American service industry workers

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned how much I love the people working within the US service industry? Theirs is a hard and ungrateful job, as shown repeatedly on Not Always Right. Everytime I visit this country I am fascinated by the experience of having people behind a counter or at a bar or restaurant actually meet my eyes, smile, ask me how my day has been and reply cheerfully that their day is going great, thank you very much. I know, I know, it’s all superficial and yes, I know that the statistical likelihood of their day actually going great is very small, as shown repeatedly on notalwaysright. But it’s still very refreshing. I mean, disinterest and impoliteness is superficial too. In Sweden, a normal transaction involves “was that it?” and “do you want a bag?” and no eye contact. It feels normal to me when I’m at home, but it’s always jarring when I’ve recently been to the US. I always end up behaving like a cheerful idiot, at which point the poor woman behind the counter is looking slightly terrified that I’m a maniac.

Anyway, I went to this shop yesterday, and was served by this teenage girl who looked completely expressionless the entire time, moved with the speed of a sloth and didn’t make eye contact the entire transaction. There was a lot of wrapping to do, so I stood there, fascinated, as she very slowly went through the moves. Now, this didn’t bother me at all. I am, after all, Swedish, and I’ve worked behind a counter too, so I’ve both experienced and shown apathy. But then, when she had almost finished wrapping everything, she suddenly looked up and said:

“Did you use to listen to Amy Winehouse?”
“Eh”, I said. “I guess? Sometime?”
“I saw this documentary about her. It’s on Netflix.”
“How… nice?” I said, suddenly feeling almost Brittish in my uncomfortable politeness.
At this point she had finished wrapping my things, and bagged them. But she just let it sit there on the counter while making eye contact with me.
“And was it … a good documentary?” I said.
“Well, yes. I mean, it wasn’t wow-good or the best thing I’ve ever seen-good. But it was interesting. So sad, don’t you think, with all that talent?”
“Er, yes”, I agreed quickly, and she nodded a little sadly and handed me the bag.

See what I mean? Even the apathetic teenagers behind the counters are interesting in this country.


It’s Saturday, and I’m having brunch in Georgetown. Georgetown is a part of DC that’s so expensive that it looks like a small town in a movie or, say, Gilmore Girls. Every store either sells antiques or expensive clothes brands. All the houses are small and charming, some in bricks, some in wood, many painted in cute pastel colours, and all the streets are shaded by perfect trees of the kind otherwise mostly seen in unrealistic architectura design proposals. The street lamps – charming, of course – has large flower baskets in splendid lilac colours. The interior design stores are so expensive that normal people have to chose between a lamp and rent, but don’t try to find them through google. If you google home decor or interior design in Georgetown you’ll not be given a list of stores. You’ll be given a list of interior designers who’s just waiting to “help you realize your dreams”.

It is, as I’m sure you can imagine, the perfect place for brunch, except that this part of the town is so rich that the waiter came as close to being unpleasent and indifferent as any American service worker can. By now I’ve been in the US for so long that I automatically said “thanks”, “thank you”, “how’s your day going?”, “thanks” about a million times before I noticed that he was barely responding. I felt like I was trying to make a French waiter like me, and we all know how meaningful that is. Anyway. I got my revenge by only tipping him 15 percent. Moahahah. In your face. That will teach him!

Afterwards I sauntered through residential streets where all the car looked so black and shiny that they probably came with their own Secret Service agent. This being DC, they very possibly might have. A paranthesis: a friend told me that he was once having dinner at this restaurant when he suddenly found himself surrounded by older white men. And they in turn was accompanied by men with guns. My friend was new in DC at the time, so his immediate thought was that he was in the middle of some sort of mafia meeting.

And no. I will not go there and make the obvious joke on the similarities/difference between the mafia and politicians. I’ll leave that to you.

The Big Hunt

No, the title of this post is not about my dating. The Big Hunt is this great divey bar on Connecticut Ave. They have three floors, an outdoor patio where you can smoke, and an underground comedy club in the basement. Long after I have forgotten all my dates in the DC, I will always remember this evening, and most of all, I will always remember Phil. We might never meet again, but we’ll always have The Big Hunt.

