Showing posts with label #amtrak. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #amtrak. Show all posts

10 July, 2013

Williston Update: Eyes And Ears

I got to a state where phrases like "the Good, the True, the Beautiful" filled me with a kind of suppressed indignation.." - Thomas Merton

The biggest change since the last time I traveled by train is the heightened sense of paranoia... I mean security. There's a huge television in the Concourse B Lounge that plays a video on a permanent loop. The smiling, friendly woman in an Amtrak engineer's uniform assures us that we were all in this together. TSA, along with city,county, and state police are all working together to ensure that our rail experience is safe and enjoyable. They have specially trained explosive sniffing dogs. While the friendly engineer lady reads the cue cards, a montage of competent officers and well-trained dogs plays. Everyone is calm and courteous and official. 

But, that's not enough, according to the kind engineer lady and one of the calm and courteous and official TSA agents. 

"After all," he proclaims to the camera, "we're all in this together!"

They say they need my help. MY HELP. Why, I can be a hero,too! I can be the eyes and ears of the police and turn in people who look suspicious.

Whatever that means. The video makes sure to not advocate racial profiling. I am told several times to focus on behavior, not looks. The nice engineer lady is Black. The TSA is Latino. All of the people committing "suspicious acts" are white... and a few of them are even dressed like urban professionals.

After all, it could be anybody.

The thing about traveling, whether you're on your own or whether you are traveling with someone or with a group, is that at some point you have to be able to reach out to fellow travellers. Even if it's just to ask directions or about some procedural. In order to travel, you need to know when to reach out and ask for basic assistance. 

Yes, there are going to be less than trustworthy people; but generally, if you keep your wits about you, and you pay attention to your surroundings, you begin to learn who you can reach out to.

But does that mean that I need to be not  racially profiling and report some abstract "suspicious" behavior to a cop?

I don't know. I tend not to trust cops. I know there are good ones and there are bad ones... but in the end, they're the arm of an institution I have long lost faith in. And for all the talk in that Orwellian video about NOT racially profiling, the fact is that cops do generally profile people. The fact is WE ALL generally profile people. For example, when I say "I don't trust the police" I realize I'm lumping a whole bunch of people  together. The best I can do is try and remember that when they're people,too. 

I sometimes hear the phrase "post 9/11America." The heightened sense of paranoia... I mean security... and increased hassle of traveling. Random searches and added delays are a part of the deal. Your property is not private if some representative of one of the cooperating agencies decides you are behaving in a suspicious way. 

27 March, 2012

Wayward Sacredness, Part 2.1 : More Peripatetic Ruminations

This don't look like no expressway to me! - Joliet Jake Blues

Not my brother's car. But I think he sees it this way. In his head.
The fundamental problem with returning is leaving.

After three weeks of trying to put off packing and trying to decide what to do with my stuff, I managed to get my older brother to drive up to corn and gawd country to pack up the few possessions I have then take me and them back to Porkopolis, where all of my books could be stored in the same place for the first time since 2006.

Which, of course, makes me wonder, again, why I KEEP all the books, since I haven't seen most of them except in passing for a while. 

I mean, I carry some reading material with me when I travel... I'll be taking a few different ones when I head back through Kentucky and westward... but I'm going through this process -- yet of again -- of debating my attachment to things I may not see for a while. 

After all... shouldn't someone get something out of them? All they do now is sit in boxes in the rafters of my mom's garage.

But I'm not sure I'm ready to give them up, really. Or maybe I am, if I thought they would be read and enjoyed and not be collecting dust somewhere.

Even for books, though, I didn't have that many to take down to Cincinnati. Three medium-sized boxes, an apple box, and a milk crate. Then there were two other boxes of random stuff, a duffle bag for my clothes, a fishing pole, two portable typewriters, and my cast iron pots.

Don't get me started on the typewriters. It's another one of those things I like. The old manual kind, that make noise and don't forgive mistakes with a damned delete button. You had white out. Later, a correction ribbon. But mostly, you had to get your fingers to do the right goddamned thing. Or you typed the page over. And over. And over.

Yes. I did a lot of that. At first.

Attachment to things in general is one of those issues I don't have. Yes, I like my books. I like to collect rocks and typewriters. Certain objects have certain meaning for me. But I've also let go of a hell of a lot over the years -- books and furniture and appliances and utensils of all kinds, shapes, and sizes. You have to be a bit cut throat when you're moving and have limited money, time, and space. I've found, though, that most things can be replaced.

Because, as some sage or another said, nothing lasts. 

And if I've learned any lessons lately, it's that one.

Which, of course, leads us back to the story wherein my brother drives 7 hours in his Infiniti (aka The Batmobile) from Northern Kentucky (it's still basically Cincinnati, let's be honest; but don't tell his wife. She's convinced otherwise.) to the Northwestern corner of Illinois (that, except for an arbitrary boundary and the will of some very opinionated Western Illinois University fans, would be Iowa.) to pick me and my few remaining possessions up. 

After I approached him about the prospect (aka sent him a polite but younger brotherly text) his first response was

"How much stuff? Will it all fit in my car?"

Fair question. I had sort of hoped he would bring the family SUV. It's not as cool as the Batmobile, but it is more spacious. On the other hand, my sister-in-law has a life, too (she coaches something called Forensics*, which has absolutely nothing to do with corpses) and probably needs the SUV to cart around kids and the bloodless and dismembered bodies of anyone who suggests:
  1. That Harry Potter is lame.
  2. That Twilight is even more lame.
  3. That Johnny Depp is not really a pirate.

I assured him -- because I was almost 99% certain myself -- that everything would fit. After it was all packed and hauled downstairs from the space that had been my Cubby (aka, my writing space) to the summer porch so that it would be easier to load the car, the pile wasn't as big as I thought it might be. 

(For those not in the know, that's an enclosed porch that could double as a room in the summer. You know... before central air. Before air conditioning. Before the electric fan.) 

