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Tales From the Tour -- October 2003

"Tales From the Tour" was a running travelogue describing my experiences on the international tour of the musical Fosse.

Friday, October 17, 2003
PASADENA, CA / THOUSAND OAKS, CA / PHOENIX, AZ
I'd always thought of Los Angeles as a convoluted, forbidding sprawl, having never properly explored it - but once I got the main streets and neighborhoods in my head it was pretty easy to get around. L.A. is basically one huge strip mall with a fairly simple gridded street pattern. Each neighborhood begins and ends with a Carl's Jr. or a McDonald's and has similar places liberally strewn throughout as well. So in Chinatown you have American fast food and gas stations and Chinese restaurants. In Hollywood you have fast food and gas stations and movie studios. Downtown you have fast food and gas stations and financial buildings. You get the idea.

I prepared myself to live in the car - which, since it was a convertible and it never rained, wasn't so bad, for the most part. Our performances were in the suburbs of Pasadena and Thousand Oaks - about 15 and 35 miles from the city, respectively. Pasadena had an attractive "old town" with some character, as well as a new public bench in the shape of a Mobius strip (of interest to math geeks such as myself), but by and large both suburbs seemed to consist almost entirely of shopping malls containing movie theatres advertising Intolerable Cruelty, which I presumed was a film about what it's like to live in a hotel surrounded by shopping malls. Hence the car and numerous drives into the city proper.

The main problem with the traffic was its unreliability: On one night it took only 25 minutes to get from Pasadena to West Hollywood, but it took over an hour to get back because of backed-up traffic and California's incorrigible tendency to close major highway interchanges without explaining how to detour. (Another problem with the traffic, of course, lay in the assumption of other drivers that they had the right to be on the same highway as I.) I drove 1154.3 miles in 15 days - not much more than many Angelenos' commutes, I'd guess - and never really left the L.A. area.

For the first few days, it was pleasant enough to drive around the city - sure, it's a strip mall, but then you look up and see the Hollywood sign or some famous bar or the La Brea Tar Pits or the Beverly Hills Hotel (where a few of us had glamorous cocktails one night, spying on Sharon and Kelly Osbourne a few tables away). We drove around the spectacular homes just north of Sunset Boulevard, explored the ethnic neighborhoods, and skirted the beach along the Pacific Coast Highway on multiple occasions.

Los Angeles has more than 300 museums, so it doesn't sound impressive that I took in only two, but they were two of the best. The Norton Simon Museum, in Pasadena, would be the perfect venue for a six-hour art-history crash course. It had samplings of everything from the 15th to the 20th centuries, including most of the major French painters and representations of Russian avant garde (my favorite), as well as Asian sculpture.

The sparkling-new Getty Museum, on a hill with splendid views of the city (such as they are, as the skyline isn't that impressive and it's always shrouded in a semi-opaque haze), was housed in several welcoming buildings, and it had a gorgeous, fragrant, carefully planned flower garden and a cactus garden. In addition to the impressive collection of paintings were some astounding European home furnishings dating back to the 1700s, as well as fascinating temporary exhibits tangential to the main ones: Near the ancient statues of Greek and Roman mythology were manuscripts, dating from several centuries later, showing how those figures were worked into illustrations and decorative capital letters; and near the home furnishings was an explanation of the process used in the 18th century to carve and inlay a table.

L.A. shuts down early, traditionally because of early-morning film shoots, so lunch was often the main meal. The city specializes in restaurants of the veggie-vegan variety, and they are often excellent, such as the lobster-pear sandwich and the apple-brie sandwich at the Farm of Beverly Hills, the rice-paper vegetable crepes and intriguing salads and dressings at Real Food Daily (where else can you ask for a side of quinoa?), and the minimalist surroundings and superb bean soup at Axe (pretentiously pronounced "ah-shay"). At Real Food Daily, in Beverly Hills, we lunched outside, and a 70-year-old woman in large sunglasses and loud clothing approached us and said, "Where do you folks hail from?"

Erica replied something suitably false, like "Russia."

"Well, we're all brother-sister," said the woman, and she went on her way to talk up the other diners.

We dined by the beach at the Reel Inn, where you pick your fish from the counter and they grill it up for you on the spot. I had hearty lunches of ash reshteh (a mint, vegetable, and noodle soup) and zereshk polo (steamed chicken with barberries and saffron rice) at Aram, a Persian restaurant in Beverly Hills, and at the mammoth 888 Seafood Restaurant, a dim sum place in San Gabriel, the only Chinatown I've ever had to explore by car. Near the 888 was the San Gabriel Superstore, a sort of Chinese Wal-Mart, with a spectacular food section. Produce included durians and chirimoyas and a bunch of things I'd never heard of, and at the fresh-seafood section you could scoop up live shrimp and snails and bag them yourself.

