Wednesday, July 26

California, month seven / liner notes 05 | moving real fine

1. W E A T H E R

At seven am the world always feels like it's ending.
We sit under the canopy drinking coffee in the pouring rain and the sun glows through the wet.
Three degrees, uncharacteristically cold, a cruel lean wind.
With E by the fountain in afternoon sun, squinting like lizards.
A postcard from L in Cuba. She describes the mango trees and how she is wearing all of the summer clothes I left behind in Baltimore.

2. R U N N I N G

Zig zag hill training runs.
Eight and a half miles north to Indian Rock Park, weaving a figure eight back south to Elmwood. The psychology of longer distances, how easy it is to adapt to a different scale.
How are things on the west coast / I hear you're moving real fine

3. M U S I C  +  L A N D

Fifties teen culture and coffin songs, doo wop, mixtapes, Skip James.
Writing about John Henry in a cafe when the electronica soundtrack turns to the folk tune Doin' My Time: 'you can hear my hammer, you can hear my song.'
A slightly tipsy 1am Ebay purchase of eight vintage music publications for 99c turns out to be a very good decision. They all feature Bruce Springsteen on the front cover.
The American landscape as discovered from the west, Malcolm Gladwell on sneakers, small American country towns, and 1930s squatters camps.
Academic approval to write about the industrial landscape of Bruce Springsteen songs and seventies roadside all-night diners.

4. T A K E  M E  O U T  T O N I G H T

A sort-of-frat party that ends just after midnight, because everything in America ends hilariously early. So we tumble down to a basement for beer and cheez-its, and get to bed at five am.
A Berkeley co-op party where each room has a theme. We crawl through cushions into a dark room where we're fed 'worm slime' (sour worms soaked in an unidentifiable spirit) and one of us has to 'do the worm'. In another room there are three kinds of disco light and a screen endlessly repeating dank memes. In another, rosewater punch.
Let loose on a dive bar jukebox. Springsteen, The Clash, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, Pixies. Free bottomless popcorn. And to think we didn't feel like going out. E says, 'that is the happiest face I've ever seen in a bar!'

5. ' E V E R Y  D A Y ,  O N C E  A  D A Y . . . '

Late night toast, imported marmite and expensive cheddar, Twin Peaks, food pantry hauls (Barbara's Oat Crunch, organic peanut butter, endless oats, alfredo sauce, Acme sourdough, frozen spinach: Berkeley food is expensive, and the pantry keeps us from starving), Trader Joe's trips for samples and the eighties playlist, iced coffee with milk and honey, frozen yoghurt trips, too much sleep, not enough sleep, rainstorms, nine-grain bagels.
'Harry, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men's store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.'

6. S U N S E T S

One: walk through campus - watch the bridge and the dusky sky - realise how much I'll miss these California sunsets - feel happy and sad and happy. I wait a while under the campanile where the air stretches out to meet the Golden Gate Bridge and the western hills, and see the sun, and a delicate slip of moon.
Two: every night brings a sunset as beautiful as the last, but always a little bit different. Tonight, dark orange and indigo and the hills and the city glittering in the fiery depths of the sky.
Three: walk home from j-class across campus as the sun sets and the warmth fades, pass under palm trees and through the heavy scent of bark and eucalyptus. Californian spring assaults all my senses in the best possible way. This is the happiest I've ever felt.
Four: a glowing, opaque veil that presses down hard into the edges of streets and buildings, the light reaching along telephone wires and illuminating the rigid lines of tennis courts and parking lots.

7. T H E  H E A R T

Yesterday was a long drag, a lingering blink, that gut-howling misery of the alarm going off at 6.30am, brain cogs too tired and squelchy to turn, pointless hours in the library and the cafe, head scratching until late, falling into bed feeling like I hadn't achieved anything at all -
But I am on the west coast, and I am moving real fine.

To a girl born in and shaped by London, California does not seem a real place, but it is a damn happy interlude.

This world, this world right here, this world is for you.

