What to do while they pack your groceries

What to do while they pack your groceries

Is that oversized pack of 24 Cottonelle toilet rolls, precariously balanced on the Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo (with its unique combination of tea tree oil, peppermint and lavender for that refreshing fragrance experience), going to get traction? Or will it be left hanging on the hard end of the checkout counter?

A twenty-first-century hunter-gatherer surveying his kill. Shopping cart unloaded faster than Checkout Girl can process, I pause. 

I picture my cubs back home, wild with excitement when they hear how I trapped a carton of Dibbs Caramel Ice Cream in the frozen section. I puff my chest out a little further and smile proudly at Checkout girl.

What to do now? 

Back in England, there would be no time for reflection. I would have to rush through to the other end of the counter in a hopeless race against Checkout Girl. No contest. Groceries would pile up in a car crash at the end of the conveyor belt, eggs would crack under the weight of a Boddingtons twelve-pack, freshly baked loaves of bread become horribly disfigured, grapes pop spectacularly, and pots of yoghurts threaten to explode under the concerted pressure of two hundred pounds of Supermarket shop.

Worse, one of those floating assistants would select me as the shopper who needs help and volunteer to pack my purchases. Frozen pizza wedged up against warm bread and a box of eggs underneath twenty-four cans of Diet Pepsi; they mean well but have no idea. I used to make sure I looked especially unkempt before embarking on a supermarket shop back home, to scare off the well-meaning, but utterly hopeless bag-packers that occupy the lower echelons of the British Supermarket food chain.

In America, of course, it’s very different.

A dedicated professional packer is already waiting to bring order to the chaos of my shop.

‘Paper or plastic?’

‘You what?’

‘Paper or plastic?’

‘I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re asking me. Is this some kind of game?’

‘Do you want paper or plastic bags, Sir?’

‘Oh, sorry, plastic, of course.’ I’m don’t want a bag that can’t transport the weight of my aerosol cans to my gas-guzzling SUV – saving the planet not my problem. Leave that to the next generation.

But what now? Cart unloaded, Checkout Girl checking everything out, Packer expertly packing it all at the other end, I’m redundant.

An uncomfortable feeling. 

As an Englishman, I’m ill at ease with all this service. I feel I should help, but I’m neither needed nor wanted. I have no idea what to do. 

If I were American, I would start talking. 

Instead, I just stand there, rocking back on my heels a little and smiling weakly at Checkout Girl. I could talk about the weather. But we haven’t been introduced. She did say ‘Hi’ Does that constitute a formal introduction? Her name badge tells me she’s called Kristiana. I couldn’t possibly just start talking to her. 

How old is she? I’m going to find out in a minute. I’m guessing twenty-two. Exactly half my age. Wish that thought hadn’t happened. I’m about to find out. The wine has made it to the top of the conveyor belt. And, yes, oh, I am surprised, under twenty-one. In America, alcohol is too dangerous for anyone under twenty-one to handle, even in an unopened bottle. An underage checkout girl, or guy for that matter, is not allowed to touch the stuff and so has to call for their Supervisor to process the purchase. 

The English equivalent is money. A £50 cash-back at Sainsbury’s requires supervisor authorisation. Our hang-up is money: America’s is alcohol. There’s a law here in Illinois that refuses a drinking license to any restaurant that opens up within two hundred yards of a Day Care Centre. That’s quite some distance for a baby to crawl. Even when chasing a shot of Tequila.

What am I doing here, anyway? This is no place for a man. I’ve been conned into doing the Supermarket run. My wife told me that it was manly to go foraging for food, but the only men I can see are in tow. My wife would know what to do while waiting for the shopping to be packed. I guess she would do what she always does. Play Space Invaders on her Blackberry.

I look around a bit.

Men think about sex every three seconds. Not here they don’t. 

I think about not thinking about sex and wonder if it counts as thinking about sex.

‘Dum, di dum di dum dum. When the sun beats down, and I lie on the bench, I can always hear them talk. Me I’m just a lawnmower you can tell me by the way I walk’. Where did that come from? A nonsensical 1973 rock lyric. One of my favourites. Whatever happens in my life, I will always remember these words. ‘There’s always been Ethel’ comes next. Even as my memory fades in older age, this will be one of the last fragments to go. My last words could well be ‘There’s always been Ethel’.

I get my loyalty discount card out of my wallet ready to pay. Okay done that, so what now?

I choose not to pick my nose. It could be embarrassing. An armed robbery might take place just in front of me, and the grainy security camera images that subsequently appear on national TV would catch me in the top left corner with a finger wedged up my left nostril.

I think again about not thinking about sex.

How much have I spent? I’m betting four hundred twelve dollars, sixty-three cents. I’m good at guessing the total bill. No idea how much individual items cost, and deeply suspicious of anything cheap or discounted, which is pretty much everything here, but I can price a mound of groceries to within 5%. I don’t subscribe to the Micawberian ‘Look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves’ school of thought (nor, I suppose do Americans – ‘look after the dollars and the cents will look after themselves’ doesn’t quite have the same ring). Look after the pounds, is my way of thinking, and you don’t need to bother about pennies.

