Two and a half years ago, Steve Boggan, a youngish British journalist with experience in investigative reporting and feature writing, decided that it was time for a change. He was bored: “Not with . . . my life in general, but with work. I felt I had squeezed the life out of it.” It was time for a change, but not a wholly radical one. He decided to take a trip, but one that might lead to writing a book and thus earning a bit of income.
So he flew to the United States, hired a rental car and got himself to the heart of the heart of the country: a small town in Kansas called Lebanon (2010 population: 218) that may have been “slowly dying” but still possessed the attraction of having once been declared “the geographical dead center of the contiguous USA.” The validity of the claim was and remains dubious, but it’s about all Lebanon has left to cling to, and it gave Boggan a convenient launching point for the journey that he had decided to undertake.
In his wallet Boggan carried a $10 bill: “Its serial number was 1A74407937A and it was burning a hole in my pocket.” That’s because he had decided to “follow a ten-dollar bill around the United States of America for thirty days and thirty nights” and see where it took him: “I had two rules about the movement of the bill: I would not deliberately interfere or influence where it went and I would not tell people how to spend it. Of course, I might threaten physical violence against anyone who put it in a baby’s piggy bank with instructions that it not be removed before the child’s eighteenth birthday. I would also prefer the bill not to be dropped into an automatic deposit chute at a bank. That would not end its journey, though it would probably end mine. But I couldn’t say as much.”
He arrived in Lebanon in October 2010, “alone and unpaid . . . propelled only by curiosity and itchy feet,” with “one night’s accommodation, no Plan A and absolutely no Plan B.” At Lebanon he handed the bill to Rick Chapin, “a lean and quiet man, a handsome construction worker,” because “I had discovered by accident that he was a good man, the sort of chap you would want beside you if you were in a scrape.” He had taken a room in the hunting lodge run by Rick and his wife, Kay, and soon found himself happily in the embrace of their hospitality: “I had known the Chapins for less than twenty-four hours, but I felt we had grown close. They had taken me into their house, fed me well and plied me with good wine.”
His reception by the Chapins set a pattern for the rest of his tour. Some people into whose hands the $10 bill found its way were happier than others that it came attached to a gangly Englishman, and a few passed the bill along to others with what can fairly be called unseemly haste, but mostly people were interested in and/or amused by Boggan’s quest and happily played along with it. These included the next person in Lebanon who got the $10, Paul Coleman, “a bespectacled Englishman who had been living in America for twenty-one years” and was a fount of strong opinions. “I don’t hold with all that religion,” he told Boggan at a church fair. “I don’t need an imaginary friend telling me how to live my life.”
This was in sharp contrast to Nathan and Jennifer Walker, whom Boggan encountered a while later in Missouri, a young couple who had given their lives over to helping others save their marriages and to helping troubled children, and also in contrast to the Amish whom he met toward the end of his journey, in Michigan. At one point Jennifer told him, “God has put a fire in my heart to try to help kids like this,” which left him “moved by [her] motives and her desire to improve the lives of other people,” but also left him somewhat bemused:
“In Europe, God is dying. This is a difficult concept to broach with Americans as, particularly in the Midwest, it is hard to find one who might not find it offensive. . . . In the US, concluding a presidential speech with the words ‘God bless America’ is considered de rigueur. European politicians who invoke God in any way are considered barmy. This is arguably the subject politicians on both sides of the Atlantic skirt around most when they meet; the gulf in attitudes is so wide that it is not even worth talking about. Several years ago, in [a] poll for the BBC, 71 per cent of Americans agreed with the statement, ‘I would die for my God or beliefs.’ In the UK, only 19 per cent of people agreed with it. God, they reasoned, could fight his own battles.”
That $10 bill, in other words, took Boggan into the American heartland culturally as well as geographically. He’s enough of a world traveler not to have been surprised by what he found, and indeed over and over again he was touched by the kindness with which he was received, but he was in a very different place from the one he’d left only a few days earlier. Driving to Arkansas, he found himself listening to Erich “Mancow” Muller’s syndicated radio show, a nonstop rant — “It is the duty of every Moslem [sic] to kill you,” they intend to “kill every Jew or Christian on planet earth” and “our President sides with Hamas” — that was loony enough in itself but even more so when one considers that “for years his show, ‘Mancow’s Morning Madhouse,’ was the most popular slot among males aged between eighteen and thirty-four.”
Yet Boggan was driving to Arkansas behind a black Ford Escape driven by Ray Holman, a 63-year-old African American, married to a white woman, who shrugged off veiled racial insults — one good old boy told Boggan that if the sky turned dark “and you can’t find Ray, just shout for him to smile. That’ll give you a helluva clue” — and went about his business with solid self-confidence. “Again I realised how close to a person one could become in only forty-eight hours,” Boggan writes. “I had grown to admire Ray, his resilience and ambition, and I wanted so badly for him to succeed.”
On and on they came: Dean Agus, a talented musician in Hot Springs, “easy-going and easy to talk to”; Ron Zoller, a cheerful construction worker restoring a spectacular mansion in St. Louis for the former pro-football quarterback Marc Bulger; Deneva Elvins, a waitress who pointed him to sections of St. Louis “being reclaimed by young urbanites.” From there the $10 bill took him to Chicago and a financial adviser named Darrell Mikulencak, who was skeptical about the quest but who in an unexpectedly candid conversation admitted that he despaired over what the crash of 2008 had done to retired clients whose nest eggs were wasted.
The journey, which covered six states and about 3,000 miles, ended in Detroit after a hunting trip in upstate Michigan with Megan Schneider and her father, Jim, two more people who got under Boggan’s skin in the very best way. At the end, tired but heartened, Boggan decided that the trip probably wasn’t a “true reflection of what happens to ten-dollar bills from month to month,” but something more: “if what I did amounted to an experiment, then its results said more about people than about money. That, on the whole, people are good. They will meet a stranger, feed him, give him a bed for the night and feel the need to send him away with good prospects.”
It would be easy enough to say that Boggan just got lucky, that his $10 bill was touched by a certain magic that led him to good places and away from bad ones. Perhaps so. But at a moment in our history when so many Americans are troubled by what they see as anger and hostility among their fellow citizens, it is rather nice to be given a bit of evidence that this may not be entirely true.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
A Month in the Life of a Ten-Dollar Bill
By Steve Boggan
Union. 292 pp. Paperback, $14.95