Later, people would describe Debbie as “that awful American woman” and complain about how she was a typical, loud Yank
. That wasn’t the whole truth – although I admit that when Debbie first walked into my bar I did have to turn up the music to cover her shouting, and she did kill a couple of conversations. But that wasn’t because she was American
. It was because she was Debbie.
She was probably beautiful when she was in her 20s. Part Iroquois
, she had jet-black hair and wild green eyes, and a smile that made you stop and smile back, mainly because her smile said ”I am crazy, and I may cut you”
. She was in her sixties when I met her, but no-one had told her. She smoked and drank and swore like an undergraduate
The men in town never stood a chance. She arrived with no money and no place to stay, so she just walked into a bar and flirted until one of the horny old retired guys offered her a couch, with no strings attached
. She disappeared and arrived at his house drunk at 4am, and to his surprise he discovered that there really were no strings attached.
Within a week, half of the retirees were nursing erections and cursing everything that came out of the States. She just smiled at me and said, “gee, I never realised you guys all hated Americans so much.”
Growing up in Ireland, America always seemed like another planet to us, a world almost like ours, but where everything there was a little bigger, a little slicker, a little richer, a little cooler, a little better. We recorded The A-Team and Knight Rider and watched each episode until the tape wore out. My older brothers tried to dress like Prince and Michael Jackson, me and my friends would say “I bet you a million bucks…”, and my mum had shoulder pads that almost required planning permission, just like in Dynasty.
I honestly can’t remember at which point in my life I began to sneer at Americans, but suddenly I was 22 and talking about how their streets were filled with guns, and each American home only had two books (one of which was The Bible). It was okay, As racism goes it was pretty harmless, and everybody else felt the same way. We were nice to Americans. We’d drop in comments like “that was irony – you probably didn’t understand it” into conversation, but then we’d slap them on the back and laugh and buy them a drink.
On my first trip to the States, I got drunk in a bar by myself in Georgetown and a couple of sweet Kentucky girls took care of me. I kept making jokes about how Americans were all dumb, they responded by asking if I would like a potato in my drink. Nobody really took a lot of offence.
On my way home, I had a stopover in New York. As the flight left JFK, it took a hard left and gave me a great view of the city. I looked at the Empire State and the enormous World Trade towers, and I promised myself that some day I would go back some day and see them up close.
One year and one week after my night in Georgetown, ReiToei sent me a text message, and told me to turn on the TV, which I did, just in time to see the second plane strike the North tower.
A lot changed that day.
Debbie was a poet
She announced this in the way she usually announced things: by slamming her fist on the counter and screaming, “I’M A POET, YOU ASSHOLES, SO SHOW ME SOME FUCKING RESPECT”. Then she gave me a conspiratorial wink and waved her empty glass at me. I topped it up.
It was an instant conspiracy
between me and Debbie. Our friendship
that started the moment she walked into the bar and it was immediately the two of us against the world
. I liked her because she was funny and entertaining and a gust of fresh air in a town that can be sometimes choking. She liked me because she liked when young men paid attention to her (although she always complained about the fact that I wasn’t the gorgeous Brazilian
waiter across the road). She also liked me because when she told everyone that she was a poet, I was the only person who said, “can I read some of your stuff”.
The next day she brought in a huge box filled with notebooks. Poems, journal entries, plays, stories, rich pencil drawings
of herself having sex. I was amazed that she had lugged all of this half-way around the world with her.
She told me that on her last night in New Orleans
, she gave a poetry reading and finished by saying, “so long, you fuckers. I hate each and every one of you, and I hope an asteroid wipes this bullshit town off the face of the earth.”
She didn’t hate New Orleans
. She really loved it. But she believed in making big exits
I told her New Orleans
sounded cool, and I’d really like to visit it one day.
She asked me if she could do a poetry reading in the bar, and I agreed. A lot of my customers are assholes, and I reckoned they deserved it.
My wife is half-American, and was born in New Mexico. When I met her, she was filled with a violent, passionate hatred for the country. It wasn’t long after George Walker Bush committed his stunning atrocity against democracy in Florida. It was only a couple of weeks after 9/11.
