This is the second part of this journal. Click on Summer Journal Part I to start from the beginning.
Note: The idea of this journal is report things as soon as possible after they happen, and I am writing it and uploading as I go, doing the HTML formatting by hand on my palmtop and notebook computers, and posting it on my web page when and where I have the chance during my travels. There's rarely time to proofread it or correct it much before uploading, so please do bear with the typos and glitches.
Note that I have now started marking out the sections by city. Note also that the city-heading refer to where the events reported took place, not where I got the chance to write them up. Thus, an entry about things in Brasilia that I wrote up in Washington and datelined Washington would go in the Brasilia section.
JAMAICA| Jump to August 20 Entry |
CALIFORNIA| Jump to August 26 Entry |
TEXAS| Jump to September 2 Entry, Part II |
WASHINGTON, DC| Jump to September 15 Entry |
Wednesday, August 20, 1997, 6:42 P.M., Kingston, Jamaica.
Yesterday, Tuesday, August 19, was a very quiet day for us, and I think we all needed it. The bad news is that Carl had started to develop an allergic reaction to something or other on Monday afternoon and evening, and by Tuesday morning it was a pretty full-blown attack, with his legs itching badly and his eyes swollen up. However, Eleanore and I didn't get up until after Carl had left for work (the joys of being on vacation) and thus didn't know about it until he came home in the evening. Eleanore and I spent the day doing more or less nothing. I worked on getting this journal caught up, and on re-jiggering the Internet connection on Carl's nifty computer so it actually worked. The highlight of the day for us was going for a walk down the hill, but we cut that short after about six blocks after being blown back by oncoming traffic about twenty times, and after it started to rain. Carl came home from work, his face still pretty badly swollen. We all roared off in his Jeep to get the makings of dinner, then made it, then ate it, then chatted for a while and went to bed.
Seeing how our day was so exciting, I decided this was a good spot for a word or two about an interesting example of unintended consequences and long-distance connections. Japan has long had a law, allegedly there for safety reasons, but transparently there in order to benefit the auto industry. The law basically says that, for "safety" reasons, no one can drive a car over four years old. (There must be loopholes for antique cars and so on, but never mind.) Up until recently, Jamaica had a law against importing a car more than three years old. Both Jamaica and Japan use right-hand drive cars, to accommodate driving on the left side of the road. (In the U.S. cars have the driver's seat on the left-hand side to accommodate driving on the right side of the road.)
Jamaica changed its law, allowing cars up to seven years old to be imported. All of a sudden, there was a biggish supply of perfectly good four-year-old right-hand-drive cars on one side of the world, and an smallish available market for cheap right-hand drive cars on the other side of the world. Result: Jamaica is now flooded with cars that were originally built for the Japanese domestic market, lots of them slightly oddball models, or company business-fleet cars that still have Japanese lettering on the sides and Japanese company-logo decals on the windows. Such cars are called "deportees." Further result: the number of the cars in the country has jumped significantly in the last few years. Further result: traffic congestion, especially in Kingston, has suddenly done a upward spike. Additional result: because the cars that come in are an awfully mixed bag, and four years old, and built for a market very far away, it is extremely difficult to get parts for some of them, to the point where they are fretful articles in the newspapers about the shortage. And all of it caused by the Japanese car-manufacturers lobby ramming through an absurd "safety" law. While it may be dangerous for Japanese to drive in five-year-old cars, it would appear to be perfectly safe for Jamaicans. Or at least it would be if they weren't such loony drivers. (But I'd still have to give Brazil the nod for Worst Drivers I've Ever Seen)Return to Journal Part II Table of Contents
August 22, 1997, 8:18 AM, On the tarmac, Manley International Airport, Kingston, Jamaica.
Well, we're sort of stuck here for a while so they can fiddle with a minor problem on the aircraft, so I might as well get started on getting caught up on this journal. Probably I won't finish this same until Miami at least, but here we go with a report on the events of two days ago.
Wednesday, August 20, 1997. We got up early and drove into town with Carl. As we drove around the side of the Consulate (which is in a separate building from the Embassy) we saw a dispiriting sight, one that I had seen at the embassies in London and Brasilia and the consulate in Sao Paulo: the line, or more accurately throng, of visa applicants waiting to get in to see Carl. The consulate in Jamaica, is, as with so many cities around the world, mainly a visa mill. The line is out there every day, everyone in it asking permission to go to the United States, -- as tourists, to visit family, to do business, to emigrate. In Jamaica, anyway, the majority of the people who ask are told no. To be blunt about it, it's a wonder they say yes to anyone. The population of Jamaica is about 2.5 million. However, by some accounts, there are actually more persons born in Jamaica, or born to Jamaican parents, outside the country than in it. One number I heard was three million. To put it another way, Jamaica's primary export is people. The three largest sources of foreign exchange are tourism, bauxite (aluminum ore) and remittances -- that is, money sent home to friends and relatives in Jamaica by Jamaicans living overseas. (Signs around Kingston boast that there are over 100 Western Union offices on this small island, each ready to handle remittance payments. In the U.S., Western Union uses the slogan "The Fastest Way to Send Money." Here the slogan is "The Fastest Way to Receive Money." [emphasis added.]) The U.S. consulate here processes over 100,000 applications a year. In other words, in the last two and a half years, they have processed a number applications equal to ten percent of the country's population! And most of them are told no.
This journal is not the place to go on at length about it, but suffice to say that working the visa line day after day can be pretty grim work. It treated as something close to an initiation rite, or boot camp, in the Foreign Service -- and it was time for Carl to get to work and put in a bit more time on the line. His allergic reaction wasn't getting any better, either, and he was in real discomfort. I felt a little guilty about going off to have fun and play tourist while he suffered away at work. Given the degree of pleasure the morning was about to afford us, the guilt was much displaced.
First up was fun with hotels. Carl's work started early, at 7:15 am, so were downtown without a great deal to do. The plan was for us to get breakfast at one of the hotels near the Consulate, change some money, and then head to the old downtown area near the harbor to see the sights. To sum up a dull and irritating sequence of events, we tried changing money at hotel A, and were be kept waiting by a clerk who wouldn't have willingly and served us before Doomsday. We stood there, waiting and watching him, for five or ten minutes before he deigned to look up, feigned surprise, and told us it would be at least fifteen minutes before he could deal with us. Down to the hotel restaurant (where we could pay with a credit card) to discover the breakfast was heroically overpriced. Decision: try hotel B, next door. After threading our way through the various parking lots and barriers put up by workmen, apparently just for the fun of making people double back and start over, we found another breakfast, where you got less and still paid a lot. We got a clerk's attention, tried again to change money, but were once again outsmarted by the clerk, who informed us the Official Irritate Tourists and Throw Some Business To The Banks Act of 1823 (B.C.) made it illegal to change our money unless we checked into the hotel. Either we'd have to wait until the banks open, and have a nice long walk to the bank, or try to avoid using money.
The only good thing was that, without cash, we couldn't have the stale buns and lukewarm coffee they were offering for breakfast. The downside was that we were pretty much stuck with having breakfast at hotel B -- which wound up costing us US$30 for a wholly indifferent repast. On the upside, a whole troupe of schoolgirls in sensible blue school uniforms (along with three or four boys) came into the restaurant, along with an entourage of aunts, teachers, mothers, and what have you. They were fun to watch table-hopping back and forth and plainly enjoying the rare treat of breakfast in a restaurant. They were, it developed, at the hotel for some level or other of the National Spelling Bee competition. (I spotted one of them checking a word in her Oxford Compact Dictionary.)
Afterwards, it was back upstairs, where we rejoined the Case of the Missing Counter Help, which was already in progress. This time it was a good ten minutes by the clock before we managed to break through their defenses and get served. This time I sneakily found someone who was a guest of the hotel, and was there to change money. I got him to add our cash to his transaction, and thus flout the power and majesty of the aforementioned O.I.T. & T.S.B.T.T.B Act of 1823 (B.C.).
Out we went, cash in hand, to try hailing a cab. We were pounced upon by a annoying old coot who bamboozled into his cab, charging a mere J$400 (US$11.42), explaining, none too coherently, that hotel cabs like his were either required or entitled to charge a lot more than what he sneeringly referred to as "street cabs," apparently under the O.I.T. & T.S.B.T.T.B Act of 1823 (B.C.) (subclause 3: Concerning the Right of Hotel Cabs to Chisel Ignorant Visitors) As we later got a perfectly nice street cab that took us a longer distance for J$150, I didn't really see the advantage to us of his being allowed to charge more.