Songs: month seven

John Lee Hooker For President  /  Ry Cooder
Romeo and Juliet  /  Dire Straits
Tumbling Dice  /  The Gaslight Anthem
A Little Faith  /  The National
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard  /  Paul Simon
Like Crying  /  Fleetwood Mac
Try A Little Tenderness  /  Otis Redding
Twisting the Night Away  /  Sam Cooke
Only the Lonely  /  Roy Orbison
The Heinrich Maneuver  /  Interpol
Headbutt  /  The King Blues 

Saturday, July 22

California, month six | that great strong land of love

Apartment twenty, early January 2017. C arrives in a rainstorm, late the first evening, and we brew tea immediately. The new place is a mess: floorboards awash with scattered q-tips and dustballs and broken clothes hangers, strange objects huddled in corners (a china monkey money box, an elephant-shaped watering can, a half eaten bag of cough drops, a dented can of chopped green beans), the rooms heavy with the cloying odour of a four-week full bin. All day I'd cleaned and unpacked. I wiped, dusted, sprayed, filled bag after bag with rubbish, and swept the floors with a plastic orange brush I bought at the Japanese dollar store. When I'd arrived that morning, shoulders burning after carrying my bags up to the second floor, it took all my willpower not to sink into the bottom bunk's bare rubber mattress and sob. Everything was so dirty, and I was adrift in unfamiliarity again. But instead I put on some music, rolled up my sleeves, and got to it. By the time C's at the door, the rooms are a little more habitable, and when I hear her moving about in the living room, putting the kettle on, it already feels like home.

Peace and sun, those first few days. Golden hour is ridiculous from the window of our new room. Last semester I could see the Sather Tower and used its hourly peals to structure my day; now I can watch the hills behind campus, the way they reflect the sun at dawn and dusk, the way the small houses at the top wink in the dark.

Day trips to the city. Waiting for the bus with 7-Eleven coffee and donuts.

Loafing at the top of Bancroft with thermos flasks as the sun dips. It's warm enough to sit outside, though you'll need a scarf. It doesn't feel like any January I know.

Getting tangled in freeways on the first few half-marathon training runs.

Saturday afternoon at the farmers' market. Everybody outside in warm blue. Herb bundles in bicycle baskets, a girl in dungarees with fruit under her arm, that sort of thing. Fresh bread and sunshine. So far, January in California feels like April in England, and I am very much ok with that.

When Trump's sworn in nobody wants to look. I'm at work, anyway, and I have to make smoothies for a bunch of Trump supporters. The peanut butter scoop shakes in my hand. Later we race down Telegraph towards Oakland to catch the tail end of the inauguration day protest. Police in riot gear wait along Oakland's peripheries as the protestors head towards the city centre, yet all is peaceful: downtown we're met with free pumpkin pie, not tear gas or stun guns. The air isn't charged the way it was on election night, not raw with pain, yet the voices are louder, more defiant.

The following morning we make signs from cardboard boxes raided from the recycling bins. NASTY WOMEN UNITE. VIVA LA VULVA. GRAB 'EM BY THE PATRIARCHY. The San Francisco bus is full of students: it almost feels like a school trip: there's not much traffic on the bridge: a parade of children forced on a pro-life march drift past the bus windows and we all get angry: and then we're in a one-hundred-thousand strong crowd at Civic Center, a damp fierce knot of umbrellas and battered signs and fists. It's International Women's Day. In the dusky rain we march and sing, and are filled with hope.

'I refuse to call him president,' says the elderly lady sitting next to me at Caffe Strada a few days later.

Solace, as ever, is sought in the words of my favourite poets. Thousands of miles away in Australia, Bruce Springsteen speaks out against Trump's Muslim Ban. 'America is a nation of immigrants,' he says, 'and we find this anti-democratic and fundamentally un-American'.
And then there's Langston Hughes:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed --
Let it be that great strong land of love
Alternative coping mechanisms are also available: homemade cocktails (White Russians and hibiscus gin), playing every song that ever existed, dancing on chairs into the wee hours. Federer winning the Australian Open, his eighteenth slam at the age of thirty-five. Saturday evening at the marina with friends, sitting on the rocks by the water to witness a sunset too beautiful to hold on to. Faces and hair lucent with golden light.

