Saturday, October 13, 2007

They're harvesting, across the road.

This morning I looked out my front door and saw that they're finally harvesting the corn in the vast field on the other side of the road.

Harvest 005

The dry yellow stalks being mowed down under pale grey skies; minuscule shards drifting on the air; and chilly temperatures at last. Yes, it's autumn.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

I wanna be a Harvey Girl!

Unfortunately, it's not gonna happen unless I somehow get hold of a time-traveling DeLorean. I would've had to be in my late teens or early twenties at any time between the 1880s and the 1940s in order to get a job with the Fred Harvey company. But what a life! I used to wish I'd been young in the 1920s so I could be a flapper. Now I wish I could've been a Harvey Girl.

"But who were they?" you might well arsk. Well, I'm getting to that. In the second half of the 19th century, when the railroads were pushing out across the western United States, the technology (as it tends to do) got ahead of the social infrastructure. Railroad workers and passengers on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe were pretty much on their own when it came to meals on their journey. Many towns along the railway were little more than a depot and some cattleyards. Cafes would frequently cheat the passengers who stopped there to eat, by taking their money up front and not managing to have the food ready before the customers had to get back on the train. If the food did come, it was greasy and barely edible. Coffee was fresh once a week. Passengers could always bring food along from home, but in a hot railroad car crossing the desert it didn't keep very well. What to do?

A visionary restaurateur named Fred Harvey had the answer. He contracted with the Santa Fe to build a series of restaurants, one every 100 miles, along the railroad line. He would provide quality meals and service for the railroad's passengers and employees, and the railroad would give his company a deal on tickets and freight charges. Thus the Harvey Houses were born. This was a revelation to me: I thought the first example of a chain operation ensuring uniform quality service to travelers was Holiday Inn in the 1950s, but Fred Harvey beat Kemmons Wilson by more than seventy years. Harvey House restaurants were located in the depots or very close to them, and they ran their businesses by the railroad schedules. Each Harvey House knew when a train was coming in, and they had the food cooked and ready when it arrived. They served their special blend of coffee, and if the local water had a strange taste, they'd bring in water in tank cars to ensure the coffee's quality. Passengers could count on delicious meals in elegant and comfortable surroundings, served impeccably by... the Harvey Girls.

They were waitresses, but very special. They were hired to high standards and trained to be cheerful, efficient, dignified, and professional. They wore spotless uniforms, long black skirts and white blouses, and wore their hair parted in the center and pulled back. They lived in a dormitory with a house mother who looked after them. They earned decent wages, but with practically no living expenses they could save it all or send money home to their families. They worked hard, six days a week, serving several trains a day, but the working conditions were excellent: a supportive, family atmosphere, and an appreciative customer base. They could do whatever they wanted on their days off -- many Harvey Houses were in big towns with lots to do, but even in small towns the Harvey employees would do things together, such as have picnics or go riding.

And being a Harvey Girl was an adventure! The American West was still wild in those days, travel was difficult and expensive, and women had little opportunity. But a Harvey Girl could apply in Chicago or Kansas City, get hired, and immediately be whisked off to New Mexico or Arizona for a new life. The girls signed contracts for six months or a year, and had to work that long at their original posting. After that, they could transfer to other Harvey Houses all over the west. Some of these were quite plush, and included luxury hotels. They had vacation time each year, with free rail travel.

And if an enterprising husband was what a girl wanted, the Harvey system was the way to go. There were rules against dating other Harvey employees, but how strictly this policy was enforced depended on the management of the individual House. Some Harvey Girls married chefs, busboys, or even managers. However, more of them married railroad men -- brakemen, engineers, telegraph operators, even railroad executives. These were their regular customers, after all. The West was a land of opportunity then, and railroad men and their Harvey Girl wives were founding fathers and mothers of several western towns. There was a mystique about these women, having to do with their training, their professionalism, their mobility -- so unusual for females back then -- and the self-assuredness that resulted from all this. It reminds me of the stewardess/flight attendant mystique, beginning in the 1960s when air travel became affordable; in fact there are many parallels. Flight attendants are airborne waitresses, but the mystique comes from their training, professionalism, and the exotic setting in which they work. There's also the aura of the unattainable, the sexually desired, and I'm sure the Harvey Girls evoked this feeling as well -- but as subtext, not displayed openly due to the social mores of the times.

