Monday, May 30, 2011

Houston, we have a problem

The headache slowly relented, but the heartbreak didn’t. Alleged Manchester United fan Dicky Peach miraculously woke before 1PM and made his way into town to watch his team suffer a defeat in the biggest club game in the world. When I met up with him and Max he had to suffer the indignation of being a failed gloryhunter in what was the hottest day I’ve encountered this side of arriving in the USA.

We heckled him all of through the day, and all over the French Quarter. It was the first chance to see the area beyond Bourbon Street and in the light of day. I’ll admit to being skeptical of the city as we arrived downtown. The outskirts and generic high rises painted a picture that could have been any dying American metropolis. Once we saw the place at ground level my opinion took an absolute U-turn. It only improved the longer we stayed.

It’s easy to forget that the USA is a continent, and like others there is great diversity. The streets of the French Quarter are as different to those in New York, Los Angeles  and Miami. The further we got from Bourbon Street, the better the place smelt and the nicer the streets became. When we eventually made it past the giant church that the dayshifters all travelled to see, we ended up on the banks of the river, looking out at a paddle steamer travel under bridges to its eventual mooring.

As we sat on the wooden docks taking a nice break from the busyness of the streets that led us there, a homeless man teetered on the edge of the water as he ranted incoherently. What we could make out was directed at the person next to us who was “knocked the fuck out”, and once he left, the ‘knocked out’ guy lay down on the docks to get some shut-eye, tipped over his beer next to his head and continued to doze. Again, in New Orleans there was greatness next to poverty.

There was more meandering around the French Quarter, and even the quiet streets had people out the front trying spruik strip clubs. All the balconies, bars, restaurants and tiny streets really make the place something else, and at a quiet hour, it would be hard to tell which continent you’re in.

We returned to Bourbon street at night, and again I found myself pouring drinks off the balcony. Old women were doing their best to flash for beads and marching bands led wedding processions through the crowd. The street was wall-to-wall with people, all drunk or on their way, and all there for the same reason. It’s one of the greatest streets in the world that night, and even if it is sleazy, there’s great reason they call it the big easy.

The next day we were heading to Houston, Texas, and it would mean nearly nine hours on the bus. Typically, the Greyhound was late, and when I tried to place my bag under the bus the attendant made me remove my skateboard and shoes much to my annoyance. It had never been a problem anywhere else; not least the check in desk that weighed the bag, but as some polite redneck on the bus said “who is she to tell you what to do in her yellow vest?” And so it went, Greyhound decided that I should waste my time untying a few things, only for me to transport on the seat next to me.

I love making my way to places overland, and though there is a bit of added time to get through, watching the world as you pass by can be a bit of a joy – even on a Greyhound. There was the waterpark outside of New Orleans that I would have given anything to be at, people out fishing next to the highway and areas that are still flooded from a few weeks back.

The time flew by as we got to Texas, and things began to get a bit weird after that. Bridges that looked like rollercoasters towered above waterways and all over the land refineries and industrial areas were scattered about, looking like sets from Bladerunner. As we drove past a jail a row of lawyer offices and signs offering cheap bail bonds adorned the road, and at each stop, it felt like we were ascertaining a few of the jail’s old residents. The sunset that accompanied our bus trip was beautiful, with the orange sun falling behind the trees at stopped our view. There is hardly a nicer way to arrive somewhere.

When we finally made it into Houston and the hostel we were told we would be staying in a building a few blocks away, despite phoning up earlier and arranging to do some late night washing. Though it did mean we all got to ride in the back of a truck, our beds came without sheets. I can’t tell if it is incompetency, or whether they went out of their way to deliberately make this a nightmare, but the end result remained the same. Well done.

Still, we were able to stop by a Denny’s for dinner, and Dicky Peach usurped all of his previous junk food efforts by ordering a grilled cheese sandwich, stuffed with fried mozzarella sticks – essentially cheese covered in fried bread, in cheese covered in fried bread. Still, this being America, it wasn’t even the weirdest thing on offer. That honour was taken by the bacon sundae – which even Dicky Peach wouldn’t touch.

I wanted to go to the Space Center in Houston, but this clusterfuck of a hostel sabotaged the mission with their ineptitude. Space is awesome. To think that the city that produced this hostel was also capable of sending a man to the moon is remarkable. Not being able to see it is just another reason to come back, even if it means braving Houston again.

The last evening turned into a mess, and considering I don’t know where I’m going in five days time I presume more of the same will happen. Still, a bad day here is still a nice thing, and my only real responsibility is getting on a bus and arriving somewhere else. Tough life right?