Most of all though, a visit from my mum.

Spring semester is relentless. The workload is final-level-Tetris heavy. 'I don't know what I'm writing,' I complain to C one night. 'I'm two letters into a word and I don't know what it's going to be yet.' Classes almost doubled, I take the early morning shifts at work. The alarm's set for that pre-7am no man's land, but as a night owl, sleep is unavoidably sacrificed. I learn to survive on five or six hours, but this hallmark of adulthood won't stay with me long: as soon as school ends and life slows down in June, my nine hour nightly dosage resumes. For now, though, daily life has changed hugely. Yet the change itself occurred unnoticed, giant and silent in the corner of some room I might've walked through once. I no longer have time to burrow deep into the frivolous recesses of my brain; every scene passes by too fast, like trying to take a picture from the window of a speeding train. I think I like it this way, though. It's true: the busier you are, the more you do, and the more you do, the more you want to do.

Mum arrives the night of the Milo Y riots. As I open belated Christmas presents in her Airbnb apartment we hear the rumble of helicopters over Telegraph. My social media feeds erupt with footage of fires and bangs. 'Berkeley's not always like this,' I feel compelled to point out more than once. The streets are scattered with debris and people smoke against makeshift wire fences, eyes bright, bodies still charged. Walking to work the next morning, the physical effects of the riots are clear in the cold eye of dawn. Anti-Trump graffiti embellishes the walls of the bank, a building made 'riot-proof' in the sixties. On campus, trees are singed black at the tips, the Amazon locker room windows smashed in, and the hulking jumble of burned tech equipment sits sooty in the middle of Sproul Plaza like some kind of contemporary art sculpture.

Mum's staying in the 'Purple House', a wood-walled ground-floor apartment in Elmwood. I love staying there with her, love the non-student perspective on Berkeley life it provides. We shop in Whole Foods and cook together, finish morning runs with coffee. I show her the campus, the streets, the city across the bay. I introduce her to my friends and my favourite bus routes. She keeps me company on coffee shop study dates and buys me the enormous slice of apple pie I've been eyeing all year. It is a special twelve days.

After days of rain, the sun returns and Mum finally sees the California I've been raving about, the clear blue skies, the dazzle at the ends of streets and hilltops. We spend her final weekend in San Francisco. Resistance posters have appeared in windows both sides of the bay, and in the Mission District, Four Barrel's coffee cups come stamped with the words 'Resist Fear, Assist Love' in rainbow ink.

Catch the bus to Haight-Ashbury. Get coffee at Stanza, or Flywheel, which sits at edge of the neighbourhood where Golden Gate Park looms dark. The Goodwill store is messy, and 80% junk, but if you hunt hard you'll find things at a tenth of the price of other Haight thrift stores. There's a real good bookstore somewhere along the street: you'll find it. Buena Vista is all steps, but catch another bus a little south, as the roads start to climb. It'll only take you halfway up; when you alight, follow Twin Peaks Boulevard as it snakes uphill, and eventually you'll reach the carpark and viewpoint at the top. Most people drive up to Twin Peaks but it's better to watch the view unfold gradually, angles and gradients shifting, until the rusted tips of the Golden Gate Bridge poke out above buildings and cloud to your left, and the entire city arranges itself around you, better than any virtual map could. You'll finally understand the confusing geography of San Francisco, how the multiple grid systems shuffle against each other, the dance of streets and hills. You'll note the physical relief of the landscape, from the smooth natural contours of the earth to the tall stubbed cluster of the financial district. The white buildings shine pristine in afternoon light, so that the entire city looks celestial. And all of it held by the water beyond.

