Atlanta Beltline

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In celebration(?) of my forthcoming empty nest, my wife and I joined a local photography group.  “Meetups,” as they’re called, are pretty frequent with this group, and from time to time I’ll be posting photographs from these excursions.  Why?  Well, there’s really no point in taking photographs if they’re not to be shared.  Hello web log.

This trip was to a 1 mile section of the Atlanta Beltline, a trail being built through the City.  This section was a one mile section between Ansley Mall and Piedmont Park with about 40 attending on a humid day.  A nearby section will be opened in the Fall which is likely to be worth a revisit.

The trek began over a bridge.  Except, I ventured into the weeds for a different angle than others were taking.  Notably, photography these days has as much to do with computer craft as it does taking pictures.  The two pictures below show what cropping and colorizing can “achieve” from the same shot.

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As far as I know, I’m the only who bothered to look under this bridge, and it is not surprising what I found.

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I prefer:

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This log looked like a wide mouthed Cyclops.

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Graffiti on a wall near the next “homeless shelter” that we came across. 

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Strange Tree.  Looked like an elephant with a monkey doing a hand stand.

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Nature’s Choice:

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Currently, a bridge to nowhere.  Not sure what will be connecting to it.  It doesn’t connect to the Beltline but is nearby.

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First, Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings.  Context coming.

Next is context.  The biggest surprise were numerous small clay structures placed under and on a rock face bordering the trail.

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There were also lost or tortured souls...

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But my favorite was the consensus pick of “Mordor.”

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I missed the perfect focus on the next, due in part to the plant section measuring about 1.5”.  I thought the brown spots were odd growths and didn’t figure out that they were very small bugs until I saw the picture on my computer.

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Stay off the moors!

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I don’t get very excited taking pictures of flowers, but this one was vibrant.  (No photo editing either).

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Jos. A. Bank Clothiers

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You’ve heard the commercials.  “Buy one suit, get two absolutely FREE.”  In a 30 second radio commercial spot, you’ll hear this phrase at least four times.  Most men in markets where their stores are located will never bother going to Jos. A. Bank.  It’s not because the name is pretentious (it is), but rather because most men have no need for suits.  The client base is shrinking.

For those that do entertain the idea of more formal dress, the following two questions might arise, “Is their clothing so cheap that they can afford to do that?” or “Are their prices so ridiculously high that they can afford to do that?”  And, it’s quite possible that with those two thoughts in their heads, they run instead to mall-store-of-choice where the price is expected to be reasonable, or even better with a coupon.

I went, and I’ll go again, clearly understanding that their pricing structure falls into the latter category.  As their sales shift from one gimmick to the next, I can only imagine the fun the staff must have changing the prices on their products every couple of weeks.  But, ultimately, the question that should arise is, “Are their clothes worth it?”

I’d have to say... maybe.  Certainly they have the selection.  For whatever style or color I might be seeking, they’ll have it or something close, regardless of whether it’s a sport coat, slacks, shirts, or other accessories.  To their credit, they even have a small but very capable selection of dress shoes. 

The company has to be making a good profit.  Aside from selling “whatever” at a multiple to cover what is said to be “free,” they have two other means of income.  The first is tailoring.  You won’t find slacks pre-measured to your exact length.  Their tailoring is well done, but it adds a tidy percentage to the total bill. 

Second is the trap for efficient shoppers.  “Great choices.  Will you be needing shirts with that?”  Or ties.  Or cuff-links.  Or shoes.  Or a belt.  Or dress socks... all of which are priced quite a bit above expected retail prices.  Gotcha, if you’re into one stop shopping (those items go on sale at other times.  Patience.)  To be fair, the quality of their goods is high; it’s just that lesser quality can sell for significantly less.

Like every other internet shopper, I tend to look at purchases as commodities.  Research a product, make a selection, find the cheapest price.  Jos. A. Bank does not fit into that paradigm.  The key is service, something that is spoken of frequently by all sorts of companies but which is routinely devalued by their customers... until they need it.

During my first visit to the Alpharetta, GA location, years ago, I was assisted by Telfari (last name withheld in case he doesn’t like it splashed across the internet).  I have a pretty good idea of what I’m looking for when I go to Jos. A. Bank.  I would guess that 99% of men do.  It’s not the type of store where I would expect men to wander in just to look around.   That has to help the sales staff, knowing that the odds are that you’re there for something specific.  They have staff who know where that something is. 

