Leaving Los Angeles just a Shadow of Myself

6 05 2013

I almost missed the train back to Arizona. “John, what time is your train?,” Normen asked as Joel and I browsed the sales racks at the Gap store in Hollywood.

“Oh yeah, the train,” I realized, pulling out my iPhone to check the time. I had one hour till departure. “We better go.”

And we did, briskly walking through the heavy crowds of people gathered on the sidewalks outside the Chinese Theater and down Hollywood Boulevard to where we had parked the car. On the windshield, a parking ticket courtesy of the City of Los Angeles greeted us. Union Station wasn’t that far away, but the traffic was thick and it was almost five o’clock. We would never make it, I thought.

Normen gives the victory sign, as Cheng Yew and Jastine figure out the parking meter.

Normen gives the victory sign, as Cheng Yew and Jastine figure out the parking meter.

Crowds packed Hollywood Boulevard.

Crowds packed Hollywood Boulevard.

The guys were staying a few extra days in LA before driving up to San Francisco then flying across country to New York before departing back to Singapore. It would be one of those trips they would remember for the rest of their lives. I had made a similar journey to Europe as a teenager and those memories are still very much alive. I was thankful to have been a small part of their American experience.

Somehow we made it to Union Station with a few minutes to spare. Jastine and Cheng Yew accompanied me to tracks, where we said our goodbyes and had our hugs. They asked me to visit Singapore one day and promised to show me around. I said I would and thanked them for our friendship — a friendship developed over the course of living and working together for the past 10 weeks in the isolated, desert climate that is Grand Canyon. I would miss them. A lot.

The ride back to the Canyon was depressing. I was alone again — with still two months of work to go. Despite a nearly full train, I was the only one who made late dinner reservations in the dining car. The food was fair, the rolls hard as rocks, but the service was super. I enjoyed chatting with the Amtrak employees and conductors. They all were approachable and friendly, unlike those stuffy 50-something flight attendants often pushing the drink cart on a Delta plane. Most of the crew were in for the long haul to Chicago. One of the conductors asked me where I was from. “Florida,” I said and then he grinned and replied, “Interesting Governor you got there.”

Elected in 2010 during the Tea Party wave that swept me and many other Democrats out to sea, Florida Governor Rick Scott made a name for himself as an ideologue, hellbent on fighting the Obama Administration every step of the way. So when the federal government offered funds to the states to construct a high speed rail network, Scott refused the program and the money went elsewhere.

“They’re building a new connection from LA to San Francisco with your money,” the conductor gleefully said. “It’s projected to be the fastest route in America.”

“I’m sure it will be,” I replied, adding just a tinge of sardonic wit.

Florida was very much on my mind during those last months I spent working at the Canyon. I knew it would be a battleground state in the upcoming Presidential election and polls were showing Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, to be leading in the Sunshine State. My break from politics had been refreshing and reinvigorating. Nature had truly heeled a lot of old wounds and now I was ready to return to the game.

I spent the remainder of my time at Grand Canyon hanging out with my roommate Brian, who was eagerly anticipating the start of the college and pro football season. We traveled down to Flagstaff on one scorching Saturday afternoon to attend Arizona Cardinals training camp. The crowds were enormous that day and it was quite clear the people of the desert southwest were starved for a good NFL team.

Arizona Cardinals training camp in Flagstaff.

Arizona Cardinals training camp in Flagstaff.

When I wasn’t working or hanging out with Brian, I would go to the employee recreation center to lift weights, write, read the New York Times and visit with the international workers. I had gotten fairly close to a few of the Turks. One, a shaggy haired teenager named Ozgur, had become my table tennis buddy. He was quite gifted with the paddle. His English speaking skills were another story. I helped Ozgur with his English and he, in turn, taught me a few key phrases in Turkish. I would learn to say “Merhaba” and “Arkadas” with an Istanbul accent. Ozgur wanted to come to Florida with me after his work was finished. I really didn’t know what to say to this request, afraid he would not be able to understand my world back home.

