San Francisco and Hollywood

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February 13th 2016
Published: April 28th 2016
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I couldn't believe it... she actually stamped on my foot.

To the short, angry, obviously intoxicated... possibly stoned... woman at the back of the bus I was just another white face in the crowd, a stranger on the bus. We hadn't exchanged a single word. I hadn't made eye contact. I certainly had done nothing to provoke her wrath. I couldn't even tell you what she looked like. I'd been sitting for about ten minutes, shocked at the foul language and racial slurs shrilly emanating from an anonymous woman who I didn't have a clear view of at the back of the bus. When she stomped forward to "speak" to the bus driver, I had moved to let her pass. On the way back she said to me, "Get out of my way white boy!" and then stamped on my foot. I was too stunned to react. The leg that was resting on the leg she stamped on reflexively jerked forward on her impact but it didn't make contact.

Where does that anger come from? Is she just intolerant of people that are different from her or is it something deeper? Did she experience something at the hands of a white man which made her believe we are all evil? Is it the multi-generational injustice that has been targeted at her community? Is it the highly polarised, highly charged media that America specialises in? Is it the fact that decades after the Civil Rights Movement and over a century after the Civil War, the country is still seething with racial tensions, lumbered with social injustices and struggling to reconcile the self-evident truths that "All men are created equal".

I had been in the United States for just over twenty-four hours when I was racially abused. I don't know why it happened and I never will. I don't hold it against her, despite her tearing the boots that had made me a fashion icon in Havana (where on several occasions the young men had enviously pointed at my boots and told me how cool I was).

After a whirlwind visit to Canada, three days in Cuba, a difficult week in Mexico and no sleep in Cancun airport we were exhausted when we arrived in the States. Lindsey's friend, Vincent, had picked us up at the airport and we had just collapsed into his apartment grateful to have briefly stopped moving and reached a place of comfort.

The next day we didn't get moving until well after lunch time. We stopped for a bite to eat at an expensive local café and then hopped onto the metro into town. After about twenty stops we changed onto a bus which took us another ten stops to the Golden Gate Bridge. This journey was when we discovered just how big American cities are! We walked across the bridge as the sun was going down, seeing the city, distantly, bathed in the golden light of the sunset on the other side of the bridge. The light playing on the buildings was beautiful. The noise of the rush hour traffic made the bridge almost unbearable. It took a lot longer than we expected to cross and re-cross the bridge and by the time we had finished we were short on time.

We dashed back to the bus stop near the Visitor's centre and then stopped... We realised we had no idea where we were going. We had not yet bought a US SIM card and we couldn't find a wifi signal. All of the buses take the same route into the city so we hopped on the next one but had no idea where to get off. It turned out we weren't the only ones... Opposite us, clutching a map (another thing we didn't have yet) was a man sitting with his wife and two daughters. This Latin American family spoke very limited English so when they asked the driver for help she didn't understand. At that point two or three other friendly passengers, none of whom knew the city, tried to help. This led to a lot of confusion on the part of the family, the driver and the helpers. As an outsider it was extremely funny to watch, though I could see the man getting more upset and felt sorry for him. This whole directional farce meant that we had no opportunity to seek our own directions... nor did we feel confident it would help!

We took a guess and got off the bus... And found a free wifi connection. We discovered we'd gotten off only one stop too early and we were about six blocks from our destination - the Davis Concert Hall, where we would listen to the San Francisco Symphony. Success! Our next priority was to find food. We had about twenty minutes before we had to be at the hall so we desperately searched for a food vendor. Ten minutes later, when we were just about to turn back empty handed, we glimpsed a pizza takeaway down a back street and felt a huge sense of relief. We wolfed down the pizza as we walked back and arrived just in time. Pinchas Zuckerman and the San Francisco Symphony were truly excellent, though I found my mind wandering a lot throughout the Elgar and Mozart. Afterwards, we stood outside the concert hall for over an hour waiting for a bus before we planned an alternative route as it was obvious the bus we were expecting wasn't running. When the bus finally arrived we exhaustedly stumbled aboard. It was half way into this journey that I was attacked.

The next day Vincent took us into the city where we hit some of the main attractions... We clung on to the Cable Car as it took us up and down steep streets; we wandered around the shops at Fisherman's Wharf, spying chocolate covered bacon and bread sculpted into various shapes; and then we went to Ghiardelli's for the largest, most decadent chocolate sundae I've ever had. Suitably stuffed, we went home. In the evening we ordered takeaway pizza because one of my main objectives in America was to taste Chicago style pizza pies. I was not disappointed by the crispy base and deep well of sauce, cheese and chicken filling. It was a good day!

