Thursday, May 31, 2007

American Beauty 

Mel's for breakfast, then we caught the number forty threeno, not that 43, though we did think about it – to Haight-Ashbury.

Back in the day it was the hippy epicentre of the universe, but that didn't put us off. There were still re-assuring quantities of alternative lifestylers in evidence, which was good.

We browsed shops. Amoeba Records was pretty cool, and I bought a Haight-Ashbury shaky egg (made in Taiwan) from a music shop as a gift for my local Singer's Night Help Group.
We spent ages browsing in The Booksmith, and I thought about buying my own bodyweight in Annie Leibovitz product, remembering just in time that you can buy stuff off the internet now, which saves on suitcase taxes. Sorry, bookshop.

Lunch was in the Red Victorian Peacenik Cafe, then we plodded what seemed like several miles - possibly because it was - back to the hotel.

Here is some interesting detailing, and these are beautifully restored.

At Alomo Square we watched as bus after bus rolled up, people dutifully piled out to have their picture taken in front of The Painted Ladies, then got back in the bus to make room for the next lot.
Pacific Heights was very pleasant in an affluent big house neighbourhood kind of way, though I think I preferred the view back up the hill from down in lowly Cow Hollow.

Dinner was Vietnamese – possibly the best meal of the whole trip – then we returned to Sol's bar for more margaritas and White Russians.
I like the whole American bar thing, with just one guy working the room. It's as much “An Audience With...” as it is going out for a drink. Kids were playing pool, customers were playing cards at the bar for what looked like quite big money, baseball on the telly.

I've had a great idea for a sitcom. It's about a bunch of people who practically live in a bar and are almost like family to each other. It needs to be called something snappy, like “Bottom's Up!” or “Here's Mud In You Eye.” I'm sure I'll think of something.
Our friendly bartender gave us drinks on the house, and we stopped out late and got a bit squiffy. Cheers.

Lunch shot: Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament Banana and Nutella Crepe. Worth the airfare alone.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Scream If You Wanna Go Faster 

I went down to fetch coffee and cornflakes from a little breakfast counter in the motel reception.
The same lad who had checked us in last night stood up to say hello. His hair was all sticky up and he was still in his pyjamas. He'd clearly been sleeping just behind the reception desk. I apologised for waking him and scampered back to our room to tell Girlfriend.

It was another sunny California morning and we walked into town.
My friend Juggling Protege tells me that in Liverpool, if you see a pair of shoes dangling from telegraph wires, it means that's where drug dealers go about their business. I wonder if the same applies in Santa Cruz.

The town, like our motelier, was just waking up: shops were opening their shutters to the day, and the only people about were students heading off to college and homeless people congregated around the bus station. It was all very ordered and civilised. There were two pleasingly old fashioned looking cinemas in the town.

They reminded me of that scene in Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner steps out of his motel to discover he's back in 1972, and the Godfather is showing at the picture house, and he meets Moonlight Graham out on his evening stroll. I love that film.

I splashed out on a few new T-shirts – not literally, thankfully – and the young salesman in American Apparel, on hearing our non-Californian accents asked where we were from. I gave my stock answer – North West England, an hour's drive from Manchester. He mentioned that his favourite band was from Manchester, and when he said it was Elbow everything briefly went warm and fuzzy as we chatted about how great they are, blah blah, etc. So that was nice.

We wandered down to the amusement park on the Beach Boardwalk, where went on the ferris wheel – it goes really high up! - and rode the Giant Dipper, which being made entirely of wood and paint makes it something of a historic relic.
I feel slightly sheepish confessing that before today I'd never been on a rollercoaster, but I have now and it was fantastic and terrible and fantastic. Now I understand why people scream and shout on rollercoasters – it's because you can't help it. It's just the natural thing to do. I feel I'm ready for The Big One now.
Girlfriend also went on the carousel, another historically important monument owing to its “throw the brass ring into the clown's mouth” feature. I took loads of snaps of her riding gently round and round, and she looks really sweet and lovely, grinning like a big kid.

There were loads of school kids running around the place, and lots of teachers standing around with clipboards trying to keep tabs on everybody, and there was a really pleasant atmosphere.
It's a while since I've been to Blackpool's Pleasure Beach, but I don't remember the atmosphere being so good natured and innocent as this.
Kids in America, as the poet and philosopher Kim Wilde once said, all seem so polite and well mannered. It's something you notice again and again, and I'm sure it wasn't just us viewing the world through rose-tinted “We're on our holidays so everything seems great” glasses.
If they do have chav and townie kids in the States, then they keep them all locked up in police cells, because we certainly didn't see any. It makes a big difference.

After all that excitement we loaded up on sugary drinks then hit the road once more.
At The Mystery Spot we paid fifteen dollars to stand on unlevel surfaces while a man dressed up as a Park Ranger – but not a real Park Ranger; I bet he gets loads of stick from his Real Park Ranger mates – gave an entertaining and instructive talk.
Basically, gravity is all wonky at The Mystery Spot, a fact which continually confounds all the world's leading gravity experts. Bottles of water roll up hill! People appear taller or shorter than they actually are, depending on where they stand! You can walk up the walls! I go with the alien spacecraft theory myself.

