Friday, August 23, 2013

My first visit to America

Whilst looking for my old diaries, I came across old passports and so discovered that I first visited America on August 23, 1978. When I blogged earlier about this visit, I wrote that I couldn't remember anything about the days before flying, but now the memories have returned.

As I wrote before, I was living in Cardiff over that summer. On Friday, 21 August, I took the train to London and as I had nothing better to do, I went to the cinema to see the film 'House Calls'  (with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson) which had just been released. The next day I was with a group of friends and we decided to go to the cinema; by default we ended up watching 'House Calls'! The film on the plane to Newark was ... 'House Calls'!! The film itself was quite good but not worthy of watching three times in three days.

My hosts in San Francisco were my best friend's sister and the sister's husband. I had met them a few months earlier when they had come to London; as a gesture to my best friend, I took them around a few sights in the city then had dinner with them in the sort of restaurant which I would never visit (touristy and very expensive). I remember arriving at SF airport at midnight (which for me was 8am - I had been traveling for 24 hours) then phoning my hosts, expecting them to collect me and not realising how far the airport was from the city. They told me to take a bus to the bus terminal which I did; they collected me from there.

They lived in an apartment on Seventh Avenue, near Golden Gate Park. On my first day, after clearing the cobwebs in my head, I set out for the park and rambled. For me, this was the first of several historic sites: the first 'Be-In' was held here in January 1967; only eleven years previously but it seemed like a lifetime. From the park I walked down to the Haight, bought a book and a record which I was looking for, then retired to eat lunch under a tree in the park (in those days, I still ate in MacDonalds).

After having eaten my burger, I took stock of the situation and quickly realised that I didn't have enough money for my three week trip if I continued spending at the same rate as I had started. This simple fact cast a pall over the entire trip and prevented me from enjoying it more.

I don't remember now all the things that I did in San Francisco and certainly not in which order they occurred so I'll simply list what I do remember. After a week, my hosts 'cast me out' and I had to move to a cheap boarding house for another week. I misled the owner about exchange rates sterling to dollar which he wasn't too pleased about. Places I visited in the city were the Golden Gate Bridge (of course), North Beach, Sausalito, Chinatown, the Pacific shore line (I walked what seemed like a hundred blocks in order to get there!), Fisherman's Wharf and the Embarcadero (there was a jazz group playing on the grass) and Berkeley University, across the bay. One day I took a combined boat and bus trip to various places in Marin County, simply to see something new.

I remember attending a service at a synagogue on a Saturday and hanging around outside hoping that someone would notice me and invite me to dinner. I was too shy to approach anyone directly, and as a result no one invited me.

On my final day, I wasted some precious dollars by traveling to Candlestick Park to watch a baseball game; director and actor Ron Howard threw the first ball. I very much enjoyed the day and bought a 'SF' baseball cap which I wore for the rest of my trip. It seemed that San Francisco was divided into two parts: the side where I stayed which was sunny whereas 'the other side' (including Candlestick Park)  seemed to be in perpetual cloud.

My primary influences had been 'On the road' by Jack Kerouac and 'The electric kool-aid acid test' by Tom Wolfe.

After two weeks in San Francisco, I took the Greyhound bus to New York: my plane ticket was to San Francisco but my return was from New York. I had planned this in advance so that I could see both cities. The bus left at midnight and went via Sacramento on its way to Reno, Nevada (cue song). I awoke here after a muddled sleep and thought that there was a half hour stop, so I got off the bus to stretch my legs. The bus drove off almost immediately after I disembarked, so I was stuck in Reno for twelve hours with no money and only my copy of John Le Carre's "Honourable Schoolboy" (which I had bought in Heathrow on my way to America) to keep me company. As the Americans say, bummer.

Once back on the bus, I tried to make the best of my situation. The bus would stop every few hours so that people could eat and/or visit toilets. The Americans always serve big portions but charge accordingly, which I couldn't really afford. At least once, someone paid for me to have a meal at a diner. One morning, in some mid-West town, I looked for a grocery store where I bought a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and a carton of chocolate milk: I ate peanut buffer sandwiches for the rest of the journey. I was hoping that my rucksack would have got lost (it was traveling on the first bus) so that I could claim compensation, but the rucksack was waiting for me in the Port Authority building.

Once in New York, I thought that I would be able to stay with members of Habonim. After all, in London, we frequently hosted people who were passing through. Unfortunately (yet again), my expectations didn't match reality; every night I had to find new lodgings which weren't always conducive (I had no money for a hotel). For the last few nights of my visit, I stayed with a family in a comfortable house - but this was in Long Island, so I had to spend money on trains into and out of the city. 

Due to me wearing the SF baseball hat, more than once people thought that I was from San Francisco rather than from Britain, although one woman in Central Park who drew my portrait without me asking to do so complained about 'hoity toity Brits' after I declined to purchase the portrait (no money).

The only things that I remember (at the moment) of this visit were Central Park,'Guernica' at the Museum of Metropolitan Art (where I saw the first non-comedic Woody Allen film, 'Interiors'), and pinching a book* from the New York public library, a book which I had been unable to find in the myriad second hand bookshops which line Manhattan. Obviously, my lack of money ruined my stay and prevented me from remembering much. On the final day, I mosied around the city, trying to delay the inevitable, but eventually I came to the Port Authority and took the shuttle bus to JFK where I spent the night (I had done this a few times in Israel as well, after arriving there late at night). 

In Heathrow, my parents met me and took me back to Cardiff where I spent a week or so before making the final trip to London prior to emigration.

* The book was called "The boy who could make himself disappear" by Kin Platt; I had become aware of the book as I had seen the film 'Baxter' (based on the book) a few weeks previously and had been deeply impressed. To quote a review of the book, "I first read this book thirty years ago and literally thousands of books later I still vividly remember the impact it made on me. I think I started crying about page fifty and didn't stop until the end. The subject matter, child abuse and willful neglect, is ugly, but the telling is done with such subtlety and delicacy that to this day this book still sits on my shelf. I've recommended it to quite a few young teens who I knew were strong enough to take it and virtually all of them loved the book. Even the fact that the ending is hopeful rather than happy doesn't put them off. Kids are realists more than we think and I believe they appreciate the author not taking the nicer and therefore easier way out with this work. They can get all the cute and sweet stuff they want from Disney, Kin Platt wrote about the real world where happily ever after doesn't always happen. Sometimes it's good to remember that.

I couldn't put it better myself.

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