“Random is good” is the message from Whitechapel resident and author, Steve Boggan’s new book ‘Follow the Money’, which features as Radio 4’s Book of the Week from Monday.
But this is no novel. Steve spent a month following the note (IA74407937A) around America’s heartland and has documented the journey. He writes about the places he visited, but mostly about the people he met. People, who took his journey on as their own and in many cases, took him in, feed him and welcomed him into their homes.
The book has captured something in the imaginations of those who have read it; as well as featuring on the BBC, it was Time Out’s Five Star book of the week earlier this month.
EastLondonLines caught up with Steve recently to find out why he thinks the story has such appeal and to talk about his experiences in the United States.
ELL: Steve, firstly, I’ve got to ask. What possessed you to follow a ten-dollar bill around and write about it?
Steve Boggan: I’ve got to go back to the beginning really. In 2006 the Guardian rang me up and asked if I could follow a ten-dollar bill ’round, if I thought it was even possible.
Initially I was tempted just to say no and put the phone down. But I thought about it for a while, and I realised that might be possible. So I went away and figured out a way to do it, and I did it for seven days and seven nights and it was great. I was great fun, I really enjoyed it.
Before it was even over I’d decided that I wanted to do something else, some thing bigger, something better. I wanted to go to America, with a ten-dollar bill for thirty days and thirty nights.
So, four years later, I just got on a plane. I just went and did it.
ELL: And what were your expectations of the journey at the time?
Steve: At the time I had no idea if it was going to work out or not, and it was a bit scary to be honest. It’s one thing having an idea in your head but then actually arriving somewhere and in my case, it was in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
I managed to fix up one night’s accommodation but that was it. Every day. Not knowing where you’re going to go the next day. It felt like falling.
But, after a while, each time the bill changed hands, to be honest, it felt like falling. Because everyone I met was just so fabulous that I just assumed that the next person I met would be the one, that they’d be the one who’d be a real smart alec; who’d set fire to it run off with it or lock me in their cellar or refuse to spend it until I’d painted their fence. But they weren’t, they were all fantastic.
I didn’t believe it would work until about Day 26. I was just convinced something would go horribly wrong. And once or twice it looked like it had gone horribly wrong, but it came good.
ELL: What happened when you told people that the bill they’d just been given came with an Englishman?
Steve: Look, this was just me on my own, looking increasingly bedraggled and smelling pretty bad. And saying: “Hi, listen, I know this is odd, but I’m from England and I’m following that ten dollar bill and do you mind if I follow you?”
I expected people to say: “No, go away!”, but they didn’t and more than once they said: “Sure, do you want to stay at my house?” And they took me into their homes, and they fed me and they were just good to me.
Then, of course, they’d tell me their stories. And the thing is, it’s a cliche but it’s a truism, that everybody’s got a story. Well it’s true, believe me.
But all of them treated my mission as if it were their own. They wanted me to succeed and that really astonished me.
There was nobody who didn’t think that ‘hang on a second, coming into possession of this ten dollar bill, this is a responsibility’.
They’d find somewhere safe to put the ten-dollar bill. They’d find envelopes, they wrote on it ‘the ten-dollar bill’, they put in sections of their wallets they didn’t use, they’d zip it in their pockets and all of a sudden I realised that they instantly got how much that bill meant to me.
ELL: And what did the bill mean to you?
Steve: As it progressed, it increased. By Day 20 its value to me was more than it was on Day One. If I lost it on Day One I’d just have a word to myself and say: “I told you it was a stupid idea”. But by Day 20, or more, you’re thinking this might just work. It took on a life of its own.
ELL: Why do you think people let you into their lives like this? Why did people open up so much?
Steve: I didn’t quite figure this out until quite recently so it’s not in the book. The other day I was thinking about this and it just hit me. It’s basically this: while they were in possession of this ten-dollar bill, they knew that they could get rid of this weird stranger who’d turned up at any time they wanted. All they had to do was go and spend it and I’m gone. No excuses, no arguments, no goodbyes – I’m just gone.
That gave them the sort of control that we don’t normally have over relationships. The ability to just finish it with absolutely no consequences whatsoever. And that made them feel comfortable.
ELL: Did that work in the opposite way for you? How did you feel about the lack of control?
Steve:It wasn’t the lack of control so much, but certainly the lack of any kind of ability to plan forward. I couldn’t do any of that with this.
Also, I think with the ten-dollar bill, because of this openness that people displayed, I was making friends with people ridiculously quickly. They told me their whole life story in a way that people wouldn’t normally do and in quite a few cases we became pretty good friends, and I’m still friends with them. When they spent the money I felt a sense of loss each time. But, there was no going back. You couldn’t go back and say: ‘let’s have little bit more of that friendship, because that was good’, because it was gone.
And then you also have a feeling of what was next, of the unknown. What was the next person going to be like? We’re all afraid of the unknown.
ELL: Did you take anything away from the journey? Any lessons?
Steve: There were a couple of things.
This was the first time I’d really got off the interstate highways and seen small town America. The real America, if you like. I realised that our opinions of America are informed by two things: Hollywood, which is nonsense anyway, that’s not real life; and by American foreign policy, which most Americans don’t agree anyway, so that’s not really the true American psyche.
I came to realise that we ought to be more forgiving, more open and more prepared to distinguish between American foreign policy and Hollywood which is all we’re exposed to, and go down there and get on the ground and go and meet proper Americans because they’re not like that. At least not the ones I met.
And the other thing – mainly because of the internet now – even if you’re an independent traveller, you can plan every second of every day. If you’re going on a trip you can organise everything; every journey, every timetable, everywhere you’re going to stay.
I forgot how much I miss the random nature of travel – the feeling of not quite knowing where you’re going to be tomorrow.
I would advise people to introduce some random nature into their journeys and their holidays because that’s when you have the best adventures. Bring in some excitement. Random is good.
ELL: What do you think it is about the book that has captured people’s imaginations?
Steve: I’m not presuming it’s a page-turner, but what always makes people turn pages is wondering what will happen next. I think with this, they will wonder what will happen next. They want to see what happens next to the bill.
You can hear excerpts of the book on Radio Four this week or buy a copy at www.amazon.co.uk.
We have produced a map of Steve’s journey. It traces the places the bill went and the people he met on the way.