Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More People

Now that I’ve exhausted the topic of food and moaned about being road weary, I have to talk about people some more. You have to figure that, on such a journey we are bound to meet a diverse cast of characters. Most were unremarkable; just people living their lives and going where they need to go. Some were standouts.

I do have to comment on the difference between riding a bus in Colorado and California, and throughout the South – Texas, Tennessee, Georgia and the like. It seemed to me the people on the Western regions of my trip, as well as those along the Eastern Seaboard were more free-spirited, or grimmer, depending on their reason for riding. However, the people along the South seemed more… base. Their conversations, their actions, their very beings demonstrated a more fundamental type of existence. Their language and mannerisms were more crude.

And the tattoos. Lets’ not forget about the tattoos.

By no means am I expressing a preference for one over the other. I am merely making an observation.

One standout to the Southern crowd was Fay, who was house hunting in North Carolina. We met in the Memphis terminal. She had never ridden Greyhound before and did not know how things worked. I, having already ridden for longer than I cared to, took her under my wing. We soon became seat buddies as well as dining partners. It was due to Fay that I indulged in that hot dog at the depot (see Road Food entry).

Fay is a little bit older than I am, and newly wed. She confided that she swore she would never remarry after her divorce some twenty years ago, and now here she is, house hunting because her husband of three months had just gotten a promotion and needed to relocate. He had serious misgivings about her riding the bus, but after consulting airline websites and finding how much a ticket would cost, she told him he was being silly and bought a Greyhound ticket. She, as I, agree that Greyhound is the best kept travel secret in America. She was enjoying her bus experience as much as I did the first few weeks, before it turned into drudgery for me.

Fay and I parted company in Atlanta, but on the way there we amused ourselves with a young man named Joe, an aspiring writer. Joe was quite the cutie pie, with his gray eyes, smooth complexion and sandy blond hair covered by a ???? He was a bit on the skinny side but it worked well for him. His clothes bagged around his slender frame, giving him the appearance of a child playing dress up in his father’s clothes. Especially with that hat! Fay and I both felt the need to mother him. He was headed into some small town to meet Meg, the potential love of his life. Meg is actually an acronym of the young lady’s full name. I learned this by reading a long poem composed by Young Joe in her honor.

Some of that poem was trite, but a lot of it was quite good. After reading it I told Joe he should pursue a career in writing. He certainly has a gift for words, young and unpolished though his diction may be. He instantly whipped out a notebook filled with poetry he had authored. A lot of it was banal, but one composition took my breath away. This young man truly has talent! I hope to see his face on a book jacket one day. If I do, I’ll tell you so you can read for yourself how refined and talented he is.

Fay and I were merciless with our picking and teasing at him. I think he enjoyed the attention. I know Marley, sitting in a seat across the aisle from Joe, thought I was goofy… but in a good way. Marley was headed to her granddaughter’s house for a visit. Here she had been all set to wrap herself up in a blanket and snooze her way into Atlanta. Fay, Joe and I ruined her plans completely. She didn’t exactly take part in ribbing poor little Joe but she certainly enjoyed the good-natured barbs and teasing that Fay and I inflicted.

I think that the ride from Memphis into Atlanta was the most fun I had on the bus, thanks to this merry band of travelers.

The bus depot in Atlanta proved another matter entirely, though. Even though it was past 11PM when we arrived the terminal was crowded. People sprawled everywhere and their luggage consisted of trash bags and cardboard boxes more than suitcases and duffel bags. Children cried and their parents shouted at them. One devoted father cradled his younger daughter while his older one, not more than three years old sat placidly beside him amidst the uproar and hubbub.

Atlanta proved to be the only other stumbling block in my cross-country travels. I was only supposed to have a forty-five minute layover, but it turned into a nearly three hour wait. This terminal was decidedly NOT air conditioned, as opposed to the Dallas terminal that had a whisper of air conditioning running through it. The doors at the Atlanta depot were propped open and industrial fans were pulling in what saturated air they could from outside. Crowded as the waiting area was, unless you were within ten feet of those fans, you felt nothing but sweltering mugginess and desperation.

And mounting anger. It seems a lot of those passengers out of Atlanta had experienced the same fate I suffered in Dallas. They wanted to board their buses and get on with their lives. One man in particular was one month out of his Gulf War experience. He was unshaven, in defiance to military regulations, which allow only a trim mustache. His entire face was covered with hair. He must have been miserably hot beneath that growth! He sat on his military duffel bag and mourned to all and sundry that he only wanted to visit his grandmother in Atlanta before pushing on home. And now here he is, stuck in a stupid bus terminal. I felt for him, and offered to watch his bags while he went outside to puff that cigarette tucked behind his ear he so obviously wanted to smoke. In turn, he watched my bags when I needed to excuse myself.

There were some frightening looking characters in that Atlanta terminal, and one that looked distinctly out of place: a nun, clad in a light blue habit topped by a white pinafore, with a matching white cap on her short-cropped, gray hair. She whipped around in shock when she heard Fay describe herself as a virgin… a virgin to the vagaries of travel, such as crowded bus terminals and angry, tattooed people. Maybe, when she saw that Fay and I looked somewhat respectable and we were only using the word ‘virgin’ in jest she thought better of chastising us. I spied this nun scurrying through the terminal later that night. I wonder where she was going, and what mercies she would dispense while there.

You might be tempted to remind me that, because of my Atlanta experience I should not consider Fort Worth the Black Hole of transportation anymore. Nope, sorry. I like that designation too much. Besides, my Atlanta experience only totaled three hours and the Fort Worth extravaganza lasted twelve, after all was said and done.

When we finally did leave Atlanta at 2:30 in the morning, it must have been in the company of some criminals. One hour outside Atlanta our bus pulled into a rest stop where all manner of Federal Marshall, ATF agents and other Federal law enforcement officials waited for us. We were instructed to get off the bus and wait in the terminal area.

GULP! Nothing is quite so terrifying as seeing a band of Federal law enforcement agents surround your bus and scrutinize you as you debark at 3:30 in the morning. Well, maybe one thing is: the thought that the person they are looking for has been in close proximity to you for the past hour. What had this alleged criminal done? Why was he or she being sought? And why is that one agent fingering his gun, while all of the others were decked out in riot gear, with automatic weapons in hand?

They searched the now empty bus while a Fed, dressed in a white Polo shirt with blue insignia and khakis, a badge prominently displayed on his belt and a gun nestled in its holster on his right hip approached a tall young man and started interrogating him. The passenger had to show ID and answer some questions. That spectacle captivated my attention and I neglected to pay attention to the rest of the unfolding scene. Give me a break though: it was 3:30 in the morning!

All was apparently well with our passenger load: no criminals aboard. We got back on the bus and the driver said something about being this close to 9/11, we can expect other spontaneous investigations along our travels. I had traveled several thousand miles, and continued on for several more and this was the only instance where the bus was surrounded by the Feds. Except for when the INS and border patrol came aboard and interrogated all of the passengers. Somehow I don’t believe our bus driver, who was apparently trying to smooth the incident over. Neither did my fellow passengers.

It seems I’ve done it again. I’ve gone on rambling about these events, and I still have so many more people to tell you about!

Guess this will have to be a two-parter… again!

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Second Entry Devoted to Food

In the last entry I talked about the food I ate on the road. Now I’ll talk about my other food experiences while in the States. Why all this talk about food, you ask?

Have you ever noticed, when watching a movie or reading a book, that often, the characters sit down to a good meal, and they may even serve themselves, but they never actually eat? With rare exceptions, such as Mel Gibson shoving an entire slice of pie in his face during the first fifteen minutes of Forever Young, or wolfing a strange meal consisting of mashed potatoes, hamburgers, meat loaf, pancakes and bacon just before the denouement of Signs. And then you have a gorgeous blond girl cramming in two brownies at a time while shouting at Adam Sandler in Anger Management, and who could forget the dinner scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?

But usually, the characters don’t eat. They sit down to a nice meal, a needed meal, a home cooked meal… but don’t eat. The story indicates they’re hungry but still, it seems they survive on coffee.

My friends, I eat. I’m a human being, not a character in a story. I need real food in order to live. I cannot sit down to a meal and not eat it for the sake of a plot twist. And I’m certainly not going to walk away from delectable food when it is put in front of me.

I need to write another entry dedicated to food. While still in China I mapped out my Epicurean quest in America by location: what restaurant, indigenous to that area, would I partake of and what will I eat? Part of my joy of planning my stateside visit was this gastronomical adventure. The last entry was food I snagged while on the road; this entry will describe food prepared for me by loved ones, or food I planned to eat that is only available in certain locations, like:

California Pizza Kitchen: Their pizza Margherita is one of the best frozen food pizzas I’ve ever had. The crust is wafer thin and the mozzarella is sumptuous in its texture. It is made with real basil and tomatoes that you can actually distinguish by taste. I planned to eat such a pizza while in California. Darrell and Samantha enjoyed it with me.

