Friday, June 28, 2013

The Sci-Fi Bike Commute: Part II

"When I bought my bike last August and committed myself to riding to work, I added the following spontaneous and bizarre stipulation: I would listen exclusively to science fiction audiobooks."

Phase 5: Okay, We're All Just Going to Have to Adjust to the Way I Smell at Work

The Book: Hard science fiction. I always assumed that by "hard" they meant that the science in the book was extra sciencey. Something beyond, "Use the force, Luke." I assumed it meant that a story in this sub-genre would contain detailed descriptions of technical or theoretical concepts extrapolated from the forefront of modern scientific thought. Which is fine. I'm game. But I didn't realize that the "hard" just meant hard. As in, you will have a hard time understanding this. Not the science, but everything else. The deliberate obfuscations, the ridiculous character names, the repeated references to alien cultures not yet introduced. Give reader John Lee a thick Russian accent, juggle three intricate narratives all at once, and you have one bike commuter who is barely hanging on. But I do hang on, not because I'm in love with the story, but because I know a good challenging text usually has a nice payoff. In the case of Revelation Space, I figure things out just in time to appreciate the climax. But fuck off if you think I'm rereading this to pick up all the pieces I dropped. A nice book, but I'm not diving into the next one just yet.

The Ride: The population of homeless people seems to triple when you move through the city on a bike. You see what's happening in the little corners, behind the trees, down in the hidden gulches. Bike paths often take you through less crowded spaces that can abut against actual nature. One morning I ride past a man and woman camping out behind a dense pinion scrub along a marina access road. She is getting dressed. I see her in all her glory, her big pale breasts and lady parts. I'm not peeping. I'm just riding along trying to figure out who the hell the Pattern Jugglers are, and then, Wham! I'm not going to get all self-righteous about cycling vs. driving, but I do know you don't get boobies on the 405. I love this about riding, the discovery of new subcultures, like these campers living off the grid. You feel like you're focusing in. Starting to appreciate the layers of complexity. Not discovering new worlds, but seeing the ones that have been there all along.

The Confluence: The honeymoon is over. There's a natural recalibration. Enthusiasm for my sci-fi audiobook requirement wanes, along with my enthusiasm for pedaling to work in the dark and pedaling home into a headwind that seems to get gnarlier by the day. I break a spoke, which warps my wheel, which messes up my brakes. Trying to make sense of Revelation Space is registering as real world stress. I push my bike through the door at work and I feel the crush of responsibility. And I'm dripping wet and I stink, and running my hair under a faucet and slathering on some Old Spice isn't fooling anyone. I'm uncomfortable and self-conscious. And this new job, the real impetus for the biking project, is starting to unexpectedly suck ass. I'm overwhelmed. I need a book the drives itself, not one that I have to pedal.

Phase 6: Pigeons, I Swear to God. I Will Run You the Fuck Over!

The book: I'm looking at the cover art and reading the title and I'm just not thinking science fiction. And after Revelation Space I'm craving something light and breezy. Am I headed instead for something dense and Catholic and austere? I'm I stumbling towards an early round TKO? Will it be back to Adam Carolla, Bill Simmons, and Howard Stern? Back to the Toyota? I don't know. I'm going all in with A Canticle for Leibowitz. Catholics in Space. Whatever. I just know it's highly regarded, a classic among classics to restore faith in my project. Amen. And...I love this book. I realize I love any book with a Devil character. He really is the ultimate antagonist. I'm also a fan of the Alyosha archetype, the simple honest aesthete who cannot understand the motivations of evil people because he cannot comprehend what evil even is. Throw these two guys in the ring together and you get some brilliant debate. The book is also surprisingly funny as it mocks the pettiness that not even nuclear annihilation can stamp out of us.

The Ride: Much of the difference between riding a bike and driving a car is the speed at which the world passes beneath you. And in general I'd say it's good to slow down, even to walking speed if you have the time, if you really want to see everything. Unless we're talking about road kill. Road kill is best observed at supersonic speeds. Driving past a squashed raccoon is grim enough, but cycling past one that's still warm is a genuine horror. I've seen pigeons, seagulls, ravens, bunnies, ducks, possums, and raccoons. Some pancaked flat, some with their insides sprayed out their own mouths. You can't just look away on a bike the way you can in a car. It takes too long to move past the scene. You see entrails and eyeballs and pools of dark blood. Even the next day when the corpse is gone, either scavenged by animals or picked up by someone very very low on the municipal employee ladder, there's still that stain. That stain never goes away. I know exactly where each one is on the route. I anticipate the discoloration on the concrete, to rekindle the image in my mind. Worst of all are my own close calls with pigeons and bunnies, and the inevitability they suggest. Some day I will run something over. And it's not going to die quickly or painlessly. And I'll probably go ass over elbow myself in the process. I picture myself with two skinned knees and a bloody ear crawling over to some terminally wounded mallard and wringing its neck while its mate panic-quacks nearby. And then I have to throw the corpse into the river and show up at work and have people tell me I look like shit.

The Confluence: Nuclear Panic. Cold War paranoia. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a story of its time. Not exactly a cautionary tale, but a tale that says get ready because it's going to happen, and it might even have happened before. And here I am right next to major ports and airports. We live in a dangerous world that may be on the brink of some bad things happening. Riding my bike along the beach I am close enough to the city's infrastructure, but I'm also out in the open, with a long wide stretch of sand, a vast ocean, and a near-complete hemisphere of sky above. I can't tell if I'm free or not, implicated or not, separate-from, or connected-to. So much for getting a little exercise to clear your head.

Phase 7: I've Been Wearing My Helmet Backwards This Whole Time

The Book: Another scaled-down sci-fi tale. No epic struggles for the fate of mankind or big-picture perspectives. Really just a straight-forward Blade Runner-style detective noire, set in a world where consciousness can be uploaded and downloaded and bodies are just "sleeves". Good book, but problematic for the audio narration. The main character is a laid-back, done-it-all, seen-it-all, badass. He's cold-blooded and emotionally detached. And because the story's told in the first person, the reader has to mimic this stoic delivery. It makes for some dry narration. This is the first time I've really felt the audio version might have let the source material down. And here's another stray observation: this is the second sci-fi book I've "read" as part of this project that deals with the future of incarceration. Apparently, if you kill a bunch of people in the future you get put in biological stasis for a really long time. But you're asleep and you don't age. Then they wake you up and set you free. This not only sounds way better than our current model, where we lock you up and steal the hours of your life, it actually sounds like a cool form of time travel.

The Ride:  There are a lot of people in this city who fish for their meals. They fish from piers, from the beach, and from one particular pedestrian bridge that's along my route. This bridge spans an urban river whose journey from the rim of the basin to the ocean takes it through a comprehensive gauntlet of awfulness. It's primary source is the snowfall that drifts down through a haze of smog. The snow melt then travels the slopes of perpetually burned out and eroding foothills, through rock quarries, landfills, and industrial manufacturing non-residential zones. Then it passes a handful of freeways, weaves its way through some dense clusters of public housing and transportation/shipping hubs, to finally emerge in a "protected" wetland. The water flow is managed by the city, and when they let it drop you can see the grim sludge cake the boulders along its banks. When it rains and the water level rises, the ever present Cheetos bags bob on the surface like the salmon used to. And people pull fish out of this water and feed their families. They drink beer while they're doing this, and smoke cigars. They sit on buckets and eat sandwiches. They laugh a lot, men and women and sometimes their kids. I don't know what to make of it. I don't know if it's a beautiful thing or a disgusting thing. I don't know. I just know it doesn't matter what I think.

