- 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
- 02. A Public Service
- 03. The 22% Solution
- 04. On The Campaign Trail
- 05. Athens of America
- 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
- 07. My Canadian Family
- 08. Edmonton? Why?
- 09. Prairie Singers
- 10. Deconstructing Calgary
- 11. My Kelowna
- 12. Wine Whine
- 13. Fire Mountain
- 14. A Stopover and a Popover
- 15. Inspiring Victoria
- 16. Planet Rosehip
- 17. Carry On Grunge
- 18. Street People
- 19. The Curse of Portland
- 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
- 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
- 22. Managing Yosemite
- 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
- 24. Parched
- 25. Brave New San Fran
- 26. Over The Hill
- 27. Greatest Again
Near as I can count, the flight from Sydney was the thirty-eighth time I’ve flown across the Pacific. Depending on the direction and wind, it takes around fourteen hours, give or take. Hours nine to eleven are reliably the worst, when it seems it will never end, when I resort to counting trans-Pacific flights instead of sheep.
If you are smart or lucky, the eastbound flight will leave you in Vancouver, or San Francisco, or even Dallas. But most of the time it will dump you at LAX, which is reliably unpleasant yet entertaining. Stepping off the plane in LA I revelled in my first American greeting being a cheery “Hola!” from the first ground service agent.
At Customs, “Visitors” are ushered into a different line from “American Citizens and Permanent Residents”. At the risk of sounding the bigot, every time I pass through LAX it seems like there are fewer American citizens and more permanent residents. That may be because they’ve started to fingerprint the PR’s in recent years, so it is easier to tell who’s who. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is great there are more PR’s – many if not most will become citizens soon enough. They do take longer to process, though, and half of Arabia was in front of us in line. Tedious. I imaging the “Visitors” get even slower treatment.
We were to spend a night in LA, our preference after the long flight. In April, we dead-headed our way through LAX onto the JFK flight. It all went like clockwork and Qantas treated us like royalty, but still took me the best part of a week to recover from twenty-four hours of flying through fourteen time zones.
This time we settled in at the LAX Hilton, which was every bit as drab and run down as it sounds. The hallway carpets smelt like a pub where you wouldn’t eat, and half the elevator button lights didn’t work leaving passengers uninformed as to location, direction, or expectation. The shower dumped more water than Niagara, something of a crime given the acute drought now afflicting California, but it felt great anyway.
The evening’s treat would be a bite at a good Mexican restaurant in nearby Westchester, about a thirty minute walk from the hotel. As we headed out, we asked the concierge if he had a map of the area, explaining that while we were sure we could find our favourite Paco’s Tacos again, a map might prove helpful.
“Paco’s Tacos?” he replied, incredulous. “On Manchester? In Westchester?” We nodded. “Oh, you cannot walk there, it’s too far, much too far. Drive or a taxi.”
We chuckled. Frank Lee explained “We’ve walked it before, it isn’t that far, and anyway we want to stretch our legs – have you got a map?”
The concierge was insistent. “I’m afraid you are mistaken, that’s too far. Taxi or drive.” He fumbled through some maps, determining he had nothing that showed any road smaller than an interstate highway. It became apparent that we might have been the first guests in the history of the LAX Hilton to leave the hotel on foot. It was pretty clear the concierge never had.
A half-hour later we found Paco’s Tacos right where we had left it some years earlier. There’s nothing particularly spectacular about Paco’s Tacos other than it is wonderfully normal. There’s good, cheap Mexican food—hard to find in Australia – with bucket-sized margaritas, free chips and salsa, and baseball on the telly. Airport shift workers make up much of the relaxed and friendly clientele. There at dinner time this particular Thursday, moms filed in to pick up take-away orders for the family packed in cardboard cases that had arrived full of tequila bottles.
Back at the hotel we zonked out to the strident throbbing of a Jewish wedding in the courtyard.
Refreshed in the morning, we enjoyed an uneventful five hour flight to Boston. There the subway deposited us near Long Wharf where we boarded the 8 pm ferry to Salem, where we to stay with a friend, Marie, for four nights. It was a beautiful sunset cruise along Boston’s North Shore, making for a very pleasant homecoming.
In Salem we walked from the ferry landing a half-mile through the very heart of the “Witch City” to Marie’s stunningly restored and maintained Federalist apartment building. Marie fed us and plied me with tankards of gin until I could be plied no more. It was a timely reminded that Massachusetts is not “wine country”, and that like much of America, hard liquor is more prevalent than beer or wine. I was out of practice in that respect. In the morning I was feeling the effects.
Salem is only about twenty miles north of Boston, yet it has a rich history all its own. Maps from the late seventeen hundreds give it the same prominence as Boston or New York. It was the major shipping port to the China trade, and one of the few cities that built clipper ships, the fastest of the day. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings (The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter amongst much else) went a long way to familiarise the world with its ways and means. But it was the witch hunts of the 1690’s that most deeply etched its place in history.
