Zach Zerr Photography


America Below the Surface

The day is slow and hot, Saturday afternoon defines the peak of the weekend. The sun beats down on the dry Colorado grassland. What was once rolling slopes, miles of nothing, has now been covered by the human footprint. Houses and apartment buildings go on for miles, none high enough to genuinely obstruct the view one has looking West at the mountains, but they seem to continue endlessly all the same.

It is hard to say the average American without cutting out half of the country in one way or another, but a good portion of the United States enjoy their weekends off. As the work week grinds to a halt for these Americans the opportunity to escape for a couple days is something most of them live for. That 48 hours of true freedom sought by so many trapped doing mind-numbing and back-breaking work - that will soon enough be replaced by robots - is 48 hours that drives and inspires the other five days of the week.

As the sun shines profusely on this day of freedom the hum of lawnmowers carries with the breeze through suburban neighborhoods. Families return home from morning sporting events and shopping trips. The day has crested by noon for many who wait for the refreshing evening cool-down to free them from their boredom. The afternoon arrives bringing with it no-set plans, and a lack of responsibility felt even by those spending the day working. Time seems to slow down and nothing beyond the next five minutes is of much concern.

These are the kind of days that drive the “type-A’s” mad as the laziness spreads to even the hardest working of people. As most felt the heat of the day and embraced the afternoon haze as a chance to kick back, I made my way for “Tom’s” house - a co-worker of mine at my retail job. I was headed to Tom’s to join him and his friends in some day drinking before volunteering to help out at a margarita themed 5K. Though I had no ambition to even consider walking 5K, drinking for free as a spectator of any type seemed like a good enough reason to join in.

With the windows down I tried to drive without hurry as I made my way through the suburbs, my camera in the backseat and a stomach full of nerves as I worried I’d be too fucked up to explain myself with a camera by the time I got to the race. The warm wind whipped my face as I let glorious American, original Hip-Hop fill the summer air around me. After a short drive and slight maneuvering through a small shopping center, I came upon a quiet neighborhood tucked away from main roads and the sight of most people in the area.

I killed my engine as I rolled up beside the house and Tom stepped out of the garage to greet me. “Welcome to the home of good times my friend,” he said with a beer in hand. I followed him into the garage where I was torn between being a man in the moment and the observer I’ve always been in my mind. The walls were covered blue and orange and littered with memorabilia from the Denver Broncos. The garage was carpeted and furnished and boasted a TV that took up most of the West-side wall. The dedication to the team alone was impressive but what was more was that Tom had turned his garage into a permanent party zone in which one could kick back, watch sports, and drink.

Tom offered me a bud light which I’d have typically refused, but given the situation, I didn’t want to be rude and figured I should try to shake my inner observer a bit and drink the way the average American does - tirelessly of light beer. I couldn’t help but notice how culturally tied so much of this party-garage was. It seemed quintessentially American without a flag putting it in your face. This life, at this house, was what so many Americans strived for. To come home from work, worry-free and party through your free time.

I felt utterly torn inside as I reflected upon a time where I shared similar goals. While Tom and his wife talked over drinks, I pondered these aspirations which I seemingly outgrew while so many other Americans not entirely dissimilar from myself not only remain satisfied with, but firm in their belief that in one way or another this was a pinnacle of life. Outside of California and New York, drinking and watching sports is more than a past-time, it is often all there is to do.  A material nirvana discovered by letting go of aspirations outside of one’s current means. Happiness, manufactured or not, undoubtedly is easily found here, but where in our brains is the differentiator between those satisfied with the simple and those that crave more.

The thoughts were thick but the moment remained relaxed. I have always been quite adept at holding a conversation while at the same time spinning the gears and wheels in my head endlessly about what is playing out in front of me. While I struggled to remain in the moment, I couldn’t fault anyone for finding happiness here. They weren’t wrong, and I wasn’t crazy for trying to enjoy it despite my mind playing an over-confident, under-educated, anthropologist. Though I struggled to actually seep into the relaxation that I noticed around me, I got relaxed enough to understand it. While there was no reason to, I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone there ever wanted anything more than what was in front of us now. Did it matter? To them, it surely didn’t, and for that reason, it was likely irrelevant, but my mind couldn’t help but wonder all the same. For most face value seems to be more than enough and even sometimes too much - I can’t help but notice the layers, even to the point of my own detriment.

