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Tales From the Tour -- April 2003
"Tales From the Tour" was a running travelogue describing my
experiences on the international tour of the musical Fosse.
Thursday, April 10, 2003
REDDING, CA / SACRAMENTO, CA / MEDFORD, OR / CUPERTINO, CA / SAN ANTONIO, TX
Somehow I missed Redding, or maybe it was never there. I picked a likely main drag - Pine Street - and walked most of its length through downtown, hoping to take in the city's main sights. A brand-spanking-new city hall has been built south of the city center, and the old one now shows art exhibitions, but most of the attractions are a freeway drive away. I chanced upon Buz's Crab Stand
, nestled in the shadows of a Safeway supermarket near the new city hall, and picked up a Cajun halibut sandwich for lunch. I intended to eat it as I walked through the city. But by the time I'd taken ten bites I was at the north end and the walk was over.
I met Erica and we soaked up sunshine, and watched kite-flyers and kids and dogs frolic, in the bright grass of Turtle Bay Regional Park. There's another Museum of Interesting Mechanical Devices there, or however you would categorize Bellingham's Mindport, but it was closed on Mondays. We followed a path along the Sacramento River and stumbled upon a rodeo arena, complete with Wild West-style lettering, rough-looking food and drink stalls (closed at the time), an enormous bale of hay, and several stables' worth of beautiful, sleek horses. We couldn't figure out what kind of rodeo it was; most of the horses looked too gentle and graceful to engage in any kind of frenetic activity. Indeed, they allowed us to come right up to them and pet them. We couldn't figure out whether we were on private property, but the few people around didn't seem to care. The stables were, quite literally, a one-minute walk across a small field to the theatre, part of the Redding Convention Center. The theatre had no orchestra pit, so we were backstage for most of the show and visible to the audience only for the final number.
Our hotel, La Quinta Inn, was a couple of miles away, in the transition zone between city (so to speak) and strip malls. A bunch of us needed a meal after the show, and we set off toward the International House of Pancakes and a branch of the small Black Bear chain, that wonderful diner we lunched at on the way to Eugene last week. The IHOP was firmly closed, and the Black Bear had stopped serving just a few minutes before we got there. Denny's seemed to be the only sit-down option.
I joined the others almost to the Denny's entrance, but I couldn't bring myself to go in. I'm just put off by the fact that Denny's seems to be sprouting up on every street corner, that it has infiltrated every little town and taken the place of every neighborhood late-night eatery. A part of me can't help thinking that the Black Bear, a cozy diner with some interesting local menu items and delectable homemade cobbler, would be open a lot later - if not all night - if there weren't a Denny's across the street. I have nothing against the concept of Denny's, a dependable round-the-clock establishment with predictable food options; I just think that no place deserves to be that ubiquitous. I feel the same way about Starbucks, and I'd probably even feel the same way if every intersection were home to a takeout sushi joint. (With respect to Denny's, there is, of course, the 4:30-in-the-morning-when-you're-drunk-and-waiting-for-a-bus-in-Key West exception, which I have already discussed.)
I also realized that I'd be a lot more satisfied, gastronomically and financially speaking, if I headed to Safeway and picked up some hummus and pita bread, brought it back to my hotel room, and curled up with that and a glass (or styrofoam cup, it would turn out) of merlot. And that's where I headed. I can spend hours wandering around a large supermarket. They're all largely the same, but they're also a little bit different, offering slightly different bargains or specialties. At this Safeway, for instance, I could have procured a huge 18-ounce slab of fully cooked baby back ribs for $9.99, an enticing seafood salad for $4.99, or ready-to-eat shrimp for $8.49 per pound. But I had a hankering for hummus, and I settled on a $2.69 plastic container of the Athenos black-olive variety and a $1.34 package of pita bread. (What I wouldn't give for one day at my local Manhattan produce market, Stiles, where a pita package goes for fifty cents!)
We had a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Sacramento on Tuesday, but we wouldn't leave until noon - no doubt perfect timing to ensure arrival in Sacramento just as all the lunch places were closing. I tried to find more of Redding on Tuesday morning; I headed north from the hotel, and though it was basically strip-mall land it was a pleasant stroll. There was a sidewalk, for starters, and the weather was sunny and warm. I passed a Toys Yah Us (the Russian letter that looks like a backwards "R" is pronounced "yah," no? - surely that is what they're going for) and a branch of the Mexican restaurant Chevys. When I'd mentioned Chevys the previous night I'd been met with scorn and grimaces; it had stupefied me that people shunned Chevys but were so gung-ho over Denny's. I've had only one Chevys experience but it was pleasant enough, and at least you can get a margarita the size of a bathtub. Maybe people are alienated by the missing apostrophe.
Anyway, I continued up Hilltop Drive and eventually came to a Cost Plus World Market. I'd been impressed with the one in Aurora, Illinois, so I ventured into this one as well. They really do have a good selection of international foods and beverages, including - I stopped dead in my tracks and my eyes lit up in amazement - the Villa Maria sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, which I'd been searching for ever since I'd sampled it at Nokhu in Fort Collins. It was only $10.99; I thought for sure it would be at least a twenty-dollar investment. I bought as many bottles as I could practically lug around - one - and returned to La Quinta a happy man.
We pulled into the Best Western in Sacramento five minutes after the two nearby Indian lunch buffets closed, and I hustled down K Street muttering expletives and regretting the fact that I'd worn shorts - it was about thirty degrees colder in Sacramento than it had been in Redding, and the wind was strong enough to kick up debris and make me close my eyes. I lunched at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese-Japanese place called the Bento Box, in which the other patrons were all over seventy and quite possibly homeless, or at least on the verge of destitution; it offered a $3.99 lunch combination made up of various things that had been sitting out on the counter all day. I had the salted riblets and wilted chiles, or what was left of them, over a mound of rice the size of a basketball; since there weren't enough riblets the lady threw in some chicken teriyaki as well. I also had three pieces of sushi, which had also been sitting out all day; they were enormous and square and only eighty-nine cents each. I left the place with the uneasy feeling that my stomach might reject its contents at any moment.
One reason I'd chosen a quasi-fast-food place is that it gave me time to go to the California State Railway Museum before it closed. And what a splendid place it was. It began with a small room devoted to old toy trains, including some elaborately decorated cars and wind-up specimens from before it was common for homes to have electricity - part of an enormous collection that was recently bequeathed to the museum and will soon be on view.
The main exhibit focused on the Central Pacific, Sacramento's first railroad, initiated by Theodore Judah in the 1840s and headed up by entrepreneurs Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford - known as the Big Four - whose commanding, controversial leadership resulted in the construction of a rail route over the Sierra Nevada and the first transcontinental link. Getting over the Sierra Nevada was no easy task; it required thousands of workers, mostly Chinese immigrants who found themselves out of work when the Gold Rush ended, to brave the blizzards and frost and blast away through the hardest of rock in order to build tunnels. The Chinese amounted to 90% of the workforce and bore the brunt of inferior treatment - they were given the most hazardous jobs and forced to pay for amenities that other workers received free - but their propensity for self-care and a better diet meant that they staved off diseases that plagued the others.
In order to allow trains to run over the Sierra Nevada year-round, snow sheds were built: wooden tunnels that kept the snow from accumulating on the tracks. Remnants of these structures still exist, as I recall from our numerous drives over the Donner Pass. Even with the snow sheds, trains were at risk; as late as the mid-1900s a train was stranded for four days until it could be dug out and the passengers were able to walk to safety. The transcontinental link was established when two trains met at Promontory, Utah, on 10 May 1869. Eleven days earlier, Central Pacific workers laid ten miles of track in a twelve-hour period, a record that still stands.
The museum also had an exhibit on the work shops - picture the tens of thousands of parts that make up a train, and then picture welders and smiths and other workers creating and assembling all the little nails and wheels and levers and what have you, in a dozen buildings the size of airplane hangars. And then there were the old locomotives and cars themselves, in excellent condition. I went into an old Pullman sleeper car - I'd seen Pullman listed on old schedules but never knew quite what the conditions were like. I walked through a mail car; back when mail was carried by train, postal workers slaved twelve hours a day and received only twelve minutes for lunch. They'd do a shift of several days, then work the route in reverse, then get a few days off with their families. And one old dining car - the Conchiti - featured china and cutlery from varies ages of train travel. I had 90 minutes in the museum and could have stayed two hours more, but it was going to close and I had a show to play.
We had two nights of shows at the University of California at Davis, a fifteen-mile drive from Sacramento along Interstate 80; on the eastbound side of the highway, a sign helpfully announced that Ocean City, Maryland, was 3073 miles away, and I started thinking of the Chesapeake Bay and crab dinners at Obrycki's
. (It'll come later, when we get to Baltimore in mid-May.) The theatre was built just six months ago and still smelled of freshly installed metal; they'd taken all technological precautions and put in irksome lighting on such a sensitive sensor that it would go off after about twenty seconds of inactivity. I found myself hurling water bottles across the green room just to keep the place lit.
Erica and I needed food after Tuesday's performance. Everything along K Street seemed to have closed hours before, so we didn't have much hope, but with a quick look in the what-to-do-in-Sacramento magazine we found Tapa the World, a tapas place open daily until midnight. There were still several parties seated when we arrived at a quarter to twelve. We had a tasty, reasonably priced meal: marinated octopus, seafood cakes, breaded eggplant, an assortment of olives. The desserts were remarkable: we tried the cactus sorbet - pink and subtly flavored - and the flan, though they all sounded wonderful.
With most of Wednesday free, we strolled around Old Sacramento, reached via a crosstown walk along K Street and through a looming shopping mall - one minute you're looking at cheap eateries and enjoying the sights and sounds of Sacramento's tram system and the next you're looking up at Macy's. But then you go through a tunnel on which the city's history is neatly explained, albeit in reverse, and then you emerge and you're looking at century-old buildings.
One such building, the Ebner Hotel, dates from 1847 and is about to be razed, as it's falling apart and the cost of restoring it would be prohibitive. It's sad - we peered through the construction fence at the faded painted lettering announcing rooms to let, and sighed - but the city has really done a great job at keeping its old town attractive and authentic-looking. All the buildings looked old; some have been restored; most are now shops selling Native American art and novelty items and the like, but it's not touristy or crowded - it's actually quite welcoming. The newspaper article announcing the demolition of the Ebner even said that it'll probably be replaced with a replica, or at least something in keeping with the surroundings.
We headed up to the edge of the old town and stumbled into a shop that's part museum (actually part of the railroad museum) and part hardware store. The building is a reconstruction of Crocker and Huntington's hardware store, which they ran before they got involved with the Central Pacific. The back of the store explained the history of certain hardware items and kitchen devices, including some wonderful combination gadgets that brought to mind the famous "Can It Core A Apple?" episode of "The Honeymooners." There was also a copy of an old Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue and a catalogue of old non-electric items for use by Amish people. But the interesting thing is that the store also carried normal hardware items - maybe not quite as modern as most, but serviceable nonetheless - that you could buy and put to use. What an intriguing blend of nostalgia and utility.
