riding the rails 13

A big guy with plug earrings had been hanging around the bathrooms all night, giving the attendant a hard time, pretending he couldn’t remember where his seat was at.  When we got to Sacramento, he was one of the first ones out on the platform, complaining about how rude they’d been to him.  The sun was only now rising so he didn’t have much of an audience.  Walking up to the observation car to get a coffee and back, it looked like a bomb had been tossed into the coach section.  Limbs were jutting in every direction.  Heads were tilted at grotesque angles, the mouths drooped open in agony.  Blankets and articles of clothing were scattered everywhere.

Originally, I was going to hop right on the California Zephyr when we got to Emeryville, but had gotten cold feet when I saw there was only forty minutes to make the connection.  If I missed it, I couldn’t even be sure there’d be a seat open the next day, so had decided to play it safe and book a hostel in San Francisco for one night.  Now I could see that we were going to be on time, however, and was second-guessing myself, since not only was it going to cost money to rent a bed, but there was also a bus that needed to be caught to get to the other side of the Bay and I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out.

The night before, a woman had come up behind me in the observation car, saying, I need to get by, just that, not excuse me, or anything.  I’d waited until she was about ten yards away and just replied, yes, you do.  She’d turned around, took five steps, then turned around again.  Now she was sitting next to me and I’m glad the situation hadn’t escalated, as we ended up having a decent conversation.  She was from Oakland, and had been visiting a friend up north, staying in a cabin that had been besieged by wasps and flies.  We got to talking about the Rail Pass.  I told her it’s a good deal, but you have to know how to use it, like a chess player, constantly studying your next move.  You have thirty days, but only ten sections to ride.  You don’t want to waste them on short trips when you can get halfway across the country on one.  Ironic, here I was playing the Chess Master, about to fall into a trap and lose two of my sections before the day was done.

When we got to Emeryville, the bus to San Franciso was sitting right beside the tracks, and a line began to form outside it.  I’d taken the bus before, but couldn’t remember if it was a free shuttle or not.  Most people who get off the train there aren’t looking to spend the night in Emeryville.  It seemed to me that some of the passengers had tickets in their hands that said SFC.  I decided to ask the driver, who didn’t really understand my question and asked to see my ticket.  She scanned it and said that I was good.  That didn’t sit right, but I was too tired to think straight.  As we were crossing the Bay Bridge, however, I realized that she’d just charged the twenty-minute ride to my Rail Pass.   When we were let off on Mission Street, I asked about buying a ticket to get back to Emeryville and she said there was no way to do that.  That news sat like an anvil in my stomach.

I googled the hostel I was staying at and navigated my way through a labyrinth of skyscrapers to get over to Bush Street.  It was a long walk, mostly uphill, dragging my suitcase behind me, brooding over what had just happened with the bus.  Though it was way too early to check in, they let me store my bags in the office, and I went down to the common room with my computer and phone, hoping to straighten things out with Amtrak.  If it came down to it, I was willing to accept that I’d just lost one of the sections, but I had my credit card in hand, hoping that I could just pay for it, as well as the return the next day, and have the ride restored to my pass.

There was a man in the common room with glasses, a checkered short-sleeve dress shirt and a tie.  He was either working on a pyramid scheme or for a cult, and was making cold calls off a list he had in front of him, calling everybody Mister, and trying to ingratiate himself by talking in the most general terms about topics such as the weather, the benefits of a four-day work week, and the complexities of daily-savings time.  Isn’t that a game changer?  I was on hold with Amtrak and was hoping he’d take a break before long, since he was making his presentations as if he were addressing a packed assembly hall.  Finally, an agent answered, but I couldn’t hear her, so had to go out in the hall which was full of ear-splitting psychedelic music.  It was the San Francisco Music Hall of Fame, after all. 

The agent claimed to understand my problem, but then had to put me on hold for a half hour to talk to a technician.  When she finally got back to me, she said not only could I not pay for the ride I’d just taken and get the section back, I’d also have to use another section to travel across the bridge the next day.  There was no way to just buy a ticket for the bus.  I was stung and let her know, if that was the case then and nothing could be done about it, they just might be losing their biggest fan.  Didn’t she know I’d been traveling across the country, plugging the Rail Pass to everyone I met?   She apologized, but offered nothing more.

I was too tired and upset to think straight, and realized I better go for a long walk if I didn’t want to have an embarrassing meltdown.  What I really wanted to do was grab the cult salesman by the tie and bounce his head off the table.  I’d seen much of downtown not that long ago, and could only think to head towards Haight-Ashbury, an area I hadn’t been in since my youth.  Google maps had me take a left on Polk Street, where I passed the Great American Music Hall, and later the Civic Center.

