Visiting a Wounded Giant: A Journey into American Adversity

7 Mar

I sometimes wonder if, as a traveller, I am a harbinger of bad luck. On many occasions when I have booked a flight somewhere, unfortunate events have then taken place in the country I was heading for. Let me give a few examples. Two weeks before I flew into Manila with my family, Typhoon Ondoy – the worst for 40 years– devastated the Philippines. In 2003, I landed in Berlin to discover that, while I had been flying, elsewhere in German airspace a passenger jet had suffered engine trouble and been forced into an emergency landing. This isn’t a regular occurrence in Germany. Exactly the same thing happened in Indonesia four years later except, tragically, the jet in that incident crashed and most of its passengers were killed. In 2005, the day before I was due to fly back to England from France, a terror attack on London was foiled by the Metropolitan Police. It was an eerie feeling to arrive in London 24 hours later and find it almost completely deserted.

The nadir of my cursed travels happened less than a decade ago on a date that will live in infamy.

I had just graduated from the University of East Anglia with a BA (Hons) in English and American Literature with a Minor in Getting Wasted at Drum ‘n’ Bass Events. Although UEA had – and still has, I think – an exchange program with a number of top American universities, my particular course hadn’t been party to this. Hence I resolved to visit the US off my own bat because it felt odd to spend three years studying the intimate cultural details of a country and not take the opportunity to go there in person. But even before my student days I had always been fascinated by American books, films and music… but not so much the food or the political direction it had taken under ‘King George II’, as the spoken word artist Jello Biafra described him.

I wanted to see the canyons and crap games of Johnny Cash songs, the pulsating ghettoes of Saul Williams raps, the endless highways depicted in the novels of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson, the picket fence weirdness of David Lynch films. I wanted to immerse myself in the contradictions, to understand why the land of the free is also the land of the pious fundamentalist, how the home of the brave is also the home of consumer conformism, how this ‘nation of immigrants’ as Bill Clinton put it, is also a nation of violent prejudice, how the richest country in the world can have people living in it with ‘food for sex signs’ beside them on the street.

So I bought the cheapest air ticket I could find to San Francisco. I would have gone to New York City had it not been the case that to fly the extra 3000 miles west only cost a tiny bit more.

The night before my trip, I stayed with my friend Pete at his East London flat. Using the excuse that this was the first night of my holiday, I got absolutely ruined on beer and some disgusting liqueur that Pete had left over from a trip to Slovenia. I can’t remember its name now but it sounded something like ‘chemical’; but to describe this stuff as tasting like noxious chemicals would be to undersell precisely how awful it was.

Somehow I got up the next morning and caught the train to Heathrow. I staggered onto the plane and downed my complimentary drink for hair of the dog purposes. The flight passed as flights tend to: with minimum circumstance and maximum boredom. All I recall about it was watching an Australian comedy film called The Dish. In one scene, a U.S. diplomat is attending a function hosted by the mayor of a hick town in the outback. The mayor announces that the band will now play the national anthem of the United States of America. Cut to the confused look on the diplomat’s face as the band launch into the Hawaii Five-O theme tune.

At San Francisco International Airport (SFO) I was surprised to get through immigration quickly. I’d been warned to shave and cut my hair and generally look smart as American immigration staff were notorious for giving new arrivals a hard time. The last thing I wanted was to start my holiday off with an anal probe.

It’s always a revelation when you leave an airport in a country you’re visiting for the first time. You are full of anticipation as to how different things will be: the weather, the landscape, the architecture, the smell. I have to say that on this occasion I was a bit disappointed. To me, San Francisco was of course different to Britain, but not different enough. Indeed the standard of living was almost identical, as were people’s clothes, the shops and the fast food chains. I wondered if this had something to do with Britain’s decision after World War II to spurn greater European unity and become America’s ‘junior partner’, offering itself as a lucrative market for her exports and following many of her fiscal, social and foreign policies – even when they led to disaster.

I caught a shuttle taxi that made its way through the hilly outer limits of San Francisco and into the downtown financial district to drop the better-dressed passengers at hotels such as the Hilton. Knowing that I was headed for the $30 a night Bob’s Hostel in Haight-Ashbury gave me something of an inferiority complex; I was after all, a dirty, hung-over ex-student punk on a tight budget. But the better part of me knew that my trip to San Francisco would be more ‘real’ than theirs, more ‘travel’ than ‘tourism’ in the sense that I would not be living in some artificially-created space isolated from everyday city life. This was something of a consolation.

