Train Station Lessons: Don’t Be the One Left in the Rain

Train stations are magical places. They are portals where we literally jump off to new destinations. They allow people with different lives and destinies to intersect. They are big. They are public. They are filled with promise, confusion, and noise. They can also be places of tragedy and sadness.

I have had many memorable train station moments in my life, in India, Singapore, Malaysia, Egypt, Thailand, the USA, Canada, Japan, and throughout Europe. I have almost been robbed, lost my money, found friends, and often sat around for hours waiting to escape a few terrible places and even countries.

Sam and Rick leave Paris without Ilsa, who just moments earlier had broken Rick’s heart with her farewell letter. And, yes, it has to be raining for such a scene.

When I think of trains, I always think of the great train scene, set in Paris on a rainy June 1940 evening, as two protagonists get ready to flee the advancing Nazis. One is Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, and the other is his best friend Sam, played by Dooley Wilson. The film is the Warner Bros. 1942 classic Casablanca.

Come on, you know the short scene. Sam shares the note from Rick’s lover, Ilsa, who is not seen in this sequence, but played by Ingrid Bergman. In her letter, she bids Rick what she thinks is her final farewell.

Rick is devastated and watches the words melt away on the sheet in the downpour and his heart breaks apart right at that very moment. The scene ends with Rick tossing the toxic rejection missive aside, as he and Sam steam away, fleeing for what we know will be North Africa and eventually the film’s namesake, Casablanca.

Ilsa’s goodbye letter to Rick in the 1942 Warner Bros. film Casablanca.

I thought about that memorable scene yesterday, when I found myself at Union Station in Portland.

It was raining. It also was colder than expected. I had dashed down to give a gift to a friend who was leaving town with a lot on her mind. The whole scene brought back a memory from about two years earlier, when another woman I knew had come to Portland, in the midst of a personal crisis, and I had dropped her at the station on a very rainy late fall day. I had listened to her story as well, and a few tears.

I will leave out other scenes from my first Union Station episode, but it was a terrible day for the person I was with. My job, whether I wanted it or not, was to help her out and then to be forgotten. I was disposable in some ways. The event yesterday was not quite on that scale, but it had eerie echoes from the one before.

I laughed at myself walking away from Union Station after I bid my friend farewell. So was I just the sap, getting caught in the rain, like Bogie, whose love interest left him for another man without saying goodbye in person? In both cases I was not the love interest, but I was barely a secondary character in the film unfolding for these two leads in their complicated lives.

Clearly there are elements of an archetypal modern story at play when man and woman cross fates in railway stations: The man, feeling sappy and sorry for himself. The woman, crying over another man. The station as the stage, where the drama unfolds. And of course the beating rain, soaking the characters to their skin.

On some days, you have to be Bogie’s Blaine, and stop thinking about yourself. That is OK. I have no regrets. It is fine to play the part of a tragic but complex character.

But having lived this scene, I advise any future Ricks who are left behind, avoid the habit of being the one who leaves the station alone, drenched by rain and feeling nothing but regret. There are much better ways to end your stories. And don’t wait until the bad guys like the Nazis are practically knocking at the city gates. Leave town a lot earlier.

Note: Use of images from the film Casablanca are solely for the purposes of comment and criticism.

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Remembering my friend Matt

Matt, my good friend from University City High School

I was moving my photo albums around this week, when by accident a picture of my best friend in high school, Matt, fell out.

I must have taken the picture sometime in 1982 or 1983. He finished high school early, with a GED, to immediately pursue an auto mechanics program in St. Louis. When I las saw him at his wedding in the mid-1980s, he had gone on to a career in that field.

The picture shows the guy I remember well and still respect. He was looking macho, wearing a smile.

Matt never seemed mad. He always had a positive attitude. He was born cool and did not need to have his badass status affirmed by the limited social world of my high school. Let’s face it, some people simply are born to be a little wild, and stand out from a crowd.

