Sunday, March 28, 2010

De train! De train!

Two years ago, I decided to move to LA from Chicago. If I learned anything from the experience, it’s this: Amtrak isn’t spelled with a “c.” Also, don’t take Amtrak.

My idea for taking the train was sound: I was traveling across the country—I might as well see the thing. Did I run the risk of being in an enclosed space for over 2 days? Sure. Did I compound that risk by not first locating where the bathrooms on the train were located? Undoubtedly. But it was a chance to do something unique, and like a fool, I took it.

My first clue that the trip would not be quite as I expected was when I boarded. Years of movie-watching had put a very specific image in my head. The men would all be fedora-wearing bankers. The women would all be smoking cigarettes from those absurdly long cigarette holders and wearing scarves, or shawls. (I’m fairly certain there’s no difference.) Teary-eyed couples would be waving at each other desperately as the train pulled its slow but inexorable way from the station.

What actually happened was I boarded the train and then we left. Not quite as dramatic as I’d have hoped. Yes, the seats reclined a lot further than usual. And yes, the train itself was more spacious. But with the amount of fanfare our departure had, I could have just as easily been taking it to the suburbs.

My second clue was that there were only two electrical outlets on the entire train. This was a major concern. “How many electrical outlets does your train have?” is a question I'd actually called up Amtrak to ask about. I had a laptop and a cell phone with me, and I was going to be on the train for 48 hours. Without those vital connections to modern day civilization (i.e. video games) I would be no better off than your everyday Mongolian cave dweller. To pass the time, I’d have to either craft my own games from materials I could scrounge from my surroundings, or talk to people. Neither option was likely.
But it was okay. Maybe my departure wasn’t super dramatic, but at least I was on my way. And if I had to wait a few hours for a charger, well, it wasn’t like I was going anywhere.

Then the train broke down in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

We, the passengers, weren’t really told what was happening. The train stopped in Albuquerque and it just didn’t start up again. And no offense to Albuquerque, but there’s nothing to do in Albuquerque. Not in their train station, at any rate.

Two hours later, we were on our way. It turned out that the engine had broken down. They do that sometimes, apparently. We got a freight engine called in from somewhere in New Mexico that was going to pull us the rest of the way. It would go ten miles an hour slower than the engine we were using before, but at least we’d be moving again.

My fourth clue that things were going wrong was when I woke up in the middle of the night with this realization: We weren’t moving. We hadn’t been moving in a while.

Frustrated, I tried to go back to sleep. Then I got clue number five. We were moving now, but we were moving backwards. Lovely.

We were scheduled to be in Los Angeles that morning. When I woke up, there was snow on the ground. (Snow is one of the classic signs that you’re not in LA.) 

So, remember that new freight engine? The one that was supposed to pull us the rest of the way? That one also broke, and now we were stranded in the middle of nowhere. Hundreds of miles away from Los Angles, we hadn’t even stopped in a station this time. We’d just stopped on the tracks.

One option was to get a third freight engine which would pull us even slower than the first one was going to, but Amtrak apparently decided to go the bus route. Four hundred miles outside of Los Angeles and hours after we’d stalled again, the passengers piled into Greyhound busses.

And so it was that, 58 hours after I left Chicago, I clambered off the bus at LA's Union Station. I managed to reclaim my luggage, though all the bags had been spread out randomly through the busses. One of the wheels had broken off an incredibly heavy bag I’d taken with, which at that point didn’t surprise me.

Amtrak’s motto: Enjoy the Journey. I guess they’re just trying to live up to their slogan by making sure the journey takes as long as possible. The upside is this: if Amtrak were an airline, they’d probably have charged me some sort of "extended service" fee.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


I wish playing with Legos was a socially acceptable activity for a 26-year-old.

Legos are awesome.

I know some of you fall into other camps. You got your Erector Set crew, you got your Lincoln Log crew. Some of you might even swear by K’nex, god help us.

