Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Chapter 6: Bellevue and a captive audience

From Sarah’s Journal:
On train all day Sunday, Aug. 11th. Very dry and flat; immense white fields. Not very interesting except to note what immense ranches and homes; so far apart with no trees except a few near their house to protect them in winter from snows.
We got off train at different stops for 10 or 15 minutes. Moose Jaw was one stop After we left Calgary the scenery was then so marvelous. Such a wonderful change, that we were afraid we would miss something. We then began to climb the Canadian Rockies, getting our first view of the Bow River.

You can only look at wheat fields so long. My mid-day Sunday, the Doc and his family had given up on taking in the scenery. For Sarah, that’s saying something. The woman seems fascinated by everything we encounter.
“Did you grow up blind and only recently get your vision through some miracle?’’ I teased her.
But by now, even Sarah had given up on the scenery. She was snoozing peacefully in our little car. Margaret was reading a book that had caught her attention in the window of a Chicago bookstore.
“You have to read this,’’ she told me excitedly the next day, after she was a few chapters in.
“What is it?’’ I asked.
“It’s called “The Maltese Falcon,’ ’’ she said. “The man at the bookstore said it just came in last week. I bet it’s going to be a best-seller.’’
I laughed at her excitement over the “new’’ book.
“I’m sure it will do well,’’ I said. “I saw the movie. It was pretty good.’’
Margaret gave me an odd look.
“Oh yeah, I forgot.’’ I said. “But you are right. It’s a great book. My friend, Lowell, lists it as one of his favorites and he’s a well-read man.’’
Doc was looking absently out the window, stopping every now and then to make a notation on a big pad he held on his lap. He seemed deep in thought.
I passed a few hours poring over the edition of the Star-Tribune I had bought in St. Paul, gleaning interesting facts from even the most mundane stories. The newspaper was filled with little items that gave me an insight to what life was like in a bygone era, which for everyone but me, wasn’t bygone at all.
“Doc?’ I said.
“I was wondering how you found me.’’
Doc placed his notepad on the seat next to him.
“Well, you were sort of famous, at least in my circles,’’ he said.
Doc said that my name had come up during the cocktail hour while he was attending a psychiatry conference in Philadelphia. The wife of a colleague – I gathered she was a prominent lady in New York society – had been talking about a trip she had made to Bellevue with the Greater New York Women’s Benevolent Society. The group apparently took time to visit hospitals and orphanages from time to time.
“And that’s when she told me about you,’’ Doc said.
I did remember the ladies’ visit, mainly because the staff spent two days cleaning our quarters, fussing over the most minor of details in preparation for the visit from these important visitors.
I had been at Bellevue for about three weeks and spent much of the time being amazed at what I was being told. They were telling me it was 1930. That’s the sort of information you naturally question, especially when you weren’t even alive in 1930. It was one thing for my fellow patients to agree on the year – with the exception of Tom, of course, who was convinced it was 400 B.C. – but when doctors, nurses, staff and orderlies confirm it, you begin to wonder.
As much I was amazed at what I was being told, it’s far to say everybody else was even more fascinated by what I was telling them. Some of the patients, of course, did not see anything unusual about me talking about what would happen in the future. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, a man who believes he is a poached egg sees nothing remarkable about being a poached egg. It’s the people who know better that find it interesting.
So the people who seemed most transfixed by more stories about my stories were the ordinary workers. The doctors, as you might suspect, were more interested about what stories told them about my “condition.’’
But it wasn’t that way with the staff, the orderlies, janitors, nurses, etc. They liked me stories because they were so very interesting.
Before long, I was holding court in the day-room on an almost constant basis.
At first, I told them what I considered the important things – how the recent crash on Wall Street would usher in a decade-long depression the likes of which America had never seen. I told them about the treachery of Pearl Harbor the monstrosity of the Holocaust and Hitler; the depravity of Stalin.
They listened intently, but I sensed they were beginning to grow weary of the grim details of history.
So I began to change the nature of my glimpse into the future. I told them about Corvettes and Ferraris, of television – it’s like having a movie theater in your living room. I told them about microwave ovens and cell phones and the internet, concepts they found difficult to grasp. Of course, I told them about Neal Armstrong and the moon walk, which seemed to delight them.
I guess my best audience, though, were the black night orderlies and janitors, who sat quietly as I told about what was in store for their people.
I told them about Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and watched with satisfaction at the wonder in their eyes as I related his story.
I told them about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement. I told them how he was shot and killed in Memphis and they could believe that.
I told them about how King would open the door for a black president in 2008. That, they couldn’t believe.
“This negro president, what’s his name?’’ one of the janitors asked.