Is there anything left in my Starbucks cup? (Best thing about this Supermarket is the Starbucks inside.) I turn it upside down and throw back my head to drain the last remaining dregs. Checkout Girl pauses, briefly looks concerned before giving me a big American smile. Fleeting sexual thought.

I watch my carton of Good Eggs from Good Farms pass on the conveyor. I always buy Good Eggs now, ever since discovering that they print a psalm on the inside lid of the carton. Why do they do that? Are they hoping to convert me over breakfast? 

The end is nigh. Four hundred thirty-one dollars and three cents. Within five per cent. Told you I was good.

‘Do you need any help, Sir?’

‘What to wheel my well-packed trolley all of thirty yards to my car?’

‘Yes, Sir’

‘No, I think I might just about be able to manage that myself, thank you.’

February 2007

Mr Grrrrr Fart

Mr Grrrrr Fart

‘And your last name, Sir?’


‘Well, thank you very much, Mr Grrrrr Fart.’

There’s nothing more disconcerting than to enunciate something in perfect Queen’s English only to hear it horribly distorted when played back.

‘It’s Gra…Va…TT.’ I said, with a crisp t. 

‘Yes, Mr Grrrrr Fart, thank you very much.’


‘I’m sorry, Sir, what did you say?’

‘Gravatt, I said Gravatt.’

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘My name’s Gravatt, Simon Gravatt.’

A smile crept across his face. ‘Yes, Sir, 007. Very good, Sir. Like it. Very cool.’

I gave up. I walked out of the shop to a ‘Have a nice day, Mr Grrrrr Fart.’

New country, new identity. Back in England I was Simon Gravatt; Here I’m Mr Grrrrr Fart.

It’s even worse for my wife. Her name, Rosalind, is Shakespearian (as is Macbeth’s), but in its diminutive form of Ros it bemuses Americans, and so she becomes Rose Grrrr Fart. I honestly think this is why she spends so much time at work, where she uses her maiden name and her staff know that if they call her Rose, or spell her name with a ‘z’, they’ll lose their job.

It’s the a that’s the problem. An a before a t plunges any Anglo-American conversation into freefall incomprehension. Two and half years here and I still can’t order a glass of water. It’s why I drink so much coffee and beer. It’s because we, particularly us Public School types, slip an invisible r in between the a and the following consonant.

To an American ear, it sounds like, Mr Grrrrr Fart wants a gl Arse of War ter. And it makes no sense whatsoever. 

‘An Arse of war? An ass of war? Who are you calling an ass of war? Are you disrespecting our troops, Mr Grrrr Fart? I won’t have that kind of talk in here. We fly the flag. This is the greatest nation in the world. Where would you have been back in 1944 without our support? And where would you be now if we hadn’t saved the world from Saddam Hussein? Get out, we don’t need that kind of talk in here.’

I take refuge in my local Starbucks, where I’m always greeted as ‘Grande Cappucino’. I like that. I am what I drink. They asked me to complete a survey there last month. It was a scheme that randomly selected customers and included the incentive of a free drink. The frequency of my Starbucks visits meant that I was randomly selected so often that I must have skewed the research results. The questionnaire wasn’t designed for someone like me. For example, it asked how many times a month I go to Starbucks. I can’t count that high. Better if they had asked how many times an hour. When they come to analyse the results, they’re going to assume they’ve got a pocket of heavy drinkers in North Chicago, when in fact it’s a single heavy drinker randomly selected many times. 

I’ve recently noticed that I’m going to the restroom (loo) with increased frequency. The ads would have me believe that I might have prostate cancer; whereas the truth is my bladder is working overtime to empty itself of an unprecedented quantity of caffeinated water and frothy milk. My son has calculated that I’ve increased the turnover of a small Starbucks in Lincoln Park, Chicago, by over $5,000 in this calendar year. No wonder worldwide coffee sales are up. No wonder Mr Grrrrr Fart is feeling a little wired.

Talking of wired, there was an article the other month in Wired Magazine about people who are unable to recognise human faces. I must have a mild form of this because I’m terrible at remembering faces. Not only that, but I’ve got a face that strangers always think they’ve seen before. I would have thought my particular set of facial features – balding, big-nosed, yellow-toothed, coalescing somewhat unexpectedly into a not unattractive countenance – to be a little out of the ordinary. 

Only when Sir Paul McCartney refused to believe that we hadn’t met before, did I begin to accept that I am, in fact, Everyman. (I wonder if, as you become Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World by beating the existing Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, whether it might also be true that you become one of the most famous men in the world when one of the most famous men in the world thinks he knows you). 

It’s a terrible combination when, on the one hand, people think they’ve met you before and, on the other, you have no idea whether they have. And it’s even worse in America where everyone behaves as if they’re your best friend, even when they’re complete strangers.

‘Hey, Bud’. I was walking along the street minding my own business when a guy (everyone’s a guy here, even the gals) greeted me as if we had been drinking companions for the past twelve years. I’d never met him before. At least I don’t think I had. But I couldn’t be sure.

