The Light

They told us we had to stand in a certain spot, far enough away from the road so that the lights from passing cars didn’t cause us to lose our night vision.

We looked due west, down the tracks. There was an overhead trestle about fifty yards out. We couldn’t see it clearly late at night, except as a starless black bar above the rail bed.

A little bit further out, the trees closed in around the tracks. The line had been abandoned for twenty years, at least. If you hunkered down, it looked like a darkened stage: trees as curtains, dark trestle making the arch.

Rosamund, Will and I brought a blanket out that night. It was cold, and the three of us passed the flask. We’d heard the stories since we were little kids. We were out there to see the light.

The stories went something like this, depending on who was doing the telling: A nameless conductor had died horribly on the line, and his restless spirit still rode the tracks, when the weather and moonlight were just right.

The old folks said you could see his lantern, waving slowly from side to side, bumping a little up and down. They figured he was alerting folks along the way that his phantom train was coming through.

He’d get closer and closer to you if you didn’t move, until finally drifting off into the swamp somewhere along the tracks between the trestle and the road. Then he’d reappear in the distance, do it all over again.

We scoffed about their old ghost story, told them all we knew about natural phenomena, things like swamp gas and St. Elmo’s Fire. We had it all figured out as we drove out to the tracks.

We sat there on the blanket looking west, right at the center of the darkened stage beneath the trestle. Giggling, tipsy, tickling, whispering “boo” in each others’ ears.

Until the light appeared.

And we got real quiet. And we got real still. And we didn’t hear a thing, but damned if that light didn’t start bobbing down the tracks towards us, getting brighter as it came.

We sat there like we’d been electrocuted, shaking, unable to move or speak. We’d never actually seen swamp gas or St. Elmo’s Fire, but we were pretty sure neither of those things looked like that.

Will panicked first, right about the time the light moved under the trestle. With a wet sounding hiccup he bolted for the road. Rosamund moved next, a thin squeal emerging from her throat as she ran, her blanket and flask forgotten.

I still couldn’t move. I still couldn’t move. I had that feeling I get in dreams when I’m standing on a cliff, and I know that any motion’s going to send me over the edge. And I still couldn’t move. And I still couldn’t move.

The light got closer. Maybe twenty yards away, when it slowly veered off to the right and bobbed away into the swamp. I watched it until it disappeared into the mist, and then I looked up, and it was coming down the tracks again.

Rosamund and Will were yelling at me from the road, “Come on! Come on! Come on!” I heard the car start up; the engine roared as Will stamped on the accelerator, and I imagined being left where I sat.

That broke the spell: and I screamed as I ran, never looking back over my shoulder as I sprinted for the car, desperately afraid that the light might have raced up behind me. I didn’t want to see that. I didn’t want to know.

Rosamund was crying when I got in the car, and Will pulled out before I’d closed my door. He dropped us off at home and quickly drove away.

We never spoke about that night again.

Five Songs You Need to Hear (Part the Third)

1. “Dadje Von O Von Non” by Gnonnas Pedro et ses Dadjes (Amazing hot funky soul call and response from the West African nation of Benin, circa 1966. If real life were like a movie, and we all had theme songs that played when we entered the scene, this would be my walk-on music. In fact, you should just imagine this song playing in the background any time you see me from now on).

2. “Cursed to Crawl” by Napalm Death (My favorite extreme grindcore/metal band, hands down, and probably the group I’ve listened to more than any other over the past five years or so, since they’re my favorite thing to listen to at the gym, where I typically spend at least five nights a week. This is one of their more accessible numbers, because I love you).

3. “Summer” by Octopus (Psychedelic English pop-rock from 1968, featuring Nigel Griggs and Malcolm Green, who went on to great international fame and success with Split Enz in the 1980s. This one coulda shoulda been a contender, but it was wrapped in one of the stupidest album covers ever, which you can look at throughout this song’s run on the link).

4. “Wondering” by Reverend James Cleveland (A super soulful song from one of my all-time favorite gospel singers, with the greatest church organ accompaniment ever recorded. It’s like going to church in a skating rink! Amen! Couple’s Skate!)

5. “Madonna’s Bombing Sarajevo” by Alice Donut. (A spazzy, muscular, smart rock epic from 2006, with an awesome sense of dynamics and musical drama; the riff explosion at 5:30 is mighty, especially after the quieter trombone solo. Really! Paired with a wow video to boot, though with some disturbing animated imagery, so be careful who’s looking over your shoulder).