The best way to shake one’s cumbersome nature is to indulge in high doses of psychedelics, but when that isn’t an option, having a few too many drinks is always a decent shortcut that at least for a time gets the job done. As the day was ripe for drinking, and I was there to photograph - and allegedly volunteer - for a 5K run focused on margaritas there was no reason not to indulge. I sipped on my first pre-made marg (another quintessentially American aspect of the day) I inquired as to when we were supposed to show up to the event. At which point Tom told me we were already an hour late but “what are they going to do - fire us?” I laughed as I finished my drink and decided for one more before going - and a bowl for good measure. The weed and the margarita started to mix nicely as I began to honestly feel at home with other like-minded individuals, there to drink and enjoy the day.

After finishing a couple of bowls and yet another drink we began to walk for the race - drinks in hand. I got the feeling that this neighborhood was filled with like-minded people that spend their weeks working and weekends drinking. We chatted with other neighbors in their front yards drinking as we walked. Tom introduced everyone as “cool” or as someone “that smokes weed, so you know they’re cool.” as we went. Here it didn’t matter how much money you made, but how much you could relax.

As we rounded what seemed like the fifth turn in this neighborhood, we approached a friend of Tom’s standing in his driveway. Tom’s friend was chatting on the phone wearing black sunglasses and a black baseball hat with an American flag detailed out with a skull and a well-known thin blue line. Tom’s friend paced with nervous aggression as we chatted around him. I looked around the place noticing multiple trucks and other symbols of American exceptionalism at its height. The decadence of caged manhood, enough boyish toys to compensate for not being able to roam the woods as a wildman. People talked to me, but I barely paid them much mind as I stood there trying to figure out just what inspired this poster boy of an American man. Tom’s friend eventually hung up the phone and greeted everyone politely as I remained glued to all the images entering my mind. The hat alone said a lot - sporting symbols one would only wear to send a message. I stayed quiet as I witnessed the interaction between Tom and his friend who would only occasionally speak to me, which coincidentally were the only times he seemed to notice me - as any good writer would prefer it.

Tom’s friend seemed to be what most American men idealize in their own mind’s growing up. Blue-collar with money enough to buy “toys” and live in a house in the suburbs. ATV’s, motorcycles and go-karts filled the garage his trucks sat outside of. Though far from foreign, for Colorado the situation took an interesting turn that seemed outdated at best. Tom’s friend reached into the back of one of his trucks and brought out about an eighth of decent quality weed split between two zip-lock bags for Tom. Tom paid him 40 bucks cash, and we walked out as though nothing had happened - as its suppose to happen. During this quick exchange, I noticed a Donald Trump face on a stick, one of the ones famous from the rallies during his presidential campaign.

The observer in me knew better than to judge as this was the vibe I had picked up from most of the neighborhood and was in no way surprised. One need only spend about 15 minutes chatting with one of the neighbors to realize the political mindset of most in the area. I couldn’t help but consider the irony of the situation - this pro-cop, pro-Trump, “pro-follow-the-rules,” guy was selling weed illegally in a state with legal marijuana. From the view of an outsider this oxymoron might be too much, but as one that was raised with a touch of mid-western culture, it made perfect sense.

When I said that time moves slowly here, it moved this way in reality. This neighborhood consists of people that for better or worse have resisted the speed at which modernization has occurred. In remembrance of a time pre-internet in which we were not all regularly exposed to people’s views and ways of life, those that were complete opposites of us could once be considered friends not having to know the details of their life. Though this same group often lacks the means to put this into words, their intentions are not evil, just misunderstood by those that have attempted to surf the ever-growing wave of technology and progression that appears to have taken over society.

The public tension usually felt lacked because everyone knew everyone here agreed. These homes weren't perfect but the picturesque ideal of the middle class. Wealthy enough in their own minds to adopt old-money habits and poor people's mindsets. Drinking in absolute comfort while complaining about immigration and related issues. With flowers in front of each two-story home with a two-car garage.

While the general lack of concern was refreshing, like the dark clouds over our heads on this warm summer day, I couldn't help but feel as though we were missing a more significant, and more ominous point - it just wasn't my place to say that.

As we walked away to continue towards the race, I couldn’t help but smile at how perfectly American this whole neighborhood was. I doubt many of the residents would describe it as such because having never stepped outside of that bubble it's impossible to see but for them that neighborhood is reality and to the outside world a small picture, a glimpse into the mind and life of the “Average American.”

If one spends five minutes online one might see America as a place where the police harass the people they are supposed to protect and that generally everyone is in each others business trying to escape their own. While true in some sense walking through this small Colorado neighborhood with drinks out in the open it couldn’t be less valid. Two America’s co-existing in opposition, two opposite-realities happening in the same moment. While some Americans struggle to get clean water on a daily basis here, we were walking above the law in front of everyone who wanted to look.

