I am just as intrigued by autonomous vehicles as the next guy. Everything I've read about them suggests that they'll relieve congestion and improve safety, and I both hope and believe that to be true. Our roads are clogged and anything to unclog them -- and to improve efficiency, confer environmental benefits and cost savings compared to the current shape of our car-obsessed culture -- would be a good thing.
But while it's one thing to view autonomous vehicles as replacements for non-autonomous vehicles on existing roadways, it's another thing altogether to say that we should literally rip up existing mass transit tracks and fill the tunnels with them.
Oh yes, someone is saying that. Peter Wayner in The Atlantic, writing about how, rather than fix New York's aging, overtaxed and increasingly unreliable subway system, we replace it with autonomous vehicles:
The New York City subway is a miracle, especially at 3 a.m. on a Friday night. But the system is also falling apart, and it’s going to cost billions to keep the old trains running: $19 billion, at least according to one estimate from city planners. The time has come to give up on the 19th-century idea of public transportation, and leap for the autonomous future . . .
I'm less interested in the specific pros and cons of such a plan -- hey, we put a man on the moon, so why not a driverless Uber underneath Sixth Avenue? -- than I am in the assumptions and preferences which underlie it.
The premise of this idea -- one which has been astoundingly popular across the political spectrum over the past several decades -- is that it's simply unreasonable to expect our society to build and maintain great public works. That taxes are inherently bad and that raising them to provide goods and services for the well being of people is simply out of the question. It assumes, more specifically, that we simply cannot or should not fix New York's subway system because it's too hard. Too expensive. Not sexy. "Yes, the subway has been one of the marvels of the industrialized world for over a century," the article basically argues, "but it'll cost money and require work to maintain it so let's go with Project: Jetsons."
It's so very sad to see such a mindset. One which doesn't even attempt to push back, not even a little, against the mindless "government bad, taxes bad, private sector good" dogma which has permeated public discourse since the 1980s. One that completely ignores not just the immediate and obvious benefits of public transit, but which doesn't even begin to comprehend the second, third and fourth-order impacts public transit has had, particularly in New York. The city, as we know it, would not exist without the subway system. One would think that grappling with that fact would be required before one talks about replacing it with a bunch of Teslas in a tube.
It's also worth noting that this cars-on-the-7-line idea is intended to be operated by private companies on a for-profit basis. The article talks about how such an idea would take New York back to its roots, noting that the subway system was once a patchwork of private companies (the IRT and BMT, etc.) and public entities (the city-run IND) running competing lines. It might be useful for the author to note, however, that that system ended in the 1940s, with the city taking over and eventually creating a public transit authority to run it all, because the private companies had little interest in cooperating or serving the public effectively. Put simply: private ownership of public transit simply didn't work.
Any transit idea, however fun and futuristic it sounds, that does not appreciate the shortcomings private sector solutions have historically had when attempting to confront large scale public needs is fatally flawed. Any plan which does not appreciate the negative social, economic and even democratic impacts of a private, profit-driven system organized around individually-tailored and custom-priced trips, as opposed to moving masses of people along common corridors, is either hopelessly naive or intentionally tailored to sew inequality.
Most countries treat mass transit systems as national assets. They openly acknowledge the fact that public works require public investment in the form of tax dollars in order to deliver goods people want and need. They do not apologize for it, fetishize private investment or bend over backwards to invent crazy new systems from whole cloth when a near-perfect model -- time-tested and, however worse for wear these days, historically reliable -- is already in place. They do not act like it is a bad thing for people, through governmental authority, to build things via collective action. They recognize that public works are not, first and foremost, aimed at profit-generation, and for that reason they cannot, by definition, be the responsibility of those in the business, first and foremost, of profit-creation. For that reason, their transit systems tend to be far more useful and far better run than ours do.
We should fix the existing subways and build new ones where they are needed. We should build on what has worked in the past and fix that which is not working now. We must dispense with the idea that we can somehow disrupt our way out of having to pay for, build and maintain the sorts of large-scale public works which benefit society via public means.
We must, above all else, acknowledge that when it comes to building a civilization, there are no shortcuts.
Anthony Bourdain died today.
Unlike so many self-styled literary and entertainment industry badasses, there was simple skill, craft and humanity underlying the attitude, which he would freely allow to show. The former without the latter -- and without self-awareness-- is empty. Whatever he was doing to project that bad boy persona was immediately set aside when he got down to work writing about or chronicling a place, a people, a cuisine or whatever it was he was interested in at the moment.
In losing Anthony Bourdain, we didn't lose a "celebrity chef" or a "travel show host." We lost an insightful, empathetic and humane chronicler of the human condition. A man who could have so easily been a complacent, thrill-seeking, luxury-living, globetrotting celebrity but chose to be something more. He was an anthropologist who discarded dispassionate observation in order to advocate for the best in humanity, paying special attention to the vulnerable, the exploited and the overlooked.
Last year Bourdain went to West Virginia for an episode of his show, "Parts Unknown." In the space of one hour he did a better job of capturing my home state than a thousand poverty porn tourist journalists with pre-written stories parachuting in from coastal publications have ever done. It was typical of his work. He never went with the easy or expected narratives, even if doing so would've saved him a lot of work. Probably because he knew that those easy narratives obscured truths, perpetuated lies and, unwittingly or otherwise, served to work injustices, both large and small.
I embedded that episode below. You should watch it. If he ever went someplace special or interesting or unknown to you, you should watch that too.
My wife and I just got back from nine days in England. It was our honeymoon, delayed a year for various reasons, but coinciding with our first anniversary. I was going to write up a proper travelogue, but I'm too lazy to craft narratives, transitions and connections into something approaching passable prose, so I'm just going to barf out a list of stuff that happened and stuff I observed. Of course, it's gonna end up being longer than a travelogue would've been, but sometimes when you start barfing, you just can't stop.
Click through via that "Read More" button to the lower right if you're into that sort of thing.
Most people in the United States haven't heard of James, and those who have heard of them know them primarily through a surprise college radio hit they had with the song "Laid" back in 1993, later used in the "American Pie" movies. They're far more than a one-hit-wonder, however.
James has put out 13 studio albums with a 14th on the way in August. They've had scads of hits and top-selling albums on the UK charts and a fervent following there, in Europe and in Latin America. A seven-year hiatus in the early-to-mid 2000s notwithstanding, they have been and remain a working band and, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, they remain creatively vital. They put out a new EP and released a couple of songs from the new record a little over a week ago. Some of 'em are bangers.
My wife Allison has been a James fan for 20 years or so, has met the band, has friends she's met through James fandom around the world and has seen them live both in the U.K. and in America. We recently took a trip to the U.K., primarily for our honeymoon/first anniversary -- here's a fairly massive travelogue about the vacation -- but also to go see three James shows on a short tour they did of small venues in small towns across England, Scotland and Wales. As a super fan, Allison would've found a way to see them again eventually, with or without me, but this trip was my first time seeing them live. The first show, in Warrington, was the best show I've ever seen. The other two, in Blackburn and Halifax, were right up there. I'll spare you detailed reviews, but suffice it to say I enjoyed the hell out of myself.
Until I met Allison in late 2011, I was one of those people who didn't know much more about James than "Laid." In the past six and a half years they have become my favorite band. Part of that is a function of "guy meets girl who turns him on to some different music and the association sparks something," but there's more than that going on for me.
As we grew up and matured, men my age were never rewarded for feeling. The benefits of feigning indifference and affecting a pose of ironic and cynical detachment, on the other hand, were considerable.
As I entered adulthood, what one genuinely felt about anyone or anything was less important than the fact that people understood that one liked the right someones and somethings. The Gen-X-approved canon of music, movies, books, fashions, attitudes and personalities which were accompanied by a heaping amount of snobbery directed at those who did not share such tastes. For 1990s 20 or 30-somethings, one was living one’s best life to the extent one made it appear as if one’s life was directed by Quentin Tarantino, released on Matador records and written by David Foster Wallace. Those who did not fall into those general parameters were judged and judged harshly. Rob, from "High Fidelity" was a role model. It escaped us all, of course, that Rob was an emotionally-stunted jackass.
On a personal level, the archetypical Gen-X man exuded the sense that things were humming along just fine at all times and, if they were not, it was never much discussed. Staying in a narrow band of critically-approved tastes went hand-in-hand with portraying a nearly unshakable equanimity. Just as liking the wrong music risked judgment, deviating from a certain personal stance -- showing vulnerability and uncertainty -- was to invite uncomfortable personal conversation and scrutiny for which none of us were prepared.
Ironically, this highly regimented emotion-denying existence and self-imposed conformity was considered a sign of "authenticity."
Not that it felt phony or contrived. The cultivation and maintenance of the quintessential 1990s Gen-X male identity felt organic in the moment. The life I personally constructed around this larger ethos came to me naturally. I went to college, got married, began my career and had children, not just portraying every life event as if it were scripted and thus unremarkable, but feeling as if they were so. I was not some robot — there was happiness, sadness, joy, sorrow and confusion as life unfolded — but those were deviations from the cooler-than-the-room course one’s life was expected to take. Those deviations were expected to be temporary and were expected to right themselves over time.
