Panama Canal Cruise – Getting to the Port

August 15, 2018

A few months ago my bride and I took a trip that had been on my bucket list for several years. Actually, it was a combination of two items – first, take a re-positioning cruise from wherever to wherever. Second, take a cruise through the Panama Canal.


Entering the canal from the Pacific Ocean

A re-positioning cruise is the result of a cruise ship company deciding to move a ship from one ‘market’ to another. In most cases, the decision is based on the calendar. For example, a ship that has been plying the waters of the North Atlantic is moved to the Caribbean in the winter months and then returned to the New England area for the summer travelers. In other instances, an older ship is moved to make room for a newer (larger and more luxurious vessel) that will accommodate more passengers in a particular ‘market’.


The Norwegian Sun in Victoria, B.C.

In our case, the Norwegian Sun, was being replaced by the Norwegian Bliss (the newest and one of the largest ships in their fleet). The Sun was being returned to Florida and assigned to cruise between Miami and Havana, Cuba. Thus, our cruise began in Seattle, Washington and ended at Port Canaveral in Florida.

The best part of a re-positioning cruise is the price. The cruise line would rather not send an empty ship from one port to another for any reason. This is true in the airline industry as well as the trucking industry. If you can pick up a load and carry it to your destination and make some money in the effort, why not? The best way to get that load is to drop the price.

Our 18 day cruise had a base price (inside stateroom) of about $900 per person, or around $50 per day. Thus, the two of us got to sail for $100 a day. A price that included a ‘motel’ room, numerous meals and snacks throughout the day, nightly Las Vegas style shows, other forms of entertainment throughout the day, a large swimming pool, and numerous other amenities. It cost very little to upgrade to an outside cabin, so we did.

The other costs included airfare from Atlanta to Seattle and from Orlando to Atlanta; shore excursions – we took a bus tour of San Francisco, a hike and boat trip through the rain forest of Costa Rica, and a hop on/hop off bus tour of Cartagena, Colombia – tips for the ship’s crew members, and a few meals on land, and souvenirs. In total, we spent less than $6,000 for a wonderful three week vacation. That total included paying to park our car near the Atlanta airport and paying for someone to take care of our dog in our absence. (More about our dog later!)

We started our trip a few days prior to the ship’s departure. This is good advice for anyone taking a cruise for two reasons. First, the cruise ship leaves port when it is scheduled to leave port. This is true almost 100% of the time. Second, airlines are not always as punctual. If your plan calls for you to fly to the port city the day of the cruise ship’s departure and the flight is delayed or cancelled, you may miss the boat. If you’ve already paid a few thousand dollars for that cruise, a day or two in a motel is a sound investment. Plus, it gives you a chance to tour the port city.

In our case, the motel was basically free. I say ‘basically’ because we had to take a shuttle bus to get from the airport to a small town where we met my brother Doug and his bride Nancy. We then spent some time with them at their home in Port Townsend, Washington.


Me and my brother Doug


Lu and our sister-in-law Nancy

While in the area, we toured the town and learned that it had once been a thriving port – long before Seattle became the base for many cruise ships and cargo vessels. We also learned that the local government and chamber of commerce members are working hard to make the area a major tourist attraction. From our experience, I’d say it is worth the trip… even if you can’t stay with my brother for free.

After enjoying our visit, we were up before the sun and making our way to the cruise ship. This part of our trip was free because the ferry boats only make you pay when you are leaving Seattle. (As I recall, many years ago the city of Philadelphia made airline passengers pay to leave. If memory serves, they insisted on cash! I also remember that most people were more than glad to pay to leave. It might have been the “City of Brotherly Love”, but at the time it did not live up to its name.)

It wasn’t long before the city of Seattle came into view and I found myself disappointed by the ‘progress’. You’d have to magnify this picture quite a bit to see it, but the Seattle Space Needle is now plastered with advertising. Lu and I had been to Seattle in 1999 and ate at the restaurant that sits on top of the needle. It was much more attractive without the commercial messages. I’m sure it helps to pay their bills, but it is definitely an eyesore.