The Harvey system continued through the Depression, but began to wane in the 1940s. World War II revived it while also straining it nearly to the breaking point: with troop trains crossing the country, Harvey Houses were so full of soldiers that they had to put up tables on verandas, porches, and courtyards in order to serve everyone. In many towns they were no longer able to serve locals, and some even had to turn away civilian travelers and serve only troop trains. Retired Harvey Girls were enticed back to work, closed Houses re-opened, and still they could barely handle the volume of customers. But when the war ended, it wasn't long before the Harvey Houses ended too. It was the era of automobile travel, and then air travel, and rail travel declined concurrently.

If this sounds like something you'd like to read about, I can direct you to the book I've been reading -- The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West by Lesley Poling-Kempes. It's chock full of reminiscences from actual Harvey Girls and their descendants, and I found it so enthralling I could hardly put it down. I love my life, and my job and my world, but if I had to choose another era to live in, I'd want to be a Harvey Girl.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

LOLcat for "Oregon Trail" Lovers!


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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Stop wasting my time.

You know what I want.
You know what I need.
Or maybe you don't.
Do I have to come right flat out and tell you everything?

I love Spinal Tap! I've been singing along with "Gimme Some Money" on the commercials (for what? American Express Small Business? I don't pay any attention to what's being hawked; I'm too busy singing along with Tap) for the past several months. Their soundtrack is a regular in my car CD player, and I've got it on my iTunes as well. And today I got to see them perform again!

I hadn't paid much attention to the ads for Live Earth, so I didn't know until I saw it in TV Guide today that Spinal Tap was reuniting to play this concert. I quickly told Young'un, who found a schedule on the web and learned that they'd be playing this afternoon sometime. We're Tivo-less, but improvise quite well with the VCR: we started rolling tape when Metallica was on, and this assured that we wouldn't miss Tap even if we were outside working when they played. As it turned out, we had just come in from a couple of hours worth of lawn mowing when Ricky Gervais announced their set.

What can I say? They were fantastic! I don't know who they had playing drums -- I was hoping they'd come up with "John 'Stumpy' Peeps' twin brother" and have Ed Begley Jr., but that didn't happen. (And he didn't explode onstage, either.) They greeted the crowd at "Wembledon" (actually Wembley) in their typical confused fashion, then launched into "Stonehenge". ("Where the demons dwell! Where the banshees live, and they do live well!") The miniature Stonehenge didn't drop from above, but they did have a small person dressed as a Druid who hefted some large stone columns onto the stage. The other song they did was "Big Bottom", and for this one they were joined onstage by every single bass player who was there! They kept announcing all their names, preceded by "... and on the bass...". They then played a bang-up version of the song, complete with an extended bass solo by, well, everybody.

When the band was first announced, applause was light; I think a lot of people in the audience weren't in on the joke. They'd sure as hell gotten it by the end! And who knows, maybe this will inspire Tap to tour again. They've reconciled with Marty di Bergi (Rob Reiner, in that same hat), so maybe he'd even do another documentary. That's a sequel I'd definitely go see.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The End. (Pass Out Quietly.)

The screen went black.

Unexpectedly, in the middle of a scene; Meadow's on her way into the diner, the bell jingles, Tony looks up; Steve Perry's in full cry: "Don't stop!" "--Bee-lee-vin'!" it would have been, except that it wasn't, because the screen went black. And stayed that way. Black screen, silence; and then credits rolling.

"That's it?" asked Young'un.

"What just happened?" I asked.

