Everything I’d seen since arriving galvanised then… came upon me in a wave of disbelief… as if I could’ve started speaking in tongues. The whole of America was crawling, teeming with life… life gone wrong, convictions of right and wrong, everybody with their own personal struggles and myths. Riding out of Europe and into China might well have been something, but growing up in Europe and then finding yourself taking in America is a concept far harder to get your head around.
There was religion… religion everywhere… I remember riding past the churches, each one with a small billboard out front, a different slogan for different days, sermons and moods…‘God gave his only son to save us – isn’t that awesome?’ Or else it went stricter… ‘The Bible is not a menu – You do not choose only the things you like – Pornography and Homosexuality are sins’. They were not just empty words either, people believed, they believed with fervour. The locals spent Saturday mornings waving Christian placards, working for money during the week and for God on the weekend. They were distributing leaflets outside anonymous buildings with parking spaces on the road marked ‘doctor’. The placards were consistent… ‘Abortion is murder’, ‘Every child is a child of God’… always easier to love a foetus than an actual human. If not religion it was politics, death penalty… that toilet door in Washington, a rubber flyswatter and a picture of a squashed fly upon it. In the centre ran the question, ‘What do we do with flies?’, to the right the words, ‘We squash ’em and we kill ’em’, and to the left, ‘We don’t catch ’em and release ’em’.
Down the main street of a town I would walk… past the bar, diner, library full of books, grocer with crate of apples, pet shop with flea-collars and warmers for artificial pooches suspended in the window, past the post office, past the gun store. The gun store… a window with row upon row of firearms lined up, guns the size of children, handguns stacked on shelves like boxes of eggs, rifles to kill from half a mile away, guns that fire 200 bullets a minute. The posters on the walls too… ‘There is no such thing as a bad gun, only a bad person’… or else the banner above the doorway, ‘The Second Amendment protects all the other amendments’… and this was the Pacific northwest, liberal heartland of the United States. I thought of maps I’d seen, maps showing election results, the blue of Democrats down each seaboard… where they said trade and travel had forced internationalism, a more liberal mindset that sandwiched the Republican red of all the states between. That’s what I’d heard, but it’s only inside America that you discover all liberals might well be Democrats, but not all Democrats are liberals.
The one about the grocery store, that’s a good one: a small hamlet in the USA, European walks into a grocery store. There’s a gathering of houses and one store among the forest – non-incorporated – a settlement where the woman who owns the store says becoming a formal village or town just brings taxes and bureaucracy, of which the people want neither and already have too much. She owns the store, a Democrat-voting woman in the liberal heartland of the United States. She tells me that a month ago there was a break-in, in the middle of the night a local boy named Cody had got in through the front door. She’d fired a shot in the air, sprang downstairs with her handgun when she heard the glass shatter.
‘He’s just a child… ran when he heard me coming. Sad story, really… father cleared out, left Cody and his sister. The mother kept his sister… put Cody up for adoption. Must feel awful…’ head shakes. ‘Rejected by your own mother. Cody’s gone from foster home to foster home, never had a family, always in trouble. Now he’s going to jail.’ She pauses, thoughtful. ‘Best place for him, really… a short, sharp shock in the penitentiary with some real criminals is just what he needs.’