Monday, November 29, 2010
I explored the impressive sculpture garden and much of the grounds in search of a miniature railroad that I had read about. I started to feel a bit crazy though, roaming amongst the old oaks snapping photos of tiny tracks and four-foot-tall railroad crossing signs, with no trains in sight. I finally asked a ticket taker in Storyland* where the elusive locomotives could be found, and she explained that the park was closed and they were in some sort of lock down before they would appear for some sort of exclusive holiday fairytale party later that evening. I tried to reason with her, explained that I was a famous blogger who had travelled thousands of miles in search of these famed masterpieces of miniature engineering, but she would not budge on the topic. That did not stop me from creeping around the perimeter trying to peer through the fences to get a peek, but the best I could manage was this picture of the Old Lady that lived in a Shoe before being apprehended.
Later, from the town jail...**
That evening was my last night in New Orleans and I went to a chili cook-off fundraiser for an amazing thespian called Veronica Russell, who adapted a 1925 Texan woman's autobiography into a one woman play and will travel through Canadian Fringe festivals this summer performing it. I was amazed at how unique*** chili can be! We voted on twelve varieties, listened to a honky-tonk band called The Wasted Lives, and watched Charlie Chaplin's hilarious silent film, The Gold Rush, with live piano accompaniment.
Sitting alone, I seemed to attract the attention of a lot of other solo chili eaters. First, I was accosted by a man that looked exactly like Elvis Costello who asked if the music was "heavy metal." I took this to be sarcasm but apparently I was incorrect, and he accused me of misleading him into believing I was smart by wearing glasses, when in fact I knew nothing. I then met a San Francisco expat who explained that the magic of New Orleans lies in the constant activity and entertainment coupled with low low prices and unemployment so rampant that nobody worries about it anymore. Accordingly, they are "poor, happy, and don't mind!" It made perfect sense to me.
I went home early that evening for a good night's sleep, as I planned to take the Southern Chief to nearby Lafayette the next morning for some serious Cajun culture.
*The children's fairytale and folk story park, who's name seemed inappropriately similar to Storyville, New Orleans' historic red light district.
***And difficult to digest in large quantities
Sunday, November 28, 2010
After having my fill of Victorian furnishings and trivia, Janessa the tarot mystic told me about my promising future as a travel writer, and I then stumbled upon a tiny bookstore named after William Faulkner, who briefly lived there in the 1920s. Of course I requested a book set in Louisiana during the jazz and/or railroad era, and was recommended The Missing by Tim Gautreaux. It had a recommendation from the San Francisco Chronicle and a beautiful cover, so I was convinced. During this scientific book selection process I befriended a large group of international exchange students working on their post-graduate studies in D.C. and we made a pact to find and revel in some fabulous jazz that evening. I waste no time!
To start the evening we had a "Creole sampler platter*" then had almost worrisomely cheap cocktails at a karaoke bar called Cafe Lafitte in Exile.** Sufficiently fueled in the local fashion, we were ready to get jazzy. But first-
IMPORTANT SIDEBAR ABOUT THE NEIGHBORHOODS OF NAWLINS
There are two neighborhoods housing the main concentration of nightlife, each with its own central thoroughfare. The first and most famous, and also quite probably the worst street in the whole world, is Bourbon Street. Tacky souvenir shops, expensive hotels, and strip clubs and music venues glowing with neon lighting jostle for your 30 second attention span along this rum-soaked street lined in broken glass and bright green, grenade-shaped souvenir cups. Music from every business blares at competitive levels, and one is surrounded on all sides by 60 year old ex-fraternity brothers chugging Bud Light starting at ten in the morning. The other is the Faubourg Marigny, with its main drag being Frenchmen Street. Things are a bit more mellow there, and the locals say it is an accurate representation of what The Quarter was like before the city became so popular amongst tourists in the 1930s. There are bohemian bookstores, tranquil restaurants, dive bars and jazz clubs, and pleasant people of all types, drinking human beverages from normally shaped glasses. It was there that I found The Spotted Cat, which is always cover-free and has nightly live jazz, blues, folk, ragtime, and even swing dancing. They also store an extra piano in the women's restroom which is labeled the "Pee-anee.***" Need I say more?
(The Panorama Jazz Band at the Spotted Cat)
The next thing I knew it was Thanksgiving, and my dear friend Dani invited me to partake in my favorite holiday in the beautiful home of her friends in the Marigny. I do not want to brag too much but the gourmet chef hostess and her lovely parents provided raw oysters, duck sandwiches with macadamia butter and roasted plantains, steamed purple potatoes with herb butter, poached salmon and soba noodles, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, yam and lentil salad, chocolate chip pumpkin cookies, sour cream raisin pie, and some sort of peanut butter confection dipped in chocolate. We held up our end as well, with sun dried tomato and pesto mashed potatoes, corn bread with sour cream and bacon, and bourbon-spiked fresh apple cider. Jealous?
I also became the token American in a different group of French/German/Chinese grad students and researchers as well, these ones staying at the hostel with me. We ate together at the Croissant d'Or, played complicated European dice games, wandered the streets during a rain storm, played pool/danced/drank daiquiris, and by Saturday at 3am had completed a fool-proof business plan to start a language school in Shanghai.
It is that type of creativity and inspiration that just bubbles up from the bayou and through the man eating potholes in this town. At least, I hope that is creativity.****
*$24 gets you enough different courses of typical Louisiana fare to fill two hungry San Franciscans at the aptly named Gumbo Shop in The Quarter.
**Three notes about this one: 1. $2.75 for a mixed drink? How is that even legal? 2. Our bartender, upon hearing we hailed from San Francisco, exclaimed, "That city's beautiful honey but those earthquakes... I don't want nothin' movin' under me but a man, you know? Hoo wee!" and 3. I read in the weekly paper afterward that the bar claims to be the oldest gay bar in all of the U.S.!
