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American diary 2016

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I’ve been to America for most of April. From time to time I sent emails to a few friends in the form of a diary. This is an edited version of the diary

1 April 2016

Dear All,

I’m in America for 3 weeks starting with a week in Miami and going from there to Nacogdoches, Texas, for a week, followed by a week in Goshen, Indiana. I fly back from Chicago on 23 April. I was last here (on a similar round trip) in 2012.

I’m staying in Miami with Rogerio & Claudia Cazelato and their two sons Antonio & Francisco, aged 9 & 6.  Rogerio & Claudia were originally Brazilian, and Rogerio was in one of my English classes in London in 1998 and we’ve kept in touch ever since. He and Claudia came to the US about 12 years ago and they are now American citizens. Rogerio works for Visa and Claudia works for a US bank.

As usual with Rogerio and me we started talking at the airport, and in the car, and by the time we’d got to his place (about a 20-minute drive) we’d outlined an agenda for changing the world. Claudia joined in when we got home, and she gave me cheese and cake and iced drinks (it’s around 30 degrees here)! When we got started on Brazil, ex-President Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff, Rogerio said that for him to tell me everything about the current state of Brazil I’d have to stay at least another week! Lula was a big hero for Rogerio at the beginning but he says he lost his way when he was in power and that Dilma is – I think his word was “crap”! Here, Rogerio and Claudia both support Bernie Sanders, and loathe Trump, and still think Bernie has a chance of getting the Democratic nomination (something to do with California, I think, but my knackered state last night meant that such mysteries were beyond me – even after the iced drinks!).

The other subject briefly broached was religion – Rogerio & Claudia are both Catholics. But we only talked about how Pope Francisco had had secret meetings to help broker the Obama visit to Cuba’s president, Raul Castro. “Always suspect secret meetings,” I said. “What did they have to hide?” We both decided that Francisco’s intervention against the Jagger concert was because it was on Good Friday, not because he didn’t like Mick! But why bother to intervene? After all, on any old Good Friday Cubans doubtless go out to bars and clubs. Why pick on this one? Was it because the Francisco with a radical reputation could use the inevitable publicity to show himself to be as conservative as any other Pope when he wanted to be and thus hold back the day when his soup would be laced with cyanide? (OK, this analysis wouldn’t get past the external examiner – but it was getting late!) Religion will come up again during this trip – and not only here: later, I’ll be staying with Mennonites and meeting Baptists!

Rogerio & Claudia are both at work now (it’s Friday morning and I’m trying to recover from 12 hours flying and security checks!).

Bob

*

3 April 2016

Dear everybody,

Yesterday to the Gulf of Mexico. Bright sun, 30 degrees and very humid. My face looks uneven and weird now – I misapplied the sunburn cream! Out to sea to the left was Mexico; ahead and to the right was Texas and all stations North. Rogerio and I walked for about an hour along the beach, after he had had a swim with the boys and Claudia in the sea (no, not me – my swimming days are not exactly over, they never actually took off at school!). On the walk I heard about the changes made from the early days of Lula to support the poor areas of Brazil, and how Rogério’s grandmother benefited from it all – her area got basic amenities (water, electricity, etc.) for the first time in her life. And I heard how the wealthy nearby are complaining about necessary changes taking place in some of those areas (like street lighting, speed limits, etc.) in spite of the fact that such changes have been shown to give greater safety and security. These people complain about the money spent and about their lifestyle being affected, and describe the poor in racist terms. The current corruption allegations against Lula and Dilma and the PT (Workers’ Party) feed into this stuff and make it more than possible that the gains made over the last 12 years will be lost.

Where have we heard all this before?

Claudia has a bad cold and I can feel it coming on too. But I think we’ll live! Rogerio and I went Walmart shopping and I remembered from last time that it can be 30 degrees outside but inside the temperature plummets to what seems like freezing!

Tomorrow I’m off to buy some shirts and we’ll drive somewhere, no decision about where. What’s important is that I get the benefit of Rogerio’s passion for justice, his support for Bernie Sanders, and his loathing for the Trumps and the Ted Cruz’s of this world. He agrees with Helen Mirren that Cruz is more dangerous than Trump.