Unlike many viewers of this, the series finale of "The Sopranos", we never thought for a second that the cable had gone out. We knew what we were looking at was an artifact, meant to tell us something. But what?

I don't really care for write-it-yourself endings, and in this case in particular I was hoping David Chase would spell it out for me. In one of the early episodes, Tony makes the remark that in his business everybody ends up in prison or killed. Going into this final episode, I saw another possibility: the witness protection program. Tony and Agent Harris of the FBI have been getting downright chummy. When Tony met him and got into his car I thought that's what was going to happen... but no.

As the hour progressed we saw several examples of another observation Tony made early in the series: "I feel like I came in at the end; like it's all winding down." It wound down, all right. Bobby's dead, Silvio's in a coma, Uncle Junior is in his own Alzheimer's world. When Tony told him, "You and my father used to run North Jersey", he replied, "Oh. That's nice." Janice jokes that she's got to snag another husband, and declares quite seriously that she's going to keep her stepdaughter with her regardless of the girl's wishes. Paulie Walnuts, ever the dog in the manger, doesn't want to take over Bobby Baccala's crew but takes the job when Tony threatens to give it to Patsy "there's P in our OOL" Parisi. Patsy and his wife, played by 80s icon Donna Pescow of Saturday Night Fever and "Angie" fame, meet with Tony and Carmela to discuss their children's upcoming marriage. The other Soprano offspring, A.J., is all fired up to join the army (a la Michael Corleone in One?), but Tony and Carm convince him to go to work for Little Carmine in the movie business instead.

As for the war with the New York mob, a separate peace is achieved -- with the help of Little Carmine (he's turning out surprisingly useful). For Phil Leotardo, who's been out of control ever since Tony's cousin Tony Blundetto whacked his brother Billy, it ends badly. At the gas station. Under the wheels of an SUV. Amid bellows of nausea and projectile vomiting from onlookers. His vendetta against Tony Soprano dies with him.

Meanwhile Carlo, a member of Tony's crew, has flipped; he's going to testify, and subpoenas are flying. Tony's lawyer has warned him that he's probably going to be indicted. Tony and Carmela touch on this, briefly, while sitting in a booth in the diner waiting for their children to join them. Tony's jukebox selection, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" is the soundtrack as we look around at the other customers in the diner, and with each jingle of the door chimes somebody else comes in. There's a woman who resembles Janice... a guy who looks like Johnny Boy Soprano, Tony's dad... A.J. comes in at the same time. Now they're just waiting for Meadow. A.J. bitches about his job, Carmela chides him as always. Out in front, Meadow is trying to parallel park, and having a hell of a time. The waitress brings a plate of onion rings, the family starts to eat them -- Meadow runs across the street to the diner -- chimes jingle, Tony looks up -- Steve bellows "Don't stop!" Aaaaaand the screen goes black.

So what happened? I'll tell you what I think. In the first episode of this last half-season, Tony and his brother-in-law Bobby are out in a boat fishing, and they have a conversation about what happens when you're shot. They conclude that you aren't aware of it; you don't hear it coming: it just ends. We saw that clip at the end of the penultimate episode, after Bobby was whacked and Tony had gone into hiding, and again in the "previously on The Sopranos" montage at the beginning of this one. I think this was a message that when the screen went black, we were seeing from Tony's point of view, and that he just got shot to death in front of his family. Boom boom, out go the lights. He (we) never heard it coming.

Just my opinion, of course; your mileage may vary.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Designed To Sell -- 1970s Edition"

I'd hate to tell you how many hours of HGTV's "Designed To Sell" Young'un and I have watched. We love that show, and watch it every night at 11:00 whether it's a rerun or not. In case you've never seen it, the show begins with the host and a real-estate expert walking through a house that's for sale, and the real-estate expert critiques the features of the house. The DTS team -- a designer, two carpenters, and the host -- will then come in and help the homeowners fix the problem areas and accentuate the selling features. The team has a $2,000 budget which the designer has to work within.

