Thursday, November 24, 2005

ON THE ROAD: Securing Your Yesterdogs

EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- As I mentioned yesterday, one place that some consider a necessary stop after last call in Grand Rapids is Yesterdog, a decades-old hot dog landmark on Wealthy Street SE in the Eastown neighborhood. Besides your Taco Bells, 24-hour restaurants and delivery pizza, Yesterdog is one of the few places that serves food past 2 a.m. on the weekends. For us East Grand Rapidians, Yesterdog is just two blocks or so west across the Grand Rapids city limits, so a Yesterdog trip can be easily justified on the way home from bars downtown or in Eastown.

AND ON THE NIGHT BEFORE THANKSGIVING, you're guaranteed to run into someone at Yesterdog that you went to high school with, whether you want to see them or not. (A friend last night ran into an ex-girlfriend from ages ago.) Yesterdog's narrow storefront creates a very crowded situation and the process of ordering, securing and paying for your hot dogs gives the experience instant chaotic credibility -- accented by drunken hungry twentysomethings and miserable Yesterdog clerks who can get easily testy with customers who slow down the process of creating and distributing the best hot dogs in the region.

AT THIS LATE HOUR, while you can order your Yesterdogs, Ultradogs, Chilidogs, etc., there are only two true classifications of hot dogs: legitimate and illegitimate:

Legitimate hot dogs are those ordered and paid for through the unwritten but well-established protocols. A clump of customers, anywhere from five to 15, approach the counter. One of the clerks will take your order. Once the full order of the clump is complete, the full order is assembled with your hot dogs, buns, chili, pickles, onions, etc. At this point, more and more customers pile in waiting to order. The narrow ailse fills with people who either talk, look up at the random knick-knacks from generations past or look at the photo wall, where loyal customers with their Yesterdog t-shirts pose in front of famous places around the globe. Then a large wooden board with all the hot dog goodness is brought over to the counter where clerks will then ask individually what you ordered and give you the hot dogs. Then you pay the clerk operating the ancient cash register with the cash you already have out and ready for transaction. Delays in the process can increase your chances of getting a scowl or a snide comment from one or many of the clerks, especially if it is late at night. Then you go and enjoy your legitimate hot dog.

Illegitimate hot dogs are those secured through backwards or dishonest methods. For instance, last night while I was waiting for a large order to make its way through the process before I could put in my order, a customer from the previous order asked me if I wanted two Ultradogs (chili, chesse, onions, pickels) that were up for grabs. I actually wanted three Ultradogs, but the idea of getting two Ultradogs immediately won me over. I quickly got some money and paid the clerk. Essentially part of the previous order had been botched somewhere in the process and I profited off the situation, not in any sort of financial gain, just in the victory of getting two beloved Ultradogs within two minutes of walking in. I ate my tasty Ultras and then got back in line to order two more Ultras. My friends were quite jealous.

Then you have the sinister way of getting your illegitimate hot dogs. One of my long-time friends, who will remain nameless, employed tactics he used in Iraq as a roving scribe when he walked into Yesterdog late to join me and my other friends. Apparently, people in Baghdad don't like to queue up for anything, so most of the line-up-and-wait situations in the war-torn capital devolve into a Yesterdog-like anything goes feeding frenzy, or so I'm told. The group dynamics of the crowd, plus the lack of firmly established ordering and hot dog securing rules allow a sinister person to delay a legitimate hot dog customer from getting their hot dogs: All you do once an order comes out is casually make your way to the counter, pretend that you were part of the previous mass order and claim two Ultras, or whatever, for yourself. Then you pay for them and go eat. It's that simple, you just steal someone unlucky person' hot dogs for your own selfish desires.

SO AT YESTERDOG, IT'S A DOG EAT DOG WORLD. But this was never expressed in the "American Pie" trilogy. In the movies, there was a hot dog joint the gang hung out at called Dog Years. (The town in the movie is called "East Great Falls" ... East Grand Rapids is just two blocks away.) In the movie, eating hot dogs seems very easy. Hell, you can even have status report meetings about your pre-prom pacts there. But that is during the day when things are less busy. Yesterdog after last call is worth a Hollywood script all on its own.

