Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Nothing Happened

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Over the last five days, none of the following things happened.

* I saw a person who represented America in a comedic and telling way
* I did something illegal in other countries
* I experienced something authentic which puzzled me by its very foreignness
* I had a unique insight into Principles, Universal & Domestic
* I was subject to irrational levels of uniformed and state-sponsored paranoia

I've pissed away a large chunk of my trip here in leathery-hidebound Florida Beach, doing little but sitting in my hotel room. Oh, sure, I've been down to the water a few times and had a look around South Beach, but for the most part I've hid from the locals in all their Cuban/Jewish glory and buried myself in internet-based abstractions.
I'm kind of over America. Three weeks seems to be about my saturation point, and I was feeling the glut in D.C. Right now I'm just looking forward to getting back home to Toronto and building some semblance of a normal life again, whatever that looks like.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

A drop in the bucket

After losing twelve straight states, Hillary Clinton finally has something to smile about.



Clinton won Wednesday's Pennsylvania primary election by 9%. But that number doesn't matter, because after the results were tallied she only claimed a single delegate more than Obama, 65 to 64. The first candidate to break the 2,025-delegate threshold will win the Democratic nomination. Currently Obama has about 1,700; Clinton 1550. Advancing by a single delegate is meaningless, and her victory this week had no effect except for a bump in fundraising.

It is mystifying that the major media outlets are touting the wrong number, especially considering the percentage was heavily whittled down from polling earlier this year (at times Obama's Pennsylvania numbers were 20% down). Not only was Clinton losing ground every week coming up to the election, her victory was neutered by the delegate count: a 65 to 64 margin equals a mere three-quarters of one percent.

It's a mathematical sort of race right now. One blogger has calculated the ratio of superdelegates needed by Obama to deny Clinton the possibility of nomination: less than one in five of those still undecided. Given that he has picked up over 60 superdelegates to Clinton's 2 since February 4th, it's not so much a probability as a certainty.
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Friday, 25 April 2008

Miami

As the number of retirees in the state attest, getting into Florida is usually a one-way trip. I was able to book a train ticket to Miami freely, but find myself unable to get out for a week. So I'm in a hotel 100m from Miami Beach for seven days. Could be worse.
The train from Philadelphia took about 24 hours, and I was seated beside an attorney from Manhattan who would normally fly. Talking to her, it made me think about how I've traded bourgeois respectability for an awkward middle-class bohemianism. Compromising all my elitist dreams for a tolerable existence on the edge of the societal abyss was a strange little accident which happened, as Lennon said, when I was busy making other plans.
After navigating through the United Nations of cabbies outside the Amtrak station in Miami, I waited at the bus stop with an angry black man and two Korean girls blinking in the bright sunshine. The interminable ride took us through the most dilapidated, ravaged and forgotten urban wasteland in America not caused by an act of God. Then we crossed over the bridge and soared into the stuff of American dreams; palatial hotels, wide avenues, palms of every description, white beaches, restaurants and cafes of all stripes. The country wipes its feet when entering Miami Beach.
I missed my stop by several hundred metres and walked along the deserted sidewalk of the six-lane street. Corvettes u-turned and accelerated furiously; Humvees coasted with impervious smugness; neutral-coloured rental cars were everywhere. My hotel was mainly Spanish-speaking, betraying its low market position in this nosebleed-high region. They upgraded me to one of the many empty rooms, and I feel myself a king of infinite space. I'm not paying much more here than I have anywhere else in the States, but now it seems like I'm actually on holiday.
Most holidaymakers bring things they may, at some point, need. I am without shorts, sandals, a towel, or even any utensils. I challenge anyone to eat a meal handling nothing but a tiny plastic lid in their left and a one-inch blade in their right hand while retaining their dignity. The food objects. The mouth objects. The fundamental laws of physics object. And this is all before my mind begins to work on it.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Philadelphia