Then it was back to San Francisco. We left the car at the airport – easier said than done - and got a taxi back into town for our second insane rollercoaster ride of the day. How he managed not to kill anybody was the real mystery of the day, but then again, maybe he did and we were just going too quick to notice.

We're staying across from Mel's Drive In.

Miles of the day: Let's call it sixty.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Santa Cruz, It's Not That Far. 

Breakfast was a no nonsense self-service affair over in the main complex, brought out by burly blokes in Stars and Stripes bandannas. They looked liked the kind of men who would know their way around a Harley Davidson flight deck in an emergency.

Big Sur is a stretch of rugged, rocky coastline spanning ninety miles or so. There doesn't seem to be a definitive boundary, where it starts and stops, it's just, you know, Big Sur. It has its own misty micro-climate.
I'd love to come back in the depths of winter when the weather is at its wildest, when the ocean is a frothing cauldron and surfer dudes are tossed about on the waves like matchsticks.
“Surf's up, Dude! Dude? Dude? Hey, where did that dude go? Bummer.”

This is the waterfall in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

There was an entertaining face off when we popped into a post office to buy stamps. Girlfriend handed the man a half written letter so he could work out what the postage would be when she came to post it.
Only he wouldn't give it back to her. Once you hand an item to the US Mail, it becomes their property.
“But I haven't finished writing it yet.”
“Too bad. It's mine now.”
“Sorry. I can't let you have it back, Ma'am.”
The guy showed a little leniency, allowing her to quickly finish the letter then and there, but on no account was she to leave the premises. Or he'd have shot the both of us.

We drove on past glorious beaches and rocks and that, up to Carmel, an absurdly posh town where every shop is either a gallery or a jewelers. You'd be screwed if you needed a pint of milk, though you could probably get a painting of one.
We did lunch outside the Hogg's Breath - enormous patio heaters blazing away at every table – and I've no idea what this is, but it watched our every move. I think it may have been a remotely controlled CCTV bird-bot, sent to make sure we didn't steal the cutlery.
Afterwards we cruised a few galleries, most of which seemed to cater for the wealthy tasteless, but there was some good stuff here and there, then we went for a stroll on the beach. I spent a good while grabbing people's cameras off them and taking their picture whether they liked it or not.

We carried on to Santa Cruz. The roads were busy with rush hour commuters heading back from work. We passed field after field of farmworkers waiting around for their lift home.

It was evening when we checked into our motel, close to the seafront. We were the only customers that night – or ever, perhaps - which only served to make it seem just a teeny bit creepy.
We took an atmospheric stroll along the pier, and it was all very Springsteenesque: the bit in Born To Run about “the amusement park rises bold and stark, kids are huddled on the beach in the mist.”

I bought a Santa Cruz key ring and bottle opener, and dinner consisted of beer, nachos and leftover cherries on a bed of, well, just on a bed.
Now and then I'd take a look outside our window.

Lunch shot: Caramelised in Carmel.
Miles of the day: Ninety.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Big Sur 

Waving goodbye to our psychedelic bathroom we wondered if there are people who try to collect the full set. There surely must be.

Then we had one last look at all the pretty horses and sped off in search of that old Highway One again.

We stopped in Cambria to buy a paper (Front page story - "New structures would be severely limited on 900-acre ranch overlooking Estero Bluffs"; Property pages - "Holy Shit! How much?"; Sports pages – none) and ordered sandwiches at the deli counter.
This involved ticking millions of boxes on a spreadsheet for the endless permutations of types of bread, spread, filling, cheese supplement, meat supplement, salad options, stock options, whether you want them to reclaim your VAT and pass it on to whale charities, donkey charities, retired biker dude charities, and whether you want to eat it straightaway, tomorrow, next week, next month, or never.

So we scoffed our haul watching surfer dudes in action, then went to see Hearst Castle.

William Randolph Hearst was born extremely rich, then devoted his life to becoming, like, mega-extremely rich, a feat he pulled off with considerable aplomb.
He owned an enormous newspaper empire, his style was jingoistic and sensationalist, and it's said he played no small part in starting the Spanish-American War in order to boost circulation figures.
“You provide the pictures,” he may or may not have apocryphally told his reporters, “and I'll provide the war.”
It is known, however, that both Hitler and Churchill filed copy for Hearst during their lifetimes.

The castle was never completed in his lifetime, chiefly because no sooner was a room finished, then he'd change his mind and have it torn down again.
There are fifty six bedrooms, sixty one bathrooms, nineteen sitting rooms, and two rather tasty swimming pools. Personally, I'd knock through to create a small lake.

Everybody who was anybody wound up here – I'd guess that when invited you either turned up or kissed your career goodbye – and he was the not very thinly disguised inspiration behind Citizen Kane.

We carried on our way, stopping awhile at this popular hangout for sea lions.
We also saw and heard a sea otter, which made Girlfriend jump up and down with delight. You should hear the racket they make when smashing clams together in their little otter paws.
The light was fading, a bit yellowy and deliciously gloomy as we headed on.

