Thursday, July 6, 2017

Train Notes

Ticket, table, wifi
What a civilized way to travel.

We head out of San Jose slowly, blowing our horn quick and low. Through Santa Clara and by Levi Stadium.

The lady running the train announces the stops as if she loves her job. All the worker bees aboard seem happy to be here. No one has asked for my ticket.

We head out into the salt flats, over the rails between the salt ponds, tracks they laid especially to haul the heavy salt to market.

I see old wood frame buildings sinking in the muck. I sit bold upright.

Drawbridge! An old drinking & gambling ghost town out here on the mud flats. We used to hike out the railroad tracks to explore it when I was a kid. It doesn't look much different, just a little more sunken and ramshackle.

We get to Fremont, and I think of Jerry, taking us on BART with proprietary pride. My love of trains goes back to those days, holding my BART pass and swanning around the Bay Area like a world traveler.

When we get to Jack London Square, I realize we're on the old Southern Pacific Tracks. My paternal grandfather used to be a train engineer on these tracks, back in the first half of the 20th century. 

I have trains in my blood.

In Jack London Square, Ben & Jerry's "Peace and Love" rubs elbows with Bev-Mo. A fruitful juxtaposition, discordant at first, but with a light aftertaste of parallel addictions.

By the Emeryville mudflats and on by the Berkeley marina. I imagine Malvina Reynolds writing Morningtown Ride on a train like this. My route traces hers from the sleepy sound of the train whistle to the little travelers snug and warm inside.

The South Bay passengers were all white. Unusually white for public transit in the Bay Area, in fact. As we got closer to the old industrial hub of the Bay Area, the train population shifted. New passengers were more likely to be black. 

Very few Asians on this train. I didn't see a single one board until Richmond. The South Bay is so Asian, why would this be? Why would Asian people not choose Amtrak? There are lots of Asians on BART and Caltrain, why not Amtrak?

Everybody is playing on their phone. Two African American kids at the table across from mine wear neon orange hoodies. I can hear the blast sounds from their phones despite their headphones.

Trains have always seemed like engines of democracy to me. More likely to reach up socioeconomically than buses, more likely to reach down than planes or cars. You rub elbows with everyone, but it's a more dignified elbow-rubbing than on a bus.

I've been mulling the ratios of pubic to private spaces recently. I'm a believer in an expansive commons -- lots of public and shared spaces and infrastructure. I think it makes sense. Instead of privatizing everything and letting the free market put us all on the slave block, I want to see lots of public spaces and shared infrastructure to make us both rich and free.

That's an odd divide. What makes a people prosperous and free? Looking at California, with its expansive public educations, parks, open spaces, infrastructure projects, building codes, etc, etc, I see a very strong argument for broad public works. You shall share what you have, and it will make you thrive.

Heading through Crockett, there's a huge flock of coots paddling in the mud. Slowing on the approach to the old railroad ("ray-road") bridge, I see a bit of the Bay that looks unchanged in my lifetime. Still rural, still a little down at the heel but not too bad.

A place with both wabi, that lonely/empty/desolate feeling and sabi, the mark of time.

Passing under the C&H sugar plant where my maternal grandfather worked as a machinist for all those years. There's a barge at the dock with raw sugar product from Hawaii. Salt and sugar, these train tracks have carried a lot of powder north and south.

Heading near the area of the Port Chicago explosion -- what a lot of history these train tracks skirt.

I expected us to cross at the railroad bridge between Martinez and Benicia, but we are still on the Martinez side, heading along the Carquinez Straits and upriver. Lots of piers and wrecks of older piers. We're in the area where tankers unload now. Lots of empty tank cars on the tracks beside us, between our train and straits.

We're stuck in a train traffic jam! We have a red light, says the helpful train lady.

Oh, I misidentified that first railroad bridge. It was the one on 80 into Vallejo, not the one at 680 between Martinez and Benicia. I think we'll cross the straits here to head to Suisun -- what a litany of old working California towns.

We're winding through the refinery now. Trust the old Southern Pacific tracks to hit every industrial heavy shipping spot along the way. Heading for the railroad bridge. Rusty old tub out at the end of pier -- oil tanker called the Overseas Rustman. Quite the joke. I wouldn't trust that old tanker to carry seawater across the street. Shiny new tankers on the other side of the strait -- a matched set.

The railroad bridge is so much lower than the high arch of the auto bridge. We're heading along 680 now, close enough that I can wave at passing drivers.

Nice reflections of the hills and clouds and sky in the salt marsh. It would make a very confusing puzzle.

So many birds in these wetlands!

A few lazy wind turbines spin. Suisun City, with flocks of birds and more confusing salt flat skyscapes. And suddenly, as we approach Fairfield, cows. What an improbable thing. And palm trees struggling up out of the edge of the wetlands.

Big power substation that puzzles me, because you don't send electricity by rail. But then I realize you might send power station inputs by rail.

Bird's eye view of badly landscaped and partly flooded backyards. Might there be a connection?

The power lines go along the railroad tracks now in a long sinuous sine wave that makes me dizzy. We race by the cars below us. Oh, what fun a bullet train would be!

A new housing development rises alongside the wetlands with shiny brand-new windows, starkly surreal. Not far above sea level in a time of global warming. Lord, what fools we mortals be! The water table is right there, right there, inches below their thresholds.

