Friday, October 31, 2008

Best Halloween shop ever!

If you haven't bought your Halloween costume yet, and you're at a loss what to wear, if you happen to be on the west side of Los Angeles, you can find what you need at Hidden Treasures in Topanga Canyon.

This shop sells vintage clothes and kitsch all year round, but it really shines at Halloween. Stop by and browse through an amazing collection of costumes, vintage stuff, masks, skulls, shrunken heads, wind-up eyeballs, and other scarey things!

Hidden Treasures is located on in the heart of the canyon, on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, just south of Pine Tree Circle.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Stories in the dark

It's almost Halloween. Do you like ghost stories?

I enjoy scarey movies. I enjoy scarey books, like Stephen King. I am not a religious person, and I don't really believe in things like the afterlife, or ghosts, or the supernatural. But I do love the stories! I love the way a good one makes your spine tingle.

I was traveling as a stagehand with a theatrical production. My job was to run the spotlight for the show, and call the cues for the other spotlight operators we picked up in each town. This means sitting in the dark, watching the stage for 2-3 hours, and pointing a powerful lamp on actors at the right time. One person knows the show - that was me - and I was connected by intercom to three other people who didn't know the show, so I could give them instructions.

The four of you are a closed circuit. No one else hears you. At first, only the cue-caller talks, and everyone's quiet, listening to the instructions. "Standby Spot Two, on the girl in white, entering downstage left, 50 percent ... and ... go! ... Spots Three and Four, standby to fade to black in a three count as he exits ... there he goes ...Three and Four, change to a frame One and standby up center full body iris, full intensity on the Model T when the scrim clears ..."

But on a long-running show, once everybody learns their cues, something interesting happens.

There's a peculiar intimacy that develops with people you spend so much time connected to so closely, while being unable to look in the face. You are alone in the dark - and yet three other people are whispering in your ear. You hear their breathing. You hear their involuntary utterances - a muttered "oh shit!" for a mistake, or a grunt of effort, or a sigh as they stretch a stiff leg or arm.

It's almost like being in a confessional, talking through the grating to the unseen counselor. Only you're all equal penitents. All four of you talk. You talk about what pisses you off. You talk about your lovers, or spouses. You talk about politics. Sex.

And you tell stories.

Stage Left Onstage Truss Spot Two was a woman in her forties - a little older than me at the time. She had helped me hang the front-of-house balcony rail, and she was a good electrician and frontlight operator. She was gay, I'd met her girlfriend who worked at a restaurant in the theatre district. She was rough-edged, but nice; when she heard I was interested in gardening, she'd given me a list of good local nurseries to visit in town.

On Saturdays, we had two shows, a matinee and an evening show. One Saturday night Spot Two told us a story.

She said that she had led a rough life when young, and had experimented with drugs, including heroin. One Saturday night, at the apartment she shared with a roommate, she shot up and overdosed. Spot Two said she felt herself leave her body, hovering above the room watching her own body convulsing on the floor. She saw her friends freak out when they discovered her, and had a sense of floating overhead watching the EMT's treat her.

This description is common in stories of "near death experiences," along with what Spot Two said she experienced next. She entered a dark tunnel that drew her to a brilliant light that attracted her onward. But suddenly between her and the end of the tunnel, she saw someone she knew, barring the way.

It was the female bartender at the local gay bar she hung out at. In her dream or vision or hallucination, Spot Two called out the woman's name, and said, "What are you doing here?"

The woman looked at her, with an expression of deep anger in her eyes. She said, "You stupid bitch! What the fuck did you do this to yourself for? Go back and don't ever do this again!"

And abruptly Spot Two found herself back in her body, paramedics reviving her.

Or so she said.

A few days later, after she'd recovered, she stopped by the bar where the woman had worked. There were flowers on the back bar, and candles burning. What's with that, she asked?

Oh, they said. That's from the memorial service. The bartender had died of a heart attack last Saturday night.

Is this a rare old chestnut of a story? Is this a urban myth gone personal? Spot Two told it well. It had a practiced feel to it, like she'd told it many times before.

But it still sent a tingle up my spine, whispered in my ear as it was, while I sat suspended from the ceiling of a darkened theatre.

Happy Halloween. What's your favorite ghost story?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Another Contender

The other Barbecue joint in Mom's home town. This one is on the south side of town. Across the street from a Baptist Church.

