Departures: [aeilostu]+

in which travel planning by regular expression leads approximately nowhere


In late 2000, when I gave notice at my old place of employment, I knew I would have a month before I started work at the new place. I planned a couple of trips:

I didn't bother planning for Seattle. I'd been there so many times, I knew my way around. But I wanted to research Saint Louis. I went to Green Apple Books on Clement Street.

I looked for a Saint Louis travel guide, but found none. I looked for a Missouri travel guide: nope. There were some Great Plains travel guides, all awful. Saint Louis is on the old Route 66, but Route 66 travel guides don't expect you to linger in Saint Louis for long.

My favorite travel guide publishers, Lonely Planet, didn't have a Saint Louis travel guide, nor a Missouri travel guide, nor a Great Plains travel guide. So I bought a copy of their USA travel guide and brought it home.

Home, I opened the book to the index and searched for "Saint Louis". It wasn't in there. No, really, it really wasn't there. Maybe I should have checked this before buying the book, but I hadn't. I said some unkind things about Saint Louis, Lonely Planet, Green Apple Books, and even my friends. My eyes wandered a desultory path of despair, and then spotted "St Louis", alphabetized under "St". All of the "Saint" places were alphabetized this way.

Thus, I was paying a lot of attention to the way they'd decided to spell "St Louis". And I was thinking about "Seattle," too. I noticed that both names contained the consonants "s", "t", and "l"; and no other consonants. ("Saint" has an "n", but "St" does not.) I wondered how many other places matched this criterion. I wondered if I should try to visit all of them during my time between jobs.

If I'd had the book's index of places in a computer text file, I could have searched it with a utility like grep, telling it to search for [aeilostu]+.

The next [aeilostu]+ place I found looked like an easy one, and one I'd been curious about for a while: "Sausalito." I was starting to get excited about the idea. And then I saw "Tulsa". Suddenly, this didn't seem like such a great idea. Then there was "Altus" (Oklahoma) and "Altus" (Arkansas). I read what the book had to say about Tulsa. Oral Roberts University was there.

So maybe this wasn't such a great idea. There was no way I was going to go to Tulsa, even if its name matched a set of consonants. I thought about hedging on my rule. After all, it wasn't so impressive for a place to have only the consonants s, t, and l if its name was just five characters long. I considered changing my query from (in Perl) /[aeilostu]+/ to /[aeilostu]{6,}/.

Sausalito (1)

Nevertheless, on Friday the 13th of October, 2000, I set out for Sausalito. I'd been to Sausalito before, but just passing through. When Piaw and I went for day sails, they were out of Sausalito. I'd biked through Sausalito with the high school chums. I'd been sort of curious about Sausalito, but had heard that it was a tourist trap, and had never made time for it.

The ferry ride was pretty, but none of my pictures turned out, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

As we pulled into the dock at Sausalito, I started taking notes on landmarks. There was a waterside restaurant I'd used as a landmark when sailing. I'd thought it was called "Horizons". But, in fact, I'd been wrong--for Horizons had painted their name so that it was visible from the water, and they were around the corner from the place I'd seen, which was in fact called the Spinnaker.

I walked North, walking along docks and out on houseboat piers and on patches of ground along the water, trying to get a better idea of landmarks. I found out that the Taj Mahal was a houseboat, just another houseboat out on the end of the 800's of Pier A; not some bizarre pier-end construction.

When I got to the Liberty Ship Way area, there was a lot of construction going on. One warehouse had been gutted. Not even its walls were standing, just part of the roof and the vertical beams that had held up its walls. Or maybe I was looking at new construction, not a "remodel".

I saw some ugly humvee-looking vehicles labelled with "". I wondered if this was the same outfit that had put billboards on a barge and parked it next to the entrance to the Bay Bridge. It made sense that such a company would have humvees as its corporate fleet, that it would embrace ugliness. (Looking at their web site, I see pictures of sailboats with advertising on the sails, but no ugly barges. So perhaps they aren't as bad as the barge people who earned my ire. Anyhow.)

When I saw the boat called the Raccoon at dock, I thought it looked pretty cool. It had a grabber for grabbing debris out of the water, and a barge area in which to dump the debris. I was so distracted by the Raccoon that I didn't realize that the building behind me was the San Francisco Bay and Delta Model, my goal.

So I headed over to the Marin Sailing Academy, over to the sign I knew about which pointed me at the Model, walked past warehouses, and eventually found an entrance to a really large warehouse which wasn't a warehouse at all, but was in fact the building which housed the Model.

