I have mixed feelings about Wichita. On the one hand, Wichitans are the friendliest of people. There is spectacular weather. The burgers are delicious. And there is the Watermark Bookstore, run by the inimitable Beth Gorlay (It has a graffito owl, hand drawn by David Sedaris, in its basement – that alone should grant it tourist attraction status). But Wichita is pretty much bang in the middle of the whole of the US. And boy does it feel like it. Its land is broad and flat and endless, its buildings low and architecturally indifferent. No night train issues a more mournful cry. And nobody walks in Wichita – a slight disadvantage to the visiting author.
Of course I didn’t realise nobody walked until I tried it. I had been sitting in my hotel room mulling over the previous day’s driver’s suggestion that I shoot off a few rounds of a semi-automatic at the Gander Mountain Gun Academy, and thought I would go for a walk to determine whether my long-sightedness, cack-handedness, utter lack of coordination and terror of guns might prove a disadvantage.
It is always good to walk if you’re travelling, especially if your body clock is so confused that you’ve been wide awake in your room since 5am. But there are hitches. In Wichita it was the heat: 91 degrees by 10am, which meant that walking even a short distance felt like walking into the mouth of the kind of hairdryer required to set Dolly Parton’s wigs.
But it was also that there wasn’t actually very much to see. In some American towns the retail action goes on in malls on the outskirts of the city. In Wichita I could see little aside from a graphic design company (closed); a hairdresser (closed) and the suspicious glances of those driving by, wondering ‘why the Sam Hill is that weirdo WALKING?’. I went into one shop, but ran out because something that may have been a cockroach, but later turned out to be a cricket, ran across my foot. Then, across the road, I spied what looked like a giant second hand store.
You can tell a lot about a place by what they throw away. In my home town in England, a century-old house clearance store called Reeds has part furnished my last two homes, and can be relied upon to turn up antiques and aluminium stepladders alike, as well as the odd curio like a WW2 gas mask, or a Victorian invalid chair. It’s a great place to lose an hour or two.
The Value Store of Wichita was not that kind of store. It was, frankly, a little depressing; a vast yard sale of frayed fake-leather bags and electrical goods that had seen two decades’ use already. But the number of people sifting through it spoke of the poverty that exists in America’s heartland, the dependence of many families on such stores for children’s clothes, or pots and pans.
I stopped at the bookshelves, which had a surprisingly good selection, and found a copy of Liz Jensen’s The Ninth Life Of Louis Drax – a bargain at 99 cents. I rifled around in the bottom of my bag, a rattling cornucopia of loose change, and came up with a number of cents. Carefully (I still feel self-conscious dealing with foreign currency) I counted out 100 cents; a fifty, two 20 and a 10 cent piece, and queued in line at the checkout, trying not to look as much as an outsider as I felt.
As I reached the head of the queue I handed over my money. The woman stared at it blankly and looked up at me.
“Ma’am, what is this?”
I looked at the book cover. “A dollar?”
She kept looking.
“The.. the book cover says 99 cents.”
The woman gave me the kind of look that only a checkout operator can give. “Ma’am, this is not a dollar.”
And I realised with horror, that without my glasses, I had counted out and given her French money. I have travelled so much this year that my bag is a mass of ill-organised currency. I had seen the word cents, and looked no further.
I paid with a twenty dollar note, and ran from the shop. Only stopping when the checkout woman yelled: “Ma’am, you left your book.”
The good news is that The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is a very fine book indeed. And Watermark Books is a very fine bookstore. And today, in Milwaukee, I am mostly staying in my hotel room.