Friday, November 30, 2012

Nonfiction - Wallingford, Seattle - Real Change

Outside the grocery store, the woman was huddling under a pink umbrella holding out her cardboard sign. I didn't read it. I don't need to, to know what it says. Seattle is a hell of a place to be homeless. Your socks are never dry and your clothes rot off you.

"I don't have cash on me," I say to her. This is a lie. I have twenty-two dollars and change, but since I just barely squeaked into being able to pay December's rent I'm not feeling generous to passing out cash. A twenty is insincerely generous, I think, and I need the two dollars for the bus. "Could I buy you something on a card?"

"I've already had dinner," she says.

"Well, maybe something else," I offer. "Toiletries? Cleaning products?"

"They sell gift cards in there," she says. "You can even use them at Starbucks. The minimum amount you can put on it is $1.50. Any amount would be fine."

I think I can do that for her, and make to go into the store when someone shouts my name. I look over by the trash can where a girl puts down a bag of cheetos she was picking out of on the rim, and then offers out her left hand for a shake.

"I forgot how to say your name. Did I say it right?"

She hadn't, but I think it's considerate she asked. She's not a friend. Well, she's close enough to be a facebook friend, but not someone I have been hanging out with. A few years ago we often bumped into each other at the same parties, then drifted into different cirlces for awhile. I've only recently drifted back, so I ask if she lives around here.

"I live over in Shoreline," she says. She has a stack of newspapers under her arm. "The vendor who's usually here texted me today to say that he couldn't make it so I could have his spot for the day. I got here this morning around 9."

I look at the newspaper she's selling. It's one of my favorite in Seattle, and I haven't bought this week's copy yet, but I don't buy one since I told the other woman I don't have cash. But I'm surprised. She's selling Real Change, the regional street sheet put out by homeless. While I'm not sure if one has to be homelessto sell it, it's generally the second to the last step down to destitution, or the first one up depending on direction.

I look at the paper but am too confused to take in the cover or what she's telling me. All I can think about is that she's been out here since 9 in a hoodie, it's been raining since noon, and it's now almost 5:30.

"Do you have an umbrella?" I say. Do you have a dry place to sleep tonight is really what I want to ask, but in one of those daily acts of cowardice, I leave this unsaid.

"Yeah, I gave it to her," she says, pointing at the other woman, "and I got another one that's kinda busted." She looks next to the trash to a black umbrella with a bent spoke.

We make some slight pleasant talk, just enough for me to hear when and if she'll be back there so I won't be so emotionally unprepared next time. I did have to leave, not just to buy a gift card, but also to meet with the renter I would be subletting from for December. When I came out of the grocery store with a gift card for the woman with the pink umbrella, the girl was still there, though I didn't buy a newspaper. I didn't want my concern to come across as the pity it really was.

You don't think you'll see your friends on the streets, even your facebook friends.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Portland, OR - Fiction - 500 Words or Less

The morning after, the bartender sweeps dust out the doorstep. He looks at me as I open my umbrella in passing, just as the rain starts. The sidewalk is covered with leaves and the ghosts of leaves. Marks like little brown hands ground into the pavement. The door shuts and some object slick with new rain turns a leathery wetness. A wallet forgotten from the night before. I pick it up, open it.

Some bills and change, plus shopper's club card, bank card, credit card, trojan, and a Pennsylvania driver's license for a pimply-faced college kid with a last name I'm too Anglo to pronounce. Joshua K-something.

I look around, experiencing finder's guilt, the suspicion I'm being tested to do the right thing before I can even figure out what it is I want. I count out the money. Seventeen dollars and twenty-three cents. Three fives, two ones - both minted in Chicago - three nickels and eight pennies. I put the money back. I try the bar but the door is locked. I could hold onto it and bring it back at three when the bar opens, or turn it into the police, but there's only so much loyalty I feel towards Joshua K.

I open the wallet again, take out the credit and bank card, and throw the rest of the wallet back in the leaf pile. Let someone find it who is more desperate for the money than me, or who has an excuse to use the condom, or some samaritan in need of the satisfaction of a good deed, or Joshua K himself, who after mentally retracing his steps of the night previous, rises from bed in panic, searches the walkway, then crawls on hands and knees outside the bar, praying and believing in a protective mystery if not God as he finds his own pimply self. My soul has done enough good. I slip the cards in my jeans and go on with the day.

That night, I light the woodstove and burn them one by one. Black smoke rises from the spitting plastic and the DNA code of Joshua K's finances bubbles, melts, and is forgotten and the karma fllows on.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Seattle : Industrial Musculature

There are plenty of people who call Seattle a beautiful city. I think they're mistaken if they are considering it as itself, especially if it's being measured against San Francisco or Chicago, cities where architects actually made an effort at intentional structural beauty. As for Seattle, all the really good architecture is outside of it. The Olympic mountains, the volcanic cascades, the islands of Puget Sound, Mount Baker fleeing fugitively behind the downtown as you draw north.That's the best stuff.

The next best stuff is the shipping yards. This is the element that San Fran pushed across the bay to Oakland, that New York forced upon Jersey. But in Seattle, if you're approaching from any route but the north, you see the rows of containers, a corridor of hydraulic cranes lined up like heiroglyphs at attention on either side of canals, the freight yards which cuts deeply and visibly into the city. This is the part that I love, the musculative of cable and steel tressles lifted for tug-boats belching diesel fumes up the Duwamish waterway and the cap of Rainier 60 miles away but still present as moonrise behind it all. It puts me in mind of Hiroshige's woodblock prints of Edo.

Then for the city itself, all the best views are from overpasses - the West Seattle Bridge, Alaska Way viaduct, the 45th street overpass of the I-5 - with a few good ones from former industrial areas turned public parks - Gasworks. But it's still not a particularly inspiring view. Sights of colorless buildings rising as though cut from blocks of obsidian and galena. Shiny, but indistinguishable from the mass of North American structural achievement. Nothing that when traced in outline would suggest to an outsider anything of the city of Seattle.  Well, there is the Space Needle, I suppose, though that doesn't mean very much. It's a show-trophy, a vanity piece, ballhoo. It's hard to form a city-identity off an elevated restaurant, unless you're Paris. The body of Seattle is all simple grey boxes with a few greyer boxes which are a tad pointier than the others.

I'm still trying to convince myself I want there to be more color in my life, and every so often will put on a bright shirt, or buy a pretty candy at a service station to admire it, but the fact is I'm a drab bird, and I like my nest to be feathered in my own muted palate of various shades of charcoal and soft blue. So I like Seattle, and cities like it. Northern ones of rust and grit and soot. Anthracite metropoles that seem pressed between a slate grey sky and slate blue water that parallel one another so far into the distance so they merge into one. Coming back feels each time like coming home.

Sometimes, having moved, and so frequently moved back, wherever I left off in the narrative of my own life is exactly the place where I pick back up, so that I come to feel that I have led multiple lives. As though there were volumes I opened and replaced for all the towns, who keep separate titles but still leak parts of themselves to each other, like authors across ages. It feels like time travel, that I'm coming and going and crossing paths with myself, and I come to wonder if I really ever left anywhere, if I am living someplace else simultaneously, and do I fall in love each time from scratch, or is it always with the same person and only the face which changes.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Dysart Truck Stop - Bangor, Maine

Outside Acadia National Park, I hitch-hiked along highway 1A, destination Bangor, Maine. No, that's not right. Wasn't I supposed to be on the third box car, midnight train? Probably, but it doesn't matter. I stood by the roadside with my thumb out and a sign with neat block letters on it. B-A-N-G-O-R. The sky was a grizzly, unbroken grey dribbling down rain.