Matt worked his ass off at a tire retailer, making more money than me. With his savings, he paid for a 1969 black and red Camaro Z, a V8 hot rod he fixed up for speed and show. You cannot be more cool when you are 17 than having one of these cars. When Matt hit the gas in neutral, the engine roared and heads turned. He also paid for his own Triumph motorcycle with a beautiful blue trim. Both the car and bike could fly, and he loved speed.

The more mature and beautiful young women our age fell for Matt—something they told me years laters—but he didn’t pay attention to them. He had been dating his sweetheart from a different city since he was in the seventh grade.

Matt and I played soccer together on our high school’s soccer team our junior and senior years. He was stronger, more athletic than me, playing a center fullback position, holding up our defense with grit, speed, and power.

Matt learned how to play in Brazil, where his mother took him kicking and screaming when he was in the seventh grade. She saw him going wild at that age. As a teacher committed to social causes, she wanted to expose her only son to the third world and a life outside of urban St. Louis and clean him up from the many influences of drugs that surrounded all of us then. It worked. I wish I could have done the same.

He told me about clearing fields of sugar cane in the blazing sun at a village near Brasilia, where he and some other Americans were living and helping residents for a year.

After Brazil, Matt totally changed. I have never seen anything like it up to that point. Most young men, like me, at that age are immature. Matt had already become a man, he was clear about what he wanted to do (auto mechanics), and he achieved his goals with hard work.

Matt and some of our classmates (a good sampling of the diversity of University City High School)

Matt could deal with anyone from any race or culture. I never once saw any of the bad boys at our majority black high school try to test and taunt him with threats of violence—something that happened a lot. Some of that was racially motivated, and a good part was about establishing the male pecking order. Matt had street cred, and in that world, it was the currency that mattered. Matt was a different kind of dude. He had respect.

I never knew why Matt spent time with me. He was a shop guy, a genius at auto mechanics, and I was trying to be a serious, nerdy student going to college. Maybe we got along well because both of us had divorced single mothers as parents who had fathers who had left our families in bad circumstances. And we both had cleaned up from the dope scene at the same time too, when many of our peers were just starting to do drugs. We had replaced those vices with soccer and jobs. Maybe we had moved on already before we had left that school.

Sadly, I lost touch with him midway through my college degree. I left for Portland in 1983. He was married by the time he was 21. I never came back to St. Louis, except for occasional holidays. None of the few people I stayed in touch with from my high school knew where he went. I think Matt left that world behind, bought an auto garage, and became a business owner while raising a family.

Every year or two I try to find him. He has stayed off the grid or has already passed away. I don’t know.

However, Matt’s memory lives on. On a list I made of all of the mentors who influenced me, my old friend sits near the top of the list. His year in Brazil made me want to find places outside of the United States where life was more raw and more real than suburban St. Louis. Most of all he showed me that authenticity can never be faked. When you show up real, people will treat you accordingly.

Matt, wherever you are, if you are still with us, I wish you the best.

Learning by the decades

I just celebrated my birthday.  The day always gives me pause. It forces me to think about what I am doing with my life and what I have learned.

I thought about the important things that emerged over the 10-year increments that I have lived on this world. Here are a few of the big “aha’s” that stuck with me and have made me a better and smarter person.

Rudy as BabyDecade 1 (0-9 years): This was a scrappy period. I learned that I could take care of myself even in situations that were unpleasant. The resilience I learned as a kid has given me the ability to overcome challenges and persevere when the going gets tough. This was a great life skill to master, and I was lucky I had the (mis)fortune to internalize this lesson early on.

Decade 2 (10-19): This was the period when I learned from mentors. My greatest teachers were guys who gave me a chance and allowed me to work for them, and get real-world life skills and also much needed cash. I was lucky to have two very generous business owners and bosses. Everything good I learned about how to run a business I learned from these two men, who decided to give me a lucky break.

