Posts tagged ‘america’

September 2, 2008

Greensboro’ County

You couldn’t make this up. The Jewish princess advertising agency producer from LA being wanked all over by some black guy on the dance floor of a Greensboro’ nightclub. If you don’t laugh then you ain’t human. 


A lot of America looks like the set of ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Urban spaces that could ‘stand in for’ the locations of seventies Zombie movies. A lot of America is a remake of those films, an installation in honour of them. A broke down zombie world’s fair. Ramshackle downtowns, deserted sidewalks, a surfeit of parked cars that look abandoned, boarded up shop fronts, liquor marts that spill their customers out onto sun-bright cracked pavements, aimless traffic, lethargic suburbia’s, homeless guys peddling flick knives. Everything seems to be designed for more people than there actually are. The energy of commerce seems to have leeched away from so many of these places, leaving the punch drunks of capitalism, or whatever we call it now, high and dry in the closing down sale version of where they used to really live. 


Everybody must go. 


Towns with burger joints that sell freedom fries, the faded word ‘French’ still visible on the whiteboard underneath the freshly inked word ‘freedom’. The thought bubble ‘French freedom’ just confusing matters. Soda fountains and pinball machines, coleslaw and refried beans. Crab shacks, Bojangles, Sizzlers and Denny’s. Jack in the boxes and Waffle Houses. Residual franchises from middle America’s middle ages. 


‘You should see this place during spring break’ is what the guy in the deserted tattoo parlour in Corpus Christi said. I can’t add to this sentence, it kind of unfolds in your mind all by itself. 


I wanted to get a tattoo in Corpus Christi, in the hope that somebody would say to me one day, ‘Where did you get that done?’ and I could shoot back, ‘Corpus Christi, Texas.’ Sounds so good, the sentence has a weight to it. 


We were staying at the Omni and the tattoo parlour was right across the road. I liked the skeleton head in a cocked and crushed velvet top hat, it had a cool thirties feel to it, very Carnivale, a drooping black cheroot clenched at the side of a broken jaw. I free associated the Depression and Neil Gaiman’s book ‘American Gods’. The half-life of age and death fizzle as background noise, but I’m too old for a new tattoo and I left Texas unscarred, yet only after many lap dances with a half-Cherokee stripper, pitted skin and raven eyes smoke-signalling illicit pleasures under UV lights. Her mom looked after her son whilst she worked the pole. This place should have been called ‘Dances with single mothers’, or was that her name? In my mind I toyed with the word breed, and imagined us smoking crystal meth on the steps of her trailer as a wolf howled from the heights of a distant mesa and everything took on a green tinge, a white trash version of the northern lights. 


We finished shooting in Texas and made our way North East. United, American or Delta gets us out of there, and in no time at all we were in the Carolinas. 


In Greensboro’ I take it that there used to be a big furniture industry. ‘American hand made furniture’ say the signs of the few shops on a highway coming in, white painted rocking chairs and ‘Little house on the prairie’ tables slung outside under the signage, tempting us to do what? Buy them? Or feel nostalgic for a time when people made their own stuff and these damn chairs were family heirlooms. 


Furniture as so much else has been replaced by food franchises along these empty highways. How can there be so many places to eat, that are mostly empty, yet fully staffed and that stay open regular hours? What kind of business model is that? What strange mutation of capitalism allows this to recur across a whole continent? Where do the wages come from to pay all of America that works in the food service industry? The waste, the food thrown away. Food cooked and prepared for nobody. We enter one place, chosen randomly because how else would you decide? Unless out of some misplaced guilt for all the effort on display, a red dragon balloon/kite hybrid blowing in the wind, a pagoda shaped building shell painted bright red and tooled with gold. The surprise of finding ourselves about to eat Chinese! Because hung over Chinese always sounds a great idea and you actually, tragically, salivate at the prospect. 


