The reality turned out to be quite different. Not so much for the first, mercifully short flight from Gatwick to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris – neither of us having flown for some time, we were both as sweaty-palmed and unreasonably terror-ridden as I thought we’d be. However, having made it safely there, Carol seemed to calm right down, and for the mammoth eleven-hour flight that followed, from Orly Airport to San Francisco, she managed to sleep so soundly that even when I roughly grabbed her hand for mutual comfort during the bumpy ride 40,000 feet above Greenland, she barely came to, and limply held my hand back in an unsatisfactorily semi-automatic way while remaining blissfully out of it in the land of nod. Hmmph!! So much for aviophobic solidarity!
By the time we reached San Francisco, my head was throbbing with a migraine brought on by tension, dehydration and lack of sleep. Carol, however, was positively blooming. Until, that is, we set foot in the apartment we’d booked to stay in for the two nights we’d be there, when we were both almost knocked out by the malodorous whiff of unemptied cat litter trays. Yaaargh!!! We’d been warned ahead of time that there might be a little bit of a feline smell - but this? My headache kicked into nauseated overdrive, while Carol, ineffectively holding her nose, went from blooming to ominously silent. The smell wafted up the stairs into our bedroom, and it was only because I was thoroughly exhausted by then that I managed to fall into a heavy slumber almost immediately. Carol slept too, but the next day remained ominously silent when we awoke and encountered once again the pong of undealt-with kitty litter.
As a result, we spent that entire day, including the evening, avoiding the flat and instead exploring the streets of San Francisco, travelling from one end of the city to the other via its famous mass transit system where trains miraculously transmogrify into buses and ancient-looking street cars rattle up and down the startlingly steep gradients that are San Francisco’s hallmark.
On the number 24 bus, we made our way down Castro, proudly festooned along most of its joyous length with rainbow flags, rainbow window displays, rainbow crosswalks, rainbow everything, and then transferred onto the historic streetcar that would take us to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, where we were amused by the blubbery antics of the highly entertaining sea lions and visited the fabulous penny arcade museum. For 50 cents, I had my fortune read by a sinister-looking yet strangely lifelike ‘grandmother’ and also, perhaps too publicly, had my feet massaged rather pleasantly by a vibrating machine… What was even more enjoyable, however, was seeing so many young people being swept up by the fun of the hall of mirrors, early space invaders machines, automated but archaic bowling alleys, and, for two dollars, the joyful sound and sight of a mechanically operated Wurlitzer organ.
From there, we decided to hop on the streetcar again and head up to the other area for which San Francisco is so well known – Haight-Ashbury, where the hippie movement and free love began in the Swinging Sixties. For several blocks, Haight is lined with vintage and retro clothing stores, ‘smoking’ shops, crystal and incense establishments … and homeless people at every corner, stoned, sad, and seemingly without hope.
As the Bay area's notorious cold mist descended and day turned into evening, we hopped on a bus and made our way to the Bazaar Café on California Street, where I’d found out an open mic would be happening later. I was too late to sign up for the main list, as it was pre-booked, but I was top of the ‘alternate’ list, and pretty much assured of being able to play one song on the house guitar (as I didn’t have my own with me). In the end, as one person cancelled, I made it onto the list proper, and got to play two of my songs on an acoustic guitar with a ‘hand of God’ painted on its soundboard that had a hole mysteriously knocked through it, but that sounded pretty good despite the hard life it had clearly had. It was a lovely evening, with a listening and appreciative audience, and the positivity continued when we got back to the whiffy flat at about 11 to find that the litter trays had been cleaned in our absence and that the smell, as a result, was, thankfully, somewhat diminished. Another sound night’s sleep ensued, and the next morning we got ready to pick up the rental car in which we would be embarking on the road trip proper…