from 2008, part four

18  4  8

Friday morning. Little Rock, Arkansas. We got here night before last around one a.m. Yesterday morning, technically, since it was after midnight.

The train had been a long, lovely ride through moonlight from east Texas, through the forests flickering by in pale shine, the occasional fields awash in dim glow, the sometimes swampy ponds and fens gleaming silver dull; a mysterious, moving vision of dark beauty, softly illumined by the waxing gibbeous lunar orb high above, moving from nine o’clock to midnight.

Daniel gazed out the window while Marjorie dozed. With the lights all out in their little compartment, and the hallway door screened by curtains, they could see the shining darkness passing by outside. D briefly went forward to the view lounge, but the lights were still on in that car, and reflections from the inside covered the windows. He returned to their darker roomette to sit and watch the moonlit forests rolling by.

At one moment, sparks of electric lights suddenly appeared in the trees. Waa-waaaah, howled the locomotive, high-balling at who knows what speed, then slowling slightly as the ghost-lights in the trees blossomed into more houses, with country roads and streets, waa-waaa, waaah, and an entire small town suddenly unfolded from the woods, stretching out its shining streetlamps and traffic, turning its houses and tiny main street shops this way and that, while the train just slightly slowed down to carefully plow its non-stopping iron path straight through waa-waa at the local highway intersection, waa-waa as the feed warehouse on the edge of town, waaaaa into the last bending curve turning away from that momentary vision of light and human lifetimes, away from brilliant electric fires into the soft, succulent darkness of forest and ghostly moonlight where trees and meadows rushed by, a passing silver into grey watercolor haunt of endless movement movement movement rolling away away away away away….

Before those dark hours of moonlight vision, we ate dinner at sunset, rolling through the fields and towns of east Texas, watching trees grow thicker around the scattered towns and open fields. Streaks and swaths of riverland and swamp interrupted the ranch and farmland. Thicker and denser the woods grew taller and darker until we came to the old oil boom regions, where rusting tanks and refineries came and went in and out of the forests.

As night fell we had a fascinating encounter in the view lounge car with Deacon Jones, on his way to Little Rock, to talent scout some baseball players. We would see him again at the station, after we all de-trained. He had checked his baggage, and was waiting.

That reminded me of an event several days ago, in the morning air of El Paso. Tell the story, Daniel

19  4  8          Okay, Mikey. We had rolled around the last corner of the Rio Grande river, in southern New Mexico, finishing our breakfasts in the dining car. The valley passed by outside the eastern windows while dry desert hills and mountains turned and hovered outside our western windows. In the last moments before crossing the river, we came within yards of the Mexican border, and gazed beyond the fence into a neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez.

Then, slowly, we crossed the river by the power plant and made out way through the northern edge of the city of El Paso, crawling toward the downtown railroad station.

20  4  8          And at last we stopped for a twenty minute pause. I climbed down the narrow staircase to the lower level of the superliner train, and stepped off onto solid ground.

Walked along the platform a few cars’ length. There I met a man complaining to the conductor that his bags weren’t unloaded yet. After a few moments comiseration, the conductor nodded towards an approaching, almost empty cart, driven by a middleaged man. “Here he comes with supplies for the train. As soon as he’s done delivering them to the cars, he’ll collect the baggage and return to the depot, sir.”

The unhappy passenger grunted and turned to me as the conductor moved off toward the head of the train.

“What do you think of that,” he frowned, watching the electric car now deliver a bundle of newspapers and bag of ice to the nearest sleeping car while exchanging hearty greetings and handshakes and smiling words with the car attendant, “look at that – he’ll go all the way down the train, greeting and glad-handing and shooting the breeze with every single person he meets, and only then load up the baggage and finally return to the station. Meanwhile I’m standing here waiting and waiting and waiting. Tell me, friend, don’t you think something ought to be done about that? How can Amtrak ever hope to attract passengers, and increase its ridership, if this is an example of the kind of customer service they provide? I ask you, what can be done?”