The Newspaper Junkie Speaks (Again)

The Newspaper Junkie has been roused from his grouchy slumber, which means it’s time for me to bite the hand the hosts me. (Again). Sorry about that, but a blogger’s gotta blog what a blogger’s gotta blog. Or whatever else it is the kids say these days when they’re keeping it real.

At the St. Rose Blogmonster Summit last March, I asked the panel how they felt about their role in destroying local print newspaper media, a role that I also feel I play here, with no small sense of guilt for doing so. Times Union staffer Steve Barnes fielded my question, and reasonably noted that new media technology doesn’t necessarily displace or eliminate old media technology. Most of us still read books, for example, and Steve noted that he still listens to the radio every morning, and from that position, extrapolated that there will still be a role for print newspapers in the future, even as more and more readers get their information online.

In general terms, I guess I don’t disagree with Steve. I do believe that there will be print newspapers to read a decade or two from now, just as there are vinyl records still being manufactured for those who prefer them to their digital counterparts. The thing is, though, that I do not believe that the Times Union will be one of those surviving print newspapers.

As its price has doubled over the past couple of years, the print Times Union‘s content has shrunk dramatically, both in terms of quantity and (sorry to say) the depth and quality of the local reportage and commentary. There are still some wonderful writers, reporters, photographers and editors working there at the corner of Albany-Shaker and Maxwell, but as their ranks are stretched thinner and thinner, and their content is tailored for both print and online markets, and as readers are ever more encouraged to submit their thoughts, stories and images directly to fill column space, it seems that any unique, distinct Times Union print voice has all but disappeared. These are not trends that support long-term business viability, and I don’t see these trends reversing themselves with the recovering economy. Once the price of a newspaper goes up, even when advertising and other revenues return, we’re never likely to see it go back down again. And once a newspaper has gotten readers used to paying for 36 pages a day, they’re not likely to ever start printing 52 again.

I did a quick analysis of yesterday’s edition, looking at each page and mapping its contents in one-eighth page blocks. These are rough figures, and they may be off by 5/64ths or three column inches or whatever, but in broad strokes, here’s how I’d parse the 36 pages of the Monday, April 26th edition of the Times Union (not counting the advertising inserts, which I toss unread as nuisances):

36% Paid Advertising (~13 pages)
23% National Origination Editorial/News/Comics/Features/Sports (~8 pages)
21% Local Origination Editorial/News/Comics/Features/Sports (~8 pages)
14% Listings/Classifieds/Obituaries/Notices (~5 pages)
6% Pointers to and Support for timesunion.com (~2 pages)

So, basically, the stuff that I might actually read in the newspaper was about 16 pages total (e.g. the sum of the local and National origination news and features). And if you figure that maybe only one in three pieces of any publication actually engages and interests me enough to read it all the way through, I’m getting about five pages of useful content out of 36. And since I read the copy of the Times Union delivered to my house in the evening when I get home, odds are that I’ve already seen the contents of four of those five pages online during the day. So that leaves me about a page of newsprint every evening to ponder, scant return for my dollar a day investment. Sure, they’re running some “print only” articles of late, but they’re generally soft features, and I don’t lose anything waiting a day to see them online. Frankly, it’s only inertia at this point that keeps me from canceling my 16-year running subscription to the paper, since I spend more time storing and recycling the paper than I do reading it anymore. Which I find sad, because when I moved here in 1993, I often bragged about what a good newspaper we had in this relatively small market, and I meant it.

But that’s not true these days, when it is clear that the Powers That Be in the T.U. corporate boardroom have made their strongest commitments to their web presence, in terms of time, talent, and treasure. Unfortunately, an important facet of the Times Union‘s online success relates to the fact that the lion’s share of the blogs here are written by unpaid volunteers, who drive traffic to this website (and the websites of its advertisers) solely for the pleasure of having their names and words put out before the public under the Times Union banner. While everyone here could be blogging under their own mastheads, easily (and lots of us do), there seems to be some social cache, some sense of having “arrived” as an Albany-area blogger, when you join Team Times Union here.

Now, many of seemingly tech savvy folks hereabouts sniff dismissively about our colleagues over at the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, who require registration and a paid subscription to access their online content. How Trogloditic! Quels Luddites! They clearly don’t get the online content picture at all, not like we do here at timesunion.com! But you know what? The resources that they aren’t applying online are, instead, being applied to their print edition, and as a result, for my dollar a day, the Daily Gazette has clearly emerged as the best print newspaper in this market, and I feel better about the likelihood of them pushing out newsprint day after day in 2020 than I do about the Times Union‘s print prospects down the line.

