She looked twenty two, or possibly forty three. Some women are inscrutable, in this manner. Her short black hair curled in a laurel around her head, a pearl necklace, and a comfortable, wool-looking black suit, modestly revealing the top of her chest.
She was chatty, as I took her order, hanging out with four going-on-middle-aged female companions, the young bachelorette of the group. When prompted about salad dressing, and presented with the standard answer – ranch, bleu cheese red wine basil vinagrette honey mustard thousand island soy ginger mild curry … and french, she asked about the french, and I allowed that it was the only dressing on offer not made in-house. She touched my shoulder, and told me that she wanted tangy. French, indeed.
At meal’s end, as the five women began the protracted negotiations over how to settle the bill, a heady peace conference that involved, tangentially, the use of a caculator, my tangy librarian friend offered me an envoy in the form of her credit card. This I dutifully swiped, and returned, in accord with my own diplomatic protocols, with a pen, and a “Thank you, Mrs. King.”
There was giggling, as she explained that she was the only single woman at the table. As I answered something like “Well, that’s too bad for the guys,” I was already kicking myself because the most appropriate answer was “Then you must give me your phone number.” Curse my propriety! And on my second-to-last, nothing-left-to-lose day on the job!
Having missed a great opportunity, this attractive lady became my quarry. I conducted my waiterly duties with a sense of her location in the restaurant, a buzzard casually awaiting the potential carcass. This was easy enough to do, as the lionesses of the table picked over the dismembered bill, wrestling over its appropriate apportionment. It was a reunion, of sorts, and there was no hurry to excuse themselves.
Bill paid, table cleared, there was no further reason for me to visit their table, nor any reason to visit them as they lingered on the porch. As they broke up, I saw her heading towards the back. After a moment, I realized that it was time to empty the recycling. This made a loud crashing noise out back, as my new friend turned to wave. Back inside, I figured it was high-time to fill the ice bin, which requires a few trips to the back of the kitchen, a few chances to linger casually at the kitchen door.
Just as I was finishing with the ice bin, a woman appeared in the kitchen, and gave me her friend’s phone number. I accounted for my timidity by explaining that I was actually heading out of town for a very long time, come Sunday, but definately, thank you very much for the number. You can give her mine …
A great friend will wander past the scary dumpster and in to a hot, noisy kitchen to pimp you out to the cute waiter.
After waiting at Kaiser for my shot, between lunch shift and dinner, and receiving only Hepatitis B, because they were out of Hepatitis A, though I could come back next Wednesday, except that I would be on the train for Chicago, come Sunday, I dropped by home and explained to Janet that normally I’d wait a couple days to call a new number, in accord with the wisdom espoused in the movie “Swingers” but that, in a couple of days, it wouldn’t do any good, you see. Ahh, but have you any plans for this evening?
After an evening working the “middle off” shift, which closed with my new friend munching on our delicious stuffed mushrooms, and our delicious meatball sandwich, it was too late to flirt with ballroom dancing, as she had suggested. We settled instead for the late-night cinema of super-spy Vin Diesel dancing around Prague, holding hands, as we awaited the movie’s credits, which awarded us with a cool techno soundtrack and wacky computer-generated visuals for us to make out to.
I negotiated our way back to her place, a tangential piece of this negotiation involved the flipping of a coin, which suggested that among embarrassing venues, hers was the randomly fair alternative to mine.
I didn’t get much sleep that night. Janet appreciated my lack of urgency as I repeatedly fumbled over her body with hands and mouth. In the wee hours of the morning, after some hours of comingled snoozing, we awoke, and talked, and made appropriate use of a contraceptive device. After a shared shower, we ate breakfast together at a nice place on California Ave. I had a lot to do before getting to work at four PM. The first order of business was three or four power naps upon my own futon.
I didn’t want to spend the time and navigation to drive to REI or Mel Cotton’s, and Yahoo! told me that there were two luggage stores on El Camino. The first had a few specimens of what I wanted. The Asian immigrant who ran the place took me to the back and pointed out a few of the “convertible” packs, which means carry-on style bags with concealable straps, so they can transform in to functional backpacks. The idea is that a subdued carry-on style bag and decent clothing work well on planes and trains and particularly at customs, who find the backpacking hippie types way more interesting, but I can still schlep the thing on my back across town all day on public transportation without killing myself.
