Friday, April 08, 2011

Bike-able Jersey City

My first piece for is now available for your reading pleasure!
A Self-Guided Jersey City Bike Tour

Friday, January 07, 2011

Lucky Last Night in L.A.

It was my first time. I swear I only had one drink. And really, it was more a matter of chance than anything else, but it happened. I won bingo at Hamburger Mary's in West Hollywood. According to my friend Nancy, I've been "WeHo'd."

We were attending a bingo night benefit at the popular LGBT haunt. These "legendary bingo" nights happen at least twice a week all year long, benefiting charities of all stripes. The beneficiaries for this game were a couple of people who were preparing to ride in AIDS/LifeCycle, a 545 mile bike ride from San Francisco to L.A. to raise money and for the San Fran AIDS Foundation as well as the HIV/AIDS services of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. This was definitely worth my 20 bucks.

Hamburger Mary's legendary bingo is not your grandmother's bingo. I can attest to this having actually played bingo with my grandmother many years ago in Florida. No, the winning games here mostly contain raunchy sexual terms and innuendos. I won at "Frank and Beans" where the winning bingo card is in the shape of...well, frank and beans; and if you don't get that, maybe you should stop reading now. The game is played like a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show with audience responses to the calling of various bingo numbers. For example, the drag queen choosing the bingo square calls out, "it's not malignant, it's..." and the audience responds "b-9!" Get it? That's one of the more tame examples and was easy to remember.

What did I get for my startlingly good luck? The prize was pretty fabulous. Some people got DVDs or gift certificates. I got bath products from a company called WEN. Yes! I love bath products. But winning bingo at Hamburger Mary's is not all glitz and glory. The MC (Bingo Boy) forces every winner to run through the restaurant while the losers pelt her (or him) with their losing bingo cards. There have been times in my life when I might have been a bit too reserved to go with this and enjoy it. That time has passed. I had a wonderful time with all of my friends whom I saw during my brief visit, but playing bingo with my friend Nancy and a bunch of women I'd just met was easily one of the most joyful nights I spent in L.A. Thanks to Nancy for taking me along.

After about six and a half days of L.A. - San Luis Obispo/Morro Bay - L.A., I finally have an opinion, however imperfect and spotty, of the city. I like L.A. and I want to go back...certainly before another 23 years pass. On my last day, the weather was warming up, the sun was out, and I was able to really enjoy the climate. I love warm weather. Recall my post from a few weeks ago and my relatively frequent trips to equatorial Africa? I am not a cold weather person. Then again I like the seasons and I can handle cold weather, probably better than most people in NYC. Is that a contradiction? Maybe, but it's not as if L.A. is sunny and 75 degrees year round. There is variation, just not as much as in New York. The city also has far more to offer than weather alone. L.A. has a sleek, clean subway that reaches several major areas of the city, a pretty cheap and reliable bus system, charming houses, compelling history, the Church of Scientology (come on, you know you love it), much more non-glitzy "culture" than most people give it credit for, a diverse population, fantastic food, mountains, ocean, dessert, and lush tropical flora dotting almost every street. Parts of the city remind me so much of other places I've been and lived, including NYC, that I feel quite comfortable there. The drawbacks, apart from earthquakes and water use issues, are not that different from most major cities. So I will say it again; I like L.A. and will visit again in the near future because I'd like to have a more intimate relationship with the sparkling belle of Southern California. This was just our first date.

(P.S. Why do I write L.A. with periods but NYC without them? Feel free to speculate.)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Getting Around In and Out of L.A.

I got up at 5:15 yesterday morning to catch the Rapid 733 bus from Mar Vista to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. The bus took about 55 minutes. My primary journey was on the Amtrak Surfliner up the California coast to San Luis Obispo, a 5 hour train ride, to meet up with my friend Jay for 24 hours. The goal? Enjoy the view.