They've got a cow up there, too.

Diwali - Festival of Light

This is the season for Diwali or the Hindu "Festival of Light." The festival signifies the victory of good over evil. It's a day for people to wear new clothes, hand out sweets, and celebrate, sometimes with firecrackers. Because it marks the end of the harvest season, it's a logical time for the closing of accounts, which is why many businesses in India close their fiscal year's accounts at Diwali.

At Diwali, people craft patterns in sprinkled sand, colored powders, and even grains, on the floors and pavement of their homes. These designs are called "rangoli," and people visit one another's homes to see the patterns, and to exchange sweets and treats.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Diwali is the tradition of decorating one's home with lights - rows of candles or small oil lamps.

Rumer Godden's novel "The River," was made into a film by French director Jean Renoir in 1951. A key scene occurs when her character Harriet experiences a life-changing revelation during the night of lights of Diwali.

The Wikipedia entry on Diwali says that it is celebrated on the first day of the lunar month Kartika, which in 2008 is October 28.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Today's PROMPTuesday:

This week, tell us who you are, what’s inside, where you’re from. Share your memory fragments, those visions in your head, those figments that make you, you. What bits and pieces formed your whole? Are you whole? Tell us.

I am backstage, in show-biz, in the business. I am not the audience, I can never be in the audience again, ever in my life. Even when sitting in the auditorium, I look into the wings, past the sightlines, craning my neck to look around in my seat for the sound engineer, the lighting booth. I am in the orchestra pit, picking up the drummer's coffee cup.

I have been the one who walks out to move the piano in place. The one who adjusts the microphone. One of the ones who come, in black clothes, in the dark, who bend and unlock the wheels, and roll the drum platform off stage.

I can't help but see the stagehands during the set change. It's as if little white batons were moving around the darkened stage - stagehands in black with their folded instruction sheets sticking out of their back pockets.

I feel my teeth grit, holding the knurled shaft of the mini-maglite in my mouth, to use both hands while checking scenery hardware in a blackout.

I am on the bandstand listening to the playback in the monitors. I am on headset, hearing my cues called. I check the shutter-cuts for the front-of-house wash, and tsk tsk if they spill onto the portal.

I hear the buzzing radio on the hip of the security guard. I see the unobtrusive person in black jeans and polo shirt, shouldering his way through the crowd in the lobby, and I know that he is going up to the spotlight booth. I can tell who the building manager is, I know what software the parking lot machinery uses. I can tell whether the intermission concessionaire is getting slammed, or if they are doing okay. I see the Fire Marshal, quietly lurking in the aisle.

When I visit a town I can spot a theatre building, whether it's closed or vacant, or even remodeled into a Barnes and Noble bookstore. The contour of the building alone clues me in.

Once you work in the theatre, the audience is closed to you. You are always backstage.

Chinas Poblanas

When Mexican women - particularly young and pretty women - are depicted in popular culture, such as movies and TV shows, they are usually dressed in a familiar costume - a gathered, low-cut embroidered blouse, and a full colorful skirt. The Mexican film actress Lupita Tovar is shown above in a typical version of this in a period souvenir photo.

This costume has an interesting name: China Poblana. A "poblana" is a woman from the town of Puebla, and "china" means Chinese - or more generically, Asian. As the story goes, in the 17th century a young female slave was brought to Mexico from China - or maybe India, or Malaysia. In any case, she was Asian. She refused to dress like the Mexican women of her era, steadfastly retaining her Asian dress. She became known as La China Poblana, and in later life converted to Catholicism, became a nun and was venerated as a saint in Puebla. The connection between La China Poblana of legend, and the costume style that bears her name is a little murky.

In the 19th century, after Mexico had gained its independence from Spain, it was important to strengthen - or create - a sense of national identity. It made sense to promote images and traditions that, instead of favoring one region or indigenous group over another, united all Mexicans. Take a snippet of traditional dress from here, from there, and mix it with a legend of a venerated saint, and soon you have a national costume!

The China Poblana consisted of a white cotton embroidered blouse with a low neckline, a gathered skirt cinched at the waist with a wide sash. Women often wore a shawl with this outfit, and wore their hair in braids or tucked flowers into their hair.

