On being arrested and America

Friday, 20 May 2011

"So basically they cancelled the second part of the return flight because we didn't take the first."
"Fuck it, let's drive back."
Florida is a flat, concrete expanse lined with palm trees. Orlando more so - a privet-hedged oasis of grey boulevards, billboards and the occassional world-class theme park. The cultural highlight of Orlando is probably Wet n' Wild waterpark - partly because they have a water slide where the floor opens beneath you, but mostly because you get to ogle the booties of provocative black princesses from Alabama and Mississippi.
We visited an in-law in the Orlando suburbs. Whilst we were sat around the TV watching a feature on the world's largest cinnamon bun, I asked him what there was to do in Florida apart from visit theme parks.
"Eat", he replied. "Work, and eat."

We stayed with Walee's friend, who was kind enough to squeeze us (plus her mum, dad, husband, brother grandmother and 8 dogs) into the house for a night. Walee's friend taught at the school that her mother had opened in Fort Myers. Her mum gave us a brief tour, showing us kid's artwork, the 'world fayre' hall, the new sports fields, the pre-school classrooms, etc. It seemed like she was consistently working 80-hour weeks in order to keep her pet project (and the kid's education) off the ground. The vital funding wasn't coming from the U.S government (who are currently cutting the education budget) but from parents, from their own wage cuts, from generous property owners who give them a reasonable rate.

On the way out of Florida we stopped off at a Thai buddhist temple where Walee had spent her summers. The temple was apparently 'much more fancy than it used to be' and was even guarded by two huge Thai Yuk statues.
Walee's arrival was quickly noticed by the head monk, who ushered us into the main hall (with plush red carpet and buddha altar) and conducted us in a brief prayer. Having flicked water into our faces and presented us with necklaces, we went for a brief stroll in the tranquil, leafy grounds. He presented me with 6 manuals on meditation, and hoped that I would return for one of the temple's 5-day meditation classes in May. He had mucky toenails but calm eyes.

We officially arrived in Louisiana when we stopped off at a roadside restaurant and heard a teenager use the word 'momma'. After a 13-hour drive we rolled over the delta lakes and into New Orleans. The city, like Detroit, is considered by many to be 'dying'. High unemployment, high crime, poverty, abandoned buildings and the occassional hurricane (famously neglected by the Bush administration) give the city an apocalyptic atmosphere.
"But", our hosts told us, "the good thing about New Orleans is that the police pretty much leave you alone if you're white."
After a brief walk to their local choppy-watered levy, I sat beneath an electricity pylon amongst a sea of  broken green glass, and watched a group of lads driving golf balls into the grey river.

New Orleans is famous for its public crypts and its voodoo. We toured one of the graveyards, and found the crypt of Marie Laveau - the 'voodoo queen' of New Orleans. The tomb itself was littered with offerings from visitors who scratch 'XXX' on the crumbling brick, in the hope that she will grant them a wish. Those who see their wish granted come back and draw a circle around their X's. Very few appear to have worked out.
The offerings themselves, laid around the base or stuffed into the brickwork of the tomb, ranged from beer bottles, cheroot cigars, earrings, dead flowers and purple beads, to small, circular rocks, red lipstick, half a pair of purple horn-rimmed glasses and a small tub of hot sauce which contained hundreds of dead, fossilised ants.
There was also a dollar lying at the base of the tomb, and, conspicuously, a rough-bearded man standing nearby, staring at the dollar and muttering to himself.
"She's there, man, she's there... that...people say you can't escape... run all you want, run run run, mmmm, you come home you'll find a snake in your bed...  you praise God but you still vulnerable mmmmmm...."

As I was about to leave (and surreptitiously watch the bum steal the dollar) a local-looking guy with a sweeping brush came marching along, followed by a gang of 6 or 7 sheepish-looking toursits.
"So I surprised y'all with that knowledge, huh? This is the tomb of Marie Laveau, people leave all kinds o' things here, really believin' that their wish... is gonna come true. I told y'all I made a wish once, right?"
An elderly couple dressed in baby blue and biege nodded obligingly. The red-faced man at the front, who was wearing a limp white sun hat, merely stared at his shoes and looked menaced. The tour guide, probably a cleaner, continued in a falling pitch.
"Some of them wishes come true, some of them don't - that's just the way it is."
A Texan-sounding woman chipped in from the back, also staring at the dollar on the floor.
"And no-body touches this stuff, right?"
"Are you kiddin? Soon as y'all leave the locals are gonna come and sweep this stuff away, and we can't stop it. Just like we can't stop people making these three X's here... some of the tour guides be trippin about it... me? I let it be. Why get mad when you can't stop it?"

