Sunday, December 11

A promised land

One of the reasons I love Bruce Springsteen's song The Promised Land so wholeheartedly is because from the first moment I listen to it - from that opening harmonica - I feel like I already know it intimately. Not in a superficial, easy-listening sense. The song speaks to a deeper kind of familiarity, but it does so in a way that's both immediate and lasting. I think Springsteen is one of only a few songwriters who can hold depth and immediacy so tightly together in a single song.

Many moons ago, my friend Isabelle watches a Youtube video I link to on Twitter. It's Springsteen performing an acoustic Thunder Road on a sunny-rainy evening in London's Hyde Park, 2012. Later, Isabelle tells me her initial response is something along the lines of, 'oh, he's surprisingly hot'. Yes, yes indeed. But there's something else in the performance that leads Isabelle to listen through his back catalogue one afternoon. The Promised Land comes on, and it's the song that truly turns her ear to Springsteen; so much so that eventually she'll become the kind of fan who can date a photograph of him just from the length of his sideburns.

The Promised Land reels her in to the shores of Springsteen, if you will. There's just something about that song, the way it instantly tears open your defences to beat alongside a thing so deep and raw within you. I got the radio on and I'm just killing' time ... Driving all night chasing some mirage ... Blow away the dreams that break your heart ... I believe in a promised land. 

I guess maybe one reason this song works so well is because, despite its title, the lyrics refer to 'a' promised land, not 'the'. Springsteen's not talking about a specific Land of Milk and Honey, Shangri-La, Arcadia, nirvana. Like many of his songs, the idea of a utopian 'someplace better' remains just that, an idea. Specific definition and detail aren't important; it's the motivation behind the longing that remains true, a central thread unifying all Americans - all humans - regardless of background or religion. The song is stubbornly secular, even though its themes are the same ones religion loves to grapple with: work, faith, commitment, redemption, the hope of something better, doing your best to 'live the right way' despite your constant desire to head 'straight into the storm'. They're questions relatable and accessible to everybody.

The Promised Land is one of the first songs that hooks me in, too. I'm about nineteen years old, and I'm in between things: school and university, adolescence and adulthood, dependence and independence. I'm also struggling to construct the next hour of my life, let alone the next few years, and every day I walk the streets of my small hometown to my quiet retail jobs, thinking that there must be something more than this. Thinking: I get up every morning and go to work each day / But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold / Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode / Explode and tear this town apart / Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart / Find somebody itching for something to start.

Eventually I find the courage to start something, and five or six years later, I'm much further down a better road. But every time I hear The Promised Land, every time Springsteen whips a harmonica from his back pocket and the crowd roars along to the opening chords, I get that same half-frustrated, half-ecstatic, but overall life-affirming feeling, the sense that I can and will find a better place. Because that's perhaps the most significant thing about The Promised Land: no matter where you are in life, it'll always speak to your yearning to head into the storm in search of something greater.

Friday, December 9

Alcatraz | '$24 in glass beads and red cloth'

It is not an unpleasant place to be, out there on Alcatraz with only the flowers and the wind and a bell buoy moaning and the tide surging through the Golden Gate, but to like a place like that you have to want a moat.
I come across Didion’s short essay on Alcatraz by chance, three days after my trip there. When Didion visits, though, the island is a ghostly ruin, caught in limbo between its days as a functioning penitentiary and its present status as a tourist magnet. Despite the fact she’s virtually alone on the island, not part of a crowd, she mentions details that stick for me too: the tear gas canisters in the dining hall, the buckled paint, the darkness of solitary confinement, the soap in the showers, and the views out across the bay. Looking out from the island across the water, actually, is particularly striking for both of us. In the penitentiary's early years, Alcatraz was nicknamed 'the silent island' because convicts weren't allowed to talk to one another. It earns this name in other ways, though. The bell buoy moans through the misty air, embodying the unexpected, if desolate, tranquility of the place. 

But my experience of this scene differs from Didion's in two ways. 
First, my attempts to capture it on my phone are constantly disturbed by the noise of other visitors who keep straying into the quiet. Two women debate endlessly about who packed the water bottles. A man’s patronising chatter to his infant daughter echoes across the island. Didion is lucky to savour Alcatraz when it’s completely uninhabited. 
Second, the very fact I am trying to film this scene on my phone, instead of just being present in it: I bet Didion wouldn’t.

