Pacific Journal

Around the pacific, anticlockwise


Posted by squaresofwheat on July 16, 2006

The Pacific Journal is now closed. Other things are going on.

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Posted by squaresofwheat on June 14, 2006

It’s a close-run thing. The expressway out of Manhattan to Kennedy is clogged think, barely moving: our driver takes us zigzagging through the rainy streets of Brooklyn and Queens, neighbourhoods and names recognisable only from novels. We slip in just under the wire to check our bags, and quickly load up on duty free cigarettes well past the deadline for our flight. Shoes and coats off for security, we tag onto the queue to board just before its tail disappears. For nearly an hour the plane edges slowly forward towards take-off on the tarmac in the rain, in a U-shaped queue of planes of all shapes and sizes, like depressed commuters. When we finally leave the ground, New York is instantly invisible in its shroud of cloud.

I have to switch seats temporarily to man the emergency exit aisle, and I sit next to a talkative woman called Shannon, a storyteller and wine/chocolate tasting organizer with homes in London and Manhattan, who curiously embodies all the reasons I feel I could never live and work in New York. She’s intelligent, well-educated and even kind (she brings chocolate for the cabin crew, cheerful young English women with lives and loves scattered around Virgin’s spider-map of the globe), and yet self-obsessed and utterly devoid of a sense of humour.

Flying against the day, dawn comes before sleep. Ireland appears, then Wales, and finally England. It’s a strange kind of relief to be back in the EU citizens’ passport queue, and when we get to the tube I kiss the underground sign: a symbolic gesture of return rather than passion. Eventually I get to Camberwell, where there is a bed to sleep in, and a much-missed fried to say hello to. In the next week I will find myself on the steps again, in the Albion, watching football, being interviewed for a job, moving Steff’s stuff out of the flat we used to share, and somehow unable to encapsulate in words the totality of the experience of the last four months. It’s two full days before I buy a newspaper or turn on a television.

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Coney Island, baby!

Posted by squaresofwheat on June 14, 2006

Remember that the city is a funny place
Something like a circus or a sewer

All over New York, even in Manhattan, are flyposted photocopies of the obituary of Matt Kennedy, one-time chair of the Coney Island chair of commerce, and lifelong Coney Island booster. Though Kennedy’s gone, Coney Island clings on forever to its own peculiar kind of halflife, so we jump on a Q train to Brighton Beach to pay the place a visit. We get off where the shadow of the elevated rails and the screeching wheels of trains running along them obliterate sound and light from Brighton Beach’s main drag, where half the conversations you overhear and half the shops’ signage are in Russian, and I’ve forgotten the little Cyrillic I once knew enough of  to decode the sounds of the letters.

It’s a bright June morning, but it’s midweek, and the beach front from Brighton to Coney Island is thinly populated. The sand is flat, clean and inviting, but signs along the boardwalk inform us that the whole beach is closed. It’s not far to the beginning of Coney Island proper, and its half-open half-closed amusement parks and arcades. Though the woman on the ticket desk at the entrance to Astroland assures it’s not running today, we soon see the Wonder Wheel stirring into life, and line up for our place in a ‘swinging’ gondola. Installed on a wobbly loop between the wheel’s inner and outer rims, the gondola lurches and swings towards the middle of the wheel at three o’clock and back outwards at nine o’clock, and we look out over the Coney Island Cyclones’ new ground, the horizon bobbing up and down.

Next door to Nathan’s Famous is an empty lot a level below the boardwalk, which some enterprising folks have turned into the ‘Shoot the Freak’ shooting gallery. As a big man down below dons armour, a face mask, and holds up a shield, the barker is broadcasting through a head mic and lines up a row of punters equipped with paintball guns loaded with a dollar-for-five bullets to pepper the freak in orange and red as he dances around behind the random junk accumulated on the lot. My shots hit home, but only on his shield: the Freak is pretty well protected.

We play skee ball, a rudimentary kind of bowling, lobbing well-worn and lopsided wooden balls up a ramp into plastic circles, and are rewarded with a multitude of tickets spewing forth, which turn out to be barely worth a pencil eraser so we keep them as souvenirs. Next to Astroland there’s a museum and arts centre, keeping the memories of Coney Islands past alive, and though it’s closed today, an irregular squad of young people are seated outside in the hot Brooklyn sun, lunching on sushi in front of their open laptops.

It gradually becomes apparent that Bryony has never been on a rollercoaster in her life, so the appeal of the Cyclone becomes irresistible, to me at least. It’s an old school sleepers-and-rails, up-and-down, nailed-together, no stopping kind of a ride, and though the high wire-fenced queuing area is empty, it too is running today and we quickly get locked into our seats and set off. At the top of the first dip I realize it’s nearly four years since I’ve been on a rollercoaster and I begin to wonder whether my love for them has become entirely theoretical. Bryony keeps her eyes shut the entire ride (thus missing the entertaining bits where low-slung supporting props promise decapitation), and calmly gets off before announcing that it’s been the worst experience of her life. Her palms are stained orange with rust from gripping the safety bar.