We circled the old buildings a couple of times and had a meal of turtle soup, jambalaya, and spicy shrimp at Cafe New Orleans, and then we retreated downstairs to the Hogshead Brewery. When we first went in a man named George gave us what we thought was a menu, but was in fact a list of the bands that would be performing on Sunday. George was lively and took great pride in the brewery's output, and when we made it clear we would only be around for a few more hours he abandoned talk of the bands and focused on talk of beer production. They make all their beer from fresh, organic ingredients, with no hangover-inducing preservatives - that's why, as George explained, he was able to get sloppily drunk three times and each time wake up with no recollection of the previous evening's events, but also with a healthy head, even though their beer's alcohol content is unusually high, up to 9%. And they produce some interesting flavors, such as vanilla ale and blackberry ale, though we stayed with the traditional: I had a brown and Erica a red. Oh, the place has one other gimmick: You give them a dollar bill, and they jerry-build a slingshot out of a towel and a leather bill envelope, stick a tack through George Washington's head, place the dollar on the envelope, and thrust it up so that it attaches to the ceiling. So if you go into the Hogshead Brewery, at least for the time being, you can search the ceiling for a bill with Erica's and my name on it.
That night it was back to Tapa the World, this time with Greg and James (Erica can never come out the last night we're in a city, as she has to load out the show). Greg dislikes seafood and was hesitant - "Do they have normal food there, like chicken, or is it all octopus?" was his memorable question, conjuring up a long-lasting image of a menu on which absolutely everything was octopus-based - but I assured him there were plenty of options. We tried other tapas - pork skewers, filet mignon in a plum sauce, an assortment of cheeses, a giant platter of grilled vegetables - and I overate to the point that my stomach started screaming. And then I had cactus sorbet.
On Thursday we bussed from Sacramento, back up through those annoying mountain passes, to Medford, Oregon. We left at 8:30 - 8:36, to be precise - and had completed most of the 308-mile journey by 12:30. There was only an hour to go; surely we could make it without a lunch stop.
Then we arrived at Yreka, as in, "Yreka, what a silly place to break the journey!" Anika announced a 45-minute pause, and we left the highway at 12:36. Central Yreka seemed OK - a homey-looking restaurant called Grandma's Kitchen, or some such thing; a store selling train sets - but we drove on, to a strip-mall area with a Wal-Mart, a Raley's supermarket, and a Black Bear diner, among other things. The Wal-Mart and Raley's were an unsurmountable trek away from the Black Bear - about a three-minute walk - and so the lunch break's duration was extended to an hour so that Jim could drop people off at Wal-Mart, wend the bus out of the parking lot, wait endlessly for one of California's ubiquitous left-turn signals to change in his favor, and thus complete the five-minute drive to the Black Bear, drop people off there, and then do both stops again when the break ended.
I wasn't hungry - my tapas overindulgence hadn't yet worn off - and I figured the lunch options would be better in Medford. Besides, Erica had just finished work, had just started a nap, and would probably be up for a meal at around 14:30. I spent most of the hour wandering through Raley's, without any intent to buy anything. It's a good thing, too, as most of the items were overpriced. The only thing that seemed a good deal, coincidentally enough, was hummus, and I almost picked some up for later. But I couldn't find the pita bread; it wasn't near the hummus. How can the pita bread not be near the hummus? It reminded me of those drugstores - nearly all of them - in which the toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, and toothbrush holders are all in different aisles. How can store managers not realize that those things should be kept together? How can they not know that if you're planning for a trip and you're in tooth mode, you want to get all your tooth needs fulfilled at once? There should be a Tooth Supplies aisle, but instead you have to hunt down the Handheld Tooth Tools aisle, the Handheld Tools Spreads aisle, and the Tiny Boxes of Waxed String and Other Flexible Accessories aisle, before you circumnavigate the store several times helplessly searching for the Randomly Shaped Little Plastic Containers aisle, which is in fact not an aisle but rather a little nook hidden next to the employees' bathroom.
I killed a good bit of time on a humorous quest for the pita bread, which wasn't in the breads aisle, either. And it wasn't in the bakery. It wasn't even among those shelves that stand back-to-back with the end of an aisle - you know, the shelves that contain items that have nothing to do with the aisle but might fulfill one of your shopping needs should you chance upon them at the right moment and in the right frame of mind. One such set of shelves, next to an aisle of pet food or paper towels or panty shields or some such thing, did have various flavors of bread - how would anyone find them? - but not pita, alas. At the opposite end of the store I even found another shelf with a different brand of hummus - I was now several time zones away from where I'd found the first - but there was no pita bread in sight. And I decided that such a disorganized store was clearly unworthy of my time, so I stepped outside and prepared myself to get on the bus.
I got on, and almost everyone else from the Wal-Mart/Raley's stop got on, and we waited; the delay droned on and on. It reminded me a little of bus travel in China, in which you often spend as much time stopped as you do in transit. Finally everyone was there, and we were able to pick up the others at the Black Bear. We got back on the highway at 14:20, 104 minutes after we'd left it, and at least a half hour after we would have reached Medford if we'd dispensed with the lunch stop to begin with. And by this time I was
hungry. And angry.
When my mother taught a class at the Harvard Extension School on Tuesday evenings, exam nights were subject to the Bertucci's Rule: If anyone required more time than was regularly allotted, she would stay until the last person was finished, but if she got out too late to pick up a pizza from Bertucci's on the way home, the last person to hand in the exam got an F. I propose a similar edict for our bus: If we depart more than five minutes late, the last person to board should pay for everyone's dinner and hotel room that night. (Incidentally, my mother still teaches the class, but it's now done on-line, so the Bertucci's Rule has been mooted.)
I wasn't in the best of moods, but Brian was able to make me laugh. He's great at impressions and voice disguises, and he occasionally prank-calls other tour members on their mobile phones, pretending to be Richard from Citibank and offering a no-interest-for-a-limited-time credit card, to see how they'll react. He made one such call during the last hour of the journey, and half the bus was riveted to the conversation; the person he called was polite but eventually firmly refused. He called back - after telling us it was Erica - and tried to persuade her once again; she'd already suspected a prank by this point, and, hearing uncontrollable laughter in the background, realized without question that she was talking to Brian. Whereupon he handed the phone to me and I relayed the basics of the 104-minute delay.
Twelve miles from Medford, we stopped once again, this time at a weigh station - I cannot thank the Oregon highway authority enough for caring that our bus comprises 12500 pounds, or kilograms, or tons, or tonnes, or angstroms or light-years or whatever unit of mass they use, and for putting this need above the needs of thirty-five weary travelers - and, finally at the Red Lion Hotel in Medford, we circled the place until finding our little wing in the rear; the multiple-building guest quarters are detached from the lobby. I thrust my luggage in my room, stormed off, and never looked back.
I found Erica near the theatre, a few blocks away, and after a brief stop at a pet store with some unusual reptiles, fish, and birds (though I will never begin to understand why anyone would want to keep a ferret) we went in search of a meal. Medford seemed to have all of about five restaurants, but one stood out. It was a Russian restaurant called Samovar, and while it wouldn't open until 17:00, it seemed to fit the bill.
We entered a few minutes before 17:00, hoping to study the menu a bit and save some time, as I'd have to be at the theatre by 18:00. A boy about twelve years old greeted us in a T-shirt and shorts and summoned his mother to seat us. I apologized for arriving early, and she said, "No, it's five o'clock. We should be open. I didn't change the sign yet." This must be a first in the annals of Russian dining: a hostess who not only is polite and apologetic but even lets you in before opening time!
She couldn't have been more warm or welcoming. The menu was full of descriptions that sounded as if everything had just been harvested from the garden out back and lovingly assembled together. We had the seventy-appetizer sampler, or whatever it was - Russian meals usually begin with a deluge of cold plates - and moved on to shi (a thick beef soup) and borscht, served in flowered porcelain crocks that clearly came from somebody's grandmother's kitchen, and rounded out the meal with blintzes. If we'd had more time we'd have spoken with the hostess at length about her immigration and why she'd settled on Medford (no doubt it was a premonition to establish the most appealing eatery in town), but I had to duck out early and head for the theatre to be within earshot of our all-important company meeting, which always occurs two hours before our first show in a new city. I contemplated being forty-four minutes late, to make a point - "I would
have had a ninety-minute lunch
here, but you delayed
me for no reason, so I'm having a ninety-minute dinner instead" - but one lateness is not rectified by another. So I rushed over.
The company meeting usually deals with a few minutes of talk about earth-shattering housekeeping matters, such as whether house seats are still available in Pensacola, followed by a lengthy discussion of what part of the set is being used based on how big the stage is. The discussion usually takes place onstage or in the house, while the band is in the orchestra pit, so it's virtually impossible for me to hear it most of the time, and I usually just listen for key words and perk up when a topic of interest arises. At this particular meeting someone raised the issue of departures from rest stops, and I stood up, readying my ears for commiseration, preparing to nod vigorously in agreement, and thinking I might even intersperse a few Amen, brother!
s for punctuation.
Instead, what he said was that "people" - and he could be referring only to your curmudgeonly yet practical narrator - should not exude negative energy by making comments on the bus about late departures, because it brings everyone down; they should speak to Anika if they have problems with seventeen-hour breaks in the middle of nowhere. Someone else popped up helpfully to add that when people are sleeping in the aisles on the bus, others should take care not to step on them. A third capped the discussion with something like, "Just be nice, like your mommy told you."
I contemplated calling my parents and asking me to show me my last report card from elementary school, because as far as I could remember I had been promoted out of the fourth grade in 1984. But here I was again, being lectured to about being compassionate and having patience. This little excursion out of the real world - a world where being forty-four minutes late does
matter - and into fairy-magic-happy-kiddie-let's-all-be-nice-and-share-and-get-along land was amusing, if inappropriate, and as the company meeting ended I thought, "Boy, do I have good travelogue material tonight!"
We left Medford for Cupertino, California, on Friday, once again heading south on Interstate 5, through the same fercockte
mountain passes and around the same bends in the road. Brian said we've driven this section so much they should rename it the "Fosse Stretch," a pun on an element of Fosse's choreography. I'd been up late, my fingers violently spewing out text regarding lunch stops, so I was well-prepared to make the tedious trip again; I slept for the first five hours and awoke at 12:15, an hour and a half out of Cupertino and once again tantalized by the prospect of getting there without a lunch break.
But no, we couldn't pass up seventy-five minutes at the Sunvalley Mall, an hour from Cupertino. I grimaced and headed into the nearest mall entrance before realizing I was headed straight for the perfume counter at Macy's, a prospect that sparked a powerful burst of dry heaves, and so I returned outside and found another door. This time I stumbled upon a mall directory, which was much more interesting, and also entertaining, especially as it would probably have dozens of typos that I could snicker and sneer at for a good portion of the break. In the corner of the map I noticed the word Todai.
I knew what Todai
was only because Brian had mentioned it the day before. It's a chain of Japanese seafood buffets that's primarily in California but is rapidly expanding, and not nearly quickly enough. I sprinted over there (why do malls always put kiosks and other obstacles in the middle of the corridors, so that you can't go straight?), my spirits heightened.
The lunch buffet offered sushi, rolls, cold dishes such as baby octopus, and hot dishes such as wonderful barbecued yellowtail. Some of the rolls were innovative; the sushi wasn't the best, but for $12.95, I'm not complaining. I stuffed myself appropriately and, upon returning to the bus, thanked Anika - with a sly I-know-I-acted-surly-before grin - for finding such a splendid place to eat.