A few days later he got back to me (via text) asking if there was a hotel in town. I pondered. The two times my mom visited, she stayed at a Super 8 in Savanna, 10 miles away. I mentioned that to him, but I also suspected that he wouldn't want to drive 10 miles after hanging out and doing a bit of drinking. For one, there's nothing else to do in Mount Carroll on a Friday night. For another, I wanted my friends to meet Brian. In the scenario in which I am Sherlock Holmes, he's Mycroft. Not only because he's OLDER but because he's probably one of the smartest people I know. And I say that knowing full well that I have some pretty smart friends. 

Also, in most social situations, people are generally surprised to discover we're related. I often refer to him as "The Clean Shaven, More Successful Parsons."

My mother hates that particular description. Not because he's not both clean shaven (he managed to dodge the gorilla gene) or successful; because he's certainly both. She doesn't like when I describe my brother like that because the implication is that I'm neither clean shaven (I'm not) or nor successful (this depends entirely on your notion of success. I think I'm enormously successful. My old high school guidance counselor might have other ideas.)

I also mentioned that there was a Bed and Breakfast up on the hill near the cemetery, and an older hotel in town, The Hotel Glenview, which some people I know have been refurbishing. The downstairs is a combination of Dabluz, a shop for mostly handmade stuff (my friend Heather Houzenga sells some of her wares there) and The Driftless Area Stillroom Wine and Cheese Shop... which is one of those nice little places no one thought had a chance in a place like Mount Carroll, where cheese is individually wrapped and wine is served in with communion wafers.

After mentioning the Glenview, he asked if there was a bar. (After all, he IS my brother.) I told him no, he would be walking distance to both the bowling alley, and Bella's... as well as two other bars with plenty of local color, if he was so inclined. So he checked it out. Then he texted me back that he reserved a room.

"They know you there," he told me.

"Yes." I replied. "That may not work in your favor though."

* Forensics actually refers to a form of rhetorical argument. It's a combination of theater and classical discourse, most often associated with the legal profession. My sister-in-law, Jonna, is no slouch at an argument... proof positive that she belongs in the family... and her kids won this trophy


which... and this is one of those ways in which the area she lives is VERY MUCH like Kentucky.... will not be displayed at the school because they're too cheap and too focused on boy's athletics to build a proper trophy case. Bozos. Congrats, by the way to her and her kids... one of whom is my niece, Brianna.

04 March, 2012

Shipping Out to Boston: The Beantown Massacre (Verse 3 and Chorus)

Harvard makes mistakes too, you know. Kissinger taught there. - Woody Allen

The Harvard Law states: Under controlled conditions of light, temperature, humidity, and nutrition, the organism will do as it damn well pleases. -  Larry Wall 

If I don't trim my shit back soon, I'll start looking like this.
Harvard Bums are extraordinarily polite.

According to Neil, this is due to the fact that the cops will haul anyone off who gets in people's faces too much with their panhandling.  Mostly, they linger around the entrances to certain stores and under awnings and whisper their request for spare change as you pass.

In my experience, though, most panhandlers are pretty polite (with the exception of the Coney Island Stooges) ; because even if your mother doesn't teach you at some point that you get more flies with honey than vinegar, (sometimes a cliche is just a cliche) then life most assuredly will. Even if it's an act. Even if, while you try and play the role, you fantasize about snapping the mark's neck and tearing his head off.

Ok. So that was me working customer service. But the same general rules apply.

We were both a little hungover on Sunday, so we didn't get started until late. The quickly fading daylight was working against us. Personally, I blame the rum. I always have a hangover when I drink it... even the Good Stuff, which that most assuredly was.

But we managed to rally after some conversation, water, aspirin, and Laura's Sloppy Joe's and baked brussel sprouts. Over the course of our conversation, one thing became clear: the grand plans I had for Boston would have to be cut back... ever so slightly.

I have a relatively short list of Writerly Meccas... places that, for purely literary reasons I feel the need to go and just soak it all in... the stuff that helped make the writers and the writing that endures for me. And yes, even though Boston is One Of Those Cities that's historically important... The Tea Party, American Revolutionary War, Blah, Blah, Blah... Lowell, Massachusetts resonates for me a little more.

Lowell is the birthplace and final resting place of Jack Kerouac, one of those writers academes love to hate and many other writers hate to love. He's most well known for On The Road, the book that, if you read it when you're 18 makes you want to quit whatever you're doing and travel.

Of course, it's all carnival now... an economically depressed blue collar town that, once a year, becomes a bastion for hordes of Kerouac wannabes who don't understand the final tragedy of the man or his work. Desolation Angelsis one of my favorite books, and tops the list of my favorites of Kerouac's. (Followed by Mexico City Blues, and Tristessa.) Desolation Angelsis supposed to cover the period of time in his life before he wrote On The Road. But in many ways, it sums up everything about the man – his hopes, his hang ups, and his sense of failure, his idealism, and ultimately, his bitterness.

Idealists are grumpy most of the time, and generally have the greatest cause to be... because the world rarely lives up to our expectations. Because the dream is rarely realized. And if there's a recurring theme in my travels thus far, it's that dreams – although necessary and worth the risk – often don't come true. Or worse, they do, and don't measure up to the ideal.

We could have made it up to Lowell and had a quick look around; but I didn't want to sprint through just to say I'd been there. Neil and I decided instead to go to Harvard. As a former academic wage slave, I thought it was important to go to Harvard Square – the heart of academic entitlement – just so I could tell myself that The Machine didn't beat me.

My relationship with Higher Education... as it continues to be called, though now with a bit more irony and disgust... is nothing short of antagonistic. We understand one another, H.E. and I. As the last institution that failed me, and I believe, that continues to fail most everyone who can't afford to go someplace like Harvard, I end up howling alone about these failures. Because only a rare few are willing to admit I'm right, and most everyone – including the poor bastards who have still made careers out of it – is unwilling to accept the fact that they're slaves at worst and lackeys*at best. 

We walked down the hill and caught a bus that would take us straight to Harvard Square. It's a very pretty place, actually. Well manicured and cared for. Lots of brick. It was a Sunday afternoon, and on the chilly side, but there was still a fair amount of hustle and bustle. As we made our way to the Harvard Campus, Neil told me his story of the Harvard Occupy... when some of the nation's most entitled students – many of them the sons and daughters of the 1% – gathered to camp on Harvard Square to protest whatever it was they thought they were protesting... probably the fact that they don't get automatic A's for simply being accepted to the university that can boast, among it's many luminaries and graduates, former President George W. Bush... proof positive that a rich Daddy and a sense of entitlement really can get you somewhere.

