Friday, March 02, 2007

Breaking a leg in San Diego

You know how they say that a bad dress rehearsal signifies a good opening night? I wonder if that applies to first impressions of a city.

The Greyhound rolls into its San Diego terminal past a cacophony of neon lit billboards advertising the services of bail bondsman; a series of slogans along the lines of: ‘We’ll get you out sooner!’ I’ve heard (and noticed) that the greyhound terminals are always in the worst part of town, but this is ridiculous. It’s the first time I’ve seen such a targeted display of advertising to criminals.

My cab driver has never heard of Point Loma, let alone my hostel, but although I seem to have lost my instructions on how to get there, he tells me not to worry. He radios through a request to head office, and I hear a detailed stream of street-by-street instructions come back to him. I settle back in the cab and relax, peering curiously at my surrounds beyond the window. Despite the thriving business for bail bondsman, the San Diego I see is seemingly squeaky clean. Palm trees and attractive middle-class houses navigated by modest but well-to-do shopping strips.

The driver gets horrendously lost, and tells me to write down the number on the meter as my final charge, telling me what a nice guy he is for not charging me for his mistake. Tired and disoriented, keen to reach the hostel before the front desk closes at 10pm, I agree and thank him. I empty each of my bags, one by one, looking for my instructions, which I distinctly remember stashing in ‘a safe place’. My safe places often work out like this – so safe even I don’t know where they are. No luck. I switch on my laptop, though I know the battery is near dead, and manage to pull the street address out of it just before the screen collapses into silence. The driver stops at the 7/11 and asks a young guy in the car next to us where we find Udall Street. He tells him. We get to Udall, a tiny street about ten houses long. No hostel.
‘There must be another Udall’ I say.
‘You must have the wrong address’ the driver tells me. I assure him I don’t. It was cut and pasted from the hostel website. I suggest he consult the street directory.

Pissed off, haranguing me about how much trouble he will be in, how much this is costing him, and how I will pay him for this, he cruises around, stopping at traffic lights and asking fellow motorists where the hostel is. Halfway to the wrong hostel, I manage to convince him to return to Udall Street. He asks a couple of residents carrying six packs from their cars about the hostel. They tell him they’ve lived on the street for years, and it’s not there.
‘Well, right’ the driver says. ‘I’m going to have to take you back to the terminal. And when we get there, we’ll take the number you wrote down, and split the difference.’ I look at the meter. It’s at around $40 - and climbing. The hostel staff have told me the ride should cost $10. (The number I wrote down was $24.) I beg the driver to look at a street directory. He does, but shakes his head over it. I ask to see it, but it’s not organised the same as the Melways and UBD at home. I squint at it, and manage to find another Udall, but can’t work out where we are in relation to it. Neither can he.
‘Ten years, I been driving a cab here and I never got lost’ he mumbles. ‘What have you done to me?’
Given his inability to read a map, and that it took him an hour and much pleading before he even looked at the street directory, I find this hard to believe, but don’t say so. The driver pulls in at Domino’s Pizza. He tells me that he will ask these guys, and if they don’t know how to get there, we’re going back to downtown and the Greyhound terminal.

Someday soon I will need to order a Domino’s pizza or ten in gratitude, because the staff know where the hostel is, and give the driver detailed instructions.
‘It exists?’ I ask them from the taxi window. They confirm that it does. ‘You’ve seen it?’ Yes. ‘And you know how to get there?’
‘Don’t worry’ says one of the uniformed teenagers, shooting me a sympathetic smile, but talking to me in low tones, as if I’m a slightly hysterical crazy woman (which I am by now). ‘He knows to get there now. He’ll take you there.’

I pay the driver $37. He tells me what a good guy he is for not charging me more. I am shaking as I gather my bags. I guess I was more scared than I thought at the very near prospect of being stranded at the station, among all those bail bondsman billboards. And I am barely containing my rage.
‘What’s wrong?’ he laughs. ‘You seem a bit nervous.’
‘I’m fine.’

The hostel is worth the trouble. Dress rehearsal over, the main event opens with much-deserved internal applause. The red-painted two-storey stucco is set back from the road, set against tall trees and shrubbery, with a picnic-style benches and table in the inviting front yard. The front door is lit, as if waiting for me. A pleasant-looking college student with a hastily tied-back ponytail and a nose ring is sitting at the front window, and lets me in. She listens to my horror cab story with sympathy as she arranges my room. I’ve booked a private, but she tells me that there’s an empty dorm I can have to myself for less than half the price. I gratefully accept. There is a common room with dining tables, a chess set, magazines and a bookshelf. Location maps, bus schedules and tourist brochures line the walls, accompanied by handwritten notes on the best places to go and how to get there. I am assigned a drawer in the kitchen, where I can get tea and coffee any time and free pancakes in the morning. A few backpackers sit huddled over laptops or sipping drinks. This is one million times better than the Renoir. And much cheaper. After checking my emails and venting about my cab ride to Tony, I go to bed in my cheerfully painted dorm room - to the sound of absolute silence.

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