Bob’s Hostel was the kind of dingy, dusty, low-lit joint I expected it to be, with a crumbling veranda where people smoked pipes of ganja. I soon discovered that the other guests were not only backpackers but locals who resided full-time in the hostel because they simply could not afford any better accommodation. As I was waiting to check in with Nile, the growling, Tom Waits-voiced manager, I got talking to a scientist with ten years of university education behind him who had been living in a dormitory here for six months. He said that rent was prohibitively high and that there were 30,000 homeless people in the city. I thought London was bad!

Once I’d got my key from Nile, I went straight to the nearest restaurant which had depressingly branded itself as an English-style pub serving such dishes as ‘Thatcher’s Full English Breakfast’ and ‘Churchill’s Steak and Kidney Pudding’. The owner was an English ex-pat who, when he heard my accent, immediately put on a video of the England football team’s recent 5-1 shock defeat of Germany. I scratched my head and asked myself the question, “Why have I travelled so far to come here?” My defence was that I was too tired, jet-lagged and hungry to go somewhere further away from the hostel. I did try to order something completely un-English but somehow ended up with fish and chips. I didn’t have the energy to complain. Halfway through the meal, I almost fell asleep face-first into it. I paid the bill and tottered back to my dank-smelling room.

My sleep was interrupted around midnight by a commotion outside. An hysterical man’s voice kept screaming, “It’s fuckin’ crazy!” Some obliging passers-by calmed him down. The supposition I made as I fell back to sleep was that, on the balance of probabilities, that man was rather fucking crazy himself.

I struggled awake at mid-morning and went for breakfast at a Polish sausage shop next door. The proprietor offered me ‘the full works’ i.e. three enormous sausages soaked with a dozen different sauces. Such excess reminded me of something I’d read about Elvis Presley’s last years spent eating deep-fried whole piglets and entire loaves of bread filled with bacon, peanut butter, jelly and bananas.

Catching a bus to Chinatown, I found the place to be oddly quiet, or at least quieter than my guidebook had indicated it should be. The few people I saw had sombre looks on their faces. Most shops were closed with signs on their windows reading ‘For obvious reasons we are shut today’. I wondered if this had something to do with electricity shortages – an issue that I knew affected California. I bought a newspaper but that didn’t offer any clues. Making my way through a pagoda-style building where old Chinese guys were playing chess, I noticed a mustachioed policeman lowering the Stars and Stripes to half-mast. It struck me as a vivid symbol of defeat; an anti-Iwo Jima. I needed to know what had happened but there was such a blaze of anger in the policeman’s eyes that it took time to muster the courage to ask. “Excuse me,” I said in what he probably regarded as a flaky, faggy English accent. “Could you tell me why you’re taking that flag down?”

“Haven’t you heard?” the policeman roared, raising his arms as if starting a fight with me. “America has been attacked! American airplanes have been hijacked! Many thousands of Americans are dead! This is too big-scale to be a Timothy McVeigh kinda thing so they’re saying foreigners are behind it!”

“Crikey,” I said and wondered where that had come from. I don’t think I had ever said ‘Crikey’ before in my life and I certainly haven’t said it since. I walked away from the policeman in a daze.

When I had composed myself I looked at my guidebook for somewhere I could go for information… and a stiff drink. I found a bar that had once been Jack Kerouac’s favourite hangout. Inside it were a lot of people from seemingly different social backgrounds watching a TV repeatedly showing footage of a plane colliding with a very tall building. The caption read: AMERICA UNDER ATTACK – PLANES CRASHED INTO WORLD TRADE CENTER. I ordered a beer and sat foolishly close to a livid yuppie whose tie lay loose around his bright orange neck. It was barely possible to see his face through the glut of empty beer bottles on the table. He kept shaking his fist at each replay, shouting, “I don’t wanna see it no more!”

I wondered why he was putting himself through this. Why didn’t he just go home?

An old hippie with a goatee beard leaned over and said, “Let’s close down all the discos in Europe.” I guessed he was referring to the incident where Libyan bombs killed US tourists in a German nightclub in the 1980s.

Soon enough, however, I could understand where the yuppie was coming from; I too found myself entranced by this cyclic image of destruction. There were several reasons for it, I suppose. I had to keep watching just to make myself believe it had really happened. More disturbingly, and it’s a little hard to admit this, there was something impressive about the visual spectacle of this attack, the way those Boeing 767s slid almost effortlessly into their targets. Take away the carnage caused and what you had here was a twisted piece of performance art, as Damien Hirst was later to comment. Of course this could not be in the final analysis because this was real and a lot of carnage was caused.

