Friday, November 25, 2005

RENT - the Film

Still working on my Boston trip report part deux, but in the meantime I wanted to encourage everybody out there (especially anyone outside New York) to go see RENT.

Yes, I know it's getting mixed reviews. But read between the lines of those reviews and you'll see that this is one of those movies where there is just no middle ground - you love it or you hate it, often based as much on personal biases and preconceived notions as anything else. It is a film that doesn't compromise, just like the Broadway show on which it's based. It presents a group of characters that are all far from perfect; beyond tragically-flawed, all of them. But it does not judge its characters; it simply presents a slice of life at a particular place and time.

I saw the Broadway musical a few years ago and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, in part because it reminded me so much of my own life living in the East Village at around the same time Jonathan Larson was writing the show. I saw many of the real-life events in the show first-hand - the squatter evictions on Avenue A, the riots, etc. I knew many people just like the characters in Rent - yes, people like that really do exist in New York, even today. The neighborhood has changed a lot since the stage show was written - it's richer, safer, more gentrified - but the script still feels relevant, the characters still feel real. (MSNBC said straight out that a story about characters dealing with AIDS "seems dated" today; I guess they stumbled onto a cure at some point and just haven't told anyone yet. If you also believe AIDS is "like, so five minutes ago", then no, Rent is probably not the movie for you.)

The film is for the most part a straight scene for scene shooting of the Broadway version, almost to a fault. I might have actually liked a little more imagination in the direction and cinematography, a little more fleshing-out of the visuals for film. The second half also feels a little choppy due to the removal of a couple of important songs, and the ending's a little abrupt as a result. A couple of other nitpicks: the main exterior set (Avenue A and 11th St.) doesn't really look anything like the real thing, and the time period is off by a few years - the film is set in 1989-1990, where the play was supposed to be present-day in 1996, when it was first performed.

But these are relatively minor issues in the grand scheme of things. Yes, the Broadway show is still better. But the point is if you have know other way of seeing Rent, then you need to see this film. It retains all the spirit, all the rawness and almost all the emotion from the original. You'll laugh, you'll cry, no joke. Go see it.

Any questions about the film, the show, or my thoughts on either, feel free to leave a comment. Annoying comments will be deleted at my discretion (this ain't a democracy).

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I went through this period when I was younger of trying to shoot all these nasty urban photos of a dying, decaying city. When I came back to New York in the early 1990's, that's pretty much what it was.

When I look at those photos now they're mostly not composed very well and they just feel kinda old. I still like this one, though, mostly because I get to make up some sort of new outlandish story about how I took it every time somebody asks - I was leaning out over the ledge holding onto a storm drain; I put my camera on a timer, held it on a rope and tossed it over the ledge; I strung it across the two halfs of the building on a wire. I love telling people stuff like this.

(Ok, I'll come clean - it wasn't really that hard.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

This may look oversaturated, but trust me, it isn't. I walk by this building every day on my way home, and I really doubt I could even crank the saturation up high enough to match the way this really looks. This particular evening had a great deep blue sky, and the light from this sign always just totally lights up the street green - the wash of color is tough to capture but I did my best.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Boston Trip Report Part One - the Trains

Quick August 2006 update - I'm getting a lot of hits to this page from people searching for info about the size of Amtrak's seats and the amount of legroom. I touch on this in the post below, but scroll down to the bottom for a more detailed answer.

A couple of weeks ago we took the train up to Boston. This is the first part of my trip report - in the interest of (relative) brevity I've decided to split it up into two parts. In this part I'll talk a little about the experience of getting there and back on Amtrak's Acela Express and Regional trains; if you're just interested in reading about the city itself, feel free to wait for part two.

A little background. In 2003 we took the train from New York to Oregon for Christmas. Most people I know thought I was crazy, but I've done the cross-country thing many times. I love the train; it's (usually) a completely relaxing and fun way to travel. This time, though, we happened to get a sleeping car with no heat, in December, in upstate New York. No, it was not pleasant waking up with hypothermia. We were awarded a $400 gift voucher for this "inconvenience".

Now, I've been into trains all my life and my wife is from Japan where high speed rail is pretty much a part of everyday living. So we decided first that we'd be taking the Acela Express - the destination was almost secondary. Boston seemed the natural choice, given my wife's taste for lobster. Given that it would only cost a few bucks extra, we elected to travel first class... though we had to settle for business class on the way back as there are apparently no Express trains to New York on weekends(?!)

We arrived at Penn Station in NYC on time and relaxed for a bit in Club Acela, Amtrak's first class lounge for both Acela Express and long-haul sleeper passengers (we'd been there once before). Amtrak's Club Acela lounges are basically equivalent to the business/first class lounges you find at most major airports; not particularly luxurious, but more comfortable than the cattle class waiting area, and with free food (muffins and danish) and drinks. Our train boarded and left on time, which was a relief given the problems the Acela Express trains have had lately. Despite being first-class pax on the way to Boston, we were left to fend for ourselves once the train was announced, fumbling for the right gate along with everyone else. (On the long-haul trains, Amtrak actually escorts the first-class passengers to their cars ahead of the other passengers.)