Almost four years later, and we’re sitting in our house with a few Irish friends, discussing the upcoming Presidential election. I think the conversation is quite normal, but suddenly Lila bursts into tears and runs out of the room. I follow her and ask her what’s wrong, and crying she says, “Bernard, they’re all just saying such awful things, and they don’t even care.”
Over the next few weeks, I listened carefully when I heard people discussing America. I played a game: each time I heard the word “Americans”, I changed it in my head to “Lila’s mother”. (Lila’s mother is an extraordinary, beautiful, kind, gentle, intelligent, travelled woman).
Lila’s mother is fat. Lila’s mother is illiterate. Lila’s mother owns a gun and shoots Mexicans for fun. Lila’s mother is a drunk on fundamentalist Christianity. Lila’s mother would gladly drive a tank over a Palestinian village. Lila’s mother is so stupid, she thinks George Bush is smart. Lila’s mother kills Iraqi children for oil. I hope Al Qaeda get a nuclear bomb and kill Lila’s mother.
I had a bit of an epiphany. I realised that what was once a mild, good-natured rivalry between nations had turned into something bitter and ugly. It had become full-blown racism. If you think that’s over the top, listen to some of the statements Europeans make about Americans, and try substituting the word “American” for the name of an American you know personally. Try substituting it for “Jew”. Try “nigger”.
The night before Debbie’s poetry reading came was that night that Katrina
said after 9/11, “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie
”, and so it was again with the destruction of New Orleans, as we watched the destruction of a First World
city on live TV. I couldn’t have been more surprised if flying saucers were orbiting the city, shooting death rays.
Debbie vanished for a couple of days, and I thought she might have ran back home, but a couple of days later she rolled into the bar drunk and laughing, as if nothing had happened. Now, let me explain something: when you work behind a bar, you let the customers set the agenda
. If she was happy, so was I, so I poured her a drink, bought her a shot, and toasted the summer.
We carried on like this for a while, until she said, “hey, Bernard
, let me show you something cool. I wrote this four years ago.”
She produced a notebook and turned it to a page with a poem. I don’t remember it now, but it was about boats sailing down Bourbon Street
, and the stillness that water had brought to a once-busy city.
“I used to dream about New Orleans
underwater. Be careful what you wish for
“Are you okay? Did you lose anyone?”
She shrugged. “My daughter called today. My kids are in Texas, but they don’t know about anyone else. My neighbours are dead. My house – my fucking house, man! – is gone.”
This was way outside my realm of expertise
, so I just said something stupid, like, “well, at least you weren’t there yourself.”
She laughed at this, really loudly. “Are you kidding
?!? I’d love to have been there. I would have been doing the same thing everybody else had been doing.”
She laughed again. “Man, when they heard the storm was coming, they would have opened all of their windows and doors and screamed:
”COME ON, MOTHERFUCKER!!! DO YOUR GODDAMN WORST!!!”
She stood up and screamed the last part, so loud that I had thought a hurricane had just hit my
bar. When the bottles stopped rattling, she sat down and smiled.
people, man. They’re fucking crazy.”
She smiled and shook her empty wine glass at me. I topped her up.
Some of the things I’ve heard said about Americans recently have been truly insane. One of my favourites is the guy who loudly announced that Americans don’t use mobile phones. Everyone laughed at that. We pointed out that they all had mobile phones, they just called them cellphones. He thought about this, got confused and said, “yeah, well, everybody knows American’s don’t eat vegetables.”
I read a blog kept by a friend of mine from New York who now lives in Ireland. She was in a pub minding her own business, but a drunk guy heard her accent, and started screaming at her, telling her that she had blood on her hands. A passing bouncer collared him, threw him against the wall, and not only made him apologise for being an ignorant asshole, but made him tell my friend that she has lovely hands.
