Tuesday, June 28, 2011



HELL OF ROAD TRIP PT V, Pt. 2.

Well that stripper chickened out and rudely abandoned us without informing us. We were sitting in the parking lot of the club at 2:30am when we figured it out. In all my years of road-tripping and couch-surfing, this was the first person who said yes then chickened out. We must be looking shiftier these days. Or else she figured out that her rigger husband, coming back the next day after weeks at sea, wouldn’t be too happy to find us there? Who knows. In any case, it forced us to rent a should-have-been cheap (we’ve hit a few $30 places, after we figured out what every southerner knows—camping in the summer in the south is impossible. It would be like camping in a steamroom with mosquitos) motel that was strangely expensive. Noone had bothered to remove the children’s stickers pasted on the wall behind one bed. The lamp had no shade, the pillows had mold, and there was no shower curtain, which meant we flooded the bathroom. Nevertheless, the bare light bulb hanging over the bathroom mirror made for gorgeous light and photo, so never stop looking for beauty in the trash.

We stopped for coffee at a tiny diner, but the absurdly friendly locals, tantalizing beignets, and $3 egg breakfast enticed us to stay for more. The beignets were the best I’d ever had, better than Café du Monde, and the 21-year old local boy who made them bragged to everyone who came in: “They came all the way from Los Angeles for my beignets.” This made Vanessa cry. Many things do. This is her strength. David the alligator hunter kept saying what a blessing it was that we were here to talk to them. He had a pet raccoon who liked to shower with him. How did he get it? “I killed the mama.” Then he sold it to Goose from Top Gun. I really can’t believe how friendly everyone is in the south, all races included. In L.A., people size you up to see how much of a threat you are to their self-esteem/status/standing in the industries they are desperately trying to be a part of. In LA (Louisiana), people don’t size you up, they just give you sizeable portions and chat amicably. I remember talking to a Black family from Baton Rouge on the Gulf Coast who were nothing but appreciative and jolly, despite our crazy clothes, strange behavior (they wouldn’t let their kids swim in the Gulf waters because of the oil spill), and white skin. This is not my experience in the Northeast or California. Then again, I imagine if we were Black and chatting up white locals we may not get so friendly a welcome. I am always reminded as we tool through small towns or places where only locals go, that with our California plates and packed-up car, we may have a less sociable welcome, especially from the local law enforcement, if we weren’t white. These communites, after all, can be incredibly segregated. Savannah, GA comes to mind—a colonial house, droopy-treed luscious downtown of little museusm and coffeehouses…and mostly white people. Move 1 mile in any direction and it’s all Black. Same with New Orleans, outside of the French Quarter or St. Charles mansions. Indeed, the most disturbing stop so far was Magazine Street in New Orleans. Why? Because of the hipster takeover. Don’t get me wrong—I’ll take a hipster over a frat boy or out-and-out racist anyday, but hipsters are particularly American in their franchiseability: no matter where you go in America, the hipsters where the same thing and bring the same shops into town. It was depressing to see Buffalo Exchange, American Apparel, Starbucks (in New Orleans?!), Ben and Jerry’s, and overpriced thrift stores with the same tired hip slogans and safe nostalgic ironic T-shirts. New Orleans, after all, like Austin, is distinguished for its plethora of ma and pa stores and unique businesses. I do recommend, once you get past the hipster area, Frankie and Johnny’s, where we ate delicious alligator soup, more spiced-up than Lindsey’s Aunt Jimmy’s southern language.

Louisiana really is another country. A better country. It has everything that for me the rest of America lacks: a distinctive, excellent cuisine; a city to rival the best cities in Europe; a totally unique music scene; and, a little bit of French sensibility (though the Cajun and creole traditions are of course unique) . Notice I used ‘distinctive’ twice. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago are distinctive, of course, but there is so much there that is still so predictably American. New Orleans doesn’t even seem like America to me. (It certainly wasn’t treated like it was part of America by the Bush administration post Katrina. I remember how thankful they were in 2007 for our tourism, and even on this trip one waitress said “Thank you for caring.”)

I really can’t get over the shotgun shacks, totally derelict houses, and the victory of nature over civilization in this part of the country. There is no holding back the rampant, roiling vegetation. The countless armadillos littering the roadside remind me that cars are a relatively new invention that the world still struggles to adapt to. Let me some up the housing situation, though, more forcefully: this country is ABSOLUTELY SHAMEFUL in what it has allowed to happen to the majority of its citizens, from their health care situation to the lack of tax dollars going to community projects. Suck it Republicans. Suck it Democrats. We need a strong Socialist party. Anyone who thinks America is strong country full of happy people lives in a gated rich community and doesn’t road trip through the small towns of the South. Plain and simple—I’m sick of hearing friends in Beverly Hills tell me what’s wrong with America (our taxes are too high!). Why don’t you get out and see it, before you talk about it, you armchair pundits.

