Friday, October 26, 2007

Out of print

Of the many little things I miss about life in the UK, one of the most difficult to come to terms with has been newspapers. Not that I expect to find the Sunday Post on sale at my corner store (the fact I've found a pub willing to show Scottish football matches is miracle enough), but it would be nice, on occasion, to get my hands on a daily with a horizon broader than the one I can see with my own eyes.

Unfortunately, the only newspaper for sale in almost every small store near my house is the local San Francisco Chronicle. Why is it that in a country with around 1,500 different daily newspapers, I am so often offered a choice of just one?

The answer is that the US newspaper market is very localised. The best-selling USA Today is the only truly national title, and its daily circulation of 2.5 million is around 500,000 copies less than that of Britain's biggest tabloid, The Sun.

Indeed, just four US newspapers manage an average circulation of over a million (the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times being the others), which is just one more than the UK's total (the aforementioned Sun, the similarly downmarket Daily Mirror, and the beneath-contempt Daily Mail). This is despite the fact that Britain has a population about a fifth of the size of the States. However, if you lower the circulation threshold to the 200,000-copy mark, US titles outnumber those in the UK by 64 to 12, which is a ratio more in line with what you might expect. (My circulation figures came from here and the Audit Bureau of Circulations.)

But this still doesn't explain why most shops here in San Francisco sell just one or, occasionally, two titles (the Chronicle's most common companion on the shelves being, oddly, the New York Times, which hails from a city 2,500 miles away). The store pictured above, which offers a choice of three, is a treasured find indeed. But where are the Bay Area's San Jose Mercury News and Oakland Tribune? Or the LA Times, Washington Post or even USA Today?

All this has been a rude culture shock for me after luxuriating in London's daily deluge of newsprint for many years. Corner shops there typically stock more than 10 national titles, in addition to a few local rags (such as the London-wide Evening Standard) and some ethnically focused journals (the Voice or Jewish Chronicle). Also, they almost always throw in a few papers from Ireland, Scotland or non-English speaking countries, perhaps just to show off.

Thankfully, it turns out that there is a very good newsagent just a few blocks from my new house. It's tiny, but has the widest selection of newsprint I've seen since arriving in the US over six months ago. It even has copies of the UK Guardian for sale, albeit a day or two late, and for a rather higher price than I'm used to paying.

Sigh. If only the publishers could invent some electronic version of their newspapers I could read for free via the internet. Eh? Oh...

Friday, October 19, 2007


Like Hoover in the UK, U-Haul has become a byword for the service it offers. But, as a Brit, my only previous contact with this removal behemoth was in American films and TV shows, where characters who move house never seem to want any generic rental truck: it is always a U-Haul.

The reality, of course, is far less glamorous than such starry introductions led me to expect. Our recent house move was split over two separate days, and the two trucks we hired had over a third of a million miles on the clock between them - and it showed.

They were both Arizona-registered GMC trucks of a characteristically American build: longer, wider and several tons heavier than they needed to be. The exaggerated proportions make you feel like a little kid in comparison. This feeling is magnified when get into the cab and instantly sink deep into the enormous, pillow-soft bench seat. This also causes the far end of the bonnet (and pretty much anything within 50 feet of it) to disappear behind the towering dashboard.

The wheezing engine of the first truck I hired managed to polish off an impressive six gallons of petrol in the space of just 40 miles, all driven at a necessarily pedestrian pace. Meanwhile, the slushy suspension of both trucks caused them to tilt drunkenly into corners, quickly displacing any less-than-perfectly packed cargo in the back. (U-Haul tries to turn this last peculiarity into a selling point, by writing the words “gentle-ride” on the side of the vans in big letters.)

At least the brakes worked, a miracle considering our ridiculously steep street. Or at least they did once I discovered where they were. It turns out that what we call the “hand” brake in Britain is sometimes located on the far left of the foot well here, like an extra foot brake (which probably explains why it’s called the “emergency” brake in America). However, this is not the sort of thing you really want to have to work out while sitting in a fully loaded 3.5-ton truck on a one-in-four gradient.

When I dropped off the first truck in Oakland, I asked one of the workers when (or if) the trucks are ever retired. “Oh, they just go on forever,” she breezed, before insisting that important parts are normally replaced prior to them falling off or failing completely. And these beasts certainly had been worked on: neither of them had a body part that hadn’t been dented or scraped at some point. Major damage is patched and repaired, but minor injuries are left like scars.

Unfortunately, the staff at my second U-Haul location, this time in San Francisco, were rather less friendly. They refused to rent me a truck on account of my weird foreign driving licence, blithely ignoring the fact that I had successfully rented a truck from the same company a few days earlier.

Anyone labouring under the delusion that the States is some utopia of flawless customer service has obviously never suffered the contemptuous indifference of a U-Haul employee doing their very best to be as unhelpful as they possibly can. After our initial “U-Haul requires a US driving licence” / “you didn’t last week” exchanges proved fruitless, the woman serving me offered to consult a higher authority. Confident that right would be done, I agreed, not suspecting for a second that she would begin her telephone call upstairs with a line as brilliantly unhelpful as: “We can’t hire trucks to foreigners, can we?”

So I located a friend with a Californian licence, he hired the truck for me and our stuff was moved. But, just as I began to feel an entirely unexpected wave of fuzzy nostalgia for all the crappy Transit-type vans I hired to shift my belongings around London, I remembered that none of them were ever called upon to drive several thousand miles across the continental United States. Nor, it should be noted, would they be as useful in a game of chicken.