It was good to leave New York. Much as I love it there, and would happily live there, I needed to get travelling again. And at 9.30am on Thursday morning, I was on an Amtrak train pulling out of Penn station on its way to Philadelphia: the City of Brotherly Cream Cheese. Doesn’t take long, either, to know that you’ve left New York and are in a different country. Once the train comes out of its tunnel, you’re in New Jersey and things look different. Things look more like America, not New York. I got a frisson of excitement as the train went through Trenton for some reason. The realisation – the first of two that day – that I was doing this: going across the country. Teenage Craig would be proud of me for doing this.
I arrived at 30th St. Station in Philadelphia, bought a subway token, and dashed to one of the hostels listed in the guide book. As I arrived, there were sweaty men hauling sofas and wood out of the door. “We closed!” said one of them, briskly. Another explained that they were doing a bit of refurbishing, and would be open at four this afternoon, and that I could leave my stuff here. Hurrah.
Back at the subway station, and I stare blankly at the map on the wall, trying to remember where I needed to go to get to Citizens Bank Park, the Philadelphia Phillies’ shittily-named stadium, to see their game against the Cincinnati Reds. I asked a guy sat nearby. He told me the answer and that he was going to the game too, so I sat with him on the train and we had a nice chat. We introduced ourselves, and then he – Brendan – offered me one of his beers. Jolly generous, that, I thought; and I got to sit on a subway train in Philadelphia, drinking beer out of a brown paper bag with someone I’d just met.
We said our goodbyes outside the stadium, and I went off to get a ticket. Not many left, the game was nearly sold out, but I think it must be easier to get one ticket at a nearly sold out game than two or more sat together. This one was fifty dollars and pretty close, to the field behind home plate. After sucking down the last of my beer and grinding a cigarette into the concrete, my ticket was scanned and I was inside my third Major League Baseball stadium. I had an hour or so before the game was due to begin, so I took my time in checking out the place.
And it’s a whole different style of stadium to those that I saw in New York. It’s new (opened in 2004), is far easier to navigate, and a far more enjoyable place to be. Even when you’re buying a beer or a cheesesteak (mmmmm, delicious meaty cholesterol!), you’re not far from the field. It’s a fan-friendly place.
The stadium also has an ample smoking area near one of the gates, which is a good place to get stared at if you turn up wearing a Yankees cap. I was, though, expecting a bit more ribbing for my choice of headgear, but all I got was a guy called Steve asking what a Yankees fan was doing here. We talked for the duration of our cigarettes, had a few laughs, talked about baseball stadiums he’d been to, and the stadiums I’m going to.
Back in my seat, I got chatting to the woman next to me; a gardener who didn’t give me a hard time about my cap because her father was a Yankees fan. She prepped me on the players as they came to the plate, in a completely biased way, which was enjoyable.
All in all, it was a good afternoon. The Phillies won 5-0, with their pitcher Cole Hamels throwing a shutout; something I’ve not seen live before. Yay for me.
On the way back to the hostel, I started to feel like I wanted to keep on moving. After spending so long in New York, it had felt great to be travelling again, so when I got to the hostel, I quickly checked the Greyhound website, bought a ticket for the midnight bus, and thanked the lady at the hostel for graciously looking after my bags, and schlepped my stuff around looking for something to do for six hours.
I nipped around the old bit of the city, went to see some bell with a big crack in it that’s meant to be important or something (and like an stupid teenager, I couldn’t stop saying the word “end” to myself every time I read a sign that pointed me towards the Liberty Bell). There’s some building where a woman called Betsy made a gaudy tablecloth, and Independence Hall where those ungrateful American bastards decided that they didn’t like the Brits anymore in 1776.
A lovely salad (grilled chicken, walnuts, strawberries and rocket) and too many beers later, and I’m sat in the most depressing building I’ve ever been in: the Greyhound bus station. Metal mesh seats, ugly lighting, and, not to be crass about it, but lots of people who looked homeless and/or high on bad drugs. I’ve seen enough episodes of “COPS” to know what someone on meth looks like, and the guy wandering around, sweating his nuts off, holding a brick over his head, staring at anyone unlucky enough to catch his eye, and offering “you wanna buy a brick?”
For want of a better word, crazy people exist everywhere, but like food portions and cars, the United States seems to do them bigger and better. Thankfully, I got chatting to a friendly 23 year old Michigan-bound fellow which distracted us both from the stream of folks asking for money. Seemingly everyone’s mother is ill somewhere and they just need X dollars to get the bus home.