Noodles and Co.: I did not know it, years ago when my sister took me to this restaurant, that it is akin to the noodle restaurants in China. Although I’m certain that the noodles are mass-produced instead of made from scratch at that franchise, like they are in China at the hole in the wall restaurants, they do have similar taste and they are served up in the same manner. Unfortunately I did not make it to this restaurant while in Denver.

Braums: For those of you that don’t know, Braum’s is a dairy store/bakery. It is most famous for its ice cream, but their burgers are among the best I’ve ever eaten. They have great texture and incomparable taste. You can only find Braum’s in Texas and now, they’ve started reaching out into Oklahoma. The farthest north they’ve gotten is just south of Oklahoma City, on I-35. My plan was to have a Braum’s Junior Burger with cheese while in Texas. I did not get the chance to enjoy this particular treat, either.

I wanted to treat George and Chris to a meal at Vito’s in Dallas. Lisa introduced me to Vito’s when she came to DFW for a business trip. I had only been there one time with her, but their chicken parmesan and her praising this establishment’s food was enough to convince me that everything on their menu must be delicious. Unfortunately we did not make it to Vito’s, but they did take me to Italian Express where I enjoyed a slice of pizza. At least I was enjoying it until George gave me a bite of his stromboli. And then I wished I could turn back time and order a stromboli instead. Unfortunately we did not get the chance to go back to this restaurant, so no stromboli for me.

Jason’s Deli: This trendy restaurant originated in Beaumont, Texas and is rapidly opening franchises all over the States, even as far away as Florida. Their menu offers so many choices, but my heart was set on a muffleta. This sandwich originated in New Orleans. Its distinguishing taste comes from the olive relish that Jason’s Deli has mastered the preparation of. Their ‘quarter muff’ deal consists of a quarter sandwich, chips, a dill pickle spear and fruit with yogurt or soup. I chose fruit and yogurt and enjoyed every bite of this meal.

I did not have any particular plans for Memphis, Florida or Pennsylvania but Lisa’s and Marjorie’s cooking more than made up for my lack of planning.

Lisa prepared a turkey meatball dish served with noodles and rice pilaf, with a side salad. Simple in its preparation but complex in taste, this meal was savory and satisfying. I could eat it again… and I did. Fortunately Lisa had made enough for us to have it again the next day. No complaints here!

Marjorie wanted to prepare a Japanese eggplant dish in honor of my Oriental dining preferences. Her husband is not fond of eggplant, and neither am I, strangely enough. Together, Chuck and I managed to dissuade our beloved/friend from preparing this labor-intensive dish.

Instead, Marjorie and I ate at Cracker Barrel. I had forgotten that I love their sourdough french toast, but thanks to my dear friend, I did get to partake of it. Served up hot and buttery with a warm bottle of syrup, with eggs and turkey sausage on the side, this foray most likely packed a pound or two on my waist but was completely worth it.

We also ate at Chipotle, which was part of my plan. Their chicken fajita bowl was among the foods I missed the most while in China. Living in the States I would eat this meal at least once a week. One bowl, consisting of rice, beans, chicken and a selection of toppings such as corn salsa and pico de gallo is enough food for two meals. Marjorie sent me off to New York with such a bowl but I actually enjoyed this meal in Texas, in Kevin’s company first. Sorry, Marjorie!

While still in China, Gabriel confided that he wanted to eat rice and bacon with me when I got there. That and an egg had been my standard breakfast before moving to China and Gabriel longed to enjoy it again. Naturally I obliged. My Gabe-Gabe is now 10 years old, old enough to cook for himself. So I taught him how to cook Jasmine rice and fry up turkey bacon. He left the eggs up to me. We ate rice and bacon for breakfast every day I was there. We loved it as much as the act of preparing it together.

Lisa’s turkey meatball dish with noodles tied for first place with Ann’s cole slaw and Southwest Salad. Marjorie was going to cook but we kept opting to eat out; cooking just seemed such a chore when all we wanted to do was have fun! She did cook for the wine tasting party that we went to and all of that food was delicious. I made my famous deviled eggs and Yvonne made German style meatballs. Janelle made a sort of bean salad that I would have been happy to slather myself in and lick off, it was so good.

George and Chris treated me to a fine meal at Corky’s barbeque. The portions were generous and the food tasty. I’d have to say that the portions were more than generous even, because we ended up taking some home with us. There is such a thing as too much, at least in my book. Truly the best part of that meal was the company and the ambiance.

Jennifer had in mind to take me to her husband’s favorite eatery, Sonny’s Barbeque. As it turns out it was all you can eat’ night there, and I enjoyed fine pulled pork and potato salad. I immediately understood why it was Garrett’s favorite place to eat in Tampa.

Do you want to know the best food, bar none? The best thing I put between my teeth while in America?

Miriam’s brownies. They were gooey and chocolaty, with just the right degree of crunchy. But mostly they were shock-full of love and care. And that is what made them so good. Thank you, Little Miriam!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Road Weary, Worn Out

Nothing could shake my joy at the anticipation of seeing Lisa, Jennifer, Marjorie or Debra, and no disaster, natural or unnatural could keep me away from my precious Gabriel. But I am getting weary. So road worn am I! Tired of boarding buses and getting off of buses, tired of sleeping sitting up and waking up every hour or so, tired of the distinctive growl of diesel engines and the feel of turning wheels. I don’t want to listen to strangers’ stories anymore, linger in bus depots anymore, or eat road food anymore. At this point I feel that if I ever have to pull another suitcase again it will be too soon. After having crossed the two deserts, the Continental Divide, the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers, and 3 times zones, I am ready to cry Uncle to this frenetic traveling.

But hey: I commissioned this Merry Go Round, I have to ride it till the end. And the end is about a month away at this point. We’re not even in Memphis yet, and I still have the Florida Panhandle and the Eastern Seaboard to go.

Aren’t you as tired of riding as I am? Let’s take a break from the bus riding and talk about food, shall we?

West of the Mississippi I was a very organized and enthusiastic traveler. The first month of this vagabond extravaganza I planned my meals. Whether the bus provided meal breaks or not, I did not want to be subjected to fast food so I bought food to take on the bus with me. As road fatigue mounted, so my indifference grew. My attention to provisions waned east of the Mississippi. Road food became the norm. I barely made sure I had snacks before boarding. I got reacquainted with munchies you can buy in convenience stores, like Combos and Chex Mix, and Rice Crispies treats with coffee. Yes, I copped the occasional cup of coffee on the road. Sometimes it was nice to have a hot beverage, especially at 4:30AM, when you know you’re not going to sleep anymore and the temperature on the bus hovers around 68 Fahrenheit. (more on that later)

It would not be fair to make a quality distinction based on my enthusiasm for travel. Obviously the food was better west of the Mississippi because I planned my selections, and worse east of Big Muddy because I was catching as catch can. So I won’t make any geographical distinctions, OK? I’ll just talk about the food I ate, and whether it was pleasing, satisfying, merely sustaining or downright nauseating. Matter of fact, we can make a game of it: you figure out where I was when I ate what I describe to you.

Feel free to email me at and let me know your answers. I’ll let you know if you’re right. We’ll just call this an interactive blog entry!

Whataburger Patty Melt meal: The location for this one is a given. There is only one state that has Whataburger. As for the food, it was hot and tasty going down, especially the fries. I had not had a patty melt in over a year and, even though I know I should have gone for the grilled chicken meal I opted for a sandwich where the grease soaked through not only the bread but the wax paper wrapper. This was a true gut bomb. I felt miserable for two days after eating it: bloated and vaguely nauseous. But MAN! They have good fries!

Greyhound bus station diner hot dog: Not bad, as far as hot dogs go. This was another iconic American food I had not eaten since forever, because even when I lived Stateside I did not eat hot dogs. This was a half-pound dog, served lukewarm in a cold bun. Condiments available upon request, for a dime a packet. You know what size packet. I ate it with Chex mix I had picked up in some convenience store and drank water. You can buy a hot dog combo, but seeing as the sausage itself was overpriced - $3! I was not going to pay even more for a few chips and a fountain drink.

Arby’s Market Fresh Sandwich: again, an expensive indulgence. The sandwich alone was $5.55! Fries and a drink would have put the grand total over $7. Way too much for a fast food restaurant meal. Nevertheless the sandwich was good and fresh, and made with whole grain bread. Other than the price giving me indigestion, it was a satisfying meal.

Farmer Boys Chicken Club Sandwich: The location for this one is kind of a giveaway too, because their franchises are limited to a certain geographical region. Their sandwiches however, are out of this world. Seriously: this sandwich made for some of the best food I had on the road. It travels well, being as it is wrapped not only in wax paper but aluminum foil and a paper bag lined with napkins. If I could have had their sandwiches for every meal break on this road trip I would have. Cost is moderate for the value at $6 for a footlong sandwich that made for two meals, because there is so much goodness packed within the homestyle bread.

