This summer, I visited friends along the US east coast and Canada and then rented a car, travelling 3,099 miles around the Bible Belt states of the Deep South. This was the grand itinerary…
On my travels, I encountered a rash of different extremist groups, attended the country’s biggest church, offended about half a dozen natives and had a couple of scrapes with death. And a month later, back in New York, I had more questions than answers about the people and politics of Jesusland USA…
“Where’s the toilet please, Becky?”…As the howls and bawling laughter which swept around the campfire calmed down, I corrected myself… “Ok, where’s the ‘bathroom’?” “No, that’s not why we’re laughing – like I told you, we have no running water.” My friend’s neighbours, who had gathered for deep-fried turkey and hotdogs, composed themselves and directed me to a random tree.
I met activist prankster and long-time presidential spoiler candidate Vermin Supreme, and his wife Becky, in the middle of the Egyptian White Desert 5 years ago. Vermin (his legal name) was dressed in a cat head – complete with ears, nose and whiskers (for no reason) – he insisted he was the King of the Rats and had stood several times for president/emperor/mayor of the USA, sometimes on the Democrat ticket, sometimes on a Republican platform. His penchant for fancy dress was a sure sign we’d get along. Much of our trip into the eastern end of the Sahara entailed Vermin, his wife Becky wildly ‘whooping’ and racing up dunes (fig.1 – video evidence).
Vermin once appeared on the Jerry Springer show endorsing aborted foetus eating and theorises that global warming could be solved if only we would re-direct excess CO2 to our water supply, thus carbonating all beverages. His other policies focus on time travel research, mandatory tooth brushing, lowering the voting age to 6, Flying Monkey Public Safety Assurance Programme, a free pony for every citizen and the legalization of cannibalism. He often reminds the media that he is the only candidate tackling these issues.
“Proper dental hygiene is essential to proper social order,” he claimed as he travelled with a giant inflatable toothbrush across Europe. Domestically, on the campaign trail, he dons a large Wellington boot on his head and bashes passers-by on the head with a plastic star-spangled mallet demanding they “LOVE AMERICA MORE!” It was during my short time with the couple in Egypt that they invited me to their unusual home in the Massachusetts woods – and it wasn’t until I visited in person that I believed a word about what I was told…
Their residence was indeed cut off from the water supply, but it did have wifi (“Priorities!” claimed Becky). The house and the surrounding grounds were filled with various junk, tat, scrap and jumble retrieved from the local dump. Artistic displays of old typewriters, rusty old bicycles strategically placed in nearby trees, retro phones and camcorders, a garden of novelty skeletons, mannequins, wheelchairs, an x-ray machine, a record player patch, various bits of toy doll and other toys, along with a bar, a crazy golf course, BBQ pit and theatre areas – all of which made for a surreal fantasy land of scrap knick-knacks. [photo gallery]
Every corner was adorned with fairy lights and peace symbols. It was the ultimate hippy hangout, embracing anti-materialism through rampant hoarding. The interior of the house was no different – dusty books on self-hypnosis, a chandelier almost as big as the ceiling, a creepy old piano, more dolls and a couple of shrivelled up, dried dead animals such as a cat found in a relative’s loft. (Apparently, Vermin’s nephew once took the cat to his school’s ‘show-and-tell’ day – it pretty much destroyed his relationship with his teacher, which he found curious as other kids were bringing in skulls and such like.)
Spending a night sleeping in the lounge was bizarre – I would wake up occasionally and spot something new, which would either cause me to crap myself in terror or crack up laughing. I don’t think it helped getting high on second-hand weed a few hours previously. When you’re surrounded by doll’s heads and preserved dead animals, it’s a fine line between creepy and quirky. Vermin didn’t help matters earlier by laughing loudly and manically as we first pulled into his dark driveway (or, more accurately, ‘swamp’). But, alas, like all Americans I’ve met, the ambience was friendly, people welcoming and hospitality second-to-none. Here are a few Vermin-related links: Boston.com interview / Swindler Magazine / official website 1 / official website 2
I bid farewell to their friends and neighbours who assembled especially for a welcoming deep fried turkey dinner (a whole bird literally dumped in a can of fat with a gas canister underneath – good stuff!). The following day was spent touring little Rockport’s quaint attractions and perfect, white picket fenced detached houses – a lifestyle the Supremes happily rejected… After postponing my car rental and rehashing my driving plans to slow things down, I hopped on a train, bus and dodgy Chinatown coach back to New York via Boston… My first bout in the Big Apple began in the early hours a week earlier – I’d been graciously invited to stay with my friend Deena who lived in Harlem.