Well, Young'un and I have seen enough of these shows to know what kind of things give the real-estate expert the horrors, and the most often used pejorative is "dated" -- pronounced "DAAAAAAY-ted!" It occurred to us that all of these nausea-inducing decorative features were once the last word in modern design. With this in mind, we came up with a few things you'd be sure to hear on the 1970s edition of "Designed To Sell" -- featuring real-estate expert Bertha Freeman, designer Louisa LaPorta, and a generous $500 budget.

"We'll open up the space by covering this whole wall with gold-veined mirror tiles!"

"Bertha called the bathroom 'dark and dingy'. We're going to build you a beautiful and stylish light box to brighten it up!"

"We're giving the kitchen a makeover, complete with a modern butcher-block counter!"

"We'll bring the appliances up to date by covering them with this wood-grain contact paper!"

"Bertha said the bare wood floor in the bedroom was depressing. We're going to cover it with luxurious wall-to-wall sculptured shag carpeting!"

"We'll create an inviting conversation pit in your living room with this generously oversized, versatile modular sofa!"

Yes, I definitely would've watched that show -- unless it was scheduled opposite "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In", of course. ;-)

Monday, May 14, 2007

We danced the night away!

Firstborn is officially married, and what a marvelous time was had by all! This was my first Jewish wedding, and I loved it. There was much ritual and ceremony, some of it stately and solumn but mostly lively, raucous, and vibrant. I'll go into more detail later, but I think my favorite moment was when Firstborn and his bride saw each other for the first time that day -- minutes before the ceremony. Her mother and I had just broken a plate together down in the room where the men had been meeting, and we then hurried upstairs to where the bride sat in a throne-like chair. We hurriedly got into place on either side of her as a herd of well-dressed men stampeded, yelling, up the stairs behind us! They brought Firstborn to see his bride, and to veil her -- to make sure he would be marrying the woman he expected to marry, according to tradition. When he saw her in that chair, in her beautiful gown, a vision of loveliness, and her face lit up when she saw him -- well, that was the first moment when tears filled my eyes.

As the ceremony began, his grandfather, uncle, cousin, sisters, and brother walked in one by one. Then Husband and I on either side of him walked Firstborn up the aisle, up the stairs, and under the canopy. The flower girls came down the aisle -- another triumph for Adorable Granddaughter! She and the bride's niece did a fabulous job strewing petals on the white runner, and went right up the steps and dumped the rest of the petals under the canopy! Then the curtains at the other end of the room parted, and there stood my beautiful daughter-in-law. Her parents walked her up the aisle. Under the canopy, she walked around Firstborn 7 times, with her mother and me carrying her train. Then we moms stepped out from under the canopy, and it became her and Firstborn's first "house", where they separated from their parents and became a family. That was the second time I teared up.

And afterward -- oh man, what a party! Our deejay was Sarah Lewitinn, "ultragrrrl" of Spin magazine and VH1 fame, an old friend of Firstborn's. The first set of dancing was traditional, men with men and women with women. Lively! Fast! Ladies spinning in circles around the bride, men pulling Firstborn in their circles with them! Me with the women, Young'un with the men! Then the newlyweds lifted high on chairs! After that, a wonderful dinner; then more dancing to the usual lively wedding-reception fare. I danced all evening, as did our children and grandchildren. Stepdaughter's two had a ball with the other children there, running in a pack as little kids always do at these affairs. I had a couple of lovely dances with Husband, and also with my dear Firstborn. What a night! The staff were stacking up the chairs and rolling up the tables, and still we all hung out together; family, Chicago friends, New York friends -- sitting on the dance floor talking for a long time.

This morning I'm feeling the night of dancing, especially in my knees (but my feet are fine, thanks to those Hush Puppies pumps! LOL). We'll be checking out of the hotel soon, and heading home. I'll have pictures to post too! For now, I'll just say that yesterday was the best Mother's Day I ever had in my life.

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