Night time could be one of the best times to arrive in a city in America. All lit up, the cityscape takes on a very different quality. However drab they might be in the grey weather of a January day, at night they are truly luminescent. New York, San Francisco and now San Diego: each afforded bright and enticing vistas to the visitor in the back of a taxi.
The last time I looked out across the Pacific was in 2012 and I had stood on a wind-swept beach looking east. That had been in Taitung.
This time I looked west. Behind me was the woodland park in San Francisco called the Presidio. Ahead, across the entrance to the bay, were cliffs and rocks, covered in green fuzz and tinted in a golden sunlight. White horses foamed among the rocks at the base of the cliff I stood atop, but little noise travelled up to me. To the north stood the Golden Gate bridge, its strip of tarmac carrying a never-ending line of scurrying cars.
Behind me was San Francisco. Its parks, hills and highly varied architecture make it a town for walking. It didn’t seem to matter which street I walked along: there was always an interesting house or some quirky little adornment to catch the eye. Its parks were well-tended, clean and relaxing. On this second visit, I may not have gone on a tourist trail, I may not have hunted down names from the past, but I really did begin to appreciate some of the city’s charms as a place to live.
Last time I was in Washington the Federal government shut down, taking with it most of the museums. My plans of visiting the Smithsonian museum were left in tatters. This time I was not to be denied. But work finished too late on Wednesday, and on Thursday I had only an hour to spare.
First stop was the United States Botanic Garden. Put simply, it isn’t Kew. It isn’t even the Oxford Botanic Gardens. Yet despite its diminutive size and extremely dodgy science (its educational panels refused to admit the existence of wind pollinated flowering plants, or angiosperms as I once learnt to call them), the glasshouse was a welcome reprieve from the cold outside. There was a desert room and a jungle room and a Hawaiian room and primordial room. Actually, those were the room names, but the primordial room really wasn’t that primordial: it remained a display of plants, not cyanobacteria or algae. The desert room was also more Arizona than Sahara, Arabia or Gobi.
These are silly cavils. Any well tended greenhouse is a joy, and the warmth, humidity and sheer greenness was, as I said, especially welcome after the iced-bleakness of Washington in winter.
My fifteen minutes were up. What with walking time, I was done to half an hour remaining and had yet to enter the Smithsonian proper. On my way to the botanic gardens I had passed a poster advertising the Apollo 11 capsule. I hurried back the way I had come.
This time it was the smallness itself that amazed. The re-entry capsule from the Apollo 11 mission really is tiny. Space travel is hardly swathed in first class luxury. The three seats were packed in so tightly they were almost on top of each other, and the panels of instruments were but inches away. There appeared to be no leg room, no head room; indeed, in short, no room.
Before I knew it my ten minutes had become fifteen and it was time to return to the grindstone.
Back in Boston, on Friday I attempted to resume my hunt for a new computer. My venerable (if such a word can be used to describe a tablet not yet fully three years old) machine isn’t quite as reliable as it once was. In China I had looked at buying a new machine but no one had wanted to sell me one. In Hong Kong and Taiwan I had been tempted but no longer felt the need. Here I was beginning to feel the need again, but this time was thwarted by the lack of stock. No one actually had the models I liked.
Another thing Boston struggled with was its definitions of what counted as a light dinner. Scratching his head when I asked him to recommend such a thing, a waiter pointed to the hamburger, saying that that was probably the lightest thing they had. It was an inch and half thick, smothered in cheese, drowning in various gloops and dwarfed by a hillock of salt-encrusted chips. Very light.
On Monday I tramped through Boston and Cambridge, ending up in Harvard to read the worthy inscriptions and see the red brick buildings. Though the weather was bitterly cold, salt had been spread liberally and all the pavements were slick with melt-water. Salty melt-water; my shoes drank it up, the leather turning hard and white.
That night I saw the bright lights of Manhattan as a taxi took me to my hotel, driving over a bridge from the east onto the island. The Empire State building was lit up in gaudy neon; the Chrysler in wonderful art deco patterns of simple white light.