At one point, Neil told me, the Harvard Occupy started to attract non-Harvard folks – particularly the homeless population. This, naturally, could not stand. After all, when a bunch of entitled kids who want to camp and have an excuse to cut class – other than the ones their Daddys give them – nothing works like a short scamp into wretched liberalism. (Which , of course, is allowed in college. Like “experimenting” with drugs and casual homosexuality. As long as you graduate on time and get a real job, what you do between class is no one's business, and, like the long hard tradition of sodomy in secret societies, is never discussed.) The homeless problem is one of those that the Occupy Movement has yet to cope with. There's still a fair amount of middle class pretense among the Occupiers who fail to understand that the very same forces that create homeless and poverty are the very same forces that are robbing them of the ability to have a nice house in the burbs, 2 cars, and three large flat screen televisions.

The Harvard Administration saw fit to close the Harvard Yard. Literally.

Wretched Liberal Dumpster Diving is one thing. But the HOMELESS? ON CAMPUS? Mixing with the best and brightest that private schools and trust funds (and scholarships for the statistically relevant poor kids) have to offer?

Something horrible could happen....

Something like...

I don't know...


No. The potential for class and culture miscegenation could never be permitted.

The common refrain in Neil's dialogue was that Harvard – separate from the students – was the kind of place where the only thing that mattered was The Work. And for anyone who knows better, The Work is something different for everyone. The Work is something sacred; because in the beginning was The Work. And the Word was with God. And the Work was God. And the Work carried on in spite of all -- including a society that neither appreciates nor encourages Good Work to be done. When I asked Neil how he felt when he first got his job on Harvard Campus, he smiled. Then he told me about his initial impressions of the place and how it surprised him that no one who actually worked at Harvard was actually all that snobbish.

“I was the one with the chip on my shoulder,” he said.

The only time Harvard people get bound up, Neil insisted, was when they're impeded from their work.

I don't think I believe it's as simple as that everywhere else; but I like to think it could be.

Neil is one of those guys who always looks for the best advantage; he's smart enough, and multi-talented enough. He says that if there's any advantage to the shit hole economy it's that people will have to learn how to Do Things On Their Own. He says it could be the best time for people who can engineer their own futures.

That's the narrative that feels good. God knows I like it, and or some people it might even be true. I don't know know if it's true for me. But in the end, maybe knowing doesn't matter. Maybe the journey doesn't count on knowing. Maybe knowing doesn't matter.

Maybe it's something else.

Now, when I was wandering around around Harvard Campus, I paused in front of Widener Library, and I even rubbed the shoe of the statue of John Harvard.

It's not really a statue of John Harvard. Rumor has it that the real John Harvard couldn't be bothered to sit for the modeling, so he sent someone else. Which means that everyone who rubs the toe of the Harvard statue for good luck is really rubbing the toe of some heretofore nameless academic. Huzzah!

The image that struck me even more deeply than the veiwing Widener Library... which, thanks to Hollywood, reminds me of  a young and beautiful Moira Kelly

She could've borrowed my razor anytime. Until One Tree Hill. That was just.... just horrible.

and a hairy Joe Pesci

Thanks to Hollywood script writers, literate bums can get laid by exotic beautiful, well-read women** .

was the large number of homeless people huddling in Harvard Square.

If the weather was warmer, I'd think they were waiting out the cold. But it wasn't warmer. And they were there, anyway. Huddling around the doors of the shops where Harvard faculty, staff, and students shop, are the broken, the lost, the free, and the brave. They try and stay warm, politely ask for a small piece of humanity, and endure... in spite of the fact that the conservative hordes and the wretched liberal scamps don't seem to understand that they, too, are part of America... and a part of the American Dream that has never lived up to the idealism that birthed it.

Being on Harvard's campus, though, I  couldn't help but be bowled over. Just a little. It's not a big campus, really. But it's a well-maintained one, and one that started simply with a collection of books and a pile of money. Used to be, that's all it took to start a university. And it's the tension between those two things... knowledge and finance -- that continues to define the problems higher education still has.

It's also the tension between those two things that defines most of our problems as a culture, I think. I won't bore you with the history of literacy in Western Civilization; but I will say this: Democracy would not exist without it. An Educated People are a People who are less likely to be fooled. An Educated People understand the gravity and the freedom of Self-Determination.

But it's also true... and it's becoming increasingly so... that you don't need a college degree to be Educated. Thomas Carlyle said the only true college is a library of books. And Neil, while I don't share his optimism, does have a point: we may be at the one of those rare high water marks in human development thus far where the access to information and the ability to Do is unparalleled.  If we decide to take the risk. If we decide to throw off the old dreams and old metaphors.... like that one called The American Dream, which dictates that success comes from Gumption and from Doing All The Right Things.

Instead, maybe we should find The Work and do it no matter what. Even if it means Doing What Seems Like the Wrong Thing. Because in spite of what we're told, The Work matters. And it doesn't always pay. But it's always necessary. And we should be annoyed when the world conspires against us getting it done.

And sometimes, you end up being a bum and people think you're nuts. But there's enlightenment in that, too. There's enlightenment and there's humanity when you learn to look past what you see.

*For a proper definition, please refer to the Parsons Dictionary of Often Used Words and Phrases.
** In case you didn't know... DOESN'T happen much in real life. Or, at any rate, not to me. Not that I'd object, to being proven wrong, though...

[Thanks for reading! Sorry with the delay on getting this one posted. My next blog... on my temporary return to Mount Carroll and my plans for the next stages... south and west... is forthcoming. 

A special thanks to Nelson Bonner and Jennifer Payne for their contributions to the travel fund. I will be putting it towards necessary supplies and travel costs. My exit window is 3/21 -4/1.

As Always... if you like what you're reading and want to help me keep writing it...

