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You Don't Know America

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(Photo: chrupka/Shutterstock)

You Don’t Know America

• February 03, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: chrupka/Shutterstock)

And neither do we. Introducing our latest special report.

There are two Americas, if you haven’t heard. You might’ve realized it during that whole Duck Dynasty thing. Or you might’ve read what David Simon, the creator of The Wire, which is a show also about two Americas, wrote. There are blue states, and there are red states. There are blue people, and there are red people. And there are brown, black, and white people. There are rich people, and there are not-rich people. There’s the Mason-Dixon Line, or there’s the Mississippi River.

Whatever view you decide to take, it’s easy to see the United States as this big brittle thing that’s bound to break into two. Or maybe it’s already broken—and some geography is all that’s left to hold it together. But there’s more than one way to see America as split apart. And if you keep looking from different vantage points, it keeps breaking and breaking and breaking. Until you realize there aren’t really only two Americas.

There are too many Americas for anyone to ever count.

SOMEWHERE INTO MY FIFTH bite of a lamb testicle that became obvious.

Quick story, I promise: I am a straight, white male who grew up in an upper-middle-class family on Long Island. I went to an all-male Catholic high school, and then I went to what was once an all-male Catholic college. All of that limits my perspective; it’s a perspective, sure, just about the least unique one possible.

After living in New York for two years post-college, I took a job in New Mexico and decided to drive from Long Island to Santa Fe with one of my closest friends, who you’d almost be correct in describing the same way I described myself—except he went to a public high school, with girls. We made our way through the South, spent July 4 in Memphis, and ate at Gus’s Fried Chicken—because that’s what you do in Memphis. We watched fireworks on the other side of a fenced-off portion of the banks of the Mississippi. And we went out on Beale Street. It was the best part of the trip.

For the rest of the month, we’ll be publishing multiple stories every day about the different faces, back alleys, and open spaces of America.

The next night, we went to a steakhouse in Oklahoma City. George Bush ate there once, and they named a cut of meat after him. Almost everyone—men, women, and children—wore cowboy hats, and our waiter suggested we try the lamb fries as an appetizer. We did because, hey, Oklahoma City! And because there was no description on the menu. About halfway through the plate, we figured out that we were eating fried slivers of lamb testicles. We did not finish the plate. But we wrapped up our meals around 9 p.m. and were the last people to leave the restaurant. All the employees went home, and we ended up stranded outside, waiting for a cab for almost an hour. Traffic lights shut off. A dog ran across the street at one point. There was an actual tumbleweed. One car drove by, slowed down in front of us, stopped for a minute, and then drove away. The sheriff also drove by, but didn’t say a word. Eventually, our cab came and we went out to an empty bar in downtown Oklahoma City on a Thursday night.

We didn’t fit in—in either place. In Memphis, two white boys on Beale Street stick out. In Oklahoma City, everyone was white, but we didn’t have anything on our heads. We might’ve vaguely looked like everyone in the restaurant, but Memphis was the only place we really felt welcome.

We drove to Santa Fe the next day, talking about the night before. We were still in America—but what did that even mean?

SO, YES. I’M INTRODUCING our next special report: “Elitist, East-Coast, White Male Privilege: A Paean to a Bygone Era.” No, I’m not doing that. I’m actually introducing our real next package of stories: “You Don’t Know America.” Because, really, you don’t. It’s not because I don’t; it’s because no one does. Seriously, try it: What is America?

I’m waiting.

Still waiting.

And no, that’s the wrong answer—because there’s no right one.

For example, the most popular sports team in the U.S., according to at least one sociologist I’ve spoken to? The Mexican National Soccer Team. At the World Cup this summer, it’ll literally be more American to root for Mexico than to root for the U.S. And since you’re reading this, on the Internet, let me ask: Are you reading it with your AOL Dial-Up service that you maybe got from a CD? Because there are 2.5 million people who still do that. What about TV, the other screen? It’s the Golden Age of Television and watching shows is an event now, right? I’m gonna guess that you were one of the 10.3 million people to watch the Breaking Bad finale? Which, congratulations, you have something in common with just three percent of America. May you go wash your hands in celebration with your indoor plumbing—something around two million people in this country do not have.

America may be politically charged and polarized, and that might seem like the thing—people who want change and people who don’t—that makes America America today, but 93 million people didn’t even vote! In a place this big, it’s much more complex than that.

For the rest of the month, we’ll be publishing multiple stories every day about the different faces, back alleys, and open spaces of America. (You’ll be able to find them all here.) We’ll be talking about things that are stereotypically American (bankers, folk singers, race, and Judge Judy)—along with things that are not (House Hunters, ghosts, and BDSM). In all, we’ll be publishing over 40 pieces that touch on the things we don’t know about the place we live. And hopefully, by the end, we’ll have figured something out.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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