Then followed a weekend of performances in Cupertino, though we stayed a dreary twenty-minute drive away in Sunnyvale, a traffic-light-riddled drive that, once again, could be made a lot shorter if they turned some of those intersections into roundabouts. There was virtually nothing within walking distance of the hotel; there was virtually nothing within walking distance of the theatre; somewhere in between was a delightful assortment of inaccessible Asian and Middle Eastern markets and restaurants, the Asian population spilling over from San Francisco, just 38 miles away. There was, at least, one good sushi place across from the theatre - it provided a soba lunch and a sushi dinner on Saturday - but most everything else required a hefty walk.
Thus it was with no hesitation that Erica and I found ourselves, shortly after Saturday night's show, driving to San Francisco with one of the local crew; the entertainment options were certainly more numerous and attractive there. On this particular night Erica's friend Virginia (the college roommate she'd stayed with two weeks before) was co-managing a primarily lesbian party at a club called the Galia. Though Erica is not a lesbian - and neither, for that matter, am I - we felt quite comfortable and welcome; after the party we devoured gargantuan pizza slices and crashed briefly at Virginia's (a crash cut short due to the onset of that obnoxious and unnecessary custom known as daylight-saving time) before finding our way back to Sunnyvale Sunday morning, a trip that required a taxi, two grueling buses, and the Sheraton's shuttle. One of the buses would have been a commuter train, but due to track work Caltrain has thoughtfully suspended all weekend train service for about the next four decades and provides only express substitute bus service that bypasses about eight out of every nine stops, so we had to take the bumpy express bus for an hour and then transfer to a local.
On Sunday I sneaked some time in between shows (a sneak cut short by a photo shoot of our cast and orchestra - don't they know what we look like by now?) to trek the 25 minutes to the M & M Food Mart, a Middle Eastern grocery store. It was worth the trip. There were olives and cheeses sitting in juice, garlic hanging in nets from the ceiling, rows of goods with labels printed in Hebrew and Arabic, and all sorts of Middle Eastern pastries. Inspired, I bought some stuffed grape leaves and a big container of hummus. Pita bread was again curiously lacking, except frozen packages that couldn't be eaten immediately, but I picked up some tasty lavash (thin, floppy bread in baking-sheet-sized portions).
On Monday we flew to San Antonio on American Airlines, a carrier that promises extra legroom and really delivers. They've also installed electric outlets under the seats, so you can plug in a laptop or television set or refrigerator or whatever it is you happen to have with you. On arrival we were transferred to the Sheraton Gunter, right in the heart of downtown, where we'd have the rest of Monday and all of Tuesday free.
San Antonio is beautiful. I'd been there with my college choir ten years before, and I'd looked forward to coming back. There are basically two things to do: visit the Alamo, and dine on Mexican cuisine along the Riverwalk while drinking margaritas (and playing bridge, as I did with my college choir). It being late, Erica and I chose the latter. The Riverwalk stretches for miles along the imaginatively named San Antonio River; the downtown portion is lined with bars and restaurants in picturesque buildings that retain quaintness and festiveness without being garish. Every once in a while there's an arched footbridge to take you from one side of the river to the other. We strolled for a while, casing the Mexican restaurants. Many of them have approximately the same menu, but the one at Boudro's stood out. Soft salmon tacos! Lobster-tail fajitas! Quail salad! Prickly-pear margaritas! This was the place; it was also quintessentially romantic, with evening strollers on one side of the table and the gently flowing river on the other.
We covered pretty much the whole city on foot on Tuesday afternoon, finding attractions that were not the Alamo or the Riverwalk. We stumbled upon the Spanish Governor's Palace, an early-eighteenth-century adobe building with several bedrooms, a ballroom, a kitchen, a dining room, and several other rooms, all containing ancient chairs, tables, and artwork. It also has a delightful garden with a fountain, a well, and several kinds of cactus. Nearby was the statue-festooned San Fernando Cathedral ("They didn't skimp on the fake blood," remarked Erica), the final resting place of three Alamo heroes, including Davy Crockett.
Beyond these attractions was El Mercado, a slightly-more-touristy-than-we'd-hoped-for shopping center containing Mexican curios, leather goods, and the like. It did have a good Mexican restaurant, La Margarita, which served up an excellent spiced-goat dish. We sat outdoors; on one side pigeons picked at the remains of one diner's meal, and on the other, a woman remarked on the wonderful margaritas and her daughter of about seven years replied, "Are you drunk?" She answered, "No, but if I have one more, I will be." What a festive place.
Only then did we visit the Alamo, once a mission and now a shrine to those who were killed there during a 13-day battle in 1836. I never really understood the Alamo's significance, and there's no good succinct explanation of it at the site, but eventually I pieced it together: It was the site of the second of three battles that led to the ousting of General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the dictator who assumed control of Mexico shortly after the country gained independence in 1821. In the first battle, the Battle of Bexar, American Texans and anti-Santa Anna Mexicans staged an uprising against General Cós; angered, Santa Anna sent in his men, who overwhelmed the Texans at the Alamo with their sheer numbers; a month later, Santa Anna was defeated at San Jacinto. The Texas Revolution complete, Texas became its own country briefly, before it joined the United States in 1846.
Our quest for history satiated, we headed south, to the King William district; King William Street and the surrounding streets are the site of numerous mansions, some of which date back to 1870. This put us in a residential section of the Riverwalk - the city is really to be commended for creating such a long path along the water - and we followed it back into town, whereupon I met the rest of the band for a steak dinner at Texas Land & Cattle.
And then I boarded an overnight Greyhound bus and went to Mexico.
Monday, April 14, 2003
BROWNSVILLE, TX / MATAMOROS, MEXICO / HARLINGEN, TX / SHREVEPORT, LA / MOBILE, AL / BATON ROUGE, LA
The Greyhound bus pulled into the border town of Brownsville, Texas, at 5:40 Wednesday morning, after a six-hour, $20 journey that I had the good fortune to soundly sleep away almost entirely. It was not yet light, and it was colder than I'd expected - around 10 degrees Celsius - and so I remained in the bus station for an hour or so, waiting for dawn to break (an event that took an hour longer than it might have, thanks to daylight-saving time) before briefly exploring Brownsville. I had no knowledge of what lay across the border, and it was a bit too cold to wander, so it made sense to wait a bit and cross into Mexico after the temperature warmed up and the city - or town, or village, or whatever it was going to be - awakened.
Brownsville seemed more Mexican than American. Most of the signs were in Spanish, and they were hand-painted on the storefronts; the stores' entrances were solidly locked behind white gates. There seemed to be an abundance of shoe stores and a deficiency of restaurants, but after walking up and down the main streets - Elizabeth and Washington - I stumbled upon Lucio's Cafe, where I whiled away another half hour or so. I was seated and served by an expressionless waitress and had a tall glass of hot (well, lukewarm) chocolate, which failed to heat me up as I had hoped. Some of the other diners wore snazzy blue jackets that said things such as Detention Officer and The Department of Public Safety - Honorary Trooper. A border town, indeed.
At 7:30 I left the cafe, turned onto International Boulevard, and saw immediately before me the new bridge connecting Brownsville with Mexico, imaginatively named the International Bridge. As soon as I left the U.S. it warmed up to a comfortable 20 degrees Celsius with a light breeze and remained that way for the entire day. I paid the fifty-cent pedestrian toll, crossed over the Rio Grande (not so grand, at least at this stretch), and, uninhibited by a customs house or border patrol of any sort, entered Mexico for the first time in my life.
What a splendid way to arrive in a new country! I had no maps, no bags, no currency, no inkling of what lay ahead. I didn't even know the name of the border town on the Mexican side. All I knew is that I had eight hours to explore Mexico; to immerse myself in its sights, smells, and tastes; to escape the mundaneness of tour for a while.
The town was called Matamoros, and it enchanted me immediately. When I arrived, the border area was bustling with taco vendors, soot-emitting Maxi-Taxis (shared bus-sized cabs) collecting passengers, and taxi drivers trying to scuttle me into open-hooded vehicles whose wires they were attempting to rearrange. Everything had an appealing run-down feel to it: crumbling sidewalks, the squalid odor of trash, dust covering the cars, dust flying through the air - by the end of the day my eyes would sting because of the influx of pollution, and I'd try in vain to blink it away. I proceeded along a major street, Avenida Alvaro Obregón, following signs directing me toward the Zona Centro. There was a succession of bars, stores, and breakfast places before the road veered to the left near the old bridge, equally imaginatively referred to alternately as the Puente Viejo, the Brownsville & Matamoros Bridge, and the Matamoros & Brownsville Bridge.
I could see the city center ahead of me, but a residential district beckoned me to to the right, across the train tracks. Here was block after block of houses on the brink of collapse: shingles falling off, balustrades missing, the feeblest of doors leading inside. I walked past vacant lots overgrown with weeds and claimed by stray dogs. Chickens waddled in the street. Mexican band music emanated from low-fidelity stereos. Every couple of blocks there was a small grocery store (a "mini super" - what an oxymoron!) providing staples to the neighborhood. The farther I got from the tracks, the more decrepit the houses looked, until they were barely more than the makeshift squatter shacks that line the highways of Lagos and Mumbai. I nodded hello at a couple of destitute-looking people in the distance and it dawned on me that maybe this wasn't the best of areas for me to be wandering through, at least not until the streets were more crowded. I returned to the tracks and came upon the old train station, which was in a depressing state of disrepair. Windows were broken, trash covered the floor, the stairways looked precarious - indeed, the only way I could tell it had been a train station was the faded signs pointing the way to the waiting room and the platforms.
I continued on to the city center. Matamoros had an easy-to-follow grid layout: Streets leading away from the Puente Internacional were numbered (though you had to know the Spanish numbers, as they were usually written out), and the perpendicular streets were generally named after people important in the city's history (it dates from the mid-1800s). At Sixth and González was the main square (Plaza Hidalgo or Plaza Principal), with a municipal building at one end and the understatedly elegant Santa Iglesia Catedral at the other. A few blocks up was the Mercado Juárez, a large crafts market somewhat less touristy than the one in San Antonio. Leading away from the market in both directions, parallel to González, was a pedestrian thoroughfare with tiny record shops, fast-food places, clothing stores, and people selling sweets and produce on the street. All this was just coming to life as I arrived.
I'd expected to find a place to change money in the center of town, with better exchange rates than at the border, but, finding none, I made my way back toward the Puente Internacional, past the U.S. consulate and through a large grassy field with just one lone vendor selling edible prickly-pear cactus. The border area was in full swing. I changed US$20 for 210 Mexican pesos - 10.50 to the dollar - and looped back around, wandering through different streets to get back to the city center. By this time - you guessed it - it was nearly 10:00, and plenty of exchange places had opened up along the pedestrian street, offering rates of 10.60 and 10.65 pesos to the dollar. Oh well.
