Archive for the 'USA' Category



The Ghosts of Footsteps

Crisp blue and puffing chest, the glare of sunlight off the smooth flat of the Bay. My first run since a week-long flu, down along the Bay Trail, with its breezes and San Francisco views, pretty despite being directly beside a freeway.

I passed a little woodsy alcove. It’s mostly rocks and open space down there, but every now and then, beside a freeway exit, an overgrown patch of cluttered trees and shrubs is tucked alongside the trail.

I caught a glimpse between the leaves: a little stream, heavy from the rains; a long piece of wood placed over, a makeshift bridge; the dead remains of footsteps, the ghosts of footsteps, a path going in. Something was hiding in there.

I thought about the books I’d read as a kid—-Bridge To Terabithia—how kids in the country or in the suburbs, or in any event, not inside the city, would always have these places to hide. A creek or the woods, some undeveloped patch of something—a place they could escape to, along with their fantasies and maybe a stick to poke things with, to build empires in their minds where they were safe or powerful or in any event not in their own lives, some other place.

And I remembered how terribly jealous I’d be those kids—those kids in books, not real kids—because I lived in the city, and there weren’t any places like that. Or there were—under freeways, or the woods behind parks—but they were already filled up, claimed by junkies and derelicts with cardboard palaces, people retreated to their own fantasies, their own escapes, their own Not Heres.

There was a thin strip of dense trees behind the jungle gym at Children’s Playground, in Golden Gate Park. I’d wanted to go in there, to climb around, explore, find my own something magical. It was shady in there, I couldn’t see in, and I wanted to know what all mysteries lay in the damp earth and shadows.

“Don’t go in there,” my mother’d said.

“Why?”

“People live in there. There’s trash and needles and it smells.”

And I’d known, even then, that you could catch things with needles, things like death. I’d thought of sarcoma spots and sunken eyes, sick beds and the scatter of Chinese food containers, and I hadn’t wanted to go in there anymore, but I’d still wanted to go somewhere.

It was a good run. My shin splints didn’t hurt, although I did get a tightness in my chest, like a squeezing, that made me stop and walk for awhile. I stared into the open and soaked it in, and was ready to run again.

Sink, Alameda, Sink

December 9, 2003

“It’s a special kind of anesthetic. So we won’t be putting you completely under—you’ll still be lucid—but you won’t remember anything.”

Paper gown and stirrups, they injected the needle and you didn’t flinch.

You took it as a challenge: remembering.

You stared out of the window—out of the white walls made antiseptically cheerful, away from the faces and charts and the gleaming tray of tools—looked at a pond outside, gray water against gray sky, the geese sitting and splashing and silently honking—no noise, just their beaks moving in the shape of a scream.

The room went away, and the sides became black, tight, squeezing in, like the end of an old-timey cartoon—tunneling, until the whole world became that pond and those geese, trapped there in a December afternoon and a pinhole of consciousness.

And it’s like you weren’t there. You couldn’t see them working, couldn’t feel them working (working on you). You couldn’t hear them—or at least, you couldn’t remember hearing them, maybe a sound floated in here and there, but it didn’t stick to anything, memory like fly paper or that sticky tape the rats get stuck to and sometimes chew their own legs off trying to escape. So in that way, they were right.

You focused on the pond, out the window, struggled against the squeezing black. You fought for that pond, those geese (which now seemed like plastic geese) and you wondered if it was real or man-made—the pond, that is—whether the office park was built up around a marsh, filled in and cemented and paved clean, and the pond had been left there as a charming relic; or if it was added later, an empty lot dredged, a sliver of pastoral idyll amidst the row of generic 60s architecture.

It was man-made, you decided, because this was Alameda and everything was man-made, an entire island of fabrication: unearthly flat, because it wasn’t earth; flat like the Bay, because it was the Bay. Because the Bay moved under the flimsy layers of landfill, murmuring, like a waterbed.

And they’d always said that if a big enough earthquake hit, the whole goddamn island would sink—crack and crumble and get swallowed into the water, because there was nothing solid underneath, just landfill, which you’d always assumed meant trash, like a trash patty, a whole city built on garbage.

