Theo Bruinsma: Coming To America

There was a song during the eighties by the Scottish rock band, Simple Minds, called "Promised You A Miracle." But I always heard it as "Promised You America."  

In 1983, after graduating from high school in Holland, I stepped aboard a KLM Boeing 747 to Los Angeles, California.  It was a one-way ticket to paradise, at least so I thought at the age of eighteen.  It was to be my long awaited escape from the Dutch rain and wind to a land of sunshine and opportunity, from grey skies to blue skies, from socialism to capitalism.

As a teenager growing-up in Holland, I used to watch numerous American TV shows.  The one that I really liked was Magnum, P.I. starring Tom Selleck.  At this time in Holland there were only two government television channels, and they didn’t commence until 3pm in the afternoon and ended slightly passed 11pm.  And though Magnum, P.I. was featured only once a week, it provided me with enough inspiration to enter the world of palm trees, white beaches, beautiful women and a red Ferrari.

But if not a red Ferrari, I would have gladly settled for the convertible Rolls-Royce Corniche as occasionally featured in my other favorite TV show, Hart to Hart, starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers. But my all-time favorite show was Miami Vice. For me, Tom Selleck, Robert Wagner and Don Johnson as portrayed on television were the ideal men living in the ideal world.

After landing at the Los Angeles Airport, LAX, I felt I had reached the Promised Land but I still had to go through US Immigration & Customs.  The first person I was to meet in the US was an elderly black officer, who kept looking at my passport in a wary way.  Perhaps it was because it was issued at the US Embassy in Amsterdam and its picture was glued-on with a flimsy seal.  Or perhaps it was my Dutch accent and Dutch fashion style of clothing.

Though I was born in America, it was obvious that I hadn’t been raised there.  Perhaps the officer thought that I was an impostor or that I was using a fake passport.  But I was able to answer all of his questions… but then there was a long pause.  So after a while, I asked the officer if there was anything wrong, to which he replied, “I guess not,” and stamped my passport.  I was delighted because that stamp was my validation of being an American and for me that felt like something to be proud of.

When I walked outside the airport doors, I saw an attractive woman in a convertible Mercedes parked at the curbside.  I smiled and gently waved at her.  To my delight, she smiled back.  And though I wasn’t the one she was picking up, for me her smile was confirmation that my American dream was on its way to becoming reality.  After all, I was in Los Angeles, and she could have been a movie star.  She could have been Mrs. H, Stefanie Powers, from Hart to Hart.  Then suddenly I remembered that Los Angeles was not my final destination, and quickly retreated back inside the LAX terminal to catch my connecting flight to Fresno.

Stefanie Powers in Hart to Hart

Once I arrived at the Fresno airport, a far less attractive person was awaiting me outside the terminal in a far less attractive vehicle.  He was a bald-headed, chubby, bearded man who drove a pick-up truck and was to drive me to Sequoia National Park.  He drove this truck violently up the windy roads with great expertise.  We were so high up in the mountains that at times my ears were popping.  Many times I looked-out of the window and noticed that the steep cliff directly below was without guard-rails.  One miscalculation by the bald-headed, chubby, bearded man and it was all over.  I felt trapped with this Yosemite Sam type-of-character; at certain times, when he was making sharp and abrupt turns, I felt as if I was being kidnapped. Eventually, we arrived at the base of the camp which seemed like a small village.  And thankfully I was still alive.

Sequoia National Park was not where I wanted to go, but my mother said it was a beautiful place and that I was lucky she had found me a job there as a waiter.  But I soon discovered that this meant I would be working as a cashier in a fast food restaurant, high up in the mountains, and being paid only the minimum wage, $3.35 per hour.  The only good thing was that I was living rent-free, but in an old trailer.

After several weeks of working and living in Sequoia National Park, I became bored and lonely.  Most of the people working there were either Christians or hippies.  Both loved nature, but for different reasons.  The Christians told me they loved Sequoia Park because it was God’s creation, and they were there to worship His creation.  The hippies told me they loved Nature because it hadn’t been tainted by Man and capitalism, and were there to worship Her purity.  Both groups could be found watching the sunset every evening, with the Christians quoting the bible, and the hippies smoking marijuana.

To overcome my boredom and to make some extra money, every night after I finished mopping the restaurant floors, I would go around the camping grounds trying to sell ice-cold beer to the burly campers.  I had a big garbage bag on my back filled with ice-cold beer.  I had Budweiser and Miller Lite, back then that was still considered a choice.

After a couple of months in Sequoia National Park, however, I started seeing the redwood trees as prison bars blocking my view to an enlightened city and came to realize I was in the wrong place.  Redwood trees, rattle snakes, raging rivers and low-flying vampire bats was not my cup of tea.  Nature, I learned, was not for me unless it was from behind a window.  I longed to be in a cosmopolitan city where people were out dining and dancing and where the lights of come-and-go taxis were weaving neon confetti around the hills and high-rises of San Francisco.

But when I sought to quit my job and leave Sequoia National Park, I was told I was bound by a contract.  I didn’t know that a minimum wage job could have a contract, nor did I really care. The problem was, however, that there was no transportation down to the Fresno Airport other than the bald-headed, chubby, bearded man with the pick-up truck, who turned-out to be the general manager showing me the contract.  And this was bad news.  But eventually, after some friendly back-and-forth, the bald-headed, chubby, bearded man allowed me to leave and return to civilization, after surviving the ride down the mountain.

Hours later I was high-up in the sky, drinking a Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth on the rocks, on a plane to San Francisco.  Luckily the drinking age in California at that time was eighteen.  This was much higher than it was in Holland, where there didn’t seem to be any drinking age at all.  At the age of sixteen my friend, Eric Hoogdoorn, and I were in the Dutch discos drinking Amstel draft beer and experimenting with mixed drinks.  And it was in one of those discos that I discovered that my favorite drink was Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth on the rocks, with a twist.

