Ian Kennedy, one of our co-founders and editors, is in the midst of a transcontinental journey by train. He’ll be posting about his experiences here.
Throughout my whole journey I had never eaten in the dining car of any train. I’d always either carried food on, had something from the cafe, accepted snacks from fellow riders, or waited until I could get off and eat. It wouldn’t be a proper train ride without a dining car meal, though, so for my final breakfast, I indulged in railroad french toast. It was just like regular french toast and accompanied by ‘Table Syrup,’ an American-made corn product. I don’t know why, but I didn’t take any pictures of that breakfast at all. You’ll just have to imagine it: a diner booth crammed into the second floor of a large train car with me and three other riders chowing down on our egg-fried bread. The coffee was brown and smelled like coffee, the service, provided by Donna, was familial, and the company, which included a couple who must’ve knotched tens of thousands of rail miles, enlightening.
One of the joys of the trip, both today and yesterday, was the volunteer guides provided in association between a historical society in Seattle and the National Parks Service. Mostly older guys and dressed sharply in short sleeved collared Parks apparel, they regale riders with details of what we’re passing. On this morning that included very old lodges, sites of large-scale flower production, and a hotel made from an old locomotive.
Sooner than I imagined we reached Everett, WA and started making our way down the shores of the Puget Sound towards Seattle. Suddenly what had seemed like an joyfully endless ride slammed into its finality, like a skipping rock slipping beneath the water. The views were beautiful, but I wasn’t ready to get off.
Caitlin was getting off in Seattle, but her trip didn’t end there: she was flying on to New Orleans. Her flight had been re-routed because of the horrors in Houston, which I had only just heard of due to lack of service before getting into the city. We wandered listless from the train doors, with no plans to get back aboard. I took a taxi to the apartment I’d arranged, met my new housemate, signed my lease and paid my rent. Here I was, enjoying the view out of the kitchen window, my kitchen window, but I didn’t feel arrived.
Over time I hope I can make a home in this place. I’ll do my best to meet new people and to be kind, work hard, and stay out of quarrels. If I succeed, then I’ll live up to the final verse in the Stan Rodgers song which inspired the title of this travel blog:
How then am I so different
From the first men through this way?
Like them, I left a settled life
I threw it all away
To seek a Northwest Passage
At the call of many men
To find there but the road back home again
August 29th 2017
It was easier than I thought it would be to pick up the rental car in East Glacier. Judy, who ran a motel as well as a Dollar Rental, upgraded us to a Camry and pointed us north. Driving along the Eastern boarder of the park was stunning, but so was running into a Moose and her calf just a few miles after passing the entrance.
I’d been told that Many Glacier Hotel was rustic, and if that means unfinished wood interior and no air conditioning, then it was. At the same time it was unquestionably the most beautiful setting for a hotel I’d ever seen, the service was friendly, and the rooms were comfortable and well appointed.
In the morning we drove a few miles to a trailhead for a short hike. I’m not sure how to describe what it was like to walk through the landscapes I’d gaped over from behind the wheel of a car. Each step felt like I was more integrated into the land around me, and when the remains of the glacier came into view, I was overwhelmed with compassion. They say that the glaciers in the park will be completely gone by 2020, but in sight of one, it felt like it was forgiving us humans for destroying it.
After lunch, which was at the hotel and far exceeded my expectations, we drove over the famed ‘Going to the Sun Road.’ It was crowded, and we had already seen incredible beauty, but crossing the continental divide at Logan’s Pass still got me.
Caitlin insisted on buying postcards at the visitor’s center on our way out of the park, but I refrained from snacking wary of repeating the previous day’s disaster. We ended up having plenty of time, though, and even ran into a whole mess of Bison on our way back to East Glacier.
Boarding the train again was strange: it felt like the same place, but all the people were different. We crossed the continental divide again, this time for good, and started the long downhill journey into Seattle.
After making a very cool new train friend, the fate of my journey fell into question.
Caitlin and I met after our efforts to buy cafe snacks failed soon after we both boarded at Minneapolis. She convinced me to stay up until Fargo, ND, which would be both of our first visits to the state. For me it would also be the first time in this trip to notch a new state. I’m not sure if staying up to 2am just to stand in the darkness of a small midwestern city is something I’d recommend, but somehow it was worth it.
