Oakland to Portland, OR: Coast Starlight

Aboard the Coast Starlight again, we are less comfortable. Perhaps because the trips are shorter, the seats appear to have shorter leg rests, thus causing our feet to be swollen. The view, however, was spectacular. We see Mt. Shasta in the distance.

Below is Lookout Point, OR.

 

The rest of Oregon is exactly how I’d imagine it: lush, tall trees, mountains, rivers. I want to visit Klamath Falls one day.

We arrive in Portland in the afternoon. It’s suburban, clean, but diverse. There are bicyclists all over. It’s cloudy but warmer than I expected. Below is a view of Willamette River near Union Station, which has a nice bike/jog trail around it.


It is a long walk from Union Station to the red line, but we figure out a shortcut the next day, via the green/yellow.

 

After settling in at a much better budget hotel, Econolodge, we head over to Laurelwood Brewery via the metro bus.


The food hit the spot. Parmesan Fries, Roasted Chicken over vegetables. The beer is superb.


We watch some baseball–our hometeam, the St. Louis Cardinals are playing. Over at the next table, we are a little disturbed by the trio raucously playing a “White Trash” board game. We suppose. Afterward, we walk to another bar to play billiards. The crowd was small, but the music was good.

The next day, we take the metro train to the Oregon Zoo on a very cold morning (55 degrees). We discover that the zoo is located 453 feet above the city’s center. The sun appears around noon, and we enjoy the rest of the day. We head downtown and walk. We get Mexican food from a truck and converse with a male, Filipino flight attendant, who asks if we are students here.

Later in the afternoon, we try Bailey’s taproom. The vibe is chill, and the beer selection was plentiful.


We meant to go to saucebox across the street, but it looks a bit too bourgeois for us. We discover a gay pub nearby called Embers. I was hesitant. There were American Flags on the windows. What finally convinced me were the drag queens standing outside smoking. The place was friendly, and the music was neosoul, underground hip-hop. We were pleased. Because it was cash only, we had to leave to find an ATM.

A young, heterosexual, couple stops us to ask if there was a Subway around. (Perhaps we looked like locals.) We thought they meant, subway, the underground trail system, but they were hungry. We point them to a diner we saw near Bailey’s taproom. They are thankful.

We walk around some more and discover Someday lounge, which had amazing djs playing underground hip-hop. The locals were friendly and open. The vibe felt exactly right. We are officially sold on Portland.

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Returning to San Francisco

The first time I was in San Francisco was 16 years ago–new arrivals (FOB, if you will) from faraway islands. I took the 21-hour plane trip with my father, older siblings, and maternal grandparents. My maternal aunt and uncle would greet us and take us back to Los Angeles where we would stay for several months. I hated the car ride. While I was used to ferries, boats, and planes, there was something about a car’s motion that messed with my inner ear.

I look forward to exploring the city, now that I’m older with a greater sense of awareness. We get on the Alameda/Oakland Ferry at 9:15 am. One good thing about the shitty hotel we booked is its proximity to the train station and the ferries.

We get to pier 41 and purchase a CityPASS. We decide to do the Bay Cruise and the Aquarium of the Bay first. We are freezing because it’s 12 degrees colder than usual, per the ticket attendant. I purchase a scarf and a fleece jacket.

We take the street cars and head to Powell’s Square. We’re confused about the lack of efficiency of their transportation. So many lines and variations, all heading to the same place. We head to the SF Museum of Modern Art and spend some time there.

We head further south and go to Castro. We discover the same trends we’d already recognized in Chicago, NYC, Los Angeles: there are no predominantly lesbian hubs. A sex store on Castro, for instance, did not carry much besides male toys or hetero-geared female toys. Do we not travel or have much impact economically, that we’re essentially invisible in these historic LGBT places? We did see two girls making out in the middle of an intersection, but that’s about it.