Adding to the bad karma of the morning, Eleanore had, it seemed accidentally opened the usually reliable Lonely Planet guide to Jamaica to the section entitled Bad, Inaccurate, Misleading and Dated Information. The B.I.M.& D.I. section suggested a visit to the Institute of Jamaica, and hazarded a guess that it opened at 8:30. This seemed to be a bit early for a museum, but I went along with the gag. Sure enough, when we got there, it seemed that the offices opened at 8:30, but the museum opened at 9:00, except for the parts that opened at 9:30, or maybe 10:00, depending on who you asked or what signs you read. Nor could we locate the entrance to the museum proper. A whole sequence of people, either trying to helpful or whimsical, sent us back and forth around the corner, up and down stairs, and finally in through a back alley entrance. The Institute business offices are located in a mouldering old building, that is crying out for paint, and to have the loose bits screwed back on to the bannisters, and so on. According to a slightly shabby-looking plaque on the wall, the building won a preservation award in 1988 (1888, more likely, considering the shape it's in). Clearly, the preservationists have been resting on their laurels ever since.
We had a lot of difficulty locating the entrance to the museum proper. A whole sequence of people who saw us bumbling up and down the street and in and out of doors, decided to try and be to helpful or maybe just whimsical, and sent us back and forth around the corner, up and down stairs, and finally in through a back alley entrance, each person telling us the one before had got it wrong or hand no business telling us to do whatever they told it. It was navigation by the committee system, but, it did, in the event, work. We found ourselves in the foyer of the museum. A sign said the bit we were looking at wasn't open yet, but we decided to risk an international incident and sneak in.
We found ourselves in a small and very earnest 1950s-era nature museum for kids, full of stuffed animals and mounted insects -- worth looking at, once we got there, but really not much of a place. Just as we were leaving, a moody-looking young guard found us, and muttered that the proper museum was upstairs, but wouldn't open for another ten minutes, or maybe next week. Eleanore was nearly tempted to stay, but I wasn't. Thinking, wrongly, that the guard was out of earshot, I pointed out to Eleanore that the place was clearly the Institute of Jamaican Bric-a-Brac: the odds on the collection upstairs being worthwhile seemed remote in the extreme, so off we went into the hot, soggy, sun-blasted morning.
Eleanore's next idea was to get a look the harbor and the waterfront. After dodging a bit of roaring traffic that made a half-hearted attempt to kill us, we discovered that there was a parking lot at the edge of the water, which was flat and green and sort of greasy. We walked along the road at the water's edge, and came, after a while, to a broken-down sort of looking park, with a collection of broken-down-looking people wandering the landscape, or lying down in it. I saw one entrepreneur conduct some sort of transaction with a motorist who pulled over -- this being on a Wednesday morning. We started to feel quite a collection of eyes on us -- not hostile, or malign, but unwelcoming, and with a sense of sizing us up to see what could be got out of us. An elderly gent of wizened aspect and garrulous deportment latched on to us, and assigned himself the role of new best friend and trusty guide.
There is a certain sort of bellhop who will relentlessly insist on showing you how to work the hotel room's light switches, and television, and telephone, and where in the room the bed is to be found, and how objects can be placed in either the drawer or the closet. He knows and you know and he knows you know that he knows that what he is telling you is completely useless, and he is only doing it because it is a way to bludgeon you into giving him a tip, either because he's managed the illusion of being helpful, or as a way to get him to shut up and leave you alone. Aside from waiting for a natural pause in the monologue, or its actual end, and then turning over cash. there is no way of stopping this type of bellhop without being rude, so you don't do it. Why a paying guest should worry about being rude to a hotel employee who is manipulating him in hopes of material gain is another question. The point here is that our new best friend was the open-air version of the leach bellhop. He gave Eleanore the brilliant advice of walking over a plank bridge that went over a gap in the walkway, as opposed to the other option, of falling into a ditch. He repeatedly directed us how to walk in a straight line toward the building we could see straight ahead of us. By the time he got us to the building entrance, he had "helped" us so much that I more or less had to tip him, or else face God knows what sort of scene. I gave him some money and was deeply grateful that he actually went away, rather than staying around in hopes of pestering us with more help on the subject of how to walk upright, or perhaps advice on breathing.
The building he led us to, which we would not have found for another 30 seconds without his relentless help was a craft exhibition and sale, a big barn of a place parceled out into little booths. Pretty much everyone seemed to be getting his or her authentic hand-made crafts from the same factory outlet, as the products on offer were more or less identical from one booth to the next. Many off the booths were locked, not open for business. Most of the open booths seemed to be run by women who pounced on us as we went by, urging us to come in and see their display of exactly the same stuff we had seen in all the other booths. They all told us there was "no charge to come in," as if a store that charged customers for the privilege of walking in the door was the norm, and they were offering us a special break. They were all so insistent, so wheedling, that just walking through the place was a major hassle, and the merchant ladies succeeding in chasing us out of the place in much less than half the time we would have spent if we had been there left to our own devices.
We slumped back into the beating daylight and headed toward the National Gallery of Art, which was supposed to open at 10:00 am, which it nearly was. We got there and discovered Eleanore still had her guide open to the Wrong Information page: the museum opened at 10:00. The museum was a half block north of Weirdo Park, and the idea of finding a place to get something to drink and wait for opening time, which had seemed reasonable, was looking less and less viable. I kept seeing, or imagining that I saw, another excessively helpful citizen sizing us up, as if calculating how much he would have to hassle us before we'd give him a tip to go away. We went into a shopping arcade and found there was no place to buy a cold drink and sit down. We went toward a hotel across the street from the arcade, and discovered it had closed down.
That, right there, was the low point of a day that had been going straight down since we got up. But things were about to improve dramatically. We were a block east of the museum, on Orange Street. Our previous wino-guide had pointed north and told us not to go in that direction, as it was full of robbers and bad people. At that point, however, we had already been east, south, and west of where we were, so we headed north, mostly to keep moving so as to keep the hordes of helpful locals at bay. In about two blocks, we came to a bustling, lively, even pleasant business district full of regular citizens going about their lawful occasions. So much for winos as guides. We stopped in the Times Store and went to the upstairs lunch counter to guzzle down a couple of Tings (Ting being more or less the official soft drink of Jamaica -- it's a tart, fizzy, grapefruit soda, and quite good.) It was only ten in the morning, but both of us were hot, sweaty, and dehydrated. Whatever the thermometer might have shown, Kingston felt much hotter than Brasilia. We finished our sodas and browsed the Times Store's book department, and then wandered up Orange to another book store, where a full-fledged back-to-school scrum was underway. It seemed as if every kid in Jamaica was in that store, buying up school supplies.
Both Eleanore and I are book-store lovers, and both of us have been a long time out of an English-language bookstore -- and we were both a teeny bit disappointed to discover that Jamaican bookstores seem to be about 80 to 90 percent academic. Both the book stores we went into on Orange Street and the one we went into in Spanish Town the next day, were jam-packed with text books, texts of what were obviously the novels and plays to be studied next semester, and so on. There was very little general reading material, and only a small selection of standard-issue airport best-sellers paperbacks. But the fun of being in the midst of the back-to-school excitement more than made up for it, at least for me. I love the back-to-school rituals. New notebooks, all blank and ready to be dutifully filled with well-organized notes, new school clothes, pens and binders and rulers that seem as if they should make doing just about anything sensible and efficient. A fresh start, everything ahead, everything possible. I wanted to buy a small notebook myself, just to get into the spirit of things, but the line to the register was a mile long, and so I reluctantly decided not to go for it.
We walked one block over and two or three blocks down back to the National Museum of Art, arriving just as it opened at 11:00. It is truly a national museum, focusing almost entirely on Jamaican artists. We both quite enjoyed the collection. One thing I found quite refreshing was the all but complete lack post-modernist drivel posing as sophistication that seems to clutter up most collections of 20th century art. But for one or two annoying exceptions, there was no eight layers of irony between the subject of the artwork and the artwork itself. The purpose of much contemporary art seems to be to demonstrate how clever the artist is, or, alternately, to show that viewing public is pretty stupid. There was almost none of that. The paintings and sculptures weren't about the artist's egos, which I found refreshing. Perhaps not all of it was absolutely world-class art, but it was sincere. I liked that.
There were only two other patrons of the museum when we got there -- a Jamaican girl of about 16, and her Argentinean pen-pal. They two of them were in the midst of a highly muddled bi-lingual conversation. Eleanore weighed in with her Portuguese (which is close to Spanish) but that only made the problem worse. In any event, we chatted with them for a minute or two, and got a bit of their story. Though they had corresponded by letter for years, they had only met each other for the first time the previous Monday. As Eleanore pointed out, their letters back and forth must have require the use of a great many dictionaries, as their spoken mastery of each other's languages was not, to pardon the expression, much to write home about.
