Monday, 14 November 2011

A Mixed Bunch

MY HONDURAN AMIGA was flying to Arizona for a holiday, and had a stopover in Florida for a few days. She asked me if I'd like to join her? I'd only previously visited NYC as far as my Stateside jaunts go, and fancied seeing Miami. It was the location for Brian De Palma's 1980s epic gangster flick Scarface...and so naturally I wanted to visit South Beach.

It was also a good opportunity to see Americans in their natural habitat, so to speak. You can't judge the States on New York City, after all. I've encountered plenty of switched-on American backpackers on the road. And I've met some freaks. I'm not tarring all Yanks with the same brush, so don't be offended; I have several good friends from the other side of the Pond (you know who you are). Besides, we English have countrymen to embarrass us: our drunken football hooligans, white trash racists and ex-pats in Spain who speak only English, eat only English breakfasts and refer to the Spaniards as foreigners. Ahem.

I'd been in Mexico a few days, having travelled up from Guatemala with a brief stay in San Cristobal De Las Casas. Returning to the hostel one evening, I was buttonholed by a long-haired American of mixed race. He began quizzing me about the motorcyclist's gear in our dorm, and did it belong to me? Then whose is it? Where is he? He had only got to the city that evening and bemoaned his lack of marijuana opportunities. I told him he'd met the right man, and invited him to smoke awhile on the balcony upstairs. As is the way, destinations and length of trip were the primary threads of conversation. Then I asked him where he was from. Then I wished I hadn't.

"California, man."
"Whereabouts?"
"All over.You know..."
Do I?
"But where?" I asked.
"Everywhere..."
"But don't you remember which place you were born in?" Puzzled now.
"Weeeell...Santa Monica, I guess."
"You guess? Like sticking a pin on a map?"
"Uh-huh."
"Right." I frowned, took another drag and began wishing that I was smoking alone.
"And I'm from Panama."
I coughed a cloud of smoke "You what, mate..?"
"I partly grew up in Panama" he told me.
"Whereabouts?"
"All over."
Here we went again.

He asked me what I was doing in Mexico, and I told him I'd been backpacking and diving, glad of the change of subject. He went on to tell me he couldn't dive again, after a rocket had exploded near him in Iraq, damaging his ears. When he pointed out how close it had been, I struggled to contain my mirth: there was no way he'd have survived. Other half-baked tales came out which exposed the fact that the guy was, quite clearly, talking out his arse. The fella was a few sandwiches short of a picnic, no doubt; he was so vague about everything that I got the impression I had a stoned Walter Mitty on my hands. And I was bored already.

When he informed me that it was 9pm, I yawned theatrically and told him that I was off to bed, thinking this was my chance to escape. He said he'd turn in too, and took a bottom bunk next to mine.

"Bottom bunk, man" he said from beneath the blankets.
"Eh?" I asked.
"Bottom bunk...you know."
"Know what?"
"Bottom bunk."
"Bottom bunk what?" I almost groaned.
"Too long in the miltary...bottom bunk...you know..." he grinned knowingly.
"G'night."
Time for the earplugs. I can't half pick them, you know...I'm some sort of freak magnet.

As I was dropping off to sleep, movement made me open my eyes. He was there, this fellow (who I later nicknamed Syndrome, short for the Gulf War variety), hurriedly packing his rucksack.

"What are you doing?" I asked him.
"Getting out, man...big cities..."
"Eh?"
"Big cities what, exactly?" I was perplexed.
"Not good, man...gotta get out of the cities."
I asked him just where he thought he'd get to at midnight, starting to think that shit...maybe he had served in Iraq? Maybe he has got Gulf War Syndrome? Maybe I've set him off and he's going to go on a mad one somewhere? Shoot some kids, or something. I was still a little stoned, which wasn't helping.

When he left the room I followed at a distance and watched him shiftily making his way down to reception. I felt a bit guilty, but he did look funny creeping around in the shadows of the lobby, obviously pretty stoned himself. Thankfully he didn't wander off into the night and trouble (I didn't want the blood of innocents on my hands, obviously), but fell asleep on a sofa instead. Next time I offer someone a smoke, first I'm going to ask them "Have you ever nearly been blown up in a war or experienced anything equally traumatic?"

