In the Big City

Carl Sandburg said Chicago was the “City of the Big Shoulders” and if he meant wide streets and tall buildings he was on the mark. There was something broad and sprawling about the Windy City and it had a wide-open feeling to it. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has a more cramped, high-density vibe. Nonetheless we enjoyed our first foray into the City of Brotherly Love. We walked west this afternoon from our hotel in the Convention Center along Market Street and crossed the Schuykill River into the University District. Both the Drexel and Penn Campuses are between 30th and 40th Streets. Our first NoirCon event was a screening of the 1951 film noir The Prowler. A fascinating and thoroughly creepy movie starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, the screenplay, credited to Hugo Butler, was actually written by Dalton Trumbo who was blacklisted at the time. I remember reading his novel Johnny Got His Gun in high school. After the showing Eddie Muller gave a talk about his experiences tracking down the original 35mm prints of The Prowler and showing it to film festival audiences as well as interviewing Evelyn Keyes for his book Dark City Dames. I’m a huge fan of Mr. Muller and it was great to actually meet him in person. He saw my Giants hat and I got a fist bump, he’s a fan. I told him that my mom is responsible for my love of both noir and baseball and that she loved his book. He asked if she was still alive and when I said yes he said “well, give her my best.” You bet I will. I also shook hands with another author I’m a big fan of and that’s Christa Faust, creator of the Angel Dare series for Hard Case Crime. I told her my wife and I are desperately awaiting the third installment and she said that Angel’s next adventure will take place in the world of rodeo, much like the previous book was set in the world of MMA fighting. So, that was fun.

We took the subway back to the hotel and decided to head out to the Spring Garden area for a visit to the Prohibition Taproom on 13th Street. The walk there was short but through some dodgy looking areas but the place itself was inviting and comfortable. We had excellent food and they even served up a cask ale. In England they would have called this a “gastropub” meaning it had a homey atmosphere and catered to beer drinkers but served upscale cuisine. It was easily our favorite spot on the trip so far. After that it was a short but confusing walk to the PhilaMOCA (Philadelphia Museum of Contemporary Art) which despite the high-falutin’ name is a real hole-in-the-wall and hard to find. The NoirCon panels were interesting and we stuck around for most of them. We stepped outside and decided to avoid walking strange streets at night and looked for a cab. Sure enough I hardly thought about the right corner to stand on to hail one and a taximan pulled over as if he were reading my mind. Like I said earlier you can tell a great city by how easy it is to get a ride!

Tomorrow the conference opens officially at the Society Hill Playhouse early in the morning and continues late into the night. Happy Hallowe’en!

Philadelphia and NoirCon

We are finally settled in and not sleep-deprived. The Giants won the World Series a little before midnight Eastern time, that is, all the hype died down enough to actually get some sleep by then. We were exhausted after the tense game and the 20-plus hour train/bus adventure. Today we are refreshed, coffee’d and breakfasted, and catching up on mundane tasks like laundry. Hard to be on the road for over a week and not need some fresh underwear and socks! Finally we get to start our NoirCon experience. If you don’t know what I mean by “noir” then click the tab on my web page that says “What is Noir?” and find out. This afternoon we head to the University District for a film (“The Prowler”) at the International House hosted by a man they call the Czar of Noir, San Francisco’s Eddie Muller. See, say “noir” so it rhymes with “czar.” We hope to walk to the event but we don’t know the city so we’ll find out what’s what before we go. Then there is an evening program just a couple of blocks from here at the Museum of Contemporary Art. You can check out the schedule here. I will be posting to this site of course and also contributing to the Out of the Gutter Online website about the events over the next few days. I’ll put up some pictures as well. Naturally we will be sporting the orange-and-black for our boys. Perfect for Hallowe’en, too!

