Back on Amtrak
The vibrating hum and
the xylophone ring of my iPhone woke me from my slumber at 3 a.m,
followed by the rude buzzing of the clock radio. I silenced them
both and stumbled into the kitchen.
I threw a cup of rolled oats into a Pyrex bowl, poured in some water and stuck it in the microwave for 10 minutes. Then I grated a knob of ginger root, placed the shavings into a tea ball and tossed it into a small pot of boiling water to simmer.
I chucked a handful of frozen berries into the blistering hot oatmeal along with a cup of almond milk and a blob of honey. The oatmeal cooled down quickly and its texture became perfect.
I ate the
oatmeal and sipped on the ginger root tea while I watched my Baby
Ruh daintily separate her gourmet dog food from the dry kibbles, devour the former and reject the latter. I washed my dirty dishes and
took her for a walk around the block.
It was 6 o’clock when we returned and I was down to the wire: I packed my meds into a TSA-approved quart bag, gave my sleeping Jennifer Wren a kiss on the forehead and hugged my Baby Ruh goodbye.
I left the house and wheeled my carry-on to Central Avenue where I jumped on the 66 bus. Upon reaching downtown I transferred to the #50 bus and arrived at the Albuquerque Sunport by seven.
I walked to the meditation room, closed my eyes and relaxed. After 10 minutes I found an empty bathroom, locked myself in the handicap stall and stripped down to my boxers.
I stuffed my pants and my shirt into the carryon, along with my gadgets, wallet, watch and anything else that would set off the full body scanner or get lost on the conveyor belt. I pulled on my purple board shorts — the ones with the lightning bolts — and slipped on my black University of New Mexico tee shirt (go Lobos!).
Then I rolled my bag out of the bathroom, into the great hall, up an escalator and into the back of a long line of people eagerly waiting to pass through security.
I showed my driver’s license and boarding pass to an officer who studied me carefully, made some small talk, checked my ticket and waved me to the back of a line where I placed my shoes in a gray plastic basket and hoisted my bag onto the conveyor.
I entered an acrylic full-body scanner, placed my stocking feet into position, raised my hands above my head and was blasted with invisible electromagnetic waves.
After 15 seconds I was deemed harmless and exited the scanner. Meanwhile, my luggage and shoes were being examined with a high resolution, full-color X-ray machine. I retrieved them after they passed inspection and slipped on my shoes. I walked to a bathroom, locked myself into a cubicle, put on my traveling clothes, my wallet, my watch and all my other little gadgets.
I was fit to fly and, having successfully made my way through one of America’s most high-tech airport security networks, felt safe as a child, relaxed as a smile and cool as a cucumber even though I had chosen to travel on September 11, 2013.
I also wasn’t hungry: That quart of oatmeal hit the spot and I didn’t need to spend my money at one of the Sunport’s overpriced restaurants. And even if I did get hungry I could grab some Nature Valley Sweet and Salty Peanut candy bars that I had stashed in my bag.
I walked to the Southwest Airlines gate and boarded a near-empty redeye bound for Phoenix where I claimed a whole row of seats to myself.
But this placid scene changed after I transferred to my connecting flight. I got squeezed into a tight seat on a packed airplane bound for Milwaukee and the Greenbay Packers/Redskins game.
After touching down in “Brew Town” — in a landing the flight attendant called “smooth as freshly-churned butter” — I was met by Owen Goldin at Arrivals in his Smart car. “It’s made by Mercedes-Benz,” he said proudly as I marveled at its elfin proportions.
Owen and I first met as freshman at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. He was a poet and a brilliant scholar who helped me fake my way through junior year genetics and senior year relativity. He is now a distinguished professor in philosophy at Marquette University.
Owen drove to the Milwaukee River where we walked along its banks and reminisced about the good ol’ days. I complimented him on his rugged, “weathered” looks (which he took in good humor) and I praised the music videos that he had been posting on the World Wide Web. Here’s one I particularly like:
After the hike we drove to the Stonefly Brewing Company in the Riverwest neighborhood where I drank a pint of the Star Destroyer Stout (9.5%ABV!) and a pint of Four Wolves English Ale, each at $4 a glass. I was glad to revisit this classic bar with its colossal mouse trap hanging from the wall.
