tip off

Rundle: in Jesus country, it’s time to elect an American resident

See the thing is when you start to let Jesus in a little bit, he gives you a little bit, and then you use that to get more, and it just keeps on going.”

Somewhere out of Daytona Beach, the taxi whizzing through the flatlands, I realised the trip was going to be trouble. There were four of us, the driver, me, Roy, a rail thin old Florida itinerant, and Marcus, a jovial exchange student from Kenya in the front seat. We’d all booked the Amtrak shuttle bus from Daytona to the inland station at DeLand — but there were so few of us coming from the coast to take America’s mainline east coast train that they’d cancelled the bus and given us all cab vouchers instead.

Roy had started off easy enough — having thrown away a half-finished fag before we left, he said he still hadn’t licked smoking “but I got on top of everything else, ‘cos God wanted that for me. But as far as smoking goes, I can’t divine his purpose.” Ruh-roh. “Smoking is just an idiocy,” said the driver, a neater version of Roy, i.e. beard trimmed not hacked, teeth all there, collared-polo short, not a faded T-shirt from a lube shop. “And I mean my idiocy, not yours sir.” He held up his own packet. “I get nothing.”

There was a silence for a while as the outskirts of Daytona Beach slipped away. Proud summer city, paradise Americanus, of beach movies and hot rods, now faded and jaded, stucco bungalows and parched weatherboards. They yielded to swampy flatland and then it began. “Warrrll, sir we can never what the Lord’s purpose is, but we need to divine it pretty quickly before the rapture.” I rolled my eyes in the rear-view mirror. The driver acknowledged but not for why I thought. “Sir,” he said gritting his teeth, “the rapture is no part of prophecy.”

Wow, we were off. Florida scrolled past like a tourist attraction mural of itself, as the two of them went at it. Turns out the driver was a Jehovah’s Witness, ready to go into Hebrew etymology, and turns out the JWs believe we are not all taken into heaven, that the earth abideth eternally, that there is no hell of torment, and that an Amtrak voucher does not abolish the obligation of a tip. Roy believed in hell fire, damnation, Armageddon, the Israel covenant, Iran as the satan, and more than enough for a one hour taxi ride. The driver taught me a lot, i.e. that JWs don’t believe in the Trinity, and see Jesus as a literal son, and earth spirit, if I recall that right.

Marcus was a Christian more literal than anyone I know, but he was Hans Kung compared to these guys, throwing in the occasional comment that our image of God is a partial and human-bound one, which got more scripture and etymology from the others. When we hit the train, I hit the ground running, determined to put as many carriages between these guys and me as possible. It had been instructive, but Palm Beach was a five hour train trip, and I could see that Roy was just warming up. Like many Americans you didn’t know what to think about his faith — the disaster movie endlessly playing in his head clearly gave him some comfort, but only because he was an utterly lost soul. He’d done a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of weed, a bit of jail, a bit of factory work, a bit of handyman stuff, a lot of nothing. And you could say that he was hardly a typical american, homo sitcomus, in their exurb with their family and their flatscreen and their people-mover.

But what would be the odds, in Australia, or pretty much anywhere in the West, of being in a car with three people who believed in the literal truth of the Bible, to varying degrees? We were a tiny flying focus group, moving through a state rapidly going Republican, and the discourse within was not a bad explanation of why.

For the last five elections, since the post-1988 cultural/political shift of US politics, Florida has been a swing state, twice going Democrat, twice GOP and once to the Supreme Court. A mini-America, the north in the south and the south in the north, it has been the swing state par excellence. But that appears to be changing. After the first debate, it swung well to the Right, and though it has come back into a 2-3% swing to Romney, and the Democrats are still making huge ad buys, it seems most likely that they have quietly given up on it as a real bet, and shaped their strategy on the assumption that Florida is gone. The northern-southern bit has become Southish, and the southish-northish bit has become less attached to ancient New Deal liberalism. Thirty years of social-economic drift has left the state ripe to be plucked by the Right, and taken out of the swing state camp.

Jesus, jugs and holy jizz — is it any wonder the Republicans cannot pull it together? Is it even explicable that the Democrats are neck-and-neck with this?”

There doesn’t seem to be much joy to be found among other groups either. I had come to Daytona, and then got more or less trapped there, by the lack of transport options. The attraction was Biketoberfest, one of the twice annual gatherings of bikers in Daytona, an event that’s been going on since the ’40s, the bikers following car racers who had arrived earlier. “Why Daytona,” I asked a couple of people who had just shrugged and said “that’s how it happened”, until a cab driver told me that the beach it was the longest stretch of hard packed sand on the eastern coast, so racers had come here before there were raceways. He was the only self-labelled Democrat I met all the weekend.

