Pictured above, a genuine screengrab from Facebook seen today. More salt in the wound of those who seem vaguely upset that American software corporations a) distinguish between American English, Australian English, Canadian English and (errrrr) English English); and that b) assume the latter three are inferior to the first.
If you’re reading this blog, then you are most likely a fully paid up member of the English speaking world (I did attempt to blog in French, but that hit the buffers quite rapidly). In which case you will also be part of a culture that will, for many years to come, ask each other where you were on the night Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America. It seems that much of America and a not insignificant proportion of Britain was still awake when the television networks were able to make their first confident “call” that Obama had won.
I was (as I usually am at momentous moments) asleep, somewhere on the west coast mainline between Glasgow and London. There was no-one to note or celebrate the victory with me, my mid-week sleeper train was probably only half full and my compartment was mine alone. I had woken as we rattled over some particularly noisy points (my tip for you is to avoid berths 1-4 and 20-24, they’re the ones right above the bits that go clickety-clack) and gave in to the temptation of mobile internet on my phone. For the satisfyingly old-world-meets-new price of tuppence a megabyte, the BBC informed me of Obama’s win just a few minutes after it had been called. I pulled the duvet back up and snuggled down for the last hour or two of my journey south, wondering what this would mean for life in a world dominated by that one country and its politics
We don’t normally benefit from the later editions of the London newspapers in Glasgow, but with specially extended deadlines the majority of the newspapers were able to catch up with events and have a later edition (below right) on the news stands at London Euston station when I arrived just before 07h00.
I picked up two (admittedly complimentary left-leaning) newspapers and took a number 10 bus towards South Kensington for breakfast. In the large branch of Pain Quotidien there I took my time over a bowl of coffee and a basket of bread (smothered with the delightful spreads and jams of that chain). I took full advantage of the lazy service and enjoyed a good hour and a half with the newspapers, attempting to block out the loud, intrusive and self congratulatory chit-chat of a television news crew who had just come in from a late night election party for American ex-pats in a neighbouring pub.
Later in the day I boarded another train, this time from London Waterloo. It was mid-afternoon and the detritus of the morning rush-hour still decorated the interior of the train. Dozens of rumpled morning freesheets littered the floor, soon to be accompanied by the evening editions of their competitors.
History had been in the making. And all these thousands of miles away from the man who had made it, the crumpled pages that had recorded the passage of time within the space of one night were being scooped up by roving cleaners in time for another layer of history to be abandoned on the floor of a commuter train.
A sunny afternoon with time to kill in Logan Square, a very mixed district of north-western Chicago. The elevated railway (“el”) runs very close the apartment I found (somewhat indirectly) through the Hospitality Club.
Every five or ten minutes (thankfully less often at night) a blue line train roars past. I’m staying not far from an incline that takes the elevated track from eight metres above ground to eight metres below ground. As if the roar of a steel train running on steel wheels along steel tracks on a steel elevated structure were not enough to keep you awake at night, the additional noise created by the braking of descending trains and the acceleration of ascending trains surely is.
The ascent from subterranean to above ground running marks the end of the branch to O’Hare, the newest in the city. From this point on the train runs along an elevated structure, parallel to Milwaukee Avnue, built in 1895. That’s what a quick bit of research revealed. This noisy structure is one of the oldest I will see on my trip to America.
And to think that when I originally walked this alleyway, it was the authentic-yet-retro logo of the Chicago Transit Authority that caught my eye.
“What’ll it be folks?”
The question comes so hard and so fast we are both lost, gazing blankly around the bar like a pair of rabbits in the headlights. We’re in a small town bar – a small town red neck bar, to be precise, somewhere in the mid-West. We have just arrived, unpacked our bags in a motel room, and are in search of refreshment.
“Two Bud Lights,” says my guide.
“Two Bud Lights it is…” replies the barman. He’s dressed in noticeably hip clothes – a big statement t-shirt and a light coloured linen jacket. He looks almost as out of place as we do.
“Bud Light?” I ask my guide.
“It’s the only thing I can be sure they would have,” she replies.
A glass and a half of pale beer arrive before us.
“This one is for you, and the barrel popped as I poured it, so this one is on the house.”
We thank our hipster barman, and drink to a day on the smaller roads of the remoter counties of this state. We drove through this town earlier in the day, and then doubled back in a loop knowing that this would be a good place to stay overnight. There was a pair of motels to price off against each other, a couple of places to eat and this – the small town’s self evident and ram shackle low end saloon. It faced the main street of town with a covered deck and countless neon signs in the window. The door was propped open, and the cool evening air was slowly making its way inside.
