tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: story

In the Men’s Room, not the Psych Ward

There’s this one drawing I wanna do, I just can’t seem to drag it out of my head and get it to lay down on paper. It’s a common occurrence. It’s when I’m swimming a few hundred feet off-shore that I think of something I just absolutely must write down. Or I’ll wake up in the night, when drawing utensils are hidden away, and think of a thing that I’d love to draw. Whenever I’m tired, there almost always seems to be a parade of pretty pictures floating through my gourd — things to be written or drawn. There they are flaunting around, winking at me and grinning. There is a fickle nature to anything creative. So many flitty, pretty things dancing on tiny feet and then disappearing, leaving just enough behind to remind you that you’ve forgotten something special. And in the midst of my tantrum — and it is a silly tantrum — I’ll hear the bell of privilege ring. To have the time to draw and write is to be privileged. All my lovely pens and pencils. My sleek and silver computer with the glowing fruit on the lid. My eyes that see and my nimble fingers and opposable thumb. My tripping-and-tumbling-stuttering-mumbling brain. Yep, uh, now that I think about it, let’s just move on to something else.

Yesterday I went to see my shrink. I have a favorite restroom in the VA hospital. It might be pavlovian, and I might not should write about restrooms and what we need them for, you know, it’s not really for resting. There’s a reason it’s called a “toil-ette”. Don’t worry, I won’t go into any detail about the toiling part, although my little buddy, Cannon (he’s 3) loves to talk about pooping. (He checks everything for poop. Every plastic dinosaur gets checked for poop thoroughly, without fail. I guess their poop would be plastic too, and so it wouldn’t really stink. He asks me if I’m going to poop every time I get even remotely near the bathroom. He also takes it upon himself to check up on me if he notices that I’m in the bathroom. And lately, he seems to be the bathroom monitor. So good luck trying to sneak in for a peaceful little poop, you’re going to have a series of questions to answer through the door that you sure as hell better have locked. “Are you pooping? Why are you pooping? Is it ok?” and then often some instruction, just in case you haven’t learned how to manage pooping after all these years, “just relax. take your time. breathe.” Not that I mind, personally. I’d have no trouble sitting right next to another pooper and chatting them eye to eye — thank you for that, Marine Corps! Yer the best! It’s just nice that Cannon is making sure I stay up to snuff on all my training, which brings me back to the VA.) If I could choose, I would not use the restroom at the VA hospital. (If I had my druthers, I’d not go there at all. I’m not writing about my “druthers.”) But I had to poop when I got to the hospital a while back, and now, just like Pavlov’s dog (although I think Pavlov’s dog was trained on the opposite end, with food…but whatev’s, I ain’t a scientist) I walk in and, bling, I gotta go. Foster showed me his favorite restroom the last time we were there and I was impressed, it’s kinda tucked away and quiet and clean. I’m not going to tell you where it is because I don’t want you in it when I wanna use it, but I’ll give you a hint, it’s not in the psych ward. Anywho, I went on into my private pooper and sat down. There was a dispenser on the wall directly in front of me that unintentionally looked like a face with the eyes averted to the left, as if the face couldn’t look me in the eyes. I said, “why you looking to the side?” quietly. Then I remembered I was there to see my shrink and I started to be nervous that I was sitting on the toilette in the hospital talking to a dispenser, telling it to look me in the eyes. After that, I quietly looked around and found 4 more faces in things that are not intended to be faces — at least, I hope it’s that way! Maybe they have cameras in the restrooms that monitor whether or not veterans see the faces or not. Maybe it’s just a big experiment! Uh, nope. I won’t allow it.

And up the stairs to the Doc’s office. The waiting room. My favorite.

