I’d been to America before, of course…
(This journal’s accompanying photographs can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/leftmidfielder/)
Or had I? Most people I’d spoken to on either side of the Atlantic half-jokingly dismiss Orlando (and most of Florida) as not being truly representative of the United States as a whole, being more of a giant amusement park set up for tourists. Although I can’t remember a great deal of my only previous trip to America, being 11 as I was at the time, what I do recall has been mixed up with nearly thirty years of exposure to popular culture and created an America in my mind’s eye. I was interested to find out if three weeks in San Jose, San Francisco, Yosemite and New York would be enough to find out if the unilateral dismissal of Florida was accurate. The truth, it would emerge, was rather more complex…
As previously mentioned, I was 11 the last time I left this island for the 13 original colonies. Or had I just turned 12? In any case, I had just started secondary school when my great Uncle Matt died of cancer. Without any living family of his own, he bequeathed a small amount of money and his Ford Orion to my mother, his late wife’s niece. My mother in turn invested the windfall in a Ferguson TV and VCR and a two week holiday for herself, my sister and I in Orlando, Florida.
We rented a camcorder for a few days during the trip, and we still have the video. It reminds me of a few things I’ve forgotten, and only a few things I can vividly recall. One is the ice-cream machine in the hotel restaurant. The other is the hotel being next to a freeway. I remember speaking bad German to a lovely German woman that worked in the Epcot Centre, and I particularly remember my mother taking the wrong turn on the way to some water park or other and us getting stuck in the back of beyond, driving under deep green trees and seeing the things that most tourists never really saw. A small, ramshackle filling station for instance. Trees. Americans.
My transatlantic flight, as in the return trip, would be two-legged. Flying from Glasgow, I would catch a connecting flight at the hell-hole otherwise known as Heathrow, where I would have three hours to kill while I waited.
I do love the notion of being peripatetic, not tired to one base, traversing the world and its airports, breathing second class air and getting stuck behind idiots in WH Smith (or whatever the local equivalent is). The reality is that airports aren’t the elegiac, glacial monuments to brutalism sound tracked by shoe gazers (or Brian Eno) and buffeted by grim squalls that they quite often appear to be in films. Instead, most major airports resemble nothing more than a shopping centre on a busy Saturday afternoon, with the exception that this time your irritating co-consumers take up twice as much room in each store as usual thanks to their ridiculous carry on baggage. You aren’t allowed to bring through bottles containing more than 100ml of liquid through security, but you can bring the pack and body armour of a royal marine?
My trip to Dublin in March aside, I hadn’t flown since the fateful day in August 2006 that the British Police apparently foiled a terrorist attempt to blow up aircraft in the U.K.; emergency measures were put in place as I flew back home from a job interview in Cardiff, most of which still exist today. And so I was pensive about the level of security I’d have to get through in the course of my passage to the homeland, mainly because of the legendary family ‘Box of Donuts’ syndrome, which for the uninitiated is simply a rebranding of Murphy’s Law, done to denote its particular interest in our little family group.
After we passed through security (without a hitch, but I haven’t the faintest idea what a biometric passport is actually supposed to do), we boarded our Boeing 747-400. I was actually quite excited about this; I’d been mildly interested in planes as a young boy, perhaps due to their similarity to cars, and had been given several books and magazines by a family friend. On my previous trip to the U.S., I’d been disappointed that we hadn’t flown on a 747, then still the biggest passenger aircraft. Ok, the Airbus A380 has superseded it in terms of passengers carried, but the 747 is still an iconic machine, and I was glad to finally say I’d flown on one.
That was until we took off. I’m not a great flier; I can do it, and I do tend to do it quite often, but it doesn’t stop me fretting from the moment the aircraft commences take off until the moment the wheels touch back down on tarmac. Whenever possible I take a window seat; while I’m sure that watching the world from a different perspective relaxes me, being able to see the wings winds me back up again. ‘Should they be doing that?’ I find myself constantly asking. But nothing in my flying experience has terrified me as much as being in a jumbo jet when it starts banking…the huge plane does it at such at an impossibly interminable speed I was convinced it was a matter of seconds before we plummeted to North London like the massive steel sarcophagus we were.
I calmed down a little when we reached cruising altitude and started to investigate the Virgin Atlantic in flight entertainment console. Each seat, even those in economy, now gets you your own screen and handset and access to a digital archive of music, film and television. And I have to say, it was a godsend. Being able to pick and chose what I watched effectively nullified the boredom of the ten hour flight much better than I’ve ever experienced on my previous longish-haul flights, especially as I now seem to no longer be able to fall asleep during daylight hours or in company. And so, I watched Walk Hard – The Dewey Cox Story, Transformers, the pilot of The Sarah Connor Chronicles and a couple of episodes of Family Guy. Fortunately I had a fair bit of leg room, even allowing for my height. I have no real complaints about my flight out…
I was met at the airport by both my hosts, Matt and Ru. I’ve known both for around five years, and at one point we lived in the same English county. Now we don’t even reside on the same continent. The first thing they did was take me to Krispy Kreme for some donuts, and I have to say, they receive a pass mark from me. Then I was introduced to the joys of the Xbox 360 on a widescreen HD LCD TV. There’s just no going back to a fourteen inch portable after that. And that’s pretty much all I did for the next two days; play Pro- Evolution Soccer and eat crap. I did get measured for the tuxedo I was renting for the wedding, and I had a brief walk around San Jose, but I did feel as if the flight and the time adjustment had taken a bit out of me. I made an executive decision to preserve a bit of energy for the following days’ endeavours…
I first ventured into San Francisco on the Thursday. Fortunately, there was a railway station near Ru’s house that provided regular trains north to San Francisco at a reasonable price. So off I went, delighted to be travelling on a double decker train (see above 747 reference), watching the central Valley roll by at a leisurely rate, taking 80 minutes to complete the sixty mile journey.
I knew from my previous research that the San Francisco Giants baseball stadium lay a few blocks east from the train station, so by default that became my first port of call in the port. It’s not much to look at from the outside, but as an aficionado of both sport and architecture, it had to be crossed off the list. The stadium itself sits a few hundred yards from the Embarcadero, the boulevard that runs along the east coast of the city, next to the waterline, and which runs all the way up to Pier 39 at the northernmost part of the peninsula. I decided, as I am foolishly wont to do, to walk along it.
The next notable landmark was to be the Bay Bridge, a structure that often sits in the shadow of its rather more illustrious near neighbour, the Golden Gate Bridge. To be honest, I wasn’t really aware of it myself until I found myself underneath it; a large, grey, steel construction in three parts that links San Francisco with its much neglected sister city of Oakland, which as everyone knows, is just a collection of houses. The Bay Bridge is perhaps most famous for a small section of its road deck collapsing as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In turn, this has lead to the current work to replace the entirety of the easternmost section of the bridge, which was deemed to be unsafe in case of any further tectonic movement.
Up until this point, I hadn’t really felt I was on holiday, or that I’d even left my comfort zone for a world city of some repute. As far as my brain was concerned, I might as well have been going to the shop for a pint of milk. But just north of the Bay Bridge sits a little Fire Department boat, seemingly ready for duty should it be called upon. And in that moment of setting eyes upon it, I recalled the edition of the relaunched British TV show Treasure Hunt, with an edition shot in San Francisco that so made me long to visit the City, and here I was. My perspective suitably adjusted, I was able to continue truly in the holiday mood, my eyes and mind wide open.
And the landmarks continued. Next was the Ferry Building, which is probably like the Bay Bridge, a lesser known type. That said, it’s placed in scene setting shots often enough for it to ring bells for almost anyone. The huge letters on its roof boldly declare that one has in fact reached San Francisco, and although they might not be as well known as the Hollywood sign, they’re certainly as iconic, especially when lit at night.
Several people and guide books had recommended I visit Pier 39, and so that’s where I headed now, still walking along the Embarcadero, still keeping my eyes peeled for the pier the Alcatraz tours departed from. I found it at Pier 35, and went in to check the availability and cost of tour tickets. I emerged a few minutes later with what was apparently the single last ticket of the day, which suited me perfectly. The boat didn’t sail for another 90 minutes, so it gave me time to investigate Pier 39…
…There’s really not much there. Well, there is a lot there, but its establishments consist mainly of overpriced restaurants and tourist shops, neither of which particularly interested me. And so I paid only a flying visit, dallying only to listen to the dulcimer player on the sidewalk. He was actually pretty good it must be said.
I needed some lunch before the short crossing to Alcatraz, but I wasn’t keen on burgers, chips, bagels or any of the other cuisine I found in the assorted cafes. And so, I found myself queuing up to buy a peanut butter and jelly roll in the café at the base of Pier 35. I thought this was absolutely fantastic. I’ve long railed against the homogenisation of sandwiches in the U.K. (you can have Tuna Mayonnaise, Prawn Mayonnaise, Chicken Mayonnaise…), so to be able to buy my favourite ever sandwich in a shop was just brilliant for me. Yes, my favourite filling is peanut butter and jam. God knows where my mother picked the idea up from, but my sister and I have eaten and enjoyed countless sandwiches of the sort in the last 20 years.
So, feeling a little more nourished, I joined the queue (no, I’m not saying ‘line’) for the 2:30 sailing.
Now, the problem with boats, ships and planes is that they almost always involve a large number of people passing through a small entrance/exit, and as any student of humanity will know, this just results in a bottleneck when certain individuals decide to do…well, whatever entirely ridiculous and unnecessary thing it is they always seem to end up doing, getting in the way of everyone else, and this motif is repeated along the mass until you get to the poor sod stuck at the end, which is almost invariably me.
Happily I’d got to almost the front of the queue, so there weren’t too many dithering people in front of me as we waited to go through the airport-style security. Every one of the national monuments/attractions I visited had these measures, which is hardly surprising, but it’s a little odd to be asked for photo I.D. quite as often as you are.
Alcatraz you know all about. You don’t? Well, Alcatraz Island has stood in San Francisco bay for far longer than human beings have lived in the area. Named ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces’ by Juan de Ayala, its Spanish discoverer, the island became a military fort, then a military prison when its armaments became outdated. Eventually, in 1934, the U.S. Government made Alcatraz a Federal Prison, just in time to deal with the rise in organized crime caused by prohibition and the great depression. The new penitentiary gained a fearsome reputation, due in part to the criminal calibre of its inmates and partly due to its barren appearance and formidable security. Due to the treacherous waters and vicious currents of the Bay, even if a prisoner was to escape from the prison itself, the swim to the mainland would almost certainly kill him. The exclusively male pronoun is appropriate, as no females ever served time in Alcatraz.
The tour boat docks at the North Eastern side of the Island, and you’re greeted with the famous Alcatraz sign daubed with Native American graffiti proclaiming that the island is ‘Indian land’, the result of a brief occupation by various Native American tribes during 1969-1970.
After a brief introductory talk by one of the park rangers (the Island is a national park), you’re free to explore on your own, and audio tours are also available. I did both, taking advantage of the glorious sunshine to investigate as much of the north of the island as I could, before making my way to the cell blocks themselves for the self-guided audio tour. Which is in-depth and atmospheric, and undoubtedly you get a sense of what life was like for the prisoners, but I couldn’t help but think it was a little overlong as the prison isn’t actually that big. You cross your own tracks on more than one occasion during the course of the 90 minute or so commentary. Still, it’s worth it if for nothing more than the view from the southern portion of the island. Here you have the famous lighthouse, standing proudly guard over the bay. To your left is the Bay Bridge, and straight ahead is the San Francisco skyline. But best of all, to your right and slightly behind you, is the utterly beautiful Golden Gate Bridge. My flight had come in over it, but I was sitting on the wrong side of the plane to see it, so this was my first glimpse of it, in the flesh to speak, stick thin and shimmering in the distance. I finished the audio tour, and sauntered back to catch the second last boat back to the city. It was half past four by this point, and although I had plenty more I wanted to do, I was beginning to feel a little tired.
