Cross-Country Notes

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(How the country looked a quarter-century ago when I went to Manhattan seeking a book deal. Fragments from a travel log I ran across on a thumb drive.)

Conn. Norwalk, New Canaan Blvd. Rain. Humid after the sun, hot. Shell-shocked commuters wandering away from the train station as if from an explosion…Ozone warnings !! Feet blistered from walking in NYC all day in French Shriners…

SR says executives out here leave bored housewives for the tennis pros… Darien pronounced Darryann. Basis for Stepford Wives. Lots of money, pretension, “downsizing,” Saabs everywhere…catered lawn parties on weekends

Private beach, public not allowed…I 95 to NYC and across the GW to the Palisades of Jersey…US One is the Post Road to Boston…HEAT STICKY MUGGY…

Subways smell of communal halitosis and stale electricity…Uncollected garbage festering on the sidewalks, women with bold eyes. Harsh consonants and cockiness, the Asians seem friendly by contrast…lots of Mediterranean influence…

Docks Seafood Restaurant, the EMTs and the woman in black, embarrassed to have had a seizure…Nobody paused to even look at her…
Streets in the City go East West, Aves north south. 42nd street the approximate dividing line between uptown and downtown. Grand Central is there. Park parallels Madison, then Lexington, then 5th Ave…
“Don’t make eye contact with anyone, especially street people…”

Out in South Salem, on the Conn border: horse farm, snapping- turtle pond, gaggles of low flying and noisy Canada geese…

My 53rd August. Geography under the wheels. Of trains and rental cars and taxis. I left home Aug. 1 to go adventuring. I am now in Denver since Monday, arriving dazed and groggy on the California Zephyr. Unbathed and irritated I had to wait so long for breakfast in the dining car.

An incredibly long hike into the ancient Denver Union Station. Dragging my wheeled bag and toting my knapsack and plastic shopping bag. Not quite as tired and out of sync as I was 42 years ago, arriving on the Greyhound bus. Surprised how woozy I felt upon disembarkation. The rocking of the train stayed with me all day until I showered and napped.

It was bright and cool and blessedly low in humidity after Chicago. I ate dinner last night on the train, roast chicken and rice, which was okay. But I was glad for the snacks for in between. The snack-bar line was always backed up the full length of the lounge car. I got two White Castle burgers for later. Canned Cokes too…

Ate dinner with an executive from Land’s End and a programming manager from an office supply company in Kansas City. Ate breakfast with an ambidextrous pitcher, 7–2 in his last high-school season, on his way back to California from a tryout at a college in Iowa; a first-grade teacher on her way to her first assignment after a vacation (I may have been wrong but I thought she was very taken with the ballplayer) and a retired airline pilot from Nebraska.

I rented a Nissan Maxima in “champagne” color in Harrisburg, and a dark-green Ford Taurus in Denver. Ate at Finnegan’s in Princeton, N.J., and another one in Chicago. Saw a street fair with SR in Norwalk, and another one in Chicago the day before I had brunch with Ivars.

House guest of SR in New Salem, dinner with Doug and his new wife in Hummelstown, brunch with Ivars in Chicago. He’s only read his war letters I saved and sent him a while back once, he said — but said the effect was powerful.

Mild Chicago evenings, breeze off the lake, everybody I meet or see friendly and happy and relaxed at the end of summer. Pretzel bread! Pizza. Chicago is a secret trove of fine eating. Even the hotel restaurant — tricked up with newspaper memorabilia — was fine. The waitress was a die-hard Cubbies fan and gave me some beers to try on the house.

Sweltering NYC, the hard edge of the voices and the people. The comic-book headquarters where S. runs things these days. Spider Man etched milkily in glass on the frosted-glass conference-room double doors. SR moving with total confidence in that world. Dock’s with a sloe-eyed editor, object of SR’s affection, her name lost to me now. The waterfront restaurant. Subway down and back, SR apportioning tokens carefully and explaining things as to a child.

The woman in the handicapped seat; guy on crutches gets on: “I suppose you want THIS seat, don’t you?” But she gave it to him. Strange that in NYC the Asians as a class seem the friendliest, stark contrast to the sullen Asiatics in the Northwest.

Denver — coming in through Fort Morgan after crossing the Mississippi at Des Moines Iowa or thereabouts at dusk and not even recognizing it. Glimpses into backyards and Sunday garage sales and cars waiting at crossroads and taverns and clock faces and car lots across the Midwest; farm pickups at lonesome crossings, the diesel locomotive hooting up ahead and the sound floating back, but never Dopplering out of range. Always going on ahead. Rain washing the windows, rough sections of track, the train waiting on sidings for freights to flash by so close and so fast they are just a flickering blur. Commuters getting on and off the train, the leave-takers being met at the remote stations. Some of these very fixed-up and some very dilapidated.