As the sun began to set Owen whisked me to the modern Amtrak station where I caught the last southbound train to Chicago.
Now I’m sitting in a forward-facing seat of the Hiawatha on a one-way, 70-mile train ride to Glenview, Illinois: its last stop before it arrives in The Windy City.
The Hiawatha lacks the frills one finds in most long-haul trains, like regularly spaced air vents and swivel lighting. There are, however, plenty of electrical outlets. The train runs smoothly on an endless ribbon of hardened steel, as smoothly as freshly churned butter. The conductor is polite and tells me I need to cross the tracks when I arrive in Glenview so that I can connect with the local train.
Glenview, Illinois. 9 p.m.
I sit beneath a fuzzy half-moon. I have no idea which way is north or south and I don’t care. I just don’t care.
It’s nice to sit here, motionless, decompressing from a long day of travel on a hot, humid late-summer evening.
I’m 20 miles from my final destination and I’m supposed to jump on the Metra North commuter train that will take me to Deerfield.
I see the lights of the northbound Metra appear in the distance and when it arrives I climb on board. The car is practically empty and split into two levels. The seats on the ground floor can be flipped over so that a party of four can sit facing each other.
My ticket costs only $3 and is issued by a tall young man who cuts a handsome figure in his crisp white shirt, conductor hat and tie, scanner, ticket holder and puncher, as well as the time-honored shiny silver change-maker.
Deven, Bonnie Belle’s 16-year-old son, is waiting for me at the Deerfield Metra Station. I load my bags into the back of his SUV and we drive to Highland Park and his mom’s apartment.
After we arrive I tell Bonnie that she needs to keep my schedule wide open because I want to meet up with Jim, whom I haven’t seen in over a year. It has been difficult for us to coordinate our schedules lately because he’s been spending a lot of time at his factory in China. Bonnie sets me up in her daughter’s old bedroom and I get a good night’s sleep.
Jim picked me up early the next morning. We parked his Mercedes G-Wagon illegally in a garage across from the Highland Park train station and jumped on the Metra North, bound for Chicago. We arrived at the Ogelvie Transportation Center within the hour where I bought a $10 CTA bus pass. This would cover our bus fares for the day and I slipped it into my shirt pocket, behind my iPhone.
We jumped on a bus that took us to Randolph Street where we descended into an underground Metra Station. From there we caught an electric train that took us directly beneath the McCormick Place.
We climbed a flight of stairs and found ourselves within the vast sun-splashed atrium of the 2.6 million sq. ft. convention center. Jim, who usually commutes to the city by car, marveled at the ease by which we were able to make it from Highland Park to the heart of Chicago.
There were two trade shows “co-located” at the McCormick that day. The first was “the Midwest’s Leading Advanced Manufacturing Event for Technology, Suppliers, Education & Networking” and the other was “Print 13.” There was something for both of us to enjoy and we spent a few hours chatting with the exhibitors and checking out the cool machines.
On the way home I discovered that I had lost the $10 CTA bus pass that I had bought earlier in the day and I felt terrible because we had barely made a dent in it. Our foray into public transportation had been going so well and I was usually careful about keeping track of such things. The pass must have slipped out of my shirt pocket when I was checking my iPhone. I should have put it in my wallet.
Jim grilled me, “How could you lose the ticket?” but then he backtracked and said consolingly, “these things happen.” He flagged down a cab that got us back to the transit center and the northbound Metra train which got us back to Highland Park in record time. Thankfully the “G- Wagen” had not been towed or ticketed while we were gone.
That night we drove Jim’s son, Brian, to his Boy Scout meeting in the neighboring town of Deerfield. Brian had sprouted like a weed since I last saw him. He was bigger than me now and also very close to earning his Eagle Scout award: He just needed to submit his final project and pass the board of review.
Brian had built a sturdy shelter in the Heller Nature Center in Highland Park for his Eagle Scout project where people can rest and observe wildlife. It is an elegant, rustic structure that rose from original plans and architectural models. Brian had an enthusiastic and energetic workforce of friends and family at his disposal to see the project to completion, including his dad who is an accomplished woodworker. Jim, whose motto is “measure twice and cut once,” had built many fine pieces of furniture for his house including the building blocks Brian had played with when he was a boy.