JFK to Harlem via public transport, at 2am in the morning, sporting a weird accent and a bright yellow t-shirt seemed like a bad way to get shot, from what I’d been told. However, the initial welcome from the Immigration guy through to friendly buskers and Latinos in uptown giving directions had been a splendid surprise. Granted, the immigration form had asked me whether I was a terrorist or a Nazi – luckily my Third Reich membership had almost expired, and – besides – I was only a part-time Nazi. I imagined what’d happen if I ticked ‘yes’, and then crossed it out and put ‘no’ – surely that would be worse than simply ticking a straight ‘yes’? “HA! You nearly had me there – ah you guys!”
The only time I was intimidated by any of the locals was at 3am one night in Harlem when a charming gentleman seemed to object to the size of my backpack. He randomly hollered “Yeah, I gotta bag too! I GOTTA BAG TOO bitch-ass nigger”. I was tempted to reply “Prithee squire, bring forth thine satchel for a ‘bag off’ forthwith” as it seemed an odd thing for him to feel inadequate about. Were it my manhood, my car or my ‘piece’, feeling competitive would be understandable; but it was clear the generous size of my backpack had already challenged his masculinity sufficiently and so I said nothing, having obviously won the debate.
In a highly productive whirlwind week of sight-seeing, I hit up Times Square (basically a mini-Hong Kong), Union Square (where a mini-tornado produced a lightening bolt which downed a tree right next to me!), Ground Zero (unofficial 9/11 merchandise available from hawkers) and Central Park (huge). MoMa (the Museum of Modern Art) seemed to attract a plethora of poseurs who enjoyed saying the word ‘juxtaposition’ very loudly – the most interesting exhibit was a display of an artist’s deceased grandmother’s possessions – everything she’d ever hoarded in the name of ‘make-do-and-mend’, including her wooden home (check out these awesome pictures: here). I also spent an afternoon amidst the various corporate worldbeaters around Wall St and the New York Stock Exchange – the buildings themselves glorified with giant flags and incongruous Greek architecture.
Having ticked off Radio City, the Golden Bull, Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building, I went to a human body exhibition at South Seaport. It was pretty mind-blowing stuff and the best healthy-eating, anti-smoking advertisement you could imagine, with displays of intact and diseased real organs. A transparent box at the exit was full of cigarette packets which people had discarded after seeing the lungs on display. I remember thinking how every school kid should make a trip, but later wished I’d not gone myself having learnt that the bodies were likely those of tortured and executed Chinese prisoners. I’d confused the exhibition with Body Works, a German display in which the deceased agreed to their inclusion – this new show had been banned in Paris and Venezuela and had led to a court case and new regulations passing in the US. Suffice to say, a strongly worded letter is in the works…
Next day, after a tour of the NBC Studios, I got the subway to the UN Headquarters via Grand Central Station. Surrounded by flags in what is officially international territory, various protests are held opposite – on the day I visited, Iranian demonstrators were out in force. The tour included the General Assembly, which was in session as we passed through… As the rain gave some relief to the summer humidity, it was time to find some lunch!
I tried out a couple of delis in New York and generally relished the fantastic portion sizes and choice on offer. Although also very cheap, it was difficult to grasp how much it’d all cost as nothing was priced with tax and you’re obliged to tip at least 20%. I found service staff to either be wildly rude or – more often – wildly, insanely happy. I recall one waiter being so fanatically delighted to be serving me, I feared he’d spontaneously orgasm were I to agree to a dessert. It’s not something us Brits are comfortable with – I’d certainly prefer my food to be begrudgingly thrown at me – such is the custom back home and just as I’d do too were I on minimum wage. The ’have-a-nice-day’ culture is a bit too contrived for us cynical English folk – just give me the damn lasagne sans bullshit – I don’t need updates as to how it’s doing in the flippin’ oven.
An afternoon – 3 hours – dedicated to queuing in 33c heat and jumping through security hoops for the Statue of Liberty wasn’t really worth the sweaty back. Aside from her lack of eyes and being entirely green, I think Lady Liberty continues to freak me out ever since she came to life in the Ghostbusters movie. The crown recently re-opened to the public, but if you want to go up her dress you have to book far in advance. I got my obligatory, traditional ‘Brucey’ photo and left for Chinatown, where I was meeting Deena to go to a Comedy Night… We realised pretty quickly that we were accidentally attending a Jewish Comedy Night, and it appeared to be ‘dress down Friday’ as there was a somewhat lassiez-faire approach to actual jokes. These guys would be brutally shot down and heckled in England, where I used to see live comedy every week. Listening to the comperes was like overhearing a casual chat between two moderately humorous friends, rather than paid-for entertainment. We took the subway back to Harlem safe in the knowledge that I was definitely far more hilarious than any of the acts we’d seen that night.