A car pulled over. Black porsche with an immaculate interior, the driver in a black jacket, black pants, and black buttondown. Mozart was playing through the speakers, and he had a look that said more Santa-mourning-the-loss-of-Mrs-Claus, and there was the cross on the black cd case. Priest, I figure and think to say something about it, but what is there to say? I didn't feel like discussing the finer points of the spirit, and my soul felt fairly free of aches, that I just sat there, waiting for him to introduce some topic, or none at all. Besides, priests, like anyone, must feel the need to discuss things other than God.

I had for a time considered the clergy, but my reasons were not good ones and I would have been a terrible priest. The celibacy didn't trouble so much as the ardent belief, and I don't think I could stand to have every troubled sinner pouring out his soul to me. But, I thought sitting passenger side, it might make travel easier, people would be more willing to invite me to trust them. Though there's no necessity to go to seminary to play dress-up. I went to a party once dressed as a Tibetan monk. I still got cornered into all kinds of spiritual debate, even after explaining it was costume and not career, but I don't remember having to pay for a single drink that night. Perhaps I should look at Amazon for some clerical robes, see if I can get any on discount. And I do look good in black.

When we broke the silence, he spoke of one of his preferred subjects, his wife. Not a priest then. Not Catholic anyway. Perhaps one of a different persuasion. Do they call them priests in the Anglican faith? Then he went on to another subject, his work as an engineer. So not a priest of any kind. A priest-mimic. And I had trusted him. So you see it does work.

The not-priest drove me direct to the bus station - an inconvenient to hitch hike 5 miles outside town at a truck stop. He even waited outside while I checked to see if my bus was running on time, which it was, so we parted.

The truck stop was an intriguing way place in itself. Here I had spent nearly a week in Acadia, and I was as intrigued by a truck stop as I had been by the many hidden paths and discoveries of a forested sea island. There was a restaurant, set of wash rooms, laundry facilities, showers, bar, and general store.

The restaurant was divided into two sections, one side for families and the other for truckers. The trucker side was arranged in long tables where solitary men sat together talking story. Men who left the slimmest ration of chairback visible behind their flannel mass, who had backsides the size of Franklin stoves and went by 'Junior' and 'Sonny' into their sixth decades. Baseball caps were common, though none carried the flared insignia of a sports team.

Four or perhaps five waitresses hovered about - they seemed interchangeable - refilling coffee mugs and bringing out great slick portions shiny with grease. These were called 'girls' even when they had given up on allowing the natural color of their hair any show. Every patron was 'hon' and 'sweetheart.' I asked one how far she walked in a day. She said some years back she had worn a pedometer which measured out 9.5 miles for a day. But she had changed her schedule and didn't work as much of the week now, although she had added an additional two hours to each shift. So the figure might be nearer to twelve.

If the background noise of cutlery and country western were dialed down, then the prevailing noise would be of salivary mastication, like the chewing of many thousands of caterpillars. I wasn't hungry enough for food, so I ordered tea for several hours. The photographs on the wall read from left to right spanned a centure of blue collar toil as black and white images of logs, sawmills, and horses changed to tractors, trucks, and trailers, from black-and-white to kodachrome. The company had originally been in the timber industry, then changed to fuel oil, then heating-oil postwar, and though that was still an element of Dysart's Truck Stop, they were largely in the service industry now.

The place felt legendary, one of the great gravy halls of hospitality one encounters on the American road trip, where coffee is regular or decaf, where any compound of oil in a thumb-sized packet is called 'butter', and where Hank Williams will never tire of crying how lonesome and lachrymous he is.  I must have looked pitiful enough, for I was not permitted to pay, though I offered.

I went to the general store to browse in the ten minutes before my bus began boarding. The driver in a crisp uniform perused the keraffes of coffee, set to the side of a range of boxes showing every plastic-wrapped food product containing sugar known to humankind. I watched his move for when he left, taking my cue to leave when he went to the till. Two old men clucked over a display of 'motor stabilizer,' arranged with the flare of exotic fruit, nodding as they inspected its claims. There were many items peculiar to those used to long stretches of motorized solitude. Neck pillows, spit cups, GPS, audio devices, and a not insubstantial collection of romance novels, sporting such lurid titles as 'Never Seduce a Scot' and 'The Undead in My Bed.' Surprisingly, I did not find it hard to imagine the gruff, NASCAR crowd drawn into these intrigues of 18th century lust and haunting desire. We do all sorts of things alone to which we might never confess.

Congo Square: New Orleans

I got off the train and into the pit of August heat. It felt and smelled like being in a mouth of a large dog which had fed on the unsavory remnants of something already pre-digested. A lurking stench crept around the moldering subtropic rail station. Not sewage or septic but the raw smell of uncut shit, as if someone had dropped drawers in mid-traffic.

The river snaked through the last patches of the state before dissolving through a sieve of mangroves and entering the gulf. Cumulus rose like spouting whales the colors of apricots and peach skin. I walked up the steps to a platform, pulling out my camera.  A young woman leaned on a railing in front of me as I raised the lens. Someone spoke from behind.

"Yeah, take a photograph of that," he said.

"I know. It's magnificent."

"Yeah," he laughed.

I took a few shots of the clouds, then realized the girl in the foreground had been standing in something of a lurid pose, or at least enough suggestion to her stance to make me feel like a creeper. Damn film. I can't just erase the shot and now I''ll have the judgement of the developer on me.

It was a good place to photograph, New Orleans, and I saw many good angles for it. Much was new and strange. Wrought iron balconies. Taro pushing up leaves the size of card tables through cracks in the pavement. Geckos. Humidity. And plenty of good characters. It started raining and I stepped into a thrift store to stay dry. A tophat sat on a mannequin. Five dollars. It fit perfectly, riding just above the brow, and made me look more of a character myself. A tourist stopped me in the French Quarter to take my picture. He gave me five dollars for it. I suppose that makes you seem a local, when the tourists stop you to take your photograph.

A good hobo band was playing on Frenchman street. They were clearly freighthoppers. Unwashed, untrimmed, and all in the same olive drab and dirty grey. The guitarist knew how to work the crowd, the banjo not bad as backup though hesitant on solos, and the washtub bass hit each chord satisfactorily, but I was most impressed by the washboard. He had thimbles on all fingers and had fastened a few cans and bowls onto the board which he struck as he played. I appreciate any percussionist who does not need a proper instrument to get his music across.

I had arrived in the middle of a song and hoped for another, but it was their last number. So I gave them a dollar and complimented the washboard. He was hesitant in talking, not taking over-much pride in either his playing or craftsmanship. He was a narrow boy probably not yet twenty. Though his mouth was bracketed by a rancid beard and his head a clot of dreds, his cheeks were smooth and unblemished and he had the eyes of the Virgin - gem-like, liquid and sorrowful. Cleaned up, his features would have a femenine delicacy that would remind men of some forlorn stripling relative and women of a junior-high crush. Had he wanted to, he could have gotten away with anything. It impressed me how careful he was of his looks, just the other way than most people might take it. What number of beautiful faces hide and age and go uncelebrated. I wondered just how financially stripped he and his bandmates might have been originally. They might just be rich folk playing paupers. I'm the reverse.

My host in the city and I were unfortunately too much alike to tolerate each other's company much, so I spent most of my time wandering. Supposedly New Orleanians are a talkative bunch. I have not found it so. Unable to locate the chatty folk, I was feeling bored my third and final day and unwilling to go back and argue some more with my host. So I went over to Congo Square to read for awhile. A man was standing by the channeled creek tossing bread to the ducks. He shared half a loaf with me.

