Thursday, February 22, 2007

On the road again: San Francisco to San Diego, via LA

Monday February 12

6am. I wake up in the dark to the buzzing of my hotel phone. I blearily put it down and start to drift off into my customary ‘five more minutes’ of sleep. Luckily, I remember with a jolt that I’ve given myself twenty minutes to get ready – and I have a Greyhound to catch.

Literally jumping out of bed, I’m straight into the shower. It’s as I’m shampooing my hair that the next part of my brain wakes up. I’m supposed to have visited the front desk at 6am and asked them to call me a 6.20am cab! Hair streaming with shampoo, water dripping onto the carpet, I stumble across the room and dial reception. Task complete, I’m back to the shower.

I’ve just emerged and wiped the weeping mascara from my eyes when the phone buzzes again. My cab is early. Luckily, the driver waits until the allotted time.

Grey-bearded, dressed in a plaid shirt tucked into blue jeans, my cabbie greets me at the front desk with a nonchalant hello as he relieves me of my bags. Everything about him is laid back. I sit shivering in the back seat, leaning my forehead against the window for my last tour of the city I’ve fallen for. He chats about where I’m from, then, after confirming that I’m a visitor, gives me an impromptu guided tour as we drive, pointing out historical buildings and other sites of interest. He has lived in San Francisco all his life, and it sounds like it.

A scattering of homeless people are huddled about the entrance to the Greyhound building. I hurry past them, my bags leaden on my shoulders and back. Somehow heavier than when I arrived at San Francisco airport, though I’ve hardly acquired anything.

I’m terrified that my money still won’t have cleared into my bank account, and that I’ll be stuck here until it does. I could miss my flight to Mexico. But to my relief, the ticket transaction goes smoothly, and I’m ready to go.
‘Where’re you from?’ asks the friendly attendant, after shaking her head at the ‘crazy’ who came before me. (‘We always get the crazies in the mornings’)
I tell her.
‘Ohhh’ she says, in thick Southern tones. ‘That’s why I couldn’t understand you - your accent’s so strong.’

On the bus, I choose the very back seat. It’s three seats across, and I can lie down pretty comfortably if I decide to sleep. I’m exhausted, of course, but I’m excited about the trip and want to see as much of California as I can. There are two routes –the quicker one travels inland; the more scenic one along the coast. I specifically checked when booking my ticket last night that I would travel the coast.

We cross the Bay Bridge, and quickly I’m on foreign ground, somewhere I’ve never been. The suburbs of San Francisco – the real suburbs, rather than the inner-city districts and outlying towns I’ve travelled. I’ve found myself wondering where the ordinary people live – the taxi drivers, the hotel clerks, the waiters and shop assistants - given the high prices of both real estate and rent. The answer, of course, is here. From the freeway, it’s dingier here, less trees, more industrial areas, but it’s still attractive. There is still a plethora of charming wooden Victorians, even interspersed among the apartment blocks, factories, self storage facilities and Burger Kings. Picturesque green hills rise up above the suburbs. The more we drive, the more palm trees we see. As we enter San Jose, our first stop, just an hour away, we pass three car dealerships along the road, all with enormous US flags streaming atop tall flagpoles. There seem to be as many tall buildings here as in Adelaide.

We pick up new passengers in San Jose. As we move on, despite my initial determination not to miss a thing, my body takes over and I stretch out across the seats, head resting on my satchel, and sleep.

Hours later, I am awoken by the driver announcing our lunch stop. I sit up excitedly to catch my glimpse of Santa Barbara, our scheduled lunch stop. I expect sea and sprawling mansions (wasn’t there a trashy daytime soap to that effect called ‘Santa Barbara’?) Instead, I see a mini village of fast food outlets, in the middle of nowhere. We are surrounded by endless brown fields, distant mountains looking down on the Burger King that is to be our lunch stop. Maybe this is on the fringes of Santa Barbara?

I decide I really do want the map of California I’d browsed and discounted back in the Greyhound station. Briskly, I walk in the opposite direction, to a nearby service station. As well as the curious array of American junk food – similar to ours but slightly different – is a revolving stand stocked with state maps. I choose one and a packet of red licorice bites, after screwing my nose up at the packets of beef jerky (strips of dried processed meat). I ask the attendant, a tired-looking doughnut of a woman, where I am.
‘Coalinga’ she drawls, looking at me like I’m an idiot.
‘Oh. Thanks.’

