Sunday, 26 October 2008

Foot fault

Here’s my problem. I look a bit like I could be a drug dealer. At airports, sometimes this proves to be a little unfortunate.

Now admittedly, my choice of dress often doesn’t really help matters. What I think of as louche, slightly disheveled chic, does not necessarily appear that way to the average customs officer. I do find that I will regularly get singled out for a bit of special attention and a few extra questions, especially when I fly to or from Amsterdam.

This time, for my flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas, I did something that I will never do again. I wore my sandals to travel and in my early morning haste to pack, I put one shoe in my check in luggage and one in my hand baggage. This proved to be somewhat of an error on my part.

When my bag went through the x-ray machine I new there was a problem when three people stopped to point at the machine. Now I usually forget to take some liquids out and once I carried a 32 pack of batteries which on the x-ray looked like a large slab of metal. So I was ready to be asked the favourite question of airport security officers everywhere "Is this your bag, sir?"

This time it was followed up by the double whammy of:

"Is this your shoe, sir?"
and
"And how many feet do you have, sir?"

This guy clearly had me bang to rights here. I had only one shoe, but two feet. It was an open and shut case. As I launched into a complicated explanation to remedy the situation, I heard the unwelcome snap of rubber gloves being put on and the phrase "Please come with me, sir"

Uh-oh...

So it was another first on the trip. The first time I was backroomed at an airport. It was actually quite an interesting experience and I tried to lay on my best bumbling English Hugh Grant style persona to avoid the full body search. With much relief, it didn't come to that and I was able to explain things to them. I think it was probably a slow day for them terrorist-wise, so they wanted something to do. One thing that I didn't understand was why they spent about ten minutes finely dusting my sandals with a small brush whilst I made smalltalk to the customs officer about the baseball playoffs. Perhaps there was still sand on them that resembled explosive materials? Who knows?

Eventually I was released without charge to take my flight.

The scariest thing about the whole experience was that I had to walk barefoot down a long dirty corridor.

If I get verrucas, I'll be filing a lawsuit for sure.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Sleeveless in Seattle

I was very sad to leave Seattle on Wednesday. I spent a week and a half there and I think I fell in love with the city a little bit. I can’t really put my finger on what it was about it that I liked so much. It wasn’t anything obvious – It is a city of more subtle charms.

It has a kind of crispness and cleanness that the places I’ve been to in California don’t really have. I’ve been told that this is even more so in the spring. The landscape in the Pacific Northwest is amazing. Huge trees everywhere and there is this huge dormant volcano called Mount Ranier looking down on the area. It’s really nice up there.

Whilst I was in Seattle, I developed a bit of a daily circuit. Early lunch at Mae Phim, a really good Thai place that does great lunches for about $6-$7. Then, after a browse around Pike Place Market, maybe buying a little bit of food for the rabbits, on to the Crumpet Shop, where you can drink as much tea as you like for $1.55. Like a parched man who had found an oasis in the desert, I think one day I had ten cups.

Then later, after perhaps wandering the streets a little, or going to an art gallery, on to a great cosy coffee shop like Bauhaus Books and Coffee in Capitol Hill. Or perhaps the internet café Uncle Elizabeth’s, where they do great tuna melt sandwiches. And the coffee, wow it was good!

It’s a very cultural city, there’s always a lot going on and it’s very compact too, so it is easy to get to lots of different places. Public transport is pretty good as well. I never got to Portland or Vancouver, but I visited Tacoma and Olympia, both of which have their charms in different ways and both of which I’ve mentioned already.

The only thing I’m not missing about Seattle is the weather. When I started this trip I wasn’t even sure if I was going to go that far north, so I packed clothes for California. It meant that when I got up there, I was extremely under-dressed for the, at times, somewhat inclement conditions. My bootleg LA Dodgers hoodie certainly got a lot of wear. It was a shame that the Dodgers themselves couldn’t quite make the World Series, losing 4-1 to Philadelphia in the semis.

So now here I am back in San Francisco for the third time. This time I am staying in a hostel in Chinatown, which is one of my favourite districts. It is right next to North Beach (the Italian area), another of my favourites. It’s quite a small hostel and each of the beds is named after a famous person from San Francisco’s history. I was introduced to my bed with the following line “You are in Lilly Coit, as were half the fire fighters of San Francisco in the late 19th Century!”

I was intrigued by a flyer on the wall of the hostel.

CHEAPEST SKY DIVING IN CALIFORNIA

Now I’m a man who likes to watch his pennies, but when it comes to certain things, I think it is better not to try to economise. Sky Diving is definitely top of my list, along with plastic surgery and custard. Trust me folks, cheap own brand custard isn’t worth even bothering with.

I think if I want to try sky diving, I’d probably spend an extra few dollars, rather than going with the Poundstretcher option. I wouldn’t really want to be freefalling and find out my parachute was made of newspaper or something like that…

Today I went to City Lights bookstore, which was very cool - Hundreds of books about all the beat writers and the whole movement. I spent about an hour reading a fantastic self-produced booklet about the street art scene in Buenos Aires – It made me want to go to Argentina!

I feel like my trip is pretty much over. Tomorrow I fly to Vegas for the last leg. In my mind though, it doesn’t really count, because Vegas is not entirely real and full of sick degenerate gamblers. Me included.

So now I’m sitting and reflecting in a café in North Beach, San Francisco. I’m listening to Devotchka, drinking iced coffee and watching the cable cars go past outside the window.

Even though my trip is ending soon, I feel really happy. I feel very alive and open to possibility, to adventure and to life.

It’s a nice feeling.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Mexico shitty

I almost forgot to tell you. Don't go to Tijuana. It is a complete hellhole. Even Coventry looks picturesque by comparison :-).

I was there a few weeks ago - I only lasted about six hours. The only redeeming features I can think of was that beer was only $1 a bottle and I almost had my photograph taken with a zebra.

