Sunday, October 6, 2019

Rails Across America - Part Two: Chicago

Glamorous hustle and bustle of underground Union Station...
For me, growing up in Cleveland, it feels like there's been a not-so-hidden undercurrent of sibling rivalry between the City of Broad Shoulders and the Mistake on the Lake. Clevelanders admire and resent their cooler, more successful brother city; both cities have storied pasts, Cleveland was built out of nothing on an actual swamp at the mouth of the Cuyahoga, literally meaning crooked river, and peaked with the Gilded Age when it was the seat of Standard Oil and the fortunes of magnates like John D. Rockefeller, John Severance, Andrew Carnegie and the like. Since then, it slowly declined until reaching a nadir framed by industrial fires on the burning, crooked river and blight throughout the 1970s and 1980s. At one time, Cleveland was the car bomb capital of America as mobsters waged open warfare on its streets, brazenly assassinating one another, city officials and the occasional civilian in broad daylight, in plain view of City Hall and the Federal District Court.

Chicago, of course, is a city well known to have been forged in fire. Unlike it's sibling on the shores of Lake Erie, it would seem, Chicago walked naked out of the smouldering wreckage like the Mother of Dragons ready to take on the world with its bizarre notions of what belongs on a hot dog and how deep is too deep a dish (locals refer to this as pizza, but any sane adult will realize that what they mean to say is "bread and cheese casserole").

Of course, the two cities will always have their mutual bond of being cities in America's beleaguered but beloved history with the mafia. Elliot Ness, a Cleveland native, who is buried in Lakeview Cemetery just a few hundred yards from John D. Rockefeller's bones and perhaps a little bit phallic memorial, is famous for taking down Chicago mob boss Al Capone. Ness, in reality, did this with pen and ledger despite his depictions in popular culture as a tommy gun wielding badass.

Yep, Capone was a crass, yet popular, anti-hero: a malfeasant and murderous thug. Yet he was taken down on account of his hubris for tax evasion. It absolutely makes one want to shut one's eyes real tight and wish for a hero like Ness who might take down a more modern version of a populist villain with a penchant for flagrance in the face of the rule of law.

One hopes.


Invariably places have soundtracks, sometimes multiple soundtracks, associations I make inside my mind as if scoring the movie of my life.

For Chicago, that soundtrack has many possible candidates. Afterall, it was in Chicago that a couple from Colorado found a calling bringing music from the margins of electronica, psychedelia and camp into the spotlight with the genre bending oeuvre of Wax Trax Records.

Truly it is an oeuvre for which I have great affection and admiration. Dannie Flesher and Jim Nash nurtured acts like Ministry, Front Line Assembly, Nitzer Ebb, KMFDM, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult and many others providing myself and millions of other misfits and outcasts a ready-made soundtrack for our collective awkward teenage and young adult years.

Certainly Uncle Al Jourgensen has bellowed into my ear through many traumatic episodes of stumbling through the painful process of figuring out who the hell I was, and what the hell it meant to be me.

That said, it is the music of Brett and Rennie Sparks that calls to me whenever I think about Chicago. Collectively known as "The Handsome Family," the Sparks' are an unlikely duo of a midwestern Jewess poet and a Texan crooner with operatic aspirations. The music they produce together has been described variably as New-American Gothic, Y'allternative, Alt-Country, Americana and Contemporary Folk. It is, of course, all these things and more. Rennie's lyrics are like the best anthologies of twisted little short stories (which, by the way, she also writes, and she had published at least once such collection which, should you run across in a bookstore, you should immediately purchase). Within the body of work The Handsome Family has produced you will hear tales of murder, rape and kidnapping couched as a love song, giants with lethal foot ailments, Amelia Earhart's remembrances of a sort of Yankee high tea moments before dying enveloped in flames, a distraught boyfriend watching cops steal the television of his dead girlfriend, John the Baptist in the rain, overdoses, urban blight, crazy aunts writing poems to Jimmy Carter, Indians dragging burning wood, suicide, alcoholism, hunting snakes in foggy hollers and, well, you know, other fun subjects.

