Thinking about taxis, rather than something else

It’s oppressive. You can’t get away from the Trump chaos. Everyone talks about it. Walk down the street, meet a friend. Immediately they bring it up even if you don’t want to hear it. A friend who is skiing in Vermont emailed me about meeting for dinner. But then she ended with, “what’s to become of our nation?”

A Scottish relative even got into the fray when she took a bus back to Lossiemouth from Elgin. An elderly woman near her told her she pitied the “poor Americans.”

“They niver thought in a the days o man that that absolute fool o a man wid be in the White Hoose,” she said. “And now I hiv tae ging back into Elgin again the night tae join the protest.”

Who knew elderly Scottish ladies would be protesting in far-north Elgin at night?

I try not to think about the nation’s problems unless I hear something funny. Thank goodness for the online Borowitz Report and Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, the New Yorker’s Calvin Trillin and Rachel Maddow, whose news is filled with irony and glee at the latest absurdity.

My most successful tactic, however, is to think about banal things instead of scary ones. Taxis come to mind. Life in Boston would be better if we had better taxis. Let’s think about them instead of something else.

Like telephone booths and typewriters, they are a relic of another age. There are the same number of taxi medallions in the city as in past years, according to the media relations department of the Boston Police Department, but there seem to be fewer taxis on the streets. This is hard to verify, however, since no one can tell me how many are actually on the streets.

But taxis don’t have to become relics. They have one advantage over Uber and Lyft. You can stand at a street corner and hail them. And you can find them at taxi stands—the one behind City Hall and in front of 225 Franklin are particularly convenient. If you can find one quickly, they are quicker than Lyft, for whom you have to wait. While taxis are more expensive, it’s usually only a few dollars difference. It won’t break the bank.

But taxis make it hard to love them. Signs pasted on the dirty, clunky divider urge passengers to stay loyal. But who can stay loyal to cramped quarters, no indication that a cab is available when it approaches you, clumsy payment options, hostility if you pay by credit card, annoying blather coming from a small television screen and a lack of air conditioning in the summer?

If taxis are to remain on the streets of Boston, they must up their game. Here are some modest proposals.

Put a light on the top of every cab that says if it is available or not. New York City cabs can manage that simple piece of information. So can DC’s cabs. It’s welcoming and efficient to know that the taxi coming toward you can stop for you.

Get rid of the divider between the driver and the passenger. These were installed long ago after a couple of cab drivers were assaulted. But that occurs rarely. Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, taxis do not have that bulky barrier that prevents easy exchange with the driver and air conditioning from flowing through. And those places aren’t as safe as Boston.

The unsightly barrier makes it hard for passengers to get in and out and have a place for their feet. A barrier-free ride would make a passenger’s ride more comfortable and make that passenger more inclined to take a taxi rather than Lyft, which is always more comfortable.

Make taxi service regional rather than city-based. Surely if Amazon can figure out how to deliver packages everywhere, some smart person should be able to plan how to deploy cabs all over Boston, Cambridge and Brookline, for starters, with efficiency and standardization. It is annoying to realize that the cab coming toward you near is not supposed to pick you up even if it is empty.

Boston also has its job to do. Taxi medallions are like liquor licenses. They should not be able to be bought and sold in a private market. They should go to one cab and be retrieved when that cab is out of commission. They should be affordable for individual drivers. They should be issued with public comfort and accessibility in mind and not for the benefits and convenience of big owners.

If the taxis don’t make these changes, they’ll descend into the junk yards where Compaq computers and Walkman devices have gone. No one will miss them or be sorry. And we’ll have to go back to thinking about Trump.

A recipe for cooking

Take one old hot dog factory. Add two big kitchens, eight convection ovens, 12 food truck spaces, several 15-gallon mixers, a frying pan logo, a 1,800 square-foot refrigerator and 45 start-ups. Stir in $15 million of public money, tax credits and donations. Cook for seven years while raising money, renovating the factory, and getting up to speed. Top it off with an executive director who knows her stuff.

Serve it to Bostonians at the Boston Public Market, the Greenway and commercial outlets all over the city.

Enjoy, as waiters say. You’ve just gotten the recipe for the CommonWealth Kitchen, a non-profit company in an old Pearl Hot Dog facility that nurtures start-up food businesses and also cooks for bigger but still personal food businesses that are so successful they can’t do it by themselves.

My friend Sally and I drove out to Dorchester, where the facility is, to see what was happening. I’d heard about this place from people at the Boston Public Market, since CWK, as is it known, prepares pasta for Nella Pasta and foods for other Boston Public Market vendors.