****It may, in fact, be a mixture of oil, silt from the Mississippi, and a terrifyingly named cocktail called "The Hurricane," but I am sticking with creativity.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
"Excuse me sir, but how does one cross the highway under that dark overpass by foot? I have just arrived in town and want to walk alone at night!"
"Walking? There? At night? Oh girl, you are taking a taxi."
"But it is only a mile and I have this expensive device that will show me exactly what route to take. And it is warm outside!!"
"No. No. No. Oh my God, no. TAXI!"
So after being assured that I would be killed instantly in this strange new city, I was deposited safely on the welcoming front porch of the Marquette House International Youth Hostel, and was presently greeted by the most gracious and welcoming hostel staff that ever was. Their personable greeting was even more pleasing after the tendency toward aloofness and anonymity in the north. However, I had approximately eight seconds to toss my things in my room and catch my breath before I was whisked away by two energetic friends onto to the roller coaster that is the music, drinking, and entertainment scene of New Orleans. The evening involved at various points a concert by a full brass band, a burlesque show, Sazerac cocktails in a fabulous antebellum mansion*, a walk along the Mississippi River, being serenaded by local blues band The Dirty Bourbon River Show, and, in retrospect probably unnecessarily, nightcaps at a dive bar called Mimi's sometime after 5am, at which point when I said I was tired all of my friends bemoaned my lack of stamina and general disappointing inability to keep up with their rate of fun-having. I would consider the night to have been a smashing success as an orientation to nightlife in the Big Easy.
(I got a solo at one of the clubs)
The next day, after a pumpkin pancake bigger than a hubcap and about 13 cups of coffee at a tiny cafe called Surrey's, I was ready to get my fill of Voodoo, jazz funerals, jambalaya, and Colonial architecture in the famous French Quarter.** New Orleans is so full of insanity, history, and unique local flavors that I do not even know how to translate my experiences into narrative form, so I will just have to list them in a totally nonsensical and unchronological way as follows.
The city is so warm. The tropical climate is fabulous, but the people are even better. Everyone treats you like a long lost family member back after years of absence, even the other tourists. The gentlemen that run the hostel all knew my name, origin, and a rough idea of my whole life story within hours of my arrival, and everyone always greets one another warmly and genuinely.
The prolific local flora contrast charmingly to the faded glamour of the elegant 18th and 19th century buildings. Bright colors, insane decorations, ivy and palm trees grace enormous mansions, tiny French colonial row houses, castle-like churches, Spanish forts, and stately Roman Revival architecture as well. I walk around with my jaw dropped and eyes sparkling like an anime character most of the time.
The Creole Voodoo culture is a bit cheesy and touristy now but it still retains some genuine mystery and an underground devout following, which is extremely interesting. Amongst silly tourists getting their tarot cards read and buying voodoo dolls to stick pins into*** are legitimate believers buying herbs and chickens and candles to do real rituals. Marie Leveau is a 19th century Voodoo priestess who is still revered to this day and who's grave is visited by thousands of devotees each year here.
(Yes. I am one of those tourists.)
The food deserves a book unto itself but I can tell you it alone is reason enough to visit here if you have any interest in food or fusion cuisine at all. French staples like beignets and croissants are enjoyed alongside seafood stews like gumbo and jambalaya, and red beans and rice are so ubiquitous that they are often served free with drinks at local bars. Other exciting dishes include alligator sausage, po' boys, mufalettas, and the infamous "turducken." The only thing I have tried that I did not enjoy is a poor quality and unexciting candy called a praline, which is just tiny bits of pecan floating in a puddle of corn syrup, often flavored with rum. But this can be forgiven after enough daiquiris.
Within 48 hours I was already doubting that five days would be enough here. I was in over my head.
*It is now a famous hotel called The Columns, and on the National Register of Historic Places.
**Heretofore to be referred to in the local style as "The Quarter."
***I now own a very scary voodoo doll as well.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
The lady in question not only recounted in harrowing detail many of the trials and tribulations of her 22 years, but also exposed me to some very interesting local idioms and culinary delights. Early in our conversation, when discussing our views on various life issues, she confidently declared, "Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has got one." This novel phrase was highly entertaining to me, and I look forward to employing it in my daily speech. Then, she shared her traveling snacks with me, thereby cementing our friendship with cheesy crackers and granola bars covered in caramel and chocolate.**
Late in the evening we pulled into a town called Lynchburg, Virginia, and the stately rail depot piqued our interest as to what sort of place we were passing through. With a bit of research, I found out some disturbing things about the city. First, Lynchburg was the only Southern city that never fell to the Union during the Civil War. Second, the mechanized cigarette roller and ChapStick were both invented there by a crazy man called Dr. Fleet. Third, and most likely to be dramatized in a more serious Hollywood film, is that until 1972 Lynchburg's "Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded" was home to a forced sterilization program against a vast array of handicapped, disadvantaged, or otherwise "unfit" people in the name of eugenics. Perhaps this was a town best suited to passing through under the cover of night and researching in the safety of one's train car.
My fascinating friend left just after midnight, and I was left with two seats on which to stretch. My sleep was eerily punctuated, however, with brief periods of wakefulness filled with the ominous sleep-humming of an elderly Southern woman across the aisle from me.
At dawn we passed through Gainesville, Georgia, of which nothing interesting can be said.*** By 8am we had reached Atlanta, and I celebrated this by having a breakfast of rice crackers and an amazing Polish delicacy called "Powidtla z Melodia" which is a fruit spread made with plums, walnuts, and cinnamon, and can be purchased for only $1.09 at Dollar Up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I would warn, however, against their alluring heart-shaped chocolate covered ginger cookies called "Pierniczki Apejskie," which taste like they were probably produced during Soviet rule.
