Thursday, 28th August 1987
The alarm clock rang at 5:45am. I got dressed quietly and crept out of the house. As I crossed the road I noticed Tracey standing outside her door. She gave me a big sleepy hug and then pushed a piece of paper into my hand with her home address on it.
I walked to the end of the road and waited for the first of two buses that would take me to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. It was a long journey and it took almost 2 hours.
It was almost 8am when the second bus was finally approaching the station. I was the last passenger and I took off my headphones and chatted to the driver. He asked me about where I was going and he told me that his brother was a train driver in Texas. He had ridden freight trains with his brother but he had never been on a passenger train.
The bus driver recommended a restaurant for breakfast but I didn’t have time. I went into the station, checked my bag and then sat exactly where I had sat the previous Friday to wait. I finished some post cards, posted them in the post box and then went outside to get a coffee and a pastry.
At 8:45 I joined the line that was forming at gate E. I stood just behind two Japanese girls. After a while the gate was opened and we all filed along a long tunnel under the platforms. When we reached “Track 5” we climbed the ramp towards the train. I was told that I, like all the other passengers bound for San Francisco, should board the last car.
The Coast Starlight was formed of double-decker coaches. It was bound for Seattle and many of the coaches were sleeping cars. The very last coach was a day-seating car. There was a luggage store and a toilet on the lower level and then seating on the second level high above the track.
I jumped on, climbed the little staircase and found my seat. The seats were set in a two and two configuration not unlike a Trailway’s bus, but they were far more comfortable. The legroom was considerable and the seat reclined a lot further.
We set off bang on time at 9:55am and the conductor came on to make a rather lengthy announcement. He listed all the places we would be stopping at and the times we would be there. Then he listed all the staff on the train one by one. Each car had a steward, or as in our case, a stewardess. After he had finished the announcements the conductor then came around and checked our tickets.
Sitting in the last coach I had a clear view of the whole train as it weaved around the bends. The size of the cars and the length of the train were quite striking. The whistle chime sounded romantic and so American. It was more a mournful cry and quite unlike the British horn.
The ride was quite bumpy and the speed wasn’t that impressive. I figured we were cruising at between 40 and 50mph and that explained why it was going to be taking almost 12 hours to do the 400 or so miles to San Francisco. After a short while we stopped at Fresno, which I gathered was a pick up point for most of Northern LA. It was a sort of Watford Junction but with Palm Trees.
I went for a walk along the train. It was quite plush and nicely fitted out, although I found walking through the automatic doors at the car ends was bit difficult.
About 4 or 5 cars down were the two service vehicles. One was a dining car with a kitchen underneath and the other was an observation lounge with a bar and then on the lower deck a little buffet counter. The seats in the observation lounge faced out towards much larger panoramic windows.
I went down stairs to the buffet and bought some M&M (Smarties) and a hot dog. I had a chat with a man standing there about Hampton Court in the UK. I then made a reservation for lunch before I walked back through the train to my seat.
We were passing beautiful scenery. The Pacific Ocean was on one side and there were strawberry fields on the other. It was a lovely sunny day and it felt a world away from travelling with Trailways.
Just before 1pm they called my number for lunch and I made my way back to the dining car. I enjoyed a fabulous meal of soup, crackers and crab salad in the company of a married couple from Oregon, and Stephen, a student from Sacramento. I retired to the observation lounge and got first a coffee and then later on a Budweiser. I continued to chat with Stephen and he explained he was studying communication studies and was aiming at being a film director.
We darted inland through a series of reverse curves and then wound our way out past Santa Barbara passing the spots where Ronald Regan and Bob Dylan had their homes.
I stayed in the observation lounge. It was a really nice atmosphere. People were just chatting, relaxing, reading and playing cards. They were recovering from lunch or planning dinner. It felt a bit like a cruise liner on land, not that I ever been on a cruise liner.
I stayed in the observation lounge for most of the afternoon and chatted to a guy from Philadelphia who was in his 50’s but had lived in London when he was younger. He had a building company in Los Angeles and he was visiting his brother who lived up in Washington State.
As we were talking people started gossiping that there was a film star on board in one of the other sleeping car coaches. It was a woman certainly, but the train crew wouldn’t let on who exactly it was. She wasn’t coming to the observation lounge that is for sure.
I finally went back to my seat around 5pm. Just before 7pm they called me for dinner. I went back to the dining car and as the sun began to slowly sink in the west, I had another delicious meal of tomato and lettuce salad, vegetarian lasagna and coffee. I sat at a table with a couple of old ladies from New Mexico and a social security inspector from San Diego who had been in the USAF and had been stationed in England for six years.