None the wiser, I head back to Burger King. I really don’t want to eat here, but it’s my last chance for a meal in a while – maybe my only one. So I reluctantly line up and ask for the cheapest and smallest thing on the menu, a Whopper Junior ($1).
‘Is that all?’ asks the girl at the counter.
‘Is that all you’re having for your meal?’
She mumbles something I don’t quite hear, so I hand her a dollar bill. She glares at me wearily.
‘I SAID that’s a dollar ten cents.’
‘Ohhh. Sorry. Tax. Here.’ I can’t get used to the idea that you have to add tax onto the marked price of everything here. At least that didn’t happen to us, I guess. The girl looks at the ten cent coin I have hastily given her and sighs.
‘I need more than one penny.’
I feel sorry for her – obviously my brain is still asleep on the bus. She looks at me silently as I fix my mistake, and continues to watch me as I walk away.

Sitting down to eat, I look at the menu. It’s got the same Whopper/Cheeseburger staples as back home, but otherwise it’s pretty different. I’m struck by one particularly gruesome looking item. For the kids’ meal, they have two alternatives. The standard cheeseburger, fries and Coke. And a trio of oddly shaped three-pronged chicken nuggets, strawberry-flavoured applesauce and Hershey’s chocolate milk.

Above the counter, an indicator that perhaps the campaign against obesity (advertised extensively in San Francisco) hasn’t hit here yet. ‘We serve burgers for breakfast!’ the sign cheerfully proclaims. On the bus, I’ll read in the local paper, ‘The Fresno Bee’, that childhood obesity is a real problem here, as part of an article about widespread school non-compliance with the compulsory twenty minutes per day of physical education. Why? Mainly due to poor air quality often making it inappropriate to be exercising outside.

I try to use the ATM on the way out, but it’s entirely in Spanish, and I can’t understand it. I don’t make much of an effort either. I’ve already noticed that the employee signs in the restrooms are in both English and Spanish. Apparently (I learn later), rural California is densely populated with illegal immigrant farm workers.

Back on the bus, I inspect my map with a growing sense of trepidation, looking along the coast for Coalinga. I don’t find it. Much examining later, checking against the road signs that fly by my window, I figure out what has happened. I’m on the wrong route. This bus is going inland, not via the coast.

I am both furious and devastated. That explains the farmland outside my window. And the lack of Santa Barbara mansions.

The worst thing about it, the thing that leaves a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach (that and the Burger King) is that we have passed through my mother’s birthplace of Merced while I was asleep. If I knew we were going there, I would have stayed awake for it. I try to tell myself that at least I was there, if not conscious for the experience, but it doesn’t help.

And I have missed the coast. Instead, I get a view not unlike Adelaide to Melbourne. Neverending stretches of dry farmland. (Only no sheep here, and at least there are hills beyond the farmland to look at.) After staring angrily at what I think are wheat fields for a while, I resign myself to my fate. At least I’ll be in San Diego sooner.

Back to sleep again. When I awaken, we’re in the mountains. The best view is from the other side of the bus, so I lean into the aisle and crane my neck to see. Rust red and forest green scrub cling to the grassy mountainside, which is sprinkled with rocky outcrops and topped with mists of fog. Trees are sparse. A queue of trucks crawls along the freeway far below the mountaintops. The mountains recede to the background again, as motels and palm trees briefly take over the roadside. Then, the mountains return to the foreground, but rockier, sparser, now sandy coloured with sprigs of green scrub. An expanse of wild grasses carpets the roadside. We pass through Los Angeles National Park, where the scenery closes in on us for a stretch: higher, greener, closer. Here, everyone on the bus press their heads to the windows, pull out cameras, or contort themselves to peer out of the opposite side of the bus.

Then: we’re on the outer fringes of LA itself, the mountains once again in the background, where they’ll now stay. I’m eager to see LA, but from the windows of the Greyhound, there’s not much to see. Lots of palm trees. Vast freeway system. Yellow school buses just like in the movies. Billboards and fast food and road signs.

The Greyhound terminal in downtown LA is our last stop. It is surrounded by graffiti and nondescript buildings. Signs shout: ‘NO LOITERING’ and ‘NO WEAPONS’. Then they list all the weapons you’re not allowed to carry, in great detail. Also: ‘NO DRUGS’ and ‘NO ALCOHOL’. I’m here for one hour before I transfer to my bus to San Diego.

Limping under the weight of my bags, I stagger from the bus to the waiting area for my next bus, on the opposite side of the terminal. At the canteen, I ask an aproned attendant slopping food into metal trays about finding a newspaper. She shakes her head at me and darts across the room, tapping another aproned attendant on the shoulder. She doesn’t speak English. I am getting closer to Mexico. The English-speaking attendant tells me I need to go outside, back to the opposite side of the terminal, to buy a paper from a coin-operated machine. I can’t be bothered.

