Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
You may have thought the almighty dollar would be accepted everywhere in the US, but starting today, the famous Golden Gate Bridge between San Francisco and Marin County will no longer accept cash. Rather, the bridge is switching over to what they call “all electronic tolling.”
For years, commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area have had the option of using FasTrak, an electronic device that one attaches to a car windshield and which deducts money from an account preloaded with toll funds. FasTrak is accepted at all the toll bridges in the area, and can even be used to pay for long term parking at San Francisco International Airport.
Up until today, everyone crossing any of these bridges could choose to either use FasTrak or pay cash. On the Golden Gate Bridge, that is no longer the case.
It seems bizarre, doesn’t it? After all, the Golden Gate Bridge is a world-famous tourist attraction. People come from all over to see it, and countless numbers of them drive across it on an annual basis.
I suppose those who use rental cars from the area may be given rentals with FasTrak installed so they can cross the bridge, but what about those who drive their own cars there from elsewhere? What about those people who don’t want – or can’t afford – to plunk down the minimum deposit of $25 for credit card users (or $50 for cash) for a FasTrak? Will they be arrested if they try to cross the bridge?
They will not. There are several other options, listed on the Golden Gate Bridge website.
Those who use the bridge infrequently can use a “one-time payment” account. They can set up the account online, and pay the bridge toll up to 30 days in advance, or within 48 hours after they cross. In theory, this is the option that’s supposed to work for tourists in their own vehicles, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts most of these folks will have no idea about this system before their visit.
Anyone who doesn’t have one of these types of accounts will be sent a bill in the mail. That’s right, there is a camera set up at each toll lane, to snap a photo of the license plate of anyone who crosses without the benefit of FasTrak.
Sounds great, but it seems obvious there will still be some loss in tolls collected. Some cars which don’t have license plates will cross for free. Blurry, unreadable photos of some plates will result in an inability to send a bill to some people who cross. Others simply won’t pay their bills. Although those with California license plates won’t be able to renew their annual registration until they pay off their delinquent bill, I don’t think out-of-state tourists will care much if California never gets its toll money. How much effort will California put into tracking down someone from another state for $6? Not much.
Plus, it’s hard for me to believe that the cost of taking and reading all those photos, processing all that paperwork, mailing all those bills and collecting the checks, etc. will cost less than the salaries and benefits of the toll takers.
Beyond the loss in revenue, I have to say I’m going to miss the toll takers themselves. A trip across any bridge in the Bay Area used to mean a smile at least, along with a wish to “have a nice day.” It may not sound like much, but it does add a bit of humanity to the drive.
I’m also old enough to remember when we used to have “pay the toll for the car behind you” days. Ultimately, everyone except the first car in the line (which pays twice) and the last car in the line (which goes across for free), everyone who participates pays the same toll. But the fact that some stranger in the car in front of you paid your toll, and the fact that you are paying the toll for some stranger behind you, created a feeling of goodwill for everyone involved. Including those now-unemployed toll takers.
With this new cash-free system, the option for such altruism is gone.
The Golden Gate Bridge has always been known for its wind and fog. Today, however, it just got a little bit colder.
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March 20, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
This weekend I attended an event called, “Free Ranging Communities: Jewish Life in Marin and Hollywood” at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael. The keynote speaker was Mayim Bialik, of “Blossom” and “Big Bang Theory” fame.
What struck me the most as Bialik spoke was how refreshingly grounded and genuine she seems. She comes across as a person who is comfortable in her own skin, while acknowledging that who she is doesn’t always fit in with others in the industry in which she is working.
She spoke about the following seven values she carries with her:
First, she spoke about complex families. She called the Torah a “handbook for life” and pointed out there are many stories of dysfunctional family relationships in the first two books in the Torah. As a result, it sounds like she doesn’t expect herself or others to be perfect all the time.
The second value she holds is routine. In particular, she spoke about the routine of Shabbat, and how it reminds her that, from Friday night through Saturday, nobody else “owns” her. She doesn’t work, she turns off her electronics, and she engages with her family in a way that is difficult to do during the work week.
The third value is joy. In particular, she spoke about the joy of the holidays throughout the year.
Fourth is character. She voiced her desire to be honest and compassionate in her interactions with others. In particular, she spoke about the amount of deception and gossip contained in conversations in Hollywood, and how hard it is not to engage in lashon hara. She quite touchingly described how she will leave a conversation that turns to gossip, even though she thinks doing so makes her come off to others as unsocial or unfriendly.
She also spoke of modesty as part of this value. She does not wear pants outside of her home, she covers her elbows, her skirts are at least knee-length, and she doesn’t wear anything with a plunging neckline. She lamented that when she was nominated for an Emmy, her standards of dress made it difficult to find and appropriate dress for the ceremony. Many designers, she said, would not supply a dress that fit her needs.
Next, she spoke about otherness. Despite the fact that there are plenty of Jews in Hollywood, very few are Orthodox. Thus, she says, especially in the fall, people think she’s making up holidays. She talked about the tension created when others want her to work on days on which work is forbidden.
The sixth value she spoke about is God. She regularly studies Torah and engages in others with conversation about God.
Last but not least, she mentioned Israel as a value. She has family there, and goes there every other year.
The most quotable moment of the day came when she exclaimed, “I was not put on this planet to win an Emmy.” Rather, she says, she was put here to pass on to her children the traditions that people have died for over thousands of years. That certainly sounds like a fine purpose to me.