I chatted to the crew about their rosters and they told me that they worked all the way to Seattle and back again in one go. It was 4 nights continuously away from home.
I went back to my seat and talked to a girl who had got on during the trip and was now sitting next to me. She was on holiday from Florida and touring California by train.
Every conversation on the train began with, or soon arrived at, the question “Why are you taking the train?” For many people it was a bit of a treat, but there were certainly many who were scared of flying and didn’t want to drive.
I knew that I couldn’t really have afforded to take the train across the country, but now I really started to wish I had done. I mourned those 110 hours spent on Trailways. I vowed to do the whole continental train trip one day. I finally did it in 2005
We passed through the town of Drawbridge, a remote town outside San Francisco, which was effectively an island in the marshes and accessible only by boat or train. The conductor did his tour guide part and informed us that it had often been used for prostitution, drinking and gambling back in the time of prohibition.
It was now pitch black outside. As we finally began to approach the metropolis of Oakland / San Francisco the train whistle began to chime even more.
The train was about 20 minutes late but I didn’t care too much.
The Coast Starlight didn’t actually stop in San Francisco itself but in Oakland across the bay.
It was just before 9pm when we ground to a halt at Oakland Station.
I ignored the mass of waiting taxis at Oakland Station and waited for the shuttle bus to turn up instead. It wasn’t long and although it was a bit overcrowded it took no time at all to get onto the freeway and cross the Oakland Bay bridge into San Francisco.
The bridge was split into two halves and had a little tunnel in the island in the middle, and as we crossed it the magnificent night view of San Francisco slowly appeared.
I found a payphone at the terminal at Mission Street and phoned the first number on my list of hostels; “European Guest House”. They said they were full but that I was welcome to sleep on the floor if I wanted. It was 10:30pm and, as I couldn’t be bothered with phoning anywhere else, I said yes.
The taxi driver who took me to 761 Minna Street was a miserable old git. He spent the whole journey shaking his head and saying Minna Street? over and over again and telling me that he had never heard of the hostel place. Just as I was starting to worry we pulled up outside.
It wasn’t the best looking neighbourhood, but at least they had a sign outside so it must be legal I thought. The warden was an Arab guy and he smiled at me as he told me the good news. They had just had a cancellation and I now had a bed. He told me it would be $8 and added that all the movies in the movie room would be free.
The warden showed me around. It was a weird layout. From the reception desk at the front there was a very long and narrow corridor. We walked a long way along it until finally there was a door to the left into the kitchen. The kitchen had pots and pans unwashed and strewn around the sink.
Then further along the corridor there were two large bedrooms with bunk beds. My bed was pointed out in the second room. Right at the end of the corridor was the TV room. It was full of people watching the end of the “Life of Brian”. On the side of the walls were shelves of videos which, judging by the titles, were obviously illegal copies of the most recent cinema releases.
The layout seemed very odd to me and possibly dangerous. The main potential source of fire, the kitchen, was blocking the only escape route from the bedrooms. I wondered what the fire department would make of this layout, but I was too tired to ask. I put my stuff under the bed and wandered into to the TV room to watch the start of “Cocoon”. I didn’t make it past the start and soon retired to bed. I was asleep before midnight.
Friday, 29th August 1987
I was woken at 3:30am by a guy, who I later learnt was from Inverness, coming in and murmuring to himself as he got into the bed above me. When I mentioned it later to the warden he told me that the guy worked late in a bar and always came in at that time. The warden asked me if I wanted to stay another night. I said I would think it over.
At breakfast I got chatting with two English girls from Gloucestershire and a guy from Northern Ireland. They were all doing the BUNAC programme. We decided that we should try our luck at the Fort Mason Hostel. We rang up and found they had several beds free the next night but nothing for that night. Reluctantly, I suggested to our warden I would like to stay one more night but I would prefer to move rooms. He agreed to that.
It was quite cold and misty as I walked out down onto Market Street. I called at the tourist information office at Powell Street for maps and directions.
I got on one of the legendary cable cars and took it along Powell St and Hyde St towards the terminus at Fisherman’s Wharf. I alighted at the cable winding house half way and toured the interesting little museum which included a film about the history of the system.
I walked up Russian hill and stopped again to photograph Lombard street, the famous windy street that goes down the hill, and eventually walked down to the Cable Car terminus at Fisherman’s Wharf. It was all very touristy but it was very well done. I purchased cheese pizza and sour dough bread and then walked across the car park towards the ferry terminal.
A woman dressed in a policewoman’s uniform stopped me and asked me to take my Walkman headphones off. She told me that she was going to issue me with a citation. I wondered what the hell I had done. Perhaps carrying food or listening to a Walkman was illegal. I looked at her San Francisco Chamber of Commerce Badge and wondered if I was trespassing in the car park. She then added “It is a citation against you for having the nicest smile I have seen today”.
