First impressions can count for a lot. Smithy and I arrived in San Francisco late in the evening after a two day drive down from Portland; we got stuck in traffic in the city centre and then unpacked all our stuff at the wrong hostel. When we eventually found our hostel, it was in the cities notoriously gritty Tenderloin. We dropped the car at a parking lot and a kid told us how the Tenderloin is an open drug market. Homeless people line the streets, selling crack cocaine as blatantly as they smoke it. Crime rates are high. We joked it should be called the 'Tendergroin' but the kid didn't laugh. First impressions? Not great.
Dave and James were joining us on the trip here and they landed that night soon after we arrived. It was a twelve hour flight from London and 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. And American liquor. And American girls. 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) before coming across a bar that looked as though it might have some life. It was small but we could hear music playing and punters talking and so we quickly headed in. Inside it was dark and relatively empty, but at least the boys had drinks in their hands. And at least we were off the streets.
We told Dave and James about the 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. No detail left out. We were laying down a marker: This is how epic the trip has been so far and this is how epic it's going to continue to be. They lapped it up.
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 the company." Right on cue. We had no other plan laid out and James didn't hesitate, ‘You buying the first one?’ He chirped. 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 wearing away from Dave's face, it was incredible, the most natural of remedies. Ben and I were smug. First impressions, how misleading they can be sometimes!
At least that's what I thought. Little did I know the night was about to take a turn that none of us could ever see coming.
This sweet Californian girl was in fact 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. If you looked closely you could actually see the bags reforming under Dave's eyes.
The Essex girls were overdressed, overly loud and overly drunk: The Essex trifecta. I started to think the German guys were lying, they probably could speak English, they just chose not to. The girls told us about their trip, it was the opposite of ours, starting south in San Diego and finishing north in Seattle. They had arrived in San Francisco a couple days before us and by the looks of things had found this bar a couple of hours before us too.
When you travel half way round the world there are certain things you actively want to avoid in your pursuit of a 'genuine' experience, a situation like this was one of them. But we weren't going to be rude. And besides, they'd been to a load of places we were headed, so we could at least get an inside scoop.
They had just been to Yosemite National Park, which happened to be our next stop, and so I probed a little. I wanted to know the best trails to walk, the best mountains to hike. This girl couldn't help there, "The walk was well long and it was too hot." She said. "I sat on the tour bus for six hours whilst the others hiked." I wasn't sure if she was joking. "Worked out alright though," She said, "Because the bus had wifi." She wasn't joking.
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 proper high!" I’d overheard her say that once already. In fairness, he did look scared as he downed the rest of his drink. James was remaining well composed under serious interrogation from another of the girls, he's no stranger to Essex girls, and if anything, he's always welcomed them—one of his strange nuances. Dave was perhaps in the most trouble though. I looked to see another girl showing him all her photos of their trip so far. It was 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 there, fast. I turned my attention back to Smithy to initiate some kind of escape.
But he was gone.
The crafty sod was already one step ahead of me. He must have made up some excuse. Cigarette? Toilet? Bar? Who knows. There was only one thing I knew for certain: He wasn't coming back. He would be alone, wandering the streets of Tenderloin by now. But good luck to him, he was safer out there than we were in here.
The girl who had been 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'm not scared of heights." I told her.
I pictured Yosemite's highest peak and imagined myself plummeting from the top head first. Dave wasn't even half way through the holiday album yet and already his trip would be tainted.
My phone buzzed with a message from Smithy. I was right. He'd done a runner and was heading back 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, "We didn't swim in the sea because there was a jellyfish washed up on the beach." They told myself and James.
Dave pulled me to one side, blurry eyed, "Get us out of here!" There was desperation in his voice. The cheery Californian girl returned, "Two minutes guys and onto the next one!" I put on a smile and drank up. What could I say to her? What could have changed in ten minutes?
There was laughter from the group, James was doing a great job, still holding court, buying us time to think. A true team player.
At least that's what I thought.
There are things you regret in life, but quietly sliding out of that bar with Dave, leaving James alone with those Essex girls, headed to God knows where, isn't one of them. I looked at James closely, I listened to the laughter. This wasn't an act, it was genuine, he was actually enjoying this. He didn't deserve our help, nor did he want our help! And so we slid away, into the darkness.
A darkness strangely illuminating. As we walked back to the hostel I thought about first impressions, how unpredictable they are. I thought about James, how unpredictable he can be. The boys were going to be with us for three weeks, and tomorrow was another day, we'd show them the real America then I thought.
Back at the hostel we found Smithy seated at the bar. We joined him for a quick nightcap. It was only then that I looked out across the street and noticed for the first time the hotel opposite from us. It had big bold lettering on its exterior: HOTEL ESSEX.
We cheers'd, "To James!". At least it would be a story to tell. We all laughed.
But our laughter was cut short.
In crashed the girls, their noise filling the entire hostel--the hostel they too would be staying at in San Francisco. James was with them, smiling. Maybe he would have the last laugh.