GREETINGS FROM SAN FRANCISCO

I won’t bore you with too much of my usual drivel. I just wanted to say a few words about our (R.’s, Isabel’s, and mine) trip so far.

The Amtrak ride to the west coast was interesting and educational. We started out from Chicago Union Station at 14oo last Wednesday with an expected arrival in Emeryville (East Bay near Oakland) of 1925 last Friday. A few years ago R. and I shared a ride on the Coast Starlight from L.A. to Oakland, and the expected 11 hour trip wound up taking closer to 18. Amtrak’s western and cross-country lines rent access on freight rails, and freight trains have right-of-way. This means that the printed schedule is often little more than a suggestion, and lengthy delays are to be expected. This is an cruel irony for any fan of passenger rail, as it should be for anyone who values the public commons over feudal notions of private ownership. The railroad companies built their wealth and power from public lands that had been handed to them for virtually nothing. For a public treasure like passenger rail to be terribly neglected and have to take a back seat to corporate freight is, well, not good. But I digress, as I am wont to do. The California Zephyr’s 53-hour schedule is padded with plenty of allowance for the freight delays. So we wound up making Emeryville twenty minutes early.

The trip itself had its good and bad points. We got a deluxe sleeper cabin, and it was a spacious and well-planned room (including the cramped but surprisingly user-friendly shower/toilet combo). However, the room and the rest of the passenger facilities– including the dining and lounge/observation cars– are aging badly. The personnel on the train (especially those in the lounge and dining car) worked incredibly long and hard hours. They did a wonderful job with the dated hardware. The meals were included in the first class ticket price, and (as said before) the service was excellent. The food was a cut above rancid, though.

As bad as the food was, the worst thing for me was being cooped up for over two days without being able to exercise. There’s no room to run on a train, and a fitness car (given the rocking and rolling of the train and the liability issues) is not forthcoming. Some of the stops had time for smoke breaks, but I felt the five-to-twenty minute moments weren’t worth breaking a sweat. Overall, R. has the best summation of the overland Amtrak route: it’s great, if you’re a retiree with a comatose palate. I want to add a dash of optimism, if only for the benefit of my rail fan friend Dick J.: Amtrak does a fine job with its limited resources, and it could be a hell of a resource if we as citizens had the class and good sense to demand more investment in it.

San Francisco has been awesome, as usual. Staying with Flo is the best part of it, of course. Saturday morning was fairly quiet; Flo dropped us at the Ferry Building for the farmer’s market, and we spent a couple of hours there before strolling down Market Street for a bit. Along the way down Market Street, we heard the sirens of SFFD approaching. It SFFD Engine Company 1 and Truck 13 responding to an automatic alarm call at a commercial building across the street. Isabel displayed her usual zeal for all things “fire truck,” so I decided to take her across the street for a closer look at the engine. While there, we introduced ourselves to my SFFD engineer counterpart Warren, who stood by the rig waiting for the rest of his company to return. He was friendly guy, and Isabel seemed to like him.

After that, we stopped at a store to get R. some running/hiking shoes, then hopped the MUNI J Line back toward Bernal Heights. I really like San Francisco’s mass transit. SF is small geographically, but its wildly hilly terrain makes for some interesting travel. Short distances can still be quite a challenge. That makes the excellent coverage of the transit so much more valuable. The buses and trams of MUNI are really good, and BART is also good. Definitely a bargain, even compared to CTA.

Yesterday (Sunday) we rode up to the Napa Valley area with our friends Jennifer and Chris. Though I’ve never been to wine country, and it was interesting to experience a slice of it, the best thing was getting to spend a few hours with really good friends who we don’t get to see often enough. Those were moments that I will deeply cherish, to be sure. To make the details short and sweet, though, we toured the Mondavi winery and had a couple of wine tastings. Then we went to a really great restaurant and shared some great conversation over wonderful food. I look forward to the next time we’re able to see Chris and Jennifer.

Today I was fortunate enough to meet the second-graders of George Peabody school, and together we chatted for a little while about firefighting and fire safety. Those kids are sharp as hell, and I thank Flo for giving me the opportunity to meet them. After leaving the school we drove to the SF Zoo, where Isabel had a blast yelling at the giraffes, the ostrich, and the meerkats (the latter being especially cool due to her fixation with the Animal Planet show Meerkat Manor). Isabel got to pet and brush some goats in the children’s zoo there, as well.

http://www.youtube.com/get_player

This evening we ordered some magnificent food from Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack, which we found through a post at Ms. Glaze’s Pommes d’Amour. Now I’m getting ready to turn this thing off and spend some time with my friends Camilo and Ivania while R. works on getting Isabel to sleep. Good night.

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