The Space Needle in Seattle

Shortly after that photo was taken we spied our ship. Soon our ferry boat docked and we walked a few blocks and got in line to board and enter the cabin that would be our home for the next eighteen days.


The Norwegian Sun in Seattle

For whatever reason, we spent the next few hours sitting in a large room waiting to board the ship. It seems they weren’t ready for us. Even after we finally got on board, we were directed to another area to wait until our cabin was ready. During this time we learned all sorts of interesting tidbits about the Norwegian Sun. As I recall, the ‘cruise from Hell’ was a phrase used more than once!

I skipped a lot of details. So before I explain the ‘cruise from Hell’ statement, let me list the specifics of the trip to this point.

First, we drove from our home to a Holiday Inn near the Atlanta airport. We spent the night at the motel to be sure we would have no problem getting to the airport in time to catch our noon flight. That should tell you a lot about Atlanta traffic. We live about 60 miles north of the airport. To get there two hours before our flight would have put us in the middle of the morning rush hour. Smarter option? Spend the night at a motel and pay the few extra dollars.

Our first flight was to Kansas City where we had a short layover and changed planes. That gave us a chance to grab a bite to eat and meet other travelers. We then boarded the plane to Seattle and arrived around 4:30 P.M. west coast time.

From there, we took a shuttle bus to Silverdale where my brother and his wife met us. We then had dinner at a great Chinese buffet that also included steaks cooked to order! Finally, on to my brother’s home to spend the night.

The next day was for roaming around Port Townsend and visiting a few historical sites.

Another night in Washington and an early wake-up call so we could head to the Port of Seattle. That was accomplished beginning with my brother driving us to the ferry boat terminal.

Thus, “Getting to the Port” was actually a three day event.

Now, the explanation of the ‘cruise from Hell’.

Our re-positioning cruise was actually phase two. The Sun had been used for Caribbean cruises and was being refurbished prior to taking on the Florida to Cuba route. Phase one was to move the ship from Florida to a dry dock in British Columbia for a complete refurnishing. As mentioned earlier, if the cruise line can carry paying customers and make some money on the deal, why not?

Well the ‘why not’ was what made this cruise Hellish. Based on some top executive’s infinite wisdom, it was decided to begin the refurbishing effort during the trip from Florida to California. Thus, the ship not only carried passengers and crew, it also carried construction workers and their equipment. For the next two weeks, the passengers had to endure dust, noise, toxic odors, and various areas of the ship being roped off while decks were torn up and completely replaced. While the workers wore hazmat suits, the passengers were left to their own devices.

The passengers insisted on meeting with the captain. He entered the room, blamed everything on upper levels of management and walked out of the room. It took less than five minutes and the captive audience could do nothing until they reached port in Los Angeles.

At that point, they raised so much Hell with Norwegian Cruise Lines that they all received full refunds.

Obviously, had we learned of this before we booked the cruise, we might not have made the trip. But, until we sat in the waiting room waiting to board the ship, we were totally ignorant.

At that point, all we could do was continue on our way and hope for the best. We would not be disappointed!




Transportation Honor System

January 18, 2011

As I begin to write today’s entry, my mind has gone back twenty-five or thirty years. I’m trying to remember how the public transit system in Vienna worked during my first visit.

I recall buying my ticket in a vending machine. Then I walked down steps to the train platform. There were no turnstiles, just steps. I boarded the train and, several stops later, I got off. I walked up the steps to the street and continued on my way.

Thus, the “Honor System” has been in use for many years in Vienna.

This same system was in use in Munich, and is probably available in many transportation systems throughout Europe.

As I continue to search my memories, I’m pretty sure it was true in Paris. We bought passes that were good for a specified period of time. When riding a bus, we simply showed the passes to the driver. When riding the Metro, we simply got on and off without much ado.

