Getting Started

Bags packed. Laptop configured. Email answered. Winnemucca tonight!

Monday was laundry day, which was a more daunting task than one might imagine. Afterward, there was another last minute Target run with Sarah, at which point she provided me with a really cool book for the trip (review forthcoming).

The rest of the day was spent making road tapes, packing, moving things around the house, asking myself what the hell I’m doing, etc. Fortunately, Nick at Nite provided a sanity break in the form of a “Green Acres” marathon.

It all starts this morning.


Left home a little later than planned (surprise…) and decided that it would be worth an extra two hours tomorrow to just stay the night in Reno. The choice was thus: $40 for a room in Winnemucca, where it’s boring and the sights take ten minutes to see, or $25 for a room in Reno, where there are cheap buffets, sleazy motels, and even queer bars. Hmmm…some choice…

Lunch at the Chick-fil-A is Farifield was a good thing. However, I think I first started getting excited about the trip when I passed Sacramento and the scenery stopped being so familiar. I really started getting excited around Truckee, where it stopped being insufferably hot.

I think I like Reno better than Vegas; it seems less slick and processed. The grittiness adds a certain charm which Vegas is lacking. And everything is on a slightly smaller scale. The casino strip is not nearly so exciting, but then again, it’s also not nearly so oppressive.

So now I’m comfortably settled into the Motel 6 on Wells Avenue. It has its own Denny’s. Alas, I missed “Roseanne”, so I think I’ll take a crap now and find food…


Good crap, passable food. Love those $6.49 bloat buffets. I sampled Fitzgerald’s. The food and service were not upto Vegas standards, but it worked.


A few observations on Reno:

  • It’s a much better spot for a carless vacation than Vegas. Everything is pretty much concentrated around the intersection of 4th and Virginia. There are even queer bars within walking distance.
  • On the Tuesday after Labor Day, the average age of everyone in Reno seems to be about 70. Everyone smokes. I wonder how many of these characters are locals.
  • It’s really dark here once you leave the strip.
  • It rained here most of the evening. I didn’t think it rained anywhere west of the Rockies this time of year.
  • Why I’m sitting here watching “Moesha” and “In the House” just like I was in SF I don’t know. Could be the lack of sleep last night. I’m beat.

The Reno bar tour proved pretty uneventful, most likely due once again to the fact that it was the Tuesday after Labor Day. I limited my drinking to The Quest on Commercial Row, but I also drove by the empty parking lots at 1099, Visions, the Five Star, and Bad Dolly’s. I wasn’t inspired.

Winnemucca to SLC

Boy, is Nevada a boring state to drive across. I’d forgotten just how monotonous it actually is. The scenery is really interesting for the first fifteen minutes. And then it never changes. Fortunately the speed limit’s 75, and there are some interesting towns to drive through if you leave the freeway.


Winnemucca was as exciting as ever. Lunch in Battle Mountain was a joy; imagine eating at McDonald’s not because you want to or because you’re trying to save money, but because THERE’S NOTHING ELSE THERE!

All this scenery and solitude and flat-out boredom gave me time to ponder many of my life’s mysteries and challenges, but discussion of that will have to wait.

As if to serve as a warning about the repression inherent to Utah, the speed limit inexplicably drops to 55 at the state line, and continues at this glacial pace for about ten miles of nonexistent road construction. A mild gas trauma greeted me as I hit Salt Lake City; I’ve never seen any city with so few gas stations on the outskirts. I was near panic, but I survived.


Once in the city, though, and once settled at Eric’s place, I began feeling more comfortable with the surroundings. This was a pretty big relief, as this was the first of many nights to come sleeping in the home of someone I’ve never met. Points to Eric for pulling off a potentially uncomfortable scenario and making me feel right at home.

Dinner at Bill and Nada’s Diner — a truly wonderful place with chicken-fried steak, chocolate cream pie and individual juke boxes at each table — was followed by a tour of neon Salt Lake by night and a couple of beers at the Deer Hunter, where disco never died.

Salt Lake City


This morning brought a daylight version of the tour, with stops by the Deseret Industries Thrift Store, Sam Weller’s Book Store, and the Utah State Fair (two hours before it opened). Then I was treated to a look at the surprisingly cruisy parks in Sugar House and Memory Grove. Lunch at Hire’s Big H, with carhop and tray.


I could go into more detail about Salt Lake City and the “Mormon factor” and all, and I will…later…Right now I’m fantasizing about Beck on MTV and trying not to think about tomorrow’s horrendous drive to Denver.

Thursday night in Salt Lake brought a trip to Brick’s, the happenin’ bar in town. The scenery was nice, if untouchable; it was all-age rave children night. Nice bar…they serve double-size Rolling Rocks. I’m not sure if this is a good thing.


A few more random notes on Salt Lake City:

It was similarly unnerving to note the similarities between Eric (my host) and myself. That’s another story entirely.

Salt Lake is a definite cute boy magnet. Maybe that caffeine-avoidance and all that clean living have some benefits. Everyone looks really healthy here.


It’s frightening how much this place reminds me of North Carolina. Substitute “Southern Baptist” for “LDS” and you immediately understand both the religion and the politics, not to mention the oppression. Also, Greensboro and Salt Lake are physically similar in a number of ways; both are about the same size and both seem to have a huge preoccupation with making sure that everything is pretty and inoffensive and appears free of any type of conflict.


All in all, I had a strangely good time in Salt Lake City. My good experience here made me somewhat less apprehensive about the mysteries of the remainder of the trip.

