Friday, July 31, 2015

Lazy Weekend

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell does it again with an entertaining and truthful coming of age story of love and life. Eleanor meets Park on her first day at her new high school when Park reluctantly gives up his open seat on the bus.  Over time, her quirkiness starts to intrigue Park as they become friends and more. Meanwhile, both kids battle challenges at home and overcome them with each other's loyalty, support, and understanding.  This is a great young adult story, easy to read on a quiet evening.

Skip This

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

I had high hopes for this book because of the mystery hidden in what seems like an ordinary bookstore.  Secret societies, collecting clues to unravel the codes using modern technologies, and a little romance sounded like a good combination.  Unfortunately, what started out strong just fizzled for me.

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

I am frustrated because I picked up this book based on an Instagram recommendation by Reese Witherspoon, so I shouldn't be surprised when I found out she has the rights to turn it into a movie. Of course she's going to recommend it!  I also should have raised a red flag after seeing it compared to Gillian Flynn because of my minority position of hating "Gone Girl."  As a described psychological thriller...spoiler, it's not.  As a story of a woman reliving a childhood tragedy, actually two tragedies, in a boring way (shooting a documentary film)'s just a lazy narrative about closure. Nonetheless, I read it.  And, I don't recommend it at all.  Flip through some reviews on Goodreads, and I know you will find a lot more people, like me, who feel duped.

Posted on Friday, July 31, 2015 by Julie

1 comment

Thursday, July 30, 2015


I'm a little bit out of sequence on this post, considering I was in NYC a few weeks ago, but with something as historical as Grand Central Terminal, I didn't want to mess up the detail.  There are options for guided tours of GCT, but I opted to go with the official docent led tour provided by GCT itself.  Sometimes, at least I hope, you get what you pay for (since this isn't the cheapest option).  The tours are offered daily at 12:30pm and depart from the Track 29 gate.  It is advised to get a ticket in advance.

Most of the tour time was spent in the great hall explaining the history and the renovations of the building done to restore the interior.  Grand Central Terminal was originally called Grand Central Depot. It was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt who controlled stock in three of the four major railroad lines that served the north and east.  You can still see the names of these lines today above the ticket counter on the schedule boards (now digital).  The location of Grand Central Depot was no fluke.  The early steam driven train engines caused fires from flying embers - clothes, especially womens' skirts, and buildings were all victims - and the soot was intolerable.  The city banned trains below 42nd Street to contain the risks to the less populated areas in North Manhattan.  The Depot opened in 1871 but improvements continued as the railroad owners were forced to respond to resident complaints, which in addition to the fire risks were primarily focused on the traffic caused by the tracks and the disruption getting from the east side of the island to the west.  As a solution, Vanderbilt dug a tunnel from 42nd Street to 97th Street, creating an underground rail network and "paving the way" for Park Avenue.

Grand Central Depot was expanded and renovated in 1901 to meet the demands of growing rail traffic.  This larger building was rechristened Grand Central Station, which lasted for 12 years until it was then renamed Grand Central Terminal when the building grew one more time when it underwent a massive overhaul from steam engines to electricity.  This is the building we get to enjoy today, for practical purposes and its historical beauty, thanks to the preservation efforts of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who was able to get landmark status for the building after it's partner station, Penn Station, was demolished.   If you look closely at the photo above (click to enlarge), you may notice a tiny black rectangle that shares the space of the marble trim and ceiling paint.  The interior of building was cleaned and renovated in the past two decades to remove the effects of over 100 years of soot and cigarette smoke inside.  The cleaning company left this small rectangle as a reminder of how grimy the walls really were.  It is unfathomable how thick the dirt and tar/nicotine appears!  We should feel really lucky that New York City has supported and prioritized the efforts to maintain or return the beauty to its historical buildings.

The main room of the terminal has Tennessee marble for the floors, Botticino marble for the lower side walls, and imitation stone made to look like marble to extend the walls up to meet the curved teal ceiling with its ornate gold leaf constellations.  The ceiling has 2,500 stars, of which 60 are now lit with LED bulbs.  Critics have commented on how the constellations are painted "backwards," but it is correct if you think of it as depicting "God's view" of the stars, or so the story goes.  Potato...Potahto!  You may also notice a small hole that is in the ceiling near Pisces.  It is a souvenir of the time when the Redstone rocket was set up in the concourse and someone mis-measured the height of the ceiling, so a hole had to be cut to accommodate the 1957 vertical display.  The main feature of the terminal's exterior is the giant grouping of Mercury, Minerva, and Hercules huddled over the world's largest Tiffany clock.  I also particularly love all of the exterior iron work and the beaux-arts details from the turn of the 20th century era.

