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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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.





Smoke them if you got’em

5 02 2013

After the hike to the river, the rest of my time in Grand Canyon seemed rather trivial. I promised to work for six months and intended to fully meet those obligations. I had been promoted to a leadership position and given keys to the shop, rising every morning at 6 a.m. to greet the tourists and fellow co-workers needing their cigarette fix.

The Bulgarians and Turks smoked like chimneys. I was amazed how they would go through a pack, sometimes two, a day and wondered if they were saving any of the money they were making, not to mention having any left over to spend on food. Cigarette prices, like everything else in the Canyon, were ridiculously high and halfway through the summer, they raised the prices even higher. And yet, the workers still bought them. They were, after all, trapped by their isolated surroundings and strong addiction. And I was their enabler.

“Mah-bah-row,” they would utter, one by one, striding into the shop to begin another day of work. The Native American women I worked with would always get a good chuckle at my ability to master the exact foreign pronunciation of Marlboro. The laughs were a welcome diversion from the everyday drudgery of dusting pottery and folding t-shirts.

Away from work, my friendship with the Singaporeans was strong and we began planning a trip to Los Angeles. My roommate, Brian, the sports fanatic, was still battling depression and a turbulent relationship, but managed to eek out a smile when I would report on the day’s proceedings at the gift shop.

“Did ya dust today, John?,” Brian would ask, adding just the right amount of comedic touch. “Because, I was in there today and I think you missed a spot.”

I was glad Brian was able to find joy in my situation. There is something comically humbling about underemployment, if you can bring yourself to overlook the negative. Here I was, a college educated, award-winning professional journalist who had just run for the Florida House of Representatives on my hands and knees dusting Grand Canyon coffee mugs made in China.

The fact that half of our merchandise was made in China really struck a nerve with some guests. Many times a guest would have their gift in hand ready to buy only to discover the tiny words “Made in China” inscribed somewhere and this would immediately change their mind. I was also impressed with how Cheng Yew, my Singaporean colleague, would handle this blatant contempt. To the average observer, he looked quite Chinese and with Cheng Yew displayed on his name tag, he was obviously not a Native American.

Cheng Yew working hard

But Cheng Yew’s salesmanship was anything but foreign. It was, rather, quite remarkable. Polite and helpful at all times, Cheng Yew never got mad. He never protested. And he never called in sick. Time and time again, he was able to send the rudest customer on their way with a smile. I was amazed at this ability and so too was upper management. In just 10 weeks of service, Cheng Yew racked up more accolades and special recognition than people who had worked there for years. When selling memories, attitude is everything and Cheng Yew certainly had the right one.

I was, undoubtedly, going to miss my Singaporean friends. Our trip to LA would be the culmination of cultures coming together and living in harmony. I had learned much from our short time together and I’m sure they had too. I managed to request just enough time off to make a quick dash to Southern California and back. I would travel the train, experiencing a new part of America via an old mode of transportation.

California here we come.