It helps to have the equivalent of a world-class chef managing the kitchens. That’s Jen Faigel. People like her are both commonplace and extraordinary. On the one hand, they’ve done what everyone is supposed to do. They’ve found their niche, educated themselves, gotten experience, grabbed an idea and made a success of themselves and their passion. On the other hand, when you find people like that, they seem rare.

Jen had worked in affordable housing, real estate development and economic development. The Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation was planning to tear down the decrepit factory and build affordable housing. Neighbors said no. “We want to keep jobs here,” they said. “What good is affordable housing if people can’t work?”

That was in 2009. By 2010, Jen, who’d been on the board of the former CropCircle Kitchen in JP, was brought in as a consultant by the Dorchester EDC to help create a food incubator that took advantage of the special conditions the 1910 factory offered. In 2014, Jen became the executive director of CWK, which absorbed CropCircle, and it opened with two kitchens.

One is for folks who have an idea for a food product, but don’t have the facilities or the know-how to make their favorite sauce, pickles or cake into a real business. Those budding entrepreneurs sign up at $35 an hour to use the large equipment CWK provides. Along with the space, they get instruction on crafting a business plan, getting the proper permits, scaling recipes, packaging their product, maintaining food safety, and handling finances, insurance and all the other nuts and bolts of running a small business.

So far, 45 businesses, including the Clover Food Lab, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese and McCrea’s Candies, have gone through the program and grown to the point where they’re on their own.

Forty-five small businesses are now sharing the large kitchen. They include Sweet Teez Bakery, whose owner, Teresa Thompson Maynard, arrived while we were visiting to make her cookies, cakes and cupcakes. “I left corporate on January 16,” she said. “CWK really helped me know what I’m doing.”

She needed the help, she said, since she admitted burning the first cake she baked in the large convection oven.

Grace Connor, aged 17, was also in the kitchen while we were visiting. This tall, thin South End girl was making cookie dough ice cream for Little G, her nascent ice cream venture.

Jen said a Boston police officer makes chutney at CWK, but we didn’t meet her.

On the other side of CWK’s entrance is the second kitchen, devoted to cooking for outside vendors whose facilities can’t handle the volume they need. While we were there, three women were baking cookies and also preparing a bloody Mary mix for Alex’s Ugly Sauce. Owner Alex Bourgeois now has his sauce in every Whole Foods on the East Coast, so he is experimenting with new products.

CWK also makes sauce for Mei Mei Street Kitchen and pumpkin puree for Harvard’s dining services. In the fridge were fifty pounds of cilantro, which shows the volume CWK can handle. Nearly 60 percent of the fresh ingredients are local, Jen said proudly.

CWK has relationships that connects its businesses to lenders when the start-ups need investment to expand. It constantly cleans the fans, floors, drains and equipment. It creates a community of cooks who can keep in touch after they disperse.

CWK has 14 staff members and a $1.6 million budget, with 50 percent from earned income, matched with grants and fund-raising. Within five years, Jen projects earned income will cover 85 percent of CWK’s costs. She has space for more start-ups.

So if you are intent on creating your own culinary sensation and offering it to the world, contact Jen. Everything you need to sign up is at www.commonwealthkitchen.org.

DC: The bad and the good

Susan and I took the train to DC last Friday with lots of people and returned on Sunday. We stayed at Lois’s house. On Saturday we three went to the Women’s March on Washington. We wore our bubble-gum pink “Nasty (old) Woman” hoodies. (One of us is 83—probably one of the oldest participants.)

Chatter about the march had been that the black and white women organizing it couldn’t get along. Some complained that protests over the rest of the country were distracting people from going to DC. The organizers weren’t organized enough to tell me how many people from Boston were attending, but there were many. That is expected, since Trump lost badly here.

The crowds were uncomfortable, and the Amtrak announcer kept telling people to take the first seat they could find because the train was full. The Mall was uncomfortably jammed, as were all the streets leading to it. We couldn’t hear the speakers. Some reports mentioned a Jumbotron but we couldn’t see it.          The lines for the bathrooms were 50 people long. Any bare ground was muddy, so we hoped we wouldn’t fall. A grim-faced John Kerry walked through with his dog to a roar of recognition and gratitude. Why was he so grim? What was he doing there if he was so grim? Had he just come from a meeting at which he had had bad news?

We stood around waiting for the march to begin. Then we heard that the march route was so crowded that we couldn’t march. Then we marched anyway.

With all these problems, maybe it was not worth it.

It was one of the best experiences all half million of us had ever had. It was America at its best, the one we long for.

Kindness, first. It was like four days after 9/11 when I got on a plane. “Let me help you,” was what the few passengers on my plane said to one another. That disaster, like this one, had elicited a concern for one’s fellow human beings that normal life doesn’t produce. “Come get in line ahead of us,” shouted one young woman at the head of the bathroom line as she noticed the canes two of us carried. We didn’t take up her offer, but we bathed in her generosity.

