This post originally appeared on theday.com on July 10th, 2007. I think.
Ya’l Ain’t From Around Here, Are You?
Traveling forces you to do things that you normally aren’t comfortable with. This happens out of necessity, as you are no longer surrounded with the things you are used to, and out of choice; trying new things is fun.
We’ve already tried lots of new things: biscuits and gravy[i], mechanical-bull-riding[ii]. We even contemplated trying to get chiggers, vicious bugs in the south and Midwest that burrow underneath your skin and apparently itch like the dickens, just to see what they’re like.
Sometimes Will and I push the envelope, for better or worse.
A few days ago, after spending a day driving across Kentucky visiting various whiskey distilleries as they popped up, we stopped at park in East St. Louis (I think it was called Washington Park) to quell a powerful sense of hunger. We hadn’t eaten all day. We parked next to a big green field and broke out the tortillas and some Bush’s baked beans[iii].
Stepping out of the car we realized that we were the only light skinned folks in the place, outnumbered by about 200 to one. I’d like to say this was no big deal, that we live in an integrated society and that we don’t notice this type of thing. But obviously it was, and we do.
A group of teenagers grilled us from the basketball court. A family eating at a picnic table shook their heads in our direction.
I don’t blame them. We stuck out like a sore thumb. We probably shouldn’t have been there.
For some reason I felt like I needed to cut the tension, to signal that we meant no harm, that we were cool.
I decided to offer some fireworks that we had kicking around in our car to the family at the picnic table. We come bearing gifts, but we’re not wusses.
They were having a birthday party. The kids welcomed my offering with shouts, ready to follow me back to my car, but a mother shook her head.
“No,” she said.
“They’re not very big,” I said[iv]. “The kids won’t get hurt or anything.”
She whispered something to another parent. They didn’t trust me.
Again, understandable. It wasn’t normal for two white guys to be here. Also, Will and I didn’t look too good. We’d gone a week without shaving and a few days without showering in near 100-degree heat.
I asked one of the fathers if I could bring the fireworks over, give them to him, and then he could do what he liked. He agreed. After unloading the fireworks, a three year-old girl sitting in the driver’s seat of the car next to us started up a conversation. More accurately, she kept telling us what her name was: Alicia
“That’s a nice name,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
I think her parents, who sat beside and behind her, felt compelled to talk to us.
Eventually we told them our story, where we were headed.
The father, who introduced himself as “Notic,” made fun of us.
“Yeah dude,” he said in his best surfer-dude accent. “Totally just pack the car up and move to Cali. Good bud out there.”
After that we got to talking.
Notic had just spent a year in Iraq, and then some time in Germany. He said he never wanted to go back. We talked for over an hour—about Iraq, about family, about race, about school, about East St. Louis, about clubs (Notic said he would take us to some good all-black clubs, that his friends would get a kick out of it).
We said maybe, that we wanted to get into St. Louis because we needed to find a place to sleep.
“You guys are brave to come around here,”[v] he finally said.
We played it off like we weren’t. But inside, we cherished Notic’s compliment, or warning. Whatever it was, it made us feel bigger, cooler and braver than we were.
We eventually parted ways. We decided not to take Notic up on his offer to show us around town.
Instead, we ended up sleeping on the grass on Washington University’s campus.[vi]
Will can’t stop talking about Notic.
“I really think we should have taken Notic up on his offer to go clubbing,” he said today. “I mean, it could have been a bad idea, but it also could have been a really good idea.”
[ii] I think Will made the “wall of shame” at a bar in Kentucky
[iii] if you haven’t tried these they’re so good that I’m even jealous of hobos when they’re chowing on Bush’s
[iv] West Virginia sells surprisingly weak fireworks
[v] here is pronounced hur in St. Louis,
[vi] for anyone under thirty looking for a good place to crash for a night, I highly recommend the greens of college campuses. They’re usually well-manicured, plush, and well-protected.