The Confluence: Most of the time, finding the intersection of the sci-fi audiobook experience and the bike commute experience requires me to get a little up in my head. It takes some amateur philosophizing (for which I apologize). But I insist on documenting this confluence because the sensations and observations are sincere, even if there is no literal connection. I'm not listening to books about Lance Armstrong, urban development, or Kitty Hawk. I'm listening to books about spaceships, transferable consciousness, alien civilizations, and overly willful A.I.'s. Any connection I make between the world-of-the-future in my headphones and my wheeled analogue transport frame must, by nature, be figurative. Right? Right? I mean, it's not like I'm going to stumble into the Matrix, or get swallowed by a wormhole, or look up at the sky and...see overhead. Wait, what is that? I'm not even kidding. Flashing in and out of the clouds. IT'S AN ACTUAL FUCKING SPACESHIP! Like an earthquake during an earthquake drill. The Space Shuttle Discovery strapped to the back of plane, circling the city at low elevation. The confluence is real.

Click here to read Part III

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Eating and Drinking in Chicago: Part II

We somehow concluded that we had to eat deep dish pizza in Chicago. Constantly drinking on vacation usually leaves me with a permanent bloat buzz and the idea of piling down butter crust was hard to rally around. But the front desk guy said Giordano’s, which was a five minute walk from the hotel. He said we had to go. He said he was glad we asked him, otherwise we  might have ended up at Uno’s or Malnati’s, and missed out on the real Chicago Pizza experience. Yawn. Thanks. We got there in no time and paced around out front. We weren’t really feeling it, either the necessary hunger or the vibe of the place. Plus it was still light out. And there were kids inside the restaurant. I saw a waitress walk by with a bundle of straws in her apron.  No, my wife said. But we’re here. No. Change of plans. We crossed over the interstate and headed back downtown, across the canal to South Branch Tavern. This was more the kind of place we were looking for. One with a good wine list. We shared a large high-top table with a friendly local couple. We stayed in the bar area and had a couple glasses of wine. We didn’t eat. Go to Wicker Park, we were told. According to these locals, it was the hip place to eat and drink. And it certainly did sound hip. Nothing cooler than patio furniture. I would go back to South Branch Tavern.

A cab ride later and we were walking the streets of Wicker Park, which was full of people and restaurants and nice looking bars. The plan was to hop around, eat a bit here, a bit there. Drink. We stopped in at the Blue Line Grill, which was packed with attractive youngsters, well dressed, mellow and modest. There wasn’t an empty table in sight, but we did score two empty bar stools. We order nachos. I’d noticed that Chicago is a real nachos town,  which was unexpected. British Columbia is the same way. Just tons of nachos, served aggressively on platters, sometimes elevated platters. And these nachos had braised buffalo. They were delicious.  The orders kept coming. I think every group at the bar had an order. So the food was great. The drinks on the other hand…well, I just should know better. Never order Mojitos just because they’re on special. Especially in a crowded bar. It’s a labor-intensive drink for a busy bartender, so they’re not made right. I ended up with a sour mouth and a bellyful of sugar. And a  guaranteed hangover. I would go back to the Blue Line Grill.

The next day. Another beautiful morning for cruising the city with a hot cup of coffee. We walked along the canal to the river, then along the river, along the famous corridor of massive buildings gleaming in the sunlight. We headed to River North for the elusive deep dish pizza. I was still skeptical about whether or not I actually needed this experience. But it was going to happen. There was a line at Malnati’s and we stood and waited. We were given the option to pre-order the pizza so we picked the Classic Chicago and waited until they called our name. It wasn’t long before a very nice girl leads us into the bowels of the restaurant. I was looking around as we twisted and turned through dining rooms. Where are the windows? What about air conditioning? I was getting less enthusiastic by the second, and almost suggested we just turn around and leave. To come out of this great city of tall windows and light, only to eat heavy pizza in some claustrophobic den seemed bad. Wrong. Wrong again! I wanted to go back to the airport and start over. Up the stairs we climbed, into the heat, into a small room with no windows and ten tables. I saw our destination, a tiny table next to the kitchen door, next to the tray of dirty dishes. No please, I told the hostess. So we went back down the stairs and waited some more. I started to worry that our pre-ordered pizza would be ready soon. But then I saw they were cleaning a nice bar table next to the window, a table with light and a view of the city streets. They called my name and we were led, not to the bar table, but back into the restaurant. The new table was fine. I was going to relax and enjoy myself, though I was already underwhelmed by Malnati’s. And then our waiter showed up. He was young and nervous, very, very unnecessarily nervous. And he was a comedian too. Awkward and tone-deaf, and bad at his job, the physicality of it, the movements and gestures. Oh lord. We ordered two beers and the house salad with crunchy blue cheese stuff and bits of cured meat, and the world was good again. Then the pizza arrived and it looked great. I hadn’t eaten since buffalo nachos. The waiter handled the hot pie pan with a clamp and set it on the table. He used a spatula to separate each slice. We watched. He shook nervously. He moved a slice onto my wife’s plate, cheese ribbons falling across the table, steam rising. This thing was looking great. Then the next slice came out of the pan, into the air, over to my plate…and then disaster! Titanic-grade disaster! The slice was somehow flipped on the descent. Upside down, it landed with a table-shaking thud, half on the plate, half on the table. Is this happening? Then this flunky of a waiter used his grubby fingers to pick it up, to pivot the glob of pizza-matter, and flip it onto my plate. I looked at this big mess of red gunk that was my lunch. Oh, sorry, he said. It’s my third day. Go away! I told him. That’s all I want is for you to go away. At this point we just had to laugh. I stole a fresh plate from an empty table and scooped out a new slice from the pan. What can I say? The pizza was damn good. Especially the inch-thick layer of sausage. This thing had density! Hungry as I was, I could only eat one slice. We got the check. The waiter asked if we wanted the rest boxed up and I told him no, he could have it. He thanked me. And thank you, world’s worst waiter ever. I would not go back to Malnati’s. But I might order it to go.

We strolled along random streets, moving along the river. We ended up on the Magnificent Mile. Tourist Central. This is the one place you can go in Chicago and basically find all the same stuff they have in your own hometown. We came upon an ingenious little place called Eno, next to a steakhouse owned by some famous Chicago basketball player. I forget his name. Anyway, Eno served wine, cheese, chocolate, and a few other small plates. There were lots of windows looking out on busy streets. This was the perfect restaurant concept to plunk down in the middle of a tourist shopping district. They offered several different wine flights from various countries, all reasonably priced. They also had chocolate flights and cheese flights. Are there any two words in the language that sound better together than cheese flight? “The cheese flight will be departing from gate 12 in fifteen minutes…” I was really regretting lunch at Malnati’s now, as this place was so much more interesting. So we drank wine. The building across the street had odd shaped bricks worked into the masonry. Everyone was stopping to investigate. When we left Eno, I checked it out. Some of the bricks in the building were actually taken from the world’s major architectural sites. What a clever idea, especially in this city of great buildings. There were bricks from the pyramids in Giza, from Angkor Wat, and the Coliseum in Rome. I would go back to Eno.

We briefly returned to the hotel and then took a stroll through the Fulton Market district. Eventually we met up with some friends and went to a late dinner at Macello. It’s a very good sign any time you have to walk through an Italian delicatessen to get into a restaurant’s dining room. The place was packed. It was dark and loud and there was a roaring pizza oven built into a brick wall. This was the place. This was the place I imagined I’d eat in Chicago. They quickly served up fresh bread with pressed garlic and Parmesan cheese, with vinegar and oil. I mixed it all up into my own tasty dipping sludge. Lots of wine was ordered . Then seafood appetizers were devoured. Then dinner came. I ordered some kind of cioppino hybrid, one of the daily specials. It was great. It had fish and clams and scallops and lobster in a light broth with some pasta too. Other meals looked delicious as well. My wife had pasta gamberi, which I didn’t even try because my own meal was so spectacular. The waiter, apparently, had messed up most of the other orders. But nobody cared, least of all the waiter. That’s really all I remember. It was the perfect meal, the perfect Chicago experience. Then we left and walked along Lake Street under the El train with no one else around. I would go back to Macello (as long as someone else is paying).