This was my first day using San Francisco’s public transportation system and I will readily admit I didn’t have the hang of it. So, this first day it took me a lot longer to get back to the Caltrain station than strictly necessary. And then, as can only happen to me, my train broke down at San Francisco airport, necessitating a later local train to be pressed into service as a replacement. So I was very tired when I finally got into San Jose…and I had it all to do again the next day.
Before I delineate what I did during my second day in San Francisco, I need to take a moment to explain my fascination with baseball.
Actually, I’m not sure I can. I don’t really know why one particular stick and ball game should appeal to me so much when no other does. And then I don’t really like watching games that much. What really sings to my soul is the carnival of shite that goes along with America’s pastime. I can’t think of a single sport in the world, even boxing or football, that has more pretentious nonsense written about it on a regular basis. And look at Hollywood; how many baseball films can you name compared to say, hockey or basketball? (Admittedly, this may be because baseball is an easier game to recreate on celluloid due to its stop-start nature).
It was due to watching (and yes, enjoying) several Kevin Costner films, among others, that I first started taking an interest in this strange, circus sideshow of a sport. When Channel Five acquired the rights to show live baseball games, I sat down one night and watched one. I can’t remember who the visitors were, but the San Francisco Giants were at home, and they became my team, partly down to my need to pick a team in every sport and every footballing country in the world. It was partly the stadium that did it, but its location in that alluring city that continued to call to me helped a lot.
I decided that while I was in the U.S., I would immerse and indulge myself in baseball, still the only one of the big four American sports to appeal to me. I was investigating the chances of making it to one of the Giants’ pre-season games, but in the meantime, I decided to go on the stadium tour.
Since I started working in the construction industry, I’ve been able to explain my anal obsession with sports grounds away as professional interest. The truth is I’ve always loved the majesty of sports grounds. Perhaps if I weren’t an Atheist I would experience a similar feeling when I passed a particularly impressive church, but as I’m not, I don’t. Ironically, I feel there’s more spirituality around stadia than there are in places of worship these days, but that’s beside the point.
Anyway, on Thursday morning I caught the Caltrain back to San Francisco, and made the short walk to AT&T Park to enquire about tour tickets; I didn’t have to. Tickets were in plenty supply on the door, so I paid my $10 and joined the throng.
Another digression. Baseball, if you’re used to the peccadilloes of British football, can appear a very odd beast at first. Your best option is to just assume that a U.S. baseball team would do the exact opposite of your football team in any given situation. The ground they play at is no difference.
In the early part of the 20th century, baseball continued to grow organically, with clubs experiencing little or no manipulation from governing bodies or local authorities. The biggest teams at this time were based in New York; the Giants and the Dodgers locked in mortal combat to win the National League Pennant, and the Yankees, with the formidable Babe Ruth in their batting line-up, were winning the American league more often than not.
The three teams played at three of baseball’s most notable venues. The Giants and the Yankees shared the former’s Polo Grounds until the Yankees were evicted, to move into their own soon-to-be-famous ground, Yankee Stadium; the house that Babe built.
However, as America progressed through the Second World War and the Cold War and seemed to get more obsessed with numbers, baseball became more of an industry than a sport, with teams leaving the cities of their birth and criss-crossing the continent in search of a bigger audience and bigger financial returns. The Giants and the Dodgers abandoned New York for San Francisco and Los Angeles respectively, transferring their rivalry to the West Coast. New teams were created to order, the Mets filling the gap in the Big Apple, for instance. Team owners fell into negotiations with big cities, scratching their backs as long as the favour was returned. The city would provide the stadium, and the team would fill it, and put the city on the map. Well, not literally of course. It’s more of a metaphor.
However, the city’s politicians couldn’t pander to baseball, gridiron, hockey and baseball without spending a fortune in stadium construction, and so the multi-use stadium was born. Candlestick Park in San Francisco is a good example. Built for use by both the Giants and the 49ers football team in a wild and windy part of San Francisco bay, the stadium housed two birds in one nest. But, I hear you say, don’t the two sports play on wildly differently shaped fields? Yes, indeed they do. That’s why Candlestick is such a bloody odd shape. These stadia, although vast, were always caught between two stools, and eventually the teams, fans and cities got fed up with their accommodation. Thus, in the latter part of the 90s, sports teams across America vacated their crumbling, 40-50 year old concrete shed-boat-sheds for shiny, brand-new custom built arenas (though each normally has a retro flavour, incorporating several carefully chosen ‘random’ elements). Most of these new grounds were still paid for by the taxpayers, with one or two notable exceptions. AT&T Park being one of them.
By the mid 80s (actually, almost as soon as they’d moved in) the Giants had become fed up with Candlestick Park and the bone chilling winds that would whip off the bay and through the stadium. They had entered into negotiations with the City regarding funding for a new park when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake directed public money towards rebuilding the city’s infrastructure and away from the fripperies such as baseball grounds. And so the Giants had to do it themselves. I’m not quite up with the intricacies of how they paid for it, but selling the stadium naming rights to SBC helped. They found a plot of land, suitable for transport links, and built their stadium. It opened in 2000, and was one of a new generation of baseball parks which incorporated retro and idiosyncratic quirks into their designs. Symmetrical grounds were frowned upon, and silly gimmicks were the order of the day. AT&T Park features a San Francisco cable car which trundles along a track some 20 feet above right field whenever the Giants score a home run. On occasion, if hit hard enough, a ball can end up in the bay itself, the stadium is that close to the water.
The tour itself took less time than it took me to type that preceding, rather long-winded scene setting. It’s a nice enough ground, though like the Emirates stadium last year, the concessions to cash are plain to see. It probably lacks a little bit of the character of Arsenal’s ground, and the finish isn’t quite as nice, but it’s still an impressive enough stadium. Where it streaks ahead is what you can look at if the game’s boring…
Leaving the ground, I started out for my second target of the day; the Golden Gate bridge. Unfortunately, it lay some 12 miles away North-West, which meant negotiating public transport. I was slightly dreading this, having seen the film Speed, and several other films where innocent pedestrians are horribly killed and raped and then killed again whilst travelling by bus. I’d also heard Americans moan about how awful their public transport was, compared to the British.
I guess if you were to compare the public transport in Anchorage with that in London, then, yeah, Britain might come out on top. But Glasgow certainly doesn’t anything remotely in the same league as the San Francisco Muni system. At the Caltrain station I bought an $11 day pass, which granted me access to the bus network. And the muni trams. And the trams. And the cable cars. And the…let’s just say it didn’t take that long for me to get from Market Street tourist information to the Bridge itself. Because there’s a bus stop right there, just for sad tourists like me.
Americans go on about smog and highway mpg and Al Gore, but I wasn’t aware of a huge amount of air pollution anywhere in California. Maybe it’s because I live in Renfrewshire. Anyway, walking along the pathway towards the southern end of the bridge, I got to see it in all its glory. And let me tell me, it doesn’t skimp on the glory. It’s an absolutely amazing looking thing, tall and proud and shining at the heart of the Golden gate for which it’s named. I’ve seen it on TV and film. I’ve seen Herbie drive up the suspension cables (actually more impossible that it would appear as they’re not wide enough to accommodate a VW Beetle), and I’d finally seen it with mine own two eyes. There was only one thing left to do; cross it.
Some two hours later, I made it back to the southern end of the bridge. I hadn’t quite allowed for how long the bridge is and how long it would take to cross, and I certainly hadn’t allowed for there being no buses back from the opposite side. The crossing itself was enjoyable, if only notable for the impressionistic thoughts I was having…ooh, aah…then an absolutely adorable girl passed on her bike, said thank you to me for moving out of her way, and I was incapable of thinking for the next 30 minutes.
On the far side I had wanted to climb the large hill over to the west of the roadway, but my feet and back were aching by now, and I wouldn’t have been able to make it. This was slightly annoying, as this was the vantage point from where the picture of my aunt and cousin was taken in the early 80s, another reason why I wanted to visit the city. Still, I started on the long walk back to the bus stop.
If you study your Muni Map for long enough, you can work out how to get from anywhere to anywhere if your brain is able to withstand the barrage of stimuli emanating from the graphics. I was able to navigate my way from the Golden Gate to Lombard Street fairly successfully.
I say fairly, because I thought the bus was stopping at the top of Lombard Street, while in reality it stopped halfway down. On any normal street this wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but Lombard Street isn’t quite your normal street. Normal streets aren’t steeper than the South face of K2. It’s always looked steep on TV, and the world famous crooked section was so constructed to try and ameliorate the street’s 27 degree incline. And trust me, it’s steep. Ridiculously so in fact. I slogged to the crest of the hill, and turned to look at the vista from the top. It was quite beautiful. There aren’t many places in the U.S. I’d like to live, but Lombard Street is one of them.
I was getting really quite tired at this point, but thankfully Muni came to my aid once more through the, again world famous, cable cars. One route runs from the top of Lombard Street back to Market Street, the main shopping boulevard (as far as I could tell), which was part one of my three legged trip back to the station. The tram ride was quite something. I’ll happily admit to ticking all the tourist boxes, and standing on the running board of a tram, clinging onto a pole with one hand while I took photographs with the other, was quite the thrill. A short walk along Market Street and a tram from Montgomery Street took me back to the station and an hour’s unwinding on the train.
The weekend I spent in San Jose, mostly lounging about the house playing Xbox again. I want to reiterate how enjoyable this was for someone that isn’t a big gamer, and it’s left me seriously considering buying both an Xbox and a HD TV myself. Apart from looking for a camera lens, I didn’t get out to explore my surroundings much, and while you might ask why I wasn’t, I would remind you that I was in San Jose, which, with the best will in the world, isn’t exactly the most exciting place in the world.
Anyway, I was resting. You’re allowed to rest on holiday. And besides, I had my holiday-within-a-holiday coming up on Monday, and I suspected I’d need all the energy I could muster.
People often ask me if I’d got into photography because of my father, who was a pretty damn good press snapper before he retired, working for one of Scotland’s two broadsheet newspapers. Oddly enough, I got into photography despite him. He’s been taking pictures for a living as long as I can remember (in fact, at one point my sleeping arrangements consisted of a bed in his darkroom), but it wasn’t until I was 17 I began to take a real interest in what he did.
I’d just started college, studying English, Maths and Art, and I needed to find another course to complete my timetable. Luckily, the college I was at offered a ridiculous number of different courses, verging from conversational Spanish to Mediaeval reflexology. I had a brief look at the list of subjects on offer, and one caught my eye more than any other, and I thought it was time to take more of an interest in what my dad did.
To cut a long story short, a bureaucratic cock up meant I ended up studying for an A Level in photography rather than a simple Scotvec module. This path would eventually lead me to a degree in the subject and working for the local authority as well as a lasting interest in the work of Ansel Adams and the American National Park he so lovingly and beautifully painted with silver halides.
That was of course Yellowstone. No, I’m joking. Yes, really. It was of course Yosemite, famously home of Sam, the cartoon character, although I had always presumed the place was spelled Yo-Sammity. And while I discovered other photographers and other genres and styles, Adam’s fantastic depictions of the land on the other side of the planet stayed with me.
And then I met Ru, and some time after this discovered that her hometown of San Jose wasn’t a million miles away from Yosemite; 189 to be precise. And I then made a tacit promise to myself that I would have to spend some time there should I ever make it to Northern California.
And so, having paid for my return ticket, and with a little help from Ru and her friend Diorella, and on the advice of Jim from work, I booked a three day trip with a tour operator called Extranomical. They offered a number of different packages with varying standard of accommodation available, from a hostel based some 15 miles from the park, to the four-star lodge in the heart of the valley itself. One of the other options was to stay in a tent cabin in the Camp Curry part of the valley. The cabin was exactly as it sounds, a wooden floor and frame covered in canvas, essentially being a permanent tent. Wanting to stay in the park itself, and temporarily possessed with a sense of adventure, I decided I wanted to stay in one of these tents. That would make the trip complete.
