Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 13

Part 13
America is officially in decline.  Here
at the end of 2010, the recession is starting to take on the hue of something
bigger, even bigger than a Depression—the collapse of Empire.  Glenn Beck would have you believe that it is
a moral failing, the United States unmoored from its Christian dock.  And that this is the start of the end times as
“foretold” in scripture.  We’re not only Broke to quote the title of his wildly
popular book, we’re morally bankrupt. 
Not sure exactly what straw it was that broke the camel’s back other
than the long-term eroding of our blessed Constitution:  homosexuals, political correctness, Nancy
Pelosi?  The list goes on and seems so
intricately connected to each other on Beck’s conspiracy chalk board that it
would make even the most tightly coiffed tea party matron come.  Indeed, this may be why the country is convulsing
as it is with the GOP now in charge of the House—the collective panting of
orgasmic tea party ladies and, undoubtedly those of the closeted homosexual
gents who are privately getting their rocks off on Beck’s quotidian FOX TV screed.
There is definitely
something afoot, and it’s not just a speed bump like the last several
recessions despite our perpetually cheery consultant who is now managing our
radically depleted 401K.  No.  There’s something seismic going on here, and
it is unnerving all of us. 
Except for
Joe.  While everywhere the adult
population is either absent from his life or telling him that Jesus is coming
in the near future to burn the wicked and end this joke of a world, he’s
calm.  Reflective.  Perhaps it’s just all the music he listens
to.  Sending him to blessed oblivion but
without the hangover of pot, where his two closest friends have irretrievably
gone.  But I don’t think so.
I remember when we
lived in Brooklyn, before, during and after the attacks on the World Trade
Center, and I was volunteering at St. John’s Episcopal.  Though located in sexy North Park Slope, the
church drew from all of over the borough and included a large black Caribbean
population.  One day the homely but
utterly charming lesbian assistant priest—to a homosexual male priest who lived
in the parsonage with his main guy, a handsome young blonde guy named
“Steve”–stood up and through her tobacco stained teeth declared the parish’s need
for a youth worker.
And so it came to
pass that the lapsed Mormon from Utah began working with young black youth at
an Anglican Communion church in New York City. 
It didn’t take long for me to realize that these were kids who felt as
though they had a 50/50 chance of making it home alive everyday after
school.  One boy, Jason, told me that his
brother had been shot six times on one occasion, but lived through it
somehow.  They had none of the advantages
I’d had, nor did they have any of my hang ups, my inhibitions toward life, love
and the pursuit of happiness.  They
seemed to catch what wave they could and ride it as far as it would take them,
whether it was the latest Brekka (“Break up”) competitions in the parish hall
or taking in an extremely corny musical version of “A Christmas Carol” at
Madison Square on the dime of the church’s activity board.
So it was in this
place that my head was when I saw advertised Tom Brokaw’s blockbuster The Greatest Generation, about the
glorious capacity and self-sacrifice of the Great Depression/WWII folks.  Immediately, when I saw the title, and the
author’s byline in the window of a mid-town Barnes and Noble, I thought to
myself:  How nice.  Brokaw is writing about the up-coming
generation and the challenges that they are facing and how they are, at least
potentially, the greatest generation of all.
Ha!  For the next several years it seemed, the
romance the country had with the generation of Cheryl’s parents was everywhere,
how the greatest generation would survive an economic downturn, fight the Nazis
and then spend us all into oblivion.  In
the heat of this geriatric love-fest, I got on the plane to go to work, and
there’s Brokaw.  He’s sitting in first
class near the window, and I’m serving him. 
I have a mind to tell him about what I think his book really should have
been about, but instead I smile.  He’s an
affable enough guy—actually the least pretentious of the three major network
news anchors at the time.  But with this
single book and the myriad collateral that will stem from it, a generation of
remarkable Americans will be elevated above all others—especially the Baby
Boomers, of which I am one, those ungrateful brats who went to Woodstock and
ruined it all, the ideals of suburbia, white supremacy and, most importantly,
American hegemony.  I wouldn’t put it
beyond Joe and his generation –along with the kids at St. Johns—to be years
getting over being relegated to sub-standard.   Hell,
if the boomers can’t get over it, think how handicapped the millenials et al
will be.
