среда, 4 июня 2008 г.

Metromantics in tunnel of love

IF you thought that the underground was a dark web of tunnels for crowded trains transporting passengers in cold anonymity, think again. It is a place of romance and excitement, of contact and communication -- a vibrant, subterranean world of life-defining exchanges.

Love is flourishing on the Parisian Metro according to a study by the Paris Transport Authority -- and researchers believe the same is probably true on other underground systems, including London's.

The survey found that the majority of internet messages posted by Parisians seeking a beautiful stranger whose path they had crossed stemmed from a look, a smile or a conversation on the Metro.

Encounters in museums, parks, cafes or on the street were far less likely to produce passion.

A second study commissioned by transport chiefs in Paris showed that 12 per cent of Parisians had struck up a lasting relationship, as friends or lovers, with someone they met for the first time on the underground.

Transport executives now envisage platform cafes where the flirtatious can continue their conversations, or mobile web services to enable passengers to search for a soulmate.

``The Metro is not the emotional desert, the social vacuum, that we sometimes believe it to be,'' said Georges Amar, head of the authority's conception and innovation department. It was an environment that induced ``love at first sight'', he claimed.

``The person who has never seen the women (or man) of their life disappear from a carriage as the doors close can never have taken the Metro. I don't see why it wouldn't be the same in London,'' Mr Amar said.

The comments were made after the publication of L'Amour Mobile, a Paris Transport Authority survey of 600 internet messages. ``The Metro is without doubt the foremost producer of urban tales about falling in love,'' Frank Beau, the author of the study, wrote.

More than 80 per cent of the messages were from underground passengers, typically aged between 18 and 25, and divided almost equally between men and women. They were often reading books or listening to iPods -- activities which, far from isolating travellers, seem to unite them.

Romantic tension ran high because of the physical proximity of passengers, according to Mr Beau. In such circumstances the slightest contact -- a glance, a word, a jacket brushing against your shoulder -- becomes an ``extraordinary experience'', he said, adding that the folding seats by the doors were the best spot for romantic encounters.

Mr Amar said the findings of the survey showed the underground could become a ``physical internet'' where strangers met, talked and then moved on.

About the children

About 10 years ago, I created two files that have been growing ever since.

One is labeled "RALPH," which stands for Rosemond's Awfully Ludicrous Parenting Honors. Into it I put true stories that are, as the title indicates, ludicrous, like the story of the 7-year-old boy who took his parents' car and drove to the store to get a box of his favorite cereal. The cereal company rewarded him with a year's supply and a new bicycle. Hello?

The other file, which grows more slowly than the former, is labeled "Parenting at its Best!" It receives stories of parents who have swum righteously against the prevailing parenting tides, often becoming the object of much criticism in the process. The parents in the latter category are role models, as are Billy Bob and Lillian (not their real names), the parents of a sixth-grade boy who decided that he was too cool for school, and the rules were for fools, but who's now singing "Don't be Cruel."

On his latest report card, George (not his real name either) brought home three C's and notes from his teachers indicating he wasn't paying attention in class or working at his full potential. Seems he was spending a good amount of class time drawing cartoons and reading books he found more entertaining than those assigned by his teachers. His parents immediately suspended social events, television, and computer privileges until further notice. They sent a letter to the teachers thanking them for giving them a heads up on George's attitude.

"We have explained to him that the glorious days of elementary school are over and it is now time to buckle down and put forth his best effort," they wrote. "Besides hurting his grades, it is also rude of him to not give you his undivided attention." They closed by assuring the teachers of their full support and asking them to keep them posted concerning any future problems. These days, George can often be found doing hard labor in his parents' rather large yard.

Lillian later told me the teachers seemed genuinely shocked that she and Billy Bob had backed them up so unconditionally and been willing to call their son's rude behavior for exactly what it was. Their shock reflects the sad state into which American parenting, in general, has deteriorated over the past generation or so. Once upon a time, when children caused problems for their teachers, their parents lowered the boom at home. That was a guarantee. Parents expected children to pay attention and show respect for teachers and work to their full potential. When children fell short of those standards, "there are no excuses" was the operative proviso.

When today's teachers are so bold to point out problems to parents, they hear all manner of excuses from "he is bored in your class" to "he thinks you don't like him" and all manner of equal ludicrousness in between. Then there's the panoply of supposedly gene-based disorders that prevent children from paying attention and doing their best, the genes of which were mysteriously dormant when I was a child. Teachers also tell me that they report malfeasance on the part of a child at some trepidation because not only do so many parents not support them, but a good number will respond by accusing them of creating the problem in the first place. In short, a child misbehaves and a teacher ends up on the hot seat.