Didion says, 'I tried to imagine the prison as it had been […] tried dutifully to summon up some distaste, some night terror of the doors locking and the boat pulling away. But the fact of it was that I liked it out there, a ruin devoid of human vanities, clean of human illusions, an empty place reclaimed by the weather...’ 

Devoid of human vanities, clean of human illusions. During my visit, standing outside the penitentiary’s tiny morgue, I see a couple probably in their early sixties, except they're dressed like twenty-somethings in matching brand-new sportswear. She has fake nails, sunglasses, and a make-up caked, Botoxed face. Their gum chewing marks a regular beat to their drawl. He has the look of an ageing jock: still the triangular frame, narrow hips, slim waist, the conventionally good-looking all-American face, but everything is slightly droopy somehow. And his hair’s suspiciously un-grey. He regularly squeezes her ass. I imagine their home, low and wide in some homogenous suburb, with leather sofas, huge televisions, and a tacky bathroom. I bet he has a garage full of cars and plays golf at the weekends. She likes home fitness videos and has a handbag-sized dog to put in her ugly designer handbags.

I’m being awful. They’re probably philosophy professors.

But the point is, Alcatraz is no longer an empty place. It's one of San Francisco's biggest tourist pulls, hundreds ferried to the rock and back every day. I am standing in the suffocating black of a solitary confinement cell thinking about how this is my first (and, y'know, hopefully last) time in a prison, and about what it truly must be like for inmates. It is convenient to think of all prisoners as terrible, misshapen humans who need to be kept away from society, prisons a neat solution. And yes, there are the heinous criminals who deserve every horror they get. But what about the prisoners who are unable to escape the world of crime because of their upbringing, their class, their socio-economic circumstances? To physically step inside a prison is to open your mind to all of these kinds of thoughts, and whatever your opinions may be, I think that's an important thing to do. Though some tourists are downright irritating, everybody should have the chance to experience at least some of what Didion felt when she visited the deserted penitentiary. You see Alcatraz differently to what you were expecting, and you're forced to reconsider your feelings about prisons themselves too.

In an American Poetry lecture, my professor, who also teaches at San Quentin State Prison, mentions America's prison-industrial complex with regard to this poem by female black poet Morgan Parker. I think of the milky-skied Sunday afternoon I spent at Berkeley's Grassroots House (which deserves a blog post all of its own) writing letters and mailing books to literature-starved prisoners across the nation as part of the Prisoner's Literature Project. They're a volunteer group that sends free books directly to prisoners who request them, because as their website puts it: 'in American prisons, access to books is treated as a privilege, not a right'. NPR featured the PLP as part of their longform radio series Humankind, and it's worth listening to. Many prisoners request dictionaries, to improve their reading and writing skills, and thus their employability upon release. Because nobody wants to employ a felon, right. Other prisoners pursue diverse interests; one guy I write to is into surfing, Spanish, sociology, and creative writing. Another is looking for 'anything on old Aztec art'. Most letters I open come from Californian prisons, so I'm not surprised to learn, from The Atlantic, that the state 'holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined'. It's a nationwide issue, though. Schlosser writes:
All across the country new cellblocks rise. And every one of them, every brand-new prison, becomes another lasting monument, concrete and ringed with deadly razor wire, to the fear and greed and political cowardice that now pervade American society.
On Alcatraz, we walk through the old prison library, the floors squeaking, the bookshelves long empty. Back when the prison was in operation, the library offered to its better-behaved inmates fifteen thousand books, seventy five magazine subscriptions, and monthly movies. In recent years many prison libraries have been closed and converted into cells to accommodate overcrowding. But how will prisoners ever escape the cycle of crime and incarceration if they're not even granted the basic right to read?

Inmates didn't just read, though, on Alcatraz. Crocheting was an unexpectedly popular pastime. And in the evenings there was music hour: guitars, saxophone, harmonica, keyboard, all played as the sun sank, casting pink and orange through the barred windows. Al Capone practised his banjo in the shower room. 