Inside we were met by a fish tank with anonymous looking fish in it. Fish that are never eaten but perform instead a display function whose meaning has been eroded beyond the point of salvage. One of them had whiskers. It brings to mind another town, another restaurant. ‘Fishbones’ in Orlando, where the menu once offered me a Salmon line caught by Sven Larsson at 330 feet, off the coast of Norway. I forget the name of his boat but that was on the menu as well, written in italics. That night I ate the steak, and dreamt about Chilean sea bass (accent on the e in American English when offered reverentially by the waiter as one of their specials) trying to avoid appearing on that ghastly menu, a veritable Shindlers list in reverse for the aquatic diaspora. 


Before we take our seats I spy cigarette butts at the bottom of the tank, momentos of those who forgot to stub out at the door. 


We went for the ‘all you can eat 5.99 lunchtime buffet’. 


A hundred trays under hot lights; deep fried oysters, salt and pepper squid, a hot and sour soup tureen, blasted customers waddling and scooping up and down the three aisles of food, refreshed back in their booths by infinite refills of coke, topped up without question by waiters who are themselves customers, Chinese food junkies waiting tables until they feel hungry again. 


That night, it was a Friday, we eventually discover a busy place. Despite it being a sports bar with huge TVs on every wall we rush in, having narrowly missed dining at the empty ‘Olive garden’ in the adjacent lot. The place was packed. Blue collar folks both black and white, together but separate, a colour for each table, pitchers of beer the only shared currency. Earlier we had been across the road to a single screen mall cinema showing Resident Evil the movie with tickets that were hand torn and worn out carpets. Behind a cordoned off area an inexplicable model of a grand piano with life size dancing figures next to it. Forties characters, maybe even meant to be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and on closer inspection of the plaque were indeed Fred and Ginger, and again I am left with the absence of what this means, for surely it meant something once even if it doesn’t now. Whoever put it there had to have a reason, had to have thought it was a good idea. I got it as as I filed past on my way to the auditorium, the cinema was an outpost, an ambassador, however remote of movies in general and Hollywood in particular and what that meant to America. But now I just flash on Curly’s wife in ‘Of mice and men’ and her pathetic dustbowl fantasies of broadway. Whereas in reality what it offered was three-dollar movies for black teenagers on dates. And surely that was good enough and I should shut my mouth. 


Tobacco country. Cotton Plantations. William Tecumsah Sherman and his army marching through the south tearing the place up. Ashville, Rayleigh, Columbia, Savannah, Atlanta. Southern states put to the torch and to the sword. 


Winston-Salem is just up the road. Had it once been two places that decided to hyphenate themselves at a raucous joint town meeting once upon a time? How close was the vote? I digress from what I think about in a town or towns named after famous cigarettes; That this is the place for cheap cigarettes, the local industry more of a source of pride than a health hazard. Same as steeltown America, West Virginian coaltown America, Motor city America and on and on. Having a job being freighted with more meaning here than anyplace I have ever been. Or do I mean that not having a job has more dire implications here than anywhere else? 


In this part of the world smoking is an American thing to do. Cigarettes are bought by the carton. We pulled into a low-slung convenience store sitting out there randomly on its own patch of asphalt. Inside poor blacks did their shopping. Cigarettes and alcohol, a stack of TV dinners, some frozen steak. A skinny Korean guy propping up his own counter, his fat daughter somewhere stacking shelves. My movie polluted mind conjured an invisible shotgun under the counter, the Korean guys hand twitching over it when people enter his store. Two black men slide up and down the aisles perusing shit. We picked up some waters to a nod from behind the counter and went back outside, an abrupt exchange of cheap aircon for honest to goodness heat, for this was June and it just hung in the air, beating us back into our cars. 


We were there shooting commercials for headache powders. 


I sat in a meeting room, one of those spiteful event rooms that hotels have in abundance, from where you can run a production. It has Wireless Internet, we brought in a printer. It had the inevitable name, the Elgar room or some such, invoking a level of excellence I knew we would never attain even with our best efforts. We sat there, I next to the client, a friendly fat black woman in her mid thirties, discussing the new packaging for the powders. In the commercial we had to show how ingenious it was. Our Pack shot would consist of the new ‘tear’. Instead of the usual sachet for this type of thing, this product had always been sold in a wrap of paper, virtually identical to that which encases most grams of coke. I kid you not. Like in a nineteenth century pharmacy where powders would be dispensed in such an old fashion by a man with moustaches. There was an authenticity in this method of packaging I didn’t see a need to replace. It actually pissed me off, everything having to be new, new, new, improved, improved, improved. 