The Greyhound website promised new luxury buses, complete with plush seats, power sockets and wifi for my overnight journey to Toronto, Canada – a short break from the US. As I watched the coach fill up, I relaxed in the station smugly ignoring the big rush to board. Suckers… As the bus slowly pulled away, I realised the reason for the urgency – Greyhound tickets do not guarantee a seat and additional transport is provided for those who don’t make it on. Cue the dilapidated ghetto bus which trundled around the corner into the space previously occupied by the new pimped up coach. I spotted the First Bus Travel logo on the back – Greyhound had been bought out by the mickey-mouse Scottish company running the system in my hometown – ‘go figure’.
A sleepless night later, I met my old university buddy Senait who kindly put me up in Hamilton. We spent a day at Niagara Falls where I considered the awesome power of nature and spread rumours that ‘they switched it off at night’. [photo gallery] Surrounding the falls is a sprawling thoroughfare of gaudy tourist traps, restaurants and hotels. Having devoured a massive ice-cream and beat my friend at air-hockey in the arcades, we went to a haunted house which featured ‘live’ interactive monsters who teased, grabbed, chased and taunted brave visitors. It might be an understatement to say it terrified me – I screeched like a girl and remained firmly behind Senait, yelping as actors grasped my waist in the pitch darkness. I wondered what it’d be like to work there and how the employees describe their line of employment – ‘Oh I scream and grab people in the dark all day, and you?’
We spent one more day exploring Toronto, where I observed the perfectly flat urban sprawl from the famous CN Tower and had my first Taco Bell (where have you been all my life? In foreign countries I suppose). My 12-hour daytime bus back to the Land of the Free was thankfully aboard one of the luxury Greyhounds…
Canada had offered some welcome relief from the in-your-face patriotism displayed on every street corner of the US. China was obviously doing a roaring trade manufacturing star spangled banners and I remarked to a friend how nauseous it made me feel being constantly surrounded by flags. “Pipe down Grundy, you can’t say stuff like that!”… I was confused, I knew our American counterparts had blindly embraced a culture of fear after 9/11 but I didn’t expect an Orwellian ban on criticism. “What’s the problem? I just think there are lots of flags about!” After a while, it became clear I’d been misheard. In my comical foreign accent, ‘flags’ sounds remarkably like ‘fags’ – which is definitely not a cigarette in the US.
Back on American soil, I met some more old friends in Philadelphia – birthplace of America and backdrop for the hilarious Tom Hanks romantic comedy of the same name. Unfortunately our city Duck Tour aboard an ex-WWII amphibious personnel carrier was spoiled by bad weather, but I did get to see the Liberty Bell, which was undoubtedly one of the best bells I ever did see.
On the outskirts of Philly the preserved Eastern State Penitentiary was well worth a gander. It functioned between 1829-1971 and was home to bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone. Today, its crumbling gothic walls serve as a tourist magnet and one big photo opportunity [photo gallery]. Its wagon-wheel design (‘19th century CCTV’ which allowed a single guard to monitor all corridors from the centre) inspired 300 other prisons worldwide. It was based on the idea that all men were basically good and solitary confinement would eventually guilt out wrongdoers. It was the biggest and most architecturally and technologically marvellous building ever constructed when it first opened, and attracted tourists from the outset. It even had central heating before the White House did.
Late afternoon and whilst riding the tram back to my hostel, I leapt off having spotted the insane Westboro Baptist Church hate group nutters protesting a Jewish convention. These racist, homophobic demonstrators were made infamous by a BBC Louis Theroux documentary and the coverage they received picketing the funerals of American soldiers. Rightly, few media outlets give them coverage any more, but their website promotes their almost daily protests across the States. Their theory is that the US is a damned nation for tolerating homosexuals (hence their notorious placard ‘GOD HATES FAGS’) and therefore anyone who fights for the US is evil and the 9/11 attacks, AIDS, IEDs in Iraq, Katrina etc… are all God’s revenge. Their hate-filled rallies seem to target anyone and everyone outside of their tiny family congregation, which is headed by one man, Fred Phelps. Once, they picketed a vacuum cleaner salesman who happened to sell some products from Sweden, which had recently prosecuted an outspoken anti-gay priest.
