U.S.A. REPORT, 1983

by Bruce Barnes

The first thing one sees after clearing customs is a plaque with the following in English and Spanish:

The first meal I bought in the USA was a $3.45 beef sandwich. "Meal" is the operative word. The sandwich was big, and included separately packaged cheese and sauerkraut. Americans buying sandwiches in Australia will be in for a bit of a jolt.

Our t.v. runs on the PAL system, the American on the NTSC system. I've heard it said that NTSC stands for "Never the Same Colour." Watching the sky in the background shunt between blue and purple, this gets really believable.

The first time I checked in at a hotel I nearly had to combat the bellperson (sic) physically to take my own suitcase to my room. As it was, I lost. The bloke still didn't get his tip – for one thing the book with such information as customary tipping rates was still in my suitcase. (On tipping: In a country where this absurd practice is regarded as normal I felt lousy if I didn't leave a tip where one was expected. When I did leave a tip, I felt lousy because it still seemed like throwing money away.)

An American once explained the custom of tipping in this way "If you don't like the service, you leave a small tip. Leaving no tip at all is not any good -- they'll just assume you forgot about it."

One of the first things I did in the USA was go to Disneyland – something I'd always wanted to do since the age of 12 or so. I went to all the rides and attractions I'd heard about back then – except for the ones which weren't there anymore. The House of the Future, for instance, was torn down in the 1960s.

Cinema centres are a relatively new idea in the US. Generally speaking, cinemas are scattered far and wide. Such centres as there are are unlikely to have such luxuries as 70mm and dolby stereo. Staff at any movie house – no matter how many cinemas are inside – consist of one ticket seller and one ticket ripper-upper. Once inside you find your own cinema and own seat. There are no ads and no associate feature. Well, usually no ads. The first movie I went to began with Dudley Moore plugging a charity, and showing pictures of previous big-name charity pluggers. Then the lights came on and the ticket ripper-upper (I can't call him an usher, because he never ushed) came around with a tin cup, taking up a collection. He must have gone the rounds of each cinema in the house, because the feature did not start until he had been and gone, by which time the movie was 20 minutes late.

The best thing about Universal City was Conan Live. This is a sword and sorcery live action play of about 20 minutes, with incredible special effects and a great set. The worst thing about Universal City was the tropical rainstorm exhibit. This consists of water spraying down the outside length of a veranda, thus creating the illusion of rain. So help me!

Wherever I went in the USA the weather was screwed up. The heat in Los Angeles was not unusual, but the humidity was. I landed in Houston the day after a hurricane went through. San Francisco trotted out its hottest day in recorded history for me.

Las Vegas is the cheapest place in the USA, so long as you don't gamble. There are specials to be had, like breakfast for 99 cents (so long as you buy it between midnight and 6 am) or a free coke with a 65 cent hot dog.

You have no idea of the size of the Grand Canyon – it is far too immense to fit into a camera lens. I flew through it. It consists of an immensely huge canyon situated inside a far bigger one. I flew through it with an airline I later found to be notorious for having one crash per year. After the crash – and not before – they would give all their other planes a thorough maintenance. I was told that they had already had their prang for 1983, so I was all right.

The part of the Grand Canyon you see the photographs of, and where all the tourist buses go, is just an insignificant bit of the whole thing.

Me at the Grand Canyon. See? I was really there.

One of the things I miss most about the USA is the bottomless cup of coffee. By that I mean you only pay for one cup, and refills are free. (I have seen one Australian restaurant with this custom. It was able to afford it by acknowledging your request for more coffee, but not ever getting around to giving you one.)

One of the things I miss least is the water. It tastes universally of chlorine. Americans are oblivious to the swimming pool flavour. (Even so one restaurant I went to supplied specially imported Olympic-Approved spring water. It was the most expensive restaurant I've been to in my life!)

Lights are turned on by flicking the switch upwards. Down is off.

When checking in at the convention hotel, we were not issued room keys. What we were given instead were key-cards. After checkout the hotel would change the coding of the door, thus reducing risk of room break-ins.

They have Minties in the USA, under the name of "salt water taffy."

Constellation was spread over several hotels and a complete convention centre. Due to the vast numbers of attendees even this was barely enough.

As is the tendency with worldcons there was simultaneous programming. This means that you are going to miss out on a number of items you want to see, because you can only go to one at a time. If you plan to alternate between two programs until you settle on the one you like best, you find this not to be easy when the rooms are three city blocks apart.

The Convention Centre had elevated walkways to nearby hotels, offices, and shops. Very futuristic. Travelling the correct route, I could get to my hotel (three blocks distant) without crossing a single street at road level.

I was one of the volunteers who helped set up the Muppet exhibition. The Muppets were displayed on the highest floor of the convention centre. The owners of the centre refused to turn on the air conditioning until the con had actually begun, so us hardy volunteers braved heat-stroke while Boston stewed in record temperatures. And when the lower floors appreciated a lessening of heat during a cool change, we at the top discovered a basic law of physics – heat rises. We kept on cooking. In appreciation for our assistance, the Muppet organisers showed their appreciation for our efforts by offering a small monetary remuneration, (IE Money). They never came through with it, but I suppose it's the thought that counts.

The Russians shot down a Korean passenger airline near the beginning of the con. It took about three days or more for the news to filter through to the average Constellation attendee, worldcons being what they are.