I nodded, understandingly. “Well,” I said, slowly, gathering my thoughts, and beginning to expand the one simple answer which I have thought about before, having noticed and pondered this very situation, and question, before, “well, there really is only one solution that I can see, only one way to improve customer service.”

“How is that?” he asked, one eyebrow cocked, curiously, the other continuing to fish-eye down the length of the train, toward the electric baggage cart, which by now had only reached the next car.

“Apply the profit motive,” I said.

He turned both eyes back toward me. A whisper of a smile began to flicker around one corner of his mouth. The other eye wrinkled, fixing itself in amusement on my face, deliberately struggling not to look away toward the baggage cart, still only at the second car.

“Yes sir,” I said, “now you may think I look like an old hippie, but I know what made our country great – the free market system. And I know the one way to improve service is to pay people for it. Some kind of bonus, or reward, system for how fast they get the baggage off the train and into the hands of the passengers.”

He fully smiled, nodded, then immediately frowned as he turned to watch the baggage cart slowly trundle off towards that third superliner car. More greetings, handshakes, handoffs of ice and newspapers.

“You may have something there,” he growled, “but I doubt it will ever happen, things being standing as they are now.”

“No. Congress will never authorize any increased expenditure for improved service. And our lame duck president, if I may call him that, would rather slaughter men, women and children in Babylon than help our folks back here at home.” [get their baggage delivered ten minutes faster]

His eyes and body snapped back at me. He snorted, rather good-humoredly, I thought. “Now, young man, you’re talking like the old hippy you said you only looked like.”

……………….

So I was reminded of that baggage by our saying goodbye to Deacon Jones on Wednesday night. He was waiting for his baggage to be unloaded from the baggage car. I shook his hand goodbye. Talking with him a few hours before had been one of my most emotional moments of the trip thusfar there, and still, four days later as I write backwards from Sunday.

We took a taxi to our hotel across the river on the waterfront edge of North Little Rock, set behind the levee wall, and slept.

Awoke Thursday morning somewhat refreshed, ate breakfast in the hotel café, caught the tourist streetcar across the river. Oh my, its very high, I said. No, this is down, it was higher a couple weeks ago, the motorman said. Turns out he’s a refugee from 1980s El Salvador. He was in the army there. Would’ve been kille but he got drunk one night and was ordered into lockup the next day. Crudo, siempre crudo. His squad went out to guard a bridge. Got hit by revel rocket grenades. Several killed – including him – or who he would have been if he’d not been locked up for being hungover. The Lord saved me for something better, he says. On the left you see the new waterfront park where the little rock itself sits buried under the railroad bridge foundation pier.

You can still see the bottom half of the little rock under the concrete tower set on top of it. Le petit roche, here, half way up the river, the delta forest swamps and great prairie regions of east Arkansas give way to the first hills that lead west into the ancient Ozark mountains. The “little rock” beside the river is the first outcrop of stone visible on the surface as you head up-river from the father of waters, Mississippi river.

The ancient French voyageurs and fur traders came up the Arkansas by canoe from the late 1600s on. In 1686 the French founded the Arkansas Post, a fort meant to safeguard their control of the great river. This was before New Orleans, even. The first post was destroyed by floods and re-established on the site that later became Arkansan territorial capital and is the chief goal and destination of Marjorie and Daniel’s trip here: the subject of MOPTK’s 194 masters thesis in history at the University of California (Berkeley). The Arkansas Post 1683-1783.

Before we get there, however, we plan to spend a day in Little Rock. We call cousin Pollyanna Carlysle Krafter and arrange to meet her downtown at the museum of little old houses. She and Mom converse around the gift shop before the three of us are taken on a small guided tour of the old houses. First they show us a movie filmed on site with living history actors pretending to be old Arkansas travelers, businessmen and slaves.