The upper 50’s lower 60’s couple was sitting in the decent size waiting room. My Doc deals mostly with retired folks. I don’t quite fit into his demographic and I’ve always wondered why I got put with him. I like him. But the couple in the waiting room. Yeah, I can’t get them out of my head. It looked like she wasn’t really ready to completely give up on her hair dye job, but maybe. The grey was creeping in at the roots and her hair was long, down to mid back. Her husband, Joe (she called him by name several times), sat to her right. She had pulled a chair in front of her and had her foot propped up out of it’s shoe. As she read the hospital supplied reading material, Joe quietly mumbled incessantly. He was saying things at a level where I would just hear a word or two out of every sentence. It was like he was having a quiet conversation with himself. The blonde lady read her magazine. I heard Joe finish a sentence with, “what about that?” Blonde lady didn’t look up. Now and then, Joe would look at me timidly but not with a look that seemed to be ready for a response. He reminded me of a dog on a leash under the table at a restaurant, nervously looking around but avoiding eye contact. For 15 minutes Joe never stopped his droning conversation. Finally the woman sighed heavily and stood to walk. Joe stood and she firmly said, “Joe, sit.” He sat and looked at me and I politely looked away. In that quiet space I could hear the lady talking to the receptionist. Words about appointment time. Words about sensitivity to hospitals. Words about not understanding. I looked at Joe and he was digging in the blonde lady’s purse with both hands. Digging and digging. She came back and didn’t seem at all surprised that ol’ Joe was elbow deep in her enormous red purse. He pulled back and began to talk quietly. A few minutes passed and the young doctor came into the room. “Mr. Brown?” Joe looked up with wide-eyed surprise, then he moved the same look over to his wife. She stood and looked at me for the first time. There were tears streaming down her face over the make-up, across the set wrinkles in the corner of her mouth. She never looked back to see if Joe was coming. He was. They got to the door where the doctor waited and she turned to Joe. He was 10 feet from the door and peering in, his head way out in front of his shoulders, afraid. “Come On, Joe…go in. Go in there, Joe, it’s ok.” Joe glanced out at me and the blonde lady followed his gaze. I smiled a little. Joe led, and the door closed. I sat and stared at the big table, I’d never seen a waiting room with a full size table, and the puzzle box that sat upright against the wall. It was Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. I thought about Vinny as he sat in his room at the asylum and stared east between the bars out into the stars. I remembered that he had admitted himself into the hospital. I’ve read that he had 20 different paintings and even more sketches from out of that second story window that looked out over the wheat fields. I wonder if he felt his brain skating away as the stars flickered and the moon crossed the sky. I guess it’s kind of ironic that the puzzle they chose to help occupy people trying to get mentally stable is a painting by a fella in an asylum after he ripped his ear off.

My thoughts return to Joe Brown. Such a common name, you’d think I was making it up. And maybe I am.

More Genius-er

I’ll admit, I’ve had a little trouble writing lately. I don’t mean that I don’t wanna write, I mean that it all just doesn’t seem that interesting. There seems to be a huge gap between me being amazed by what I see and then me transferring that amazement into words that can be read and enjoyed. There are so many quotes by folks smarter than me about how we each have our own distinct view of the world. I mean, I can’t even be sure that the red I see is the red you see. With that in mind, it makes me feel almost useless when trying to explain my love for something complex in a way that I feel you might also feel. Damn.

I have an example. I’m really into the elements and the periodic table. The other day I was riding with a good buddy, we were going for a beer, and I was talking about my newest discovery (and by my newest discovery, I mean my personal, simple, elementary understanding of Hydrogen and it’s role in the physical universe) from this book I’m pouring over about the periodic table and it’s order and stuff. My buddy, who I might add is a real smart dude, surprised me by asking why I am talking about that and what am I trying to prove. He wanted to know, genuinely, if I was trying to seem smart by talking about that kind of thing. Now I’m not above wanting to look good, in fact, I have a helluva ego that can really take over and ruin whatever I’ve done to make it seem like I’m a nice guy. But in this instance, I was talking about something that was humbling to me. And so, when asked why I was even talking about it, I didn’t have an answer. Honestly, I didn’t have an answer because of the oceans of thought I was swimming in. You could have just stood me in front of everything that ever was and asked me, “why?” I would have had the same stupid look on my face. I don’t know, but I love it and I’m amazed by it and so, sometimes when I think I might talk about it, I try to find words. Mostly, I can’t. It would be like me going for a ride in an F-16 and then, while my heart is still pounding from the ride, I tell you that I’m a-gonna build one of these suckers…from scratch. You know, like mine the ores and build the rockets and make the computery thingies and chop down some rubber trees and shape the wings and make the glass outa the crap that glass gets made out of and polish the windows and, while I’m at it, weave myself a flight suite out of space age materials that I harvest from a space age farm.