He had a few promising candidates, but none of them really sang to me. I ducked out and tried the next store, just up the street. They had one single bag of my description hanging up on the rear wall. The salesman was less interested in showing it to me than I was in hanging out in his store. As I walked out, a guy in a red backpack that basically looked like what I was trying to find crossed in front of me. Huh? Where’d he come from? Strolling casually about, I thought he might be trying the bag out from some secret stash. I followed him a few dozen feet, it was clear that he was on his own, but he had what I wanted! “Excuse me, sir …”
He was carrying his laundry. He bought the bag a decade back in Japan, where he’d been teaching English, and yes indeed his bag was a thoroughly wonderful thing. It had two sepereate storage areas, a day pack that came off of it, shoulder, waist, and sternum straps, and a pair of metal braces that gave the back shape, but that could be removed when it had to fit in to a train locker.
“I don’t know where you could get one around here …” He tried to figure out its moniker, but the only sign of product identity was the crosses on the zipper grips and the bag’s red color. “Victorinox,” I opined, “the Swiss Army Knife people.”
I though I’d give the quiet Asian merchant’s store a second look. This time, I wandered to his back room and looked for red. I found a squarish duffel bag with concealed shoulder straps that connected to rugged, concealable, metal hooks. I tried to determine if the shoulder strap could serve as the waist strap that the bag ought to have had. Nope.
You see, I had figured bag selection as something that I could do at my liesure in Chicago. But at the last minute I decided that in order to get my room cleaned out thoroughly I’d need three piles – things that were going with, storage, and Goodwill. Well, the best way to guage that first category is to actually pack, so I grabbed the bag.
An array of colorful shirts, purchased from a closeout bin at drugstore.
Mary came by to help. This was invaluable. She fawned over the bag, which was big and functional and modest and Swiss – “You will not look so American,” she exclaimed. “With your height and blond hair, you may even pass for Swedish, or Swiss.” While I realize the advantages of not being associated with my nation’s International Buffoonery, masquerading as a not-American never struck me as important, because I remain one patriotic SOB. I took her observations as flattery, though: the harder I was for an observer to pin down, the more of a sexy International Man of Mystery I could be!
In a few hours, we transformed my room in to the three piles I have described. Mary took the monitor and several peripherals that went with the desktop I’d given her to test out earlier in the week – hers had fried and she desperately wanted a system to write with. The car was loaded with storage boxes, and the futon that Dave and Rebecca had expressed interest in. Fully laden, with the AC turned on high for a hot California afternoon, I could feel the trickier handling as I pointed the wagon’s prow toward San Jose.
Dave helped me back up his driveway and unload. Dave was half a week into being layed off. Rebecca and Mary chatted, and since it came up that their car was still broke, Dave had been working on it as I drove up, I offered them the car, over which Rebecca seemed particularly ethusiastic.
Rebecca, Mary, and I stopped for gas. Rebecca paid for the gas, so I grabbed us each something to drink. Back on the highway, I noticed there was now something wrong with the car – when you push the petal down very far, it merely revved – no extra power. Rebecca explained that it was probably her fault, as her car broke just the other day and look, her cell phone just died too. I wasn’t about to freak over it because the car still mostly worked, even at highway speed.
We packed the last of my stuff at the house, and loaded the car with the Goodwill pile. I bade Brian a long good-bye, and the girls and I journeyed up to Palo Alto, where the Goodwill sits across from work. I bade goodbye to the girls at the Goodwill, leaving them to unpack the car because I was now an hour ten late for my shift. Their plan was to take those few minutes unpacking, in the unlikely event that I should be fired for my last day’s tardiness – this was not to happen, though, as I set my shiny new bag in the break room and Rebecca drove back to Mountain View where Mary had left her car at my now-former place of residence.
Just a few days before, I had dragged Mary along to a BBQ that Dave and Rebecca held for me as a little “Bon Voyage.” I was a little apprehensive that Dave and Rebecca’s less-than-super-clean house might offend Mary, but that is not how Mary is. Instead, she and Rebecca totally bonded, as each found a new good friend. So when I left them at Goodwill with my car, possibly ready to go kaput, I knew that since Mary and Rebecca were together, that Rebecca would do okay with the car. You’re in Good Hands.
It was a slow, relaxing, folksy evening at work. I chatted it up with a few parties, not necessarily mentioning my trip. Jessica and Lisa appeared, and shared an ice cream treat that I brazenly served without recording the sale, thus stealing $3.50 in goods and services from my boss. They were rightly jealous, and lingered over my pretty red bag. I showed them the goodies of plane tickets and Passport. Yum!
That night I was scheduled to work ’til close. I finished my last table at fifteen ’til, and gave Janet a call that I’d be done pretty quick. She was, for her part, a shower away.
