The Sunset Limited (2)

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.


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.



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.


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


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.

[picture source

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.



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.



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.


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.


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 (1)

January 5th, 2014


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.



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.


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.



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.



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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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



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.


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.


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


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



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



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.


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.









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

[picture source]

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.”

For more and full-size pictures click here and here

The Monkey’s Paw

October 20th, 2013

Adapted from the story by W.W. Jacobs in preparation for telling around the campfire at the Cub Scout overnight on October 19-20 2013 at Camp French

This campfire reminds of my first campout with Cub Scouts across the river from where I lived in New York City 61 years ago.

It was a dark, windy night out in the woods, far away from any lights, a little before Halloween. We were sitting around the fire as we are tonight and someone said, “Does anyone know any scary stories?”  There was no answer. After a couple of minutes, one person spoke up. It was a new kid who’d just joined the Den named  Georgie Roberts.  He was quiet and pale and had dark circles under his eyes. “I can tell you a very scary story about what happened to me and my family down in the tropics.” I didn’t really want to hear it, but a most of the guys couldn’t resist and begged him to go on.

Georgie spoke in a shy voice:

“My Mom and Dad and I were living in Brazil for a year because my Dad was running a business there exporting tropical hardwood. At first, the three of us were having lots of good times, going to the carnival, exploring the old city of Manaos, taking boat rides up the Amazon River, where we’d eat lunch, see the birds and monkeys in the jungle and watch the crocodiles grabbing animals that came out of the forest to drink along the bank and pulling them into the water and mangling them.

On one of those rides we met an anthropologist/explorer from Germany named Anton who had spent a lot of time with some of the last few native tribes that still survived in the jungle and who’d participated in some of their religious rituals.  He always struck me as kind of strange, maybe because of that.

Anyway six months after we got there, my Dad’s business was not going well and we were going to have to leave Brazil. But my father had borrowed money and had a debt of $5000 he needed  to pay back on a bank loan. If he didnt, we’d lose our home in New York that we’d planned to return to.

A few days before we were supposed to leave, my parents invited Anton over for a good-bye dinner.  After we ate, we sat around the fire ring in the back yard remembering some of our trips together.  At one point Anton got up and pulled something weird and ugly-looking out of his pocket. It was a clawlike hand, with small nails, ragged fur and dried skin hanging off the end. ‘There’s something I want to share with you before you go,’ he said. ‘This is the Monky’s Paw.’”

Georgie stood up and his voice got lower and stronger.  It seemed to come from the huge figure of his flickering shadow cast by the firelight against the surrounding trees.

“Anton, said it was left to him by a friend who got it from an native medicine man who’d put a spell on it.  It had the mysterious power to grant three wishes to the family who possessed it. Anton shuddered and said his friend’s last wish was for death.  He was about to throw it into the fire, but my father grabbed his wrist and said, ‘Stop, I know this is ridiculous, but I’m in a situation where some magic wishes are all I have to save our family home.’

My Mom said,  ‘No, don’t mess with magic,’ but my Dad grabbed the paw from Anton, held it by the forearm bone, and made a wish: ‘Bring us $5000.’  The claw seemed to vibrate in his hand and glow slightly for a few seconds.  Anton cried, ‘O my Gosh,’ and ran from the backyard into the house, and we heard a slam of the front door. Nothing more happened and my Dad said, ‘He must be continuing the joke.’

Next day was Sunday and my Mom left the house to go on a last boat trip up the river with her friends. Dad and I stayed behind and packed our suitcases for the flight to New York.  When Mom didn’t return by evening we both got worried.  At 7:00 o’clock the doorbell rang and Dad answered it to find two people standing there, a policeman in uniform and a man in black derby hat.

The policeman said, ‘May we come in please.’  My Dad let them in and the policeman said, ‘There’s been a terrible accident Mr. Roberts. There was an explosion in the riverboat Mrs. Roberts was on today, and all the passengers were thrown into the water, where they were killed by crocodiles before they could be rescued.’

