California Trains

Short Story

I had first met Taai on a freight train, on the way to San Francisco – he had shuffled in whilst I was sleeping, my head sore against the miserable pack that I carried with me. He had claimed his corner of the container and just sat there. The bells blew loudly as we settled into a little siding, and I woke, with some shock, with a man sitting opposite. The night was cold, and the wind whipped my face whilst the steel chilled my ribcage thoroughly.

I thought he was staring at me, so I stared at him, but he didn’t flinch or anything. He was just staring. Not at anything in particular though. His skin dark but not quite black, he had wooden eyes that were shrewd yet welcoming, on high cheekbones which ended with a neatly kept goatee, matching his closely trimmed hair – he could get his kicks if he wanted to, that was for sure. That was what everyone was about in those days, just getting kicks from bennies and tea, girls and music, trying to be ‘in’ whilst never actually just being. To be fair, that described me pretty well at the time.

I had heard it was meant to be warmer on the West Coast, but the ‘warm’ valleys were covered with a frozen mist which could douse most fires. I’d planned on getting up and moving about, to avoid my face from getting any bluer, and I did so slowly, just to gauge what he would do. He didn’t move or anything, and I started to run up and down my side of the container, swinging my arms about, running on the spot, you name it. It probably looked like I’d suddenly been dosed and was feeling the urge to move, but I didn’t really care. Neither did Taai it seemed. He just sat in his tattered shawl, wasn’t even shivering. That would surprise me later on, as in when I’d meet him years later back in New York, where I’d learn that he was from where he’s from.

The train had picked up speed, and we’d just passed Monterey, so I knew we’d be arriving sooner or later. We stopped in another siding, and the bells blew loudly once more, and another train came rolling down the mainline. I decided to hop out to try and lift some wine from this little shop I saw across a ways before we got into the city (the bastards would reach and steal from your pockets if you didn’t know where to look for juice). In hindsight, I was stupid for just leaving my pack there, with some guy who I hadn’t uttered a word to – that isn’t to say I had much of value in there, just some books, an extra pair of clothes and a pack of smokes. But as I grazed my knees jumping back onto the train, he hadn’t moved – still staring, not doing a thing. I sussed him to be one of those hobo travelers who had failed in life, just searching for the end of the road, but I quickly withdrew my conclusion. I’d been taught not to judge too quickly, but, hell, I still do today.

I’d decided that I liked Taai, and I offered him some of my wine –  he was still doing nothing and saying nothing. I thought he hadn’t heard me, what with the wind shouting at us and every bone in our bodies being rattled as we rode over every tie.

“Hey, you want some wine? It ain’t the best but it’ll warm you right up.”

“No, thank you”. His reply was simple enough, and he didn’t say a word more for the rest of the trip. His accent intrigued me – like I said, I hadn’t learnt of his background back then, and so I had the greatest of difficulty trying to place him. I gave up and moved on to wondering why he wouldn’t take the offer. Not many people turn down free wine. I imagined him to be a religious drag who tried to ‘maintain connection with God’ and ‘had not the time to revel in the delights of temporary man’, but I caught myself again. I’d met plenty of these types during my travels. America, and indeed Europe, had no shortage of them. I’d come to learn that I wasn’t too far off the mark with this judgment of Taai. The religious part, I mean, not the drag.

Monterey was interesting to me, home of many influential people, home of the people who were rich enough to buy a lot by the sea – I’d heard Steinbeck had grown up in the larger city area, and then decided to move right on the coast later on. I shan’t pretend I’ve read his works, but a lot of my pals back east dug him. The music that would stem from here would be beautiful, though it only really got rolling in the 60s after James Lyons did his thing. That stuff interested me much more than pages in a book. It was a good distance off for me to make good of what was going on in the city, but it looked nice enough, nice enough to make me visit in years to come, to wade through the sea and kick sand about and just sit there.

I’d nodded goodbye to Taai when we arrived in San Fran. He returned the nod as I hopped out of the container. There weren’t any cops on duty, none that I could see I mean, so I just slipped past the barriers and in no time I was on the streets. The buildings shone like jewels in the night, and in the distance I could hear the faint notes of people going mad for some colored fellow, yelling and screaming. I wasn’t feeling up for that at that particular time, so I paid no mind to it and found the nearest bar – the only sound that snuck through the air there was the sound of this bearded hipster tapping his fingers in no discernible pattern; not discernible to me anyhow.

After buying some cheap beer that tasted like piss, I slid into a booth near the door and sunk my head into my arms. I still rattled to the beat of the train, to the beat of the fingers. It felt rather therapeutic. Better than the screaming wind, that was for sure. I caught this girl making eyes at me from across the room, but I was too tired to get up and talk to her – I didn’t bother asking how much a bed was, I knew it would be too much, so I just took my chances. The keep didn’t seem to mind – it was a slow business day anyhow.

