More stories from the road

As I’ve explained before in other stories, my first 4 years after college were spent traveling the country. Not the 60’s, hippie, hitchhiking, peace-love-and-understanding kind of travel. (That was my Big Bruddah) No, my adventure was all expenses paid by my employer. Of course, the one catch to this deal was I had to go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted me to. Not knowing what state I was going to be in from month to month, and sometimes day to day, tended to put a crimp in planning my social calendar.

It wasn’t the easiest way to live, but it wasn’t without its charms. Had I not been living out of a suitcase and eating all my meals in restaurants, I’d have never met the lovely Mrs. 20 Prospect. I’d also have  much lower cholesterol.  For 3 years I think I ate French fries at least twice a day. Not the healthiest way to live, but far from the worst vice for a field service engineer.

Most of my co-workers and I fell into the category of social misfits, or eccentrics. It really is the perfect sort of job for a person that can’t function for any length of time in normal society. Whether I was spending weeks alone in some God-forsaken corner of the country working at a power plant, or enjoying the camaraderie of a team of coworkers it always helped to be easily entertained. I know it’s hard to believe but such locales as Colstrip, Montana; Stanton, North Dakota; Springerville, Arizona; Pascagoula, Mississippi; and Nekoosa, Wisconsin weren’t exactly hopping places. While the poets of my generation were living in Seattle, or Prague, taking in the “scene”, and spending their nights in bacchanalian orgies, I was usually sitting on my bed in a motel room watching Twin Peaks, and drinking beer from a can.

I had a simple policy that I tried to follow no matter where I traveled; I never went to bars alone. So no matter where I was stuck, unless there happened to be another field service engineer along with me, I stayed inside most evenings. Even at 22 I knew that this sort of lifestyle was all too conducive to becoming a hard core alcoholic. It seemed that in this line of work you were either single and in your early 20’s, married with kids and in your mid-30’s, or divorced and in your late 40’s. I vowed to get out while I was still young.

In the mean time, I was paying off debt, and enjoying the lessons in humanity 101 that seemed to play out before me on a daily basis. I swear I learned more about people in my 4 years of traveling, than any school could ever have taught me. The cast of characters I encountered were drawn with sharp lines, and bold colors. I think I feel a story coming on…

In the spring of 1993, I was one of four engineers on site for a 3 week outage inspection in Central Pennsylvania. We were working 7 day weeks, and the lead engineer on the job was a friend of mine named John, from Philly. He was seemingly always unshaven, cussed with every sentence he spoke, and always had a dip inside his cheek. He amused me endlessly. We’d worked together before out west, and he’d taken me under his wing like a kid brother, always looking out for me as we shot pool in cowboy bars. For my part I became a great non-judgmental resource for him to learn proper grammar, and teach him the ways of normal society.

The second engineer on the job was a short, skinny Irish kid from eastern Massachusetts named Pat. He spoke with a classic Boston accent, and looked for all the world like a leprechaun. Putting a beer into him, was like inserting a quarter in the jukebox. His mouth would start moving, and for the next 20 minutes you could just sit and listen.

The third and final engineer on the job was a 40 something guy from Texas named Steve. I’d had the displeasure of working with Steve several times before in various spots around the country. He was far from being a stellar performer, which explained why his District Manager was always shopping him around to other districts that were in desperate need of a warm body. I won’t mention his last name, except to say that it started with “R-U-D”. This is important to our story because John from Philly insisted on calling him the “Rud-Dud.”

Rud-Dud would show up at the breakfast room at the motel each morning, coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other, and a far away smile on his face. As the day went on, he would gradually become more and more cantankerous, until by 4 pm he was downright surly. John wasn’t the sort of guy that had a lot of patience for ineptitude, so he always teamed me up with the Rud-Dud. It was my job to babysit him, and make sure he didn’t wander off and find a quiet corner of the boiler to take a nap in.

I was still a pretty young and naïve guy, and as such I was curious as to why he was always so happy in the morning, and cranky in the afternoon. One Saturday afternoon as we peeled off our coveralls to eat our lunches, John looked at the clock and asked if we’d like to put in another 4 hours to finish off our work, so that we could take Sunday off. For me and Pat, it sounded like a great idea; a morning to sleep in, and lay around the motel watching TV and reading the paper. So I was surprised when the Rud-Dud refused. John lived a couple of hours away with his wife and small kids, and was hoping to be able to spend a day at home with them, so he pressed on and insisted that we put in the OT. It was at this point that Rud-Dud got squirrely, and started to sweat. He continued to refuse to stay late at the plant, and finally confessed that his issue was the local Liquor Store closed at 7pm, and wouldn’t open again until noon on Monday.

That’s when I learned to never come between and alcoholic and their alcohol. A compromise was reached, and we let Steve stop at the liquor store during our dinner break so that he could restock himself with a bottle of Jack.