However, 189 miles is still 189 miles, and so I found myself at San Jose Diridon station at 6am waiting for a train to San Francisco where I would meet the rest of the tour party. Running a little ahead of schedule I wandered out of the station straight into a small sexagenarian that somewhat resembled Hans Moleman from the Simpsons. “J.C.?” he asked, looking me up and down. “Well, Jay Mansfield,” I replied, working out quite quickly given the time in the morning that this was the tour rep. “Great, fantastic,” he burbled, checking my name off his list. “Right, you were our last pick up and you’re bang on time,” he continued, leading me to the minibus.
Indeed, the bus was already almost full, with just one spare seat remaining. Introducing me to my fellow passengers, a mixture of Americans, English and Australians, the guide, Frank, told them I was Scottish and my name was J.C.. ‘Eh?’ I thought, and after a moment’s consideration it occurred to me that I had done as the company had asked and filled my given my name as it appears on my credit card. Hence the initials. And as initials as forenames seem to be quite popular in the States, it might not have occurred to anyone that I didn’t go by them, and the longer it went on the more uncomfortable I felt correcting Frank. So, for the rest of the day I was J.C.
There’s not much to say for the bus trip over to Yosemite, save for how little time it seemed to take. After a brief exposition about San Francisco’s neighbouring and neglected city of Oakland, we sat in silence until we’d almost reached the national park itself, whereupon Frank hit us with a barrage of information about the history of Yosemite. One point that piqued my interest was something I think I’d heard mentioned several years ago and had managed to forget about. While I idolised Ansel Adams, it was in fact a fellow Scotsman, John Muir, that campaigned for the wider expanses of Yosemite to be founded as National Parks, rather than just the valley and Mariposa Sequoia groves previously designated for protection by Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Muir’s activism and passion for conservationism were one of the driving forces behind current understanding of the glacial forces which shaped the valley and how best to conserve the valley for the future without any damaging artificiality.
Threats to the greater Yosemite area were by no means empty. Indeed, plans were continually floated, if you’ll pardon the pun, to dam the nearby Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide drinking water for San Francisco, a scheme Muir was vehemently opposed to, and which he fought bitterly against, ultimately unsuccessfully. He would die a little over a year after Woodrow Wilson signed the bill that gave the dam the green light.
As I mentioned earlier, the handful of people I knew that had been to Yosemite recommended I go for at least three days, as anything less wouldn’t give me time to even scratch the surface. I began to see what they meant as we finally arrived on the Valley floor, stopping at the tourist honey pot of Inspiration Point. If you’re even vaguely aware of Yosemite, you might recognise it. It’s from an analogous spot Ansel Adams took his photograph Clearing Winter Storm, a print that recently sold at auction for…it seems I can’t find what it actually sold for, but I think the estimate was a quarter of a million dollars. I’m not convinced I’d pay that much myself, but it certainly is a damn good photograph.
From here we slowly made our way along to Yosemite Village, where two of the Australians and I bade farewell to the rest of our party, all on the one day package, but not before several of us had trekked a good distance up the Mist Trail to the point where it crosses the Merced river. This was our first glimpse of the valley from within, so to speak, and it really was a sight to behold. I’d often marvelled at Adam’s photographs without ever realising that the beauty was already there, and all he had to do was record it (though he did so wonderfully). It’s difficult to put into words quite how glorious Yosemite is when you’ve spent your entire life living in non-descript cities and towns, albeit urban areas with square miles of countryside a short walk away. I haven’t experienced all of Scotland yet by far, but I doubt there’s anything on a remotely similar scale to Yosemite.
Having spent a short time at the bridge over the Merced River taking photographs and taking in the scenery, we hiked back down the hill to the van whereupon Frank would drop us off at our accommodation. It was here that the Australian girls (whose names, unsurprisingly, I can’t remember) and I went our separate ways, their cabin being on the other side of the camp from mine. And they did seem rather keen to be rid of me anyway. While they were planning to go for a further hike later on that evening, I retreated to my tent and read a book while I waited for the restaurant to open. It was at this juncture I found I was sharing my area of the camp with a gang of ubiquitous, gangling American high school students, who are almost as noisy and garish as they’re often portrayed in the media. They would conspire to get every in the valley over the next few days, bumbling and squealing and generally getting in my way.
So I more or less wrote the first evening off. Although I only had the three days, this I was comfortable with because my body clock was still adjusting to the time difference and the bus trip/altitude change had taken a bit out of me as well. So I went to sleep as best I could.
Which was easier said than done, because while sleeping in a canvas tent might have had a rustic allure to it, the lack of heating and insulation meant that I was in for a long, cold night. Even allowing that I was able to take spare blankets from the two unused beds in my tent, it was still bloody cold.
The next day I woke up early, though not too early, and caught the free bus to Yosemite Village, the focal point for tourists. The bus would prove to be a godsend during my stay, running in a figure-of-eight like loop along the valley floor at regular intervals. Befitting California’s current obsession with Carbon Neutrality, the bus was a hybrid vehicle. It doesn’t seem to get up to any great speed, so I imagine it runs mainly on electric power…but that’s a digression for another time.
Thus far, I had lugged my antique digital SLR camera halfway across the planet, then a further 192 miles and 4000 feet to Yosemite. And today was the day I was going to start photographing the Park, to try and use the two very good lenses I have to capture an image as those taken 70 years previously. And just to underline how fundamentally different Yosemite is, I didn’t have to wait long for a photo opportunity to present itself, in a way I can’t ever see happening in Britain. As I was walking along a path between the village and the Merced, a family of deer crossed lazily and insouciantly in front of me. The light was warm and gentle and demanded I take a photograph with my 80-200mm lens. Which I did. And, as I always do, I checked the LCD monitor to check my colour balance and exposure were correct. Which they weren’t. Far from it.. I checked all my settings, and shot again with similar results. So I changed the battery, and still nothing. And that’s when I admitted defeat, because two different memory cards and three batteries and I was still getting just mauve streaks on black. This is generally an indicator the battery isn’t providing enough power for the shutter to open and shut promptly.
And so I abandoned the idea of the Nikon, instead turning to my back up camera, the Canon PowerShot A460 that I had bought last year for my trip to London. Not only is it about a fifth of the size of the Nikon, it has a higher mega pixel rating and a far superior metering system. Only the fact it’s a compact with slightly limited functions lets it down when comparing it with the SLR. If I could get its lenses on the Canon…
The second day of the trip was unguided and I was free to explore the park by myself. Or, ‘piss off and amuse yourself, we’ll pick you up on Wednesday’. Having spend most the previous week walking, I had decided to hire a bike so different muscle groups and joints would end up aching by the end of the day, just for a nice change. It was here I got my first real taste of what I presumed to be homeland security. While I had been asked to provide photo ID to buy my Alcatraz tour ticket, this was fairly understandable with the island being a major tourist attraction, but I wasn’t quite sure why I needed to provide identification to rent a pushbike for a couple of hours. I mean, there’s not a lot of damage you could do with it, is there? I suppose I could pedal really fast into El Capitan, but I suspect I know which of us would come off worst there.
I cycled back to Camp Curry regardless, to dump the by now useless dead weight that was the Nikon, and then carried on Westwards towards Mirror Lake. There were any number of names that leapt out of me from a decade ago, when my fascination with Ansel Adams was at its peak. El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, Mirror Lake, the Merced…while there was absolutely no way for me to cover the full extent of the park (you’d need months if not years), I could at least check these iconic sights off my list.
Mirror Lake sits just at the base of Half Dome, and is another of the park’s features to be immortalised by Adams. Immortalised is perhaps the appropriate word, as Mirror Lake is disappearing due to sediment build up. Or it’s not. I must confess to being slightly confused about the state of the lake as one source suggested the sediment build up, due to humans no longer dredging it, while another seemed to intimate the lake was part of a larger, seasonal water system. Either way, it certainly seems to have shrunk since Ansel’s day.
From here I cycled back along the valley towards the Village, where I had hired the bike. My arse was already starting to ache (it had been nearly five years since I’d last ridden) and it had dawned on me that there was very little to see from and on the Valley floor; the best thing to do was to follow one of the many hiking routes available up into the hills and mountains, to get a different perspective, to see sights that very few people, relatively speaking, ever get to see. And so I took the bike back, had a large lunch/dinner (linner, surely?) and sought out the trail to Upper Yosemite Falls.
Unfortunately, and this is something I noticed throughout the U.S., in many different situations and locations, is that signage and information for non-locals can be a little vague and at times, out right contradictory. And so it proved with the trail to the upper Yosemite falls; I found a sign pointing in the direction of the trailhead, but after a couple of minutes’ walk, I began to question if I was actually on the right track at all. There were no other hikers, and while signage had understandably been kept to a minimum, there wasn’t even a well travelled path to speak of.
And so I turned back, and walked along the trail to Lower Yosemite Falls, which was a far busier proposition, thronged with tourists. One deigned to tell me to get closer to the waterfall to take my photograph of it, which had me muttering under my breath at him. After taking a few photographs of the lower section of the three part falls, I walked along another path, alone and morose.
The initial rush of being on another continent, another county, the land of dreams, both good and bad, had being wearing off slowly, and would continue to do so for the rest of the holiday. This was due to many things in part; while I wasn’t homesick, I wasn’t quite comfortable with the U.S., I had travelled several thousand miles and was still surrounded by abject buffoons at every turn, and I was lonely. I get lonely quite a lot, which may or may not be related to the fact I spend quite a lot of time on my own. And I’m not sure why that is. I think people have a mental image of me as a longer, happiest when brooding alone in some dark corner somewhere, and it’s simply not true. Admittedly, I don’t like crowds, which generally results in me avoiding places where crowds congregate, such as pubs, clubs, cities, countries and the like.
Ultimately, it’s a catch-22 situation. I’m lonely because I don’t meet people because I don’t like crowds. So, unless I join some kind of small, esoteric, French philosophy club, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to find suitably cosy groups of people to socialise with.
Or, the people could be right, and I am a socially inept misanthrope.
Just as the sun started to make its excuses, I decided that I was going to walk to El Capitan, towards the West of the Valley. This was my only markedly daft escapade of the entire trip, as by the time I’d made it to the bridge near the foot of the cliff face in question, it was getting dark rapidly, and I had two or three miles to cover. I have to confess to being mildly concerned about the presence of brown bears and other wild animals, but I suspected the traffic was frequent enough to dissuade any beast in possession of sharp teeth and claws from coming too close.
However, my little detour meant I didn’t get back to the camp until 9, well after the canteen had closed, so I went to bed hungry. I would just have to indulge myself with a buffet breakfast in the morning.
The second night in the tent was, if anything, colder than the first. I woke with an empty stomach and a frozen brain, my mobile phone alarm clock insistently nagging that I had planned to take some pictures of Half Dome and Mirror Lake at sunrise. I figured I could be down there and get back before the canteen stopped serving breakfast, and it was only a two mile or so walk. Unfortunately, and even though I had a compass (which came free with my hiking boots), I had catastrophically failed to find out exactly where in the valley the rising sun was visible from, as it sure as hell wasn’t from Mirror Lake. Still, I ended up with a couple of interesting snaps of the frozen of the surface, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. No, you’re right, it was…
I was to meet up with the two Australian girls and a new busload of tourists at half past twelve, so I leisurely made my way over to the rendezvous point at the lodge. The itinerary had intimated we would stop at the Mariposa Sequoia grove if the weather was good, so we eagerly awaited news from the tour guide (not Frank this time). It wasn’t what we wanted to hear; the road to the grove was still shut, as it is throughout winter, so we wouldn’t be able to get to the trees in time. But something else was on the horizon…
The tour company offered trips of varying lengths, from one day (nowhere near long enough in my opinion) to five days I think. Each day they would pick up their passengers for the day, dropping off 2, 3, 4 and 5 day visitors and replacing them with tourists from previous trips. Which is a system that works well as long as you ensure you don’t try and bring back more people than you took.
Bloody box of donuts.
