Friday, 22nd August 1986
Just as I had given up on Trailways things begin looking up. At 12:45am, two buses arrived at Flagstaff from two directions almost simultaneously. One was for New York and it was crammed packed with people, the other was heading for Los Angeles and it was almost completely empty. The luggage was loaded and I climbed on board and counted just 11 passengers including myself. I found a double seat near the back and went fast asleep.
The next thing I knew I was being shaken awake by the driver. It was 3:30am and he told me they had decided to terminate the bus at Phoenix and put us all on another bus. The bus they were putting us on was another 20 minutes away, but they wanted us to get off. Shaking my head and chastising myself for thinking Trailways had in any way improved, I traipsed off into the bus depot.
I was really thirsty so I went over to the Coke machine. It was a talking Coke machine. It said, “Hello I am a talking Coke machine what would you like?” . I thought to myself, I would like to f**king sleep, but I bought a Coke instead. I drank the Coke whilst talking to a German girl. She was facing the prospect of a 10-hour connection for Las Vegas at Phoenix and somehow that made me feel a little better.
I wasn’t surprised to see the bus that came in was almost full. I found an aisle seat at the front next to an young Amercian guy with a chequered shirt and a long beard. I was surprised to fall asleep quickly.
I woke up to the sunrise and looked out to see we were passing the mountain ranges in the western Arizona desert. We passed through the California Agricultural Inspection station just after 7am and I started chatting to the girl who was sitting across the aisle from me. She was knitting. It was 7am and she was knitting.
She was English and I was soon flabbergasted to find she was from my hometown, St Anne’s. We began to ponder whether this time was even the first time we had ever been on the same bus together.
Soon we ground to a halt at the breakfast stop and we got off together. We sat in the McDonald’s at Blythe, California and, over a Sausage McMuffin and coffee, talked about St Anne’s and our trips on Trailways. She was heading to LA to meet friends. She told me that Trailways had already sent her luggage to New York once by mistake. I started to worry if my own bag was under the bus. I hadn’t seen them transfer it at Phoenix.
We got back on board and I slept again for a while. When I woke up the mountains had got bigger and the desert had got emptier. In the distance I saw, for the first time in my life, huge wind turbine generators. There were quite a lot of them in rows.
I had a chat with the guy next to me. He was from LA but now living in South West Colorado and was off to see relatives in LA. He was a mechanic but he had been a truck driver and a volunteer worker in Mexico before that. He told me about his life in Colorado and how he loved to hunt for firewood in the winter. He told me he much preferred Colorado to LA, but all the same he enthused about Disneyland and Catalina Island.
We arrived at San Bernadino at 11:40am. This was the gateway to Southern California. From here passengers left us for other buses to San Diego and other places in Orange County. Other passengers joined us and we carried on towards Los Angeles. The freeways got wider, the air got smoggier and I chatted again to the girl from St Anne’s again. It was mostly all about her boyfriend who was waiting back home and about loyalty and responsibility in relationships. I got the message.
Finally just before 2pm we arrived at the Amtrak Station in downtown LA. It doubled as the bus station and it was quite a pleasant place to wait until my 3pm connection for Long Beach. It was more like a cathedral than a station. At least the benches in the waiting room were just like the ones you would find in a cathedral.
There were three announcements over the loudspeaker whilst I was sat in the station: one was to announce the departure of the “Desert Wind” train, which sounded romantic; one was a message for a Mr Dad, which was intriguing; and one that told us that the 3pm Trailways bus to Long Beach was delayed by more than an hour, which was depressing.
I got talking to three girls who were sitting opposite me, one was blonde, one was a punk and the third was black. They told me they were all anglophiles (they didn’t use that exact word) and wanted to know more about Britain.
For anglophiles they didn’t seem to know an awful lot. They asked me if we used knives and forks, if we ever ate meat and whether I had needed special permission to be out of the UK when Prince Andrew had got married on 23rd July. I resisted the temptation to make wild things up about my home country and tried my best to explain and inform them on matters related to the United Kingdom.
