Thursday, 14 May 2015

San Francisco

The last leg of our trip. Here's the thing. If you're going to take a five-hour flight, be sure to eat on the plane (either pack food or buy their overpriced offerings)...eating before just doesn't do the trick. We ate (and not very much at that) at the Chicago airport, and by the time we got to San Francisco, I was famished. One of our liaisons, Lynda, was from San Francisco, so she kept up a patter all the way from the airport to the hotel, which is apparently a historic one, with a lot of arty furniture in the lobby.

This is a real big chair. You can't see how big because it looks like any old chair. Here's how big...

The others were full of beans when we arrived at San Fran, and full of plans as to what they were going to do. I thought I might join them but I got to my room and started to feel sick. I couldn't even face going down and foraging for food at the cafes nearby. We had a Starbucks and Mackers just across the street. So instead, I forked out a fortune (plus tip, plus tax) to have sandwiches in the room. Alberto whatsapped to tell me which restaurant they found themselves at, but I begged off. Headache. No, freaking migraine.

After a good night's sleep, I was ready to go in search of Starbucks the next day. Huh! They didn't have my favourite chocolate caramel muffin and I wasn't going to waste time getting another pastry. By the way, I eventually found the chocolate caramel muffin there (it's a best seller and gets finished real fast if you don't get in early enough) but it was nothing like the one in Boston. Nothing!

Anyway, our first meeting was not till well after lunch so I had time to wander around and look at the place. I wanted to post somethings so I went in search of a post office. Note to anyone who wanders around in search of a post office. It's best to ask someone...the one I eventually found was located at one corner of the basement of Macy's. It was not signposted so you would not have known it was there, otherwise. Anyway I posted my parcels and letters and cards and decided to stroll about taking in the scenery. The scenery being shops. I was pretty confident I would be able to find my way back to the hotel (it was one street away from Post Street. But I hadn't taken down the name. Which was a mistake).

One thing that surprised me was the number of old men with broken teeth who came up to me and asked for spare change. I kept my change in a little native American purse that I had bought from the Smithsonian in Washington. So one guy got a couple of dollars, another got all my spare change...I hadn't learned yet to look ahead and not make eye contact. I would before very long in San Fran.

Some interesting store fronts.

I stumbled on a Peet's Coffee which Lynda had told us to go to (it was supposed to be better than Starbucks and when in San Francisco, drink the coffee that San Franciscans drink).

I asked the nice lady that you can see in this picture...who is a sort of relationship officer for Capital One 360 if this was the Peet's that everyone was talking about...and she started chatting with me about what 360 does. It sounded interesting...a bank exclusively for online transactions...and then she said she would buy me a cup of coffee. I did tell her that I was Malaysian and as such couldn't open a bank account (though I might be interested in writing about the 360 concept) and she shrugged it off saying we had had a good conversation. So I scored a medium sized cappuccino (OK Peet's was a little too strong for my taste) and tried to sit there and surf the internet or update Facebook. But had absolutely no connection. Besides, it was getting late. Time to go.

I walked back to Post Street and realised that I was lost. I had no idea what road my hotel was supposed to be on. I had completely lost my bearings. Feeling a little desperate (we were supposed to be back at the hotel and ready to go by one), I flagged down a taxi and told him my hotel name. He was a nice guy and chatted with me, alleviating my panic and he took me there in no time at all...I flew out of the cab, but not before giving him a sizeable tip.

I don't remember much about the appointments that day. Oh wait, I do. Our first meeting was with the Electronic Frontier Foundation which fights for freedom of access to the internet and the right to anonymity and not be messed about by the NSA. I was in for a shock here because one of the guys there mentioned an ex-boyfriend of mine. He did it casually, tossed off his name like it was nothing at all. But I sort of know that he probably did it on purpose. So what this meant was that Jeremy was no longer in Malaysia. He was now in San Francisco fighting for freedom on the internet. I would never have pegged him for an activist, being too superior for anything that would link him to the masses. But when later that day I looked him up in their list of staff/people/whatchamacallits, I saw that all of them had eccentric profiles. So not really "of the people" as far as that went. One of them, in fact, the guy who spoke to us that day, claimed to have invented the term "life hack".

