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Posts Tagged ‘culture

On the Train – 19

Redlands, CA
2/24/2011

Olive Street

I wake up to an empty home. I clean up and get a call from Barnhart sometime before lunch. He’s coming to pick me up; he doesn’t want me or anyone to be around when Gigi’s mom comes back to the house. I ask him why, and he tells me about this time when she walked in on him having a threesome with Gigi in her bedroom. It’s been awkward ever since.

He takes me on a random drive around town. While on the road, he asks me how wild he thought things would get while I’m out here. I didn’t really know what he was getting at. Before we parked the truck on an open strip of road somewhere, Barnhart tells me that Al Gore bought up a bunch of property in this area.

I had to put the pieces together myself, and despite my comfort in drug procurements, meth is not pot, and your average meth dealer is not a cool hippy-type. They’re criminally-charged, deranged, and insecure.

We’re two white guys with North Face jackets and jeans walking through a suburban jungle. Barnhart walks alongside me with his 64-ounce cup of diet coke, telling me about the nature of fear. He must have smelled it on me… He tries to reassure me by saying “you need to control that fear, and not be controlled by it.” As insane as that sounds, walking together through this dangerous neighborhood, I get the idea.

“Look at the pictures on my phone, and go walk down to that red car over there and see if anyone’s inside.” We approach a corner, and he points to the red car with tinted windows at the end of the street, 500 yards away. I ask him “I can’t go in with you?” and he says “No, but I’ll be quick, in and out, before you’re back.”

I take his phone and begin snapping pictures with it. I lose my fear of the neighborhood as my artistic eye dilates. In this neighborhood, many things are worth photographing. An American flag is torn and twisted up in a gated fence, surrounded by tropical brush, palm trees, and overgrown garden décor. I had just snapped a picture of the American flag.

A man who looks like a biker with black sunglasses on appears behind the fence, breaking through the jungle of tree brush that made up his backyard. “Excuse me; are you taking pictures with that phone right here? If you are, you’re gonna’ stop right now.” Barnhart appears from around the front of the house, takes his phone back, and says, laughing, “Dude, you can’t be taking pictures out here.”

“If he takes anymore pictures, I’m gonna’ have to knock his ass out.” Barnhart’s voice flutters as he says “it’s alright, I’m deleting them.” The biker asks me “what are you doing here?” and Barnhart replies for me, “He’s with me.” I say “I’m just along for the ride” and the biker says, “ride’s over; now get the fuck out of here.”

“Don’t ever put me in that position again,” I tell Barnhart when we get back to the truck. We sit there a few minutes to hash out the last ten. He tells me I have nothing to worry about, because “he knows me.” The rest of the ride was relatively quiet, aside from Barnhart’s reassuring comments about drugs in California.

We go back to his place on Olive Street, and I put on a James Bond flick. Barnhart disappears into his bedroom to smoke his meth. I watch him. He digs deep into the folds of his ass to pull out a tiny ball of saran wrap. He carefully cracks it open to examine the product and sets it down on a book while he shuffles round for his pipe. His pipe looks like a ball lollipop, discolored by smoke and resin. The ball is blackened under a point where the meth is deposited. He picks up the delicate collection of white and drops about a third of it into the ball. He shakes it around to make a small island of meth. He sparks a flame, and before he smokes it, says “you might want to try this, it’ll clear your sinuses right up.” He then proceeds to hold the flame for several seconds under the pipe and inhales a thick cloud of white smoke.

He smoked that little island of meth twice, rotating the ball in his hand, burning all the resin inside. And then he proceeded to work on his website. I lost sight of him as I watched the movie and passed out an hour in. I wake up around six, and Barnhart is still plugging away. Without looking away from his laptop, he tells me we’re picking up Gigi after work and going to a place called Eureka!Burger for dinner. My spirits are lifted; I love burger joints. I also feel less sick, so I’m motivated to go out and make the most of it. We pick Gigi up at the hospital a half-hour later.

Written by Zucker

September 26, 2011 at 8:00 AM

On the Train – 18

San Bernardino, CA
2/23/2011

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.