When the bus finally turned up at 4:15pm I was surprised to find that the blonde girl and myself were the only passengers. We sat together on the short 35-mile journey south. She told me she was a primary teacher and had been on a tour of the USA and was now returning to Long Beach. I told her that about my own trip and impressed her with the statistics I had prepared. I had been on 21 buses and travelled for 110 hours. This bus, I said, was the very last one. When we arrived at Long Beach Trailways would have seen the last of me. That would absolutely be it, I said. I sounded a bit bitter, I think, but she just smiled.
We pulled into the small depot at Long Beach at 5pm. I said goodbye to the blonde girl and in the distance I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life. I congratulated myself. I had crossed the continent from sea to shining sea.
The reason I had come down to Long Beach was down to the fact I had the address of a friend of my mother’s hairdresser who lived in LA. In letters exchanged with the hairdresser, the friend, Tracey, had agreed to put me up for a few nights. I had then written my own letter to Tracey and she had given me her address. She lived in San Pedro not far from Long Beach.
I asked the people at the Trailways office for directions to San Pedro and they told me to walk about 5 blocks to stop A and get a 146 bus. The bags were killing me and I only managed to walk 2 blocks before I needed a rest. I eventually made it to the stop and waited about 40 minutes in the company of several bums and drunks. The bus came and I was finally deposited in downtown San Pedro about 30 minutes later.
I was starving so I popped into a Jack in the Box hamburger restaurant for a “Monterrey burger”. I called a taxi and was surprised to see it turn up in less than 5 minutes just as I was finishing my apple donut and coffee.
I thought the taxi driver had an Irish accent, but it turned out he was from Frankfurt in Germany. He told me he had come to LA in 1960 without a word of English. In the twenty five years since, he told me, he had learnt enough to know that “You damn limeys drive on the wrong side of the road”. He dropped me at the address on 23rd street and I wished him “Auf Wiedersehen”.
When he had gone I realised, to my horror, that there was no one in. The house was deserted and locked up. Tracey had obviously gone away. Then I suddenly realised something else. I was two days early. I had mentioned in the letter I had sent a month ago that I would be arriving after the 24th August. I had forgotten the two days I had budgeted for a stay in Dallas. I decided against leaving a note and thought it better just to come back in two days.
The problem was it was getting dark. It was almost 7:30pm and I had nowhere to stay. I walked down a block to an intersection and found a pay phone. I phoned the LA youth hostel and they told me they had one bed but to come quick as they couldn’t really hold it beyond 9pm. When I was done with the pay phone I realised I was being followed by some rough looking white lads who were obviously amused by the way I was struggling with the bags.
I saw a bar on the corner and went inside. I asked for a phone number for a taxi and the barman just started to make fun of my accent. I asked him if he knew where the youth hostel was and he said “You are from London, how can I know where the youth hostel is?” I didn’t really get the logic of this. I assured him I meant the local youth hostel not the one in London. He just stared at me shaking his head. I took the taxi number and went out again. It was all starting to get a bit worrying.
I crossed the road and saw a bus stop. There was a black guy waiting there and I asked him if he had any idea how to get to the youth hostel. He said he did. He told me he was a fireman and he knew every building in the area. He suggested I wait for the bus with him and then change to another one.
He promised to show me the way. We waited 10 minutes and got on the bus together. He was a very friendly guy and he told me about his life in the Los Angeles Fire Department. True to his word he showed me exactly where to get off and where to change.
I waited another 20 minutes for another bus in the company of a black security guard who I also chatted to. It was dark by now and I was still feeling a bit on edge. The second bus got me to the corner of Palos Verdes Drive and Western Avenue. I got off but saw no youth hostel. There was a closed gas station but no one else around. Then I saw two figures running towards me and I assumed that they must be muggers out to get me.
It turned out they were Russell and Clive from Reading in Berkshire. They were running back to the Youth Hostel and suggested I tag along. We walked a couple of thousand yards past a big parks maintenance office and there, finally, lay the Los Angeles International Youth Hostel. Relief was not a word sufficient to cover my feeling.
The hostel was impressive. It was like a ranch. It had a central building and then all the dormitories were housed in outhouses surrounding it. The warden was from Oregon and he was very friendly and chatted as he checked me in. I left my bag in the dormitory and went back to the common room for a Pepsi.
