No Direction Home

As I mentioned in my previous post(s), my debit card got blocked by the bank, and so I ended up in a bit of a tight-spot in San Francisco. Basically this is because a) there are very few hostels relative to the size and fame of San Francisco and a music festival in Golden Gate park made availability worse than usual (as previously noted there is no Youth Hostel culture in the USA, at least not compared to say Europe) b) virtually no hostels take American Express c) although i fortunatelyhave a card connected to my Mum’s account, it is an American Express account, d) the budget hotels and motels in San Francisco are devious, in that they advertise a rate of $60 a night plus tax, but this is per person…and all rooms are double, meaning every room is $120 a night plus tax. Faced with four nights at $120+ each, things were looking grim.

I emailed local Balliol hosts, but unfortunately almost everyone was away or unable to accommodate me. In the end I got lucky and Alex Blasdel, who was a couple of years above me in Balliol, and who lived in the same JowettWalk flat as I did for a year, came to my rescue and gave me couch to sleep on. Alex was pretty busy with work and previous arrangement, so I didn’t see all that much of him, but none the less he helped me out a lot, for which I’m grateful. Alex was something of a – how to put it? – party animal during his time in Balliol, but he seems to have settled down a bit, and he’s one of those people who just always lands on his feet. Here’s the view from his apartment. In the afternoon:

In the morning (see what I mean about the San Francisco fog?)

And at night:

Indeed, Alex was particularly tolerant of me, as not only did I somehow manage to make the master-remote for his TV stop working (I still don’t know how), but I also managed to have a good go at destroying his kitchen. After he’d gone out on my first day I thought I’d make coffee before heading into San Francisco. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a kettle so that rulled out the caffetiere, and I didn’t want to risk breaking the espresso machine – so that left the stove-top coffee maker. I’d never used one of these before, so i got some instructions off the internet. Clearly something went wrong along the line – perhaps I put in too much coffee? Didn’t open the pressure valve? – because when I went in to check if it was ready the whole thing blew up in my face. Literally. After a few moments I was relieved that the hot water hadn’t been hot enough to do any actual damage to my skin, though I had lots of coffee in my eyes. After washing them out, I turned around and the sight was quite impressive. A whole kitchen covered in coffee. A whole kitchen painted white covered in coffee. I got to work and luckily coffee comes off pretty easy, so about an hour later I thought I’d got most of it done. Although I missed a few spots, Alex was very understanding and I escaped with both my face and my life.

I’d decided before setting out that I was going to spend a while in the Bay Area, as after two months I’d be sick of moving around and it’d be good to really get a feel for a place. So for my last few days in the USA I have just wandered around the SF area and generally not done all that much. First I went to the Haight-Ashbury district, which is a little like Camden in London, full of cool record shops, stores selling drug paraphernalia, little cafes etc. The next day I went down to the Castro, which is the famous gay quarter of San Francisco, where in the 70s and 80s gay, lesbian and bisexual people moved from across America and even the world so that they could live how they wanted.

Chris Brooke recommended I go, and said he thought there was probably no other place in the world like the Castro, and I think he’s right. Somewhere like Soho in London is pretty sleazy and you can feel the tabboo in the air; it’s all porn shops and dodgy bastards lurking about. The Castro however is quite different. It’s an area for gay people by gay people. Sure there are shops selling adult entertainment, but there’s cafes, bakeries, cinemas, pharmacies and so forth. There are gay bookshops, as well as a gay music store (seriously, and somewhat stereotypically they did only sell music from musicals, ‘divas’, techno and so forth). Basically, the Castro is what other parts of the world might be like if it weren’t institutionally homophobic. Apparently it was far more vibrant in the 1970s and 80s – a lot of gentrification has taken place over the last 15 years – and the area was hit very hard by the AIDS epidemic in the 1970s and 80s (there’s a lot of AIDS-awareness posters about the place nowadays).