“Barack Obama,’’ I said.
The men snickered and the janitor said, “Aw, suh, now we know you is funnin’ us.’’
Before long, I had become pretty adept at tailoring my stories to the interests of the audience. Nurse Kennedy was a movie fan, so I told her about the great stars that would soon emerge on the scene – Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis. I told her of the great films that would soon mark Hollywood’s Golden Age – GoneWith the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, etc. Ditto for music. These lectures on “The future of Popular Culture’’ were always the most popular topics, even more popular than my rather grim assessments of the world-shaping events that would soon commence. Some things never change, I suppose.
In the hallways and offices, I quickly developed the reputation as a most inventive man.
The doctors, meanwhile, did not know what to make of me. I gave no indication of mental instability outside of my insistence that I belonged to another time. Nor did I fit the profile of the typical amnesiac. I knew my name, when and where I was born, the basic details of life you might expect from a middle-aged man.
But it was the time element that had them stumped.
I found out later that after telling the doctor that I was born on July 9, 1959 in Tupelo, Miss., as the sixth child of Fred and Mattie Smith, who lived at 1104 Simpson Street, that they dutifully tried to confirm my story.
What they found out was that there was, indeed, a place called Tupelo, Miss. But none of the other information could be confirmed. They couldn’t find a Fred or Mattie Smith in Lee County and there was no record of a Simpson St. in Tupelo. Obviously, I could not have been born in 1959.
But in every other conversation, the doctors reported that I seemed perfectly normal and, in fact, quite intelligent.
When Doc returned from the conference in Philadelphia, he called a friend who was an administrator at Bellevue and arranged an examination.
The Doc was apparently as mesmerized by my stories as the orderlies had been. He returned almost every day for two weeks. By the third week, he had arranged to take over my case – pro bono, he insisted. Two weeks later, he had moved me into his magnificent estate, just two blocks from Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood home.
I did not move into the basement quarters normally reserved for the housekeeping staff, either. I was moved directly into an elegant guest room.
I was part of the family, it seemed.
And that meant, I was part of the family vacation.
Sarah woke, stretched and peered out the window.
“My, just look at the wheat fields,’’ she said. “Beautiful, aren’t they? What could they possibly do with all that wheat?’’
“In a few years, most of it will be rotting in grain silos,’’ I said, ‘’while people in cities stand in line for watered-down soup.’’
Sarah’s face darkened.
“How you talk!’ she said dismissively.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Chapter 5: Running on Faith

From Sarah’s Journal:
Arrived St. Paul Sat. morning, Aug. 9th. Went to Hotel Lowry, had baths, relaxed, then had lunch. Then we took a ride by auto bus for four hours all over St. Paul and its twin city, Minneapolis; both cities were very beautiful, especially their parks and Minneapolis has the most wonderful number of beautiful lakes. After dinner we went to see Wm. Powell in “For The Defense.’’ Very good. We left St. Paul Sat. night at 10:40.

When we boarded the B&O for the long ride through the high plains to our first “real’’ destination – Banff Springs in the Canadian Rockies - the ladies quickly excused themselves to prepare for bed, which I gathered was a pretty elaborate process. Doc and I went to the observation car, to drink in the cool night air and, also, because Doc wanted a smoke before bed.
We stood there for almost an hour, neither of us having much to say.
Doc had smoked one of his last Havanas down to the nub and was beginning to stretch his arms, a dead give-away that he was ready for bed.
“Doc, how old are you anyhow?’’
“I’ll be 60 on the third of December,’’ he said.
“Hmmm. Let’s see, in 1959, you’ll be….heck, Doc, you’ll probably be dead by the time I’m born.’’
Doc chuckled,. He stood, stretched again, then gave my shoulder a squeeze.
“And Jesus said, ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ Doc, said, quoting the scriptures. “I’ll have to ponder that one in my dreams, At any rate, good night, Mr. Smith.’’
I was tired, too, but my head was too full of questions to consider going to bed. So I stood alone on the observation deck, looking into the void as the B&O clicked across the star-less plains.
I was wondering the same thing you are probably wondering: how it came to be that I would find myself here, on a passenger train rumbling across America in August of 1930.
Do you remember the scene in the movie “Gone With the Wind,’’ when the camera pans out over Atlanta after the battle? It is a long shot and as the camera pans out you see hundreds of wounded Confederate soldiers, strewing the landscape for what seems like acres and acres. When I first saw that scene as a boy, it really bothered me. The scale was so massive that it seemed more real than imaginary.
That’s sorta how I felt, like I was an extra is some sprawling 1930s epic movie. At every turn, I expected to bump into Jimmy Cagney or William Powell or maybe even Groucho Marx.
