Sunday, March 31, 2013

Waste Lands

The darker side of the trip to LunaCon:

'Twas late at night on my second day of travel, after we'd finally gotten out of Texas and were rolling north through Arkansas, and only a few of us in the last car -- and the lounge car -- were awake.

The first thing we noticed was a slight thump under the wheels.  Then the train put its brakes on and stopped.  Then we noticed train attendants getting off and hurrying toward the back of the train with flashlights.  One man who got up to look out the rear window saw "lights, and chunks of meat between the tracks".  Then more train attendants came up into the main passenger section and taped paper over that rear window, with stern warnings not to remove it.  The train stayed parked where it was for three hours, and the only answer we could get out of train attendants was: "There was a slight collision".  Only later, at the stop in Little Rock where the train changed crews and the outgoing crew was willing to talk, did we find out what had really happened.

A man had deliberately run onto the tracks as the train was coming, committing suicide by train.  Of course the engineer had to stop the train and call the nearest sheriff as soon as he saw what had happened, and the sheriff showed up with a sizable posse and the coroner to pick up the "chunks of meat", and the forensics team (I got an image of CSI techs swapping blood off the engine's drive-wheels), and the train was understandably delayed.  One of the attendants added: "Dammit, this is the third time in the last month."

Third suicide-by-train in a month?  Ye gods, what's in the water in Arkansas, anyway?!

I pondered that question while we rolled on through the night, and the only answer I could think of was -- economics.  Arkansas never was one of the richest states in the US, depending mostly on farming and its support industries;  certainly the current Depression must have hit it hard, destroying thousands of jobs and making it hard for businesses to survive.  The state welfare system, never very well-funded, would have broken down early, and stopped taking on any new clients.  Even the soup-kitchens wouldn't be enough to feed all the jobless. It's understandable that jobless people, especially if they couldn't even raise the money to get out of state and job-hunt elsewhere, might get desperate enough to choose a fast death over slow starvation.  ...But then, why should anyone starve in a farming state?  Farmers would be all too willing to swap food for work.

Then the sun came up, and I saw at least part of the answer.  As far as the eye could see from the train were empty fields, fallow land: not planted, not grazed, not even managed as timber-land -- or even wilderness park.  The trees I could see were all second-growth, none more than 20 years old, and mostly leafy softwoods: worthless for anything but making charcoal, or cheap paper at best.  Everything else was weeds and brush.  Yet the soil was good;  it was all dark brown crumbly loam, and well-watered, with small streams everywhere.  As we drew closer to towns I saw some fields that were worked -- planted with pasture-grass and grazed by fat cattle -- but also abandoned urban lots, all too often strewn with trash.  I asked my fellow passengers, and the only answer I got was that the soil wasn't really as fertile as all that;  it had been overworked and couldn't grow much of anything.  I privately questioned that;  as an Arizonian, I'd seen plenty of land -- hardpan clay, with never enough water -- that had been made fertile by determined farmers, or at least grazed by sturdy ranchers.  Hell, give me topsoil like that (even a city lot-full), and I could make it yield.  I'm planning to reconstitute the soil in my back yard and grow fruit trees in it.  Why was that land really lying fallow, left to trash and weeds, that could have been growing crops or at least livestock, and providing jobs or at least food for all those desperately unemployed people?

I got another answer when I reached the convention and asked various fans.  "It's the soil bank," one local fan said.  "The government pays the farmers not to grow food."  Why, I wondered;  just to keep food prices high?  "To save for planting in case of emergency," he said.  Well, gee, what would you call our current economic mess?  Food prices are too high already, which doesn't do us or even the farmers any good, and too many of our own people are jobless and desperate.  "Those unemployed are city people," another fan argued;  "They won't take farm-work jobs."  What, they'd rather throw themselves in front of trains?!  From what I've seen, and I've lived all over the US, there is no such thing as a job that Americans won't take;  there are only wages that Americans won't take, and there are rather few of those these days.  So, for me, the mystery still remains.

I have a dark suspicion that maybe those lands are kept fallow for another reason;  the federal government and the banksters are planning to use them to pay off the US' monstrous debts.  It wouldn't bother them at all to sell big chunks of our land to China, regardless of what that would mean for the rest of the country, or the people in it.

Can anybody come up with a more likely reason?

--Leslie <;)))><   )O( 


Monday, March 25, 2013

Madly Busy, Here and There

Hi, team!  Sorry I've taken so long to get back to you, but it's been a really busy two weeks.

First, for all those of you who wished me a happy birthday, I spent that day -- and the next two -- on assorted Amtrak trains, riding from Arizona to New Jersey, then a few hours riding, car this time, into New York state, and finally to the Rye Hilton for LunaCon.  Then there were three days of the convention, then another three days riding back to Phoenix.