Never have I felt more like a tourist in my entire life. At every turn, people tried to sell goods and services to me. Sunglasses, viagra, cigars, beer, burritos, hats, naked girls... the list goes on. I was almost losing the will to live when I was approached by a man with a Polaroid camera with a zebra on a lead. It is the first time this has ever happened to me.

Now let me say, I was tempted, but one look at the slightly mangy zebra was enough to convince me that this kind of practice shouldn't be encouraged.

It would have made a good Facebook profile pic though...

In a bar in Tijuana I met this guy. Let's call him Jose. He told me his story.

His family are all American citizens but he was born across the border in Mexico, where he lived for a year before moving to the US. Jose lived in the US for thirty years. After 9/11, he signed up to the military, where he served for a year. He was preparing to go to Iraq, when he got a different kind of call up... from the immigration office. He was being deported. He'd spent two years in Tijuana rebuilding his life. He now worked in a Mexican bank and seemed to be doing OK, though the standard of living was obviously much lower.

I was liking this guy and was enjoying having a beer with him, when disaster struck. Yes, it turned out he was a crazy conspiracy theorist.

"Phill, I think god made us meet today because he wanted me to give you a message."

*eyebrow arched quizzically* "Yes?"

"The message is that our governments have been lying to us for all these years. We need to overthrow them and take control. We need to take power back for ourselves."

"Do you want another Corona?"

"Yeah, sure."

When he offered to take me to a local strip joint, as he could get free entry, I realised that it probably wasn't going to be the place to plan world domination. Taking this as my cue to leave, perhaps shamefully, I ran off whilst he was in the toilet. Sorry Jose! I did pick up the tab though...

The squalor of Tijuana is in start contrast to San Diego, just over the border. The word I would probably most use to describe San Diego is nice. I can see why it is one of the fastest growing cities in the US. The climate is good, great beaches, the city feels friendly and safe. But for me, maybe it was a little too friendly and safe?

Don't get me wrong, I liked it there and had a great time. I met some great people, there are some interesting districts and the beaches at Del Mar and Oceanside are beautiful, especially at night. But it felt, well at least the downtown area did, a little too ordered and sanitised. Plus it didn't seem to have the edge of San Francisco or Los Angeles.

I'd really like to go to Mexico City or Guadalajara to see the real Mexico. But for now, I can't stress this enough... Don't go to Tijuana!

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The war on poo

A friend from San Francisco, who lived in Seattle for ten years, said to me that the city was all about "coffee, music, books and alcohol." After spending a few days here, I would have to agree with her. I've mainly spent my time in coffeeshops, pubs and watching bands. No wonder everyone drinks so much coffee here, the weather is so bad that it's dryer and warmer to stay indoors. The coffee is pretty great too though.

I'm staying in this sweet apartment smack bang in the middle of downtown Seattle. The deal is that I'm rabbit sitting. It's a long story... involving Morrissey...

There are two house rabbits I'm looking after. One is small bouncy and seems to like me. She follows me around the apartment. She is also the one that shits everywhere, so maybe its her way of apologising. The other one is very fat and ambles around the place viewing me suspiciously, but I don't really mind. At least she doesn't shit everywhere.

The first morning, I spent about twenty minutes diligently cleaning the place up. I did all the food, changed the water, cleaned out the litter tray and vacuumed the floor. Right on cue, just as I'd finished tidying up, one of the rabbits came bouncing up to near where I was. Without hesitation, she turned, looked me in the eye, cocked her leg and pissed all over the carpet. It was a statement of intent. The opening salvo in the toiletry war that we've been waging all week. It's a war I cannot win. Now I know how Bush and Blair feel. I've considered having a piss in their sleeping area as a retaliatory measure, to see how they like it. But I don't want things to escalate. Instead I'm pursuing peaceful methods.

I've been informed that these particular rabbits really like pears, so I bought a few from Pike Place Market earlier and we'll eat them together later. I'm sure it will be a beautiful moment.

Monday night I went to see These Arms Are Snakes do a midnight gig to launch their new album at a cool store called Easy Street Records. It was a pretty good show, considering that these in-store concerts are usually awkward affairs. The new album doesn't seem as instant as some of their older stuff, but I still think they are an intriguing band. However, I feel I must comment on the facial hair of the singer, some of the most ill-judged I've seen since Ian McShane appeared in the TV series Deadwood. Have a shave man! And stop spitting everywhere. Where do you think you are? 1976?

Tuesday night saw me go and see Deerhoof, who I enjoyed, but they are just a little too arty for my liking. I'd definitely recommend you go see them, but at times, I just wanted then to throw off their art-rock hipster shackles and rock out a little, without the unorthodox time signatures and stop start nature of some of their songs. They were supported by the excellently named two-piece Experimental Dental School, who I enjoyed greatly and I recommend you check out on MySpace forthwith.

I'm here for a while longer. The weather is a little hard to adjust to after six weeks of sunshine, but I'm doing my best, despite a cold. I've been living off huge plates of dirt cheap Vietnamese food, as well as reliving my youth by eating pop tarts.

Seattle feels very European, which is also difficult to adjust to. I've even heard rumours I might be able to get a good cup of tea in this town. This is so far unsubstantiated.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Tacoma, Olympica and a Spanaway in the works

FADE IN

It's dark and pissing it down with rain. I'm on my hands and knees crawling around on the ground in the car park of a fast food restaurant in Spanaway, Washington, illuminated by the headlights of a nearby car. I'm looking for something. I can't find it.

JUMP CUT

Two days later. I'm in the passenger seat of a 1959 Volvo. We are driving up the freeway from Tacoma to Seattle. The rhythm of the windscreen wipers punctures the comfortable silence inside the vehicle. One other detail is obvious to the viewer as the camera pans around the car, focusing on the dated dashboard and gearstick - the driver is wearing pajamas.

FADE OUT - OPENING CREDITS - SONG: TOUCH ME I'M SICK BY MUDHONEY

A lot happened this weekend in between these two moments. I'll tell you about some of it.