Travel Torture

On Tuesday the 28th at 1840 Central we depart Chicago Union Station right on time and head east on train no. 30 the Capitol Limited. We are in coach this time as it is “only” a nine-hour trip. I don’t imagine we’ll get much sleep but the seats are roomier than on an airplane and I can stretch my legs out and that helps a lot. Sue spotted the young crescent low in the southeast sky just as we were pulling out. That was the most serene thing so far about our experience in the station. That and getting my shoes shined! The guy was just closing up but agreed to do one more. It was only five bucks and I tipped him an extra two. And they look good, too. I figured we might get some rain in Philadelphia so a quick touch-up seemed like a smart move. The throngs of frantic commuters rushing from escalators to gates and across the concourses left us breathless. You could hardly move without some herd blowing past you. I figured maybe the commuter rail connections were tight and one did not have a moment to spare to make a transfer. Either that or everyone was on crack. The Amtrak portion was mellow by comparison. It was stuffed with passengers awaiting their gate calls, and the lines were long and slow moving, but no one was in a rush. Considering that we are now stopped on the tracks just outside the city it’s no surprise. Amtrak sent me an email saying to expect “significant delays” on this run and to check the website for updates. Of course they had no updates so I asked the station agent and he said the trains were on time and no delays expected. Uh, right. Apparently this is SOP for Amtrak. The veteran travelers on this run seem philosophical about it. We’ve had a good experience so far but I’m afraid we may not make our connection to Philadelphia if we run late. No sense worrying now, there’s Game Six to have enough anxiety about. More on that later.

Today we wandered around the city heading north along the lakefront and eventually finding our way to the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s shopping district on Michigan Avenue. It’s a great city for tourists as the boulevards are lined with wide pedestrian walkways and the intersections give you ample time for crossing. Things are well-marked and easy to find. This trip we didn’t take any of the public transit options although it looked like they would have done the job. We looked for a place to have a drink in one of the skyscrapers and were directed to the John Hancock building right at the end of the Mile. There was an entrance fee for something called The Tilt and that did not seem right so we found ourselves a hole-in-the-wall pub called Pippin’s and had a pint. That always restores the spirit of adventure and we chatted with a young couple who told us to go back to the Hancock and take the express elevator to the 96th floor to a place called The Signature Lounge. We did and found the spot we were seeking. The beers and entrees were ballpark expensive but it was worth it for the magnificent views. The city was beautiful from up on high but the state of Illinois is too damn flat for a native Californian. Where the hell do people go for mountains around here?

At game time (1900) I searched for wi-fi networks and saw several but none were open public access so I once again have to rely on text updates from friends and perhaps the kindness of strangers. One of the passengers in line asked me if we were hoping for a Game Six loss so we could watch tomorrow’s game. Not a chance, I said, go for the kill. I’d rather miss a Giants win than see a loss! He seemed like a knowledgeable fan of the game. We talked about the nature of tournament baseball and how things were quite different today from the post-seasons of yesteryear. He was not sure if Jake Peavy had the makeup for a big start but I countered with Yusmeiro Petit our super-reliever. We talked about how amazing Madison Bumgarner is and he said teams that win the Series usually have to have an ace like him which of course I concurred with. He joked that the Giants needed to take this year’s title because you knew they wouldn’t get next year as it is odd-numbered! I mentioned how I’m still pinching myself that my beloved team is in its third Series in five years. I never thought I’d ever see the orange-and-black be this successful. Alas, the Giants were crushed in Game Six so we know there will be a Game Seven.

By the time we got to Toledo it was clear the chances of missing our connection were good. Sure enough we got to Pittsburgh at dawn and the no. 42 Pennsylvanian to Philly had left ten minutes earlier! TEN MINUTES! We had a 2-1/2 hour window on a nine-hour ride but that was not enough. At least they supplied us a bus to make the connection instead of leaving us stranded. Amtrak is the province of working class travelers. You can bet if rich people rode the train they’d run on time. It saddens me that our Congress is too short-sighted to invest in our passenger rail infrastructure. It seems if you are a billionaire tech wizard or a goddamn banker they’ll fall all over themselves to pass laws to protect your industry. But essential services like the mails and the rails are left to fend for themselves.