At the Boy Scout meeting I asked Brian’s scoutmaster if he thought that combining girls and boys into the scouting movement was sacrilege. This question had been weighing on my mind ever since the Scouts had decided to allow gay boys into their organization and I wanted a professional opinion.
“Only in the United States and certain Moslem countries are boys and girls segregated,” the rotund, jolly Scoutmaster told me. “In the rest of the world girls and boys are combined together in an organization called The Scouts.”
I mentioned to him, in an offhand way, that I had been an Eagle Scout during my youth. “You still are an Eagle Scout,” he said. “Once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout!”
After we settled Brian in at the scout meeting, Jim drove me to a nearby sushi bar where he ordered up a storm of exotic favorites for the two of us, as well as a smooth bottle of Saki. Jim is a great person to eat Sushi with because nobody knows Sushi like he does. Nobody.
At the end of dinner I grabbed the extortionate check from the waitress ($180 including tip) and said, “I’ve got it!” I whipped out my Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card and saw Jim’s jaw practically dropped to the floor in astonishment at this unexpected and unprecedented gesture.
The next few days were spent in long hikes alongside the windy shores of Lake Michigan and the Greenbay Trail. As Jim and I walked merrily along these footpaths we clutched six pound barbells in our hands. Jim said they would help strengthen our core muscles, biceps and triceps, but I just stayed focused on not injuring myself with those goddamn weights. The leaves were starting to turn and the air was cool as the sun bathed us with her golden rays beneath a perfectly cloudless, blue Chicago sky.
I’d like to say a few words about Ashley, Jim’s daughter: In addition to all her other skills (she is an excellent writer and a budding young actress) she is also an accomplished marksman. So, at Jim’s request, I would like to share with you a short film that displays her precision shooting.
On my last full day in Chicago Jim and I went bar hopping met up with Stephanie, Jim’s Belizean friend and her cousin, Victoria. We ended up at the Miramar Bistro, a fancy Cuban restaurant in the neighboring town of Highwood, where we downed three dozen oysters and three very expensive bottles of champagne: Jim’s treat.
I got so drunk I can’t remember how I made it home and but I do recall that I had an unfortunate encounter with one of Ashley’s rose bushes in the front lawn of Jim’s house. It tore my brand new shirt with a vengeance and embedded me with some wicked thorns. Brian and Ashley raced to my aid, applied first aid, cleaned and disinfected my wounds and got me into bed.
Another casualty of that night of Bacchic revelry was the mysterious loss of my iPhone which I always kept securely attached to me with a lanyard that I wear around my neck. When I woke up the next morning I noticed it was gone and figured I had lost it.
The unit was password-protected so I was not particularly concerned about a security breach; plus, I could call Apple and have all the information in the phone erased, should it come to that.
“Easy come, easy go,” I said philosophically, cursing my bad luck for having lost my precious iPhone.
Jim had given me that iPhone4S year ago in an attempt to bring me “to the next level,” as he once put it. He was a patient teacher and taught me how to text, synchronize my e-mails and surf the web.
The phone and I had become inseparable since then, even though I was not much of a conversationalist. I loved to listen to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis on Pandora, as well as “Click and Clack, the Tappit Brothers” and “Morning Edition” on NPR.
But of all the things the iPhone could do, the thing I liked most was the “app” that helped me catch city buses. Thanks to that “app” I know exactly where the city buses are at all times and I never have to frantically rush to catch one. This nervous tendency to “rush” is what caused me to break my jaw in June of 2012: While running to a bus stop, I tripped on my sandal and landed chin-first on the sidewalk.
Oh well, my iPhone was now gone forever and freaking out would not bring it back. I was entirely to blame and was resigned to return to my stupid and unreliable Virgin Mobile phone. Nevertheless, I found reassurance in the wise words of Horatio Alger whom I had been reading earlier that day: “Don’t think too much of the past which cannot be recalled: Resolve not to repeat your folly and all may yet be well.”
