Recently, I set out on an undertaking to crisscross the United States, my home country, by Greyhound Bus. The impetus for this project was rooted in a curiosity about American cities, many of which had existed only in my imagination. My intention was to replace those myths with insights, and to come to some form of understanding of what it means to be American today. From the beginning, the intention was to share those impressions in the form of a documentary film. I started cutting short video essays combining footage and photos of each location, with the voice and words of one local resident. Accompanying the video essay is a written piece explaining how the interviewee fits into their city, and how the two of us came to meet.
Queer, African-American essayist James Baldwin wrote that the crime of his white countrymen is inherent in their innocence: not knowing and not wanting to know the truth about their country. Mile after Greyhound mile, my own fantasy of America, the innocence that Baldwin describes, broke down little by little.
And still, pulling into Columbus, Ohio, three days after Thanksgiving, I realized that I barely had a clue of who I was in relation to the country that had borne me. Everywhere I looked, Herzogian tableaus presented themselves: a three-legged deer drinking from the Olentangy River; a mural on an abandoned power plant of a rowboat full of 18th century Americans leading a drowning horse down a flooded street; plaster iron crosses, the remnants of the city’s German heritage, in older tenement buildings now haunted by gangly university students; an atypical fortress of a capital building designed without the usual dome.
And then there was the Wexner Center For The Arts on the Ohio State University campus. A former security guard had walked in the weekend before and had vandalized a few paintings before shooting himself in the head, leaving everyone frayed at the edges, as well as a continued media presence. I wondered whether my feelings of isolation were echoes of what he had felt before walking into that building.
Walking down High Street, I glanced in the window of a record store looking for something familiar. I saw stacks and rows of vinyls organized long ago. Johnny Go Records is 30 years of music and life all concentrated in one man standing behind the counter: Johnny Go, aka John Petric. An Ohioan who spent part of his childhood in the South, Western New York, and in Cleveland, Johnny is also a writer, who has been offering cantankerous and heartfelt critiques of music and the city of Columbus for three decades now.
When I walked in, Johnny was suspicious of me. We danced that initial dance — feeling each other out, gaining a sense of each others’ agenda — for about thirty minutes until I was convinced I’d need more time with him. I guess he had come around to me, too, because when I asked if I could come back the next day, he said sure. As long as it was after noon.
The next day, as a way of explaining his disgusted look when I’d walked into the shop, he revealed he’d thought I was a reporter from the New York Times. The way he said it, I knew I should have been offended, but it just made both of us laugh. Perhaps it was his ease in his own skin, a willingness to share his thoughts, and a belief that America was worth it, that changed my mood. He made Columbus seem good again, and for a moment that made America seem good, too.
Photos and film by the author.