Paris Metro

In London – the foreign  city where I’ve spent the most time – my mind is foggy. For one thing, during my ten-week stay, most of my traveling was on shank’s mare.  When we did ride the public transit, it was for a specific purpose with a specific destination.

The London Tube - Mind the Gap!

On further reflection, on one of our trips to London we did buy a multiple-day pass. So, they must also have the honor system.

One-way and round-trip tickets could be purchased in every one of the cities I’ve named. But the real bargains were with the multiple day passes.

In Munich, we purchased the City Tour Card. It was good for three days travel for up to five people. It also provided discounts at many of the tourist attractions. The cost was forty-eight Euros.

Munich S-Bahn station

On the surface, that sounds expensive. That’s approximately $65. However, to put it in perspective, it cost eight Euros to get from the airport to the main train station in Munich. So, for my bride and I, that would have been thirty-two Euros for the round trip. Then, every time we rode public transit within Munich, it would have cost each of us another two and a half Euros.

We knew in advance that we would be taking one round trip on a tram. That would have been ten Euros added to the thirty-two to get back and forth from the airport. Figuring we would take additional rides just to get a “lay of the land”, the forty-eight Euros was a bargain. It would’ve been an even bigger bargain had our friends been able to join us.

By the way, those people in Atlanta who think the MARTA fare is too high should be happy; $3.50 per ride is almost double what they are currently paying.

If it wasn’t for tax dollar subsidies, MARTA would be out of business unless they raised their fares dramatically. I have no idea if the Munich and Vienna transit systems would operate in the red without tax payers’ support. I do, however, believe that they save a lot of money using the honor system.

For one thing, they have no turnstiles to install and maintain. Next, they don’t have to fuss with tokens. And the operators of the various means of transportation don’t have to deal with selling or collecting tickets.

Tickets are purchased from vending machines or small shops close to the stations. In Munich, we used a vending machine at the airport. In Vienna, we bought our tickets in a small tobacco shop.

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages is also their biggest selling point. Getting on and off a bus, tram, or train is much faster when no one is trying to pay. With no turnstiles, it is much faster to pass through a transit station.

All of these advantages encourage people to use public transit. That’s something MARTA definitely needs to do.

I have ridden MARTA from North Springs to the airport during the morning rush hour and have had no problem finding a seat. By the time the train is nearing downtown Atlanta, there may be a few people standing, but very few. People don’t ride the trains; they’d rather sit in traffic.

That brings another thought to mind. I don’t recall seeing a single parking lot in downtown Munich… nor in downtown Vienna. The only parking was on the street, and most of those spaces were taken.

In Atlanta, there are too many reasonably priced parking lots. If the City Council really wants to make MARTA a success, they need to place heavy taxes on those parking lots and discourage people from driving into downtown.

Combine that move with installing the honor system, and they can expand MARTA and quit using tax dollars to keep it afloat.

By the way, there is one major factor that helps insure the honor system works.

Security personnel spend their days getting on and off transit vehicles. Their sole purpose in life is to ensure that all riders have valid tickets. Being caught on a tram, bus, or train in Munich without the proper ticket results in a forty Euro (about $55.00) fine.

In all four of the cities I’ve mentioned, their mass transit systems are far superior to most I’ve seen in the states. The only one that comes close is New York City. It’s been a few years since I’ve been to the Big Apple, but as I recall, the cleanliness of their trains left quite a bit to be desired.

So, in summary, I think that, next to the real German and Austrian food, the most important European item that we should import is the honor system for our public transportation.

I invite your thoughts.

Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 1)

December 28, 2010

My best friend and I recently returned from Europe. We’d been to Europe before, but never to Germany and we’d never taken a trip anywhere that saw us returning home on Christmas Day.

Hopefully I’ll get to my relating of Day 1 before I run out of space. But first, I need to provide a bit of background.