I met a guy from Australia and he told me he was from Melbourne. He was a telephone engineer on a trip around the USA. Melbourne, he said, had just had snow. He assured me of heaps of jobs in Australia. He promised I would have a fantastic time down under and I would love it.
I had a lovely shower and went to bed. I slept like a log.
Saturday, 23rd August 1986
I woke up the next morning and had a nice breakfast of bran flakes and coffee. The hostel was certainly one of the best I had been in. As well as a lovely common room and a separate TV room, It had a nice patio to eat breakfast on. For my chore, I was given a broom and ask to sweep the floor outside dormitory number 1.
I reserved for another night at the hostel and then, just as the hostel was closing for the morning at 10am, I headed out to the bus stop at Pacific and Normandie. It felt good to be on the bus now that I had no heavy bags to carry and it was daylight and sunny. Better still, I now knew exactly where I was heading to and how to get there.
I was going back to Long Beach and I was about to fulfill a long held ambition of mine, to make a visit to RMS Queen Mary.
I arrived at the side of the Queen Mary after about an hour’s ride on two buses. After a quick look around the tacky “London towne” faux British shops they had next to her, I got my ticket and went aboard.
It was love at first sight. I had a wonderful time exploring the Art Deco interiors, the decks and the engine rooms. I spent the first two or three hours exploring by myself. Then I signed up for the extra tour and that included a tour back scenes of the hotel accommodation, the swimming pool and sadly the place where the boiler rooms had been before they were cruelly ripped out after she arrived in Long Beach. It was all absolutely wonderful.
I started talking to people I met offering them some of my knowledge about the ship. One American wanted to know where the River Clyde was and so I drew a map for him. Another suggested that Queen Mary was the mother of the current Queen and I corrected him saying she was her grandmother.
The price of the ticket included a look at Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose Aeroplane housed in a large circular hanger next to the Queen Mary. I went for a quick look. It was interesting enough but I didn’t want to waste too much time.
I went back onto the Queen Mary and sat on the sun deck writing my diary and watching the guests assemble for a Japanese wedding on the deck below. Apart from the skyscrapers across the harbour it felt as if I was at sea. The day entry pass expired at 5pm and I made the most of it, staying on board until the last minute.
Happy and contented that I had finally seen her, I caught the bus back to the Youth hostel. I made myself a completely tasteless meal of mash, beans and bread and fell asleep quickly.
Sunday, 24th August 1986
I got up the next morning and arrived at the common room just in time to hear the warden’s daily 9am cry of “Let’s have another wonderful day exploring the city of Los Angeles” He gave me an easy chore of taking out the trash from my own dormitory. I had bran flakes again and then set off back to the bus stop.
I had decided to visit Hollywood. This would involve getting another two buses but in the opposite direction to the day before. The bus system in LA was remarkably good once you had mastered the map and schedules. The buses were a little slow to cover the vast distances but the system was reliable and certainly cheap.
I changed in the downtown and caught another bus to Hollywood Boulevard. I paused there for a while looking around the area near Mann’s Chinese theatre. The stars have their footprints in the pavement there and I took a few pictures of them. After checking out Marilyn Monroe’s footprints, I dined in lavish style on chicken tenders and apple pie at Burger King.
I took another bus up the hill to Universal Studios and paid the 15 dollar entrance fee to get in. The ticket included a tram ride and the freedom to walk around whilst waiting for the tram. It was a weird place, some of it was obviously authentic and offered the chance to see where real films had been made, but the rest of it was like an amusement park. The tram ride where you were attacked by a pretty unconvincing model of the Jaws shark was a bit tacky, to say the least.
I went off in search of the Hollywood sign so I could take a photograph of me standing in front of it. It proved pretty elusive. I went wrong a few times and in the end I asked a guy walking along the sidewalk. He told me he lived just near it and as he was going home he took me right to it.
His name was Mark and he was a construction engineer. He told me had been born in Southern California, was 40 now and had never left the area. He had never even been to San Francisco. He took my picture in front of the sign and pointed the direction to go to catch the bus back to Hollywood Boulevard.
Back at Hollywood Boulevard, I took some night views of Mann’s theatre and then jumped on a bus heading west for a connection down to the hostel. When I went to get off at the place to change, the driver asked me where I was going and told me to stay on the bus and come with him back to the terminus. The area I was proposing to get off at was not just safe to wait around at night, he advised.