On Monday, the day before my trip up the coast, I ventured into West Hollywood to lunch with my friend John at the Farmer's Market, next to the Disney-like outdoor mall called "The Grove." I had a shrimp taco at one of the permanent outdoor stands. The market, a rustic L.A. institution built during the first half of the 20th century, recalls New Orleans' French Quarter in terms of the food offerings and the atmosphere, except that my shrimp taco, while good, was not quite as fabulous as a shrimp po-boy. I had taken the bus to get to my destination. I have found the L.A. bus system to be quite good, but I've really only taken the "Rapid" busses, i.e. the expresses, so I have a rather one-sided view. Still, they are clean, cheap - $1.50 for a Rapid - and the drivers are courteous. They are also rarely crowded, at least in comparison with NYC busses. It is possible to "do L.A.," indeed to live here, without using a car. However, I can see why a car would be preferable. The bus is fairly convenient, but it can take awhile to get from point A to point B depending on where A and B are located. John rides a bike everywhere, avoiding main drags as much as possible. Out here, where cold rainy weather is far from the norm, that is a reasonable way to get around.

After lunch I walked to Hancock Park and finally got to visit the famous Rancho La Brea Tar Pits. While this does appeal to me as someone who studies fossils, it also appeals to the child in me. The tar pits are cool...plain and simple. The outdoor display of a mammoth family getting stuck in the tar, dramatizing how all of these creatures managed to become preserved over thousands of years, is corny, but I still loved it.

Next to the mammoth family is the Page Museum where the fossils (or at least the casts) are on display. The museum is small, and a bit old, having been built in the 1970s, but the exhibits are not too out-dated. I do think that the short film explaining the history of the tar pits is in desperate need of revision, but the fossils are the reason to go there and really they are sufficient, at least for me. The other exhibits are decent and some even charming. Who would want to do away with the animatronic saber-toothed cat attacking the giant sloth? It is such fun, if a little clunky. The fossils themselves are spectacular. I know of no other deposits where such phenomenal preservation has occurred. Granted, I am not, strictly speaking, a paleontologist, so there may be places of which I am unaware. Regardless, these bones are incredible. Complete skeletons exist, literally millions of bones representing thousands of individual mammals and birds. One display shows hundreds of foot bones from one eagle species. Another display shows hundreds of skulls from the extinct Dire Wolf. It allows us to see how much variation there was within one species. Where else can one see this in extinct animals other than trilobites? There is even a femur from a female human. I had not known prior to my visit that any human remains had been found in the tar pits. So I learned something new.

The fossils at Rancho La Brea span tens of thousands of years, from about 38,000 years ago until quite recently. However, the most famous creatures, the saber-toothed cats, the American lions, the mammoths, mastodons, and giant sloths...they went extinct somewhere between 12,000 and 4,000 years ago depending on which species we are referring to. They were "Ice Age" North American megafauna, and they were indeed large. The lion was around the size of a modern Amur ("Siberian") tiger, the largest of the extant great cats, and the Columbia mammoths could grow to about 13 feet tall. Obviously the "giant" sloths were massive. There is still no consensus as to why they all went extinct. Was it due to the arrival of weapon-wielding humans? Was it climate change? Was it some combination or something that we have not yet considered? We don't know, but there are strong opinions on each side batted about in the academic literature.

It is incredible to imagine the Ice Age megafauna here in California, existing in such large numbers. Humans are everywhere now and as much as I value our existence, I feel the absence of those glorious animals as I journey back down the coast. There are no pronghorn antelopes frolicking in the grass (though one species of pronghorn does still exist in North America), no mammoths grazing, no lions lounging under a tree, waiting for dusk. Maybe it is because I have spent time in Africa, where modern relatives of those mammals still live in a landscape that is in many ways quite similar to this one. Or maybe I just like to think about what it would be like to encounter a saber-toothed cat. Something fantastic is missing here.

My route up and now back down the coast on The Amtrak Surfliner is popular with good reason, despite the absence of Ice Age megafauna, but I think we've established that my perception on this issue is a bit out of the mainstream. The train takes you along the Pacific coast, often right up to the water's edge. On a clear day, which I am most fortunate to have, given the recent wet weather in SoCal, it is stunning. The only minor impediments to the eye are the oil tankers occasionally dotting the horizon. Beyond the tankers, and for a long stretch of the ride, are massive islands. I never knew there were islands off the Pacific coast. These remind me of the islands of Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Increasingly, every place I go reminds me of someplace I've been and ultimately they all mesh together in my mind, which could explain my strange déjà vu on Monday evening. I was walking from the bus stop to a small market on Venice Blvd to pick up a few items in order to cook dinner for my gracious hosts, when I suddenly felt that I'd been there before, or somewhere like it. Though I could not place the source of the feeling, it seemed to be from a long time ago. I enjoyed the vague emotional recall. I wonder if someday, when I am old and senile I will subconsciously mix all of my travels together. Maybe I will condense them into one outrageous yarn, much to the delight of small children and strangers.

