Free friends

“Then come and stay with me” she offered with that frank, open hospitality that seems more often a characteristic of Americans. I accepted readily.

I was on a two month trip around the US, and my money had run out somewhere around day 10. Well practically run out. I’d just finished my degree, would be starting work in a month or two and meanwhile had totally underestimated my budget needs. Which is just as well I now realize or I might never have set off on the trip. Having very little money is an interesting challenge. It forces you to be inventive, to be highly selective, to prioritise ruthlessly.

What I did have for 2 more weeks was a one month flight pass. I’m not sure if they still exist, but the idea then was you could get any standby seat on any US domestic flight for a month. I had a general journey plan, but if I showed up at the airport and the flight to Los Angeles was fully booked, then I just looked to see what else was available and picked one. I was traveling alone so was splendidly free to choose. Far from being discomfited by this randomness I rather liked it. A flight east or west was a flight either way. It took me to a new place, it showed me some new views from the plane. It gave me wings I guess.

a plane s

The budget problem manifested during my first week in New York where cheap accommodation was in high demand. I moved daily from one YMCA to another, grabbing whatever spare bunk was going. Walking everywhere. Yet still way overspending. My bag hadn’t shown up at the airport so at least I had no luggage to cart about. I wore what I flew in. A white boiler suit – perfect for a frenzied city in July! At least my vest was reversible so I felt like I was getting changed each day.  Polka dots or navy stripes? Ringing the changes. I was somewhat relieved when my my luggage appeared though on day six.

So back to Katy, my neighbor on this flight to San Francisco. She was smart, funny and arty. She was great company and she was asking me, a woman with about $70 left for the next 3 or 4 weeks if I wanted to stay with her? Heck yes.

From my current perspective this lack of money is hard to identify with. Now I could rattle out a credit card or find a way to squeeze cash from somewhere. But this was early in my adult life and I didn’t have any resources. I had tried phoning home but my ever practical parents were unsympathetic and wouldn’t transfer any money. My choice, my consequences. Did they know what these were I wondered? The number of times I shared rooms with complete strangers? Probably not, and I never did face the challenge of explaining to them how a young woman can share a room with a complete  stranger and be completely safe. Of course I chose carefully and I was always fine. My unknown room mates were all 100% honorable.

At the time San Francisco was just waking up to the reality of AIDS. It was scarcely recognised and certainly not well understood, but hung wraithlike around corners of groovy Italian bars and quirky clothes shops. Years later when I read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City I recognized the streetscapes, the characters and the atmosphere I encountered there. Sunshine, sexiness, subversion. The Golden Gate Bridge, my first taste of pesto and my first experience of a nudist beach (which I survived apart from sunburn on those parts of me that had never before seen the sunshine). Decades before air b’n’b or couch surfing became established concepts I discovered the delight of the hospitality of strangers and they taught me to do the same myself. Janice in Hyannis, Katy in SF, the Rices in Mexicali, people in Bangkok and Rio and Kathmandu who have had the generosity to offer me a bed for no reason except human kindness, I salute you. This is how the world should work.

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