That's not to say that good dinners couldn't be found; it's just that the late-night ones were at highly specialized places. My college roommate Allan, who lives in a converted gas station near Venice Beach (you can still see where the pumps used to be installed in the parking lot), took me to two spots in Hollywood's Thai Town, both with intriguing menus and Thai pop music, and at his recommendation Erica and I danced and dined to the festively upbeat songs played at the restaurant Uzbekistan. We also had an excellent late-night bento and soup at Suehiro, a Japanese diner in Little Tokyo. Erica fulfilled her need to follow in the footsteps of rock star Beck by eating Armenian fast food at Zankou Chicken, and on one occasion I plunked myself down somewhere in Koreatown that had no English sign. And I didn't even make it to a meal in Filipinotown, Little Ethiopia, Hollywood's multi-cuisine Farmers Market, or downtown's equally appealing Grand Central Market, though I explored them enough to know I must remember them for next time.

A friend of Erica's attends the Southern California Institute of Architecture, located downtown in a converted freight station and consisting largely of one hangar-sized room divided up into cubicles for the students, who spend so much time there that one has taken up residence in a trailer in the parking lot. She showed us two night spots: Spaceland, a wonderfully dark, comfortable venue "where people actually listen to the music," according to L.A. Weekly - the band we saw really was good - and the Weiland Brewery, which is the only place where I've actually seen a waiter take a customer's unfinished drink from his hand at closing time.

The approach to the orchestra pit in Pasadena will go down as the most memorable I've ever experienced. Once through the stage door, you descend a stairway, wind yourself around a corridor, walk through the costume room, enter and exit a bathroom (you know you're in the right place because the urinal is facing you), go through a debris-strewn hallway, walk up and down a few more stairs, and finally ascend a splintery ladder erroneously marked "Stage Right," at which point you pop up through the middle of the orchestra pit like a jack-in-the-box.

The patterns at the Thousand Oaks theatre were less amusing, the only oddities being that going up and down from the stage to the pit I sometimes came upon one of several stairways, and sometimes I stumbled upon an elevator, and I was never quite able to get in my head how to make the choice consciously. More intriguing was the Thousand Oaks Inn, which was haphazardly charming in that the "H" and "C" on the sink faucets were in different fonts (one sans serif and one script), and the only option on the shower was the "bullet" setting, which made the sound of a lawn mower as it shot three streams of water at your back with unexceeded force. The rooms did come with VCRs (and free movies to borrow) as well as refrigerators and microwaves, which made the consumption of leftovers (Erica and I have an inveterate habit of overordering) that much easier.

I tried to explore Thousand Oaks by driving around, but traffic lights were never synchronized, left-turn lights caused eternal waits at intersections, and the proliferation of speed bumps made cruising the side streets a pain. Apart from a great Sunday Mexican brunch at El Torito and the time Erica introduced me to In-n-Out Burger (made with better ingredients than most fast food, and quite tasty, though I can't say I'm ready to make it a habit), as well as multiple trips to Jamba Juice, there was little reason to stay in Thousand Oaks. Thus, we often made the 45-minute drive into the city, using the boring freeway route at night and the beautiful Malibu Canyon Road, which wound its way through mountains, during daylight (it was usually faster than the jammed freeways at that point). But when we weren't in the mood for such a long nighttime drive after a show, supermarkets were our only food option. Thousand Oaks had a few of these, most of which had an official closing time of ten minutes before we arrived. One was open 24 hours, except the second time we tried to go, when we found it surrounded by police cars because it had just been robbed. There was also Whole Foods, a highfalutin supermarket with gourmet salads and ready-made entrees and everything the rich self-catering yuppie could ask for. Above the coffee station a large, laminated, computer-printed sign boasted of the market's brew. It began:

Wether your a discriminating connoisseur...

I was so shocked that I did a double-take and immediately took out a pen to make the corrections. I can barely accept such illiteracy in my local cheapo market in Manhattan, but at a national chain that's supposed to appeal to the refined shopper it is absolutely intolerable, especially with the prices Whole Foods charges. You can't use a ten-dollar phrase such as "discriminating connoisseur" (which they had bother to spell correctly!) and then preface it with errors a first-grader would be embarrassed to make. I pointed it out to the checkout guy, who paused thoughtfully for two seconds, as if interested, and replied, "Huh."