In hindsight it’s no surprise that everything came crumbling down for me in the space of a few years. That the contradictions and self-denial my career presented and required of me were too great to ignore forever. That the problems in my first marriage were features, not bugs. That the strong and positive emotions inspired by fatherhood and by aging did not jibe with my well-cultivated sense of ironic detachment. I did my best to skate past the remarkable highs and the nearly unendurable lows of life with the help of just the right soundtrack, just the right wardrobe and enough culturally acceptable distractions to make it seem like everything was under control, but it wasn’t sustainable and never could have been.
I was in a very dark place when I met Allison and she knew it. Among the many things she did to help me get through that bad time was to play play me some James stuff.
The first song she played for me was "Tomorrow." The sentiment and structure of that song is pretty obvious and straightforward -- the singer once introduced it as a song he wrote "to keep a friend from jumping off a roof" -- but when you're emotionally stunted and emotionally raw, you need something straightforward like that. Having wallowed in enough dark, depressing music and sad bastard jams over the previous few months, "Tomorrow" was a breath of fresh air. It was the first music I had listened to in a while which suggested to me that things can and will get better rather than give me permission to embrace darkness and depression.
From there I began to listen to some other James stuff and I liked what I heard. While, critically speaking, one can slot them in with a lot of their Madchester and Britpop contemporaries, they don't fit in terribly neatly. They have been described by some critics as the "outcasts" or the "freaks and geeks" of that scene. I get that. They opened for the Smiths once upon a time, played with New Order and traveled in the same circles as The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and all of those wonderful bands, but unlike a lot of their contemporaries they mined veins of positivity and non-conformity not typically covered in 1990s rock. Maybe this explains why they never broke big in an America which, at the time, was into far darker and sludgier sounds. I'm no music critic and I can't be totally sure about that, but I do know that I really needed to hear some positive, even anthemic music in late 2011 and James delivered.
The immediate need to pull myself out of a funk soon passed, but I have returned to James pretty frequently since that time, listening to their music both old and new. Doing so has helped address the larger problems associated with that emotionally-stunted world view of the typical 1990s Gen-X man I described before.
Allowing myself to feel things -- to like things, even if they're not cool things, without apology, excuse or shame, and to be fearless in doing so -- has been critical to my mental and emotional health and personal development over the past several years. It'd be an overstatement to say that getting into some band from Manchester has been the primary reason I've been able to do that, of course. Therapy, emotional reflection and support from and good examples set by loved ones has been far more important. But given that pop culture played a big hand in messing me and my contemporaries up in the first place, listening to a band that embodies that more open and positive ethos certainly helps.
When you're trying to grow as a person, you need to shed your skin. To strip away your protection. To laugh at the wonder of it all. To cry at the sadness of the world. To dip on in, to leave your bones, leave your skin, leave your past, leave your craft and leave your suffering heart.
Or so I'm told.
UPDATE: If you don't know that much about James, I made a playlist of my favorite songs. They may be too obvious for serious James fans, but it's a good introduction to the band.
I spend a lot of time browsing real estate websites. I'm not in the market to move. I'm not coveting a big fancy house or anything. I just find it fascinating to see how much house is available for how much in whatever place I happen to be thinking about or whatever place I have just passed through. It's a time-killer more than anything.
This morning I found myself looking at San Francisco real estate. Given how stupidly expensive it is there, I limited my search to apartments and condos under 1,500 square feet in a neighborhood I'm somewhat familiar with, Alamo Square/Divisadero. I stayed there on a trip a couple of years ago and it just sprang to mind.
I found a place that caught my eye. The sort of place I often think about moving into once my kids go away to college: an old apartment building with character in a walkable neighborhood. Multiple places, actually, as the building, which has recently been renovated, had several 1-2 bedroom units for sale, all of which retained just enough historic elements to bring one joy but sufficient modern conveniences to make life pleasant. This is it:
That's about as San Francisco as you can get, right?
It's San Francisco in price too, obviously, as the cheapest place -- an 800 square foot one bedroom -- is over $800K and the larger ones range from $1 million to nearly $2 million. That's pretty silly in most of the rest of the country, but if you're familiar with the San Francisco real estate market you realize it's par for the course. Heck, within that world these places are probably something of a bargain if you can believe it. In related news, my desire to move to San Francisco, once quite strong, disappeared about 10 years ago.
Normally at this point I'd click out of Zillow and move on to more productive things. Something about that building was sticking with me, though, so I decided to do some searching to see what else I could find out about it. The first non-real estate listing I found was this story at Hoodline.com from early 2015. In relevant part:
1500 McAllister St., one of the buildings damaged in the fire which raged near Alamo Square last month, has been purchased by SF real estate mogul Russell Flynn. The fire affected approximately 17 units and displacing 25 residents, including two families with small children, and the future remains uncertain for the displaced residents . . . Flynn may be known to Hoodline readers as the owner of 493 Haight Street, located on the corner on Haight and Fillmore. That same building burned down in a fiery blaze in 2011, and took two years to rebuild.
I don't know if this Flynn character, who at the time owned thousands of rental units in San Francisco, still owns the building or if he flipped it to the people now selling the expensive condos. I have no comment whatsoever about that last paragraph, in which I detect an insinuation which some of the commenters to the article took up afterward. Safer to leave that sort of thing alone.
I do know, though, that those residents with the rent-controlled apartments from early 2015 all appear to be long gone. I also know that the owner now stands to make several million dollars on the sales of these nice units, each of which carry with them HOA fees that are probably around what the rents used to be on the apartments. Talk about a windfall, right?
I do know one other thing, and I know it for certain: You cannot have a functioning civil society in cities in which only the rich can afford to live.
If the only people who can buy or rent in your city are executives, professionals and single twenty somethings either living five to a house or working 80 hours a week down in Silicon Valley, your city is not whole. For a city to be whole it has to include construction workers and cashiers and firemen and librarians and store clerks and teachers and bartenders and cab drivers. It has to include people with families. It has to have room for both the rich and the poor, the white collar and the blue collar. It cannot rely on a refugee work force trekking into the city from an hour or two away each day and leaving it each night.
After thinking through all of this, I clicked back on the listings for 1500 McAllister Street. I looked at the lovely bay windows, high ceilings and wood floors. I admired the classic exterior. Then I took a virtual walk through the neighborhood via Google Street View, and passed by the nice bars, shops and cafes I went to when I visited there a couple of years ago. I imagined my stuff in one of those apartments and I imagined sitting in one of those cafes, maybe with my laptop, procrastinating on an article I was being paid to write by sending an email off to one of my kids, away at college. I then left the cafe and headed back toward "home," but not before ending up at Alamo Square, a block away, looking out over the Painted Ladies at the San Francisco skyline.
And I wondered how such a beautiful city got so broken.
June 3: --I'm Off
I’m off on my Amtrak Writer’s Residency. I leave today, stop in Chicago and then head across the country to Seattle. A short jaunt down to Portland and then back across the country to Chicago and home.
There are a few people I will see and/or meet along the way and I am looking forward to that. But mostly it’s about losing the day-to-day distractions of home and immersing myself in writing.
I have a project I’m working on about which I’m rather excited. It won’t be posted here any time soon and I can’t really mention it yet, but if something comes of it I’ll let you know.
I’ll try to post updates from the rails here. And because I’m an addict, I’ll probably be tweeting too.
June 4 -- The Joy of Being Alone
Columbus, Ohio doesn’t have an Amtrak station. People don’t believe me when I tell them that, but it’s true. Thurmond, West Virginia (population: 5 – really, that is the actual population) has thrice-weekly train service to D.C. or Chicago, but if you live in the 15th largest city in the United States, you have to go elsewhere to hop a train. I’ll leave it to others to investigate why such inefficiencies exist in our nation’s passenger train service, but know that that’s why I’m starting my writer’s residency in Chicago. I got here yesterday. My train leaves this afternoon.
Yesterday I walked around a bit and then went to the Art Institute. It’s one of my favorite museums because it has a bunch of stuff I know already. You’re not supposed to admit that sort of thing, of course. But just last week in Columbus 60,000 people paid $100 per ticket to hear the Rolling Stones play “Satisfaction” and “Brown Sugar,” so I figure it’s OK if I paid $23 to see Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” That limited-time medieval Asian teapot exhibit may be wonderful, but it’s equivalent to hearing Mick Jagger say “here’s a new one we’ve been workin’ on …” I’ll admit that I’m a philistine if you’ll just play the hits, man.
After the museum I met a friend for a drink. Met him for the first time, actually, even though I’ve known him in that way you know people on the Internet for many years. Such virtual friendships are an increasing part of everyone’s life, but they’re a much bigger part of my life than others. Once you’re out of your 20s most people’s friendships come via work and romantic relationships. In the past six years I’ve left my regular job to work at home and I got divorced, so traditional friendships have largely melted away for me.
Which isn’t a bad thing, actually. I’m something of a hermit and maintaining acquaintances seems to get harder for me the older I get. The Internet allows you to be on or off with the flip of a switch. You can enter or leave the “room” without having to make apologies and if you disappear for a couple of days no one worries too terribly much about you. There are some drawbacks to this, of course, but I rather like being able to start talking to people without having to make plans and meet up and pretend we want to hear about each other’s kids, jobs and property values first.
Another bonus is that, thanks to the Internet, I am in a position where I “know” people in most cities in the country. I like to travel and I like to socialize in controlled bursts with definitive end points, so this arrangement works very well for a person of my temperament. Last night I could meet Levi for a drink in Chicago and on Saturday I can meet Brandon for lunch in Seattle and on Monday I can meet Rob for a beer in Portland. My hometown is filled with strangers, but I have friends, such as they are, all over the country, and we don’t ask too terribly much of one another.
