...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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August 29, 2004 || 5:54 pm

Yesterday we did a bit more on Juanita's house. Putting up plywood ceilings and trims, and panelling out the bathroom with some pretty horrible masonite panels of fake tiling in beige. But compared to what she had before it is heavenly - easy to clean, non-leaking and new. The idea of the 'neck-down' project is that you don't use your head - ie, a short, intense burst of activity to fulfill the project without 'designing' or thinking too much about anything apart from functionality and fulfilling the client's needs. So although the ply ceilings look, to many of 'our' eyes, pretty funky being left unpainted in contrast to the white wood panelled walls in the main rooms - a bit like a sub-early Gehry effort - we know that Juanita will feel that they are unfinshed unless we paint them, so that's how it will be. So that's why we end up with fake tiles on the walls - they are cheap and practical and quick to put up.

When Juanita and her family came on Friday night to see the work, they really couldn't believe their eyes and were on the verge of tears. After touring the house and the new porches, we all joined hands in a circle at her request, while her sister improvised and recited a prayer to thank God for what we had done. We could have come from outer space as far as she was concerned, as she chanted 'I don't know why they have done this, I don't know where they come from, but whoever they may be, whatever their origins, we thank the Lord for their work, and the Lord bless them and their families wherever they may be.' And then they sang a gospel song in harmony, holding our hands tight.

Yesterday while we were working a group of schoolgirls came round to look at the work, and help out a little bit hammering and cutting wood. All totally friendly and open, curious at the work, and at us, and enthusiastic about joining in. 'I just love helping y'all!' one of them said.

Just after I left the site a huge thunderstorm broke over Greensboro which continued through the dusk. Jagged lightning and thunderclaps on a huge scale that I don't feel exists in Europe. The colour of the sky as lightning streaked across it was, I am afraid, just like in the movies.

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August 28, 2004 || 3:42 am

well, here I am at my landlady's computer in Greensboro, Alabama! suffice it to say, although I arrived in the States on Wednesday, it has been so completely whirlwind and busy that setting up my own internet account has been the last thing on my mind. I have been straight in at the deep end, being picked up and driven directly to the site of the term's first project, a week-long 'neck-down' project involving all this semester's Rural Studio students, remodelling the incredibly run-down house of a 79year old black lady named Juanita. After several hours hard work of hammering, drilling and sawing I finally got to go home to my new apartment!

Today the project was meant to finish, but of course there's still work to be done so we're back there tomorrow. But this evening Juanita and her family came by to be formally given the keys to her new front door, and their reaction to what we had done justified this programme absolutely. I will write more in due course about the project and post some pictures, which I can't wait to do. But today, after 12 solid hours in this heat and humidity building the house, I don't quite have the energy. Despite the fact that the day ended with a catfish fry down on site and, as it got dark, the most mosquito bites I have ever had in a one hour stretch of time.

So, I am here, living in an apartment out back of Mrs McCleskey's house, which she shares with four mad dogs, several parrots and a silent husband...

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August 20, 2004 || 10:25 am

I have organised a small apartment in Greensboro, the main town of Hale County where the Rural Studio is based. It's with Mrs McCleskey, who sounds very sweet and very Southern. My voice starts to relax into a drawl when I speak to her. In our first conversation, she explained the apartment (it's very convenient, there's a microwave, cable television - do you have a television?') and then moved onto her other domestic arrangements:

'Do you like pets? a'cause I've got a dog, a German Shepherd, and I do try to tell her, but she will want'a sniff you whenever you come in'a th house. She's awful friendly, and she will jus' want'a sniff anyone who comes in.'

Today in an email from her it emerges she actually has '4 dogs-only one of which stays inside. Sometimes they get rather noisy, so I hope you're prepared for a little aggravation.' I've never really been a dog person, preferring cats myself.

Other than that she seems to have been making totally unnecessary preparations for my arrival. Her husband came back from Atlanta with new sheets, and today she writes ' Do you have a laptop? I realized that there is nowhere to put your computer, so I purchased a small table for you, but it's probably too big for just a laptop. It's not a problem, because if you don't need it, I'll just put it in my house... Do you smoke? If you do, I've got a container outside for cigarette butts. My husband shampooed the carpet today, so we're ready for you. The furniture is very old-very good quality-but my husband's sisters had it in their room when they were young. It is at least 40-45 years old. I have wiped out all the drawers with sanitizer, so they are clean. The furniture needs refinishing, but it's ok. Hope all is well with you, and hope you have a good trip. Just please call me before you come to the house and let me know when you'll be here so I'll be sure to be at home. Cynthia McCleskey'

I can't wait.

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August 19, 2004 || 4:24 pm

The Rural Studio programme started yesterday...and I'm still here...but I now have an estimated time of departure. I'll only be a week late!

