“Young man! Do you want to learn electrical engineering the seven passwords of the Gnomon?”

My employer had its annual Community Service day today: this year, hundreds of bright-eyed, well-scrubbed, enthusiastic and keenly competitive marketers convened on a public school in the South Bronx, there to accomplish a number of one-day jobs from stenciling quotes on the walls to repainting the gym to reorganizing the library (We’ve done this for a while now.)

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The directions given to us were clear, but I am not good with directions. Instead of getting off the 2 train at Jackson avenue, I accidentally found myself on the 5 at 180th street, took the local train back down, and arrived at the station almost an hour late.

As I was walking down Jackson avenue towards the school, an older man in a half-untucked janitor’s shirt waved at me and said in a thick Jackie Mason voice:

“Young man! Do you want to learn electrical engineering?”

Seriously, that’s exactly what he said. If you imitated Jackie Mason saying that, that’s what he sounded like. “Do you want to learn electrical engineering?” This on my first trip ever to the South Bronx.

I was so intrigued that I followed this guy several blocks to a catholic rectory. He was talking about learning his trade in “the Old Country” (Malta), his time in India, and his electrical career at IBM, then Morgan Stanley in the sixties. I didn’t really plan to follow him through the locked gate of the parish building, but he had a shiny key to the locked gate. That seemed legit. And he seemed to really want to show me his school.

Even so, I didn’t really plan on following him around the back of the building, but there was a printed sign that said “Free Electrical School”, which was intriguing.

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And I really didn’t plan on following him down a flight of narrow, stained concrete steps through a warped wooden door, especially since the paper “Go in to basement. Go inside” and “walk right in to basement” signs posted on every surface were starting to remind me of the “FREE BIRD SEEED” signs posted by Wile E. Coyote. “STAND DIRECTLY ON ‘X’ WHILE LEARNING ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING.”

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However, I reminded myself that in stories, the malefactors lure travelers with promises of wealth, or power, or beautiful, welcoming women in harem pants. Not promises of free electrical engineering classes. So Alladin (who also had to navigate a cave) won over the coyote, and I went down the stairs, rubbing my Treo like a magic lamp (and snapping pictures for the detectives to find.)

Once he had wedged the door open, I could see sheets of plywood mounted on the wall, covered with rows of electrical sockets and light fixtures — teaching tools. So I followed him down a long, damp basement hallway, and saw…

…well, you know the obligatory ingredients of a supervillian’s lair?

  • Underground
  • Big, heavy, inscrutable machinery
  • Some kind of platform or catwalk
  • LCD monitors bolted to the walls
  • Some kind of big blackboard with lots of math on it.

The damp, flyblown, and utterly terrifying unimproved basement space two stories underground had ALL OF THAT, including twelve classroom chairs jammed next to a big blue boiler, facing a six-foot concrete platform, in back of which was mounted a big dry-erase board covered in capacitance diagrams. Or, er… something. It did not appear to be the plans for a nuclear-tipped drill aimed at the molten core of the very earth itself, but you never know with scary subterranean lairs. He even gave me a brief lecture on calculating capacitance.

Anthony (that’s his name) turned out to be a really interesting guy — he’s 78 years old, and teaches classes for free that would cost two grand at trade school, and his only requirements are that you don’t have any felony charges and that you show up for class. He builds a lot of his own diagnostic equipment. The idea is that the students can take their first electricians’ tests and get a leg up on a good job.

Anthony had a bank of computers in another room down another hallway, with LCD monitors mounted to the walls with galvanized brackets screwed into plywood. The computers had the plastic windows cut into the sides with the glowy cathodes inside — gamer computers. Network cable was strung around the walls. It was CAT6 cable, the good stuff, not just CAT5. But he was running AOL over dialup, slightly spoiling the overall effect. He gave me some business cards, and told me that he’s looking for students. Right now, he has five. He wants twenty. That’s why he’s stopping people in the street, and asking if they want to learn electrical engineering.