"I'm the arborist of Louis Armstrong Park," he said. He moved his arm behind him to indicate a park bench. "That's my office." Then he swung his arm back to the ducks. "These are my constituents."

"I haven't done this since I was a kid," I said, wadding up chunks of wonder bread and tossing them out.

"Satisfying, isn't it," said the arborist.

A school of irridescent scales shimmered under the duck bellies, snapping at the scraps. "What are all these fish we're feeding?" I asked.

"Rio Grande cichlids. They came in on the flood," he said, referencing Katrina. "They'll strike anything that hits the water."

To prove the point the arborist spat into the creek. The surface churned with a scrum of fish.

"Anyone wanna go swimming?" he said, then turned his head to two hunchbacked birds. "Look, some goose-hawks."

I knew them as night herons. They looked intently at the water so I threw them some bread. The pair pounced like trip hammers, each coming up with a cichlid.

"That is satisfying," I said

Monday, September 10, 2012


This post is a brief one.

I am putting some writings together and looking for people to proof-read the manuscripts. Thoughts, questions, grammatical corrections and criticism are appreciated.

If you would not mind reading these through as I finish them, then please email me at . I would be grateful for the help.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The City of New Orleans: Paper Territory

Some recent events had caused me to wonder if I were by nature a good man, or good only by restraint.

So I left Chicago, fleeing south on what is probably the most famous train in the amtrak system. The skyscrapers receded into the lake, and there was nothing more but the streaks of small town lights. The train rocked as though it ran on wooden rails, giving pops and starts like backfire. My sleep was uneasy, troubled and dreamless. Then the sun rose on Memphis.

Coming into Tennessee and then Mississippi. I saw flat clay roads, cypress swamps, and tin-roofed towns with folks slouching around the corner store watching the train go by. I had entered the territory of the small Black town. Places where Blacks held the high offices along with the low. Black doctors and Black mayors were nothing unusual to me. Nor Black laborers and Black delivery men. I've been to Oakland. But those in the median line of small town work - Black bar tenders, Black mechanics, Black farmers - was something I had yet to encounter. No matter how much of the country I see, there's always more to it.

I realized, passing those towns, how little I had yet seen. That a new event could seem in some way a departure of my idea of my own country. That each new place challenged my assessment of national identity until I could touch it, smell it, run my feet over the curbs, then, add it to my vocabulary of experience, saying This too is America.

I've traveled a bit, but the greatest portion of my geographical knowledge has been learned second-hand. Rand Macnally and Google have let my mind wander over the earth when the rest of me couldn't follow. But places like Australia and Alaska, though I can locate them and even without reference describe their general contours, remain places on paper. Flat, two-dimensional kingdoms written over with names I've read. Even citizens of those countries, when they have tried to prove something about their native land, have shown me papers.

I can draw a map of the US free-hand, even tricky states like Washington, and I don't confuse which square state is which. But I realize that for me there is yet a large stretch of paper-territory within my own country.

Internally I have my own map, which if drawn out would look nothing like the shape of the country, but a maundering procession of vistas arranged several thousands of miles long. A line of trees, parks, canyons, mountains, shores, and city blocks all knit together to a single string, but which together would still not comprise even forty states.

The train kept on southward. The dialogue was changing along with the humidity. The train population was split roughly fifty-fifty of whites and blacks who were oddly genteel with each other though both spoke with equal vulgarity amongst themselves. Albeit with different cuss words - the white 'cracker-ass' and 'sonofabitch' to the black 'motherfucker' - and more quietly than their northern brethren. Speech was becoming more slurred. I overheard the man behind me speaking what I thought might be Creole till I realized he was speaking English without the added encumbrance the letters R and L. I expected an elderly man with an underbite, some bayou relic en route to the big city, yet instead there was a trim-looking high-school boy, maybe 18.

The cultural shift was showing in other ways. The men's preference for suspenders. The above ground cemeteries. The iron work.

Great boiling cumuli came up out of the south and knock-kneed cypresses tottered up from the muck, veiled in clinging moss. An interminable swamp stretched onward to Ponchartrain. The train crossed an inlet, scaring up great flocks of white birds as we crossed the waters and onward to the clouds. I looked out the window, hoping childishly for an alligator. Egrets stalked the rushes, patiently. Hanging above us was Cloudland National Park, a suspended Yosemite, Denali in vapor. I had missed how the wamth of a rolling grassland or shallow sea can make these Maxfield Parish sky-scapes. Those clouds were glorious.

The air felt like being held in the mouth of a dog, exhalation curling in under the collar, saturating the neckline and underarms with the heat of its breath. Even still on the train, my undergarments were gradually moistening with sweat.

What the hell was I doing? Who goes to New Orleans in August?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Chicago Union Station

I was enjoying myself, and was having difficulty finding my next host thru Couchsurfing that I stayed in Minneapolis a few days beyond my rail reservation and ended up taking the bus to Chicago. My directions guided me to a parking lot between Washington and 3rd street outside the downtown for a midnight ride which showed up at 1. The passengers, irritated by the delay swore blue murder at the service of the Megabus company and offered their own thoughts on the superiority of Greyhound. The driver, understandably distressed by the delay and the treatment he now received, cussed them back. He was African-American, a fact a woman, black herself, felt compelled to indicate when she shouted, "Nigger, I got two boys, a son and a nephew, 6 foot 3 and 6 foot 1, at home, and I can beat their black asses so don't think I mind taking down a shorty-stubby like yourself."

The driver, in response, laughed. As did the woman. I sat there, baffled and feverish, delirious with some malady that made my head feel like it was full of bees all busily filling every sinus with the comb and wax of their horrible hive. They went on shouting and laughing across Wisconsin, the initial anger at the late departure replaced with jabs at the others ethnic background and sexual history. How is it that Black people can make racial slurs and assaults on preference seem so normative? That "motherfucker" could almost sound complimentary? The thoughts rambled through the mucus clogged chambers of my addled head.

The bus pulled up to the corner of Canal and Jackson, not far from where the rail would have brought me. I stumbled out, my sole objective to reach the hostel I had booked. Really, no rail trip across the US would be complete without a stop at Chicago Union Station. The monument to art deco decadence and enviable acoustics that is the Great Hall, the shy Amish passengers dandling babies, the hurried business suits. Penn station in New York is busier and has a better bistro selection, but can't offer so glamorous a backdrop.

I would have liked to have explored more, but this was a lay-over for me. I had been to Chicago before and besides was deeply engaged by a program of phlegm, hacking, and fever dreams. The following day I was to be out of town, southbound on the City of New Orleans, the train ride being the real reason I had arrived at all. My only grand experience of the city came as I left it, watching the towers drop into Lake Michigan, folding up into the dark of night, realizing that my sum experience of Chicago comes to a tally of roughly 10 days yet I've been homesick for it.

I don't know where this love comes from. It could be the old-fashioned modernism - as if steam-punk updated itself by a half century - the neighborhood feel, the home-town pride. And, despite those magnificent sky-scrapers, there's a real modesty towards accomplishment. There's money alright, but fewer pretenders to it. I've never encountered the same sort of outrages of excess walking the Loop as I have on a Manhattan stroll. Maybe it has something to do with being from a state whose primary export is still a palpable, exchangeable commodity and not an abstraction. Whose own creation story isn't founded off a mythic real estate deal or a water-rights swindle, but off the good, solid swing of a sledgehammer between the eyes of a prairie steer. This feels like a good city, with the stones and stenches all in just the right places.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Grinning, hollering, flapping my mit...