Subway: their turkey club did not travel nearly as well as Farmer Boys’ sandwich did, even though I had them put only minimal dressing on it. The bread ended up soggy and over a third of the sandwich was inedible by the time I was ready to eat it. Not because of the dressing but because the veggies were waterlogged. At $6.49, that represented a waste of nearly $3 on this meal. For what I could eat of it, it was sustaining but not satisfying or stupendous.

Which wich? This restaurant had the coolest theme. You pick a brown bag, printed with sandwich selections: bread, meat, cheese, toppings, dressing. Put a check in the box to indicate your selection. Again I opted for a turkey club with nearly all of the veggies and a light vinaigrette dressing on the side, on whole grain bread. It cost about what a Subway sandwich does and, unfortunately, tasted about as bland. It was sustaining but not satisfying.

McDonalds’ Egg McMuffin Breakfast: Believe it or not, this was one of the better meals I ate on the road. We pulled into the parking lot somewhere near 5:30 in the morning. The restaurant was not even open for business yet. All of the food was fresh and hot and the coffee was rich, especially with the half’n’half that McDonald’s automatically provides. The hash browns were crispy and golden brown. It did not give me indigestion or make me sick. I think everyone knows what this costs.

Greyhound bus depot diner chicken fingers meal. Consisting of 5 large chunks of deep fried chicken breast meat and fries, this meal was one of the more generous, portion-wise. However, it was expensive at nearly $7. The crinkle-cut fries were golden brown but not quite crispy, and they turned cold much too fast in the overly air-conditioned terminal. The chicken was well cooked: crispy outside, juicy and tender inside. After satisfying my need for crunch I started peeling the batter off and ate just the succulent meat. It was too much for one meal but it would not travel well, so I felt compelled to eat it all. I left most of the french fries and chicken batter behind, regretting the waste of money that caused. Again it was sustaining but not exactly satisfying.

Are you wondering if I ate any ‘healthy food’ on the road? Yes, I had one so-called healthy meal on the road. It wasn’t really healthy, though. It was…

Panda Express: this is the only Chinese food I ate the entire time I was in the States. What a statement! It is true though: other than the beef noodle dish I cooked for Darrell and the fried rice for Jennifer, this was my only brush with oriental food. I gobbled it up, relishing the feel of chopsticks and the taste of steamed rice. The taste of the sweet ‘n’ sour pork, steamed veggies and egg roll was, well… not exactly disappointing. More like ‘expected’. I did not expect this Chinese food to taste like the Chinese food I had grown used to in China. It did make me sick though. Homesick for good Chinese cooking.

During my time in the States, the best food I had was at my loved ones’ houses. More on that in the next entry.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Effects of the Black Hole

So here we are, stuck in Fort Worth. What a depressing thought! I could have left Cowtown in time to make my Dallas bus if I had taken the train but I opted to not do that for two reasons: I had paid for a Greyhound bus ticket, and there was no guarantee that the train tracks into Dallas were repaired overnight. What if I took that train, and got stuck on the tracks?

So, I waited for the bus. When the poor, beleaguered driver pulled his bus into the Fort Worth depot he had a lot of angry travelers to contend with. The ones on his bus that wanted a smoke or stretch break, and the ones in the terminal who wanted to get to Dallas and make their connections. The former group won out and, to the ire of we passengers waiting to board the bus, they filled the smoking area and puffed to their hearts’ content. We stood in line for another 30 minutes while the driver did his bit of paperwork. And then came the call to board.

Once we made it to Dallas I thought I was golden. Out of the Black Hole I figured my worries and woes were past; from here on out life and travel would be good. As it turns out, not so much.

Arriving in Dallas, I registered myself at the ticketing window and the clerk told me I should catch the 1:30PM bus to Memphis. So I had to wait the morning out: big deal! At least I’d be on my way. I sent Lisa a text message to that effect. She responded that all was well. She would pick me up no matter what time the bus would pull into Memphis.

The trouble is I never heard the bus being announced. Neither did four other passengers. We eyed the clock with anticipation come 1PM, by 1:25 I went back to the ticketing agent, who informed me I should have been on my toes because the bus was now full and getting ready to pull out.

On my toes! What did this woman think I was standing on? Didn’t she think I was eager to be on my way, after sitting around this terminal whose air-conditioner labored ineffectively to cool the place down for the past four hours? And did I mention it was 100+ degrees Fahrenheit outside?

Now what do I do?

Well, some food would be nice. I tore into the teriyaki chicken sandwich my nephew made for me. Very tasty and satisfying. A banana and a piece of chocolate rounded out the meal. Thus fortified I went back to the ticketing agent.

While I ate my lunch Greyhound had done their shift change dance. Now there was a different agent at the window. She informed me that the previous agent had not entered my name into the computer; therefore the previous bus did not know to anticipate me being a passenger. I started fuming all over again. This agent correctly performed the registering process and now I was officially scheduled aboard the 7PM bus. And what time would that put me in Memphis? Oh, 5AM. Again, I sent Lisa a text message, again her ever patient soul manifested itself. Bless Lisa for her calm temperament and cool head!

And so I waited. And waited. Sitting down became a challenge, both because I knew I would be sitting for most of the night on the bus and also because the terminal was so full. Standing was fun because I could exercise a bit while standing and I didn’t have to worry about navigating crowded aisles with my two rolling bags.

Enter security, who had an authority complex. This man got on the P.A. system every 30 minutes to announce that passengers should be seated in the seating area. Nobody should be leaning against the walls or sitting on the floor and woe to those leaning on the lockers. No bags should be left unattended under the penalty of confiscation. Only those eating food should be seated at the cafeteria tables. An agent (him) would sweep the terminal to make sure everyone complies with these rules.

On his first pass through he instructed me to go to the passenger seating area. I dragged my bags to the crowded passenger seating area and stood at the end of a row of seats. His next pass through he told me I had to find a seat. And why exactly did I have to sit? Do I not have the right to stand, as long as I am within the seating area? I didn’t get a chance to ask him because he was busy confiscating bags that were left by the wall. A man rushed up to the bags being hauled away, shouting that they were his bags. The security guard told him he should not have left his bags unattended, and then hauled them away. The irate passenger followed him to the other end of the terminal, and reclaimed his bags after filling out a lost bag form.

This security guard had no problem flirting with attractive women and allowing them privileges denied to other passengers. Pretty girls could hang out in the cell phone charging area. Pretty girls could roam the terminal; he would even accompany them. I suppose I don’t rate as pretty. I got ‘busted’ twice.

That was just one way he had of toying with passengers. If riders lined up for their bus at gate two, as announced, got too rowdy for him, he would rope off that gate and cause everyone to race across the terminal to the other boarding gate and line up all over again. This was his most offensive game and all of us resented it. Especially those of us who had spent the entire day in this non air-conditioned terminal and at his mercy.

He played this little game with me and the passengers that were supposed to board the bus I was on. The Greyhound agent instructed us line up at gate two, and then he roped the gate off and had the Greyhound agent announce the bus was boarding at gate one. We had witnessed his little game several times that afternoon though. We weren’t falling for it. We stayed right where we were and, come time to board the bus, we boarded it from gate two. He did not like losing what little authority he had. We had no pity for him. Soon enough he would go home, take off his sheriff-looking uniform and become a human being, just like the rest of us. Let him deal with the psychological trauma of not being obeyed by angry passengers in whichever manner he chose. We were getting on that bus no matter what he said.

We ended up standing in line for an additional 45 minutes, once our bus was announced. Did I mention the heat was having a terrible effect on the fleet? Buses were breaking down left and right. Greyhound had to search their fleet for buses mechanically sound enough to drive long distances. They finally located one.

We boarded at 7:45. I sent Lisa a message that we were finally rolling and my estimated arrival time would be 5:10AM. This poor woman! So afraid was she that she wouldn’t wake up in time to meet me that she did not sleep all night. Or, if she did it was in snatches. And she had to go to work the next day!

I blame everything, from Lisa’s lack of sleep to the torture I endured in the Dallas terminal, on that black hole called Fort Worth.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fort Worth, that Black Hole of Transportation

Thanks to Ron’s efficient monitoring of the clock I did leave the plant and make it to the train station on time. Quickly we unloaded my luggage from his Flex and, after a brief but heartfelt hug, I rushed into the station, bought my ticket, and hustled to the platform.

That is when the controller told me the train was stuck on the tracks due to a faulty switching mechanism. I scanned the track and in fact saw the train, but it wasn’t moving. He then informed me I should join the group departing the platform and wait for a shuttle bus that would take us to the next station upstream from this malfunctioning switch, where we would be able to board the train. Neither he nor the controller that joined him offered to help me manage my luggage.

Sigh! Where is chivalry nowadays?

Mind you, I’m used to pulling my luggage. That was not the problem. The problem was that it was so miserably hot. SO miserably hot that the train tracks were expanding and warping. So terribly hot that the switches were malfunctioning. And, if the temperature is so extreme that it warps train tracks and blows switches, how do you think this traveler felt, lugging those suitcases and that one leather bag?