We flew Southwest Airlines to Phoenix on Monday. Apart from an irksome open-seating policy that favors those who get to the airport early (I still believe you should be able to wander into the building ten minutes before a flight and stroll on, having checked in on-line the night before and claimed your exit-row window seat), Southwest makes flying fun. The crew instructed us to wear our seat belts "tight and low across the waist, like in the '70s," invited smokers to step outside onto the wing for an inflight puff, and sang to us at the end of the flight.

But it's all fun and games until someone loses a bag. Erica's has yet to appear, and we've been in Phoenix for four days. We are not amused.

Sunday, October 26, 2003
PHOENIX, AZ / EL PASO, TX / CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO / LONG BEACH, CA
Phoenix is quite possibly the least appealing major city I've ever had the misfortune to have to spend a week in. Imagine the architectural appeal of Dayton, the heat of Calcutta, and the salubrious ambience of inner-city Detroit - or maybe Johannesburg. Now remove all restaurants of any interest whatsoever (except for three), and close all others except during the weekday lunch hour. Put unsynchronized traffic lights on every corner, add a few bars with surly staff and nonsensical rules, and, just to tantalize, throw in an enticing trolley museum that never seems to be open. There you have Phoenix.

The city is laid out on a bizarre grid system. Central Avenue runs north-south. Parallel to the east are numbered streets, and parallel to the west are numbered avenues. That leaves nothing for the east-west streets, so they use presidents' names, only they don't follow any particular order, so there's no easy way to remember them. Jefferson, Washington, and Adams are all downtown - fair enough - but soon after they throw in Polk, Fillmore, and McDowell, by which point you realize they're no longer doing presidents and you have to abandon the system. Get a map of the city and you might as well have bought graph paper. The gridlines are close together, so the city seems reasonably compact, until you realize that each gridline represents a mile. In looking through brochures I noticed that several enticing restaurants were on the east end of Camelback Road, which looked walkable on the map but was actually at least seven miles away.

We stayed at the San Carlos, a charming downtown hotel built in 1928 and reputedly haunted. Disconnected telephones are said to ring simultaneously; doors have been seen shutting, and children heard crying, even though there's no one around. Some cast members complained of nightmares. The rooms were cute, with European-sized bathrooms and little fold-out trays over the sinks, though they're in dire need of upgrading as far as circuitry is concerned. There was only one electric outlet, and lamps and clocks were plugged into it. In this age of technology, no hotel has a claim to decency unless it has room for you to plug in two computers, two mobile-phone chargers, a digital camera, and an iPod. Hotel staff were helpful and friendly and said everything with a cunning smile, as if they knew you were going to have an arm hacked off during your sleep. One day, when we arrived the complimentary breakfast bar a few minutes after closing time, I asked whether we could still pop in for a muffin and a drink. The wise guy smiled and responded, "I'm sorry, we're open."

We arrived on Columbus Day, and downtown was completely deserted, so Erica and I took our time heading out to Camelback Road for a sumptuous, romantic Southwestern meal.

No, wait, we didn't. That's what we had planned to do, but since a mandatory meeting had been called in our hotel for the only night off in Phoenix, we had to rush through a meal at the only open Southwestern restaurant near downtown, in a mall a few blocks from our hotel. It was called Sam's Cafe, it was highly recommended by a few people, and the items we got - sausage meatloaf and goat-cheese-stuffed chicken, both promising flavor and spiciness - looked exciting in print, but they were fairly bland. We were seated "by the water," outdoors near the mall's central fountain - a bit of a letdown if you've just had freshly grilled fish by the ocean in Santa Monica. The prickly-pear margaritas, however, were spectacular.

The aforementioned meeting was called by our director, who wanted us to watch a PBS video on Bob Fosse, and was rendered mandatory, though I don't recall a clause in my contract regarding required film screenings. Apparently the video was supposed to give us a sense of Fosse's creative genius, instilling in us the fervor and vim necessary to propel us through the same show almost every night for the next ten months. The video was fantastic, and I'm glad to have had the chance to see it, but it should unquestionably have shown during a long bus ride rather than on our only free night in Phoenix.

The next day I went for a long walk - there is no other kind in Phoenix - to check out the city. Downtown, even on a business day, had strikingly little activity. Of the few lunch places, everyone seemed to be queueing up at a truck called Ralph's Snack Bar, which served up grilled burgers and fried fish and all sorts of other unhealthy items. (To be fair, a few days later I would have an excellent barbecued-pork sandwich for lunch at La Mesa, which is open only 20 hours a week, or just 12 percent of the time.) I saw something called the Historic First Church and approached the door, where a woman helpfully told me that it was built in 1927 but that I couldn't enter. I found the handsome central train station, which looked as if out of use for years.

