Monday, 31 March 2008

On.....the back bay, DC and the law

The flight to Boston was via a Grayhound coach ride to Buffalo (a city I had vowed never to return to after I visited last year). We got to the airport in very good time but during check-in my duffel bag weighed the size of a crudely severed body and I had to painfully part with $20 in excess baggage charges. Interestingly as I went through security, the lady who checked my passport advised me that I had been selected by my airline to go through an additional screening.

It is my experience that where one has nothing to hide, the best way to deal with such situations is to grin and do exactly as you are told. Even your grin has to be gauged at just the right width so as not to appear too cocky. Don’t grin at all and you look like a moody terrorist. Anyway, I wondered casually why my airline had awarded me with such a dubious accolade. Is it because I is black? Who cares? One can never be too careful these days and it gave me a paradoxical comfort to know that dodgy looking people like me were being screened thoroughly. My shaggy, slightly dreadlocked, beard could perhaps do with a trim I thought as the TSA official frisked me doggedly. I suppose that it was also very reckless of me to still be donning the hotel towel that I had wrapped around my head that morning after my shower. You would have thought that someone would have pointed it out to me during the three hour trip from Toronto. I dunno. I suppose the declaration “Sir you have a damp towel wrapped around your head” could be construed as an overtly racist statement these days.

Boston itself was beautiful. I stayed at a charming hotel called The Colonnade which is in the Back Bay area of Boston. There is a neighbourhood feel to the city and walking down the wide, lamposted streets you get the impression that everybody knows your name. As a matter of fact someone should write a sitcom to highlight this neighbourhood aspect of Boston as the backdrop. They could use, I dunno, a bar or pub as the central setting and just have a bunch of people yammering all day about anything and everything. I tell you that sitcom would be a smash hit. What’s that you say? Cheers for the suggestion? Most welcome.

Boston and Washington are separated by some 450 miles of road. The drive is one that takes about eight hours on most days. It is a trip that falls very neatly into two halves. The first four hours allows you to navigate through the lush redness of New England foliage. The journey takes you through Connecticut and you end up in New York. The second half is in sharp contrast to the first as it is all industrial concrete from New York to New Jersey to Pennsylvania to DC.
D.C is a weird little place and I do mean little. It is divided into four quadrants and measures merely about ten miles in radius from north to south, east to west. I was hosted and dined by my dear friend Kulutempa who also acted as an unwilling tour guide. I found it strange that some of the more historic buildings are merely yards away from low income housing projects and ghettoes. It is also a city which appears to have a surfeit of crack-heads in its population. I lost track of the number of times that I was approached for a dollar. A dollar to a crack-head is that magical amount that will get him one step closer to his fix.

The high of my DC experience was immediately followed by a low. The high was my brief nocturnal meeting with a fellow blogger which I had hoped would be for longer. When I say that she has a feline strut then I am sure you will know who I mean. She is as witty and delightfully sardonic as she appears on her page not to mention sexy as hell. The one and a half hours we spent enjoying a drink before being kicked out was certainly a paean of rapturous note. On the way back I encountered a distasteful incident with DC’s finest when I was pulled over for no apparent reason. Unclear of my legal rights in this country (and having watched one too many movies) I suddenly became very meek and did not dare to ask why I had been stopped. They spotted my uncertainty and used this to nourish their nightly enjoyment. I was grilled for a further half an hour as they seemed to find the idea of a guy on a road trip a bit too incredulous. As they continued their questioning I relaxed and realised I had nothing to hide. I was not an illegal, I had a valid license and I was not inebriated. Surely the basic human rights that I was entitled to in England were equally applicable in Washington D.C (or indeed anywhere else in the free world). They sensed the slow transformation in me from rabbit to eagle and let me go with apologies.

In California now and heading to the Nevada desert. There is so much to report on the intervening trip (including another run in with the cops) that I will dedicate another post to that.

Monday, 17 March 2008

On......the beginnings of the road trip and getting a year older

Here I am teetering on the edge of the age gap, wondering what adventures the other side of the great chasm will afford me. Let us just say that I am celebrating a “noteworthy” birthday this year and that I had decided that I would celebrate it by dissecting North America in a Ford Mustang. However my journey was to start in Toronto, Canada, a city which I had always planned to visit and which had always held a certain mystical allure. So here I am, teetering on that age gap, reflecting on the past tri-decade and feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

I should have known better really. I mean, what did I expect? I have lived in London now for approximately half of my adult life and once you’ve lived in one big city, you’ve lived in them all. I can therefore say categorically that I have visited Tokyo, Munich, Paris, Sydney, New York, Los Angeles, Moscow, Chicago and Seoul. The stamps in my passport are irrelevant. I have lived in a city therefore I have lived in all cities. Toronto is no different. Although I must say there is something particularly soulless about this great city. Yes I know what you are thinking. The city is artifice, it is constructed, manmade. But no, there is something that found spookily bland about Toronto. It is a city that appears to live in the shadow of another great city. It is the younger sibling that strives to find its own identity yet labours under the personality of the more dominant offspring. It is America-lite or Yank Zero if you like.

I had come to Toronto hoping to find my own private slice of Canadia. I wanted to discover the distinctions that provided Canadians with justified umbrage every time one mistook them for Americans. I hoped to understand the culture of the people and to see what it meant to be Canadian and not American. I wished to become fluent in the Canadian tongue and understand the distinctions that existed between the Canadian accent and its American cousin. So how did I achieve this? I went to Toronto, and stayed at the Sheraton. Beat that for immersing yourself in Canadian culture. It is like the man who travels to Abuja for the first time, spends two nights at the Hilton and feels qualified enough to deliver a three hour sermon on the ills of the entire Nigerian nation, simultaneously offering remedies for its improved economic performance. I felt like a fraud and I had to get my hands dirty.

On the Friday I landed I was Toronto bourgeoisie, sipping Patron and dining a la carte. On Saturday I devolved to the middle-class. By Sunday I was a plebeian. The irony is that I endured the greatest joys as a plebeian. On that day I explored parts of Toronto that I doubt any respectable tour company would include on its itinerary. I went to Chinatown and ate Indian. I went to College Street, stood on a soapbox and orated. I talked of my wanderlust. I spoke of human passion and its unvarying ability to surprise. My audience was small but captive. I visited Yonge Street and listened, nay vibed, to Soular. I marvelled, as I always do, at artists who swear by their passion. They were not famous. They were not rich. The words were often not theirs, but for the sake of a free meal at the establishment that provided platform, they sang and they performed like gods. An extraterrestrial visitor would have witnessed their performance and compared it with the MTV radio signals they received in Delcrum 9. They would have struggled to identify who was the more talented, Soular or Beyonce or Rihanna or whoever. At last my hands were grubby and I realised that this was the fragment of the city that I most loved – its heart. For even amongst the mechanical and the logical aspects of every city - its imposing skyscrapers and dirty, overcrowded public transport systems, you will always find a small but thriving organ that allows for the rest of its adjuncts to thrive independently and function harmoniously.

On now to Boston for St Patrick’s Day. The colour of my money and my underwear are both green so I suspect that I will fit right in. The rest of my four week sojourn will involve a variety of accommodation from the opulent rooms of Las Vegas to the cockroach infested motels that are strewn across Route 66. Each moment will be an adventure and I promise that there will be images, plenty of images. For all my American dwelling friends I may be coming soon to a town near you. I am hopefully meeting with at least two fellow blog-villains. If you holler at me then lunch is on me. If not then look out for the cherry-red Ford Mustang. You will recognise me I think. I will be the black guy getting stopped by the Police in every State for doing 100mph.