Who knew there even was a Mississippi seaside? Not me. The large river of the same name, and the fact I was holding a map might have spoilt the surprise, but no. Late tonight we got to the end of a long stripmall-flanked, neon-flashing boulevard and could only turn left or right owing to the fact there was a massive black expanse of water straight ahead. This was exciting, exotic and significant. On November 5, I’d emerged from under the Detroit River in a Greyhound bus to find myself in the very north of the US of A, and at this point I could go no further south. It’s not as big as you think, America. Or at least, it takes more out of you travelling from London to Fort Worth. Anyway, I didn’t insist on kicking off my shoes and running across the sand to dip my toes in the water which is a good thing. This is of course the very coast that the BP Gulf of Mexico spillage messed up and it was the very day that BP had fessed up to multiple felony charges including manslaughter and been subjected to the largest corporate financial penalty in all time ($4.5bn), and probably not the time or place to be having the ‘you all from England’ conversation. More pertinently, looking up some stuff on this new discovery, the Mississippi coast, I spotted a Huffington Post story about the tens of thousands of rats that washed up there after Hurricane Isaac back in September. Sure they’ve all been cleaned up too, but still.
This was the end of a big driving day – for Dave, that is. In the new dull but reliable Chevy we’d gone to Montgomery, Alabama. This was where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger in 1955, sparking a boycott against the segregated bus system led by a certain young baptist minister, Martin Luther King Jr. all of which sent the American civil rights movement into fast forward and ending up where we are today – with a black president in the White House, disproportionately high African American homelessness, unemployment, crime, illiteracy etc, and everyone able to chose where they sit on the bus. I’m not sure you’d get all the history looking out of the window on a drive through Montgomery; it’s not exactly flagged up. Most of the city is colleges, corporate-sponsored sports grounds, and if not monuments to the rioters, stuff pertaining to law and order – a jail and plenty of bail bonds offices. It’s fairly joyless which I imagine it would have been in 1955, so that at least is an authentic experience. But the Montgomery Curb Market close to the Booker T. Washington school on Madison Avenue (yeah) is a treat.
Just at the point the city seems to have run out of steam with its truck repair units, car lots, pawn shops, flea markets and gun show hoardings, there’s a functional, low brick building surrounded by trucks and cars, with metal doors that are pulled to open and clang shut, a hubbub inside. It’s packed full of ladies selling home-baked cakes made of cream cheese, cream, sugar and crackled cookies, as well as warm from the oven cheese and sausage biscuits, massive apples, pecan brittle, and boiled peanuts which I’m just not sure about. Oh, and fried peach turnovers. Delicious. I will end up massively fat, no doubt about it. The women behind the stalls were small and wiry from all the constant baking, stacking, selling, harvesting, jam, pickle and holiday gift craft making. And flummoxed about why we’d travel from England to Madison Avenue, Montgomery (“you all’ll probably near-vah come back”). Actually, I’d like to. I’m very curious about Alabama – another place that has beaches, as well as a tough past full of dust and sharecropping.
People are baffled when they find tourists in their home towns, as if it’s only the scenery or monuments, or wildlife, or the places or events constructed for visitors that are worth slowing the car for. More people are nosy about how people live, how much their house cost and what they do on Saturdays than anyone’s admitting. I like local. When I see foreigners with maps along the disgusting Strand in London, ticking off the sites, I wish I could tell them to go for a curry in Brick Lane, visit the Lido in Brockwell Park, or have Sunday lunch in the garden of the Engineer in Primrose Hill instead, and forget the whole buying a policeman’s helmet thing, without seeing weird
The rest of the day was spent driving with God on the radio, well not directly. Preachers on every radio station:
‘Maybe Jesus has been drawing you in and you want to say yes?’ says Love Worth Finding out of Memphis ‘Write to us for a study aid pack . . ‘
‘You need to actively follow God’s plans for you . . . write to Love God with a donation and we’ll send you the free Making Dreams Come True pamphlet . . ‘
‘The companion of fools shall be destroyed . . .’
‘The Lord told Job “Pull your pants up, Punk”.
A long day – and confusing to see the sea where you don’t expect it, and then to fly over a curving bridge in the dark, and a freeway over a modern sprawling city with hospitals and phone companies which isn’t what you expect New Orleans to be. And then, to come off a ramp, pass a cemetery and a jazz band (and probably a voodoo practitioner) and drive at a crawl through the narrow streets of the French Quarter which precisely as anyone with an imagination imagines them that in all the overload you think you might be dreaming.