We spent an hour or so in the museum, and then hailed a cab on the street and got driven back to the Consulate in a clean, comfortable cab for 150 Jamaican dollars (about US$4.35,) as opposed to the J$400 we had been charged going in the other direction. Morale: stay away from the hotel cabs. We met up with Carl, whose eyes were still pretty badly swollen, badly enough that he had arranged a doctor's appointment for just after lunch. The three of us hopped in his car, and went off to a rather good Indian restaurant for lunch. From there, Carl headed to his doctor appointment, and we headed off on foot to Devon House, which was quite nearby.
Devon House is a very handsome old plantation house, built in the last century by Jamaica's first black millionaire. It's a grand old building, well restored and beautifully furnished. It's well worth seeing. The back buildings of the house, once the servants' quarters, are now shops and restaurants of one sort or another -- and once again, quite well done. We had a nice look round the shops, and a cooling drink (though Eleanore ordered the home-made ginger beer, which turned out to be an acquired taste that neither of us took the time to acquire). Then it was one more cab ride back to Carl's apartment, and a very quiet evening at home, which was made none the noisier by Carl's arrival. The doctor told Carl that he was having some sort of food allergy reaction, and told him to cut out all sorts of food for a while to give his system time to settle down. It seemed likely that he was reacting to some oddball combination of foods from our weekend trip. With a little luck, it wouldn't happen again. In the meantime, the doctor gave Carl something to deal with the allergic reaction symptoms, which were already responding to treatment. He looked a lot better, but we were all beat, and turned in early. It had been a long day.Return to Journal Part II Table of Contents
Monday, August 25, 1997 4:32 PM, Fresno, California.
I am once again cheating just a bit, having just finished the section above, datelined at the Jamaica airport, while sitting here in Fresno. Things have been busy, and it's tough to get caught up. Let's see if I can be a bit more succinct regarding the events ofThursday, August 21, 1997. Our last full day in Jamaica. Having found out for ourselves just how much (or rather, how little) of a tourist town Kingston was, we weren't really all that eager to go explore it anymore. Eleanore therefore turn to the Don't Say We Didn't Warn You section of the guidebook, and found the entry for Spanish Town, the only town of any size near Kingston. The entry included words like "ruins," "menacing," "teeming" and other choice phrases, but, nothing deterred, Eleanore called for a cab, who agreed to do the run for an extremely reasonable J$400. It was about a half-hour ride, first through a veritable maze of back streets, and then, rather suddenly, out onto a wide divided highway, by far the biggest road we saw in Jamaica. The road ran right into Spanish Town, where our cabbie helpfully pointed out such possibly useful landmarks as a couple of police stations and the prison. We were soon deposited in the main square, directly across (and I swear I am not making this up) from a newly opened lunch counter: Rippers' Fast Foods. The streets were swarming with people, the sun was beating down, it was hot as hell, and there seemed to be some sort of competition to see who had the largest and loudest outdoor speakers. Reggae beats pounded into our heads.
There was a sort of shopping arcade or mall off the square, and Eleanore wanted to duck in there to consult our maps, so as not to draw attention to our status as tourists. But as the only non-blacks in sight, wearing shorts (for some reason, Jamaicans wear nearly always wear long trousers) and, for intents and purposes, signs strapped to our heads that said TOURISTS in big flashing letters, there didn't seem much point. We got our bearings and set out, more or less, in the direction of the local Cathedral. We dodged traffic in the main drag, the noise of the place blanketing us, until we got to what appeared to be the proper side street shown on the map. We walked along past a huge old barracks of a brick building, a massive thing half-hidden behind a high brick wall. It was plainly derelict, but it was big enough, and old enough, that we were hard-pressed to think of what it might be. We never did get an answer. While this ruined building was still standing, there were whole blocks of completely collapsed and abandoned buildings scattered about the center of town, mere piles of overgrown rubble. The place looked as if the Luftwaffe had somehow gotten as far afield as Jamaica during World War II and bombed the hell out of Spanish Town, and as if no one had bothered to rebuild or clean up since. Right next store to such a pile of rubble would be a modest house in good repair.
As we walked along, the first of two or three locals who would tell us almost the same thing, word for work, approached us. "Don't go up that road there. It's full of villains and robbers and you not be safe." This time, and each of the other times, it happened, we just turned around and found another route.
After doubling back a couple of times, we came out on the road for the church -- and found ourselves face-to-face with the walls of a prison (though not the prison the cabbie had pointed out -- for a smallish place, Spanish Town has extensive facilities for keeping people locked up). I noticed what looked like steam coming out of the upper windows of one of the cellblocks we could see over the wall. Later, it turned out there was a fire in the prison, and we had, it seemed, walked right past a prison riot.
We walked on, and came to the Cathedral of St. Jago de la Vega, which was quite literally next door to the prison -- you could hear the convicts shouting and carrying on even after you went inside. It was a small enough building that it probably would offer up a more accurate mental image if one instead called it a church. However, it was (presumably) the seat of an Anglican bishop, and therefore a Cathedral. The interior of the wooden building was very much that of an Anglican church, with memorials set into the wall, each of them sacred to God, and to the memory of some solid citizen and light of the church, died 1698, or 1733, or 1807, or 1975. Memorial stones were likewise set into the floor, presumably over the remains of whoever they named. After all the crumbling, tumble-down, worn-out things that weren't very old that we had seen, both in Jamaica and in Brazil, it was good to see an old place in such good repair. Somehow, the motto of the Third World seems to be to build it big, build it fast, build it grand, and build it on the cheap, and never mind about taking care of it after it's done. It's dispiriting to see buildings younger than I am going to wrack and ruin -- and quite comforting to see inscriptions that kept alive historical memories through the centuries.
We walked on, pretty much in the direction we had been told would get us killed, except we were one block over, so it was all right. We came to The Park, which was a perfect, geometric square of browned-over grass, surrounded by a wrought iron fence, itself surrounded by roadways, with four grand buildings built in the Georgian style, (or, as we shall see, at least the appearance of same) forming the boundaries of the square. The trouble was, only one out of the four buildings, a government office on the eastern side of the square, was in actual fact a building. On the south was the burned-out and tidied-up brick shell of the old Court House. On the west side was the propped-up facade of another grand old Georgian pile, with nothing much beside foundations left of the rest of the building. On the north side was the Rodney Memorial, which looked like a building, but, as best I could tell, had in essence been built as a facade. There was a government records office tucked in behind it, but the Memorial, though built with lots of ornamentation and whoop-de-do, was all front and no back. An odd factoid from the guide book: the marble statue of Rodney, dressed as a Roman general, somehow or another wound up costing 30,000 pounds -- three times as much as all of Devon House. Now that's a cost overrun.
With that, we had the impression that we had pretty much gone through the sights of Spanish Town, and headed back toward the main square -- detouring one more time for a "don't go that way, it's full of villains" change of direction. We went into the shopping center to get a badly needed something to drink, and also wandered into yet another book store, which was likewise largely given over to academic titles and exam-cram guides. While there, a absolutely adorable little girl of about four or five, who was there with her mother, starting watching us in fascination. She told us something we couldn't quite follow at first, and it wasn't until the mother interpreted that I figured it out. The girl was telling us that we "weren't brown," which was of course perfectly true. We chatted with her somewhat embarrassed mother for a bit, and then the little piped up again to tell us "You talk funny!" which was, of course, also absolutely true. According to the mother, the little girl had traveled with her family to the U.S., and had seen white people before -- and indeed a white woman had married into the immediate family. Apparently, it was simple the first time the little girl had seen people who looked and talked like us, up close and personal in her own home town. It was a wonderful "Emperor's New Clothes" sort of moment, with the innocent child saying the obvious thing the adults could not or would not say.
Most of the time in my life, I walk around as part of the largest group, in places where it's "normal" to be white and well-off and so on. Even back in Brazil, we were mostly in among the Embassy crowd, where we more or less fit it. I didn't fit in very well at all on the streets of Brasilia, but the contrast was a lot starker, a lot more obvious, in a place like Spanish Town, where the tourists don't go. There is something quite salutary in the occasional walk around a part of the world where you're the odd-man out, where everyone notices you because you don't fit in. We all ought to have the shoe on the other foot now and again. It took a bubbly little girl in Spanish Town to make me see that, and say it.
