December 2010 Archives

Airing of Grievances

Happy Festivus, everyone!

We interrupt the story in progress for that time-honored Festivus tradition... the airing of grievances.

This year's installment is aimed at the single thing I hate most about living in Newark. Is it the commute? The crime rate? The smell from the apartment downstairs, which my brother informed me the other day is pot? The lack of decent library service? From the way I'm setting these up, you can tell that the answer is "no," and you are right. Give yourself a pat on the back, and/or a cookie.

No, my grievance concerns the Newark branch of the United States Postal Service, and their dismal track record of actually getting my mail to me.

I admittedly don't know how much mail I've lost in the past few months; part of the problem is that it's rather hard to know what people might have sent you if you never get it. But at the very least, we're talking three paychecks, some legal paperwork, a CD, a DVD, some posters, and a Slytherin patch... and I suspect there's more that I'm forgetting or am unaware of. In the case of the posters, they were shipped twice. On the first occasion, they and a book were sent simultaneously; the book was hand-delivered to my door by a postal worker, but the posters disappeared into the void.

One thing that gets overlooked in the Internet Age is how important snail-mail is to it. Yes, you can now do all your shopping in your pajamas at 3 AM, but without competent postal service, you'll never see your purchases. Most goods are still tangible, and can't be transmitted digitally. When—as I estimate to be the case—one in every five items of mail never make it to your doorstep, you have a problem. And as the grandson of a postal worker, I take this a bit personally; they're supposed to be better than this!

There hasn't been any really good solution, either. When I was working at the almanac daily, I took to having major purchases sent there, but that hasn't been an option since November. Mostly I've just been rolling the dice, eating a series of losses, and getting increasingly frustrated. It may have been a visit from the Feds that pushed me over, but it was the mail situation that drove me to the edge in the first place.

Fortunately, this won't be a problem much longer, as you'll learn when I get back to the main narrative. Or at least I hope it won't.

The New Jersey Moving Saga, Part IV

The evening of Friday, December 3rd, found Our Hero in his apartment, with no immediate plans of leaving Newark, despite everything in the last entry. What would it take? you might ask.

It so happens that I have the answer to that one. It would take a visit from the FBI.

So I was sitting at the computer, as is my wont, probably looking around the Web, when I heard some loud knocking on the door. Nobody ever knocks on my door. I'm on the third floor, and I don't get any visitors. It had happened only once before, and that was when the smoke alarms went off; apparently somebody on the second floor burned some food or something.

"Who's there?" I asked.

"It's the police," I was told, "open up!"

I opened the door, and saw several people in vests that proclaimed "FBI" in large, unfriendly letters. Or at least that was the case for those among them who did not have very impressive firearms slung across their chests, obscuring my view of the letters. And they said, approximately, "Who are you? Who else lives here? Let's see your ID, and mind if we look around your apartment?"

I would like to say that I demanded to see a search warrant.

I would like to say that I stood firm.

I would like to say that I replied, "Nay, varlets! Thou shalt not pass, nor shall I answer any questions, unless thou givest me cause. 'Tis thee who must needs show identification and authorization from the justice of the peace, not I! For this is my home! And we are in America! The Constitution itself notes that I have an inalienable right to due process! Accost me not, and stay ye out of my closets."

I would like to say that I did that, possibly in more modern English, for I greatly admire people with enough moxie to do so. I consider them heroes.

I am not a hero. I folded like a cheap tent in a hurricane. I scurried for my wallet, let them run my ID, invited them in, and let them look around to their hearts' content. And I answered a stream of questions to the best of my ability. Yes, I lived alone. No, I hadn't left the house that day. No, I hadn't seen the neighbors that day. I'd left the apartment only to check my mail. No, during the sixty seconds it took to check the mail, I hadn't seen any of the neighbors. No, I didn't know anything about the neighbors. Yes, I could confirm that the neighbors included men, women, and children. No, that was the full extent of my knowledge. No, I hadn't bought any electronics on the streets of Newark that day. Yes, I was sure. No, I didn't know what the neighbors did, nor had I noticed any particular noises from downstairs. Yes, really.

