Out on the Razzle in America

United Kingdom
Freelance writer, literary graduate and minor lad. In America for pleasure, not business. I've never been before, so I thought I should. Should I have done it all at once? Can it all be done at once? Only one way to find out...

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Home, and Raz's final thought

This has been a fascinating journey. Even in the time I spent here, and in all the distance travelled, I never imagined I would meet so many people from another country. I believe this experience has really taught me about their culture. Who knew there were so many out there? And that they were so different, and yet so alike? Still, enough about Australians.

And so, five thousand and eight hundred miles, twenty states, two shoelaces, two destroyed t-shirts, one pair of trainers and a flip-flop later, I still have absolutely no idea what Americans are about. Because the country is, for now at least, predominantly English speaking, and their culture comes to ours so often through the media, you assume Americans are like us. They are not. At all. They are not even like themselves. To call them a country is a mistake. Honestly, I am surprised that they get along at all. Moreover, given that they live in fifty broadly similar countries, I’ve only seen half of them. Which is like saying you’ve seen Europe, except the bits that touch the Mediterranean. The question posed above is can you see it all at once? The answer is it seems, in two months at least, most certainly not.

Still, there has been some lovely scenery, and some very interesting characters. I don't know who I'll remember most. Perhaps Mikey, the OC brat who, pissed at midday, accosted me outside the MGM Grand and offered to 'smoke the shit' out of me, if only I could get him back into the third casino to eject him in 4 hours. I felt for him, as between his tears he sobbed that he just 'wanted to party' (I love that Americans use that as a verb). Also in Vegas were Bryan and Chris, the professional poker players (but amateur drinkers) that I joined at the Blackjack table, and left on the Strip at six the next morning. Bryan was on The Real World, which apparently is still shown in the US, sometimes. Or maybe the gruff man in Montana, who stared at our van's licence plate as he leant out of his F350 and spat out his tobacco, demanding: "when you going back to California?”. Not to forget the similarly bearded fellow who warned us about the Sasquatch in Yosemite. Then there was Susan, the elderly lady who didn't know about the buses in Memphis so drove me instead. And of course Megan and Elizabeth, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders who gave me one of the greatest hugs of my life. Many happy memories.

Let’s not get beyond ourselves though, there is a lot I dislike about America, an awful lot. There is the pandemic hypochondria and the disordered healthcare system that feeds it, and the horrid billboards with labels like “When is your child's cold not a just a cold?” There is, on the surface at least, a serious problem with poverty, especially in the southern states. Widely documented and debated is the availability of guns and the fact that even the most minor of security guards is carrying a weapon, most likely without adequate training. More worrying perhaps are the signs saying relinquish your weapon at the door, which means there are people on the streets with guns, and no training at all. Not worrying, but more inconvenient, are the many cities with dreadful public transport systems that remain woefully underused, resultantly under-funded and impractically irregular. You could draw a link from this to the ubiquitous, vast, gross trucks, the culture that has spawned drive-through chemists and ATMs, the rampant obesity and the roaring squads of geriatrics on Harley-Davidson trikes.

But these are just minor, individual gripes. The single most uncomfortable, irritating thing in much of America is the pervasive sense of fear, the uncertain meaning of freedom and the frequent sense that someone, or something is trying to take that freedom away. Maybe the government. Maybe outsiders. Maybe the pharmaceutical companies, the hippies, or the Communists. Who knows?

The fact remains though that there is a separate place that I would take almost everyone I know. It is a continent, not a country, and that's not even counting Canada, Alaska and Mexico. Most maps do not put North America in the kind of scale that fairly represents it. You could fit most of Western Europe in Texas alone. In an area this size, with 300 odd million people from all over the world, it is no surprise that there is some fantastic stuff here. 3/4 pound burgers, multiple mountain ranges, epic beaches, rodeos, occasional but nonetheless impressive fauna, skyscrapers, sculptures and the entire cities like Vegas or Disneyworld, dedicated as they are to money and entertainment yet existing in a union with Salt Lake City or the Amish communities, built and still centred upon Faith.

Despite its vastness, for a first-world country the US is shockingly insular, though in part you cannot blame the individual citizens who think that Afghanistan is near Africa, or are amazed that the UK has more than one accent, let alone more than one country. There is a need for a drastic reshuffle in the education system across the states in order that world events, and the United States’ place in them, are put into a better context. It is funny, at first, to notice the huge irony in a country so inward-looking, that insists upon labelling everything ‘world famous’. Perhaps that is because their world only extends into the next state. Nevertheless, it really ought to change.

