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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Held up without a gun

It is patently offensive, if not borderline criminal, that the price of gasoline in the Kingston area (and most other locales, I presume) has dropped less than 10 cents a gallon during the time that the price of oil has plunged from $148 to $122 a barrel.

Crude's decline amounts to roughly 17.5 percent, while gas - now selling for around $4.11 a gallon in these parts after topping out in the neighborhood of $4.19 - has come down less than 2 percent.

Now I'm not a fool. I know the price of gas never declines at the same rate as the price of oil - if it did, a gallon of regualr unleaded would be selling for about $3.45 today - but I think we have the right to expect far more of a price break than we've gotten in the last month. Something around $3.75 would seem reasonable.

At $4.11, we simply are being had.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Great show, 'cheap' gas

Went to New Jersey on Sunday. Not sure what was more exciting – seeing Brice Springsteen play at Giants Stadium or paying $3.85 for gas at an Exxon station in Hasbrouck.

Amazing. Seeing a 3 at the beginning of a gas price literally warms our hearts these days. Think about how that same 3 felt when the price of gas was on its way up. The feeling was more of a pit in the stomach. Queasiness. The sense of one’s wallet being drained. “These are better days,” as Mr. Springsteen once sang. But seeing gas prices that start with a 2 would be better still.

Springsteen was great. Always is. And, happily and unexpectedly, he’s back to playing more than three hours a night for the first time since the E Street Band’s 1999-2000 tour. He was clocking about 2:45 on the 2002-03 tour, 2:15 to 2:20 at the solo gigs in 2005, 2:30 on the “Seeger Sessions” tour in 2006 and 2:20 to 2:30 on the first U.S. leg on the current tour (this past fall and winter). Last night, he tallied a whopping 30 songs in three hours and 15 minutes – worth the price of admission, to be sure.

And even though I’ve now seen this guy 12 times (which still makes me a mere novice compared to the crazies who have been to 200 or 300 shows), he still manages to perform songs I’ve never heard live before. (Last night, it was “Spirit in the Night,” “Growin’ Up,” “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart” and “Tunnel of Love.”) That’s a testament to how deep Springsteen’s catalog is and to how deep he’s willing to dig to keep his shows fresh for fans who see him night after night after night.

Which reminds me – did I mention I’m seeing him again tonight? Freeman sports reporter Mike Stribl and I are hitting the road in a couple of hours for show No. 2 of the Boss’ three-night stand in East Rutherford. But lest you think that makes me a groupie, consider this: I’m skipping the Jersey finale on Thursday. Which is more than I can say for Mike.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

You can't have it both ways

Would someone please clarify for me John McCain’s position on when the U.S. should withdraw troops from Iraq?

McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, has said he opposes the plan by Democratic candidate Barack Obama to bring all U.S. forces home within 16 months of Inauguration Day.

Any withdrawal of troops from Iraq "must be based on conditions on the ground," McCain said on Monday.

“When you win wars, troops come home,” he said during the same remarks. “He (Obama) has been completely wrong on the issue.”

But then, later on Monday, McCain said: "We've succeeded (in Iraq). We're not succeeding, we've succeeded.”

Doesn’t “we've succeeded” mean we’ve won? And didn’t McCain, just a few hours earlier, say that “when you win wars, troops come home”?

Why, then, does John McCain oppose the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq?


Monday, July 21, 2008

Bunks, bargains, baloney and baseball

Some observations from the past couple of days:

* Rhona and I spent much of Sunday at the summer camp in central Massachusetts that our son Marc attends. (It was the annual mid-session “Visiting Day.” That's Marc, above, in a picture posted on the camp's Web site.) All week, we feared the thunderstorms forecast for the latter part of the weekend would put a damper on the day. By about 2 p.m., when it was 90-plus degrees with bright sunshine and oppressive humidity, we’d have given anything for a brief downpour. Unfortunately, we never got one.

* Speaking of central Massachusetts, a Shell station just off Exit 8 of the Massachusetts Turnpike was selling gas for $4.08 a gallon on Sunday – not exactly cheap, but better than the $4.17 that most stations in the Kingston area are charging.

* And speaking of the weather, The Associated Press on Saturday wrote that Cristobal was “the first tropical storm to menace the Southeast seaboard this hurricane season.” Menace? Seriously? The storm barely brushed the Outer Banks of North Carolina, its wind speeds never topped 50 mph, the accompanying rain was no worse than moderate, and the only physical impact along the shore was that the surf was slightly higher than usual. Wow. What a menace.