I went back to Hollywood Bouvlevard and got on the bus he had recommended back to the downtown. I was waiting for the bus back to the hostel around 9pm and I made friends with an Isreali guy who was heading to the hostel to check in. The bus took forever to get to the transfer point for the hostel.
It was 10:30pm by the time we got there and we missed the connection. Faced with a 30 minute walk or a 60 minute wait, we opted to walk. By then we had been joined by another English guy who was about to study history at Durham University and a Japanese architecture student from Tokyo. We set off walking together.
We had only gone a few blocks when a large police car of the LAPD glided to a halt next to us. The officer driving it asked if his assumption we were heading to the hostel was correct. We said it was. The officer motioned all of us to get in the car. I sat in the front and the other three sat in the back.
He asked where we were all from and when I mentioned the UK he told us that he had two British Bobbies on an exchange visit a month ago. He demonstrated the on board computer system by tapping in the licence plate of the car ahead of us and bringing up the details of the owner.
When we got to the hostel a few minutes later I asked him why he had picked us up. He smiled and said “there was a Mexican gang on the next block and they would have mugged you for sure” I was just saving paperwork.
The lift had got me back to the hostel quicker than planned but it also meant that I had been thwarted in my attempt to buy groceries at the 24 hour store on the way back. I had to make do with a pot of instant beef noodles, a loaf of bread and a snickers bar. I ate all this much to the amusement of my new Japanese friend. It wasn’t exactly a gourmet meal but it was probably better than being mugged.
Monday, 25th August 1987
After cleaning the patio as my chore, I grabbed my bags and checked out of the youth hostel. I caught the same two buses as I had caught on Friday night to get back to 23rd Street and to try again at number 1108. I got there just after 9:30am.
This time when I rang Tracey’s bell a guy answered the door. When I explained who I was he introduced himself as Bruce. He told me that Tracey was his lodger. He went to wake up Tracey and then took me round the back where he was mending his push bike.
He continued mending his bike and he explained, glancing up from time to time, that he was a Policeman and today was a special day off for him. It was psychological leave, given to him, he explained, because he had shot and killed someone the day before.
He made fun of the rule and said it was unnecessary. He had shot lots of people and was fine about it all. The guy he had just shot the day before had been a Mexican running away from him on a stairwell. Bruce had shouted freeze but the guy had continued to run. So, in Bruce’s words, he had just “blown him away”.
Bruce carried on telling me more about himself. He was 33 and had been just too young to go to Vietnam so he had joined the LAPD instead. He then shared some interesting insights on immigration and politics with me and then invited me to lunch. I thought it best not to upset him in any way, so I gladly accepted the lunch invitation.
After more than 40 minutes Tracey finally appeared and introduced herself. The first big shock was that she wasn’t a 20-year-old American girl. She was a 20-year old English girl from Lytham St Anne’s. The three of us laughed at how I had been expecting a Tracey to be a Californian. The way Bruce laughed seemed to indicate he believed her to be almost the opposite of a California girl.
I told Tracey I had accepted an invitation for us to go to lunch with Bruce, but she laughed and said “forget that”. Bruce seemed unconcerned and just continued mending the bike. Tracey grabbed me by the hand and led me across the road to number 1113.
At number 1113 we met Marie. Marie was also from Lytham St Anne’s but she was older than Tracey and probably in her mid 30’s. She had immigrated from Lytham to Long Beach in 1979 with her husband.
Lytham to Long Beach was actually quite a logical move because both towns had large aircraft factories. MacDonnell Douglas in California actually recruited a lot of engineers from Lancashire in the 1970s. My own father was even offered but turned it down.
Marie had brought her sons, Charles and Darren, to the US with her. Charles was 15 and away at Camp at the moment. Darren was now 12 and was sitting in the garden. She had divorced her husband a few years after coming to the USA and then got remarried to an American guy called Grant. Grant, who was in his mid-twenties, worked on the tug boats in the port of Long Beach. Marie taught dance at her own studio in Palos Verdes.
Over coffee we solved the mystery of why I had thought Tracey to be American. It was actually Marie that was the childhood friend of my mother’s hairdresser. When the hairdresser asked Marie to put me up, she had rejected the idea because of lack of space.