"Now anyway, I got one last thing to show y'all... this guy was the first black mayor of New Orleans, but if you look at his picture here, you'll see they made him look like a white guy... listen, he was all black."
The crowd moved in closer, straining to see the bronze plaque.
"It wasn't until he opened his mouth and said 'SISTAH, what the FUCK YOU DOIN??' that people realised".
The tourists recoiled from their guide's high pitch squeals, and the he walked away, laughing, before stuffing a handful of dollar bills into his pocket.
The tour had finished abruptly, and the holidaymakers were left standing together in an awkward silence.
"Well he may not have been official but he was very authentic." offered the Texan lady.

As we crossed into the vast state of Texas our satnav began to give us ridiculous instructions, such as after 346 miles, take slight left, and con-tin-ue for 400 miles. I used the empty, dusty roads to experience driving at 120mph and tuned into the local radio stations, finding company in such delightfully named country songs as Lock me up inside the jukebox when I die.

Once in our destination of Austin, we settled down to watch the world's largest urban bat colony take flight for the night (and shit on some tourists), then headed back to meet our host.

Sarah is an activist in the field of Disability Rights, and with good reason - under the current proposed U.S budget cuts, funding towards branches like autism care will be cut 100%. Sarah herself, who uses a wheelchair and manages her own daycare, might find her vital services taken away from her, and could be forced into a state institution, losing her home, and her free will, in the process.

Sarah and 10 or so of her colleagues, mostly in wheelchairs, staged a protest outside of Austin City Hall on our second day in Texas.
They highlighted the proposed cuts by staging a kind of 'disabled last supper', in which they sat at tables adorned with plastic fruit and bread, talking about the debilitating effects that the cuts will have on people who are already disabled and struggling.
Various politicians, public servants and policy makers walked by on their way home from the city hall, only one stopped and took interest - the man that Sarah's company had been lobbying to collect their petition. Shortly after, the police arrived to inform the disabled protesters that their banners were 'blocking the view' of the city hall from the road.

Sarah, no stranger to protests, told us over dinner she had once handcuffed herself to some immovable item close to the white house during a demonstration in Washington. Having cut the handcuffs with bolt croppers, coppers removed her and other protesters from the scene and were at a loss as to where to take them.
"Prisons aren't very accessible", said Sarah. "In the end they crammed us all into this farmyard barn out in the middle of nowhere. We were there for hours, and it was only after we started shouting about our civil right to go to the bathroom that they let us go."

Once we had passed through the arid, lunar rock landscape of New Mexico and into the average New Mexico town, we saw the familiar American landscape in all its multicoloured glory - McDonalds yellow, Shell red, Holiday Inn green, Chase blue - billboards lined up like skittles, erected on a concrete post procession of primary colours and neon lights, stretching as far as the flat, purple horizon.
It's almost impossible to patronise small, local businesses when heading across the insterstate roads of the US.

For this part of the trip we elected to stay in Las Cruces, a town noted for it's proximity to a lot of natural hot springs. Early the next day we drove out to Truth or Consequences - a dry, dusty town that used to be called 'Hot Springs, New Mexico', but changed it's name after a popular comedic quiz show launched a competition to see which American towns would switch names in favour of the show's title.
The various spas across T or C channel the hot springs that bubble underneath them into ground-level pools, so that the health-conscious can pay a few dollars and wallow in the sweaty, mineral goodness before dipping into the inexplicably cold river. We were in such a spa when I overheard an older gentleman say he was from Roswell.
"You had any aliens in Roswell recently?"
"Yeah, plenty of 'em. ILLEGAL Aliens." The man chuckled and stroked his grey moustache. I decided that I had time for an arguement.
"I suppose you're right near the border, eh?"
"Yep. We need somebody who knows what they're doing in power to grab a hold on the situation."
"Mmm. I suppose they're having hard times in Mexico with that war against drugs."
"Yeah - they can do what they want, but it shouldn't spill over into our country."
"Yeah I know! You Americans should be able to snort all the cocaine you want without all the problems that come along with it."
"I don't know about that."
"Mmm."