Brokaw has made
his millions by over-stating and over-marketing a history to the American
people that apparently a good number of us “needed.”  Fickle public discourse has been bumped into
a new vector.  Fact is, Joe and his
brethren and sisters won’t even remember Brokaw or the term “Greatest
generation.”  Systems are re-formulating
so fast right now that Joe and Company once they take the I-pod buds out of
their ears will be lucky just to get out of the way of the burning rafters that
are falling.  More likely, they will
figure out how to re-imagine the burning building because they refuse to take their ear buds out.
Orwell once wrote compellingly about shooting an elephant, a.k.a., the
declining British Empire of which as an officer in 1930s India, he was an
official representative. Maybe in America it’s time to be doing some shooting
ourselves.  Shooting ourself, or more
precisely shooting down our sick sense of American Exceptionalism.  Get-R-Done….           

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 12)

Original Nauvoo Temple Sunstone
Part 12
Further along, near Mitchellville, two, three, four other cars are off the road, flipped on their sides, or…one other again on its roof.  This time, however, yellow police tape girdles them indicating, we assume, that they have been cleared of their occupants.  We creep along, the anxiety of the morning building from mile marker to mile marker.  It is New Year’s Eve day.  The last day in the year of our Buddah/Allah/Elohim Lord 2010.  The last day of the first decade of the 21st millennium and it feels like things couldn’t get any worse.  No change of clothes (or precious few that, even still, we have to wash out in the regulation plastic sink of an EconoLodge every night), a car that will run forever—thanks to the Japanese—but is likely to have its thin hide run over by a sliding Ford Tahoe or Cadillac Escalade–bad talk radio and not a Starbucks in sight. 
But passing through Des Moines, it does get worse. 
We are drawn to a sudden stop behind a massive 18-wheeler.  It’s like having a firewall in front of you with nothing but a phone number to call if we don’t like someone’s driving, and mud flaps with the ubiquitous, silver silhouette of Sister Big Boobs.  Cars to the left continue on, but the sign we’ve just passed says that I-80 is veering to the right.  Okay.  We can wait this out.  It might even turn out to be a reprieve from all the slip-sliding away.  I can see that the man-boy is back to peering through his John Lennon book, and I almost ask him what’s going on in Liverpool, or have the Fab Four moved on to Hamburg, but the silence among us three, our little family—we are a family, aren’t we?—is calming, and I decide against it.  We turn off the car.  The sound of engine brakes rumble toward us from the traffic in the left lane.  It has warmed up some outside.  The sun is even peering through the shattered light of this winter day, this end of the year day.  I imagine what it would be like out of here, trudging in warm boots through the Great Plains of the mid-west.  Wondering at birds which find life in the barren trees and the grasses now brittle in the winter sunlight, fading like an afterthought. 
I am less and less sentimental these days about my pioneer ancestry, but I cannot think of Iowa, let alone sit in it as I am now, without remembering the little nipple of land that juts into the Mississippi south of here, near the Missouri border.  The little nipple of land that was, that is Nauvoo, Illinois. It was from this Mormon spot, which in 1844 had a larger population than Chicago, that my people set off across the frozen river and into Iowa to escape what had turned out to be relentless pogroms from nearby Missourian “mobocrats” and, later, from their Illinoisan brethren.  They set out in January in long strings of wagons, leaving most of their belongings, their farms, some of their kin in “The City Beautiful” set on a bluff surrounded by what had once been swamps.  And some of them remember looking back over their collective shoulder to see their nearly completed temple of white limestone torched,  black smoke rising to the sound of wagon wheels over frozen soil. 
This trail is south of I-80 but merges somewhere with it in these corn and soybean fields west of here, and as I sit behind our firewall truck in Des Moines, that is where my mind goes, as it is often wont to do despite my best efforts.  I shouldn’t complain about our trek.  The first wagon train carrying Brigham Young and 140+ other Latter-day Saints spent 120 days on the trail west.  The average distance traveled was eight and a half miles per day.
Like I said:  I shouldn’t complain.  But…of course I will.  It’s the most American thing I can think of doing these days.
We move forward.  Then stop again.  When we get to the junction overpass of I-35, we see a semi—cab and trailer—lying on its side.  It appears that as it shuttled down the graded up-ramp of the northbound route it lost its footing.  Now it nests in a snow bank as if a giant hand had come out of the sky and gently tipped it over, like a tired toddler, into rest—Whumph!  We crawl along, then stop for five, ten minutes at a time in the far right lane.  Cheryl is visibly rattled but elevating it through at least three levels of forced  cognition:  enumerating the harsh details of the scene to me and the man-boy, calculating the time being lost and philosophizing on the broader picture of interstate travel.