I had not been entirely honest with my co-workers and friends from the Grand Canyon about circumstances involving my being there. But September was on the horizon and I would soon be stepping out of the shadows.

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Behind the scenes soccer

19 04 2013

The next morning, still a bit fuzzy from the Kush, we collected ourselves and made a day of it at Universal Studios Hollywood. I think Joel was slightly aggravated about the rest of us toking up. The lingering effects sure made the rides at Universal fun. Most of the rides were stationary, three dimensional experiences as opposed to high flying roller coasters and were themed around popular movie franchises — Transformers, The Simpsons, The Mummy, and so on and so on. For me, the highlight was the studio back lot tour where you board a tram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of famed Hollywood movie sets.

And ingenious works in progress. Amazing how well the lens can fool you.

Later that night, Jastine, Cheng Yew and I took in a Dodgers game. This was a sentimental stop for me, having grown up an Atlanta Braves fan and watching many a battle with Los Angeles’ boys in blue.

California fossil

California fossil

Dodger Stadium is one of the older ones in Major League Baseball, its tall swaying palm trees a familiar sight from years watching Ted Turner’s superstation. Just being in the stands on a clear and cool night in Chavez Ravine, munching on a Dodger dog was pretty damn awesome. The game not so much. A pitcher’s duel won by the visiting Philadelphia Phillies. I hate the Phillies.

On my final day in LA, we soaked up the syrup at Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles before visiting the La Brea Tar Pits. Roscoe’s was a homage to Southern cuisine and would be the closest my Singaporean friends would get to a Dixie fried delicacy during their American tour. Best I could tell, they enjoyed it, despite still not budging on the tipping procedure. At the tar pits — another lasting image of Los Angeles seared into my memory by the entertainment industrial complex — we got a tour of the grounds given, surprisingly enough, by a recent Auburn University graduate. It was here, that I learned California’s state fossil is indeed the saber toothed cat.

After the tar pits, we returned to Hollywood for one last meal together and shopping before I had to catch the train back to Arizona. Large crowds were gathered outside the Chinese Theater for a premiere of the dance movie “Step Up Revolution.” No one in our group seemed interested. We ate at a sports themed restaurant. SEC football media days were on the TV sets. I explained to Joel this was the dominant college football conference. Winners played on those teams, I said.

“Your football makes no sense, John,” Joel observed. “All that stop and go. Stop and go. It’s boring.”

Joel loved soccer as did Jastine. And Desmond, my hiking buddy.

I watched the Singaporeans join with the Turks to beat the French, Bulgarians and Americans — beat them badly — at the Grand Canyon Recreation Center’s annual East vs. West match. The French group came out to the Canyon in mid summer and the women reinforced every negative stereotype I could imagine. The guys were actually very cool and I learned quite a bit about Parisian culture, particularly from this one Moroccan. More on him, later.

The Turks were aggressive on the field — the exact same field that would be transformed, later that night, into grazing grounds for a herd of elk. The elk were a constant reminder of our wild living conditions, far from the streets of Paris. One of the Bulgarians nearly broke his leg that day. The Turks were relentless and not even a stout American goalie could stop enough of their advances. The match would become the subject of much conversation at the employee cafeteria. Soccer was all the rage during the summer of 2012. It was not entirely foreign to me. I played the sport as a grade school kid in the Orlando suburbs. I recall being self conscious about my shin guards being bigger than my legs. Quite the challenge being the smallest one in your class or on the team.

Easy prey for bullies.

Grand Canyon Kicks

Grand Canyon Kicks

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Elk on the field





Kushed Out in Hollywood

30 03 2013

I do admit to leading a pretty charmed life. Sure, there have been highs and lows throughout, but the summer of 2012 has to be one of the best ever. I was high in every sense of the word that mid July night, sitting rooftop of our Hollywood apartment. We all were, having just gamed the California medical system by scoring some marijuana during our visit to Venice Beach. I was amazed at how easy it was and how openly corrupt the entire process appeared.