Sunrise saw us still speeding through North Dakota, eventually stopping in Minot long enough to visit a local diner, Charlie’s, which was also the oldest joint in town. I had the honor of Caitlin’s company for eggs and hashed potatoes, and we took care to make it back to the train long before the boarding call.
Our next chance for a fresh air break was Havre, Montana. It was my second new state of the trip, and Caitlin said that visiting Montana was the reason she’d decided to get on the Empire Builder. The conductors told us we’d have some time there, so I was recruited to help Caitlin track down some post-cards to add to her collection. The train was a little late getting into town, but the uniformed train official who opened the door assured us that we’d have around 30 minutes, though he advised us to be back in 15 just to be sure. We started off taking pictures in front of the old locomotive with its cow catcher.
Then we took a short walk which led to an ice cream place. Seeing that we still had ten minutes left, and that the station was only steps away, we decided to indulge. Luckily, the shop sold post-cards too! With treats and stationary in hand, we blissfully headed back to the train station. I emphasize station here because, when we returned, the train had left without us.
A woman from Amtrak advised us that we could, if we acted quickly, drive the 100 miles to the next station and catch the train. Nearby gas stations offered us the best chance of a ride, as we headed that way a gentleman in a truck offered to take us for $200, after he dropped off his kids. We sprang into action, Caitlin canvassing for west-bound cars and me hitting the ATM. We were about to give in and fork over the two hundos, when I saw some high-schoolers heading back to their cars. “Hey,” I yelled, “do you have some extra time? I’ll give you 100 bucks plus gas to take us to Shelby.”
That was enough, I guess, and with careful but fast driving we caught the train and resumed our journey. Conductors and passengers alike had noticed our absence, and were surprised to see us back. I felt very lucky to be there, since I needed this train to get to East Glacier in time to pick up my rental car for my visit to Glacier National Park. Our experience changed the Caitlin and my relationship from train friends to compatriots, and she decided that, since I already had the car lined up and that there was space where I was staying, she would join my national park visit, the topic for tomorrow’s post.
Today was my last day with Mike and Krista in the Twin Cities. They were awesome hosts, and I was really glad to meet lots of their friends from the network they’d build up here. It was a quiet day today, focused first on having brunch with some Minnesota family, walked around Como park with Mike, then another decadent final meal followed by the Game of Thrones finale. Now, at 10:16pm I’m on the train waiting to roll out of St. Paul
Just a bit more than 12 hours ago, Jamie Fagrelius knocked on Mikes door. His wife Susen is my Dad’s cousin, and I’d been lucky enough to have seen them about a year earlier at a family reunion. I’d stayed with them 13 years ago when I was visiting colleges in the area, but had been lucky enough to have seen them both just last September at a family reunion. They took me to an awesome brunch place called Darkhorse in downtown St. Paul. Their awesome daughter Helen, who’s just about my age, joined us to my delight. I hadn’t seen her since we were both kids!
After brunch Susen took my on a walk down by the banks of the Mississippi, including this beautiful grove. We quickly realized that we shared many of the same key concerns: racial justice, indigenous rights, a love of Peru’s sacred valley, and thinking about what ties us together. I feel so lucky to have been able to reconnect with her and her family, I only wish we could’ve spent more time together. Hopefully we’ll meet up again soon.
In the afternoon, Mike and I tore up Como Park. We got ice cream, saw the Japanese garden, visited the zoo, and tossed a disc. It felt just like a carefree Sunday, mostly because it was. On the way back to Mike’s house my Minnesota experience was capped by a real wild beaver!
Before heading out to catch the train. Mike, Krista, and I ate an innovative and delcious meal at Tongue and Cheek. I started with a blueberry ‘adult gusher’ as an intro dish that was booze-free but popped and filled my mouth with blueberry juice. Their gnocchi with pesto was slightly sour and very umami. Mike and Krista said they didn’t want dessert, but couldn’t resist helping me with the amazing Chocolate Dome, an memorial to the city’s departed stadium.
My next stop isn’t until tomorrow at 6pm, making this the longest leg of the trip. There’s no wifi on this train, so you’ll see another update then only if my cell service holds!
Mike and I went to the Minnesota State Fair today. That’s all we did, and that’s all you’ll see in the pictures below. It rained, but we didn’t care because of how awesome we made it, as you’ll see.
Pig Petting and Pizza on a stick.
Cow in the coliseum
Wielding the hammer of Justice, Justice is blind in my case.
Before and after getting a free beard trim.
