What to do in the USA, by playwright Roger Hall

by Roger Hall / 06 September, 2017
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Waikiki Beach. Photo/Getty Images

From Hawaii to NYC and stops in between, Roger Hall and his wife, Dianne, get an update on American culture. 

Dianne and I have been travellers for 48 years. We have visited the US many times, including taking our children out of school to tour that country for more than a year. During that time we lived in Washington, DC, for about four months, and we had another lengthy stay there when I was a Fulbright Fellow teaching at Georgetown. On a six-week trip this time last year, we weren’t going anywhere new. We were revisiting and catching up with old friends in Honolulu, San Francisco, the capital, New York and Los Angeles.

Was this to be a trip too many?

Hello Honolulu

When we first went to Waikiki in the early 1970s, we were enticed with free gifts to attend timeshare sales pitches. We were given a day’s car rental. The salesman predicted that before long, hotel rooms would cost $100 a night. Everyone fell off their chairs laughing.

On this visit, we had to pay US$150 a night and on TV there were commercials offering pre-owned timeshares at huge discounts.

Pearl Harbor is still a must, from the USS Arizona, which lost 1177 men in the attack that brought the US into World War II, to the USS Missouri, where terms of settlement were signed by the Japanese and the Allies. (Quiz question: which New Zealander signed? Air Vice Marshal Leonard Isitt.)

Kalakaua Ave is full of designer shops. Someone described it as “Rodeo Drive with a beach”. It’s hard to think of any famous label that isn’t there. There is even a shop with outfits for dogs. Smartly dressed Japanese tourists contrast with Western casual. Also on the avenue is the Waikiki Gun Club. A flyer tells us that $35 buys you 26 shots with three different guns (revolver, pistol and rifle); $130 gets you “The Sniper”: 50 shots from five guns including an AK-47.

It’s also the location of a Cheesecake Factory. This restaurant chain features cheesecake as the only dessert, but it has a huge selection of excellent mains at reasonable prices. No wonder people were cheerfully waiting half an hour or more to get in.

Servings were so big that we split our mains, making the place even better value. If you’ve never been to one, this will be the best travel tip you’ll get for next time you go to US. There are branches everywhere.

A friend told us we had to go to Ala Moana Center: 220,000sq m and 330 shops; the seventh-biggest shopping centre in the US. The place is a shrine. Since I hope on my tombstone it will say “He never visited the Albany Mall”, this was not a must for me. Or for Dianne, especially, but she wanted some high-waist slacks and our friend said Nordstrom’s would be bound to have them. But there were none to be had, not even for ready money.

The best experience of all our visits: snorkelling in Hanauma Bay (closed Tuesdays).

Observations:

  • The Hawaiian state flag has a Union Jack on it.
  • T-shirt slogan: “Tattooed and employed.”
  • If you want a plastic bag with your groceries, you have to pay for it. New Zealand, take note.
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Photo/Getty Images

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Photo/Getty Images

In San Fran, bring an iPhone

San Francisco is sparkling, feisty and varied and people seem razor-sharp and snazzy. Its shopping and arts scene are great, and the roller-coaster topography ensures visual stimulation everywhere. The architecture is lively and the city gets better with every visit.

We did a couple of downtown walks using badly photocopied pages from guide books borrowed from the library and spent most of the time peering at them, turning them this way and that, asking strangers for help and, after a while, saying WTF and having a coffee somewhere. Yes, now we realise we should have used our iPhone.

We went to Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest-running revue in the world. It’s a 90-minute non-stop medley of popular songs with satirical lyrics made relevant or topical. It’s funny and clever; saucy but never crude. Of course, all the presidential candidates were part of the show. Each cast member must have had 20 costume changes, plus wigs and hats. Oh those hats! Book well in advance.

Book in advance for Alcatraz too. It was all that you’d expect, but none the worse for that, with the bonus of great views of the city from the island.

Why did the prisoners get hot showers? So they wouldn’t get inured to cold water, which might have helped them cope with a swim in the icy bay if they had tried to escape. Recorded comments told us that no one liked the prisoner known as the Birdman of Alcatraz (Robert Stroud), whereas Machine Gun Kelly (George Kelly Barnes) was quite a nice man despite his reputation.

I’d forgotten that after the prisoners left Alcatraz in 1963, there were several occupations by Native Americans over the years, lasting from a few hours to 19 months. They wanted to buy the island back from the Government but at the same price they were paid for it: 47 cents an acre.

We stayed at the Chancellor Hotel, quaintly old-fashioned but perfectly located on Union Square. The trolley cars clang past the front door and across the square is a Cheesecake Factory.

San Francisco’s City Hall, like town halls everywhere, tells you a lot about the place it was built for. But I was surprised that I had to ask our guide where to find the bust of Harvey Milk, California’s first gay elected politician who was shot dead in his office in 1978. She had overlooked mentioning it.

Get this: the building’s architect designed a typeface exclusively for City Hall and it’s still in use.

A new experience for us was walking across Golden Gate Bridge, reached by a ferry to Sausalito, then a bus (hourly) that takes you to within about a 10-minute walk to the bridge.

I’d imagined there would be just a few other hardy souls trudging across. But on this fine Saturday, it was jammed. It took about 40 minutes at a good clip. We took a lot of clothing as the weather can change quickly and the notorious fog can roll in. As Mark Twain said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.”

Observations:

  • Cable cars are fun to look at but overrated as a way of transport. The cabman shouts at you to tell you where to sit, the fare is $7 and you get thrown around.
  • A birthday party in a park featured a piñata – an effigy of Donald Trump. The mother told us she’d bought it from a Mexican shop – they’d sold 6000 of them.
  • As we were queuing for the Sausalito ferry, first to get our tickets and then waiting patiently for the gates to open so we could board, a woman and her family slid past on the outside. Being British, we accused her of queue-jumping and told her to get back in line. “We Americans ‘flow’,” she said, and indeed, by the time the gates opened, people were flowing on either side of us. By the end of our time in the US, we were flowing too.

