Freak.

I’ve mentioned before that my interest in computers, and technology in general, was kicked into overdrive when our local Ames Department Store converted over to a computerized point-of-sale system in the early 1980s. Prior to that I was interested in anything that had a button. I wanted to know what that button did, how it did it, and more importantly why it did it. I was fascinated by anything connected or systematic: the telephone network, washing machine cycles and their predictability, how traffic signals worked. All of this was fascinating to me, and when Ames brought in and IBM 3680 Retail Store System to replace their mechanical (yet inventory tracking) cash registers, I was awestruck. Keen observation taught me how the old inventory numbers from the mechanical cash register price tags were modified to work with the computerized system. Since Ames was basically the only game in town, we went there often and I’d discreetly watch every keypress the cashier made. I could easily remember all the notes taped to the cash register, for example, I knew who wrote bad checks at any given time.

I was 14 or so when I went to Ames with older friends from the neighborhood. They walked around; I did the same and decided to buy a candy bar, a card for some occasion, and a Billboard magazine. None of these things had price stickers on them and this was before the days when scanning was mainstream outside of a handful of grocery stores in bigger cities, so all of the data was punched in by hand by the cashier.

In the spirit of speeding up their cashiers by forcing them to use “touch typing” for the numeric keypad, all the number keys were covered. Apparently cashiers were expected to know certain inventory numbers by memory. Notes taped to the cash register usually helped in this regard.

The customer in line in front of me was completing their sale when I noticed a change in the rhythm of the printer and the precise moment the cash drawer opened. Usually the drawer opened when the receipt finished printing and ejected for removal; in this instance the cash drawer opened immediately after the amount tendered was entered. This was a good thing, the cashier didn’t have to wait for the cash register to do its thing before making change for the customer. I deduced that the software must have been upgraded to be more efficient.

The cashier was a young woman named Kelly. She had graduated a few years ago and had been working at Ames since graduation. She’s was kind of snotty in high school. Her father drove our school bus and he picked up his daughters every morning. They were the last stop on the run before heading to the school. Kelly would take her sweet time coming to the bus, sometimes making us wait three or more minutes. Normally the driver would just move on, but he knew his daughter was going to school so he’d wait. She’d take her sweet time coming down the driveway. We’d all roll our eyes and make comments under our breath. We didn’t want to get hollered at by the driver for being disrespectful. She’d get on, glaring as she did so. Her hair was big with lots of Aqua Net.

Her hair hadn’t changed much since graduation. She wasn’t particularly happy in her job. A few years later, my friend Scott and I were hanging out in the break room (Scott worked the service desk at the time) and she was back there reading the National Enquirer. That was 1986 or so. She told us she thought the government should move all the “gays to Mars” so that they didn’t “infect the good people with the AIDS”. That was the same night Scott and I came out to each other.

Back to the checkout line.

Kelly looked at the candy bar and typed in 67200000. The register complained with a large beep. She sighed, hit clear and did it again. 67200000. Beep. Clear. 67200000. Beep. She had tried again. I mumbled “67235515”.

“What?”, she asked, looking squarely at me.

“67235515. The SKU for candy bars was changed a few months ago and it’s now 67235515. You entered 67200000 the last time I was here and it worked but the software changed and it must not work anymore.”

She looked at me, aggravated yet quizzical at the same time.

“67235515”, I said once more.

She entered the number and the register didn’t complain. She then entered the price. 39 cents.

She came to the card and entered the SKU. 81230013.

Next came the Billboard magazine. 02700000. Beep. She sighed again.

“02730021”, I replied.

“How do you know that?”, she asked as she entered in the number.

“I don’t know, I just do.”

I actually knew all of this information from the notes I had seen taped to the cash register and from careful study of the receipts any and everyone brought home from any store. Those receipts were my connection to this budding technology and I wanted to know everything I could about them.

“You’re a freak”, was her only comment as she laughed at me.

I turned red as I handed her the money. The drawer opened immediately as soon as she entered the amount tendered. It had never done that with me as a customer before.

My friends and I were in the ’69 Dodge truck my friend Ray owned headed back home when he asked, “how did you know those numbers”? He had watched the whole thing from end of the checkout stand as he waited for me to come through the line.

“I study these things because computers are the way of the future.” I was too embarrassed of being called a freak again to admit that I had collected dozens of these receipts, had figured out every nuance of the cash register system and had even drawn out flow charts of how they worked.

“You need a life”, was his only reply. He then turned up Van Halen on the cassette deck and we motored home.

