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Sunday, July 23, 2006

SaneScientist in the Hood!

So there I am, in a city in the American Mid-West, in the middle of a heatwave. 105F and 70% humidity. So what is a Brit abroad to do? Why, go for a walk of course!

I had a few hours to kill after giving a talk and before being wined and dined again, so I decided to go and buy an international calling card before Mum and Dad went to bed and find a newspaper. I went down to the reception desk of the Institute where I was staying and explained what I wanted.
"You could drive uptown, there is a 7-11 about 2 miles from here"
I expained that I didn't have a car.
"Hmmm. Then why don't you walk down to the plaza downtown. There's a strip mall, that'll probably have what you want".
So off I went.

Fuck me, it was hot! Apparently, there is a relation of the Windchill factor called the Heat Index, that takes the actual temperature and factors in humidity etc to arrive at a relative temperature. Today it was between 110 and 115F (43 t0 46 in real money). Pretty warm for a pasty Brit with half a litre of water and no sunglasses.

Anyway, I swim downtown. About half a mile downhill. I am aware that means half a mile uphill on the way back.

Now the funny thing about being in a foreign country - even one that feels as familiar as the US - is that your "RADAR" is wonky. As I reach the strip mall, with its mixture of familiar signs (McDs, KFC etc) and unfamiliar shops, I start to feel like a fish out of water. I slowly become aware of the fact that I am the only white person visible. Not only that, there appear to be large numbers of young men standing on the street corners. Selling stuff. Let's just say that the entrepeneurial spirit was in full swing, practised by businessmen unfettered by the tyranny of the IRS or the FDA. Spotting a supermarket, I duck inside. Here, despite my wonky RADAR it becomes apparent that I am in the local equivalent of Nettos or Scumerfield, rather than Waitrose. Grabbing some root beer and a calling card, I decide to forgo the newspaper and get the hell out of Dodge. As I leave I am watched with great interest by the "street vendors".

Walking back up the hill, I start to question the wisdom of my decision. I'm sweating like an 8 year old in a Nike factory. About halfway back I have to stop and dig out the Root beer. Here I insert a cautionary note to all visitors to the US - Root beer is NOT ginger beer - and it is absolutely foul. Positively undrinkable unless it's over 100 degrees and you are losing water by the kilo. As I rested by the road, a police cruiser came past and slowed.

I couldn't believe it - in 29 years I have never been stopped by the Police (I was once told to "fuck off" by a police officer, but that's a different story). As he drove past, the cop and I made eye contact - he shook his head in disbelief and drove on.

Finally I make it back. Entering the Institute, I am aware that I look like I've been swimming. The (different) security guard looks up from his newspaper.
"Jeez boy, where in the hell you been?"
"The Plaza"
He went a sort of pale colour
"Jesus Christ! We don't send visitors down there, they'll be shot!"
It seems that only the heatwave saved me. Apparently, even crack dealers can't be arsed to shoot a foolish whiteboy in the midday heat.
"I'm going to have a word with the person that sent you that way - there's a news stand in the opposite direction that's closer and used by the students from the University dorms. And that cop should have known better than to leave you by the roadside there. He should have given you a lift".

Oh well, live and learn eh?



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