Things were beginning to look familiar in Minnesota. Trees and corn and cows, just like home. I grew up in New York, though I rarely say that's where I'm from. Not because I grew up in the unexceptional hills and holsteins part and I'm avoiding the 'no, not that one' conversation, but because I have no particular loyalty to it. I'm from wherever I got on the train, wherever I've thrown my bag. You can't go home again. I don't even seem to be trying.

My host in Minneapolis took me around on a motorcycle, showing me the holes in the various walls, setting me up with friends of his for drunken spelling bees, pointing at the giant spoon. Honestly, I was just glad to be on a motorcycle. My first time and I was doing a poor job of being cool and reserved - grinning, hollering, flapping my mit at passing motorists. I looked like the kid who had just come from the Lone Ranger's birthday party. And in the Twin Cities at midday during the week, one has the feeling of being in a racing arcade game: the generic sky-scrapers, the token and interchangeable pedestrians, the sky the shade of tv-screen blue. There was hardly anyone outside, either walking or driving on the spotlessly paved streets.

"Where is everybody?" I shouted over the wind and the motor.

"This is everybody," he said.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Prairie Drifters

Roads, rails, rivers - I have to have something moving underneath me.

I bought a rail pass in Portland which was good for 15 days and 8 trains, anwhere I might want to go served by Amtrak.

Granted, that put some limits on destinations, but that didn't really matter very much given my purposes. I like motion, the rocking chassis of a machine conveying me onward over the continent. I like the manageable, packable life. I like the ever-changing background of faces. I like the many inconveniences and delays. The unexpected turns and accidents, the fervent possibility of mild cataclysm. A few nights before leaving, I heard a second-hand story of a cross-country train re-routed thru Wyoming, where the old lines buckled under the carriages and the engine jumped the line. Miles from any platform and hours from a relief train, the passengers had to disembark onto the prairie and pass the night inside a cattle shed. The lucky devils.

Many people say they like travel when in truth what they really like is arriving. I like the process of getting there moreso than the place itself. I would go to India if I could find a compelling enough means of conveyance. So I chose a city I had never been to - Minneapolis - and set course. There was really no great reason for being there, only for going.

The train crested the western slope of the Rockies and began its descent to the plains.  I feel accomplished whenever I cross the continental divide. It is like coming into another country. Or rather, it is coming into another country. The plants and animals are different, the waters flow the other way. The land of origin is now irrevocably behind, and before you is an open scape of grasses, wheat, sheet metal towns and fence wire loping off to the horizon.

The Great Plains, are sometimes contemptuously viewed by those who favor sudden shifts in altitude as a bland and featureless place, like the middle chapters of a period romance novel, best skipped over so as to get to the more exciting parts. Point your finger out directly in front of you and sweep your arm in a long arc. There, you have traced the horizon.

Growing up, some of my best friends were trees, which gave me the notion that happiness involved being rooted to a place. Why anyone would choose to live somewhere a tree could die if left unwatered mystified me.

However the prairies, far from a lack luster footnote of geography, are the defining feature of the continent, and hold no small sway over what it means to be of this land. Think of 'America the Beautiful.' Sure, there's the sea-to-shinging-sea part, and that bit about purple mountains, but think of the amber waves, spacious skies, fruited plains. If we were an island - like Britain or Hawaii - we might have had a national identity allied with the sea. Yet I've been to towns within spitting distance of salt water - Orick, California, Sedro-Woolley, Washington - where the bars still hung with rodeo memorabilia and patrons swaggering under belt-buckles. These men who drank gawdawful beer and never called home anywhere near a roaming buffalo, yet whose speech was of cattle and diesel where geography would have suggested winds and tide. The pattern may be seen again in mountain towns and hill towns, and towns wrapped up in forest. If there is a town in North America that does not have its bar of wrangler wannabes I've seen it on no map.

The comparison is frequently made between the prairie and the ocean. I can see it, and I agree that my sentiments are largely familiar to those I have felt at the shore. They do have some commonalities. The spareness stirs wonder at what lay across and no matter how far back one pushes the horizon, yet it goes on. My childhood opinions have changed. Those early ideas based off arboreal contentment I've realize are ill-suited to the bipedal. I no longer see the plains as territory to get across - a long stretch between good lattes -  but to enjoy the crossing. Everything that ever thrived here survived because it moved when the season required. The buffalo, the Indians, wild horses, antelope, wolves, even the grasses themselves, scattering by wings, burrs, and fire and shifting stalks in the wind.

The train comes to a stop in Havre for several hours to let a freight train pass. An old, coal-fired engine sits beside the tracks in a fenced-off area. The thing is an industrial behemoth, all wheels and gears and black with the promise of manifest destiny. Compared to it, the amtrak passenger service looks like a line of over-size lunch tins. The passengers go about the station, chatting, stretching their legs. One particularly fit traveler pulls out some sort of excerise device and executes an abdominal workout on the pavement. There are a surprising number of smokers, who enjoy a first then a second cigarette until the crew drains the septic and the stench drives us all aboard, save the few for whom this is the final destination.

I've come to enjoy the plains, yet am still surprised when a train pulls into a prairie town and people get off. I always expect the reverse. There's that old-rooted prejudice coming out again.

The train goes on, eastward over the prairies, and I sit and watch the darkness go by.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

From the Vault: Maine

Promiscuously reading

The best of insults sting for their accuracy. As evidence I submit the following.

"Are you a handyman?" she asked.

"In what sense?" I said.

"Can you do anything or do you just talk about books?"

I'm sure that I can. I will tally my talents. Let's see:
- I can sing while playing the ukulele, guitar, and if the wind is right, on flute as well
- I can tell a joke twice to the same person and get them to laugh both times
- I consider San Francisco and New York to be within walking distance of each other
- I can say 'yes', 'no', 'please', 'thank you', and 'very large beer' in no less than five languages

I possess, in short, nearly all those talents that make one appear incomparably magnificent to an eleven-year old, and exasperatingly directionless to an employer.

I've never been to the left bank of the 1920s, but I imagine it was probably full of such types as myself. Despondent wanderers, swishing their drinks, talking Art and God and all the other celebrities whose parties we're never invited to. Criticising the bourgeousie because we envy their mental and financial stability. Lamenting that all the good stuff has already happened and there will never again be anything as thumpingly good as Moby Dick, much less the Bible.

In other words, moaners. The sorts of people I can't stand precisely because I resemble them too much. I don't mean to compare myself to the likes of Steinbeck and Hemmingway - the moaner I like the moaner I don't - merely to their company, which must have been rife with scribblers of mediocrity. The lesser moaners, whose wretched stuff exists mostly to justify the less-wretched works of others. The ones such as myself, who failed even as they believed so fervently that literature could deliver them they consider writing as prayer.

Yes, I talk about books, as priests do God, as old men their vanished youth - obsessively, longingly, enviously.

So I fled for Portland and Powell's, that mighty cathedral of literature, before Seattle and its biting accuracy could get me down any further.

On my first trip to Portland, some 6 years ago, I visited for a week, 6 days of which I spent in Powell's. If I go to Portland and I don't visit Powell's I might as well have never left the rail station, or airport, or however I came to arrive. If it weren't for that bookstore, the city would have very limited appeal to me.

I feel safe, secure within it. A maggot buried in the apple. Wandering the aisles, reading promiscuously from the various titles of which I've never heard, bringing the older copies to my nose and smelling the different odors of paper and binding.