She had then suggested I stay with her friend Tracey instead. The hairdresser had just assumed Tracey to be American. Tracey was actually the sister of another friend of Marie’s back in St Anne’s. It made some sense, but to be honest, I was still thinking about Bruce shooting people on stairwells.
Marie suggested we all go to the beach for the day and we set off in Grant’s car. We got to the beach, actually passing the Youth hostel on the way, to find the sun had become obscured by cloud. So we walked around the shops instead. Darren and Grant went off to buy a skateboard and I got to accompany the ladies clothes shopping.
We had coffee in a Chinese tea shop and then reunited with the boys and the new skateboard they had bought, and we drove around the coast to San Pedro. On the way Tracey pointed to a sailing boat moored nearby and told me that she worked as crew on it at the weekends. She told me that most weekends she was away sailing to Catalina Island. This obviously explained why she had been away on Friday night.
We had a look in at Marie’s dance studio and then ended up at the “Ports of Call” development. It was quite an effective regeneration area right on the shoreline with shops and restaurants overlooking the harbour.
It was 5pm and they had a happy hour deal going on. The deal was free appetisers with Margaritas. We ordered the drinks and sat drinking them with spicy potatoes and nachos whilst watching the comings and goings of the harbour.
Tracey told me that as well as the sailing boat, she also worked in the evenings. She was a waitress at a local ice cream parlour called Rexes. She then announced that as she was having such a good time with us she had decided to call in sick. She went off to find a phone.
It was then decided that the four of us would spend the evening at the Red Onion restaurant. We went home to change and I found out a little more about things. Grant and Marie had only been married for 18 months and Grant had been off work for more than 12 months after having a bad accident falling off a newly painted barge into the water and fracturing most of his body. He was currently fighting a legal case and waiting for financial compensation.
The Red Onion was a Mexican restaurant with a dance floor. We got a table straight away and ordered some drinks. Grant and Marie started to show off a bit on the dance floor and I realised that whatever had been fractured on Grant seemed to be quite well mended. He certainly danced well.
Tracey told me a bit more about herself. She had originally come over in February to work for Marie. The work had quickly dried up, so now she was doing all kinds of things from being crew on the sailing boat to working at the ice cream parlour to babysitting. She had lived with Maire originally but decided to move in as a lodger with Bruce across the road.
Whilst we were talking, Tracey caught the eye of a couple of guys in the corner. She excused herself and went over to join them. It didn’t really bother me. It was actually nice just sitting by myself.
Grant and Marie returned from the dance floor and asked where Tracey was. I pointed to her sitting in between two lads in the corner and Marie shook her head and sighed. She told me that not only did Tracey have a boyfriend at home, she had another one here as well. He was away for a couple of weeks, and meanwhile there was also something else going on with the captain of the sailing boat. Marie wasn’t even sure that Bruce’s offer to have her as a lodger was entirely honourable either.
As Tracey smiled and waved back from the other side of the room, Marie leaned in towards me and told me that she didn’t like Tracey. She had accepted the request from her friend to put her sister up and agreed to give her a job but she had soon regretted it.
Tracey, according to Marie, was lazy and used people. Not only that, she had overstayed her visa and was now illegal. Marie had tried to throw her out of the house to make her return to the UK, but then Bruce had stepped in with an offer.
Tracey continued to smile and wave from the other side of the room and I started to wonder what on earth I had walked into. I was staying with a trigger-happy policeman and an illegal immigrant.
At about 11pm, Marie, Grant and I decided to leave for home. We asked Tracey if she was coming but she told us she would be staying. She was now dancing with one of her new friends.
Once we were in the car park Marie told me Tracey was just spoilt and selfish. She then apologised for ever suggesting I should stay with her. She now offered her own house instead. Charles was away at camp until the following week, she said, and I would be given his room.
When we arrived back 10 minutes later, Grant went across to Bruce’s to get my bags and returned without getting shot. I settled quickly into my new single room and fell fast asleep.
Tuesday, 26th August 1987
I was woken up at 9am by Darren. He announced to me that today was “Disneyland day”. Whilst that sounded great, I realised that, in all the excitement of the previous night, we actually hadn’t discussed a plan for the rest of my stay.