I had "Filety Śledziowe w kremie po chińsku****" for lunch, and attempted to watch a film on my amazing technological device, but the "3G" reception was apparently hindered by the Southernness all around us, and a very insane woman kept staring at me and shouting unnecessary environmental observations like, "Oh my it is cold now," and "Heavens, the sun has sure gotten brighter!" so I decided to look at the scenery.
I saw my first patch of swamp around 2pm, somewhere in Alabama, and it became more predominant as we continued south. Until mere hours ago my only experience with swamp environments was their heavy handed metaphoric representations in children's films like Swamp Thing and Never Ending Story, a movie which definitely played a major role in my development as a human being. I could not avoid vividly imagining myself as a defiant young warrior of the Plains People, desperately pushing my way through the swamp with my trusted steed Artex, only to lose him in the mire and barely escape the fast-approaching Nothing.
An awesome, creepy mist descended on the magical and apparently hallucination-inducing swamp as the sun set and we approached what the locals call "Nawlins," but I avoid saying because I sound more stupid every time I attempt to utter its name.
*If you are wondering why I changed my plan from a Pilgrim Thanksgiving in Plymouth Massachusetts to a voodoo one in Louisiana, my logic is simple: After stalking the Pilgrims for weeks, no one showed any interest in a work exchange or volunteer situation for said period dinner, so to punish the entire operation for their lack of compassion, foresight, and cultural sensitivity, I decided to boycott all Pilgrims and their carryings-on for the duration. Thusly freed from holiday commitments, a friend mentioned being in the mysterious, warm Southern city of New Orleans, so I said, "Funny, that. I will be there too."
**Though I am pretty sure that by covering a granola bar in caramel and chocolate it becomes simply "candy"
***Except that it is often called the poultry capital of the world because of its inordinately high number of chicken processing plants. Oh wait, I am sorry, that is not interesting either.
****I could not tell you what this is in English, though I can tell you it was $1.49 at Dollar Up and worth every penny.
Monday, November 22, 2010
The past few days have been chock full of adventure. In my time in New York I have stayed in hostels on Manhattan and in Brooklyn, in the homes of friends, and with couch surfers** in various neighborhoods, and have therefore had a varied and extremely cheap time of it here. Brooklyn has its positive aspects - namely cheap musical venues, boutiques so cute and quirky you actually want to die, and a glorious neighborhood where every aspect of society is completely Polish as far as the eye can see - but overall, Manhattan still takes the cake for me. Compiled reflections on the local flavor are as follows:
United Nations Tour- So as it turns out, the U.N. Headquarters in New York, built between 1947 and 1952, is actually a total dump. It is filled with enormous priceless gifts and artworks from hundreds of different countries, but that only highlights the fact that it looks like a post-apocalyptic Epcot Center in a second rate horror film starring Steve Zahn and Denise Richards. I took a picture of the Secretariat, and found out that my nutritional mainstays, peanut butter, gruel, and hard tack, are virtually indistinguishable from emergency rations in a U.N. refugee camp.
The Museum of Modern Art- A really beautiful art museum, though I do not enjoy having to confront my complete lack of understanding of classifications of art. Monet and van Gogh just do not seem modern to me. They had some of my all time favorite artists on display, and a fabulous exhibition of paintings and photos by women from the past 150 years, but nothing with trains as the subject matter, as far as I could tell.
The Queens County Farm Museum- The longest continuously run farm in New York City, and the biggest piece of farmland still existing therein, the park consists of farmland, greenhouses, a historic farmhouse from 1772, pasture, and more adorable hairy ponies than you could shake a stick at.*** The eccentric old man that gives tours of the house emphatically describes every single aspect of human existence in Queens in the 18th century. And it costs nothing!
El Museo del Barrio- A beautiful museum focusing on the Spanish heritage and Latino presence in the greater New York area. It is free to all humans on Super Sabados, and it gives a very interesting alternate perspective on how the region was fought over by different colonial powers and how it developed over the years in relation to the rest of the Western Hemisphere. They also had an wunderkind children's orchestra playing a concert at the time.
What else have I been eating, drinking, hearing, seeing, etc?
Somehow I got into the good graces of the entire staff of Khao Sarn Thai Restaurant in Williamsburg. This resulted in countless complimentary items, including a shot that the bartender invented just for our group, sent to our table over the course of the evening. If you go there, ask for Paul. In true über hip Brooklyn form, my friends and I attended a free mimosa and Belgian waffle party in a local artists's studio. Other attractions of the party were live DJs, very weird clothing and jewelry from local designers, and a dashing young Frenchman giving $10 haircuts. I went crazy in an expansive and almost suspiciously cheap Polish grocery store called Dollar Up in Greenpoint. I listened to difficult experimental jazz at the Cornelia Street Cafe, an institution here.
All of this was very exciting, but in New York it is quite cold, and everyone walks very fast and frightens me. And the people here all wear black so no one notices my somber Johnny Cash wardrobe. I needed a place with a bit of warmth, color, and a slower local dialect and pedestrian speed limit. I needed to go to New Orleans.
*Perhaps a write-in candidate?
** If you have not heard of Couch Surfing I highly recommend checking it out if you really like a bit of adventure.
***And who would ever want to shake a stick at a pony anyway?
The strange misunderstood people of this city also have a great way of taking old, defunct things and converting them into new, useful, artistic, and generally extremely expensive masterpieces. Take, for instance, a new park called the High Line. In the early 1930s the New York Central Railroad built this 13 mile stretch of elevated railway tracks in order to move people and goods without causing the traffic and horrible accidents that had followed the street level railroad system. However, by the 1960s it was becoming obsolete and in 1980 it pulled it's last load: a glamorous cargo of three boxes of frozen turkeys.** Soon after that the land hungry developers wanted it torn down and the land sold off but a local railfan contested its demolition, and over the next twenty years a fabulous reclamation and repurposing project was developed.