Leapfrogging trains again I went north from DC to Connecticut and then south to Philadelphia. New York was dark on the way north, but coming south again reveals that the area between Penn Station and Newark is the most hideous, rust-encrusted, embogged, scraped down and pushed back part of America I have seen thus far.
Arriving in Philly I emerged from the oil-and-dust decor of the Amtrak dungeons into the crazy Odeon largesse that is Union Station in its local permutation. Descending back into the underworld I took a filthy subway downtown, arising once again into pleasant sunlit grandeur. Philadelphia is the home of Olde Americana, the Declaration of Independence, the Liberty Bell, and a vast array of officials who don't know their ass from their elbows. I was directed in precisely the wrong direction more than once, and perpendicular to my goal multiple times. Americans, at the outset of a conversation, select either 'confident' or 'obtuse' and stick with it, knowledge and truth notwithstanding.
As this was a day trip--I travel tonight towards Miami Beach--I was lugging my shoulder bag around. Sometimes I'm able to check it at a museum and pick it up later in the day, but the City of Brotherly Love was having none of it. The 'Information Center' sent me to the Holiday Inn, who sent me to the Omni; who sent me to Best Western; who declared all things impossible in all instances. This is a country where motorcyclists regularly ride with no helmet, automatic weapons may be freely purchased, schizophrenics stride the streets with megaphones; yet asking someone to store a bag of clothes, in a room specifically designed for that purpose, is illegal.

Obama fever was in the air. Every other street corner had supporters offering me a voter registration card. "Help Save Our Country!" exhorted one woman. "It's your destiny, my brother!" said a black guy with a shock of grey hair. After a while I stopped trying to explain I couldn't vote, and just flashed my NZ passport.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

D.C.

D.C. grows on you once you give in to Americana. Yesterday when I arrived from Denver via Chicago, I was met by heavy rain accompanied later by thunder. As the imperfect seals in my shoes proved unequal to the deluge, I squidged joylessly through one of the greatest collections of Western art: Picasso's blue period gave me no pleasure; Rodin's "The Thinker" was uninspiring; not even the early 19th century Romantics could lift the malaise.
Huddling under an umbrella and trudging from shelter to street. A long bus ride to the hostel. Crumpled newspaper to draw the moisture from my shoes. An Italian guy and French girl making out in my dorm room. A long sleep in a good bed.
Today I expected more of the same, but for some reason it was different. The Washington Monument, the reflecting pool, the Lincoln Memorial, iconic all. But then a view of the White House lawn with minimal security, and a hot dog and Coke from the Good Humor truck in the park. Things had begun to turn, and so I took another run at the National Gallery of Art, and it came alive the way it was meant to. Ingres and Gainsborough and Martin and da Vinci and Monet, with light and colour and tiny brushstrokes and delicately overpowering vistas.

D.C. is a contrivance, an awkward competition of gargantuan frontages. Like other centres of indoctrination (Disneyland, et al) it is always full of children, and is artificially pristine. Smoking is never seen; cleaners prowl the promenades; police are omnipresent. The licence plates say Maryland, West Virginia, New York; I saw just one DC plate. The only clue I got that this city is the murder capital of the OECD were the bizarre junkies in the men's bathroom at Union Station. They huffed and skeeved and argued and blew raspberries and traded clothes. The station complex is an Arcadian wonderland with winding staircases and vaulted ceilings, which made the po-faced toleration of the bathroom circus by security all the more strange.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Denver II

After a few hours online getting my next week in order, I headed down to the Capitol building for a tour. The building's dome is covered in gold, shimmering in the sunlight with an unmistakable pallor. Inside (after passing through a manned metal detector) I learn that the gold is backed with oxskin, the only material which holds gold leaf fast against the elements without absorbing it.



As I wait for the tour to begin I head downstairs and navigate my way through a bathroom filled, for no apparent reason, with a group in jingling Native American dress. After ordering dodgy espresso from a midget hausfrau, the tour begins.



All my preconceived notions abut Colorado disappear. Most of their power comes from coal-fired power stations; their state is regularly in drought; water is brought in by rail from the western side of the Rockies; the rose onyx which profuses the Capitol is now the material version of extinct. I skip out of the tour early (past governors, anyone?) and notice not one, but three Mile-High markers on the steps: the first in 1952, the second in 1969, and the third in 2003. I wonder what they'll do when America switches to the Metric system (scheduled, along with the retiring of the penny, for immediately after hell freezes over). Speaking of which, I went to the U.S. Mint, but they wouldn't let me in. So I stood out front and threw my useless pennies at the building in a equally useless gesture.