I went down to the kitchen and found Tracey there talking to Marie. She pretended to be cross at me for abandoning her at the Red Onion and told me she had had to get a lift back with a stranger. The plan for the day was now explained to me; Darren would be taking me to Disneyland and showing me around.
As Tracey was working between 2 and 8, and Marie was busy, Tracey had asked two friends to drop us over there. That actually sounded like I was taking Darren to Disneyland, but it seemed reasonable enough. I glanced over at him and he was watching Mary Poppins on a video. He seemed a quiet well behaved kid.
The two American girls, Tracey’s friends, eventually turned up in a VW Karman Ghia, and, apart from an initial hello, never spoke to us as we both crouched in the back of the open top car speeding along the LA freeway system towards Anaheim.
It was about an hour’s run, partly because they missed the turning and we headed half way to Newport Beach before they realised. They dropped us in the “Thumper” section of the Disneyland car park and then drove off barely saying a word.
It was about 1pm by the time we got through the turnstiles. Almost immediately I realised that the decision to go around Disneyland with a 12-year old was an inspired one. 12 was probably the age I was when I first really want to go to Disneyland. I now had the perfect excuse to be 12 again.
We spent the rest of the afternoon touring the park. It was a lot of fun and the added advantage was that Darren knew all the rides and when it was best to ride them to encounter the shortest queue. We did a lot: Matterhorn, Space Mountain, Cable Cars, Pirates of the Caribbean and many more. The whole thing was magic and was enhanced by all the Disney characters in costumes walking around.
We finished at 6:30pm and, as arranged, the two of us went for dinner at a nearby restaurant for tacos and cheesecake. We then caught a bus back to Long Beach. It was Darren’s first bus ride in the USA. I then phoned for Grant and Marie to come and pick us up. We finally got home at 9pm and we were both tired. After coffee with Marie and Tracey, I headed for an early night.
Wednesday, 27th August 1987
I woke up at 8:15am and then at about 9am I caught the bus with Tracey down to the Ports of Call again. We had a lovely breakfast of hash browns, bacon, hot cakes and coffee at the “Cast Off” restaurant and watched the comings and goings of the harbour again. It was a lovely sunny morning and a really beautiful setting.
After breakfast we took ourselves on a tour of the fish market nearby, taking time to examine all the freshly caught crabs, lobsters and rock fish. At 10am we went over to the Pilgrim yacht Tracey had pointed out to me two days before. I was introduced to James who was a Hawaiian, the captain and, allegedly, one of her flames.
We spent the next hour or so looking over the yacht. It was a beautiful 104ft replica of a US navy 18th century warship. James told us that President Regan was considering a trip on the yacht to celebrate the bi-centennial of the constitution. At 11:30 Marie and Grant turned up with the owners of the yacht and we were all treated to a further tour of the engine room and the beautiful replica state room at the rear.
We left Tracey to start her shift at the ice cream parlour. We picked up a tub of apple pie and bubblegum flavoured ice cream and then the three of us headed to Torrence Beach. It was a lot sunnier than Monday and the beach was quite crowded. Darren and his friend Jamie were already there and we sat on the beach watching them surf. The conditions were a little rough, but I had a go at what they called body surfing, basically running out and trying to catch the wave to bring you back to shore.
On the way back we went to the supermarket and I bought Grant and Marie a case of beer because they had been especially nice to me. After a bit of television and a shower to get all the sand off, Grant took Tracey and I down to the El Paso Mexican restaurant back on the shore.
The two of us had a lovely Mexican meal preceded by Camparis, and we talked a lot about St Anne’s and Tracey’s plans for her life. I thought she was really a nice person, and she certainly didn’t seem as bad as the dark picture Marie had painted of her.
I actually thought Marie, Grant and Tracey were all terrific. Given that I was pretty much a stranger to all of them, I was really grateful that they had given up the time to look after me.
At 11pm Grant came back to the restaurant and picked us up. I said goodbye to Tracey outside Bruce’s house as I didn’t think I would be seeing her the next morning. I went back to pack and to sleep.
The plan for the next day was to get the early bus to LA Union Station and then, in what promised to be one of the highlights of my trip, ride on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train to San Francisco.