The Twentieth Century has been America's Century. Her influence has spread from the tip of Hokkaido to the Mongol plains, from the remotest Antarctic outpost to the moon, and back. Militarily, her presence has been felt across the globe, in countries as diverse as El Salvador, Libya, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Sudan, Korea, Iraq again, Nicaragua and Guatemala1. She draws nationalities from all over the world, despite her embassy in Japan charging over 100 yen per minute charge for totally useless visa information2. She has produced the likes of Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, and my intrepid guide, Bart. I just had to investigate.
We flew to Las Vegas on Friday 13th. Next to 3 Bart was a very fat British ufologist on the way to a conference. He explained how to get the government to give money to your old hippie friends using the Welfare to Work Programme. He told us about the eclipse, which he had observed, awe-struck, from a boat in the middle of the English Channel where he'd been giving a commentary with Uri Geller. And as we began our descent, he leaned further across Bart and looked down at the plains, the miles of hot, empty spaces ending abruptly in mountains criss-crossed with ridges like an old man's veins. "Isn't that desert fucking amazing?" he said. And he wasn't lying.
The casinos of Las Vegas stand out against the desert sky like the backdrop to a musical. Casinos and hotels vied for extravagance, sprouting roller coasters, monuments, desert animals and The Eiffel Tower. As we passed the air-conditioned halls, freezing cold air exploded from each open door. Further down, the opulence began to crumble, until all that was left were pawn shops, porn shops and places you could sell your teeth.
At the Grand Canyon, it rained.
A drive from Dallas through the northern Texan deserts brought us to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa is home to the Aural Roberts University, which houses the world's largest pair of praying hands. The establishment was funded by Aural's famous television appeal to give him a million dollars or God would call him Home. We walked towards the Prayer Tower, which looked a bit like UFOs used to back in the late '70s. As we approached, a group of students burst obligingly into hymn. Inside, we entered a large, circular gallery, adorned with dedications to donors and pictures of Aural. In the centre of the circle, a round room with darkened windows hosted continuous, twenty-four-hour prayers. If you send them a donation, they will pray for your needs4.
Oklahoma is a bit like Japan in that they stare at foreigners, but unlike Japan in that they don't try to hide the fact that they're doing it. I stayed at my friend's tax shelter. It was in a gated community, but they kept the gates open all the time because if they closed them it encouraged vandals to jump over them and smash things up. That's what Americans are like.
In Austin, Texas, we stayed with Bart's friend [name_withheld_for_political_reasons], who liked guns. He revealed to me his crazy, paranoid fantasies about an FBI cover-up in the Waco siege5. We ate hamburgers and went to a ribs place where they do 2000 yen tabehodai, most of which went to [name_withheld_for_political_reasons]'s dog. Then we went home and he showed me his Japanese books. The next day we went to a gun show.
The show was being held in a large warehouse. The car park was filled with pickup trucks, each one plastered with stickers, like, "Bush for Governor" and "Guns don't kill people. People kill people. With feathers." 6. I had hoped to take some pictures inside, and see if I could get one the stall-holders to make the peace sign, but I was dissuaded by the large placard reading:
No loaded guns. No loaded cameras.
No shots taken. No shots fired.
The hall smelled of leather and home-smoked sausages. Guns of all sizes were neatly arranged on the tables. Other stalls sold everything you need to survive a social breakdown or a war with your own government. Dehydrated meals. Large watertight containers for the burial of ammunition and food. Books and pamphlets on the manufacture of soap and chemical weapons. Cuddly toys. Guns. (License required). Electric Shock Batons. (No license required).
Our next stop was with Bart's parents in Littleton, Colorado, where guns are less popular.
We returned to L.A., and landed at Burbeck Airport, which is I must have seen before in some movie from the '70s. Bart's friend Jack picked us up in his white '70s Mercedes, and after passing through their '70s shopping mall we went back to his '70s apartment where he lives with his mother, a very charming lady in her '70s. Jack is an actor, and appears in a number of well-known Hollywood movies, but mostly under extra-terrestrial prosthetics. He showed us the scenes, and told us about their behinds. We saw the stages where epoch-making blockbusters are made. And he took us to a live role-playing game.
Bart used to play live role-playing games at university7. He and Jack's role-playing friends are mostly games programmers. While we live in a world of students, photocopiers and beer, they inhabit a parallel universe consisting mostly of droids, special powers and battle armour8. So those are the things they normally deal with, on a day-to-day basis. Imagine a very earnest bi-monthly board meeting at a medium-sized company. You might have a dozen or so middle-aged men sitting around a large table, discussing how they might increase profitability in their Western districts via the progressive attrition of distribution costs, or whatever. Once you've got this image in your head, replace things like "profitability" with "teleport rating", "Western districts" with "Goblin's Palace", and "distribution chains" with "android spies", and you should be able to picture the scene. Apart from occasional interventions by Jack, who was playing an exceedingly camp bunny-rabbit.
The Magic Mountain amusement park is home to a full range of amazingly scary rides, and completely devoid of Disney-style bullshit. A replica of a 1930's roller-coaster clatters across its majestic wooden arches, plunging into freefall in a way no modern ride can match. A car thunders overhead making exactly the same sound as a Shinkansen train, only to soar upwards into a long, straight, perfectly vertical line. As the daylight fades, the music seems to grow louder, and macho Latinos dance under the disco lights as we wait, edgily, for a ride. While down below, little round boats slosh about in a man-made storm, water pouring in over the sides, over our shoulders and into our shoes.
Cocooned in my window seat, nursing my wet feet, what conclusions can I draw from my exhaustive foray into the New World? America is a very big country. It is full of things. None of which quite work properly. It is inhabited by people who are very nice, albeit slightly unhinged.9 It can be so multi-racial it makes all that we-are-all-alike ware-ware-Nihonjinism seem justified, or so monocultural you could almost be in northern Tochigi. It is a hotbed of opinion and discourse, none of which ever quite meets for long enough to form a meaningful discussion. Its groups, classes, sects and subgroups mingle and fuse, or, more often, carry on almost completely unaware of each others' existence. It is so diverse you wonder why it bothers to be one country at all. What does it all mean? What's it all about? I don't know. I give up. I should have stuck to Japan.
1. Take the first letter of each of those countries in turn. What three words can you make? (back)
2. US Nationals please note: Next week is International Slap Your Ambassador Week. (back)
3. and on top of (back)
4. I know this because I have a CD of a British prankster who called them up and said he was trapped inside a woman's body, and got them to pray for a crowbar and some muscle relaxant. (back)
5. This was a couple of weeks before Janet Reno admitted it was all true. (back)
6. I made that last bit up. (back)
7. Outed. (back)
8. One of the guys also drinks beer. (back)
9. Bart thinks maybe that's just his friends. (back)