There were numerous borders and checkpoints across New Mexico where I was asked to 'state' my citizenship.
"Err... British." I answered, unsure if I needed to show my I.D.
The imigration officer looked into my eyes and shrugged.
"That's fine. Have a good day."

Our last stop before home was San Diego.
We met Walee's half-brother, a programmer who worked for the military during the cold war and had since become disillusioned, feeling that 'the capitalist system we're in is just as bad as the communist system we were supposed to be fighting against.'
We moped around Karlsbad beach and shared a few drinks with my friend Michael, who is also ex-military and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like every drafted soldier I've ever met, Mike questions the validity of the occupation, and told me about a trend that he'd noticed when speaking to the 'support our troops' crowd in the states.
"As long as I'm agreeing with them, they're alright, patting me in the back and such. Then as soon as I start getting into details and describing how our foreign policy is a joke, they immediately start looking for reasons as to why they can discredit me personally, instead of focusing on the details of the arguement itself. They look at my face and say something like ' Yeah, but you're of that... race' - meaning I look like an arab - and then I say 'I'm from a Greek background you moron', but it makes no difference. Your argument is invalid because you're not a 'proper American'.

On our last night before home, Michael and I shared 2 pitchers of beer at a Karlsbad bar. We left, along with his friends and Walee, at closing time, and headed down the road. I was walking at a faster pace than the others, so I climbed a few rungs up onto a model of a British phonebox and waited for them. When they passed by, Michael stood below me and signaled that I should get on his shoulders. I did so, and he commenced to roughly march up and down in a lightly humorous attempt to make me feel insecure.
I heard the hum of an approachng car motor and felt a torch illuminate us in the dark. A voice crackled through a PA system.
"Take a seat on the curb, please."

The policeman got out of the car and walked towards us. "You wanted my attention, now you got it."
He asked us to cross our legs and called for back up. Another officer arrived within seconds.
They cuffed us, emptied our belongings from our pockets and took Michael to the back of the car.
The girls were standing around behind us, confused.
"What did they do?" someone asked the supporting officer, whose face was swimming with red and blue emergency lights.
"I was called in on a drunk and disorderly charge", he answered. "Usually it means they were being loud or obnoxious, or they were damaging property or posing a threat to others."
"But they didn't do any of that."
The officer grimaced and shrugged his shoulders apologetically. "Yeah, but once an officer makes up his mind, there's a 99% chance that he won't change it."
I laughed harshly, and could feel the hot sear of rage building up in my stomach. The copper's first words rang around my head.
'You wanted my attention... you wanted my attention... now you got it. You wanted my attention... now you got it.'

The cop came and lifted me from the curb by my arms. My body was shaking with violent rage, but I managed to limit my reaction to a small quip.
"This ith kinda kinky."
Walee interjected on my behalf.
"Shut up Sam, you'll just make it worse."
He grilled me in the back of the car and called in to see if my green card had arrived yet. It had. I was a legal resident. Mike had been un-cuffed and released, probably because he had a more respectful demeanour towards the cops.
"So what's gonna happen is, I'm gonna take you to the cells to sober up, and you'll get out in the morning, so long as you don't give me any mouth."
I wondered what 'mouth' constituted. I wondered if he was suggesting that he, personally, could detain me in holding cells indefintely if I made another sarcastic comment.
I stayed silent.

We arrived at the county jail and I was measured, weighed, fingerprinted, photographed and stripped of my belt and sent through the first of two sliding cell doors that seperated me from the outside world. The cell featured two hard wooden benches, a drinking fountain, a metal toilet and a payphone. Next to the payphone was a long list of different bail and car towing companies. The stark, yellow lighting seemed to match the pervasive smell of disinfectant and piss.

I spent the first 2 minutes focusing my anger into the destruction of the metal-clasped ID bracelet that had been fastened around my wrist, and the following 2 minutes explaining to a passing officer that I 'must have played with it too hard.'
"These things don't just fall off, you ripped it off, didn't you?"
"Maybe."
"That could be considered an escape attempt."
I laughed.
"It's not funny."
It was funny. I'd been in prison for 10 minutes and I was already playing up to the role of detainee, Stanford experiment style.
I was moved from cell to cell 3 times throughout the night, which ensured that I didn't sleep before the morrow's 9-hour drive back to San Francisco.
The second cell had a TV mounted on the wall which featured 'detainee information' and was playing muzak on a loop. I supressed the urge to smash my head continously against the metal water fountain.