But Legos can do anything. Get a green land piece, a wall, and four knights, and you got yourself a castle under siege. Add a few skeletons, and suddenly you have a horde of undead warriors attacking a human stronghold. Put parrots on the skeletons’ shoulders and now they’re pirate skeletons.

I used to do this all the time. I’d build huge, elaborate cities, where doors opened up to brick walls and astronauts fought dragons. Then I’d connect those cities to other cities, creating sprawling megalopolises. (Megalopoli?) When they invariably got destroyed (when my parents wanted their basement back, for example) all the pieces would get dumped into The Box.

The Box was—you guessed it—a box in which my brother and I stored all of our Legos. Every set we ever bought inevitably got dumped into The Box, and we had thousands of pieces. You want a red four-block? Check. A white single? No problem. One of those elusive double clear blocks? Sure thing. Or how about something a little more obscure? A flat, yellow two-fer? One of those pieces that has a hinge on it and, you know, kinda swings around so you can make walls move and stuff?

OK, so we didn’t have the greatest names for the pieces. Also, we didn’t have the best organization system. Sometimes it took over a half an hour of rooting through The Box to track down the one piece we needed. But we had faith. It was there, somewhere. The Box always came through.

But things, these days, have gotten worse. The state of the modern day Lego has declined dramatically.

Back in my day, (you whippersnappers) (that’s right), there were plenty of choices in the Lego aisle. Especially if you went to the bottom shelf—the expensive section. You had full-blown castles, with turrets and walls and everything. Or space stations, with see-through (futuristic!) pieces. Or a pirate town. A town.

But now, all Lego seems to sell are replicas of historic buildings, or ships. And half those ships are different size Millennium Falcons. It’s a fundamental shift in what Lego is supposed to be.

So listen here, Lego. Buildings are boring. (Tom Hanks proved it in Big.) I don’t care how accurately you can depict them. So are ships. If I wanted a model plane, I’d just buy a model plane at my local model plane store which doesn’t exist because no one likes model planes.

And don’t get me started on your movie-related Lego sets. If I wanted to see Block Indiana Jones fight off Block Nazis with a block-shaped whip, I’d just stick to dreaming about it like I normally do.

One day, I'd like to get married, have children. But how can I, in good conscience, bring a child into a world that doesn't have Lego castles? I'm not a monster.

So please, Lego. Get back to basics. More castles and pirates. Less Louvres and Millennium Falcons.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Walking is basically hiking, right?

I recently decided that I wanted to experience some nature. It had been a while. In Los Angeles, there are basically two types of “outdoorsy” things to experience: the ocean, and smog. I’m not a fan of either. Call me a perfectionist, but I like my nature to contain something green.

And so, like any experienced outdoorsman, my first stop was google. Los Angeles isn’t known for its hiking trails--by which I mean that I wasn’t familiar with any hiking trails in Los Angeles. So I searched “hiking in Los Angeles.” I was looking for something that might resemble trees, or even a forest.

In between checking my hotmail account, checking facebook, checking my gmail account, spending a few minutes on youtube, chatting on AIM, taking a break from all this internetting, and checking hotmail again, just in case, I managed to track down something which seemed promising. It was a hiking trail right off the highway that was rated “easy-to-moderate.”

I liked the fact that it was right off the highway—I wouldn’t have to walk too far to get to the trail once I got out of the car. Also, as much as I like nature in theory, I was well aware that the practice might be something far, far different. “Easy” sounded easy enough—but we’d see.

And so I hopped in the car and headed to the hill. As promised, it was right off the highway. As in, I got off the highway, pulled over to the right and there I was, in a small parking lot with a helpful sign informing me that parking was three dollars.

The fee seemed based on the honor system, as it was a simple box you stuck money into. I couldn't shake the image of angry park rangers emerging from the brush and towing my car while I was enjoying nature, though. So I stuck the few bills in the box and looked at the map next to it.

There wasn’t much to see on the map. Squiggly lines seemed to indicate trails, but there was nothing else to help me get a sense of scale. The squiggly lines could have led a mile down the trail or to Seattle, for all I knew.

