Boxcar Blues – Pancit, Baluts and San Miguel

       Mei Lia and I used to take her father’s green and white Corvair panel van, the kind with an awning that stretches over the doors, to the spring. We’d watch the river swirl along the red clay sandstone as it rippled its way north to the San Juan. She sunned her smooth olive skin; laughed and splashed water while I chased her around the bus, and we’d end up in the creek kissing.
       We got married in a traditional Filipino wedding. All her relatives came. A few of the local townspeople acted on my behalf. Bud Claypool agreed to be my best man. We struck a solid chord. Or, so I thought.
       He often invited me to his house and proudly showed off his vintage blues records. Even Angela, his wife, always the perfect hostess, served us beers late into the evening without a complaint. She seemed to share her husband’s interests. Soon it became obvious how much she wanted to share those interests. She took a liking to me, and Bud didn’t seem too happy with it. He couldn’t help see how readily she sat next to me, laughing and joking, giving me attention she should show him. Ever since that first night at the diner, I tried to ignore the flirting. I told myself, it’s nothing, it’ll pass.

       The wedding was great. Some musicians I put together for pool parties played at the reception. Mei Lia looked gorgeous in her puff-sleeved gown. When she smiled, her face lit up like a child’s. Her proud uncles and aunts cried throughout the ceremony. Her nanay held on to tatay, blushed with joy.
       Her kin danced and laughed and sang the songs of their ancestors. They fed me foods I never experienced like balut, a fertilized egg cracked open to find a cooked embryo inside; San Miguel beer, octopus and squid with piles of rice; pancit, a stick noodle dish with lechon, chicken, shrimp, cabbage and lots of soy sauce. It was a day of palm trees waving in a tropical breeze, soft music from a gut string guitar and the smell of the sea, salt and sand.
       My head spun with expectation. Her Uncle Mindoi performed the ceremony. He spoke only tagalog, so Mei Lia’s brother, Lorenzo, prompted me with an elbow jab when my turn came for the “I do’s.”

On the Road to Satori – The Ru’nes of the Colorado

route 66 by mezaka

the End of the Dream…

we rode underneath a fire-red sun
the heat waves rose beneath our wheels
the desert was hot and dry as we drove
in our dusty automobile

the sun ricocheted into the horizon
and oblivion
the air crackled dry with sagebrush and a sky
squashed by the burning sun

we rode the desert in search of satori
but ended our quest
with roast beef on rye and beer to quench our thirst
as we made our way West from one roadhouse to the next

five hundred horses
pull our wagon through the dunes

leave no fear of dying as we drive
through the canyons and the ru’nes

palm treed groves like Eden
welcome you to Los Angeles
they are a relief
from the desert and the grief
across the burning desert sands
and the desecrated Indian lands

now we sit
back tip tequilas
on San Pedro Bay

we followed the sunset
from the east coast to the sea
and watched it fall away

Boxcar Blues – Hammond’s Summit

       Beyond Hammond’s Summit is a flat desolation so vast and lifeless that “Badlands” won’t even describe it. There, you’ll find a meandering scar that cuts across the landscape. It’s a muddy swirl of tepid water that runs from an underground spring east of town. They call it a river—the Willow River. The random outcrop of red rock and the hot distorted waves of air that rise from the surrounding surface, create the illusion that water is a stone’s throw from where you stand. But, not the case. Aside from the Willow river, there is no water except what they dig from underground wells. The city has a few pumping stations and a tower that bears its name, but that’s it. The rest is an endless stream of nothingness called the Colorado Plateau.
       The train passes through every couple of nights, stops to fill its water tanks and refuel, then leaves. No one gets on, no one gets off except the railroad workers that live here. There is a quiet bustle of people on avenues that lead nowhere. Except for the boulevard to the County Road and the State Highway, they all end in dirt roads that break past the boundaries, as if trying to escape.
       From above, these 4-wheel drive trails wind aimlessly out in the open like the mangled tentacles of an octopus writhing in the heat, suffocating in the agony of a slow death. It’s no wonder the most popular pastime here is whiling the hours away, think of where you’d rather be, then rinse off those dreams with a fifth of cheap Bourbon, Scotch, or a case of Old Milwaukee.