* And speaking of The Associated Press (like my segues today?), the news service, in a story over the weekend, referred to my beloved Los Angeles Angels as “scrappy,” a word commonly used to describe the 2002 Angels, who won the World Series despite being made up of mostly unknown and undersized but highly energetic players. “Scrappy” doesn’t really describe the 2008 team – which is led by such brawny veteran stars as Vladimir Guerrero, Torri Hunter, Gary Matthews Jr. and Garret Anderson – but if using that adjective makes the AP happy, fine. I, however, prefer to describe the Angels (who just swept the Red Sox to become the first club with 60 wins this season) as what they actually are: The best team in Major League Baseball.


Friday, July 18, 2008

The 'buck stays here

This just in: Starbucks is NOT closing any of its three stores in Ulster County.
This means I can continue to buy coffee at those shops as often as I always have.
Which is never.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Seeing stars (all-stars, that is)

I’ve never worked on the sports side of the newspaper business (that sound you hear is Freeman Sports Editor Ron Rosner breathing a sigh of relief), but anyone who knows me, reads my blog or has ever spent five minutes with me knows I’m passionate about the subject, especially when it comes to baseball. So indulge me, if you will, as I spout off about the recent Major League All-Star Game.

* Even when the game doesn’t go 15 innings, as this year’s affair did, it always starts and ends ridiculously late, eliminating not only the youth audience, but also most adult fans who have to get up for work the next morning. (The game always is on a Tuesday night.) Knowing this, why not follow the lead of hockey’s All-Star Game, and play baseball’s Mid-Summer Classic on a Sunday afternoon; or football’s Pro Bowl, and start the game early on a Sunday evening? And don’t feed me any bull about needing to schedule the All-Star Game during prime time because of advertisers’ demands; even the NFL’s Super Bowl, the most-watched sporting event of them all, starts around 6:30 p.m.

* The umpiring in the bottom of the 11th inning in Tuesday’s game was dreadful. Saugerties native Tom Hallion called the American League’s Ian Kinsler out at second on a steal attempt when Kinsler clearly was safe, and Derryl Cousins called Dioner Navarro out on a tag at home plate when Navarro clearly was safe. The blown calls ultimately didn’t matter – because the American League won the game four innings later – but the players and fans have a right to expect better.

* Looking at a list of the players selected for this game leaves no doubt that the voting is a popularity contest rather than a reflection of who the game’s best players are. How else can one explain why Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, the National League’s current leader in home runs and runs batted in, was left off the team, while Mets closer Billy Wagner, who blew six save opportunities in the first half of the season, was chosen? Well, at least Wagner lived down to his reputation: He came into the game in the bottom of the eighth inning, with the N.L. leading 3-2, and gave up the two hits that allowed the A.L. to tie the game. Another blown save. What a shock.

* Along the same lines, it was absurd that not a single offensive player from the Angels – the team with the best record in baseball at the break – was chosen to play in the All-Star Game. Are we to believe there’s no one of All-Star caliber among the likes of Vladimir Guerrero, Torii Hunter, Garret Anderson and Gary Matthews Jr.? Yeah, right.

* Baseball officials and the All-Star Game’s announcers constantly try to convince us that the game has mattered more since 2003 because the winning league gets home field advantage in the World Series. Baloney. The All-Star Games in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 all were won by the American League, yet the National League team managed to win the World Series in two of those five years. The World Series – like all major sports championships – is won by the best team, not by the team with home field advantage. Good teams can win on the road. That’s part of what makes them good teams. It’s not like they suddenly forget how to play away from home when a title is on the line.

* Lastly, I grew sick and tired during the late innings of this year’s game of hearing how the two teams were in danger of running out of pitchers (the same problem that caused the 2002 game to be declared a tie after a mere 11 frames). If American League Manager Terry Francona and N.L. skipper Clint Hurlde wanted to have enough pitchers available for a potentially long extra-inning game on Tuesday, maybe they shouldn’t have used a combined 16 hurlers during the first nine innings. I realize their intent was to let every selected pitcher get some time on the mound, but if this game really mattered – as baseball officials and the announcers constantly tried to convince us – then Francona and Hurdle should have managed it like it mattered. They didn’t. And if they had run out of pitchers, they would have had no one to blame but themselves.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Against the Wal? Not me!

Wal-Mart often gets a bad rap: too big, plenty of volume but not enough selection, long checkout lines, overcrowded parking lots and, of course, harmful to locally run small businesses.

But the retail behemoth helped Rhona and me avoid a major headache this week, and it deserves credit and our thanks.

Our home phone rang about 9:45 a.m. Tuesday. It was the infirmary at the summer camp that our son, Marc, attends in central Massachusetts, informing us he had broken his glasses. (He somehow managed to sever the connection between the bridge and the left lens holder.) He has a backup pair at camp for just such an emergency, but the damaged glasses had the “transition” lenses, which darken in sunlight, and we prefer him to wear those.

