Life on an overnight bus part 2: Anger and mourning on the American right (hand side of the road)
A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.
- Margaret Thatcher (allegedly)
Some of the politicos among you might have noticed that Donald Trump was elected US president in November last year. This predictably resulted in countless magazine articles and long reads seeking to “understand” “Trump’s America”. These usually took the form of a “progressive” “liberal” from the US east or west coast going over to Bumblefuck, Pennsylvania (it’s a real place, look it up) to write a thoughtful, sympathetic article which could be broadly summarised as “EURGH, poor people” before scurrying back home to, I dunno, write a “think piece” about what Hamilton (it’s a town in Lanarkshire) says about the ethics of bitcoin. Or what Stranger Things (it’s a 2001 album by Marc Almond, formerly of Soft Cell — you know, the ones that did Tainted Love) has taught them about the work of Thomas Hobbes.
Generally speaking, I didn’t think much of these articles. But people who label themselves as #futurists, #thoughtleaders and #thinkers on their Twitter bios do. And I want those people to think I’m cool, so I decided to do my own.
My trip to the USA earlier this year seemed like the perfect opportunity for this. Two friends were getting married (to each other), in that bit of Florida next door to Alabama. As well as attending the wedding I had planned additional trips throughout the USA, including two states I had never visited before: Canada and Mexico.
It was almost perfect, apart from two slight problems:
- I didn’t really talk to anyone. This might have be down the old British reserve stereotype, fear of being shot or my inability to speak Spanish (they all do it now). However, I think it’s far more likely that it was down to laziness. To keep costs down I was again mainly travelling by overnight bus, and this generally left me feeling too tired and grumpy to speak to anyone. Or do anything much, really.
- I did this back in January, so I can’t really remember the details of the few conversations that I actually had.
No worries though, this problem is easily solved: I can make up some conversations that never happened and I can embellish the conversations that did happen with a few well-chosen lies. This is fine, because insulting fictional people is a victimless crime, the real people that I lie about will never see me again, and, most importantly, the #thinkers and #thoughtleaders out there that I want to share this piece (though not necessarily read it) are looking for something that confirms their pre-existing beliefs, not the truth.
And with that, we begin.
26 December: Edinburgh, Scotland
Now, in spite of the prevailing accent you might hear when walking around Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh isn’t actually in America. These people are TOURISTS. Scottish people generally don’t go about wearing back-to-front kilts asking people for the best place to get a “wee dram” in “Edinboro”. We’re the ones skulking in corners, scowling.
No, Edinburgh’s most definitely not in America. Still, I’ve chosen to begin the story here, partially because I live in Edinburgh and partially so I could tell that bad joke about American tourists.
I’d chosen to fly to America on one of those ultra-cheapskate airlines they have now. This meant no in-flight meal (phew…) and a two hour stopover in Iceland.
26 December: Keflavik International Airport, Iceland
I’d wanted to visit Iceland for a while. I’d heard all the stories of beautiful landscapes, incredible volcanoes, epic vistas with Sigur Rós playing in the background and really big indoor football pitches. What I found was overpriced coffee shops, a shortage of benches and a lot of tarmac. You can imagine my disappointment. Still, another country ticked off the list.
Even though I was in Iceland, Uncle Sam decided to give me another frisking, so I had to do the empty pockets and clear out the bag thing once more. This kind of extra-territorial jurisdiction annoys me. I felt like a 19th century Chinese citizen being tried by the European powers in the Shanghai International Settlement. Or a post-Brexit British citizen being forced to face the unaccountable and impenetrable European Court of Justice. It just wasn’t right.
Alternatively, I suppose I could have just avoided travelling with a miniature sword stashed in my bag.
26 December (still): Boston, Massachusetts
I’d already visited Boston twice before — once in 2015 and once in 1770 while playing Assassins’ Creed III. As a result, I didn’t have any sights I needed to see and decided to take it easy during my time in the city. However, I did notice that they have a Prêt there now. I hadn’t seen that on either of my previous two visits. O tempora o mores!
I didn’t go in, of course.
Instead, I went to some bar for dinner where I got talking to a couple of locals. They seemed very pleasant and normal so there’s not really any point recounting our conversation.