Being English, I can never quite pluck up the courage to initiate a friendly greeting when passing people in the street. I see them approaching. I know, as this is America, we’re going to exchange pleasantries. I want to be more social. I want to say ‘Hi’ or ‘Good Evening’ or ‘What Ho Chap’ first, but some part of me just can’t do it. As soon as we’re in range, I find myself instinctively glancing downwards at the ground to avoid the embarrassing possibility of eye contact with someone to whom I haven’t been introduced. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m mute until they say a cheery ‘Good Morning’ and then I find myself repeating what they said with as much enthusiasm as is possible for someone of Anglo-Saxon stock. But when they say ‘Hey Bud’, I can only grunt in reply. (I could never, ever say ‘Hey Bud’.)

But it’s when they say ‘Good morning Mr Grrrrrr Fart?’ that I know I must know them.

December 2006

Sub Loooootenant Buzzcut

Sub Loooootenant Buzzcut

‘Good afternoon Sir. Is that Mr Grrrrr Fart?’


‘Mr Grrrrr Fart, Sir, this is Sub-Loooootenant Buzzcut. I’m calling to advise that your son’s interview for a place at the Rickover Military Academy is scheduled for February 26th, nine hundred hours. Sharp. Thank you, Sir.’

And with that, the line went dead. Communication completed, phone call terminated.

Why I wondered, would Ros apply for our son and heir to be educated by the US Army? She can be hot on discipline and prefers his hair short, but sending him to the US military seems a little extreme. I can understand why she kept it from me. I’m a pacifist who hates regimentation and being ordered around. At school, unlike all my friends, I conscientiously objected to the CCF, preferring to pass my afternoons in the company of senile old ladies rather than dressed up as a soldier, marching endlessly around the School Quad with some repressed fascist barking instructions at me.

That kind of attitude doesn’t go down well in these parts. The other weekend someone knocked over a flower pot on our street. Such a petty act of vandalism, although sadly commonplace back home, is rare in America. So rare that it could well have been an accident. Although not according to the neighbour, who placed a large piece of white plyboard at the scene of the crime with the following inscription in big black bold marker pen.

‘This is how somebody honors our troops on Memorial Day!!’

At first, I thought this was something of a non sequitur. I didn’t immediately spot the link between a fallen flowerpot and the armed services. I then noticed the red, white and blue flowers on the pavement and realised it must have been intended as a floral tribute to those lost in the war. There is an argument to say that a felled flowerpot is a more poignant and elegant commemoration, but I wasn’t going to try this line on our rabidly patriotic neighbours.

I don’t get the ‘Honor our troops’ mantra. Politically it translates as ‘Send more and more of them to their deaths in the Middle East’. A primary case for continuing the war appears to that it would dishonour the troops to withdraw. By my book, the best way of honouring them would be to bring the poor bastards back while they’re still in one piece. But here the politicians tie themselves in terrible knots and contrive to continue to make the world a more dangerous place out of a misguided notion of honour.

Why should the troops be honoured anyway? I’m not a religious man, but I’m with Jesus when he said: “Blessed are the Peacemakers” (or was it the cheesemakers?). In my experience, troops tend to be uncouth yobs in uniform. Which is why I wasn’t best pleased to find that my wife wanted Jay to one day become General Grrrrr Fart.

Pacifist principles out the window, I went to war that evening with my wife.

She said she had no idea what I was on about. She asked if I had forgotten to take my medication that day. She told me in no uncertain terms that she hadn’t applied to send Jay to Rickover Military Academy.

When the card confirming the interview arrived by post a couple of days later, we assumed it must be a case of mistaken identity. (For an organisation that has ended up in Iraq when chasing a target in Afganistan, it seemed a credible explanation.) And so we ignored it.

Sometime later, we received notification that, after his successful interview, Jay would be permitted to sit the entrance exam. This got me thinking what kind of entrance exam an organisation that has George Bush as its Commander in Chief could possibly set.

I called Sub-Loooootenant Buzzcut to advise him that our son would not be joining their school. He was disappointed. “Are you sure? He gave such a good interview.” It occurred to me then we might not have the right guys tracking down Osama Bin Laden.

A few days later, Sub-Loooootenant Buzzcut was back on the phone to give us the date of Jay’s Military School examination. I tried to remind him of our conversation, but he was having none of it. “Fourteen hundred hours sharp. Make sure he’s there.”

Dogged persistence in the face of insurmountable odds or sheer incompetence? You decide.

A few weeks later, Jay received a letter informing him that he had scored 71% in an exam he hadn’t attended. This mark is below the high standard required by the Military.

I was impressed that Jay had got that much. I never got 71%. Even in those exams I attended. My highest ‘in absentia’ result was an ‘X’ in Biology O level. (Not many people have an ‘X’ at O level. Perhaps my proudest academic achievement. I have the rare distinction of a full set of O level grades – A, B, C, D, E, U and X).

Jay’s 71% in an exam he never sat has to be viewed in the context of American education, a system where (as our daughter has demonstrated) it’s possible to get 105%. In Mathematics. One hundred and five out of a hundred. Positive reinforcement takes precedence over mathematical integrity.

By comparison, Jay only got 100% in his end of year Maths exam, which although an impressive achievement is not quite what it seems as he got a couple of questions wrong. By my book, this is not 100%, but this being America, the marks were re-adjusted so that the top score counts as 100% and the other marks reassessed relative to that score.

Everyone’s a winner in America.