Anyway. The underground comedy club looked exactly as you would expect an underground comedy club in the basement of a divey bar to look. There was a bar, of course, a few rows of cheap folding chairs, a microphone with terrible, slightly too loud sound and a brick wall in the background. The comedians themselves were of mixed quality: some great, some not so good, and several hilarious moments. And then there was Phil.

Phil arrived early and sat at the front row long before all the other seats were taken. Who does that in a stand up comedy show? The answer: Phil. Phil does that. But he looked so cute and innocent that I just thought it was because of some sort of naive ignorance. He was there with his old childhood friend, who will forever be known in my memory as Poor Jim. Poor Jim looked like a 45 year old ex-marine. Phil looked like a pre-school teacher. He had thick, boyish hair, sneakers and shorts of the extremely nerdy kind.

Well, you know how it is at stand up shows. Some poor sucker has to sit in the front, or someone makes the mistakes of making eye contact with the comedian, and then they have to answer questions and good heartedly endure being made fun of. The kind of jokes that are inevitably followed by the comedian saying things like “No, I’m just messing with you, you’re a great sport” while the rest of the audience feel intensively grateful that it wasn’t them. Let’s take another, harmless example from the evening. Jen made the mistake of applying lip gloss and thereby drawing the comedians attention to her, so in due course we knew that she worked as a realtor and practiced yoga. And that was pretty much it. A completely normal interaction. Allright. Back to Phil.

The comedian is right in the middle of a divorce joke, and turns to Phil and Poor Jim and asks off-handedly: “So are you guys single, dating, whatever?” He clearly expects to launch right on towards his joke. But no.
Phil (loud and happy): “We’re exploring!”
Poor Jims stone face got if possibly more stone facey.
“You’re together?” the comedian asks disbelievingly. Poor Jim does not look like a man who “explores” things with other men. Phil looks like he’s still living with his mother.
“No, no”, says Phil, still amazingly happy. “We’re straight.”
The comedian eventually gets back to his joke, but as you can imagine he cannot let this go. “Exploring? Exploring?! What the fuck does that even mean?”
At this point I’m still feeling bad about Phil. I thought he just accidently said some weird thing in the heat of the moment. But I underestimated Phil.
“So I’m dating this girl”, he tells alls of us in his loud, happy voice. Me, the comedian and the rest of the audience are of course wondering why the hell Phil is telling us this.
Phil: “And she used to be a sex worker.”
The comedian looks like he lost control over this joke.
Phil: “So she’s teaching me things.”
Comedian: “You’re dating a sex worker?! And she’s teaching you things?!”
Phil: “Yeah. So I’m exploring!”

The comedian made brave attempts the rest of the evening, but no matter what he did he could never really reach Phil’s levels. Next time he turned in stead to a 25 year old who worked in fund raising. Safe, comfortable jokes in DC.

PS. By a happy coincidence I took a photo of the stage and the brick wall, so Phil’s shorts is immportalized in a photo. Notice all the empty chairs? That’s where all the smart people don’t sit.

Power and resistance in the US

Few things illustrate the parallell history of the US as clearly as visiting the National Portrait Gallery’s presidential exhibition the day after a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. At the second, you walk through generations of oppression and resistance; in the first, you walk through the generations of older white men that’s partly responsible for it.

It is a crazy collection of portraits. The absolute majority of the white men looks like the bad guy in a political thrillers. “I wouldn’t trust that guy at all”, I whispered to my date. Considering yesterday’s visit, that also feels like an empirically sound conclusion. In one portrait a group of white men, several of them former presidents, are laughing hysterically together. “You know, nothing good has ever come from so many old white men having so much fun”, I said. “They had probably just voted to restrict the voting rights of black people or limit abortion for women.” My date did not have a comment on this, but I’, sure he agreed with me.