Today, the Westboro freak show was objecting to Jews because they killed Jesus. Their signs read ‘Jews Stole the Land’, ‘Bloody Obama’ ‘You’re Going to Hell’, ‘God Hates Jews’ and ‘Priests Rape Boys’. I’d seen how these fruit loops thrive on confrontation and how it just seems to make them stronger – so I just got a few ironic photos and made one gentle point – that Jesus might have also been an actual Jew. This sparked a vitriolic onslaught, “That’s why they killed him!” – an argument which seemed a little contradictory… “…And you’re going to hell too because you’ve never opened a bible!!” In fact, I’d studied it in depth and think it’s a lovely story – can’t wait for the sequel and all… I didn’t let on that I was an enthusiastic atheist and British, as I knew they’d been banned from entering the UK and thus I was probably on their extensive hate list by default. The most disturbing part is the fact they have brainwashed children brandishing placards too.
Moments later, near Philadelphia bus station, I passed another bunch of extremists that Louis Theroux had covered – some black supremacists known as the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge. They stuck out in my mind as I recall how they bullied Louis to swear that Shakespeare, Jesus, Henry VII and Tom Jones were all black. Their signs bantered on about white people being the source of all evil, how all of history’s great people were definitely black and that they are the true descendants of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Both of these hate groups pose difficult questions for, and have led to a tightening of, America’s freedom of speech laws. It seems my Bible Belt tour had begun sooner than I’d anticipated…
Aside from trying the delicious cheesesteaks and hanging out on bohemian South Street, there was little else left to see in the Union’s first city. In fairness, I think the place means more to Americans since they grow up learning about their history in detail – whilst most of the names, statues and monuments mean little to us filthy foreigners…
The same might be said about Washington DC, which is all museums, monuments and memorials set amidst the National Mall. The Space and Aviation Museum was excellent and few would argue with the Natural History Museum (all free entry) or the splendour of the open public spaces and architecture. It must be said though, the long slog from the Abe Lincoln statue to the Capitol is like a Buddhist trial of endurance, with the sweaty walk around the Mall’s renowned sights perhaps designed to test your allegiance to the cause. Chatting to some other tourists around the WWII memorial (1941-1945 apparently!), it appeared that Americans from all over the States make this patriotic pilgrimage (24 million each year according to my Lonely Bastard guidebook). As night fell, I popped over to the White House where some Iraqi and Iranian protesters were camped out on hunger strike. It was surprising how close one could get to Obama’s digs without airport-style security giving you a frisking… I felt there was something profound to be said about how so much of the capital city is devoted to glorifying the war dead (particularly in the face of America’s questionable adventures around the world) but I’m perhaps not sure how to articulate it…
It was road-trip time as I collected my Dodge Caliber from DC’s Ronald Reagan Airport. I sat at the steering wheel for the first time in two years wondering what the hell I was thinking. Incidentally, the said steering wheel was planted the wrong side, my ‘sub-compact’ vehicle was locally considered to be small, but was HUGE to me and it was also an automatic – another new experience. Furthermore, I would have to immediately drive on the right, in the rain, in the capital of a new country – it was certainly brown trousers time. I found the idea of automatic gear changing to be a bit creepy (how did it know!?), especially as I’d only ever driven a 1-litre, 4-gear 1989 Nissan Micra. I finally sold the ancient ‘Grundmobile’ (which featured a sound system that out-valued the car) when I moved back to Hong Kong and was frankly unprepared for the power and responsiveness of a brand new vehicle with almost double the power. I’ll be honest – my Micra would often struggle up hills and you had to be quite physical with it, occasionally asking friends to bail out so it could make it up steep slopes in first gear. It was so basic that it wasn’t manufactured with a left wing mirror and had a top speed of about 70 (downhill).
Luckily, DC’s roads were wide and calm, and the road signs big and clear. It took a few days to get used to the super sensitive brakes – I’d only have to touch them and my face would end up in the middle of next Tuesday. I also had to pull over to find the windscreen wipers, but things calmed down after a week on the road. My first journey out would be a grand 10-hour epic drive to Atlanta, but first – I had to find petrol.
Deciphering exactly how American ‘gas stations’ worked was an exercise in tragicomedy. Firstly, I had no idea what kind of fuel my Dodge took and the instruction manual didn’t say (a passer-by assured me it was unleaded). Then a farcical routine commenced around the pump as I attempted in vain to fill her up. The pump was speaking to me and insisted on a credit card but – because I couldn’t provide a zip code – I was left standing around like a complete melon. A queue of huge 4x4s, and what by British-standards would be described as monster trucks, had begun to form behind me as I quickly began to regret planting an England flag on top of my car. Embarrassed, I appealed for help and was told I could ‘pre-pay’ with cash. “But how do I know much I’ll fit in the tank?” The guy shrugged and I went inside to investigate… “How do I know much I’ll fit in the tank?” I insisted the bemused cashier take a look at my ride and asked whether $100 would be enough for a full refuel. Apparently $30 would be more than enough, as I stood in disbelief at the affordability. She also explained that I’d be refunded if I over-estimated how much I’d need… I went back to make bumbling, apologetic gestures to the irate backlog of traffic I’d generated.
