And never the twain…

My trip to California was a marvel: I spent three full days on the train, from coast to coast, Boston to Emeryville, MA to CA, seeing some of what lies between. The rails lay across the country like tiny sketch marks on a piece a paper, through valleys and over peaks and there was such a solidity to the emptiness, a vastness so crushing and humbling as to make me feel tinier than ever. There were scenes of weathered decay, like the sad-eyed hunching cowboys of legend staring at the passing train with the moribund melancholy of an ant stuck on glue paper; windswept hamlets where prairie dust ghosted the air and the only whispers were those of the wind through deserted shacks. Especially one sight I remember so clearly in its bizarreness: a field of rusting yellow school buses, some covered by sand, as if being reclaimed by the earth, so to speak, most of them without wheels, their windows and lights broken; eyes bereft of life and soul. It was like a graveyard for elephants, a bone-dry beach covered with metallic beached whales. I saw it, as did everyone else who on the train who peeked out the window at that time, so it was certainly not an experience I can smugly call my own, but still…there it was. Closing in on the final destination, the train came in over the Sierras and even though the sun was setting and much was lost, I still saw enough to whet my appetite for a return; another journey for another year. That is how it must be.

The trip, though smooth, was not entirely without incident: Halfway between Chicago and Emeryville, the train had to stop and was delayed for hours, thanks to a mudslide that required the tracks to be cleared. It was during the night, and most of us were asleep, but I woke up, as is my wont, just in time to catch a glimpse of the thunderstorm outside. A bolt of lightning lit up the horizon and it was like staring into a nightmare, indecipherable shapes and forms reaching out for us, moving threateningly in the wind, with the rain whipping the windows, as if in a terrified frenzy to get inside. The moment passed and I went back to sleep, but the moment lingered, even if the next day was all sun and light. The second occurred when we were almost in Emeryville. The train took off from a station and the conductor apologized again for the delays. “But at the very least, nothing else can happen to make us later. The nest stop is the second to last, and we should be in Emeryville in about 45 minutes.” she said cheerfully. The train rolled into Emeryville about an hour and a half later, having spent about an hour at the second to last stop; it took time getting the dead guy off the train.

The point is: It was a bit of a journey, a journey that itself was a destination. I spoke to some people, watched the scenery, wrote some notes, read my book and stood cramped in the “bar” while Morris, the very entertaining bartender-cum-chef, failed to notice the smokers exhaling forcefully out the window, cradling their cigarettes close to their chest as inconspicuously as they could. Then again, I suppose the smoke from Morris’ unfiltered Lucky Strikes got in his eyes and blinded him temporarily. I felt fulfilled after it, replenished, as if I had done something worthwhile. One more thing to cross off the to-do-list. And one more to add: The return trip from LA goes through the deep south. And that, y’all, was my plan for the return trip.

Alas, it was not to be. I am writing this on the floor of my summer abode in New Jersey; Apart from an inflatable mattress and an armoire that I am convinced will topple and fall on me one night, killing me instantly, leaving me to be found by whatever new tenant in a few months. I do have a computer, though. An odd combination, but hey, we’re all post-modern people here, so we can deal.

My trip to Jersey was sudden, to say the least. I got a job and had about one month to get prepared, wrap up at the Rep, pack and move. As always, there was so much going on and it simply snuck up on me. I cleaned out my desk on Thursday, an oddly emotional experience (a week and a day after seeing “The Guys”, an oddly unemotional experience), then flew from Oakland to JFK the next day. Saturday would be spent looking for housing; two sublets had at that point fallen through my fingers, the second one just the day before, causing me no small grief. You can put the boy in California, but you can’t put California in the boy: “Chill out” never figured in my vocabulary too much, as my friends and acquaintances can attest to. In my view, the glass is often half full…draining away, drop by drop, just as the well of life inorexably moves towards that final emptiness… Erm…life as a pint glass, anyone? But hey: Resurrection in a refill! (If I’d only drink slower, eh?) That said, I had a brief period after experiencing Australia when I existed in a blissful state and “no worries”, the Aussie national motto, became my personal mantra as well. It lasted for a while, longer than I expected it to, but ultimately, I sobered up. To get around to the point: I arrived at JFK without the usual serenity this tends to instill in me: Weirdly enough, I go to New York to relax. Put me in an aggressive crowd of people, nasty bag ladies and profligate cabbies and I’m a happy guy. If I have problems, New York solves them; I walk down the streets, skyscrapers surrounding me, looking down the avenues, those corridor of steel and glass and reflected light, feeling dwarfed by the immensity of it all. Here, I am insignificant, a tiny speck of no importance, and consequently my problems are as insignificant as I am, even less so. It’s a fairly simple process, but it works. Plus, New York is a fun place to be. Good pizza, fashionable ladies and Coyote Ugly over on 1st Ave…hey, if it ain’t broke…