Currently I am heading back to L.A. for my last evening before returning home. My trip to visit Jay was short but worth every moment of amazing food, breath-taking vistas and good conversation. His family lives near San Luis Obispo in a small town called Morro Bay. We lunched at a little Mexican spot called Mi Casa, which has excellent chips and fresh salsa, then drove out to an area south of town where we left the car behind and gradually hiked out to the beach. We wandered along the trail far above the water, watching waves crash dramatically against rocks down below, taking in the sweet scent of wild sage along the way. Eventually we climbed down the step-like shale to a small patch of beach filled with smooth stones, mollusk shells, purple algae, and even the rare abalone. I made a small collection to bring home and marveled at the surfer who came in from the ocean wearing a helmet. Anyone who would brave those waves and sharp rocks must be intimately familiar with the tides and their underwater landscape.

We made our way back to town just before sunset and headed out to Morro Rock to watch the last few minutes of daylight recede. Morro Rock is a giant formation that is slowly crumbling. Small boulders litter the ground and rock climbing is strictly forbidden, though of course someone makes a go of it every now and then. I snapped far too many sunset photos and got excited every time the waves crashed against the rocks. It is remarkable that something as formless as water can exert such force. I doubt I would ever tire of watching it happen were I to live in a place like that.

For dinner we ventured back to San Luis Obispo. We ate at a restaurant called Big Sky Café where I enjoyed the onion soup with golden raisins. Think French onion soup without the cheese and bread, but with sweet soft raisins and a few croutons for added heartiness. It was exquisite. After a big meal and a hot cup of roobois tea, I slept well. I am sorry that I did not get a chance to thank Jay's parents for their hospitality, but the entire excursion, train ride included, was a wonderful way to spend 24 hours. I did indeed enjoy the view.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Wackness That is L.A.

Charming, beautiful, ageless strangers in their best cocktail wear at Bar Chloe in Santa Monica on New Year's Eve, with too-expensive Stella Artois, warm bodies lightly touching as they move through the crowded club, silky fabrics, dim lights and dance rhythms was a great way to spend the holiday. I met a group of wonderful ladies (including a jewelry designer whose elegant pieces you can order here), one lovely man, and flirted with everyone. I am visiting my friend Paige, though I know several other people scattered about L.A., and have now met many more. It is my favorite part of traveling, meeting people. I have realized over the years that I collect them. I connect, collect, re-connect, and I may suddenly show up one day asking to sleep on your couch. But I will also return the favor, cook you a tasty meal and even do the dishes. And couch-surfing is indeed what I am doing here...figuratively. On New Year's Eve I slept soundly on an Ikea futon cushion on the floor of an apartment in Venice. The following night I dreamt Grimm's-like visions of forests and wolves at Paige's place. Tomorrow I'll head up the coast to my friend Jay's parents' home, and my last night will be spent at my friend Nancy's apartment. It is a whirlwind itinerary on paper, but day-to-day it has been low key.

I am taking it slow, savoring each moment. I have no major plans apart from visiting friends and seeing a few museums, eating a taco or two, and writing. New Year's day was spent walking on Venice Beach, watching people. The tourists wore shorts, the locals heavy jackets, but everyone donned sunglasses and enjoyed the bright blue sky. Often, I was watching people and their dogs. The dog culture here appears to rival that of New York. Dogs are everywhere, and the only difference I have noted so far is that in New York they may be allowed into a greater proportion of retail establishments than here. For every dog person there was some other wacky individual making him or herself noticeable or at least at home. It's hard to say whether the extreme individuality is a result of comfort or exhibitionism. There was a 60ish man dancing in shorts and no shirt next to the skateboard ramps in the heart of Venice in between roller bladers, some of whom appeared to be swing dancing; there were kids skateboarding, even girls, something I've rarely witnessed in my life; small children sledded down the low sand dunes; and an older woman wearing a heavy winter coat and cashmere beret sat in a lawn chair on the beach near the pier, reading a book with an empty chair beside her, perhaps waiting for someone. Eccentricity is an understatement here.