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Mr Birchall goes to Washington

Posted by squaresofwheat on June 10, 2006

Talk about axes of evil. Like Canberra, Washington DC, capital of the United States of America, lines its important buildings and monuments along enormous sightlines and waterways. The Mall links the Capitol (Senate on the left, Congress on the right) to the Lincoln Monument along the fly-infested stagnant Reflecting Pool. Three-quarters of the way to Lincoln, George Washington's massive obelisk points at the sky and northwards lies the White House.

As soon as arrive at the impressively barrel-vaulted Union Station, I jump on a trolley tour to see the sights. My fellow tourists are mostly American, the Americans are overwhelmingly white, and a handful wear overtly patriotic t-shirts. The driver does the safety announcement in the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger and we're off, past the Freedom Bell, an identical copy of Philadelphia's Liberty bell, and also cast in Whitechapel.

And round the sights we go. These really are world-class pompously oppressive neoclassical monstrosities. Oh, the columns! Oh, the friezes! Oh, the galleries! Those that don't come in Frosted Doric are brutal bureaucratic slab-fortresses unleavened with imagination or humour, with the possible exception of the Department of Education, whose entrances adorned with fake little-red-schoolhouse promising 'no child left behind' look like nothing less than enticing candy-coloured entrances to a giant infant-mincing facility. It's all very ugly.

After a circuit of the main attractions (the driver plays a snatch of 'hail to the chief' as we pass the White House) including the monument to Japanese Americans who 'served' in both the war and the relocation camps, we go further afield to the diplomatic district, one of the largest concentrations of embassies I've ever seen. As the driver rattles off the countries of the embassises, the former Iranian embassy slips past almost unnoticed, its pale-blue tiled frontage beautiful, its boarded doors and windows indicating long-time dereliction.

Time to get a closer view and do some sightseeing on foot. The White House itself is heavily guarded and the footpaths in front of it heavily policed (by who knows who: I see a bunch of green- suits with Hugo Weaving earpieces loitering together and I'm dying to ask which facet of the security forces they're from). Its picturesque aspect, the way the bushy trees frame the instantly-recognisable frontage, somehow prevents the power of my anger and hatred from drawing lightning from the very sky to burn and destroy its occupants, so I settle for a big fat middle finger and move on to scrounge a cigarette from some very depressed-looking staff smokers lurking in front of the Department of the Interior.

Abraham Lincoln sits like a giant Pharoah inside his monument, the walls lined with his great words, as if they were waiting for a character from a liberal Hollywood epic to wander up, read them, and wonder What It All Means, America. The Vietnam War Memorial carries glass-covered indices to locate the names of the fallen on its hundred and forty shiny granite slabs.

There's something about these building and moumuments though. A display of this size in any major European capital would have massive imperialist overtones of overseas victory and conquest, but these symbols emphasise internal national unity rather than imperial domination. It even gets silly: the 'national Christmas tree' in front of the White House, for example, comically bereft of its baubles in June, is a superfluously trivial national symbol worthy of any newly-independent Eastern European state. Though the Civil War made Washington as the federal capital, even the very recent (2004) World War Two memorial is fastidiously inclusive, wirth fifty six pillars for the forty-eight states plus two to come, DC, and the then-American territories of the Philippines, Guam, Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Puerto Rico.

It's a rather peculiar experience, because Washington on the ground expresses nothing of what Washington feels like to me or the rest of the world. Where Vienna's ringstrasse gothic is eloquent about the fussiness of the Austrian bourgeoisie, and China's Tiananmen Square speaks of China's enormous imperial ambitions, Washington's naive wedding cakes express neither the everyday venality of Washington politics, nor the vicious disregard of humanity in American foreign policy. You can't accuse a hundred and fifty years of architects of the same sustained and deliberate hypocrisy, but nevertheless the disjuncture between the appearance of Washington and the effect of Washington is enormous.

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Posted by squaresofwheat on June 10, 2006

I have two big objections to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The first is that for the last four months it's been running a prominent denunciation of Iranian antisemitism on its home page. There's nothing wrong with denouncing Ahmadinejad so much as the precise fit with American foreign policy objectives: antisemitism of this kind exists throughout the Middle East. The second is that, as a European, I take objection to being lectured about the Holocaust by a nation founded on not one but two genocides. Americans can get to the holocaust once they've finished properly apologising to the Indians and the descendents of slaves. (There is an American Indian Museum in Washington, but it's not a genocide memorial).

So it's more or less incumbent on me to pay the place a visit, and so I make it the point of a visit to Washington. The place is certainly popular: when I rock up just before opening time at ten there's already an enormous queue, and the tickets they're dishing out aren't good till eleven thirty. The crowds are mostly American, and mostly not obviously-Jewish-looking. (At any given European Holocaust-related site there would be a lot of Americans, but a much higher proportion would be obviously-Jewish-looking.) The museum's stripped-back brick and girder architecture is supposed to relate to the holocaust in some way, and there are artworks by Serra and Lewit, but it all looks more like Hoxton than Treblinka to me.

