This penultimate extract describes an evening in the curious, almost claustrophic town of Fresno, California. The photo is of the town’s utterly out of place cinema.
We arrived in Fresno as the sun was beginning to set, and settled into the rather basic and characterless motel that Justin had booked online. We were hungry, so aimed to eat at Fresno’s apparently famous Chicken Pie Shop. You can never go wrong with a chicken pie, or so we figured, and Justin’s guidebook raved about this particular place. It was more of a walk away from our motel than we could be bothered with after a long day, not least in the considerable late afternoon heat, so we opted for the relative decadence of a taxi.
The driver was a polite but quiet Indian man — by which I mean he was of south Asian, rather than First Nation, ethnicity, another nomenclatural anomaly the Americans should see to with haste. For what was rush hour Fresno seemed suspiciously quiet with few people or cars about, and the town lacked much in the way of interesting or iconic architecture. The guidebook had suggested the town was quite large, but the atmosphere instantly felt insular, as if the few townsfolk were all hiding behind net curtains.
One exception to this, lacking entirely in subtlety or aesthetic taste, was the local cinema, a bold art deco structure sitting at a crossroads and topped with a gaudy neon tower. A large, young crowd was gathered outside, the main attraction being, according to the signs, a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Fresno perhaps wasn’t quite what it first seemed after all.
Neither was the Chicken Pie Shop, sadly, which was singularly unimpressive. The restaurant, a spacious and soulless place, was nearly empty, the expanse of bland plastic tables and chairs making it feel more like a showroom for 1980s cafeteria furniture than a famous restaurant. The food — we both went for the eponymous chicken pie — was pleasant and filling but somewhat flavourless and certainly not warranting the showers of praise lavished upon it by Justin’s guidebook.
A better experience was to be found a couple of blocks away at the Sequoia Brewery, which we stumbled across and where we imbibed a couple of pints.
The brewery was an example of a curious paradox at the heart of American beer culture. Ask your average drinker in a British pub what they think of American beers and you’ll probably be given a blunt urological metaphor. But beneath that collection of heavily marketed and mass-produced chemical guff lies an astonishingly rich underbelly of very high quality beers. We’d heard and read in advance of our arrival in the USA that any reasonably-sized town would have its own micro-brewery producing a range of “craft beers”, or real ales as the British would call them. They were generally very good, drawing on the finest German, Belgian or Czech brewing techniques, yet they were rarely sold or heard of outside their local region let alone beyond the shores of the United States.
Craft beers, we came to realise over our trip, were one of America’s hidden gems. As with the place we found ourselves that evening, American microbreweries inevitably ran an adjacent pub and restaurant, the taps of course pumping mostly their own produce.
Like any country that produces good alcohol, America quite understandably keeps its best to itself. That’s very much the case with Scotland’s whisky industry. Rarely will you see the likes of Johnnie Walker in a discerning Scottish pub, while it’s the most common whisky you’ll tend to find abroad. While travelling through Eastern Europe with my friend Niall all those years previously we would regularly see Ballantine’s whisky being sold in bars. Neither of us had ever heard of it, and wondered whether it was some very rare, cutting edge or brand new whisky. After a few weeks of curiosity, we bought a bottle in a supermarket in the Kosovan capital Pristina and tucked into it in our drab hotel. It was quite spectacularly ordinary. It was only then we realised that the best whisky was naturally the stuff we could get at home. Why on earth would we waste it on the uneducated palates of foreigners when we could enjoy it for ourselves?
The same was true for the USA and its craft beers, and I’ve heard similar stories about European countries keeping their best wines for themselves. We had full plans for the next day so couldn’t afford a heavy night’s drinking, but the couple of pints we enjoyed in the bar were excellent, with all the richness of flavour that you’d get from a good European beer. A formulaic but proficient covers band was playing in the corner, the bar was busy, and even the staff were friendly; one barman bringing us a couple of beer mats when he noticed our table had none.
“Thanks,” I said, surprised at the gesture.
“You’re welcome,” replied the barman as he moved on to another table.
“Have you ever heard a barman in Scotland say ‘you’re welcome’?” I asked Justin. It was nice to be in the land of customer service for once. When we got up to leave later, the same barman spotted our intended departure and offered to phone us a taxi, which we gratefully accepted.
The taxi quickly turned up, and the chatty driver noticed our unfamiliar accents when we got in.
“Where you guys from?”
“Scotland,” I, sitting in the front, replied.
“What are your surnames?” he asked. It was an odd question, and he queried my admittedly unusual surname when I gave it. It turned out he had Scottish heritage himself, and so he was probably enquiring on the assumption that there would be a good chance we were related, or else he thought that for twenty-first century Scotland the clan system still bore some social importance. I took the opportunity of a talkative local to ask more about Fresno. It seemed quiet for its size, I observed.
“Oh, it gets wilder,” the driver said. “There’s actually lots of crime here. Mostly it’s the blacks,” he added to our quiet astonishment. “Then the Hispanics came. Now they’re planting lots of Asians here.” Taken aback, I changed the subject by commenting that it wasn’t obvious what made Fresno tick economically. Was there much industry in the town?
“There was, yes,” he replied. “It used to be farming country, but that’s in decline now. Other places around here are buying up all the water.” I was surprised he didn’t try to blame “the blacks” for drinking it all. He went on.
“There’s lots of drugs in Fresno too. You get a thousand dollars benefits a month if you’re on drugs, and three thousand dollars a month medication. That black guy Obama wants to spend billions more on drug addicts.”
Returning to “the blacks”, seemingly his favourite subject for a rant, he’d given us a reminder — as if we’d need it — of the forthcoming presidential election where Americans would, for the first time ever, have an African American candidate to consider.
We arrived back at the motel not a moment too soon, and when we got out, we laughed.
“All taxi drivers the world over are the same,” surmised Justin. “Have you ever been in a taxi where the driver went on a left-wing rant about how immigration rules need to be relaxed to plug vital gaps in the workforce?” I had to confess I had not. Though perhaps one exists somewhere in the world, smashing stereotypes with each fare.
It was a good job we hadn’t got our driver started on the gay and lesbian film festival.