Another installment in my continuing adventures and observations experienced abroad.
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Yet another cab drives by, filled with passengers. For close to 30 minutes now, my companion and I have tried to hail one of our own. All the taxis in the lower east side seem to be engaged. I wonder where the fares are grabbing these cabs. My companion drops their raised arm, dejected.
My business partner hates cars. When forced to, he drives his dutiful, late model blue Ford Focus. He asserts that [I’m paraphrasing] public transportation — especially light rail — is crucial to any successful, properly functioning society. And the most efficient form of travel. For him it’s rail or nothing.
I ponder that concept as I attempt to hail a cab in the freezing drizzle. From where I stand, any form of transportation would be an improvement over my current situation. Earlier this morning, I was informed that I might experience “an inconvenience” commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Spring repairs on some of the subway lines are taking place this weekend. And by afternoon, I fully absorb the magnitude of the inconvenience. Apparently, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority has closed virtually every accessible train into and out of Manhattan … from almost every outer-lying borough for the entire weekend. This initiates a domino effect including a 45-minute hike across town, only to be greeted by more non-operating service lines. Culminating in my current half-hour, ran-soaked wait for a cab. It’s as if everyone in the world has a ride but us.
As I slowly walk in reverse up the street, eyeing the flow of traffic for a reciprocal acknowledgement from a passing cabbie, I begin to question the veracity of my business partner’s pro-rail assertion. Although cars are experiencing an economically challenged existence due to rising gas prices, it seems they are the ultimate fallback for all developed societies. Properly functioning or not.
While some groups might advocate the automobile going the way of its horse- drawn ancestors, I wonder if championing a complete dismissal is jumping the metaphoric gun. As one man I knew was fond of saying: perhaps it’s an “and” not an “or.” It might make more sense to focus, by region, on how to best utilize available transportation methods.
For example, what if the train systems were shut down, let’s say, for seasonal repair? Walking or biking from your home in Ypsilanti to your job in Ann Arbor in the dead of winter may not be an option. I guess you’d go to your garage and dust off your dutiful automobile, grumbling all the way to your destination — completely oblivious to the irony.
As I think about it, it’s not necessarily the method of transport, but rather the nature of it. Safe, efficient, cost-effective travel is the life-blood of any successful society. But there’s more at stake than simply providing environmentally friendly transportation. To be truly effective, it must allow people to move unencumbered between economic centers as they go about their daily lives.
Thoughts turn to reality as a cab pulls to a stop 10 feet away. My companion and I high-step the puddles using our best Olympic form, but are beaten by a group of middle-aged women who dive in, unaware that anyone else is competing for the ride. The gentleman in me decides not to challenge the photo-finish results.
It’s far colder than I expected and I have not dressed warmly enough for this trip. As I continue to wait, I pull my jacket collar up tightly around my neck and imagine the ideal Southeastern Michigan commuting system:
Next, a high-speed rail system: link the Detroit Metro Airport to key professional, entertainment, residential and retail locations in destinations like downtown Detroit, Royal Oak, Ann Arbor and Birmingham. Tie in outer lying areas over time.
Then, localized transportation system: within outlying urban areas where underground or elevated trains are not practical, provide alternate fuel and electric charter vehicle alternatives. Reduce the number of privately owned vehicles within the city limits.
- First, air travel: tear down the Smith and Berry terminals, and put up something on par with Heathrow’s Terminal 5 -- customer-focused, efficient and serene -- that adjoins McNamara . Stop penalizing the smaller airline fliers with a substandard experience.
I smirk as I consider the magnitude of such an execution. A development and synchronization this complex would seem unlikely in a state that is now gasping for air. I can’t imagine these are high on the list of priorities for the current powers that be. Though such topics should be. Even in partial execution, such a change would benefit the prevailing, disparaged economic landscape.
Another cab stops in front of us. People are climbing out. Perhaps this is the ride. As I climb in, the driver tells me he’s just ending his shift and returning to the garage. I climb back out to continue the hunt.
My companion swears in frustration as the umpteenth cab drives by, numbers dark, back seat filled with fares. A queue is forming on the curb beside us. We’re not the only ones trapped in Manhattan tonight.