We're staying in a little wooden lodge in Lucia. It's great. I'm thinking it would make a perfect writer's retreat.
What couldn't I do in a room like this?

Miles of the day: Ninety five-ish.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Queen Of The Coast 

Chatting to our innkeepers John and Ann Marie, it dawned on us that as far as getting to see the United States is concerned, you're probably better off being non-American.

American employees don’t get much holiday - ten days is fairly typical, it seems – so they go a bit travel bonkers at holiday weekends. They flew in from all over.
A two week gentle saunter, like the one we're engaged in, would be the stuff of dreams for most Americans. They do their travelling in short bursts, so it’s little wonder so many have never heard of, say, Wales. Or Texas.
Ruminating on this, we got in the car and buggered off.

We drove south, back down the bendy SR120 that didn't seem so bad on the inland side, then across miles and miles of flat, hot agricultural country. Near Oakdale I stopped to buy some cherries from one of the many roadside fruit sellers you see along the way. The woman - a middle aged Britney Spears, all dolled up but kind of AWOL behind the eyes – had the juiciest cherries I've ever tasted.
We were pleased to see signs for Modesto. It’s mentioned in Laura Cantrell’s Queen Of The Coast -
'In a roadstop in Reno at supper time,
The waitress comes over with a look in her eye.
Says, "I saw you in Modesto almost thirty years ago,
And I can still remember every song in your show"'
- and of course, it's where top beard rockers Grandaddy hailed from. In interviews they often bemoaned the lack of anything much ever happening there, so we took the hint and steered clear.
Likewise Morrissey Boulevard.

The bleakest place we drove though was Kettleman City. It’s the point at which they switch off the irrigation, and hey presto, America’s food bowl becomes instant desert.

Actually I’m not sure if the next thirty miles technically qualify as desert, but it was near enough for me. John Innkeeper, who used to commute the three hundred and fifty mile trip twice a week, had forewarned us that this stretch was just like Nevada.
We passed close to the spot where James Dean died.

We’re staying in the gloriously fifties-kitsch Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo.
We asked the lad on reception how long it might take to walk into town and he looked at us like we were insane. You have to cross several hideously busy roads, some of them twice, before you’re actually any nearer to the town, so with hindsight, perhaps he had a point.

The town itself is pleasant enough – a tidy little college town – although it was a little lacking in character, we thought. It doesn’t seem to have a focal point.
It is noteworthy though for Bubblegum Alley, which is both really gross and strangely compelling, and wouldn’t be out of place in the Tate Modern.

Much later on, after the hotel dance hall had cleared and the place was all but empty, and you could see headlights blazing by on Highway 101 in the mirrors behind the bar, only two hundred miles to LA, Longbeard and Gonzo were discussing what constitutes a good woman. Every sentence ended in “Dude.”
Longbeard’s girlfriend was also present, apparently not minding being discussed like she wasn’t there.
“A good chick knows when you're at breaking point, Dude,” said Longbeard.
His friends nodded sagely in agreement.

It’s our new favourite catchphrase.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Chasing After Deer 

We headed back into the park. It was far busier today, on account of it being Memorial Day Weekend.
We parked up and caught the shuttle bus to the foot of the Vernal Falls trail.

There's a very well trodden footpath so there's never any delusion that you're striking out into wilderness country. That doesn't mean to say the trek is without its dangers.
Although there'd been less snow than usual this year, the rivers and waterfalls still looked full enough, and as you approach the Falls, mist fills the air and the path becomes perilously slippery.
One false move and, frankly, that would be the end of you. The path bottle-necks and the crowds thicken - incredibly we saw people wearing flip-flops - and we walked quite high but not to the very top. Girlfriend had an attack of common sense and asked to stop. I didn't mind.

Next we did the Mirror Lake Loop, a nice circular walk which takes you well away from the crowds. Soon it's just you and hundreds of bears hiding on tiptoe behind every tree, all saying "Ssshh! Humans!"
The path takes you directly underneath the Half Dome, which rises almost 5,000 feet above the path, and at seven measly degrees off vertical is the sheerest cliff in North America.

It's all absurdly picturesque. Butterflies flutter by, children laugh and play in the water, people happily potter about in boats. It's like walking round inside a children's picture book.
We saw another bear.
I managed to catch a rare and very exciting sighting of, Mmmm, a cowgirl.

As evening fell we drove up to Glacier Point in time for the sunset. It's another precipitous drive, alarmingly so at points - we saw snow! - and it involves driving fifteen miles away from the valley floor, then fifteen miles back in again, ending at The Car Park On Top Of The World.

The view was completely and utterly spectacular. This snap doesn't begin to do it justice.
And this is what it's like to stand at a railing and look down on a 3,200 foot sheer drop.
People regularly die here.

Darkness was descending. As we left the park, a deer darted across the road right in front of us. I slammed on the breaks and came, like, this close to hitting it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

It Covers The Hillsides 

I lost count of the times we said "Wow!" today.
The first big one was driving into Yosemite National Park when El Capitan (7,569 feet; 3,593 of them rising vertically from the valley floor) first came into sight. It's just vast. Huge. We swore a bit, then laughed, then said "Wow!" some more.

Here's a bear sauntering around a meadow.