I wish I were a book myself, sometimes. A treasured thing, observed and appreciated, contributed to -  as I write in the margins so might others write in me -  argued with, despised, dog-eared, quoted, re-shelved, and re-read, appreciating and depreciating, placed amongst other titles with our pages whispering stories, then misplaced, misunderstood, burned or pulped.

Which, in sum, I suppose is not much different than the lives of the aged. In which case I might get there yet, if I can find other things to do to fill my years than just talk about books.

En-route to Minneapolis. More-or-less because it is there, and for no greater reason than that.

The 60s Psychedelic Trip

Supposedly, good writing does not begin with quotation. The author should first posit a stance, then later defend it through his own experience and the experiences of others. Otherwise it's robbery, making the author appear non-comittal, evasive, mysterious, hiding behind others thoughts so he can avoid having his own. ("I despise quotations! Tell me what you know." Good old Emerson. So quotable even when incensed.)

Personally, I enjoy quotations. They make me seem smarter than I am. I don't see what really makes a piece less good for starting with someone else's words. I think of it as a way to honor their wit. Afterall, no one makes words, they are borrowed. Writing is just arranging language. When a phrase is particularly well-knit it should not just be dropped because someone else said it before you could. What a tragic waste of language that so many sparkling aphorisms, biting cynicisms, redoubtful boasts, and moving praises could be heard but once.

So I'm going to use someone else's words to begin. The herbalist and traveler Juliette de Bairacli Levy had written she preferred 'to travel as a winged seed.' The image has stuck with me as someone who literally allows herself to drift with the wind, clutching an umbrella or a starched whimple, or else paper-thin in a stiff breeze. During her life she preferred to never travel a distance further than her feet could have carried her in a day. I like that creed well, but my morals are more flexible. Seeds can travel so many ways, even hitching rides on airplanes and cargo ships. Afterall, dandelions didn't blow across the Atlantic against the Jet Stream, and burdock didn't catch a lift from an obliging whale. The wind is such a fickle thing, dropping one wherever. I'd rather be a seed with barbs, one that doesn't wait for circumstances to change but releases itself at just the right moment.

For the next stage of travel, I had consulted craigslist rideshare to see if anyone might be driving cross-country. Now that I've flown, taken the train, and walked it, I have yet to drive the distance. A long car trip might be nice. So I found a 12-passenger van driving east to Minneapolis, charging $100 for the way. Estimated arrival time 4 days. Scenic route guaranteed.

It sounded good enough to me. I called the number, explained what I was looking for, heard what they were looking for, and we agreed it sounded a match. From the conversations, I knew exactly the type they would be: butter-fed Mormon types, fresh out of Bedford Falls, listening to Up with People all the way.

Mark, their liason, met me up in Capitol Hill, up from Pike's Place. He matched, very much, the idea of a suburban father from a movie about childhood roadtrips in the 1960s. Bermuda shorts, socks and sandals, bucket hat, polo shirt, middling and middle-aged, sunk with years and paunch. He carried a messenger bag over his shoulder. The side pocket was stuffed with maps of various American cities: Albuquerque, Santa Monica, Santa Fe. I liked him.

We waited for the remainder of the group at Cal Anderson Park. It was a warm day so the lawn was full of folk who carry their lives in hand bags and backpacks and wrapped up in blankets.

"Does anyone have a cigarette I could buy?" a woman said.

"Cigarette?" I said.

"I shouldn't have said buy," she said, rushing over. "I meant bum."

I passed her the pack.

"I don't know where they are," said Mark. "I told my friend in Spokane we would be there by 7. So long as they show up in the next half hour we should be on time."

They arrived 40 minutes later, tattooed, pierced, and grey of face. Hardly a jolly looking bunch. All save one, the driver, who did resemble a Mormon with his incurable smile, albeit a Jack Mormon with his bandana, slight beard, and glass pendants strung about his neck. A flop-eared dog trailed from a leash he held.

"Leif," he said.

"Like the navigator?" I said.

"Exactly. Is it OK to have the dog in the back with you?"

She seemed quiet, and there would be plenty of space with 12 seats and only 6 passengers. "I don't mind," I said. This is part of the vagaries of travel.

After some ten minutes of impatient pleasantries and route discussion - the barbed seed cannot steer the beast to which  it's burred - we got to the van. It was a chevrolet 12-passenger, spray painted purple with some artistic graffitoed flourishes above the tail-lights. The side door was a bright green sheet of plywood, bungie corded in place.

"Now this is something like a 60s psychedelic trip," said Mark as he opened up the front passenger door to load up. Angling for nostalgia, I thought. The man ought to work in real-estate. I got in, grappling around the bucket seats to find mine, on the floor.

The back was all open floor-space, strewn with food wrappers and bags piled up around. Silly me for thinking a 12-passenger van meant a van with 12 seats. I looked for a way to secure myself. There was none. So I leaned against the stack of baggage and stretched out my legs.

"Don't lean against the door," said Leif, noticing my proximity to the plywood. "It's not easy to put back on when it comes off."

Two of the other passengers pulled out a tin of green leaves and a device legally sold for tobacco use only. They began the preparations of their ceremony.

"Are you planning on smoking?" I asked.

"Not cigarettes," they said, wide-eyed and offended.

We pulled into a gas station. "Gas money," said Mark, reaching back. I handed him $15, then thought better of it and got out of the van. He gave me my money back and pulled out my bag. I had made it a block with the 60s psychedelic roadtrip.

"Good luck," he said. "Safe travels."

Monday, July 30, 2012

Via Seattle

Every voyage has at its beginning a terse fatalism, a thought that this time it's for keeps. This time you're not coming back. The bags are packed, the appliances unplugged, the changes of clothes washed and pressed. You're getting aboard and you're going to vanish. 

The comfortable sights of home flash past as you come to the next town. This too is fairly well-known but from this point on it will become less-so, diminishing the bank of the familiar until it is run down and every sight is a new one. New cities, new faces, new weather. A mountain for which you have no name comes into sight. Perhaps you come from a place that does not have mountains, and now, emerging as terrible as biblical reckoning, as unbelievable as storybook, here is a shape, a form, whose every contour shouts out MOUNTAIN. You breathe in, satisfied that this is why you have left home.

Now you have to think, did you do everything? Are you really prepared for uncertainty and your life previous for abandonment? Check your pockets. Pat your bag. Didn't you have a hat? And what about that friend whom you owe $10? Then there's that charity you said you'd give your time to in October. And that shirt, the one which you got at the thrift store for a song and whose tag is written all in Italian. The one that makes you look like you've come to ask a favor of Don Corleone. You leant it to a friend who needed to make an impression on a job interview. Or was it a date? He must have had it by now. You will have to find out how it went. He may have your hat. You will be going back afterall. What a relief.

The train goes on carrying me northward, snug as a tapeworm in the gut of my host. I love the shaking chassis, the muffled sound of the whistle from inside the carriage, the stream of urban lighting flickering past the window, the smells of antiseptic and perfume and marijuana and body. I love taking off my boots of going about the cars in my socks, despite the irritation of the attendants. I love bringing my own provisions aboard - ryevita, almond butter, goat cheese, strawberries, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, granola, a mango, 70% dark chocolate, beer. I love most everything about this magic conveyence that bears me away through the night. Even those things that I wouldn't love elsewhere - the malfunctioning toilets, the lack of timeliness, the re-circulated air - I forgive. Afterall, for long distance travel trains are a sentiment.