Chuck Ragan - Do You What You Do
Listening to this guy when you drive across the south is absolutely brilliant.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ou est le poubelle?

It took a while to walk to Bourbon Street. It had nothing to do with proximity - our ancient hotel is only a few blocks away, we just had to stop every so often to seek shelter from the deluge. The sun was beating down even with the pouring rain, forcing the humidity to replicate a sauna. Every person we'd met over the last few days warned us to be careful in New Orleans, and when were only a few steps from the bright lights of Bourbon Street, a lady tramp walked by us with a freshly soiled dress. There you go again America, the best and worst in the land right next to eachother.

It became immediately apparent that the neon lights of Nashville's Broadway and Memphis' Beale Street are just baby versions of Bourbon Street. Seeing people was one indicator. Seeing them drunk off their faces at 7PM was another. Finally, we'd get to see some of that famed partying down here.

Up and down Bourbon street, we walked past innumerable bars, strip clubs and fried food restaurants. Above us, like Memphis, black clouds lit up with the regularity of the kick drums resonating outside the bars. If  ever there was evidence for the necessity of The Weather Channel, spending these last few days in the south has shown it.

Max and I settled into another bar to watch the Chicago Bulls lose again, and as my heart sank, so did the beers at our table. Around us an MC yelled down a microphone and a dance floor packed out with young guys already hammered by 10PM and older people who had left their coordination behind as they attempted to relive their youth.

A mechanical bull was replaced by a whale out the back, and before too long the animal barely looked out of place as the rain returned with a ferocity I had not yet seen in America. Rain soaked drunks sought shelter, while the ones who had arrived earlier didn't mind getting soaked and continued they're hilarious dance moves.

A hen's party arrived, with their pink singlets announcing to everyone they were going to get rampid in New Orleans. None of their group seemed to notice the error, and with the collective I.Q. of the bar dropping, Max and I left knowing we had to be up early the following morning.

At 10AM Max's friends came by, picked us up in their car and we drove to parts of the city to see how the reaction to Hurricane Katrina has been after six years. There is abandonment spread randomly across the area, with rebuilt houses neighbouring those marked in spray paint indicating fatalities from six years ago. To think, that after this amount of time such damage is still widely evident is remarkable. It's heartening to see people rebuilt, but rightly or wrongly, reminders of tragedy are still abound.

New Orleans is more than booze and tragedy, and a 45 minute drive from the city brought us to the swamplands. In the southern heat, we boarded a boat and set out through the murky brown water into the wilderness of the area.

Almost immediately massive birds were flying around us and turtles were spotted lounging around semi submerged logs. Within 10 minutes the first alligator appeared, and in what must be a Pavlovian instinct, came up to the side of the boat to be fed hotdogs for all of tourists. When they weren't eating the finest of Walmart's mystery meat hotdogs, they were instead feasting on marshmellows, and watching a baby one swim towards and eat one was not something I expected to see when I woke up. A little strange, but amusing none the less.
Through the swamps and bayous, more and more alligators made appearances, getting bigger and bigger as the trip went on. They'd all come to the boat, sliding across the side and eventually jumping out of the water to eat the bait. I dared not get too close to the side, because they could have easily had their head in my lap, such was the proximity.

All along the swamp are summer and weekend houses, offering the owners mosquito filled weekends away from the city. Some are quite extravagant, with doors, windows and their own docks. Others are simply sheds, and are slipping closer and closer to the water. When Hurricane Katrina struck the area, there were stories of some of them floating all the way to the other side of the swamp, such was the intensity.

Eventually we entered more wooded areas, and the water line on the tree gave the appearance of a fake sunshine coming through at a flat angle. Duck weed covered the water, giving a the surface a false green carpet. Dragonflies and countless other insects all bounced across it, like it was a solid as the banks.

It's absolutely insane to think that people go out wandering, swimming and live near the swamps, given all the snakes and alligators we saw, but it seems either people in this region are either the owners of the biggest balls in the world, or are completely stupid. Either way, there's a fair bit of insanity involved, and that's always a fun thing.

Later that night we all went out to dinner on Bourbon street. Stopping for street performers, street beers and a cigar, we went to a few of the strips bars. Now, I wish I could tell you more about my night, but my tape stopped recording. I remember some beads, a balcony, being very worried I was going to be thrown out for pouring beer on someone from the balcony (they just wanted me to use a plastic cup, not a glass bottle). After that, it's a real blur.

