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Real America: A real-ass look at what the United States has been up to lately

All over the country, people pull out their phones and broadcast live Periscope video feeds to the world. Maybe it's because they're bored, or angry, or happy, or stoned. But they're here, for any damn reason they want, or maybe none at all.

Welcome to the first episode of

REAL AMERICA.

In this episode, we will be visiting

INDIANA,
CALIFORNIA,
MISSOURI,
NORTH CAROLINA,
TEXAS,
ILLINOIS,
the MISSOURI RIVER,
OREGON,
MASSACHUSETTS, and
KENTUCKY.

Real America is an attempt to see what the United States has been up to lately.

We will do this through Periscope, an app that allows anyone with a phone to broadcast a live video stream for any dang reason they want, or for no reason at all. My feeling is that there is no truer representation of America. Folks of all ages, genders, ethnicities, walks of life and geographic locations use Periscope. There might well be an old white lady in Nevada, and a bored Hispanic kid in a Queens high school, and a transgender woman in Texas. These people might be simply holding court on something, or answering live comments viewers are sending them. Maybe they're driving a car, taking a hike, sailing on a boat or taking enormous bong rips.

The filters of editing, production and access do not exist here. This is as real as we get.

To that end: These are not elaborations upon the truth. I have taken no creative license. In a couple of instances, I re-synced the audio to correspond more directly with comments, in order to compensate for delays in transmission, but that's it. I regard this as journalism.

I.
A FRIENDLY GUITAR-PLAYING GENTLEMAN.
INDIANA.
4:48 P.M.

One of the greatest, and very most important, features of Periscope is its map. You, the viewer, can browse live streams via a list if you really want to, but the purest way to do so is by pulling up a map and tapping on its little red dots, each of which represents a stream. One person, one dot. There is no favoritism by merit of a person's followers, or how many viewers they have, or how "important" their feed allegedly is or isn't.

At any given time, you're likely to see, I don't know, 50 live streams popping off across the continental United States. There was one little lonely dot in Indiana, so I chose it. The state's lone representative turned out to be a gentleman strumming a guitar, and this, for two reasons, turns out to be one of the most surprisingly personal experiences I have ever had on the Internet.

The first reason owes itself to the fact that a stream's viewer count is made public. Both the broadcaster and the viewer are well aware of how many people are tuned in at that moment. That number is "1." I am the only one here. God knows how long he's been strumming this guitar in the company of no one.

The second reason is that at this point, I'm still pretty new to Periscope, and there are things about it I don't know yet, like: I don't know I'm not anonymous. I've been all over YouTube, and I have Skyped and FaceTimed plenty, and so I think I understand Periscope. I really don't. I really, really don't.

"Jon, what's up?"

I bolt upright. Holy shit, was I not ready for that. He looked up and called me by name. The two seconds between hearing that and reasoning that my screen name must have slid up on his screen were two of the wildest seconds of my Internet life.

This is an important thing to learn about Periscope: Even though the host is the only one on camera, most of the live streams are fundamentally conversational. So we talk. He says he never picked up a guitar until a year ago, I tell him he sounds great for someone who's so new at it, and he tells me it isn't actually all that tough to learn. He asks me where I am, I tell him New York City, and he's extraordinarily impressed. He's amazed that someone from New York would ever bother to look up some stream in Indiana, which I get. I am from God's America, and I know full well what it's like to see a place like New York all over television and movies and in books and reason that that place is objectively better, and that the people there are surely more important.

That's a little too much to type on a phone keyboard, so I don't. After a few minutes, I sign off with:

hey good talking. have fun, i gotta jet

He squints.

"You got a jet? Wow!"

II.
STONED-AS-HELL WOMAN IN A PARKED CAR.
CALIFORNIA.
12:44 P.M.

What do people do on Periscope? That's a fair question, and the answer is that they get high as fuck.