We drink Spanish wine and enjoy the dusk at Pier 1, before the ferry comes. We grab some diner food near the hotel. I wish I can remember the name of the place because they have amazing, fluffy cheesecake that we ate for breakfast the next day.

~~~ 

Day 2 of sightseeing includes the California Academy of Sciences, which is my favorite, and the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor. We take the bus system to arrive at these places, but the city is not difficult to navigate with a map.

We head back to the Fisherman’s Wharf to grab the famous clam chowder in a bread bowl from Guardino’s, but before we get there, a drunk, homeless white man throws a fork at my girlfriend.

We also miss a ferry and have to walk from Pier 39 to Pier 1. We head back to Oakland to board our train to Portland, Oregon around 8 pm.

Los Angeles to Oakland/San Francisco: Coast Starlight

Along the Coast Starlight, we see some of the most stunning views between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo: bluegreen ocean, pristine white-sand beaches, dolphins, seals. There are massive kelp visible off the coast, and I discover that there are people employed as kelp cutters.


On my right, there are mountains, clouds, and golden fields. It is breathtaking. I wish it would have lasted longer. One day, I plan on camping out here.


We arrive in Oakland at night. We reserved a room at a budget hotel, Jack London Inn, and expected less-than-stellar but livable accommodations. I did not expect a bullet hole in the glass window and a dilapidated room on the 4th floor. The hallway smells like cigarettes even though we asked for non-smoking. There are stains on the carpet. The curtains and chairs are about 30 years old. The bathroom was mildewy and smelled like stale body odor. Our theory is that because we are young, and we did not look professional, we were given the run-down rooms. The Youtube video on the website is beyond misleading.

Returning to Los Angeles




Near Palms Springs or so, I wake up and look outside to see this windfarm. I’m amazed at our destructive innovation. Even this way of collecting clean energy corrupted this landscape against red mountains.

We pass through orange groves, and I think about structured rows and equal distribution of energy. In the jungle, in true nature, there are no farmer’s hands guiding our survival, only competition and natural selection. We’re clever to have gotten this far, to no longer be affected by such factors as uncertainty and low yield.

~~~ 

The Sunset Limited arrives in Los Angeles on a cool morning. Union Station is busy, as expected, and full of weirdos. A shoeless woman talks to herself: “You a lie, ho.”

I’m expecting a lengthy layover, so a friend picks up me for brunch at Basix in West Hollywood. Around 11 am, my girlfriend arrives from San Diego, via Amtrak as well. She’ll join me for the rest of trip north and east.

Our first stop is Las Vegas, or so we plan. Because there are no trains going to Las Vegas, we have to take a Greyhound bus, contracted by Amtrak. Along with 10 other passengers, we wait. And wait. And wait.

Three hours later, still no bus. We are told several different stories: the bus was searched in Fresno for a possible bomb threat. (Coincidentally, there had been a fatal Greyhound accident just two days ago.) Another story involves a fire. A third story seems more plausible: it broke down.

The bus coordinator, a short Hispanic man seems to be on our side at first. After hours of our complaining and waiting, he tells us that a van can take us over to the Greyhound terminal, from which our bus to Las Vegas will depart. Some passengers are willing to do that, but I am immediately suspicious. I say to the other passengers: “He just wants to get rid of us. I’m staying.” Other passengers agree: “How do we know they’ll honor these tickets from Amtrak?” The bus coordinator gives us no answers.

We are irate around the 4th hour. It would take 6 hours to get to Las Vegas, and by then, we will have missed our first of two nights there. It was pointless to go because we would be there for one night, then get right back on a bus to Bakersfield, and finally to Oakland. Our hotel reservations were non-refundable, too.

The bus coordinator offers us only 1 night of a hotel at Metro Plaza Hotel, across from Union Station. It was ok, except the second night cost us $100. (We could not leave any earlier because our itinerary was set for us to arrive in Oakland, CA on July 25th.)

Although this is an unexpected stay in Los Angeles, we enjoy it. I’d lived here for several months, in Culver City, when I first arrived from the Philippines. LA is not one of my favorite cities; it’s a visceral dislike that I cannot explain. It could be, too, that an ex of mine is moving here, so I want to avoid it.

We go to Truck Stop at Here Lounge that night with my LA friend and her girls. We bypass the line and get in quickly. The wet dancing girls on the bar did not disappoint, but it was ridiculously packed. I am told that there are really only two places on West Hollywood for lesbians. As big as this city is, why is that the case? If I were an entrepreneur with proclivities for nightclubs, I’d definitely fill the need. Alas, I’m much too deep in academia for such a change.

Later, we go to a karaoke bar, and I try soju for the first time. It was mixed with orange juice and deceptively sweet.

The next day, we head to a Mexican market across the street and find La Noche Buena, which has the most amazing, moist, well-seasoned fish tacos. If I return to this city, I will find this place again.


