At half past five in the morning on a Wednesday Melbourne Airport is empty anyone but airline staff. The sun hasn’t yet risen, and the big bay gate windows face out into a vast darkness broken only by blinking red lights and the dim movement of the great shapes of planes.
Deserted airports are unsettling places. As many of the flights I’ve taken have been during peak traffic hours, I’m used to being surrounded by people; long lines of people, stretching away from the check-in desks manned by energetic, white-shirted staff with great skin, or waiting to be herded through the thin cream plastic gateways of metal detectors while security guards turn their heads away to joke with each other, but never with passengers, or standing bored at the boarding gate, the long blue-carpeted corridor and the sense of forward momentum that just being on a plane brings only a tantalising few steps away.
Sitting here all by myself is a little eerie.
I want to stay awake as long as I can, in order to reset to California time faster – if I can go to sleep eight hours into the flight from Brisbane, I’ll be well on the way to coaching my body over the line and past the worst of the jetlag on the other side of waking. But because I’m up so early, I’m already fatigued, and if I go to sleep too soon, I’ll end up setting myself back further. My plan is to sustain myself by drinking thin, complimentary airline coffee, the taste of which, inexplicably, I love anyway, and focusing on some writing I want to get done until it’s time to sleep.
The flight from Melbourne to Brisbane is OK, although Brisbane Airport is no place for a young man. Leathery middle-aged women with missing teeth and low-cut pink halter tops over their flat and freckled breasts and entire families resplendent in identical rat-tail mullets and Juicy Couture roam the halls, delighted with the presence of a solitary Krispy Kreme outlet staffed by a lone and defeated Indian man.
I make it through to my gate and find there’s no one here, either. Just a long concourse, clinical and neat in its white tiles and in its empty tables and chairs. It’s quiet; lifeless in a way that seems to have no expectation of ever being anything but.
Where is everyone today?
People arrive and sit in pairs and groups around the departure desk throughout the next hour. When boarding is announced and I take my seat on the plane to Los Angeles I wonder idly if there are going to be any young children sitting nearby. I’m situated two rows behind the main bulkhead, and as the plane starts to fill, my insides clench. Beside me is a family with an infant. To my right, a family with two toddlers. Ahead of me, two more families with young kids. As I watch, another two families, infants in tow, come down the aisle and take the rows across the aisle to my left.
‘Isn’t this nice!’ one mother exclaims to another. ‘All these families here! All the kids can play together!’
On cue, one of the younger babies starts to bawl, which sets off another on the other side of this grid of horror, this devil’s game of tic-tac-toe I have found myself imprisoned in.
‘Excuse me,’ I say to a stewardess as she walks past. ‘I see a seat up ahead is spare. Do you think I could…?’
Thank God, thank God, thank God I’m so good-looking, I think. She’s going to give me anything I want.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she says, smiling professionally. ‘That’s Premium Economy. I can’t let you sit there. But there are some seats spare down the back. After take-off, you could go and have a look to see if there are any still free? If someone else hasn’t beaten you to it?’
‘Thank you,’ I say, and sink back into my seat for take-off.
As soon as the fasten seatbelts light chimes off, I’m up and moving. Like a hungry ghost, I fly down the aisle.
And I see it.
An oasis of solitude – empty seat surrounded by empty seat surrounded by empty seat; row after row of unreserved space. With one smooth motion, I strip my jacket from around my shoulders and launch it through the air. It soars in a graceful arc, its empty arms lifting like the eagle wings of sweet liberty herself, and lands perfectly in the middle seat of one of the empty rows, a message to the thieves and jackals who couldn’t think as fast as I: mine.
That night we hit the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced, and my three empty seats bring me no comfort. High above the Pacific, one of my three blankets tucked under my chin, and my three pillows gently cushioning my head against the shakes and buffets of the squalling wind beneath our wings, I close my eyes and think Goddamnit. I’m never going to get to sleep on this flight.
I am right, and my next chance to close my eyes and rest comes at LAX. I catch a fifteen minute nap there, and thank God for the opportunity to sleep on the connecting flight to SFO, even if its only for an hour or so. After I’ve taken my seat, a pale and tousle-haired hipster kid slinks his way down the aisle. He is wearing jeans so tight I worry for his future children’s IQ, and a loose beige cardigan that matches his perfectly dishevelled, scruffy hair. He sits next to me, and before I take my nap I wonder what he would do if I warned him that sometimes I scream in my sleep.
But I do not, and I’m sure I will be sorry for this later.¹
It’s Wednesday, still, more than twenty four hours later, and I wake from a deep and dreamless sleep as we’re touching down in San Francisco and catch a taxi from the airport to my hotel. The Huntington is a towering old building just below the top of Nob Hill on California Street that I can only afford because of the cut-rate prices on Priceline.com. My room number is 11-11, which I take as a good omen.