The eerie sensation of returning to Denver Union Station and finding it utterly deserted an hour after it was aswarm with activity due to the arrival of the Zephyr. Just taking my bag out of the baggage room and walking away. Could have taken any or all of the others. The “flat penny” bar on one end and a TGI Friday’s on the other end of the station. Fat Tire beer sampled at last in Denver long after it led me to a strange occurrence.

Wonderful pretzel bread in Chicago and a filet. A so-so omelet in Harrisburg at a joint supposedly as old as Harris House but with no class. Sad, that — the last meal. The waitress had never heard of salsa. Yuppie Mexican food and Dos Equis in New Canaan. Chinese food in New Canaan. Jack Daniel’s in Tammany Hall, an NYC bar. The diners back east on the Post Road between the City and Boston. Nachos downtown Denver, in a sidewalk cafe with a thunderstorm brewing and the umbrellas trying to take wing. Buffalo burgers in Idaho Falls in the Rockies and black walnut ice cream.

The madcap Chicago cabbie who loved his Chevrolet Caprice. Got it used from the police department. Making a lot of money — an East Indian. The hugely fat and surly Denver cabbie who hated his Caprice — constantly replacing brakes due to stop and go on the hills. Boutique coffee and a pipe purchased at Harrisburg East Mall. The old mall — brand-new when I lived there — is eerily similar to one in Louisville. The White Hen Delicatessen in Chicago, a favorite right away, six different kinds of fresh coffee brewing all the time. Ivars’ simple joy in Chicago after the uptight east of the Main Line and Philadelphia. “Streeterville section” — each neighborhood with a name. The friendliness of the Inn of Chicago staff.

Central City and the gambling casino, the nickel slots and all the fun of hearing the nickels pour out into my bucket — wearing my new cowboy hat from Sheplers. The Denver Boot Outlet again — two visits, finally a pair of Olathe kangaroo-leather size 15 (!) to wear over thick winter socks.

In PA. a visit to Shyda’s, now a huge clothing store, gun store, separate — owned by the divorced owners of the original little store where we got such good bargains, with the completely forgotten Veteran’s Hospital across the heat-shimmery fields. Purchased a Gore-Tex Jones hat there for old time’s sake, and a set of Pachmyar grips for my Bodyguard.

I visited the refurbished news room of the Patriot-News, unrecognizable but for Leon, still the slot man though growing old. Hell we’re all growing old. VDTs at every work station looked alien; when I left it was manual typewriters and copy pencils.

Doug drove me to the train station; I caught the day coach for Pittsburgh and watched rural Pennsylvanians loaded with shopping from New York City debark at classic little brick train stations all the way. I had time to smoke a couple pipes on the platform before the Chicago train left, and climbed into my little sleeper berth, not unlike a coffin; had to undress in the aisle and realized I had checked my CPAP. It was a sleepless night with no Doppler effect for the diesel horn ahead because I was on the train instead of hearing it go by.

The long trudge into Chicago passed through endless abandoned industrial sites, like ruins of a lost civilization. I cabbed to a hotel that was part of my Amtrak package, which turned out to be across the street from the 24-hour deli that featured a variety of fresh-brewed coffees. Ivars told me Sunday, when he hosted me to a fancy brunch after a walking tour of famous old neighborhoods, this deli was his favorite. My old Army buddy of Fort Lewis “clopping” days is now a big-time corporate exec in loss-prevention; sits in meetings with muckety-mucks from big banks and the CIA. If a secretary works late he sends her home in a limousine.

Ivars strongly encouraged me to press for a book deal, not sit back and wait. He also said compile short stories out of all the yarns I spin for free, saying busy people prefer stories that engage them quickly and then let them get back to work, saving more stories for later. I wasn’t sure my stories were plausible enough; he said a nice thing: “You are one of the most plausible people I know. Push your damn agent, write your stories and get off your ass.”

A private compartment with bed and bath on the Denver train was okay but nothing like first-class trains in Europe. Taking a shower was harder than in my camper. For one thing, the camper was immobile. But the porter was very solicitous, made sure I got preferred seating in the dining car, made runs for snacks if I didn’t feel like it, and kept a pot of fresh coffee brewing all night. Chance companions in the dining car included the young man who pitched ambidextrously, going home from college-baseball tryouts; I told him about the old black Pacific League hurler I ran into in a Seattle dive who had that gift, and in the halcyon days before the Second World War relieved himself in late innings when a left-hander was called for. Not sure the young hurler considered me plausible.

In Denver I discovered AmTrak had no private rooms to the west coast; they would refund the difference but I would have to sit up in day coach all the way; no plug-in for my CPAP. So I caught a plane from Denver’s spanking-new airport. My big adventure was over once I tracked down my checked B-4 bag in the empty Tacoma train station; not so much as a janitor on duty. I guess I sketch these vignettes here so I can find them if I ever start on Ivars’ suggestion about short stories; plenty of material here to refresh my memory…

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.