As Lola departed, a colleague interpreted for me that she wished me well on my trip. We hugged, which is something that Lola and I don’t do, because most of the time she thinks I’m pretty unsettlingly loco, and I think she’s too low-key. All the same, I felt a sympathetic vibe from my migrant compañeros at the idea of wandering in foreign lands.
I’m the lucky one.
I made the modest gesture of tipping out double to my colleagues on my last night. This meant, for example, an extra $10 for Lola. The less you have, the more you value.
I made my second theft ever from the restaurant of a side salad with french, which Janet had requested on the phone. I also defaced the white board announcement in the break room proclaiming that server uniforms consisted of “black pants, black shoes, black socks,” to read, “lack pants, black hoes, black cocks.”
Janet showed up, and I presented her with her salad and expressed, once again, my gratitude for her strangerly generosity. That night, the only bed I had available was that of a woman I had met the day before. A woman in a long black skirt, slit high in the back. We had previously agreed that she had a great pair of legs. As I followed her up the stairs to her apartment, it was as if all that I could count on was the bag at my back and the woman whose fantastic calves led me up those stairs in the cool, dark night.
The train starts out at Emeryville: a modest bus terminal just north of Oakland. The Capital Corridor trains stop here as well as the connecting buses from San Francisco and other towns not served directly by Amtrak’s trains. An hour or two later, and the California Zephyr is in Sacramento. From here, we press East along the original route of the Central Pacific into the Sierra Nevada.
The Central Pacific was surveyed and championed by Theodore Judah, through the Sierra Nevada, as the first leg of what would become the nation’s first Transcontinental Railroad, once joined with the Union Pacific, which built East from St. Louis, to Promontory, Utah. It was built to accommodate the rail technology of the mid-nineteenth century. This means wide curves and grades of no more than three percent. As we traverse high fills that reveal to us ever more striking views of the valleys below, punctuated by the next tunnel through the next mountain, we also encounter the occasional highway, that is less concerned with gentle grades and bends, and thus less exposed to fantastic views.
The longest tunnel on the line, two miles through a mountain, stalled the Central Pacific’s progress out of the Sierra Nevada to the flat desert wasteland of Nevada for nearly two frustrating years. Teams of Chinese laborers worked around the clock, pounding drills into the granite, until they got a hole appropriate to fill with black powder. Evacuate, light the fuse, boom, go back and clear out the pieces, and start drilling the next hole. Sometimes progress was as slow as six inches a day.
The tunnel was drilled and blasted from both ends, and another team was sent up over the mountain to blast a vertical shaft, from which two more teams were lowered into the mountain to work, spreading progress across a total of four tunnel facings.
The railroad was at first skeptical of Chinese laborers, but many of the Irish and other Easterners they hired had a tendency to wander off to the coal mines. So, the railroad hired fifty short Celestials to see if they were any good, and they proved most excellent. Despite their small size, they were hard, steady, intelligent workers. They took the wilderness and rough weather with better health because they boiled their water to drink as tea, and instead of drinking whiskey, preferred the relaxing vice of smoking opium on their day off.
We also passed through the last few concrete snow sheds. Many miles of snow sheds were built along the line because the terrible winter blizzards had a nasty habit of tearing out long sections of hard-won trackwork, necessitating not only repairs, but delaying work at the end of the line, which depended on the track to deliver needed material. Of course, these original wood snow sheds had a tendency to catch fire from the original, wood-burning, steam locomotives.
I believe a paramount frustration of building the Central Pacific was that all of the engines, rolling stock, and iron rails had to be shipped from the factories of the East Coast, carried across the jungle isthmus at Panama, and shipped thence up to Sacramento, where they could finally be unloaded, at three or four times their original cost. It was this same voyage through the Panamanian jungle that granted Ted Judah the yellow fever that killed him before the railroad could be finished.
Abraham Lincoln had also been a long-time proponent of the Transcontinental Railroad, promoting it first as a lawyer, then a lawmaker, and finally as President. It was an assassin’s bullet that denied him his dream of some day seeing California.
I missed whatever scenery Nevada had to offer, as I sampled the expensive, high-quality dinner offered in the dining car. As table space is limited, each table is filled with four passengers. This makes mealtime a nice chance to socialize with fellow travellers, though the majority are from the expensive sleeping-compartment section of the train, which gets free meals as part of their accommodations.
I took every other meal in the dining car, as the prices were not too much higher than what I’m used to in the Bay Area, and I figured that since I’d scored my ticket with an Internet discount for only $60, that it was not unreasonable to make up a little of that difference in the dining car.