Angela Villaba's wonderful book, "Mexican Calendar Girls", showcases the images like the one above, used on popular calendars and advertising art of the early part of the twentieth century. The paintings present images of Mexican women that emphasized the popular ideal of Mexican culture, yet drew on Hollywood and American standards of female beauty. Many calendar-art paintings depict Mexican women dressed in the classic China Poblana outfit.

I recently talked with John and Lise Thomas, who are dealers of vintage Mexican textiles and clothing. Their collection features several examples of Chinas Poblanas. This blouse is embroidered with the image of the Mexican eagle, clutching a serpent, along with its colorful roses.

This is the Mexican national symbol, and it appears on the flag of Mexico. The symbolism goes back to Aztec lore. The legend is they migrated across the desert until they saw a large eagle with a serpent in its beak, perched on a cactus, in the middle of a lake. They chose to settle there, and called it Tenochtitlan. This is now the Plaza Major in the center of Mexico City. There is no more Mexican a symbol than the eagle with a serpent.

Another outfit shows a typical design for the skirt - a dropped yoke in one color of silk, changing to a full skirt decorated with sequins and bugle beads.

John Thomas showed me the design picked out on this skirt from their collection - once again, the Mexican eagle and serpent is prominently displayed in sequins and decorative beads. In Mexico, the bugle beads are called "camarones" or shrimp.

Here, Mexican actress Dolores del Rio wears a similar outfit in this publicity shot for the film "Ramona."

This costume became so integral to the image of Mexican femininity that it has become commonplace.

Women in puffy-sleeved Chinas Poblanas advertise beer, seduce American cowboys, and romance the cartoon mouse, Speedy Gonzales.During the 20th century, Anglo and European travelers discovered Mexico, and iconic symbols of the culture became popular embellishments for advertisements and souvenirs marketed to tourists. This vintage railway poster shows a skirt with the same design as the one in John and Lise's collection.

John and Lise's collection features clothing that was targeted toward the tourist trade, such as this felt jacket with crewel-work traditional figures worked on the back:

The man is dressed in a traditional charro outfit, with a sombrero, while the lady wears - what else? - China Poblana.

Four Four Four

My good friend Beverly tagged me! I'm asked to post a photo, and tag 4 other bloggers worth reading.

Here's my photo:

This is the East Topanga Fire Road here in Los Angeles County - a great place to hike.

Please visit these bloggers - they are worth reading!

Stacey at "A Lamb in the Field" - Stacey's blog from the Highlands of Scotland is full of wonderful scenery and her interesting perspective at being an outsider in a unique new environment.

For a quirky tour of Los Angeles' landmarks with lots of fascinating information, visit "Big Orange Landmarks."

Nihal is a Turkish woman, an engineer and blogging at her blog "CrossRoads." Her blog is full of fascinating glimpses of life in Turkey.

Deb Hall posts at Zocalo de Mexican Folk Art, where she highlights Mexican folk art and describes her life in Mexico. Deb also has a sales website at I encourage you to visit both her sites.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Three Things to check out - October 27 - November 2, 2008

Here are three things to check out this week. It's Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos weekend, of course, and Los Angeles is full of celebrations.

Check out Hollywood Forever's 9th Annual Dia de Los Muertos celebration. Festive and solemn at the same time - exhibiting the dual nature of commemorating the departed while celebrating their lives - this historic Hollywood cemetery, founded in 1899 and now operated by new owners, is the final home of some of Hollywood's greatest stars - from Rudolph Valentino to Johnny Ramone.

Self Help Graphics, an East Los Angeles cultural arts center that serves the Chicano community, holds its 35th Annual Dia de Los Muertos celebration on Sunday, November 2. Participate in the processional, enjoy the music and food, and view the art on display in the galleries.

We all know about the big Halloween celebrations that delight the kids at Universal Studios, Disneyland, and Knott's Berry Farm, but what about parties for grownups? My search for Halloween events turned up a vast assortment of intriguing adult parties, including a costume party at a Russian nightclub, a lingerie-themed party, a downtown rock-n-roll fright fest, and even the Bondage Ball! Oooh! Naughty!

Hollywood nights

We were invited to a presentation at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland on a Sunday evening.