It's a good spot for birds, too: California gulls, cormorants, orange-footed guillemots, falcons, oystercatchers, black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets. I know very little about birds but those names sound cool, and the range would've suited another of Alcatraz's celebrity inmates, Robert 'Birdman' Stroud. Before Alcatraz, during his time at Leavenworth penitentiary, Stroud became a well-regarded ornithologist, tending to injured sparrows and rearing canaries, even writing two giant treatises on their diseases. His cells (he had two to house all his birds, despite prison overcrowding) became literal cages, laboratories devoted to the breeding and research of canaries. A full-time secretary was even required to oversee the correspondence of his canary-selling business. 

He was a difficult, violent prisoner though, and upon discovery that he was using laboratory equipment to distill alcohol, Stroud was shifted off to Alcatraz. He had ten minutes to say farewell to his birds, for on Alcatraz he wouldn't be allowed to rear them. But Stroud found other occupations on the island. He wrote an autobiography, and the manuscript 'Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons'. He was granted access to the library and studied law there. (Law books are also widely requested from the PLP, and it's not too hard to understand why.) He played chess, and met actor Burt Lancaster who portrayed him in 1962's Birdman of Alcatraz. The film is, of course, almost totally fiction.

I can't write about Alcatraz without mentioning the Indian Occupation, especially considering recent events regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. In November 1969, one hundred Native American activists settled on the derelict island, citing an 1868 treaty which granted unoccupied land to Native Americans. The protestors demanded the deeds to the land in order to build a university there, offering to buy Alcatraz for '$24 in glass beads and red cloth', which is apparently how much Dutch settlers paid for Manhattan in 1626. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Occupation was hugely important in raising awareness of the rights and reparations of Native Americans. The last of the protestors left in 1971, but their graffiti remains, with a little touch-up and a little paint, on the water tower: 'Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.' 

When I see those letters for myself, square and red in the misty rain, I'm reminded of one of my favourite performances of Springsteen's Thunder Road (from the legendary 1978 Passaic Night - you can watch the entire thing on Youtube, and it's pretty much my favourite thing ever) and his preamble to the song:
There was this Robert Mitchum movie. It was about these moonshine runners down south [...] I never saw the movie, I only saw the poster in the lobby in the theater. I took the title and I wrote this song. I didn't think there was ever a place that was like what I wrote this song about [...] We were out in the desert, over the summertime, driving to Nevada, and we came upon this house on the side of the road that this Indian had built. Had a big picture of Geronimo out front, said 'Landlord' over the top. Had this big sign, said, 'This is a land of peace, love, justice, and no mercy'. And it pointed down this little dirt road that said 'Thunder Road'.

Didion came to Alcatraz two years before the Indian Occupation, and I wonder how different her visit would've felt, had she ferried over in 1969 instead. I don't know if it's because it's a small island, or because it's so steeped in myth and drama, but Alcatraz seems able to don any identity: barren rock, cell-door-slammin' penitentiary, ghostly ruin, 'land of peace and freedom', tourist heap. And yet despite their wild variations, all these personas participate in the deep questions about what it means to be free and not free, liberated and caged, about what it means to be an American, and by extension, what it means to be human.

A final note: in 2005, Jake the dog participated in the Alcatraz Invitational, a swimming race between the island and San Francisco. He came 72nd. 

Saturday, November 19

California, month three | your lows will have their complement of highs

In between the hours of 25 degree heat - on the occasional rainy day, when the sun sets earlier after the clock change, or when I take short cuts through the woods to class - campus gently reminds me that it's autumn. Fall in California is more of a marketing concept, a commodity, than the season of yellow leaves and first frosts I'm used to. There's no need for gloves, no Dickensian foggy evenings. I'm in shorts. The cut from hot day to cold night is abrupt. 

Suddenly there's talk of Thanksgiving, and going home for winter break. I can count the number of lectures left for each class on two hands, and the craggy silhouettes of deadlines loom. Even though semester's been going since August without a break, I'm not ready for it to end. Feels like I just got started, man! It's this subtlety of season change that's allowed the end of fall semester to sneak up on me, when I'm still walking around with iced coffee pretending it's summer. Everything is as fresh and exciting as those early weeks in August. 