I got into St. Paul last night around 10pm, and Rafael had given me a heads up that the station was lovely. He said it had been built after some previous stations burned down, and so designed to last. It certainly had. I was here to meet my friend Mike, who I hadn’t seen in almost 8 years, since we had worked together in Japan. I was really excited to see him: we had crazy fun adventures together in Japan, but I was also worried because there were some things that had changed in my life that I hadn’t told him.
Mike had a big, awesome house in Japan, about fifteen miles north of where I lived. Because of its size and relative central location, it was the site of some seriously awesome costume parties, lots of high jinks, and drunken debauchery. In other words, some of the best times of my life. One of our favorite restaurants was a Viking meat restaurant, where viking (バイキング) means all-you-can-eat. We would also pile into someone’s car and drive off into the Japanese sunset (or sunrise, depending on the direction), sliding into different city and country areas, making new friends, and abiding by our ‘front drivers, back drinkers’ seating policy.
Since those great times, as many of you know, I’ve not only become vegetarian, but also given up drinking. The fun the I had with Mike wasn’t because of booze or burgers, but it was at the same time as those things. I also know him well enough that I trusted that he would be cool with whatever life choices I made. That kind of knowledge sure seems to have a hard time influencing the part of the mind that handles doubts and worries, though, so I had waited until I was sitting in his living room to tell him.
After all the build up in my mind, I couldn’t describe his reaction to you, because there wasn’t one. Talking to him about it today, he said, “it’s kinda one of those things where… people make choices… and you gotta be cool with that. Otherwise… you suck.” I wish I could’ve found a way to make the people I was talking to yesterday about immigration understand that.
If you were wondering how I’d written such a long post without talking about coffee, don’t worry, I visited two shops today with the help of Mike’s beautiful three-decade old steel ten-speed. After six days without riding it felt great to be exploring by wheel and pedal.
The first place I went was one of Dogwood roasters’ cafes, where Gus talked me through combining their ‘Bear Hug’ espresso with a delicious dark chocolate cookie. The espresso had almost no sour or bitter notes, reveling in the rich potential of the bean. They also had this incredible fish in their bathroom.
Gus recommended I head south to check out Spyhouse, one of the area’s other roaster-purveyors. On the way I crossed over stone bridge and checked out the old mill ruins on the banks of the Mississippi. I was struck by how different this coastal development was to the so-called revitalization we’re seeing in New York. Don’t get me wrong, I love having green space along the rivers in NYC, but it’s so often tied to expensive residential development which sends a particular message about who those parks are for. In the areas I biked through, the whole coastal area was verdant and often accessible.
I did eventually reach Spyhouse, where Jason pulled me an excellent Colombian single origin. I also couldn’t keep my hands and mouth off of a mushroom and sesame pastry and a decadently frosted donut. The espresso here was good, well balanced but sour with a pleasant finish.
I’m back at Mikes now, where his housewarming party is about to begin! He and his partner Krista bought a beautiful house and we’re going to try and raise the average kinetic energy in this joint.
For my last day in Chicago, I decided to use my time before my 2:15pm train departure to splurge on lunch. I had read about a cool vegtable-centric restaurant near downtown called ‘Bad Hunter,’ so after getting packed and showered, I headed that way.
I was just my normal, not pretending to be a reviewer, self, but I wonder if part of the magic from yesterday was still there, because I got nice tastes of things I didn’t ask for. It might also just have been because it’s suspicious when someone makes a reservation for one and asks a bunch of questions about the menu. I ate two fabulous dishes: butter dumplings and the Bad Hunter Burger.
The butter dumplings are a vegetarian take on Shanghai soup dumplings, with milk fat taking the place of pork. I loved them with the hominy filling they had today, but I would’ve loved to try some more varieties. The presentation was spot on, and they were the perfect size.
I can happily say that the burger, which was made with beets, was the best non-meat burger I ever had, and would give some fleshy burgers a challenge. The bun was perfectly soft, the lettuce crispy, and the sauce combination, featuring a tomato jam, was perfect. Most notably, especially for a veggie burger, was that it held together under pressure: nothing slipped out the back.
I saw some of their bread and knew at once that it was sourdough and that I had to have some. It came with a vegan sunflower crema which was so light and flavorful I had already ate a bunch of it before I managed to take a picture. The bread itself was worth writing about, especially for its open texture and crisp crust. I’m never able to get such huge and soft bubbles (and I expect it’s because of how much whole wheat I’m using). I took the bread as a sign that I should skip town, so I did.