Something that was said to me on numerous occasions was that by the time I had finished I would have seen more of America than most Americans. This is probably true. In Washington D.C. most of all, I wondered what proportion of citizens had seen the movie about the difficult union that is looped in the theatre in Congress, or had visited the National Museum of the American Indian, or Memphis’s National Civil Rights Museum. It sounds repetitive, but America still needs to work harder to integrate itself. Indeed, travelling across the States you realise that all of the stereotypes are absolutely true, from California’s soccer moms to Boston’s IRA murals, from the Confederate Flags flying down south to the truckers trawling the interstates. All over though, are exceptions too. America remains an awesome place, despite its shortcomings. And while the American stereotype definitely needs to see more of the world, there remains an awful lot in their own country they ought to see first.

Miami and the Everglades

I arrived in Miami to blue skys and bright sunshine that skipped off the water. Don't believe me? Look at the pictures. No, seriously, look at them. Miami is a fantastically visual city, everything has been engineered to impress, from the brilliant white fa├žades of the Art Deco district to the staunchly immovable breasts attached to the bathers on South Beach. If it didn't put you in such a good mood, it would all be a bit much really.

Only one thing disappointed me about Miami - the size of the original Miami Ink. It is very small, easily missed, and surrounded by competition. I don't know why I was disappointed; perhaps I wanted Darren Brass dancing outside. Nevertheless, it didn't make for a good photo with the bear, so I left. Everything else about South Beach is fantastic, from the near (but not quite) unpleasantness of the mid-thirties temperature to the turquoise water of the sea, from the hidden bars serving one-dollar beers to the flashiness of the rest of the scene, white trousers and all. I had heard that Miami was exclusive, prohibitively expensive and hard to fit into. With South Beach essentially totally open to the public though, and with clubs on Ocean Drive that allow mid-week t-shirts and trainers, you can't feel too hard done by. Grab a cocktail and a sun-lounger, and make like Tony Montana.

On that note, I did see the house that starred in Scarface. Nearby was P. Diddy's yacht and Julio Iglesias' speedboat. I also took a wander into Little Havana and stopped in a Cuban bakery, to sweat more than buy baked goods, and I must confess it was here that I decided to stop sightseeing. Although I had Little Haiti, the upmarket zone of Coral Gables and numerous other stops to tick off, it was too hot, I was too tired, and after ordering una bottella d'agua y dos tortillas I dragged myself home. Miami is fantastic, just don't try and walk it in late summer.

The rest of my Miami experience was confined to South Beach, hurrying from shade to shade, avoiding the small electric humvees for rent and trying not to notice the pink walrus in the pool and his ineffective advances on the succession of females that dipped in and out. That, and the little Cuban lady who sat in the lobby, listening to Spanish-language radio and occasionally complimenting ladies on their tans. Therefore, just take my word for it that it doesn't take an in depth study to work out that Miami is very hot, full of nice beaches, people speaking Spanish, and home to many businesses operating out of South America, legally or not.

In fact, the only touristy thing I did do, apart from sunbathing, was to visit the Everglades. In amongst all the alligators were some fun little factoids: it is all actually a river almost totally shallow enough to walk in; all water flows one way; it is full of Sawgrass blades/glades that go on for Ever. I also had an immense airboat ride and got a free pair of earplugs. I suppose that counts as tourism, so, in the mode of Gordon Ramsay we can say: Miami, Florida. Done. Not that it's really true.

New Orleans, gumbo, and beads.

They say that New Orleans is the least American town in America. You need not know who 'they' are, nor why they are making crass generalisations about thousands of people. But you do need to trust their sweeping judgements, because New Orleans is different. And special. And you can get away with things in New Orleans that you could not get away with anywhere else. Not even San Francisco.

My arrival in New Orleans was more auspicious than anywhere so far: a parting of the heavy rain-clouds let a path of sunlight career beneath the plane and away across Lake Pontchartrain; as we taxied toward the terminal an immense double rainbow arched over the city; the arrival at the terminal itself was to a corridor filled with perky, chipper jazz. All seemed well, which is always a bad thing.

I had come to America with tired, infrequently-aired Spanish, which was dragged out more often than I had imagined necessary. I had some French too, hidden in the recesses of my memory. And, despite being frequently labelled an Australian, a Canadian, or most bizarrely 'European', I came with what I thought would pass here as English. Never though, have I heard before or since the tongue that was spoken on the bus into town from the airport. I knew New Orleans was an odd mix of Acadian, English and American stock, muddled over time with Haitian and African cultures and phrases, but I thought that it would be almost entirely softened by now. Apparently not. There was a girl and her daughter who were speaking, but that is all I could tell you. So far, so un-American.