We hired some bikes. They don't have gears and you brake by pedalling backwards, which is an odd experience and takes a little getting used to. I was especially proud of Girlfriend for getting back in the saddle, as the last time she rode a bike on holiday she was knocked off by a car and broke her wrist.

There's a twelve mile traffic-free loop around the valley floor, so that's what we did.
Here are some people in a dingy.
Here is Girlfriend cooling off in a river.

When we were done with the bikes, we drove up to Tunnel View. The sun was low and shadows stretched across the mountains. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


We drove south down the Napa Valley, thirty miles of vineyards, then headed east, finding our way to State Route 120 which takes you to Yosemite.

It's all farming country, industrialised and not all that pretty, the landscape flat and monotonous.
We drove from small town to small town, and wondered what it must be like to live here.
Our favourite place name was Potato Slough. It was very hot.

East of Oakdale, as you approach Yosemite, the road becomes what you might describe as preposterously winding. We called it The Road Of Death, because it seemed like terrible unpleasantness could happen at any moment. If you dare take your eyes off the road for a second, you look to the right and far, far below you see a looping stretch of tarmac and realise you've just driven up it.
There was a lot of nervous laughter.

We're staying in an incredibly beautiful, peaceful place twelve miles from the park entrance. Our room is huge, the bed big enough to sleep three or four if that's your thing, and best of all, there are hundreds of hummingbirds feeding on the veranda. We can hardly believe it.

We sat on the swing and drank tea, later moving onto beer and nachos, and generally flopped.
I passed a couple of hours trying to photograph hummingbirds.
They have to feed every fifteen minutes, you know, in order to keep their metabolism going. Apparently, at any time they're just one hour away from starving to death.

Here's one, and here's another. And here are three.

Miles of the day: Ooh, about 250.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It Was A Very Good Year 

Some dash round visiting loads of wineries in a day. I guess if you're a connoisseur then this is Wine Tasting Heaven, but we’re more your undiscriminating slurping types and decided one wine tour would be more than adequate.

We chose Sterling Vineyards, not because of its unique growing conditions, fruity nose and noble pedigree, but because you get to ride in a cable car as part of the admission. That’s two types of fun for one ticket, and that’s the way to my heart.

So we did the tour, which was interesting if a little cheesy, then had a tasting.
A smartly turned out lady pours you a sample and you’re encouraged to look thoughtful then say something sophisticatedly appreciative like “Yup, I like that. Next!”

My tasting notes:
2006 Pinot Gris - OK.
2005 Lake Chardonnay - OK.
2004 Sangiovese - Yeah, alright.
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon - Nicer.
2006 Malvasia Bianca - Alright as well.

It was sensory pleasures all the way today. In the afternoon we went for a spa treatment, or whatever it's called. It's what you do in Calistoga.
It consisted of lying in a bath delicately scented with volcanic ash and lavender for half an hour, while being forced to listen to a CD of crashing waves and wind chimes with cucumbers on your eyes.
Then you have a lie down and a willowy lady rubs stuff into your feet. I was sure I'd kick her, such is my ticklishness, but actually it was alright. I was also a bit worried I might get the erections so spent the whole time focussing very intently on non-erectionly thoughts - the pros and cons of automatic transmission versus manual gears, the downwardly spiralling fortunes of Leeds United, what on earth did people ever see in Dave Lee Travis? - and it seemed to do the trick.

After that we went off to separate rooms and a burly fellow called Oak smeared me in lotions and set about dislocating my shoulders.
I asked if I had a lot of tension and he said yes. I put it down to the wind chime music and the extreme physical pain. But you know, in a perverse way, it was really pleasant physical pain.

It seemed a very Californian thing to do. I'm sure you can get massages back home in the Preston area, but could it ever be the same?

Bar Shot: Hydro Bar and Grill again.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

It's In The Trees! 

Back on Highway One for fifty more miles of elegantly sweeping roads, stunning coastline and running about looking windswept.

We drove up as far as Leggett, where we paid five good dollars to drive through the drive-thru tree. Only I bottled it, and sheepishly drove round it instead. With hindsight, the car might well have squeezed through unscathed, but I'm not too regretful that we only walked-thru. It's better for the environment that way.

Then we drove inland to the Napa Valley, home of more wineries than you can shake a bunch of grapes at.
We're staying in Calistoga (pop. 5,190, and named by a man who meant to say something else) and it's incredibly hot after the cool breeze of the coast.
It sure is pretty and Main Street is a picture. There's a homely small town feel about the place which is very becoming indeed.
Here are some people crossing the road.

We ate at the Hydro Bar and Grill. The waiter studied English and finishes on Friday.
One of the waitresses is getting married, but there's no definite plans made yet.

If you see this guy's laptop, give him a call, it sounds important. No se haran preguntas.

Today' miles: 190.
Dinner Shot: I heart lettuce.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Planning A Bootleg LP? 

We're staying in a beautiful old watertower. It's bright and comfy and the walls close in as they rise towards the ceiling. It must be a pain trying to fit wardrobes.