I don’t like “salespeople.”  I’m a loner.  I don’t like getting pushed or steered.  I don’t like seeing commission signs flashing in their eyes or a desperation in order to meet a quota.  Both of those enable behaviors that will send me to the exit. 

Telfari was polite, he listened, he exhibited a confidence without arrogance, he found several choices in the vicinity of my description to help refine what I was wanting, and he ultimately registered, in my cash-reckoning system of Kohl’s and other discounters, a pretty nice sale.

I don’t need a lot of dress clothes, but sometimes, you need more.  A couple years later, I went back.  Telfari was still there.  In retail terms, I think that’s noteworthy.  If he recognized me, I don’t know.  But the transaction was the same.  Skip forward to a few months ago, and I needed two jackets taken in (happily), and when I returned, one was ready, and the other had additional chalk marks on it, outlining what he indicated to likely be moth damage.  I haven’t seen a moth in my closet, but the damage was clear, whatever the cause.  I was staring at it in surprise, which was just yielding into discouragement at the loss of a jacket and whatever I had spent on it, when he said, “Don’t worry.  We just wanted to point this out to you.  We’ll replace it for free.”  After which, he went to the rack, pulled an almost identical jacket in my current size, slipped it on my shoulders...  Service matters.

I had bought shoes at the store as well, and a severely curved quarter (rear of the shoe) dug into the tendons above my heel.  I returned them, and they were traded out with a different style, no questions asked.  Service matters.

I shared this story with two co-workers who I know also shop at their stores.  One said, "I had an issue with some slacks.  I was happy with them, but the type chair that I have wore through the fabric rather quickly.”  He didn’t go to the store to complain, but mentioned it.  Telfari replaced it.  Service matters.

I’m unfortunately in the position where I have to dress more formally than I had for years, so I had a need to buy more slacks, shortly after Telfari replaced the jacket.  I hadn’t asked at the time, but I did this time.  If there was a warranty of some sort, it certainly would have expired.  So, “Why?”  He said that it was left to their discretion, and as the damage did not result from my negligence, he has the authority to make things right for the customer.

My father-in-law used to do consulting related to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, often doing assessments to help corporations prepare for the audit that might lead to this award.  In one such case, he found that the doorman at New York’s Ritz Carlton had personal authority up to $20,000 to ensure that a customer was satisfied.   That’s a lot of money (and it was in the 1990’s), and I’m certain there are accountabilities that come with that authority.  It takes a trained and trustworthy staff as well as a corporate mentality that is willing to trust in its employees.  That’s not a small thing.  That trust can be measured in different ways, but when $20,000 is at stake, that’s a commitment to do the right thing.  

I think similarly about Jos. A. Bank.  Telfari’s business card indicates “Chairmen’s Society.”  I don’t know if that is based on longevity or sales volume, but I hope there is a component with quality of service in mind.  Every company would like to think that their product or service is worth more than a competitor’s because of something they do.  It’s talked about a lot, but not encountered often.   I’m still surprised that I’m willing to pay more for something than I would if I went elsewhere.  But, it’s worth a little more when a company has demonstrated a commitment to quality service*.

*not a paid advertisement.

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The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

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I suppose I was disappointed that Tobey Maguire backed out of continuing the Spiderman series, but... not so much.  That Iron Man surprised and presented a much more engaging lead character was partly to blame.  But as the series progressed, or ended, I didn’t like the character anymore or Maguire’s portrayal of him.  Kind of a whiney snot. 

So, what’s Hollywood to do when there’s a vault of cash waiting to be gathered from the existing or new generation of Spidey fans?  Reboot.  Certainly that worked to a degree for Hulk, but the first Spiderman, by my estimation, was a pretty fantastic visual adaptation of a superhero that I grew up with, with ample bonus points for remaining mostly true to Marvel’s origin story.  Casting aside (other than J. Jonah Jameson), they did everything right.

After watching The Amazing Spider-Man, I find that there is really no reason for re-telling the story, other than the aforementioned cash.  While blending the familiar with the new, I was frequently bothered by little things.  Lots of them, regularly:

  • The new Peter Parker – it’s all about the tousled hair.  He’s presented as more scientifically intelligent than the first movie, and that’s actually truer to the comic.  He’s darker and a bit cooler than Maguire. But, and it’s a very bothersome “but,” whenever he has to strike a pose... it’s the hair (at least it’s not Bieber hair). 
  • Webs -  I liked the first version in that, if bitten by a radioactive spider, it makes sense that one might have a biological mutation to shoot organic webbing (it’s no more nonsensical than any of his other powers).  However, comic fans know that half of Spidey’s combat troubles were running dry on web cartridges in his web-shooters.  This version returned to the auxiliary equipment, which I liked, but never followed through with the problems of “Uh oh, I’m falling from a skyscraper and I’m out of webs.”  Such stuff matters to fans and would have greatly helped well shot but predictable action scenes.