I have had real life, in-person friends tell me that they worry about me and the amount of time I spend alone or on the Internet. But what seems worrisome is in the eye of the beholder. This morning I had breakfast at a cafe near my hotel. The place was empty except for two twentysomething servers behind the counter who gave off a vaguely and somewhat calculatedly bohemian vibe. I didn’t hear most of their conversation but it was about travel. At one point one of them said to the other, “No, I’m never going to Texas. I promised myself years ago that I will never step foot in Texas.” Later he said that he didn’t like to travel much anyway and that “everything I need is here.” If one can judge by appearances I’d guess that this person has a vibrant social life here in Chicago with a lot of friends, but his comment made me feel sorry for him. I’d rather be alone in any number of places than stuck in a silo with oodles of friends.
As I listened to the servers’ conversation I was eating breakfast alone. Yesterday afternoon I walked through a museum alone. I spend most of my day working alone. I like to go to movies and go out to restaurants alone. Outside of the time I spend with my kids and my girlfriend, I spend most of my time alone. Alone is comforting to me.
This afternoon I’ll be getting on a train and traveling across the country alone. Outside of that drink with Levi, lunch with Brandon and the beer with Rob, I’ll explore three cities alone. Maybe this makes me strange. Maybe it’ll become a bigger problem the older I get. I’m not sure. But being alone is not the same as being lonely. And I’m not sure how else to be.
June 4 -- A Human Way to Travel
We rolled out of Chicago on time at 2:15 PM. The ride to Milwaukee reminded me of the commuter train route I take when I visit the NBC home office in Connecticut. Short, halting and very little scenery. Things open up after that, however, as we rolled through lush Wisconsin farmland dotted with little red barns. Whoever designed the Wisconsin license plates was clearly inspired by a ride on the Empire Builder.
I’m researching and outlining a possible book project on this trip. It involves wading through 350 pages of legal documents and cross-referencing two other books. Based on how that sort of thing used to go back in my lawyering days – and based on how hard I find it to work when I’m on a plane – I was worried that I’d be unable to concentrate. But I fell into a nice working rhythm as the farmland went past.
It’s all about personal space. You simply have more of it on a train than you do when you fly. No, the 8’ x 4’ roomette I’m in is not luxurious, and if you’e expecting your house, a hotel room or the Orient Express, you’re in for a rude awakening. But I can shut out the rest of the world with a door and curtain if I’d like. I can put my feet up. I can scatter my documents all over the place and leave open books lying around without worrying about bumping someone’s elbow. I can walk around if I need to stretch my legs and get a drink if I want a drink. I’d never argue a train is a more quick or efficient way to get one’s ass across the country than flying is, but in an age of security theater, fasten-seat belt signs, air marshals and ever-shrinking legroom it’s certainly more human.
I plowed through a couple hundred pages of work before dinner, which is served cruise-ship style, in that if you’re less than a party of four you share a table with someone. My love of being alone notwithstanding, I found this to be a pleasant experience. I was joined by an older couple from the U.K. who are making their first visit to the United States and an ornithologist from Montana who was returning home after visiting family. We ate our better-then-you-might-expect steak and had a lively chat about the Mississippi River which we crossed during dinner, and English soccer. The Brits thought the Mississippi went east-west rather than north-south and we corrected them. I thought they said they supported Manchester United when they actually supported Leeds United and they corrected me. The ornithologist briefed us about how meals and tipping work on Amtrak, as he has traveled the Empire Builder at least once a year, every year, since the mid-1990s.
Back to my roomette for more work and the pleasure of doing something else I can’t do on a plane: cracking open my own bottle of whiskey I brought along, putting on a pair of pajama pants and laying back with my feet up. Did I mention that train travel is more human?
The sun went down and the sky turned a brilliant red just as we left Red Wing, Minnesota. As I write this it’s 10pm and we’re pulling into St. Paul. I’ve adjusted nicely to the gentle rocking of the train and anticipate a nice night’s sleep. When I wake up I’ll be someplace in North Dakota. I’ll get my bearings, walk down the hallway and get a fresh cup of coffee, stretch out a little and then get back to work.
June 5 -- Boomtown
The good night’s sleep I was anticipating last night wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped. Not terrible, but I was jostled awake a number of times. At 5:19 A.M. a couple of loud people got on board at Grand Forks, North Dakota and made their way into their roomette just down the hall from me.
“I’LL TAKE THE TOP BUNK, OK?”
“YAH, YOU CAN HAVE IT, I’LL STAY DOWN LOW!”
“BOY, IT SURE IS CRAMPED IN HERE. NOT SURE HOW I’LL SLEEP!”
Oh, believe me. If you try to sleep I’ll be sure that space is the least of your problems.
Whatever. I wake up at 5:30 most days anyway. At home it’s the cat. Here it’s the loudmouths from Grand Forks. May as well keep my usual rhythms. Besides, it could be worse. After getting a cup of coffee I made my way back through a couple of coach cars to the observation car and passed by people sleeping in all manner of contorted angles in their seats and, in some cases, on the floor. The coach seats recline and have lots of space, but at some point you need to be horizontal to sleep well. For all that I have loved in my day on the train so far, it’s worth remembering that I’m very fortunate to be in a sleeper car. Even with the loudmouths.
I watched the sun rise over the prairie for a little while. After a few minutes a rather hard-looking man in his 30s sat down next to me. We made small talk for a minute and then the talk got big.
“So what do you think of the marijuana legalization stuff?” he asked me.
“I’m in favor of it,” I said. “It’s not hurting anyone.”
“Do you think they should legalize hard drugs?” he said.
“I really can’t see anyone having the political will to ever make that happen,” I said.
“Oh, they won’t.” He said. “But I’m asking should they?”
Something in his tone and his look suggested that he had a greater stake in this than mere intellectual curiosity. It seemed like he was looking for validation. I made some non-committal grunts, changed the subject back to the weather and bid him good morning.
Over breakfast I talked to two women from Minot, North Dakota, which we were quickly approaching. They’ve lived there for a long time and make the trip between Minneapolis and Minot a couple of times a year to visit family. Minot and all of western North Dakota has experienced radical change in recent years thanks to an oil and gas boom. A boom which has lined a lot of pockets but which has brought in workers and wildcatters, some just looking to earn a living, others looking to strike it rich. They told me that, as with any boom, it has brought with it a lot of problems in the form of transients and troublemakers, heavy drinkers and hard drug users. Many of them are rootless and work two-week-on, two-week-off schedules, going back and forth between Minot and either Minneapolis or Seattle. Often on the Empire Builder. “Watch yourself in the lounge car later,” one of my breakfast companions warned me. “Sometimes they get rowdy.”
I can’t say I’ve seen any of that yet. But looking out across the rather bleak North Dakota landscape I can certainly see how being here might inspire a non-native to seek out pleasure and excitement however one can. Like most places, including most places I’ve lived, I’m sure it has its beauties and its charms. They’re just not obvious to an outsider merely passing through.
As I write this we’re pulling into Williston. It’s the last stop in North Dakota. We’re close to an hour behind schedule which, based on what I’ve heard about the Empire Builder’s track record, is better than I assumed it’d be at this point. Montana is next. For four or five hours it will look a lot like North Dakota, and I plan to use that time to work on my book proposal. By around dinnertime we should be into some pretty country, including Glacier National Park.
June 5 -- Losing Time
I’ve been on this train for about 30 hours, but time has ceased to mean much. The meal service structures it somewhat, but just somewhat. For the most part I’ve just sort of … floated.
Normally such circumstances are torture for me. I thrive on structure and schedules and I don’t do the just-sit-there-and-stare-into-space thing very well. And I’m not good at waiting for anything. At all. Ever. But today has been quite relaxing for me.
I got more work done than I planned to yesterday so I didn’t feel too terribly pressed to write as much today. I’ve written some, but I’ve also looked out the window a good deal. There’s no Wi-fi on this train so I’ve only briefly gotten online when I’ve had a strong enough cellular signal to tether to my phone, but that hasn’t been often. I’ve read some. I’ve listened to music. Mostly I’ve watched North Dakota and Montana go by.
Or not go by. The train was stopped near Wolf Point, Montana for close to two hours early this afternoon due to a track obstruction. Even minor flight delays cause me aggravation, but being at a dead stop in the middle of the prairie that long didn’t bother me a bit. We’re something like three hours behind schedule overall, but I don’t care. I don’t have anything pressing that I’m at risk of missing and I’ll get there when I get there. All of this time out here in the middle of nowhere is a feature of this trip, not a bug. A delay here and there almost feels like a gift to me.
At a time when our jobs and families require so much planning and structuring and even our vacations are scheduled to the nth degree it’s important to just get lost sometimes. To just float for a while. So far doing so has cleared and quieted my head. And that’s almost as important to my writing as the actual writing is.
June 7 -- Life Hacks: Wake Up Early, Travel Alone
I woke up at 4am on Saturday morning. My body thought it was 5am due to the time change, though, so I guess that makes it OK. Idaho turned into Washington and we reached Spokane just after sunrise. The Pacific Time Zone is made for morning people. It gets bright there so much earlier than it does in Ohio. A Mennonite farmer from Indiana who had been traveling with me since Chicago agreed. “I have no use for it being light at 9:30 in the summer,” he said. “I’d love it to be light at five, though.” So the Mennonites and I have at least one thing in common.