Decade 3 (20-29): This was the decade I first learned about the world first-hand and saw how much we all have in common. No matter what country I found myself or how poor or wealthy the residents were, people were genuinely good to me if I treated them with respect and an eagerness to learn about their culture, language, customs, and religious traditions. The world really is a wonderful teacher.

rogerandmeDecade 4 (30-39): This was the decade I learned that life can provide you wild surprises, and what matters in the face of curve balls is how well you deal with rapid change and crisis. I reinvented myself a few times during this decade and did not allow these sideways detours to keep me from moving forward.

Decade 5 (40-49): This was the time when I learned again about the meaning of life, from the example of a wonderful person I knew who taught everyone around him how to live a good life. I made some adjustments for the better and doubled down on my goals to live even more purposefully than before.

Rudy-MaryAnne Rhododenruns
Decade 6 (50 … ): This is an open chapter, and I am learning more about letting slowly go of people I know and care about. But this particular journey this decade has only just begun, and there will be time to write the final chapter many years later.

My favorite holiday, and for great reasons

My friends prepared a phenomenal Thanksgiving dinner, yet again, in 2014.

My friends prepared a phenomenal Thanksgiving dinner, yet again, in 2014.

Thanksgiving approaches. By far it always has been and remains my favorite holiday.

For me it is the most genuine of our American celebrations. Commercial interests have not transformed it into a crass, commoditized event, though they try their hardest the day after we gather to give thanks with food, friends, and family.

It is seasonally specific. Thanksgiving dinners celebrate the North American harvest season, and with that, all of our land’s lovely fall foods. There are squashes, sweet potatoes, Brussel sprouts, potatoes, carrots, and cranberry sauce. These all taste better when blended and mixed on the plate with a big bird and gravy. Let’s not forget pumpkin and apple pie, layered with whip cream, and perhaps maybe wine or cider to add zest.

I have spent the last five Thanksgivings in Seattle with friends. It has always been a way I have let the world fall to the wayside, so I can focus on friendship, camaraderie, and celebrating all we have to give thanks for.

Two of those years were not my favorite periods, being back in graduate school and not feeling perfectly in tune with my program and the field I was studying at the time. I continue to live far from my family, so I have not been able to share it with them for decades, and during those two years, time with my family would have been nice. So for me, Thanksgiving has been about friends, actually for decades now.

Thanksgiving also celebrates a key moment in American history, marking the Union victories over the slave-holding Confederacy at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. The holiday, despite what you may have learned from myth and school, was first declared by Abraham Lincoln in October 1863, a dark year in American history when it was not clear if we would survive the storm of violent civil conflict, slavery, and division. Lincoln’s speech is a good one, even if he may not have written the whole thing (I do not know for sure).

I also have memories every late November of losing a good friend just before Thanksgiving in 2008.

So at this time of year, particularly on this great holiday, I think of what is good in my life and the good people in my life. I hope you do too, if you find yourself in the United States, with a home over your head, and friends and family to help you remember what is truly important.

A travel journal, from Tok to Whitehorse

Sunset on the Alaska Range

The Alaska Range in the evening

In the summer of 1992, I worked as a newspaper reporter in Sitka, Alaska. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Just before I began that seasonal position, I was able to tour south central Alaska, all by, yes, hitchhiking. It was perhaps safer back in the day, though there was always a risk that the driver was a character with a dark past and a possibly psychotic future. I did meet some strange and colorful folks on the trip I took. In less than two weeks, I hitched from Haines, to Valdez, to Homer, to Anchorage, to Denali, to Fairbanks, to Tok, to Whitehorse, and finally to Skagway, where I caught the ferry back to Sitka.

I copied down a section of my travel journal from that adventure. What transpired is, to my best ability, faithfully captured. In Alaska and the Yukon, you just can’t make some things up. The people and place are just beyond the imagination. I begin my journal entry just after I was dropped off about 30 miles from Fairbanks, under the arctic evening light, surrounded by nothing but mosquitos and open sky and empty road.