4am and I was in a taxi hurtling towards the airport, the last of the madrugada fading as the sun inched over the hills. I had a pleasant chat with the taxista in Spanish; not all taxi drivers are arseholes. But more on those who are at some point in the future. Airport formalities over, I joined a queue for a paperwork check. An elderly American gentleman, and I use that term loosely, was in front of me, haranguing his silent wife. Not that I'm a nosey bastard: it was impossible to avoid listening in. "This fucking country...backwards...fucking primitives. We've been through African countries more civilised than this. They just wanted that stuff for themselves. Those motherfuckers. They'll be drinking it tonight and laughing at us...you mark my words." He turned my way, and he reminded me of the late comedy legend George Burns. Yes, actually...like a vitriolic, hate-filled, xenophobic George Burns. "This'd never happen in a developed country. These fucking wetbacks..." he spat. His wife dutifully bore it, probably used to it after 50 years of blissful marriage. I felt like saying something, but couldn't be bothered. People like that don't reason, and never change, so why bother engaging in conversation with them? Life's too short as it is. Besides, the last time I picked a fight with a racist, I broke a finger.

I experienced a joyous flight to Dallas; forced onto an old lady in the window seat due to the sheer mass of the gargantuan chap next to me. I think I sat at a 25 degree angle for the entire flight; listening to a running commentary on the scenery from the lady, who hadn't flown this route for 20 years. All the buildings that hadn't been there in 1991 were helpfully pointed out. The fields looked different too, apparently. Fascinating stuff. I was looking around for a hidden camera after an hour of it, my face an aching, rictus grin from constantly acknowledging her running commentary.

I wasn't quite prepared for the scale of Dallas airport: it's huge. Having only 45 minutes for my connection, I'm pleased I decided to just head for the next departure gate rather than wander around the shops, as there was a ten minute shuttle ride between terminals. I found a bookshop amongst the draped Stars & Stripes, various huge screens broadcasting war footage and Obama speeches. It was here that I encountered my first, and sadly not last, Have A Nice Day-er. She looked up as I perused a shelf of novels. "Hey, how ya doin' today?" she asked with a big toothy smile. "I'm fine, thanks...you?" She answered in the affirmative. I left and withdrew some cash from a nearby ATM; I was gone not three minutes. She looked up at my return and gave me an identical smile, then cheerily asked "Hey, how ya doin' today?" Great. Just like three minutes ago. I went to the gate and sat watching the endless patriotic ads for the airline, between war footage: servicemen in uniform being shaken by the hand; given first boarding privileges (British military personnel traditionally get free tickets for Wimbledon here); thanking the pilot for a great flight and getting a heartfelt "No...thank you." I nearly threw up. Thanks for what? Securing the oil to keep American Airlines flying? All those poor young men getting killed or crippled for the greedy bastards behind the Administration.

I find most Americans a friendly enough bunch. True, I had to run the gauntlet of Have A Nice Day-ers on arrival in Fort Lauderdale. But there were several people made my first day in the US a pleasant one. The 20-something black girl on the Hertz desk allayed my fears about driving a car here. "Don't worry...the roads are huge here, the lanes are wide, and everything is on a grid. You'll be fine." She flashed me a beautiful smile as I left and said "Try and bring it back in one piece, OK?"

She wasn't lying. The roads in America are very wide and easy to drive on, I'd been worried for nothing. And now I understand why Americans feel claustrophobic while driving in British cities. The only problems I had were road signs drying up unexpectedly, and the traffic lights being on the far side of intersections, resulting in a few screeching stops. The nice Hertz lady had given me a map and a rough idea of where my hotel was, as I'd neglected to write down the full address. Clown. The roadside scenery seemed to be on a continuous loop: KFC; Wendy's; Knives & Guns; Blockbuster; We Buy Guns; used car lot; KFC; Wendy's; Knives & Guns; Blockbuster; We Buy Guns. I decided to stop and ask someone.

I asked for directions in a McDonalds. Two black guys in there, dressed like gang-bangers, were very enthusiastic about helping me but didn't know the hotel. The staff were none the wiser. After a quick chat and well-wishes from them and I headed across the parking lot to a row of shops. I entered a lawyer's office and told the grey-looking man sat at the desk that I was English and lost. He hardly batted an eyelid. By the pallor of his skin I'd say that he hadn't been outside in three or four years. I asked him if he could possibly Google the hotel, and soon wished I hadn't. I ended up having to show him how to open new tabs in a browser, and how to use Google. Painful. But I got the address.

The hotel was nondescript and far from special, but I've stayed in far worse places. I soon found a decent Thai restaurant; a pleasant change from the Taco Diet, let me tell you. My friend arrived soon after me and, deciding that Ft Lauderdale was a little on the dull side, we planned a trip to Miami the next morning. Most of my Stateside friends agreed that Miami Beach would be the place to find the most vacuous, plastic, image-obsessed lunatics in the country. I didn't expect to fall in love with the town.

