Electricity in the Cities

Cities fascinate me; it’s probably the result of growing up in suburban North Carolina. Philadelphia was a primary reason I chose to come to Swarthmore, the school provided an idyllic and tranquil suburban campus with easy access to the benefits of a large city. Those benefits have become relatively trivial for me, I basically only go into the city to buy records or to watch arthouse films now, but it’s nice to have those opportunities at least, certainly better than going to some remote school such as Williams.

Probably my favorite part of the cities is the public transportation. Even as a young kid, I was always fascinated by trains, subways, buses, and other forms of transport; on visits to Washington DC, I would want to ride to subway just for fun, with no particular destination in mind. On the train ride into Philadelphia this morning, I started to wonder what drove that interest. What made a train so radically different from a car? I think it may have something to do with the human aspect; for some reason I love the idea of riding a cold, soulless machine that will transport me across a city. Obviously that’s not entirely accurate, as there have to be brakemen, engineers, conductors, and track operators to ensure that the train runs along smoothly. But that human element is certainly far more removed on a train than in a car. That still doesn’t entirely answer my question of why I like public transportation, specifically why I would prefer getting a ride from a piece of machinery rather than from a human, but it’s a start. Doesn’t entirely explain buses either, but I will admit that I vastly prefer subways and trains to buses. I know, it makes no sense.

I guess the other aspect of cities I really enjoy is the people-watching. There really aren’t enough characters in the suburbs, everyone is just a typical middle-class family working office jobs and sending their kids to school, just like in the ’50s. When you venture into the downtown portions of the cities in my area, all that’s really there are businessmen and city government workers. I feel like in the South, all the true characters ride around in the rural areas, waving their confederate flags and hunting quail, whereas in the North all the characters are in the city, with a much higher concentration and density.

Just getting off the train at Market East Station, a middle-school aged kid strode up the stairs with a massive mohawk and at least a dozen chains jangling from various articles of clothing and piercings on his body, accompanied by his relatively normal-looking parents. A white-haired 60-year old man walked by, with blue jeans hiked up all the way, and a vintage black Ramones t-shirt. A pair of 30-year old twins wearing identical Sufjan Stevens shirts passed me on the street. Those are sights that I would never dream of witnessing down in North Carolina, but do denizens of the northern cities become accustomed to such encounters? I’m incredulous that it could even be a possibility. At AKA Music, my favorite record shop in the world, the cashier was having trouble swiping my debit card through his machine, and he began to grow increasingly frustrated. The swipes became faster, harder, stronger, and he seemed to become genuinely furious at my card. On the final two swipes, he slammed the card through the machine so hard that it flew out of his hand and calmly fluttered back behind the counter. For some reason, it finally worked on the last try. I feel like this would never happen in North Carolina, there’s just too much patience and Southern hospitality, and so I was fascinated by the display put on by this indie record store clerk.

As usual, I came into the city this weekend with the intent of purchasing records, not for myself this time around, but for the radio station, which didn’t receive a few crucial records from their respective labels over the summer. That objective was quickly accomplished, and so I killed time by browsing the used bins to find some little gems for myself. For some reason, today was an unbelievably exceptional day in the used bin, and somehow I emerged with eleven albums, with an average cost of around five dollars per record. My mom would probably be thrilled to learn that I was saving so much money, but really I’m just cheap. If a three hundred dollar box set was on sale for thirty bucks, I probably wouldn’t take it. I’m more concerned about the final price than I am about the discount.

Here’s what I scored for myself:

  • Elvis Costello – My Aim is True | 4.99 | retail: 18.98 |74% savings
  • Decemberists – The Tain EP | 5.99 | r: 9.99 | 40%
  • Bob Dylan – Bringing it All Back Home | 2.99 | r: 11.98 | 75%
  • Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde | 8.99 | r: 13.98 | 36%
  • Pavement – Spit on a Stranger EP | 0.99 | r: out of print
  • R.E.M. – Out of Time | 0.99 | r: 13.98 | 93%
  • R.E.M. – Automatic for the People | 0.99 | r: 13.98 | 93%
  • Secret Mommy – Hawaii 5.0 EP | 0.99 | r: 8.50 | 88%
  • Talking Heads – Fear of Music (DualDisc) | 8.99 | unavailable outside of boxset
  • Talking Heads – Remain in Light (DualDisc) | 8.99 | unavailable outside of boxset
  • Talking Heads – Speaking in Tongues (DualDisc) | 8.99 | unavailable outside of boxset

So far, the Secret Mommy EP was pretty aimless and forgettable, My Aim is True was pretty derivative and wasn’t as catchy as I expected (I’m sure that opinion will change in time), while Bringing it All Back Home is completely destroying me, it’s not as cohesive and consistent as Blonde on Blonde but some of the songs are a lot better, ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (obviously) in particular. I have to say that I’m incredibly excited about the Talking Heads purchases, I had kinda planned on slowly purchasing each album one by one in chronological order, but I couldn’t pass up this kind of deal. I will be spending a lot of quality time with these records.

