Tea Baggers. The Westboro Baptists. Donald Trump. Americans are a weird bunch. It’s not all bad news though- the USA is the country responsible for such luminaries as Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison and Ayn Rand. Americans are weird, wonderful and diverse. They’re also much more socially interactive than people tend to be in Australia or more reserved countries in Europe. So I just know I’m in for some unusual encounters with Americans whenever I book a ticket to the States. Here’s some of the more memorable ones.
1. The bum who told me to tie my shoelaces, New York City
New York City is a place where people sing loudly as they descend the stairs to the Subway, and yell things like “hey mister watch where you’re going!” when you cross the road. All things that, were they to happen in Sydney, you might safely conclude the person was crazy or on drugs. (Who knows, maybe everybody is crazy and on drugs in New York..)
As a teenager travelling with my parents, we were walking in the Subway when a homeless guy suddenly yelled at me, “Hey buddy, tie your shoelaces! You don’t wanna trip and fall do ya?” It was the first interaction I ever had with a homeless person that didn’t involve a request for spare change, and I thus remember it to this day.
Continuing along the same lines, the USA is the only place where I’ve sat in a park (in Portland, Oregon when I lived there), feeling glum and lonely and depressed, and had a homeless man walk up to me in his rags and say “Don’t worry man. Everything’s gonna work out.” That about blew my mind, and kinda put things in perspective.
2. The guy with the guns at my work, Portland Oregon
In Portland, I worked for a solar company. You might think that people that work for a solar company might lean slightly to the left on most issues. But I never caused such an office brouhaha as the day I brought up the issue of gun control at work. Half the office argued for better controls, while the other half wanted to wring my neck for even suggesting it. My cubicle neighbour, who we’ll call Chuck, was really a generally decent guy and very entertaining. But loved his guns and was full of criticisms of President Obama for wanting to restrict firearm ownership and usage. He told me he’d built a turret in his house at home, in order to “protect his family”.
Now, when I went to do my Oregon driving test, I read the test manual and was amused to see the sentence “No firearms are permitted in the car during the test.” How funny, I thought, that’s something you wouldn’t see on an Australian test manual. Then I went to the DMV and after waiting for ages they told me I couldn’t do the test as I was in my rental car. (This was not mentioned anywhere in their written information, nor that of the rental company, however- very frustrating.)
I rebooked the test, and borrowed one of the secretary’s cars from work, but as I was driving out of the parking lot at work, boom, her car broke down.
Stressing about missing a second test, I was forced at the last minute to borrow Chuck’s car. This time, I was backing out of the park when I noticed some rags in the door pocket. Looking underneath, I found two pistols and a load of bullets rolling around! I went back inside the office and dragged Chuck out, telling him about the DMV’s rules. “Don’t worry”, he said, packing four or five rifles into the back of the car and covering them with a towel. “Just don’t let the examiner look under the towel.”
“What if the guns go off during my test?” I asked.
“Gee relax!” he said, “None of them are loaded! You Aussies are so up-tight!”
3. My driving test officer, Portland Oregon
Ok, so I’m doing my driving test, and it’s going pretty good, and then at some point the examiner scowls as I execute a three point turn. But then I realised that he wasn’t scowling at me, he was scowling at the bums on the sidewalk.
“Lotta homeless people in Oregon, huh?” he says. “Obama wants to give `em all a handout.”
I was silent.
“I don’t think people in this country really know what socialism is all about,” he continued.
Oh god. Did he really say that? Isn’t this just a driving test? If I argue, maybe I don’t get my licence. So I stay silent.
“Anyway,” he says, probably sensing I’m not keen on his politics. “I’m not supposed to have an opinion. Let’s head back. You passed.”
4. Strange guy in Darth Vader outfit, Portland Oregon
Ok, so quite a few of these are in Portland. But it kinda makes sense when you understand that’s where I’ve spent the most time. As well as that, there is a mantra in Portland that dictates, “Keep Portland Weird”. From what I can make out, Portland is loved for being weird. This weirdness is not always a good thing, in my opinion. The place is full of meth-heads and wannabe hipsters scowling at you behind moustaches and knitted scarves. Nonetheless, the city also has a lot of good-weird, like flying machine contests on the river and nude people riding unicycles.
The strangest thing I think I ever saw in Portland was a couple I walked past in a city park. The girl was kinda hipster-rockabilly which was fine, ok bit affected, whatever, but the guy she was talking to was head to toe in black and had something over his head that I can only describe as a Darth Vader mask- an actual Darth Vader mask. And he was speaking in an electronic robot voice. WTF?
5. The bike rider that tried to run me over in New Orleans
So I was in New Orleans recently and walking along the banks of the Mississippi, day-dreaming whilst admiring the mighty river. On the path ahead of me, a bike rider began heading in my direction. I turned slightly to the left to avoid him, but he turned slightly left also. I halted and stepped much more to the left, and he turned much more to the left. At the last moment, I had to jump right off the path to avoid being run down by him. Then it dawned on me that this had been no accident. He was probably disappointed that he missed me.
