People who rely on newspapers, radio, magazines and television for their view of the United States can be excused for thinking the entire country is a madhouse run by lunatics.
Headlines shriek of bombs and mayhem, lurid sex cases involving peculiar stars and young boys grip international attention and a real-life double-murder and subsequent televised trial are confused in the minds of many with fictional soap operas whose plots are more believable than the ugly, naked truth.
Justice is perverted and, as in the case of the Oklahoma bombing, incredibly slow. Charlatans haunt the airwaves offering eternal salvation if you only post US$10 (about HK$78) to the evangelist. A survey - seriously - shows more than half of the adults in the US think we have been visited by extra-terrestrials.
The astonishing fact for an infrequent visitor, however, is that at least 90 per cent of the people one meets on the streets, in restaurants, in parks and elsewhere are sane, normal and decent folk. This should come as no surprise, but so prevalent is the image of the US as the world's largest fruitcake farm, reality amazes the unprepared. The problem, of course, is that normality is not news. The majority of Americans of all races, social status, region and belief go through their daily lives with a calm and placid smile.
This is unreported. Good news is usually not newsworthy. Beneath the frantic headlines - all true - of deranged militiamen, racial bigots, depraved paedophiles and grubby politicians - there is a deep streak of decency in the American public character. Recently I was in San Francisco. I drove to the East Bay town of Hayward, a no-nonsense working community, where a Blues and Brews Festival was to be held in the university football ground.
What I found was a truly delightful surprise. Away from the hoopla and the politics, here was average America at its leisure. You bought tickets and entered the natural amphitheatre; welcome to Main Street, USA. This is the real heartland. From noon till dusk, blues bands and singers from Oakland and Santa Rosa, Monterey and San Francisco pounded out non-stop music. There was blues, soul and rock 'n' roll.
The brews part of the festival was in 20 canvas booths set up around the football pitch. Each represented a micro-brewery selling beers, ales, stouts, porters and lagers.
Tiny breweries that specialise in genuine beer are an increasing phenomena along the West Coast. I grabbed a glass of Undertaker Ale (who could resist?) and joined about 3,000 others on the grass. The smart ones, obviously veterans of such gatherings, had brought foldable chairs and blankets. Picnic groups were scattered all over the stadium. What impressed me was the diversity of the happy crowd. Here was a cross-section of the US heading towards the 21st century. There were black, brown, white and yellow and all shades between.
There were young, there were old lovers who looked like hippies gently aged from 1968, and there were families. There was also a cultural and social selection. Some of those eating chicken salad on buffets spread over table cloths on the grass were manual workers, others were obviously wealthy professionals. It was an inspiring gathering, an accidental eye-opener that showed the other, day-to-day side of life in the US. The atmosphere was total relaxation and friendly. It was rather like the Hong Kong Sevens without rugby.
Harmony and good humour ruled. I compared brews with a black businessman and a white truck driver. I admired a shaven-headed performer yodelling about the charms of his plump girlfriend. The football ground was alive with the sound of laughter. So, away from the headlines and the puerile television panel shows, here was America in real life. Pity it was not worth a news story. Kevin Sinclair