Well, I came out to be adventurous, right? (Wrong. I was just looking for trees. See above.) So I figured, since I came all the way down the highway (17 minutes), I may as well see what’s up the dirt path.

It turns out, more dirt. Well, in all fairness, there were some greenish/brown shrubs in the distance, and one dead tree. But mostly it was hot sun, dry dirt and the roar of the highway.

That’s right—the view on top of the hill was actually overlooking the highway. I knew that the path was close to it, but I figured it would take me…I don’t know. Away from it. Not so much.

The trail continued. Stubborn, I trekked on, determined to find something green. Spoiler alert: I didn’t. I did manage to follow a “trail” that seemed to be created by road crew trucks. I also found more highway. But other than that, it felt as if I were simply walking through the desert. Which, in essence, I was.

All in all, my trip lasted about two hours. I didn’t find any trees, but I was proud of myself anyway. I hiked. Through a path that resembled a construction site overlooking a highway, but I hiked.

(By the way, if you ever find yourself on a “hike” through the desert, remember to bring water. I didn’t. It sucked.)

In the meantime, here’s a picture of everything I didn’t see:

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My PVB adventure.

Policy, as a concept, turns everyday, normal people like me and (I assume) you into unthinking, unfeeling automatons, capable only to spout their preprogrammed lines with no regard to context or common sense.

On a related note, I recently made a trip to the Parking Violations Bureau.

For the whys, see my previous post. Long story short, I stupidly underestimated the level of LA’s stupidity.

The PVB I went to is in a cramped little office that seems perpetually packed with customers. (Customers? Offenders? Lost souls?) When you come in, the first thing you do is take a number from a dispenser, like you’re in a deli from the ‘50s. I honestly didn’t know that people still used the take-a-number system. I thought that we had moved past such things with the advent of the “line,” but I was apparently mistaken.

I waited as patiently as I could, which is to say not very patiently at all. There were a few chairs available, but I didn’t feel especially inclined to sit next to the 90-year-old cowboy with a handlebar mustache who smelled like old cheese. I also didn’t really feel comfortable sitting next to the 300-pound woman in the back who kept stretching out her bubble gum with her hand, as if she was trying to see how far she could stretch it before it snapped. Then she crammed the entire thing back into her mouth to start the process over again.

So I started to pace. And as I paced, I ran through my battle plan.

“Always have a battle plan.” That’s my motto. Whether it’s arguing your way out of a ticket or shopping for groceries, always know the battle plan. And so I ran through the conversation as the numbers slowly ticked by.

ME: Hello, ma’am. I’d like to discuss this ticket to you.

(I hand her the ticket.)

AGENT: “It says here you parked in the red zone. Did you park in the red zone?”

ME: “Yes and no.”

AGENT: Oh? It sounds like this situation is more complex than it would first appear. I’m extremely interested in your side of the story.

ME: My pleasure. You see, I didn’t realize I had parked in the red zone. It was only an inch or so, maybe even less. And I was only in the zone for a moment or two. No harm was done, and in the future I’ll be certain to be more careful.

AGENT: I completely understand, sir. Let me tear this ticket up for you.

(She proceeds to tear up the ticket, and then burn the scraps.)

AGENT: Have a nice day.

This seemed like the most reasonable outcome, I assured myself. And so when my number came up, I walked up to the counter completely confident.

ME: Hello, ma’am. I’d like to discuss—

AGENT: Let’s see it.

(I slid the ticket beneath the bulletproof glass to her.

AGENT: It says here you parked in the red zone. Did you park in the red zone?

ME: Yes and no.

AGENT: So you admit guilt. That’s fifty-five dollars.

ME: No…I...

AGENT: Either you did or you didn’t. Were in your in the red zone?

ME: Technically yes, but—

AGENT: Cash or check? We don’t accept credit cards.

Thank you, government. Next time I’m just going to lie.