I think the last time we were in Hollywood at night was when Our Son was still too young to drive, and asked us to take him to an all-ages music venue with his friends. We dropped the kids off,and then walked down the boulevard to Musso & Franks. An hour or so later, we sauntered back to the club to pick up our sweaty and starry-eyed 14-year-olds and drive them back to Topanga.

Tonight we had no teenagers to contend with - at least none of our own. We were there to watch talented young musicians perform, but this time we weren't responsible for them, only for ourselves.

A reception was held at the Roosevelt Hotel after the program, so we parked at the garage near the hotel and walked to the theatre. We passed the famed Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where tourists marveled at the stars' hand and foot imprints, and posed for pictures with costumed characters.

How did the tradition of costumed characters began here on Hollywood Boulevard? I wonder if any brilliant and discerning graduate student of theatre, arts, or Performance Studies has done a thesis on this phenomenon.

What you have is people wearing costumes of famous non-human characters from films, standing around on the sidewalk making themselves available to be photographed. They usually look nothing like the actual film character, and their costumes are pretty tacky-looking.

I like observing them when the characters aren't "on the job," but waiting for an interaction. They stand around and chat with one another, like workers at a water cooler, except they're in fantastic costumes, on a public sidewalk.

So you might see a scene like this, where Sponge Bob, Jack Sparrow, the guy from Hellraiser, and a rather unconvincing Wonder Woman are just - well - hanging out. I think there must be a rule forbidding cigarettes in costume, otherwise I'm sure they'd be bumming smokes from one another.

It semeed like there were a lot of characters tonight - more than usual? Maybe it was because it's almost Halloween.

There was a sexy girl pirate; a couple of Transformers; a guy in a banana suit and multiple people dressed as Yoda.

There was a rather paunchy Gene Simmons - looking bored.

When our program was over, we emerged from the theatre onto the Boulevard and walked to the reception at the hotel. The street glowed with neon lights, and it was even busier than it had been before.

There were Bacon Dog vendors and guys selling glowing light sabers. It's Hollywood, baby!

My camera was set wrong when I snapped this costumed creature - but I like the blurred look - its what it felt like, leaving the theatre and seeing him pacing back and forth on the pavement, a fearsome demon, waiting for the attention of tourists.

When we left the Roosevelt after the reception, there was a guy on the sidewalk outside the hotel entry.

He was sitting on a wheeled case, changing out of costume. His long hair hung on his face, limp with sweat. He'd already removed his mask and gloves, and was taking off his Spiderman slippers to put on his sneakers. He still wore the shirt with the spider print on the front, and the tights.

We made eye contact as we came out of the hotel entry, and I said, "Evening." "How's it going?"he said.

"You have a good night." He nodded. Just another guy getting off the night shift.

A few feet away on the sidewalk, a couple of Korean tourists were snapping each other's pictures, against the lit backdrop of Hollywood Boulevard.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Drive-In

Everytime I have a date there's only one place to go
That's to the drive in
It's such a groovy place to talk and maybe watch a show
Down at the drive in

Forget about the plot, it'll do very well
But make sure you see enough so you're prepared to tell
About the drive in
I love the drive in

If the windows get fogged you'll have to take a breath
Down at the drive in
Or the cat dressed in white will scare you both to death
Down at the drive in

A big buttered popcorn and an extra large coke
A few chili dogs and man I'm goin' broke
Down at the drive in
Yeah at the drive in

Don't sneak your buddies in the trunk 'cause they might get caught
By the drive in
And they'd look kinda stupid gettin' chased through the lot
Around the drive in

If you say you watch the movie you're a couple o' liars
And "Remember only you can prevent forest fires"
Down at the drive in
I love the drive in
Down at the drive in
I love the drive in
Down at the drive in
I love the drive in
- Brian Wilson

Photo - mine, taken of the Redlands Drive-In, Route 59, Redland, Texas, October 22, 2008, 11:45 a.m.

Pink Saturday - Topanga's flying pig

Beverly at the blog How Sweet the Sound has a great idea! It's Pink Saturday. Post about something pink, on Saturday. Here are the rules if you want to Get Pink!

I was driving north through the canyon for the first time in a week or two, and was surprised to see that Topanga's flying pig has been painted a brilliant fresh pink! She always makes me smile.