I considered wiring my brother the next morning for some bread, to get back home after this visit, but I decided against it – patronizing bastard would have sent a lecture instead. I’d hitchhiked plenty of times before. Stuff like that you don’t plan, it just happens. This time wasn’t much different.

***

A prequel of sorts to my ‘New York Scenes’ 

I Dream of America

Poetry, Prose

When I was young I had visions of another world

Land of the Free, American Dream, stars and stripes as the banner unfurled

Even when I’m high I dream of America

Bratty kids tear up arcades, pockets jingling with loose change, screaming and yelling and pushing and shoving to get a peek inside the stand-up cabinets, only to find they’d ‘struck out’, the ball sliding past the bats and into the machines, and just outside these arcades there are at least two or three bums hoping to catch a few cents from them as they leave. And then opposite the street, teenagers waiting to go into whatever movie was in at the time, this time the bums being shooed away by movie-goers and employees alike. And then further down the street, Bowery and Third Avenue bars filled with suits, glasses clinked and cigars smoked, the businessmen of our day swigging away after a hard day’s work, jukeboxes roaring away with Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Armstrong, or whoever, the bartenders who’ve heard it all a thousand times before – and then just outside, in the alleyways out of plain-sight, paranoid teenagers with bottles, cowering in corners out of fear of being caught. And then the finest America has to offer, men and women in at least five or six coats and jackets, purses filled to the brim with all kinds of wealthy secrets, walking past phone booths filled with lively conversations with friends and families. And just down streets, trees peak round corners, park birds making residence for the night, shouting from tree to tree about the adventures of the dwindling day. More alleyways filled with the smell of tea, two men round a corner laughing away at jokes which trail off into the slowly-darkening skies

When I was young I had visions of another world

Land of the Free, American Dream, stars and stripes as the banner unfurled

Even when I’m high I dream of America

Innumerable people lost in the swathe, three hundred million three hundred million, old and stupid, young and foolish, thinking evil so they receive evil, thinking good so they receive evil. Black, white, yellow, brown, whatever the colour whether rain or shine a fight will break out in no time at all, and sometimes the people who were told to protect us do the exact opposite. Men dead from the day they were born, men wearing suits becoming just suits, men without suits don’t matter, Men with tattered clothes matter even less, if you’re ill don’t talk to anyone, no one cares about your health so no one’s gonna give you health. The White House don’t give a damn either so don’t bother asking them. Drugs are easier to find, probably more fun too, roam the streets of Alaska to find this out, meth heads hugging trees, homeless people trying to sleep, the drunk hopping from bar to bar whilst yelling and shouting in the streets. Is the hedonism shallow or is it all that matters, I don’t know but I want to know, I want to go and find out.

When I was young I had visions of another world

Land of the Free, American Dream, stars and stripes as the banner unfurled

Even when I’m high I dream of America

Give me that sense of wonderment that I want, let me look up as I walk down streets and see gigantic monoliths for buildings lit up by the thousands of different lives which are being lived and have lived and will be lived. Let me hop in your car and travel across the entire country with you, sailing across roads which have been crossed a million times before me and a million times after me, and yet I still feel like it matters that I’m doing it. Let me smoke that with you and sit back enjoying the music, whatever music, music that was born here, that was listened to here, that will be listened to here, maybe it’s jazz, maybe I’ll feel Almost Blue, maybe Kind of Blue, maybe just blue. Past, present, future, America is here, and America is there.

When I was young I had visions of another world

Land of the Free, American Dream, stars and stripes as the banner unfurled

Even when I’m high I dream of America

But really I don’t know anything about it


Performed this at Thorn: Deception, at Bar 33 Durham

And Heavens Parted

Poetry

And heavens parted,

just as Moses did.

Or rather the opposite.

 

Skies instead of sea,

wet instead of the dry,

and not lofted men, but me.

 

And rather than sea bed

a concrete maze of city streets

upon which the grey skies weep.

 

Jacket with hood

which I refuse to use.

Glasses bead up; angelic sweat

 

Natural pitter-patter on leaves,

unnatural splatter-splatter from gutters onto streets,

a golden mean as it lands on me.

 

Gather strange looks from those in cars,

to be kept in my pocket (now wet),

as reminder what not to be.

 

Stray dog approaches; it drips too

I am not fearful,

for it understands

as I do.

***

Another Alaska poem

New York Home

Short Story

As I got closer to home, people were distinctly less ‘American New York’, and more ‘Irish New York’, or ‘Russian New York’, or even ‘German New York’. The Lower East Side had more and more immigrants every day – not that I cared much, I mean, if it hadn’t been for the Pole who offered me a discounted apartment on the condition I taught his kid to write English, I probably wouldn’t be living anywhere at all.

