The Sunset Limited

The Sunset Limited (1)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

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In early November, as soon as we learned that circumstances beyond our control would provide childcare between Xmas and New Year’s for the twelve-year old grandson in our custody, we gleefully deliberated about where to go.  The choice was narrowed by Jan’s still limited mobility after her recent knee replacement surgery and by her growing aversion to the cold. Going abroad was too ambitious for me, and I was drawn by the prospect of  a long train trip to the South. New Orleans was praised by several people we knew, and I’ve wanted to return to Tucson with Jan ever since seeing an old college friend there five years ago. We decided to reserve hotel rooms for the six nights out of ten we’d be off the train, and after discovering how much lower prices were outside California, we selected the most appealing rather than the cheapest accommodations in the two cities.

December 22

Our journey begins with the 2pm departure of the Pacific Surfliner originating at the quaint San Luis Obispo Amtrak station, whose newly restored historic facilities draw railroad aficionados from far and wide, and where long-term parking is free.

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We stow our suitcases and climb the staircase to the second story of the huge coach, and imperceptibly it eases into motion.  It slides alongside the railroad safety bicycle trail that forms the route connecting our daughter and grandson’s house with ours. I relish the organ music of the muted horn at the Orcutt Road crossing, where normally I wait impatiently in the car for the train to pass.

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We roll through vistas available only to rail passengers: the Edna Valley Vineyards, the oilfields of Price Canyon, the seaside crop fields in the Arroyo Grande Creek Delta, the private hunting preserves of the freshwater lakes in the Nipomo-Guadalupe Dunes and the endless coastal scrub and missle launches of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

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Turning the corner from southerly to easterly travel at Point Conception, we pass people and birds enjoying the sunset at secluded beaches while our juggernaut races along, often mere inches from the edge of the sand cliffs.

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As the light drains from the horizon I’m hypnotized by the sensation of the train’s movement synchronized with the fixed line of the breaking surf.

At 5:30 we arrive on schedule at the platform of L.A.’s Union Station and pull our wheeled suitcases alongside the behemoths rolling in and out of the adjoining quays. An underground passage opens into the central waiting room buzzing with excited travelers–an immaculately restored art deco cathedral rather than the squalid homeless encampment that was feared.

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Our sleeper car reservations entitle us to leave our baggage with a welcoming attendant in the Metropolitan Lounge while we wander across the plaza to Olveira Street where the holidays are being celebrated in front of the old Mexican church with a costumed parade.

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We score a quick spicy dinner served by an ancient abuelita.

Back at the Lounge we’re ferried to the sold-out eastbound train by red caps on carts.  Marjorie, the car attendant, informs us that due to an error, we’ve been upgraded from a roomette to a full bedroom with ensuite toilet, sink and shower. Pumped with the excitement of a 9 p.m. departure, we plug in to power up our various devices, push back the seats and climb into our upper and lower berths to read novels and eventually be rocked to sleep swaying through the dark at 100 miles per hour.

I forgot to mention the head cold that gripped Jan the day before we left is getting worse and now I have it too.  It seems to be held at bay with Mucinex, Ipubprofen and Naproxen, but I’m resigned to the familiar syndrome of adventure under duress.

Monday December 23

It’s light when we wake up and the Google map on my iphone—never used for travel before, but immediately indispensable—informs me that we are in the desert between Phoenix and Tucson.  As the Joshua trees and mesas whiz by the dining car, we eat breakfast at a table with two college girls  on their way to the Galapagos with family, happy to accept their old Grandpa as patron and guide.

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At lunch we sit with a large single man on his way to Chicago for a conference of government health care consultants.  His job is to figure out how Obamacare can be extended to indigents for whom it makes no provision.

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Crossing the desert is a good occasion to read a lengthy new book entitled The Bible in Shakespeare that I was invited to review by Renaissance Quarterly.  It’s billed by the author as the first “full length critical study” of the subject, implicitly dismissing my book, Shakespeare and the Bible, also published by Oxford University Press thirteen years ago. The book is well written and exhibits a vast knowledge of 16th century religious culture that I could never approach.  But its scope seems disappointingly limited to tracing thousands of  allusions without venturing into interpretations that could aid understanding and production of Shakespeare’s plays.  I find little in it about how Shakespeare responded to some of the Bible’s distinctive larger literary features, especially the framing of a narrative whose main character is also its author.

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A hundred fifty pages or so into the desert, I glance up from the book and find myself face to face with a dense array of shacks tucked into some barren hills fronting the railroad tracks.

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I’ve never seen a cityscape like this in the USA, but I flash on the communities of homemade houses we visited a year ago in Peru.  This must be Mexico. As the favela disappears behind a curve in the tracks, I see a white pickup labeled Border Patrol, and around the next curve, a parched river. It must be the Rio Grande.