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August 18, 2004 || 2:49 pm

As preparation, I have been reading theAlabama Driver's Manual; learning about what do with school buses, box junctions, low speed limits and driving on the other side in general. The chapter on 'The Driver' epitomises something about American culture, when it includes sentences like:

"There is something about getting behind the wheel and in control of the power, speed and bulk of a car that reveals the type ofindividual you are. You can soon see whether you are inclined to be a bully, a thoughtless lawbreaker, and a self-centred lane-stealer. or whether you are reliable, courteous and sportsmanlike...Good driving attitudes and sound actions reflect mental and emotional maturity."

Somehow, that might have come out of a 1950s English textbook but would never be found in the UK of today. Though maybe we need it, given this report.

Yet despite this kindly advice, they still give a licence to every hormonally unbalanced 16 year old.

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August 16, 2004 || 5:52 pm

Just found someone else's bottom drawer - a very nice project from a Chicago-based webmaster. Deadpan, but great concept and fab execution.

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10:38 am

Apparently Alabama has the second highest rate of gun ownership in the US. But this has at least spawned one sporting heroine.

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August 13, 2004 || 9:29 pm

Last night I dreamt about going to Alabama. A typical anxiety dream, but it solved my main, big worry (what am I going to do for transport before I get my driving licence?) by having a train going around from town to town. It was mini, I had to bend down every time we went under a bridge.

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1:22 pm

Read Thoreau's Civil Disobedience this morning on the bus. Do any of our politicians/commentators read this stuff any more? a more relevant book for the times is hard to think of - and it's short and written in language anyone can understand. It hasn't aged a bit.

Meanwhile, having been highly bored by the prospect of the Olympics, reading this has got me cheering on at least one team. And more good news on the football front here.

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August 12, 2004 || 8:52 pm

The thing that was worst about the US embassy cattle-herding was that it discriminated against people like the woman who sat at the end of my row of seats, waiting patiently for several hours, whose story I overheard. She needed a visa, so she thought that the easiest way would be to go the embassy and ask for one. But of course, at the embassy there isn't an information desk. Anyone who doesn't have the internet, or who doesn't want to pay £1.30 a minute for their premium-rate phone information service (and you're then put on hold for 10 minutes) hasn't got a chance.

So, she had arrived at the embassy, seen a queue of people with signs saying 'Non-immigrant visas queue here' and joined it. At no point in that queue did anyone consider that there might be technologically-poor people there and make a simple statement to say 'Anyone who is here for a non-immigrant visa, you must have your forms ready and have paid £60 to our bank account.'

So this woman queued for 2 hours outside, had her bags checked at security, queued again, got a ticket number and paid £10 for the visa courier service, and sat down to wait her turn. Although you are meant to bring your appointment letter to be allowed in the building, no-one asked for it.

So after another hour of waiting, a gum-chewing girl comes round and tells the weary assembled crowd 'You must have all your forms ready before your number comes up, otherwise you'll hold it all up.' At which point the woman looks quizzical and asks the girl what forms.

The girl treated her like she was really stupid. She looked at her like you might look at a five year old. I mean, how could anyone possibly not know how to do these things, right? So after nearly four hours of waiting and spending £10 on a useless courier envelope, the woman had to leave and do it all over again.

Isn't it arrogant to consider that only stupid people don't phone ahead or use Google? Is it unreasonable to ask that an embassy might have a physically present person to give you the information you require, and take the time to understand your request?

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6:21 pm

Well, it was painful, I was in there from 8.30-1.15 (and which fool forgot to bring a book), they suspected me of having an Alabamian sweetheart who I was going to join, but they are going to let me in the country.

So I rewarded myself by shopping...what every girl needs in Alabama is definitely a gingham check skirt from Comme des Garcons bought at a knock-down price in the sale!

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12:46 am

Everyone here keeps asking me where Alabama is. So, to enlighten little Britain, here's a map.



Alabama is bordered by Mississipi, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. I'm going to be pretty slap bang in the middle of it, a little to the left.

Alabama was the heartland of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King came from here. (I've been reading up on the movement while on holiday...John Lewis's memoir 'Walking with the Wind')

Alabama covers 52,000 square miles and has a population of 4.5 million. By comparison the UK covers 94,000 square miles with a population of 60 million - 7 times as densely populated.

I don't know much else about Alabama, yet...

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August 11, 2004 || 9:50 pm
still not quite gone...

Visa hold-ups mean I'm still here...and going to be for some time (well, another 2 weeks) thus missing the start of term at the Rural Studio - very annoying. Last week I was on holiday with the boy on a narrowboat in the Midlands, and it was pretty strange to get a call on my mobile from the Deep South while gliding through beautiful English countryside.

Meanwhile, I'm doing horrifically boring things like archiving all my iphotos from the last 3 years onto CD, sorting out insurance, bills, tax returns, tidying my flat and making endless lists. Tomorrow I have to be at the US embassy for an interview to sort the terrorists from the innocent student visa-seekers at 8.30 am, and they say to allow four hours...and after that its shopping for mothballs to pack with all the clothes that I'm leaving here.

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