Glancing over recent blog posts, it seems I’m overdue for something non-TV. And glancing outside at the winter that will not die, it is April, move along already… it’s easy to get into a travel kind of headspace. But since my next proper trip (excluding long weekends in Vancouver, which just sort of happen from time to time) won’t be for five to fourteen months, I thought I’d take you on a verbal tour of some of my favourite cities, and how they came to be so.
Let’s start with the April eighth, it is April eighth, stop snowing stop goddamn snowing and be spring sorry, sorry, I’m very sorry, I’ll try that again…
Let’s start with the grand poobah, my number one, the place I will go to die if given the option.
The first time I went to London I was fourteen. My dad was heading to Germany for a conference, and he decided to bring me along with him. Just me, not my brother. Maybe because my brother was on the verge of his third school trip to Europe, maybe because he knew I’d been having a rough go of it in junior high and thought a trip would be a nice break. Whichever the reason, the thing that most stuck with me about that trip was starting and ending it in London. Who wouldn’t love that city? They had way more lax rules about nipples in newspapers and there seemed to be a Pizza Hut on every block!
(I have since revised my opinion on Pizza Hut and the necessity of having multiple Pizza Huts within sight of each other, look, I was fourteen, did I mention that?)
We went to a museum on film and television called the Museum of the Moving Image. I loved it. I wanted to go back so bad, but I never managed it. Tried once in 1994, but didn’t get there in time. Weirdly, I don’t think we made it to a play that first trip. One of only two times I’ve been to that city and not seen a West End show.
Two out of three of my high school trips (my time came) also went through London. Sure it wasn’t the only place we went, but somehow it became the only place that my brain translated into “happiness.” When tough times came in the late nineties, I’d have dreams that I was back in London, and the realization hit me like a wave of pure joy, happiness so overwhelming that sometimes I couldn’t stand, collapsing into a gift shop filled with Big Ben slow globes and belt buckles. When times got tougher in the early 2000s, I decided to chase that feeling, and started putting money away for a return visit.
I did not collapse out of sheer joy when I stepped off the plane in 2003, but it was close. How can I explain what this city is to me? Sure, there’s the culture. The West End can go toe to toe with Broadway anytime. Sure there’s the history. Castles, apartment buildings older than my country, landmarks like crazy, the kind you only get in cities that trace their histories back centuries. And sure there are the museums, so many museums… even if the Museum of the Moving Image shut down right when I started saving to go back to it, their most famous museum has been described in places as “an active crime scene,” and the National Gallery won’t let the public see its most important painting, but damned if there isn’t a museum for any taste somewhere.
But it’s really just how I feel the second I step into Leicester Square, or stroll along the Thames, or walk Westminster Bridge, covered as it is in tourists taking photos, street performers, and nut vendors. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. I feel like I’m home. It’s a feeling that has eased heartaches, brought peace of mind, and been bright enough to overcome occasionally spotty weather.
Let’s go there sometime, I can show you around.
Look, you’ve heard songs and seen movies, so there’s not much I need to teach you about the charms of New York. But I had a good enough time there one day in 2016 that it almost single-handedly redeemed a summer that was coming to be shaped by failure, crumbling friendships, financial strain, and deep, deep blows to my own self-image that I lack time or interest to discuss here. Or elsewhere. But let’s talk about one good day.
As I had a landmark birthday that year, I was gifted a long weekend in New York, right when several friends were going to be there. Matt, you see, had long talked about doing a Brooklyn pizza tasting tour, wandering the pizzerias of a borough my two previous trips had largely neglected, save for Coney Island. It sounded like something I wanted in on. Also, I’d learned about a restaurant called Raclette that seemed custom-designed just for me.
Now, the pizza tour didn’t quite work. Turns out upper-tier pizza places don’t sell by the slice, and some of our companions lacked commitment to the journey. So we managed two thoroughly tasty pizzas before the gang decided to depart for Coney Island, where most rode the rides while Matt and I moved from bar to bar in search of beers.
“I suppose if nothing else, we can get a beer at Applebee’s,” Matt said.
“Wouldn’t be the first time I went to that Applebee’s for lack of a better option,” I replied.
“…You’ve been to that Applebee’s?”
“It’s the Applebee’s of Last Resort.”
(It didn’t come to that. My only regret is that we didn’t drink at the bar with the freak show attached that is clearly the inspiration for Harley Quinn’s Brooklyn hideout in her solo comic.)
But the next day, now… the next day was special.
There’s something extra fun about being in a different city with friends. What would normally be just another night at the pub or the rehearsal space is now an adventure. And so this day would be. I was to meet Matt and his wife Kate in Manhattan at Beer Authority, a bar near Times Square so overladen with craft beer options we could have drank there every night for hours and not gotten through them all. But first… first I had a mission. I was going to Raclette and getting myself the cheesiest lunch I could.