The bus ride across Pennsylvania was surprisingly scenic. They have actual mountains. I suppose to a Californian they seem more like foothills, but the ridge-and-valley terrain is far preferable to the flatlands of the Midwest. The state is cut by a series of southwest-to-northeast trending ranges like the Alleghenies and the hill-and-dale pattern seems to be distinctly Northeastern. Fall colors were everywhere and I even saw some conifers. There was at least one kind of pine (I can’t say which) and I’m pretty sure the others were larches and hemlocks. The turnpikes are interesting from an engineering point of view as there were numerous viaducts and bridges needed to cross the many streams. The roadcuts were also intriguing as they exposed a complex sedimentary geology. Pennsylvania is a coal-and-oil state. We crossed the Susquehenna River when we got to Harrisburg. It’s huge, at least five times wider than the Sacramento. They’ve got us beat on size as all the rivers here make ours look like creeks, but we’ve got the whitewater out West.

It’s 1305 on Wednesday the 29th we are finally on our way to Philadelphia. We should be there in a few hours. The ride last night across Ohio and Indiana was not a pleasant one. The coach seats were roomy but the train was crowded and noisy as well as cold. I think I slept for an hour tops as the only stop I missed was Toledo. Game Seven decides the Series tonight so I’m not sure sleep is going happen this afternoon, either. GO GIANTS!

“Buddy is in the House!”

That’s what they told us at Buddy Guy’s Legends last night although we did not spot him. He still tours despite pushing 80 years of age and supposedly hangs at the club in Chicago when he’s not on the road. They open the doors for dinner and have what they call an “acoustic” set, last night it was Eddie Taylor, Jr. and he played electric guitar and sang without a band. The volume was low so I suppose that qualifies. He was excellent, the only bad part was a loud party that showed near the end of the set and blabbed non-stop. Sheesh people, if you are making more noise than everyone else in the room you are being rude. I get that people want to have a good time but why go listen to music and then spend the whole time running your mouths and playing with your iphones? We had some delicious crab cakes to start and I also ordered a plate of the fried okra. The pieces were smothered in batter but I found I could crack them open and pluck out the little morsels with my fork. The beer selection was weak, and Buddy’s signature beer was not very good, but entrees were great. I had crawfish etouffe and Sue had Cajun salmon. We decided to stay for the main act and the staff came around to collect a ten-buck cover charge and give you a stamp. Turned out it was a jam night. Brother John Kattke opened things and then he hosted the rest of the evening. The man can really rock the blues guitar and he also sang and played keyboards. His band was multi-talented, the trumpeter doubled on the keyboard and both the tenor and baritone saxophonists did as well and both also sang. It was some blistering, high-energy R&B and we loved it. The trumpeter muted his horn on one number which always sounds wonderful and when the bari sax guy dropped down to the lower registers for those rumbling honks I thought I was going have a pulmonary embolism. They cranked up the volume for the band and that drowned out the douchey bunch (they kept at it, though), but the level was just about perfect. Not so loud it hurts your ears (no ringing this morning) but loud enough to get you fired up. Numerous other musicians took the stage and all were terrific and played with style and verve. Lots of long, extended pieces with multiple solos. One of the guitarists looked like a refugee from an Allman Brothers tribute band but played some spectacular riffs with vocals to match. At one point I swear he was channeling Captain Beefheart! I can’t remember his name, nor can I remember the name of the keyboardist who blew everyone away with some soulful, acrobatic pieces of jaw-dropping skill. We really wanted to see some blues here in Chi-town and Buddy Guy’s fit the bill perfectly as it was just a few blocks from our room.

The club is in the heart of The Loop, an upscale area just south of downtown and east of the Chicago River. It’s a neighborhood with a lot of high-end hotels and there are plenty of tourists. It’s a spacious, comfortable, friendly place with a good vibe that seems to have a solid local crowd. I know I’ve never been in a music venue with such spotless bathrooms. The men’s room even had an attendant. You can stand on the street corner outside and watch the show as they have a TV in the window behind the bar that faces Wabash Avenue!

