Virginia (various towns). I have rented a car to drive from Washington, DC to Austin, Texas. I’m on my own time until I get there and I imagine myself in every American road movie I’ve ever seen. Sounded good until I left the rental garage and experience the reality of a whole new world where people drive on the wrong side of the road. I discover a new level of terror as I navigate out of the city onto the freeway, where at least there is an expanse of distance between each direction and I get used to the inside and outside lanes being counterintuitive. I overtake another vehicle and return to the correct lane and slap the dashboard to celebrate my graduation from newbie school.
Later the fuel gauge starts to flash me a warning. I negotiate my way off the freeway into a small town that personifies my vision of rural America and find a ‘gas’ station. There is no fuel cap lever in the car and the cap has no key. I sidle into the gas station office with a ‘moron’ sign flashing over my head and ask the woman at the counter for assistance. She points out that some modern cars have fuel caps that you simply push and they open. She is very kind when I go into pay and says ‘Honey, it happens all the time’. I very much doubt it but her smile is sincere.
I stop for lunch at a truck stop. I study the menu and a woman with dyed blonde hair and a distinct shortage of teeth asks me what I’ll have. I give her my order and she looks at me as though I were speaking Swahili. She says ‘Honey, just point at the pictures and I’ll bring it right over.’
In the evening I book into a motel and ask the manager for a recommendation for a place to eat. He gives me directions to a family-owned restaurant downtown and he’s on the money for my tastes. The waitress manages to cope with my Australian accent and we have a friendly conversation about how she’d love to visit my country one day.
In the booth across the aisle from me a young boy, there with his parents, has been paying very close attention. Between courses he slips over opposite me. His mother, embarrassed, says ‘Bobby, leave the gentleman alone’ but I indicate all is fine. He says ‘You talk funny’. I tell him that’s because I’m from Australia. He says ‘I like the way you talk. Say somethin’.’ So I tell him that when I was little I used to ride a kangaroo to school. His face expresses doubt but his eyes tell me he wants it to be true. He returns to his parents but watches my every move until I leave.
Memphis. I drive in under the portico of the Heartbreak Hotel, which is indeed at the end of Lonely Street. I step out of the car and Elvis is blasting from outside speakers. Inside the hotel the lobby is laid out like a 50’s American living room, complete with TV playing black and white Elvis movies on a loop. In my room there is a giant portrait of Elvis over my bed but thankfully no piped music. Later I go down to the bar and there are colour Elvis movies in a loop on the TV. I’d made the booking here on a whim, thinking it might make an amusing story back home. I change hotels the next day and I never did visit Graceland.
For that the Gods of Memphis punish me by killing my phone. In search of a phone repair shop I’ve found in the directory, I overshoot my target and have to do a U-turn. I’ve mastered the driving in one direction part but the Escher-like machinations of this maneuver is a new challenge.
However I complete it safely and pull into a parking spot out the front. A police patrol car pulls in right next to me and an African-American female cop of approximately my own dimensions emerges and tells me that was a very dangerous place to do a U-turn. I look back at the flat road with no restriction signs and light traffic but I’m not about to argue. I apologise, promise to be more careful in future and stupidly tell her I’m not from around here. ‘You don’t say’ she says and gets back in the car and drives off. Only later do I realise that she never even asked to see my licence. I figure she was filling in time until the end of her shift.
I enter the large, busy shop and approach the counter. A young African-American man greets me with ‘You lost, sir?’ I look around the shop and notice I’m the only white guy in there , including all, the staff. I tell him I don’t think so and ask for his advice on whether my phone can be fixed. He looks at it briefly and says he doesn’t think so but calls over his manager for a second opinion. He also greets me with ‘Are you lost, sir?’ and conducts the rest of the conversation with his assistant. It is concluded that I am not lost but there is no hope for the phone. On leaving the shop I notice that all of the pedestrians are African-American and all the nearby stores appear to be run by African-Americans. No, I’m not lost, technically, but I have a definite sense of being in the wrong place and that my early departure would be appreciated. Perhaps that’s what the lady cop was trying to tell me. And I am sad about that.