The bus arrives, a bunch of people pile on, and I’m heading west across Pennsylvania towards Pittsurgh, listening to the new Weezer album, falling asleep for 15 minutes or so here and there, and eventually watching the sun come up over the mist-coated fields.
Six-odd hours on the road, and I’m finally in another Greyhound station waiting for a cab to take me to somewhere to stay. Two smokes later and a cab turns up. I love it when a cab driver’s nice and chatty. Not in the London cabbie sense of yakking on about West Ham or too many bloody Polish people; just when he’s happy to welcome you in his city. He asked why I was in town and recommended a hotel near the baseball stadium. Bueno. “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson came on the radio, and we chatted about how sad it is when you hear how great he was and what he’s like now. He told me that if he was that rich, he could “guaranTEE you that I’d have a great fucking time.”
Soon enough, I was checked in, and looking out of the hotel window at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ stadium, PNC Park.
I was tired after a virtually sleepless night, but I
figured I should go and buy a ticket for the game before having a nap. I walked the 100 yards or so to the ticket office, and hung around with a few other men while the guys behind the glass dealt with a computer problem which meant that tickets for that night’s game couldn’t be printed. One of the guys was old and frail and smoked Marlboros and was a fairly good reminder to quit smoking at some point soon, if only for the same of my teeth.
Another chap, a tad impatient, took time out from furiously tapping his foot, to talk me through exactly which section would be the best place for a first time visitor to sit. He told me that anywhere between this section and that section has a great view of the field and the skyline, and is also cheap. Another fellow I got chatting too, who quite looked quite disturbingly like Dick Cheney, was delighted to hear I was doing a tour of MLB stadiums, and seemed a little sad when talking about his father had always said that he’d take him on a similar tour, but never got around to it before he died.
I bought the $16 ticket, went for a bite to eat, and back at the hotel, put on some long trousers so I could be a little bit more respectfully dressed to visit the Andy Warhol Museum. I sat down on the bed, and woke up three hours later. I dashed to the museum, and dashed around. Not bad, actually. I’m not a big fan of his, but it was nice to see some of his less well-known works on show. That was that done, now onto the game.
PNC Park is excellent. For one thing, every person at the game was given a bobblehead statue of Richie Hebner. It’s nice and all, but I do wonder, though, how long that will take up valuable space in my backpack.
Anyway, it’s fantastic stadium. Like Citizens Bank Park, it was built this last decade. Its real beauty, though, is the view. You can see the Alegheny River and the tall buildings of Pittsburgh behind centre and right field. It’s excellent. Unlike the team themselves, who are, well, not particularly good. They lost 3-1 to the Arizona Diamondbacks, destroying my dream of seeing only home team victories along my trip.
Like Yankee Stadium, PNC Park is a no smoking facility. But, after moving around to the top tier above the third base line, I noticed a guy having a sneaky one right at the top. I walked up there to join him, and I had my first War on Terror conversation. The guy seemed to be suspicious of me right away. He had a glass eye which didn’t help. After a brief chat about smoking and the game, he turned to me and asked, “Do you hate America?” I assured him that I didn’t and knew I was in for a conversation where I’d have to bite my tongue about my pinko political views. I figure there’s absolutely no point in me getting into political arguments while I’m on this trip. I’d rather hear what he has to say and then be a twat and blog about it. The highlight of what he had to say in his They Started It (referring to 11th September 2001) rant was telling me that he “didn’t give a fuck” if Muslims built a mosque next door to his house as long as they don’t “fly any more fucking planes into our buildings.” And that, if there really are large numbers of virgins waiting in Heaven for us, he’d “jump off that fucking bridge right now!”
The game ended, I went back to the hotel, watched some HBO, and eventually fell asleep at 2.30am, knowing full well that I had to be up at 6am to get on another bus. Now I know that a lot of you have to get up and go to work most days, and I expect no sympathy as I flit around the Americas, but I was ex-fucking-hausted when I woke up, showered, dressed, packed my backpack, and went downstairs to pour a coffee down my neck and munch on a super-quick breakfast of one hot boiled egg, before jumping in a cab taking me back to the delightful five-star Greyhound station.
I approached a guy in a Mexico football shirt stood in a queue and asked if this was the line for the Cleveland bus. “I dunno.” I asked someone else. It was the Cleveland queue. Five minutes later, the Mexican guy turned around and asked me if it was the line for the Detroit bus.
