July 30th 2019 – my crossing of the States by train.
(Began 29th July – fly into New York City)
(30th – afternoon in New York)
29th/30th July - New York:
Sporty girl in track suit laughs as I bash my head as I get out my train seat and I suggest I should be on the stage - such was the comic potential. Twenty minutes of a Pennebaker-like ride into the City, a few hundred metres down the hot summer sidewalk and I'm at the Holiday Inn - 30th floor with massive air conditioning and a great view. Friendly place in the middle of it all.
|The Groove - 125 MacDougal St|
Next day I've all day to shop and head back down the street to Penn Station and go to the rather plush Amtrak lounge for 4pm and we're herded down the escalator to our hidden train under the City - love it - where I board and there's my guard ready to show me my roomette and I find a convenient toilet and foldaway wash-basin right next to my seat - in my roomette! Fantastic - as a Colitis sufferer it's worth the trip just for this convenience alone.
We head into the night with wifi and a cafeteria style buffet service in the dining car with an excellent attendant ready to chat and he lets you hang out and have a chat if you want.
A bit cold in my cabin - the air conditioner is too good on a hot evening - but once I pull the bunk down and get into bed I note it's warmer at the top of the cabin - hot air rises. I fall asleep to the soothing trundle of the carriage.
31st July Chicago and onward
I awake to see four wheel drive cars earnestly heading along farm roads on their way to work, and note the wonderful absurdity of my glancing from my bed as I hurtle into the very town they're trying to get to - I'll be there long before them and decide to grab a Muffin, porridge and coffee breakfast that Peter has carefully laid out for all of us.
|Back street Chicago - stairway to Heaven|
Hard to find a place I want to eat though – settle for Pret a Manger (sell-out!) for sake of price and convenience.
All aboard The California Zephyr...
Here I sit, sleeper carriage on the California Zephyr without wifi and en-route between Chicago and San Francisco, wondering whether my illness is in fact brought on by nervous energy after eating a perfectly decent salmon and runner beans plus New York cheesecake with Dave from New York and his young family – all funny, sharp witted and friendly – the white linen table cloths and iron cutlery suddenly place this way above the friendly commuter atmosphere of the Chicago sleeper out of New York to Chicago, but now I have groups of travellers with large lensed cameras sitting in groups checking out the passing fields of maize. Okay, that’s enough maize surely, surely that’s enough to feed the world three times over? Nope, more maize keeps coming and it’s now 7:17 pm and my Amtrak tracker map on my phone tells me we’re on our way into Ottumwa – Iowa.
I pull my own bed down and decide it's better to sleep on the lower level - the seats fold into a bed as well. That way I can watch the stars out the window. The great thing about this train - you feel if it broke down you'd really be in the wilderness, because next to the rail is nothing. Unlike a road or highway where there's always gas stations or passing stores, signposts and general humanity. Here, slicing through the fields, the plains, the stars above... great feeling. Once again, the gentle trundling of the train quickly sends me off to a real deep sleep complete with dreams of a ideal city that looks very much like Chicago...
August 1st Thursday
Breakfast with Chinese girl and her Mother.
The usual story of what feels most uncomfortable becomes most enlightening; I’m sat with a bright Chinese student and her mother – who speaks no English but they’re travelling through the USA down to Phoenix to visit a relative. After answering their request that I take a photo of them, I let her ask the questions and introduce myself, she studies anthropology and is interested in the relationship between England and the USA – the fact that we had a fight all those years ago and isn’t there any animosity remaining? I smile and liken us to two kids in a playground who had a scrap and then realise we’re both very alike and become the best of bosom pals for the rest of our lives. She compares this to China and Japan and how the animosity hasn’t subsided.
‘China’s becoming very successful and powerful now’ I throw in by way of an entrance.
‘Yes, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing – very threatening’. She adds. ‘But England – very good history – very successful – Empire’.