Continuing farther up the pedestrian street, I stopped into two supermarkets: one with a large assortment of raw meat innards I'd never seen before, the same innards cooked and assembled into ready-to-eat meals, and a cat scurrying among the aisles; another with large vats of spices and animal food, an abundance of wheat and bread products, and aisles littered with sausage-sized droppings. I walked another couple of blocks, until I found the terminal of a regional bus company, Noreste. The street outside was lined with taco stalls. I cased them all and, thinking it time for a break, plunked myself down at the most appealing one, right outside the Noreste office. The tacos were soft, small, and tasty, and they came in three kinds - beef strips, barbecued meat, and tripe; I had two, and then I had two more, sampling all the flavors. And they were cheap - four tacos and a Coke cost only 22 pesos. Everything in Matamoros seemed cheap. The other patrons were primarily older men, though there was also a woman with her little boy, and there was also a lone boy of about nine years. They - including the nine-year-old - were engaged in nonstop chatter with the men who ran the taco stand. Nearly all the taco stands bustled this way.
I stopped into the Noreste terminal and paid two pesos to use the restroom, where I learned that Mexican toilets - at least those in Matamoros - do not have seats, and that you throw the toilet paper into a wastebasket because the plumbing can't handle it. (It should be pointed out, however, that these restrooms were at least a step up from those at the Greyhound station in Brownsville, which had no toilet paper at all.) I walked along one of the main avenues, and the street numbers increased. When I got to 22nd Street it was a major intersection, and what followed was a highway leading out of the city.
I walked along the highway a little bit, and I came upon the Mexican equivalent of strip-mall territory, though there wasn't actually a mall to speak of. There was a giant Soriana supermarket, sort of the Mexican version of a Wal-Mart Supercenter (there is also an actual Wal-Mart somewhere in the vicinity; a sign points you to it shortly after you descend the Puente Internacional, and it's a major stop on one of the Maxi-Taxi routes). I entered the Soriana and gazed longingly at all the local produce and meat and seafood products, wishing I could stay in Matamoros a few days and cook. Next door was a Waldo's, which advertised everything to be one price; I went inside and found that the one price was eleven pesos: essentially this was the same as a dollar store in the U.S.
Across the highway I found a flea market, or what must be a flea market on weekends; only one stall was open, selling food. Separated from the market by a fence was an elementary school, with uniformed kids circling and singing. This was at the fringes of a cozy-looking residential area, one where women washed clothes in outdoor buckets and hung them out to dry; where mothers scolded tiny children playing in tiny yards while their grandmothers looked on; where unfenced dogs eyed me sleepily, too tired to challenge my presence. I walked back to that main intersection at the edge of town, passing energetic schoolchildren on their way home for lunch.
I headed back into town along the Diagonal Cuauhtemoc, pleasantly aware that I hadn't seen another obviously U.S. citizen all day. The town was as authentic as they come; apart from the curio shops at the Mercado Juárez there was nothing touristy about it - I hadn't even seen any museums (though I'd come across an art museum later on). The Diagonal Cuauhtemoc had auto-body shops, restaurants offering lunch specials, and quaintly homely hotels that probably rented rooms for less than US$20 per day, and possibly rented them by the hour. (No doubt they even used real keys!) I spent an hour or so ambling along streets at random, watching Mexicans jaywalk, watching Mexican drivers make speedy turns without a thought to the possibility of pedestrians crossing, watching Mexicans negotiate the extremely narrow and uneven sidewalks, watching Mexicans be Mexicans. And with only three exceptions, they didn't regard me in the slightest; they let me blend in, even though, with my fair skin, I was clearly a - the
A large sign at the Soriana had indicated the various types of produce that were permitted to be brought back to the U.S., and, taking a cue, I stopped at one of the little stalls on the pedestrian street and picked up some giant prickly-pear cactus pads. A hole-in-the-wall burrito place near my New York City apartment makes an excellent cactus burrito; why shouldn't I try some raw cactus? I also picked up a large honey-based dessert from a stand crawling with bees.
I'd remembered seeing a decent-looking restaurant at the corner of Twelfth and Zaragoza, and that's where I headed for a late lunch. It was called Mariscos Ramos. I had a forty-peso fish platter (probably flounder), baked "a la Mexicana," which meant that it came topped with tomatoes and onions and accompanied by a giant stack of soft tacos. To answer one question about Mexican dining: Yes, they do give you chips and salsa at the beginning of the meal, though in this case it was more like five different kinds of salsa. (To answer a couple of other questions about Mexico: Yes, piñatas are abundantly for sale, and yes, many Mexican men really do wear sombreros.) After the meal, I used the restaurant's restroom, and when I emerged, my bag of recent purchases was gone: I'll be darned if the waiter hadn't thought I'd left and gone wandering the streets with the bag, trying to return it to me. Another waitress summoned him back inside, and all was resolved.
Sadly, it was time to head back to the U.S., as I had to get to Harlingen, Texas, for Wednesday's show. I zigzagged my way through the streets, and this time I walked across the Puente Viejo, which also exacted a fifty-cent toll. On the U.S. side a customs officer asked about my purchases, and I was relieved, when I said they included "cactus - I was told that was OK to bring back," that he agreed. I walked the few minutes to the Greyhound station and, deliriously exhausted, hopped on a 16:15 bus ($5.75) for the forty-minute drive to Harlingen. It had been a nearly perfect little international excursion; only two things kept it from perfection: that I couldn't go by train and that Erica couldn't come with me. She'd had to stay in Harlingen to load in the show for that night's performance. How silly it is when our jobs interfere with sightseeing!
It was a mile or so from the Greyhound station in Harlingen to the theatre; I didn't have any time to explore Harlingen, but from the looks of things I didn't miss much. Just before I got to the theatre I had to cross a track on which a freight train had been shunting back and forth for at least ten minutes, discarding boxcars at one end or the other; seeing no end to this charade, I seized a chance to sprint around the train when it came within three cars of clearing the crossing. It must have stayed there at least twenty minutes longer, much to the frustration of the increasingly long line of drivers waiting to proceed through.
We spent all of Thursday's daylight hours going from Harlingen to Shreveport, Louisiana, a 600-mile drive largely along traffic-light-infested farm roads, one of which passed the hotel we stayed at in Tyler, Texas, in February. I've discovered that the secret to getting through the endless rides is to stay up as late as possible the night before (which is why I'm writing this part of the travelogue at 3:00 in the morning); I was out pretty much instantly after we left Harlingen and didn't wake up for five hours. Anika continued her streak - now at two - of finding decent lunch stops; this one, just north of Austin, had a long row of eateries offering buffets. There was a soup-and-salad buffet, an Italian buffet, something calling itself the Premiere Asian Buffet (obviously the first
one - not the best
), and a restaurant called the Star of India, which is where Eric, Casey, and I dined. It was passable - not exceptional - but commendations go to the samosas and the gulab jamun, the latter of which I can never resist gorging myself on gluttonously.
Returning to the bus, we found that a few cast members had spent the lunch break festooning the bus with streamers, a piñata, and Mexican flags; they put on Mexican music; they gave each person a Mexican-sounding name tag (I was Pinto, though I don't know whether it refers to the bean, the car, or the horse); they paced the aisle offering cake and Mexican beer. What a fiesta! A terrific way to liven up the second half of the trip. We also watched Sweet Home Alabama
, a little incongruous with a Mexican-themed party, and not the most compelling of plots (just divorce the bastard, already!), but since "Murphy Brown" went off the air I'll take Candice Bergen any way I can.
I didn't need a big meal on arrival in Shreveport, and it so happens Erica had obtained all the necessities for a wonderful tartiner
spread again. We also tried the cactus I'd brought back, and discovered that it really needs to be cooked - it is fairly tasteless and rubbery raw. Thus the theme of the evening blended Mexican and French qualities, the latter of which we continued by watching the film Amélie
, the charming tale of a waitress in a Parisian cafe who craftily uses her good-samaritan propensity to bring happiness to others, and at long last brings it upon herself.
I arose late on Friday, studied the Shreveport map in my hotel room's phonebook, and, as I often do, sketched a map of possible routes for the six-mile walk into town. We were on East 70th Street; the street numbers went down to 60 according to the map (I never saw them in person) and then were replaced by names. I walked along Gilbert Drive, a residential street containing grand two-story houses with two-story pillars, set way back from the street behind well-manicured lawns and iron gates. The street wound its way around a couple of times (I had no recollection of its being anything but straight based on my perusal of the map) and soon I came to a traffic light at Pierremont Avenue. Here I turned left, simply because Pierremont had a sidewalk and Gilbert didn't. (I realized we were back in the South because of the lack of sidewalks. In California they make everything moderately difficult both for vehicles and for pedestrians: Vehicular traffic is plagued by countless traffic lights, tie-ups, and four-way-stop intersections, and pedestrian traffic is plagued by interminable waits at crossings due to left-turn signals and by city planners who think it's acceptable to make you cross the street multiple times just to stay on the sidewalk. In the South, at least in any city smaller than, say, San Antonio, the car is king, and they scarcely bother with sidewalks at all, because nobody walks any distance greater than a block.)
I turned right at Line Avenue and followed it the rest of the way; after crossing under a highway flanked by beet-red and yellow flowers, I was downtown and surrounded by old brick buildings with fading paint testifying to the first establishments they housed. My favorite was the first one I came upon, a sign for the National Biscuit Company's Uneeda Biscuit ("Sold Only in Packages - 5¢"). Apart from a sparsely populated amusement park and an antique-car museum, there wasn't much to see downtown, except for a few square blocks near the Red River, which contained several blues clubs and discos awaiting the evening hours before they opened. I peered into one, which had interesting little bits of information painted on the entrance hallway. Here I learned that there are 293 ways to make change for a dollar, that Abraham Lincoln had already seen Our American Cousin
before 14 April 1865 and didn't particularly care to go again, and that three out of five people, when asked to name a color, will respond with "Red."
I had a bowl of gumbo at a diner called Panos, a cafeteria-style place with hideous green and orange chairs reminiscent of junior-high-school dining halls, before finding Erica at the theatre. We explored the downtown area and, understimulated, walked across a bridge to Bossier City, thinking there might be more attractions there. We were wrong; we emerged upon a lot overgrown with grass and inhabited by construction crews (clearly they were just starting to build Bossier City) and briefly entered the only business we saw, a bait-and-tackle shop. Our immediate plans for the future did not include a fishing excursion, so we headed back over the bridge and investigated the back of an alley containing weeds, stray cats, and a building with broken windows and debris immersed in an Olympic-sized pool of water on the first floor.
I'd considered checking out the blues scene after Friday's show, contingent upon an easy return to my bed at the Sheraton. The hotel had a free shuttle, but it proved most useless based on a conversation that can be abbreviated considerably as follows:
"Is it possible for the shuttle to do a pick-up downtown?"
"We're not allowed to go downtown, ma'am."
"Why is that?" I lowered my voice significantly, but he didn't get the hint.
"Manager's rules. To save gas."
"How close to downtown are you allowed to go?" Maybe I could meet him in the middle.
"We're not allowed to go anywhere near downtown."
"How far are you allowed to go?"
"To the airport."
"Isn't that farther than downtown?"
"Yes, by a couple of miles."
"Then how close to downtown can you go?" Let's try this again.
"We can't go anywhere near downtown, ma'am."
"How far north of 70th Street can you go?"
I considered launching into a discussion in which we progressed northward one street at a time, until we found the end of his tether. It would certainly pass for midafternoon excitement in Shreveport. But eventually he asked, "What time do you need to go, ma'am?"
