“I have always relied on the kindness of strangers”

…said Blanche DuBois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. (As a complete aside, it always struck me as a bit of a shame that Ford, after releasing a sporty version of their smallest model, called the ‘Street Ka’, didn’t do a model of it called the ‘Desire’…)

Hello and greetings from Atlanta, Georgia! I am here safe and well, though the journey wasn’t without its tribulations… but, as the title of this little epistle might suggest, I did enjoy the kindness of strangers.

After a trouble-free trip to Heathrow (one minor scare when I was told I had a stand-by ticket, but everything was perfectly fine) I boarded the Boeing 777 (comfy, but with precisely half the number of engines I like in a transatlantic transport) and found myself sitting next to Richard, a salesman from Chelmsford, and Joanne, a 2nd-year law student from Toulouse (and, unimaginably, going to Tennessee to learn English…). The two very quickly proved amiable and enjoyable company, and the trip was, as a result, a lot of fun. We helped each other with filling in the customs forms, which proved hilarious when we tried to guesstimate the value of the gifts Joanne had brought for her hosts – there was a lot of back-of-a-napkin calculating done by yours truly. Actually, that’s not strictly accurate: my sums were all written on the top of the sandwich box. We had a total we wanted to reach; the trick was in assigning values to items that then made up the required total. We even treated to quite the pantomime when Joanne couldn’t quite bring to mind the word ‘earrings’.

We stuck together through the interminable customs malarky (it took us 2 hours from leaving the plane to leave the airport). Joanne was chatted up by the customs officer (who, in clear breach of standing orders, told her to smile for her picture); while I was asked why I was coming to the States, and, after explaining that I needed to see original manuscripts, was then asked if Emory couldn’t just post them to me? I explained that the trip wouldn’t have been necessary at all if an American university hadn’t nabbed the papers of a Northern Irish poet… I was ushered through quite quickly after that.

Joanne was met by her language tutors – a family – while Richard was met by Judy (no joke!), the friend he had come to see. Learning that my intention was to get a cab to Emory, Judy decided she would have none of it. “Emory’s but two maahles from maah house,” she drawled. “We c’n give you a liift.” She used more vowels per word than anyone I have ever met.

As it turned out, she didn’t know the Emory campus at all, so eventually I was deposited with a security guard. She and Richard left, but not before Richard had shaken my hand and Judy had given me a hug and her card in case I needed a contact while I was here.

Southern generosity is pretty impressive.

And Judy’s was matched by the security guard in whose company I found myself. A fan of Van Morrison, we talked about Northern Ireland as he shepherded me round the campus, trying to locate someone who could give me a key to my room. Eventually, though both of us were half-convinced that this key-wielder was entirely mythical, the man was found and my key was given to me. The security guard left then, but not before he had explained that he was on duty “Sat’days and Suuhndays” and I was to drop by if I got the chance.

Arriving – finally – at my room I met my housemate. Cliff, a Virginian, seems to keep up the Southern pastime of genteel courtesy (although, mercifully, his vowels aren’t measured in a geological time), but he had bad news for me when I asked him about the possibility of bed-linen: “There isn’t any,” he said, looking unhappy – though his expression must have been only a thousandth as stricken as mine. As a result, dear reader, I endured one of the most horrifically uncomfortable nights of my life, as I lay down on the plasticised mattress, my hoodie balled up for a pillow, with the tissue-thin British Airways -issued blanket my only excuse for a covering. Chilled with baltic air conditioning, my skin sticking to the mattress (every time I shifted on the mattress there was that hideous ‘flesh unpeeling’ noise we all know and loathe. I was looking at a Muldoon poem today where he uses the word ‘sh-leeps’, which is near-perfect onomatopoeia for the process I suffered last night), I lay there and wondered how it is that a University whose students pay $40,000 a year to attend couldn’t afford bed linen for visitors.

This morning, after a night’s sleep perhaps most generously described as ‘fitful’, I woke at 6, watched some Buffy before leaving at 9 to go bed-linen hunting (as the old joke goes about the Irish SAS who were dispatched to Marks and Spencers instead of Afghanistan in their search for the world’s most infamous terrorist). It nearly turned into a very expensive trip indeed, with me not realising that the prices in Macy’s are rather higher than in the real world, but in the end I found a Burlington Coat Factory that got me a top sheet, a fitted sheet, two pillow cases, two velour pillows of unsurpassed nastiness (but they’re fine when in their cases) and a ‘comforter’ for the grand total of $50. The comforter was somewhat odd – I had thought that a comforter was the little plastic teat you give babies to keep them quiet – but, as it turns out, it’s also a coverlet/duvet/quilt substitute that looks quite cosy. The girl who served me, incidentally, rejoiced in the remarkable name of ‘Shostocka’, though I realised that if you put a ‘p’ in the middle there you’d get not only her name but also her job description…!

After lunch at Wendy’s (in keeping with my finest and longest-established traditions, I went to a burger joint and got chicken nuggets) that reminded me of the good old days of MacDonalds – the days of my youth, when chicken nuggets were chicken in name only – it was back to Clairmont to make up my bed. That done, I was off again in the heat of the noon-day sun. This place, with its humidity, heat, and general warm fuggery, reminds me of nowhere so much as Trinidad. Anyway, my destination this time was the computing centre so that they could enable the wireless network that I’m using now to talk to you about all this, and then, finally, to MARBL (the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Book Library) to check in. After the obligatory form-filling, I was shown to my study table. It took me a second to realise that the enormous trolley of manuscripts next to it was for me – all the boxes I had requested. Containing, at a rough estimate, 2,000 poems.

And those aren’t even all the boxes.

Those aren’t even all the boxes I need to see.

After three hours spent reading my through a selection of them, just to get a flavour for what they contained, I gave up, as after the journey yesterday, the awful night and the early start before a busy day I just wasn’t concentrating. But as I left, I ran into one of the members of the English department here, blessed with a familiar accent – she’s from Ballymena! She’s agreed to sit down with me and give me the low-down on the campus, so I’ll soon be better put to get around the place.

I haven’t had dinner yet, so I must sign off, but I’d like to leave off where I began: I have always relied on the kindness of strangers. Thus far, Georgia has demonstrated that I can continue to do so.

I like it here.

A long cool glass of Zen today, I think:

The nearly-completed Starlingford Ferry barely makes steerageway as she drifts through Marlbrook Basin

The nearly-completed Starlingford Ferry barely makes steerageway as she drifts through Marlbrook Basin

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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