One moment, this woman was minding her own business, sitting in her car, Periscoping while absolutely baked into the next dimension, interspersing messages of love with occasional bouts of, "WOOOOO! HAHA YEEEEAHHHH! HAAAA HA HA!" And when this sprinkler system (which is definitely not a fire hydrant) clicks on, it tears her entire world apart.

This is not an exaggeration: I estimate that one out of every 10 or 20 Periscopes I've seen have featured someone in some stage of the getting-high process. A lady in Saskatchewan broadcast five minutes of herself smoking a bowl and listening to Hendrix, and she never once spoke a word. A guy in Baltimore took a couple of enormous bong rips in his car and coughed it up so hard that he had to pop open his door and lean out. Some kid in Georgia smoked up while parked in his mom's driveway, walked to the front door and then stopped. Worry was all over his face. He asked his viewers whether he smelled like pot.

You'll notice that, in the absence of explicit permission, I'm not divulging any identities or showing any entire faces. There are several reasons for that, not the least of which is this: No snitching, ever.

III.
THE MOST RADICAL MAN ON THE PLANET.
MISSOURI.
4:28 P.M.

Which is not to say that I won't ask questions.

pipe

This gentleman, who says "my man" a lot and wears sunglasses indoors, is all about this pipe. He won't stop talking about it. Naturally, I am curious.

He has humiliated me in front of four other viewers, so I attempt to backtrack.

I slunk away in silence shortly thereafter.

And that is my story about meeting the coolest person in the entire world.

IV.
A GOOD PARTNER WHO ENJOYS A LAUGH NOW AND THEN.
NORTH CAROLINA.
11:50 A.M.

I am learning quickly that Periscope is a place full of wonders.

While his significant other is at work, a man is shampooing her living room carpet. As anyone who has shampooed a carpet understands, this is not quick work. The vacuum must be guided very slowly and with great deliberation, and I can think of no one more up to the task than this man.

He's doing this on a weekday morning as generic new-age music blasts from what seems to be one of those music-only stations one finds at the far corners of a satellite TV package's channel listings. He keeps his camera pointed toward the carpet as he cleans it. He seems so happy to be alive, so profoundly grateful to be here.

I'm one of about half a dozen viewers. Judging from the comments they're leaving, everyone else appears to be a friend or family member who is encouraging him and cheering him on. Sitting in on this communal endeavor without saying a word seemed especially voyeuristic and weird, so I decided to say something.

i will pray for your carpet

He got a pretty good laugh out of that. Just one of those big, easy, lazy-morning belly laughs. He thanked me, and then he was back to it.

V.
A HIGH SCHOOL KID WHO IS NOT INTERESTED IN YOUR BULLSHIT.
TEXAS.
11:26 A.M.

There's a consequence of Periscope you might have already guessed: There might well be people on video who certainly don't want to be on video. (That, incidentally, is the second of many reasons I'm not showing faces in detail.) The notion of knowing you're being broadcast to the world -- even if it's only, say, nine people you'll never meet -- is nonetheless one that a lot of folks just won't be into.

On one occasion, I found a Periscope of some kind of get together at someone's home. There were probably a dozen people there. The guy behind the phone was indiscriminately pointing the camera at peoples' faces, and as he did so, he explained what was happening: "This is Periscope! This is going live on the Internet, right now!"

As soon as people understood this, their faces turned to concrete. They grew visibly uncomfortable. Some turned their heads, and others would peace out entirely and head to the other end of the room. It was spectacular to witness: Within one minute flat, this unthinking goofus transformed what appeared to be a fun, lively get together into a stone-silent room of people who wouldn't say anything or even dare look at him. It took him so agonizingly long to get the point. Eventually, he offered a sheepish, "heh ... thought that was cool ..." and then cut the feed. And then my journey ended, and those people presumably had to endure the rest of the evening with some socially needy gizmo-gadgety whaddaya-ya-know try-hard dipshit.