As it turns out, Jim found my phone in his house later that day. I was thrilled and resolved to take much better care of it in the future.
Jim was the landlord of a successful barber shop in Gurnee, Illinois. We visited the shop and he offered to buy me a haircut. Jim instructed the barber, Melinda, on how to cut my hair. “Let him have his fun,” I thought. “It will all grow back. What harm can it do?”
Jim told Mel to cut my hair short-short, almost to the length it had been when I was a little boy. She essentially gave me a crew cut and it felt great but I barely recognized myself. Everybody who saw me from that moment on liked the way I looked and paid me compliments. I was shocked to see how a simple thing like a haircut could change the way people perceived me.
Later that evening, four of us — Melinda, her son, Jim and I — went out to dinner at the Reflections Restaurant and Lounge on the east shore of Deep Lake in Lake Villa, Illinois). It was there that I ate the best roast duck I had ever eaten!
I have eaten duck a few times in my life, mostly at Chinese restaurants, and each time they were presented to me as flattened, segmented slabs of greasy, artificially-colored red meat. This amazing bird, however, was everything I had ever hoped a roast duck to be: juicy, flavorful and lean. And at $15 (Jim’s treat), it was one of the more reasonably priced items on the menu. In fact, it was featured as the house special. Clearly, this restaurant had the preparation of roast duck down to a fine science. If you are ever in Deep Lake, do check out this place and order the duck.
Jim’s birthday was coming up so I gave him an aluminized case for his iPhone that had his picture printed on its front cover. I took that picture of him in the late 70s with a cheap Instamatic. He was 17 and had come to visit me while I was a student at St. John’s College in Santa Fe.
Jim liked my gift and immediately replaced his protective case with the one I had given him. He proudly showed it off to his family and friends and they ooed and aahed. His children marveled at the sight of this dashing young man who wasn’t much older than they were now.
After dinner Jim and I drove back to Bonnie’s place but we hardly spoke. Instead, we spent our time listening to National Public Radio and a dark production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Jim (the consummate salesman) turned up the sound and we both got lost in the dialogue:
“ . . . I’ll show you all the towns. America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there’ll be open sesame for all of us, ‘cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own. This summer, heh?”
(spoken byWilly Loman) Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
When we reached the apartment Jim and I parted with a simple handshake. The next day I would begin my epic train trip on Amtrak with Bonnie: my good friend, traveling companion and the only person I know who is crazy enough to undertake such a journey.
Bonnie and I could
have taken Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from Chicago to LA. That would
have been the reasonable thing to do, with a distance of 2,256
miles and a traveling time of 43 hours.
Instead we climbed aboard the Empire Builder, a train that took us to the northern US border, skirted Montana and dropped us off in Portland, Oregon. From there we jumped on board the Coast Starlight which took us to LA. This trip would cover a distance of 3,457 miles and a traveling time of 82 hours.
So, the distance that Bonnie and I eventually covered on our train trip was 1,200 miles and two days longer than if we had taken the Southwest Chief.
Most of the scenery on the Empire Builder was flat farmland. The most spectacular sight must have been the giant malted barley silos we saw before we entered Glacier National Park, just when the sun was beginning to set. So we never saw the Rocky Mountains — a big disappointment.
We did, however, get a nice introduction into roomette train travel and Bonnie took to it like a pro. Our attendant was Charles Pinner, a black man with dreadlocks who has worked at Amtrak for 24 years. Charles had a severe limp and yet he performed his job better than any train attendant I have ever known. He was able to get an entire sleeper car (upper and lower) ready for the bed at night and somehow got us all awake and ready for action the next morning without missing a beat.
Charles had a lovely sense of humor that charmed the ladies and he understood the intricate mechanics and electronics of the sleeper car, as well.
At the beginning of the trip I asked Charles if he could repair the dead electrical outlet in our roomette. He managed to find the archaic breaker to our room, buried in a mess of antiquated circuitry located at the end of the car, and he reset it without breaking a sweat.
When Bonnie mentioned to Charles that she was resigned to take a cold shower because the water in the car was not heating up he said, “Oh no you don’t!” and proceeded to “bleed” the system. Within minutes, she was able to luxuriate under a stream of endless hot water.
