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.

Clarion Alley.

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?

I stole an umbrella in San Francisco; I’m not proud of it. Maybe I didn’t steal it – maybe it had legitimately been abandoned and the theft was that rarest of things, a victimless crime. The umbrella itself was smallish and red and lying on top of a news-stand outside the Walgreen’s on the corner of Castro and 18th. It was raining, I didn’t have an umbrella of my own, and the dry circle at the front of the Walgreen’s was a lonely oasis on a sidewalk where flooding gutters and dripping roofs stretched away in all directions. Motive met opportunity met intent and while it was hardly the heist of the century, I was more than a little worried that someone was going to yell out after me ‘Hey! Hey asshole! Yeah, you! The Australian asshole!’

But they didn’t, and, guiltily dry in the pouring rain, I gripped my new umbrella tight and walked quickly away, and home.

My Facebook feed is currently filled with information on the weather in California. People in LA talk about monsoon-like winds and minor hurricanes roaming the town, moaning their way between apartment buildings. People in the greater SoCal area status update about wild nights and fierce days, about seeing trees blown over and powerlines disabled. And my friends in San Francisco mostly talk about the rain, the grey downpour that hasn’t stopped for days.

I arrived in San Francisco on November 29, 2008. It was my first time in America; my first time outside Australia. Before leaving Australia I’d sold everything I owned that could be sold – my CD collection, my DVDs, my car. This was to be my big move, my big Next Step on my life path – I had a hard-won two-year working visa, and I was emigrating to the US under the auspices of a company that had hired me as a contractor. The job I’d currently been contracted to do? Working on reviews of porn sites.

No, seriously.

The flight from Australia to the US is a long one. I’ve done it six times in fourteen months now, and my advice to those making the trip is to get a flight with Virgin Pacific or Air New Zealand if you can – there’s noticeably more legroom and the food is better. My flight to SF the first time around consisted of a brief stopover in Sydney, then a fourteen-hour trek over the Pacific – and after four hours in the air that inch of extra space makes a world of difference.

The line through immigration at SFO was no joke. Hundreds of people, bleary and tired, waited to get into America; a long, long line of people standing in a meandering snake of a queue, hemmed in by bright yellow guide ropes, moving forward in halting, seemingly endless steps. Children cried, young men and women laughed in private groups, parents sighed and adjusted the straps of carry-on baggage that dragged at their shoulders.

Given I was neither a tourist nor a returning citizen, I was in for a longer wait than anyone else coming off my flight, a specialty case in a category of one. By the time I was processed, I was the only person standing in that wide, open room, the long and empty walkway back to the international concourse stretching out behind me. I dealt with an older official; he looked to be of Japanese origin and he joked with me a little as he took my fingerprints and snapped my photo to compare with the information in my passport.

The enormity of what I was doing sank in as I cleared customs and walked out into the bright and air-conditioned expanse of San Francisco International. In this adventure into the great unknown, immigration was my last airlock before the vast and unfamiliar world of the USA, and as soon as I was through those doors, the realisation truly hit me for the first time. I had no Social Security Number, no bank account, no insurance. I had nowhere to live, no knowledge of where to go (or, maybe more importantly, where not to go), and I knew – as in, really, properly, knew – no one. Tom, a friend from high school was living in New York; that was it. And I had a Moleskine guide to San Francisco; a going-away present from my friend Tamara, who knew from experience just how valuable they could be.

I bought a bottle of water from the SFO Starbuck’s, mainly because I needed change. I remembered to tip the cashier (I’d seen it done on TV), but I had no idea how to calculate the correct amount. I ended up slipped him a couple of bucks and found a payphone to call Sara, who I’d met online and who had very kindly agreed to come and pick me up. I struggled with dialing the number, at first, forgetting I no longer had to dial 1 for the international prefix.

I don’t know how long Sara had been circling SFO but within minutes, as I waited outside in the chill San Franciscan sunshine, her car pulled up. I’d met Sara through Zoe Brock. She’d laughed at some of the pieces I used to post when I still ran a MySpace site, I’d been impressed with the quality of the photos she took, and so we became friends and communicated on a semi-regular basis. From Sacramento, she and her son were in town visiting her sister and her sister’s partner in SF, and that family were the kindest people a traveling Australian could ask for.

The afternoon was just getting underway, and after dropping my bags off at the house, Sara took me out to Haight-Ashbury for lunch, where the very first thing to strike me was that I was surrounded by American accents.

Oh, I thought. Yeah. That makes sense.

The Haight was alive with colour and movement; tattoo artists in black t-shirts and tattooed customers with huge plastic hoops in the lobes of their ears lounged out the front of tattoo parlours, earnestly discussing inks and piercings. Clothing stores and the smell of pot vied for the attention of passers-by, as did walls full of vivid graffiti and gracefully-shaped wooden houses unlike anything I’d seen back home. It was that afternoon and evening, I think, that I first started to realise how much I love Americans. After I’d stowed my bags and ordered another in a growing succession of Starbucks lattes, Sara and her family took me out to eat and see the city; as we waited for the Muni to come and take us into the city centre we grabbed a six-pack from a bottle shop across the street and stood at the stop, drinking in public.

Cool! I thought. Six hours in the country and I’m already committing a felony. This place is awesome.