At some point in the night Dicky Peach arrived, and rumours are circulating today that I was throwing ice at him and teasing his new haircut. At another point in the night I was also informed that I stood on him while rummaging near the coffee machine (I've since found a nice coffee stain on a wall on the other side). Anything else that happened is anecdotal, and I guess I did what you're supposed to do in New Orleans. I got hammered, got some beads and forgot the rest of the night. Now Dicky Peach is here, I can only imagine something similar will happen tonight. Eek.

Down - Stone The Crow
Nola. A great break from a few guys more famous for angry man music.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Moving like the fog on the Cumberland River

Getting from New York to Nashville had really taken it out of me. It was 24 hours of travelling, waiting, starving and pockets of sleep that can be measured in minutes. It was a Sunday evening, and the area surrounding the hostel looked as if it had taken what I wanted, and had been asleep all day. Not long after my check in Max arrived from Los Angeles and we headed for the downtown area. It was only a block or two before we encountered the first of many panhandlers in the area. A hotel only around the corner from this was housing a live band despite having the roof above them crumbling onto the glass alcove that went out to the footpath. It hadn’t been long, but half of Nashville was summarised in a matter of metres.

That was never going to be a deterrent though, and we marched the rest of the way through Tennessee’s humidity towards the lower part of Broadway. The city began to turn it on for a few blocks and no doubt the bright lights, loud music and the Cumberland River at night that we were witnessing has featured on countless Nashville jukeboxs.

The rest of the city felt empty, but save for 5 or 6 blocks a few people were out listening to twangy tunes and drinking terrible tasting light beer. Max and I found a bar, ordered a few beers and watched the Chicago Bulls lose to Miami. Exhausted from the last few days and no doubt helped by a few nightcaps, we called it an early night in the country music capital. Still, we’d seen enough to give us some hope for Tennessee.

The last time I rode a pushbike was over a year ago when a guy from Barcelona said I could have a go of his late one night/early one morning in Crown Street, Wollongong. Before that was nearly two years ago on a ride with Rowan through Puckies. By the time we made it from the Lagoon to the beach at the other end I’d almost thrown myself in the trees after losing control in a small ditch. When I recovered and tried to ride off it became apparent that during the miraculous stunt the chain had shaken itself off. Needless to say, grabbing some bikes and riding around Nashville was hardly the most sensible idea of my life.


There was no selection criteria when it came to divvying up the bikes, but it became apparent fairly early that I had made a poor choice. Sure, I’d put on weight in America, but I felt like I had the braking capacity of an overloaded freight train. To get to a halt I had to grind a shoe across the ground and grip as hard as possible (I still have a blister on my right hand from trying to brake). None of this was really helped by the situations we put ourselves into; ignoring bike paths, any common sense at highway crossings and/or pedestrians.

Still, we made it back to Broadway during the day, where it was still twanging, and bouncing with buskers, panhandlers and tourists. We explored the side streets, with the bars, music studios and pita shops that would make downtowns seem perfect. We even grabbed a break on the banks of the Cumberland River while some of the local loonies busked, told stories about a princess’ daughter and just generally weirded up the place. Max and I agreed; America is the most prolific nutcase place we’ve come across, and this small patch of grass was really helping our argument.

Avoiding the cars and pedestrians had proved to be fairly easy – even without brakes. However, our stop at the State Capital took us up our first real hill, and before too long we’d stopped for a breather, even though we were a bit short on the destination. Sure Nashville tries to market itself as a country music haven, but in the middle of downtown among the skyscrapers is some classical architecture that hints at something greater. Yeah, the fountains outside the war memorial were scattered with homeless people, but the statue and columns of the building look like they belong somewhere in ancient Greece.

Spot the hobo

Onwards we rode, to a place where I had no idea what was actually there. I was told it was more music history, with studios and labels being scattered around a particular part of town, but with directions courtesy of Google, all we found was sweaty shirts from riding up and down streets.

Well, we found that, and a whole heap of cicadas. Max yelled and screamed as we rode through swarms of the only thing louder than country music in this city. They had just left their last shells, and were clearly new to this flying business as I one hitchhiked on my clothing for a few blocks. When we did regain our sense of direction we wanted to head to Nashville’s replica of the Parthenon, because such a structure existing in Nashville makes as much sense as the mutterings from those loonies down by the river.

It was all going well, and throughout the day we’d covered a lot of ground without any real incident. Only, we were about two or three blocks from the park when Max started yelling out “Lewis! Lewis! I’ve got a problem!” As I heard the words I grabbed my brakes, and though I stopped about 10ft ahead of him on the other side of a drive-way, by the time I’d turned around he was holding a pedal and arm in his hand.

