Friday, June 25, 2010

(Mystery) Train (In Vain)

I just spent another 30 hours on the Coast Starlight from LA to Portland, and it was one of my nicest train rides.

Central California, near the coast, brings to mind other regions. It reminds me of the fields of Michigan Bobby and I biked through last summer. Of course, here we don't have that soaking humidity, but through my train window every landscape has the same chilly aridity.

The sloping hills covered in tall grass also worked nicely as a setting for reading My Àntonia, Willa Cather's story about the struggles of immigrant farmers in Nebraska. Her narrator can never break free from the land of red grass hills and roads marked by sunflowers, or from loving the strong, vibrant daughters of the farms. Like Cather herself, he finds himself returning again and again to appreciate the abiding trust and joy of humanity summed up in Àntonia. What a satisfying book to read in one sitting!

Cather's stories gave me one of my earliest impetuses to chase some vision of American summer around the country on trains. It is fitting, then, that I should have slipped My Àntonia into my trusty yellow backpack alongside Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine as I left yesterday morning on my third summer quest to find American summer and revel in it. One thing I've learned: it can be found close to the ground where the growing things live, not on sale at Wal-Mart.

The third party in my set of train books has turned somewhat blah. I visited Hearst Castle recently with an itinerant gang of flappers and rogues, and picked up a Marion Davies memoir there. As publisher William Randolph Hearst's companion for many years, Davies acted out his fantasies of her as screen goddess to much critical scorn. The Hollywood set adored their parties, though. The Times We Had does not disappoint in pictures, to be sure; they're crammed in all over the place. It's just that Davies never really spills any beans. She never says an unkind word about the antiquities-obsessed father of five sons who fell for her when she was a Ziegfeld girl at age 16 (Hearst's age: 58).

I was hoping for a sharper account, a gore fest like Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Even Gloria Swanson, a contemporary of Davies', gives all kinds of juicy details about her affair with Joseph P. Kennedy in her own autobiography. That's what I like when reading about old Hollywood: stories about bachannalian indulgence, about attractive, charming people giving in to their basest desires, and staying pure and good in the American eye at the same time. Davies' book talks more about meeting European royalty (snooze) than about booze and criminal charges.

Back to my idyllic train ride: I woke up this morning in Dunsmuir, one of my favorite mountain towns, and then we chugged along on schedule to Portland. I slapped my pedals back on my bike, hooked on my panniers, and rode to SE.

An Angeleno at Sunday Streets

(I wrote this post for the CicLAvia blog. I'm recycling it.)
Last Sunday, June 20, I stepped out of the Mission/ 24th St BART station with a friend, and immediately got swept into a steady stream of people. People on bikes, people walking, little kids biking, and one person in a pink gorilla suit. It was lovely. A man and a piano rode past us. There were lots of pretty girls and boys on pretty bikes.
For pictures of the event and a route map, see the Sunday Streets website.
We walked east on 24th Street, passing between rows of ficus trees and hearing music from various sources (here's a good visualization). There were lots of cafés that seemed to be enjoying an increase in patrons. One café owner had various jugos set up on the street and was calling out his wares to passersby. We stopped for a melon (mmmm! delicious cantaloupe juice), and I asked him how business was. He flashed a wad of cash in response.
Lots of families walked and biked past us. I talked to a few volunteers about practical things like bathrooms, and they directed me to an info booth on Harrison. Nearing the end of the route on 24th, we backtracked and turned south on Harrison. This street had far fewer people on it, since there were only houses and no businesses to attract foot traffic.
At the info booth, we met the Sunday Streets volunteer coordinator, Emma. She told me that they had 160 volunteers working for them that day, helping police officers direct traffic at intersections, riding around and assisting people as needed, and helping with set up and clean up. One volunteer at the booth said we’d come for an especially good event, what with the perfect weather and the neighborhood full of cyclists.
The Mission District in San Francisco shares a few characteristics with the areas LA’s CicLAvia will pass through: old housing stock, low income residents, an influx of new, sustainability-oriented residents, and Latino-owned businesses. We have wider streets, though, so there’d better be even more mobile musical instruments and families at ours!
Having sufficiently used the info booth, we returned to 24th Street and walked west to Valencia. On the way there we passed multiple musical performances, a group of girls dancing around a picnic table in the street, and had to make our way through big crowds. Valencia didn’t have as much traffic, probably because we made it there at the tail end of the event.
At 3 pm, a city employee drove down the route announcing that, “Sunday Streets is over. Please move to the sidewalk.” Immediately cars filled the lanes. Sigh. Valencia has bikes lanes, though, so plenty of bicyclists continued to flow along the street as we walked.
All in all, I didn’t expect such a palpable feeling of goodwill. It hit me as soon as we hit 24th Street, and stayed with me for the rest of the day. So many happy faces, so many people enjoying the street. How will Portland’s Sunday Parkways compare?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

