From Little Rock, we spend a pleasant day in Memphis, visiting Graceland and walking around Beale Street and a much less pleasant night in Nashville. On a Saturday night in downtown Nashville, making it a block is a true feat considering how congested the sidewalks become. Every bar with live music features a line outside that goes on so long they run into other lines for other bars. The bachelorette industry is strong in Nashville, with charter buses catering exclusively to the drunken gangs of women in pink sashes and tiaras. Those that wish for a bit more exercise ascribe to the Party Bike, a demented torture contraption presented as fun.
Their ability to maneuver through the drunken madness is uncanny and we quickly latch on behind one of the tribes and ride their waves into the black section of the party. The music instantly shifts from shit-kicker to Feddy Wap with games of chance offered on the street corner. The racial boundary is much more defined here than in Memphis where the white and black communities at least appeared more integrated. Walking through that city, an integrated dance party sprung up in the middle of the day. Here in Nashville, this part of town feels stowed away and so small that we don’t make it to the end of Feddy’s song before the country sounds regain dominance.
Before setting off the next morning, we visit the Parthenon, the setting of the last scene in Robert Altman’s Nashville, a film about the different cultures of America merging here for its violent conclusion. One of the most fascinating characters in the film is the unseen populist politician Hal Phillip Walker, who rants and raves from a roaming loudspeaker about all problems plaguing this country and how he alone can make it better. It would be another two months before Trump wins the election and more still before our current dilemma of him actually in office. It seems so strange that we found it near impossible that he could be elected when even a film from 30 years ago saw the coming tide.
A quick stop-off in Bowling Green, Kentucky to see where John Carpenter grew up, and the sight of the Bowling Green Massacre (Never Forget!), before we arrive at my childhood house in Indianapolis. For the next three days, we hang out with my parents and watch the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament. As I lay down in my childhood bed, I feel myself sink down like its Silly Putty, considering never getting up again. It feels safe and familiar. As much as we want to present ourselves as adults, in control of our lives, there is a burning desire to be taken care of, loved, and fed my dad’s banana bread.
Any hopes I had for a New York draped in the colors and breezes of autumn are quickly dashed by the ungodly heat of early September, radiating from the sun and concrete. The car drop-off is fairly unceremonious, with the owner giving it a once-over before signing the papers and driving off, leaving us in the middle of New York with nothing by our bags and know-how. We hop on the subway and make it to our hospitable friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, enjoying the air-conditioned subways that Los Angeles sorely lacks.
September 11th, our last day in New York. In an attempt to escape the memorial traffic in Manhattan, we flee to Coney Island. I’d always heard the Island was rundown and sad but all I saw that day were kids and families having fun, couples on dates and people basking on the beach for what may be their last summer day. News of Hillary passing out at the Memorial had circulated earlier that day, but I still found it as something of a surprise to hear a man in a Yankees flat bill speaking of it as we sat on the pier drinking Modelos from paper sacks.
When I started this trip, the plan was to drive across the country, observing and eavesdropping on the people to gauge the temperature of this political climate. The goal was never to push the question, instead waiting to see what people said in their natural, relaxed state. And what were they saying? Very little. With the exception of a man in Nashville praising Trump, most people didn’t seem too interested, preferring to discuss the train accident outside Lubbock or who was going to the World Series. There were plenty of Trump and Hillary bumper stickers on the road, and even a Gary Johnson shirt on the subway, but in terms of small talk, it was mums the word.
So it only seems fitting that out here on the pier at Coney Island, the furthest point in our journey, we would hear the most batshit crazy talk about Hillary, Trump, and just about every other insane conspiracy theory out there. It starts with Yankees Flat Bill going off about the different kind of problems rich people and poor people have. The people he’s talking to, a man fishing and a Russian couple generally agreed. He somehow ends up on prisons, saying he did his time and they should “throw all those dumb monkeys on an island.” This comment is met with silence but he doesn’t stop, leading into his views on Trump (Asshole), Barack (Asshole), and Hillary (Robot).
“She almost died today! She had seizure. She’s done. She’s gonna die and we’re gonna be left with Tim Kaine.” He posits that she might be a robot or a clone. Each sentence delves deeper into a New World Order conspiracy saying that Black Lives Matter and the school shootings are all fake ways of distracting us from the government passing Superlaws. “You gotta have your third-eye open with these motherfuckers,” he says with a hint of fear in his voice. He reminds me of a lot of people I’ve met, both scared and cynical about government and the world. They won’t be lied to again, so they make up their own “truths” to believe in and nothing can sway them away.
The Fisherman responds with, “Yeah, but you got your hat on, bro. It’s covering your third eye.” Madison and I try to stifle our mildly drunk laughter and both take a liking to the Fisherman, willing to engage with Flat Bill and inject some reason to the conversation. At least, that’s what we think at first.
Flat Bill circles back to his money, saying that’s the only way to live life to the fullest. He brings up John Travolta’s ability to park his plane on his front lawn as an example of the freedom one enjoys with enough wealth. It seemed like a random celebrity to reference, but perhaps it was fate. As soon as he brings up Travolta, Fisherman shakes his head, saying, “I don’t want to get that level.” We all turn to him, waiting to hear his rational argument against obscene wealth. “So far he can do anything he want. Any female. Any place. Any club. Any bar. So far, anything. Now he’s been there, done that. So now he chose to go for the things he can’t get. The unachievable goal, but he wants to achieve them…So now he’s gay.”
There’s a moment of dead, confused silence. I feel betrayed and stupid for backing The Fisherman. He was going to put Flat Bill Truther in his place, teach him some sense. Now he starts going off on how wealth turns people into raving homosexuals and hedonists, out to explore the furthest bounds of sensual experience, I picture a high-earning cenobite from the Hellraiser films. What’s more is now Flat Bill starts arguing with him, “Motherfucker, that’s crazy. Cuz if I get millions of dollars, I’m not gonna turn gay. He must have been gay. It wasn’t the money that made him gay.” Remember, this is the man who ten minutes earlier said Hillary Clinton might be a clone.
It’s funny the way people compartmentalize the things they believe. We try to associate people’s beliefs to their intelligence levels, but that dog just won’t hunt. It doesn’t matter how well educated or rational a person is on 99% of issues, there still might be that one subject where logic goes out the window. For Flat Bill, government control was what set him off, whereas he was very skeptical of the theory that money makes people gay. For the Fisherman, the exact opposite was true, and the two continued to fight over this point.
It is only when the Fisherman references the Tropical Fantasy beverage conspiracy of the 90s and introduces the idea that the government may be playing a role in turning people into homosexuals that Flat Bill relents a bit and says that may be possible. Compromise is a beautiful thing. The debate is suddenly cut short when the Coney Island lifeguards come over and start doing trick dives off the pier. We all film and take pictures of the incredible and daring feats of aquatic acrobatics.
Madison and I take the subway back to Brooklyn. At night we sit on the roof and watch the memorial lights of the Twin Towers. I was only in 6th grade when the attack occurred. I didn’t comprehend it then and was just happy to get out of standardized testing for the day. Now it feels like all the fear, anger and willful denial of truth is hinged to that day in history. We can’t predict what will happen even tomorrow. Life is chaotic in that way, but we can choose how we react. Will it be calm and dignified or scared and reactionary? Each choice takes us to a very different place.