Week Nine: Turkey Day

In the UK people complain about Christmas getting earlier every year, to the tune of Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day”. In the US, however, Christmas comes when it is told – that is, on the day after Thanksgiving, announced on calendars as ‘The Biggest Shopping Day Of The Year’. Across fifty states, while the turkey, the cranberries and the pumpkin pie are settling down for the night, coupons are carefully cut out of colossal piles of newspaper adverts, while alarms are set for thankless wee hours, all for the pleasure of braving the November elements and the restless lines outside Best Buy. Most people have their Christmas shopping done by about midday, if they survive the crowds fighting over the last half-price laptop. Tensions run so high that in one news report, one Wal-Mart customer said he would be bringing a gun for security next year. There’s no need, you can buy one while you’re there.

The rush to the shops ushers in the green-and-red coloured (green money, red accounts) season, drawing a close to what is surely America’s Favourite Holiday. It is also perhaps its purest, unsurprising given Thanksgiving’s supposedly puritan origins. The pressure of Gift-Giving is utterly absent, as is the boring seasonal complaint about the commercialisation of a religious feast. Unlike at Christmas time, Hollywood churns out no big awful Thanksgiving movies. It is unsullied and simple, yet wholly American – this is one holiday the US feels no need to share with the world (except the Canadians, who hold their own Thanksgiving a month earlier). It is a family feast, and boy is it a feast.

It all begins on Wednesday afternoon, aka “One Of The Biggest Travel Days Of The Year” (the other being the Sunday after). TV is pretty much limited to live reports from airports and congested freeways, interspersed with tips on cooking the turkey and stories about the Pilgrims. If anybody actually makes it to the family homestead in time for Thanksgiving morning, they can expect to watch the quite dreadful Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade live from New York. If you have watched any New York-based comedy, you will know that this parade is huge, and consists largely of enormous themed balloons of characters such as Garfield or Ronald McDonald. In those shows something ‘hilarious’ always goes wrong, such as Porky Pig floats away or collapses onto a crowd. This year, for real (as Ali G might put it), one balloon actually did fall down, injuring a small girl. Now I know I always found such events ridiculously corny as a sitcom joke, but in real life I must admit I found it pretty amusing. Much more amusing than the American Football, which is the other Thanksgiving televisual tradition, but by then I was well into the pre-meal snacks.

Now according to the American public broadcasting channel, whose opinion I value over all other US channels (which is not saying very much, really), Thanksgiving was meant to be a fast, until Benjamin Franklin came along with his bag of vowels and said it should be made a feast. An extra point in Scrabble for one thing. I don’t know how true that is, nor do I care, but let me tell you, if it’s done to tradition it’s the biggest dinner you’ll ever eat. The turkey is generally gigantic and takes about a month to cook. Dessert this year consisted of a showdown: pumpkin pie (excellently cooked by my wife) vs apple pie (wonderfully baked by her mom). We aren’t talking Blur vs Oasis here; I had both, and my stomach wasn’t complaining. Where pie is concerned, there is always room at the inn.

I washed it all down with a few glasses of local hefe-weizen beer, and put my feet up to watch the evening movie. Sadly, it was a repeat of the seriously dated Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and I knew Santa was already on his way, bringing his bad movie tv with him. While watching the scene of the big mothership with my belly making strange alien noises, a thought occurred to me: I’m glad it isn’t Thanksgiving Every Day. If it were, the average American would be a whole lot fatter – now there’s something to give thanks for.

Originally posted 11/29/2005

Week Eight: Cold Call California

The phone rang yesterday morning, disturbing me from a particularly exciting dream. I was waiting for my warm beer at a work-soiled North London pub, when the entire floor fell away, and all of the pub fell into the Underground. When I told them I didn’t want my beer any more and could I have my money back, they told me I could, but would have to wait while they rebuilt. While I was waiting, the incessant ringing prompted me out of my warm sheets, and I was greeted with a loud and bright southern accent, asking for Mister Scully. I wanted to tell him he was dead and I was his ghost, but he pressed on regardless, claiming to be a ‘courtesy call’ from some Police organization. “Ah jus’ wanna thank y’all for buckling up in your automobiles, sir,” he beamed.

“Do what?” I replied, confused, still half-expecting my warm beer refund to arrive any moment. The southern accent continued. “We are offering you the opportunity to make a donation to us, sir, of only fifteen dollars…” I had to ask him to repeat himself several times (a good enough tactic with cold-callers – try it, it is great fun) for, linguist though I am, I just couldn’t understand. Give me ancient Gothic any day. I told him I didn’t want to give him any money. “Well how about ten dollars then?” he retorted. “How about I poo all over your desk?” I retorted bravely, admittedly after I had hung up.