I reckon I was defensive under my buddy’s questioning because it was insinuated that I might actually understand it all. I don’t. I’m pretty sure you have to be at least a bit of a genius to begin to get a handle on most of that kind of stuff and, while I consider myself to have passingly good common sense, I can say that I’ve never been referred to as a genius (unless you count the times in the Marine Corps where someone screamed at me for doing something incorrectly and used the word, brainiac…and, although I do think that word is funny, I don’t believe it was intended as a compliment). And so, since I’m not a genius yet, I seriously doubt I’m gonna get any genius-er as I get older. Most likely, it’ll be oppositeville. Anyway, it sure did make me shut my mouth about my amazing little discoveries concerning the physical world. I know what my buddy was thinking, “shut up and go watch some star trek, you wannabe physicist.”

Trouble is, I still wonder. I stopped driving at about 3 a.m. this morning. I pulled over somewhere in the mountains and listened for the creek below me in the dark. My legs were aching and my heart was really, kinda heavy. Sometimes, for all the reasons there are and maybe some there aren’t, I just feel sad about things. Trucks were ripping by me on the highway beyond the trees. For a second, there was a break in the endless line of traffic between the Oregon highlands and LA, the sound died down to the wind and the trees and the creek. There were clouds moving, big ol’ dark cattle in the sky, and they were heavy heavy with rain. A few spatters began to snap off the black-berry leaves in the gully and I saw through a break in the clouds. A single, magnificent meteor streaked all green against a backdrop of forever. Out there, where the hydrogen shines purple and yellow and green, beyond my vision and my comprehension, is the stuff of wonder. Perhaps it’s better left unsaid, maybe even unwritten. Then again, fuck it, I’ll sing how I want.

thoughts from a fella who used to be a little boy in church chewing peppermint gum

If everything went away, by everything I mean people and clocks and devices and cars and all things man-made, and I was afoot and wandering on the earth, I wonder if I would recognize Sunday. For whatever reason, Sundays are a bit different to me. Sunday mornings speak to me in low, personal tones. The fog stays a bit longer. The sunlight carries into spaces that are usually dark. The early morning stars sing stories of every faith and imagination since man first began to look for some kind of god. Sunday holds my thoughts for me all week and spills them out when I arrive. I can remember certain feelings from my childhood that took place on Sunday, things that couldn’t happen on any other day. After all, Sunday was church-day. It was the day when my family acknowledged God, my parents’ God. My Pa sat in the kitchen with the Bible open and my Ma helped round up the kids, all five of us, for the trip to the church. I endured church. Some things were good and some were boring. My Ma knew it was tough for me to endure so she helped my little spirit by giving me a half stick of peppermint gum, she knew that I was not above plucking a used piece from the bottom of the pew so she gave me a freshie. Plus my Mom was the bomb, she still is the Sweetest Thing between the stars and the bottom of the sea. The service itself was usually boring unless the speaker pulled some stunt or told a really good story about some dude possessed by the devil or some poor fella (which usually ended up being the speaker himself) who used to be a fighter/drug dealer who found God through some unbelievable event. Usually the sermon was just really boring and it was followed by the invitation which was sometimes cool if someone made a big scene out of going down the aisle to get saved or someone decided to confess something in front of everyone; otherwise, the invitation was boring and often too long because the speaker was bummed that he hadn’t dragged more people out of their seats with the well prepared guilt trip he just finished delivering. These weren’t my favorite things about Sunday, although I do actually think back on all that and smile. It’s a slice of my life that I wouldn’t trade if I could. I love that my parents are who they are and they love me right back, no matter how much of a pain-in-the-ass I am. And I kinda am that.

I had secret church on Sunday’s. Come to find out, the creeks still ran under grassy banks and over sunken logs on Sunday. And the painted slider turtles still sat all in a row on the edge of the half-submerged concrete. And the butterflies still followed intricate pathways through the pond-grass and nettles; the Cabbages and Brownies and Painted Ladies, the Swallowtails both Tiger and Black, the Monarchs the Morning Cloaks, the Admirals, the Skippers and the Sulphers, all in an endless river of colors that continue, even now, to amaze me. My church was any stream, any tree, any field. The timbers of my church were rooted in living soil and they swayed under skies that surrendered to the seasons. In those places, I learned to worship and I spent hundreds of hours on my knees watching the magnificence of the earth unfold like the wings of a dragonfly. Some might say this is not the Truth. I would say it is nothing but the Truth and it is as pure as it was before I knew it. So maybe, because of the fact that I was taught what it meant to believe wholeheartedly in something, maybe that’s why I still find myself walking out into the woods with a pounding heart. Ready for the moment of complete submersion in what I know is real and good and not words and not text and not some translation of a thought from someone else.