I walked in, up, and past a mysterious display about life arising from the waters, and came to another display, this one showing various literary quotes about water. I noticed one, and thought, "It would remind you of that line of Art of Noise: 'It would remind you of that line of Baudelaire.'" The quote was by Baudelaire, perhaps the first that I'd ever seen. I'd heard of Baudelaire, but knew nothing of his work. His quote read:

Free man you always cherish the sea! The sea is your mirror, you study your soul in the infinite roll of its billows...

I made a mental note to avoid the works of Baudelaire in the future.

The model itself was more interesting than I'd expected. I'd just expected a large, carefully shaped puddle on the ground with a bunch of people in lab coats standing around it, watching dyes flow in simulated tides. But the place was actually pretty visitor-friendly, with literary quotes, informative films, displays, and labels.

I learned that the Army Corps of Engineers had built the Model in response to the "Reber Plan", a proposal to build land bridges across San Francisco Bay to turn part of the bay into freshwater reservoirs. The Model had shown that the Plan would lose more fresh water to evaporation than it would save from draining into the bay. I gaped. Here was big science, right in my own backyard. I thought, thank goodness for people who dare to dream of things as daring as the Reber Plan; and thank goodness for people who test plans before following them.

I tried to figure out why there were little flanges sticking up from the bottom of the Model. A sign told me that "copper strips embedded in model permit adjustment of frictional resistance to accurately reproduce prototype tides, currents and salinities," and then I wanted to know how they figured out how to twist the little copper strips. There were weird things hanging from the ceiling, which it turned out were carefully-fitted dams for blocking off various parts of the Model from one another.

I imagined wandering around in the model, twisting bits of metal, checking sensors.

I knew I was going to start working at a computer game company in a few weeks, so paid careful attention to the video game at the Model, the US Army Corps of Engineers DEBRIS REMOVAL GAME.

In this game, a boat makes its way through a waterway littered with debris. Well, really, the boat stays still while debris moves by beneath it. The player can halt the boat's progress by pressing a button and then use the boat's crane to pick up pieces of debris. There's a time limit, and it takes a while to maneuver the crane into position to pick up any debris. Different kinds of debris have different values:

Points Debris
10 rowboats, logs, boards
20 big decking, small decking
30 big tires, small tires
40 "dead heads"

I quickly formed my strategy ("Don't slow down for 10-point trash.") and set to work, racking up 230 points before I ran out of time. The game didn't seem to have a high scores list, so I couldn't work up motivation to play a second time.

I jotted down the URL, but I'm not sure why I did.

My favorite part of the Model didn't really have anything to do with the Model, it was just in the same building: a historical museum about Marinship, the Sausalito shipyard which had built Liberty ships during World War II. I read that a disproportionately high number of people in the yards were deaf. Deafness "saved them from the awful noise of the chipping gun." I wasn't really sure what a chipping gun was, maybe an airhammer with a chisel tip.

There were videos of former yard workers remembering their Marinship experiences. From one, I learned that women had been let into the builder's union only because Bechtel had threatened to shut down Marinship. After the union had admitted them, a few women decided to attend the next meeting. When they showed up, there were only three men there--the union officers. Other union members hadn't bothered to show up for the meeting. The officers, perhaps overwhelmed by the sudden swell in attendance, canceled the meeting.

In the gift shop, I picked up Charles Wollenberg's Marinship At War (Shipbuilding and Social Change in Wartime Sausalito), a book about Marinship's history and the rise of Bechtel in large Western engineering projects. Interesting if you're into that sort of thing, which I was.

On my way back to the Sausalito ferry dock, I wandered up into the hills, among little houses and pretty trees. My pictures didn't turn out. Oh well.

Tulsa (1)

On Thursday the 19th, I was eating lunch with Morgan Fletcher and Katie Barnes. Mostly, they talked about work. The company they worked for had been embarrassed by a lying executive. The IPO had been delayed. The company had changed its name (to Provato, though it had nothing to do with professional vatos).

Morgan did some of his growing up in Marin County, so I mentioned that I'd gone to Sausalito. Morgan wanted to know if I'd seen the elephants, and I hadn't. Then I told him why I'd gone to Sausalito. Morgan was down with regular expressions, such as [aeilostu]+. Morgan also knew something about Tulsa.

He told me that he'd heard of some book of photographs of young drug addicts in Tulsa. It sounded interesting. It sounded like a chance to see a side of Tulsa that I would miss if I visited Tulsa. And I still wouldn't have to go to Tulsa.

So I went to the UC Berkeley library and did a search at a catalog terminal. They had a copy of the book. It was in a library I'd never visited, the Bancroft Room. I couldn't even find the place; I had to ask for directions. And then, at the entrance to the Room, the man behind the desk stopped me before I could walk through the door.

I'd forgotten that the Bancroft Room is where UC Berkeley keeps its rare and old books. Apparently, Berkeley's copy of Larry Clark's Tulsa was somehow rare or special.