In England, where high exam scores are assumed to be a sign of lowering standards, everyone’s a loser.

When is 100% not 100%? a) When you win additional bonus points, b) When it’s the top score, c) When you buy doughnuts from your teacher.

Jay’s French class were offered an additional credit for every doughnut that they brought from the French department. At that time the wealthiest kid in class was trailing in the class averages with a low C, much to the concern of his parents who pretty much paid for him to buy a whole shop’s worth of doughnuts and catapult his class average to a high A grade.

High School examinations here, with more of an emphasis on rote learning rather than applied learning, are multiple-choice. Even English. (Was Hamlet a) mad, b) a psychopath, c) a loser, d) a romantic, e) on hallucinatory drugs?) I would have struggled to pull off my ‘U’ in America where even randomly answering the questions is statistically likely to guarantee a 25%. One American child we know who recently moved to the UK with an excellent academic record at a leading New England private school was traumatised to the point of catatonia when he scored 9% in his first exam.

No surprise, perhaps, that the brightest boy in Jay’s school is returning next year to his home in China because his parents feel that he will get a better education over there than here.

To graduate out of Middle School and be accepted into High School, every student here has to pass a test on the Constitution. Not just pass it, but get at least 90%. Being novices, we took this at face value and dedicated two weeks to test our son to destruction on the US constitution. While considering it to be a great way of ensuring that every American citizen has a good grounding in the cornerstone principles of their country, we were nonetheless daunted by the scale of the challenge of knowing every US senator and constitutional amendment. I also couldn’t understand how the less academic students ever managed to get out of Middle School. That is until the test came about.

Jay, fortified by intense cramming and parental pressure, passed. Unlike most of his fellow students. But they weren’t overly concerned, for the next day they were given the very same test. Not only that, but they had been given both the questions and the answers the day before. Those that failed on the second day were again given the answers to the questions they now knew they would be asked the following day. This pattern was repeated every day for a week until the school was able to announce that all its students had passed. Jay’s hard work had at least spared him the mind-numbing tedium of a Groundhog examination.

In America, failure is not only not an option; it’s also bloody difficult to pull off.

All things considered then, a rejection from Rickover Military Academy must surely rank as one of Jay’s finest achievements.

July 2007

Land of Plenty

Land of Plenty

‘I’ll have the steak, please. Medium rare please.’

‘Do you want baked potato or fries with that?’

‘Baked potato, please.’ Why can’t I be more authoritative, like Americans? Why do I have to punctuate every request with a ‘please’? Am I really so in thrall to this rather perfunctory waitress that I have to ask her permission for a baked potato?

‘Butter, sour cream or chive?’

‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’ What am I sorry about? I’m the customer here. I’m the king. (Not that imperial status holds much truck in this neck of the woods.)

‘Butter, sour cream or chive?’

‘Butter, please.’

‘Soup or salad?’

‘I wanted the steak’

‘Daaaaad’, my son interjected with that patronising tone of his that signals I’m an embarrassment to the family, and, more specifically, to him. ‘The steak comes with either soup or salad.’ This is the beginning of the end. It’s only a short step from being helped out with a restaurant order by your offspring to being spoon-fed in a bath chair by them. The writing’s already on the wall and I’m only forty-three.

‘Oh, I’m sorry’, I apologised to the waitress (I might as well have prostrated myself at her feet), ‘I’ll have the salad please.’

‘Cesar, Tossed Green, Spicy Pecan Asian, Gorgonzola Showered Iceberg, Wild Mushroom Mixed, Spinach, Tomato & Spinach, Insalate Caprese…’ Jesus Christ, how does she remember all of this? ‘….Carambra, Asian Noodle or Greek?’ Why does life have to be so complicated? All I wanted was a simple steak, but now I seem to be on a completely different trajectory.

‘He’ll have a Tricolore. You do Tricolore, don’t you?’ The waitress nodded.

‘You like Tricolore, dear.’ I smiled weakly at my wife, who, for all I knew, had just briefed the waitress to put me out of my misery with a double dose of arsenic. I was beginning to feel very old, very helpless and very stupid.

I sagged back in my chair, thinking my ordeal was over and the humiliation complete. But I was sadly mistaken. This was not the summit. The waitress was marching on relentlessly towards a much bigger and daunting peak. I had to choose a dressing.

‘Thousand Island, French, Mustard, Blue Cheese, Vinaigrette, Indigo Enchive…’ I was losing the will to live. ‘…Ranch, Louis, Green Goddess, Tahini, Italian, Afghan Black, Moroccan Gold.’ Why couldn’t this woman just leave me alone and go and get my steak? I can never remember which dressing I like and always end up with something unpalatable. Was it too late to ask for a soup instead, I wondered? But, confronted with a vision of the waitress methodically reciting all 57 flavours that Heinz ever made plus one or two others, I decided to stick with a course of least resistance.

In this land of plenty you need to know what you want.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Starbucks. Back home, my compatriots, like me, tend to order nothing more adventurous than a cappuccino. Occasionally, some flamboyant soul might ask for a latte. The range of options posted on the back wall is there mainly for decorative purposes. The promise of choice is an indulgence that the straight-laced Brit might like to contemplate as something he could take up in a wilder moment, while knowing, in fact, that it will never happen.