The cold-caller problem here is ridiculous. I know it can be bad in Britain, but here it is truly incessant. We never sign up for anything that might mean extra junk emails or phone calls, and I always check the little boxes saying ‘bugger off with your adverts’. It does not stop them getting through to me. The other day one called, from an unnamed company, telling me that “somebody in your family entered our competition and you have WON one of our prizes!” I wanted to say, oh well I’ll give you my date of birth, it was yesterday. The prizes? $50K cash, $25K cash, a car, or an unspecified prize (likely to be a loaf of stale bread). How can they lie so blatantly? Maybe because a lot of people actually do believe all this shit. This is America after all, the land of commercials. If they say it in an advert, it must be true. That is why American Presidents act like they are selling washing powder most of the time (as opposed to ethnic cleansing powder, I suppose…).

Nevertheless, I am going to gracefully embrace this culture, and take full advantage. I am going to get a phonebook, and call people randomly, saying “Hiya Mister Aardvark! My name’s Pete calling from Scully Industries and I have selected YOU as our WINNER, all you need to do is send me twenty bucks to go down the pub, no strings attached, once in a lifetime offer!” It’s bound to work at least once, and then I can get that drink. Hopefully the floor will stay where it is this time.

 

Originally posted 11/22/2005

Week Seven: Murder is Meat

When I lived in France there was a restaurant chain called ‘Flunch’. I always thought it was a bit dangerous naming your eatery after the noise made by vomit hitting the bottom of a bucket, but then I remembered that the ‘Happy Eater’ restaurants, which once graced many a dual carriageway roadside across Britain, chose an icon of somebody putting their fingers down their throat as their corporate image. It was a kind of disclaimer, or so they told me as a child when I spilled my insides all over the slide in the play-area.

America seems to have also taken the name game seriously. In California there is a chain of fast-food restaurants called ‘In-n-out Burger’. As they only serve burgers, I do not go in there, but it’s probably just as well. However, my new favourite place in Davis is the little 50’s style diner known to locals as ‘Murder Burger’. Their tagline reads ‘So Good, They’re To Die For’, and they really are. I had an ostrich burger (while staff made possibly real noises of slaughtering an ostrich in the kitchen) and a huge, ultra-thick peanut-butter milkshake. It was an overwhelming experience. Their title dish is a massive 1lb burger called ‘Annihilation’, that if I ate red meat I would try, but it would probably kill me.

Their sign no longer reads ‘Murder Burger’, but goes by the moniker ‘Redrum Burger’. When they opened a second branch about eight years ago in a different town (one less liberal than Davis), some locals complained about the name, so they held a poll among their faithful customers to change the name. The winner, by a mile, was actually ‘Murder Burger’, but they went with the runner-up. Of course, nobody in Davis ever calls it ‘Redrum’; that would be so, like, not cool.

In a world of Taco Bells (read: ambulance sirens) and Burger Kings (read: throne up), Murder Burger sits comfortably, even if the clientele doesn’t.

 

Originally posted 11/15/2005

Week Six: Show Me The Levees

Yesterday was California’s ‘Special Election Day’. Voters went to the polls not to elect a new President or oust an old Governor, but to vote on eight ‘Propositions’, changes to the state law. Popular referenda are more commonplace here than in the UK, but the advertising campaigns that accompany them are vitriolic to say the least, usually sponsored by special interest groups such as ‘parents against Prop 73’, with slogans like ‘another bad idea from the Governor’. As it turns out, the public turned down all eight measures, leaving Arnie in a bit of a sticky situation. But the problem that is really worrying Sacramento right now is not the seismic events at the ballot box, but the threat of a catastrophic flood caused by unrepaired levees in the wake of the ineviteble Big Earthquake.

We have all, after New Orleans, heard about levees. We all know what happens if governments ignore their state of disrepair. Last weekend we moved to Davis, in the greater Sacramento area. Reading the Sunday newspapers, I have discovered that not only is the Sacramento Delta considered one of the most likely places in the US to suffer a massive flood, but that governments do not want to face the problem, the ‘big, dark secret that no one wants to talk about’ (as a UC Davis geologist has put it). The levees protecting the Delta dams need updating, and fast.

