You Need Big Props for Security Theater

April 18, 2011

Giant backpackThis gigantic backpack recently appeared at the Alewife MBTA station .  It’s part of the “If you see something, say something” campaign sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and the T.

I’d be very interested to hear of any terrorist acts actually brought to light by the campaign, but I suspect all it really is is another way for the government’s fear machine to justify its ongoing existence.  However, the program may not be a complete waste of taxpayer money.  Maybe more lost items end up turned in and returned to their owners?

At least this display is entertaining, and it’s nowhere near as dangerous as the security theater production I saw on New Year’s Eve.

And now there’s finally a backpack I can use if I ever want to carry a king-sized bed when we go camping.

Can I use my Charlie Card?

December 5, 2010

At the Alewife T station the other day, I  noticed that the MBTA has found another way to market us to our corporate masters.  They’ve allowed Best Buy to add a Best Buy Express kiosk at the station (there’s also one at Forest Hills).

That means that if you’re riding public transit around the city and you need an iPod or a video camera RIGHT NOW!, you can get one.  Of course, it’s useless until you charge it so instant access isn’t terribly useful, but whatever.

The sad thing is that Best Buy isn’t paying for the privilege.  Instead, the MBTA gets 7% of the gross profits, if any.  C’mon, guys.  If you’re going to sell off our public spaces, you should at least make sure we get something for it.

A Tasty, Tasty Mess

July 24, 2010

Ruth and I went on a T adventure today, walking and T’ing in a big loop on the southern side of town.  Along the way, I took her  to Roxbury for her first Speed Dog.

We biked to Alewife, and took the Red Line from Alewife to Andrew Station.  On the way out, we met the world’s shortest, happiest commuter.

From Andrew, we walked to the industrial wasteland of Newmarket Square where “Boston Speed’s” Hot Dog Wagon was waiting.

We ordered two dogs with the works and drinks.  Gregg slopped on the goods

and we sat in the parking lot to eat.  Ruth was amazed with the opulent dog,

but she dug right in.

Ray wolfed his dog down.

There’s no way to eat a loaded Speed Dog without making a mess.  A tasty, tasty mess.

A handful of napkins and a couple of WetNaps each later, it was time to work off our meal.  We walked down Mass Ave to the Orange Line, took that to Jackson Square in Roxbury, walked down Centre St to the Jamaicaway, through the trees and along the paths to Huntington St, and down Huntington to Fenwood Rd.  There we got on the Green Line’s E Train, took it to Park St, changed back to the Red Line and rode to Alewife.  Then we biked home.

Ruth thought the dogs were worth the trip.  Who wouldn’t? Just look at it.  You want one now, don’t you?

The diet root beer was a futile gesture.

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The T runs on Windows

October 1, 2009

At Part Street, one of the card readers at the turnstiles was down, and the error message showed that the card reader system runs Windows:

Some people would say Windows is why the system was down.  I don’t care what embedded OS they use, but if they’re going to give money to Microsoft, I want to be able to play Solitaire while I’m waiting for a train.

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The Zen of Mass Transit

August 16, 2009

While I had still a job, I started taking the MBTA to work instead of driving.  I had to make the change, but once I did, I realized that there’s a benefit to taking the bus (or train) that isn’t often mentioned.  Riding mass transit is much less stressful than driving.

transitWhen people talk about public transportation, they usually mention the environmental benefits.  Whether or not you as an individual choose to drive or ride the T really doesn’t change the amount of pollution much.  Only if the masses of people make use of the system will there be less pollution. In some cases, when a bus or train is mostly empty, there might actually be more pollution from the old, poorly maintained bus than if those few riders were driving efficient cars instead.

Another benefit of mass transit that people acknowledge is that you can get work done during your commute.  There are some things you can do while commuting, especially if you’re on a commuter train which is usually roomier than a bus or subway car.  But working on the T often limits the kind of work you can do.  And settling down to work can take longer when you’re in a public space that’s not really designed to help you get things done. Mass transit often takes longer than driving, so you may actually be more efficient by driving to work and getting to the office sooner, where you have better tools to help you do everything you need to do.

Neither of these were all that important to me.  I valued speed and the ability to drive when and where I wanted above any green concerns or extra work time.  Then I was forced to start using public transportation when I lost my license.  What I found once I switched was that life was much more pleasant when I didn’t have to battle 65 mile per hour bumper-to-bumper traffic for an hour every day.  Car pooling might save some gas, but it was even more stressful, since I lost what little control I did have over my safety.

My 10 mile commute via the bus took about twice as long as it had when I was driving, but I could spend the time reading, listening to music, napping, or doing some other leisure activity.  I may have spent more time on the trip, but it was almost all extra relaxation time.  I avoided the stress of fighting traffic on the way to work, so I arrived in a better frame of mind.  By the time I finished the trip home, I had already wound down from my job and was ready to enjoy the evening.