We'd planned to go horse riding today, but I was feeling kinda zonked in the head and not really up to it, so we cancelled. It was a bit of a disappointment, and I know Girlfriend had gone to a lot of trouble planning and booking it. So I didn't feel too great about that, but hey.

Instead we wandered round the little town, checking out the touristy shops - that'd be most of them - and galleries, then had some quality log sitting time on the beach.

We're pretty sure this is an osprey.
This is frothy, Man.
This is a big nosed pregnant lady wearing a smock.
Here is some grass blowing about.

It's a lovely place, with a fetching Main Street that looks out across the bay. The guide books usually mention 'bohemian' in their descriptions of Mendocino. What this means is there are lots of artists living here, and some of them haven't washed in a while.
Dreadlocked young crusties with well worn camper vans and a dialect you might call "California beach bum surfer dude" mingled peacefully with well off looking tourists approaching retirement age.

In the evening we ate at The Moose Cafe. It was nice. Quite posh. At 8:35 they were turning customers away because they were closing.

Then we went to Dick's Bar - "All Dicks and no Richards," according to the sign. Drank margaritas and watched baseball.
Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants was looking good for beating a home runs record. I think. The Giants' stadium is on the shores of China Basin, and canoeists wait around in the hope that a ball should come their way. One lucky paddler collected a ball that had been walloped out of the ground by Bonds, and if he goes on to beat the record, the ball will go for squillions on eBay. They repeated the clip endlessly.

On the jukebox you get three tunes for a dollar.

Girlfriend's selection:
1 Modest Mouse - Ocean Breathes Salty
2 The Specials - Gangsters
3 Can't Remember

My selection:
1 The Clash - London Calling
2 Can't Remember
3 Can't Remember

Sunday, May 20, 2007

It's A Hit 

I looked out of the window this morning to find a bunch of office workers pushing a desk down the road.
On our way to breakfast, I asked a masked wrestler and girl in a wedding dress if they'd mind me taking their photo. They said if we wanted to see more crazy people, fifty thousand or so, head down to Ocean Beach. It was the day of the Bay to Breakers Race, an annual fun run.
We already knew about the race and had decided to miss it out of our hectic schedule, but in retrospect I'm wishing that we'd fitted it in. It sounds like, erm, fun.

Instead we queued for half an hour outside Mama's on Washington Square - "Best breakfast in San Francisco," according to one leading breakfast magazine - watching the Chinese doing their stretching and the cast of Baywatch and at least two Wonder Womans strolling by en route to the start line. It was great, of course: a lovely relaxed, bright place, and breakfast was wonderful.
I hope those San Franciscans appreciate how lucky they are.

Then we picked up our hire car. We'd ordered "Intermediate" - and only because there wasn't an online option for "Small" - but what they presented was a choice between two blinged up army transporters. They were gigantic.
I refused to accept either, so they downsized us to something more sensible for no extra charge, and we were off.

It took a few miles for the posh lady in my Sat Nav to figure out where the hell she was. Even then, she kept insisting we go back to the hire car place, presumably because that was the first item on the itinerary.
We were driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, trying to enjoy a Golden Moment together, and all we could hear was bloody Miss Privately Educated spouting on about turning round at the next available opportunity. I switched her off with a few sharp words, and of course that was the end of that. Now she's sulking and won't come back on again. Bugger.

But it wasn't too hard to find Highway One, and for now all we had to do was keep the Pacific Ocean on our left and keep going.
Oh, it's a great drive. There are miles and miles of hairpin bends around coves and inlets, where the road signs say "Easy on the gas, Mister! 20mph!" and even 15mph, so it's not a road for those in a hurry.
We stopped now and then to gawp slack jawed at beaches and headlands.
We listened to music, we drove for hours, we pointed at stuff. It was great.

We're staying in Mendocino (population 824), so today was about 170 miles. I was surprised how easily I got back into it.
The town is just wrapping up after a film festival.
We speculated whether the guy in the corner of our restaurant with the notebook and laptop was an up and coming screenwriter, or maybe a critic filing his report.
I suspect he thought we were bloggers, nosey British ones, with wry dispositions but winning charm. Maybe we'll appear in his next screenplay. Good looking, no nonsense English bird goes on road trip with dopey man who photographs everything he eats - it's a hit!
We had a bottle of something mid-priced and local - Support You Local Vineyard! Yeah, but which one? - and it made us a bit giddy.

The Mendocino Cafe looks real pretty in the fading light. I used Girlfriend's head as a tripod. Everywhere closes early.

Dinner shot: Surprisingly Big Burrito.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Trials of Van Occupanther 

Curly's for breakfast.
Then we walked through Chinatown - pausing, as you do, to photograph slippers and men pushing stuff up hill - back to Union Square where I went through my fire escape period.

We tend to be allergic to city centre retail outlets - panic attacks, sneezing fits, sneaking suspicions that these people don't love you but are simply after your money - and Union Square is full of the blighters.
It wasn't really us, although I did purchase Fountains of Wayne's latest and The Trials of Van Occupier in Branson's. OMG - I'm like completely obsessed with the latter.
We pigged out on cheesecake at the Cheese Factory, a restaurant at the top of Macy's, because friends recommended doing so.
It was packed full with mainly young people who, having waited half an hour to be seated, probably ate only a quarter of their food before leaving again. I don't really understand the modern world.
Maybe they just like the idea of eating in a tall building, feeling metropolitan - this city belongs to me! - and looking out across at the skyscrapers. I'd imagine if you were maybe five or six, as lots of people were, being taken there must seem like the most fantastic thing in the world, a memory to cherish.

