20.10.04

My body woke up at 7 am thinking that it was still 9 am somewhere in the South. Time to get up, eat breakfast, reconstitute the whirlwind of objects all over the motel room back into the dense blocks of luggage, figure out how to proceed with the day from town to town, restaurant to restaurant. But no! I'm home & the only thing I really have to do today is meet Sarah for gelato before her play opens at the Berkeley Rep tonight. (I decided I better wait to see it until all my brain particles have arrived home properly.)

The weather is drastically different. The last couple days in New Orleans were in the upper 80s & sticky muggy humid tropical. I have several new mosquito bites that all itch at once. Here at home it poured torentially all day yesterday & the temperature is in the low 60s. It's all a bit of a shock to the system. That was a long, long trip. On the plane coming home I finished reading Anthony Walton's Mississippi: An American Journey. While I was reading a section about Robert Johnson, Donna was in the seat next to me reading Alan Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began. Clearly we had not really left. Even now I can hear that lonesome train whistle coming up from the tracks in Emeryville, & the feeling it evokes is subtly changed now. I've been listening to those train whistles for most of my adult life, ever since moving to the East Bay in 1986. I think for a lot of people that sound is somehow inherently tied to the blues, & for me it's been no different, but now that I've been to the home of the blues, seen the cotton fields, driven the highways, I hear the train & it summons up so much more. I remember having to pause for several minutes in the middle of interviewing Van Tran at his gas station/Chinese takeout place, while the long, long train rumbled & roared by, drowning out all other sound. I remember hanging out with Lansing in his old-time corner grocery store when a customer came in & asked for chips; Lansing said there weren't any chips, sold the customer some cookies or something else instead, & then came back & told us how the chip delivery man was so unreliable. For the chip man, Lansing's little store was a trivial & superfluous nuisance compared with his stops at Walmart & the big supermarkets in town. Lansing refused to be interviewed, saying that everybody wants to do a documentary about the Delta Chinese, "but it never does any good, it never changes anything".

What he didn't say (& we didn't bring it up either) was that those documentary makers must have practically peed in their pants over him -- mixed Chinese & African American, almost old enough to be called an old man, full of mildly eccentric wit, opinions & stories -- soundbites! -- repairing computers in the back of this grocery store that looked like it hadn't changed in a hundred years. Even the few groceries themselves looked vintage, sparsely populating worn wooden shelves. I've been in that position before, being the photo subject of choice because of some perceived exoticism, because I could be used to represent something on someone's agenda. So we left all the equipment in our bags & just hung out. He pulled a cardboard box off one of the shelves & opened it to show us his childhood Chinese readers that he had never studied. I smiled to myself, thinking, he probably thinks he's torturing us because we wish we could get this on tape, but he doesn't realize it's not the same kind of project. It's not about having everything, capturing everything. It's about the experience, about the people & their stories, how they get inside me somewhere to mix around with all the other chop suey ingredients. He ranted about food stamps & obesity, how we were in the most obese county in the whole country & it was because people could eat anything they wanted with food stamps. "You don't need food to work on! You just need food to sleep on! One meal a day, that's all you need!" I asked, what did people eat before they got food stamps? He said grits & juice in the morning, beans & rice & greens in the night. Now they eat chips & cookies all day long. So it was just as well that he wasn't carrying chips anymore: "bad for you anyway!" He gave us cold bottles of water while we were there & then more for the road & wouldn't let us pay for them.

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