The side hallways of the main concourse are decorated with 10 enormous oval beaux-arts chandeliers that light the south ramps that take you down to the lower levels and the north balcony (restaurant seating and Apple Genius Bar area).  These nickel and gold plated chandeliers, you may think, look like gas chandeliers that were converted, but you would be wrong.  In 1913, these chandeliers each held 110 bare incandescent bulbs that were a novelty in that day.  They have been rewired to be more environmentally friendly in their energy usage today.

In addition to serving as a train terminus, Grand Central Terminal also has many other attractions. The Oyster Bar is an original restaurant from 1913.  The archways just outside the restaurant entry area, at the bottom of the ramps, are known as the Whispering Gallery because if you stand at one corner of the tiled square area, the acoustics will make the sound travel the other side of the 2,000 square foot chamber.  Elevators, up the west ramp from The Oyster Bar, will take you to a public tennis court (reservations required).

Track 35 was a famous track because it was used for the exclusive luxury train called the 20th Century Limited, which served the rich with an express (read: slightly faster) train ride from New York to Chicago from 1907 to 1967. Bob Hope was a frequent traveler on that train.  Track 34 is the "hollywood" track because its lack of columns on the platform makes it easy to shoot scenes, especially if the actor in the film is Fred Astaire, dancing up the platform in "The Band Wagon."  There has to be a reason why I took this photo of Track 42 in particular, but don't be disappointed if in the end it was just because I liked the old brass lighting fixture and stop board. If I'm remembering correctly, however, walk down to the platform of Track 42 to see a great example, for its time, of a modern engineering marvel loop track system below the terminal that made moving the trains around underground a lot more efficient.

The Campbell Apartment, now turned into an early 20th century cocktail lounge that you can experience (in proper dress attire), was once the opulent office of business tycoon John W. Campbell. After business hours, Campbell would often entertain small parties and invite musicians to play on his piano for his friends.  Campbell occupied this space from 1923 to his death in 1957.

There are two places in Grand Central Terminal that this tour is not going to take you.  The first is the "secret" M42 substation that provides all of the electricity for GST.  Separate tours of that exist through other providers that I have seen before, maybe through the MTA Transit Museum.  The second is Track 61 that was once exclusive to the Waldorf Astoria's most famous guests, as it was located under the hotel, and was the platform that President Roosevelt (FDR) was rumored to have used to hide that he needed to be in a wheelchair.

The wide angle photo of the main concourse above was taken from the top of the stairs in front of the East Balcony.  This staircase was not original to the 1913 terminal, but was added as part of the extensive renovations to the building to provide symmetry...and perhaps it was funded by Apple so people to get to their East Balcony store more easily.  Just kidding!

Finally, one more look at the original clock atop the Information Booth.  Each convex face of the lit clock is made out of opal, which lends credibility to the rumor that it is worth $10-20 million.  The acorn atop is actually part of a compass - the acorn, along with other acorns around GCT, is a reference to the Vanderbilt family motto: "From the acorn grows the mighty oak."  Just beneath the clock, inside the information booth, is one of GCT's secret staircases - a spiral staircase inside a hidden door that goes to the lower level information area.

Grand Central Terminal, in its tradition of expanding to meet the demand for train travel, is slated to be an additional home of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) in 2023 as part of the East Side Access project. This will connect 11 branches of the LIRR to the terminal and will ease commuter congestion from Long Island and Queens, while also significantly reducing travel time. This shouldn't impact the historical section of the building except to add more crowds, perhaps.

And that is it. That is all I can remember from my tour!  Quite a lot of information on a fascinating tour of this 102 year old building, with reminders of the past around every corner.  All of this in just 90 minutes, too, so the perfect microadventure in my opinion!

Posted on Thursday, July 30, 2015 by Julie

1 comment

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

I've been hitting the road this summer on weekend day and overnight trips, collecting along the way some more awesome roadside attractions and distractions, including more Muffler Men!  If you are not already a collector of Muffler Men sites, then I suggest you find one near you to see just what I'm talking about.  Roadside America maintains a fantastic comprehensive map of Muffler Men and their friends that makes the search 1000% easier.  The site also serves as my inspiration for other oddities to seek when I am in or plan to be on the road.  One example of a Muffler Man/oddity combo is....

Farhnam Colossi, Unger WV 

Google maps is not your friend when trying to find the Farnham's property.  I started in Berkeley Springs, WV and found Winchester Grade Road easily.  It was suggested that the home was just down the street....nope.  It was actually many miles along the road almost to the border with Virginia.  It may be easier to take Route 694 off of 522.  Regardless, I made it!  And you can't miss it driving by.  Not only do Pam and George have TWO Muffler Men in their yard, but as you can see from these photos, you are treated to a large Ken, a grocery man, a bikini girl, a santa claus, and many more including the Simpsons family riding a mini-rollercoaster.  I was fortunate to meet with George and talk to him briefly.  Our conversation ended because a major line of thunderstorms was about ready to be overhead, and I wanted to get on the road before that happened.

And now onto other Pennsylvania fun sites!!!....