The Mountains of Redlands

Written by Zucker

September 14, 2011 at 8:00 AM

On the Train – 17

San Bernardino, CA
2/23/2011

Morning Arrival

I feel a cold coming on. The lack of sleep, water, and nutrition is catching up with me. The last couple weeks have kept my body in a state of fast-moving culture shock, and at last, I’m starting to crack under the pressure. Maybe it’s the air. I was told by a couple people on the train that LA’s pollution can make people sick. It didn’t take long for the microbial bacteria to find another sucker to infect. I felt it give me a sore throat. I tried drinking lots of water while I was on the Metrolink to San Bernardino, but I was distracted by the need to capture the sights I saw. It was not always pleasant to see the transformation.

View from the Metrolink

Mountainous valleys are surrounded by wispy clouds. Lots are full of disassembled cars, parts, steel girders and rusting industrial leftovers. There are graveyards full of junk. Neighborhoods without end are full of track homes and swimming pools. Some of them are crystal clean, and others are murky, green, or bone dry. A lot of good and bad graffiti decorate the walls surrounding these track home neighborhoods. A small playground sandlot is in the middle of a dangerous area. A storage lot the size of several football fields holds a closet full of someone’s life. So monotonous.

A patio table and umbrella rest between two cars in a warehouse parking lot… A Zen rock garden rests next to basketball courts, next to an outdoor hockey rink, next to tennis courts, next to an open field, next to a parking lot, next to a gas station, next to a gentlemen’s club… A man stands around a barrel bonfire, under a tree, surrounded by children’s toys. A junkyard has a special hanger meant solely for car bumpers. A few first-generation trees remain in an empty plot of land. A dead bird cooks on the ceramic tiles of a Spanish shingle roof. I can stare at the sun because the clouds cover it just enough to look like a full moon in a clear night sky.

Written by Zucker

August 19, 2011 at 8:00 AM

On the Train – 16

El Paso, TX
2/22/2011

Sunset

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.

Written by Zucker

August 10, 2011 at 8:00 AM

On the Train – 15

El Paso, TX
2/21/2011

Stranded in the Parking Lot

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.

Obscure Likeness

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.

Gang Graffiti

Written by Zucker

July 24, 2011 at 8:00 AM

On the Train – 14

El Paso, TX
2/20/2011

Backyard Sprawl

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.

Italian Pine Trees

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.

Written by Zucker

July 12, 2011 at 10:31 AM

On the Train – 13

Valentine, TX
2/19/2011

Empty Morning Gray

Oceans of brush and rivers of sand exist everywhere out here. There are small dirt roads for dune buggies and motorbikes, but nobody rides on them. A mist covers the land all morning, and the cacti feast and make the most of it. Down the car, a mother scolds her child with threats of punishment that make me sad. There is a road following our train, and outposts every so many miles. Little towns exist near every outpost. A small, malnourished cow eats from a small, withering shrub. Everything misses the water. A small group of cows with visibly tough skin watch our train go by from a distance. There is no farm in sight, and no signs of domestication beyond the ubiquitous wire fencing that follow us on the left.

Sand Mountains

So many hills surround us on all sides. I imagine a grand body of water once existed here, and those hills were the islands that fostered primitive life. Now, they are the first thing to feel the sun’s hot kiss. Another small group of skinny cows gather around a small cement trough. The beauty in this vast open landscape is lost in the fact that, like a desert, it exists without end. The presence of water is very much like the hope of finding sustainable life. What you may find out here is more insular that you can imagine. A livelihood in the dry brush is a test of endurance. The air is thin, and I can see for miles, and all I see is an empty canvas for artists to paint in red.

Before arriving in El Paso, we stopped in Valentine, Texas. The conductor made a point to tell us Valentine has no grocery store, and yet it has a Prada outlet store. I shook my head in disbelief. You can’t buy food, but you can buy thousand-dollar handbags and designer shoes on a whim. There’s a mattress under a leafless tree nearby, and homes look just as run down as the ones I saw in Baltimore. We would soon move on to richer pastures. There is an abundance of tumbleweeds along the way, and I wonder why they choose to tumble alone when they go so well together.

Town from the Train

Written by Zucker

June 17, 2011 at 8:00 AM

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