By now our train was three hours behind schedule. As a I said before, keeping a schedule isn’t important to me on this trip. One downside, though, was that instead of reaching Glacier National Park before sunset the night before we reached it after dark. I’ll see it on the way back I suppose.
It’s hard to figure that the scenery could compare to the Cascades anyway. The stretch between Wenatchee and Seattle was breathtaking. The route follows the Columbia to the Wenatchee to the Skykomish rivers. Though the Okanogan National Forest and past a half dozen beautiful mountain peaks and over a few dozen bridges above waterfalls, rafters, kayakers and fishermen. The only part that wasn’t beautiful was nonetheless amazing: the Cascade Tunnel, which took us under Stevens pass. At nearly eight miles long it is the longest tunnel in the United States. I turned the lights off in my roomette an went through it in near total darkness.
I took some pics from the train window. I can’t imagine how amazing it would be to hike and raft in this country. I plan to someday.
At Everett we turned south and headed into Seattle with Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains to our right, Mt. Baker behind us and Mt. Rainer ahead and to the left. The day was sunny and crystal clear. The conductor said that we were lucky to see them all.
A baseball writer friend – another one I had never met in person – picked me up at the station. We had lunch and talked about our various writing projects. He’s writing a book I’m rather excited about, as it encapsulates and will attempt to quantify an idea about baseball, fame, stardom, hype and media bias that has fascinated me for some time. I was flattered when he asked me to write the foreward. I hope I can do the thing justice and I hope for my friend’s sake that the book is a success.
I made it to Safeco Field late in the afternoon. By sheer happenstance some baseball bloggers I know were holding a group event before the Mariners-Rays game, so I bought I ticket to that. I met a handful of HardballTalk readers and people I know through social media and enjoyed a couple of innings of Felix Hernandez shutting down the Tampa Bay Rays. Midway through the game I left the group to get a better look at the ballpark. Just after the fifth inning I hit a wall, however, with a couple of days worth of sleep deficit finally waylaying me. I hate to leave a ballgame early but I could tell that I wasn’t going to be good company if I had stayed.
It was a nice night so I walked the mile and a half back to my hotel, going through Pioneer Square, stopping at Pike’s Place Market – the fish-throwers were closed for the night, sadly – and trying to soak in what little bits of Seattle I could in my short time here.
I made it back to my hotel, got a drink in the bar and took it upstairs. The hatch to the fire escape at the end of the hallway was open for some reason. I climbed through it and sat on the fire escape for a while listening to the sounds of the city. My head hit the pillow just after 10 and I was out a second later. I slept eight and a half hours, which I never, ever do. A bed that didn’t rock back and forth was just what the doctor ordered.
When you’re a morning person breakfast is really important. Which makes Sundays hard sometimes because I don’t want brunch, goddammit. I want breakfast. Not at 11, not at 9. But at 7. At the latest. Denny’s and Waffle House are always there for you, of course, but we morning people who are interested in something a bit more adventurous on Sundays usually have to wait. Luckily I found a nice place near my hotel that opened at 7. I only had to wait outside five minutes for them to open instead of my usual 15 minutes. I sort of have a problem.
From breakfast I walked to the Space Needle. I was told that after 10am or so on the weekends that the line can stretch forever and you can wait over an hour to go up to the top, but for me there was no wait. Another clear day gave me a great view of Mt. Rainer and a city that has no business being as beautiful as it is. Once back down I wandered through an interesting neighborhood, found a cafe, got some coffee and relaxed.
On the train I’ve felt like I’ve been working. In Seattle for the past 24 hours, however, I have felt like I am on vacation, which is not the sort of thing most people do by themselves. I suppose people think it’s odd to do it. They really shouldn’t. It’s pretty fantastic. You can make decisions quickly. You can sit in a cafe or on a bench and watch people and listen to their conversations. Or you can do nothing for a longer period of time than you might otherwise. You can get lost in your thoughts and not worry that you’re being rude to your companions.
I plan to vacation with my kids and my girlfriend and other loved ones throughout my life, of course, but I think I’ll always make a point to take some trips by myself too. Traveling is about getting away from that which is familiar. That applies just as much to your headspace and routines as it does to your home.
I’m getting on the train to Portland now, where I’ll spend the next couple of days. More updates to follow.
June 9 -- Portlandia
I have spent the past 50 hours in Portland, Oregon, my new favorite city in the country.
I think most people, on every good vacation, get that “man, I’d love to live here!” feeling. It usually goes away in a day or two after the trip is over and real life resumes. Maybe that will be the case with me too, but I’ve never gotten that feeling as strongly anyplace else as I have in Portland. Assuming I’m still doing the same sort of live-anywhere-you-want kind of work in a few years when my kids are out of the house I could quite easily see myself moving to Portland.
The beer, coffee and food is fantastic. It’s a beautiful city aesthetically speaking. The people are generally pleasant and helpful to obvious tourists like me. The city is nice and compact and walkable and when it’s too far to walk it’s got the best mass transit system I’ve ever used. In the past couple of days I’ve taken the light rail, the streetcar and the bus, all of which has made a big city feel small. I haven’t even been bothered that it’s been unusually hot while I’ve been here.
The “Portlandia” stuff is pretty obvious here, of course. In some ways this is a good thing for someone like me. I’m a pretty liberal guy with progressive social, economic and environmental attitudes and those sorts of sensibilities would fit in here. I could see myself getting somewhat exhausted by it in excess, however. I met a guy for a couple of beers yesterday. He works in public health and he says that the uber-granola tendencies of Portland also lead a lot of people to be anti-vaccinators, to oppose fluoride in the water supply and other similar bits of dangerous nonsense.
That might drive me a little nuts, but then again, living in places with stifling conservatism for most of my life already does. I’d be willing to risk the opposite for a few years.
I’ll forego the blow-by-blow of my time here and just offer some observations:
The Ace Hotel: I stayed here. On one level it’s a somewhat ridiculous conceit of a hotel, with its old-timey everything and extraordinarily self-conscious hipster vibe. That notwithstanding, it’s a wonderfully pleasant place to stay. I like the simple, uncluttered aesthetic, wood floors and old plumbing fixtures. And even if it is sort of contrived, it is a legitimately old building – it was the flop house in “Drugstore Cowboy” – and old buildings rule.
Beer: I went to two places, each of which would be the best beer bar in most other cities. Bailey’s Taproom is downtown. Apex Bar is in southeast Portland, but it’s easily accessible via the number 4 bus, which runs often. The selection is fantastic and everything is fresh.
The Heathman: it’s a hotel, but I’m referring to the restaurant. I likely wouldn’t have thought to go there, but my friends in Chicago know their sommelier, James Rahn, and recommended I visit. I ate dinner there Monday night and James sent out drink after tasty drink. Which today has necessitated …
Coffee. And lots of it. Everyone talks about Stumptown, which is excellent, but the best cup I had was at a place called Case Study. I also had great coffee at a place called Barista. I imagine there’s bad coffee in this city. Luckily I didn’t find it.
Salt & Straw Ice Cream: People from Columbus (and a few other places) are familiar with Jeni’s. This is Portland’s Jeni’s. Or Jeni’s is Columbus’ Salt and Straw. I have no idea. Upshot: crazy-inventive flavors. Including a whole selection at the moment inspired by local food carts. Kimchi. Poutine. Yes, poutine ice cream. I got strawberry/honey/balsamic, though. Really couldn’t bring myself to try poutine ice cream. Especially given that, when I was there, I was still pretty hungover from the night before.
Kenny and Zuke’s Deli is known for their pastrami and other classic Jewish deli fare, but the breakfasts were great too.
I took a bunch of pictures too. You can see them all here. I’m back on the train now, rolling out of Portland and heading back east. Back to the working part of this working vacation. Installments when and if cellular service allows.
June 10 -- The People You Meet on the Train
We pulled out of Portland a bit late yesterday but, again, time means little on the train. My decision to come in via Seattle and leave via Portland was validated by the views of the Columbia River gorge on the way back east. I’ll give the Cascades up in Washington a slight edge, but the Gorge was nothing short of gorgeous in its own right.
On the way west I was in the first car past the engine and crew quarters. For this part of the trip I’m in the absolute last car. I don’t think it’s my imagination making me believe that it’s a less smooth and steady trip being in the back. The car seems to rock and sway far more back here than it did up there and going to sleep was a problem. Staying asleep was a problem. Sleeping without dreaming about being on a pitching ship or on a roller coaster was a problem. I’ve been sleeping on the fold-down bed the whole journey, but at midnight last night I switched to the lower level, fold-together lounge chair bed because I was legitimately worried about falling the hell out of my rack.
This morning I woke up just as we headed into Whitefish, Montana and then Glacier National Park. I missed that on the way out due to darkness, but seeing it at sunrise was worth the wait. The tracks hug the south bank of the Flathead River and my roomette on the north side of the train gave me spectacular views of the mountains forests and yes, global warming notwithstanding, some snow fields on the peaks.
I don’t always do social situations well, but by now the lottery-like nature of meal seatings has started to appeal to me. At breakfast I was sat next to a Japanese woman and her adult son. She lives in Japan and speaks no English. He has lived in Las Vegas for 19 years and makes a point of showing her around the United States on various trips. Over the past few years I’ve learned that I can talk baseball with just about any Japanese person I meet, and they were no exception. The mother wanted to know what I thought about Yu Darvish. I’m not sure what it is, but every Japanese person asks about Yu Darvish first. Ichiro? Eh. Hideki Matsui? Old news. It’s all about Darvish.
