Thursday, 10 August 2017

Day one of the adventure

We were up at 6am this morning. Rain was throwing itself at the windows. It felt like the perfect day to get out of the UK!

We took a taxi to Heathrow. The local taxi company has a special deal to the airport which, split two ways, is actually about the same price as getting the Heathrow Express.

We met Sam and Matt at Terminal 5, and passed fairly speedily through customs, which sadly meant we had time for one of the extortionate meals they serve up in the cafes in that curious world behind the metal detectors. The entire terminal stinks of perfume and doesn't seem to have a jot of natural light. I can't imagine how anyone could work there without entirely losing their minds.

The plane journey - all 10 hours and 13 minutes - was excruciatingly boring. I had a customary gin and tonic to soothe my nerves and one of the cabin crew was full of doubles entendres. In retrospect I wished I'd brought my laptop so that I could have used the period to do some decent work. Instead, I got fizzy legs, and watched a shed load of film and TV, whilst secretly panicking about every judder on the plane. It's quite unnerving when a large action sequence in the film you're watching is accompanied by turbulence. It's like being in some sort of highly-authentic flight simulator!

After taking about as much of the journey as I could endure, I looked at the clock and realised we still had 7 hours and 48 minutes of hell to go!!

We touched down in a typical San Fran mist. The BART trains, which take passengers from the airport to the city itself, have really irritating payment methods, which involve feeding notes in and then pressing all manner of buttons to get the machine to register the amount you have to pay. The machines then proceed to spew change out in the smallest possible numeric quantities. I wondered if I'd won some kind of jackpot, but actually all I was receiving was a pocketful of useless dimes and quarters.

We ate Hershey's chocolate on the train and savoured their distinct aftertaste of gone-off milk and baby sick, wondering how it could possibly only be 4pm whilst we felt so rancidly tired!
Our hotel, it turns out, is listed as a historic American hotel. It probably dates from the 1920s. It's incredibly chintzy and all the corridors look like something from The Shining, with dark wood panels and bizarre mirrors almost everywhere which give the effect of somewhat infinite passageways. Our room is enormous. The bath looks like the Blue Peter Italian Sunken Garden!

The weather in San Fran in August is notoriously bad. It was incredibly windy this evening and not particularly warm. Everything smelt of dope and smoked paprika.

Walking up Market Street towards the Castro, is like slowly entering another world, one which is trapped firmly in the 1970s whilst simultaneously being filled with pooch parlours. The streets are shambolic. Overhead bus cables hover perilously over the the tarmac, drug casualties and homeless people sit, wide-eyed and hollow-cheeked, on most of the corners. On one intersection, a young homeless woman was rifling through a suitcase in which her possessions were neatly stacked, on another, a middle-aged man sat underneath a sign written on corrugated cardboard which said "your ad here." Whether it was a pithy attack on society's obsession with fame, or a desperate hope for a commission, I'm not sure. And then, on yet another corner, a man was wearing a T-shirt which said, "Satan is my spirit animal."

We turned right on 15th Street and walked up a series of ludicrously steep hills (where cars are required to park at 90% angles to the pavement) to Corona Heights, a rocky excrescence, which looms over The Castro, where little humming birds dart about in the fennel-scented air. The plant life in these parts is, at once, very familiar (hydrangeas, clematis etc) and then utterly surreal and prehistoric, with curious cacti, palm trees and ferns.

The views from up there are stupendous. You can see across the whole of San Francisco, right the way down to the Bay and beyond. A watery sun was threatening to break through the mist and the air turned the colour of an unripe peach.

We walked back down to the Castro via the curiously-named Vulcan Steps which wasn't, but could so easily have been the inspiration for Mrs Madrigal's beloved Barbary Lane in Tales of the City. Wind chimes tinkle. Cats purr. Artists paint. The houses cling to the flower-covered hillsides and are accessible only by wooden steps which seem to go on and on forever.

We had pizza sitting on Castro Street whilst watching the fabulous freaks of the neighbourhood going about their business, before taking ourselves on a little stroll which involved peering into a number of shop windows. Our favourite display was a series of fluffy puppet horses in pastel colours galloping in front of a wall of underpants covered in all kinds of witty and crude slogans. One pair simply said "cuntie", another said, "I'm not gay but 20 dollars is 20 dollars." Fair enough!

The day ended with a drink in a grotty red-lit gay bar where they played nothing but English New Romantics music. We were determined to stay awake until at least 10pm, so that we had a hope of beating jet lag and not waking bolt upright before dawn. Sam raised a toast, and wished me a happy birthday "for yesterday." "You mean the day before yesterday?" I asked... "No, it was yesterday. It's still August 9th." And it suddenly struck us that our August 9th, 2017 had lasted 32 hours! 

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