I remember thinking this would never end / Even when you're gone, your eyes running through my head

One Saturday morning, men in small cranes string Christmas lights in the trees along Telegraph. I've almost forgotten Christmas exists. The John Lewis Christmas TV advert, a British 'tradition' I can't stand, is released the day after Trump's triumph, and my Facebook feed is a battleground between the two events. I don't understand how a commercial can generate such excitement (Holidays Are Comin' not counted), let alone when the world feels like it's fallen into the abyss. 

In late October, before all of that, my pa comes to California. It's a good opportunity to do some of the tourist-y things I've been putting off: the Golden Gate Bridge (it lies a little outside the city and is a real ball-ache to get to), Alcatraz, cable cars, Lombard Street, Ocean Beach. I get to explore Berkeley's watering holes too. Early one evening we sit in Jupiter's courtyard as fairy lights flicker on and speakers crackle out Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and, happily, Bruce. 

Dad's brought me decent chocolate from home (side note: for a country known for its sweet tooth, why does American chocolate taste like bitter powdery mulch?), as well as the jeans I'd forgotten to pack, and a yellow raincoat to make the wet weather more bearable. It rains a lot during his visit. There are warm days too, but we catch the ferry to Alcatraz in persistent drizzle. Perfect conditions for visiting a creepy old prison on a rock.  

I can’t figure out, though, why San Francisco still sits strangely with me. I like the city a lot - you’d have to be crazy not to - but I don’t feel that immediate kinship I felt with New York, Philadelphia, Glasgow, Copenhagen. Something about the place doesn’t fit, somehow, and it takes me a while to realise why. 

It's to do with timescales. San Francisco lacks the familiar footholds of these other major cities: their age, their social and cultural history, their locations, their very reasons for springing into existence. These older cities rest on securer foundations. Civilisations date back hundreds of years, and populations spawn due to geography, trading opportunities, international relations, territorial power wars, and the ambition and vision of early settlers. Though urban growth accelerates madly by the late nineteenth century, societies have long been present in these places, slowly and surely knitting themselves into the bone of the land. 

San Francisco however, albeit for similar reasons of geography and ambition, grows out of a ‘get rich quick’ mentality. It grows fast and unsteadily, like a teenage boy with limbs too long for his body, so much so that the place is a city before it even has any permanent buildings. Sure, Catholic missions exist long before gold glints from the East Bay hills, but they've little inclination toward urbanity. The early settlers of San Francisco arrive in 1849 for the gold, for the lure of wealth without years of work. Their vision doesn’t rely on stability, and they don't have decades of trade, culture, and language behind them. Just a mining axe slung over their shoulder, long boots to avoid the muddy walkways (no time to build sidewalks), and the glimmer of fortune and fun in their eyes. 

I also believe that growing up in London has conditioned me to love and look out for a certain kind of grit that San Francisco lacks. The grit of bricks worn and discoloured by centuries of smoke, of old streets faintly crowned with new blue skyscrapers, of the buildup of dirt in underground stations, of marble steps gently eroded by centuries of scholars’ feet, of greying net curtains on grimly lit council estates, of the greasy spoon that’s been there a hundred years, of noise, dirt, danger, poverty, rattling trains, dust, pollution, disorder, street talk, life.

It’s not that I miss the British Museum or anything. But San Francisco dissolves my familiar points of reference. I have no footholds with which to traverse this new city. All I have is what I can see before me: a city of inexperience, of shining buildings and sloping streets that reflect the pink streaked skies with the freshness of a child’s gaze.

And then there are events that take over regular life in ways you can't predict. Election night and the day that follows: one of the strangest twenty-four hour periods of my life. 

On the afternoon of the eighth of November, I sit in hot sun on the terrace of the Free Speech Movement Cafe, studying. The first results roll in. Trump's got an early lead, but that's ok, it's small. Later I'm in the library, trying to read for a class. But as the sun slips, Trump's lead increases. 'I've got that Brexit tingle,' somebody tweets. This surely isn't happening... is it?