I was in a store in Ft Lauderdale before we left, grabbing some supplies. An old man was walking around talking loudly to anyone who'd listen. I arrived at the till and he sidled up to me; obviously my turn to be engaged in unwilling conversation.

"They don't know nuthin'..." he informed me, wild-eyed beneath unkempt hair.
"They certainly don't, no..." I smiled placatingly.
"Nuthin'. The Irish know nuthin'..."
"Quite."
"And I ain't telling them nuthin', neither" he said, tapping his nose and winking conspiratorially.
I turned to the woman ringing up my items, and she smiled knowingly.
"It's going to be one of those days, eh?"
"Honey..around here, it's always one of those days."
A pause.
"Nuthin'. The Irish know nuthin'..."

The approach to South Beach is a pleasant drive, spotless roads lined by some jaw-dropping houses adjacent to the water. We parked up and wandered down through the Art Deco District. There are some interesting buildings here, but the atmosphere of the place wasn't grabbing me. It was an obvious see-and-be-seen kind of town. I noticed a guy get out of a yellow Ferrari, wearing matching shades and a Ferrari polo-shirt. He sat down and looked about to see who'd been impressed by his arrival. No-one much, by the looks of things. I was so tempted to go over and point at his sunglasses on the table, the crest on his shirt, and then adopt a penny-just-dropped expression and saw "Wow...is that your car outside? You are so cool..."

We sat and had lunch at a pavement cafe. My companion was accusing (to me) the camp waiter of being catty and selective about who he served. I think she was just a little miffed that I was getting more attentive service? It was a great spot to people-watch. I saw just how far money gets you in this town; several stunning woman strutted by with stunted Danny DeVitos in badly-fitting outfits. Unbelievable that a woman could sleep with a toad for a lavish lifestyle? Lights off, hopefully. And each to their own.

My favourite freak of the afternoon was the young man who strolled by, pushing a shopping trolley with a dog in it. He wore a leopard-skin bikini, smudged lipstick lined his mouth and he'd written Slut in marker pen on his forehead. He was smiling and waving at people, not a care in the world. I actually admired his (metaphorical) balls, just didn't want to see his actual balls hanging out of a skimpy outfit. You can't not admire people who just don't give a flying fuck what other people think of them?

I got to see the building used in the chainsaw-murder scene in Scarface, sadly now a fast-food joint. Thirty years have changed the town a great deal, and the beach isn't even next to the road any longer, you need to walk through a hundred yards of vegetation to see it. A few photos later, and a walk on the hugely underwhelming, featurless beach and we were heading for the car. We crossed the street twice to avoid a shouting crazy in the street; the middle-aged white man, wearing a filthy bandanna, was walking up to random people, smiling, nodding at them "Yeah...yeah...fuck yeah...yeah...FUCK YEAH! Yeah! Alright...yeah." Some people have nothing better to do with their day, they really don't.

So. Culture? Not much. I'm going to have to visit the Deep South and San Francisco to see a little of that. But this story's just about the people, and it was a short break, after all. Before we knew it, the trip was over and we were heading back to the airport. I filled the car's tank at a 24-hour gas station, manned by an elderly and seemingly spaced-out rastafarian. The pumps were pre-pay only, and a few people were waiting for their change. I'm used to late-night customers at gas stations being a bit stoned and unsure of exactly what they want, but this guy was working here...wandering around picking the wrong items up and looking flummoxed. I asked a young man next to me how much I should put on the pump to fill my tank. He wanted to know what kind of car it was. I said I wasn't sure, as the car was out of shight, but that it was "a tiny Chevvy piece of shit". He made a mock-offended face, thumped his heart and said "Man, that hurts...Chevvy's my brand, man." We continued giggling at the rasta's continued antics: he was certainly entertaining. I eventually managed to get my change and left the lengthening queue behind me. As I crossed the forecourt, the young man I'd spoken to shouted over to me as he got in his car "Hey man...you were right...that one is a piece of shit!" I grinned and waved him off.

I left my friend at her terminal, and drove to the international one. I had a couple of hours to kill, and headed to the Hertz car park to drop the auto. The unearthly hour was no excuse for the rudeness I encountered from one man there. I pulled up and asked him if he wanted me to leave it in the same bay I'd collected it from?