  • NYC – Is obviously doing much better economically than the rest of Capitalistic world.  How else would tower cranes be available at every block for our hero to swing his way quite a distance to the final showdown?  Sheesh.  One or two cranes?  Cool.  Twenty?  Get a new writer.
  • Thugs – Okay, he attacks one, and suddenly there’s a gang of them.  First, Spidey could beat them all, no contest.  But instead, he runs away.  Sort of.  He runs, jumps, leaps off of walls, climbs, and... Hey, those thugs sure caught up to the roof level pretty fast, like they took the elevator and knew where he was going all along.  Bad.  Just bad.
  • Plot devices made simple - Needed: Radioactive spider, intro to villain, and reinsertion of potential love interest.  Gosh, I think we can do that in one sequence!    Let’s see how shrewdly this was constructed.  

    “Hello obviously bewildered teenager.  You’re here for the intern position, right?  If you say ‘yes’ and choose any badge on this desk without showing any form of identification, you can have access to our high tech, high security building.   As a bonus, you’ll get to meet Dr. Curt Conner, just the man you came to see in our building of over 1,000 employees.  And be sure to plant a plot seed that cross-mixing DNA could have dangerous side effects, like converting a mild mannered scientist into your worst amphibian nightmare. After that, don’t bother staying with your group.  No one will notice, see, because you have the badge, the same badge that won’t be here when we kick out it’s rightful owner without any further inquiry.   Of course, you’ll be on just the right floor of our 100+ story building to witness a furtive guy show you how to activate our secure entry panel wherein you’ll find the lab containing our genetically modified spiders!   Oh, and by the way?  The hot blonde from school?  Well, she’s here too!  She’s the leader of the intern group, and she’ll not make any trouble for you as long as your hair is properly disheveled and you smile the right way.  Now, run along!” 
  • Pain – this Spidey takes more of a beating than those in the past, such as getting pounded repeatedly through walls and against hard floors.  A flaw observed in every superhero movie (or comic), the physics is as painful as the injuries.  Experienced jet pilots would have difficulty with the g-forces involved, never mind the inertial halts.  But, at least explain to the audience that poor Spidey also has inherited incredible durability and recuperative powers.  It’s all assumed as if, well, people watched the other movies.
  • Bad guy – there has to be one, and finding one is a challenge in the post-Joker  world (Heath Ledger version).  So we get a almost a re-run in our reboot.  Dr. Curt Connors (a nice, engaging scientist who may as well have been Dr. Octavius) who because of certain pressures makes a bad choice, becomes a Lizard (with better CGI even than the recent Hulk), and has this “great idea” borrowed from the nefarious League of Shadows in the first Christian Bale Batman flick to (*yawn*) disperse a chemical agent in the big city that would cause all sorts of problems.  Next screenwriter, please.

  • Alternate bad-guy.  Flash?  Really, a bully named Flash?  Stan Lee, less cameos, more involvement!  You wrote better than this in your sleep!

Ouch.  So, other than the web-shooters, what else was there to like? 

  • Gwen Stacy -  Sorry, but Kirsten Dunst’s needy Mary Jane bored me, even though she played well against Maguire’s version of Spidey.   Not one prone to such sentiments, Norman Osborne’s comment to his son Harry was still appropriate, something akin to “use her and lose her.”  She shouldn’t have made it past the first movie.  Here, though, Gwen Stacy has a strength about the character – intelligent and capable – that deserves Parker’s interest.
  • Casting - Despite the hair, Andrew Garfield portrays Spidey much better than Toby Maguire – meaning truer to the original comic... like Gwen Stacy, more intelligent and capable, with an edginess about him. That said, Maguire’s joys of entering Spidey powers were much better depicted, but that’s a scripting issue.  Yet another one.  All around, the supporting cast is improved.  Another benefit is that James Franco (Green Goblin, Jr.) is nowhere to be found.  Perhaps he’s off studying at the Keanu Reeves Acting School for the Bland.
  • The new Spiderman – Computer generated graphics are presented at the expected high level, but it’s so common now that a “wow” factor seems impossible. That’s not a fault of the movie. Fans of the comics may be pleased that action-Spidey adapts more poses as seen within the comic pages, usually oddly angled. In fluid movement, it still works, highlighting the “insect” nature of being a Spiderman.
  • Spidey humor – “Ahem, you know, if you’re going to steal cars, don’t dress like a car thief.”  Bad guy: “You a cop?”  Spidey – “Really?  A guy’s sitting in the back seat in red and blue spandex and you think he’s a cop?” - the type of humor that fans expected in every issue.

