Back on my feet

Well, I’m in Toronto. I came to the conclusion that the seats on the train were designed to be comfortable for 72 hours. I came to that conclusion at about hour 74 of the trip, with the destination definitely coming up but still achingly out of reach, an unfortunate side effect of such a big country. I don’t want to give the impression that I was just sitting around while I was on the train. We had chances to get off and stretch our legs at several stops, including extensive stops at Jasper and Winnipeg, but for the most part, physical activity was limited to a trip to the dining car or the observation bubble (the rest of the train being off limits to third-class passengers such as myself), so I was very glad to get a chance to move around again.

The train came in at 11 and I was able to check into my hotel room a little before three, so I did get some time to walk around and explore. I found restaurants in the “Entertainment District” offering any number of culinary options and eventually picked a place mainly because they had a gentleman outside happy to discuss the menu with passersby. After lunch, I continued exploring. It was pretty hazy and foggy, so I didn’t get very many pictures, but this view did present itself:



A day in Vancouver 

I knew I’d be getting in late last night (and in fact, according to my internal clock, which is still on New Mexico time, it was really this morning), so I wasn’t really looking for more than four walls and a bed from my lodging. And that means I wasn’t disappointed:

I’ve been told many times by many people to take lots of pictures, but part of my upbringing with film cameras has given me an intuitive sense of when the lighting is unfavorable and I know I won’t get a good shot. Typically, I don’t even try to take a picture if it’s cloudy, and guess what the weather is like here. Nevertheless, there were a few breaks in the clouds, which allowed me to get these:


The dome of Science World


A panorama of downtown Vancouver

And I tried several times to get a picture that really captured the essence of those mountains off in the distance that are mostly shrouded in clouds but peeking out just enough for me to believe they must be truly spectacular on a clear day. Here’s the best picture I could get:


The science museum was near my room, but I decided I went to science museums in Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Phoenix and Baltimore already on the tour, and it seemed a bit pricey—even in Canadian currency—so I decided to do something else.

I think of a recent physics lecture I listened to recently where the speaker talks about the phenomenon of photons in the sun scattering every which way before escaping to potentially reach the earth, and gives a fairly weak example of a well-defined physical principle known as the “random walk.” A much better example would be my day in Vancouver. I went a little way in one direction, then I’d see something interesting somewhere else and scatter off that way for a while, not really looking for anything in particular, just taking it all in.

27,000 steps later (at least that’s what my pedometer tells me), I was pooped, but still had time and wanted to see more. Vancouver has this thing called SkyTrain, and I thought that would be an ideal way to see a lot. Well, I know for next time the idea was good, but two stops after I got on, the thing went into a tunnel and didn’t come out before I got to a stop where I’d have had to add to my fare. Oh well.

An offbeat tour

One thing I’ve tried to avoid when I’ve found myself in a new city has been to simply hit the Chamber of Commerce top ten attractions. I find this not only is good for the pocketbook, but it helps give me a perspective on the whole city, rather than simply the parts of town that have been tidied up to give tourists the best possible impression. Don’t get me wrong, I do want to see what city planners feel like showcasing, and two blocks from my hotel is the Centennial Olympic Park, which is a gorgeous urban gem that has been kept up immaculately over the 16 years since it was built, and which is home to two of the biggest tourist attractions, the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola.

However, even when I find a place like that in a large city, I know there has to be more to the city than that, and I like to try to see what I can. Regular readers may have noticed that a number of times, I’ve mentioned that a good deal of my time exploring various unfamiliar cities were spent “wandering.” But, because I am wandering in completely unknown cities, I don’t usually get very far outside my own comfort zone. And that’s why I was very glad to have met Ricky yesterday morning. I’d been wandering less than 10 minutes when he introduces himself and starts asking questions about what brings me to Atlanta and what I’d like to see. That’s when he introduces himself as “a homeless tourguide,” who does day labor during the week and shows “wanderers” around on weekends.

Hearing that I was here to see the Civil Rights game, he says, “C’mon, I’ll show you civil rights,” and next thing I know we’re walking down Auburn Avenue to the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District, where he showed me the house in which King was born, the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King preached, King’s tomb, and highlights of the King Center. In all, Ricky spent nearly four hours showing me around. He took me to quite a few tourist attractions, such as the CNN center and the Georgia Dome, but also to places I would not have been comfortable seeing without a guide, such as the Vine City neighborhood, where a large number of the people forced out of the projects that used to be on the site of the Olympic Park are staying now.

