Posts Tagged 'california'



Smog City Street Art

Second and Traction. I wouldn’t have ended up there if three degrees of separation and a vaguely pointing finger hadn’t sent me, the intersection pulsing on my iMap like a gleam off buried treasure. Does every town have a warehouse district—posed delicately between decay and revitalization, a hushed breath that sends the trash dancing ecstatically down deserted streets. Abandoned buildings, chain-link fences, art collectives, lofts, hip cafes on whose terraces a gothic bartender I once knew squinted her eyes against the LA sun (she never did get sober). Dogs and day laborers and cute girls on bicycles—and a shitton on graffiti.

I’m thinking this little tract of Downtown LA is something like the hill (or dug-outs or BART tracts) where the cool kids in high school smoked weed. There were pieces from big names like So-Cal native Shepard Fairey and the UK’s D*Face (who recently made a stir with his Zombie Oscars installations), as well as wheatpastes and stencils and tags galore. I came across a friendly crew of dudes painting a legit mural on the side of an abandoned building that read “Still Kicking Ass.”

Damn straight.

Shepard Fairey

A lot of the work was heavily politicized—making poignant to satirical comments on the imperialism, immigration, consumerism, commodification and other fun subjects not typically conjured in my LA stereotypes. Just more proof that there’s more going on than teeth whitening and Botox injections.

Interesting comment on the commodification of political figures--especially considering the man responsible for the oh-so-famous Obama image had a piece up a block away.

Mad skills

Reminiscent of Banksy mice, no?

D*Face: Siiiick

Word.

Dudes painting mural

"Can I get a picture of your bird tattoos?" "Sure." "Aw, dude, show her your Booger tattoo."

At work

More pieces on the same building

One of Nomade's Roman fellows

Down on 9th and Mateo, another abandoned building was getting seriously hit up by some bad-ass murals, part of the LA Freewalls Project. Local boy Saber had just completed an impressive piece, as had D*Face.

Saber's mural

Detail: buffed graffiti

And, why not, a couple more gems from elsewhere in the city…

Sherpard Fairey & Saber alley, Silverlake (thanks for the correction, Daniel)

Note the can: Campbell's Soup. How Meta.

If all taggers and graffiti artists looked like this, they'd have a much easier time.

Health care reform passed while I was in LA. Was delighted to see the Monopoly fellow around.

So what does it all tell you, these smears of paint and peeling papers, about Los Angeles? If street art and place really do have as much of a connection as I suspect they do, LA’s told me this: that even within the belly of mass culture and consumerism, pangs of outsider aches burn acidic. And they don’t sit quietly, politely, hands folded and waiting their turn. They’re illicit, guerilla and goddamn beautiful.

Take Me Back to Bunker Hill: Finding What I Came For in Downtown LA

“Well,” my Dad asked, “did you find what you were looking for?”

I sat travel-dazed and dirty-socked at the dining room table. I’d fought the coming home blues all 372 miles up the 101, driven straight to my parents’ house to eat dinner, tell stories and delay actually arriving home a couple more hours. My car rested in the driveway like a tired horse, bag-laden and dirt-covered. I couldn’t remember having ever wanted to come home less.

Of course, my dad meant Los Angeles, its gritty and unglossy underside—had I found it? I’d made quite the to-do over my mission to dig in, delve beneath and uncover buried, bloody gems of LA’s uncommercializable heart—the skeletons in its closets, its alleyways, the voices that came through tattered paperbacks and the shrieking distortion of old punk LPs. Had I gotten there, found there, held a bit of there in my hands like it could be mine?

Downtown mural

I stayed mostly in Downtown, LA’s most un-LA area. Modestly tall buildings jangled with the light dancing off of cheap jewelry stores; young girls beckoned you to enter their stores, calling out the names of goods in Spanish; a legless beggar with perfectly combed hair occupied the pavement outside Clifton’s Cafeteria; Santeria markets abutted Art Deco theater marquees, sitting above boarded-up entrances and watching the street like purgatoried angels. Hipsters took morning strolls with their well-groomed dogs, past shopping carts and transient twitching, the encampments of misery that compose Skid Row. There were no Valley Girls, OC bros or Pilates-perfect MILFs. There was even a cafe that served Ritual coffee.

It’s called “Historic” Downtown, complete with markers and murals, and I crossed several groups of confused tourists, consulting street maps and looking up bewildered at the carcasses of LA history as if it say, “Huh?” You learn to take the term “history” with a grain of salt in California, but it went beyond that—this was barely even a Downtown. There were no bustling businessmen, no Banana Republics, no dudes hawking maps of celebrities’ homes on the street corner, no tourist facilities, not really any non-neighborhood locals. Working-class, non-white, unglamorous—this was Downtown LA.

I hiked over to Bunker Hill, a doomed and fruitless mission, I knew. It was once a down-and-out neighborhood that held, in the shadows of its slanted incline, flophouses and brothels, dive bars and cheap hotels, derelicts and drunkards and two of the best damn writers to come out of that cursed city. John Fante curled up in the liquor-soaked sweetness of the slum, while Charles Bukowski broke furniture and chased alcoholic insanity in its tenements. A 1950s revitalization project razed the ramshackle Victorians, paved over the shattered remains of lives and dreams and addictions, suffocating the howling ghosts neatly beneath office parks, wide streets and sterilized, sparkling sidewalks.

There was nothing to discover. I tromped up a San-Francisco-steep hill, glanced at the historical markers, cruised past the newspaper village of bare feet and cigarette butts outside the Central Library. I stood on a corner that will next week be renamed John Fante Square, and not a damn thing remained. Not a shadow, not an echo, not a ghost of a passing fit of madness. There was, to use a tired and perfect quote, no there there.

But of course, there never really had been. None of it was true, not all the way true, at least. Us writers and alcoholics are tragically skilled at romanticizing even the most sordid, harrowing of places and experiences—and in all likelihood, the actual Bunker Hill bore more resemblance to the modern-day Downtown than it did the gloriously gritty harem of passion portrayed in the novels I’ve loved. It was, most likely, a sweet little lie those boys told themselves, in their more tender of moments, when they ached for something to hold them, rock them, hum the lullaby of a childhood none of us really had. I know I’ve been guilty of rose-painting, perfuming the past, my own life, and it takes a photograph, something tangible, to jar me out of it, to remind myself how much it hurt, it bled, it puked and moaned; I saw people die, burn out, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”

So in that way, what I sought was all a mirage anyway. The narrow alleys and sagging Victorians of Bunker Hill may have been gone, but had the illusory soul of the place ever been more than that, a fevered dream? There was a current-day incarnation, just down the hill—laced with more sinister, soul-eating of drugs, for sure, with the rattle of shopping carts and broken lives—but it was probably a more accurate representation of Bunker Hill than those exalted odes to insanity, like the moment of pure genius and bliss before the trip goes back and the come-down shatters in.

