I was idly stirring an iced tea at a sunny table of the Chateau Marmont when the ever-debonair and deadly Iron Duke Haney said something important to me.
‘Listen to that sound in the background,’ he said. And over the quiet lull of tourists and minor celebrities talking (one smiling girl made her entrance to a group a couple of tables over saying ‘Sorry! I don’t want to be that actress who’s always late!’), beyond the pristine green of the garden, I could hear the quietly intrusive buzz of someone doing yard work.
‘You’ll always remember that,’ Duke said. ‘Once you pay attention to the little things going on around you they’re with you forever; when you think of this moment, you’ll think of that sound.’
There’s a moment in San Francisco that is indelibly inscribed on my memory; proof of Duke’s point.
I was walking up Market Street; I had to leave the US the following night. The late afternoon sun was slowly setting behind Sutro Tower and I could see three lines of shadow were scored across the clouds above. It took me a second to realise the shadows were being thrown onto the sky by the tower itself, and I stood on the sidewalk and watched the sky as people on their way to wherever it was they needed to go bustled past me, oblivious.
For no reason I could think of (my meeting Duke was still some months away), I thought You should remember this.
The bad news had arrived shortly after New Year’s… or rather, it hadn’t. For a month, I’d been working on reviews of porn sites (a profession which remains the greatest ice-breaker I’ve ever had). I’d been in regular contact with my boss in Scotland throughout, volunteering to do extra work when other writers didn’t come through with the goods, taking on smaller admin jobs that he needed to get done, working late on extra jobs that came down to the wire. And then, when I sent through my first invoice… nothing.
At first, I hadn’t worried. I figured, OK, It’s Christmas, it’s New Year’s, it’s the holiday season. Of course, the wheels are going to be turning a little slowly. But after a week went past and I’d heard nothing back, I became concerned. Emails, both to my supervisor and to company headquarters, went unanswered. International phone calls to the head office got me to a barely-intelligible answering machine and no further.
Only two words kept my spirits high – signed contract.
But that was then.
After a couple of weeks had passed and no word had been forthcoming, I realised I’d been stooged.
Not to worry, I thought. I’ve still got plenty of time to find another job and make enough money to fulfil the terms of my visa. After all, it’s not like there’s some worldwide economic collapse, or ‘Global Financial Crisis’ waiting in the wings!
I spent the next three months burning through my savings while I searched for a job in San Francisco. I checked the want ads on and offline every morning, afternoon, and night, determined to leave no stone unturned. I applied as a research analyst at a boutique global marketing company (that interview, in which I was invited to take off my shoes, was a strange one). I applied as the communications manager of an umbrella group of emergency services websites. I applied to be a waiter, a bookshop assistant, a freelance editor, a parking attendant, a yogi’s PA. I went to cattle-call interviews where one guy was so exhausted from searching for work he fell asleep in the waiting room (he didn’t get the gig). I stood outside a bar that was advertising for about ten positions in a line of about three hundred people (it was the first ten minutes of their second interview session that day). I got up at five for the train ride out to a bakery miles away; the family business of a friend’s partner.
Fellow travelers and transients commiserated, all of us coming to grips with the collapse of our hopes and dreams, of our lives. ‘This is so fucked,’ another Australian, another writer, said to me. ‘This is so fucked. I can’t believe I have to go back home. I’ve already booked my ticket. What are you going to do?’
‘Keep looking,’ I said. ‘Something has to turn up. So… You got any leads?’
News came from Australia about entire departments getting retrenched, their 9-5 lifestyles king-hit by the economy, forcing them back into the market along with their co-workers. While I stood and spoke to my competition at bartending interviews, we swapped horror stories.
Did you hear about the bar job with one vacancy for two night’s work a week, where two hundred people turned up to interview?
Let me tell you about my friend with a PhD – he’s bussing at Red Lobster now.
Oh, man, I remember that Craigslist’s ad. Yeah, they took it down after half an hour because of the number of responses.
I ran on the treadmill at 24 Hour Fitness (not that I needed the exercise. There wasn’t a bar for miles that I hadn’t walked into with a copy of my resume) and watched the news reports about how Obama was going to fix everything with a click of his fingers. I wanted to believe that more than anyone who actually voted for him.
Eventually, I came to terms with the truth. It was time to go. I had to choose to do so rather than void my visa – conditional as it was on earning above a certain amount in a year – and risk being barred from ever returning.
Kayak.com and United Airlines took me back to Australia. Misery welled up in me as I selected my flight and hit ‘Confirm.’ There was no part of me of that said Yes, this is the right thing to do. Instead, I simply thought I fucking hate this.
And then it was time to say goodbye.
I’ve been blessed with a good memory, but even in the clarity of remembrance, certain moments stand out.
Walking down 18th and seeing a guy, crying, shaking his hands at the sky and screaming ‘Like every day of my goddamn life!’ to his wheelchair-bound friend, while dozens of tiny chocolate Easter Eggs flew out of his pockets and cascaded on the sidewalk. The sight seemed to only make him more distressed, and he started stamping them flat, deaf to condolences.
The three impeccably-dressed drag queens who stopped me in the Castro to say hello, and then cooed and squealed when Australian-tinged vowels fell from my mouth. As I said goodbye, I heard one of them call ‘Goodbye, Hugh Jack-maaaaan!’ and the other two burst into delighted laughter.
Sitting in a cafe in Haight-Ashbury while it was still cold and dark outside, a bunch of early-morning-shift cops our only company, waiting to catch the first bus home.
The political roller disco where Zoe warned me about Ron’s outfit, and I walked out of the taqueria to find all six foot four of him crammed into a skin-tight Julio Iglesias t-shirt and the shortest shorts I’ve seen outside of a Jessica Simpson video clip (the same outfit he was in later that night at the hospital emergency room, where we took another friend after she came down badly off her roller skates).
Opening the door one night to meet the guy one of my housemates had been having an affair with looking unimpressed, claiming that she’d stolen his car (he couldn’t tell the cops because then his wife would find out). He later described me to her as ‘the kind of guy who understood,’ whatever the hell that means.
A late-night, street-corner poetry slam with Laura from England. A burner party with Lexie from France where we snuck in rum to fill coconuts with, aided and abetted by Epiphany the ticket girl. Freezing cold with Sydney from Switzerland and Buffy the cosplay artiste (who’d won me over with her single-use catchphrase of ‘Not today, Mavis!’) while we tried flagging people down to donate money to starving children.
Obama’s inauguration, Christmas, New Year’s Eve.
The Golden Gate Bridge.
The Mission. The Castro. Noe Valley. Japantown.
This was the place I’d flown 7, 416 miles to get to. This was listening to the Freestylers on the way to get my morning coffee at Urban Bread, and the Dandy Warhols on the way back. This was season 2 of 30 Rock, season 3 of Dexter, season 6 of The L Word. This was The Wrestler, The Yes Man, He’s Just Not That Into You.
This was my house and my housemates, and the way Laurel and I had unthinkingly worked out our daily greeting of an almost-shouted, cheery hello followed by exasperated gasps of ‘Fuckin’ Laurel’, ‘Fuckin’ Simon’, and a long, drawn-out sigh. This was all the people I’d known for months and years over the internet that I was meeting for the first time. This was all the people I met in cafes, at the gym, at parties and bars. This was all of their stories, that I shared, however briefly, just as they shared mine.
This was home.
And finally, this was closing my eyes as the plane to Sydney lifted off from the runway at SFO into the darkness of the night and thinking What happens now?