I guess I should tell you that the train platforms in Dallas are outdoors, not sheltered by any type of building. Now that you know the conditions, you can truly feel sorry for me.

I reversed my course and followed the group of passengers headed for the station. We had to wait for a shuttle bus to take us to the next station. I found that rather odd. Seeing as they knew the train was stuck and waiting upstream of us, why hasn’t the shuttle bus materialized yet?

All in all it was about a twenty minute wait. And then, it took about fifteen minutes for us to get to the next station. Apparently that was all the time needed for the train to get unstuck and reverse its course. By the time we made it to the station, the train was gone. It was trying to maintain its schedule, instead of waiting for the passengers guaranteed to ride. Can someone please tell me why train conductors were making such a big deal of head counts and potential passengers if they were not going to delay the train so that we could board it?

And so it came that I had to wait for an hour outdoors, in 100+ degree heat for the next train. Another flurry of phone calls to Fort Worth and to the plant, where I could in fact have stayed and visited for another hour without risking missing the train.

Personally, I blame Fort Worth. I have never liked that town.

There is a geological fault line between Grand Prairie, a suburb west of Dallas and Arlington, a suburb east of Fort Worth. It is clearly visible, not as a jagged line that one must carefully navigate over, but in the terrain. East of this fault line the soil is dark, rich and loamy; trees and greenery abound – at least, it does when the sun is not scorching down from the sky and the temperatures are not squeezing every last vestige of moisture out of everything. West of the fault line everything is flat, brown and dead. The soil is shale and the rock tends more to limestone. And that is how I describe Fort Worth to friends and relatives all over the globe: flat, brown, dead. Beyond Fort Worth are the outskirts of the Chihuahuan Desert, which you and I traveled across a few posts back.

I own property in Fort Worth. I know good people in Fort Worth and I have family that lives in Fort Worth. I even lived there, for a while. But I never felt comfortable there, never felt compelled to actually live there, as in: go out, visit, carouse or the like. To aggravate the situation, even though I lived in Fort Worth, I worked in Dallas nearly the entire time I resided in Texas.

I was not looking forward to my visit in Fort Worth. For one, because my sister in law always has issues she wants or needs help with but never follows or accepts advice for, and for two, well… it was Fort Worth. If you must know, I consider Fort Worth the black hole of the universe, not just of transportation, as the title alleges. Things have a tendency of going wrong or of dying in Fort Worth. Marriages, vegetation, job markets… Strangely enough, several others that make their home and lives in Cowtown agree with me.

The bright side is that my beautiful niece lives there, and she makes the visit worthwhile. Even though I know plenty of people in Fort Worth I did not plan to visit any of them. Instead I wanted to reserve what little time I had for my family. I learned my lesson about spreading myself too thin in Dallas.

I finally arrived in Fort Worth after 9PM and debarked, along with all the other fuming passengers who had to wait for the late train even though they had been at the station on time to catch the early train. They muttered and grumbled all the way to their cars while my eyes scanned the platform for my niece and her boyfriend, who had waited out the extra time at the station.

There’s my Jessica! With tears and hair flowing freely she flies into my arms. I sweep her off the ground and hug her for what must have been a minute straight. Joyous reunion! Her boyfriend Jordan follows closely behind but keeps a measure of distance. He doesn’t want to get kicked by one of her jutting feet as I twirl her around.

The rest of the visit is, as we say, private. Let’s just say that visiting Donna is visiting Donna, and we made the best of the time we had. The family provided me with a comfortable, air conditioned room. The rest of the house’s climate control system left a lot to be desired, but the room I slept in was of comfortable temperature. We laughed, we cried, we played with the dogs and with Baby Devon, and then it was time to go.

We had to get up very early the next morning to catch the bus to Memphis. There is only one bus out of Fort Worth to make a Memphis connection in Dallas, and it leaves at 7AM. I set my clock to wake up at 4:30, so that I could grab a shower and pack again before hitting the road. The whole family decided to wake up early to get me downtown on time.

Oh, bad news: within one mile of leaving the house in the White Settlement the suburb of Fort Worth Donna lives in, all traffic was diverted off the interstate and onto the highway looping around the city. Wonder what could have happened? Now we not only have a detour to contend with, but mounting traffic issues because everyone has to take that detour and we’re coming into rush hour. And then, my nephew didn’t know the quickest way to downtown and missed the exit to Interstate 35, which runs right through downtown. We doubled back and turned around to get on that freeway. We finally made it downtown, and rushed into the bus terminal, all of us together like a solid unit, only to find out the bus would be delayed about 30 minutes.

Donna and the kids had to get back home because Jordan had to go to work and Baby Devon would be left by himself. Fortunately traffic headed west was not delayed at all and Baby Devon was still asleep by the time everyone made it home. I was still stuck at the bus station.

I had an hour and a half layover in Dallas before making my connection to the Memphis bound bus. As long as the ticketing agent was right and the bus was only going to be thirty minutes late, I would have no problem making my connection.

Unfortunately he was not right and I watched with growing dismay as the clock’s hands first inched toward, and then swept past the 9:20 mark, the time I was supposed to board my bus out of Dallas. At this rate I was not going to make it to Memphis by 7PM that evening, as my itinerary specified. I called Lisa, my friend who lives in Memphis. She would be picking me up from the bus stop, but now it would not be at a decent hour. We agreed to stay in touch by text message throughout the day.

And that is where I leave things for now. Greyhound personnel have a lot of sorting out to do and I’m not a happy traveler at this point. I’ll finish telling you of the downstream effects of this delay in the next post, but I do want to tell you what had happened to cause all of these traffic back ups and detours. A tractor trailer had plowed into a concrete bridge piling and overturned. The state troopers closed the entire highway and rerouted traffic so they could clean up the mess.

More to come, Folks!

Post Dallas Blues

Darrell, Samantha, Zeva, Marley, Kitty.

Woody, Liz, Anita, Wyatt, T.J.

Ann, Chris, George, Ron, Jim, Roger, Mark, Suzanne C., Keith, Kevin, Cliff, Crissy, Donna, Jessica, Matthew, Janie.

These are the people I walked away from, but not before I saw the tears in their eyes.

Clayton, Crissy, Tony, Karen, Suzanne T, Larry, Gayle, Donna, Victor.

These are the ones I didn’t have enough time to visit properly with. With some I hardly even got a ‘hello’ in, and others I didn’t make it into their line of sight. They were busy during that small window of time I planned. I didn’t make any contingency plans, either.

I think about this as I lay in bed, that last night in DFW. My poor niece Jessica did not want to go to sleep because she knew that the next morning, she would have to wake me up early to take me to the bus stop, and I would leave again. She was already crying.

I feel like crap. Is there no end to the grief and heartache I cause?

So many of you have told me to not feel guilty. The joy of visiting by far outweighs the sorrow of parting, you say. Sternly you admonish me to quit excoriating myself.

Can’t do it. I’ve caused you pain. I’ve made you cry. I want to stop this train of sorrow I’m conducting. I want to slink out of the country before I make anymore tears fall.


Jennifer and Gabriel.

Marjorie and Fred and Ana and Lida and Debra.

Their tears are yet to come. My tears flow already.

I don’t want to do this anymore.

Monday, September 12, 2011

It is Dallas Time!

I was so tempted to title this entry Sophia Does Dallas, just for the connotation attached to some fictitious Debbie, ‘doing’ the same town. I think everyone knows what Debbie did in Dallas and, just for fun and maybe spurious imagination, I thought recreating that title with my name would be a kick.

I’m not that kind of girl, and I don’t want that kind of thought attached to me. So, the title is Dallas Time instead.

In a lot of ways, I was most looking forward to my visit in Dallas. I worked in Dallas for 11 years and made some very good friends there. In fact, most of my Texas friends live in Dallas or nearby. Even though I had allotted 10 days for visiting in Dallas – longer than I had allotted for my son’s and brother’s visit, even, I was not certain of how I would manage to see everyone and do everything I had to do in those 10 days.

A lot of visiting would be contingent on the generosity of my friends. Dallas mass transit is not necessarily affluent. Sometimes one has to wait up to 40 minutes to catch a bus or light rail train anywhere. And, mass transit doesn’t cover the entire city or its suburbs. I am grateful that the city even has mass transit but, come to find out I didn’t need to rely on mass transit at all. I have very generous and helpful friends who thought nothing of picking me up and dropping me off at my hotel.

I’ll talk more about the hotel in a later entry. The one about financing this trip.

It was only when pulling into Weatherford, a small town about 50 miles west of Fort Worth that a visiting schedule came to me. You see, there are so many good people to visit in Dallas that I didn’t know how I was going to spend quality time with all of them. Besides, there were things in Dallas that I needed to do, and other things I wanted to do without company, like eat a Braum’s burger, or visit my old workplace (in which case I would be visiting with a lot of folks, and not be by myself).