And once I got home, if ya please, Rasty and I had to scramble back and forth across the Valley of the Sun -- a good 50 miles each way, and his Bronco is a gas-gulper -- trying to get moved into the new (well, actually old: 1947) house.  There was the fun-and-games of getting the water hooked up, which meant getting a good plumber (who, it turned out, lived even further away than we did), replacing the stolen water-heater, turning on the water and finding a lot of small problems which will have to be dealt with over the next week.  Then there was the even wilder fun-and-games of getting the electricity turned on, which involved lining up one electrician and two bureaucracies -- the county inspector and the local power company -- all on the same day.  And in the midst of this Rasty's truck blew a rear-left brake disc, which will take a whole day's work and roughly $800 to repair.  Arrrrggghhhhh!  But at least, bit by bit, we're getting moved in.

There's a lot I could say (and will!) about the long train-ride and the local scramble, but I'll start with the easy part: LunaCon.

I was invited as Filk Special Guest by the concom's filk liaison, Marc Grossman, who was talked into it (with not much difficulty) by a lot of east-coast fans and old friends who hadn't seen me in years -- since Pennsic War 8 years ago, IIRC.  I spent most of my time in the filk-room, singing and singing and...well, you get the picture, and the rest of it bouncing between the con-suite (lots of decaf drinks), the guests' green room (lts of tasty finger-food), the hotel restaurant (where I did a long interview with a writer working on a biography of the late great Isaac Bonewitz), the dealers' room (where I did a book-signing that wound up autographing lots of albums too), and my hotel-room (which was one of the few places where I could quickly get outside to smoke, since the whole hotel was piously "smoke-free").  This caused some timing problems, since the Rye Hilton is another of those infamous hotels that may have been designed by Escher, and I couldn't get through it without a map and guide.  That means that I didn't get to see much of the rest of the convention, but from all I heard it was lively fun: a pretty large convention with an impressive number of programming tracks.  Oh yes, I'd recommend it highly.

Marc recorded all the filking, starting from even before the opening ceremonies, in hopes of coming up with a convention album, and I sincerely hope he succeeds.  I know that my performances weren't the best, since I was recovering from a cold that had wiped out my entire upper octave a week before.  I'd been trying to exercise my range back up, but it's hard to do vocal exercises on an Amtrak train.  I managed to get through the traditional Dawn Patrol on Saturday night, but I didn't get my total range back until the last day of the con, and my tone wasn't great.  I didn't look my best, either, after 3 days in the coach-cars of 3 different trains.  At least I got the beginnings of a song out of it:

"Three days on the train, and I look like hell,
But it beats flying, anyway.
I didn't get X-rayed, didn't get groped, or robbed by the TSA.
The food is better and the seats are bigger,
So even if it's slow,
When it comes to long distance over land, the train is the way to go."

More later.  Gotta get to sleep early and up early tomorrow.  *Sigh* 

--Leslie <;)))><   )O(   

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Moving Mystery

Ah, the fun of moving into a new house!  Last Tuesday we drove out to it (clean across the Phoenix valley: about 50 miles each way) to get the water turned on, and noticed that the back door had no doorknob or latch or hole for one;  it was barred by a two-by-four set into two wooden sockets, and there was a doggy-door in the bottom closed with a thin wooden panel.  The water-man came and turned on the water and went, and we found that we had a lot of minor plumbing to do: washers and valves and a faucet to replace.  We got some new locks and argued over whether we'd need a locksmith to install them, then went off to dinner and drove home.

Friday we came back to do some of that plumbing, repair the fence, and set up an appointment with an electrician -- to get the repairs, to get the inspection, to get the power turned on. I found that the windows were unlatched, but immovable thanks to warping.  Rasty noted that the next northward neighbors, beyond the vacant lot next door, included a couple of playful kids and a pregnant lady.  I noticed that the cars were absent from the driveways of all the houses on the block, which rather strongly indicated that all the men and most of the women were out at work.  Rasty also noticed that the two-by-four in the back door was gone, replaced by a slat-board off the southward gate of our back-yard fence.  Curious.  Again, we did our repairs, went to dinner, then headed home.

Tuesday morning we came back, primarily to meet with the electrician, also to set an appointment with a local handyman (recommended by the local hardware store) to do the small repairs.  First thing we noticed was that somebody had p!ssed in the dry dirt near the front porch, and dropped a cigarette butt there (not my brand).  The second thing we noticed was that there was a crack in the front window's lower pane, which hadn't been there four days ago.  When we got into the house, the third thing we saw was that the back door wasn't barred and the doggy-door was kicked open.

Next thing we saw was that the water-heater was gone.

"Burglary," Rasty pronounced.  "Call the cops."

I did that -- the town is small enough and far enough from the city that 911 connects to the sheriff's office -- while Rasty checked out the rest of the house and found that nothing else was missing. The latch had been broken loose on the northward gate, as if the gate had been wrenched open.  Also, whoever had taken the water-heater had carefully disconnected the hoses instead of just cutting them.