In the morning, New York was cold. Colder than Boston and much drier. It was challenge enough to get out of bed: the air in my hotel room had cooled measurably through the night. The walk to breakfast was more bracing still; the Union League club, a pro-Union establishment now frequented by a rising tide of Southerners, was only a few blocks away, but the cold bit deeper with every step.
In a pause during the day I visited the 9/11 memorial site. The buildings have been cleared, and massive sunken fountains placed in their stead. Water pours from the sides, draining into a central void: a darkened pit, the bottom of which has forever banished light. Around these non-buildings rise the new ones: six glass and steel towers where safety has guided each line on the plan. The tallest is to be 1776 feet tall. No prizes for guessing why.
That evening, now in Washington, it snowed. For five days now I haven’t felt temperatures on the streets much above -8 to -4 degrees Celsius. The temperature seems to plummet whenever I have far to walk. Taxis were the order of the day today, but even the walk from car door to building entrance was refrigerating enough. I dare not look at the forecast for tomorrow.
The museum is described as a work of art in totality: it isn’t just the pictures you go to see, it is the building itself, the rooms and the layout. The collection is impressive: pictures, furniture, chinaware, objets d’art. It is sumptuous and eclectic, yet the lighting is often extremely dingy and the manner of display seemingly haphazard. Pictures are hung on walls that cannot be seen because of roped-off sections of the room. Detailed pieces are hung close to the ceiling, perhaps ten or twelve feet up, so that no close inspection can be made. It is indeed a feast for the senses, but not necessarily an ordered or coherent feast.
Every country has its foundation mythology and Boston is a city embedded at the heart of the USA’s. The Freedom Trail is the walk through this lapidary heart. One walks past statues to patriots (as Americans view them), colonial buildings and pre-independence lions and unicorns. There is the Old South Meeting House with its links to the (Boston) Tea Party and the Old North Church with its lanterns warning of a British advance by sea. But as the dark of evening settled over the place, and the bitter cold and wind sapped my energy, I began to flag. Turning into Chinatown, I supped in a Japanese restaurant opposite the local Kuomintang (Guo min dang) office and watched the snow begin to fall again.
There were at least four street parties or festivals in San Francisco and Oakland (one of the towns across the bay). I saw three of them, leaving a Bluegrass music festival to others.
The first was in Oakland, on Berkeley’s side of the bay. As I walked to the Bart metro station in the morning they were still setting up and when I returned from the Bart station in the evening things might have been winding down. But there was enough on both occasions to teach one that Oakland, like its more famous neighbour, is a tranquil town that likes to look to the alternative side of life. ‘Progressive and rigorous’ ran the advertisement for one school, ‘The best of both worlds.’ Progressive is definitely a watchword for the area. Though the only Tesla (a very good looking Model S) I saw was in San Francisco proper, Priuses and other hybrids abound in Berkeley and Oakland. Chiropractors are practically two-a-penny out here and the American equivalent of a greasy spoon is organic only, darling.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is rather more than London’s few streets of restaurants and hidden away supermarkets. There is a Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Chinese lawyers and Chinese accountants (and we all know how famously robust China’s legal and accounting systems are). There are, as they are everywhere, Chinese quack-shops with their herbs and spices. There are Chinese tea shops with a variety of teas that would make a Beijinger shake his head sadly, but a variety of prices that would make a Beijing tea-seller rub his hands and cackle. There are clothes shops selling silk-jackets made from one hundred percent polyester, and junk shops selling the sort of tat that you could never imagine anyone buying. There were even a few shops selling real silk jackets made from real silk and these did, I admit, pose a problem. You see, I have a weakness for jackets. I am also a little enamoured with silk. Combine the two and I spend much more time than is prudent trying to work out who I can buy one for.
The owner of one shop was delighted to hear my accent. In a moment my voice had transported her back to a Hong Kong where the red white and blue still flew. She had left long before the Communists had come, finding in San Francisco a new place to set up stall. But it wasn’t only Cantonese speakers in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mandarin could be heard too, though maybe not from mainlanders. Today was the day San Francisco celebrated America’s relationship with the Republic of China, a government stripped of its permanent seat on the security council after America thought the People’s Republic might be better customers. Yet here it was the star of the Kuomintang, not that of Mao’s communists, that flapped in the breeze above Washington Street. It was a Taiwanese dragon, too, that danced to the drum beat in the street procession.
