Friday, March 28, 2008
The perfect start for a journey. Clear, cool with bright skies. The Salinas Amtrak station still has a 1930s feel to it. I walked through a nearly empty lobby and stepped out onto the back platform. Gradually more people began to arrive. An older couple with their dog. A vibrant grandmother with her 10 year-old grandson, excitedly looking up the track every few minutes for the train. A pair of young Japanese girls with their backpacks and sparkly-decorated cell phones. The train arrived on time, but with the engine only pulling three cars. After the mudslides up north, the Coast Starlight originates in Sacramento instead of Seattle, until they repair the track. So no sleeper or dining car. Everyone piled on, the conductor settles us into our seats, and we're off!
The first scenery unrolling is miles and miles of agriculture of every description, nestled between the rolling hills studded with oaks. The lady sitting next to me observes that there's lots of agriculture, but actual farmhouses are rare, no resident farm families, just agriBiz. The vista is fluorescent green: we've had lots of rain, and it's spring. Eventually the valley narrows, we pass through several tunnels, which signal change: few trees, less agriculture, clusters of oil wells, steep hills with more wildflowers.
There is the feeling of time stretching out, calm, peaceful, in rhythm with the train. I knit on socks, the lady next to me crochets. We talk about children, our work lives, the scenery, the world. The seats are spacious, clean, comfortable. We walk through the cars, up and downstairs, explore, sit in the vista car and chat with other travelers, eat and watch the journey unroll on either side.
The further south we get, the more industry there is, some of it very mysterious. This plant popped up out of nowhere, with nothing else near it. Black oily looking dirt surrounded by fierce fencing, with all kinds of strange towers and equipment, and in the center a giant pile of livid yellow powder.
Later, miles and miles of other-worldly gantries and buildings that is Vandenberg Air Force Base. We were whizzing along so I couldn't catch any photos. Soon we catch sight of the Pacific near Pismo Beach, and begin to follow the coast south. Many stops in the beach towns to let people off and pick more up. As the sun begins to set we have endless windswept beach views.
There are stretches of long rows of faux chateaux, their toes already in the ocean; they will be the new Atlantis in the not-too-distant future.
Also areas that are empty of development with just rocks and beach and a few campers parked. Flashes of momentary vignettes: people camping, with firepits, lounge chairs, guitars, coolers, flags. An white-haired lady reading in her lawn chair, facing the sunset, next to her tiny camper, with her dog in her lap (I mentally substituted a cat and giggled at the absurdity of that!) and her feet to a cozy fire. There's whole strings of camping areas north of LA where people can pull up their campers and stay for the night, right next to the ocean. I mean, like 2 feet from it. Soon replaced with funky little beach towns and acres of ticky tacky homes and urban sprawl plopped down where there used to be trees and wildflowers and beach cliffs. Cars racing along next to us on the highway, thicker and heavier the further south we go.
And finally the sun sinking into the ocean, and colors fading into black.
The closer to LA area we got, the less delighted I felt, like a weight was piling on my head. Like being in some kind of grim and grimy post-war Fellini movie. One scene coming into LA epitomized it all: Giant mega Box store area, Worst Buy, Bad Bath and Beyonce, Petsmarter, Targette, Crappery Barn, CaloriesRUs on one side, huge parking lot in the middle, almost empty, either because of the hour or the economy or both. On the OTHER side of the parking lot, was a whole string of Storage Units. And they kept going for blocks and blocks and blocks. And miles. UStoreIt. Storage RUs. StoreItAll. StoreMore. StoreNow. StoreLater.
Apparently people stock up on stuff on one side, and then just drive it over to their storage unit on the other side of the lot. Maybe they don't even have to drive it, maybe the Big Box stores just deliver it directly.
It was all downhill from there. We pulled into Los Angeles Union Station. A glorious piece of architecture, built in the mid-1930s, despite the Depression, now being restored.
The denizens populating it were straight out of the worst of now: a young man with filthy clothes and no socks massaging his bleeding feet and mumbling, looking around fearfully, crazy-eyed. Working girls in very short skirts and wigs and bared arms, shivering and sad eyed under all their makeup. A confused, tottering, very elderly man, muttering and abandoned. A young German couple, high-end backpacks bulging with belongings, arguing loudly. A family with little kids on their way to Disneyland, looking shocked and dismayed at the prospect of spending an hour here, when they had been promised the clean controlled plasticity of Planet Mickey.
The Pacific Surfliner, arrived on time, but is polar opposite from the Coast Starlight. It seems to function as a beach town commuter train, stopping every few minutes, with nothing but plastic benches, harsh lighting, overflowing trash bins, filthy bathrooms. A noisy group of women reeking of alcohol and cigarettes piled into the section of seats in front of me. For the next hour I endured loud details of their life that made me feel sick at heart. The daughter in her 20s, her mother, and the grandmother. They took turns going downstairs to buy more alcohol from the snack bar and reinforce the feud with the rest of their family unit, which had schismed earlier in the day during their beach outing. The train was packed, there was no place for any of us to move, we were all forced to be audience at some hellish version of Jerry Springer, complete with yelled cursing, sobbing, shoving and hysterics. They finally staggered off as a group, cigarettes and lighters poised, tongues sharpened, planning to continue their evening of bile. They were replaced by two man-boyz armed with skateboards, with which they managed to whack passengers as they slung themselves into their seats. One of the pair pointed out that the other one's clothes were really filthy, and that he stunk, and he ought to wash his clothes and himself occasionally. His buddy responded "Yeah, I ought to. But I won't!" At one stop a heavy-set girl moved down the aisle to get off, and Compost Boy stuck his foot out, tripping her, and laughed.
I was almost the last person off. It was 1 a.m. After almost 14 hours I felt myself unravelling around the edges. The doors slid open, and I was spat out into the dark. The platform was deserted, totally silent, dense and damp with heavy fog. I had several blocks to walk in unfamiliar territory. I called the hotel to make sure of my directions, expecting to hear the usual impersonal, unintelligible and unhappy night staff, but the desk clerk's voice was warm, maternal, concerned; she admonished me to wait right where I was. Within moments the young security guard drove up in the fog, scooped me up, and delivered me to warmth and light and human kindness.
All my life I have felt that I was not from this planet, I jokingly say maybe I got on the wrong bus; I imagine everyone occasionally feels they are a stranger in a strange land. It's always been baffling and dismaying, how on the grand scale, humans seem to choose not only to inflict misery, but to live in suffering and meanness and poverty of spirit themselves. There is no cure or magical change coming to bring a Golden Age for us all. But once in a while, there's a glimmering moment.