http://restartafrica.org/36/ 2:17am and I’m walking through torrential rain down a deserted Mississippi road. There’s no point running for cover – I’m already soaked to the skin. I don’t know where I’m going to stay tonight but am in high-spirits having extracted myself from a stranger’s caravan at the end of a dark, dead-end road which was just calling out to have a shallow grave dug beside it. How did I end up here? Let’s go back a couple of days.
Having recently quit a job I had fallen out of love with, I was driving across the States, taking a long, winding route from Miami to Los Angeles. Despite having had a perfectly lovely upbringing in leafy north-west London, part of me had always wished I had been born into an American family. Forget the clubs and bars of Camden Town, I had wanted to be a teenager in the places I knew from movies and TV shows. I’d wanted to live in a town with a Main Street and a square, where everyone had white picket fences and I’d get to ‘drive up to the lake’ with a cheerleader for make-out sessions. Cliched? Absolutely, but I was fourteen. I know that even if I had grown up in such a place – if it even existed – the cheerleaders wouldn’t have gone for me. If movies had taught me anything, it was that they preferred jocks, which I most certainly wouldn’t have been. I still have a school PE report which reads, ‘Jack is not keen on invasive games.’
So I grew up in London, sometimes going on holiday to the States but never the places I had in my head. There’s a quote from the Simpsons’ neighbour, Ned Flanders, which has stuck with me for years: ‘We occupy that useless mass of land between Los Angeles and New York called America!’ That was what I wanted to see, the useless mass of land, the places in between the big coastal cities I’d visited – the real America.
In a bar in a charming little Tennessee town called Franklin, I’d ended up chatting with a friendly local called Perry. Like many people I met along the way, he was fascinated about my trip and when I told him my image of middle America he grinned. ‘If you like Franklin, you’ll love Oxford, Mississippi.’ I knew nothing about Oxford but Perry wasn’t the first person to recommend it and my trip was all about taking suggestions from locals and being open with my plans, so I made a note to head there for a night after Memphis. ‘If you do make it down there, you be sure to let me know and I’ll hook you up with my buddy Steve. He’s a real nice guy, he’ll show you ‘round’ he added before scribbling down his phone number.
A couple of days later, I arrived in Oxford. As I pulled into the square, I immediately saw why it was considered such an attractive town. At the heart of it was an imposing white courthouse with a clocktower, surrounded by rows of restaurants, small businesses, galleries and bars, most with verandas overlooking the square. This was the America I was after. I parked and wandered around wide-eyed, whilst locals greeted me with a cheery ‘Good mornin!’ and nod of their heads. I felt as if I was in Back to the Future or It’s a Wonderful Life – I half expected to see Jimmy Stewart coming out of the bank. I browsed the shelves of Square Books, a charming and well-stocked bookshop and a girl with an infectious smile and intoxicating southern drawl asked if I was looking for anything. I immediately cast her as the girl next door in the 1950s sitcom I was constructing in my head, of which I was the star…
Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life
These sorts of encounters continued as I made my way around the square, adding to the stock of characters in my head: the southern gentleman running the mens haberdashery where you could buy brightly-coloured belts and bow-ties, the sorority girls in their oversized shirts adorned with Greek lettering, the list when on. After an hour or so it occurred to me I still had no idea of where I would stay that night and went to re-group over breakfast in Bottletree Bakery, a bustling cafe full of students and locals. So perfect was the town that the waitress, a recent graduate from the university there, had decided there was no point in leaving. I texted Perry, asking for the details of his friend and made plans to meet Steve that evening for a drink in the bar of City Grocery.
One of the pretty rows of shops on the square
Steve and his wife, Rosie, were as generous and gracious as I had come to expect from the South and introduced me to their friends, including the mayor, George ‘Pat’ Patterson, bought me dinner and Old Fashioneds. They could well be the parents of ‘Bookshop Girl’ in my sitcom fantasy – the only problem was that everyone was shaping up to be too nice. At this rate there would be no drama whatsoever.
