Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A New Year

Today, in the very early morning hours, swarms of teenagers were huddled on street corners and in unused doorways, looking chilled (they never wear enough warm clothing), and with blank expressions on their faces. While I didn’t see any yellow buses, I can conclude only one thing—the new year of purgatory, I mean, school has begun.

It seems cruel to make teenagers get up at dawn. From what I remember of being a teen, they need anywhere between eight and ten hours of sleep a night, and they are very unlikely to go to sleep before 11 p.m. Maybe this bit has changed, but at my school, we weren’t allowed to drink coffee until senior year. Something about all that caffeine being bad for our growing bodies.

My memories of public school are mostly bad. Endless hours trapped in soulless cinder-block chambers, trying to pay attention as the teacher droned on and on through a lesson delivered countless times before, sapping the teacher’s ability to make it sound fresh, new and interesting. School architectural design had a big influence on my education experiences. I loved going to Salem School in Naugatuck. I was there for only half a year (we moved to town half way through 5th Grade), and I was dazzled by the beautiful woodwork and high ceilings. I was incredibly grateful that I didn’t have to attend Naugatuck High School—the first time I saw it, I thought it was some sort of industrial prison. I did put in the requisite two years at Swift Middle School in Watertown. Those were miserable years. I was having a hard time being the new kid again, I was dealing with all the emotional turmoil of those years, and I had to spend my days navigating the dark, low-ceilinged, soulless cinderblock maze of hallways. That’s what I remember most about Swift—soulless cinderblock and endless hallways where I still sometimes took a wrong turn after the first year. Meanwhile, I remember Salem with fondness.

I thought I was the most engaged student in any of my classes. Learning wasn’t cool, so all the kids made a big effort to show that they weren’t being uncool. The funny thing is, as adults, most of us spend a fair amount of time trying to learn things, whether it’s how to operate your DVR or preparing to pass a test to get a new job or promotion. Maybe the most important thing to teach in the public schools is how to learn.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Transportation Center

It's been some months since I last heard anything about plans for a consolidated transportation center at the train station. In fact, I think it's been two years since any noticeable progress has been made. Lately, I've started taking the train from Waterbury on a regular basis, so I am more aware than ever of the need for the transportation hub. I love taking the train, it's a million times better than driving to work, but our "station" needs some upgrades.

I don't like parking at the railway (I can't call it a station, since all we have right now is a platform). The parking lot is full of shattered glass from car windows that were broken into. There is a very large sign that originally claimed that This Lot Is Monitored, only someone has used spray paint to change it to Not Monitored. Because I never seem to be able to get out of the house early enough to park in the Ramparage on Field Street, I've been leaving my car at the railway lot. No damage to it so far, thank goodness. Maybe all the broken glass is old. There's no sign that the city ever cleans the parking lot.

If the buses ran late at night, I'd get up earlier in the morning to walk the half hour downhill to the train. It's great exercise. Walking home after dark while carrying my purse and computer is less great. But the Waterbury buses stop running at 6pm, so I have to take my car. If the buses ran until, say, midnight and had the proposed transportation hub as their starting/ending point, that would be fantastic.

Because our beautiful brick train station was sold to the Republican American, all we have now is a platform with minimal amenities--trash and recycling containers, benches and shelter from the rain. If you need to buy a ticket, you can purchase only a one-way, higher price ticket on the train. Other train stations have ticket machines selling the full ticket options for less right on the platforms.

The amenity I most long for is a coffee shop at the railway. Someplace to quickly grab a coffee and a portable breakfast (egg & cheese sandwich, for example). Diner food to go, located right next to where you get on the train. (Please, no Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts! The mini-diner at the Bridgeport station is perfect, albeit expensive--$2 for a small coffee, another $2.75 for the egg & cheese sandwich; I can get the same thing at Penn Station for half the price.)

Returning at the end of the day, there are always taxi drivers on the train platform asking if anyone needs a taxi. There's really no other way for them to go about this, since there is no taxi stand at Waterbury. I suppose it's a system that works, but it means that anyone can stand around claiming to offer taxi rides. Not the safest situation. I'd be a little scared to walk off into the dark with some guy claiming to be a taxi driver. Fortunately, there are always plenty of people around. There's a regular little traffic jam on Meadow Street when the train pulls in. Within ten minutes, the regular commuters are long gone, the joyful reunions are over, the bags are loaded into cars, and all that's left are the small number of people sitting by the sidewalk wondering when their family or friends are going to pick them up.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Heavenly Invader

Now that I have a yard to tend, I've suddenly noticed a new tree that is shooting up everywhere in Connecticut: the "tree of heaven" (Ailanthus altissima). It is similar in appearance to the staghorn sumac, which is native to the northeast, so this may be why I didn't notice it until just now. The other day I thought back to when I was growing up. The trees in our yard were mostly pine, maple, chestnut. Twenty years ago, maybe even ten years ago, maple trees were the most prolific Connecticut tree (going by my memory). Now where I live is surrounded by the tree of heaven.