There's only one first class car on each Acela Express train and only three sets of two-seaters facing forward, and given that the train originated in Washington, we really didn't know if we'd get a decent seat, or even a set of seats together. (Check out the train layout at Trainweb here.) This is a pretty ridiculous design failing of these first-class cars if you ask me - no first-class passenger on any train should ever have to worry about getting a good seat. I mean, this is exactly the kind of thing we're paying extra not to have to worry about. I thought it was sort of indicative of some of the problems both at Amtrak and with the transportation industry in this country in general - you cannot really pay any amount of money for decent service anymore. First-class passengers should really know their seat assignments in advance, and should be able to pick from more than three possible sets of forward-facing double seats (or single seats, if they prefer that). Imagine making first-class reservations on an airline and learning that not only were there only three sets of seats facing forward, but they were first-come, first-served as you got to the gate!

We bum-rushed the front of the line and managed to get a set of facing table seats. We were not on the best side of the train (the right side, for the water views), but this is arguably the best seating arrangement for a couple - although I felt the amount of legroom and seat width was a bit on the stingy side for "first class". (Okay, call me a snob if you want - I just feel like first class is supposed to mean more than a free airline-style meal.) The styling of the car itself was very airliner-like, though closer to airline business class than first:

According to the in-train magazine, Amtrak is planning on a complete overhaul of the Acela Express fleet in 2006, so hopefully they'll fix some of the design's shortcomings.

We had our free airliner-style meal delivered to our seats by our car attendant, who was very friendly and attentive. No complaints there. Drinks were never in short supply (including all the free alcohol we could put down at 10 in the morning), though the quality of the food was middling at best. There were only two choices on the menu - a wrap and a sandwich (containing entirely too much bread) - both served with potato chips and a cookie. This is not dining car fare, folks, so don't expect too much.

One very nice thing about the Acela Express trains is the absolutely enormous windows. Amtrak's been on a window kick ever since the introduction of the Viewliner sleeping cars about 10 years ago. Apparently stung by the criticism of their first original offering's (Amfleet) modern but tiny "slit" windows, they've since gone almost overboard in the other direction. But I'm not complaining. The windows on the Acela Express extend from about armrest level to well above the rider's head and are about double that wide, all the better to see the extreme speeds these trains are capable of (by US standards).

Actually, 150mph is only reached once on this trip, and for about 10 or 15 minutes at most - but when you hit it, you know it. This is not the glassy ride you might expect on the TGV or a Japanese shinkansen - the Acela Express bumps and lurches like any other modern American train. At 150mph, this can feel downright scary. It doesn't help that US safety standards make the Acela Express a heavy train, and you can feel that inertia - a mid-sized lurch to one side on this train and you'll question whether gravity's got enough pull to keep it on the tracks at speed. It's exciting, and it's pretty amazing to see the ground rush by that fast in this country, but it's not for the faint of heart.

I wasn't paying much attention to the schedule but it seemed like we arrived pretty much on-time at Boston's South Station, in about 3 hours and 30 minutes. Again, despite being first class passengers, we were not offered so much as a redcap in Boston (not that we needed one, but I'd hesitate to call this a true "first class" experience). Not bad, and I'm glad to have had the experience of riding "high speed rail" in the United States. But it still feels very much like a work in progress - the service level is not quite there, the tracks were clearly not designed for high speed service, and the trains themselves already feel a bit old. (This will hopefully change after the overhaul.)

On the way back, we got stuck on one of the old Acela Regional trains because apparently, the Express trains like to sleep in on weekends. This didn't turn out to be an entirely bad thing. We arrived at South Station way early this time, after having endured the first day of snow in Boston this year and being utterly worn out by walking through some of the most ridiculous early autumn weather I've ever seen. We waited more than two hours for our train, only to see it delayed at its scheduled departure time. I was watching the tracks like a hawk and finally saw what I assumed was our train pull in. I called my wife over and we stood outside in the now freezing rain for 15 minutes while we waited for Amtrak to prep the train. Again, we were at the front of the line when they finally let the floodgates open.

We hurried to our car, actually ending up in the wrong one at first and having to ask the conductor to let us through the closed cafe car to the "real" business class car. (Don't be fooled by what it says on the side of the train!) I counted the number of passengers in our car as we left Boston. Including us, there were five. Five! This was practically our own private car. It was eerily quiet; quieter maybe than even the Acela Express train, which is a newer design. These old Amfleet I cars were designed and built in the 1970's, though they've been extensively refurbished and upgraded. The interiors are now pretty darn nice, the ride is very smooth, and the noise level reminded me of having a private room on one of the old streamliner cars that no longer exist (this was an almost mystical travel experience that I'm still sad is gone).