I munched on my candy bar.

Exercise.

Since I’m restricted from cycling this season (due to my surgery earlier this year) I’ve been doing a lot of walking. One of the beautiful things about Chicago is that it’s a very walkable city. Our neighborhood has a nice blend of commercial, industrial, and residential streets to choose from. There are people out at all hours of the day and night. Many dogs live in the neighborhood and they enjoy walking their humans around.

Tonight the weather was misty and it was dark early. I still managed to go for a stroll around the area. The homeless man that sleeps under the railroad bridge was getting settled in; a woman stopped by and gave him a pizza. I found that encouraging. I now feel more comfortable doing something similar in the future. I watched their interaction. She called to him from across the street making a point to not invade his space. I do the same when I walk by.

I’m hoping to continue my daily walks regardless of the weather, something I couldn’t do before we moved to Chicago. It’ll be cold soon and I’ll be bundled up like crazy but I’m hoping the streets will remain walkable. I’m feeling benefits from the increase in exercise. I want to continue that trend.

Helping.

When Earl and I first moved into the neighborhood, we were walking home from dinner and noticed a man sleeping under a well-lit railroad bridge. He had a sleeping mat and blankets and all of his belongings arranged a certain way. This was the first time I noticed a person sleeping outside in our neighborhood. He’s the only one I’ve seen thus far.  I was concerned for his well-being.

My daily morning walks take me under that bridge and there’s never a trace of the man sleeping under the mattress. If we walk by after dark, he’s there. People walking by maintain a distance. I’ve never seen him harassed. He looks well-fed and relatively groomed/cleaned. Earl and I, like the other passerbys at night, don’t disturb him. But I remain concerned for him.

*

Last night it was very warm and he was sleeping on top of his comforter arrangement. I’ve seen him out there in 40ºF weather and I’ve now seen him in 85ºF weather. I’m concerned that he’ll still be there trying to sleep at night under the bridge during the cold weather. Being new to the neighborhood, I don’t know what he does during the winter. One night I we were walking by on the opposite side of the street and he was sitting up, arranging his blankets to get comfortable. That’s when I could tell that he seemed to be in fairly good health and had a chance to clean up somewhere.
I know that there are some in our society that simply choose to be homeless. I’ve never seen him on the street during daylight hours. A part of me wants to leave something for him, like a sandwich or bottle of water or something, but I’m hesitant because I don’t want to infringe on his space. That seems to be his territory during the non-daylight hours and he’s obviously sleeping under the light for safety’s sake. Some people have their own deal and just want to be left alone. I certainly don’t want to chase him out of there without another place for him to go. At least the bridge is wide enough that he’s seemingly protected from the elements. 

My concern remains. I don’t like seeing folks in our society without the necessities. We should be beyond this by now.
*I was originally going to include a photo taken from halfway up the block last night in this blog entry but decided against it. It seemed to violate the man’s privacy, even though there were no discernible features in the photo, and I want to remain respectful of his space.

Industrial.

The pictures I’ve posted of our neighborhood have had a residential look to them. We are surrounded by many streets with beautiful houses, some new, some old, all interesting. This only shows part of the picture, in actuality Earl and I live in an area that has deep industrial roots.

Within two blocks of our home are large industrial buildings once occupied by the Bell and Howell company and by the Manz Printing Company. Many other companies were once located in this area. Several of the buildings have been repurposed into residential living space. There’s also quite a few craft brewing companies and high tech startups in the area.

Our street is bisected by one of the METRA lines that bring commuters in and out of Chicago. The railroad line is elevated, so our neighbors “across the street” are actually across the street, over several tracks and across the street again, yet they are on the same street name with a difference of one house number.

Last weekend Earl and I went to the Art Festival which featured exhibits outside and inside some of the repurposed buildings from the early 20th century. It was a beautiful day and it was awesome to see the inside of these buildings. Great care has been made to bring the buildings to their former glory.

It’s all very encouraging. We could use encouragement these days.

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Art.

So this weekend we went to the Chicago Expo at Navy Pier. I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy browsing art for the afternoon, but after gazing upon several interesting performance pieces, displays and the like, there was one piece that moved me to tears.

I never thought I would shed a tear over art.

A search on the Internet found this article about the particular piece that helped me find tears.