I flew from San Francisco to Seattle/Tacoma airport on Friday. When the plane touched down, I saw something that I hadn't seen for six and a half weeks. Rain. And lots of it. The flight on Virgin America was great. It cost just $60 and the in flight entertainment system had an extensive New Order, Nine Inch Nails and REM back catalogue.

Over the weekend I was back in the world of couch surfing. I was staying with Euphoria in Tacoma. Her daughter was away for the weekend so I slept in her room. She had perhaps the most comfortable bed I've ever slept in. Or perhaps it just seemed that way after spending a couple of weeks staying in hostel bunk beds.

Euphoria has lots of great stories and she was a great host. As well as designing top secret things for the government, she is an artist and has many of her paintings in various states of completion hanging around in her lounge. A stray cat and two very cute kittens had latched on to her and returned throughout the weekend for some food and affection. Sadly her own cat was not seen all weekend. I hope he's ok and he's just gone a little adventure, much like myself.

Friday night in Tacoma and there was only one place to go - Bob's Java Jive. The Java Jive was built in the 1920s and it built like a giant teapot. In the 50's it was a speakeasy and in the 80's it provided a hang out for a young Kurt Cobain in his pre-Nirvana days. Now it plays host to a cast of balding former grunge rockers and passing truckers.

Sadly, I was informed by Euphoria that the karaoke equipment had been stolen a few months before, so Tacoma was unable to hear my legendary version of The Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go? However, two stoner rock bands were on hand to provide the music for the evening. Work by local artist Teddy Haggerty is around the bar - He also took the photo of us outside. In the pic is Euphoria, her cool friend Joe and his Greek girlfriend Lily, and a guy called Andy who drove me to Seattle.

I loved in there and I even managed to persuade the barman to serve me, though I didn't have any ID.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention... I lost my passport.

Spanaway ballet

I'd never even heard of Spanaway (a suburb of Tacoma) before this weekend, but I was to spend several hours combing its streets for my passport, which may or may not have dropped out of my pocket and out of the door of the car. I came more familiar with the layout and gradients of the car park of a Jack in the Box fast foot restaurant than I ever thought was possible. Legend has it that your brain goes funny if you drink too much of the Spanaway water. I didn't really want to stick around to find out.

After travelling hundreds of miles, I couldn't understand how I could lose my passport inside a car, but that seemed to be what had happened.

My thoughts turned to embassies, consulates and jail. I remembered the man I'd met in Mexico (who I've yet to write about), who was deported, despite being in the army for three years. As someone who regularly gets mistaken for a drug dealer as I do (it's true), it was a sobering thought.

But more pressingly, when 50 year olds are routinely ID'd at bars, how was I going to get a beer?

You may have guessed by the somewhat blazé nature of this post, I managed to find my passport the next day, wedged down a tiny crack in the car. Needless to say I was mighty relieved.

Well I went to School in Olympia...

Olympia is about half an hour from Tacoma by car and all Riot Grrl fans will be pleased to know that to get there you have to go past Sleater-Kinney Boulevard. On Saturday night, the main street hosted lots of little bars with bands playing and stuff going on. Olympia also has it's own beer, which tastes a little like urine, but is about half the price of other ales on offer. And I ate a hot dog with cream cheese, which was surprisingly good.

First stop was Jakes, a gay bar where a person of indiscriminate gender performed a complicated fan dance on the floor and astrology was hotly debated in the smoking area.

And then a couple of bars, my favourite of which being Le Voyeur, a dive bar with a tiny gig room at the back. The first band who played were great. Sadly I have no idea what they were called. A three-piece who would have seemed more at home in South London than Olympia, their raw energy, rasped vocals and ramshackle aggression reminded me of early Libertines. I need to find out their name. The second band featured a man in a red wig, but it was the third act where things got interesting.

Firstly, they were awful. Out of tune and out of time, but with a swagger and an attitude that failed to tally with their musical ineptitude. The singer, who looked about 14, repeatedly wandered into the crowd barging into people and pushing them. Then after about four songs, both the bass and vocals cut out in the space of thirty seconds.

After trying to fix things for a few minutes, the bassist gave up and smashed his instrument to pieces on the stage. He then canvassed the room to see if he could borrow another. Unsurprisingly, as the shards of his bass guitar lay scattered across the stage, he drew a blank.

Then suddenly, A FIGHT! The singer began throwing punches and about eight people piled on for a bundle, directly in front of the drummer who was still sat behind his kit. As fights go, it was one of those which had few punches and lots of rolling around, a bit like in an episode of Bergerac.

A Napoleon Dynamite moment

It was time to leave and there were rumours of two parties in town. A homecoming party and a fancy dress party with a nature theme.

I still don't understand what a homecoming is, or what a homecoming party is all about, but I'm very glad I went, as it was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen.

On the way there we tried to concoct all kinds of stories to get past the door. One unlikely tale involved me posing as a record company scout who was interesting in signing the band. As it was we just walked straight though the door and in. Undetected, but at least ten years older than everyone else in the building.

As it was, the band was just about finishing and a sedate atmosphere prevailed. But then, as the group packed away, disco music filled the room and I witnessed some of the most uncoordinated, spasmodic, unorthodox and energetic dancing I've ever seen in my life.

For some reason this homecoming was filled with geeks. They were wound up and ready to go. And when geeks dance, boy do they DANCE!

The aroma in the air was a heady mix of sweat and acne cream, as skinny boys in glasses, ill advised early attempts at facial hair and tight polyester outfits, gyrated suggestively across the dance floor. The aim was to entice shy looking girls, also of course mainly with glasses, to join them in some Napoleon Dynamite style dancing. The dancefloor became a collage of flailing limbs and light, as the discoballs bounced off the multitude of eyewear that was on the move. It was truly something beautiful.

After stocking up on Olympia beer, we hopped over town to the party. It was held in some kind of student house and it was clear it was in full swing. In the kitchen, I again felt at least ten years older than everyone there. Guys with painted faces and foliage attached to their body sipped poor quality lager and smoked weed, or maybe even smoked their own outfits. My last memory of the evening involves a room full of people dressed as trees dancing to LCD Soundsystem.

