New York CityThe Lakeshore Limited pulls into Penn Station in New York. Penn Station used to be one of the world's great train stations, designed by Charles McKim in the early 1900's and partly modeled after a Roman bath. But way better, because those old Roman baths were just full of naked Romans, while Penn Station was full of trains: sleek stainless steel trains highballing in from the hinterlands. Back in 1967, they knocked down the old station and replaced it with the current one: a big hole in the ground where commuter trains skitter around like fat dumpster rats.
I spend the night on my friend's couch in Bushwick. When I wake up in the morning, it's windy. A cold wind from Canada that blows away all that talk of an early spring. Puffy clouds, tattered and torn to shreds, scud over the city. Like the remnants of some cloud massacre that took place in the sky west of here, above Indiana or Ohio. And here's what's left: corpse clouds, dismembered and drifting downwind over New York. "Corpse clouds?" My friend in Bushwick says when I tell her what I'm thinking, "that's kind of fucked up."
When my friend goes to work, I take the subway to the village and get a slice of pizza at the kosher pizza place on Second Ave. It's a good slice: veggie sausage, olives, and some crumbled-up tofu. It's good, but it's not as good as I remember. Nothing's ever as good as that. This thought cheers me up. It means there's nothing to go back to, and there's nothing to keep you around. It means the next really good slice of vegan pizza is somewhere else, waiting for you, and the only thing to do is hit the road and go looking for it.Ship TimeIn a casino, clocks are just a distraction from the gambling. That's why there are never any clocks there. You're supposed to lose track of time, and before you know it, the sun is coming up and you've stuck your retirement savings into a slot machine, one quarter at a time.
A freight ship is the opposite of a casino. There are clocks everywhere. When you're floating in the middle of the ocean, they keep you from going crazy. The clocks parcel out time in familiar minutes and hours. A comfortable scale. A scale you can deal with. If it weren't for the clocks, there'd only be ocean time, vast and wide and always threatening to swell up and wash you overboard.
There are clocks in the cabins, and clocks in the lounge, and clocks in the mess hall. They're on every landing as you walk up the stairs from one deck to another. A computer controls the clocks and constantly resets them, shedding hours as you're sailing east, and gathering them up again as you sail west. It's scary when you sail out of sight of the shore. On the open sea, even the sun looks strange, like maybe it's a different star than the one that's shining on your friends back home. That's when you're grateful for all those clocks, counting off hours that are exactly as long at sea as they are on dry land.ViennaVienna looks like a town designed by someone with a degree in mortuary science. It's opulent the way a crypt is: all carved marble and gilding and junkie angels giving you dirty looks from the rooftops. When the sky hangs low and gray, it's like you're wandering through a cemetery instead of a city. Maybe that explains all the coffee-drinking that goes on in this town. In Seattle, you drink coffee because of the rain. In Vienna, you drink it because of the marble.
Later, I wind up in a place called the Café Hummel, a proper Viennese coffee house where the waiter wears a tuxedo and he's an asshole and he shortchanges me when I pay the bill. I order a Brauner, which is sort of an Austrian cappuccino. It's good. Really good. Then I float out of the Café Hummel on a caffeine cloud, smiling at the skinheads and the gray skies, certain, all the sudden, that Vienna is the most elegant city in the world.
CroatiaWhen I meet Tomislav in Berlin, Sergio tells him I'm both a vegetarian and I don't smoke. "Well," he says, blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke in my face, "I guess you'll die healthy." A couple weeks later, Tomislav invites me to Zagreb, where he lives. He tells me I can show my movies at the little theater where he works. I go to the train station in Vienna to buy a ticket. "One-way to Zagreb," I say, feeling bad ass. Like some cold war double-agent crossing the iron curtain. At the Austria-Slovenia border, the train lurches to a stop. A lady conductor with dark eyes comes into my compartment. "--" she says. I hand her my ticket, she stamps it. "-- --, --" she says. I smile. She smiles. After an awkward moment or two, she walks away.
The train starts rolling again, through a country of crumbling buildings and freshly paved highways. A landscape in transition. In a couple of months, Slovenia joins the European Union and it's still struggling to meet E.U. standards. As the sun sets, we roll into Croatia, where the buildings are crumbling and the highways aren't freshly paved. Croatia is supposed to join the E.U. too, but so far, no one has set a firm date.
Tomislav reserved a room for me at the Hotel Astoria. When I get to Zagreb, I find the place and check in. It's a 3-star hotel. In the old eastern bloc, hotels are given stars for the number of stains on the carpet. A 5-star hotel is really something: a baroque cathedral of stains. The Hotel Astoria isn't world-class, but it's respectable. There are stains on the shag carpet, and since the walls are also carpeted, there are stains on the walls, too. I can't exactly figure out all these stains. Maybe the Soviets never devised an effective stain removal technology. Maybe, in the end, that's what finished them off. I mean, it's hard to make a case for a political system that can't get the stains out.
The next day is sunny, and everyone in Zagreb is sitting at tables in the street, drinking beer and smoking. The tables all look the same to me, but Tomislav explains that each restaurant along the street controls a certain section. I can't tell where one section ends and another begins, but Tomislav can, and he chooses a table where he says the beer is good and cheap.
Zagreb isn't a big town, but it's got more than its fair share of twisty streets stacked with worn-out buildings; elegant buildings that are faded and cracked and that could use a fresh coat of paint. The whole city is slightly dilapidated. On a drizzly day, looks exactly the way a city in the old Yugoslavia should: a city where international spies drink themselves to death in dark apartments, and where every love affair ends in awkward silence and cigarette smoke.
The cinema where Tomislav works is called the K.I.C., which is pronounced "Kish" or maybe "Kitsch." It's an acronym for something. I never find out what. Tomislav introduces me to the projectionist, an old communist who's been projecting movies since the days when Croatia was just another part of Yugoslavia. I'm so excited that a Soviet-era projectionist is projecting my movies with a Soviet-era projector that I don't even mind that the picture is fuzzy and the sound is muffled. Afterward, Tomislav seems a little upset that only three people showed up for the screening ... and that two of them walked out midway through. I don't know how to explain to him that tonight, I feel like the luckiest guy in Yugoslavia.--- From Dream Whip #14
Portland OR 97293
Drawing by Bill Brown