Charles had nicknames for the women of our sleeper car: “Blondie” was the name of our neighbor with straw-colored hair and Bonnie became known as “Heavy Bonnie” because her luggage weighed a ton.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Charles announced to the car as we were settling in, “we have a celebrity in our midst! We are graced with a world- renowned movie star who has broken the hearts of millions. Let’s have a big round of applause for Miss Bonnie Belle. Give it up for Miss Belle!” and the whole sleeper car erupted in cheers for my traveling companion.
Bonnie, with her gracious mannerisms and 16 different outfits, carried herself well and looked like a petite supermodel straight out of the pages of Vanity Fair. More than one passenger asked her if she was truly a movie star to which she replied, “No, sadly, I am not.”
In addition to his duties as sleeper attendant, Charles assisted in the dining car during the rush hour. He told me that at some point in his Amtrak career, when he was working as a cook in the kitchen of the dining room car, he had arrived at “a moment of clarity” when he could no longer eat animals. “I looked around me and I was surrounded by dead animals and I realized that I had to become a vegetarian.”
Charles also served as the sommelier of the wine tasting event held in the dining car, an occasion only open to us first class passengers.
We sampled many varieties of cheese and sipped four different kinds of wine. When Charles found that he had a half bottle of wine left over, he said that he would give it to anybody who could solve a riddle.
“How many seconds are there in a year?”
“There are only 12,” I shouted out: “January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd and so on.”
Fortunately, earlier in the train trip, Charles posed that very same riddle to Bonnie and me while he was making up our roomette. I had no idea that the solution to that riddle would later come in handy and so I won an expensive half bottle of red wine even though I had an unfair advantage over everybody else.
Charles posed another riddle to us later, “Who was the president in 1975?” he asked.
“Richard Nixon?” I replied, a little uncertain.
“No, it was Barack Obama.”
“How do you figure?”
“Because our current President still had the name Barack Obama in 1975.”
We laughed once we wrapped our minds around that joke, though it took me a while to figure it out.
The food onboard Amtrak has greatly improved since the last time I rode the rails, and Bonnie and I made a point of never missing a meal. All our meals came free with our ticket and all we had to do was lay down a tip and pay for alcohol. But we hardly ever bought booze because Bonnie had her bag stuffed with 12 oz. cans of Coors Light and I had a dozen little 6.3 ounce bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon in my carry-on.
Our first dinner featured a spice-rubbed Atlantic salmon fillet (normally $23.25). “Garnished with a lemon widge and parsley, served with three grain rice pilaf and vegetable medley (652 cal.),” read the lavish, slick menu. The food was elegantly served on china plates with silverware. Those nasty disposable plates of the Bush era were a thing of the past: We were now being treated like royalty.
On the second evening we ordered the Amtrak Signature Steak ($25.75): “A well-marbled Black Angus USDA Choice flat iron steak, grilled to perfection and cooked to order. Served with our signature Morel Wild Forest Mushroom Sauce, accompanied by a baked potato with sour cream and vegetable medley (589 cal.)”
The Chef’s Good Morning Special ($10.75) greeted us for breakfast: “Southwest quiche with a savory egg custard, roasted green chiles, garlic, sautéed onions, corn and three cheeses wrapped in a pastry crust. Served with roasted potatoes or grits and breakfast bread selection (925 cal.).”
And for lunch we tried the veggie and Angus steak burgers, specialty sandwiches, and soup and salad combos.
The food was plentiful, well-cooked, the service was outstanding and the view from our seats was tip-top. I was glad to be riding first class. Everybody else has to pay dearly for all their amenities; they have no privacy or showers, and they sit on worn-out seats that do not lay flat. It’s rough.
At the end of the trip we gave Charles a $40 tip which he graciously accepted. He probably deserved more but that was all we could afford.
The Empire Builder arrived at Portland, Oregon exactly on time and that marked the end of the first leg of our journey. We had four hours to kill before getting on our next train, the Coast Starlight. The station was beautiful and we were allowed to store our luggage in a secure room reserved for first class passengers. Unencumbered by luggage and free of the train, we are ready to get some serious exercise.