I’ll tell you about Braum’s burgers and food in general in another entry, how’s that?

My first few days in Dallas I had to take care of some business: getting business cards printed up, taking care of banking issues and crystallizing my idea to formalize my writing career. After that, the floodgates opened and the visiting began.

I often utilize a concept borrowed from Stephen King. It is called ‘The Boys in the Basement.’ If I can’t consciously work a problem out, I kick it down to the boys in the basement and let them work on it. Those ‘boys’ live in my subconscious. They fix problems that I cannot consciously reason or rationalize out. Many times, when I’m trying to figure out a plot point while writing or I have a real-life problem that I’m trying to figure out, I kick it down to the boys in the basement and go to sleep. By the time I wake up, ‘the boys’ are ready to present me with a solution to whatever is nagging at me, all neatly tied in whatever garish ribbon my imagination can come up with.

‘The Boys’ are the ones that figured out the visiting schedule for Dallas. I snoozed while the bus rolled first into Mineral Wells and then into Weatherford, but when we stopped at the depot in Weatherford, I grabbed my notebook, made out the schedule and started working the phone.

“Yes” said Mark to my proposed Sunday lunch, and “Yes” said Kevin to a Saturday lunch and “Yes” said Janie to dinner on Friday night. My entire schedule was met with “Yes”, except for Ann and Ron who had something do to on Monday morning. No problem. Just swap their tentative Monday morning for a definite Tuesday morning, which worked out all the better for all concerned.

Those Boys in the Basement don’t do a half-bad job, do they?

One of the things I wanted to do in Dallas was take some downtime. So far, the summer had been a whirlwind of travel and visit, travel and visit. I needed some quiet time to recharge my batteries, before I go on with this madcap dance of traveling and visiting. Those first three days in Dallas were it. Downstream from Dallas in the traveling/visiting itinerary there would be precious little time for downtime; I figured I had better take a breather while I can.

Again let’s let my visiting time with my friends be private, please. Suffice to say that, to see my dear friends, my loved ones again… well, there are no words to express that joy. Precious moments we spent together, conversation that flowed, the tears we shed and the laughs we had. All of that lives on in my heart and mind. There are no words to express my sorrow at leaving them, after only a few hours of their company.

Our friendship goes on, via email and via skype. I’m so grateful for the electronic means we have to stay together and stay caught up, but you will never hear me say an email is the same as a hug. Thank you, THANK YOU for all of your hugs, your love and for the slice of time we spent together. And thank you for your ongoing friendship and faith in me.

I did not allot enough time for Dallas. I did get most of my business taken care of, and made serious inroads to business as yet unfinished. But who cares about business? What matters is that I had only planned on spending one afternoon at my old workplace, and I see now that I seriously underestimated the number of people who would be glad to reunite.

I thought touring the plant would be a breeze. Simply walk in, surprise my gang by reading the minutes at the start of day meeting, visit for a few minutes with each person individually, give them their gift and move on. It didn’t work that way. Word went around the plant like wildfire and soon, not just my gang but EVERYBODY in the plant who had known me to any degree prior to my resigning last year hunted me down, hugged me fiercely and demanded to know what my life was now like. I wanted to know what their life was like, too.

I am so sorry that I only planned on spending one afternoon in the company of people who deserved at least two days worth of time. Some I only had the chance to wave to in passing, others I had to put off because I was rushing to catch up with someone else. I felt like such a heel. I wanted to visit with everyone. The quicker the minutes flew by the more I realized I would not be able to do so. I wanted to peel up a floor tile and disappear.

The plan was to visit the plant from 2:30 until 6:00PM, whereupon Ron would rush me from the plant to the train station. I had a really tight schedule at this point: I was due in Fort Worth later that evening to visit with my sister and my niece and nephews, prior to leaving out the next day. I called Donna and told her I had to delay my departure from the plant by one hour and would arrive in Cowtown later than originally anticipated. I couldn’t bear to leave the plant so soon!

Even with that schedule modification I did not get to visit with everyone. The realization that I had perverted what should at least have been an ordinary day or, at best a joyous occasion for most left me feeling miserable and depressed. It was nobody’s fault but mine that I did not plan appropriately, and I still feel terrible.

Thankfully, Ron kept me to my schedule. Otherwise, I might have lingered on and missed the last train to Fort Worth. As it is he had to march me out of the plant and into his waiting car. Still, I wanted to dally.

I should have. It was so hot in Texas that week that roads and train tracks started buckling. Track switches were stuck in positions guaranteed to cause tragedy and all transit systems were affected. Not just the train to Cowtown but city buses, tractor trailers and even Greyhound buses.

Read on to see what happened next…

Greyhound Gets a Bad Rap

I’ve said it before, and warned you that I’ll say it again: Greyhound has got a bad rap. I am now saying it again.

Bus lore has it that one takes their life into their own hands when traveling by bus. The buses are dirty and poorly maintained, uncomfortable and unreliable. The caliber of people riding the bus are bottom of the barrel, shifty and scary, untrustworthy and as likely to steal from you as they are to have a prison record.
I’ve ridden a grand total of 6,700 miles give or take, this summer. All of it on Greyhound buses.

In some cases, I’ve spent longer riding than visiting. Such was the case with getting to Memphis (see entry titled Fort Worth, that black hole of transportation.)

Sometimes I was tempted to agree with the passengers who grumbled that Greyhound doesn’t know what they are doing, that they don’t care about their passengers, that they mismanage the whole operation.

Like the time I got stuck in Dallas for an entire day because of my missed early morning connection which was supposed to become an early afternoon ride into Memphis, which turned out to be an overnight ride. And at that, the people loading passengers into the buses loaded buses for every other destination but ours, while we stood in line fuming, for an extra hour.

And then in Atlanta, where my layover was only supposed to last an hour and a half but stretched itself out for an additional two hours, causing me to miss my early morning Orlando connection to Tampa? It was already agonizing to be on the same continent as my precious Gabriel but not be in his vicinity; why would Greyhound cause me to wait these additional hours before I can hold him in my arms?

Don’t these people care?

Well, yes, they do. Not about me specifically. They have a huge fleet to manage, carefully planned schedules to maintain and logistics problems, just like any transport division. They have buses that break down and traffic issues to plan contingencies for, they have a shortage of drivers and a dearth of vehicles. They have a package express service that will move anything from small, plastic totes to large pieces of furniture and car parts that they transport and deliver all across the United States. They have safety and DOT regulations to abide by, speed limits to comply with, OSHA regulations to hold their employees to and passengers who want to get to their destinations.

I can’t imagine them being lackadaisical about their service, can you?

In all cases the drivers piloting the coaches I rode on were at the very least professional. Some were downright affable like Alan, our driver from L.A. to Denver and back. Others were made of sterner stuff: they did not even give their name when they took over driving the coach. They just announced the name of the depot we were approaching. Every driver wore their safety vest and every driver fastened their seatbelt before disengaging the handbrake and rolling. Every driver obeyed every safety rule of the road, and every federal regulation that I am aware of. Some drivers made passenger counts after rest stops, but most just relied on the fact that we are all adults and it was our responsibility to be back on the bus on time. One driver in particular transported one passenger to another bus and personally escorted him to the other bus, explaining that that passenger had missed his earlier coach and needed to be on the express coach driven by his colleague. Considering he was one of the more taciturn drivers, I was surprised at this bit of kindness.

Indeed, Greyhound does get a bad rap. Especially compared to Chinese long distance buses. Here is one time that I prefer an American concession to a Chinese one. Shocked? Don’t be: I prefer Amtrak to Chinese trains too. I just wish that Amtrak were more affordable and covered more territory. There are some parts of America that Amtrak doesn’t even cover!

But now, for those Chinese buses, before I continue heaping praise onto Greyhound.

Chinese long distance buses are not of a standard fleet variety, like Greyhound is. Some of those buses look like they wouldn’t make it to the next town, let alone a town 2 hours away. Conversely, some buses are quite luxurious and virtually new. All of the buses I’ve ridden are standard shift. The drivers have the annoying habit of taking the bus out of gear once it achieves proper speed and letting it coast until it needs to get up to speed again. I think it is because Chinese buses do not have cruise control and the driver is resting his foot, but it is annoying nevertheless, and does nothing to conserve gas.

Some Chinese buses that really go long-haul, such as those that have destinations twelve hours away, actually have beds, made up with white linens and billowy pillows, instead of seats. I’ve seen them go by and vow to travel on one such bus, just to experience what it feels like. For now, I will tamp down my jealousy at those cruising to their destinations in comfort, propped up on an elbow on their bed, reading a magazine and continue talking about trying to curl my 6’frame into a single seat.

I could have used a bus with a bed on some of the longer legs of this cross-country trip I made though.

Last note about Chinese buses: they too stop for rest/potty breaks every so often, and the travelers behave pretty much the same way as American travelers do on such breaks: they get off the bus, throw their trash away, stretch, light up, converse, relieve themselves and buy snacks if the rest stop is at a store.