And then it was just me and the open road… Ah yes – Kerouac, Cassady. Bonnie, Clyde, Thelma, Louise and now Grundy – the unparalleled romance of the cross-country road trip. Whilst the Interstates were somewhat soulless, the quieter roads were all you’d expect – quiet, straight highways disappearing on the horizon punctuated with momma’s-and-papa’s diners, old skool motels and rusty gas stations. Like much of America, there was surreal movie-like ambience to it all, perhaps because our only experience of the US whilst growing up is through films. As I passed through the Mason-Dixon Line, I noticed R&B/hip-hop slowly gave way to country and western on the radio the further I went away from the city…
Country music remains huge in the Deep South and has spawned dozens of subgenres. The lyrics idealise country pursuits like fishing, hunting, drinking and fighting, they lament cheating women and glorify gun ownership, trucks and cowboys/girls – some songs include several or all of these staples. All seem to tell a story and I recall one which basically said that city guys are utter pansies and then listed the masculine traits and skills inherent in Southerners which are lacking in their weedy urban counterparts.
Atlanta was a little grittier than NY and I found it necessary to adopt a new walk for use in downtown after dark. It was a walk that exuded a certain defiant confidence and I was sure it helped me deal with the bizarre line of questioning thrown at me by randoms – ‘Come look at my Starbucks!’, ‘Do you like my car? etc… The big attractions in Georgia’s capital were the Olympic facilities, Aquarium (the world’s biggest, where you can stoke a manta ray!), the CNN Headquarters (their tour easily beat the NBC equivalent) and the Coca-Cola Museum and Headquarters Tour. I skipped the latter as it seemed wrong to pay to see an interactive advertisement, and they’re a pretty horrible company. The striking workers outside swung it for me and I decided not to go inside. Atlanta was also the birthplace and resting place of Martin Luther King and has always been a beacon of tolerance – a city ‘too busy to hate’.
Just as I’d begun to re-establish contact with my sore buttcheeks, I hit the road again for New Orleans – another eight hours or so under the belt. The driving was going well and so far I’d only almost-crashed twice, after spotting Hooters billboards. (I hadn’t the nerve to go in, but the posters alone were enough to cause some lane drift.) I filled up the car like a true pro, delighting in the fact I could buy a whole tank of petrol for under 20 quid. Back on the Interstate, there were two very short, sharp showers – each lasting seconds (‘warning bursts’ apparently). 10 minutes later, what was later deemed a ‘severe thunderstorm’ set in very, very suddenly…
At the time, I was convinced I’d driven into a full-on tornado as visibility dropped to literally zero – the rain was exceptionally heavy and my windscreen was a blanket of grey. Everyone had slowed down and I couldn’t see a damn thing. A log was lying right across the highway and I just happened to drive through two perfectly aligned tracks cut right into it, presumably by an 8-wheeler. Somehow a truck driving ahead of me must have sliced the gaps into the rotten trunk seconds before, as – if I’d been in the left lane or slightly to the left or right – I would’ve easily have crashed. This, coupled with the freakish lightening bolt in Union Square had been my second flirtation with Death – I began to get slightly religious about the whole affair. Most traffic pulled into a rural Shell station at the next exit and everyone was talking about the haphazard log.
I located my hostel in a dark neighbourhood a couple of miles out of New Orleans downtown. The following couple of days were spent wandering the French Quarter and witnessing the debauchery of Boubon Street. It was a party town – much of which almost looked like a different country. I hit up a 50’s-style diner, caught some live music and considered indulging my curiosity by driving into the Ninth Ward. This poor area, to the east of the city, was the worst affected by Katrina but I was warned by the tourist office not to drive in alone, and they refused to give me directions. I reluctantly and guiltily signed up for an official tour though I wasn’t too comfortable with the use of exclamation marks in their leaflet promoting the excursion…
However, it turned out to be the most information-rich tour I’d ever been on – the super knowledgeable guide didn’t stop talking for three solid hours and most of it was about the science, effects, politics and aftermath of what was very much a man-made disaster. It was remarkable how corporate negligence, decades of government cost-cutting and ridiculous politics had cost thousands of lives. We were shown the levees – new and old, the Superdome, evacuation route and new building projects. The tour ended with a non-stop whip around the Ninth Ward. It was clearly regenerating quickly, and appeared to be perhaps 70% on its feet. There were a few abandoned shops and fast food outlets, and there were certainly hundreds of dilapidated, unclaimed homes upon which the water marks were still visible – businesses and families were returning though. [picture gallery]
It was not uncommon to see holes in the roofs where rescue teams had been searching for survivors in attics. Each team left markings on the front of the houses which remain visible, listing the search time and number of people found. It was eerie to still see ‘4 DOA’ scrawled on houses in spray paint and equally weird to glimpse the abandoned Six Flags Theme Park, which never reopened and is still part under water. Sometimes you would see just the front steps up to a missing house (locally dubbed ‘steps to nowhere’). I’d been sceptical about ‘disaster tourism’ but the trip had been justified by the amount I’d learnt about the hurricane and New Orleans – things I wouldn’t have known about had I’d ventured out alone.