But maybe it was all a mirage, Los Angeles—an oasis that keeps glimmering just a little further out in the sand. Katie told me about a girl she’d met in a penthouse one day (“typical LA story—went out for a coffee, met the Del Taco guy, went up to his apartment with his friends…”): perfectly thin and gorgeous, a 22-year-old model who’d run away from her Midwest home at 15, found herself stranded in California when the boyfriend ditched out, came to LA, rose in the ranks and behind the flashing of cameras, sat now on a leather sofa doing rails of cocaine off a glass coffee table. “She was the total LA person—came from somewhere else, chasing this glamourous illusion, the LA dream. She knew it was a dream, she was totally aware of it, but still too addicted to the dream to disconnect.”

Here’s what I learned: LA is a place for seekers. It seems it always has been, at least for the last 100 years or so. The City of Angeles, of a fleeting fulfillment you can almost, but never quite, grasp. There’s an LA dream, that’s not too unlike the American dream, that this too can be yours, that you too can find it, have it, hold it. It’s a flickering projection of images, like on the backs of eyelids or clean white screens, that’s so close to being real you could almost weep, almost believe it.

So did I find what I was looking for? Yes and no. It may have all been a dream to begin with, like the utopias of the almost-cults I visited. It had been bulldozed and redesigned with crisp corners and clean towers; it was living on in the ragged throats and stained clothes of Skid Row. It was a memory so old you don’t know whether it was a dream or not; it was a love song for the one you never really, but almost, had.

Candy, Travel and Love in Los Angeles

On a smog-sighing spring afternoon in Los Angeles, I met my soul mate. Possibly two soul mates.

Tuesday was a charmed day, my last full one before I hit the highway and headed back up the green spine of California. I ultimately failed in my scurrying attempt to cram in everything I hadn’t gotten to in the previous days—but I did encounter, sheerly by happenstance, two kindred spirits, cosmically bound in a coruscating tango set to the tune of my greatest loves: the unexpected beauty of travel, and sugar.

I got to Glaco’s Soda Pop Stop the round-about way. I learned about the Highland Park neighborhood (where Glaco’s has operated since 1897) through Trekking Los Angeles, a non-profit that aims to leverage cultural tourism to bring financial benefit to underserved communities. A pretty bad-ass ambition, and especially interesting given the recent spark in the ongoing debate about the cultural benefits/damages of tourism at World Hum and Matador. But how would it play out practically? I tried out one of their neighborhood guides.

The Highland Park guide focused mostly on art galleries and community spaces, which though interesting yielded a pretty incomplete neighborhood guide. I cruised past several of the galleries, finding only one open, and discovered the crowning Southwest Museum to be closed indefinitely due to earthquake damage.

What I ended up finding coolest was just wandering the streets. Far from trendy and slick, Highland Park is a diverse, working class community (not too different from Oakland) filled with raspado carts, 99 cent stores, auto shops, old women walking under the shade of umbrellas, panderias displaying Nescafe, Santeria markets, Food4Less, fast food chains, the lonely hiss of traffic. And art. Graffiti bloomed electric in the alleys, while murals covered the sides of buildings, highlighting local history, cheerfully advertising for businesses or bilingually encouraging you to recycle your motor oil. If it hadn’t been for Trekking Los Angeles, I’d never have ended up in Highland Park.

But Yelp led to me to the real gem of the neighborhood. Judging by the magazine articles taped to the front door, Glaco’s is far from undiscovered. Which is a good thing. Because under the fluorescence and atop the linoleum lies one of the most killer collection of sweets I’ve ever seen. I’d come to the holy land of sugar fiends. Cane sugar fiends.

I walked starry-eyed through the aisles, along displays of glass bottles and vintage candy. As I stocked up on candy cigarettes, Bubble Up and chocolate taffy, I perused some of the ingredients list. High fructose corn syrup was nowhere to be found. At the check-out line, I asked the grayed, smock-wearing clerk if the sweets sold were all in fact original recipes, free of all the chemicals and crap found in American candy today.

His eyes shone, a web of smile wrinkles appearing. “Our products only contain cane sugar.” My heart fluttered. My wallet opened.

Turns out the clerk was John, the owner of Glaco’s and the man responsible for turning it from an old-school deli to a cornucopia of candy. Being a fairly mellow Tuesday afternoon, John commenced to guide me around the store, explaining his philosophy and pointing out beloved brands.

John was all about the taste. He wasn’t a new-agey health nut (obviously)—to him, products made from natural ingredients like cane sugar just taste better. “The big companies are all about cutting costs,” he told me. “They don’t care about taste.” He told me how he remembered, as a kid, when 7Up switched from using lemon and lime oils to extracts. “It was terrible,” he lamented, with the touch of nostalgic heartbreak reserved for unhealed childhood wounds. “Now this,” he picked up a bottle with care, “is the good stuff. Original Dr. Pepper formula, with Imperial cane sugar.”

John and I proceeded to bro down about ingredients for about 20 minutes. Coming from the Bay Area dining scene, it’s all about quality, natural ingredients, even at the bar—squeeze your own fresh juices, make your own simple syrup, even your own small-batch Vermouth, increasingly. It’s a trend based on taste. But for John, it’s no trend. The vintage candy and soda thing isn’t a gimmick, isn’t hip. It’s just the way sweets were always meant to be. A square-shaped old man with smiling eyes and a die-hard passion for sugar, I almost asked if he had any single grandsons.

Thirty dollars and one mean sugar buzz later, I headed clean across town to Culver City, the undercover hotbed of hipness. Some of LA’s most prominent contemporary urban art galleries are housed in the unassuming tract of wide streets and windy sidewalks, including one often featured on one of my favorite street art blogs, unurth. I checked out the whimsical exhibition by Brazilian street artist Nina Pandolfo at Carmichael Gallery, and chatted up the friendly dude gallery sitting. He told me not to miss the current exhibition two doors down, at Roberts & Tilton. And oh man, am I glad I listened.

The white walls of the gallery’s main room were lined with a single ring of photographs, hung right at eye-level. The black-and-white images were haunting, gritty, unflinching, and ultimately beautiful. They were the work of Ed Templeton.

Ed Templeton is a kind of a Renaissance Man of contemporary cool—a pro skateboarder, photographer, artist, editor of a magazine, and, after reading the press release for his current show The Seconds Pass, a damn good writer, I’ve decided:

There is a scribble of asphalt and meandering ribbons of concrete tangled all over North America in a contiguous line of material that connects each of us to whomever else is also in contact. I sometimes marvel at this, walking from my front door and standing on the asphalt looking down at its grimy blackness, wishing I could rest my ear down on it and hear everything like the Indians in an old western film. The pavement I’m standing on is connected to other pavement, concrete, or steel to almost anywhere I can think of. Certainly everywhere you can drive to. Someone in Burnt Church, Tennessee is standing on gravel that is connected by touch to my street, just like someone is in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I can be in New York City in 3 days from my home in the suburban sprawl of Orange County, California without ever touching the earth.