Here on the Coast Starlight - Amtrak's West Coast Service - I can read, or talk to other passengers, play ukulele, or just look at a landscape which rises and fades at a stately pace. Klamath Lake, Cascades, Willamette Valley, Eugene, Portland, Olympia, Seattle, near cultivation and distant wilderness. Occasionally the train parallels the highway, but mercifully these miles are few and so I am given a view that is largely natural if not purely wild. Thoreau hated trains, but he didn't know what was coming. There are few modes of travel which still allow for such comfort. Ferries may be the only other comparable transportation now that dirigibles are gone from fashion. Cruises don't count since they lack even a pretense of practicality.

I've come onto this train because I had a yen to head up to Seattle to see some friends and to get some film developed at a favored processor. Really though, I was obeying an imperative migratory urge. I was feeling as Steinbeck had when he wrote Travels with Charlie, a need "to be somewhere, anywhere, away from any here." Seattle was just a happy pretext. I needed to go more than to be someplace, and to that end I could have chosen Wichita, or Calgary, or Istanbul. Too, I went because I love coming back as much as going out. I needed to leave so I could return.

This particular route offers what for many is the vision of a train ride across North America: long, hollow stretches of railway cut through a corridor of towering evergreens. The scenery is magnificent. When a valley drops to one side of the tracks, one can look out on mountains that were they east of the plains would have been appropriated as national icons during the formative years of the Republic. But since the incoming populations came largely from the east, passing more grandiose monoliths en route that well-matched the growing nationanalism, these modest pinnacles are not much noted save by logging companies. A middling 7,000-9,000 feet, barely keeping their snows through the year. Some mountains.

At Portland a duo of volunteers get on to give the history of the Northwest in the cafe car. Their commentary goes from diverting to tolerable to escapable and I creep back to my seat to read. However, there's further interruption. The landscape becomes familiar, but then with enough travel every place takes on a shade of home. Look - there's the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. There's Mount Rainier and there's Puget Sound, mirror-flat in the sunset. (Thought: how far could one go in a rowboat from Olympia? To Victoria? To Alaska?) There's Seattle rising up from its nest of shipping containers. The clock tower looks the same. King Station is under renovation. Is that cafe still open in the University District? The one with the exceptionally attractive staff?

The train comes to stop, and I exit with my bag onto the street.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Word

I have a new acquisition. A new enhancement to my retinue of a packable life: a keyboard.

 I had gotten myself a tablet a month ago for the purpose of being able to always stay one step ahead of my debts. The typing could be slow on it - hunt-and-peck, using just the index fingers, with frequent mis-spellings and incomprehensible auto-corrections. Then, I got myself an auxiliary keyboard. The words can fly out from under my fingers again, almost as quicky as I think them. I find myself typing words for the joy of having the keys clack and the feeling of speed in my hands.

"Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party,"

 "We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalieble rights..."

 "Whan that Abrille with the showrs soote, the drouthe of Mars hath perced to the roote..."

 Why the Hell can't I play anything more complicated than Frere Jacques on the piano but can type out, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," with fluency?

Regardless, I like it. No concert hall seats are going to be sold to watch me type out a daring improvisation, but for personal satisfaction it shall do nicely. It makes me feel more akin to the old writers, like Jack London prowling San Francisco with his Underwood under his arm. But several degrees better.

Lest the reader think me boastful and vainglorious, I don''t mean to imply I've written the great American novel and laugh at all preceding writers as but preludes to myself. What I mean is, compared to the processes the old boys used - typewriters, pen and paper - I'm much better off. I can write up a novella in an hour if I felt so inspired and then have it published in multiple languages within the same day.

 I like that my arrangement of tablet and keyboard makes me feel like some starving artist on the Left Bank of some river in whatever city the poets gather to self-congratulate. Typewriters are still pleasing to me, and not just because of my affection for the obsolete. But because of the swish-clack of the keys and the cranking sheets of paper. It's an audio as well as visual experience. The stacks of dirtied paper, however, has always troubled me and kept me from making anything serious on a typewriter, historical precedent be damned. Not to mention the difficulty of finding replacement parts for busted machines. I'd rather be a writer than a technician.

 But I love words, I love language, and I love machines that make the verbal into the visible, especially when they go swish-clack. I have never felt so powerful holding a gun as I have sitting at a keyboard. Lucky for me, it is much more socially acceptable to sit down at a table in a cafe and pull out my sidearm of choice. Call it excersizing my constitutional right.

 So my embracing of new technology has only come as I view it as a return to the classic. Everything old is new again, no?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Fellowship of Travel

One of the things I appreciate about travel is the commonality of the travelers. Of whatever background, age, education, or income, we are all, at least for awhile, of the same kind. We are uprooted drifters, en route, in the same boat, so to speak, or bus, or train.

We form a fellowship of the displaced. A great joy of going is not only in seeing what I have never seen before, but experiencing it with others, and finding their stories along the way. The professor of German from the university of Chicago, the Indiana Mennonite showing his son the country, the classical violinist, the Oklahoman, the runaway, the drunk. I prefer their stories to my own. I know mine. Theirs are novel, unknown but knowable, and no matter where I may be or what I am up to, another's adventures are always the more fascinating.

 I imagine that a large part of this has to do with my chosen modes of travel. So much as I can, I like to keep as little separation between my feet and the earth as possible. I like to see the land i'm passing over, to make out the leaves on the trees and how the grass bends with the wind and how the people i pass squint their eyes in the sun. I remain skeptical of the reliance of air travel. To sail the skies in a fire retardant aluminum envelope still sounds to me like the work of fiction, though it is now more than a century since Kitty Hawk. I've taken flights, I know their economy and efficiency, but still, 35,000 feet is many more than I am comfortable with and I have rarely had a worthwhile conversation on a plane. 

Trains, buses, boats, and bicycles have always lent themselves - within my lifetime at least - to a slower-paced crowd, one that does not mind delay. Here one is more likely to find people like myself, wanderers following a planktonic existence, going where currents allow. These are the people with whom i may find support for my decisions, or at least commiseration for the many drawbacks. They help me see my decisions as a daring affront to societal expectations regarding lifestyle, and not as an emotional incapacity to deal with the responsibilities of maturity. My few possessions represent a liberation from property, my meager bank account sufficient for 8 months of living like a vagabond prince.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for congratulation, something I find hard to self-manufacture, that I need the approval of others. It can be so wearing, constantly piecing together one's life. The parts that went right can never be lived over to give some space to breath. So I keep moving, sinking into the crowd, a quiet member of the parish of the traveling church as the earth rolls on beneath.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Settled Life of Toasters

Hostels are a way station for the just-arrived and the about-to-depart. I had a few days between my last gig and my next one, so i booked a bed in San Francisco and picked up the guitar and played till someone felt like talking. Someone did. She was maybe 25, touring California. But being English, she was 'on holiday' and not vacation.

"When does the trip end?" I asked.

 "Thursday in San Diego."

"Then back home?"

She groans.

"That's not a good thing? I would think it would be nice."

"There are plenty of nice things about home. There's nothing nice about the real world," she says. "The real world sucks and everyone knows it, that's why there are so many books written by people who gave it up and went back to it then wrote about how terrible it is so they could have the money to give it all up again."

"You mean like Elizabeth Gilbert?" I say. "Or Byron?"

"Not just western literature but all literature," she says. She pronounces it lit-ra-ture. "Everyone makes stories about better worlds and transcending the ordinary because the real world sucks."

