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The Shower


[by Thomas Shelley]

Ithaca, New York, late July, 2039

The thermometer just inside the shed read 104 degrees. Streams of sweat were rolling off Riley's forehead. He found himself in disbelief that he was working in this heat. The Old Guy was even more unbelievable to Riley. The Old Guy was standing in the yard near the retort, his large homemade straw hat his only shelter against the blazing late July sun. As if the heat from the sun wasn't bad enough, the retort was now burning full-force and Riley was only able to get about five feet from it without feeling like he was going to burst into flames himself.

They had been lining up since early morning. The Old Guy and the folks in the old Cederstrom place had even let a handful of the Wanderers camp out overnight near the retort. They came from nearby neighborhoods, the big box stores and the parking garages. Some local farmers even rode their horses into town just for today's firing. Each came with an armload of sticks or a few pieces of firewood. Some brought a bike-drawn cart or backpack full of logs or firewood. Each in turn helped the Old Guy load the retort. The retort held five cords of wood so it took from 100 to 120 small contributors to mostly fill the retort.

The retort was a funny looking thing, but well known to the local populace. The thousand-gallon tank, held up by railroad ties braced together, was positioned above what looked like an overgrown brick outhouse--an outhouse on fire. The tank was once part of a fuel oil depot on 5th Street. Several years ago a work crew organized by the Old Guy had moved it to its new location. It was quite an effort all in all, especially cleaning out the inside of the tank, most of which was done before it was moved. The ties came from an abandoned nearby spur of the old railroad line. Bricks for the retort came from the chimneys and foundations of the many collapsed or burned out houses in the area. The Old Guy, who was the son of a brick mason, and who had learned the trade from his father, always said there would probably never be a shortage of used brick. This was a good thing for the participants since the Old Guy had to rebuild the retort after every few firings. The old red bricks were fairly soft and didn't last long under the heat of the retort. The Old Guy kept looking for firebrick, but they were really hard to find. Fortunately he had a good source of lime for the mortar he used to build the retort. Two or three times each year he would trade a firing of charcoal for a cart of lime from the Lime Man in Enfield. The arrangement worked really well for all concerned. The owners of the local iron forge and the several blacksmiths in the area were good customers as well and had participated in the original construction of the retort many years ago.

But most of the participants were local folks and the Wanderers who showed up with their armloads of sticks and logs. Many of them didn't care much about the charcoal but some of the local women were eager to have some of the charcoal for cooking. The artists in the line would eventually pick out the hardest, darkest sticks of charcoal for drawing on their handmade paper or for grinding with local walnut oil to make carbon black pigment for painting and decoration. But most of the line was there for a shower. Each participant received ten gallons of hot water, so one hundred or so folks, some in pairs got a really nice shower. There was no other source of hot water for most of the locals, yet alone the Wanderers. A few homes still had solar hot water installations from the teens and the twenty's that still worked. Some of the locals had devised all sorts of ad hoc solar and wood heated water heating systems since then, but most of the local population, especially those living in the parking garages and the former big box stores, not to mention the Wanderers, had little access to running water let alone hot water. All of their water was carried in from the creeks or collected in homemade cisterns of sorts. A hot shower was a real treat.

The children who operated the bellows received a shower as well. Usually it took two or three of them, especially on a really hot day like today. They took turns and it was more play than work, especially since the Old Guy would be joking with them along the way as he supervised the whole operation, making the long afternoon go by a little quicker. The bellows, made of leather and canvas salvaged from old houses, supplied air for the downdraft air supply of the kiln. The forced air system devised by the Old Guy allowed the retort to develop a high enough temperature to gasify the volatile components of the wood, leaving the charcoal behind. The "wood gas" produced was then burned in the upper stage of the retort to heat the water in the thousand gallon tank. It took several hours to heat the full tank, but no one much cared. The hot shower in the late afternoon was worth the wait. Most of the afternoon was like a carnival anyway--the air was filled with music and dancing; women told stories to small clusters of children covered by tarps pitched to shade them from the afternoon Sun. The Old Guy's wife sat in her special place, in the shade of the shed, teaching a small circle of children to read. Some of the women helped Sylvia work in the garden. Riley and a couple of the Wanderers carried on a brisk trade with the crowd in tools and other small useful items. The Old Guy supervised the cooking of a deer and local beans and rice in an oven constructed in one side of the kiln. This was then shared by all of those assembled at the end of the shower.