Have a wonderful Pink Saturday - and keep smiling!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Greater Fredonia

Photo - East Texas Research Center, Stephen F. Austin State University

Back in 1912, the building on the corner of Main Street and Church Street in my Mom's East Texas home town, was the Opera House. The building faced the brick-paved town square. There were retail stores on the ground floor, and a wide staircase brought patrons up to the second floor auditorium.

The town was on the circuit for touring vaudeville artists - just another stop between Houston and Shreveport, Louisiana. One day in 1912 a musical group performed at the Opera House.

They were five brothers, German Jewish immigrants from New York City. Their uncle had gotten them into show business. Leonard played the piano. Adolph played the harp. Julius played the guitar and sang, and younger brothers Milton and Herbert sang, too.

The show was interrupted by a disturbance in the street below - a runaway mule was loose in the town square, and the audience rushed out to watch. Annoyed at such a bunch of rubes, Julius started goofing around onstage. When the audience returned to their seats, he started cracking jokes at their expense, hurling wild and crazy insults at them. "The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass!" he laughed. "Nacogdoches is full of roaches!"

Instead of getting angry, the audience thought it was hilarious. They loved it!

From that day on, the brothers were famous for their zany, free-form improvisational comedy and musical routines.

Photo from the Library of Congress Print and Photographs Online

Julius soon took on the stage name Groucho, and Adolph became known as Harpo. Brothers Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo were the other three Marx Brothers.

It's funny to think that this sleepy little East Texas town started the careers of the Marx Brothers, famed for their hit Hollywood comedy movies. The films they made for Paramount include "The Cocoanuts" (1929) "Animal Crackers (1930), "Monkey Business" (1931), "Horse Feathers" (1932), and "Duck Soup" (1933).

In "Duck Soup," the highjinks, slapstick, and comedy revolves around a plot about impending war between the two fictitious countries of Sylvania and Freedonia.

Freedonia seems a crazy, mapcap, fantasy place, but in fact, for a brief time, it really existed, right here in East Texas. On December 21, 1826, Haden Edwards, a Nacogdoches settler formed a Committee of Independence to propose the founding of a new, independently governed republic in East Texas. He named it Fredonia.

The Republic of Fredonia alas, came to an end just a month later, squelched by the army of Mexico, which ruled Texas at the time.

It makes you wonder, though, whether the Marx Brothers had their experiences in Nacogdoches - and the ill-fated Republic of Fredonia - in mind when they created the crazy battle scenes in "Duck Soup."

Today, the site of the Marx Brothers' first success at comedy is commemorated on a plaque mounted on the wall of the Ed and Gwen Cole Arts Center at the Old Opera House, now an art gallery for the College of Fine Arts at the Stephen F. Austin State University.

I'm not sure if it means anything, but - the plaque also notes that later that same day, the Marx Brothers were arrested for playing cards on the porch of their hotel.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Taco Stand

In my Mom's town, there's an historic downtown, with carefully restored homes, and a lovingly preserved historic town square with antique stores, art galleries, and city offices occupying nineteenth-century structures. Outside of this, there seem to be two distinct areas. North of downtown is a state college campus, and affluent residential neighborhoods. South of downtown is where folks who are not quite so affluent live - and where the Latino restaurants, taco stands, groceries, travel agencies, and party barns are located.

I was hankering for some tacos, so I drove down North Street until it turned into South Street.

I stopped at a place that looked like an old gas station. There was an awning where pumps used to be. Today, there was a display of autumn mums where the cars would have parked in the old days.

There was a carniceria - butcher shop - and back in the corner of the property, a little taco stand, advertising as a 24 hour joint.

I went up to the window. The sign offered "tortillas hecho a mano" - handmade tortillas. Inside was a slim and stoic woman proprietor, quitely presiding over the kitchen. The radio played soul music - a cut of "I Can't Stop Loving You" by an R & B artist I didn't know. I ordered two tacos - one carnitas taco and one chorizo taco. I also ordered an agua fresca de jamaica - made from steeped hibiscus flowers.

There were wrought iron tables and chairs arranged on a covered wooden deck, and more tables arranged in a nice garden beyond the deck. Strings of chili-pepper-shaped party lights were festooned among the beams and pillars of the deck structure. I sat and sipped my tart-sweet agua fresca, watching the other customers and just getting into the vibe of the place. A group of working guys ate their lunch at one table, and a young couple at another. A marmalade-colored kitten stalked the floorboards of the deck, mewing plaintively at the diners, begging for scraps.