SLC to Denver

The drive to Denver was brutal: 550 miles in one day. Wyoming is one long state. It didn’t help matters, though, that I was operating on not quite enough sleep. I have to say Wyoming is a much more scenic drive than Nevada. Of course, almost anything would beat Nevada.


At 80MPH — with stops (or at least slowdowns) in Rock Springs, Rawlins, Laramie, and Cheyenne — Wyoming is a much less stressful means of crossing the Rockies, although not as spectacularly beautiful as western Colorado. But I was seeking speed on this leg of the trip, since today and tomorrow are the two longest hauls of the entire tour.

Denver seems a little like a home away from home, since I spent so much time here on the last cross-country trek (in 1992). But frankly, I’m too damned tired to look around much, so I’ll mostly be sleeping tonight in preparation for tomorrow’s 600-mile jaunt to Kansas City.

Fortunately, there’s a Wienerschnitzel across the street.

Denver to KC


As promised, I slept through Denver and saw almost none of it save for the inside of a car wash and a drive down the Colfax Avenue strip (old US 40) on the way out of town. There was also breakfast and a thrift store moment, as well as my first Waffle House sighting of the trip, albeit too late for breakfast. On the down side, Denver provided the first functional spotting of a Hardee’s as well, although I did run across one in Salt Lake which had closed, no doubt to the delight of anyone who ever ate there.

One hundred sixty miles of Colorado farmland proved none too exciting. And then came Kansas…


It’s actually not such an awful drive, I guess. It’s just so damned LONG. Over 400 miles of minimal variation in scenery and many, many small towns. I was very excited when the first Stuckey’s appeared 35 miles in, right as I crossed into the Central Time Zone. A complete chicken-fried steak dinner for only $2.99 (and an ashtray on the table) almost made up for the fact that there were no extra large Stuckey’s T-shirts to be had.

Ever onward, yer humble host and the little car that could trudged forth into the heartland, through Colby and Hays and Salina and Russell, and eventually through the strip mall formerly known as Topeka, at speeds which rarely fell below 75, and with the air conditioner set on sub-arctic.


Finally, at 10:30, I arrived in the Missouri side of Kansas City and found my way to Country Club Plaza, where Bernie, my host for this part of the tour, manages an espresso bar (which is mercifully NOT a Starbuck’s). I sense good things about this trip to KC; tonight’s quick drive into the city more or less erased my five-year-old memory of Kansas City being completely creepy. Who knows what a little more time might do….

Kansas City

Y’know, if the weather in KC didn’t really suck, it might be on my short list of potential new homes. What a great place; last time I was here, I must have managed to miss everything good about it.


In my short visit, I was treated to an amazing tour of the city, courtesy of Bernie, a photo exhibit on urban decay (always a favorite pet obsession) courtesy of Bentley, the aforementioned photographer, barbecue at Gates, quality time in an abandoned reservoir, beer bust at the Dixie Belle, my first White Castle in almost a year, and the grand opening of the KC Jazz Museum. Oh yeah…I forgot the Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch…


I lucked into lodgings with some people who are both very proud of their city and very well-versed in its mysteries. It’s not often I find myself sitting in a gallery after hours drinking beer and discussing urban form. I was pleased.


Biggies on the tour included the first Russell Stover candy store ever, a few roadside gems,North Kansas City, the President Hotel, and an industrial area (the West Bottoms?) which I want very much to colonize. KC has a tremendous number of great old buildings downtown — more than most cities of a similar size — and this is probably a result of the fact that the 80’s building boom largely bypassed the city. But I see signs that development may finally be threatening some of these gems. It’s a shame.



The Jazz Museum opening was a lucky coincidence, especially because I was thus spared the $6 admission fee. Having seen it, though, I would have probably paid it anyway. Great material, excellent presentation. the reservoir was a much cooler thing than you might imagine, although it worries me that it’s completely open to the world.


The only down sides to the visit were the unbelievable heat (SF tends to make one a bit of a weather wimp) and the fact that I was unable to connect with Gary or with Shane.


Random observations on Kansas City:

This is where I more or less started feeling like I was in the south again, despite the fact that it’s really in the midwest. The attitudes were similar, the accents were familiar. The bar scene was a mirror image of North Carolina, in that it seems very pervasive to the local “gay culture” (quotation marks directed at the term, not at Kansas City).

This was also the first place I began to see the urban blight and decay which seems to be hitting many midwestern cities very hard. A pattern of inner city abandonment and a lack of many “successfully” revitalized (read: “gentrified”) areas was a pattern which would become even more evident in St. Louis and Detroit. The abundant supply of land seems to make it easier simply to abandon the old and move outward rather than repair the perfectly usable buildings which already exist, and it’s a trend which seems even more pronounced in the midwest than on the coasts. Look for a separate piece on this soon.

Another odd midwestern pattern I first noticed around Kansas City: the practice of soliciting employment applications through radio ads, which even mention hourly pay rates for places like McDonald’s, etc. It seems usually to be low-status jobs who advertise this way. I’m not sure if it’s due to a low unemployment rate or a high one.


As Bernie mentioned, Kansas City has elevated the concept of “white trash” to an art form. I kinda liked it…

KC to St. Louis


As I left KC, I had breakfast at my first Waffle House. Grits are always a happy thing. The run through Missouri was not bad and the state flew by pretty quickly. After the west and Kansas, a few hills and trees were most welcome. Missouri skies during the day look as if a huge storm could develop at any second. It never happened.

Now I’ve made it to St. Louis. I’m reminded of just how much a nervous white boy I can be, simply because this town gives me the willies so far. I guess it’s a combination of the fact that my car seems to be a little cranky, and of the one or two wrong turns I made which put me on some fairly intimidating streets. I’d like it much better here with a tour guide. Somehow, though, I feel I will find the “courage” to venture back out later tonight.