It was quite a weekend.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Beyond the Palin

I spent the first part of this evening with about 25 other people packed in the kitchen of the hostel where I'm staying in San Francisco. The occasion was the Vice Presidential debate and the chance to see Sarah Palin in action! There were several nationalities present in the kitchen, all of them seemingly in favour of the Democrats.

To spice up proceedings we played a spot of Sarah Palin bingo. Each of us was given a sheet with keywords or phrases that she might use during the debate. Prizes were on offer of the first to get a line. I was off to a flying start as Palin mentioned being a 'soccer mum' within ten seconds of her first answer, but it wasn't to be and I didn't win.

Now first let me say that if you ever wanted to get a definition of the phrase 'out of your depth', you just need to look at Sarah Palin. But fair play to her, she stuck in there in the debate. To quote Big Ron Atkinson, "she did the ugly things well" and stayed with what she knew. In the main, she actually came over as far more likable than Joe Biden, who despite his comprehensive knowledge and experience, still comes across like a bit of a grumpy old bastard.

After all that excitement, it was time to head out for my last night in San Francisco (redux). I headed, of course, to the Mission District, my favourite part of town, where I hit a few of my favourite bars.

Previously I had been staying at a hostel in the Mission District (the one that serves cake for breakfast), but I'd been forced to leave after a spate of customer service blunders that made Fawlty Towers look like the Hilton. I'd considered strangling the staff with my bug infested bed sheets, but thought it best to make a swift exit instead.

As I headed out, I felt the first rain for the 6+ weeks of my trip. It's clearly a sign of things to come as I fly to Seattle tomorrow.

So before I sign off, let me raise a glass to a few of my favourite bars in the Mission.

Casanova Lounge - Where they play ska and northern soul and happy hour runs 6-8.

The Lexington - The Lesbian bar where I played pool with an 80 year old man.

The Lone Palm - Where post punk and new wave music perfectly soundtracks the silent films they show behind the bar.

The Belgian chip place where the dishes are named after artists and I got into an in depth discussion about clay pigeon shooting.

And finally Amnesia (Opposite Dave Eggers' pirate store - for all your glass eye and eyepatch needs) - Where after around seven vodka & cranberries I saw a bluegrass band play a killer cover of Here I Go Again by Whitesnake. To say it was one of the most seminal moments of my life is not an exaggeration.

Cheers...

Friday, 26 September 2008

Crazy

The veins bulged on his neck. Sweat trickled down the side of his mohawk. Concentration was etched on his face as he butchered one chord after another.

"Oooohhhh woooah, we're never gonna survive, unless we get a little bit, craaaazy"

I'm not sure what drives a rotund, middle aged man with a moustache and peroxide blonde mohawk to stand in the middle of a busy street and perform an under-rehearsed 15 minute punk rock version of the song Crazy by Seal. Whatever his motivation, he provided something that couldn't be ignored by the customers of Starbucks on Second Street, downtown San Jose.

The performance had it all; soul, passion, drama, rawness, pathos and violent energy. He was a man wrestling with his inner demons and how to play bar chords in equal measures. His struggle on both counts was captivating. And that was only the warm up where he tuned his guitar.

Little did I, a young mother breast feeding her child, three off duty Nigerian taxi drivers and two Latino guys with a very small dog know what was about to hit them.

The busker had a sign in his guitar case that said "Will be your boyfriend for food" and he had the hangdog expression and pain in his eyes of someone who'd been dumped for the price of a Big Mac in the past.

I watched him play for well over half an hour, whilst sipping my iced tea, and in that time nobody gave him any money whatsoever. He'd also purchased a coffee, so his busking revenue for the day was actually in the red.

At one point a guy on a skateboard went past, with a guitar strapped to his back. Our man abruptly stopped the song and challenged him to a guitar dual. I even heard him use the phrase "Me and you kid, one on one"

After finishing a song, he went into Starbucks to use the facilities and perhaps gear up for another burst of Crazy.

I took that as my cue to leave and I dropped a few quarters into his case on the way by. As I walked down the street I turned and looked behind and saw him return to find his new found wealth, neck craning from left to right around the street to see who had been the distributor of these riches.

And then he began again...

"OOOOOHHHH WOOOOAAAAH........"

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Korea opportunities

The second Thursday of every months sees the Downtown Art Walk take over the artists quarter of downtown LA. Little did I realise that the hotel I'm staying in, in what I thought was the most seedy part of LA possible, is smack in the centre of the action. I'm guessing the random crazy people and general sketchy underbelly of the area brings the rents down.

About 45 galleries of varying sizes throw their doors open for the evening and the streets were full of people, many in fancy evening wear. Bands played on street corners and a graffiti covered bus did laps around the galleries transporting people. I visited maybe half the galleries, moving around them like some kind of ninja, eyes eagerly scanning each gallery for any free booze on offer like an alcoholic scavenger. Galleries were in clothes shops, in cafes and one was even in a cigar store. Whilst there I perused the latest issue of Cigar Aficionado (cover star Kevin Costner). I have to admit I didn't find it to be a great read. There wasn't even a problem page.

One exhibition featured an interactive display. The best way I can describe is is an electronic spray can you can use to draw your own computer generated graffiti. The artist ran me through what it was and invited me to have a go. Well I'm no Basquiat or Banksy but I decided to have a crack all the same.

As I began my creation, a Korean film crew literally burst through the door. Don't you just hate it when that happens?

It turns out they were doing a piece about the artist. Needing some cut away shots (as I believe they are called in the trade), they took some footage of me playing with the graffiti thing. Before their interview with the artist. for some reason the interviewer decided to get my opinion. I asked him what station he worked for and he said something really fast which I didn't understand. Hey then asked me a few questions to which I gave some inane and articulate answers. He also made me write my name down on a piece of paper, presumably he wanted to get my autograph in advance of my fame.