I am lost in the middle America I love. I don’t want to find my way again any time soon. Anonymous and modestly making my way, there is no more comfortable place to be right now than sitting at this bar.
The advantage of being a Brit in America is not only that everything seems cheaper, the beer also seems weaker. Your pound and your liver go much further over here. Another pair of drinks follow, this time in bottles from a more respectable local brewery. It’s a myth of European origin that Americans don’t make good beer – they just don’t export good beer. Hence slanderous judgements of American culture are made based solely on Budweiser and Coors.
I am strangely content, yet an undercurrent of imminent sadness undermines these cold beers. This time tomorrow I will be at an airport, and on my home. Another journey is over. It’s time to return to the little windswept island in the north-east Atlantic that I call home.
Looking around the bar we clock the clientèle. A pair of (underage) kids keeping a low profile playing pool at the back of the bar. A pair of elderly weekenders who seem to have chosen the wrong bar for a quiet evening’s drink. And finally a rowdy gang of construction workers; still wearing reflective jackets and sporting tightly shaved heads. They occupy the indeterminate zone around the end of the bar where the counter top lifts up. One (young) man in particular is in charge of this drunken conversation; he floats between his buddies and the open counter, straying behind the bar to establish a comfortable position within the barman’s territory.
Hipster barman seems not to mind. He’s dutifully pouring drink after drink. Guessing that construction workers start early and finish early, I reckon they’ve been here for almost two hours. The subtle intra-personal politics of American alpha males is observed discretely by my guide and I. Tensions occasionally flare, and we both prepare ourselves without communicating it for some kind of tussle. They subside, naturally. More drinks are poured. We order food. A frozen pizza emerges from the domestic freezer behind the bar and disappears into a pizza oven.
As we begin to eat, alpha male number one comes over to join us. Perhaps he’s distracted by my admittedly beautiful female guide. Or maybe he’s seen my poser spectacles and wants to know who’s the cheese eating surrender monkey who’s just arrived in town.
He introduces himself, and we shake hands. He inquires as to our origins – which interest him. One of us from west of here, one of us is from east of here. We are all roughly the same age – he’s almost a year younger than me. He’s been to Europe once – a brief layover at Frankfurt airport between military transport flights.
This young American road worker is delighted to welcome us. He’s interested to speak to me, the visiting Brit. He’s met many British people before; he’s served alongside them in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost a year younger than me, and he’s seen four tours of duty in the U.S. Army. He shakes my hand again, and tells me that my soldiers are some of the best in the world, the most professional out there.
On the last night of my latest American odyssey, I found myself somewhere I wanted to be for some time. In the middle of almost nowhere; small town America. One horse town, one red neck bar. I’ve found myself in my “dream” middle American venue. But what now seems to have been so arrogant – to have imagined that I, the rich British tourist, could have just swanned in here for a quiet drink while I soak up the atmosphere – seems to have been based on the assumption that I wouldn’t have to have a conversation like this.
The young American man is drunk. He’s slurring, the actions of his hands and arms are wildly exaggerated. And he apologises. He doesn’t stop apologising. My guide and fellow traveller knows the military terms; she’s the daughter of a man who fought for this country in a certain sixteen-year conflict. She also knows other references he’s making, other frustrations with post-demob liasons that he’s occasionally expressing, but then hurredly concealing and apologising for. He’s a long way from home, working with an itinerant road crew earning top blue collar wages. But he’s left his beautiful wife and daughters at home. He carries pictures of them in a laminated wallet, and drinks away the evenings (“most nights after work”). He talks to us about them, but more about his life to date. Especially that brief visit to Europe when he transited in Frankfurt. Delighted to be in Germany, he and his buddies celebrated the stop off on their journey home by buying a crate of German beer to take on the plane. It being a civilian flight, however, they’re told the glass bottles can’t go on board, so they collectively neck about five bottles each.
“Man, I didn’t know German beer was that strong.”
This is a clichéd situation. A well spoken privately educated Brit with a BBC voice and a BBC take on the world arrives in a small town and starts talking to the demobbed and apprarently deeply traumatised young working class American. I’m drinking beer and making jokes about American brewing, and he’s drinking glass after glass of strong liquor telling anyone who’ll listen what he hasn’t been able to tell anyone from military liason.