‘Ah yes, well, I nod the apologetic smile of the new-found liberal tendency; ‘I’m not sure we’re too proud of that anymore either’.
For a student of anthropology she certainly cuts to the core of the matter. Fluent English, well read and versed in our cultural exports (Sherlock), all I can recommend of San Francisco is the jazz bars, the range of fresh food on Columbus and a one hour yacht trip under the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet my mind is thinking ‘there’s some great dodgy bars down near skid row’. An enthusiastic engager – she heads off with her Mum - I’m beginning to think this dining together thing isn’t so bad.
1st August - Dinner
Ralston has a straw hat and play-fights with the waiter before asking politely if he could join us – I’m with a retired New Zealand couple who are on their way to San Francisco after sailing up to New York from the Panama Canal via Guatemala and Mexico; but Ralston has the ease of someone who knows his craft and proceeds to listen before briefly explaining that he’s surrounded by his wife and children and grandchildren – he tries to guess our accents and gets mine right but his easy Michigan accent seems to suggest he’s spoken to audiences many times before – he’s a guitarist and speaks of Big Bill Brooming and visiting Pete Seeger, then of writing a piece about James Dean that ended up being about losing his Mother to Cancer. ‘Car Crash Conversations’ and (something) ‘at the Texas Hotel’. I need to find this.
Incredible – my friends Julian and Kayla appear at Salt Lake City (1:15am) with a cream cake after they got married in Vegas. Kinda cool. I step down and we stand about for ten minutes on the platform before the whilst blows and I have to head off again. Great effort guys! Something very atmospheric with the train whistle and lack of platform - they just wander up and there they are outside my cabin! The lack of platform makes me feel like I’m in the wild west.
2nd August – Lunch
I thought I wouldn’t bother, the vibe was reticent and happy within their own spheres, so I introduced myself to the black lady next to me who looked at my hand momentarily as if I was making a rude sign; she gently shook and said she’d got on at Reno headed for Union City – somewhere south of San Fran; the two opposite were interested in me – and in my usual way I told my life history piecemeal – prompting the usual response ‘you don’t seem military in any way’. Her eyes lit up with mention of my having met the great Lawrence Ferlinghetti last year, and we moved on to the future of Britain with Boris Johnson – they felt it was like another Trump and I agreed. I give him until Nov. I hope he succeeds – I’ll give him a chance and be ready to laugh at myself if I’m wrong. But I won’t be buying any property just yet.
Tired of the lack of internet, nothing to read other than Martin Amis and I cannot do anything more with my screenplay until I start plotting it out again with post-it notes.
Reno comes and goes with a mere walk on the platform, those almost memories of lap-dancers…
Still awaiting the internet as I try to book a second night in San Francisco for tomorrow.
What have I got from this trip?
Difficult to say really, I like the feeling of being a bubble moving through the wilderness, I love there being no platform as we wander into small towns and step out onto shingle. I like dining as the Colorado river passes by the right-hand side – one girl moons her buttocks – the rest are far too bashful. I also like my own personal space and sleeping with a sense of progress, because without a doubt - everything here has a sense of progress.
But I also find myself thinking this is not enough – that heading back to teaching after this is nowhere near recompense for what I’ve been through this past year. That’s not the fault of the railway, that’s the fault of my choices.
August 3rd – San Franciscan morning
|Resort 'tax' - at the Zephyr|
|Columbus Street - San Francisco|
And my 24 hours in San Francisco results in a love of Mozzarella and Tomato Paninis, there's blokes in here with cravats and berets - and why not? By their age they were probably here during the fifties so they're probably the real thing, whatever that is. Going into a restaurant as a single bloke is a little bit of a stigma in the roaring tourist trade at night, the Italian restaurant has to be reminded by me to provide bread and a menu - but the couple next door are looked after like proper guests - thank you Pinnochio's - I pay my bill and get the hell out.
|Don't even think about it...|
|City/village mix - wonderful|
So what did I do? Very little. Loved it.