The Journey to the East, Part 2: from Santa Monica Pier to Here
“That is just what life is when it is beautiful and happy — a game! Naturally, one can also do all kinds of other things with it, make a duty of it, or a battleground, or a prison, but that does not make it any prettier.” —Hermann Hesse, from The Journey to the East
I should have known this already, but I found from firsthand experience that although a train ride can be rather scenic at times, essentially it’s a ride past people’s back yards. Trains rarely go in front of a building, not even in front of a train station. And for the most part it’s not even very nice back yards that the train passes, since the nicest neighborhoods tend not to have trains howling past close by at all hours. So I got plenty of views of junky back yards, which by the time I was in Louisiana included shacks and trailers and old Catholic cemeteries with crypts and vaults and statues of angels and saints.
I was glad to see, out the window of the train, that there is still so much wild forest and undeveloped land in America. There is still lots of uninhabited territory with no cell towers or internet, sometimes hours of it at a stretch as the train ran through deserts, prairies, forests, and swampland.
Also, as I mentioned in the recent update video, one thing I was very much looking forward to seeing was the Rocky Mountains. They extend from Canada to Mexico, so there was no way I could miss them…but somehow I wound up missing them. According to a topographic map of the USA the Rocky Mountains in the southern part of the country go through the state of New Mexico, but New Mexico, which we traversed during daylight hours, seemed almost completely flat desert, with some jagged rocky ridges way off in the distance, which we never got to. I don’t think I slept through them, and there’s no way we could have gone around them, so I have no explanation for the missing Rocky Mountains, other than that they are possibly very wimpy in New Mexico, or else there is some conspiracy involving their disappearance. Possibly the name Rocky, being the name of white men of Italian descent, was seen as too patriarchal and white supremacist, or something, and so the mountains were quietly removed in the night like all those civil war monuments.
|where in hell are the Rocky Mountains?|
For no particular reason I also would like to say that the book I was reading on the trip was the Strategikon, an early medieval manual of military operations attributed to the unfortunate East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Maurice. The unfortunate Maurice tried a little too hard to reform the rather decadent East Roman army, resulting in a mutiny and his overthrow, with Maurice himself being tortured and beheaded after being forced to watch his six sons being tortured and beheaded before him. Furthermore, his assassination triggered a truly calamitous war between the remnant of the Roman Empire and Persia, leaving both nations decimated and in smoking ruins…right when the Arabs had been unified and fanaticized by a certain prophet named Muhammad. But I figure it’s always good to know how to fight Huns, so I read the book.
As I suspected would be the case, my stop in New Orleans (pronounced New ORlinz, not New orLEENZ) was the most difficult part of the trip. I figured it would be difficult because I’d probably have to carry all my ton and a half of luggage to a hotel and back again to the station, and it was, as I say, the maximum amount of stuff that I could carry as far as a city block. It was almost everything I owned. But the heaviness of my luggage turned out to be merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg of fuckery.
For starters I had to call a cab or an Uber with no phone. Eventually I got a nice security lady at the train station to call a cab for me. One cab showed up with an Indian- or Pakistani-looking driver, and he asked where I was going and I said “the Hyatt Regency,” whereupon he stared at me in utter incomprehension. It turned out that he spoke almost no English at all, so I waited for the cab that was actually called for me. That guy was South Asian also, but at least he spoke some English. I was taken to the Hyatt Regency, hauled my load of luggage up to the front desk, asked the guy there if he had a single room for two nights, he said yes…and then he asked if I had a reservation. I said no, but if he had a room then what is the problem? He replied that without a reservation I couldn’t have a room regardless of whether a room is available. I said can I make a reservation now? He said he couldn’t take reservations there at the front desk, but if I would be so kind as to make a reservation online while sitting in plain sight in the lobby he could take care of me. But of course the hotel could only take credit cards and not cash. I was amazed at this, because it never occurred to me, regardless of the Amtrak cafe cars, that a for-profit business would refuse to accept real money, but so it was. There was nothing he could do, and the front desk no longer even had the capacity to accept and process cash. So I asked where I could go, and he advised me that the Holiday Inn another two blocks up the street would certainly accept cash. So I carefully got my load of luggage arranged and set out at midnight for the Holiday Inn.
I made it there fairly exhausted and asked the guy at the front desk if he had a single room for two nights. He said he had a single room for ONE night only. I really needed someplace to stay for two nights so I asked if he had ANYTHING where I could stay for two nights. He looked through his whatever it was he looked through, and informed me that there was a suite available for a high sum, but I was in no mood to be fussy at this point and was willing to take it…and then I told him I only had cash. He said no cash. I was getting desperate, and asked what in hell I could do. He didn’t know, but he DID know that no hotel in New Orleans would take cash. So I try to persuade him to bend the rules a little because I could pay cash easily and I didn’t want to sleep on the goddamn sidewalk. He politely replied that he didn’t want me to sleep on the sidewalk either, but that he absolutely positively could not accept cash. So in a state of exhaustion and borderline despair I dragged my belongings (literally almost everything I own) over to a chair in the lobby and tried to think of what to do.
