Archive for December 2006

Nice world

16 December 2006
Categories: Rants

Yesterday I was riding home on the train, sitting in my usual seat—in the corner, far from the doors. The car soon filled up to capacity. Lifting my gaze from a sudoku puzzle, I noticed that standing very near me was a woman, 30-ish, holding a medium-sized package. Nothing too heavy, but big enough to be ungainly while she actively worked to stand and steady herself as the train lurched about.

After a moment, I decided to give up my seat to her. My back was tired, but I wasn’t carrying anything, and I’d been sitting on my ass all day at work anyway. I folded my puzzle and put it and my pen into my pocket, then rose and offered her the seat. She nodded and we shimmied past each other in the crowded aisle. She said nothing as she sat down, but I wasn’t expecting any thanks, figuring that she thought I was leaving anyway.

I held the rail of the seat-back near her, and stood facing the door, my back to her. The train continued on its jostling way.

Two or three stops later, I felt a gentle tap on my wrist. I turned to her. She was smiling, looking a bit bemused. “Thank you,” she mouthed clearly to me. I smiled back and nodded deferentially.

“I thought it was your stop,” she said, as an excuse for her delayed thanks. I shrugged and said in a no-big-deal tone, “eh, sooner or later.”

Realising that she’d been the recipient of a gratuitous act of kindness, she paused a half-beat before replying. “That never happens.”

I’m not telling this story to toot my own horn.

Later that night my wife and I were talking, and somehow got onto the subject of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Shah of Iran, and the current state of royalty in general. She said to me, “that’s a world that doesn’t exist any more.”

So I told her about my train ride, which cheered her. We now live in a world where it’s rare, even shockingly unexpected, for an able-bodied person to yield a seat to someone who might benefit more from it, where—on that same train—an elderly man jockeyed to get aboard first so that he could secure a seat for himself. I regret that other world’s demise… because sometimes I don’t much like this one.

Lost on the concourse

11 December 2006
Categories: Rants, Transportation

On Friday, a disgruntled would-be inventor stormed into a patent attorney’s office on Chicago’s near west side and killed three people before a police SWAT team marksman took him down.

Kudos to the CPD for not hesitating to take the shot when a clear opportunity presented itself. But that’s not my topic here.

The incident caused the total closure of the office tower at 500 W. Madison—including the Ogilvie Transportation Center at its base. News reports estimated some 50,000 commuters were affected during the Friday afternoon rush. Metra employees followed their security protocol and went into lock-down, and no trains moved for nearly two hours. Once the trains were rolling again, around quarter after five, it was a free-for-all to find a seat and—with equipment moves interrupted along with the train runs—the regular departure schedule had no chance of being restored until some time on Saturday.

Architectural aesthetics aside for the moment, it must be noted that all three of Chicago’s surviving stations—Union, La Salle Street, and the North Western (aka Ogilvie)—have been rebuilt in the past few decades with high-rise office buildings atop them. Now, as we have seen, the wisdom of cramming so many multiple uses into a single place may be lacking. Once upon a time, a train station was just that. Now, with fifty floors of offices stacked up, or more, there are at least that many avenues for something to happen that will shut down, not just an office building, but a major commuter hub as well.

Of course, part of my opinion is shaped by my love of architectural history. No offence to Helmut Jahn—his Citigroup Center is pretty cool with its cascading waterfall of glass and steel—but I’d like that building so much more if it stood on almost any other block of the city and hadn’t replaced the Chicago and North Western Station, with its sixty-foot-tall columns and classic, rusticated Renaissance Revival majesty.

Worse is the travesty inflicted on the concourse of Union Station in the late 1960s. This was once a massive Beaux-arts confection from the drafting table of Daniel Burnham, and served as a grandiose welcome to the city. Now it’s a rat’s warren of cramped corridors, with any hope for a clear passageway obstructed by the myriad structural columns of the heinous Brutalist office tower that stands on its head. A visitor arriving at Union Station can wander aimlessly until they find their way out, and often will never come across the grand remnant of the station’s past, the Great Hall.

The third station, the La Salle Street terminal of the old Rock Island line, is under yet another mediocre high-rise and abuts the Chicago Stock Exchange. I don’t even want to get into the potential ramifications, from a disaster/terror-attack/crazy-person-with-a-gun standpoint, of that combined use.

Sweet Home [insert city here]

10 December 2006

Nope. Not happening.

Okay, so TBS’s new comedy, My Boys, has its strong points—a quality ensemble cast, some funny lines, a decent premise of a pretty tomboy sportswriter and her guy friends, examining relationships using a heavy dose of sports metaphors.

