Thursday, July 6

Roll Bus Roll | Baltimore, MD (ii)

Back at base in Baltimore. 
Bags of laundry, and a morning in the coffee place downstairs, putting rough thought to 2017. Thinking about cities, and studying, and flights. 
A long, long, twelve mile run in early wafts of snow, so long it is nearly dark again when it comes to stretching and showering. Ice cream from a local creamery. All the John Cusack movies, Molly Ringwald too, but mostly Cusack: making friends pause for Springsteen’s High Fidelity cameo, and watching Say Anything’s boombox/car scene for the first time. 
The brunch of all brunches at Papermoon Diner, another recommendation from my history professor (‘I spent many an early, early morning there’), where the walls and beams are colourful, the ceiling stuffed with old toys and suspended ephemera, the pancakes vast, and the coffee bottomless. 
And then I am California-bound, again.

I am sensible enough to journey back to the airport in daylight this time, but the snow, which began to fall that morning, flakes so fluffy they seem to fall upwards, lines sidewalks quickly and thickly. Everybody on the Charm City Circulator wears an adequately-hooded coat; I do not. It is very cold. Judging by my insufficient attire, awkward bags, and incompetent traversal of snow, it would appear Llewyn Davis has switched Greenwich Village/Chicago for Baltimore (though I lack the guitar and the ginger tom). It is even colder at the light rail station, which sits in between roads, gathering the city’s snow in drifts. Here I meet Mike, who wears a veteran cap and round glasses, talks fast, lisps. He was in Vietnam, but what he wants to tell me about, when he twigs my accent, is his Navy SEALs service in Northampton, England. 

The unwieldy light rail comes clumbering out of the blizzard air and I sit in the second carriage. On every corner the train takes, the empty drivers seat spins wildly. Mike sits nearby, and rings somebody called Sarah - his wife, presumably - to check she’ll be there with the car at the station. I watch the veering landscape through wet windows: telephone lines, flat flaked rows of prefabs, plumes of factory smoke mingling with snow clouds, patches of grass beige and khaki and muted.

There’s another passenger opposite me, a man with a bicycle and a tupperware of cold leftover stew. His hair and beard are thick and flecked with grey, his eyes dark, and he’s wearing a hi-vis jacket, waterproof trousers, a balaclava, tailored bin bags over his shoes. He peels off his layers of makeshift snow-proofing and thermals carefully, methodically. He peels everything off to eat. After eating, he gives himself a head massage, his tan hands splayed around the back of his crown. Then he sits very still with the backs of his hands resting on his knees, as if meditating, except his eyes are open. Underneath all his weatherproofing, everything he wears - t shirt, jumper - is purple. His battered backpack is purple. Two stops before he gets off he begins to layer up again, and clips his helmet back on. It's still snowing outside.

In the airport I drink a McDonalds coffee - surprisingly good - and watch snow whiten the runways and pile up along the edges of buildings and aeroplane wings. Somehow my plane isn’t delayed. A man plays Duolingo on his phone and eats an apple, the volume - of both activities - turned right up. The entire gate is aware each time he progresses a level.

It's about -18 degrees in the tunnel between plane and gate and we all turn a little blue. On the runway before take-off the plane gets painted with bright multi-coloured de-icer fluid, from small funny vehicles with extended hoses. They look like mechanical giraffes, but I’m more interested in when the plane will actually take off and the seatbelt sign switch off, because I’m desperate for the bathroom. It’s like the final scene of Say Anything, in fact: just a lot less romantic. 

* * *

And then inside some tiny dream
And inside that some kind of me
And outside us rolls the bus and the time will go by
Till inside me I am asleep

Thursday, June 29

Roll Bus Roll | New York, NY

Back in your arms, New York, and it feels so good.

We depart from Montreal at quarter to midnight. It's snowing again. Bus sleep is interrupted twice: at the US border, and then in Albany, where we're kicked off our Greyhound to wait for half an hour in a terrible concrete bus station devoid of benches, everybody stale and blurry with tiredness. I think of The Dharma Bums:
'The bus came at four o'clock and we were at Birmingham Alabama in the middle of the night, where I waited on a bench for my next bus trying to sleep on my arms on my rucksack but kept waking up to see the pale ghosts of American bus stations wandering around: in fact one woman streamed by like a wisp of smoke, I was definitely certain she didn't exist for sure. On her face the phantasmal belief in what she was doing... On my face, for that matter, too.'