After getting out of school, I’d bought a used pickup and hit the road, my plan being to live out of the back of it.  My first stop had been San Francisco, which I only associated with the Summer of Love and the bands that had come out of it during that time.  As an aspiring hippie myself, I thought it would be the perfect fit for the acoustic songs I’d just started to write.  I had a friend living there I’d met in Oxford, and without a phone number or address, in the days before the internet, had tracked him down simply by driving around his campus once and running into a mutual friend.  What I’d discovered was that the Haight had become a war zone of drugs and homelessness, and that the Bay Area was the last place on the planet I could afford to live.

Now google maps had brought me back to the Lower Haight, and it was mostly uphill for the next mile.  I passed some murals and a sculpture of a grimacing skull looking out of a bunny costume.  There were the famous Victorian Mansions that bands like the Grateful Dead had teamed up to live and practice in. 

By the Buena Vista Park there was a coyote warning as well as a group of gutter punk street kids, with their tattoos, packs, and dogs.  If anyone has adopted the hobo legacy and fitted it out to express the modern age it is them, congregating in packs, defying authority, scraping up change, and squatting wherever they can.  It might’ve been one of them who’d scrawled Capitalism Ruins Everything outside of an anarchist bookstore, which may be true, but has also kept the legend of the Haight flourishing. It is both a monument to the 60s counterculture and a giant shopping mall.  All the stores selling clothes, records, Tibetan artifacts, meditation workshops, cannabis and shrooms, what have you, are done up in the same psychedelic regalia, like a vibrant acid trip, but as one young guy leaning up beneath a Hendrix mural complained to me, it’s been gentrified to the point where no real hippie can afford to live there anymore.  He longed for the old days, when you could still feel the love on the street.

I hadn’t felt much love on the streets thirty-three years ago, and wasn’t feeling it now.  It was just another cold American city, where if you’re doing OK then things are fine, but if you aren’t, God help you.  I wanted to take a different route back to the hostel, so made my way over to the panhandle, then took Fell Street up to McAllister.  There’d never been a Summer of Love in my lifetime, and the music that was popular now was all electronic beats and shouted boasts.  I’d been too young for the action the first time around, and was too old for it now.

When I got back to the hostel, they let me check into my room.  There were only two bunks in it, and I’d been assigned one of the top beds, which was unfortunate.  I climbed up in it and tried to figure out what to do next.  Hurricane Ian had destroyed Fort Myers, but largely spared Tampa.  Both Orlando and Jacksonville were dealing with flood waters, and it was difficult to measure how long it would take them to recover.  I figured New Orleans might be a good place to lay low for a few days, but when I called Amtrak, the City of New Orleans was once again booked the day I’d be arriving back in Chicago.  I ended up making a reservation on the Lake Shore Limited, bound for New York City, and then the Silver Star, which was heading to Washington DC the next day.  According to the agent, they were scheduled to begin making the run to Miami on the 7th, so I went ahead and booked that, remaining skeptical, however, that it wouldn’t fall through. 

That night I was lying down when the guy beneath me arrived, slamming the door three or four times, before getting in bed, and right away beginning to breathe heavily and grunt.  A short while later, the guy in the opposite bed showed up and went into the closet for a long time, which was strange.  When he came out, he got into bed and began to cough and clear his nose. 

I climbed down the ladder and went into the common room, where a French woman was speaking to an older local one.  The French woman was planning a trip down to Los Angeles and looking for recommendations.  A Ukrainian woman who was sharing a room with them came in, upset about the conflict going on in her country.  Then a few young guys showed up with a pizza, and one of them began to dominate the conversation, speaking as if he knew more about the situation in Ukraine than anyone, including the woman who was from there.

When I went back to my room, both of the guys in the lower bunks were snoring, as if it were a competition.  I knew I wasn’t getting any sleep that night.  Out in the halls were framed pictures of famous bands from San Francisco; the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Santana, Sly Stone, the Steve Miller Band, as well as some of the lesser-known bands that were important in their own way; Moby Grape, Commander Cody, the Beau Brummels, Camper Van Beethoven.  I stayed in the hall most of the night, reading the biographies that were featured beside the photos.

By three in the morning, the snoring contest had been won by the guy in the opposite bunk, who sounded like he should’ve been on a respirator.  I had to be up at five to make the connection back over the bridge to Emeryville.  Now I worried that if I did manage to fall asleep, I’d miss my alarm and the bus.  There was nothing to do but grind it out.  Homicide was another alternative, but I wasn’t going there yet.

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