Comparatives And Superlatives
Day two in New York City
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I’m sitting in a coffee shop in New York listening to Frank Omura on my iPod. Just beyond the infectious 4/4 rhythms of kicks and snares, I overhear fragments of a nearby conversation. A couple sitting in front of me are discussing visual narrative styles and creative influences. It occurs to me that such a conversation – complete with coffee shop and matching soundtrack -- could just as well be happening in Ann Arbor right now. The contextual differences are slight. Once you strip away the square mileage of Manhattan, add a couple dozen parks and reduce the population by a few million, you end up with a town not unlike Ann Arbor in attitude and influence.
Someone recently told me that the University of Michigan logo, the block M, is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. Apparently, holding its own amidst giants like Apple and Microsoft, and beating out the likes of such consumer juggernauts as Nike. Hard to believe. Such high recognition creates momentum that’s measured geographically. Google cited the gravitational pull of U of M among the reasons for establishing a base of operations within Ann Arbor’s boundaries. Imagine if the University of Michigan had remained in Detroit.
My cell phone vibrates, interrupts that thought and alerts me to an incoming text message. It’s my business partner asking me to research a new investment opportunity. My goal was to purchase a wireless card for my laptop, return directly to Brooklyn, and work from my room. En route, I was swept up by the midday energy of Broadway, and instead opted to find a coffee shop where I can work and people watch. As I sit here, I recall a personal dream turned reality when I finally freed myself of traditional office trappings. And I suddenly miss the option of working in the Arb, which I often do back home. This urban oasis nurtures my best productivity among its broad valleys and secluded nooks. By comparison, Central Park has nothing on the Arb. It’s comparatively flat, less “natural,” and its surrounding skyline does not allow you to completely escape.
Track three dives in with an energetic swell of synth and bass. My head nods a little. A lady standing at the counter notices my patterned movements. I look up, realizing how I must appear. She looks away casually, avoiding accidental eye contact. New Yorkers have a way of watching you without being seen watching you. This is very different from the more affable Midwest sensibility. I guess living amidst so many people … you seek privacy where you can get it. Perhaps it’s why two-thirds of my neighbors are transplants from New York City. One of them -- the patriarch of a nuclear family from midtown Manhattan -- said Michigan is the perfect place to raise children. They are moving to Muskegon this summer.
Track five comes in hard and fast with it’s irresistible popping synth line. I just received an advanced demo of Omura’s unnamed tracks a short while ago and they are easily my favorite this year. Frank Omura is a resident of Ann Arbor. He is part of a large and ever-expanding group of musical artists with international potential who have settled in Ann Arbor for a variety of reasons. Also noteworthy are the many talented artists who claim association with its territory -- even though they may not be native or currently call it their home. For example, Ghostly International’s Tadd Mullinix (who originally hails from Florida) and Matthew Dear (a transplant from Texas who currently resides in New York). These two have achieved near cult-status in the independent electronic music scene, successfully staging crossovers into the mainstream realm right from Ann Arbor’s cozy confines.
Like New York, many of Ann Arbor’s residents are from all over the world. Unlike New York, the broad and varied blend of diverse backgrounds and cultures tastes a bit smoother to the communal palette. It’s as if Ann Arbor’s sense of community is developed without regard to such differences -- rather than because of them. I can personally think of numerous of artists, creatives and intellectuals, from places as disparate as Arizona and Poland, who call Ann Arbor home for just such reasons.
I suppose one could argue that these similarities exist in most places featuring either a thriving economic center or an active university base. And, true, all towns and cities are basically the sum of their residents. That being the case, places like Ann Arbor become much more than the sum of their parts, because the people who choose to reside there are drawn to its core. They come seeking an enriching lifestyle and often find it. And then an even trade takes place, as Ann Arbor’s community is enriched in exchange. That includes people like me. And I take my piece of Ann Arbor everywhere I roam.
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Oh, and by the way, Frank Omura is coming out later this year on Moodgadget, a record label founded in Ann Arbor.
