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Tales From the Tour -- April 2004

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

Friday, April 16, 2004
SPRINGFIELD, MO / NEW YORK, NY / EASTON, PA / WILKES-BARRE, PA / CAMDEN, NJ / ROANOKE, VA / PEMBROKE, NC / JACKSONVILLE, FL / SARASOTA, FL / TO TEMECULA, CA, VIA A THREE-HOUR DRIVE, TWO FLIGHTS, A SUBWAY RIDE, A 46-HOUR TRAIN TRIP, AND FIVE LOCAL BUSES
If you have a performance in Springfield, Missouri, on a Monday night, the second-fastest way to get to Newark is to drive to Chicago and take the first Continental flight, which puts you in Newark at 9:41 the next morning. (There's an ATA flight that gets you in six minutes earlier.) And so my very happy relationship with a Ford Focus culminated in a 497-mile overnight drive.

I got on the highway at 22:00 Monday night, found appropriate modern-country radio stations (I like to listen to country when I'm driving, even though I never choose it otherwise), and did not stop until I required a gas fill-up in Bloomington, Illinois, five and a half hours later. When I booked the car and flight, it didn't quite hit me that I'd be driving for more than seven hours, but it was not as difficult as I expected: It was an introspective, quality-time-with-myself, light-traffic experience. I found fault with the radio stations only because they kept reminding me that I was driving in the wee hours ("You're listening to 'After Midnight'"), and I eventually switched to a classical station, and then to CDs of Rent that Greg lent me. The only problem came with an hour-long spot of heavy rain around Bloomington, which made the driving ever so much more unpleasant, because I had to concentrate that much more and it slowed me down. But eventually that passed, and as a clear dawn approached, I found myself joining the pre-rush-hour Chicago traffic near Midway Airport.

I slept, of course, for the whole flight, and Erica picked me up in her mother's car in Newark and we headed to her sister's apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where Erica is staying temporarily. It's a huge converted loft with ceilings so high they've built ladder-accessible bedrooms within the main room (there are four people living there), and it feels much like college-dormitory living. It's in a pretty desolate neighborhood - think crack whores and junkyard dogs and disused rail tracks (with suspicious activities in their nether regions) and not a grocery store in sight. It's near the Halsey Street station on the L subway line, which has been under construction for years; service interruptions are so frequent and unplanned that they don't even bother to post them anymore. They just have a sign saying to beware of service interruptions.

We headed into Manhattan. I hadn't been there in more than six months. I felt like an observer, not a resident, although I recognized neighborhoods and knew exactly what I was looking for. We had lunch at Soba-ya (their lunch bento, including soba noodles rolled and cut right in front of you, is superb) and dinner at Virgil's (a barbecue restaurant near Times Square) and walked along Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, my neighborhood. It made me nostalgic, especially when I discovered that the Ninth Avenue Cheese Market has closed. I can only trust that there are similar picks at Kashkaval, the cheese store's affiliate ten blocks north.

On Tuesday we lunched at the relocated Pearl Oyster Bar, on Cornelia Street, before driving out to Easton, Pennsylvania, to reunite with Fosse. Pennsylvania has a problem with tiny theatres and small orchestra pits: Both in Easton and in Wilkes-Barre, two days later, the stage was too small to accommodate the onstage orchestra at the end - and Scranton last year was our first venue in which the orchestra was backstage (because the pit was too small) and never went onstage (because the stage was too small). We don't mind that, of course. It's nice not to have to change into a tuxedo. Here, in Easton, also began a slew of performances preceded unnecessarily by boring curtain speeches - someone from the theatre would come out and thank the show's sponsors. It's irritating if you're in the show, and it's irritating if you're in the audience. Print it in the program and let's get on with the show!

Erica sat with me in the orchestra pit in Easton. But she didn't get to watch me play my piano solo at the end of the show. My keyboard conked out late in the second act - it's been cantankerous lately, often requiring several restarts before each show - and they had to turn the piano tracks on. So we switched seats and Erica pretended to play the solo. Actually, she didn't. I didn't think of that until the next day. But if I'd thought of it in time, boy, would it have been amusing.

We performed two nights in Easton, driving back each night for an hour to Erica's parents' place in Mountainside, New Jersey, pilfering food from the fridge and picking up delicacies at the friendly Cioffi's gourmet-Italian takeout place nearby. As we made our way to Wilkes-Barre, we stopped in Chester, New Jersey, known for its antique shops and its farms. In Chester, we had turkey soup and turkey sandwiches at Larison's, and then rather irreverently went outside to say hello to the animals in the turkey farm. There were also a trio of sheep and a trio of goats, who came trotting up to us and demanded to be pet.

Wilkes-Barre seemed a dreary town, though in fairness we only got to explore it at night, after the show. Erica, Monique, Ryan C., and I drove around looking for food and a drink. I wasn't hungry, so I wasn't too opposed to the McDonald's drive-through on the way to the bar at the local brewery. I was driving. I don't have a lot of experience with drive-throughs, partly because I don't drive much, and partly because if I'm going to eat at all, I'm going to impose higher standards than fast food, or go to a supermarket. At McDonald's, I stopped at the little microphone, where someone is supposed to recognize that you're there and ask you for your order, right?

But no one answered, so I drove up to the pick-up window. I honked the horn. A lively young black man opened the store window. "I had my headset off," he explained.

"I'm going to pull up so you can talk to these nice people," I said. Monique ordered from the rear window.