All the photographs in the exhibition were taken from cars. On the road, in transit, the photos captured those fleeting moments, those “ephemeral winks” that slide past the glass like a poem of images, a slideshow of humanity and place. Walking, biking, waiting for the bus, staring out through the windshield—they were snapshots of those little moments, seemingly small and sometimes lonely, that are somehow connected, or connect us.

I’d been roadtripping for 9 days, riding the veins of America, the journey of it as much a destination as the places themselves. Dusty towns, gasping palm trees, billboards and cacti, strip malls and faces, faces—it was like a projection of something, a movie flickering on my windshield, disappearing in the side-view mirrors. And a thread of something laid underneath it all, tying it all together, like some obscure plot line I couldn’t quite grasp, but that kept nudging, whispering at me in its language of images, the roar of the wind. It was the road, the black asphalt itself—and god-damn, if I could take a decent picture, it’d look something like the ones lining the walls of that gallery.

It might have just been the cane sugar coursing through the blood, but things were beginning to make sense.

Interstate to the Underbelly: Digging Around Underground LA

 

Not my photo

 

Freeways are the subways of LA.

I had that realization as I ached red-brake-light through the afternoon traffic, slugging from Orange County to my sister’s apartment in North Hollywood. The New York City subway system seemed to me, on my first trip there, like a whole nuther underground world—its own city, separate from the other city, living and breathing and pulsing passengers just beneath the surface of the streets. And the freeways in LA are kind of the same thing, choked and crawling and lined with furry-necked palm trees—a world within a world, a sub-city. And it seems you could live your whole life within its concrete confines, going back and forth and never arriving, not needing to arrive, having come to a place beyond arriving. (And you may not be able to buy a hot dog in the middle of the LA freeways, but you could always pull off and grab some oranges alongside the exit ramp.)

It’s been a busy four days in Los Angeles, poking, prodding and trespassing into the underbelly of the biggest un-city of the US. I’ve got about 100 stories to tell, and even more poorly shot photos—marginal neighborhoods and abandoned places and esoteric cults, street art and Santeria markets and a female-run strip club. I’m debating how I want to organize and present it all and, as usual,chronologically seems the least linear, in terms of telling the story of it. The lines curve and arch and connect like the freeways, tangentially, seeming to move independently and with their own direction.

Most of my best finds and coolest adventures came as the result of totally serendipity and randomness. I dug for hours on the internet and then, three days before I left, I happened upon a not-quite guidebook in a bookstore: LA Bizarro (whose blog component can be found here). Cheesy in parts, genius in others and snarky throughout, the book brought me to some seriously hidden gems. And one that had fallen off the edge of the continent.

Sunken City was one of the coolest places I went to. A piece of San Pedro that had crumbled into the ocean during a mud/rockslide, Sunken City is the name given to the concrete, graffitied remains. Quardened off by a barrier wall and a couple of easily shimmied-under fences at the end of Point Fermin Park, Sunken City is technically off limits, but we found it full of about a dozen people—including a bunch of ballsy teenagers skateboarding the broken surfaces. Palm trees, grass and wild chard (from someone’s old vegetable garden?) punctuated the wind-swept rubble. It’s a wet dream for anyone who loves abandoned ruins, low-level trespassing, oceanside vistas—or anyone dreaming of the day California falls into the Pacific and floats away. Expect a photo essay soon.

I got word of another killer abandoned place from an old friend via Facebook. I drove into the green hill of Griffith Park, and poked around the rusty abandoned cages of the Old LA Zoo. Parts are a proper picnic/park area, while others lie behind a well-bent fence. The further into the hillside you go, the weirder and more graffitied the remains become. The zoo closed as a result of poor funding and animal deaths, and looking at the archaic cages, it’s easy to feel the suffering of the long-deceased captives. Especially since you can climb inside the cages.

Again, it was me and the teenagers—digging around behind broken fences is a fairly juvenile activity. We smiled and exchanged sunny day pleasantries, them choking on blunt smoke and remarking on all their friends’ tags, “Damn, blood, everybody been up here.”

I don’t even remember how I stumbled upon the MAK Center’s How Many Billboards project, but it totally intrigued me: artists taking over billboards in one of the most heavily advertised/commercialized/image-obsessed cities on the planet. I missed the bus tours and I’d feared the whole exhibition, but a bunch of the billboards’ leases got extended beyond the show’s original run. I hunted around town and found a couple really cool ones:

I also somehow stumbled upon the New Image Gallery, and found out legendary LA artist RETNA was having a solo show. I missed the opening reception on Friday, but stopped by today. Combining fashion photography with layered scrawlings, advertising with graffiti, glamour with grit seemed like the perfect collision of LA cultures. And it looked bad-ass.

Another thing I’m totally mystified as to how I found was Jetset Graffiti, my new favorite nerdy obsession. The site recently featured the latest Saber mural, part of the LA Freewalls project; I scurried down amid the warehouses and day laborers of 7th and Mateo to snap some photos. Expect a lengthy photo and word essay on LA street art I stumbled across, including stencils, wheatpastes and works by DFace and the ubiquitous Shepard Fairey.

Saber mural, "Pepper's World"

 

 

I discovered Esotouric by Googling “Charles Bukowski landmarks” (I said I was nerdy). Offbeat, indie and utterly obsessed with LA’s underbelly, Esotouric has an entire “Haunts of a Dirty Old Man” Charles Bukowski tour—plus John Fante, Black Dahlia and Tom Waits tours, among others. They only run tours once a week or so; I wasn’t super stoked on the one they were running while I was in town, but figured entrusting myself to people so dedicated to the strangeness of LA would be a damn good way to spend an afternoon, regardless of the subject matter.

“Maja’s Mysteries” focused on spiritual sites—the truly marginal and counterculture ones. Some might call them cults, some might call them New Agey nonsense, but all had found a home in the City of Angels. Maja, the White Witch of LA—tall and blond and subtly doused in glitter—grabbed the bus microphone and instructed us on karma and grace as we toddled up the hills and along the highways. We stopped at historic spiritual centers, founded by estatics searching for Utopia. They were all evangelists and mystics and soothsayers that prayed into crystals, channeled the cosmos, allowed the voice of Jesus to speak through their voicebox, clogged the old streetcars with thousands of revelers on a weekly basis, and generally used the power of prayer to create oodles of good mojo.