The Discovery at 30,000 Feet
Rather than merely tell a story of how I first discovered Ann Arbor or why I live there, this true-life narrative describes my experiences — a long-time Ann Arborite and weary business traveler — reflecting on the place I call home.
It’s just a short walk from my World Club suite to the Northwest gate at Detroit Metro. I arrive with time to spare. Without much preamble, I’m vouched, debagged and in my seat in first class awaiting takeoff. I rarely travel first class — I fail to see the point, especially on a flight to New York. It’s so short, barely two hours. But a lack of flight options has forced my hand this trip. There are worse fates, I imagine. I will enjoy the extra legroom.
During the boarding sequence, I put on my iPod earbuds and settle into reading a newspaper left by a previous passenger. The paper is a day old, but it has an interesting article about Microsoft’s Vista blunders. The repetition of wholly avoidable multi-million dollar mistakes fascinates me.
A few feet in front of me, there’s a disturbance. I peer over my paper to see a group of three young women, all in their mid to late teens, trying to help one member locate seat 4A. The surrounding travelers point at the seat next to mine. I feign oblivion, pretending to be engrossed in my paper and iPod as the young girl dressed in a pink hooded pullover, fashionably distressed jeans, Nike Dunks and Louis Vuitton luggage approaches. Abashedly, she requests to access her seat. I respectfully oblige. Her friend comes over moments later and gleefully requests that I take care of her, as this is her first flight. My socially polished smile fades as my head fills with images of a panic-stricken teenager -- screeching and grasping at the windows, the seat and me -- using her best William Shatner impression from "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."
Fortunately, no such drama occurs. And the flight passes without incident. In fact, it’s not long before she and I are engaged in friendly banter. Soon we’re talking about our week’s plans and swapping mp3s. I introduce her to Jalyn. She introduces me to an unreleased artist whose name she doesn’t know.
Sitting cross-legged in her flight chair, she explains that this is actually her first commercial flight. Previously, she has flown only on her family’s private plane. She’s 16. She has all the normal teen accoutrements: MacBook, iPod, Blackberry, et al. And she knows nothing about how all this technology works, just that she needs it to work. I show her how to crack her iPod to get to her music. I explain that once you understand how something works, you can make it do almost anything you want.
And that’s what I do for a living; get things (brands, businesses, technology) to do what people want, not the other way around. She, however, seems more fascinated by the fact that she just scored some new music. I conclude that this is the generation and demographic that’s going to make enterprising technologists billionaires many times over. A global population of lifestyle technology-dependant super addicts. Unable to satiate their expensive want for more … or repair it once it’s broken. Apple is clearly on to something.
She goes on to tell me that she’s from Bloomfield Hills, hates Michigan and can’t wait to get out, naming colleges in Los Angeles and Florida among her preferred destinations. I don’t counter her comment. She asks where I’m from. I tell her Ann Arbor. She states that Ann Arbor is cool despite being in Michigan.
I can’t deny that the town possesses an oddly enduring cool factor. Wherever I travel, young and old alike seem to have an indefinable respect for Ann Arbor. The idea of Ann Arbor seems inviting and affecting, since most are willing to agree that it’s a cool place even if they’ve never been there.
I can relate.
Getting my first taste of freedom -- walking, busing and biking around town with my friend as preteens. Far more adventurous than my upper middleclass hometown that boasted no buses … no sidewalks … and nowhere to go. Ann Arbor, however, felt safe, fun and alive — like a massive six-square-mile playground. I practically begged my parents to move us there. It took them several years to realize that my request actually made some sense.
The girl then tells me about her first experience with Ann Arbor that happened not too long ago. Although hers involves fake IDs and bars, a similar sentiment of discovery is there -- even if it’s linked to dubious teen behavior. Despite this twist, the point isn’t lost on me. Her present situation is very similar to how mine once was: young, looking for freedom and a welcomed change of place. Perhaps she will feel drawn to Ann Arbor’s opportunities too. One day, she may find herself begging to try out Ann Arbor. Maybe even attend school there. And perhaps her parents begin to realize the request would benefit them personally as well.