daughter of an earlier developer — but I didn’t want my address to sound so dolorous.

Sometimes I wonder what motivates developers – who typically bestow the names – to choose the names they do. Inspired by a song, a newborn or a mistress, they immortalize their beloved’s name on a street sign, sell the properties, then stick the homebuyers with an address like Dolores Drive or Hardscrabble Road in perpetuity.

Here are some other interesting facts about street names:

  • In Colonial times and afterwards, as U.S. communities were built, it was common to name streets after the types of trees that grew along them, their importance to the town, or their residents or buildings. Usually the word “street” was not capitalized.
  • Some of the oldest streets in our town are named Cedar, Grove, Maple, Elm and Ash. Others are named Church (where the Catholic Church is located); and Granite, where a quarry was once located.
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the most common names include Second, Third, First, Park, Main, Oak, Maple, Cedar, Elm and Hill. “Second” streets are more numerous than “Main” streets, because the main street is often called something other than Main Street.
  • Inspiration for a neighborhood’s street names can come from anywhere. One neighborhood in our town, whose developer was a former high school teacher, had streets named after Whitman and Emerson. Others, named after the developers’ relatives, include Teresa, Nicholas, Alexander, Angelo, Elizabeth, John Matthew, Gina, David Joseph, Barbara, Tiffany and Ursla. A street called Queen Ann Drive is named after one developer’s daughter; another street, Carol Ann Drive, is named after his wife. Another developer named his high-end townhouse neighborhood after Highcroft, a private school that his son attended.

What about you? Which of your addresses have sounded the most picturesque? Did any make you cringe? Any interesting street names in your town?

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

hibernationI think that there’s a reason that most animals hibernate during the dead of winter. After the holiday merriment and the whirlwind of celebrations and obligations, January stretches out before us like a vast polar plain, and it doesn’t look that bad. It’s a time to unplug all that brightly blinking gaiety; lay on the couch; slip directly from your TV coma into bed; and just enjoy being a load.

Yet while the idea of a long period with little to do sounds great when you are busy and stressed out, living it can actually be scary. Maybe it’s just January, but I’ve been brooding. I’m wondering if anyone else goes through the same thing in winter, especially those who don’t work full time.  Does January’s emptiness always bring a creative funk?

Until 18 months ago I always had work, school and/or small children to order my day. At times it was brutally stressful, especially when I was a single mother in a demanding corporate job and had to give up time with my kids and ask other people for favors I could never return. During my last career, as an editor of two weekly newspapers, I had a wonderful boss and more control over my time, but I still felt stressed. Poor pay, new demands (more record-keeping, less writing and more parsing of canned information between print and the web) and other factors all made the job frustrating and not worth it.

So I left full time work in July of 2011 for the uncertain life of a freelancer. I was fortunate that my husband’s business was doing well so I could do this. And as someone who always worked from young adulthood through my 50s, even when my children were small, I felt I had earned it. My unfettered life stretched out before me, as ripe with possibility as a three-week jaunt to Italy. I had lots of plans to create just the life I wanted – I would finally write wonderful features, become a better piano player, learn Spanish, help Bob with his business, have more time for hobbies and friends, visit my children and siblings more often, blog.

But putting those dreams into action has been hard. It takes even more discipline than waking up at 5:30 to get the kids and house in order before going off to work. It takes being a self-starter, being organized and strategic, and being able to sell yourself…better not suck at any of these. The idea of unlimited free time – of being able to chart your own course — is as tantalizing as the idea of a tropical vacation, but unless you are very focused and deliberate it is as scary as being in the wilderness.

I see many people in jobs that sap their spirit, even people who could probably afford to retire or at least go part-time, who stay in there because they are not sure what they would do otherwise. I know of a few people – my mom included – who’ve retired comfortably and miss work every single day.

How do you carve your own path when up until now something else always carved it for you? You woke up, showered, had breakfast and knew where you had to be at 9 a.m. You did your best and pleased who you had to please. Sometimes you grumbled; sometimes you resented it; but you at least had your work cut out for you.

I still go through stressed-out days when I am grateful that my freelance status ensures I can take a breather later. I enjoy occasional periods of indolence that consist of little more than making coffee, cleaning up after breakfast, reading the New York Times, phoning my mom or a friend, taking a walk, planning dinner. But after a few days of this I feel restless and bored and start to brood. Then I panic as I worry about losing my creative mojo.

So now I look forward to digging into a freelance work project with the same thrill of anticipation I felt when a vacation neared. I’m happiest when I have a problem to solve: editing a 12,000-word interview into a succinct 1500-word article, helping my husband find business insurance or figuring out the programming for our Roku box. Being on your own means constantly looking for opportunities to test and prove your competence; to keep your skills burnished; to stay useful and relevant; to matter. Striking the right balance between comforting routine and discomfiting challenge is very hard, but you feel such a sense of well-being when you achieve it. Every day the pendulum can swing between being bored and being overwhelmed. At my happiest it swings gently back and forth in a small arc, with carefully-calibrated measures of stimulation, challenge and relaxation.