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Friday, 18 April 2008

Denver

After 29 hours of travelling -- through the night to get to Chicago and catching another sleeper west -- I arrived in Denver at 9am. The chill mountain winds made me regret underpacking for the first time. I caught a free bus through the small downtown area and walked up to the hostel.
The place was falling apart. The proprietor regaled me with a tale of changing the hostel's name to avoid complying with fire escape regulations as I paid my $11 for the night. It wasn't so much a low price as an apology in advance. The bed mattresses sagged over steel bars; the bathroom had large hunks of plaster missing, with the ceiling almost gone; the taps would not turn off; the door to the shower would not lock; strangers occasionally wandered in from the street.
I locked my bag's zips together, locked my bag to my bed and locked my dorm's door, and hoped that those tempted by the free entry from the fire escape would be put off by the possibly of a rusty rung giving way. I went downtown.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Chicago, take III

With the delays, I had about three hours in Chicago today. I pre-ordered a pizza at Giordano's and walked down to the ArchiCenter. They didn't have any tours shorter than two hours, so I looked at their generic shop for a while, then went back to get my pizza.
Having eaten in American establishments before, I took extreme caution. In Buffalo last year, my medium wings were nearly the size of an actual buffalo. Yesterday in Memphis, my breakfast appeared to have been created for Elvis in his TV-shooting years. So today I ordered a small pizza. I still have half of it in a doggie bag, and the first half was the most magnificent fast food I have ever tasted. This is America's contribution to world cuisine: big, fast and fatty. The Chicago pizza is the only convenience food which has not succumbed to that most American of instincts, homogeneous mass-production. It is preserved in its crafted form, and has never faced the barrage of compromises required of a Big Mac.
My next train was 18 hours west to Denver.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Hostage Hoax Holds Up Folks

That's one and a half entendres, right there.


In breathless, '24' style, here is why I have been sitting in a train station for several hours.

1:49 ... The #59 to New Orleans departs McComb, Louisiana 59 minutes late.
2:05 ... The #58 to Chicago leaves New Orleans 16 minutes late.
3:00 ... A call comes in to an Amtrak office. The voice is breathy, nervous. He/she/it/they/all-them/ev'body is being held hostage onboard the #59 to New Orleans.
3:01 ... Amtrak calls the police.
3:02 ... The police call their SWAT team.
3:03 ... The nation prepares to be shocked, stunned, and outraged. Someone will forget to think of the children, and will be exhorted shrilly to do so.
3:04 ... The #59 to New Orleans is halted in Hammond, Louisiana by the police, a SWAT team, the local PTA, and a life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex constructed hastily of papier-mâché. A fight breaks out over whether it should be called Freedom Mache.
3:06 ... The #58 to Chicago, running late, may not pass the affected single-track section in Louisiana. It is halted.
4:12 ... A cursory check of the passenger list by all the guards and all the horses and the station-master's daughters reveals the call to be utterly baseless.
4:23 ... Forms are signed and counter-signed in triplicate. 173 automatic weapons are unchambered and reholstered.
4:30 ... The #59 continues to New Orleans unmolested.
5:27 ... The #58 is molested for 57 minutes and continues to Chicago 162 minutes late.

All of this means that I may be in Chicago tomorrow for less than three hours before catching an 18hr train to Denver. So it's either an architecture museum or a deep-dish pizza pie. Damn you, cruel fate!
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Memphis

Memphis is a town of ghosts, and is trying to recover from being a ghost town. Around the time of Martin Luther King's death, there was a huge population decline. People are coming back slowly as the downtown is being re-niced, though most of it is still hurry-past territory. The waterfront by the Mississippi has been landscaped, the tourist hotspots of Beale St and 2nd Avenue have been tidied up and there is a general feeling of momentum, though I had so many black guys asking for change I thought I was at an Obama rally. Ba-doom-doom-chsh.
On Beale and Union Sts there were touristy things to look at. There was a hotel with a procession of ducks choreographed at 11 and 5. The oldest store in the city, a quirky emporium, was good for trinkets and rock candy, and I wandered up Union to Sun Studios, where Elvis, Johnny Cash and miscellaneous bluesmen got their start. There was a shuttle from there to Graceland which took about twenty minutes, a journey shoulder-to-knee with hairy fanboys and agog Midwestern dames. After we had passed the various stores selling Elvis crap, chain restaurants, fast food joints and alighted at Heartbreak Hotel, I was ready to vomit in my boots. From the pictures I had seen of Graceland, the slight video footage, and now this trip with a bevy of widemouth consumers, I stayed on the shuttle and went right back to Memphis.




I took a bus out to the Pink Palace, a former palatial home turned museum, which was passive in its mediocrity.