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10 February, 2012

An Ohio Valley Yankee in Virginia, Part 3: The Welcome Wagon

Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless.
-- Thomas A. Edison

My plan, such as it was, was sublime and simple. When I got into Norfolk, the first thing I would do was call the Dorothy Day House. For those not familiar with Dorothy Day or the Catholic Workers, that's what fucking Google is for. Seriously, though The Catholic Workers are rooted in Christian Anarchism, with a touch of liberation theology. They have done good work since The first Dorothy Day House opened in the 1930's. They also ran Joe Hill Houses of Hospitality.

These are names you should know about. Look them up. And after you read the inadequate blurbs on Wikipedia, go and read more about them. It's part of that history the school board, the government, and your parents didn't want you to know about.

But you know what the sage says about best laid plans.

The bus dumped me in a section of downtown, at the intersection of Virginia Beach Blvd and Monticello Ave. There was nothing. A huge parking lot -- on the other side of which was a hub for Hampton Road Transit. Some not too friendly store fronts, light industrial buildings, and the former location of the Union Mission -- which is now located on the exact opposite side of town. I had a general idea where the Dorothy Day House was in relation to Stella's house... it's about 7 miles away... but I had no idea where I was in relation to either of those things.

When I called the number, though, I was told there was no room. The guy I talked to was genuine, apologetic. He asked my name, and where I was coming in from. He recommended a few places to get in out of the cold, and told me where I could meet a bus and come to church if I wanted.

After I hung up with him, I immediately started thinking. I knew how much money I had; I knew it wouldn't stretch very far if I had to rent a hotel room. The Union Mission was an option; but I was dead set against Stella seeing me that way. I mean, she knows me well enough to know that I'm probably not above sleeping in a shelter. And it was bad enough that she would probably figure out -- I thought -- what was going on her Dad's (former) home front. 

Spending my money on a motel -- even a cheap one -- would also mean cutting my visit short. I would need to make sure I could get out of Norfolk with enough money in my pocket not to starve, and not to get stuck.

My next move was to walk around, and see if I could get my bearings. The Norfolk of my memory is an unpleasant, ugly place with only one highlighting factor: the fact that my daughter lives here. Nothing about that had changed. I don't like Norfolk. I don't like that it's a military town. I don't like that my daughter attends a school that commonly makes the news because some kid brings a gun to school or because of some fight that gets out of control. I don't like that a significant number of things that I object to are glorified here: war, government, nationalism, popcorn patriotism, group think.

And I didn't like the fact that the guy from the Dorothy Day House understood very clearly, but tried not to tell me, that there was very little help for the down and out here. Other than the Union Mission, he said there was one other place where they opened up a gymnasium and let people sleep on the floor when the weather's cold.

Not promising.

As I walked around, trying to stretch out my legs and figure out what I was going to do, a black man in a long dark coat approached me. Well, more point of fact, he stumbled up to me. I don't know if the man was drunk, or high, or just... off. But I was familiar with the look. Long dark coat, the kind department stores donate to clothing barrels.  Fresh pajama shirt. Khakis. Worn out gym shoes.

"Hey man," he said. "You gotta a dollar? I need a dollar to catch the bus to the mission."

"Sorry, man," I said. "I just got here myself."

"You got a cigarette?"

"No," I said. "Wish I did, though."

He hobbled off in the direction I had come from. I kept walking, waiting for inspiration, when I heard a voice. It was the man I had just talked to. He was motioning me back over.

"Hey," he said. "You want a cigarette?"

"Sure." He came out with a mostly fresh pack of Camel Menthols. "Here," he said. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out some change. "You want a dollar?"

"Nah, man," I said. "You need that. For the bus. To the mission."

"Let me worry about that!"

"Listen," I said. "Thanks for the smoke."

"If you got a dollar," he said "and an I.D., the lady in their..." he motioned to the Exxon Station behind me. "they're running a special. A dollar and an ID, they'll give you a pack of cigarettes."

"Good to know," I said. "Thanks. Take care." I figured the "special" was some form of charity on the part of the cashier, so I didn't bother asking. 

I walked around some more to get a better idea of the territory. I walked near the Chrysler Museum of Art; one particularly uncomfortable looking museum employee -- who's job it was, I suppose, man the door -- eyed me suspiciously. Maybe he was worried that I might want to see the art. Maybe he was worried I might offend the memory of Lee Iaccoca. 

I knew I'd have to deal with accommodations, soon. It was early afternoon, but the day would pass quickly, and I didn't want to 1) be caught outdoors, or 2) be put in the position of having to ask Stella's mother for a spot on the couch. As far as I can tell, the last seven years or so has been the longest streak that her mother and I have actually managed to be civil with one another -- including our marriage. That civility, however, is based entirely on the fact that we never talk, rarely communicate, and try not to acknowledge one another's existence. 

That meant an additional expenditure and a shorter visit.

Then I decided to get in touch with Stella.

09 February, 2012

An Ohio Valley Yankee in Virginia, Part 2: Overnight Train Station Updates

"Your trip was  long,illimitable, you came to this raindrop called your life, and it call it yours -- we have purposed that you vow to be awakened..." -- Kerouac

Not pictured: butt receptacle that looks like a free-standing dildo .
Good morning, Dear Friends:

My night in the Richmond Amtrak Station * passed peaceful and quiet, with no real problems. I was able to stretch out and get some sleep, though I was jolted awake by some commuter businessmen who turned the television up to catch their fill of last night's disasters on the early morning news.

I try not to watch or listen to any news when I first wake up. This is not out of apathy. It's out of survival. Early morning news is either:

  1. A verbatim rehash of the news from the night before; or
  2. A litany of disasters and death that occurred over night that no one can do anything about.

There's enough time in the day to hear about all the things beyond my control, and hardly enough to hear about the things I have control over. I choose, when I have control over it, not to expose myself to the news of the weird, the tragic, and the stupid until I choose.

That notwithstanding... I was actually able to get some more sleep until the snack shop opened and I paid $2 for a $1 cup of coffee.

As for overnight excitement, there was an instance where the cops were called. At first, I wasn't sure what they were here for. Two showed up and walked purposefully out onto the tracks, where a train -- that was already 30 minutes late -- was preparing to pull out of the station. It was the southbound train, final destination - Miami. When the announcer finally called the train, the waiting area cleared out -- everyone's heading south, it seems. Them. The birds. I was going to head south after visiting my daughter, but the fare would, at this point, cost me more than I want to spend.