What else I had heard about New Orleans consisted of Mardi-Gras and Katrina. Apparently New Orleans was a booze-soaked resort town, plagued by mosquitoes and intermittent floods, both of revellers and of water, most recently, famously, and catastrophically, with Katrina. A seedy, bedraggled backwater whose money was made on the back of a carnival of casual nudity (financed by beads), outrageous costumes and antiquated French balconies, the city was a swamp, literally and metaphorically. Crime was rampant, and Katrina made it worse. In New Orleans, you had to be careful. Arriving at the Amtrak Station, I dropped my bag for a moment to let the sweat air off my back; no sooner had it hit the floor than a casual voice behind me asked if I needed some weed, or, with a snort, some coke perhaps? So far so seedy.

While I'm not a fan of Columbia's finest, I do enjoy a tipple, and the atmosphere on Bourbon Street isn't exactly to be knocked, though if anything is going to turn you into a rampant misogynist, it's being on a balcony-nest there at two in the morning, with an armful of beads. It would be rude not to take part, but a small part of me thought that taking part was rather rude as well. However, the city is an odd blend of grimness and genuine enjoyment, from the depravity of Bourbon Street to the sunny weather and its accompanying humidity. You've got to take it together. The city is full of paradoxes; an hotel owner told me that Katrina actually helped the city in one way, as some of the neighbourhoods destroyed contained the ghettos that fed much of New Orleans' rampant crime. Overkill perhaps, but the crime rate has, apparently, noticeably dropped.

Moreover, wander away from the strip in the daytime, pushing all thoughts of Mardi Gras from your mind, and you realise that the architecture is far from a mere artillery range for the producers of 'Girls Gone Wild 13'. The railings and balconies that typify the French Quarter are very, very pretty, and there are enough of them to convince you that this part of town is not some Vegas-style reproduction but a genuine, historic neighbourhood. At the south-eastern corner of the Quarter is the Farmers Market, a recently refurbished area that does sell tourist fodder, from alligator heads to Mardi Gras masks, but also houses some fantastic little food stalls and areas where artists flog their wares in a quiet and altogether civilised manner.

Along the riverfront, still very much in the tourist centre, there are delis hidden amongst the souvenir shops that churn out cracking muffalettas, while nestled behind many of the bars with only one un-happy hour every day there are galleries and shops with a variety of creative art at a variety of silly prices. New Orleans' food is a leap ahead of the rest of The South's, with heavy French influences carrying some of the serious oomph that I found lacking elsewhere. The best example would be the gumbo, served everywhere, containing pretty much everything from oysters to sausage, and settled into a thick, roux-based sauce. It is a stew, but it is thick without being heavy, and it doesn't have any melted cheese in it, which is very odd in this country. New Orleans is different, it really is. You may see a lesbian couple taking their iguana for a walk. Not conventionally American, but not offensive in the least either.

Perhaps then that is the best way to explain New Orleans. The historic areas like the French Quarter and the King William District largely escaped the flood damage that followed Hurricane Katrina. Still, in other areas, there remain crushed sidewalks, vacant houses and posts distorted by unknowable impacts. However, in all likelihood, you will not venture too far into these areas anyway. The fact remains that most of the city's visitors will come for the architecture and food of the historic stereotype, or the booze, beads and boobs of Bourbon Street. Indeed, the bead industry alone is worth $4-5 million a year, according to a recorded man in the Mardi Gras Museum, and you can't really ignore those numbers. There is of course all the Voodoo, the jazz, the Mississippi, the various colonial powers operating over Louisiana and the ensuing slave rebellions, the gumbo-like muddle of Creole culture and language and the socio-political fallout of Katrina. But, with $5 million a year on beads, apparently people only want to know if anyone got their tits out. Yes. Yes they did.

Walking in Memphis. Then taking a bus due to inclement weather.

As Velvet checked me in at the Greyhound station I pondered two things: why anyone would name their child Velvet, and why I was missing the small-town parts of The South. Taking a bus through Tennessee was a start though, and beheading jokes aside, you can't knock the Greyhound service. It beats walking.

Indeed, due to the fact that I have been wandering the cities and towns of this country for going on two summer months, in a t-shirt, I currently have quite a red-neck. Though I will try and fade in my tan in Miami, I thought that the look would fit well on the bus. I was right, although there was also a young gangsta across the aisle who was about as far from a redneck as possible. Not that he was any more cultured: he repeatedly stressed to the young boy next to him, and the enthralled girl behind, how he would slap his bitch (seriously, no joke) if she disrespected him. On a journey to the place where Dr Martin Luther King Jr died, there was a certain irony in the air that I don't think anyone else picked up on.

