“Do you want the 32-ounce, or the large?”
“Shit, how big is that large?”
“You goin’ to want to pull yer car ’round back, I goin’ start the pump”.
Bill Hicks viewed his country through the eyes of a travelling Englishman, who saw the ridiculousness in America’s fixation with excess, and exposed it in a way only an outsider could. The opening dialogue between Hicks and a truck stop clerk is not a million miles from reality. Rob enters the car from stage left with a elbow-catching bucket cup draped in DNC colours and slogans – “When I realised it was Republican, I had to find a Democrat cup and decant from one into the other”.
It was my fourth trip to the States, after two jaunts to New York City (2005, 2011) and a third to Florida in 2013. After every few years, the itch regroups and inevitably must be scratched. This particular trip took myself and three friends up and down the length of California, beginning and ending in Los Angeles and visiting all the ‘gap yar’ hot-spots you have come to know and love from recounts of countless other fuckwits before us. The difference, or course, is that we were embarking on this trip at 27/28 years old, complete with contact lens cleaner, travel sweets and netted socks.
Even with our ‘experienced’ touch, we were still caught out by the routines of American life, arguing over tip entitlement like pensioners, and failing to use our British naivety to negotiate our way out of toll fares when we ran out of change (the charm turned to panic when the attempt failed and we frantically rifled through glove box and seat crevasses to make up the difference). We were eventually let off the outstanding 90 cents but I think this was out of pity than panache.
Once out of the clutches of America’s interstate, tutting at carpool lane chancers as we went, we were ready and free to explore California’s vast, beautiful landscape.
A note on California’s vast, beautiful landscape: allow me to clear up the mystique surrounding travelling imagery which so often finds its way onto your social media pages, making you feel under-accomplished and untraveled. California is a spectacularly serene place, but still has all the tourist hallmarks of a coaching holiday around the Algarve. The idea of a zen explorer gazing longingly over sequestered scenery is wholly artificial in the majority of cases. In their photography, they hide behind the fourth wall and successfully restrict the viewer’s gaze towards a vista to which the subject faces out to. Pan the camera back and you will see the car park, the picnic tables, the scores of camera-clutching tourists and bin-circling wasps.
Furthermore, why travel thousands of miles to one of these places of beauty, only to turn your back on it for the purpose of a ‘selfie’? Consider these wanderlust wankers firmly placed in Room 101.
In the interest of myth-busting, the one idiosyncrasy of American lifestyle immune to prosecution is its love of ‘fried everything’. Over the course of two and a half weeks, we sampled the finest fast-food delicacies the US had to offer – if it didn’t end in ‘y’s’, we didn’t eat there. The commitment to the cause became almost laughable (where else can you get a breakfast milkshake on the side of your peanut butter omelette?) The country has a slight eating problem, and I don’t think anyone cares. My personal highlight was hearing a proud patriot announce “I don’t push drugs, I only push chicken”. This, by its very nature, is what has made America great for its 69% larger than life population.
We were left to our own devices in California. Without restraint, the Golden State would have happily let us eat ourselves to death (or diabetes), and I am convinced that we would have – I gained over 7 pounds in the relatively short time we were there, and showed no sign of slowing.
Sporting fixtures gave us another reason to continue our food odyssey. Our first taste came in Oakland, as the A’s marched to an uncharacteristic win over the Texas Rangers, complete with a 7 run haul in the 2nd inning. The fortune did not spread to the AT&T Park, as a lacklustre performance by a Wild Card chasing San Francisco Giants team failed to get so much as a man on 3rd the entire game. Seemingly, they saved their best performances for after we left the city, winning five games on the bounce to secure the Wild Card spot over the Cardinals and the Mets. The Giants had won their most recent World Series titles in 2010, 2012 & 2014, and were riding on the crest of a superstitious wave, looking to continue their ‘beliEVEN’ run in 2016. It wasn’t to be, and they lost the post-season playoff to the Chicago Cubs.
We were as active participants on the music scene as the sporting scene, with an impromptu visit to Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles to discover Manchester based ‘Partisan’, before catching Abbey Grange at the The Viper Room, famous for being the venue where River Phoenix suffered an overdose and died, or perhaps more famous for being the venue where Jason Donovan suffered a drug-induced seizure and survived.
The most eventful gig came with Echo and the Bunnymen at the Regency Ballroom, San Francisco, where talking at any point during the concert was supposedly prohibited, and Lee was quite openly discriminated against for being too tall. The exchange went something like this:
“You’re too tall, can you move to the back?”
“Excuse me, can you both stop talking, I can’t hear the music”.
Ian McCulloch was so blissfully unaware, and spent most of the gig dishing out Scouse phrases and asking the crowd if they understood what he was saying.
I expect that if Donald Trump succeeded in becoming President, this is exactly the kind of nonsense he would overturn. Who are Jack’s Diner to say that you cannot go pant-less in your own country? IN YOUR OWN COUNTRY! The sooner Trump takes office and starts removing the buttoned shackles of oppression, the better.
We rocked up at San Francisco in the hope of catching the first Presidential debate with some locals. Indeed we did, and shared moments of uncertainty and frustration with a nation being torn apart by two unstable parties and an overall obsolete political system. San Francisco, according to the barmaid, was overwhelmingly Democratic (or anti-Trump, whichever way you want to look at it) and declared as a rule of thumb that the coastal states share a similar ideology, whereas centre states go the other way. Give or take a few swing stakes, and you have the same patterns and allegiances as told throughout history. The barmaid said she was embarrassed for us to see US politics in such a light as the debate was presented, but we were quick to reassure her that British politics wear the same masks, only in different suits.
Mark in Monterrey held a very different opinion of his country’s destiny. In his own words, he “fucking hates Hilary Clinton, that evil bitch”. When asked where this resentment hails from, the answer was a little skewed, with a cocktail of Bill-bashing and ethical criticisms (imagine!). When faced with what Jake described as a gentle Theroux-esk probing, the responses became more fallacious.
“Since Angela Merkel let immigrants swarm into Germany, one thousand women have been raped – one thousand! ONE THOUSAND!”
We decided to grab a late dinner/early breakfast with Mark, who continued on his one man crusade, carefully explaining that for ‘every shooting of a black man by cops, ten cops have been killed by black men’. We asked him about gun possession, Mark – a Vietnam veteran – owns a lot of guns, and proceeded to tell us which gun he would use to dispatch a potential intruder in various different situations. The AR-15 seemed to be his weapon of choice for most scenarios: “If you’re going to come into my house, I’m going to fuck you up”. Strangely, Jake and I found ourselves unable to disagree, but in the same instance, admitted we would try to negotiate an outcome beneficial for both parties, and failing that, reach for the frying pan.
All being said, I still have a incurable obsession with America, and California is a treasured jewel. I very much enjoyed coming away from Las Vegas in the black, after two consecutive nights winning on Blackjack (I figure I won $150.00 and lost around $140-145.00). We revelled in the majesty of a Nevada sunset, and watched the temperature plummet in a matter of minutes. We gazed at the Hollywood hills – albeit from afar – and placed our hands in the casts of Monroe, Crosby.. and Segal.
On the return flight, the subject of a 5 hour delay and greeted with the British compo contingent, I watched three crap films and attempted to spread a rock-solid stick of butter onto a bread roll. The Metrolink photograph in Terminal 2 showed the expressions of dull-faced commuters, welcoming you home with a ‘please don’t talk to me’ outlook. The rain poured in Manchester and our taxi got caught in the rush hour traffic. And yet, we are still somehow revered in the States. As one taxi driver put it, “Britain is our last remaining Ally”. Is it any wonder that our trains are on the same tracks?