While we were waiting for our food, the man spoke to another customer on his headset. "Check this out. We got a late-night menu. Burgers, fries, shakes..."

The customer evidently tried to order something that's not on the late-night menu.

"Do you hear what I'm saying?" the employee said. "All we got is burgers, fries, shakes..." He gesticulated wildly, rattling off all the shake flavors as if performing a rap song.

Well, at least he was lively.

It turned out the nearest brewery didn't have a bar, and another brewery was noisy and imposed a cover charge. Finally we found a place called something like the Frog Pond, or Frog's Landing - something amphibian, anyway. It served pizza - we should have gone there from the start. It was quiet. They had Yeungling drafts for $1.75. Perfect.

We took a scenic route to Haddonfield, New Jersey, for lunch with my cousin Jan, her husband, and most of her six kids (one of whom, Josh, I'd had dinner with in Paris). They made pasta with vegetarian tomato sauce from Jan and Josh's recent trip to Italy, and they sat in the front row at that night's show, in Camden (another of Morgan Quitno's most dangerous cities, by the way). We stayed in Philadelphia, just across the Ben Franklin Bridge, but we didn't get to explore the city much. I had to get up early for the long day's bus journey to Roanoke. Erica slept in and drove back to New York City.

It was still 1955 in Roanoke, a delightful city with an attractive downtown built around a market square. There's been a market there since 1882, with produce sellers outside; a bakery, a farm-supplies store, and restaurants inhabiting the first-floor store spaces; and an international food court and specialty shops inside the brick market building. Little things made the city prettier: Street signs were in Goudy typeface. A banner over the street near the market advertised a strawberry festival in Elmwood Park. Painted in large letters over a brick facade near the entrance to downtown, in a Halloween-inspired pointy typeface, was, "Est. 1843 - Mutual of New York - Caveness and Connor Insurance Group - All Lines of Insurance - Downtown Roanoke - Auto, Home, Life, Health." In the center of it all was a big red advertisement: "Drink Coca-Cola."

We stayed at the Patrick Henry Hotel, where my room had kitchenette appliances the sort of olive-green color that Ralph and Alice Kramden probably had on theirs. It's certainly the only hotel I've been in that had a proper oven (which said "Rangemaster") but no microwave. There were two beds at opposite ends of the room, neither of which faced the television. The hotel had three elevators, one of which was never in use, one of which was the normal kind where you get in and press a button, and one of which had to be manually operated by an employee, who turned a crank and had to line up the elevator car with your floor, adjusting it when he got it wrong. The hotel used traditional keys and had a ripped awning - how long had it been ripped? I looked forward to getting back there after the show, but I made the mistake of waiting on the bus for the mile-long ride back. Once everyone was on the bus, the driver announced that we'd stop at McDonald's - across the street from the theatre! - before heading back. Why couldn't he have announced that as we were boarding the bus after the show? Tony and I decided we didn't feel like spending a half hour at McDonald's when it was only 15 minutes on foot to the hotel, and so we walked back, and I made a car reservation for our next series of one-nighters. I'm traveling on my own time frame from now on.

Roanoke seemed, at some point in time, an important rail junction. There was a rotator for spinning rail cars to the correct bay for maintenance, there was a black "Rail Analyzer Car," there was a transportation museum, and there was an O. Winston Link museum. I would have been very happy to spend Monday in Roanoke, as we didn't have a show, but instead we were whisked off to Charleston, West Virginia.

I had the following conversation with several people, both on and off the tour:

"We're headed to Charleston, West Virginia."

"Oh, you'll like it. Charleston's a beautiful city."

"Are you thinking of Charleston, West Virginia, or Charleston, South Carolina?"

(Embarrassed, nervous pause.) "Oh."

The West Virginia capital was, in fact, the only city on tour that I've found to be less appealing than Melbourne, Florida.

I got lucky with hotel availability, though. The company stayed at the Country Inn & Suites; I stayed at the Motel 6, which was right next door - when I'd plugged their addresses into Mapblast to see whether the Motel 6 would be within walking distance, no directions came up, just "Start" and "End" and "Distance: 0.0 miles."

The hotels were in an extremely desolate part of the city, six miles from downtown: Think strip malls before all the businesses come in. It was only hotels, gas stations, and fast food. There was a Kroger supermarket a few blocks away; reaching it entailed walking on the median strip of MacCorkle Avenue under the interstate overpass, because there was no sidewalk. Then, when the median strip ended, you had to cross the highway again, and, irony of ironies, there was a pedestrian light to help you. With no enticing restaurant options in sight, this is where I headed our first night, and as it was Passover, I figured I'd pick up some appropriate goodies and eat in my hotel room. I talked to three Kroger employees before I found someone who knew what gefilte fish was ("Gefli - gefah - ?"), and then the manager led me to the wrong aisle for horseradish (it has to be in the refrigerated section, and who in his right mind would think a creamy horseradish-mayonnaise concoction would be a remotely acceptable substitute?), but after an hour I had the proper items, including a box of matzo that Jan had given me, and I feasted at the Motel 6.

I looked in the phone book the next morning to try to find out how close the theatre, the eight-month-old Clay Center, was to downtown. There were three listings: Clay Center For The Arts & Sciences, 1112 Washington St E; Clay Center For The Arts & Sciences Of West Virginia, 1112 Washington St; and Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences, Leon Sullivan Way. This last one was the one that seemed to be a theatre, but there was no Leon Sullivan Way shown on the street map. I called the information line to make sure this was where Fosse was being performed, but the recording only gave me dates through mid-March. Finally I got someone on the phone, and we went over the map in detail: "Capitol, Dickinson, Broad" - "It used to be Broad, but now it's Leon Sullivan Way."