Downtown was only a few square blocks, and the area quickly turned residential, with squat adobe houses of some charm. I headed up Seventh Avenue, a busy street as far as vehicular traffic is concerned, thinking it would lead me to something interesting.

Since it didn't - at least not for a long while - I'll go ahead and tell you about a little-known British musical called Blondel, which I happened to be listening to on my phone/PDA/MP3 player during this walk to nowhere. The title character is a songwriter who tries to ingratiate himself with King Richard the Lionheart, but I don't listen to it for the story. I listen to it because Stephen Oliver's music is catchy and features a few songs with neat twelve-people-singing-in-counterpoint section, and because of Tim Rice's irrepressible rhymes, appropriate for a rather corny musical. The best occurs as citizens are showing their support for the Crusades:

Hang the cost of such a spree -
We give that the royal 'oui'!


Some require you to pronounce them in British to understand them:

Such a wet attitude's (a) a heresy,
(b) an error, (c)
Mad.


And I submit the following as the worst rhyme in all of musical theatre. It's so bad, it's good.

Blondel:
I shouldn't change what I'm destined to be,
But where is the light at the end of the tunnel?
My songs are my children, an extension of me.
But will any sell?


Blondel's backup singers:
No, we don't think one'll.

Blondel is, to my knowledge, also the only show to contain an acrostic. That's interesting to hear, but it takes a most perspicacious audience member to be listening and following the story, and then to shout out, "Eureka! The first letters of the last sixteen lines of lyric spell out 'Margaret Thatcher'!"

At Seventh and Roosevelt I chanced upon a painted shack proclaiming itself a Mexican restaurant called El Norteño. The specials were painted on the outside in large letters, and out back was a small seating area. There was no seating inside; in fact, the indoor ordering-and-waiting area was only the size of an elevator. This was about as authentic as Mexican food can get. I didn't lunch here - it was too early - but I got an iced tea to get me through the heat. I would return twice more during the week: once for a quick lunch and once to enjoy the brain, tripe, and tongue tacos from the outdoor grill. These are only served up on weekend evenings, when they set up tables outside, along with a television set, and Mexican families from the neighborhood settle down for a calmly convivial atmosphere.

Continuing north on this first walk, I arrived at the intersection of Seventh and McDowell. Here were a few antique shops where you could buy people's old household items. I always find such places interesting. There's rarely anything of exceptional value, just items that bring to mind the past. There was someone's life-insurance receipt book from 1939, indicating proof of premium payments made in person. There was a Red Cross first-aid manual from 1915. There was a Time magazine guide to grammar from 1955, which explained little-used subjunctive phrases such as "If this plan fail, we shall give up the project." The comma-splice example was "The doctor came in late, he did not stop to read the telegram." Comma splice notwithstanding, you wouldn't hear that these days!

East on McDowell was another fine Mexican establishment, Mariscos Chihuahua, and that's where I had lunch. It looked like a typical greasy spoon, except for the food options. I had a cocktail of sea snails - more like a briny soup than a traditional seafood cocktail. The Tuesday special - and by golly, it was Tuesday - was a side order of a dozen raw oysters for only 99 cents, which let me sample the six types of hot sauce. I washed all this down with a glass of horchata, a sweet cinnamon-milk drink. Wonderful.

I walked north to the next major street, Thomas, and found a large hospital, a few other food options, and a couple of good-looking museums, but by then I was getting tired of walking and the heat was penetrating. I'd rarely thought of such intense heat as being anywhere but, say, Niamey, but I read in the paper that up until last week, 205 Mexicans had died in the Arizona desert while trying to cross the border and take up life in the United States illegally.

We had one day mostly free, and at Brian's suggestion four of us rented a car and headed for Sedona, famous for its red rocks, which have gained their color from iron oxide and their spectacular forms through years of erosion and fracture. Many of the rocks are named for items, such as a bell, various Peanuts characters, and a coffee pot (though I thought the last looked more like an eagle). We took a jeep tour through some of the roughest tracks - I'd never been on a vehicle that could climb a staircase, and the steep ascents and descents were most exciting. Our driver, Two Bears, was part Sioux and part Scottish. In addition to breathtaking rock formations, he showed us a series of seven pools of water (considered sacred to Native Americans); various kinds of cactus, juniper, and cyprus; and a mammoth rattlesnake-infested sink hole, into which giant rock slabs have fallen over the years - one as recently as (and caused by) the 1986 San Francisco earthquake. Needless to say, we peered into the pit from the top and didn't climb down.

