“Coast to Coast”: San Francisco. Summer 1980.

xi. The End: Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Town

Outside San Francisco, after 7pm, at a bus stop. On the Bay Area Rapid Transit system – ultra-new, techno-flash tubes. Problem: night in a big, strange city, known for the depths of its vices and problems. Big problem. At the station, Market and Eddy, on the phone for ages, trying to find a room. Yes! A cheap room – $20 for two… We rush around the corner, through the weirdo people, flashing neon night and cables cars to the hotel. We took it even though the price was more (!) than we’d planned. Fall on our feet.

Thus started a ten day romance. San Francisco is a great place, and we got to know (parts of) it pretty well. As you must have realised, our hotel – it had a really incongruous name, something like the Rutherford or the Stratford – was in a real down area, so far downtown it almost reached Hell. We were right in the heart of the Tenderloin. Junkies, drunks, gays of all descriptions; leather and chains; prostitutes of both sexes.

Before the action, two unconnected, completely unchronological events. Walking down the street to our hotel, Geary St., two girls leave a bar ahead of us – we only see them from behind: both tall, long blonde hair, slender legs; stock comments pass between G. and myself – “don’t fancy yours much”. Dressed as they were, and where they were, we guessed they must be prostitutes. They cross the road, and we overtake them. They are men in drag. We freaked.

In the hotel lift – just myself, G. is already downstairs; this tall white guy gets in, leather jacket, a knife in his jeans (or maybe he was just pleased to see me?); the vibes say, beware. He catches my eye and says, “do you want to buy some cocaine?” “Um, no, I don’t, thanks.” “Whadaya, a cop? Smoke? Even cops smoke!” “Er, no thanks.” “Jeez, where you from?” “England.” “Then whadaya doing in this shithole?”

Scene set.

The hotel was very gay. It acted as – it seemed like – a brothel. Two brothels in two weeks, and not laid once. The people that ran it were very friendly, they were fun and joked around a lot. Our first room had a bath, but we changed it after the first night for a cheaper one ($12 or $14). We didn’t do a lot in San Francisco, just hung out. We found B. shacked up with this girl called Tia – as in Maria, without the coffee – and since his days were free and he was bored, we spent a lot of time with him. We walked a lot, everywhere, rarely taking buses. A lot of disjointed things happened – we were busy – but didn’t actually DO a lot.

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The view from the hotel

We rang B. when we got to San Francisco, and arranged to meet him the next day at City Lights bookstore. We virtually lived in City Lights for the next ten days – it was a very trendy place. It’s where Kerouac, Ginsberg, lots of people like that hung out. It was like a library: having got through our books, we assaulted City Lights and just sat reading, for hours. It was a very friendly place, they provided armchairs so you could sit and read.

City Lights was on Columbus, just by Chinatown (where we ate magnificently). Columbus is a big street, and like Broadway it messes up the maps by going diagonally when all the other streets go vertically or horizontally. It was up a hill – San Francisco has a lot of hills – and overlooked the skyscrapers in the business district. When we met B., we posed in City Lights; then we posed outside City Lights (I took a beautiful picture of B. and G. in front of the window, B. smoking a cigarette, very cool, G. looking on, not so cool), and then posed inside a horrifically trendy café. B., despite claiming he had no money, frequented establishments of this sort, going without lunch so he could afford it. It was such a posy place.

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We walked to Washington Square, on Columbus. Past some music shops – the Tubes’ last gig was at some club that evening (no cash!). Lots of people looked stoned on the grass of Washington Square; there were some rather odd people about – it’s meant to be the Italian quarter – lots of down and outs. One end of the square consists of a church, a replica of Notre Dame in Paris. The weather was lovely – not as had as it had been elsewhere – and we sunbathed. The architecture in San Francisco is very cutesy Victorian, built I suppose after the last earthquake: very nice towns houses – even the nasty ones.

In the evening, after our Chinese meal, we went for a drink in bar opposite City Lights – down a little alley. A nice bar, local-ish atmosphere, all sorts of memorabilia on the wall, mainly naval. We had a pitcher of beer, then went into another bar opposite; they refused to serve us, so the first became our regular drinking spot. The walk back to our hotel took about half an hour, and we always took the same way back, to avoid hills: down into the business section and along Market, avoiding the drunks in doors, on benches, in cardboard boxes; it really was quite depressing.

Back at our hotel, I started roach hunting, spending hours chasing them with a rolled up newspaper. I got really good at it, the little bastards didn’t have a chance. They didn’t appear any more.