I have a few photos from Yesterdog that I'll upload to Flickr next week.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

ON THE ROAD: Snow, Slush and Gyros

EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Greetings from a snowy West Michigan. All meteorologists in the Great Lakes and elsewhere must be for sure be having a great pre-Thanksgiving Wednesday with today's Alberta Clipper that has swept through the region and the lake effect snow machine getting ready to dump a lot of snow in these parts in the morning.

WOOD-TV/NBC had three meteorologists on the 5 p.m. newscast. One live in the weather center, one live in the forecasting office (I'm not sure what the difference is) and Ginger, the newest face (at least to me) to the WOOD-TV weather team, who was out on US-131 reporting on the slushy conditions on the highway.

SO YOU CAN SEE THAT no matter where you go in this country, no matter how seasoned a media market is weather-wise, the weather is a big deal. Even as the wind picked up and 1-3 inches of snow accumulated through the day, the good people of the Grand Rapids went about their business. In Washington, slush would cause havoc. Fear might spread through the federal bureaucracy and the wheels of democracy might grind to a halt. Here, Michiganders build in a couple extra minutes into their commutes and life goes on.

I DROVE TO MICHIGAN yesterday, leaving Washington, D.C., around 12:30 p.m., picking my great aunt up at the beauty shop in McLean, Va. (She did have to look her best for Thanksgiving.) We rolled into East Grand Rapids around 10:45 p.m., only refilling the gas tank once, in Beaver Falls, Pa. The roads were for the most part empty, which helped us make great time.

MANY FORMER GRAND RAPIDIANS when they return for the holidays go do the rounds of their favorite places. For me, I went to Sami's in Eastown for a gyro. Others instantly go to Yesterdog, right across Wealthy Street SE, for hot dogs. (The hot dog joint Dog Years in the "American Pie" trilogy is based on Yesterdog.) I actually will probably make my way through there later this evening on the way home from the bars. Mmmm. Chili cheesedogs.

Have a good evening.

Monday, November 21, 2005

ON THE ROAD: Happy Thanksgiving

TUESDAY AFTERNOON, I'll be heading out of D.C. on a long roadtrip to the Midwest. On my agenda: Thanksgiving dinner with family in Gerald Ford's hometown. And a wedding in Milwaukee, Wis. I'll likely post a few dispatches from the road, but I won't be back to full steam until next week Tuesday. Have a good week.

EAST GRAND RAPIDS: Classmates in the News

IT'S JUST A COUPLE DAYS BEFORE THANKSGIVING and right before I head home to visit my parents in East Grand Rapids, Mich., I've come across various high school classmates who have been in the news lately. It's certainly a small world.

I'M SURE THIS STORY, "Lakeshore Man Arrested During Scavenger Hunt," made it on some Odd News or Strangely Enough websites ... Via Yahoo News, I learn that one of my old classmates is working as a police officer in Fruitport Township, Mich., a few miles inland from Lake Michigan. Officer Durrell was at the police station with his partner when three men on a scavenger hunt knocked on the door. Through a series of events that involved being photographed eating doughnuts, a man was arrested for failure of paying child support.

THEN IN THE NEW YORK TIMES this morning, Noah Haidle's play, "Mr. Marmalade," was reviewed, on the cover of the Arts section no less. Mr. Haidle was on my middle school soccer team and was one of EGR's top quiz bowlers, along with yours truly. He went off to Princeton, wrote a "satirical parallel between the Kennedy family and The Orestia" (that involves a sperm bank) as an undergrad and the rest is history.

"Mr. Marmalade" stars Michael C. Hall of HBO's "Six Feet Under" and Mamie Gummer (though she plays a "New Jersey tot" she is a confirmed adult actress). I think I'd have a hard time summing up what the play's about, so go read the Times' mixed review, but this passage may give you a taste:
Mr. Haidle chooses instead to draw us a scary but ultimately hollow cartoon. His thesis: a toxic combination of neglect and exposure to the noisy dysfunction in the cultural ether could so warp a tyke's psyche that she dreams up a pal who prefers sex toys to tea parties.
That sounds interesting, but I don't imagine that it'll ever be performed on stage back in Grand Rapids. Maybe I'm wrong.