So, Lillian and Billy Bob, you are champions in a time when champions are hard to come by. Thank you from those of us who know that proper parenting makes for a more civil world. (When I checked just before submitting this column, George was finishing the year with four A's and three B's. Yard work was very therapeutic when I was a kid, too.)

The building boom

The building boom on Chattanooga's North Shore hasn't run out of powder.

A three-story building holding apartments and ground-floor commercial space is planned, a developer said Monday.

"A lot of people can't afford condominiums," said John Wise of Wise Construction Co.

Mr. Wise is to start construction on the 15-unit, $1.1 million complex within about two months. The building will go on the site of a closed transmission shop at Cherokee Boulevard and Minor Street.

Rick Lee, the project architect, told the North Shore Design Review Committee on Monday the foundation of the shop wasn't suitable for that building to be incorporated into the new construction.

"A new structure will be built in its place," he said.

Although a rent rate isn't decided, Mr. Wise recently finished apartments on Cherokee Boulevard near Tubby's which have one bedroom units renting for $750 a month and two bedrooms for $950, Mr. Lee said. He said interest there is better than he had hoped.

Mr. Lee said the new apartments will not have the metal outside finish that has drawn fire by some for its look. He said the outside of the new building will be brick and stucco.

The North Shore is undergoing a renaissance with an array of residential projects leading the way.

Among North Shore projects are:

-- One North Shore -- 203 condos

-- BridgeView -- 50 condos and a SunTrust Bank branch

-- Terrace at Frazier -- residential, office, retail and a CARTA garage with 300-plus spaces

-- The Condos at River Street -- 32 units planned at the old Fehn's site.

A pair of developers earlier this year proposed building about 500 condominiums and townhouses on Stringer's Ridge and later scrapped their plans amid concerns of overdevelopment.

Mr. Wise believes some North Shore condos are overpriced.

"Until the prices get lower, there is still a place for apartments," he said.

The new apartments will take up 14,822 square feet, including balconies and stairs, and the building will hold six two-bedroom units and nine one-bedroom units, Mr. Lee said.

He said the developer is looking for a ground-floor tenant for the 2,800 square feet of commercial space

Gay community

Insightful, entertaining and remarkably thorough, despite its breezy 80-minute length, "Out & Proud" (7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Monday and 6 p.m. June 15 on WTTW-Ch. 11) is a compelling history of Chicago's gay community dating back for more than 150 years.

Shrewdly employing the political to peep at the personal, the documentary focuses on a masterfully chosen handful of gay leaders, folks on the front lines of the liberation movement of the '60s, '70s and '80s. It gingerly lets their stories emerge to color and deepen the historical narrative. Like any sweeping history, this one has its omissions, such as gay alderman Tom Tunney, nowhere to be heard and seen only in still photos.

But the assembled group graces business, history, the arts and politics: Chuck Renslow, a groundbreaking entrepreneur; Jim Flint, who launched the Baton show lounge and played a role in gay sports; Art Johnston, co-founder of Sidetrack video bar and key player in the battle for various rights ordinances; Renae Ogletree, who helped bring the Gay Games to Chicago; and choreographer Joel Hall, witty and forceful on the complex experiences of gays and people of color.

Produced with the Chicago Historical Society, the documentary boasts still images glimpsing gay life in the secretive years of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, including a short look at Jane Addams and her close association with Mary Rozet Smith.

But the most moving testimony explores political struggles and AIDS, including the fearless, angry, in-your-face heroics of activist Danny Sotomayor. "When he died," Johnston recalls, "a part of us all died," adding that Mayor Richard M. Daley attended his funeral "and gave him the respect of a fallen warrior."

The documentary, co-directed and co-produced by Alexandra Silets and Daniel Andries, carefully divides up focus to include multiple ethnicities and the transgender set. The somewhat unsung role of lesbians during the early AIDS crisis, for instance, gets a welcome mention.

So does the community's flamboyant spirit. "Gay organizations are filled with drama and conflict like you can't believe," historian John D'Emilio notes. "Any gay or lesbian activist who doesn't tell you about how hard it was as well as how exhilarating it was isn't telling the whole truth."