The show takes place in Chicago, somewhere on the north side we must presume since lead character P.J. covers the Cubs, but it’s filmed almost entirely in Los Angeles. This would not be a problem, except the writers, costumers, set dressers—heck everybody involved with the production—is trying way too hard to convince us that they’re in Chicago.

It starts with the obligatory name-dropping. Kingston Mines. The Hideout. Al’s Beef. Every episode has several of these. Most of them feel as if the writers said, “hey, we need a name of a place for this person to say they went to,” and someone familiar with Chicago—or just someone with a bookmark to the Metromix web site—picked a name out of a hat.

Unfortunately, even with these specifics, they get the details wrong.

Someone mentions going to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Nice. Then somebody else says “the pandas just had a new baby.” Uh, no. Sorry, no pandas there. Writers must have been thinking of the San Diego Zoo. Why not mention the baby beluga whale at the Shedd instead?

Guest character Ahmad tells P.J. he grew up “on the south side of Chicago.” This is a line delivered for the audience, not P.J. No Chicago native, particularly one still in the city, would include the phrase “of Chicago,” which is plainly redundant.

Brendon, the hip radio d.j., shows up wearing a t-shirt from the Metro in an effort to make him look cool and in-the-know regarding the local music scene. Metro is one of Chicago’s hot places to catch up-and-coming bands, famed for owner Joe Shanahan’s frequent booking of the Smashing Pumpkins way back when they were total unknowns. But the shirt is too new, too crisp and bright. If Brendon were truly cool, his shirt would be rumpled and faded and look like he’s worn it for a few dozen hot, sweaty load-ins at said venue.

Mike says, “I went and checked out the new Potbelly‘s—great sub selection.” Bobby replies, “Potbelly’s? That place is killer!” Oh, come on—are the writers bucking for free sandwiches? Because this is another example of lines delivered solely for the audience. Potbelly Subs has good sandwiches, sure, but their “great selection” consists of exactly eleven different sandwiches, many of which are the usual fare: tuna salad, chicken salad, and PB&J. And their franchises are springing up like weeds around town, so fast and frequent that there seems to be one on every third corner, proliferating faster than Starbucks. Heck, last I checked there were three within a three-minute walk from my office. So the characters, mostly a bunch of twenty-something-plus bachelors, should be well familiar with Potbelly’s and none, including Mike and Bobby, would have that level of wild enthusiasm.

It’s hard to avoid, because as I said the show is not filmed in Chicago. Scene bumpers have some second unit establishing shots of, say, the lakeshore, or the skyline, or the L, or P.J.’s supposed apartment building, which is a classic Chicago-style brick six-flat. But no characters are ever seen in these shots. Any exterior principal photography is done on some backlot in L.A. I noticed one nighttime shot that used a matte effect to dub the Sears Tower into the background beyond some buildings, convincingly I might add, but in general tight shots are used to conceal the otherwise nondescript streetscape that might as well be Anytown, USA. An attempt at local colour, a Coffee Beanery sign (a Midwest-based company), turns out to be mounted on a portable street cart, so it’s not attempting to feign even semi-permanence. And of course both the gang’s favourite bar and their new rib joint are fictitious. No big deal, that’s standard for a t.v. show—but if we’re name-dropping, calling it the “best ribs in the city” isn’t fair to Honey One on Western Avenue, because Mr. Robert Adams Sr. is a true master. (And yes, I’m bucking for free ribs.)

The upshot is, they need to stop trying so hard to establish the Chicago vibe. It’s distracting and ineffective. Supposedly they managed to do a little location shooting at Wrigley Field for the final episode of the season. If so, at best it will be too little, too late.

(One tiny plus side, though—TBS actually let P.J. say the word “bullshit” without a bleep. Good for them. These are adults in adult situations—so what’s a little language among adults?)

Ivy on the brain

2 December 2006

This Old House has long been one of my favourite shows. I only watched it occasionally in the Bob Vila years, but once I started doing home repair for myself and made the leap into home ownership, I watched without fail and began collecting the shows on VHS tape for repeated viewing. This was around the time of the Acton “Pumpkin,” Kirkside with its awesome second-floor meeting room, and the beautiful arts-and-crafts shingle style house in Belmont. Great shows.

TOH has always stuck to its strengths: demonstrating some of the basics of home repair for the do-it-yourselfers, performing work that is best done by a professional contractor (with Tom Silva and company still making it look easy), and showing off a little bit of the latest technology, like pre-fab foundation systems and rubber membrane roofing.