"Oh, about midnight or one o'clock."
"Well, the shuttle stops running at eleven. There's no one to drive it after that."
Ah, that made a lot of sense. Provide a shuttle that runs everywhere except where everyone would want to go, and then have it stop running once all the public transportation ceases. There was a bus route down Line Avenue, but it didn't run after 19:00.
"Then how do I get to the hotel?"
"You can get a taxi."
As I'm still waiting for a taxi in Fort Collins - and, come to think of it, for one in San Antonio that I called for ten years ago - I dismissed that idea entirely, without hesitation, and gave up on the idea of exploring Shreveport's nightlife. I just couldn't be bothered. Instead, I took our bus back from the theatre and picked up food at a Kroger's. I found the pita immediately, and ten minutes later I found the hummus at the absolute opposite end of the supermarket, as if one were in California and the other in Maine. Why do they do that?
On Saturday we drove for eight hours to Mobile (that's "mo-BEEL"), Alabama, pausing only for twenty minutes - now that's
my kind of lunch stop - during which I tried to cancel my America Online membership. I got three months free with the purchase of my laptop, and I figured it might be a good way to get on-line in all these little towns without depleting my Verizon cell-phone minutes connecting wirelessly through my 7135. I've been using AOL with moderate satisfaction - it usually works, but it tends to show ads when I connect, it tends to try to download updates when I disconnect (as if I'd given the impression that I don't mind waiting ten minutes after signing off before I go to sleep), and once in a while I get what looks like an instant message, though I'm pretty sure I have that option disabled. There I am typing away, and some extraneous window pops up, interrupting my work, and I have to close it to continue. And to think there are people who consider instant messaging one of AOL's features
So it was time to say good-bye to AOL. It so happens, of course, that I made the phone call to cancel exactly three months after I joined (less a few minutes, to be absolutely precise), which put me on the first
day of the fourth
month. The fourth month had already been billed to my credit card, and AOL refused to refund it, or even prorate it. It must be the only company in the world that doesn't prorate service. I spoke with someone from the billing department, whom I resisted making death threats to only because her name was Erica. She graduated summa cum laude from surliness class with Chris from the Wichita Holiday Inn.
"You should have called before the end of the billing cycle."
"But it's only the first day of the new month. Surely you can cancel the service effective today."
"We don't do that. If you look in Paragraph 729C of Subsection Z-342 of your User Agreement, you'll see that you need to call before the end of the billing cycle in order to avoid being charged for another month. And you could at any time have gone to Keyword 'Sudden Death Cancellation Deadline' to look up your billing date. AOL stands behind this policy."
"You must get this kind of complaint a lot, don't you?"
"Yes, we do." And she's quite accustomed to shrugging it off with the indifference of a slot machine eating up your silver dollars.
"How much is the bill for?"
It wasn't so much the amount of money that bothered me, but the fact that I had let myself contribute so effortlessly to corporate greed. Of course
AOL stands behind this policy. It puts money in their accounts by taking advantage of the slightest mistakes of its clients.
My mood had soured - and I'd been so happy because of the short lunch break! - and it soured further when we checked into the Radisson. It's one of only about four hotels where they wouldn't give our company manager all our keys at once but instead made us queue up and check in individually. That was bad enough, but after all that, about half our keys didn't work at all, including, of course, Greg's and mine. Greg went downstairs to get a replacement made; I called from outside my room and asked them to send one up (it never arrived). Greg came back with one working key, and as I went out to explore Mobile I stopped by the front desk and had them make four extras, on the off chance that one of them might work and I'd be able to use my room again.
My mood improved when I began to explore Mobile. Nothing seemed to have changed since 1950. Impeccably dressed elderly couples strolled the streets at the rate of about three blocks per hour. There was a double-gold-domed cathedral (under restoration, unfortunately) towering over a well-tended park. Another park, with mosaics, paid tribute to the Spanish settlement of the town in the early 1800s. There was a fire museum and a police museum, and in front of the Civic Center an open shed houses the city's last mule-driven trolley car, pulled from service in 1902. There were two-story houses, seemingly on the verge of collapse but clearly maintained better than was apparent, with intricate wrought-iron terraces. Everyone plodded along tranquilly; even I felt compelled to abandon my usual breakneck gait and kept a subdued pace.
Well, that's half the story. Further along Dauphin Street things looked a trifle sketchier: blocks and blocks of dive bars and boarded-up establishments. The sidewalks were strewn with litter. Clearly not everything is so serene. And clearly there is some racial tension, on which I am too ignorant to comment. Nearly all the impeccably dressed couples were white, and many of the blacks looked weary and a paycheck or two away from poverty. I'm not saying that's the case for everyone, but it's what I saw in a couple of hours of ambling around.
Somehow Erica didn't have to stay for the whole load-out that night, and so we tried one of the dive bars, Club 426. It had a strange clientele. The front room was mostly empty and had nothing unusual, but the back contained a DJ, a dance platform, and a most bizarre set of well-dressed white-trash patrons dancing and interacting in such a manner as to bring to mind eighth graders mingling at the first dance of the school year. The beer selection was a little strange, too. I wanted an Abita, a Louisiana brew recommended to me by a former boss, which I'd tried earlier in the day on the outdoor patio at a place called Heroes and deemed exceptionally tasty and smooth - but Club 426 had only the raspberry-flavored version. The bartender said he liked it, and Erica tried it, and then the bartender conceded that he thought it was a little strange. Which we thought a little strange.
To save time, I checked out of the Radisson before retiring for the night, and on the bill I noticed a $1 "Housekeeping Fee." I thought it must be a mandatory tax of some sort, and I thought nothing of it until I discovered yesterday that others in our company weren't charged it. It's not a tax at all, but rather a way of exacting a tip for the housekeeping staff without their actually performing any services. Apparently it's optional, and if I'd looked at Paragraph 729C of Subsection Z-342 of my Radisson Bogus Charges Guide, I'd have found the instructions for removing it. So now I have to call and have it removed by phone - add that to the instances of insidious corporate greed.
We drove to Baton Rouge yesterday morning, were fed a suitable deli lunch, and then performed two shows. My friend Joette, a former coworker who grew up in Baton Rouge and now spends much of her time there, attended the matinee and brought her two nieces, ages six and seven. The nieces had taken dancing lessons and thoroughly enjoyed the show, more than I would have thought likely for kids that age. Between shows Joette took me on an extensive driving tour of Baton Rouge, showing me the Louisiana State University campus and, at the other end of town, the Southern University campus, where as late as 1972 two black students were killed in segregation-related riots. In between are all the government buildings: the pristine-white crenellated old capitol; the tall and narrow new capitol, which rises far above any other building in the city; and the old and new governor's mansions, among others. And there are two casinos, the Argosy and the Casino Rouge, which is pretty much where everyone goes, since there doesn't seem to be a whole lot else to do in Baton Rouge. There's an excellent ribs place, TJ Ribs, where Joette and I had sumptuous baby-backs after the second show, and then we spent an hour and a half at Casino Rouge. Joette won $130 at the slots, and I won $42 at blackjack by gritting my teeth and playing correctly at a table in which one player berated me for splitting sixes and nines against the dealer's six and the dealer himself challenged my hitting a soft 18 against his nine - all of which are unquestionably correct, if you'll refer to Paragraph 729C of Subsection Z-342 of the Blackjack Basic Strategy Chart
Tuesday, April 22, 2003
JACKSON, MS / LAFAYETTE, LA / CLEVELAND, MS / PENSACOLA, FL / MEMPHIS, TN / KANSAS CITY, MO
Just when I thought no city would surpass Melbourne, Florida, as the dullest place we've been, we were treated to Jackson and Cleveland, Mississippi. Melbourne still ranks king, but by a considerably smaller margin.
It didn't take long to explore the Mississippi capital, a venture I undertook during rush hour. Or at least it should have been rush hour. It was, after all, just after 18:00 on a weekday. But in the downtown area there was scarcely a car on the street, scarcely a pedestrian on the sidewalk. I saw more squirrels than people. I passed three restaurants, all of the deli milieu, and they were all closed. Every building seemed to be a church, museum, government office, or bank. This last category was by far the largest, and indeed it was at the OmniBank that we were thrown a well-catered reception after our performance Monday night. Imagine: all the desks, chairs, computers, Centrex telephones, and "Today Is April 14" perpetual calendars, and amidst of it all forty executives and an equal number of traveling performers are devouring crawfish, pasta, and brie and downing chardonnay in the only lighted building within a five-block radius.
That's not to say that Jackson wasn't pretty, just that it was devoid of activity. Central High School had a well-tended lawn, and at the corner of Congress and Yazoo stands the beautiful, gabled 1889 Galloway House. Nearby is the city's first public area, Smith Park, named for the person who installed a surrounding fence in the 19th century. The fence is gone. And of course there's the obligatory domed State Capitol Building.
Our hotel was several miles away from all these attractions, but at least there was an Indian restaurant next door, Ruchi, which provided a decent buffet Tuesday. Erica was off to a haircut appointment some distance from our hotel, and I joined her for the cab ride, thinking I might get to see something else of the city. We waited forty-five minutes for the cab, after which the driver picked us up and took us down the street to a shopping mall approximately thirty-five seconds away. Erica and I exchanged looks that said, "Why can't all companies be like Progressive Auto Insurance? Why couldn't they have told us it would be faster to walk?"
Mississippi is also the first state I've been to that has no Verizon mobile-phone signal - it's roaming all the way. Even in Matamoros I'd had a strong digital Verizon signal!
Lafayette, Louisiana, was an improvement. The western half of the city is taken up by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the eastern by a lovely assortment of antique shops, art galleries, nightclubs, and cozy-looking eateries offering "poboys" and "gumbo's." I'd have tried one of these places, but it so happens that the presenters at the Heymann Performing Arts Center treated us to crawfish étouffée before Wednesday's show, so I got to enjoy the local cuisine through no effort or expense of my own.
Many of Lafayette's street signs are in French. I paused at the immaculate brick Cathedrale Saint-Jean (at the corner of Rue Principale Ouest and Rue Saint-Jean), built in 1821, and in Girard Park, which has an attractive pond teeming with plump swans. In the artsy district, I spent some time in the Jefferson Street Market, home to several vendors of art and antiques and, at the time, of a show of the vibrantly ornate sculptures of local artist Shawne Major. Also on sale at the market were works of Lafayette native George Rodrigue, internationally famous for his "blue dog" paintings
In Lafayette we performed our 200th show (though since I joined the tour late, it's only about number 150 for me). Lots of things went wrong, the most striking of which was that a spark from the light board caused a silk set piece to briefly catch fire. It was put out quickly, but the show was halted for several minutes during the second act. Then both of our lead singer's wireless microphones gave out, so before his final number one other actor had to hand him a microphone (which he did with the utmost flair and spectacular slow-motion intensity). Finally, someone got trapped under the bandstand and had to remain there throughout "Sing Sing Sing" - he wasn't hurt; he just couldn't get out before the curtain rose and the song started, and presumably he had better things to do for those twenty minutes. After the show, several people noted that it had been our 100th show in Naples, Florida, when the sound system conked out and we played the show live, without our usual backup tracks. I guess Fosse
has bad karma with respect to century milestones!