Actually, San Francisco’s oriental community seems to be everywhere. The taxi driver who took us from the airport was Chinese. The maid who cleaned my hotel room was Chinese. The shoe-shine on a pier was Chinese. The Chinese community here appears vibrant, and is much more than London’s student heavy Han-population. There are Chinese students too, of course; the Berkeley campus had lots, as did the area around a university building in downtown San Francisco.
Like Hong Kong, San Francisco is built on some pretty steep slopes once one moves away from the water front. Walking from Chinatown to the Golden Gate Bridge took me over at least three hills and through some very pretty residential areas. They were not pretty in the Berkeley style, with front gardens full of flowers, but they were architecturally pretty. The quiet wide streets were home to rows of houses that all differed from one another. It was here too, in the quiet of these neighbourhoods, that I heard the strumming noise of San Francisco’s most famous transport system: the cable cars. In a steel track underneath the roads runs the cable that pulls the passenger cars up the city’s steep hill-side roads. The wire sings: its voice is easily drowned out by traffic and conversation, but let the streets stand quiet again and the noise returns, a song as intimately bound up in San Francisco’s story as Star Fleet Academy.
Beyond the hills and back down by the water’s edge, the city mellows out into flat grassland with trees, bicycle paths, marinas and a sense of the space that one finds in Berkeley. At an outside exercise yard the owners of astonishingly good looking bodies went throuugh their regimes, to the derision of at least one passing car and the admiration of at least one passer-by. There is almost a village feel towards the end. The road broadens out and the houses line just one side, the better to get a view of the water. Above it all looms the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course, one has to see it; it is the landmark. But San Fancisco has other bridges, and the one to Oakland and Berkeley is bigger and more impressive. Yet no visit to San Francisco would be complete without looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge: the bridge that Kirk will crash-land his stolen Klingon spaceship under; the bridge that will see the Apes battle the humans before going on to overturn biology, history and reason, and wrest the planet for their own.
Of course, San Francisco isn’t only known for its future. Its past is also something that we have all, perhaps unknowingly, internalised. It was here that Harvey Milk taught Americans what the Ugandans and Russians probably have yet to fully understand. So just as standing witness to the city’s bridges is integral to any tour of San Francisco, so surely too is visiting the scene of Mr Milk’s work and death: Castro.
It ended up being rather easy to find. As I left the Bart station I noticed two young men holding hands, one wearing jeans so loose half his boxer-short clad bottom was on display, the other wearing jeans so tight he might have been vacuum packed. Nonetheless, I perhaps unfairly felt that if I discretely followed them I might end up in the right neighbourhood. In fact, I need not have been anxious about following a duff horse. The road to Castro was packed. Welcome to my third unexpected festival of the day.
This street party, it must be admitted was just a little different from the one in Oakland or the one in Chinatown. It was a lot more joyous for a start. There were barbecues and beer stalls and ice cream sellers. There were Republicans searching for Mr Right and Democrats looking for votes. There were Lutheran ministers reminding us that God loves everyone and San Franciscan policemen telling us that they were fairly keen too. There were singers in outrageous costumes and dancers in almost no costume at all. There were bars and coffee shops, of course, but most of all there were smiling happy people enjoying a day of glorious sunshine and eye-popping street scenes. There were also two old men who were wandering around utterly utterly naked, a slightly unwanted counterpoint to the myriad shirtless young men showing off torsos I could never dream of having and the young women wearing skimpy enough outfits to make a lesbian blush.
It was at this point that I got stopped by a local who wanted to know why I was dressed as I was: a light-weight summer sports jacket and a rather fantastic pair of pale yellow trousers was not, he voiced, approprate attire for either San Francisco in general or a gay festival in particular. I have to admit that there might have been something in his words. In my two days here, I hadn’t seen anyone else wearing a proper jacket. In my twenty minutes at the festival I hadn’t seen anyone wearing anywhere near as many layers as I was. It seemed Mr Milk’s neighbourhood was not for me. It was time to say goodbye.