I ate some rock candy and went back downtown, walking along some side streets to get a feel for the place. I stumbled upon the factory shop for the company which makes such diabetes-causing foods as Wonder Bread and Lil' Debbie's Partially-Hydrogenated Obesity Bombs Disguised As Food and bought a bag of 'expired' doughnuts. Come on, we all know these things will outlive us all.
Memphis is a sad town. The memorial to MLK was open to the street, just a generic upstairs-downstairs family motel with a wreath on the railing and two tailfin period cars parked underneath. There was a gaggle of Japanese tourists pottering in circles out front, but also a guy sitting in his car with a King speech turned up on the stereo, just looking at the motel. I took a wrong turn twenty minutes later and ended up back at the motel, and he was still there, listening and looking.

Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee

It is 2:17am and I am in a railway station in Fulton, Kentucky. It is a 'station' in function only -- the structure is a cross between a shed and a small Boy Scout hall.
I disembarked here with the sorriest group of people I have seen for, well, about three days. The all-time record goes to the procession of recessive deficient midget carnie freaks who visited a downtown New Orleans convenience store I went to recently. The main features of the interior were two 29" TV sets demonstrating, in full closeup fisheye glory, that you were being monitored for security purposes. Only a criminologist would take any pleasure in reviewing the footage of God's cruel mistakes buying 40-oz bourbon, returning sandwiches, and providing living proof that universal suffrage is a flawed conceit.

My last two days in New Orleans were spent in the music-ridden French Quarter, the Garden District, at a Latin Mass, and on Canal St.
The French Quarter is filled with restaurants and bars and street performers and broken glass, and is busiest on Bourbon St.
The Garden District is filled with palatial antebellum Southern mansions and follies, many of which are mildewed in genteel poverty.
I went to a Latin Mass at St Andrews, a 150-year-old cathedral, with the Brazilian guy who resolutely wore shorts everywhere. It involved a lot of standing, sitting and kneeling at seemingly random times, solemn parishioners, and flailingly bored children in their Sunday best.
Canal Street, the main drag through town, had sparse black pedestrians and me. Most of the larger buildings were boarded up and nail and hair salons predominated, perpetuating the increasingly bizarre decorative stylings of black teenage Southern girls, as if sporting pink sparkling nails and a plastered-down helmet can make up for having a fifth-grade vocabulary and directionless teeth.

I continued my search for edible American cuisine. I had a po' boy (Subway-style foot-long sandwich, but 50% wider), which tasted like somebody crying. I tried to get a sno-ball, but couldn't find anywhere that sold them; likewise a muffelletta.
This morning I connect with a train to Memphis, where the profitable parts of Elvis' memory generate money at $27 a head for the company which bought the Graceland tour rights twenty years ago. Also the spot where Martin Luther King got shot, the studio Elvis and Johnny Cash got their start in, and something to do with ducks living in a hotel. From there I will continue to Chicago, which I didn't give a fair shake last time, and on to Denver before going down the East Coast.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

The Ninth Ward

New Orleans was a little run down before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but it's crappy in large parts now. The Brazilian guy and I took a drive around the parts of town where the levees burst, and those areas are still blasted wastelands. The houses are boarded and marked with spraypainted codes, describing numerically how damaged the house is and the reference number for the owner and occupants. Wiring dangles from roofs and the road is wrinkled from groundwater and potholed from neglect.
The Ninth Ward was the most devastated area, and most of the lots are razed to the ground. A few still stand.



The large graveyards, full of ancient crypts and sarcophagi, have been partially restored. I guess some ghostly residents don't have any relatives left.




The French Quarter is full this weekend. Revelers have flocked in from all over the country to drink, wear ill-advised skirts, drive smoky motorcycles and listen to garage zydeco bands sweat the oldies.

I went to a Pralines restaurant and ate alligator sausages and ice tea (good), catfish and gumbo (not bad), and beans (gloopy). Later in the market I was tempted by an alligator-claw backscratcher, but considered how tough it would be to justify it at Customs.

Tonight I'm relaxing on the third-floor balcony of my hotel, a former Orphan Asylum, and looking out at the rusty balustrades, colourful paint schemes, and passing swarms of unidentifiable insects. I'm smoking $3.50-a-pack Marlboros and drinking vodka with sweet ice tea. This town is called The Big Easy.

Shooting JFK

...so JFK was all like, brmm brmm brrrmmmm, and Lee Harvey Oswald was all, ki-chich bang ki-chich bang, and the grassy knoll pretty much didn't do anything, but there it is.




If this were 'C.S.I.' the flashback would begin with this shot, following the bullet back to its origin on the corner window, second from the top.