The proprietor called me back to the window for my tacos, asking if I wanted pico de gallo with them. The tacos were a little different than the California tacos I am used to - they had the classic American grated orange cheese that is more typical of Texas than of California.

My tacos ended up being mixed carnitas and chorizo, instead of one of each. I wondered if I could have ordered with more clarity. On the other hand - I can't deny that my tacos were, well, really GOOD.

As I ate, the workers left their table, leaving their plastic baskets and greasy papers behind. I watched the kitten investigate, and then, emboldened, go for the leftovers.

I can't blame her, can you? It was a good place for anyone to stop and have a nice lunch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Texas Farmstand - Traveling Pickles

I'm back in Los Angeles after spending a week with my Mom in East Texas.

Mom's town is quite a ways from the nearest major airport, so visiting always includes a road trip. I really like easing my way into a new part of the country this way. It's also a good way to say farewell to a part of the country very unlike my own - but still wonderful.

Today as I drove my rental car towards the airport, I stopped off in a small Texas town, at this produce stand. The proprietor's name was Linda, and when I stopped by, she and a friend, plus a cat, were having lunch inside, but she came out to talk with me. I marveled at the beauty of the assortment of pickles, jellies, and preserves for sale.

Because it's fall, the stand was stocked with wonderful fall produce, like pumpkins and gourds, and colorful corn.

All the colors were so beautiful.

I bought a couple jars of pickles, and went on my way. But as turned in my rental car at the airport, I remembered - Ooops!

I am not checking baggage on this trip! I had two jars of liquid that were potential security risks! What would I do?

Yikes! I approached the TSA agent when I entered the line for security the airport. "Um, I wanted to let you guys know I have some canned goods in my carryon? Can I talk to someone about this?"

She referred me to another agent. "Hi, I have some canned goods?"

Just tell them at the search, I was told.

As I fumbled off my sandals, pulled my laptop out of its case, and started shoving my belongings into the X-ray machine, I called, "Excuse me, Miss? Can I talk with you?" I explained I had some canned goods in my luggage, and she said, "Just take them out of the carryon and put them in a bin."

So I put my two jars of pickles in the grey bin.

After I walked through the metal detector, I collected my sandals, my handbag, and restored my laptop to its case. My carryon came out of the machine. The conveyer belt stopped, the grey bin with the pickles within.

The TSA agents frowned, then started the belt again. The bin with my pickles emerged. A female agent looked around for the owner, and I spoke up. "Those are mine!"

"What is it?" she asked.

"Pickles," I said.

She looked at me incredulously.

"Um...I stopped at a farmstand and bought them. I forgot that I wasn't checking my luggage. I'll throw them away if you want me to," I stammered.

She looked at me, and then looked at the pickles. "Are they good?"

"I don't know, I just bought them. They sure look good, don't they?"

I looked at her hopefully, and she gave me a smile. "Go on. You can keep 'em."

I thanked her, and put my sandals back on, packed up my pickles and headed to my gate.

It's nice to know that Homeland Security's policies are flexible when it comes to good pickles.

I think they were worth it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Today's PROMPTuesday:

Write about a trip or an excursion that left you changed in some way.

The train was scheduled to leave at 11:00 p.m., but by the time it pulled into the downtown Amtrak station from Cincinnati, it was already ten past midnight. The platform was crowded, and Jen moved with the crowd toward the doors - stepping up on the conductor's wooden box and then onto the metal steps.

All the seats were full, and she followed the others into the next car. And the next. Weary passengers slept, heads leaning against windows, or looked apprehensively at the new arrivals, mostly students, heading home for the holidays. As Jen made her way along the aisle, car after car, she could see ahead as the seats filled, and the line kept moving.
Suddenly the line stopped. The message fluttered back. Seats available. Go the other way. The line joggled, turned, and retreated through the cars.

Through a sliding door onto a platform, a door and - tables, benches, linens - "It's the dining car!"

The train lurched. "Whoa!" The guy in front of her grabbed the back of a seat and slid into the bench. Behind her someone pushed, so she slid in next to him. "Hi. I'm Jen. Where are you going?"