"They wanted it for a working appliance, not just for the metal," Rasty deduced.  "It was used, but in good shape.  You could sell it to any appliance store."

About then the sheriff's deputy arrived, and we showed him everything.  I pointed out the p!ss in the front yard and the cigarette butt.  "Does the sheriff's office have a forensics lab?" I asked.  "Could you get DNA off that?"  "We do," he said, "And it's big, but even so it's loaded with work, and this is a low-priority crime.  You wouldn't get an answer back for months."  Ah, well. He took pictures of the space where the water-heater wasn't, and of the other clues, and the other damage done, and wrote up a report and gave us a copy.

As soon as he took off, I called our house-insurance company and reported the whole thing.  Unlike a good neighbor, they promised to phone us back in one to two days.  Meanwhile, Rasty paced around reconstructing the crime.  Then we went to visit the neighbors, to see if anyone has seen or heard anything.
That was when we found that the next-northward neighbors weren't there anymore.  The house was empty, the cars were gone, the yard was full of discarded furniture, and the gate was padlocked.  They'd moved out, kids and pregnant lady and all, in the past four days.  We also found that everybody else was indeed out at work, except for one lady who "no hablo Ingles".

Then we sat down to figure out what had happened.  The robber(s) had come first to the front door and tried to pry open the window, but found it stuck shut.  Unwilling to make noticeable noise breaking the window, they instead went around to the northward gate and wrenched it open -- which, presumably, would have made less noise and drawn less attention than breaking the window.  Then they kicked out the doggy-door, crawled through, unbarred the back door, came in and took out the water-heater, loaded it into a truck and drove it away.  They bothered to close the broken gate behind them, so nobody noticed anything until we showed up.

Now, whodunnit?

Well, as the chief on CSI always says, what does the evidence say?

Okay, the driveway closest to that gate is gravel, so a truck could have pulled up there without showing any tracks:  no evidence there. The next yard eastward contains some dogs, who are more likely to bark than not, unless they're used to whoever is in our yard -- and they didn't go into loud and continuous barking during the robbery, which might have alerted any neighbors at home at the time.  There were other cigarette butts -- of the same brand -- near the one in the front yard;  somebody stood there for at least 20 minutes -- probably the lookout -- and wasn't worried about being seen p!ssing in public, for all that he (and his buddies?) didn't want to make noise by breaking the window, and didn't make noise by setting off the neighbor's dogs.  The dirt was still damp where he'd p!ssed on it -- outdoors, in Arizona, even in late winter -- which means that it was sprayed there within 24 hours before, or less.  That would be when everybody was at work, except for the occasional housewife, such as Ms. "No Hablo Ingles" across the street -- while any time after 5 PM would have had a lot of people home and possibly on the street. The only valuable fixtures in the house were the water-heater, the stove and the metal pipes and wiring in the walls;  of all those, the quickest and easiest to grab was the water-heater.  Whoever stole the heater knew that the heater was empty of water -- therefore light enough to carry -- how to detach it without damaging it, and where to sell it quickly.  That oddly replaced two-by-four reveals that somebody had sneaked into the house before, scoped the place out, and spotted that water-heater.  Somebody had studied the house, noticed that the northward gate had a weak latch -- even after I'd repaired the fence -- and could easily be wrenched open.  Finally, even with the doggy-door kicked open, an adult would have had a seriously hard time crawling through it -- but a child wouldn't.          

Conclusions: first, the robbers knew the neighborhood, and that house, well.  At least one of them, probably a little kid who could fit through the doggy-door, had been in there before, knew what was in the house, and reported it to an adult -- most likely a relative -- who decided what to grab and how, and when.  They hadn't robbed the house in any of the months that it was standing empty, but only this last weekend -- after the new owners (us) had started showing up to repair the house with the intention of moving in soon -- so there was something about this weekend which impelled the robbers to steal something they could take and sell quickly.  They also had reason to think they could get away clean.  The robbers included the lookout, a little kid to get through the doggy-door, and two adults to carry the water-heater.  Now, where in the neighborhood would you find an adult-and-kid robbery team who fit all those parameters?

The evidence points to those moved-out northward neighbors.  They probably needed the extra money to help with the move -- a motive I'm well acquainted with.

So the question is, do I call back that sheriff's deputy and tell him what we've found -- and concluded?  The thieving neighbors are well gone, possibly in Mexico by now, and this is -- as the deputy pointed out -- a low-priority crime.  We can possibly find our missing water-heater just by shopping the local appliance stores, and the insurance company should damn-well cover the cost.  We've pretty well solved the crime to our own satisfaction, and the local sheriff's department can't chase the thieves outside our own county.  What good would reporting the news do, after all?

Should I even bother?

--Leslie <;)))><