Christmas came and went, and on either side of it there featured a survey of coastal New Zealand. For me to say its beaches are the finest in the world is biased, but to say anything else would be dishonest. They are a delight, and they’d be great for a visit, too, if not for the relentless sun beating down upon them. A sun whose rays scorch the country from head to toe, unhampered by ozone. It was on Waiheke, then, that Vic & I found ourselves soaking in perilous amounts of it. It was a calm scene: the ocean lapping gently at our feet, a bounty of snacks at our sides, yet I was uneasy. We were about to begin a journey through the North American east on our way to Berlin. At this time of year, the east coast resembled more of an arctic wasteland than a tourist destination. Winter, like an ozone layer, is not one of New Zealand’s features, fluctuating instead between mild and milder. I had no training for the bitter curtain of winter we were about to enter, much less a wardrobe for it (would I need my jandals?).
We arrived in New York and travelled west towards Ohio to attend a family birthday. On a tight deadline, our traversal inland allowed just a few nights stay in Philadelphia. Founded in 1682, Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities in the union, a title we saw was well deserved as we wandered through the historic quarters. Despite such an illustrious past, however, there was no mistaking it as a city that had fallen on spectacularly hard times — an aberration it had yet to recover from. Near the river sits Elfreth’s Alley: the nations oldest residential street. This street in particular seemed to me a suitable metaphor for the state of the union at large: several houses for sale, two boarded up, a third cordoned off from the public — a victim of foreclosure — and at the far end, a parking lot. As we caught a bus out of town, I reflected on the utopian summer we had left behind, concluding this grim outlook of mine had more to do with Waiheke than Philly.
From the mysterious Amish couple that climbed aboard to the round of applause as we pulled into Popeye’s fried chicken & biscuits, the bus ride to Ohio was an exposé on American subculture. What was an otherwise palatable Greyhound experience began to splinter as we endured countless demands to disembark at each station, sometimes left for hours as an imaginary cleaning was performed on the bus. All hope of comfort was lost when a passenger’s rectal escapades rendered the air in the cabin unbreathable.
Having earned a doctorate in long-distance bus travel during my time in India, I was surprised that the American transit experience had been roundly beaten by the bare-boned bunk-bed buses of Indian infamy. 15 hours later we were dumped in Cincinnati, shells of our former selves.
For me, Cincinnati is a place of great familial importance. It is where my mother and her family lived and where many of them remain today. Occasionally you’ll hear it referred to as “The Queen City of the West” which is a nickname earned at a time when, in the 1850s, it was the largest city west of the eastern seaboard. It also belongs to an area in the United States known as the “Midwest”, a confusing concept in that it is neither west nor particularly in the middle.
After a week of celebration in honour of my grandmother’s 90th birthday, we hired a car and made our way back east. The journey took us through Asheville, North Carolina, home to the palatial Biltmore estate. The ostentatious expanse of land surrounding the manor itself is the magnificent realisation of Frederick Olmsted’s vision. Olmsted was the famed landscape architect responsible for the layout of Central Park in New York City, among other municipal parks.
After a night or two spent absorbing the small-town folk music in local bars, I was sad to be moving on from Asheville. Bellies filled with fried chicken and waffles, we departed thoroughly convinced of southern hospitality.
On the way to the capital city, a winding expanse of road opened up before us: the American interstate flew by at 80 miles an hour. We counted the endless procession of cheap hotels and fast-food chains as one might count sheep to fall asleep. Later, night fell and we began to rub necks with the crusade of eighteen-wheelers freighting goods across the nation, doing their bit for the invisible network that keeps the world running.
Our fuel supply began to dwindle so I pulled into a gas station somewhere in the backwaters of Virginia. The hour late and the pumps on prepay, I negotiated a $20 sale of petrol from the clerk. “That should get us a quarter-tank to reach tonight’s destination” I thought. It filled the tank, all 40 litres of it. Welcome to America.
The Smithsonian Institute has achieved for western history what Disney has done for entertainment. Through their efforts in Washington, DC, museums and monuments are found in such concentration that it was surprising not to find one under my pillow when we arrived. This is made all the more impressive when you learn that visitors can revel in the full extent of North American history without paying a single cent. It feels a little weird at first, to get something for free in the capital of capitalism, but sure enough you’re greeted at each museum by staff who seem both proud to share their nation’s past with you and glad you’ve taken an interest.
From slavery to civil rights, nuclear launches to moon landings, the record is laid out for all to see. It is, I think, a brave thing to own up to a past filled with suffering and struggle. For that, I came away with an appreciation for what the United States try to be.
We shared the conclusion of our American tour with a particularly despicable bout of winter in Brooklyn, New York. After a few days of perpetually cursing the cold, I almost felt guilty when the storage complex down our street burst into flames: an inferno lasting 3 days.
Speculation spread that a property developer had lit the fire deliberately in order to redevelop the land cheaply — a common practice in the area. Such is the explosive temper of property prices in Brooklyn: a frightening climate of increases where even a dilapidated pizza-hut lot can sell for twenty million dollars. It’s no secret that Auckland faces a crisis of unaffordable housing but in New York the situation is an obscenity.
With our efforts focussed on exploring what was indoors rather than out, some of Vic’s friends took us to the famed Comedy Cellar for a night of stand-up. An institute of comedy in Manhattan, it is known to be frequented by comedians from Dave Chappelle to Jerry Seinfeld and has played an integral part of Louis CK’s television show “Louie”. As big fans of Louie, we half-hoped, half-joked he would turn up to perform. As we lined up to enter, we nervously eyed a stack of film equipment left on the street outside. This was New York, there was film equipment everywhere and, though we were hopeful, it offered no guarantee he’d be there. Ducking down the narrow staircase, we took our seats and crossed our fingers. It was then that a member of Louis’ film crew tapped us on the shoulder to let us know he’d be on halfway through the night.
As he took the stage, a roar of applause erupted from the audience. In response, he delivered the wickedly honest and deeply cynical stand-up that has characterised four seasons of “Louie” and 30 years of his career. Departing before anyone could have a say in the matter, he left us to appreciate the comedic genius we were fortunate to have witnessed first-hand. A grand note to conclude our journey through the states.