Though I didn’t connect to the spiritual eccentricity, and was downright spooked by the haunting recordings of George King’s contact with cosmic voices, I realized something on the Esotouric tour: all these people had come to Los Angeles from somewhere else. All of them seekers, searching for something, looking to fill a void or answer a question amid the swaying palm trees and quivering fault lines. Long before Scientology, long before Hollywood, long before reality shows about struggling actors and wannabe models, the magnetic currents of LA had drawn these misfits into the sunshine, the skin-piercing, cancer-blooming sunshine. They found followers, built philosophies, perfected their teachings, erected buildings—and fell off, eventually, into obscurity, settling into the dust between the hills, just under the surface of all that pavement.

Seen in that way, Hollywood isn’t some departure from the true, wild spirit of LA—it’s a continuation of the soul-hungry-ness, the seeking lonely and the elusive mirage that almost, but never quit fills the void—that circles and circumvents, glittering hoods and gleaming break lights—touches on a tangent, an overpass, for a moment, then glides off along the concrete arteries, the highways of LA, never arriving.

Searching for the Swallows in San Juan Capistrano

The air twitched with flies. Wild rabbits darted like phantoms from some hallucinogenic come-down; lizards crawled like insects out of the eyes of middle-school acid trips. Rocks and weeds tumbled down into a tight ravine; on the other side, trains rumbled past and the interstate roared like a wild thing. A weathered “No Trespassing” sign grew small behind me. I wasn’t concerned—this was bigger than trespassing. Down an abandoned road, amid the unkept overgrowth of a forgotten corner of Orange County, I was searching for what I’d come for—the swallows of San Juan Capistrano.

It started with the tattoo. I, like half of the tattooed population of the planet, have swallows. Not that I’m a sailor, bird enthusiast or have any particular affinity for traditional tattoos. But it means that every little old lady I meet asks me, “Have you been to San Juan Capistrano?” I found out that San Juan Capistrano was the town where swallows migrate back to every spring, after their trip down to Argentina. They arrive like clockwork every March 19, swooping around the old alcoves of the Mission there, building their bizarre nests and diving through the calm air and whispering history. I got tired of answering “no”—this year, I was going to the god-damn Mission and seeing some god-damn swallows.

I drove into the belly of the beast—Orange County. Motherland of every suburban California stereotype: sixteen lanes of chocked traffic, smog-smudged horizons, Del Taco and Starbucks, too-skinny arms and too-hard boobs. But somewhere amid all that was a kind of authenticity, a tradition, a natural phenomenon that hadn’t been strangled out by sprawl. I’d sat on the balcony of my cheap hotel in the Fez medina one dusk and watched the sky come alive with the swoop and screech of swallows: black, like shadows, fast, like phantoms, so that they almost seemed unreal. I wanted that rush again, that marvel and awe, in what seemed like a most unlikely place, this suburb of all suburbs.

The return of the swallows is San Juan Capistrano’s biggest event of the year. The Mission opens its doors to tons of visitors; I learned too late that the main event was the Swallows Day Parade on Saturday. But whatever. The main event for me were the birds themselves. I ditched my car about a mile from the Mission, hiked through the traffic and crowds of families and old ladies. I bought a couple $2 tacos, a pan dulce as big as my head, and entered the Mission.

Only the swallows weren’t there. Crowds milled around with their audio-tour headsets, their cameras and sun visors, through the neon flowers and crumbling edifices of the Mission, looking skyward at nothing but blue. “Ooh, there’s one,” an elderly man exclaimed. “No, dear,” his wife answered, “that’s a blackbird.”

What the hell? I sidled up to a ranger and asked, “So, um, where’s all the birds?”

“They don’t really come here anymore,” she answered in a hushed voice.

“Why not?”

“Well, we don’t really know. Some people think it’s climate change, but more likely it’s urbanization. The area was all rural when the Mission was built—lots of bugs and dirt for the birds. But now, you know—” she waved her hand at the hiss of traffic from beyond the Mission walls. “I’ve heard they’re mostly down by the creek.” She gave me directions to a creekbed just outside of town, where a small colony of swallows was rumored have nested, to be swooping through the skies. “Lots for them to eat out there,” the ranger told me with a smile.

I wandered around the Mission. It was beautiful in the way that Southern plantations are beautiful—peaceful and shady, but with something sinister inside the breezes and gardenia scents, a hint of haunting in the wild-blowing quietude, as though if you listened very closely, you could hear the echoes of crying, of cultural genocide and Christianization. I listened to my headset, watched the candles flicker in the chapel, observed the statue of missionary taming the savage, lion-cloth-wearing Native American.

“Are those swallows on your arms?” a woman wearing a swallow-studded t-shirt asked.

“They sure are.”

“Can I take a picture?”

I turned around and squeezed my elbows together, so that the birds on either sides of the arms were touching. The woman snapped her photo. “Those are the only ones I’ve seen today,” she told me wistfully.

I laughed. “Me too.”

Like everyone else, I kept looking up, searching the squinting blue sky for signs of the birds. Phantom swallow syndrome: kept thinking I saw the diving wings and forked tails of the elusive birds I’d come for. It seemed like a metaphor—like gentrification, like the more predatory forms of tourism, we’d descended en masse and through our seeking of something authentic and real, we’d driven out the very thing we sought. And I was, of course, one of them, in the way you never want to admit you’re really one of them (“I’m a traveler, not a tourist”)—with my digital camera, snapping photos at ghosts.

I’d find them, I decided. I got back into my desert-dust, dead-bug covered car and went creek-ward. I curved down a quiet road, spied the cleave in the green earth when the creek was, searched for somewhere to ditch my car that didn’t have an ominous “Tow Away” sign. I pulled up to a driveway and asked a little old man if he’d seen any swallows. He scratched his head, answered in a heavy accent, “No, but maybe down by the Church.”

The grounds of Rancho Capistrano weren’t very welcoming—sprinkled with “No Trespassing” and “No Parking” signs. I left my car between two parked big-rigs on the street outside and tromped in, down through shady grasses and soccer fields, alongside a 6-foot chainlink fence covered in forbidding signs. The grounds gave way to open space, wild grass and small, rustling animals. The natural creek was swallow-less, but as I approached the cement embankments, I saw the diving black figures I’d been searching for.

About a dozen swallows moved through the half-shadowed concrete, white bellies and black wings. I crouched down, snuck under the tall fence and crawled over big rocks to get closer to the birds’ strange dance. I tried to snap photos, but they were too fast, too elusive for my slow fingers and cranky old lens. I put down my camera and just watched, thinking of the balcony in Fez, the long journey of the small creatures, the city they’d shunned and where they’d ended up instead.

Wind and Dust and Real Wild West

Two days in the desert—driving, hot wind roaring, through the pebbles and boulders, palm groves and dusty towns, the strange angles of the Joshua trees, arching up towards something, a sky as pale as eyes. It’s not hard to imagine infinity in the desert, that’s it’s all still at the bottom of some great prehistoric sea, that the sky were the lid of the sea and we were all swimming through it, rattling highway through it—the wind, waves; the dust, sand; the crunch under your sneakers some kind of ancient asking.