Spectacularly, the tour company managed to overbook the bus by not one but two seats. One of the Australian girls wasn’t on the manifest, and neither was the son of the couple from Jersey. So, after some telephone discussions with head office, I was offered another night in the park, free of charge. Why me? Well, apart from the fact I was one of the new people he had to fit on board, I’d given the impression that I was the most malleable, both in terms of other engagements and personality. I found out there wasn’t a seat on the bus for me because I let everyone else go on board before to me to find a seat they were happy with, simply because it was quicker than everyone arguing and bickering about things. Often, when placed in a similar situation, I will sacrifice myself to a certain extent in order to engage the rectal transmissions of other people. I was happy to have the last pick of seats, as I was to stay behind for another night, simply because it made life easier for everyone. Including me. It’s not selfless, it’s just sensible.
Anyway, I was cute for a change, and managed to get upgraded to a heated tent cabin for my extra night. I felt I had to have some kind of warmth after the chill of the previous night. The tour operator agreed to my request, and after thinking I’d seen the back of the bloody high school kids, I was back in the camp.
Having checked back in, I took the opportunity to visit El Capitan properly. There was a shuttle bus which ferried passengers from the Lodge to the nearby picnic site every half hour, and I rode that, as the only passenger, out to the wall of granite. As I walked along the trail next to the Merced, I was again amazed at how serene it all was. I was raised in a house next to a fairly busy main road, and even 18 years after I moved away from it, I still have trouble getting to sleep without the white noise thrum of sporadic night-time traffic. I need a certain amount of city noise in my life, and there was none of it in Yosemite. Not that that’s a bad thing though…
I sat for a while in a meadow, lit sumptuously by the setting son, and stared up at the 3,000 feet of granite above me, and I think I felt good for a short while. Good’s good enough for me. And then the bus came and took me home to my lovely warm cabin. Well, I say warm…if you put a heater in a 10 foot square tent with no insulation, you quickly find that you’d be better off with the top notch sleeping bag that’s currently in your own house several thousand miles away. And I had another early morning rise ahead of me.
Speaking to the two Australian girls the day before, they had told me abut hiking to the top of Upper Yosemite falls, and how fantastic it was, both as an achievement and as a viewpoint of the valley. They told me it’d taken them five hours to get to the top and back down, and after checking with them on the location of the trailhead, I reckoned I could make it up and back down before I had to re-rendezvous with the bus.
Of course, as I can be stupidly obstinate, I decided I had to check out of the camp at 7:30am and hike up the trail while carrying my rucksack and bag and wearing my fleece and zip-up top thingy over my t-shirt because I didn’t want to piss about finding out if I could check my luggage anywhere. By the time I’d made it to the middle falls, around the half-point of the trail, I’d stripped down to my t-shirt and around half an hour after that I was having one of several episodes where I doubted my ability to go on any further. The trail by now had become as twisted as a St. Mirren supporter, slashing its way up the side of the falls in a series of tight cutbacks designed to try and downplay just how insane it was to try and attach a trail to the side of a fucking cliff. Several more times I nearly stopped and turned back, but I kept allowing myself another half hour of time, and regular rest breaks. And then rock and gravel segued into snow and trees and I had made it to the shoulder of the giant from hanging from its shirt sleeves.
I’d never previously been that high without being inside an aeroplane. The top of the falls, where Yosemite Creek crashes over the rock to the valley floor below, is some 6-7000 feet above sea level. I’m not going to tell you what the view was like, because I’m in danger of repeating myself, but it’s safe to say it was well worth the climb, even with my extra baggage. In fact, I still think it’s one of the most impressive physical feats I’ve ever accomplished. And I had to have a quick look at the falls themselves from above, despite my mild fear of heights. There’s a viewing platform, reached by a steep, crooked stone staircase where you can see the water disappear over the precipice, and it’s a sobering reminder of just how powerful Mother Nature is.
I should clarify that I’m not afraid of heights, it’s simply falling from them and reaching terminal velocity before the ground steps in that concerns me. I once read something about the actor Willem Dafoe’s fear of heights, that he doesn’t trust himself not to throw himself off the edge of bridges and the like. I’m not sure if that’s an evolutionary throwback, similar to the falling sensation we sometimes get when we’re drifting off to sleep, but I know exactly what he means.
But having reached the top without managing to throw myself over the edge, I now had to get back down, which I reasoned must be easier than the ascent had been. I’m sure it’s possible for me to have been more wrong, but surely not by much. If the walk hadn’t been a decline, I’m convinced I’d still be there. Or I might have jumped off after all. I hadn’t countered for quite how much the climb would take out of me and so by the time I reached the valley floor once more, my gait consisted of little more than shuffling one foot a few inches in front of the other.
I can’t see myself ever doing that particular height again, even if I do go back to Yosemite, so I’m glad I did it. Even if it seems like a bit of a dream now.
And I made it to the rendezvous in plenty of time, and this time there was a seat with my name on it. I wanted to sleep during the uneventful journey back to San Francisco, but I seem to no longer possess the ability to sleep outwith a bed any more, so instead I watched the scenery flick past the window, scenery I’d seen on the way up (apparently, he’d come a different route in the morning; I guess that’s the luck of the draw). Seeing the sunset behind San Francisco from the Bay Bridge was quite spectacular however.
I was despatched at the Caltrain station, just in time to catch the ‘Baby Bullet’ back to San Jose. The baby bullet is simply a normal train that doesn’t quite make as many stops as the normal train, and so covers the 60 miles twenty minutes quicker. While accepting the tour company’s offer of staying another night in Yosemite, I’d forgotten that Ru’s parents were holding a Mehndi night for her, something akin to a Hen night, though most of the wedding guests of both genders had been invited. I had wanted to go to it myself, and had actually planned the Yosemite trip round it, so I was a little peeved when I remembered I’d forgotten about it. Still, this just gave Ru added opportunity to assure me I didn’t have to attend, but that wasn’t really the issue. I had wanted to, and I thought it was a bit rude to say that I would and then not.
When the train rolled into San Jose, Ru and Matt were still at the Mehndi night. But I wasn’t staying with them this night; Matt’s brother and girlfriend had arrived from England, and so one of their friends, and Matt’s groomsman, Ankur, had kindly offered to put me up for the remainder of my stay in California.
The wedding was now just over 36 hours away.
But first I had another day to kill in San Jose. I should probably have gone somewhere else, done something more interesting, but I didn’t have the energy or inclination to catch the train to San Francisco again and I wasn’t sure what else I could do. I know I’m making San Jose sound like it has fewer attractions than a public library in the West Midlands, but…well, it does. Apart from its NHL franchise and its world famous software manufacturer and a British pub, there’s fuck all to look at or do in downtown San Jose. And I didn’t have a car, which just exacerbated things for all of us. It did pass my mind to look at hiring a car for at least one day, and perhaps I should have. But again I’ll pin the blame squarely on my loneliness, which always seems to strong-arm me into not doing things I want to do.
Ankur was working on the Friday, so after picking up our tuxedos from the hire shop, he dropped me off downtown. There was a science & technology museum I had decided was worth checking out (and Ru told me it had an IMAX cinema), so I bought my ticket and went in. And wouldn’t you know, it was full of fucking elementary school kids (that’s just colouring; they weren’t actually copulating). It was also not that good; perhaps if I was 8-14 I would have enjoyed it more, but I just didn’t think it was that extensive or interesting a collection. And I didn’t even get to see the IMAX film because the showing was at 1pm and I was buggered if I was going to spend three hours hanging around waiting for it.
Since my interest in baseball had germinated, I had toyed with the notion of buying a San Francisco Giants jersey, for reasons I can’t adequately explain. One of the facets of my dilettantism has been an interest in sportswear design, and the Giants (and baseball shirts in general) appealed to me. I liked the colours I guess, and I had decided that if I, or anyone I knew, went to the states, I would ask them to bring me one back. However, I’d looked at a few shirts and a few prices in a few shops, including the Giants official ‘dug out’ shop at the park, and I’d come to the conclusion that unless one paid $180, you’d end up with a nasty piece of polyester tat. And I only wear polyester when I’m playing football, so…
I bought a San Jose Earthquakes shirt instead, from the Westfield Shopping town Valley. I’d already been to that particular mall the previous Saturday, to buy a power adaptor, and I’d toyed with the idea of buying an Earthquakes shirt then, as a souvenir, and the idea had grown while I was in Yosemite. Ultimately, I didn’t really want to spend £90 on a baseball jersey that I wouldn’t wear very often when I could get a shirt for around a third of the price that I would wear on a regular basis when playing football.
Ru and Matt seem quite fond of the Earthquakes as well, so it made it all the more sensible for me to adopt them as my American soccer team. I’d never really picked one before, tending generally to follow whoever Mo Johnston or Richard Gough were playing for, but there was added impetus to become a fan of San Jose’s team; they had once been called the Clash, which is pretty much the coolest name a football side could go by.
Using my day ticket, which allowed me access to the tram and bus, I made my way back to San Jose and Ru and Matt’s apartment, where a further two wedding guests had arrived. Richard was to be another of Matt’s groomsmen, and had just flown in that morning from Japan with his girlfriend. After another brief conversation with Ru’s father, I found myself itinerant once more, and upon Matt’s advice, went to the cinema to kill a few hours before I could rendezvous with Ankur at 9pm.
Matt had recommended The Bank Job, a fictional construct set upon real foundations; in the early 1970s, a number of safety deposit boxes at a London bank were raided one night by a gang that had tunnelled into the vault. Apparently a good deal of the boxes contained material of a sensitive nature, and so the owners were reluctant to declare the existence of said items by admitting they’d been stolen. And as the story goes, the robbers were never caught.
It wasn’t a bad film actually. Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows were the two leads, and I guess they’re both actors that divide opinion. I quite enjoyed the storyline, daft as it might have been, and the subtle use of CGI to date the scene appropriately was well done. Several random things jumped out at me however, like the ridiculous number of times characters said “keep the change,” which I’m sure wasn’t a common phrase among working class Londoners in 1971, but that’s a small qualm.
Two hours suitably annihilated, I was picked up outside the cinema by Ankur and ferried back to Campbell.
The day of the wedding (“It made every Indian critic’s top 500 list…”)
As the ceremony didn’t start until 3, Ankur and I were able to spend a leisurely morning making sure we were properly prepared; i.e., buying cards and the like. The day before I had booked a room at the four star hotel the wedding and reception were being held at, so Ankur could leave me to my own devices while he went about his duties.
I’d never stayed in a hotel quite so lavish before. I’m used to Spartan, basically equipped rooms whenever I have cause to stay in a hotel and not a hostel or someone’s floor, so this was a bit of a step up for me. My yardstick for a well built car is thus; the deeper and richer the noise it makes when you shut one of its doors, the better built it is. A similar philosophy applies with buildings in general. If the walls are tissue thin and the floor creaks when you walk on it, then it’ll feel cheap and nasty. If however, the door swings shut with a satisfying click and your footprints are mollified by the pile of the carpet, then it’ll feel rich and satisfying. I spend most of Saturday morning and afternoon lazing on the double bed watching films on the massive Sony TV. I could get used to that you know…I even managed to fit in a visit to the gas station across the road to stock up on a few supplies, should my fussiness get the better of the menu at the reception.
I should point out at this juncture that I’d only ever attended one wedding before in my life. Well, if you’re not from one of those cultures that consider the moment of life to start from conception, because then I would have attended my parents’ splicing. The only previous ceremony I can consciously recall was my second cousin’s; she was married in a Christian hall (which was located on the ground floor of an office building in Aberdeen city centre), and I’ll always remember it for it being the last time my gran left either Renfrewshire or Glasgow, though it was still a good ten years before her death. She wasn’t much for travelling, and only left Scotland once in her life.
So with my limited marriage experience, I couldn’t begin to conceive what Ru and Matt’s Hindu ceremony was going to be like. That said, I was rather more concerned by the weather forecast, which had predicted temperatures of 80+ degrees for the period the wedding would be taking place, outside. I wasn’t entirely keen on the thought of sitting for an hour in that kind of heat wearing a tuxedo.