Pissed off, I turned around to look at him, and he’d also stopped to look at me, all wild hair and cretinous eyes. When he saw me face him, he took off quickly on his bike, making him cowardly as well as creepy.
6. The friendly police officer from the Bronx who moved to North Carolina
I was in Wilmington, North Carolina and I was with my American friend Jesse. We were amped to drop into Harris Teeter (a supermarket) and pick up a hoagie (a sandwich). I was about to embark the following day on a roadtrip from Wilmington to Atlanta, Georgia, so we were driving a nice Lexus that I’d rented for the trip.
The car was a column shift auto. I was not used to the column shift. We were exiting the parking lot, which was on a hill, when a massive pickup truck in front of me started rolling back. I went to grab reverse but because I wasn’t used to the column shift I kind of airswung. Our blood curdling screams did not help us and the truck smashed rear first into our car, destroying the bumper.
“Dude- why did you not reverse?!” Jesse yelled in disbelief.
I was in the process of defending my skills with the gear lever when out of the truck jumped a 16 year old kid with tears in his eyes.
“Oh man, I am so sorry,” said the kid. “My Dad’s going to kill me.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” I tried to reassure him. “Accidents happen.” His Dad rocked up and was nice as pie, as most people in North Carolina are.
And then the fuzz arrived.
The cruiser careened into the parking lot with lights flashing and screeched to a halt, and out jumped a rotund African-American female cop with handcuffs swinging from her waist.
“ALRIGHT!” she yelled. “AAAAAALLL Y’ALL ARE GOIN’ TO JAIL!”
The kid started crying again, and I admit I was slightly stunned. I’d heard stories about American cops, but going to jail just cos my car got smashed up? That was unexpected.
“Relax relax!” said the cop with a jolly grin. “I’m just messin’ wit’ y’all!”
The kid was still pretty upset. “Don’t worry sweetie,” she told him. “Daddy ain’t gonna mess wit’ you while I’m around. I see this stuff all the time. People goin’ round havin’ accidents all the time. It ain’t no thang, sweetie. Daddy ain’t gonna mess wit’ you.” Given that he seemed like the most understanding Dad in the world, I really didn’t think Daddy was gonna mess with him either.
We spent the next half an hour listening to black-cop/white-cop stories.
“They always partner me with a white cop,” she was saying. “We pull over a bunch of white guys, he gets out the car first. We pull over a car-load of brothers, I get out first. But brothers be thinkin’ I’m gonna get them off.”
She began describing a car chase during which drugs were thrown out of windows of the car being chased. “Brother be askin’ me to get him off the hook. ‘You gotta get me off,’ he says. ‘Now how’m I gonna git you off brother?’ I says. ‘You throwin’ crack out the window. You busted with CRACK brother. How the hell you think I’m gonna be able to git you off?’ How he think I can git him off?”
“You wouldn’t be able to get him off… cos he’s like, throwin’ crack and stuff,” I agreed.
“I love North Carolina. I’m from the Bronx,” she told me with hands on hips. “Ain’t nobody messes with me down here. Just lovely people. You been to the Bronx? In the Bronx they ain’t throwin’ crack out the window, they throwin’ dead bodies out the window. I love North Carolina. Don’t have to deal with no more dead bodies. Just nice North Carolineans and nice Australians. You need a police report for your car baby?”
7. Strange Guy at the Gas Station, somewhere in Georgia
Anyway, so I drove to Atlanta, and was on my way back to North Carolina when I had to stop for gas on the highway. As I was standing next to the pump, an old man approached.
“Are you plannin’ to set afire to North Carolina?” he asked me in a slow southern drawl, his eyes all hell-and-brimstone, his three teeth glinting in the afternoon sun.
“Err….. no … er .. what?” I replied, not quite knowing how to answer. Was this a trick question?
“Oh- I just saw your licence plate.”
“Right. I see!” I laughed nervously, really not seeing at all.
The man walked away and sat on the kerb next to the shop. Pumpy pump pump. I willed the gas to pump faster. The numbers on the pump ticked over, slowly.. slowly. Oh, no… here he comes again.
“You couldn’t give an old man a ride to North Carolina, could yer?”
“Oh. Oh sorry,” I scrambled to make up an excuse, “I’m actually heading to New York!”
8. Neat Taxi Driver in Memphis, Tennessee
After risking life and limb by walking unintentionally through a dodgy neighbourhood to Sun Studios in Memphis, only to be refused entry, the afternoon was saved by the taxi driver who drove me back into town.
Waiting outside in the broken neighbourhood, I enter the backseat of the most palatial and spotless cab I have ever seen in my life. Everything smells like leather conditioner, the carpets are plush and freshly vacuumed, the dash looks like it has just been detailed. “Dude,” I say, “this is a nice cab.”