The shower was the high point of the afternoon. By late afternoon the water was hot. The retort would be sealed for the cool down and the fun would begin. The line of 100 or so participants would take their shower one by one or in pairs at times. The Old Guy furnished his homemade soap which everyone enjoyed using. The crowd would clap and cheer for each participant as they finished their shower. This had become sort of a ritual of the shower. Some of the women used some of their hot water to make teas or infusions with herbs they brought from their gardens. The Old Guy was always the last one to shower. He would toss his straw hat to a row of boys and girls waiting nearby and the one who caught the hat would replace one of the bellows operators for the next shower. Everyone applauded and cheered the loudest when he was finished. The party would continue into the early evening with all assembled making short work of the venison and other food provided. The music and the crowd would slowly drift away, leaving the retort and its precious product to cool.

Two or three days later, once the retort had fully cooled, the Old Guy and his helpers from his household would dismantle the brick "doors" of the retort and remove and sort the charcoal into piles. Repairs were made to the retort as needed and it was readied for the next firing and shower. Over the next couple of days the providers of the wood interested in the charcoal would come by to pick up their portion. There was always lots left over for Riley, Sylvia and the Old Guy for cooking and trading. There was always someone coming by to trade surplus charcoal for vegetables, grain, or whatever items they had to trade. But the lasting memories of the locals and the Wanderers alike were of the hot shower they had on that July afternoon.

The Old Guy's Shed


[by Thomas Shelley]

Ithaca, New York, late June, 2053

Riley and Sylvia sat in the antique folding chairs on the little flagstone pad outside the Old Guy's Shed sipping lemon flavored tea. The stars were brilliant. This was unusual as it was towards the end of the rainy season and it was usually cloudy. Even though it was well after sunset, on this rare dry day the humidity was down and the usual fog and mist weren't obscuring their view of the heavens. The Big Dipper floated overhead. Fireflies danced over Sylvia's garden. Pungent, aromatic smoke from the smudge pot kept the mosquitoes at bay.

Riley and Sylvia were now living in the Old Guy's Shed all year round. Even though there was no heat in the shed Riley had winterized a portion of the shed so that even on those rare days when the winter temperatures dipped below freezing they were warm enough to function. They could always go to the old Cederstrom place where their friends lived to warm up for awhile if they wanted to, but they were enjoying living on their own. Besides, too much time with the eight assorted characters there was taxing, even if by necessity they all got along fairly well. And since Mike Cederstrom had passed away unexpectedly two years back, the place didn't seem the same. Mike was only 72 at the time when the giant mosquitoes zapped him with one of those tropical fevers. The Regional Central Council had been pretty good about distributing the anit-malaria drugs, but they weren't at all effective against some of the newer strains.

Nobody hassled Riley and Sylvia about living in the Old Guy's Shed. The shed was once a car barn for the house in front of the lot. The "red house", as it was known, burned to the ground about 10 years ago, just when Riley was getting to know the Old Guy. It had been boarded up for many years. Its former owners had died during one of the Food Riots in the late '30s when the Heights and much of the Northeast was sacked and burned. Besides, the Courthouse itself burned to the ground a few years back and all of the records were lost, so who owned what was now only colloquial information, as if anyone cared anyway, except maybe some of the Regional Central Council folks. After the Great Collapse the fire department converted its surviving engines to wood burners. But it took a while to get one going and get the engine hot enough to run well enough to leave the firehouse. Besides, since all of the water had to come from one of the creeks, chances for the survival of a burning structure were really slim.

