Monday, April 21, 2014

Sex in the Suburbs

Last Sunday I awoke at 3:30 a.m. to the sounds of love—well, more accurately, lust. For whatever reason I channeled, Paul Simon’s “Duncan,” which starts with

Couple in the next room bound to win a prize
They’ve been going at it all night long

The problem with my not-quite-awake brain’s jukebox response was this: no humans were involved that night. We’re talking frogs and toads and they are loud. I mean LOUD! Voyeur that I am, I had no shame and listened from the comfort of my bed.

Male frogs and toads attract mates by finding a suitable spot and singing. Suitable means somewhere a female frog can find him because, as happens with many animals, the ladies choose who gets to fertilize their eggs; males catch as catch can. Behind our house is a pond (called a lagoon down here, which has more cachet in real estate terms) and beyond that wetlands. We have a variety of amphibians and that night I heard multiple LOUD frog/toad choruses. Their combined effect was so exuberant that to fall asleep one night I had to turn on background music in order to provide competing white noise.

We could shut the windows, of course, but that’s not a serious option for those nights when the outdoor temperatures are perfect for sleeping.

Eventually a bullfrog added a basso profundo underpinning to the caterwauling of the leopard frogs and tree frogs and Fowler’s toads I knew were out there. For a short time a Barred Owl added its “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y’all?” above the cacophony.

There were other night sounds as well. Egrets maybe? I can’t be sure, but they too are in the mood. The Great Egret that frequents our lagoon during the day has donned its green eye-shadow to attract a mate.

The amphibian chorus brought to mind another occasion, this in August 1980, where night noises awoke me. Earlier that day I had bought my house, built in 1795, in the Purdy’s section of North Salem, New York (NE corner of Westchester County fifty miles from NYC), and before the furniture arrived I chose to sleep on the living room rug underneath a sleeping bag. I was so tired that I fell asleep before dark.

I awoke to a frightening racket. In my sleep-blurred thinking, I decided there was something wrong with the furnace. After shoving on glasses I followed the penlight beam down the basement stairs, remembering to duck because the ceiling over the steps was low.

Partway down the basement stairs I realized the intensity of the sound was decreasing. Back upstairs, I cupped my hands behind my ears and swiveled my head like an owl to locate the sound. As you have certainly guessed, it was coming from outside. The annual cicadas or katydids or some such were doing their thing—a sound I had never heard before. I laughed at my own foolishness and went back to sleep once my heart quieted.

The next night I experienced the beginning of their bacchanalia. First one insect chirped. Then another. And another. In short order they synchronized their chirps so the singing was in unison. As more males joined in, the noise strengthened and I again heard the chorus that had awoken me on my maiden night in the house.

I know I lose sleep over this stuff, but you’ll never hear me complain.

~ Jim

This blog first appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Still Plays with Trains

The tee shirt that my breakfast companion wore said, “Still Plays with Trains.” It reminded me of my father, gone now a year and a half, who was a lifelong lover of trains. Shortly before his death he turned in to his editor his last book, this one about the Rochester Division of the Erie Railroad. It was from him that I learned to enjoy rail transport.
Growing up, I shared my basement bedroom with Dad’s HO-gauge model railroad setup. Dad shot hours of 16mm film of trains, especially those pulled by steam locomotives. Turns out his early diesel movies were sufficiently popular they were made into videos. I may be the only Boy Scout to have earned most of his hiking merit badge by walking abandoned track in and around Rochester. Dad knew the mileages from any point to another and would drop me off at various points along the lines and I’d walk home.

My first memory of traveling by rail was from the mid-1950s. Actually, my memory is of being told the story as I don’t directly recall it. My parents, my (then) baby sister and I were traveling on a train and ate in the dining car. Back then people dressed up to take the train, and the dining car service was starched white tablecloth, cloth napkins and good silver. For whatever reason my father was at a different table than the rest of us. We finished dinner first and my mother informed me how to use the fingerbowls. ( In a LOUD VOICE I called across the aisle, “Daddy, they’re for washing your fingers. You’re not supposed to drink the water.”
In 1967 on a return trip with my father from Boston to Rochester on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we had to sit on our suitcases in the aisle from Albany to Syracuse where seats finally became available.