I arched over the hills, my tired car chugging, and arrived in Joshua Tree, went teeth-chattering down an unpaved road that dead-ended at open lot of strange, scavenged art. I’d read about the Noah Purifoy Foundation on Trazzler, and it immediately rose to the top on my list of things to do .

An LA artist that moved to the desert for more space and peace, Noah Purifoy erected whimsical sculptures out of found and salvaged materials—toilets, old vacuum cleaners, scrapped tin. During the 60s he’d directed the Watts Towers Art Center, and you can definitely see the influence of Simon Rodia—though Purifoy’s creations are more folksy, more political, less abstract. In fact, one of the most powerful pieces in the wind-swept lot was a piece made from materials found after the Watts Riots. To take a tragic, violent event, to sift through its remains and piece them together to create something new, something beautiful—this seems to be what Noah Purifoy was all about.

Admission to the Noah Purifoy Foundation is free; there’s a couple pamphlets at the entrance that guide you through your wanderings. There were only a couple other people there, and I hadn’t read about the place anywhere else. Except that, the next day, I saw on Twitter that it’d been featured in the New York Times. So much for having the edge.

Then it was off into the park itself. You hear a lot about the strange spiritual power of Joshua Tree, and I gotta say, they aren’t exaggerating. The terrain was other-worldly, to say the least. The tumble of boulders looked as though they’d been piled up by a toddler’s hand. The arms of the Joshua trees twisted and reached, fists full of beige spring flowers.  The shrubs had a slight purplish haze, like an old woman’s hair, and the air was full with a charged silence, the sound of wind.

I of course made a beeline to the site of Gram Parson’s impromptu cremation, something of a pilgrimage site for fans and aficionados of the bizarre. I drove out to Cap Rock and walked slowly around the massive formation, searching for the tributes and messages written on the rock that would signal the spot. And you know, I have to say, sitting there, the whole thing seemed much less odd. Well, the bit about stealing the body and having it actually burned on the spot is still a bit far-fetched, but being there—listening to the wind and watching the lizards dart—it seemed less like some kind of opiate-inspired fit of fancifulness, and more like an honest yearning to become a part of the place. It felt like somewhere, very far beneath the surface of it all, those plutonic intrusions that caused the rock formations were still boiling, still shooting up through the crust of the earth, and it didn’t seem so strange to want to become a part of it—to become smoke, twisting; dust, dancing; and at last the wind.

Across the desolation lay a supreme indifference, the casualness of night and another day, and yet the secret intimacy of those hills, their silent consoling wonder, made death a thing of no great importance. You could die, but the desert would hide the secret of your death, it would remain after you, to cover your memory with ageless wind and heat and cold.

John Fante, “Ask the Dust”

The next day it was off find the Wild West. I’d been stoked about Pioneertown, for nothing more than the kitsch factor. An old movie and TV set from the 40s, my trip to Pioneertown seemed ill-fated from the beginning. The Pionnertown Motel suddenly “closed indefinitely” the week before I left, and Harriet and Pappy’s Palace, billed as the best honky tonk west of the Mississippi, was closed the night I wanted to go boogie down. So I headed out in the morning and I have to say, if it would have been monumentally disappointing if Ice Cube hadn’t been there, in a poncho and a sombrero hat, filming a new video.

I headed back on the highway, through squat, peopleless towns of gas stations and boarded-up buildings. Did you know they grow dates in the California desert? I didn’t. Or that a date milkshake is god-damn delicious?

I made it to Niland, a windy little town with a couple shops, a no-name gas station and a stretch of trailers. There were two big sights there that inspired me to go 2 1/2 hours out of my way: Salvation Mountain and Slab City—the real, modern-day Wild West. It’s fitting that most people know about these places, if at all, from the movie and book Into The Wild, because they capture the kind of not-for-profit weirdness that can only take place in California.

Salvation Mountain is Leonard Knight’s neon, latex-paint monument to God. Really. Radioactively bright, the art installation is covered in biblical passages, odes to God, and topped with a cross. The old dude came out to the desert in 1985, shortly after he was saved by Jesus, and began building the tribute, fueled by some kind of insane passion and other-realm vision.

Leonard was there that day, as he is most. Weathered, red-skinned and still mostly coherent, Leonard showed a small group of us around, spouting his message of God’s love and keeping it simple. He had a 10th grade education, he told us, and was one of the dumbest creatures on Earth, but because he’d repented, God had enabled him to build Salvation Mountain. He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for fame—he did it spread the message.

His paint-stained pants were hitched up high, one of the legs tucked into his sock. The Velcro straps of his stained sneakers flapped, and he’d missed a button on his shirt. Three long hairs grew out of the top of his nose; he had a cold sore and one long thumb nail. He looked like a man that had become the desert, was the desert. He gave us each a handful of postcards and asked us to distribute them. He wanted nothing in return, just for us to spread the word. He repeated “keep it simple” like a mantra.

A quarter-mile down the road was the legendary RV squatter encampment of Slab City—“the last free place,” the sign read. Pebbly and stark and covered with trailers, Slab City is a piece of land no one wants. The government bulldozed a military base that was there in the mid-40s, leaving nothing but concrete slabs, covering the ground like graves. Word got out in the squatter community, and it became a wintering place for “snow birds.” There’s no water, no bathrooms—nothing, again, but wind and dust.

There were a number of “yard sales”—tables and blankets were random stuff was displayed, on sale for passer-throughs like myself. I pulled over to one and chatted with the people there, a desert-skinned man with a scabby elbow on a bicycle, and a sun-visored woman with obese ankles and a gap where a tooth once was. I asked them about life in Slab City, about the community and why they were there.

“There’s no rules here,” they told me. “No one bothers you, and you can do whatever you want.” They let the statement linger, and I didn’t ask what “whatever” was. As long as you were sociable with your neighbors and didn’t steal, anything went.

They told me how they easily lived on $200 a month in government assistance and food stamps, how people helped each other without payment or reward, how there were weekly live music shows and how the cops wouldn’t come out there (since Slabbers provide all the income for the nearby town Niland, they claimed). They talked about local goings-on, about drunk neighbors who’d stabbed each other and a dog that had recently died, a new church that had opened and was going to start giving out food on Sundays. Last year a trailer had burned; there was nothing to do but watch it blaze in the night.

“By April 1,” the guy told me, “everyone will be gone.”

“Where do they go?”

He shrugged. “Oregon. Canada. There’s not many free places left, places like this.”

He looked around the shrubs and dirt, squinted under the heavy sun—a place that had etched itself onto his skin, his sharp blue eyes. This was no OK Corral; this was the realeast Wild West I’d ever seen.

Through the Green and Into the Dust

Blogging to you LIVE from the Wigwam Motel in Rialto—my own yellow, cigarette-stenched circle of heaven in the epicenter of strip malls, tract housing and Morrissey fans, the San Bernardino Valley. It’s the perfect place to end the drive down to SoCal, and to begin the journey into the dusty heart of whatever weirdness remains.