I have to say that my entrance to the city along old Route 66 was a little disappointing. Only three motels on the whole stretch, none of them spectacular. Ted Drewe’s Frozen Custard was pretty cool, but I was a little disappointed to find that they don’t serve any food. I had a hankering for a hot dog, but had to settle for turkey with the old folks at a nearby cafeteria (but at least it was “free pie” night.)

Off to do whatever comes next now and finish it in time to take the car for a morning checkup and visit the top of the arch tomorrow.


Aah…Saint Louis. Ultimately, I found I was a bit unprepared for the level of decay I found there. It was staggering, as if the entire northern part of the city had just been abandoned. I’ve read about the phenomenon of entire urban blocks returning to grassland as the buildings which once occupied them burned or simply collapsed, but I’d never really seen it until now. Frightening. Once again, it’s as if the residents just decided one day to abandon a great city and go somewhere else. In areas like this, you find yourself being scared not of the people you see on the streets, but of the fact that you don’t see ANY people on the streets.

St. Louis to Madison

It was cloudy and rainy, so I skipped the top of the Arch and just sort of looked around downtown and along the remnants of Route 66 after taking the car in for a checkup. I also didn’t venture back out last night, more from a lack of energy than a lack of “courage”…

Once out of St. Louis, I hit Route 66 in a major way. After a stop at a little roadside “welcome center” in Hamel, staffed by a very nice and talkative woman, I was on the way. Two things amazed me: the excellent route markers supplied by the state of Illinois, and the friendliness of the people in the establishments along the old road. Once they learned I was traveling 66, I was treated to stories, photos, and (loved this part) free stuff! Excellent drive.


The Ariston Cafe in Litchfield is a definite Route 66 must. The food was great, and the owners showed me books and pictures and introduced me to the German tourists at the other end of the counter who were also traveling “the road”. Apparently, Route 66 tourism is big with Germans.


After a very long drive through the fertility of central Illinois, I finally arrived at Steven’s house in Madison. Very nice guy, very nice town. And since the heat had finally let up by this point, very nice sleep. This was a welcome thing.

Madison is not an exciting place by any stretch of the imagination, but I found plenty to do there and had a great time. Especially compared to last year’s visit, which was essentially a convenience store run during the Minneapolis trip.



They call Madison “the Berkeley of the East”, due to its leftist campus politics, etc. This was in fact the first city in the US to have a municipal gay rights ordinance on the books.

It’s definitely an attractive place. The city surrounds an isthmus between two lakes. Thus, there is s a very pronounced east and west side, and travel between the two is sometimes difficult thanks to the bottleneck caused by locating downtown on the isthmus.


Given all this, it’s interesting to see how strangely conservative the place appears on the surface. I saw much more “collegiate preppy” than “collegiate punk”. I didn’t really sample the gay scene here, being warned that most of the interesting nightlife options perished in the Hotel Washington fire a couple of years ago.

I did cruise the State Street campus strip a bit and also found a few thrift stores and an excellent used book store, Shakespeare’s, where I scored an original 1964 New York World’s Fair guidebook pretty cheap.

Definitely a nice enough place.

Madison to Chicago

This morning, I hit the road early en route to Milwaukee (which kept my interest for about half an hour, I’m disappointed to say) and then Chicago, which is where I now sit, in a creepy mall in the suburb of Skokie, waiting for Joseph to get off work so I can dump my stuff and begin the next round of the tour.




Two and a half days in Chicago, and I’m not sure if the town ever once toddled, but I like it there anyway. So much so, in fact, that I’d consider moving there in an instant if (again) the weather weren’t so severe. I can deal with the cold and the snow; it’s the summers that would get me. Fortunately, at least on this visit, things were just right. Last time, it got a little cool and I was a little rushed.


I didn’t cover nearly as much ground as I’d have liked, simply because I just didn’t figure in enough time there. I was also unable to connect with Gary or Curt. But the accommodation and guided tour, courtesy of Joe, my host, were great. I predict another visit to the windy city very soon; I have to admit the place fascinates me tremendously.


Diving into Woolworth’s downtown proved to be rewarding. It’s really depressing that this American institution is about to disappear forever. I almost picked up a lunch counter stool for $35, but decided I didn’t really want to carry it around the country and back in my back seat. I’ll probably come to regret that decision.

There was also a visit to the first Ray Kroc McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines. Contrary to popular belief, this was neither the first McDonald’s (that was in San Bernadino), nor the first McDonald’s franchise (which I believe was in Sacramento). It was, however, the beginning of the evil empire we know today as McDonald’s Corp.


Much-anticipated was my return to return to Big Chicks, which may be my favorite queer bar between New York and San Francisco. This time, I even met one of the owners. She was fairly big, but not huge.

The Chicago Reader is without doubt the best free weekly in the country, putting even the Village Voice to shame.

A few more highlights:

  • Dinner at the Wishbone, a “home-cooking” establishment which seems oddly out of place in a dark industrial district. Liked the restaurant. Hated that they were out of pork chops.
  • Boy-watching (and band-watching) at the Empty Bottle.
  • Street cruising on Winnemac Avenue (which I’m told is NOT common). Guess I’m just lucky…
  • Compulsively humming the theme from “Good Times” after driving through the Cabrini-Green projects in which it was set. This got a little embarrassing.
  • The “el”. Being short for “elevated”, it is not spelled “L”. Keep that in mind, please.
  • Yet more White Castle. Yumm…
  • A tour of the Chicago boulevards of urban planning fame.
  • Joe’s really cool 1972-era book on drag culture.