En route to Cleveland, Mississippi (no, I'd never heard of it either), we took a blissfully short food stop at a Wal-Mart in Grenada, Mississippi. Here I found well-priced hummus - I'm on a chickpea kick lately - and, in the next set of shelves, pita bread. Hooray for Wal-Mart! I've also been on a summer-sausage kick, and after being led to them (they were in the Snacks That Keep Forever aisle, with the potato chips, rather than the Mystery Meat Amalgams aisle), I picked up one the size of a baseball bat, for less than half what they usually cost (a 30.4-ouncer for $2.83 - they're generally about $5 for only 24 ounces).
Grenada didn't even have a digital mobile-phone signal, much less a Verizon one. It had the flimsiest analog signal, represented by only one little telegraph mark on my 7135. We were "on the corner of 'Roam' and 'No Service,'" as my mother puts it, for the last hour of the drive to Cleveland, a drive along remote farm roads.
Cleveland (pop. 15,384, which is roughly the population of the region bounded by Eighth Avenue, Tenth Avenue, 42nd Street, and 50th Street in Manhattan, according to the 2000 census
) wasn't a terrible place to wander for just under two hours, and fortunately that's all the time I had. We were stationed a couple of miles from downtown, in the Comfort Inn; on the same street there was a Colonial Inn, whose sign advertised "Lowest Rate" and "Cash Rebate." How, exactly, does a cash rebate work in a motel? Do you pay the full amount and then, as you're leaving, the receptionist throws a few bills back at you? Or do you have to fill out a form and mail it back to the place you just left, and in six to eight weeks a check arrives at your home?
There was just one main downtown street, with a wide, grassy median and a pleasant chorus of birds. It was lined with small stores and a couple of eateries. At the end of the commercialism, in the median, was a wooden building with a big sign saying "Cleveland," fronted by a short railway siding. I might have described it as the old train station, until I looked a little closer. In fact the building seems quite new, as do the tracks in front, and its interior is still under construction. Does Cleveland merely wish
it had train service? Is this new building an example of local humor?
I walked through muggy heat another mile or so to the Delta State University campus, where we performed. The Bologna Performing Arts Center had a bunch of bizarre sculptures in front - something that looked like a cross between an anchor and an alligator, for example - and it was equally muggy and hot inside. The show began after a fifteen-minute curtain speech during which someone came out and, I think, presented someone else with an award (I'm not sure; I was immersed in Bill Bryson's trip to Sofia and wondering whether the air conditioning would kick in, which it didn't), after which he recited the names of the shows that will play at the Bologna during the next forty-two seasons, infusing the talk with comments such as "I can't think of a better way to start the season than with The Sound of Muzak
" and "I can't think of a better way to celebrate Christmas than with the Grenada Analog Signal Dixieland Jazz Band" and "I can't think of a better way to spend the next fifteen minutes than by giving you the same information that's in your program and on our Web site." But since Cleveland has no America Online dial-up number (a feat matched only by Tyler, Texas, in my experience), I guess information must flow by oral tradition.
Most of Friday's drive to Pensacola, Florida, was along U.S. 49 - a highway that I hope might get paved someday - and various secondary Mississippi and Alabama roads lined with shack-sized churches. Very little of the trip took place on interstates, but there sure was a good view of I-10 from our hotel seven miles from downtown Pensacola. The hotel was in the middle of a shopping mall's parking lot, and thank goodness there was an hourly bus toward the city center (or anywhere out of there, for that matter), at least during daylight hours. The Saenger Theatre was dank and grungy and featured a prominent sign saying "Florida Clean Air Act Prohibits Smoking in This Building" immediately next to an air vent lined with enough dust to fill a bathtub. Clean Air Act, indeed. There was a Melting Pot nearby, and five of us dined there after Friday's show, eschewing the half-hour menu explanation to which we'd been treated in Salt Lake.
On Saturday Erica and I took the aforementioned bus toward the city center. It didn't go all the way downtown, and we had a choice between waiting 25 minutes to transfer and walking the rest of the way. The driver said it would be a six-mile walk from where he'd let us off, but after a carefully scientific glance at the map I'd torn out of my hotel room's phone book - a map with no indicated scale - we decided it couldn't possibly be that long, so we walked. It took well under an hour, so it was most emphatically not six miles.
It was a pleasant walk along Ninth Avenue, a mostly residential street that usually had a sidewalk and eventually segued into a cute business district. The first shop was a gourmet-food store called Simply Delicious, which had all sorts of bizarre (and horrendously expensive) homemade salad and souffle items. We tried one that I can best describe as horseradish sorbet, but it was surprisingly tasty. They also had Harry Potter-flavored jelly beans - the flavors included sardine, vomit, and booger - and I drew the line well before venturing near any of those.
We thought we might make it to Pensacola Bay, but we discovered that the bridge alone was three miles long, so instead we walked along the downtown waterfront. There was some sort of Earth Day fair: people handing out flyers and asking for donations to remove landmines and the like. Actually, it was very pleasant; the stalls were informative and the people not too obtrusive. One stall had a plastic bag in a jar of water and made the point that it looked just like the food that turtles go for; another handed out a magazine featuring, among other things, the heart-rending story of a sick Kentucky cow that endured 36 hours of neglect and abuse before finally being put out of its misery. The fair was complete with hippies playing Celtic music and '60s nostalgia, which wafted up to the outdoor seating area at the Atlas Oyster Bar, where we had a lazy seafood lunch overlooking the bay.
The Seville Historic District was charming, with colorful 19th-century one- and two-story slate-roofed and shingled homes that have been turned into restaurants, shops, and law offices (by far the largest category). The oldest house, a simple white house at 426 Government Street built in 1799, has been in the same family for 140 years. A couple of square blocks have been turned into a living museum of the 1800s, and the buildings feature plaques showing their use and dates of erection. Farther down Government Street was an appealingly run-down-looking assortment of bars and restaurants in a brick building called Seville Square; across the street a sign said, "On This Site in 1897 Nothing Happened." I might have gone there after Saturday's show - there was one place with dueling pianos - but none of the establishments served food at that hour, and I didn't feel like dealing with getting back to the hotel: The buses didn't run late at night, and seven miles was a bit too far to walk in the event I was shamrocked by a cab company (I'll just coin a verb and use it liberally to recall that wonderful experience in Fort Collins).
Starting with Pensacola, performances had been scheduled in these states, in this order: Florida, Nebraska, Michigan, Tennessee. Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? Pensacola to Lincoln was planned as a three-day trip, with stopovers in Memphis and Kansas City. We spent most of Sunday en route to Memphis, with a typically boring lunch stop at an intersection with a few fast-food places. I joined others at Wendy's and whittled down my summer sausage to the size of a croquet mallet.
A bunch of us had a barbecue dinner at the Blues City Cafe, amidst all of Memphis's famous blues nightlife along Beale Street. Brian had been to the restaurant before and described the ribs as fall-off-the-bone, which indeed they were. You could pick them apart easily without a knife. I had two margaritas, the first of which was much too sour, and the second of which remedied this problem with the addition, I believe, of orange juice. Weird.
Erica and I strolled along Beale Street in search of some decent live music, but we didn't hear anything to our liking, so we continued the stroll up and down Main Street for several blocks. Main Street was all but deserted (it may have had something to do with its being Easter); the only people out seemed to be Memphis's homeless, who are exasperatingly belligerent. They'd follow us for a couple of blocks after we'd made it clear we were not interested in company or directions; Erica eventually learned to pre-empt the chat by inquiring straight off, "So are you going to ask us for money or what?" They'd come up with some touchy-feely story about needing $21 to make the rent or $10 for an Easter bunny, and then they'd get angry when I wasn't willing to fork over a fiver. Erica's nicer than I am and usually gave a dollar or so; I still play by the "Just because I exist doesn't mean I want a conversation" methodology. (Tip: Tell your kids there's no Easter bunny or Santa Claus. You'll save a lot, and you'll be inspired to come up with more creative ways of asking for money.)
By and by, we passed the Memphis highlights that I'd forgotten since I spent a day there about nine years ago: the Peabody Hotel, with its prancing ducks, and the National Civil Rights Museum, built on the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. Near the museum, on South Main Street, was a newly opened jazz club called Cafe Soul, which I'd read about on-line and thought worth checking out. A trio was playing terrific standards with the utmost passion, or at least it did until just before we got there. They were already packing up. But from the recordings being played, the down-to-earth nature of the clientele, and the friendliness of the bartender, we could tell this was a place to hurry to in future visits to the city.
We reached Kansas City this evening after a ten-hour trip, including an 82-minute lunch stop at the Westfield Shoppingtown just outside of St. Louis. The Westfield Shoppingtown
, I was disheartened to learn later, is a chain of shopping malls. It's distressing enough to see towns invaded by chains, but chains of chains
? Oy! During the last two hours of the journey a few people expressed an interest in playing cards - I had been waiting for this for months! - and we whiled away the time with a few rounds of hearts.
Kansas City presented startling contrasts. We were based at the Sheraton on Main and 45th; I walked down Main to 37th, where there was an African market (I think it was called African Market) selling a wonderful variety of dried fish, produce, and palm oil. This stretch of Main was lined with dive bars and blues clubs and occupied predominantly by the sort of people I didn't really trust not to mug me, but when I turned onto Westport Road things changed immediately. This was a district of trendy outdoor cafes and breweries, including the oldest building in Kansas City, which was built in 1850 and has housed Kelly's Westport Inn since 1947. Farther south was the Plaza, a shopping mall that has been brilliantly constructed not to look like one. It has clock towers and several buildings that don't all look like each other, and it has pleasant restaurants and terraces overlooking a stream. Beyond the stream Brookside Boulevard led me to a lush residential area, with grassy parks and a long walking trail. And here I dined, on cream-of-mushroom soup, tilapia niçoise, and creme brulee, at a French restaurant called Aixois.
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
LINCOLN, NE / CHICAGO, IL / CLINTON TOWNSHIP, MI / KNOXVILLE, TN / DANVILLE, KY / LEXINGTON, KY
The country's first planned shopping mall, according to the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1916 in Lake Forest, Illinois, notes Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States
(a ready-to-lend copy of which Erica just happened
to have been carrying around for months).
Shopping centers multiplied in the '50s, he goes on to say - enough to provoke a 1956 Business Week
article called "Too Many Shopping Centers." An Austrian named Victor Gruen was initially responsible for their design. He had lived in the U.S. since 1938 and sought to emulate European cafe life by creating "shopping towns" where people could socialize, stroll, and sit; shopping was secondary.
By and by, Gruen's hopes for tranquility and social interaction were abandoned in most malls. In fact, they were designed with the opposite intent: to get people off the benches, out of the food courts, and into the stores. Their proliferation led to the demise of many downtown areas - notably and ironically that of Detroit, whose flagship commodity, the car, took people out of the city and into the suburbs.
"And what of Victor Gruen?" asks Bryson. "Appalled at what he had unleashed, he fled back to Vienna, where he died in 1980, a disappointed man."