Silly things in Dallas





Either they're not fluent in irony, or are SO fluent they're playing at a completely different level of commitment than the rest of us.

Also this, which takes advantage of the obligatory Big Red Art Thing found in every major American city:





The downtown Dallas Post Office protects and serves. But mainly protects.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Texas, Louisiana

It is about 500 miles from Dallas to New Orleans, and it took us about nine hours by car. We? Some Brazilian guy. Heard his name a few days ago, but can't remember it.
We stopped into a Popeye's and I ordered the catfish which, like most American foods which aren't exported, was disgusting. Crossing the border to Louisiana I was struck by the sheer volume of (a) casinos, and (b) churches. Dallas is jam-packed with churches (seven of varying sizes were within three blocks of the hostel), but now it was just really big ones. And lots of swampy marshes with tall trees in them, and long, soft grass lining the roadside.
For dinner I bought a L'il Debbies cherry pie (59c), a Moon Pie (65c), a pack of turkey jerky ($1.99) and a fifth of vodka (1/5 quart=200ml, $2.50). Night was falling and there was nothing on the radio but ten Christian, two Classic Hits of the Sixties, and twelve country music stations. Constant switching was necessary as we blasted south at 70mph.
I could smell the rain gathering when I ate my Moon Pie, and I could feel the humidity with every bite of sickly sweet cherry with Reduced Iron. By the time I moved on to my manly dessert of jerky and vodka, the deluge began. While it is fitting that it rains heavily in New Orleans, it never seemed to puddle anywhere, nor did any residents seem particularly damp. After getting lost a few times in the menacing, labyrinthine series of roads that comprise downtown, we eventually found the boarding house. It was huge and gaunt and we were greeted with the level of enthusiasm that meets old uncles with tales from the Crimean War.

The city was hot and wet and an oddly feminine Hemingway vibe hung in the air and I thought, I don't really understand New Orleans at all.
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And the water goes the other way, too

North American toilets are weird.



When I first flew into LA, I was convinced that the first few toilets I encountered were flooded. Then after the first dozen, I realised that the water level is just really high.
There's no consistency with toilets here. The one above is in a train station in Chicago, and has a disposable seat cover dispenser. The impossibly-thin toilet paper, in rolls inside the one holder in the stall which had not been set on fire, was lying in strands (in the dry spots) and wads (in the wet spots) on the floor.
The flushing mechanism is usually a plastic lever on the left hand side. Sometimes it's a metal prong low enough to choose between pushing with either your hand or your foot. I haven't seen a top-of-the-tank dual-button flush at all.

Oh, and lightswitches are upside down: down is off, up is on; with sideways switches it's anyone's guess. Power sockets are called outlets, and if they only have two holes, my three-prong plugs are shit outta luck. There is only very, very occasionally the opportunity to recycle anything.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Howdy howdy

When I ask for directions, it's far easier to make myself understood if I use a Texan drawl. Thus "Fort Worth" becomes "Fairt Wirth". The problem I had before was that the New Zillin accent is itself a drawl, and I had to use a loud English accent to make each word clear. Even then I had to repeat myself even louder, which made me feel like the ugly American abroad. Hence the Texan drawl. It's low and quiet and kind of fun, because everyone becomes Sir and Ma'am. To complete the look I really need a horse and a hat to tip.

Yesterday I went out to Fort Worth, mainly because it's there and I heard there were some actual cowboys there. There weren't, but there were some old guys wearing cowboy hats who looked too fat to ride horses, and also a black cowboy. 'Blazing Saddles' aside, black guys were the ones being dragged behind the horses, not the ones riding them. The social order went thusly:
1. Rich men
2. Their hussies
3. Horses
4. Poor men
5. Longhorn cattle
6. Women and children
7. Animals larger than squirrels
8. Chinese miners
9. Small rocks
10. Black people
In Fort Worth, every single bus driver was black, and 90% of bus passengers were hispanic. White people drove cars, except me. I stood around in the rain because I caught the wrong bus, and pondered how I fell outside my genetically-determined modus operandi. As my shoes slowly filled with water, I felt the confusion of one who is privileged yet bereft. As I hunched over my bag of tiny portable electronic gadgetry, I considered that the excesses of the poor were as foolish as the frugalities of the rich. I felt sorry for myself, then pitied others for being immune to this kind of suffering, then stupid for having mistaken the #1a bus for the #1c bus, then resigned and sort of cold. I clutched my bus schedule as it flapped damply in the wind. I looked at the puddles and the sky and the road, and the corner where the next bus might come from if the gods of public transportation smiled on me. I was a long way away from anywhere I recognised, even further from my travelling bag of stuff, and I realised that, for me, for a long time now, there was no place called Home.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Dallas