From Chicago on I’ll be making two stops, but they’ll both be on the same train line: the Empire Builder. This is a much nicer train then the one I took to Chicago. All the cars are two stories, and the upper level of the cafe car is an observation car that has floor to ceiling windows.
Just like the cafe cars on my previous trips, this observation car is a great place to get into conversations. While everyone I talked to today has been wonderfully polite and warm in tone, I have noticed a marked change in the political tenor of the conversations.
The first person I met was Dan, who started up a conversation with me in, of course, the cafe car. He told me that he was being taxed to death in Illinois and that he couldn’t live on the east coast because of the crazy politics. He said America wasn’t the same as when he was coming up, so I asked what he’d like to see. His answer sounded fine to me: people working hard, together, and supporting each other, but his view on people carrying Nazi symbols didn’t seem like it lived up to his vision. He thought men carrying swastika flags probably didn’t really understand the history there, and he though that tearing down confederate symbols was no different from Isis. The real Nazis, he told me, were in Antifa. I was terribly relieved when he got up to leave.
Here’s the thing, Dan was a real friendly guy. He even didn’t mind when I (continuously) told him that my view was the polar opposite of his. When I tried to push back against some of his more egregious claims, like that socialism didn’t mean taking people’s things, he beat a quick retreat and claimed ignorance.
Dan was sick of politics, he wasn’t, I think, going to march with white nationalists. He wasn’t against them either. He liked Trump. He complained about how younger people, I guess from his family, had all these strong arguments against him, that they’d win verbal fights. He felt like he just didn’t have time to keep up with all the new rules for how to talk about trans people and immigrants. This implied to me that he didn’t see political views as something to develop based on evidence and reflection, but values that you held.
After moving up to the observation car, I had a nice talk with a North Dakotan who had just visited his daughter who was teaching in a multi-lingual classroom in Brooklyn. They’d walked on the high-line and had a grand time. Oh, crap, I buried the lead: he talked almost exactly like Ron Swanson and had the mustache to match. While we were talking the train passed over the Mississippi river and we were awed by its power. That was a pleasant break.
I say break because I went upstairs and sat between a wonderful education student named Rafael who was awesome, and some kind looking sisters. Rafael wants to eventually go back and teach elementary school in his hometown, where many kids speak Spanish as their first language. The two women, on the other hand were disturbed that so many people were in the U.S. who couldn’t speak English. One, who’s daughter married a Mexican person, said “If my Mexican grandkids speak Spanish in front of me, I’ll slap them,” and “if someone’s talking to me, they should know, they should look at me and know, I’m normal, I only, I speak English.”
I did my best to offer alternative experiences, like my own enjoyment learning Spanish. I explained that in New York there were lots of languages, often whole neighborhoods where business was done in a language other than English. That just made them want to know how my parents dealt with living near so many foreigners. They thought one of the best aspects of my hometown was one of the worst. I felt like just by staying polite I was abetting their racism and xenophobia, but I felt helpless and trapped on a moving train with nowhere to go.
Rafael was sitting on the other side of me, and later told me that he spoke both English and Spanish at home growing up. He seemed neither surprised nor fazed by the conversation. “It’s people who live in bubbles,” he said, “they just need someone to educate them.” I agree with him, but given their responses, and Dan’s comments for that matter, what kinds of words or shared experience can reach such ignorance? I don’t expect to suddenly be able to guide these folks to the light, but I’d like to do better.
As we got close to Minneapolis and St. Paul, an older man and woman came into the car together. She took out a quilt she was working on and he revealed a fiddle and began to play. Rafael told me that in High School he’d been really into bluegrass and we clapped together after each song.
Having already visited a branch of Intelligentsia Coffee, I filled my free Wednesday finding the cool cafes that I hadn’t heard of and had way too much caffeine. I ended up being impressed by Chicago’s coolness, and surprised at how willing I was to mislead people about my intentions. I guess I should’ve known better about both.
I visited three coffee shops in two neighborhoods: Oromo and Groundswell in Lincoln Square and Wormhole Coffee in Wicker Park. I methodically visited each one, tasted and photographed their coffee offerings, talked my best game to the baristas, learned their names, and acted like I was a reviewer. Actually, I guess I was reviewing them, because you’ll read my reviews in a second… kind of.