But this place was too far big to be a movie set. And I never saw a camera or heard a director yell, “Cut!’’ So that left only two possibilities: This was real. Or I was nuts.
As I sit here on the observation deck of this west-bound train, it has been about three months since I dropped in to 1930s America. I cannot tell you anything about the precise moment it happened.
All I remember is waking up in a white room.
Morning light streamed through the big windows, all of which were fitted with a lattice-work of iron, to keep folks from jumping out the fourth-story window, I suspect. A long row of twin beds stretched down either side of the big room.
Every where you looked, it was white - white bed linens, white walls, nurses in white uniforms with little white nurses caps, men wandering aimlessly down the long rows of beds in white gowns. Everything white, except for the orderlies, black men in, you guessed it, white jump suits.
It took some time for me to get any useful information this place. The nurses and orderlies simply went about their tasks – which consisted mainly of feeding patients handfuls of big blue pills or forcing us to drink down little cups of vile-tasking yellow liquid - while gently ignoring my questions.
My fellow patients were not of much value, either. Most were either mute or given to senseless babble. One guy, though, a fella named Tom, seemed to be able to string together a few coherent thoughts.
“Where are we?’ I asked.
“We are in the court of the Great King Xerxes, may He live forever,’’ Tom said.
“Oh,’ I said. “Thanks for clearing that up.’’
To tell you the truth, I was less curious than you might imagine for someone in my position.
The last thing that I really remember, before this white room, I mean, was riding my bicycle down Priest Ave. in Tempe, Arizona on a chilly February night, wondering for about the billionth time how my life could come to this – a middle-aged man with no real home, no real prospects. A man alone, 1,500 miles from his two kids. A man who didn’t seem to belong anywhere, or to anyone. A man who had squandered every talent, every opportunity. A felon. Who could have ever imagined it for this middle-class son of a fine, God-fearin’ family?
There is a line from an Eric Clapton song that kept running through my mind: “Lately I’ve been running on faith. What else can a poor boy do?’’
That’s me.
My friends and family all tell me to hang in there, that things would get better. You have to have faith, you know.
\ But as the weeks turn into months and months turn into years, you begin to wonder first, if things will get better and second, why should they?
We kinda like to think of America as a class-less society, but I think we are fooling ourselves. I think most of us live in a self-imposed class system. Rich people expect to be rich, cannot really imagine not being rich. Poor people imagine winning the lottery as they buy a dream for a dollar and a cold 40 for a buck-seventy-five. Middle class folks dream Lexus, buy Buick.
I’ll give you another example of what I mean. A few months after I got out of prison, I went with one of my pastor friends to visit a woman who had called to say she needed help. We drove down to her apartment, located in a dingy complex in a grimy section of central Phoenix. We stood there in her little hovel of an apartment and listened sympathetically as this 60-something woman told her pitiful story.
Her brother, her only family, had died recently. The two had shared the little apartment. He worked as a janitor, their only source of income. Now, what would she do?
We told her we would drop off some groceries and enough money to pay her rent and utilities that month. Of course, we prayed for her, too.
Do you want to know what we prayed for?
First, let me tell you what we did not ask the Good Lord to do for her. We did not pray that God would give her a good job - preferably as a newspaper columnist – with a nice home in the suburbs and a reliable, late-model car. We did not pray that she would meet that certain someone, the kind who cares about you all the time and not just whenever you happen to pop into their minds.
We did not pray, like Jabez, that He would “bless her indeed.’’
We prayed that the McDonald’s down the street would be hiring.
I guess when it comes to some people, you don’t expect Providence to get all carried away.
When I think about that day, I am ashamed. I wonder: What if God gives to you only what you ask Him to give to others - you know, sort of like a corollary to the Golden Rule? It would serve me right, I reckon. It would also explain a lot.
So, yes, I’ll admit it: For the longest time, I expected to be restored to that middle-class life that, for some silly reason, I felt entitled to. I figured I’d pay my “debt to society,’’ then I’d get my stuff back.
But that hasn’t happened. As time passes, it’s easier and easier to doubt that I’ll ever get my stuff back.
So there I was before just before I woke up in that white room. What a scene it must have been: A beat-down middle-aged man pedaling through the darkness for whom running on faith has somehow become running out of faith, which only serves to add another dimension of guilt. Losing hope seems a betrayal of all the kindness and support of those friends and family.
After you have failed yourself, you start in failing others And when that happens, you begin to guard your thoughts.
You do your best to sound optimistic.
What else can a poor boy do?

Monday, April 13, 2009

We interrupt this book...