First of all, my best friend, and favorite traveling companion, is my bride. Lu and I have taken many trips together and I hope and pray we’re able to take many more. It seems that’s the only time we can be together twenty-four hours a day for any extended period. I like it that way. And so far, such times have not led to “knock-em-down, drag-em-out” fights.

Next, let me provide some details on the planning that went into this trip.

No. On second thought… That will take too long and can wait for another time.

So, we’ll begin with December 15th. That’s the day we drove to the Atlanta airport to begin our journey. The weather was miserable and getting worse by the hour. We left the car at the Crown Plaza hotel and rode their shuttle to the Airport where check-in would have been a breeze had it not been for the TSA’s attempt to make us feel safe.

There are many people in government positions who are trying very hard to make us more like other countries. I’ll have much more to say about that subject later, but as for airport security, our government continues to ignore the best method known to man. Do as the Israelis do, and look for bombers, not bombs.

Lu and I had packed light – extremely light. I had a back pack and a small computer case. Lu had a small wheeled carry-on bag and a large purse. We checked nothing. But we still had to take off our shoes, put the computer and cell phone in a separate bin, take off our jackets, place our one-quart sized plastic bags filled with liquids and gels in a separate area, and then walk through the metal detector. Naturally, we had to wait in a long line while many others did likewise. Of course, we could not even enter the line without having our passports and boarding passes approved.

As I passed through the metal detector I realized I’d made a fatal mistake. I’d forgotten to remove my belt with its large metal buckle. I knew I would soon be subjected to further scrutiny – that’s easier than allowing me to remove the belt and pass through the detector a second time – at least that what seems to be written in the training manual for these folks. Surprise, surprise, surprise! I didn’t set off the alarms and was permitted to retrieve my belongings, put my shoes back on, return the computer and bag of liquids and gels to my computer bag and continue to the gate area.

I certainly had mixed feelings. I’d gotten through without a full-body scan or pat-down… but what if the metal on my body – that was not detected – had been an explosive device? I have nothing against the TSA agents; they are only doing what they are told to do. My problem is with a system that is all for show. Those in charge over-react to situations with origins in other countries (shoe and underwear bombing attempts) and have a penchant for spending tax dollars on controversial (and extremely expensive) equipment that is being pedaled via lobbyists who are good friends with those in top government positions. It all seems like a sham and/or scam to me.

At any rate, it wasn’t much longer before we had found our gate and were able to board the plane scheduled to depart Atlanta at 4:20 PM. Around 5:20, the captain finally made an announcement. The nose of our plane had been replaced (say what???) and we would soon be pushed back from the gate. From there, we would proceed to an area where the plane would be soaked with some sort of de-icing compound so that our wings would not ice up as we passed through the skies laden with water vapor that was now beginning to fall as snow.

By 6:20 we were rumbling down the runway and soon on our way to Munich, Germany. Like sardines packed in a tin, we were stuck in positions that made it virtually impossible to sleep. So we read, did crossword puzzles, watched movies, and played trivia games. As we prepared to land, Jim in seat 36B had the highest score – 5200 points. I don’t mean to brag, but this clearly demonstrates that my head is full of useless information.

The original plan had us scheduled to land in Munich at 7:40 AM on December 16th. Due to our delayed departure, we finally touched down around 9:30.

Although our luggage was all carry-on, we still took a long time to get to the main part of the terminal. The major holdup was the passport validation process. We had to show our “papers” to an agent who asked us how long we planned to be in Germany and what we were planning to do during our stay. Once satisfied with our answers, he stamped a visa in our passports.

We were able to bypass the baggage claim, but not the ATM. We needed Euros. These are things all travelers to Europe should know. First, you don’t need to take travelers’ checks or go to your bank to get Euros before you leave home. Also, you don’t want to go to the currency exchange booths to change your dollars to Euros. Just make sure your checking account has sufficient funds and then use your ATM card just like you would at home. Second, be aware that there are many small retail shops and restaurants in Europe that don’t take debit or credit cards. Be sure to have enough Euros to pay for your purchases and meals.