However, our adventures for the day weren't quite over. We headed out into the square in search of a cab that would take us back to Kingston. The first cab we hailed didn't want to make the trip. The second one was willing to make the drive, but, as it turned out, couldn't. We settled on a fare of J$500, hopped in, and headed off out of town. About three or four miles out of Spanish Town, the driver slowed from about 50 miles per hour to 30. Then a mile or so later on, he pulled over at an open-air roadside bar and explained that he needed (something we couldn't understand over the traffic and through his accent concerning) water. Either he was thirsty, or needed to use the men's room, or the car was overheating. It turned out to be the last of these three. He started filling a bottle with water from a outside tap at the bar, and did it such a way that it seemed as if about ninety percent of what he was putting in came spurting right back out. We sat in the cab for about ten minutes while this went on, then got out -- and were instantly involved in another of those self-appointed spontaneous committees of the whole, consisting of everyone at the bar telling us what to do, mainly in absolutely impenetrable accents. (Of course, it's their island -- we were the ones with the quite literally outlandish accents. But, in any event, we could understand about one word in four.)
What gradually developed was that the other three people there (a teenage boy, a dried up old man who looked as if he had last been completely sober during the Truman administration, and a big, sturdy looking man about my age) were all in the only other vehicle parked at the bar. If "vehicle" is the right word. "Contraption" would be closer to the mark. It was a complete rattletrap of an old pickup, with the driver's side windshield smashed-up but still in place, doors that didn't quite open, and a fan bolted to the dashboard that you turned on and off by twisting two wires together. These group offered to run us into Kingston. The sturdy-looking man, who was the driver, explained that he was a butcher -- and showed Eleanore the dead pig under the tarp in the back to confirm his bonafides. The cab driver, the butcher and his friends were all talking at Eleanore and myself simultaneously while the traffic roared and whizzed by, and it took a while for the various parties to get their messages across. Eleanore wanted to go with the butcher, while I wanted to wait for the cab. In the end, I paid the cabbie J$100 for stranding us (he wanted J$150) and Eleanore and I shoe-horned into the cab of the pickup (I thought I was going to have to ride in the back with the other guys and the dead pig) and off we went. After yet another wander through all sorts of back streets, a rather confused stop to ask directions, and a few struggles to get up hills and dodge oncoming buses, and finally we got back to Carl's apartment. Everyone piles out of the truck, we all spend a while saying so long, I pay the butcher more than I was going to pay the original cab-driver, and enough so it seems to please the butcher, he asks for my phone number for the next time he's in Washington (no chance) and we all say good-bye.
Eleanore and I had a very early flight the next day, and pretty much had to be ready to go the minute we jumped out of bed. We therefore set to work getting ready to pack up, and were more or less ready to close up our suitcases by the time Carl came home from work. Our plan was to head out and see the early show of a new Jamaican movie (and there aren't that many new Jamaican movies) called Dancehall Queen, but we got started for the theater a bit late, and got a bit lost en route to it, with the long and the short of it being that we got there (a) after it started and (b) after it was sold out. We decided against seeing the late show, as we were going to have a very early morning. We stopped for take-away food on the way home, and returned to Carl's apartment. We finished packing, I did a few last-minute fiddles to tune up Carl's computer system, and so, somewhat anticlimactically, to bed.Return to Journal Part II Table of Contents
August 26, 1997, 8:57 AM: Fresno, CaliforniaPicking up from where I left off, with the events of Friday, August 22, 1997. A long, wearying, but not very complicated day, which I'll try to cover in reasonably short order. We all got up at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am to catch our 7:00 am flight from Kingston to Miami, where we were to make connections to Los Angeles. We got up and out in good order, and Carl drove us to the airport. As a result of complicated but perfectly fair and reasonable government regulations, we were scheduled to fly on a complicated sort of loop around the United States, rather than on a direct flight, and we were hoping to be able to change our routing to the direct flight without breaking those regs. This we managed to do at the counter in Jamaica. As it turned out, it was a good thing we had done this, and yet, on the other hand, didn't matter at all. Our flight out of Kingston to Miami was delayed by a fiddling mechanical problem that kept us on the ground for about three hours -- by which time we had missed our connections anyway -- and thought we had missed the 1:35 pm direct flight we had changed to, as well.
We finally took off about 10:30 am (and overflew Cuba, which I thought was kind of cool) and got into Miami late enough that we weren't even trying for the 1:35. However, once we cleared customs (in the same customs hall we had used eight days before when clearing customs en route from Brazil) we discovered the 1:35 had been delayed by an hour, and we could catch it if we ran like hell. In the scrum, I accidentally checked my carry-on, but by that time I was happy to have one less thing to carry. I had to go back and make sure the carry-on wasn't going to go missing, (it had been routed properly) and we got to the gate just as they were boarding. Eleanore began a complicated sequence of calls, trying to track down her father on his home phone, office phone, car phone, and so on, trying to tell him what flight we were on, and what time it was getting in -- information we weren't all that sure of ourselves. She tried from the terminal, and from the phone aboard the airplane, and did manage to get a message through.
The plan was that her father, David Fox, would drive from Fresno, California to Los Angeles, pick us up, and then drive with us to Camarillo, where his parents (that is, Eleanore's grandparents) lived. David was held up a bit in traffic, but did in fact meet us and drive us north. We had dinner with the grandparents at a local restaurant, and then Eleanore and I drove David's van went to the local hotel where we were staying, while David stayed at his parents. Aside from the actual move out of Brazil, it was pretty much the most complicated travel day of our trip so far, and we had made it to where we were going -- and then went straight to bed.
Saturday, August 23, 1997. The day of the big wedding, of Eleanore's cousin Debra Lewin to Evan Grossman. Eleanore and I got up and wandered the little shopping center by the hotel, in what was really our first full day back in the United States. We found ourselves constantly marveling how everything -- the bagel shop, the dry cleaner (for our wedding clothes), the hair salon (Eleanore got her bangs trimmed) actually worked. The staff were efficient, competent, and polite. The bagels were good, the coffee was fresh, the dry cleaning was done properly and on time. There weren't huge gaping potholes in the driveway, or cracked sidewalks, or badly-wired amateur repairs of high-tension electric lines, or small naked children wandering in the median strip. Granted, it is, shamefully, possible to find these things in the United States of America -- but they aren't what expected, or accepted. The sight of things done properly, and the sight of people taking it for granted, was astonishing to us.
We met up with David and his parents, and a couple of other relatives (who weren't going to the wedding) and had lunch at a nearby restaurant. We then split up. We went to the hotel while David and his parents went to their house. We got into our wedding duds, met up back at the hotel, and all piled into David's father's car, and it was off to Santa Monica, about a half-hour south along the coast, for the wedding.
It was a swell party, starting with the ceremony at about 5:30, and still going strong with the dancing when we left at about 10:30. The wedding took place at an interesting venue: it was a private home, but one expressly designed to allow the grounds to be rented out for weddings and other big parties. The owners, it seemed, were paying their (presumably huge) mortgage by hosting weddings. There was a three-level terraced garden behind the house, with the ceremony performed on the highest terrace, and the Pacific Ocean spread out below. It was a magnificent view, and a lovely service. The bride was beautiful. Drinks were served after the ceremony in the lower terraces, and dinner was served in the big courtyard at the front of the house. Eleanore got to see a great many of her relatives, some of whom I met for the first time. I had brought along a pocket laser pointer, and as soon as it was dark enough, used it to amuse the smaller fry. They had a lot of fun chasing the red dot around. It was a lovely wedding, and we all liked Debra's new husband, and his family. They're good folks.
We had a bit of a drive to make, and David's parents were a little tired, so we left the party a bit early, and made the drive to Camarillo. They dropped us at the hotel, and Eleanore and I dropped into bed.
Sunday, August 24, 1997. We packed out of the hotel, picked up some bagels, and drove the van over to David's parents place for breakfast and to say our goodbyes. David ran a videotape he had filmed of the trip he and Eleanore made to Spain last July. We said our last goodbyes, and headed off to Los Angeles, having no clear idea what we were going to do once we got there. We were in the van, and from the rear of the van, it's more or less impossible to hear anything that's going on up front. David and Eleanore went through the weekend section, and debated various possibilities before settling on an outdoor performance of As You Like It in the park outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, just across the way from the La Brea Tar Pits museum. No one in either museum had the slightest idea where the performance was to take place (and most of them didn't even know it was taking place).
We scouted around outside for a while, and saw no signs of preparation for a theatrical performance -- no seats, no stage, no poster -- nothing. At last Eleanore and David spotted a collection of people who looked like actors (but this being Los Angeles, even that was a bit of a slender thread to which to cling.) We asked them, and sure enough they were the actors for the show, and the show was to start in a half-hour's time right where we were. We went into the museum for a half hour, just to look around and pass the time, and then returned to the park to watch the show.