In a world of finite resources, you have to make decisions about where you apply them. The Daily Gazette has clearly decided that it wants to prioritize its print content, and consistently delivers a quality print product as a result of that prioritization. The Times Union? Not so clear in that regard, especially given the amount of space in the print edition that is dedicated to pushing readers to the online edition.

So when I look in my crystal ball to see what “Blogmonster Conference 2020: The Revenge of the Matchboys” might look like, I envision that timesunion.com will remain a widely read electronic resource, and that the Daily Gazette will be the printed paper document of record for New York’s Capital Region. And that’s okay by me, really, as a consumer, with one caveat: timesunion.com needs to not needlessly annoy its visitors with increasingly obtrusive advertising, like the videos and automatically-unfurling banners that block our blogs and articles in an effort to make us click them inadvertently.

I gave up on Yahoo as my homepage a couple of years ago when their distracting advertising grew too voluminous to bear, and I’d certainly hate to see timesunion.com follow them down that route. If you’re going to be the great digital portal hereabouts, a little design dignity and restraint would be in order. Just saying.

The Big Fairy

My mother sent me this wonderful photo of Theodora Colcock Hutson (1882-1975), who was a granddaughter of Congressman William Ferguson Colcock (my great-great-great-grandfather) down a different branch of the family vine. She was my great-grandmother’s first cousin, to say it in another way. The photo was taken in 1899, about a month after Theodora turned 17.

Miss Dolly (as Theodora was called in Low Country social circles) never married, but she held a special role in the hearts of literally generations of children in the family (me included), who knew her as The Big Fairy. I don’t know where that nickname came from or when it started, but I know that it was perfect and fitting. “She was always so sweet, and soft, and smelled delicious,” wrote my mother in the note accompanying the photo.

There was indeed something magical and mystical and otherwordly about her. When I was a young child, the Big Fairy was in her eighties, frail, and living with her niece, Charlotte Hutson Young, on the other side of the only paved road in the Village of McPhersonville from where my grandparents and great-grandparents lived. (Well, sort of my great-grandparents, anyway . . . they were a brother and sister who had raised my grandmother after her mother died in childbirth). The Big Fairy loved the little ones, even in her old age, and visits to the Village generally included a stop in to see her. We would walk down the long sandy driveway of the family property, beneath ancient pine trees, watching out for the wild spawn of the many cactii that my grandmother had planted around the property, cross the main road, and then approach Charlotte’s simple farm house with a sense of weird anticipation. It felt like an event to enter The Big Fairy’s presence, and I can still clearly see and smell the room in Charlotte’s house where she held court and received visitors. You know those little plastic dipping bird toys that bob up and down, appearing to sip water from a glass? The Big Fairy had one, and that was the first time I ever saw one, and I remember sitting with her, happy as a clam and both of us laughing as the little bird bobbed up and down and up and down. She also would ceremoniously share a piece of candy with me, the simplest and sweetest of gifts for a child, offered with love and gravity and meaning.

Her extraordinary generosity actually resulted in a significant piece of South Carolina history being preserved, even as most of the old homes and properties in McPhersonville moldered, fell into disrepair, or were demolished. Read the story of the Colcock-Hutson Law Library, and how The Big Fairy’s amazing gift to the son of her minister made it possible by clicking this link. There’s also another picture of The Big Fairy about halfway down this page about McPhersonville. We made a point of visiting her the last time I was in Low Country, and so it was a particular delight to receive this photo a couple of days ago, a reminder of a sweet woman who spent her life simply being good to others.

Grilled Cheese and Sausage for One

I love going out to eat, both from a culinary perspective and from a social perspective. I appreciate great food from a wide array of cuisines, from the exquisitely exotic to the comfortably mundane, and when asked what kind of food I like best, will generally reply “Anything prepared well.” (The same answer applies to my musical tastes). Socially, my favorite person to go out to eat with is, of course, my lovely wife Marcia, who’s been sitting across the table from me for the better part of 23 years, and who still interests me conversationally more than anybody else does. We also love going out to dinner with our daughter, Katelin, who brings a rich sociocultural and arts perspective and wry sense of humor to the table, and shares our love for great Southeast Asian cuisine, like that found at her favorite Albany restaurant, My Linh, where we always go when she’s home with us.

I also appreciate dinners with friends, both here at home (where I do the cooking) and out and about. And we always have uproarious good fun when we go visit my family in the Carolinas, and go out to fancy pants restaurants, trying to be nice, but still generally end up talking about our bathroom habits, skin conditions, and the unspeakable things our pets do to our carpets, while laughing and laughing and laughing until food flies out of someone’s nose, at which point we start laughing even harder, not with them, but at them. When you see us coming, it’s probably best that you leave.