At lunch I met a guy whose job it is to drive brand new RVs off the assembly line in South Bend, Indiana and deliver them to customers on the west coast. His employer makes a deal with him and his fellow drivers: they can get paid a certain rate if the want the employer to fly them back or they can get paid a much higher rate if they take care of their own transportation. A betting man, my lunch companion has, for years now, taken the latter option and the train has been his secret weapon for coming out ahead.
I just finished dinner where my companions were an academic couple from Madison, Wisconsin and the closest thing to Dos Equis “The World’s Most Interesting Man.” The academics wanted to talk about whether I think Bernie Sanders has a real shot at the presidency, and they REALLY hope he does. The World’s Most interesting Man – in his mid-60s with a salt-and-pepper beard – spent time in the Peace Corps in Venezuela, road tripped through pre-civil war/breakup Yugoslavia and is on his way to some place in Minnesota where an Airstream trailer is waiting for him, which he’ll then take to the Maritime Provinces of Canada for the summer because, hell, why not? I want to be him when I grow up.
Let’s see, what else. Oh yes! The smokers. There are a lot of smokers on Amtrak. Someone told me that a certain sort of smoker likes to take Amtrak, even if it takes way longer than a plane, because it’s impossible for them to go five hours across the country on a flight without a cigarette. That seems extreme to me, but there are certainly eager smokers on Amtrak. We stop every couple of hours at a station that affords them time to burn one, but for some it’s still not enough. This afternoon, during one of the longer stretches between stations in the middle of Montana, an announcement came over the P.A. from the conductor saying that he knew someone on board was smoking and that, if caught, they would be put off the train. I’ve been told by others that it’s not at all uncommon for someone to be kicked off the train on long hauls either for smoking or for being drunk, so I was sort of looking forward to the drama. Sadly, the offender was not caught and cast off into the prairie land to die of exposure.
I’ve gotten more work done on my book proposal today than I have in several days. I still don’t know if it’s any good, but I feel that way about almost everything I write. For all of the people you talk to on the train you do spend a lot of time alone as well. In my roomette alone, I have zig-zagged between confidence and self-loathing with respect to my writing. I’ve had moments of supreme self-satisfaction and moments where I’ve questioned why I’m bothering or why anyone would want to read any words I put down on a page.
The more real writers I talk to the more I learn that this duality is an inherent part of the gig. I’m not sure if that should comfort me for being on the right track or scare the fuck out of me for choosing a life that is fraught with such highs and lows.
I’m in North Dakota now. I’ll wake up in Minnesota and be back to Chicago by early evening. The journey is almost over.
June 11 -- Thanks, Amtrak
I woke up yesterday morning in western Minnesota. I got a cup of coffee and talked to the sleeping car attendant who told me that a couple was put off the train at Grand Forks, North Dakota in the middle of the night because they were caught smoking pot. I asked if they got arrested or anything and she said no, they were just kicked off. I imagine to some people it may be preferable to get arrested than to just be dumped in Grand Forks at 2AM, but I wouldn’t know about that.
A little while ago I did some Googling of “marijuana on Amtrak” to see how common this is. Most results were about getting through the station carrying. The consensus; no one cares if you’re just holding, which squares with my observations. No dogs, no metal detectors.
It rained most of the rest of the way to Chicago, which was good for working and good for occasional reflection. Work on what is turning into a pretty OK book proposal, I think. Reflection on my last week and change, mostly, and how different it is to see the country by train than it is to fly or drive through. It’s not fast as flying and it’s not as comfortable as being in your own car on your own schedule, but I feel like it has its advantages as well.
It forced an introvert like me to interact with people. The folks I rode with and ate with and the folks who fed me and the folks who attended the sleeping car. The people who picked me up at train stations. I still like to do things alone including travel, but it’s amazing how little one can interact with other people if one sets their life up just so. Taking the train disrupted that and I think that’s a good thing. And, if anything, gave me more license to travel alone because I knew that even in doing so I would not be isolated.
It made me let go of time. I was delayed three hours on the trip out and over two hours on the trip back. Sometimes I had to wait for the dining car to clear out and sometimes I had to wait to use the bathroom or the shower. It didn’t matter. I was not in a hurry, by design. There were some minor frustrations while traveling by train, but there was very little stress.
There was no Internet on the train. Yes, at times I tethered to my phone to post one of these entries or to waste a few moments online, but a lot of the time I didn’t even have a cell phone signal. I’m not one of those people who believes it’s bad to be online, but it was good for me to be offline more than I usually am. And I imagine being offline had a great deal to do with me feeling little stress and not worrying too much about time.
Mostly I was just happy to see some places I’ve never seen and do it in a way that I had never done. I have a lot of responsibilities in my life. I don’t lament the fact that I have them and I don’t resent those to whom I owe them, but if my responsibilities disappeared tomorrow, I would be traveling, possibly constantly. That I was able to freewheel for ten days was a rare treat which I savored and will always savor. And that would be the case even if I didn’t make a lot of headway on a writing project that, if I’m lucky, will turn into something fun.
Thanks, Amtrak, for giving me this writer’s residency. Thanks for the time to think and not think and to see the country in a way people don’t see it too terribly much anymore. More people should.
Maybe book a trip the next time you get a few days off. As long as your expectations are realistic and your mind is open, you’ll probably learn a lot about yourself. And about some other things.
The game ended. I left the ballpark and I didn’t feel like going back to the hotel, so I drove around. I like to think I’m a cool person who likes cool places, but I have to try hard to find cool places. When I put it on auto-pilot my suburban sensibilities take over I tend to end up at malls. So it was not really a surprise when my car took me to the Tempe Marketplace Mall. “Oh well,” I thought. “I’m sure I can kill some time here.”
I went to the Barnes and Noble and got a magazine and then sought out a restaurant where I could get a beer while I thought about how I’d spend the rest of the evening. The Thirsty Lion was right next to the book store so I went inside, took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. I texted some people, messed around on Twitter and watched a couple innings of the Pirates-Red Sox game.
After a while I heard a man’s voice behind me.
“Is anyone sitting in this seat,” he said, referring to an empty seat between me and a woman who was also sitting alone.
“No,” I said.
“Would you be kind enough to move over so my lady friend and I can sit in these two?” He actually said “lady friend,” which is a term that makes my skin crawl. I said I’d have no problem with it and moved a seat to my left, next to the lone woman. The man and his lady friend sat down to my right. They were probably in their mid-40s. Not attractive. Not unattractive. Perfectly placed in a suburban restaurant. Not a couple you’d ever give a second look.
“I’ll even let my lady friend sit next to you so that you can try out your moves on two different women!” he said. I looked to the woman to my left who was looking back at me, both of us trying to determine if we should laugh or flee this strange man.
“I don’t think I have any moves,” I said. “Just having a beer.”
Some time passed. I watched the game. The woman to my left was joined by another woman and the two of them left. It was just the couple and me at the end of the bar. My attention was drawn to the couple’s conversation.
“It’s an alien fucking a rock,” the man said. “Can’t you see his head?” He was referring to a painting on a far wall. This painting. I took a picture of it with my phone for posterity:
“It’s not an alien,” the woman said. “It’s not anything. Maybe it’s a woman. It’s not an alien.”
I was quickly becoming amused and thought I’d join in the fun.
“It’s not an alien,” I said. “It’s Iron Man. And he’s throwing up.”
The man got up from his seat, saying, I believe to both of us, “I’ll show you the alien. You just can’t see it.” he walked over to the painting. As he did, his lady friend said “Don’t encourage him. Please.” I got the sense, though, that she was kind of amused herself and probably didn’t really mind me encouraging him.
The man ran his finger along the alien head, looking back at us like he was a professor revealing some keen insight. I shot him a thumbs up. “Oh god, I need another drink,” the woman said.
When the man came back over she ordered a tequila shot. The man ordered scotch eggs.
I eventually gave up my contention about Iron Man barfing and we all started talking. I eventually mentioned what I was doing here and the man’s face lit up.
“Baseball writer! You’re who I need to talk to. Tell me: who’s gonna win the World Series?”
“Well, I dunno. It’s always hard to guess those things,” I said. “I suppose, if someone put a gun to my head now I’d say the Nationals look strong, but it’s just a wild guess.” He began typing
“Nationals” into his phone. Then asked me which American League team would make the World Series. The woman told him to stop bothering me about it.
“He’s a gambler,” she said. We’re going to Vegas next week and he wants to bet on baseball.“
"You shouldn’t bet on baseball,” I said. It’s too unpredictable.
“Well, I like to,” he said. “I don’t mind. I’ll bet on anything.”
“He will,” the woman said, again feigning disgust, but clearly liking something about it all. “He lost a thousand bucks on roulette last week! A thousand!”
“Look,” he said. “I was watching the wheel. It came up red FIVE TIMES IN A ROW. It HAD to come up black some. So I bet black a bunch of times and before I knew it I was way down.” I took this in for a minute and considered how to proceed. I made my own gamble that I could explain the gambler’s fallacy to him without getting assaulted. So I did.
“That’s what I’ve been telling him,” the woman said. “It’s like flipping a coin!” I nodded and said that, yes, it’s exactly like flipping a coin.
