The sad death of AM radio

In a parallel universe, I’m a disk jockey, or maybe a newsman. Being on the radio was once a career goal for me, and very few of my friends know that I almost earned a degree in broadcasting. Almost, because I was one class short of earning a dual-major in “broadcast communications” in college. (I really should have just taken the extra class and gotten it done, right?)

So, I’m sad that AM radio is waning. (Catch me in the right mood and I can even explain the physics and practical differences between AM and FM — it was part of my course of study.)

Today, even though I have some excellent Tivoli receivers, most of my “radio” comes over the Internet courtesy of Tune-In or another streamer. Other than the now quaint call letters (another mini-lecture that I can deliver on demand), I don’t even know from which band — or in which city — the stations I listen to exist. Hell, now that I think about it, some of them aren’t even licensed and don’t broadcast over the air at all.

But old-fashioned AM radio is still my guilty pleasure when I’m driving. The last car I bought, a few years ago now, didn’t initially have an AM radio, but I was happy to discover that the AM band was an option hidden in the settings of the navigation system. Many manufacturers have dropped it completely, but recently, I read that congress is considering mandating its return.

(That, frankly, is probably motivated by the conservative politicians who know that AM has become a key method by which right-wing con artists spread their propaganda to rural Americans.)

But back to my listening on road trips — if you’re persistent, you can usually find a weak AM station that is broadcasting hyperlocal news. You’ll hear reports of new businesses, quaint weather references, and best of all; radio auctions.

The first time I heard a radio auction was driving across Oklahoma. If you’ve never heard one, the basic format is that people call in and describe household (or farm) items that they have for sale. Let’s say, a leatherette couch. Then, other listeners call in and make offers to buy it. Cash money. The radio host takes their bids on the air and keeps track of the highest one.

During these calls, everyone gives their phone numbers, names, and sometimes addresses over the air. Hell, maybe they all know each other anyway, but as a city guy, this free exchange of personal information always surprises me.

In addition to being quaint, the radio auction is great “Gladys Kravitz” entertainment. Some callers will talk about when and where they bought an item, what they like about it, and why they’re selling it. As in “My last kid moved out so I ain’t got no need for the couch cuz I set in the Lazy Boy. It only has two cigarette burns but you can’t notice them if it’s not sunny out.”

If AM radio goes away, I guess I’ll have to start listening to podcasts. Please, Congress, don’t make me do that.

If you see something, say something, but not to us

I’m walking through Millennium Park in Chicago. There are many visitors around, and in parts of the park, prep work is underway for the NASCAR race this weekend.

I'm on a sidewalk near the Pritzker Pavilion. Oddly, there's not another person in eyesight, ahead or behind me. Chalk that up to it being a weekday mid-morning.

Ahead, I spot a backpack on a park bench. The backpack is overstuffed, and sitting upright, as if it has been carefully placed. I look around more carefully, and I'm all alone. "Hmm, that's weird," I think and keep walking.

At the end of the walk, there happens to be a Chicago Police SUV. Two officers are inside. I approach, and through the open window I tell one of them about the unattended bag. She says, "OK, thanks" as if I had interrupted her telling a story about some perp she beat up. I laugh slightly and add, "Well, if you see something, say something, right?" She replies flatly, this time not even looking at me, "OK, thanks."

As I walked away, I realized that if it turns out to be a bomb. I'll be the primary "person of interest." At the end of the block, I glance back at the patrol vehicle. Both cops are still sitting inside.

Update: It apparently wasn’t a bomb. At least not one that exploded.

An afternoon scene in Walsh Park

Walsh Park photo by Gordon Meyer

I’m cutting through the park, as I usually do on the final leg of my daily walk when I notice something unusual. The exercise station that the city installed a few years ago is being utilized! Standing underneath the pull-up bar is a man and a woman. Both white, probably mid-20s in age. They didn’t seem to be dressed for exercise, but then, neither am I in my jean jacket and Dr. Martens, so that observation doesn’t register with me right away. As I round the gentle curve of the approaching sidewalk and get closer to them, I come to understand that they aren’t exercising. The pungent smell of marijuana fills my nose. Ah, well, good for them. At least the station is finally getting used for something.

Two millennials at the post office

Here I am again, waiting in a long line at the local post office. I can’t help but listen to two millennial women ahead of me when they approach the counter.

pile of enevelopes

The first is carrying an armload of loose merchandise. It looks like cosmetics, and maybe some socks. Perhaps it’s a gift she’s sending to someone. She dumps it all on the counter when it’s her turn at the window. “I need to mail these.” With no visible reaction, the clerk directs her to buy a box from the kiosk across the room, then to get back in line. “You’ll put the address on it?” The clerk blinks and explains that, no, she’ll have to write the address herself and that there are pens at the nearby counters.