A friend took me to see the newly opened park, which is unlike anything I have ever seen. It has pieces of the old tracks woven in among various native plants painstakingly selected to have some interesting blooms at all times of the year. It has lovely benches where one could recline and view the nearby Hudson River. It has a huge and disconcerting art installation in which terrifying bells ring all around you without warning. And, its most exciting feature, is a glass-walled amphitheater where one can sit and watch the traffic of Tenth Avenue*** passing silently beneath one's feet.
New dining and entertainment recommendations from the past few days are as follows:
Shake Shack, a beautiful oasis of American diner fare in Madison Square Park. The outdoor dining complimented by heat lamps and tiny white lights make the perfect environment to sip a PUMPKIN PIE MILKSHAKE. They do exist, and they are even better than they sound.
Cafe Habana, a cozy, homestyle Cuban restaurant where one can enjoy a huge platter of pulled pork, black beans, and yellow rice for only ten dollars. The warm atmosphere and Caribbean music are a nice escape if it is cold outside, which it usually is.
McNally Jackson Books, in a neighborhood called Nolita****. I went there for a reading by seven authors from different European countries from an anthology of new fiction from the continent. Great selection, and a nice cafe inside as well.
Zebulon, a bar and concert venue that we visited expecting to hear jazz, but finding really good rock and roll from the very stupidly named band Crinkles. It is a nice place to check out some live music in Brooklyn with no cover.
Stay tuned for more New York City, including the U.N., the MoMA, free sake bombs from a Thai gentleman called Paul, and a pony siting!
*This is a very short list, as it is never my idea to do anything on foot when it is not completely necessary.
**I am not making this up.
***Formerly dubbed "Death Avenue" when train and other traffic collisions were shockingly frequent there.
****I will never understand the neighborhoods or confusing naming practices of this town.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
When you arrive in new York at Grand Central Station,* you arrive like a king, emerging from ornate marbled halls into the bustling heart of Manhattan's midtown. When you arrive at the subterranean rat maze of Penn Station, you do not even see the beautiful face of the island until you emerge from the subway, disoriented and flustered on the Upper West Side, two blocks from Hostelling International New York. The hostel is, by all reports with which I am familiar, the single largest youth hostel on earth. Its impressive red brick building takes up an entire city block, and it is full of activity 24 hours a day, not unlike the city around it. The location is not necessarily in the heart of the most heavily touristed neighborhoods of New York, but I would not let that deter you, as the fantastic thing about this twenty square mile gem of a city is that every inch of it is completely saturated with all manner of entertainment and diversion. Every type of food, drink, activity and necessity are available at all hours, which is something that I am quite unaccustomed to. Walking lively streets filled with people shopping, eating in alluring restaurants, and loitering in a very hip and nonchalant manner, I am always surprised to realize it is, in fact, 1am on a Tuesday and there is more public activity than most American cities experience on New Years Eve.
There is no point in denying that, in front of this city, I devolve into a quivering fool of a tourist, gaping open-mouthed and wide eyed at soaring buildings of every architectural style, pointing and shouting about sights I recognize from classic films, and smudging countless window displays as I press my face against walls of glass separating myself from fluffy puppies, fresh pastries, sparkly dresses, and terrifying child-sized mannequins that I know would be horrible spoiled brats were they real live children. New York City inspires in me a giddy, stream of consciousness mentality where I interrupt myself constantly and write run on sentences longer than any I have ever written, or even seen, before. Like the seven drooling, nonsensical lines you just skimmed earlier in this paragraph. If that is what I write and edit for public viewing, imagine what it is like inside of my brain.**
Moving on. So, what have my trusted traveling companions and I seen over the past few days? In the interest of avoiding a boring, boasting laundry list, I will highlight only the "creme de la creme"*** of my time here so far. For me, visiting Grand Central truly was like a devout Catholic going to the Vatican, though I do not know what the train equivalent of the Pope would be. Some old railroad tycoon? One of the Big Four? Abraham Lincoln himself? The Vanderbilt family had it constructed in 1913, and architecture and sheer vastness of the building is astounding. One of its most famous attributes is its ceiling, painted a vivid turquoise with a constellation motif. Apparently, the French artist commissioned to paint the ceiling did the design backwards, then after the mistake became apparent tried to claim that he had done so on purpose, representing the heavens as if from God's point of view. Oh, clever Frenchman. But it is nevertheless a testament to the fact that the train depot continues to be a cultural epicenter in our society, and and a credit to our people that we have not paved it over and covered it with some modern monstrosity.
Simply riding the extensive subway system is an adventure in itself, and I seem to have the singular ability to get stuck in closing subway doors at least once a day. Its doors have been nearly decapitating people since 1904, and it and has some of the most intricate mosaic art I have ever seen in a rat infested subterranean public transit system. I highly recommend buying an unlimited ride metro card, as it is a much better value than a certain monetary value for a number of rides, especially if you have the tendency to get off at the completely wrong station, as I do.
Restaurants, bars and entertainment venues are almost overwhelming in number, but some of my favorites so far have been:
- Sweet Revenge, a tiny cafe in the East Village that pairs inventive flavors of cupcakes with complimenting beer and wine and plays such good music,
- Brooklyn Bowl, which brings together a restaurant, bar, lounge, live music venue, and bowling alley, all in one huge converted warehouse with no cover charge,
- Mehanata, a ridiculous multi-floor Bulgarian dance club with live music of an indistinguishable genre in the Lower East Side,
- and Absolute Bagel, a no-frills joint mere blocks from the hostel that has the most exciting selection of bagel and cream cheese varieties that I have ever witnessed.