After getting lunch at an upscale underground mall where he showed me I could catch a shuttle to the ballpark, he took me a few blocks away to where a number of low-end and bargian stores were clustered together. “Segregation is still here. We don’t have the ‘colored only’ signs any more, but this is where the black folks shop.”

Fancy free in the gateway city

I am typing this—quite literally—in the shadow of the Gateway Arch. I had all day Monday and most of the day today to explore St. Louis, which is exactly what I’ve been doing. I began yesterday morning about 660 feet from where I am now. The arch features a 40 passenger tram inside each leg, leading to an observation deck across the top. It was as I was about to step into the tiny cabin that I had the idea of getting a disposable camera. However, until someone works out a way to download my memories, the most spectacular views—from the top of the arch—will just have to stay inside my head.

I have spent the most recent academic term in an exploration of public art and an experiment in public interaction with works of art. (In other words—for anyone reading this who isn’t family or hasn’t heard—I spent the last semester pretending to be a statue.) Naturally, I’ve been more drawn to art in public places on this trip than any I’ve taken in the past. So, it was only a matter of time before I found myself in Citygarden. This is a three-acre space with several sculptures, lawns, and fountains. There are also a number of people dressed as security guards but who really act more like ambassadors for the city.

I was also intrigued by the Art St. Louis space, where up-and-coming St. Louis area artists have their works displayed in a downtown gallery. Much of the work is for sale, but by the entrance was a piece that wasn’t: a work whose medium was described as “Stenciled Dirt” on the identifying label. It was a beautiful, geometric shape formed from dirt on the ground in a place where, for the next show, they might conceivably put a doormat.

From there, I went to the City Museum, and nearly walked right past it. All I knew about it beforehand was that it was highly recommended. I almost walked past it because the building itself is a converted 11-story warehouse. In one corner of three stories of the building is the collection, which is essentially a giant jungle gym made of bits and pieces of historic but not particularly valuable artifacts. I imagine I’d have had fun there about fifteen years ago, but seeing it through adult eyes, the twisted passages and surreal surroundings were just a bit unnerving. Or maybe I’m just jealous of kids having fun.

And the kiddos were having fun, crawling through and sliding down constructions such as these.

I close by saying that as much as I am enjoying this trip, it is definitely time to go home. In Minnesota, I was trying to squeeze in a few more things to do, a little bit farther to walk, or a little bit more to see in the gaps in my schedule. Now, I sit under the arch and write to pass some of that time until the train leaves. It’s not that I feel there’s nothing left to see in St. Louis, but that I’m on information overload and have to go back to ‘Burque to process it all.

My day in Milwaukee

I begin with a bit of bad news: I lost my camera the day I wrote this post, I believe in the Greyhound station in either Chicago or Milwaukee. I’d been holding on to hope it would turn up for quite some time, but now it appears to be gone for good, so in the places I was hoping to have visual aids, I will instead have to provide “word paintings.”

I write from St. Louis, where I’ve just gotten settled in at my motel. I can convey everything of note about my 10-hour bus trip in a single sentence:

The Midwest is flat.

So I’m going to write about my day in Milwaukee yesterday. I actually gave myself two days to see a game and explore the town. The plan was to arrive Friday afternoon and then see the town in order to devote most of the day yesterday to see the game. But, because I wore myself out cycling around Minneapolis on Thursday, I simply crashed when I got to the hotel.

I got up early, stepped outside and made it one block from the hotel before turning around to grab my sweater (which I had actually packed in case I needed it in the Twin Cities). It was overcast and it was windy. I zigzagged my way through downtown and eventually wound up at the Milwaukee Art Museum around 9:30.

I’d learned that it is a museum with wings, which open during operating hours. I’d also learned that the admission was cost-prohibitive for someone who wanted to be at the ballpark in an hour and a half. But I wanted to catch the spectacle of the opening of the wings, so I walked a little ways along the lakefront before heading back. Not only does the museum have wings, it also has an “opening the wings” fanfare which is played quite loudly. I’m afraid that spoiled the effect for me, the building seems too dignified for such showiness.