I'd like to think that they worked for South Korea's leading TV station and my ugly mug has been beamed into every home in Seoul. What I suspect is that they were a local crew from some kind of LA based Korean station. Either way I'm sure I'm now big with the Korean community and I'll be booking my South Korean tour in the spring.

Stripping with your clothes on

The Art Walk was good, but I was still searching for the real LA. Some people might go to Disney, some might hit up Venice Beach. I went to Jumbo's Clown Room

In a shameless act of south-east Asian oneupmanship, LA has a Japan Town, Chinatown, Korea Town and Thai Town. Jumbo's Clown Room is located in a less than desirable section of the latter. The best way to describe it would be a small neighbourhood bar, but with a difference, half of the inside of it is dedicated to a low stage featuring a strippers pole.

Jumbo's is a place with history. Legend has it that Courtney Love danced here before she hit the big time with Kurt and her band Hole. I went inside and took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. It was $4 and I paid with a twenty. I received all my change in $1 notes, that's the kind of place this is!

Here's what happens. There were about five or six girls working. Each of them takes a turn to go to the jukebox and select a song. They then dance on the stage for the duration of the track, after which $1 notes are thrown on to the stage by the customers to show appreciation.

At the end of the song the dancer picks up all of the money on the stage and then the next dancer comes on. Now the music in this place was great. The Cure, The Clash, Motorhead, Nine Inch Nails, Iron Maiden, Van Halen - All the good stuff.

It was pretty dirty and seedy, but I kinda liked it in there. In was an honest place with no pretensions, where people could have a beer and watch some nice girls dance. In fact almost half the customers were female and they were some of the loudest and rowdiest audience members. After each dancer came off stage she would walk around personally thanking each individual audience member who'd given her some money. I found that quite sweet.

Let me again emphasise here that no clothes were removed at any point during the dance. However, I should also probably add that I will never be able to listen to the breakdown section of Sweet Child O Mine in quite the same way ever again!

So that was the best strip club that I've ever been to, despite the fact that nobody took their clothes off...

The worst band I've ever seen?

Sunday I went to an indie night called Part Time Punks, at a venue called the Echo in the hipsterfied Echo Park district. I dressed to impress in a natty combo of velvet jacket and pvc trousers. Avec chapeau of course. Unfortunately the downtown thrift stores of LA were out of winklepickers in my size that day, so I couldn't complete my outfit as I intended.

I had high hopes for this night. There are a lot of great reviews online. There was even a vinyl store inside the club selling obscure records. But as with many things in LA, I left slightly disappointed and somewhat confused.

Perhaps those winklepickers would have made the difference, as my conversational opening gambits of the Yorkshire nu-Krautrock scene and where I could find a good cup of tea in LA were met with bemusement and stony silence. Maybe I wasn't cool enough to talk to, or perhaps they simply couldn't understand my dulcet Brummie tones. Either way I was glad when the band started. But only for a moment.

On stage were a truly terrible band called Master Beta - They've even got a crap name. I can't express how much I hated this band. They were completely dire. A three piece with a sub-Meg White drummer, a guy playing keyboards that sounded like a malfunctioning ghost train and a small Asian girl screeching over the top of it all. Describing it like that makes it sound quite good, cutting edge and interesting and I'm sure that's what they were going for, but I actually enjoyed the sound of the air conditioning more in the silence between the tracks. It had more melody.

Midway through. the keyboard player actually had a little rant about how he hated scenes and cliques in music, the audience applauded. I laughed at the irony, but not too much. Laughing isn't cool at these kind of establishments.

I’ve now spent over a week in this city and I feel no closer to finding its soul, what makes it tick. I’m not saying I don’t like LA, in fact I don’t really have an opinion either way. I’m more baffled than anything.

I felt a similar way about Berlin the first time I went there. It rained solidly for three days and everything seemed grey and miserable. I’ve since been back there several times and after finding its below the surface charms, I now love it as one of my favourite cities. Perhaps I’ll think the same about LA the next time I visit. For there will be a next time, as I’m determined to crack this place.

Los Angeles 0-0 Phill
(injury time being played)

Friday, 12 September 2008

Metamophosis

I guess I should fill you in a little about my accommodation over the past few weeks here in the States. The first week was spent in a luxury hotel with my mum and sister. We got free fruit, a daily weather report delivered to our room and all the shampoo, shower gel and towels we could handle!

When they flew back to the UK, my standards of dropped considerably. I spent the next four nights in a hostel, which was pretty much OK apart from the Germans waking me up at 6am every day by rooting around in carrier bags and planning their schedule for the day. One other thing to note about the hostel was the complimentary breakfast it served which was basically just lots of varieties of sponge cake. No toast, no cereal, just lots and lots of cake and some lemon flavoured water. Very strange indeed.

Next I spent several days couch surfing with three different people in San Jose, San Luis Obispo and Oxnard. All of whom were great and in one I even got my own room.

Then I got to LA.

I was always dreading LA because all of the hostels seemed unbearably grim, so I knew I'd have to shell out for a hotel or figure something else out.

I started out in a hotel in the Bell Gardens district. Not on the tourist trail but directly opposite a casino and a great smoothie bar. After staying there a few nights I was considering whether to move on but was undecided. Upon returning from the casino at 2am one night, my mind was more than made up.

I was a little sleepy and groggy but I soon snapped out of my tiredness when I turned on the bathroom light and saw what could only be described as a GIANT cockroach writhing around on its back on top of the toilet seat! I think tomorrow I would be checking out!

It was just bizarre that it just ended up directly on top of the toilet seat. I could only surmise that it fell from the air vent above. Either than or the maid, who I had thus far not left a tip for, had decided to leave me a little treat. I only wish I'd taken a photo, it was huge. About (holds arms wide) this big!

Now I'd just re-read Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, as well as seeing it on stage in London, so there was no way I was going to kill the cockroach, just in case it was actually a travelling salesman. Instead I was faced with the task of getting the creature into a very small plastic cup so I could take it outside. After a few Chuckle Brothers style moments and a frightening instant when I thought it was going to jump on me. I managed to take Colin the cockroach outside and release him into the LA streets.