In the morning we decided we had to work off some of the thousands of calories we'd eaten. Vincent's in-laws, Kathy and Mike, were staying in the flat above and offered to take us for a walk. Half an hour later we found ourselves searching for a path down an escarpment formed by previous tectonic action. Before us was visible evidence of the sheer power of the San Andreas fault. It was humbling to see the earth so ruptured. We spent a lovely few hours wandering across the strange, fog shrouded landscape looking down on the Pacific Ocean below, and clambering over extensive clumps of the tough, invasive, multi-coloured Ice Plant species, common on the dunes. Above us, as we paused for lunch, a pair of eagles soared on the thermals. Mike and Kathy turned out to have a wealth of information about the local geology and flora and fauna which really enhanced the experience.

On our final day in San Francisco, Lindsey and I wandered around the Golden Gate Park. As it was early spring, many of the trees were still bare which meant colour was quite sparse. Some early blossoms were blooming in pink though which were pretty. We passed by a couple of lakes and then came to a bison paddock where a group of Chinese tourists were snapping away with their cameras. Beyond this we took a big loop back, crossed a sports track and left the park to find a coffee shop. We spent the afternoon packing and baby sitting Vincent's five-month old son, Hosea.

That evening we had a Greyhound bus to catch. We lumbered to the tram station, struggling under the weight of our packs. The driver wouldn't let us on and insisted we walk a couple of blocks further. We then precariously balanced ourselves as the tram took us to the other side of the city. With only a couple of minutes to spare we reached the bus station and checked in. We then waited for over an hour, without any information, as our bus was seriously delayed. Eventually it arrived and we boarded with no trouble. As the bus was only half full Lindsey and I each took a bank of two seats and we discovered that we could get a bit of sleep that way... this was great news as we had a three day journey to look forward to a couple of weeks later.

We stumbled out of the bus and onto the streets of Los Angeles at about 5am. LA is not a place I ever planned to visit. The whole celebrity culture leaves me feeling cold, the hype doesn't impress me and I don't like sun and beaches. However, Lindsey has a cousin, Brett, who lives in LA and we wanted to take the opportunity of being so close to spend some time with him and his family.

Brett, knowing we were arriving crazily early, had suggested a place for us to get breakfast. The Pantry is an LA landmark - a tiny diner now surrounded by high-rise buildings but so popular and historic that it is protected by the city. They pride themselves on never having closed the doors since they opened they have been serving twenty-four hours a day, every day. The doors don't even have a lock. Here we found exactly what we needed... A hearty breakfast of pancakes, syrup and bacon, or French toast and syrup, served with bottomless coffee. The walls proudly displayed the history of the diner, a snapshot of the history of the city. On our table were photos depicting the incredible transformation of the view from the diner as the city had evolved around it.

Fortified by breakfast we took the metro to Hollywood Boulevard to meet Brett at work. I'd never met Brett before but I took an instant liking to him. He is a bundle of energy and passion and absolutely loves the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Brett works for a movie promotion company and his offices are right in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. When we arrived the street was in the process of being transformed for two events - the premier of a new movie and the Oscars. Around the workers laying out the red carpet and various props the street was humming with people. One guy, who claimed to be an R&B singer, put a CD of his music in my hand, expecting me to pay for it... I hurriedly gave it back.

Brett showed us around the local area, pointing out the Hollywood sign, before having to duck back into some meetings. We took the opportunity to do what all of Hollywood's tourists do... look at the stars on the sidewalk. I was surprised by how far the Boulevard went. Before we'd gone very far, it started raining and we ducked into a very tacky gift shop. We had no interest in cheap plastic oscars or photos of celebrities but it still took us almost an hour to look around. By the time we left the rain was coming down much harder so we went back to meet Brett who took us to a fancy hotel for lunch. Here I had the best burger I've ever had. After a leisurely lunch Brett called a car for us and we went back to his home.

The next couple of days were spent very leisurely and we hardly ventured from the house. Instead we took the opportunity to get to know Michelle, Benicio and Mia... Brett's wife, son and daughter. We had an amazing time getting to know this distant branch of Lindsey's family and it was difficult leaving them after such a short visit. We hadn't seen much of LA but we were content to leave it that way.

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