In the morning we went back toward Fulton Market. We stopped for breakfast at GEB on Randolf. Here, we got a different take on Chicago food. Instead of the dark, Old World charm of Macello, we got the Food Network hipster bistro. Yes, the staff is ignoring you. Yes, the bartender is no bartender, he’s a mixologist! The chef, who either has been, is currently, or will soon be, a contestant on Top Chef was perfect. Attractive and stern, she had the whole place on edge, which made me want a drink. I ordered a Bloody Mary, which took twenty minutes to “craft”, and came with a pastrami sandwich garnish. The restaurant just screamed make fun of me, please! I’ve put my menus in record sleeves! I’m playing seventies rock music because that’s totally not what you’d expect to hear (or is it?). It’s ironically ironic. It’s…really crowded…really expensive…and really good. I ordered eggs Florentine and my wife got the biscuits and gravy. I was emasculated in my favorite way to be emasculated when the waitress set the biscuits and gravy in front of me and I had to tell her I ordered the something Florentine.  I’m usually a little disappointed when I see a fancy small portion set down in front of me, especially at breakfast. But it does make me eat slower and savor each bite, and ultimately enjoy the meal without feeling (more) like a bloated glutton afterwards. The egg dish had Irish rashers and a toasted crumpet. The biscuits and gravy towered high above the plate and were topped with a poached egg.  The gravy was red-eye gravy, meaty and gooey and awesome.  I ordered a second Bloody Mary for dessert because they were not very tasty, not very strong, and they only cost ten dollars each. We were having fun. I’m not sure if it was fun fun, or ironic fun. But as long as the two guys cooking kept sulking and the chef kept up her scowling fascist micromanaging, as long as she kept screaming, “Service!” every fifteen seconds, I wasn’t going anywhere. Eventually, though, we had to leave. I would go back to GEB.

My wife had a meeting and I was alone again, in a part of Fulton Market that was completely shut down and abandon. But I checked the map on my phone. There was something called The Aberdeen Tap not far away. It sounded like they served beer. As I walked, I realized everything needed to have its picture taken: the railroad tracks, the weeds growing from a dirty puddle under an overpass. The highrise city in the distance. Even the cracks in the sidewalk. It had taken a few days, but now I was seeing the city. I was shocked the bar was actually open when I got there, since nobody was around in the neighborhood. Inside there were a few people sitting and watching baseball. Again I was confronted with an extraordinary beer menu and a bartender who really knew his stuff. But he was also torturing customers by literally playing the worst songs he could think of. It was an interesting and ineffective business strategy. I would go back to The Aberdeen Tap.

I wandered back through the empty streets, past Harpo Studios, past unfortunate  guys taking pictures of their girlfriends in front of the Oprah Winfrey Show sign. I spotted the Haymarket Brewery, a big, obvious place I was expecting to underwhelm (so why did I go in there?), but I found it to be quite nice. It was loud and busy, and the beers were all great. I had all of them.  I kept expecting these jaded city bartenders to have short fuses, but none did. Not in Chicago. No attitude, no seething. Just friendly faces and occasional free pints. I would go back to The Haymarket Brewery.

During that dinner at Macello we were told we must have a drink at RL. We, apparently, would not be allowed to leave the city if we failed to have this experience. So we cabbed it back to the Magnificent Mile and clawed our way through the crowd to a seat at one of the bar tables. We drank a couple glasses of wine, sat, and watched. It was certainly a beautiful space, but I must have missed something. The highlight of RL was the trip to the bathroom, past the rich old people, the dressed-up miserable kids with their forced hair-parts and cowlicks, the old wooden elevator, which was oddly sadistic. Every bladder knows exactly how long it has until the moment of voiding. Throw an occupied elevator into the mix and you’re got a lot of people standing around doing a little dance and humming to themselves. I would not go back to RL.

We were also told to eat at Gibson’s. On a Saturday night. Yikes. What lagging economy? Every inch of the place was stuffed with people. We hung out for a few seconds to see if a bar table would open up, and then we left. We wandered along North Rush, looking for any place with seats. We ended up at a French restaurant called Zinc. This being our last meal in Chicago we wanted to do something crazy. So I ordered the roast chicken and my wife had a grilled cheese (croque). We also had a special gnocchi appetizer with brown butter and sage and seasonal squash. Best gnocchi ever, according to my wife. Nothing snarky to observe, nothing strange, overly good or overly bad. Just a nice French restaurant like any other nice French restaurant. Good service and good coffee. I would go back to Zinc.

Our last stop was The Wit. I was done for the night but my wife had to meet our hosts for one last goodbye. There was a line around the corner to get into the rooftop club so we ended up at the sports bar next to the lobby. We had a quick drink and then we were treated to a driving tour of Chicago by night. A perfect end to another great trip.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Eating and Drinking in Chicago

We got to O’Hare late at night on a Wednesday and took a cab to our hotel, The Crown Plaza Metro, right along the freeway in the heart of Greektown. The hotel itself was fine—comfortable, reasonably priced, and well situated for exploring Chicago in any direction. After checking in, I asked the man at the front desk if the hotel’s restaurant or bar was open. He said neither was open, and handed me a delivery menu for a local pizza and subs place. I don’t need pizza you imbecile, I need a drink! But I took the menu up to the room and read it anyway, because I like to know what different restaurants put on Italian subs. I looked online for some local places that might still be open, and learned there were several nearby. I wondered why the front desk guy hadn’t been more helpful. Did my wife and I not look like the kind of people who wanted to hang out with Greektown cabbies? We walked two blocks to Spectrum on Halstead.

The Spectrum bartender was a good fellow who tended his bar in a very literal sense. That’s not to say he was nice or friendly or welcoming. He wasn’t. But that’s okay. I liked how when he was bored and didn’t know anyone was paying attention, he pumped all the wine-by-the-glass bottles to make sure they stayed fresh. Once you’ve worked in restaurants and bars you can’t help but notice these things. He served us two-dollar draft Budweisers just to remind me, as I’m always reminded, just how badly they gouge you in Los Angeles. A baseball game was on, volume and all, and clusters of locals ate hot wings and drank strange amber liquors. The second the final out was in the books, the music came on, some kind of weird pre-Yanni electro-polka. I ordered the chicken soulvaki and my wife ordered the pork soulvaki. The bartender put a generic ketchup squeeze bottle on the counter and I instinctively knew that these were going to be some damn good fries. Two more beers in fresh cold mugs and the sandwiches arrived, mine on flatbread, my wife’s in a pita. Which was confusing. Is there some subtle culinary distinction between kabobed chicken and kabobed pork, requiring different breads, or had they simply run out of pitas? It turned out not to matter since my wife’s pita basically exploded on impact, as they will, and we both forked and knifed our way through the meal. Excellent food. Excellent fries. Another beer and another beer and I felt like people were staring. What? I just got off a plane, okay? We paid the check and went to bed. I would go back to Spectrum.

In the morning of the next day we took an easy stroll from the hotel to the downtown area. It’s just so incredibly satisfying to be on vacation in a big city where almost everyone else is working. Eventually we went to the museum, which was amazing. Lots of great stuff from all over the world, great historical relics, and several classic works I never expected to see in person. When we left the museum I felt enlightened and sophisticated. And I was famished. It’s a genuine thrill when you travel, to reach that point in the day when you’ve accomplished all the necessary cultural stuff, and really all there is left to do is eat and drink. This feeling is especially wonderful if you’re in one of the great food cities of the world. So we went to Bennigan’s. I really can’t explain this absurd decision, other than to say I was in a delirium of art-fatigue and hunger. I used to work at Bennigan's in Boston. And the Bennigan’s in Chicago smelled exactly like that place did, which was crazy. I don’t know why I didn’t turn us around the second I caught that whiff. We strolled to the bar. I recognized the odor of stale bar-funk and sticky countertops marinated in lager. I recognized the distant familiar scent of kid’s crayons melted on the floor heaters. I ordered a large beer, which was served warm and flat in a nice hot glass. Perfect. Then it was on to the overpriced food and bad service. Which would all have been fine and very much expected, if I hadn’t kept thinking about how close we still were to the museum, to Van Gogh’s bedroom.  It bothered me, this juxtaposition of the shabby and the sublime. The tilted walls and wicker chairs deserve to be far away from this abomination.

