What a State! A Brit's Personal View of Texas
In December 1995, I embarked on my first ever trip to the USA, visiting my English friend Clive, who had recently moved to Houston to work for an American engineering company.
The US, the wonderfully extrovert personalities and the American culture had always fascinated me, but no amount of advance reading or watching episodes of American soaps could have prepared me for some of their strange and mystical customs and rituals.
Neither was I equipped for my torturous outward-bound flight on Continental “Saunalines”, as I called them. This was akin to being strapped into a sardine tin for ten hours at a non-regulatory temperature of 100°C, having food and drink thrown at you at infrequent intervals by ancient stewardesses and being forced to view the in-flight air disaster movie. The alternative to the movie was having to speak to the rather stout child next to me, who was occupying half of my seat and chewing gum with his mouth open.
Is Continental the only airline that has a minimum entry age of 90 for their stewardesses? Maybe this would explain their apparent lack of co-ordination when serving passengers. After playing football in the aisle with my bread roll, a stewardess whose face needed ironing handed me back this fur covered object, apparently my roll, which had collected an interesting assortment of ecological matter, whilst on its journey towards the posh section of the aircraft. The section where you would actually have the luxury of a replacement roll.
The flight number was CO5, which I changed to CO2 after sitting behind a flatulent gentleman for half a day, who farted every time he cleared his throat, maybe in an attempt to strategically conceal the noise. Unfortunately, this particular gentleman appeared to have some chronic chest complaint, which meant that he was coughing on an uncomfortably frequent basis.
Now, I am not a tall person, but even at 5 feet 5 inches I risked friction burns whilst attempting to use the 1-foot circumference in-flight toilet. I was surprised not to see knee-shaped imprints in the door and wondered what positions had to be adopted by anyone over 5 feet 6 inches in order to support themselves on the loo.
After landing in Houston and escaping into the haven of the air conditioned airport, feeling as though I had just spent the last week crawling through a desert, I looked forward to experiencing the fresh Texas air on my face. Oh, was I going to be in for a shock.
After Clive had met me and we exited the airport, laden down with my two months worth of luggage for a mere two week stay, a warm blast of heavy, humid air slapped me in the face, comparable to the sensation you get when you open an oven door.
“Didn’t I tell you it was hot and humid all year around here?” asked Clive, in a matter of fact tone of voice. Evidently not, I thought, as he loaded my case full of heavy-duty sweaters and jeans into the boot of the car.
We then headed off to a Homestead Village apartment, which would be my home for the next fortnight. This one-roomed apartment housed a loudly whirring fridge, which sounded like a helicopter coming in to land. This, combined with the overhead air conditioning fan, guaranteed limited sleep.
My first shopping trip reinforced my belief about the reserved nature of the British.
‘How ya’all doing?’ chirped a Houston shop assistant as we entered a clothing store, assaulting my personal space by questioning me from a distance of one inch. I quickly checked over my shoulder assuming she must be addressing a large group of people.
I soon realised that groups of people in larger numbers than nought, are referred to as “ya’all”. Judging by the barrage-balloon proportions of some of the inhabitants though, I could see how easy it would be to mistake some of them for more than one person crammed into the same outsized outfit. You know, the sort of person who enters a shopping mall whilst their backside is still halfway across the car park. Not that there is anything wrong with being larger than average. Some would argue that my chest enters a shopping mall whilst the rest of me is still climbing out of the car.
I was, however, totally in awe of all the women I saw, who looked as though they had just stepped off of the set of Dallas. They were groomed to perfection with beautiful hair, beautiful nails, beautiful clothes and immaculate make up. My natural English rose looks seemed out of place in this kingdom of glamour.
After the eleventh assistant in the same shop had asked me how all of me was doing and whether she could show all of me anything, I felt ready to snap, “Look, why don’t you just go and re-arrange some hangers and let me shop in peace. If I need any help I’ll ask for it!”
“Have a nice day!” shrieked another assistant even more falsely, with the standard coathanger grin and six rows of teeth, when in reality she probably cared not if I had a horrendous day and walked out of the store straight into the path of a ten-ton truck. Do all Texans talk 200 decibels louder than any other nationality, or have the British got extra-sensory hearing? Maybe they’re all hard of hearing, which would explain their apparent inability to hear you when you say, “No I don’t need any help thank you, I’m just looking.”
In one children’s clothes’ shop, after informing the assistant that we were “just looking thank you” (i.e. “stop breathing down our necks because you’ve got halitosis, you spit when you talk and we’ve already showered today, thank you very much”), she proceeded to drag down six hundred mix and match outfits, demonstrating how one T-shirt could team up with twenty other items in the range, as though we were totally clueless on colour co-ordination. She just happened to be sporting lime green leggings and a fluorescent pink and yellow jumper, with contrasting purple shoes to complete the ensemble.