If you have been following this blog over the past few weeks, you know that I have taken on a project that might be loosely described as a book. To this point, that has been my approach. I’ve written about 4,000 words, separating them into “chapters’’ and developing a storyline, so it at least has the basic architecture of a book.
But the truth is, I am not sure what sort of book this is or should be – or even if it is a book at all.
The idea for this project came when I stumbled across a woman’s travel journal from a family vacation taken in August and September of 1930. Because it is written by a woman who makes no literary claims, her journal does not give as many insights into the family and their times. Instead, she dutifully details each stop on their 46-day journey from the beginning of the trip on Aug. 7, 1930 until its end in New York harbor on Sept. 22.
As a result, the family remains pretty much strangers at the end of the journey. This should not be surprising; the journal was never written for an audience. Instead, its purpose was to preserve the details of the trip for a time when memories might become hazy. If that is the case, the journal achieves its purpose.
Still, I wanted to know more about this family, mainly because of the parallels that exists between now and then. In August of 1930, the country was about 10 months into the Great Depression. At that time, unemployment was at 8.5 percent – which is the same rate as it is now in the Late Depression, if you will permit me to name it.
At the time of the trip, I wondered if the family had any sense of just how bad things would get, with an unemployment rate of 25 percent and the desperate decade that had just begun.
The family stayed at the finest accommodations during the trip, which suggests that the doctor – I take him to be the author’s husband, but he is never mentioned by name – was either immune to the hard times that had fallen on the country or had greatly underestimated the severity of the times.
Maybe this family had the sort of wealth that protected them from the degradation that befell so many in that era. That's probably true today, too.
I suspect then, as now, the impact of the hard times were not evenly distributed. Back then, even in the worst of times, 75 percent of the people still had their jobs. Their hardships were of a different kind and degree from those who lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their hope, lost their dignity.
Maybe it will be like that this time, too. I know that it's a lot easier to be optimistic when you have a good job, when you can pay your bills, when hard times means vacationing close to home and driving a four-year-old car for another couple of years.
But when you have lost your job, when you haven't been able to make a mortgage payment for several months, when you go to a job fair and find 15,000 applying for a few hundred low-paying jobs, well, you begin to wonder how in the world you are going to make it. And then you turn on the TV and some anchor-person who brings home six figures tries to feel your pain. The admit that things are likely to get worse before they get better. That's an easy assessment to make when it holds no real personal terror. So, they tell us about how to clip coupons, as if that's the magic cure. They assure us that there will be a happy ending, that everything will eventually be OK. And they are right. It will get better. For them.
I would love to have known the doctor’s assessment of the times in which he lived. The grave questions that hovered over the country then are much the same as the ones we are asking now.
And it is this parallel that I find most intriguing about this journal. Granted, to read a first-hand account of such a trip is great amusement in itself. Today, people can replicate their journey, but cannot experience it as they did. Some of the hotels they stayed at do not exist or do not exist as they did. You can still drive from Portland to Los Angeles, but it’s a profoundly different drive than it was back then, when such a drive would have been considered an adventure. Today, it’s a uneventful drive down a freeway.
I point this out to explain why I have not written another chapter in the book.
It seems to me that I need to know much more about the era if I am to recreate the trip with any degree of accuracy. That means research, and lots of it.
Second, and perhaps more important, I need to know what the story really is.
There is an excellent chance that the book that I have started, the four chapters posted on this blog, will not survive, or will survive in a much truncated form.
From the start, the journal seemed to me to be primarily a device by which I could frame the the real storyk, whatever that is.
So what is the story?
I have no idea.
Initially, I thought it would be a novel, written in first person, but only coincidentally autobiographical. Now, I am not so sure. For one thing, the whole time travel genre has been done to death. A fresh perspective has yet to emerge, although it may yet.
More recently, I’ve started to wonder if the story really is more of a personal memoir. From the moment I was arrested for felony DUI, friends have urged me to write that story.
As I mentioned, the parallels between 1930 and 2009 are obvious and therefore relevant. My circumstances hardly mirror those of this family, of course, but perhaps that contrast lends its own value to the story.
There is also the possibility that the two have nothing in common, that in trying to blend them I am not unlike a writer who wants to write a book about, say, 18th Century farming techniques and 1960s women’s fashion.
So, as you can see, I’m in a fog at the moment that I can’t write through.
If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them. Email me at slim215980@hotmail.com.
And thanks for reading!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chapter 4: The Diagnosis

From Sarah's Journal:
Doc and I went out for a walk. We visited Marshall Fields store - the store all Chicago people rave about - but we do not think it compares to Wannamaker’s store in Philadelphia. After our lunch, we went to see a very comical movie picture, “Rain or Shine.’ After dinner, we left at 6:30 p.m. for St. Paul.