Diversity next. This march was America. We were black, white, Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist, immigrant, citizen, tall, short, rich, poor, old, young, men, women, some from Montana, others from Michigan, lots from New York. We saw a trans band, a person of indeterminate sex covered with bangles and beads, a white guy in a kilt because he said, “I wanted to wear a skirt.” The welcome for this diversity came naturally to the march participants. It was hard for marchers to understand why so many Americans could not follow the basic Christian rule: “Do unto others . . .” that is fundamental to all religions. From what dark part of their heart had this distrust, this fear, this rejection of the “other” come? There were no dark hearts in this group.

Instead there was joy, bravery and determination. This crowd had gathered because of dismay, but no one was depressed. Like Americans throughout our history, these people were hopeful and confident about their mission. They were not defensive or angry. The happy camaraderie made everyone feel safe. Every criticism of Trump was couched in humor or word play. On Saturday the Mall was the home of the brave.

This group was responsible. Remarkably, there was no litter on the ground. These people didn’t make life hard for neighbors. They were good citizens.

Comedy and inventiveness were the means. Americans have always had new ideas and new solutions. We pride ourselves on our fertile imaginations and ingenious solutions that build industries, businesses and civic entities. So there were dozens of signs and chants filled with irony or word play. “I’m sick and tired of this PC culture treating everyone with dignity and respect.” “Our rights are not up for grabs.” “Resist the normalization of ignorance.” “Pussy Power.” “Hands too small. Can’t build a wall.” And “#FreeMelania.”

There was also the acknowledgment that the way to annoy bullies is to make fun of them, make jokes about them and expose them to ridicule in as many ways as possible. The marchers felt a deep satisfaction with this response.

This was grassroots, not corporate. Not one corporation had been able to take over the event. Signs were home-made. A graphic had been created to provide a “brand” for this event, but more common were the original costumes.

What’s next? Watchfulness. More mockery. Donations to all the causes in jeopardy. Support for our Massachusetts elected officials in DC. Also pride in so many Americans demonstrating the inclusive, supportive attitudes that really make America great.

Shadows vs. money

Aren’t we Bostonians better than Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump?

Millennium Partners beat out several other developers in a plan to demolish the city’s decrepit parking garage at Winthrop Square and build a 700-feet-plus skyscraper, paying the city millions of dollars to be spread around for park improvements, affordable housing and the like, all of which Boston needs. It’s a good project with a good outcome for Bostonians.

There is one problem, however. The project’s shadow would at times fall on the Boston Common and Public Garden, even though they are several blocks away. This means the building would violate the 27-year-old state law protecting the parks from shadows that can reduce plant health and people’s enjoyment. This law, as its advocates point out, has helped the parks and has not deterred development in Boston’s downtown. It should not be tampered with lightly.

So when I attended a meeting about the project sponsored by the Boston Planning and Development Agency, I was eager to see if anything could be worked out that would be a win-win for both sides.

Except for a gorgeous translucent model of downtown Boston, however, the event, attended by a couple hundred people, was depressing. It was two sides lining up like McConnell did against Obama, swearing that not one thing Obama wanted would ever get passed. It was like Trump—demonizing opponents with insults.

It was embarrassing to listen to an older man viciously screaming at young BPDA staffers because the format was not like the December meeting with a presentation and a time for audience comments. Instead there were stations set up with posters, videos and architects’ models addressing different elements in the project.

Then there was the battle of the buttons. Several attendees wore “Keep Our Parks Sunny.” Others were milling around with buttons that said “Let Boston Rise.” I was told that some people wearing the latter were union members.

Several residents muttered to me and one another about how deceptive Millennium officials were, how awful they were, how it was all about greed, and that they should simply slice off the top half of the building, bring it down to 300 feet and try to make a living off that.

It was embarrassing to hear the public sniping about a developer who started the revival of the Combat Zone by building a hotel and condominiums.

It was embarrassing to realize that there appears to have been a lack of awareness early on, on the part of the mayor, the BPDA and Millennium, that this far-away building would cast an illegal shadow. After all, these people are professionals.

It was embarrassing that the BPDA had not figured out how to warn people that the format would be different, since the crowd obviously couldn’t handle that surprise.

It was embarrassing that downtown folks, who typically enjoy more financial resources than do “working” people, can’t properly acknowledge that they also care about jobs the property development brings.

It is embarrassing that “working” people don’t realize that many downtown people actually do care that the wealth is shared generously among all kinds of workers.

It was embarrassing that the public couldn’t appreciate the ironies. For example, if the project’s location were closer to the park—let’s say where Macy’s is—its shadows would pass muster, said BPDA Director of Development Review, Jonathan Greeley, since buildings in the Midtown Cultural District (and over South Station) have less restrictive shadow limits. One reason some locations were restricted less was that the city was trying to foster development in those areas.

