Archives For Time travel

Mysterious windows

Madame Weebles —  January 24, 2013 — 156 Comments

One of my favorite books of all time is Time and Again by Jack Finney.  (He’s the guy who wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers, by the way.)   Time and Again is a science-fictionish historical mystery set in New York City.  I say “science-fictionish” because it’s set in both 1970 and 1882.


My very well-loved copy of one of my very favorite books.

Finney set up a compelling time-travel approach: you can take any structure or locale that has remained unaltered and use it as a way of going back to an earlier time during its existence.  Time travelers must first immerse themselves in the everyday life of their destination era—the culture, current events, attitude, etc—as a way of “loosening” the mind’s ties to the current day.  Finney used the Dakota apartment building in Manhattan as a portal between 1970 and 1882.  The way it’s explained in the book, you can almost believe it could work.  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about other places that would serve as appropriate portals.  I could use the Empire State Building to go to 1931.  The Brooklyn Bridge could take me to 1883.  Certain historic houses could get me as far back as the 1650s and 1660s.  You get the idea.

My favorite part of the story is when the protagonist, Si Morley, arrives in 1882.  He boards a Fifth Avenue coach and looks at another passenger:

…I sat watching him from the corner of my eye, tense, excited, almost frightened at my first really close look at a living human being of the year 1882….This was no motionless brown-and-white face in an ancient photograph….There he sat, a living breathing man with those memories in his head.

I still remember when I first read these lines.  I had goosebumps.  Because I get this.  I so get this.  It’s not about witnessing a historic event or meeting a famous historical figure.  It’s about being a part of that time, even briefly.  Like when you first visit another country:  “Look!  Actual Italians/Indians/Australians/Peruvians!  And this stuff looks just like in the photos!  Hey, they really talk like that!”  Except you would be visiting, say, 1862:  “Hey, Lincoln is president and right now they’re all living through everything I’ve read about!!”  It would blow my mind to see and interact with 19th-century people as live, Technicolor humans and not as static black and white relics.  To walk through streets with the old buildings when they were brand new.  And before they were torn down.

If you’ve read this or this, you know I’ve had some strange experiences with people who are no longer with us in corporeal form.  I’ve freaked out a few of you (you know who you are) by being able to sense things without your telling me.  So I wasn’t surprised when something else peculiar happened a few months ago…

I was on a train in New Jersey.  We were about to stop in Newark—the tracks go over the Passaic River and into the station.  I was looking out the window as the train passed over the railroad bridge. For a second or so, I saw the scene not as it is now, but as it might have looked in the 1830s or 1840s.  It was fleeting but I remember it vividly.  Lots of trees, low small buildings and houses, and boats.  What I recall most distinctly is a mill with a waterwheel near the bridge.  When I got home I looked for lithographs or maps of the area during that time, but no dice.  If I did a thorough archival search I might find some but it doesn’t seem worth the effort.  Maybe I imagined the whole thing, maybe I didn’t.  I’ll probably never know.

All I know is, I hope it happens again and that I’ll be able to verify it.  I would love nothing more than to peek through one of those mysterious windows of time again.  Until then, maybe I’ll entertain myself by thinking of going to Flushing Meadows Park to see the 1939 World’s Fair.

It’s 4:30am and I can’t sleep. I woke up about an hour ago and have been up ever since. I didn’t get home from work until 10pm last night so I’d really prefer being asleep right now. But I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to have some quality time with the Weeblettes, one of whom is trying to climb on my lap even though my laptop is already on my lap.

So here’s a blog entry from a few months ago. Because you never know when this travel advice will come in handy.

Packing for a trip through time

Also, there is nothing good on television at 4:30-5:00am. I guess the networks feel that if you’re awake at this time, you deserve crappy programming. Unless this is their way of trying to be helpful, airing stuff that would be more likely to put you to sleep. Either way, sucks.

I really need to get that time machine up and running.

Because for starters, I need to go to the Automat. I’ve been hearing about this place since I was a kid. The last Automat in NYC was open until 1991 but by then it was a heartbreaking shadow of its former self. So even though I’ve been to that one, it doesn’t count as a true Automat experience. I want an authentic Automat experience like this:

According to my parents, and everyone else I’ve ever spoken to who was lucky enough to eat there during its better days, the Automat was great. Everything was freshly prepared and all you had to do was put a nickel in the slot, open the door of the compartment containing the dish of your choice, and enjoy. It sounds like so much fun! Plus, they were reputed to have the best baked beans, the best rice pudding, the best macaroni & cheese, the best mashed potatoes, the best creamed spinach, the best chicken pot pie, the best honey buns, the best pies, the best cakes . . . the best everything, really. And most importantly, they had the best coffee, always freshly brewed. The coffee was dispensed from spouts shaped like dolphin heads—and let’s face it, anything dispensed from a spout shaped like a dolphin head is going to taste pretty fantastic.

So I need to go back in time so that I can have a delicious lunch at the Automat. I would have such a good time looking in all the little cubbyhole windows and choosing my meal. And I want to have a cup of that world-famous coffee poured from the dolphin spout, and maybe a piece of cheesecake or coconut custard pie (for which the Automat was also noted).