The conversation last longer than the sum of its parts. I order two more beers while my guide talks with him, reminding him to keep pressing certain people for certain things. She has a greater degree of empathy than I do. I’m lost, floating out of my depth not quite sure this conversation is real. Everything I believe about certain events and actions is being confirmed, but I’m not capable of looking at this man in the eye. And I know in the pit of my stomach that in hundreds, maybe thousands, of bars across this country tonight, men and women like him are telling strangers their story. Maybe no-one else will listen, because it certainly sounds as though the authorities who sent him to a war zone four times in a row won’t listen any more. He’s left the military, set down his uniform and now, he has discovered, lost the vital framework in which his comrades supported him. Hundreds of miles from home, his new buddies are short-contract colleagues and tourists who happen to wander in to the bars he frequents every night after work.
When he leaves us to re-join his buddies and set off for the night, we shake hands again repeatedly. He tells me it’s been an honour to talk to me tonight. I return the compliment, and make some sincere but rushed and half-considered gesture of a compliment that could only be accepted without complaint by a very drunk man.
He finishes his drink, and the group of road workers heads out for the night.
My American friend and I are silent. Of all the places in the world, another dimly lit bar in a small town is not where that man should be every night. We both know it, but can’t express let alone consider where to begin. The support this young man needs is not here. It could be at home, but he needs to feed his family before he can show his face in their company.
Hipster barman clears the end of the bar of the empty glasses, and sweeps up the small change and dollar bills left as a tip. He mutters and rejoins us, dropping less than $3 in change on the bar in front of us.
“Jesus. Three hours of them in here and what do they leave? Three fucking dollars.”
On a second floor balcony, looking out over heaving flower boxes of red flowers, I watch through a torrential rainstorm as a man in a dress dances on the flat lead roof of a commercial building. It’s the annual pride parade in Chicago, and I’m on my fourth or fifth Mimosa, wondering why we call that beverage a Buck’s Fizz back home in Britain.
I had been down on the street a little earlier, just before this downpour, standing on a kink of Broadway watching the parade go past. Naturally I’m a little ashamed not to have stuck it out, but firstly there were more mimosa’s to drink back inside and secondly I’m not the most obvious person to be at a gay pride parade. However I did try to get into the spirit as alternate floats of social groups, political representatives and commercial enterprises chugged by to varying volumes of cheers. Barack Obama wasn’t in attendance, undoubtedly aware of the bad press being at such a liberal event might have on his appeal to the necessary wavering conservative voters of America. But his Chicago campaign team were there, handing out stickers and enjoying an electric wave of support from the crowd. The importance of a rainbow sticker with ‘Obama Pride’ on it was somewhat undermined when the next float came by, and I was handed a similar rainbow sticker promoting a wholefood supermarket. Every self respecting major corporation in Chicago appeared to be out for pride, forcing smiles and proudly showing off its non-heterosexual employees, as well as its commercial appeal to valuable consumers who wield the pink dollar.
An hour or two later, and the parade was finished. We had an appointment to make up town so we made our excuses and stepped out in the sunshine that had followed the run. The mid-morning to early-afternoon parade had left a wake of debris in its path, and city employees were already out and about attempting to clean the streets of litter, paper cups and beer cans. The normal ban on public consumption of alcohol is lifted (or perhaps ignored) for the duration of the parade, and the apparently repressed drinkers of Chicago were delighted to embrace the opportunity for al fresco drinking.
America often seems to be a repressed nation to me. As I mentioned before in the promo for the (as yet unfinished … but I’m working on it) eigth episode of the podcast, Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family said at their Birmingham gig that “we’re American… we’re more comfortable with violence than sex.” Chicago saw more than four hundred murders last year, and by the end of my recent visit to the city I was still no less comfortable at the common sight of police officers or even security guards carrying handguns.
As I pegged it north along Broadway, making us more late than ever by stopping for photographs, I considered the importance of Chicago Pride relative to other such events around the world. The last gay pride event I saw was in Montréal in 2006. Admittedly this one was more blatantly American than the multi-lingual event of cosmopolitan Montréal. During the parade we’d seen line dancing cow boys strut past, and hoardes of roaring Harley Davidsons piloted by gay bikers. What better vindication of the gay pride movement than the connection between liberation of sexuality and the ultimate symbol of freedom of movement? Perhaps most admirable, though, were the young black teenage boys who boldly strutted their stuff in the brightest of cross dressing attire. This was, after all, a predominantly white parade in a city that is anything but.
Those sights stuck with me the most. I felt lucky to have witnessed a slice of Chicago Pride’s parade, because in such a masculine country as America it felt so much more vital and liberating to see the bastions of male culture being subverted and ultimately enhanced by the contribution of a homosexual community. In other words, I had no idea there were lesbian biker chicks in America, or even (line dancing) gay farmers. But my respect for American culture and society grows every time I see the stereotypes of modern America challenged and reshaped like that.