Riley was one of the few people who knew the Old Guy's real name. He even referred to himself as the Old Guy as he was one of the few really elderly folks in the neighborhood. He was 102 when he died suddenly in the summer of '48. Sylvia found him lying in the garden, just outside the compost bins. His wife had lived to be 97, having died nearly 10 years earlier. They were the sages of the neighborhood in their time and were known for their hospitality towards the great influx of younger people like Riley and Sylvia who had made it to Upstate New York to escape the ravages of the drowned Coastal Plain. Most didn't survive the initial alternating monster hurricanes and droughts, but the lucky few that made it to the mountains and hills of the interior North East and managed to survive the Food Riots after the Great Collapse now had a relatively peaceful if marginal existence. The Old Guy and his wife had taught Sylvia how to read and write along with many other young people that had stayed at their house on the corner.

No one knew the street names any longer, not that it mattered anyway. All of the street signs had been stolen for their scrap value a long time ago. They just knew the large badly faded clapboard house on the corner as the Old Guy's house. Except for hand-made artists' pigments, industrial paint was only a memory of some of the older folks in town. Milk paint and white wash could be traded for if you knew the local producers and had something to trade, but there was hardly a house in town that had had any work of any kind done on it since the Great Collapse. The ten or so younger people living there, mostly in their late 20s or early 30s, took care of the Old Guy's house as well as they could after he died. It was about the only house around with glass in all of the windows!

Riley and Sylvia were trying to save up materials to trade for white wash made by a guy in Enfield. If they could carry it off they were going to white wash both the Old Guy's Shed and the old couple's former house on the corner.

Riley and Sylvia had escaped from "the drowning", as they referred to it, when they were in their early teens. They had somehow made it to Ithaca after a few years of desperate drifting in the mountains to the East. Riley met the Old Guy while he and Sylvia were camped in the former park across the street, taking handouts of food from the Regional Central Council. They were waiting for a space in the old parking garage nearby, now a camp for hundreds of refugees from "the drowning". The Old Guy had invited them to be part of his household along with several other young people. This was just a year before the Old Guy's wife died in her sleep one night. Sylvia was just learning how to read and write at the time. The Old Guy took his wife's loss really hard and the household of young folks and the people down the block who had been befriended by the Old Guy and his wife mourned for weeks.

The Old Guy's Shed was at the heart of Riley's existence. It was chocked full of every type of hardware and widget and bits and pieces of junk that one could imagine. The Old Guy had been a compulsive pack rat and filled up the shed with so much stuff that you could barely walk through it. Early on the Old Guy had taken Riley on a tour of the shed and introduced him to its marvelous contents, much of it from the late nineteen hundreds. The Old Guy said that he could build or repair almost anything from the parts and pieces stacked on shelves, in parts bins and in sets of drawers. Riley certainly believed he could. Riley and Sylvia became closer friends with the Old Guy after his wife died. The Old Guy continued with Sylvia's home schooling, taught Riley how to use tools. make repairs on all kinds of equipment, and he taught Sylvia how to garden, compost and collect seeds. They acquired all sorts of life skills that enabled them to be less dependent on the Regional Central Council's largess and to become leaders in the neighborhood. In his Will the Old Guy gave the shed and its contents to Riley.

Riley had become the local repairman and trader. Since there had been no stores anywhere since the Great Collapse, local farmers would walk or ride their horses miles to trade a basket of fresh produce or a loaf of bread for a couple of bolts to repair their thrasher or their hand-powered grain grinder. Riley had a brisk trade in all sorts of hand tools as a going concern. He was constantly busy repairing all sorts of gadgets. He had also learned how to convert furnaces to wood or biomass burning from the Old Guy. Much of the local housing stock had deteriorated to the point of being boarded up and ransacked for fire wood because it had been unheated for so long after the Great Collapse that the structures had warped, cracked and collapsed to the point where they were no longer habitable. The Old Guy's house was in comparatively good condition because he had installed a wood-burning furnace early in this century, so he could keep the house heated all winter. Knowing how to convert old fossil fuel furnaces to wood burning units in trade for food and goods made Riley even more valuable to the local community, even though the warmer climactic regime over the past many years made heating less of a necessity than it had been in the "old days". And Sylvia was teaching gardening, food preserving techniques and other survival skills to dozens of young people living in the parking structures and camping out in the former big box stores. She was receiving sewing and other services in return.