To me, the word "gimmick" means something stuck on, a trick or a stunt that isn't needed but is meant to look cool, but often ends up being awkward. It isn't integral, and therefore gets in the way. In that sense, the idea for this production was at least within shouting distance of being a gimmick. There were no sets, no lights, no sound, just the actors, their costumes, and a few very small props. It was a extremely cut-down version of the play, running about ninety minutes or so. All very well, so far. But the play was to move around the park, with the actors doing one scene here, and then next scene fifty feet away, and the next scene twenty feet past that, and so on. The audience followed the play around the park. It was cute, but I'm not sure that it added that much to the performance. What it did do was keep the audience from getting restless as a result of sitting on one lump of ground for two hours. But I'm not sure that was enough to make up for causing nearly all of the audience to miss the opening lines of nearly every scene as the scuttled to keep up with the actors.
But these are quibbles. It was a fun show, and well-acted by professional quality performers throughout. (There are so often semi-pro productions with three good actors, six acceptable ones, and one or parts being played by blocks of wood in costume.) And if there is any show well suited to being staged as an outdoor frolic, it has to be As You Like It, with everyone wandering around the Forest of Arden and singing the praises of the rustic life. It was fun, and certainly would serve as a painless and friendly introduction to Shakespeare -- which is was the company that put it on, the Foliage Shakespeare Project, has as its reason for being. I do wish they had been a trifle less minimalist, with maybe a poster set up to indicate where and when the show would be, and maybe another poster listing what cast members played what part, and what their previous credits were. They were good, and I wanted to know more about them.
After the play, we went back into the museum and wandered several of the galleries. My favorite was a collection of pre-Colombian Mexican sculpture, quite unlike anything I had ever seen. Some of the pieces were quite witty caricatures or animal sculptures. Others were quite impressive funerary art of one sort or another.
After about an hour or so in the museum, we headed off in search of an ice cream pearlier called C.C. Brown's, which I had never heard of before, though apparently it was for many years a landmark on Hollywood Boulevard. Sadly, it wasn't there any more, and we gave up hope of ice cream. However, there was a fun bit of compensation -- Hollywood Boulevard was closed in order to film a scene from a movie right there in front of Graumman's Chinese Theater. There were signs up warning pedestrians that if they walked past the signs, they were agreeing to appear in the movie and were, in essence, giving up all rights to everything forever. The theater itself was shut, and the name of an imaginary movie, ARMAGEDDON, was up on the marquee. The movie they were shooting, judging from the film crew identity cards, was MIGHTY JOE YOUNG -- that is to say, a remake of an giant ape movie made shortly after KING KONG, intended to capitalize on KK's success. I have no idea what the world needs a remake of an obscure 60-year-old pastiche, but there it is. As a bit of inside humor, all the Coming Attractions posters on the outside of the theater were recent monkey films -- MONKEY TROUBLE, 12 MONKEYS, and so on. It was fun to see the big lighting trucks and busy, frumpy people laden down with walkie-talkies and cell phones and headsets, rushing about and getting lattes for all the people more important than them. But we had to get going, and so we bid farewell to movieland, got back in the van, and drove on to Fresno, Eleanore's childhood hometown. We got there after an uneventful three hour drive, and more or less immediately went off to bed, after yet another busy day.
Monday, August 25, 1997 was a pretty quiet day for me, and a busier one for Eleanore. An early highlight of the day for me was helping David ferry the other car, which had a transmission leak, to the car repair place. He drove the ailing car, and I followed in the van. After dropping the car off, we stopped by at a local grocery store for cream cheese (we had bagels at home) -- and of course came out of the store with three kinds of cereal, two kinds of yogurt, three kinds of fruit, some sourdough bread -- and the cream cheese. Impulse buying at its best. We went back to the house. After breakfast, Eleanore and her father went off in the van to a nearby national park for a hike. I wanted to give the two of them some time alone together, and didn't much feel like hiking anyway, so I stayed home and put in some much-needed time on this journal. David had to head in to work for a little while after their return, and Eleanore's mother came by, and the two of them had a visit. In the evening, all four of us got together for an accidentally comic dinner at the Lebanese restaurant that had catered the rehearsal dinner for our wedding, three years before. They had everything on the menu, except the things we ordered -- and we kept changing our orders, which only added to the confusion. They were shorthanded in the kitchen and more than a little disorganized, but we just stole the missing forks and napkins from other tables, had tea instead of coffee, and made do. The food we did get was very good, and that's the main thing. And that just about sums up yesterday, which suits me fine. I needed a quiet day.
Tuesday, August 26, 1997. Which is, in fact, today. I'm nearly caught up on this journal. Today, so far, has also pretty pretty quiet. It was back to the work-a-day world for everyone else, which left Eleanore and myself to amuse ourselves. After a leisurely morning, we went off to visit the first proper bookstore we had been in since our last visit home. I am pleased to report that the Barnes and Noble's here in Fresno, California, has the mass-market paperback of CALIBAN, first published as a trade paperback a couple of years back. They had several of my other titles as well. Eleanore and I picked up a couple of books that Carl had asked for, and a couple of things for ourselves, but mostly it was the sheer pleasure of being in a place where they had lots and lots of books in English. We next wandered into a home-furnishings store, not with the intent of buying anything, but just so as to get a few ideas together for what we'll want to have in our house -- once we have a house. From there, it was off to Macy's to get a look at the Bridal Registry, not only for Eleanore's cousin Debra, but for my cousin Jamie, who was married back east about a month ago. For a wonder, both had registered at Macy's, and we were able to shop for and buy wedding gifts for both of them, and have the gifts shipped. It felt good to have those gifts checked off. We stopped for lunch and for ice cream, and then back home to the house. Eleanore's mother came by, and the two of them went off to the zoo -- while I sat down and, at long last, got this journal up to date.
Which is what it is -- as of now.Return to Journal Part II Table of Contents
Friday, August 29, 1997: en route, San Francisco to San Antonio
And here I am, aboard the flight to San Antonio, sitting in a very narrow economy class seat that won't recline, sitting behind a major side of beef who has his reclined all the way. There really isn't room for my elbows, knees, or feet. It's even a bit of a struggle to fold my arms in enough to reach the keyboard. I have been rammed by a passing beverage cart and a stewardess. In short, either this is one of the most uncomfortable airplane seats I have ever been in, or else I've been traveling too long.
In any event, it's a change to shoehorn my hands in around the keyboard of this palmtop before the batteries die again, and get started catching up on the events of the last couple of days. I'll start by finishing up with a second, brief, entry for
Tuesday August 26, 1997. After another dinner out with Eleanore's parents, Liz and David, (this time at a newly opened Mexican restaurant that wasn't quite organized yet) we went home and gain packed up all our gear, once again whittling away what we wouldn't need and tossing it into a box to mail back to my long-suffering parents. We mailed a lot of stuff to them from Brasilia, have our air freight headed toward them, are using them as a mail drop, got them stuck with taking care of our cat, and, of course, we're going to be living with them as soon as we get back. They might not have seen much of us in the last couple of years, but they might well soon have had more than enough of us.)
Complicating the packing job just a trifle this time were two factors: Eleanore were going to split up for a couple of days as of August 29, and Eleanore was going to be returning to Fresno, while I would not. SO we were making doubly sure we didn't have each other's stuff, and Eleanore was trying to split her luggage into three piles -- carry along, leave in Fresno to collect later, and mail from here. We finally got it all more or less organized, and called it a day.
Wednesday, August 27, 1997. Two weeks before, on August 13, we left Brasilia. It seems like much longer ago than that. We got up about seven, and David cooked us a farewell waffle breakfast. We did the usual last-minute scuttle-about finding odds and ends that were nearly left behind, and then hopped in the van (which we were borrowing for the next leg of the trip) and got on the road for San Francisco, first stopping at a nearby gas station and carwash to give the van a much-needed fill-up and hose-down. The road from Fresno to San Francisco goes through large stretches of territory that might as well be marked NOT MUCH HERE on the map, and it wasn't a particularly eventful ride. One sight of interest was a windmill ranch (if that's the right term) with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of windmills lined up to face the prevailing winds. One old-fashioned windmill with its sail going round and around and around in a leisurely was is a pleasant and picturesque sight. Dozens of advanced, high-tech, high performance ones, their sharp, airplane-propeller-like blades whipping around fast and hard, can be a a disconcerting sight. Nor are the various windmills synchronized with each other, and each catches and uses the wind in a slightly different way, so each mill in a line of eight or ten will be spinning at a slightly different speed, which somehow added to the oddness of the sight. There were five or six different designs of windmill in use, some spinning, some locked down for whatever reason. There was something very alien and purposeful about it all, as if we had stumbled onto a next of Martian war machines from The War of the Worlds just as they were coming out of their landed ships. I'm sure windpower is a fine source of energy, and I hope it sees more use, but I can understand how living next to a wind farm could turn some people a bit twitchy.