There are a few smaller exhibitions to keep you occupied while you're waiting to get into the main show. 'Antisemitism: a dangerous lie' is a history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which despite being prefaced by a big board shouting about Ahmadinejad and Hamas, is a good history (and doesn't neglect to mention that the recent Protocols television series originated in Egypt), and ends in a little movie about the roots of antisemitism in Christianity, and in particular Luther gets the treatment he deserves. There are photographic exhibitions on Darfur and Srebrenica: like Hiroshima's commitment to peace, the AHMM sees its role as publicising ongoing genocides as well as talking about the past.

The main exhibition is substantial: two and a half large floors of chronological history, from the rise of Hitler to the resettlememnt of survivors. Large glass cases, blown up photographs, moving image and artefacts tell the story. The interpretation boards are often broken into two parts: in larger text the story is told; in smaller text, there's greater detail or a discussion point. The panel on the Warsaw ghetto is supplemented by a discussion of the judenrat, for example. The artefacts include a Karlsruhe cattletruck, cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto, and many items taken as casts from camp museums, inluding the Arbeit Macht Frei sign from above Auschwitz's gates. The story ends bang on the button with the end of the war: there are no lengthy tributes or sentimental gestures towards Israel, other than the final theatre of recollections being made with stone from Jerusalem.

Excellently, there are absolutely no injuctions to imaginative empathy: you are not asked to picture yourself in the truck, lifting heavy rocks or finding yoursself in a DP camp. There's also an absence of the kind of gratuitous symbolism that Daniel Libeskind's German Jewish museum in Berlin is riddled with: there's just one two-storey tower built into the structure to accomodate pictures taken in a single shtetl. Some of the more gruseome images of medical experiments are recessed into the ground behind concrete walls with a warning. Inevitably, about two-thirds of the way through I start to feel that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and tears beginning to well. I see at least one other person visiably crying.

There is a heavy emphasis on America's relationship to the Holocaust. At first I take this for some kind of 'liberty prevails' triumphalism: the front hall is decorated with the flags of battalions that liberated camps. But though the exhibition is punctuated througout with the American perspective, it pulls no punches: I didn't know, for instance, that Jesse Owens replaced Jewish-American athletes pulled from the relay race at the 1936 Olympics with the connivance of the American Olympic organising committee. The Hollerith machine, built to process racially-profiling punch cards in the pre-digital days of the surveillant assemblage, is prominently stamped with an IBM logo, and the interpretation explains exactly why. There are video carrels where you can choose to watch 'American responses' to what was going on in Germany and Europe from 1933 onwards including both popular labour-movement driven anti-Nazism, and upper-class American antisemitism, and there's a fair discussion of the Allies' refusal to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In this way, it emerges as the American-specific rather than the American-universal Holocaust Museum, which answers my second problem. Americans should learn and think about the history of the rest of the world (though in all the pontification about the lessons learned from Nuremburg I didn't spot one reference to the USA's refusal to join the International Criminal Court), and in this case it's a pretty well carried out exercise. On lending the holocaust to proximate causes, I'm not so sure. It doesn't seem to be something that runs through the ideology of the main exhibition itself. Perhaps it's local politics. I'd like to know more about the politics of the museum, and I hope that there are voices of dissent somewhere on the management board. I think I'll write them a letter.

Posted in politics, USA | 2 Comments »

Three days of Modern

Posted by squaresofwheat on June 5, 2006

It's been just over a year and a half since MOMA reopened its doors in midtown and still huge red posters on 54th Street declare that 'Manhattan is Modern Again'. The new MOMA is certainly big, and it has two very nice cinemas, where Bryony and I somehow end up spending three nights in a row. Ever since I've been back in America I feel that I should enjoy proper cinematic delights now they're available, after New Zealand's exclusive fare of seemingly inexhaustible lame British comedies and the third continuing month of The World's Fastest Indian).

Bryony is not in New York to watch films but to show old films of course, as part of MOMA's annual Festival of Preservation. Tonight it's highlights from the Joye Collection. The films were collected by a German-Swiss Jesuit for educational use, and comprise over 1,200 pre-feature shorts running the gamut from ethnographic studies to comedies. Now that some have been restored onto colour stock, the original stencil-colour work can be seen, and the show starts with some gorgeous footage of Walloons on a river (for some reason, water always seems to look beautiful in stencil-coloured films). All the intertitles are in German. There's a panoply of British seabirds and some Japanese footage of the Ainu people. There are phantom rides in New York and Damascus, and a sparklingly golden trick-film in which a clown performs all sorts of magic with dice and people. Best of all, though, is The Rubes go to Atlantic City, in which an undercranked camera and some very slow walking combine to make the modern world whiz around two doltish peasants at large in the big city. The ending is lost.

While the films have been playing, an electrical storm and torrential rain have unleashed themselves over Manhattan, and as the rain falls, so do the cabs disappear, and so we walk a few damp blocks with the lovely Josh from the museum, who takes us out to eat at a Greek restaurant.