But on this side of the Atlantic the specificity of a Starbucks order is something to behold.

‘I’ll have a venti quad skinny marble macchiato with room and a ristretto demitasse americano with a shot of toffee nut. Both with legs.’

Any American worth their salt is extremely particular about their coffee order. Some will specify the temperature they want their milk to be, whether it should be one or two degrees above the norm of 70 degrees centigrade, others, like the man in front of me this morning, will ask for one less shot of vanilla in his unleaded vanilla bean latte. Amusingly, I then caught him asking how many shots it comes with, revealing himself to be a ‘one less shot’ guy come what may. It seems as if the choice itself is immaterial, the important thing is for it to sound impressive and to be able to order it assertively. The other day I was asked if I wanted my cappuccino dry or wet.

‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’

‘Would you like it dry or wet?’

‘I did order a grande cappuccino, didn’t I?’

‘Yes, sir’

‘Well, I’ll have it wet then.’ So confident was I that I wanted my coffee liquid and, therefore wet, that I didn’t even feel the need to subjugate myself with a ‘please’.

I could no more order a marble mocha macchiato, let alone drink one, than I can decipher what’s going on in a game of American football. What is it about the psyche of Americans that gives them the confidence to order the most absurd concoctions? Are they, by nature, more demanding, more self-centred and more contrary? And if so, why? Is it because having requested, and got, independence, they now believe the world is their oyster? Are they not plagued with the same self-doubt as their British brethren? Or, is it simply that, having being brought up in a culture of consumerism, they’ve become accustomed to having their fill? We, on the other hand, deep down still suffer the vestiges of rationing and feel it improper to ask for more? We remember what happened to Oliver.

An expedition to the grocery store (supermarket to you and me) over here involves more decisions in ninety minutes than our Anglo-Saxon ancestors had to make in a lifetime. I’m just not genetically programmed to know whether I want my orange juice pulp-free, with some pulp, with extreme levels of pulp, or with so much pulp that you could stand a spoon in it, let alone whether I want a variant that promises extra calcium, one with added vitamins, one made from blood-red oranges or a lite one with no sugar. Life was so much simpler lower down Maslow’s hierarchy. Then you could simply quench your thirst from the nearest river without worrying whether it contained benzene or whether your choice said the right thing about you. (With three thousand different brands of mineral water to choose from I lose sleep over worrying which is the right one for tall shy blokes who have lived on both sides of the Atlantic. I would hate to inadvertently send out a signal that says I’m a short extrovert who has never ventured out of the mid-West.) This self-actualisation lark is tiring, particularly over here where options are a God-given right. (I’ll tell you one thing though, Moses wouldn’t get away with his little stunt in twenty-first century America. ‘What? That’s it? Only ten? Where are the caveats and the lifestyle options? And just two tablets of stone? You’ve gotta be kidding Man. And get yourself a haircut.’

The other day Patty, our Ecuadorian au-pair, asked if I could get her some toothpaste. (I’ve no idea why someone with sparkling teeth should ask someone with enamel stubs to choose her toothpaste, but she did). In a dental hygiene aisle the size of an aircraft hanger, Jay (who, contravening all known precedent, had been persuaded to accompany me on my shopping excursion) summed up our dilemma, as we stood bewildered in front of serried rows of different toothpaste. ‘Whatever we get will make her think that we think she’s got a problem’, he said. Our choice could suggest that she has varying degrees of bad breath, discoloured teeth, gingivitis, unsightly stains, uneven surfaces, super sensitivity, vitamin deficiencies, foul-mouthedness or a whole host of unimaginably horrible defects. One hundred and sixty-eight different variants and I failed to spot a single simple ‘cleans your teeth and makes no judgement on your lifestyle’ option. I had asked her what brand she wanted, but she rather unhelpfully had requested the same as I get. I couldn’t possibly get her the ‘beyond all dental hope for Brits only, with quadruple dose of added whitener’ paste, let alone the ‘puts hairs on your chest’ variant that is my own particular preference.

In Switzerland the following week I found myself yet again buying toothpaste and decidedly under-whelmed by the paltry choice of three alternatives. I wondered how the Swiss could possibly survive in such a two-dimensional world with no apparent solution to bad breath, discoloured teeth, gingivitis and all the dental ails that afflict modern America. Then I noticed that they only had a couple of Orange Juice options and later that evening I was asked nothing more than I how I would like my steak cooked.

It struck me that America needs 168 different toothpastes to solve weird and wonderful dental problems because it has so many different product variants to cause those problems in the first place.

Life is exponentially more complicated here in the in the capital of consumerism.

It’s life cubed.

April 2006

Road Trip

Road Trip

Twenty-four years ago, I drove out of Chicago with my buddy (friend) Andrew. Today I’m making the return trip with a new companion at my side. The road trip is the authentic American rite of passage. Route 66, Easy Rider, this is a country that loves being on the road. No image evokes America more than a track of tarmac stretching as far as the eye can see into the Great Beyond. America has always been on the move. I’ve just read a book that argues the defining characteristic of the US of A is that it’s a country that lives in the future. The American Dream is not just wishful thinking; it’s the clarion call of a people driven by the prospect of what lies around the corner. The reason Americans work so hard is that they’re striving for a better future. The reason they tend to be so optimistic and positive is that they don’t want to delay their progress by getting stuck in the here and now. Theirs is a promised land, and they want to be damn sure they’re on their way, on the road to somewhere. 