Chicago is an amazing place, which is unlike any other city of its size in the US. The fact that land was so abundant has resulted in an unusually sprawling city by east coast standards, but still a very dense and concentrated one compared to the rest of the midwest and west. The streetscapes are wonderful and colorful, the road system works, and driving around the city is a joy I might never tire of; there’s something to see around every corner, from neatly-maintained rowhouses to industrial wastelands to the severe decay of the south side projects. Like I said, Chicago just fascinates me.


And there was also my moment at the very start of Route 66 at Lakeshore Drive and Jackson Boulevard. It’s a little disorienting to do Route 66 out of sequence, but it’s better than not at all, I guess.

All in all, it was an eventful couple of days. And, after a drive through the depressing landscape of the south side and the Indiana suburbs, followed by a few hours of Indiana farmland, I have now successfully reached Indianapolis, where I’m living in the lap of luxury thanks to Bob. The Hoosier adventure begins in earnest tomorrow.

Chicago to Indy

What is it about the midwest which fascinates me so? Maybe it’s the flatness or the greenness or the way that cities develop so differently than anywhere else in the country. Or maybe it’s the people there: friendly, giving, unpretentious people who’ve never met a stranger. Frankly, as I’ve said before, I often think the south is overrated in this department. Aah, but I’ll get back to this…


Indianapolis was great. Bob kept me in fine style at the Renaissance Tower due to an unhappy plaster moment in the guest room. During my two-plus days in the heartland of America, I was treated to a coast to coast tour of Indiana, from Terre Haute to Richmond. There were motels on Highway 40, tenderloins in Greensburg, a street fair in Indy, and cheap cigarettes everywhere.


Indiana more or less has created its own time zone by refusing to acknowledge Daylight Savings Time. This was a little odd as I changed my clock when I crossed into Eastern time, and then had to change it back when I realized the rules didn’t apply here.

Once in, though, my inner clock somehow managed to adjust, and I actually managed to get a fair amount of rest while still seeing many things. I feel I covered Indiana more thoroughly than just about anyplace else on the tour, thanks to an extra day and a determined host.


The first brought a street fair in Fountain Square, a historic commercial district near downtown Indianapolis. There were bands, cute boys, and a really cool store devoted to 50’s memorabilia which even contained a working bowling alley and soda fountain. The corner market with $1.60 a pack Camels was a big bonus too.


This night also brought my first look at neon Indianapolis. I was pleased. There is a quite respectable amount of 40’s/50’s/60’s roadside architecture here.



Snapshots of Indianapolis included some great motels and drive-ins, including the soon-to-be -demolished Al Green’s, the always appropriate White Castle, and Speedway IN, home of…surprise…the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. David’s pick du jour: few things could compare with a meal at Shapiro’s; I’m not sure why I was so surprised to find a really good Kosher deli here, but I’m glad it was!



Indy is a classic midwestern city, sprawling and laid out on an unrelenting grid pattern with a few diagonal streets for variety. US40, the current alignment of the old National Road cuts through from east to west.


If you look hard enough, you can find neighborhoods form every period from the mid-1800’s to the present. Historic districts here have the typical midwestern sensibility (“people still have to live there so let’s not turn it into Disneyland”).


Indiana: Coast to Coast

Bob referred to the game plan for days two and three as “the coast to coast tour of Indiana”, and in fact we covered most of the state from east to west along old Route 40. We saw Terre Haute and Richmond, Brazil and Shelbyville, Greensburg and Greenfield (but not Greencastle or Greentown). There’s more here than you might imagine, from covered bridges to cute farm boys to courthouse squares. It actually kept my interest despite the fact that I’m a diehard city boy.



Major stops included:

  • Billie Creek Village and the covered bridges of Parke County.
  • Shelbyville, hometown of my host.
  • Greensburg, home of the courthouse with tree attached and a dang good piece of strawberry pie.

Meeting Bob’s family was a great aspect of the trip. I got much more a feel for what the people (and dogs) are like here than almost anywhere else I’ve been so far. I have to say that I liked everyone I met. It was almost as if I was visiting my own relatives, not only because I was treated like “one of the family”, but also because of the similar backgrounds. These are the kinds of people I grew up with.


Granted, there is a certain conservatism in Indiana, and I was a bit put off by the fact that there were people who offered no apologies about using terms like “nigger”, etc. But in general, this was not not nearly so oppressive as in the south (or even in large chunks of “progressive” California).

I guess (racism aside) it’s a more informed and independent sort of conservatism, I felt that people were more familiar with the issues as opposed to mouthing doctrine supplied by the local fundamentalist minister. Thus, I was able to respect it a bit more, despite my leftist leanings. Agree or not, one definitely gets the feeling that people think for themselves here, rather than blindly submitting to dogma like in North Carolina…or San Francisco…

My preference is to believe that Dan Quayle is merely an aberration (sort of like Jesse Helms in my home state). I have to believe this. It is a necessity…


A few post-mortems:

  • Them Hoosier boys are cute! I was able to capture at least some photographic evidence of this.
  • A pork tenderloin in Indiana is a far different thing in Indiana than in San Francisco. Vive le difference!
  • NO, I did not visit Bloomington and take pictures of little pink houses. My apologies to those who were looking forward to this.