The next night we're back at MOMA to see Robert Gardner's Forest of Bliss, an unnarrated, unsubtitled film structured around a day of life and death on Varanasi's burning ghats. Dogs tear each other to bits, men bathe in the early morning Ganges, wood is collected, people engage in the process of dying, and finally bodies are burned. The post-sync sound is manipulated to emphasise the clanging of bells, the plucking of flowers, the chanting of prayers and the woody creak of oarlocks. It's a deliberately selective portrait, not exactly ethnographic, but steering to the better side of both exoticism and aestheticism (though apparently it was one of Brakhage's favourites). It really does remind me of Varanasi, where after a visit to the government bhang shop, a very stoned Rob was suddenly charged at by a deceptively innocent-looking cow.

Robert Gardner himself has turned up answer some totally bonkers questions from the audience, including whether there's a relationship between the temple monkeys and Gibraltar's Barbary apes because they're both from the Commonwealth, and whether a dying woman being ministered to was actually being killed. There's the archetypal student-who's-just-read-a-book and wants to tell the filmmaker all about it, and I wonder why so many people at Q&A sessions are incapable of simply rephrasing their thoughts as questions. It wouldn't take much effort, they wouldn't sound much less clever, and it's only polite to the guy at the front. Perhaps it's a hangover from trying to get noticed in college seminars; perhaps people have a need to share what the film has made them think.

Afterwards I surf Bryony's coattails to join Gardner, Josh and entourage for dinner at a rather nice restaurant called Il Gattopardo. The owner also has a restaurant called Sciuscià and Josh jokes that if he opens another he'd better not call it Salò. The food is delicious, and very light on carbs. Also eating are Robert, who's making a film about Gardner, following us along 54th Street with a camera, 'Nightswimming'/Benjamin Smoke director Jem Cohen, and Anthology Archives' Jonas Mekas himself. I'm sitting right down the other end of the table and don't get to talk to any of them.

On the third day we find ourselves back at MOMA yet again, to check out the art proper. The permanent collection is divided into two floors. The upper half is basically pre-WWII, and 90% European; the lower floor is post-war and about 75% American. The actual collection of works is a pretty fantastic bunch of pictures, but the arrangement is as savagely reductive and movementist conception of modern art as I've ever seen, enough to make me long for the Tate Modern. You wander the galleries, each instantly recognisable work and artist like a series of visual blows: Picasso-bang-Magritte-bang-Matisse-bang …  Pollock-bang-Newman-bang-Rothko-bang, ohlookherecomesminimalism, Carl Andre, Sol Lewitt, bang-bang.

Such a success is MOMA as an art destination in itself that not only do people crowd round the really famous works taking photos (it's a kind of ongoing people's choice poll of modern art favourites), but visitors also come, I kid you not (I had to edge my way around these people in front of a Hopper), to have their picture taken next to their favourite paintings. There's aura for you. After Modern there's a contemporary gallery, but my favourite thing in the museum after Jasper Johns' Map is two big rooms of great late Philip Guston canvases: shoe soles, the Guston-cyclops smoking in bed, and nervy-looking little Klansmen with cigarettes.

Still somehow unable to find anything useful to do in midtown on a Saturday evening, and with a jointly unerring sense of direction that leads us right back to exactly the same place outside the Rockefeller Plaza that we couldn't find anywhere to eat the previous day, by eight o'clock we're back in Titus Theater 2 for the third night in a row, to watch an intriguing programme of films made at CalArts in the seventies. It begins with Jack Goldstein's object-concentrating colour films, some as simple as a dog barking or a knife changing colour. Chris Langdon & Fred Worden's Venusville substitutes a conversation about a palm tree for anything interesting happening to a palm tree. But the absolute standout is Fred Worden's Throbs, in which found footage of circuses, fairgrounds and car crashes are repeated, distorted and layered, brought to the point of destruction and then back again, recoalescing to a hypnotic, looping and crescending soundtrack.

Like seeing Baldwin's gang's stuff in San Francisco, it amazes me how many different schools of avant-garde and experimental filmmaking there are in the US. And yet even MOMA can't programme a cinema entirely with experimental/avant-garde/artists' moving image: a good chunk of the programme looks like traditional arthouse. Still, I could easily spend another three days wrapped up in Modern.

Posted in film, new york | 1 Comment »

My my metrocard

Posted by squaresofwheat on June 3, 2006

New York's a muggy city (though I haven't actually been mugged yet). It's hard to feel very energetic when the heat and dampness press down on you. When a solitary drop of cold liquid falls from above it's not rain, just fluid from a malfunctioning airconditioner twenty stories up. Going down into the subway it gets worse as you add stifling airlessness, but the magic bit is that the subway cars themselves are airconditioned: you step in and it's wonderfully chilly.