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The train pulls slowly into El Paso, a modern American metropolis on the left bank of the River, then lurches and stops.  A few minutes later on the platform, I hear the conductor with a Latino accent telling another passenger that two homeless men with dogs—Americans–crossed the track right in front of the train.  They also talk of how Juarez, the city on the Mexican side of the river, has experienced 70 murders in the last month, 1200 in the last year, and those are only the ones reported.

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Though sadly empty on the inside, the El Paso Amtrak station is a beautifully restored early 20th century monument.

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I imagine someday traveling around the country  to enjoy the classic routes, trains and stations.

We share dinner with a couple traveling to Pittsburgh to see one of their daughters—he a Pentecostal preacher, banker and bank janitor.  He’s had assignments in different parts of the country every three years.

Both of our colds are worse, but we’re helped to sleep the second night on the train by Benedryl and a little bit of Scotch.

Tuesday December 24

I’m awake for Christmas Eve sunrise above middle Texas. The desert has given way to oak savannah, an inviting landscape of rolling hills, grassland and sculpted trees.  Coming from the driest year in San Luis Obispo’s history, I envy its green fertility.

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We have breakfast in the dining car with Katharine, a young writer of blogs for law offices. Her enthusiastic manner, pattern of speech and build remind us of our recently departed friend Patricia.  Katharine moved to New Orleans (NOLA) with her husband for the music and loves it there, part of the new generation’s influx since Katrina.  She writes us a list of restaurants we must try.

In Houston, I get off  and walk the platform, since the train station in this proud and prosperous city is little more than a shack.

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Attached to our rear end, I find two private cars used for corporate parties that we’ve been towing since El Paso.

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At the front, I admire the massive engine and wheels.

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Houston is not far from the Gulf Coast, and after departure we cruise through bayou and rice fields alternating with scary chemical plant complexes.

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At lunch with a single mother and her irrepressible seven-year old daughter, we are told cryptically that the refugees from New Orleans displaced by Katrina now in Houston have created a painful situation that no one wants to discuss..

After Merry Christmas wishes by phone from both our children, I feel a little displaced myself on this night, away from them and approaching a strange city in the dark. I use my miraculous new portable speaker to fill our compartment with the music of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio stored on my laptop, and the touch of forlornness disappears.

The lights of New Orleans appear in the distance during our traverse of the 25 mile Huey P. Long elevated viaduct.  Crossing the Mississippi, we’re greeted by fireworks.

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Our hotel, Le Pavillon, feels like a square-block Christmas decoration from the ancien regime:  statues and pillars at the entrance, chandeliers in the lobby, every surface minutely decorated and fitting into pattern within baroque pattern, original paintings lining the hallways, exquisite room furnishings lovingly coordinated.

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There’s also a swimming pool on the roof that I must try out despite my sinus congestion.

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I’m tempted to wear only a swimsuit and the lush monogrammed bathrobe hanging in the closet, but I don’t dare appear like that in the hall. Yet waiting for the elevator on my floor on their way to the hot tub I see two young people in bathrobes making faces in the mirror. I swim a few short laps under stars and towering skyscrapers, then join them in the Jacuzzi. In New Orleans on holiday from Memphis, they don’t look or sound Tennessean. The only people I know who reside within 500 miles of this place are academic transplants–the family of an English Professor at a small college in Memphis who recently alerted me to the publication of the book I was reading on the train.  Yes K. and P. are close friends with them and he teaches Philosophy at the same college. Hearing about my recent commitment to regular swimming and lessons inspired by our grandson’s daily practices with the San Luis Obispo Seahawks, she enthusiastically recommends a new book called Swimming Studies which celebrates the sport and unique pools around the world.

Back in our room, I report the coincidence to Jan. She is opening a bottle of wine she’s brought along from San Luis Obispo.  The label pictures a famous palace and the appellation “Downton Abbey.”

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The Sunset Limited (2)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

December 25

It’s Christmas morning.  There’s coffee in the lobby, and we’re up earlier than most in this night-living town. The very friendly concierge, Gustave von … claims parentage of German Royalty but offers erroneous geographic information about the location of his castle.

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He advises us that Daisy Duke’s is the only place to get breakfast at this hour. It’s a jolly spot near the hotel at the edge of the French Quarter, more Georgia than Louisiana, but the fine-featured copper-colored waitress appears like the essence of Creole.

Jan suggests we go to the Cathedral for Christmas mass being celebrated by the Archbishop.  The narrow  freshly washed streets of the Quarter are almost empty, allowing unimpeded views of its preserved and restored architecture.

