First impressions can count for a lot. Smithy and I arrived in San Francisco late in the evening, it had been a two day drive down from Portland. Our hostel was in San Fran's notoriously 'gritty' Tenderloin. A kid working at a gas station told us how this area of downtown SF is an open drug market. Homeless people line the streets, selling crack cocaine as flagrantly as they smoke it. Crime rates are high here. We joked it should be renamed the Tendergroin.
Our friends Dave and James were joining the trip in San Francisco and would land soon after we arrived. It was a twelve hour flight from London and the lads said they were tired but this was offset by their excitement about being on the West coast for the first time. They were eager for their first taste of the American Dream, fuelled by songs about Californian girls on the flight. We would hit the town.
It was a Tuesday and the Tenderloin was quiet. We walked about five minutes - there was a comforting safety in numbers - until coming across a bar with any sign of life. It looked small from the outside but we could hear music playing and punters talking, we quickly headed in. Inside it was dark and there weren’t as many people drinking as we thought. But it got us off the streets and a drink in our hands.
We told the boys about our trip so far; about New York's galleries and museums, the comparative serenity and natural beauty of Seattle and about the hipsters and raunchy strip joints of Portland. We were indulging all their fantasies of the rest of the trip and we quickly became lost in conversation. There was in fact only one other group in the place and it wasn't long before one of them approached us, "do you want to join us" a pretty girl dressed in dungarees asked in a cheery California accent, "we're doing a bar crawl and could do with some big drinkers". The boys eyes lit up, we had no other plan laid out for the night. James smiled, ‘we’d love to join you’ he said. Come to think of it, this was our plan.
As this girl led us to her friends you could literally see any signs of jet lag actively wearing away from Dave's face, it was like an incredible natural remedy. James had a slight hop in his step as Ben and I both wore smug looks that said 'I told you so'.
We would be completely blindsided by what greeted us the other side of the bar. It turned out this sweet Californian girl was a tour guide for one of those group travel excursions, and as quickly as she introduced us to her group she disappeared off behind the bar. The group consisted of six: two guys and four girls. The guys were German and spoke little English. The girls were from Essex, they also spoke little English. Quite remarkably, you could see the bags reforming under Dave's eyes.
Their trip was the reverse of ours, starting South in San Diego and finishing North in Seattle. They had arrived in San Francisco a couple days before us and seemingly found this bar a few hours earlier as well.
You hear few English accents in Seattle and Portland so it was strange to hear one of the girls ask the barman ‘alma chizzit’ (how much is it) when enquiring about drinks. When you travel half way round the world there are certain things you don't miss/actively want to avoid in your pursuit of a 'genuine' experience. But we were committed now and thought it could be good to get somewhat of an inside track for the rest of our trip.
They had just been to Yosemite National Park, which happened to be our next stop, and proceeded to tell us about it. The girl I was speaking to said it was a let down, ’the walk was well long and it was too hot’. So instead she had decided to sit on the tour bus for six hours whilst the others hiked. She said it was good though because the bus had wifi.
I turned to Smithy and tried to get his attention. Another girl was telling him ‘it’s well scary when you look down from the top of the hike, it’s well high’. I’d overheard her say that once already. In fairness he did look pretty scared as he downed the rest of his drink. I looked at James who was remaining well composed under serious interrogation from one of the girls. Dave was perhaps in the most trouble though. I looked to see another girl showing him all her photos of their trip so far- a slideshow of cliches and selfies. His faint hint of a smile was about as genuine as her eyelashes.
'The best thing about Yosemite is that it's cheap' I was told. 'Apart from that I wouldn't bother'.
It was apparent we needed to get out of here, fast. I turned my attention back to Smithy to initiate some kind of escape.
But he was gone.
He was one step ahead of me and must have made up some excuse; a cigarette, the toilet, the bar, who knows. Regardless, one thing was certain: he wasn't coming back. He would be alone, lost on the dark streets of Tenderloin by now. But he was safer out there than we were in here.
The girl who was talking to him now also turned her attention to me. ‘Are you scared of heights?’ she asked. I was beginning to sweat and feel slightly nauseas, but no, I wasn't scared of heights.
My excitement for Yosemite was beginning to wain. Dave wasn't even half way through the holiday album yet but the pictures would already blur his vision for the rest of the trip already.
My phone buzzed with a message from Smithy. He was heading back home to get a drink from the hostel bar. The girls didn't even notice he was gone, they’d moved on to San Diego now and were too busy telling James and myself how they didn't swim in the sea because they saw a jellyfish washed up on the shore. This night was beginning to feel like the sting of a particularly angry jelly, one that had followed us across the Atlantic, hell bent on ruining the lad’s first night in the States.
The girls went to get another drink and so James turned to me in discussion. ‘How are we getting out of here?’ he said. We had already told their group leader we would join them on their crawl. What could have possibly changed in this short period of time? Would we look rude for leaving now? Our only option was to lie. The boys would have to say that the jet lag had suddenly caught up with them and that they were too tired for the crawl. The fact that they now both looked completely drained would lend some authenticity to this story.
When they returned James dropped in a timely yawn and told them the ‘bad’ news. To avoid appearing completely rude he did give them his number and floated the idea of potentially catching up with them later on in the week- we thought it unlikely they would remember much of our conversation the morning after anyway. And with that we fled. Free at last.
We didn't want to run the risk of our lie being exposed and so skipped going somewhere else in case we bumped into them again. And with that we decided to join Smithy for a drink back at our place. The American Dream would be on hold until tomorrow.
Back at the hostel we sat in the bar, a little taken back by our first impressions of San Francisco. In contemplation I gazed out the window at the hotel across the street, only then noticing for the first time the bold lettering on its exterior: ‘HOTEL ESSEX’.
We all laughed at the irony. 'At least it would be a story to tell’, we joked.
But our laughter was cut short.
Our newest friends walked in, back home to their hostel in the Tenderloin. They must have also been feeling ‘too tired’ for the rest of the crawl.