How did we get to this level of rancor and lack of humanity? How did we get to the place of no compromise, no ability to stand in another’s shoes?

I have been to many meetings about contentious matters. Often members of the public bond over their mission, pumping it up into a fight between good and evil, even if the morality of the matter is vague.

This is a good example. Both sides have good points to make. But the demonization must stop. The players should maintain respect for the other side’s position, even if they don’t agree with it. They should advocate without trying to destroy reputations or mocking the other side.

This can be worked out. My hope is always that Millennium narrows the top of their building into a point, like the Empire State Building, reducing the shadow and also improving Boston’s skyline. Ameliorating shadows was the reason the Empire State was designed like that. (It was also designed with a tie-up for a blimp, but that’s another story.) But that is just my hope, because we all have our quirks.

There is a process to go through, and I have no answers to these serious problems. But compromises can be made. Everyone may lose something but I hope both sides win a lot.

Good stories

So we’re sitting in a movie theatre at Loews on Tremont Street, waiting for Manchester by the Sea to begin. The previews are too loud. The themes are sadistic, violent, cruel, creepy, pathological. Silence is one of movies. The others I can’t remember but they involved cars blowing up, gunshots fired, people disintegrating, mayhem complete. The audience twitters. We’re laughing. The chaos is so profound that it’s ironically funny. The movie-going public has become so inured to violence that it must be extreme.

I say to my husband, “We can skip all these.”

He says, “This must be one reason why modern-day Americans are so messed up.” (He didn’t say “messed.”)

Later, in the ladies’ room, I hear people discussing how awful the previews were, so I know it wasn’t just me.

But it got me thinking about movies and why in my family we avoid so many. One is that movie-makers fail us with a lack of imagination.

Why do they have to rely on Jackie Kennedy to tell a story? Are they having a hard time making up stories of their own? There’s a movie about Chappaquiddick, for heaven’s sake. Let’s skip it. I felt the same way long ago when Mel Gibson, another violence-obsessed movie maker, made a film about the crucifixion. We all know how that turned out. It does not make us better persons to see it filmed in gory detail, supporting Gibson’s screwed-up mind.

I don’t want to see the films about the Boston Marathon bombing either. I want to remember on my own how Mayor Menino left his hospital bed and made it to the podium, metaphorically capturing what Bostonians described as strength in their response to the tragedy. I want to remember on my own how everyone stayed inside, following the Boston Police’s instructions, showing we trusted them to do the right thing. Given how the police are viewed in other communities, it makes that behavior special.

I read the reviews of the first marathon bombing movie, Patriot’s Day. This is probably not a bad movie, as movies based on real events go. But it seems to be not just about the bombing. It’s also about that local felon and recovered druggie, Mark Wahlberg.

Apparently his character is everywhere. Wahlberg exploits the tragedy for his own aggrandizement and financial benefit. Someone suggested in a letter to the editor that with his profits Wahlberg should fund the park near the Boston Children’s Museum that will be named after the little boy who was killed — the same little boy whose bereaved and injured family has responded to the tragedy with such dignity and class. Watertown and Cambridge wanted nothing to do with the movie, repudiating the exploitation. The family of the little boy also refused to be involved.

I imagine this movie will annoy all Bostonians because even Boston native Wahlberg will probably not be able to get the accents right either.

I won’t give up on movies, however. It’s because of Manchester by the Sea. Except for one character at the end they don’t nail Boston accents even though the credits listed a dialect coach. I guess they never will.

This movie takes place in the town of Manchester. Islands, ocean, snow, fishing and trees play their parts. It’s unclear whether the main character works in Boston or Quincy. But that’s a detail.

The family is dysfunctional. The main character is quick to fight if someone rubs him the wrong way. He reminds the movie-goer of what Mark Wahlberg might have been like as a young man.

But there has been a tragedy, one so profound that even a well-balanced person would never recover from it. In that way it is as extreme as the movies that feature violence as their reason for being.

But the delicacy and nuance that pervade the story elevate it to a category of its own. The characters sometimes find courage. At other times they falter. They make remarks that have the audience laughing even in the saddest parts—that short distance between tragedy and comedy. This story is about working-class Massachusetts people, but it does not offer the usual clichés about bank robbers and petty criminals that lurk around Charlestown or Southie. It’s been a long time since someone made a movie like this, especially about Massachusetts.

I hope it gets all the awards it has been nominated for because the story telling, the acting, the filming are all exquisite.

But its real value is in its creativity. It did not have to rely on the clichés of Boston, nor violence, nor someone else’s story. I hope it sets a new standard for movies worth seeing.