In a parting gesture I decided to donate my art to New York. 2000 stick figures of toast – a sacramental apocalypse, the end of (my) art at the end of the road.
Sometimes real life writes good narrative structure too. In the final stanza of the epic, the perfect dénouement, Ripley (my trusty Bimmer) got rear ended and declared a ‘total loss’ two weeks after my arrival in New York. I get the insurance payout (from the poor man who was texting and not watching the queue on the freeway ramp) and then I exit. My tour of the end of empire has been completed – with another touch of poetry, in ‘The Empire State’ – and I return to try my luck in the mother country. The grumpy old lady in me feels more at home in the grey surveillance state of the long-ago-superpower, with a decent salting of self-depreciating humor and pepper of the public good. Good-bye to hyperbolic celebrity destiny whizz bang and the rest. I’ve seen enough of the pop.
I covered up the hole with plastic bags and packing tape so that the rain doesn’t get in. That way I can still use her – without wet feet and the stench of too much mould – to get around locally until I get on the plane. You can still get gas in the tank … just.
With the flood waters receding Kathy and I decided to brave the next bout of rain and go to the local county fair, where to my great delight the demolition derby was in full swing – mud sliding, fire spitting, smoke belching, Ballardian glory!
I arrived to Kathy’s anxious preparation for the mother of all storms. Frankly, I was all anticipation. Whoohoo, bring it on! We decided not to tape the windows, made sure we had enough water for drinking and toilet flushing in the event of a power outage (the pump for the well is electric) and enough food in case of a long lock in. My butane camp stove moved from the car into the kitchen, the kayaks were tied down and the wood pile covered. Eventually it started to rain. And then it rained some more – a lot more. The power went out over night, but was back on in the early afternoon. Then that was it. A huge disappointment after all the fuss I thought. Not even much of a decent blow… But the lake kept on rising and then the photos started flooding onto Facebook – a real disaster after all!
Its all freeway now. I stopped for the afternoon in NYC to see a friend, but conscious of the approaching storm I took to the road again and headed for a safe house in upstate where my friend Kathy lives. Thinking as I drive, ‘cancer, guns and traffic accident litigation’. That would just about sum up the cadence of my journey if played back to the tune of all the bilboards along the way. What does that say about the state of the nation, I wonder? They are all growth industries I suppose. Cancer is the perfect disease for a for-profit health and services sector – it grows, it’s course is generally long, and it requires constant maintenance. Guns – well you always need protection out here on the frontier where its man against nature and the savages. And in the land of the endless road, there is no end to the accidents to sue for. All there is between you and the abyss is cold hard cash, so sue for it, keep the ammo handy, and make sure you don’t die poor. In fact, if you are really worthy – and rich enough to afford the five star resort hospital – you might get your face on a bilboard as a cancer survivor too.
Apparently, Baltimore is Detroit-lite – a Blade Runneresque world inhabiting the ruins of an industrial city. On the way in off the freeway there are whole blocks of boarded up houses. Walking around downtown is like hopping from island to island of light and life – in between are dark windows and vacant buildings. A pimp in a red sports car with blue LEDs ringing the tyres does loud blockies. I walk down the red light strip and am promptly asked if I want a job. Landing in Little Italy, a safe island of few blocks featuring multiple Italian restaurants with valet parking, I find a wine bar and pull up to the counter. Later, I decide to keep on driving and head back to the freeway the way I came in, through the ‘worst part of town’. I stop at a traffic light and a passer-by calls out, ‘look a snow bunny!’, as if I am an exotic creature from another world.
Down from the Appalachians for an obligatory look at the monuments of the capital. It took me close to two hours longer than it should have to even get near the damn things on account of the one way street maze. Other than it being capital city of America and home to the White House, the only other thing I know about DC is that once you push past the politicians, civil servants and lobbyists, the majority of the city is poor, black, and they have no vote. DC is not a state, but a territory governed by the politicians who come there to sit in the legislature. As a result, decisions are made in order to keep the constituents back home happy, not in response to local concerns. There is a very high rate of HIV transmission here, yet attempts to introduce measures to combat the problem are voted down by conservatives who do not want any taint of support for safe sex or drug use initiatives on their voting record. Not long before I set out on my trip the Mayor of the city was arrested trying to do something about this impasse.
I was fascinated to see the Philippines represented as belonging to America and there was of course a phallic monolith (circumcised like 85% of the other men here) to commemorate George Washington. More interestingly, and to return to the larger issue of what is represented in the demographics of DC as a metonym of the States, five minutes walk from the National Mall, on median strip between the loops of freeways and exit ramps, there was a homeless camp.
Curling through the Appalachian Mountains I saw a sign that said ‘Lonesome Mountain Rd’ against a backdrop of a raw wooden shack with a single line of washing strung behind. I didn’t take a photo. I think maybe its the photos that I haven’t taken that say as much as the ones that I have. I’m after things with edge man – disaster, desert and decadent decline – not twee nostalgia, thats for pussies. But perhaps its just as disastrous in its own way. Vaseline on the lens of the rugged survivor who carves out a rural idyll on blood sweat and tears and owes nothing to nobody, especially not taxes, nor anything else that sniffs of ‘socialism’.
Nashville was something of a surprise. Not the cowpoke country town that I had always imagined – there were towns in Texas that would have drawn a much better match. For a start it was not dust and tumbleweeds but green and rolling – my geography has never been great… And aside from the overabundance of cowboy boots it didn’t seem to bear much relationship to the cattle industry. Instead, there were trendy eco wifi cafes full of newly tattooed youngsters and green inner suburbs filled with tastefully fancy cars. One thing that I have definitely noticed on this journey is the tangible relationship that exists between the higher education and health industries and socio-political demographics of place. And how does race fit in to this? Well its not so much chicken or egg, but a long history of racism going back to slavery that is to blame I would suppose. It seems, at least in parts of the country with a large black population, that whenever the town is without significant colleges or middle class industry, it is majority black and has a lower median income, and of course the same is true in reverse. The contrast between Memphis, 200 miles down the road, and Nashville could not have been more clear in this respect.
I happened to arrive in the downtown entertainment district just as a Katy Perry concert was ending and the main street flooded with girls in cowboy boots, big hair, and pastels. I went to the bathroom in a bar and in the inevitable ‘Ladies Room queue’ I was accosted by a very drunk young woman in the outfit de rigeur, who leaned in and demanded that I dance with her – how unexpectedly queer. Back out on the street it was all vaudeville for the crowds, most notably a couple on Harley’s with their dyed, dreadlocked, and goggled canine companions, making it for photos and tips. Being the ‘serious tourist’ that I am, I declined to take such a cheap shot and later regretted the opportunity to document this most American gem. Is it something about being in a country of 300 million that makes you want to stand out for something, anything? To have a little of the spectacle for yourself and to get paid for it besides, as a resourceful individual making a unique contribution to the ‘greatest nation on earth’.