‘What brings you here?’ the desk clerk asks as I’m signing in.
‘Halloween, man,’ I say. It is the first of a hundred times this week I will say this.
‘You came just for Halloween?’ he asks. ‘Really?’
It is the first of a hundred times someone will ask this.
At last, I will have my Halloween.
It’s Thursday, and Meredith texts that she and her friends are going to watch Game 2 in a bar in Glen Park. On arrival, I am greeted by a sea of Giants fans in orange and black, and a buzz of friendly noise. I order a drink, Meredith introduces me, and I have to ask the group: ‘So how do you play this game?’
The rules are explained to me, and suddenly the bar erupts as we score against Texas.
‘OK!’ A, one of Meredith’s friends says. ‘Let’s drink a shot every time we score!’
In the eighth inning, Posey singles up the middle. Holland walks Schierholtz and Ross to load the bases, then walks Huff. Lowe walks Uribe, Rentería singles to left field, and Ross and Huff score. In the space of five minutes, the Giants score six runs, and we decide it may be in our best interests to abandon the drink-a-shot-whenever-we-score rule. Instead, we start drinking freely, and when the game ends with us victorious, we pour out into the night looking for another bar.
This is much better than any Australian sport.
Just as I’d hoped, Halloween is everywhere and by serendipitous coincidence, with the city in the Series, the streets are decked out in orange and black.
Everywhere I look, there are carved pumpkins on porches, or toy ghosts hanging in store windows, or cartoon witches soaring on broomsticks through supermarket shelves.
It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
My first real taste of the day comes as I’m getting a haircut at a salon a floor above street level. ‘Oh, quick!’ Joey the hairdresser says and puts down her scissors. ‘The kids from one of the schools nearby are trick-or-treating! You have to come see this, you’re going to love it!’
She drags me to the window and from our viewpoint about the street we can see the long lines of kids, held in formation by the watchful shapes of teachers, dotted at regular intervals along the column, dressed in costume. Sunlight glints off astronaut helmets, off fairy wings, off the blades of cutlasses worn through belts.
I hate all of the children. Their bright and shining faces remind me that this could have – should have – been mine, and it never was.
Also, one of them has a bitchin’ Lady Gaga outfit.
I could never pull that off, and I know it.
Saturday night is Meredith’s all-girl football team fundraiser. Ten bucks at the door buys unlimited PBR, and Sue’s packing a giant bowl of Jello shots. Me and Zhu and Emily, Kate and Tara and Lindsey, and Lyn and Erin and Casey shout at the TV as the Rangers take the lead in Game 3 and beat the Giants. We turn to the bottomless PBR to drown our sorrow. Someone puts twenty bucks in the jukebox. The fundraiser tails into an invitation to a house party in the Mission, and we drag ourselves away from Stray Bar in Bernal Heights and work our way there across 18th, across Dolores, by bicycle, by taxi, by car.
The house party is being held by someone named Tersch, a werewolf with a kitchen full of Brazilians. She paints my face in black and red and shows me where the drinks are.
Zhu and I make it our unspoken mission to have more fun than anyone else here. We drink the unfinished Jello shots, we shoot Tersch’s whiskey, and when someone starts passing around a bottle of Jager, we can’t seem to avoid it. Twenty minutes into the party, Zhu’s doing a handstand against the wall and I’m holding onto her boots while she drinks a cup of water upside down to cure her hiccups. A nerd and a Native American and Cupid look on and laugh as Zhu proclaims her temporary illness finally fixed.
Somehow, a half dozen of us end up sitting on the side of the street, under a blanket in the bed of Cupid’s truck, crowds of hundreds of migratory Halloweeners laughing and partying and shouting out around us. Someone steals Tara’s crutch while we’re not looking, and I run across the street to ask security at the nearby street party if they’ve seen it.
I see a girl sitting holding onto a crutch and I think Aha! I’ve got you now!
Then I see she’s wearing a giant moon boot.
‘Can I help you?’ she asks.
‘Oh.’ I say. ‘Well, see, someone stole my friend’s crutch, and I thought… ‘
She looks at me, and with the honesty of someone who’s been drinking for about six straight hours, I say ‘I figured maybe you’d be the kind of awful human being who would steal someone’s crutch, but now I see that you have that big boot on, so you probably need your crutch, but I kinda hoped that whoever stole the crutch maybe thought it was part of a costume, because who steals a crutch? So I came over to check, but it looks like you actually legitimately need your crutch, and you didn’t steal it from my friend. Oh. Both of your crutches, I see.’
