Talking and taking trains on Turkey Day

For all of my kvetching about “virtual strip searches” and airport security gropings, my Thanksgiving travel plans always included taking the train (and a bus) to the Bay Area to visit family. It’s more of a matter of convenience and comfort rather than a fear of oppressive security or flying. With four Amtrak California buses leaving Chico every day (and the overnight Coast Starlight train), the bus/train is a pretty convenient way to get around.

It seems like a lot of other people between Sacramento and the Bay Area had the same idea — the Capitol Corridor reported carrying 26,449 passengers over the weekend.

On Thanksgiving Thursday, the train was fairly full as it zoomed past slowly moving vehicles on I-80. On board, single travelers really couldn’t hog the tables meant to seat four, but many could still have a pair of seats to themselves.

The Thursday crowd paled in comparison to the people returning home on Sunday. The four-car train I was on was standing-room only. That’s only the second time I’ve experienced that in my recent travels (for intercity travel).

With the train stuffed with people, the conductor gave fair warning to people waiting to board at stations along the line — he said there were no seats, but people could board if they didn’t mind standing. I was able to grab a seat for most of the trip, but I ultimately gave it up for a mother and daughter heading to Chico.

A huge number of passengers got off at Davis as university students returned from their holidays. There was a similar situation for Chico State — there were so many people returning to Chico on the 6:30 p.m. bus from Sacramento that Amtrak added an additional bus. The added bus provided a welcome amount of space after being on the crowded train.

The buses were running an hour late, which I’m sure was an inconvenience for some. I didn’t mind too much because I could sit on one of Sacramento Valley Station’s grand old wooden Southern Pacific benches and read a newspaper.

While the train isn’t always the transportation solution, it’s certainly an option to consider when traveling around Northern California and beyond.

Photo: A westbound Capitol Corridor Amtrak train pulls into Sacramento Valley Station in Sacramento, Calif. on Sat., May 9, 2009.

Quick! We must name the other shopping days of Thanksgiving weekend

The creation of Small Business Saturday on Nov. 27 has made it painfully aware to me that America must name the remaining days of Thanksgiving weekend. It’s no longer enough that we have Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday or the granddaddy Black Friday — all seven days starting this Wednesday must have names.
Although I’m still working on my front-of-the-napkin notes, here’s my initial proposal.
(By the way, why do people always use the back of the napkin? The front works perfectly well.)
Why Not Wednesday? – You’re on the road, trying to get to grandma’s house while avoiding suffering a flat tire or being felt up by security agents. The stress is starting to mount. Some retail therapy is just the palliative. One little cookie, McRib or small appliance won’t hurt much (in the short term). Why not?
Try-to-Forget Thursday – OK, so Wednesday shopping didn’t help that much. You’re now at grandma’s house and remember why you only visit once a year. The blaring volume from the game on the HDTV in the family room rivals that of the screaming kids in the living room trying to re-enact the “Clash of the Titans” in a blanket fort. Shopping to the rescue once more as you sequester yourself in the guest room, hunched over a laptop perched precariously on a toy chest, trying to get good-sounding deals.
Apparently, this is actually becoming a strong online shopping day as many retailers start their Friday sales early on their websites, according to The Record in New Jersey.
Black Friday
Small Business Saturday
Still Shopping Sunday – You’re a marathoner and the race isn’t done. Get your second wind and get back out there. There’s got to be a second cousin out there that needs a knick-knack or commemorative candle that smells like crushed glass.
Cyber Monday
Tired Tuesday – You’ve been shopping non-stop for seven days. Perhaps it’s time to give you and your credit card a break? If you can’t resist, maybe you could buy some organizers or storage units to manage all of the things you bought on your week-long orgy of consumerism.
Of course, all of these named days are gimmicks. Black Friday was popularized by retailers as the busiest shopping day of the year (although it’s usually the days around Christmas). Cyber Monday was conjured up by online retailers to juice their Web sales.
Small Business Saturday is no different. As far as I can tell, it was devised by American Express as a promotion for its OPEN small business services.
Perhaps there is enough room for three big shopping days during the Thanksgiving weekend. Maybe if we work hard enough, we can push it to seven glorious celebrations of shopping.
So those are my ideas for the shopping days of Thanksgiving. What would you call them?