To be contrary, I try to offer evidence to counter this opinion but come up lacking. There doesn't seem much i can say for the defense of standard living. The real world she describes is the standard one of maturity, the settled life of toasters and gardeners, postman and picket fences, umbrellas and telephone directories. Bills and baggage. Insurance. Age. 401k.

I'm deeply troubled by what she has said, mostly because I want everything she is railing against.

I want that green lawn, that white fence, that mailbox with my name on it, the closet crammed with the aerosol smell of plastic off-gassing from the Payless shoes, the refrigerator that makes both ice and water, the store-bought spouse, the couple of vacuous kids bathed in the blue glow of television screen.

There will be two children: the boy we planned and wanted, and then the surprise girl 15 months later, for whom we did neither, but who, by the time she's three, I will love the most. The boy will be bland but serviceable so far as sons go, doing sll the things he thinks boys are supposed to do - baseball, getting dirty, being cruel to his sister - until he comes to enjoy them.

He becomes talented at sports, which I find dull but which because he is mine I will encourage, though I will never come to like it and always harbor suspicions that had she wanted to his sister could have been the better athlete. I will be proud of him when he gets accepted to college, but not as much as I am of his sister when at the age of 14 she outs herself as a lesbian.

At the age of 38, I will contemplate an affair, but hold back for outdated ressons of integrity and honor. I will tell this to my spouse when we divorce 5 years later. In the separation I learn I was the only one to hold back on temptation for the past 10 years. I'm deserted for someone whose children have grown since they are "done wiping noses." I counter with some choice words which leave me feeling empty and failed. I keep the house, and since the kids live there, them too.

 I keep my nose to the grindstone, trim hedges, grade papers, update my glasses prescription, get cavities filled, start wearing cardigans and yelling at the thirty-something neighbors who move in with their toddler and cocktail-sized dog.

The boy will move out first, claiming he's had enough of my iron fist. In panic I will call his mother, who tells me my laissez-faire ways were bound to backfire. I scream obscenities and hang up. He joins the marines because he knows this is one of the worst things he could do to me. His sister says that he did it because he wanted to and when am I going to let them be their own people and not who I want them to be?

She goes to school to be a dental hygienist where she meets a nice girl. Four years later they give me my first grandchild and I breathe a sigh of relief that I get to try over, then get my heart broken when they move overseas. I still love her the most.

Then the boy comes back for a time. Years have mellowed us both that we actually come to enjoy each other's opinions. But he realizes he's outgrown this old town and moves away. I get christmas cards from him that slowly increase in the number of signatures at the bottom of the card from one to four as the years go by.

Then, in October of my 72nd year, while burning leaves on the curb, the exertion and smoke inhalation triggers a heart attack. The neighbor girl finds me face down, with part of my clothing smoldering and my eyebrows singed off. I wave away the ambulance, but since my response was not articulate or verbal, I'm carted away. As they whisk me to the hospital, I close my eyes, not regretting my mistakes, nor taking any pride in the victories, as I wait, flickering, fading, and finally, going out.

Of course, that's just the rough outline. It might happen differently. Most of those elements I begin to find distasteful even as I write, but even though I may not want these things in a month, or a year, or twenty, I do want them now. Or at least some of them. I'm left unsettled by this.

When did i stop wanting to be Peter Pan and began envying Mr. Darling?

Monday, April 30, 2012

Down and out in Ontario

Maybe I like going to Canada because it's the one country in the world where it's OK to feel snobbish about being an American. Anywhere else one is reminded of the millennia of art and tradition that have preceded and led up to the grand cultural accomplishments of modern Belgium, or Korea, or Peru. That doesn't happen in Canada. Well, perhaps in Montreal, but I was leaving it for Ontario purposefully and not just because I got a ride there.

I wanted to be somewhere bigger, noisier, more chokingly polluted and comfortable with its own squalor. That pretty much just meant Toronto, unless I headed back south of the border. Being in a city large enough to assure anonymity is a comfort to me. I like walking the pavements, feeling concrete under my shoes, inhaling new odors with each square of the sidewalk. The greatest draw for me, in any city, is the people watching. Walt Whitman had it right in his poem, To a Stranger:

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
 You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
[...] I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

I love riding public transportation, and sitting close enough to other people in cafes to smell what they've ordered, and imagining what their arms, faces, and jackets would feel like. When our eyes meet I do my best to break into them and make myself into that object which they will recall and wonder when they "sit alone or wake at night alone." In return, I'm just as conscious of how I dress, how I walk, how my wrists show while I drink from that cup of tea and where I must go to be noticed. I am, in this way, a public figure, though one deluded and ignorant of his own obscurity.

Four days I wandered the city, lingering in Kensington market, walking the haunts of the graffiti artists, riding the metro, finding those Asian restaurants Asians actually go to, and getting baked out of my mind at a pot bar and wandering the internal passageways of the underground like digestion navigating the gut. I thought of all the cities I had been to in the past year. Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, Chicago, Boston, the other Portland, Montreal, Toronto. They blended in my mind, the sidewalks all connected. It was disorienting, and disheartening.

I was experiencing the traveler's sickness. Not quite homesickness, more like a lack of will and purpose. The great question of "What am I doing here?" Some people I know experience this before they even leave. Why go drink tea in China when you could drink tea at home? Usually I would have answered, "Because it is not home." But the answer had reversed on me. "Because it is home." I was tired of traveling. Home was calling, which was no individual place, but having gone down to a few hundred dollars and wanting a roof, a radiator, a bed that stayed put, that pretty much meant heading back to the US. Being poor is fine, but it's much harder to be poor in a country that's not yours, however much it might resemble it.

 I searched Craigslist for the next available ride to anywhere in the US. There was a ride to Buffalo offered and I took it. So, Buffalo would be home.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Montreal to Toronto

Miles from previous: 330
Total miles travelled: 646

From: Villa Maria Metro Station, Montreal, QC
To: Bayview Metro Station, Toronto, ON

Montreal is a city that I want to like more than I actually do. I like their tidy downtown, their efficient metro, and the usually good musicians I can find there, but the city itself has never made any great impression on me. It's always been a cold and grey city filled with people in dark clothing moving at fast speeds. Those same qualities work in New York and Chicago, but those cities have more of a right to be gloomy Gotham. Maybe its the abundance of art-deco, or just greater size. Montreal has all the cheer of a Soviet bloc prison. Lego-land architecture, stained snow. To be fair, I've never been there in the summer. But I doubt the seasons would much change the inhabitants. The women are alright, but I've found the men to be endlessly boring with their assertions of anglo-oppression.

I caught a ride up from Boston thru Craigslist with a Russian immigrant and a Czech-Canadian national. I got some of that special treatment border guards seem to favor me with - prying questions, searching personal items, though no body scan this time - but as I answered the question "Have you ever been denied entry into Canada?" truthfully (Yes) they let me in.

I didn't have any real reason to get to Montreal other than the general rules of the travel sketch. Someone offered a ride and I took it. But I admit there was a bit more incentive than that. For some years, I'd been referring to a French friend of mine who had relocated to Quebec as 'the love of my life.' The term was a bit facetious, a bit serious. Certainly questioning. I was never sure. There was no great idea behind my visit this time, as though it would be the trip when I would make sure of myself and of her. I just wanted to visit. I like her. I like her very much. She's just one of those people whose life I want to be a part of for what's left of it. You call that love, I think.

It came as a surprise when she used the same words to describe someone else. The 'love of her life' she told me, with some pause, is a man she has known since they were both 6 years old. He had called her the week before to tell her he was moving to Montreal. Not myself. What a relief.