I stretched out across two coach seats at night, changing my clothes the next morning in one of the larger “changing room” bathrooms. Sprawled across a pair of coach seats is not the greatest way to sleep, especially at my height, but then it is not like you have really demanding days on the train, which tend to consist of naps between bouts of scenic appreciation, reading, and visits to the snack bar or dining car.
My Canon S100 Digital Elph ate more than half my pictures from two seperate CF cards. This is insanely frustrating. I know I’m not somehow deleting pictures, because the screen flashed white and suddenly told me that I had twenty pictures left, instead of the three or so I’d thought I had. Grr! For some reason, it erases all the pictures I took, and then gives me room for a fraction of the pictures that the card can legitimately store. Canon’s frustating tech support can only conclude that I somehow delete my pictures on purpose.
Grrr, I had to rant. Maybe someone has experienced and solved this?
We had a station stop in Grand Junction, CO. I was able to purchase a baggie of juicy, locally-grown grapes, a baggie of trail mix, and a Klondike bar. Mmmm, yummy breakfast. Lunch was a swiss cheese burger in the dining car. Dinner was the last of the buns I had claimed during my two previous visits to the dining car, the rest of my grapes and trail mix, and the remainder of the container of rice the woman seated behind me offered. Yum!
Next time I bring sandwichs.
The trip down from the mountains into Denver made the day beautiful. At the last station before Denver, I wanted to just get off the train and dig the beautiful town that was nestled in a verdant bowl surrounded by forests and Mountains. It looked like a paradise to me. After that, we continued our trek across the top of the world, until we hit the winding track, back and forth, down the valley to the handful of skycrapers in the hazy distance, that marked Denver. Back and forth, back and forth, the train traced its winding way down the grade. We passed deer, along the way, who munched on their grass a few feet away from the train, unoffended by the loud, shiny, metal, diesel-powered thing that we were.
Breakfast in the dining car. You gotta get up early for that. This is probably the easiest meal to skip. You aren’t missing much. No three-dollar pancake and egg slams there.
After a couple of days on the train, I am not the only passenger that passes the time dozing. What better to do in a dark, quiet cabin that is gently rocking back and forth? This morning in Nebraska I caught sight of a Mountain Lion pacing us at great speed along the tracks. Maybe it was a Cheetah, because then I saw a tiger prowling past, and a zebra walking out of a pasture gate adjacent to the tracks. Circus? Zoo escape?!
The mystery was settled, to my satisfaction, upon waking up and seeing the real Nebraska landscape.
There were a lot of fascinating old towns, rusting out along the line through Iowa and Illinois. I wanted to step through the window and touch and feel each one. I’d heard there was a drought this year in the midwest, but I was suprised to see the corn so low, and tan.
Rolling green hills of hay and history
The living dream of our peasant forefarmers
Ancient telephone poles overcome by trees and ivy
Brave maize weather drought for harvest, the soy grow low
One hundred thousand barns, some new, others frail with age
But still useful, and used
M i s s i s s i p p i
Now we are in Illinois
It wasn’t long after I saw the skyline and noted to anyone who listened that the station was only two blocks from the Sears Tower, that I was off the train, had to ask for bearings, and grabbed the L home to mom, field-testing the luggage on known public transit.
I have been doing far less exploring of Chicago than I had intended. Wednesday I went to scope out Internet Cafe’s in my neighborhood. I found a nice place on Clark Street where I was the only customer. There was a pretty little garden with a fountain in the back. I had a sandwich and a go at the Chicago Reader, which is a truly magnificent publication.
Afterward, I thought that I was darned near a high school friend whose number I had failed to pull from my archives. Okay, well, let us explore. I found her house and wrote her a letter, not expecting her to be home so early in the afternoon. The letter told of what had happened since I got layed off last year, and I sealed it in the envelope that came with one of the cool Chinese-motif cards that I had in the pocket of my jacket. I couldn’t find any great place to leave the letter, so I rang the bell, figuring an elder family member might be around to receive it.
The friend in question was home. I coaxed her out for a walk, where we got to check out the Loyola campus. The weather was beautiful and my camera’s battery went kaput just as I tried to capture the beauty of Lake Michigan on a clear day. We rounded around back towards Sheridan, where we stopped at a nice, unwired cafe, which I totally dug. I had a meaty sandwich, chips, and a cookie for about $5, then dropped another $2 on a smoothy, while my friend went for some ice cream. A nice place to talk.
I walked home from there. Back on Clark I encountered a Chicano vendor offerig sweet corn on a stick to patrons at a Latin social organization. I grabbed one myself for $1.25, and as he slathered it with mayonnaise, butter, hot sauce, salt, I was reminded of home. Home in California. I thought it interesting that in my Home in Chicago a Mexican vendor should remind me of Home in California. I guess three years at 3,000 miles is sufficient for a touch of diaspora.
