Visiting America wasn’t good for my health.
I was 19 years old, Freddy Laker was offering 99 pound flights to America and I booked seats on the first plane available. It was my first backpacking holiday and I was well prepared with my Lonely Planet “America on 5 dollars a day” travel guide – yes, it was a long time ago!
At the time I didn’t smoke. However, after a month in the country I was lighting up more than the Marlborough man. What caused this sudden need to inhale nicotine in such large quantities? Well I’ll tell you. In each city visited we almost always had a brush with the underbelly of America and the whole experience became very stressful.
Our first stop was New York. The plan was to catch the subway from the airport to Manhattan. We asked for directions but no one would talk to us. Obviously waving a map in the air and carrying a heavy backpack is a sure sign that you’re about to rob someone! As a consequence, we got off the train a couple of stops shy of the bridge and hiked across deserted parking lots, in a very dubious area, to get there. Later, ensconced in our hotel room listening to the news, we found out that not long after we’d walked across one of the car parks there’d been a dispute and a man had been beaten to death by an angry mob. He was killed because he’d nicked someone’s space. Scary stuff.
San Francisco did nothing to reassure us. Having booked into a hotel downtown, we discovered, in due course, that it doubled as a brothel. The first night I was lying in bed when an argument erupted on the street below our window, there was a gunshot then silence. I was too frightened to look. The next day we moved. That night we decided to go for a drink and listen to some live music. After managing to get passed the bouncers, once I’d reassured them that I wasn’t drinking (different laws) we had a good time. The next day the papers informed us that two drug dealers had been knee- capped mafia style outside the club we’d visited later the same night. Night time excursions suddenly became risky and unappealing.
Denver, however, was the most frightening place I stayed in. Here I switched from a having an occasional cigarette to calm my nerves person to a committed smoker. On arrival in the city centre we attempted to stop people to ask the way to the hostel. Surprise, surprise, no one was interested in helping, until two Puerto Rican boys stopped to give us directions. Being somewhat naive about American life and racial tension we set off only to find ourselves walking through the non-white ghetto area of the town. Soon we had a posse of young, Afro-Caribbean males following us up the road – silently. I was convinced that we weren’t getting out of there alive. In my all short and protected life I have never been so terrified. We agreed that going back was not an option, due to the fact that we’d have to confront the crowd, and decided to carry on. Trying to look nonchalant, (not an easy thing to do when you are bricking it) we continued to walk expecting at any moment to be knocked down to the floor and mugged or worse. Fortunately, sitting on a house porch, ahead of us, were two older gentlemen having a smoke. Agreeing that it was a good idea to talk to them and make it clear we were lost tourists we headed over to ask for directions. They watched us warily as we approached but as soon as I started to speak they became friendlier and pointed us in the right direction. None of us mentioned the group behind us, which had by now swelled to about 50 people and was watching the proceedings from a short distance away. Thanking them very politely we set off. One of the older gentlemen made a gesture with his hand and the group stayed where it was as we continue on towards the hostel. It turned out that the hostel was a short distance away and on the edge of the ghetto area. We booked in and thought that was the end of the matter. But that night there was a gang fight outside the hostel, petrol bombs were thrown and the house over the road was set on fire. After a sleepless night, we decided to move on a.s.a.p. and walked into town to buy a bus ticket. There was a trail of blood starting outside the hostel heading the way we were. I was beginning to dislike America a lot.
Seattle, although slightly more laid back, took a turn for the worse when we were told not to go walking in the woods bordering the town. Unable to adjust back into society, ex Viets had taken up residence there and were considered to be dangerous (Rambo had yet to be made). But as I found out, the streets were dangerous as well. I was minding my own business, sitting on a wall outside the telephone box, waiting for my friend to finish a call when a dishevelled looking man grabbed me by the arm.
“Come on darling, I’ll show you a good time” he said as he dragged me down the street.
I pulled back as hard as possible, waved frantically to my friend (which was pointless as he had his back turned and was completely oblivious) and screamed
“Let me go, I’m not a hooker”
“Course you are, you’re on the street” he said as if that explained it all.
”Get off me – I’m with him” I shouted, pointing at the telephone box. Which did nothing to clarify the situation!
“You’ll have a better time with me” my would be abductor replied.
I started to shout for help but this, being America, was not forthcoming. Finally my friend turned around, saw what was happening and sprinted out of the telephone box to my rescue.
By now I couldn’t wait to get back home and tell my family and friends how much I loathed America. Apart from the wonderful experiences already mentioned, I could tell them that I’d been mistaken for a drug dealer on several occasions, the Moonies had persistently tried to recruit me, a bus tour full of Americans had treated me like an alien, and one American, so desperate to prolong the amazing time we were having had stolen one of our passports. I was on the road to becoming a chain smoking wreak.
When I arrived back in England, my family were a little taken aback when I cried with relief. It didn’t take too long get over the experience. However, it took 26 years to get over the smoking.