So do Renoir’s Sisters.

And the huge Technicolor Mao.

Anyway, my wife enjoyed her half-Monte Cristo (“Molto Crisco”, we used to call it) with a side salad. She had never had one before (a Monte Cristo) and she loved that deep-fried pastry thing with jam and fatty meat and gooey cheese. She was sure they’d given her a full sandwich by mistake, but oh no, I explained. As a former employee, I knew the portions were absurd, and reminisced about the post-church Boston crowd, and how I had seen many individuals devour an entire Monte Cristo, plus the fries and extra sides of jam. I believe, in all seriousness, that it is the world’s single most calorie-packed lunch option. For myself, I tried to go with something they couldn’t screw up, a half-club sandwich and a Caesar salad. When they set it down I knew there was nobody to blame but myself. I will never go back to Bennigan’s.

I put my wife in a cab, since she was actually in Chicago to work. I was alone, playing hooky, buzzing mildly from the two Sam Adams schooners. In Chicago. Chicago! How on earth have I been to godforsaken Miami three times and this was my first trip to Chicago?  I fingered the museum ticket in my pocket. Could do the mature thing. The right thing.  Could go back in there. Buzzed. Could look at the Medieval shit again, the polished armor. Could get one more hot flat beer and rehit the museum. The pole lances. Could maybe look at some more pole lances. Maybe a renaissance era vanity. But no. There was baseball to watch with Happy Hour locals. Real culture.

With no specific place in mind I turned up Adams St. and wandered to Wabash and found an old-school looking restaurant/bar called Miller’s Pub. Maybe a tourist trap, maybe not. It was hard to tell. I scrambled in and took a seat at the bar. I was handed a beer menu heavy on the Belgian options. I smiled. I made an enthusiastic comment to the person next to me and was ignored. The person on the other side of me suggested I order the pumpkin ale, so I had to ignore her. I ended up with something Trappist I couldn’t pronounce, which was fine since the bartender couldn’t pronounce it either. Great beer in hand I settled in, watched some of the game, and tried to form some early opinions about Chicago. First off, what did I already know? Well, there was famous the poem, the American Lit standard by Ryne Sandburg, er…Carl Sandburg. Wait, how are two of the most famous people I associate with Chicago both named Sandberg? A delivery truck guy stopped in for his usual, a scotch and something, which he ordered with a silent nod and paid for with three one-dollar bills. He didn’t even bother to sit down. He slurped his drink and left. It seemed strange at first, but then again, why are only business-type people celebrated for drinking on the job, and not the rest of us? Good for you, local blue-collar alcoholic! The bartender keep trying to get me to order a shrimp cocktail. Because that’s why everyone comes to Chicago? I just ate, I told him. At Bennigan’s, I didn’t tell him. I would go back to Miller’s Pub, if necessary.

On to Franklin Tap. This was a loud crowded bar focused on the baseball game. I wondered how so many people got so drunk so quickly. It was only four in the afternoon. Then I realized it wasn’t a Happy Hour crowd; it was a baseball crowd. They’d been there all day. They were good folks though, friendly boozers who offered up a barstool when they found out I was from out of town. The guy next to me got his check and my beer was on his bill. “I thought you guys were together,” the bartender told us. We looked at each other. “I’ve never seen this asshole in my life,” he told her. We knocked glasses. I gave the guy a five for my beer. Later, the bartender wouldn’t give a too drunk woman her keys. Didn’t know bars still collected keys from known degenerates. I liked that. I considered another beer but decided to move on. Nothing specifically compelling there, though I was impressed by the bartender’s patience with several testy guys yelling to get the channel changed. I think if you come from the west coast you have a tendency to lump Chicago in with Boston and New York and Philadelphia. But Chicago’s not nearly as cold as those places, personality wise. There’s a friendly current running beneath the drunk sports watching angst—it matters, but not that much. Then, I heard this phone conversation happening next to me:

Hey mom....
No, I’m at a bar...
No, I’m by myself...
Did I tell you my car got fucked up?

I would go back to Franklin Tap, if necessary.

I headed back out to the city and found myself at the foot of the Sears Tower, or whatever they call it now. Looking up at it, with clouds sailing past, swaying a bit from the beer, I felt an inspirational giddiness. I understood how a building could be something profound. I leaned my back against it and stared along the flank, up, up, up, so perfectly straight. I moved on. I took a left, then a right, then a left, working the city, crossing against lights, the wind twisting through the concrete trenches.


City of the Big Shoulders. 

I never got the name of the next bar, though it was very similar to the last one, a bar and grill built into the bottom floor of a high-rise, a type of restaurant location I always associate with mediocrity. Then that weird thing happened where you sit at a barstool and immediately the person to your right and your left both get up and leave. Even though the checks were paid before I walked in the door, it was hard to not take it personally. Just as my beer arrived, my phone rang and I took the call outside.

Where are you?
I don’t know.
Are you close?
I don't know. I think so.
What are you doing.
Um, just, I don't know. Drinking.
Should I come meet you?
I don't know where I am. I can’t see any street signs.
How much have you had?
I'll come meet you.

I hurried back to my barstool and downed my drink. Then I was back on the road, across the interstate, into the lobby, up the elevator, into my room, where my wife was waiting, all decked out. We should we go out on the town, she said, get some drinks, see what’s happening?
Uh…sure, okay.

Click here to read Part II

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Sci-Fi Bike Commute

When I bought my bike last August and committed myself to riding to work, I added the following spontaneous and bizarre stipulation: I would listen exclusively to science fiction audiobooks. No music, no podcasts, no waves crashing. Not even the profound genius of my own inner monologue. Nothing else would be authorized in this newly conceived and newly sacred venue. I signed-up with Overdrive through my county library and cross-referenced their catalogue with a list of books I compiled from trolling blogs with postings like, "The 50 Greatest Science Fiction Books Ever Written!" or, "The 10 Science Fiction Books Everyone Should be Reading!" I didn't go into this venture a complete sci-fi rookie. I've read the first four Ender books, the Zahn Star Wars books, the first four Foundation books, Dune...and that's about it. Got my new bike, my new helmet, and my stylish blue milk crate ziptied to the back fender rack. Off we go, minor spoilers ahead!

Phase 1: My Ass Hurts All the Time

The Book: Compelling mystery, cool science, cheesy dialogue, gratuitous sex, and a balls-out alien invasion. Perfect place to start. The title gives a lot away, a la Return of the King, but even knowing what's going to happen doesn't stop me from appreciating how it happens. I particularly love the chapters told from the Prime's point-of-view, the origin story of MorningLightMountain and the "interrogation" of Dudley and his companion (Those aren't his sensor stalks!). The book is read by John Lee, who has his hands full managing a sprawling cast, and some dubious technobabble. He's pretty great, and I'm not sure if I enjoy this book so much because of the great story, or just because it's nice to have an old English guy in your head for a couple hours a day. 

The Ride: I'm fortunate that most of my route is on a bike path along the beach. I also pass a major airport, where huge planes land and take off just above my head. This never gets old, but I can't seem to watch a plane fly out over the ocean without also imagining it exploding. I also pass an RV campground that smells awful every morning. I wonder what these people are eating. I wonder how any of them can even sleep. I'm serious. The smell is inexplicably thick in the air. In my mind I associate it all somehow with RV culture.

The Confluence: I discover very early on that the story, the narrator, the bike route, and the physicality of riding, all coalesce into this wonderful nebulous sensation. It's transportive and surreal, and even gives me a bit of swagger, as if I know things and have been places of great importance.

Phase 2: Just How Many Hot Cheetos Are We Going to Eat?

