Heading South

I took the Greyhound to Washington where I met my dear old Colombian friend, Keyty. After various picaresque adventures, she had carved out a new life with her now 21-year-old daughter Lluvia, and new husband Brad. Under the watchful eye of the Capitol, she greeted me with typical exuberance, honking her horn as I wandered blindly past her waiting car. As I got in, my ex Angelica was transported back into my life by car-phone. She was calling Keyty for the first time in years. My discombobulation was nothing to hers when I joined the babble of voices.

I spent three relaxing days in Keyty’s new home in Sterling, Virginia. The visit was topped and tailed with excursions around the buildings of state in the capital, while the main event was Keyty’s birthday celebrations with a dozen of her new American and Latino friends. Amongst them was a Filipino man who was now managing one of the estates of his old ‘boss’ after 24 years of military service. His boss had been vice-president. I wondered what kind of vice-president, and if the political kind, whether I had heard of him. ‘Dick Cheney’, he told me. I had heard of him. We discussed their relationship with careful diplomacy. My new friend was aware and sensitive to his employer’s international reputation. He hadn’t enjoyed the recent film that demonised him.

Otherwise, despite the anxiety dreams provoked by Keyty saying she wanted her birthday to be defined by dancing, the night passed joyfully. I successfully adapted my own personal dancing with the salsa beloved of around half the party. Before I knew it, they were copying my fusion of the two and incorporated the ‘face drop’ I had thrown in when the crowd had parted for my turn to perform a special move. No-one was hurt.

From Washington, I took the Amtrak to Gainesville, Georgia. It was a 12-hour overnighter that skipped my planned visit Salisbury, North Carolina, due to inconvenient timetabling. My plan had been to make my way south to New Orleans by road or rail over 3-4 days – staying at small town layovers that would illustrate the life of the lands between my main destinations.

Gainesville proved a disappointment. The long empty road up the former main street was deserted in the cold early morning walk from the tracks. The few disembarking passengers were vague about where I might find the town centre in the town where they lived. Businesses were sparse beyond a scattering of misplaced seeming Hispanic churches and a few dusty thrift shops. It was too cold to spend long setting up any shots, but the scene looked an ideal candidate for a profile of ghost towns of the old West. Eventually, I found more life, but it was unpleasant modernity that reared up on the major freeway that dominated the landscape. I discovered that its heart was represented by these soul-less polluting roads festooned with fast-food joints and jammed with dangerous hurtling trucks.

Alongside lay plenty of lodgings, none offering much in the way of comfort or cheer. Finally, $75 bought me a dirty room in a budget inn. Within it, I found roaches, and a microwave that sprung into life when I tried the main light switch. A closet door led unexpectedly into a neighbouring room. From within it, a paranoid redneck quickly materialised. ‘Was that you?!’ he demanded. I wondered who he was hiding from. I assured him that for both our sakes, it wouldn’t happen again.

Eventually, I found the town square. The town tourist board had taken enough clever pictures of it to Photoshop some respectability to the outside world, but the reality wouldn’t fool anyone long. Several cute waitresses comprised the totality of the local charm. Most of my time was spent finding Gainesville’s Greyhound office. It was five miles out of town. Reaching it on foot necessitated crossing a high bridge with an ankle-high parapet, descending and ascending a steep bank, and sprinting across several busy freeways. A local policeman almost pulled a gun on me when I approached him for directions with my hands behind my back. Lesson learnt. When I had given up on locating it, I asked at a local garage, where a cheerful Indian man told me that I had found it. He reminded me of Apu from The Simpsons. My reservation was not on the system, but he cheerfully told me to ‘take a chill-pill’ when I stressed my keenness to be on the first bus out of town.

The next morning, I made my way back – by cab – to catch my bus. The young black guy taking me had no idea how much to charge me. He was delighted with a dollar tip. The bus turned up five minutes after we were told it was delayed by at least two hours. Within the hour, we arrived in an insalubrious quarter of Atlanta where homeless folk staggered aimlessly beneath its flyovers within sight of its gleaming modern spires. I changed buses to Tuscaloosa with a few minutes to spare.