More on Civil Rights later though, and back to the previous topic of unusual names. Take Elvis as an example. Elvis and Memphis are inseparable in popular culture, and Elvis and Graceland similarly so. No other reason could have persuaded me to take the bus ride through the rough part of town and part with thirty of my hard-earned dollars for the insipid service and formulaic downstairs-only meander that constitutes a Graceland tour. When a tourguide welcomes "each and every one of you" on a bus of three, you wonder if her heart is really in it. Considering that they take around $18 million from their annual 600,000 visitors, and that the memorabilia was in the house already, you may wonder where the money goes. I did.

From Elvis we may move seamlessly to another associated topic: food. Almost every old restaurant in Memphis proudly proclaims that Elvis ate there. He probably did, he was a big lad. However, this is not an indication of anyone else's need to eat there. I have absolutely nothing against southern soul food, I like fried chicken, sweet potato and the occasional catfish, but it is all a bit flat, despite the hot sauce. I persisted, but bring on New Orleans.

Ticking the other tourist boxes, I passed through the Stax record musuem, with Isaac Hayes' gold-plated, fur-lined, purple Cadillac, and studied up on the rise and fall of the label that helped found soul music. I visited the Mississippi River Museum and learnt about natives, colonists, rivercraft and the rise and fall of the fortunes of those in the area. I went to the Civil Rights Museum and revised the course that I learnt for GCSE History, and saw the balcony where MLK was shot and charted the rise and fall of the Civil Rights movement. I say rise and fall, and the topic is contentious still, because the tale ends with MLK's death. Most of Memphis, from Stax to tourism, has the date as a watermark, or even a brink. The Museum itself is a multi-million dollar shrine to a movement that ended, apparently, on the place where the man himself was killed; it replicates the room itself and that of the killer across the street. However, the final tenant in the motel to be evicted before the Museum's construction remains outside, calling for a boycott of the Museum she says makes a mockery of the Doctor's death.

Indeed, rents have risen in the area to the extent that the gentrified neighbourhood cannot support the commmunity King was trying to help liberate; they have been priced out. When I asked a young guy just out of prison, studying for beauty school in town, whether he thought the millions would have been better spent on affordable housing, he said he he had never thought of that, nor had he or any of his friends ever been to the Museum, which is free on certain days. When I asked one of the many homeless men that beg around Beale Street (the bar street) if there were any shelters available, he said that there were, but it was a room full of dirty men, or a street of half full, discarded drinks and half-dressed women. He chose the latter.

If the community that MLK died trying to help has produced a museum in his honour, but regressed to poverty, slapping their bitches and forgetting his legacy, then that is a terribly sorry state of affairs. I do not think that that is the case, but until a progressive image is presented, that contrasts rather than repeats and relates the difficulties faced by poor blacks in the USA,then the cumulative effect of one musuem relating the struggle of poor soul singers during segregation, another describing cotton picking slaves in the Mississippi delta, and another remembering a man who died decades ago but mentions little of the progress since then, is to suggest that there is little progress at all.

With such dreary thoughts it made sense to hit a blues joint. What better place than BB King's? Though it was no more encouraging to hear tales of poverty in the swamps, the fact that it was an eighty-six year old blues legend warbling through each bar made the experience fitting, he was probably singing the same song in the sixties, so progress takes a different context. With a bag stuffed with an array of harmonicas, and a relatively sprightly fifty-something man on bass drum and guitar behind him, BB wailed along for what seemed like an hour, foot-stomping and head-shaking in between fantastic harmonica solos that a man of eighty-five would be proud of. Memphis is still waiting for the next leader, whether Elvis, BB or MLK, and with no new blood in sight yet, the city is lucky that BB is still going strong.

Nashville, Music City

From the air, parts of Tennessee look a fair bit like England. Tim McGraw doesn't welcome you to Heathrow over the intercom mind you. And in London (most of it that is), there aren't signs saying relinquish your weapon at the door. Welcome to Nashville, Music City.

Nashville isn't the home of all popular music of course, though the South could just about get away with such a claim. There is little Kanye West to be found in Nashville, which is a glorious thing, though Taylor Swift was in town the night I arrived. With Memphis the home of soul, the blues and rock and roll, and New Orleans the home of jazz, Nashville is instead the home of the only music that gets major radioplay in every state: country. Despite the fact that outside the US it only features in a few isolated markets (such as Australia), over here country is big business, the biggest it seems.

The fact that country is such a huge deal makes a trip around the Country Music Hall of Fame very strange: walls are plastered with gold albums, hundreds of plaques with bronze faces, and rack after rack of CDs, all of them showing people you have never, ever heard of. Not that all the famers are unknown, or all of the items on show obscure. Elvis' gold-plated Cadillac sits up on the third floor.