Our next meeting was with the San Francisco Bay Area Council. They served cookies and coffee (something we found we could not take for granted here). He was a nice guy and he explained to us why so many people wanted to come to Silicon Valley. That's the dream isn't it? Anyway, that was our last meeting for the day and our driver deposited us back at the hotel. The others were going to the port or something but what I really, really wanted to do was go to City Lights bookshop. I looked up how to get there and it seemed pretty simple on Google maps. I set off in the right direction. Or it may have been the wrong one. From this distance I can't remember. But if I did, I corrected myself and was jogging along in the right general direction when a particularly aggressive homeless man stopped me. First he wanted to sell me a newspaper, pointing out that unlike other homeless people who just begged, he was doing a proper business by selling that paper. Then he decided that I was too soft a touch to just buy a newspaper for which he would get 50 cents out of the $2 I forked out and took me to a hotdog stand to buy his three children (he swore he had them) three hot dogs. These hotdogs were frigging $5 a piece. The problem was I only had $100 notes and the guy at the hotdog stand didn't have change. I shouldn't have opened my wallet because once he got an eyeful of that, obviously three overpriced hotdogs and sodas was not going to be enough. A girl standing by pointed out that the hotdog stand accepted debit cards. So I bought the hotdogs and gave him $5 for three sodas (he stank of alcohol and I wondered). Then he said he could really, really use money to rent a hotel room that night and at that, I snapped...I said, you keep upping the ante - first it was just a newspaper, then it was hotdogs and sodas and now a hotel room? At that, he backed off, bought the sodas and I went on my way, avoiding the eyes of all I passed because I had just spent $20 on this man I didn't know who acted like he was entitled to it. The secret: Don't meet their eyes; don't turn around when they try to engage you in conversation...I am sure your hard luck story is as hard as you make it out to be. But since when are you my responsibility? If you're a deadbeat dad who can't provide for his kids, maybe you should have fucking used a condom!

So I kept walking along Geary Street until I hit Grant Avenue where I turned left. Now here is where it got tricky. From Grant Avenue I was supposed to turn right to Jack Kerouac Alley...but I walked and walked right through Chinatown without seeing the damn thing. I kept wondering if I had missed it and whether I should turn back. But I kept pushing gamely on...and there it was. As I was later to learn, the famed Jack Kerouac Alley.

And then I saw it...the famous City Lights. I arrived just in time for a reading. City Lights was relaunching David Meltzer's poetry primer Two-Way Mirror.

Here is the wikipedia entry on him:

David Meltzer (born February 17, 1937) is an American poet and musician of the Beat Generation and San Francisco Renaissance. Lawrence Ferlinghetti has described him as "one of the greats of post-World-War-Two San Francisco poets and musicians.

So he was a Beat? Wow. I just found that our right now when I googled him. Whadya know. He tottered to the stage, being a trifle old, I think 78. First he felt up his book like a lover. Then he started talking about how lovely the new font was, and the design, and then he started reading excerpts from the book in his shaky old man voice. It was kind of pleasant. He had a dry sense of humour. At one point he started talking about the creative writing classes he used to give in prison. At that point he mentioned Ronald Reagan who had pulled the funding from this programme. At this point he grimaced. He said it made him tense in the stomach to think of Reagan...and that the man was a putz. We all laughed.

I liked him, but the reading seemed to go on forever. I was itching to get out of my seat but it would have been rude. So I stayed as he read more bits from the book and riffed through it. Nothing was all improvisation, kind of like jazz. He didn't know what he was going to say about anything...until he had said it. I loved that kind of energy, that kind of confidence. He didn't agree with computers being placed over books in terms of importance. Computers above, books below, as relics in libraries...a sad state of affairs. Publishers no longer publishing poetry because it didn't "sell". He lamented the losses that people had suffered because of this slow deprivation.