However, not every traveling experience is one worth repeating. As Charles Dickens said so well in American Notes, "Nor must it be forgotten that New York is a large town, and that in all large towns a vast amount of good and evil is intermixed and jumbled up together." If you take to heart just one unsolicited recommendation that I offer here, please let it be this one:
DO NOT EVER GIVE ANY OF YOUR HARD-EARNED MONEY TO JING FONG DIM SUM IN CHINATOWN.
It was, without a doubt, the worst dim sum experience of my life. I will not elaborate as the wounds are still fresh and it is difficult to speak of. Hopefully after some therapy I will continue to experience more of the good and less of the evil, evil Chinese dumpling restaurants.
*Apparently it has always been technically called Grand Central Terminal, but everyone ignores this fact.
**Provincial Supertramp Inc. accepts no responsibility for any potential self inflicted trauma that may result from envisioning the very dangerous activities that occur in my abnormally large head. Though spacious, it is remarkably cluttered, and no amount of feng shui will rectify the problem.
***Which of course means "cream of the cream" and makes absolutely no sense. Cream of the milk, maybe, but anyone who has ever tried to cream cream knows it just gets all weird and curdled like, which is not nice at all. This is why I speak Spanish.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
I was done for.
How, after years of traveling on my own and, one would assume, functioning basically independently and with some modicum of responsibility for my own fate, did I manage to always find myself in these ridiculous scenarios? Was it some weird subconscious desire to make my relatively simple life more challenging? Masochism? Or perhaps just complete and all encompassing ineptitude and lack of foresight?
I hardly had time to philosophize on the issue at this particular moment.
How had I gotten there? Please, indulge me to travel back in time for a moment, and all will be made clear to you.
After over a week in the capital, my two fabulous friends* and I were ready to try our luck in the Big Apple**. The only problem was that they wanted to take to bus, which costs only $25*** compared to the $80-200 for the train. After days of deliberation, I had actually convinced myself to set aside my visions of grandeur and take the bus with them. I was trying to see it as a sort of spy excursion behind enemy lines in order to expose the discomforts and general demeaning nature of the bus in comparison to my iron bastion of hope, the train. However, they booked their tickets separately, and by the time that I, terrible procrastinator and failure of a human that I am, tried to book, the bus was already sold out. With a thinly veiled sense of relief, I took it as a sign from the train gods and looked into train ticket prices online. Shockingly, because demand on this route is so high, the fares are up to $200 for any decent departure times. But, as I am a professional budget traveler and amazing discount sleuth, I found that trains leaving at the unholy hours of 3 and 4am cost a fraction of that price! So I booked my ticket, planned the bus route I would need to take, and took a short nap before my 2:30am wake-up and departure time.
So. Woke up. Found bus number one. Had just barely enough cash for the fare. Waited for bus number two, and convinced the driver that I was poor and pathetic enough to deserve a free ride to Union Station. All was going according to plan and in good time, until an interesting local gentleman got on the bus, sat down next to me, and asked me,
"What do you think about the Bible?"
Now, a normal human at 3am would probably ignore a strange person on the bus asking them such a question, but my uncontrollable love for talking to strangers took over all sense of reason and we launched into an enlightening and enjoyable debate covering all topics from the Bible to the evolution of humanity to nuclear warfare and space exploration to a local politician that ran for Congress as part of the "The rent is too damn high" party. Before I realized what was happening, we had passed the station and were in the middle of a foreign neighborhood far past my desired destination.
Which brings me back to where we began, at the corner of two streets at I still could not place on a map if my life were at stake. Due to some mercy in the universe, a moment later a taxi driven by a sweet Eritrean woman and with two friendly passengers already inside pulled over to pick me up, explaining that they had seen my frantic pacing and felt it was their duty as fellow humans to get me off the streets and save me from myself. They raced me to the station, which was surprisingly close, and sent me on my crazy way, running through the station, and up to the waiting train.
I was sitting in the last car, still catching my breath, when the conductor came to collect my ticket. He asked how I was and I replied,
"Fabulous now that I am here, I was so worried that I would not make it!"
To which he earnestly responded,
"I was worried too, you just barely caught us, thank goodness. The cafe is already open if you need anything at all, and welcome aboard."
*Who shall remain nameless, for their safety.
**Two things: First, how do you people manage to put up with all my ridiculous cliches? It must be awful reading this. And two, I just need to point out that this is my second visit to New York ever, the first being with one of the same aforementioned friends, celebrating my 21st birthday.
***But at what emotional cost, I ask you?
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Friday, November 12, 2010
"Half of jazz is railway music, and the motion and noise of the train itself has the rhythm of jazz. This is not surprising: the Jazz Age was also the Railway Age."
A gentleman and a scholar, Paul Theroux made this very exciting point in his 1977 railroad travelogue, The Old Patagonia Express.* Because of this simple observation, I knew I needed to devote an entire article to the connection between two of my great loves- jazz and trains. Washington D.C. has proven to be a great place to celebrate jazz and its role in American history, as it has had a vital scene and nurtured so many of the greats over the last century.
Travel Recommendation Sidebar:
While discussing the arts in D.C., I would be remiss not to mention a few pillars of the community, particularly around U Street, a historic neighborhood famous for its musical, poetic, and artistic richness. For jazz, the historic Bohemian Caverns, Twins Jazz, HR-57, and U-topia are renowned locales. To patronize a long-standing, thriving African American owned business, eat at Ben's Chili Bowl. For all of your intellectual, social, artistic, and bodily nourishment needs, make haste to Busboys and Poets, an independent bookstore, cafe, bar, restaurant, and performance space that celebrates the local community and creates a beautiful space where anyone can learn, teach, entertain, be entertained, and eat amazing carrot cake, among other things.