And so I walked the six miles downtown. I needn't have bothered. After taking my life in my hands walking across the bridge over the Kanawha River (I didn't realize that the next bridge had a pedestrian walkway - why wasn't it signposted?), I walked through a residential neighborhood and suddenly came upon the Capitol Building complex. Engraved into the Capitol Building was: "Wisdom Is The Principal Thing Therefore Get Wisdom And With All Thy Getting Get Understanding." There was also a statue of a coal miner, expressing gratitude to all the coal miners for "providing the state, nation and world with low-cost, reliable household and industrial energy...Let it be said that 'Coal' is the fuel that helped build the greatest country on earth, has protected and preserved our freedom and has enhanced our quality of life. God Bless the West Virginia Coal Miner!"

Downtown was depressing. While there were numerous buildings, many of them attractive, there were few storefronts - most of the facades had "For Sale" or "For Rent" notices on them. The few businesses were mostly bars and generic cafes serving generic food; I had lunch at a $5.99 Middle Eastern buffet, the Sahara, one of the few restaurants that weren't delis.

I walked briefly along the Kanawha River; the walkway was flanked on both sides by steep hills. There was no place to sit, except for a huge plaza with concrete steps - an amphitheatre of sorts. It would have been the perfect place for some pretty benches and maybe a food stall.

I turned up Capitol Street. The Terminal Building, at 8 Capitol Street, had a big "For Lease" banner and, a few floors up, "1-800-GAMBLER." Next door, at 10 Capitol, the third-floor windows were all boarded up. At 12 Capitol, signs said "Sale Sale Sale" and "For Rent." At 14 1/2 Capitol, a bar called the Blue Parrot had "Buckets of Beer Night" and "Say hi to Connie" written on a white board with a fist-hole through it. The 16 Capitol building was completely boarded up. There were law offices at 22 Capitol, but a chain and padlock on the gate prevented access to the building. At 26 came dusty windows, an empty storefront, a "Now Leasing" sign, and a poorly cut card with "Thank You, President Bush" and a picture of the Statue of Liberty - apparently without any irony. The bar at 28 Capitol said:

Happy Hour Schedule:

4:00 - Roundtable Discussion on the Role of My Little Pony in a Post Industrial Society

4:05 - Sancho the Dog-Faced Boy & His Amazing Albino Tenors Perform & Amaze

Connect the Dots on Morgan Freeman's Face for the Kids


At 30 Capitol was another law office, and at 32 Capitol was Larry's Giant Subs.

That was the extent of business all over downtown. No used-book stores, no yuppie groceries, no sushi bars, none of the businesses that give a city its unique lifeblood. Whereas St. Louis, and even Dayton, are on the upswing, Charleston is dire and is still on its way down. On Dickinson Street, you could leave your car at Spyro's Parking for four dollars a day - but even that had a sign saying, "For Sale - 1 Acre Plus." There was very little traffic. I saw two parking-enforcement officers giving out tickets and witnessed one person trying to talk his way out of a ticket at an expired meter. What was wrong with these cops? Shouldn't they be flattered that anyone bothered to come downtown at all?

The reason no businesses were in the downtown storefronts, I discovered, is that the Town Center Mall had invaded just a few blocks away, and everything was there: the post office, a travel agency, a custom-framing shop, a GNC, a manicurist-pedicurist, and an office of the local cable company. The mall had a posted code of conduct that said, "When conditions contribute to an overflow of juveniles, management reserves the right to disperse or eject individuals or groups." The store directory had a category called "Books/Cards/Collectibles/Gifts," which included, among other things, B. Dalton Books, a Godiva Chocolatier, the Coffee Bean, Crabtree & Evelyn, the Disney Store, and Sports Treasures.

As I made my way to the Clay Center, I noticed a sign pointing the way to a trauma center. I almost popped in.

We drove for eight hours to Lumberton, North Carolina, an annoying drive that mostly followed U.S. highways (not interstates) with little interest. The exception was U.S. 220, which passed lovely produce stands - but signs proclaiming the route "Future I-73/I-74 Corridor" indicate that the highway may soon be widened and the little businesses wiped out. It reminded me of the Sam Kee Building in Vancouver - will we soon have the world's narrowest fruit stall in North Carolina?

My father's summer-camp friend from way back, Chaviva (who introduced us to harpsichord maker Reinhard von Nagel in Paris), and her husband, Ralph, came to meet me in Lumberton. They brought a Passover picnic, including matzo brei, matzo-ball soup, and brisket made with, among other things, wine, garlic, and chocolate - and we had a sumptuous picnic just outside the theatre where we performed at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. It was an odd theatre that actually required us to walk onstage, in full view of the audience, in order to descend the stairs into the orchestra pit.

From Pembroke, we drove to Jacksonville, Florida, another tedious journey. The obvious lunch stop was Savannah, Georgia, that beautiful town with the waterfront eateries - but, no, we stopped instead at a shopping mall on the outskirts of Savannah. Such a tease! The mall had a depressing bookstore and only one set of restrooms, of which the men's were closed for renovation, so we were supposed to use the temporary restroom, which was behind a locked door - it may have been an outhouse for all I knew. I used the women's. That night, and again and again, I confirmed my car reservation for the next one-nighter series and checked for cheaper deals. I'd be very happy to go a year without entering another mall.

