Thursday, 4 August 2016

Born in the USA

Bess and I are standing in line at Mi Casa Tamales. The tickets are already paid for but we need to get wrist bands. We also need to get cash, she tells me, so as to pay for food and drink.

'There's an ATM right there,' I say, indicating the line running adjacent to ours. The venue has anticipated our requirements.

Our eyes go the front of the line, expecting to see a free standing cash dispenser with persons tapping away at the keypad, but there's just the sign - ATM in magic marker on a square of cardboard stapled to a broom handle with a woman sat at the table right next to it. She resembles Dale Dickey who played Patty the Daytime Hooker in My Name is Earl. She is taking debit cards and swiping them through a reader plugged into a tablet, then dispensing dollar bills from a tin cash box at her side. I recall that ATM stands for Automated Teller Machine.

'I guess it's just a TM,' I tell my wife.

'Really it's just a T, when you think about it,' she corrects me.

The event is called Born in the USA, and those in front of us now receive the dayglo paper wristbands which grant admission.

'I wasn't born in the USA,' I say. 'Do you think they'll let me in?'

'Sure they will.'

'Maybe I should have brought my birth certificate,' I mumble, immediately realising that it would serve only to confirm my not having been born in the USA.

Mi Casa Tamales, which Google describes as a boisterous Mexican bar and grill, known for homemade tamales, plus regular live music performances, is three acres of woodland on the right as you head out of San Antonio towards Boerne. The first few times I passed the place I assumed it to be some kind of adventure playground, having noticed swings and slides amongst the trees behind the wood fence next to the highway; then one day we went there to eat. The food was decent, but the main attraction was it being a place in which the kid could run wild and hopefully wear himself out; otherwise it was just outdoor dining, and outdoor dining really isn't that much of a treat in Texas. There's the heat to consider, and the insects you tend to encounter in proximity to woodland, and so it lacks the novelty of English equivalents wherein cold and rain confine the al fresco diner to somewhere with a roof and heating for eleven months of the year. Anyway, tonight it's Born in the USA which is more than just outdoor dining, and we have our wristbands so in we go.

Jana bought the tickets and she will be at table fifty-one.

The place is filling up, and people in clothes resembling parts of the American flag wander amongst the trees and picnic tables. We find table fifty-one inhabited by some woman who patently isn't Jana. She seems embarrassed and duly moves to the next table along, so we take our seats.

I've joked about my social life being confined to either facebook, a telephone connection, or the local supermarket, but it isn't strictly true. I socialise with my wife on a regular basis. We get on quite well together, which is why we got married in the first place. Occasionally I also socialise with Andrea, whom my wife knows from work. Andrea has a wonderfully dry sense of humour, entertains no strange or esoteric beliefs that I'm aware of, and is always good company; and she is additionally friends with Jana, whom I don't really know at all, but who wields a slightly darker version of that same dry sense of humour.

These are the sort of people I tend to get on with - not so much those sat by the stage chuckling at the funny man in his big red shoes, but those stood at the back trying to work out whether or not this is really the worst thing we've ever seen. The four of us occasionally meet around Andrea's house to play cards whilst combining our respective children into a single gibbering, game-fixated organism fuelled on pizza and Big Red; and although I've never been a huge fan of card games, it's always fun with this group; and before we proceed any further, I feel I should stress that neither the term socialise nor card game serve as euphemisms for anything Joyce Grenfell would have categorised as beastly. I'm afraid none of us are that interesting.

Like I say, Born in the USA is not just outdoor dining. There is also a live band and food trucks have been brought in to accommodate the attendant increase in numbers. The band are called the Spazmatics. Jana wanted to see them, and has treated the rest of us to tickets because she didn't want to go on her own.

I look around, noticing a covered stage set up at the far side of the field. I can also see someone vaping - if that's what it's called - puffing big white clouds of smoke from something resembling a novelty ballpoint pen, but no-one is actually smoking proper fags even though we're outside. Either cigarettes really are on the way out, or smoking might be forbidden despite our being outside, although I can see no signs to this effect.

'So where's Jana?'

Bess inspects her phone. 'She's already here. Maybe she's getting something to eat.'

Jana appears with a marguerita in a plastic glass just as a group of teenage girls noisily occupy the next table, joining the woman we have just ousted from our own - presumably somebody's mother. The girls are seventeen or eighteen, nearly all of them wearing way too much make-up and denim dungarees cut short. They're all bare skin and smiles and they wear large badges identifying themselves as tasty tart or material girl or major tease. The noise is shrill and deafening, and the bridal veil worn by one of the group indicates that this is a hen night.

'Jesus Christ,' I say out loud, half hoping to cause offense. 'It's like twelve Miley Cyruses.'

I've been in a bit of a strange mood all day, unsettled or just plain shell-shocked or something. The first news I heard when I woke this morning was that my country of origin has decided it wants to be 1930 when it grows up, but without the part about growing up if at all possible. I've spent most of the day trying and failing to get my head around this and what it could mean. I've been living in Texas on a green card for the past five years, and now it's beginning to seem like going for full citizenship might not be such a terrible idea.

Also, I've been smoking. I gave up years ago, but have since found myself driven to smoke in times of unusual stress, then stopping once I'm done without experiencing any further cravings. I've smoked several times since giving up, with years passing between each pouch of hand-rolling tobacco, and here I am again. I had to buy the tobacco at a head shop, a place on Austin Highway which also sells bongs shaped like skulls as well as esoteric pornography, because rolling tobacco is not readily available here and I've never liked regular cigarettes. I'm not even sure that smoking helps, but it feels as though it does, somehow - and at least I no longer have the additional worry of ending up hooked once again; because I actually quite like the fact of my having stopped smoking, generally speaking.