Tusk.jpg

The journey to Alabama showcased the scenery of the South. Thick tropical forests wildly strewn about the largely deserted hills and swamps. Birmingham, Alabama had an old grey charm that had yet to be burnished to a modern sheen. A black guy of a similar age to me saw me taking pictures of the old buildings and asked if I was working on some social documentary. He chatted without preamble about the divisions of the nation before wishing me well. Regardless of skin-colour, people seemed to gauge accurately whether you were with or against them. If anything, it was the white folk who treated me with some measure of suspicion. As with those running the beleaguered train service, the mainly black inspectors and drivers that ran the buses did so with a firm paternal hand that brooked no dissent. Against my traditional instincts, I welcomed these touches of authority. It perhaps reflects my doubts that individuals of the West can be trusted to behave nicely in groups.

Tuscaloosa was a happy surprise. The food served at the Greyhound terminal looked as good as any I hoped to find in the South. Town was some miles distant, but I was happy to stroll along the wide straight avenue into a town that I was confident existed at its end. After an hour or so, the street markers counted down into single digits and a pleasant slick city spread about me. I found a hotel that spilled somewhat over my budget, but I luxuriated in the contrast of facilities from where I had just come. The next day, I walked about the historic quarter till my legs ached – marveling at the size and comfort of the properties extending unboundaried in all directions. Starts and Stripes abounded from comfortable porches. Later, I visited an enormous university whose size and population was a town in itself. I found the state natural history museum ensconced within it. It didn’t seem to receive a lot of visitors. The cadet force which drilled in a nearby square was not short of recruits.

 

Very Slow Train Coming

I should have caught the bus.

The train sounded a more romantic chariot in which to return to the Big Easy. It was scheduled to bring me into town around sundown where I was to be whisked off for dinner at my old haunt The Palm Court Jazz Cafe. Instead, I spent four hours waiting at Tuscaloosa’s windswept station for the 1pm train. When it arrived, it managed to lose another hour despite seemingly travelling at full speed without noticeable delay. Apparently, freight takes priority over human traffic and if you lose the slot your train falls down the pecking order. We received a small apology over the airwaves, but those resigned to using public transport accepted it with the stoicism of Latin Americans. These vehicles seem reserved mainly for those who have lost their license or can’t afford a car. While the minutes of my dream entrance to New Orleans were disappearing, I grumpily elected to get dinner from the moveable feast provided by Amtrak rather than the jazz café on Decatur Street. The chicken breast came with a rather flattering description and complementary high price, along with the company of strangers. This enforced meeting of minds perhaps suits the more extrovert character of the American for all the divisions in its society. I shared the space with an ex-navy engineer, a black teenager from Mississippi, and a cheerful woman of a certain age (about my age) from Florida, whose husband worked for NASA.

The latter said she knew I was a journalist as soon as I sat down. During our dinner slot, she held the conversation together. The teenager was happy to have her educational plans indulged awhile before drifting back to the music on her headphones. Trump seemed a dangerous communal conversation in a packed carriage – my sense of this heightened by the presence of several hefty bearded men across the aisle. Politics was touched upon through the safer ground of far-off Brexit. The NASA bride wanted to know if I thought the Russians were involved. The engineer sounded like a natural Brexiteer when gravely stating the principle of not being dictated to by others. I said I understood that independence from distant rulers was a cornerstone of US democracy. He greeted my diplomacy with an approving nod. It felt well judged. I tentatively suggested that both our countries were facing a backlash from those feeling disenfranchised, but the response of the masses was perhaps not one to improve the lot of many. It was perhaps best that dinner was not sufficiently drawn out for us to thrash these points out more fully. We all left on friendly terms. 

My plan to see the countryside of Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana was thwarted by our late departure. Night fell within a few hours. During our meal, small dying towns flashed tantalisingly past our window, but I was too engaged with my fellow diners to become absorbed by daydreams of their past histories. The largely deserted main streets I glimpsed would probably be of little interest to the modern Americans around me, but for me, preserved by indifference, the ghosts of these fleeting ruins were beguiling.