I’m not sure what nostalgia is. I can tap a button and find a definition. Or I could define it from my experience. Nostalgia is a slippery word, kinda like deja vu. If I were to give nostalgia a color it would be somewhere near the color of a morning at Trinidad beach just north of Arcata, California. It would be grey but there would be that early morning periwinkle kind of blowing in and out from behind it. Yeah, and there would be the colors of the sounds of sea gulls and terns and sea lions that are beyond that big stone that knows all the great white sharks by name and talent and etiquette. I think of nostalgia as a bit of a condition. I have it. I have it almost all the time. It doesn’t have to include sadness, but sometimes sadness leaks in from the gaps between the thoughts. I wonder if nostalgia is just a realization of the facts of life. Life, this utterly amazing, irretrievable, electrifying collection of heartbeats and daydreams. Nostalgia might just be the wind blowing over the wild flowers of a life that has been lived, catching us in the now and delivering a fragrance that cannot be revisited. Every day is a yesterday in the making. I am aware of the hurt-and-heavy that comes with living, but even that is a treasurable item.

I’ll end with a story of a Sunday, a once upon a time. It isn’t at all that different than any of your Sunday stories because it is only a story. It is a telling of a thing as I remember it from a more innocent me. I was 11. My family had just turned left from Pierce st. onto Jefferson. At that precise moment, a neighbor named Ed, 19 years old, from the other end of Jefferson was speeding in his hotrod firebird and he was coming towards us. The little 6 year old blonde girl from across the street chased a ball into the road. Many things happened at once. Ed saw the beginning of a sorrow he would never forget as his car struck the girl and sent her into the air. My Dad stopped the car and said, Oh my. The little blonde girl tumbled lightly and fluttered to the ground like a leaf, her socks still in the road where she was hit. I stood over my father’s shoulder as he held the little girl’s head. Softly, so softly, my dad was speaking to God and me and that little blonde girl, Oh darling, oh my, oh little darling. I do remember seeing her eyes looking about for a few seconds and then fluttering off into that other space that we don’t understand, way out there where there ain’t a single track to follow and where we dump our tears into the shadows cast by the ones we’ve lost to that space.

Have you ever built a little boat out of sticks and put it into a stream? You should try it. Put a little time into it and make it so it floats, even if it’s not perfect. When you set it free in the current, there is a flicker of time where you are still attached to that simple, tiny craft. And when it disappears around the bend, you will miss it.

train tripping

Please be aware that I’ve written this as it happened, or as close to that as my little mind permits. Due to the nature of all that transpired, there will be some things that are considered crass by some. I see it simply, as life. There is cussing and sex and naughty statements. Be forewarned and read or don’t…or whatever. 

This is a story about trains. I say it’s a story about trains, but really it’s a story about trips on trains, so really it’s a story about people who take trips on trains. I guess this is a story about people, which is kinda the same as it ever was. One thing I’ll say about the following stories are that they did not all happen on the same train ride, that would just be ridiculous and I might as well include a unicorn with a tribe of Lilliputians on it’s back — although that may have been the reality of some of the characters riding these various trains. If there’s one thing I learned about trains, it’s that the folks on them are more likely to be marching to the beat of a different drum, than say, your average American. Most of these stories take place in the United States and I think that separates things further because trains are more of a common travel mode in other countries, at least the ones I’ve visited. So there, you’re prepped up. The following events are as true as they can be although they’ve been stored in a rather faulty compartment I call my brain. And I gotta say, that there is a good bit of correlation between a story reader (you) and a train rider (maybe you) because they both require patience and an inquisitive nature; the former because you gotta wait out the ride, you ain’t in charge of the gas pedal and you can’t just stop when you want, the latter because there are other, more accepted ways of travel and you really have to make a decision to go on a train ride. With all that in mind, climb aboard, the doors are shutting and the tracks are laid out, all gleaming and parallel into the distance.