I make light of this institution by calling it merely the museum of old houses, but it is so much more, if you will permit me to cliché. The Historic Arkansas Museum at 200 East Third Street, downtown Little Rock, is both a showplace gallery and secure repository for objects pertaining to the history of the Razorback State. // While his mom and cousin are making delicious love to the gift shop, Daniel spends a pleasant hour perusing the collections of furniture, weapons, toys and Indian artefacts on display in the permanent gallery. He is particularly struck by a large portrait of a mother, young daughters and son and dog. He gazes into the frozen faces, some looking out at him with enigmatic smiles and frowns, others looking at each other. Only the dog wears a look of true adoring love. The others – except the the youngest girl – all seem to reflect a knowledge of the burdens and sadness of life – a knowledge which the youngest, smiling radiantly, has perhaps not yet had thrust upon her by sickness, slavery, and death. The family in the painting is, of course, white. The rich ones all were, back then.

Several days later we will sit in our rental car driven back to Little Rock, waiting the last hour before we must turn it in and go catch our three a.m. train. It will be nearing sunset as I try to write another piece of our journey, transforming experience and recent memory into words. But there is no equalling the sheer power of a flowing river. Even here as I scribble in the heart of an American city, the noise of traffic all around me, even here there is no force, no power, to equal the simple, gigantic movement of water rushing by, the moving, roiling mass sliding sideways, onward, onward, downriver, sliding sideways simply because the gravity of our world pulls it down[hill], and this mighty, universal force, acting upon its huge, fluid mass, leaves it no choice but go downstream.

And yet how many variations in that flow! How many channels carved and then abandoned across the centuries, and millennia, how many forgotten horseshoe shaped lakes and swamps littering the delta flatlands east and south of here!

Each time I raise my eyes from this scribbled draft, [this paper] which I regret you cannot see, there, in your computer screen, dear diary, but each time I raise my eyes I see it. Let me show you in these words. The river, moving, moving, moving. Down between the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock, passt the rip-rap lined shores with their parkforest walkways and raised river walls, under the highway bridges, under the Main Street Bridge where East becomes West, under the railroad bridges, half abandoned, past the old State House, past the tourist hotels, past the riverfront marketplace, past the Clinton Library with its expansive grounds and huge glass building floating on stilts that everyone calls a “trailer, but, mind you, it’s an Airstream trailer…”

Ignorant to it all, the liquid megatons of water roll by, push by, wash by. None of our little sounds, none of our Slick Willie Huckabee debates, none of our sirens racing across the bridges, none of our poetry, none of our music, none of our race relations, none of us matter until you actually touch the water and then… then it will only move around you.

A fish splashes somewhere. The redwing blackbirds flutter on the fence in the river shore park downtown. A poet from California scribbles in the corner. [Pay not attention to that little man behind the curtain.] The sun appears to set. It is almost time for dinner.

A huge riverboat power tug struggles upstream against the current, pushing a barge in front of it[s nose]. One of the first, people say, since the floodwaters were so high last week and week before last. It feels the river, long and strong and fierce all around it. And the river, yes, it feels the boat and barge, a moment of disturbance in the force, a flood diversion, a slight change of course for millions of gallons of water streaming breakneck past the tiny piece of civilization, culture, trade, commerce.

from 2008, part 3

 

16  4  8

 

Sit in the car, in our little room, in our roomette, waiting. Ladies and gentlemen we’re having some mechanical problems with the toilets in the coach car and will be ten or fifteen minutes late leaving San Antonio.

Our car attendant comes by and offers us a couple of box breakfasts, continental breakfasts, he calls them. Cereal, yoghurt, muffin, fruit cup, milk in a little baby container that reminds me of elementary school and those little milks we bought for a nickle I bet they’re a dollar now.

The Dairy Best, Vitamin A & D – 2% milkfat Reduced Fat Milk, Schepps Dairy, Dallas, Texas. These last drops once flowed from some anonymous cow udder don’t be gross but it’s true everyone in school had to be so well behaved drink your milk now don’t make a mess yes ma’am yes sir and I was lucky had it easy middle class school plenty of books in the library a desk and chair for each one of us pencils papers text books playground free from drugaddict needles or broken glass and lots of movies and slidestrips but still the same basic imperitive make us all into useful citizens of the empire – IT’S NOT AN EMPIRE IT’S A REPUBLIC – sing God Bless America and Halls of Montezuma every morning I pledge allegiance under God etcetera.

