A few hills
The 50 hour train journey went surprisingly smoothly and we arrived about half an hour early. I'd done the same journey 19 years ago, and sat in a regular train carriage. All I remember about that journey was the wish that it would end, which grew increasingly desperate as the hours dragged on. There had been a woman in the seat behind us who sounded like Roseanne Barr and kept up a constant twitter of conversation about nothing for the whole journey, while a group of three women at the back of the compartment kept themselves busy by eating endless bags of spiced sausage. On the last day, the conductor did a sweep of the compartment every couple of hours, spraying deodorant over all of us as the smell of us all was unbearable by that point. During meal-times we had to share a table with random strangers, who all seemed to be mid-west couples who collected dolls of the British royal family and wanted to know if we knew Diana.
So this time we booked a "roomette" for ourselves - ostensibly as large as two seats facing each other but closed off from everyone else, and with bunk-beds. It made a huge difference - and this is how we spent the 50 hours:
30% looking out of the window
3% watching films
3% playing games
5% eating in the dining compartment
24% making fun of the woman with the loud voice two roomettes down from us who we named "Pammy Jo" and used every opportunity to get off the train to smoke.
We had five meals in the dining compartment while we were on the train, and each time we were lucky to have reasonably interesting company - a very decent father and 17 year old son who had been visiting prospective colleges in the northeast, a very rich white doctor (educated in India) and his lovely chaplain wife who loudly complained that Republicans were racist, a friendly, chatty teenage girl in glasses from Iowa who talked about the 4H club and going to the prom with the Serbian exchange student (and later sought us out to give us strange American candy), a sad-looking psychotherapist with a fire ant tattoo on her arm who worked mainly with mentally ill Vietnam vets in San Francisco, an elderly couple from upstate New York ("Upstate New Yorkers NEVER go to Manhattan") who could hardly walk, and a couple with a swimming pool and were on almost permanent vacation as the wife told us she was "a two-time cancer survivor". They all offered a slice of (real) American life that I otherwise would never have seen. I was almost sad to get off the train, and nobody sprayed me with deodorant once.
We arrived in San Francisco yesterday evening. It's my third visit and the first one in around 15 years. My memories are a little faded, but this time there seem to be many more homeless people than I remember and the smell of cannabis is a lot more pervasive. While Chicago felt like a kind of modern utopia, very clean and well-ordered, San Francisco looks like a social experiment to get rid of rules and responsibilities which is danger of going wrong. It is full of hills that are exhausting to climb (we are staying on Nob Hill so have no choice but to walk up them or pay 6 dollars for the trolley), but the past day has made me confront a couple of mental "hills" that are more challenging - it's difficult and a little frightening to encounter (and feel compelled to walk past as quickly as possible) so many homeless people, drug addicts and crazy people who shout out things like "I'm going to report you all as terrorists!" Especially as this is such a rich country and San Franciso is such a beautiful city. It feels wrong. And when we went to The Castro, we encountered something else which made me question the limits of my tolerance.
The Castro seems to have become more gentrified in the last decade, with nice little shops and restaurants (although a smattering of sex shops remain). There are more gyms and adverts using very muscular young men than I remember (the wonderful commericialisation of gay life - every time I visit America I always end up feeling insecure about how I look). A lot of shops seemed to have received their names via the Department of Innuendo - such as The Sausage Factory (an Italian restaurant), Puff and Stuff (smoking paraphernalia), Squat and Gobble (another restaurant). I saw a bona fide Castro Clone - complete with moustache, leather cap and thigh length black boots. Earlier that day I'd also seem a 1970s pimp, resplendent in a white suit, floppy cap and ornate cane. It was only 11am and almost endearing. It is nice to know that such stereotypes have not died out altogether.
We went to an LGBT Museum which was interesting and had cabinets showing the personal effects of Harvey Milk as well as match books from hundreds of now long-gone gay bars. We then ate at the Sausage Factory and I had the "baby salad" which would have fed four big men. After we came out of the restuarant we walked up Castro Street a bit and then I noticed that people around me were sniggering. This picture explains why (you may need to click on it to enlarge).
We saw three such men, all naked, all old, all not traditionally attractive. Some people simply ignored them. Others stared or smiled (not especially nice smiles). I suppose that for some people, a lot of what happens in The Castro would be shocking. Men walk around holding hands and they kiss in public. Such things are liberating, to me at least. But I don't know how I feel about the public nudity. I wasn't expecting it for one thing, and while I didn't find it arousing or disgusting, I'm not sure I'd be happy to take any of the children from my extended family to that street, even though The Castro seems more family-friendly on the surface (there were adverts elsewhere saying "visit the gaybourhood!" and we did see a few families with kids walking around.) And that makes me question my own attitudes to nudity - I don't think children should be given off the message that the naked body is wrong, but at the same time, these men made me feel uncomfortable. I guess they're brave for doing something which attracts such a lot of attention, but at the same time, it appears selfish - what about the right of other people NOT to be surprised by someone's penis?