By Ian Puppe, Western University
I woke on November 9th, 2016, planning to leave London, Ontario for Nashville, Tennessee. I stumbled into the kitchen, made coffee and looked out the window. The sky was grey and overcast and spit a light rain. A man walked past with a solemn expression. Behind him a boy glanced back at a woman. She held a baby girl and wept beneath a hijab. I recognized them as a family who recently moved into the nearby subsidized housing apartments. They were Syrian refugees. Their demeanor spoke the results of the previous evening’s American election.
I was unsure if travelling under the circumstances was smart and decided to wait until the following morning to leave for the American Society for Ethnohistory meetings. I was worried about potential trouble as a Canadian “Snow Mexican” travelling alone. Thinking about the term drew my attention to the uneven terrain of identity politics in the United States. While some paranoid white Americans claimed persecution under Obama’s administration, I worried about being identified as “Mexican” enough an outsider that it might make me a target. But the joke obscures the incessant dread of lived experience for those who are of Mexican descent living in the U.S. Perhaps I was experiencing the “Liberal hysteria” that some Republicans and conservatives in the U.S. claimed to be rampant among “Lefties” after a long and divisive election campaign? The prevalence of gun violence in the U.S. has many Canadians spooked about the proliferation of arms, myself included. I did think about the possibility that hand guns would become more common in American society immediately after the election. But I tried to keep in mind that my fears were exaggerated by the feeling that America was somehow a very different place now. Every day hundreds of millions of people live their lives without major incident in the places I would be passing through. I was more likely to have car trouble than to have any other issues. To pass time during the drive I thought about puns on the words Canadian and snowflake.
I was sincerely concerned though that after a twelve hour drive alone I might get out of the car and say the wrong thing to the wrong person. As an anthropologist many of my political positions can be interpreted as “radical,” though I am avowedly non-violent. While the similarities abound between Canada and the U.S. both culturally and politically, in my experience many Americans do not take kindly to interloping foreigners. But, I arrived in an eerily familiar, friendly, Nashville. Driving through Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and rural Tennessee, the landscape left me feeling little had changed. Often debated on National Public Radio, gaping rifts left throughout the country by seismic shifts represented in the election results were invisible through car windows.
I pulled downtown after dark and after doing three laps of the block trying to find a place to park I checked into the hostel. On a tight budget as a precariously placed post-doctorate fellow I was left with few choices for accommodations in America’s most expensive tourist city. The young person working the desk at the hostel showed me the shared space on the main floor and then I was placed in a room with six creaky metal bunks and a cot. After meeting friends at the conference hotel I went back to bed at the hostel exhausted. The room was loud with so many occupants and my rest was not so restful. But it was an uneventful day. I heard no racist slurs or misogynistic taunts. If anything people seemed more aware in line at gas stations, bars and restaurants than I had seen before on my trips south. But they also seemed more cautious, even suspicious of one another. While the undercurrent of intense frustration and political partisanship had usually been more obvious to me in the U.S. than it was in Canada something about the election results had changed the atmosphere. Now it was overtly tense. Even the excitement in rural areas felt uneasy.
The next morning I participated in two stimulating panels, ate a tasty lunch with dear friends and met some new ones. It was a productive day and I expected the same on Saturday. The evening led three of us towards the raucous tones and crowded sidewalks of Nashville’s legendary Broadway strip. We ordered drinks and listened to bands run through renditions of New Country tunes and slay Bluegrass and Country classics like Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The only mention of the election that stood out that Friday night was one band leader’s lament, “No matter what side of this you’re on this isn’t what you were hoping for.”
As the night wound down I looked forward to a good night’s sleep. Stepping into the dorm I felt relieved to be alone. Travelling alone can be nerve-racking and conferences tend to produce an isolated social bubble but staying in a roomful of strangers felt daunting this evening. I crawled onto my bunk and fell asleep only to be awakened by my room mates who had been out drinking together. They threw open the door, switched on the light and a few wrestled before they noticed me. The last three to enter were so inebriated it took two to hold up the third. Cresting the threshold they pushed their third into the center of the room. He flopped down dangerously before finding his cot. I waited for them to quiet down some and then went to the washroom. When I came back two of them were leaning over the edges of their bunks hiccupping and belching.
I took my things and walked the two blocks uphill to the parking garage across from the Cumberland River on the Gay St. Connection beneath Nashville City Hall. I pulled up my sleeping bag around 1:30am closing my eyes. I woke again not long after that to unnerving sounds of angry shouting and slamming car doors.
I looked out the window from the back seat and saw a young, muscular white man wearing no shirt screaming in another man’s face. The drunken aggressor pushed and even punched him while the other man tried to talk him down. A few stragglers wandered through. He challenged them to fight. No one took him up on his offer. Two young women and another young man in the same party kept their distance hiding behind cars. Not wanting to become involved I laid down, unintentionally falling asleep.
Moments later I heard more screaming and the tone demanded attention. The shirtless man was holding a pistol to his own head. Stumbling drunkenly he screamed as loudly as he could, “I’ll do it! Fuck Off! My Fucking Girlfriend! I lost my Girlfriend!”
His tall friend took the initiative as the shirtless man stumbled grabbing the pistol. It went off hitting the concrete floor with a loud pop and a puff of chipped stone. The gun dropped and the tall man scooped it up and tossed it over a ledge. I ducked down again terrified eventually falling into a dream.
I woke again to a slamming car door and saw that dawn had come. The group was gone. Their car was gone. There was no sign of trouble but a scuff on the ground. I packed my things, dressed, stopped to check in with my friends and then I left for home, gun-shy.