That was that, the bike dream was over. When we realised we couldn’t kick the apparatus back on, Max had to do his best to glide back to the hostel so that none of the staff would notice. We got both bikes back to the shed, cleaned up and headed out to dinner almost immediately. A burrito had never felt so well deserved. It was washed down by a beer, a cheap cigar and in a bid to outdo all the good the bikes had done, we headed back to Broadway.

That’s when Nashville started to get weird again. We’d picked up a randy Croat during our stay at the hostel, and he directed us to a bar with some live bands. The band wasn’t great, and the crowd was full of punters who could easily pass as disguised lizard-people. It was that type of weird. It also became apparent why the randy Croat wanted to go, as the bartender he had seen the night before was working again – complete with blonde hair, blue eyes and the biggest pair of fake tits this side of the Mississippi. Christ it was distracting.

Not being shallow guys, that wasn’t enough to make is stay, and the randy Croat directed us to another bar he’d been to the night before. It should have come as no surprise when we saw a stuffed deer above the bar with its antlers adorned with discarded bras. Up the back some girl was joylessly dancing on another bar, and before too long, her companions at the other end of the building were doing the same thing.

One of the girls stared at herself in the mirror while waving her arse in front of a customer in the hope for a dollar. Another was not doing enough to garner such reward. It wasn’t enough for the randy Croat though, as he took great joy in trying to get as many pictures as possible – much to the embarrassment of Max and I. He loved every second that revolved around placing a dollar in the girl’s Daisy Dukes, and once he’d had his moment Max and I directed him to a place that was a bit more discrete. The band played covers, and the bar was almost cleared by the time we got there, but at least we could save some face.

We moved to a table with some girls, and when we got talking about why we were in America one of them added that “I already have one kid in college”, indicating that she didn’t want anymore. A panhandler came into the bar as a nice distraction, and when Max gave him a dollar towards a beer, he wouldn’t leave and managed to haggle his way to another – only this time it was for a bus home.

A gentleman’s club around the corner from the hostel piqued our interest on the walk back, but our enquiries about entry were enough to deter us. The trucks in the carpark and strict byo policy were of little value to us at 2AM, despite the convincing of our Croatian friend. All of the lizard-people became too much.

When we all rose the next morning, it was to finally visit the Tennessee Parthenon. It didn’t save me a trip to Greece, but for something built in the late 19th century in Tennessee, it’s pretty intriguing. Culturally, it’s about as far from a banjo or lap-steel  as you can get – but despite its pleasantness in a green park, I know what part of town I’d prefer to spend my time in.
Huh? Right.

The randy Croat was driving to Memphis, and Max and I joined him on the trip that included a stop at IHOP for a beautiful heart-clogging American breakfast. The rain and sun interchanged places throughout the drive and both tried to outdo each other at various intervals. At one stage we were getting drenched while simultaneously being slightly lost at a Mexican restaurant in Arlington, Tennessee.
The weather did eventually clear, and as we entered Memphis we were greeted by a number of abandoned buildings on the outskirts of downtown. Sun Studios, home of early Elvis and Johnny Cash recordings stands out like a lighthouse in the dark in what is now a rundown area of town. It’s also an immediate insight into what Memphis is – a city that is trying to move forward by hanging onto its history. The abandoned buildings give a clue to how this is working, and in concentrated areas, the sounds of the city are like a candle that is almost burned out. It’s still shining brightly, but with the area getting smaller and smaller; it won’t be long until that light has burned out.
Mississippi River looking to Arkansas

Our luxury one star motel was located on the upper levels of a multistory carpark. The neighbouring Sterick Building is one of the tallest in Memphis, and easily one of the most beautiful, however, it has been abandoned since the late 1980s. The pool up top was a classy addition to the stay, and after a quick swim we walked a few blocks from our destitute region towards the neon signs of Beale Street.

Up and down we wandered, looking for a good place to eat and drink. The sound of the blues played out from some venues, even if the crowd could be counted on one hand. We stopped by a few places, watching the Bulls lose again and grabbing a plate of greasy southern food along the way. We were told to check out Alfred’s, as it was normally a place where young people hang out – only by the time we got there around 11 it was empty. During our stay that included a few more cans of PBR and a round of “is he dead?” the bar did not pick up at all. The Tuesday night Memphis nightlife had stayed in to watch television.
Emptier than a Hick's skull

I was disappointed to sleep through State of Origin in Australia as well as getting an early start in Memphis. Though I wasn’t that upset at missing a New South Wales defeat, anytime I had for the Gibson guitar showroom or Sun Studios had been eaten up as I lay beneath the sheets of my double bed listening to the air conditioner hum.