Eventually, she picks up the burrito—her phone inconveniently buried in a coat pocket—and calls the dog sitter.  This is where she puts on her best face, as cars crawl past us on the left, the windows steamed from the inside, collecting ice on the outside.  I’m alternately shifting from drive to park to keep things moving.  The man-boy has again discovered the charms of this morning’s USA Today as an alternative to Lennon.
On the phone, C. explains to Kate our predicament in calm, measured tones that belie her perilous state of mind.  We are way-laid by ice.
We are witness to repeated road trauma.
We are half a day behind schedule.
We won’t be retuning to Salt Lake City until Jan. 2.
“How is Jiggs?…The cat?…Has Maxine been by?  Don’t pay her any mind if she does; she’s already called to tell us that she hasn’t seen you walk the dog the entire time we’ve been gone…Yes…she’s the one.  The one who went to Palm Desert for Christmas and, no, when I asked her how long she’d been home before she noticed you hadn’t been walking Jiggs, she said one day.”
More laughter.  Release.
“Exactly.  How does she know who hasn’t been walking the dog all week if she’s only been home for one day?” 
“Well…thank you so much Kate.  Do raid the refrigerator and don’t feel like you have to be nailed to the house.”
The House.  Cheryl longs for her house.  And so do I, if I’m honest.  Not the house, really, but my life…no, my security.  My sense of order…you know, the routine that I wanted so badly to interrupt with a “much-needed” vacation.  There’s my work at the nonprofit located in the old Del Rey grocery store in the Marmalade District just west of the Capitol Building.  There’s the Republican Irish pub where on occasion Cheryl and I will meet up after work to sit at the State’s longest bar—over 70 feet–under the watchful, John Lennon-spectacled eyes of James Joyce, in a hat.  There’s our neighborhood with crazy Maxine and Ivo, the art films screened at the Tower at the center of our neighborhood that sits at the junction of 9th South and 9th East. 
Liberty Park.  The blue and green backdrop of the Wasatch Range to the east.  We miss it all.
We finally arrive at the point of Interstate trouble.  Three cars have plowed off the curving ramp that continues as I-80.  They’ve bee-lined as if on an imaginary track, straight, into the graded  hollow under the overpass, two others, one backwards, pushed off to the right—plowed into the snow and dirt, shocking in their incongruity, after all this road is by definition a steady flow of forward-facing and speeding vehicles, a veritable river of wheels, barreling over the earth in a fashion that makes us oblivious to that earth.  If not for these three wanton cars covered as they are with snow, ice and mud, their tracks soft, obscenely inappropriate in this hyper-ordered world.
Interstate Eighty is closed.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 11)

The Paige Compositor

That night we find shelter at an EconoLodge in West Liberty, Iowa.  No movie tonight.  We are locked onto the Weather Channel, another niche channel that on any other night would, like ESPN 2 through 345, register as more cable media segmentation to the point of lunacy.  (Give me that old time Walter Cronkite any day; at least all the white middle class folks had something in common the next morning at work instead of locking in to programming that only reflects their micro world.)  Would seem like ESPN with radar screens except tonight when getting through the next 24 hours will be an obstacle course.
Cheryl looks at the radar on the screen and intuits how the system is descending out of the North.  She makes a call.  Leave early in the morning, avoid the snow moving into Iowa the next day, sleep during the storm somewhere in Nebraska and (hopefully) the snow will be cleared out in Wyoming on the last day of our trek.