The man was quiet for a minute and I was worried that he felt he was being scolded, so I tried to deflect things a bit and asked if they always go to Vegas or if they go to the Indian casinos closer to Phoenix.
“We can’t,” the man said. “She keeps getting us kicked out.” I looked to the woman to see her reaction, but she was just nodding.
“They’re so goddamned uptight here,” she said. “You say ‘fuck’ and they kick you out. And when I gamble I say 'fuck.’ And they don’t give you free drinks when you gamble anyway, so Vegas is better.”
The man added that there were more roulette tables in Las Vegas than in the Indian casinos and that he really liked roulette. Going back to his gambling strategy he added that “you know you’ll be alright if the person throwing the ball has a certain motion and repeats it every time. If they change up their motion all the time you got no chance.”
My phone rang several times after that. Calls from Southwest Airlines and Allison, each of them informing me of a slight flight delay in her trip here this evening. While that was going on the woman figured out that I was waiting on someone to fly into town.
“Your wife?” she asked.
“Girlfriend,” I said. I gave her the one minute story of my love life and, after a few questions from her about kids and things it was out that I was divorced.
“I’m in the middle of a divorce. It’s the weirdest story!” she said. “Mike and I used to date when we were in our 20s. He wouldn’t get married, so I dumped him and married someone else. Then he married someone else. Then he got divorced last year and now I’m getting divorced and we’re back together.” She told it like it was the greatest love story of our time. He was smiling too. It was actually quite sweet. Then she added “See all this bullshit we had to go through because he wouldn’t commit to me? He will this time!” They both laughed and he put his arm around her.
“The best part?” the man said, and then waited as if he wanted me to guess what the best part was. I had no words. So he answered. “Her divorce lawyer is the guy who was my ex-wife’s divorce lawyer! He did such a good job kicking my ass that I told her she should hire him to kick her husband’s ass.”
“And he is!” she said, and both of them erupted in laughter. “God, I fucking hate lawyers,” the man added and they both laughed even more. “He really does,” she added. I was glad I left the lawyer part of my life out.
After a few minutes of silence the man asked me if I was going to the ballpark in Peoria where the Padres and Mariners train before I leave town.
“Yes,” I said. “Probably next Friday.”
“That’s great!” he said. “I live right across the street from there in those apartments. We should both go and get some beers and watch some baseball!” He pulled his phone out and asked me for my phone number so we could meet up. I stalled for a second, wondering if I should give him a fake phone number. Before I had to make that choice, his lady friend spoke up.
“You can’t go on the 8th, if that’s the 8th anyway,” she said. “That’s the day you’re getting your tattoo.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
“What’s the tattoo?” I asked, happy that our baseball date was apparently unraveling.
“It’s stupid,” she said. “God.”
“Popeye the Sailor Man!” said the man with extreme satisfaction. It was like he was giving me a gift to tell me so. “My grandpa always reminded me of Popeye. He wasn’t a sailor or anything but he had big, big biceps.” The man then made a muscle with his arm, using his other hand to show how high up his grandfather’s muscles would bulge. “It was like when Popeye would eat the spinach and make a muscle and there’d be, like, a battleship in it!”
I nodded my approval. Things got quiet for a minute. I got up and wished them both well. Then I left the Thirsty Lion, wondering if all the time I spend in my house by myself is a good thing or a bad thing. As I sit here this evening, I really don’t know.
I went to New York once when I was 15 and once when I was 21. Then I didn’t go for a long time. I went back in May 2011 for work and wrote up some ramblings about it all in an email to a friend. I randomly stumbled across it today and liked it so, with some slight editing, here it is.
I landed in New York at 8AM. A gypsy cab driver tried to intercept me before I made the cab stand:
“You go to the city?” He asked, attempting to take my suitcase from my hand.
“Yeah, how much?” I said, wondering what the gouge-rate was or, if possible, if I could save a buck by helping him break the law.
A regular cab costs around $30 to where I was going. I can’t even begin to understand the business model for the gypsy cab driver who wants to charge more than the Yellows. I guess he’s hoping to get someone in the car and get moving before they ask how much it is. Then I wonder what about me made me seem like an obvious mark. I was wearing smart business clothes and carried a decent business-style bag. Who knows? At this point I have no hope of knowing. I am so of Ohio and the Midwest that I’m sure I’m oblivious to what makes me stick out like a rube. Maybe it’s because most of the flights to the U.S. Airways terminal are from places like Columbus and Indianapolis and Pittsburgh and other towns where honest, wholesome, easily-duped people reside. Oh well. I got into a real cab and to the hotel, dumped my stuff and then made my way to the train station.
Grand Central Station is wonderful. Trains are wonderful. I wish there more of them. In my mind I’ve created an alternate universe which, as a shorthand, I’ve decided to call “those perfect two weeks in 1948 after WWII misery had subsided a bit before Cold War Paranoia had fully set in.” It never really existed in history, but I’ve decided that, say, October 1948 is where it best fits. I’ve thought about it for a good ten years and I’ve terraformed this fantasy city in my mind, mostly in absent moments while waiting for something or otherwise killing time.
It’s a mashup of Edward Hopper paintings, cyber punk and the movie “Dark City.” Well, it’s less sinister than that, but the upshot is a mid-century aesthetic and scale with modern technology grafted over it. The tech is subtle and more integrated than it is today. The iPads would be carried in clunky 1948 leather satchels, for example, and the computer terminals would be embedded in large metal or wooden cases. There would be automats. Human-scale apartment buildings clustered in neighborhood pods separated by green spaces big enough allow people to breathe but small enough to keep everything walkable. Art Deco signage. Shops rather than megastores. A lot of WPA-style art. Movie houses. Blues, browns, grays and blacks. Hats and ties for everyone. Hotel detectives and house phones. City hub structures separated by trains travelling between stations that look a lot like the fascist-era Ferrovia in Venice but, you know, without the baggage. A world that would be the wet dream of forward-thinking urban planners but which, in reality, could only be created by a supreme dictator and could only avoid being a hellscape if that dictator were truly benevolent. In short: an impossibility.
One can walk through New York and find the essential elements of my neo-noir utopia, but the place is so big and so packed that it never existed in real life outside of quick scenes in movies and my beloved pulp novels. A coffee shop here. A newsstand there. A park two blocks over. That nice set of brownstones. Grand Central Station. Alas, there is too much else one encounters while walking between those things preventing the fantasy from taking hold even in New York. Damn International-style buildings. And while I’m thinking about it, skyscrapers don’t fit into it either no matter what their aesthetic. Maybe it’s more of a mid-sized city in my mind with a building height law, not New York, even if New York makes me think of it most strongly. If I’m ever truly lost in thought, though, you can bet that I’m in that city. Probably working for a newspaper.
I made it to my train and up to Stamford where I had my meetings. Then I went to lunch with my boss. We went to a Mitchell’s Fish Market, which is the chain that was built off Cameron’ Mitchell’s Fish Market here in Columbus, before it was sold off to the Ruth’s Chris people and taken nationwide. I explained to my boss that we were eating in a restaurant with Columbus roots. He asked how a quasi-upscale seafood chain got started in Ohio. I told him I had no idea. Ohio is full of mysteries like that.
I was back down to New York by 6 PM where I met some baseball writers/Internet friends for drinks. It’s always strange interacting with people I have only previously known online, but that’s life for me now. Apart from my wife and kids my whole world exists online. I’ve never met my coworkers, for crying out loud. One of the crowd there told me he was pleased to meet me. Then he said it again. Then he said it again and then fell on the floor of the bar and appeared to be unconscious. Seems he had been drinking since 3 PM. Another of the group put him in a cab but he couldn’t make his mouth function to tell the driver where he was going, so the guy who walked him out rode home to Brooklyn in the cab with him. When his companion returned to the bar nearly two hours later he told us the guy threw up, after which an argument with the cabbie and a police officer ensued. At some point a car service car got involved and between paying the cabbie to make him happy and getting the car to and from Brooklyn the whole ordeal cost $120. I have no idea, really. All I know is that if that all happened here in Ohio someone would have likely driven home drunk, so viva New York.
I left the bar at about 11 or so and walked back uptown with another writer who lives a bit more uptown past where I was going. During the walk we realized that neither of had really eaten, and it was then that the beauty of New York dawned on me: everything is open late. Just before midnight we stopped at Brasserie and ordered fries. And tuna tartare. And the best spinach I’ve ever had anywhere. And a martini because it seemed like the right thing to do. Besides us the place was packed with people eating steak and fish as if it were the dinner hour. All at a time which the only thing still open in Columbus are actual bars. Everyone always seems in a hurry in New York, but it’s the one city I’ve been to where time matters very little.
Saturday I was up early, ate breakfast and took a winding walk through Central Park. When I was 15 we visited the little area outside the Dakota and saw all of the tacky John Lennon tributes and souvenir stands. Back then I thought it was cool because I didn’t know anything. This time I was fairly appalled. I understand that Yoko Ono still lives in the building. I’m guessing she doesn’t venture across the street to that place ever, but just knowing it was there probably creeps her out. Though, now that I think about it, it can’t creep her out any more than walking past the place where her husband was murdered everyday does.
Back across the park, up the park, down the park simultaneously enjoying it while standing amused that, for most people in New York, this is what passes for nature. Which is kind of sad, even if it is a nice park.
