Tuesday, 9 March 2004

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - PART 3






The Green Tortoise is just down the road from Café Greco, so we return there for breakfast in preparation for the day ahead of us, for today our travelling companions will be arriving in San Francisco.

When Max had told of his idea to take a trip across America he disclosed to me his proposed itinerary – New Orleans (for Mardi Gras), Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and wherever else could be appended along the way. He’d already acquired a guidebook for San Francisco as proof of his commitment.
I’d only fairly recently returned from a five month tour of South-East Asia but was itching to prepare for some sort of peripatetic holiday; only money and a new job stood in my way. Nonetheless, there and then I pledged to join him in San Francisco. We found a list of bars in and around Haight-Ashbury – for we shared a common appreciation of its myth – and arranged a time and place to meet: 4:00 p.m. on 9 March in a bar called the Achilles Heel.
I don’t think I saw Max again after that. The last solid communique between us was an exchange of emails leading up to his departure reaffirming that our arrangement still stood, in spite of it being still three months away and the fact that I had yet to procure a ticket by which to get me there.
In the meantime, I’d opened an invitation to a few associates. I was quite prepared to go it alone but knew a few people to whom the excursion might appeal. My friend Nathan agreed to accompany me, with the proviso that I made all the necessary arrangements. I don’t think he appreciated at the time just how tenuous my arrangement with Max was, or if I really told him, but as our appointment neared he started to express some concern.

We have plenty of time to kill before our 16:00 rendezvous so we take a stroll around San Francisco’s Financial District. I'm actually carrying quite a hangover and demand we make a coffee stop at Starbucks (not specifically Starbucks, but it’s what’s available at the time). From there we turn back on ourselves and revert to Fisherman’s Wharf. The reasons for this are twofold: first, we know that we can catch a bus there in the direction of Haight-Ashbury; second, we’d previously noticed car-hire businesses plying their trade in that general area. It is understood that our two weeks in America shouldn't be restricted to San Francisco and that the hiring of a car will be of great benefit if we wish to imbue our venture with the road-trip like properties that it affords.
In the two car-hire firms we enter it is established that the designated driver of any rented vehicle will need to make payment by way of a credit card, presumably as security. Nathan has a driving licence but no credit card, and I have a credit card but not the ability to drive. I know Max doesn't drive either, but his friend Charlie might.
Satisfied that we've at least begun the process of inquiry, we decide to head over to Ocean Beach on our way to Haight-Ashbury.

The bus journey to the Ocean Beach puts San Francisco’s size into perspective. We have been doing plenty of walking – to Nathan’s chagrin – and we have covered significant ground, giving the impression that this city is of a manageable scale. Our latest excursion asks that we reconsider. The road that runs parallel to Golden Gate Park seems to go on forever and it takes us some time to reach the coast. When we arrive it’s a little bit of a let-down. I was expecting something like Coney Island, or the seafront at Brighton. Instead, this endless vista of sand and sea is overlooked by a main road, random car parks and the western boundary of the park. There is nothing wrong with this but I'm not someone who likes beaches for their own sake. I require a degree of amenity about such places and prefer them to be quite lively (during the day at least; by night my needs aren't so prurient).
            I judge too soon. Police cars and ambulances scream past us suddenly, and almost out of nowhere a police officer starts cordoning off the pavement directly in front of us. There has been some sort of fracas in the parking lot to our left (we've been strolling along the esplanade) and a man lies recumbent on the hot tarmac. And now a film crew! They must be affiliated in some way. A crowd is slowly gathering, although their general demeanour doesn't suggest that they think it’s much of a big deal. The paramedic now furiously pumping away at that recumbent guy’s chest might beg to differ. My colleague and I consider walking down to the shore’s edge but given the violent episode we've just been privy to decide that maybe we’ll be on our way.
It’s a long walk to Haight-Ashbury. I thought we’d be able to pick up a bus sooner, but instead we have to walk almost the full length of Golden Gate Park’s southern side, which takes us through an area typified with pimped rides, ripped dogs and sullen looking young men. I'm not sure tourists should have a presence here. Either that or the events back at Ocean Beach have spooked me a little.
 When we finally arrive in Haight we start asking around for the Achilles Heel. Nobody seems to have heard of the place. Hmmm… where do we go from here? We pause for a drink in some faux-Irish hostelry and ponder our next move when suddenly I think I spot our cadres entering the drinking establishment opposite!?! This sounds surprising but, given that my friend Max is involved, it somehow isn't: the guy’s wired for strange coincidences. Nathan and I sink our beers before crossing the road to and join Max and his accomplice, Charlie, who by this time have settled down with some bonkers local in the beer garden out back. It’s a surreal moment, but a triumphant one.
The chap who Max and Charlie are chatting with is called Phil, and he claims to be able to commune with animals. Apparently, he possesses strange powers which he divulges to us via anecdotes involving exploding priests, hordes of Italian cats and other bizarre goings-on. Caught up in the excitement of it all we get quite tipsy.
Max and Charlie, we discover, have already booked into some squalid hostel somewhere in Mission. They didn't really have the time to properly bed in as they had an appointment in Haight-Ashbury with myself and Nathan. As such they will need to return there to freshen up for the evening’s revelry that inevitably awaits.
So as not to delay proceedings any further, Nathan and I elect to come with them. This makes good sense: that bar we spotted yesterday is in Mission-Delores so there’s little point us heading all the way back to the Green Tortoise, even if I would like to shower and change into something else. After a quick turnaround back at Max and Charlie’s dimly lit hostel, we find an independently run café somewhere off Market Street. We all order something involving steak, and more beers are consumed.

‘Service for the Sick’ is Delirium’s Tuesday night thing, and it all happens in a windowless room at the back of the building. It’s still early so we start off drinking in the front-bar. Only when we become aware that smoking is permitted in the back do we make our way there.
            It is a sparsely attended event, which allows us to make requests. The DJ indulges us for some while but loses patience about half way through the instrumental coda of Can’t you Hear me Knocking by the Stones. We proceed to get properly lashed. At some point Nathan reappears, from an excursion we weren't even aware he’d taken, with some blond boy called Eric. It materialises that Nathan had taken leave to buy cigarettes and stumbled upon this guy who looked like he knew his way around.
            As Service for the Sick reaches fruition, we ask Eric to take us somewhere we might be able to continue our dipsomanic abandon. We find a bar still serving, but only just, and order a round of vodka and oranges. A disturbing political dialogue with the staff, who are busy clearing up, culminates in us incanting the name ‘Nixon’ over and over again – like a rabble of English football supporters – towards our Democratic hosts who were generous enough to serve us after-hours.

I have no recollection of the journey back to the Green Tortoise, but I do remember getting out of the taxi and only then realising I’d left my camera somewhere, kicking the wall in stupefied frustration. Suddenly sober, I pleaded with the Canadian manning reception to call Delirium to see if I’d left my camera there. I had, and he arranged for them to put it aside so I might return the next day and collect it.

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