The guests started to congregate in the hotel foyer at 2pm, and there were a couple of familiar faces, namely Andy. Andy, somewhat preposterously, is from Newtongrange, a village but sixty miles away from me in Scotland. I’d met him once before, in Birmingham some three years previously when Ru was living with Matt in Wolverhampton, so it tickled my sense of irony that two Scotsman only seemed to run into each other hundreds or thousands of miles from home.
While milling about the foyer amidst the wedding party and photographers/videographers and trying not to look too much like a spare wheel, Matt asked me if I wanted to be part of his Barat Nikasi. This is when the groom makes his elaborate entrance, flanked by his family and friends, and riding a white horse or an elephant. Needless to say we didn’t have a horse or an elephant (certainly not the latter in a blue state), and so the groom’s party simply danced from the front of the hotel to the rear, lead by a pair of traditional percussionists.
There’s certainly a heightened sense of drama in Hindu weddings, compared to their Western counterparts. For example, after the groom’s party have danced in a circle outside where the wedding is being held, the groom then has to barter entrance with the bride’s sister before he’s allowed into the venue itself. It’s all very complex and exceptionally arch, but it’s also far less rigid and much more joyful than Christian weddings, from what I’ve seen of them.
I won’t go into the ceremony, mainly because much of it went clean over my head. I also found it hard to see exactly what was happening due to the seat I’d been directed to. Andy and his girlfriend were sitting next to me, and even as the sun crept round the hotel and focussed itself on us, we remained in our seats, slowly getting hotter and hotter (have I mentioned Andy was wearing Highland dress?) We were the only people in our section not to move to a shaded section of seating during the ceremony, for what I suspect were good solid Scottish Presbyterian reasons; it would be rude to change seat during the wedding. You’ve got to laugh…
At the end of the ceremony, the bridesmaids were given rice to disseminate to the guests, who were then invited to come forward and throw their handful over the couple, blessing the union. I liked this part; it made me feel as if the guests were part of the ceremony rather than just observers, waiting outside to get the stars’ attention after the performance. It overall, despite its elaborate nature, felt homespun to me
The reception was being held inside the hotel, after a break for photographs and to allow the wedding party to change from Indian to western garb, mirroring the change in theme itself. Aside from some Indian dancing, the reception was much closer to those I’ve attended in the past (I’ve been to three times as many receptions as I have weddings…cheers for not inviting me to your ceremonies cousin and Dad), with much more of a Western feel to it than the Hindu aspects of the ceremony.
The speeches (father, best man, groom, brother [actually Ru’s cousin] of the bridge and maid of honour) were funny and touching, and quite emotionally charged. Ru’s cousins did some contemporary Indian dance, the cake was cut and then we watched two short films. One featured messages from Matt’s friends and family who were unable to make the wedding, and featured some footage of the dirty old town that is Wolverhampton. Honestly, I nearly welled up. The second video was a fantastically executed pastiche of the Office, starring Ru’s sister, cousins and Ankur. They’d worked out a storyline about the Shah Corporation being merged with the British Willis company, and notably, it made me laugh far more than the Office ever did. The British version anyway; apparently the American version is quite good.
We then had our meal, a buffet including a number of various elements, most of which have escaped my recall at this juncture. I think the main dish was beef. Maybe chicken. I had imbibed one or two lagers at this point, and I was bound to imbibe one or two more, engaging myself in social drinking despite me telling myself to try and avoid it. Perhaps it was this which made the hours rush past like a Scotsman on the way to a free bar. Incidentally, there had been one earlier on, for an hour, and any time Andy or I went for a drink, we left a tip, possibly feeling duty bound to try and ameliorate the old stereotype of Scots being mean.
And so midnight arrived and found Matt, his father, his brother, Ru’s friend Pete and the DJ, Bitsy, and me sitting at a table just outside the reception smoking some large cigars Matt had acquired from somewhere and talking about the differences between Britain and America. Matt, Pete and Bitsy are all Brits who’ve moved to America, so their opinion on the States was slightly more positive than mine, but it was still enjoyable to spend time talking pseudo-intellectual bullshit with people of my own age, something I’d majored in at university and have missed desperately since I left.
The reception was beginning to wind down at this point, and after my companions went back indoors, I made my excuses and retired to my room. I was feeling slightly queasy, and I’m not sure what to pin it on, as there were no shortage of substances I’d consumed that could have made me ill. Nothing illegal mind, just ill advised (ignoring, yet again, the adage not to mix grape and grain, I’d mixed grape, grain, tuber and nicotine with a three course meal).
I suspect it was the cigar though. It was rather a large one and I did smoke a good three quarters of it, which isn’t too clever for someone that doesn’t smoke normally. If I’m a social drinker, I can occasionally be a social smoker as well, although I tend to limit myself to cigars. And there’s a deeper reason for that. My grandfather smoked 2-3 Hamlet cigars every day of his life, or at least as long as I knew him. The richer and slightly less acrid than cigarette smoke permeated his house and his clothes, and it became an entrenched element in my sense memory. Cigar smoke became so synonymous with my grandfather that my sister once declared that a nearby gentleman ‘smelled of Grampa’, because he happened to be smoking a cigar at the time. And so, once in a while, I’ll smoke a cigar and take in the smell, and close my eyes and see if I can find myself sitting at the table next to the living room window in my grandparent’s house reading the Herald while the sun tumbles in. Occasionally I can, but it’s no real substitute for the real thing.
Sunday morning came then a little quicker than I would’ve liked it to. A post marriage breakfast had been arranged with all the guests staying in the vicinity of the hotel invited. At least, that was the plan. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but we ended up going to some nearby fast food restaurant, the type located in a morass of car parks that the Americans seem so keen of. This one offered however not fat, grease and lard, but pasta and various other more healthy options. Most of the inner core of the wedding party ended up here, where we stayed for the next few hours.
And as the group all drifted away to their various different engagements, Ru and her sister gave me a lift back to San Jose. As Ankur had gone to the beach for the day with his girlfriend, I was then faced with entertaining myself in the world’s dullest city. And so I charged myself with finding somewhere in the vicinity I could access the internet to check my email. Thinking my best bet was the airport, I took the tram and bus to San Jose international, a few miles from downtown.
All I succeeded in doing was killing time. San Jose International airport would appear to be on the same level as Prestwick airport as far as facilities go. I may have once more been confused by the vague signage, but there didn’t appear to be any shops or amenities ground side at all. So I got back on the bus.
When I had been at the cinema on the Friday night, I’d noticed that Persepolis was playing. I hadn’t been aware of the comic book/graphic novel (delete as per how pretentious you are) until someone on FD had mentioned the film’s release a few months previously. And so, still not entirely sure what the book or film were about, I bought a ticket, just to kill another couple of hours.
My user name on a few different things is left_midfielder, or a variant thereof, for good reason. I’ve always been left leaning, though I would qualify that by saying I’ve always been slightly detached from politics and moderate in outlook, thus a left midfielder rather than a left winger.
Similarly, part of me longs to be a Guardianista, wants to be carbon neutral, wants to be more familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda, wants to eat better food and work out more and be more in touch with worldwide public affairs and so on and so forth. Apart from being intellectually and physically lazy, the main reason I couldn’t be a Guardianista is that I bloody hate that paper. Seriously. Although it’s Britain’s only main left leaning paper and in theory I should read it, in practice, I find the writing insufferably smug and conceited and I’m not actually sure I can trust what they’re telling me, given how many factual errors and daft inferences I find on a regular basis in the online sports section.
However, once in while I’ll watch a film like Persepolis, and it’ll make me feel less worried about not having a green roof or a copy of Three Sisters on my bedside table. And indeed, I did enjoy the film and I like to think I’ve learned a little I didn’t know before, but again I’m worried about enjoying it in a patronising way that Westerners think about people in the Middle East. And that’s classic Guardianista thinking…
The film finished around 6pm, and I then discovered I had a small problem. My phone had run out of credit. Upon Ru’s advice, I’d bought a cheap pay as you go mobile, to better enable me to keep in touch with everyone. When registering the SIM card (which was a ballache in itself, but that’s another story), I was faced with two tariffs. I chose the wrong one, which would take a dollar off my credit each day I used the phone, but calls to other AT&T users would be free after that. The phone came with $10 credit on it, but it now had been exhausted, and unlike any previous pay as you go phone I’ve had, I couldn’t even receive incoming calls.
This was a problem; I couldn’t get in touch with Ankur to find out what the arrangements for the evening were, and I couldn’t find a single convenience store downtown that might sell credit. I tried to top up by phone, but was came undone when they asked me what zip code I had registered the SIM card to. I had given them Ru and Matt’s zip code, but I couldn’t remember for the life of me what it was.
So, I decided to head for the only convenience store I knew for certain existed; it was part of Ru and Matt’s apartment complex, though the Box of Donuts effect came into play when the assistant told me that they didn’t sell AT&T cards. I tried to get call Ru from a payphone in the nearby filling station, but it ate my only quarter. I eve tried standing outside the apartment and trying to catch Bijal’s attention to no avail. So I repaired to the nearby Italian restaurant for something to eat, and around an hour later I loitered outside the apartment again, reasoning that someone was bound to find me eventually. And Ru did, shouting on me from the French doors.
My mild concern over, I was able to contact Ankur and check my email. And after a brief period of confusion over whether I’d be able to stay at Ru and Matt’s that night (which would have made next morning slightly easier), Ru and Bijal gave me a lift to Ankur’s once more, detouring to Safeway (yes, Safeway!), where I was able to finally buy a top up card. We said goodbye then, and I didn’t dwell on the fact that I don’t know when I’ll see either her or Matt again in person, but c’est la vie and all that. It’s just typical for me to have close friends that live so far away.
Space Ghost Coast to Coast
Thanks to some tenacious investigative work by Ankur on the Sunday night, I knew that I could check my bags in at the airport up to 24 hours before my flight, which would make life a little easier for me. As it was Monday, everyone was going back to work, and I’d decided that if I could find somewhere to store my bags, I’d just go and spend the day in San Francisco, even if my flight wasn’t until 9pm.
So Ankur dropped me off at the Campbell Light rail station, which was only a few stops from the Diridon station; from here I just had to board a San Francisco bound train and change to the BART at the airport station. American public transport once again showing it’s far more efficient and reliable than its British counterpart.
While the BART ferries passengers from the railway station to the airport, it also provides a direct link to Oakland, via San Francisco, and it was via this method I would choose to travel back to ‘the City’.
An aside; while I was filling in the various forms required by the airport to take my bags, the female clerk commented that I had nice handwriting. Which was a little odd. I do feel I have quite neat handwriting, but only when writing in cursive, and never in capitals as I was.
The journey to San Francisco via the Bart took place mostly underground, and it was only after we’d crossed the bay to Oakland did the train surface again. I changed tracks at the next station, and headed back to Market Street, as the Muni transit system allows you to stay on a train all day, as long as you pay the appropriate fare when you leave the system. E.G., I could have spent the entire day riding the train, but if I was to get off one stop away from the San Francisco Airport station, I would have only paid the minimum fare. At least that was the impression I got of how it worked.
Making my way to street level, I realised I didn’t have any real idea of what I wanted to do. While I’d done a fair bit of research on the city before I arrived, I honestly couldn’t think of many sights I wanted to see that I hadn’t already. Candlestick Park maybe, but I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to get to it. I did however want to visit the Cable Car barn and museum, the working engine house of San Francisco’s remaining cable car lines. I’d passed it in the cable car returning from Lombard Street the previous week, and as far as I remembered, it wasn’t too far.
For the majority of the walk to the barn, I was in Chinatown. Apparently there are two distinct faces to Chinatown, the one presented to tourists with the elaborate gateways and costumes and the like, and the every day one, where people just got on with their lives. After nearly two weeks of witnessing nothing but carefully managed tourist attractions, these glimpses of mundanity came as blessed relief.
The cable barn was soon found, and it was a little disappointing to be honest. Although it’s still a fully operational depot that keeps the three different cable car routes running each day, it’s slightly anti-climactic. Aside from the raw power you witness from the giant flywheels and a small museum dedicated to the history of the cable car in San Francisco, there wasn’t much to see. It’s just a canny machine, going about its business, although I singularly failed to grasp quite how the bloody thing works.