Lights out all the way through Vermont. I wake to a New Jersey sunrise, my eyes opening precisely as the state line flashes past the window. Everybody else on the bus is asleep but I'm wide-eyed and over-excited to be in Bruce Springsteen's home state, winding towards New York.

Port Authority is hot and loud, full of screeching announcements and too many people. We brush our teeth in the bathrooms, re-layer jumpers, drink Stumptown coffee in the dim-lit, fancy-pants Ace Hotel lobby, then ride the subway to our Brooklyn Airbnb. In the afternoon we carry our snow-sodden clothes to a nearby laundromat where the air is warm and soapy.

The following morning I put my fleece on and we run eight miles round Prospect Park in the freezing rain, first heading up the long straight Brooklyn streets and getting lost around the botanic gardens. The park is empty save for clumps of brown leaves left over by autumn, like bran flakes left too long in milk, the trees now spiky with December cold. We splash round the running loop, and we see scarcely another soul. Rosy-cheeks rewarded with Dun-well's vegan doughnuts, a little later we find ourselves in East Village, where a sunset glows fierce pink-purple-orange behind tenements and tall buildings, outlining fire-escapes and falling heavy on the sidewalk, like all good New York City sunsets do. We finger old leather jackets in thrift stores and then meet a friend for drinks, bar-hopping numerous fairy-lit watering holes. Each street is prettier than the last, the bars themselves havens of light and warmth looping along the neighbourhood. But no snow like in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch: 
'Tiny table. My knee to her knee-was she aware of it? Quite as aware as I was? Bloom of the candle flame on her face, flame glinting metallic in her hair, hair so bright it looked about to catch fire. Everything blazing, everything sweet. They were playing old Bob Dylan, more than perfect for narrow Village streets close to Christmas and the snow whirling down in big feathery flakes, the kind of winter where you want to be walking down a city street with your arms around a girl like on the old record cover-because Pippa was exactly that girl, not the prettiest, but the no-makeup and kind of ordinary-looking girl he'd chosen to be happy with, and in fact that picture was an ideal of happiness in its way, the hike of his shoulders and the slightly embarrassed quality of her smile, that open-ended look like they might just wander off anywhere they wanted together, and-there she was! her!'
I make two mental notes: to visit Greenwich Village's Jones Street, the location of that record cover, and to see it in the snow one day.

That Greenwich Village pilgrimage happens the very next afternoon. I am alone in the sunshine, and then my phone dies. Annoyed, I think about how this is the first time in years I'll traverse a city without a smartphone. But it turns out to be fun, roaming the cold sunny streets with no direction, thinking about all the people who started up their dreams here. The early twentieth-century bohemians; the Cafe Society lot a hundred years later, Paul Robeson and Ella, and Billie singing Strange Fruit; the fifties Beats adopting the Village as their east coast home,;Dylan Thomas collapsing at the Chelsea Hotel, Patti Smith living in the Chelsea Hotel, Leonard Cohen singing about it; other stars flickering into life: Hendrix, Dave Van Ronk, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed. Bob Dylan, of course. A teenage Springsteen playing with his band The Castiles at Cafe Wha?. It's one of the few clubs still shaking its ass - the Gaslight's long gone - and late every night a queue weaves round the side of the building.

Today the neighbourhood is jammed with cars, tourists, students, high rents. But after hours, the streets fizz. It's too early to tell whether this is just me being an excited music-nerd, or the after-effects of a great slice of pizza from Joe's. Or there's still magic here, tucked inside tiny candlelit bars and feathery snowflakes and the remnants of previous decades, of iconic record covers and ideals of happiness.

Because we did get Joe's pizza that night, after five minutes navigating the Strand bookstore crowds, and stand-up tickets to a Broadway show (Matilda), which was really good, but it's the Village food afterwards I'll remember most. Hot cheap falafel next door to the Wha?, then Joe's - the place is crowded with coloured lights and midnight eaters shaking chili flakes onto steaming slices - and then nutella crepes, and now it is very late and we run through the dark chilly streets to the subway station.