One of my favorite bloggers “On the Homefront and Beyond” tackles the subject of whether predictable routines are comforting or constraining. “Like many of you, I am ready to get back to work, ready to take on the day, ready to return to routine. But not the routine of the rote or boring, but the routine that keeps chaos at bay,” she writes. She says the best days “allow for a little magic and miracles.”

January, a time to keep warm and get comfortable, is when I’m the least comfy. Do you ever feel the same?

Neither Newly Wed, Nor Nearly Dead

I can't go there.

I can’t go there.

Over the past few months we’ve received a number of brochures in the mail sent by companies who assume that we are either very old and/or very wealthy. Has anyone else had this problem?

Many of these mailings are glossy brochures advertising Viking river cruises to Prague, Budapest and other exotic and far-off places, with costs for two exceeding the cost of a patio or used car. A few cruises are sponsored by the alumni association of our alma mater, which has no doubt assumed that everybody in the Class of ’76 is now flush with cash – even those of us who studied journalism. What bothers me, beyond the assumption that we have all this cash, is that cruises have always been for “the newly wed or the nearly dead.” Since we’ve been married almost 15 years I can only assume the worst.

Because my husband has his own business, development officers from our alma mater over the past few years have contacted him about meeting personally. “I’m going to be in Boston next (date),” bubbled one in a friendly note. “Would love to have the chance to meet with you and talk about all the great things our school is doing.”  Moreover, other mailings that we’ve received have suggested that we leave a “lasting legacy” to their organization in our estates.  Quoting a childhood neighbor, we’d just like to have enough to pay the guy who shovels the last shovel of dirt.

I wonder if somewhere in cyberspace, some evil trolls are combing through our emails and clicks and cross-referencing them with data about the jobs we’ve had, the organizations we’ve supported and the magazines that we’ve ordered – then divine that we are millionaire empty-nesters with money to burn.

Here is what these trolls would see on the surface: a couple in their late 50s, who are part of AARP and who’ve given money to public television, living in a Zip Code with a lot of high-net-worth individuals. A home-based business that is doing well; an Expedia account; an AKC-registered dog, an online subscription to the Wall Street Journal. Bingo! The type of family that would plunk down a Honda-sized chunk of cash to cruise the Rhine.

Here is what they don’t see: our biggest and most successful investments have been in six big accounts – five of them have now matured and are doing just great. The remaining one is just 14. The reason we’ve sent money to PBS is because I received in return a free DVD set of Ken Burns’ documentary of the Civil War for Bob for Christmas. Our Expedia account is used mainly to book the cheapest flights to places where we can mooch off relatives. While our town includes a lot of private wine cellars and humidors, we store our wine on a few wrought-iron racks from Pier One, and our after-party ritual is sprawling on the couch and watching a football game.

So there you have it. Please stop sending us this travel porn. We’d love to cruise the Danube, but we have a patio and replacement windows in our future.

The Art of De-Christmasing

Christmas has been buried at our house. The tree is at the end of the driveway, awaiting the hearse. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Christmas has been buried at our house. The tree is at the end of the driveway, awaiting the hearse. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Over the years my enthusiasm for full-blown Christmas displays has declined. This year was the simplest one yet. We did not have a big party as we have in years past. We put up a tree and decorated it with white lights and beloved ornaments, including a new one bearing the likeness of our new miniature dachshund. While we have at least a dozen cottages, mansions and stores in our porcelain Christmas village, and dozens more miniature people and street lamps, this year we just put out a few.

That made it very easy to de-Christmas this year. Yesterday my mom and I listened to Andrea Boccelli sing Christmas songs one last time as we took the ornaments off the tree. Then my husband and I dragged the tree out the back door like a dead body – think Scarlett and Melanie dragging the Yankee soldier – as it left a trail of dehydrated needles. It seems like a heartbeat ago that we were picking it out at the garden center — as always, debating the merits of balsam vs. frazer — and the kids were decorating it with ornaments that date back decades. Now it sits forlornly at the end of the driveway, stripped of its baubles like a bankrupt debutante, waiting for the Boy Scouts to pick it up Saturday. But I am ready for a fresh start.

The house has been cleaned top to bottom; the white candles, porcelain Santas and Christmas villages packed away in plastic tubs; and everything looks as fresh and pristine as the snow outside our windows. The hubbub of Christmas is over and the social calendar is clear until Super Bowl Sunday.

While I know better now than to make resolutions I can’t keep, this quiet time of year allows for some introspection. Here are some of the things I hope to do better in 2013.

  • Listen more, instead of chomping at the bit to jump in with my own observations.
  • Be less petty. Try to see the good in people. Be less cynical.
  • Eat better. I’m trying to recover from binging on holiday cookies and hors d’ oeuvres but it’s tough not to want hearty stews, casseroles, tuscan bread and noodle soups.
  • Make more time for friends and family who really need me. Be less self-centered and more tuned in to what others need.
  • Take piano lessons so that I can get out of my playing rut and reverse longstanding bad habits.
  • Resume Rosetta Stone sessions in Spanish
  • Write more often, and post more blogs
  • Enjoy the inspiring posts of my terrific blogging friends

Happy New Year to all my readers!!!