For most of the first hour, Nebraska looked just as I thought it would: gentle hills, with vast pastures and old mills that still eke out a living for their owners. Route 2 took us through the town of Unadilla (pop. 294, or about the population of the upper half of my apartment building) and then took on various names with increasing grandeur - at first it was just "F"; then it became Rokeby Road, and finally the Nebraska Highway. When we entered Lancaster County the cross streets started counting down from 190th Street, and then suddenly a Wal-Mart loomed up in front of us and we were on the outskirts of Lincoln.
Lincoln was fuelled almost entirely by the University of Nebraska and testified to the state's major product: We weren't staying at the Holiday Inn or the Hilton; we were at the Cornhusker, an elegant place with a grand staircase. Downtown was a delightful assortment of little restaurants, bars, record stores, and second-hand-clothing shops, among other things. The Haymarket district, at one end of downtown, was a collection of old buildings housing antique stores, international stores, and more restaurants. There was also an art complex with, on one floor, a permanent exhibition of paintings of the plains, and on another, a temporary installation of photographs and paraphernalia of Japanese gardens.
The meal rundown was as follows: Tuesday afternoon, intriguing pizza at Yiayia's; Tuesday night, light bites at a party thrown for us at a bar called CB's; Wednesday afternoon, alligator and fried frog legs at a Haymarket restaurant called Craw Daddy's (it was, suspiciously, out of crawfish that day); Wednesday night, a fine gyro at Gourmet Grill. I happened upon this last place at the recommendation of a remarkably intelligent bartender at a place claiming to be a "Shrimp and Martini Bar." I was going to dine there, but the kitchen had closed, so I asked what else might be open. "Do you like fast food?" the bartender asked. Seeing me grimace, she said, "It's local fast food, not corporate. It's called Gourmet Grill. They have excellent gyros." She even pronounced "YEE-ros" correctly.
We were supposed to drive all day Thursday and have the evening off in Chicago on the way to Michigan, but instead I took the Greyhound bus overnight - you may recall that I get antsy about late arrivals in Chicago. The ticket cost $42 and it was a direct bus in the sense that no transfers were required, but it was by no means a quick trip. It left at 23:35 on Wednesday and got in at 12:50 Thursday - and that
was twenty-five minutes early.
I found two free seats near the back and plunked myself down at the window, to be joined a minute later by a 350-pound woman who had no choice but to invade a third of my space. I wasn't sitting so much next to her as in the lee of her. She spent the hour's journey to Omaha fingering two cigarettes and fortunately transferred to a Kansas City bus after that.
As we approached Omaha, the driver launched into a bible-length explanation to prepare us for the hour layover, listing the various buses to which one could transfer, directing smokers to the appropriate area, and providing step-by-step instructions depending on whether you had checked luggage but no destination tags and were transferring, checked luggage with destination tags but weren't transferring, checked luggage but no destination tags and weren't transferring, checked luggage but no destination tags and were transferring, or hand luggage only. Fortunately I fell into this last camp, which meant that I still had to get off the bus with my backpack, as the bus would be taken away for cleaning.
The Omaha terminal was packed at half past midnight, with people trying to comprehend the assortment of transfers and ticket options whilst negotiating luggage and small kids. There was, to my surprise, reasonably priced fast food. A little black-and-white television showed a fuzzy picture of a comedy program - quite possibly the same program that the same TV had shown every night since the 1950s. I took out my phone and keyboard and spent a productive hour reading and responding to e-mail.
The driver welcomed us back onto the bus with another lengthy speech; this was his version of the Nuremburg Laws. It went something like this: "There are three things you're not allowed to do on this coach: smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, and use narcotics. That includes in the bathroom, which is part of this coach. If you violate any of these rules, the police will be called and you will be removed from the coach. It's a low-priority call, so it may take them up to an hour to arrive, and that will cause a delay to other passengers. If you have children, accompany them to the bathroom, as once the door locks they may not be able to open it, and we don't want any little munchkins stuck in there. Behind me there is a yellow line painted in the aisle. Anyone who crosses that line will be removed from the coach immediately. If you have a cell phone, you must turn it off at this time. No cell phones may be used while the coach is in motion. . . ."
I had nearly drifted into a gentle slumber throughout all of this, but the last couple of sentences jolted me awake. No cell phones
? What was this, an airplane? It did not take long for me to decide that was the most asinine thing I'd ever heard of, and the no-phone rule landed instantaneously and inveterately - along with 55-mile-an-hour highway speed limits, airline carry-on restrictions, and anything that attempts to dictate where and when I may cross a street - on my List of Laws to Be Disregarded. (With rare, justified exceptions, I'm otherwise fastidiously law-abiding.) Heck, I'd already been expecting
two calls the following morning. Whatever the case, this driver left us in Des Moines, and the driver who replaced him made no mention of any preposterous regulations.
From Omaha on, I was in the second row, next to the window. The absurdity of the cell-phone ban provoked a mental turmoil that hampered my sleeping efforts for a half hour or so, but eventually I relaxed, and I slept until about 6:30, next to a man who managed to sleep with his head resting on the back of the seat in front of him. He left shortly after I awoke, and the seat was vacant for about seven minutes, until another passenger boarded at Quad Cities Airport.
This passenger was very intelligent, and he and I were probably equally pretentious. Actually, he was more so. When someone tried to sit in the first row of seats, which has been off-limits to passengers for a couple of years now, he was the first to tell her she wasn't allowed to be there. Even I would never do such a thing. But we did have a delightful conversation all the way to Chicago. We discussed various things, including classical music . . .
"Do you know the Shostakovich symphonies?" he asked.
"I've heard a couple of them."
"Five and six, I think."
"Well, if you've heard any, it's probably one, five, nine, and ten, because those are the ones most played."
"Do you know the Khachaturian piano concerto? That's my favorite." I said eventually.
"No, I've never heard it. What's the best recording?"
"Well, I have an LP with Khachaturian himself conducting it, but I can't remember who plays on it. Other than that, I know of recordings by Constantine Orbelian and Wilhelm Kempff. . . ."
. . . and our respective trips to Peru . . .
"Did you make it to Machu Picchu?" I asked.
"No, I just stayed along the coast. Could you believe the poverty in Lima?"
"Pretty amazing. So you made it all the way to Puno? To see the floating houses?" (The natives build rafts out of totoro reeds and dwell on them as they float amidst Lake Titicaca.)
"No, not that far. I would have, but I didn't have my malaria medication."
. . . and how to get to Little Italy in Chicago . . .
"Well, there are two Little Italys," he said. "The main one is down Taylor Road, and even that's not much to speak of. You'll have to walk through two . . . interesting . . . blocks, if you understand what I mean." (I did.)
. . . and why the front row of seats is unavailable to Greyhound passengers . . .
"It's a blind spot for the driver. A few years ago, a passenger sitting there pulled out a gun and hijacked the bus," he said.
Well, that explains it. It no doubt also explains why anyone who crosses the yellow line in the aisle is summarily evicted from the coach.
The Greyhound terminal in Chicago is in Greektown, not too far a walk from Little Italy, the main ethnic neighborhood I didn't get to see in January. I headed down Taylor Road, past the two . . . interesting . . . blocks (the street here was lined with boarded-up brick houses that still seemed to have people living in them), and into the neighborhood. The man had been right: There wasn't much to see. There were nearly as many Asian restaurants as Italian ones, though at least there was one good Italian supermarket and a park in honor of Joe DiMaggio. After some thought, I had a quick lunch at a half-restaurant, half-cafeteria establishment called Pompei. I stood in line to order minestrone soup and a pizzicoto (somewhere between a pizza and a calzone) and helped myself to a soda (they came in two sizes, both with free refills, which I found a little odd), and then found a seat and waited for someone to bring me my lunch.
At night a few of us saw a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Berenboim. We had terrific $24 seats in the seventeenth balcony, or some such thing; the view and sound (and price) were all superb. Twenty-year-old pianist Lang Lang played Mendelssohn's first piano concerto (a piece I'd never heard, and neither, it so happens, had the passenger from the bus); he and Berenboim surprised everyone with a four-hand version of a Brahms Hungarian rhapsody (or so I think - I'll check my Dictionary of Classical Music Themes when I get back to New York City); and then the orchestra played Bruckner's Fourth Symphony. You get a lot for your money with Bruckner. The symphony's over an hour long, and it's very theatrical, evoking, at various moments, a film score, traditional classical themes, wandering-through-the-jungle music, even the scores of Sir Arthur Sullivan. It's tremendously captivating for about three and a half movements, but then you (or at least I) start thinking it's time for him to wrap things up. Quoth a fellow music major at Harvard, "Even if you've heard a Bruckner symphony, you can't have been paying attention all the way through!"
I walked back to Greektown and had a fourteen-part appetizer and an entree of spinach-and-cheese-stuffed squid at the Parthenon. Then I tried to see some live Greek music at the Parthenon's lounge next door, which they had assured me would be open until the wee hours, but it was already closed (or perhaps hadn't opened yet), so instead I went back to Redheads, that piano bar I'd patronized last time. As the doorman was checking my driver's license to see whether I was of a sufficient age to enjoy piano music, he glanced at my shoes and said, "We have a dress code. I can't let you in with running shoes."
"They're not running shoes. They're Mephisto shoes. They were fine when I was here in January."
"He has you there," said his coworker.
"I'll have to check with the manager." He went inside.
"You'll be fine," said the coworker, as if my future happiness rested on whether I'd be allowed entry into such a highfalutin place.
After a while the doorman and the manager came back out. The manager spoke: "I'll waive the rule this time, but in the future, no running shoes."
"These are the only shoes I travel with."
"Just the same . . . you can come in this time, but for next time, no athletic gear." He went back inside.
"Go ahead," said the doorman.
I paused for a moment. "Actually, I'm not in the mood any more," I said, and I walked away. I didn't want any favors from them. I wasn't about to give them my money knowing I wasn't really welcome this time and certainly wouldn't be welcome the next time. Above all, the rule was absurd. My shoes were black, and once I sat down, no one would see them anyway. This was a piano bar, a casual place (heck, jeans were acceptable) where the emphasis should have been on the music. It wasn't the Russian Tea Room or Lutece.
On Friday we drove to Clinton Township, Michigan, a place that would have made Victor Gruen cry. Our hotel was separated from the Macomb Center theatre by three of the most unappealing strip-mall miles I'd ever seen. At least there was a Dave and Buster's entertainment center next to the hotel, and that's where we spent Friday night, playing skee-ball and the like, and giving Liz a fond farewell - she played her last show Saturday afternoon before heading home for some family business; the assistant musical director who just finished the Cabaret
tour, Robert, has stepped in to fill her place.
The most redeeming feature of this area 20 miles of Detroit was the fact that several dozen of my relatives live nearby. About thirty of them came to Saturday's matinee, including my grandmother (who turned 91 the next day), and my parents flew out from Boston. It was truly splendid to have so many fans in the audience, and it seems they all loved the show, or at least they are very good liars.
My parents threw an afternoon party for everyone at Tirami Su' (don't get me started on the spelling), an Italian restaurant about five miles from the theatre. It was intended for the cast, crew, and orchestra as well, but due to the genuinely kind, but haplessly uninformative, folks at the Macomb Center, we didn't find out until Friday night that the theatre was providing hot food for us between shows on Saturday, so many of those who would have attended the party stayed behind, where they could eat without traveling.