Metropolitan Midwest Adventures

You can tell a great city by how easy it is to get a taxi. We spent yesterday morning walking around Grant Park and along the shore of Lake Michigan. I’d say we hoofed an easy five miles. It was cool and breezy at the start but soon warmed up and we had to shed our jackets. We’d partied hardy the night before at Kitty O’Shea’s watching the Giants kick ass so we had a simple breakfast of coffee and pastry at Peet’s (where else?) just around the corner. There was lots of public art in the park and I’ve got a few pics for you:

Sundial Chicago

The sundial was really cool and they had the equation of time on it to adjust for the seasons. Sure enough, it was right on if you subtracted for Daylight Savings. This was by the planetarium. The pedestrian tunnel under Michigan Avenue was covered with tile mosaics all with water themes:

Mark Water Art Chicago

My dad was a plumber and pipefitter so I liked those panels. One last one:

Fish Mosaic

We were thirsty and starving after our sojourn so we decided to find a local brewpub. Surprised? We hiked another 2-1/2 miles to the Haymarket District (we are in an area called The Loop) and got settled in at the Haymarket Brewery. We gorged ourselves on beer, sausages, steamed clams, and pizza.When I asked the hostess if she could call us a cab she said “just step outside you’ll find one.” Sure enough,we crossed the street and I hardly raised my right hand when we were safely tucked in and speeding our way back. Other than New York City, I’ve never seen so may taxicabs on the streets. Even London doesn’t compare. The Haymarket area is famous for its labor battles and Chicago is still a strong union town. We take for granted things like safe working conditions, the 40-hour week, health benefits, and pensions, but a lot of blood was shed for those things to come into being. We had just enough energy left to watch Madison Bumgarner shut out the Royals on our hotel room TV!

Today we rented a car and drove about 100 miles north to Brookfield, Wisconsin where Sue spent part of her childhood. The family home is still there but it’s on a big, busy street now. We had a bit of a hellish time fighting the big city traffic on the way home and at one point I had to play chicken with a cabbie for a left-hand turn. It’s vacation man, I don’t need that stress! We are heading out to Buddy Guy’s for dinner and live music as soon as I post this. Here’s Suzy at 2960 Lilly Road:

Suzy at 2960

On the Southwest Chief to Chicago

N.B. I was off the grid for much of the last few days as there was no wi-fi on the train and long stretches where my cell phone had no coverage. I apologize for the lengthy post.

Ready to Board

We spent the afternoon of Thursday the 23d of October in downtown Los Angeles with our good pal Betty Rosen Ziff. The site of the original El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles is across the boulevard from Union Station. We sauntered around the plaza and the Mexican market on Olvera Street and had French dip sandwiches at Phillipe’s, an old school eatery that reminded us of Brennan’s in Berkeley. It was warm and a little humid in the Basin, and the Santa Monicas were collared in smog. The station itself is an art deco monument, beautifully restored for its 75th anniversary. We had drinks in Traxx’s bar before heading upstairs to the boarding lounge. The No.4 train departed on time at 1815 Pacific, and we enjoyed the slow roll through the underbelly of the city. We slept through the nighttime traverse across the state.