Not only can I never pronounce the name correctly, but whenever I hear it I think it sounds incorrect. Nonetheless, Berkeley, for all its peculiar American pronunciation, presented a very different view of America to the centre of Washington. Gone were the monumental buildings with neo-classical facades. Gone were the memorials and the parks. Gone too were the high-rise blocks of luxury flats and the beggars on the streets outside them. Instead there quiet residential streets with detached clap-board houses set back from the road with front gardens spilling over onto the pavements. There was something of the Wonder Years about the place. The roads exuded a homeliness, and the battered old Ford van from the 1970s didn’t seem at all out of place. Even the modern Dodge cars, with their aggressive, snarling bonnets, only served to remind me of the bullying elder brother that is such an important part of small-town American drama.
Not that Berkeley is a small town, but its laid back feel certainly makes you think it is after the rush of Washington. Middle-class boutiques nestle alongside alternative-style shops on the main shopping streets. Hippies sit on the pavement, caught up in their own narcotic miasmas, selling cannabis-themed tat or, in one case, kittens from a battered cardboard box marked ‘Random Stuff’. An old school bus, repainted graffiti-style, was home to a couple of overly hairy, short-wearing middle-aged men, overflowing ashtrays and a bevy of empty beer bottles. A deranged shuffler stopped in front of me, raised his hands to his head, and burbled ‘Bumble-bee. Ladybug.’ before shuffling on again. Vegetarian, vegan, organic, sustainable cafes and bars with woodcut-effect signs outnumber the endless chains of other places. The brightly coloured shirts being sold at street stalls thankfully outnumbers those actually being worn, but even so, Berkeley is not a town of crisp white shirts and pinstripe suits. Twenty minutes strolling is enough to tell one that much.
A game of American Football had just ended when we reached the centre of town, and the roads were filled with ‘California Bears’ supporters flocking from the University grounds. We worked our way against the crowd, walking up through the throng to the campus entrance. There the plant-based smells of the high street gave way to the sweet-smelling resin of the pines. As we took the scenic route to the metro station (referred to as the Bart), our footfalls were soften by a carpet of pine needles. The experience became almost Vitai Lampada-esque when we passed a bronze statue to university sporting prowess with its undertones of the effortless and casual beauty and success of youth.
San Francisco, across the bay, has a different feel again, but it is far closer to Berkeley than it is to the nation’s capital. The sense of space and timelessness is diminished, but San Francisco is not a crowded city, even in its built-up districts. Walking along the Embarcadero (the American’s polysyllabic version of the word Corniche, no doubt) still leaves you feeling relaxed. The sound and smell of the water, the restaurants, the historic piers and warehouses; even the sea lions. As the sun set, casting its warm orange glow over the city’s architecture and long shadows over the bay, it became easy to imagine why San Francisco is thought of as special.
My shoes have been in need of repair for a while now, the heel has quite worn down. Asking about cobblers in Riyadh has only got me strange looks. As far as I have been told, people don’t repair their shoes in Saudi Arabia. Once the heel or sole is worn out, the shoes are binned. No one I spoke to had ever used a cobbler, few knew what one was, and none could tell me where I could find one. Thinking that I might be able to re-heel them out here in Washington, I brought the shoes with me and went in search of a cobbler this morning. I found one in the local shopping mall and handed the shoes over. I wasn’t prepared for the price tag. I had always thought cobblers in England were expensive. Now I know different. With no knowledge of where the competition was, and with limited time to get the repairs done, I felt I had no choice. I smiled and, for the second time in this accursed shopping mall, handed over the credit card and tried not to think about it.
On Saturday I had had a quick look at the Capital and White House, but the centre of Washington has a whole area dedicated to a series of monuments and memorials. The country’s history is chiselled out here in lapidary form; the building blocks of a foundation mythology laid out for all to venerate. With the day’s meetings done, I walked back to the centre to have a proper look around.