Northern Texas is green. It is as green as Tauranga, as flat as Waikato, and as humid as the West Coast. The train took me past farmland and swampy forests, mixtures of spindly trees splodged with greenery, and pastoral Constable scenes.
At Union Station some guy hit me up for a couple of bucks. Note to self: don't ask black guys questions unless they're wearing uniforms. I caught a local high-speed train to Irving, part of the depersonalised suburbia that made necessary the location "Dallas-Forth Worth". There is no break between, but city passes into city.
I arrived, hot and sticky, to the worst-looking hostel I have ever seen. The doorbell yielded no response, so I stepped around the scarecrow, the mildewed toy cat, and assorted vegetation to the side entrance, where workmen inside were ripping up the vinyl, hammering like grim-faced 250-lb two-year-olds. I eventually got the proprietor on the phone, waited an hour for him to show up, and checked in.
The hostel was a regular house at one point but had descended to the level of a Hamilton second-year flat. While not squalid, a sense of grime and dust permeated the rooms. The bed were covered in thick plastic sheeting, generating a muffled crumple with every toss and turn.

The next morning I saw why Dallas was so verdant as a sudden downpour erupted outside. With little warning, angry drops spattered on the roof followed by the shrill white noise of heavy rain.
Today I shop for contradictory items: the lightest of white shirts and an umbrella; it's like I'm entering a wet T-shirt contest while harboring extreme doubts. I went to the Gap and got a tee for $3, then took a cantakerous trolley up to the West Village. While downtown is all high towers and lowlifes, the Village is upscale and may stay white for as long as ten years. I stopped in at the Dallas Museum of Art on the way back, but it didn't compare to standing on the grassy knoll, shooting a picture of the spot JFK was assassinated. (And also a few snaps of the 6th floor of the Book Repository Building, from the car's point of view.) Is it morbid? Sure. But everyone there was grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

You hear about all the fat people in Texas, and there are quite a few; about one person in ten that I see, including children. There are also a lot of regular and thin people, but few who are merely slightly overweight. This is the land of Creation over evolution, so one wouldn't really expect transitional forms. If you fat, you fat. Most are fat like partially-inflated tires, but some are fat like bags of gravel. No-one is fat like a balloon. That only happens in the movies.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Chicago

The hostel offered a great breakfast: bagels, muffins, orange juice, coffee and tea. The bagel-toasting machine was Dr. Seussian, with revolving tracks and odd little noises.

The main sculptural drawcard in Chicago is the Bean in Millennium Park:




There is also a ton of shopping on the Miracle Mile, a little north of downtown, but I didn't find staff to be of much use. Competence is on the decline:




With four hours until my train, I took a bus north to the Lincoln Park Zoo. It is one of the few free zoos in America and, though small and a little dilapidated, was entertaining for a morning's touristing. The penguin house smelled of mackerel; the dromedaries' humps were half-deflated; the big cats paced with grim determination. I had that feeling, familiar to most who visit zoos, that these places are the halfway--houses for the raw and the cooked.




At the ape house, a machine mashes soft copper pennies into trinkets.




Look at the sun bear! He thinks he's people!



After a few hours I took a bus back downtown and walked over to Union Station (confusingly, all major train stations are called Union Station).
I brought five salads aboard the train and other healthy snacks. My jeans, which required a belt last August, now groan when I bend to put on my shoes. I don't know if I will maintain my resolve in the deep-fried South, but I do know that if I buy new pants, I'm travelling too light to keep the tighter pair.

There has been no snow south of Minneapolis. I wore a T-shirt this morning in Chicago, and southern Illinois is less a prarie than slightly grizzled farmland. The freshly-plowed fields are covered with the shredded, spiny remains of the corn harvest. We are far enough south that colour has survived the winter and green grass lines the roadside, with skeletal rows of elm and spruce everywhere.
Just as night falls we ride into St. Louis, a rusted-out city with a magnificent arch made of stainless steel.

Late at night I witness an All-American party in the dining car. In attendance are Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, the dopey obese football player from every Southern film ever, and black women in each size: hilly, mountainous and Vesuvius. As they drink more and more it is impossible to interpret anything they say, but their spirit is unmistakable. "I am great. There's nothing wrong. Fuck y'all."