Indy to Detroit

After leaving Indianapolis, another big Indiana goal was realized with a visit to the studios of WOWO in Fort Wayne. I listened to this station as a sullen teenager and was determined to stop in as I drove through. They gave me a tour of the facilities and lots of cool stuff. We like WOWO. We wish they’d lose Rush Limbaugh, though…


So now, I’ve moved onto Detroit, where I’m trying to decide which side of Eight-Mile Road is creepier; the devastated urban south side or the completely lifeless suburban north side. I’ll let you know as soon as I figure it out.



Of course, I was truly unprepared for the unspoiled grasslands, sunny vistas, and wide open feel of Detroit. Mainly I was surprised because all of these things were found in former neighborhoods rather than in parks. The level of decay here was at the same time more and less astounding than expected. What can you expect of a city which had two million residents 30 years ago and contains fewer than a million today?

I came to Detroit primed by Camilo Jose Veraga’s photo essays in “The New American Ghetto”. He was so bold as to assert that the near-abandoned downtown area, with its collection of empty skyscrapers from the 1920’s, be designated an national park with urban ruins and our disposable society as its theme. I don’t think I’d go quite so far.


Actually, I found a shockingly beautiful city of early twentieth-century architecture, wide boulevards, and unusual neighborhoods. Driving here is a wonderful experience; it’s not just the lack of traffic, but the fact that Detroit was (understandably) designed for the automobile.


Granted, it was a bit depressing to see all the “holes” in the neighborhoods, the empty spaces where homes once stood, the boarded-up storefronts, the abandoned skyscrapers, etc. Literally, you drive through what used to be a dense neighborhood of rowhouses and large apartment buildings or even mansions and find two or three per block still standing, with the rest having reverted to grasslands. It’s quite disorienting.


There were definitely patches where I felt uncomfortable. But, as in St. Louis, I was more afraid of what WASN’T visible than of anyone I saw on the streets. With a knowledgeable guide I would have felt secure doing more exploration. This will happen soon; I’m no less drawn to the place that I was before I arrived.

It’s sad to see that a city which was once so great is now in such condition. It’s also exciting to sense the potential. Detroit seems as if it’s sleeping, trapped in time and waiting to wake up and become a major city again (OK…I admit to paraphrasing Veraga here). Development has not removed the past here, although fires and abandonment have taken a huge toll.


Lest this get depressing, all is not bleak in Detroit.

I will admit that I bedded down in the suburbs. I was indeed part of the problem rather than the solution. There is perhaps more of a disparity between the city and the suburbs here than in any other US city. The segregation rivals that of the south. I do not usually operate this way. I did so here for two reasons.

First, I simply didn’t know my way around and was worried about landing somewhere that my car, laden with essential trip stuff, might avoid a break-in. This is the same caution I exercise in SF all the time.

Second, in order to experience all that happens in Detroit, sad to say, it is absolutely NECESSARY to experience the suburbs, like’em or not. Much of the nightlife, shopping, and even the “trendy bohemian” scene has moved north of Eight Mile Road to places like Ferndale. Frankly, I never ran across a lot of motels in the city either.


I ate at many White Castles. I photographed many former White Castles. I traveled Woodward Road, the depressed but definitely not boring main drag. I saw “the fist”, a large sculpture placed in the new alternative “white downtown” near Renaissance Center by Coleman Young. I rather like the symbolism. I saw the abandoned Hudson’s — once one of the largest department stores in the US — and the renovated Fox Theatre, and the former Book-Cadillac Hotel.


I hit a few bars, including the paranoia zone known as the Gold Coast, and a really cool spot in Ferndale called the Groove Room, which just happened to be queer-populated and hosted by a drag queen the night I was there. I got the feeling that there was an incredible scene but that I was having a hard time finding it.


I also took the tour “overseas” to Windsor, Ontario, where I accidentally entered a (gasp) nude male strip club and another bar, bought chlorophyll chewing gum, and got inordinately excited that there were still Esso stations. I took advantage of the fact that combo meals were the same price at Burger King even though the Canadian dollar is worth only 72 cents US currency. However, I skipped the 61.9 cents per litre gasoline in favor of the much cheaper US variety.


I did not, however, find my way to Lafayette’s Coney Island although it came highly recommended. And the Body Shop, a highly recommended bar, is no more. But boy do I have plans for my next trip when I can actually spend some time here.

LOVED Detroit.


In Dearborn, I hit the Henry Ford Museum and marveled to the intact Holiday Inn guest room (circa 1968), the complete Texaco station (circa 1939) and the plethora of old cars, etc. This place is pretty amazing, and I found it worth the admission price. Think about it: a museum of car culture. What could be a more appropriate place for me to visit, especially while in Detroit on a trip where I was in search of roadside culture?


I smelled the nostalgic (from MY childhood at least) aroma of the Mold-a-Rama, which creates a plastic sculpture in a matter of minutes for the price of loose change. These machines were in every tourist trap in the world for a period in the early 70’s. I guess they were abandoned because too many people passed out from the fumes; now they’re a “period piece” in an exhibit on plastics. Does this mean my long-lost plastic dolphin from Marine World and my plastic Eiffel Tower from King’s Dominion (which are not for sale because I don’t know where they are, so please stop emailing me with purchase offers) are valuable now?


I hit the fully-restored diner. I saw the billboards and the neon signs and the streetcars. I fantasized (as I often do) about owning a Corvair. I even bought things. And then I left.

Like I said, I LOVED Detroit. And I HATED Ohio.

Detroit to Pittsburgh

OK…it was more or less only a place I was supposed to spend a night sleeping, and only won out over Cleveland because I was offered a place to stay. But I liked Pittsburgh so much I allowed myself to get a full day off schedule for the first time so far just because it was so cool here.