0.0 miles: Turn ignition, check passengers are secure and set off towards our new world in Chicago.

0.5 miles: Cast glance at lettuce-chewing companion in passenger seat and wonder what kind of personal journey could have led to a road trip with a Guinea Pig. 

3.1 miles: Seven minutes on clock. Pass Starbucks. Rude not to stop. Big queue, as always. Finally depart thirty-eight minutes later clutching a couple of Grande Cappuccinos for road. Forty-five minutes to complete first 3.1 miles. Calculate an eight-and-a-half-day journey to Chicago at this rate. Drive out of Darien Starbucks. Lump in throat. Never like saying goodbye. 

15.0 miles: Exit Connecticut, enter New York State.

26.2 miles: Hit traffic jam. Hate traffic jams. Left London to escape traffic. 

30.1 miles: Cross Hudson River. Huge. Big threatening skies. Glance at menagerie in back. Hyperactive Hamster beside itself with excitement, Hamster never done exercise wheel at 60mph before. 

40.2 miles: Exit New York State, enter New Jersey. Traffic clears. Springsteen country. Everyone driving faster. Turn volume up and put foot on gas. Reminded of earlier road trip twenty-four years ago as foot-loose teenager. Go to run fingers through hair. Nothing there. Sink into balding middle-aged depression for next eleven miles.

70.8 miles: Join Route 80. Will be on Route 80 for next 726.9 miles (just short of length of British Isles). One road. Don’t do things by half over here.

75.5 miles: 72.4 miles since last Cappuccino. Too long.

76.0 miles: Stop at Hibernia Diner. Walk in (to another world). Place goes quiet. Everyone knows everyone. No-one knows me. Order white coffee. No sugar. Young waitress uncertain. Wary of creature from another planet. Goes to make coffee, but double-checks strange order. ‘You want lite coffee with no sugar?’ Remember ‘white’ coffee confuses Americans. Become concerned that may have inadvertently presented myself as a white supremacist. Drink coffee very quickly.

118.8 miles: Exit New Jersey, enter Pennsylvania. Slower.

140.4 miles: Undertake. Catch Guinea Pig’s eye. Guinea Pig unimpressed. Want to explain that everyone undertakes in America. Guinea Pig wouldn’t understand.

212.9 miles: Bleak. Late. Dark. Snowing. Sign says ‘Wild Pennsylvania’. Sign not joking.

220.3 miles: Another sign: ‘2250 feet, highest elevation on Route 80 this side of Mississippi’. All downhill from here.

223.2 miles: Snow freezes instantly on impact with windshield. Wonder what road must be like. Answer just around corner. Car stranded in thick snow on bank off verge. Do British thing and assume someone else will come to rescue. Look the other way. 

232.1 miles: Hungry. 

235.3 miles: Very hungry.

240.0 miles: Sign for ‘Twilight Diner’ at next exit. Overjoyed. Hugely hungry. 

240.2 miles: Get closer to Twilight Diner. 

240.3 miles: Rejoin Freeway.

244.7 miles: Contemplate eating Goldfish. Wonder if daughter would notice.

246.1 miles: Hallelujah. Gamble pays off. Perkins Restaurant and Diner. Different league from Twilight Diner. Free wireless Internet access. Read match-day reports from English Premiership Boxing Day fixtures. In a deserted diner in deepest Pennsylvania.

355.8 miles: Check into Holiday Inn Express with one Yorkshire Terrier, one Guinea Pig, one Hamster, two Goldfish at 10.46 pm. Sign behind Receptionist reads, ‘Maximum 3 pets’. Enter philosophical debate with Receptionist on what is a pet. Tell Receptionist that Goldfish would die if left in car overnight in sub-zero temperatures. Receptionist then tries to apply the $15 per pet surcharge on Goldfish. Yorkshire Terrier marks territory in corner of foyer.

355.8 miles: 10.59 pm. Guinea Pig, having been without water for journey, drinks for England when re-united with water bottle. Try hiding head under pillow to cut out noise of Guinea Pig’s incessant slurping. Squeak of hamster wheel starts up. Wonder if guests on other side of paper-thin wall have any idea what’s really going on.

355.8 miles: 7.30 am. Dog refuses to get in car. Dog prepared to spend rest of days in Holiday Inn Express, Brookville, Pennsylvania rather than one more minute on road. Dog does runner down Holiday Inn corridor. Give chase. Eventually corner dog behind ice machine. Drag dog into car.

377.6 miles: “Buckle up. Next million miles”. Weird sign

428.0 miles: Exit Pennsylvania, enter Ohio

446.3 miles: Praise the Lord. Starbucks. The first since Darien. 441.2 miles. 17 hours, 25 minutes. Buy six grande cappuccinos. Figure if the Goldfish don’t want theirs I’ll have them. Buy Dog some Beef Jerky. 