And you imagined a big enough earthquake making the water reach up, tear apart all the little everyday cracks—in sidewalks and in the walls of old buildings—reswallowing the place: the office, the pond, the whole island. And you imagined those plastic geese rising up, flying off in a V shaped like an arrowhead, their beaks moving (open, close) in silent honking, which might have been prayers, or might have been screaming.

Because they didn’t need anything solid to exist, or anything unsolid either, but you did, or at least you thought you did—though whether it was the solid earth or the murmuring black underneath, you weren’t sure.

It was pretty fun, you told your mom later—a pretty good drug, all in all. Not one you’d do recreationally, there wasn’t enough of a high, but not bad at blacking out what needed to be blacked out, and keeping in some strange sliver of what didn’t matter, what meant nothing to nothing: the geese and the gray light of the gray afternoon. Which was, after all, all it was meant for.

Living With Vampires

It’s vampire season in Oakland.

We sit at the bar, piles of cash and cigarettes and half-drunk bottles of wine—another end to another shift. It’s past midnight, and we’re all tired, itching to get home. “Just another ten minutes, I swear!” JL calls from the loft.

We sit there—all four of us—off the clock and waiting. Because we can’t leave someone to walk out alone.

I used to wonder as a little kid which would be worse: to live with werewolves or vampires? Werewolves could pulverize through anything, but you only had to deal with them one night a month. Vampires, on the other hand, were tricky, the color of shadows, and out there every single night. As soon as the sun went down, the streets would become a different thing, sinister, a free-for-all, an anything-goes zone where at any moment a pale, hungry creature could leap out and attack. And you could harbor illusions about fighting them off, but really, what were the chances you could actually drive a stake through their heart? You’d be defenseless, and all they’d see would be your virgin neck and throbbing vein and they’d want a drink—a drink of blood that was now theirs.

I imagined the constant stress, the constant level of awareness, the little ways that living with such creatures would reshape your life (“I left something in my car. Oh well, I’ll have to get it in the morning; not worth risking it.”), and in the end, I’d always decide that vampires were worse.

And it’s a similar feeling in Oakland right now—that when the sun goes down, the shadows come alive, and go on the hunt. There’s been a rash of robberies and violent assaults among the circles I frequent, enough that I can’t discount it as the usual fifth-most-dangerous-city-in-the-country shenanigans. No one can.

I forget how much it’s there, this constant consideration in the back of my head. I won’t take the train into the city if it means I’ll be coming home after dark; I don’t want to risk the walk back to my car from the station. I don’t go jogging at night—or at least, I drive up into Piedmont to do it. I suck it up and pay for parking in order to park right outside the restaurant I work at, so I again don’t have to risk walking farther than I have to.

But it’s gone a step further this year. After two guys I worked with got robbed at gunpoint leaving the restaurant, we stopped walking out even in pairs—we all leave work together now. After a girl from another restaurant got abducted, robbed and tortured, we won’t even let our manager stay late, even if her car is literally 50 feet from the door. She rearranges her schedule so that she comes in early, gets her office work done, and can leave with everyone else.

It’s like being a prisoner in a way. There’s no comfort in the fact that the fear applies equally to men and women, or that it’s not even fear that drive you all, but rather a statistical likelihood. When a third guy you work with got his nose broken last week, the reaction was largely anger—at him. “What the fuck was he doing thinking he could walk three blocks by himself?”

I keep thinking about Tirana, about my first late night at a bar, when everyone I’d come with had left.

“Where can I catch a cab?”

“A cab? You can walk, you know, it’s only 15 minutes.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s late, and I’m alone…”

“Oh, but it’s totally safe.”

“I’d rather not risk it.”

A laugh. “Listen. In five years at the hostel, we’ve never heard of anyone ever having a problem.”

And it felt strange, walking through the two am streets, a foreign girl by herself. I couldn’t stop checking my back, walking briskly, staring down the few strangers I passed.

But eventually, I got used to it. And I almost felt giddy, elated by this strange sense of freedom—a sudden lightness and ease. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until you get a taste of something better.

Just after one of the guys at work who got robbed, he posted a really telling Facebook status: “I knew it was bound to happen, living in Oakland caught up with me.” And it kind of broke my heart, because at times I feel the same way—like I’m just waiting for my number to be drawn. That I can be as careful and cautious as I’d like, but eventually, one day, I’ll let my guard down or take a risk, and it’ll be me, my turn, my time to get bitten.

