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