The Americans - S1

America, a country of big ambitions but even more of large divisions. For photographer and filmmaker Robin de Puy this is a good reason to look for The American. Who represents America?

EPISODE 1 - Pretty Close to a Million

Nick and Zorka, Raton, New Mexico

I spot an old, blue Dodge pickup truck under a blue, sun-scorched neon sign that says, 'The Maverick Motel.' In the empty lot, a lady — in a blue shirt — sits under a canopy. My photography heart leaps at the perfect confluence of all that blue.

"Can I maybe take your picture?" I ask her. "Yes, of course," she replies with a distinct voice in a dialect still unfamiliar to me. In the distance, I notice a man stepping out — also dressed in blue. It turns out to be her husband Nick. Nick starts talking from afar, and from that point on my toes barely touch the ground. I float in a blue bubble carried by Nick's sentences. Virtually all of them sound like iconic anecdotes ending with an exclamation point, supported by affirming — or dissenting — sounds from his wife. The dialect turns out to be from the former Yugoslavia.

Nick visited America in 1968 as a tourist and became an American citizen in 1978. "You gotta take chances! All you need in this country is common sense and the will to work!"

After working as a welder in Denver, Colorado for 18 years, he took the plunge; he started a motel in Raton, New Mexico. At first, he ran the motel by himself, but then he heard about a single Yugoslav lady from a cousin in Canada. Soon after, Zorka and Nick got married, and together they ran the successful Maverick Motel.

"I thought I married a millionaire!," Zorka says, laughing. "I was very close to a million! Back then, there were a lot of horse races in Raton. The motel was always fully booked", Nick adds.

“I thought I married a millionaire!”

Nowadays, the motel is for sale. Large, corporate motel chains are rapidly taking over the industry, making motel life hard and sometimes impossible for the smaller and older motels. On top of that, staff shortages and higher wholesale prices lead to older motels collapsing — sometimes literally. For Nick and Zorka, there is also another reason to quit: their aging bodies need rest.

In the evening, we drink Slivovitz in an un-American living room surrounded by fake sunflowers and dozens of photos of (grand)children - even the sofa is covered by a large family photo. Nick picks up a tamburica-like instrument and plays a song. His fingers move slower than he had hoped, but it still sounds good.

This series was made in collaboration with De Volkskrant and Mondriaan Fonds.

EPISODE 2 - 500 Tire Shops

Jamario and Damaj, Clarksdale, Mississippi

In 1930 -downtown Clarksdale, at the crossing of Highway 61 and 49- Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for the art of playing the guitar. For a moment I fear Robert did not only sell his own soul but that of the town as well.

We cruise the empty streets, looking for someone that can play the promised blues for us. Because of our slow tempo and me staring out the car window, people immediately take us for police. Believe me, that is not a good look here. Kind of mopish we try to wash the day away in the hairy pool at the motel.

At night the town still feels quiet, but light seeping through the cracks of wooden walls of abandoned looking buildings promises otherwise. Finally we discover the blues, hidden under a plastic ceiling. A toothless singer, unintelligible when he speaks but not when he sings, welcomes us- his only audience. He treats us to a private concert and for a while we don’t feel like going anywhere.

The next morning, looking for coffee and intriguing faces, we pass a tire shop. Jamario (20) and Damaj (17) sit under a canopy waiting for their first client. Damaj is the owner, born in Jemen and brought to America by his beloved dad. This boy can have anything he wants, as long as he stays in school. But Damaj has other plans- he wants to work. His dream? To own a nationwide chain of 500 tire shops, within ten years. ‘Like Starbucks or McDonalds.’

‘What about you, Jamario? What is your dream?’ I ask. ‘Tomorrow I’m turning 21 and I will register myself to the Police Academy. And I will become a father in a month.’

I ask Jamario a bunch of questions, searching for affirmation of my prejudiced views on his life, but he soothes my doubts. Dreams are big here, but seldom misplaced- as long as you see them through the eyes of The American.

And remember: If you can’t make it on your own, you can always sell your soul. Without it- you can go very far. Just look at Robert.