But now I found myself with no place to stay after the first two nights at the hotel, my job to start on Monday. I sighed, dragged my luggage onto the bus and set off for Grand Central Station. Once there, I collected my stuff from the milling people, waved off the hustlers, and waited for the hotel shuttle to arrive. It didn’t, so I hailed a cab instead. At the hotel, I was going to pay the cabbie: I had no money, I found. The 50 dollars that had until recently been in my pocket was gone. The bustle and scuffing of retrieving the luggage outside the bus was where it happened. It had to be. Great: I’d been in New York for about half an hour and my pocket got picked. For the first time. Luckily, my wallet and passport were still in my inner pocket, it was just the loose cash in my pocket. I travel with a large wallet and sometimes keep my cash in my pocket, so I don’t have to drag the thing out. Thank God. The cabbie was nice enough to believe me; after all, I had rather a lot to carry, so I couldn’t run off in the first place. The receptionist paid the cabbie with no fuzz and charged it to my bill. I was there, at least.

I could barely fit my stuff in my room, but I did, somehow, and sat there wondering what to do. I had planned a nice steak and a beer or two with my money. Fuck it, I thought, and went out anyway; the beer flowed, not too much of it, as I was tired and it hit me right away, but enough. The bartender, seeing me unable to concentrate on my book and generally looking miserable, leaned over and asked in a soft Irish accent if there was anythin’ wrong, like. It was a slow night and I was a long way from home and frustrated and somewhat lonely and I was suitably lubricated, so I started speaking, veering off the immediate problems at hand almost instantly. Having made some insightful and, for a serving establishment, original points about people (we’re idiots) and the world at large (it’s all fucked), I left with another beer, this one on the house, under my belt.

The day after, I went out to New Jersey, having but a tiny hope and a guy to see about a sublet. It worked out, as simple as that. I could collect the keys the next day in Manhattan, as the guy was moving to the city so nice they named it twice for the summer months. I subsequently spent a day meandering about Manhattan, which is always nice, but I was still antsy; I rented a car to get my stuff to New Brunswick, as there was no way in hell I was getting on the train with all of it. It would have been a nightmare, no doubt about it. So my driving debut on a Sunday on the East Coast of the United States of America took place in Manhattan; it was a grey day, the sidewalks filled with joyless faces trudging away like a thousand lonely funeral processions while the cabbies’ plaintive cries of “fuck you” and car horns ghosted the muggy air. It was grand. I went through the Holland tunnel and then I was in New Jersey, on that famous turnpike; the metal frames of the industrial plants all around me, smokestacks rising from the ground like parodies of flower stems, clouds of acrid smoke the petals to crown them; bony, arthritic fingers pointing skywards. I happily missed my exit and turned a 50-minute drive into a three-hour long adventure. I’m not sure, but I think I swung by Philadelphia: I have flashbacks of cheese steak and cracked bells. As I said, it was grand. The return trip the next day was even better, as I got to ride in genuine Manhattan rush traffic, but I digress.

New Brunswick is not much on first sight, nor on second, nor indeed, the third: Somebody said I’d love it, after all, I enjoyed Providence. New Brunswick is not Providence; for all its flaws, Providence has an actual city scene, you just have to get used to it. I guess the same goes for here, but I was hoping there would be something that leapt at me right away. But the sunset was lovely today, perhaps from all the smog, who knows? I wandered around, hoping to find some pub not milling with drunken fratboys. I was not successful. It’s out there somewhere, but the search goes on for the time being. There is something unsettling about streets full of young people and nothing but: It’s somewhat like walking into your own personal Stepford or something. Not a wrinkle in sight, nor a grey hair, just surrounded by one large, singular demographic. And yet, as I rounded a corner, glumly thinking about already missing Berkeley (if not the bums), which I’d sworn not to, at least not at first, I came upon something that made me giggle like an idiot. Rising from the ground, tall as two men, stood a silver tuning-fork. Did it hum to the vibrations of Mother Earth? Fuck knows. But there it was, some sort of sign.

I’ve only been here one week and a day now. My head is still reeling and will be for quite some time; I need to sit down and breathe, methinks. The other day, I woke up, thinking I was still in Berkeley; what the hell happened to my bed? I thought, before realizing where I was: New Brunswick, New Jersey. Alleged Armpit of America (the shaved part, thankfully) A most strange sensation, I must say. I can’t quite escape feeling somehow like a conqueror vanquished, or at the very least like an unsuccessful explorer; wasn’t I supposed to have left more of a mark or come across some profound, life-altering insight or something? Is it enough to simply say “I made some friends; I laughed and I cried. I rolled a strike and a spare and I sang a sad song and maybe, traveling through those months, I learned something on the way.” Is it really enough? Of course it is.

The itinerant soul has a nasty habit of constantly running after that greener grass, never quite stopping to compare the local greens with those in the Pantone book. Then you stop and look back over your shoulder and think “Hey, what’s that emerald sheen back there?” Hey…the show must go on, as they say in theatre and thus begins another chapter. There will be more, as always.

07.06.2003 • Permalink