January 2010

Posted by Ellen

Neely and Damon were married on New Year's Day, 2010, in Tuscaloosa. The cake decorations are just what they look like: American childhood delicacies.

Posted by Ellen

The old Eastland Hotel in downtown Portland has a lot of windows and a lot of bricks.

Posted by Ellen

In April 1947, this photo led off a Coronet magazine spread on taces of people accused of murder and other crimes.. "For men who break or ignore the law, there is no hiding place, no turning back," according to the caption. "His hands eloquently expressing self-pity, this man confessed to killing two people. 'I wish I'd kept still,' he said."

Other photos and captions from the piece are posted here. H/t to John Stein.
 

Posted by Ellen

On the roof of the little house in the middle of this Amsterdam canal-side scene is a sign that reads "Coffee Shop 36." It's a marijuana shop.

Posted by Ellen

Carol and Sandy Fuchs spent a week in  northern Sweden recently, including New Year's at the Ice Hotel near Kiruna, about 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The sun never rose above the horizon the whole time they were up there, though the dark of night faded into a sort of twilight for a few hours in the middle of each day.

They tried dogsledding and snowmobiling and visited with reindeer herders. The town of Kiruna is a thriving iron-mining center, where the hundred-year-old mine is nowhere near played out; it is currently expanding closer and closer to the town, which is gradually being relocated to escape the blasting and other mine activity.

The basic structure of the Ice Hotel is made of snow; in November each year, snowguns spray artifical snow over arched metal forms, which are removed after a couple of days, leaving igloo-like tunnels. Interior walls are made of two-ton ice blocks cut from the Torne River and returned to the river when the place starts to melt in April or May. The ice is cut in March and stored for the next winter's construction.

Beds are platforms of ice and snow covered with reindeer hides. Guests sleep in sleeping bags. There are ice sculptures and specially carved ice chairs and tables in the rooms, but according to Carol guests don't usually spend much time lolling about in chairs made of ice. Although she slept well, she reports that Sandy hardly slept at all; he was worried that if he relaxed and closed his eyes, he'd freeze to death and never wake up. The room temperature was about minus 5 Celsius, or 23 degrees Fahrenheit.

The hotel has an ice bar, where drinks are served in glasses made of ice. There's also a restaurant, which serves hot food on regular dishes, in front of a blazing fire.

I'm thinking that part of the rationale for a winter vacation in Arctic Sweden is that it must feel pretty good when you leave; wherever you spend the rest of your winter, even if it's in what you normally consider a fairly wintry sort of place, must seem bright and sunny and maybe even toasty by comparison.

Posted by Ellen

Shoveling snow with Buddha
by Billy Collins

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over the mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm and slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling,
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside the generous pocket of his silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck,
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

Posted by Ellen

The Waterford crystal over in aisle 12 is going for $30,000. Well, truth is, it's not for sale, but as a piece of crystal it's worth $30,000, and last Saturday, you could get your picture taken with it in front of the Dr. Pepper display as part of a sponsorship deal. The University of Alabama won the crystal football championship trophy last week by beating Texas in the Rose Bowl, and first thing they did was put the trophy on display over at the Wal-Mart SuperCenter on Skyland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa.

Here are some of the thousands of fans who stood in line to pose with it.

When I first heard that the University of Alabama would be displaying the crystal football in . . . Wal-Mart . . . I was certain my proverbial leg was being proverbially pulled. But google it yourself; it really happened, though spokespeople for the University claim that the Wal-Mart tour was not their idea. I guess I've just been gone from Tuscaloosa for way too long.
 

Posted by Ellen

 When they built the Grand Trunk line from Portland to Montreal in the early 1850s, they had to figure out a way over or around the White Mountains in New Hampshire. They ran the tracks up the Androscoggin River valley past the tiny village of Gorham, just eight miles north of 6,200-foot Mount Washington. Gorham became the railroad maintenance and service center, and this late-nineteenth-century birdseye view of Gorham shows the extensive railroad yards developed there.

Anyone who has been to Gorham, however, will notice something a little odd about this image of the place. The mountains in the background look low and unprepossessing, just some handsome, rolling topography off in the distance. Actually, they loom crazy big over the town, with Mount Washington in particular filling the sky and dominating the view almost like an Alp. Gorham is less than 800 feet above sea level; the peak of Mount Washington is more than a mile higher. Perhaps the artist (and/or his patrons in town) feared that big mountains might scare people away from Gorham. Gentle country would look more hospitable.

But the railroad that created Gorham eventually brought tourists to the hills, and today the town survives as a jumping-off point for vacationers in the White Mountains. An artist publishing a twenty-first-century birdseye view of the town would probably want to emphasize the mountains, maybe even drawing them bigger and steeper and closer than they really are. Wild, dramatic country is what the people want nowadays.

Trains don't stop here any more, but there is a railroad museum.

Posted by Ellen

The Grand Trunk Line went bankrupt in 1920. Cost overruns on its expansion to the West Coast stressed the company, and its route planning out west proved unfortunate, too far north to compete with the fledgling Canadian National Railroad, which eventually absorbed it. The Grand Trunk's U.S. lines were assigned to a holding company that used the Grand Trunk name, but they too declined and faded in the mid-twentieth century along with the railroad industry in general.

The Grand Trunk station in Portland, on India Street near the waterfront, was demolished in 1948.  These pictures actually show a different Portland train station, Union Station on Congress Street near St. John Street, which handled southbound passengers and freight. Union Station opened in 1911 and was demolished in the1960s to make way for the I-295 highway.

Portland lost an elegant building that day--the current Amtrak station is basically just a corner of the bus station lobby--but by all accounts, the destruction awakened people to the importance of historic preservation. And though it couldn't have been foreseen in the 1960s, when urban renewal was thought to lead to future glory for America's cities, Portland's old buildings and cobblestone streets have turned out to be what saved this town--people have learned to make money off of "quaint."

 

Posted by Ellen

The first big railroad operation in the world was the Grand Trunk, a Canadian company that started up in 1852 with a line from Portland, Maine, to Montreal, Quebec. It is hard to fathom today why anybody would invest money in rail transportation between Portland and Montreal--the two cities nowadays have little to do with one another, and there is little travel or freight transport between them.

Back in 1852, however, both cities were important ports. Montreal, which sits closer to Europe than any U.S. port,  was a major terminal for trans-Atlantic shipping. Portland supplied lumber to the world and was the northern terminus of coastal U.S. shipping routes.

And back when railroad technology was a newfangled thing of uncertain commercial value, trains were initially imagined as a means of extending sea transport. A train could load up in the port of Montreal with European goods and deliver them to the port in Portland, from which they could be sent by ship to any of the fast-growing markets in cities along the eastern seaboard of the United States.

The Canadians who thought up this scheme became wealthy men. They eventually expanded the Grand Trunk to Toronto, Chicago, and points west, and they added a second New England line down through Vermont. Within a couple of decades, imitations of the Grand Trunk Line had been built all over North America, stitching the continent together with railroads.

This picture shows the port of Montreal around the time the railroads were starting up. Today, Montreal is the busiest container port in the world and also handles grain and other products from central Canada and the midwestern United States. Most of the grain still gets to the port by train.

Portland's port handles more tourists than anything else these days, though South Portland remains active as a terminal for Mideast oil shipped to the United States. The oil is pumped from tankers into a pipeline that closely follows the old Grand Trunk route up to Montreal, where it is refined to make gasoline and other petroleum products.