The Book: Really just a continuation of Pandora's Star. Still not sure which character is supposed to be Judas. Doesn't matter. I don't enjoy this one as much. The long, long chase scenes can be hard to picture, and certain intensely foreshadowed events don't really amaze when they actually happen. I want more scenes with the Bose Motile. And the whole genocide-is-wrong argument seems ridiculous, considering who the Primes are. And the absurd escalation of weaponry sounds a lot like a battle between Gillette and Schick. But really I love the story. I do. And Hamilton has to be credited for the richness of his imagination.

The Ride: Friday mornings and Monday mornings on the bike path are depressing. The amount of trash left from Thursday night bonfires and weekend parties is shocking. I know some of it gets pulled out of garbage cans by seagulls, but most of it is scattered by humans. It takes an army of tractors pulling sifters, and guys cruising around with trash pokers to get the beach area all clean again. This usually happens by Thursday morning, just in time for it to get re-trashed. Frito Lay has to take some responsibility here. I'm not kidding. I'd say 99.8% of the trash is Doritos and Cheetos bags. The remaining 0.2% is a mix of Solo cups, diapers, exploded firecrackers, and Capri Sun straws. Thank goodness I watch busloads of convicts in reflective vests pull into the various beach parking lots as I go by in the morning. Presumably they pick up trash too.

The Confluence: Geographically, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained take place across many worlds scattered throughout our galaxy. The setting of the story covers an absurd amount of real estate. And the author is British. So imagine my surprise when a Starflyer agent escapes the authorities by diving into the exact marina I AM RIDING MY BIKE PAST AS I'M LISTENING and then disappears down a canal THAT IS ACROSS THE STREET FROM WHERE I WORK!

Phase 3: I Owe the RV Campers and Men in Reflective Vests an Apology

The Book: I welcome the whimsy of Niven's story and Grover Gardner's brilliant narration, especially after the brutally deadpan and humorless Commonwealth books. I'm already realizing a huge peril (or delight) about audiobooks, which is that the narrator's voice becomes an essential element of the story. The reader sets the tone in ways the author may not have intended. So some of the purity of the reading experience is lost. But then again, if the reader is good at his job, and the tone is effective, where's the foul? That's one of the reasons I think I chose science fiction for this project. Though many of the books are great, I don't consider them sacred literary cows. I mean, look at that picture of Nessus above.  This isn't Cormac McCarthy we're dealing with. Much of the Ringworld experience is about real science, imagining the actual structure, how it functions as a physical object. I spend a lot of time thinking about gravity and light spectrums and atmospheric density. This element of the book contrasts perfectly with the absurd characterizations, the floating buildings, and the actual ridiculous plot.

The Ride: Okay, this is embarrassing. You know the busloads of guys in reflective vests I assumed were convicts coming to clean up the beach? Well...turns out they're not convicts. And their job isn't to clean up the beach. In fact, they're employees who work at a local power plant along my route. There's not enough on-site parking, and since the beach lots are mostly empty during the week, they have permits and are shuttled to work. Not only was I wrong, I might have also been a tad racist. And I was wrong about another thing too. You know those good folks and their RV culture, the ones I accused of stinking up the beach with their fried-Snickers farts? Well...turns out there's an enormous sewage treatment plant about a hundred yards from the campground. These poor folks are victims! In fact, as a local resident, I may very well be partly responsible for stinking up their good time.

The Confluence: Humans are lucky. We exist and thrive in spite of ourselves. This is what I like most from Ringworld. Riding along the beach in the morning, there's sometimes a sunrise, a planet, or a moonset. I even saw a shooting star once. There's a very real sensation that I live on a rock in space. I watch the planes take off and land and think about how goddamn precise they need to be. I think about how my bike doesn't tip over as long as I have momentum, how there are physical laws, and within those laws, biological laws, and how it's somehow all tuned so perfectly for our survival. There really might not be anyone else out there. That's how lucky we are.

Phase 4: What Is It About Traveling On Two Wheels That Turns People into Such Assholes?

The Book: Back to earth. In every sense. If you're a writer who grew up in the seventies and eighties, with Atari and Star Wars and all that other stuff, then this book is just depressing. Because it's so good, so relentlessly entertaining. And so...obvious. Why didn't I write this? Well, because hidden underneath all the pandering madcap geek referencing is a very well crafted novel. It's not something just anyone could have done, and the fact that it feels so easy and effortless is just more proof that Ernest Cline deserves the millions he's making right now. Wil Weaton's narration is perfect. I'm three-for-three on that account so far. Maybe everything just sounds great when you're riding a bike. I don't know. I haven't devoured a book this compulsively, maybe ever. I'd say I've read better books, books that have stuck with me or even changed my life. But what's the real test? That look-the-fuck-out-ima-read-this-book! feeling isn't something you get with Faulkner.

The Ride: I'm already unclear about which type of motorcyclist is the bigger asshole, the Harley revving three-year-old trapped in a man's body, or the crotch-rocket psychopath who's going to get me killed on the freeway. Really, it's a toss-up. I hate them all. And now I've discovered a sub category of two-wheeled dickheads, the Alphatards. These are the guys in the Lycra bodysuits advertising oil companies and...the Post Office! And that's all fine I guess, and who am I to judge work-out fashions, except that they ride with a sense of entitlement, and a complete lack of joy, and they shine ridiculously high-powered headlights into my eyeballs, and yell at kids and beach goers, and RIDE WAY FASTER THAN I DO!

The Confluence: This is all pretty obvious, that riding a bike is really a child's game. Sure, it can serve a real purpose in the adult world, but when you're 38 years old and hop on a bike for the first time in a long time, you're immediately reminded of your childhood. You think back to your first bike, your first crash. And that's Ready Player One all the time, just a full surge beam of pure nostalgia. And it's not cheap or pandering or any less propulsive and real than the bike itself, which like a book, is a time machine, and a space machine.

Click here to read Part II

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Vancouver Island, BC

After spending a lot of money and drinking too much in lovely Vancouver, my wife and I decided to head over to Vancouver Island for four nights of camping and wholesome nature-type activities.  The general plan starting out was to spend two nights near the Pacific Rim Park and Long Beach, and then head back around the island to the southern part to spend two more nights in the Juan De Fuca Park.  After getting some good advice from a man who overheard us discussing ferry plans at The Keg on Granville Island (where we were attempting to manage hangovers with more beer (#12?)) we drove to Horseshoe Bay instead of Tsawwassen.  We did not have reservations, so we were put in the standby line and missed the 3:10 ferry.  We thought we’d have to wait for the 5:30, which was the next scheduled departure, but luckily there was an unpublished departure that left soon after and we didn’t have to wait too long.  I’m not sure if our schedule was inaccurate or if they just run extra ferries whenever demand is high.  Maybe someone in the know can comment.  Anyway, the ferry ride was quick and scenic.  On a side note, I was surprised to see the long line of people waiting to eat at the cafeteria on board while the boat was still in the harbor.  Before the “restaurant” even opened its doors, there were at least 40 people waiting to eat.  Waiting to eat overpriced mediocre (I know it’s mediocre because I was one of these imbeciles on our next ferry) cafeteria food.  It was like they were looking forward to it.  Are these the same people who get hotdogs at movie theaters?  We disembarked in Nanaimo and got our first taste of Vancouver Island as we drove north.  I was expecting a wilderness, but instead found several miles of strip malls and chain stores.  Not a complaint, just an observation.  We decided to look for a campground instead of driving all the way across the island.  Our first stop was Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park about 45 minutes north of Nanaimo.  Unfortunately, the campground was full, but we did drive around to get an idea of what the facilities offered.  This is a big, family-friendly park with beach access.  Certainly not a wilderness experience, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and the nice weather.  We had the option of staying in the overflow area, which we checked out and decided against.  The next closest park was the Englishman River Falls Park, which was exactly what we were looking for.  There was plenty of camping available, despite the busy season.  The campground was well maintained and set in a grove of old-growth trees.  Very peaceful.  I also liked the fact that they came around in a truck selling beer, I mean firewood.  At this point I would like to start the discussion about toilets in Canadian provincial parks.  Canada, you can do better.  This park was not remote at all.  There is no reason not to have a proper bathroom facility, especially if you’re charging twice what I would pay to camp in an American park.  Offering free squirts of Purel isn’t fooling anyone.  I’m sorry Canada, but in this battle of friendly neighbors, you lose.   In the morning we took the short walk from our campsite to the upper and lower falls.  Very beautiful.  Also, it is possible to swim in the river below the second falls. 