>> "A 4-Year-Old Who Needs a Divorce" [The New York Times]

ARCHITECTURE: Challenging the Horizontal City

LONDON IS EMBRACING THE SKYSCRAPER. A decade ago, there were few non-monumental buildings that made their mark on the city's skyline. London, like Washington, D.C., today, had very much a horizontal, low-rise skyline where only monumental buildings would peek out above the rooftops. But for London and other cities in the United Kingdom, the notion of the low-rise city has been changing to where residents are slowly embracing "glamorous high-rise apartment houses of wealth, power and success," writes Caroline McGhie in the Financial Times.

From the FT:
This isn't just a minor craze; it is a serious switch in the national cultural outlook.
While the areas around London's City and Docklands are known for their experiments with the British capital's height regulations (look at Canary Wharf or the Sir Norman Foster's Swiss Re building at London Bridge) elevation is on the rise in other places, which is riling many folks in the capital used to the centuries of horizontality.

Just like how that the lighted cube building near the White House (sorry, I am having trouble locating an article or a link to that building at 16th and I streets NW with the roof ornament that changes color at night) has agitated some Washingtonian purists, a nearly 50-story building -- the Vauxhall Tower, seen here -- was approved by John Prescott, the United Kingdom's deputy prime minister for planning, for a spot nearby the Houses of Parliament and caused outrage.

The past policy for London's planning was to spread skyscrapers out across the capital and avoid clusters of high density. But Prescott's "controversial decision rips holes through the conservatism of decades." In an increasingly crowded British capital, additional taller buildings will be making their mark on the skyline in the years to come and Londoners and residents of other cities. (Can you believe that a place like Edinburgh, Scotland, is considering how skyscrapers could fit into its ancient skyline?)

As McGhie writes:
The British, for so long huddled in terraces, wedded to front doors and lawns to mow, have belatedly discovered that vertiginous views are a good swap. Living close to the clouds in now considered thrilling and the mile-high club is the one to join.
THE INTERESTING QUESTION HERE is whether Washington would ever tweak its height limit regulations to accommodate taller buildings, even if they would be just five stories taller than what's currently allowed. D.C.'s monumental skyline is a sacred one, but as every available piece of land is consumed by office or residential development in the District's core, how will the American capital accommodate its growth in the decades to come?

This also speaks to a larger issue. Washington has for decades been largely afraid to try daring and progressive architecture, satisfied to keep to buildings that are either unassuming or are a direct reflection of the city's classical revival past. As the world continues to press forward architecturally, will Washington be content to keep the status quo? Will Washington ever dare to try a different formula, or simply experiment with its current architectural equation? That doesn't mean having a skyscraper competing with the Washington Monument, but it could mean having newer structures that challenge the skyline in different and unique ways, ways we can’t even envision right now.

>> "From Rock Bottom to Sky High" [Financial Times, subsc.]

Sunday, November 20, 2005

CAPITOL HILL: Mr. Abramoff's 'B-List' Movie Career

ACCORDING TO THE CONGRESSIONAL SCANDAL FORECAST in Sunday's New York Times, it seems like in the coming year, corruption investigations could "end up costing several lawmakers their careers, if not their freedom." The Justice Department has signaled recently that the Jack Abramoff corruption inquiry could very well turn in the direction of specific members of Congress.

When I was at Roll Call, there were plenty of articles written over the past few years that shed light on various aspects of Mr. Abramoff, the now-scorned Republican lobbyist and fundraiser, and his sphere of influence on K Street and on Capitol Hill. In the past year, additional investigations by the media, Congress and federal prosecutors have been filling in more details and connecting more dots.