From the peaks of the city, move to its edges: ride the Muni all the way through Sunset out to Ocean Beach, and watch the sun sink softly into the water. Everybody will stand motionless on the sand to watch, as if it's a drive-in movie. Colours will drift about and alter the look of the water, sand, and air. Deep sky blue, viridian, turquoise, champagne pink, peach, apricot, tiffany, pale indigo. To heighten the liminal magic, you have the beach's routine haze and majestic scale: the height of the waves, the sand's expanse, how the scene looks both stretched out and zoomed in, like so much of the American landscape.

* * *

Songs: month six

Fluorescent Adolescent  /  Arctic Monkeys
Get Lucky  /  Daft Punk
Wild World  /  Cat Stevens
Christmas in February  /  Lou Reed
Pacific Theme  /  Broken Social Scene
Stolen Dance  /  Milky Chance
Mother & Child Reunion  /  Paul Simon

* * *

California so far:

Thursday, July 6

Roll Bus Roll | Baltimore, MD (ii)

Back at base in Baltimore. 
Bags of laundry, and a morning in the coffee place downstairs, putting rough thought to 2017. Thinking about cities, and studying, and flights. 
A long, long, twelve mile run in early wafts of snow, so long it is nearly dark again when it comes to stretching and showering. Ice cream from a local creamery. All the John Cusack movies, Molly Ringwald too, but mostly Cusack: making friends pause for Springsteen’s High Fidelity cameo, and watching Say Anything’s boombox/car scene for the first time. 
The brunch of all brunches at Papermoon Diner, another recommendation from my history professor (‘I spent many an early, early morning there’), where the walls and beams are colourful, the ceiling stuffed with old toys and suspended ephemera, the pancakes vast, and the coffee bottomless. 
And then I am California-bound, again.

I am sensible enough to journey back to the airport in daylight this time, but the snow, which began to fall that morning, flakes so fluffy they seem to fall upwards, lines sidewalks quickly and thickly. Everybody on the Charm City Circulator wears an adequately-hooded coat; I do not. It is very cold. Judging by my insufficient attire, awkward bags, and incompetent traversal of snow, it would appear Llewyn Davis has switched Greenwich Village/Chicago for Baltimore (though I lack the guitar and the ginger tom). It is even colder at the light rail station, which sits in between roads, gathering the city’s snow in drifts. Here I meet Mike, who wears a veteran cap and round glasses, talks fast, lisps. He was in Vietnam, but what he wants to tell me about, when he twigs my accent, is his Navy SEALs service in Northampton, England. 

The unwieldy light rail comes clumbering out of the blizzard air and I sit in the second carriage. On every corner the train takes, the empty drivers seat spins wildly. Mike sits nearby, and rings somebody called Sarah - his wife, presumably - to check she’ll be there with the car at the station. I watch the veering landscape through wet windows: telephone lines, flat flaked rows of prefabs, plumes of factory smoke mingling with snow clouds, patches of grass beige and khaki and muted.

There’s another passenger opposite me, a man with a bicycle and a tupperware of cold leftover stew. His hair and beard are thick and flecked with grey, his eyes dark, and he’s wearing a hi-vis jacket, waterproof trousers, a balaclava, tailored bin bags over his shoes. He peels off his layers of makeshift snow-proofing and thermals carefully, methodically. He peels everything off to eat. After eating, he gives himself a head massage, his tan hands splayed around the back of his crown. Then he sits very still with the backs of his hands resting on his knees, as if meditating, except his eyes are open. Underneath all his weatherproofing, everything he wears - t shirt, jumper - is purple. His battered backpack is purple. Two stops before he gets off he begins to layer up again, and clips his helmet back on. It's still snowing outside.

In the airport I drink a McDonalds coffee - surprisingly good - and watch snow whiten the runways and pile up along the edges of buildings and aeroplane wings. Somehow my plane isn’t delayed. A man plays Duolingo on his phone and eats an apple, the volume - of both activities - turned right up. The entire gate is aware each time he progresses a level.

It's about -18 degrees in the tunnel between plane and gate and we all turn a little blue. On the runway before take-off the plane gets painted with bright multi-coloured de-icer fluid, from small funny vehicles with extended hoses. They look like mechanical giraffes, but I’m more interested in when the plane will actually take off and the seatbelt sign switch off, because I’m desperate for the bathroom. It’s like the final scene of Say Anything, in fact: just a lot less romantic. 