Classic LA Eatery

The first real stop was Albuquerque where we had about an hour and we got off to stretch our legs in the pleasantly warm desert air. It was clear skies in all directions. The sun had come up when we were still in Arizona and we had breakfast just after the earlier brief stop in Gallup. It was hard sleeping that first night, the train making a panoply of creaks and groans, but we were comfortable in our surprisingly spacious cabin. It’s a unique experience on the upper deck and I could watch the scenery all day without being bored. It’s not like being a passenger in a car where you feel like you are part of the road and the blacktop is never out of sight. The train glides along the rails but you are detached from that contact with solid ground and feel a bit like you are floating. It’s not much faster than highway speed (I could see cars on Interstate-40) and the landscape moves by at a steady but relaxed pace. And what a landscape! Mesas, buttes, arroyos, and washes, dotted with hardy shrubs and interspersed with some tough-looking trees. I saw juniper and what I think were mountain mahogany. The bunch grasses were a scruffy yellow-brown and seemed to be just hanging on in the sere, rocky layer that I was hard-pressed to call soil. Jagged peaks rose up in little groups here and there, like shark fins out of a waterless ocean. Occasionally deciduous trees appeared, sporting their autumnal colors and marking the watercourses, the bright colors contrasting with the earth tones and pastel hues that dominated. It was beautiful in its stark, forbidding way, a great place to visit and appreciate but I can’t imagine living in it.

Suzy in Albuquerque

Later that afternoon we climbed steadily through canyon country and stands of Ponderosa pine were scattered along the north-facing slopes. We passed through Lamy with its connections to Santa Fe and chugged through the long tunnel at Raton Pass. We got a brief respite in the town of Raton and I stepped off the train to see the sun set behind the high ridge to the west. Southeastern Colorado was high and flat and we spent time in the observation car watching the twilight colors over the mountains we were leaving behind. My buddy JC Parsons was sending me text updates of Game Three of the World Series, but unfortunately we disappeared off the cell phone grid for much of the action. Alas, the lads lost the contest. We slept through the run across Kansas, this time with our ear plugs which worked wonders. We had breakfast after the stop in Kansas City, Missouri. I wore my Giants gear but I didn’t see any Royals fans. The city and environs were smothered in tule fog, similar to what we get in the Central Valley back home in California. As the train moved north towards Iowa we got a look at the Missouri River basin farm country. Lots of corn, as you might expect, and the opposite of what we saw in the Southwest, namely wet and green. The riparian trees were unfamiliar and they were all in the midst of the fall changes. The Midwest we got a look at had that Norman Rockwell feel, neat homes in villages tucked in between the big farms. As we headed east the land became more undulating, not exactly hills but rolling waves of topographic relief. It sure ain’t the Pacific Northwest but I enjoyed the unique pastoral beauty.

Mark in Iowa

Our Amtrak experience was like living in our VW camper. Comfortable, but requiring patience and strategic planning to co-exist in the small space. We had a full bedroom with a lavatory which meant we could hang out in our own little corner and relax completely. Dining is shared, of course, although sleeper car passengers can get their food delivered to the room. Part of the experience is meeting new folks, and we appreciated our lively meal companions. Jessie, a thirtyish blonde who looked like she just graduated high school, was headed for a wedding in KC. She was an electrical engineer and software developer who also made short films. Smart, engaging, and creative, we covered a spectrum of topics and she struck me as wise beyond her years. The meals were good and filling. Not exactly fine cuisine, but certainly palatable and satisfying, wholly superior to airplane food. We also conversed with a retired teacher who I think was named Myrna. She made my day when she starting talking about the influence of psychology on post-war Hollywood movie-making and how it was fully realized in film noir! Most of my friends look at me and say “huh?” when I tell them I’m heading for NoirCon. This lady wanted to go with us. We spent another meal with Al and Sue, he was a retired power company lineman and she was a retired teacher. Former educators must like to travel. Sue was a chatterbox but not the annoying kind as she was also a sharp and perceptive listener and could respond quickly to the twists and turns in the conversation. We shared some classroom war stories and soft-spoken Al dazzled us with high voltage tales of terror. She was a native Angeleno and he was from Illinois. They were veteran Amtrakers and had a multi-city pass to visit relations all over the heartland. Both were outspoken liberals. I usually avoid politics when I meet new people but somehow they knew we were kindred spirits. Perhaps it was our story of how we met at UC Berkeley. The train also had several Mennonite traveling parties. It was interesting to see the women in their homemade dresses and white cloth caps, and the men with their long beards and bowl haircuts. I could overhear them switching easily between English and their native “Pennsylvania Dutch” dialect of German.