Onward across the island.  The drive to the western side of Vancouver Island was spectacular.  We had clear skies the whole day.  Beautiful mountains, trees, lakes and rivers.  Don’t hurry, as the scenery along the drive is as nice, if not better, than what you will find on the western shore. As slackers with no reservations, we quickly realized our camping options would be very limited.  The campground at Long Beach was full and we had to drive north through the park to Tofino, where there are a couple of privately run campgrounds.  Our first option was Crystal Cove RV park, which would have been nice if by crystal cove they meant  “sparkling body of water”, not “airstrip”.  Really, all they had to offer were RV spots in a gravel parking lot.  Next, we tried Bella Pacifica campground, a huge facility with some very nice campsites and some horrible ones.  Online reviews of this spot were not glowing, but we were out of options.  Unfortunately they only had one spot available and it was hardly big enough to fit our car, and it was right next to a pretty disgusting bathroom area.  Disappointment set in.  It was hard to believe that here on Vancouver Island, we couldn’t find a place to sleep that was even remotely scenic or natural.  Of course, this was our own fault for not planning better or choosing more remote parts of the island to visit.  But Long Beach was recommended to us as a must-see location.  We drove back south through the park again, to Surf Junction, a private campground just south of the split in the direction of Ucluelet.  Not an ideal location to stay, as it was far from the water, but we just needed a place to pitch a tent.  They had one site remaining and a person on the phone trying to reserve it, so the pressure was on to either take it or not.  If I was scouting film locations for a horror movie, I would have snatched it up in a second.  Dark scary forest, creepy storage shed, dead rat, I’m in!  E will love it.  I paid my thirty-seven dollars and was given a short lecture about rules and regulations, which included a warning about bears (fine), cougars (um, okay I don’t believe you), and wolves.  Wait, wolves? Wolves!  In a campground?  I couldn’t decide whether to tell E about this or not.  On a certain level it cracked me up.  Wolves!  It just sounded so extreme.  So ridiculously Canadian.  On the other hand, it might just scare the shit out of her.  I told her.  But I didn’t tell her about the dead rat until we were back in the states.  On a positive note, the staff in the lobby was very friendly, the bathroom and shower facilities were immaculate, and somehow always vacant.  Was it the two-dollar shower charge that kept everyone away?  There was also a nice hot tub, but we didn’t use it.  I also didn’t mind the raspberries growing everywhere.  That afternoon we walked from the campground to the Willowbrae Trail, which forks off to the beach at Half Moon Bay. The hike is about a mile each direction, the last bit taking you down a very nice staircase to the beach. The beach was in such a dense fog we couldn’t even see the ocean thirty feet away. Behind us, the towering redwoods appeared and disappeared in the mist. Such a beautiful and eerie spectacle. And nobody else around. Despite this beautiful hike, we were generally not blown away by this part of the island. Given the whole range of places to visit, I would say skip this area, at least during the high season.

The next day we retraced our steps back across the island, driving east, then south, then west, then north, until we ended up at the Juan de Fuca Park, which is not far from Ucluelet as the crow flies. Stopped in the town of Sooke for lunch and supplies. Ate at the Stovepile Grill, which was excellent. Our waitress provided another example of a trend we observed throughout our 15 day trip through British Columbia. Many young Canadian woman seem to style themselves as 1950’s housewives. It’s not clear if this is a hip contemporary ironic fashion, or just an authentic look that reflects the enduring, unchanging local culture. Doesn’t matter. She was nice as hell. Then we went to the grocery store and I stepped in a huge pile of dogshit right at the front door. I was wearing flip flops. It nearly ruined my whole day. We drove on to our destination: the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park Campground. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I drove around the campground, noting the beautiful old growth redwoods, the wealth of available campsites, and the spectacular beach and grassy parkland. Finally! This was what we’d expected to find on Vancouver Island. We picked a big isolated site close, but not too close, to the bathroom, unpacked, set up camp, drank a beer, and walked down to the beach. More of the beautiful foggy coastline, with occasional views across the sound to Washington. The next morning we drove north to the Sombrio Beach trailhead and took a nice hike through the trees down to the beach. There, we found a rope swing and a waterfall and many campers who were hiking the Marine Trail. Highly recommended hike. Afterwards we drove to the end of the road, to Port Renfrew. We had lunch a beer at the Port Renfrew Hotel. They have a great deck where you can sit and watch the limited action in the marina. Exactly what I’d imagined an end of the road fishing village would look like. Lots of birds and big trees and steel gray water. Cool historical artifacts and photos inside the hotel and restaurant. Back to the campground for dinner and a fire and a pleasant night’s sleep. And then…

There are scary things that can wake you up in your tent, especially when campground hosts have planted certain seeds in your mind, (wolves? Surely not wolves), when campground postings warn of black bears and (yikes) brown bears and  cougars and dog-snatching eagles. But there are horrors beyond horrors out there, unexpected terrors you never thought you’d experience. Things you always assumed just happened to other people…It began at dawn. I heard the sound outside and knew immediately what it was. I had theorized at length about its existence, speculated about the appalling realities of our universe that necessitated its presence here, at this moment, where our fates were set to collide.  My wife slept on and I did not wake her. I let her enjoy the last few moments of peace until she awoke and my living nightmare would become her own...It started as a deep rumble in the ground. Then I heard the garble of a distant radio. Then, the shrill beeps of the backing-up alarm. What would it look like, I wondered. A long hose, surely, connected to a pump. And a tank. A large tank for holding…oh God! Why? Why must we be so gross? I heard the hinge on the bathroom door squeak open. Then silence, excruciating silence. And then, as I dreaded it would, the pump started up, a loud whirring building to a squealing crescendo. My wife woke up. What is it, she asked? Is it aliens? Go back to sleep, I told her. Someday this will all be over. It took five minutes for the smell to reach us. Thirty seconds later we were in our car driving, driving without a destination. Just to be away from it. Away from a smell so profoundly disgusting, so immeasurably nauseating, that it took twenty minutes and twenty miles for my wife to stop compulsively mouth breathing. The irony, of course, is that I have certain personal…obligations…we’ll call them, whenever I wake up. We eventually snuck back to our campsite, like Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction going back for his dad’s watch. We grabbed what we needed. The truck was gone but the smell remained. Somehow. It was in the trees, in the foggy mists. I could see the rooftop of the epicenter twenty feet away. I curse my luck. Then we drove to the Parkinson Creek trailhead. But the day was ruined. The stench would work its way into everything. The drive to the trailhead was calamitous for our 2WD CRV, but we soldiered on because there was nothing left to do in this part of the island and we’d paid for another night in our cesspool. There was only one other car at the trailhead, a maintenance vehicle. A park employee was weed-whacking the parking lot, which seemed like a great use of tax dollars. At least we would have the trail to ourselves, and, presumably, the beach as well. We set off. Much of Vancouver Island has been logged, even areas “protected” by the park. In most cases, the logged areas have reforested, and while they don’t resemble the true old growth forests seen across the sound in Olympic National Park, they are still very nice. Mostly. But something went very wrong in the deforestation/reforestation process along the Parkinson Creek Trail. Apparently, when the redwoods were taken down, smaller trees and shrubs flourished. Then the redwoods returned, stole the light (as the Rush song said they would) and the smaller plants died. This is probably not an uncommon process, but in most cases, the dead plants then decompose. On this trail, however, the dead plants remain as red ghosts haunting what is surely the strangest stretch of forest I’ve ever been through. No green plants, no insects, birds, or animals of any sort. No sounds. No wind. No smell. No view and no depth perception. We hurried along, nervously, until the dead forest ended and we were on a bluff overlooking the ocean. We clambered down onto a bizarre lava flow of a beach, which was full of little tide pools. We explored for a long time, the only people around. Then we came upon an enormous pile of very fresh bear excrement. I’ve had this unsettling experience before. I thought about the walk back through the dead forest now coupled with the knowledge that there was a bear in the area. But the return hike was uneventful. I took a video of the dead forest but it didn’t capture the haunting feeling as I hoped it would. We suffered through a smelly night, woke up the next day and ferried it back to America.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Vancouver, BC: 11 Bars in 2 days

