Notes from the other side of the money/time divide

Seems like it’s always one or the other. Money or time. If you have money, your time is limited. If you have time, then money’s your obstacle.

For the last decade I’ve been firmly on the money side. Cash was coming in, thanks to good luck and hard work, and my challenge was to milk as much life as I could out of whatever free time I could scrape out of each week.

Now that I find myself dabbling on the other side – I’m not exactly destitute, more like my cash flow has shrunk to meet my expenses – I have time for days like this:

Wake up at Mike’s house in AG. I’m crashing on his couch. Only there’s no couch under me because Mike’s buddy Ben called dibs. That cold spot on my face, it’s Ben’s dog’s tongue. Mike and Jun are up and rearing to go. They’re off to Magic Mountain this afternoon. I’m snagging a ride down the hill to Grover Beach.

Have breakfast in Grover Beach. Explain to the waiter that I’m waiting for a train and might be here for an hour or more, if that’s cool. Sure, it’s cool… but he still has to interrupt my typing every five minutes to ask if I want more coffee. Nah bro, I’m cool…

Dunk head in Pacific Ocean on Pismo Beach while dunebuggies roar and kids dig for clams. Think about how a day like this would have driven me crazy a year ago, when I had 15 vacation days a year and ‘wasting’ one with such idleness was unacceptable. Dunk head in Pacific Ocean again. The fuss and the roar and the lines of breakers all the way to Japan.

Retreat to Grover Beach Amtrak station. Two hours to go. Luckily there’s a plug. Laptop time! Emails. Bookmark organization. Task scheduling. A guy asks me if I can help him with the ticket machine. “Well, it’s pretty easy. See the instructions? Find the name of the station you’re headed to on the list. Where you going? SLO? What letter does that start with?”

Twenty minutes on the Surfliner and I’m in SLO. Fries and a Chimay at Bel Frites. A stroll through the humid summer downtown, tan legs flashing everywhere under pastel shorts and skirts. The half-sized cigar shop, and men inside huffing on Billy Clintons. Buying a picnic, a sandwich and a beer at Gus’s Groceries. The mural at the post office shows cows in the brown grasses of a Cerro-side, it’s so SLO, perfect, and I spend a few minutes just looking at it. Squinting my eyes at the park, a game I learned called Pretend You’re An Impressionist Painting. What’s that? Seven black columns on the gazebo. Getting closer, I see it’s a wedding party. Photo time. A bum shouting encouragement, yelling “you don’t even hear me do you?”. I grab a maple leaf. The velvet underbelly. It’s such a hot day, and there’s the corner store, where it’s been all these years, underneath an American flag.

There’s my Starlite, ten minutes early. Sitting in the park next to the station, thinking how nice it can be to be forced to wait somewhere. I remember reading how too much freedom can be the worst curse for an artist. The wild mind gropes and grasps and starts a hundred holes in the backyard without finishing any, while the constrained mind makes beauty from what it finds. At least that’s theory.

What a ride! The twisting Cuesta grade, a triumph of another age, man’s marks carved into these honey hills in steel and tunnels. The iconic view when the trains turns sharply enough so you can see its silver engine and cars snaking ahead of you. Goats and cattle and even horses grazing the browned pasture. Chevron derricks. Darkskinned men hauling-ass Fords pickups along the siding, dust and hats and big grins, iPhone says a hundred degrees out there but there I go in my air-conditioned silver bullet – though cars on that 101 pass us up like we’re standing still.

East of Eden country. Soft hills to the east, harsh hills to the west. A tri-tip sandwich + Murphy’s stout == dinner.

Salinas = Salad. Men all lined up at the taco trucks. Pelicans pace the train over the Elkhorn Slough where herons crowd on little islands. Hawks over hillsides. A fat guy being arrested by the local sherrif. A kittycat hella-scooting across the road. An abandonded gravel mine. Gilroy and all the garlic you can reek.

San Jose. Bottom of the bay. First buildings that say City since LA. Also Node Zero of these vast lattices we’ve built aka Headquarters of Virtual Sanity. True to form, she don’t look like much from the train. In the Sillicon Valley, unlike any other urban area in the world, the spirit lies in industrial parks, warehouses and ultimately garages.

Jesse and Kristin’s place. Three blocks from Stanford. I walk the half mile from the CalTrain station. A cool wind blowing in off the fog bank to chill the warm night. Maples rustling. The old professor homes squatting so close to the streets, just two and three bedrooms each. Redwoods in yards silhouetted against banks of stars. Walking with my full pack on my back. Walking with a whistle and a sense of that pirate spirit that describes how I’m making my way in the world. Walking to Jesse and Kristin’s house, and her six months preggers with twins.