The most noticeable thing about this tree is that it grows like a weed. It can release up to 325,000 seeds per year. If you cut it down to a stump, the stump will sprout numerous shoots. If you pull it out with the roots, any tiny little root fragment left in the ground will start growing a new tree. It ought to be called the hydra tree.

I've been somewhat casually trying to remove the saplings growing along my property line. There's a slender stump that has maybe half a dozen new shoots growing on it every other month. The good news is that they are easily broken in half. But they will keep coming back for all of eternity. They grow fast, too, and can get as tall as 80 feet (or more) in a relatively short span of time.

Full-grown, it does make for a nice shade tree. But it really is a destructive weed of a tree. The roots can damage sewers and foundations. It produces a type of toxin that prevents other types of plants from growing, and it can quickly crowd out any other type of tree. The maple tree has met its match.

In researching the tree of heaven, I learned a couple of interesting things about it. First, it is native to central China (known in Mandarin as chouchun). It was brought to Philadelphia in 1784 by a gardener, and by 1840 was available through nurseries. Now it is somewhat universally regarded as a pest, although it is the title "character" of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Monday, August 11, 2008


For the past couple of months, whenever I've worked in my front yard, I've seen this one grasshopper. I'm assuming that it's the same grasshopper each time. When I first saw him, he was a miniscule little speck of bright pastel green. He's been noticeably larger each time I've seen him. Now he's huge.

I think he came to my yard from Suffield. I bought a lot of plants from farms up there, and it was after that I first saw my grasshopper. There aren't a lot of opportunities for grasshoppers to flourish in the heart of the city, although this one seems to be doing fine, maybe because he doesn't have any competition.

Friday, August 08, 2008

More Art

My latest (and sixth) painting of Waterbury:

Next up: Shakespeare in Library Park. Might be a while before it's done, though. Have to focus on "real" work for a while.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Coming Soon...

This Sunday, August 10th, at 12:30 p.m., the Immaculate Conception church will hold a special mass by Archbishop Mansell, who will read the decree making the church a basilica. The new sign is ready, but is being kept under a blue tarp until Sunday. When the sun shines just right, you can see the wording through the tarp.

The Immaculate will be the only basilica in Connecticut. Along with the recent rededication of Ste. Anne's as a Shrine for Mothers, this new century seems to be a good one for Waterbury's Catholic community. A hundred and fifty years ago, Catholics were a disliked minority in Waterbury. Now Waterbury is very much a Catholic town!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Chili Festival

It took me a week, but I finally found the results of the chili competition last week at the Waterville Fire House. The Republican-American once again did a terrible job covering a Waterbury event--they announced the top prize winner, but didn't identify which number it was, nor did they identify any of the other chili makers (the chilis were numbered and anonymous; I tried to stick around long enough for the results, but once the dunking was over, I got bored and left). The event's co-host, the Waterbury Neighborhood Council, hasn't posted the results on their website, and they haven't replied to my email asking for the information. I googled for the event this morning, and found the results on the Waterbury Fire Fighters Association website--Go Fire Fighters!!!

Chili #1 -- Crossroads Cantina -- top place winner (and just like the chili I make at home!)
Chili #2 -- Fire Fighter Dave Lanese -- 3rd place winner -- I liked this one, but it had chicken instead of beef, which I wasn't sure I liked
Chili #3 -- Uncle Willie's BBQ
Chili #5 -- no show
Chili #6 -- T. Pic's
Chili #7 -- Legendary Dean's Tavern (located on Rubber Avenue in Naugatuck) -- 2nd place winner (I remember that I liked this one, but now I can't remember anything else about it)
Chili #8 -- That's A Wrap (located in the East Gate Plaza)

The dunk booth was a major attraction, with the dunkees including the mayor, several aldermen and others. The most popular person to dunk (reflecting how unpopular he is--a lot of folks were absolutely delighted at the prospect of giving him a dunking), was John Rowland. Here is the crowd gathering to watch:

... and here he is getting dunked, one of many times.

There were plenty of other activities, including live music in the park across the street, discount prices from an ice cream truck, hot dogs, hamburgers, fire equipment displays, fire rescue displays, a fire safety trailer, air brush tattooing, slides, balloons and raffles.