After the tour we lunched at Oaxaca, where I had a Native American dish called posole (meat-and-pepper stew served in a bread bowl), before we took a short drive up into the mountains and then headed back to Phoenix.

The next two days were taken up largely by rehearsals with Claire Sweeney, a British television star who will play the lead role in Fosse for the first few weeks when we get to the United Kingdom (tomorrow!). Affable and probably happy to be able to party in a place where she wouldn't be recognized, she took everyone out for drinks at an Irish pub next to our hotel. The pub also served up a great boxty and had a good band miked to slightly-higher-than-tolerable levels, though sadly the kitchen hours posted outside were significantly longer than those employed in practice, and we were only able to snag one post-show meal.

Phoenix audiences suffered through a bunch of sound problems during our performances. In one show, the pre-recorded tracks for some transition music began a few clicks into it, without our knowledge, so we couldn't tell which beat we were on. I made my best guess, and Liz, the other keyboardist, made hers, and after a lengthy passage featuring some very avant garde-sounding harmonies we found each other, though we still weren't with the tracks, which were playing chords of their own. We did keep a beat, however, and that was enough to keep the cast more or less together. The next day, they were "still trying to figure out what went wrong," as if referring to a plane crash or something.

Liz left us late during our stay in Phoenix to take care of some family business; she will hopefully rejoin us when the tour returns to the USA in February - she is Canadian and there were myriad problems getting her a visa to work in the UK, so she'll be replaced during our European engagements.

But for the last week of performances in the USA, including the last two days in Phoenix, I was the only keyboard player. You may recall through diligent attention to last season's travelogue that the show can be performed with only one keyboard player (or, for that matter, with none), because the sound guys can simply turn on the keyboard tracks. However, they have to turn on all the keyboard tracks - they can't just turn on Liz's and let me play my part. The result is that I've played very little (and read very much of Bill Bryson's Australia book) during the past week. I pop up every third song or so to play a couple of passages that aren't on the tracks, and I play two entire songs before going onstage for "Sing Sing Sing," but other than that the show is a very dull affair.

In some passages, the quality of musicianship on the tracks is deplorable - rushed tempi, wrong notes. In the transition music before "Mein Herr," which is supposed to sound as if played on a detuned tack piano, so many notes are wrong that it's all Ross and I can do not to exchange glances and burst out laughing. For "Sing Sing Sing," they use the tracks for everything but my solo, though through some miscommunication it has happened that the tracks and I were both playing the same part at the same time (something that we'd been assured last year was impossible), but this has all been resolved.

The tracks failed twice during one performance in Phoenix. Actually, they fail almost every show, but unless the computers that play them completely crash, Ross can usually restart them without too much trouble. But in Phoenix they did stop entirely. There I was reading Bryson, when I suddenly noticed that the click had stopped and the accompaniment was bare. I figured out how to find a guitar sound in order to fill in what was missing (and enjoyed, I submit humbly, a "save the day" moment), and then filled in later on in the show when the tracks went off again. (I didn't have quite such success when a pre-recorded triangle - the only accompaniment at that point in the show - failed to sound in Long Beach. I fumbled for a triangle among the percussion sounds, hitting, I think, a woodblock and maybe a timbale in the process, and never actually came up with a triangle. Fortunately the passage was short.)

I took one more long walk in Phoenix, up Grand Avenue, which stands out on the map as the only diagonal in an otherwise fastidiously gridded street scheme. In Phoenix's heyday (so to speak), Grand was famous for motels and bars, as it was the start of the journey to Wickenburg (a mining town) and then out to Las Vegas and Los Angeles before Interstate 10 was built. The street retains some of that charm - it's still full of motel signs with outsized logos and giant curved arrows - though the area is a bit barer now, many of the motels have closed, and more than once I was startled by large guard dogs. I walked out to the Arizona State Fair grounds (the fair was in progress) and peered in at a camel, but I didn't have time to go in.

Now back to Erica's lost luggage, which never appeared at the Phoenix airport's baggage claim. My guess is that someone stole it off the baggage claim before we got down there - this is reputedly a problem in Phoenix. I'm actually surprised it's not more of a problem worldwide - until this incident, only once had I ever been asked to show a luggage claim check when exiting an airport. So why don't they do anything about it? It must be easier, and maybe cheaper in the long run, for the airlines to pay claims than to install someone for the purpose of matching baggage tags to claim checks. Erica filed a claim against Southwest Airlines and will probably eventually get the maximum reimbursement of $2500, but it's a long process involving the presentation of receipts for items in the bag (many of which she still had, since she bought a lot before heading on tour) and the notarization of a claim form. She dealt with a few unhelpful people over the phone, before we took a trip to the airport on Monday (in a rental car helpfully provided by our touring company for the purpose of an investigative airport trip and an excursion to the Fashion Square shopping mall in Scottsdale to assist her in replacing her items) and spoke with Debbie, who really did seem to care. She cut Erica a $200 check on the spot and walked her through the whole claims process, and she even provided a $20 lunch voucher to us to use at the airport while she took care of some paperwork. Still, rebuilding is a daunting task, one that may take months.