Same old stuff

A Monday morning blaze inside a West Side pool supply company appeared under control until hard-to-reach flames ignited some plastic and rubber products and turned the fire into a three-alarm inferno that poured heavy, acrid smoke deep into the northwest section of the city for much of the afternoon and evening.

At least two Buffalo firefighters were confirmed to have been taken to Erie County Medical Center with smoke inhalation by about 9 p. m. Monday. Several others also were reported to have sought treatment.

The pesky two-alarm blaze broke out just before 11 a. m. on the third floor at Leisure Living, a multibuilding complex perched above the Niagara Thruway at 1130 Niagara St.

Buffalo Fire Commissioner Michael Lombardo said the fire appears to have started in a pool supply area in the southwest corner of the three-story brick warehouse building. The cause was still unknown late Monday. The building formerly housed the Curtis Screw Co.

"When we got here, there were very heavy flames shooting from the third floor of the [back] of the building," Lombardo said. "It was a very tremendous fight for a while."

About 20 employees were evacuated safely. One person originally unaccounted for later turned up unharmed, Lombardo said.

Firefighters met the blaze with an interior attack early on but later, after it became unsafe to continue, were forced to battle the fire from outside the building.

The fire commissioner said the flames were declared "under control" just after noon, but the initial blaze was never extinguished.

A burning area of the building had collapsed and spread into an area containing plastic and rubber pool products. The hard-to-reach flames quickly accelerated into a much larger and dangerous inferno, prompting the third-alarm shortly after 3 p. m.

"It just hit an area that was very flammable and took off very rapidly," said Lombardo. "The fire literally outraced us."

Fed by the collapsed combustibles and the hot-burning plastic and rubber products, as well as a sustained breeze off Lake Erie, the blaze burned uncontrollably and rushed a continuous stream of smoke into the neighborhood, north into Black Rock and beyond.

Numerous pool chemicals on the second floor of the building that fire officials were able to protect in the initial battle became involved in the larger afternoon fire.

Lombardo said the fire did involve some "pool-type" chemicals inside the building, presumably chlorine, that quickly were consumed in the blaze. At several points in the late afternoon hours, a gray-yellow cloud of smoke could be seen billowing into the air.

Fire officials urged residents to stay indoors and keep their windows closed.

The breeze hurt firefighters' efforts to contain the fire, but Lombardo said it also helped push and dissipate the smoke from the scene more efficiently. No official evacuations were reported in the neighborhood.

In all, nine of the city's 19 engine companies and six of nine ladder companies were at the scene along with about 80 firefighters, Lombardo said.

Buffalo police closed traffic on Niagara Street between Lafayette and Fargo avenues throughout the rush hour and into the late evening.

Several West Side residents lined the streets surrounding the blaze to catch a glimpse of the firefighting efforts. Others, like Allison Velez of West Avenue, braved the elements around her home. Velez and her family donned respirator masks when the smoke overtook her neighborhood for much of the late morning and afternoon.

"You couldn't really see anything. Everything was foggy," Velez said. "It was all day. It really stank."

Travel also became an issue into the evening. The northbound section of the Niagara Thruway was shut down about 7:45 p. m. between Porter Avenue and the Scajaquada Expressway as the force of water from the fire hoses started dislodging some of the charred building's brick work. Train travel also was interrupted.

Citizens of Savannah

When John Berendt decided to write a book about Savannah, he told the story of an entire city through the lens of eccentrics and outlandish characters in the orbit of a murder case.

Citizens of Savannah may have complained, but the approach worked so well that "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" spent a record 216 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

In Venice -- a city living, brawling and loving atop 1,200 years of human foibles, the technique makes even more sense. In "The City of Falling Angels," the June Buffalo News Book of the Month, Berendt again coils his story around a great crime.

In January 1996, La Fenice Opera House, a 175-year-old Venice landmark where five of Verdi's operas premiered, was gutted by fire. Three days later, "the air still smelled of charcoal" when Berendt arrived.

Over nearly 400 pages that follow, the author introduces readers to a dozen characters, families and situations that he follows for a chapter as the investigation and civic argument over the Fenice fire rage in the background.