He ended and people asked a whole bunch of questions. I was hungry and irritable and wished that they would all just shut up and let the poor old man get off the stage so he could get down to signing books. I decided not to buy it. Flipping through it, I realised that it was really not my kind of thing. Instead, I bought a whole bunch of other books including Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez and Howl by Allen Ginsberg. If there was a place to buy Howl I figured it was here.

I paid for my purchases and decided that I wanted to eat something. I had a choice, of Chinese or Italian. I opted for Italian and then walked up the length of Columbus Avenue looking for a likely place to eat. I found one but it would not do because there was a slightly retarded looking guy who stared and smiled at me. It shouldn't have mattered but he made me uncomfortable. So I got up and walked further down. I found a simple restaurant and ordered spaghetti and meatballs and a glass of red wine. Naturally I couldn't finish my spaghetti...actually no, it was half and half - half spaghetti and half something else. So I doggie bagged it with some idea of giving it away to some homeless person.

I set off for home, deciding not to go the way I came which was a huge mistake. I got lost. I walked and walked and walked, lost in a tangle of streets, tried to flag down a cab who said yes and then no, and I kept walking up the cold, cold street until finally one stopped for me. It took a while to get back to the hotel. Lesson: Always go back the way you came. Unless you know San Francisco, don't take alternate streets. It's not New York. The streets don't join up in a well-ordered way.

Anyway, I got back to the hotel. I saw a homeless man in the street but I hesitated about going to offer him food. He was hanging around outside the liquor store. I learned later that the hotel was very close to Tenderloin. I entered the hotel and saw some girls passing...they were very young and one of them actually forgot her pants. She was wandering out with her friends, giggling in nothing but her panties and a top. I stared at her not quite believing what I saw. What kind of hotel was this anyway? I spoke to one of the security guys who had been trained to recognise the guests and only allow those upstairs. I asked him about finding a homeless person to give my food to and he told me he wouldn't bother if he was me. Being security, his encounters with them had been less than pleasant. And he didn't really feel sorry for them. We chatted a bit and then I went to bed. (To sleep perchance to dream).

We were to be in San Fran for five days. Two of them had already passed irretrievably. My time on the IVLP was coming to an end.

Day Three we had a bunch of meetings (sorry I can't really remember them) and at night I was going to meet my friend Adelina at the 2 Sisters Bar and Books. We were both intrigued by the drinks and books options (when we got there we found a threadbare selection - it wasn't really what we thought, more of a book exchange really. There were some people sitting at tables alone who had picked a book and were reading away. It was small and cramped but obviously hip and cool. There were people there young enough to be university students but we didn't really take in any of that. We ordered our really cool cocktails and gabbed up a fest. Adelina's latest obsession was syphilis and she had read up a storm about it. So many of the artists were infected and she wondered how much of their art came from syphilitic madness. We talked and talked and caught up. Then she sent me back to the hotel.

Tonight the hotel wasn't jumping the way it had been the day before. And so, to bed.

The fourth day dawned...our last day in San Francisco. We would be flying out the next day, some of us really early. I started feeling really sad. Despite my tendency to go off on my own, I had bonded with this group and I would miss them. It was unlikely that we would ever meet again. None of the other groups I had been with had ever bothered to keep in touch. Why would it be different with them?

As with the day before, we started out at Starbucks. Rowland (from Namibia) and Bashar (from Jordan) were busy filling their feedback forms. They had decided not to be too critical. During the meeting, most people spoke in appreciation of the programme and thanked the US Department of State for bringing us here and spending money on us. There was some critical feedback which was interesting. And then there was a sort of graduation ceremony. And we were free to go.

Alberto, Shyam and I decided to go to City Lights...Shyam didn't want to go to the bookshop. He didn't really like them despite being a journalist. He would come with us as far as Chinatown to buy some souvenirs. And then go back on his own. Alberto agreed to come to City Lights. He pointed out later that this was the fourth bookshop I had dragged him to since coming here. (The only bookshop he had gone to on his own was the one in Washington).