March 13, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I’m not big on making plans. I tend to be an in-the-moment kind of gal. And when I do make plans, I usually hedge. In general, I won’t say, “I’ll see you on Shabbat,” unless I add, “God willing.” Or I say, “Yes, I plan to be there,” rather than, “Yes, I will be there.”
I do this because I know plans can change. It seems a bit haughty to act like I know for sure what I will be doing at any point in the future, because I know there are a million things that could happen to change all that. So, it was a bit uncharacteristic for me to post on Twitter, as I did a while ago, a Tweet that said, “I’m looking forward to my Shabbat nap tomorrow!”
That was the plan. Fittingly, God rewarded my indiscretion by changing it.
The next morning, I was standing at the door to the synagogue before services, handing out programs and answering questions from visitors, when a congregant came up to me and said, “The rabbi wants to see you. It’s a bit of an emergency.”
I went into the rabbi’s office, where she explained that a congregant had called about a death in the family. The congregant wanted to talk about having us do taharah (ritually washing and preparing the body for burial) for her loved one, but with services about to start the rabbi didn’t have the time to speak with her just then. Neither did she want the bereaved family to have to wait three hours for a response.
So, the rabbi called the family back, introduced me, and then handed me the phone. I assured them that we would be happy to do the taharah, and that, as volunteers, we don’t charge anything to do so. I said this despite the fact that the body was at a funeral home at which we had not yet done a taharah, and I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out.
After we got off the phone, I left voice mail message for our other rabbi, who is the clergy contact for our chevra kadisha, the group of people who does the taharah work. I wasn’t sure how we normally coordinate with a funeral home for taharah, let alone a new one with which we’d had no contact yet.
After I left that message, I walked out of the rabbi’s office to find an overflow crowd at services. I helped to put out additional chairs, and to give everyone a prayer book. By the time I had gotten the latecomers settled and had finally taken a seat myself, my cell phone vibrated (silently), and I ducked out of services to answer it.
It was the other rabbi calling back, confirming that we don’t have a relationship with that particular funeral home, but he would contact them to try to make arrangements. He also told me that, although we normally have a congregant volunteer to coordinate the taharah team each month, we didn’t have anyone signed up to do so that month. I told him I would take care of getting a team together for the taharah.
By the time I sat down again, it was only a few minutes before the Torah service. I had promised to help on the bimah with that part of the service, since the cantor was out of town, and with two b’nai mitzvah taking place that day, it helps to have a second person to make sure the family members get to where they need to be, to hold up the card with the aliyah prayers on it for them, etc., so I jumped back up to help with that.
After services, I picked up a text message from the rabbi in charge of the chevra kadisha, with the name and phone number of the person at the funeral home. I called the funeral home, and discussed possible times for the taharah. I also garnered some necessary information about their facilities.
I loaded up my car with the necessary taharah supplies. Then I headed for home and, instead of hitting the couch for my Twitter-announced nap, I headed to my computer (which usually remains off on Shabbat) to pull up the list of people trained to do taharah, and I started making phone calls.
By the time I had a team together, had confirmed the date and time of the taharah with the funeral home, had communicated with the chevra kadisha (some of whom I had left messages for but had not spoken with yet), and had notified the deceased’s family and both rabbis that we were all set, it was early evening. Too late for that nap.
Rather than the relaxing day I had planned, it had been a whirlwind day. I realized I hadn’t gotten a whole lot of praying done, either, let alone napping.
Still, I like to think I was able to bring some measure of shalom into that Shabbat.
March 6, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
In less than three weeks it will be Passover. That means in a less than three weeks it will be the second anniversary of the death of my father, alav hashalom. I’ve been thinking a lot about him these days. That’s likely why this past weekend I made lecho, a Hungarian dish he taught me to cook.
My father was born in Hungary in 1931; not a particularly safe time to be born Jewish in Europe. Fortunately, his parents brought him to America circa 1938, before Hitler entered Hungary and started murdering the Jews there.
An only child, one of the many things my father learned from his mother, may her memory be a blessing, was Hungarian cooking. In turn, he passed down to me the conviction that sweet Hungarian paprika is good on pretty much anything, as well as the family recipes for dishes like goulash, chicken paprikash, and lecho.
I’ll tell you the recipe for lecho the way my father told it to me, because the recipe contains a veiled story in itself.
“Saute an onion and a bell pepper, and sprinkle them liberally with paprika,” he told me, “Cook them until they are soft. Then add some tomatoes and more paprika. Simmer until the tomatoes are soft and the sauce thickens.” Then, he said, almost as an afterthought, “And if you have enough money for meat, you can add some sausage.”
Now, my parents were both professionals who made a good living. We weren’t rich, but we lived in a nice house, and we never worried about where our next meal might be coming from. My father didn’t make lecho often, but I don’t remember him ever making it without polska kielbasa in it. When he told me this recipe, it was the only time I ever heard the words, “If you have enough money for meat” come out of his mouth.
Clearly, this is a recipe that had been handed down for generations. Clearly, it carried the memory of those ancestors of ours who weren’t middle class Americans, and who often didn’t have enough money for meat.
Continuing to tell the recipe the way he did feels to me like a way to honor the generations who came before me, whose struggles and decisions allowed me to live in a world in which I don’t worry about whether I can afford to buy meat.
So this past weekend I bought an onion, an orange bell pepper (because the green ones didn’t look so good), some tomatoes, and – oh yes – a package of (non-dairy, non-pork) turkey polska kielbasa, and cooked up a fragrant batch of lecho. Which I ate with some new-world sourdough bread.
Thanks, Dad, and all who came before you, for the gifts that live on even after you are gone.