By Saturday the town, a low level, bad end of Surfers rat-trap had filled with huge bikes, usually flame painted, and phat beyond phat. Bikes no less than everything else had been subject to hyperinflation. The lean vaguely elegant Harleys of yesteryear are long gone; the bikes appear to have been subject to inflammation, squat creatures, lower to the ground and not a few of them three-wheeled. The same could be said of many of the attendees too. All ages were represented, but the young were a definite minority here.

Twenty years ago it was hilarious to see a middle-aged biker, grey hair in a short pony-tail, porno-tatts sagging with the musculature. But now they’re the great majority. Biking has aged, far from gracefully. The original bikers, from the ’40s, were mainly ex-air force, WWII vets. They couldn’t kick the adrenalin rush, and bikes became the substitute (“Hell’s Angels” was originally a term for fighter pilots). The habit spread with the ’50s, and the gangs became notorious in the ’60s.From the start, bikerdom was a celebration of American industry, and a reversal of its power. Work all day in a factory, surrounded by machinery, and then put that machinery between your legs. And a blonde named Lurlene on the back. Now that’s power. Is it any wonder that bikerdom began to fade as industry did, and Harley became not a symbol of American power, but a boutique anomaly? Even the relationship with the army faded. There’s a lot of Vietnam vets here, but few visible Iraq ones. Is that because the latter were less in a war of machines than they were trapped in a computer games, pixels rather than pawns?

Who knows? There is certainly a rough democratic ethos among the bikers, manifested by the extraordinary and universalised human ugliness on display. I mean, leaving aside the attention paid to leathers (i.e. not changing them), and a steady accumulation of tatts until the skin liquefies under the needle, the degree to which no one makes an effort is admirable. Pot-bellies, grey muttonchops and neck fat, and the men were even worse. They all strolled down Main St, a selection of open-air bars selling margaritas in buckets, and with giant inflatable Jägermeister bottles on the roof, taking in the scene. They were friendly, out for a good time, and I didn’t find an Obama voter among them.

They didn’t talk of the economy or Libya, but simply of character. “Well obviously a presidential candidate has to be on top of things …” I began one question. “Yuh, well one of them is,” muttonchop, do rag, leather 60-year-old guy said as his self-described old lady nodded beside him. No one would cut Obama a break. These, by and large, are the Nixon/Reagan Democrats gone to seed, concerned less with hot mamas than with Medicare. But they weren’t virulent, just crotchety. They wouldn’t go all the way into birther territory.

That was left to the compare of the wet T-shirt concert, a thing that went off on the hour, every hour, at Dirty Harry’s open air bar, all through the afternoon. It was the last day of Biketober when I caught the show, and real contestants were thin on the ground. The compare was desperately filling and Skynrd and ZZ pumped out across the concrete forecourt. “Ladies and gents we got a stimulus package up here, one that’ll actually work. Come November we’re gonna have a president not a resident!” “Resident where of?” someone yelled. “I ain’t going there.”

The T-shirt comp, the bejewelled centrepiece, eventually took off, with the usual personnel — two barmaids to start, two civilians in the middle, and two table dancers to round it out. The crowd watching was as much female as male, for reasons that will be infinitely distressing to many. The eventual winner was an eight months pregnant gal, whose frontside tramp stamp had been stretched by imminent momhood into incoherence and who had — I kid you not — stubbed out a fag and had someone hold her margarita before coming on stage. She was back for the six o’clock show, where she came second. Both times she thanked Jesus.

But like nearly everything in late industrial culture, it had a quality of mourning to it. Its exuberance had turned and Biketober happened in the shade. By the time I was hurtling through the Florida scrub in the Jesus mobile days later, Mitt Romney was dealing with more chaos — Donald Trump ridiculed for a $5 million offer for Obama’s college transcript, Indiana’s Senate candidate saying a child of rape was a gift from god, and Romney failing to distance himself.

Jesus, jugs and holy jizz — is it any wonder the Republicans cannot pull it together? Is it even explicable that the Democrats are neck-and-neck with this?

20
  • 1
    wilful
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    compere

  • 2
    paddy
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Remarkable and downright scary stuff Guy.
    That cab ride alone, should have earned you a Mittens-sized bonus, for endurance above and beyond the Crikey call of duty.

  • 3
    zut alors
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    …the JWs believe we are not all taken into heaven, that the earth abideth eternally, that there is no hell of torment, and that an Amtrak voucher does not abolish the obligation of a tip.’

    Today’s gold medal winner. Who could possibly believe in g0d after encounters with his acolytes.