‘Your poor friend!’ she says. ‘I wish I could give her one of my crutches.’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Anyway, I’m gonna go.’
It’s Sunday, and I’m going to meet friends in a bar in Bernal Heights to watch Game 4 and grab a few quiet drinks. I catch the 22 to the top of the hill, and when I get off, the sky is still that perfect hazy shade of powder blue and ice-cream white.
I have no way of knowing that Bernal Heights is where people take their children for trick-or-treating. It’s like the whole suburban neighbourhood turns into a small town for the night – I crest the hill to see an ocean of people with their children, everyone in costume, wishing each other the best and knocking on doors. Jack O’Lanterns sit outside houses and stores alike; ghosts and witches hang from streetlights, the doors of haunted houses are thrown open to reveal thick cobwebs and polished skulls and grinning demons.
This is so perfect I’m almost on the verge of tears. This is everything I ever wanted from my childhood, and it’s right here. This is exactly how I pictured Halloween as being when I was a kid. I move through the crowd, taking photos, talking and smiling and never wanting to be anywhere but here.
Fear the Beard
It’s Monday night and Meredith and I are in the Mission. We’re sitting and watching Game 5 with two friends of hers. Lincecum is pitching what may turn out to be the game of his life – firing off eight innings of death from the mound. I wonder if he’s related to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and why his face looks like it’s always going to crumple into tears.
The ninth rolls around with the score 3-1 to the Giants. Wilson takes the mound. He strikes out Hamilton, Guerrero grounds out, and Cruz takes the plate.
We’re watching the game on a TV with a delay of maybe two seconds, so as we see Wilson wind up for his final pitch and a roar suddenly goes up over the Mission, we know we’ve won.
Meredith and I take to the streets to meet some people I know, and the city has become a madhouse. Everywhere, Giants fans are roaring, running through the streets, slamming their palms down onto the horns in their cars. There are cops and roadblocks in the Castro, while people shout and sing and throw rolls of toilet paper over the streetlights. No one is inside; it’s like we just won every war that’s ever been fought.
Later that night, as I’m walking down Market Street, I come to a pedestrian crossing in front of a line of cars that goes back three blocks.
Unable to help myself, I yell ‘Go Giants!’ and the intersection explodes with the sound of people calling back to me and honking their horns. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The next day I read that people were burning mattresses in the streets.
Those guys party much harder than I do.
Jornada del Muerto
It’s Tuesday, and we’re in a giant open warehouse with a skull-headed DJ playing beats. For five dollars, make-up artists will paint your face with spray guns, shading paints, brushes and pads and pencils. But there are too many people here, and the line is too long, and the parade starts at seven. Zoe takes me to the DIY table and makes me up with black eyes, a hollow nose, and lipless teeth. She makes up Lexy too, before we head off for the parade. The organiser with giant hoops in his ears is bitchy about giving me my money back.
‘Well, I guess you’ll have to get here earlier next year, won’t you?’ he says.
Well, I guess that would help if I lived here.
Five of us start off through the Mission, following the route of the parade for Dia de Los Muertos, but Zoe’s stylist, whose name I can’t remember, hangs back to meet some people. Lexy and I and the other girl, another forgotten name, lose Zoe, then find her, then I lose the group. We stay in phone contact as I wander through crowds of the dead. Hundreds, thousands. Skulls and candles and offerings are everywhere. A giant black coach emblazoned with calaveras moves slowly through the mass of people that packs the streets. People hoist paper skeletons high on poles. Dead women in white dresses and dead men in black suits move through the crowd to the beat of graveyard drums.
I find myself at the head of the parade; dancers in long headgear shake and writhe under long banners. Somehow, I’ve overshot the mark of meeting everyone. There’s an anonymity here, all of us dead together and reaching out to offer a spark of life and love to that other black world that crowds in around us tonight.
I can’t believe I’ve never been to Dia de Los Muertos before.
This is the best week ever.
It’s Wednesday, and I start to realise just how much I miss it here as I walk into Walgreen’s for the first time.
I miss the way the light breaks over the top of houses in Bernal Heights and Noe Valley.
I miss the way coffee shops with dark wooden interiors and twentysomethings with yoga mats using Apple computers sit alongside Starbucks full of professionals with that wholesome mid-Western American look.
I miss that cold clean breeze that moves through the streets when the end of the afternoon starts to deepen into the start of twilight, and I miss the inexorable chill that signals the sun is going down.
I miss standing on the porch in the Castro and seeing the city spread out in front of me at night.
While I’m here, I walk from Chinatown to City Lights bookstore. I catch the Muni as much as I’m able, from Powell to Church, to the Castro. I catch the BART out to the Mission. I walk through Nob Hill, through the Mission, through the Embarcadero. At long last, I catch a cable car. I sit in Barnes and Noble and drink caramel lattes, and I want to be back here.
