We all love giving shit to Americans. Back home it’s a national pastime, and a multitude of other nations seem to enjoy it as much as us. As in so many cases, Roy and HG provide the pithiest summary. “Americans,” Roy opined on The Dream back in 2000, “are lovely, lovely people…………… on their own. It’s just when they’re together, en masse… anytime you get more than, say, two… they just have this little tendency to be… arrogant. Brash. Self-obsessed. Inward-looking. Ignorant. Humourless.”
So I wasn’t sure whether to consider the theory proved or disproved back in late November when I met Washington and Level Five, two Colorado boys with a respective dash of Arizona and North Carolina. On the one hand, they were excellent company and first-rate chaps, and I don’t have a bad word to say about either one. On the other, there were indeed only two of them. Who knows what would have happened were more involved. But then, we met some solo Americans who still managed to be pretty loathsome on their own, and who the Coloradans detested as much as anyone else. And I think it’s only fair to point out that plenty of Australians who I meet travelling make me want to implode with shame for the mere fact that I might be associated with them, and that their dickishness is exponentially proportional to the size of the group. The same can be said for many demographics of British travellers. Maybe it’s just a language thing, but the Europeans seem a bit more inclined to lower the volume and raise the tone.
Actually I’m not sure where I stand on this inclination to identify particular characteristics as belonging to an entire nation of people. It’s attractive and convenient, but encourages a lazy acceptance of mythology. Anyone who wants to claim that irreverent knockabout larrikinism is part of ‘the Australian national character’ should talk to some of the joyless cunts who ran my high school, or who dish out parking tickets in deserted streets at midnight on a Wednesday, or who justify the practice in council board meetings as “essential to public safety and traffic management.” Dealing with these people is like gargling talcum powder.
Doug Stanhope has a fantastic bit on this subject. “There’s no such thing as ‘We’re Americans.’ That’s just a bunch of bullshit to get you rooting for the home team. You’re not an American, you’re a guy. Until the Mongols come over the hills swinging machetes, trying to take our fire-hazard underground comedy club away from us, then we all buddy up as one. But those days are over, there’s no-one trying to take over America. We weren’t on the verge of speaking Iraqi. As far as ‘America’ goes – there’s two countries in the world: Dick, and Not a Dick. The border goes all the way around. Did you ever go to another country and meet another American when you didn’t expect to? You always talk to them, just for the trivia. ‘Hey, you’re from America? I’m from America! Where you from?’ And it’s never more than three sentences before you realise, if I was in America, I wouldn’t talk to this douchebag if my hair was on fire and he held a monopoly on liquid. I’m an American? What does that mean? I’m no more an American than I’m an Aires or an uncle. It’s just something you called me when I showed up.”
But this is something of a digression. The point is, I never really told you about meeting Washington or Level Five. Nor did I tell you about Hawkeye. It was a weirdly frantic time, shit was flying everywhere, and I didn’t write down all the stories. I met all three at the tail-end of my trip with Mr Fox and The Doctor, in a backpackers – those places that are so often a morass of unmitigated awfulness, but occasionally vomit up a diamond or three. We all partied with a bunch of other people for a few days. Then, for all we knew at the time, we went our separate ways.
Hawkeye was a hard-out fast-talking tomboy from Melbourne, the kind of girl who brings to mind words like ‘ballsy’ and ‘feisty’ – words that could be considered patronising but in my lexicon relate solely to awesomeness. A no-bullshit kind of girl. While I certainly find some girly-girls and ladylike women very appealing in a range of ways, I also really enjoy hanging out with the other kind, the kind of girls who will spit and swear and match you drink for drink. It’s well established that men behave differently in all-male groups. You can feel the change in atmosphere – the licence to be as crass and relaxed and uncivilised as you like. The licence to leave your style and charm in the boot of the car. I wouldn’t want to live like that, and it’s not necessarily any closer to my genuine self than any other persona I could assume, but it’s definitely fun for a time. Tomboys, then, are ideal, because they break up the gender monotony without making you feel like you need to behave. With non-tomboys present, even if you’re not trying to impress them, you still feel constrained – “You can’t speak like that in front of a lady, Mr Epsworth.” You don’t want to appear like a complete Neanderthal, so you tone it down. Of course there are crossovers and lapses and inconsistencies, and they don’t always end in disaster – I once somehow got taken home by a very sweet Jewish girl despite my opening line being, “Wow, this whisky is like being raped in the face by a pig.” If there’s a category in the Australia Day honour roll for first-class saves, I think I deserve a pretty shiny gong for that one.
The story continues. Those of you who’ve read this blog for a while will know that when I left Australia it also meant the end of a long and intense relationship. Leaving was necessary but difficult, like jamming the arrowhead through the other side of your leg while biting down on a leather strap and swilling moonshine out of a rustic ceramic jug. For the first month and a half I felt relatively good, I was on the road with The Foxtor and doing all kinds of stuff. Then those two gents went home. I moved from the hostel into a place on my own in a strange city. Back home, my grandmother died, and it was really difficult that I couldn’t help with anything or join in the send-off. And a couple of weeks after that, I got The Email from my ex. You know, the completely gratuitous thought-you-should-know-I-have-a-new-boyfriend email. I didn’t read past the first line, but that was enough to get the gist. Of course the news was no surprise, it had to come at some point. But it burned my fucking heart out all the same.