She explained that the “fine” was voluntary but anything I wanted to give would go in aid of the local children’s charity. I thought it was a nice idea and I paid up. She gave me a sticker which I later put in my diary.
I walked back from Fisherman’s Wharf and was stopped by a Chinese guy who invited me to a student convention. I declined.
I boarded another cable car to take me down Mason street and another one onto the California Street line.
I walked to the financial district and had a coffee in a croissant shop.
I had a walk through Chinatown and an interesting pose with a Japanese tourist who I thought wanted me to take his picture, but instead insisted he actually wanted to take a picture of me by myself.
I went back again to Fisherman’s Wharf and wandered around until the sunset and then walked back to the hostel over Telegraph hill and through Chinatown and little Italy at night.
I bought another loaf of sour dough bread and returned to the hostel via Market Street.
When I got back at 9pm they were showing “The Right Stuff” in the video room. I watched that but fell asleep half way through.
The new room I had been allocated was much bigger than the one I had been in the previous night. It was mixed sex and there were sleeping bags strewn all over the floor, some with people sleeping, some empty. There was also a strange musty smell in the air, the source of which I didn’t want to speculate too much on.
Saturday, 30th August 1986
I got up and wasted no time in transferring hostels. I got a tram and then a trolley bus and reached the Fort Mason Hostel by 9am. They were kind enough to let me check in, leave my stuff and take a shower. It felt so much nicer and so much cleaner than the place I had left.
I got a bus to the Golden Gate bridge and then walked across the bridge itself. It was quite a neat feeling even though the bridge was shrouded in fog. The fog cleared a bit whilst I was on the bridge and the view of San Fransisco bay that it revealed was pretty magnificent.
I got another bus back through Golden Gate Park and on to the small suburb of Ocean Beach. I got a tram from there back to the former hippy colony district of Height Ashbury.
I had a slice of pizza for lunch and then had a walk around the area before going all the way back via Market Street to the Ferry Terminal. I was certainly doing a lot of walking.
I had a look around a maritime bookshop that had been set up on an old ferry boat, and then looked around the maritime museum itself.
I had a lemon sherbet in an ice cream parlour near Ghirardelli square. I got a coffee to follow the sherbet and then read a bit in the San Fransisco Chronicle about AIDS deaths in the city.
I went back to the hostel at 4:30pm and had a nice relaxing snooze until just after 6:30pm. Then I teamed up with the girls from Gloucestershire and Paul from Bolton, another BUNAC person, to go in search of something nice to eat. We intended to find a nice Italian place in little Italy and have a relaxing evening with some pasta and wine.
Unfortunately all the nice places in Little Italy were beyond our budget so we headed to Chinatown instead. We found a reasonable looking place. The two girls ordered squid and curry rice plate and I had beef vegetable rice plate ($2.25). It was all delicious. Poor old Paul wanted to be adventurous and went for the chicken porridge special. It was special all right, we all had a taste. He left most of it.
We headed back again through little Italy and we found a great pastry shop on Colombus street and had some wonderful Italian apple pastries.
After a browse in the massive Tower Records shop we went back to the hostel.
I wasn’t that tired, surprisingly, so I grabbed a copy of the Guinness book of records from the hostel library to read in bed.
Sunday, 31st August 1986
I had breakfast chatting to more people in the hostel. There were a couple of Germans, a fair few British and a guy from New York who was studying Chinese. There was also a lad from Manchester who was studying at Huddersfield polytechnic He talked funny for some reason that I never worked out. He sounded as if he had a mouth full of cotton wool. I didn’t understand a lot of what he was saying, but I pretended to.
I got a bus down to Civic Centre and boarded the BART train for a ride around the bay. The BART was the pride of San Franscisco’s transit system. It was advertised as a “subway for the space age”. It used driverless trains to link both sides of San Francisco bay.
I told the clerk in the ticket office that I just wanted to have a ride on it, so he recommended a 2 dollar excursion ticket to Concord. “Just get off and come straight back” he advised me and handed me a credit-card-sized ticket. It was a ticket for the space age.
I went down to the platform and boarded the train. The platforms were new, clean and fully air conditioned. When the train arrived I noticed it was very spacious inside and even had wall-to-wall carpet covering the floor. The ride was smooth and the train whisked us under the bay in no time at all.
I got out at Concord, as instructed, crossed the platform and got another train back. Between 13th St and Oakland West it broke down.
The door had jammed and the space age system apparently couldn’t cope. Slowly we moved to Oakland West station and were told to get out and wait on the platform for another train. We waited some time.