It's not really obvious from that second shot how much legroom there is. There's a lot. The seats themselves are bigger than they look - they're far larger than airline seats, which is what they probably look like in the photo. Even at 6'4", the backs of my knees were just barely at the front lip of the bottom cushion. So I had about 18" of clear air in front of me. It was easy enough to cross my legs without even touching the seatback in front of me, or for my wife to step over me without asking me to move (she had the window seat). When you consider how far back the seats recline (almost flat), if you've got nobody in front of you doing the same thing then you end up with about six feet of pitch all to yourself.

Traveling from Boston to New York at night, there's really not a whole lot to see. My wife slept most of the time, and I read a magazine and made a few trips to the cafe car for free drinks (business class!) and non-free food. I really did enjoy just listening to the sounds of the train as it sped through the darkness, without the chatter of businessmen on cell phones or loud family gatherings to spoil the serenity. I've always thought that riding a train at night is one of the most peaceful places you can be.

Coming in to New York, we ended up stopped right next to a Long Island Railroad train full of Halloween-costumed college kids. It was the most interesting scenery of the night! And whenever I'm riding Amtrak and end up stopped next to a commuter train, I'm always struck by the contrast - seeing those people standing or crunched into 5-across bench seats just made me appreciate the relative luxury I was riding in even more.

Train travel in this country can be aggravating at times, but in the end I'm always left with a sense of satisfaction that I know I could never get from flying or even driving. I'm actually a little sad whenever I step off a train at my destination. The Acela Express is a little rough around the edges and "first class" doesn't really live up to the name, but it's still a train worth taking - if only to be able to say you hit 150mph on the ground in the United States. Acela Regional trains are surprisingly comfortable and I'd have no problem riding one again.

Watch for my Boston city report coming up in a few days - yes, there will be talk of clam chowda! And maybe a few things you wouldn't expect...

Now, about those seats. As I mentioned above, they are big. The photo really doesn't convey it without a point of reference - something that you can use to visually estimate size. If somebody was sitting in those seats, you'd see it - the pitch (the distance between seats, indicative of legroom) is around 50". This compares to 31-33" for a typical airline seat.

Amtrak's trains have a variety of seating configurations in a variety of different types of cars, depending on how far you're going and where. The major types are going to be Amfleet, Acela Express, Superliner or Horizon cars. Amtrak also operates special corridor trains in the Northwest and Southwest but I am not familiar with these. In the other types, the coach cars are broken down between long-haul and short-haul configurations, with the difference just being the amount of legroom. (In the Northeast Corridor, just replace the terms "long-haul" and "short-haul" with "business class" and "coach class" and you'll have an equivalent.)

In a long-haul train, you've really got no choice where to sit - it's based on distance, and there are short-haul cars for those traveling short distances and long-haul cars for those going longer distances. Even the short-haul cars are better than airline seats, though.

In a long-haul or business-class car, you will have plenty of room to move around. In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak often mixes up coaches with different configurations - so you can have a business class seat in a coach class car. If you find yourself in a coach class car with coach class seating, try just walking forward or back a car or two - the real business class cars are at the very front of the train, so as long as you don't go up too far you'll still be in coach. It's easy to find a car with business class seats in coach, and then you'll be in for a nice, comfortable ride on the cheap.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Looked down this little street in Boston and just liked the color of the sky. The shot actually came out pretty much crap but I was able to rescue it with a few tweaks in the RAW conversion and some noise reduction. (I've still got some blown highlights, but I can live with them.) Still probably not my favorite shot, but I think I impress myself more when I manage to make something out of nothing than when I get lucky with a photo that's perfect straight out of the camera.

New car!

I'm busy right now writing a two-part trip report on our recent weekend in Boston (one part on the trains, the other mostly on the city and food), but until then, content yourselves with a shot of our new car:

It's a 2006 PT Cruiser. Brand new from the factory, custom-built for us, exactly zero miles on the odometer when we got it (and only 24 at the moment). We wanted something that would both help us move cargo around but also be small enough to drive around the city... not to mention cheap. The dealer actually made a few mistakes so we ended up getting it below cost (they gave us things like an auto trans and a $150 option paint job for free). Less than $15k!

I actually like the exterior styling of the '05 better but we didn't have a choice at the time we bought. I do like the interior of the '06 better, and the '06 also has stuff like power door locks standard (they were optional on the '05, and they cost $1,000 extra!). One of the things I'm really happy about is the regular old "aux" input on the radio - so rare to find these days, but so useful now that everybody's got iPods! As far as I know, this is also new to the '06 model. No, it's not real iPod control on the radio itself, but who cares? It's a little 5 cent part that lets me directly hook up my 'Pod and listen to tunes, and it's one of the only cars on the market that offers it standard, in any price range or class.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Trying a new way of posting this time...

This is the view outside my office window. I took it as a total throwaway image out of boredom (my internet connection was down today, and I couldn't do any work), but I actually like the way it turned out. I even like the window reflections. (And yeah, I know the corners are not completely straight...) Eh, what do I know...

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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