Back on campus, Meg was clever and nice enough to post a Crum Woods Sightings Board outside the Bio department office, enabling college students and staff to share any cool experiences in the Crum. Professor Hiebert Burch sighted a Bald Eagle soaring behind Martin one evening, which was unbelievable.

Not to be outdone, I climbed up onto the Parrish fire escape the next morning, trying to catch the peak of Broad-winged Hawk migration. Over a thousand had been seen in Media the day before, so I felt like my chances were pretty good. Apparently I forgot that hawks require warm thermals to soar in the air, and said thermals don’t form until much later in the day as the temperature rises, so I didn’t see any hawks that morning. Looking at my watch, I had about 20 minutes until my Genetics test, so I thought I’d head over to the Science Center Coffee Bar, grab a cup of coffee, and sit down for the exam.

And that’s when I discovered that the fire escape door didn’t have a handle on the outside. So I was locked on the fire escape.

I panicked. I was trapped sixty feet in the air, with no escape routes, with an important test in 20 minutes, with no cellphone, and nobody inside to open the door for me. I thought about punching through a window and scrambling back in. I tried picking the doorlock, but even then I had no way of actually opening it, so no luck. I thought about ramming through the door with brute force. I even briefly considered climbing down the side of the building, Spiderman-style. The birds flying all around me mocked me with their wings. I had a test in 10 minutes, and I was completely trapped. Finally, I noticed a woman walking on the ground far below, so I yelled to try and capture her attention. She looked up, so I explained my situation. She didn’t respond at all, just slowly walked into the building. My only hope, and it’s gone! I have a test in 10 minutes! #$#)@!)(#@%$#@()!!!!!!!1!!!!1111

Fortunately, I heard the elevator doors open, and a few seconds later the woman emerged through the fire escape door and let me back in. I thanked her profusely, but she seemed sleepy and utterly confused as to what I was doing on a fire escape so early in the morning, so I thanked her one last time and ran to the lecture hall for my test. Which I felt I did pretty well on, thankfully, but it was an absolutely bizarre way to start the day. If I ever go up there again, and that’s a big if, I’ll certainly remember to prop the door open.

Later that afternoon, I ventured into Crum Meadow for one final attempt at catching some hawks. All I saw was a lone juvenile Red-tailed, but as I started to head back I saw a small gray bird foraging in the knotweed. Snapping it into my binoculars, it was immediately apparent that this was a flycatcher, just based on structure and habits. But what kind of flycatcher?

I ruled out the tyrant flycatchers and Myiarchus flycatchers by size and shape. I ruled out Eastern Phoebe, as it had an incredibly bold eyering, wingbars, and the wing feathers were well-defined. I ruled out Eastern Wood-Pewee, as there was no dark vest on its chest, only a faint yellow wash on the belly, and a white breast.

So that left me with the Empidonax flycatchers. This was a very gray bird, with a short bill, ruling out the common Acadian Flycatcher and the possibility of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. That left Willow/Alder, and Least Flycatchers. Again, I was struck by the incredibly bold eyering, the small bill, and the flat head. That led me to Least Flycatcher, a life bird, and a bird that doesn’t even appear on the offical Crum Woods checklist! Strangely, it is mentioned in Pulcinella’s Delaware County guide as occuring in the Meadow during migration, but that possibility, along with many others, are contested by the school’s observational records. Despite this, I’m about 95% sure that this was a Least Flycatcher, an exciting finding to be sure.

Combine all this with my recently sprained ankle, suffered during a soccer exercise, and last night’s successful WSRN party, and we’ve got an unusually eventful week for me. But I’m not one for drama, so here’s to hoping that the next few weeks bring more tranquility, more peace, and less work.

But, more links:


2 responses to “Electricity in the Cities

  1. ooh! you mean to say you got vinyl? you have a turntable? Man, dylan and REM on vinyl must be delicious.

  2. Nah, by ‘record’ I usually mean ‘album’. I just got them on CD.

    I don’t have a turntable, and in fact I’m not sure I even saw one until I got to Swat. I’m not sure if owning a turntable would make me an elitist hipster to be derided, or a Real Music Fan. So I’ve decided to just avoid the situation entirely.

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