Once we obtained our Euros, we then went in search of the public transportation. Years ago on a trip to Europe paid for by my employer I decided to spurn the limo that my employer would’ve paid for and take public transit. It was far less costly, and gave me a much better feel for the city and country I was visiting.

In Munich, a one-way transit ticket from the airport to the city cost 10.80 Euros (about $15.00). Our travel plans called for us to return to the airport on December 18th to catch a bus to Nuremberg. Thus, if Lu and I had simply bought the tickets for a round-trip from the airport to the city of Munich, it would have cost us 43.20 Euros (about $60). Then, if we wanted to ride the subway, trams or buses while in Munich, we would’ve had to pay anywhere from 2.50 to 10.00 Euros per ride. Instead, we bought a City Tour Card for 48.00 Euro that allowed us to ride any of the forms of transportation as many times as we liked for three days. That’s about $67.00. That’s also considered a bargain. When I tell you that five adults could’ve traveled on that same City Tour Card, you’d realize it was a tremendous bargain!

Our well used transit map of Munich

We were now ready to head for our hotel. The plan was to drop off our luggage at the hotel and wander around the city until 3:00 PM when we’d be able to actually check into our room. We took the S1 (an above ground train for much of the trip) – look for the green circle on the map – into the main train station (Hauptbahnhof [Central Station] circled in yellow). We would take the S8 when we returned so that we could see both sides of Munich.

The transit system in Munich (as well as Vienna) operates on an “Honor” system. There are no turnstiles, and no one to collect your money or take your ticket. You simply get on and off as you please. However, there is one major requirement.

After purchasing your ticket in a vending machine or at a tobacco shop, you must time stamp it at a train station or on the train, tram, or bus as you board the first time. Failure to have that ticket time-stamped can result in a 40 Euro fine. On our first ride – from the airport into the Central Station, we were confronted by a man who would’ve passed as a New York City narcotics officer. He was showing me his credentials (which I couldn’t begin to read) and demanding to see our tickets. When I realized there were similar people checking the tickets of others, I complied. He was satisfied (thank God we had stamped our ticket!) and he soon got off the train. That was the last time anyone in Munich asked to see our tickets. We rode several trains and trams before leaving the city, but never did more than get on and get off. I think Atlanta’s MARTA might do well by employing a similar system.

Being a careful planner, I had already “walked” from the train station to our hotel using Google Earth. It was a piece of cake. All we had to do was walk out the front door, make a right, go to the first intersection, make a slight jog to the left and continue straight to our hotel on Schillerstrausse.

Map of Munich's center city

The best laid plans of mice and men…

Using that map as a guide (see red circle), we walked parallel to the tracks and came out a door and headed for our hotel (see green circle). Alas, it was not the “front” door. Therefore, we were ninety degrees out of kilter. We exited from the NORTH side of the terminal rather than the EAST side. Thus we spent the next hour wandering around aimlessly. We asked for directions from a gentleman in a department store and he walked us to a different entrance and said it was right around the corner. The problem was Lu heard him say “Turn right” while I was sure he said “Turn left.” Being a dutiful husband, I went with Lu’s hearing. After walking another few blocks, I stepped into a bakery and asked the woman behind the counter if she spoke English. She said “No”. As I was leaving, I turned and asked, “Schillerstrausse?”

Her face lit up and, with a smile, she point back the way we had come. I’ll assume the man at the department store had said “right” when he meant “left”. His English may not have been as good as we all thought.

Within a short time we arrived at our hotel and were surprised when they gave us a room key and welcomed us to Munich.

We settled into the room and took a three-hour nap. We then headed for the main pedestrian area of Munich (circled in white on the map) and knew immediately that we were in Bavaria.