When we finally walk out, it’s after one am. “That,” I sigh, “was not 10 minutes.”

“Nope.”

“But it’s not like we coulda left her there.”

“Nope.”

And we get in our cars and drive own separate homes, where we’ll circle to find the closest spot, walk briskly to the gate and slam it shut, tightly behind us.

If No Man Is An Island…

Alcatraz Night Tour—wandering around the haunted empty of an old institution, relighted and relabeled, black signs with white letters. All hard lines and sparse materials—cement and steel—littered with the footsteps of tourists, the little echoes we carry in our shoes and our voices and, in some of us, our hearts.

Because you live here, you’d never done it—because there was always some other chance, some other day, any day, it turned into no day, never. So when Nick said he was going to Alcatraz, fuck it, you said you were going too.

So you roved, like everyone else roved, wearing your headset and listening to the gravely voiced narrator of the audio tour, a well-cast choice by any measure. Former prison guards and inmates read their recollections, giving the tour more weight, more significance than it would have otherwise had.

You stopped in front of the steel doors to the solitary confinement cell, and listened to the weathered voices recall what they’d done to wait out the time in the blackness:

But if you would close your eyes—like right now, close your eyes, seal your eyes off with your hand—with a little concentration, you can see a light. And pretty soon that light will get brighter. And you’ve gotta concentrate on it—not a short while; it takes time and practice—but pretty soon you can almost put your own TV there, and you can see things and you can go on trips—and that’s what I did.

And it was an echo, the sound of a memory reverberating from some place inside. It was a night you’d stored away: summer, warm, the window open, the leaves cutting the streetlight into a thousand broken, dancing pieces. He laid on his side, held you under his arm, and you said you couldn’t sleep.

“Let me show you a trick.” And he said it softly—strangely soft, you’d thought, the way we’d whispered as kids in our hiding places, the places only children can fit.

“I used to do this when I was little, when I couldn’t sleep.” He rolled onto his back. “You put your thumbs against your eyes—you’ve got them there?—and you push. Not hard, but not light either. And keep pushing; don’t stop.”

You didn’t. You didn’t stop pushing.

“And eventually you see it.”

“See what?”

“Lights. Shapes. Anything. You go on a trip.”

And he got real quiet, and you listened—listened to the horrible silence and waited for your own show, your own little light parade. You saw only faint traces, dim colors, a couple gray buzzing lights.

He rolled back on his side, towards you. “Where did you go?”

You looked down, ashamed, though you weren’t sure why. “I don’t know. I don’t think I went anywhere.”

And he didn’t say anything, just traced your belly with the tips of his fingers—the fullest part of your belly, the part you hate and pinch and suck in in front of the mirror—and you felt so fucking lonely you thought you might die, that some part of you might die.

And it was the same feeling, standing there, alone with your headset in a silent group of wanderers. Like being a tourist in someone else’s loneliness—or rather, the ruins of someone else’s loneliness, what was left after the guards had gone and the light—now strange and harsh—had returned. Listening to their tricks, the little games they played (Your dad telling you, “Sometimes I’d bite the inside of my cheek, slowly, until it’d start bleeding and I’d play with it.”)—the ways they’d learn to escape, if only for a moment, into some place so deep inside that some piece, it seemed, never came back.

You blinked. You pushed the rewind button and the voice stuttered, restarted, and you listened again. And it was his voice, inside this other voice, and you remembered how you’d put it in a poem—or, you’d tried to put it in a poem, but it’d never amounted to anything, never quite fit, a parenthetical metaphor you weren’t quite sure related, or how it related, until right now, here, under the institutional glare of a tourist attraction, Alcatraz.

You half-smiled—what else was there to do?—and continued on with the tour, walked through the door in the steel bars into another emptied room.

Serendipity, Street Art and the Best Layover EVER

It’s a fantasy common enough to warrant TV commercials, (porno) movie plots and a voyeuristic story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: you get seated next to an attractive person on an airplane. And you’re stuck beside each other, awkwardly negoitiating the small space for hours.