Yesterday morning, Paige and I took a walk to the Farmer's Market on Grand View in Mar Vista where I ate a scrumptious savory crepe with fresh spinach, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, drank coffee served up by Homeboy Industries, and purchased fresh January! It seems so wrong to this Northern girl, but I'm not complaining. After our food shopping excursion we stopped at Soaptopia, a local soap maker on Venice Blvd. If I lived here I would be a regular. They offer soap-making classes, sell all-natural products and deliver nationwide. If you like yummy bath products, you must visit their website.

The rain hit around midday and indecisively sputtered on and off into this morning. It is a shame on one level, but in the grand scheme of things it does not make a difference to me. I visited with a friend for lunch in Santa Monica and then went to the Getty Villa where we briefly admired various Greek, Roman and Etruscan relics, making the most of the gray, chilly, dampness. The museum itself is small but the grounds are stunning, and worth the visit even in the rain.

I keep saying that I am in "L.A." but in truth I have not really seen L.A. since I've been here...not in the proper sense. I have been in the greater metropolitan area. Today I will see more of the city when I visit with another friend in West Hollywood. More on that later.

I'm not sure what I think of the city yet, but one thing that I was sold on immediately is the plant life. The combination of the plants and the home architecture makes me think of South Africa, but without all of the high security fences. The plants are glorious. The cars I could do without.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Places We Think We Hate...and Love

One of the many travel bloggers I follow recently posted a thoughtful piece on how much he hates Los Angeles. The point of the entry was not "why I hate L.A." but rather "why DO I hate L.A.?" Why does anyone "hate" a place where they have never lived, or possibly never even been? I could apply this just as easily to why some people "hate" certain public figures like Oprah or Michael Moore. How can you really hate what you don't know? To push it a bit in the other direction, how can you hate what you DO know? I like to think we can find something non-hate-worthy in everything.

I am not interested in delving into this topic in some broadly philosophical way. Rather I want to explore my own perceptions of the places I have been and the places I will go. I am going to Indiana for Christmas, to visit family and friends. Then I am going to L.A. for New Year's to see more friends and enjoy a little bit of warmish weather (let's hope this is not a repeat of my freezing New Orleans adventure last January). My associations with these two places are worlds apart. Having lived in NYC or at least the Tri-State area for 17 1/2 years, I no longer identify as a Hoosier. I never fit in all that well to begin with, and now when I go "home" I focus on the things I did love...people. True, there is some pride associated with being from a small town in the midwest, but most of that pride comes from shallow boasts such as being able to tolerate blizzards considerably better than New Yorkers. But I spent years going on and on about how much I hated Indiana, how much I hated my hometown of Plymouth and how much I hated small town politics. Being from the place, there may have been some basis for my bitterness, but really, what did I hate so much? I had a fairly cushy childhood. I was a good student, I sang in swing choir and acted in school plays, played drums in the band and was one of the "stars" of the speech team (not tooting my own horn here, I actually won quite often). I also had good friends and a supportive family. If I had to pinpoint the one thing that distinguished growing up in a small town from that of a big city, it would be simply this - I lacked anonymity. It was never true that I lacked opportunity, but I believed I did, and I wanted out.