RAGNAR KJARTANSSON Scenes from Western Culture/Architecture and Morality/World Light

The gallery’s rear rooms contain videos on nine monitors comprising Scenes from Western Culture (2015), seemingly innocuous slices of contemporary life that range from nineteen minutes to a little over three hours. In one, jazz pianist Jason Moran and mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran dine at Upstairs at 21 in Midtown. Framed by a bland mural of Grand Army Plaza and Bergdorf’s, they enjoy an uneventful dinner with barely audible conversation ranging from music to basketball players to wine. As in all but one video, the camera is stationary, and the film loops with an imperceptible edit. In The Pool, the painter Elizabeth Peyton swims laps for twenty-four minutes; the frame tracks her laterally as in Olympic coverage. Her yipping terrier doggedly follows her progress. In Dog and Clock, a Shetland Sheepdog lies on a rug before a grandfather clock in Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’s house museum. When the clock oddly strikes at 4:05, she dutifully barks after the fourth chime. In The Boat, a man docks a vessel on a lake, helps a woman out who walks away, then unmoors the craft and putters off-screen, returning a few minutes later with another woman, repeated for over two and a half hours. It is gorgeous and monotonous, although briefly Chaplinesque when he inadvertently falls into the drink. Burning House is a ninety-two minute shot of exactly that, in a Swedish wood, the conflagration seen against dark conifers. Lovers shows the luxury of day sex in an affectionate and explicit scene between a man and woman with interchangeably long hair.

There is something about the composition that moved me.

In addition, when I glanced over there was a young man in a flannel shirt standing by himself looking at the work. He stood with his hands crossed the exact same way that I cross my hands when I am lost in contemplation. 

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While I thought the afternoon would be spent looking at things I wouldn’t really comprehend, instead I found myself thinking, pondering, and feeling motivated to be creative in my own way.  

A wonderful afternoon.

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Connection.

A mockup of the new Apple center on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, opening in October. Photo courtesy of chicagobusiness.com
I really enjoy the way Angela Ahrendts, Senior VP of Retail at Apple, thinks. Before joining Apple, Angela spoke about the importance of human energy during a TED Talk in Hollywood. At the time she was CEO of Burberry. 

As Senior VP of Retail at Apple, Angela is leading the transformation of Apple’s Retail Space, commonly known as the “Apple Store”, into neighborhood town squares. Apple is opening such a location in Chicago next month. I look forward to being there on opening day.

The Apple Neighborhood Town Square is designed to bring people together through their common interest in technology. It’s perfectly OK to sit at the pavilion and listen to the live music. Folks are encouraged to use the locations as gathering places. If you feel inclined to shop, Apple’s team members will not only show you how great the camera on the latest iPhone is, they also have regular scheduled events where they take you out in the world and show you how to take awesome photos. Apple doesn’t want you to use technology, they want you to connect to it, but more importantly, they want to bring people together to give them the opportunity to share their interests or passions together. Angela is very committed to recognizing the importance of human connection, and using technology as a conduit to accomplish that, is an amazing thing.

Earlier today I blogged about the importance of the corner store and how a start-up company was looking to replace that human connection with a sterile vending machine box located in strategic places. Criticisms of this start-up project have been married to criticisms of “Apple’s deluded thinking” that their retail space can be the neighborhood town square.

I’m sorry, but that’s (no pun intended) comparing apples to oranges.

Yes, the primary objective of Apple’s Centers are to sell you technology.  iPhones, iPads, Macs, Watches, accessories: all of these things are found at an Apple Store. But where the automated Bodega idea is to separate you from a human connection, Apple is looking to bring people together. Their Apple Today series, a daily schedule of seminars and the like, are designed to bring people with a common interest together. Yes, you are going to learn about Apple technology at an Apple Today event, but the technology and theme of the event is a conduit to bringing people together. You may not know the person across town that decided to attend an event to learn about drawing on an iPad, but here you have a chance to interact with someone else that shares an interest with you. Apple is using their Town Square model to bring people together, not replace human interaction with an online purchase.

I am proud to be an Apple Fanboy. I believe that Apple continues to give us the best technological experience available in the consumer space. Yes, many other products can do what Apple products do, but they don’t do it to the degree of satisfaction and comfort I find in an Apple product. But what’s more important to me as an Apple Fanboy is the company’s philosophy and vision. Do great things for the world, bring great things to the world and bring people together through technology. Apple is about preserving the human equation, not eliminating it.

We all need the energy we give one another when we interactive in our daily lives. Let’s keep doing things that bring people together, not isolate them from the outside world. And if that means going to an Apple Town Square to listen to an Indie Rock band or learn to take photos, at least I’ll be with people that share a common interest.

Convenience.

New York Bodega cat as shown in New York Daily News.