Another reflection: whatever happened with the tradition to make busts? I’m guessing that a certain group and class of people still have portraite paintings made of themselves, but do anyone make busts anymore? I decided on the spot to become really rich and have like twenty busts of myself made, and then give them to all my friends and family for Christmas and birthday presents. I told my date about this too, and again, for some reason, he didn’t seem to have anything to say. This showed a lamentable lack of energy and enthusiasm. I removed him from the list of people who would be getting a bust when I was rich and famous.

It quickly became very clear that democratic presidents were a little more willing to experiment than republican ones. This was especially clear with the crazy portrait of Bill Clinton, placed as it was between two generations of very, very traditional Bush:s. Clintons was much crazier than the sight of Obama in a green bush, and much more strange than the modern and colourful portrait of John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy one was possibly my favourite, or the portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt. For some reason the painter was obsessed with his hands and painted like three pairs of them. One pair was even smoking.

I am afraid I did not like the portrait of Obama. I wanted something more powerful. Possibly something like a fuck you-sign.

“This building will sing for all of us”: The National Museum for African American History and Culture

It took almost a hundred year to create The National Museum for African American History and Culture. The initatives began in 1915, when a group of veterans from the Union Army gathered for a memorial ceremony and parade. Frustrated by the racial discrimination they were still facing, they decided to form a committee for a memorial monument over African Amerian achievements and accomplishments. And they did have som success: In 1929 president Hoover appointed a commission for “a National Memorial Building showcasing African American achievements in arts and sciences”. And then nothing happen. For decades all attempts to get funding from congress fell through. Despite renewed efforts in the 70ies, no bill ever mananged to get enough support to pass. Funding was always the issue, or the excuse. It wasn’t until 2003 that congress approved of an expense of 17 million dollars for the planning of the museum.

Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup won the design competition and set out to create it. The architecture is inspired from all of Africa, and from the rich history of African American culture all over the US, “reflecting optimism, spirituality, and joy, but also acknowledging and incorporating the ‘dark corners'”, as the instructions for the design competition stated it. The corona is inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. By wrapping the entire building in an ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice, Adjaye pays homage to the intricate ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere. The openness to light is symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogue about race and help promote reconciliation and healing. From the topmost corona, the view reaches ever upward, reminding visitors the Museum is an inspiration, open to all as a place of meaning, memory, reflection, laughter, and hope. This design is also architecturally practical and sustainable. This building is the first museum on the Mall designed to sustainability standards, serving as the Smithsonian’s ‘Green Flag.’ In 2018, the museum was officially awarded LEED Gold Certification. All this according to the webpage of the museum.

Mixed facts: Oprah Winfrey donated som 21 millions to the project. The museum opened in september 2016. Last year, some 2.4 million visitors passed through its doors. This year, by August, it had had 1.7 million visitors.

“We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth” – John Hope Franklin
The historical exhibition begins three floors or some twenty metres underground. In the elevator the years are counting down as you descend, as you travel backward in town towards the 15th century and the start of modern slavery and the North Atlantic slave trade. This was the first time in history that slavery was permanent, inherited and linked to the colour of your skin. At this point, the exhibition follows to parallell threads: changes within European nations that led to them to slave trade, and how different African kingdoms and cultures resisted it. It tells, amongst others, the story of the brillian queen Nzinga, and about the Igbo-people, who was particularly intense in their resistance. Many of them committed suicide rather than live in slavery, and they called it “to fly home.”

“If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it” – Elizabeth Freeman
One of the things I appreciated most about all the exhibitions was the intense focus on agency and resistance: it did tell the unvarnished truth, but that story also contains the many and varied strategies adopted by African American individuals, organizations and communities. One of them was Elizabeth Freeman, the first person to file and win a freedom suit in Massachussets. Her suit, Brom and Beth vs. Ashley in 1718, effectively ended slavery in the state.

“I am pleased that God made my skin black, but I whish He had made in thicker” – Curt Flood
After three floors of chronological history, the museum instead chooses a thematic approach to showcase African American achievements within music, entertainment, the stage and sport.