Sunday passed peacefully. I sat in my room reading the NY Times, and drinking coffee, while Steve stood out on his balcony smoking and sipping on his Whiskey. When Monday arrived the weather had turned, and heavy wet snow was falling hard. We met for breakfast in the lobby before heading to the plant, and in a momentary lapse of judgment, Pat and I decided to let the Rud-Dud drive.

The snow was piling up quickly as we drove through the dark. Climbing a hill I saw a pair of headlights appear ahead of us, and begin drifting into our lane. Sitting in the passenger seat, my eyes grew big, and my mouth fell open, but the Rud-Dud just drove on staring straight ahead at the onrushing car. Finally Pat let out a scream, and yelled at him to watch the eff out, and slowly the synapses began to light up in the Rud-Dud’s cerebral cortex. He turned the wheel and veered into the other lane, just as I dropped my cup of coffee onto the seat and reached for the dashboard to brace for impact. The whole world seemed to slow down, and I can remember watching my coffee cup bounce off of the seat and land upside down in the Rud-Dud’s lap. I can remember looking out the window and seeing the open mouth of the other driver as he slid helplessly into our path. I can even remember thinking “why isn’t my life flashing before my eyes like it does in the movies? What a gyp!”

Thankfully, the angels were watching that day, and swept down from the heavens to steer us out of harms way. The other car smashed hard into our passenger side door, bounced off of the guardrail and came to a stop 100 feet down the road.  We spun in circles on the icy road and came to rest in the ditch facing back down the hill.

I sat there stunned, looking out the window at the tire marks twisting through the snow, as the Rud-Dud screamed in pain from the lap full of hot coffee, and Pat lay in the backseat spewing a stream of profanity that would make a sailor blush. I suddenly had a new appreciation for life. Brushes with death can be like that. To this day, that is the closest I have come to biting it in a car accident. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the incident soon became fodder for Pat to tell over the bar at happy hour. Hell, we even bought a round for the Rud-Dud.  Just not before breakfast.

Calgon take me away

I’m done, I’m spent, I’m exhausted. It’s been one week since I left on this trip, and I am waving the white flag. Country road, take me home… etc.

Japan is an interesting place to visit, but I find that as I get older it gets harder and harder to maintain the pace of these week long trips without wearing myself into the ground. Right now I want nothing more than a pizza, a tall cold glass of milk, and couch. Instead I get 6 hours of waiting to get on a plane, and a 12 hour flight, before stepping back into life. Then follows a two day delay for my soul to catch back up with my body, and the worst of the jet lag to dissipate. So don’t be surprised if you don’t seen much on the intertubes much in the coming days.

So enjoy some music in the comment boxes below, and say sayonara to Nippon.

Godzilla vs. Mothra

OK, it wasn’t quite a monster week flick, but today was brutal and epic in its own way. I just put in a 15 hour day, a full half of which was spent in trains or train stations. Pressed cheek to jowl with the populace of Toyko for hours on end I began to sympathize with Godzilla. If I’d have had a pair of lilliputian Japanese twins to cheer me on I’d have probably gone on a Mothra like rampage. Instead I settled for a cup of Gelato on the walk back to the hotel. Never under-estimate the power of frozen Italian confectionery to soothe the savage beast. So instead I leave you with some pics of my previous visits to Japan. Forgive me for the lack of photogenic artistry this time ’round. It’s damn hard to take evocative photos of telephone poles and cinderblock houses. As anyone that has ever been here can attest, Japan is not the picture post card perfect photo of Shinto Temples and Cherry blossoms. It’s about as lovely as a convenience store dumpster.

Ichiban with a bullet

Laptop open, iPod tuned to the Replacements, I glide effortlessly above the never ending sprawl of suburban Tokyo. Blasting down the track at 60+ miles per hour on board the Shinkansen I marvel at the technical wonders of our age. How such technology could flower in such a short period of human history is astounding. Even as recently as my parents generation, a dumpy middle aged, middle management, white guy could never have dreamed of being here and experiencing the things I take for granted every day. I am a lucky, lucky man.

But as impressive as our age of electronic gadgetry and high speed travel may be, they pale behind the one advancement of mankind that has single handedly transformed the way we live. I am speaking, of course, of the To-Go Cup. Where would our culture be without mobile beverages? Say what you want about Mass-Produced-American-Mc-Culture, but where would humanity be now without our freedom from the tyranny of stationary refreshment?

This was brought home again to me at 6am this morning as I walked the 2 blocks from my hotel to the nearest McDonalds and returned with a cup of coffee. And again, one hour later when I returned to the Excelsior Coffee shop and picked up another cup. But as Americanized as Japan has become, there are still some things that they are struggling to embrace. You can order a coffee to go, and they will give you a paper cup with a sippy lid full of top shelf Arabica brew, but they insist on placing the cup into a little paper bag, and handing it to you so that you can carry it with you like a school kid on their way to school. Clearly they have a lot to learn about the pleasures of mobile refreshment. Oh well, Rome wasn’t built in a day either.