All that so we can have steady flow of milk in little cardboard cartons yes.

Gonna change coach cars they haven’t been able to fix the “mechanical problem.” I wonder what it was, Marjorie says. “The previous announcement it was the toilet,” Daniel says.

We roll forward and then back through the grungy streets beyond the railroad tracks. People are lined up outside some institutional building or another. Back walls, fences, parking lots. All the flotsom of an old Texas city. Metal roofs, brick walls, trackside warehouses. Ancient, faded advertising on the upper walls.

Daniel sits half dozing eyes closed. Stomach feels like we’re moving. Open his eyes – no. Still standing still. Still, at least we’re on the train. They might have thrown us off forever.

No wait – we are moving.

MERCHANTS ICE & COLD STORAGE CO.

Daniel thinks about yesterday and the night before. Unitl this morning he hadn’t written anything since day before yesterday.

We arrived Monday night, more or less on time. Took taxi to Hotel, checked in, but found our room and had one bed, not two. However, it had a large sitting room and a bedroom, and in the sitting room is a big couch. Just like at home. Daniel must sleep on the couch, a coincidence he finds oddly reassuring and comforting.

TEMPLE         after lunch, running an hour and a half late. Tracks everywhere bending in from three directions. Tis a lovely farm country industrial zone small town full of tracks and locomotives.

When we finally woke up yesterday Marjorie said she didn’t have much energy and din’t feel like doing much of anything except going down for breakfast and then resting. “I don’t see how we’ll get to Kelly Field, and besides, its all so different now I wouldn’t learn anything by going there. Daniel was concerned but waited until the coffee kicked in and they had gone back to the room. Then at last M said well maybe we can go see the Alamo at least – it is far? No. Only three blocks.

And so it was they walked to slowly to the mission, scene of massacre and remember me, Texas. And, inside the shrine, Daniel asks the question that has been perplexing both him and his mother: Which Saint Anthony is San Antonio named after?

Well, said the sacred docent of remember the, it was named after several Saints Anthony – of Padua, of Valero, and of Bexar. The marquis of such and so, and his brother the duke of this or that, and the founding settlers from the far flung isles of Canary (who called the pueblo Bexar for many years) and then, he took a deep breath, this docent I mean, and continued, waxing ever more prodigious after spotting the gleam or ironic interest in Danial’s eye, and this who had just won the battle of whatziallabout at the city of Buda – you know, across the river Ister Danube from the city of Pest, yes?

I am a pest, thought D, and this is going to look really ridiculous by the time I finally write it down.

Later, in his want to merge with historic locales, he reached out to caress the ancient colonial stone walls of New Spain and American slaughter. Wait, wait, Marjorie clutched at his elbow, pointing to a sign that plainly saids DO NOT TOUCH THE WALLS (in English only). Oh dear, D sighed. The sign is still there, present tense. I’m ready to go, M said, past tense, after they had seen Davy Crocket’s rifle, Jim Bowie’s silver spoon, and a small, handwritten note written by and bearing the signature of, David Crocket.

Previously, they had visited the gift shop where Daniel successfully fought off the temptation to by a wagonload of cowboy and indian wild west figures and toys all made in China, complete with tipis and wagons and horses and feathered warriors bearing bows and arrows and rifle toting cowboys and lariat-tossing cattle drivers and even campfires in red and brown plastic. Marjorie arranged to have her purchases shipped home, and then, very leisurely, walked the three blocks back to the hotel.

While I was writing the last few paragraphs we came and went to from McGregor. The green and green and green of this land continues to amaze me. As we move north the grass grows thicker, the trees bigger. The broken little hills of the Balcones fault escarpment now raise their humping shapes not a mile west of our path. Waa-waa, wah, the engine horn wails.

The sun breaks through the clouds and shines. Its been gray all day and a moment of sunshine is welcome.

Little ranches are everywhere. Cattle wander large, fenced pastures. The little towns exhibit a mixture of scattered prosperity and crumbling age. The streams and small rivers flow under our bridges, their banks lined with trees and brush, their water sparkling with springtime promise.