But back to the topic at hand: JAZZ. Many see jazz as the first and finest original American style of music, made possible by the collision of African and European cultures in the American South. Musical traditions from both continents merged and developed synergistically into ragtime, blues, and finally jazz music. In the Jazz Age from the teens to the forties, people of African, European, and Native American ancestries were all represented artistically through this music and while it was controversial as it developed and grew in popularity, it revolutionized our music, shaped our developing nation, and is still awesome** to this day, not unlike the railroad.
Here are a few other thoughts on music, movement, and the District of Columbia:
As jazz provided an outlet for creative expression particularly for African Americans, the railroad provided one of their best sources of employment at the time. In the 1920s the Pullman Company was the single largest employer of African American people. Also, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first black union in the U.S.
In the Hall of Transportation*** at the American History Museum, trains are credited with making urbanization possible in the U.S., allowing food, goods, and people to access growing industrial, commercial, and cultural centers. Surely, without urban environments jazz never could have become such a dynamic artistic force in society.
At a jazz and ragtime concert in the National Gallery of Art, the claim was made that the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s could potentially trace its provenance back to Washington D.C., which is the hometown of Duke Ellington himself. The District historically drew diverse populations together and was a center of African American artistic development at the turn of the century, particularly in the U Street area.
When all of the famous jazz musicians of the era**** were drawn to New York City and the Harlem Renaissance, how do you think they got there? Of course, by train. The railroad was responsible for over 90 percent of intercity travel at the time.
So, in conclusion, jazz never would have been possible without trains, and neither would the country as a whole. I mean, what would we be if it had not been for the commerce and industry of the railroad, and the beautiful sounds of people like John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Walker, and Duke Ellington? We would be impoverished feudal subsistence farmers listening to three stringed lutes played by traveling minstrels with the bubonic plague, that is what.
New York, here I come.
*This train line does not exist, but in fact refers to his trip from Massachusetts to Tierra del Fuego almost entirely made by connecting train lines, most of which are now sadly defunct.
**And yet, strangely underrated.
***Which is named after General Motors and sadly spends altogether too much energy discussing cars and buses.
****Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and the Duke, to name a few.
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Monday, November 8, 2010
The past twenty four hours was just spent blissfully ignoring the last 400 years of history and pretending it was the year 1608. In Colonial Williamsburg, part of something rather eerily dubbed "America's Historic Triangle," one can see almost every pleasant aspect of society in colonial New England brought to life, from British government and the Anglican church to old fashioned apothecaries and blacksmiths**. The place is full to brimming, as well, with opportunities to experience 17th century style dining, which we happily partook in.
After an afternoon watching old men cobble shoes, reading George Washington's book of social etiquette,*** and visiting the site where the first British colony of Jamestown once stood, we had an unbelievable meal in Cristiana Campbell's Tavern, apparently one of George Washington's favorite places to eat when he would come to town. Lit by candlelight and housed in a huge original 18th century home, the servers all clad in period clothing and speaking a very odd dialect, we dined on stuffed flounder, spoon bread, fried oysters, and rum cream pie while a man wandered the rooms playing an ancient instrument called a hurdy girdy.
On the train I got to talking with a woman from Richmond and an Ethiopian immigrant who came here via a visa lottery in 1995. First I got to brag about the glories of San Francisco and its iconic landmarks, then I learned that Panama has the oldest Chinatown in the hemisphere from when Chinese workers came to build the railroad there. Then the Ethiopian man shared his thoughts on emigration and his deep love for the United States. I shared my cookies with them as we chatted in the dining car and I asked myself, "Could this ever happen on a bus or plane?" And of course the answer was no, it could not, not in a million years.
I happily arrived back in D.C. to be picked up by my fabulous friends with whom I will be staying for the next week, and we made plans to see an accomplished and world famous jazz and ragtime band play in the National Gallery of Art. I will never cease to be amazed by the huge variety of free cultural diversions in this city.
*Amtrak no longer provides this service.
**Please note, contrary to their official website, there are NO PONIES in Williamsburg. I dragged my father and our lovely hosts around the area interrogating countless period actors as to the whereabouts of these advertised ponies for over an hour before being forced to come to terms with their dismaying absence.
***One should never allow one's cloak to be torn, wrinkled or covered with dust, and one must never speak I'll of another as it reflects poorly on oneself.
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Saturday, November 6, 2010
But the history still surrounds you on all sides. We toured the Capitol building with a Congressional intern, and he pointed out original columns* that had survived the torching of the capital by the British in the War of 1812. We stood in the Old Supreme Court Room, where judges made such horrible historic decisions as Plessy v Ferguson and Dred Scott and the Missouri Compromise. We visited the American Art Museum, housed in the building where Abraham Lincoln's inaugural ball was held. We visited the National Cathedral, which took 83 years** to build, and made me seriously question our nation's dedication to the idea of the separation of church and state. You get my point.
Encountering so much history, and so many historic figures, must only be possible here. I wonder if children that grow up in the Washington area have a higher level of knowledge about U.S. history, or if it's something you take for granted when every day on your way to school you pass the place where the Constitution was written. I should start hanging around outside of elementary schools and quizzing eleven year olds on historic trivia to find out.***
In the midst of all of the sightseeing I was also able to meet with a representative from the National Association of Rail Passengers, a group that focuses on advocacy and organizing for the poor downtrodden train riders of the U.S. I got to hash out a few details with him about the pros and cons of the Amtrak system, and we brainstormed about what was wrong with the general populace and their lack of enthusiasm for this fine mode of transit. I will enlighten you with more details about the astoundingly high fiscal and environmental efficiency of our railroads at a later time.