We had spent only about 12 hours in Chicago before re-boarding the train for St. Paul, Minnesota. While Doc and Sarah were sight-seeing, I wandered out to the lake, where I watched the people and studied this odd scene. It felt to me as if I were an extra in some period-piece movie. If Al Capone had shown up and started mowing down people with a Tommy-gun, I’d have viewed it more as a curiosity than some real tragedy unfolding.
As I was waiting to cross Michigan Ave., I noted the cars - Fords, mainly, but some Chevrolets and Hudsons. All black, of course,
I pointed this out to a gentleman who, like me, was standing on the corner at Michigan Ave., waiting to cross. “Describing a car as “black’’ would be pointless, wouldn’t it?’’ I said.
The man just gave me a funny look.
Doc have given me a $5 gold piece - “for lunch, or other amusement,’’ he said.
Five bucks, I thought. I’ll have to be careful.
For lunch, I stopped at a fancy-looking restaurant - white table cloths, fine crystal, etc., etc. - and had prime rib with potatoes, a slice of apple pie with ice cream and tea. The tab: $1.12.
In fact, I discovered that $5 was more than sufficient.
A row of men were standing in line in front of a factory gate and I could not resist. A year into the Depression, unemployment has reached a record 8.5 percent, according to the Chicago Tribune I had been reading during lunch.
“A little something for you,’’ I said, handing out 50-cent pieces.
“Thank you, sir!’’
Back on the train, we pulled out of the Chicago station, heading for St. Paul. After dinner, the ladies retired while Doc and I went for a smoke.
A porter produced a wooden box containing cigars and Doc was inspecting the contents, finally pulling two cigars out of the box and handing the a 50-cent piece.
“Keep the change,’’ he said.
“Thank you, kind sir,’’ the porter said, bowing politely as he stepped away.
“Havanas,’’ Doc said, clipping the end of a cigar and offering it to me. “We’ll be sure to stock up with more when we get to Cuba. Remind me.’’
“We’re going to Cuba?’’ I said, wondering how a west-bound train to Minnesota could eventually wind up in the Caribbean.
“Why, Mr. Smith, have you forgotten the itinerary?’’
I thought for a moment.
“Yes, it’s safe to say that I have no idea where we are going, beyond St. Paul, I mean.’’
“Interesting,’’ Doc said. “Tell me, last week, we all went to a very special occasion, the mark the opening of a great addition to the city of New York. Do you recall what is was?’’
I tried to remember. Somehow, I couldn’t recall anything beyond being on the train.
“No,’’ I said. “What was it?’’
“Last week, we went down to witness the opening of the Chrysler Building, the tallest building in the world. But you don’t remember that, do you? Of course, you wouldn’t. Every day, seems to be the first day with you.’’
“The Chrysler Building?’ I tried to recall the visit, with no success. “I thought the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world or, maybe, Sears Tower in Chicago.’’
Doc stroked his chin and his eyes seemed focused on some distant object, as if he were lost in thought.
“I’ve no knowledge of either of those buildings,’’ he said. “They likely do not exists outside that remarkable head of yours.’’
I didn’t respond right away. The whole conversation was a little unnerving, to be honest.
I took a deep draw from the cigar.
“Havanas,’’ I said contentedly. “You realize, that there will be a day when smoking a Cuban cigar will be a rare treat.’’
“Yes,’’ Doc said in a tone that implied sarcasm. “Tomorrow, for example. We’ll likely be in the company of the ladies for the entire day. We’ll not have time for a smoke, I fear.’’
I turned to look at the window into the blackness of the night.
“Earlier today, you said I was your patient.’’
“That’s correct.’’
“So I was wondering…Doc, what’s wrong with me?’’
Doc turned at fixed his blue-gray eyes on me, as if he were examining some rare specimen.
“I’ve yet to determine a comprehensive diagnosis,’’ he said. “It has been just two months since we met, after all.’’
“Two months?
“Well, in two months you must have some idea, some theory, don’t you?’’
Doc’s voice seemed to change.
“At this point, I would say the patient suffers from acute and recurring amnesia with marked and frequent episodes of psychosis.’’
His cold, matter-of-fact tone threw me a little.
“Psychosis? I hardly believe that,’’ I said, feeling a little indignant. “Doc, I admit I can’t seem to remember a lot of things that have happened recently, but when have I ever head psychotic? That’s totally inaccurate.’’
Doc put a hand on my shoulder.
“See here,’’ he said in a soothing tone. “I’ve meant no offense. I’ve not accused you of anything that you should feel shame. It’s just that the only things that you seem to be able to recall are things that have never happened, are likely to never happen or will happen only many, many years hence.’’
