Chapter 48: USA Part III
D.C. to Baltimore
The motorbike banked steeply, buzzing to a halt with a flashing blue whoop. Two black leather boots split to take the weight. “Hey! You can’t do that here,” the policeman shouted over traffic. I could see only his clean-shaven chin beneath his huge black visor. He looked like a fly or one of Darth Vadar’s pilots. “Not on the interstate you can’t. Driver comes round that traffic light too fast and hits ya…not a nice way to go. You gotta move.”
“Where can I go?” I asked back.
“I dunno. But you can’t be here.”
His boots clicked back into place and he sped off like a hornet.
I was on the edge of Washington D.C., a place called Tysons Corner. I’d been staying with Radhi and Ramesh nearby. Ramesh had shown me around the city centre, its wide green space and hard white stone, a vast temple to the American political project. We wandered under the sharp shadow of the Washington Monument and looked on Lincoln’s steely gaze. We read the names on the Vietnam Memorial, watched the petrified figures of the Korean one, were given fliers by the Korean Church Christians and climbed the steps to see Jefferson. Kids from a school in the Midwest filmed Tiktoks at the top. They had a verse from Matthew on their T-shirts.
America’s struggles, tensions, and achievements were chiselled into those brilliant monuments. It was like a trophy cabinet, reminding the athlete of the pain as much as the victory. Wars and great civil movements, presidents, declarations, amendments and ideals, it was all there, good, bad and everything either side. It was impressive, the architecture of power and principles, like Versailles, or Times Square.
It had been all too short a stay. Now I had to get back to New York. We’d spent a long time over the map to work out the best place to catch a ride. The usual criteria applied: big hard shoulder or lay-by, slow traffic, on the main road to the place you’re going, a nearby backup plan. Tysons Corner won out and I was on the roadside early the next morning, a belly full of breakfast and a bag full of potato masala dosas. A slippery sun caught the trucks on the highway.
I wasn’t sure if the place I moved to was legal, it was only around the corner. I wondered if the hornet-man would be back. I didn’t have to wait around to find out. A white van swung round the bend, the driver waved before he stopped and I jumped in, met with a broad smile and a bump of the fist.
Dixie was driving a fish van to Baltimore. “Don’t you smell it?” He asked. I didn’t. Dixie said he could smell it all the time.
The engine burred loudly as we quickened onto the highway. We were going to Baltimore, the south side. Dixie told me he needed to unload at the depot and if I didn’t mind hanging around he’d be happy to drive me downtown. I could get a bus or train from there.
“What’s Baltimore like?” I asked.
“Ah it’s all right,” he shrugged, “It’s not so safe.”
“Safe enough to hitchhike out of?”
“I don’t know about any of that,” he replied a little dismissively. He looked at me frankly, his silver shades catching the light. He had a Yankees cap on too. “You see, for me man, I could never hitchhike. I could never get a ride. The colour of my skin,” he pinched his wrist, “people would never pick me up. You white, so maybe, but I gotta pay.”
There was no point saying I didn’t hitchhike for the money, it made no difference. His point still stood unmoved. A stark reminder of my privilege couched in no uncertain terms.
The day before, Ramesh had taken me to the African American museum. It’s extraordinary. We spent three and a half hours in there and barely covered two of the eight floors. Dixie had been five times he told me. He’d start on the top floors where it was light and work his way down to the bottom where it was dark and cramped, designed like the bowels of a middle passage ship - the kind that sailed from Whitehaven. I’d begun at the bottom, at the beginning. 1619 and the English ship the White Lion.
“For hundreds of years black people like me were slaves in this country,” Dixie continued, “It reduced us, man. Now we’re somehow seen as less human as a result. It’s messed up.” He twisted a finger on his temple.
Most museums are relevant in the present; few quite so much as that one. Dixie made it clear why and the museum made it quite clear who caused it. Britain may not be saddled with the lingering results, but the roots of the problem lie there.
Dixie told me he’d lived in Baltimore for 22 years. He was Ghanaian originally. I’d love to go, I told him, it’s beautiful I heard.