I got given out to recently by a Scottish guy because he discovered that I like The West Wing. He denounced it as a pile of bullshit designed to make Americans feel good about their asshole president. I explained to him that The West Wing is a very pointed fantasy about a liberal, anti-Bush president which borders on satire. He replied that Americans don’t understand that, and probably think it’s real. I asked him if he really thought that Americans couldn’t tell the difference between the news and something starring Martin Sheen. He said he did.
An English person a while back was loudly decrying American’s ignorance of geography, and said, “I bet none of them even know what the capital of Romania is.” I asked him, politely, if he knew what the capital of Oregon was. He scoffed and said, “I don’t care what the capital of Oregon is, cause I’m not a fucking American”. I didn’t even bother pointing out to him that Americans feel largely the same way about Europe, for the same reasons that I didn’t ask if heknew what the capital of Romania was.
Debbie’s impression of the hurricane hadn’t just shaken my bottles, it had also rattled some of my customers. There was an awkward silence. One woman slowly turned to Debbie, smiled sadly, and said, “I’m really, really sorry about what’s happened in your city.”
Debbie smiled back, and said thanks. She didn’t notice the expression on the face of the woman’s husband
. I did, and I knew what he was going to say, and I couldn’t speak in time to stop him.
Time stopped. “Excuse me?” said Debbie.
“I’m not sorry about what happened to your city. I’m not sorry about anything that happens to your country. As far as I’m concerned, you deserve it
for all the shit you’ve caused in the world.”
“My neighbours are dead. I lived next door to them for twenty years. They used to bake for me. You’re telling me they deserved it?”
“Listen, you fucking asshole –“
“Look, you lot voted that bloody orang-utan
or whatever into power. You’re the ones going around the world, killing women and kids in Iraq
, and now you expect us to feel sorry for you just cause a couple of you drowned. Well, boo bloody hoo
. Maybe this will teach you a lesson.”
“You son of a –“
I rarely lose my temper, but I started shouting across Debbie. “Get out. Get the fuck out, and come back when you learn some fucking manners.”
As they left, Debbie shouted, “anyway, I’m not an American. I’m from New Orleans
She winked at me and waved her glass at me, which was empty again. I topped it up and didn’t charge her.
Debbie’s poetry reading
finally happened and was very short. The audience was composed of the last two people in town who didn’t hate her: me and my father-in-law. The rest of the audience were 40 confused Spanish people, who had no idea why this demented American woman was screaming at them. She improvised for a couple of minutes, giggling when she ran out of rhymes, and then she sang:
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
And miss it each night and day
I know I'm not wrong
This feelings getting stronger
The longer I stay away
Miss them moss covered vines, the tall sugar pines
Where mocking birds used to sing
And I'd like to see that lazy Mississippi
Hurrying into spring
The moonlight on the bayou.
A creole tune that fills the air
I dream about magnolias in bloom
And I'm wishing I was there
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
When that's where you left your heart
And there's one thing more, I miss the one I care for
More than I miss New Orleans
A couple of days later, she came to me to settle her bill. She pulled out a crumpled 50, which I could tell was her last money on earth. She had exhausted the supply of horny, desperate men in town. I knew that she was running out on bills of at least 500euro in other places. And she was down to her last few quid
. Still, she tried to pay me. I told her to get me next time.
“What are you going to do?”
She shrugged. “Some guys are driving to Germany
in an hour. I might hitch with them and ditch them in Paris
. Maybe I’ll head down to Italy
, get a job in a café and see if I can’t finish my novel.”
It took me a few minutes to say what I really wanted to say. “You have nowhere to go back to. What if Europe doesn’t work out?”
“Well…maybe I’ll go back to New Orleans
, turn my house into a boat, and paddle off to Mexico
She waved her glass at me and I filled it one last time
After she left, I tried to email her, but she is every bit as incompetent with computers as she claimed, and the email bounced back. I expect I will never see her again. But I think of her sometimes, mainly when people are talking shit about Americans
Emotion and culture and politics and the media make it easy for us to forget what we all really are: human beings. Sad, small, lonely desperate human beings, crawling around on a big planet, sitting in our homes with the doors and windows open, wondering if we can weather the storm.