Sounds that stick around

I’ve heard a conductor yell, “all aboard!”, but it was fake and on a train in the mountains of Colorado that was imitating the way it used to be. I never like them kind of things, like everyone dressing up and acting like it’s some other time. I know it’s fun and I should lighten up but I find it annoying within about 5 or 10 minutes and I just don’t know how to answer someone who asks me, “Woulds’t thou like a frothy grot?”  Uh, yeseth? Nope, not for me. Besides I stink bad enough without pretending to be from some other century, dressed in leather underwear and a thousand year old hat. But yeah, I’ve been on trains where they didn’t yell all aboard, but they sure as hell did start screaming at me for being late as I ran with too many things, including a rubber boat toward the waiting attendant. Once I got left, but that was a bus, and buses are a whole different can of worms. Maybe I’ll write about buses after this little ditty about trains.

I do love the sounds that are synonymous with trains. The swoosh of air from the brakes as they engage and disengage, the whistles that come from out of the past and feel lonely when you hear them in the distance on a summer night by the river in the mountains of Colorado and you are on your bicycle and have been burnt by the sun and are waiting for your ass to stop aching so you can finish the ride and get home to your mama because it’s been too long and the world mighta got too big while you were gone so you will go home and sit with your ma and shrink things back down again. And then, there’s the train when you are lying there as a child of 12 years, or a child of 34, or a child of 47 and you put some change on the tracks and that giant engine passes and the conductor blasts his horn at you for being too damn close but you squish your ears between your palms and endure the fury of the engine and the engine-man and then it is strangely peaceful with the clunk-unk-unk clunk-unk-unk of those huge steel disks as they roll with strange squealings and high pitched whinnings. After, you find the coins and they have the feel of the heat still in them from being crushed like something from the guts of the world where like things are formed from the freight-trains of stone, all the pressure from above.

Inside the train, the sounds are less. Inside the train sounds docile and easy with big and little snorings from travelers in every varied position and in every different part of their journey, some from just outside of New York, some just aboard in Susanville. There are now the apparently oblivious humans who have decided to watch their fav show on their smart phone at top volume, thinking that the whole train wants to listen to Houston Housewives as they squabble over who dissed who at the last gala event. There are folks who’ve had something slip and are conversing with the invisible person plaguing them. There are those who’ve let something slip and you hear it before you smell it and then you wish they would go find a restroom to reduce the possibility of a second slip. There are the attendants who are way cooler than flight attendants who come by and answer the ridiculous questions from the smokers about when the train will stop again and if it’s possible for “just a quick smoke stop, I won’t even leave the train, I’ll just lean out and smoke a couple super fast.”

(in the unlikely event)

I think about the announcements that no one pays attention to at the beginning of a plane flight. Now, I personally think about the plane crashing every time I get on there. I’m not a fatalist, but I would try to live if there was a water landing, and I’m pretty sure it would be every person for him/herself because I’ve been involved with simulated crashes and I’ve seen trained marines panic once the cage is upside down in the water and everyone is still strapped in. If you’ve trained like that, there are still sometimes complications. If you add a bunch of people who won’t look up from their iphones long enough to let you get into your seat and who haven’t done anything physical since playing dodgeball in the 8th grade, well, it’s gonna be bad upside down in the ocean. I like it that trains don’t talk about the unlikely event of crashing. They’re more like, “you’re on a train, if we crash, we’ll all scream and run away from the fire.” I’m down with that. And I think people on a train would be more likely to band together and help one another. I feel like I have proof.

Once upon a trainride…

We left Emeryville at some reasonable hour before noon. I’m not sure about the connecting trains and all that, I only knew that I had made it on time and that I was on my way to Portland from San Francisco for some necessary business. I was not, nor am I ever, in a hurry. I don’t like being hurried and that’s probably why I despise heavy traffic, because everyone in heavy traffic seems to find solace in riding about a foot or so off the rear bumper of my toyota dolphin — news flash for the misinformed : my dolphin is topping out at 60 mph, if God was riding shotgun, we still wouldn’t go faster because, well because it’s just against the laws of physics is all. So, the next time you’re jockying for position to flip the bird to the idiot in the little dolphin RV for going so slow (in the slow lane, mind you), save it. It’s probably me, and I cannot go faster, and I’m also not having a stroke from needing to get to the next stop light before everyone else. I’m slow and I like it. Uh, yeah, the train ride, we were on a train ride to Portland.