On the Road to Satori – Portland

1949 Packard Super 8 sedan by quintmckown


I got the last ride I planned to get
from those Portland rich kids
in their vintage Packard  cars
with big white-walled tires
small windows and shiny
chrome bumpers

dressed in deep purple like dolls
from the velvet underground
they stopped
ope’d the door
and let me in
said not a word
they left me at the state line
as if it were their duty their
bit for the cause helping
this fellow bohemian
take it to the road

a new breed of hobo—not poor
looking for a piece of the American Pie served
up  raw uncut without the cushion
of middle-American security
they helped this boho
make it to California
through the back door

I stuck out my thumb
whoosh! one car goes by
whoosh! there goes another

Boxcar Blues – The Red Dog Saloon

       The three globes of a pawn shop caught my eye from across the street. This burg has a hock shop? I wondered what they wanted for the guitar in the window. I ran back downstairs, throwing a smile Mei Li’s way. “Nice day!”
       “Yie. Ten yiu, hehe.” She placed a delicate hand to her mouth, her eyes smiling the way one only sees on Chinese silk screens. She was the authentic item.
       I stepped out and crossed the pavement to the other side.
       Inside the store, the pawnbroker pulled the guitar from the display. “Now this here’s a nice number,” he spieled, eyeing my clothes, sizing me.
       “Solid maple back, spruce top, I’d say it’s at least, hmm.” He took another look at me. “It’s going for seventy-five dollars!” He said it in a hurry. Maybe he thought the market might drop before he finished.
       It was a time when everything was on a downturn, money tight. They called it the Seventies. And back then seventy-five dollars meant mucho moola.
       I ignored his pitch and lifted the acoustic in my hands. It was an old Gibson jumbo with a natural finish. I hefted it and noticed it had a good solid feel. Strummed, and a nice, smooth deep tone rose from the soundboard. Tested it with my idea of country-western, a bouncing blues with complicated changes and a rock-and-roll beat.
       The storekeeper asked, “Where do you play?” He looked impressed.
       “In New York,” I lied. But, I did play in New York, in my room that is. Before coming West I lived in a hamlet in the Catskills. The economy there bottomed long before the rest of the U.S. During the OPEC pinch we lost everything.

       “Sure! And I win a thousand bucks every time I’m in Las Vegas.” He turned his back. He thumbed through a  receipt drawer, making busy.
       I calculated my meager budget and figured what I could spend. “Will you take fifty?” I was serious.
       “I thought you New Yerkers were rolling in cash?” He sneered. “Sorry, no less than sixty-five.”
       “All I’ve got is fifty.”
       “OK. Give me fifty now and when you get a job playing at the Red Dog, pay me the other fifteen and it’s a deal!”

       The Red Dog was a rowdy saloon that kept a regular clientele of railroad men drinking away their weekly earnings. I’d never thought of using my guitar-playing to make a living, but the thought stuck.
       In no time, I was making a few dollars a night with my fingers flying like bees around the fingerboard. I used every trick I ever learned, and licks I didn’t know I had in me.

       It was a sweet trap. Several months passed before I even realized I’d forgotten my goal to reach California.

On the Road to Satori – Oakland Rail Yard

hobo-john by Roger Hoover

Oakland Rail Yard


at the Oakland rail yard
I listened to the sound of the train whistles’
rasp and moan—engines chugging slowly through the switch yard
the air horns barely picking up enough wind to howl
making sounds like harmonicas

the crackle of the dispatcher’s voice
over the PA system distorted by the noise of the rails
created a sound like the early bluesmen
on the 78 RPM records
the sound of hobos
hitching the rails

I just discovered
the birth of the blues!

I thought as I hopped a parked boxcar
hoping for L.A. southbound

in the middle of the night
the banging of cars’ hook up
lurch to a get-go—
back to sleep
‘til daybreak

Snow—I’m headed
east—over the Sierra Nevada
—Denver for sure by tomorrow!

but it was getting colder and colder
as the train rose to greater altitudes
until just above the tree line
I figured it was so high
the snow couldn’t fall

my leather bomber jacket and
my military down sleeping bag
of no use against the cold
I sat cross-legged in the
open door of the car
to stare at the Void

Mount Shasta appeared
—bald on top with snow at the base
framed in the picture window
of the open freight car door
like the Vision of Death