I started out on my roadtrip yesterday, sniffling and sore and in a DayQuil daze. I decided to press on with my plans, despite succumbing to a nasty cold that’s been going around, and if it hadn’t been so goddamn beautiful, it might have been painful. Spring arrived a couple days ago, with that certain lightness that makes everything seem young and hopeful and achingly pure. The coast was lit green by months of El Nino storms, a verdancy that’s rare in California. I twisted and turned on the skinny roads, blasting my stereo over the roar of wind through the rattlingly cracked windows.

I stopped in Big Sur, where I hadn’t been since I was a kid. I’d remembered it being so far away from home, which I suppose it is, but only if you measure in culture, not in miles. It was just as massively impressive as I’d remembered, with broad trees and heartbreaking cliffs and not too many tourists, being early in the year. I’d been too groggy to stop for a sandwich on the way out of town, so I pulled into Nepenthe, purported to be one of the better of Big Sur’s overpriced coastal cafes. Glorified Wonderbread, browned and soggy lettuce, and $20 later, I decided that eating a $7 sandwich from home of the hood of my car at some pretty vista point would have been a far preferable experience. Whatever—it’s Big Sur. You can’t stay disappointed that long.

Feeling a little pepped up, I tried to do a quick hike, but discovered that a lot of the trails are currently closed due to the pummeling storms this year. So I tromped down a little coastal path, with bickering families and friendly Germans, aptly named Overlook Trail. It overlooks this:

and I felt pretty satisfied.

Back on the road, the coast got twistier, the pavement rougher, as I made my way down to San Luis Obispo. It’s a pretty typical California college town, with one major draw—one of the region’s few youth hostels. I grabbed a cheap bunk at Hostel Obispo, a cute old Victorian house, and took a leisurely stroll down to “Downtown,” which is really more of a high-end outdoor mall.

meeeeeat!

Traveling within the US is a novelty for me, and it comes with a couple major benefits, one of which is the use of my iPhone (far too expensive to use abroad). While the Cheap Gas and Public Restroom Finder apps have proven utterly disappointing, my old favorites are definitely coming through: Google maps and Yelp. I wanted to eat somewhere popular, that would give me a good feel for the town, and ended up at the Firestone Grill. It’s a BBQ joint heavy on portions and easy on the pocketbook, which makes sense in a college town. It was alright, about twice as good and half as much as my lunch—but 419 reviews? Then I passed the newly opened Chipotle, with a line literally out the door, and realized maybe, you know, I had had some of the best food in town.

I strolled around the town some more, filled with dudes in flip flops and girls in work-out clothes and pony-tails. It felt wholesome and relaxed—even the local riffraff felt quaint, in their barefoot belligerence. Everything felt cheerful and hopeful, like springtime and college students. I topped off the night with a much-needed soak in a hot tub at Sycamore Mineral Springs, a 12 minute drive from San Luis Obispo. My achy bones and sinus congestion thanked me.

This morning I backtracked to Montana de Oro State Park, for a little fresh air and strolling. Curving down a two-lane road, I went past coastal hills covered in purple and yellow wildflowers, orange explosions of poppies against the green green of the hills. The road took me into a tangle of eucalyptus trees; I pulled over where a bunch of cars were parked and scurried down a dirt path into a grove of trees.

The light cut through the leaves and branches and ocean mist in this dream-like haze, and all I could hear where birds and surf crashing. Over a hill and through a miniature valley (where a pelican glided past just as I rounded the corner), and I found myself at a surfer spot. I hung around a bit, sitting on the rocks and watching the waves and wet suits.

I headed back, this time inland on the 101, where flowers and green continued to line my journey. At home, I’m an impatient and cranky driver—I hate traffic, parking, street sweeping. Always an impediment to where I’m trying to go, what I’m trying to do. But driving down the coast, with my music playing and my broken skeleton doll dangling from the rearview mirror, I could let go and just go with the rhythms of the road. There was little traffic, just fresh air and beauty and my own wordless thoughts. The road was the place I was trying to go.

The roadside kitsch of Pea Soup Anderson’s was too much to pass up, so I made another stop—plus the soup felt good on my sore throat. Then I went to do a little un-urban exploring, swishing through thigh-high grass to poke around an abandoned diner I’d spotted from the highway. I peered through the windows at the stacked chairs, the silent booths, feeling a strange kind of nostalgia for a place I’d never been.

Things were starting to get cool.

As luck (or unluck) would have it, my iPod died just as I was cruising past Santa Barbara, so I pulled off to find a cafe. It’s hard not to feel alienated in a town like Santa Barbara, wealthy and white and homogenized and nice. Very very  nice. It’s the kind of place that feeds all your Southern California stereotypes, both the good ones—sun and long, tan legs—and the bad ones—everything else.

I got back on the highway just in time for rush hour. The green gave way to brown and billboards, the ocean mist to heat and just a thin layer of smog, the free flowing to break lights and miles of congestion. My 2 hour drive took 3 1/2. I climbed over the spine of LA, snuck around the backside, through one valley and into another. And finally pulled into the Wigwam Motel. It’s not as run-down as they say, the area not as “rough” as some reviews claimed. It’s a working class “ethnic” suburb and, hey, I’ll take that over a wealthy brofest any day. Even if it is damn hard to find a salad.

Blurry, but it does say "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." A better photo by daylight tomorrow.

So I’ve made it, my little car and me, crawling down the lip of the continent, down through the legendary beauty of coastal California, made more ridiculous by the green and tender spring. I’ve gotten reminded of what I already know of Southern California—bros and traffic—and am poised to head into the desert tomorrow. Found art, a rock n roll pilgrimage (and human cremation) site, and a honky tonk await. And that’s just tomorrow.

Los Angeles, Give Me Some of You!

“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”

John Fante, “Ask the Dust”

Us Northern Californians are prejudiced.

That’s right: prejudiced. We look down our noses, down the long craggy coastline, at Los Angeles as though it were the traffic-clogged  layer of Hell Dante forgot to mention. Tanned and Botoxed and full of silicone, Southern California steals our water, votes Republican, gave us the Governator. In its smog-laden haze of red carpets and reality shows, it skews our state’s reputation, bogs down our ethereal quest for Prius-driving utopia of gay marriage and legalized marijuana. It’s Sparta and we’re Athens, the “LA face and Oakland booty” that never quite make it onto the same person, never combine to create the ultimate bad-ass state, but instead go careening on their own individual, bickering paths of disapproval (NorCal) and complete unawareness/indifference (SoCal).