My Dad and I were both frozen with shock.  Before he could say anything, the man in the derby hat identified himself as representative of the company that ran the boat.  He said, ‘I’m so sorry to be bringing you this tragic news.  Even though it was not our fault, our company wants to provide you with some monetary compensation to express our regret.’ And he handed my Dad a check for $5000. Then the policeman asked my Dad if he could come with him down to the morgue to identify the remains of Mrs. Roberts—my Mom.

My Dad called next door and asked the neighbor to look after me for a little while and  left with the two men.  An hour or so later he returned looking pale and shaken, thanked the neighbor and sent her away.  To me, he said, ‘I know that this is an awful thing that happened, but at least we’ll be able to have a place to go home to.’ I wasn’t yet able to absorb what was going on, but I asked him if there was a connection between his wish with the Monkey’s paw and the accident. He replied,   ‘No way, son, that’s just a crazy coincidence.’

After we were back in our old house in New York for a few days, his business started improving.  But I began to really feel the loss of my Mom, and I got sadder and sadder.  There was only one thing I could think of doing: ask my Dad to make another wish with the Monkey’s Paw to bring her back.  But he refused, saying ‘No, that’s ridiculous, that couldn’t possibly work, and anyway, I got rid of it.’

But I didn’t believe him, and when he was at work, I searched through his stuff and found it stashed at the back of his underwear drawer.  I pulled out the yucky thing and stuck it under my pillow.  That night, as my Dad was tucking me in to sleep, I sat up and pulled it out from its hiding place and held it up.  Before he could do anything, I said, ‘Bring back my Mom!’ It vibrated a little in my hand and gave off a slight glow.  My Dad’s jaw dropped and his eyes widened.

At that moment the front door bell rang. I sprang up thrilled and yelled ‘Momma, Momma’ and ran toward the door.  My Dad called ‘No, No, No.’ I turned on the porchlight, and through the window by the door saw something unspeakably horrible.  Then with a flash, it disappeared.  I turned around and there was my Dad, holding the Monkey’s Paw, vibrating and aglow.’”



More campout pictures

Beatnik Buddhism in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums

October 7th, 2013

A talk to the White Heron Sangha, October 6, 2013

I was introduced to the writings of Jack Kerouac by a trumpet-player friend in high school who gave me a copy of On the Road just after it came out in 1957.  But though I’d already done some hitchhiking around New England and hung out in Greenwich Village on Friday nights, I was put off by the book’s frenetic style and its praise of aimless, restless travel.  Twelve years later, in 1969, I encountered The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s second most popular book, while selecting works to place on the syllabus of a class at Columbia University I called “Pastoral and Utopia, Visionary Conceptions of the Good Life.” This book’s triumphant celebration of free love, wilderness adventures, bohemian companionship, and Buddhist meditation made a perfect fit.  Forty four years later, while looking for a topic for a Sangha talk to follow up on the one about Thoreau’s Buddhism I offered last Spring, I picked The Dharma Bums in order to consider how my perspective on the novel and its Buddhist themes might have changed in the meantime.

I was encouraged upon reading the first page, where San Luis Obispo is mentioned as a stopover on the train-hopping circuit between L.A. and San Francisco. I remembered a 2009 New Times article revealing that Kerouac lived in this town for several months during 1943 while he worked as a brakeman on the Union Pacific Railroad and that he stayed in a rooming house on Santa Barbara Street now known as The Establishment. [1] And while driving my grandson to school along Chorro Street, I noticed a new restaurant called “Sal Paradise,” slyly named after the protagonist of On The Road.

Kerouac wrote all 244 pages of The Dharma Bums at his mother’s house in Orlando Florida between November 26 and December 7 1957 with a rented typewriter on a scroll of blank paper suspended from the ceiling.[2]  His creative frenzy was fueled by coffee, alcohol and Benzedrine, an amphetamine popular among writers, musicians and mathematicians at the time. He was also driven by his publisher’s insistence that he capitalize immediately on the recent commercial success of On The Road, which after its completion in manuscript had taken six years of rejections and delays to see the light.[3] As he pounded away, sometimes for 18 hours a day, Kerouac consulted and copied from the handwritten notebooks, stacks of letters, and translations of sacred texts piled around his desk.[4] Despite its haste of composition, The Dharma Bums has a coherent narrative structure, an easy-to-comprehend style and an explicit set of themes. Read the rest of this entry »