But it would be a shame to eat and run, so I would probably also take in a movie matinee. That’s why I’ve chosen April 1936—because that’s when Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, starring Gary Cooper, premiered. And if you haven’t seen what Gary Cooper looked like in those days, check it out:

See what I mean? Yeah, I know, he’s smoking in this photo, but Good Lord, he’s also smokin’. Talk about a hot dead guy. I’d have me a fine time watching him on the big screen, and besides, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town happens to be a fun little movie. Of course, they could have filmed him just sitting there reading aloud from the phone book and I’d pay money to see it.

On the other hand, maybe I’d skip the movie and get back in the time machine to hunt down Gary in person. That would make for a nice afternoon too.

I’ve been thinking about another way time travel could be useful.

You know the “It Gets Better” program, aimed at LGBT (that’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) kids to let them know that things get better when they get older, and that they should be proud of who they are regardless of how people may treat them? I’m thinking of something like that, but with the use of a time machine.

People could go back in time to visit younger versions of themselves and give them a pep talk. Or they could visit other people’s younger selves. Let’s not get into the whole space-time paradox thing, just work with me here.

For instance, I would like to go back in time and visit 12-year-old me. I was probably pretty typical for 12 with the tween angst, insecurity, awkwardness, moodiness, etc. I was not a pretty girl by any means, and it didn’t help that I wore thick glasses, I was chubby, and I was a full head taller than everyone else in my class. And I played Dungeons & Dragons. You get the picture.

So I want to go back to 1980 and have a heart-to-heart chat with 12-year-old me. Without giving her any spoilers, I want to tell her that it gets better. I’d tell her, “You know what, honey, there’s nothing wrong with you. Don’t pay attention to people who give you a hard time, or pass judgment on you, or tease you. They’re wrong. It’s not you, it’s them. And trust me, you’ll be just fine.”

I want to warn her that there are people out there who are not mentally healthy, and that what they say and do is not a reflection on her. I want to remind her that she shouldn’t waste her time with anyone who doesn’t do right by her—as a friend or more than a friend. I want to let her know that there are nice things in store for her. I want to tell her about Mr. Weebles and what an awesome guy he is. Of course, I wouldn’t tell her that she won’t meet him for a really long time, because that would just bum her/me out. And I want her to know that she won’t spend the rest of her life feeling the way she does at the age of 12.

Although truthfully, I miss Dungeons & Dragons.

I would love nothing more than to have a time machine so I could visit various places in different centuries, witness particular events, meet certain people, etc etc etc.

But how would you pack for such a trip? And what other preparations would be required? You’d have to prepare a lot in advance. And some destinations would require more planning than others.

For instance, if you wanted to visit Salem during the witch trials (although I’m not sure why you would want to), you’d obviously have to have clothing and equipment that were appropriate to the period. You’d have to make sure you had the right hairstyle, and you’d have to have a fluency in the English that was spoken during the 1690s. And of course you’d need a thorough understanding of the social and religions customs so you could blend in and not attract attention with any peculiar behavior. Because there’s one thing worse than being pegged as a tourist, and that’s being pegged as a witch.

In any case, here’s just some of what you would need to enjoy your trip safely.

Medicine for stomach aches and other gastrointestinal problems. Whether you’re having olives and wine in ancient Rome or enjoying a huge Victorian meal with 12 courses, you might have some digestive difficulties. Or you might find that the meat you ate was rotten or not completely cooked. And that can put a damper on any vacation.

Vaccinations against pretty much everything. No matter where you travel, you’re going to be in a cesspool of ick. Things like smallpox, yellow fever, measles, and typhus were everywhere. Sometimes you only worried about them during an epidemic, but in a lot of areas these diseases were endemic and posed a risk at any given time.

An arsenal of antibiotics. See “cesspool of ick” above. Plague, tuberculosis, typhoid, scarlet fever, cholera, and all kinds of other bacteria whirling around waiting to infect some unsuspecting time traveler.

(For the gentlemen) An era-appropriate condom or two. You’re on vacation, and you might meet some hot chicks that you’d like to get to know better. Maybe you always wanted to have your way with an 18th-century French courtesan. Or a Victorian trollop. Technically, you could leave all kinds of fair maidens with child without any repercussions. But condoms have been in use since the 16th century, so it would probably be a good idea to have one made that looks like the ones in use at your destination. Also, see above for “cesspool of ick.”

(For the ladies) Some sort of non-detectable birth control. Let’s say that image from “Pride and Prejudice” of Colin Firth in the wet shirt is etched on your retinas. If you were to visit England in 1810, you might find many gentlemen to your liking. In which case, you might want to get busy with some of them. But even if you’re visiting an age where condoms were in use, you can’t exactly whip one out from under your petticoats—women didn’t do that unless they were working girls. And you’d have a lot of explaining to do with a diaphragm or a sponge. Here’s where the Pill, an IUD, or hormonal injections come in handy, because they’re completely invisible. So you can have your way with your new friends, free of the risk of getting knocked up with a mixed-century child.

It would also be helpful to find some way of deadening your olfactory nerves during your trip. People and places were pretty ripe. The combo of body odor, human and animal waste, dead bodies, rotting food, and other unseemly aromas would probably be enough to make most of us keel over.

And you might want to leave your iPod, cell phone, and laptop at home.