A day to celebrate Schenectady

Football season is finally upon us. It’s amazing how a college football game can really transform a town. Thousands of people come in from all over to tailgate, and the whole town gets transformed into a giant party.

Schenectady doesn’t seem to have anything close to this. Sure we have Union College, but even when they were winning a national title in hockey it was hard to find much of a unifying spirit. We did have the parade after the victory, but given the historical an improbable nature of the championship, we can hardly rely on Union hockey championships to regularly rally the community.

Sure, we have our fair share of cultural events, such as the Greek fest (which is also coinciding with Little Italy fest) or St Anthony’s Festa, but nothing that binds the community together like a large sporting event would. I’m actually a really big fan of all of these events, including the Polish festival, which I, unfortunately, couldn’t attend this year. We also have Proctors, which draws people to town from all over the region, but it too lacks the singular event phenomenon.

The event doesn’t need to be a sporting event, either. Many cities have established festivals to draw people to several events happening concurrently. It’s time for Schenectady to have a festival that brings together the entire city, and not just a single ethnicity. It also needs to be separate from a national holiday.

Even Niskayuna has a day of celebration.

With all of the great institutions in Schenectady, it’s time for a day to invite the world to visit and see what Schenectady has to offer, from the Rose Garden to the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. Maybe by then, we’ll have established that Schenectady Ice Cream I’ve been thinking about.

And now, in preparation for tailgating this weekend…

F Bon Jovi

One of the aspects of living in upstate NY I’m still trying to grapple with is deciding on which professional team to route for. When it comes to baseball (does anyone really watch baseball anymore?), I seem to be surrounded by Red Sox fans, this despite Facebook pronouncing me in solid Yankees territory.

I’m not even sure which basketball team I should pull for. At least I know baseball fans who, while they don’t actually watch an entire game, keep up with the sport. I don’t know anyone who actively follows an NBA team.

And then there’s football. I tend to lean more towards the inexperienced-player-botching-a-play game of the NCAA, myself. As far as I can tell, most people fall along the familiar Yankees/Red Sox lines with the Yankees fans pulling for the Giants and the Red Sox fans routing for the Patriots. But then there’s the other present but somewhat lesser fan bases of the Jets and Bills. Any person unlucky enough to be a fan of one of these 2 teams has the great misfortune of constant abuse from the Patriots fans. They are truly a brave bunch.

I think this resiliency, which has been acquired over the years, helps explain why when I was driving through Buffalo recently, I listened to a promo on a local radio station encouraging listeners to tweet F Bon Jovi (just the letter) whenever they didn’t hear a Bon Jovi song. Luckily for them, the station had implemented a Bon Jovi ban and promised to never play his songs.

Intrigued, I looked it up the next chance I had and learned that Bills fans have a deep seated fear that Bon Jovi will buy the team and move them to Canada, eh? Now that’s passion for their team.

Economists often debate the benefit of building a sports stadium, and It’s my understanding that it is typically economically neutral; but these studies often do not account for the city pride that people gain when a team arrives, or in the case of Buffalo, when a team leaves. And so, Bon Jovi becomes a victim of a city that has seen its fair share of struggles, a team that just can’t win that Super Bowl, and fans forced to put up with Massholes.

So here’s to you, Bon Jovi. I’m certainly not going to weigh in on this fight, but maybe an uplifting song will get you through these troubled times.

The Perfect Summer Job

This post is part of a series exploring the workers I’ve met who are on the front lines of the fracing boom in Pennsylvania. You can find links to the other articles on the overview page.

If I had to guess someone in the class was going to be from Texas, I would have guessed it would be James. He walked into the class wearing  cowboy boots and a large belt buckle touting the wonders of Jack Daniels. He drove a 1985 Ford pickup that he unashamedly touted as being impermeable to the impending rain because of its complete lack of electronics.

To James, this job as a welder’s assistant (a job he described as “doing whatever the welder wants me to do.”) was a fantastic opportunity for the next 6 months. He was notified of his need to attend the class just the day prior when “a Mexican” failed to show up for work. But it was also great pay for his level of education.

At 19, James was the youngest person there. He had joined the Marine Reserve, following in the path of his older brother, and needed to find a job for when he wasn’t actively deployed. With just a high school degree, his job paid $14/h, which meant his job paid more in 2 weeks than his girlfriend’s did all summer. This sort of opportunity reminds me of the stories people tell of being able to find a decent job with just a high school education back in the 60s before the onset of globalization. Plus, with appropriate additional training, he could be highly recruited for other jobs in the region.

When I compare James’ experience with that of Danny’s, it reminds me of the disruptive innovation popularized by Clayton Christensen, but applied to labor. Have we entered a world in which college represents an over education of the labor force when what we really need are skilled trades? How much longer can we afford for the nation’s youth to take on significant debt without the opportunity to pay it back?

What each of the stories in this series represent are people trying to make it as best they can. It’s easy to think of the shale gas revolution in environmental terms, primarily because most of the news stories focus on that, but it also affects many other aspects of our society. By providing jobs to people with little training, others like James and Jason can earn a living; but the people working on these well sites also represent people like Danny, who have been let down by the larger American economy and fall back on the decent salary despite their training in other areas…much in the same way that a barista at Starbucks or waiter at your local restaurant may have a college degree. The environmental impacts also need to be accounted for, absolutely, and the environment and the economy are not mutually exclusive; but the environment must be balanced with the many other positive benefits to society. What other industry shows so much promise and opportunity for such a large swath of the american public?