I told the camp to sit tight - that I’d figure out a solution and get back to them.

A quick call to Rhona on her cell phone confirmed what I believed to be true: that we had bought the glasses in the Vision Center at Wal-Mart in the town of Ulster. This, I knew, would make things much easier for us because, despite being in the middle of nowhere, Marc’s camp is less than 2 miles from a Wal-Mart. (Isn’t everything?)

My next call was to information to get the phone number of the Vision Center at the Wal-Mart in Ware, Mass., and, within minutes, I had a Wal-Mart employee named Brenda on the phone. She was familiar with Marc’s camp, having dealt with such crises before, and told me she probably would be able to help. She asked for Marc’s name and date of birth, and the location of the Wal-Mart where we bought the glasses, and, almost immediately, was able to tell me her store had the same frames in stock and that, because we purchased Marc’s glasses within the past year, the replacement cost would be fully covered. All we had to do was have someone from the camp bring the damaged glasses to the store so they could put the lenses from the broken pair into the replacement frames.

I called the camp infirmary back shortly after 10 a.m., told a woman there what I had learned and gave her the name and phone number of the Wal-Mart employee, and she told me the matter would be taken care of.

Shortly after 3 p.m. the same day, there was a message on our home answering machine that the glasses were fixed and back at the camp.

Say what you will about Wal-Mart, but this much is certain: Had we not bought Marc’s glasses there, and had there not been a Wal-Mart near his camp, getting his glasses fixed would have been an arduous process that probably would have involved the camp mailing us the lenses so that we could get them placed in new frames here before mailing them back to the camp - a process that surely would have taken more than a week.

Of course, none if this would have happened if Marc had just taken better care of his glasses, but that’s fodder for another day.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

The road less traveled

Gov. David Paterson on Friday signed legislation designating five miles of state Route 30 in the Delaware County town of Middletown as the "Trooper David C. Brinkerhoff Memorial Highway."

Brinkerhoff, you may recall, was the state police member and Greene County resident who died during an April 2007 shootout in Middletown with fugitive Travis Trim. And naming a road for the slain hero is, most certainly, a fitting tribute.

Just one thought, though: Wouldn't it have been more appropriate to honor Brinkerhoff (above) with a road designation in the town of Coxsackie, where he lived, rather than in the town where he died? That way, his wife, daughter, local friends and police colleagues in Greene County could see the sign bearing his name on a regular basis.


Monday, July 7, 2008

Debunking the 'No one is traveling' myth

The oft-repeated prediction across the news media last week was that far fewer people than usual would travel over the Fourth of July weekend because of high gas prices.

If the New York State Thruway on Sunday was any indication, the predictions were dead wrong.

Rhona and I left Rochester, headed back toward Kingston, about 2 p.m. Sunday, and the east-west section of the Thruway was as busy as I’ve ever seen it. It got so bad, in fact, after Exit 24 in Albany that we got off at Exit 23 and took Route 9W home from there – something we’ve never felt compelled to do in the 20-plus years we’ve lived in the Hudson Valley.

The Thruway service areas, meanwhile, were absolutely jammed with cars and people, and one of the editors in the Freeman newsroom told me late Sunday that there were reports of southbound traffic on the highway being bumper-to-bumper slow in Ulster County.

And I heard from one of our reporters, who lives in Woodstock, that the town was absolutely packed with New York City folk over the weekend. He described it as looking like Manhattan had relocated to his community.

The bottom line is this: Gas prices are high. No one likes paying between $4 and $4.20 a gallon for what used to cost less than $2. But, unless it means not having enough money for the basic necessities of life, people are not going to let one inflated expense stop them from enjoying themselves.

The Fourth of July weekend proved that, and I suspect the same will be true for the rest of the summer.


Friday, July 4, 2008

The Starbucks stops here

I take no joy in learning a business is suffering and jobs will be lost. But it’s hard not to snicker a little over the impending shutdown of 600 Starbucks coffee shops.

After exploding across America in an era of ridiculous excess, Starbucks – the Seattle-based chain that insists on calling a small cup of joe a “tall” and the person who makes the brew a “barista,” and has the arrogance to think it can maintain more than one store on the same block in a big city – finally is being forced to face the hard truth: In an era of paying $4 for a gallon of gasoline, consumers have realized it's ridiculous to pay $4 for a cup of coffee.

And perhaps those same consumers have realized Starbucks’ coffee really isn’t superior to the less-expensive java available by the can in grocery stores or by the cup at places like Dunkin’ Donuts, the neighborhood diner or such popular Hudson Valley haunts as Monkey Joe Roasting Co. and The Muddy Cup.