When the call to get out of bed did come, the rain began to pour on and off. Bracing ourselves for a downpour with a solitary umbrella, Max and I walked to the Mississippi River and looked out at neighbouring Arkansas. The rain halted any plans to walk across the border, and instead we walked around more of downtown’s empty streets. Clearly, in another age Memphis was a beautiful place, and there is still a lot of evidence of this when treading the pavement, it’s just that all the empty and derelict buildings make it feel more like a ghost town than metropolis. It’s a dream project for rejuvenation, but I imagine for a long time, it will only remain a dream.

The tour of Memphis’ musical significance is highlighted in Elvis’ Graceland mansion. Max and I took a trip down Elvis Presley Boulevard into the compound of the world’s most popular singer. If anything, it was supposed to explain why a man of such wealth and influence would want to live in Memphis, and in fairness it did elucidate the positives of how the city once was.

The tour doesn’t take you to the bathroom where he died, or into any of the upstairs areas, but it does give you highlights on what a bit of money and a healthy bit of insanity can get you. No expense was spared on vanity, with paintings, sculptures and other Elvis artefacts displayed around his living quarters. It felt like every room has a bar, and when he wasn’t watching 3 televisions in a mirrored dungeon, he was busy covering his floor and roof in shagpile carpet. Sure, it was the 70s, but half the house was filled with nutbag ideas that only money could buy.
Named after a Paul Simon album

There was very little of fat Elvis, and no one was singing three-part harmonies at his grave, but it’s another American institution ticked off. While we waited to get back downtown we stopped for a grilled (fried) peanut butter and banana sandwich and felt the seat sink deeper into the ground as we took each bite. I wouldn’t be surprised if the South is the heart-attack capital of the world, they have enough songs about heartbreak in Tennessee alone.
1 star luxury

Even as the sun became obscured dark clouds in the evening, I went for another swim, doing laps of the upper level outdoor pool and staring at the ghostly tower next to the building while lightning cracked above. An employee yelled out from one of the windows that a thunderstorm was coming, and I replied that I was already soaked before he finished with a line about electrocution. I stayed out a bit longer, doing some more laps before heading back to the room with eyes stinging from the chlorine.

My vision had a fog about it from the pool, but there was no mistaking the ominous clouds outside. The local news had been taken over by weather experts and tornado alerts had been put out for the downtown area. Crap. Time to tell Mum I love her and go from there.

The storm moved around Memphis, and with more lightning than I had ever seen in my whole life we waited for the storm to arrive. Outside, warning sirens were blaring all over the city, not settling any of the raised nerves from the television. The wind picked up and eventual a huge deluge came over us. It poured and poured for 20 or so minutes before moving on to a new area. All the warnings came to that, and though there were still sirens blaring outside, our hunger outweighed our common-sense, and we went out into the streets in search of dinner.

Not long after the black clouds moved away the sun reemerged, lighting up downtown in what was like natural sepia. The clouds remained over another part of town, and continued to light up with the regularity of a heartbeat, but our area reveled in a picturesque dusk.

It was back to Beale Street for more food and disappointment. If Tuesday in Memphis felt quiet, Wednesday was almost silent. Aside from a redneck and his son telling us a story about how they saw a lady’s dress blow up in the storm, the night never really took off. The storm and American Idol final kept people indoors, and that was enough for Max and I to call an early end to our Tennessee stay. I could have spent more time in both Memphis and Nashville as the musical history and scene of the places absolutely fascinates me. But that’s the exact same problem with the two cities; there is nothing else to really offer aside from that. They’re not far from being great again, but at the current rate of change and improvement it will still take some time to get there.

Through a bit of Max’s genius, we’re able to get on a train towards New Orleans. It was sold out to New Orleans, but there were still tickets to the stop before, Hammond Louisiana. Despite the 6AM start, we made the train – Max in his inside out shirt and me in a pair of trousers that are on their seventh straight day. Out the window are innumerable abandoned small town buildings, flooded lakes dusty paths as we travel through the state of Mississippi. A runaway train carriage followed us for a while and no one seemed to bat an eyelash.

New York, Massachusetts and the East Coast have hardly felt further away yet I can say with a bit of pride that I’ve travelled this far overland. I’ve only got five more weeks here, and I hope that’s enough to see more as I trade the East Coast sunset for the West Coast sunrise before flying over the horizon back home. 

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros - Home
Max keeps playing this song and I have no urge to stop him