The latest projects have been terrific, too. The Cambridge mid-century modern was an eye-opener, because TOH really explained the philosophy of modern design and showed me that these buildings are much more than plain, unadorned boxes. They also did a wonderful job on the Carlisle farmstead, treating the old structure with respect while biting the bullet and ripping out the entirety of the kludgey, ramshackle extension between the barn and main house.

This season’s project, a 1916 two-flat in East Boston, should be no different. It’s a nice frame home that has seen its share of neglect, needing the usual assortment of structural repair, mechanical overhaul, and interior renovation. Plenty of opportunity for interesting episodes. And yet, I find this project painful to watch, week after week.

I’m not going to pull any punches here. The reason for my pain: the owners of the East Boston project house are idiots.

To begin with, they refuse to leave. They’re living out of boxes and cooking on a hot plate on the second floor, but no matter how many times Kevin O’Connor and the rest of the gang drop hints that they’re underfoot, they stick around. A prime example of the difficulty this causes is the new third floor bathroom. Because the house is occupied, it requires a working bathroom, so the third floor build was pushed up in the schedule so that it would be complete before the second floor bath was demolished. In a project where the tight budget is constantly in mind, I would be very interested to know what it cost to bring in the various subcontractors, out of sequence, to get the new bath built.

Their biggest mistake, though, and the one that makes me sick to watch, was their decision on the house’s exterior. The house is sided with ninety-year-old stucco and was covered in rampant, overgrown ivy, which while it supposedly turns lovely colours in the autumn was tearing the stucco off the walls and infiltrating any gaps it could find, threatening to blow the windows right out of their frames. The owners actually were reluctant to remove the ivy and were sad to see it go, which deserves a dope slap with something forceful, say Tommy’s new power auger.

Then they were given three choices:

  1. Tear all the stucco off and replace it all with new stucco, at a cost of around $50,000.
  2. Tear off the major failed areas of stucco and replace just that, for about $25,000.
  3. Caulk up the gaps and paint it with a waterproof coating, for about $5,000.

They chose option #3, despite the fact that it was presented to them as a “band-aid” repair at best.

The sheer folly of this was brought home in episode 8. With Kevin’s assistance, the masonry contractor pulled off a failed section of wall, about a five-foot by two-foot area (and one of many, it appears). Underneath was weak lath and a felt-paper backing that looked water-damaged (and possibly mildewed). Beyond that, nothing but the back side of the interior walls. They filled the hole with a plywood board, covered it with vapour-barrier sheeting (solely to prevent the plywood from soaking up moisture from the plaster as it dried, which would make it brittle), then tacked on the galvanized mesh lath that will hold the plaster in place.

Then, along came the plasterer, an immigrant with limited English skills who was an absolute wizard with the trowel. When he slapped the finish coat onto the patched area, I could have wept with admiration. With a precise and practiced flick of the wrist, he gave the plaster a texture that matched the original perfectly without any need for dressing up trowel marks later. It was truly beautiful, masterly work.

And yet so sad. Because the correct course of action was so clear. That stucco is ancient. It has served its purpose and owes them nothing. The extent of the patching repairs makes it likely the “band-aid” job is going to exceed $5,000 by a wide margin.

They should have torn every inch of old stucco off those walls. Cleared out any carpenter ants that may be lurking about (and, judging from the porch roof, my money is on further infestations). Repaired structure as needed, because there’s more than one rotted sill beam in that house. Sprayed TOH‘s current standard—expanding foam insulation—throughout, resolving the building’s utter lack of insulation. Then, sheathe it, lath it, and let that genius artist go to town with his trowel and float.

Yes, the $50,000 route would have blown the budget. Although this house has supposedly been in the owners’ family for generations, the owners’ weblog implies that there’s a bank mortgage on it. Nevertheless, why not take out a home equity loan to cover the stucco work? After all, they had a fantastic opportunity here—they had This Old House working on their project! The Silva Brothers, Trethewey Brothers, Roger Cook, et al., all of whom are consummate professionals and probably so booked up that the average Joe can’t get an estimate from them, much less a whole job.

If it were my house, I would have walked into my local bank and said, “I’ve got TOH on the job. I need a loan for a stucco job that will last for many decades. You know the work will be good. I want this loan well below current interest rates, with no fees or points, and in return I’ll make sure your bank gets a prominent mention in the ‘Special Thanks’ credits, every single week. Heck, I’ll even wear a t-shirt with your bank’s logo on it for every episode I appear in.” I can’t imagine it would take long to find a willing banker.

Instead, the choice was made: new bath, old walls. How asinine. I, for one, am looking forward to this project ending, so we can move on to something else and forget about the mistakes in East Boston.