Martini & Rossi 

As the plane was moving closer to San Francisco, I took another sip and realized what an achievement it was for mankind to have the ability to fly above the clouds, next to the sun, in such comfort and ease.  It reminded me of seeing the black-and-white pictures of the well-dressed men and women flying the first transatlantic passenger planes. And then I realized that the earlier generation had it right: the best way to honor the ability for mankind to fly was to dress-up for the occasion.

Better generation

My next job in America was that of a busboy.  Some people might look down on that but I was looking down upon them as the restaurant was on top of the 52nd floor of the Bank of America building.  At the time, this was the highest floor in San Francisco.  The restaurant was called the Bankers Club and the entire floor belonged to them -- and so did the entire 51st floor, with private game rooms and a very large banquet room.  And every day the Bankers Club was packed for lunch.  It was a place where its members could get a quick 5 star lunch on top of the world.

The Bankers Club - Carnelian Room 

At night the restaurant became the Carnelian Room and opened-up to the public for fine dining and romance.  At night the view was even more spectacular as the surrounding skyscrapers were all lit-up.  And in the far distance one could see the Golden Gate Bridge, glowing in neon orange, holding-up all the small cars struggling to and fro.  The Carnelian Room was always busy as people from all over the world came to visit.

The view of this restaurant, from behind its giant windows, was breathtaking.  It was indeed A View To A Kill as the James Bond movie filmed in San Francisco was called. Beyond the main bar of the 52nd floor, there were also portable bars spread throughout both floors, one right by the staircase against the window. This allowed the bankers to toast the world in front of them while strolling down to the game room. Times were good during the eighties.

One day, during a large luncheon in the main banquet room, I saw Tip O’Neill, then Speaker of the House, addressing the bankers.  There was lots of laughter as Tip O’Neill, a very fat and ugly appearing man, kept talking about President Reagan, but I didn’t understand any of his jokes as I was too busy clearing empty dishes.  Strangely, all the curtains were closed during this luncheon, blocking the outside view, and I remember thinking: Who needs the outside view when one could look at a real Speaker of the House?

Another political star who visited the Bankers Club was Senator Ted Kennedy, though I didn’t recognize him at first when he was being seated in Ricardo’s section, a section right behind the maître d’ desk, at a table-for-two by the window.  The Senator was seated across from another man, and the two seemed to be having a serious discussion.  Ricardo, the fatherly waiter from Spain, whispered to me: “Do you know who that is?  That is Senator Ted Kennedy.”  When I looked again I recognized him, but his face appeared much bigger, rounder and redder than what I remembered from television and the Time magazine pictures I had seen of him when living in Holland.

As I poured Senator Kennedy a glass of ice-water, I noticed that many of the bankers were looking at him from afar, but pretending not to.  Senator Kennedy was a whale of a man and wore a shabby suit that appeared too tight for him.  He was shifty eyed and seemed uncomfortable and awkward.  At first I was excited to see him, thinking: Less than a year in America and I’m in the presence of a Kennedy.  But then I remember feeling somewhat disappointed.  I thought that the brother of JFK would’ve been more of a charismatic man with a happy and optimistic American style aura.  Senator Kennedy appeared quite the opposite.  I remember thinking it must have been a curse being JFK’s brother, and it looked as if it had taken a toll on Senator Kennedy.  There was something uncouth and grimy about him.  I later learned that these traits were common among all US Senators.

Thankfully there was a view of a large swimming pool beyond and below Senator Kennedy’s window.  Seeing this pool always cheered me up.  There was something refreshing and reviving about it.  It was on top of the Hilton Hotel in Chinatown.  This pool was made famous in the Dirty Harry movie, where in its opening scene Scorpio sharp-shoots a pretty girl to death while she’s swimming in this pool.  In the subsequent scene, Dirty Harry walks up to the rooftop of the Bank of America building, right above Ricardo’s workstation, and finds the slug from Scorpio’s sniper rifle:

Frequently, before the bankers arrived for lunch, I would stand by this window and look down on the pool and wonder what the reverse view would look like: swimming in the pool and looking up at the top of the Bank of America building.  And I would always ask myself: Would I be able to see a person behind the tinted glass where I now was standing?

Dirty Harry finds slug on top of the Bank of America building

At other times, I would look farther into the distance and see tall apartment buildings in the Pacific Heights and Presidio Heights neighborhoods, so much great architectural monuments, especially when seeing the early morning shadows caste upon them.  And a little to my right was Pier 39, Alcatraz, and beyond that, on the other side, Marin County. 

I always felt fortunate to be standing behind the glass of the highest floor in San Francisco, to have this luxury that few men had generations before me.  At times I viewed the Bankers Club restaurant as a giant merry-go-round.  And though I didn’t have a seat myself, I was on-board for the ride nevertheless.

Moreover, the food was incredible.  It was orchestrated by a French chef and the presentation of it seemed no less spectacular than its taste, especially to me.  In Holland I had never seen an avocado before, let alone tasted one with crab meat topped with a creamy vinaigrette house dressing or spooned chilled papaya soup out of a papaya buried in a large silver bowl with crushed ice.  I was merely a boy from a small Dutch town. But now I was eating some of the best foods in the world and had the horizon of the world around my feet.  And the way I saw it? If bussing some plates and wearing a bow-tie was part of its dues, it was a measly little price to pay.

(The Bankers Club - Carnelian Room closed its doors after serving its last dinner on New Year’s Eve in 2009.)

Promised You America by Theo Bruinsma 

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