We turn off the lights and try to find our way into sleep.  In my dreams I’m in a Victorian house that you might find Mark Twain living in outside Hartford, Connecticut.  It’s a museum now but filled with toys from every era of the American experiment.  But these aren’t your run-of-the-mill wooden blocks and hoops and sticks.  Based on the placards that I cannot see for some reason, the artifacts are supposed to be inventions of sorts:  vacuum cleaners that serve martinis as they move around the house by themselves, contraptions that lower and raise the lip of doors so that shuffling houseguests don’t trip, contraptions with gears and pulleys that grind and whirr, an electric car.  It’s all a weird cross between The Jetsons and steam punk and as I wander around the house trying to read the placards, I end up on the second floor where Twain’s spectacularly failed printing machine The Paige Compositor sits like a giant paper weight that might eat you.  I am familiar with this machine, how Twain used the royalties from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to finance this new printing press in 1889 which would, he thought, be the beginning of a new information age, and make him a fortune.  In the end the Linotype beat out the Compositor with its 18,000 parts and sent its inventor to the poor house and Twain into bankruptcy.  Then I hear the sound of a pinball machine in the next room.  Joe is there, leaning over the slanted glass top, one hand on each side, fingers to the buttons.  I move around to look through his long hair which, without a hat, hangs over his face, but I can’t get far enough around.  Suddenly the house blasts away on jet engines located on either side, and it’s an airplane leaving to go west and the pinball machine lights up “Tilt,”  Tilt.”
We awake to ice.  It is Saturday, December 31, 2010 and, peering out of the motel window, through the fog, it is clear that we are no longer in the East.  We have made our bumpy, haphazard way through the seaboard, the hardwoods, the great lakes and cities of Illinois and Indiana and now I-80 is straightening and stretching, plumbed west, the chalk line snapped hard against the frozen ground so that there is no way to get lost.  It must have been this way for the pioneers.  Or so they thought.  “How hard can it be to get through Iowa?”
            Downstairs in the astringent lobby, breakfast awaits us.  There are 4 pieces of bread under a plastic dome waiting to be toasted.  Clearly a fourth guest arrived during the night, making us four.   I can see that the owner who checked us in late last night when we decided that Iowa City was just too…damn…far away, has carefully sectioned off four slices of Wonder Bread with his brown Indian hands and went to bed.  In the matter of a decade, it seems, Pakistanis and Indians have taken over the shitty road-side motels of America.  It’s like they have a network of secret Hindu handshakes, or more realistically, a website in Sanskrit and Urdu fronted by a round-eyed, dark-haired sub-continent beauty with a potu in the middle of her forehead declaiming how, in the middle of a corn field outside Iowa City, USA, your American Dream Awaits!
            We don’t bother with the toast.  At this point in our cross-country journey, the only thing that makes sense is to grab a cup of very bad coffee and a small box of Sugar Pops half of which will end up between the two front seats of the Corolla as we shovel it in dry along the, now icy, interstate we’ve come to believe is our home.  But today the way is not clear…and it is definitely not safe. 
Ice is everywhere, like a glaze that has formed out of the frigid air.  The grass is coated, the trees are burdened down like the severed claws from a rooster, upside down, the road signs crystalline.  And of course the road, which seems fine at first as we pass through the fog of the city where the hospital and sports arena are, inexplicably linked together (same green exit sign) and ubiquitous water towers, reminiscent of stylized mushroom clouds, peer through the mist.  We’re in the middle of painter Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” but frozen and, eventually, sporting signs for Amana Colonies–seven historic German-American prairie villages—and Kinze Manufacturing.
There is a sign for Herbert Hoover highway.  I wonder if there are historic colonies of Great Depression era shanties—Hoovervilles—restored and gleaming with gift shoppes ready for the holiday haul.  Probably not. Too reminiscent of what they’re calling the Great Recession of 2008, which is supposed to be receding.  But where?
We are sliding.  So we slow.  We are creeping, feeling our way.  I’m at the wheel and Cheryl is leaning forward as if the 18 extra inches are going to help her see her way through this soup.  We come up on a slight hill and down in the median is a car, tits up.  This is where my first responder Flight Attendant chutzpah kicks in.  It never occurs to me that we won’t stop, and render help.  It’s me at my best—rushing into a burning house, if need be.  It’s the ultimate antidote to my armchair cynicism toward the world, and it’s fairly leaping out of me, even before I pull over to the breakdown lane and put the Corolla into park. 