Each subway car carries an American flag on its side, as does every public bus. It feels a bit odd for New York, even a little bit scary. I try to imagine seeing union flags like that on the buses and tubes in London anywhere outside the fantasy of a rightwing distatorship, and I can't. Americans have always been a bit crazier about their flag: even liberal dissent here is carefully packaged in the language of 'reasonable' patriotism. Outside the Rockefeller Plaza the weekly 'grannies against the war' demonstrators hand out leaflets reprinting NY Times editorials and declaring themselves to be the only ongoing anti-war protest in New York.

Even in a city as large and changing as New York, you're bound to retrace your steps when you're sightseeing, and setting out at random I find myself on Broadway, trying to find Yellow Rat Bastard, and walking towards the Hole. I even repeat thoughts I've had before, standing on the corner of Canal Street and wondering what it must have been like to see a tsunami of rubble and dust from the towers racing north. The Hole itself hasn't changed much, but the messages tied to the railings of the church are long gone, and the hawkers have been seen off with fussy little signs requesting that we all 'help us to keep this a very special place' next to huge display boards bigging up the Port Authority's ever-more-delayed plans for the site.

The best view of the Hole is from the World Financial Center to the west, from the balcony of the Winter Garden (which is apparently modelled on the Crystal Palace), but it's not till I'm on the roof of the Met looking across its famous view of trees framing Central Park West that I become convinced that the best solution for the problem of the Hole is to leave it as a hole in the fabric of New York, perhaps just the iron sheds above the PATH station, a Piano/Rogers view of the commuter hub, or even better a Losaida-style community garden: just a space, a space to look across and see the buildings on the other side.

Bryony's staying at the very posh Warwick right opposite the MOMA where she's come to do a show, and there's much wailing and gnashing of teeth that she has to move out and stay downtown after three nights. I'm as happy with my little box on thirty first street as I have been with all the other little boxes I've stayed in, especially as there are two chinese laundries right across the road. I whore myself to the Starbucks two blocks down South Park for their wifi, and join the laptop multitude. At first I've forgotten why Starbucks sucks and tell myself avoiding it has always just been some kind of anti-capitalist shibboleth, but after the third morning in a row of Stepford how-are-yas, sickly oversweet chai latte, stupid beverage names, and a will-to-live-sapping acoustic singer-songwriter soundtrack, I'm ready to either kill myself or punch a student in the face.

We walk around the back of Chelsea, and discover why New York hardly recycles: they have the homeless to do it for them. Men and women are bagging cans and repacking bottles into cardboard boxes on a backstreet. We take the three-hour Circle Line cruise, which circumnavigates Manhattan with a little loop around the Statue of Liberty, still not fully open to the public. Seeing Manahattan from every angle in 360 degrees is always great. The Empire State Building stands alone above midtown like a sentinal; the canyon of Wall Street opens up for just a second, allowing you to glimpse the Trinity Church; water towers look like a flotilla of little spaceships ready to take off from the rooftops. But the heavy clouds which have been chasing us all morning finally catch up, raining fat, fat splashes on us and making a beautiful waterfall of the runoff spouts under the George Washington Bridge.

It doesn't let up all evening, and after an ill-judged succession of attempts to find somewhere in midtown to eat, we end up soggy and bedraggled, eating off paper plates in a Sbarro. My four-dollar umbrella doesn't survive being opened and closed more than once so I splash out on an eight-dollar cab home. The deli on the corner is still open, still serving coffee, cigarettes and food at one in the morning and doesn't look like it's closing any time soon. I love this city.

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Big America

Posted by squaresofwheat on May 31, 2006

America used to be incomprehensibly large. I've been to both coasts and some besides, but always flown from one part to another: the distances inbetween, the Big West, the 'flyover states' seemed insurmountable any other way. Nevertheless, Amtrak, the US national passenger rail network run four cross country services from the west coast to the midwest, and connecting services on from Chicago to New York, making it possible to get from coast to coast without your feet (or at least your wheels) leaving the ground.

The California Zephyr runs from Emeryville in the Bay Area, to Chicago, in just over two days. For about five hundred dollars you get a 'roomette' (two seats in a little cabin that push down into a bed), showers, three sit-down meals a day in the dining car, and a car attendant who'll give you a shout when the train is about to stop long enough to zip out to the platform for a cigarette.

On Saturday morning, the train rolls into Sacramento fifteen minutes late or so already. Amtrak trains' tardiness comes less from inefficiency in the trains themselves than from running across tracks they don't own, which are, like in New Zealand, primarily a freight network. 'Freight congestion' often keeps us waiting for up to half an hour, as engines pulling a hundred trucks or more slowly rumble past.

We tootle across the central valley, before climbing into the High Sierra, through the Donner Pass. It begins hailing, then snowing, and as we get higher a foot-thick crust of snow is lying on the ground among the pines. The train stops at Reno to let the gamblers off, the rest of us to smoke, and then we're off and onto the High Plains. Devoid of any trees, the vegetation is small and scrubby, with large sandy patches where nothing grows, despite a few rivers and swampy-looking lakes.