Afterward, we grab some churros from Mr. Churros, who overcharges us because I asked for it in English. The previous costumer received 4 for $4, while I paid $2 for 1. I decide to let it go, and we walk to an art gallery at la Instituto Cultural Mexicano, which was showcasing artwork on The Chicano Moratorium.


We take the subway, which is so clean, compared to NYC or Chicago, that I get an eerie feeling. The white security guard approaches us: “Where are you gals from?” and not in a friendly way. He was looking for information. We head to the Walk of Fame and do the usual tourist things.

Taking the subway back, we get a glimpse of the racial tension here.

A drunken Mexican is shouting: “This is our countreeeee!”

“No, you’re immigrants,” says a Caucasian male.

“We’re all immigrants,” says someone else.


Later that night, we see Inception at the Regal on Olympic. I’d like to see Los Angeles again, at another time. I can’t say I miss it, but it was a good visit.

New Orleans to Los Angeles: Sunset Limited

After running errands–Walmart to purchase a blanket and the post office to mail my textbooks to St. Louis–I arrive to board very late, by my standards. The line is long, and an attendant had already distributed seat numbers. I’ll be on this train for two days, so I hope to get a window seat. My gadgets and I need to be adjacent to the electrical outlet.

As I approached the coach car, I request a window seat, but the attendant insists that he cannot give the seats out of order. Thankfully, my neighbor, a Hispanic woman from Yuma, lets me have the window seat. She, too, only stayed in NOLA overnight. She did not even bring a bag.

“What do you do?” she asks.

“I’m an adjunct professor,” I say, which surprises her and prompts additional questions.

She is in social work, she says, and thinking about going into education. She talks about her Guatemalan boyfriend, and the train departs.

There are two white lesbians across the aisle who whisper and snicker. There is a French family of three, and the father needs a bath. He sits next to a black man who has trouble with flatulence. This leg of the trip will be long.

After a stunning view across the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi, I catch up on sleep for 5 hours. We arrive in Houston early and stay for 1 hour. I appreciate the nightview of downtown Houston with a bright moon.

It occurs to me that I should have contacted my brother or father, but they did not know I was passing through Houston or traveling this summer. According to my itinerary, I did not have enough time to stop here anyway. (I did not feel bad about this since I’d just seen both of them twice this year, which is more than the usual.)

We continue on board the Sunset Limited, and I write poems until late into the night. I intend to finish my second manuscript–a series of disjunctive, non-linear poems–before I arrive in Los Angeles where I would meet my significant other and continue the trip northward. I am at poem 25 of 30. Aside from the man of flatulence in front of me, I am as happy as can be.

For breakfast the next day, I have a banana, an apple, and mixed nuts. My neighbor–the woman from Yuma–stayed in San Antonio, although her ticket was for Tucson. We pass a ravine:

It was windy, beautiful, breathtaking, short-lived–exactly what life should be. (Those are my neighbors who wished to get across as quickly as possible.)

The landscape for hours is amazing: vast blue sky, green horizon, hills, wildflowers, prickly pear atop cacti, which reminds me of the best margaritas I’ve ever had at a now-closed Delmar Loop bar, Mirasol, in St. Louis.

 

I read about a town called Langtry, Texas, which was named after a saloon keeper’s love: a British actress he had never met. I think about our obsessions and their legacies.

Somewhere near Mexico, I have no cellphone service for three hours. There is something freeing about disconnection, a theme I have previously visited in life and in poems. I’m sure I will again.

Behind me, a 4-year-old child reads a story about Harriet Tubman to her grandmother. A spelling lesson follows after.

 

We stop in Alpine, Texas. There is no platform for us to step on, only rocks. Not much is here but sun and distant hills.


In El Paso, we switch to Mountain Time. A lady gets left, and the passengers discuss it for some time.

New Mexico greets us with a haze of gold, sunset, rain, mesas. Cornflower blue sky. Cerulean storm clouds.

The Arizona desert disappears into the blackness of the night. I want to see it during the day. We stop in Tucson, and a friend brings by a sandwich. I find out that Mountain Standard Time is really Central Time in the spring.

Another night passes, and the morning brings another adventure.