Eventually they and their submachine guns—or whatever firearms they actually were; I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin, but cannot differentiate them much further, as I am the very model of a modern flaming liberal—left the apartment, and I retreated to my home office to freak out on Twitter.

Perhaps twenty minutes later, they returned to take another look and ask a few followup questions. They said I was in the clear, but they were still wanted to know a bit more about the neighbors and/or electronics. And I once again explained that I had no particular knowledge of the neighbors, and hadn't bought any electronics in the area.

And then the FBI guy who was doing most of the talking said, "if you don't mind my asking, why on earth are you living here?"

And I explained that the rent was cheap and there was plenty of room for my books, and...

"But," he pressed on, "did you not do any research on the neighborhood at all?"

I granted that apparently it hadn't been enough. But, I said, it wasn't as if I'd moved here from the country. My previous neighborhood had been Crown Heights! Before that, East Boston! I grew up in Far Rockaway! I have experience with places with bad reputations!

He shook his head and said—and this is a direct quote—"This is Beirut."


Well, I do have a month-to-month lease, I said...

"At least you were smart enough for that," they said.

Umm, yeah. That was it, foresight.

They asked whether I went out to eat in the neighborhood, or if I ever walked around the neighborhood, and expressed surprise that I had not already been harassed or assaulted. They advised against any local activities short of barricading myself indoors.

At some point they noticed the Darth Tater on a bookshelf and admired it. I explained that it had been a birthday present. One of the agents said one of the other agents should take a picture of it, which is the point that I realized that the curious handheld device that other agent had taken around the apartment was probably some sort of camera.

On their way out, they helpfully pointed out that my locks were terrible, that it was only a matter of time before I was burglarized, and that I really ought to replace them with better ones.

I'm not saying that the FBI agents were a troupe of actors hired by my siblings to scare me straight—aside from being far-fetched, this would seem to be ruled out by the following night's visit by a few cars' worth of police officers to the downstairs neighbors, but not me—but if they were, they couldn't have done a better job of hitting every bullet point in the script.

In Part V, Our Hero scans the real estate listings under "Out Of Dodge."

The New Jersey Moving Saga, Part III

So I got the apartment. I was—rather ironically, as it turned out—concerned about the fact that the lease was month-to-month, rather than annual ("to protect both of us," said the landlady). Who knew, I might get all settled in only to have her jack the rent up dramatically. But I figured that this probably wouldn't happen, and that I was worrying about nothing.

Plenty of other people were worrying as well. My mother informed me that she was going to be calling to check up on me every time she heard about a violent crime happening in Newark, and that this meant she'd be calling constantly. My brother found a Newark Crime Map showing all the recent shootings in my area. (In that last link, you can do a search on "s 13th st at 16th ave" to zoom in on my area.) Even my friend Chris in Florida warned me that I'd regret this.

Still, for better or for worse, I'd already grabbed the place... and did I mention the walk-in closet? (Cue choir of angels again.) I was remaining confident that I'd manage just fine.

On moving day, my street-smart brother and My Sister The Graphic Designer checked the place out for the first time. After we got inside, my brother mentioned that he'd seen a drug dealer on the corner.

Now, I might point out that in the four months since, I have never once seen a drug dealer. Then again, I've never knowingly seen a drug dealer in my life. Given the places in which I've lived, and a basic grasp of statistics, this can mean only one thing: the only way I would recognize a drug dealer would be if someone came up to me and said "Pardon me, my good man, but would you care to purchase some cannabis?" (And even then I probably wouldn't be certain. It might be some sort of street theatre.)

They also noticed the police station two blocks away. "Well, that's reassuring!" I said, cheerfully. They both looked at me like I was insane, and patiently explained that police stations were generally in the worst areas. Oh.

Not terribly long thereafter, I arrived at Penn Station New York on my way to work. I was passing a Nathan's when a woman came up to me, said she was pregnant and hungry, and asked if I could buy her lunch. Given (a) my upbringing and (b) a credit card, there was only one possible answer to that. So we're making small talk while we're on line, she asks where I live, and I said I'd just moved to Newark. She looked startled. She asked for a more specific neighborhood, and I said I was near West Side Park. "You take the #1 bus to the train?" I replied in the affirmative. She allowed as how she knew the area well enough, and then said "I could never live there. It's not safe."