A stoned-looking (and sounding) hipster girl with long brown hair spilling out from her woollen beanie broke from her path along the intersection crossing and wandered up to us as we waited on the Muni platform in the middle of the street. ‘Do you guys know the way to DP?’ she drawled. ‘Dolores Park?’

I shook my head. Man, did she have the wrong guy.

We went to the Ferry Building for a dinner of American cheeseburgers and walked the Financial District under the glow of Christmas lights that lit up row after tall row of skyscrapers. I saw the Bay Bridge and assumed it was the Golden Gate, only to find out there is more than one bridge in San Francisco. We went ice-skating on a rink set up for Christmas in the open air of the downtown square, and I impressed no one. Flailing on the ice like a drunk on rollerskates, clutching at the railings, being passed (and easily) by five year-olds, I offered the only excuse I had: ‘Come on! Like we have ice in Australia.’

At nine, as we waited to get the Muni back home, the jetlag hit me. In the space between one moment and the next, I lost the power of coherent speech. A weight like a sack of concrete dust settled inside my head, and my muscles turned leaden. Feeling tranquil and anaesthetised, I blearily looked at the Muni timetable. M? L? J? What the hell did these letters mean? Inbound, outbound, Powell Street, Church Street, Castro Street… I figured sooner or later I’d have to work out what this information meant, but the time was not now.

My new American friends put me up for the night, and, after expressing myself monosyllabically – the only way I could any longer communicate – all the way home, I gratefully collapsed into the bed that was given me. I woke at 3 am, wide awake and my body, still on Australian time, insisting it was morning.

The next day Sara took me to check out a place I’d found on Craigslist; a three-bedroom on the corner of 18th and Church. Sara’s sister’s partner pointed it out to me on the map.

‘Right on the border of the Mission and the Castro,’ he said. ‘If you end up living there, you’re going to have a truly San Franciscan experience.’

The landlord was a Chinese guy named Peter, who was having an open inspection while the existing occupants were out. He showed me through the house and asked me gently interrogative questions about my background.

‘There are usually three girls living here,’ he said. ‘One of them has just had to move back home, and if the other two girls get along with you, then, I guess having a guy live here would be OK.’

The house itself was older, but in good repair, a cream and white, classically-San Franciscan split-level. There were three floors, five residents, a terrifying and dark corridor to walk through to take the trash out, and Dolores Park was about ten steps away from my front door. As soon as I saw it, I wanted to live there.

I spent the next night in a hostel in Chinatown; the Pacific Tradewinds on Sacramento. It slept four to a room, each door bearing a cheerfully tired and nautically-themed plaque with a cute name like ‘Starboard Deck’. I met another Australian and we joined forces to go and find a supermarket; while there I made the decision I would temporarily un-quit smoking so I could try American cigarettes, I befriended my new room-mate, a blonde girl from Europe (I forget where, exactly) who was traveling the US and missing her boyfriend. We got breakfast at Union Square the next day and pointed at all the things we’d heard of but never seen – newspaper stands on the street, Gold’s Gym, Macy’s.  From what I’ve heard, I never could have gotten away with the way I acted in New York – stopping every two seconds to point and say ‘Oh, shit! I’ve seen that on TV!’

While my new friend was taking a bus tour of San Francisco, I was working out how to catch the J down to meet and be interviewed by my prospective new housemates when they got home from work, which left me the day to wander the city. By the time I caught the J out to the Castro, early evening was closing in. The sun had gone down as I walked down Market to 18th, and I was very aware that the night air in my new city was cold and clear. Everything – the street signs, the lit-up store displays, the accents and the people and the roads and the streets – was unfamiliar, and strange, and yet, as I sit here and write this, I miss it with a feeling that tugs at my chest.

Brittainy answered the door, a shy girl from Massachusetts who was getting ready to head to yoga. We talked awkwardly about Bikram in the kitchen while Laurel from Portland, who, I found out later, had power of decision over whether I would be living in the house or not, and was sick at the time, emerged from her bedroom to meet and vet me.

Laurel’s boyfriend Steve and his dog arrived, and, with nothing else to do, sat in on the meeting. Afterwards, Steve and I smoked in the backyard while the two other prospective new tenants came through and disbarred themselves in one way or another in the space of five minutes. Laurel and Steve and Peter excused themselves to take private counsel in the living room while I waited and smoked a little more, and then Steve came out to talk to me.

‘Let’s go get your stuff from the hostel,’ he said. ‘And have a shot of tequila to celebrate.’

After retrieving my laptop, my books, and the bag of clothes that was all I had with me, Laurel and Steve took me to In ‘N’ Out Burger in Daly City. Driving back, jetlagged, a little drunk, sitting in the back of Steve’s SUV and with the lights surrounding the freeway stretching out around us as we drove back home, I looked out the window and started to laugh. I’d traveled further than I’d ever traveled, found my way to a new city and a new home, and everything was in its right place.  I was in America, the home of the free, and the brave, and the American Dream. Anything could happen.

More than that, I wanted it to.

Since 2010 started, I’ve been missing America in general, and San Francisco in particular, like crazy, to the point where I can almost feel a pull, drawing me back. It’s a strange sensation, and unlike anything I’ve felt before – things like this time-lapse film, put together by a friend of a friend and something I stumbled across due to her Facebook updates, don’t help.