I can't read another page. I can't read one word without the itch to refresh the election live-feed. I go home. I eat some almonds, but they stick in my throat. I've got a bad, bad feeling. It's like a billion tense Federer Wimbledon finals, a billion 2015 Tory exit polls, a billion Brexits. I can't sit still and suddenly I'm back out in the dark streets. I join friends in front of a giant screen on campus and we stay there for the night as our hopes dwindle. Sproul Plaza is jammed with students camped out on the cold brick floor. There are ear-blowing cheers every time Clinton wins a state, but when she loses them... at first, the boos are loud, but they get quieter, more fearful each time, until there is just this depressing dead shock. Normally when these kind of events reach their climax the place gets busier, but as it grows evident Trump's got it, the crowd begins to thin. At one point a gloating trail of Trump fratboys passes the screen, roaring like beasts, their hour come at last. The crowd deafens them, but their red caps remain bright in the darkness. It's not enough. 

We admit defeat. The shock is so surreal and sore that we're on the verge of laughter all the time. Late night dining, where we head for chocolate chip pancakes, is busy: students staring glumly at burritos, a slow scrape of cutlery, hushed conversation, everybody suspended over screens. It's when we've finished the pancakes that a television makes the official announcement, and the reality of the situation hits.

In the morning I go for a 'f*ck Trump' kind of run, expecting to be fired up with anger, but my legs just feel heavy, weary, done. Time is sluggish too. Everybody walks slowly, staring into the middle distance, or watching Clinton's concession speech on their phones. It's a beautiful blue-skied day, achingly so.

The mood at work is a charged mix of depression and laughter. Sometimes, laughter is the only way through the bleakness: this I am learning. I work with many women of colour and I wonder what they are feeling. I feel sick enough as a woman in this new world, but I am white, and I go home next summer. It's a global blow, but I don't have to directly live through this. They do. 'It's just so disappointing,' a co-worker says to me in the lift. We're heading to the basement to refill the ice. 'I went to sleep, but I woke straight up again.' Another tells me about her parents, how they told her not to believe what the media say about Trump, how she should be investigating Clinton instead, how it's all ok really. To have that kind of distance from reality is terrifying. 

Campus bristles with anger, even under this soft dazed sunshine. A deep wound has reopened - or rather, it was never healed in the first place - to reveal the blood of hatred still flowing, thick and potent. It's scary to be here and feel it in the air.

History class is given over to a cathartic discussion to try to peel apart and understand what has happened. Everybody is so astute, mature, and caring, and I wonder again, how did this happen? And then I remember the 47% turnout, the 53%  of white women who voted for him (white privilege trumps sexism, I guess), internalised misogyny, and America's endless backwaters, the places we never see, travel to, or romanticise. The people who live outside our left-wing bubble (not an intellectual bubble, though, I don't believe this is about anti-intellectualism: casting all Trump supporters as dumb is... dumb). And I feel ashamed. Of course it was going to happen.

Other classes begin with some kind of statement, about politics, time, generosity, poetry. 'Now you know why Whitman wanted a perfectible democracy, why Dickinson wanted to stay in her room, why Eliot wanted to be a mermaid,' our poetry professor says. And then the lectures carry on, because Frank O'Hara's elegiac heartbeats are actually exactly what we need, and as another professor quietly reminds us, 'there is always solace to be found in work'. 

I never realised how elegiac O'Hara's poems are, actually. And I never feel such palpable grief from a poem as I do when our professor finishes the lecture with a reading of Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets. The words feel like they were written for today, and I'm not the only one who fights back tears.

the beauty of America, neither cool jazz nor devoured Egyptian heroes, lies in
lives in the darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions 
the only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become your mouth
and dying in black and white we fight for what we love, not are

The streets burn with protests every night. We find ourselves marching halfway to Oakland, before warnings of tears gas, stun guns, and mass arrest turn us back. The chants, the singing, the clapping, the horns beeping in solidarity, the red blue of police cars holding the traffic back, the smoke in the air, the warm starry night: tonight seems unreal, drunk on bitter emotion. 

Trump, you do not deserve America. You do not deserve these engaged, generous people. You do not deserve those who work long hours day in day out. You do not deserve your nation's rich diversity. You do not deserve Frank O'Hara. You do not deserve Bruce Springsteen. You do not deserve the stars. You do not deserve America.