When it came to railroads, my father could make friends with anyone. He managed to become acquainted with a Canadian National freight crew because they were still running one of the early diesels on a “milk train” route. He arranged for them to take me along for a day. He dropped me off in Madoc, ON (if I recall correctly) and picked me up in Bancroft, ON that night. I rode in the caboose (they still had them) where I helped check manifests and ate lunch with the crew. They didn’t let me anywhere near the couplings, but I did throw some switches and I rode much of the trip away from towns up in the engine. Everything the crew and I did that day broke the rules, but the crew and my father thought it would be a great experience and to heck with management’s rules.
Whenever I can conjure a reasonable excuse I take train rather than fly. The most recent opportunity came when I decided to participate in Left Coast Crime in Monterey, CA as part of the promotion for the April 2014 release of the second Seamus McCree mystery, Cabin Fever, We took sleepers from Savannah to Washington, DC to Chicago to Emeryville, CA (outside San Francisco). After attending the conference we trained from LA to New Orleans and detrained at Birmingham where we rented a car and drove home rather than spend two more days going up to Washington, DC and back down to Savannah.

On this trip the most interesting railroad-related conversation was with a guy from the Cincinnati area. He’s the engineer (civil, not train) responsible for a G-gauge (~1/24th actual size), 25,000 sq. foot train set with over two miles of tracks. It has three sections relating respectively to the late 19th century, mid-20th century and modern railroads. There are streetcars as well, realistic buildings constructed by volunteers and an elevation change of eleven feet. I’d never heard of this place and I lived in Cincinnati until four years ago. It’s on my list of things to do the next time I’m in the area.

The finger bowls are gone, as are the silver and fresh flowers on the tables. The scenery is just as spectacular, the people we eat meals with are just as interesting; and there is something that reaches deep into my core as I hear the whistle blow, we approach a crossing and a father holds his child on his shoulders to watch the train pass. The kid waves and I wave back.

I’m thinking of asking for that tee shirt for my birthday, because really, I am just a kid who still plays with trains.
~ Jim

This post originally appeared on Judy's Stew

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Two Potential Rental Car Rip-Off’s

I had the rental car delivered to the hotel because I was arriving after their office closed and would be leaving before their office opened. As I was driving out of town I noticed the gas tank was at 3/8ths full. I would have called them, except they weren’t yet open. I pulled out my cellphone and took a picture of the dashboard showing mileage and gas tank reading. When I returned the car I made sure to fill it to the same level and informed them I had documentation about the original level of the gas tank.

Rip-off number one foiled.

We all know that between our credit cards and personal auto insurance there is usually no reason to pay for additional insurance. Rental firms have for years made drivers pay excessively if they don’t return the car with a full tank. Now they offer another option: prepay for the tank at a reasonable price per gallon (in this case $3.159) and you don’t have to pay for not filling the tank.

I immediately declined since I would not use a full tank of gas to drive from Birmingham, AL to Savannah, GA.

Oh, the agent said, you’re returning it in Savannah. The cheapest you can get gas is $3.239. You’ll save eight cents a gallon this way.

I declined again. Here’s the math that I chose not to challenge the agent with. Assuming an eighteen-gallon tank, they would charge $56.82. For that same amount I could purchase 17.56 gallons at the Savannah price. I only win if I can return the car with less than .45 gallons.

That’s not going to happen (I had about 2.5 gallons left), which didn’t stop them from selling the same deal to a young couple who followed me to the counter.

If offered this deal and you won’t use a full tank, in almost all instances you should decline. If you will use a full tank, check their price with what you’ll have to pay and make your decision based on that.

~ Jim