9. Farewell Redding and California.
Once again I had an ‘This American Life’ jet-lagged sleep, rose early, packed the PT something-a-rather, said our goodbyes and left this wonderful, peaceful mountain home en route for Sacramento airport. Thanks guys, for a lovely stay.
And yep, it did not take us long to find our way into trouble. We needed to stop and put gas(44) in the car. I must say that through our whole trip, we were really blessed by the prices of gas. One of the reasons why Americans can afford to drive their gas-guzzling SUVs(45) is because the price of gas in America is so ridiculously cheap. And we arrived coincidentally at one of those rare times when gas was just plummeting in price. Every time we put gas in the car, gas was actually cheaper! Praise God.
But a warning, Americans, don’t talk to Europeans about petrol prices being expensive because for most of us, your version of expensive, is our version of cheap. Same with long-haul flights. Don’t jump off a ten-hour flight and tell a Kiwi that it was so long. Ten hours gets us halfway to London. I mean for goodness sake, a ten-hour flight is only about four movies, how short is that?
Anyhow back to the petrol. We pulled up in this gas station with a very limited supply of money. As per usual when filling up a car for the first time, we spent the first few minutes sitting in the car looking through the rear vision mirrors trying to work out what side of the car the petrol cap was on. I wish rental car companies could have a little button inside the car that we could push and magically open the little petrol cap door. This would make life heaps easier because you would have to be pretty special to not see it when stranded on a petrol station forecourt, craning your head in a vain, often useless, attempt to work out what side of the pump to drive to. We never worked it out, so took a fifty-fifty guess and got it right.
So I jumped out of the car, went around to the petrol cap and, spent a few minutes trying to work out how to take the cap off; it was stinkin’ child proof. Then I looked at the pump and the choices of petrol. None of them made any sense to me, but fortunately the price did my wallet dictated the cheapest. I read the label on the inside of the petrol cap door, it roughly correlated with the cheapest petrol option. So bingo, I put the sucker in the tank and squeezed. Nothing happened, so I squeezed again. Still nothing happened. So I picked up the nozzle and put it back in its cradle, waited an undetermined amount of seconds and took it out again, put it in my tank and squeezed. Nothing happened. Vaguely aware of time and a plane to catch, I climbed over the hose back to the sticker-infested pump and started looking for instructions. Ah ha, it was a pre-paid system! So I promptly waltzed my sad and sorry butt into the accompanying shop. There was no one behind the counter, so I craned my neck once again, with my eyes locking on to every packet of beef jerky. I love beef jerky and it would have gone so well with my coffee, but money was limited. Then I heard the ever pleasant American service industry voice coming out from the back of the shop saying ‘I will be there in a minute sir’. I couldn’t even see her, but she already had my gender sussed out. I really wanted to yell back at her ‘I have been in this store for at least two minutes, do you know that I could have you fired for not greeting me with a ‘good morning sir, nice day isn’t it?’ But instead I lied the same kind of lie that usually follows a ‘how are you?’ But of course rather than saying ‘good’, I said ‘ yeah no problem’.
I craned my neck once more and found a rather plump female Hispanic attendant trying to help a rather overweight white man choose what can of drink he needed to buy. I shook my head in effort to not allow this image to lodge itself in my thinking. ‘Get out of head image of fat man needing help to bye drink, I don’t want to think about what this means’. After an eternity of thinking through possible plane missing scenarios, he chose Mountain Dew. Alas the world was saved and America survived to fight another war.
Then lovely, smiley, roly-poly flashed her dentures at me and said ‘I am sorry about that sir, how can I help you?’ Well I put on my cutest, dumbest and only foreigner Kiwi accent and said ‘I am sorry, I have a rental car and this is the first time that I have ever had to put petrol in it. I want to fill it up and I have no idea how much money this is going to take. What should I do?’
Now I mentioned that short and pudgy was Hispanic, because I wanted to point out that she was a minority and possibly an immigrant. Minorities and especially immigrants understand twenty million times better just what it is like to be forced to ask just plain old stupid questions. Of course to me, the foreigner, this wasn’t a stupid question, but to your average local it was. Whenever I know I am asking stupid foreigner questions, I always look for the non-white immigrant. Non-white, because if I struck an Eastern European they are likely to correct my English and in the vulnerability of stupid foreigner questions, this is the last thing that I need. My life today would perhaps be a lot healthier if Kathmandu Outdoor Stores, New Zealand, would hire immigrants. The staff there are the most arrogant that I have met. But London, England would have to be pinnacle of we-do-not-suffer-foreigners-gladly cities. Never ask a white person for help in London, just don’t do it.
I know I am waffling, but it is strange. In my experiences in America you just don’t meet coloured people, you see them, they serve you, but you don’t meet them. Where-as in London, you don’t meet white English, you see them but you don’t meet them. Huh, just thinking out loud.
Back to petrol. Rolly-polly and pleasant, explained to me that I had to give her the money first and then go put the petrol in. I knew this, but it helped me lead up to my more important second question. So I said to her, ‘Yeah I understand this, but my problem is I want to fill up the tank, if I give you too little then I will have to try a second time and if I give you too much, then I loose money that I cannot afford to loose. The fact of the matter is that I simply have no idea how much money I will need to give you.’