'Something that keeps coming up in my classes this semester is the idea that progress is not linear,' a classmate says during another discussion about the election. It's true. We join the dots between the positive steps our society has made - emancipation, female suffrage, civil rights, modern medicine, nationalised healthcare, gay marriage, and so on - to construct an optimistic timeline, but in doing so we sweep past the less palatable bits in between, all the regressive shuffling backwards that occurs. To think of progress as linear is to blithely surf a wave of momentum moving in the right direction towards - what? Happiness, utopia, perfection, a sense of belonging, a sense of satisfaction, 'that place where we really wanna go', I guess. This election has resulted in that wave crashing down prematurely upon the shore and being pulled back out into the endless ocean, moving now in the wrong direction. And so we are adrift.

A couple of nights after the election, my roommate and I go on a Treat Yo Self mission for pistachio frozen yoghurt. We catch a sunset on the way home: deep blues and oranges stretching out over the bay, falling across the glittered lights of San Francisco. 

'It makes me proud, and happy,' my roommate says, and I feel the same. America looks bruised and ugly right now and its wounds run deeper than I'll ever understand. Yet at the same time, its beauty endures - has to endure. For all the pain and bitterness of the last few days, firsthand experience of the election heartbreak has also meant witnessing the sense of compassion, empowerment, and call to action that comes with it. 

Somebody tweets that a lot of us broke this week, and that trying to fix ourselves and an entire nation at the same time is like sprinting while melting. America is broken, but it's made me realise something: I want to stick around, long-term, for the fixing. I thought a Trump victory would dampen my feelings for this land, but instead I love it more fiercely than ever. 

The frozen yogurt is really good, too.

Songs: month three

The Heinrich Maneuver  /  Interpol

Always Spring  /  I'm From Barcelona
I Will Dare  /  The Replacements
Thrash Unreal  /  Against Me!
Fade  /  Kanye West
Feel So Bad  /  Ray Charles
Hang Loose  /  Alabama Shakes
I Wanna Be Sedated  /  The Ramones
Bulletproof  /  La Roux
Ambling Alp  /  Yeasayer
Cynthia  /  Bruce Springsteen
Damn Right, I've Got The Blues  /  Buddy Guy
I Want More  /  CAN

Sunday, October 16

California, month two | the dust settles

Dusk on the Berkeley campus, 6.30pm, mid-October. Classes are over for the day and students stream from buildings, a steady drift of backpacks, cropped denim, scarves over shoulders. The air is pink and clear. It feels cold after weeks of Indian summer heat.

Maybe it's this first freshness of autumn - the translucent dusk, the realisation I might need a jumper from now on - that's triggered a feeling of my head clearing, leaving behind the hot easy joy of summer for more practical thoughts. This is my year, here. My life in Berkeley isn't permanent, but it's not short-term either. The season is finally turning, but I've settled into rhythms based around sunshine, reading what I want, planning travels, being more selfish than usual, leaping from one exciting thing to the next. This cooler air is altogether more serious: it whispers, 'the high won't last', 'make plans', 'stop, think'. I'm not sure I like it.

My parents both lived abroad in their twenties, in Australia, France, Spain. Mum recalls the nostalgia of booking travel with Trailfinders. I tell Dad about the ongoing Californian drought and the need to save water. 'That's what it was like in Spain,' he says. 'We only had seven hours of running water a day!'

The situation here isn't quite so drastic; or maybe it is, but try telling privileged Americans they can't have running water whenever they want. I was warned Berkeley would be wet, yet it only rains once during these first two months here. I wake to a sense of familiarity that takes a while to place. A faint sound, like waking on grey school mornings in England, of raindrops tapping windows. The slate tiles of the building opposite are slick-dark with water. The shower is light and brief, but what it lacks in force, it makes up for in scent; the odour of wetted air, strong and salty like the sea, or the dampness after a heavy summer thunderstorm.

The weekend I put this post together, though, I get my first proper rain; a steady, lingering, London kind. Soggy leaves in gutters, damp cool to the bones, empty wet benches, hair plastered to my face. The degree of waterproofing on others is astonishing: more umbrellas than I've ever seen in London, rubber hats, wellies, enormous jackets. 'It's because it hardly ever rains here,' a friend explains. 'We get excited to wear all our rain stuff.'