Andrea has arrived and joins us at our table, but the twelve Miley Cyruses - possibly Miley Cyri in the plural form - all fiddling with their phones and screeching ohmahgeeerrrddd every few seconds are doing my cake in.

'I'm just nipping off for a fag,' I explain, understanding full well that the word has a different meaning here but not really feeling like making a concession to the regional variation. One of the Miley Cyruses is explaining what she was all like and how this resulted in her friend being all like something else. They resemble animated Bratz dolls. Not only do they make me feel old, but they make me feel glad to be old.

I wander off into the crowd, drifting towards the stage as I roll myself a cigarette. I notice security guards hanging around, chubby with the inevitable shades like we're at an Erik Estrada theme park. I'm aware that the practice of hand-rolling is probably more closely associated with marijuana than regular ciggies in these parts, so I maintain some distance whilst remaining purposefully conspicuous so they can tell that I'm not trying to hide anything.

Smoking allows you to see yourself in cinematic terms. There you are in the doorway. It's pissing with rain and you spark up as the music swells. Life may well have given you a short, sharp kick in the nadgers, but you're smoking a fag and everything will get better from this point on, just like in the films. It's a major reason why people smoke, but they never tell you that in the warnings on television, focusing instead on the cancer and all the money you've been flushing down the toilet  these past few years - even though it's unlikely that you would have otherwise spent that money on anything worth having.

I wander to the front of the stage and notice the instruments which have been set up - guitar, bass, drums, a bank of keyboards and several microphones. For a moment I actually wonder if the Spazmatics might be some kind of Plasmatics tribute act, maybe even a distant descendent. The Plasmatics had some great songs once you looked past the television sets being blown up or chainsawed in half on stage, and I remember there was that guy Spazz Attack, the one with the mohican; so given Wendy O. Williams having shuffled off this mortal coil, that must be it; and then I remember that Spazz Attack was some dancer who used to be in Toni Basil videos. I'm thinking of Richie Stotts, and the Plasmatics probably aren't going to sell out a field in south Texas thirty years down the line.

I've looked at the Spazmatics facebook page: four people, all of whom look like the same guy, all pulling the wacky face. They have goofy teeth and nerdy glasses. One wears a neck brace, and another keeps his mullet wig in check with a sweatband. They look like a comedy act, one of those trying-too-hard enterprises which has to tell you that it's funny just so you know.

If you liked The Big Bang Theory, you're gonna love these guys! They're called the Spazmatics, as in spastics! Ha ha!

But it's a night out and a new thing, and it's not pissy lager and turdy indie crap in some shitty south London toilet followed by a terrifying ride home on the night bus, and I'm here for the company rather than the music - whatever it is.

I rejoin the gals, and we play cards. Andrea happens to have a deck with her, one which I suspect she probably carries in case of emergencies. We play crazy eights, one of those games where the object is to get rid of all your cards, and if unable to go, you have to keep picking up more cards from the deck until you can. The band kick off just as we get going, four guys resembling characters from Revenge of the Nerds playing a faithful version of Kenny Loggins' Footloose. 'They play eighties songs,' Jana informs me, and they play them very well. The sound is great and the crowd are going nuts.

We keep on playing crazy eights as the Miley Cyruses get to twerking, or whatever that arse in the air dance is called. I suspect I will soon see one of the cowboys bellowing awesome as he pours beer over himself, or if not beer then Miller Lite or something of that type. The Spazmatics play Just Can't Get Enough, Take On Me, You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Summer of '69, I Love Rock 'n' Roll - all of the hits faithfully recreated before our very ears. At one stage they play a version of Whip It, and it really sounds like Devo, but still I find it difficult to lose myself in the moment.

Bess and I go to get margueritas, discovering that the bar does indeed accept payment by card after all, and as we return to our table, we pause for a photograph with our faces poking through the cut-out heads of Uncle and Auntie Sam because this is still Born in the USA. The name comes from a Bruce Springsteen album, and it seems to have been chosen for this event mainly because it has USA in the title - which is as good a theme as any - and they saved money in photoshopping the date and venue onto the existing record cover. Springsteen's Born in the USA isn't a particularly patriotic number, but I don't suppose it matters. Everyone is drunk and full of tacos, and we all know the words to all of the songs, and we've dressed in stars and stripes just because it makes us happy. There's no other reason. One guy is wearing a Trump t-shirt, but he seems a bit out of place.

We start up another game, and I admit to myself that I'm beginning to hate the music because I'm tired; but I get the impression that Jana and Andrea are enjoying it so I say nothing because I don't want to be the miserable fucker pissing on everyone's chips. It's loud enough to justify the earplugs I'm now really glad I slipped into my pocket before we left. It's competent and well done for what it is, but it still feels like we're at the wedding of somebody we don't like very much, or the world's most unnecessarily complicated karaoke evening. Gaps between songs are filled with lame banter and jokes playing on the nerdish appearance of the band, and audience members receive birthday dedications heralded by a sample from In Da Club by 50 Cent - go shortie, it's your birthday, with the offending fuck inanely bleeped out as though the censorship is itself worth a snigger. Then they play a terrifyingly convincing version of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir, and it begins to feel like something has gone wrong with the fundamental structure of reality.

We're on our fourth or fifth round of crazy eights. Thus far no-one has had to pick more than five or six cards from the deck before they're back in the game, but as the Spazmatics go into Bohemian Rhapsody, Jana just keeps taking those cards, a bitter smile on her face. 'I hereby rename this game Shitto,' she grimaces, and takes cards until the deck is gone. I laugh more than I've laughed all day, and realise that against all odds I've had a good evening. The music hasn't been entirely to my liking, but we've played some great Shitto.

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