“Ah… it used to be man…” he replied again a little blankly. I asked what happened.
“The British came and made Ghana a colony…”
We were driving through Maryland, four lanes of traffic and the sky was grey. Dixie continued.
“The British took slaves and gold and screwed up the country. By the time they left and Ghana got its independence, there was nothing left. They left nothing. They didn’t even educate us or teach us how to run a country. You can’t just hand over control like that. They just took all the valuable things and left.” He spoke loudly and passionately and flapped a hand dismissively.
“Today Ghana is poor. People have very little. But you see King Charles in London with his palaces full of gold… There are no gold mines in Britain! They took that shit from Africa! They got it cheap. Africans didn’t know its value when they took it. When they found out it was too late. It was all gone!” He slapped his hand back on the steering wheel.
The coronation was a few days away. Britain was preparing to be the centre of attention for a while. British pageantry would be beamed across the globe. For many, like Dixie, it was insulting.
“All those chariots made of African gold… Pfff. The world is messed up.”
For the most part, I’ve been hitchhiking through Britain, trying to get a sense of the country from within. I realised talking to Dixie on that Maryland highway, that it’s impossible to get a true sense that way. “And what should they know of England, who only England know?” asked Kipling, (ironic given his own views) but he was right. You can’t understand a place purely from the inside. If you were writing a biography of say, Boris Johnson, Boris Johnson himself wouldn’t be your only source.
Dixie reminded me, as did the African American museum, that Britain’s story goes far beyond’s its borders. It’s a different story to the one gleaned from home, but it is a British story nonetheless, one that mustn’t be forgotten.
Dixie returned to America and the present, “Like the whole thing with Mexicans!” He announced, “When people say they can’t come in, ‘build the wall’ all of that, that’s messed up! Italians, French, Irish, English, German… they can all come in, but not the Mexicans! Anyway this is their place! Same with the Native Americans. The white people came here and massacred them, burnt their villages to ashes…!” He scoffed and shook his head.
“You know man, when you cut you, you bleed red, when you cut me, I bleed red. We’re all the same up here!” He tapped his temple, “This…” he pinched his wrist again, “It don’t matter!
I was humbled by a powerful sense of guilt and Dixie could tell. “There’s nothing you can do about it,” he replied with another shrug, “It’s not exactly your fault. You had nothing to do with it. It’s just the way it is. In the Bible that we all follow, it says the rich and the poor will always be with us. It’s just different today. Same shit, different day… It won’t change.”
“It will eventually,” I replied, “Everything does.”
“Not in our lifetime man.”
We drove in silence for a moment then with a smile returning to his face we switched to lighter topics. Dixie told me about his daughter. She’d just left the Air Force. He got out his phone to show me some pictures of them at a bar together. “We go out sometimes,” he blushed, “Maybe she’s your type!” he laughed.
Then he showed me some pictures of his fiancé in Ghana. They were just trying to work the visas out so she could come and live in Baltimore but things were tough at the moment for Dixie. For years he ran his own bar in downtown Baltimore. It had been a hot joint and he’d loved it. Then covid hit. When it cleared, he’d run up $48,000 of rent debt. “I owed 12,000 bucks just for the lights,” he told me, “I had to close the bar down. In the end, I took this job instead. I don’t like it and it doesn’t pay great but it was too stressful being out of work. I need money man. I gotta live. I took it for the peace of mind.”
“Do they give you free fish at least?” I’d had a ride in a fish van in Cornwall and that was the only reason he’d put up with the smell.
“Nah man. No one gives you anything for free. You pay for it.”
We pulled off the interstate into a rest area, south of Baltimore. I’d realised it was a better bet than going into the city with Dixie. Best keep to the roads. Dixie spotted my sign, a large sheet of paper from Ramesh’s sketchbook. It said Baltimore on one side and had New York already written in large on the other. He laughed and slapped my shoulder, “You got it all worked out! I like it man, you a hustler.”
We fist-bumped again and I thanked him. It had been an education.
“Take it easy,” he called with a wave and pulled back onto the highway.
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