Cheryl is saying something to me along the lines of “What should we do?” “Who do we call?” “Where are you going?”  But I’m already out in the freezing rain, the glory of the world literally in my face, stinging my ears.  I’m not sure if it’s the cold or the adrenaline.  An SUV from the East-bound side has pulled over next to the median, the driver out, in a baseball hat standing there, waiting to cross, looking hesitant, like he’s not sure he wants to get involved.  Another SUV/mini-van has pulled into the left break-down lane on the opposite side.  He wants to know if anyone is in the car.  I shrug my shoulders, palms up, irritated somehow at his query:  can’t he see that I just fucking got here?  I’m on the wrong side of the car which has flipped over, and I’m all turned around.  There is mud and yellow grass crammed between the rear right wheel well and tire.  When I peer in there is an interior smell of cigarettes, human sweat and damp upholstery, the forward brake light is still on, below a crushed plastic covering.  The contents of the car have re-materialized on the damp headliner—clusters of coins, cigarette butts, Cheetos, cellophane wrappers of every stripe.  The seat belts dangle from bottom to top, twisted, curiously sprung out of shape so that they’re limp.  This is disorienting, and even in an emergency like this, it feels invasive, like I’ve just opened a door on someone’s pathetic, claustrophobic life.
No one is in the car.
How long has this been here?  I look around outside.  The guy standing above me from the other side has his hands in his pockets by now and is looking back at his honey in his mini-van.  He’s still trying to decide if this drama is over.  If he can step away with any semblance of a clear conscience and head back out, toward Indiana.  We are two travelers headed in opposite directions and the only thing we have in common is this toppled Honda Accord and the Iowan wind biting at us.  The occupant of this car should be somewhere, right?  Maybe he was drunk and didn’t want to get caught.  Maybe he had stolen the car at the last truck stop, sped out of control coming down from this knoll on I-80, lost control, crashed then bolted across the spent fields outside Des Moines.  Maybe. 
I shrug at my compatriot, turn to the guy in the car on our side who is now pulling away.  Continuing on.  “Nobody here,” I shout.  “Guy’s gone.”  I turn.  Cheryl and Joe are still in the car, behind fogged glass.  I’m actually a little disappointed.  Flight Attendant Dave flies down I-80 aisle, first aid kit in tow, passengers everywhere turning in their seats, a woman screaming but, alas, it is nothing:  a man choking on a now dislodged chicken bone, or even worse, a man choking on a chicken bone who is no longer even there.
“What’s going on?” says Cheryl when I open the car door.  “Are they okay?”  Joe is wide-eyed but calm. 
“Nobody’s there.”  I slide in behind the wheel.  “It’s just sitting there.”  I turn the key and roll down the frosted window so that I can see clearly over my left shoulder before pulling out.
“Damn thing’s just sittin’ there.”
“Well, at least no one was hurt.”
“No one that we know of anyway,” I conclude, mentally returning the first aid kit to its overhead compartment.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 10)


ALERT TO THE CROSS-COUNTRY TRAVELER IN LATE 2010—there are no Starbucks along I-80.  Nor is National Public Radio available except in mere sputterings, especially through the Paleozoic-era standard issue radio in a Toyota Corolla rented through Thrifty Rental Cars.  What I wouldn’t give right now for an Americano.  And poor Cheryl, the Coffee Queen…she hasn’t had a real latte since Logan International.  Truck-stop culture along a major interstate artery is only one reason why the creature, over-stuffed comforts facilitated by baristas are hard to come by.  The other is Joe and others of his adolescent ilk—are they called EMOs now?–who can only orient themselves through fast food chains.  Why our orientation in late 2010 as adults seems only to come through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a coffee shop named after Captain Ahab’s first officer in Moby Dick is another matter. 