Late afternoon we did the Alcatraz tour. It's no distance at all to the island, ten minutes on the ferry or something like it. They hand you some headphones and an audio player, then you wander around at your own pace listening to the excellent walking guide.
The bit I remember most is where ex-prisoners describe the torment of New Years Eves when, with the wind in the wrong direction, they could clearly hear revellers partying, such was the proximity to the mainland.
The fact that guards raised their families on the island also sticks in the memory. Imagine a childhood spent on a tiny island, mere yards from the country's most notorious murderers and criminals.
Powerful stuff indeed, and I never knew they had a sodding Gap At Alcatraz inside the prison.

We had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe on the waterfront.
The waiting staff, who are all forced to dress up in full infantile rock bloke/chick regalia, seemed to fall into two camps: the wannabee rock stars who probably dress that way in their own time anyway; and those who just wanted to earn some money and felt completely ridiculous.
TV screens on every available surface played bad eighties pop videos that I thought I'd forgotten about. I wonder if this is what Los Angeles is like.
Still, I'd recommend the dessert.

In the evening we became all posh and went to the theatre, to see Steve Silver's Beach Blanket Babylon. I'm not really a Cabaret Man (isn't that a song by The Fall?) but Girlfriend was keen to try it so I tagged along in a spirit of optimistic open mindedness.
I'm still not a cabaret fan. The jokes were mainly music-related puns of the 'not funny in the slightest' variety - "Honey, what's luuuurve got to do with it?" Howls of laughter - but after a while its knowing preposterousness draws you in and you start to forget how bad it is and enjoy yourself despite yourself. I'm glad I saw it, if only to pick up a few quiff management tips.
You know I'm not one to spread malicious gossip, but I think there may have been one or two "gays" in the building.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Nothing Better 

The real San Francisco looks just like the San Francisco in your head. Though it was our first visit, everything looked and felt familiar: the look of the streets and houses - and my goodness, they're beautiful - and the sunny, relaxed vibe. It was quite literally like that amazing Sony advert for rubber balls, only without the rubber balls.

We breakfasted at Mara's Pastry Place, stuffing ourselves to near death on pastries the size of baby elephants, then hit the streets at a slow waddle.
We spent a happy day strolling and gawping, me stopping every few seconds to photograph just about everything: houses, streets disappearing gorgeously into hilly infinities , Chinese people practising t'ai chi in Washington Square Park, and so on. Marilyn Monroe and Joltin' Joe DiMaggio had their marriage blessed outside that church in the background, but we missed it.

When colourful eccentric and volunteer firefighter Loopy Lillie Coit (1842-1929) died, Coit Tower was built to commemorate her 'special relationship' with the men of the fire service. The tower - designed to mimic that most essential part of a fireman's equipment - rises high atop Telegraph Hill, and we puffed and panted our way up there to take a look.
There are pleasingly folksy murals inside the base of the tower, and for a small fee a jolly Chinese lady will take you up an escalator to the top where on a clear day such as this, the views of the city are spectacular.
I passed a happy half hour coveting peoples' roof gardens with my zoom lens.

Meandering down Filbert Steps, in a pretty garden overlooking the bay, Girlfriend achieved nothing short of a lifetime ambition - we saw a hummingbird. Then another. They're astonishing little critters and we spent a long while pointing at them and saying excitedly "Look! Hummingbirds!" After that, we were both in need of a stiff bookshop, so we headed off to City Lights.
On the way, I picked up a thumb piano, or a kalimba as the girl in the shop insisted I call it. This makes me absurdly happy even still.
And in City Lights I bought copies of Howl ("I have seen the worst bands of my generation," etc.) and Kitchen Confidential, an important tome as it inspired Old Thingy to write Call Centre Confidential, which in turn inspired me to write what you're reading now.

We had a couple of beers in Vesuvio's - Dylan Tomas used to get pissed there watching highlights of Premier League Soccer on cable - then walked over to Lombard Street.
A short and famously bendy stretch on Russian Hill promotes itself as the crookedest street in the United States, not to say the stupidest too, and we spent a while watching cars descend very slowly indeed. Drivers would hop out of their vehicles to photograph their terrified passengers, then hop back in a few turns later. It looked like daft fun, but good fun nonetheless.

In the evening we caught a bus to Union Square and then another to the 'legendary' Fillmore rock venue, to see speccy indie superstar hero Ben Gibbard perform a solo gig. Support was provided by Johnathan Rice who we also love, and some other bloke.
To make an excellent show even excellenter, All-American Sweetheart Jenny Lewis, drop dead gorgeous in tight black dress, mmmmm, popped up for a couple of numbers. How much better do dream line-ups get? We were stood at the front, and I promise you she was - for the umpteenth time now - making prolonged eye contact with me and flirting something rotten. A truly trouser tightening moment.