After the game, when I did have time to look around, I went back to the museum. I’m glad I did, the individual galleries are small, but it seemed to be a very well rounded collection, and not overwhelming like many larger art museums I’ve been to. The most fascinating exhibit was an installation—as you approach a two-story wall you are confronted with what appears to be a wall of clouds or soap suds. It is only when you get closer that you see it is actually thousands upon thousands of drinking straws.

I left the museum right before they closed (and played the “closing the wings” fanfare). By then, it was gorgeous outside and the thought of anyone besides my mother¹ needing a sweater seemed ludicrous. A mite peckish, I headed over to the historic Third Ward, a district of converted warehouses that are now retail space. I got my dinner there, but found the place a bit too gentrified for my tastes. However, I did see something tacked up by a cash register that I found amusing, and which I’ll leave you with:

A reasonable facsimile

¹By the way, happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

Bobby needs a new pair of shoes…

Those who know me well will tell you I’m a procrastinator. Those who know me even better will tell you that I do not like shopping for shoes. Put the two together, and you get something like this:

Yes, those are what I put on my feet to go out into the world, and I’d rather wear them than shop for replacements. But I’ve known for quite some time that these had to go. I also knew that I couldn’t come to Minnesota and not visit the Mall of America. Putting those two together gave me my plan for the day.

An all day transit pass costs $6 here, and I got full value out of mine today. First a bus which took me through several very pleasant neighborhoods in east St. Paul to a light rail station where I caught the train to the mall. But not before I encountered a very amusing work of public art.

Along the platform were several emergency telephones as well as a feature I’d be very glad to know about if I’m ever here in the winter, a small space heater with a button that says “push for heat.” Then, I saw a nondescript looking metal box with a counter, a speaker, and a button. Closer examination revealed it was a work of art entitled Small Kindness, Weather Permitting. Pushing the button advanced the counter by one and treated me to a very silly audio sketch about just how cold it is here.

I got to the mall and was able to find a pair of shoes. As for what I have to say about the place itself… Well, it’s a giant mall—with shops wrapped around an amusement park comparable in size to the largest such park in the state of New Mexico—but it’s still a mall. Many of you already know how I feel about malls, but if you don’t, all I’ll say is that 2 hours was plenty of time to see everything I needed to see.

I spent the rest of the day putting my new purchases through their paces. Since I’m going to be in Minneapolis tomorrow, I decided to check out St. Paul today. I began by getting off the bus at the state capitol and walking around there a bit. The big story there involves the area’s football team, the Vikings, and how much the state is going to pony up for a new stadium. There was a purple bus with 10-foot long painted horns on its side parked outside with several Vikings fans holding a banner saying “Don’t let us become the third Dakota.”

From there, I walked downtown. Here’s what kind of day it was:

While it’s a very pleasant city, there wasn’t really anything that grabbed me, so before too long I found myself at the bank of the Mississippi. I walked along it under two bridges before heading back to the hotel. It was only then I traced my path on Google Maps and discovered I’d walked nearly eight miles in total. Looks like I’m gonna have to go shoe shopping again before too long…

A morning in the Windy City

Hopefully, when this post goes up, I’ll be right around the Colorado-New Mexico border. So, I was in Chicago yesterday, with a layover that gave me the morning and just a bit of the afternoon to do something—maybe one thing in the windy city. What in the world would I do? I decided to take my own advice for a change. I went back to Michigan and Wacker for the Architectural Foundation’s river cruise. Now, I’ve done this when I was here six years ago, but I do not feel the least bit cheated. First of all, there are several new buildings right on the riverfront. Second, here’s what kind of day it was:

And not only was it clear, but in the mid-eighties, with just the hint of a breeze coming off the lake (Our tourguide was complaining about how windy it was, but compared to an April day in Albuquerque, I’d call it a hint of a breeze, and it’s my blog, not hers.)

I walked from the station to the dock, expecting that since it’s a Sunday, a morning, and a time when many of the nation’s schoolchildren have been re-incarserated, it would be a fairly empty boat. I got to the ticket window and asked if there were any tickets left.
     “How many do you want?” the guy asked.
     A look of relief came over his face. “I can do one.”

I really got the last, final ticket. Actually, I was lucky to have gotten in the correct boat at all, lining up at Dock 1 was the Architectural Foundation cruise, and at Gate 2 was a dog cruise, and the lines were mixing towards the back. No exaggeration, every person or couple getting on the other boat had a pooch.

