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Bar cars

April 21st, 2010 1 comment

An article from yesterday’s Times by Michael M. Grynbaum laments the likely demise of one of New York’s last bastions of libatious civility: the bar car. Bar cars were a staple of the tri-state area’s commuter rails back in the Don Draper era, but today only one line retains them: the Metro-North service to Connecticut.

The story has a certain resonance with me because I have always been a bit fascinated by the bar car. The article in the Times mentions that smoking was banned in these cars on Metro-North commuter trains “in the 1980s.” That’s true, but it was in the late 80s, 1988 to be exact. The bill that banned smoking on Metro-North trains (save for a provision that allowed smoking in the bar car of a New Haven bound train only between Greenwich and New Haven) can be found here if such things interest you. I vividly recall barely making a train to the country, accompanied by my father, as a child. We were encouraged to enter the rear of the train at the first accessible door as the train was just about to pull out of the station. As it rumbled forth, dad and I walked up the aisle to the front of the train where seating was more readily available. Opening one door we were confronted by a haze of cigarette smoke so thick one could barely see through it. My eyes stung as we hustled through to the relative purity of the cars ahead.

I can’t recall as precisely when the bar cars disappeared from Westchester-bound Metro-North trains, but I can recall the terrible jealousy I felt towards those who had summer homes in Connecticut or attended boarding school there. Those travellers retained their bar cars while those of us, more often found skirting the east side of the Hudson River as we sped north, had none. Oh, the injustice!

But lately it seems as though even my friends from Connecticut, now all grown up and drinking in crummy walkups on the Lower East Side, will lose a bit of their shared history as well. The bar car is on its way out. Shed a tear.

I have a special fondness for the bar car not chiefly for its tri-state ties, however, but for one fascinating evening. As a senior in high school I was lucky enough to be admitted to a couple of pretty decent colleges. I wanted to visit Northwestern but a lack of planning and a slim budget made air travel out of the question. I booked a ticket on an Amtrak train from New York Penn Station to Chicago Union Station. The Lakeshore Limited departed New York at 3:45pm and arrived at 9:45 the next morning. That worked quite nicely for my schedule. Plus, the train’s name evoked a grandeur I thought fitting for a young man’s visit to one of the Midwest’s vaunted institutions of higher learning.

A sleeper was costly and out of the question but, no matter, I was young and flexible and had no qualms about plopping into a well-padded seat and drifting off to thoughts of the windy city.

Upon boarding the train I plopped down indeed. I read. Made some notes in a couple of books. The late 90s had not yet burdened me with text messages on cell phones or BlackBerries (nor other people’s incessant conversations on those devices) so the beginnings of the journey were relaxed and contemplative. But as night fell and the other passengers drifted off, I found myself unable to quiet my thoughts. I was going on a college visit, on my own, and I was pretty darn excited about it. Antsy, I took a walk up the aisle to stretch my legs.

I walked through several cars before I came upon it: the bar car. Finding a place, I sat down on a stool, ordered a vodka soda (some things rarely change, folks) and took a few glances at the people around me. As the bartender put down my drink in front of me (why so few bartenders carded me as a youngster while so many do now remains a mystery to me) I looked over my right shoulder to see an attractive man in his 20s sitting next to me. I turned back to my drink, made quick work of it, and ordered another. Surely a couple of glasses would bring some quietus to this restless mind and allow me to return to my seat and nod off. But as I worked my way through the second I couldn’t help but notice the attractive man’s gaze fixed upon me. He introduced himself (I’ve long since forgotten his name), I followed suit, and we got down to the fine art of conversing. As the train rumbled through Pennsylvania and then Ohio the skies outside darkened to the black of coal. The remaining guests in the bar car shuffled back to their places and I was left alone with my new friend and a barman who served us drink after drink in the intervals between worrying his racing sheet. We spoke of many things and he told me what amounted to, in essence, his entire life story. An unhappy childhood, drug addiction, a career in gay pornography, rock bottom, and his climb out of the depths. He was abandoning Boston and heading to Chicago to start a new life in a vibrant city full of strangers.

We parted ways without exchanging information. He had no phone or permanent address, I thought the idea of a former gay porn actor calling my parents’ home a bit distasteful. So off we went, in opposite directions, into the blazing morning sun.

Northwestern seduced me on that trip and it was there I matriculated several months later. Now, years later, I suspect my chance encounter on that overnight train may have played a pivotal role in my decision to attend my alma mater. My travelling companion wanted only to escape something ugly and to redefine himself on his own terms. He was excited to start over in Chicago. And so, I now realize, was I.

xx

-B

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Jasper Looks to the Future

April 20th, 2010 No comments

Recently its been all about Jasper. And before you can say, “But Billy, its ALWAYS about Jasper,” let me remind you that Jasper and I have enjoyed some firsts together as of late.

Firstly (ha!), Jasper made his debut at the Tompkins Square Park Dog Run. And what a debut it was. Jasper bounded about in the “big dogs” run until we commuted over a few feet to the “little dogs” run, dedicated to dogs under 28 lbs. While Sir was not thrilled to leave the 135 lb Great Dane he had decided was his new best friend, he quickly acclimated to dominating all those who surrounded him, including a couple of fabulous lesbians and a doggy momma who was clearly wasted at 11am.