The new packaging replaced this coke wrap with a cylindrical sachet that tore along an already perforated line at one end. This is the end you ‘take to the head’ as the client informed me. I tried it and sprayed the product all over the table. My god I was far from home. Her nails were long and perfectly manicured, they curled over the end of her fingers,flashing me back to a nightclub twenty years earlier in southern Spain where a dealer chopped out a gram with the thick curly dirt black nail of his pinkie, shovelling the gear onto a glossy triangle scissored from a porn mag. 


These perfect nails, her imperfect body shape, the fact that the phrase ‘nigger nails’ sprang into my mind unbidden, the powders we were selling, the stupidity of having to film the ‘tear’, the heat outside and the cold sweat of being indoors, all gave me an inevitable headache. As if my head wanted to loose the shoulders they were on, lift off and float away from all the messy details. 


The hotel we were staying in, where we bunkered down for the ten days of the production was one of those places that held conferences and junkets, weddings and sales meetings, and was mostly empty from dusk till dawn, whatever guests they had dashing from room to car in the precious moments when day turns to night or vice versa. Sometimes the lift would be full of Pentecostal adoption conference delegates, proud white couples of middle age pushing handicapped black or Hispanic infants about in pushchairs, their delegate accreditation swinging to and fro from their necks. Badges of their honour, proudly displayed. Other times there would be elderly folks all dolled up and coming down to the vestibule for a veteran’s supper to be held in one of the hotels ballrooms. They didn’t look like they knew which one, these old marines, displaced these sixty years from the jungles and undergrowth of the Bataan Peninsula. They looked sedated, they wore slippers and pushed frames about, the atria and vestibules clearly inducing agoraphobia in the old, both men and women alike, who skulked along the edges, shying away from the huge bronze effect water feature in the middle of the room. Old men outflanking each other on the way, hopefully, to their allotted ballroom. 


Elsewhere there was a huge thousand-person nightclub inside the hotel, but for the life of me I can’t remember its name. It was a perfect film location. All neon lighting and gold balustrades, exhibiting the odd asymmetrical layout of the late seventies, stairs, bars, internal veranda all contributing to this time warp space. Monday, Tuesday Wednesday the place was empty. No sneakers, smart casual dress only. God we could do with a few laughs after shooting all day, but the bars and restaurants of the hotel were manned by a skeletal crew of guests and staff. It was as if the guests were paid to impersonate guests. We asked the staff where all the people were, why the Hotel had such a big nightclub. ‘You come back Friday night and the place will be packed, upwards of eight hundred folks in there.’ Yeah right. A band was booked for that night as well, fuck it they would be playing to an empty room, in a spooky empty hotel. We slurped down tens of watered down vodka tonics in a vain attempt to get loaded and went to bed. 


Friday night was wrap night. The next day we would be off, the crew and agency dealt back to the airport like a busted hand of blackjack. LA, New York, London would get us back, our absence gone unnoticed in the vast streams of human traffic that strangulate the globe. So we decided to check out the club, see if the barman’s prediction was somehow true. In the bar the two agency creatives, young ipods guys, know nothings, but pretty harmless, realised they didn’t have any shoes to get in the club. They found it hilarious to go to the mall opposite, to the thrift store in which they could buy some dead mans shoes and find some lint in the pocket of a dead man’s jacket. In the meantime the club was actually filling up. They would join us inside. 


Client, crew and agency were all pretty drunk by the time the club door opened. I participated in the casual indiscretions Americans make at work, because so much of life is work, so where else is there to be indiscrete other than at work, and all this added to a sense of commonality, of bonhomie, as we poured in through the club doors. On the stage a white band played reggae and RNB covers to an audience that was ninety percent black. Locals who were all intent on having a good time and letting their hair down. 


Good times. The cotton club in negative. I wish I could remember the name of the band, but I won’t make it up for effect. I just forgot. 