We got into San Francisco and drove directly to the apartment of Eleanore's friend Johnette, whom we had not seen since she was a bridesmaid at our wedding, three years ago. We were eager to meet her fiancee, Jeff, but he wasn't going to be home until about five. In the meantime, we were introduced to her cockateil, Figaro (male, despite the name). We didn't get the chance to meet her house rabbits, Oliver and Annie, until somewhat later, as they were busy hiding under the bed. We were warned, however, to keep anything made of leather well up off the floor, as Annie the rabbit enjoyed nibbling it. After getting our luggage out of the car, the three of us went for a walk through Golden Gate Park, which was only a few hundred yards from her front door. The park was every bit as lovely as the last time I had seen it. Johnette told us all about how the park was getting a bit run down, and wasn't being cared for properly, and no doubt she was right. But after seeing the utter neglect of just about every public space in Brazil, it looked pretty good to us. We walked through the Arboretum area of the park, with each section dedicated to a different region or theme. My favorite was the redwood forest that had been planted right there in the park. Spectacular.
A fun, odd, and yet slightly sad highlight of our walk was wandering into the Shirley the Squirrel Fan Club. There were four or five mildly dotty people -- one man about my age, a little old lady who was closer to be a little little old old lady, and a couple of others. They were sitting on either side of a path, furtively feeding the squirrels, and hiding their nuts whenever anyone in a park-rangerish sort of uniform went past. They were willing to fit whatever squirrel came along, but it was Shirley they were waiting for, and Shirley whom they welcomed with gleeful acclaim. She was a young female tamed down enough to be scratched behind the ears (which I did after opening a walnut for her -- the nut had been giving her a little trouble). It was wonderful, and yet undeniably sad, that one little rodent eating a nut could be the high point of the day for that many people.Return to Journal Part II Table of Contents
Monday, September 1, 1997: San Antonio, Texas.
It's been too busy and complicated in recent days to get back to this, but now the World Science Fiction Convention is winding down, and I have a little time to get this caught up. Back to the events of
Wednesday, August 27, 1997 (second entry). After our lovely walk through the park, we returned to Johnette's apartment and were properly introduced to her rabbits. I wanted to give Eleanore and Johnette a chance to visit by themselves, and so I went for a walk down to Clement Street, and strolled past the shops there for an hour or two, just seeing what it was all like. That stretch of Clement consists mainly of a sort of mini-Chinatown, with lots of Chinese groceries, restaurants, knick-knack shops, and so on, with a few book stores and record stores, plus a 7-11 and a Radio Shack thrown into the mix. I got back to the apartment about six or so. Johnette;s fiance Jeff came home, and we had a chance for a brief initial visit with him before we had to head off for a dinner with Eleanore's maternal first cousin once removed, Blaire, her husband Robert and their son John, who is about 23. They lived over in Berkeley, and after all the warnings about traffic (San Franciscans talk about traffic a lot) we decided to take public transportation. Eleanore called Blaire and company, and arranged for them to pick us up at the North Berkeley Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. The plan was we'd try to get there by 7:30, and would phone from the station. Once it was all arranged, we bid the bunnies and the bird and the people farewell, and walked back across Golden Gate Park and took the N-Judah Muni train to the Powell BART station. For some reason, they stopped the Muni train "to check something" before letting it enter the tunnel system, slowing us up by a bit. Then we had a bit of a time getting any of the ticket machines to work at the BART end of the station, and then we had a good long wait for a Richmond line train. With one thing and another, we didn't actually get to the North Berkeley station until about 8:00, but as it turned out, there was no real problem. Blaire, Robert, and John drove in good time, and took us to a local Chinese restaurant for a good meal and a lot of good family catching-up conversation. After dinner, we tried to find an open cafe for coffee or dessert, but everything seemed to be closing just as we arrived. We decided just to head back to their house and keep visiting there.
We gave them a pretty good briefing on what was up in Fresno, and what was up with Carl in Jamaica, and got up to date on a long list of Eleanore's West Coast relatives. The other big topic of discussion, with pretty much everyone we saw in San Francisco, was the coming end of affirmative action, which was to go into force in a day or so, to the accompaniment of protests and so on. Suffice to say the locals were all taking the issue very seriously. By the time we looked up and realized what time it was, it was close to midnight, and it dawned on us that none of us were quite sure what time the last train ran. John volunteered to drive us home, as it would get him over into San Francisco at least for a little bit. We had a good visit with John in the car, and heard all about his adventures in cooking school, and his current academic classes, and his plans for next year. Unfortunately, we had rather more time to hear about it all than anyone intended. Some sort of construction project had the approaches to the bridge incredibly snarled up. It took us nearly a half hour to get the last mile or so to the bridge. Once clear of the construction (which seemed to be nothing much at all) it was plain sailing. I was riding in the back seat, with Eleanore up front with John, and I must confess I dozed off for the last leg of the trip. But we were both glad to get a chance to get John alone for a while and have a good visit with him.
John dropped us off at Johnettes's place, and we stumbled inside, dead beat. We were delighted to discover our thoughtful hostess had unfolded the futon and made it up as a bed for us. We tumbled into bed as soon as possible. Eleanore informed me later that the rabbits (who have the run of the apartment) came around in the middle of the night to investigate us, and Annie even hopped up on the foot of the bed. It's no doubt true, but if so, I slept right through it -- and everything else.Return to Journal Part II Table of Contents
Tuesday, September 2, 1997, 7:30 am: aboard Continental Flight 221, San Antonio to Los AngelesMy next-to-last flight of this little jaunt is in the air. If all goes well, I'll be meeting Eleanore in Los Angeles in about four hours, and then the two of us will get on a flight to Washington, and the end of the trip. (Just for the record, flying to Los Angeles from Texas to go to Washington is not quite as crazy as it seems. Once you factor in government regulations, and what parts of the flight the government picked up and what parts I had to pay, It was significantly cheaper for me to do it this way, and, by putting us both on one airplane, it means my parents don't have to meet two flights.) Anyway, let's pick up the narrative with the events of
Thursday, August 28, 1997. Johnette's fiance Jeff got up and out early, but Johnette, Eleanore and I got up and had a leisurely breakfast together. We then took Johnette's car and drove to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, an well-known San Francisco art museum. We strolled through the collection, and then walked about in the surrounding park, admiring the spectacular views and enjoying the utterly perfect weather. (Other than a few brief spatters of rain in Jamaica, Eleanore and I have dodged the raindrops this trip. We left Brasilia toward the end of the dry season: aside from the Jamaica sprinkles, I haven't seen any rain at all since May.) We then drove back to Johnette's house, dropped off the car, and once again walked across Golden Gate Park, this time en route to meet up with Carl's girlfriend Joan Miller, whom we had last seen about twelve days earlier in Jamaica. Joan's apartment was about a five minute walk from the north side of the park, and we found it without any problem. We crossed paths with Joan's mother, who had been visiting and was just leaving, and then Eleanore, Johnette, Joan and I walked along Irving to 9th, where we had a huge and very good lunch at a California cuisine restaurant called Avenue 9.
Back we went across the park, Johnette a bit ahead of the rest of us, as she had things to do back at the apartment. That left the other three of us to head on to our next appointment. Following the theme of the day, which seemed to be that out eating our way through San Francisco, we went to a cafe where we had arranged to meet up with Eleanore and Carl's paternal first cousin once-removed, Dorothy. We did another round of catching up with family news at a sidewalk table for about an hour or so.
I had apparently managed to pick up some sort of poison-ivy rash on my legs while I was in Jamaica -- and the word from Joan was that Carl's purported food allergy was now thought to be the same as what I had, only worse. Somehow or another, both of us must have brushed against some sort of unpleasant plant. In any event, my ankles and knees had been slightly irritated in Los Angeles, somewhat bothersome in Fresno, and were, in San Francisco, pretty much at the peak of being itchy and uncomfortable. I had used some cortisone cream that Johnette had, but I wanted something I could take with me. While everyone else walked the block or so back to Johnette's, I ducked across the street to pick up some ointment at the drug store. (And it did the trick. As I write this in Los Angeles, there are still parts of my skin on one ankle that I try and claw off once in a while, but 95% percent of it has cleared up.)
I walked back and found Joan, Dorothy, Eleanore and Johnette at Johnette's apartment, where Eleanore had delivered a couple of small packages to Joan -- one, a earring she had left in Jamaica, and the other a gift from David, Eleanore's father. It was a set of oyster folks that came in a odd little portable carrying rack, as if you were supposed to carry them about just in case you came across someone serving oysters on the half-shell. None of us could quite figure out the occasion or logic behind that gift choice, but, on the other hand, whimsy needs no other reason besides itself.