We meandered, had lunch at a nice place in between on Geary Street (I think at Neiman Marcus, which meant that it was posh) and then strolled over to Chinatown. Here we stopped and went into many tacky shops to look at souvenirs. Shyam picked at this and that. Alberto bought a few things for his kids. And I, well I bought some cards and postcards from a stationery shop just before Chinatown and was saving the rest of my shopping for City Lights. Yes. Again.

I had distributed all the gifts I had faithfully carried over the five states (Norman said it was no wonder my bag had been so heavy and asked why I hadn't distributed the gifts in Washington - I told him I hadn't known anyone yet, so it would have been insincere). I had the presents delivered to the rooms of the people who got them accompanied with a handwritten Kuen Stephanie card. (yes, if you are going to do the thing, you might as well do it well). I wanted to give a lot more gifts than I had on hand...I had given some away during the trip to my friends, one bus driver, one US Department of State guy...well...I wished I had kept more on hand.

The others had come up to me during our debriefing session to hug me and thank me for the gifts - one Lat book (I had brought four), One Day Three Autumns by Liew Suet-Fun, and about five copies of Kenny Loh's Born in Malaysia. I had five signed copies and one unsigned copy to give away.

Anyway, Alberto and I got to the bookstore but we had to stop at the Jack Kerouac Alley to admire a group playing bluegrass music with improvised instruments (like a suitcase and a washboard)...I wish I had a picture...Alberto actually recorded them on his super duper phone but he didn't send me the video. Naturally since he was one of my best friends on the trip, he was on the receiving end of a book and a card (in which I asked him to send me pictures) and he did that almost at once..while I was out with Adelina, my phone kept buzzing and suddenly there were all these wonderful pictures there, complete with the funniest captions.

Here they are:

Alberto's caption: We were tough with the guy.

Backstory: The Food and Water Watch people actually had a good case, but they didn't make it very well. And one of their examples was about sweatshops in Malaysia. I told the guy we had a labour shortage and it was not a good place for sweatshops. The others jumped in asking about where they got their data from and arguing with everything the guy said. The meeting did not go very well.

Alberto's caption: The excesses of libertarianism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Backstory: He thought the EFF had rather a too cavalier attitude to IP rights and protection.

Alberto's caption: Breakfast on the 20th day.

Backstory. And we all met at Starbucks, regularly in San Fran, to start our day.

His caption: The are to the bottom: trade leads to dumping, at least in Chinatown gutters.

Backstory: Nearly all the labour movements and environmentally-related groups used this phrase: the race to the bottom. Alberto and gang were getting kinda sick of it.

His caption: Wouldn't it be nice not to be able to concentrate here?

Backstory: I think this was in Berkeley. And I have no idea.

His caption: SF as it once was.

Backstory: Alberto took a long long walk on our second day there to meet the mother of a host family he had stayed with 30 years ago. He loves architecture and along the way he took lots of photos. This is one of them.

His caption: Crossroads.

Backstory: Taken during that same walk.

His caption: A corner where to take the same picture everyday.

Backstory: Alberto loves the movie "Smoke". And in that movie, one of the main characters is a guy who sells cigars. And he used to take a picture at the same corner at the same time every day for 20 years. Or it may have been more. And in those pictures you could recognise some faces and actually see a progression, how people's lives turned out. He was in love with the he just needed to find the right corner.

His caption: Back to routine on the 20th day.

Backstory: Us milling around at Berkeley.

His caption: Wish the people could talk like in comics. What would they be saying?

A chair without any further references.

Backstory: Ahem, the chair I was talking about before. At our hotel lobby.

Caption: Further references without any chair at Lombard Street.

Caption: Unaffordable gutters.

Backstory: Hmmm...I have no idea.

Caption: Two seconds before avoiding the great fall at Sears tower.

Backstory: Alberto has a lot more guts than I do. He went to the Tilt.

Caption: Less is more. Mies [van der Rohe]'s mantra taken to the extreme. Chicago's central post office only a post box.