As most travelers will readily tell you, this is about as rare to air travel as getting bumped up to first class. No, rarer. The cast of characters usually beside you in the sardine can of coach include snorers, fidgeters, wiley children and consumers of mysterious day-old food. It really serves to drive home to actual percentage of datable people in the world’s population. I, for one, had given up on the fantasy and resigned myself to the mere hope of a recently showered individual that can fit in their own seat (which is also more or less when I’ve resigned myself in dating—and have been known to compromise on as well).

Well, holy shit if the travel gods didn’t smile down on me. And homeboy wasn’t just attractive—he was rad. As I discovered, not just during the flight, but on our 10-hour layover spent adventuring around Brooklyn together, spotting street art and searching for obscure vinyl.

I’d noticed him passing through security (as I was being pulled aside to have my purse dismembered in search on nonexistent weapons): hip without being pretentious, stubble beard, cowboy boots, a bulging bag of records. But I didn’t give it much thought until I was settling into my dismal seat in the back of the plane, next to the bathrooms. I watched him struggle to jam his record bag into the overhead compartment and smiled. When he looked down at his boarding pass, scanned the aisle numbers and ended up standing right beside me, we both smiled.

Sebastian had been traveling around the US for 5 weeks, and was on his way back to Zurich. He had a couple lines in his forhead, the well-traveled beginning of wrinkles. He had the worn-smooth hands of a cook, the black strand of a necklace peeking out from under his shirt. He had killer taste in music.

We chatted about life and travel and bands (“I saw some great shows in San Francisco.” “Like who?” “Ty Segall.” “On Wednesday? At the Rickshaw Stop? I was totally there!”). We talked about his trip and my trip (“I’ve got a 10 -hour layover.” “Me too. I was gonna go into the city, hang out. Better than being at the airport.” “That was my plan too.”) We fell into the fitful half-sleep of confined space and over air-conditioning; woke up stiff necked and lip smacking, ditched our bags at a luggage locker and rode the subway into Brooklyn.

It was a shuttered-up and bare-sidewalked Sunday morning on Bedford, ground zero of Brooklyn hipness. There was a record store Sebastian wanted to get back to, that wouldn’t be open for hours. We rubbed our aching eyes and looked for coffee.

I consulted my iPhone. “Oh shit, there’s a Blue Bottle?!” I exclaimed. “Yeah,” said a girl passing by, “it’s around the corner.”

We sat in the sun and drank our hand-dripped cups of black, watched the parade of dogs and toddlers and cool kids. We bombed around the neighborhood, going nowhere in particular, until the shops thinned and the wide walls of warehouses took over. And we began spotting some kick-ass street art.

All the pictures are on my phone, which for some reason my new (new to me, that is) netbook won’t download. So expect a post when I get home. But just to tease, I saw Roa, Faile, Space Invader, Gaia, and a whole bunch of folks I didn’t know but really wanted to.

We hit the record stores that had brought us there. Sebastian confessed to me that he was a music nerd with a record fetish. “There’s so many more records in the States,” he told me. He’d already shipped a crate back to Zurich. “It’s okay, though, it’s still cheaper than trying to buy it in Europe. If you can find it at all.”

We got back on the train, dazed and subdued with our long flights looming. We looked back through his pictures—he’d ended up going to Burning Man, on (another) serendipitous whim, and I leaned in over his shoulder to look at the small viewfinder, its story of dust and fire, the wind that moves through desolate places.

Our shoulders touched, just a little in the shudder of the train. I felt no desire to make a move, so to speak; it was enough to have a small flutter in my stomach. It was enough to have met someone awesome, totally serendipitously. It was enough to have wandered around sleep-dazed and discovering, to have sat on stoops smoking in the Brooklyn sun.

Sometimes you don’t need a big climax, don’t need to get all flirty and sleezy or anything at all. Sometimes it’s enough to feel liked, not just desired, and to genuinely like someone back. Not cause you want to make-out with them necessarily, but just because they’re rad.

We sat at the bar of a jokey airport restaurant, where Sebastian indulged in the last American hamburger of his trip. NFL games were flashing on the various television sets, the jarring loudspeaker announcements of boardings and departings echoing through the space.

“Sebastian,” I said, “you are by far the coolest person I’ve ever sat next to on an airplane.”