Overall, I liked this movie.  It’s just unfortunate that a reboot is necessary after only 10 years since the original.  I prefer the original slightly, due to a much better script (Parker’s financial woes being a part of it) and the initial awe of CGI bringing life to comic pages.  Still, it remains a story of which I’m very fond, and the lack of writers’ imagination aside, it’s an enjoyable movie.  I suspect that most Spidey fans will feel the same – it doesn’t matter which version wins.  The pay-off comes with the next Chapter, and we’ll see what hopefully some better writers can do with the improved cast.  

3 of 5 STARS

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A Summer Visit to Knoxville

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My daughter is working this summer at the University of Tennessee, so we paid her a brief visit, enjoyable other than being on the hottest days of the summer.

What do you do in Knoxville if you’re not a UT fan?

Ummm...

Well, of course, there’s the Sunsphere, a 266’ tower topped with a five-story gold globe, which was the centerpiece image for the 1982 World’s Fair.  My wife and I both attended that fair, and due to the crowds, neither of us actually went inside.  Floor 3 is the entrance level; Floor 4 is an observation level within the globe.  It’s a quick, un-airconditioned ride between the two.  The view?  Well, again, if you’re not a UT fan... there’s a river, anyway.  Overall, it was akin to Chevy Chase’s looking at the Grand Canyon in Vacation.

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The downtown area has its charm, visibly thriving as a dinner, arts, and offices area – but with more restoration opportunities available.

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Speaking of the river, other than a place for UT fans to hang out when they don’t have football tickets (it’s adjacent to the stadium), there is a riverside park adjacent to Calhoun’s On the River, a popular restaurant.  Pretty at night, particularly with reflections from a bridge and buildings on the other side.

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Tripadvisor.com did what it could.  #2 on it’s list of things to do is the Ijams Nature Center, only several miles from downtown.  It has trails, an old quarry, and, appreciably, an air-conditioned Visitors Center.   103oF, folks.   And humid.  It bleached the color right out of the next picture.

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Certainly, the grass and trees were green, but it felt burnt out, so I shifted the colors a bit.  Direct sun at mid-day isn’t doesn’t exactly offer great lighting for pictures anyway.

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One of the many trails runs adjacent to the Tennessee River.  There were numerous worn paths to the water, likely from wildlife helped by water runoff. 

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As we were returning to the Visitors center, we came across an employee handling an American Kestral, the smallest but most common falcon in North America.  He had an injured wing, and wasn’t going anywhere.

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On the way to Ijams, we had passed this photo op, which I couldn’t pass twice without stopping. 

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Observed at a somewhat higher frequency than in other areas were local men with long, tangly grey beards.  I’d say they were mountain men, but there weren’t any mountains.  We just missed getting a photo of the gentleman who lives at the house below, who was speeding away on his bike. 

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Adjacent was an example of the natural world ceding to human will.

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The #1 thing to do in Knoxville is Market Square.  It’s the centerpiece of the downtown area, with a small park surrounded by shops and restaurants, where a farmer’s market and crafters apparently vend on weekends.  Musicians (and most not deserving of that label) open their instrument cases and play for tips. This gentleman was by far the best and is very much a ham for those who point a camera his way.  He draws a literal line in the shade, and when it crept up to him, he packed and left.  Experienced in his craft.

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Otherwise, we fed our precious T-Rex and made her feel loved.  Meat does that.   We ate at Downtown Grill & Brewery, notable for three things:  An appealing interior design which includes brewpub tanks and 2nd level seating open to the lower level, brew from those very tanks for which we were charged only $2 each, and the loudest environment for dinner I’ve ever been in – not due to music, but the general din of chat.  Not good, even if the place was packed.  The food was very good, better than the average bar food.

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Centennial Park Olympics - 2012

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The pending “empty nest syndrome” has led to me joining a local photography group.  Get out of the house, learn what those settings other than “auto” do on the camera, see some new places, meet some new people... 