Thursday May 28, 1992:
I spent 45 minutes waiting. At around 10:45 p.m., I was still hoping for yet another ride, with residual evening light still around me. It came in a Grateful Dead branded, red VW van. I said hello to Scott, a 21-year-old drug user and snowboarder and his mellow dog Wilson. Scott was leaving Alaska. He had enough of the work on a boat. He did the black cod run and quit. He had hated boat work. He said he threw up all over the place.

Scott had a few stories and was easy with his smiles. His ratty, shoulder-length brown hair and stubble made him look a bit like a Dharma bum. He said two wanted criminals, who supposedly had murdered three teens, almost killed him a few days back. He talked about the suicide of his friend too.

We drove past Delta Junction and started looking for campsites. He said he had to get back to the border crossing at Sweet Grass, Mont., to make a court date. He had paid $700 in bail after the border guards took apart his van and found 65 hits of acid in a deck of cards that came with the bus when he bought it, he claimed. The whole experience bummed him out, he said. Now he was smoking the last of his Alaska Thunderfuck weed and cleaning the van up. I didn’t want to hit the border with him.

We found a spot and set his van up for crashing. He stretched a cot across the front cab, where I crashed. He had the bed. Outside the van we could hear the hum of thousands of mossies. Some picked us off inside the van too. I slept roughly, waking at 3 a.m. with a chill and scrunched in my tiny compartment.

Friday, May 29, 1992

Tok Welcome Sign

Tok, Alaska, welcome sign

I awoke exhausted at 6 a.m. Scott made us pancakes and eggs. Delicious stuff. We hit the road at 7 a.m. and rolled into Tok. We stopped at the North Star restaurant, where I made my first stop crossing the border two weeks earlier. The woman at the counter remembered me. The hot shower was a delight, followed by hot coffee.

Scott was cleaning his van. He told me he planned to get to Beaver Creek by the end of the day. I told him I had more miles to cover. He promised he would pick me up if he saw me.

I was on the road by 10:30 a.m. A sky blue V-8, Ford F-150 pickup pulled over. The driver, Bill, said he was a geologist and miner from Whitehorse and offered me a ride all the way to his home. Score!

First we bummed around town looking for maps where he wanted to stake claims. He showed me a pure gold nugget hanging from his neck. We hit the road an hour later, with that F-150 cruising at high speed. He loved to floor that puppy, even after the State Troopers pulled him over and gave him a $60 ticket.

Bill was about 35. He studied mining formally for three years at a university. He loved his work, staking claims and prospecting with his father. He smiled and laughed a lot. His Canadian “ehs” rolled frequently from his lips.

We were searched by the Canadian border service guards and let through. Once in the Yukon Territory, we stopped at Beaver Creek to collect some “shit” that he and his dad had accumulated. This included a snowmobile and buckets of other gear for his prospecting work.

Off we went again. We travelled through Burwash Creek, Gold Nugget Creek—places where he had prospected and worked, he said. If was as if the entire Elias mountain range was his own private domain. He knew it well.

We stopped again at a restaurant of cranky, large female friend named Rebecca. She had acne. We ate date cake and drank coffee. That’s all I ever seemed to do up here: eat sweet food and drink cups of coffee to stay warm and awake.

It was a beautiful drive on a lovely day. We stopped again to pick up even more stuff at an abandoned miner’s cabin. This time torch rods, wood, tools, and lanterns. Off we sped again.

We rolled into Haine’s junction at 6 p.m., just in time to meet his cousin at a local bar. There were about eight guys drinking beer and smoking. They ranged between 35 and 60. They looked a bit unkempt, but tough. Not the kind of guys to tussle with in a bar fight.

His cousin was drunk. He slurred out curses in his greetings. What happened next was pure Canada. Drinks and bullshit and bushels of “ehs.” We got out of there in 45 minutes, only to spend another 15 minutes at the mobile home of still another cousin. Finally we headed to Whitehorse.

Bill’s Ford was leaving smoke in the road as we sped way over the speeding limit. We passed through magnificent scenery of soft mountains and spruce forests. It reminded me a lot of Montana. Bill thought the same.

