My short stay with Greg and Agnes is pleasant enough but not entirely successful. Their apartment is sparse and new, it reminds me of a show room for a time share. The vaguely oppressive air of a doctor’s surgery hangs about me as I perch on a clinical black leather sofa. I swear I can feel my pallid flesh convulsing on my bones, is it noticeable? To be sure it’s not I retire to the toilet where I drain away half the bottle, gag, wretch and dunk head in the sink. As I regard myself in the mirror I note that the contrast of my patchy red complexion and dirty yellow eyes is not especially fetching. A pair of black Wayfarers make for a temporary solution. On returning to my perch in the living room I’m quizzed by the concerned couple over a glass of coconut water.
“What’s been going on mate?”
“Just the usual, settlin’ in, makin’ friends”
Tumble weeds are better received…
“You scared the shit out of the girl in the cafe and my friends at the Bungalow think you’re mad!”
“Mad?”, I’m embarrassed and completely indifferent at the same time.
“You were raving at them! Something about letting people play tricks on you? Help us out here! You held a fucking staff meeting! You don’t even work there!”
All of this is news to me so I breathe in deeply, feel that sweet liquor shudder and proceed with my rebuttal.
“Listen Greg, your friends are fucking hipsters. I’m sure their perfectly lovable but they’re also spineless cookie cutter cunts.”
“Fucks sake! They’re really nice people. They think I dumped a paranoid drug addict on their doorstep. It’s embarrassing!”
“Embarrassing? Look around you Greg. ‘Welcome ta Hallywerrrrd! What’s yo dream! What’s yo dream!'”, I’m hollering as Greg’s eyes roll and head sinks.
At this Agnes laughs sympathetically and warmly reassures my anxious friend that all is well, no big deal.
“Let’s eat, the gig’s in like an hour and a half”, she offers to Greg.
The booze has returned me to my big boy boots and I insist on cooking the pair their dinner. Predictably I burn two lovely fillets of salmon and for dessert make what I feel is a corking joke about getting a Swastika tattoo (Agnes is Jewish). Despite all this, my superfluously tolerant hosts invite me to the Troubadour for the evening but my stomach is tightening in an all too familiar way so I decline as politely as I can, droplets of cold sweat already forming at my temples. Agnes kisses my clammy cheek good night and they leave. As the heavy door slaps shut, I pray forgiveness for as long as it takes me to get to the toilet where I squat like a beaten dog. Sweet Milkshake Shit! I’m surely dying this time, it’s Big Wednesday, my last wave! My bowels once again suffering for the sins of my temperament. Contracting and relaxing, flagellation and genuflection…
I sit still in the coming darkness, my skin prickling under the hum of the air conditioning. I’m so happy to be alone I could cry. In the kitchen I wash up, chuck the untouched coconut water, open a Newcastle Brown Ale and call it a day. Reclining on the sofa, eyes drooping, I feel bolts of static exploding in my head and I rest.
“sleep the sleep of the wicked, sleep the sleep of the damned, sleep the sleep of the wicked, sleep the sleep of the damned…”
Greg wakes me around eleven am, I’ve knocked over the bottle of brown ale in my sleep and my friend is less than pleased. The parquet floor is stained with sticky stale molasses and “Agnes will flip if she sees this”, so we work on our hands and knees with sodden paper towels and cold soapy water, it’s painful.
My head swims in the morning heat and the fetid mix of detergent and sticky beer conjure an emptiness I haven’t felt in a long while. Following the clear up, as if to compound my malaise, Greg is short and irritable so I take my leave as fast as my creaking body will carry me. Greg’s mood turns fraternal when he realises I’m half way out the door but this is merely a Catch-22 every reckless prick must face; your nearest and dearest love you but they don’t want you in their lives!
Once I get on the street I head towards the 3rd Street Promenade, I’m not sure why but I need a destination. I drain a little on my bottle just as a cool breeze hits my damp armpits. This is enough to smooth my rejection and gives flight to a rather sweet, hopeful indignation. I decide to move on rather than skulk around like an unloved stray. For this, I reason, I will need equipment.
In a huge corporate camping store, a surprisingly foul-mouthed salesman kits me out. I want ‘The Basics”. I get exactly ‘The Basics’. Even when I suggest a humble ground mat, I am told “Nah Bra, ya don’t need that shit”. Quite positive I haven’t been up-sold, I leave for Union Station with numerous additions to my bindle; tent, sleeping bag, knife, compass, stove and a wind-up torch. I take the bus to the station, lurching awkwardly under the weight of my pack. I only notice how much I’m swaying as the other passengers are regarding me as one regards a building that’s about to collapse. To everyone’s relief, I disembark at the station, where I immediately buy a ticket. It reads, San Francisco: One Way.
Soon I’m slumped dreamily on a decorative wooden bench. A rotund policeman thinks I’m a hobo and asks to see my ticket, I produce the ticket, he snorts and tells me not to fall asleep as I’ll miss my train. It’s not for another two hours dickhead, “Thank you, Officer”. Slightly paranoid now, I wander over to a kiosk and order a corndog. The hot grease proves to be of some comfort and I return to the bench, recline and crack open ‘A Farewell to Arms’. I hope the book will ward off any further unwanted attention. Literature tends to repel idiocy in my experience.