We hugged. “I had a great time,” he smiled. “Me too.”

And I walked away, through the terminal to my own adventure.

Boiler Room, Angel Island

Abandoned by time but not escaped from it. Rust and debris, peeling paint and the pages of old magazines, broken glass so old its become smooth. Like some dim chamber of our hearts, we climbed into the boiler room.

Angel Island is full of abandoned buildings, the crumbling concrete and sagging frames of old military structures. A big mound in the middle of the Bay, smack in from the Golden Gate, the island is more than brown grasses and hiking trails. It was a detention center/”immigration station” during the Chinese Exclusionary Act, then an Army Post during World War II, later a missile center. Now it’s a state park, filled with picnicking families, kids on field trips, tourists on Segways.

Summer in San Francisco...

It’s nice to spend a day roaming around, out in the middle of the Bay—packing a sandwich and riding the expensive ferry and taking the long, gentle walk around the perimeter. But what I love most about Angel Island are the abandoned buildings.

Some are open to the public, stairways smashed out so there’s no chance of climbing up into the desolate upper stories. You wander around the ground level, the empty gutted rooms, staring up past the chicken scratch graffiti, wishing you could poke around the dusty remains above, crunch your sneakers through the silence.

Other buildings are fenced off, doors bolted and windows shuttered, large signs warning of the repercussions of trespassing. The grass grows up around these buildings, consuming them; sometimes you catch shadows in the broken windows and they look like your own.

We circumvented a large, fenced-off building, found a spot relatively hidden from the main path. It’d been a long time since I’d hopped a fence, wedged my toes between chainlink and landed ankle-sharp with a laugh.

We tiptoed towards the building.

The boiler room. Heavy, huffing machinery now silent, steamless, bellies swollen with the memory of a howl. Old basins and the criss-cross of empty pipes, useless and buckled. Nameless parts of an old operation. A map on the wall of where tools once hung.

We crunched around, slats of wood and indistinguishable debris, the flattened beer cans of some lost era. There’s something about crumbling places that make you whisper, a kind of reverence—not just for what has passed, but what has remained, aged and weathered and somehow still standing.

It reminds you of your own ragged heart, those places you’ve closed off, chained off, boarded up and shut. But they’re still there—forgotten, maybe, but not empty, bloodless pipes waiting, dreaming of steam.

And sometimes, something goes traipsing on in there, flicking lighters and echoing voices and leaving new footprints, in a place you swore no new footprints could go. A place you swore was sealed shut and secretly dying.

We trespassed into the abandoned boiler room, then stepped back out into the dim squint of a fog-heavy noon—our lives.

Sunday Morning on International

Sunday morning on International Blvd. A sidewalk laced in fog, car exhaust, the sick-sweet smell seeping from panderias. Little girls in patent-leather shoes, dudes crouched and smoking and speaking in Vietnamese outside the street shop: “Good tattoo ain’t cheap, cheap tattoo ain’t good.” The rattle of shopping cart wheels, the bark of fenced-in dogs.

I’m running late. I’m going to the 11am meeting at the In Between, a beat-up converted barroom now filled with folding chairs and faded banners, where we sit and curse and laugh, talk about God and booze, “hmm-mm”ing and “uh-huh”ing and drinking cheap coffee that stains our teeth. I love that place, its dusty corners and dying plants, the sag of the window frames.

I pass the bright blue letters of Iglesia de Buen Sabor, a storefront church with white bars over its frosted windows. The tambourine rattle and exalted voices of its congregation pours out the open door, from a faceless place—always black inside, when looking in from the street.

I make eye contact with a man standing in front of the doorway. He has a look of well-groomed desperation: cheap suit, overly combed hair, shoes shining like little black teeth. He’s got one crippled arm, bent and with a tangle of underdeveloped fingers; he cradles it next to his body as though he were holding an infant, or a small injured bird. I give him the half-smile and nod of a hello in passing.

He steps towards me. “Hello,” he says. “My name is Juan Carlos…” he continues on with a couple more names, surnames and second middle names. He leans his small hand towards me.

I pause mid-stride, take his small hand. “Right on, man, good to meet you.” It feels limp and strange in my momentary grasp, and I try to amend my handshake, make it softer, let it fit the contours of his curled-in fingers. “I’m running late, though—” I start to step away.