So began another day of shooting about Tokyo in public transit, punctuated by brief interludes of head nodding, and polite discussion. 36 million souls coursing through the veins of this metropolis as orderly as could be. Nowhere else on earth do so many people exist in such close proximity, and appear completely unaware or each other’s presence. It’s amazing really. The level of politeness of the average Japanese citizen knows no bounds. They ride the trains and walk the streets in utter silence. Absorbed in their own little worlds, careful not to speak, or talk on the phone, chew gum, or eat or drink in public. In fact, one of the great mysteries of Japan is how they manage to survive without dehydrating. Despite the ubiquitous vending machines placed every 100 feet along the sidewalk, I have yet to see anyone drinking out of a bottle of Pocari Sweat, or Kirin Green Tea, or a can of Suntory Coffee Boss. I know, because I have been looking non-stop for the last 3 days. It’s become something of an obsession. So help me God, but sooner or later I will catch a Japanese person drinking a beverage in public.

In the mean time I will continue to oogle pigeon toed Japanese women in short skirts, devour as much raw seafood as is humanly possible, and defy convention by drinking coffee while I walk. Cause that’s just how I roll.

Tachikawa in the rain

Umbrella’s bloom like mushrooms in the steady rain. We move in a bubble of silence through patter of raindrops, and hiss of car tires. After two blocks I have surrendered all sense of direction. The clouds pressing in on all sides make it seem like we are lost in the sky. In the grayness there is only forward and back, and the countless faces of others passing in the street.

The skeletons of trees stretch their limbs in vain, looking for sunlight in this crowded street. We ride the train for hours, and never seem to get anywhere. Just Lego block buildings, and asphalt in this rectilinear landscape. This city is never ending. There could be no better place for anonymity than in a city of 36 million people. Walking past a shop window I see the rain splattered reflection of my umbrella, and overcoat, before I disappear into the crowd.

It’s been another long day of trains, and taxis, and walks down wet streets, punctuated by short meetings of polite silence. I wonder what good these visits ever do. I am not a participant, but a token, to be brought forward on occasion, like a rook on a chessboard. Neither pawn, nor queen, I have little effect on the outcome of the game. So the day passes, lost in clouds of thought, all memory hidden behind curtains of rain. How many years has it been since I first came to this island? How many more before it becomes nothing more than a photograph in an old book? The names fading, like the faces, until even my memories are lost in the mist.

Nothing here seems certain but the sound of the rain.

Left Coast Mornings

I’ve decided that the absolute best way of catching up on sleep is a trip to the Pacific time zone. Nothing is more restful than collapsing into bed at 9pm, and sleeping for a full 10 hours, then still having 2 hours to get dressed and eat breakfast before going to work. No wonder folks out here seem so laid back. I always thought it was the dope, but here is was just a good nights sleep.

The drawback in this plan was rolling out of bed at 4:30am yesterday to catch my flight to L.A. Jeebus, that hurt. Throw in the 4 hours on a plane, and I still walked out into the LA gloom at 10:00 am with a whole day of work ahead of me. We had some meetings with a customer down along the coast in Dana Point. It’s funny, but in all my years of trips to So. Cal., this was the first time I actually went to Orange County. Well, technically I’ve been to Anaheim, but that’s not really Orange County, just an extension of the Greater L.A. Sprawl.

Southern California is not one of my favorite places to visit. In fact, only Vegas, Houston, and Orlando rank lower on my list of “Least Favorite U.S. Cities”. Still, I have to give credit to where credit is due, and the coast down there was absolutely beautiful. Without going into details and giving away what it is that I do for a living (not much) I will say that our customer was unique for us, in that it was a Surf Board maker. So we spent the afternoon hanging out in a surf shop. I’m not sure I could have looked more out of place had we gone to a gay biker bar.

Our customer had offered to take us paddle boarding, but we had the misfortune of arriving on the one day each year that it rains in sunny California. So we passed on the offer, which is just as well. The ocean kind of freaks me out. But even in the cold and the rain it was lovely to sit and watch the waves rolling in. Is there any sound more peaceful than the surf?

After fighting our way back to the L.A. mega-plex, through the panicked So. Cal. rush hour, (OMG! What is this strange substance falling from the sky? I better slow down!) we had dinner at a restaurant in Newport Beach looking out at yacht’s that cost more than I will earn in the next decade. As long as I live, I will never understand where all the in places like this money comes from. What the hell do these people DO that they can afford that sort of lifestyle?

Sadly, my coastal experiences are behind me now, and the next day will be spent at the Anaheim Convention Center, wandering around under gray florescent lights while the sun finally returns to the sky. Then it’s back to Minnesota where we still have a full 3 months before we see a temperature above 70 degrees. Sigh…