The second young lady approaches, holding in her hand about five envelopes. They appear to be standard greeting cards. They’re addressed, but lack stamps. “I guess I need stamps to send these?” Yes, she is told, and the clerk asks how many she needs. “How many stamps do they each take?” The clerk blinks, and answers, “one for each.” The woman acts as if this answer surprises her. She purchases the stamps, then before leaving the counter asks where to put them on the envelope. “Upper-right corner,” then adds, after a beat, “on the front.”

Then it was my turn, so I don’t know how either of these scenarios concluded.

For another tale from this post office, see: Five people at the post office

Photo by Alexander Grey.

Neighborhood sociopathology

Although I don’t have any medical training, I believe that I have accurately diagnosed a person who lives on my street as a sociopath. (And most likely, by implication, a Trump supporter.)

How did I reach this conclusion? Observation.

My kitchen window overlooks a busy urban street that is in high-demand for parking due to its proximity to popular storefronts and restaurants. When a parking space is vacated, it’s typically immediately taken up by another vehicle. Spaces are unmarked, so cars are parked bumper-to-bumper.

Except during the early hours of the morning. At that time, the stores are closed, and there are often open parking spaces with big gaps between them. And that is when I frequently see my neighbor strategically adjust where his two cars are parked.

He’ll rush out of his home and move both his vehicles so they are parked behind each other. This, you might be thinking, seems reasonable. But it’s where the pathology emerges.

He carefully places each car so that they consume the maximum amount of space. Positioning them just in front of a loading zone (so that nobody can park behind), and then leaving a several foot gap between his cars. I have even seen him pace out the space between his cars so that it’s large, but not so big as to be a usable spot.

When he’s done —and this process takes several minutes— his two cars are taking up enough space to park at least three, if not four, vehicles.

He’s precisely the type of person who should move to the suburbs. And here’s the kicker, he has a two-car garage that he doesn’t use. Definitely a sociopath.

Small-town Dead

This year, I’ve driven back-and-forth across much of the United States multiple times. Resulting in at least 6000 miles of travel, and several weeks of being on the road.

As a fan of Blue Highways, stopping in small-town America is always a highlight. (Although not always a respite when in Trump-y areas, such as Deadwood and all of Oklahoma.)

One consistent attribute of many small towns is what I’ve come to call “Dead Soldier Square.” It’s remarkable how many places have memorials to residents who have died in recent military service. Occasionally, it’s an old-school statue, but more often the memorial consists of photos of the dead on streetlight poles, or otherwise distributed along Main Street. Every so often, the placards are placed in the windows of empty storefronts, which makes them even more haunting and evocative by combining two forms of civic loss.

The photos of dead youth haunt your every step. The intention is probably to remind the living of their sacrifice, but I suspect the actual result is numbing and normalization.

It’s especially poignant knowing that for at least some of these young people, joining the military was the only viable means of escape from the town. And now, in death, the town is the only place where they are remembered.

Pandemic Drip Dry

“What’s all this about?” — I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked about the album of photos that I’ve been posting on Flickr. Now, I am closing the project and explaining its genesis.

It began after a conversation with a friend about how our daily lives had slowed during the COVID-19 lockdown. For me, washing dishes by hand and letting them air dry was a mindful approach to the monotony seeping into every aspect of the day.

The symbolism of cleanliness, nutrition, and patience was intentional — why should I hurry to complete this mundane task? I had nowhere to go. The photographs reflect the everyday sameness, but also the quiet persistence of waiting for the plague to pass. There are gaps in the timeline because not every day of the lockdown can be recalled.

Now, two years into the pandemic and one year of this project, our Sisyphean routines continue due to the ignorance and callousness of others. But in these times, this means I am still here. Still washing. Still waiting.

Five people at the post office

I open my post office box and on top of the week’s mail is a peach-colored notification slip. For most people, “Oh! I have a package to pick up!” would be a joyful surprise. But those people don’t live in my neighborhood. Here, the thrill of a pick-up is also delivered with no small measure of trepidation. (My local post office was once rated by the Postmaster General as the worst in the country.)

old school pobox

The post office, located on a busy Chicago street, still smells like the shoe store that previously occupied the storefront. I notice when I arrive that there are only five people ahead of me in line, which is pretty much like winning the lottery. The plexiglass plague shields, along with the mandatory face masks, require people to speak loudly, which lets me eavesdrop while I wait for my turn.

A twenty-year-old brunette is at the counter. She asks the clerk “Do I need to put a return address on this package?”

The clerk replies, “Yes, all mail should have a return address.”

“Where does it go?”

“In the upper-left corner, but you wrote the destination address up there, which is going to confuse everyone.” “Here,” she says, handing over a pen, “write your return really small above it.”

“OK, thanks. I thought it might need one, but I didn’t know where it went.”

As this conversation is taking place, another young woman arrives. She’s carrying a shopping bag full of small pre-paid packages. I decide that she’s an Etsy seller, shipping out orders. (She seems crafty.) She begins piling the packages on the far counter, which is the designated spot for dropping off ready-to-go packages, but she has so many that she has to carefully balance them on top of each other. The clerk notices this and yells at her for not asking for a bin to hold the packages. The girl sheepishly takes the bin she’s given and empties the bag, leaving the bin on the counter.