With my friend Beth...and Miny the cat (as in eeny, meeny, miny, mo) in my backyard...circa...1987ish?
I managed to get out. Then at some point I realized I don't hate Indiana anymore. True, I would never want to live there again, but I don't hate it. Maybe I never did. Maybe I have softened over the years. Or maybe it is from having traveled to other places in the world, finally seeing what I thought I was missing. Most likely, that contributed to a new worldview, one which includes my hometown in a more loving, respectful way. Now I think about the vitriol I once spewed and I'm a little bit disgusted with myself. There was no cause to hate. There rarely is. What is striking is that as far I can recall, there has never been another place for which I felt such revulsion. This brings me to Los Angeles. Unlike my fellow blogger, I do not hate L.A. I kind of love it. But I'm not sure why. My family lived in Riverside, California when I was three, a city east of L.A. We were there for less than a year. And hey, I was three; I don't exactly have meaningful memories of the place apart from some vague, playful memory of trying to ride my neighbor's dog. Yet I was apparently quite distraught when we moved back to Indiana ("back" because I was in fact born there). From that point forward, I associated L.A. with something I'd lost and something I wanted very badly. It was a big city, it was on the coast, it was filled with mysterious strangers and endless was far far away from Plymouth, Indiana...and I dreamed of going back.

When I was 13, my dream partially came true. My parents and I went to L.A. for spring break and I eagerly absorbed every eclectic aspect of our experience. My mom's cousin lived there. She was (and still is) an art dealer. She had fascinating artist friends. Her daughter took riding lessons at the same place where Loretta Swit rode (I know this because we saw her in the bathroom). We ate some of the best food I'd ever tasted and shopped at the Beverly Center. How much more glamorous and exciting could it get for a midwestern teenager? To add to L.A.'s allure, I was deeply in love with the "hair band" movement taking MTV and VH1 by storm in the mid-late '80s. Yes, I was one of those kids. L.A. was the epicenter of that movement (I realize "movement" is a gross exaggeration, but I feel it necessary to add some kind of self-respect to those trashy musicians who I once so admired). L.A. was where I wanted to be. Alas, it was back to Plymouth after a week. Apart from Chicago, I would not see one of our country's major cities again until I was 17 (I don't count Washington, D.C.). That trip was to New York City for a national speech tournament. It took me approximately zero minutes to fall in love with NYC. It was a no-brainer. I was home. Two years later I moved here. My first apartment was in a residential hotel on the Upper West Side. I attended a musical theater conservatory, shopped at Fairway, hung out in Sheep Meadow late at night with my acting buddies and ate bagels every day. But I never lost any love for L.A. Yes, I went through one of those typical New Yorker/Woody Allen-esque phases where I scoffed at the idea of ever living in L.A. The shallowness, the absurd health trends and lack of any "real" culture...but that was just my new hometown snobbery talking. I was going along with it. The truth is, deep down, I never stopped feeling like I was missing out on something that only existed in Southern California.

During my last trip to SoCal - San Diego 2006
Before you start asking the obvious next question, no, I am not thinking of moving. I love the East Coast despite my annual whine about "why do I live someplace that gets cold during the winter?"...and I have no intention of leaving. But since this is a travel blog, I hope that I will be able to talk about many future visits to L.A. and other areas of the West Coast in the years to come. I don't know if I am really missing out on anything there, but whatever I think I love must be worth exploring.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Exploring the Familiar

A great journey can happen, from start to finish, quite close to home. It can happen three blocks away. In fact, it can happen in one's home, or one's new home as the case may be. I am moving. It is not the first time I've lived alone, but it will be the first time I've done so in a space other than a shoebox-sized, cockroach-infested rooming house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That building is now being transformed from an SRO (single resident occupency) unfit for rats much less people, to either a boutique hotel or swanky new apartments. Such is my completely uninformed speculation. In sharp contrast, my new place is a real home with so much more to discover than the peeping tom who used to try to watch me shower. (Long story.) My new neighborhood is a precious little slice of Jersey City called Bergen Hill. It is a historic district on a hill, as the name suggests, and the view from my windows looks out from the summit north east toward downtown JC and Manhattan. Summit Avenue is the name of my new street. Perhaps it is the highest point in JC. I'm not sure, but on a clear day I will see Brooklyn. The heart of the "hill" is my new house. It is the oldest house in the hood, built in the 1860s by a man whose name and history I will have to write about at some other point as they escape me at the moment. Being a huge fan of old houses, and having lived in them most of my life, I am thrilled about this move. It took me approximately 30 seconds to decide that I wanted the place.