A scene near White Pass, Alaska

Near White Pass, the high country

Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, has about 90 percent of the territory’s people. It is a semi-industrial town, lying at the col of the valley. Bill took me to a spot by a campground on the highway out of town. There I waited 20 minutes. Right when I wanted to bag it, a green truck stopped. I met Rudy of the Yukon Security Forces.

I asked Rudy about his accent. He said he originally came from Holland. We started talking, and Rudy began with his army service stories, when he was stationed in Indonesia on Java and Sumatra between 1945 and 1949. He described his army days like a Vietnam vet. He loved it there, eating native food and re-enlisting to serve in a company where he was the only European.

He talked about handguns, which he didn’t carry. He said he’d carry one if he can use it. Shoot first, ask questions later. That was the way it worked in Indonesia, he said. He had orders to clear villages, to stop enemy columns from entering an area. It left him changed.

He said his first wife couldn’t understand what he felt. He said in the early 1960s he knew America could not win the Vietnam War. He told me that he is never going back, even though it was his favorite place in the world. Now he lives in his second favorite place, the Yukon.

I got off at the campgrounds, which were swarmed. A bunch of yahoos played loud music and drank beer. Typical Canadian. I got to sleep at midnight.

Trusted by a stranger, in a strange town, in the middle of the night

Tibetan Refugee Carpet Maker Photo

This contagiously positive carpet weaver is among the many Tibetan refugees I met in India at Dharamsala and Darjeeling, two hill stations.

Recently, I had two experiences over a couple of days during which I realized I was not trusted. It saddened me. Trust is almost always earned, but it also is very dependent on one’s own life’s story and circumstance, so some do not give it easily. Trust is one of the greatest treasures. It is a gift we give to young people to show we believe in them. It is also something that one has to demonstrate in life, and not be afraid of the consequences.

My experiences made me think of times I relied on blind trust. One of the most vulnerable moments I had traveling in India in 1989 took place in the middle of a late November night, in Dharamsala, the Indian hill town that is also refuge to the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan refugees. I had arrived very late at the lower city of McLeod Ganj after 12 hours of bus rides. As there were no taxis, I walked up the hill, in the dark, having no reservations. It was 1:45 a.m. when I finally arrived sweaty on the cold hill city, but found all the hotels were shuttered. It was not particularly safe to be on the streets, and I had to find shelter.

So, I visited a tea stall restaurant, owned by a Tibetan man in his 50s. He was awake, making bread and cooking. I motioned I needed a place to sleep in his restaurant. I was likely dirty, a bit smelly, carrying a big backpack, and not the most welcoming of sights. He did not know me. Here’s what I wrote in my journal: “Imagine this. A total stranger appears at his doorstep at 2 a.m. and he lets him in to sleep at no cost. I pulled out my sleeping bag and crashed for 4.5 hours. I woke up to the sounds of my friendly patron saint bustling in the kitchen. I wonder if he sleeps. He smiled at me and gave me a cup of tea.”

Never forget who you are, especially if you are a bastard

Tyrrion Lannister and Jon Snow

This image, published by web site FanPop, captures one of the best moments of dialogue in the whole bloody saga that is Game of Thrones. This is the first episode, season one, when the two characters meet. I like both characters shown here a lot.

As an adoptee, I have great affection for all characters, mythical, imaginary, and historical, who share my status as a man who was born without his biological parents joined in marriage. The word for us, through history, is “bastard.” Don’t worry, fair readers, us bastards are comfortable with the word. We know its true meaning and know how others respond to it. It may be you who is not at ease with the word and the reality.

So it may be no surprise that one of my favorite little scenes from the series Game of Thrones is when the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, gives advice to the main bastard character of the series, Jon Snow.

“Let me give you some advice, bastard,” says a drunken Tyrion. “Never forget who you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor.”

In other words, make your apparent weakness your strength and own the fullness of your identity, regardless of what anyone may say. Good advice for a bastard. I should know. And so should Jon Snow.