*

5 April 2016

“My heart riots in the chaos of here” – a piece of pavement art in the Wynwood Arts Project, West Miami

After a trip to Fort Lauderdale I was doped up with cold medication last night, and today I went with Rogerio to the Wynwood Arts Project, a street-art project, including pavement art. In one covered space there was an Andy Warhol “Polaroid” exhibition, and other artists, known and unknown, some of the “known” ones costing 60,000 dollars and more. Apparently they get sold. The whole street area is brilliant, with every wall covered in art accomplished by who-knows-who? There are many open areas with their own exhibitions and you don’t pay to walk round. I had my photo taken standing by the Dalai Lama and by Martin Luther King, amongst others. When we’ve sorted out the pics (Rogerio took them because my camera’s buggered and the glare was too strong for me to be able to take them on my iPad) you will be able to see them, but of course for no extra charge!!!

I also learned about a top Brazilian judge who had just sent some of ex-President Lula’s aides and, I think, a couple of ex-ministers to jail, who was then himself accused of corruption and tax-dodging in the purchase of a house in Miami.

Rogerio is a constant source of information on Brazil and America – and I think he knows more about the way the American system works than many American-born citizens here. At the drop of a hat (or at what he calls a boring red light on the highway) he will launch into an explanation of how the presidential candidates are chosen, the caucus system, what is Super Tuesday and what are superdelegates and who votes when and where and how things are fixed in certain places.

Today I’m taking it easy. My cold is going away slowly (but Antonio started one yesterday) and my cough is slowly disappearing. When I tell Rogerio that I only cough when I’m talking too much, he says, “No, you don’t talk too much.” When I say it to Claudia, she smiles!

Tomorrow I hope to go on a trolleybus and a train “downtown”. I have learnt there is “downtown”, “uptown”, and even “overtown”.

*

6 April 2016

Dear all,

Yesterday I stayed in (apart from a half-hour walk). My cold doesn’t get worse but it kind of stays below the surface and then suddenly erupts. I didn’t want to find myself in downtown Miami, feeling (Rogerio’s phrase!) “like crap”, especially in the heat. Suddenly in the afternoon Rogerio comes home from work accompanied by Antonio. The school had phoned him to say that Antonio was not a well boy! Then at work they said to Rogerio, “In any case you’d better go home, you look bad and we don’t want your germs here!” So he comes home to work from home but, together with Antonio, steadily succumbs to whatever it is that Claudia caught! Anyway, I’m planning a trip downtown for tomorrow. We’re all a bit better today.

Last night, we watched Bernie Sanders after his win in Wisconsin. He told America that he and his supporters

“have decided that we do not represent the billionaire class, we do not represent Wall Street, or the fossil-fuel industry – AND WE DO NOT WANT THEIR MONEY! … To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, this is a campaign of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

He said that in 2012 he had argued that the minimum wage should be 15 dollars an hour (instead of 7.25) and everybody said that was crazy, could never be done (remember how the Tories said the same thing in Britain about having any minimum wage, let alone a double-figure one?). Since then, California has made it 15 dollars, and a couple of other states too. So, said Bernie, it is possible. And that’s where he seems to be heading: he named a few sectors of low-paid workers and, after he named each one, said, “15 bucks an hour … 15 bucks … 15 bucks…”

The press is saying that he is all rhetoric and doesn’t, when interviewed, seem to have a grasp of the detail of how he would achieve certain aims. In one interview he is quoted as saying, “If I had some papers in front of me I’d give you a better answer.” If that’s a true quote, I suppose, it would have been helpful if he’d had the detailed answers to hand. But they’re complaining that he just gives his on-the-stump speeches. But he is on the stump. There’s an agenda, I think, to portray him as too old for the job. But last night he spoke without a teleprompter, unlike Cruz earlier, who sometimes seemed to be straining his eyes to see his, making him look unconvinced of his own rhetoric. There was no hesitant speech by the 74-year-old Bernie. And if he didn’t have the detail ready to reel off at an interview, at least he was honest about it. And that’s what his audiences are desperate for. Like us. With Jeremy.

*

9 April 2016

Dear all,

So yesterday I caught a trolleybus on the road outside this gated community. The trolleybuses are free and useful to people who have no access to a car, especially during the day. The drivers speak mostly Spanish, and all the passengers were Spanish-speaking Americans, all women with children. Not that they didn’t speak any English, but this is a bi-lingual area, sort of in the way that Wales is, only more so. Rogerio and Claudia (their original language is Portuguese) learnt English when they came of course – but then also decided to learn Spanish because in some parts of Miami-Dade County you can’t get by without it.