We caught the bus back to Union Square, clutching our souvenir posters and chatting with a couple of sweet kids from Ohio who'd come over especially, then couldn't be bothered waiting for a bus back to North Beach, so walked instead. It was maybe a couple of miles! Well after midnight!! In the dark!!! But not scary!!!!
Columbus was waiting up for us. People everywhere, restaurants still busy. One old guy strummed an electric guitar on a street corner. A homeless guy beneath our window, loud and unaccompanied but quite tuneful, sang Stevie Wonder songs well into the small hours.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hey Jack Kerouac 

There's a framed print in our hotel bathroom, a photograph with accompanying hand written scrawl which reads:

"Bob Donlon (Rob Donnelly, Kerouac's Desolation Angels), Neal Cassidy, myself, painter Robert La Vigne & poet harry Ferlinghetti in front of his City Lights Bookshop, Broadway & Columbus, North Beach San Francisco 1955. Donlon worked seasonally Las Vegas waiter, Neal looks good in teashirt, Howl. hadn't arrived from England yet, Peter Orlovsky held camera in the street, we were just hanging around. Allen Ginsberg."

It's a good picture, despite the photographer clearly having no idea of how to compose a shot. Should have got a digital.
Everybody looks happy and on the cusp of great things, and I love it when you come across an old photo and somebody has taken the trouble to leave a little note to describe the scene.

I can't say I know a great deal about the Beat writers. I do know that Girlfriend, who could read for England, wrestled valiantly with On The Road recently, but even she couldn't quite make it to the last page.

And I also know that if you're ever struggling to come up with a chat up line down the disco, you could probably do far better than

"I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night"

although if you never try it, you'll never know for sure.

We're staying a stone's throw away from City Lights Bookshop, deep in the heart of the Beat District, in a lovely old room that's all dark colours and oddly angled walls. "Just hanging around" is what we intend to do a lot of.
It's all Little Italy round here, so tonight we ate at L'Osteria del Forno, "a glorious refuge from the nearby tourist traps," according to the guidebook.
They were standing in line for half an hour just to get in.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bright Side Of The Road 

A new woman has entered my life.
She is authoritative though not too bossy, and speaks in precise, clipped English tones, like a lady from an Ealing comedy.
I wasn't sure how Girlfriend would take to her - she was a little frosty at first, but there seems to be a thawing. I think they'll become not great pals as such, but will learn to respect and appreciate the other's finer qualities.

The new woman in my life says things like "At the next roundabout, take the third exit," and quite often "Turn around at the next available opportunity," or - this is my favourite - "You have reached your destination" which makes me feel rather grand and competent.

I can't quite believe I've bought one of those Satellite Navigation GPS thingies, but I'm full of surprises me, and you've got to keep up with the times, etc.
The posh lady needs to brush up on her one way systems around Kendal though - Booths car park, very funny, ha ha - but apart from that I'm impressed.

We've already programmed into her an itinerary for our great Californian road trip. I'm hoping this will relieve Girlfriend from the pressure of having to make snappy left or right decisions while I concentrate on trying to steer the car onto the correct side of the law. I’m confident the three of us will get along just fine.

In other news: we had a very pleasant afternoon with Leanne on Sunday, celebrating her birthday in the pub. I got to meet her Dad and one of her sisters for the first time, and there were friends and beer and crisps and a smoking ban, so it was really good. There were some nice family moments going on apparently, which like so many things, I didn’t pick up on until it was explained to me afterwards.

On Monday I popped round to visit Mum and we had a long chat. She thinks she’s finally on her way out. She’s been saying this for as long as I can remember, although last year she gave us one hell of a scare and we all thought “This is it.”
So she wanted to talk bank accounts, direct debits, where she and Dad hid the stolen bullion - up a hollow tree trunk by the football pitches in Stanley Park! Would you credit it? - what’s to be done with her, and so on. It must be a very strange state to find yourself in, that wanting to get things finalised, set out neat and tidy. So that was a laugh.

Now I’m off to count socks and pants and compilation CDs again.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Case Of You 

"You can take your journey of self-discovery and stick it up your Myspace," yelled Creepy Keith from Accounts this lunchtime, mad as a librarian because Stella, my eighties style yuppie witch of a team leader, still refuses his invitations to love.
"Never. Going. To. Happen," she replied.
"I've got a 3-Series! What's wrong with you?"
"Fuck. The. Fuck. Off," she said, calmly escorting him out of the office.
Down the corridor, I could hear Neil, my former team leader, remonstrating with the broken vending machine.
There's been rioting all day up on the help desk - a first year spilled some older kid's Magners and it all kicked off - so he'd come looking for consolation in cake type things.
"Swallow, damn you!" came the frustrated cry as the machine repeatedly rejected his pound coin. "Don't spit it out. Swallow!"
I laid out some kitchen towel and blew on my soup.

Stella is thrilled because her friend Becky returns from China next week. Becky's been away for three months, working in the Beijing office of the Royal Bank of Chorley and understandably, they're looking forward to letting off some steam.