Everybody knows that California has long been expecting the ‘Big One’. It suffers tiny quakes every single day, but the state is splitting apart, geologically speaking. The Central Valley will eventually become a huge Bay (probably forcing the prices of houses up rather than down). If a large earthquake strikes – it could strike tomorrow, for all we know – it is likely that the levees will fail and FEMA will once more be pulling people from rooftops. And it may not even need to be a quake that triggers it – the Sacramento Bee is equally concerned with the threat of a ‘Pineapple Express’ storm, presumably from the south. But worse than that, such a catastrophe would destroy the water supply for two-thirds of California’s population for anything up to a year. We’d need more than Arnie to get us out of that.

So when we moved into our flat (sorry, ‘apartment’), I made sure that we were placed on the second floor. When that Big Quake comes, and the floodwaters invade, the roof will be ours! I’ve already started making my sign; it reads, ‘Food, Water and Football Results Urgently Needed!’

 

Originally posted 11/10/2005

Week Five: Scary Monsters, Super Treats

A couple of weeks ago an announcer on the Weather Channel enthusiastically noted: “the London version of Hallowe’en is called Guy Fawkes Day, and they actually burn effigies of Guy Fawkes on top of bonfires; I think our own Hallowe’en is much more civilized.” Naturally I forgive her of her ignorance of British culture (and the history of Hallowe’en), and I certainly wouldn’t expect her to add that this year is the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, but calling American Hallowe’ens civilized? Now that is really taking the candy.

Since I arrived here I have been overwhelmed by the amount of costume superstores that spring up magically around every city and town. They sell everything from sexy nurse outifts to Jar-Jar Binks masks, even costumes for your pet dog. People go all out here. Houses are decked with all manner of cobwebs, skeletons, and jack o’lanterns, while gardens are filled with comical tombstones. Grocery stores prepare way in advance for the panic-buying of candy. The TV shows endless repeats of hammy old horror movies for a fortnight beforehand. Hallowe’en is truly one of the big American celebrations: commercial, overblown and utterly saccharine. And I got right into the spirit, eagerly carving my pumpkin and displaying it on the doorstep.

I was rather nervous about the impending onslaught of trick-or-treaters, though. Hallowe’en in an American town is spooky enough to anybody who grew up watching Michael Myers hack his way through doors, but I was worried about what would happen to us if we ran out of candy. Would we fall foul of ‘tricks’? Now we aren’t talking about card tricks here. I had heard that the night before Hallowe’en is sometimes known here as Devil’s Night, when youths would routinely smash windows and set fire to things (in my native Burnt Oak that is known simply as Saturday night). The TV spoke of the possibility of having flaming dog-poo left on the doorstep, or being toliet-papered, that is, having your tree or house covered in rolls of Andrex (soft, strong, and very very wrong). What sort of society is this that has bred such an atmosphere of retribution? The whole notion of ‘trick-or-treat’ is basically extortion – give us sweets, or the porch gets it.

I took no chances. We stocked up on candy – little packs of M&Ms, ‘fun-size’ Snickers bars, that sort of thing (by the way, there’s nothing ‘fun’ about a chocolate bar the size of your big toe). You cannot give them home-made treats such as cookies or apple pie here, nor even fruit. A few years back, there were a few cases of apples being poisoned (surely in the spirit of Snow White?), and razor-blades being inserted into candy. To this day, hospitals all over America offer a free x-ray service on Hallowe’en to check sweets for razors – they really have taken the fun out of the fear factor here, haven’t they. Anyway, the trick-or-treaters started knocking as soon as the Sun went down, pint-sized candy-addicts in badly thought-out costumes, most of them Mexican, all of them sugar-crazed. One girl had made no effort at all, dressing in her pyjamas and putting colored glitter on her cheeks. Does that deserve a candy? She had a pillow-case with her, expecting to fill it; to be honest, she looked like she usually did fill it, and empty it just as quickly. But on the whole the children were far more imaginative than the ‘bin-liner cloak’ witches costumes of my own and many other Brits’ childhoods. Thankfully, however, we suffered no ‘tricks’ (that I know of…), and I still have a few sweets to nibble on. The night of fear is over.

Yet there are some, apparently, who feel that it would be better to pretend that Hallowe’en does not exist at all. I don’t mean those who turn out the lights, close the blinds and wait for the doorbell to stop ringing. I have been told that there are now many schools which refuse to acknowledge Hallowe’en at all, and have cancelled the costume-wearing traditions seen by many American schoolchildren as a rite of passage. It is now celebrated as ‘Harvest Day’, and all of the ghosts and scary stories have been removed. Now that is what I call uncivilized.

 

Originally posted 11/1/2005