That is unfortunate in some respects. That the city once persecuted and put to death unpopular innocents is hardly something to brag about. I liken it to the city of Dallas whose premiere tourist attraction is the site where a president got gunned down. In the long run the resulting attention from each spawned a huge and unique tourist industry.
In Salem’s case there are dozens of witch museum, ghost tours, houses or horrors and such. Halloween is such a huge event that it has become somewhat unwieldy for the city to handle. More regularly huge contingents of followers of the occult or supernatural convene here, boosting the economy. Many stay for good, settling in with little persecution or burning.
Grammar school teachers across America regularly ask their students the trick question “How many witches were burned in Salem?” The history teachers want the answer “None, they were hung or stoned to death”, which is true for those found guilty of sorcery.
Science teachers want the answer to be “None, there’s no such things as a witch.” That’s pretty arrogant, like denying the existence of butter because you don’t understand why it congeals when churned. Back then, there most certainly were witches, at least legally. Today, there most certainly are dozens if not hundreds of people who call themselves witches in Salem alone. Science can demonstrate the absurdity of their spells, but if they want to call themselves witches, science cannot deny their existence any more than they can Catholics or Republicans.
In any case, like all questions of historical and scientific fact, the only accurate way to answer the question is “I have no idea.” What is more clear is that today Salem has become a city most tolerant and welcoming of the trade
Our second day in Salem was the Fourth of July, aka Independence Day. Those in the cooler climes of the USA really enjoy “tha Fahth” (as it is known in Boston) because it marks the beginning of a long-awaited summer of short duration. This year, after a particularly harsh winter was no exception. Everyone was uncharacteristically pleasant, despite the drumbeat of terrorist warnings in the media. An electronic billboard shouted “RANDOM BAG CHECKS”, bothering no one that the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures had been suspended for the occasion, ironically enough.
My first campaign pledge: In a Smiling Kodiak administration, the Constitution will be respected, even on national holidays!
Despite a dizzying gin hangover, I woke up early, the result of a lingering vestige of jet lag. Managing to convince myself a jog might clear the head, I trotted towards The Willows, a seaside point to Salem’s east. I was pleased to stumble upon the tail end of the local Independence Day parade. It might surprise a foreigner to know that most small-town Fourth-of-July parades are not the marching band and fireworks extravaganzas they might expect. Instead, this parade, like most, consisted largely of motley but high spirited community groups and arts troupes performing acts of good-natured self-deprecation. America may not have the best sense of irony, but it certainly provides much of the best.
As if to prove the point, the very last troupe was a float celebrating the very recent Supreme Court decision legalising same-sex marriage in all fifty US states. This issue is pretty old news in Massachusetts, the first state to legalise it over ten years earlier. Indeed, Frank Lee and I were married here less than a week after they legalised it, the decision neither a moral nor religious statement, but a legal and political one. It certainly wasn’t a financial decision, as we had enjoyed over twenty years of a tax-free relationship prior. But I digress.
I jogged at the back of the crowd lining the street, three deep in some spots, watching the parade. I got the definite impression that there was a significant but silent minority that weren’t too happy about watching lesbians dressed as the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam kissing. I could understand their distress insofar as I don’t like to watch anybody kissing. But I am considered old-worldly for that, so like them, I remain silent. And I think we all agree the world is a better place for that.
It occurred to me that several of the folks I knew in Salem who called themselves “witches” also called themselves “lesbians”. It got me to wondering how many of the seventeenth century women that got called “witches” were lesbians who got pissed off that they got called “witches”, when gay men got called “magistrates”. Things haven’t changed as much as we might hope.
In the afternoon we took in an exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum of Hollywood celebrity artist Thomas Hart Benton. Interesting stuff, worthy of attention, much of which was simultaneously overexposed and ignored due to its use in connection with promotional drivel for second-rate movies. The Peabody Essex Museum is a real jewel though, making a trip to Salem worthwhile even if one finds the witch nonsense as irritating as one ought to.
The day was capped off in proper Fourth of July fashion, on lawn chairs at Salem Harbor’s foreshore with ten thousand of our closest friends. A melange of American music was performed by a catapult of local musicians. The music was an ass-kicking reminder of the American songbook’s diversity and richness, from folksongs to Broadway show tunes, from Sousa marches to the theme from The West Wing. Throughout we watched an armoury of airborne detonations launch, in succession, from the nearby towns of Marblehead, Swampscott, and Lynn, before Salem got the last word in fireworks. The crowd was amazingly well-behaved, although it was disappointing that half of them got up and left when the overhead explosions ended even though the piccolo solo in Stars and Stripes Forever had just begun. Nevertheless, I left proud to be an American, larger than life, amazed as ever at this wondrous land and its unstable peoples.