Here are some tidbits I picked up that I don’t remember from last time. First of all, this building that is currently lofts was “essentially a giant refrigerator.” To convert it to lofts required knocking the windows out of the side of the building, which is quite a feat—those walls are 4 feet thick. “The good thing about that, if your neighbors have a party, you won’t be hearing it.” Also, “Chicago” is the anglicization of a native word for a wild onion that grew along the Chicago River. “New York’s the Big Apple, we’re the big onion.”

And I’ve only started to peel the surface…

The littlest big town I know

Big city... empty streets.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Cleveland. It’s a lot bigger than I expected in some ways, and yet has a very small town feel in others. Here’s just a little of what I mean: the downtown is very large, with impressive skyscrapers and very broad streets. And yet—aside from the area right around the ballpark—it has a very empty feel to it; those big broad streets hosted sparse traffic, and sometimes I’d be walking along and feel like I had the whole block to myself.

West 117th street is the western city limit, the border with the city of Lakewood, where my hotel was located. Such a large number, combined with the fact that there are quite a few East numbered streets on the other side of some boundary I couldn’t quite discern certainly suggests a very large city. Then, when I stepped into the diner on the Cleveland side of West 117th, there was a small-town feel to the atmosphere, one of the waitresses was telling anybody who would listen that Thome was back (that’s how I first learned about it in my vagabond, wifi-less condition), while several of the regulars were teasing another waitress about a picture of her as a ten-year-old that had been posted near the register.

The stadium is either the biggest intimate ballpark or else it’s the smallest big park I’ve ever seen. I know that sounds odd, let me try to explain. It takes just a glance to tell that it is definitely a Major League park, and yet it is on a fairly small piece of real estate. The seatbanks are very steep, and pressed close to the field, giving everybody a feeling of being right on top of the action—very much like a Minor League park, but bigger.

I did the one tourist attraction you have to do when in Cleveland: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. What really struck me when I was done there was just how little I had to write about. I mean, I enjoy rock, especially from the early days, but—as fascinating as the displays were—I just didn’t find much I could connect with. The only audiovisual presentation I really felt compelled to watch all the way through was one I’m sure the curators expected people to be walking in and out of, the one with the Beatles. It was a string of 3-5 minute features on each landmark album of their careers. 3-5 minutes doesn’t sound like very long, but with a short feature on more than a dozen albums, I was there quite a while. And from the crowd of people who’d sat in a semicircle around the screen—turning what the architects probably intended to be a hallway into a mini-theater, not to mention a fire hazzard—it’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one.

The trip heats up

Yesterday morning, I was awoken emphatically around five by a burst of lightning that might as well have been across the street. When I woke up for real, it was drizziling and the gutters were full, and the hotel’s manager had gloomy predictions for the rest of the day. By the time I’d gotten downtown, here’s what it looked like:

Fed up with the transportation problems I’ve had so far, and heartened by the nicest weather I’ve seen yet, I decided to take matters into my own feet. I walked through downtown to the Roberto Clemente Bridge (Constructed in 1928, so I doubt that’s the bridge’s original name). I crossed over to get another look at the ballpark, then walked along the Allegheny, just looking for something to do. After I’d passed the Steelers’ yard and a monument to Mr. Rodgers, I came to the Carnegie Science Center.

When I walked in and paid the admission, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that there would be a presentation on the science of cooking at “The Kitchen Theatre.” This combines three things I have great interest in (besides baseball): food, science and theatre, so I made my way there post haste. It turned out the presentation was teaching the kids all about fire and alcohol. The young lady presenter made a banana caramel flambé. She talked about phases of matter, nutritional information for the ingredients she was using, and other scientific principles, but all the time teasing the audience that the presentation would end with fire, which it did. After pouring some rum into the mixture and getting a pretty wimpy flame, she explained that she needed a higher proof liquor, and then proceeded to explain what she meant by “proof.” As you can see, it worked.

The museum features a fascinating interactive exhibit about robots. Along one wall are models of famous science fiction robots, from Robbie to R2D2. An animatronic emcee went through a routine of talking about what’s new in robotics, and joking that the revolution where robots will take over the world was scheduled for next Sunday. There was a robot that would draw a picture on a rotating surface, a robot that was an air-hockey wizard—I held my own in a scoreless draw, if you must know—and a robotic arm that was shooting basketballs (it was shooting about 18% on jumpers, but 57% on layups).

