“We should keep on driving. New Orleans is only a few hours away now”, the three guys agreed. We’d been on the road for four days now, and Louisiana finally felt close.
“You mean throughout the night?” Juliette asked, checking her watch.
“Well… how will Montgomery be interesting in any way?” they argued.
She wasn’t too keen on the idea. Asya and I weren’t, either. We ended up booking another crappy motel over the phone – we were staying for the night.
Montgomery, Alabama. Pretty exotic. This Southern spring break road trip was actually turning out to be the perfect chance to discover what I like to call ‘deep America’. I thought I had a vague idea about the South: ‘racism’, ‘guns’ and ‘Republicans’ were the first words to unconsciously pop up in my brain when I mentally travelled to these states, Texas being the ultimate representative (though I’ve never been there).
Despite my full awareness that this is terribly stereotyped, I secretly felt a slight satisfaction in what we had encountered so far because it matched my prejudices: souvenir caps in a gas station that read “God and Guns built this country – let us keep them”; a visitor center attendant in Charleston, South Carolina, who claimed not to be racist but who advised us to avoid certain areas because “you know, a lot of Mexicans there”; and of course, Norman, our “security guard” at the motel in Savannah, who, drunk and high as hell, had guaranteed us safety from getting shot or stabbed at night.
Compared to cold Massachusetts, Montgomery felt like summer. Although it was a small and quite empty city, we found out it was here where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, and where thousands of Civil Rights activists had marched to from Selma. These now lonely streets had made history.
After freshening up in our motel rooms, the guys let us know that they felt like having a night to themselves. I think they fancied a small break from us, which was fair enough – you can’t be around your trip buddies 24/7. So Juliette, Asya and I headed to The Aviator, a bar we found online. We ordered three beers and sat outside.
Soon after Andrew and Chad joined us. They were two white chubby guys in their mid-thirties who were clearly pleased to see people going out on a Tuesday night in Montgomery. They tried to guess our nationalities from our accent, but ended up giving in and asking us.
“Paris,” Juliette said.
“Me too” Asya nodded, though she’s lived in Istanbul for longer, but when she says she’s half French half Turkish people ask a lot of questions.
“Barcelona,” I answered.
“Have you been there?”
“No – I’ve never left the country.”
Andrew and Chad then told their story. They were both from Atlanta but worked here during the week. “We work together – well, he’s my boss,” Chad explained, “You have no idea how much money this guy makes,” he boasted, as if Andrew’s paycheck was his own. Andrew shrugged confidently. We didn’t answer. I changed the subject.
“So… are you hoping for any kind of big change after the election?” I really wanted to ask this question in the South, but it came out so quick I didn’t even realize that maybe here you don’t talk about politics just like that.
Andrew nodded: “I definitely am. I’m not for Trump at all, but this Obamacare thing, you know, the healthcare policy Obama has started, is just crazy. I mean, why on earth do we all have to pay for healthcare when I can afford my own?”
That sounded really weird in my European welfare-state mindset. “Well… I guess Obama is trying to make healthcare accessible for everyone?”
“Yes, and it makes sense, but wouldn’t it be better if you got to choose whether to apply for Obamacare or not? How does it work in Europe anyway?”
They couldn’t believe us when we told them in some countries like Denmark or Sweden some people pay as much as 60% of their income in taxes to pay for public education, healthcare, or care for the elderly.
“That is so… socialist,” Chad said. I chuckled, my mind flying to European borders, where probably at this very moment Syrian refugees were being kicked away. I started rolling a cigarette. Chad stopped.
“Wait, what are you building?”
He made me laugh. “It’s a cigarette!”
“That is so European! Can you roll me one?”
We were short of lighters, so he asked a woman who was smoking behind us with a group of people. She must have found us amusing, because she grabbed a chair and joined us. She was black, middle-aged, short and large. A colored scarf covered her head, and her huge mouth smiled frankly at us as she handed the lighter. “I’m Brittany,” she said.
Brittany was absorbing. I don’t know if it was her accent or her confident body language that mesmerized me. She spoke vigorously about everything that pissed her off, like Obamacare. I figured we looked confused when she clarified, “not all black people are for Obama. And certainly not all are Democrats!”