From Emeryville we went to Sacramento and an announcement was made that the trip to Portland was not possible due to a train derailment somewhere along the line. This prompted a mass exodus by all those who had the money to find another way. Those of us who were broke simply looked at one another and remembered the cliche that misery loves company. About an hour and a half later an update came over the speaker, barely audible, saying an alternate route had been negotiated with Union Pacific and the train would leave in 20 minutes. There was a little weird cheer from us derelicts and we boarded as soon as we could. There was an overall feeling of we got one over on all those rich idiots who took a flight or rented cars. Once underway, however, we all soon realized that we were all buffoons for having taken the alternate route. Since Amtrak rents the use of the tracks from Union Pacific, they must give the right-of-way to the work trains. The cargo trains are constant and they are often miles long, so within an hour or two we had stopped 3 times for almost an hour each time. The trip to Portland began to look similar to what I imagine the first trip to Mars will look like — we were all about to lose a good portion of our lives aboard an Amtrak. Even I, with all my I-ain’t-in-hurry righteousness, was a bit taken back.

I’d like to take a side trail from the story here, I won’t wander too far as I am prone to, but just a little ways out. Maybe if you’re still reading you can use this time to stand and stretch or make yourself a drink or use the bathroom. Go ahead, I’ll wait. ———————- So, I wanna say something about cigarette smokers. Don’t worry if you smoke, this will be surprisingly uplifting to you. Smokers are savages when the time comes to smoke. Like, if you’re used to a pack a day or you’re used to a cig when certain things have happened, say maybe after breakfast or sex…or both, then it’s basically impossible to keep you from it. Smokers become part magician, part professional negotiator, part mixed martial artist when it’s time to smoke. If you handcuffed them to a rail to keep them from smoking you would come back and find them with their hands gnawed off, smoking with their feet. The look in their eye when it’s time to hoarf one down is akin to what I’ve witnessed in a male goat’s eyes when he is ready to mate; there is nothing else on earth but that next little smoke.

I said that to say this: the way trains work these days is that there ain’t a smoking car any longer. That car is called the Observation Car, but it’s where the smokers (and me) go to talk about the good ol’ days before everyone decided that dying from smoking was a bad thing. I always liked the smoking car because it was full of good conversation and folks were crazy on nicotine and booze and had a ton of stories to tell. I don’t smoke, but I guess I was second-handing it with the best of ’em, and hell, I love a good story. Well, on this trip to Portland I happened to be privy to the mutiny that was arising amongst the smokers. It was awesome. Even old men and women were in on it, not just the punks and ex-cons (there were 6 ex-cons all playing cards throughout the majority of this story) and meth-heads and pill-poppers. The requests to stop were no longer cordial queries, they were aggressive and demanding. When the announcement came across the intercom that the crew had run out of hours and would not be able to continue to drive the train, we were in the deep Oregon woods, on the side of an incredibly beautiful mountain. We were also informed that it would be approximately 6 hours before replacements would arrive. The crew, suspecting mutiny, also made it clear that we would be opening the doors for anyone that might want to smoke. Cheers, followed by a surge to the lower level. Before the doors opened, the conductor made it clear that we were on a very steep slope and that passenger would need to wait for the crew to figure out how to get them down. When the doors opened I watched as the smokers leapt from the train and into the air while lighting cigarettes in mid-flight, down the steep, scree slope to the landing made from the days when they built the tracks. It was a thing of beauty to see them folks sliding and rolling down the talus and finally smoking contentedly in a pile at the bottom. By this time, I decided I liked the smokers and I wanted to be among them. I made my way to the doors where a new situation had developed. An enormous old woman and her tiny husband were at the door, and they were smokers. From the door to the beginning of the slope was a distance of about 6 feet, in other words, too far for a big old lady to simply go for it. She was perched and had one leg out in the air with that goat-look in her eye and she was gonna go for it. The old man was encouraging her with a goat-look in his eye. I started to intervened but I knew it was for naught, they would not listen, and I kinda wondered how this was gonna end up. Ugly, I thought. Broken bones are uncomfortable and trains are uncomfortable. At this point I began to witness what would prove to be a theme from that point on. Several tough smokers from down below, including the ex-cons, formed a posse that would eventually cart that big ol’ gal to the flat ground below. They even came back up and helped the old dude down as well. Within minutes there were men with their shirts off, tanning in the evening sun and smoking like old west characters. I shed my shirt and started writing in a notebook, jotting down the things I was seeing. I watched a dude with facial tattoos from the pen as he went from person to person, telling them that he and another couple fellas were walking the 3 miles to a little town to buy liquor. To my surprise, they had a list that had quite a few names on it along with the amounts given. After I saw an old fella and his little wife give them cash and order a bottle of jack, I put in my order and gave ’em a 20. They were back in about an hour and a half, right as the sun was setting. I told the fellas to keep the change and I’m quite sure the other’s did the same, everyone was stoked. People shared and, as dark began to descend on us, the crew (who, by the way, went and fetched liquor as well) began to herd us all back on board. The system for remounting the train went seamlessly. The “Observation Car” took on a distinctly retro feel as one enterprising fella set up a little business selling $3 martinis and $2 beers in the long-unused service station on the upper level. This 60 year old San Francisco hippie who called himself the Junkman began to play his guitar and sing. People began to dance. One fella came in from another car and informed us all that there were two people “going at it” in the next car. Several gawkers authenticated the statement with raised fists and shouting, “yeah, we crazy now…people be fuckin’!”