There is an enticing mystery about old houses. I like to imagine what life was like when they were built, what the challenges and the attitudes were of the people who lived there. But I don't need an old house to get this excited about moving. Each time I move, I get a little hit of the travel rush. There are hole-in-the-wall spots that only the locals know about, hidden architectural gems around the corner and maybe even cobble stone streets waiting to be explored, to be trod upon. Yet this apartment is so close to where I live now that I am only changing my daily commute by a few streets, a few different buildings to drive past, a different main drag to stroll along. The wonder is in how much that does not diminish my excitement for my new territory. If I were a cat I would have untold number of creaky old basement windows to sneak into, trees to climb, and territorial boundaries to mark on moonlit nights as I wandered between houses in search of food. Exploration could go on indefinitely in this stunning neighborhood that I did not know existed only one month ago. The distance from my current home may not be far as the crow flies, but it is worlds away as my eager heart sees it.

I don't want to imply that this is the perfect situation. There is no such thing and in fact part of what makes it interesting is its utter lack of perfection. There is no coffee shop on the corner and for the first time since the late '90s I will not have laundry in my building, but I never really had a coffee shop on the corner, I prefer my french press anyway, and the upcoming laundry schlep is a small inconvenience well worth the price of my beautiful new digs. The house itself is in need of thorough exploration, but the neighborhood, the history and the tiny park across the street will be the primary targets of my wanderlust, at least for the first few months.

There is a more self-reflective piece to this story. This move represents a new phase in my life in more ways than one...physical, emotional, even intellectual. I am taking a semester off from school and exploring my own motivation, not just for academia, but for everything in my life. The travel analogy is useful here because when we travel, we notice things. Alain De Botton called this a "traveling mindset." My expository writing students would surely appreciate that I am discussing this on my personal blog, but it is a useful and I think important thing to consider. When we travel to a place that is new to our senses, we are overwhelmed in many ways but we also notice details that locals take for granted. We notice colors and language and smells, the shapes of buildings, the way the streets curve or do not, and when we move to a new place, whether it is literal or figurative, we are stimulated in much the same way. The difference, the place where the analogy falls apart, is when we have been in that place for an extended period of time. Maybe it takes one month, maybe one year, but we reach a point where the newness fades and we may even forget all of those glorious details that at first drew us in and excited us. This is normal. We all do it, but maybe if we seek out a new route to work now and then, or get a drink at the bar on the corner that we always thought was too skeevy to go into, we can discover something extraordinary in our all-too-familiar surroundings. We can challenge ourselves in ways that enrich our lives. People who travel as a way of life often find that being in one place for too long makes them restless. Indeed, the more I have traveled over the years, the more quickly I find myself in this place. I crave newness, something to explore. And it turns out that there is always something new to explore, or something old, it is only a matter of looking, really looking, as if for the first time.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Travel Poem

Meditation on Africa

Six trips to Africa
And what do I have to show?
Beaded earrings, necklaces
A bracelet or two
Desert stones, a seed husk from a tree I cannot identify
Memories and photos
Barack Obama kanga purchased on the roadside in Tanzania
A friend
A namesake

Six trips to Africa
Ghana, Ethiopia
Kenya and South Africa twice
And finally Botswana
Picking up bits of Twi, Amharic, Swahili
I never managed Zulu
There was not time for Setswana
Countless marriage proposals I could not understand

Six trips to Africa
And what have I learned?
Stigmas prevail
HIV, homosexuality
Heineken is preferred over Windhoek and Castle
Malaria is miserable and prophylaxes are ineffective
Ghana has the best food
Kenya the most breathtaking landscape
The best fossils…”Kenya dig it?”

Six trips to Africa
And I want even more to immerse my heart in the place
That has given me so much
A richly complex element to my morality, my mortality
My white skin paled against the landscape
Leaving its mark on me
Faint sunspots emerging after each foray to the equator
Exchanges of bananas for t-shirts and cheap cotton dresses
Echos of an idea I once had about doing…something

Six trips and Africa
Is my second home
Where I am not at home, but challenged
Geometric patches on my National Geographic map
It is a vast space even in miniature
Barely known to me, to its permanent residents
Six trips
I have just begun to explore
And truly sought far too little