Steve and Rosie had met at Ole Miss, the colloquial term for the University of Mississippi, in Oxford. A history lesson from them revealed the dark past of town and the cracks of imperfection started to show. In 1962 the campus had been the site of a mass riot by thousands protesting desegregation after a black student, James Meredith, had enrolled at the university. Meredith was accompanied to registration by hundreds of U.S. Marshals, yet violence quickly broke out leaving two dead and three hundred injured. I couldn’t help but wonder if my experience of the town would be different if I weren’t white but my mind was put at ease when I looked around and noticed a young interracial couple happily canoodling in the corner, unbothered.
A mob cheer after James Meredith is refused entry to the university
Several hours passed by with the same speed and ease at which bourbon flows on a cold night, until Steve and Rosie announced they were heading home. I had hoped there would be a spare bed waiting for me at their house, although they had already been far more generous than you could ever expect from a couple of strangers. Rosie felt bad leaving me there alone and declared that they would introduce me to a couple of college girls sitting nearby. Tough life right? It turns out these girls, Valerie and Jesse, had never met them before and were now stuck on babysitting duty with yours truly. I, on the other hand, was only too happy with my new friends; as much as I love The Beach Boys they had it wrong. Forget California Girls, Mississippi is where it’s at – who knew the word ‘y’all’ is so damn sexy? This posed a problem for the TV show in my head. At the rate I was falling head over heels, my sitcom would have to be called The Polygamist.
Before long I felt like I’d been in Jesse and Valerie’s circle of friends for years. They were at Ole Miss and we and a few others had a couple more drinks before making our way to see some live music at Rooster’s Blues House, another bar on the square, where Jesse promptly got up on stage and started performing to a grateful crowd. I don’t know if she’d ever been a cheerleader but she was about as close to the perfect American girl as I could wish for. Carefree, gorgeous, challenging and a damn good singer. She’d be the perfect sitcom girlfriend: the feisty, sarcastic, Mississippian foil to a reserved, bumbling British guy.
I went to clear my head on the veranda. It had started to pour and unrelenting sheets of rain crashed down onto the street whilst I talked with students from Ole Miss. ‘I’ve always wanted to kiss a girl from Mississippi’ I offered in my best Hugh Grant impersonation and before I knew it, one of the girls I was talking to had stuck her tongue down my throat. This was a welcome interlude, brought to a close only when the bar started to usher people out at midnight. Groups huddled underneath the verandas with the occasional person making a brave dash for it across the square and into the storm. It seemed I had lost Jesse, Val, their group of friends and my kissing partner in the stream of people and was now in a worse position than I was before. Unwilling to face the music and check into a motel or hotel, I started asking people if there was anywhere else open for a nightcap but they all told me the same thing: Oxford was closing down for the night.
That was until I met Ray. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-one or twenty-two and had unkempt hair emerging from under a baseball cap and a laid- back indifference to the world around him. ‘You ain’t gonna find anywhere open now but you’re welcome back at mine.’ Perhaps it was the whiskey or maybe I was just overly trusting, but he seemed genuine and unthreatening, so we ran through the assaulting rain to his car. ‘You’re from England?’ he asked as we pulled out on to the street and I nodded. ‘How on earth d’you end up here?’ and I told him about my encounter in Franklin and how I’d come with no plan of where I was going to stay. ‘You must like livin’ on the edge.’
With the rain clattering on the roof of the car and the road becoming increasingly deserted, I realised Ray was driving out of town. A pang of fear shot through my body as it dawned on me what kind of risk I was taking. ‘I gotta be honest with ya Jack’ he continued, and my heart started racing. ‘I’ve always wanted to see the look in someone’s eyes when they take their last breath.’ He didn’t really say that last bit but it’s what I was thinking as the car swung off the main road and onto a poorly-lit deserted lane. ‘I don’t live in a house or condo or anything like that’ he added.
‘Oh really?’ I enquired tentatively, trying to cover my nerves.