On my walks around Phoenix I noticed that a lot of houses had more or less permanent yard sales, and I kept checking to see whether I might happen upon some of Erica's items. Indeed, it seemed like the kind of city where you'd have your luggage stolen. After dusk the streets were nearly devoid of traffic and pedestrians, and they were wide and dimly lit, so I barely felt safe walking to and from El Norteño, only about ten blocks from downtown, for dinner. Moderately aggressive homeless abounded, and at a bar called Monroe's, where one night we'd enjoyed a blues singer's solo performance, Brian was threatened on a subsequent trip by another customer who didn't like the fact that he was dancing.

As if there hadn't been enough reasons to dislike Phoenix, there was the Sunday-evening incident at the Networks Bar and Grill, one of the few places downtown serving food after 22:00 (for that matter, one of the few places downtown serving food after lunch at all, or even open on a weekend). About 20 of us went there after Sunday's evening show for a bite and a drink and to celebrate one cast member's birthday. We'd sat there for 20 minutes or so, having ordered drinks and peacefully talking, when the waiter suddenly came by and said one of our party, Phillip, would have to sit by himself because he was under 21 and they couldn't serve drinks at a table where anyone was underage. Mind you, this was a sterile hotel restaurant (not our hotel) and Phillip hadn't intended to drink at all. There were other under-21s in the restaurant, dining with over-21s; can there have been another impetus behind the segregation - such as that Phillip is black?

Most of the group rightfully stormed out at this point, a half hour of our time wasted and the mood of the evening ruined. Erica and I stayed behind with Brian, who had already paid for a drink and didn't feel like downing it. We got delicious prickly-pear margaritas and I had shrimp taquitos, which weren't chock-full of whole shrimp as I'd hoped but rather had a couple of shrimp bits just to taste. It was among the blandest food I'd ever had. It was way overpriced at $9.50, but it didn't matter because we left without paying. I assume there are no intelligent people on the planet who don't think we were justified.

The best thing about being in Phoenix is that you get to plan your departure. We had back-to-back performances in Phoenix and El Paso, a seven-hour drive apart, so Erica was whisked ahead to El Paso Monday night on a crew bus and I had to make my own arrangements. I could spend Monday night in Phoenix, pay for a whole hotel room, and drive all day Tuesday with the cast, or I could hie myself out of Phoenix for $38 on Monday night's Greyhound bus at 22:45 or 23:30, arrive in El Paso the next morning, and spend most of the day in Mexico, just a mile away. Hieing won.

The Greyhound station in Phoenix is not downtown, as it should be, but rather several miles away, near the airport. Can you believe that? Do you know anyone who, after taking a plane, then needs to get on a long-distance bus - or vice versa? So I had to take a half-hourly local bus to the Greyhound terminal. The local bus stopped very near the theatre, and I diligently waited under the bus-stop sign, next to the bus-stop bench, at the appropriate time. The bus sped by, in the left lane.

"Hey!" I yelled, running into the street after it.

The bus swerved into the right lane and stopped, and I got on. "I didn't see you there," the driver said with a chuckle.

Can you recommend a better place to wait?

The bus arrived at the Greyhound terminal at 22:26, which with any other carrier would have left me plenty of time to buy a ticket for the 22:45 and board. There were only about ten people in line in front of me. The problem is that Greyhound agents issue tickets at the rate of about one every four minutes. I don't know why it's so slow, but I have never seen a Greyhound line move at an acceptable rate of speed. Part of the problem lies with most of the passengers, on whom it never dawns to have their money and luggage ready before they get to the ticket counter. It becomes their turn, and they're quoted a price, and only then do they start fumbling for a wallet in an overstuffed pocketbook.

Another problem with Greyhound is that you can't reserve a particular seat on a particular bus. In almost every other country I've been in, including several third-world ones, you can purchase a ticket several days before. You say which bus you want, and which seat, and the ticket agent goes to the page with that bus's seating plan for that day and write your name on the seat you've chosen. But with Greyhound you have to line up for a seat no matter how early you buy your ticket. It's outrageous.