I could die in this boxcar
be gone without a trace and
no one to tell my story
—I thought

a sudden vision of death
engulfed me—
filled me with awe

if I’m to die today
am I afraid?
no—I thought
I will die in peace

staring in the face of
sparse cold and certain death
I felt a sense of calm

bring it on you
Old Grim Reaper
let it come quickly
for I am but a man
in the grips of death
subtly surprised by
my lack of

Boxcar Blues – Hotel

       James Claypool never did get an answer to his questions about Phoenix.
       His funeral services were held at the Desert Memorial Chapel. I went to see him off out of an odd sense of loyalty, I suppose. I mean, I stood right there when he croaked. Maybe I felt I owed it to the old guy. But, more importantly my curiosity was piqued. This strange little town, the City of Claypool was apparently named after its founder, Miron Claypool and had remained under the grip of his offspring through the hundred or so years since its founding. James Claypool was one of the those children of the great patriarch. This was important.
       The city was small, population 3500. With births offset by deaths, newcomers balanced out by the dying, its numbers stayed steady.
       Black asphalt boulevards, neatly painted with yellow and white traffic markings and dotted double lines were a quaint touch. Garish on a hot summer afternoon when the heat waves made them seem to bend like confetti, on a normal day they could be considered decorative. The town managed to keep a 1950s pastel stucco motif. Buildings painted pink and green, or made of light brick, with tinted glass storefronts were straight out of the Kodachrome era.

       At the funeral, his nephew the local Sheriff, gave the eulogy. Bill Richardson’s memorial speech for old Claypool was eloquent.
       “…honest and always ready with a kind word. Those who knew him well…” he narrowed his gaze in my direction, “ought to know what his dying wish might be, had he the chance to utter it.” Every eye in the small chapel turned to me.
       Don’t look at me, I glared back. It somehow seemed to make sense to everyone that I was responsible for the stroke that killed him. I was just a spectator after the fact. I countered their glares with my own dull look of innocent amusement.

       After the service I stepped out on a sunny winter’s day. The cotton ball clouds remained suspended in the afternoon sky, helping me shake the eerie drama played out in that stuffy parlor. I strolled up D Street to Second, where I had rented a room. The trains wouldn’t be running for a while, so I’d decided to stay at the Hotel. No name, just “Hotel”.
       It wasn’t too bad as far as small town hospitality goes. But it needed sprucing. The cactus palms arranged in the entrance were dry. The floor was dusty, tracked by the prints of countless loners and transients running from their pasts. Ripples ran in waves across the carpet, setting a path to the staircase, like the wake of a lonely ship at sea. The walls were smoke-stained. The ghosts of long dead cigars wafted from every crevice.
       I got my key from the clerk. I’d learned her name was Mei Lia. She’d landed in the City of Claypool when her parents bought the place with money her father saved from his Merchant Marine days. Behind the hotel desk, Mei Lia was a flower growing among weeds in a garden of desolation. I smiled at her as she handed me the key, a young woman who seemed as out-of-place in this Twilight Zone set as I felt.
       “Nice day outside,” I said, hoping to bring some cheer to her gloomy surroundings.
       “Ten yiu,” she said in broken English. Even though I’d spoken to her many times in my week in town, I still felt she wasn’t quite understanding everything I said to her. But, she had that smile, childlike and innocent, but as voluptuous as a movie star from an exotic island you only imagine in a dream. Without a word, she could light my day,
       From the Fujian Province in China, her family migrated to America by way of the Philippines. They settled in a village in Northern Luzon Island, where she grew up knowing nothing but wild tropical beaches and palm groves all her life. That is, until Claypool City.
       I could easily get to like this kid, I sighed to myself as I walked past the front desk.
       “Later,” I waved, the key in my hand.
       “He he. Yie.” She nodded, lowering her gaze, smiling, as if trying to comprehend every nuance of this strange new land and its people.
       “Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s just as strange to me.” I consoled her, knowing how difficult it was having to learn ‘America’ the hard way—in a small town like Claypool where no one spoke your language.
       I walked up two flights of stairs to my room. The hallway sported an avocado green floor covering. Or, was it mold? I never slowed my pace to check. Carpet, I assured myself.
       Inside, the room looked worse. Yellowed sheets on the bed and worn hardwood flooring, a single light bulb overhead, add the peeling plaster on the walls, the only thing missing were lights flashing outside through the window. I checked. Nope, no broken neon signs.
       But wait a minute!

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