I got to meet up with Vern and Sharon by Belmont on Thursday evening. At an old EnterAct hangout called Cesar’s, Vern downed a large, a mega, and a large margarita. Sharon had but a single large, the smallest size they offer, and I had to chase my large with a mega, just to represent at Vern. We also ate dinner, as the waiter tried to flirt with me. Unfortunately for him, I know how waiters operate. Instead, as I admired the various pretty women around the place, I saw this one guy, out on a double date with a hot chick, was wearing a tee-shirt that enumerated the top ten reasons why his company was a great place to work.
Being, as I am, a recovering nerd with a budding sense of fashion and dating propriety, and a wanna-be author, and in posession of a couple of postcards, and pretty freaking sloshed, I wrote him a postcard, addressed it to him, placed a stamp on it, and left the postcard on his table on our way out the door. The postcard in question featured a black and white photo of a baby with a bar code tattooed on his rear. It seemed horribly appropriate, as the baby metaphorically symbolized innocence branded, which totally captured tee-shirt man.
Afterwards, we hung out on a street corner, sobering up. I went into the Walgreens to piss, and on my return, was informed that tee-shirt man had walked by, and expressed seemingly genuine gratitude at my action. It is probably just as well that I missed it, because I’d only be able to blush all the more, which, considering my inebriation, would have been overdoing it.
Instead, I was checking out a girl in a car at the streetcorner, as she seemed to be checking me out. As the car peeled away, the driver leaned over and yelled “DANNYMAN SUCKS!”
“I think that was Blake,” cried Sharon.
Blake was a former colleague of ours at EnterAct, though colleague is too strong of a word. Insane lunatic would better capture his professionalism, as we had known it.
I’ve completed my third International Call of the day. The first I received from Germany, where a highschool friend is with the foreign service. He has a spare room in Frankfurt, from where I’m flying to Amman. “My wife loves Amman! It is totally beautiful! Only five days?” It sounds like I shall be well-prepared for the Europe to Jordan transition.
The second I placed to BMI, my carrier from Heathrow to Amsterdam. I’ve pushed the flight back a week, so that I can visit Duncan, a former work colleague who lives in London. The first time I contacted BMI, the guy didn’t know what to do with my ticket, and became flustered. Okay, let him go and contact Airtreks, who said it shouldn’t be a big deal, here’s the “fare basis” – a “date change” will cost 25 GPB or 40 Euros. This time, as I listened to the quaint beep-beep of a British ringtone, and pressed four, and got connected right up to a real live operator, who was ready to help me find the “fare basis” on my ticket for me, I got everything squared away with no trouble.
I’ll not be flying on September 11. Well, I’ll arrive at Heathrow on September 11. I guess that’s good enough for Patriotism. I’m flying out of London on the seventeenth.
The third call was a voicemail message to the aforementioned friend in London, explaining that maybe we are best off making whatever arrangements are necessary via e-mail.
Last night in the United States. For four months. I escape just in time to miss out on the endless tributes to 9-11 that our national media are already obsessing themselves with. I’m actually kind of curious just what the terrorists are going to try this time around. Sounds like they tried to hit Karzai the other day. It won’t be easy for them. Good!
Loose ends today. I found a place with an office in Chicago that can supply me with a European Rail Pass tomorrow morning. The flight out is on Air India. Arrive at Heathrow early afternoon on the eleventh.
The excited British women, their shopping bags bulging with Disney souvenirs, remind me of Monty Python sketches, as they bitch in their upset British housewife accents about the repeated security searches.
My ride to Europe, on Air India’s 747-400, “Agra” – note the funky window decor!
There is a lot of security. Bags x-rayed at check-in, the normal metal detector, x-ray, shoes search at the gate entrance, and then a last ring of security contractors, conducting a cursory search of everyone’s bag at the gate itself.
“Calm down, ladies,” I want to say. “This is America.” Then I think about it some more. Air India, a huge 747-400, fueled to fly from Chicago, home of the world’s tallest building, with a load of Americans, British, and Hindus, to arrive in the capital of Britain, America’s closest ally, on September 11. Search me, baby, one more time!
When our airplane pulls up, I have to smile. The window frames are each painted with an ornate frame that reminds me of the Taj Mahal. I arrived with about four hours to spare, earning myself a window seat at an exit row. Seat 42K. It sounds like the rear of the plane, but given its enormous size, this is actually the first row in economy class.