With Clive snorting with suppressed laughter and I attempting not to burst a blood vessel in my face, we made a hasty escape when the assistant’s attention was diverted, leaving the entire, beautifully matched contents of the shop in a psychedelic pile on the floor.
Having been offered the opportunity of an unfurnished room in a friend’s house, Clive decided that he ought to shop for a bed. After seeing an advert for a sale at a place called “Star Furniture”, we decided to venture on down and search for a simple, cheapish double bed.
Once through the doors of this “shop”, which looked more like the entrance to the Ritz, we were pounced upon by a bouffant-haired lady called Kimberley, who informed us that she was our assistant for the day. (“For the day?” I cringed. We were only planning on being here ten minutes). I was totally mesmerised by the amount of foundation and lipstick she was wearing and wondered which brand of garden trowel she used to apply it.
“I’m looking for a bed”, announced Clive in a “I’m only looking tentatively and don’t want to be hassled or to have to listen to your moronic sales patter thank you very much” tone of voice.
To admit that you are actually looking for a particular item is fatal. Cue the bulletin, at 1,000 words per minute and without pausing for breath, on the attributes of every item of furniture in the store.
“We have classical, contemporary, conventional, unconventional, antique, Tudor, post-Tudor, pre-Tudor, Elizabethan, post-Elizabethan, pre-Elizabethan; what colour did you say the wood was in your bedroom? Victorian, four-poster, two-poster, no-poster; what style did you say your house was? Pre-war, post-war, Crimean war. Each style has a complete range of matching furniture; did you want the entire bedroom suite or was it just a bed?” (“Just a mattress will do, thank you”). “This particular suite is just so quaint and you two look like quaint people, chortle, chortle. By the way, where ya’all from? I just lurve the English accent! We have French, Scandinavian, English; to make you feel at home. Ha! Ha! Snort! Country style, town style, in-betweeny style (any bloody style you want)..” “We were thinking more post Wal-mart style actually”, I thought.
Every Texan we met had a distant relative or friend residing in some remote corner of the UK and they expected us to know them personally.
Kimberley then added the inevitable, “You know I have some friends in England. You might know them; the Browns, Susan and John?” (Funnily enough, yes, we’re intimately acquainted with all six million of them). “I haven’t seen them all for, must be going on ten years…no, about fifteen now.” (Who cares?) “Well, anyway, we met them in Florida about fifteen years ago and we exchanged addresses but we haven’t seen them since”, (or heard from them, I imagine). “I say “we” but it was actually my late husband who spoke to them first and he became friendly with John, but Susan didn’t say very much.” (Probably couldn’t get a word in edgeways). Late husband eh? Wonder how he died? Suicide I imagine.
“I’ll just let ya’all wander on around and I’ll come and check up on you later”, meaning, I want to make sure that you, a) don’t escape before I’ve clinched a sale or, b) that you’re not testing out our most exclusive suite in a horizontal position.
This “caring” American attitude certainly doesn’t extend to the highway. Anyone who’s ever attempted to drive in the States will know that consideration doesn’t play any part in the average motorist’s road manner. Once behind a steering wheel, the Texan roadhog becomes very territorial. “This is my stretch of road and I sure as hell ain’t lettin’ no-one in.”
Clive and I were very kindly offered the loan of his boss’s car for the duration of my visit, a smart executive-like Honda saloon. After attempting to enter a busy lane of traffic from a slip road, I had visions of returning this car in a more compacted shape and saying something like, “I’ve re-designed your car. It looks like a cookie tin now”.
In optional “give way” situations like the above, the Texans suddenly become blind, or you become invisible. Even in compulsory give way situations, like at traffic lights for example, some motorists have the same interpretation of red, green and amber lights. They all mean, “Go”. “Stop” signs mean, “Go before the bastard at the other junction does”. Roundabouts don’t exist. Instead, the city highways are scattered with traffic lights at regular, thirty second intervals and their equivalent of motorways are “tollways” for which you have to pay a fee for the privilege of using. These are great fun and require you to throw the correct change into a fishing net suspended on the side of a booth. It’s like being at a fairground and equally as frustrating if you miss.
Some time ago, I believe that the national speed limit was increased to 65 mph on the Interstate highways and 55mph on all other roads, unless otherwise stated. Given that most of the roads are wide and straight, this may give one the impression that you are safer motoring in the States. Not so. Any local driver cruising at above 10mph is a danger to the public. Having a steering wheel must confuse them, especially when there aren’t many corners on the average highway. They know it must be there for a purpose and so feel that they have to use it. All the time. Like a child pretending to drive, they wiggle the steering wheel to and fro at great speed whilst sporting a psychopathic grin, thereby turning the roads into fairground bumper car circuits.
Another distracting influence are the giant Billboards that line the highways and advertise highly personal things like Vasectomy and Impotence clinics. I’m certain that many accidents must have been caused by people trying to scribble down the relevant telephone numbers for the practice specialising in their particular complaint.