Next on the driving schedule was a pit stop in Houston, Texas to see Deena’s family. A massive – and I mean humungous – flag greeted me as I entered the Lone-Star State. I locked my doors and followed my MapQuest directions to Sugarland, impressed with myself for having come this far without a road atlas or GPS. Yes, Deena is from Sugarland – a new suburb of America’s fourth largest city. The neighbourhood exemplified the notion that it’s impossible to live in the US without a car – everything is built around the automobile, and you’re trapped without one – preferably one each. Maybe it is the British way to be cynical or suspicious of such a picturesque and charming place but Sugarland seemed too perfect, just as its name imparts. Immaculate front lawns with white picket fences, rows of glistening swimming pools, families who looked like the picture-in-the-frame-when-you-buy-the-frame, all set around a man-made lake. Surely there had to be something sinister going on, or a killer on the loose!?
I was treated to the first vegetables I’d seen since entering the US as Deena’s kind-hearted Zoroastrian family made me feel welcome in their beautiful home. Houston isn’t a typical tourist destination but no visit to Jesusland would be complete without a trip to the country’s biggest house of worship…
And a ‘trip’ it was indeed. Lakewood Megachurch has a capacity of 44,000 – it looked like a sports arena (it previously was one!) and it was oddly devoid of any religious symbols. There was, however, a huge American flag at the back of the arena which probably counts. I envisioned ‘talking in tongues’, homophobic ranting, people being cured, healed and ‘saved’ and a soulful gospel choir. Being a non-denominational church, with so many different attendees to please, nothing political or controversial unfolded – but there was an awesome choir… The singing was so passionate and joyful, that it could’ve been easy to mistake the concert-style atmosphere, the pulsating sound system and crowd psychology for something supernatural (like, for instance, the imperceptible presence of an invincible long dead Jewish carpenter with admittedly top banter).
I sat through Joel Osteen’s Sunday worship, which was televised live on Christian channels around the world and suppressed the very British urge to heckle. It must be said, Joel does quite well for himself, despite having a face – and a wife – that don’t look real. It seemed to be more like motivational speaking with religious overtones than traditional preaching, but the crowd seemed to love him, especially when he whipped out an analogy. The theme was the importance of loving oneself before loving others – as per the commandment ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’. The first analogy went as follows: “You can’t order a steak at a McDonald’s drive-thru – they just ain’t got any. In the same way, you can’t give love if you don’t have any yourself”. Yes, Joel – it’s exactly like that.
Later, his wife piped up about how the airline industry recommends we put our own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others (when the flaming aeroplane is descending violently into certain oblivion, presumably). Christianity is just like that too, because we can’t assist other people with our love, unless we love ourselves. Ahh, NOW I understand! Again, the congregation went nuts for, what some would say, was a somewhat flimsy analogy. Certainly, though, I felt reassured, safe in the knowledge that I have spent a LOT of time loving myself. No really, especially in one’s teenage years – so I’m sure to prove Westboro Baptist Church wrong when I ascend directly to the Pearly Gates.
After spouting more crap parallels and initiating “The Tide” (i.e. the monetary collection – complete with subtitle – ‘cheques payable to Lakewood Church’), Joel wrapped the hour-long service up with a final prayer. Already folks had started leaving – it was a deeply impersonal place, we were in-and-out very fast, and it was surely devoid of all the supportive community elements you’d find in a smaller place of worship. It is unsurprising that the ‘McChurch’ has been accused of causing local church closures and has been criticised for not providing any Easter Sunday or Christmas Day services.