Life was good in 2053 in the remnants of Downtown Ithaca.

Wine Country


Come visit beautiful Upstate New York, the new center of American wine production!

After decades specializing in German and more northerly varietals, New York State has taken the lead in producing the finest red wines, with rich flavors that you're sure to remember. By combining New York's long-time expertise in viticulture with the arrival of vintners leaving behind the scorched deserts of California and disease-troubled France, local wineries have grown from a largely tourist business serving local markets to a world center for wine.

The vast vinyards are still a tourist paradise, with trains connecting wineries large and small. Farms produce fine artisan cheeses and fresh produce, making the area the heart of quality food in the United States. Whether you can come for a visit or are just browsing your local market, remember Upstate New York!

Washing upriver


The 2030s were a bad decade for New York City and Long Island. A two meter rise in sea level, supposedly caused by melting icecaps, combined with three Category 3 hurricanes were just too much for the metropolitan area. New York City's sewer system, always on the edge, collapsed in two of those hurricanes, and tunnels and bridges sustained major flooding and damage. Long Island suffered massive erosion, with two one-mile channels cut across the south fork of the island and major damage elsewhere. The Port of New York and New Jersey was devastated.

Connecticut and New Jersey sponsored major legislation to move homeowners from their coastlines to deeper in their interiors, covering costs for people who never realized they might be in a floodplain, and building new high-speed trains to help those people reach their workplaces in almost the same time it had taken them before.

That cost those states a fortune, but New York had a much harder problem: the destination where all those people were supposed to be headed was itself in danger of washing away. By 2042, the outlines of a plan began to emerge:

  • A new Manhattan would emerge, three stories higher than the old. Existing buildings less than five stories tall would be demolished, and Central Park would become an enormous pond with built-up islands. Tall buildings would be required to move all critical infrastructure to their new fourth-floor basements, and subways - newly laid out inside the elevated area - would run at the old third and fourth floors. Only about 30% of the island would remain in use, but it would gain much stronger connections to Connecticut, New Jersey, and Upstate.

  • Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island, would shrink drastically, with neighborhoods above 100 feet in elevation surviving but the rest converted to agriculture and other similarly non-permanent uses. The south shore of the island would be largely abandoned, turned into parkland served by hotels on relatively higher ground.

  • New restrictions on the lower Hudson Valley similarly required construction to move to the higher ground.

  • The Port of Albany, already benefiting from growing Erie (Barge) Canal traffic and the survival of its railroads, would be massively expanded to replace a significant part of the former Port of New York.

  • As in Connecticut and New Jersey, the State of New York built massive high-speed rail down the Hudson Valley and along the Thruway Corridor to help relocated residents connect to their former center of business.

All of this cost a fortune, with little assistance from the beleaguered federal government, which was already dealing with the near-complete relocation of Florida residents to other states. Leaders in the key finance and media industries rallied to raise private funds for the redevelopment of Manhattan, easing the burden on the state government. Land values along the old Thruway corridor skyrocketed, though the state used its powers of eminent domain to break several logjams that threated redevelopment.

As of March 2050, the resettlement is almost complete. Residents who refused initially to leave their homes have mostly surrendered to continuing weather problems and the decay of their surrouding infrastructure. The rebuilt Manhattan is widely praised, though the use of the Port of Albany has limited New York's access to the largest freight shipments. Both wealth and population are much more evenly distributed across the state, and the upstate-downstate divide that many feared would create catastrophe rarely emerged.

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