Now, I’ve been on trains in many countries. I’ve taken trains in Peru and Ecuador and Chile and Argentina. I’ve been on subways in major cities north and south, but I’ve never seen the stuff I saw on that one trip between San Francisco and Portland. At one point I closed my eyes and imagined myself to be living 100 years ago, it worked. I felt like it was an easy jump in time. When the gal who had been having sexy time in the next car came back, the car exploded with cheers and she raised her arms like she had just won a gold medal. The Junkman began playing “backdoor man” and those who knew the song began to sing along. The sexy time gal was dancing close to the Junkman, her glass of white wine in a clear plastic wine glass was clutched and sloshing. As she hooted the song she leaned down and said in a solidly seductive tone, “I love, love, love, love, love…to give blow jobs.” The Junkman had one blind eye that he kept closed, but when she said that in his ear, his blind eye flared open and I saw the moonish white eye inside. Other than that, I saw no reaction. The new crew arrived and saw the debacle and there must have been a decision made that they would ignore it for a while and see what would happen. The lower level bathroom became the smoking section, not limited to just cigarettes and weed. All manner of smells came boiling up from down below. One fella who had found romance with a tough looking gal with a nervous disorder came up from the depths with a full cucumber cream facial, with him the gal in a cucumber mask. They were high on something speedy and they were suddenly very helpful with everything. The dude had a plan for me to make millions with my art and he wanted to record the Junkman because, “he was a godamn genius with music.” I had a bit of a conversation with him, but mostly it was him talking about several things at once and me trying to keep the stories sorted out. Overall, it was good practice for if I ever get taken by aliens and need to communicate.

When the train ride came to an end, the conductor himself came into the Observation Car and allowed himself a moment to take it all in. There were many bottles of booze in different states of empty. There were folks hammered and out, some were frying like it was 1967, some were simply living exactly like they would if they were home, which was the same as being hammered and fried. He surveyed the scene like a man who just bought some property but realized too late that it actually butted up against the mouth of Hades. He said in a loud voice, “I cannot see any liquor bottles.” One of the ruffians from the ex-con card game raised a handle of Beam and slurred back, “right here’s one.” The conductor, un-phased, repeated himself and added, ” there will be police at the station.” Of course there was some back-talk but the bottles did slowly disappear as folks prepared to disembark. The last thing I remember was that this kinda gothic 20-something gay kid was whupping ass at the ex-con card game and everyone was in the best of moods and the woman who had sexy time was shouting,”let’s hear it for my prison peeps” and the old man with a plate in his head was cuddling up to her while they all danced to the songs by the Junkman and the young girl named Jay was showing me her glass eyeball collection and the dude, high on meth, was making out with his new girlfriend at breakneck speed and the rest of the goths were dancing on the table and on the backs of the booths to beats from someone’s little speakers and the lights in the car were dimmed as we rolled into the station and the people in the other cars were sleeping. There weren’t any cops. Some folks got off, some stayed on. There were goodbyes and hugs and fist bumps and bleary eyes and little empty cups under the seats.