“I’m not sure I am following you, Doc.’’
The Doc rubbed his chin, struggling to find a way to clarify his point.
"It seems that you have lost your ability to recollect,'' he said finally. Whatever in the human mind triggers memory seems, in your case, to elicit only fantasy. It's as if you were wired back-wards, somehow.''
He could tell that his answer did not satisfy me.
“OK,’’ he said, changing tactics. “Let’s try one of our little experiments, OK? Now, you’re a baseball fan. That much I know. This morning you were commenting on the story about Lefty Grove in the newspaper. So let’s talk baseball, OK?’’
“I don’t’ know what baseball has to do with anything, but, sure. Why not? You’re the doctor.’’
“OK,’’ Doc said. “Tell me: What is your most memorable World Series?’’
“Easy,’’ I said. “2001 World Series. Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees in seven games, scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 to win it, 3-2. I was there, in fact.’’
Doc laughed, then caught himself.
“I’m sorry,’’ he said, still chuckling. “But don’t you see? You are talking about a World Series that won’t be played for 71 years. And what was the team? The Arizona Diamonds? Is it your assertion that there will be a baseball team in, what, Phoenix, 70 years hence? It is beyond imagination. Really.’’
Now it was my turn to laugh.
“Call me psychotic, if it pleases you,’’ I said. ‘”Mark my words: It will happen. I know it from personal experience. You’ll see. Well, no, you probably won’t, unfortunately. But it will happen just the same.’’
Doc just shook his head.
“What’s more,” I said, “Phoenix will also have a professional hockey team.’’
Doc burst into genuine laughter.
“You are simply delightful,’’ he said, warmly. “I do not know if there is a cure for you. And I confess, at times like this, I wonder if the cure would not deprive us of something truly marvelous. You make H.G. Wells seem like a dullard.’’
I put my arm around Doc’s shoulder. So what if he thinks I’m nuts, I figured. He’s picking up the tab. I’ll just enjoy the ride.
“Maybe I should be a writer,’’ I suggested. “I think my first book will be about World War II.’’
“God forbid,’’ Doc said.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Chapter 3: Rip Van Smith

I was beginning to worry about Margaret.
It was mid-afternoon on Thursday and the stifling heat was beginning to take its toll on all of the passengers, especially Margaret.
“You don’t look so good,’’ I said to her. It must be better than 90 degrees now and riding in a poorly-ventilated railroad passenger car offered no respite from the heat. The little top windows were open, but the air that entered the car was no comfort, a stale hot breeze, like what you get when you turn a blow-dryer on high.
“Maybe you should go lie down for a while,‘’ I suggested.
“Margaret nodded. “It’s just so very hot,’’ she said. “What I wouldn’t give for a cool bath. I’d be fine if I could just get cool.’’
‘Come,’’ Sarah said, rising abruptly from her seat. “We’ll go the observation car. Perhaps we’ll get a little breeze.’’
Margaret rose unsteadily to her feet, smoothed her dress and leaned on her mother as the women left the car.
Doc and I sat silently for a few minutes, staring vacantly across the farmland that dominates the Ohio landscape.
“How long till we get to Chicago?’’ I asked.
“Probably another 12, 14 hours,’’ Doc said. “The schedule says we’ll be there by 6 in the morning.’’
“Tomorrow morning, huh? We’ll, we’ve got some time on your hands then…I wonder if this train has a bar car.’’
Doc gave me a strange look. In fact, he often looked at me with a puzzled expression.
He laughed,.
“A bar car, huh? ‘’ he said. “Well, that would be a nice treat indeed.’’
“What’s so funny? Trains usually have bar cars don't they?’’
“Not in the last 10 years, they haven’t,’’ he said.
“Oh yeah,’’ I said. “Prohibition. When does Prohibition end? I can’t remember.’’
Doc laughed again.
“I love how you are always seeing the future in past tense,’’ he said. “Very interesting.’’
We sat quietly for an hour.
“I think I’ll go to the wash room,’’ I said, excusing myself.
And it was there that I made a unsettling discovery: I didn’t have a wallet.
As I was contemplating that disturbing fact, I surveyed myself in the wash room’s small mirror and I had to chuckle. There I was in a light gray seer-sucker suit, a stray hat - the kind guys in a barbershop quartet wear, I thought - pushed down firmly on my head.
“Who am I?’’ I asked the mirror. “How did this happen? What the hell am I gonna do?’’
It was as if I had gone to sleep and woke up and the time had backed up a couple of generations, as if I were Rip Van Winkle in reverse.
All I knew is I’m on the train with Doc, Sarah and Margaret. They seemed to know me quite well. Somehow, I was their guest. Am I a relative, maybe? I couldn’t say.