Here and there in the towns you can spot what look like homeless hobo camps in the brushy ground near the railroad tracks. Or is it only piles of junk dumped there by neighbors?

Stare out the window. The young man man with blue veins on the backs of his hands is bent over his Bible. Capital B. Birds fly by outside over the rushing p_____ fields, bushy trees, stock ponds, scattered streambeds. Cattle huddle together near a distant fence. An old county road runs near the tracks.

The Brazos river. Look likes it’s flooding. Its wide bed cuts right down through the low hills. A flock of white birds circles and settles onto a swampy backwater. Then we plunge into more trees and rolling ranchland.

Yesterday, after we returned from our morning walk to the Alamo, M said she wished to rest for an hour before lunch. D went out for a stroll along the river walk, checking it out in case M felt better later and wished to see this famous San Antonio sight.

For lunch they walked a block to the old Buckhorn bar and museum. D had a burger with a Lone Star, and then an Alamo (beer). M tackled a Texas sized giant baked potato, with two glasses of Chardonnay.

Cleburne.

By now it was almost three o’clock and when M mentioned that now she was up to takling the trek to Kelly Field, D would only sigh and mumble that now it was a little to late, but how about a little river cruise along the downtown river loop?

And so they found themselves on a flatbottom tourist boat trolling around the arms of the famous river walk river while their sparkling guide and boat pilot regaled them all with tales of local lore and history.

There is the German catholic church. There is the German social club where only German was allowed to be spoken. Here is the Casa del Rio, the first Mexican restaurant opened directly onto the rebuilt river walk sixty years ago, and found by German Americans. All the cooks and waiters and waitresses, however, are Mexican. Here is la Villita, site of the first village of San Antonio Bexar, center of the first riverwalk construction in the 1930s, and right here is the Arneson amphitheter, an open air arena with the audience on one side of the river and the stage on the other.

Fort Worth. City highways and an intermodal transit station. Busses, commuter rail, Amtrak. Two hours late. Crawling along the ancient pathway between the twin cities, paralleling Jefferson – look !  A piece of the old highway cut off and abandoned near a swampy stretch of ground.

Dallas towers.

Rolling west into late afternoon. Sunset dinner 6:30 before and after Minneola.

Goodbye prairie. Hello swamp forests of east Texas.

 

 

 

from 2008, part 2

14   4    8

 

Then, around midnight, we finally arrive in Tucson. Wind through downtown streets. Bus directed to park on the dirt hard by the tracks in front of the station. Unload. Stand around. Use the station bathroom. Get a free plastic cup of coffee and plastic-wrapped danish.

The train arrives. The beautiful lumbering train of shining steel cars. Climb onboard. Our car attendant is named Mike. I hope you don’t mind, he says, but I already but the bed down.

Later, Mom settled in and relieved we finally found the train, our train, any train – I think I’m feeling better, I’m starting to itch again; later, two cars forward in the view lounge with pen and paper and leftover gangreenthly hamburger from six hours gone by still in its own wrapper paper printed with CHEESE; later, gazing out the tall windows, over the station rooves and trees, touch the dark towers of downtown Tucson; later, Daniel I wonder if it’s really true – did we come all this way in bus after bus? Are we finally on the train or am I still asleep and dreaming somewhere on the roads of Arizona? And… when will that last, other bus get here so we can finish loading up, and go?

Three idle workers sit around an electric cart in the round service door, looking toward the monkey writing upstairs on the train behind glass. He cannot hear them. Only the hiss of air conditioning. Now he must go to the bathroom.

Not too long ago he was standing right out there, behind the iron fence, with the small crowd of passengers, waiting for the empty tracks to be filled. Now is is onboard that fullness, listening to the air-con, watching the little electric cart come to life and roll alongside, trundling away on some errand or another. Perhaps the last, errant bus has arrived?

No sign of it.

Oh – something else. The monkey has discovered that the friendly (don’t bite!) courtney keanu wannalike looka-be couple from LA are LA = Louisiana, not Los Angeles.