* * *

And then inside some tiny dream
And inside that some kind of me
And outside us rolls the bus and the time will go by
Till inside me I am asleep

Thursday, June 29

Roll Bus Roll | New York, NY

Back in your arms, New York, and it feels so good.

We depart from Montreal at quarter to midnight. It's snowing again. Bus sleep is interrupted twice: at the US border, and then in Albany, where we're kicked off our Greyhound to wait for half an hour in a terrible concrete bus station devoid of benches, everybody stale and blurry with tiredness. I think of The Dharma Bums:
'The bus came at four o'clock and we were at Birmingham Alabama in the middle of the night, where I waited on a bench for my next bus trying to sleep on my arms on my rucksack but kept waking up to see the pale ghosts of American bus stations wandering around: in fact one woman streamed by like a wisp of smoke, I was definitely certain she didn't exist for sure. On her face the phantasmal belief in what she was doing... On my face, for that matter, too.'

Lights out all the way through Vermont. I wake to a New Jersey sunrise, my eyes opening precisely as the state line flashes past the window. Everybody else on the bus is asleep but I'm wide-eyed and over-excited to be in Bruce Springsteen's home state, winding towards New York.

Port Authority is hot and loud, full of screeching announcements and too many people. We brush our teeth in the bathrooms, re-layer jumpers, drink Stumptown coffee in the dim-lit, fancy-pants Ace Hotel lobby, then ride the subway to our Brooklyn Airbnb. In the afternoon we carry our snow-sodden clothes to a nearby laundromat where the air is warm and soapy.

The following morning I put my fleece on and we run eight miles round Prospect Park in the freezing rain, first heading up the long straight Brooklyn streets and getting lost around the botanic gardens. The park is empty save for clumps of brown leaves left over by autumn, like bran flakes left too long in milk, the trees now spiky with December cold. We splash round the running loop, and we see scarcely another soul. Rosy-cheeks rewarded with Dun-well's vegan doughnuts, a little later we find ourselves in East Village, where a sunset glows fierce pink-purple-orange behind tenements and tall buildings, outlining fire-escapes and falling heavy on the sidewalk, like all good New York City sunsets do. We finger old leather jackets in thrift stores and then meet a friend for drinks, bar-hopping numerous fairy-lit watering holes. Each street is prettier than the last, the bars themselves havens of light and warmth looping along the neighbourhood. But no snow like in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch: 
'Tiny table. My knee to her knee-was she aware of it? Quite as aware as I was? Bloom of the candle flame on her face, flame glinting metallic in her hair, hair so bright it looked about to catch fire. Everything blazing, everything sweet. They were playing old Bob Dylan, more than perfect for narrow Village streets close to Christmas and the snow whirling down in big feathery flakes, the kind of winter where you want to be walking down a city street with your arms around a girl like on the old record cover-because Pippa was exactly that girl, not the prettiest, but the no-makeup and kind of ordinary-looking girl he'd chosen to be happy with, and in fact that picture was an ideal of happiness in its way, the hike of his shoulders and the slightly embarrassed quality of her smile, that open-ended look like they might just wander off anywhere they wanted together, and-there she was! her!'
I make two mental notes: to visit Greenwich Village's Jones Street, the location of that record cover, and to see it in the snow one day.

That Greenwich Village pilgrimage happens the very next afternoon. I am alone in the sunshine, and then my phone dies. Annoyed, I think about how this is the first time in years I'll traverse a city without a smartphone. But it turns out to be fun, roaming the cold sunny streets with no direction, thinking about all the people who started up their dreams here. The early twentieth-century bohemians; the Cafe Society lot a hundred years later, Paul Robeson and Ella, and Billie singing Strange Fruit; the fifties Beats adopting the Village as their east coast home,;Dylan Thomas collapsing at the Chelsea Hotel, Patti Smith living in the Chelsea Hotel, Leonard Cohen singing about it; other stars flickering into life: Hendrix, Dave Van Ronk, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed. Bob Dylan, of course. A teenage Springsteen playing with his band The Castiles at Cafe Wha?. It's one of the few clubs still shaking its ass - the Gaslight's long gone - and late every night a queue weaves round the side of the building.