When the train stopped in Washington, the Doc and I left the train to get a cup of coffee and a newspaper, the women deciding to stay on the train during its short stop. The Doc bought a copy of the Washington Post from a newsboy at the station - for a nickel.
In the diner, Doc pushed the paper over to me.
The news I was looking for was found near the masthead - Aug. 7, 1930.
“Is this a joke?’’ I said aloud.
“How’s that?’’’ Doc said.
“Is this the right date?’’
Doc peered over from his side of the small table.
“Yes. It is August 7.’’
"I'll be damned,'' I muttered.
So there I was, standing in the wash room of a train heading to Chicago, taking a quick personal inventory. Let’s see: One suit, one sweat-stained cotton shirt, shoes, a ridiculous carnival barker’s hat. No wallet. No money. No ID. I didn’t even seem to have a train ticket. What if the porter comes around asking for tickets? And if I don't get thrown off the train, what happens when we get to Chicago?
I went back to the passenger car pondering these questions.
Doc was still staring out the window.
“Uh, Doc?’’
“Well, I’m sorta in a tight spot here,’’ I said sheepishly. “I can’t seem to find my wallet. I’m afraid it’s lost, which means I'm broke.’’
Doc did not seem at all distressed with this news.
“Not to worry,’’ he said. “It’s not as though you’ll need any money, but if you should, I have funds available. Just let me know.’’
“I can’t accept that,’’ I protested.
But Doc just waved off my protests.
“It’s all taken care of,’’ he said. “Part of the arrangement.’’
“Yes,’’ Doc said. “After all, you are my patient. You are going to make me famous, I suspect.’’
I didn't have an answer for that.
Journal Entry:
Arrived in Chicago early Friday morning, Aug. 8th. Registered at “The Sherman House.’’ Had nice cleansing and refreshing baths. Entirely too hot to take any sight-seeing trips so as Margaret was ill from the heat that she spent the day in bed.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Chapter 2: Ridin' the B&O

“We left Wilmington, Delaware Thursday noon. Aug. 7, 1930 over the Baltimore & Ohio R.R. to enjoy our marvelous trip,’’ writes Sarah in her travel journal.
For me, the trip begins in a different place - in the warehouse of the Savers thrift store on Elliott Road in Tempe.
I work in the “Operations Department’’ at Savers as a sales clerk. Savers has two departments - Operations is the sales floor. “Production’’ is where the merchandise is delivered, inspected, sorted, priced and prepared for the sales floor.
It is about 8 p.m. on a Tuesday and I am going through the Production Dept., en route to the break room for my 15-minute break. Because of the hour, Eddie is the only person in the Production Department. His job is to be available to help customers with heavy items, received donations that are dropped off after hours and, when time permits, sort and price items that will soon be sent to the sales floor.
“S’up?‘’ I ask as I walk through Production.
Eddie is leaning against a shelf. In front of him is a big cardboard box full of books.
He holds up a book that has a red checker-board pattern on its cover. There is no title or print of any kind on either cover. It is bound by what appears to be a brown shoestring looped through two holes that look as though they have been made by one of those punches you often see in an office.
The book seems a little swollen, as it has survived some sort of water damage.
“I’m not sure what to make of this,’’ Eddie said. “It looks like some sort of diary or something. It’s about these people who took a trip. There are pictures and stuff pasted in and the writing is hand-written. It’s not really a book, you know?’’
“Hmm,’’ I said. “You never know what you’re going to come across here, I guess.’’
“Yeah,’’ Eddie. “But it’s pretty cool because they went on this trip in, like, 1930.’’
“Really?’’ I asked, my curiosity aroused.
“Let me know when you price it,” I said. “I’ll buy it.’’
I often marvel at how the Production workers at Savers determine how to price the items that come into the store. You see all kinds of products, all kinds of brands. As a salesclerk, I’ve seen Seven and Lucky brand jeans, which normally sell for more than $100 priced at $10 or $12. I think that’s why so many people enjoy shopping at the store. If you are patient, you can find some absolutely smoking’ deals.
Some things are harder to fix a price for than other things, of course.
And this book was a good example: What is a travel journal of a trip made almost 80 years ago really worth? Tucked into that same book were a few pristine postcards from China Town in Los Angeles. You would be surprised what some postcards sell for on eBay these days. There were other photos of landmark hotels and venues which no longer exist pasted onto its yellowed pages. The photos are in remarkably good shape. They are not yellowed or faded like the pages onto which they are posted, for some odd reason.
What is something like that worth?
An hour later, Eddie slid the book across the table in front of my cash register. It has a price sticker on it: 99 cents.