Take the ‘virtual’ out of ‘virtual strip search’ this travel season

I’ve been concerned about the new Transportation Security Administration screening procedures and many passengers’ reactions. I’m disheartened by the negativity of some of the responses. “Don’t touch my junk” has become this year’s “Don’t tase me, bro.” What has become of America’s can-do attitude?
Instead of dwelling on the negatives (and I readily admit there are many), it might be more productive to focus on solutions. First and foremost, the TSA should drop the “virtual” from what opponents are calling “virtual strip searches” and make them real.
Under this scheme, all passengers should remove their clothing and place them in bins before heading through the screening gate.
It’s a natural progression from older screening procedures. We already remove our shoes, why not remove everything else?
There are many upsides, including the fact that it would eliminate the electronic scanners that some fear exposes passengers to potentially harmful levels of radiation. It would also ax the heavy frisking is currently the alternative for those scanners.
In addition to making it harder (but not impossible) to conceal harmful objects, perhaps terrorists with nudity taboos would be deterred by the large number of naked people in the terminal. I think that my presence alone would deter at least some people.
After the screening, passengers would get their clothes back (just like their shoes today). I would rather that the TSA issue pocket-less sweatsuits for passengers to wear during the flight, but that may be too difficult to enact.
I can understand the concerns that people would have about being seen nude, but it would eliminate any direct physical contact from either electronic radiation or TSA agents.
Of course, I make my modest proposal in jest, but some are apparently planning to go through security checkpoints while wearing kilts … in the traditional fashion.
The TSA was unlikely to make everyone happy, but it should have done a better job of justifying and explaining why its new procedures are vital to the nation’s security and why any intrusion on passengers’ rights was necessary and minimized. Not only is that a good idea, it’s the law.

Petty thieves turn Sierra Nevada events slightly skunky

Enjoying Old Chico Crystal Wheat during Sierra Nevada OktoberfestIt was wonderful that Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. threw several events this year, including an Oktoberfest dinner next to its on-site hop fields and a 30th anniversary party in one of the brewery’s warehouses on Nov. 15. They also donated the beer for the Chico Chamber of Commerce’s Industrial BBQ. These soirées were huge and accommodated hundreds of people.

It’s unfortunate that some of the attendees were less-than-gracious guests when they started walking away with items. I don’t know if this would ordinarily be worthy of mention, but I was disappointed to see it happen at both events.

During Oktoberfest, there were large green metal buckets adorned with the Sierra Nevada logo filled with pretzels atop tables. There were tons of them throughout the tables under the gigantic white tent where the bulk of the event took place as well as outside in the beer-serving area.

As the night wore on, I started seeing people walking around with the buckets, presumably to take home. I also saw heaping piles of pretzels strewn about the tables where the buckets were.

I don’t know if the brewery intended for people to take the buckets or assumed that they might. In some situations, it’s common for guests to take home table centerpieces.

At the very least, I thought it was inconsiderate for people to merely dump the pretzels on the table, adding to the mess for people to clean. Also, the buckets cost $10 in the gift shop — not cheap, but they’re not priceless and immensely unique items either.

I thought it was a little telling that the table decorations for the brewery’s anniversary bash were less desirable as souvenirs.

During the anniversary celebration, the pretzels were set out in simple, shallow and utterly unremarkable baskets. The table decorations included trios of bottles of varying sizes with electronic tealights placed through holes cut in the bottom of each container. Perhaps more valuable were small, cylindrical vases about the size of juice cans filled with a modest bouquet of flowers and 30th Anniversary coasters used as cards.

I didn’t think these items would be worth taking, but some people proved me wrong. I saw people walking with the vases. Near a table, I saw an overflowing bag on the floor with a broken brown bottle of the same variety as the ones used on the tables. I have no idea why someone would take a common bottle with a hole cut in the bottom.

It seems people weren’t just content to take table decorations — someone stole my souvenir anniversary glass. This happened in the 30 seconds it took me to walk 15 yards to put my dinner plate in a compost bin. It was funny because I briefly thought about taking the glass with me, but I thought it would be safe in the sparsely populated part of the dining area in the short time I would be gone.

I don’t think it was an overly attentive staff person cleaning up my table — a newspaper I was reading was still on the table. I suppose someone could’ve assumed that I was leaving/left and didn’t want my glass (although a courteous person would’ve asked). However, I was gone for such a short time, I can only assume that someone swooped in and deliberately snatched their prize.

I was disappointed at this turn of events. Thankfully, one of the event staff was nice enough to give me a second glass when I told her my first glass “walked” away. She said it had been happening a lot that evening.

Needless to say, I did not let go of that second glass until I got home.

These incidents definitely speak more to the guests than to the hosts, who were absolutely gracious. I also wonder why people felt the need to scavenge. I don’t think money was a factor because each event cost about $30 to get in, but perhaps people felt they were entitled.

Aside from these minor moments, both events were great fun with wonderful food and fun music. Sierra Nevada’s events staff ran the events well, aside from running out of food toward the end of Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest featured glass-blowing demonstrations of steins and other drinking implements. The anniversary celebration had 30 beers on tap, including several rare and unbottled varieties. I loved the dark and rich barrel-aged Life and Limb, but the author in me was partial to the name of the beer Writer’s Block.

Ultimately, a few bad apples were just a minor note on two extremely fun events celebrating a Chico landmark.

Photo: One of the buckets of pretzels at Sierra Nevada’s Oktoberfest celebration with a commemorative stein filled with Old Chico Crystal Wheat.