Hello Fireworks at Centennial Olympic Park for July 4th.  Not a short commute, not an overly large space, an estimated crowd of 100,000, and smack in the middle of urbania.  But that’s okay – I’ve been there many times for adjacent concerts and sporting events.photo4

Therefore, arriving early to avoid the parking hassles, my wife and I dined at Stats, a local sports bar that rates an A for design, C+ for food, and F for restroom cleanliness.  Surprisingly, it was not crowded at all, and we enjoyed a leisurely dinner, leaving just in time to arrive at our group’s meetup in the Park.  Well, I suppose the other RSVPs were searching for places to park, gave up with the traffic, or decided HDTV was great for football so it would probably work for fireworks.  So, we hung out with the organizer and eventually the three of us wound our way along a sliver of grass between blankets and beach chairs until we basically just sat in it. 

Entertainment was provided as the sun lowered over the horizon.  Some awesome... (no, not really).  Some bad... (a rap version of “Georgia on My Mind”)... and some surprisingly good (local TV host Monica Kaufman’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”).

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We couldn’t see the stage, but we could definitely see the overly bright video board to the right of the stage.  Hurry up, fireworks.

Learning the camera, as I am, I actually researched tips for better fireworks photography.  Peer pressure, you know.   Amongst other things (use a tripod (duh), recommended ISO setting, turn vibration reduction off, how to focus on fireworks, aperture settings...)  Hmm.  Length of exposure: “Use a remote to open the shutter, wait 2-4 seconds, then use it to close the shutter to capture the full flow of the fireworks.”  Righto.  So, I bought a nifty Nikon release remote, and tested it at home.  Push button... click.  Push button... click.  Awesome.  Watch out Louvre, here I come.

The fireworks begin.  Push button... silence.  Push button again... silence.  Hey, maybe it’s loud and I can’t hear the shutter.  So, I look at the rear screen.  Nada.  Burning time, here...  Wasting fireworks, here.  Our friend is taking perfect shots while I’m stuck with no product...  I could just press the shutter button with my manual settings and see what happens...  but, I didn’t really think about that, because I know what works in emergency situations:  use the freakin’ AUTO mode.  Hell yeah!  (Mostly.  I did tinker around a bit with similar results).

And thus, dear reader, is why I have rather “instantaneous” fireworks shots rather than the lovely umbrella shots that amateur or better photographers are supposed to capture.  The post-mortem indicates that, yes, I did well to bring a backup camera battery, but I should have a backup remote battery on hand, just in case the brand new one is D. E. D. dead. 

Definitely a case of stunted growth:

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Go, AUTO, Go!

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Alright, I know the below isn’t the poster child for great fireworks shots.  But hey, it sure looks like a demonic cookie monster to me!

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Observations about crowds at fireworks displays: 

1)  If you’re in the City of Atlanta and you happen to be African American, male, teenage, and hanging out with 10-15 of your buddies and cruising the park, there will 25 or more security people who politely follow herd you to the gate entrance. 

2) Everyone sits and waits until the fireworks start.  Then, people stand up so they can see them better.  Color me puzzled.

3) Infants and small children may not appreciate the “Booms” of giant firecrackers and start to cry immediately.  Hence, our narrow patch grew into a spacious lawn mere minutes into the show as families with small children took off.  I seriously doubt any of them made it out of earshot before the show was over, but each to their own.

4) 20% of people who were given small American flags on sticks will wave them throughout the show.

5) The same percentage pull out their cell phones for their own Louvre quality souvenirs.

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Take bright fireworks, add smoke, and suddenly light penetrates the darkness.  Yep, may as well stretch out my legs here.  And, I’m sure all the responsible citizens will pick up their litter when the show is over.  (not)

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Exhibit A (actually, exhibit S by this time in the show) of why a longer exposure time might have been handy:

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For some reason, the below reminds me of “War of the Worlds.”  Let’s just stand and watch and see if these things are for our entertainment or turn against us...

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Some came for the fireworks, some came for a smoke?

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Photo 103.   AUTO was busy.  But, hey, that’s a wrap.

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After the show, we hung out briefly and chatted with our new friend, then headed out of the park.  There was no reason to expect traffic to be kind, and even though we got there early, our car was on the 8th level of a 12 story parking deck.  There was even a line 25 deep to get on the elevator.  There’s a fun way to finish the evening.  Orrrr, hey, Stats has a rooftop bar... it’s a pleasant night... and we can watch the traffic from there.  Comfortably.

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It was worse than this looks.

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A couple of Cokes and the cool night air soothed the nerves.   It was an enjoyable night.

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