Jacksonville sprung up because of pleasant weather and the St. Johns River, which is pretty much what draws people there now. Jacksonville Landing, an outdoor mall of sorts but ever so slightly more pleasant, contained the wealth of the area's restaurants, all but one of which would close just as our show ended. And so most of us dined outside at Hooters on the waterfront - the quintessentially kitschy American experience.

We left early the next morning to drive for four hours to Sarasota for a two-show day - our only drive-in-two-show day this season, and our only repeat venue from last season. I'd remembered the slew of cheap motels along Tamiami Trail, and I'd called all of them to find the best rate. No rate was especially good (anything above $30 a night is overpriced, in my opinion); the best was $45, at the Galaxy Motel, which, it so happens, was directly across from the company hotel. It had a sign stating that the minimum charge was for one day, and another asking you not to abuse the towels by using them to wipe your boots, for instance.

We had Saturday, Sunday, and Monday off, so that the set could be driven from Florida to California. Saturday night a bunch of us dined at a place called the Beach House, a half-hour drive away on Bradenton Beach. I'd been looking forward to it for months, because Brian had mentioned being there a couple of years ago and very much wanted to go back. It was a renowned seafood restaurant with outdoor seating. It was packed on Saturday, and so we didn't get to sit outside, but the shrimp appetizer and stuffed snapper were commendable and worth the 45-minute wait for a table.

Then I began my long journey to Temecula, California. Leaving at midnight, I drove three hours to Fort Lauderdale (there were cheaper flights from there than from Sarasota), a drive that involved the 75-mile Alligator Alley stretch along Interstate 75. It's a straight shot from mile 100 to mile 25, with only two highway exits in between, at miles 80 and 49. It's beautiful in the daylight, but at night it was tedious. Though this drive was only three hours, as compared with seven from Springfield to Chicago, it was more difficult, because the area was so desolate, and because of recurrent patches of fog. It's unnerving to be able to drive for miles without seeing anything in the rear-view mirror - or ahead of you.

My first flight, to Atlanta, left at 5:25. I was asleep before we took off and didn't wake up until we touched down; the same was true of the Atlanta-to-Chicago flight. I took the Orange Line into town, picked up some provisions (summer sausage, cookies, fruit) for the two-day train ride to California, and stuffed myself at the Easter buffet brunch at Bin 36, a wine bar. My favorite items were the crab-cake eggs Benedict, the large peel-and-eat shrimp, the blini and caviar, the thyme-smoked ostrich and Serrano ham, and the make-your-own-Bloody Mary bar (complete with wasabi-cream infusion).

I spent so much time at the buffet that I almost missed the train. I ran for it, and I boarded just two minutes before it departed. This was the 15:15 from Chicago to Los Angeles, also known as the Southwest Chief. I took it almost all the way, through eight states, to Riverside, California. The fare was $109.80. I should have been able to get 5 percent off for booking on-line, but Amtrak had designated the weekend as a blackout period for that promotion - I guess we don't have separation of church and national rail lines.

I booked this train about six weeks ago, once I realized that I had time to take a train across the country. I've always wanted to do that. And just by coincidence, the same day I decided to take this train, I read, in Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster, "There are countries in which trains are merely a means to a destination, and there are countries in which the train ride is the destination itself." Actually, that's a paraphrase; Theroux worded it much better than that. I misplaced the book somewhere in Spokane or Vancouver, before I copied the sentence down, and I haven't gotten around to replacing it yet.

The train left right on time, and it was dead on schedule for the rest of the day. I was in one of the three double-decker coach cars; there were also sleepers and freight cars, a dining car, and a lounge. Barbara was in charge of the dining car, and she made announcements regarding dinner reservations and the dining room's opening and closing hours. Patrick, the bartender, made announcements regarding the evening's film showings, scenery we'd be passing, and the opening and closing times of the lounge, inviting us to join his friends Jimmy Beam and Johnny Walker ("kinda cheesy, but you love that," Erica said when I mentioned this to her) and to sample his "world-famous thermonuclear Bloody Marys, guaranteed to put a glow in your cheeks and a mushroom cloud over your head, just four forty-nine plus a penny." Barbara and Patrick couldn't hear each other make announcements, so occasionally they would make them simultaneously, with the result that we in the coach cars could understand neither.

My car was less than half full; there were eight other people going all the way to California. Two of them were Shaif, age eight, and his sister, Yasmeen, age ten. They were Detroit residents of Yemeni descent and were traveling with their mother, only age 27, and their grandmother, for a two-week vacation including a week at Disneyland. They sat in the front of the car. Behind me were Joel, on his way home to Santa Barbara, and the very gay Ricky, who used to live in New York City and remembered when he could bring tricks into a hotel in Hell's Kitchen for five bucks an hour. I was right in the middle of the car, on the upper level, opposite the stairway. My seat had been assigned as I boarded, and I gave thanks that I had a seat next to an electric outlet - the only such seat in the car, as far as I could tell. I guess good things come to those who almost miss the train.

We went through the western suburbs of Chicago, pretty towns centered around pretty commuter-train stations, much like those in Westchester County; then we were passing through cornfields. We crossed a bridge over the Mississippi River and were in La Plata ("PLAY-ta"), Iowa. I drifted off to sleep. I believed we crossed another bridge into Missouri, a slushy bridge that we skidded across, but then I realized - because I had a memory of making the crossing on a bus - that it must have been a dream. In fact it was clear and cold outside, but there was no snow on the ground.