Marijuana doctors on duty in Venice Beach, California.

Marijuana doctors on duty in Venice Beach, California.

But as we shared a puff of premium grade OG Kush, one thing was for sure. Nobody was hurting.

The view from the roof was amazing at night. Smog circles drifting overhead, the lights of Griffith Observatory shining from the nearby hills and in the opposite direction stood the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.  Normen, Cheng Yew, Jastine and I went up to the top — with joints and beers — to indulge in our vices. Joel stayed in the apartment. Someone, after all, had to remain responsible. As twin brothers go, Normen and Jastine could not be more opposite. Jastine the steady, calculating planner, Normen the fashionable performing artist. I had gotten to know Jastine much better as we spent time discovering the Grand Canyon while he recuperated from a collapsed lung suffered upon arriving in America. I guess you could say we bonded over adversity. I, wounded ego, in self-imposed political exile and he a wounded stranger in a strange land.

Normen worked at a different location so we rarely hung out, but he had the same job only at a much higher volume store. His shop, at Bright Angel Lodge, was right on the rim and he would work eight hour shifts — sometimes never stepping away from the cash register. Meanwhile, further into the village at Maswik Lodge, Cheng Yew and I would go hours without recording a sale. Based on those negotiating skills and his hipster looks, Normen became our point man for securing the weed.

“That doctor was a joke,” he said, emerging from the Venice Beach “Green Doctors” office with prescription in hand.  There were more medical marijuana operations in Southern California than McDonald’s, or at least it seemed. Green crosses, denoting clinics and dispensaries, were everywhere you turned. For a hick from North Florida and exchange students from Singapore, this was indeed a whole new world.

Jastine pressed his brother for answers, “What did the doctor ask you?”

“What I needed marijuana for,” Normen replied.

Keep in mind, Normen is a picture of health. Young, firmly built and agile. He would never be mistaken for a cancer stricken patient or someone suffering from AIDS. The week before arriving in LA, he had hiked the Canyon, rim to rim during the height of the summer’s scorching heat.

“And what did you tell him?,” Jastine asked.

“That I had insomnia,” said Normen. “And then he wrote me a prescription.”

Just like that. We were all amazed. Of course, there was a catch. You paid forty bucks up front for the initial evaluation and after the doc cleared you, the next hurdle was finding the right pharmacy. As Normen quickly found, everyone had a hand out along the way. The dispensaries were protected like banks, only with meaner looking security. We all waited patiently as Normen went inside to select his “medicine.” He ended up with the OG Kush and Sativa and after dinner on our first night in LA, we passed the joint around and marveled at our surroundings.

Our headquarters in Hollywood, California across the street from Paramount Pictures.

Our headquarters in Hollywood, California across the street from Paramount Pictures.

The weed certainly helped my sunburn. I had gotten roasted pretty good at the beach, but the more I toked up the less pain I felt. This had been the first time in a long time, I had smoked marijuana. It was, without a doubt, available in the Canyon, but I never pursued it. I was intent on projecting leadership and didn’t want to fall in with the stoner crowd. But here, on a mini vaca in California, it was time to experiment.

With each puff, I found the kush to make me a tad over analytical. Were those helicopters in the distance coming for us? Were they even there?? The kush hit Cheng Yew like a ton of bricks, so much so that Normen had to help him down the narrow flight of stairs back to the apartment. Jastine and I followed and eventually we all passed out. Insomnia cured.





Catching the Chief to California

15 03 2013

We waited by the train tracks in the pitch black of the night.