The Whitney Museum. After hearing about my fantasy 1948 world it’s probably no surprise that I’m a sucker for 20th century American realism. Hopper. Bellows, Those guys. There’s a lot of that there, so it made my day. The more modern stuff on upper floors was hit and miss. I like a good deal of modern art but I failed to grasp the import and artistic merit of mere printed slogans on white canvas. If that makes me a philistine, so be it. Overall the Whitney gets a solid A-, with that grade mostly owing to Hopper and Bellows and their Ashcan friends.
Inspired, I made it over to the subway and took it down to Greenwich Village where I decided that it was important that I find Edward Hopper’s house. He lived right off Washington Square from 1913 until he died in the late 1960s and painted most everything he ever did that mattered there. Now NYU owns the building – they seem to own every building down there, turning what I imagine was once a nice neighborhood into a playland for rich college students – and there isn’t a sign or anything. The south-facing windows of his top floor studio which allowed in all the fabulous sunlight he painted were closed tight with shades. What a waste.
Back across the Village for a canoli, cappuccino and busker-watching. I watched two guys sing southern gothic murder ballads. They were 25 year-old hipsters, likely NYU dropouts, who will one day conveniently forget that they spent a couple of years pretending that they were from some swamp in Tennessee.
I took the subway back uptown to my hotel and laid down for a nap. I woke up just as the sun was going down. I used to do that a lot but hadn’t for years. It’s the most disorienting yet strangely refreshing thing. A lot like a 60 hour trip to New York.
But no more than that. I’m just a rube and I sort of like it. I will visit New York a lot in my life, I imagine. But I don’t think I want to do more than visit.
I had some aches, a mild fever and a cough over the weekend. It felt better by Monday night and I felt as right as rain on Tuesday, so I figured I had shaken whatever crud I was harboring. It came roaring back at me during the game last night, however, and as I stumbled back to my hotel room, I nearly dropped, my body wracked with violent coughing and awfulness. I took a shot from my Batman flask — yes, that’s it in the picture — and hoped that frontier medicine and a night’s sleep would do the trick. Alas, it did not, so at midnight I called the front desk to see if there was an urgent care in the area. Instead, they hooked me up with a doctor they keep on call and we talked.
Doc: What are you in town for?
Me: Covering the World Series.
Doc: Hey, I was at the game tonight! Great stuff, wasn’t it?
Me: I suppose so. So, here’s what’s –
Doc: Three home runs! How about that Panda! [and many more minutes of baseball talk as I neared death]
We talked about my symptoms, he gave me a couple of things I could do in the meantime, and then said the best bet would be for me to come by his office in the morning.
“Is it walking distance from the hotel?” I asked
“Depends how sick you are,” he said.
I tried to sleep but did a poor job of it. When I finally woke up my fever seemed to have spiked and my cough had gotten so bad that I was tasting blood. If this were a 19th century novel there would be “telltale flecks of crimson on his handkerchief, his consumptive doom foretold!” As it was, I sent emails to all of the NBC people I could find to tell them how useless I’d be today and/or what my last wishes were if I died before I was able to talk to them again.
The only thing that had made me feel moderately better the night before was a little warm food, so I sought out breakfast. I walked towards Dottie’s True Blue Cafe, which is a couple blocks south of where I’m staying and which many have recommended. There was a line of people out the door so I moved on — I’ll get it next time – turning the wrong way down Market Street where things start to get a bit sketchy. There I witnessed a deranged woman in her late 40s wildly swinging two garbage bags full of what looked to be pillows at another women while yelling at her to commit anatomical impossibilities. The other woman, who looked a bit less troubled, was dodging the blows but wouldn’t retreat. Instead, she kept trying to take pictures of her attacker with her cell phone. Not sure who was crazier.
Realizing I was heading the wrong way, I turned around and walked back north on Market. I walked by a group of three guys, one of which asked me if I wanted to buy some pot. I have been on this Earth for over 39 years and, at one time, knew a lot of people who partook in such things. But never have I literally had a stranger bark out a sales pitch like that. I wanted to look around for cameras to see if it was some kind of joke, but I kept walking.
I found a little cafe where I ordered some coffee and some eggs. An older couple sat down at the table near me and I heard the husband ask the wife if she happened to see the score of the game last night. When she said she didn’t know I said “8-3.” They thanked me and asked me if I went to the game. I said yep. They asked me if I’m going again tonight. I said yep. Then they asked me if I’d be willing to sell my tickets. I explained my situation and the man said “Oh well. I can’t find a pair for under $500 so I’m asking anyone I can.”
After I ate I made it up to the doctor’s office. It’s just off Union Square. I had a minute so I walked around the Square a bit because “The Conversation” may be my favorite movie of all time. I pretended that Cindy Williams and I were planning Robert Duvall’s murder, that Gene Hackman was listening to us and then I hummed a few bars of “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbing Along.” There were no mimes to be seen.
It turns out that the whole practice is devoted to hotel guests and tourists and stuff, which is something that makes sense in such a hotel-and-tourist-heavy area, but is the sort of thing I never considered. Seems like something they’d invent in a Charlie Kaufman film. The doctor saw me right away. He’s a short Chinese-American guy, probably in his late 40s or early 50s, but dressed like he’s 25. A smile on his face at all times. I instantly liked him. Even when he creeped me out a bit by saying that he Googled me before I came in and was happy to see that I had lost some weight in the past few years based on older pictures. That’s … not weird.
Most of the visit was spent with him asking me baseball questions — he was really concerned about Bruce Bochy’s bullpen choices last night despite the victory because he thinks that an 8-0 Giants win would have “sent a stronger message.” Then we talked about PEDs at his prompting. Let the record reflect that if this guy had his way everything would be legal, blood spinning with added HGH would be mandatory and Barry Bonds would be canonized. “Just wait ten years and see what they have available,” he said. “The stuff everyone frets about now will seem like throat lozenges.” Did I mention I really like this guy?
But it wasn’t all juice-talk. Another huge chunk of the visit was him giving me a vaguely new-agey lecture about balance — this included him taking pictures of my face with his iPhone to show me how I was “unbalanced on [my] right side” — and him explaining the need to excrete all of the bad things from our bodies lest we have no room for the good. He then demonstrated the proper way to clear one’s sinuses and to inhale hot steam in the shower — it’s all about being upside down — and it all sounded rather like Annie telling Nuke how to breathe through his eyelids.
That was all nice, but what I was really there for was some weapons-grade pharmaceuticals. Thankfully the Good Doctor had the hookup. After the new age talk ended, he told me I either had a severe sinus infection or strep and that there was no use doing the strep test because either way he’s giving me the same treatment. He had his nurse inject me with an antibiotic/anti-inflammatory cocktail (although based on the earlier conversation it may have also had some HGH and metabolites of Stanozolol), and then he loaded up a bag full of all manner of drugs for me to take with me. Come to San Francisco: EVERYONE will give you drugs if you want them.
I took a big swig of the codeine cough syrup and walked down the street past Union Square. As I passed the Westin Hotel I saw a crowd of people with cameras and baseballs surrounding the entrance. Tigers outfielder Quintin Berry was standing there with an attractive young woman. He stopped to sign autographs. The only question for him that came to mind was “why on Earth are they starting Delmon Young in left when your legs aren’t broken?” but I didn’t think I could ask it with the nuance it required what with the cough syrup and all, so I moved along and eventually back to my hotel room.
Here I sit. The game starts in about three and a half hours, but (a) I still feel like utter garbage; and (b) I have this feeling that my Baseball Writers Association of America application will meet with strong resistance this winter if I cough up blood and mucus all over the membership in the cramped confines of the press facilities at AT&T Park tonight. Doctor Feelgood told that it would be about 24 hours of taking the antibiotics and stuff before I’d really be OK be active and not, you know, be Typhoid Mary. As such, I’m leaning strongly toward bagging tonight and coming back strong for Game 3 in Detroit on Saturday.
If that is what I ultimately decide to do, I will still be posting and tweeting and generally covering World Series business this evening from the comfort of my sick/deathbed, and of course Matthew and D.J. will have all kinds of coverage tonight as well.
See what happens when you leave your mother’s basement? Bad things.
Place matters a lot to me. I think less about time than I do of places. The years 1995-98 don’t always cause something to spring to mind, but Washington D.C. does, and that’s how I define those years. Maybe the best year of my youth was 1985, and when I think of it, I think of the weird city block I lived on in Parkersburg, West Virginia that summer more than I think about the things that actually occurred.
I’ve written before about certain places representing unhappiness for me. Florida, which had always seemed to hold ghosts for me. Interstate 71, which holds dread. But there are good places too. California is a good place. It always has been. I haven’t spent a lot of time there. Six trips across 15 years or so. But all of them stick with me.
My first trip there was in 1997. My brother was at the end of his second enlistment in the Navy and had been stationed in San Diego. My two best friends from college, Ethan and Todd, had, in the previous two years, moved to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. We visited all of them and, unwittingly, had pretty much the quintessential California vacation experience: beaches, Hollywood, wine country, San Francisco, strange grad students in Berkeley, the works. Touristy and cliche? Sure. But I fell in love with the place.
In 1998 I was there for a wedding. My love of San Francisco weather hit home on that trip, as I traded muggy gross late-summer Ohio for the cool foggy Bay. Whenever I’m uncomfortable in the summer here, I think about falling asleep in the attic bedroom of the old house in which we were staying in the Berkeley hills, window open, cool breeze coming in, pulling a blanket up to keep the chill off and wishing it could always be that way.