“Thankyou,” says the well-groomed, well-dressed, and impeccably polite young African-American driver in a deep voice. “It’s nice of you to say so. I would be insulting my passengers, and it would be an insult to me, if I offered any different.”
9. Greyhound ride between Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee
With no train line betwixt Memphis and Nashville, I was forced to take the Greyhound. Taking the Greyhound in the US South is not the most pleasant experience- even the bus station was full of people I avoided making eye contact with. I stared at my feet for 45 minutes, until mercifully, my departure was called.
The bus ride itself was little better. I am convinced the majority of characters on that bus wanted me dead, so I naturally gravitated toward the others who seemed merely to want me maimed.
One lass boarding the bus struck me as almost normal, and she sat next to me, hopefully because I also come across similarly passable. It turned out she was Australian. Typical! (She was from Penrith though.)
10. My Friend Chelsea in Delaware
While I was undergoing my US college experience at the University of Delaware, I met a cool black girl called Chelsea. Chelsea liked white guys and I liked black girls, so we agreed we could probably match-make for each other- though we didn’t hook up because we became good friends.
Chelsea used to take me out to black clubs where they played the most outrageous music. I remember one of the songs repeated the refrain from a female singer “put it in my mouth, put it in my mouth,” while another was like “Don’t want no short dick man, no, no, no, no, don’t want no short dick man”. In the “no, no, no” bits all of the girls on the dancefloor would waggle their fingers as if telling a guy “no”. During all of these ridiculous songs Chelsea and I would grind on the dancefloor, the skinny-ass white guy and the big-booty black girl drawing a fair bit of attention from the rest of the crowd.
I lost touch with Chelsea when I left Delaware, so Chelsea if you are reading this, get in touch!
There was a pub near the University of Delaware called Deer Park. My roommates and I were having a beer at Deer Park one night, when out of the corner of my eye I suddenly noticed a barstool where it should not be. That is, at eye level about to hit me in the head.
Even more strangely, in that same split second, I realised that the chair was being thrown by one of the security guards who worked at the pub. Somehow, thanks to the reflexes of my drinking buddies and other people around me, who managed to catch the chair mid-air, it ended up only barely brushing my shoulder. But almost immediately thereafter I was stuck in the middle of a gigantic ruckus of people who were trying to break up a fight between the security guard and some other random guy at the pub.
I have no idea what this random guy had said or done to have justified such a crazy-ass response from a supposed professional. But the chair had been meant for his head, not mine, and it was the most intense and furious fight that I have ever seen in a bar. The two were locked in a death grapple that lasted more than 5 minutes, before every single other security guard on duty (about 6 big guys) and several other patrons were finally, finally able to pry the two guys apart and calm the situation.
12. The TSA Guy who asked me why I had nitroglycerine on my cell phone
Its not hard to have a rough time with TSA officials- my cousin was just detained for a day on entry to the US, and then deported, because she accidentally stayed a half-day more than her visa allowed on her previous trip. I’ve had two TSA episodes. Once, I was detained because my boarding pass scanned up with a different name than was printed on it (my name). Another time, I was accused of having nitroglycerine on my mobile phone.
“You’ve been flagged as a potential security risk by the airline,” said the TSA official as I passed through security. “You need to follow me please.” And he led me reluctantly to that door that you never want to go to in an airport. It’s a door for bad men.
Inside, I was frisked vigorously and my bags searched. They took swabs of my gear and passed it through a machine to check for explosives.
“What did you say you did for work?” asked the official.
“I’m a solar cell researcher.”
The man frowned. “Do you do any kind of work with explosives?” he asked.
“Then why is there nitroglycerine on your cellphone?”
I was dumbfounded. This was even more unexpected than my Pachinko jackpot in Japan. In an incredulous instant, I wondered what else they did in that lab in Delaware apart from make solar cells. Was it possible that someone had explosive chemicals in the lab that had somehow got onto my phone? No, that’s ridiculous. Besides, I’d never put my phone anywhere in a solar cell lab other than my pocket, because there could be acids or residue laying about. But definitely not of the explosive variety.
“Your machine must be broken,” I said nervously. “There’s no way there could be nitroglycerine on my cellphone.”
The guy eyed me like a skeptic. “Take a seat,” he motioned. There was a row of seats reserved for bad men. I was in for it, I thought. They’re going to arrest me.
45 minutes later, the official still hadn’t returned. There was only 30 minutes to go until my flight, so I asked a younger guy that was also there: “Excuse me, my flight is leaving in 30 minutes. Do you know when your supervisor will be returning?”
“Oh,” said the younger guy. “You’re free to go.”
Um- what? I didn’t stick around to argue, and 30 minutes later I was in the air over the Pacific, still reeling from this strange farewell from the USA.
Ah, America- land of the free, home of the brave, bosom of the curiously odd.
Been to the US? Perhaps you are even- gasp!- American yourself. I’d love to hear any funny stories you might have in the comments below.