Random Play by Graham Reid

Letter From America

Swear to God, but the first thing I bought in the States was booze and a mix: a small bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin and some Minute Maid pink lemonade from a Korean liquor store on the corner of Third and Townsend in San Francisco.

There was a good reason of course (not that you need a reason), we needed money for the meter.

We’d hired a car at the airport for our 16 days drive up to Seattle and back, and drove it into Downtown. It was still only early afternoon and despite a 12 hour flight I thought we could check out the Museum of Cartoon Art at 665 Third St. I hauled the car over into the first space I saw on the way up Third and there, directly opposite, was 665.

Even closer was the parking meter.

I had 10s, 20s and 100s even, but no change. So I went to the nearest place I saw, the liquor store.

As it happened the museum had moved but at least we were provisioned.

And embarrassing as that is to report, the next thing we bought was a beer.

We swung through the shabby Tenderloin area with its strip clubs and panhandlers, where toothless men slept on the footpath or in their wheelchairs, and dropped the car in a parking building. We started walking. Past girlie bars and nude review joints, past hookers in piss-soaked alleys, and past the helpless and the homeless.

I needed to pee so we went into a bar, the shabby 21 Club. The sign on the door said, “No bicycles inside”.

It was a haven for the hopeless: a guy asleep across the wall seats, the guy complaining about his tumour, the maniac with the rolling eyes …

We’d been in America less than two hours and I was loving it.

That night we stayed at the nearby Hotel Bijou just two blocks from Union Square. It was cool: the place has a movie theme and it’s own tiny theatre (two rows of old cinema seats in an aubergine coloured room front of a big screen television) where they show two movies a night set in SanFran.

The night we were there they were showing Dirty Harry and Pacific Heights.

The rooms were named after movies and had appropriate posters and pictures on the walls. We were in The Birds (actually filmed further up the coast in smalltown Bodega) but who knows what lurked behind doors marked The Fan, Barbary Coast, James and the Giant Peach, and Crazy?

I’d have felt cheated if we’d got The Jazz Singer however, the doorway was almost blocked by the Coke machine.

That night we went out to dinner then up to the Starlight Lounge which was a top floor club with a great view of the city.

It was cold so I had put on my long black woollen coat. The girls lining up at the door were wearing skimpy halter-tops and crack-revealing jeans. Who knows why -- was it the coat? did they mistake me for someone else? -- but the bouncers cleared a path for us to enter. Later when I was inside I walked over to the toilet and two massive men did the same again, easing the young punters out of the way so I could get through.

I felt like P. Diddy.

Maybe they just thought the old guy looked like he needed help.

Our holiday-cum-business trip had begun in perfect manner, and over the following fortnight as we drove from Sacramento up to Seattle by the smaller roads, engaging people in bars and restaurants, we had a ball.

But big-ups especially to those who showed us the hospitality of their homes, notably Bob and Mary in Victoria (great halibut meal), Jeff and Susanne Kelly in Seattle (new friends, Jeff is Green Pajamas one of the great cult bands of our time) and to Shayne and Andrea up there north of Victoria.

After the last blog when I said I was heading up that way Shayne, a self-described “big Maori boy from Whangarei”, sent an e-mail saying he’d love it if we dropped by.

It was a three hour drive, the last 45 minutes climbing on a gravel road, but when we got there we were met with a view which encompassed half of Canada and most of Heaven, and genuine Kiwi hospitality.

More on what they are doing way up there where cougars, bears and two metre snowdrifts are common at some later date, or in some other forum.

Meantime, to all of those people, watch your mailboxes, the care packages are on their way.

But it’s nice to be home for the petty politics, Winston Peters, immigration issues and all the rest of it. There‘s an election coming up obviously.

Yes it is good to be home, but I tell you something. It was also very good to be away.

You can gain a lot of perspective in places like the 21 Club in SanFran.