MISSISSIPPI, ALABAMA, FLORIDA, GEORGIA, SOUTH CAROLINA

After days in Texas and Lousiana, we sped through 5 states in two days. It’s all a blur of thick, wet air, a cacophony of nighttime insects, and lush greenery. The panhandle of Florida is particularly depressing. A long tunnel of trees broken by anti-abortion, power of prayer, and tractor sale billboards. Native American names everywhere and Native American presence nowhere. Lots of gun stores. I particularly enjoyed the “Guns and Fireworks” drive through. Savannah, GA is one of the most beautiful cities in the USA. Try to go. Bring an air-conditioned space suit.

Now we’re in Eutawville, South Carolina, visiting Lindsey’s family. Lindsey flew out to meet us, and will join us for the next week of Hell of Road Trip pt. V! We played in the Citrusville Citizens’ Sports Tournament, masterminded by Lindsey’s genius 14-year old brother Raymond. He also gave us an impressive organ concert.

Friday, June 24, 2011

HELL OF ROAD TRIP USA PT. I

HELL OF ROAD TRIP PT. V BLOG

Well, well, well, if isn’t you, United States of America. I grew up calling you ‘America’ like so many others, until some smart people let me know how incredibly, arrogantly, well, American, that is, considering that Canada, Quebec, Venezuela, Honduras and many other countries also comprise ‘America’. “United States” is also a laughable term, once you drive across America and explore its towns. These states are anything but united. You can read billboards in Texas saying “Yes we can secede!”, and maybe that’s ok—Texas can secede and become a new fascist state, and San Francisco can secede and become a communist one. Yay.

I’ve been a lifelong roadtripper. I took my first one with my high school comrade Craig the summer after high school. We took off in a tiny car with no destination or map, winding or way up to Seattle and back. We slept in the car on suburban streets, or else at people’s houses we happened to meet. We ate grocery store food and spent almost no money, and filmed everything in a ‘Furthur’-like movie. The catchwords were ‘aimless’, ‘passion’, and ‘weird’. This is version five. It’s nice to know that this praxis of deterritorialization became the dominant theme of my scholarship later in my professional career.

It’s a long hot desert from L.A. to Arizona. Around three hours into the trip Vanessa informed me breezily that she had brought ALL our drugs with us in the car. And let me tell you, Hunter S. Thompson would be proud of our selection. Smart people would not be proud of Vanessa’s shocking naïveté at attempting to bring them over the border into fascist states like Arizona and Texas. There are dogs. (Poor misused doggies. How would you like to work for a cop?) So, we stopped at a rest stop just outside of Arizona and sadly said goodbye to an eighth of my paycheck, still lying there in a dumpster in case any of you are desperate for free highs. We thus passed safely through the border patrol checkpoint, who are mostly uninterested in white people anyway. They like to use countless taxpayer dollars to satisfy the white people whining about taxpayer dollars used to give illegal immigrants health care and schooling. We listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Line” and “Balboa Park” to contemplate the plight of entirely mistreated immigrants. What a joke of a job, anyway, ‘border patrol’. Borders are symptom of a disease called sovereignty, which can only be cured by an opening into a concept of the people as multitude.

What can I say about Arizona besides that? Nothing, except saguaro cacti are sooooo cool. I love their independent spirit. I like the poly ones with one strong base and three-five strong upright branches. Took a long walk through the desert. For all the dessication, it’s soul-quenching. New Mexico? Well, we only stopped in Lordsburg, where we visited the ghost town of Shakespeare only to find that it was closed. Towns can close. A family owns it. A family owns a town. Back in the day it had hundreds of residents and absolutely no law enforcement. My kind of town. Let us police ourselves. Lordsburg, like most small American towns off this stretch of the 10, has been left behind by trickle-down economics and its legacy, continuing through the Bush tax cuts and Obama’s shameful continuation of them. People can work in a Mexican restaurant or in law enforcement (border patrol) or fire management. We met a lady from New York and discussed the ridiculouslessness and fruitlessness of the drug war. Everyone fretting about how dangerous Juarez and the drug trade is, trying to curb corruption and capture gang leaders when all they’d have to do is legalize all drugs. Duh. Duh. Duh. This no-brainer at first sounded strange to the locals, but as they figured out that they were serious,t hey let their guard down and actually agreed. Apparently you have to watch out with views like that around here. They needed a safe space to agree.

TEXAS

Do you know how long it takes to drive across Texas? Probably as long as it takes to drive all the way top to bottom in Italy, during which time (in Italy), you cross though hundreds of languages. There are of course a few languages on hand in Texas—the German/Czech contingent is particularly odd to me. But it’s laughable that the dominant conservative caucus in Texas talks about ‘taking back Texas’ or taking back America, when the white people behind it are the minority, their favorite places all have Spanish names, they could barely exist without immigrant labor, and they stole the fucking land in the first place. If anyone should be ‘taking back America’ it’s the natives, anyway.