I wasn't hungry for dinner, and had no interest in the movies; I was content to sit and watch the world go by. Shaif and Yasmeen visited frequently. They were friendly kids, not annoying in any way. When I did some transcription work on my computer using a two-octave portable piano keyboard, they grew wide-eyed at all the electronic equipment - and I let them play the keyboard for a while. They kept asking me to go on-line so that they could play computer games, but I knew I'd never get my computer back!

It was cold on the train at night - cold enough to wake me up occasionally. We crossed through Kansas overnight, and when we stopped in the morning we were in Colorado. There was a thin layer of snow on the ground. At La Junta ("YOON-ta" or "HUHN-ta," depending on whether Patrick or Barbara was making the announcement), one of the engines failed, and we were delayed for two hours while a freight locomotive (with a working engine) was added.

We crept up through beautifully lush mountains, snowy and green, to the 7,588-foot Raton Pass, passing Dick Wootton's ranch - "Uncle Dick" improved the Santa Fe Trail over the pass in 1866 and charged a toll to passing travelers. We passed the stone buildings and old Spanish mission of the abandoned mining town of Morway. After a half-mile tunnel, we came to Raton, named after the rats that plagued the Spanish conquistadores' encampments.

"The other Las Vegas" - in New Mexico - boasted a brick house with arches and a tiled roof, formerly one of the famed restaurants featuring Harvey Girls, who served up food to travelers at stations before trains had dining cars. Train personnel fed treats to the dogs at Ribera, following tradition. There were llamas and cattle. We passed the ranch of radio personality Don Imus. We wound our way through the Apache Canyon and the Glorietta Pass, where there's a memorial to Confederate soldiers killed in a Civil War battle - I was unaware the war had found its way that far west. We finally reached Albuquerque, where we were delayed for an additional hour because of a safety check. I'd hoped to enjoy the sunset as we crossed the desert that evening, but it had mostly set before we even left Albuquerque. The train car filled up, with several other kids, but fortunately I still had two seats to myself.

The delays kept compounding: Because we were running late, we sometimes had to wait for trains to pass in the other direction. Most of the time, we were crawling. The trip got tedious, but Shaif and Yasmeen kept me in high spirits, spending more time with me than with their mother. Shaif pretended to play my little keyboard vertically, as if it were a guitar. I showed Yasmeen how when you played the keyboard, the notes showed up on the computer screen. We played cards. I showed them a picture of Erica. Yasmeen asked me for a piece of paper.

"What kind of paper?"

"Any paper."

I found a piece of scratch paper and she took it back to her seat up front. Some time later, when I'd forgotten about it, she brought it back to me and showed me what she had drawn in pencil. It was a picture of Erica and me. The caption above Erica read, "Your girlfriend," and she was saying, in a cartoon balloon, "I love you." Above me, it said, "This is you." I was holding flowers, and I was saying, "Me to" - Yasmeen had originally gotten the spelling right, but, in a moment of hesitation, erased the second o.

I made dinner reservations for the dining car; the choices were 17:00, 17:30, 18:00 (what am I, 80?), 18:45, 19:15, and 20:00. I chose the last, and I'm glad I did - most of those before me occurred while we were still stopped in Albuquerque. I had a Blind Date dinner experience - one of those situations where neither of us could wait for the event to end. Amtrak practices communal seating, and I found myself across from someone who never wasted a moment to share knowledge on any subject. He was probably around 40, he worked in the banking industry, and he lived in a gated community in Las Vegas but hated it - he was planning to move to New York, where he wouldn't have to drive everywhere.

"I'll give you some commentary on what we're seeing" were the first words out of his mouth. "Those are cottonwood trees. Most people know the Georgia O'Keefe paintings but have never seen the trees themselves." He had lived in Albuquerque previously, and he knew the area well. The trees were beautiful, with plump trunks and thick, veering branches; they were even more beautiful, sinister yet comforting, in the flat desert against the very last rays of sunlight.

"That's Interstate Forty," he said, pointing at the highway that ran parallel to the tracks. "That's the route you take west from Albuquerque. When you see a highway on either side of the tracks, it's Interstate Forty." I mentioned that I'd have some long drives ahead of me, and he said he had driven across the country several times.

"If you do drive across the country," he said, "bring along a lot of books on tape - books you've never read before. And learn how to use the cruise control on your rental car." Thanks, but I'll stick with my country stations, and if I do find myself going west from Albuquerque, it will be on a rural road - not an interstate. And what rental car these days can play a tape? All the ones I've had this year have had CD players.

The later film showing that night was Something's Gotta Give. I watched it in the lounge, and I decided I've watched enough movies starring Jack Nicholson in roles written especially for Jack Nicholson. Was there any difference between this movie and As Good as It Gets?

I was due to leave the train the next morning at Riverside, California, at 6:03. I doubted we'd make up any time, but I set my alarm for 7:30, just in case. It didn't matter - Yasmeen woke me up around 7:00. We were crossing the grassy Mojave Desert, but we were going so slowly that the monotony of the scenery trumped its beauty. I couldn't tell where we were when I woke up, but I went on-line and checked the train status (it was easier than finding a conductor) and learned that we were still somewhere between Needles and Barstow, California, at least two hours from Riverside.