Have you ever seen a video online for a place that seemed so cool you needed to go there, but it’s in some other faraway city or country? Have you ever made the pilgrimage there all the same? I’ve managed that on a handful of occasions. The Doctor Who Experience in London and Cardiff. Dismaland. Mr Fogg’s Residence, a Victorian speakeasy in London. Each time it’s been a triumph, a good experience made great by the journey to reach it. So it was with Raclette. It wasn’t just a delicious lunch of gooey cheese goodness, it was an accomplishment of gooey cheese goodness. I saw it, I wanted it, I found it, I rule. So, off to a good start.
I met up with Matt for the first of many delicious beers, and we decided on our course for the day: a Hell’s Kitchen craft brew pub crawl. Beers we can’t get at home, pub experiences that only exist here in Manhattan. We looked up the best in the area, found five to try out, and each one provided a delicious beer I’d never even known existed.
But we managed to save the absolute best for last… Bar Bacon. Craft beers and artisanal bacons. Sure, by that point we were tipsy enough that anywhere had a decent chance of being a good time, but man, I’d have lived in that bar if it were an option. They even made a kale salad tasty.
Yes I had a kale salad at Bar Bacon, I couldn’t just eat cheese and bacon all day.
That’s the kind of trip that makes a city special forever, even if it only lasted three days.
(Should have used the bathroom before I left Bar Bacon. That was an uncomfortable subway ride back into Brooklyn.)
Look, if you want to cut loose, if you want to have good times with friends no other place can provide, if you want to see a Cirque du Soleil show with a stage that turns into a pool as if by magic, accept no substitutes.
I thought I had a story for this one but what it comes down to is that even though I had the most expensive hospital stay of my life there, I still had a good time on that trip.
My best times in this city predate digital photos, and I don’t know if I could find and scan a photo that would sum this one up.
Until I was 18, LA was just that place where Disneyland was. We’d been twice, once when I was six and again when I was ten, the first stop on the long road to our seven months living in Australia. But in 1995, it became something else. A magical place.
One of the things I love about Comic Expo here at home is being at a place full of people with the same nerdy loves as me. The first place I got a taste of that experience was FOLCfest in 1995.
Okay. Let’s rip this bandaid off quick. I did not misspell “folkfest,” FOLC stood for “Fans of Lois and Clark,” an online community I’d been part of almost as long as I’d been using the internet, for fans of the TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Look, you know I like superhero TV, you know that even today in the golden age of geek TV I even watch the bad stuff… to entertain YOU… but back in the nineties we didn’t have networks devoting half of their lineup to superheroes or streaming services cranking out other, often more adult fare, good or bad… so we enjoyed what we had. Yes, that show had its flaws, but it was also fun a lot of the time. Although there is a reason the first superhero show I bought on DVD was Arr– wait, Birds of Prey? Aw, man, come on past me… I know it was cheap and all but that thing is still in shrink wrap…
Anyway, the FOLCs, the preeminent online fandom for the show, decided to do an IRL get-together (we didn’t use the phrase “IRL,” people still used complete sentences online back then) in Los Angeles, including a tour of the Warner Bros. lot where Lois and Clark filmed.
This was a magical weekend. Names I had only seen online became real people I could laugh with, party with, drink with… not, like, alcohol, because I was underage in the States and actually I didn’t start drinking for another four years, but I did have plenty of lemonade and whatnot. Between that and the size of the average American cheeseburger, I was constantly full.
We went to Disneyland, and I not only had the best time, I kept “It’s a Small World” from getting stuck in my head by humming the Star Wars Cantina Theme to myself (I had also recently re-embraced Star Wars in a big way). I took my first trip to Venice Beach, and yes, there were, in fact, Lois and Clark fans who looked pretty damn good in bikinis. On the way back to the hotel from one of our excursions, someone in the same car as me said “I suddenly feel like a milkshake,” that craving spread like wildfire through the car, and before you could say “They should never have killed off Lex Luthor at the end of season one,” we were pulling into a cool fifties diner for milkshakes and cheeseburgers.
And coolest of all, our tour of the WB lot ended in the Daily Planet set, where we were greeted by the Lois and Clark showrunners and K Callan, who played Martha Kent… and who was soon joined by Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher, and Justin Whalen (the second Jimmy Olsen, who was not immediately embraced, so it was ballsy for him to come chat with us), who didn’t just do a flyby, they stayed to chat and seemed legitimately thrilled to greet us. K even had dinner with us all at the hotel. My pictures didn’t turn out. Her head got clipped clean off. Annoying. But this was my first encounter with any sort of famous person, other than former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, who is at best “cameo on Corner Gas” famous.
There was no chance of me not going back the next summer, none at all. There had been an entire summer’s worth of fun, friends, and good times crammed into one incredible weekend that couldn’t even be ruined by getting incredibly ill the last morning, or my failure to capitalize on being one of the prettiest guys there (damn you Tad Takara, that crown could have been mine!). The buzz didn’t die for weeks.
The following summer, at FOLCfest 2, now that I was in charge of doing the entertainment for the last night, I did capitalize on being at worst the third prettiest guy there (damn you Rob from Vancouver), somehow learned how to flirt, and fell in love for the first real time, enhancing the magic of the city, of the FOLC community, of writing entertainments, of devoting myself to shows about Superman. …Is that why I watched Smallville for a decade? No, no… must have been the lack of other superhero shows… Anyway, sure that relationship didn’t end great, but to quote V For Vendetta, for five years I had roses and apologized to no one.
