Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category
In cities with public transportation, a subculture of completely random people exists. There are neighborhoods of people; families, cliques and groups, housemates, coworkers, students, mysterious strangers. Most of these people do not interact with each other, and yet the train is a social network that connects people in a special way. It’s my hope, through this series of short stories, to bring light to the tunnels below our feet, and discover the subculture that defines our cities.
I started riding the MBTA subway (a.k.a. “the T”) in Boston when I was a freshman in college. For locals to that area, it was the Green Line B train. I got my first tour of the city on that train as a pre-frosh in orientation. Some of the students I was with had never been to Boston, let alone the United States. It was a thrilling experience for all of us. Things seemed a lot bigger back then.
The trains looked old and heavily used. There was a “subway” smell of burnt rubber and hot metal that resonated. The sound of the electric current pushing the train forward was unique, almost unearthly. I took it all in as we got on the train like wandering tourists. People of all makes and sizes were already there, watching us enter the train with cautious yet indifferent eyes. The girls looked at the guys, and the guys looked at the girls.
Our orientation guide took us to Newbury Street for ice cream at J.P. Licks. I wandered off to a small bistro down the street with a guy I got chummy with that first day. That friendship was short-lived; we took different programs at school, and rarely saw each other after that.
The T fare used to be tokens before it changed to electronic cards and paper tickets. I remember the sound tokens made when dropped on the ground, like quarters on brick stone, echoing. Our guide gave us tokens that time around, but a monthly pass was essential later on to see every inch of Boston. And I would learn over the next few years, every inch of the city was different, and worth exploring.
Within two weeks, I was comfortable riding the T.
San Bernardino, CA
Before I knew it, I was at the train station in San Bernardino, and Barnhart, my host out there, was ten minutes away with his girlfriend, Gigi. “Don’t go exploring, you’re in gang territory,” says Gigi over Barnhart. “Gang territory?” (It kind of felt like a shady place to stick around.) “Yeah, you know, the Bloods and the Crypts do business out there. Don’t wear anything red.” I look down at my red plaid shirt, and I start to panic. “I’m wearing red. Come find me, now.” Gigi takes the phone and says, “Get yourself inside somewhere. We’re on our way,” and before the line cuts off, I hear her say “shit” under her breath.
I waited at the Doughnut King nearby. The nice Asian shop owner gave me some extra doughnuts with my egg, ham, and cheese sandwich order. It was terrible. I picked at it enough to get my fill just as Barnhart and Gigi arrived. I was so glad to be leaving that area; some kids were loitering outside the shop, giving me funny looks. Barnhart was driving a big white truck, holding a 64-ounce cup of diet coke from Circle K. We had a quick hug and shake, and I threw my bags in the backseat. Barnhart had a ruffled look about him, as if hadn’t slept much lately.
Barnhart used to work in real estate back east, but was originally from California. After a two-month solo adventure in Cambodia that almost got him arrested and killed, he returned home to begin more lucrative ventures. He started a delivery business that covers most of the area, and that has been his most recent passion project. For as long as I’ve known him, he has always worn Berkenstock sandals, in every occasion. Even in the midst of winter, he’d wear those sandals.
The drive was comical. Barnhart kept the 64-ounce cup of diet coke in his lap, and while driving with his left hand, he played the drums with a bound bundle of chopsticks in his right. The radio was not on, but still he kept a beat while asking me how things were going. The conversation was nice enough. On occasion he would drift into a separate conversation with Gigi, who sat in the back. The highway drive was dangerous like this, but I didn’t mind. My eyes were too busy looking out at the mountains ahead.
El Paso, TX
I don’t think my uncle wanted me to leave. I think he would have benefitted greatly if I stayed a couple months and helped him cope with loss, and possibly expand his business. I’m confident that my brief stay showed him that he has family that loves him in more places than one, and that he’s capable of so much as a bachelor. The sexual element of his freedom is not important; the prestige of independent success is worth fighting for. Again, he will do what he must to reconnect with his family. I’m but a catalyst in a post-divorce return to society, and he welcomed the gift of my presence as much as I welcomed all the things he taught me. Like a ripple effect in a great body of water, he and I made motions that would have never occurred if I didn’t take this journey. The need for our entire family to reconnect has never been more paramount. I left around 5pm, and ate a home-made burrito as the sun went down over New Mexico.
El Paso, TX
My uncle was well enough to work while I drove around El Paso. He suggested the main strip by UTEP, the University of Texas, El Paso. I took the CR-V (he bought two identical models, one for him, one for his ex-wife) on a brief jaunt through back roads that all looked the same. When I reached the UTEP district on North Mesa Drive, the advertising orgy was well underway. Franchise after franchise blocked my view of scenic panoramas. It jaded my experience because nobody seemed to care. The roads and parking lots were full of trucks and sport-utility vehicles and customized muscle cars and hot-wheels. The sidewalks had an occasional young professional or student couple visually swearing off consumer trends. Everything was Spanish; the shops, the colors, the street names, the murals, the music, the food, the fashion.
Kids here adopt a cultural vibe from Mexico, and while their families try to inherit the American Dream, they rebel with tattoos and piercings in tattered clothes and vibrant tributes to gang mentality. In this way, they are breaking the barriers, much like the physical barriers a few miles away. No matter where you go, people will talk about the battles against normalcy while drinking coffee from Starbucks. The great battle of El Paso is advertising your oasis in the desert. If it weren’t for that beautiful Thunderbird mountain with its beautiful colors watching over the valley below, I would lose myself in the expansive pavement terrain of suburban sprawl.
El Paso, TX
El Paso is an expansive suburban sprawl. Between mountains and valleys are ubiquitous mini mansions built with palm wood, stone, and red clay. The opportunity for unique, independent, interior design is lost in the faceless repetition of homes. Lawns with burnt-yellow grass are redeemed by epic Italian pines that seem anything but indigenous. Everything is spaced out and requires transportation. The roads are unrestricted playgrounds for billboard signage. Driving down I-10, there are as many ads on the highway as there are on the internet. Couple that with aggressive drivers who drink while driving, and I’m not surprised to hear how high the driver-fatality rate is.
But that’s just El Paso and its massive roads. The heart of my experience here belongs to my uncle. While we drive, observe the scene, and see the evolution of his achievements, he is coming to terms with divorce. He talks of mistakes that feel like opportunities left to wilt. Quotations from a former life begin to resonate with us, such as “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and I get the feeling he would give it all up to show his family how good a father he is. Instead, he now belongs to a community of bachelors who have a fringe-like influence on their children.
“You got to teach them how to shave,” I tell him as we drive away from the park where his ex-wife and kids are hanging out with other single mothers and their kids. He and I brought them doughnuts from Krispy Kreme. Minutes out of the day belong to bonding experiences shared between him and his two young, impressionable sons. He doesn’t blame his ex-wife. He blames himself. His work and his hobbies filled a void that family simply couldn’t. That was before he realized how important family is. In the absence of love, he would likely say, there is a void. To fill a void, you need a vacuum.