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 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"


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.


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


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.


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.


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.