I’ve read to sweet groups of old friends at the Waking Owl bookstore with each of my last three books; the first time was 1987. But I will never read there again. Early today I walk down to where the store was all those years right below campus, and I go in and get a haircut. Things change in my lost city. Things change everywhere. A person could still give a reading in the bright salon, but the mirrors would make it tough. I love this place, that it’s still here.
There are 9,000 press people in Salt Lake City today, and you can see them everywhere standing behind their rented SUVs assembling their cameras, four puffy parkas gearing up, everybody looking for a story. Based on what I’ve been seeing, they all want stories about arch-Mormonia such as Polygamy or the Secrets of the Temple or even Donnie Osmond—where is he? They’ll settle for pieces on the liquor laws or Marie Osmond. But today I am going to scoop all 9,000 of them with this little note on La Frontera.
Chuck and I drive west on Fourth South into my old boyhood neighborhood. They’ve recently subtitled Fourth South “Poplar Grove Boulevard,” and though change is hard, this pleases me. I grew up on Poplar Grove in a wild garden of Eden of vacant lots, shortcuts, random bicycle calamities, baseball, and sleeping out. It was in Sorenson Park (renamed Poplar Grove Park) that my buddies and I invented Car Baseball, where you run back and forth to the swings when a car comes. (Complete rules later.) I ran a thousand miles in that park.
La Frontera is in a building that was once a little drugstore, but for years now it has been a Mexican restaurant. We go in and sit at one of the large booths, the seats sealed in plastic—signal of a great eatery. The special is a soft-shelled taco and smothered burrito ($5.50), and I’m all over that (and vice versa) in no time. Nothing on the menu has been renamed for the Olympics. They’ve got cold beer, if you dare. This is the joint you won’t read about in the Big Olympics Guide of Where To Eat, but if you’re in town between the Bobsled and the Grand Slalom, it is, as they say, worthy.
At the university TRAX station I wait with a dozen other people all wearing new green parkas. You buy a ticket from a machine that makes change in Sacagawea dollar coins. A minute later the brand new train slides into the bay, and the driver walks the length of the three cars from one end to the other end, which is now the front. The people in the green parkas have been cleaning snow out of the stadium during the ceremony rehearsal today. I admire their smart coats and ask if there’s a ranking. There are 30,000 volunteers; is red more powerful than purple, green, or yellow? One man explains that red is like Red Cross, yellow is like police, purple is transit/travel, and green is … he’s not sure. He’d obviously like to be purple. I tell him I think the purple parkas are too busy, and he looks at his bare green sleeve: The purple parkas say “Salt Lake City” on the sleeve. I tell the group again that they have beautiful coats, but as the train turns onto Main Street after our two-mile trip, no one is convinced.
As I debark, I realize that except for once at Hogle Zoo when I was 4, this is my first train ride in Salt Lake City. Let’s make this clear: The train is fabulous in all respects. It is the way people are meant to be transported. I didn’t need to debate fashion with the wonderful volunteers; I could have read or done the crossword puzzle. If TRAX is the only legacy of this intense Olympic season, the whole extravaganza will have been worth it. There is no ambiguity on this issue. It’s horrid that so many other cities are going to have to wait until they get an Olympics to have a train of their own.
The trouble with selling mass transit in this county is the word “mass.” We don’t really care for it. When they sell us cars, the commercials have one car in them only, on a road that looks like a satin ribbon in paradise. Where is that road? From the station in downtown Salt Lake, the many TRAX trains travel south to and from the suburbs every few minutes, full of citizens in beautiful new multicolored outerwear. I stand on the sidewalk rattling a pound of dollar coins in my pockets, my ears a little cold. That barber took too much off the sides.