Day 1: Monday, May 27
Today begins the three-day train trek from Los Angeles to Chicago. I think having the right mindset for a journey of this sort, is one of the most important things you can pack in your bag. Since I didn’t sell anything at DragCon, I have to ship the unsold items, but, as it is a holiday—(Memorial Day); I realize nothing is open. I phone FedEx and am delighted when a person—not a machine—answer. I am so happy, I could cry. I am a very light traveler and these damn books and shirts, are anything but.
There is a Grocery Bargain Outlet about a 10-minute walk from my friend’s house. The morning is gorgeous; jasmine fills the air, sun streaks down the sidewalks, flowers are all in bloom, colors bursting off the sidewalk to greet me. Long Beach continually surprises and delights me. At Grocery Bargain Outlet, I spend $27.00 for train snacks: bagels, peanut butter, tuna, trail mix, Cup O’ Noodles, granola bars…If I can add water to it or it has a self-opening can, chances are good that it will end up in my bag. Back at my friend’s house, I box up the unsold books and shirts, write a thank you note, leave 2 lbs. of coffee and call a LYFT. While standing at the corner, waiting for the LYFT, I glance over and see the pillow I lost days ago, in the flower bed. Although that pillow is wet and dirty from spending three nights in the flower bed, I am I LOVE that pillow and am so happy to find him. I take it as a good sign, to start my trip. I pluck him up and we will continue our travels together. It’s important to have familiar things with you when you travel. For me, that is my pillow, P.J.’s and blanket.
The LYFT arrives and I head to the FedEx to box up my shirts and send them to Sister Fae in Nashville. It cost me $40.00, which sucks, but, I give hope my energy…hoping to sell in Nashville. When I was in Long Beach a few weeks back, I discovered that the train would not be stopping, as the tracks are under repair; a repair that is slated to last until September. Amtrak does not notify you of such things; you will not be alerted when you buy your ticket, no text or email will arrive. This will be a discovery you will make when you go to the train stop and depending on your mindset and preparation; it will be a discovery that you will embrace as part of the journey—or not.
I catch an 860 Express bus and am thankful the Express bus is running today. The Express bus will take about 45 minutes to go to LA via the freeway. When the Express bus is not running, you will spend two hours, on a bus with a heavy police presence, traversing the neighborhoods of Compton, Watts and South Central; which I have done three times this weekend already. Compton is the birthplace of gangsta rap, and although I have not seen the movie, Straight Outta Compton, outside my window, I see neighborhoods where slab stone tenements etch the sky, iron bars lace every window, tagged buildings, and gang graffiti are the norm, and tarp-covered shopping carts filled with doll heads and odd collections of discarded things dot the sidewalk at regular intervals, their owners close by. Compton has a history riddled with crime, corruption, and debt, one of the highest rates of unsolved homicides in LA County — and the only bulletproof drive-through funeral home in California.
I am able to take the bus to 7th/Metro and then a Purple Line—(underground) — to Union Station, which is a place I love.
For $10.00 and a valid Amtrak ticket, you can store your things with a porter and go explore downtown L.A. (DTLA.); which can work great if you have a lot of time—(which I do)—and want to explore DTLA—(which I don’t). Instead, I decide to forfeit the storage fee; and go outside to the lovely courtyard, overflowing with greenery and sunshine, benches flanking each side. I have downloaded several books on my Kindle—lately, a lot of free offerings have been available on Book Bub, and I always download them, just in case I find myself somewhere, needing to pass time. I head out, find a spot, cop a squat and let the sun beam down and breathe in; breathe out. This is what this journey is about.
At about 2 p.m., I decided to treat myself to lunch and a beer. It is a treat; because my next ‘real’ meal will be on Thursday in Nashville. I can almost taste the barbecue. I cross the street to Olvera Street; which is a historic Mexican Market that has been in existence since 1877, with official preservation efforts in earnest in 1930. I have Huevos Rancheros and a Heineken.
Olvera Street is a cool spot and is known as “the birthplace of Los Angeles,” capturing old-world Mexican charm and vibe. It is a block-long narrow, tree-shaded, brick-lined market with old structures, painted stalls, street vendors, cafes, restaurants, and gift shops and rated as a top 5 in the “Great Streets of America” journal. I am told that many of the folks hawking their wares, pottery, belts and folk art, are descendants of the original vendors. There is a cool Mariachi Band wandering around, filling the air with serenades.
Afterward, I head back to Union Station and visit the restroom, before boarding the train. I have been acutely aware of the police presence in Union Station and on all the public transit I have used. I have even taken to counting their numbers…and there are a lot. Their presence makes me feel both safe and nervous. I find myself wondering why so many police are needed, but really not wanting to know the answer. In the bathroom, I am accosted by a woman, tattoos covering her body, face, and shaved head. “What the f**k Medusa,” she yells at me. “Can’t you see, I’m using the bathroom?” I apologize and begin to back out of the cavernous, yet empty, the bathroom of Union Station. She charges towards me and throws her cold coffee on me. My lucky pillow catches most of it. The police promptly descend escorting me away, closing the restroom and calming Andrea down. I know her name is Andrea, as they are using her name and asking how they can help her, as they diffuse the situation.
I take my ticket and head to Track 9 to await Train 4 to Chicago. Soon a conductor comes up and tells us that the train will be coming on Track 11; we gather up our stuff and move to the other side.
The train arrives and for this first part of the journey, I will have a seat to myself. This makes a big difference when it is time to sleep. You can’t get great sleep on a train; but, if you can get some good sleep, I call it a win.
In the seat ahead of me, are a man (Reno) and his dog (Gerri). Donning a Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt and an inordinate amount of ink, I sense he has a story to tell. He is heading to Battle Creek Michigan, where his mother has bought a restaurant, which he will run. Reno and I head to the Observation car and as the afternoon fades into night, we begin to chat. Eventually, I hear part of his story; but, it is not my story to tell. It is the beginning of a new chapter and friendship, born on the rails of an Amtrak.
On the train, each car has its own coach car attendant, who oversees the needs of those car passengers. Our attendant is Eileen and she is what I imagine a Marine drill sergeant would be like. She immediately informed us of the rules; keep your shoes on when walking on the train, has an ID card available at all times, seat assignments, etc.…She has earned the Moniker Corporal Conductor, by the people in our car. A big rule for her is the ‘no outside alcohol’ policy. Federal regulations prohibit smoking anywhere on the train—(which I appreciate)—and no outside alcohol. She explains that there is a ‘licensed’ bartender in the lounge car—(using the word ‘licensed’ quite liberally)’ and advising us that there are Marshall’s on the train. If we are caught drinking outside alcohol, authorities will be waiting for us at the next stop, where we will be taken to jail and fined; both of which are hefty. Eileen is so stringent, that I tend to believe her; leaving my lovely flask of vodka untouched. About 9 p.m., I put on my PJ’s and eye mask and curl up under my blanket to grab some shuteye.