“Here’s your station,” shouted the driver over his shoulder to me, “enjoy your day.” My first piece of enjoyment was to try to unravel the intricacies of the ticket machine. In the end I coaxed the unsuspecting man encased in the information desk out of his prison to show me how to do it. Being a Londoner, I reckon that 2 dollars 65 for an all-day ticket across Miami was a bargain.

When I arrived downtown I decided to get a new camera. The salesman at the first shop I found asked, “You speak Spanish?”

“No, English – and French.”

“OK, English no problem.”

He showed me one at 145 dollars, but then said, “Come round the back, I’ve got a really good one there.” It turned out to be for 387 dollars “including the case”. So I said I wasn’t planning to spend that much.

“OK, you can have it for 138 dollars.” Warning bells began to ring.

“No, thanks.”

“OK, look, here’s one for 100 dollars. With case. What more could I possibly do for you?!”

“No, thanks.”

“Hey, look at this – I’ll let you have this for 49 dollars.” I turned the camera over and it was 399 dollars.

“No, thanks” (moving towards the door).

“Hey, you wanna buy or you wanna play?!”

“Neither.” And out I went. The next shop was fine, and I came away with a reasonable, simple camera (“with case”!) and all the necessary leads and connections.

At the end of the afternoon, after food and the history museum, I went to meet Claudia at the Wells Fargo Bank where she works. “Go sit in the lobby for 5 minutes,” she said on the phone. I sat. And sat. And sat. In fairly quick succession, two officials eyed me up and down and asked what I wanted. I explained. They sniffed. They shrugged. They looked doubtful and slightly threatening. I was just about to ring Claudia and say, “If you’re not here in a minute they’re going to throw me out or have me locked up”, when she phoned saying, “Where are you?”

“In the lobby.”

“Which lobby?” It turned out it was the wrong building! But all was well that ended well, and she drove a few blocks and picked me up.

In the evening, after watching a Bernie interview, Rogerio joked, “You could come to Washington for the inauguration in January.” So I said, “If he gets elected, I will!” Later, Oscar Kalb, on Facebook, who was Rogerio’s American English teacher, said, “I think I’ll go too.” So Rogerio commented, “Well, if both my English teachers are going to Bernie’s inauguration, I guess I’ll go too.” So that’s the tentative plan. But Claudia said later, “I don’t want to disappoint you two guys, but he ain’t gonna get elected. Nobody I know is gonna vote for him. At work they just tell me, ‘Why you wanna vote for this guy?!'”

*

11 April 2016

So now I’m in Texas, at Ron & Rhonda’s, sitting on their patio and drinking beer. Ron explained that we won’t be able to go to Goshen, Indiana (where Ron’s parents Robert and Dorothy live), due to a broken-down car. Sorry I won’t be able to meet them this time, and Duwayne and his family with their home-brewed beer!

This morning we went to church (Gawd ‘elp me). A Baptist church, nice people, though annoyingly justifying a life of love and social concern on the basis that the resurrection of Jesus gives them the resources to do it. They’re not fundies, though. Ron, an ex-Mennonite, fits in well here though he isn’t clear about his current beliefs and the religious stuff. This makes me feel extreme – because I’m thinking why do they have to believe in the resurrection, why don’t they just get on with the love and social justice? Of course, they do get on with it in lots of different ways – but their liturgical language constantly brings them back to this spiritual basis, which they seem to have to believe to make it all work. And although they’re not fundies, in the end they treat the biblical texts literally, interpreting details as if they were recorded by eyewitnesses to history, instead of being written 50 or 60 years after the events by people with theological and other axes to grind, whose identities we don’t know and who certainly weren’t there at the time. So today’s preacher found significance in the references in her two readings to Peter’s three denials of Jesus before the crucifixion, Jesus’ three questions to Peter after the resurrection, and the three resurrection appearances to (which?) disciples. This play on “three” may have had theological or symbolic importance to the writer of John’s gospel and not just to today’s preacher, but can we take it as accurate history to be believed? No, of course we can’t. Yet these different kinds of meanings were inextricably mixed together and became a kind of package in the presentation. And do they need all this to do a bit of social justice?

Tonight Kacy, Rhonda’s daughter, is coming over and we will be convivial over a meat loaf. She’s training to be a nurse. In 2012 she said to me, “Bob, please keep talking – I just love your accent.”