The more I watched, the more complicated my thoughts and feelings became. What were the wider ramifications of America being attacked on its own soil for the first time in sixty years? Although historians will argue whether it is fair to call the colony of Hawaii, as it was then, ‘American soil’. I wondered what would happen next. You didn’t do this to America and get away with it. At this point in time, no suspects had been mooted. If an internal McVeigh-type was to blame – as the policeman lowering the flag had mentioned – we could expect the greatest manhunt and trial in history, outdoing OJ Simpson, John Wilkes Booth, anyone else. If the perpetrator was found to be foreign then history told me that the retaliation would be massive. Later on I was to read an apt description of America at this juncture on the BBC News website: “a wounded, raging giant”. This giant might well take revenge upon a nation if an individual or organization could not be identified. I was reminded of the late great comedian George Carlin and his skit about America’s fondness for war as a tool of foreign policy: “We like war. We’re a war-like people. We’re good at it. We get a lot of practice at it. This country’s only 200 years old and already we’ve had ten major wars.”

My attention switched away from the screen. Was it my imagination or had more people come into the bar to watch these gruesome repetitions? The yuppie got up to leave. “I bet the ragheads did it,” he snarled.

I wondered what Jack Kerouac would have made of this scene.

I drank some more, watched some more. Whoever was behind this certainly had a keen sense of symbolism. The World Trade Centre, cipher for the US-led, global capitalist system that Allen Ginsberg called ‘Moloch’, destroyed by passenger jets, icon of Western middle-class mobility and leisure. So was this some apocalyptic portent? Could we take it to signal the decline and fall of a superpower, the only superpower left? Empires, superpowers come and go: Greece, Rome, Spain, Britain, the USSR. If my learned and culturally-sensitive friend the yuppie was right and a Middle Eastern fanatic was the culprit, then a comparison with Rome could be justified, for that superpower was ultimately wiped out by marginalized peoples with inferior wealth and technology.

I left the bar and bought a newspaper from a vendor box, one of the local SF dailies. It was an ‘extra’ edition, something I’d never seen before. I’ll never forget the front page. It was a photograph of what was soon to be called ‘9-11’ with a headline that simply read ‘BASTARDS!’

I went back to Bob’s Hostel to rest and take stock of things. I tried to make phone calls to my family and friends to tell them I was all right. It should have been obvious that I was because my location was 3000 miles away from New York, but I still felt the need to reassure them. All the lines were busy so I sent an email instead, hoping that would get through.

I spoke to Nile the manager. We were keen to avoid today’s events for fear of depressing ourselves further. He talked about his job and his boss, the owner of the hostel, who was an Afghan gentleman.

That evening I ate at Powell’s Soul Food which was entirely staffed by blacks and had pictures of many black celebrities on its walls eating the restaurant’s famous chicken dinners. There was Bill Cosby, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali and a lesser-known senator from Chicago called Barack Obama. The meal I had there was a luxury given my limited budget, so I really savoured it. I wasn’t drinking alcohol though. It seemed distasteful to be partying at a time like this.

I got talking to a Canadian couple on their holidays just like me. The husband, a labour union activist, said that when he saw the video of the World Trade Centre, he half-expected Pierce Brosnan, the then-James Bond, to leap out of the plane just before impact. So strange and unprecedented was this event that I guess it was really interrogating our notions about the difference between reality and fiction.

My plans to see more of America than just San Francisco were banjaxed by 9/11, as the public transport system was in a state of lockdown for the next few days. The exception was the buses serving the city which, in some kind of tribute to the dead, waived all fares for one day only, the 12th September. I remember one sassy driver declaring to passengers as they were let on for free, “Yeah I thought y’all’d like that!”

Although a few more interesting things happened to me on that trip, like almost being run over by a woman who strongly resembled the actress Liv Tyler, the events of my second day in San Francisco understandably overshadowed all else.


A week later when the plane touched down at Heathrow, the passengers gave a spontaneous round of applause. I suppose it was out of relief that the flight had gone smoothly. Returning to my life back in England, I did the normal things a 21-year-old graduate had to do – find a job, move out of home, etc – while at the same time reflecting on my highly unusual – and unlucky – trip to the US. I hadn’t got to see the mythologized America of Johnny Cash and the Beats, but I had gained a glimpse into the psyche of a powerful, complex nation plunged into an unprecedented moment of crisis.

©Tom Sykes 2010

First published in GoNomad magazine, April 2010


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