It was cold in Boston. It’s always cold in Boston. And snowy. My favourite song about snow in Boston is Sweet Baby James by James Taylor, where he sings the following:
Now the first of December was covered with snow
and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
I considered going to see the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, where I imagine I’d have an OH MY GOD THIS IS AMAZING MOMENT upon seeing it covered in snow — or alternatively having my heart broken if the gritting lorry had been out. But I didn’t have time, because I had to catch the bus to New York and I obviously never even thought about doing it anyway. That’s just ridiculous. I lived in London for two years and never went to Abbey Road. I lived in Glasgow for four years and never recreated the cover of Deacon Blue’s Raintown. I live in Edinburgh and have never been to see Les McKeown from the Bay City Rollers’ childhood home. I’m hardly going to go to see some road, am I?
27 December: New York, ditto
That Frank Sinatra dirge refers to New York as “the city that never sleeps”. Clearly, Mr Sinatra had never been to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in the wee small hours of the morning.
It was 4am. Everyone was sleeping. On the floor, on chairs, on each other, in the toilets. There were mice. And guns. Attached to policemen. It wasn’t my scene.
I found a 24 hour McDonalds and marked some undergraduate politics essays.
Four hours later…
I went to a very nice cafe and marked some more undergraduate politics essays.
On previous visits to New York I’d been to see all the tourist bits and bobs. They were nice enough. But there was one thing I had never visited:
Also the High Line.
That was nice. I walked all the way down and back up again. That’s a long way.
Afterwards I saw that there was a walking tour ONLY FOR NEW YORKERS that went to PLACES THE TOURISTS WOULD NEVER SEE. I’m not a New Yorker, but it was 27 December. There wasn’t really anything else to do.
And this guy really did take us off the beaten track. We saw the BIG TREE at the Rockefeller Centre, the Macy’s Christmas decorations. An ice rink too. Incredible.
And it really was an exclusive tour just for New Yorkers:
“Where are you from?”
“Ohhh! That’s in Bed Stuy, right?”
“Right, Scotland, so you’re in Long Beach City then?”
“Nah, it’s in Britain”
“Oh sorry, my bad. [the Americans always say ‘my bad’ #authenticity] So you’re actually in Clinton Hill.”
“Nope. Europe.” [I can’t even be bothered doing a Brexit joke here]
“Oh Europe, I know Europe, that’s a pretty nice area! Right next to Williamsburg but a little bit cheaper?”
“No, it’s in the world.”
In spite of this fictional conversation I found the New Yorkers on the tour to be very friendly and welcoming, though oddly obsessed with department store window displays. And there was the usual “we do the BEST pizza in the world”, “NOBODY does coffee better than us”. New Yorkers don’t like to admit it, but only this city could have spawned Trump.
And then it was time to take the bus from New York to Washington. Perhaps I was on the very same Megabus that Donald Trump himself would take down to DC for his inauguration less than a month later. The thought made me shiver. As did having to wait outside for two hours, because New York don’t put their Megabuses in the bus station — they just stop at some road. And they are inevitably late.
28 December: Washington, DC
I’ve always been quite underwhelmed by this city. In most capital cities you get a real sense of history. The buildings become significant organically — they become special because special things have happened there. Washington isn’t like that. Washington is the Las Vegas of capital cities. Monuments are plonked down, with the specific intention of conveying the story that America wants to tell. They’re celebrated because they were created to be celebrated. There’s no great instrumental value.
“Here’s the Washington Monument, he was a great man.”
“Here’s the Jefferson Memorial, he was a great man.”
“Here’s the Lincoln Memorial, he was a great man.”
It just leaves me feeling a bit flat. Sad.
Still, I was touched to see that they had knocked up a big stone to thank us foreigners for our hard work.
They were setting up scaffolding in front of the Capitol Building as I walked past. I asked an onlooker what was going on. Apparently the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had a gig on, and they were expecting the biggest crowd ever.
It was around this time that Mark Zuckerberg got in touch to ask for some advice.
I suggested that he might prefer the ONLY FOR NEW YORKERS WALKING TOUR. He wasn’t interested: Donald Trump had invited him and all the other tech bros in for a big meeting and he was keen to find out if the catering was any good.
Anyway, my time in Washington was drawing to a close, so there was only time for a quick LOL…
… and I was ready to leave Washington.
Oh wait no, the train’s delayed for three hours.
And then I was ready to leave Washington.
28 December: Charlottesville, Virginia
It’s quite possible that to you, Charlottesville is little more than a hellhole teeming with neo-nazis or “antifas”, depending upon your political persuasion. However, having looked up a few images on Google while planning the trip, I knew there was much more to the town than that.
What I was expecting was an easygoing college town, with a beautiful university and a vibrant creative culture.
