"Less Than 24 Hours"
By Michele Viglietti, La Spezia, Italy
A telephone rings deep in the night. I wake suddenly trying to remember where I am: a huge room, a couple of double beds---on which floor of the hotel I can't think, only that I am high in a tower of the Stardust Resort & Casino, Las Vegas. My hand crawls blindly for the phone that is going crazy. Marta rises with half opened eyes and stares at me quizzically, a bit worried. I find the damned receiver at last. “Sorry guys, but I’ve figured out that we’d better leave immediately if you want to be sure to catch that plane!” What the fuck Kenyon, yesterday you told us that we would meet in the hall at about 7:30 but now….well, what the fuck time is it, 3 o’clock.....or is it 4.....you’re pulling me out of bed without any notice....as if we are being chased out of town by the police! Marta looks concerned. “We have to get ready and leave at once, Kenyon, that asshole, miscalculated and made the wrong plans… we will miss the plane for San Francisco if we don’t get on our way immediately.”
We hurry and put our clothes on and pack the our luggage. We meet Kenyon and Gina in the corridor, each one with a sleeping child on their shoulder. “Michele please go in and get little Kenyon.” I lift the little one into my arms as he continues to sleep unperturbed---lucky him! As we walk through the never-ending corridor that leads to the elevators we cross paths with a distinct middle-aged black gentleman headed to his room, accompanied by a young prostitute dressed in a schoolgirl uniform, and he greets us with a cheek to cheek grin. But I think he is more astonished at seeing us carrying this quartet of sleeping babies in the heart of Sin City’s night than it is for us to stumble upon him and his occasional partner… and actually, thinking about it, I really can’t blame him!
We arrive at the reception desk and we pay for the rooms while the valet brings the car from the garage. I imagine the parking to be an underground reverse projection of the huge and labyrinthine beehive in which we had stayed for the last two days. Eventually, after some wait, from that cavernous hole emerges the never-ending nose of the old Mercury that Kenyon’s grandmother has lent us for this trip to Arizona and Nevada, as the Kennard family's European cars are entirely inadequate to host four adults and three kids over all that road.
We pack our luggage and ourselves into the car and we go. We’ll have to travel about 420 miles up Interstate 15 to Salt Lake City. With my still sleepy mind I try to calculate a conversion and after some struggle I realize that it must be something very close to 700 kilometers!!! Relating it in a more familiar scope I become aware that its something like starting from home in La Spezia and traveling nearly all the way down the length of Italy to Bari. Yes, Kenyon was completely right in anticipating that we must leave---but maybe he could have realize it a little bit earlier! Anyway, what's done is done, and now he’ll take us in time to the Salt Lake City airport.
But, even before we leave the city, our pilot stops at a drugstore on the outskirts of town. The little shop is open 24 hours a day and Kenyon is getting a supply of every kind of stimulant available: Red Bull, caffeine, Camel cigarettes and I don’t know what else (and I don't ask!). My friend takes them all as fast as he can while I, completely under the influence of Hollywood themes and iconography, am waiting for a mad robber with a shotgun to emerge out of the early morning darkness at any moment. But it must be our very lucky night because Shotgun Jack doesn’t show up and we are able to get back on the road unmolested.
As the sun begins to rise Kenyon wakes, thanks me and decides to get back at the wheel, feeling restored by the good sleep. I get back into the passenger seat at his side but I don’t want to sleep and I continue to stare at the world outside the windscreen which gradually starts to resume its deep colours. When the sun is quite high and at a distance Kenyon considers to be acceptable progress towards our destination we stop for breakfast in a roadside gasoline station and diner frequented by truckers. Lily, little Kenyon and Gianni all wake and immediately resume the never-ending activities of children and are more interested in playing than in the pancakes and maple syrup, the eggs and bacon, and all the other American breakfast delicacies that Flo the waitress is serving us---yes, Flo---because the waitress in a roadside joint like this just absolutely has to be named Flo!
With both our stomachs and the tank full we start our journey again....long ribbons of endless highway and slowly there’s no more desert around us.... eventually the waters of the Utah Lake and the Provo tenements appear.... and then the highway into Salt Lake City where Kenyon points out the colorful sign of a car shop owned by an ex-NBA players Karl Malone and John Stockton. We arrive at the Kennard home just in time to pack more of our luggage and Kenyon hands me a precious piece of paper, on it the phone number of a woman named Megan. She is one of the sisters of Kenyon's brotherly friend Camron and she lives in San Francisco, in the legendary Italian quarter of North Beach, home of the Beat Generation, and it has been arranged that Marta and I can stay at her home for a small fee. We just have to call her when we arrive in San Francisco.