And after another brief walk down to the Ferry building, I had an aimless wander around the shops, particularly the Virgin megastore. I know, it’s faintly pathetic to travel 5000 miles and only go into a record shop that I could have visited in Glasgow any day of the week. Still, I managed to pick up a film I’ve longed to see for 24 years, since I fell in love with the soundtrack, Give My Regards To Broad Street by Paul McCartney, and two CDs I’ve rarely seen in the U.K., The Verve E.P. and The Moon And Antarctica by Modest Mouse. All came to £15. Anyway, I’m not a clothes horse, and apart from my intended purchase of an external hard drive, there weren’t any electrical goods that particularly interested me.
And I had a bit of a crazy notion…
Eventually, I made my way back to the airport some four or five hours ahead of my flight, with my tail between my legs. I felt slightly guilty for wasting so much of my last day, but my legs and my soul were aching. I seem to be drawn to transit hubs when I’m at a loose end; I think it’s because generally you can be guaranteed a selection of food emporia, book shops, and places to rest your bones, and you can guarantee that at least one point during the day I’ll be desperate for one of the above services, if not all three.
And so I decided to return to the airport, collect my bags, check in, and then sit in the departure lounge with a good book. And this is more or less what I did, bar the slight digression when the FTA decided that the pair of battery chargers looked a bit too suspicious for comfort, and pulled me to one side. I bought a shiny new book, entitled The Echoing Green, a book about the shot heard round the world, written by Joshua Prager. I couldn’t resist buying it. I have a desperate hard on for brand new literature at the best of times, but this was a particularly nicely put together paperback, and besides, it was about baseball, and here I was in America…
So I managed to make a fair dent in the book before it was time to board my American Airlines flight to JFK. The previous Thursday I’d been concerned I might not be able to fly at all given that the airline in question had been forced by the government to ground half their aircraft, but it would appear that the Boeing I was travelling on was not one of said aircraft.
However, it was still a bit of a comedown after Virgin Atlantic. I think in terms of international airlines, AA is the equivalent of one of those cheap, flea-infested old Mercedes bangers that turn up in your town for a short period to try and put the shitters up the established bus company; the aircraft I was on was particularly down-at-heel and cramped, although my opinion was perhaps coloured by not getting a window seat. You’ll remember how I feel about window seats. On this flight I happened to be sitting next to an Asian lady who spent the whole fifteen minutes before take-off trying to engineer a seat transfer between her husband and me; he was halfway down the cabin on the right, and she was at the very back, on the left, with me. Ultimately it would transpire that her husband wasn’t entirely enamoured about being anywhere near her, and so she kept her window seat.
Without the comfort blanket of being able to see just how far I’d plummet to my death, I had to resort to reading and trying fruitlessly to get to sleep, which isn’t easy when the space you have to unfold yourself into is around 5% too small for your mass. I went through a horrible five hours of semi-consciousness, mild pain and boredom before the captain instructed the cabin crew to take their seats for landing and illuminated the seat belt sign. Visible through the cabin windows to our left, was what I think was the Eastern part of the city of New York; it was hard to make any kind of accurate judgement though. But it didn’t really matter, because ten or fifteen minutes later, I was in New York.
I hadn’t really planned my journey into Manhattan itself; it was enough to know that there was an air-rail link to a nearby Subway station that would take me all the way to Times Square, one of New York’s busiest interchanges. People talk about the difference in attitude and climate between the West and East coasts, about how New York is possibly more European in feel than Los Angeles or San Francisco, but the only thing that struck my mind as I stared out the window of the train as it rattled along high above the Van Wyck Expressway was how few swimming pools there were compared to California. Which is to be expected, I suppose, with New York’s more intemperate climate. As the very East coast surrounding buildings and structures flicked by the train, I got the impression I was in a jump cut title sequence, thus immediately making me feel as if I was in the state of mind I should be in regarding the state I was in. Ok, New Jersey and New York are neighbouring States, but you get the idea.
I was a little nervous about getting on the Subway, especially with my luggage, because let’s face it, we’ve all heard The Stories and seen The Films. I’m thinking right now particularly of Ghost, which is a little odd, but there you go. Those people who know me know that I tend to fret and worry about things that are absolutely out of my control, but I’ve been like this my entire life and I don’t see myself changing now. I had exactly the same thoughts about the London underground last year, and while by the end of my five days there I was riding like a local, but this just added to my irrational fear that the longer I go without something going wrong, the more chance there is of it actually going wrong.
Still, I got to Central Park West and 96th street without too much trouble. Well, no trouble if I’m not being a scare monger. From here it was but a four block walk to the hostel, which I had found on Expedia a couple of months earlier, and which would prove to be an absolute bargain in terms of a single room in New York…
On this four block walk (about 2 miles), carrying a rucksack and trailing a trolley case behind me, I was stopped by a passing gentleman and asked if I knew where the nearest synagogue was. Now, I like (eventually, when I’ve got over my neuroses) blending into local life as much as the next man, but I thought this was a bit ridiculous; I hadn’t even reached my accommodation and I still had all my bloody luggage on me…
Anyway, my room was a small, miniscule, but clean one, in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which I’m reliably informed, is a very good neighbourhood. I might have thrown myself into New York straight away, but I was a bit tired, so I decided to invest in some sleep first of all…
Several hours later, I did venture out in the midday sun, and took a stroll down Broadway, that iconic thoroughfare. New York has been such a massive presence in my appreciation of culture that it proved to be hard going anywhere without seeing something that reminded me, implicitly and explicitly of so many other experiences and memories throughout my life. Broadway for instance, reminds me mostly of the song ‘New York, New York’, one of my grandfather’s favourite compositions, of his yellowed, curling copy of the sheet music, of so many Robert DeNiro films, namely New York, New York, but also Once Upon A Time In America. Magically, as I reached 54th Street, I was able to witness the Late Show with David Letterman crowd being warmed up on the sidewalk (an odd image, if you take the last sentence literally), by goons in bomber jackets emblazoned with the logos of both the Late Show and its production company, Worldwide Pants, all of which immediately took me back to the mid 90s when I used to watch both Letterman and Leno on Cable. This wouldn’t be the first or last time I felt ten years younger during this trip, but I’ll dwell on that later.
I walked as far south as 34th Street, before returning to the hostel. Ideally I would have liked to have stayed out a little longer, but I was still tired and immensely hungry and sadly enough…remember the baseball book I bought in the airport? Well, it was calling out to me, desperate to be read. I could write one evening off for reading, couldn’t I?
I think there are only three, maybe four countries in the world that cover more than two time zones. The States are one, and by travelling back East from California, I’d lost three hours. I’d been finding it easier to wake early in San Jose, as it was early afternoon for me, but in Manhattan, I was closer to my home time zone, and thus closer also to my slothfulness. I had wanted to walk up early on the Wednesday morning, but I only managed to drag myself out of bed at 10am. I showered in the shared bathroom (not as bad as it sounds, and I never had to wait long to use it), and walked the one block to the station at 96th and Broadway.
The public transport system in New York, like the ones in California, is excellent. If you can decipher the literature, that is. Apparently there is an unlimited travel card you can buy for the swipe turnstiles, but as I was groggy when I bought my ticket at the airport, I ended up with a simple top-up one.
However, as all fares (as far as I can tell), cost just $2, like the BART in San Francisco, you can ride as far and as long as you like, as long as you don’t leave the system. Thus, I was able to catch a train from 96th Street almost the entire length of the island, changing only once, to alight at…Wall Street.
I have no interest in international finance whatsoever, but I couldn’t pass through without stopping to have a look at what might be the single most famous street in the world. I don’t think there can be many people who haven’t heard of it, so I had wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And after having visited it, I’d still like to know what all the fuss was about…nomenclature and reputation aside, there’s not a great deal to see. There was some lovely light drifting down between the tall granite buildings on either side of the street, but that was about it. There were a fair number of police making themselves busy, but I wasn’t sure if that was to do with normal post 9/11 security measures, or was perhaps to do with the Pope’s visit.
Anyway, I moved on. After taking a look at the prohibitively long queue for the Liberty Island boat, I was free to make lunch arrangements with Maya. We’ve known each other for some three or four years through LJ, and have met once before, in Edinburgh. This time however, we were on Maya’s home patch (ignoring the fact I know next to nothing about the Auld Reekie), and I was glad to have a native helping me plan my itinerary and showing me things I might not see otherwise.
I was to meet Maya at 11th Street. The interesting thing about New York’s grid/numbered street system is that it’s not quite entirely as foolproof as people would like to make out. For instance, the Avenues (up and down streets) are named in the East and numbered in the West, but named avenues are scattered liberally among them, insuring that you’re never quite sure whether 4th will come after 3rd, or whether there might be some interloper in the meantime. The numbered streets are a little simpler to navigate, ascending incrementally the further north you travel, but the streets in the bottom two miles of the island are named instead of numbered. The upshot is, I thought I’d be able to casually stroll to 11th Street, and ended up having to get the subway again.
We ate lunch in a little, though exceptionally trendy, burger bar near Maya’s work; she had insisted I have one of their milkshakes. I’m admittedly a fussy eater, but I don’t need convincing to indulge in some flavoured lactose product. And it was damn good; it was so good in fact, I nearly ordered a second one straight away. There were more elaborate flavours (Toasted Marshmallow?), but I stuck with the more conservative option of strawberry, my favourite.
After lunch, Maya went back to work and I returned to Battery Park with the intention of finding out exactly how hard it would be to a) buy a ticket for the Liberty/Ellis Islands tour, and b) to actually get on the boat.
The answer to these questions would transpire to be a) not very, and b) not very. Thus, a little after three o’clock, I was on the ferry to Liberty Island with a couple of hundred other tourists. By now you’ll be as tired of reading it as I am of writing it, but blah-blah, cultural icon, visual vocabulary…you know what I’m getting at; I had to cross it off my list.
I was actually disappointed at how small it seemed in reality. From a small size in the distance, it never really got much bigger the closer the boat got to its pedestal. Perhaps I’m basing my estimation of its size from its appearance in Ghostbusters II, which possibly isn’t entirely sensible. Irritatingly, tours of the interior of the statue are only available to a limited number of visitors per day, and only if you book in advance. I wasn’t aware of this, nor was I aware that that last boat to Ellis Island departed Liberty Island at around half past three until I tried to catch it at 4:15pm.
It was a little disillusioned Jay who then caught the train back north at South Ferry station. Maya had offered to take me out for dinner to Monty’s, a diner on the Upper West side, but by the time I got back to the hostel I began to feel a little tired again, and retreated to bed with my trusty book.
By Thursday I was feeling a little more human, enough to ignore my aching back and leg joints, and hardy enough to try and visit some of the other sites I’d included on my (stupidly, mental only) checklist.
Central Park and the Guggenheim museum were included on said list, and so I caught a 1 train to Cathedral Parkway/110th Street, the station located exactly at the top of Central Park. Perhaps, however, as I’d misunderestimated (sic) just how big the bloody place is, as I’d overestimated the size of the Statue of Liberty. By the time I’d got about halfway down, my joints were aching again. I’d moved to the east side of the park, better to spot the famous white exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 building, the last completed of his illustrious career. And could I find it? It turns out my research had let me down once again; the Guggenheim is undergoing an exterior renovation at the moment, and layers of tarpaulin and scaffolding were obscuring its notable albedo from my line of sight. Slightly deflated by my awful timing, I had a look at going in to the still open museum, but the rather surly doorman put me off. He was giving the impression that he really didn’t want to entertain visitors, and in that situation, I’m more than happy to oblige. So, I walked on down 5th Avenue, past the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on towards the Apple Store at 58th Street. I normally don’t have much to do with Apple and their poncy advocates, but I quite liked the look of the Mac shop; based underground, it’s entered through a glass atrium that protrudes up through the wide sidewalk, but like the product itself, it might be more style than substance. A little. Ok, I’m biased.