I didn't record that one, which is just as well. Instead, we go now to a Texas high school classroom. As you can probably imagine, kids are even less discretionary when it comes to their cameras and who they point them at.

I remained tuned in at first because I found myself feeling unexpected nostalgia from the idle dumbness of classroom living. But as the videographer and host started aiming at students who clearly didn't want to be shown, I got uncomfortable. Even if there were only five people watching, even though Periscopes are automatically deleted after 24 hours, nobody deserves that nonsense if they don't want it.

So I was just about to leave the feed, but as I did, our cameraman made one pivot too many. He points it at the kid seated behind him, who promptly raises up and smacks the phone clean out of his hand.

smack

You can see the video chop up. You can see the feed bounce from portrait mode to landscape mode as the phone, in some apparent state of panic, tries to figure out what's going on. I like to think that he smacked that damn thing clear across the room.

VI.
A PHONE-FLUSH GENTLEMAN WHO LIKES TO KEEP IN TOUCH WITH INFORMANTS.
ILLINOIS.
12:25 P.M.

While journeying through Periscope, I set a few general guidelines for myself. One was to never try to interact with someone while that person is behind the wheel. I would guess that around one in four Periscopes are happening in cars, and often hosted by someone who's driving. That is a dumb thing to do, and I won't enable it, because I am everyone's fretful grandmother.

On this day in Chicago, a Periscoping gentleman parked his car, and I used the opportunity to scold him.

please be safe while operating a motor vehicle

He responded with a flurry of problematic insults that I will not publish here before turning the camera to his associate in the front passenger's side seat. This gentleman had two phones! Two!

snitches

He was quite proud of them. "One for my bitches and one for my snitches," he said. I wanted to ask him why he would maintain a line of communication with snitches, but then the car got moving again, and I felt that making my exit was the responsible thing to do.

VII.
SAND BOAT CAPTAIN.
MISSOURI RIVER.
11:24 A.M.

If there has ever been a more idyllic Periscope than this, I'd like to see it.

river

This man's job is to drive a barge carrying sand up and down the Missouri River all day. What you see above is time-lapsed; it actually moves pretty slowly. He's been at it for about 20 years, just standing there out on the water all by himself. This, I believe, is his first time on Periscope. Finally, other people get to see how he lives, even if those other people are a half-dozen total strangers strewn across the planet.

We ask him some questions. He doesn't really have any crazy stories to tell. Someone asks him why people want all that sand, and he's adamant about how little he knows about beyond his purview. "I have no idea where all this sand goes, or who needs it," he says. "No idea. No idea at all. I drop the sand off, people come buy it. I don't control that part."

He says the sand sells for $5 per ton. I can't imagine a ton of anything being so cheap, and I can't even begin to imagine how churning something so heavy upstream can be incentivized by so little money. But I am not here for the sand economy, I am here for the view.

moriver

VIII.
A WOMAN WITH A BLESSED LIFE.
OREGON.
4:10 P.M.

This nice lady was out in nature. She spotted some deer, and decided to share them with the world.

oregon

Those mountains. God damn.

Mountains as giant and terrible as those hardly have any use for the immortality a JPEG or .MP4 could give them, but they sure let us behold them a little better. And we've only been able to do these for a few years, in a few places. For every one of these beautiful scenes we have captured, there are countless we haven't. That there are so many out there might speak to how small we are and how little our dumb human asses are ever gonna see.

IX.
MASSACHUSETTS.
A MAN WITH $180 IN HIS BANK ACCOUNT.
9:09 P.M.

Weeks ago, a woman made headlines after she Periscoped herself driving while considerably drunk. I wanted real, and Periscope is real, and there is a lot that comes along with that. So I drew up another guideline for myself pretty early on: If, at any point while watching Periscope, I'm confident that the person is a danger to themselves or others, I'm calling the police.