We say goodbye to Gina and the kids and immediately jump back into the car headed to the airport. Kenyon is very kind until the last but now, sadly, it’s time to say goodbye to him, too. “Thank you so much wonderful friend, who knows if and when we could meet again.” At the Delta Airlines check-in desk I show the tickets that I had printed in Italy but I’m a bit worried: it’s the first time that I have used an online airline reservation and it seems almost unbelievable that those numbers on my crumpled sheet could get us on board on a plane on the other side of the world. But there is no problem and we soon find we even have time to feed ourselves with hamburgers and onion rings before boarding the flight.
After some hours into the clouds and some precious and restoring sleep, Mara and I land at Oakland International Airport. We collect our luggage and begin looking into transportation into San Fran. We decide the best choice is to ride the underground/underwater BART train that crosses the San Francisco Bay and runs out toward Daly City.....and Damn! I’m right back into a song again… but this time we’ve definitely changed time and genres as now we’re talking about Rancid.
The train is quick and we get off at the Financial District and are amazed to walk out of the station and find ourselves right there, in the very heart of San Francisco. The excitement of the city gives us new renewed strength and we feel like we are flying on glittering pavement as we head to North Beach. We find our way to Columbus Avenue and we slip into a Mexican-run hamburger restaurant for a bite to eat and a place to set down our luggage while we call Megan. I leave Marta and return to the street to look for a phone booth and I take out the phone card I had bought at Chicago O'Hare airport many days ago to call and inform Kenyon of our arrival time in Salt Lake City and with it in hand I dial our hostess’ home number----but no answer. I am not concerned, it is business hours and she is probably still at work. I try her mobile number and I get a voicemail to which I leave a message in what I hope is my best English----but before I can finish the phone card runs out. Shit! Well, we’ll wait. I go back to Marta at the restaurant and I tell her what happened. No problem, we’ll try again later.
After waiting for some time, I decide to cross Columbus Avenue and walk towards Chinatown in search of new phone card. I find one at the Chinese bazaar but only a super premium version designed for international calls requiring a shitload of credit… well, it could be useful for calling home in the next days. I go again to the phone booth and my results are the same as before…no answer! I am getting concerned.... now it's back-and-forth, restaurant to phone, with constantly increasing distress because evening is approaching and our Megan still isn’t home, nor is she answering her mobile. On one of my many trips to the phone I notice a hotel and think it is time to consider this option. I enter the reception area and inquire information about a room---but the guy behind the desk tells me that that they don’t have any rooms available and that it won’t be easy finding one in town that night due to some kind of a huge congress/fair taking place. Not the best news I could hear right now! It is getting dark and in desperation we’re considering the idea of asking the Chicano's at the restaurant to adopt us.
Suddenly---and with time on the card almost run out again----I have the idea to call Kenyon… I don’t know why exactly… maybe a tip of another contact in San Francisco, someone that could help, or maybe just to hear a friendly voice. I dial his number and he answers almost immediately. I tell him the situation; he asks me to repeat to him the telephone numbers---and what a brilliant idea! In nervous relief, we discover that he had written the wrong number on the note.....just who it was that got all those heartfelt messages that drained every last penny from my phone cards I will never know, but it definitely wasn't Megan!
I say goodbye to my friend with renewed hope and an entirely different tone from that at the beginning of our call and I immediately dial the correct number. “Hi, I’m Megan” …..NEVER had any words sounded sweeter to my ears! I soon learn that she's still at work but will be home in about a half an hour.....we are very near and she gives me directions and tells me that we'll find her there waiting for us on the Kearny stairway. I run triumphantly back to Marta and the mood and color is immediately lightened. We say goodbyes to our improvised Latino family at the hamburger stand and walk up Columbus, excitedly passing the City Lights Bookstore and making an appointment for ourselves there tomorrow. We arrive at the stairway, where, as told, we can see the thin silhouette of our blonde angel. Never have hugs and kisses of greeting been more sincere and heartfelt. Megan welcomes us into her wonderful North Beach wooden house and leads us to her own bedroom that she will abandon and give to us for our stay. The contrast from our impending homelessness to this lovely bed under a bow-window is striking. I make note our landlady's collection of one thousand elegant shoes---decollete high heels placed perfectly on dedicated shelves---and it makes us feel like we have entered into a West Coast version of Sex and the City. I ask Megan if it’s allowed to smoke a well-deserved cigarette; she takes us out to the fire escape where an astonishing view is opened to us of Columbus and the Transamerica Tower in all the night's splendor. “What do you think? Isn’t it time to go to bed now? ”