“This is like a third world country,” Joel remarked as the shuttle bus dropped us off. It was anything but glamorous. Those who catch the westbound Amtrak Southwest Chief at Williams Junction, Arizona do so as if they were hobos hitching a ride. You wait by the tracks in the middle of a quiet pine tree forest and sometimes the wait can be long — “hours long” — confessed the shuttle bus driver, who stayed in radio contact with the train. Luckily for us, the Chief was running just a few minutes behind on this night, but it was still quite eery to be waiting in the woods with no sign of civilization for miles. No station, no depot, no benches, not even a single overhead structure for shelter.

On the opposite tracks, heading east, freight trains whizzed by as we looked down the tracks in hopes of spotting Amtrak’s oncoming lights. It would be almost 11 p.m. before the train finally arrived. We wearily climbed aboard and took the first available seats we could find. The train was fairly full and I was surprised by the roominess of coach seating. There were sleeper cars available, at a higher cost, but the standard seating was more than adequate and plenty spacious. Joel drifted off to sleep not long after we got settled in. I dosed off for a while and awoke when the train stopped in Needles, California. I tried to go back to sleep after that but couldn’t, the excitement of Los Angeles was building.

There were several more stops before we made it to our final destination of Union Station. I was amazed at the urban sprawl, picturesque mountains and the appearance of largely latino communities as we rolled through the San Bernardino Valley. By the time we reached Los Angeles, the sun was rising and most of the train had emptied out. Joel slept the entire way. At Union Station, we met up with the other guys — Jastine and his twin brother Normen and Cheng Yew, who had assumed the driving responsibilities. I snapped a few photos of Union Station, the lobby area in particular had a nostalgic feel to it. You could sense this was a bustling place before air travel became the norm.

The guys appeared surprisingly refreshed for having just bused in from Las Vegas. Jastine was the leader and he had arranged for a rental apartment in Hollywood. And it was pretty sweet. Not overly luxurious, but definitely a cut above the Holiday Inn and if location meant anything, our headquarters for the week was prime real estate — situated directly across the street from Paramount Pictures Studios. We stopped at the apartment just long enough to unload our luggage and then it was off to Venice Beach. Cheng Yew managed the traffic well and we arrived early enough to get a pretty good parking spot. Right away, I noticed this would not be like a Florida beach experience.

Cyclists enjoy the ride at Venice Beach, California.

Cyclists enjoy the ride at Venice Beach, California.

Unlike Panama City, where greedy developers built towering condominiums that block much of the public access and views of the water, Venice Beach was obviously designed with the pedestrian in mind. Nestled by the beach is an athletic oasis of basketball, tennis and handball courts, gyms, skateboarding pits, bicycle routes and jogging paths. And not to be left out, American consumerism lined the nearby streets with shops from high-end retail to fly-by-night gypsies waiting to capitalize. And we were eager to dive in, starting with a quick bite to eat at Jody Maroni’s hot dog stand, but before we could finish our dogs, a foul smelling panhandler approached and asked for some money. I offered to buy him a Maroni dog, but he said he wasn’t hungry. Guilted, I parted with some spare change, while the guys ignored him and he meandered on.

“You’re going to get that a lot in New York, fellas,” I warned them.

Refueled, we continued down the ocean front walk, snapping pictures and soaking in the atmosphere. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Under clear skies, throngs of people from all walks of life had converged on Venice Beach for some fun in the California sun. It was hard to believe just 24 hours ago, Joel and I were in the Grand Canyon. The others didn’t say much about Las Vegas, honoring the code of what happens there, stays there. But as we made our way down the boardwalk, an odor engulfed us all. I knew right away what it was and Normen did too.

“I smell weed,” he said.

And then, as if on cue, a young man appeared out of the crowd, dressed in green surgeon’s scrubs. He handed Normen a business card, which read “The Green Doctor” with a Marijuana leaf in the background and then smiled and said, “Welcome to California, boys.”