The wurst place to find German food

We then worked our way to the Viktuallenmarkt (circled in yellow on the city map). That was our first indication that German butchers cut meat far differently than their counterparts in the states. We eventually found our way to a small restaurant and had our first taste of German cuisine. We quickly learned that the meat not only looks different, it tastes much better than what is served in German restaurants in America. We also discovered soft pretzels taste far better when salt is blended into the dough itself.

My best friend and favorite traveling companion

I believe this picture of my bride illustrates her pleasure in Munich. Later I’ll include a photo of myself at the Hauf Brau Haus (circled in gold on the city map) and show you some real contentment. But that will have to wait until the next installment of this on-going saga.

2058 – A Date with Destiny

March 6, 2010

Assuming the world does not come to an end in 2012, the year 2058 should be a date etched into the minds of anyone carrying a balance on a credit card.

I admit I did not hear the entire story reported by Clark Howard – a syndicated talk show host who doubles as a consumer advocate who is based in Atlanta. But what I did hear was a real eye-opener. (Or was it an ear-opener?)

In any case, it should be a loud wake-up call for all Americans who see no reason to pay off their credit cards each month.

The message was clear. If you stop using your credit card and simply pay the minimum payment each moth. Your balance will be paid in full in 2058.

Let’s make it even more direct. By paying nothing more than what the bank calls the minimum payment, it will take you forty-eight years to pay off the bill.

You might think that’s impossible, but look at your interest rate. Paying the minimum does not lower your interest rate. In fact, it barely lowers your balance. Most of that minimum payment goes to pay the interest.

So, get those credit cards paid off as quickly as possible. Then take half of the money you’re saving and make a donation to some worthwhile charity such as the Mission on the Bay in Mississippi.

Cap & Trade or Michael Jackson

July 7, 2009

Regardless of which side of the issue you’re on, it should bother you that the news media is spending far more time keeping the American people up to date on the Michael Jackson memorial service than they are in informing us of the progress of the Cap & Trade legislation.

And why are they placing so much emphasis on a dead celebrity? Why are they ignoring more important issues that could affect all tax payers?

Some right wing conservatives would have us believe that the left leaning media is intentionally taking the focus away from Congress so the Obama administration can shove another giant spending (and taxing) bill down our throats.

The left wing radicals would argue otherwise.

Naturally – and unfortunately – the truth has nothing to do with politics. Sadly, the media is giving the American public what the American public wants. I’ll admit I haven’t checked, but I’d bet that any broadcast of the American Idol show garnered a much larger share of the viewing public than any of the Presidential debates.

The truth is a large portion of our population doesn’t care about what goes on in Washington, D.C. In fact, they care even less about what goes on in their own state capitols.

Many years ago I attended a Key Club convention in Philadelphia. Each delegate was given a key ring. On one side was the Key Club logo. On the other was the phrase, “Combat Complacency.”

I believe we’ve lost the battle. In the 1960’s, college students stood up and voiced their opinions. While many of them were wrong in their beliefs, they all had the courage to stand up for what they believed. As a result, many things in our society were changed.

The youth of my youth took the time to learn about things that mattered. Sometimes they heard one side of the story and jumped to incorrect conclusions, but in most instances, they looked at both sides and came to good logical conclusions.

I’m afraid today’s youth are too busy twittering their lives away.

Perhaps that’s the major difference. While we didn’t have CNN, FOX News Channel, C-SPAN, or… come to think of it, we didn’t have any cable channels because we didn’t have cable. We also didn’t have lap top computers and the Internet. But we did have newspapers, news magazines, and the library.

We paid attention to the world around us – sweat bullets during the Cuban Missile Crisis – and felt a responsibility to speak out against what we saw as injustice.

Perhaps that was the influence of John F. Kennedy. I know we all admired the man and took the “New Frontier” very seriously. And we all deeply mourned his passing.