This is in marked contrast to Ohio, which I will specifically describe as one of the most unpleasant places on the tour so far. Toledo was such a traffic and construction snarled hellhole that I didn’t even stop to get money or food before getting on the overpriced Ohio Turnpike. Of course, as it turns out, there are NO ATM’s along the pike, despite the distressing number of Hardee’s. This made getting off said turnpike a very interesting experience as I had about two bucks in my pocket at the time. I now owe the state of Ohio three dollars. It’s a good thing there was no comment card attached to the citation. All in all, I’d just as soon skip Ohio next time, crappy turnpike and all.


But I did love Pittsburgh, once I finally arrived! It’s a beautiful place; with the rivers and the hills and the trees, it easily rivals San Francisco as far as the natural setting goes. In fact, the addition of actual trees and greenery affords Pittsburgh a beauty which is almost impossible to find anywhere in California.

As I drove in, on the winding highways cut between the hills and the rivers and saw that the actual city was pretty damned cool too, I realized that one night wouldn’t be enough. Fortunately, David, my host, was amenable to this idea. The fact that the Goodyear blimp was in town to honor my arrival made it all the more special. Obviously, the city really took my visit to heart.


Fifty years ago, the steel industry ruled Pittsburgh and it had a reputation as perhaps the ugliest and most unpleasant place in the USA. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much. Actually, I didn’t catch much evidence of the former steel domination. What I did see were great neighborhoods, interesting buildings, and the boys of the University of Pittsburgh (some of the most visually appealing of the trip so far). Apparently, the writers who so despised Pittsburgh were unable to see past the smoke and soot which used to be everywhere.


I guess there’s nothing really specifically spectacular about the place. I just liked it. The geography offers a great setting for the town and the mountains and rivers divide it into quite manageable village-like areas. It was good that I had a guide, or Pittsburgh might have been damned near indecipherable, my geography degree notwithstanding. A host who provides topographical maps is always a good thing.



Morning number one (and morning number two for that matter) was a good excuse for breakfast at Ritter’s, a classic Pittsburgh diner. Thus fed, we proceeded to tour the entire city, bridge to bridge, tunnel to tunnel, and neighborhood to neighborhood. A good bit of this happened on foot, which was a blessing after too many days in the car.


I was particularly fond of the Strip District, which is an old market and industrial area which has not yet completely succumbed to gentrification. There are still markets and warehouses and factories around, although the coffee shops and trendy bars are starting to pop up.

One particular building here just sent me into fits of ecstasy for some reason. It was formerly the Armstrong Cork factory, and is now abandoned and just waiting to be taken over. Too bad that it will probably be ruined by some developer who will clean it up and make it all nice and pretty for new upscale tenants. But I love it as is it is, in all its faded glory.

Another favorite was the Hill District, once Pittsburgh’s own little Harlem, with theatres and clubs, and restaurants. Now, it’s pretty much a standard urban ghetto, but it’s still possible to catch glimpses of what used to be.


I decided that the south side Mount Washington area would be the place I’d most likely end up living if I moved to the city (which is not as unlikely as it might sound). But I’d most likely find myself doing a lot of boy-watching around Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon as well. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for Shadyside and Oakland too…

Late afternoon activities centered around the university area: bookstores, boy-watching, the Cathedral of Learning and more. The campuses of Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon are more or less on top of each other and they make for a lively urban area. The bookstore at Pitt is a wonderful thing, which has not yet been taken over by a chain.


At twilight, there was Schenley Park. The “cruising park”. Hmmm. Of course there was a visit. I was amazed; it was mobbed. The proximity to the universities and the easy automobile accessibility are definite pluses as far as the crowd goes. Nice trials. Nice collection of people. I might never have to hit a bar.

Actually, I could not tell you about the bars. That’s on hold for a more lengthy visit. It didn’t seem a priority for this trip, although I remain curious.


Pittsburgh to Baltimore

On the morning of my departure, I got the whirlwind tour of downtown and a few more skyline views. It’s a very compact but bustling downtown district in the “triangle” formed by the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers. A big centerpiece is the much-praised PPG Plaza, which is actually a sterile post-modern nightmare, David cited a reference describing it as as ” a drag queen on acid’s version of a disco in Oz”. Amazingly fitting, I must say…


There was fog and drizzle all around as I left, and Pittsburgh started looking like a more and more viable alternative to SF. But I’ll reserve judgment on that…


On the way in, I experienced that special joy which is the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the rain. I stopped at one of the oldest service plazas on the pike. There was even a historical marker; I was impressed, despite the fact that it was originally a Howard Johnsons Restaurant was not mentioned.


I didn’t realize that it had been nigh onto ten years since Risa and I saw each other. Regular email contact has that effect. But it was good getting back together.

Baltimore is one of my favorite underrated cities in the US. Of course, I’m supposed to stress that I was staying In Westminster, not Baltimore. I awoke to fields and horse-related smells rather than urban blight and decay. But we did go to Baltimore, even though I could have stood to spend more time there.

Baltimore and Environs


Once in the city of George, Maria, and Cecilius Calvert (Lord Baltimore and family), we were treated to a Sunday afternoon high tea with Taylor, a fellow Greensboro native, who managed to entertain and amuse us by making his fall vacation collide with mine as he drove from Philadelphia to Norfolk. This was a most memorable lunch indeed.

Afterward, we drove around by some places I wanted to see again, including the Rotunda, where a very nice man once tried to befriend me in the men’s room, and the increasingly trendy Fells Point area.