First stop was the massive and triumphant World War Two memorial. Weirdly, it was only opened in 2004, long after the monuments to more recent wars had been built. It is also distinctly different in tone from its two neighbouring war memorials. Perhaps this makes sense. An unkind reading of American history would see the Second World War as the USA’s last great military victory. The Vietnam War ended in humiliating defeat; the Korean War ended not in peace but in the maintenance of the uneasy status quo ante bellum, with a divided nation and a threatening communist regime. You could point to the first Gulf War as an example of a clear American victory, but it can hardly be termed a great victory. America’s twenty-first century wars can barely be termed victories at all. Whatever your take on America’s military history, the three war memorials laid out as the points of a triangle, pointing towards the Capitol, away from the Lincoln memorial, certainly tell a sombre story.
Walking back through time, the Vietnam War memorial is just a simple wall of names: the 58,195 names of soldiers who died or went missing in action. The Korean War memorial contains a set of statues of soldiers on patrol, walking through lush thicket. Sound is deadened by a large black pool of running water, and at the back a marble wall is engraved with the phrase ‘Freedom is not Free’. Neither monument glorifies war. Both commemorate the cost of war, but they do so in very different ways, capturing changes in societal attitudes that were, perhaps, caused by the wars themselves. The names on the Vietnam Wall list the conflict’s cost in extremely personal terms. Every name means something to someone. Each name is the title of a story of personal and familial grief. Each name is someone’s sibling, son or father. So the Wall is a bottom-up collection of human miseries. In contrast, the Korean War memorial is much more an exhibit of top-down remembrance and national mourning. There is no list of names here. Rather, the statues of the soldiers represent all the soldiers, named and nameless, who died. The only list is a list of the countries that joined the USA in this UN sanctioned war. While half the soldiers defending South Korea from the communists were South Korean, almost 90% of the foreign troops were American. Britain fielded the second largest contingent of foreign troops. Yet for all this, the Korean War was an American war, generaled by American generals and fought against America’s (and the Free World’s) enemies.
Set against these memorials is the Second World War memorial, at once both sombre and triumphalist. This was the war that made America the world’s super power. It was among the most complete victories in history. It saw her enemies utterly vanquished and she alone was left supreme. It was a victory more costly for America than any other in terms of human lives. Only the American Civil War saw more Americans die. But it was also the victory that ushered in the Pax Americana. And for all the memorial’s obvious triumphalism, perhaps the beauty of America’s victory was that it was so complete that her subsequently ambiguous military performance has never led people to think that she is anything other than the world’s pre-eminent military super power. That surely, is something the Americans should celebrate.
Looking over everything is the Lincoln Memorial. In these temples to past heroes, America’s celebration of her historical success is unalloyed. Lincoln sits, hands resting on fasces, staring out across the park, up to the Washington Monument and beyond to the Capitol. Behind him, glowering from the hill top the other side of the Potomac River, is Lee’s house. The architect of the Union and the great Confederate general, forever looking out at the symbol of the former’s success and the latter’s failure. The federal legislative and the motto inscribed at the top of the Capitol, e pluribus unum: out of many, one.
As if it were the most natural thing in the world, a man came up to me and squirted some cream into my hand. “Rub it in,” I was told.
Minding my own business, I was having a wander through the local shopping mall as I killed an hour. Unwittingly I had passed a cosmetics stall and, seeing his prey, the salesman had pounced. I looked down at the coil of white gunk sinking into my hand and wondered what had happened.
I don’t really know what happened next, but somehow he had got me to wash my hands with exfoliating salt, and wasn’t my skin just as smooth as a baby’s bottom after that? I couldn’t think of a polite way to disentangle myself, and with every hesitation the salesman got more and more intimate. He began rubbing a new cream into my hands. Then he had me rolling my cuffs up to reveal my wrists so he could demonstrate a exfoliant even more sensitive, special and expensive.
I just don’t know what happened. I simply couldn’t escape. Without me really understanding what was happening, I was handing my credit card over and trying to work out what on earth I would do with these things.