Until President Obama came along, we hadn’t had another President who could reach out and stir the interest of the youth as JFK did. But it appears that the interest of our current youth petered out once their man was elected.

It’s a shame because, the way I see it, it’s the youth and future generations who will be most harmed by what is currently happening in Washington.

The U.S. Government has no business being in business. Every time government has taken over an industry, that industry stops being self-sufficient. For example, independent bus and trolley companies operated in major cities for decades. They competed for riders and most of those companies were profitable.

The companies that couldn’t compete went out of business and their assets were bought up by the other companies. Then, the government decided to take over. The two ‘companies’ I’m most familiar with – the Port Authority Transit (PAT) in Pittsburgh and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit  Authority (MARTA) – have both operated at a loss for decades. Taxpayer subsidies are the only way they stay afloat.

Will General Motors be any different? Will taxpayer subsidized pricing put Ford, Chrysler, and others out of business?

The Federal Government has put itself in a very awkward position. Congress is talking about passing a ‘clunker bill’ that will give citizens a tax break for trading in an old car for a new, more fuel efficient, car. Will the tax break be higher for those of us who buy a GM product? It would make sense if the government wants their ‘company’ to flourish.

But wouldn’t that be unfair to the other companies? Does the government care?

There are many people who believe the economic crisis could’ve been solved months ago simply by the government letting workers keep their entire paychecks. Think about that. The typical worker has almost a third of his or her paycheck withheld every pay day. If that money had been available to the individuals, they would’ve spent it. Even if they simply paid off some bills, the economy would’ve improved.

Foreclosures would’ve been reduced dramatically and banks would’ve had more money for other loans. Consumers would’ve bought more cars, televisions, and other big ticket items… which would’ve resulted in more jobs.

If consumers bought Fords and Toyotas rather than Chevys and Buicks, GM would’ve had to fix their problems or go out of business. With increased sales, the other auto makers would’ve been able to buy GM factories and put the former GM employees to work building other makes of cars.

Is it too late for the government to get out of the auto business? I hope not. And while they’re at it, they should also get out of the banking and investment businesses.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s time for MARTA and PAT to liquidate and let the private sector show the politicians how it should be done.

Considering the business acumen of most politicians, it wouldn’t take a business genius to repair the damage done by congress. Think of it! How many politicians have held a ‘real’ job during their adult life. There may be a few, but most of them were borderline lawyers who recognized they could make a lot more money supporting the causes of special interest groups.

If they were intelligent enough to be successful business people, why would they even consider becoming a member of Congress?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and see if Michael has been buried yet.

Market Houses

June 5, 2009
Pittsburgh's Southside Market House

Pittsburgh's Southside Market House

Like many of the old market houses, this one is no longer open. At least the building has not been torn down… yet.

As a young boy, my mother used to take me to downtown Pittsburgh for shopping. She always started at the department stores. After purchasing clothing or household items, we’d head for Market Square.

Market Square is still there, but the market houses are long gone.

At one time, where Forbes Avenue intersected with Market Street, there stood a group of buildings that housed the New Diamond Market. As I recall, there was a bridge connecting the second floors of at least two of the buildings.

Those old market houses could be seen as the original malls. Various vendors rented space to set up their retail outlets. There were fish mongers, vegetable stands, butchers, bakers, and maybe even a candlestick maker or two.

If our family budget allowed for it, mom would buy some nice vegetables and meat. She’d also buy smelt if those little fish looked appetizing. Fried smelt was always one of my favorites.

Unfortunately, the people who ran the New Diamond Market were not very good at marketing when it came to competing with the ‘super’ markets being built in the suburbs. Eventually, all the buildings that made up Market Square were abandoned and razed. Now, there is a park that looks nice, but isn’t very functional.

The only thing left is the Original Oyster House.