We headed down North Avenue (original Highway 40, the “National Road”) to its intersection with U.S. 1. The neighborhoods were interesting and this was a side of Baltimore I’d never seen. And then the diner of my dreams appeared on the left. It was a wonderful thing, pretty faithfully restored, and was a most fitting coffee and pie stop.


Then it was back to Westminster, because I was not about to miss the season premieres of “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill”, tour or no, and neither was Risa.

We stopped at Roy Rogers on the way back so I could experience my first Double-R-Bar Burger of the trip; yer host loves this part of the country ‘cuz it’s the only place Roy’s hasn’t been completely bastardized by Hardee’s. In fact, they even tried to change the names and formats here a few years back and business took such a nosedive they had to change back. OK…I’m overly enthusiastic about fast food here. I’ll stop…

Afterward, I got to hang out with cute boys in the computer lab at Western Maryland College. Big bonus here. And I finally witnessed my first Jewish wedding, albeit on video rather than in person.

And the updates on old high school and college pals prepared me somewhat for the fact that I would be back in North Carolina in a day or so.

Baltimore to Greensboro

The junction of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland is full of history. Where else could your highway choices be Charles Town/Leesburg or Fredericksburg/Gettysburg? It’s as if both the American Revolution and the Civil War selected this scenic area as ground zero just so tourism would be strong in the twentieth century.


This is a truly beautiful part of the country, one of the top two or three in my humble estimation. I spent a lot of time here as a child, so I know the layout pretty well. Twice a year or so, my family would come to Charles Town, WV for the horse races and balance the trip with side trips — always to Harpers Ferry, and sometimes also to Washington, Baltimore, Richmond, or Williamsburg. The Shenendoah Valley was like a second home to me as I was growing up and I was looking forward to a return after fifteen years.

Jefferson County, WV is home to both Charles Town and Harper’s Ferry. The tow are connected in history by abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid, held in Harper’s ferry, and his subsequent trial, held in Charles Town. I was happy to see that at least downtown Charles Town hadn’t changed much, although the outskirts have been bludgeoned with the sledgehammer approach of Wal-Mart and related enterprises.


I saw all the sights: the courthouse, Charles Washington Hall (where we used to eat breakfast every morning), the 7-11 where I bought cigarettes when I was 15, the motel where I fell down the stairs at age 7, the hospital I was rushed to afterward, the old and deserted race track as well as the renovated new one…

I was, on the other hand, appalled to find that you now have to pay five bucks to park and take a bus into Harper’s Ferry from a lot two miles away. Having no time for such nonsense, I drove into town and found a two-hour space and told to the National Park Service, in essence, to bite me.


I looked in the old shops. I stared at the absolutely beautiful point where the Shenendoah meets the Potomac. I climbed the mountain. I saw the ruins of the old church. I sat on Jefferson Rock. I made a nice lady from North Carolina take my picture and showed her party where the graveyard was.

And then I left. West Virginia gave way to Virginia and I realized I was damn close to home. It goes without saying that no maps were required from this point on.


It’s as surreal as ever being at home with Mom and Dad in Greensboro. Understand that I have the good fortune to have completely sane parents, which is quite a blessing, but it’s still a bit odd being back under the childhood roof. Among other things, I immediately feel about fifteen years younger — all in all, I guess this is a plus. But there are adjustments: I have to close the bathroom door when I piss, I feel odd about staying out late, I’m mildly uncomfortable about smoking in the house, etc. Plus, there’s no place to go should I meet the man of my dreams…


The older I get, the more time I devote to actually spending time with the parents when I visit home. I guess it’s due in part to the fact that I’ve realized they’re not immortal (at ages 67 and 72), and in part to the fact that I’m not as excited by the idea of spending every night lurking around in bars. Of course, last time I was here I felt safer at home anyway.

Mind you, I’m not completely averse to nightlife. Last night was fun. Jeff and I met some friends at New York Pizza, which was one of my old “trouble spots”. This is a strange little bar with a strange mix of people of all sexual, social, and cultural persuasions. Ran into an ex-something from many years past (“boyfriend” would be too strong a word…) who recently has had a heroin problem, was flirted with by another friend, and had generally good Christian fellowship. And pizza…


There have also been the obligatory trips to new subdivisions and shopping centers. Greensboro seems perpetually under construction, as perfectly good and relatively new homes and retail buildings are deserted for still newer ones farther out, a result of overabundant cheap suburban land.

But hey, the cable TV is great here; I’ve even been watching Nick-at-Nite’s TV Land. I didn’t think ANY cable companies carried it.

And it’s raining! I’m so excited…


Flirtations and relatives and barbecue and clean laundry. All is well down Carolina way. But I now remember that a trip home is no vacation. There are far too many responsibilities for that. There’s this relative and that relative to visit, friends to see, “quality time” with Mom and Dad, etc. I sort of feel like I’ve been on a schedule ever since I got here, even though I really just wanted to sit around watching TV and eating myself into oblivion.


It will be odd if my only debauchery of the entire trip occurs here. There have been flirtations, one that I wouldn’t have turned down Tuesday night, and one less enticing one last night. Tuesday’s wasn’t to be at the time, but was fun all the same. As for Wednesday’s, it went as follows (keep in mind that I had given NO signal that sex was a possibility):

“Can I be direct with you?”

“Sure…but I’m really beat and it probably won’t do much good.”

“So how do you feel about HIV?”

Now you see, I hate when it starts like this. I live in San Francisco. I’ve slept with people who have HIV. I’ve dated people who have HIV. Even though I’m negative, I pretty much assume everyone else is positive. But when this is the first part of a pickup line, it makes it hard for me to respond in any polite way. If I say no, it seems as if it’s related to the HIV rather than the fact that I’m just not interested in the guy, when in fact the latter is the true reason.