Whenever I begin to feel any pangs of resentment against my brethren and sistren of the Windy City, I think about how Brett and Rennie must have felt looking over Lake Michigan, and how you can tell that they truly love Chicago as a living, breathing thing.

The couple now live in New Mexico.


Rooftop patio of Tanta Restaurant in downtown Chicago.

Tanta Menu

Jex and his wife Alyssa

Like most mid- to large sized American cities between the end of the Civil War and the dawn of the post World War II boom, Chicago had an extensive and functional system of streetcars to ferry folks around. Sadly, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler conspired to buy up these municipal railways and either scrapped the streetcars or sold them off – many original streetcars ended up in South America and Canada. This is of course just a tour bus made up to look like a streetcar, a sort of ironic "fuck you" courtesy of Detroit.

Last chance for any roughage before diving into the Deep Dish. Notice how much meat is on this salad. Welcome to Chicago!

How deep is your dish?

Comedian Ian Russo, of Los Angeles. "We noticed you taking pictures of your pizza, you must be a tourist too!"

Six degrees...
The devil, Malört.

Malört face.

Proper pizza, quite tasty.

Anji is one of the best people.

Just wanted to put that out there.

Smoked white fish schmear.

Sushi time.

Harper and I sneaking a selfie.

Immediately following this I either had a long nap or forced myself to play several hours of Ingress on foot. Probably the former.

Union Station outbound.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Rails Across America - Part One: The California Zephyr

Dedicated with love to the memory of Doctor Robert Victor Irish*.

N did not text me frequently, which is fine. I've known him his entire life, and a relationship spanning four decades does not call for constant tending. We'd send each other birthday greetings, engage in lively chatter whenever one of the beleaguered sports franchises from Cleveland looked like they were making championship moves, organize the occasional get together.

N, whose collegiate aspirations were sports journalism, had like millions of other talented, whip-smart young men and women in this country been drawn into the foodservice industry. Like everything else N put his mind to, he excelled at it. N went from a server, head server, front of the house manager to the general manager over the past couple of decades, landing himself in prestige roles with chefs and, as importantly, restaurant investment groups.

Suffice it to say, N was a busy man.

So I found it weird when he texted me in May of 2018: "can I call you?"

Followed by a missed call.

I had been settling into my sabbatical, and ignoring my phone – "Do Not Disturb" is a luxury that was forbidden to those in my line of work; and, unsurprisingly, one of the main reasons why I felt I needed to take a break.

The last two weeks of my full-time employment had me taking hours-long conference calls starting at 2 and 3am to work on a project with my man on the ground in Frankfurt and the client. The Taipei team often looked to me to troubleshoot during their workday, starting around 6pm and lasting a solid eight hours. Cherkasy was offset by another five hours. The pressure was mounting for me and some members of my team to show up at the office and keep regular hours.

An hour passed before I saw the text or the missed call from N. I called him back.


A few minutes later, he called me with troubling news.


A few years ago, things had reached a critical juncture with my mother. Not content with the useless flailing I contributed to trying to convince my mom to move into some sort of managed care, my older sister swooped in and took charge of things.

The house, of course, would have to be sold. Along with the car. My mother, who could be diplomatically referred to as stubborn at times, put up roadblocks to the process. It was the shoddy, not-to-code addition that the previous owners of her house had haphazardly tacked onto the house that proved to be one of the most vexing obstacles to selling the property.

Briefly, an add-on to the house was built on the ground that was improperly drained. For nearly 45 years, water would seep in, allowing mold to grow underneath the flooring and ultimately inside the very walls of the exact room my mother, now no longer able to go up and down the stairs to her bedroom, had moved into.

The entire floor, subfloor and foundation drainage had to be rebuilt entirely from underneath an already standing house, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Of course, my sister would point out that the real challenge was all of mom's stuff. There is a scale for hoarding behavior, and my mother rated closer to the "piles of rotting newspapers and mummified rats" end of the scale than the "Monday morning after a frat party" end of the range (which I hope I am a bit closer to).