We stayed at a trucker motel next to a thinly disguised whorehouse in El Paso. The first Dunkin’ Donuts appearance warmed my soul as always. Then we drove. And drove. And drove. Texas never ends. Across the Czech and German towns, alongside frontage roads, stopping at bars with locals who started out giving us odd looks but soon opened up. (I think my sparkly shorts with the cut-out sides contribute to our initial reception. Or else it’s the communist/atheist/free love Reed College T-shirt. I usually stay away from the tourist areas of big cities, and even from big cities in general when I road trip, but I recommend the Riverwalk in San Antonio to anyone. It’s a bit like Pirates of the Carribean ride. The flora is amazing and if you go late at night are so there are few people, just you and the ducklings, in your short sleeves and shorts sweating at midnight.

HOUSTON

This is a strange town. You’d think any town built on oil would be repulsive, but it has a thriving arts scene, an openly-gay mayor (wait, TEXAS?!), a plethora of unique museums, an irreverent rock n’ roll tradition (“Houston Noise”) , delightfully strange city planning (I like the streetlights), and my favorite venue The Sacred Dice ever played at, Superhappyfunland! That’s where I write from tonight, one of the many couches in this Eastside arts/music happy land that, just as when we played here five years ago, let us crash here for free. I spent the past hour talking to the leader of the Houston insane-rock band Rusted Shut. His girlfriend and bass player of 23 years left him unceremoniously by telephone. Imagine the music industry and your love life falling apart at the same time. And yet he presses on, playing gigs at places like this awesome little multi-color fuck you to capitalism from which I write.

Every great city boasts unique weirdness, and in addition to the weirdest and best music venue, there is an Orange Center for Visionary Art and the Houston Art Car parade. We went and prayed to the god of Orange at the bizarre and tangy house built at the End of Hope (1979), and then to the universal gods at the Rothko chapel over in the museum district. By far my favorite chapel, the Rothko is an unsassuming square brick structure on the outside and a grey and black circle on the inside. There are meditation cushions and benches from which you can contemplate the Rothko canvases, which at first appear to be sheer matte black, but in fact admits of subtle variations in color and pattern. Since black absorbs all light, and since the chapel is organized in a circle rather than the spatial separations between worshippers and holy (wo)men of most churches, temples, mosques, etc, the effect for me is a presentation of the sacred as all inclusive and non-hiearchical—sacred communism! We left feeling very centered.

On the way out of town, my Dunkin’ Donuts locator iphone app took us to what was once a Dunkin’ Donuts but is now “Dunk Donuts”. They kept all the same logos and advertisments, blacking out the ‘in’ in ‘dunkin’ with a sharpie. Dunkin’ Donuts refused to lower their franchising fee so the local owner just took things into her own hands. Hilarious. Everything else was the same, even the donuts and (sacred of all fast food delicacies) the coffee.

LOUISIANA

Just when we were beginning to believe that we were in a sequel to Sartre’s No Exit in which the Texas highway goes on forever, we crossed into Lousiana. Almost immediately everything looks different. Coming from California, it’s always bizarre to see the houses with no yards to speak of—they’re just plopped there on green plots with no fences between each other (I like that, needless to say). Things get junglier, stickier, wetter, yummier, greener, sexier, greasier. We took tiny ‘highways’ deep down into the bayou, bypassing Interstate 10. One is struck first of all by the poverty. We passed through ‘historic districts’ with nearly all the businesses permanently closed (saw this in Texas a lot as well). So many shotgun shacks, cheap mobile homes, and houses falling apart. We stopped at a Waffle House (I love how they’re all shotgun shack-shaped as well!) and heard three stories from three people working the 8pm-4am shift. “There’s nothing here for kids, for anyone, really,” said Crystal, speaking of Morgan City, Lousiana. “There used to be arcades and stuff but that’s all gone.” She overcame a prescription pill addiction (apparently the big drug out this way, after a meth phase half a decade ago) to win her kid back after her husband died. They pay her $3/dollar. We tipped her 40 % but I left with a deep sadness and bitterness about this country and the ravages of capitalism. It’s not just the low wages, poor benefits, and union-busting. It’s the utter lack of money and effort (owing in part to the scandalously low tax rates) put into the kinds of community resources that by comparison are overflowing in Europe. And what you always hear out this way—the cops are corrupt. Of course.

But my god the food. It’s the only food in America that doesn’t make me embarrassed when showing it to European friends. We took a walk through what seemed to us like a jungle today, in the Palmetto State Park, and ran across massive black wild boars and a gaggle of armadillos who, apparently because they are well armoured, did not care how close we got. We’ve been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, mourning the death of Clarence Clemons, and no one besides Woody Guthrie got the United States better. Every sax solo cuts to the heart these past few days, and Phish broke our hearts with a touching, thrown-together and abject tribute to Clarence . In any case, it makes me want to tip everyone 30%. I am disgusted at my rich friends who tip 15%.

We finally went to a strip club here in Houma, LA, off the 90. Vanessa has been wanting to go to a bunch for her research. This one was the size of my garage and featured the most overweight stripper I’d ever seen. She was a marvel to watch as she shook her butt relentlessly for the pleased patrons. We met a dancer named Georgia who invited us to spend the night at her place. She has three kids, the first when she was 17. Her husband is a rigger working off the coast, and is gone for weeks at a time. I’m now at a Waffle House writing this at 1:35am, waiting for her to get off work. See you in Mississippi.

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.