“You have a lot of joy in your heart.”

I stop, look at him with a slightly cocked head. “Thanks.”

He nods, smiles, then steps back into the black swallow and tambourine roll of his doorway.

I cross the street and squeak my own door open.

Southbound

Fog so heavy

it wept

the dust from my windshield

/

what I’d carried with me,

wore on me,

up and over

a road soggy with night—

always becoming, becoming

just up ahead.

/

So this is driving

across the Golden Gate—

yellow halos,

the swallow of white,

pillars into nothing,

and beyond

the railings—black, black,

the hiss of black

underneath the stereo speakers,

whispering, “this is the end

of the continent”

/

and you can’t even see it.

Travel Tip: Get Inventive

What to bring and how to pack—it’s always a hot topic. But no matter how well you prepare—no matter how many water purification tablets and rehydration pills you stuff into your waterproof, weather-resistant backpack—you can’t anticipate every twist and turn you’ll encounter on the road.

At some point, you’ll need to get inventive.

Let’s say you do something as innocent and seemingly unadventurous as going on a day hike. Now, some people tromp off with walking sticks, CamelBaks, and a fanny pack full of First Aid supplies. But those’re also the same folks that wear their jungle-proof hiking boots in the middle of the city. (In your preparedness, you must also consider fashion.)

Let’s say it’s a hot day at one of your top 3 travel secret spots. Let’s say that Bass Lake is sparkling cool, and filled with the intertubes and joyous clamor of hikers. You paddle out with a friend and see carefree bodies flying through the air, limbs ecstatically free for one airborne moment before splashing ceremoniously into the murky dark.

Let’s say you forget that both you and your friend are total effing city kids and have never once been on a rope swing. Let’s say that you don’t stop to consider the physics of the situation, the centrifugal force and the fact that some technique might be involved. Let’s say that all that’s going through your mind is—“Fuck yeah, rope swing!”

And let’s say that both you and your friend completely gnarl your hands and are left treading water with a mess of twisted and bloodied fingers.

It’s time to get creative.

First off, remember your First Aid training: reduce swelling (and bleeding) by raising the effected body part(s) above heart-level. This means treading water hands-up for 500+ feet back to shore. You can also call on your long-forgotten lifeguard training.

Next, you’ll want to get a second opinion. You’ll probably try to tell yourself that your wound “isn’t that bad, right?” You’ll attempt to move the effected body part in a perkily healthful manner to convince everyone—but mostly yourself—that no serious injury has occurred. At this stage, it helps to have friends with a firm grasp on reality.

When it’s determined that you are indeed effed up, you’ll need to provide some sort of make-shift care for yourself. You won’t always have gauze and splints and medical tape handy. You’ll have to make do with what you have right in front of you. Dig through your purse and discover that a Bic pen is about the length of your finger. Now how could you secure it to your effected digits to both provide support and restrict swelling? You think, look around…

Using your traveler ingenuity, you’ll end up with a perfectly workable—and dare I say, fashionable—solution: Bic-pen/shoelace splints:

Stop hiking? No way! You’re totally good to go.

Bonus tip: Don’t waste money on needless medical care. If you happen to be American, you’re already well-practiced in the delicate art of determining when medical attention is and is not absolutely necessary. Unless your shit is sideways and needs to be reset, a doctor isn’t going to do much for a broken finger. So save the pennies in your travel jar, go to Walgreens, and buy a splint and some medical tape. Total cost: $7.

The Americanness of Garlic: Weekend Wedding Part III

We rode down the line, past the line, through it: the slice in the sky where the fog stops and the blue begins.

The California Coast and the Central Valley: there’s more than just a fog bank that separates the two. They’re culturally two different worlds. One is liberal, cultured, Priuses and windbreakers all year round. The other is hot, flat, migrant and dusty, rumbling trucks and fruit stands, too-neat rows of too-green produce lining the highway, whipping past your window in a monotonous flipbook, eye-numbing and strangely hypnotizing.