B. woke us up the next morning. He borrowed a pair of G.’s socks and waited the hours it took us to get ready. We changed rooms, getting a cheaper rate. No bath. Then to breakfast, a place run by two Mexican guys. They let us read the papers, and it was a great breakfast – sausages, toast, potatoes, eggs, pancakes, endless coffee. The Mexican guys kept refilling our cups; we stayed there for about three hours, till 1.30pm, just drinking coffee, reading the papers and talking about Bob Dylan. Well, G. and B. talked about Dylan; I just read the papers. There was a riot in Amsterdam with 10,000 demonstrators and 2,000 police after the Dutch police used 300 men to evict a lone squatter called Eric. All the other squatters had left in the night, so 300 police escorted Eric to prison – and started a riot. So Pythonesque!

We contemplated going to Berkeley – we’d planned to – but we didn’t. We walk down to City Hall, a vast huge complex of buildings, a vast Germanic square of white marble, devoid of friendliness. We cut through Mission Street, which was full of second-hand shops, and we looked at each of them. There was a large army surplus store that really excited G. – B. and I kept trying to drag him away. In the end he bought a pair of multicoloured red, blue and yellow bowling shoes, just the thing for north London society.

We stopped off at other places: bookshops, pawn shops. It was sunny. We had a coffee in a café. Hungry, we ended up in Chinatown again, where we ate – a lot. There was one place we went to regularly – maybe five times during our stay: they were friendly by the end. Then City Lights and the bar. Just a quick one. Whilst we were there, Kevin – the bloke from Flagstaff and Las Vegas (Rotherham!) – walked in, just by chance. He was staying nearby. We ended spending about three hours in the bar…

We heard all about Kevin’s journey; and he heard all about ours. He’d gone down to San Diego, then LA, and finally San Francisco; he had two days to go. He’d taken Greyhounds mainly, because he was short of time. He’d only spent one night in Las Vegas (with the girl he’d hitched with – a one night stand: she’d split). We shared pitchers of Bud Dark, his room-mate (they were sharing a hotel room to save money – they’d met in the queue for the youth hostel, which was full), a Danish guy, was being silent and drinking lager. We got chatting to a black guy – an image of Sammy Davis jnr – and he and G. got into an earnest conversation about race relations in England and the States. It was only as Kevin was leaving – exchanging addresses since he’d given G. $20 to buy a Dylan bootleg – that we realised that once again this black guy was queer and trying to chat G. up. Still, he was being very free with drink, and G. was aware of the situation, so we hung around. Eventually, the guy worked sex into the conversation, so G. and I split; the poor guy was rather annoyed…

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The next day, B. and we had breakfast in another joint – better value but not half as friendly as the other place. This place was run by three gay men, all in leathers and chains and fat; one was showing off his picture in a gay contact magazine, mincing with these middle aged English housewives, who were amused – “not like back ’ome, ’ay, luv?” – but the atmosphere was lousy. Then to Berkeley.

Tia, B.’s girlfriend, gave us some bus tickets she had spare so it cost nothing to get there, and we bought lunch of bread and cucumbers and fruit. Berkeley didn’t seem anything special, really – quite a nice, trendy student town (like Boulder but less nauseating) and it was quite fun to hang around for a bit. Whilst wandering around the streets of Berkeley, we found two very good shops – one for jeans and one for records. I bought a pair of jeans for £5 in the first, and a couple of bootlegs in the second – Springsteen’s tour of 1978 and Patti Smith’s “Teenage Perversity/Ships in the Night” (amazing, of course). G. got a couple of Dylan bootlegs (one with Kevin’s money), maybe something else too. The place was amazing – five different Springsteen bootlegs, a couple of Patti, some Costello, Rockpile, Eno (801 at Reading and some BBC tapes), Peter Gabriel, hundreds of Stones, Zeppelin and Floyd. Could have spent much, much more!

That evening after leaving B. to go back to Tia (we never saw him after 7pm!), G. and I went to see a film, “Where the Buffalo Roam”, based on “the legend of Hunter S Thompson”. It was very funny, a sort of coagulation of several episodes from the Great Shark Hunt and Fear & Loathing, and a lot of Lazlo and Nixon on the Campaign Trail. Some cameo bits – Thompson shooting the phone because it wouldn’t stop ringing; his dog attacking a dummy of Nixon’s crotch on the command “…Nixon!” Lots of drugs, lots of guns, lots of booze.

G. and I walked up to Haight Asbury on a Saturday. It was a long walk, a couple of miles, right out past Golden Gate Park. There seemed to be very few other people out, and we walked through what seemed to be a black ghetto. G. was signing rock songs in a loud voice, and got me quite worried – paranoid.