As I stood there an elderly man approached me and explained the problem in more detail. It wasn’t the first time apparently. He assured me he was of good British stock. I wanted to tell him that things like this never happened at home, but I couldn’t really lie.
The next train was so crammed full of people that I struggled to get on, and once we were on we were all squeezed like sardines in the carriage. As soon as we were back on the San Fransisco side I decided to get out at the first station; Embercardo. The excursion ticket wouldn’t let me out until I had paid an extra 60 cents. “Needs work” was my opinion of the BART. Maybe it was just a bad day.
I caught the MUNI tram to Height Ashbury again and had another walk around. I walked back through a black neighbourhood with Southern BBQ shops and then on to Japan town. I got a can of Cherry Coca Cola, the first time I had seen it, from a little shop and sat down outside to drink it.
A guy pulled up in a car and offered me a lift. I told him I didn’t need a lift, but he offered a second time. It then dawned on me that he was probably gay and he was trying to pick me up. I said I was absolutely fine and I didn’t need a lift and he finally drove off.
Japan town wasn’t much, certainly not compared with Chinatown, and so I continued walking back to the centre of the city. I had lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was my first experience of the stuff in America. I was used to it in the UK but the menu here was slightly different. I chose chicken, potatoes, gravy, corn and biscuit for $2.69. The chicken came with a choice of spicy batter so I chose that. It was too spicy. The biscuit was weird. It was basically a savoury type of scone, but it actually went quite well with the gravy and the chicken I thought.
Slowly I made my way back down to Fisherman’s Wharf. I stopped to read the Daily Express at a book stand. The owner became irritated when I started opening the pages to check the football scores, so I walked off. A brief glance at the Daily Express had cured any pangs of homesickness that I might have had.
I boarded the 5:15pm boat out to Alcatraz, the former prison which is located on a small island in the bay. The guide was a former computer science teacher and he gave us an excellent introductory talk to the facility which also included a slide show. It went into a lot of interesting detail including the escape attempt of 1962. The whole thing was excellent value for $4, I thought.
I returned to the city on the 7pm boat and went back to the youth hostel for 8pm. I did my laundry at a coin-operated place nearby, grabbing a meal from Wendy’s whlst the clothes were drying. I took the laundry back to the hostel and spent until almost midnight ironing and folding it all ready for the big trip to Australia.
Monday, 1st September 1986 – “Labour Day”
I woke up early and chatted to some of the people in the hostel again over coffee. There was a BUNAC girl from Brighton, a lad from Scotland also doing a world trip heading for Sydney in a week, and a lad who had just graduated from Hull University with a degree in Electronics. I swapped addresses with a few of them and also with the people I had gone for the meal with a couple of nights ago.
I checked out, stored my bags in the hostel, and went out into the city for a last look around.
I found a nice Chinese-run breakfast place near the hostel and had an American breakfast of ham and cheese omelette, hash browns, toast and coffee. It was fabulous although not, I admit, very authentic Chinese.
I walked around Market Street and ended up in a large shopping emporium looking for a place to pee.
I then walked back towards Fisherman’s Wharf yet again. I got some stereo headphones in a Japanese camera shop and stocked up on more slide film. The Japanese guy tried to sell me a fish eye lens but I decided not to bother in the end.
I passed through Stockton tunnel and into Chinatown.
I decided on the spur of the moment to have my hair cropped extremely short for Australia. I found a little place that was empty and staffed by a small Chinese lady. She didn’t speak much English, which surprised me, so I used sign language to tell her what I wanted.
Whilst she was at me with the scissors and clippers, I noticed that all the dates on the certificates she had on the wall were only a month ago. I started to wonder if she had just arrived and just graduated from hair cutting school. She cut it really well though. I paid her $5 and left happy.
I had a final look at Fisherman’s Wharf and returned to the hostel to pick up my bags, have a shower and catch the first of two buses to the airport.
I got the wrong bus to start with and so missed the 5:47pm airport bus from the Transbay terminal. I caught the later one instead. Three guys sitting in front of me cheered me up no end by talking amongst themselves loudly about airliner disasters.
San Francisco Airport was undergoing construction work and I had a lovely tour of a lot of scaffolding before I finally reached the desk where in needed to check in for the Qantas flight.
I received a boarding pass for seat 35A and a luggage tag for my luggage. I went through security, bought some batteries for my Walkman and proceeded straight to the bar for a vodka and orange.
I sat next to a couple of Filipino Americans who were on the way home to visit relatives in Manila. I chatted with them for a good half hour about Marcos and Aquino and about their lives in the USA.
Finally the flight was called.