S is for Space

Ray Bradbury is a cornball and a half. It's taken me a long time to accept that, because I love his books and stories so much that I wanted to believe that they transcended pulp. Humph, I would think, why must this work be relegated to the "Young Adult" section in the library? Really they're simple little stories, and when Bradbury tries to get too literary things do not go as well, in my opinion. It is his nostalgic paranoia I like best.

The Bradbury storyland most familiar to me blends a future where space travel seems commonplace with the summer pleasures of small town Illinois in the 1920s. Either the two worlds clash and the innocence of Bradbury's own childhood setting is destroyed, or what seemed like an unquestionably better modern life gets overthrown by the loveliness of Americana.

The nostalgic vision is not patriotic or anything, it's more about the senses engaged by the sights, smells, and tastes of small town life. And there's such a sense of individual fun that it manages to avoid the cheap suburban fantasy I associate with Thomas Kinkade paintings. In Bradbury's writing little boys read adventure stories, or freak out over cheap horror movies, then run home through quiet neighborhoods to porches crammed with swings and warm kitchens full of ice cream.

This is what is right with the world, he argues over and over; the simple facts of crickets and trolleys and nighttime walks. Bradbury's characters may travel to Mars and find this re-created, or try to re-create it only to find themselves consumed by a landscape beyond their ken. Suspicions gradually creep over his characters, who start to notice things skewing oddly. At first they or their companions dismiss these growing certainties that something is not right, but eventually they are overwhelmed by some alien force that sees them as a threat.

The paranoia tinging Ray Bradbury's stories guards against a world in which activities like reading books and walking through cities become criminal. He's a fierce advocate of libraries and bookstores, and proudly walks in Los Angeles. I couldn't admire this silly inventor more. Long before I thought of myself as a transportation activist his stories made me think about my own walks through San Juan Capistrano at night, with blooming flowers and swooping birds. Even though I was a little brown girl, a kid straddling racist divisions in a suburb built incongruously around one of the oldest European settlements in California, I knew just exactly what he meant.

Now when I revisit my favorite stories I can see that there is a mobility thread running through many of them. I just indulged in re-reading S is for Space, a collection of Bradbury stories that contains my very favorite, "Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed." I came across several stories that take place in future cities. One, "The Pedestrian," actually ends with the character who dares to walk through his neighborhood at night getting arrested by a police drone.

In a world where private living and private moving are the norm, those of us who like to stay outside our cars become suspects. This is what I hear Bradbury warning against: we must leave our landscapes open, lest we shut out the very magic that sustains our creative life.

He found mystery and surprise in the old fashioned, the forgotten. As a feminist and critical analyst of popular culture I've trained myself to question nostalgia, as it empinkens past places that weren't nearly so nice as they seem now. With mobility it's different, though. Riding a bike and walking can never be merely nostalgic, because they take you through a living landscape of other human beings who demand recognition as your present fellows. That is, as long as there are others out there, or else you'd just be walking alone. And then there wouldn't be anyone to help you when the police drone shows up...

Soon I'll be able to put away school and read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. It's never failed to bring me summertime yet.