Back to Greyhound now, and their passengers.

There is solidarity among Greyhound passengers. Not just because everyone, or nearly everyone plays “Trump This” (see previous entry) but because we are all on a journey. Everyone on a Greyhound is going somewhere, for some purpose. In all my travels I have not run across anyone who was riding that bus for the fun of it. This gives us all a sense of kinship whether we look expensive or bedraggled, whether we are educated or can barely speak the language.

Another unifying factor of Greyhound bus riders: tattoos. I’ve seen more tattooed people this summer on the bus than I’ve seen anywhere else, ever. Being as I have never attended a tattoo convention or a bike rally or any other event where tattooed people are likely to hang out, I’m thinking this is a fair statement. I have been to rock’n’roll concerts, but not everyone evidenced being tattooed. Nevertheless, for the comparatively small population of a Greyhound bus – 55 passengers at a time, there were a lot of tattoos. Matter of fact, I may well have been a minority for not having a tattoo to display. Even older women displayed tattoos!

In spite of what genteel society might consider undesirable characters, if only for their appearance, I found that trust is a benchmark of Greyhound riders. At first I thought it was of paramount importance to take my black bag with me when I got off the bus. It contained my passport, my money and food – all those things desired by less than trustworthy people. But, when we started with those overnight rest stops and I was too tired and groggy to lug myself off the bus let alone remember to grab my bag, I just left it on the bus. Guess what? It never moved from where I left it. I got into the habit of just leaving my bag on the seat when I got off the bus and, in all the miles I traveled, never once was anything of mine taken or even disturbed.

So, not only does Greyhound have a bad rap, its passengers do too. Sure, the bus depot is in a bad part of town and you’ll get no argument from me when you say that it is surrounded by unsavory looking characters. But, having sat side by side with some of those characters, heard their stories and slept alongside them, I can honestly tell you that they are not as bad as you think.

I wouldn’t recommend wearing expensive jewelry or flashing cash though. That might just be pushing it a bit.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Phone Man Talkathon

Phone Man Talkathon

I noticed, mainly because I was around people – strangers during my days of traveling, that conversation patterns in the States are vastly different from those in China.

In China, conversation is ‘you’ centered. People ask how you are, what you like, what you don’t like and they are constantly worried if you are happy, comfortable, hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, lost, confused or any state of being they might be able to do something to remedy. Most times, whether you want them to or not.

In America I find that is not so much the case. By this I don’t mean my loved ones – the targets of my visits but the ones who barely know each other, on the bus. The ones with whom I shared a brief slice of time and space. People that we will commingle with varying degrees of intimacy and then never see each other again.

Like it or not, riding a Greyhound bus is an intimate experience. You share space with people you don’t know and have never seen, and whose personal hygiene habits and health status may or may not be questionable. You announce your need to perform bodily functions at every rest stop, be it eating, slaking thirst, relieving yourself, smoking a cigarette or just stretching. And while the wheels churn ever onward you end up sleeping in close quarters with up to 54 strangers.

A lot of people ride the Big Grey Dog due to some significant emotional event. They lost their job or they are going to their new job. They are going to visit family or they are moving closer to family (or away from family). They are running away from a troubled love life or a dangerous situation. In most cases, the travelers are staking everything they have on their destination, sometimes mourning what they left behind, if they have anything to leave behind. Everything they own is in the cargo hold under that bus, blowing past mile markers with insensate ignorance. And the passengers, in an effort to leave their mark on this voyage they are taking, ignore the scenery outside in favor of impressing themselves upon their seatmate.

Somewhere between California and Texas is when this realization hit me. I had no choice but to come to it because the two people in front of me were conversing so loudly of their life experiences I could not help but be made aware. Each sentence started with ‘Well I…’ or ‘My (aunt/uncle/mother/brother/child…’ or ‘My whole thing is…’ or ‘Me and my …’. They soon got so fervent about exchanging information and stories that they were literally interrupting one another to relate a bigger, larger, more dramatic or more traumatic experience than the other had endured. It was like listening to a verbal version of the card game Hearts, in which this trumps that, that is higher than the other and the Queen of Spades has the highest value. They carried on like that for several miles, several hours and several legions of stories that would surely provide scriptwriters of Montel, Jerry and Judge Judy combined with fodder for years worth of shows.

For the rest of the journey I vowed to pay attention to this phenomenon, to see if theirs was an isolated case of ‘Trump This’ or if it was in fact one of the spices that lent bus traveling flavor.

I was not disappointed. In El Paso I had to change buses and found myself on a coach with 53 other strangers, among them the M.C. of the Phone Man Talkathon.

This man stood probably 6’6”, judging by his frame that loomed over my 6’ tall skeleton. He would be described as ‘pear-shaped’ rather than ‘athletic’, with most of his weight in his hips and thighs rather than his shoulders or around his abdomen. He was either in the process of girthing out, or losing said girth, most likely the latter judging by the flabbiness of his extra weight. In spite of his height, his shoulders slumped, physically mirroring the perpetual hangdog expression on his face. He wore a soft cast with boot on his left leg. That and his size caused him to have to sit halfway into the aisle. Space is not a generous commodity for those much bigger than I am on a Greyhound, or on any other means of mass transit. I felt for the poor man. But only for that reason.

From the moment he boarded the bus in Odessa, TX until just a few minutes before he got off in Fort Worth, he was constantly talking on the phone. He had a BlueTooth in his left ear and his cellphone in his hand. Whenever the signal dropped – because that area is sort of no-man’s land, just on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, he would simply consult his handset, call up another number (or perhaps the same number) and continue talking. Whoever was on the other end of the line did not have to worry about keeping up with the conversation because there was no conversation. My fellow passenger kept up a running line of prattle the entire time, stopping to listen only once or twice.

From his running monologue I learned that he was President or CEO of some limited liability corporation and he was going to have to let one of his current partners go. He reported that he had lost a sizable sum of money and conveyed that he did not wish to repeat the experience. He moved his office from a public suite, presumably downtown, to his home. His management style seemed to be ‘coaching/mentoring’ rather than authoritarian, and that fit with the sports jersey and basketball shorts he was wearing. I gleaned this detail because, amid personal experiences he was relaying he gave instructions for what his listener should do and he responded in a supportive rather than domineering manner to what his conversant said. Apparently the listener questioned him for that was the only time he stopped talking, but then resumed, answering the presumed query before launching once again into his ‘Me, me, me, I, I, I’ pattern of speech.

Now I’m two for two: the conversants who played ‘Trump This’ so loud I could hear their assertions without having to strain at all, and Phone Man Talkathon M.C. who yapped for 323 miles. Put my new awareness of this phenomenon with the memory of the times people just gushed their troubles out, whether I asked to hear or not and I detected a pattern. This manifestation was prevalent on every bus I rode and at every depot I lolled around in. Being as I am writing this entry retrospectively, I can relate to you that my experiences on the bus reveal that people all across America just want a chance to talk about themselves.

In Dallas, a man accosted me and, for some reason stated that I looked expensive. He was a balding man, shabbily dressed in a filthy, navy blue suit coat over a mauve colored polo shirt and questionably colored slacks, and shod in open toed sandals. His features had a Middle Eastern cast but his complexion indicated more of a Southerly origin, perhaps Africa. He stood maybe 5’10” and carried himself ramrod straight. His speech patterns belied his appearance: he sounded like he might have roots in the Northeastern part of America. His carriage, diction and choice of clothing, albeit filthy indicated that, at one time he might have come from money himself. I still wonder why he felt the need to assert that I looked expensive, and how he even came to that conclusion.

Another woman standing nearby heard his comment and we turned to one another with equal parts of bemusement and question on our faces. I expressed the idea that the man made the comment out of some strange desire to buy me, to which she laughed and shared that she had nearly been molested on her last bus ride. She then went into great detail about her near molestation. I have to admit it was a frightening tale she told but… what about me looking expensive? What did that have to do with her being molested?

I, I, I, me, me, me. It seems that people everywhere want and need an audience. Could that be why YouTube is such a phenomenon? Does that have anything to do with Andy Warhol’s prophecy that everyone is allotted 15 minutes of fame? Are all of these people just looking for their 15 minutes, settling for any audience they can find? Or are they looking for personal validation when relating such details of their lives?

And what about yours truly? Isn’t blogging all about I, I, I, and me, me, me? By the very nature of blogging, that is exactly what I’m doing here. I’m talking to you about MY experiences and what I have done. Am I any different than any of these characters I’ve met during my travels?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cats in the Cradle

He shows up at my door, tall and reed-thin, pale and disheveled. In spite of his piercings and his Mohawk he has the potential for handsomeness beneath all the road grime. His scant belongings all fit into a duffel bag he carries on his back, and it is not even 3/4 full. He hails from distant parts and will stay for one week or so, and then take off again for some random destination. He is gaunt from lack of food and weary from his travels. His very being exudes a tiredness of life. He eats as much as his shrunken stomach will hold, and then falls on my couch and sleeps the clock’ round .Gently I kiss his cheek and turn out the light.

