Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Vanishing American

I recently returned from a high school class reunion, in which many of my former classmates were curious to know what life was like in Kentucky. My response was that it wasn't terribly different from life in Wisconsin. There is obviously some cultural variation, but due to the twin influences of media and corporations I would have to guess that culture shock from geographical re-location in America today is less than ever before. It seems that the weather, still outside the provice of humanity's control for now, is the main factor when discussing differences between geographical areas.

In 1999, USA Today ran a series lamenting the "vanishing" of America, specifically the vanishing of local color and local identity. Curiously, one of the features the writer mentioned was a dearth of hitchhikers on American highways. When I first read this article seven years ago, beyond a vague awareness of a Kerouac-esque romanticism, I didn't quite understand how hitchiking correlated to the article's thesis.

After picking up a hitchhiker this week, the connection is a bit more clear to me. While driving from Louisville to Elizabethtown, I stopped for gas near a truck stop and saw a hitchhiker standing off to the side of the on-ramp. Having absolutely no commitments, I thought I'd stop and offer him a ride. I told him I wasn't going far, but he was extremely eager to take what I could offer (I found out later he had spent the night at the truck stop).

It didn't take me long to realize that I'd never met a person quite like this before. In many ways he was what I have been conditioned to expect of a rural southerner. He used the word "fixin'" unironically (in fact I don't think he's ever used a phrase or word ironically in his life). Overall, he struck me as completely guile-less, which explains why I believed his story, which would otherwise strain credulity. He claimed to have lived his entire life in rural Georgia, and had met and fell for a woman a couple years ago. Several months ago, she apparently persuaded him to move to Indianapolis, where her kids lived (He told me he was 56). He quit his job and sold his truck, found a job in Indy painting, and paid rent on an apartment while she lived off his income. Then she left Friday with the entirety of his weekly paycheck to "pay bills" and came back Sunday with bloodshot eyes and empty pockets. He asked her if she was on drugs (like two of her three adult children) and she both admitted to it and "cussed (him) out." He said he was a Christian and "didn't go for that stuff", so made the decision to return to Georgia, even though he didn't have money for a bus ticket. He called his old boss and asked for his old job back, and the boss said he would think about it.

By the time he told his story, we were almost to Elizabethtown. I asked him to take a look at the restaurant sign and pick out a place he'd like some lunch. He said he couldn't "read too good" and would just be happy wherever I would take him. I took him to a Denny's where they have illustrated menus and he was able to point to a plate he wanted. When the food came out I started to dig in, while he put me to shame by bowing his head and saying a prayer out-loud thanking God for the food and for my kindness.

He asked me what I did, and I told him I was a teacher. We found common ground by talking about young people and how they are often misunderstood. He dispensed some folk wisdom by talking about how people often don't take the time to listen to their kids. He then talked about how much he hated big cities: Indianapolis, Nashville, and Atlanta being the ones he had experience visiting. He disapproved of all the drunks he encountered in his visits to those places. "I ain't never been drunk but five times in my life," he said, "and after the last time I said never again." He showed me his photo album, which consisted largely of pictures of horses and vehicles. He spoke glowingly of his minister back home, who could really "move you with his words."

I've encountered poor and under-educated people before, but the way this guy was different to me is that he seemed more separated from the hegemonic American culture. When I tutored kids in inner city Milwaukee, they knew pop culture. I still remember playing "Sorry" with a fifth-grade girl who said someone was "making like Michael Jackson" when they would go backwards. Others were avid video gamers and pro wrestling fans. My new friend's entertainment that he spoke of was church and a general love for bluegrass, country, and gospel music.

During the course of the meal, the thought occurred to me that this man's culture was the type romanticized in the USA Today article, as well as countless media portrayals. Yet how many of us who yearn for a more authentic existence would trade places with this fellow? And if we are not willing to do so, should we feel guilty when he contribute either actively or tacitly in the further erosion of his cultural mileau?

I think these are important philosophical questions, but I fear that asking them in juxtaposition with this narrative serves to trivilize or minimize a real person's real experience. As we continued the conversation, I attempted to suppress my always present urge to extrapolate cultural hypotheses, and simply enjoy his company. I paid the tab and gave him a short ride to the I-65 on-ramp. I wished him luck and gave him my phone number in the event he didn't get a ride that day. I didn't hear from him that night, and I don't expect to ever again. When I drove past the on-ramp the next day there was no sign of him. In a more concrete sense than the USA Today article implied, he became for me a vanishing American.


Anonymous nWo 4 life! said...

Dude, did you getted my last email in regards to the deez deez games? It was about my willingness to be a judge/referee/official/umpire, etc. because i believe your brothers are too cocky/"hip" to be trusted in said roles. It may have ended up in your junk email as i used my standard subject heading, "I spit in the face of people who don't want to be cool."

Also, did you knowed that Kristian Borrud (crouton) hitchhiked across the country a few years ago? He gotted into a serious car accident in Arizona with some older chick (his parents gotted the bill) and in Iowa he went to a women's prison in an attempt to get free sex (seriously. it ain't work).

Was Hupf at that stupid class reunion? Did the fruit flies perform there?

7:42 AM  
Blogger Azor said...

I gotted your e-mail. I have a gigantic inbox I'm working through. I'll try to respond this weekend.

I wonder if Chrisjohn's dad still collects baseball cards.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I once hitchhiked back to the Jimmy after a hike in Glacier. I didn't know the guy that picked me up but he knew me from "the guy that fell down a mountain."

Do you think trying to make Deez Deez more scientific robs Deez Deez of some of its DIY charms?

4:56 PM  

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