*

12/4/2016

I spoke to Ron’s parents on the phone tonight. They’re OK, Dorothy at 90, Robert at 88. Bob says he keeps going to funerals, and his cousin died last weekend. Ron told him, “You’d better get out of town – it’s getting too close.” An 88-year-old chuckle was heard at the other end of the line!

Kacy’s sister Katy came over, with her son Garrett who’s 4. She’s doing  a whole lot of social-science-type courses involving a good bit of psychology and behavioural studies and is heading for a Master’s. She is so down to earth and determined to do it all. Garrett is curious about everything.

When I was here in 2012, there were local elections going on and one Republican candidate’s poster read: “For God, for public education, for the 2nd Amendment”, the right to bear arms. Yesterday outside Austin Heights Baptist Church, on both doors, was a sign prohibiting carrying arms into church. At dinner tonight Ron explained that such a sign was necessary because in Texas some people thought they’d be doing you a favour to carry arms into church – they’d be defending you from the hordes who might want to kill you.

*

14 April 2016

There was a barbecue tonight. There’s another one on Saturday to raise money to renovate a house for the minister of another local church. The barbecue tonight, though, was the regular weekly get-together of the men of Austin Heights Baptist Church to just eat and talk. The food was cooked in advance due to the heavy rain earlier, but after we’d eaten it indoors and the rain had held off, we went outside where a big bonfire was lit, and we roasted ourselves around it. Why just the men?

“Well, you know, we just thought it was a good idea,” said Steve, an active member of the church.

“The women do it, always have,” said Kyle, the minister, “but the men haven’t till more recently.”

There were about 25 people. Somebody usually starts with a topic, and everyone joins in. Kyle passed round cigars! For this occasion, Ron had set me up to talk and to be asked questions: “Tell your story,” someone said.

So I rambled on about my history, about politics, about how interesting it was to me that on opposite sides of the Atlantic two little old men had unexpectedly tapped into the discontent of a generation and started a movement. They asked me about the political left in the UK, about what I thought Bernie meant when he said he was a democratic socialist, what Jeremy meant, etc. We talked about that not being the same as Stalinism. Many of them seemed to be for Bernie. They asked what my religious views were and whether people in the UK went to church. And lots of other questions. Was I married with a family? I said, “No, I’m gay.” This gave them no problem – they’re big on equality of all kinds, these people. They asked for stories about my trade union activities (of which there are many, of course!). There was much laughter.

Oh, and we ate brisket, chicken, pasta, vegetables and salad. And Kyle said, “Bob, while you’re in Texas I’m gonna invite you and Ron to sit on my porch and drink whisky!”

Well, I can’t object to that!

*

18 April 2016

Dear everybody,

Around 5pm yesterday, Kyle Childress, the minister of Austin Heights Baptist Church, served us whisky on his porch, and offered us cigars. I declined the cigar on the grounds that I still had a chesty cough from my Miami cold. I chose a 12-year-old Islay whisky in preference to an American Bourbon.

Kyle is an interesting character, with a long history of political agitation as an important part of his ministry. He spent 5 days in jail during the Reagan administration, after protesting against Reagan’s actions in Nicaragua to overthrow its elected President. In more recent years the church associated itself with the protesters against an oil pipeline from Canada in which the extraction process and the nature of the oil combined to have a destructive effect on the environment. The protesters blockaded the site, were attacked by the police and were supported in different ways by members of the church. Surprisingly the church only lost a couple of members who disagreed with its support for the protesters. In the end, Obama withdrew his support for the pipeline, so the protests were successful.

“Y’see, Bob,” said Kyle, “I try to keep the idea of resistance to the powers that be alive in the church.  Because, y’know, they’re only the powers that be.”

The church also supports LGBT+ equality. This has led now to a situation where the church is in danger of being expelled from the Texas Baptist Association, maybe this year. Kyle shrugs:

“Well, if that’s what they want to do … Of course, we haven’t been part of the Southern Baptist Convention for a long time, so we’ll see.”

As we were leaving, Ron said, “Bob thought he was giving up politics – and then Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders appeared on the scene, so he deferred his retirement.”

“Bob,” said Kyle, “don’t give up. We don’t know if we’re going to win. We probably won’t. But we have to keep trying anyway. Don’t give up.”

Bob Mouncer

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