I check out the next day of course, making time to fill out a customer comment form on my way out.

And now the poker bit...

I have to mention poker as I have been playing a fair bit these past few days. I finished 21st in a large tournament last night, winning a little bit of money and having a good run at the $17,600 first prize. I played great despite having no good cards at all, so I was pleased. One notable moment came when one of my toughest opponents who had just been given a ten minute penalty for swearing, proceeded to say that he wished the children of the poker room manager would die horribly and painfully.... He was unceremoniously kicked out of the tournament and the casino. It probably wasn't the best decision he's ever made.

But before I end this note, let me tell you about a very funny but also somewhat unsettling hand of poker. I'd been playing in the 9/18 limit game at Commerce Casino and was just getting ready to leave as it was approaching my bedtime. A new player sat down in the game in the nine seat (right next to the dealer) and straight away it became apparent that he'd had more than a little to drink. The first hand he was dealt his cards and waited for his turn, gazing into the distance with a slightly glazed and gormless expression on his face.

A few people folded and the action went call, raise, call, call. When it got to out hero he turned over his two sixes face up and said "I wanna split em."

Oh dear.

After some commotion the floor manager was called (sadly not the one who looks like a Vietnamese Bobby Charlton) and a discussion ensued. It soon became clear that this man didn't know where he was, what game he was playing or even perhaps who he was. Stalemate ensued, as he had not made a confirmed action as the hand could not continue. Our hero still seemed firmly under the impression that he was in a blackjack game and was insistent that he wanted to split his sixes. The whole table was doubled up in hysterics.

Now the part that made me feel decidedly uneasy inside. It was clear that this man was holding up the game and was in no condition to play it. However all parties concerned seemed reluctant to move him on. It could have been something to do with the $300 in chips he had in front of him. "Listen guys" said the floor manager almost conspiratorially as he leaned over our hero, "I really don't want to kill your action here, you know." The floor manager was now clearly complicit in this drunk guy losing his money. Perhaps there would be a nice tip in it from the other players for bringing a drunk to the table?

I felt sick.

Well finally and somehow it was decided the guy with two sixes had called and the flop was dealt. I think we all knew what was going to happen next. The flop came 2-6-Queen giving our hero the second best hand possible, three sixes. Suddenly he comes to life. "I'm gonna bet em" he shouts, flinging chips across the table. One guy called him even though he clearly had the second best hand possible. At the time I thought this was a stupid decision, but the more I think about it, the more I admire his cold hearted calculation. Our hero could do anything. He could fold at any time, he could collapse, he could throw up on the table, the pot was there for the taking. But our hero was not to be dissuaded. He bet out again on the turn, still with his cards face up and took down a nice pot.

Of course, the next hand our hero called the dealer a "fucking idiot" and was instantly thrown out of the game. He didn't know who he was or where he was, but he'd played one hand and won it, turning a nice profit on the evening. That's poker, sometimes you get beaten by a drunk.

A little later as I left the casino I spotted him stumbling around outside the casino with no shoes on, being escorted somewhere by security.

Sometimes playing poker leaves me feeling a little bit ill.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

La story

I spent last weekend with some of the most mean, rude, miserable, abusive and downright unpleasant people I have ever had the misfortune to meet. No, I'm not talking about the waiting room at West Bromwich Job Centre, I'm talking about the poker room at the Bicycle Casino, Los Angeles.

The plan was simple - Play a little poker whilst I'm here in LA to make some of money to pay for a little bit of my trip. Little did I realise how much like work it would actually be...

In Vegas gambling is fun. People play poker for recreation. Tips flow and so does the beer - It's a fun place to play. At 'The Bike' things are very different, at least in the games I played. Grim faced, moody and even downright angry, the players hurl a constant stream of abuse and often their cards at the long-suffering dealers.

There is completely crazy superstition. People won't play when certain people deal, they always need to sit in certain seats and the regularly request the deck is changed for no other reason except they just lost a hand. Players regularly berate others for their perceived poor quality of play. Thankfully I was able to play the clueless, bumbling Englishman to perfection. Hugh Grant would have been proud...

Why are these people there? Why indeed was I there when the experience was such a drag?

Well for one, I was staying in a hotel ever the road and I didn't know how to get anywhere else in LA because of the mindbogglingly confusing public transport network. There are no maps or schedules at stops and half the time it doesn't even say where the bus is going. Drivers are generally monosyllabic and best of all, there are paper timetables on the buses themselves for completely random other routes with no connection to the one you are on!

In the end I viewed it as simply a money making exercise and grinded it out. But hey, the free Chinese food is very nice and I made my wages the two days I played there, so it wasn't at all bad.

Plus...

The doctor

One of my more interesting opponents was a Sri Lankan doctor who sat next to me and played for a few hours. He was very friendly, we chatted and inevitably the conversation turned to his profession.

Now, I'm not questioning the medical ethics or integrity of this man, but all I do know is that within an hour of meeting me he offered me all manner or drugs, prescription or otherwise, all for "very reasonable prices."

It seems one of his biggest trades was in tablets to treat erectile dysfunction. This is the reason why I am currently carrying a Viagra tablet around in my wallet.

I tried to explain to the good doctor that I really didn't have any trouble in that department. And when I confessed that I'd never even used Viagra or Cialis, a veritable gasp went up around the table (average age of about 70).

"You have to try it, your life will never be the same" urged the doctor, ignoring my vehement protests. "Take a look at Larry over here" he said, gesturing to another of our opponents. One glance at the smile on Larry's face told me that both him and his wife were very happy indeed.

To placate him, I accepted his offer of a free sample. "You find yourself a nice chica, you take the pill and how do you say in England? ....... boom boom....."

Well I wasn't sure what Basil Brush had to do with anything, but I put the pill in my wallet along with his card, where it has remained ever since. I guess I should throw it away or something, just in case in a moment of madness I think it is a paracetamol and take it. Instead of soothing my headache it could lead to a completely different kind of ache...