She woke Joel up, too. "Do you like gossip?" Joel asked me. He filled me in on what had happened at night. A buff, tattooed guy a few rows ahead of us had hooked up with the redhead mother of the bratty five-year-old sitting behind Joel. They'd gone downstairs and had a quickie in the bathroom. There was blood on the wall!

I was sick of this train. I had once taken the Trans-Mongolian for four nights from Ulaan Baatar to Moscow, and I'd loved every minute of it even though it was neither fast nor luxurious, but I was ready to get off this Amtrak train after only two nights. The desert seemed endless. The Cajon Pass, separating the San Gabriel Mountains from the San Bernardino Mountains, was pretty, but I was no longer interested. We finally reached Barstow, and then Victorville. With reference to the train's final destination of Los Angeles, Patrick announced at one point, "We will be arriving sometime this week."

We were delayed even further - I think it was at Victorville - because a passenger in my car had to bring all her luggage downstairs. Joel had to help her. We were running more than four hours late, and she waited until we arrived at her station to start thinking about leaving! It reminded me of people who, when The Fantasticks closed after its 42-year run, complained, "I never got a chance to see it!"

Later on, I saw that passenger back in our car. It turned out it wasn't even her stop!

After San Bernardino, I said good-bye to Joel, and to Shaif, Yasmeen, and their mother, and I prepared myself to leave. We arrived at Riverside at 11:06 - five hours and three minutes late. I was supposed to have had a five-hour layover before catching a Greyhound bus to Temecula, but in fact I missed that bus!

The next Greyhound bus to Temecula ($10, one hour) was at 12:20, but the departure point was two miles away, and a sign at the Riverside train station announced commuter bus service between Riverside and Temecula for a dollar. It listed the phone number for the Riverside Transit Agency, and I made the mistake of calling it.

Commuter service ran only during peak hours, but the lady I spoke with said I could take the No. 16 bus to the Moreno Valley Mall and transfer to the No. 79 bus, which would get me to Temecula. I looked at the posted schedule: The next No. 16 was due to arrive at 11:24.

At 11:45 I was still standing there, so I called the number again and spoke with someone else. We were on the phone for 54 minutes.

It took 20 minutes for her just to figure out exactly where I was. I said I was at the place called Downtown Terminal - there was a big sign above the train tracks saying "Riverside Downtown" - but in fact I was at the place called Marketplace Station, even though there was nothing to that effect at the station. And buses seldom came through the station at off-peak hours; they were timed to connect with Metrolink trains to and from Los Angeles. The next No. 16 bus wouldn't come through here until 12:35.

So I figured, if I was downtown, I was probably close to the actual place called Downtown Terminal. The lady explained to me where it was, but I couldn't figure out where I was. "Are you near Market and University?" the lady kept asking me. But the Riverside station was outdoors, there were no station attendants or station building, and there were no signs pointing the way to an exit or indicating where any streets were. All I saw was a parking lot. In typical car-dependent California fashion, they assumed that if you got off the train, there would be a car waiting for you there, and so there were no pedestrian-helpful signs. The possibility that someone would arrive at the station and then want to walk somewhere never occurred to anyone.

I kept crossing over the train tracks and walking aimlessly around the parking lot, all the while barking into the phone, "I don't know where University is! All I see is a parking lot!" She told me I was on the wrong side of the tracks, and then when I crossed over, she told me I was still on the wrong side of the tracks.

It became clear that I would have to wait for the 12:35, so I dared ask another question.

"When I called earlier, I was told that I could take the sixteen bus to the Moreno Valley Mall and transfer to the seventy-nine to get to Temecula. But the schedule posted here doesn't indicate that I can transfer to the seventy-nine at the Moreno Valley Mall. There are other buses listed, but not the seventy-nine. Is it true that I can get the seventy-nine at the Moreno Valley Mall?"

"Let me see..." she said. And a few minutes later, "No, you can't get the seventy-nine at the Moreno Valley Mall."

"Then how do I get to Temecula?"

"You can take the two-oh-eight bus..."

That was the commuter bus. I said, "Yes, but it only runs during peak hours. It won't leave here until five-thirty, and I have to be in Temecula by six. You have got to get me to Temecula this afternoon!"

Another few minutes' pause. "You take the sixteen bus to the Moreno Valley Mall. That gets you in at one-seventeen. Then, at one-twenty, you take the nineteen bus to Fourth and Wilkerson. It will get you there at two twenty-eight. Then you have a little wait for the twenty-seven bus, which leaves at two-forty. Take it to Hemet. It arrives in Hemet at three-thirty. Then you get the seventy-nine at Hemet at four o'clock."

"What time does that get me to Temecula?"

"Five-oh-two."

I took a deep breath and said, increasing gradually in volume from pianissimo to fortissimo, and in intensity from seething to about-to-explode: "An hour ago, I called and was told that I could take the sixteen to the seventy-nine to get to Temecula. Now you're telling me that it's going to take five hours to get there. If some blithering idiot hadn't given me the wrong information, I'd have taken the Greyhound bus instead, and I'd have gotten there in an hour!"

I spoke with her supervisor, who asked me the name of the first person I'd spoken to. Of course I hadn't gotten her name, because I somehow still believe that it's not necessary to get the name of every customer-service person I ever speak to - just most of them. "I'm sorry that you were given the wrong information. We have some new people on the phone lines."

Well, for starters, they should give some of them a tour of the Riverside train station, so that they know how to direct people out of it.