We spent four hours walking through Portland, marveling at the majestic restored Victorian homes, a mammoth synagogue and a vibrant downtown that wound its way through hilly, tree-covered streets. I was fascinated by a sign hanging in the window of a dry cleaner that read “IF YOU ARE UNEMPLOYED AND NEED AN OUTFIT CLEAN FOR AN INTERVIEW, WE WILL CLEAN IT FOR FREE.”
Soon Bonnie and I were seated in the Parlor Car of the Coast Starlight, train #11, bound for Los Angeles. Bonnie was seated opposite me and we were relaxing in purple easy chairs, like the kind you would see in a family living room, certainly not on a train.
Only first class passengers were allowed to enter the Parlor Car; and to have the run of the place for 30 hours was a dream come true, because I had heard so much about it in the writings of other rail fans. I had also, long ago, grown weary of riding in coach seats, restricted in my every movement, having to pay for every little thing that came my way. Trust me, I had paid my dues to coach.
The roomette that Bonnie and I occupied on both the Empire Builder (car #2730) and the Coast Starlight (car #1130) were small, no more than seven feet long, eight feet high and four feet wide. We occupied room 4 on the second level, located smack in the middle of the aforementioned cars. I was told by my friends in the Amtrak Forum that room 4 is one of the quietest rooms in the sleeper car because it was furthest from the stairway and the bathrooms. The position of the room also made it least impacted by variations of the roadbed and the rails far below us.
There was one bathroom on the second level of the sleeper and a few on the bottom, including a generous shower filled with plenty of towels, soaps and shampoos. There were no restrictions on water use and one could stay in there as long as one pleased.
The two opposing seats of our roomette folded out into a lower bed at night. Another bed cleverly pivoted down from its resting place near the ceiling to accommodate a second passenger.
There were subtle differences between the roomettes of the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight. One had a tiny, narrow closet while the other had only a bar on the wall to hang clothes. One had LEDs to illuminate the room, the other had light bulbs. The shower in one sleeper car was much more spacious than the other and its water was activated by pushing a button, while in the other the water simply came on by turning a knob.
I preferred the older sleeper car accommodations to that of the newer one because everything in the older car seemed to work much better. Most of these cars are old on the outside and refurbished on the inside, but the electronics on board both look ancient.
The word on the street is that brand new railroad cars are about to be released into the system and, with Amtrak being more successful than ever before, its future (at least for long-haul travel) may finally be secure.
The winding train tracks that lead to Santa Barbara traverse some of the most beautiful, and rugged landscapes in America. It amazes me how our train can climb up and down these steep mountain grades without tumbling down the side. Some of the tunnels that we pass through seem to go on forever.
Bonnie and I stake out two of the purple easy chairs in the Parlor Car, in the company of five hardcore rail fans, when our train suddenly stops on a sidetrack and doesn’t budge.
One of these guys stares intently at a scanner while holding a dog-eared copy of the California regional timetable. Another fellow wears an Amtrak cap and says, “We have to wait for the Northbound 14 train before we can start moving again. We’re not going anywhere until we get the highball signal.”
Bonnie and I are occupying the best real estate on the Coast Starlight for some of the most scenic landscape to be found anywhere and we’re not about to give it up, even for a wine tasting. Bonnie’s got her Coors Light (which she replenished in Portland) and I’ve got my little bottles of cabernet, so we’re set.
The Coast Starlight arrives at Los Angeles Union Station at 9 p.m., a half hour early, and this gives us a chance to take our time in detraining, collecting our wits, and touring the beautifully restored station with its exquisite combination of Dutch Colonial Revival, Mission Revival and Streamline Moderne architectural styles.
The last train to San Juan Capistrano, the Surfliner, leaves at 10:30 pm and that gives us plenty of time to admire the travertine marble floors, comfy leather seats and garden patios. Our business class ticket for the final, short leg of this journey was included in the 20,000 Amtrak Guest Reward Points I spent for our ticket.