With my 50 percent discount, I paid 53 cents, tax included.
And so the vacation begins.
The Canadian Rockies. The Pacific Coast. A 5,000-mile ocean cruise through the Panama Canal followed by a stop in Havana.
Fifty-three cents.
A vacation even I can afford.
Suddenly, I am in a passenger car on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and it is here that I am meeting my traveling companions - the doctor, Sarah and Margaret, a woman of about 20 who I assume is their daughter. She is a tall, pale, thin girl with big dark eyes. She is wearing a long print dress that falls just below her knees, a short form-fitting jacket, white gloves and a black cloche hat over her short-cropped, flapper-style haircut.
We are south-bound from New York, traveling through Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., before turning west for Chicago.
“Terribly hot and unpleasant for two days,’’ Sarah confides in her journal.
Sarah isn’t exaggerating.
“What’s the deal with the air-conditioning?’’ I ask, mopping the sweat off my head with a silk handkerchief while wondering why it is that I am dressed in a blue sear-sucker suit with a stiff white shirt, even stiffer collar and necktie.
The doctor fixes me with a curious gaze.
“The what?’’ he asks.
“Oh,’’ I say. “Well, never mind. On to Chicago, right?’’

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Vacation: Chapter 1

I was riding my bicycle home from the grocery store when I crossed the intersection of Priest Drive and Auto Mall Parkway. I was riding in the crosswalk, with the light, when a lady in a SUV speed up to the light and into the crosswalk. I saw her at the last moment; she was trying to the adjust the rear-view mirror, which is probably why she didn’t see me. I locked my brakes and swerved, but I knew that if she didn’t brake, I’d be hit.
Fortunately, she saw me just in time and came to a skidding stop just inches from impact.
She rolled down her window and began to apologize profusely. I smiled, held up my hand and assured her it was OK. “Truth is, even if you had run me over it wouldn’t have mattered much,’’ I said.
As you might imagine, the lady didn’t have an answer for that.
“I’m sorry,’’ she said as I pedaled away.
When a bicycle is your primary mode of transportation, you sort of get used to close calls and you learn not to take it personally. When I first lost my license and began to ride a bike, I would get pretty miffed if someone pulled out in front of me or cut me off. Now, it hardly elicits a response.
But what did disturb me is my reaction to almost getting run over.
“It wouldn’t matter much…”
What kind of outlook on life is that?
I’d be less than honest if I said that life is good for me at this point. It's been a long time since I was genuinely happy, to be honest. The prospects don’t seem any brighter, either. I try to tell myself that things will get better, although there is little to confirmeven that feeble optimism. These days, coping is a triumph of hope over experience, to borrow a phrase from old Samuel Johnson.
Truth is, most days I spend looking into the abyss and deciding to take a step back instead of a step forward. Every day, I take the right step, or at least I have to this point. Tomorrow, who knows?
So that’s what I was thinking about as I rode away from my near collision. Then, I had another thought:
“Man, I need a vacation.’’
So that’s exactly what I did. I took a vacation.
And it wasn’t just a few days of car rides and sleeping at a Best Western, either. No, this was a real vacation - the kind wealthy people or celebrities take; a trip from the East Coast, stops in Chicago and the Twin Cities, though the Canadian Rockies, down the Pacific Coast, hitting all the top destinations - Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Carmel, Santa Barbara, two weeks in L.A., followed by a Pacific Ocean cruise through the Panama Canal with a stop in Havana en route to New York. As for the accommodations, well, I stayed at some hotels that you just can’t get in to.
The vacation lasted 46 days and covered close to 10,000 miles.
Now, that’s a vacation.
Oh, I did not travel alone, either. What fun would that be?
My traveling companions were a doctor, his wife, Sarah, and their young, beautiful daughter, Margaret. Funny, though I spent the entire 46 days as their constant companion, I didn’t even get their last name. In fact, you might appalled at how little I actually know about them. Some reporter I am, huh?
At first, I thought I should get to know them, to hear their stories, find out about their background, their hopes, their dreams.
But I made the decision early on to actively avoid discovering even the most basic facts about them. It is better that way, I think, for it allows me to the freedom to invent the facts and circumstances of their lives.
I like it better this way because, when you get right down to it, I’d rather be a writer than a reporter.
Those familiar with my circumstance will be quick to dismiss this vacation as a fantasy. I am, after all, virtually penniless and perilously close to being homeless. Remember, too, that the abyss still yawns before me each day.
Yet this trip is real. It really did happen. I have an account of it, written in Sarah’s own hand, as well as indisputable photographic evidence, to vouch for it.
So join me on the trip of a lifetime.
It begins in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 7...