A No. 1 bus pulled up at about 12:30, and its driver was the most competent person I spoke with. She gave me a different route that shaved an hour off the trip. I took the No. 1 to what I think was this Downtown Terminal place, about ten minutes away. I transferred to the No. 22, which left a couple minutes later. For some reason these two trips were free, because I had just come off a train; once I left the downtown area, the bus trips cost a dollar each.

The 22 dropped me off at 13:10, at some unimportant-looking intersection, where I made an immediate connection to the 27. It took over an hour to get to the Hemet Valley Mall. At 14:45, I got on the 79, which wasn't so much a bus as a little minivan. It took me to Temecula.

By now I had a little piece of paper with various bus numbers, times, and destinations scrawled and crossed off, like a football coach's play-by-play diagrams. It said "16-19-27-79" on one side and "1-22-27-79" on the other. It looked like a lottery ticket.

From downtown Temecula to the Pechanga Resort & Casino, where we'd be performing and staying, it was about three and a half miles. I could walk that, I figured. But I noticed, when I got off the 79 at Temecula, that in a few minutes a 24 would arrive, which would take me directly to the casino. "I'm going to the Pechanga," I told the driver offhand, as if I hadn't just come from Florida by way of Chicago.

And so, in desperate need of a shower and a change of clothes, I entered my hotel room at the Pechanga at 16:30 - 67.5 hours after I'd begun my journey in Sarasota.

A few days later, I heard on the news that Riverside had been named "America's most liveable community." The award was in recognition of the city's small-town feel, rich history, safety record, commendable growth, good schools, urban planning, and commitment to environmental protection.

Well, great. But if you've just gotten off a train and need to figure out where you are, it sucks.

Friday, April 30, 2004
TEMECULA, CA / SAN BERNARDINO, CA
Temecula got its name 1,000 years ago, when the Native American leader Nahachish, looking out at the surrounding hills, spoke the word "Temecula," which means "sunlight through the mist." White settlement began in the late 1850s; historically the area was known for Walter Vail's 87,500-acre cattle ranch, in use from around 1900 until it was purchased by Kaiser Industries in 1964. Interestingly, Temecula wasn't incorporated as a city until 1989. The old town consists of basically just one main street, about ten blocks long, flanked at either end by wooden gates. It's a pretty place, if just a little bit hokey. Nearly all the buildings are made of unfinished wood and made to look rustic and ancient, and many of them house antique shops. Several restaurants, and a wine-and-beer bar, offer outside seating.

Unfortunately, most people in our company didn't get to see the old town, because we performed about four miles away, at the Pechanga Resort and Casino. It was an expensive place to stay: over $100 per night, whereas our company-booked hotel rooms are usually around $60. To ameliorate the heavy cost, our company paid for the first two nights. I took the two nights and then hied myself back into town for three nights at the Motel 6, which saved me about $200 and put me in an attractive area.

The Pechanga was a gloomy place. I'm usually happy to sit inside and play blackjack for hours on end, but then I like to get outside for a bit. In Atlantic City or Las Vegas you can do that, but the Pechanga, on an Indian reservation, was the only thing around, surrounded immediately by construction crews building the next additions to the Pechanga. It was a long, tedious walk along a highway to get anywhere. A bus ran just often enough to get me from the old town to the casino, but not often enough that it was possible to make a quick escape.

A bunch of us did escape for one day, to celebrate Monique's birthday as best we could - by renting a car and spending the day in La Jolla and San Diego. The cove at La Jolla was splendid, with protruding rocks where sea lions basked, small crabs roamed, and little mussels attached themselves. Beyond were grassy hills were purple flowers. We had lunch overlooking the ocean and then continued on to San Diego, where we had just enough time to walk along the water for a bit before heading back.

I played a lot of blackjack, and I ate a lot of buffets at the casino's restaurants. The general lunch buffet wasn't exceptional, but the weekend seafood buffet featured peel-and-eat shrimp, crab legs, and all the other standard goodies.

The cards gave me a typical roller-coaster ride at the $10 and $15 tables. I quickly went down almost $300; then I won it back and accumulated a gradual lead. It was a four-deck game with continuous shuffle. I got pretty good at basing my bets, and even my plays, on what cards had just come out. I even took insurance, for the first time ever, when only two tens were showing and none had come out on the previous deal. By Sunday's breakfast buffet, I was up more than $150.

Of course I then tried to win "just a bit more" - before our last matinee and between shows that day. I couldn't win a hand. I lost almost all my double-downs. They renamed the game "Twenty-Six" in my honor and built a new hotel wing with my financing. When we finally left the Pechanga, I was down more than $300 for the week. I felt nauseated, and "If only..." kept running through my mind. I kept reassuring myself that I always make up my losses by the end of the year, and that I'd been saving up to play that week - but it was small consolation in the moment, after I'd been ahead.

San Bernardino was an awful city with a pretty-sounding name. It was completely unrewarding to walk around. The streets were hot, dusty, and creepy - almost as creepy as Dayton's. On my first day, I made my way down to Hospitality Lane, where I had heard there was a good restaurant selection. I thought it was closer than it was; it took me an hour to walk there, along unattractive buildings mostly housing auto-repair and car-stereo-repair shops. And San Bernardino had the most vacant lots of any city I've seen: overgrown, neglected spaces filled with fast-food litter. When the wind kicked things up, dust and trash blew into my face and the city smelled like rotting hamburger residue.