I drag myself back to the designated waiting spot for my bus and collapse on the front row of plastic chairs. On one side of me, an obese black teenager in a hooded jumper and jeans is stretched out across half the row of chairs, asleep. On the other, a withered Latin American woman with a cane sits quietly, her shoulders stooped forward. Opposite, sit a couple I recognise from the bus ride here, dressed comfortably in blue jeans and sweatshirts, large backpacks by their side. A leathery Latin American man sits beside them, with a much younger woman. His daughter? His wife? He wears a shirt tucked into blue jeans, a gold buckled belt, and a large white cowboy hat, with cowboy boots. I’ve seen a few men walking around the station dressed similarly.

A young girl, early twenties, appears before me. She reaches for my cardigan, folded on the seat beside me, then looks at me as I look at her.
‘Oh. Is this yours?’
I nod.
‘Have you seen my jumper?’
‘Oh, no.’ She looks both worried and annoyed.
‘Did you leave it here?’ I think she must have left it by accident.
‘I gave it to an old lady here to hold. Did you see an old lady?’
‘Um, no.’
‘But she was here. You must have. With a cane?’
‘Oh, yes, I did.’
‘Well, where did she go?’ She looks at me expectantly. I can’t believe she gave her jumper to a stranger, obviously wandered off for a while, and is now annoyed that the stranger isn’t here, waiting for her. And is annoyed with me for not keeping an eye on the stranger.
‘I don’t know.’
She sits next to me, talking half to me and half to herself about her predicament. I don’t know what to say. The obese teenager rubs his eyes and sits up.
‘Oh – there she is. Bye!’ The old lady is coming towards us, the jumper outstretched. The young girl leaps up to take it and darts off again to chat to a security guard.

In a burst of colour and exuberance, a pair of middle-aged black women come striding across the station, talking and laughing excitedly. One wears a scarlet dress and a floppy white hat, the other also wears a bright dress. They burst through the doors to outside, shouting and exclaiming. Heads snap up all over the terminal. There is hand waving and noise outside, animated conversation with the bus drivers, and they come crashing back through, sending the doors flying in their wake. They are still laughing, and I glimpse a bus driver looking after them in wonderment. He, too, is laughing.

When I board my bus, the two women are just ahead of me. As I move down the aisle, the woman in red is stopped before me, talking loudly to her friend and waving a video camera. She sees me and moves aside.
‘Look at this!’ she bellows. ‘They won’t believe this back home. They don’t have buses like this in New York!’ She is taping the bus interior enthusiastically. A very young couple with a baby in a portable crib move past me as I settle. I notice a young black man with a plate-sized gold dollar symbol hanging from his neck board the bus. He also has long dreadlocks. The New York woman is leaning into the aisle, swinging her camera toward the back of the bus. She pulls a face.
‘I’m not looking at you boy!’ she whoops. ‘I’m filming the bus. Why’d I want to film you? I don’t think so!’ She catches my eye and I laugh, too, turning to nod at the man I think she’s speaking to, sharing the joke. He seems to be laughing when I glance at him.

I’m keen to get the best side of the bus for the view this time, feeling I made a bad choice on the trip from San Fran. I try to calculate which side of the bus will look onto the coast, looking back and forth, asking the couple behind me – the ones from the trip here. They don’t know. The bus is filling up. I peer at the seats behind me, looking for spare seats, wondering if I can switch if I need to. I keep an eye on the seats as they fill. The bus starts (nearly full), and I settle back to enjoy the ride. A loud voice comes from behind me.
‘Hey, little Red Riding Hood! What you lookin’ at, hey? You never seen a black man before?’ Mocking laughter. I glance around, wondering who he’s talking to. I feel sorry for whoever it is. No one in red.
‘You like what you SEE?’ comes the voice again. ‘You want a little CHOCOLATE, do you?’ More laughter, tinged with menace. A few moments too late, I realise he’s talking to me. I’m wearing a cardigan with a hood. He must have thought I was looking at him when I was looking around for seats. And now it’s too late to explain. I feel very uncomfortable, as if I’m being watched. Especially when there is mumbling and then another loud voice.
‘A bigot? Which one is she?’
‘That one sitting there with the can of MACE in her bag. Ha!’
‘I see her. MAN, I hate bigots.’
I’m tensed up, and yes, clutching my bag to my lap, but though I try hard to ignore it, to watch the scenery with a nonchalant air, it’s hard. I feel terrible, even though I haven’t done anything.

Gradually, the mumbling recedes into nothing. Night falls. My view drops away into blackness and stretches of neon light before we’re even out of Los Angeles.

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