I had intended to drive up to Portland from San Francisco to meet Bruce Benderson, skipping 2 stops of his West Coast tour for "The Romanian," mostly due to timing. But when I sat down with the road atlas and periodically checked the weather forecasts, I was concerned that somewhere near the California / Oregon border, I might careen into a 14 foot snow drift (or likewise, hydroplane into the side of a moose). I decided instead to take the train — Amtrak’s "Coast Starlight" — a 17 hour journey, mostly as I wanted to dedicate the time to start (if not finish) "The Romanian" (along with the other books I’ve picked up, hanging out in so many bookstores.)
The train is ontime leaving San Francisco at 10:15 in the evening, with a scheduled arrival into Portland at 3:30 the next afternoon. Bruce’s reading at the mammoth Powell’s Bookstore isn’t until 7:30, so I figure I would have a few hours to run around and see the city before he started. I boarded the train, flicked on the reading light, and plunged headfirst into Bruce’s poetic tale of lusty obsession and scandalous Romanian history. I fell asleep around midnight, and I’m still not sure how this happened, but when I woke up at 6, dawn was just beginning to break – and I heard that we were already 3 hours behind schedule. Had the Italians taken over the American rail system while I slept?
I start munching on graham crackers and continue reading, completely engrossed in the story. The natural landscape of Northern California and Oregon is gorgeous. A couple of hours pass when I read a paragraph in the book where Bruce describes some bored female hookers sitting around the lobby of a hotel. As if on cue, this loopy, amusement-park-mascot voice comes over the trains intercom: "Good morrrrrning everybody! This is Brandy… in the cafe car! How’s everybody doing? I’ve been open and serving since 6:30! Stop by and see me!" Hmm. "Open and serving"? I giggle at the vision of Brandy in her tiny lower-deck cafe, feverishly engaged in a gang bang while propping herself up between bottles of fruit juice on one side and bags of snack foods on the other. It’s a vision much spicier than I would ever expect from Amtrak. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but Brandy didn’t charge me for my coffee when I made my way to her cafe, which leads me to believe that Brandy has special abilites that transcend her conserative, navy blue Amtrak uniform.
Along the way….
We were able to briefly hop off the train somewhere in Oregon for some fresh air, and for the first time, I saw that I was traveling with some passengers who — based on the ladies’ spooky dark bonnets and husbands who resembled hardy Leprechauns — I suspect were Amish.
I once read in National Geographic Magazine that the Amish are some of the healthiest people in America as they’re constantly doing physical things, like farm work and walking (they often travel on foot). When they’re on a time crunch, they also travel by horse-drawn buggy — something to avoid getting stuck behind on a winding, 2-lane mountain road. I always understood them to be "anti-engine" so I’m not sure how the train is allowable. (Maybe this is like vegetarians who eat fish, chicken and the occasional hamburger.)
We pull into Portland 5 hours later than scheduled. Apparently, Amtrak doesn’t even own their own tracks in America — they rent them from Union Pacific. We have to stop a few times while we wait for freight trains to clear the way before we can proceed. My eyes are glassy and crossed from uninterrupted reading. A cab driver will later tell me that the Coast Starlight train is always late by at least 3 hours. Always. Which leads to my confusion why "America the Superpower" doesn’t have a train system that runs on time.
I arrive at Powell’s Bookstore just after the last person has asked Bruce to sign their copy of "The Romanian." As I had anticipated Arctic temperatures in Oregon, I’m wearing a large black parka and a black ski cap. I silently take a seat to relax and people instantly start to eyeball me sideways. Bruce sees me and announces, "Everybody! This is Dino Dinco, my dedicated driiiiiver…" A white woman standing nearby visibly exhales and releases the firm grasp on her purse.
Curiously, there’s a photo exhibit in the space where the readings are. I forget the name of the photographer, but the show is called "sex machines" and the series contains images of sexual devices (and the people who use them) where, typically a dildo (or more then one) is attached to a mechanical device or motor of some sort. (Needless to say, I doubt the Amish are big fans.) You can see some of these machines (with videos of how they work) on www.fuckingmachines.com
Afterwards, we meet up with several of Bruce’s Portland friends in a basement bar, including writer and co-founder of Clear Cut Press, Matthew Stadler; David Weissman, producer and co-director of the documentary film, "The Cockettes"; and firecracker Walt Curtis, Portland’s godfather of poetry and writer of "Mala Noche," the underground classic story that Gus Van Sant chose to adapt for his directorial debut. Gus Van Sant showed up shortly thereafter, giving he and Bruce time to compare notes on both being victims of the art project / multiple-personality-disorder-jamboree known as "The Artist Formerly Known as JT Leroy."
Later, Bruce and I do a quick, Olympic-level bar-athalon, including a place called "Embers" which, that night, featured young goth kids lip-syncing on stage to gothy pop songs. There was a sweet purity about the whole thing, refreshingly free of irony or self-concious hipness.
On the left: Terry or Chris…maybe Pat
As captain of the U.S. Olympic Smoking Team, Bruce guarantees us the Gold.
"Oh, Portland…so much to answer for…"