But that’s a whole other story. Suffice to say, LA is a magical city to me. I should really get back there one of these days. Has it really been 21 years? Goddamn. My memories of LA can get legally drunk in LA…
I wish I was still in touch with some of the FOLCs, but our time as a fandom so well known to the producers that we got shout-outs in the final season (I met the co-creator of Firefly, you guys) came and went a decade before Facebook, and we all lost touch. Even the ones in my city.
Goddamn tragic. Let’s talk about wombats to take the edge off.
Not every quest works out. That doesn’t mean they weren’t worth doing.
In 2010, the entire Gibbins clan went south for three weeks in Australia, the country that had been my home for half of 1987, which I had never made it back to. The only rule for the trip was that, in week three, we all meet up in Brisbane so we could go to Lady Elliott Island together. In the end, I stuck with my parents for most of the time, ’cause it turns out I actually like them, I wanted to do 90% of what they were doing, and doing it all one day earlier or later just to be contrary seemed a weird choice. There was but one exception. Two days when I took off on my own. For I had a crazy quest to see to.
This crazy quest did not involve returning to either city I’d lived in. Darwin was too far away, and I spent three months in Canberra and I’m pretty much done with that.
Back in ’87, we bought two books of an Australian author’s true bush stories too weird for his fiction, The Killer Koala and Wombat’s Revenge. The title story of the second book was about the author being asked to go to a Chinese graveyard filled with wombats, in order to acquire a bull wombat for a friend’s zoo. Like most of the stories in these books, he ended up fearing for his life when an unexpectedly large male wombat shredded his net like tissue paper. The Chinese graveyard full of wombats was said to be on the highway between two towns called Tumut and Jindabyne, not far from metropolitan Wagga Wagga (I swear I am not making any of this up). So my course, crazy though it seemed, was clear.
Drive the highway from Tumut to Jindabyne, find that graveyard, and commune with the wombats.
I rented a car in Sydney, and off I went. Five hours to the city I had chosen as basecamp, a mid-level city called Wagga Wagga. Why there and not Tumut or Jindabyne? Two reasons. First, Wagga Wagga was on the highway to my ultimate driving destination, Adelaide, and Tumut and Jindabyne were not. Second, I really wanted to confirm that Wagga Wagga was a real place. That real people, and not a series of Fozzy Bear impersonators, lived and worked in a town called Wagga Wagga.
I didn’t make it too far past Tumut. Turns out when you have to pull over and search any patch of land that looks graveyardy from a distance, it slows your progress a little. I found great bounding mobs of kangaroos, roaming emus, and a spectacular sunset behind a mountain reflected in a lake. This last thing, while pretty, was the breaking point of the quest. I did not love my odds of being able to spot a graveyard from the highway in the dark. Also I was in the Australian wilderness and was beginning to have real concerns about spiders. And so I made the choice to return to Wagga (as the locals called it, making every address read out over the radio delightful) before I’d completely burned my daylight. That evening I headed out into what passed for downtown Wagga in search of dinner, settling for Australian Subway. I saw the crowds of young Aussies gathering in the streets, which made me nostalgic for being young and… seeing other groups of youths having fun I would opt not to try to join. Being chronically introverted is the worst sometimes.
Maybe I should have found something more adventurous to do. Found a bar, had some beers, seen if locals were up for chatting. I certainly have friends who’d have done that. Who’d have succeeded at that. Not I. I bought my sandwich, went back to my hotel room, hunted and killed the crickets that found their way in (this is Australia, trust nothing that walks or crawls), and discovered that the fourth season of Doctor Who that I’d been neglecting to watch for almost two years was actually really good.
So I guess Wagga is a place where cool things almost happened, but always seemed just out of reach. And as fun as seeing David Tennant live on stage, Hell’s Kitchen pub crawls, Disneyland, or drinking one dollar beers on the way to a burlesque show in a casinoare, can they ever compete with the adventures that might have been? Yes, by and large, they definitely can, but the glimpse of potential still gives Wagga Wagga a place in my heart. Enough of a place that when pondering doing a road trip from Melbourne to Brisbane, I give serious thought to stopping in Wagga again.
Also I did confirm that “Hungry Jack’s” is just Australian Burger King when I was there. One 23-year suspicion proved correct. Go me.
So those are places around the world that have a special meaning to me. Places I’d be thrilled to return to, any time I can. But here… here is home. Here is where I made the best friends I’ve ever had, where I built a theatre company that’s my greatest accomplishment, where my plays received their first productions. So be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Jesus Christ it’s going to go above zero for three days then start snowing again on Thursday? FUCKING HELL JUST BE SPRING ALREADY!
…How much could a trip to LA cost, really…
One thought on “Cities I’ve Loved, and Why”
I enjoyed your tour tremendously, Dan. I’m glad that your mother and I played a small part. Dad