Just sorting, trashing, and moving what was deemed salvageable was a months-long process. I took up temporary residence for weeks at a time, one time for almost an entire month, while my older sister put her career entirely on hold and effectively stayed in Cleveland for 6 months. Through one of the roughest, coldest winters in recent memory.

Tensions were high. My sister neared exhaustion, crossed the line into acute fatigue, and pushed on. My other siblings helped as much as they could. Still, I was expected to do some heavy lifting, and I often fell short. That is, until one morning, I got an earful from my sister who had long since reached her limit about me hanging out with my friends and using my time in Cleveland as a sort of carousing vacation.

So I took it on the chin, as I deserved, and pressed on.

Mom is a collector of many, many things. All of them, presumably, with some sentimental value attached. My sister cut through that with laser precision: no, that goes to Goodwill. No, that goes out on the tree lawn. No, that goes to the landfill.

All this before that Netflix show about getting rid of things that no longer give you joy.

Regardless, my hoarding instinct bubbled up once in a while as a sentimental object was extracted from the pile and I rescued quite a few gems from the chopping block, one of them being a book previously owned by my grandfather Thomas, my mother's father, entitled "The California Zephyr."

Where my grandfather's copy of that book is today is anyone's guess. Maybe I lent it to someone, more likely it's under a stack of other unread books I have grabbed over the years.

I had only flipped through the book when I grabbed it from my mom's house. That planted the seed in my head years ago that I will one day take the California Zephyr all the way from Emeryville, California, to Chicago's Union Station.

Just as my grandfather and grandmother had done, back in a better era for travel by rail.


"B has cancer," N eventually admitted, after telling me how his older brother had fallen mysteriously ill late in March of 2018 and had to be rushed to the ER. B's terrier, Otto, who shares my nom de plume (Doktor Otto von Drinkensnorten), had passed away earlier that year, and N just figured B's lack of energy was run of the mill depression. After all, Otto and B were nearly inseparable.

No one knew until it was almost too late that cancer had metastasized in B's liver, spreading to his pancreas and lungs.

"N, that's terrible. I was going to head out next week to head to Chicago, Cleveland, and New York, but I can cancel if you need anything."

"No, no... go on your trip. Mom is coming in from Cleveland, and Dad is coming in from North Carolina next week. We're working on a treatment plan. I'll keep you up to date on the latest developments."

"Jesus... well. Okay, yes, let's keep in touch. If you think of anything I can do to help, let me know."

That call didn't come for another few weeks.

Many of you might be thinking – why not stay, help out your friend with cancer?

The answer was that I had other family matters pulling me away. And now, even more on my mind.

On June 2, 2018, around 7:50AM, I rolled out of Emeryville to points east.


Beautiful day for a train ride.

"The National." Wikipedia, a de facto blog source of truth that it unfortunately is, makes no mention of the travel magazine found onboard Amtrak. There is, in fact, no entry at all for it on Wikipedia.

(See for yourselves, and no disrespect to the band with the same name, which comes up first in search.)

Compare this to "Hemispheres," which is United Airline's in-flight magazine, which does have a Wikipedia entry.

Greyhound does not, to my knowledge, produce an onboard magazine.

If it did, it would hardly be unfair of me to suggest some parity between Greyhound offering a rider readable and any modern domestic airline: a bus with wings is still a bus.

I guess my point here is that travel by rail should at least hold some prestige and that Amtrak bothers to create a publication for its passengers' merits at least mention on Wikipedia.

Perhaps after writing about my travels, I'll roll up my sleeves and correct this injustice.

Western foothills of the Sierras.

Truckee, California.

Heading west, this is the entry point into the swath of land known as Gold Country extending all the way to San Francisco.

This is the last stop in California on the Zephyr heading east: Emeryville, Richmond, Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Roseville, Colfax, and then Truckee.

We talk at length about Colfax Station and Grass Valley in previous "Chowbacca!" blog posts. Check it out.


Given the space constraints on Amtrak, seating in the dining car is communal for parties of one or two.