What’s interesting is that I didn’t plan to visit any of the coffee shops. I had dinner plans that fell through and decided to go to a cool vegetarian restaurant and then to a cooler cafe to sit and read. The restaurant and the coffee I wanted to try were in different directions, but I was hungry and headed toward food. I hadn’t gone more than 20 steps, though, before I turned around, for no good reason. I felt oddly compelled to go straight to Oromo coffee despite my rumbling stomach.
I felt great walking in, the place was cool and slick with those filament lightbulbs that attract my demographic like summer bugs. I ordered based on the barista Hunter’s recommendation: a Turkish savory pastry, a big cookie, and an espresso. Everything was great, but I found myself wanting to be more than a customer, I wanted to try other things, to be important. I went back to the counter and asked Hunter to let me taste their other offerings, he gladly obliged and talked me through the different roasts. I told him I was from New York and that I blogged about coffee, which is technically true but terribly misleading. From this point in the day, however, I became a coffee blogger from New York.
The espresso, which is a blend from Dean’s Beans, was excellent. Very smooth, full bodied, and a slightly sour finish. Almost no bitterness or astringency. The Turkish pastry, filled with feta and dill was pleasant, and Hunter told me that it was made by the owner’s Aunt, who, along with the owner’s parents, was Turkish. The cafe also offers Turkish style coffee. The cookie was purposely underbaked, leaving a delicious gooey center. The drip coffees were from Mexico and Ethiopia, also supplied by Dean’s, which seeks to source beans ethically. The medium roasted-Mexican was excellent hot, more complex than the espresso without being too sour or strange. Its cold brew incarnation seemed like it would take milk well. The dark roast Ethiopia was taken too far for me: it tasted flat and papery.
There, I lived up to my slightly dishonest billing. I wonder if I’m a bit too critical to offer a good review. Really, if you’re in the neighborhood Oromo is a really fun cafe and Hunter is a great guy. They make their own nut milks too. (better?)
Since I acted like a reviewer, Hunter suggested that I check out nearby Groundswell Roasters to get a better sense of the Chicago coffee scene. For some reason, I did. Looking back I think I had believed my own misrepresentation. I suppose there’s nothing separating me from actually being a reviewer, though, especially since now I’m writing another coffee review.
Groundswell roasts their own beans, and Dan, who was both location manager and barista, talked me through their very good single origin espresso from El Salvador. Compared to the smooth blend at Oromo, Groundswell’s shot had a slight, pleasant bitterness all the way through, almost like burnt sugar, and ended with notes of pomelo. Their cold brew uses the Dutch/Kyoto method of slowly dripping water onto grounds, resulting in a much deeper flavor. I also ate a banana.
By this point so many people had suggested that I go to Wormhole that I implied to Dan that I’d already been. It’s famous for, among other things, having a Delorean, a la Back to the Future, as part of its decor. I hopped a bus south, and enjoyed walking on a kick-ass bike path made over an old rail line.
The barista who pulled my shot was Rachel. She explained that they used Halfwit roaster’s ‘Triforce’ espresso blend of Ethiopian and Guatemalan coffees. When she wasn’t satisfied with her first pull, she tossed it and pulled a second. You can see the time traveling car there in the background.
I want to give you tasting notes for that last shot, but, to be honest, I just remember it tasting like espresso. I don’t want to chalk that up to anything other than that I’d already had way too much coffee and maybe should’ve brought a dang notebook if I was going to write coffee reviews. I was super excited about the unabashed nerdiness of the cafe, though, and a bit distracted by the beautiful person sitting across from me.
Riding the train back to Richard’s house I told the woman sitting next to me about the places I’d visited. I tried to be more honest about the fact that I wasn’t a coffee blogger, but by then, that was really how I’d spent my day.
My visit to Champaign, IL, was mostly about visiting Matias and seeing what his life working and studying there has been like for the past 5 years. Our conversations, though, seemed to be focused on a theme that’s important to me: how individual actions combine to cause system-wide effects.
It turned out that even influenced our breakfast. Champaign is a college town, dominated by the University of Illinois, and so is seasonal. Every summer most of its 50,000 or so students make individual choices to spend their summer outside of town. Of course they’re responding to diverse factors, but one of the results is that the restaurant we wanted to go to was closed until 11am. We got coffee first, and ended up eating this very interesting watermelon salad once it opened.