To us coastal folks, the Central Valley is a hazy strip of heat and pesticides, a nebulous region of towns we’ve heard of in passing, maybe driven through, but never really experienced past a gas station or two. Which is why Gabe and I had decided to stop in Gilroy, a typical agricultural Central Valley town, on our drive back to the Bay. That, and the garlic.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival is one of those things I’d heard about my whole life, but never been to. I wasn’t even really sure where Gilroy was. It’s one of those small-town events that put the place on the map, gives it some sort of name recognition to city folk. You get the feeling that the whole town lives for Garlic Festival weekend, that it’s their moment to shine—or more accurately, to waft.

We snaked along the single-file traffic leading to the parking lot. Everything was agriculture: produce stands, the Garlic Shoppe, a garlic restaurant, garlic paraphernalia. People with coolers stood on the roadside selling bottles of “ice-cold water, $1 here, $3 at the festival.” The town was amped.

We tromped across the dirt parking lot, past port-o-potties and shuttle bus lines, volunteers with bull horns, in towards the banners and balloons and cloud of cooking garlic.

It wasn’t cheap: $17 to get in. It didn’t matter. We were in it to win it.

At first, it was kind of disappointing—all the usual festival stuff: cheesy craft booths and “funky” bands, frozen lemonade (not garlic-infused). I was expecting some sort of kitschy throw-back vibe, a state fair kind of atmosphere. I was expecting uber-ridiculous, inventive garlic food, garlic everything.

But as we wandered more, went deeper into the booths and stands, the subtler ridiculousness revealed itself. And then we found this:

A flaming garlic effigy. How metal is that?

We went for it. We didn’t care that everything cost $5 and the lines were long and the sun was brutal. We wanted the full experience.

That’s right—garlic ice-cream. This is one of the festival’s great claims to fame that I’d heard about. And it’s ice-cream. So I had to have it. Oddly enough, they served it in a half cantaloupe. Not so sure about the culinary success of that, but I could appreciate the eco-friendliness.

Shit yeah!

Gabe was obsessed with finding deep-fried garlic. When he succeeded, we sat down on a hay bale and indulged in our treats (dipping deep-fried garlic into garlic ice-cream: amazing). One of the bands had broken into a cover of an obscure, early Johnny Cash song. As the families trundled by in the afternoon heat, there was something really sweet about the whole thing, something All-American in a way that I once scoffed at.

And then we found this dude:

Nothing like a man in drag resembling a human garlic nut sack to really get the party started.

While most of the booths were of the folk-art and rip-off variety ($20 for a flattened glass bottle window hanger), there were some hidden gems in the rows of awnings:

More vaguely scrotal goods

“The Originals”—thank god! None of these impostor custom toe rings.

This one goes out to all the vegetarians in the house...

“Gourmet Alley” was the closest thing to the state fair vibe I found. They seemed to serve all the same fare as the rest of the festival; the fonts on their banners were just of a more dignified variety. There was a cook-out section complete with demonstrations and seminars, where local hot shots flexed their garlic prowess. It was all proudly and unironically sponsored by Foster Farms (complete with chicken-shaped balloons bobbing overhead). We may have only been an hour and a half from the Bay Area, but the food culture was was a whole nuther world: purely All-American.

And in a way, beyond the deliciousness of garlic, that’s what I been looking for, hoping to find at the festival: America.

There’s a kind of beautiful part to participating in a culture, in mainstream culture. Growing up in a city, and especially in a place as distinct as the Bay Area, you don’t get a lot of chances to indulge in Americana—we’re all about film festivals and Critical Masses and dirty punk shows in dingy warehouses.

But there’s this American mythology, this agrarian life, a “simple life,” that’s always been there: a vague background noise, aired on old sitcoms, tucked into dusty paperbacks, into the heart of the big, wide country that I fly over and past, but never stop in. I’ve never experienced it, never lived it, observed it from a distance, as the Other.

I think us city people feel alienated from that culture. We judge it (“uneducated, small-minded, uber-Christian bigots”), and are afraid it was judge us (especially if we’re something other than straight, white, native-born). There’s a kind of deep distrust—“that isn’t me, can’t be me, not ever me.” There’s something lonely about existing in something other than the predominate culture.

It was nice, for an afternoon, to feel like in some small way, I can be a part of that too, that that’s in me as well: America. Never thought I’d say that.

And sweating garlic for the next day and a half was fun too.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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