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Down and out in Oxnard

So there I was, sitting in a dive bar in Oxnard, drinking Corona, listening to a slightly out of tune Mexican accordion player and making smalltalk with a woman whom I suspected may well be a prostitute.

It felt a long way from Great Barr.

I'd booked on the 8pm bus from Oxnard to LA, but due to some complete cock up, Greyhound buses had only sent a small coach, so half of us had to wait for the next one. By the resigned acceptance that people accepted this turn of events, this seems to be a regular occurrence on Greyhound buses.

With any trip there are high points and low points. Scanning the array of motley characters at the bus station that I was to spend the next four hours with, I quickly surmised that this could turn into a low point. Something needed to be done.

With four hours to kill in downtown Oxnard, what was I to do? When a mariachi band wearing huge cowboy hats walked past in the distance, my decision was made. I followed them!

Grilled cheese!

My time in Oxnard had a bit of a surreal quality to it from the start. I was picked up by Leilani, my latest couch surfing host and a grilled cheese champion!. "I'm kidnapping you" she joked. We were on our way to a haunted hotel.

On the way we talked grilled cheese. "It's the next step up from cheese on toast" she explained outlining the different competitive categories; classic, freestyle, dessert and one other I can't remember... And the secret to great grilled cheese? "The ingredients, preparation and me!"

It turns out that someone had been murdered in the hotel many years ago and now haunts the premises. The owners have decided to cash in on this grisly history by marketing it as a haunted hotel. Leilani her room mate Dawn had stayed there before, scaring themselves senseless in the process. Tonight we were just going there for some dessert, but of course, were on the lookout for ghosts also.

When we sat down to eat, things got even more strange. An eight-piece mariachi band sprang out of the kitchen and started to serenade the table next to us... For about an hour! It turns out it was the birthday of the owners mother...

Perhaps the band succeeded in scaring away all of the ghosts, because I didn't sense any paranormal activity in the building, unless you count the door in the toilet that steadfastly refused to close. So as the rest of my party wandered around the building, I settled in front of the TV in the lounge to watch women's weightlifting on TV. Well it seemed to make sense at the time...

Tour de Oxnard

I spent much of the next day cycling around Oxnard on a bright green ladies bike, complete with basket, a slow puncture and handy cupholder, which I'm sure will be all the rage in the 2009 Tour de France. It took me a while to get to grips with the fact you had to pedal backwards to brake and after one hairy moment where I almost fell off the pier, I managed to get the hang of it.

Oxnard is kind of like Bognor Regis, only with more palm trees. There wasn't a lot going on, but I spent a relaxing day at the beach reading Slash's autobiography.

This was in the nicer beach section of the city. From my limited experience later that evening, downtown seemed a little different. Freelance mariachi bands toured the bars available for hire or perhaps willing to be persuaded to move on to the next bar, both for a fee.

If the wheezing elderly accordion player in the corner wasn't evidence enough, I knew this was an authentic Mexican bar, the salt on the top of the Corona bottles clinched it. As I munched on my hundredth burrito of the trip so far, I became somewhat of a local celebrity, with people seemingly queuing up to speak to me.

That day in Oxnard, a few things became clear to me.

1, Nobody has ever heard of Birmingham, the second largest city in the UK.
2, It seems that if anyone does know about anything about Birmingham, it's that it is the home city of the band Oasis.
3, It's sometimes quite difficult to work out if you are talking to a lady of the night. Don't worry, no money changed hands. Though I did buy her a beer. Perhaps it was her night off?

Thankfully it was soon time to go and get the bus. I ended up arriving in LA at about 1:30am. Where should I go, what should I do? I was tired, a bit drunk and suffering from severe cramp after spending 90 minutes sitting next to a very fat man.

I got into a taxi and the words seemed to automatically come out of my mouth...

"Bicycle Casino, Bell Gardens"

Thursday, 4 September 2008

SLO-ing down

I’ve spent the past couple of days in a place called San Luis Obispo. It’s a really fantastic city, pretty much equally between San Francisco and Los Angeles in the middle of California. It’s slightly inland and surrounded by all these great hills, but it’s also only a few miles from several great beaches. The bonus is that as it isn’t right on the coast it doesn’t get a lot of fog that hugs the coast of much of Northern California. It’s a huge college town. The university Cal Poly provides pretty much half of the population of the city, which is around 70,000 people or so.

I’ve been staying on the couch of a guy called Scott and for the past few days he’s been showing me around and introducing me to his friends. I have to say, it seems like a pretty idyllic place to go to university.

The first night we went to a few bars downtown, one of which hosted a covers band which was fronted by a larger Latino lady and played songs by the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Motorhead. Newcastle Brown Ale seems to be a cool drink round here, they also have Boddingtons but I wasn’t able to sample that and see if Manchester’s finest is the same as back in the UK. There is also an alleyway completely covered in years or perhaps even decades worth of bubblegum. You can probably guess what it is known as. I was told that things get pretty raucous downtown when term time kicks in, but it’s still a few weeks before term fully starts.

The next day we went down to this great place called Morro Bay, where I tired surfing for the first time. Well it was pretty much bodyboarding for me as I never came anywhere close to standing up on the board, but it was still great fun to be in the ocean. There were some guys out there who were pretty good, including Scott’s friend Rico.

A little later we went further up the coast to a place called Hazard Bay where the waves were a little bigger, but there was also the danger of crashing on the rocks – It was definitely a place for the more advanced surfer. After a little hike, the three of us climbed a sand dune and had a great view of the beach and the ocean. We were also accompanied by Jimmy the dog, who was one of the coolest dogs I’ve ever met. Even dogs are cool in California…

This outdoor stuff is seemingly a daily occurrence for a lot of the students here. If they need something to do, they just jump in a car and go surfing or hiking or go and climb one of the numerous huge hills that surround the city.