I had been under the impression that there was a maxim about beggars and choosers.

(She then backpedaled a bit, so as not to overly freak out the nice man who was buying her a hot dog and fries, noting that the park had recently been renovated and they'd gotten rid of the chop shop that used to operate in it, so the area was getting somewhat better...)

Later in the summer, I was at the bus stop just down the block from my place, reading a book while waiting for the bus. A woman came up to me and asked if I've been in the area long. I replied in the negative, explaining that I'd moved in only recently. She said that she'd thought so, and proceeded to lecture me on how I could not read a book at the bus stop; there was "a bad element," and it wasn't safe. The lecture continued for the next ten minutes or so after we both got on the bus. She said not to read books. She said to keep my eyes open. She said not to give directions. The one thing she didn't say was what to do if somebody asked if you'd lived in the area long and proceeded to lecture you on basic safety.

I also couldn't help but notice a curious phenomenon, one I had never noticed anywhere else I'd lived. Partly as a result of there not being much shopping available in my immediate area, I sometimes ordered food to be delivered... and as I was new to the area, I tried out several different purveyors of food. In almost every case, rather than coming to my door and ringing the bell, the driver called me on the phone from his car, and then handed me the food through the car window without ever emerging from the vehicle.

My brother took to reminding me that his business was slow during the winter, and that he'd be happy to help me move anywhere else if I so desired.

For my part, I had resolved to finish the move before crunch time hit at the almanac I was working for, and not to think about changing anything till it was done. Which carried me through the start of November. And then I resolved to see how I felt about Newark when I wasn't commuting every day, but was working at home. I was admittedly having second thoughts, but moving sucks, and, you know, it was still a good apartment taken in a vacuum... just a pity about the lack of stores nearby. And the crime rate. And the fact that the local postal service appeared to lose about one in five items of mail that I knew of. But aside from that...

Coming up, Part IV: "Was That a Submachine Gun?"

The New Jersey Moving Saga, Part II

So, I was going to sign on an apartment in Jersey City when I checked Craigslist one more time and found a listing for an open house, which was sufficiently alluring that I decided to check that out before making a decision.

The apartment was amazing. Three bedrooms, themselves bigger than the ones I'd seen at the other places. Living room. Bathroom with a bathtub, which had been my one immutable requirement when setting out on the search. Eat-in kitchen. And, in the master bedroom, a walk-in closet that could practically double as a fourth bedroom. (Cue choir of angels.) I wanted more space, and this place had it in spades. And the rent was cheaper than anything else I'd seen.

The catch? It was in Newark.

Some of you might have heard about Newark, being a bit less generally oblivious than I am. Perhaps you know that it was named the Most Dangerous City in the Nation by Time Magazine. But, you know, that was in 1996. A lot can change in 14 years. Why, in March 2010, the city made it through an entire month without a single homicide! Or so I learned on Wikipedia after people started to question my judgment.

I did have some concerns. The commute was at the outer extreme of what I was willing to consider, taking about an hour to get to Manhattan. And I'd failed to take into account that there's a significant difference between a commute of about an hour via a single subway ride, and a commute of about an hour involving a bus and one or two trains. The more transfers, the more chances for delays.

I'm also used to living in more heavily urban areas. In Crown Heights, pretty much everything I could ever need was in a two-block radius. Supermarket, multiple groceries, laundromats, a library branch... and there were lots of people on the streets. I know how to deal with streets with lots of people. Quieter areas make me nervous.

Newark was quieter. Also, there wasn't very much around. A liquor store down the block, a couple groceries a bit further off. A few blocks further out, a Family Dollar and a laundromat, and a few blocks beyond that there was a Wendy's and a Home Depot. The supermarket was yet a few blocks further out. Not at all optimal.

But... walk-in closet. Room for many, many bookshelves. After two years of living in a shoebox, I decided it was worth the trade. I sent in my application without delay.

Stay tuned for Part III: "Warning Bells are Ringing"!