For that reason, I'm thinking of visiting Washington D.C. and then New York. I have friends in both cities. Also, I haven't been to the capital since I was 13 or so. And that was on a church choir trip. (Yes. That's right. Church Choir. We all have a right to be a dumb ass when we're 13.)

But when I expected to hear the train roll on out, nothing happened. In a few minutes, a THIRD cop arrived and walked -- this time in a slight rush -- out to the tracks. What sort of problem, I thought, could they have that it required three cops?

Well, Richmond is a small to medium sized city; could've been a drunk, or drugs. Maybe a fight.

But wait... this IS the south. And not the south like people sometimes mistake Kentucky for.Virginia is historically and geographically, The South.

And what problem required three white -- did I mention they were white? -- cops, all with similarly douche hair cuts with the slightly upturned bangs? (I guess Richmond has metrosexual metro cops. Who knew?) 

The problem that was holding up the train?

A scrawny, pissed off black woman.


The cops were easily a foot and a half taller than her. And no, they didn't man handle her or treat her badly. They seemed amused by the entire thing. Apparently this grandmother -- seriously, I think she was --  had rubbed the conductor the wrong way... the conductor being taller, broader, and substantially heavier than any one of the cops. And I remembered at one point, the conductor waddling in, asking about someone's seating arrangements. 

The woman wanted to simply board a different train; but since the conductor booted her, she was welcome on none of them. The cops had to talk her down a little, because she was talking loud and saying she might (gasp!) call to complain. They gave her the train station version of "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here." Eventually, they found her a cab that would take her to the Greyhound Station for $15. This amount seemed like a favor on the part of the cabbie.

After that, I was able to sleep.

Next stop: Norfolk.

*While it is more comfortable to travel by train, amenities cost more. Not only did I have to spend $4.95 to have access to wireless in order to communicate with you all, but if I wanted wireless on the train, I'd have to pay for that. This doesn't put me off train travel. But it does make me appreciate the customer care Greyhound Bus Lines takes in offering free wifi.

[If you like what you read here, you can help by:
  1. Passing the link around.
  2. Graciously donating to the cause using the button on the right hand side of the screen;
  3. Contact Catherine Sellers at Greyhound, 415-331-6049. Tell them you are asking about a sponsorship when the operator picks up. Show them what happens when I don't write about them. Exert pressure. Remember: you are The People.

Thanks for reading.]

08 February, 2012

An Ohio Valley Yankee in Virginia, Part 1: "Daddy,What's a Train?"

"She blew so loud and clear, we had to cover up our ears..." -Utah Phillips

"It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." -Mark Twain

It's costing me $4.95 to hook into the wireless at the Richmond Amtrak station, so I want to get this posted as quickly as possible and get about spending the night here. And I'm doing it all for YOU, dear faithful few readers. 

I found this sticky table place near the train station shortly after departing. And yes, I was hungry... I don't eat much when I travel, so it's not surprising that I would be hungry. (Please consult The Greyhound Quarto, available for download here for a more in depth explanation.)

The thing that attracted me to this absolute paragon of cuisine... generally overpriced, probably lard based, and oddly flavorless in spite of looking like something sort of resembling food... was the subheading. As well as the 1970's era neon sign in the window reading COCKTAILS. I wanted something in my stomach and I wanted something in my liver. And since, I had already splurged for a train ticket to Norfolk (really Newport News... with a bus ride into downtown Norfolk) rather than try and figure out the metro bus system. So I lose my $7 fair. But it was still pretty cheap... $28. Not to mention the fact that trains are roomier... bigger seats, more leg room, and a dining car -- with food and drinks that's overpriced and undercooked.

 I didn't experience the wonder taking a shit on the rails. But there's always tomorrow.

And before you ask... NO, I haven't given up on Greyhound Bus Lines. I'm merely playing hard to get. I mean, there's nothing wrong with THAT is there? Don't I have the right to shake my ta-tas and see if I can get those bus executives to throw a little patronage my way???

Mike and Liz woke up before Gawd this morning to take me to the Ashland train station. It started snowing... feeding my growing paranoia that the weather is out to get me, and is constantly pushing me along. Liz, being a cold weather person, was excited by the prospect; I, however, was not.

But the snow then dissipated and stopped altogether. So maybe... just maybe... I'm not at the heart of some meteorological conspiracy.

Maybe. Stay tuned for updated on this one.

The Amtrak Cardinal arrived about a half hour late -- a time we were doomed to not make up the entire day. There are other differences between bus and train travel. On the train, for example, I couldn't sit anywhere I wanted. I was told where to sit. Luckily, though, I got a window seat. I figured I'd sleep for a few hours and try and catch the scenery. Whatever that would be. 

I have to admit at this point to a certain ambivalence -- some might call it hatred -- of (By Gawd!!!) West Virginia. I have lingering memories of driving up Sandstone Mountain on I-64 East, on my way to pick up Stella at the Virginia / (By Gawd!!!) West Virginia State line for scheduled visits. We would meet at a rest stop just passed Exit 1. My car -- a primer orange 1984 Subaru LS Sedan with a massive oil leak, no radio, a leaky exhaust, and a tricky heater that I had to sometimes start by slamming the alternator with a sledgehammer -- almost always nearly overheated trying to climb the 2650 foot Sandstone Mountain, leaving me no choice but to stop at the Beckley mega-stop to let the car cool off and refill it with oil.

And because I could not choose my seat, I could not choose my seat mate. There was a cute blonde I thought might be worth talking to... would've meant an aisle seat, too... but I was perfectly willing to sacrifice.

Instead, I got stuck with 80 year old widower Ralph Miller. Native of Ashland, on his way to visit his son who lives in Manassas, Virginia. Now, in addition to being a widower, Ralph is also a godly man who lives life to the fullest. I know this because Ralph told me this, in various forms, over and over again. He also talked at length about his wife, who has only been dead two months. He also explained to me that the problem with the world is that kids aren't disciplined anymore.