I swear to God this is real. Tony kept talking away with a blend of stuff you might happen to know something about (DC versus AC, how induction works) mixed in with theories that are either screwball or visionary or both (he wants to find a boiler converter so the church can burn restaurant grease instead of oil for heat.) And here’s the hard part — have you ever had a conversation like this? — he’s parroting back enough of what you’re saying that you start to worry that you’re not having a real conversation, but he’s simply fracturing and kaleidescoping what you’re saying, pushing all your conversational triggers in a kind of chat-bot Turing response that you only realize 45 minutes later isn’t a real conversation at all. By which time you’re deep in a basement. Or is he truly a nice old guy teaching a useful skill for free in the basement of a poor neighborhood’s mainstay church? In which case you feel like a jerk for having those thoughts in the first place.

I’ve known several people that give you that dizzy, short-circuited feeling. One ended up publishing a find of some importance (though in the field of dinosaurs, not of UFOs, which is the context in which my dad knew him.) So I did what you do in that situation — I nodded a lot, and listened a lot, and eventually decided that Anthony is a good guy doing a good thing.
Anthony gave me another very respectable-looking school card, and I sincerely wished him luck and told him that I’d send prospective students his way. Which I will: Reader! Do you want to learn electrical engineering? Email me! Right this way! Come right in!

Update: Anthony’s business card declares that he is a member of an order called “Christians of the Pointed Cross”, an outfit that yields exactly zero Google results as of this writing. So now I’m back to thinking that the whole thing was an elaborate, labyrinthine deception. Clearly, I’m now being pursued by Nazi archaeologists.

PS. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m making fun of Anthony — I’m sincerely not. I think it’s awesome that he’s teaching these skills for free. The fact that he appears to be a world-class eccentric just makes it more awesome. He was just robbed last week, too — a set of slightly-irregular digital voltmeters had been stolen while he was teaching the class. I’m gonna reach out to the parish to get some more background on his school, and will let you know what I find out!

“Young man! Do you want to learn electrical engineering the seven passwords of the Gnomon?”

My first PowerPoint slide from now on.

From medicine-show huckster T. P. Kelley’s opening speech:

“You are dying, every man, woman, and child is dying; from the instant you are born you begin to die and the calendar is your executioner. That no man can change or hope to change. It is nature’s law that there is no escape from the individual great finale on the mighty stage of life where each of you is destined to play his farewell performance.

Ponder well my words, then ask yourselves the questions: Is there a logical course to pursue? Is there some way you can delay, and perhaps for years, that final moment before your name is written down by a bony hand in the cold diary of death?

Of course there is, ladies and gentlemen, and that is why I am here. That is why I have traveled over great wastes of stormy seas, to ask that you let me help you to good health, vigor, and a long life, with the aid of the remarkable carton I now hold in my hand.”

My first PowerPoint slide from now on.

Back from NYC

We’re back from NYC, where I spent a week in a 16th-floor training room bathing in the glow of a Proxima projector learning Adobe Flex 2, and Lydia and Kate did the following:

  • Visited every playground with a fountain south of 23rd street
  • Were told by a mommy at one of the playgrounds in conversation that “the playgrounds are crowded, yes… it can get very cutthroat. But that’s good for them.” (!!!)
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  • Went to the Central Park Zoo and patted the polar bear on its fuzzy rump as it went swimming by (well, from the other side of a pane of thick glass)
  • Visited many yarn stores and quilt stores
  • Took the subway all around NYC (and every time LBY went down into the subway, she’d look up and say “Let’s go to York!”)
  • Ate breakfast and lunch in the lobby of the Giraffe hotel, and danced there after dinner when the piano lady was there (she was happy to take requests, but “Old McDonald Had a Farm” doesn’t seem to be right for a crowd of Spanish businessmen and emaciated photographers with expensive haircuts and open collars.)
  • Rode the carousel in Bryant Park ten times in a row — on the bench, on the frog, on the bunny, on the horse, on the bench again, etc.

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I’d get a picture message every 20 minutes or so with what was going on. It was great, great, great fun to see Kate and Lydia knocking around the town having adventures. Lydia liked the food, too — we ate dinner in Mexican Radio on Lafayette while watching downtown hipsters getting private kung fu lessons in that little triangle park there, at Blue Smoke where they are going for the young-parent demographic and brought us a pig cookie to be decorated and baked, at the Mermaid Inn where we found out that MICHELLE STERN IS GOING TO HAVE A BABY YAAAAAY! (Sorry, Michelle, if that’s a secret), and at Dos Caminos, where Lydia repeatedly demanded that Genevieve accompany her to the beach RIGHT NOW.