446.5 miles: Try Beef Jerky. Spontaneously spit it out. Would rather eat dog food. Dog eying Beef Jerky as if dangerous rattlesnake.

570.2 miles: Big landscape. Isolated clusters of trees. Distant white barns. Sheen of snow. 

580.9 miles: Trailer park

583.1 miles: So this is Ohio. This is where the American election takes place.

612.9 miles: Yet another trailer park. Wonder why anyone would choose to live in a trailer. Fair enough if you’re a Bedouin, but these trailers are going nowhere. No wheels. Only time they’ll ever move is when hit by hurricane. 

666 miles: Exit Ohio, enter Indiana. 666 miles on the clock, imposing Baptist Church looming high above.

696.2 miles: Big billboard. Good clean-cut Americans with brilliant white smiles. Slogan promises ’outstanding Christian entertainment’. In God’s Country. Banish bad blasphemous thoughts.

699.0 miles: Speed limit now 70 mph. Bit racy for America. With God on your side, you can travel a little faster.

653.9 miles: This adventure a mind-blowing experience for Goldfish. Never been out of Connecticut before. Wide-eyed. Never realised another world existed beyond goldfish bowl. Will soon have forgotten where they came from. Goldfish memory span no more than three seconds. Right now, Indiana is all they know.

797.7 miles: Turn off Route 80. Goodbye, my old friend.

810.5 miles: Beginning to get industrial & grubby. Must be getting close to new home. 

825.8 miles: Can see Chicago skyline. Cross bridge to a welcome to Chicago by Mayor Richard. M Daley. Must have passed into Illinois without noticing. Have also somehow passed into a different time zone. Chicago is in a bygone hour.

825.9 miles: Hit traffic jam. Begin to realise that condemned to a life of traffic jams. Unfortunate consequence of being married to a Big Conurbation Queen Bee.

834.0 miles: Arrive outside 2632 North Lakewood Drive at precisely 5.00 pm. Twenty-six hours on the road and thirty seconds within rendezvous time. Pleased as punch with punctuality. 

834.0 miles: Enter new home. Expect hero’s welcome. Unlike Scott, I made it alive. Also delivered five pets, not one dead. Family too busy to notice arrival. Then daughter sees Dog. Ecstatic welcome for pets. Driver still not seen. Perhaps they think pets made their own incredible journey. Trudge back to car and start to unload luggage. It’s a dog’s life.

January 2006



The bastards left me out in the run again last night. It’s no joke out here, I’m telling you. All manner of unspeakable danger comes out at nightfall. There’s been a spate of coyote attacks on small dogs in the locality. A coyote would have me for breakfast, no trouble. Even that bloody Yorkshire Terrier of theirs treads cautiously at night. I’ve seen them trying to get her to go out last thing at night and she digging her heels in. She might be a pain in the arse, but she’s not stupid that dog. Just imagine what it’s like for me stuck out here, if it’s so bad that a dog would prefer to cross its legs all night long than venture out for a quick pee. And I can’t run as she can. Not that running would do me much good in my two-foot run. I’ve got this lurid purple jelly mould for a summerhouse. (Yeah, I know, it’s embarrassing. I had no say in the matter. Guinea pigs tend not to get to choose). I hide in there, hoping against hope that I’ll survive.

Bright purple isn’t great if you want to be inconspicuous. I’m told coyotes are colour blind, but anything that can’t distinguish a purple monstrosity stuck out in the middle of a green lawn and glowing like nuclear fall-out in the moonlight would have to be certifiably blind. Anyway, it’s a bit of an irrelevance. They could smell my fear for a mile off. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was shitting myself all night long.

But the coyotes aren’t even the worst of it. It’s the snakes that give me the shivers. Black rat snakes, copperhead rattlesnakes and timber rattlesnakes, they’re all to be found in this neck of the woods. Up to eight feet long. Jesus fucking Christ, do you know what eight feet look like to an eleven-inch guinea pig? They can slime into anything. Just thinking about it is making me come all funny. The sheer horror of coming face-to-face with an eight-foot jet-black constrictor in my little purple jelly mould is just too much.

It’s amazing I survived. I was gnawing frantically on the bars of my run desperately trying to attract their attention as they were sitting there all la-di-da on their nice new patio set while night slowly fell. I even started squeaking, but they didn’t notice. The bastards. Too preoccupied with themselves and their overcooked barbecue food. Fucking cannibals, why they can’t eat grass I’ll never know.

I’ve no idea how I made it through the night. Not only was I spared the coyotes, the black rat snakes, the raccoons and the black bears that all inhabit this part of the world, but my heart held firm. We guinea pigs are prone to malfunctioning tickers. One shock too much and it’s goodnight Vienna. Because of this dodgy lineage, I had to have a heart test before coming out here to the States. Apparently, the sound of those 747 engines revving up is too much for some of my kind, and we’re inclined to keel over even before we’re out of London air space. Guinea pigs weren’t designed for the jet age. Wanting to minimise their liability for inadvertently killing a precious passenger, British Airways insisted I had a full medical before they would take me. I passed. And now I’ve got a certificate with my name in big, bold type. Splodge Gravatt, it reads. It was the proudest moment of my life. Not many guinea pigs have been honoured with a certificate.