The apartment was pretty crummy anyhow, the definition of Lower East Side; I’d jammed a torn up sofa into a corner, across from a shelf with a couple of records and a busted player that I’d copped from a junkyard whilst I was working there. The kitchen began immediately after, the white tiles now yellowed from smoking, or perhaps just age, the sink taps dripping hypnotic drops of water. There was a small table and two chairs that my father had made for me when I first moved to New York – he actually made four chairs, but the apartment wasn’t big enough for it. Two doors went off from the kitchen, one to my bedroom, furnished with only an aching double bed with sack-quilts which itched and a dresser with clothes and books strewn across it, and one to the bathroom, the tub jammed so close to the toilet that I could clean it whilst taking bath if I so pleased.

I’d promised Roland that I’d go out with him tonight, so I didn’t collapse on the sofa and listen to some music like I usually do – I headed straight for the bathroom and drew a quick bath so I wouldn’t smell like a john when walking round the city. The water was actually surprisingly warm, considering most of the time it would either be freezing cold or a blah-lukewarm that didn’t really feel very comfortable, and I was tempted to draw out my wash, but I quickly drained and dried off with some old towel left hanging off the door.

I took a look outside to see what time of day it was getting to, and to my dismay it was indeed dark, so I changed quickly and headed out the door, back into the city.

***

Continuation on my last ‘New York Scene’

Alaska

Poetry

Arrival

Greeted by cloud and rain,

a sense of overwhelming loneliness

I gaze to the mountains, for even they are not alone.

One stone of many I see in the road

One stone of many run over

 

Miguel

Embodiment of the American Dream,

chasing until the Last Frontier

Grasp of English poor, grasp of kindness all the more.

Had not the heart to ask for whom he chased

Said farewells and let me be on my way

 

Flattop

Steps with no soil between, balance

Trail ends, rock face begins

Scramble, creation of riprap

Turn back to help chinawoman,

We perch atop the city, we perch within the clouds

 

Peter and Jane

A couple from rocky Colarado

Mountain home they leave, to discover mountain air to breath

I sit in the back, peer across road

Speaking of God and of poetry,

We reach the Great One’s home

 

Misty Morning

Awoken early by condensation,

dripping from my measly tarp

Throw back my covers, the clouds soon envelop

Not only me,

but ’round the mountains they start

 

Tiresome Night

Ghostly wolf, or loon,

laments through the night.

I am too far to care.

The moose or caribou which roams my tarp

reveals my fears bare

 

Sean

Foolishly decline a ride to stay another night

An actor from Chicago who suffers in the L.A. lights

A kind man, kinder than I, took me see a glacier

not a few days later.

Spoke of aches and pains but continued to solider on

 

Kantishna

An old mining area where park employees stay,

huddled in a room to watch guitarists strum and play.

With nothing to drink and weariness settling,

I retire early.

Tired of the rain, I plead to stay

in the back of a minivan.

 

Steven

Stand with thumb out for over three hours,

no rides to help me return to the city.

The very same man who let me doze in his van,

stops and picks me up.

I entertain grandchildren whilst the rain fails to give up

 

Anchorage

Meth-heads hug the trees

The homeless try to sleep

Tourists hop from bar to bar,

yelling and shouting through the streets

 

Emoore

A true traveler like few I have seen before.

With country he is disillusioned but its nature he adores.

Dreams of visiting all 50 states as he hops from freight to freight,

As we walk the coastal trail and speak of philosophy and musical taste,

carries with him a six-string but carries with him no case,

picking old country songs to discover more along the way.

 

A New Light

Roaming the beaches with Emoore, we turn back to see the city we left behind

The city we spoke of with spite we now saw in a new light.

The sun makes an appearance, reflecting gold off few glass buildings,

and in the distance the horizon stretches as dawn bends her rosy fingers

‘cross the vast waters

 

Leland

A Texas-man who flew not south but north

agreed to drive me the miles to the port.

A holy man, we exchange contrasting ideas,

not once but twice,

for he would help me return to the city once more

 

Seward

Weather prophetic, the sun lifts my spirits greatly,

wander past the docks of small boats

to reach the tip of Lowell Point.

Return through town, dream of sailing Atlantic

 

Sparky

Sun turns against, walk six miles without water trying for a ride

Stumble into a storage lot seeking help, but instead it was my own turn to deliver

Fix his printer, whilst he speaks of past and present,

Rewards with beer and tea, and a ride back

to the temporary home

 

Nauti Otter

Earn a bed by making them

for a lady soon to be wed.

Others do the same, a man younger than I,

traveling before army

A woman wishing to travel further.

 

Josh

We spoke few words until my last night,

where he offered kindly cigarettes as we drank beer.

Speaking of politics and cultral affairs,

of differences in the cold night air.