Today the neighbourhood is jammed with cars, tourists, students, high rents. But after hours, the streets fizz. It's too early to tell whether this is just me being an excited music-nerd, or the after-effects of a great slice of pizza from Joe's. Or there's still magic here, tucked inside tiny candlelit bars and feathery snowflakes and the remnants of previous decades, of iconic record covers and ideals of happiness.

Because we did get Joe's pizza that night, after five minutes navigating the Strand bookstore crowds, and stand-up tickets to a Broadway show (Matilda), which was really good, but it's the Village food afterwards I'll remember most. Hot cheap falafel next door to the Wha?, then Joe's - the place is crowded with coloured lights and midnight eaters shaking chili flakes onto steaming slices - and then nutella crepes, and now it is very late and we run through the dark chilly streets to the subway station.

New Year's Eve starts smug: we rattle to Upper West Side for a yoga class followed by a 10k run around Central Park. Being bagel fiends, we trek to Williamsburg in our sweaty gear to eat three of the best filled bagels you'll ever find: pumpernickel with hummus and grilled aubergine, cinnamon with walnut cream cheese, french toast with butter. After all of this it seems to be evening again and there's a party in our apartment. Balloons and banners await guests in the living room and on the kitchen table sits a big container of cheese balls, the sink filled with beer and ice cubes. Suddenly there are a lot of drunk Australians, and the room is full, and I am not quite drunk enough, but drunk enough to hit balloons about and dance. On the rooftop a moustached artist tells me about our mutual connection to music and how there's a secret second rooftop. At midnight we see the fireworks glitter silently over Manhattan, and suddenly everybody knows about the second rooftop and we're there, balancing beer up a wooden ladder. This being America, the party wraps up by 3am, and a few of us sit on the rooftop playing Springsteen's Streets of Philadelphia as somebody collects bottles and sweeps around our feet.

2017: it begins with a Brooklyn rooftop, a long sleep, and a free coffee from a Manhattan Pret - 'this one's on the house, ma'am!' - followed by Bryant Park in the sunshine, ice skaters, giant pretzels, chimney stack cake. The following day, our last in the city, we go out with a bang. Levain cookies from Upper West side: the girl raises an eyebrow when we order a second, and it does nearly overwhelm us: the subway ride downtown is not pleasant. East Village's Crif Dogs (corndogs and tater tots) for dinner, as people queue for the speakeasy next door, and Big Gay Ice Cream for dessert. My cone is lined with peanut butter, I repeat, my cone is lined with peanut butter. Last of all, pints at Swift, warming the bar stools for a long while, the Christmas lights glowing through our beer. And it's midnight in Manhattan, and we're on our way.

Roll bus roll, take me off
A rolled sweatshirt makes the window soft
If I fall asleep, don't wake me up
Roll bus roll, take me up

Old bodegas and old streetlights
Harlem looks so warm tonight
All those cheap desserts, memory hurts, I could die
I gotta take two Tylenols and close my eyes

Stumptown/Ace Hotel lobby | 18 W 29th Street, Manhattan
Dun-well Doughnuts | 222 Montrose Avenue, Brooklyn
Cafe Wha? | 115 Macdougal Street, Manhattan
Strand bookstore | 828 Broadway, Manhattan
Joe's Pizza | 7 Carmine Street, Manhattan
Yoga to the People | 2710 Broadway, Manhattan
Bread Brothers Bagel Cafe | 220 Bushwick Avenue, Brooklyn
Levain bakery | 167 W 74th Street, Manhattan
Crif Dogs | 113 St Marks Place, Manhattan
Big Gay Ice Cream | 125 E 7th Street, Manhattan
Swift Hibernian Lounge | 34 E 4th Street, Manhattan