My great Aunt Jenn lived in the “urban area” of Syracuse when I was a kid.  We wouldn’t visit her very often at her home outside of picking her up for family gatherings in the suburbs, but when I was in elementary school we’d visit once in a great while.  She’d give us a dollar each to head down to the corner store where we could buy candy or something of that nature.  I always liked the corner store; the owner didn’t know who we were unless we walked in with Aunt Jenn’s grandchildren. On those occasions we were greeted with a smile. The folks at the store spoke with an accent, though I don’t know the origin of it.

Growing up in the country we had two little stores about a mile from our house. Mom would venture there from time to time. One had a butcher in the back, the other store was a milk and bread kind of place. The cashiers at both stores were very friendly. There was something comfortable about having a neighborhood store, whether it was down the block or a mile away. It helped reinforce the whole neighborhood vibe. You knew these people and you wanted their establishment to thrive.

Big chains don’t do that.

Yesterday two ex-Google employees announced their new company, which is unfortunately called Bodega. Their get rich quick scheme is to place oversized vending machine boxes in strategic locations (hotels, condo and apartment building lobbies, gyms, etc) where, through a whiz bang use of cameras, phone apps, and Big Brother style monitoring, you can pick up the items you so desperately want from these impersonal boxes. App metrics will undoubtedly track your every move and someone will fling ads your way based on what you bought. It’s the way of the world, or at least the Silicon Valley.

The name Bodega comes from the convenience stores of New York and Los Angeles. These are neighborhood fixtures where you get what you need from a friendly face that you know and converse with. Chances are there will be an accent along the way somewhere. A curious fixture of New York bodegas is the Bodega cat. Probably not legal but they’re helpful in keeping mice and rats away. They are a fixture of the neighborhood Bodega. People love them.

The Bodega vending machine people went with a cat for their logo.

I briefly wrote about this on Medium in response to the blog entry from this vending machine company, but the biggest failure of this venture, outside of the misappropriation of the name, is the lack of human interaction. The lack of neighborhood.  The lack of community.

Our society can not and will not survive if we strive to be completed disconnected from one another. Internet and other technology based interactions can be a conduit to a more personal means of communication; we have several friends that we would have never met if it hadn’t been for the Internet. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Gen-Xer or what, but lately communication confined to electronic means only has felt very hollow to me. We feed off the energy of one another. Though some are hesitant to admit it, we need a human connection to thrive. We need a neighborhood. We need a community.

Any technological advances that strive to reduce human connection are not advances at all but a step in the wrong direction. We can make it shiny and beep, but there’s no energy, no life force, in the cold of glass and steel. 

We should strive to support our neighborhoods, our local businesses, our communities and most importantly, each other. 

And don’t forget to greet the cat at your local Bodega.  

Irma.

So Irma, probably the strongest hurricane ever recorded, is flinging her way through the Caribbean and headed toward Florida. Folks are evacuating key areas and I’m really hoping that the damage will be minimal and lives will be spared. I want everyone to be safe.

I’m noticing a lot of people voicing their prayer activity on various social media outlets. I’m curious as to the reasoning behind this type of prayer. Yes, we all want people and animals to be safe and damage to be minimal. But, praying to the God that allegedly threw this storm onto the face of Earth seems to be a futile effort. If God wants the storm to follow the path that he’s launched this storm along, why would he listen to prayers? Do we think God will reconsider his Irma plan? Was God wrong? Yes, we want people to be safe, but why on Earth would a rational person think God is going to spare someone because of prayer?

Look, I want people to be safe and I want those that are worried to find comfort through any means possible. I would probably do the same thing. But, logically and rationally prayer doesn’t make a lot of sense. Well wishes. Hopeful thoughts. Positive thoughts. Yes, all of those make sense to me. But prayer? OK, I guess….

If you find comfort in prayer then I hope you find comfort in your prayer around Irma. But I have a hard time reconciling rationalization around the effort. But that’s my hang up, I guess.

Dialect.

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I have always been fascinated by regional dialects. I never really had a grasp of the concept until I left Central New York for Western New York to attend my first round of college; until then I knew there were accents (most notably a Southern accent) and that the folks downstate spoke differently than the folks where I grew up but in my mind those were accents. In Western New York they spoke much like we did back home but with a slight twist, for example, “pop instead of “soda”. I actually grew up fairly close to the pop/soda line in New York State, which seems to have drifted west a bit since I was a young lad.  When away at college talking with other students from the area there were other subtle differences that caught my attention, for example, folks from Jamestown would say “ming-ya” when they were irritated or for some sort of emphasis, though the folks were hardly Italian. “Ming-ya, that woman is an idiot.” 