My turn in line came at 22:45, precisely when that first bus was to leave. I really wanted to make it, not just to get to Mexico faster but also to leave Phoenix and avoid 45 minutes in a terminal with screaming kids. I had my credit card ready and I put my luggage on the bay, and my ticket was issued in record time (which means the fault must usually lie with the passengers). I ran through the terminal and out into the loading area, only to discover that the 22:45 hadn't even boarded yet. It left at 23:30, but it was full and they didn't take any El Paso-bound passengers. We instead took the 23:30, which was nearly empty and left at 23:33. Much preferred, all things considered.

In El Paso, I checked into the Gardner Hotel, which was $20 cheaper, and also a block closer to downtown, than the Travelodge, where Erica and I had given up our prebooked room under the assumption that we could find something cheaper. I'd read about the Gardner while browsing at the mall while Erica was shopping the previous day. It's part hostel and part hotel, and the bathroom was in the hall, but it has one of those manually operated elevators where you have to open the outside door and the metal gate and then try to get inside before they swing closed, so I was happy to be there. (At the mall, I had also read, in a guide to the USA published by Let's Go, a series I rather scorn because it's put out by Harvard and they had declined to take me when I applied to write for them in college, that Phoenix, with its car-accessible nature and copious strip malls, was poised to be a hotbed of civilization - and I grinned at the thought that Let's Go's quality standards were so low that they would praise Phoenix for what were precisely some of its most abominable qualities.)

It was a 15-minute walk to the Mexican border, the last quarter mile of which passed through a bustling series of cheap-clothing stores all signed in Spanish. Then it was a 25-cent toll and a quick hop across a bridge to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's fifth-largest city.

Emerging from the bridge, and passing through not a hint of a customs check or passport control - I didn't even have to show an identity card or talk to anyone - I was on Boulevard Juarez. This was a rather touristy street where one could change money or buy pharmaceutical drugs at prices much cheaper than in the USA. Ten minutes' walk brought me to the central square, with the city's twin-towered cathedral and Spanish mission dating from the 1660s, overlooking a park. Behind this was a frenetic outdoor market with narrow lanes, and I spent a good bit of time here. You could buy all sorts of everyday clothing, live birds and turtles, pork products from every appendage and all innards of the animal, a large variety of chiles, toys, bags, cowboy boots, and just about anything else you can imagine. At one end was a square seating area with about a dozen food vendors. I had a prickly-pear gordito (shaped like a pita sandwich but with a fried tortilla instead of bread) and then, on the other side of the square, I found a place that I dubbed the Cauldron. This vendor had a bubbling pot full of blood sausage, fat, and what I believe was pork intestine, along with onions and chiles. The pot bubbled all day.

I walked east, trying to find a compelling residential neighborhood - the kind where you could see into living rooms, the streets alive with children and maybe some livestock, like I'd seen in Matamoros last spring. But Juarez's sprawl seemed to consist mostly of auto shops, and I grew tired of the walk after about 20 minutes. I returned to the center along a parallel street, stopping briefly to buy fresh grapefruit juice from a guy who sold it from the corner of a house, slicing up six grapefruits and hand-squeezing them with an antique manual juicer.

I'd simply walked in the wrong direction. South of the center, a street led steeply uphill, and all of a sudden I could see our El Paso theatre (shaped like a sombrero) and the Frontier Mountains north of El Paso, as well as the mountains south of Juarez, on which had been painted the Spanish equivalent of "The Bible is the truth - read it." At the top of this street was an elementary school, and uniformed kids were being let out. Sexual predator that I am, I followed one of them partway home, simply because I thought her neighborhood might be interesting.

It was. Our route went up and down dirt hills, past squat houses whose unkempt yards held just the bare essentials for a child's amusement - a ball or a toy tractor. Dogs roamed, picking through trash among car carcasses. Many of the homes advertised Sunday availability of menudo, a tripe soup traditionally eaten on weekends. (Sadly, this was a Tuesday.)

At length I passed an interesting operation: a guy was building doghouses. He had them for sale outside, made of wood planks and wood chips. Inside the floor was strewn with wood, along with a couple more doghouses and the oddest of objects, such as a toilet bowl. There was a little dog outside, too, and we exchanged affection before I continued further into the neighborhood, finding a church apparently constructed from the same wood chips. I even found a couple of chickens in the street.

Eventually I got hungry, and, stopping en route toward the center to eavesdrop on a grade-school class and investigate the "a is for..., b is for..." animal alphabet on the classroom wall (x was for xoloescuintle), I returned to the Cauldron for a taco with goodness-knows-what, sprinkled with cilantro.