Compare this to the sad, solitary act of eating a meal while on an airplane: if you are lucky, you'll be in first class with a single person seated next to you. The flight attendant will first bring out a drink (I'll have a gin and tonic, please) while the rest of the plane is being seated. Maybe you'll exchange brief pleasantries with your neighbor, perhaps not. Once at cruising altitude, more drinks. On flights with a meal, the attendant will bring a snack of warmed nuts (no peanuts) to each person seated in first class. Followed by a heated, lightly perfumed wet cloth. I always first unfold it and bury my face in the towel, as if I am about to have an elegant dinner in Japan. Some passengers will discard the cloth on the seat rest, but I carefully refold mine. Next comes the expensive TV dinner that passes for cuisine in flight (admittedly, the offerings have gotten slightly better since in industry nadir in the 1990s). During the golden age of passenger aviation in the 1960s, perhaps one would be presented with steak and lobster. Indeed, everyone in first class would be dressed to the nines, as would most of the passengers even in coach.

The business model of offering some semblance of comfort or luxury to even those in the cheap seats have long since been deemed untenable by the vast majority of carriers. I cannot fault passengers for having responded in kind by dressing down, sweat pants, or other loose, comfortable clothing. Even pajamas in some cases. You'll see the occasional suit in first, and certainly a lot of business casual. I wear what I always wear: Dickies pants, boots or athletic shoes, tee-shirt and maybe a hoodie.

First-class, business class, "economy plus" or back of the bus you and everyone else onboard will eat alone, facing forward. Should you be in the regrettable position of having to eat anything on a plane, whether you grabbed a BLT from a kiosk pre-flight, or the first-class purser brought you a tray with braised beef ribs, spaetzle, a green salad, a roll, and a brownie. This puts a chilling effect on the possibility of mealtime chatter with your neighbor. That behavior seems to be frowned upon anyway.

For those of you who have read the book or seen the movie "Fight Club," the idea that people even make "single-serving friends" on airplanes should be a glaring warning that something is amiss with the film's protagonist (if that is also the correct term).

The communal seating of a meal on a train, however, positively encourages small talk between strangers. This can be a blessing or a curse. Still, it seems more civilized.

According to The Washington Post, Amtrak is sunsetting the dining car as we know it. So get it while you can.

Sometimes it is better to grab a bottle of wine and a sandwich and retreat to your seat.

Rolling into Salt Lake City in the dead of night.

Much could be said about the strange folks that inhabit the great state of Utah, but only the most black-hearted, dead inside cynic can deny the breathtaking beauty of the place.

The scenery from the gold country in eastern California, through Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, is really the big selling point for the whole California Zephyr experience. One could turn around in Omaha and head back and not have missed out on much.

Then again, you'd never make it to the City of Big Shoulders.

Rolling into Union Station is the rider's reward for the drudgery that is the entire state of Iowa.

Some of my terrific friends are from Iowa. They all have one thing in common: they left Iowa.


This is probably somewhere in Utah. The state is rich with geological and fossil history, telling the incredible story of the history of life on this planet, and of evolution. Its a great irony, then, that the state was built by adherents to a Utopian cult that fled Upstate New York when authorities caught on to the fact that its founder Joseph Smith was a philanderer and con-man. Eat your heart out, L. Ron Hubbard, The Church of Mormon is how you do a long-con.


Omaha Burlington Station - renovated in 2004 after having been shuttered for decades, space was intended for mixed-use. The 2008 recession stalled some of the planned development, some of which are now finally being realized.

Welcome to Iowa.

Much of Iowa's natural beauty is found in undeveloped stretches of land, like much of this country.

Obviously staged sleeping photo.

Big ups to Amtrak's always gracious porters. On long-hauls like the Zephyr, you get to know your porter, and your porter gets to know you. Although I did not have much luggage to speak of, despite being on an open-ended cross country adventure, I did make sure to slip this fine gentleman a $20 upon disembarking at Union Station.

Is Chicago? Is it not Chicago?
To be continued...


* Doctor Robert Victor Irish is a nom de guerre. B and N's names are obfuscated out of respect for their privacy and their family's privacy.