"Kev. This is crazy. I just decided to go to New York this morning." He looked around the car. "Who takes the train? This your first time?"

"Nah," said Jen. "Millions of times. I hate flying." She wondered if he believed her. "My folks live in Jersey. I get off in Philly."

The tables in the dining car filled. "Hey is the bar open?" said someone.
Soon the train was rocking through the Ohio darkness. Someone put a cassette in a tape deck, punched PLAY.

A deck of cards appeared - a game began, in the bright pool of light from the reading lights clicked on overhead, the car otherwise dim all around.

Eyes met across the tables and aisles. You at State? No, I'm at Antioch, took the bus to meet the train. Graduate school? What's your major? Getting out in Pittsburgh... Charleston... Newark... Do you know....?

Laughter, changing seats. Some couples made out in the darkened rows. Walk the lurching aisle to the bathroom - the smell of marijuana from this end of the car.

Someone swapped seats - can I sit here? I'm Jen. Cool. Want to share my bag of chips? Aren't you in my math class?

Three a.m.

The door banged, a conductor walked into the car. "OK, ladies and gentlemen, thanks for your patience, the holidays are always overcrowded but we're glad we could accommodate you guys and get you home for Christmas. Now we need to prepare the dining car for breakfast, though. There are some seats available - please follow me." Back in the direction they'd arrived from.

Another conductor. "OK," he said, "You - you - you - and you!" He pointed to Jen and about a dozen others, "follow me."

To the back and out, and another car - curtains lining the aisle. "Hardly anyone pays for a sleeper," he said, "Take a berth for the rest of the night - just be sure you're up and out by Harrisburg when the next shift comes on."

Jen climbed a narrow ladder three steps and parted the curtain. A tightly made bunk, a pillow, a maroon, logo-stamped blanket. She closed the curtains to the aisle. There were curtains at the back of the bunk too - she turned off the little sconce light and drew these apart.

Outside the night landscape hurtled past. Crossing gates, cars with headlights. Deserted factory yards. The backs of houses beyond fences. Stone walls. The shapes of trees against the moon.

She thought of home. "Mom," she'd said on the phone, "don't worry about the plane ticket. I know they cost too much, now Dad's laid off. I'll arrange something for the break. I have a friend who's driving to New York. I'll be perfectly safe." There was no friend with a car, but she'd set aside her tips from the restaurant and they were just enough for the train fare.

Home for Christmas. She was traveling all on her own for the first time in her life. Her head fell back on the small pillow. She looked out the window, the train rocking gently, cradled in the upper berth. She was all right. She fell asleep.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Texas Barbecue

This place out on the Loop road in my Mom's East Texas town has been selling barbecue since 1959. Mom and Dad moved down here in 1989, and this became their favorite barbecue joint.

I never really knew its name before, because my mom and dad always called it "The Good Ole Boy's." Back when my dad was alive, each time we visited, he'd take [The Man I Love] or Our Son with him to go pick up a pound or so of sliced beef. Since making a run for barbecue wasn't an errand for girls, I was never really sure where the place was.

On this trip, I had a craving for barbecue. Mom had to tell me where the Good Ole Boys had moved to, after a shopping mall development displaced them. And of course, she couldn't remember what their real name was - for her, too, they were just the Good Ole Boys.

It's a small town, so I didn't have too much trouble finding them. The place earns brownie points for authenticity because they have a cow on the roof.

In Texas, barbecue means beef, not pork. Mom told me what she wanted me to get. I picked up some barbecued beef brisket by the pound, a couple of sides of beans and cole slaw, and some extra sauce on the side. They had some tasty looking peach and berry cobbler, but we already had some dessert at home. Mom and I had a nice dinner. The beef was good, tender, but with the real taste of smoke. The sauce was nice and tangy. The beans were made with small navy beans, and tasted like the barbecue sauce - as it should be. The cole slaw was a little, bland - but who goes to a barbecue joint for the cole slaw?

The following day Mom and I had a good lunch with barbecue beef sandwiches. She has a good appetite, when the eating is good.

Three Things - not today

I'm visiting family in East Texas, so "Three Things to Check Out" is suspended again this week. Instead, here is a photo of some foliage in the Piney Woods - the American Sweetgum tree, or Liquidamber styraciflua, which is native to these parts. Isn't "Liquidamber" a great word?