That was my son, ten years ago. For most of his teenaged years he and I danced a precarious dance: the Toughlove Tango.

There was never any doubt of my son’s love for me, or of my love for him. We only clashed where lifestyles were concerned. I had struggled hard to lift my family up above the welfare cycle, earning a position as a federal employee after years of professional ignominy. Darrell chose to live out his anger amongst those to whom anger and self destruction is befitting. Needless to say our worlds clashed and one of us had to go away. He did.

I lived for those moments when he would manifest himself, either by phone or, better yet, by showing up on my doorstep like some bedraggled animal. I never turned him away, even though we hadn’t yet resolved our issues. Every time he walked away from me, my heart broke anew. But, each time, I let him go. I knew that to keep him and cage him would be to deny him his own path, even though I could see his path was destroying him.

Can you imagine how excruciating it is to watch what you love slowly die? By their own hand, at that?

That is not the Darrell of today, Folks. The Darrell of today is moral, responsible, holds down a full time job in a government contractor facility as environmental safety and health coordinator. He loves his girlfriend of three years, Samantha. He pays his bills on time, pays his community back by volunteering at Big Brothers/Big Sisters, pays his respect to life and the living. He has put paid to all the demons that chased him night and day, filled his soul and mind with unexpressed rage and, for so many years commanded his life and his every action. Except for those visits to his mom. I think the rage stepped aside and let the boy shine through at those times. Otherwise he would never had made those pilgrimages back home.

While visiting with Woody and Liz, we talked about Darrell. Woody had only talked to him on the phone and commented on how awesome a person Darrell seemed to be. That compelled me to find an apt way to describe my son to my brother.

The best way to describe Darrell is that he is a self made man. After age 15 – when we parted ways, I had very little to do with how he conducted his life and what decisions he made. Every three months or so, he and I would have a profound conversation, but it was always from his perspective, that pit he was compelled to live in until he vanquished what ailed him. I might have given him food for thought occasionally, or planted a seed but, even so, he is the one that nurtured it, cultivated it and let it blossom. He made his own decisions, and he alone suffered the consequences of those decisions. He learned his own lessons, taught to him by himself and by life. Everything he is today he achieved entirely on his own. He is one of the most honorable people I know.

Wow. That’s some kind of pedestal I’ve put him on, isn’t it? Well, not really. He put himself there. He has earned every ounce of esteem and praise his 6’3” frame can take. I have no problem heaping it on.

During my visit with him we had several long, profound conversations. We tend to do that. But, in this particular conversation it occurred to me just how grown up this child of mine is. He said: “Mom, last year when you left for China, I was devastated. No longer would you be just a phone call away. No longer would I be able to jump on a plane to Texas and visit with you. It finally hit me, when you moved to the other side of the world, that you won’t always be there. And it came to me that I had to let you go. It hurt me terribly and I felt so cheated by your leaving. And then I realized: you’ve done your duty. You’ve been my mother, exactly the mother I needed, when I needed it. And now I’m all grown up. You’ve earned your right to live your life. So now, I say ‘Go, Mom. Go live your life with my blessing.’ I’ve learned how to let you go.”

Nothing my son could have said or done showed me how deep his love is for me than that speech he made. This is the blessing every mother longs to hear from her child. And he dispensed it to me with grace.

A few days later, I boarded a bus, Texas-bound. Oh, believe me: there was sadness at our parting, but not the depth of sorrow we experienced before. I know that, forevermore my son will be OK. He knows that, no matter where I am in the world, I am his mother.

Our worlds have finally meshed.

She shows up at my door, tall, pale and disheveled. In spite of all the road grime, she has a potential for beauty. Her scant belongings all fit into a duffel bag, and it is not even 3/4 full .She hails from distant parts and will stay for one week or so, and then take off again for some random destination. She is hungry from lack of food and weary from her travels. Yet her very being exudes a joy of life. She eats as much as her shrunken stomach will hold, and then falls on my couch and sleeps the clock’ round .Gently I kiss her cheek and turn out the light.

Like that Harry Chapin song, Cats in the Cradle, my son and I have changed places. I am now the vagabond, flitting in and out of his life. He is the responsible one with the full time job and the community ties. Just as I had to let him go find his path a decade ago, he has had let me go to find mine. The only difference between us and that song is that I will always have time for him, and he (so far) has always had time for me. I don’t see that changing. But that one lyric…that one lyric that describes us best, has to be paraphrased. Yes, even though he’s grown up just like me, I’ve grown up just like him, too.

Happy Birthday, Darrell. I love you and love you!

A Week in Cali

It hardly seems to make sense, does it? Why would I take off for Colorado from Los Angeles if my son lives just an hour south of LAX, in Oceanside? Why not spend that first week stateside with him, and then head to Colorado?

Because he was not ready for my visit. He did not coordinate any extra time off work because he didn’t know exactly when I was arriving (if you remember, I didn’t know when I was leaving China, either!). And, Woody and Liz were having company over the second weekend I was to be stateside and would not have been able to accommodate a visit with me at that time. It worked out better, schedule-wise to visit Colorado first and California second.

So, for the one time on this trip, I had to backtrack. I bought a round trip ticket into Denver and Back to L.A. It was rather pricey - $278. But totally worth it, seeing as I got to spend quality time with everyone on my list.

So now, with Denver behind us, we are on for a week in Cali. Oceanside is as familiar to me as Dallas is because of the many times I’ve visited there. Camp Pendleton was home to my daughter and her family for over 5 years. Many is the time we roamed around Oceanside, the community just outside the base perimeter. That is where Darrell and his lovely girlfriend Samantha make their home. Jennifer and her brood have since moved on to Tampa, and we’ll be visiting with them, too. Later. Much later.

Darrell had grand plans for our visit. He wanted to have a luncheon to introduce me to his coworkers. He wanted us to go hiking and hit the dog beach. We were also going to walk around downtown L.A., around the fashion district and the historical part of town, like the fruit market and the civic center. I was most looking forward to the hiking. It would feel good to get a good stretch on my legs after the long plane ride stateside, and the long bus rides to and from Denver. Unfortunately we didn’t get to hike. The car started acting up and we worked on it. Well, he worked on it and I looked on. I didn’t want to ruin my manicure.

Wait… did I say the dog beach was part of the plan? The DOG BEACH??? As in: a beach for dogs?

Why yes, that is exactly what I said. Just south of Oceanside, in the sleepy community of Encinitas there is a beach dedicated to the joy of dogs. At this beach dog owners bring their dogs to commune and socialize, to play in the water and to chase toys, to ride the waves or just walk peaceably along on the soft sand. The one and only stipulation is that all dogs are to be on a leash. The lifeguard, for this beach does have a life guard per se, sees to it that no dog is off its leash for more than a minute or two. He even has a red ATV at his disposal so that he can quickly ride up to any offending dog owner and inform them of their rule infractions, should a dog owner have the temerity to unleash their dog. Maybe he is actually a leash guard instead of a lifeguard. Semantics, maybe? But that is not the question.

The question is: How can any dog enjoy his day at the beach if he is constantly leashed?

I asked Zeva, my furry granddaughter. She was not able to answer me. She is just a dog, even if she is very smart.

But Samantha did. She told me that all the dog owners who frequent that beach think keeping their dogs leashed on a beach dedicated to dogs is a stupid idea and every single dog owner resents it. As she spoke I looked around and saw all breeds of dogs playing, walking, socializing and generally having a good, if restrained time. Dog fighting, dog breeding, any type of negative dog behavior you could imagine was not taking place on this beach. I have to cast my vote with all of the other dog owners, especially after taking my turn in the water to play with my Zeva. It was aggravating to be limited to 10 feet of leash when playing ‘get the water’ with my furry granddaughter.

Let me tell you: that dog loves water. She loves splashing in it, chasing it, swimming in it, biting the waves and jumping over them.

She did not always love water. According to Samantha, Darrell had to throw the dog into the water repeatedly in order for her to first grow less afraid of it, and then to tolerate it and finally to love it. Zeva now loves water and tackles waves bigger than she is. She snaps at them and prances through them. And then she goes and throws up because she drinks too much water while playing in it.

Well, that just did not sit well with me, what Samantha said. You see, earlier in the week, while my brain was still fogged by that 37 hour bus ride from Denver, I said something unintentional. Let me tell you that story.

Darrell had shown me a neat trick on my first evening there. He took a tennis ball and, standing on the balcony of his second floor apartment, challenged Zeva to go fetch the ball. He then threw it down to the parking lot below. Zeva flew down the steps and along the walkway, ears laid back and tail streaming behind her, fetched the ball, came running back up the steps and put it neatly into her master’s hand at his command. I was impressed. I wanted to see if she would do the same for me so I asked if I too could throw the dog off the balcony.

The response was immediate and deadpan: I was never to be left alone with the dog, for fear that I would throw her off the balcony.