I braved the traffic, set my buttcheeks to ‘numb’ and embarked on another 8-hour drive to Little Rock, Arkansas. By now the number-of-instances of accidental driving-on-the-left had levelled off at 5, whilst my habit of trying to enter the vehicle from the right hand side remained a stubborn habit. I’d tempered my dose of country music with bouts of ridiculous right-wing talk shows, within the context of ‘know thine enemy’. For the entire fortnight I was driving through the Deep South, the insane hosts had ranted on, relentlessly monologing about the evils of universal healthcare. Day in, day out, the same twisted sound bites, cries of socialism and scare-mongering. Even Christian radio said that the invisible hand of the market that guided private heathcare was actually the hand of god. And there’s no liberal alternative if you turn the dial – NPR (American equivalent of the BBC) is just sensible and balanced. It’s funny how we liberals protest war and the Republicans protest healthcare accessible to everyone – it’s a miracle America makes any progress with these nutters piping up.
I was used to hearing the extreme outbursts and irrational tirades of the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, but had no idea that such bullshit was the rule rather than the exception. You can tune in at any minute and be guaranteed that some degree of radical neo-conservative diatribe is being spouted. It’s fun, if not exasperating. Within 5 minutes of broadcasting, Glenn Beck had insisted Hilary Clinton approved of Nazi-esque eugenics and that he hoped a terrorist attack would occur in Times Square (where his studio is based), as it’d be great for ratings. The themes and ideas remained the same as each host handed over to the next – outrage, moral panic, outrage, the impending apocalypse, religion and more outrage and anger. All presented in a cosy, fireside chatty manner with occasional callers who agree with and reinforce everything – it sort of left me feeling a bit dirty and manipulated, to the degree that suddenly you catch yourself wondering if maybe they’ve made a reasonable point… Hmmm, yeah maybe Obama is a Kenyan-born infiltrator bent on killing Grandmothers?
This remnant of Bush-era anti-intellectualism has found its new role and, scarily, their audience figures remain huge and growing. In this case, put simply, ‘Big Pharma’ was employing PR firms to feed talk show producers talking points – some based on blatant lies (Obama wants death panels; the NHS is Orwellian etc…). The ignorant listenership embraced what they were told and shouted and screamed until they won, which they pretty much did.
After a drive around Little Rock and inspection of my host’s father’s rifle collection, I made the short (5-hour) journey to Memphis, Tennessee. Beale Street lived up to expectations and truly was the home of some great, original Blues music. I wolfed down some BBQ pulled pork and listened to Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay at the BB King Blues Club. Next morning I popped over to Graceland – it was Elvis Week, the anniversary of his death and the grounds were busy. It can’t be understated – Graceland had to be the worst tourist trap I’d ever experienced. Every conceivable corner and element of his home and legacy had been maximised to turn a buck – there must’ve been a dozen different tickets with separate charges for his garage of automobiles and aeroplane hangar. We were ferried around his meticulously preserved (tastelessly decorated) home on an audio tour, and led through his garish trophy rooms and gold disc collections to his final resting place. The grave was adorned with flags, flowers and tributes from visitors who’d made the almost spiritual excursion from all around the world. I spotted an impersonator deep in thought perched opposite the family headstones – I bore no understanding how some celebrity that hardly anyone had met could have such a personal effect. I would guess that Michael Jackson’s Neverland will soon become a similar insipid cash-cow…
One man much worthier of remembrance was Martin Luther, who was shot dead at the Lorraine Hotel 19 miles away in downtown Memphis, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel. His room had been preserved but the rest of the building showed the inspiring history of the movement and how equality was won and Jim Crow laws finally quashed. Most shocking were the details of how authorities in the southern states went to great lengths in order to preserve segregation. The simple, peaceful direct action of Rosa Parks and hundreds of other activists who staged ‘sit-ins’ at segregated diners, libraries and buses were met with numerous, years-long, desperate legal attempts to make their actions illegal. Boycotts were made unlawful, even car pooling in light of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was made illegal – and all so recently.
As I left, I noticed a lone protestor near the old hotel sign – all I knew at the time was that she had a banner suggesting the museum was a $10million abomination that desecrated Martin Luther’s memory, and that her protest had been running for 21 years and 207 days. I tried asking what the problem was, and said how moving and informative the museum had been for me. She was dismissive and said that people can learn about it on the internet and how the area had been gentrified – the land should have been used to employ local poor black people… To be fair, I’d only noticed black people working there and surely fast-food restaurants or nearby luxury condos would’ve been a more appropriate target. That kind of thing is happening all over the world. I was polite but within a minute, she told me the conversation was over and that she was eating her lunch. I tried to ask more questions to understand what she meant, but I’d been sent packing. I’ve never met a demonstrator who wasn’t bothered about convincing someone of their cause.