After joining Constellation I received exactly one Progress Report through the mail – ever. People were supposed to bring the final progress report with them to registration. Few did. I saw one of those final progress reports. It was a single sheet affair that began with the words "By now you should have received your final progress report...." I asked how come it said this, and was advised it was someone's unsuccessful attempt at an in-joke. (Some reference to an earlier progress report I was never sent, I believe.)

One panel on surviving a nuclear war began with Jerry Pournelle suggesting that one be off Earth and on an L5. The rest of the panel was concerned entirely with space settlements. At one stage someone tried to return the discussion to the original topic. He didn't succeed.

The main auditoriums were so huge that one needed a telescope to see the speaker up at the front. As an aid to vision a large screen of light bulbs was set up to one side. With the aid of a tv camera the screen became a television set, with each light bulb acting the part of a phosphor dot. (A lot like the big screen Melbourne had in Swanston Street, only in colour.) The result was that you could go to hear John Brunner's GOH speech live, and watch it on television...live.

Chuck Yeager gave a talk on how he became the first man to break the sound barrier. This was backed up with some clips from the movie The Right Stuff. The clips lasted about thirty seconds, but the movie still looks good. Yeager has a small part in the movie as the owner of a pub. He thus gets to serve himself. Recalling a British movie called The Sound Barrier – in which aircraft controls have reverse effect near Mach 1 and Americans are ignored – I later asked Yeager if he also remembered it. He did. Not very fondly either. The Americans beat the British to the sound barrier by six years, and controls do not reverse at sound-speed.

The USA has never seen Blake’s Seven, although fans are trying their best. Constellation had one B7 slide show, and a displayed photocopy of the following letter: "Dear Sir, We hear rumours that you are having a world science fiction convention in Baltimore over the Labor Day weekend. Please be advised that it is against the laws of the U.S.A. and the B.B.C. rights, and against all rights that we own, for you to run cassettes of either Doctor Who or Blake's Seven at the convention. We are the exclusive distributors for the B.B.C. in this country. Please understand that we will take all legal means that we have, including calling in the F.B.I. to confiscate cassettes and will hold you responsible for damages if you attempt to screen any of these B.B.C. programs. Sincerely, Wyn Nathan, WN/CA C.C. B. Parkins BBC." Painting on a bulding in Baltimore

Dune is still in the process of being filmed. Saw a brief clip involving the Duke zipping around in a flying chair. (He is so incredibly fat he has to fly everywhere.) In full makeup and padding the actor playing him has to be wheeled from set to set.

Saw a series of stills from the making of Greystoke – the definitive Tarzan movie. One of the major differences between book and film is that Tarzan meets Jane in England, not Africa. This was triggered – I believe – by a desire to avoid comparison with the Bo Derek movie.

One of the discoveries I made at the con was Japanese animation. It is not widely realised that the supposed Star Wars rip-off, Star Blazers, was actually made before Lucas's movie.

The Japanese are quite up-to-date – one story I saw involved a skyhook, (or orbital tower, or skystalk, or space elevator, or whatever you want to call it.)

Complimentary tickets were given out for the first ever screening of Brainstorm. The theatre was about ten miles away (damned unmetricated Americans), and ticket holders had to go to it by bus.

Convention accommodation was widely spread. There was a perpetual free bus service between them and the con centre.

In The U.S.A. all prices quoted are "without tax". (EG "This Item $5.99, Plus Tax.") Prices are never quoted with tax included -- it makes things sound cheaper that way. One of my favourite restaurants in the USA was one in Baltimore that had a lunchtime special of all you could eat for $2.99 (plus tax). In addition you could pay an extra 60 cents for all you could drink. Smorgasbord self service, with a good selection. I ate there a lot.

Seen in a shop window in Chinatown, San Francisco: a jar of mouse wine. (IE, wine with dead mice floating in it.) I think it was quite genuine.

I was able to get a bargain rate ticket to the USA for over $1600, round trip. While over there I discovered that an American can get a round trip to Australia for about $900!

In New York I had occasion to use a post office. I entered and joined a queue of over 20 people to one of the two postal clerks. By the time I reached the window, each queue had grown to over 30. The clerk sat behind a double sheet of glass. For him to weigh a parcel involved his remotely unlocking a glass panel on my side, my pushing the parcel through and closing the panel, and his opening a second panel on his side. At first I thought all this business with the partitions was to protect the postal staff from the legendary New York criminals. I can tell you it is not. The glass is there to prevent customers hurdling the counter and strangling the postal clerks in a fit of righteous anger.

New York fandom has the alarming habit of singing "God Save the Queen" at the stroke of midnight. They have invented an extra verse to go with it – something to the effect of the Queen being out very late, coming back to find the King waiting up for her, God Save the Queen. Nobody seems to know why they do this. I know it was not an attempt to offend a visiting Australian (IE me) – as they took great pains to warn me in advance. I suspect it began as an attempt to offend visiting Canadian fen.

I was surprised to find that the New York fans I met all seemed to know the Monty Python "Bruce" sketch off by heart. They were surprised to find that I did.

Before leaving Australia I received a circular from Constellation asking me if I would mind appearing on a panel or give a talk, and if so about what? I mentioned I would like to talk about Australian SF on film, and why I say it has a bleak future. I heard no more from them until two months after I had come back. I received a card with this message:

"Dear Mr Barnes
Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to our programming questionnaire. We're delighted you've agreed to be on CONSTELLATION's program! We're looking forward to an excellent program! We'll be getting back to you soon with your proposed schedule. Thanks again for your assistance...."

The card was accompanied by a "postage owing" ticket from Australia Post, for 31 cents. I have not yet received the proposed schedule.

Bruce Barnes
- 1983 -     

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