  • 4
    virtualkat
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    No its not explicable.

    great post again, your descriptions are truly chilling….utter dystopia and they dont even see it…..

  • 5
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Surfers, for all its faults, is located near to the Border Ranges, so it’s got the scenery to recommend it. Daytona Beach - like the rest of Florida - is flat, and its amenities (“Wet T-shirt nights? Aren’t they for dumb UK Backpackers?”) don’t really recommend it.

    If I were in the area, I’d visit the Everglades instead. It’s all those Carl Hiassen novels.

  • 6
    rosie aitken
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Hey Guy
    this has got to be one of your best , observant frightening astute pertinent

    thank you
    ed moran

  • 7
    rupertd
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Guy,

    Loved it. As always. What will you be doing election day? Will we be privileged to some sort of live blogging/tweeting/something throughout the day from our correspondent?

    Hopefully.

    Rupert

  • 8
    joanjett
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Guy you are the reason I subscribed to Crikey in the first place. I was interested to read your piece in the sun herald last week in case you had compromised your style but I was glad to see you hadn’t.
    God I’m never going to the States again, except perhaps to gawk.
    Nah that’s what the telly’s for!

  • 9
    Guy Rundle
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    tks all. fwiw i kinda liked biketoberfest. wasnt meaning to put folks off. could just do with less jesus….

  • 10
    L O'connell
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, mate.

  • 11
    Tom Jones
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Some of the best educational institutions in the world with a population wallowing in ignorance and grossness.

  • 12
    Steve777
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Yes I’ve been enjoying your word pictures of today’s USA. It is a bit scared that this is the world’s one superpower. But this could last only another generation at most. What comes after that?

  • 13
    AR
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    err…ummm..subbies on strike? Interesting if uninformative but, kum onnn, the typos and glitches!!
    OK, you’re half drunk and enervated by despair but that’s why the folk at HQ are supposed to edit your stream-of-semiconsciousness. Did you phone it in over a bad Skype line?
    1) “Warrrll, sir we can never KNOW? what the Lord’s purpose is,
    2) more or less trapped there,?comma?! by the lack of transport - fair enough, I’ve long given up the hope that anyone edjikaterised after 1970 doesn’t have a clue how to use commas
    3)a cab driver told me that the beach it? undeleted? was the longest stretch
    4)trapped in a computer games
    5)the compare of the wet T-shirt concert was probably meant to be the compere of the wet T-shirt contest, followed as it was by The compare was desperately filling as Wilful noted.
    Even so, GR badly written is usually preferable to the dreary/inane stodge of Crook Andy.
    As to the final line, it re-raises the old ejaculation,”how can i be losing to this guy?!?”.

  • 14
    Michael Hughes
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Why is it so close? Why?

  • 15
    Guy Rundle
    Posted Saturday, 27 October 2012 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    hi AR

    love the sweater-vest. how’s that collection of coronation mugs coming along?

    The comma worked, you’re being too prescriptive. And i have to say it was ‘compere’ in the copy supplied - albeit copy supplied 5 minutes to deadline. Apart from that quibble and snark on yr part.

  • 16
    David Hand
    Posted Saturday, 27 October 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Love your writing, Guy.
    The idea that 50 million Americans believe that the world will end with a nuclear holocaust in the middle east in our generation is truly disturbing. The fact that they think they’ll have been raptured to a party in the sky at the time is funny. The fact that their chosen candidate is a Mormon and doesn’t believe it is comforting. The fact that he can still press the big red button is worrying.

    We all hope for Obama.

  • 17
    mikeb
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    biketoberfest - sound like fun to me. Count me in - minus the Jesus stuff.

  • 18
    betty boo
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    More than slightly chilling, but great.
    Anyone who has been among the Yanks on 4th of July can attest to their fantastic exceptionalist weirdness - election season looks very similar.
    How fitting that it comes so soon after Halloween.

  • 19
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Sure, chilling and interesting stuff.

    FWIW Guy, while your descriptions definitely invoke the word dystopia, my observations of life in Sydney specifically and Oz generally are not much less absurd.

    Somewhere along the line we all got weird. Well, everyone else did, I just stayed the same. :-)

    I’m sure you could write just as dystopic a column based on observations of Sydney life, or almost anything about Melbourne, but they would be more subtle than what is on display in US.

    It is my conjecture that Australians have no comprehension generally about how different Americans are. We speak the same language, but I’m not even sure that we are the same species.

    Vive la difference, even if they are mad as cut snakes.

  • 20
    Andrew McCOurt
    Posted Tuesday, 30 October 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Considering most Republican voters are Christian, I’m a little surprised the Democrats haven’t made more of an effort to expose the belief system of the Mormon religion.

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