I'm gliding over and making fun; but it was good to talk to Ralph. We probably agree on next to nothing; and I told him nothing of my situation, other than I was on my way to visit my daughter. He was very kind... even when I disagreed about his decision, as a member of his local school board, to ban a particular text that "encouraged the overthrow of the government" and sought to teach students "how to start a riot and how to build bombs."

I'm guessing that he either didn't notice or didn't understand the IWW pin on the lapel of my coat. I would have showed him the Hakim Bey book that Mike gave me before I left, but it fell out of my pocket and was nowhere to be seen. Grr...

He leaned over and whispered "And you know who it was...." he looked around and leaned in closer. So did I, since I knew it was going to be a whopper. "It was by one of them COLORED writers." (Yes, I know, I know. He's 80. He's from Kentucky. Whatever.)

The tiresome generational racism aside, talking to Ralph was interesting enough, and so was the scenery. West Virginia, when you get away from the interstates, is really a beautiful state. Desolate. Depressed. But still beautiful. Once you get past the industrial decay and academic lethargy around Huntington and Charleston, the Amtrak Cardinal runs along the New River... which is the 2nd longest river in the world. You roll by Canal Falls, and the nearby dam/power plant which provides around 35,000 megawatts of energy for more than 4500 homes. The New River Gorge also holds another power dam at Hawk's Nest -- which, among other things, is famous for causing most of the workers who dug the water tunnel into the mountain to develop Silicosis resulting from hitting a cache of silica in the mountain.

Rolling through West Virginia, and knowing even a little of the history of the Appalachian region -- you can't help but get a sense of the tragedy. In fact, it's the tragedy that makes the scenery beautiful. Beautiful and sad. I submit for your approval, the town of Thurmond, WV, population 7.

That's right. 7. Maybe 6, since it's possible someone died.

Thurmond used to be one of those prosperous coal mining towns. And then, of course, the coal ran out and so did the coal company. Thurmond has since been swallowed up by the Department of National Resources, and is suffering a languishing death because... or so I overheard on the train... the DNR won't let the town move forward. No real renovation. No bringing in new business. No real chance to expand and grow. And so, it's dying.

The good news is, Thurmond will always be remembered... in the way the Disney Small Worlds ride is remembered: nice enough scenery if you're rolling by and happen not to be making out with someone. Thurmond is a case where, between the coal company's greed and the DNR's-- and, for all I know, the town leaders -- myopic notions of progress and restoration -- a town will simply cease to exist. This is something I know a little about, having seen it in Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and now, West Virginia. 

And since I'm paying for this wireless access, I might as well also point out that, in spite of Ralph's obvious bigotry, I found it difficult not to like him. I don't buy into the generational excuse; I believe anyone can change... it's just that most people choose NOT to. I like that he's 80 and that he still loves his wife. He even joked about trying to find another wife, then said there wasn't a point... because, he said, there was no chance of ever finding anything close to what he had with her. And even though he did, at one point, try and save my soul, I found the old guy endearing. Because he's still moving forward. He's still trying to learn. He's not sitting at home in Ashland moping. 

That's something worth thinking about over gin and tonic and tasteless pork barbecue.

[If you like what you read here, you can help by:
  1. Passing the link around.
  2. Graciously donating to the cause using the button on the right hand side of the screen;
  3. Contact Catherine Sellers at Greyhound, 415-331-6049. Tell them you are asking about a sponsorship when the operator picks up. I write about them enough. They should be helping me help them. Right??

Thanks for reading.]

07 February, 2012

Baboon in the Bluegrass: The Saga of Charlene and Marlene (Ashland, KY)

"If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world." -- Francis Bacon

This was the day before yesterday, Sunday. I'd run out of deodorant, soap, and shampoo before I left Willow Drive. And while I don't mind a little stink, I do try to ward of the human stain when relying on the kindness and the couch of friends or family. So that meant a trip to the drug store.

Liz was gone a large part of the day, taking Mike's mother to a casino near Charleston, West Virginia. I spent the day writing, hanging out with Mike, watching snooty English Dramas, and watching him recover from hangover. We spent Saturday evening relaxing, visiting, drinking, and singing L'Internationale. Mike drank more than I did and passed out -- but not until he went about drunk dialing some people, like friend and poet Misty Skaggs, and his sister-in-law. He was polite, and almost... almost... apologetic to Misty. To his sister-in-law, Mike said 

"Your pussy stinks like turpentine." 

Then he laughed hysterically. And so did Liz. And so did I.

He survived the night, drank some water the following day, and was just fine.

When Liz came home, she ran Mike and I up to CVS. My plan was to buy travel size supplies. Not only would that save me money, but a little space in my sack, too. Walking into the CVS, I felt like I was walking into a department store. It had been a while since I walked into a pharmacy that big. Seriously. The Pharmacy Center in Mount Carroll could've fit in a corner of the Ashland CVS. And yes, I have lived in more populated places with larger drug stores, grocery stores, liquor stores. Yes, I know. And that I was, for the briefest instant, struck with confusion at the sheer amount of choices I had to choose from, sounds absurd. And it is absurd. That I can walk into a drug store on a Sunday afternoon and get everything from flip flops to dental floss, from Ramen Noodles to Roach Killer, from batteries to bubble bath, strikes me as 

Everything except beer. Kentucky Blue Laws made THAT impossible. Bastards.

After my eyes grew accustomed to the glow of the fluorescent lights, I quickly found soap, shampoo, and deodorant. I also bought some disposable razors and a travel sized can of shaving cream so that I can trim back my beard... or at least, shave my neck.

 It's good, sometimes, to try and look human... even if I often wish I wasn't.

Liz and Mike picked up a few things and we prepared to check out. As we did, we first ran into a woman trying to maneuver two shopping carts -- one holding an infant in a carrier, the other for shopping. She was clearly having a difficult time, and the construction of the CVS carts weren't working in her favor; the carrier was too big and the carts were too small. She finally managed to push both of them towards  the shampoo aisle. The baby was surprisingly silent.

At the moment we were about to step up to the register, Liz was then accosted by an older woman who seemed to know Liz.

"... and you know what," she said. "I'm still living with that son of a bitch and he's got some woman that sleeps over."

"Is that right?" Liz asked.