Cal Poly has a big and well respected architectural engineering department. A bizarre thing is that it owns quite a big plot of land and this is dedicated to giving students space to build crazy buildings for their final year project. There’s a bizarre cylindrical building, one with a pond on the roof and a giant archway made of hay. It is also home to horses, coyotes and even rattlesnakes! Scott’s friend Lucas lives in one of these crazy buildings and acts as caretaker. There is a great freestanding viewing platform which is amazing for watching stars as there are very few lights anywhere around, so the view of the sky is almost entirely unobscured. It’s a pretty perfect spot at night.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

I knew the way to San Jose

There's probably a few more San Francisco stories left to tell but I'm on the road south now.

I spent a few days staying with Aubin in San Jose. Aubin was a true gent and let me sleep on his couch for three days and borrow his legendary Star Wars blanket. He took me out for sushi which was wonderful. I've never much been a man for sushi - but maybe I've been converted? I also tried a California Roll which is all the ingredients for sushi but just put together in the wrong order. Probably a work experience kid did it by accident and began a culinary phenomenon. Who knows?!

We went to see the Batman film which I enjoyed a lot, despite being pretty cynical about it beforehand. Of course, I especially loved the scenes with Michael Caine in.

I also met Valerie, a super cool goth girl who lives in nearby Campbell with very cute pet house bunnies. Some people may know that I've never been a huge fan of Bauhaus, but Valerie played me Pete Murphy (singer of Bauhaus)'s greatest hits and shockingly I quite enjoyed it! So I shall have to download myself a copy and see if I am really going crazy.

Aubin and I also went to a sports bar. After getting chatting about footy to the Mexican bartender, he switched the channel to Gol TV to watch some football and what a discovery we were about to make. Languishing on this obscure satellite channel is one of the greatest commentators I've ever heard - Ray Hudson.

Ray is what can only be described as a Geordie gibberish machine. Equal parts Sid Waddell, Lawro and Big Ron - His in game commentary and analysis repeatedly had me laughing out loud and spitting beer everywhere.

Here's some choice Hudson quotes:
"He's like a squirrel on a telephone wire"
"He's got class coming out of his earholes
"Tears like pineapple chunks
"He's braver than a matador in high heels and a pink tutu
And when Luca Toni scored - "And it's not hasta la vista, it's hasta la pasta"

Watch some classic Ray Hudson

The man is clearly a genius.

Monday, 1 September 2008

The San Franciscan defence

They are calling it Chiolence, or at least they should do. The spate of violence that is afflicting the beautiful game. Yes my friends, I saw a punch up at a chess match.

There I was on the streets of San Francisco - Though Michael Douglas wasn't with me this time (that's a joke for all the 70s American cop show fans out there).

On Market Street I spotted a street chess match going on - There were about ten tables on a street corner. Lots of people playing and a few watching.

Now I'm not averse to the spot of street chess. I have been destroyed by old men on street chess boards on two continents. I do play a little chess but I'm not that good.

I wandered over as I was perhaps interested in a game, but there was something different about this street chess gathering - It seemed to me that they were playing for money.

As I was taking in the scene an elderly black man caught my eye and motioned me to come and play, no doubt salivating at the thought of some fresh meat to win some cash off. Judging from the way he was expertly riffling a couple of pieces in his hand, he had some mad skillz. And although I am definitely a dedicated gambler on the poker table, I know when I'm outmatched.

I was just about to walk off when suddenly a commotion errupted - Two people began to shout at each other and one and then the other stood up, still on either sides of the chessboard, still shouting. Obviously there was some disagreement and money was on the line. A woman in a wheelchair who was watching decided to join in and began screaming something unintelligible. The only word I caught was the last one she shouted, the sound of which hung in the air like a gunshot "Motherf*cker!" - I assumed that this diatribe was the Northern Californian chess equivalent of "leave it Kev, it's not worth it."

That's when things went a bit crazy. I could see what was going to happen here, two people arguing over a chessboard. And you've guessed it, one grabbed the board and threw if off the table, scattering pieces everywhere. Straight away his opponent picked up a piece from the floor and threw it at the first guy, hitting him straight in the head. I really wish he'd have shouted "check", but that would have been too perfect. I think it was a bishop he threw. I'm not sure if that was because it was quite pointy, or if he wanted to throw diagonally?

Then the punches and wrestling began, a crowd gathered and I'm not sure what happened next as I wandered off to get some pizza, thoroughly disgusted at the violence blighting modern day chess.

So just remember kids. Say no to Chiolence!

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Dog day afternoon in the Haight

A few weird things have happened whilst I have been in San Francisco - This is perhaps to be expected.

Firstly a few days ago, I saw a dog get run over right in front of me as I was standing at a bus stop. Fortunately the dog seemed pretty fine and unscathed, but it looked quite bad at the time and I did fear the worst when it happened. I was chatting to this guy at the bus stop and out of the corner of my eye I could see what might be about to happen. There was a man walking the dog without a lead and in the US you can turn right even if the lights are on red as long as there are no pedestrians. Well the man and his dog approached the intersection (as we call it over here!) and a car also approached and yeah you know what happened next, I won't describe it.

Straight away me and the guy who I was at the bus stop with ran over. Instinctively I ran over to the dog and he seemed ok - he had definitely been hit but he bounded away from the taxi cab and didn't really seemed marked. I was relieved.

The owner it seemed was in a far worse state. He climbed up on to the bonnet of the car and was splayed out on there banging on the windscreen shouting "YOU RAN OVER MY DOG, I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU RAN OVER MY DOG" - This continued for several minutes. Strangely at no point did he actually look at the welfare of the dog.

Now the problem I had was what should I do? Should I call an emergency service? None of them really seemed to fit the situation of a runover but seemingly OK dog.

Again fortunately, a cop car drove past and seeing a man lying on top of a car screaming, decided to come and investigate.

After one last ruffle of the fur of the dog, I decided that there was nothing more I could do and went on my way to the gig I was en route to - (It was !!! and they were great).

I really wanted to give my details to the owner so he could let me know how the dog was doing, but he wasn't in any real condition for coherent thought.

I hope the dog was OK.