Having such a different culture so close at hand was so enticing that I rounded up a few people to return to Juarez for dinner and drinks after the show. A guy named Angel accompanied us across the border and showed us to a late-night taquería, where they served tiny pork tacos, four for US$1.50, into which you stuffed vegetables and hot sauce. Then we stopped off for a drink at the Kentucky Club, a well-known (at least within the context of Juarez) Americanized bar.

Having such a different culture so close at hand remained so enticing that Erica and I even returned the next morning, to check out the market and for breakfast at - where else? - the Cauldron. This time, in addition to the taco, we got a sweet tamale and a tasty chocolate-corn drink.

We flew from El Paso to Los Angeles for four days of shows in Long Beach. When we arrived in Los Angeles, they inspected everyone's baggage claim checks.

Long Beach is at the southern terminus of Los Angeles's light-rail system, which would have made getting into the city easy if the transit workers hadn't been on strike. We stayed at the Hyatt, a place that puts the "Hy" in "high-priced." The beds were comfortable, and the rooms had sufficient electric outlets (though, curiously, not near the bed - don't they realize you want to plug in your phone and still be able to answer it in the middle of the night?), but they wanted an outrageous $6 handling fee when I had a Federal Express package delivered to me. The buffet breakfast - not much more than the complimentary continental breakfast we'd had at the San Carlos in Phoenix - was $14. Internet access at the business center was $30 per hour. I was afraid to turn on the faucets in the bathroom lest they send me a bill for heat and water.

A bunch of us rented cars Wednesday night and saw The Producers, starring Jason Alexander and Martin Short. Though the show has several lulls, it is absolutely hilarious - enough for Martin to make Jason break a laugh onstage. Following the show, we headed for the Palms, the first Thai place Allan had taken me to, for a feast accompanied by the restaurant's famed Thai Elvis impersonator.

I kept one of the cars and visited my great-aunt in Culver City the next day. I introduced her to Ethiopian food (I had to get myself to Little Ethiopia at some point), which she claimed to like very much. She told me stories of her brother, my grandfather - how he became an electrician and wired up their farm - and how she once accidentally drove down a staircase (and it wasn't in a jeep). Then we sat and watched the ducks in the pond at her condo complex.

And one afternoon some of us drove out to Manhattan Beach, a cute waterfront town that reminded me a little of New England seaport towns. We had a superb seafood lunch at Rock'n Fish and walked a bit on the pier, admiring everyone's homes and pets.

Long Beach itself had some attractions, such as the Queen Mary and the Aquarium of the Pacific, as well as Peruvian and Russian restaurants, to name a couple. King's Fish House served up the best meal, though: a spiny lobster stuffed with mushroom and crab - expensive, but worth the splurge. The "What kind of food will it be?" award went to a buffet across from the Hyprice, which advertised a $7.95 champagne brunch. It was in the basement of a building that looked as if it might house members of a large auto mechanics' guild. The sign on the door said Club 49, and I went in expecting eggs and waffles, so imagine my surprise when I went in and discovered that the restaurant was actually called Monsoon and it was an Indian buffet. As Indian food goes, it was pretty bland - the only meat was chicken (I prefer lamb and beef) and it wasn't remotely spicy - but it did indeed include champagne, as well as sweet lassis and delicious gulab jamun.

We awoke this morning to find ourselves under a dull haze. Yesterday's wildfires in the San Bernardino Mountains had blown 30 miles west, into Los Angeles, and then south to Long Beach, and it was raining ash. I wasn't outside very long before my black sweater was white, my hands and face dusty, and my throat itchy. The ash even affected flights at the Los Angeles airport, making it questionable whether we'd be able to leave for Liverpool tonight as planned. But by the evening all was OK, and we checked in to British Airways' flight 268 to begin our three-and-a-half-month stint in Europe, starting with six weeks in the UK.

Tom Bradley International Airport (LAX's official name) has by far the stupidest means of getting people and their baggage inside. Everyone goes through an initial baggage scan upon entering, and then the airport employees - not you - take your bags to the airline you designate. Then, after you spend an hour or two in the check-in line, you identify your bags - if they're still there - and they associate them with you and give you a baggage claim check. I can't think of a system more riddled with the possibility of error.

It hasn't quite hit me yet that we're going to Europe. Tour is such that they plunk you down in different places and tell you where you are, and the excitement of travel preparation itself - unless you are leaving Phoenix, of course - is virtually nonexistent.

I'm sure the thrill will sink in once we arrive, however. Let the rains begin.

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