“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.”
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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?