But I got out diplomatically and finished watching the drag show, although I was being stalked by someone else throughout. All this other guy would do was stare at me and try to make me uncomfortable. No conversation. He didn’t even buy me a beer.

North Carolina

Today brought visits to the relatives in Reidsville. This is always nice even though it means being trapped in a non-smoking environment for three hours or so, and I’m usually a bit edgy by the end. Now I get to go over to my aunt’s house and finish hooking up her new VCR. I’ll probably miss “The Simpsons” again…


I also did my traditional run downtown to see the shadows of what we had instead of malls when I was very young. I peered into the old stores, most of them closed and boarded up, and thought about the crowds which used to roam the streets, and Santa Claus at Meyer’s, and eating at the S&W Cafeteria, and movies at the Carolina Theatre, and popcorn at Kress’s. I’m sad that it’s all gone now, but at the same time glad that I’m just barely old enough to remember when downtown was still the center of things.

I may try to hit Myrtle Beach tomorrow. I lived there for four months eleven years ago. Haven’t been back since. It’s changed either dramatically or not at all, I’d imagine. We’ll see.


Seems my dad developed a serious kidney stone in honor of the Tour. Thus, my biggest single frame of reference for the Greensboro leg as been the emergency room at Cone Hospital. Spent pretty much all of Saturday there waiting for something to happen. Fortunately, surgery finally ensued with no complications and my dad is home and quite normal now. Except for the string. Let’s not discuss that…

So I got to relive another aspect of my childhood by hanging out at Cone Hospital. From about age four to age eight or so, I had an awful lot of relatives die there and I remember playing on the steps in front of the main entrance many nights while my parents worried. I finally found those steps again last night while prowling around looking for a smoking area. They look much smaller now.


In the process of lurking about the hospital staring at the cute orderlies and interns and reading all about the architecture of Pittsburgh, I managed to miss my cousin’s wedding. At least I was spared the repetitive “I guess your next” comments of my more distant and less savvy relatives.

As yet I haven’t gotten in contact with half the people I planned to, due in part to the above-mentioned semi-drama. I have one day left; it might be a bit tough now.

I did, however, run into several old friends by accident Friday night when I realized that I’d had it with fags and Babylon’s rave children and instead checked out the band at ZooBar. The drummer for the trio on stage turned out to be Roy, a former co-worker from Kinko’s. The sound “man” was his wife Emily. And then I ran into an old WUAG cohort, Lynn Blakey, and found out that her new band, Glory Fountain, had opened. CD received; review forthcoming. I’m prepared to like it.

So as not to be completely removed from queers, I checked out opening night at the new bar in town, the Jokers 3. This is actually a straight club which has fallen on hard times and is now attempting to woo the fags on weekends. As of Friday, the strategy seemed to be failing miserably. And the bar is from hell. Surly staff, $3.25 for a Rolling Rock, and no crowd. Except for the straight redneck holdovers who looked as if they’d been clustered at the same table for the past ten years or so. I opted for a hasty retreat.


Drove to the Raleigh and Durham with mom on Friday as well. I’d probably have seen more and done more alone, but it seemed a good “quality time” moment, and was actually a nice break between trips to the hospital.

Tonight brought the big family gathering and dinner. Tons of food and most of the assorted relatives. It was nice, and I’m impressed that my mom managed to pull it off after yesterday.

Today also brought the first mild debauchery of the trip. I’ll skip that detail for right now, but suffice to say UNCG did it for me again…


The day before I left, we headed to Mt. Airy, birthplace of Andy Griffith and model for Mayberry. Oddly enough, I’d never been there before despite living most of my life about 45 miles away. Neat place, but they are completely shameless in their exploitation of the Mayberry theme. There’s a Snappy Lunch (which actually predates the show and was really one of Andy Griffith’s hangouts), as well as a Blue Bird Diner, Floyd’s Barber Shop, and Goober’s Filling Station (all “after the fact”).


Leaving Greensboro was rough. I have to admit to suppressing a few sobs as I headed for I-85; it’s rough leaving Mom and Dad. Unlike many people who move to SF, I wasn’t running from them. I actually like my parents. It’s Greensboro I was running from. The place just bugs the crap out of me for some reason. No doubt there will be more on this subject later.

So of course I never got in touch with Adam or Daniel and I feel most guilty, but it was a bit of a crazy week. There’s still Christmas, I guess…

Greensboro to Atlanta

Charlotte was alas, a brief blip on the tour. I had a quick lunch at Gus’ Sir Beef with Duncan and realized I wouldn’t have enough time to visit Dawn. Oh well…Christmas again…

After Charlotte, I continued farther and farther south on I-85 (after stopping in Gastonia for some really cheap cigarettes), past “the peach” in Gaffney, through miles of road construction around Greenville and Spartanburg, and onward to Georgia to meet Tony and Dan.


Atlanta has always seemed like a bit of an adopted home for me. I’ve been visiting since I was about five years old, and I’ve always been fascinated by the place. This was also the first place I “roadtripped” to in college, as well as a pivotal point in an early non-relationship for me. Suffice to say, Atlanta and I have history, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up living here at some point. It’s such a self-consciously southern place, despite its urbanity; I can’t decide if this is a good thing or not..


The host for my Atlanta gig was Tony (as well as his betrothed, Dan, and their cat…who fetches…). It is a good thing to stay with someone who’s about to move into a house at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. That’s Decatur, not Los Angeles, incidentally. Tony is also a former SF resident, so we had things to talk about.

Tuesday night brought sleep.