I was commuting to the suburbs, but the same benefits would flow from a city commute.  I’d avoid stop-and-go traffic, idiots talking on their cell phone, expensive or non-existent parking, and all the other problems.  I get to see these benefits when I take the T into the city for fun.  Taking mass transit makes it easy for me to enjoy living in relatively quiet Arlington while still having access to all that Boston provides.

railOf course, for this to work there has to be mass transit that is easily accessible and goes where you need to go.  Public transit is always underfunded, and in the current budget crisis, it is feeling the pinch even more.  The pressure is on to cut service to save money.  That’s what they always try, and it’s short sighted.  It hasn’t worked yet, and it never will.  Instead, why not try something different?  If we improve service enough, adding easier access and service at more times, more people will want to use mass transit.  Expand the local systems, and make connections between  cities using efficient high-speed rail.  I’d love to be able to take a comfortable train trip on my vacation, rather than fighting through airports or driving for hours and hours.  It’ll take time and money, but this is something that the government can do that will create jobs, benefit people, and yes, maybe even improve the environment.  And I’ll get to take more naps.

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The Big Three take the T

June 19, 2008

The Big Three take the T

I was on my way to visit the PO at the same time people were streaming in for the Celtics victory parade.  KG and Pierce were together, but for this picture, I had to get Ray Allen from the other end of the car.

In the crowd, the big three dominated.  Every once in awhile I’d see a Rondo or more infrequently one of the others.  I never did find a Perk, let alone a PJ Brown or Big Baby, to make a full team.

ImprovBoston moves to Central Square

January 24, 2008

For 16 years, ImprovBoston has been bringing the funny to Inman Square in Cambridge. Now the improvisational comedy theater group has outgrown their tiny home between Christina’s Ice Cream and All Star Sandwich, so they’re moving up Prospect Street into Central Square.

David Marino, one of the directors at ImprovBoston, says “The new space is going to revolutionize how improv theater is done in Boston. Suddenly, people who never had a venue before will be able to perform.” Dana Jay Bein, who teaches standup comedy at ImprovBoston, says “It’ll offer a lot more opportunities for standup. We’re gonna be making our mark in a much bigger way. People who were moving to NY, Chicago, and LA are jumping the gun. I think Boston’s got a really experimental, fun, young, lively scene.”

The cast at ImprovBoston loves the intimate old theater. Kevin Harrington, co-host of the Sunday night Sgt. Culpepper’s Comedy Jamboree said “I’m gonna miss how fearless I feel performing here, because it’s something that’s so comfortable.” The small, floor level stage, surrounded by seats for about 75 patrons, is backed by a rough brick wall that separates the theater from Christina’s. Michelle McNulty, a member of the TheaterSports troupe at ImprovBoston, says “Even when you’re not getting laughs you hear them breathe. You can feel them pull into you when you’re doing something serious. You can tell they’re into it.” The backstage area, as intern Jennifer Descharme puts it, is “up there and down here and all around. It’s like an ant farm.”

ImprovBoston started their last week at Inman Square and the celebration of their 25th year with a weekend of events showcasing the history of the group. Cast members from the entire stay at Inman came back to perform, topping things off with seven hours of shows on Sunday night that pulled together five or ten minutes from many of the showcase events of years past. Patrick French, part of the Mainstage troupe, was watching the show. “With the guys from the 80s, it’s kind of rewarding. I’ve been amazed and I’ve been touched.” It was a celebration, but also an emotional time as performers got up on the Inman stage for the last time.

But sooner or later, everyone leaves home. The theater in Inman Square has significant limitations. It’s intimate, but the small facility severely limits the size of the audiences that can see any of the shows and the number of shows and other events that can be produced in the theater on a regular basis. The tiny size of the lobby often forces patrons to wait out on the street before shows due to the tiny size of the lobby, Chip Brewer, a former cast member back from Maine to say goodbye says the lobby “gets crowded really quickly with about three people, and I don’t think that projects the kind of welcoming atmosphere you want at a theater like this.” The infrastructure is old, making it difficult to create powerful effects with lighting, sound, or video, let alone keep the toilets unclogged. The bathrooms where the toilets are located are tiny, barely larger than phone booths.

There’s no separate rehearsal space. The green room, where performers prepare before shows, is in a dark, cold, and smelly basement. Andy Ofiesh, MC of the Naked Comedy showcase, says he’ll miss the stench. “Every once in awhile you get the sweet scent of, it’s closest to chicken dung, and that to me is the scent of art.” The ceiling there is so low that many cast members can’t stand up straight. Marcello Illamo, MC of the Sunday night jamboree, pointed out the spot at the bottom of the staircase “where there’s a little bit of blood where David Mogolov split his head open after one of the shows.” Dents in the ceiling caused by wayward heads, or dents in heads caused by too much enthusiasm are common.