Amish Boy with his Pigs, Strasburg PA

Well, the pigs are cute stuffing their faces.  The amish boy's face is slightly creepy.  This statue is in front of an ice cream shop, fittingly.

Big Amos the Barefoot Amish Man, Strasburg PA

The former mascot of Zinn's Diner, Amos' home is now the Hershey Inn where he stands overlooking the inn's restaurant parking lot.  Unfortunately, he no longer has his best feature.  Apparently when he was in front of Zinn's, he had a speaker that would broadcast Amish jokes - complete with the amish accent.  A true loss.

Shoe House, Hallam PA

Built by the eccentric shoe store chain owner, Colonel Haines, in 1948, the shoe house was a marketing ploy.   It was not a residence, though Haines did allow selected elderly couples to vacation at the shoe for a weekend.  He also allowed newlyweds from his stores to use it as a honeymoon.  I'm not sure I would enjoy either of those scenarios, but here it is....a giant, ugly shoe with stained class windows.  

Johnstown Incline Plane, Johnstown PA

Built in 1890 after the giant flood of 1889, caused by a failed dam 14 miles up river, the incline plane provided transportation for people and vehicles to a new hilltop community.  This is the world's steepest incline rail at 70.9 degrees. Cars and people can still ride the rail today for a small fee, with trams running every 15 minutes.

At the top of the hill, there is a perfect lookout that gives you a perspective of the flood path in 1889, as the water came out of the river valley and spread over Johnstown before hitting the hill on which the rail is situated.

Pied Piper, Schellsburg PA 

This 18 foot pied piper greeted visitors to the Story Land amusement park until it closed in the 1980s. Not only did I like going out of my way to find this guy because of my current obsession with HBO's Silicon Valley show, but it also reminded me of a similar theme park I visited as a kid in Oregon called Enchanted Forest.

Uncle Sam Muffler Man, Rockwood PA

We started with two Muffler Men, and we end with another Muffler Man.  This time, the Muffler Man was dressed in a patriotic Uncle Sam theme.  This man can be found at the Scottyland campground. I'm not going to lie, it's an odd place and more of an RV park for permanent residents than campground. This Muffler Man has apparently been living there since the late 1960s.  You will have to go past the main entrance to the right of the welcome building.  Following that road (not the one with the gate) you should drive up on the guy within a 1/4 mile.

Posted on Tuesday, July 28, 2015 by Julie

1 comment

Monday, July 27, 2015

Continuing on my tour of Eastern U.S. abandoned places over the past few months, this past weekend I spent a morning up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  This town may be familiar to you because of the famous flood of 1889 that killed over 2,200 people and decimated Johnstown and surrounding smaller towns.  After a very heavy rainstorm that dropped 6-10 inches of water in May 1889, the South Fork Dam failed and 20 million tons of water rushed through the valley for 14 miles - collecting debris along the way and creating an up to 60 foot wave of water that traveled at 40 miles per hour - before it crashed into the valley wall opposite Johnstown and carried its force upstream on the Stony Creek River.  Johnstown was already at flood stage from the rainstorms, and this dam water plus the 3 day fire of trapped debris that ensued made the situation catastrophically worse.  The blacksmith shop I photographed was part of the larger Cambria Iron Works.  When the flood hit these buildings, it swept up railroad cars and barbed wire that also wreaked havoc on the town and its people. Fortunately, the Lower Works, where the blacksmith shop is located, received less damage than the rest of the campus.

Cambria Iron Works was founded in 1852 and was one of the best steelmaking facilities in the early years of the industry.  In fact, more notable steelmakers like Bethlehem Steel Company and United States Steel Corporation modeled their operations on Cambria.  Even as other steel companies took share in the industry, Johnstown was still a hub for steel and iron works innovation throughout the 19th century.  The allure of Johnstown for steel and iron factories was the abundant natural resources and the transportation networks that facilitated production and distribution.

The blacksmith shop, as mentioned before, was part of the Lower Works.  Other shops on this campus included a carpenter shop and machine shop.  Original construction of the main octagonal structure for the blacksmith shop finished in 1864, with additional wings completed in the 1870s and 1880s.  All machines and furnaces are original turn of the century or earlier items, including a giant ten-ton steam powered hammer. Other forging and smithing tools from the era remain in the building as well. Cambria Iron Works and subsequent owners churned out rails for western railroad tracks, plates, girders, axles, and other steel structural items over the 140 years of operation.  The blacksmith shop was officially closed by its last owner, Bethlehem Steel, in 1992.   Hopefully these photos will give you a walk through history, without having to experience what I have to imagine was the unbearable heat within these brick walls during the years of peak production at the Cambria Iron Works!

A view of Cambria Iron Works' Lower Works campus, with the original octagonal blacksmith shop and rectangular addition in the center of the building cluster.

Posted on Monday, July 27, 2015 by Julie