The afternoon brought us across both the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers as we continued northeast through Iowa and into Illinois. We had a brief stop in Ft. Madison just before the border and I was surprised by the warm weather. I expected late October to be cooler and I packed extra layers and a raincoat just in case. We were nearly eighty minutes behind schedule which counts as “on-time” for Amtrak. The national rail line has an unfortunate reputation for tardiness. They don’t own any of the rails and have to yield to freight traffic. Americans don’t seem to have an appreciation for passenger railroads. Short-distance commuter rail is one thing, but long-distance travel is the province of airlines and interstate freeways. That’s too bad as I think this is a terrific way to go. One gets a sense that Amtrak is like a faded movie star—still capable of a great performance but slowly losing luster, vitality, and box-office appeal. I like old movies better than new ones so I’m not surprised that I prefer the leisurely pace of yesteryear to the go-go-go of the 21st century. After all the journey matters too, not just the destination.

Crossing the Mississippi

Just outside of Galesburg there were wind turbines amongst the acres of corn. The rest of the world refers to our native plant as maize. Corn is an old English word that just means grain. Botanically it is Zea mays and it is the most important agricultural product in the nation. We’ve managed to stuff it into everything, particularly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, a virtual toxin masquerading as a sweetener. Much of the maize grown in the Midwest goes to livestock as feed. Corn oil is also a major commodity and vast amounts of the remaining harvest are converted to ethanol fuel, another sadly misguided public policy that serves mostly to prop up the price of a bushel. Corn, in many ways, is America. We did our part for the economy, buying a couple of HFCS-laced candy bars from the snack service. A coal train passed us on the adjacent line, heading south. Earlier, while still in Missouri, we had seen a coal-fired electricity-generating station next to the tracks. If anything else can said to be America, it would have to be that four-letter word. Just under half of our nation’s electric power comes from burning coal. Besides the obvious enormous environmental consequences of extracting and consuming this abundant fossil fuel, most people don’t realize that the combustion of coal dumps far more radioactive material into the atmosphere than all the country’s nuclear power plants combined. Radioactivity my friends is natural, just like the apples on the trees and the fishes in the seas.

Naperville is the penultimate stop in the Land of Lincoln. Chicago is thirty minutes away! It’s 1535 Central as I type this so we are a little under an hour behind schedule. Looks like we’ll have plenty of time to get to our lodgings and get settled before the ball game. GO GIANTS!

Sporting the Colors

The Giants are in the World Series! Looks like I’ll have to “represent” on our travels across the country. We’ll be in Los Angeles for the first two games. I imagine most of those poor, sad folks will be following the Lakers or something. Is it time for that yet? Wait—it’s football. Guess they’ll be watching the Rams. Who play in St. Louis, right? What do Dodgers fans do this time of year? Beach volleyball? I’m not one for schadenfreude, really, just had to get in a little dig. I appreciate good baseball fans even if they root for teams I dislike. I figure being a baseball fan is a mark of quality and who you root for is mostly an accident of geography or upbringing. Speaking of geography, our train will cross Kansas in the wee hours and actually stop in Kansas City, Missouri at sunrise on Saturday morning, the 25th. Game Three in San Francisco is Friday night and we’ll be heading into hostile country! Should be fun. We’ll be in Chicago for Games Four and Five—I reckon there’ll be lots of sports bars. Anybody know a good one? If the Series goes to Game Six we’ll once again be on a train, this time crossing Pennsylvania, and if there’s a Game Seven it will be the night we arrive in Philadelphia. Tell me a good spot to watch the game!

I’ve traveled a lot in the summer and followed the Giants while on the road, but I’ve never been out of town for October baseball. It’s going to be a little strange. I’ll be posting to my baseball blog ( as well so you can follow along if you’re a fan. I’ll be sporting my orange-and-black on the journey, of course. Looking forward to talking baseball with strangers on a train and watching games in exciting new places!