The woman -- who we found out was living with her ex -- was clearly irritated by the situation. She was tense and shaking. and even behind the granny thick glasses -- which was framed by wiry, frizzy graying black hair spots of white that looked like extensions of the crows feet and frown lines dug deep into gray face --  it was obvious that the woman was tweaking on something. Crack or redneck cocaine* or maybe even meth... anything was possible.

"And you know what?" she went on. "Last night, that woman climbed into bed with ME. Can you believe that?"

"Is that right?" Liz asked.

"Well, you know what my daughter said..."

"No," Liz answered. "What'd she say?"

"She said I ort ta reach over an GRAB something!" The woman reached out with bony vulture fingers and grabbed the air as if to demonstrate how she might just go about grabbing... uh... something. (Additionally, the mental image was not at all pleasant.)

"Well," Liz said, "Maybe you should."

"Maybe I will!" She said. "That'll learn her."

"I bet it will," Liz said.

We paid for our purchases and left. The woman walked out with us, still talking to Liz about grabbing a piece of the woman who crawls into her and her ex's bed. Once we hit the parking lot, she made for an old model white and blue Ford F150. We got into Mike and Liz's Chevy Aveo Sedan.

"Who was that?" Mike asked as we got in the car.

"I don't know," Liz said. "She just started talking to me like we were in the middle of a conversation."

We laughed about it a bit, and got on the road. We ended up behind the Ford, and then beside it. Liz honked and waved at the woman, who honked and waved back."

"Well, honey," Mike said. "Looks like you made yourself a friend."

"I bet her name is Charlene," Liz said, laughing.

"And I bet she's thinking you're someone she knows," I said. "I bet she thinks your name is Marlene."

[If you like what you read here, you can help by:
  1. Passing the link around.
  2. Graciously donating to the cause using the button on the right hand side of the screen;
  3. Contact Catherine Sellers at Greyhound, 415-331-6049. Tell them you are asking about a sponsorship when the operator picks up. I write about them enough. They should be helping me help them. Right??

Thanks for reading.]

06 February, 2012

Baboon in the Bluegrass, Part 5: Hillybilly Hot Dogs and Pentecostal Swingers ( Ashland, KY)

  “ midnight Ashland, Kentucky, and a lonely girl under the marquee of a closed up show.” -Jack Kerouac

After a week of being plied with gin, poetry, and wonderful company, finally it was time to push east.  After a week of Spring-like weather, I woke up Saturday morning and it was cold and rainy.

Shit. Am I being chased by the weather? Again?

It was starting to feel like it. I barely escaped Illinois with a snow storm at my heels;  by the time I left Cincinnati, the cold and the rain were onto me like bad cop drama. Lexington was cold and windy. If  I decide to head south after I visit Stella,, it will be to escape the winter that's chasing me.

The trip to Ashland was short, and George was kind enough to drive me from his and Laura's place on Willow Drive straight to the door of college friends Mike and Elizabeth Fraizer. I've known both Elizabeth and Mike for many years, Theirs was another one of those weddings I missed, once upon a time. (Sorry Mike and Liz!)  But they have been gracious enough to let bum on the wheel spend a few days, sleep on their very comfy couch and take advantage of their hot water and their washer and dryer -- not to mention the prodigious liquor cabinet which would make any drinking man take pause.

I have always tried to balance the amount of money I spend against my taste for good swill; which is to say, sometimes you can afford the Good Shit and sometimes you can't. Mostly, I haven't been able to. This means I balance taste and cost in what seems a teeter totter sort of compromise. I try to avoid, for example, cheap whiskey. I will, when forced by economics or necessity,drink Bud Lite. I'll even cut corners -- though not many -- on scotch. But I insist, in most cases, on Kentucky Bourbon.

Mike and Liz take the approach that drinking, if done, should be done not only with great care and occasional abandon, but that it should only be done with high class hooch. For his part, Mike is something of and Anglophile when it comes to booze; it's Irish Whiskey -- none of that Jameson shit, either, we're talking pure Irish stock -- and proper English or Irish Ales and Stouts.  Liz is fully on board, having fully engaged sense of the finer things -- be it booze, home cooking, literature, and trashy pop culture. 

[A good example of this is Jailed. This publication, which is something like an inbred child of the World Weekly News and the Jerry Springer Show. It highlights recent arrests in the area, complete with mug shots and games like "Match the Tramp Stamp." This game, which was borrowed/stolen from The Smoking Gun, consists of matching the picture of the lower back tattoo to the jail house hootchie it's attached to. In addition to being good family fun, it's a good memory game for the kids... 'cause these chickies will, I'm sure be back for encore mug shots... if they haven't already.]

One of the first things Mike and Liz did was drive me across the border into West Virginia (BY GAWD!!!) to a gem of a place called Hillbilly Hot Dogs. This place has been highlighted on a couple of cable shows including Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, so I won't spend too much time on it. I will say, however, that I the Junk Yard Dog was pretty tasty.

The restaurant is made of two buses and a shack.
It's way friendlier than it looks.

People come from all over and lose their license plates.
Liz (Center), Mike (Right). That half-,man is Zach Shavers.

Insidious technology... it creeps in everywhere...
I wanted this hat. Really.

It's also a place to ponder the important and eternal questions.
Ok. This broke my heart a little. Ok. A lot.

This ain't your OSHA's restaurant!

In addition to the oddity and general ambiance of the place, we also met A.J, who informed us that two of the other buses... that were just sort of sitting around.... were going to be cleaned out and added to the restaurant and used for... he whispered... a bar. 

A.J. seemed like a nice enough kid, who was just looking for people to talk to. He also seemed like he might have been living in the bus we found him in... but since I'm essentially homeless, I have no room to talk.

One of the things I always liked about Mike and Elizabeth is the way they live; because it always seemed to me that they -- maybe more Mike than Liz -- sort of live in order to be able to tell the story later. And this, I have found, is a far more interesting way to live. Living to tell the story means sometimes taking risks. A good example of this is the story of the night before their wedding, when Mike checked himself into the Ramada Inn at Morehead, where he proceeded to order a hooker from a Lexington phone book. But the story isn't that the girl actually drove out to Morehead -- even though it's really difficult to get out call hookers to trust you. The story isn't even what happened once the hooker arrived -- because Mike, in spite of himself, is essentially an honorable guy and he most likely just talked to her all night. No -- the story is that he called Liz THAT night and told her about it. 

