Wednesday, 13 October 2010

That's what friends are for

Well, it's been a busy few days, and I'm currently munching from a pack of wasabi peas that feel a little like the US military are firing napalm through my sinuses. At least it means that my nostrils will be hair-free for a few years.

So, what have your intrepid explorers been up to in the last couple of days? Well, with our transit system tickets fully activated, we've attempted to cut down on the amount of hillwalking we've undertaken. Not least because my new foot-gloves (see previous post) feel as though Satan's minions are applying angle-grinders to each of my toes concurrently. It's like elective surgery, without the benefit of a noticeable outcome.

Anyway, yesterday we arose at stupid o'clock to get down to Pier 33 in time to collect our tickets for the Alcatraz tour. I was a little worried that the confirmation email hadn't fully downloaded to my iPhone, but once again, the customer service agent was so helpful that it didn't really seem to matter. So with tickets in hand, we joined the pre-boarding queue, which included a stop-off in a photo area where your picture was taken in front of a blue screen.

This meant that advanced computer technology (AKA Photoshop 101) could insert a background of Alcatraz island and charge you $22 for the privilege. Given that we were just moments away from being able to do the same thing, but for real, this seemed like an unnecessary extravagance. Nonetheless, we grinned like idiots but folded our arms defensively, so that we'd have a good reason for rejecting the pictures when the hard sell began upon our return to the mainland.

The Alcatraz tour was much as I remembered it as an impressionable 14 year-old, the main difference being that the audio tour has been upgraded from Walkman to MP3. It was also noticeable that the main prisoner stories being recounted from the island's 'glory days' make no mention of the 'Murder in the First' years, which saw one prisoner tortured, and ultimately murdered, for daring to fight back againt the inhumane regime. Maybe they just don't care for Kevin Bacon. I can understand that.

We stopped off for lunch at Fisherman's Wharf, where Doug fought his way through a steak sandwich so tough that it would have given Alex Reid a black eye, and I had a clam chowder that neglected to include any clams. But the waiter was cute so he still got a 20% tip. That's just the way we roll.

Today, we insisted on a late start and a low-key itinerary. That meant breakfast at Orphan Andy's diner, a place so authentically retro that you half expect racially segregated dining booths. Thankfully it's a far more progressive place than that, with the friendliest welcome that you could ever hope for without the involvement of hand lotion.

Sitting in that pleather booth, chatting to the proprietors about the finer points of Hitchcock's Vertigo, I suddenly realised how misunderstood the American people are. It's so easy to dismiss them as immune to irony. But that's not the case at all. Sure, they may take themselves a little seriously at times, but ultimately, they see the best in everyone.

If they talk to you on the bus or subway, it's not because they want to steal your bag. And if they ask you if you're "still working on that meal", it's not because they're eyeing up the 15% tip that seems to be mandatory over here. It's because they're genuinely interested.

Wherever we've been, whether it's a wine-tasting in the Ghirardelli, breakfast in a diner or after-work cocktails in the Castro, everyone is keen to include you in the conversation. When everyone's so sincere and friendly, there's no place for sarcasm or cynicism. And that makes for a refreshing change of pace.

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