This section was part of the first transcontinental railway, the Central Pacific, built by the Big Four, who included Sacramento businessman Leland Stanford. Having made a fortune from regulating and compressing the time between east and west, Stanford sponsored Eadweard Muybridge's experiments in freezing individual moments of time, thus unwittingly sponsoring the invention of cinema.

The next morning, when I wake up, the Wasatch mountains are outside the window, the first installment of Utah's incredible scenery. Salt Lake City has been and gone while I slept, and we're now heading towards the Rockies. The Utah desert, flat and bare with elephantine wrinkly grey mud-mounds, is interrupted by extraordinary flat-topped mountains formed by erosion, piles of shale topped by a thin biscuit of red sandstone. Crossing the border between Colorado and Utah, we pass through the narrow Ruby Canyon, its extraordinary red walls coloured by iron oxide, an impossibly narrow stepladder carved into the canyon wall by Indians. For more than two hundred miles, we snake alongside the Colorado River, then pause for a freight train to pass as we look down onto the plain beyond the hills, and circle down to Denver, still nearly a mile above sea level.

My fellow train riders are without a doubt the friendliest bunch of people I've met on this entire trip. It's impossible to sit opposite someone in the cafe or diner without getting into conversation, and usually a very interesting conversation too. Most people get the accent straight away (I only get one person asking me if I'm English or Australian, which used to happen a lot in California), but unlike in Australasia where we RTWers are ten a penny, taking several months off and travelling round the world seems a strange, exciting and enviable proposition.

Most are travelling for the experience of the railway and the scenery, occasionally to avoid flying, sometimes in combination with other forms of transport. A lot of people are visiting family over the memorial day weekend. Bill, a heavy-duty machine operator who served as an auxilliary in the 1991 Gulf War, got lost and bumped into the killing fields of the Basra Road, has been across Montana on the Empire Builder, and is travelling to Salt Lake City today. Terry and Christy are travelling to Grand Junction to see an an aunt. Lewis has just been disqualified in a bridge-building competition in Salt Lake City and is on his way back to New York. Nathaniel and Deborah have been to Montana and are heading to Denver to drive to Cheyenne. Nathaniel doesn't hunt, he's a peaceful man, but he collects trophy mounts to decorate his home in Philadelphia; he's in the market for a polar bear skin at the right size and price, and also after a Rolls Royce sedan, which he thinks he might buy in England.

At one point I think I hear Yiddish and look up to see a party of Amish, the men sporting bowl-cuts and wispy chin-danglers, the women and girls in starched and spotless wimples, who would indeed be speaking some dialect of German. They sit in the observation lounge playing cards, and I wonder why they're travelling by rail, if there's a sliding curve of technology rejection and whether when teleportation is invented they'll be allowed to travel by plane, just to keep one step behind.

I keep bumping into Wesley, a college professor and novelist, on cigarette breaks, and we arrange to have dinner together. I try to answer his questions about New Zealand's geology, and stumblingly attempt to express what I like about the vitality of American literary culture, but fail to get much further than McSweeney's. He's left New York for the West Coast to teach, and left behind a ten-year relationship in New York. We ride out of Winnemucca as we eat, watching a huge thunderstorm gather like a funnel across the broad plains.

While some of the Amtrak staff rotate at the stations, the dining car and accommodation car staff are on six-day shifts, starting in Chicago, making their way to the west coast and back. The woman working the snack bar below the observation lounge has to get back East to see a sick relative, and they've closed the Amtrak staff base in Philadelphia. Some staff mutter darkly about the government, who subsidise Amtrak, trying to close the cross-country routes altogether.

On Monday morning everything has gone flat and I wake up staring out my window at the Nebraska prairie, the horizon a straight and far line. Inhabitation becomes more or less consistent alongside the tracks, although phone signal isn't. Water-towers, fields and farmsteads fill in the gaps between settlements. Each town we pass, each little replica of Main Street USA, has dozens of American flags on its streets for the Memorial Day public holiday.

As the hills have come down, the temperature has shot up: you can tell from the humid furnace blasts as you pass between the air-conditioned cars. When we stop at Ottumwa for the first official cigarette break of the day, both Geraldine, the car-attendant and Wesley revel in the heat: she's from near Memphis (and has a just-delicious southern drawl), and he's from North Carolina. I can't bear it, and cigarette done I'm back in the air-conditioned cool of the steel behemoth as quickly as possible.

Arriving in Chicago, we've almost kept to the schedule and are less than an hour late, so I have nearly four hours' layover. I bounce out of the station and over a couple of blocks to the Sears Tower, which was the tallest building in the world the last time I went up it, and is now only the tallest in North America. From the top, Lake Michigan is laid out like a flat and waveless sea, and a thunderstorm gathers from the west, thin spears of lightning jabbing out of its funnel. Back on the ground, I make a couple of circumnavigations of the downtown Loop, which is a little dull and empty on a public holiday.