I like Nashville, and I like a fair bit of the country music that I have heard, though I couldn't name the artists that make those songs. There is more to Nashville than country of course. A general creative air permeates the city and you see musicians posted on streetcorners, busking rather than just begging, though of course the latter are to be found, as in any city. There is not a great deal to photograph, especially given the poor light when I was there, but with so much of the city to do with sound rather than sight that is understandable. That said though, a visitor may be treated to the occasional flash of thigh from a dancing cowgirl that has mounted the bar top. And there is more to Nashville than music of course: food; the link to the hill country; the river and its history; its thriving university scene. All of these things could be discussed, but in a post titled Music City, there's only one reason to talk about Nashville, however briefly.

San Antonio, the Alamo and other missions

My body is struggling to cope with the transition from burgers to tacos. Tex-Mex has brought me to San Antonio, and I am now being tested by the combined might of every flag that has flown over Texas (there have been six). Apparently everything is bigger in Texas, and although that is debatable, Texans can rightly feel proud of their salsas. They're massive.

San Antonio is really very Hispanic. The series of missions that thread through the town are in various states of repair, but all point clearly to the area's previous governors. The various flags that have flown over Texas are Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, Confederate and American, and all but the French have left a tangible element in the character of the city. The natives didn't have a flag mind you, but their influence in Tejano culture is emphasised in the mission information centers, and in the rather interesting Institute of Texan Cultures, which has a fairly good area on indigenous peoples and a whole baby mammoth, albeit slightly shriveled.

Due to the absence of a decent hostel in the city, I am staying in a luxurious bed and breakfast that is roughly three times more than I ought to be spending, but does have six pillows per bed and cable with many Spanish language channels and their obligatory dreadful soaps. My host is an hospitable man, who offered to drive me into town in his convertible Chevrolet Camaro. Loud, flamboyant, opinionated, almost like an American Basil Fawlty, he seems however totally carefree, and is booming in a way that would disconcert children and small animals. He has a habit of leaving sentences hanging, made even more strange by the colossal introductions he gives them, "OH HELL! I tell ya they were a real hoot, a todal BLAST! Oh, shit, I mean...eh...urgh...", he says, shaking his head slowly.

I was waiting for him to pick me up from a faux-rickety restaurant bar on the edge of Downtown. I say faux-rickety, it looks genuinely old, but it does appear nailed together despite its rhomboidal walls. I was also hoping he'd have the roof up as Texas was just coming out of a huge drought. I had reached the bar by taking the Riverwalk, a long landscaping of both banks of the San Antonio River, but the intermittent showers had pushed even the mariachi bands under cover, from where they would peer at the heavens with distrust. Most of the walk is full of restaurants and bars, and like a latin Center Parcs the pavestones follow the winding water over arching bridges and under shady trees. It's all very nice, even in the wet.

The next morning I spent pottering about the Spanish Market, a strange blend of trendiness and tourist tat, including a back area where they removed the farmers market and replaced it with boutique tourist stores. It is hard to like it, but there are some very cheap tacos and I did buy a t-shirt with a cool Mexican skull on the front. Continuing the ongoing search for souvenirs while Enrique Iglesias blared out of the Teriyaki Kitchen next door, I contemplated the purchase of cowboy boots and a hat to prepare myself for Nashville, my next destination. Deciding against it, I spent the afternoon wandering around the King William historic district, a very nice neighborhood of pretty, grand Victorian houses. While they are very nice, and historically significant here, I still find it hard to get excited about a house only thirty years older than my student digs. It's all relative I suppose.

On the subject of relativity, the Alamo is an odd experience. Blending fervent jingoism with a deep sense of regret and injustice, the shrine, (and it is a shrine), is quiet, reserved and strictly hat removed, and full of the kind of rhetoric of freedom, liberty, sacrifice, blood and honour that makes America so confusing. While there is no animosity towards the Spanish, or the Mexicans, or the British, or the Union, the Alamo makes absolutely clear the fact that glorious Texans died to keep Texas free and independent from any other power. And this idea is extrapolated, obliquely and directly, to cohere with the national 'freedom isn't free, but we are the free, God bless America' message. And yet, Texas is not independent, precisely because of the national federated system, so it is very hard to take the rhetoric seriously. Surely, though the men at the Alamo fought bravely against the overwhelming Mexican force, the legend doesn't exactly point to a success. Of course, there are gun-toting separatist movements in Texas, but they are reasonably marginal. The strangest thought is that they might be closest to the real message of the Alamo than a lot of Texans and Americans would like to admit.