I couldn't just breeze into the Bancroft Room using my usual library card. No, I needed to sit down at the guard's desk and fill out an application form giving my name and saying why I want access to rare books.

I was scruffier than usual; I was a mess. There had been a BART fire in the transbay tube. I wasn't caught in the fire, but it had caused me to do some running to a bus station so that I could get to that lunch in Oakland on time. And I'd jogged from the bus to the restaurant, too. And I'd had spicy food for lunch, and I'd sweat a lot. As I filled out the Bancroft's application form, my arm was leaving a trail of sweat on the guard's desk. In his place, I might have refused to hand over any rare books to such a sweaty guy.

I filled out the form. The Bancroft Library has some specialized collections, and they get lots of Twain scholars, Western USA history scholars, people studying up on South America. The application form asked me for my area of interest, with these and other choices. I checked the box labeled "Other" and wrote in: "Tulsa".

I put my backpack in a locker, left behind all pens, bringing only a pencil. I brought no food or beverages with me into the Reading Room. I understood that I wouldn't be allowed to make copies. I understood the behavior rules. I understood that I couldn't check books out, just read them in the room. I went in, picked out one of the numbered desks. I wrote my desk number and book number onto a book request slip and brought it to the nice lady behind the desk. I went back to the desk and sat and waited until the lady summoned me.

She tsked. The book was in storage. They wouldn't be able to get it to me until the following afternoon. I could show up then, or they'd hold it for two weeks before returning it to storage.

Sausalito (2)

On Saturday the 21st, Piaw was doing a sailing trip and I went along. We sailed out of the Marin Sailing Academy at Sausalito. As per usual, Sausalito wasn't an especially big part of our day.

For example, Kristina (sp?) didn't talk about Sausalito. She talked about a "team building" activity some company had sent her on. Kristina had an MBA, and thus had put up with her share of team-building activities.

This team-building activity had involved flying a bunch of businessfolk out to Europe and then putting them onto some sailboats. Each boat had a couple of instructors and some newbie MBAs. The MBAs were supposed to learn how to work together.

Here Kristina went off on a little aside talking about what she'd learned from the activity. She'd learned how to deal with a situation where different people had different goals. Some wanted to sail. Some wanted to relax. Some were just uncomfortable on the water and wanted to finish.

I didn't totally understand this, because later on, she said that her boat had "won." So maybe there was some goal that had been handed down. I wasn't really following the story that closely. I was trying to imagine being stuck on a boat with a bunch of MBAs.

She said that it was interesting that her boat had won, seeing as how its crew hadn't got along that well. The two other boats had been populated by a couple of cliques. Her boat was made up of the leftover people. People did their crew duties without trying to be especially friendly. People on the other boats had wasted effort on consideration and chatter, and had thus not been so efficient.

Coming back into Sausalito in the evening, we did talk about a few landmarks. Mick pointed at a restaurant on stilts over the water and asked what it was. I said it was the Spinnaker, glad to get it right. He asked if it was a private club or a restaurant or what. I said I'd never been there, but I guessed it was a restaurant.

When we went by the Taj Mahal, Mick knew that it had been up for sale a few years back. Mick was an architect.

We sailed past the Bay Model's dock. The Lady Washington was there, tied up in the evening light. I stared at it as we drifted past. Now I wouldn't have to come back to Sausalito on Monday.

Mick had been on some site in Sausalito. While on that site, Mick had learned where to get good Indian food: not in Sausalito, but at a place called India Palace in a TraveLodge a few miles North on 101. He also knew about some restaurant area away from the tourists, but once we were back on land in Sausalito, we went North, and thus away from Sausalito.

Tulsa (2,3)

When I went back to the Bancroft Room, I was less sweaty, more prepared to handle a rare book. I put in my request, sat at my numbered desk. I had a chance to look around the room at my fellow scholars. They were older than I was used to--there were a few grown-ups, perhaps professors. There were few people who weren't grown-ups. It occurred to me that I wasn't exactly a fresh-faced undergrad myself. But I didn't get to see Tulsa that day. They'd screwed up, hadn't got the book out of storage. The nice lady behind the desk (a different lady) said she'd put in another request.

Then I went to St Louis.

Then I came back, went to the Bancroft Room again. This time, they had the book. It wasn't noticeably rare-looking. It was just a coffee-table sort of book, with black-and white photos of people who shot amphetamines. The pictures were all interiors of bland apartments and houses. Supposedly, they were in Tulsa, but they could have been anywhere. I guess it wasn't that important to most people that the photographed events had been in Tulsa. They were art, art which showed a way of life which transcended geography. I flipped through it carefully and returned it unharmed. That was plenty of Tulsa.


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