Short and pudgy did not give me a demeaning European scowl or the Kiwi you-dumb-idiot-look, no she was not phased at all. She simply asked, ‘How much petrol is in your tank?’ I said ‘It’s almost empty’ and she said ‘It will probably cost about X amount of dollars’. In my extreme humbleness and operating from my vast knowledge of American petrol tanks and gas prices, I said ‘Oh no, it will be more than that’. She said, ‘Just leave your money here on the till, go fill up your tank and I will give you the change’. Dang, she hoodwinked me. Simple idea and simple solution, problem was for some reason my European culture had taught me not to trust such situations. Everything in me was wanting to demand that she give me a receipt so that I could prove in a court of law that she was looking after my money. The receipt should have her passport number, national ID number and signature on it. Oh yeah and a couple of rubber stamps moodily thumped onto to it as well. My head was spinning, I had a plane to catch, my coffee in the car was getting cold and the palms of my hands were starting to get clammy. What a dichotomy. Oh stink, this was a complicated situation and I didn’t have a phone to call the police should she do a runner. Then in a earth-shattering flash of brilliance, I remembered that I was not in Europe and that I am not a European, that this was not complicated, so I didn’t have to behave this way and could just trust her at her simple, practical and uncomplicated word. So my meltdown-avoiding reply was ‘Yeah, sure, okay’.
So I gave her most of the last of my money and went out and filled up my tank. And yeah, of course she was right, petrol really is cheap in America and it cost about half of what I expected to fill up the tank. I returned, thanked her very much, flashed her a sheepish apologetic smile and returned to the safety of my coffee and the car.
But why oh why did that man need help buying his Mountain Dew?
So we drove south with Northern California behind us. It was a pleasant enough, uneventful trip. America has a sign post for everything, so finding the Sacramento airport was easier than my frequent excursions through our flat searching for my ipod. In fact America is so well sign-posted that in Wisconsin I saw a sign that said ‘bird house’ and had an arrow pointing upwards. I followed the arrow and sure enough there was a bird house. I cannot imagine why I needed to know this, it wasn’t even a nice a bird house. Ah well.
We stopped for gas just near the airport. I had learnt from my last gas experience and volunteered that Sharon go in to pay. No problems. However the problems arose when we tried to return the rental car. There is a road by the airport with all the drop-off points for the different rental car companies. They have signs that say, ‘entry’ and ‘exit’. I am a Kiwi, this should be simple enough. So we drove past ‘Hertz exit’, Hertz entry’, ‘Avis exit’ Avis entry’, ‘Dollar exit’. ‘Okay Sharon the next one is us’. My brain is thinking all we gotta do is make one left turn and we are not late late for our plane. I saw the sign coming, ‘Dollar entry’. I slowed down, I indicated, I started to turn and then suddenly my eyes spied these huge gigantic cast iron teeth sticking up from the entry drive, just waiting to swallow up useless Kiwis in PT something a rathers. I mean that woman who rented me these wheels, she smiled, she nodded, she was very pleasant, she told me heaps of stuff that I neither understood nor cared about. But why the hang did she not warn me that returning the car was synonymous with our deaths? Was she going to write to my mother ‘Sorry mam, your son hired one of our cars so we had to kill him’? And for stinks sake, ain’t this the USA, over-regulated and with sign posts that even point to pathetic stupid bird houses? Couldn’t they have reworded the sign to read something like ‘Dollar Rental Car entry. But be warned, turning left will kill you’?
My demeanour was positively rustled by the whole experience and there was probably a bead of sweat flowing through my golden locks. We drove on, I looked at Sharon, Sharon looked at me and one of us said ‘What was that?’ I am not stupid, I have watched ‘Reality TV’. I know that in California when the police are chasing the bad guys, they zoom ahead of them and put these sharks teeth on the road. So the baddies who are clearly not as clever as I am, actually drive over them. Then their tyres explode, their cars flip over in the air and explode, killing everyone while behind them all the police cars crash into each other. Oh shoot is that ‘Reality TV’ or unreal Hollywood? Never mind, you get the picture.
So we pulled over did a U turn and very cautiously drove back. We read the signs, nothing was warning us of death, so we very slowly, I mean painfully slowly, turned right. And there they were, these ginormously huge cast iron shark’s teeth, just there smiling at us. This is America, but there was not one stinkin’ sign warning us of our impending death, let alone how the hang we were supposed to get over them. There were no buttons to push, no little man speaking service-industry smiley instructions. So we did what any sane human being would do, we wrote farewell letters to our parents and I wrote another farewell letter to our ’24’ DVD collection. No, just kidding! Very slowly, fearfully and very carefully, we started driving up the shark’s teeth. It was like magic, our tyres didn’t pop, our car didn’t flip and explode, the killer shark’s teeth simply retracted like kitten’s paws. It was another first for me and quite a surreal experience. Suddenly we were in the confines of the Dollar compound. I know these sharks’ teeth were there to stop theft but what I cannot believe is that no person or sign, considered this piece of information useless enough to give to us. I mean this is the American service industry, no piece of information is too trivial not to warrant some smiley teenager to gaggle it out at you. Oh well, terror aside and in the security that I will watch ’24’ again, we returned the car, with a mere flick of the car keys, to some smiley, happy, gaggling teenager.