‘I’ve got a motorhome’ he said as he pulled up to an old caravan, partly covered in a tarpaulin. The duelling-banjos from Deliverance started playing in my head as we got out of the car and into the rain. This wasn’t a sitcom anymore, it was a horror film. Should I run? Even if I did I wouldn’t get far before he caught up and made me squeal like a pig. I tried to hang on to the thought the snog I had on the veranda earlier. It would be a comforting memory when meeting my maker.
Taking my chances with the caravan, I opened the door and an anxious dog leapt up at me. The creature had clearly spent too much time confined in a small space in its own company – having driven thousands of miles on my own, I couldn’t help but sympathise. ‘Don’t mind her’ Ray told me and I shuffled in and nervously took a seat. Despite the outside appearance, the interior was actually quite welcoming. It wasn’t going to give Claridges a run for its money any time soon – or even a Travelodge for that matter – but there was a homely, lived-in feel to the place.
‘You’re welcome to crash here’, Ray offered.
‘Uh, thanks… but I might go back into town’ I replied and he said he would drive me back later.
‘Sometimes’ and we took a seat opposite each other.
We sat there passing a cigarette between us and opening up about our lives, in the way one often feels more inclined to do with a stranger than a close friend. He was several years younger than me, but had faced things I couldn’t even imagine. He had been adopted by his aunt when he was only one-and-a-half after his mother was murdered by his father and only recently had started to feel comfortable visiting his dad in prison. At seventeen he ended up homeless after being kicked out but managed to scrape together enough money to buy the caravan I was sitting in and was now putting himself through college.
As cliched as it sounds, Ray embodied the can-do American spirit we often hear about but rarely get to see. You usually hear these stories from ‘self-made’ people who have already earned their fortune, the likes of Donald Trump (who I might add started his career with the help of a ‘small’ $1m loan from his father.) But here I was with someone who had genuinely come from nothing. He was going to school and wanted to learn as many different languages as he could so that he could travel and work around the world, broadening his horizons, all the while allowing himself to keep creating music. He was pursuing the American Dream. His American Dream.
Despite feeling in awe at Ray’s unwavering work ethic, there remained a bass note of anxiety running throughout the night, which rose and fell in prominence depending on which turn the conversation took. ‘Do you wanna try LSD?’ Ray asked me, after a pause. I’ve been told that whether an LSD trip is euphoric and enlightening or a seemingly unending nightmare depends a lot on how familiar and comfortable you are with the surroundings and people you’re with. Something told me that dropping acid with a total stranger in the middle of a storm at the end of a dark, deserted road in Mississippi wasn’t ideal, and any natural curiosity was beaten into submission by rational thought.
Throughout all of this, Ray had been texting someone, which kept me on edge. ‘I found us a real life Limey we can test our power tools on’, I pictured him typing to a toothless, deranged friend sitting in another trailer with a sadistic look in his eyes. After a little while, he looked up from his phone. ‘I’m real sorry to do this Jack…’ and fear shot through me again ‘…but I gotta ask you to leave.’ It turned out he was messaging a girl he had been trying to take home for some time, and tonight looked like she was finally coming over for a night in his rusty old caravan. Who says romance is dead? ‘I wish I could drive ya back to town but I don’t really have the time’ he continued.
‘Oh.’ I tried to keep the surprise out of my voice given that outside the rain had reached a crescendo. I thanked him for letting me into his home and he directed me back to the road which led into town.
As I sauntered back through the storm, I couldn’t help but smile – I may have been cold, wet and wind-beaten but at least I was alive. It certainly wasn’t how I expected the night to end, but I had been searching for unusual, authentic experiences away from the tourist traps and this would be one which would stay with me forever. In the space of 15 hours I had been welcomed, rejected, educated, inspired, aroused, terrified, I had fantasised about the life I could live there and the people I could love, even though in reality I had never been more alone. Anywhere which can make you feel all that in one day is truly very special and I felt like I had finally found the place I had always dreamt about. Oxford, Mississippi. My home from another life.
* In the interest of privacy, I changed Ray’s name. Everything else is exactly as it happened.