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The iconic Haight Ashbury sign in San Francisco. Photo by Tom Sykes.
Haight Ashbury sign, in San Francisco.

Visiting a Wounded Giant: A Journey into American Adversity

I sometimes wonder if, as a traveler, I am a harbinger of bad luck. On many occasions when I have booked a flight somewhere, unfortunate events have then taken place in the country I was heading for.

Let me give a few examples. Two weeks before I flew into Manila with my family, Typhoon Ondoy – the worst for 40 years– devastated the Philippines. In 2003, I landed in Berlin for a weekend break to discover that while I had been flying, elsewhere in German airspace a passenger jet had suffered engine trouble and been forced into an emergency landing. This isn’t a regular occurrence in Germany.

Exactly the same thing happened to me in Indonesia four years later except, tragically, the jet in that incident crashed and most of its passengers were killed.

In 2005, the day before I was due to fly back to England from France, a terror attack on London was foiled by the Metropolitan Police. It was not a pleasant feeling to arrive in London 24 hours later and find it almost completely deserted.

The nadir of my cursed travels happened less than a decade ago on a date that will live in infamy.

I had just graduated from the University of East Anglia with a BA (Hons) in English and American Literature with a Minor in Getting Wasted at Drum ‘n’ Bass Events. Although UEA had – and still has, I think – an exchange program with a number of top American universities, my particular course hadn’t been party to this.

Hence I resolved to visit the US off my own bat because it felt odd to spend three years studying the intimate cultural details of a country and not take the opportunity to go there in person. But even before my student days I had always been fascinated by American books, films and music… but not so much the food or the political direction it had taken under ‘King George II’, as the spoken word performer Jello Biafra described him.

I wanted to see the canyons and crap games of Johnny Cash songs, the pulsating ghettoes of Saul Williams raps, the endless highways depicted in the novels of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, the picket fence weirdness of David Lynch films. I wanted to immerse myself in the contradictions, to understand why the land of the free is also the land of the pious fundamentalist, how the home of the brave is also the home of consumer conformism, how this ‘nation of immigrants’ as Bill Clinton put it, is also a nation of violent prejudice, how the richest country in the world can have people living in it with ‘food for sex signs’ beside them on the street.

So I bought the cheapest air ticket I could find to San Francisco. I would have gone to New York City had it not been the case that to fly the extra 3000 miles west only cost a tiny bit more.

The night before my trip, I stayed with my friend Pete at his East London flat. Using the excuse that this was the first night of my holiday, I got absolutely ruined on beer and some disgusting liqueur that Pete had left over from a trip to Slovenia. I can’t remember its name now but it sounded something like ‘chemical’; but to describe this stuff as tasting like noxious chemicals would be to undersell precisely how awful it was.

Somehow I got up the next morning and caught the train to Heathrow airport. I staggered onto the plane and downed my complimentary drink for hair of the dog purposes. The flight passed as flights tend to: with minimum circumstance and maximum boredom. All I recall about it was watching an excellent Australian comedy film entitled The Dish.

Hawaii Five-O

In one scene, a U.S. diplomat is attending a function hosted by the mayor of a hick town in the Aussie outback. The mayor announces that the band will now play the national anthem of the United States of America. Cut to the confused look on the diplomat’s face as the band in fact launch into the Hawaii Five-O theme tune.

At San Francisco International Airport (SFO) I was surprised to get through immigration quickly. I had been warned to shave and cut my hair and generally look smart as American immigration staff were notorious for giving visitors to their country a hard time. The last thing I wanted was to start my holiday off with an anal probe.

It’s always a revelation when you leave an airport in a country you’re visiting for the first time. You are full of anticipation as to how different things will be: the weather, the landscape, the architecture, the smell. I have to say that on this occasion I was disappointed. To me, San Francisco was of course different to Britain, but not different enough.

Indeed the standard of living was almost identical, as were people’s clothes, the shops and the fast food chains. I wondered if this had something to do with Britain’s decision after World War II to spurn greater European unity and become America’s ‘junior partner’, offering itself as a lucrative market for her exports and following many of her fiscal, social and foreign policies - even when they led to disaster.

I caught a shuttle taxi that made its way through the hilly outer limits of San Francisco and into the downtown financial district to drop the better-dressed passengers at hotels such as the Hilton. Knowing that I was headed for the $30 a night Bob’s Hostel in Haight-Ashbury gave me something of an inferiority complex; I was after all, a dirty, hung-over ex-student punk on a tight budget.

But the better part of me knew that my trip to San Francisco would be more ‘real’ than theirs, more ‘travel’ than ‘tourism’ in the sense that I would not be living in some artificially created space isolated from everyday city life. This was something of a consolation.

Bob’s Hostel was the kind of dingy, dusty, low-lit joint I expected it to be, with a crumbling veranda where people smoked pipes of marijuana. I soon discovered that the other guests were not only backpackers but locals who resided full-time in the hostel because they simply could not afford any better accommodation.

As I was waiting to check in with Nile, the growling, Tom Waits-voiced manager, I got talking to a scientist with ten years of university education behind him who had been living in a dormitory here for six months. He said that rent was prohibitively high and that there were 30,000 homeless people in the city. I thought London was bad!

Once I’d got my key from Nile, I went straight to the nearest restaurant which had depressingly branded itself as an English-style pub serving such dishes as ‘Thatcher’s Full English Breakfast’ and ‘Churchill’s Steak and Kidney Pudding.’ The owner was an English ex-pat who, when he heard my accent, immediately put on a video of the England football team’s recent 5-1 shock defeat of Germany.

I scratched my head and asked myself the question, “Why have I traveled so far to come here?” My defense was that I was too tired, jet-lagged and hungry to go somewhere further away from the hostel. I did try to order something completely un-English but somehow ended up with fish and chips. I didn’t have the energy to complain. Halfway through the meal, I almost fell asleep face-first into it. I paid the bill and tottered back to my dank-smelling room.

My sleep was interrupted around midnight by a commotion outside. An hysterical man’s voice kept screaming “It’s fuckin’ crazy!” Some obliging passers-by calmed him down. The supposition I made as I fell back to sleep was that, on the balance of probabilities, that man was rather f---ing crazy himself.

I struggled awake at mid-morning and went for breakfast at a Polish sausage shop next door. The proprietor offered me ‘the full works’ i.e. three enormous sausages soaked with a dozen different sauces. Such excess reminded me of something I’d recently read about Elvis Presley’s last years spent eating deep-fried whole piglets and loaves of bread cut into three and filled with bacon, peanut butter, jelly and bananas.

An Odd Quiet

Catching a bus to Chinatown, I found the place to be oddly quiet, or at least quieter than my guidebook had indicated it should be. The few people I saw had somber looks on their faces. Most shops were closed with signs on their windows reading ‘For obvious reasons we are shut today.’ Read more...


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Tags: storySection: Reflections
Location: North America, United States
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