We meet "Venice's leading artist provocateur," Ludovico De Luigi, who calls the fire and its aftermath a perfect slice of Venetian life in a monologue that echoes many of the book's episodes:

"Look what the story offers: a great fire, a cultural calamity, the spectacle of public officials blaming each other, an unseemly rush for the money to rebuild the theater, the satisfaction of a trial with guilty verdicts and jail sentences, the pride of the Fenice's rebirth and an unsolved mystery. Money secretly changing hands. Unnamed culprits hiding in the shadows. It stimulates the imagination, gives people the freedom to make up any scenario they want. What more could anyone ask?"

We meet Archimede Seguso, the patriarch of the 21st generation of a family of Venetian glassmakers, who has a ringside seat on the destruction of the theater, as he waits on his rooftop with a bucket of water to quench flying embers.

Later, in his workshop, the artisan uses all of his skills to portray the night of the inferno in a series of vases still treasured today -- though they're gathering dust as his sons fight over his estate.

There's the tale of Philip and Jane Rylands, a couple who managed to persuade an American heiress to sell the estate of poet Ezra Pound, who ended his long and eventful life in Venice.

To embody the war between man and nature, we meet a cook whose product is talked about around the world -- because it kills rats. Meet Massimo Donadon, the "Rat Man of Treviso," who says he uses curry powder in the rat poison for customers in India and butter to kill the French rodents.

Even if you've begun the book knowing nothing of Venice, you run a substantial risk of becoming enthralled by the end.

How could you not be intrigued by a place where you come across a predawn scene of men netting flocks of pigeons and hustling them away? Inquiring, the author finds that the men are an official, illegal, pigeon reduction squad.

Venice has too many pigeons, which even the Venetian mayor calls the "rats of the sky." But the animal rights activists won't allow an all-out assault.

The smart thing to do would be to limit the pigeons' food supply. But the pigeon-feed vendors in St. Mark's Square sell so many bags of pigeon feed to tourists that all eight of them can pay the equivalent of $150,000 a year to City Hall as a "licensing fee."

How absurd, the author ventures to Venice's "director of animal affairs," Dr. Mario Scattolin.

"It's worse than absurd," said Dr. Scattolin. "It's contradictory, hypocritical, irresponsible, dangerous, dishonest, corrupt, unfair and completely mad." He leaned back in his chair. "Welcome to Venice."

Summer camps

Generation X's seminal event? Summer camp.

"Summer camp is really the story of our generation -- who we are and how we got this way," said Roger Bennett, co-author of "Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies" (Crown, $24.95). The book is a collection of camp photos, memorabilia and memories from Gen Xers around the country.

Bennett, who brought us the 2005 bestseller "Bar Mitzvah Disco," is one of two authors this summer mining food fights, color war and panty raids for material.

"With the 'Bar Mitzvah' book, it was exploring how one night, boys and girls are arbitrarily told they are men and women and they go through the agony in front of all their friends and family," he said. "The camp experience is the next logical step. It's where kids come of age with their parents taken out of the equation."

Swampscott native Jamie Denbo, 34, couldn't resist sharing her summer stories to "Camp Camp."

"I submitted my photos because I have a lot of them, and that's just way too much documentation of big bangs and Esprit clothing to be in a house alone," said Denbo, an actress who lives in Los Angeles. "Blame the Kodak disc camera for the terrible exposure."

Bennett, 37, who received more than 80,000 submissions for "Camp Camp," said he was struck by the "sheer scale and size" of the audience who wanted to relive summer camp.

"On the surface, these are seemingly content accountants, doctors, professionals," he said. "But inside, they are waiting for the color war cannon to go off."

Of course, not everyone has warm and fuzzy memories of camp. Author Stephanie Klein's camp experience had all the typical summer fare -- fight songs, swim tests, daddy long legs clinging to the shower stall -- but there was one big difference: She was there to lose weight.

"It was just like any camp where you'd go camping and hiking up this big hill called Blueberry Hill," said Klein, author of "Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp" (William Morrow, $24.95). "The difference was all we wanted to do was eat the blueberries."

Klein, who spent four summers at weight-loss camp, said writing about camp and body image was therapeutic.

"It's not a weight loss memoir about trying different diets or losing half my body weight," she said. "It's about an adult trying to deal with overcoming a childhood defined by weight loss."

Bennett, a native of Liverpool, England, who went to Camp Kingswood in Maine, said whatever Gen X's camp memories might be, they should be cherished, because the simpler era of bug juice and first kisses is over.

"Camp has evolved," he said. "It's much more niched than ever. Kids go for a shorter period and thanks to the Internet, parents are way more involved in day-to-day lives."