“To know a landscape, you must walk it.” Did someone say that? Or is it a phrase that is so self-evident that nobody famous bothered actually uttering it? Regardless, it is true. You can learn more about a place from walking every inch of it than you ever could from books or google.
I was too exhausted to do much of anything when I first arrived at the Ramada Inn on the E. Colorado Blvd in Pasadena, California. I’d been awake for over twenty hours when I finally got into the taxi to take me from Los Angeles airport to the hotel and I kept on dozing off in the back seat, finally coming to, staring at a burnt out piece of wasteland, the Colorado Auto Service Muffler & Glass unit, and there, in the distance, the San Gabriel mountains. Confused, I turned my head and saw the Ramada Inn on the opposite side of the street.
Like a lot of things in America, my room was enormous – big enough for four people – but with a number of important functions broken. Neither the shower nor the TV were working and every now and then an alarming sound came from the fridge that made me think the wiring was about to fuse and burst into flames at any moment. I decided the only way of dealing with the situation was to sleep for 14 hours.
When I woke up I felt a lot better. Even though I was in Pasadena on my own, for no reason at all, I felt good. I studied the shower again and realised that although the shower was indeed broken, the bath was working fine … which was good as I have a shower every day and frankly I was due for a change. After getting out the bath I had another look at the TV and realised that there was no way of getting that working. It occurred to me that this was also good; otherwise I would end up doing what I always do in the USA, and watch FOX news, which would inevitably make me furious and culminate in me getting into a drunken argument with a Republican supporter in a hotel bar at 2 in the morning. I realised that I was in a good mood and didn’t want this to happen again, besides, since the last time I was in the US the Tea Party had become popular so my argument would probably end up being even more ridiculous and in defiance of logic and plain decency than I was anticipating …. So no TV was also good.
The fridge continued to make intermittent popping sounds but I figured that it hadn’t exploded during the night so maybe this was just some sort of design feature that I hadn’t understood. I walked over to my balcony and calculated that I would be unlikely to die if the fridge did explode and I had to jump out of the window to escape the fire. I looked in my bag and checked the work travel insurance document again. Feeling reassured that the policy would cover me for work on a broken ankle I decided that I could accept the possibility of the fridge turning into a fireball as well.
After filling up on coffee, orange juice and muffins from the breakfast buffet I headed out. As I had originally been anticipating having no free time in Pasadena I hadn’t bothered to look up anything about the city – assuming that all I would be doing was getting a taxi from my hotel to the conference venue and back again. Therefore I wasn’t really sure which way to turn out of my hotel. In direct opposition to voters in the UK, my default position when I am lost or just unsure is to turn left … so I turned left.
If you want to know a landscape, you must walk it. Also, if you want to know what it is like to be poor in the USA you must walk. The sun was just starting to burn through the smog as I started walking. In the distance it was just possible to make out the mountains and the temperature was warm but not unbearable. In short, it was perfect conditions for a walk on a Saturday morning. In California though, the only people who walk more than a block are those who have no choice.
Waiting to cross the road just past the Liquor Mart, a short chubby man in a crumpled white shirt, holding a cigarette in his left hand whilst clutching a tatty plastic bag in his right, came and stood just behind me.
“Have I told you about the real human genocide?” he asks.
I don’t look at him. I don’t feel threatened, but nor do I want to engage with him.
As the sign switches to cross and I step out on to the road I hear him say:
“I’m still right here.”
I look back slightly, his face his turned upward to the sky, his lips are moving but I can no longer hear the words.
Moving on, I walk past a number of garages, spare part shops, tyre and exhaust centres. Two men walk slowly past me, pushing a shopping trolley, their faces resigned and empty. As I get further from my hotel and closer to the city college I start walking past restaurants with names like “Top Restaurant” which always makes me happy. I think it is the simplicity of the name that does it – and also the hope that it is done with SEO in mind … “what should we call our restaurant?” “Well, I always search for ‘top restaurant’ when I go to a new city” “Brilliant … that’s the name sorted.”
In the middle of a number of nondescript units hosting Panda King and Starbucks there is a pink house. ‘Psychic and Advisor” says the sign. I think about ringing the doorbell and making an appointment, imagine trying to persuade Kelly to sign it off as a legitimate business expense … maybe I was just looking for a way to accurately predict the revenue phasing for 2016 … but I realised I was kidding myself, that I wasn’t going to go in; that this was just another way that America both fascinated and repelled me. In amongst all the capitalism, the hard-nosed realism, there is the hope offered by a psychic. A hope based on lies and delusion … just like the American Dream.