Finally I realized that my only hope of sleeping in a clean bed that night was to rouse somebody and beg them to use their credit card to make me a reservation, with promises to pay them back, in cash. So that’s what I did. The person I roused was even a bit miffed at me for reasons we needn’t delve into, but a call was made to the Hyatt Regency (which of course did have plenty of rooms available), and I was advised to haul my ton and a half of belongings the two blocks back to the Hyatt Regency. By the time everything was sorted out I was drenched in sweat, exhausted from exertion as well as lack of sleep (a coach seat on a train not being conducive to deep slumber), and also pretty severe dehydration. As I stood at the desk waiting for all the digital commercial legal fuckery to be completed, the floor was rocking back and forth as though I were on a ship at sea. But finally I got a key to a room on the 24th floor.
On about the third floor on my way to the elevators the handle on my army surplus Burmese footlocker broke off, causing me to fall over it, scraping and bruising myself in various places. Fortunately it was late at night and nobody was there to see me, but I was going through a kind of trial by ordeal at this point and was still in monk’s robes and cussing pretty much like a sailor. I finally made it to my room, instantly guzzled a $4 bottle of water, took a badly needed shower, shaved (so my razor burn would be faded by the time I stood before a certain lovely woman and kissed her), and lapsed into a sore but utterly luxurious sleep in a very clean and comfortable hotel bed.
This was all part of a standard phenomenon with me: whenever something momentous is to happen in my life, all sorts of things suddenly start going wrong. My life becomes much more liminal than usual—which even on an ordinary day is pretty damned liminal. Before I was ordained something similar happened, with all sorts of weird complications cropping up, and at the other end of my monkhood it was happening again. I generally consider it to be a good sign though, as bad karma is working itself out before the really important stuff happens, thereby clearing the path somewhat. Or at least that’s how I tend to interpret it. It is damned ironic though that after thirty years of not handling money, I start handling it again and for-profit businesses no longer want to take it.
The next day I recovered and wallowed in luxury. I walked into a doughnut shop and ordered an obscenely huge apple fritter (half of which I saved for the following day on the train), a maple bar with bacon all over it, and a double latte, and consumed it like a boss. Then I walked around trying to find someplace where I could buy food for my ride on the train—because of course Amtrak cafe cars no longer accept the money I had begun to handle. I found some kind of touristy wine shop and acquired some bottled coffee, bottled water, and other bottled liquids (no wine), and when I took them up to the counter the lady cashier very nicely informed me that the price was way too high, and then she instructed me on how to find the nearest Walgreen’s where all this same stuff could be purchased for half as much. She even insisted on putting all my groceries back on the shelves herself, although I insisted on helping her.
In fact, although I had been warned to be careful on my travels, and was told horror stories about robbery and murder, I encountered no trouble at all with unsavory and/or criminal types. Even the scroungy street rovers were friendly. The closest thing to hostility I ever encountered on the trip came from a few older white guys sternly informing me that a mask was required on my face immediately. The ONLY people to express curiosity, and then enthusiasm, over my monk robes were, and I know not why, black people. One lady on the train was very enthusiastic: as she walked past me one time she asked if I was a monk. I said yes, whereupon she said she had wanted to ask me the night before but didn’t want to bother me, and then exclaimed, “You’re my first one! That’s beautiful, baby, I love it!” At least seven people expressed interest and approval at seeing me in monk robes, all of them black and all but two of them female. I felt a little like I had cheated them for being a mere novice, and soon to be not even that, as though they might have got more benefit if they had been happy to see me earlier as a fully ordained bhikkhu.
There is goodness in this world, and goodness in the heart of everyone. It just takes the right circumstances to elicit it. Like maybe a mild-mannered samanera walking by, or staggering by with a ton and a half of luggage.
|view of New Orleans from my hotel room window|
So anyway, early on the morning of the 16th I successfully lugged my ton and a half of luggage (mostly books) a few blocks back to the train station, arriving there panting and drenched in sweat due to the warm, humid weather of New Orleans and the fact that I hadn’t fully recovered from the ordeal of two nights previously. The scenery rolling by the train was more swamps and ancient cemeteries than deserts and farms, and we were somehow an hour behind schedule, though otherwise the trip was uneventful…until I arrived to find a very sweet and lovely woman waiting (in a dress) to meet me…Sigh.
Very shortly after arriving in Greenville—like within minutes—I officially disrobed down to layman status. I considered remaining as a sloppy samanera wearing civilian clothing, but really do not see any real advantage to that. My monk robes are washed and neatly folded in my closet, and I am sitting here typing this wearing a pair of grey cotton shorts. My trusty old alms bowl is in a place of honor adorning the top of the row of cabinets in the kitchen, my forest monk’s tanned goat hide is now serving as a floor mat in front of the couch, and I occasionally wander around the apartment gazing in amazement at everything around me. Also I am feasting on western food—really feasting—and just now I ate two cheese and veggie sandwiches, at six in the evening. I am still very much in transition mode, jumping through all sorts of hoops made of red tape as I provide myself with all the necessities of existence for a regular citizen of the United States, like a bank account (acquired yesterday), online access to that account (still pending), a phone, a credit card (! that one is still pending also), a legal state ID, experiential knowledge of how to work the electronic gadgets in the apartment (still clueless on working the air conditioning, though the microwave oven has been more or less mastered), etc. So the journey from the monastery to here is complete, though the transition from monk to nobody in particular is still underway, and I will update you all on that in an upcoming post or two, insh’allah.
Thus far I am well and happy (though I do miss my sweetheart when she’s not here), and this is all a rather exciting adventure for me. May all of you be well and happy too.
|view from my back porch area (taken just minutes ago)|