New Year's Eve starts smug: we rattle to Upper West Side for a yoga class followed by a 10k run around Central Park. Being bagel fiends, we trek to Williamsburg in our sweaty gear to eat three of the best filled bagels you'll ever find: pumpernickel with hummus and grilled aubergine, cinnamon with walnut cream cheese, french toast with butter. After all of this it seems to be evening again and there's a party in our apartment. Balloons and banners await guests in the living room and on the kitchen table sits a big container of cheese balls, the sink filled with beer and ice cubes. Suddenly there are a lot of drunk Australians, and the room is full, and I am not quite drunk enough, but drunk enough to hit balloons about and dance. On the rooftop a moustached artist tells me about our mutual connection to music and how there's a secret second rooftop. At midnight we see the fireworks glitter silently over Manhattan, and suddenly everybody knows about the second rooftop and we're there, balancing beer up a wooden ladder. This being America, the party wraps up by 3am, and a few of us sit on the rooftop playing Springsteen's Streets of Philadelphia as somebody collects bottles and sweeps around our feet.

2017: it begins with a Brooklyn rooftop, a long sleep, and a free coffee from a Manhattan Pret - 'this one's on the house, ma'am!' - followed by Bryant Park in the sunshine, ice skaters, giant pretzels, chimney stack cake. The following day, our last in the city, we go out with a bang. Levain cookies from Upper West side: the girl raises an eyebrow when we order a second, and it does nearly overwhelm us: the subway ride downtown is not pleasant. East Village's Crif Dogs (corndogs and tater tots) for dinner, as people queue for the speakeasy next door, and Big Gay Ice Cream for dessert. My cone is lined with peanut butter, I repeat, my cone is lined with peanut butter. Last of all, pints at Swift, warming the bar stools for a long while, the Christmas lights glowing through our beer. And it's midnight in Manhattan, and we're on our way.

Roll bus roll, take me off
A rolled sweatshirt makes the window soft
If I fall asleep, don't wake me up
Roll bus roll, take me up

Old bodegas and old streetlights
Harlem looks so warm tonight
All those cheap desserts, memory hurts, I could die
I gotta take two Tylenols and close my eyes

Stumptown/Ace Hotel lobby | 18 W 29th Street, Manhattan
Dun-well Doughnuts | 222 Montrose Avenue, Brooklyn
Cafe Wha? | 115 Macdougal Street, Manhattan
Strand bookstore | 828 Broadway, Manhattan
Joe's Pizza | 7 Carmine Street, Manhattan
Yoga to the People | 2710 Broadway, Manhattan
Bread Brothers Bagel Cafe | 220 Bushwick Avenue, Brooklyn
Levain bakery | 167 W 74th Street, Manhattan
Crif Dogs | 113 St Marks Place, Manhattan
Big Gay Ice Cream | 125 E 7th Street, Manhattan
Swift Hibernian Lounge | 34 E 4th Street, Manhattan

Sunday, March 19

Roll Bus Roll | Montréal, QC

We're standing by a snowy roadside in the middle of rural Canada, halfway along an eight-hour Greyhound bus journey from Toronto to Montreal. It's early afternoon on Friday, and the bus driver looks like one of my secondary school History teachers.

Endless, empty suburbs ripple out from Toronto, and then the surroundings get wilder and snowier. This roadside stop is straight out of Twin Peaks, the interior clad with wood, one wall brightly pink with candy bars. On a doilied side table stands a glass jug of freshly brewed filter coffee, which you pour into a polystyrene cup for about $1.24. I drink it while listening to Lambchop's Is A Woman record, as white fields billow past the bus window. It tastes good.

We have five days in Montreal. We arrive late at night to a bus station that feels more Paris than Canada, catch the metro to our airbnb, and eat hummus in front of a terrible Christmas film. We're staying in a ground floor studio, a snowy nest, perfect in its smallness. I come to love boiling water for tea on the portable hob, setting up camp on the sofa bed, turning on the lamps.

On the morning of Christmas Eve the square window frames a quiet, heavy snowfall and we run in it, the muffled thud of our trainers the only sound for streets and streets. The squeak-crunch of fresh snow under our feet, around Parc Jarry where the pond water is camouflaged white, I write. Il neige, il neige. There are other runners but otherwise it is deeply still. 