I didn't really expect that I was the love of her life, and now I'm not sure what I would have done if she had told me that I was. But that's not what I got. We had no obligation to each other. It was freeing. I don't think she needed me anymore. And I'm not sure I needed her either. That's supposed to sound tragic, but it didn't feel that way. It felt natural, like one season giving itself into another. We were just moving on. We could walk out of each other's lives whenever we wanted. I went first.

I checked out rideshare. A Belarusian immigrant and his Ukrainian passenger were going to Toronto, another ride with the Eastern Europeans and the same foibles: aggressive driving, impeccably clean interiors, thermoses of hot tea, racist comments the others found innocuous and I found tasteless.

It was comforting to have wheels spinning under me, and the great ribbons of asphalt flowing beneath. Then Toronto came into view, and I got out at the Eastbay station.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Craigslist, Montreal, What a Marvelous Modern Age

Miles: 316

From: MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
To: Hurley's Irish Pub, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Sometimes I really do look around, wide-eyed as Louie Armstrong, wondering at the world. Instant global communication, recombinant DNA, National Geographic, Wikipedia, YouTube. I feel like I'm living in a science fiction plot, one of the more sinister ones where the moral doesn't come delivered on a platter in the arms of the giant robot but you have to dig for it. All the old demons of morality, plus a few new ones added to boot.

We didn't get the vision of the future the atomic age foretold. Where are the jet packs? The flying cars? Human-controlled weather? Instead we got smartphones, satellite communication, and technology more sophisticated than anything NASA could produce when they put a man on the moon. And all in products small - and seductive - enough to be carried in a pocket. I write this now on a tablet, a device whose properties I can only liken to the magic mirror of a fairy tale, though curiously, whose contours best resemble the monolith from 2001, a Space Odyssey. What a brave new world.

In a different futuristic vision from the same 20th century decades, you might look at Star Trek. I have never seen an episode of Star Trek. Not for reasons of pride, it's just never happened. But, from my understanding, in that interpretation of the future, there were other promises that remain as illusory to us as the flying cars: A planet without poverty, hunger, war, disease, and mankind so unoccupied as to spend the remainder of his time in exploration. Not the exploration of the conquistadors or the cold war - for profit or pride - but an unendending inquiry into the cosmos. A non-goaled goal. Tellingly, we haven't made much progress in that direction either.

I'm not really a fan of science fiction, but I can't escape certain troubling truths. I write on a tablet in a comfortable coffee bar while the human cogs who made it, on the other side of the world in conditions unknown in North America or Europe since the 19th century, can never hope to purchase one. Like Eloi and Morlocks, we have outsourced suffering. One of us enjoys health and comfort and freedom while the other toils in Hadean conditions to make that rosy world the rest of us love. But I'd rather end the simile there, before getting to the uncomfortable end.

In Welles' Time Machine, the Morlocks eat the Eloi. So the comparison isn't even that accurate since I'd have to change the plot of the novel to better match the modern world. And then it would be a book not only of discomfort, but absolute depression since in this version, the Eloi would not only expect their underlings to produce electricity and gadgetry, but would, at the last, consume them as well. Is not an 80 hour work week the same as eating a man's life?

It's troubling, to say the least. So I read craigslist to sooth myself, looking at the various items for sale or barter. Bicycles, urns, cars, cremains, umbrellas, houses, cell phones, board games, coffeepots, tires. Whatever you are looking for, you can find it there, if you look hard enough. Even love, if you give it enough tries. Or if you feel like something less emotionally sticky, there's always "Casual encounters" for the immediate lay. You don't have to go to Babylon anymore to dip your fingers in the fleshpots. It's all there, online. A global forum of hawkers. If you can imagine it, then it is already there and someone has made five dollars from it. It's disgusting. It's fascinating. It's beautiful. It restores my hope in the capabilities of human design.

I enjoy reading the individual Craigslist sites for cities I've never been to. 'Rants and raves' can be good to get you stirred up over something: the local school board, the conditions in a neighborhood, the prospects of a sports team. The topics vary by city. Minneapolis has been having some problems with hooliganism it seems, while racial prejudice dominates the Los Angeles forum. Miami is full of self-promoters, as usual, and New Orleans mystifies me with it's collection of fiery posts of occultism, transvestites, and strange things seen on the Mississippi.

"Missed Connections" could best be summed up as the collective exhalation of breath of thousands of people, young and old, pining for passersby in coffee shops, metro stations, and checkout lines. Posting words like messages in bottles to the set of eyes, lips, or angled collarbone that tripped them up. I love reading these, particularly when they are in someplace wholly foreign so I won't have to wonder if one is about myself or someone I know.

It's astonishing how much I both enjoy this vicarious experience and how readily available the information is. I think of tele-screens from 1984. But it's not entirely similar. In any of Orwell's books, some crisis arose and the population would rally around a political cause or leader that would unify them and promise security. This politician would have to convince the people that surveillance was for the best. But we didn't have to be convinced. We bought into the idea of hourly having our faces, location, and data recorded, so long as we could all see thru the far side of the looking glass. Individually, we will never have the comprehensive dirt that the library of Congress, or Google, or the Vatican possesses, but so long as there is just enough of the information at hand to make us feel control, we can forgive these intrusions. I do, and I don't even want to.

I want to think of everything I ever put out there as like the ark of the covenant at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie. The ark is placed in a wooden crate in a warehouse the size of an airplane hangar among many other similar boxes, and so presumably becomes just as lost in museum-quality, bureaucratic hodge-lodge as it had been when it was buried in Egypt. If you look, you might be able to find it, but there are a lot of other boxes in that warehouse. But the analogy doesn't work, since the people who might look for me - potential employers, ex-lovers, the department of homeland security - are much better at it than I am. So what if I'm careful? I give information about myself away daily

I should be troubled, and yet I keep reading Craigslist for that repeated joy of looking across the street into the neighbor's open window.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Travel Sketch. Boston

Mile: 0

I had a simultaneous need to be somewhere and nowhere. Eighteen-months a wanderer, with never the same bed from month to month. I am ready for work, rest, and routine. But I couldn't just wait around for those things to happen.

"A man who can't get things to go right can at least go."
~ William Least Heat-Moon

So, a new project came to mind. While I would fill out job applications and send resumes throughout the country, I would be a tumbleweed again. Though this time, of a goal undefined.

Craigslist offered an option. A new journey with new rules. Under the community forum, I would read the rideshare offers. Starting from Boston, I would go wherever people were willing to take me. East was as good as West, North as South. I had nowhere to be that I could just be now, here. A dandelion seed going wherever the wind will blow it.

But what would be the end? Would there be one? After a year and a half of wandering I've been looking forward to a domestic life. Sheets, showers, toasters, and tea in porcelaine cups. But this, this postponement, this non-goaled journey. Why?

Because I'd rather be wandering roads, and new ones each day, than grow familiar with unemployment and indolence. The depression of another refused application is easier to deal with when the road flows beneath me.

This is, perhaps, the most true odyssey I've ever begun, knowing neither where it would take me, or even what I was looking for. If it were the classic American roadtrip, it would have a clear end - California, Florida, Alaska - and expectations of adventure and intrigue. In prior trips I had known the character of the adventure and eagerly anticipated the unexpected. Now I knew them all, their general pattern, and looked forward to their end, which would come when I either found work, or exhausted the last of my funds. Whichever comes first.

So, a travel sketch, and not a project. I guess that shows some optimism that the wandering will be short. Or rather, that I will ramble as long as necessary, and no longer.