“For a moment I fear Robert did not only sell his own soul but that of the town as well.”

EPISODE 3 - Spoiler Alert

Carol (22), Lawton, Oklahoma. 

'Spoiler alert: Jesus wins,' a roadside sign reads. I don't know what exactly Jesus would define as winning, because I haven't seen much I would consider prize-winning over the past few days.

We are driving through the small town of Lawton, Oklahoma. It's seven in the evening. The sun is low, but it's still well over 40 degrees Celsius. The streets are empty except for a few cars. Hardly anyone is out here for fun. There is no need to be because there is a drive-through for everything: besides ordering food and drinks, you can also withdraw cash, pick up medication, buy cigarettes, weed, or alcohol, get a new tire, or even an oil change, all from the comfort of your air-conditioned — or not — car.

Since most people stay in, it is all the more noticeable when someone is out. In the corner of my eye, I see a young girl with a white flapping dress on a little blue bike. I am not reducing anything to patronize, the bike is small. The only thing that is not small is the huge Slurpee cup in her wicker basket on the front of her bike. Her eyes are squinting from the sun that’s still bright; her short, unkempt hair standing upright and sweetly blowing in the almost imperceptible wind.

Her name is Carol. She is 22, and she has been living on the streets for four years now. On her collarbone the words 'awaking my soul from darkness' are written. They refer to her late father who passed away when she was only two. He was 27 years old. The grief is still immense. Very softly she says: "I just miss my dad."

Carol really wants to get a job, but Lawton is a military and university town. That means the jobs go to those that study or that are affiliated with the military. There is no one to look after her, no one to comfort her, no one to really see or help her. "It's hard to find help in this country.” The only places Carol can get food are the Salvation Army or the church. If this is what Jesus would mean by winning, he has won.

If this is what Jesus would mean by winning, he has won. 

After I take her photo, she cycles off. She bravely defies the bright sun. Her shadow makes her bigger than anyone else; she just doesn't know it herself.

“If this is what Jesus would mean by winning, he has won.”

EPISODE 4 - Scoop 'm up!

Nino (54), New Orleans, Louisiana

"Yeah, I scoop them up."
"What are you scooping up?" I ask him. 
"The people on the bull!"

My dazed look reveals that I have no clue what he is talking about. His cousins Christian and Stephan elaborate: "In bull riding, cowboys try to stay on a wild bull or bucking horse for eight seconds. Once those eight seconds are over, my uncle scoops them up, ideally before they hit the ground." His uncle confirms the story with a southern yeah. "I used to be really good at it, at bull riding. But now I'm too old. Usually, you give up bull riding in your 30s. By then you're pretty beat up."

The scooping up, it turns out, is not just something Nino does with bull riders. For example, there's Twinn (the crazy one), whom he met about thirty years ago. Twinn also rode horses but had no place to board his horse. So one day, Twinn brought his horse to Nino who, without hesitation, shared his self-built stables with him. A friendship developed that is still ongoing. Twinn has needed a few scoops. For example, one night after the famous Mardi Grass festival, he drove his freshly washed, shiny red truck and trailer into a lamppost. The hit turned out to be a lucky shot: all the lights in a 3-mile radius went out. Fortunately for Twinn, Nino drove by at that exact moment. He got Twinn and his horse back on the road and made sure no one knew it was Twinn that turned off the lights.

The hit turned out to be a lucky shot: all the lights in a 3-mile radius went out.

Every day, Nino gets up at five to get to the horses on time. Horseback riding - and everything that comes with it - was instilled in him from a very young age. His father taught him everything: forging, trimming, and shoeing, as well as taming wild horses. When the horses are happy he goes off to his "real" job. He does maintenance on temporary houses (trailers), which are placed when people temporarily cannot live in their own homes - after a tornado, for example. 

"And who takes care of you?" I ask him. "I'm good."

“The hit turned out to be a lucky shot: all the lights in a 3-mile radius went out.”