Good times. 


So I sit at the bar with the female client, who is good company. We have some drinks and chat with a few local women at a stand up table. I buy a few rounds and enjoy the view. The next thing I know is the agency producer comes up to us shaking, her hands down by her sides, but away from her body as if she doesn’t want to touch herself. She had been a little drunk but whatever had happened to her sobered her right up, you know that feeling, when your mind clicks to attention overruling your body, which is still full of booze. An enforced state of emergency, a physical curfew gives your movements a kind of brittleness. She gestures to her trousers which look a little wet and says that the guy she had been dancing with had ejaculated all over her on the dance floor. We all laugh, involuntarily. She also laughs and then we stop laughing and say some odd things, trying to make a drama of the situation because that’s what this deserves, or so we thought. We ask what happened. Somebody actually makes an aids joke. We laugh nervously, she does too, using the joke to laugh it off, loosen herself up enough to talk. She said she went for a dance with the guy, who held her hands behind her back with one of his and pinned her to him, whilst the other hand went in his fly, pulled out his cock and wanked off over her. Now at this point I’m sniggering a little with the client, it’s unbelievable that this has happened. She fills in the details, at no point saying that the guy was black, because in that club if he wasn’t with the crew then he was a black guy. What do we do? Call the police, get them to close the club down? Yeah right, we’d get lynched. She doesn’t want a court case, the guys long gone, she just wants to get out of her fucking trousers and burn them. She sees the humour in what happened. In fact the guys friend dragged her away from him and took her to the toilets so she could wipe herself down. It isn’t mainly spunk on her trousers, but the effects of the wipe down. He must do this a lot; his friend must do this a lot too. But if we do nothing then maybe the guy would end up raping somebody. The music plays on, people dance, the band plays on and it’s had for any of us to do something that will change that, irrevocably alter the evening. Even she doesn’t have the will to do that. At this point when we are all fighting our inertia, debating what to do, the agency creative, the one wearing the thrift store shoes, becomes all white boy irate and says, in front of his black client. 


‘Fucking nigger’ 


As if he was going to do something about it. I wanted the ground to swallow me up right there and then. A club packed with black people, and this check shirted thrift store shoe wearing twenty something punk says that. I burst out laughing, so does the client, we order more drinks and now the event will become the focal point, the node of conversation for the rest of the evening. It becomes the thing we have to talk about, working it over endlessly as we drink. The producer is taken off to change her trousers, and we meet up later in somebodies room to continue talking about what happened and drinking. By the time I go to bed I am bored by this story, I don’t care, have become desensitised to what happened. 


Years before a female friend who had amazing long pre-Raphaelite hair was on the tube in London and a bloke stood up opposite her and jerked off all over her face. She said it took ages to get it out of her hair. These are the two times this story has happened to me. She called him a fucking cunt and beat the shit out of him before the transport police could pry her off and arrest them both. That girl had balls, her name was Rowena. Last I heard she was working for English Heritage. 


Now this other girl, from another hemisphere, if not planet, went to a black nightclub and danced with a guy who came all over her. She was blonde, from California, dancing with a black guy in a North Carolina nightclub. These facts tell a story, but is that what really happened? Perhaps she made it up. I was there. Nobody saw her dancing with anyone. She was dating some rich European guy who paid her no attention and was always abroad. She loved to be the centre of attention, how better to do this than claim that somebody had assaulted her. Wars have been started for less. Thousands slaughtered for the temerity of this same transgression. In another story the young pimply agency creative with the dirty mouth would have had the big black buck strung up regardless of what he did or didn’t do, but for who he was. His horse skittering at the edge of the circle of flame, sweating under his hood, struggling to hold up his torch with one hand and control his mount with the other, casting an erratic swinging black shadow at a shallow angle out along a country road. Black spunk on a blonde body. Rivers of blood rushing down through history washing up on the dance floor of this damn nightclub in Greensboro’, and I just had to be there getting it splashed all over my feet. 


America scares the fuck out of me. But this is my life and I am beholden to recount it. 







This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License




wayne Holloway