9:12 on Amtrak

Buy online, pickup the ticket at Union Station, it’s super easy. 12:00 Pacific Surfliner to San Luis Obispo, arrives 8:30. It’s 11:20. 40 minutes is plenty of time to walk up Kettner and get a picnic at Mona Lisa. Two ham sandwiches and a bottle of pink. Make it back with five minutes to spare.

On the train they freak out over my picnic. “A train is like a restaurant.” is what the conductor says. “You can’t just bring your own food and wine.”

I’m not the only one they freak out on. An overly-officious crew. Customer service? It’s more like the DMV on here. Makes me wonder if it’s a coincidence that my car is maybe 80% empty.

But beautiful. No jackass train crew can trump the SoCal coast. The flat run across Los Penasquitos lagoon. The idleness of a Del Mar afternoon and no shirts to wear. The big horsering by the sea, ready for another season to start. Cardiff-by-the-Sea, as if it’s somewhere in England. Oceanside-upon-Thames. The pier at San Clemente, afternoon sun gleaming on an aquamarine sea, the Pacific so placid & passive here in the lee of the big bay that extends from Gaviota to Tijuana.

Santa Ana. Fullerton. Anaheim. A blondie 40-going-on-22 sitting with her daughter 12-going-on-22. Both cross their wonderful bronze legs at the same time and wave goodbye to daddy as the train pulls out.

Round the corner, it’s LA. U.S. Bank Tower, the Colossus of the West, tallest thing west of the Mississippi – tallest thing we’ve made at least. No match for the San Gabriels, let alone Shasta, Tahoma, Denali, Whitney, the Rockies – but that’s another story. This is the capital of the southern West Coast, capital of everything from here clear to Mexico City. Financial hub. Transportation hub. Service hub. Immigration hub. Style hub. Sociological hub. Hub of hubs, setter of trends, and nowhere is she encapsulated as in this view from the Surfliner: Her skyline front and center. Her freeways criss-crossing and laden to the guardrails with cars. Her cemented river running alongside, tagged and tagged, some of the vilest and best graffiti art in the world. LA!

North to Burbank. Glendale. Chatsworth. Moorpark. Camarillo. San Buenaventura. Clearing Ventura, windsailers, a jet ski flying over gentle breakers, a pack of dolphins arcing out of the green sea.

Delays all the way to Santa Barbara. “These delays are not usual” they keep saying. Ah Amtrak, you lovable deadbeat, we want so badly to adore you too…

Wishing we could have those delays in Santa Barbara. Thinking of a pint of Guinny at the James Joyce, all those peanut shells under foot. Thinking of tacos at Super Rica. Thinking of strolling up State Street, lounging at the Mission.

Gaviota. California’s big turn at Point Conception. Desiccated grasses leading to a greasy sunset sea. A quarry, the light, cattle grazing on the plain above the sea. A dirty haze on the horizon, a line of fog beyond – the friendly fog bank of the northern California coast. A creek knifed into the ancient seafloor-turned-land, dropping ten feet for a four-foot wide crick.

Appears out of a golden mist a lone oil rig, maybe seven miles out.

Lines of breakers from here clear to Japan.

Lone pickups at the end of drives on the edge of the beach in Lompoc CA.

The sad Lompoc-Surf station with not even a house in sight.

Vandenburg launch platform.

Honey hills of Santa Maria Valley in mid-July.

SLO Town, forty minutes late, end of the line. A couple kids and an old couple going on by bus. As for me, Mike’s cooking mussels when I call. Here he comes to get me. Ride’s over… Pacific Surfliner + Verizon Broadband card = not a bad way to spend a long afternoon and evening.

In San Diego For The Weekend

Maybe it was the 4AM wake-up call talking, but this morning I wasn’t even that excited about coming down. Just another trip. Part business, part pleasure. But as soon as the plane broke the cloud cover, and there was the naval base and all of National City with tiendas and lavanderias and great grey clouds wafting up from taco shops, and then the oddly angled towers of our silver city, purple splots where Jacarandas are throwing out their blossoms, the I-5 which I used to imagine was our Seine, all the yachts bobbing up and down like corks, rectangular Ronald Reagan in her Coronado slip, that Grecian sun sparkling gold on the blue harbor, my iPod flipping from Paolo Conte to Tristeza… stoked to be home. Home that was never quite home. San Diego!