They do mean 'original'

They do mean 'original'

The awning tells it all. That restaurant has been at that location since 1870. It has expanded… taking over the building to the left of the original structure. The building to the right was once a C.G. Murphy’s Five and Dime. I’m not sure if it’s being refurbished or torn down to make way for something else.

The other place my mother was sure to visit while we were downtown was McCann’s Market. The distinctive feature of that emporium was the automatic bacon slicer that sat in the middle of the store. I used to love watching the bacon being sliced.

Of all the cities I’ve visited in the U.S., I can only recall one that has a vibrant old time market place. Baltimore, Maryland is the home of the Lexington Market. You can visit their web site to get a better understanding of what I’m talking about.

The Lexington Market has been in continuous operation for more than two hundred and twenty years. Obviously, they do a better job of marketing than the New Diamond Market folks did. Check out their history and their listing of events and you’ll see that they make it a place to go to do far more than shop for poultry, seafood, meat, fruits, and vegetables.

In England, France, and many other countries, market places still thrive. Many of them would shatter the confidence of American shoppers because the fresh meats, poultry, and fish are not in nice refrigerated display cases. In some instances, the perishable items aren’t even displayed on beds of ice.

Around Atlanta, they have a few farmer’s markets that offer fresh produce. But it’s not the same. I miss the old market houses where you could find practically any food item imaginable.

I guess I’ll have to plan a visit to Baltimore.

Holiday Luncheon Stories – Part 1

December 4, 2008

I recently had lunch with about twenty old friends from IBM. The thought that really struck me is how each of those people has affected my life, and how each of them has a story to tell.

The gentleman (or should I say ‘hombre’?) I’ll discuss first is a man I worked for, and with, on several occasions. He was my manager for a while at IBM, my client when he was working for a company connected to Delta Airlines and I was working as a Training Consultant, and my co-worker when we were both working as consultants and providing point-of-sale training for McCoy’s Building Supplies out of San Marcus, Texas.

Lucas Alvarez was born in Cuba and came to the United States shortly after Fidel Castro overthrew the government of the former dictator – Ruben Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar. Lucas was a college student at the time and was openly displeased with both dictators. In fact, he was very outspoken concerning Castro. Fidel took over power in 1959 and in 1960 started a systematic crackdown on anyone who opposed him.

One day when Lucas returned home after classes, his father handed him an airline ticket. His suitcases were already packed and he was whisked to the airport. While in flight to Miami, Cuban soldiers arrived at the Alvarez home looking for Lucas.

When he arrived in Miami, Lucas was basically penniless. He spent a few nights sleeping on the beach before he managed to land a job at one of the resort hotels. Not being able to speak English very well, he had to work as a menial until he mastered the language of his new country. Eventually he earned and saved enough money to return to college. He earned his degree and was soon hired by IBM.

At the luncheon, Lucas announced that he’s been in the United States for forty-eight years. When asked if he would return to Cuba if the Castro brothers lost power and the borders were reopened, his response was one of honest evaluation wrapped in sadness.

First, he said that all the older people he knew growing up are probably dead and gone. Next, he explained that the people he knew who were his age had all fled to other countries. Finally, he said he would have no way of knowing any of the younger citizens. In short, he would know no one.

He further stated that his brothers had returned to visit their old home and neighborhood. They reported that the paved roads are now nothing but dirt and dust, and that many of the buildings have collapsed and not been repaired. They described it as though it was a city in Germany that had been left to rot after being bombed during World War II.

Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can Never Go Home Again” almost ninety years ago, but I don’t think he was thinking about people like Lucas.

Perhaps I’m one of the few fortunate ones. The house I grew up in is virtually unchanged since I moved on in 1966, and much of the neighborhood looks the same. I’m sure many of the people I knew are long gone, but at the very least – on the surface – the neighborhood appears unchanged.

I can’t imagine the feelings Lucas’ situation must engender. My heart goes out to him and to all the Cubans who were forced to leave their homeland because of the insecurities of some dictator.