Indeed, talking of institutionalised homophobia it was interesting to do some self-analysis as I walked around. As much as I like to think of, and present, myself as liberal and open minded, the life-long conditioning of a society institutionally homophobic except for some superficial rhetorical gestures kicked in, and I noticed myself systematically wondering about the sexuality of every person I walked past, staring involuntarily at posters of gay men advertising various products, and wondering if I would be propositioned by a gay person if I went in the ‘wrong’ store. Indeed, that latter response didn’t actually surprise me, but did make me sad with myself. It’s a typical stereotype of gay men that they want to sleep with all men, and is frequently insinuated that they will rape if turned down (at least, those are prejudices i’ve frequently encountered and heard before), and I was saddened that such idiotic ideas had planted themselves, in some way and at some level, in me. Given that somebody who professes to be as liberal and tolerant as I do has those kinds of reactions, I guess it kind of shows just how far society needs to go. Anyway, here’s a couple of pictures:

Later I walked down to the Bay-front where there is an interesting memorial to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the group of volunteers from the USA who went to Spain during the civil war to fight fascism:

There are various quotes from labour organisers on the memorial, including Harry Bridges:

Which made me think of the song by Rancid:

Bloody Thursday was July 5th
The pigs killed 3 workers harry bridges grabbed the mic
The city shut down July 5th the workers outrage it was a general strike
The media claimed that the commies were taking over
And some believed it was true
3 uncompromising strikes was paved the way
Minn Sf and ToledoOver and over again the doors are locked
And the windows are broken

Eddie worked for general motors and he swore
That he’d never lose his job again
A union man who owned his own home
In beautiful flint Michigan

Eddie lost his job and Eddie lost his wife
So Eddie lost his self esteem
The last time i saw Eddie
He was living in the trailer park again

Over and over again the doors are locked
And the windows are broken

I believe Eddie forgave too much too soon
I got a letter from Eddie and it was bad news

Over and over again the doors are locked
And the windows are broken

Later I went up the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. It cost me $4.50 to get up to the top, it was full of smelly, queue-jumping and shove-you-in-the-back Europeans, and they’d put up glass windows where people had wiped their greasy little paws, thus ruining photo opportunities. Yet another reason why all tourist attractions should be owned exclusively by me.



After dossing around in cafes all day I went back to Alex’s. We watched TV for a while then hit the sack, for the next day I left early before his flat-mate got back. I’d decided to fork out for a room in a “cheap” hotel on Lombard Street up near the Presidio area, at a mere $109 plus tax. Apparently I was getting a bargain. Perhaps this was to do with the fact the main light didn’t work, there was no bin, the cable TV was all fuzzy, I was right next to the road so every time anything bigger than a bicycle went by the whole room shook, and I was right next to the main lift so every time somebody came out of that they kindly slammed the safety door behind them. In any case, I was only there a night and I suppose it was tolerable, plus they let me put my pack in the luggage room the next day when I bummed around SF.

Anyways, after checking in to the hotel I did a chunk of the coastal trail around the Presidio, taking my past the Golden Gate bridge:

Lost of pelicans in the bay area. I think they are rather wonderful:

Round the other side of the bridge the trail is less crowded and there are some awesome views:

The beach I took this photo from turned out to really be a gay nude beach (i’d ignored the earlier writing on the steps down, dismissing it as infantile graffiti). I felt a little awkward at first, but then realised it wasn’t really something worth caring about, though I confess I kept my clothes on. There weren’t all that many nudes about, gay or otherwise, but I did enjoy watching a seal dive for fish in the massive waves. Sitting on this beach and looking out over the Pacific, I felt really content in a way i’mnot sure I ever have before. Just watching the waves come in, with nowhere to go or be just felt right.

For the rest of my time in San Francisco I basically just bummed around and took advantage of the exchange rate.

I fly out of San Francisco International tomorrow morning, and barring any aviation disasters should be back in the UK on Friday morning. I’d just like to say a big thank-you to all the people who hosted me, everyone who read the blog, those who took the time to comment or otherwise, my Mum, my Dad and my Uncle for helping me make this trip finanically viable, and especially Balliol College for making this possible. It’s been the trip of a life-time, so thanks for sharing it with me.



2 responses to “No Direction Home

  1. Hey Paul. I’ve been internetless while you’ve been on your little jaunt and from reading this I feel like I’ve really missed out. It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, I’ll have to go back and read a few of the other posts. A little bird told me you got a first as well. Congratulations. I got a 2.i myself and am still in Leeds looking for a job. Good luck with whatever you do next.

  2. I’ve heard of ‘Death by Chocolate’, but coffee?

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