In the Smithsonian's American Art Museum we saw a fabulous exhibit of over 40 years of Norman Rockwell's beloved paintings. He documented virtually every innocent and beautiful aspect of American culture from World War I to the sixties, and I am proud to report that there were two train paintings included in the exhibit. One was called "Good Boy (little orphan at the train)" and depicted a story where nuns took orphan children on a tour of the country looking for homes for them after their orphanage burned down. The other was "Little Girl Observing Lovers on a Train," which I think is pretty self-explanatory. They were both sweet subjects that told a story and, as the trains were central yet not necessarily self aware in the paintings, visually prove the indispensable nature of trains in American society during the beginning of the 20th century.
But after two full days of focusing on the period from the late 1700s to the first half of the 1900s, I needed a change. I needed to get a feel for something really old, even by Washingtonian standards. I needed to visit Colonial Williamsburg.
*A theme in the architecture of the building is stately and Romanesque, but with poignant and sometimes oddly placed details showcasing Americana. For instance, the columns were topped with stalks of corn, and floral details on many ceilings were cotton and tobacco blossoms.
**Theodore Roosevelt oversaw its groundbreaking on September 29th, 1907, and George H.W. Bush oversaw it's completion on September 29th, 1990. It is a fantastic and impressive building, but I am at a loss as to why the U.S. felt it needed an enormous Episcopalian church in order to be complete.
***No, I should not.
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Wednesday, November 3, 2010
The hostel puts on a lot of free activities, including a tour of the monuments of the National Mall, which, due to its overwhelming popularity, is scheduled at 9am so only the truly devoted and patriotic will rouse themselves to attend. It has been led for almost eleven years by a sweet, earnest Vietnam veteran called Larry. Throughout the tour he filled our eager heads with historic trivia, and proved to be unendingly patient, tactfully ignoring my worrisome need to constantly tack obnoxious comments to the end of every single thing I hear. Larry, if you are reading this, I appreciate you very much. And you do a fabulous impression of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
There are a lot of very important memorials and monuments that one must stand in awe in front of, and they are not close together. They are scattered around something called the National Mall, which is thankfully nothing like the Mall of America. Larry's tour led us to, past, through, over, and under the White House, Washington Monument, Capitol, Jefferson Memorial, FDR Memorial, the Korean and Vietnam Memorials, the Lincoln Memorial, various impressive statues of men on horses, imposing government buildings, and multiple bodies of water with important historical significance. Some highlights I took away from Larry's font of knowledge:
- A private group started constructing The Washington Monument in 1848. However, they ran out of money 1/4 through, and it was not completed until 30 years later, using public funds.
- The Tidal Basin south of the Mall is lined with thousands of Japanese cherry trees that have been donated as diplomatic gifts from Japan since 1912. 98 of these are originals from the first group and are over 100 years old! They celebrate them each spring when they bloom.
- FDR had an adorable dog called Fala that was his constant companion throughout WWII. We took a picture with her at the FDR Memorial.
- Most of our founding fathers had accomplished amazing feats by their early thirties, which means I need to get my act together.
I spent the afternoon touring Georgetown University, which was recently voted to have the nation's best International Relations graduate program.
Before bed, we watched the 2009 Danny Glover/Steve Zahn disaster Night Train, which was equals parts confounding and infuriating. The quote which demonstrates the horror best would have to be the following, by Glover:
"This train is a dictatorship, and I am the dictator. Now put down the meat cleaver and go back to your seats!!!"This film was not on my Top 100 list.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
- One very important thing that I have found* is that the employees on the train make a huge difference as to how your overall travel experience goes, especially on lengthy journeys. Since one of the most important positives aspects differentiating the train from other modes of transit is the humane, friendly experience, the difference between vivacious and helpful attendants and evil hags that strike fear in your heart and would happily break your traveling spirit and see you locked away for eternity, is marked.**
- While the food has its high and low points, it is consistently better and more diverse than the comestibles on any other mode of transit, including transatlantic steamer ship.
- You may think you are going to be bored relaxing and looking out windows for days on end, but you are wrong. My father and I were shocked at how few activities we actually managed to partake in, how few "tasks" we accomplished. You will become an expert at merely watching and enjoying.
- With train travel, you will arrive refreshed. When I got to D.C., my dear friend Megan asked, "So are you jet lagged, or train lagged, or something?" and I could honestly respond, "No, I feel great, though I may need someone to subtly rock my bed in a train-like manner to fall asleep tonight." Which came across much creepier than I meant.
Anyway, so after a breakfast fraught with fear of the dining car staff, and a morning of gorgeous scenery-watching with Steven and his lovely grandmother***, we arrived in Washington D.C.'s Union Station just before 2pm.
Washington D.C. is so imposing and grand! One can tell by its scale that it was designed as a capital, not just as some colonial settlement. We walked from the station to HI Washington D.C. and got a warm welcome from the accommodating gentlemen working there. The place is quite large, but not impersonal, and they had loads of recommendations for us. It being election day, my father was determined to find us something democratic to do, so he somehow procured an invite to a reception at the Swedish embassy. There, we wined and dined, schmoozed with the Swedish Ambassador and his family, and an international delegation of election officials here to witness and discuss how we do democracy here in the U.S.
Upon our return to the hostel, he left me downstairs with a group of various foreigners, where I promptly started a debate with a young Brazilian man, to the amusement**** of the front desk staff in front of whom the exchange took place. Once all bystanders were convinced that I was indeed the victor, I retired to my room, leaving a trail of amazed international guests in my wake, each more impressed by my rhetorical prowess than the last. I needed to get a good night's sleep before our early morning monument tour, to be led by the "serious and thorough" Vietnam veteran and hostel volunteer, Larry.*****
**I experienced the former on the Zephyr and the latter, unfortunately, on the Limited. And I am not exaggerating- I talked to many other passengers, including Steven, and they all agreed. Horrifying.