After lunch, Matias took me to see his lab building. I’m not usually in hard-science spaces and I was impressed by some of the things there: tanks of liquid nitrogen, cold closets filled with soil cores from Alaska, and devices for all sorts of DNA processing. At the same time I was surprised how mundane everything was. Even the highest tech objects resembled freezers or ovens of various sizes. The coolest thing I saw turned out to be a multi-pipette grabber, used to put precisely the same amount of stuff into a bunch of tubes at once.
As I’m about to start a PhD program, Matias is ending his, so I pestered him for advice. I was surprised by the fervor of his response decrying the exploitation of graduate students. It’s common knowledge and a running joke that PhD candidates are paid little and worked to the bone, but it’s supposed to be in exchange for gaining skills, access to opportunities, and connections that can link to that most coveted track to tenure. Instead, I heard about advisors not replying to emails, let alone giving detailed comments, professors who enrich themselves by selling lab work done by their TAs, and about the feedback loops that allow for and perpetuate this state of affairs.
The last part is what caught me: it wasn’t just that some advisors were making these bad choices, but that there seemed to be a culture that condoned and allowed for it. The department head rotated among professors, each loathe to persecute their brethren. Students relied on their teachers for recommendations, so they gave positive feedback no matter what. These individual actions joined together to create a systemic effect.
Obviously graduate students have diverse privileges and often form unions to protect themselves. Still, hearing Matias’s stories reminded me of something I learned from The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism workshop: a foot analysis of power.
The institute teaches that the way power in America works, each of us is at once exploiter and exploited. Someone more powerful than me has their foot on my neck and I have my foot on the neck of some person or persons below me. I thought of this because of how Matias emphasized how post-docs and young professors, who might have complained just semesters before, now utilized the system to their benefit.
The powerful thing about the foot analysis, though, is because, as much as it implicates all of us, it also reminds us of our subversive powers. It calls me to look up, see who has their foot on my neck, and try to resist them. More importantly, I need to look down and see how I might lessen the pressure I’m applying. The foot analysis shows how our individual action perpetuates unjust systems of power, so also suggests that if we act wisely we might find ways to replace and improve those systems.
It just so happens that today was also the day that I first looked at the Parable of the Polygons, an interactive page that simply but powerfully models housing segregation. As you work through the beautifully designed exercises, you see how small differences in preference among individuals result in large demographic changes. In other words, it cleverly shows how you don’t need segregation in law in order to have segregation in fact.
The most hopeful part of the post, which also ties in nicely with the foot analysis’s call for action, is where the authors show that even a small preference for diversity can have a strong and immediate effect on segregation levels. It’s worth the 10 minutes going through the post just for this.
I’m not sure that the answer to real segregation is simply diversity preference. Work that I’ve done in schools shows that white parents tend to claim diversity as a value even as they make choices which reinforce segregation. Still, it’s clear that the scales of justice are tipped by individual actions, and that perhaps individual actions can help right them.
Today I woke up in a bed, yay! And by now, around 7pm, I’ve ridden in a train, a car, and now I’m on a bus bound for Champaign, IL, where my friend Matias is studying. In between I got coffee, saw the eclipse, met up with Matias and his partner Kathryn, and made some friends.
On the train into town I met Marilyn, who was meeting a friend at the Art Institute for lunch. Regal in her white hair and blue agate ring, she helped me spell ‘renaissance’ and we chatted about movies and Tahiti. She was the third person this month to recommend me to the movie Okja by Korean director Bong Joon-ho. She had been a nurse and eventually became a professor to train more nurses, what awesome work!
Chicago is home to Intelligentsia Coffee, known for its direct trade importing and local roasting. Walking around New York you see their winged logo in lots of good cafes, but I was happy to get closer to the source. I didn’t make it to their headquarters, opting instead for a downtown branch close to the station. Anthony mixed me a coffee mocktail called a ‘Limelight,’ lime juice, cold brew, and tonic water, shaken not stirred. It was sour and refreshing, but I’m not sure I’d do it again.
Being in a new city and immediately setting out for coffee reminded me of Peace Boat days, when I was a volunteer English teacher on that Japanese cruise ship. When we’d hit port I’d go right to the best cafe I could fine to refill my coffee supply and get on the internet. In Mozambique I walked two miles and was hit up for a bribe to get to a cool shop that roasted its own beans. In Argentina I read Borges and sipped espresso just blocks from his house. What was I thinking, I wonder now, to spend my precious minutes on shore on such vapid pursuits. I loved someone far away who I wanted to talk to, and I fancied myself a coffee connoisseur (still do, perhaps unfortunately).