EPISODE 5 - Jacks of All Trades

Dottie and Chaz, Uncertain, Texas

Caddo Lake is as smooth as a mirror’s surface and filled with large yellow flowers proudly reaching for the sun. “When the flower has finished blooming, the fruit remains, '' says Chaz (38), born and raised in Uncertain, a small village bordering the lake. He picks up a ripe piece of fruit: “Here, have you ever tasted this?” Without hesitation, I bite into the sweet seeds of the American lotus. 

Uncertain is on the border of Texas and Louisiana. It has 85 inhabitants and is buried deep in swampland. Large moss-covered cypress trees give the village a somewhat ghostly appearance. The town is perfect for anyone who does not want to be found. People take care of their own business here and help from outsiders is not welcomed. 

“The lake raised me. I am a real swamp-rat.” Chaz's beard blows gently in the wind. “We have everything we need here: water, food, and medicine. Life doesn't come from a store. It starts in nature.” It sounds like paradise, and I would rather not leave.

When I ask Chaz who I should definitely meet here, he immediately replies, “Dottie! She used to be my teacher and she's the SuperWoman from Uncertain.”

Before long, I found her. Dottie is 83 years old and still likes to ride her Harley Davidson, sometimes with a cape - she is SuperWoman, after all. She clearly loves life as well as her raccoon, Willow, who is always perched on her neck or in her lap.

Dottie owns a lot of land, including a small graveyard. “Always wanted one.” It came in handy when her husband Billy passed away last year. Wrapped up with cloth, he was six feet under within twelve hours. He thought he was dying of an infection because he had given a baby raccoon mouth-to-mouth, but Dottie disagrees.   

“The average age of an Uncertainer is only 58. Fresh vegetables are hard to find here. And almost all of the food is deep-fried. Combined with frequent use of alcohol and cigarettes, it doesn't appear to be the best way to grow old. And then there's something about mercury in the water.”

Mouths full of American lotus seeds and acclaimed scenery, yet it’s less like paradise after all. As it turns out: nothing is certain in Uncertain.

“The lake raised me. I am a real swamp-rat.”

EPISODE 6 - Just a Big Family

Savannah, Wichita Falls, Texas

From the interstate, I see a dilapidated, yellow motel flash by on my right. I don't really feel like stopping, but the fear of missing out takes over. When I park my car a little later, I spot a pregnant girl hanging in the doorway of her room in the distance. I try to remember her room number, but - unsurprisingly - end up standing in front of the wrong door. Instead of the expected pregnant teenager, a very skinny man opens the door. "Come in." He moves slowly, and I'm surprised he can still walk.

Discreetly, I try to sit on an open plastic bag so that my bare legs don't touch the chair's grubby seat. I’m embarrassed by my behavior, and as a compromise, I smile particularly kindly at the man. His name is John. By now, he - like many others - has been living here for a few years, waiting for a better life. "Do you happen to know if a pregnant girl lives here?" I ask him. "Two doors down." Everyone knows everybody. Motels here are like villages.

Girl located.

Savannah (18) has been living in this room with her two siblings, father, boyfriend, two dogs, and a lizard-like animal for two years. Before this, they did motel-hopping, and before that, they lived in a car.

"How did you guys end up in this situation?" I ask them.

The stories that follow are not only too big for a few small paragraphs, but certainly for the short lives of these young people. There is much suffering to be found in this 12m2 motel room. From being born into addiction, to maternal death from diabetes. From not wanting to live to not being able to live the way you want. From a kid having a kid to a dad wanting to die. 

In the evening, Savannah asks if I want to photograph her in the bathtub. The bathroom walls are clammy. The bathtub rim is slippery. I stand on my toes and press my buttocks firmly against the wall, hoping my feet won't show in the frame below me. Savannah is floating in the water calmly and seemingly carefree. Her self-made pink dress clings to her porcelain skin. The sharp nails surround what she holds dear. "I am terrified, but everything will be okay."

“I am terrified, but everything will be okay.”

EPISODE 7 - The boys from Mena

Mena, Arkansas

After a long drive through the North of Arkansas we finally strand in a small town called Mena. Immediately we are surprised by an un overenthusiastic singer on the corner of the street. ‘There she stood... in the street.’ The traffic lights give his performance ambiance.