The difference between coach and business class on the Surfliner is minimal: I am given a choice between a small bottle of red or white wine (Bonnie’s got her Coors Light, of course), and we are handed a package of snacks. This hardly justified the extra cost of the tickets (had we actually paid for a ticket), which was significant. But one nice thing about traveling business class was that I was able to tell my host, Joe, exactly what car I would be in, because it was located directly behind the locomotive.
Joe was waiting to greet us at the station, having walked there from his house. We had not seen each other for five long years. I had been going through some hard times the last few years with my mom’s slow decline and eventual death, but Joe’s Christmas cards always arrived like clockwork, and when he learned we were coming through he invited Bonnie and me to visit.
I suppose I should have told Joe to bring his large SUV to pick us up but I didn’t and so we had to schlep all our bags back to his house. “What do you have in here? Bricks?” Joe asked Bonnie as he helped roll our bags up the hill, past the old Mission Church.
It was past 11 p.m. when we arrived at his house. “We don’t sleep together,” I told Joe as the bedtime arrangements were being sorted out.
Bonnie said that she was about to pass out so Joe got her quickly squared away in the guestroom. Joe found me a pillow, sheets and a blanket and helped me turn the living room sofa into a bed.
Afterwards we walked into his backyard and beneath the bright glow of an enormous full moon. “You almost need sunglasses to look at it,” Joe said.
Joe and I are the same age and we have known each other since we shared the same 6th grade class at Edgewood Junior High School. We were Boy Scouts in the same troop, back in Highland Park, and tent mates at Camp Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan.
Joe helped me come to terms with Los Angeles after my family moved to Woodland Hills (just a few years after his family packed up and moved to Malibu) and he was a reassuring voice on the telephone after I became a freshman at St. John’s. I tried to teach him how to waltz and how to dance free-form to his beloved Grateful Dead music. I fondly remember how we used to cruise the streets of LA in his old Porsche and the streets of Tijuana in my ’65 Ford Falcon.
As we got older Joe tried his best to teach me how to sail, windsurf and ski while introducing me to classic music like Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead. We skied Taos, Santa Fe and Big Bear together and he once invited me to a Lakers’ Playoff game at the Staples Center where I saw, with my own eyes, Shaq and Kobe dominate the court.
In many ways our lives ran parallel to each other: Neither of us ever got married, had kids or rose above the middle class. Yet both of us managed to find good jobs and buy a house. Neither of us were geniuses or Don Juans but we could hold our own in the romance department and we always managed to stay gainfully employed, even during the worst of times.
I always found it reassuring to know that ol’ Joe was out there, somewhere, making ends meet. And I figured if he could survive and thrive in this dog-eat-dog, backstabbing world, then I could, too.
Laughter still flickered in his eyes like the old days but when I inevitably brought up the subject of my broken jaw (a bad habit of mine) he said, in that off-hand, tough-love way of his, “Well, don’t expect me to feel sorry for you.”
Whereupon I replied, “You never have,” and gave him a significant look.
Joe always had a way of telling me the things I really didn’t want to hear about myself and I generally replied by saying something that was not altogether true.
At 2 a.m. I suggested that we assemble a Keurig fancy coffee maker that he had bought online and had been delivered that very same day. It was the sort of device that brews single servings of coffee, tea and hot chocolate within a minute. The brewing takes place within little disposable “K-Cups” and requires no cleanup.
After we unboxed the device, deciphered the “chinglish” instructions and set it up, we finally got the thing to work (although we did forget to install the water filter). The device turned out to work as well as advertised and Joe was pleased with his purchase. Now he could quickly serve the most delicious gourmet hot drinks to his guests without all the muss and fuss.
The next day I treated Joe and Bonnie to breakfast at the Ramos House Café, which prides itself upon the age of its digs (1881). The owner lives and works within the house; the wines are kept in the cellar; the herbs are grown in the garden; the ice cream is turned out back, and everything is made from scratch.
We sat out in a rustic, enclosed courtyard in the open air. We were handed an elegant tri-folded 3x3” menu with colonial type. We split our orders between the organic heirloom summer squash hash & fried poached eggs ($16) and the crab hash with bacon scrambled eggs & citrus cream ($17). Delicious!
