riding the rails 3

Check out was at twelve o’clock and since I was paying so much for the room and still had so much time to kill before the Southwest Chief departed that evening, I wasn’t prepared to give it up until twelve o’clock on the dot.  That gave me time to download and study some of the train schedules.  I already knew and had ridden most of the long-haul routes, the Southwest Chief, the Sunset Limited, the Texas Eagle, the Coast Starlight, the City of New Orleans, the Lakeshore Limited, the Crescent, the Silver Star.  What was important to know was what days they ran and what times they departed and arrived.  The best thing possible is to be able to just hop from one train to the next.  Most of the time it requires an overnight stay, however, so I’d have to download an app for hostels as well.  One thing I could not afford was to be stranded in a big city, paying a lot for accommodation.

When I was in college I’d gotten to study in England and do some traveling in Europe, so had been introduced to the hostel system, shared rooms, often with bunkbeds, and shared bathrooms and cooking facilities.  I’d never heard about anyone staying in a hostel growing up.  No one I knew had ever done much traveling.  The assumption seemed to be that you would need a lot of money and possibly some connections if you wished to do so.  In Europe I met kids, however, often without much money, who were traveling all over the world in ways I never dreamed possible.

My preference is to go to affordable countries, where a single room can be found at a reasonable price.  Latin America and Southeast Asia have been such destinations in the past, although prices seem to be going up all over the globe.  If it comes to needing a cheap place to crash, I still do hostels, when necessary, particularly in Europe or some of the big cities in America where they’ve begun to spring up.  It doesn’t pay to go bankrupt if all you really need to do is lie down for a few hours.

The Hotel Metro Plaza let me store my things behind the desk once I’d checked out, which was convenient seeing that Union Station was right across the street.  My plan was to go back and revisit some of the old haunts from my days of living downtown.  Ah, the good old days when I’d lost my mind and completely fallen out of society.

From Spring Street, I walked past City Hall and the Criminal Courts building, then took First up to Broadway.  What is left of the historical core of downtown Los Angeles is buried as deep in years of neglect as ancient Pompei is in volcanic ashes, but if you know where to look you can see signs of it.  I walked past the Central Market and Clifton’s Cafeteria, where my grandfather used to eat as a young man, before the city, in coordination with the automobile industry, replaced all of the streetcar lines with freeways, creating the first car city in America and dooming future residents to a gridlocked dystopia, with over 500 reported incidents of road rage in one year alone.

As the name might suggest, Broadway is also home to a number of historic theaters, some of which have been refurbished and are back to hosting concerts and events.  The Los Angeles Theater had something going on called Metal and Monsters.  The Globe was advertising travesuras, which translated to antics, or mischievous conduct, when I looked it up.  Joe Satriani was playing at the Orpheum, and a few blocks over, at the Mayan, there were two acts on the marquee, Minimal Effect and Detroit Love.

The place I was really interested in tracking down was the Stillwell Hotel, on the corner of 8th and Grand, where’d I’d lived my last two years in Los Angeles, dreaming dreams so big all they did was send me over the edge.  I’d paid five-fifty a month the first year, and six-fifty the second, for a room that included room service once a week, with an Indian restaurant on the ground floor, as well as the famous Hank’s Bar, which I would descend to nightly in the elevator, like Batman sliding down the pole to the Batcave.  The Hotel was still there.  Hank’s was still there.  The Indian restaurant was still there, but looked like they were only open for take-out.  I asked the guy at the desk if they still rented rooms on a monthly basis, but the answer was negative.  Apparently, during COVID they’d tried to fill the hotel with homeless folks and the owner had put his foot down and stopped taking new residents altogether.  That was a pity.  There was nowhere even remotely affordable left in the city, as far as I could tell.

From the Stillwell I walked up and through the Central Library, where I’d spent long hours checking out books and world music CDs that I would take back to my room and burn, never listening to one of them, just burning boxes of CDs that never got played, kind of like the CDs of my own music I was producing at the time.  The library was one place still enforcing the mask mandate, so I dug one out of my pocket and put it on, just to walk to the door on the other side, pass through, and climb the steps to Bunker Hill.  There was my old YMCA, the best in the world.  It occurred to me then, quite sadly, that no matter how bad things had seemed back then, they were way worse now.

The Arts District was a long way from Bunker Hill, but it was a walk I was intent on making.  I had four hours before the train left and there were things I still wanted to see.  On the way I passed Pershing Square with its strange, purple tower, crossed Broadway again, and then headed down 5th, back in the direction of Skid Row and the King Eddy Saloon.  As far back as the 1930s, there’d already been upwards of ten thousand homeless folks crammed into the one square mile of Skid Row.  For most of its existence the policy was one of containment, like locking a bunch of wild animals in the same cage.  They might hurt each other but can’t get at anyone else.  I crossed Los Angeles Street and walked past the Los Angeles Mission, which seemed oddly vacant on this day.  Perhaps everyone was being housed in the big tents that lined Sixth Street all the way to Alameda.

At the Little Tokyo Market Place, I had to stop and get an iced tea.  Twenty-five earlier, after making my first record and moving downtown, I’d gotten hired to do patch work on the roof. The guy who’d engineered the record got me the gig and I’d spent a few miserable weeks up to my elbows in black tar, before the rains of El Nino put us on a permanent hiatus.  It wasn’t much money, but more than I’d ever get playing gigs and selling CDs.  No.  That was never going to happen.

Walking up Hewitt was like walking through a dream, as I got closer to the American Hotel on the corner of Traction.  That had been a lucky find and good, if brief, time of life.  If we hadn’t recorded my record right across the street from it, I never would’ve known about it or the famous Al’s Bar downstairs.  As luck would have it, I was able to get a room there shortly thereafter, four hundred dollars a month, if I remember right, and there began my life in Los Angeles.  There would be three or four bands playing every night and the floorboards would be shaking too hard to fall asleep, but who wanted to sleep?  If all I’d wanted was to party and play foosball, I’d come to the right place.

Al’s Bar closed down in 2001, but the American Hotel is still in business, either that or back in business.  Four nights probably costs the same as a month used to, and you probably won’t be sleeping on a hairy futon in a closet-sized room, adorned with snot and punk rock stickers.  That kind of charm can’t, and maybe shouldn’t be, recaptured.

By now, I realized I should probably head back up to Chinatown and get my bags.  I needed some time at the station to prepare for my upcoming ordeal.  Passing Oliveira Street, I heard the same Norteno music from the day before and saw some of the same couples dancing in the plaza.  I’m getting old and should’ve been sitting on a bench in the shade, drinking a Jamaica and reminiscing with acquaintances about the way things used to be, not jumping on a train with no idea what I was doing or where I was going.

Was this another adventure I was chasing or just more madness?   There seemed to be no difference anymore.  If there’d ever been an easy option, it no longer existed.  I’d pushed things too hard and too far to ever get back what I’d given up or passed on, and though by now the cost had become unbearably steep, the only way to keep desperation at bay was to just keep moving.  So, that’s what I intended to do.

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