Jeff got back home from work, and so got to meet Joan and Dorothy, who both had to go. Dorothy gave Joan a lift home. The four of who remained -- Eleanore, Johnette, Jeff and myself -- were due to go out to dinner, but I wanted to take a quick shower myself, mainly to get the six old layers of calamine lotion and cortisone cream off my legs before I laid down a fresh coat of cortisone. Johnette had told us all about how Figaro the cockateil loved to take showers and would flap her wings in the water and splash around. There was even a special shower-taking perch in the shower for her. I took her in to shower with me, but Figaro was not interested in performing. She just turned her back on me and sat on her perch, sulking a bit. She didn't play in the water at all -- though she did trill and squawk a few choice opinions at me after I turned off the shower. Apparently, either I wasn't doing something right, or Figaro only likes to shower with Johnette.
Once I was freshened up a bit, we all headed out to a very good Indonesian restaurant. (I ordered the Nasi Goring for the most obscure reason possible. The Firesign Theater, a loony comedy troupe, invented a character named Nasi Goring (no doubt in honor of the dish). All I can remember is that Nasi was a gorilla who sang a song that included the lyrics "I'm Nasi Goring/I go exploring/I'm never boring." A strange reason to choose a particular main course, but it was tasty for all of that.)
Both Jeff and Johnette are lawyers. Jeff works as a prosecutor now, and Johnette has worked as one and hopes to do so again. Over dinner and dessert, both of them told us stories about cases they had either tried or handled on appeal. I think both Eleanore and I left the table feeling that the taxpayers get their money's worth out of their prosecutors' officers. There are people who need to be put away. In an age where everyone is a victim, and nothing is anyone's fault, and the most vicious crime is explained away as the result of childhood trauma, it's useful to be reminded that some people are just plain bad and some things are just plain wrong.
We strolled back to the house after dinner, and I started packing up for the next leg of the trip, though I had barely unpacked at all in the first place. We were all tired, and it was going to be an early-ish morning, so we unfolded the futon and made up the bed and got into it as fast as we could. We both slept well, though our slumbers were disturbed at one point by the clitter-clat, clitter-clat, clitter-clat of rabbit toenails on hardwood floors as Annie and Oliver explored around the futon. I had to get up and shoo them away from the suitcases, and make sure my leather desert boots were safely up off the floor.
Friday, August 29, 1997. (I've now met up with Eleanore and I'm typing this on the flight back to D.C. -- the last leg of this trip.) Jeff and Johnette had loaned us a very silly alarm clock, which demonstrated just how silly it was by crowing like a rooster at far too early an hour. Jeff was already up and nearly out the door before we got up at about 7:00 am. We said our goodbye to him, did the last of our packing as Johnette got up and joined the party.
I got a look at the morning paper, and there was one story that caught my eye, though it will require a certain amount of explanation. Here are the facts as I understand them, though I freely admit that it's likely I got something wrong. The controversies are so intense that the people involved can barely agree on what day of the week it is. In any event, here's my best shot at explaining it. There is a completely unsanctioned, mostly un-organized monthly event in San Francisco called "Critical Mass," which, in essence, consists of a bunch of bicyclists meeting up at point A on one Friday of the month, and then pedaling to point B. Carl, I believe, took part in some of them. So far, so good. However, like many things that start out small and fun, this one started getting big, to the point where lots of people thought it was out of hand. More and more cyclists showed up every month. Some showed up in costume, or on funny oddball vehicles. It got to the point where there would be thousands of bikes streaming past, and, I gather, zipping in and around and in front of and behind automobile traffic. Thousands of bikes all whipping in and out and between the cars sounds like a traffic hazard to me. For a good long while, the police sort of turned a blind eye toward whatever minor infractions took place, and stood by to manage traffic over the announced route. However, the July 1997 Critical Mass seems to have gotten quite out of hand, with lots of altercations and some arrests. The police announced they were going to withdraw their traffic assistance and tacit support, and would enforce the traffic regulations -- in short, they would hand out tickets.
This somehow set the stage for some people to worry that Critical Mass for August was going to turn into some sort of riot on wheels. (It came and went without major incident.) It also somehow turned political, with the Critical Mass crowd in effect turning into something like a pressure group, or even a political party, albeit one without any clear agenda. They seemed to be campaigning for cyclists to have equal access to the roadways -- which is reasonable enough, except that they took that position in response to the police threatening to enforce traffic regulations against illegal left turns and so on. In other words, they want the "equal" right to violate the laws governing everyone else without penalty.
There were two other twists -- one intriguing, if a bit idealistic, and the other a trifle ghoulish and just bizarre, the product of excessively uncritical thinking. The intriguing idea was the free yellow bike idea. Some of the Critical Mass people fished old, unused bikes out of garages and storage sheds, painted them yellow, and attached placards to them, describing them as Free Public Bikes. Apparently it's an idea that's worked in some European cities. The idea is that anyone who finds a Yellow Bike parked in the city can hop on it, pedal it to their destination, and leave it there for the next user. (Presumably, this will result in a lot of people pedaling in one direction and walking in the other, but what the heck, it's all exercise.) The city, it seems, has been looking into an official Yellow Bike scheme, but hadn't sorted out liability, insurance, what to do if (or rather when) the bikes are stolen, etc. etc. etc. The Critical Mass people just went ahead and did it, which seems a pretty slick solution -- unless and until someone gets killed by a defective Yellow Bike and someone starts shopping around for someone to sue, and the city plays spoilsport by declaring all the Yellow Bikes abandoned property and yanks them off the street. If that sort of pitfall can be avoided, and if enough bike lovers donate and maintain a steady enough stream of Yellow Bikes (I suppose there would have to be sort of communal Yellow Bike repair barns staffed with earnest volunteer mechanics) it might be pretty cool. We'll see. Of course, the other thing I wonder about is what's going to happen when someone decides a privately-owned bike that happens to be yellow is a Yellow Public Bike and takes off on it.
The ghoulish and bizarre twist is that there were, in the last few days of August, two fatal accidents involving bicyclists. In one case, the cyclist drove over a slotted storm drain cover, caught her wheels caught in the slots, and was thrown off her bike and killed. In the second, a professional bike messenger made an illegal left hand turn in front of a van. The driver of the van was unable to stop, slammed into the bike, and the cyclist was thrown twenty or thirty feet, and hit some sort of structure (I think it was a newsstand) head-first. He was not wearing a helmet. The Critical Mass people cited these two incidents as reasons to campaign for bike safety and equal rights for bikes.
Their logic seems to be: "if one of our people dies, it must be someone else's fault." In both cases, as best I can see, it was the cyclist at fault. Certainly that was the case with the professional bike messenger. Presumably he knew the route he was taking, and had been over it many times before. One witness cited in the newspaper story reported seeing two other cyclists -- messengers, I think -- making the same illegal turn within five minutes of the accident. And anyone who rides a bike through city streets for a living and yet does not wear a helmet is playing with his or her life. The slotted storm drain does sound like a needless safety hazard, and I must say I am surprised that the city hasn't long since replaced them with more modern designs that won't catch bike or wheelchair wheels. But even so, the only person involved in a single-vehicle accident certainly has to be regarded as at least partly responsible for it. But that didn't fit with the ideas of the people who were reacting to these two sad events. The dead had to be pure and blameless victims of everyone but themselves.
Fascinating place, California. I still don't really believe in it.
In any event, I said goodbye to Johnette (Eleanore returned and had breakfast with her after running me to the airport), we loaded up the car, and off we went to yet another airport. Eleanore dropped me off, and I headed for check-in, where I saw an oddly familiar sight. The U.S. has a bit of a reputation for being a shopper's paradise. Whenever I flew back to Brazil from the U.S. I saw just about every kind of gizmo and gadget checked through as luggage. Televisions, VCRs, computers, printers, once even an artificial Christmas tree. All manner of such items were sent as luggage in their original packing cases. I tracked it once on one flight and found that every other piece of checked "luggage" was in fact some sort of small appliance. It got to the point where some airlines were publicly warning they would not accept boxes as luggage during peak season because the boxes were crowding out the legitimate luggage. Of course, the Brazilians were also good at filling suitcases with consumer goods. Some people financed their trips to the U.S. by selling what they brought back. Others took it a step further, and routinely traveled back and forth to the U.S. to buy merchandise in order to stock their not-exactly-legal import businesses. There was supposed to be one woman who in effect ran a import dress shop out of her house in Brasilia. Another sold shoes the same way.