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And we had lunch at the Noho Star, and we rode the train, and Kate discovered that having a stroller means that no taxi will pick you up ever (I couldn’t believe this; we had to hide Kate and Lydia behind a minivan while I flagged the cab, then bring them out once I had the door open), and there was lots more too. It was a fun trip!

Back from NYC

I’ve blogged about this before.

looks kind of like a meat hand-puppet
I can understand why Weight Watchers decided to put a bemused-looking avatar next to the message that you’ve gained weight since the last time you plugged your digits into the site. (Last time I plugged my digits into the site was about a month ago, and I’ve been going up and down since then.) I mean, sure, you can’t show a picture of a ham, or a cartoon plate of turkey bones, right? A bemused avatar seems like a good choice.

Why, in god’s name, they had to give that avatar a puffy 3D effect — to make it look like five pounds of smiley-face avatar in a two-pound bag — I can’t understand. “Oh dear lord, fatty! Your inability to stay away from delicious strawberry rhubarb pie is bending the very fabric of the universe, and as a result, EVEN THE VERY ELECTRONS USED TO MAKE THIS AVATAR are becoming overweight! Stop, before your love of butter changes the coefficient of the electroweak force and destroys us all!”

Anyhow, the news isn’t all bad — I’ve been exercising a fair amount, and when I do that, I don’t watch what I eat as carefully. Lydia’s starting to see the jog stroller as a regular feature. She spreads a towel on her lap like she’s the czarina out for a sleigh ride, and waves to the squirrels.

And asks questions:
“What are you doing, daddy?”
“I’m… “[pant, gasp] “pushing you, “[pant, gasp] “baby!”
“oh.” [pause] “Is it hard?

I’ve blogged about this before.

Picking a gym in West Chester

So Kate and I have been looking for a gym that we can go to in our copious spare time. We’ve been evaluating two of them:

  1. West Chester ACAC (“Ay-See-Ay-See?” “Ack-Ack?”) Ten minutes away by car, colossal facility, includes family changing rooms for the pool, a magical centrifugal bathing-suit dryer, and a Starbucks inside the facility. Before we visited, I was envisioning banks of treadmills arranged next to cunning artifical brooks, with carefully-tended rubber trees all around and massage cabanas hidden amongst the palm trees, all under a high-arched air-conditioned roof. To my complete amazement, I WAS EXACTLY RIGHT. Oddly, there were not as many SUVs with “Bush 2004” stickers in the parking lot as we were expecting. The ACAC just opened a forty thousand foot facility just for childcare, with a separate entrance.
  2. Mitch’s Market Street Gym, also in West Chester. Ten minutes away, but on foot — it’s just around the corner. Mitch’s is a local gym inside an old laundry facility, with cool skylights, big windows, and an old, scarred, but polished hardwood floor. No pool. Fewer treadmills, no cunning mountain streams, no cafe, and child care consists of a big room packed to the rafters with battle-scarred Fisher-Price toys.

Now, usually at least a part of the decision is made on whether or not the club is intimidating, and believe me I hate to give up any chance to work the “scrappy band of misfits” angle, but both gyms seemed friendly and unintimidating, full of regular people doing regular workouts. (I used to belong to the New York Sports Club in Soho, but even there the population was only about 40% cyborg. Maybe it’s an east-coast thing.) Also, the personal trainers seemed about the same in both places (West Chester University has a really good phys-ed program. That and early childhood education, so it’s a good place to live if you want babysitters and someone to spot your reverse curls, or whatever.)

So in the end we chose Mitch’s because it’s closer and it feels more local. Plus, running to the gym with a jog-stroller seems a little more Rocky, and driving to the gym with the air-conditioner on seems a little more Ivan Drago. On Saturday, Lydia spent her first twenty minutes ever in a multi-child childcare environment happily banging away on an old Fisher-Price cobbler’s bench, and I spent the same twenty minutes upstairs remembering that a ten-minute pace is not my baseline speed any more. Gasp, gasp, gasp.

Picking a gym in West Chester