Unfortunately I only had forty minutes in the town thanks to my train from Washington being delayed. Fortunately, I can be a pretty fast runner when it really matters — and obviously the opportunity to take grainy photos of a university campus in the dark really matters.
I was in the South! A few years ago I went through a real southern literature phase: Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Roald Dahl (The Witches is set in Bournemouth). Finally, I knew what they were on about. I was in their world.
28 December: A train
This train was going to Atlanta, whereupon I would meet a couple of friends at the airport who would drive me to the wedding because I am incompetent and have never bothered to learn for myself. I’d originally booked to go by bus, but even I can’t handle the 18 hour Megabus from Washington to Atlanta. So I decided to treat myself.
And I was looking forward to this train journey. Rolling through the Carolinas, I was told I would see some sublime scenery. But it was an overnight train, it was dark, and I saw nothing.
29 December: Atlanta, Georgia
I was told not to expect much from Atlanta. In doing my pre-trip research I wasn’t exactly excited to find that three of Wikitravel’s top ten locations to visit were shopping malls.
Still, it’s amazing how your assumptions can be confounded: it was even worse than I expected. There is nothing to do.
Still, I thought I might as well make the most of it so I did everything on Wikitravel. I even visited the shopping malls. Public transport is largely non-existent, so I had to take taxis to and from Martin Luther King’s church and home, seemingly the city’s only sites of real significance. After two buses and a taxi, I arrived outside — only to find it was closed.
The best thing about Atlanta was some tower that you can go up to see how empty everything is.
The worst thing is that they serve fried chicken FOR BREAKFAST.
Having exhausted everything — everything — Atlanta had to offer in a morning, I was ready to go to the airport. The flight wasn’t due until 4pm, but I assumed that three hours in Atlanta airport would be more interesting than three more hours in Atlanta.
And I was right. The previous night’s train had no power outlets (is this a breach of my human rights?), depriving me of the opportunity to complain to people about how dull Atlanta was. At the airport, charging points were plentiful. Bliss.
Leaving Atlanta and making my way through Alabama, I was amazed at how pretty much every road sign was advertising either a gun show or a peanut festival. Gun shows and peanut festivals, but never the two together… I might go back to Alabama and become a billionaire one day. Then become President, natch.
29 December — 1 January: Panama City Beach, FL
I’m not going to write very much about this bit because even though it was great I spent it with people I actually know…
I did meet a new friend though. For my first night in Panama City Beach I had booked a hotel on the same road as the hotel that some other people I knew were staying in, naively assuming that this meant that they would be close. Of course, I forgot that this is America, and that the two hotels were separated by a forty minute drive.
This meant a lengthy wait to be picked up after checking out the next morning. After having watched me hanging around for about ten minutes, the man living in the condo across the road called me from his balcony:
“Hey buddy, what you doing there?”
“Waiting to be picked up. I don’t have a car.”
“Oh man. You should come in and I’ll give you some breakfast.”
This was a disaster. I didn’t particularly want to go inside this guy’s house. I was happy enough hanging around outside. But I couldn’t really say no either: the “I’m too busy” ruse wouldn’t really work given that I was just sitting by the side of the road, and saying “I don’t like the look of you” is just rude, albeit true.
So I went in for breakfast. Which was some kind of thick, brown soup with large chunks of beef in it.
This man — I can’t remember his name — seemed fairly interested in me. There was the usual small talk: where I’m from, what I’m doing here and so on. He asked me if I liked college football. I said no. He made me watch college football (the American sort, obvs).
Then, almost inevitably, the discussion turned to religion.
“You know, it’s amazing that we come from so far apart and now we’ve met. Fate must have brought us together. God must have brought us together. Are you religious?”
Are you religious?
What do I say here? Always eager to please, I initially decided that I’d say yes: he obviously wants me to be religious, so I’ll say I’m religious to make him happy. But then I reconsidered: what if he tried to test me? What if he asked me trivia about the bible? I mean, I can do the basics — the Good Samaritan and that sort of thing — but my biblical knowledge is nowhere near strong enough to withstand vigorous quizzing. I’d be found out. Better to tell the truth.
“No, I’m not religious.”
“Well…I’m open-minded about it, but it’s just never really been part of my life.”
“Well, we need to change that, we need to change that.”
He took his phone from his pocket and plugged in a pair of headphones.
“You need to listen to this. Listen to this and you’ll hear the voice of God. You’ll believe.”
I put on the headphones and he pressed play.
I’m gonna make a change, for once in my life
“This is Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson.”