If you’ve never been to Tompkins Square Park, I encourage you to stroll on through. Its a fascinating hodgepodge of chemically dependent homeless people and chemically dependent rich people. They’re so different! And while mismatched horse-heads shoot up in the men’s room, carefully disheveled hipsters sip on bloody marys in styrofoam cups while trying to locate little Buster in the fray. The gentrification of the East Village can be felt no where more strangely than in this little melting pot where denizen remnants of the 80s sigh at bleach blonde models wearing Seven jeans to walk their teacup poodles.

But have no fear, Jasper has been celebrating elsewhere as well. Easter happened to fall on Jasper’s very 1st birthday this year (and not the other way around) so Momma and some cohorts came over for lox and bagels. Jasper ate dog food but Ji was nice enough to bring him some birthday doggie biscuits that he just adored. Thanks Ji! The rest of us noshed and drank 8 bottles of champagne. Typical.

In short, a good time was had by all. Our next high holy day, The Kentucky Derby, is just around the corner. Do you have your seersucker jackets, elaborate hats, and stomach-pumping mechanisms at the ready? Good. Let the race begin.

xx

-B

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Smoke at the MET UPDATES

April 8th, 2010 1 comment

The MET is sticking to its story that the smoke from Monday night’s performance of Hamlet was caused by a gel on stage. Casey Elsass, a MET representative, repeated the claim on the phone with me earlier today. He denied reports from sources inside the MET that the smoke was in fact caused by a malfunctioning electrical outlet, a far more serious and potentuially dangerous situation.

Most of those from whom I’ve heard who were seated upsatirs on Monday evening have expressed surprise that the MET did not summon help from the fire department immediately when the smoke conditions began. Few people familiar with theatrical lighting would believe that a smoldering gel on stage could have filled just one section of the audience with acrid smoke, sending one hundred people out the door mid-aria. Is the MET intentionally covering up their botched and short-sighted reaction to a fire condition in the house? Or does the press office remain as ignorant as the rest of us about a cover-up the MET management wants desperately to perpetuate?

xx

-B

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Smoke at the MET

April 6th, 2010 1 comment
I went to the Met last night to see Hamlet with my mother. We had a rather interesting time. Below is my letter to Anthony Tommasini at the Times about our truncated evening.
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Dear Mr. Tommasini,
I wanted to write to you in the hopes that you would share my comments with your many followers. I am a season subscriber to the Metropolitan Opera and this evening I attended Hamlet there. I was seated house right in the family circle. Around 9:15, a funny smell started emanating from above us. As the smell grew stronger, it became clear it was the smell of smoke and was coming from above and behind us. Patrons started murmuring, one woman ran up an aisle to alert an usher. Still the smell grew and at this point people started to get up. As smoke began to fill the family circle, the crowds began to push and shove to make their way to the exits. The singers seemed to sense something was wrong and appeared to lose a bit of focus. I helped an elderly man down the stairs (I’m a young man) and then brought my mother down and outside. There an excited crowd was forming – all people who had been seated in the family circle. Shockingly, it seemed no one from the MET had called the fire dept. A man next to me was on the phone saying, “…but there is a fire at the Opera House. Yes here! At the MET! No one has called?” The fire dept came a few minutes later as I and the others around me clicked pictures on our camera phones.
I couldn’t believe the management had not cleared the entire house but was far more shocked at what came next. A representative from the MET tried to stop the fire fighters from entering saying it had all been a mistake and that the smell was from a burning gel on stage. Now, I’m an actor and have been on stage under a burning gel affixed to lamp more than once. The smell tonight was a lot stronger than a burning gel. Additionally, only the people in the family circle seemed to be aware of it, not anyone down below. When I pointed this out to the MET representative he yelled at me that SMOKE RISES! The cleared-out audience members chimed in to agree with me as the firefighters passed. Everyone was yelling out that the smell was isolated to the family circle. Patrons even broke into applause as the firefighters pushed into the lobby. As they did so, representatives from the MET raced forward to lead them down and away from the family circle.
This is shocking and appalling. I doubt the smoke signaled any real danger. It was probably a small electrical fire or perhaps a smoldering lamp up in the family circle. But to deliberately mislead fire department officials, to lie and tell them that the source of the smoke was a gel on stage and that the gel had been located, is a dangerous and despicable precedent. The MET seats approximately 3,800 people. A stampede in an emergency situation would be life-threatening to patrons, particularly the elderly. To fail to stop a performance for even ten minutes to properly isolate the cause of a problem and to deliberately mislead officials who risk their lives for our safety is beneath contempt.
I hope you will share my concerns with your readers and with officials at the MET. I am only a subscriber up in the cheap seats, but I truly think this is an incident that should be communicated to those who are under the mistaken belief that the MET’s management prioritizes their safety over finishing ACT V by 11pm.
Best regards,
William Wheelan
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Klassy letter, eh? I can write and stuff. ps I took some pics! Here is one choice example.  xx -B
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