Technical Digression

As several of you noticed, comments weren't working on this blog for the past couple of days. Apparently, the problem was that Movable Type looked to see if a CAPTCHA was entered correctly before accepting a comment... and the entries currently have no provision for displaying a CAPTCHA, let alone entering a response to it. I didn't notice this when (rather quickly) testing the site because it seems that the CAPTCHA is used only for people who aren't registered users of Shmuel's Soapbox; as I was logged in to work on the site, it let my own test comments go through. (Of course, there's also no way of becoming a registered user as matters currently stand, so that doesn't help anybody but me and Erin... and that's if my sister-from-another-mister even remembers her password anymore.)

The ideal solution would be to update the site code so that CAPTCHAs are displayed and used properly, but that would require digging through documentation and once again figuring out how the code is supposed to work, and that's way more effort than I have time or energy for right now. As it stands, the code used here is a heavily duct-taped version of whatever Erin put together when she installed MT for me back in 2003. That was version 2.63, at most. I upgraded to 5.031 just before Holidailies started. I'm a bit amazed it still works at all... but anyway, for now I've solved the problem by turning off the CAPTCHA system entirely. If this leads to a deluge of spam, I may have to reconsider this, but for now, comment away.

Note: after you post a comment, it may look like it hasn't been posted. It's probably a cache issue; try reloading the page.

(As for the New Jersey Saga, I'm expecting that to require a total of five installments. You've been warned...)

The New Jersey Moving Saga, Part I

When we last left Our Hero, he was in a tiny basement studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

It wasn't all bad. I liked the landlord, and the feeling was mutual. The rent was low. It was, in short, the very best I could do under the circumstances... the circumstances being that I was an underemployed copyeditor with lousy credit. But it was very, very small. Most of my stuff -- including almost all my books -- were in storage. (It did not escape me that the amount I spent on storage probably exceeded the value of the books being stored.) There was only a shower, no bathtub.

By this summer, I found that my circumstances were somewhat better, and started exploring my options, looking mostly in Jersey City. Rent in Jersey City is generally lower than in New York City proper, while having a short commute to Manhattan. Granted, it means accepting that one is moving to Jersey, but there are worse fates. I kept tabs on Craigslist and eventually checked out a couple of apartments.

The first was in an excellent location, just a few blocks from the PATH train station. Nominally three-bedroom, in a boxcar arrangement, with the bathroom all the way at one end, but the rooms were small and oddly shaped; I wasn't sure that my queen-sized bed would actually fit into any of them. (It would have fit in the final room, which was presumably meant to be the living room.) The building seemed a bit on the run-down side, though the apartment was clearly starting to be painted. And it was at the upper end of my price range.

The second was in a somewhat less convenient location, a few blocks from the bus or light rail, which could in turn be used to get to the PATH to New York City. It was a slightly smaller apartment, but the rent was lower, the apartment was on the ground floor, and the building looked like it was very well maintained. I decided that I wanted that one, and no doubt would have applied for it if the manager hadn't said that I'd need to apply in person, rather than over the Internet. I did plan to do so, but I was also busy working... and by the end of the week, just before I would have arranged to go file the application, I saw another ad on Craigslist that seemed worth checking out.

More on that tomorrow.


It's that time of year again...

You may notice that this looks somewhat different from previous years. One reason why I haven't posted any new entries in months (aside from the American Idol Annex) is that there hasn't been any easy way of doing so. Back in April, Blogger discontinued the ability to post entries via FTP. Apparently, this affected only a small percentage of painfully old-school holdouts.

Hello, my name is Shmuel, and I'm a painfully old-school holdout.

It's taken until now for me to accept that I'm probably not going to find a way of gracefully migrating all the old content into some sort of unified system capable of accepting new entries. Instead, I've broken out the duct tape. If this works properly, this will be a Movable Type blog in the same location as the old blog, and if I'm lucky, I'm correct in thinking there won't be any filename conflicts between the two, and that the old RSS feed URL will continue to work properly. (Those using RSS, please let me know if I'm right. And sorry about the test entry, if you got it.) I still need to restore access to the archives from the last incarnation. The templates come from my old booklog, and maybe I'll have a chance to tweak them further. Or maybe not... as will become clear in the upcoming entries, I'm doing this on borrowed time.

Still, it's Holidailies. I have to at least try.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

January 2011 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.