I didn't get a roomette (or, as it turns out, even get there in time to get a seat with a window) on the Lake Shore Limited, which weaves its way through the midwest, Cleveland, along the Erie canal, through upstate New York and along the Hudson River into Penn Station. With frequent jerks across the tracks and the whistling of the oxygen mask strapped across the face of the man opposite me, sleep is impossible, and I find myself in the snack car at six in the morning to try to guzzle enough coffee to stay awake all the way to NYC. Within minutes I'm talking to Jean, who lives in Tribeca, just seven blocks from Ground Zero, and watched and heard it all happen on September 11th. She's unemployed, lives in a rent-stabilised apartment, and says if she were going to Washington she'd like to pour blood on George Bush.

The trains stops for half an hour somewhere between Buffalo and Rochester, and we're suddenly aware of a border patrol guard (though we've crossed no border) quizzing the students behind us about their nationality. He moves on to a young Paraguayan woman, and examines her passport which apparently only bears a six-month visitor visa from 1999. She says an application is being processed, he keeps repeating to her 'you're out of status'. Eventually, he takes her off the train, as she asks worriedly if she'll lose her job in New York. As he passes us he says 'Hi, how're you guys doing' with a look which in only an instant seems to simultaneously say three things: a) I can see you're white so I'm not going to bother you; b) I certainly heard you muttering between yourselves as I was doing this; and c) if there is anything dodgy about you, you know I'm the person with the power to make bad things happen to you. I later discover that three other people have been removed from my carriage by the border police, and that almost every time the train passes this way, someone is removed.

The trains empties drastically at Syracuse, and I move to a window seat and get chatting to the people who were sitting behind me. Joseph and his wife Lillian, in their seventies, are on their way back home to Long Island. Joseph was born in Istanbul in 1927, just four years after the formation of the Turkish Republic by Ataturk (of whom he seems to be a fan), of a family of Sephardic Jews who had settled in Edirne after expulsion from Spain in the fifteenth century by Ferdinand and Isabella. He talks about travelling along the Danube when he was nine. He's also a fan of Pamuk, and says Pamuk's memoir of Istanbul has pictures of his Istanbul, the Istanbul of the thirties.

Finally, the train is passing the George Washington Bridge, huddling up to the Hudson, and crawling under the city to Pennsylvania station, warm and muggy. Seventy-seven hours later, I've shrunk America, touched strange new ground all the way, and I'm more than ready to sleep somewhere that stands still. What a big, beautiful country. What amazing Americans.

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Sacramento (slight return)

Posted by squaresofwheat on May 27, 2006

When I was nearly sixteen, my mum, brother and I all moved to Sacramento for a year, and while my mum taught an exchange job at California State University, I went to high school where I learned how to work an analogue switching desk (but never to edit), skipped class a lot (and got brought back to school once in a proper black-and-white police car: I was thrilled), watched 16mm prints of the the classic Drivers' Ed movie Red Asphalt, smoked behind my mum's back (she refused to let me spend my allowance on cigarettes even though they only cost sixty cents a packet), and wrote a column for the school newspaper, The X-Ray, called 'Anarchy from the UK'. We lived in an apartment block on Fair Oaks boulevard, two blocks built around courtyards with swimming pools and palm trees, where the students who lived upstairs used to have loud parties and piss on my mum's car from the balcony.

Sacramento was a gold rush town: gold was discovered in the American River in 1849 near the sawmill of town founder John Sutter, who subsequently lost everything, including his wish to have the town named Sutterville. After various sovereignty issues had been sorted out, the town became the state capital of California in 1855, and the Washington-style wedding-cake capitol building is where Arnold Schwarzenegger hangs out these days. It's not a very interesting or exciting town: clustered around the capitol are various edifices of the state bureaucracy, and there's a legal/wonkish feel to the area around the Capitol Mall, but other than that it's just a small city, quite aware of its own insignificance and uncoolness.

But when I was 16, this was, much more than San Francisco, the Real California. Streets in the city were laid out on a strictly square grid, streets A-Z running east-west and street 1-65 running north-south. Freeways, 99 and I5 quadrasected the downtown area. Where we lived, outside the city boundaries, blocks ran for a mile (walking to the nearest Safeway store was liable to bring on heat exhaustion) and strip malls seemed to run endlessly out into the suburbs of the suburbs: one of the largest and most popular indoor malls, Sunrise, was thirteen miles beyond where we lived. Out there was the only time I've ever experienced sideways vertigo, as I looked from the parking lot to the stores and then back to the road, the parking lot beyond that and the stores beyond the cars: this was suburbia as loosely packed as it gets.

On the intersection where we lived, we watched a new Lucky store go up across the road, and yet more construction begin on a third corner. Though the regeneration of downtown was beginning with the hotel Rachael's dad built, out of town it felt optimistic, happy and new, especially compared to Enfield's A10, and its miles of slowly-closing factories (the sites of which are now deeply unpleasant Californian-style strip malls). With so much space, across the flat and featureless plain of the valley, the freeways and malls were so oblivious to their own ugliness that they were almost beautiful.

