On the Train 15 – El Paso (Part 2)

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

On the Train 14 – El Paso (Part 1)

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.

On the Train 13 – Valentine

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

On the Train 9 – Chicago (Part 2)

Chicago, IL
2/16/2011

My exodus from Chicago was bittersweet. I was in love with a new city, and wasn’t ready to leave. I picked up my bags from the hotel after relaxing at the Cultural Center, and walked slowly up West Adams Street to Union Station. My train was waiting for me, and I boarded it like a commuter on a subway. My companion on the trip to New Orleans was a man named Lee. He was a big, portly black man with a sunny disposition and a mild twang in his voice. He told me he was on his way to a funeral somewhere near Jackson, Mississippi. It’s an odd thing; we dress so well to celebrate the passing of loved ones. Our “Sunday Finest” has purpose on the grassy knolls of buried siblings. He was pensive, despite his friendly nature. He listened with quiet, observant eyes and ears to the folks around us, telling their stories and commenting on life. He did a cross-country ride like mine before, when he was younger. Now, he told me, he was doing it out of necessity. He won’t fly in airplanes anymore. He remembers the sacrifices of long-distance travel, but keeps a good mind about it. He was raised in Amish country. He fought in Vietnam – saw some terrible things on those recon boats and helicopters – and came back in one piece, to live his life one day at a time from then on.

Lee had little else to come back to after that war, except for the lucrative jobs that were labor intensive. He went where the wind took him. He worked on a fishing boat for a few days, catching fish, shrimp, whatever the oceans provided, but along the way his experiences at war came back to haunt him. He quickly washed his hands of a life at sea, and became a man of the earth. He worked on a wheat fields in rural America for a while, earning a living with crops, and adjusting to a simpler life. One day, he found a car for sale. It wasn’t for sale; it was free, as long as he could fix the engine. He spent his free time fixing that engine and got it working within weeks. It was an old car with no top, red, and he took it across the country, picking up some of the beatnik generation along the way. I smiled and thought of that conversation I had with Epstein on our way to the Washington Monument. For all I knew, Lee was the one who drove those great minds across the country.

On the Train 8 – Chicago (Part 1)

Chicago, IL
2/15/2011

Photo Credit - Margaret Bourke-White

I went to the Art Institute after a late lunch at the Artist’s Café, and got to enjoy a photo exhibit on level 1. The entire floor was dedicated to the works of Margaret Bourke-White and Bernice Abbott. Both depicted wholly American cultures during the onset of the Depression. Their collections captured values of authenticity and balance. While Abbott’s set, entitled “Changing New York” was a portrait project of the city, Bourke-White’s set focused on the struggling conditions of rural farmers. Both delivered iconic themes and experiences that emphasize the presence of human struggle during a period of cultural and social transition. It was an eye-opening display of our nation’s history.

The city walk continued after the museum closed. Gigantic skyscrapers, nestled in a dense neighborhood of commercialism, made the city atmosphere feel organic despite the lack of natural zest. It’s what a city ought to look like, timeless, historic, but always evolving with innovation. I was exhausted after circling the downtown area for hours. My mind was full of emotions and sensations from the new experiences, and despite my intentions to see a jazz show at the famous Green Mill Jazz Club, I stayed in the city to eat the best ribs in town and get drunk off an array of local microbrews.