I once read an essay that whittled the whole Northern-Southern divide down to the difference between internal and external—Southern California was the glossy, teeth-whitened facade, Northern California the soulful, spiritually searching inside (you can guess which side of the debate the author fell on). It’s Bikram and we’re Hatha. And while Southern California remains too self-absorbed to even notice our despising of them, people write whole books on the cultural clashes of the US’s most populous state.

But I’ve long suspected that there’s more to Southern California than SUV-driving anorexics and flip-flop-wearing bros. It may have given us Kardashians and Speidi, but what about Charles Bukowski and John Fante, Camille Rose Garcia and The Date Farmers, The Germs and NWA? There must be, I’ve thought, a whole nuther Los Angeles, down beneath the glittering grotesque surface, that most people never see—hidden and raw, like an open wound or a small, beating heart.

I’m going to find it. I’m going, filling my beat-up car with gas and kicking the tires to check the air, going down the writhing road of Highway 1, past old Missions and crumbling cliffs, sleepy mansions and under-funded state parks. I’m headed into the desert, to psuedo-Old-West honky tonks and lawless squatter encampments. I’m watching swallows return from their long flight, to build strange nests and swoop their shadows through the dusk. And then I’m headed into the city itself, the city of Angeles and dreamers and dirtbags I’ve adored. I’ve got no traditional guidebook, no road map—just my phone and a smattering of tips divulged by friends and dug up on random websites.

Oh, and I’m taking you along for the ride.

Ass Whoopin on the AC Transit: Epic Beard Man, and Why I Don’t Ride the Bus Anymore

Celebrity sighting on the 53

The voice was barely discernible, muffled by whizzing traffic and excitement. “I just rode the bus with Epic Beard Man! He was giving out candy bars and autographs, and I got a photo with him!”

My friend’s Friday evening commute home had been spiced up by a sighting of Oakland’s latest internet phenomenon. As the number 53 heaved down Fruitvale Avenue, passengers posed for pictures and chanted “Epic Beard Man,” as the grizzlied old dude distributed candy from his backpack and basked in the adoration of the bus riders.

Regardless of your take on Oakland’s latest internet sensation—racist, vigilante or mentally ill bad-ass—one thing is for sure: Epic Beard Man has reached celebrity status. And while a heated, racialized debate rages in chat rooms and on blogs, the actual riders of AC Transit appear to have risen Epic Beard Man to the revered status of folk hero.

Quick low-down, in case you’re out of the loop: earlier this week, a YouTube video of an AC Transit (Alameda County Transit) altercation between a middle-aged black man and an elderly white man (now dubbed Epic Beard Man) made quite a stir—over a million page views in its first day, and countless comments and ensuing discussions over issues of race and safety in Oakland. The story was picked up by local blogs, news outlets, even the Huffington PostKnow Your Meme offers the most complete run-down of the controversy, featuring video responses that capture some telling Oakland sentiments.

You can go to YouTube and dig through all the remixes, follow-ups and tributes, but here’s the original video. Yes, it’s graphic:

It’s no surprise that the video is so popular. It’s another opportunity for people to glimpse into the dysfunctional “urban” reality of Oakland, and people outside of Oakland never seem to tire of that. Several years ago, the city’s other big internet phenomenon fascinated outsiders with its oh-so Oakland cultural collisions and colorful characters (I was living in East Oakland at the time, and the screeching sound of whistle tips really did echo through the streets at all hours).

While responses to the latest video vary, they largely fall into two camps: Epic Beard Man is a racist, or a hero. He’s either an old redneck who asks a black man to shine his shoes, then beats him, or he’s a tough dude who stands up to a punk-ass thug who’s instigating and harassing him. In general, the first camp seems to be populated by guilty white people and advocates of all things ghetto, while the second camp is composed of kids, bus riders and enthusiasts of drama and smack-downs.

My own response lies somewhere between the two. Both men are unstable, not the kind of people you want to sit next to and exactly the kind of people you meet on East Bay buses. Epic Beard Man is obviously not well, further evidenced by follow-up interviews; turns out he was also the star of another YouTube phenomenon, a video where he gets tased at an A’s game for unruly behavior. He’s a deranged old Vet with a tenuous grasp on reality, prone to violent outbursts. Not someone who should be milling around the streets, trying to take care of themselves, but hey, that’s America (thank you, Ronald Reagan). The other dude should have left it alone, realized Epic Beard Man was not all there and not worth the trouble—but in his bravado, he got pumped full of ego and shit-talking and, well, he got served.

What’s most interesting to me is how the people most closely related to the issues raised in the video reacted—that is, AC Transit riders and people with exhaustive experience dealing with both the tiringly whacked-out and tediously ghetto. Most of the folks I’ve talked to feel that while, yeah, Epic Beard Man is totally deranged, dude got what he deserved.

It reminds me of an issue several years ago when an Oakland resident was both vilified and exalted for standing up to the thug kids that plagued his block, in what became a violent incident. While both parties in this instance were African-American, so the race issue wasn’t raised, responses were similar: he was either a vigilante hero, or a villainous attacker of innocent youth. Throughout the controversy, the man insisted that all he wanted was a safe neighborhood in which to raise his kids—what I’d argue the majority of people in Oakland are looking for. In the end, he did what most of the families I grew up with did—unable to afford a nicer neighborhood in Oakland, he moved to one of the outlying working-class suburbs.

Responses to that issue, as well as this one, tap into some very central Oakland issues. While the man from a few years back was a much more sympathetic (and sane) character, and didn’t want to be a hero, many people regarded him as such. I think it speaks to the extent to which people are sick of all the bullshit. People are tired of dealing with puffed up a-holes who think they can say/do whatever to whoever and get away with it, tired of shit-talkers, instigators and intimidators. So much so that they’re willing to revere violent behavior.

The riders on the 53 last night, majority non-white, were literally cheering for Epic Beard Man. Yes, some of it was surely star-struckedness and a glorification of school-yard theatrics, but I think there was something deeper going on there, something almost beyond race. Most of the video responses I’ve encountered are, in fact, from people of color. Epic Beard Man may be nuts, but the other guy was an ass. There’s no video glorifying him—and I don’t think it’s just cause he was the loser in the altercation. It’s a strange thing: an incident so racialized, that at its core, to the people who deal with this stuff day in and day out, has more to do with harassment and basic respect than race.

That the incident took place on a bus is no coincidence. A San Francisco Chronicle blogger (and fellow gym goer) centered his coverage of the issue on the ridiculousness of AC Transit—for him, it was all evidence for why he doesn’t ride the buses in Oakland.

Word. I grew up riding AC Transit, and it served as a serious education in the world. The first post on this blog was a reflection of how riding the East Bay buses prepared me for world travel, while the very first piece I published, as a teenager in The East Bay Express, was a narrative about my fucked-up experiences on AC Transit (I used a line from the piece as the title for this post). While shit like this doesn’t go down on the vast majority of bus rides, it’s not some sort of exceptional incident—it just happened to be captured on tape. I’m grateful for the schooling AC Transit administered; as a result of vital life skills learned on those blue plastic seats, people generally don’t fuck with me. But I’m even more grateful to have a car now.