I almost gave up and turned around without reaching Hospitality Lane, but I'm glad I didn't. Lu's King Buffet was extraordinary for lunch: $6.39 got you all-you-can-eat options including sushi rolls, salmon sushi, Mongolian barbecue, and several seafood dishes, to name just a few items. Dinner ($8.99) was even more impressive, with more sushi and Peking duck. And the No. 2 bus ran right by the place, so it was easy to get there and back - I went there three times that week. Now, a paragraph explanation on a little Chinese buffet may seem like overkill. But in San Bernardino, it was about all I had to hold on to.

The city's claim to fame is the site of the world's first McDonald's restaurant, at the corner of 14th and E Streets. The original 1940 building was torn down in 1953, but the sign advertising 15-cent hamburgers is still there. There's a new building on the site housing a small McDonald's museum (complete with an original menu, the posted code of conduct, and pictures of the girls who would deliver orders to cars), a Route 66 museum (with stories of breakdowns in the Mojave Desert), and the headquarters for Juan Pollo Restaurants.

The walk into town from the museum provides a succinct cross-section of San Bernardino. Standing on the corner of Ninth and E, I could see at least a dozen car-repair or used-car shops within a two-block radius. On F Street, houses were on fenced-in plots of land the size of hotel rooms, many with "No Trespassing" placards (one also forbade hunting and fishing). The public library had a sign prohibiting the introduction of sleeping bags and hiking equipment into the building. And smack downtown was the incredibly unattractive Carousel Mall, a concrete monstrosity that gave no hint of what was inside. There were two supermarkets downtown: Food 4 Less, which felt like a warehouse and smelled of urine, and Stater Brothers, where a kid tried to cut in front of me in line. Many downtown restaurants had the kind of opaque black glass that sleazy clubs use to obscure what was inside.

The theatre was tiny. The basement corridor to the orchestra pit had such a low ceiling I couldn't walk upright. The pit itself was so shallow that Taylor's string bass stuck out above the stage. Rooms were stuffed with clothing; it seemed the kind of community theatre where they use the same costumes for every production, regardless of what's actually called for. And because there was no room backstage, we had to set up a tent outside to house our own costumes. That's where people changed during the show.

Thank goodness the company brought Erica out to visit and to work on costumes for the dozen new cast members, who are replacing those who resigned recently. And they rented her a van, so it was possible to escape the confines of downtown without walking through twenty blocks of overgrown lots, car-parts stores, and "No Trespassing" signs. But there wasn't really anywhere to drive to, as there were no scenic trips. San Bernardino is surrounded by mountains but there were no roads leading to them. It was just strip malls and freeways.

Several of us have started a tradition of Sunday brunch, and believe it or not, San Bernardino treated us well in this regard: Take E Street north all the way to the end, and after it loops around there's a steep uphill turnoff to the Castaway restaurant, which has a splendid Sunday champagne brunch buffet. There were a couple of kinds of salmon, cocktail shrimp, raw oysters, a carving and omelet station, Mexican items, barbecued ribs, and some excellent pastries. Many of the items were labeled, and most of the labels had misspellings. I almost bypassed the "Cheese Blitz," thinking it might be some kind of overwhelming seven-cheese compote that would erupt in my stomach, but then I lifted the lid and discovered blintzes.

There were actually three vans rented. As I was due to fly from Los Angeles to Anchorage late Monday afternoon (several hours after the rest of the company), I asked Dawn Marie if it happened to be convenient for me to return one of the vans, and voila, I had a car in L.A. for a day.

My first stop was Amoeba Music, where Erica and I had indulged in used CDs back in October, and I reacquainted myself with what a spectacular place it is. How can you go wrong in a store with a used Guillaume de Machaut section? Or a used Alfred Brendel Plays Beethoven section? I picked up a whole bunch of stuff I never would have thought of, simply because it was cheap and seemed interesting: Homage to Johannes Ciconia (ca. 1370-1412), Czech violin concertos by the Benda brothers, Grieg symphonic music, the Caucasian Sketches by Mikhail Mikhailovich Ippolitov-Ivanov, Alfred Brendel's rendition of Beethoven's variations on "Rule Britannia" - and, yes, Toby Keith's country album Pull My Chain, which features my favorite country song, "My List." A couple of years ago, when I was working in Pennsylvania and driving around a lot, I was pretty much guaranteed to hear the song once a day. But it's not played as often now, and it occurred to me that I might sometime want to hear the song other than on a country station - possibly even when I'm not driving.

Go for a walk, say a little prayer
Take a deep breath of mountain air
Put on my glove and play some catch
It's time that I make time for that
Wade the shore, cast a line
Look up an old lost friend of mine
Sit on the porch and give my girl a kiss
Start livin', that's the next thing on my list


My last stop in L.A. was lunch with Allan. We had burritos and then walked along Venice Beach, where I was offered hash only once. It was spectacular weather, and all the hawkers were outside peddling paintings and T-shirts and the like. I'm not much of a beach person, but I'd have loved to spend the whole day there.

Instead, I flew from Los Angeles to Anchorage via Seattle. Dinner options were dire in the Seattle terminal, and by the time I finally decided to pick up a bagel pizza, that place had closed. But not to fear; they served us a perfectly nutritious box snack on the Seattle-to-Anchorage flight. It consisted of a half-ounce of potato chips, six Ritz crackers, thirty-three raisins, two Oreo cookies, and a small stub of Toblerone chocolate. What I wouldn't have given for an insipid, frozen ham sandwich and a shriveled apple. I watched the movie, I'll Be There, and then dozed off and thought about what to do in Alaska.

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