An American Dream Deferred

This post is part of a series exploring the workers I’ve met who are on the front lines of the fracing boom in Pennsylvania. You can find links to the other articles on the overview page.

I wish someone told me you can’t just follow your dream

With gelled hair that was parted down the middle, Danny was the oldest student in the class. He was also the most melancholic. Danny didn’t intend to join the world of unconventionals. Instead, he had a goal of pursuing a career in political science.

Danny went to college and majored in Poli Sci at a university near Harrisburg, PA. Like many students, he took out a substantial amount of student debt to pay for school only to learn upon graduation that he could not find a job in his field when he graduated just prior to the Great Recession. Like many others in a similar situation, he found work where he could. In Danny’s case, that was in the world of fracing.

His first job required little of the skills that he went to college, and into debt, for. Danny spent his days “watching water levels in tanks.” His description of the job seemed so elementary, that it surprised me it hadn’t been automated, yet. He outwardly disdained the working conditions and told me that he disliked wearing a hard hat and ear plugs when he envisioned himself doing work in an office somewhere. Danny was visibly demoralized; he remembers his hopeful, younger self who could accomplish anything he wanted to…he could follow his dream.

But his job in fracing became more than a job he disliked; it became an opportunity. After working for a couple years in the field, he went back to school, but this time to earn an associates degree in oil and gas production. He chose this path because his current employer would pay for his education, and because in this area of PA, oil and gas became a possible career path.

It remains to be seen whether or not Danny succeeds in his new career in the oil and gas field, but it’s certainly better than the alternative of being unemployed with accumulating student loans.

The migrant worker

This post is part of a series exploring the workers I’ve met who are on the front lines of the fracing boom in Pennsylvania. You can find links to the other articles on the overview page.

Jason is in his early 20s and very skinny. His smile betrays his chipped and blackened front tooth and he speaks with a strong Southern drawl. That’s because he’s not from Pennsylvania. He’s from Texas…Jasper, specifically. A place where, to quote a very blunt Jason:

they kill niggers by dragging them behind trucks.

He is referring to this incident.

He started in the oil and gas industry through his family. Both his father and brother work in some capacity for a related company.

Jason is quite the story teller. He was once electrocuted while trying to fix his electric meter, and would have died had his friend not  knocked him away with a stick. He allegedly drove a car with a broken accelerator that would reach speeds of 100 mph unless he was actively braking for 2 months before getting it fixed. Jason also, allegedly, worked on jobs without appropriate safety equipment or monitoring.

But the reason Jason is the migrant worker is, ironically, his family. A father of 2 daughters, aged 1 and 2, he recently separated from his wife of 3 months after she revealed that she had cheated on him prior to their wedding. He readily volunteered this story without the slightest hint of embarrassment, as he did with his countless others.

And so, he told his wife to take the kids and move out while he went to lay pipelines. He first went to Wyoming to work on a job there, but by the time he arrived, the job was over. So he waited around in Wyoming without a job until he learned about this opportunity in Pennsylvania.

The job is to last 6 months, which is a relatively long period of stability for him, but after the job ends he doesn’t know what he’ll do. Jason hopes to learn of another opportunity somewhere else, but there is nothing in the works. As for his wife and 2 daughters in Texas, he hopes to visit them when he can, but he doesn’t seem too eager to return soon.

Profiles in fracking

The issue of fracing (or fracking) seems to frequently arise in NY State politics. This is largely due to the indefinite moratorium that could be lifted at any time. I am not going to expand on the pros and cons of fracing here, but I do want to share the stories of 3 new employees for oil and gas companies that are fracing, or supporting fracing, operations in Pennsylvania.

I had the opportunity to meet them last week during a safety course, and I plan over the next several days to provide a look at each person’s relationship with the fracing industry that is causing so much controversy.

The three gentlemen are:

1) The migrant worker

2) The disillusioned college grad

3) The high school success

Each has a different story that helps me to understand a little better a topic that is largely covered through the environmental/safety angle. I will link to each story from this page when they are published.

Smoking near an open window

One of the first things I noticed after moving to Schenectady was the prevalence of smokers. It seemed that everywhere I went someone was smoking. Even my current neighbors smoke. In the Summer, the whiff of cigarettes comes in through my windows.

I especially noticed this because I moved from a place that restricted smoking almost everywhere (California). No smoking restrictions existed at bus stops, in front of businesses, in any commercial zone, and near any medical center. Parks were also restricted, but it seemed that only the tobacco smoking ban was actually enforced, but not other forms of smoking.

My initial impressions were confirmed when the results of the UMatter survey were released showing that more than 37% of Schenectady residents were current smokers. This compares with a national average of 18.1% according to the CDC. Once might think the high rates of smoking correlate with Schenectady’s relatively high rate of poverty, but the breakdown at the CDC suggests it may be more closely related to the education level of the community (9.1% smoking rate for a person with a college diploma vs. almost 42% for a person with a GED).

Even the very high tax rate on cigarettes in NY has not seemed to deter Schenectady residents from smoking.

So what can be done about the high rate of smoking? Many health professionals are working on this issue, and I don’t have much more to add. But one easy switch that can reduce the negative impact of smoking on others would be to promote the use of E-cigarettes, or vapes, instead. If my neighbors all used E-cigarettes instead of regular ones, I wouldn’t have to frequently inhale second-hand smoke, and we may be able to avoid one of these sticky situations.

Yet states and the Federal government are starting to restrict their sales. That is a shame.