As the neighborhood ended, we walked into the small wooded area behind it which seemed to go on for miles before running into another line of houses. We walked through the wooded area until we saw the crowds of people lining up at temporary tents. We approached the crowd sprinkled with people wearing the same neon orange and green shirt that read “Margarita 5K.” The mood was festive, but Tom and I were apprehensive about volunteering. Neither of us wanted to be stuck somewhere being told what to do as we had signed up for the free shirt and drinks.

Tom and I found the event leader who gave us each a shirt and asked if we would be interested in handing out medals at the end. Pleased with the prospect of not having to work for an hour and a half the two of us were ready to get back to the house and drink. I asked if they had a photographer and was told that one was on the way. I told the pink-orange shirted people that I’d take pictures anyways and send them the good ones as I walked away.

Tom and I decided the best course of action was go back home for 2-3 more strong drinks in case the free margaritas were weak. We walked quickly back through the neighborhood as clouds moved in.

I packed another bowl as Tom poured us Margaritas, looking out of the garage dark clouds rolled in over the neighborhood but the warmth of the day remained. A slight humidity filled the air. We drank Margaritas that tastes like popsicles during the summer as a kid.  I admitted to myself that if I could stop thinking so much at some point, this wouldn’t be a half-bad life to live. Instead of walking back again as the hour grew close we decided to drive back to the race.

Each with a drink still in hand we pulled out into the neighborhood and cruised through going a mere 10 miles an hour. Drinking and driving responsibly if you will. Once again I got back into my head as we made our way through the neighborhood. There was something oddly relaxing about being so degenerate, and at the same time, it didn’t seem corrupt. This bubble beyond the main roads we were in seemed disconnected from the rest of reality as we smoothly coasted past other pickup trucks parked in driveways. I imagined that on weekends people probably drove to each other's houses with beers in hand. While the picket-fenced homeowners, not even 20 minutes away would throw their arms up in the air at the idea of adult drunks cruising the same streets their kids play in. Despite all the thin blue line loving residents throughout, no law could hold much weight in reality so detached from everyone else's. Yet this detached reality is a shared reality in neighborhoods throughout America, people just haven’t looked over their fence long enough to see it yet.

Tom parked his truck in front of a friends house, and we made the short walk through the wooded area before happening upon the race for the second time. We walked to where we had been told to go and began unpacking medals before the race started. I positioned myself to hand out medals as a secondary action to taking photos. I would be able to snap pictures of racers passing by while the finishers came by and collected a medal. While I unpacked medals and got my camera set, the clouds began to darken, and drops of cold rain fell occasionally. As the race kicked off the wind picked up and the next 45 minutes were an odd mix of fun and suffering.

I struggled to snap pictures in the storm as it became too dark to maintain a shutter speed appropriate for capturing runners. After snagging about 80 reasonably shitty shots, I packed my camera up and focused on handing out medals as runners finished the race. I did this with a margarita in hand trying to enjoy myself despite the cold rain. As six o’clock approached, I reminded Tom that volunteers only had to work until then technically and that we shouldn’t stand out in the rain much longer. As the clock hit six, the two of us slipped away without saying anything and headed back for his truck. Our buzz, somewhat killed by the rain, was brought back by the thrill of walking away from this “job.” I got the pictures I came for, and we both left with free drinks. In our minds, the success couldn’t be overstated.

As we drove back to his house we talked politics, or Tom talked Politics, and I offered as neutral of opinions as I could provide. Tom reminded me that he was “all about just having a good time.” and that talking politics could be fun. I conjured up images of half the neighborhood in his garage watching Broncos games talking about the latest political news. Bitching about Obama, or praising Trump for deterring immigrants. Though my own inclinations tend to oppose this group and the kind of thinking associated, to the ire of my liberal friends, I can’t help but wonder what points are lost in translation as about half of Americans think this way. If one puts their prejudices aside, the fact this country is able to split nearly 50-50 seems almost too game-like to be real. Half of the country continually thinks the other half is crazy - what a twisted scenario.

I pondered how talking politics could be much fun these days as I drove away. In my mind, right now politics is kids being locked in cages, poor people being harassed, all the while the real crooks not only go free, but write new laws. Yet, for some, the discussion was fun because when nothing has layers beyond the surface, the actual effects of politics can’t be felt. The clouds cleared as quickly as they came and the warm air licking at my face brought me back into the moment as I drove slowly through suburbia playing songs on the radio about reality.