We meet Suzie, a friend studying abroad in Montreal, in a supermarket west of the city, conduct an abbreviated version of the grocery shopping I'd normally be doing with Mum right now, walk Suzie's three legged dog Benny, examine giant icicles, and warm up with McDonalds coffee. Later that evening there are free fireworks in the Old Port; after the show, promoters hand out complimentary hot chocolate and we bob round caged fires to keep warm. The moat is a natural ice rink and a confident blur of limbs and hats passes under Christmas lights. But the ice creeps up through my boot soles and even the overhead heaters and furry benches aren't enough. We find a blues bar playing The Killers' Christmas songs, where a Frenchman pays for our pitcher of sangria, and a New Yorker talks to us for a while. On the way back to the metro Lizze loses her earring in the snow. We sing Fairytale of New York all the way home and watch A Christmassy Ted until late; some Christmas traditions can never be eschewed.

Christmas Day 3242 miles from home was always going to be strange. The snowfall of Christmas Eve glitters brilliantly in the hard sunshine of the following day. It is -11 degrees outside, but we're warm in our nest with fresh coffee and Christmas cake. Christmas morning is all hair washing and strange phone calls home, tears, Christmas music, and a short venture outside. It's the coldest temperature I've ever physically experienced, so cold that even power walking doesn't curtail the shivering. But the streets are bright with sun and snow, the air full of pealing bells from all the neighbourhood churches.

We catch a surprisingly busy metro to Suzie's and cook potatoes, carrots, and gravy. There's panettone, stollen and yule log, too, and The Grinch. I call home. Mum's voice sounds further away than normal and I can't imagine the usual home festivities continuing without me; it seems more likely that the household has been left on pause until I return.

Boxing Day is a near death experience. It doesn't start out that way: we sleep late, drink coffee in bed, read. But then we go outside. It's overcast and raining, except on a cold winter's day in Montreal, harmless rain will immediately turn to lethal ice. Literal hard-rain's-a-gonna-fall. The pavements are pathways to death, or at the very least, humiliation. It begins as soon as we exit the metro station in the centre of the city; the pavement slopes, and Lizze is flat on her back. We're aiming to climb Mont-Royal, but as the streets lift to meet the hill, walking becomes increasingly difficult. Cars rev frantically, wheels spinning into a blur without getting anywhere, their screeches audible from every street. At the border of the park where the snow is still thick, I resort to descending icy stone steps on my ass. Time to give up on the Mont-Royal expedition, except we now have to traverse back down the hill to the city. The rain's been steadily falling and freezing this whole time. Every so often you hear a sudden thud, a gasp, and an onlooker's intake of breath, as another soul succumbs to the ice and goes ass-over-tits. A real life Youtube compilation video of people falling over. It'd be funny, except we can only proceed at the slowest pace, my feet are so cold I could cry, and we're bone-drenched with icy water.

When we finally find an entrance to Montreal's famed 'underground city', it's like stepping through a door into another world. Here, beneath the city's perilous streets, hundreds of warm, dry humans walk with ease through shops and cafes. It is only the relief from the freezing rain that makes me appreciate these underground consumerist labyrinths though. Because that's all they are, malls linked by tunnels, inhabited by crazed shoppers on a Boxing Day binge.

Back at home, after another laboured, treacherous walk from metro station to apartment, we recover with a cheese, wine, and chocolate floor picnic. Suzie joins us, I dance to Springsteen in my thermals, and Lizze teaches me some acro yoga.

It's our last day in Montreal, and the worst of the ice has thawed, so we're able to walk up to the top of Mont-Royal. In the park we pass skaters and snow-tubers, bold squirrels and people out running. Suzie's made us sandwiches which we eat inside the Chalet du Mont-Royal. The view out across downtown is impressive, but after five days in Canada the cold has completely infiltrated my bones. There's a wooden staircase, orange against the black and white landscape, leading all the way back down into the city, where we warm up in a hip coffee shop. Later in the evening we catch a bus to the Cinema Dollare, where, yes, all tickets and snacks cost just a dollar. Take note, London!

After the movie, Lizze and I hotfoot it to the bus station, and almost miss our overnight Greyhound to New York.

* * *

Roll bus roll, take me off
A rolled sweatshirt makes the window soft
If I fall asleep, don't wake me up
Roll bus roll, take me up

I wasn't designed to move so fast
I wasn't designed to have so much past
And in my mind's eye they all have so much fun
Nowhere to hide and nowhere to run