Sunday, July 26, 2009

America in 900 words or less

Before I start, I should probably add that right now it is 12.39 a.m, and I am alone sitting outside the Durango Public library, in darkness, with the police driving by every 20 minutes or so. I am also slightly drunk on Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (Americas favourite beer of 1893). Needless to say, I am sketching, slightly. Anyway, here you go...

Americans do not understand me. Just a couple of days ago I was talking to my new flatmate, who I had just met for the first time. It was a Saturday morning. “Are there any good weekend newspapers in this country?” I asked. She looked at me quizzically and mumbled something. After a second of awkward silence she perked up. “Oh” she exclaimed, brightly. “You mean, are there any Water Pipes around here? Of course, theres a shop selling them just around the corner down the road. Its very good”. I thanked her, then turned and fled to my room. “Never ask Americans anything”, I reminded myself as I hid in the corner and thought comforting thoughts of home.

This was not a unique occurrence. I’ve been here five weeks, been to seven different states, and yet not one single person has managed to say my name properly. The conversation usually goes like this:

American: So, whats your name?

Me: Jack

American: Well, its nice to meet you, Jed

Who knows. Maybe I should just change my name to Archibold.

Apart from not being understood, the American upper mid-west has been a wonderful place to experience, especially since it’s the height of summer. Right now I’m in the quaint tourist town of Durango, which is down at the bottom of the state of Colorado. Despite Durango having the greatest second-hand bookshop known to man, the local populace tend to ignore this and instead spend their time floating down the local river on giant tubes. Of course, this is only their daytime activity; at night they generally tend to go out and get stupendously drunk, presumably because there is nothing else to do in a tourist town on a week night. Sometimes, they even combine the two activities. So it goes.

Needless to say, for the casual New Zealand tourist, America is a trip. Often when you go to foreign countries with certain preconceived notions about aspects of their various societies, it turns out you are sorely disappointed. For instance, there is no Fosters in Australia (Yes, I know. Messed up.). And, I could be wrong on this, but I’m fairly sure that Khazakstan, well, isn’t quite like it is according to Borat. However, I am here to tell you right now that everything you think about America is, in fact, true. Sports journalists are all like Ray Romano, everyone in the South preaches about Jesus, and everyone in California are pot-smoking tree-hugging hippie liberals. Except, of course, for Arnie. Maybe that’s why he’s such a jackass (just quietly).

Speaking of California, this brings up another aspect of American society that the world sees all too readily, and which is, unfortunately, true as well. Certain aspects of this country (usually Republicans, of course) are mind-blowingly greedy and self-centered. When I first arrived in California, a debate was raging over how to make the state, the third largest economy in the whole world, financially solvent; it was a matter of weeks, they said, before the whole place was going to go broke. Democrats insisted on raising taxes (the top tax rate is all of 17% here) and plugging a loophole that was allowing people to pay their property taxes on historic valuations, instead of current ones: this alone, apparently, would have solved the whole problem. Republicans, in their infinite wisdom, were having none of this. Of course, this was big government messing with the little guy, they said. Their theory? To close all the state parks, cut benefits to, among others, alzheimers patients, and sell San Quentin prison. Genius. I wish I was that smart.

Fortunately, most Americans are a cut above this (or at least the 51.2% that voted for Obama, anyway). Since heading off to explore the wonders of this place, most of the people I have encountered have been slightly nuts, very charming, and very interesting.

It all began, more or less, at the Kate Wolfe Music Festival in Northern California, where, after following Woodstock M.C Wavy Gravy around and stalking Emmylou Harris back to her motorhome, I briefly hung out with a folk musician named Rosalie Sorrels; Sorrels, who was a good friend of Ken Kesey, is also apparently the only musician to have album liner notes written by Hunter S Thompson and Studs Terkel. Indeed. From then on it only got more ‘out there’: hanging out in Sacramento with a staunch Native American named Chief (of course), a brawling Texan ladykiller called John and, my favourite, Giovan, a “black radical hippy love child”, as he put it, with a love for Led Zeppelin and classic Rolling Stones. Or up in Spokane, Washington, staying up till 3 a.m drinking whiskey with a Vietnam war veteran and listening to his classic 60s LP collection (think Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane). One of the records had sound effects of Vietnam-era jet planes racing overhead; he shook his head. “It wasn’t really like that” the grizzled vet noted, somberly. “You’d never hear them till they were gone”.

I’m not quite sure what over-riding impression I have of this country. I guess it’s a country of many different peoples, viewpoints and perspectives, probably the single most varied country in the Western World, at least, for good or for ill. And it’s not quite sane. And it has very cheap beer. Did I mention that?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Ramblings from the Haight-Ashbury. Well not really, but you know...

So...3a.m in San Francisco. It probably sounds exciting, and it actually kind of is, in the way that you can't go outside or else you run the risk of being mugged by some crazy drunk motherfucker wearing a towel and a bandanna. Yes indeed. Welcome to the USA.

I'm only here overnight. I came down from Santa Rosa on a whim earlier in the day, which a decision I'm slightly regretting right at this moment due to the loud snoring of my roommate, who, I should add, is a 45 year old designer or something down from the coast for the annual gay pride meeting. In San Francisco? I know. Who would have thought? Seriously though...I'm down for the night due to the lack of decent guitar shops in Santa Rosa, which is an hour and a half up the road and where I've been staying for the last couple of weeks. It's a bit of a drag, especially since it means I'm going to have to disrupt everyones plans tomorrow morning since theyre going to have to come and pick me up from Santa Rosa, which I''m feeling slightly guilty about. But I think that's probably just 3.25am guilt.

I won't even begin to start on all the shit thats gone down since I've arrived; its starting to look like this might be as random a trip as the infamous tour of Australia earlier in the year. All I'll say is that I'm in town because I need to buy a decent guitar amp because I'm about to head off on tour with a Colorado singer-songwriter called Gigi Love. This should give you some idea of the randomness alreay-I might go into detail later, but right now, quite frankly, I can't be fucked.

Its been an interesting evening. I got into town around 7.15ish and was dropped off on the wrong side of the city but a well meaning but misguided bus driver, and so I had to walk miles to get to the inner city. It was worth it though, since San Fran is such a wicked place to walk through. I caught a show at a blues club down the road; some guy be honest, I forget his name right now, which more or less sums it up. Apparently he used to play with blues legend Little Walter's band back in the day; the guy has been around for a while. I had dinner at a 24 hour 50s restaurant, where the staff all wore those pointed hats and dresses that look like nurses ones, which was pretty trippy. I had some interesting dealings with panhandlers; one told me I was too young, and when I didn't give him money he shouted across the street that i'd hurt his feelings. He also called me "nigga". The best one was some random who joined me outside the blues club: he told me that he played classical guitar and was a prodigy, and was so good that Andres Segovia looked at him and was like "whoa, slow down, your fingers are too fast!". He ended all this by saying "Listen. I'm just panhandling. Will you give me some money? I just want to go get drunk". I gave him a dollar. Nice guy.

So thats San Fran. I guess I'm going to have to go back and deal with the snoring pothead homosexual lying on the bunk underneath me. mm. Good times. God bless America.