Last night I found myself in a bar that’s located just a block from our house in Troy, Montana. I’ve only been there a few times although it’s our local.
The bar has been there since 1914, on what’s known as Bar Street, a wide street that runs into dust and train tracks on one side. The freight trains that rush by are menacingly close, their horns a scream that shuts down all conversation.
Our friend Kat is visiting from Australia and we were at the bar with some friends to show her Troy nightlife, sitting outside in the heat surrounded by thick smoke from forest fires.
Kat took in the chainsaw carved motorbike, country music, group of Canadian bikers and the wooden sign in the bar which says: This is America: we drink beer, eat meat and speak fuckin’ English. Her mouth made that perfect little O that comics use to illustrate surprise.
The bar is not my scene [although I really dig the penis mural painted in tiny, delicate flowers on the back of the bathroom door], but it’s part of our community here, and Kat’s shock at seeing small-town, racist, conservative America makes me realize how far along the road to becoming American I am.
I’ve clung to being an Australian in America for many years, and clung to the right to ask, as Kat frequently has in her week here: “what is going on here, people? what even is this?”
But after three years in a row in the US and a citizenship ceremony, the split in my identity is happening and it does feel a little like being split in half, a painful but necessary division of cells.
Being American means accepting the shitshow that I see sometimes out my window or at the local bar.
I’m not usually a fan of country music, but a song that played at the bar last night by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow captures a special kind of American self-destruction and a mournful sentimentality that reminds me of life in Troy.
A kid at the high school introduced me to this song years ago, and I could see how he related to the internal fight described in the song: I was headed to church/I was off to drink you away.
In a wider view, I see lots of folks who are finding that the American dream doesn’t live up to its reputation – I met an upbeat guy from San Diego recently who retired from the oil business and told me that most guys in the business are miserable.
“I can see how they could be unhappy,” I responded and the guy emphasized “not just unhappy. MISERABLE.”
The group of Canadian bikies at the bar last night were as torn as I am about America: they kept asking us if we knew how lucky we were to live in such a beautiful place, but also how could we, how could we, be so impulsive and self-destructive to vote for Trump?
The bar we were at has something of that blend in its generous pours of alcohol. Last night I ordered doubles and regretted it instantly when I saw a full half bottle of vodka go into my glass, followed by a brief baptizing from the soda stream.
In 2003, when I made my first connection to the US through my friend Shawna, who was studying in Melbourne, Bush junior had just enraged the world by sending troops to Iraq, and Shawna copped a lot of anti-Americanism.
With an even more globally unpopular president in power now, Kat told me this week that when she said she was going to America, many of her Australian friends and family asked: “why would you go there?”
Since the glory days after the second world war, the US has slowly slid towards an international reputation as a country which readily foists its culture on other nations but is empty and broken inside.
Growing up, my dad resented the change in Australian English towards the American way – “creeping Americanisms,” he would growl when I used slang as a teenager.
I still don’t know if being American makes me less Australian – if I’m being diluted like my vodka last night wasn’t.
“Will they think you have an American accent when you get back?” our friend Al asked me last night.
“For sure,” I answered “I’ll get so much shit about it. Don’t you think I sound American?”
Al and his wife Kate giggled at me, warmly amused and so sure of my Australian identity.
Yesterday we took Kat and Luka rafting on the green and roiling Kootenai river and afterwards she confessed to me: “I had no idea what you meant by rafting. I thought maybe we were going to rope some logs together but I figured if you were bringing kids it was probably safe.”
I’m not sure how safe I’d feel about riding logs strung together on the Kootenai, but I’ve grown so accustomed to other things about living here I almost feel I’ll miss them –
The other night I called 911 when a domestic dispute dragged on past 2 am, and was able to get the police to the fight with some very basic directions which didn’t include any street names or house numbers.
We know the guy a bit from passing in the alley behind our house and I feel like I know the couple pretty well after listening to their screaming insults float through our open bedroom window all summer.
The guy seems nice, but fighting with his lady is part and parcel of their existence – is this the “slow hell” Kid Rock describes?
“You’re a crazy bitch!” the guy yelled on that night over the top of her shrill shrieks. Haakon, half asleep, rolled over and put his arm around me, holding tight.
“You’re not a crazy bitch,” he said, rather smugly I thought.
This morning, in a conversation with Kat and Haakon, Kat talked about seeing herself as a New Zealander, although she’s lived in Australia for 12 years. And Haakon said he thinks of himself as “just being me,” although he is a citizen of the US and Australia.
Last night, at the Home bar in Troy, Montana, I listened to Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow crooning “come back home,” and thought about returning home in a few weeks as an Australian – American and one of 325.7 million US citizens with contrasting and dividing identities like mine.