Venice Beach Boardwalk

Venice Beach Boardwalk





Joel’s Ring of Fire

26 02 2013

This would not be my first trip to California, but it had been some time since setting foot inside the Golden State. One of the fringe benefits of working at the Grand Canyon was an opportunity to explore the Southwest either through trips offered by the employee rec center or independently. The group from Singapore had planned an impressive tour of the US before returning home — Las Vegas, LA, San Francisco, Yosemite and New York. I requested to tag along for the LA part, provided I could get there. This was part of the challenge and, as most travel agents will tell you, part of the fun.

Since noticing the Amtrak station in Flagstaff, I had been intrigued by the train and what it was all about. Rail passenger service in the South is almost nonexistent. Hurricanes have decimated tracks along the Gulf Coast and the states there seem to have no interest in restoring routes. Most of the poor and those without a vehicle travel primarily by bus in the South. Having experienced Greyhound before, I was in no hurry to ride the dirty dog again.

So in figuring out the way to LA, I decided to take the Grand Canyon train to Williams, Arizona where I could connect to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and ride into Los Angeles just before dawn. It would be around a 15-hour trip and luckily I would not be making it alone. Joel, one of the Singapore entourage, would travel with me while the others went ahead to Las Vegas. Joel’s work contract called for him to stay a few more extra days in the Canyon and although he was not happy about it, he honored the deal and consequently missed out on the Vegas portion of the group’s American adventure. Of all the Singapore guys, Joel had the most uninspiring Grand Canyon job. He was a kitchen utility worker at Yavapai Lodge, where he cleaned cafeteria tables and loaded dishwashers.

“So much wasted food,” Joel would grumble when I asked about his duties. He cheerfully added, he would get me all the soda I could want when I was in the cafeteria. One of the few perks of his job.

I had gotten to know Joel better one afternoon when we hiked up the Hermit’s Nest Trail to watch a rare solar eclipse. A fierce soccer player, Joel described his matches as if they were all out war and revealed he was often at odds with his coach. He was also quite the romeo and not long after arriving in the Canyon, Joel began dating a cute Thai girl from housekeeping. As the solar eclipse got closer, it was Joel who found an awesome spot to view it. We climbed down from the rim — beyond the guard rail — and settled on a flat column of rock just past Hopi Point.

Hopi Point Solar Eclipse with Joel

Hopi Point Solar Eclipse with Joel

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun and essentially creates a “Ring of Fire.” We had equipped ourselves with special viewing glasses and from our vantage point overlooking the Colorado River and the many chasms of Grand Canyon, the eclipse was indeed an awesome sight to behold. But staring too much into the sun is never a good thing. As we posed for pictures afterward, I remember Joel stumbling and damn near falling into the Canyon. I don’t think even he realized how close he had come to certain death.

Traveling by train to LA would be much less risky. As employees, the train ride to Williams was free, but it sure wasn’t fast. On average a 45-minute trip by car turned into a 2-hour slow descent through barren land. Joel had made the trip before, taking his girlfriend to Williams for an overnight excursion. He knew what to expect, right down to the super corny staged “holdup” by wild western outlaws. The entire train ride was geared toward children and families. We were merely taking advantage of our employee status and thus endured stale jokes for the free lift.

Once in Williams we had a few hours to kill before catching the Amtrak so Joel recommended grabbing a bite to eat at a nearby Thai restaurant. After months on a steady diet of National Park cafeteria food, I gladly agreed. The women working the restaurant remembered Joel from his previous visit and we were treated like kings. The food was flat out delicious. As we dined on Pad Thai and other recipes that I cannot begin to spell, Joel let loose frustrations of working with some of the Native Americans at the park. They were sentiments similarly expressed by the blunt Western author Edward Abbey in his great novel, “Desert Solitaire.”

I did not dispute any of Joel’s observations and served more less as his therapist when he told me how, on his last day, he had basically told this one older Indian woman to take a long walk off a short pier.

“She was always telling me what to do,” he said. “And she never did anything.”

After dinner, we returned to the train depot where a bus waited to take us to the Amtrak station, a few miles south of Williams. But as we would find out, there was no station and no train in sight.