American Excess

Ten days in California had vaccinated me against most forms of weirdness but virtually the first person in San Francisco we spoke to reminded us just how different a place this was. Steve and I went up to the reception in a perfectly normal, recommended tourist hotel and I asked for a room. Only in San Franciso could the reply possibly be “Will that be a double bed or two singles?”.

Having affirmed our heterosexuality, we discovered the hotel was down near the waterfront, possibly the most schlock-filled area of land I’ve ever seen, culminating in Pier 41, a bizarre mutant offspring of Covent Garden and Carnaby Street with all the fake neo-historical charm of a restaged medieval banquet. Still, they had an NFL shop, where I finally managed to get a Minnesota Vikings shirt – never seen over here because Vikings fans aren’t exactly numerous (like I’ve never met another one!) – so I was happy. Once again, we bumped into that nightmarish creature, sales tax, by which a similarly arbitrary percentage is added to all prices after they’ve been totted up at the check-out. A bit like secret VAT, it provoked much embarrassing fumbling in pockets for additional dollars.

The evening was spent in another “English pub”, though this was actually an Irish one, and was slightly better i.e. the Guinness was treated with the respect it deserves. One major difference between Britain and California drinking houses, that took a while to sink in, is that American bars don’t have any one-armed bandits – gambling being more or less illegal. With no fruit machines or quiz games to distract with the lure of money, we ended up playing darts, while watching baseball on the TV, which was definitely surreal.

It’s always comforting to realise that some things are the same across the world. the Blockbuster Video store is one of these; we popped into one on the way home and were comforted to discover the same, sanitised decor, the same inanely grinning staff, and the same 500-copies-of-Home-Alone-and-nothing-much-else contents.

We only had one full day in San Francisco, and we started off by going to Alcatraz, the notorious “escape-proof” penal establishment. It was actually only a jail for about 30 years, from the mid 30’s to the mid 60’s, but it’s still probably the most famous prison in the world. Some of the stories that have grown up round it are myths – the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, Robert Stroud, never had any birds during his time in Alcatraz – but sometimes the truth is pretty weird. It was the only Federal jail where the inmates had compulsory hot showers. This was to prevent them from getting used to cold water – a necessary prerequisite of any attempt to swim to the mainland.

Justin Scott, National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

San Franciso is indeed notably cooler than other parts of California. When we left San Jose, most of our luggage stayed there as we’d be coming back for the flight to LA -having suffered four days of 90 degree heat, I left all my jerseys behind, only to find that in the forty miles between San Jose and San Francisco the temperature drops about 30 degrees. As well as chilly, Frisco’s also hilly, probably even more so than it looks on TV. If you get tired walking round it, you can always lean against it.

We’d noticed in the paper that ‘A Chinese Ghost Story III’ was showing, so decided that might be worth a trip. However, on the way to the cinema, we passed another Chinese theatre – “Hang on”, I said, “that looks like Chow Yun Fat”. It was. Four films and eight hours later, having set a new personal best for amount of fu seen in a day, we staggered home, pausing only to leap in front of cars, fling each other out of windows and fly through the air in defiance of most of the laws of physics.

Despite clinging to every day with the enthusiasm of a drowning man to a liferaft, the final couple of days slid away like a handful of blancmange. We drifted back to Los Angeles and spent the final afternoon on the beach, which was almost deserted – so much for beach culture. Actually, I had been slightly disappointed with the cutie-pie quotient: while there were some stunners, I found teeth, tan & tits tended to tediousness after a while, though San Francisco’s Chinatown had me in a state of almost permanent dribble. I suspect it didn’t help that we managed to totally miss the weekends (two spent travelling, one at Animecon) – we did get to the beach, but it might have been the Gobi Desert for all the life on view, cute or otherwise.

Pimlico27, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Our journey home didn’t start well. We got to the airport in plenty of time and joined the queue to check in, only to find Ilsa, She-Wolf of the Departure Lounge there again, “organising” things. This meant the dumb jerks who turned up half an hour before their flight was due to leave, totally ignoring the two hours before flight check-in rule, got to go to the front of the queue. Now, a 16-hour flight would be sufficient to try the patience of a saint. The patience of a short-tempered, sarcasm-prone Scotsman was therefore no contest, especially after two weeks of nothing to whine about. I really hit my stride when we discovered our flight was cancelled. Even the “T.W.A. tea” jokes got the dust blown off them. However, they shifted us onto another flight to St.Louis (from where our plane was now starting) and even upgraded our seats from “Scummy, penny-pinching cheapo” to “flying on expenses, so who gives a damn” class. The major benefit of this was cuter hostesses.

The rest of the flight back wasn’t bad despite the efforts of a mother and brats in the next row to make it hell. The kids were just about bearable, it was the mother’s fondness for carrying out shouted conversations across the width of the plane that had me dreaming of a world where families on aircraft have a special place. Specifically, hanging just behind the engine, toasting gently like giant marsh-mallows.

Gatwick Airport, 8 am. Customs. My first trip through the red channel. You are permitted to take back a massive £32 of goods from America. I had somewhere over £500. Standing in the queue of people with something to declare, watching the person ahead getting thoroughly searched, I knew I was safe because I didn’t have anything dodgy in my luggage. (Well, not that dodgy – sub-sub-ed)

After getting through the red channel unscathed despite difficulty in signing the credit card slip because my hands were shaking, and a brief pause to sacrifice a couple of virgins to the Goddess-who-protects-from-Customs, it was back to Britain. There was nothing left of the holiday except a dose of jet-lag, which had me waking up at 3 am, and doing some ironing because I couldn’t sleep. It had been exhausting. It had been terminally destructive to my credit card. It had been the least restful holiday I’ve ever had. Yet within days of returning to the UK, I was certain that summer 1992 would see me once again travelling to the place where “bad” means “good”, and good is being about as weird as you can get!

Post-script – Six months on and life has almost returned to normal, save an inability to tolerate the concentrated muck that passes for orange juice here. But I get odd flashbacks, every now and again. Standing in Tower Records, holding a couple of American magazines, I suddenly found myself thinking “Damn! There’ll be 7.5% California state sales tax on top!”. While this may be true in their Los Angeles branch, it doesn’t apply to the one at Piccadilly Circus. But I can only assume the salesgirl had been on holiday too, as she casually added up the American cover prices and said to me, “That’ll be six dollars ninety please”…