They have a bedroom in the same car as.

.

Two a.m. and I think we’re leaving. Yes.

But… not the direction I expected. I suddenly realize I had east and west mixed up backwards !

The wailing of the horn echoing over the southern suburbs of Tucson…

It turns out they’re from Alabama, not Louisiana.

I never seen old boxcars look so short before, gazing down from the second level of a superliner lounge.

The city fades away. Darkness with scattered, distant lights, covers the earth. These windows are full of reflection. Waaaa… waaa-waaaa….

There. I can see the moon, setting in the distance, behind us and off to one side. So we are headed south east. All is well. This working brain re-established its geographic, egocentric, equilibrium.

The doors to the next car have closed. I am alone in the lounge with the Alabaman. He is smiling at his computer. I am scribbling on my paper. Ah, the moon. Sinking lower, lower, lower. Disappearing. Then bending toward the other side as the train turns a huge loop toward north. Reappearing momently from trees and hills and falling behind us as we bend turn back toward the east. Disappearing and reappearing above and then behind the limb of this moving earth, the moon, the waxing gibbeous moon setting at 2:30 and 3:00, playing games with our train and my pen and this page, yes yes yes there she is no no no she is gone again until at last he copper red blob does not return we have moved on into the east and she is fully set in the west.

I feel a change, a shift, wait! There she is again – darker, duskier red, nearly as low as the window line itself, hugging the earth longer, winking briefly in and out of existence, until…

I feel a change, a shift, a transformation. She is gone but I cannot see the stars – the lights in the lounge – even reduced for night – are too strong. Only reflections of these tables and chairs echo back at me, like when I try to see you, ____ _______ reader, and get only stats and numbers and 30 seconds, five minutes, an hour reading time, until one or three of you actually write.

Danny wants to move from Belgium. I warned him they are murdering and kidnapping on the streets of Tijuana. I warned him because he does not speak Spanish. If he did I would feel better. If he would go live where he already has friends I would feel better for him.

Waaa… waaa-waaa….

…………………………………………………………….

 

The taxi from Greyhound to Union Station gives us a smooth, straight shot up one of those streets, Alameda or something, past the crumbling industrial blocks and trademark office monuments of downtown. Four minutes, ten dollars. A rip off but what can you say he was polite about it. An El Salvadoran. We spoke a lot of Spanish. Thirty years and his English is still… fragmentary, at best.

BENSON, ARIZONA. One minute, no more. Then the superliner must stop twice, to let first one, then another set of cars, touch the station.

Breakfast in the diner as we approach EL PASO. Our two fellow breakfasters are from New Zealand, getting off here, to go into Mexico. Take the CH & P trén from Chihuahua, continue on to Guadalajara where they’ll spend a month with their daughter who lives there now.

How long you been with AMTRAK?

Since 1988.

Ah, then you remember when these superliner cars were new.

Yes, and they were a pile of metal trash even then.

Forty-five minutes at the station. Old passengers go, new passengers come. At last we go. Mom and Daniel sit in the view lounge car, watching south El Paso go by. City gives way to towns give way to orchards and fields. Long lines of trees wach straight moiré patterns into this valley distance. Goodbye valley of the great river of the north. Turn away, roads and train, into the sandy stretches of west Texas.

Cattle gather around a waterhole. No word today. No crowd word today.

Into the hills and barren, stony peaks. After awhile we join a highway. Pass a freight train (there were others, there will be others, stay on schedule, stay on schedule) and another tiny west Texas hamlet. Sierra Blanca Avenue says the sign on highway.

VAN HORN 32 says another, pointing ahead with name and number. Dirt road tracks away into sagebrush. Vast open valley. Nearby barbwire. Telephone pholes measure the distance.

Some kind of yucca appears everywhere.

“Ruins of an old adobe school” look like someone’s melted shack. Hot Wells (no stop, nothing).

Through a narrowing strip between hills around a small corner and then another huge, wide valley basin.

Add VALENTINE ghost town to list of sights.