I wish him well for future

 

Exit Glacier

Beauty that is quickly receding,

beauty that is undermined, by the many tourists including I,

it was time to make leave.

 

Hugues and Heloise 

A couple from Belgium who wished to travel onwards but were unsure of where to stay

I direct to a farm where I shall work, and to Homer they offer me a way

Reminisce of meeting Klaus and Lena, who offered salmon, a joint, and more

 

Seaside Farm

A vast property on which I stay, see right across the water

till the glacier which flees from the bay.

Handed bolt cutters I toil to remove weeds in the field,

I end my work by stacking wood too heavy for the farmer to wield.

 

Spit

Ride the bike for 17 miles to reach the Homer Spit,

run-down but welcoming, I enjoy a coffee and a burger

Almost finishing book I read, almost finishing my travels

 

Northern Lights

Finish eating dinner as the Belgian couple retire,

before bursting back inside to inform the sky is alight like fire.

We stand outside and silently gaze,

at colours of white and green,

the horses awaken and silently graze, for many times they have seen

 

Salistino 

A man who has travelled far and wide with both army and his shadow.

Rides his bike through the night, cuts through like water with a paddle.

Sit and stoke the fire for a few hours, before saying farewell,

as we head for opposite ends of the land.

 

Connor

Speaking of technology,

he draws be back to life at home.

I return to the city

 

Departure

Last night,

excess of man caused panic.

No breath for two minutes, no calm for more.

Walk for 7 miles to airport with my pack, stopping along the way to spare my back

Rain dampens my as I smoke the last of my cigarettes,

Alas, Alaska

***

A series of simple poetry I wrote about my times in Alaska – inspired by Snyder, Han-Shan, Tu-Fu, Thoreau 

See Them As They Roam

Poetry

See them as they roam; motherless, fatherless, godless, penniless

Windows of the mind plastered with green portraits of Abraham and Benjamin,

Who stand, watchful eye of he who favours peering from above

 

See them as they roam; on rooftops gazing into the enigma of stars

Throwing off their watches and clocks which are subsequently crushed by wandering ants

In the streets below

 

See me as I roam; for I feel I am not my mother’s son, nor my sister’s brother

Five years time the Mohammeden angels may have left my right side,

Whilst the left expands left

 

See me as I roam; ‘tween rows of prostrating individuals tied by spiritual ropes

Sliced from my wrists to leave scars, freedom to fill my stomach with rocks as I leave rooms;

An uneasy freedom indeed

 

See them as they roam; rise at dawn to touch knee with forehead

Instead of rest in bed, to kneel and mutter phrases to empty rooms

Vibrations only, reply none

 

See them as they roam; a struggle to conceptualise man loving man, woman loving woman

We loving grass, us loving nectar, and me loving difference

Potential for change, as I did

 

See me as I roam;

Bukowskian bohemian inventing and reinventing,

Have changed, will changed

***

A poem a started a while ago, and only just finished whilst I had a 10 hour stopover at Portland Airport 

 

New York Scene

Short Story

 

It’d just stopped raining outside, and the streets had that depressingly wet feel about them, and had there not been cigar-booths, hot dog and hamburger stands with Spanish folk trying to peddle their mystery meat, and plenty of other diners all competing for business, I’m sure it would have smelled equally depressing. I started my short walk home, swimming through the sea of New Yorkers hustling and bustling to get to their homes and move onto the next day.

‘New Yorkers’ was a strange phrase for me. There was no defining feature that you could point to and say “yes, that’s a New Yorker” –

Bratty kids tear up arcades, pockets jingling with loose change, screaming and yelling and pushing and shoving to get a peek inside the stand-up cabinets, only to find they’d ‘struck out’, the ball sliding past the bats and into the machines, and just outside these arcades there are at least two or three bums hoping to catch a few cents from them as they leave. And then opposite the street, teenagers waiting to go into whatever Bogart movie was in at the time, this time the bums being shooed away by movie-goers and employees alike. And then further down the street, Bowery and Third Avenue bars filled with suits, glasses clinked and cigars smoked, the businessmen of our day swigging away after a hard day’s work, jukeboxes roaring away with Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Armstrong, or whoever, the bartenders who’ve heard it all a thousand times before – and then just outside, in the alleyways out of plain-sight, paranoid teenagers with bottles, cowering in corners out of fear of being caught. And then the finest America has to offer, men and women in at least five or six coats and jackets, purses filled to the brim with all kinds of wealthy secrets, walking past phone booths filled with lively conversations with friends and families. And just down streets, trees peak round corners, park birds making residence for the night, shouting from tree to tree about the adventures of the dwindling day. More alleyways filled with the smell of tea, two men round a corner laughing away at jokes which trail off into the slowly-darkening skies of New York City.

***

This was an excerpt from a short story I started writing a while ago but just kind of left in the dust – not sure if I’ll pick it up again, but we’ll see