Those who did go - and there were only six, in addition to my relatives - were happy with their decision, though; there was a practically bottomless amount of tortellini, fresh mozzarella, and something that was sort of a glorified bruschetta, among other things, and Casey said the restaurant made the best tiramisu she'd ever had. We all lingered for about two hours; I hadn't seen some of my relatives for years (or, in a few cases, ever), and it was wonderful to get back in touch with them. Sadly, we couldn't stay too long; I had to get back for the evening performance, and I brought back to the hotel two enormous tins of leftover food, most of which was devoured.
I was certain the 550-mile drive to Knoxville on Sunday was going to suck. I'd tried every which way to do it overnight. There was no Greyhound service from Clinton Township. There was a local city bus to Detroit, but even from there there was no overnight connection to Knoxville. I even looked for an overnight to New York and then another overnight (there was no show Sunday) to Knoxville. No luck. I even considered renting a car and leaving early Sunday: Too expensive, and probably not worth the effort. So I did the only sensible thing. I stayed awake until 4:30 Sunday morning and hoped I'd be so tired that I'd sleep most of the way.
For the most part, the trip wasn't too bad. I did sleep all the way until the lunch stop, which was tempered to a palatable 65 minutes at the Florence Mall (it was situated on Mall Road, which gives you an idea of what else was around), just over the Kentucky border across from Cincinnati. This location was chosen because Jim's grandchildren lived nearby and his wife could take them to see him for lunch. Apparently Jim's presence was a surprise - they hadn't been told he would be there; they were only told they were going to the mall. One can only wonder how that alone was enough to lure them into the car!
There was a Kroger supermarket across the street, and, still well-endowed with summer sausage and a few bits of salad from the Tirami Su' party, I searched for some pita bread to go with it. A lady had to help me find it (it was cleverly nestled under an assortment of dinner rolls), but I balked when I saw it was $1.79 for a 12-ounce package. Kroger must be a Scandinavian company, because Norway is the only place I've seen prices that high. It's almost four times what I pay in New YOrk. Besides, the package consisted of pre-sliced pita, and part of the fun of pita bread is ripping it apart yourself. So I left and, appalled at the idea of eating in a mall food court when there was a lush lawn and resplendent sunshine outside, I plunked myself down on the grass and picked out marinated peppers and prosciutto with a fork.
During the afternoon leg of the trip, a few people decided it would be fun to put on the movie Labyrinth
. It was the most annoying film I'd ever had to avoid watching. It began with a baby crying for fifteen minutes (the only sound worse than snoring, as far as I'm concerned), after which it consisted mostly of an assortment of grunts and groans by monsters. Every once in a while there was a cheesy song that ended abruptly with a crash of some sort. It's a children's film, and what it does it probably does very well. But unless you're seven years old, or completely intoxicated (or both), I can't fathom the appeal. I had to call Erica just to hear some sound other than the film. I even wouldn't have minded a rest stop, as a break from the cacophony.
We were stationed so far away from downtown Knoxville that when Interstate 40 forked toward Knoxville and toward Nashville, we had to take the latter. We were a full ten miles from downtown. Erica had gotten to the hotel hours before (I had almost tried to bribe Squatch with $50 into letting me ride the crew bus overnight to Knoxville, but I knew it would be fruitless), and, as we were both starving, we walked across a vast parking lot to Sonny's and indulged ourselves in all-you-can-eat ribs for $8.99.
Erica had to leave for the theatre early on Monday to load in for that night's show; I slept in and decided I'd find my way down there a few hours later. I noticed, in the visitors' guide, that a lot of restaurants and so forth were on Kingston Pike; I figured I could walk part of the way and then catch a bus at some point. I started at the 9200 block of Kingston Pike.
It was easily the dullest walk I've taken on tour. It wasn't even as interesting as strip malls. It was mostly car dealerships and law and medical offices. And of course there was no sidewalk. The West Knox Farm Market would have been worth a stop, but a sign indicated it had lost its lease. Apart from two Mexican stores and a couple of the restaurants, Kingston Pike would have made a great candidate for a nuclear-testing zone.
After nearly an hour, I was only at the 8100 block, and, seeing a bus stop for route 11, I called the posted phone number for transit information and asked when I might expect a bus to arrive. The guy said, "Well, there should be one coming by soon, and then there'll be another one."
"OK. I didn't know what the schedule was, whether they were every half hour, or every hour, or every two hours." That would affect whether it would be worth waiting.
"That depends on what time you want to go."
"Well, like I said, there should be one coming by soon." He offered no indication of a specific schedule.
I waited fifteen minutes, but the one "coming by soon" never came. Hungry, I walked a few paces, and, as if a beacon of culinary satisfaction, across the street there appeared a sign for BJ's Asian Grill and Bar, which offered a sushi buffet lunch for $6.99. I hied myself over there (walking mostly in the center left-turn lane, the most convenient place - I could cross only halfway at first, and the traffic never synchronized such that I could cross the entire street at once) and went inside. The sign wasn't quite accurate - it was a buffet of sushi rolls
, plus a create-your-own-stir-fry station - but at such a price I wasn't going to complain.
By the time I emerged, of course, I had missed the bus, and there was no telling when the next one would come. I continued toward downtown, hoping I'd catch the next one eventually, but since I had to walk in the highway shoulder, there was a problem with this plan. I figured it would be safer to walk facing traffic, which meant that if a bus did come going in my direction, I'd have to see it in time to cross the highway and find a bus stop on the other side. I plodded on, glancing over my shoulder every few seconds to see whether a bus was on its way. After forty minutes I came to the top of a hill, and of course just as I began my descent a bus zoomed by; I couldn't see it in time to cross. Presently a sidewalk appeared on both sides, and, exploiting the opportunity, I crossed. Eventually I came to a bus shelter with a posted schedule (imagine that!), and I noticed that bus 90 (the crosstown loop, not the Kingston Pike route) was due to arrive in one minute. It did, and I jumped aboard. I was only at the 4600 block of Kingston Pike, about six miles, I'd guess, from where I'd started.
Incidentally, I eventually learned the reason it took so long to see a bus running along the Kingston Pike route. It's because the Kingston Pike buses don't actually spend much time on Kingston Pike
Downtown was small but attractive, with a small "old city" area consisting of old brick buildings that have been turned into convivial restaurants and live-music venues, with delightfully precarious-looking passageways leading from building to building. Colorful music-themed murals abounded. Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria had a worn-out-looking painted sign on the side of the building and a sign on the door that said, "We accept cash, Mastercard, cash, Visa, cash, Discover, cash, Diner's Club, and cash." It also advertised $2 microbrew drafts on Mondays. It happened to be Monday. Clearly this was worth a pause. There were about fifty beers on tap, most of which I'd never heard of; I decided on the Highland St. Teresa's Pale Ale and only after thinking twice realized I should pronounce it "Saint Teresa" rather than "Highland Street." It was refreshingly cold and served in a frosted glass. Perfect.
I walked to Market Square, an attractive one-square-block park lined with little art galleries and cafes. At least it usually is. The park was entirely ripped up for construction, and, figuring the eyesore might deter customers, many of the establishments had closed up shop for restoration as well. The roads leading out from Market Square were the site of buildings representing many time periods, such as the immaculately new brick courthouse and the 1792 mansion of William Blount, a signer of the U.S. Constitution.
No doubt I would have returned to Barley's after the show if there had been any means of transport back to the hotel, but instead I joined Jim and Eric at Bailey's, a pool hall and sports bar. I was in the mood for a burger, and by golly they served up an excellent one. They also served up refreshingly cold Newcastle in a frosted glass. Perfect.
I spent that night at the Microtel, three blocks away from the Best Western, where everyone else was staying. Erica and I officially became roommates a few days ago, as part of something like a thirteen-person roommate switch that involved bringing in several new company members and most of the couples getting their own rooms. The change is terrific for resplendently obvious reasons, but it leaves me with (and paying for) my own room the last night we're in each city, since that's when the crew loads out and drives overnight. I don't mind that at all - I'm very happy to have my own room once in a while - and it opens up intriguing planning possibilities. For instance, when there's a convenient overnight Greyhound service to our next city, I can cancel the last night's hotel room, take the bus, get there early, and save a few bucks in the process (as I did going from Lincoln to Chicago).
And when we're on the outskirts of town, there's often someplace cheaper than our prescribed hotel. Our special rate at the Best Western was $64.49, but my room at the Microtel was only $43.33. To save $21.16, it was certainly worth the hassle of hauling my suitcase three blocks - though the two hotels were on the most exasperatingly sidewalk-deprived four-lane road I've ever had to deal with. The road was hemmed in on both sides by hills, and where there weren't hills there were trees. Come to think of it, even without
luggage there was no way to walk this stretch. It took nearly twenty minutes to wheel my suitcase over. Sometimes I walked in a traffic lane; sometimes I walked in the median strip; sometimes I dealt with the dirt shoulder, hunched over to avoid the tree branches. But like I said, it was worth it, so much so that I'm doing a similar thing on Sunday (Toledo's Holiday Inn is $62.84 but the nearby Motel 6 is $32.99 plus tax), and I wished I'd done it more often. (No offense, of course, to my previous roommate, Greg. He's a great guy. But I'm prone to solitude when it comes to spending the night.)
I wheeled my luggage back over to the Best Western Tuesday morning, and we were off to Kentucky for three days. I welcomed the chance to drive through Kentucky again. Once we were off Interstate 75, we got onto windy, hilly U.S. 150 and passed a picturesque assortment of little ponds, wooden fences, healthy cattle, and tall grass. We drove through tiny, but pleasant-looking, Crab Orchard; the sign as you enter says, "Small Town Living at Its Best," and a sign at the town's main intersection proclaims it a "Congested Area" - it can't see more than a couple dozen cars an hour.
Tuesday's performance was in Danville, home to Center College (and little else). There weren't many food options unless you liked pizza, but sandwiches were provided for us before the show. There was, however, a cozy bookstore, with comfortable sofas and a porch with rocking chairs. The theatre was across the street; it was noteworthy in that the pit could be reached only by a spiral staircase and that the balcony seating area was much larger than the orchestra section.
We were spared a night in Danville thanks to the clever planning of Anika, who decided we'd head immediately for Lexington, an hour away and the site of our next two days' performances. We're stationed downtown (thank goodness), and while it took Erica and me less than an hour to explore it, it's really quite pretty. There are some elegant homes, and most of the businesses are equally attractive, especially the hundred-year-old shopping arcade at the corner of Main and Broadway. Across the street is a large grassy area with a fountain.
On the way to lunch at The Bistro 147, we found a store calling itself the Clock Shop. It was run by an eccentric but friendly guy who can't possibly earn a living from the store alone. Clock parts were strewn over the shelves and floor; most of the clocks were clearly in some state of disrepair, and some hung on the wall at skewed angles. But that wasn't all: It was also a magic shop. There were playing cards all over the place, including a few attached to the ceiling. When the owner wasn't repairing clocks, he was rigging up little magic tricks. He had Erica walk toward a benign-looking Altoids box near the entrance, and as she did he activated a remote-control device that made the box emit a whirring sound. But that wasn't all. Randomly placed in the middle of the room was a box of fresh tomatoes, which he said we should try. They were delicious.
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