Thoroughly caffeinated, I headed back towards the train station to meet Matias. On the way I ran into hundreds of people looking up at the sky. I’d had a pretty Scroogish attitude towards the eclipse, but seeing all of downtown Chicago forgoing their lunch break somehow got me into it. I ran into Leslie, who had just gotten out of a job interview, and we commiserated about not having the special glasses everyone was looking through. Luckily we had generous neighbors who let us borrow theirs, and eventually Matias and Kathryn Joined us. The feeling of community and sharing the broke out under the dimmed sun felt great. It makes me wish we could have more moments coming together to wonder at the world.
While my status as coffee connoisseur depends on knowledge, my snobbery surrounding pizza rests solely on my New York birth. Obviously, I convinced my friends we had to lunch on the local Chicago cheese and tomato soup, served in a bread bowl. Once they realized what I was talking about, off we went. Ryan served us the pizza, pausing so we could photograph the cheese. He was new in town so Kathryn gave him recommendations for winter coats. I guess winter is coming to Chicago even in August.
Disappointing for my prejudice, the pizza was delicious, if perhaps too much cheese, and I’m still digesting it some hours later. I feel joyful to have been touched by so many people’s lives today, but especially for the moments I spent walking through the throngs of eclipse viewers. Their attention buoyed me, wrapped around me, found the cracks in my cynicism, and reminded me how fun it is too look at the world.
I guess I’m prescient, because I was up until the wee hours talking to people in the cafe car again. There’s something about being trapped in a hurtling metal cylinder that brings people together. There was a mother/daughter couple from Boston heading to Toronto to visit family, to blokes from the UK on a daring cross-country jaunt, and a couple of eclipse-chasers. One of the astro-junkies was an Australian named Miles who was into Vegemite (no surprise there) and social justice (which challenged my preconceptions about the smallest continent).
Miles hooked me up with some sweet activist resources that I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t already have at my fingertips. He mentioned some podcasts I have yet to check out (Pod Save the People and Pod Save the World), and forwarded me Jen’s activism checklist. It’s like the list of phone calls to senators and representatives I had been trying to keep up with, but much more focused and with excellent resources. Check out the August 20th list here and then sign up to get emails every week.
I talked to Miles until I couldn’t keep my eyelids apart and then stumbled back to my seat. I don’t know if you could really call what I did for the next six hours ‘sleeping,’ because I felt pretty conscious most of the time, but I was energized when I woke up to the beautiful Indiana dawn.
I hadn’t been in Indiana since I graduated from Earlham College in 2008. I loved living there for those four years. I cast my first vote for president (absentee from Japan) as part of Obama’s victory here. Indiana’s gone red since then, but it’s a reminder that sometimes unexpected good things happen too.
Speaking of good things, I’m benefiting enormously on this trip from my network of weak ties. That is, friends and family who I love dearly, but, due to distance, aren’t part of my everyday social sphere. Once I arrived in Chicago, I took a commuter train north and met my father’s dear friend Richard, who’s putting me up. I’m always amazed and humbled by the kindness and care I receive when I travel.
When I was a kid in New York, I learned (from who knows where) that real New Yorkers were assholes who walked in front of cars and gave bad directions. So, to live up to my birthing, I treated tourists with distain, including deliberately misguiding them. Then I did my own traveling, and I was the one lost and out of place in a new city. I’ve been given bad directions, sure, but (I think) never intentionally. Instead, people have gone miles out of their way to help me, invited me to their homes, shared their meals, and offered me their friendship. When I moved back to New York, I changed my ways. Now I’m the annoying guy asking that german family with the map if they need help and giving unsolicited pizza recommendations to anyone who’ll listen.
Staying with Richard and his family has redoubled my resolve to be unnervingly kind to strangers, especially those who need help. At his hand I have had two wonderful meals, a nap with real sleeping, the wifi I’m using to post this, and the most glorious swim in lake Michigan.
Tomorrow I’ll meet up with a dear old friend, his beau, and hopefully catch a glimpse of the only total solar eclipse to touch North America in my lifetime (assuming that I don’t live until 2024, because there’ll be another one then).
So, I finally departed. After months of listlessness and revelry, I am en route to Seattle to pursue a PhD in Sociology at the University of Washington. I’m settled in to a northbound train, sitting next a very friendly woman veteran who splits her time between New York and San Martín and was heading out to Chicago to visit her mother.