We looked at lots of shops in Haight – all very laid back – and then came across this free festival in the street. Very sixties. The stage was “erected by the People’s Scaffolding Co”. As the band was playing, this hippy walked up to me and said, “Hey, man, this is the Hate.” I thought they might have been the west coast’s equivalent of the Damned; but what he really said was, “this is the Haight.” Every house had a large, green marijuana leaf flag hanging outside, and the whole audience had been transported in the Tardis from Woodstock. There were a lot of Vietnam veterans there, one guy with only one leg doing the sixties version of the pogo. Thing is, it was all very real and sincere – very true There was no pretence about it, no false laidbackness. So it worked – for us – whereas Boulder was lost amongst its image. The comparison was amazing – there was such a difference for such seemingly similar places, supposedly filling the same cultural slot but being ultimately opposites. Curious.

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We spent a long time watching the festival; it was pretty friendly. I got the “oh, I’m bisexual myself” line from some tit who I got rid of pretty quickly. This black guy came up and asked if I wanted any dope; after I said no, he walked a couple of paces forward. G., not seeing that he was still there in front of me, came and asked what he’d said. I mumbled a reply, “I’ll tell you later,” and G. started asking in a loud voice what he’d said, and wouldn’t stop until I nodded forward and motioned, “that’s him.” G. really got me uptight, but he was pretty apologetic about it – just not on the ball! The same guy later offered G. some dope, and he and an Australian guy tried it. The Aussie said it was shit, and pulled out his own stash: he ended up getting the dealer stoned!

Another day was spent wandering around northern San Francisco with B. We walked from our hotel to Tia’s flat on Greenwich St., and then to Ghirardelli Square via Lombard Hill (that’s the windy one which features in films about San Francisco – “Bullitt”, “What’s Up, Doc?” – any film with a car chase in it). The whole area is hilly. It was quite a laugh. Ghirardelli Sq is like the new Covent Garden complex, full of expensive, upmarket trendy shops – in fact, just like the Mall in Boulder: they also had entertainers there. G. and I then walked around San Francisco, via the marina and Fisherman’s Wharf. This is a very downmarket area – like Southend’s sea front – a stretch of water with amusement arcades, chip shops (or their equivalent!) and plastic souvenirs. We pissed around here and then made our way to City Lights.

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We bumped into Brian Eno, twice. The first time was when we were both rather pissed off – the same time we walked behind those two transvestites – as we were walking towards Geary St. There was a building being built with scaffolding constricting the pavement; we entered one end of this scaffolding tunnel, this couple – a short balding guy and a tall blonde – entered the other. As we pass, I thought “I’ve seen that face before”, and as we leave the scaffolding it suddenly strikes me that it was Eno. B. had said he was around – as he and G. had long discussions about Dylan, B. and I had long discussions about Fripp and Eno. The second time was in Union Sq, the next day: he was sitting on a bench as G. and I crossed the square. I went up to him and said hello, but he was a bit rude – I didn’t prolong the conversation…

On Monday, we got our tickets to go; we now had no reason to go back via New York, and we were hanging on to find a cheap way of going – any way, because we were suddenly getting desperate! We got lost and were walking past a travel agent’s and noticed a sign saying “London $280”. It was standby with TWA. We spent the rest of the day using the rest of our money; we decided to sleep in the airport to catch our early flight (if we hadn’t, we’d have needed to get up at 5am anyway), and had some cash to play with. I bought another pair of jeans and the American release of the Clash album. We saw B., went to City Lights, and had the best hamburger we’d had in six weeks (in a place that looked like a plastic takeaway, McDonald’s-style joint, but with real, individually cooked hamburgers). And then a bus out. We had left our bags at the Greyhound station, since we had to check out of our room by midday, and then picked it up in the evening.

We spent almost a day – a full twenty four hours – in the dreadful airport. A very sleepless night: every five minutes, they would page someone over the PA system; they didn’t announce any planes, they’d just page people. Very uncomfortable seats. We flicked through the magazines on the newsstand. Starved – no money left (all those jeans!), just chocolate.

I couldn’t sleep on the plane either – I was very excited. It was a 747, a Jumbo. We flew over Greenland at dawn, and the sight of glaciers was amazing – I’ve got to go there1. It was odd, everybody else on the plane was asleep whilst I was staring out of the window at this amazing place, getting excited. I woke up G., saying, “Look! There’s a glacier!” “Oh yeah,” he says, and goes back to sleep.

Home on Wednesday afternoon. We joked – “Back to Maggie Thatcher, back to unemployment!” Then we saw a headline: Two Million Unemployed!. Some joke.

1. I did. But that is a whole other story.

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