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The shop windows on Chartres street display beautiful craftwork and antiques reminiscent of Venice or Kyoto. Almost every building sports a plaque indicating its age and provenance.

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As the Cathedral towers rise above us, we’re joined by converging flows of people heading for the 11 o clock service.

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The light and spacious interior is full by the time an elegant alto leads the parishioners in an opening hymn.  This is followed by a sequence of familiar carols belted out by a chorus and orchestra highlighting timpani and brass hidden in the balcony. Readings from the Bible are familiar and the sermon is amiable, though it seems peculiar to see the altar area crowded with grandly robed men and no women.

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After the service we wander with other visitors through Jackson Square dominated by an equestrian statue of the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and surrounded by eighteenth century balconied buildings.

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Not finding an appealing place for Christmas dinner and longing for a rest, we head back to the hotel along a street enlivened by buskers and a mime.

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Last evening we saw a sign advertising brunch in the glittering hotel restaurant for twenty dollars, a good alternative to searching for reservations in the French Quarter.  At 2:30 the place echoes with the talk of well-dressed multiracial families and the singing of an elderly cocktail pianist.  We’re seated at a table in the bar, but free to help ourselves to anything we want from the splendid buffet.

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Jan enjoys myriad dishes prepared with local shellfish, to which I’m allergic, but the duck in blueberry sauce, the fresh sliced prime rib, the nova scotia lox and the array of rich deserts leave me satisfied.  Though we dont engage anyone else in conversation, we still feel part of the select crowd letting the good times roll.

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Not until we’re brought the tab are we aware that this special holiday meal has cost us $75 each. But we agree it was worth it.

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The Sunset Limited (3)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Thursday December 26

Drawn by the promise of beautiful buildings and streets uncrowded with tourists, this morning we head for the Garden District, a section of the City in the opposite direction from the French Quarter, upriver and “Uptown.”  The St. Charles St. streetcar takes us there along the wide tree-lined median traditionally known as “neutral ground.” Its varnished wooden seats and thick painted steering handle bring me back to the noisy trolleys I loved to ride on Broadway and Dyckman Street in New York before we got a car and moved to the suburbs in 1950.

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Relying on the information available on our phones instead of getting an adequate guidebook to the City was a mistake, but we know enough to find the cross street leading to a breakfast place kitty-corner from the the centrally located Lafitte Cemetery.

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The trees along the boulevard are festooned with beads and we realize that this must be a  main  parade route of the Mardi Gras whose influence remains here all year long.

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Though Gustave had referred to it contemptuously as a mini-mall, the coffee shop here is warm, welcoming and full of cosmopolitan looking residents.

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Fortified by a bagel and cup of the local café au lait, whose flavor is strengthened by the addition of chicory, we explore the cemetery, which features multigenerational crypts and stacked stone graves.

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The puddles in the walkways demonstrate why bodies are not buried in this city and the need for a specialized technology to keep them where they’ve been placed.  The remnants of a shredded blue tarp and a dilapidated entry building show that even in this ritzy part of town, Katrina still leaves traces.

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Now we walk along streets tunneling through the oak canopy of this real urban forest admiring the elegant and varied architecture and marvelling at the challenge of upkeep of both plants and structures in this corrosive tropical climate.

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At a corner of more modest houses, an amiable man sweeping the steps talks to us  about the joys of living here, the regeneration of many sections of the City after Katrina, the satisfaction of gutting and refurbishing his young family’s home.

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Needing a rest we head back to the minimall, where we find a bookstore next to the coffee shop offering a selection of works about New Orleans.  Rather than a conventional guide, I find a recent volume called The Unfathomable City, by Rebecca Solnit, whose name I recognize as a powerful writer for Orion magazine. Billed as an atlas, the book consists of 22 beautifully designed and annotated maps accompanied by essays categorizable as cultural geography or place studies.  Each has its own stylistic flair and dissident political slant. This book could provide an initiation to many of the City’s mysteries hidden from us three-day visitors. Exploring it during our rest periods and on the train ride back home feels like extending our stay.

Back on St. Charles Street, while waiting for the trolley, I snatch a little Mardi Gras by climbing  a tree and grabbing some beads. We check out of La Pavillon and move into Le Mazarin hotel, located in the middle of the French Quarter. It’s comfortable but expensive and disappointing by comparison.  We walk a new route to Jackson Square and find a table for late lunch at Muriel’s, whose setting, décor, service and distinctive Creole cuisine live up to its reputation.

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After a late siesta, Jan remains in the hotel and reads while I take another trolley up and down Canal Street, too late for the ferry but not for encountering some loud and scary characters in the terminal. More wandering fails to discover any of the music venues I’d been hoping to come across.