Knowing nothing of Vancouver before coming here we had two days in town to explore and eat and drink before heading over to Vancouver Island. Here’s what we learned. First off we stayed at the Quality Hotel for about 120 USD a night . This is a great deal. A real hotel with coffee maker and non-sandpaper towels and safe parking and a view and nice pillows etc. Day One we went over to Yaletown and made our first stop at the Hookers Green (#1), which is what they call the bar at the New Oxford, which is on an alley that has several bars and restaurants and is nice and trendy and just pretentious enough. Lots of locals out on a Sunday evening. They had specials on beer cocktails, which I’d never had before, and were gross at first but got better as they went down. I should mention that most bars we went to we didn’t eat at, and we weren’t there during peak hours, so this report is very incomplete in that sense. But this part of Yaletown is certainly interesting and full of many eating and drinking opportunities. At this bar we met the first of MANY groups of local Canadians who were extremely friendly and nice and who completely helped to dispel the notion that all Canadians are basically slow adults. Next we walked toward the harbor and ended up at Steamworks Brewery (#2), which is probably the biggest tourist bar in the entire city. But my wife had to tinkle, so there we were. The beer was good and the view was good and I’m not going to criticize tourist bars when I’m a tourist. Next stop, the Pour House (#3) in the Gastown district. This is one of the best bars I’ve ever been to. Bartenders in Vancouver take their craft very seriously and the guys at this place honestly know way more than you do about alcohol and mixing and drinking. I had the Brown Derby, which was fine, but my wife’s Penny Farthing was good enough for me to take a picture of the ingredients on the menu in the hopes that I could replicate it back home. Probably the best cocktail I’ve ever tasted. The live jazz didn’t hurt either. Awesome bar. Best place we visited. Next we went to Tripadvisor’s top rated restaurant (bar) L’Abbitoir (#4) and had a couple cans of beer (Red Racer). The beer was good and reasonably priced but we did not eat here and were a bit underwhelmed by the barroom atmosphere. Not a bad place, but for drinking, it was nothing like our previous stop. The restaurant was very crowded. Getting dark now. On to Chill Winston (#5). Things get hazy. Had some cheese and cured meat and beer. Everything was just fine. Couldn’t tell if we were too early or too late, but the place was not busy, despite its great location. Watched a homeless guy get arrested. At least ten people involved in the process. Very nice service, as always. Canadians are great. Took a cab back to our hotel. $10 USD, no hassle, no problem.

Day Two: Raining. Went down to the harbor area thinking to have lunch at a restaurant overlooking Grainville Island, but there was nobody there so we didn’t stay. Ended up back in Yaletown at Subeez CafĂ© (#6), which was great. Excellent service and food in a big open space with lots of terrible artwork and horrible music. Salmon sandwich was great. Steak Frites was great. Beer bucket special. Guess we’re not going to see the Matisse exhibit after all. Next we headed to the Speakeasy( #7) on Grainville Ave. and sat on the sidewalk drinking beer. Lots of kids from dancing summer camp, and hostel-bound young travelers, and local students. Reminded me of Berkeley CA. Or Boston theatre district. Nice to be on vacation watching people on a stormy Monday afternoon. Good eighties music and a men’s room that smelled of urine and bleach. Quote of the day from someone who sat down near us: “Did someone barf here last night?” Onward. Through the mist. To the Pan Pacific Hotel (#8), which was recommended by the good folks at Hooker’s Green the day before. Unfortunately we didn’t have a view due to the bad weather, but we did have nice service and a reasonably priced half liter of local wine. Clearly this is a great place to come on a nice day, with views of the harbor and distant mountains (I’m guessing). Delicious salty snack treats free of charge. Then to Salt (#9), our second favorite place we went to. Huge sherry menu, which I got excited about and ordered from, and then realized why more places don’t have sherry menus. Disgusting. At least on the dry side. But the manager gave me some samples of the sweeter sherrys and I started to understand. Much has been written about this place. It’s nice and unique and original and a good value. Go there. We ordered a cheese and meat plate that was excellent. Continue to be Impressed by employees’ knowledge of the products they are pushing. Not much BS in the Canadian restaurant spiel. Moving on…to the underground. Guilt and Co. (#10). Beautiful underground venue that we showed up at probably four hours too early. Very friendly staff. The kind of venue you’d like to see transported to your hometown. Clearly we were not there for the intended party late night. Beautiful place. Then in an effort to hail a cab back to our hotel we ended up at one last great bar The Irish Heather (#11). Got some good history on the nature of whiskey, had a couple of shots and pints and then finally caught a cab with Jonny Onions, whose story I guess I have to write. Hope this helps. Vancouver is great. The people are great. Bartenders know what the hell they’re doing. Enjoy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mexico Part VII: Playa del Carmen (Take Two)


Day 1: Took the ferry into town from Cozumel. 156 pesos each. There was a live band on the ferry. We were a captive audience. Walked back to Club Yebo. Read our previous PDC trip report if you’re interested in info on the hotel. Our room wasn’t ready yet so we headed to La Parilla for cheap beer and not cheap Mexican food. My wife wasn’t hungry and I ordered fish tacos (130 pesos). I can get much better fish tacos in Hermosa Beach, California for half the price—at an Irish pub (though cooked by people from Mexico). But the restaurant has a nice vibe and is good for watching the folks on 5th avenue. Awesome green sauce. Room still wasn’t ready so we walked to Mega to get some supplies. We found some great deals there at the meat counter, ribeyes and filets. Excellent quality meat butchered right in front of you, and a lot less expensive than in the US. Then we checked into the hotel, grabbed the beach chairs from our room and sat on the beach. Cooked dinner in our hotel room.

Day 2: Spent the day at the beach, at the beach club associated with Club Yebo. $1 per person, and they don’t mind if you bring your own food and drink. Great deal. We arranged for a car rental the next day, so we could drive to Chichen Itza and Coba. They were supposed to meet me at the hotel, but never showed up. This was very disappointing since we planned the evening around dealing with the car and parking etc. Later at night we went to Deseo, an outdoor lounge above 5th avenue. Very nice.

Day 3: After going to Hertz and other rental car companies in the morning I became fed up with the rental car game and decided to skip the whole thing. Headed down to the beach club associated with Club Yebo. Had fish ceviche and guac for lunch, which was very good. Beautiful weather. That night we went to The Glass Restaurant/Bar for a nice dinner. Had a cheese platter and grilled octopus and a bottle of wine. Great meal.

Day 4: Took the colectivo to Akumal. This was a great day trip I would recommend to anyone staying in Playa del Carmen. We walked to the colectivo area on Calle 2 Norte between 15th and 20th Avenues. Caught a van immediately. They dropped us off at the Akumal exit ($3 USD each) and we walked over the bridge and into “town”. It’s a very short walk along a nice sidewalk. The place was very crowded, but we threw our stuff down under a palm tree, put on our mask and snorkel and swam out about a hundred yards. There were so many people in the water it wasn’t hard to figure out where to go. We immediately saw turtles and rays and eels and loads of fish. The water had a mix of sea grass, sand , and coral, each with its own set of creatures. Great experience. Sat on the beach. More sunscreen, and another trip into the water. Saw at least 8 turtles, some in ten feet of water. Then we had lunch at the taco shop next to the main popular restaurant. Good food. Caught the colectivo back on the road. No problem. Same price. Perfect excursion. Don’t miss this. At night we went back to the area where we caught the colectivo, since we’d noticed a lot of good local restaurants there. We ate at one called Restaurant Maquech. There weren’t a lot of choices. I had the beef special of the day, and my wife had the chicken special. Both were delicious and the price was right and the man who owned the place was chatty and interesting.