I was back in 1999 for a ski trip. I flew into San Francisco and rode with friends to Lake Tahoe, sharing a car with a guy whose tech company had just gone public. He was a millionaire on paper and spent the entire drive trying to wrap his brain around it all. Looking back, it was such an on-the-nose portrayal of the dotcom bubble days that I sometimes wonder if it was all put on for my benefit.
In 2003 The Great Road Trip wound its way through the Golden State. Some of the most pivotal and meaningful moments of my life and the lives of my friends occurred at that time. Or were in the process of occurring, even if we weren’t then aware of it. I learned that I was going to be a father in Los Angeles. I had what may have been the closest thing I’ve ever had to a real breakdown in a hotel room in Berkeley, but it was followed up immediately with one of the few moments of catharsis I have ever known. I also had two of the handful of moments of pure bliss I’ve ever had in my life, the first sitting by the San Francisco Bay in Sausalito and the second while laying in the middle of the highway in Death Valley. It’s taken me years to unpack all that went down in the two weeks or so I spent in California during that trip, and I still don’t think I’ve unpacked it all.
I was back in 2007 for a short L.A.-San Diego trek, centered around my then recently renewed passion for baseball. Dodgers and Angels games with Todd, Padres games with my brother. Grasping for the first time that maybe, maybe, that could somehow be my life.
The last trip there was 2009. Another wedding. I was filled with optimism at the time. I was deep into negotiations to leave the law and write full time and knew it was only a matter of weeks before that would happen. For the first time we had left our children for more than a day or two – giving us precious time away together – and it was going great. One afternoon on that trip, as she took a nap, I sat in a cafe in Calistoga marveling at how well everything was going, thrilled that all of my dreams involving my work, my family and my marriage were within my grasp.
Obviously all of that didn’t come to pass. But the fact that I can think of that trip with my ex-wife – and the particular moment of thought I had in that cafe – without any hint of sorrow when I still can’t think of other times I had with her without a sense of loss and waste says a lot for where I was at the time and how uniquely powerful the place in which I felt those things is to me.
I’m going back on Thursday. To Los Angeles. It’s another wedding but, more importantly, it’s a weekend with Allison, who I haven’t seen in six weeks and who I miss dearly. And it’s in California, where everything has always felt right to me, and where I have always felt peace.
I got my itinerary this afternoon. The flights and hotels are booked, the rental car is reserved and the media credentials are (almost) squared away. I’m going to Florida the second week of March to cover spring training. I’m going to once again do battle with a state with which I have never really gotten along.
There were, I believe, three childhood vacations to the sunshine state. Maybe four – they kind of blend together so I may be mixing up the continuity a bit – but none of them were unequivocal successes. The earliest was a classic “let’s pile six people in a Buick and drive 1,500 miles – why? – because it’s the 1970s and that’s just what people did back then” trip. The two extras were a young neighbor couple, friends of my parents. I think I was six years-old. Must have been at least six, actually, because we were driving the light green ‘79 LeSabre. [UPDATE: My dad notes: “It was not a LeSabre. It was a full deuce and a quarter. Electra 225 Limited. Strictly class.”] A celadon green, I’d say, which my parents called “the thick and chewy Buick” because of the soft cushy vinyl – or whatever it was – on the roof.
I dwell on the car, because I remember almost nothing of our time in Florida itself. Just the interminable drive from Flint, Michigan to Key Largo, two adults and a child in the front seat, two adults and a child in the back. Plus purses. And pillows. And books. And Kleenex boxes. And shoes. And a cooler full of sandwiches and sodas, because it was Jimmy Carter’s America and malaise meant only eating at restaurants once a day no matter how far from home you were. And it was always a Howard Johnson’s.
The next trip I remember was just the four of us. It started out as another driving trip, but Ronald Reagan was in office by then, and he turned us all into men and women of action. 20 miles from home my dad hit an ice patch on the highway, decided that he didn’t need two days of this crap, diverted to a pay phone and booked us on a same-day flight from Windsor, Ontario to Tampa. Well, next day, technically, as the flight left at what I remember as 3AM the following morning. We waited things out in a Travelodge motel sort of sleeping, sort of not. Once we got on the plane my brother ordered an orange juice and the flight attendant brought him a screwdriver.
The trip itself was generally OK. We went to the pre-Epcot Disney World, which I imagine today would be considered quaint. We made it down to Key Largo again, staying in a mobile home that belonged to my grandparents. I don’t think they had been down there for some time, as the inside was covered with dust and grease and all manner of nastiness. The first morning there my mom turned on the oven and the whole place filled with noxious fumes. The room in which I slept was full of my grandmother’s trashy romance and horror novels. One of them had a hyper-realistic cover picture of a man being hanged. It haunted my dreams for the rest of my childhood. I can still picture it, quite vividly, nearly 30 years later.
But the real downer of that trip wasn’t the trailer – you can overlook a lot when you’re near a nice beach in January – it was a short visit with some people we used to know named the Keefes.* They had been our neighbors in Michigan for a time. The father sold cars (Buicks, natch). The mother, who seemed on the young side and was rather loopy, worked at a record store. Their daughter, Janie, was a year younger than me, and we were more or less inseparable when we were five and six years old. My dad built a ladder that straddled the backyard fence so we could visit one another. I swam in Janie’s pool, she played with her Barbie dolls in my basement and we decided that when we grew up we’d get married and work together as garbage men, Janie driving the truck, me riding on the back, emptying cans. She was my first best friend.
One day, however, the Keefes just picked up and moved from Michigan down to Florida. I don’t think that I ever knew the details, but I recall vague talk of scandal – maybe drugs – and other unseemliness. I can only assume my parents decided to visit them for my and Janie’s sake, and I remember being glad to see her. Their home in Florida, however, was a disheveled mess. The morning we went to Disney World – Janie and her mother came with us – the power was turned off at their house and some mention was made of “confusion” over the electric bill. I was too young to know what was going on, but I knew something was amiss. The day in Disney was fun, but the visit has become overshadowed by a certain sadness in my mind and memory, partially because of Janie’s apparently unfortunate circumstances, but also because it was the last day I ever saw her. I’ve often wondered how her life has gone. I worry that it hasn’t gone particularly well.
The next trip to Florida started off with such promise. It was April 1984. My parents were coming off a couple of years of relative prosperity and we were making the trip in a motor home with a boat in tow. In addition to the four of us, two of our best friends – the Yoder brothers – were allowed to come along for the trip. The two days on the road were great fun. We brought thousands of baseball cards with us and we sorted and traded them all the way down I-75. Day three was spent out in the great big ocean in our little boat speeding around, jumping waves and having a grand time. It had all the makings of an epic vacation.
That night, however, my father was paged by the campground office. The call was from Michigan. My great Uncle Harry – who was really more like my grandfather and who may be more responsible than anyone for me being the baseball fan I am today – had suffered a massive heart attack and died in his back yard. We started back home that night. His funeral – a Jewish affair, held an extra sundown to accommodate our journey – was the first one I ever attended. By the end of this ordeal I had come to associate Florida with sorrow and disaster.
It would be 21 years before I’d get back there. This time I was there on legal business, dispatched to Sarasota under outrageously stressful circumstances. I wasn’t exactly told to obstruct an official investigation while I was down there, but it was pretty clear that everyone on my side of the table would have been happier if the investigation went slowly and was hopeful I could make that happen. I wasn’t exactly being followed by government investigators while I was down there, but they certainly knew where I was at all times during the trip. I wasn’t exactly threatened while I sat in a warehouse full of rare coins for three straight days, but the fact that the security detail that guarded them openly and freely brandished Israeli assault weapons didn’t make me feel all that comfortable either. On the bright side I billed a shitload of hours that week and back in those days that was pretty much all that mattered.
My last trip to Florida came on the same case a year later when I visited my indicted client and his wife in their stately Florida Keys home to prepare him for his criminal trial. I’ll admit, the place was fabulous. Great views. Expensive wine. Wonderful steaks, seafood, sunsets and swimming. But for as nice as the accommodations were, an air of dread hung over the entire trip. I won’t say my co-counsel and I knew exactly what was coming, but we did know there were rough days ahead. I remember floating in the pool and looking at the stars one evening when Tom walked out on to his bedroom balcony above where I swam. He raised a toast to me and told me that the next time I came I’d have to bring my family. I knew there wouldn’t be a next time. I don’t know if he did too and was merely playing the role of charming host or if he really felt he’d beat the rap. Whether it was hubris or denial I still don’t know, but it cast a pall over the entire trip.
It’s been four years since that visit, and again, I prepare for Florida. Will this be the time nothing goes sideways for me down there? The first time that no bad news, bad cars, bad hotels, bad vibes or bad people come between me and all that the Sunshine State is supposed to offer?
I’m hopeful. After all, I’m going down there for baseball. To grok the spring training zeitgeist in the service of my dream job. I’ll be armed with a press pass an expense account and a vague-to-nonexistent mandate to meet people, watch games and write stuff, which is something I’m fairly confident I can handle. No amount of bad Florida juju can mess that up, can it?
Wait. Don’t answer that. If you need me, I’ll be checking out the cactus league schedules and checking to see if my airfare to Miami is refundable …
*As is the case in many of these tales, some names have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, the vaguely shifty and the morally dubious.