Travels with Choir In Search of America

I. home

Going through immigration and border control at Dulles (the worst airport to have ever existed in the entire history of the world). I use my American passport, which saves me about twenty minutes. The immigration official eyes my customs card. “You carrying anything?” I’ve declared the presents I’m bringing for my family–a college coaster from Founder’s Day for my father, a mint Aero bar for The Kid, and a jar of lemon curd for Mamacita. “No sir,” I say. “Just chocolate.” He smiles and taps my passport twice on the counter. “Good girl. Welcome home.”

II. tales of the city

After our first evensong, there are people I recognize in the congregation: my darling and long-unseen friends Jon, Red, and Chelsea, all of whom I met when I was still in high school. Red lives in Ohio, so seeing her is particularly unexpected, and we jump around and shriek a lot. Jon suggests that we go out. “Hell yes,” I say, “but I don’t know this area, so where should we go?” He says, thoughtfully, “I think we should go to a gay bar called Freddie’s in Crystal City.” So we do. There are cheeseburgers, our waitress is a beautiful transvestite with eyebrows of Platonic perfection, I get a cocktail with a flashing ice cube in it, and we all get drunk enough. Jon, who is going to do postgraduate work in musical performance this fall, sings karaoke (Aerosmith and Scott McKenzie), and just at the end of the night, I get drunk enough to sing some too. When I get down off the stage, a ghetto-fabulous man sitting at a nearby table offers his hand for a high five and says, “Darling, that was gorgeous.”

III. bringing down the house

The next night we go back, but we bring the Duchess. She and Red get on like a house afire. We meet a group of amazingly camp anesthesiologists, and somehow get sucked into a poker game which apparently runs on Freddie’s front porch every Monday. The players have names like Donny and Junior, and most of them seem to have been in Vietnam or Kuwait. The only other female in the joint is a sweet butch woman named Lani who has the most perfect country-western voice I’ve ever heard in real life. She plays Texas hold’em with a preserved scorpion in a jar next to her on the table. She says it’s her lucky charm. They invite us to come to a baseball game the next day. We say yes, out of midnight goodwill, knowing full well that in the morning we’ll agree not to turn up. They all think that the Duchess and I are dating. We choose not to correct them.

IV. i’m a stranger here myself

Philadelphia. The day has been one of unclean hair and hangover and boredom and discomfort, and now we’re at a party thrown for us by one of the churches we’ve just sung at. There’s plenty of wine but I’m too tired to talk to anyone, so I take a cab home on my own. Halfway down Rittenhouse Square, I discover I’ve lost my phone charger, so I ask the driver to take me to a pharmacy. There’s no one behind the counter. I’m leaning over it, trying to make out the writing on the various boxes of electronics, when a woman appears. Her name tag says SHANNIA. She says nothing, but her glare is very eloquent. “Hi,” I say. “Do you have any chargers for iPhone 5?” Her stare becomes indifferent. “No.” I point at an empty hook, from which swings a tag that reads IPHONE 5 CHARGER. “You do stock them, though?” She glances, barely, at the hook. “We sold it.” I apply my most pleasant smile, as though it’s lipstick. “There aren’t any more in the back?” The woman does not move a muscle. “No.” Recognizing the uselessness of any further attempts, I leave. The taxi driver must see the look on my face as I emerge, because he rolls down his window and says sympathetically, “No luck?” “Afraid not,” I say, trying mightily to keep cheerfulness in my voice. The driver makes a face, starts the car again, and says, drily but not unkindly, “Welcome to Philly.”

V. the innocents abroad

Leaving New York by way of Newark. Jersey’s reputation is well deserved if the security people are anything to go by. They are all women, and all are using a tone of voice best described as a bark. I take off my ring in case it sets off the metal detector, and put it on top of my bag. One of the women snarls at me, “Put that back on your finger.” She sounds like Marlon Brando playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. This tickles me. I comply. As I’m about to go through the detector, she barks again: “This a laptop?” She’s grabbed my backpack and is feeling the contours of something heavy and rectangular. Fuck you, I think, almost happily. I can do this too. I raise my voice. “No ma’am.” Flat tone, disinterested eyes. The “ma’am”, as intended, does not sound courteous. “What is it?” she snaps. “It’s a folder,” I say. The less detail, the better. Subject, verb, object, now fuck off. And it works. She puts my bag down, says nothing else, motions me forward with a jerk of her head. The guy on the other end of the metal detector winks. Good girl. Welcome home.