The first thing I notice when I get off the train is the sharp, dry heat of the central valley: no sea mist here to take the edge off, but uncharacteristically it mellows, sticks below 80, and there's even a breeze going. The regeneration of downtown is still going on: the bottom end of K Street Mall has become a covered shopping centre. It leads to Old Sacramento, which is just the same, a collection of cheesy boutiques and by-the-barrel candy shops in the restored heart of the old gold rush town, gearing up for yet another 'Jazz Jubilee', a strictly Dixieland affair. The Crest Cinema is still open, and K Street feels less dowdy than twenty years ago, but at night there's nowhere to eat, the streets are a bit too quiet to be comfortabl, and the police ride around on pushbikes.

Vicente Fox is visiting, and fewer than twelve demonstrators are assembled outside the Capitol, shouting 'USA! USA!' and waving placards denouncing illegal immigration. Later on, a rather larger number of demonstrators, with a much larger police presence, are protesting against restrictive immigration laws and the NAFTA agreements that keep Mexicans poor.

I catch the light rail and a bus out to Fair Oaks and Fulton, where I used to live. Almost everything has changed: the Lucky supermarket has been replaced by a Loehmann's Plaza in exactly the same style: wooden tiles and weatherboards, stuck-on brick fascias. Little restaurants and boutiques (Grateful Bread, anyone?) are on all four corners, and the intersection feels leafier, wealthier and less stark than in 1987. But Sierra Fair still stands proud, still offers special move-in rates, and is not, as I temporarily feared, full of guntoting gangstas and crack whores. I take a quick recce to find our old place: the doorway of no. 104, the mail boxes where I collected my O-level results, the swimming pool where Rachael and Fay and I hung out one day when we skipped school. Then I go back across the road, drink a coffee like any other coffee in a Java City like any other Java City, and wait for the bus where I used to wait for the bus to school.

On the way back, when the light rail stalls at 16th Street for fifteen minutes, a guy called Travis starts talking to me. He's carrying a blown-up clear plastic bag of live crickets home to feed to his pet alligator, and tells me the entire history of his family's animal breeding, including, in all-too graphic detail, all about the pitbull who got parvo and died. He's from LA and says he used to "claim the thug life, be a gangbanger, run with the crips" but gave it all up when the Muslims targetted him. Now he lives in the Sacramento projects and just deals a little weed.

There aren't many people left to look up. Carrie, who once wrote me a letter about the Sacramento anti-war movement the last time around which turned up in an anthology called 'Even my dog doesn't want this war' took me boat shopping on Howe Avenue the last time I was here, but I've long lost touch with her. After a bit of googlestalking, I find the law office where Rachael was working until recently and go up to the ninth floor to enquire after her, but, as I suspected, after I buttonhole a former colleague in the lift, she's moved on and back South.

I go back to my old high school, Sacramento High, (the second oldest high school west of the Mississippi) which closed in 2003 and reopened as a semi-privatised charter school, part of the St HOPE group of public schools. The football team is still the Dragons, and like Sierra Fair, the building looks just the same as it did twenty years ago, though there's now a fence all the way around the front lawn. The shady benches where I used to sit and discuss the musical merits of the B-52s and Oingo Boingo with Tracker and Rob are still there. There's a security kid on the gate, who lets me in to take some photos and tells me that he graduated from here last year, and that it's a good school now, that St. Hope's straightened it up. Later, when I meet Priscilla, who's running a stall for the Western Service Workers Association outside Safeway in the R Street market, she tells me that it's all part of the overall privatisation of public services, and that the teachers were sacked and non-union teachers hired. I remember that when our teachers went on strike for a day and non-union substitutes came into babysit us, I spent the English period writing a vitriolic anti-scab poem and handed it to the substitute when the bell rang. The next day, Miss Peterson embarrassingly read it out to the class.

Coming back here, I expected to be overwhelmed by memories good and bad, but I'm not. I notice what a drag it is to get around by public transport; how many poor-looking people there are; the doppler effect of trains blowing their horns as they pass through town; how unexpectedly friendly most people are; how the city just keeps on growing outwards. But after twenty years, the place itself has lost the power to open the floodgates. Though I wouldn't be here now if I hadn't been here then, I doubt I'll be back soon.

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Overheard on the streets, on buses and in taquerias

Posted by squaresofwheat on May 26, 2006

  • "And then they just whupped her ass. I dunno if they just said come over here we want to talk to you, but they got her…";
  • "Dialysis was the most awful thing I went through… in this country, if you're poor you get treated, if you're rich you get cured."
  • "I don't want to go back to prison, Ali!"
  • A man asks a girl if he can finish her discarded dinner. "It's OK, I eat a lot of rough food." Then: "You hardly ate anything," indignantly.
  • "We're living in a police state. These things wouldn't happen to Caucasian people."
  • "I just think that if I just put all my negative energy into smoking dope, then I won't do anything worse than fall asleep."
  • "She says she was a non-smoker trapped in a smoker's body… she hated the smell, the taste, everything"

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