The next landmark on my list was the Empire State Building. I wasn’t quite sure where it was, but then I could hardly miss it…since the destruction of the World Trade Centre, the Empire State building has regained its status as New York’s tallest building, but perhaps in circumstances it would rather have done without. I had expected more difficulty in acquiring a ticket for the ascent to the 86th, but that was the easy part; perhaps more clued up people are aware of the, yet again, airport style security, and the obvious difficulties in transferring large numbers of people nearly a thousand feet vertically in two separate journeys. It took nearly twenty minutes to reach the observation deck, and I’m swithering about whether it was worth it or not. Given my occasionally quite forceful attitude of wishing to regret things I’ve done rather than things I haven’t done, then it was something I’m glad I’ve tucked under my belt. Up there…I don’t know. After getting used to quite how high I was, and having looked at the sprawling mass of what I suspect was a good deal of the state below me, I found myself a little unimpressed. Certainly not as impressed as I should have been, but maybe I was spoiled by having experienced what the Upper Yosemite falls had to offer. And when you’re up there, you get a good look at how much nicer the Chrysler building is.
And now back to the crazy notion…
As my Nikon traced a slow, lazy arc through the air in Yosemite national park, thrown by me in a fit of frustration, I thought once more of my dad’s suggestion that we look at buying a new camera between us. He’d suggested the Nikon D300 as a good investment, and while I intended to buy a new lens while I was in the states, taking advantage of the favourable exchange rate, I now began to wonder if I should look at buying a camera; if the D300 was $1000, then it would be around half the price it would be in the U.K. Maya had recommended I visit B&H, a camera shop on 9th Avenue, a few hundred yards away from the Empire State Building itself. And, should I need any further impetus, I found my ticket for the observation deck came with a flyer for B&H, offering a free gift with every purchase of over $50. Well, I was planning on spending a good bit more than that anyway, so I headed West.
Maya had also told me that when she once asked a store employee what the store’s abbreviation stood for, she had been told ‘Beards & Hats’. The store was founded by a Hasidic Jew, and is staffed predominantly by Hasidic and Orthodox Jews. Thus, it was typical that I was served by a Chinese man that didn’t speak brilliant English, and the English he did have, he used to be ridiculously earnest. I started off by enquiring about lenses, particularly one with a focal range of between 20 and 80mm. “NIKON do not do 20mm! They do 18mm.” “Yes,” I countered. “20mm was just a guideline. 18mm would be fine.” “I do not know what you want. Fixed length or zoom?” “Well, zoom, between 18 and 80mm would be ideal.” “NIKON do not do 18 to 80mm zoom!” I gave up after this, and left without camera or lens.
As I was on 34th street, I decided next to visit Grand Central station, and caught the link train from Penn station. I was very impressed by the grandiose marble main hall of the station; it’s much nicer than Wolverhampton station for instance. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the two buildings fulfil the same purpose; they’re just so incredibly disparate. I took some photographs using the long exposure function of my camera, due to the low levels of light. This necessity provided me with a couple of decent pictures I think. I did make sure that it wasn’t against some law to take pictures in the station itself, as it’s illegal to do in British railway stations; the man behind the information desk clearly thought I was a bit mad…
As the city ground onwards through the afternoon, I was reminded that I had arranged to meet Maya at her work again, this time to watch Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street at the nearby cinema. With maybe an hour until our rendezvous, and with me 30 blocks away, I attempted to walk south, despite the aches collating in my lower limbs again. And you know what? I made it. And I’m not sure quite how I managed it either, but I ended up walking along Fifth Avenue, and ahead opening up in front of me was that odd little Gibson Non Reverse Firebird-shaped of land that announces and frames the quite wonderful Flatiron building. Designed by Daniel Burnham and built in 1902, the building takes its name from the triangular shaped parcel of land it was built on. It’s a fantastic looking thing, one of my favourite buildings, for many reasons. One of the more potent ones is the way that human beings managed to craft such a landmark despite such limitations to their canvas. I made sure to take a good few pictures of the back of the building though, the part that no-one every photographs.
Five us of entered the cinema, but by the time we’d seeing the film and eaten at a nearby diner, only three of us (Maya, Jay and I) went for a drink in a small bar on a street somewhere in the high 90s. I drank a Guinness, and as we sat at a table outside the bar, but far below street level, I looked up at the moon and felt the occasional feeling I’d had that I was on holiday, miles away from all my worries and cares, both literally and figuratively. We all left shortly later, our abodes all close by.
The next day was Friday, and I had decided to buy the portable external hard drive I’d had my eyes on for a while. The 320gb one was slightly cheaper in the U.S. than it was in Britain, and I’d found a store on Fifth Avenue that sold them at a pretty good price. I also bought my present for my niece from the Disney store, and took them back to the hostel before I did anything else. My main aim for the day was to walk over the (again, and I’m getting tired of saying this) world famous Brooklyn Bridge.
One of the oldest suspension bridges in the world, the Brooklyn Bridge has for over a century been one of New York’s icons. It’s certainly the East Coast equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge, and something I felt I had to visit, and cross, as I had with the Golden Gate. It also gave me the excuse to at least step foot in Brooklyn.
There’s a subway station right at the entrance to the pedestrian walkway on the Brooklyn side of the bridge, and that’s where I started my walk. It was a bit of an aimless walk to be honest, with not much option to deviate from my path, but the sights were fairly spectacular to say the least. To my left, to the south, I could see Liberty Island in the distance, and the southern tip of Manhattan Island. To my north was the Manhattan Bridge and just beyond it, the Chrysler building.
Things didn’t really get out of the ordinary until I reached the Manhattan end of the bridge, where I noticed a building over to my right. The legend emblazoned on its side proclaimed that it was the Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, which faintly depressed me. I didn’t think those kind of establishments existed outwith the Richey Rich continuum. It was shortly after this I was passed by an Asian bride in full dress, with presumably her mother and what looked like a chauffeur walking in the opposite direction, to Brooklyn. I wonder if they’d been caught in traffic and that was the quickest way to get to the other side of the river…but why not just get the train?
After this, I wandered around City Hall for a while. There’s a cluster of shops there, covering electronics, photography and music, all owned by the same parent company, and I had a browse in the record shop. I had to leave my bag in a wooden cubby hole at the door and take a token if I wanted it back, which was slightly odd. I didn’t plan on buying anything, as there are plenty of record shops in Scotland (well, more or less…), and it was a bit of a pointless endeavour to travel 5000 miles to buy things I could buy it home. Hence, when I visited Virgin in San Francisco, I only bought CDs and DVD I knew weren’t available, or were very rare, in the UK. I just went in for a browse, through force of habit.
I still bought two CDs, didn’t I? There were a few albums I was looking for, to see if they were any cheaper to buy over there than here, though I didn’t find any. I did however pick up Forever Changes by Love and Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth for around £5, so that wasn’t too bad. And I got back.
I was again meeting Maya after work, this time at Union Square, a fairly trendy part of lower Manhattan, near to the East Village and Greenwich Village. The square is apparently a popular meeting place for all types, and the reason Maya had invited me down was to watch the Silent Rave that had been organised, presumably by flash committee. Jay would also join us, though to be honest, we spent more time watching the quite clearly insane squirrel fighting daffodils in the garden than the ‘rave’ which was a bit shit to be honest. Unlike the silent raves popularised by music festivals, where everyone is given wireless headsets and everyone dances to the same song, here people were just dancing to whatever was on their mp3 player at the time, so it carried the air of being slightly desperate.
So we left them to their nonsense, and went back to the burger bar for another milkshake, and when we’d done that Jay and I (that just sounds weird inside my head, but he’s not a real Jay anyway, he’s really a Jason…) caught the subway up to 83rd Street and Broadway to eat at a diner Maya and Jay were both fond of. Called Artie’s, it was almost fit the mental image I have of the archetypal U.S. diner, all booths with vinyl seats and a ridiculous amount of fenestration. It’s just a shame there wasn’t enough chrome however. The food was ok, but by this point I was having serious problems with American menus, and resorted to eating spaghetti and meatballs. I’m not really a connoisseur of food at the best of times, so it would be remiss of me to comment on the cuisine. I will say this though; by the time the waiters started busying themselves shutting up for the night that we realised it was nearly midnight. Jay and Maya had work the next day, and so we went our separate ways again, but not before I’d arranged to go out with Maya properly the next night. Saturday.
There were a few, slightly disparate sights I was annoyed I didn’t manage to see. The Guggenheim was one, the firehouse that played host to Ghostbusters in the film and the site of the diner that inspired Edward Hopper to paint Nighthawks were two others, and if I’d been a little braver, I might have ventured up to the Bronx to see Yankee Stadium.
As it was, on Saturday morning I was on a 7 train bound for Flushing Meadows and New York’s other baseball ground, Shea Stadium. You’re probably familiar with both names; Shea is famously where the Beatles opened their 1965 North American tour. Over 55,000 fans were there, and they made so much noise screaming that the band apparently gave up trying to play and just started to mess around instead. The adjoining park, Flushing Meadows, is home to the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
Like the London Underground, NY Subway trains spend a fair amount of their time not only on the surface, but on elevated tracks. I had wanted to catch an elevated train, if only for a sense of completion. Happily, the 7 is such a route as it heads north east from Times Square. I was able to watch Queens pass me by on either side, engrossed in a slightly more sub-urban New York than the one most tourists that never leave Manhattan would see. I can’t be down on the Queens I saw from the window of the train; I certainly didn’t look any worse than anything comparable in Britain.
Shea stadium, and its replacement, being built in its parking lot, are on the North-Western side of the station, so I went there first for some pictures and a brief walk round before crossing back over the tracks and into Flushing Meadows-Corona Park itself. Flushing Meadows was home to the World’s Fair in both 1939/40 and 1964/65. There are a few remnants from the fair in the park to this day; one is the unisphere, a large metal approximation of the earth which originally featured lights makring the capitals of the world and was surrounded by an array of fountains, apparently so to create the impression the spehere was floating in space.
Unfortunately, neither of these features work any longer as the extant features of the fair have been left to fester somewhat. The observatory towers, which first came to my attention through the film Men In Black are in a sorry state of repair, which came as quite a shock, as they always look so sleek and imperious in the media.
In the distance, I noticed there was a football match being played on a full-sized pitch. A proper football match that is, none of this picking the ball up and running with it nonsense. There were actually four games being played between various teams on four of the park’s five artificial turf pitches. I was quite heartened to see football being played at such a grass roots level, even if the grass they were playing on didn’t technically have any roots. I stayed a while to watch one game between two teams of what looked like mainly Southern American immigrants with the occasional WASP thrown in. It was a decent game, with no shortage of skill on show, especially from the victor’s left winger.
On the train back, I decided to visit another film location. This one was a little more spur of the moment however; as I waiting for the 7 train back to Manhattan, I noticed it stopped near the eastern end of the Queensboro Bridge. Both the bridge and its Siamese twin, the Roosevelt Island Tramway have been featured in a few films recently, most notably Spider-man and Dark Water, and again were it not for its cinematic immortalisation, I might not have become aware of the curiosity that is the tramway. Erected in 1976 to provide a short term solution to the problem of residents of Roosevelt Island getting to Manhattan or Queens, thirty years later it’s still going strong, even after the long delayed subway link was completed. The tramway still forms part of the greater New York transit system, so you can use your Metro card for the short trip. So I crossed by foot my third rather large bridge of the last three weeks on route to the tramway.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not the greatest with heights, so I was a little concerned as the tramcar lurched out of the station and began its lazy ascent to the zenith of its route, some 250 feet above the East River. I didn’t hang around on Roosevelt Island itself for long; there’s not a great deal to see there, and I suspect most people like me only make the trip for the experience of riding on the tramway.
By this stage, I was feeling the worst for wear again, so after a brief stop at Strawberry Fields in Central Park I returned to the hostel for something to eat and a nap before meeting Maya at the Northern Soul night.
Yes, Northern Soul. Aside from my occasional forays into the back room at Blast Off of a Friday night, I haven’t had much exposure to the terrifying obsessiveness (and bland, samey music) that is synonymous with the genre, so while I wasn’t overly enamoured about going to the club, the part of me that so wanted to go on a night out in New York shouted the loudest.