Pass by Marfa with its courthouse. Outside of town, east, a few minutes gives the Marfa Mystery Lights Official Viewing area, with its lovely astral phenomenal spectator stand and picnic area.

The beautiful, hilly passage along twisting little canyons between Marfa and Alpine.

Another valley, ALPINE  2:20 pm depart after fifteen some minutes wait (we were ahead of schedule).

Hills and mountains, more basin valleys. Cows and bushes.

More peaks. Narrow valleys. Dry, rocky streambeds.

The Brit from the bus comes and sits in the moving window with me. We talk about Indians hunting and gathering, raiding south into New Spain for horses, and he spoke of how the Queen sent him to Belize when it was Brit Honduras and the swampy inland and beautiful palm shady cais off shore and the Maya ruins.

SANDERSON, a seemingly worn out west Texas town, sailing under a sunny sky. The broken down train depot has metal roof sheets ripped off by fierce winds, but not today – all is calm.

The highway comes and goes, paralleling us, old and new. The canyons smooth out into a vast flatland. Somewhere out there in the distance is the Rio Grande. Broken old houses cling to wide spots along the road. Melted adobe. Broken wood. Stripped metal sheets.

EAST 90 .

We slip into a gully again, twisting, turning, growing mile after mile until it turns away south toward the greater river. An older RR bed follows the south canyon, cut lower into its sides than our present route. From time to time you can even make out old stone abutments where the older road crossed little side gulleys as it followed the larger. We, meanwhile, cross the dry stream on a large trestle, but then… as I said… it leaves us for the Rio Grande still hidden in the south.

 

 

from 2008

13   4   8

 

We should’ve been on a train. But no.

Rail service is cancelled today. “They” are working on the tracks north of Oceanside. The one patch I was most looking forward to, Camp Pendleton. As I write this we’re on a bus rolling right through there. Here.

And there are the tracks, empty, alone. Damn you, Amtrak! I can see Catalina. Someone’s riding a bike (here). Campground beach parking lot on the old highway slaughter alley.

The hills are green and golden, covered with wildflowers and fress grass. At 11:46 am, the megalopolis of Calangeles swallows up up.

The face of a man staring out the window. Look! It’s me! Look! It’s him! Look! It’s you!

Long Beach. 12:23

Compton.     12;52

Los Angeles. 13:30

 

Union Station          13:46

 

Oh guess what? A freight derailment. Yes. Another bus, this time to Tucson.

Pomona. But then we don’t stop in Ontario.

Old Baldy – Mt San Antonio – crawls by, its barren rocky top fleshed with a faint dust of white snow. I admire the shifting shape of mountains, but only wish we were riding in the train and I were watching from the view lounge car, not a bus. At least the bus is classy and has a decent suspension.

I fall asleep briefly and then wake myself with a snoring snort. We are still crossing the vast inner valleys behind Los Angeles. Drawing near to Riverside and San B’do. The great dry rivers have specks of water here, there. Freeways stack below the mountain peaks. I worry about my mother. She worries about me. I got so upset when the train couldn’t take us from San Diego. By now it has just become one, big joke. When they told us no train in LA, I burst out laughing.

Union Station was beautiful, and I was so happy to finally arrive there, and… then….

“You’re joking,” Mom said when I told her.

One of the sights I most miss seeing is that canyon valley away from the freeway where the train tracks run alone through open land. We aren’t seeing that from the bus.

No.

But the earth is lovely nonetheless, decked in green fading toward yellow.

Back in the city, approaching the Los Angeles Greyhound station, I wrote on a scrap of paper:

The bloom of wet spring is starting to fade under the hot sun. The green trees turn dark, the fresh grass yellows and dries, the wildflowers wither and die. Still plenty of electricity marching around in wires and towers. This city drinks water from beyond the mountains.

There be many windmills generating power in the great pass just northwest of Palm Springs.

And then we are in the desert. I had looked forward to eating dinner in the desert, and now… nothing. But this view of development after development scattering its blocky stamp across the rolling, sandy floor of Coachella valley. Golf courses wreathed in trees, then barren scrub fields of no irrigation. Backed up trains waiting on the tracks, thorny tamarisk trees whispering the truth that no air conditioning can deny, only hide.