My friend Matt lives in Central Pennsylvania and I noticed that he says “slippy” instead of “slippery”, which I think it kind of cool. I’ve picked up on “slippy” in other parts in that general vicinity. “Slippy” seems to have its roots in Pittsburgh which makes sense to me, because Pittsburgh has it’s own take on the English language and I find it quite endearing.

One of the things that I like about Chicago is that the dialect is fairly close to what I grew up with, albeit with a few twists and indications of local slang. The flat “a” sound reigns supreme, just like back home on the shores of Lake Ontario. Mary, marry, and merry all sound alike. It feels very comfortable. I think it’s the result of growing up at the opposite end of the “Great Lakes Accent” from Chicago. For example, I’ve heard plenty of people say “sammich” instead of “sandwich”. I’ve also picked up on “washroom” instead of “rest room”, which reminds me of Toronto and Kingston, Ontario. (I hardly ever rest in the washroom, my diet doesn’t really allow for a restful experience in there). There’s also slang like “Jewels”, referring to the local grocery chain, Jewel-Osco (though ours is just a Jewel). Sneakers are now gym shoes and apparently we’ll be entertaining in the frunchroom. 

Tonight I might of had a couple two three drinks while we were out and about in Boystown. I like the idea of having a vague count like that. It fits the mood.

Here’s a couple other articles on “Chicago slang”:

http://www.metroseeker.com/chicago/slang

https://giordanos.com/slang-words-used-in-chicago/

 

 

 

 

 

Cars.

Many of my early memories involve cars. I can easily remember sitting in the front seat of a mid 1960s Chevy Caprice with my maternal grandparents. The ignition key was directly in front of me and I remember reaching for the ring of keys. Grandpa City gave me a ring of keys to play with as he sat in the driver’s seat, “are you gonna drive with me?” I can still hear his voice as plain as day. Grandma City sat to my right and off we went. I want to say the car was a dark blue.

I remember walking in the driveway of my paternal grandparents towards my father’s VW Beetle, which was parked along the barn (which was actually called ‘the hen house’). Everyone was happy that I was walking. It wasn’t long after that the Beetle was gone and he had a green muscle car sitting in the same spot. I remember Mom not being happy about the new car. “We should have talked about it first.”  A non-auto related memory from around the same era was when our mobile home was moved from a trailer park in town to the lot next to my grandparents’ farm. Grandma Country and I looked out the bedroom window at the lot where the mobile home would be parked. Shortly afterward Dad started building an addition onto the mobile home to add a bedroom, half a laundry room (dryer only), and a living room. I’m a little hazy on this but I think it was right before my sister was born. 

Earl and I constantly go on road trips. It is a very relaxing and grounding activity for me and I’m sure that’s because of the memories I have surrounding cars. As we drive along, chatting,  I’m always reminded of the excitement and awe I felt on our first family road trip in 1976, when we took Grandma City’s oldest sister, my great-Aunt Ruby, back to Blackstone, Virginia after the annual family reunion. We took the 14 hour trek from the shores of Lake Ontario to Blackstone in my grandparent’s 1973 Buick Electra 225. It was a boat of a car and my sister, Aunt Ruby and I were easily able to sit in the back seat together. Aunt Ruby nodded off. I looked out the window in all directions. I remember spotting an exit sign for “P.A. 106” and I was confused as to why Pennsylvania was abbreviated that way. (Many years later I discovered it used to be “U.S. 106” and they changed out the letters but left the periods in place when the route designation was changed). I remember being excited about passing through Maryland on Interstate 81 in less than 10 minutes. We ate at a truck-stop diner just inside Virginia before finishing out trek to Blackstone. Aunt Ruby and Uncle Archie lived on a big farm in the woods with no electricity, aside from some car batteries wired together. She cooked on a wood-fired stove. There was a cuckoo clock in every room. They were very friendly. We ate a late supper after the farm chores were done for the day. Aunt Ruby talked to her vegetables on the stove as they cooked. “C’mon little peas. Let’s get cooking.”

When we pass cars on our road trips and I see children in the back seat watching a monitor or playing a game, or I see parents in the front seat intent on their phones, oblivious to the world whizzing by, I can’t help but wonder if they’re being robbed of future memories. I have watched the world around me for nearly half a century. I have no intention of stopping.

I will keeping adding to the memory bank and smiling as I watch the world around me.