Oh. You’ll be pleased to know D got the slacks she wanted at the Macy’s sale!

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC. Photo/Getty Images

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC. Photo/Getty Images

Washington, DC: been there, done that

Washington has lost its magic – for us, anyway. We’ve been here too often. There is little we haven’t seen several times. But more than that, the Metro is going through long-overdue maintenance, so service was sometimes unreliable; the Mall was being renovated; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden had no sculptures; and one wing of the National Gallery of Art was closed, as was the Smithsonian’s Freer.

Despite all that, if you’re into arts and museums, plus seeing all the great buildings and historical monuments, DC still rates as the best place in the US to spend a week.

Observations:

  • Bumper sticker: “Republicans love you until you are born.”
  • Museums and galleries are fighting a war against backpacks. People are getting tired of being buffeted by them when a wearer brushes past. Many places ask you to wear them on your chest. On the Metro, a row broke out when one errant passenger was roundly told off for not doing so.
Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Photo/Getty Images

Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Photo/Getty Images

Philly tugs the heart strings

En route to New York, we stopped in Philadelphia to see the Barnes Foundation art collection, recently rehoused near the city centre.

Friends had booked us into a Days Inn, which was all that was available (they had to stay there too). Our room had no windows, and on the street, homeless people lay in doorways, yet it cost more than $400 a night. That’s what happens when there’s a convention of 17,000 architects in town.

The second night we were there, I lay awake with faint pains in one arm. Uh-oh. Heart attack clearly on the way. I was going to die in a squalid room and people back home would think I’d been a cheapskate.

We caught the train from Philadelphia to New York. For the first time we used a redcap (porter). The porter not only carries your cases, but also gets you onto the train before the general boarding call for passengers to swarm aboard and fight for seats. Opinions vary on how much you tip, but $5 a bag seems about right and is worth it.

New York City’s High Line park, once a rail line. Photo/Getty Images

New York City’s High Line park, once a rail line. Photo/Getty Images

On a high in New York

New for us was the High Line, a linear park built where an elevated rail line used to run on the west side of Manhattan. It had been unused for years and was doomed to be torn down, but two young men urged that it be turned into a public space.

It is now described as an aerial greenway; it is 2.3km long and about 20m wide, with broader areas for sunbathing, viewing platforms and food stalls. There are lawns, plants and sculptures along the way and interesting views. No wonder it attracts 13,000 visitors a day.

We made two side trips from New York City (both about two hours’ drive) to Franklin Roosevelt’s home, library and museum and to the famous Storm King Art Center, 200ha in upstate New York. There you can walk, hire a bike (probably the best way) or take a shuttle, which, in view of the heat, we did. Sculptures by Alexander Calder, David Smith, Henry Moore and many others are sited there, but our favourite was an Andy Goldsworthy stone wall that wove its way between trees.

I have to say that Gibbs Farm on Kaipara Harbour and John and Jo Gow’s Connells Bay Sculpture Park on Waiheke Island are considerably better. Yet an amazing number of Kiwis haven’t heard of them.

New York’s subway almost inevitably imposes a cruel initiation ceremony on you, whether it’s your first time or a reintroduction: noise, heat, lack of information, impossible-to-hear announcements and badly designed maps conspire to test you.

Observations:

  • Throughout the US, you are now expected to tip 15-20%. Your bill includes the calculations.
LA’s Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo/Getty Images

LA’s Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo/Getty Images

A final fling in Los Angeles

We’d never stayed in downtown Los Angeles, so this time we did. Dianne found Miyako online, a Japanese hotel in a handy location at reasonable price. (With Japanese bidet-style toilet – I’m now a fan.)

A walk away was the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. We didn’t attend a concert, alas, but had an audio tour of the building, without seeing inside the performance hall. Grand Central Market, where we went for lunch, took some finding. It has dozens of food stalls, and we lunched at the much-recommended Eggslut (eggs with everything).

Then to the Broad, a recently opened art gallery of one couple’s collection of contemporary art. “Too much high-end trash”, reckons the Washington Post. Trash or not, there is always a long queue of people who haven’t booked a month in advance.

Queuing for an hour in the heat? Too much for us, so I asked a woman at the door when the queue would be at its shortest. She took pity on our advanced years and let us in. It was great – but we were glad we hadn’t stood waiting for an hour.

Our final fling: a guided tour of movie stars’ homes, Rodeo Drive and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. All these years and we’d never done it. Well, forget the Walk of Fame. The 2500 stars on the sidewalk debase its own currency so much it’s hardly worth a visit. Most of the biggest stars have long fled the area. When Vinnie Jones is considered worthy of inclusion, things have come to a pretty pass.

But it was fun cruising up Mulholland Drive in an open bus with an enthusiastic guide to see where Carrie Fisher, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Paris Hilton live (or, in Carrie’s case, used to). Later, we passed Donald Trump’s house. He happened to be in residence, which was evident from the police presence.

I’d always been deeply cynical of the worth of Rodeo Drive. Well, I had to eat my words. I was impressed: Kalakaua Ave without a beach. Then our guide squealed with delight. Walking past us was …? Was …? Well, some male TV star whom she couldn’t name right that instant but she knew he was hot. He gave us all a nice smile.

A quiet final day. We visited the Japanese-American museum, which is close to the Miyako. It has a fine and moving permanent exhibition of the shocking Japanese internment during World War II. Pearl Harbor at the beginning of the trip to this: it seemed to complete the circle.

This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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