I discovered, waiting in line for my flight, that it was by no means a purely Brazilian phenomenon. Two guys with four duffel bags, each bag stuffed full, and each bag large enough to stuff a person into, were in front of me. Their luggage tags read Grenada. Another group ahead of me in line had a huge box that I think held some sort of electronic gizmo. It had a Peruvian address. And at the next counter over, a whole family was busily filling boxes, labeled for Nicaragua, with new clothes and sneakers, and doing it with the air of people going through a familiar routine. At least no one was trying to get a washing machine in the cabin as carry-on luggage.Return to Journal Part II Table of Contents
Tuesday, September 2, 1997: on United Flight 64, Los Angeles to Washington: Part II: The World Science Fiction Convention.
After the uncomfortable ride to Houston described above, and a better flight from Houston to San Antonio, I recovered my bags without incident and grabbed the airport shuttle into town. One of the games I like to play with myself when I'm heading to a big conventions (and I was headed to the World Science Fiction Convention, the grand-daddy of them all) was Spot the Fan. Some, though by no means all, science fiction fans, are, somewhat unfortunately, easy to spot in a crowd. While many of them are perfectly normal-looking, perfectly normal-acting citizens who wear perfectly normal clothes, etc. etc. etc., a great number are not. They're big -- not to put too fine a point on it, fat. They wear rumpled clothes, or lots of buttons with (allegedly) cute and clever saying on them, or tee-shirts from previous conventions. They have funny hats. Some, though by no means all of them are, shall we say, unskilled in dealing with social situations. They'll talk in a too-loud voice and not notice the stares they get. If there's a wait for luggage, they'll explain in detail the workings of the whole baggage retrieval process, and how it is nowhere near the state of the art. They'll complain at excessive length when a cabbie objects to getting his fare paid with eight pounds of pennies the fans saved up.
Not all fans fit the stereotype, but a fair number do. They are good people, smart people, but many of them are also somewhat weird people. Needless to say they are also fairly easy to spot. The normal pattern at a Worldcon is that you'll spot your first one at the airport as you check in and board the flight headed toward the con. I should have seen one or two in the Houston airport, but I didn't. I didn't see any on the flight to San Antonio, or at baggage check-in, or on the shuttle bus that took us to the con hotel. This was odd enough that I seriously began to wonder if I somehow had booked myself into the wrong city, or the wrong weekend. As it turns out, the explanation was much simpler. The convention had started the previous day, on Thursday. I knew this perfectly well, but I had assumed that a sizable fraction of the four thousand or so attendees would do what I was doing, and come in on the Friday. I got that one wrong. Apparently no one else wanted to miss a single minute of the fun.
Once I did get to the hotel, the fan boys were thick on the ground, and I started to play another game with myself: who would be the first person I would recognize? Would it be an old friend I hadn't seen in a long time, an omen of a good convention, or some wonky screwball who would want to tell a few dozen witty jokes on the subject of gaffer tape versus duct tape? (Needless to say, such would go under the category of bad omen.) As it turns out, I was much closer to the latter than the former. The first person I recognized was someone I won't name here. He was, as always, wearing a camera. He shoots a lot of pictures, but almost never gets them published, except in one particular venue. His pictures are rarely much good. He did a sort-of bio of me some years before, and we had been acquaintances for some years. I said hello, and he sort of half-waved and looked at the blank spot on my chest where my name tag should have been, and would be once I collected it. It was obvious that he knew he should know who I was, but could not place my face, and was therefore doing his best to fake it. Bad omen, that, but fortunately an inaccurate one.
We're going to land soon, so I'd better shut down for now. More later, once we're on the ground and this long, strange trip is over.Return to Journal Part II Table of Contents
Monday, September 15, 1997, 3:06 PM: The National Foreign Affairs Training Center, Arlington, Virginia.
Here I am, nearly two weeks after my most entry in the journal, sitting in the cafeteria of NFATC, which, for whatever reason, is known more or less universally as FSI, short for the Foreign Service Institute, which is what the official name used to be. Call it what you will, it's where the U.S. government does a lot of training of its diplomats. Eleanore started this morning in a nine-month course in economics. I came along for the ride in order to do a few errands here in Arlington, and to give those just heading off to Brazil a chance to pick my brains a bit.
The reason I haven't written in this journal is a perfectly simple one: I've been too busy, much busier than I was during the big trip, which might give you some idea of how hard Eleanore and I have been pressing these last fourteen days. We arrived in D.C. on the evening of September 2. By September 13, we had found a house we wanted to buy, put in an offer on it, had the offer accepted, and had the mandatory house inspection which clears the way to purchase. There is a lot that still have to happen, but if all goes well, we should take possession of the new house on Halloween. As a matter of fact, the property has two houses, a main house out by the road and a one-bedroom guest house back in the middle of the wooded one-acre lot. It's quite a place.
But that's a different story than the one this journal is supposed to tell. This journal is about our summer travels, and I left off just as I had arrived at the World Science Fiction convention. I am going to cheat a little on my description of events at WorldCon, in part just to get this journal done, and in part because there is little point in providing a linear, chronological narrative of a World Science Fiction Convention, because no one experiences a Worldcon in a linear or chronological manner.
A Worldcon is a muddle of lunch meetings, panel discussions, oddball parties, occasional excursions out of the convention to see the surrounding city, chance meetings in hallways, grand, overdone, poorly rehearsed and overlong Grand Events like the presentation of the Hugos, or the Masquerade (a costume competition) table-hops through the hotel bars, gossip, rumors, egos massively disproportionate to accomplishment, late nights, early mornings, jammed elevators, the odd tempest-in-a-teapot controversy, in which tempers flare over issues that are not very important at all, of course, and too damn many meals in mediocre hotel restaurants. And that, in sum, describes what the 1997 Worldcon was for me. I had one table-hopped meal that took me through two bars in two hotels, five tables, and conversations with at least fifteen people, several of whom I encountered more than once during that entirely unplanned and accidental series of chance meetings. I was on three panel discussions, all of which went moderately well. I saw any number of old friends. I wandered the art show and saw the usual mixed bag of spectacularly good and unspeakably bad art (much of both categories, but mainly the latter, focused on the sexual fantasies of the artist). I talked shop with fellow writers, and was polite to socially-impaired fans who needed to explain something or other. I gave what I thought was sensible counsel to up-and-comers (who will, more than likely, sensibly ignore it). I sucked up to editors.
All of these things flowed and merged and collided into each other, one moment bouncing into the last and ricocheting into the next. After five days of that, my brain gets a little tired -- and I wasn't exactly tanned, rested, and ready even going into the convention.
Meantime, Eleanore was off on her own highly complicated itinerary, driving around California, visiting friends and relations in such places as Lompac, Palo Colorado and Santa Barbara before heading back to Fresno. On September 2, I flew out of San Antonio, and Eleanore flew out of Fresno, both of us heading to Los Angeles. Eleanore's flight was somewhat delayed, but, fortunately, so was our flight to Washington. We met up at the airport without incident, and, I am happy to report, had a quite uneventful and anticlimactic flight back to Washington.
My parents met our flight, and we all drove back to their house in Bethesda. Our cat, the Woozle, ran away at first when he saw us. No doubt he was afraid that we'd stuff him in another box and take him on another trip. And, I have to admit, I would have run away as well, if anyone had suggested my taking another trip at that point.
From that day to this, Eleanore and I have been living out of a muddle of suitcases and half-unpacked boxes as we let nearly everything slide so we could concentrate on house-hunting. We have arranged to house-sit for someone in Bethesda, but the house in which we were to sit was completely empty, with no furniture at all, so, in the middle of everything else, we had to scrounge furniture for it. That's more or less done now, and we won't have to sit on the floor -- or sleep on it.Return to Journal Part II Table of Contents
Wednesday, September 24, 1997, 12:35 PM: Bethesda, Maryland.
The pace of house-shopping, house-inspecting, mortgage-hunting, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, has been intense enough that I haven't even had a chance to write up this closing entry. I might add that a few not-very-interesting computer glitches added to the problem. We're now as established as we're going to get in the house we're house-sitting in, but from chairs to cookware to computer hardware to the CD player, everything we've got is scrounged, borrowed, temporary, portable and/or expendable. We're reasonably well organized, but now that we're moved in, we have to think about moving back out in about a month's time, and setting up housekeeping for real in our permanent abode. And with that note, I'd say it's definitely time to close up this journal. It's covered much of what happened during part of one of the busiest periods in my life. I've left out a great deal that was either too personal, too complicated, or too darn dull to merit inclusion here.
No doubt I'll write more about our adventures in house-buying elsewhere, but that sort of adventure involves staying in one place, and this journal has concerned itself with doing anything but.
RMA, September 24, 1997Most recent revision: September 24, 1997 12:40 p.m. Return to Roger's home page