And Liz married him anyway.

Liz, for her part, is the kind of person who tries to stay open enough to still experience the world. She's naturally friendly, on the gregarious side, and easy to talk to. This is evidenced by the fact she and Mike have been targeted by a church of Pentecostal swingers. This particular sect calls themselves a "Jesus Only" Church... which means they reject the trinity. They have membership outreach programs, such as paying members $250 for person they manage to convert (After all, nothing saves souls like the profit motive!). The minister, in addition to being a gold chain wearing warrior for Jesus, is also... an insurance salesman. So, when Mike and Liz filled out the little Guest Cards and marked -- CLEARLY -- the DO NOT CALL option, guess what happened?

Yep. The preacher called. Not too save their souls. But to sell them insurance. 

What a guy.

But it's good to be open to experiences, even bizarre ones. 

And here I am, waiting for my train ticket to catch up with me; because, even though the train stops here, there's no ticket office. I'm scheduled to leave Wednesday the 8th, headed for Richmond, and eventually, Norfolk. After that, it's still difficult to tell. 

[If you like what you read here, you can help by:
  1. Passing the link around.
  2. Graciously donating to the cause using the button on the right hand side of the screen;
  3. Contact Catherine Sellers at Greyhound, 415-331-6049. Tell them you are asking about a sponsorship when the operator picks up. I write about them enough. They should be helping me help them. Right??

Thanks for reading.]

05 February, 2012

Baboon in the Bluegrass, Intermezzo 1: Cupid Is a Sadist

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
 Admit impediments." -Shakespeare

“Love is all right for those who can handle the psychic overload. It's like trying to carry a full garbage can on your back over a rushing river of piss.”  
― Charles Bukowski

Love stories are fraudulent, sentimental tripe -- which is why I don't, as a general rule, write them. Sure, I've written my share of love poetry; but poetry about love, like reality TV about self-important morons, isn't all that unusual.

STD Soup

The thing about love poetry -- in spite of how many people rehash "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" -- is that it lives in a moment and is gone again. That's the nature of poetry. That's the nature of love. That people find solace or reflection in a love poem after its moment has passed is only a confirmation of the continuity of human experience. That love has a beginning, a middle, and end is a reflection of the absurdity of the human condition; because even though it ends -- and it always does -- you either split up or one or both of you dies. Either way, the shelf life of love is terminal and short -- so it is with life.

That's the problem with telling love stories. No one wants them to end. And with Valentine's Day approaching... perhaps the most ridiculous, Capitalistic, and conspiratorial holidays on the U.S. calender... it's important to realize that all love stories end. They end because they have to.

But that also means they have to begin. And on rare occasions, even though they end, it may be worth the time and space to tell them. When they matter.

When I first met her, she was 18 years old, and a college Freshman. I was a few years older.  I was also trying to excise myself from a  relationship that had gone horribly, tragically wrong. There's nothing particularly interesting about that story, except that then, as always, I had gone into it with the best of intentions. But relationships have always proven problematic for me. For as long as I can remember, I have neither understood how they worked, nor have I have been very good at maintaining them. I also have a tendency towards thickheadedness when it comes to knowing whether a woman is interested in me or just being nice.

And when I met her, this college freshman, I thought she was interested in one of my friends. Past experience had taught me that this was most likely the case. Most women were interested in my friend. He was not only a talented and (some would say) troubled person, but he was -- according to certain women friends of mine -- handsome. Tall, with broad shoulders. Strong jaw. When he was in a good mood -- or in the early turn of a manic phase -- he knew how to be very charming.

Charm wasn't -- and probably isn't -- one of my strongest qualities. So when she came around, I assumed it was for him.  But even so, there was something about this girl -- this spark of an Eastern Kentucky girl that would smile, giggle nervously, ask me serious questions and seem interested in what I had to say -- that felt different. I was nervous around her because she was beautiful: shoulder length reddish-brown hair, blue eyes. But there was something about her that also made me feel ... well ... safe.

Safe. And very confused. I wasn't used to women who made me feel safe. I was used to the most recent dysfunction of my marriage to my daughter's mother. Prior to that, my experience had been severely limited by a painful shyness and social awkwardness that still, on occasion, plagues me -- along with the frustrating thickness in the head about whether women like me or whether they're just being nice. (I always assume the former.)

It wasn't until a mutual friend pointed out her interest in me that it occurred to me that maybe she was being nice to me other than because I was the roommate and she was trying to win me over in the process of chasing after my friend.

The relationship -- if you could call it that -- was a dismal failure, for all of the right reasons. She was young, and coming out of some pretty rough stuff. I was in the process of going through a gut kicking divorce. There wasn't enough of me to invest. And eventually, I ran her off because of my own unique ineptitude to say the right thing at the right time. (Another flaw that plagues me almost daily.)

But I never forgot about her. And, to be more precise, I thought about her. I thought about the way she made me feel -- that sense of safety that I thought I'd destroyed. I thought about the warmth of her body, the sound of her laugh. I thought about her belly button. (Don't judge me.) She became the standard -- real or imagined -- by which I judged other women, other relationships.

So it seemed more like destiny than chance when I ran into her again. And not only was I surprised to find that she still wanted to talk to me, but I was also surprised to find that I still felt that sensation -- that sense of safety, warmth, and acceptance. And I found -- I rediscovered -- a woman who has always seen me for who I am, who has never really wanted me to be something other than who I am.

And while the relationship is over -- because all love stories end -- I am grateful for the time. And while there is pain and anger in the parting, I know that when the sense of loss is past, I will be left with gratitude. And while that may not have been my intention... it certainly wasn't what I wanted... that is what I am left with.

And it will have to be enough.

[If you like what you read here, you can help by:

  1. Passing the link around.
  2. Graciously donating to the cause using the button on the right hand side of the screen;
  3. Contact Catherine Sellers at Greyhound, 415-331-6049. Tell them you are asking about a sponsorship when the operator picks up. I write about them enough. They should be helping me help them. Right??

Thanks for reading.]