I spent 3 hours in the final cell with a 40-something bloke who had been 'in and out of jail' for the past 17 years. As I entered, he asked the guard for a paper cup to drink water out of.
"No." came the answer.
"Damn pigs. They're violating my fuckin' water drinkin' rights" he said, once the guard was out of ear shot.
The guy was skinny, wide eyed and had a frenetic manner. He looked like he had a history of substance abuse. He told me that he had been an alcoholic since the age of 7, and that he was never disciplined as a kid because he was raised only by a mother and 2 older sisters who adored him.
"I got a daughter too. If you could see her now, man - fuck. Long dark hair, beautiful eyes - people say she's the most beautiful prostitute in all of San Diego... all the Mexicans love her. The only problem is, she's..."
He mimed the shape of a heavily pregnant belly.
"I used to have it all man. You wouldn't know it by looking at me - but I used to have a huge house, a wife... this great jet ski business in Santa Cruz - one of the first guys to think of hiring out jet skis in summer."
His eyes misted over and he started up into the harsh light.
"Used to wash the machines down in the morning, drag them down to the beach, splash around in the waves... I got fucked over in the end though. More guys starting renting out jet skis in the bay - guys who didn't give a shit. One of them let an 8-year old kid get on one and ride off - the kid had no fuckin' clue what he was doin and ended up crashing into a teenage girl who was water skiing behind a boat. Broke her legs and drowned right there... I was at home at the time, so I had no idea what had happened. The next day I go out to work and there's a news van there, asking me about my business. So I tell them, right? I'm stoked for the free publicity, saying that jet skis are great and they've never harmed anyone. Saw myself on the news that night - they set me up good and proper. Made me and jet skis look like real dangerous shit. I still remember that news woman's name to this day... fuckin'... Carol... Carol... Carol fuckinwhatsername. Ahh, shit."

He sat back down and buried his prematurely wrinkled face into his hands.
I looked into the holding tank opposite ours. Seven or eight bored-looking men, mostly latin, all wearing blue boiler suits and crocs. I imagined serving a life sentence here - 20 year's hard muzak and having to wear fucking crocs every day. It just didn't bear thinking about.
"Those guys will be going upstairs soon. They're here to stay. Me and you are getting out of here, man."
"Have you stayed upstairs before?"
"I was here 3 years for grand theft auto... you don't wanna be going up there, man, it fucking sucks. That shit gets real old real fast. Most of those guys you see over there will be 'type 1s'. They'll be allowed out of their cells a few hours a day, they'll be allowed to exercise and shit... if you're type 3 or 4, there's none of that. You eat alone, you bunk alone, you don't see the light of fucking day."

Later on, after the bluesuits had been taken upstairs to begin their incarceration, the coppers used the holding cell to temporarily detain a green-suited man whose hands and feet were manacled with chains. The whole time he was in there, he stared at us with an unblinking dead-eyed smile. Occassionally, he laughed out loud at nothing in particular.
"See, he's probably your type 3. Crazy as shit. What are you in for, anyway?"
"Someone gave me a piggyback on the way back from the bar."
My cellmate laughed heartily, before coughing productively and spitting into the water fountain.
"The cop must have just taken a dislike to you. Or he must be dumb as shit - it costs them money to bring you in and keep you here."
I thought about that.
 I thought about Walee's friend in Florida, desperately trying to get the cash to keep her school afloat. I thought about the people of New Orleans who were left to stagnate after the hurricane hit. I thought about Sarah and her colleagues, fighting to retain the money they needed to perform simple household actions.
I thought about the hundreds of billions of dollars that the United States government invest in military operations each year, about the power granted to US cops, allowing them to spend money detaining their own taxpayers according to their own whims or discretion.
And I felt bad for every hard-working citizen of the United States of America.

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For more satire, travel articles and micro-fiction, like Sam's facebook page, The Daily Guttersnipe.

2 comments:

deli said...

well said Sam

benwohl said...

Well said sam, i would say that it reminds me why i live here and not the US, but then the UK is also floating on a sea of contradictions. Well done on getting you r green card.