This was not that. But it took me a little time to determine that this was not that.

casino

This man begins his live stream by announcing that he has about $180 in his bank account. He says he is driving to a nearby casino, where he intends to gamble it all at the blackjack table. "As you can tell, I'm a mess," he says. "Maybe I'll win. Maybe somewhere in this world, someone will throw me a bone. But I doubt it."

At this juncture, I'm thinking empathy more than I'm feeling it. I'm thinking, damn, I don't know what shit's gone wrong here, but I hope it turns around for him. I haven't been bothered to feel yet, really.

The stream title is attention-grabbing, so some people are tuning in. A couple tell him that this is a stupid idea. A few more think this shit is a riot, and they're goading him on. I say nothing, because he's driving, and also because I have nothing meaningful to say to him. Sure, I think it's a bad idea. Why would that matter to him?

After a few minutes of driving, he reasons that he can't gamble on an empty stomach, so he stops in somewhere to get some food. For most of his viewers, the drama seems to have been sucked out of the proceedings; what was once a man rambling about his insolvency is now a guy standing around wordlessly in a Taco Bell. Almost everyone leaves. While in line, he periodically looks down at his phone to check for any comments. There aren't any.

The circumstances required to trigger me emotionally don't make any sense. If it concerns a stranger, I might process it in a largely unfeeling way -- that's nice, of course, because I'm not sure I could continue to drag one foot in front of the other every morning if I didn't. The thing that triggers me into actually feeling is seemingly arbitrary. It's usually something very small. Some slight personal detail, some hint that the person loves something or someone, some tiny indignity -- there. There it is. That last one.

The man is at the soda fountain, and he does something most of us have done: He tries to dump the ice into his cup without keeping a hand on his cup.

cup2

He doesn't seem to care. He's a grown man, after all. He can take care of himself. However he lives, however difficult I think his life might be, he's better-trained to pilot that life than anyone on the planet. This is a spilled cup of goddamn ice. This is nothing. Why do I care?

I wanted to cry.

X.
MANY OF US, AT ONE POINT OR ANOTHER.
KENTUCKY.
12:57 P.M.

There are a lot of religious folks on Periscope. That shouldn't be a surprise. Mainstream religion in America is a fundamentally social thing, and it's about communing with others, and it's about professing our faith and sharing it with others.

This man's religious. He says God talks to him when he's in the bathroom, which I get, because it's the only room where we do a lot of sitting and not doing much.

This Periscope feels like half a sermon, and half a confessional. But he's confessing his feelings, not his sins. He's been out of work for a year, save for a couple of temp jobs that didn't pay much. His wife, who he loves, told him last night that she wants to end their marriage. He quotes her. He says she told him that she hated him.

"But you know what?" he says. "I'm letting go, and I'm letting God." He says that a few times. He says that as he thinks back to days when he was younger, homeless, and as he tells it, literally sleeping out in the cold. He imagines that she will probably keep the house. He doesn't have any of his own money, and he wonders whether, after fighting his way out of homelessness and starting a family, he might end up right back on the streets. He figures he will "let go and let God," because there is no choice in the matter but to.

His home phone rings. He ignores the first couple rings.

A commenter says he should go pick it up, and he does. "Hold on a minute, y'all."

This is a man with sorrows upon sorrows, with a mountain of problems that will stay a mountain no matter how big the boulders that roll down its face. This call isn't a cut-and-dry job offer, and even if it were, that would not solve his life. That is not where he would look for salvation in the first place.

This is a callback from a prospective employer whose position he recently applied for. They have his resume, they're interested, and they want him to come in for an interview. That does not solve things. That does make a grown man, the moment he hears the news, pull away, look toward us, and ...

job

There is surely a German word to describe what I am feeling. Or maybe there isn't. Maybe it's all moving too fast, and maybe it's all too new. That's fine. I don't need a word. I have the memory of a stranger and reliable wi-fi and a specific time and place working together to knock me in the gut when I least expected them to. This is Jon, the one with the cartoon tiger. You told me your name, and I hope you're okay.