Afterwards we visited a nearby curio shop called Cottage Home and Garden where I bought a dozen little hand-crafted butterflies made from bird feathers. The owner was amazed when I specifically asked for them because she had just made a “flight” of them the previous day and put them out for display that very morning. It was quite a happy coincidence for both of us.
Then Joe drove us to San Clemente beach where we walked six miles by the water’s edge. Unlike the beaches that he could have taken us to (like Malibu or Santa Monica), these pristine beaches, fronting expensive homes on the cliffs, were virtually empty. As we looked out to sea, Joe pointed to a group of young surfers clad in their black wet suits, battling the waves.
“Grommets,” he said.
“What’s a grommet?” I asked.
“It’s a surfer boy.”
Intrigued by a new slang word to add to my vocabulary, I later googled it and this is what I found.
In addition to our rambling conversation, we played Frisbee and sunned ourselves on the sand. It was so good to be back by the ocean. She was like an old friend.
On the way home we all pitched in and bought a bunch of mahi-mahi steaks and tiger shrimp, and Joe barbequed a delicious meal in his backyard.
Joe left for work early the next morning, and Bonnie and I gave him a hug and thanked him for his hospitality. We left the house at about 9:30 and dragged our luggage downhill to the depot, much easier now that we had gravity on our side. We each bought our $21 one-way ticket at the station and were soon on our way back to Los Angeles on the Surfliner.
My brother-in-law met us at Los Angeles Union Station and drove us back to my sister’s bungalow in Pasadena where we socialized and Bonnie got the royal tour. Then we were driven to the Vagabond Inn on Colorado Blvd. where we set up our base camp, showered and prepared for the evening’s activities consisting of a lovely Friday night Sabbath dinner in my sister’s backyard.
The next few days found us caught up in a whirlwind of activity as Bonnie and I became part of my grandnephew Nelson’s Bar Mitzvah celebrations.
Just about everybody in the family already knew and loved Bonnie so she fit right in. Nelson delivered his Bar Mitzvah reading of the Torah on Saturday morning surrounded by friends and family. He put on an excellent performance and his delivery was uncharacteristically loud and coherent, thanks to some theatrical training that he had received in a school play that year.
Candy was handed out to everybody early in the service and later, at a secretly agreed-upon moment, the children began throwing them back at the Bar Mitzvah boy. This playful mayhem did wonders to lighten up the solemnity of the occasion. I had never seen this ritual take place during a Bar Mitzvah ceremony before and found it charming.
Bonnie and I enjoyed the parties that followed the Bar Mitvah and it was a pleasure to introduce her to family members that she had not already met. Every event gave her an opportunity to dig deep into her luggage and don a new outfit. She never looked the same way twice and every outfit was prettier than the last.
Sunday arrived and it was time for Bonnie to return to Chicago. Selma and I dropped her off at the airport the next morning and my sister Linda moved into my motel room at the Vagabond Inn to keep me company.
That night Selma took us to a concert at the open air Greek Theater where we saw Lila Downs, the great Mexican singer, perform in a wild, multimedia extravaganza. Intricately crafted videos of revolutionaries, skeletons and women kneading corn dough formed a backdrop to this energetic lady’s Spanish songs that made the packed house go crazy.
Later, a mariachi band took the stage and gave Ms. Downs a breather. When she returned she brought the audience to its feet with a song called “Mole!” Selma had backstage passes for all of us and we got to meet Ms. Downs in person.
Linda and I were invited to stay the following night in the elegant suite at the Langham Hotel that was being occupied by my nephew’s wife, Chris.
There I saw luxury like I had never seen in my life. From its crystal chandeliers to its plush carpeting, tea rooms and endless acres of perfect lawn, this place exemplified the epitome of extravagance. But best of all was its swimming pool and hot tub which provided me with some welcome relaxation and tranquility.
The next day Chris, Linda and I split the price of a limo ($75) to the airport and headed our separate ways to home.
Although the weather had been dry for the duration of my visit, more rain had fallen on New Mexico during my absence than any time in recorded history. As I looked down on the Land of Enchantment from 30,000 feet I could see enormous brown ponds that had formed after the rain, surrounded by lush, fluorescent green vegetation for as far as the eye could see.
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