"Leave it there with the keys in it."
I got out and waited for him to go through a checklist of some sort.
"Anything else I need to do?" I asked.
I received a grunt in reply, he didn't even look at me as he scanned the car.
"I'm sorry?"
"You're done" he replied tersely.
"And which way is the office, please?" I continued to be polite, even if he refused to.
"That way...second door after the pillar" he jabbed a pen in the vague direction I wanted to go.
I walked off, but couldn't see the exit. I returned to within 20 yards of the Hertz man and called over "Sorry, mate...where, exactly?"
He jabbed again and repeated the directions. "Yellow door, just keep walking...man, you stupid or something?"
I hadn't really met many rude Americans yet. This was certainly a first.
"You tell me, mate? I'm flying to Mexico today...whereas you're parking my car?"
I turned on my heel, didn't wait for a reply.

If I thought he was rude, then the best was yet to come. I had a handful of change when I made it through to the departure area. Mexican shops accept dollars, but not US change. I had a little over a dollar, and wanted to exchange it for a bill instead. I went into a newsagent staffed by a weighty black woman in her 30s. I smiled and asked if it was possible to swap my coins for a dollar bill, mindful that most shops like having change. She grumpily told that she couldn't open her till. I told her I could wait.

Five minutes later a woman entered the shop, and a man around my age entered with his teenage son. The woman bought something, and to my surprise the till girl immediately closed the drawer without changing my money. I gasped.

The woman next to me apologised. "Oh I'm sorry...were you next?" she asked.
"No, no...it's OK. I just wanted to change these coins for a bill."
"Oh, well I can change that for you" she said, producing a dollar.
I thanked her, and explained that I'd asked the shop assistant but she hadn't been keen to do it. She seemed surprised.
The assistant was ignoring me and serving the man. He had a copy of Playboy. She scanned it repeatedly, and 60 cents kept flashing on the till. She seemed puzzled.
"I don't understand it...it keeps coming up as 60 cents."
"I think the big black and yellow sticker on the cover saying 60 Cents Offer means it's probably 60 cents?" I offered. I was mildly annoyed by now.
"Bargain!" laughed the man at me; his son eyed the magazine; the assistant scowled and ignored me.

I left the store and sat near a group of elderly Americans with a delightful Southern-drawl. I love that accent. As I counted my remaining coins and realized that I had 55 cents, an idea formed in my mind; if revenge is a dish best served cold, then I was about to have mine with ice-cream. I asked one of the southern gentlemen if he could spare 10 cents, please? No problem, and he gave me more than I needed. I thanked them, and said I'd be right back.

She looked surprised when I walked back into the store. It was empty, and I walked right over the shelf and picked up the magazine. I put it down on the counter, then deliberately placed the coins next to it in a neat pyramid. "6o cents, I believe?" I asked cheerfully. "That's handy...exactly what I had left."

She didn't even look at me; scanned the barcode on the Playboy.
"That'll be 64 cents." She took the coins.
A slight smile crept across her face.
"Ah...tax on it?" I asked.
She nodded.
I pulled out a 5 cent coin with a well-look-what-I-found expression.
"Well...that was lucky, wasn't it?" I gave her a big smile.
The smile evaporated as I passed her the coin. "Keep the change" I said haughtily, and walked away without looking at her: the unexpected cherry on the vengeance-flavoured ice-cream.

I sat down with the old folks. One of the women eyed the magazine and said "Oh yeah?" and laughed.
"There's actually a story behind this...I don't usually buy this magazine."
"Oh sure!" they cackled. Her husband grinned and winked.
I related my experience in the shop. They were very surprised at the assistant's attitude, and apologised for her. I told them that they needn't...I'd met lots of nice people from their country, but some strange ones too.
"Where have you been?" asked the winker.
"Miami" I told him, and they all laughed as if to say that that explained everything.
"So where you headed to, boy?" I could have just listened to him talk all day, just to hear that accent.
"Mexico."
He paused for a moment.
"You be careful down there, boy...you hear?" he smiled.
"I will...thanks" I said. I shook their hands, thanked them again and headed for the plane.

So that was the Americans at home. And to be honest, I quite liked them. Sure, they have their idiots...but doesn't every nationality? I found them a friendly and helpful bunch; some of them were very funny indeed; and nobody minded giving up time to help me, bar one or two notable (and duly noted) exceptions. It's actually made me think that I should see more of the States, so they can't have been bad. I think I'd just avoid Florida and Texas next time. After all, only steers and queers come from Texas, no?

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