The whole building is hot in the summer, so the doors have to be left open to allow air in. Creatures from the back alley sometimes wander through. Kristina Smarz, a member of TheaterSports, remembers working on building sets where “we’re out in the back alley painting and watching rats go by.” It’s also cold in the winter, especially in the green room.

The small size and other limitations of the space, along with some conflicts with area residents who don’t want to share the block with a performance venue, prompted the decision to move. Additional funding was required to finance the change, since as a non-profit organization ImprovBoston does not have a large bankroll stashed away. The ImprovBoston Funny Money Capital Campaign has improvised new ways of generating income, ranging from a 24 hour improv marathon, to selling cream pies to audience members so they can interrupt the show at any time to toss the pie in the face of a performer, down to putting a box in the green room where cast members could toss loose change. Each member of the ImprovBoston community has their own web page to help them solicit donations and track the results. The campaign been much more interesting than a public TV telethon, and it has collected almost $100,000 to defray the expenses of the move.

ImprovBoston has reduced the cost of the move by doing much of the construction work in the new space themselves. Cast members, students, and other volunteers, guided by technical director Dave Totty, have spent weeks clearing out the space and putting up drywall, painting, and doing other basic labor while professionals dealt with the more complicated tasks. Bein, who is also in TheaterSports, was power spraying the ceiling in the Cabaret, the new secondary stage, earlier in the day. He had moved to Inman Square from Brighton to be closer to the theater, but he’s still looking forward to the move. “It’s inspiring to be putting my own effort, blood, sweat, and tears into our new home.”

The location of the new theater will make it much easier for audiences to get to shows. The theater is at 40 Prospect St. in Central Square, just around the corner from Mass Ave and the Central Square T Station on the Red Line. There are parking lots nearby for people who prefer to drive. The theater is near the Irish pub The Field and across the street from the Cambridge Community Television studios. The first show at the new theater is scheduled for February 15th.

Staff working at nearby establishments are happy to see ImprovBoston moving in. Over at Cambridge Community Television, Marissa Acosta, the studio manager, said “It’s good that there’s going to be another arts-oriented venue in Central Square and it’s also fitting that they’ll be right across the street from a community access center, because there might even be some crossover.” ImprovBoston’s Harrington agrees. “Being close to something like CCTV, since we’ve got so much talent, both performers and writers, it’s another toy to play with.”

The new theater is triple the size of the old one, with a dedicated rehearsal space and a clean, roomy green room, where performers meet before shows to prepare. The theater is designed with two stages, a main stage that holds about 100 people and a Cabaret Room that holds 40-45 with seating that can be rearranged to accommodate different kinds of shows.

The lobby is much larger and it contains a bar, which will draw people in and help them unwind and get involved in the show. There’s ample heat and air conditioning to keep everyone comfortable

The new theater will allow ImprovBoston to greatly expand their offerings. ImprovBoston has been presenting shows Wednesday through Sunday nights in Inman Square. They’ve been holding classes on the nights when there were no shows scheduled and on weekends during the day, and scrounging around for rehearsal space. Now they will be able to present multiple performances each night, and run those shows later into the night because there won’t be any residential neighbors upstairs. ImprovBoston will increase the number of classes they present and no longer needs to look elsewhere for rehearsals.

There’s some risk associated with the move. Operating expenses will be higher. But managing director Elyse Schuerman says that the group has a 10 year lease that is fair, and everyone expects that the proximity to the Central Square T station will result in a significant increase in traffic. Michelle Dunnewind-Nathan says “It’s so nice to find something that is so close to the heart of a community.”

Comedy has a long, proud tradition in Inman Square. In the ’60s Jane Curtin of Saturday Night Live fame worked with The Proposition out of a space behind what is now Rosie’s Bakery. The Ding Ho (now Café Ole) was a successful launching pad in the 80s for numerous comic, including Steven Wright and Bobcat Goldthwait.

Now ImprovBoston helping create a new nexus for improv comedy in Central Square. They’re raising the stakes for Bastards Inc., who have been performing Thursday nights in the basement of the Cantab Lounge, and Flaming Awesome, who have been putting on shows at the All Asia. These groups, and others, will be performing in the new ImprovBoston theater. All this is in addition to the vibrant nightlife scene that revolves around the numerous music venues in the area.

Steve Gilbane, who has played music for ImprovBoston since the first show back in Inman in 1991 when it was still the Back Alley Theater, says “Watching the troupe go from having no space at all, to sharing a space, to leasing the space completely themselves, and now moving to a large space and building it themselves, it’s quite a journey.” The crew at ImprovBoston hopes everyone joins them on the journey in Central Square starting February 20th, to help build new memories and have more than a few laughs along the way.


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