"Friday night we'll be down the allotments, with a blanket and a case of wine," she said. "Did I tell you I've got my own raspberry bush? Right next to my friend Becky's blackcurrants. It's so exciting!"
"Organic?" I asked.
"They're not ready yet, but yeah, they're going to be fantastic."

A flaming PC, quickly followed by a flaming keyboard and mouse, flew past my window and crashed to the ground.
"And what if it's raining? It's pissed it down this week."
"We'll do it in the tool shed instead, Tim," she said. "We're going to get so wasted."

Outside, Rex the security guard attended to the fire with a bucket of sand and Stella drifted away in a Scooby Doo wave of flashback.
For a couple of minutes it was just me and my soup.
The clock ticked. A distant water cooler glug glugged. In a faraway cupboard, an abandoned mobile played the theme from Neighbours.
"Jesus, there was wine all over everything everywhere," she eventually sighed.

I put down fresh supplies of kitchen towel and looked in my bag for a yoghurt.
"But if last time is anything to go by, we'll be spending most of the night face down in each other's bushes enjoying a tasty scoff. If it's not wet when we go down, it soon will be."

I found a petit fromage frais and finished off with a single Twix. Would that be a Unix?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tougher Than The Rest 

I have a running joke with the lady at the gate with the dreamy soft baps.
If I'm feeling peckish - that'll be always then - after I've picked a sandwich, I'll take a peep in the drawer where she keeps her fruit pies and say with a straight face, "As it's Friday, I'll have one of these too, please."
The funny bit, of course, is that I say this regardless of what day it is. It's the comedy of delusion.

The first few times she looked blankly at me, like I was a complete stupidhead, but you've got to have faith in your catchphrases, stick with them through the lean times and believe that one day they'll come through for you.
Several months on, she now finds "As it's Friday..." just as amusing as I do, although she has the common decency not to make a big deal of it by laughing or smiling much.

The road is dark, it's a thin, thin line, and I'm shy and not so gifted at small talk as some of her more gregarious customers. Spike Milligan said that the cliche is the handrail of the crippled mind, but mine is a joke about hunger and believing a situation to be better than it actually is.
I wonder, were we to meet outside of a sandwich transaction, say in the pub or the supermarket or just passing in the street, whether I'd need to quickly think of something new to say, or if "As it's Friday, I'll have one of these too, please" would suffice, and whether it would be more or less funny outside its original context.

I also wonder - though I can probably guess - if she ever dwells on our little exchanges as I'm doing now, hours after the event, the crumbs of the day swept under the desk, all but a distant memory.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

California Soul 

SweetPeaWatch - Day 35.

Nothing can stand in the way of the bluebells and their unstoppable march to conquer, well, just about everywhere.
In the fading light of evening they seem to emit an electric blue glow, as if they're conspiring over which part of the garden to colonise next, which of course is all of it.
Girlfriend stands and shouts at them, shaking her fists and threatening them with eviction, but I've become hypnotised by their delicate loveliness. It's all a bit Dr. Who.

The clematis is out now and looking just like clematis should. I'm very proud.

My mission for this Bank Holiday weekend is to produce a load of compilation CDs of sunny driving music: the sort you might listen to if you were, say, going on a California road trip, starting in San Francisco, heading up the Highway One coast road to Mendocino, then turning south through the Napa Valley - "Quaffable. But far from transcendent" country - Yosemite National Park, Fresno, San Luis Obispo, then back north via Carmel, Monterey and Santa Cruz until you found yourself back in San Francisco, just in time for an open air Arcade Fire show.

The mark of a real man is whether he gives good compilation, and mine will include a lot of The Byrds, Lemonheads, Decemberists, Death Cab For Cutie, Arcade Fire, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis, Johnathan Rice, Blue Oyster Cult, Neil Young, The Thrills, Smokey Robinson, Steely Dan, American Music Club, Killers, Springsteen, Prefab Sprout, Joni Mitchell and lashings and lashings of delicious Teenage Fanclub. And goodness knows what else. It's quite an adventure in it's own right.

I expect there'll be Goldfrapp too. Alison Goldfrapp and I are in love and deeply happy together, though she doesn't know it yet.
What a lucky twerp I feel today. How the hell did that happen?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Heat Is On 

The temperatures are rising and all across the land young men's thoughts turn to deodorant, all except for Creepy Keith from Accounts, who honks like a fish in a wheelie bin on a two week cycle.

He stands behind you and tells jokes about child murderers and sexually abused choirboys, and all the while you just know - just know - that’s he’s looking over your shoulder to see what you’re typing.

I’m writing an email to Girlfriend, but change the text to say “Fuck off Keith, you creepy twat. Have you no fucking idea that it’s rude to read other people’s emails? And by the way, your jokes stink as much as you do. Go away and wash.”

After work, at barbershop practise in the rifle range with Bill Surname CEO’s retired army chums -
"The old songs, the old songs,
The good old songs for me!
I love to hear those minor chords
And good close harmony"

- the tension is mounting. The annual convention is later this month, and they’re working us hard on our competition pieces.
The atmosphere is more parade ground than sing-a-long, and a whiff of menace hovers over proceedings. I’m amazed some of the old guys, me included, are still standing by the end of the night.

My knees are killing me and I’m not even going to be there.

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