As luck would have it, though, my solitary confinement had ended a day or two earlier. Hawkeye had been passing back through town after some further travels and had needed a place to crash. She was in the room at the time and could clearly read my face over the laptop screen. ‘What happened?’ she asked. I told her. She grabbed the half bottle of wine leftover from last night and poured a huge glass. ‘Put this inside you,’ she said.
Clearly the woman was part doctor, part shaman, part prophetic genius. You all know how that kind of kick-in-the-guts news feels. The first half hour or so of numbness, and a vague dread of the imminent emotional shitstorm that is even now brewing thick and dirty on the horizon like a foul intestinal maelstrom after a night of heavy drinking and dubious late-night food choices. The knowledge that any minute now you’re just going to have to open the toilet door, bite down hard on its edge, and hold on for the duration while that Alaysia chicken kebab rides you like a Shetland pony. The inevitability of ending up pallid and shaking, collapsed like a pile of dirty laundry on a public toilet floor. But Hawkeye’s quick thinking at least put a bit of a cushion between me and the tiles. I should perhaps specify that the first glass of wine was prescribed at just past 10 a.m. The second came a few minutes later. The day unfolded from there.
In an effort to get ourselves out of the house, we went on a mission around town to gather my lost belongings. In my Foxtor travels I had managed to leave clothes at three different hostels and a repair shop in disparate locales. We visited them all, in between drink stops. By the late afternoon when we were done, she reminded me that Washington and Level Five were still in town, living in an apartment in Centro, and that tonight was Washington’s birthday. The four of us teamed up for an epic supermarket run. Umpteen litres of beer, a bottle of tequila, a bottle of dark rum, a bottle of Fernet. (For those who don’t know, it’s a 45% whack of thick black liquid evil.) The rum was my call –for whatever reason, when it comes to heavily destructive drinking, it always seems like a winning option. I took care of most of that on my own, but everyone else still managed to put themselves in a world of hurt. The tequila was mixed with lemonade in teacups and slammed against the floorboards to make it fizz to the point where the taste disappeared. Once we ran out of Coke the Fernet went down in straight shots (my earlier description of bad whisky would not be entirely out of place here, either). The Coloradans understood my plight. We were a team, on a mission.
Now at this point in the story comes the moment that really made me rethink my lazy attitude toward Americans. It is late o’clock. Somehow I have ended up in the stairwell. With all the fierce clarity that being drunk as shit and momentarily alone can bring, the full reality of the situation comes swooping in to smack me upside the head. The reality rather than the theoretical idea of something really being over, after years of loving and hoping and despairing and hurting and trying again with everything you’ve got. It hits me and I break, slumping down onto a step. And then Level Five is there, this guy who at this point I barely know bar a couple of casual drinking sessions, and who owes me nothing. And he puts his arm around me, and I fold into the aforementioned laundry heap, and he holds me while I fucking bawl my guts out into the front of his shirt. Actually holds me, like I was eight years old with skinned knees and not a semi-giant a foot taller than him. And he barely says a word, just says it’s alright, go for it, get it all out. And we stay like that for I don’t know how long, a long time, half an hour, more maybe, and I howl and subside and howl again, and he holds on, until I’m empty and shaky and wordless and spent, and the entire front of his shirt is wet from my crying, and he doesn’t mind the slightest bit. And then he talks me through it, tells me that I’m going to feel like shit for a long time but that it’s ok. That this is part of my experience. That I have to embrace that hurt, and own it, and make it mine. And unlike almost the entirety of a lifetime’s worth of well-meaning advice, what he says makes sense, and I carry it with me from that point on.
Later, five or six a.m., Hawkeye and I got home. The universe was not with me. I forgot the bag with all the clothes we’d collected, and it drove away in the backseat of the taxi. Then I realised I’d also lost the keys, and had to break into the apartment complex via a neighbouring property, a bunch of barbed wire, an angry dog, and about three layers of walls, including jumping a passageway to grab hold of a railing, hauling myself up onto the roof of my place, and breaking in through the skylight. I thought I’d pulled it off pretty smoothly, until I started writing drunk emails home and realised I was bleeding into the keyboard from both hands. Only then did I remember that one of the walls I’d climbed was studded with broken glass.
Thus we got through the first night. But the next little while was also very rough. So Hawkeye stuck with me for the next ten days or so, and she pretty much saved my life with her irreverence and her irrepressibility and her astonishing powers of chemical consumption. She had her own shit to deal with too, so we holed up in the house through the Buenos Aires thunderstorms and cranked The Lonely Island and blasted our way through. Since then it’s been like a Wall Street graph, with peaks and troughs of varying magnitude, but that first bit was definitely the lowest low. Eventually she went on her way, Level Five went home, and Washington and I teamed up to bring you the epic two-man stupidity of our more recent adventures. But when Hawkeye passed back through BA for one day a couple of months later, on her way back home, she stopped by and gave me a poem, an perfect 20-line summary of that awful wonderful fucked-up time, that is one of the best presents I’ve ever received. And so I wrote her this reply, taking my cues from what she gave to me. And if you guys click here you can listen to it (or right-click to download). Hope you enjoy.