A trip that would have been somewhere around 12 hours had taken 30+. Folks that would have never spoken to one another had become aware of one another, in some cases friends. There were barriers that broke down and there were strange liaisons and there were deals made. There were, as always, the darknesses that we cannot seem to eliminate, but there were streaks of light that make me wonder about the future of our race. Above all, I am aware that we are all capable of great good and great evil. I’m not so sure that living a life of leisure brings out the best in humanity. I believe that mutual suffering tends to make us see one another…and that’s a start.

please collect your items and check the aisles for debris

I have more stories. This will have to do for now. I have a feeling that I may be writing to myself at this point. That’s good as well, it’ll match up perfectly with my internal dialogue and the voices in my head that I know better than to talk about. After all, that could end me up in one of them places with padded walls and the long sleeve shirts with buckles around the back. This train is in the station. See ya on the next trip.

tall tales, blazing suns

tellin’ stories is in my blood. i don’t always do it mostly because i can be moody, but i can spin a pretty good yarn when the timing’s right. my dad is a story teller; all good teachers are. and he doesn’t just stand and tell a story, he brings it. the ol’ man has always been good at snatching up the attention when he needs to. he’s an old circus performer. i’ve seen him climb to the top of a 15 foot ladder in his cowboy boots and press into a perfect handstand, talking all the while. i’ve seen him take his boots off and run up the aisle of the church at a dead sprint. he’s a showman and he’s got a real nice second tenor voice that’ll make you smile when he breaks into a song. he’s choctaw indian (he still says “indian” like my grampa did…i think it’s native american now but, well, whatever.). he loves boxing and wrestling and, at five foot three inches, he’ll surprise you with his strength. i love him, i just don’t follow him completely. we track a little differently. i look to the stars and the swaying redwoods. he looks to god. but really, what’s the difference? if you find out for sure, let me know.

when i was little i told stories about monsters. i made them up as i went along. i remember the high school fellas begging me for a new story. i was only 4 or 5 years old. i loved it. when i got a little older i went on a stint where i lied about things in order to make the story better. mark twain would have been proud. now, older yet, i’ve witnessed enough to know that real life is crazy as it is, i can lay the lies to the side; they dull the beauty of the mystery of the truth. the magic is out there among us. the only tragedy is not paying attention…i guess a faulty memory is a bummer as well. i do pay attention, mostly. i don’t know how good my memory is and, if i did, i’d probably forget.

and what are memories anyway? sparkling lights in the fog of forgetfulness. we wrestle with time in order to maintain clarity. stories are  the wonderful by-product of this magical existence.

a story is the feel of the bike as your dad pushes you down the street yelling, “pedal! pedal!”

a story is the shape of your grampa in the casket, his lips too white, his hair too combed.

a story is inner tubes and cousins in the irrigation ditch in montana in august.

a story is a mother who just lost her mother. it is her son, too young to understand that kind of finality, asking what’s the matter.

a story is an awkward kiss on the lips and the clumsy groping hands of youth. it is a broken airplane in the barn on ohio street. it is watching mr. davidson extract his own tooth with pliers. it is crying at a duck’s broken wing, broken because you shot it with a sling shot and didn’t think you would hit it but you did hit it, you did. it is making out in another language. it is a cold night under a poncho with your buddy waiting for the instructor to tell you to go get in the ocean…again. it is making fire by hand with a sotol stem. it is improv dancing with a 5 year old while her parents are out on a valentine’s date.

stories are everywhere waiting for us to dress them up with words so they can skitter and twirl in the limelight. we must be choosy with our fanciness. not too flashy, you know? just enough to capture the magic of what is real. allow the tales to grow on their own (they will, they surely will) and watch as your memories dance all around you. after all, we are here for this limited time. here for the living. and the star strewn skies. and the blazing suns.