I’m about to reach Albany. The last time I was there, I’d hitchhiked down from Lake George where I’d been staying with a friend. I was enjoying the first months of a year where I did no paid work, trading my labor and skills for rooms, floors, food, and passage. Hitchhiking was something I’d done only rarely and in Europe. At that point I’d stopped at this same station and ended up catching a train to Boston. I don’t remember much of that trip other than that the train was crazy late and I spent my time shooting the shit in the cafe car. This train didn’t have a cafe car when it left New York, but the conductor, Sterling, says we’ll link up to one here. Maybe I’ll be up there shortly, shooting the shit with some folks, but now we’re still stopped here in Albany.
I’ve been incredibly nervous about this trip over the past few days, with a strong tight feeling in from my stomach to my throat. It hasn’t been so bad because my buddy Chris has been visiting and because of some lovely going-away events. But as soon as Chris left today, it got me. Makes me wonder if that grip of nervousness had been sitting there in the background, covered up by the other stuff I’d been doing. My mind has been incredibly busy over the past weeks, filled with so many sorts of thoughts I can’t keep them straight, but filled for sure.
I’m nervous about a lot, but what gripped my stomach was just the worry about whether I would make the train on time (I made it obviously), but as we got rolling that nervousness was just replaced by others. My program, for instance, seems to have a strong focus in studies of inequality. If you’ve read my posts, you know that’s a main focus for me, and a main struggle. I’m not sure of the best ways to act in general, but even though I’m sure that resisting racism and white supremacy is the right course, I feel like every specific form of action is haunted by specters of white guilt, paternalism, white saviorism, and just simple misguidedness. Having been guilty of all those and far worse, I’m not confident that the academic path I’m following will contribute to the causes I’d like it to. My hope is that I can improve my ability to see those pitfalls as my work develops, but the worry behind that hope is that as I gain confidence, I’ll just gain blindness.
Another big source of nervousness is more focused on the departure aspect of this trip. After two years of being wonderfully close, both emotionally and physically, with my parents, I’m leaving both of them 3,000 miles away. Not that I haven’t done that before. I got away from home when I went to college, and both my study abroad and my first job were across the Pacific in Japan. Leaving then I felt triumphant, having secured a job I was excited about right at the start of the 2008 recession, and in the country I’d been studying for years.
I was close to my parents then too, we skyped every week, and they visited me twice. But I don’t know if I properly missed them: I loved them, and I thought about them, and they mattered to me, but I was rarely overcome with the types of feelings I’d had for lovers, or even for my younger brother. In those two cases my body and mind would be simultaneously overcome with longing to see and be with that person. This is, incidentally, what makes the Korean expression for missing someone, 보고싶어요 (bogosipoyo), it’s force. It simply means ‘I want to see [you].’
Who knows why my memory of that time is like this. Maybe I was unable to recognize that feeling for my parents. Maybe I refused to incorporate that into my self-narrative as an independent and self-reliant young man. My instinct, though, is that I’ve become more emotionally connected since then, partly due to maturity (work in progress there) and partly due to buddhist meditation. Either way, it’s different now.
You see, my parents left town two days ago. And I knew, because I had plans with friends, that I wouldn’t be able to see them off that evening. I spent the morning with my mom before she went off to work; we walked down by the Hudson river and chatted. My dad, though, is retired—he’d be around the house all day. So, when I got on my bike to meet Angelina for tea, I took it for granted that he would be home when I got back, and I neglected to say goodbye.
I, embarrassingly, didn’t notice my error until I was sitting there, pouring tea and explaining how I had taken care to say goodbye to my Mom already, but I would say goodbye to my dad… my words and mind stopped. I’d missed my chance to hug my father for what would be the last time for at least months and before he would take a long trip to Europe. Tears welled up in my eyes and, ashamed, I excused myself to go call him. I stood in the doorway of the cafe and cried while he told me it was OK, that he loved me. Needless to say, I modified my plans (and biked as fast as I could) to make sure I went back to say goodby and get my hug.
I realized, more strongly then than ever, that there will be a day when that won’t be an option. I was overwhelmed with that feeling, the feeling of needing to be with someone, many times on my ride home, so much that tears fell between my pedals.
아빠, 엄마, 매일,매일, 보고싶어요.
Mom, Dad, every day, every day, I want to see you.