Day 5: Our last full day in Mexico. Fittingly, we sat at a beach club and drank beer. Then we had dinner at Burger King. We didn’t remember at the time, but on our last big trip, to Thailand two years ago, we ate at McDonald’s on our last night. Some kind of strange pattern.
Day 6: Woke up early (4 AM) and walked to the bus stop. It didn’t occur to me that this might be a bit of a sketchy situation. But it was dark and there were still clubs open with drunk people stumbling around. Easy targets. This was the closest I felt to unsafe on the whole trip. We walked the length of 5th avenue to the tourist bus terminal looking over our shoulders, realizing that we had everything with us. But there was no problem (at least with that). I’d bought our tickets for the 5 AM airport bus the day before, so we just took our seats and waited, and slapped mosquitoes…and waited. The bus never came. I went to the window and was told it was coming….it never came. Some people in the terminal had 7:15 flights. Ours was at 7:45. By 6:00 there was a general panic and the bus station employees didn’t seem too worried about it. We hooked up with two other travelers and took a taxi for 450 pesos, which was almost exactly the same cost as the bus ticket, per person. Everyone made their flights because those too, of course, were late.

The End. Great trip.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mexico Part VI: Cozumel

Cozumel (East Coast)

Day 1: Took the ferry from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel (156 pesos per person one-way). Very nice ferry ride. It took about 30 minutes. Once in Cozumel we walked to our hotel, Villablanca. It took us about 35 minutes. The taxis wanted 90 pesos to take us, which we thought was absurdly high, based on what we’d been paying in other places on our trip. Despite doing a lot of research about Cozumel, there were some things that were really surprising, like taxi rates.
The hotel: Villablanca was great. We booked our room for 6 nights on Expedia for about $50 USD a night. When we arrived they offered us the opportunity to upgrade to an ocean-view suite for $10 USD more a night, which we did. I looked at both types of rooms before deciding to upgrade. The standard rooms seemed very nice as well, just a little smaller and at the back of the hotel away from the ocean and the view. I was surprised, after reading reviews of the hotel, to discover there is no sandy beach at all and the snorkeling off the pier was nothing special. In other words, Villablanca is not really a hotel people stay at to access the water out front—unless you’re diving with the shops nearby. They have a very nice pool and hot tub and many dive shops in the immediate area. There is also a mini-mart and a couple of restaurants right next door. We didn’t eat at the hotel restaurant, which I don’t even think was open for dinner this time of year. Another thing that surprised us about the hotel was the fact that there is a cruise ship terminal about a half-mile south, which at first bothered us, but turned out to not really be a big deal. Also, the maids leave the door open when they clean and that lets in the mosquitoes.
Once we were settled into our room, we walked south along the water to The Money Bar, which we’d read good things about. The walk was pretty rough. It was very hot out and certain parts of the road had no sidewalk. But we were adamant about not letting the taxis rip us off. The Money Bar was very nice, and isolated. They have Happy Hour from 5-7 with 2 for 1 drinks. Live music on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, from 6-8. Despite the awful name, this was the best place we hung out in Cozumel. The have beach chairs and loungers and bathrooms and showers you can use for free, and decent snorkeling. The ocean is beautiful from this part of the island. All the piers and ports are out of view. We ate some hot wings which were nothing special. Then we walked back to our hotel. At this point we realized that Cozumel is a big island with no public transportation for tourists and expensive cabs. If we wanted to see any more we needed a car, which we were told cost about $40-60 USD a day. So when a salesman guy stopped us walking home and offered us a car for $20 USD we talked to him and agreed to return two days later for a 90-minute sales pitch. We ate dinner across the street from Villablanca at La Hach. My wife was craving American food. We ate chicken fingers and burgers. Good food and a great view.

Day 2: Decided to motivate and try the snorkeling by the pier in front of the hotel. Lots of fish but no reef. Lots of boats around, which was a little weird, but there are people snorkeling all along the coast and it seems like the boats are careful. Had lunch at Papa Hogs. My wife had a burger, which was good. I had a chicken quesadilla which was not good. Dollar draft beers were great. Then we walked back to The Money Bar for snorkeling and live music. Good band. The snorkeling was good, still not much of a reef near the coastline. Very strong southern current. Caught a cab home (50 pesos after negotiating down from 90).

Day 3: Woke up early for our vacation-club presentation. Got a good free breakfast from the Park Royal buffet and talked with our host. Then she showed us around the hotel and we talked with some salesman, and 90 minutes later we had our car and free passes to Chankanaab water park. Well worth the sales pitch. Got our stuff from the hotel and drove to Chankanaab. Good snorkeling. Nice reef and lots of fish. The park was nice with many activities. We didn’t spend much time there because we wanted to take advantage of the car. I would recommend this place, especially if you have kids. Then we drove south to the Playa Palancar Beach Club. Had lunch. Fish ceviche which was okay, and expensive. The beach club was nice. They actually have a sandy beach. They run snorkeling boats out to the reef ($30 USD for 1.5 hours). We didn’t go in the water here. Kept driving all the way to the other side of the island, which is very different, and very beautiful. Glad we had a car to do this. Stopped at Coconuts on the cliff for a beer. Beautiful view and very picturesque. Kind of a sleazy vibe, though. The male server had a fake stuffed penis under his apron that he liked to show people and he could make it squeak. Fun, drunken atmosphere. Strange, since other aspects of the place are very kid-friendly. They have lots of birds and animals around—like a mini petting zoo. Continued driving. Stopped at Mega in town for supplies. Then back to the hotel. Margarita in the hot tub at sunset. Very nice.

Day 4: Drove back to the eastern side of the island for an early picnic before the rental car was due back. Beautiful beach with lots of locals swimming in large tidal pools. Stopped at Mega again with the car for more supplies. Took out $3000 pesos at an HSBC ATM and only got $2000. Nightmare. There were three other ATMs in the area and I just gambled and lost. My bank has since given me my money back (provisionally). First and only time this happened to us, and based on the currency denominations we did get, it seems the ATM was just out of cash. Welcome to Mexico. You roll the dice every day. At least the cops left us alone with our rental. Returned the car. Sat by the pool. We walked to town that evening but there was nothing going on. Depressing. We weren’t sure if this was because it was Sunday, or some holiday, but lots of the shops were closed and the restaurants empty. On a positive note there was a cool drumming acrobatic show going on in the main plaza. Then we walked back to the hotel.

Day 5: Hung out at the hotel and relaxed most of the day. Went across the street to La Hach to watch the sunset and drink a beer. That’s it.

Day 6: By this point we realized the entire economy of Cozumel centers around the cruise ships, and that things are more exciting in town during the day than they are at night. We decided to act like cruise ship tourists and have lunch at Margaritaville—at least the place had people in it. Good expensive food and very strange atmosphere. Who knew so many people were still stuck in the 1980’s? On a side note, we were charged $170 pesos ($15 USD) for two diet cokes. We protested and had the price lowered to a merely ridiculous $92 pesos for both. But we did get to watch the waiter humiliate himself by dancing on stage. Glad we went. Also went to Rock and Java (I think it’s called) a small bar just south of downtown. Nice place with a good cheap menu (for a tourist place) and an ocean view. Wish we’d found this place earlier (before Margaritaville). Again watched the sunset at La Hach.
Some final thoughts on Cozumel: You really need a car here, which can be a problem if you are on an extended trip and are trying to watch what you spend. The taxis make their money from the cruise ships, which is why they’re so expensive. There isn’t a lot to do on the island other than go to beach clubs or water parks in a car, or go diving, sailing, etc. If those activities are not in your budget, you may find yourself spending a lot of time by the hotel pool or drinking beer in your room (which is what everyone in our hotel seemed to do at night).