***Our favorite stop was Harpers Ferry, where in 1859 John Brown led an infamous slave uprising and took over the US Armory and Arsenal there. The town later changed hands over 10 times during the Civil War, and is now approximately 99% owned by the National Park Service and Historic Register designated. I liked the pretty old houses.
****I use this term hopefully...
*****God help me.
The Plains were a new sight for me, passing through towns like Osceola and Ottumwa, and watching seemingly endless rolling farms, every homestead flanked by at least one silo and an assortment of heavy duty agricultural equipment.
The train was running a couple of hours late at this point, and various passengers had started to get anxious about connecting trains in Chicago. My father and I, however, are easy to sedate with large quantities of something called "Railroad French Toast" so we were confident and largely immobile for the afternoon. We had befriended a boy called Steven* and his grandmother, who home schools him and is taking him on the Best Field Trip Ever to look at points of interest in American history on the east coast. My fame, success, and the huge monetary recompense I get for my work inspired them to become bloggers as well, and I helped them start their own blog.**
We were due to arrive in Chicago at 3pm and our connection to D.C. would not depart until 6:30, giving us the perfect, wedge-shaped slice of time in which to seek out some authentic deep dish Chicago-style pizza. However, as we neared the Chicago area, sweeping past steepled churches, autumnal woods, quaint German bakeries, and perfect green lawns sloping towards stately red brick buildings, we consulted our watches, time tables and various other instruments and were confronted with the bone chilling realization that we were, in fact, three hours late. This translated into my subsequent realization that the Markusons would not be partaking in any cheesy, saucy goodness that afternoon.
We were herded quickly though Union Station,*** and onto our next train which, to our pleasant surprise, was newer and had been slightly tweaked to have a more classy, vintage aesthetic- wood panelling, swept edges, faux granite counters, and a vaguely art-deco dining car. Our porter, a gentleman by the name of Emmanuel, introduced himself, gave us an outline of our journey, and offered us ice. Very kind of you, sir.
Our dinner companions were Bill, an international businessman who said I would do great in D.C. on account of my take-no-prisoners wit and confident**** attitude, and Sharon, who, poor woman, fell prey to a barrage of all of our thoughts and feelings about the entire Amtrak system when we found out she was a corporate employee.
Dad and I snuck our chocolate peanut butter pie back to our compartment to watch the 1970s adventure comedy, Silver Streak, which stars an awesome Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in bell bottoms. Another thrilling and very funny train movie, also high ranking on my 100 Greatest. We would pass Ohio and Pennsylvania under the cover of darkness, to awake following the Potomac River toward our final destination.
*See yesterday's snowball fight.
**If it were not for me, Google would be nothing!
***99% of train stations in the U.S. are called as such, FYI.
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Monday, November 1, 2010
We had moved into the dramatically named Mountain Time Zone, which reminded me of the little known story of how the U.S. first was came to have time zones. Until the railroad became an important industry in the U.S., every isolated yeoman hamlet ran on it's own time, determined by the sun. It was not until trains began connecting distant and previously disconnected areas that the need arose for any sort of reliable timekeeping. It was the railroad industry itself that finally called the General Time Convention of 1883, breaking the continent up into four standardized time zones regulated nationally instead of thousands guessed at by local magicians.
It is these sort of tangential relationships that one can explore fully when one embraces the slower rhythm of life on a train. But I digress.
Our first stop of interest, where we were able to get off the train and explore the surrounding area, was Grand Junction, Colorado. I saw very little of active grandeur, nor of things being conjoined in any productive manner. In a true showing of American disregard for conservation of any kind, there was a succession of three stations from different eras along the tracks. Of course, the newest and worst eyesore was the one currently in use, and co-housed what a hand-painted tarp told me was Grand Junction's "GOP HQ" However I did find, via a dismal tourism display in the station, that the city is the self-proclaimed capital of Colorado's wine country. They also have many options for ATV rental and llama-themed bed and breakfast vacations.
At two other stops we were able to scamper outside and sniff about looking for trouble. In Glenwood Springs, where Teddy Roosevelt used to vacation at the Hotel Colorado, we found a yellow castle guarded by two enormous water slides, as well as a gift shop disguised as a railroad museum run by a joyless man masquerading as a railroad conductor. In Fraser, I got into a vicIous snowball fight with a 300 pound Amtrak porter and an eight year old boy called Steven.**
We arrived early in Denver, at 6pm, and had over an hour to explore the downtown area, during which time my father and I saw a family of zombies eating dinner on a restaurant patio, and founded a local food bank program to help provide disenfranchised youth obtain Chipotle burritos.***
Back on the train, Dad and I ate delicious New York steak and some sort of reconstituted salmon jerky product, respectively, in the very pleasant company of a couple from New Zealand on a two week, pan-continental holiday. Our nightly train film was the implausible and overall ridiculous 1990 remake of The Narrow Margin.
The next day would find us on the Great Plains, steaming**** towards Chicago.
*Train lingo for top bunk
**I think it is obvious who won.
***What actually happened was two desperate homeless folks asked us for money for a burrito, and I, desperate for something to accomplish in Denver, said "How about we buy you a burrito instead?" expecting some muttered reply retracting their request. But, lo and behold, their faces brightened, and they dragged me into the burrito chain with them ranting about a Halloween deal where burritos were, they thought, free if one covered one's body with a certain quantity of foil. However, after ordering they were confronted with a total price of 4 dollars for their two burritos. Penniless, they had resorted to begging outside. Their enormous burritos were waiting patiently for them as I paid the clerk. It was a Halloween miracle.
****I use the term figuratively.
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