Later, I learnt that she was in fact Jacqueline Smith – the final tenant and a cleaner at the hotel who was evicted and made jobless when it was turned into a museum in the 80s. Her website claims the museum dwells on negativity and makes a circus out of the movement – though I’ve read elsewhere that she’s never been in. Although I think she is misguided, I’d have been sympathetic if I’d known her full story at the time and think she obviously has a point about gentrification and poverty, and I’d agree it shouldn’t be a ‘for-profit’ operation. After camping out every day and night in the gutter for over 21 years in all weathers, I’d guess that she has become inseparable from the battle against the museum – a personal crusade. Surely, at some time over the decades, she must’ve been approached with some kind of accommodation or employment by some charity or NGO? Surely, Obama’s election could’ve been seen as a fulfilment of King’s dream and Promised Land speech – an appropriate time to wind down the picket? I just didn’t get it…
The news on the radio during the drive to Nashville said that the city of Birmingham, Alabama had pardoned all blacks who were prosecuted for rioting in the 60s during the civil rights era – proof that America is still coming to terms with its past. The last thing I needed was for my next encounter to be with a racist redneck, who welcomed me to my Nashville hostel with ‘How y’doin’? We’re the chief niggers!’ I thought I’d misheard and hoped he’d said ‘chief leaders’, but alas not – I gave a weak smile and pledged to stay in bed and nurse the man flu I’d acquired until morning. The hostel was in the middle of nowhere and was based in someone’s house – the owner had simply filled the upstairs with bunk beds – clearly a tax-avoidance job. The ‘chief’ later apologised, insisted he wasn’t racist and told me all about his life and travels – but I couldn’t wait to leave and made tracks early next morning to a more traditional hostel set-up closer to town.
Time was running out and I saw little of Nashville – a full day’s driving back to DC lay dauntingly ahead. I’d grown fond of my Dodge and felt I’d only had a small glimpse of the country. As my odometer ticked over 3000 miles, I couldn’t believe I’d managed the drive without GPS or a map (mainly as I couldn’t find one!). I checked into a classic, retro motel (the type you get murdered in) just short of the finish line, and returned the car to Regan airport next morning.
No-one could quite understand why I’d chosen to visit the Deep South and when I was asked by someone at a service station ‘Where’s England?’ (how do you respond? Saying ‘Europe’ would throw up the same problem), I had to wonder myself. I’d also been told that I ‘sound like Harry Potter’. As for the southern accent, I found it somehow ‘unrealistic’ – the folksy drawl is so often parodied and associated with people like Bush and Forest Gump that I almost couldn’t believe anyone spoke like that. Part of me wanted to say ‘Ok, really funny with the accent but you can pack it in now’.
Reflecting on the journey back in NYC, the south seemed so separate and insulated from the politics of the coast and the rest of the world, with bizarre, debunked Reaganite/Thatherite attitudes prevailing about the supposed ‘evils’ of government. Moral issues will unfortunately always be an election swinger, and many Americans will always vote according to single domestic concerns – abortion, homosexuality, stem cells, religion etc… – none of which should ever come into play. Meanwhile, insane talk show hosts convince the poor and uninformed that the status quo is fine, tax and regulation are bad and Obama is the antichrist. It makes them into the laughing stock of the world yet, even in the US, the evidence is all around that the under regulated free market system is kaput. With any attempt at progress and intervention immediately pacified and demonised, the government is powerless to tackle the causes of inequality and instead has to clear up the mess retrospectively in the form of bail outs and subsidies. Whether it be huge, knee-jerk corporate bail-outs and agricultural subsidy at the grand level or food stamps, income support, soup kitchens and the tipping culture for employed people at the bottom – no-one is questioning why wages plateaued long ago, why holidays are minimal, heathcare unaffordable and working hours ridiculous. The sooner Sarah Palin leads a breakaway loony party, the better – it may hail a return to reasonable interaction…
I’ve had to save up Vegas, the Grand Canyon, California, Florida and the national parks for another trip – perhaps ‘Grundy’s Wild West Tour 2010’… I don’t regret the small insight I had into the ‘other’ America which seems to have so much influence on US politics, and therefore the world. America bashing is easy because they’re the super-power and they do so much to warrant it, but it can’t be denied that we all have a love-hate affair with the Land of the Free because we most of us consume and love the food, the movies, the culture and the ideals (and whether these things are ‘imposed’ on us is another debate). It’s worth remembering that the American Dream and vision as the bastion of freedom and democracy is just that – an ideal, a dream. After visiting, you see that the faith and pride in the American fantasy runs from top to bottom. From those on the receiving end of America’s supremacy to the vast majority of its citizens I met on the ground, it is hoped the Obama era will finally bring some of these long-standing aspirations into reality.