We drink at the Lex, we drink at the Argus, we drink at Stray Bar. We get coffee at Philz, at La Taza, at Urban Bread.
I get lunch with Angela Tung, and a bird relieves itself in my hair.
I sit in Dolores Park with Meredith, and we talk about traveling and settling down.
I buy a Giants cap at the Westfield Mall, and, unwittingly, take off and throw away the hologram on the brim that will result in it being worth money some day. I don’t care; I’m never selling this thing.
I promise myself that I’m going to get back here. Some way or another.
It’s Wednesday, and I arrive, exhausted, at the Grafton, on Sunset. I make a couple of calls, send a few texts, and open up my laptop to discover that the loose casing (my fault) has finally cost me. A wire is visibly broken, and my computer won’t turn on. I sit down on the bed and wake up the next morning.
My American Year
It’s Thursday, and my friend Erinn comes into town from Ventura and spends the day ferrying me around. We go to Olvera Street and I buy a bunch of Dia de Los Muertos souvenirs for people. I pick up a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle for my mother, suddenly acutely aware that I have never once brought her back anything from overseas.
Better late than never, right?
We head out to the beach and I insist we find a place where I can buy a yearly planner for 2011. My reasoning is that if I buy it in America, it will be a sign to the universe that 2011, for me, will be a year spent in America.
I’m wearing my Giants cap, and we pass a woman wearing the same as we cross the streets.
‘Go Giants!’ I say, cheerfully. The woman stares at me blankly as we walk past.
‘Who were you talking to?’ Erinn asks. I shake my head and make a note not to show off any more.
Then as we’re in line at Barnes and Noble, where I’ve found a planner I like, I see a guy wearing a Giants cap two places ahead at the counter. He sees me looking at my hat as I see him looking at mine. He doesn’t say a word, just gives me a silent, satisfied nod of affirmation. Erinn laughs beside me.
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I saw.’
It’s Thursday night and I can’t help it; if I think of Hollywood I think of Los Angeles, if I think of Los Angeles, I think of Lenore and Duke. If I think of Lenore or Duke, I think of Los Angeles, and I think of Hollywood. It’s just the way it goes.
Lenore and Duke pick me up from my hotel and we go to Delancey’s for dinner. I like that this is where we go when we’re together in Los Angeles, like it’s kind of where you go if you write for TNB. There’s an empty place at the table for four, and we allocate it to Zara, who calls a few moments into the meal. The food, as always, is good. Duke gets the chocolate cake for dessert, and I am jealous, as his choice is superior to mine.
It’s good to see them, and it’s strange to think I just got here and already I’ll be leaving tomorrow night. On the way back to the car we pass a cat who wants to play with us, and we decide that Zara’s place in the group can be taken by our new cat friend.
I secretly cannot wait to tell Zara she has been replaced by a cat.
It’s Friday, and I’m hanging out with my friend Linz. I’ve stolen Ben Loory’s delicatessen, Greenblatt’s. This is his place, as far as I’m concerned, but I want the hot pastrami dip sandwich. I must have it. I can have nothing else. The waitress is from San Diego and makes idle chatter as we wait about how good San Diego is, but has trouble pulling out specifics.
‘Hang on,’ I say. ‘We’re going to settle something.’
I call Joe Daly and ask him what the best place in San Diego is.
‘My house,’ he says, sounding surprised that such a question would even occur.
I promise Joe that Zara and I will make our next trip soon, and we will come to San Diego.
The day goes by too quickly, and soon I am back at LAX. I talk in my bad Spanish to the woman in front of me at the security checkpoint. She is from Colombia and going to Wisconsin, of all places. She is old, with bad teeth and a shy smile. We sit together after going through the metal detectors and put our shoes back on. Something falls from her bag, a piece of paper, and I hand it back to her.
‘Gracias, senor,’ she says.
‘De nada, senora,’ I say in reply. ‘Que tenga un bueno noche.’
‘Si,’ she says. ‘Y tu.’
I have no idea how to say, ‘I’ve had one of the best weeks of my life and I don’t want to go back to Australia yet,’ in Spanish. We haven’t covered that at El Patio Spanish Language School. So I smile and go to catch my flight, and in my head, I am laying plans for my return.
This week I have had my first baseball game, my first Halloween, my first Dia de Los Muertos. I have drunk my first Old-Fashioned, eaten my first tamale, done whatever it is you do with your first Jello shots. I have seen people I love and don’t see enough, people I don’t see nearly as much as I want to, because they’re so far away.
I could do this week every day of the year.
¹ – correct.