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.


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


Elk on the field

The goal is

5 07 2012

It’s a dusty day in mid June and I haven’t seen a raindrop in months. Welcome to summer in the high desert of Arizona.

My new roommate, Brian, has been working in the Canyon for going on five years now and is exhibiting some of the tell-tale signs of burnout. He’s about five years younger than me and there are times when I feel as if I’m watching myself five years ago. He’s in a problematic relationship, running up big amounts of credit card debt and sleeping a lot.

When I ask him about transferring to another national park or changing careers, he casually shrugs off the suggestion — comfortable, so it seems, in his misery.

Brian and I struck up a friendship around sports, while working together at Maswik Lodge. Brian has a superior knowledge of athletics and is what I was once — a walking encyclopedia of sports. He knows all the coaches, players and records for baseball, basketball and football — both college and pro, watches SportsCenter religiously and has an extensive wardrobe of his beloved Boise State Broncos.

Plug in Florida State for Boise State and this guy IS me circa 2001.

When Brian’s roommate quit his job and moved home, I was asked to fill his spot in a cozy one room, one bath efficiency apartment. If Brian didn’t find a suitable new roommate, the company would have stuck him with the next random guy they hired or worse — three internationals. They really deal the internationals a rough hand here. Sometimes placing as many as seven of them in one room.

The move doubled the rent I was paying at Victor Hall, but my recent promotion covered it and having a more private bathroom, small kitchen and Direct TV was an added bonus. And Brian is clean guy who likes to keep things tidy. Another selling point.

With my living accomodations settled, I could concentrate on hiking more, specifically making it to the river. That was, after all, the goal of my time here. A physical challenge to myself and a spiritual journey only a tiny percentage of the population complete.

That’s when Desmond came into the picture.

Desmond was one of the new arrivals from Singapore, although for some reason he was not on friendly terms with the other Singapore guys. This surprised me, but I didn’t press the issue. He came into the gift shop one day searching for a long sleeve white shirt, which for some strange reason we did not carry. The request, however, prompted a conversation — Desmond wanted to go hiking. I told him I had already made the trek to Plateau Point and back.

“How long did it take?,” Desmond asked.

I hadn’t really timed it, so I estimated, “about seven hours,” I said.

“Wow, that’s good,” he responded.

I hadn’t given it much thought, but I guess it was a decent time. Later, I would find out that Desmond is quite the ambitious fellow, who has run a few marathons back home in his native Singapore.

“Do you want to hike to the river and back,” was his next question.

Of course I did, but I wondered privately if I was ready. And yet, here standing in front of me, was my chance. Finding a partner for the journey had been one of my biggest obstacles until Desmond walked into the store. Most of the Americans I had befriended could barely hike out of their dorm rooms and Brian, bless his heart, was unable to hike because he has multiple sclerosis.

“Let’s do it,” I said.

“It’s 17 miles,” Desmond said, cracking a smile.

“Yes, and your point is,” I replied.

We then exchanged phone numbers, became friends on Facebook and set the date and time for our hike. I was excited and nervous at the same time. I knew if I waited much longer, the heat would be unbearable. It was now or never.

To the River!




Like A Machine

3 01 2011

In the beginning, the campaign was tough. Very tough.

I was a political novice, taking on the establishment. In those early days, I would often remark than I was, ‘going against the machine.’ It was a nice play at words and a poke at Florida’s machine vote-counting method.

Yes, I was opposing the very political machinery running Panama City. A true underdog in every sense. My opponent was a popular incumbent, whose family had a rich tradition in the restaurant business.

He was elected by a 40 percent margin and no one dared throw their hat in when re-election time came. Four years later, with the economy in shambles and having been chewed up and spit out by some of New York’s finest, I figured, quite simply, I had nothing to lose.

“Some of the best politicians are never elected, John,” Jim noted as we motored out of Monroe on a warm Thanksgiving morning.

Like the year before, we stopped at a Holiday Inn in Shreveport for the Turkey Day buffet. It was a blue haired crowd — the average age had to be hovering around 80. Some had canes, others walkers and this made navigating the buffet somewhat challenging.

Jim didn’t care too much for his peers. Most of his associates were younger. He preferred it that way. I was probably the oldest chap to make his vacation cut, for a second time no less.

And I was much wiser this go around. Knowing what to expect helps. Ever the engineer, Jim was resistant to change. We stopped in Dallas again on the second night, at the same high-rise hotel on the westside of Downtown, near Love Field. The Cowboys were playing in Arlington that day and as we checked in, the last shuttle from the hotel was departing with eager fans dressed in their best blue and white gear.

It had been a rough year for the Dallas Cowboys. Mounting losses had led to the head coach’s dismissal at midseason. There would be no playoffs this year for America’s Team. We watched the game in the room and I listened closely to Troy Aikman’s commentary. He was trying to be fair, despite his strong ties to Dallas. I admired that.

The Cowboys played well before eventually bowing to the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints. I’m often asked about my sports writing days and I usually remark about how those were the best days and nights of my life, little did I know it at the time.

I was a young ambitious reporter then. Not content with making 20 grand a year in a small Alabama town. The bright lights and ‘live and let live’ allure of the big city was too distracting. In Texas, it would eventually consume me.

Back in the Lone Star State, eight years later, I was ready to confront those bright lights again. So Jim and I headed down the Cedar Springs highway for a visit to the “Gayborhood.” Naturally, Jim had our evening itinerary already planned out, from the parking to dining and drinking.

Like a machine, that Jim.

And I was just a cog.


Top 10 Duke Hotspots

13 04 2010

Haven’t been blogging much due to the Petition Drive. About a month away from the announcement. Have a meeting later this week with a professor at Florida State University. Going to have to brush up on the issues involving education.

In the meantime, here is a little fun piece I worked up in honor of those beloved Blue Devils. Used to love doing these Top 10s in college. Enjoy.

Top 10 vacation packages for Duke fans after winning the National Championship.

10. All expense paid trip to The Death Star.

9. Lush cruise around Snake Mountain, narrated by Skeletor.

8.  Bike ride into Chapel Hill … just to rub it in.

7. Walking tour of Wall Street. Greed is Good.

6. Weekend getaway to Transylvania. You know you want to sleep in a coffin.

5. Oxyparty at Rush’s pad in Costa Rica.

4. Anywhere Scott Brown’s pick-up truck will take you.

3. Backstage passes to a Broadway showing of ‘Wicked’ … and a free makeup kit as added bonus .. swag!

2. Hot air balloon ride over the Commonwealth of Kentucky, where you can drop leaflets declaring, “Who’s the Big Blue Now?”

1. A foreclosure auction in Hooville, hosted by The Grinch.