The comedian Lewis Black has joked that a sure sign of the apocalypse is when “there’s a Starbucks across from a Starbucks.” Well, fear not, Lewis. The end is not nigh, for Starbucks has said some of the first stores it will close are ones in the same neighborhoods as others. (You mean it took a faltering economy for Stabucks to figure out that operating two identical stores nearly side by side wasn’t the most brilliant business model? Amazing.)

And fear not, fair consumers. Coffee still will be available to you, even if your local Starbucks is lost. The only difference will be you’ll pay a whole lot less for something that probably is just as good.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Catching up

For about four days now, I’ve been scribbling notes on little yellow pieces of scrap paper, reminding myself of some topics I want to blog about. But rather than cover them all in separate entries, here’s a laundry list of what’s been on my mind:

* Dwayne Kroohs, editor of the Freeman’s weekly People & Events section, is no longer allowed to call me at home on Saturday mornings. Every time he does, it’s about some local catastrophe that’s just taken place: an explosion at a gas station in Hyde Park a few years ago; a ferocious fire at a Kingston funeral home in 2007; and, most recently, a plane crash in Modena this past weekend. I figure if I forbid him from calling, the calamities will cease. (Just kidding, Dwayne; feel free to call me anytime with the disaster du jour.)

* Did anyone notice that almost identical pictures of Kingston High School graduate Rebecca Monk (right) ran in both our paper and the Times Hearld-Record of Middletown on Saturday? I guess that’s what happens when two photographers stand next to each other while shooting the processional at a commencement.

* The Angels, my baseball team of choice, are supposed to have one of the most talented lineups in the Majors. How is it possible, then, that they managed to score a grand total of only two runs in a four-game stretch from Friday to Monday? Talk about a slump! (At least, though, they managed to scratch out a 1-0 victory in one of those contests.)

* I’m pleasantly surprised – but more than a little worried – by the fact that the price of gas has barely budged in the last two weeks, despite the continuing rise in the price of oil. My guess is the gas companies have been holding back as long as possible but that a huge jump at the pump is coming any day now.

* Starting next year, Alderman Bob Senor wants Kingston to charge an admission fee for people to view the city’s annual Independence Day fireworks. I guess Senor envisions some kind of barrier being set up around the Rondout waterfront district, where people gather to watch the pyrotechnics, with revelers having to pay if they want to get inside the barrier. Perhaps it didn't occur to Senor that people will just watch the fireworks from outside the barrier in order to save the couple of bucks he wants to charge.

* Speaking of the Rondout district, a group that calls itself Middle East Crisis Response has filed a lawsuit against Kingston because city police kicked demonstrators from the group out of the city’s T.R. Gallo Park on May 4, when a celebration to mark Israel’s 60th anniversary was being held there. I was at the celebration, and I count myself as being pro-Israel, but it seems to me the lawsuit may have some merit. The protesters weren’t causing any trouble; they merely were holding signs that stated their anti-Israel views. I didn’t agree with their opinions, but I agree even less with the practice of stifling people’s right to free speech – especially on public property.

* I feel a bit bad for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The agency has all the right tools to make Stewart International Airport in New Windsor the viable transit hub it long has deserved to be, but so many things out of the authority’s control have gone wrong in the eight months it’s been operating the facility. First Skybus went belly up. Then AirTran announced it was giving up its Stewart flights. And now both JetBlue and Delta have said they plan to offer fewer flights in and out of Stewart beginning in September. The culprit for all these problems is, of course, the skyrocketing cost of jet fuel, and the Port Authority bears no responsibility for that. But the timing couldn’t be worse, and I fear the agency's grand plans for Stewart may never – excuse the pun – get off the ground.

* And, lastly, three notes about some of what’s on television these days: 1. Do we really need reality shows about the personal lives of such celebrities as Hulk Hogan, Scott Baio, Gene Simmons, Denise Richards and the family of Lindsay Lohan? These people aren’t even interesting when they perform scripted material. We’re supposed to expect that candid peeks into their lives will be any more interesting? Not likely. 2. The updated version of the game show “Password,” which airs Sunday nights on CBS and is hosted by Regis Philbin, is thoroughly addicting. It borrows quite a bit from Philbin’s last game show – “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” – but it works like a charm. 3. Earlier tonight, I caught about five minutes of ABC Family’s new drama, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” The writing is awful, the acting is worse, and the plot lines are terribly clichéd. But the hardest thing to take was seeing Molly Ringwald – the Brat Pack teen queen of such 1980s cult films as “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink” – as the mother of a teenage girl. Ouch. Pass the Geritol.