I wanted her to keep talking. There was one question I was dying to ask, but I didn’t know if I could, so I tried to bring it up softly.
“Brittany,” I hesitated, “can you tell me what the big deal with the… ‘N-word’ is?”
She laughed, “You don’t know what the N-word is?”
Andrew and Chad couldn’t believe it either. I explained I knew what it meant; I just didn’t know why it was such a big taboo, since I’d heard that black people do say it to one another and rap singers use it in lyrics. However, one of my professors in Boston even said he would be risking his whole career if he articulated it as an example in a class on semiotics.
She got serious then, “That’s because you don’t say it. You would just never say it.”
“Is it offensive for you?”
“It’s the worst thing someone can say to me.”
She looked for approval among her bunch of friends. They were all black.
“Definitely”, “yeah, very offensive”, they agreed.
Brittany shook her head as if recalling an uncomfortable situation she had once faced. She looked up to the barman: “Babe, get us a few more Buds, will you?” She lit a cigarette. “He’s my man”, she clarified, proudly.
Juliette and Asya were busy answering Andrew and Chad’s inquiries about the ISIS attacks in Paris. They’d already had this conversation several times since we were in the States. I focused on Brittany.
“So it is true there is more racism here, in the Southern states.”
“Well yes, and no. Up there in the East Coast it’s subtle: no one will say it upfront because they’re more “educated”” – she rolled her eyes –, “but everybody knows white people have more chances. Here it’s just in your face”.
“So you’ve been directly harassed because you’re black?”
“Of course! You have no idea”. She went on, “Once this guy said something really nasty to me on the street related to my skin color.”
I didn’t ask what. She continued, “And then I thought, you know, I have a nice life, right? I got a job, a car, a house, a man who makes good money… I made it, right? And I’m pretty sure he hasn’t. I actually know him, and I’m certain that he doesn’t make even half the money I make! Huh. He oughta respect me.”
Hang on a second! Was Brittany implicitly justifying racism depending on social class? Or somehow assuming that middle-upper classes should have an extra shield against discrimination because of their income? But she’d referred to the posh East Coast with certain disgust. That was puzzling. A sentence ago I was empathizing with this woman – now I was shocked.
“But Brittany,” I cleared my throat, trying to find the correct words, “how is your income relevant? You were… harassed anyway, right?”
“It matters because we’re in America,” a deep voice spoke up. I looked up to see one of the men in her group. He was wearing some baseball cap and loose clothes. He held a beer in his hand. He looked tired. “Hi, I’m Mike”. He smiled, and we shook hands.
“You Europeans are different. This thing happening in the States, you see, it makes no sense. Working-class people in America resist to say which social position they belong to, because once they reach a certain economic status, they will just forget where they come from. It’s complete denial. We’re dollar-blind”.
Mike admitted his eagerness to travel Europe. He’d been in France and Belgium once but wanted to see more of it. He was very interested in social rights and syndicalism. We jumped from one issue to another: consumerism, capitalism, then we went back to racial profiling and police brutality, Black Lives Matter, -“what kind of racial struggles are there in Europe?”-, the Mexican border, Trump, women, reproductive rights, North and South, East and West. Mike and Brittany agreed and disagreed constantly. Andrew dropped in his pride for raising a mixed-race family. They joked and raised their voices alternatively. Different people gradually joined the debate, until it became a loud mix of different voices with one thing in common: a distinct Southern accent.
And there we were, the three of us, with an overdose of information. We listened more than we spoke, and tried to take in as much as we could. Every now and then we exchanged the kind of glances which meant “this is an interesting evening”.
When we saw the time and remembered that the next morning we had a long drive to the longed-for New Orleans, Andrew offered us a lift back to the motel. Feeling a bit tipsy in the front seat, I wondered if our new friend kept a gun in the glove box. I asked. “Of course I have a gun”. We gasped. “It’s actually awkward that I’m not carrying it right now. I feel so… naked.”
Montgomery, Alabama. Unexpectedly exotic.