Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Blue Room game

For better or worse, poker occupied a sizable chunk of my last year and a half in college. There was a regular game in the student center, which attracted the best players on campus, and I regularly played once or twice a week. There were often four games a week. The Blue Room game, as it was called, produced several young professionals who’ve had incredible success the last few years. The game continues and has achieved a folkloric position in Brown University lore among those who played in it. I made many friends in the game, and it became the social hub of my senior year.

Well, I recently wrote a more than 3,000-word feature for the Brown Alumni Magazine on the game and its distinguished alum and how Brown became the poker powerhouse of the Ivy League. You can read it here. It will be coming out in print shortly.

On another note, I was in Philadelphia the latter half of this week for an assignment. It is a blue-collar city after my heart.

The whole city has a stuck-in-the-seventies feeling, as if nothing has changed since then, and I did not detect any signs of a housing/luxury high-rise boom that has altered it, like it has the New York City skyline for generations to come. I did see a lot For Sale signs in the center city, however. There seems to be a certain fatalism in the air, the feeling of a once-great city that has had trouble staying afloat.

The Fairmount section of the city was particularly enjoyable; there are corner watering holes, tightly-packed row houses, alleyways and tucked-in stores and restaurants. I also found a fine used bookstore, called Bookhaven, where I found a book of Harold Brodkey’s short stories I had been after, along with Mark Twain’s essays and Richard Price’s Wanderers. An odd lot, indeed, but Twain is someone I have been meaning to dive into, and, as for Price, I have read Clockers and Lush Life and would like to retrace my steps to his first novel.

I won’t spend too much time on this, but I spent a fair amount of time in north Philadelphia for my story. Driving along its side streets and Broad St., I was devastated by the destruction and suffering there. These are Third World conditions, a Lagos or Mogadishu, in the richest nation we have ever seen. It reminded me of a scene in the Wire, season four, where the Western’s beat cops were sitting through an anti-terrorism presentation from some stiff suit. The cops growing restless, one jumped in, saying (to paraphrase), “If somebody dropped a bomb on West Baltimore, would anybody even know the difference?” We spend trillions of dollars rebuilding roads, infrastructure, schools, etc. in Iraq and Afghanistan – wars of choice – when our own cities burn and lack even the most basic services. How is this permitted and accepted? We have provided banks with more than $4 trillion, yet states and cities can’t even cut unemployment checks on time. In Philadelphia, they can’t even keep swimming pools and libraries open.

Driving through north Philadelphia is as much evidence as one needs of how this experiment known as America has failed for many of its citizens.

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Trainspotting

I recently penned a pseudo-love letter to train travel on Minyanville.com. While I spend time bashing New Jersey Transit, I do so out of sadness with how decrepit the system is, instead of anger. My hope – likely misplaced, considering how let down I already feel with our current administration – is that trains assume a greater role in this country, and we finally place some emphasis on fixing our Third-World infrastructure.

Here is an excerpt:

I can recite the 15 or so stops on New Jersey Transit’s North Jersey Coast Line in my sleep. I’ve made the trip from New York to Long Branch more often than I’d like to consider. My friends and I exchange NJT horror stories like trading cards — though some are too depraved to divulge here.

A few of the milder occurrences: There’s the person who slides his smelly, shoeless feet directly through the seat cushion on which you’re sitting. There are the times you’ve fallen asleep and ended up utterly lost at the end of an unfamiliar line. The lone bottle that noisily rolls up and down the car with nobody bothering to stop it, the loud cell-phone talkers, the constant delays. And of course the merciless sonic blast of a conductor announcing stops at which nobody will exit on an early-morning train.

Worst of all, the train travels at a speed that’s the opposite of Mach 1. A century ago, the trip from New York to the Jersey Shore lasted about 2 hours. Now it’s only about 30 minutes faster, in spite of the benefits of modern technology.

New Jersey Transit isn’t some anomaly; instead, it’s a fine example of the lowly position train travel occupies in this country.

I myself love traveling by train. And the few times I’ve done so in other countries reminds me that it ought to be central to life in a civilized country. It’s also, in my mind, the most enjoyable and most sustainable mode of transportation. Which is why seeing how time has passed train travel by makes me rather sad.

Some may consider me anachronistic: My other 2 favorite pastimes — watching horse racing and reading newspapers — are in even sorrier shape. But recently I’ve acquired some reason to be hopeful. Trains may be rising from the ashes they’ve been left in since the dawn of the automobile age some 60 years ago.

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