While I knew that Mr. Abramoff was a jack-of-all trades (lobbyist, restaurateur, deli owner, Jewish philanthropist), I never knew that Mr. Abramoff had a brief stint in Hollywood, writing and producing a pair of movies.

According to IMDB, Mr. Abramoff wrote and produced "Red Scorpion" (1989), which has the description:
He's a human killing machine. Taught to stalk. Trained to kill. Programmed to destroy. He's played by their rules... Until now."
Apparently it involves a Russian KGB agent who's sent to Africa to kill an anti-Communist black revolutionary. The guy has a "change of heart when he sees how the Russians and their Cuban allies are killing and repressing the locals, so he switches sides and helps the rebels."

But wait, there's more. Mr. Abramoff was the executive producer of "Red Scorpion 2."

From IMDB:
An elite group of "soldiers" are assigned the job of infultrating a right-wing militia group. ... The right wingers have a heavily guarded camp, and are about to launch a nationwide campaign of violent action.
Maybe I'll be able to rent those two movies when I'm home for Thanksgiving.

>> "Corruption Inquiry Threatens to Ensnare Lawmakers" [The New York Times]
>> Jack Abramoff [Wikipedia]
>> "Red Scorpion" [IMDB]
>> "Red Scorpion 2" [IMDB]

TRANSIT: An Air of Deceptive Safety on Metro

WHEN WE RIDE METRORAIL, we think that we're riding a very safe form of public transportation, free (for the most part) of crime. After reading today's analysis of Metro crime statistics by Lena H. Sun and Lyndsey Layton in today's Washington Post, that assumption may change. It is still safe to assume that we ride a public transit system that is safer that others around the country, but as the article notes, "Metro transit officials undercount serious crime at the region's 86 rail stations, leaving dozens of assaults, robberies and other major incidents off the official tally they report to the system's board of directors and the public."

Why is that so? Metro has had a long-standing policy to not report crimes at its Metrorail stations that were handled by an outside jurisdiction, e.g. D.C.'s Metropolitan Police, Montgomery County Police. As you can imagine, members of Metro's board are angry because Metrorail's low crime rate now seems to be resting on a foundation of misleading statistics.

NOW WHAT ABOUT THAT ROVING BAND OF TEENAGE GIRLS that has been assaulting riders on the Red Line? Now that's a crime the Metro Transit Police has been forced to deal with, and in the local blogging world, the account of one Red Line rider has been making its rounds, causing quite a stir regarding Metro's response to crimes that are in progress.

The situation involves the victim being robbed by a group of teenage girls of her iPod, following the girls from train car to train car as she's desperatly trying to find help, either from train operators (who slammed train doors on the victim repeatedly when she was waiting for help), station managers or the Metro Transit Police. (Passengers on the Red Line did nothing to come to this rider's aid, it should be noted.)

From passages from Thoughts on Metro:
[The transit police officer] said, rather than calling 911 or to use the emergency intercom to speak with the drivers, that I should call Metro Police directly. Why are the emergency intercoms there if the drivers don’t stop the trains for emergencies? Why is the Metro Police number not written up on the wall and in BIG NUMBERS in every car, for victims to call? Why can’t DC Police respond if they are closer?


I am sorry if it may be momentarily inconvenient for public transit, but in the bigger picture, safety comes first. Crimes are reported, trains should stop, police should arrive. That is the least that should be expected. Victims should not be ignored on emergency intercoms, victims should not be slammed repeatedly in train doors, when drivers have been informed of the situation. If trains are not stopped to wait for metro police, because Metro does not want extensive delays to transportation--well then maybe that highlights the fact that responses to emergencies and crimes are too long. And if station managers can not mangage to manage security incidents in their stations, I wonder what it is they are really there to manage at all.


If station managers are too intimidated to leave their booths, and answer a lone woman's calls for help from a group attack, then someone else who has authority to not be afraid should be there. Station managers themselves should not have to attend jobs that they fear.
A fascinating read.

>> "At Metro, Some Crimes Don't Count" [The Washington Post]
>> "What Happened Thursday" [Thoughts on Metro]