But as much as I like the social aspects of dining out, I also deeply appreciate going out to eat alone, as I love to spread out a newspaper on a big four top table and eat and read, all by my lonesome. Except that I’m not lonesome, because I really enjoy my own company. It’s funny to me, though, that waitstaff and restaurant hosts seem to be trained to offend solo diners, as the question always offered me while I stand alone at the maitre’d podium is “[sniff of disdain] Just one today, hmm?” as the help looks over my shoulders to see if someone is emerging from the parking lot behind me. But, nope, it’s just sad, lonely old pathetic me. Just me. Just one.

I’m an early riser, and the other members of my household are decidedly not morning people, so the meal I eat out alone more than any other is breakfast. And 95% of time, that means the same thing: a grilled cheese sandwich on rye bread, with a side of link sausage at a diner. Now, you might think that would get boring after a while, but I’m here to tell you that within that very simple order, there are a virtually infinite combination of delightful tastes and textures, depending on variations in the bread, butter, grill temperature and timing, sausage composition and preparation. (There should be no variation in the cheese, I should note, because the only authorized cheese for a proper grilled cheese sandwich is Pasteurized American Cheese Food Product or, if you want to be uppity, Velveeta). Ideally, I want the bread to be recognizably rye: there should be caraway seeds, and it should not be square shaped, and the bread should have a rough texture to it, which holds the butter the sandwich is grilled in, without becoming soggy. The sausage should be plump and crispy, with a snap to the skin, and dense, with a breakfast-flavor toward the sage and maple end of the spectrum, not the more dinner-flavored fennel or pepper seasoned sausage.

There are, of course, an equal number of pitfalls that can befoul the beautiful elegance of this delightful solo repast. First and foremost, I hate pickles and cole slaw, and if you bring me a beautiful, crispy, golden grilled cheese sandwich and throw an oozing dill pickle on top of it, and then put a little plastic cup of runny slaw that leaks mysterious white liquid all over my plate, then you have committed the most egregious food service violation of them all: A Grease Group/Water Group Violation. Tragedy! Woe! Terror! I also don’t like it if the restaurant throws a handful of potato chips on my plate, since this is breakfast, not snack time. Even if the grilled cheese sandwich would normally come with chips at lunch, have some decency when I’m there at 6:30 in the morning and don’t tempt me with Ruffles. (One local restaurant, which shall remain nameless, offers a choice of macaroni salad or potato chips with a grilled cheese sandwich. I declined both, as the server kept insisting that it came with the meal, and I kept insisting that I didn’t want either, really. When my plate arrived, there was a big, leaky mound of macaroni salad leaning against my grilled cheese. The server had decided that that was what I was going to get, because it came with the sandwich! Foul! Bespoiled! Horrors!) The other thing I hate is when I walk into an empty restaurant with a newspaper in my hand, and the server attempts to put me at a tiny two top booth where it will be completely impossible to eat and read a newspaper at the same time. It’s like they’re punishing me for being a “Just One.” (And before you get on your high horse and lecture me, I will take such a table if the restaurant is crowded and they need the four tops).

So if you find yourself out early some weekend morning and see me with my newspaper all spread out all over the table, noshing a grilled cheese with sausage, don’t ooze pity my way, pondering what sad turn of events led me to be there by myself. I choose to be there. Grilled Cheese and Sausage for One. If the diner holds the pickle, the chips, and the attitude, I’ll also always make sure that my server gets a four top’s worth of tip to boot. I value good service highly. Forcing macaroni salad on me does not qualify.

Mystery Child: The Meme

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the following photo of a mysterious child with a little dog from my mother’s family archives. We are fairly certain the child is a relative based on where the picture was found and information about the photographer on the back, but we have not been able to positively identify the subject.

I also submitted this photo to Black and WTF, a wonderful site dedicated to collecting photographic oddities from the black and white film era. They actually ran it on their site on April 14, and the picture has since exploded around the web, widely reblogged, reposted, liked, forwarded, copied and otherwise sent swirling through the internet pipes.

So, for the record, I want to note my family’s ownership of this image, and that I first posted it online on June 17, 2005, before reprinting here on this blog. So if you put it on your million-selling album or cover of your book about gender studies and make a mint on it, then I want a cut. Just saying. But other than that, I think it’s great to see how it’s resonated with people and been so widely shared.

Bless you, Mystery Child and Little Dog. If you spot them out there in your online ramblings, let me know!