We witnessed a few minor pile-ups, which had me craning my head out of the window, like you do, eyes on stalks. However, when I brandished my camera to photograph one of these incidents, Clive warned me that I was likely to be shot for doing so. Which brings us onto the subject of the availability of guns.
Whilst shopping in an all-purpose store called Wal-mart and playing hide and seek with the assistants, we came across the toy section, which was positioned directly next to the counter selling a wide range of guns. What does this tell children? That’s right, if the assistant keeps hassling you to buy some hideous plastic toy, you nip across to the gun counter and shoot her.
Houston, Texas is a Voyeur’s and an Exhibitionist’s dream. Maybe it’s the inherent desire to be noticed, but if you’ve ever visited a public toilet in this city you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The design of them is what I can only describe as saloon-style, with a two-foot gap underneath and two-inch gap either side of the doors. This allows everyone the privilege of watching you relieve your body of unwanted matter and viewing any other basic act that people perform in the alleged “privacy” of toilets.
Clive pointed out that only a pervert would walk along the line of cubicles peering lustfully through the gaps, yet it was almost impossible not to notice the rows of feet as you searched for a vacant toilet. It’s that can’t-help-but-look syndrome where some irresistible force is drawing your eyes toward something that you desperately want to avoid staring at. I used to have a Biology teacher with three severed fingers on his right hand. The more I tried to avoid gazing at them, the more I found my eyes superglued to the missing appendages and my mouth uncontrollably spurting out things like, “Can I give you a hand Sir?”
Clive’s reassurance was wiped out in an instance, the moment a colleague relayed his personal toilet story to me. Whilst staying with friends in the States and after having suffered a heavy dose of constipation for two weeks, he decided it was time to get things a movin’. Yee hah! Not wishing to subject his houseguests to something that could ultimately be very nasty, culminating in a visit from the Environmental Health Officer, he decided to take himself off to a public toilet.
It was when the aforementioned colleague was in full straining mode, that he became conscious of a pair of staring eyes attached to an eight-year old face, lodged firmly in the gap between the hinges and the door. His curt reaction to this naturally inquisitive child, which immediately terminated the peep show viewing, was a simple, “Beat it, you ill-mannered little git. I’m trying to have a difficult crap.”
Another example of American exhibitionism is the abundance of Oprah-type chat shows, where (supposedly average) people discuss personal, soap opera-like situations. The shows are hosted by people with names like Tempest, Carnie, Jerry Springer, Geraldo, Ricki Lake, Frozen Lake, Dried-up Lake and so on. Some of the shows I saw covered subjects like, “I got my mistress pregnant and now she and my wife want to share the experience”, (“beat each other up” in English) and “Before we get married, I have a confession”, (“I‘m a cheating creep.”) Although I hate to admit it, these shows were almost compulsive viewing and I was totally spellbound just by the lingo.
At school, American children learn Math instead of Maths. Mathematics is plural, so does this mean that in their Math lessons, they learn only one sum? (E.g. “How many Mexican immigrants are there in Houston?” Answer: “Too many”.) If they have Domestic Science lessons in Texas, they’d only need two lessons to cover the creative possibilities with beef, chicken and bread rolls, i.e. Steak garnished with a cellar of salt, beefburger in dandruff-covered bun with wafer-thin slice of soggy, warm gerkin, Mayonnaise-soaked Chicken McSandwich or chicken nuggets.
There are two different types of eating place in Houston: “Fast food” joints and “Incredibly slow” joints. The first covers joints like MacDonalds, Burger King, Tex-Mex (Mexican) takeaways and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s. The second includes places like Steakhouses and the few and far between foreign restaurants.
In one steakhouse we were given the privilege of clutching a mini vibrator, which was supposed to buzz and quiver to inform us that our table was ready. This we were not told until two hours (and a couple of bottles of wine) later when we witnessed other guests, who had arrived only 10 minutes earlier, being seated at their tables. Our vibrator was sitting comfortably on the bar and it was only when Clive enquired why we had been waiting so long, that we realised we were actually supposed to clutch this object in order to sense the vibrations. By this time, we were both completely intoxicated and I vaguely recall asking if I could take our vibrator home with me.
This trip was an amazing insight into a culture that I never imagined would be so different from that to which I was accustomed. I loved the way the Americans loved the English accent and I soon found myself talking loudly in public, causing other customers to stop and gawp at us. In turn, I loved listening to the American accent, the phraseology and the way in which everyone appeared to be so articulate. I loved their outgoing and companionable natures and the way in which they laughed at my jokes and observations about life.
I departed with pleasant memories of this vast state, the only drawback being having to endure the sardine tin scenario on the return flight to London, this time whilst being seated next to a reserved English gentleman, who chatted ceaselessly about the weather and the state of the British economy.