Sunday, 7 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 1





We've caught the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from the airport to Montgomery Street, and there doesn't seem to be anyone around. San Francisco, replete with steam emitting man-hole covers. It feels warm considering both the hour and the time of year: ten o'clock in the evening, early March.
Book into the Hotel Astoria, just where Bush Street and Grant Avenue intersect with each other. It is a straight-forward process and one that yields desirable results. There’s enough time left in the day to walk up Grant Avenue, and then take a right down Columbus, find a bar, sink a few beers.
It has taken some time to arrive at this point, and not a little strife.

Flying can be an expensive business, but for much of the first decade of the 21st Century this was not usually the case. These were competitive, more fecund times, when a return flight to Copenhagen, say, would cost substantially less than an impromptu one-way train ticket to Plymouth. Moreover, the Pound was strong, especially against the Dollar, and to some extent the Euro too, which kept the cost down of renting a room in a hotel, and of eating, drinking and of buying things in general.
I took full advantage of these cheap airline deals and favourable exchange rates, probably to the detriment of my own professional development. It was what I spent my money on, taking up to three holidays a year for much of that decade (many of these vacations were nothing more than three-night excursions to European cities), and I remained too long in a poorly paid job (but not so badly paid that I couldn't exploit this golden age of travel) as a consequence.
            The middle of 2003 and a friend of mine propounded his intention to foist himself upon the United States of America, sooner rather than later, for a period of something like two or three months. Infelicitously for me, 2003 represented something of a financial nadir, and I received his proposition – for I was invited – with a restrained avidity. Accompanying him for the proposed duration was out of the question: it would be prohibitively expensive, and in any case I’d not been in my job long enough to take such a long and potentially unpaid holiday. On the other hand, my new-found tenure gave me a modicum of financial security, and if I could somehow borrow against that then maybe I would join my good friend for at least part of his intended odyssey. I decided that I could justify giving over two weeks to a trip such as this and so went about the business of finding ways to pay for it.
It was to be a close call. I applied for a credit card with a six month introductory rate of 0% on all purchases and balance transfers, but it took longer to arrive than anticipated. This was compounded by an ineptitude on my part that had seen me defer the application process in the first instance, for no particular reason other than I would forget, remember at importune moments, and then forget again.
I got away with it. When I finally attended to the matter come the start of January, just two months prior to my intended departure, I found flights to San Francisco costing £240, leaving from Gatwick Airport, and only slightly soured by the condition of transfer. The scheduled departure and arrival times were perfectly acceptable. I’d just have to put up with the bother of changing planes in Charlotte, North Carolina’s capital.
I had not been unduly unconcerned: a minor inconvenience, I thought, it would only add four or so extra hours to my journey, such was the scheduled brevity of the actual transfer itself. My friend, Nathan, wished to accompany me and preferred we flew direct, but I was making the arrangements and paying for it all upfront, and he was obliged to follow my lead.

For an extra £60 we could have flown direct, and I ended up wishing we had. The passport control employee who inspected our particulars in Charlotte did not like that we had neglected to book anywhere to stay on our arrival in San Francisco, a fact she deduced from reading Form I-94 (Arrival-Departure Record) and observing the blank space we’d left under the section entitled ‘Address While in the United States’. She did not present a reason why this was a bad thing but her tone was one of earnest reproof.
The warning signs were there on the flight over. A large family of Presbyterian types bound for Charlotte had sat all around us. They talked of ‘coloured folk’ in hushed, pejorative tones, and of how they might welcome us into their home – should we ever be passing through – but only on the condition that we accompanied them to church on Sundays. Ostensibly friendly in manner, they would surely have disapproved of our mission and retracted their invitation had they known a little more of the company my colleague and I would willingly keep (and without a second thought in doing so).
Anyway, the upshot of our bureaucratic oversight was us being forced to wait, purgatorial-like, in a waiting room until somebody could be bothered to take authority and determine our fate. Some members of staff actively avoided doing this. After ten hours of flying, this was far from ideal. I had hoped there might be time for a cup of coffee, but not a chance. As it was, there had only been an hour to spare. Now, with just 20 minutes remaining until our plane was scheduled to depart, the situation was precarious.
A fellow Englishman with a less pressing schedule picked up on our frustration and kindly allowed us to jump ahead of him in the queue – if we missed this flight then we were looking at a detour via Chicago the next morning, with the consequence of losing pretty much a whole day of our trip. After a further 10 minutes had elapsed we were finally granted counsel to explain our ingenuous decision not to book accommodation in advance.
The American immigration official was pedantic in manner and made references to the scars of previous travels contained within my passport. Acknowledging a Cambodian visa therein, he alluded to the taking of drugs, and cast aspersions upon my character. This did not endear him to me, but I was in no position to take umbrage with this straight-laced bureaucrat. Finally, he picked up the phone and established the name and number of a suitable hotel in San Francisco, advised we call it on our arrival – because that was what he was now going to assume was our plan – before stamping our passports and washing his hands of the whole affair.
We made our flight with, literally, less than a minute to spare. The flight attendants rooted for us as we ran towards them, doing everything within their powers to keep the doors open and get us on that plane. I could only assume these girls were from California and not tainted with the same prejudices and cynicisms that appeared to typify the inhabitants of North Carolina.
On arriving at San Francisco International Airport, we searched out the bar to gather ourselves and formulate an approach. It was now 20:00 and the place was alarmingly quiet. We pumped the bar girl for information before downing our beers and making our way to the train station to begin our trip proper.

I cannot recall how Nathan and I found the Astoria – whether it was the place the guy in customs recommended, or whether the girl at the airport tipped us off – but the place was appropriate: rudimentary, affordable, clean. Our room was painted white, had a high ceiling, two large single beds and a decently equipped bathroom in which we could wash away the detritus accumulated over a 14 hour flight, and a journey of almost 20 hours door-to-door.
We felt strangely wired by the time we checked in, so put our ablutions on hold and walked up through Chinatown intent on finding somewhere to have a drink. We found Vesuvio, and liked it there. We drank quickly to stave off tiredness, and made a good job of it. It all seemed such a far cry from the diabolical potential that we’d faced not six hours earlier in Charlotte.

[Form I-94 no longer exists. Information pertaining to airborne passengers bound for the States is now obtained directly from the airline that flies them there.]

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