What really interested me, though, was the “Charbot.” This is a computerized woman who is—allegedly—able to interact with humans in “a pleasant manner.” Her programmers still have a bit of work to do. After watching a bunch of the kiddos typing random keys and thoroughly confusing her, I sat down at the keyboard.
     “Hi,” I typed, and the computer generated face lit up with a smile. A good start “Do you ever get sick of the brats?” I asked (I’m paraphrasing this conversation, I don’t remember it exactly).
     “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
     “Never mind.”
     “Can you rephrase that question? Sometimes I just don’t understand humans.”

Neither do I, sometimes. Neither do I.

Footloose in Baltimore

I write this from Baltimore. Or, more precisely, from my hotel room in the “BWI business district” in Linthicum, MD. I came back to Baltimore for several reasons; for one thing, I didn’t get to do very much exploring when I was here last year, and then on top of that, last year I didn’t know I had a cousin who lives in Baltimore. (Well, I knew I had the cousin, but not that she’s in Baltimore. Anyhow…) I was planning on meeting with her this weekend, but then something came up at the last minute and she was called out of town. We did get to chat over the phone, and she has been very helpful providing local information, but it was still a disappointment not to get the chance to meet face-to-face.

However, if there is any consolation in this, it’s that I had more time to explore, and explore I did. I thought about going to the National Aquarium, and when I got there at 11 a.m. the line was 100 out the door and they were selling tickets for an “entrance window” of 1:30-2:00 pm. I’ve had experience with other museums and attractions that employ “entrance windows,” and what that means is that even when my window is open, the place is too crowded for me to enjoy it. So I walked around the harbor a bit.

I found a place for lunch that overlooked the dragon-shaped paddleboats and watched them swimming around as I waited for my food. When the meal was served, there were a few wispy clouds loitering around. When the check came, it was a full overcast. With a single thunderbolt as preamble, the sky opened up completely—it was quite a spectacle as the dragons got called back to the barn. And here they are, waiting out the weather. (That’s the National Aquarium in the background, by the way.)

After lunch, I scurried through the rain to the Baltimore World Trade Center and went up to their observation deck. Here is a photo they have on display there—the yellow dots are to help tourists identify certain landmarks:

And here was the actual view from that window:

I waited it out nearly an hour through a very impressive electrical storm before heading off to the Maryland Science Center—also very impressive, but not what really stood out, and not what I intended to write about. My cousin recommended the American Visionary Art Museum, as something that “might be interesting.” Good call.

The museum sits on the other side of the Inner Harbor from the real touristy zone, and features works from artists with no formal art training. That—as the work on display shows quite clearly—does not mean the quality of the work has diminished in any way. Many of the pieces are “found objects” arranged into fun and fascinating sculpture and mosaic—this picture shows a part of the façade above the entrance and is made of pieces of broken mirror and tile, and wraps around the building more than half a block on the other side. Also interesting were the exhibits about humor. By the bathrooms in the basement is an alcove devoted entirely to pieces with flatulence as a common theme, while another gallery features art by people with disabilities who confront their own handicaps with humor that is definitely not politically correct.

Three hours later, when they kicked me out (I guess they wanted to go home or something), here was my view of the skyline:

so I guess the freak monsoon season deluge is not unique to New Mexico after all.

I was making my way back to the Light Rail when I came across a piece of street theatre by the water. I’d let the picture tell the story, except there are a few details that might not be clear. Yes, there are three skateboards balanced on that guy’s chin, and yes, the top one is on fire. Also notice the tip bucket. I bring it up because he sure was. It seems buskers audition for spots to perform in the little amphitheatre, and rely on the tips they earn as their only payment. With several hundred people looking on, I’d say he did pretty well.

The last photograph I’ll share with you is how the act ended. I’m afraid my photographic reflexes have gotten a little rusty, I’d like to have gotten him right in the middle of the
jump, but this’ll have to do. Those are two “volunteers” from the audience, and yes—again, in case you can’t see it—that skateboard is on fire.

All in all, a very fun day. I’d like to see more of what Baltimore has to offer, but it’s off to Washington tomorrow, the Nationals await.