The huge grey bulk of the Amtrak arrives on time, just as the afternoon sun takes a bow. As the train rumbles into the coming night, I drain a little, feel a wistful inertia and a sort of saccharine melancholy as the industrial farms of California zip by.
I wake to a sudden lurching and can’t tell whether it’s the train or my stomach, turns out it’s both. Through a short coughing fit I hear an announcer saying something like, “All passengers for San Francisco disembark here for the bus service”. Oh dear, can that be right? Where am I? The sign on the platform reads ‘San Jose’. I lamely follow an assortment of hippies and odd balls off the train and onto a waiting coach and it occurs to me that I’m surprisingly submissive when woken abruptly. The bus is dark and cramped and the faces of my fellow travellers seem like Bohemian ghouls. I wrap a protective arm around my pack as the driver tells us that we’ll be in San Francisco at about 0600. That gives me time to sleep but I don’t because I hate buses.
I find it remarkable how fast hippies can turn any innocuous space into a shanty town. Tatty ponchos, politically embellished rucksacks, revolutionary hoodies, designer limbs in designer rags and the sticky spectre of cannabis. All this hung, slung, draped and dropped, paraded up and down the aisle, seats and overheads, what a spectacle! Uniform individuality on wheels.
On arriving in San Francisco, I alight at the first possible opportunity, the only person to do so. We’re early, it’s only five o’clock, pitch black and raining. From what I can glean from the sterile skyline I’m in some sort of commercial district, high bland office blocks face me and I have water to my back, a dock perhaps. I can hear moored boats gently knocking against concrete and the deep slurp of freezing water rushing around man’s constructs.
Trying not to panic, and upon finding a bench facing the city lights I ponder my situation. The best my dynamic mind can muster is to sit still until daybreak and then find something to eat. After half an hour of shivering so hard that my jaw aches, I decide to forfeit the last of the night’s dignity and climb into my sleeping bag. The early morning joggers bounce past me warily. Another hour passes before a grim little dawn breaks over me and I notice that trams are beginning to move at the end of the street. Breakfast time.
I’m the first person on the first tram I see.
“We don’t leave for fifteen minutes but you can get on if you like”, the little brown dumpling of a driver tells me.
“Lovely, thank you”, I reply, trembling as I hand over my fare.
Condensation covers all the windows and I spend much of the journey alone. All this grey and damp and fatigue breed a dull aching helplessness.
“Last stop Castroville!”
This jolts me to life, at least I’ve heard of Castroville. It’s still early as I survey the rolling Boulevard. It looks like a parade that’s been rained on, all bright wet colours garnishing moist grey buildings. My eye lids are gratingly raw as I blink it all in. On a corner the blessed red, white and blue are splashed all over a little neon diner, I feel the warmth of bubblegum Americana and go in. The atmosphere inside is festive, really rather festive.
Two well built queers, one bald, the other not, both handsome, greet me from behind a pristine 1950’s counter. Their kind faces direct me to a red leather booth where I clumsily deposit myself and my bindle, steam rising from both. The place is basically empty and even when it’s full I doubt it seats more than twenty. All the other patrons are at the counter on stools, chatting jovially with the owners.
The service here is so thorough and sincere that I’m almost embarrassed by the time my breakfast order arrives. It’s huge and tasty but somewhat of a struggle as I fear my stomach is roughly the size of walnut by now. I finish what I can, leave a decent tip, take a drag on the bottle and get up to leave. The bald queer rushes over to help me with my bindle, a lump rises in my throat. Sweet charity and the labours of a new day!
“So long big handsome man!”
I wave back over the bulk of my pack and pass out into the rainy street. Finding myself aimless once again, I walk along a long arched street where the morning traffic is building steadily. My guess is that I’m in the bay area but guessing’s no good, I need a map. At a book store in a salt blasted marina board walk I buy copy of ‘Camping California’. The two girls running the place are wearing near-identical geeky glasses and seem uncommonly interested in what my plans are.
“I’m going camping”, my voice cracking impotently.
“Oh cool, whereabouts? Big Basin?”
“That’s right! Got it in one”
Whilst I ponder exactly what ‘Big Basin’ is, the girls busy themselves writing down the easiest way to get there. As I go to leave I thank them for their help and they reassure me that I’m in for, “a crazy long walk” which I deflect with a wink which I feel is rather roguish.
My journey south towards the mysterious Basin is a breeze, I take a commuter train back to San Jose, bask in the reappearing sun, buy two soft shelled nachos for two dollars, blend myself a iced tea cocktail in the bus station cubicles and recline, expectant of the last leg of my journey. When my bus lumbers into the bay I notice that the display reads Boulder Creek rather than Big Basin and when I query this with the driver he replies,
“We only go all the way out to the Basin in season son. I’m goin’ as far as Boulder Creek before I come back”
I buy ticket anyway, modestly explaining that I’ll walk the rest of the way, incredulously the driver hands me my ticket. Self doubt now dampens my spirit somewhat as the bus rolls along the highway. I am further unnerved by a chap sitting next to me who claims to be the inspiration for the film Avatar.
At the final stop in the ‘Lil’Town O’ Boulder Creek’ the driver points down the endless highway towards my journey’s end and as the bus doors hiss shut I hear him chuckle,
“Jeez, you English boys must love walking!”