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Instead I’m repulsed by the huge complex of Harrah’s Casino at the foot of Canal street, its valet-parking drop-off crowded with Cadillacs and fancy pickup trucks, evidence, I assume,  of Las Vegas colonization.

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The Sunset Limited (4)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Friday December 27, 2013

Though optimally located in the center of the French quarter, Jan and I are uncertain of what we should do for the day. Roaming its tourist-crammed streets yet another time is getting old.  We think of taking one of the carriage tours recommended by friends but are put off by the drivers and prices. Instead we sign up for a two-hour full city bus tour beginning at 2:00 p.m.

To make use of the time before then without extensive walking, we take the streetcar along the levee to the river ferry terminal. Probably due to its major diversion by dams upriver, the Mississippi isn’t as impressive here as we’d expected.

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But on the ride across, the sight of a tug maneuvering a huge barge through the current at the crescent curve which accounts for the City’s original location gives a sense of being at the drain point of a whole continent.

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Following a suggestion in The Unfathomable City, we pick historic Mandina’s Restaurant as a destination for lunch. It’s another gratifying streetcar ride to an outlying district, partly through a vast construction site of new medical facilities. The restaurant is located in a charming old frame house and packed with animated locals, but the supposedly distinctive Italian-Creole food is not worth the cost or the long wait.

The streetcar back is delayed by traffic jams and we are concerned that we will miss our tour.  I run ahead to reach the meeting point just in the nick of time, and the dispatcher tells me the bus is late but will wait for Jan.  I’m relieved to see her shouldering her way through the crowd before it arrives, but then it turns out to be an hour late.

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Sipping Vodka daiquiris from the adjoining dispensary relieves our impatience, but most of the other waiting passengers ask for their money back and leave. The apologetic young man who finally shows up explains that the delay was caused by unexpected traffic congestion and the dispatcher’s mistakes.  He offers little information about the city sights we pass, but stirring stories about his family’s escape from the flooding and his sister’s permanent mental derangement resulting from it. Only when he stops behind another tour bus outside a cemetery in the Ninth Ward do we learn that he’s just a driver delivering us to the guide and the rest of the group.

By this time the confusion of the delays combined with the effects of the daiquiri have rendered us receptive to whatever happens next.  The real guide, whose name I regret not learning,  is a round, white-haired gentleman with a sonorous voice and a preacherly eloquence.

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He regales us with the some of the peculiarities of NOLA’s necropolis culture, among them that bodies cannot be buried but are housed in weighted above-ground tombs to accommodate flooding  and that crypts are continually recycled because the summer heat quickly decomposes earlier remains.

Sinking into the driver’s seat as if it were a bathtub, he drives us through the adjoining neighborhood, pointing out the modest homes of legendary musicians like Fats Domino and the Marsalis brothers, all of whom he knows personally, and tells us that the government was interested in reconstructing this district after the failure of the ship canal dykes because its artists form an important part of the economy. He assures us that contrary to earlier occasions when dykes around low-income areas were deliberately breached to protect the precincts of the wealthy, the worst destruction of Katrina was caused merely by the negligence of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The onset of dark and the heavily tinted windows of the bus make it impossible to see or photograph the features of the city through which he drives us for the next two hours.  But he’s a good enough story teller to keep the tour group engaged and laughing.

Many of the district’s modest houses have been refurbished by Habitat for Humanity and lifted three feet off the ground on cinder block piers.  Some remain dilapidated and some lots are cleared while owners wait for property values to rise. Many are only about ten feet wide.  At first I think they were former slave quarters, but then see that they extend far toward the back of the lot.  Called Creole Cottages or Shotgun houses, we learn they were designed like this before the advent of fans or air conditioning to promote cross ventilation in the unbearable summer heat.

We hear of the  development of the different faubourgs or neighborhoods by ingenious and often scandalous land developers over two centuries, the division of the city into downriver Creole and upriver “American” districts, the unceasing corruption of city politicians, many of whom go directly from office to jail, about universities and private schools and mardi-gras parade routes and the demolition of sections of the French Quarter replaced by disastrous city housing projects, of the outrageous number of annual murders, of the benefits and losses of gentrification since Katrina, and about the architectural styles  and residents’ private lives of countless houses.

We’re dropped off in another traffic jam a block from our hotel, the city now packed with  New Year’s eve visitors arriving as we prepare to leave.  Thrashed by our colds, we retreat to our hotel, again forgoing the chance to taste the nightlife and the music, but inspired enough by the surroundings to seek more alcoholic relief. A big bouncer at a strip joint on Bourbon Street informs me that the best place to buy a bottle is the CVS around the corner. Hurrying back to our room with my paper bag through the earsplitting noise of revelers, I feel as excited as any of them.

The Sunset Limited (5)

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