Backstory: I am not sure this is true. When I asked around there was a 24-hour post office operating there.

Caption: Frank Gehry's skyline.

Backstory: Frank Gehry is the Canadian-born architect who designed Millennium Park in Chicago.

Caption: The architect was a woman.

Backstory: I don't know.

Caption: Mirror watching Chicago.

Backstory: Drop of Mercury in Millennium Park in Chicago.

Less is more once more.

Backstory: I am pretty sure this is Boston. But I might be wrong.

Less is more.

Backstory. I think this was in San Francisco. Alberto had a knack for liking things that no one else looked at and finding them fascinating.

Well, OK, maybe that's enough for now.

I was supposed to go out with Adelina but I decided that I wanted to spend my last night with these guys. After we got back from our outing at City Lights (where I picked a book for Alberto's wife; Jamaica Kincaid's "My Brother") by accident. Actually Alberto had rejected all my suggestions (Shantaram, A Tale for the Time Being) then he saw me sitting downstairs reading this book, which I handed to him, explaining Kincaid's very slow, deliberate prose. "Perfect," he said. And bought it.

Anyway, we walked back to the hotel, taking detours (but this was with Alberto and he knew his way and didn't get hopelessly lost the way I did, his detours were deliberate) and we ended up going into a toy shop as he wanted to buy a baseball mitt for his son. The shop didn't have a baseball mitt and I decided that we were not going to wander around aimlessly looking for one. So I asked someone in the shop and she directed us to a shopping centre nearby. She said there were sports shops in that shopping centre (I can't remember the name) and we might just find what we were looking for.

And we did. A nice baseball mitt that was a tad big but which Alberto Junior would grow into. And Alberto also bought a ball. He would play catch with his three children in the park.

We strolled back from there and went to Macy's so I could pick a new handbag. Now, I don't like shopping for handbags so I was taking my time, feeling increasingly desperate. Finally Alberto picked one that he liked and I bought it. And I love it.

When we got back to the hotel it was pretty late and I needed to call Dadda and wish him because it was his birthday. Rowland sent out an email to say that a bunch of them were meeting at the lobby at 7.30 and everyone was welcome to join. I knew I wouldn't be done by 7.30...what with the phone call and a I emailed to say that I did want to join them, and to let me know where they were going as I wouldn't be down in time. So I had both Rowland and Alberto, emailing and texting to tell me that they had ended up at Cupola, an Italian restaurant on the 4th floor of the shopping centre we had been at earlier to buy the baseball glove.

I hurried there to find five of them - Oranuch (the girl from Thailand), Bashar (the guy from Jordan), Johan (the guy from Sweden) and of course, Rowland and Alberto. They had already ordered their pizzas and drinks, so I ordered mine (I think the waitress was flirting with me, but then, she flirted with everyone). We drank a little, ate a little, talked a little rubbish and then it was time to walk back to the hotel.

The others had decided to meet at the lobby at 10pm to say goodbye and so we did.

We started with a drink at the lobby and then went for a walk outside and finally, I went with Alessandro and Shyam to a Japanese restaurant where Alessandra and I had ramen. (Not a good idea). Having had too much to drink and a really spicy meal, I slept the sleep of the uneasy (not having packed, again), and woke up with a massive stomach ache...which I took care of precipitately. And then I packed slowly (it was five in the morning), stumbled downstairs to see if I could get someone to help me move my voluminous luggage down. Checked out and did the needful. Then proceeded to wait beside the arty chairs and the fake log fire for the rest to emerge. I didn't even have the energy to go across to the Starbucks and buy a coffee.

Bashar smiled at me and told me I looked terrible and this is why he hadn't drunk anything the night before (and also why he repaired early to bed, smart fellow).

We climbed onto the bus; Bashar, Abdallah, Shyam, Norman and I and took off for the airport. They were dropping me off first and they all came around to hug me. I was touched. I hugged Norman real tight because he had been the one to take care of us in Boston and he had been so nice. He told me what to tip the guy for checking in my bags at the door of the terminal...and then I was in the airport and we were off.

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