And what a joy it was to not have the correct tag on my backpack, thus having to go back inside and queue up while the bus was waiting to leave. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one, and a guy in a Boston Red Sox cap also had to get a tag. We chatted and I soon realised that he was the sort of person who would probably beat the crap out me in real life. He was truck driver, laughed at his own unfunny jokes, and had the wild eyes that make me a bit nervous.
Tag on my bag, and we’re off; heading first towards Cleveland. Unlike the buses in Brazil and Argentina, these buses tend to stop a fair amount along the way, affording us smokers with plenty of opportunities to get a fix. At the first place we stopped, I got talking to Mike, an 18 year old soldier on his way home for a 12 day break. That he’d spend three days travelling from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to the western edge of Montana, and the same journey returning seemed to me to be a bit silly, but there you go. He was a guy who seemed both older than he was (the army training, I assume) and exactly his age when he talked about girls, beer, and stuff he liked to do (fuck girls and drink beer). He was a good guy, though, and I was glad to have him as a smoking companion at every bus stop we pulled up at. He even gave me a pack of cigs at one point. No reason, really, he just pulled a pack of Camel Turkish Gold out of his rucksack and said, “You want these?”
Every now and again, something of importance would come into his head to distract him from his Star Wars novel and the shooting game on his cell phone, and he’d turn around and tell me something about being a soldier. It usually involved being drunk or shooting. He offered me three magazines to read. Guns & Ammo was one of them, the others were, if I remember correctly, called something like Practical Shooter and Technical Shooter. When I politely declined the offer, he spent the next twenty minutes explaining all about different bullets and what damage they could do. He owned a “thirty ought six” but wanted one that was on the cover of one of the magazines that looked like it could kill an elephant that was stood on the other side of a brick wall.
We got off the bus at Cleveland to go and stand in a queue to, err, let us back on the same bus heading towards Chicago. Most of the people I was travelling with got back on the bus, and we trundled along through towns that I’ve heard of, with slightly intriguing and exotic names like Toledo. This time, I had someone sat next to me. A young, attractive Russian girl who spoke very little English. At the next stop, Mike asked me if I would “tap that ass” and said that I could always “do her” in the toilet on the bus, or outside at the next stop, but he wouldn’t do that c
os he’s not into doing it outside.
Nikita (no idea what her real name is) and I did have a little chat, though, and she seemed like a nice girl as far as I could tell; going to study in Indiana. When she got off the bus, Louis (the Red Sox truck driving psycho killer) and Mike decided that, contrary to what she’d told me, the guy who picked her up wasn’t her uncle but someone who’d bought her mail order.
(You will notice, by the way, that I’m taking photos which show a lot of the window and bus parts when I want to take a photo of the view. It seems to me that these things are an integral part of the scene, though; not something that should be avoided. When I’m looking out of a bus window, I’m looking out of a bus window, with all its reflections of seats and lights, and dirt on the panes, etc.)
Next stop: Gary, Indiana. I did have a frisson of excitement when I smoked here. Michael Jackson probably stood at the bus station as a child (assuming that the Greyhound station is in the same place it was in the sixties). Mike and Louis got back on the bus after me and told me how a woman outside had been asking around to see if anyone knew where she could buy a gun.
Not far now, and an beautiful thunderstorm accompanied our last few miles to Chicago. Mike and I had one last smoke together. I wished him luck and hoped that his army career will be a safe one; he wished me luck in the States and told me to be careful, cos there are some crazy people out there. I was kinda sad to say goodbye to him, and because he’s the only person I’ve ever met serving in the US military, really hope I never see his face on TV.
Another bus station, another queue. The elderly couple in front of me in the line did that thing that older folks like to do: inform everyone else in the queue of information about the weather in Milwaukee. It had been raining a lot apparently. This couple were lovely. She was interested in my journey and in my safety as the mother of someone of similar age. He was a nice fellow, but, might be experiencing some sort of advancing mental illness. He was sweating a lot, didn’t notice that he was spraying my face with spittle as he talked to me about his son’s baseball card collection (“the biggest in Wisconsin”). She wiped the sweat of his face, and gently pushed him back so he didn’t spray my face when he excitedly talked about the cool stadiums I would be seeing on my trip. And after the journey, where I was sat next to a middle aged man who will certainly be on the news one day for killing all of his work colleagues, I was at Milwaukee bus station, 16 hours after leaving Pittsburgh. The elderly couple wished me luck on my trip and made sure that my friend was here to meet me. She was, and after a trip that – mentally – began two days earlier when I left New York, my friend Rebecca drove me back to her house, and a couple of beers later, I’m sleeping like a baby.