We will not be going by the Salton Sea. Another disappointment. Only catch a glimpse of it in the distance before we turn with Interstate 10 into some low and dusty hills.

the splendor of the burnt and burnished rocks

heaped up into jagged hills

turns and slides

past

by

 

away

 

outside our bus windows

hurtling east toward Blythe

 

I almost forget I would’ve rather been on a train

but

it is

a good thing

that

I like busses

 

 

yes .

 

Takes the bruise off this rather rotten luck fruit

 

_          _          _          _          _

 

There be some pipes over there

lancing halfway up the mountain

someone’s aqueduct feeding the monsters on the coast

 

pity this busy monster

manunkind

 

 

 

Mom – look – there’s a piece of the old highway over there…. see the old bridge?

Oh, yeah!

Wow… that brings back memories….

 

_ _ _ _ _

 

I can’t stop reflecting, with prejudice and bias and discrimination, that this is a classier bunch of people than you might find, for example, on a Greyhound bus.

Because the people on this bus did not choose to be here – we chose to be on a train.

The dark young mother with her three children so happy to play with playdough. The shortpant homeboy with a diamond stickpin in one ear and a cellphone on the other. The courthey-keanu wannabe lookalike couple from LA who sleep and read in separate seats. The tattoed fat man who is so obese that a bubble roll of fat buckles up from his neck and doubles under onto his shaved scalp. A smattering of retired couples who wanted to take the train for adventure and look. Here we are, sidetracked onto a bus across the desert.

I hope we stop for dinner soon. Maybe in Blythe.

 

 

 

STATE PRISON NEXT EXIT

do not pick up hitchhikers

 

instead of a table rolling beside

a desert view of the Salton Sea

 

we wolf down a burder and shake

in the Blythe local gag in the bag

 

surrounded by burnt desert cholos

and a sprinkling of semi-gabachos

 

from our bus

 

out of time

 

.

. .  .   .     .       .           .             .                 .                   .                       .

.

winter January 1981

Daniel always liked to get away by himself. Many evenings he would walk halfway home from work, missing dinner with his wife and sister-in-law and kids, only eating re-heated dried-out chicken two or three hours later, just so he would have some time alone without anyone except the crowds on the street telling him what to do or where to go. Especially in that winter when virtually no one was walking through the waterfront parks alongside Lake Michigan.

It did not snow very much that year, so he had a lot of walking time, after leaving the office tower downtown. He went straight east to the edge of the towers, and met his first landmark: the dead fountain. Along paved sidewalks he passed between the sleeping trees, their barren branches reminding him of his hunger for solitude. No leaves obscured his view of the Chicago skyscrapers on his left, as he slowly made his way north through Jackson park toward the river.

He would have to go back to the streets, then, and take the Michigan Avenue bridge, and follow the big street north through the Gold Coast, until he finally reached the lake shore again, and could cross into the narrow strip of parkland beside the cold, almost frozen water of the great lake. By the big sea shining water or something. Except no salt in this one.

Seventeen degrees by the electric sign on top of the playboy tower and he was alone, bundled in five or six layers, the heavy down coat on top, three pairs of socks and hiking boots, long underwear and wool pants, with the hood over his head and scarf wrapped around his face, leaving only a narrow slit where his eyes peered out into the crystaline, frozen world.

For obvious reasons, he preferred a day when the wind was not strong. The vapor plumes rose up from the crowded buildings, and faintly, slowly, leaned toward the west. A Canadian high was rotating in the north, bending back above his head, marking out winter as its prey and feast, measuring the continent under a slowly twisting hand of climate.

The lake did not freeze, except along the shore, where mounds of frozen slush piled up, built by the constant splash and spray off the cold, disturbed waters. He did not walk out there. Stayed on the hard, concrete sidewalk just inside from the beach. But as he walked, he followed the twisted collar of ice, and constantly heard its siren call urging him to come closer, slip and fall into the grip of death.

Weird enchantment lay face to face against the great city.