It’s gonna feel real good, gonna make a difference, gonna make it right
“I know — keep listening, keep listening!”
As I turn up the collar of my favourite winter coat, the wind is blowin’ my mind
“I know this song. We have Michael Jackson in the UK.”
I see the kids in the street, with not enough to eat, who am I to be blind pretending not to see their needs
“You need to listen to it properly. You need to feel the music. Keep listening.”
Now, Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson is quite a long song. It’s even longer when you’re listening to it in an unfamiliar house, eating meaty breakfast soup with a stranger gazing intently at you.
Finally, it finished.
Make that chaaaaaaange.
“Do you get it now? Did you hear God?”
“Yes, I suppose…”
“Say you believe then! Say you believe in God!.”
“I believe in God.”
“I knew it! And now we will see each other in the next world, my friend.”
Then the doorbell rang.
“That’s my wife, she’s just been out buying Sprite. She’s gonna love you.”
She had indeed been buying Sprite. Around thirty bottles of it. After several trips to and from her car, she entered the living room, panting.
“Hey! This is Andy, he’s from Scotland.”
Her eyes lit up. “You’re from Scotland?! Oh my God, that’s amazing, just like me — I’m Irish!”
Now, there are two problems with this statement:
- Scottish and Irish are different nationalities. I can understand why there might be some confusion, because there is a long history of the Scottish doing something and the Irish STEALING IT: the word “craic”, whisky, lingering anti-English sentiment, Saint Patrick, excessive alcohol consumption… But Scotland and Ireland are still different countries.
- This woman was not actually Irish. Instead, she was doing that thing Americans do when they find a country that their ancestor came from two hundred years ago and decide that’s their nationality. For example, Dean Castle in Kilmarnock was owned by the Boyd family. As a result, you get all the Boyds in the US coming over to tell the locals that this is their castle, completely unaware of Kris Boyd’s continued residency in Ayrshire.
But I was a guest in their house, so I decided to be agreeable.
“Oh how nice! Have you ever visited Ireland?”
She looked aghast.
“Ireland? Ireland? Why on Earth would I go to Ireland? I live in Tennessee — that’s God’s country. I spent my holidays in Panama City Beach — and that’s paradise. Why would I ever want to go to Ireland? Why would I ever want to go anywhere else?”
I couldn’t argue.
Finally, my taxi arrived. As I left, the two of them reiterated their wish to see me again after we’re all dead. I found that oddly touching. They’d never met me before but they had invited me over for breakfast. We had very little in common, but we mostly got on. They were nice people, but they were bloody weirdos.
1 January: Mobile, Alabama
For a town that gave its name to the premier communication device of the 21st century, Mobile is quite old fashioned. In amongst the stately southern architecture was the Temple of the Scottish Rite. Now, to me, the Scottish right are tweedy farmers from Aberdeenshire who look bewildered at having suddenly found themselves in Westminster (and David Coburn), but in Mobile this sort of thing is associated more with Egpytian revivalism.
Why? Maybe it was inspired by Scota, the daughter of the Egyptian pharoah who really did come to Scotland to marry Goídel Glas, giving the country both its name and its complexion.
Oh wait no, it’s a freemasonry thing. (Note the absence of jibes here because I’m scared the masons will come and get me.)
The bus station at Mobile was a peculiar place. The people waiting there were either in really desperate situations or soldiers. Or me. I overheard a man talking about how his medical bills had made him homeless — the bus station was now home. Another, wearing a cowboy hat, was gazing into space, drinking vodka straight from the bottle. The left behind. One thing I’ve always found quite callous about the USA is that nobody really cares about these people. There are 41 million Americans living in poverty but mainstream politics is generally quite happy to ignore them. I mean, Europe and the UK obviously have huge flaws, but the suffering in the USA is at a whole other level.
In amongst them were the soldiers, all khaki uniforms and crew cuts. Why do soldiers go around dressed in uniform the USA? Is this required? Or do they just do it for the salutes and discounts? I was taken aback by how weedy they looked for soldiers. And how young. I’m pretty sure that I could have taken them in a fight, though I was hesitant to put it to the test.
Anyway, I look back upon my three hour stopover in Mobile as a bad moment. I was all alone, with nothing to do. With the time difference everyone I knew back home was in bed. All the books I had brought with me were boring.There was little I could do but wait. Sad.
But I still had New Orleans to look forward to. That would be much better, right?
Well, no, not really. But I’ll write about that next time in part 3: New year, New Orleans. (I only really have the title right now.)