In the parking lot between Walmart, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, we spot a group of pickup trucks, with big rims, engines roaring low and filled with white boys with baseball caps. The rearview mirrors are full of heavily scented Christmas tree-shaped air fresheners to mask all the odors associated with boys on their way to manhood.

Intrigued to who these men are, I rush toward them. Without asking any questions, the biggest stories are being told. Cody (18) is missing a little finger, accidentally cut off with the log splitter and Mason (17) once caught a huge largemouth bass – what this fish looks like, speaks for itself. They earned the money for their trucks themselves, mind you: these boys were brought up with a big work ethic. They don’t talk about abortion and politics (too complicated) and their favorite move with girls is The Shocker.

‘The Shocker?, I ask. ‘Yes! Two in the pink, one in the stink’. The boys are moving wildly with their hands in shocker position. Even without a pinky finger Cody knows how to make something out of it. ‘It makes the ladies scream!’ I look at some of the girls who are hanging around and I am wondering myself how many of these girls endured the shocker and how much of the sound made in the process was about pleasure.

My thoughts wander away to Daunte Wright (20) who was pulled over because he had an air freshener on his rearview mirror – in many states this is prohibited, because it would obstruct your view. In reality, it is often an excuse for officers to pull someone over. For Wright this situation ended with a bullet in his black chest.

‘Are you afraid of the police sometimes?’ I ask them. ‘Police? Noooo, they don’t bother us.’ The carefree attitude of these boys seems in place here, but it is difficult to reconcile with the other side of the American coin.

‘You want to see a burnout, ma’am?’ I prefer making it myself, but I hold my tongue. ‘Yes!’ Lamp oil on the tires and burn away. In the background I hear the false, but comforting words ‘All right now baby it’s all right now.’

“It makes the ladies scream!”

EPISODE 8 - Beckham's Bookshop

New Orleans, Louisiana

On a busy street in the center of New Orleans there is a bookstore called Beckham’s Bookshop. I push the heavy, wooden doors of the dusty appearing bookstore open and see Alton (89) immediately. He sits solemnly and greets me as I enter – it looks like he hasn’t moved for the last four years. Carey (87) is sitting in between his 60.000 books and is calmly eating his lunch. Behind him lies the snoring cat, Juniper, peacefully asleep. The partners in business and life are still going strong (after 65 years pronouncing the word couple is something they still don’t do, even though they share a bed and bookstore).


Outside, the city is always dancing, inside it is an oasis of calmness. Everybody is whispering and with every step you take the floor creaks. It makes you want to tippy toe around the store.
The two men – both small in stature, always dressed in a proper pair of pants, blouse and suspenders – fit in perfectly in this environment and appear to be made for this store.

In 2018 I’ve encountered these men. Fascinated by the two of them, I arranged to meet them at their home. "The books took over", they warned me. But it was easy to maneuver through their house. After a short tour Carey hesitantly and somewhat doubtfully asked me: "Do you want to see the basement?"’

I remember experiencing a strange mixture of enthusiasm and nervousness. Together we walked down the narrow basement stairs and to my big surprise there suddenly appeared a tall, black man from behind a tiny curtain. His kinky grey hair almost reached the ceiling. Alton and Carey appear to have a mysterious man in their basement, it brought a big smile to my face.

"They call me Slim", the mystery man said. "In 1975 I walked into the bookshop with the question if anything needed to be cleaned. That same day I started." A long-lasting friendship began. In 2005 when hurricane Katrina destroyed Slim’s house, Alton and Carey gave him and his hoarderly nature a place in the basement. "I wear their clothing and eat their food. They’re like a mom and dad to me."

Alton (89) & Carey (87) 

Currently Slim has his own home 80 miles west of New Orleans. Alton and Carey are bravely going forward and keep selling books with their stubborn but loving attitude to make the world a better place. "Beckham’s Bookshop delights & improves the mind", is their slogan. I agree.

“In 1975 I walked into the bookshop with the question if anything needed to be cleaned. That same day I started.”
Robinde Puy