One afternoon I catch the BART into the city with Born To Run, Springsteen's newly-released autobiography, under my arm. I step off at Civic Center. A farmers market draws crowds of locals and tourists to the nearby orange-leaved street. Flags from city buildings ripple in the clear sky. I head a few blocks down to the Hayes Valley 'hood, where I get coffee, pace about in the rapidly cooling air. If Hayes Valley was in London it'd be Notting Hill; clean quiet streets, awning, fairy lights, pristine minimalist clothes shops, Four Barrel coffee, fancy bookstores, hipsters walking dogs. Of course I bloody like it. But I feel uncomfortable. Up until as recently as the eighties it was one of the city's worst ghettos. The scent of gentrification runs heavy in the air here. Good coffee and photogenic sidewalks don't really make up for that.

A group of us congregate at the back entrance of the theatre where Springsteen will be talking tonight, in hope of witnessing his arrival. I'm freezing cold and desperate for a wee, and yet I stand there for an hour, rocking on the kerb, eyes on the road. It's ridiculous. He's already inside the building.

The house lights darken, the stage expectant. The woman next to me hyperventilates with excitement, clutches my arm. 'Ohmygodohmygod,' she says. I know the feeling. It's funny to see Springsteen walk onto an ornate theatre stage instead of a cable-clad stadium stage, but as he does, the entire room rises up in ecstasy.

Even the way Springsteen sits in the grandad armchair is cool. He talks about Moby Dick, Kendrick Lamar, and how physical exhaustion stops you from rooting around in the weeds for that stupid thing your mind wants to torment itself over. Occasionally he reads passages from his book. The first time, there is a sheepish pause: 'I left my reading glasses in the car!' Somebody at the side of the stage lends him a pair. 'Ah, these'll do.' To hear his rugged New Jersey baritone breathe life into the words I've been visually inhaling all week is more than a treat. It feels intimate and important, a perfect welcome to the city.

When Springsteen leaves the stage we rush to the back entrance - a shiny black car appears - a window slips down - he's inside, calling out 'thank you!' - his face so close - smiling out at us for a brief second, until the car is mobbed by men demanding autographs and girls demanding selfies. The car gets stuck at a red light and a stampede rushes out into the street amid exasperated horns. The sidewalks, jammed with fans, catch on to his presence, and his car turns the corner onto Hayes Street serenaded by hundreds of voices shouting 'Brooooce'.

I head back to the BART station tingling. You really start to feel part of a city when you walk its streets at night, on your way home from somewhere or to somewhere else. Everyone on the BART platform clutches a copy of Born To Run, as if we've all just been to a convention of some religious cult. Which in a way, we have.

I cast half an eye over the presidential debates, a little bit curious but mostly just sick of the airtime given to that sniffling, rancid wotsit. Everyone's watching though. I hear his nasal trumpeting from the tv outside the laundry room, and cheers for Clinton from the reception desk where the assistant on duty gazes at his laptop over a bento box.

There's another home game: Cal Bears vs Utah Utes. I know this from the plethora of yellow, blue,  red and white along Telegraph on Saturday morning. I've learned to avoid the student bars on game days, and the pep rallies are no longer a novelty. As an unpatriotic Brit I can't quite get my head around college spirit, until I remember what I'm like at Springsteen shows, or when Federer plays, or my obsession aged fourteen with the Italian national football team. Other international students revel in these college life cliches - red cups, frat houses, team colours - and it's probably partly why they came to America, and that's just as worthy an experience. But for me this side of college life feels like an extension of my experiences back home. I'm more interested in college counterculture; even more interested in the country beyond the campus. College is a funnel for my interests, a means of path-finding.

One Friday lunchtime a 'three-alarm' blaze in a church on my street chokes the air with alarms, choppers, and curious folk. It is the biggest fire I've witnessed first-hand. Hoses and ladders surround the building as the smoke churning up into the sky grows thicker and darker in its centre, paling out over the nearby streets and buildings. It picks up the soft pastels of the Californian air, turning pink, blue and orange as it spreads.