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois

Staples looked exactly like Hinuera. I arrived a little early and read for a while, but then began to nod off. As the prospect of sleeping through my train pickup in Staples went beyond pointless to the level of a Beckett play, I started to pace the small station to keep myself awake.
The train was delayed by one hour. At 4pm this would not have been a concern, but between 4-5am, my body wanted to shut down. My steps became staggers, and my eyes drifted gently in and out of focus. This was not helped by the suspicion that the train may never come and I would live out my days in a two-store town, weaving like a punch-drunk boxer.
The train was great for sleeping. Although distributing pillows and blankets at night-time rather than 11am would have been a good idea. The entire line was business class, with deeply cushioned seats that reclined without pinning the person behind like a stick insect caught between two marshmallows. Unfortunately, there was the food.
When the intercom announced that the dining car would stop serving breakfast soon, I scuttled along the half-kilometre to that part of the train, and ordered coffee, scrambled eggs and grits. The coffee was bad, but in America this is to be expected; it is seen as fuel, not as art. The scrambled eggs were depressed. Their malaise had turned itself inward and the eggs appeared to be imitating boiled silverbeet in form. There was no egginess to them; they knew not themselves. But the worst thing on the plate, besides a fairly plastic croissant, was the serving of grits. Like the hideous love-child of mashed potatoes and oatmeal, it was the kind of gruel that even Oliver Twist would have left unfinished, convinced that the malevolent borgeoisie were tricking him into eating a serving of paper glue.
The bill ran to six dollars, and I added another dollar for a tip. Alarmingly, others at my booth were leaving two and three dollars for a similar meal, leading me to believe that (a) they believed humans routinely ate things like this, or (b) the lunch lady who microwaved our ancient endives should be encouraged.

We eventually got to Chicago about half an hour later than expected. The city was typical of American metropoli; a sparkly center buffed to a high mirror finish, surrounded by miles of crappy old warehouses and buildings in advanced stages of collapse and decay. It's the American ideology, baby, where you let the devil take the hind-50%.
Despite a few attempts to book online or via telephone, I still had no reservation by the time I got to the hostel. They hit me with a $40 rate, so I booked a ticket to Dallas for tomorrow. The hostel is currently full of Girl Guides who seem to have applied their first forays into makeup with a shotgun.
Chicago isn't much of a tourist destination. There are several large museums and galleries and odd art in central locations, but Chicago isn't a lifestyle town. The hotspots were filled with XXXL Americans squeezed into XXL clothes who seemed happy enough, but to me the holiday offerings here were about as authentic as kissing the back of your hand. I went through Millennium Park, Navy Pier and the Miracle Mile. It took maybe four hours to walk. After that I went searching for a Chicago deep-dish pizza, but the only local spot was closed for a party so I went to Pizza Hut instead and bought a pizza about the size of my fist.

My one regret is not spending entire days in the vast museums in Chicago. Unfortunately my extra two days in Minneapolis left me a little museumed out and it's difficult to imagine dragging myself through another American Modernism retrospective.
.

I'm living in Groundhog Day

I slept through my alarm this morning and only awoke fifteen minutes before the departure time. There was little to do but curse the fates, cancel my ticket, and bang my head against the wall. My two-night Minneapolis stay has become four nights.
I eventually finessed a solution; to take a train at 11pm tonight to Staples, Minnesota, hang around for three hours amongst the simple country folk from 1am-4am, then catch another back through this city and on to Chicago. Saves me another night in this hostel, and guarantees I'm on the train.
Today I'm spending more time in the museum and go to see a film later, for the first time outside New Zealand. Strange considering that I staying in West Hollywood for a week and in Toronto while the film festival was on.

I'm eating too much processed, sugary food and it's wiping me out. I get sleepy a lot during the day and I feel a bit like I'm floating above it all. I'm going to try to ramp up the salads and protein, and dial back on candy bars.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Go Twins

Finding myself with an extra day in Minneapolis, I planned to mop up all the stuff I was going to do in other places. I went to the art gallery a block from the hostel this morning, which had a great display of Frank Lloyd Wright furniture and architecture, including half a room from a Wright-designed house which had been damaged and so farmed out to collectors. There was also a good range of paintings from 1750 through to 1930, with a clear progression of all the major styles and artists.