 

Returning to New Orleans

I am picked up by a black man with long dreadlocks, wearing a canary yellow shirt, driving a maroon SUV. He’s my former admissions recruiter from the Honors College I attended as an undergrad. We subsequently became dear friends. He is now a real estate agent loving/living in NOLA and has been trying to get me to move here for the past 4 years.

The last time I was here was in November of 2006, for the V-Day conference at Tulane University. There I had met Eve Ensler, writer of the Vagina Monologues and an awe-inspiring activist, and other kindred souls. Compelled by the city’s recovery, its inherent beauty, its mixed culture, I began to wonder about the possibilities of living here one day.

We head immediately to the French Quarter because I’m only here overnight. Tomorrow the train for Los Angeles departs at noon. We try Napoleon House, but it was closed. We walk the quarter, and serendipitously, I run into friend from undergrad who is a tour guide. She joins us for dinner at Market Cafe.

“How do you know each other?” asks my friend, the tour guide.

“She’s my wife, but she left me. This is our daughter.” He pulls out a picture, and we continue the joke for a while. I order a shrimp po’ boy since there are no oysters available due to the BP oil spill. Afterwards, we all share a decadent and enormous slice of bread pudding.

The tour guide asks the real estate agent about a haunted mansion near Lincoln. It was Nicholas Cage’s mansion, but he is now selling it. We hear about its history: the wife of a doctor experimented on 30 slaves there.

The tour guide continues to talk excitedly about New Orleans. I learn that the slave trade here was different from the rest of the U.S. The French commission laws were more lenient, allowing slaves to marry freemen. Children could not be sold if one parent is free. If two slaves had children, the family must be sold together. Slaves were allowed to sell crafts on Sundays. There was Conga town, which was named for the percussive music that was played. There was system of pla├žage, which I had read about while reading the works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. It was Irishmen and freemen who built the canals, which guaranteed malaria. Slaves were too valuable.

As per tradition, we continue with the night. We head uptown in the Garden District to a pub called Bulldog. There we meet up with friends of the real estate agent, Filipina sisters, and enjoy the 75-degree night next to a fountain made with beer tap handles.

Later in the night, we head back to the French Quarter to Bourbon Street. We end up at The Pub, which has a drag-king show. I learn about the NOLA Bounce.

A guy named Wayne buys the tour guide and I drinks. We feel sorry for him because his daughter did not show up. There’s not many places where parents party with their kids.

As we were leaving around 4am, we stumble into a pizza place.

“What can we get for $1?” I ask the Iraqi server who had been trying to flirt with me. We each receive a slice of pizza. The night ends perfectly.

New York City to New Orleans: Crescent Line

I am first in line at Penn Station, Gate 14W, heading to New Orleans, Louisiana. Although the place looks like what I imagined it–a couple notches down from the New York Stock Exchange floor–I lucked out and stood right next to the gate, by the only working industrial fan. Here, the gate numbers are not revealed ahead of time. Waiting passengers stand in front of the departure board until the “Now Boarding” sign blinks. Only then will the gate number appear. It’s a great technique to prevent enormous and winding lines, but there is an increased chance of injury, as people madly rush to their assigned gate.

I cannot recall if I had a neighbor, although I’m sure of it. I sleep through Philadelphia and Baltimore, and the train switches from electric to diesel. We cannot use bathrooms during the break, so it was a good thing that I have been limiting my intake of food.

In Manassas, Virginia, I buy a sandwich and potato chips. If I decide to go on another trip, I will be sure to budget enough for actual meals, which start at $15.

In Lynchburg, a white man with Aztec patterns on his blue button up and a Texan tie sits next to me. He smells of beer and then later, when it was time to sleep, he smelled of cinnamon and a thousand herbs.

At night, the halfmoon allows intermittent glimpses of landscape. The moon disappears through the trees, blinks, and returns.

I was surprised by the rolling hills of ivy and evergreen. I had not expected such lushness through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I finish my syllabi so that I can mail my books back to St. Louis when I arrive in NOLA. In Tuscaloosa, AL, the lunch attendant asks about my tattoos. I get a teriyaki bowl, which makes everyone near me salivate and inquire what it was I was eating.

I see “smut” and “krang” written as graffiti in Picayune, Mississippi. I wonder about the culture here.

The Crescent Line passes through bayous and crosses through Lake Pontchartrain. The sun, hours away from setting, made the water appear metallic.