As she’s departing, she passes another woman, who is entering. This new woman approaches the drop-off counter, gingerly peeks inside the bin, then rudely interrupts the clerk to ask if it’s OK to add her single package. She gets a surly “That’s what it’s for” in reply.

The next person to approach the counter is an older Asian lady. I think she’s with the half-dozen young Asian women who are huddling just inside the door. The ethnic similarity between the old woman and the young group triggers something in the clerk. She yells across the lobby that the group needs to get out of the way of the door. The group, startled, timidly shifts around, then after a few seconds, exits en masse. Their reaction and movements remind me of gazelles being stalked by a lion. (I sure do miss Marlin Perkins.)

Meanwhile, the older Asian woman at the counter tells the clerk she needs to send something via “certificate mail.” I wince, presuming that the clerk will harshly correct her, but instead she points her towards the forms on the other side of the room. Then, noticing the woman is holding a loose stack of papers, she also directs her towards a rack where she can pick out an envelope to buy. (By the time I leave, the old woman will still be filling out the form. Her young friends huddling outdoors clogging the sidewalk, oblivious to the dirty looks from people leaving the nearby L station.)

I hear an exaggerated sigh behind me, I turn my head slightly to glance at the woman in line behind me. She’s impatiently shifting her weight from foot to foot, as if her fidgeting is a magical dance that will hurry things along.

The next person to approach the clerk doesn’t have an envelope either, but she wants to send Priority Mail and the clerk has a flat-rate envelope at hand. As the transaction is continuing, the customer removes a crumpled letter from her purse and asks why it was delivered to her home. The clerk takes it, compares it to the Priority Mail envelope that the lady has just finished addressing, and says, quizzically, “Because it’s addressed to you…?”

“Oh no, I sent this. The address it was going to is here,” she says, turning the envelope over to reveal its back.

The clerk looks at her in silence for a couple of seconds and says, “Well, that’s why it came back to you.”

“Oh, I guess I accidentally sent it to myself then.” She reaches into her purse again and removes yet another letter. “Well, why did this one come back to me?”

The clerk pauses for a longer time. Her eyes darting between the customer and the envelope. I think she’s counting silently to herself. Finally, she says, “This is a business reply envelope. You can’t cross out the ComEd address and send to somewhere else instead.”

“Oh, I guess that makes sense.” Her questions answered, and her transaction completed, the woman leaves.

The lady behind me clucks her tongue loudly.

Next is a young lady who pre-paid for her package online and believes, falsely, that she can just hand it over and walk away. The clerk stops her from leaving because she has used a Priority Mail box, but paid for First Class. The clerk tells her to repack the item into a plain box, which she must purchase, as only Priority boxes are free.

The next person to approach the clerk is a woman who has been busily packing and addressing an Express Mail envelope while she’s in line. My mind is wandering, so I miss the start of their interaction, but I’m jolted back to attention when the customer loudly exclaims “Twenty-Six dollars? You gotta be kidding.” The clerk says that is what Express Mail costs.

“Express Mail? I didn’t ask for no Express Mail! Just regular mail is fine.”

“You put it in an Express Mail envelope.”

“I didn’t know that meant twenty-six dollars.”

“Go put it in a Priority Mail envelope instead, then come back up here,” the clerk suggests.

The lady walks away waving the envelope at all of us in line — “you all watch out for these twenty-six dollar envelopes! They don’t look like they are twenty-six dollars but they sure are!” She cackles, “that’s one expensive envelope!”

At last, it is my turn. I hand the clerk my peach-colored notification slip and show her my identification when she asks to see it. Meanwhile, a second clerk opens her window and the lady from behind me rushes towards it.

She plops the package down on the scale and, with a voice dripping with frustration, says, “Priority Mail.” The clerk glances at the package and slides if off the scale saying “This is the wrong kind of tape, I can’t accept this package.” “What? Are you kidding me‽” The tone of the lady’s voice catches the attention of the clerk who is helping me, and she chimes in ; “You can’t use masking tape, it won’t stay sealed.”

“It’s the only tape I have.”

“It’s an FAA regulation, you have to use packing tape.”

“This is ridiculous!” She picks up her package and stomps out the door.

My clerk retreats to the back room to locate my package. While I wait, a middle-aged hispanic man approaches the other clerk with a dirty and dented Priority Mail box. He says “I’ve mailed this twice and both times it has come back to me. Why?”

Just then, my clerk returns holding my package. It’s a book sent to me from a magician in Singapore, so it requires a signature release. The clerk asks to see my identification again, I scrawl a “signature” on the touch screen with my finger, and I depart.

I guess I’ll never know why that guy’s package keeps coming back.

(Photo by Tim Evans on Unsplash. Thanks!)