The Epic Beard Man hype will surely die down—like everything these days, it’ll be discussed and linked to and tweeted wildly, then fade into the buzzing gray, the next craze taking its place (in the digital age, it seems everyone’s 15 minutes of fame are whittled down to 15 seconds). But for the rest of us, the issues the video captures will continue on: race, safety, the crazies that fill AC Transit. They’ll continue to roam around, screaming and bleeding all over our commutes, and I will carry on with my self-centered, polluting aversion to East Bay mass transit.

But I will say—being on that 53 with my friend last night would have been an experience. If for nothing else than the photo ops.

I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Port Costa and the Past

In the hallway

It wasn’t the squeaking of the bats that kept me up all night. It wasn’t the way my shoulders dug in to the thin mattress that kept me rolling over, not the low-voiced howl of the passing freight trains that rattled me out of my half-dreams.

It was that I had to pee. And I was too scared of ghosts get up.

Not that I’m 7, and not that I actually saw or heard any ghosts. Just that, you know, I’m a wuss. The bathroom was only a couple doors down the hall. But I’d heard stories, of ghostly laughs and the clicking of century-old high heels, and I figured—why risk it? I waited until the gray light of dawn sank its fingers through the curtains, brushed the walls and illuminated the shadows. I relieved myself with incident.

The whole overnight to Port Costa, actually, went without incident, the kind that had been hyped and fore-warned: red necks, ghosts, bed bugs, cocaine-fueled partiers—I didn’t see any. What I did see: peeling velvet wallpaper, a spooky porcelain doll, fishermen tromping over gravel and train tracks, a stuffed polar bear, a dude playing a banjo and a whole lot of motorcycles.

We arrived after dark, weaving our way through the shadowed coastal hills of a regional park. The pavement gave way to gravel as we delved into a little valley, dim houses and an old chapel lining the one road of Port Costa. The road dead-ended into a wide parking lot, gravel, train tracks, the misty water of the Carquinez Strait. On one side of us was a three-story, dirt-colored old warehouse, on the other, the bay windows of the Burlington Hotel. That was it.

Inside The Warehouse

We turned the locked knob to the hotel’s door a couple times, until the banjo-playing dude on the corner told us we had to go across the street to the bar to check in. We entered The Warehouse, the main occupant of the 19th-century grain storage-house.  We stared stupidly for a couple moments, taking in the mish-mash of burlesque lampshades, checkered plastic tablecloths, mounted animal heads and vintage signs. We must have stood out—a man in the corner waved at us.

Turned out he was Howie, accompanied by Barbie, proprietors of the Burlington Hotel. They greeted us in what we’d discover was a typical Port Costa way: genuinely friendly and down-to-earth. It wasn’t the affected over-sweetness of a typical tourist town, nor the you-ain’t-from-round-here skepticism of an isolated small town. The vibe was unpretentious and warm, but not overly warm. It was the Goldilocks of small towns—just right.

Everything was just right about Port Costa: just enough overnighters that I didn’t feel too out of place, just enough decrepitude to make the hotel really really cool, just enough vestiges of history to make the town special—not undiscovered, but not blown up or theme-parky.

On the mantel in front of our room.

We wandered around the Burlington Hotel with our jaws dropped—it was the antique/vintage/ creaky dollhouse of cool we’d hoped for. But it wasn’t the stinky filth-pot Yelp reviewers and the Chronicle had made it out to be. Sure, it was faded and had the musty smell of an attic, but I had to wonder—had the people who’d called it dirty ever stayed in a cheap third-world hotel? Or a flea-bag American one, for that matter? It was no Courtyard Inn, but definitely one of the nicer hotels I’ve stayed in the US (not saying much, granted).

Maybe they’ve already started to spiffy up and straighten out, as the Chronicle article claimed. Aside from the lack of bed bugs and grime, there wasn’t a lot of raucous activity either. The other guests definitely looked like they were there for a good time, but the most debauchery we experienced at the Burlington Hotel was some middle-aged folks having a Hank Williams sing-along (I wanted in), followed by some late-night bed creaking (I did not want in). Pretty mild, really.

Ate all that!

As part of the Valentine’s Special, a $99 dinner-room combo, we headed back to The Warehouse for some good ole American eating. I’m usually a free-range, organic kinda girl, but I figured, meh, when in Port Costa. We grubbed on a whole lobster, one pound of prime rib, and unlimited salad/chili/chowder bar, washed down with soda served in a glass jar. My pants felt quite a bit snugger. A post-dinner stroll was definitely in order.

We tip-toed across the puddle-ridden parking lot, through an opening in the chain-link fence, and across the dark of gravel and train tracks. The nighttime mist made everything feel dream-like and removed, like we were somewhere much further away, like those weren’t the lights of a suburb blinking and sighing across the water. The way the Amtrack and freight trains’ horns would wail, the way their lights gleamed like animal eyes, how the heaved and rattled past—it made it feel like we were in some little pocket of the world, not quite forgotten by time, but where time just kind of rumbled past, without really stopping, leaving only a puff of exhaust and the echo of its cry.

Sitting on the rocks, I looked out across the water, and had a strange, back-of-the-head tingle. The lights of a far-off refinery winked in the billows of steam pouring out its towers, glittering like some kind of industrial Oz. Jagged fragments of memory came cutting back. “Fuck,” I said. “I’ve been here.”

High school. Malt liquor and weed and pills. We’d piled into B’s truck, drove around El Sob and Crockett looking for drugs and trouble, finding none of one and only a little of the other. We’d pulled into a parking lot, staggered across gravel. Refineries twinkling. Feet numb, and sides closing in, black. Cigarette smoke in my hair. Wanting to sleep.

My little kaleidoscope of fucked-up broken memories came out of some forgotten fold of my brain, stinging and still alcohol-damp. So I’d partied in Port Costa after all. Who knew.

The next morning, the town was mist-shrouded and dewey-eyed. I was dazed; all night I’d listened to the trains, thinking of all the other people who’d laid in that room before me, in the gray and shadows, listening to that same rumble and sigh. We drank teeth-burning from styrofoam cups and took another tromp around town, then further down the train tracks. Lots of killer photos ensued (currently, only the digital ones are ready; pro film shots will take plenty longer). Coolest find: on some rusty old rails, someone with a similar nerdy affinity for trains and travel left their mark:

The mild afternoon melted past, time a far away thing. The trains continued to pass, rumbling and horn blowing at a couple of kids poking around the rocks and rails of a once-great railway hub, filled with miners and shipyard workers and whores and ferry horns—and now, just the ghostly groan of the trains, passing, passing, but never stopping, no, not anymore.

Photos by Theo Konrad Auer. More on the way…


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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