What I meant was: Could I throw the ball of the balcony so that the dog could fetch it?

Neither Darrell nor Samantha wanted to take a chance on me abusing their dog. They made good on their word: I was never left alone with Zeva again.

So, when Samantha told me at the dog beach later that week (when I had my wits about me) that Darrell repeatedly threw the dog in the water, I was highly offended. “OH, SURE!” I exclaimed. “It is OK for Darrell to throw the dog in the water to teach her how to swim, but I want to throw her off the balcony to teach her how to fly, and suddenly you get all moral and judgmental!”

We laughed until we cried and that became a running joke between us. Of course, I would never do anything to hurt that beautiful creature, let alone throw her off the second floor balcony, and both Darrell and Samantha know it. I love my furry granddaughter.

The rest of the time spent with them went by much too fast. Yes, we did go visit downtown L.A. and walk around, and Darrell did introduce me to some of his co-workers. We did have lunch, but it was just the two of us because everyone else had to bow out at the last minute. They got busy at work, they had doctor’s appointments, they… just got busy. I understand. I did get to meet several of the people he works with though, and that was my pleasure.

One interesting facet of that luncheon was that I drove a car for the first time since leaving America last year. Darrell rode to work with a buddy and left me his car keys, along with directions on how to get to his work. He owns a VW Jetta – a stickshift, no less. Very peppy little car and very fun to drive. That was the car I drove into Vegas last year while he slept beside me (see Viva Las Vegas entry, posted August of last year).

Interesting to note: driving is like riding a bicycle. You never forget how. No sooner had I depressed the clutch and started the engine, adjusting the mirrors while doing so, did that old feeling of being behind the wheel come back. It felt like I had never stopped driving. I even resented the traffic, like I used to in the old days.

As it turns out, it was the only time I drove anything during my travels across America. Lisa did offer to let me drive her truck, and Jennifer left me her car keys in case I wanted to go somewhere. Marjorie and Chuck left me a set of car keys too. I just never felt the need to drive during the whole time I was in the States.

How strange, no?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Old Things, New Things, Revisited Things

  • Being a foreigner, in spite of my darker hair color (I thought darker hair would help me assimilate better among all of the dark heads bobbing down the sidewalk and across campus).
  • Campus, even though all of its buildings are painted reddish-brown with white trim instead of the tired, faded yellow of last scholastic year.
  • Traffic
  • Huge crushes of people
  • Weird but good things to snack on.
  • Food
  • Sam
  • No need to rehash any of these things. If you’ve been following this blog from its inception, you know all about them. If you’re just joining us, welcome. Please go back and read about this journey from the beginning, even though it comprises of some 200 entries. Go ahead. We’ll wait for you.
  • New Things:
  • People are wearing hats and clothing with the ‘Made in China’ logo prominently displayed on them. It must be a new fashion statement. On my short outing today I saw no fewer than 4 people wearing garb that advertised ‘Made in China’ in letters 3 inches tall. It seems someone here may have discovered irony.
  • Some buses have changed their routes and some buses have changed their fares. Bus 906, the bane of bus riders of any line all along that route, no longer runs (it stopped before I left in July). Bus 907, which used to have a long route now has taken over bus 906’s shorter route and charges 3Yuan per boarding instead of 2Yuan. The fare card reader no longer works, indicating that it is no longer a government-endorsed bus route, and there is no conductor to collect fares. That makes for a huge crush to get on the bus. Nothing new about that.
  • There are fewer street vendors around campus, and those that remain come out later in the day. Battercake Man no longer serves breakfast or lunch, and Breakfast Sandwich Girl is now Dinner Sandwich Girl exclusively. However, Steamed Bun Woman remains. Unfortunately her counterpart, Fried Bread Man does not come on the scene until lunchtime. (See New Man on Snack Street entry published 5/11 to revisit all of these characters). The new man on Snack Street, with his heavenly concoctions, is gone altogether. That severely limits my food choices, especially as I am not cooking anything because my apartment is all packed up and I don’t intend to unpack everything just to have to repack it all in a few weeks when I move.
  • The English Department has relocated. Whereas all of the department heads used to have offices in the main administrative building across the park from the building my apartment is located in, the English Department (and several others) have relocated to the new development area behind Teaching Building 5, where the new Teacher’s Apartments are being built. A lot of the teachers are disgruntled about that move because going to conduct business at the admin office now involves a trek clean across campus and into the muddy, dusty, dirty construction zone. It is brutally hot in Wuhan right now. Later this year it will be chillingly wet and even later it will be miserably cold. Presumably by next year, that move will pay off though. The entire department will be located on that end of campus: all of the classes will be taught in Building 5, all of the teachers will live in the new apartments and the Admin offices will be located between the department living and working areas. Doesn’t sound too bad.
  • Lighter hair color. Whereas I’ve chosen a darker hair color to endure this year with so I don’t have to run around with embarrassingly blond, flaming hair, many Chinese have chosen to go shockingly blond, to the point that, when I see their hair I peer underneath the bangs and expect to see a foreigner. Strangely enough, it is mostly young males who are transforming themselves so radically. Their female counterparts still go for the demure look, changing their hair color at most to the gentle brown shade mine currently is. Females tend to display their plumage more in their wardrobe, but that is nothing new.
  • Revisited Things:
  • Students. Last year’s freshmen are my this year’s sophomores. It is great to see them all again, mainly because I have the two good groups I started with last year, not the groups that I took over from Victor after Winter Break. They are as happy to see me as I am to see them. They are as receptive to my teachings as I am to their concerns. This is going to be a great semester.
  • Friends. Not just in Administration or among the teachers, who now nod and smile at me as I cross campus or roam the classrooms, but also the sophomores that I taught last year who have moved on. They are taking Japanese this year and no longer have to study English. Nevertheless we continue a barrage of text messages. It seems I will not be at a loss for dining companions for the next few weeks. Bailey, anyone? Can you say Chinese Mommy and Dash?
  • Construction crews. After traversing America on a Greyhound bus – make that several buses, and watching road crews labor in the heat of day clad in safety garb from head to toe, I am again amazed to see construction workers here laboring ‘round the clock, shirtless, in flimsy footwear (read: flip flops) and with no safety gear as the bus I’m riding lumbers past them. Thankfully, most of the buses here are air conditioned. It makes me feel bad for the barely-clad construction workers whose time is spent in the elements – brutal sunshine and unrelenting heat.
  • Brutal sunshine and unrelenting heat. This is a nod to my Texas Partners/friends, who swelter for the dubious honor of nearly breaking a record that was set back in1980 for the longest streak of over 100 degree Fahrenheit days. They almost made it while I was Stateside, and now they are working toward that record again. Not that this is a concerted effort on the part of my Texas Partners/friends. They have no choice but to put up with weather conditions, just like we here must put up with what Mother Nature dishes out. At least in Texas, air conditioning is commonplace. In China, not so much. I’ve not turned on my A/C units since I’ve been back, but then again my apartment stays relatively cool. A fan is necessary, though. However, as you know from previous posts, air conditioning is not the norm in Southern China. So, whereas I am relatively comfortable with no A/C but have the option to use it, many Chinese do not have such an option and are not comfortable. I feel for them, but can’t help but think of the solidarity that could exist between them and my Texas Podners/Friends.
  • The Street. Some businesses have folded, most notably that delightful chicken restaurant I used to patronize when I wanted American-style fast food. New businesses have taken their place, and others have redesigned their stores. But essentially The Street remains The Street: a slice of life in China, with grandparents walking their offspring’s offspring, and young parents carrying vegetables home from the farmer’s market a quarter-mile away after their day in the greater city. Students flood The Street after classes and illegal vendors throw their tarps down at sunset to display their wares and make a few sales. Everyone strolls The Street, come sundown. It is an anachronism in a burgeoning city that strives for modernity and a timeless picture of a doomed way of life. It is the way to my home, literally and figuratively.
  • My rediscovered ability to speak Chinese. In America I hardly had any use for my Mandarin skills. They rusted a bit, creaking uncomfortably upon my return here. Since this week has passed I find that, not only have I not forgotten my ability to speak Chinese but I’ve discovered with delight that I understand more Chinese than I did before I left here. How did that happen?
  • With these past 3 entries, you are now up to speed on how I found things my first week back in Wuhan. This weekend the school will welcome the freshmen to campus. For a play-by-play of that event, please see The Freshmen are Coming entry, posted October of last year. I didn’t really do it justice because I was suffering so from Montezuma’s Family Reunion (posted last year in September) as well as depression. No such issues this year, so this time around I will take pictures and post them as an entry. That will not only give you a visual of what I have the pleasure of experiencing again, but also show you our campus’ face lift.
  • As for the next many entries of this blog, I want to finish my findings and reflections of my trip across America while sprinkling noteworthy mentions of life in China here and there. Especially now, back in China, my America experiences take on a special weight and meaning. Maybe not for you, my dear Readers and fellow travelers, but for me. Read on and find out why.