After a hour and a half there, I went downtown to see a baseball game, which is where I am now. Games go for about three hours, of which time the ball is 'live' for about ten minutes in total. The local team the Minnesota Twins were playing the LA/Anaheim Angels, but it was fairly low-key as they are still in pre-season and the result doesn't count.

video

I was worried they were being a little too casual when during the first two innings (45 minutes or so) neither team even got a man as far as first base. When the teams played yesterday, the Angels won 1-0. But in the third the visitors ran in three runs and it started getting interesting.



It's the bottom of the ninth and there's two out. The Twins are down 4-5. There' a man on first and they walk power hitter Mauer. The pitcher keeps his eye on the man on second. He fakes and throws to second. And again before the next pitch. He pitches low and inside; two balls and a strike. The fourth is a foul ball, a fly that pops up into the fifteenth row. The organist is having a field day and the sugar-addled kids are screaming chants that have become unrecognizable. Another ball, pushing the batter back from the plate. Three balls and two strikes: it's a full count. Then the batter swings wildly at a ground ball and kills the game. Twins lose.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Hey look, a Starbucks. Opposite another Starbucks.

I went to the biggest mall in the world today; the Mall of America. Like all malls, it reduced the exchange of goods and services to a homogenised and asinine experience, the blandest of blandishments. Apart from having several small rollercoasters tightly packed into a central warehouse area, it felt like every other mall in the world.



Walking away from the roller derby I was grabbed by an Israeli girl with huge boobs who rubbed sea salt on my hands for a few minutes, as was her custom. I didn't buy anything, but did have to spend some time washing Middle Eastern products off. I felt clean and dirty at the same time.
I was looking for some weaponry to defend myself against the citizenry. I found some mace at the As Seen On TV store, the cultural symmetry of which pleased me on a very deep level.
I noticed, with some chagrin, a swimsuit store called Kiwi Beach. The apparel on offer looked like it had been designed and fabricated in Iowa, by cautious Iowese ladies.
In other levels of contradiction, I bought candy and vitamins at the Dollar Store. I visited the Lake Woebegone Store up on the third level and purchased a duct tape wallet for $5. I grabbed a Big Gulp on the way out the door, and four hours after I entered, I took the train back downtown.
I spent the afternoon shuttling around the city, eventually ending up with my Amtrak pass. I can't get a ticket to Chicago tomorrow, so I'll dig a little deeper in these Twin Cities and see what I can fill the day with.

Welcome to America. You damn foreigner.

01apr
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This morning I braved the staunchly-guarded border of Manitoba and North Dakota. After being told the temporary US visa (which exists in addition to my 10-year US visa) had expired, I was asked to renew it, pay $6, and that I should have turned it in to an embassy before it expired. Were I to neglect this duty again, "bad things will happen", I was told more than once.

Time taken:
Bus in order queue: 15min
In first line: 5min
In second line: 15min
Being scolded and charged: 10min
Waiting for bus member to be thoroughly searched in special holding room: 60min
Return to Canadian territory to stamp bus member's passport: 15min
Backtracking up the highway to loop around to border again: 10min
Rubber stamping: 5min

(Time since last eating: 6 hours)

Suddenly, food is half the price, and the second language is Spanish, not French. The black people came from Africa generations, not years, ago. People are fatter south of th border, and their forthright words bear no lingering residue of apology.

36 hours on a bus

31mar08
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The plains roll on and on. Travelling east from Calgary the gently rolling fields, bleached pale with cold, have changed in appearance once; earlier they were covered in snow, but now the grasses are a dry and blasted yellow.
We have passed through Alberta to Saskatchewan, though it was difficult to know when, as the province border was unmarked. I shift constantly in my stiff, upright seat and wedge empty drink containers into upholstered crevices.
It is as if the stumpy farmland of Morrinsville were plucked of trees, scorched by drought, and stretched for a thousand kilometres. It is punctuated occasionally with dusty towns, disappointing oases with bunker-style sheds and grimy, deathless filling stations.
Snow huddles in clumps, populating troughs of tundra. Melted but unevaporated water pools in low ground. It is covered in ice and in dust, and not even the wind will touch it.
One highway heads east, another west, and between the road and railway tracks run power poles barely three metres tall.

My busmates are similarly spent. Opposite me is a welder with too few teeth who found himself engaged, and tells me fabrications of high-school sporting glory. Behind is a tattooed teen who emanates body odour and deodorant in waves. He is opposite an ancient man with a disbelieving death-gaze, and a boy working on a training mustache. His girfriend has almost translucent skin and arms so thin you could wrap them in your thumb and forefinger.