After holding the germs at arms length during a busy week, I spend a weekend sick. On Sunday afternoon I sit outside at Cafe Strada, take it easy in the Californian sunshine with the Springsteen cover issue of Rolling Stone and Greil Marcus' Mystery Train for company. The latter is the perfect book for me right now (and I'm excited to discover he's taught at Berkeley, and lives here too). In his prologue, Marcus writes:

'Since roots are sought out and seized as well as simply accepted, cultural history is never a straight line; along with the artists we care about we fill in the gap ourselves. When we do, we reclaim, rework, or invent America, or a piece of it, all over again.'

This is a bit like what my English professors have been explaining to us about T.S. Eliot and Prufrock and historical tradition; about how when you add to the conversation of history, you automatically change, or rework, every single thing that has come before. And though Eliot ran away from young America, more interested in the older poetic archive, he still became part of American history, simply by way of being American. He sought roots in England, in the classics, in the historical archives themselves, but his American heritage can't ever be erased, only accepted. I'm the opposite of Eliot: running away from England (understandable, given the current state of the things there) to seek out roots in America.

I think about the states, cities, and coastlines I'm knitting into my identity by way of both geography and culture. In spending a year of my life in northern California I become a little bit part of this area. But pieces of me are slowly fusing with other parts of the continent, too, through my love of the cultural significances they hold. California again for the summer aged seventeen when I lingered over The Grapes of Wrath, feeling every grain of dust road under my fingers. New York City, which for reasons unknown has become the 'someplace else' of my dreams and desires. The eastern seaboard in general: Boston, Philadelphia, the Jersey Shore (for Springsteen, of course, and the bands, bars and beaches in his orbit). Wisconsin, and then the prairie lands, for my endless rereading of the Little House books as a child, fascinated by the idea of living in untamed territory, and how despite the bears, Red Indians and yellow fever, the life of the Ingalls seemed more orderly than my own twentieth-century working-class suburban existence. The Deep South, for the gothic novels of Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor and Truman Capote, and where out of the hot swampy land arose the early strains of rock and roll music. I write a list titled 'Dream Gigs For This Year': Springsteen in Philadelphia, The Killers in Vegas, The Gaslight Anthem in New Jersey, Future Islands in Baltimore, The National in NYC, to name a few. I've already ticked one off.

'The smell of eucalyptus bark and high grasses, that uniquely California smell, surrounded me and reminded me that I was a young traveler in a strange land,' Springsteen writes in his autobiography. 'It felt good.'

It's definitely cold, the sky purpling, so I join the homeward current of students. At the edge of campus the hare-krishna hippy has begun his evening shift: he will stand there and dance to his repetitive metal castanet song late into the night. A vegetable stall on the sidewalk offers 'ugly' rejected produce. Students slip in and out of Walgreens for snacks and cold remedies. The smell of Subway lingers in the air. On Bancroft, traffic crawls west towards the sun setting over the bay.

When adventure is a year long, you settle into that state of adventure. It becomes the norm. Your stomach doesn't leap the same way it did when you first stepped off the plane. Your heart don't beat the way it used to, to paraphrase The Killers. The Facebook messages and texts dwindle because the actual moment of change has passed. You're here now, and you have your room keys and your routine, the shops you frequent for bread and coffee, the same faces in the gym, the streets you take without thinking. You're a local and a traveller at the same time, so inevitably you feel like neither.

It isn't homesickness or culture shock, in fact almost the opposite. Daily life here feels more like home than it should. So maybe it's a kind of displacement, instead; a need to stop and take stock of my situation, remind myself why I'm here, and what I want to do before I leave. That I'm not here to settle down. Or that maybe I am, one day.

In Mystery Train, Marcus writes about 'an impulse to freedom, an escape from restraints and authority that sometimes seems like the only really American story there is.' It feels like this impulse to freedom might come to define my own American story, too.

Songs: month two

You're Not Good Enough / Blood Orange
West Coast / Coconut Records
Restless Nights / Bruce Springsteen
Don't Change / INXS
Hot Tramps / Beach Slang
You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover / The Castiles
Give Up / American Wrestlers
Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love) / White Denim
Jinx Removing / Jawbreaker
Hand In Hand / Dire Straits
Your Best American Girl / Mitski
Handwritten / The Gaslight Anthem

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You can read about my first month in California here: California, month one | in and out of the game