We took the five minute bus journey to the lovely Sacramento airport and checked in. Our host had gracefully given us lunch. Sharon had saved money for coffee, so she found a sunny spot to lap up the luxury. I on the other hand, plugged in and spent an hour entering in collected addresses to my email ‘Open Mike night’ address book.
Well, time for another amazing SouthWest experience. As instructed by the khaki-short-wearing host, we lined up in numerical order and boarded the plane. We were en route to Boise, via Portland. Portland is a city that I have always wanted to visit, I have bused through it once and now was about to fly through it. It seems to me to be an industrial city. I really like Kaunas,(46) Lithuania and Glasgow(47), Scotland two other industrial cities. I don’t know how to explain it, but the people of Kaunas and Glasgow are rough and ready. And at least in Glasgow there seems to be no bottom to their hearts, they always have something more to offer. I was sold on Kaunas one night when two men in a bus stop came to throwing punches in competition for Sharon.
But alas for this visit at least, Portland was just another boring airport with the same shops selling the same over priced stuff. The only notable exception being that the souvenirs didn’t say Sacramento, but Portland. And the sports branding had changed, but as it was neither rugby, the Packers or curling I didn’t care.
Anyhow, back to SouthWest. We were just two more monkeys on the flight. We know this because they kept feeding us peanuts. By this stage I was starting to get confident with America’s ever friendly and persistently over-informative, smiling, gaggling service industry. It was time to play. As per usual I requested cranberry juice with not too much ice. When it arrived the bubbly, smiling host asked if she had given me enough ice. I cannot remember the exact details, but my reply was something like ‘I thought that there were two pieces too many and would it be possible to order some steak to go with it?’ Oh we clowned around with the happy, almost false joy of two strangers who needed anything to keep the boredom of serving or being served drinks on a plane at bay. Sharon’s relief at me having someone else to tease was soon abated when the hostess turned her humour towards her. No doubt Sharon flashed her one of her terrified, ‘leave me out of this foolishness’ looks. It was fun and passed the time. The air hostess returned five minutes later with a picture of steak and wine that she had carefully ripped out of the in-flight magazine and joyfully and jokingly presented it to me. Gosh she really was bored! So we clowned around a bit more and Sharon was notably left out of the boredom relief appeal.
We also talked to Jane public citizen sitting beside us. She was a novelty because she was happily using the first ever ‘BlackBerry’ that we had seen. If you listen to the BBC you would think that all Americans had these things extending quite naturally from their fingers and ears. This was a point of great entertainment to us and of course, as soon as we landed the darn thing rung. She answered it with seemingly the only part of her life story that she hadn’t already told us and that was her name.
So out of numerical order, we all lined up and got off the plane. We had been ten minutes in the boredom of the concourse, when I noticed that there was something wrong with my head. Its ultra sensitive molecules were picking up a tad too much air-conditioning. Dang, I had left my hat on the plane. So I high-tailed it back up the moving walk-ways to our previous gate. People were warming up for their numerical-plane-boarding-dance. There were no khaki-shorted flight attendants near by, no security, so I simply waltzed down the air bridge and onto the plane. I was met by the destroyer of the in-flight magazine herself. Her first words were ‘Did you come back for more steak?’ We laughed and I replied ‘Well no actually I think I left my hat behind.’ Of course neither of us could actually remember where I was sitting. The other cabin crew staff found this rather amusing and I think welcomed the adventure to relieve their boredom. Eventually I found it and proceeded to leave but the magazine mutilator stopped me at the door and asked me ‘If I enjoyed the wine’. Of course she was referring to the wine in the stolen picture. I said ‘Yeah, I enjoy a glass red but prefer Spanish or French.’ This sparked off an almost ten-minute conversation about Northern American wines. Like an intelligent conversation, like with no joking. By the time I returned to the concourse the numerical-plane-boarding-dance was moving into the locomotion phase and was about to train its way past the khaki clad cheerleaders, down the air-bridge onto the plane. Poor Sharon was a little worried, but alas I had not been hijacked.
Well the rest of the journey must have been pretty boring because I cannot remember the cranberry juice, the ice, the khaki or the flight. However I did form a conclusion. I think that there is an outside chance that just maybe some of these flight attendants actually enjoy their work. Like how weird is that? What sort of country actually fosters an environment that allows people to enjoy their work?
So here we are in Boise, Idaho, and still ignorant to the whys and hows of the Mountain Dew question.
Don’t miss chapter 10, I don’t know what it will be about yet, but it will be in the ‘pumpkin state of Idaho.
For past chapters click here. Or look on the side panel.
You may have noticed some bracketed numbers in this chapter. These numbers correspond with explanations and definitions that are in an accompanying glossary. To read the glossary you will need to by the yet to be released book. Sorry 🙁
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