I wish my Mum had still been around to see it. I think of her a lot. Guinea pigs aren’t supposed to think, but I do. There’s fuck all else to do. I contemplate the purpose of it all. Why are we here? What’s the point? All that existential stuff churns over in my head as I sit chewing grass outside my purple plastic house. I’m not sure I’ve got any of the answers, but then anyone who thinks they know it all probably doesn’t. People like that George Bush, who goes around proclaiming to be God’s instrument on earth. This is what I don’t get. If mankind considers itself to be so great, having travelled to the moon, discovered the theory of relativity and split the atom then how can it possibly justify voting that Texan half-wit to be one of its leaders. It just doesn’t compute. And they think guinea pigs are stupid.

I’ve done well for myself. That’s the other thing I find myself reflecting on as the sun beats down on my purple plastic bench. Me, I’m just guinea pig you can tell by the way I walk… sorry, I lost myself in some old Genesis lyrics for a minute. I was saying I’ve down well for myself. I came from a broken home. Not so much broken as ripped apart by a little shit of a Jack Russell. You grow up very quickly when you witness your Mum being torn to shreds in a South London backyard by an ugly inbred crew-cut canine with a Napoleon complex. I’ve never had much time for dogs after that trauma. (I have to tell you that I struggled to suppress a smile the other day when I heard a Darien Dachshund had been carried away in the claws of a hawk). There was nothing I could do about it, although that doesn’t alleviate the guilt. I really could do with some therapy. I need to know it wasn’t my fault. The trauma even put me in care for a few months. But funnily it was the making of me. They say you only really grow up when your parents die. I decided, there and then, to do something with my life. I determined to break out of the cycle of urban deprivation and violence that has plagued my family.

I found myself a nice place in Wandsworth before becoming the first of my family for many generations to cross the Atlantic. The boy’s done good, as they say. Actually, no-one’s quite sure whether I’m a boy or a girl, least of all me, but that’s a moot point. I’m an upwardly mobile guinea pig. Like Mr McGregor, at the end of Trainspotting, I chose a better life. I’ve now got my very own deluxe two-room cage complete with ensuite toilet facilities; a wall-mounted drinking unit; a bowl in which you can do all manner of things sure in the knowledge that it’ll always be cleaned up and returned full of food the next day; a summer run with a never-ending supply of grass; and a separate winter residence. Born out of wedlock into the jaws of poverty, I now live in the relative luxury of New World pastures. I’ve got three cages and, the curse of the nouveau-riche I know, but it’s more than my parents ever had, I even have two of those hideous lurid fall-out shelters. I’ve lost touch with my eighty-three siblings (we’re not as bad as rabbits, but my mother was a bit of a goer), but I’d be willing to wager that none of them have their own place, nor a certificate with their name in big, bold letters. As Mr McGregor says, you choose your future, and I chose a better life.

This what I reflect on, as I chew on the grass. I’ve done my evolutionary bit by improving my lot in life. My example has shown that it’s possible to improve yourself.

I’m the Christopher Columbus of the guinea pig world.

They don’t know what to make of me over here. Most of them think I’m a supersize hamster with an eating disorder. It’s quite degrading being confused for such runt of a rodent, but I remind myself that these people voted for George Bush and so they’re a shilling short of a five bob note. I mean do I look like the type that would expend energy on a wheel that’s going nowhere? That hamster of theirs gets on my nerves. I don’t know why they brought it over. I would have left it behind myself. Every bloody night it’s doing its exercises, swinging across the bars of its cage, like fucking Tarzan and then on to its squeaky wheel. One night the dimwit forgot for a brief moment it was on the wheel and stopped running. I nearly did my heart in, laughing. It was whisked around by the wheel before being ejected at high speed into the wall of its cage. I say cage, but in fact, it’s more a cheap moulded plastic cell. Whatever you think of the Yanks, you’ve got to admit that they’re better than the South Americans. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see the back of that Peruvian nanny. They eat guinea pigs south of the Equator, you know. I never liked the way she used to give me the evil eye. I’m sure she was sizing me up for her next Sunday roast. At least she would have been, had she been able to cook. We guinea pigs originate from South America. We escaped the bastards once and I, for one, want nothing to do with those Latinos.

The dictionary says I’m “a domesticated tailless South American cavy, originally raised for food. It no longer occurs in the wild and is typically kept as a pet or for laboratory purposes”. I don’t see why they have to go on about the lack of a tail. It’s not relevant. Humans aren’t described as tailless in the dictionary so why the fuck should we be? Why doesn’t it say ‘a domesticated trunkless South American cavy’ (whatever the fuck a cavy may be)? Or ‘domesticated hornless’? It doesn’t say that because it’s an utterly gratuitous feature, or lack of feature, that’s why. And anyway I’m not domesticated. Put me in their living room, and I’ll crap all over the place. And what’s with the laboratory purposes? You’re sadly mistaken if you think I’m going to sit there smoking forty a day and get injected with all manner of untested pharmaceuticals for the sake of science.

I’m getting myself in a state. I shouldn’t be writing this anyway. I’m a guinea pig for fuck’s sake. I’ve got nothing to say. All I want to do is eat grass.

Splodge Gravatt, 2003-2007. RIP

August 2005