Dikes around the furrowed fields. A flooded feed lot, not quite as nasty as a flooded hog farm. A little higher, and the nut trees begin.

Right outside of Dixon now.


Goodbye Train 532!

Beach Party

Beach party
You and your friends
Head out to the beach
Saturday evening 
Tired of working
Following rules
Squeezing yourself small

You bring everything you need for a party
Lugging all that beer
Hotdogs buns candy munchies
Your cigarettes and lighters 
Rolling paper pot

You find a beautiful clean spot 
Make camp
Roast hot dogs
Get a beer buzz on
Smoke a cigarette to the sunset
Roll a joint and get high as the stars 

Party til you're exhausted 
Not really noticing 
The dropped beer bottles
Cigarette butts 
Pack of hot dogs
Candy wrappers
A single roach

You go home happy
And the next day
A bunch of people 
Take their Sunday meditation 
At the beach
With buckets and gloves 
Garbage bags
Cleaning up the place

For the next party

Monday, April 20, 2015

old haiku never die

...they just get lost in a folder somewhere.


heat wave —
the baptist choir skips a verse
of “free at last”


faded sweet peas —
the choir director fans herself
with the church circular

27 July 2006

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

kraut magic

My favorite kraut is mixed green cabbage/red cabbage/carrot, but I like to ferment red cabbage alone for its chemical magic.

When you shred the red cabbage and put it in the jar, it's very blue. The liquid in the jar starts out blue and slowly turns pink.



In this jar, you can see that the old liquid in the saucer is a deep purple while the more acidic juice in the jar has become a vivid fuchsia.

worth your salt

The table next to my desk would have fit comfortably into an Enlightenment laboratory. One empty half-gallon jar sports a red lid with a small round hole in it. In the hole is a rubber cork with a hole in it. Standing in the cork is an air gap with a little water in it. Next to this contraption is another just like it, filled with sliced red onions and brine. Every few minutes, a bubble works its way through the fluid in the air gap. When the onions were at a livelier stage of pickling, it looked like the jar was at a low boil.

Behind these contraptions are more large jars sitting on plates. These jars are filled with shredded red and green cabbage and carrots, covered with whole cabbage leaves, weighed down with glass pickle stones, and submerged in brine.

Salt, we learned when we were small, was extremely precious in the ancient world. More precious than gold, it was used to pay Roman soldiers. Chinese emperors and the British in India controlled the populace by controlling the salt trade.

My parents and teachers didn't seem to know why salt was so precious. They talked a bit about how we need salt in our diet to replace what we lose when we sweat, and the need to cover up the flavor of rotten meat. Much later, I learned that salt was essential to preserve food, but it wasn't until I took up brine pickling for myself that I began to understand the place that salt had in the pre-20th century world.

If you harvest foodstuffs and leave them in their natural state, they become infested with fungal spores and aerobic bacteria and they rot. You can combat this with some foodstuffs by dehydrating them. Dehydration depends on dry weather or external sources of heat, and the foods become susceptible again as soon as they get wet. Salting meat before drying it helps with the dehydration and also helps protect from mold.

You can also pack the food with salt and keep it away from the air. You can pack the food in pots, barrels, baskets, or a lined hole in the ground. You can wrap it up tightly or just keep it topped up with brine. This keeps fungus and aerobic bacteria from getting to the food, allowing anaerobic bacteria to flourish. The anaerobic bacteria alter the food in various ways that we find pleasing, further discourage the growth of fungus and aerobic bacteria, and allow us to get through long winters and sea voyages. (Those who carried sauerkraut on sea voyages, like the Dutch, also avoided scurvy.) Before refrigeration, almost all of the ways that humans preserved food involved large quantities of salt.

If you didn't have salt, you couldn't preserve the food that you needed to get through the winter.

If you said a man wasn't worth his salt, you were saying that he (and his dependents) deserved to starve. It's like us saying that a person isn't worth the oxygen.

Thinking about this all, I was wondering how the Romans could afford to salt all the farmland around Carthage. Turns out that was a myth that originated in France several centuries later. At 20 tons of salt per acre, the Romans would have had to dedicate 3 years of economic output to buying the salt to render all Carthaginian farmland unproductive.

Sowing a small amount of salt in a small area in a captured city was a symbolic practice among some ancient peoples (although not the Romans). Scipio Africanus did plow up the ground where Carthage stood after razing it, and it is possible that he might have sowed a little bit of salt as part of a cursing ritual to keep the city from rising again. No contemporary source mentions salting the earth in Carthage, though, so it's unlikely that salt featured at all in the destruction of Carthage.

Even though this is well-known among historians now, this myth still appears as fact in children's textbooks.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

searching for their better half

drifting jet trails
half a haiku searches
for enlightenment

holiday parcels
storm-driven fir needles muffle
their footsteps

shifting chair creaks --
stitch by stitch another row
leaves her needles

11 January 2015

Sunday, January 25, 2015

playing hooky at worship

deep silence
she stacks her hands
like a bosatsu

(bosatsu = bodhisattva)

roar of the highway
they breathe prayers
into the center of the circle

where is god?
the dust bunnies gather
a little more dust

11 January 2015