The club was on 11th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues, and getting there was achieved with only the bare minimum of difficulties. I caught a 1 train to Columbus Circle, changed there to an A, C or E train, and then changed once more to an L train at 14th Street. While most people would perhaps be terrified about navigating New York at night by public transport by themselves, the biggest problem I had was turning the wrong way upon exiting the subway and walking north for three blocks instead of south.
There’s not much to say about the night itself; I had worried about gaining entry to the club with an ‘out of state’ driving licence (you may laugh, but it’s happened twice to Andy, who was at the wedding with us), but I got in with no problem. I had some pints of Guinness, met some of Maya’s friends, and felt unfortunately like a fish out of water once more.
Clubs and bars shut later in New York. 4am to be precise, so it’s not quite the city that sleeps, but it is the city that stays up late and turns up for work hung-over the next day. Maya and I left the bar at a mere 2am, she to ride her moped back uptown, and I to catch the subway again. My anxiety had begun to rise once more because catching the train at 9pm was one thing, but catching it after midnight would be a different story…wouldn’t it?
As I’ve mentioned, closing time is 4am, so I’d left early. The subway wasn’t deserted by any means; 1st Avenue station was doing a brisk trade in passengers and trains, and the pattern was repeated all the way back to 96th Street. I know the subway has a bad reputation in terms of safety; most British people I’ve spoken to are fairly terrified of the notion of getting on the Subway, especially after night, but conversely I don’t think I’ve ever felt safer using public transport anywhere. There was a light and sporadic police presence at some of the stations, but the atmosphere was generally relaxed and pleasant, and I’d have no qualms about doing it again.
Which would be the time I’d be raped and murderised and my remains eaten by dyspeptic rats…
I got back at around 2:30am, and went straight to bed. I had to check out in less than nine hours.
By my own admission, I’m not the most prescient of individuals and as a result I quite often find myself in a mess that could quite easily have been avoided had I taken a little time to think things over and make contingency plans. I’m trying to learn from these past mistakes, and I’m quite proud of myself for having the presence of mind to book a night’s stay in a hotel in New Jersey, next to the airport, instead of having to travel from one state to another.
And in retrospect, it’s a good thing I did book the room in Newark, because it took an absolute age to get from Penn Station to the airport. Buying my ticket and finding out which platform the train departed from seemed to be slightly harder than it needed to be, but I got there eventually. I’d written previously about how the scenery in New York is vastly different to that of California, and you could say the same for New Jersey. I’d enjoyed some great weather in New York, but as soon as the train emerged from the tunnel underneath the Hudson River, everything seemed to be a little greyer, to the point where I felt I was actually in a Bruce Springsteen song. That’s probably an inaccurate impression of the state, but New Jersey’s heavy industry is there for all to see, and in my experience, those kinds of areas are more prone to dreicht and miserable weather, so maybe it’s not an unsound conclusion to jump to.
It took a lot longer for complementary bus to arrive and take me to my hotel than it did even for the train to crawl its way from New York to Newark, and by the time I’d checked in and collapsed on the Queen Size bed, it was already nearly 2pm. While I didn’t have to be at the airport until 6am the next day, I no longer had the inclination to travel back to New York, or even to visit the nearby mall, recommended by the hotel manager. Instead, I paid a quick visit to the hotel shop, stocked up on Pringles, chocolate and coke, settled down in bed and watched T.V.
I felt as guilty about this as I did about spending most of Tuesday in bed; i.e., a little but not enough. This was mainly because my father had reminded via email that my second cousin Brian still lived in New Jersey, and had forwarded his telephone number to me. I didn’t ring it. Maybe I just felt as if it was too late in the trip to be meeting up with people I haven’t seen for twenty years, even if they are blood relatives. And I was tired. Most people have wondered why I seem more tired after returning from holiday, and that’s because I spend so much time wandering around on my own looking at things and thinking about stuff that I work myself into a state of nerves. I generally do need a holiday to recover from my holidays.
And so I retired to my bed and watched films (Ray, Walk The Line, Major League II [and most of III]), and a baseball game. With traffic roaring along the Pulaski Skyway less than 100 yards away from my bedroom window, I was able to pretend I was a put-upon salesman miles away from home, alone and dreaming of his wife with nothing better to do than watch boring cable T.V. Why this is my chosen fantasy rather than that of a rock star on tour, I’m not sure, but I seem to enjoy the stifling mundanity of it all. It seems to inspire me rather than have the expected contrary effect. Perhaps it’s, again, due to watching too many films when I was younger…
I had booked the room with the intention of getting some sleep before my flight, although how much I actually got was probably nominal. I think at one point I was fixated by used car commercials on one channel, all of which seemed to follow exactly the same formula; young actress walks up to car and extols its virtues before highlighting a number of payment plans, and putting her hand to her ear in the shape of a telephone handset and urging the viewer to ‘call now’. I almost did…
Even getting up 4:30 in the morning, the foyer was relatively busy. Seemingly other people with early flights had had the same idea as me and booked accommodation near the airport (I really am painting myself as a bit of an idiot, aren’t I?). I got checked in easily, and despite having to unload my bag again at security, I got on the plane with no real problems.
I was a bit tired and a little pissed off at getting an aisle seat, so when the person who was sitting to my right at the window turned up, I didn’t really pay much attention at first. And then I took a quick glance at her; only a quick one to acknowledge her ‘excuse me’, but enough to convince me that if she wasn’t Rachel Blanchard, she looked damned like her. She had the same flawless porcelain skin and the same flaxen hair and she was so quiet and reserved…anyway, I digress. The remainder of the flight was spent trying to refrain from dribbling and rewatching Walk Hard, now I’d seen both of the films it spoofs (Walk The Line and Ray).
All went well until we reached Heathrow. Yes, the dreaded Heathrow. While I’d flown out from Terminal 3, and hadn’t been affected by the Terminal 5 balls up then, I suspected I ran slap bang into it on the way back. Our plane sat for 30 minutes on the apron, waiting for a stand to become available, while ‘Rachel’ arranged to meet (I suspect) her lover in Brixton, with the chocolate she’d brought from New York. I don’t think my heart’s ever felt closer to collapsing through sheer hopelessness before. I want to meet my American girlfriend in Brixton. Fuck off world (though really I was quite happy about that situation; an American girl flying halfway across the world to meet someone in London, whatever the circumstances, re-engages my faith in soppy rom-coms, which in turn helps strengthen my belief in all kinds of other fiction, and a person needs that to get by in life).
However, I was now faced with a slightly more real problem. I now had just under half an hour to get from terminal 3 to terminal 1 to catch my connecting flight. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to make this journey, but it’s no small feat. Aside from having to catch a bus from one terminal to the other, you also have to negotiate security checkpoints, winding corridors, ambiguous signage and the ubiquitous idiots.
Thanks to either a twist of fate or just the way Heathrow operates, my Glasgow bound flight was also delayed, so I was able to check in in plenty of time, albeit drenched with sweat. I remember nothing of the flight, only landing at Glasgow and discovering my luggage hadn’t been quite as quick on its check-through journey as I had been. I would have to go back the next day after work and collect it. Well, as soon as I’d finished playing football that is…
And that is it. My holiday was all over. Bar the shouting, of course…
So, reflections. What do I feel about America and my visit there?
I think it’s worth pointing out that my state of mind took a bit of a battering while I was there. I was already feeling a little down about not taking up the +1 on my invitation, and my sense of solitude only increased over the three weeks. Thus, I feel my reactions to what the country threw at me were coloured by the despondence of not having a companion to help me process it all. My sense memory has now become slightly corrupted as well; I don’t know if I’ll be able to look at pictures of Golden Gate Bridge or Central Park without the sharp recall of the lingering, prickly ache in my lower body that accompanied me when I clapped my eyes on those places in ‘real life’.
I shouldn’t forget that the entire purpose of my trip was to see two of my friends get married, and that really was a wonderful day and night and I wish them all the happiness in the world.
I keep coming back to the opinion of many that Florida, that tourist trap for Brits, isn’t representative of the nation as a whole. I think I would have to infer that California and New York aren’t greatly indicative of the American way either. Besides, it would be remiss to try and judge a country that covers four time zones on the strength of three disparate corners…I don’t think I’ll be comfortable forming any kind of opinions of what America is actually like until I’ve visited a few more states, and I do plan to do so; Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington D.C. and Ohio are on my Big List Of Places To Go.
I have definitely built my impression of America on what I’ve seen in TV and film and read in books; now I’m unsure whether the place lived up to said impression, and whether that is a good thing or not.
I think I have to move away from impressions, which are almost always vague, and instead deal in conclusions I’m sure are concrete.
Firstly, I couldn’t live in any of the four states I’ve visited. Not alone, anyway. I’d need a support network set up. If I was able to keep my mind active and away from the works of George Bernard Shaw, I might not notice how familiarly odd everything is. And I wouldn’t be able to live in anything other than one of the BIG cities either. Oddly, I’m basing that on San Jose, which despite being the tenth largest city in the States, has absolutely no focal point whatsoever, meaning it feels just like a collection of houses ganging up on a small town…
I mean, this is all massively hypothetical anyway. The chances of me moving anywhere other than Glasgow are a million to one, for one reason or another…
Anyway, so America, reality vs. perception. I’m not convinced there’s much disparity to be honest. I think one of my abiding memories will be the sheer number of homeless people I saw in and around San Francisco; the verges of the railway just south of where it passes under the John F. Moran Freeway can be found any number of ad hoc and semi permanent shelters. Similarly, Market Street and Embarcadero are gathering points for the destitute. Care in the Community has always been a thorny issue in the U.K., but the benefits of the welfare state can be seen when placed in comparison with the catch-22 situation many Americans will find themselves in; unable to afford diagnoses, or more pertinently the drugs to treat said diagnoses. There was one person in particular, I can’t remember if it was in California or New York I saw someone who had quite severe problems but I do recall thinking that it was a heartbreaking situation for anyone to be in. I’m not claiming that Britain is any kind of world leader in the treatment of mental illness, I’m simply pointing out you don’t see the same scale of obviously troubled individuals. Perhaps it’s just thrown in to sharp relief when you’re in places like San Francisco, a city known for its prosperity and high real estate prices, that there are people living on the margins like that.
One interesting aspect I noted was that the people I talked to in the west in general seemed slightly more concerned with business than people in the east; normally it’s held for the opposite to be true, though perhaps So Cal is a little more relaxed than Nor Cal, with San Francisco and San Jose being in or near the Silicon Valley, there is a lot of money floating about there. I guess people have just become used to talking about business through work, and it’s hard to leave work at work. New Yorkers, or at least the New Yorkers I spoke to, were more inclined to leave their business behind them at 5pm.
One of the reasons I’ve left this blog to fester for so long is that I hoped a period of reflection would help address the questions that linger about America. It hasn’t; I’m still none the wiser about whether I’ve seen the true America, or whether such a thing truly exists. People talk about the ‘Great American Novel’, that book which perfectly encapsulates American life at the time of its publication, and debate whether The Great Gatsby or Catcher In The Rye best deserves the title, without much success. I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t pin America down as simply as that. It’s just too massive, too sprawling, too dense and too remote, with too many different political, social and religious ideologies all battling for supremacy for a 100,000 word book or a three week holiday to be able to successfully delineate it. I’ve used the words ‘British’ and ‘Scottish’ almost interchangeably over the past 20,000 words; while they may be suitably synonymous with each other to describe my culture shock at America, they are two terms that still need greater definition to those of us living in the U.K. Britishness tests are as futile an undertaking as judging whether a story could be the great American novel. There are too many grey areas, and far too many margins.
So, I have lain with America, and come to know her physically a little better. But her motivations are still subtle and mysterious to me. I will never call her an idiot, though she’s capable of great stupidity. And I’ll try to remember when she entertained and surprised me, and I’ll try to forget when she made me hurt (which was fairly often) and someday, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, I might see her again.
Until then, I’ll continue watching from a distance.