It is a cool evening in San Francisco. Shar and I are seated by a picture window in the Pinecrest Diner, looking like potential subjects for Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Lonely yellow lights illuminate the table. Outside, a homeless man stands on the sidewalk wearing his blue comforter as a cape. As we eat, a man raps on the window and mouths “I love you” before careening off into the night. A potbellied businessman and his scruffily adorable English friend spot us in the window and enter the diner for the kind of intoxicated, spontaneous conversation that often transpires at one in the morning.
“How long are you here for?” asks the potbellied man, Curtis, self-appointed ambassador to San Francisco.
“We’re just here for the night.”
“You’re in San Francisco for one night and you’re spending it here?” A group of scantily clad women enter with young men wearing basketball shorts. The diner’s customer population has increased to eight.
Curtis has a point, though. This wasn’t part of the plan. The diner, along with our hostel, is located in the dodgy part of San Francisco, according to our cab driver. We weren’t supposed to have a cab driver, but that’s what happens when the car rental facilities are closed. And they wouldn’t have been closed if we had arrived on schedule.
We’d embarked on our little odyssey in Newark, happily entertaining the notion of heading west on a smooth, five-hour flight while sipping airport beers. As usual, weather conditions at Newark decided to deteriorate immediately after we boarded our flight. This isn’t surprising. Newark Airport has recently become a hangout for roving bands of angry thunderstorms bent on obstructing flight paths, namely mine. As Shar and I boarded the plane beneath mostly clear skies, a meteorological APB summoned all the thunderstorms in the surrounding areas and they hastily scampered in to form an obstinate wall between us and 33,000 feet.
Once airborne – and rerouted along a scenic detour that boasted blue views of glittery Lake Michigan and perfect patterns of concentric circles – the pilot announced that, in addition to our one-hour delay, we would now be stopping in Denver for a refuel. And so we sailed onward toward Colorado above a curdled grey cloudscape, bouncing sporadically through jarring bouts of turbulence.
In Colorado, it became evident that our delay would be even more prolonged. Originally scheduled to arrive in the Bay Area at 8 PM – a sensible hour for bar hopping and perhaps a chilly stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf – we would now be arriving, with luck, at 10:30 PM, placing us (post-baggage claim, car rental, hostel check-in, freshen-up) among the after-midnight, already-drunk crowds of people crawling the streets of San Fran.
We kept our spirits up, though, and after 45 minutes of idling on the tarmac in Denver, the pilot cheerily informed us that the refuel was nearly complete.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in a few moments we will be taking off for San Francisco – again.”
After landing, the rest of our chores should have gone smoothly: grab bag, AirTram to car rental, additional shuttle to Advantage Rent-a-Car, pleasant drive along amiable sidestreets into cozy San Francisco suburbs.
But no. Advantage, as it turns out, is a terrible misnomer; of all the rental companies available, Advantage provided little advantage over its competitors. One of two rental companies located off the airport premises, Advantage was only accessible by shuttle and closed at 10:30 PM, when our plane was just touching down on the runway. With the reservation promising no refunds, we trudged back to the airport to search for a taxi, an ordeal that mockingly required us to retrace our steps back to the terminal, Shar graciously lugging my brown, late ’70s wallpaper-patterned suitcase down many an escalator.
Shar’s spirit remained unbroken. As the AirTram wound its way back to the airport, Shar contentedly passed the time gazing out the window.
“This is fun,” she remarked. “We could do this all night instead.”
After a $55 cab ride into San Francisco – the latter part of the ride punctuated with travel warnings from our cab driver as he navigated past seedy strip clubs and questionable bars – we arrived at the Adelaide slightly enlivened at the prospect of a bed.
“You guys are actually staying at the hotel around the corner,” the man at reception informed us. We found this a bit strange, especially considering I’d spoken to him on the phone about ten minutes earlier when I called to confirm that our room was still available.
Begrudgingly, we followed his directions to a nearby hotel whose lobby might have doubled as a small marijuana farm. Behind us, a girl sobbed hysterically for a good five minutes before laughingly admitting that this was just part of her routine and she was, in fact, an actress.
Shar and I crammed ourselves into an elevator whose mechanisms were dubious at best. We arrived on the seventh floor in a bedroom that could have easily been featured in an episode of Full House – if the episode dealt with how to handle bedbugs and stained duvets. Here, we devoted several careful minutes to choosing a bed and barricading its worn sheets beneath towels, a blanket, and Shar’s one-person sleeping bag. We parted the curtains to peer out the window to the neon streets below. There, we noted a fire escape that looked as if it had been built for the purpose of granting burglars easy access to our bedroom.
Then came the chilly, empty-stomached trudge to the nearby diner where we planted ourselves like mannequins at the window, our best efforts to embrace what was supposed to be our sole night in San Francisco. We could only hope that the next day would be better.