            By the time we reach the Mississippi River, I have given up looking for what I thought was the ubiquitous long-haired seafarer embedded in the green medallion and looking like he’s off a tarot card. This is the mind-numbing part of travel. It’s so easy to start expecting nothing more than what is offered.  It was a phenomenon the airline industry tried (and continues to try) to buck ever since People’s Express first flared up (and fizzled) on the horizon of de-regulation in the mid-80s, chiefly wrought by economist Alfred E. Kahn, who coincidentally died the night before we left Maine for our trip west.  “The verdict of the great majority of economists would, I believe, be that deregulation has been a success….” wrote Kahn.  Of course I don’t remember that he ever wrote about the costs which the flight attendants and other front-line airline employees would have to shoulder as we mid-wifed the surge of new American fliers through the aluminum “O”s coast-to-coast through hub and spoke systems and the tyranny of security checks.  “…–bearing in mind,” Kahn would continue in that demi-god way that academics have when they’re fucking around with policy “as always, the central argument … that society’s choices are always between or among imperfect systems, but that, wherever it seems likely to be effective, even very imperfect competition is preferable to regulation….”[9]
I had donned my wings and taken to slinging hash down the aisle of a B727 some few years after all this nonsense started, and there we were, at 30,000 feet and competing with United and American Airlines and the other “legacy” carriers to stay aloft and not get trounced by the start-ups along with our eternal nemesis, Southwest Airlines. This while air travel increased exponentially.  Everyone seemed to be lining up with their bulging carry-ons, their baby strollers, their wheelchairs—businessmen dangling their suit coats at you in first class to be hung up so that they could get to their pre-flight cocktail.  It took everyone twenty years to figure out that like everything else in America, its people felt entitled to have their cake and eat it too.  Amenities like “free champagne in free fall” (to quote one of David Letterman’s “Top Ten” after a spate of incidents on Delta) and reserved seating… but not for anything more than bus fare, or a few Sky Miles for an upgrade.  And the airlines, fearful of becoming another Braniff, Eastern or—horrors!—another re-organized Continental through Satan himself (CEO Frank Lorenzo)—played right along.  Following the whims of a fickle public that couldn’t get to cruising altitude without opening a screen of some sort; that wrangled frequent flier miles; that demanded non-stop…everything.  Yes, we (as in the industry) followed suit.  Putting hot meals on, then taking them back off.  Dressing the flight attendants in casual, open-throated blues then putting them back into formal ties and dresses with scarves.   Assembling focus groups to figure out what kind of bourbon would sell best.  Replacing the pillow packs of MJB with Starbucks—of course!—but making you pay for it by charging to check your luggage.
            I suppose at my age–approaching the half-century mark—that you can’t get through a career in any sector without arriving at the conclusion that the system reigns supreme.  It’s what will always reign in the end in its loping, persistent way.  The only thing that makes sense, really, is to be The Economist, like Kahn, looking down at the “imperfect systems” with the kind of detachment that still allows you to play golf that weekend.
            And what is that to us, the bumbling threesome left to wend our way west out of a catastrophic –but inevitable, it seems—systemic failing?  Now, instead of our markers being chimes in the cabin indicating turbulence, gradual and final descent, it is the mighty Mississippi spread out before us and the rumble of four tires as we cross the bridge.  In the night, lights along the shore speak to another time when the slow water ways of the country told a story that seems, at least in retrospect, more manageable, cleaner.  A system characterized by the ponderous and thoughtful sound of a paddle wheel or the chugging of a steam engine.  The lights on the far shore hold that thought for me as we intersect the country’s greatest drainage where the twenty-one year old Samuel Clemens repeatedly shouted “mark twain!” as a “cub” steamboat pilot. “If I have seemed to love my subject, it is no surprising thing,” he once wrote.  “…for I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it. The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.” 
            I used to feel that way about being a flight attendant.  And while the outbreak of the Civil War ended that freeing profession for Clemens, September 11, 2001 seemed to end mine for me.
            There is fog on the Illinois/Iowa state line.  And being in an internal (and eternal) state of counting the miles, we now seem in this soup to be spinning our wheels.  Thanks to the car radio, there is more rock and roll here at the end of our exhausting day with Rock Hall now nearly 500 miles behind us, including  Stevie Wonder’s rendition of the old standard “Rainy Night in Georgia.” Earlier we had stopped for dinner at “R Place,” a rambling family restaurant attached to a truck stop just west of Joliet, IL in the city of Morris and famous, apparently for its hubcap tenderloin, which I will leave you, dear reader, to figure out why it is called thusly.  The place is filled with collectibles, many sandwiched under the glass top of the booth we sat in.  After returning the menu to “Barb” who, typical of her sisterhood is chewing gum and pointing out the specials with a practiced patience that I have never trusted, I notice an old black-and-white photo directly below where my plate will rest.  It is the profile card of a young, swarthy-looking man being booked into the Erie County (NY) Penitentiary.  He stands, according to the card, at 5’1”.  There are other stats penciled into boxes on the abbreviated form that mean nothing to me.  Most telling, however, is the expression in his face of utter compliance.  It’s a face that tells of a time when having one’s picture taken—most likely the first image of him—was utterly unique.  A face filled with wonder at a technology that, while it was going to literally imprison you, the process of the system was nevertheless utterly captivating.  The expression of a man who is curiously honored to be the subject of a gizmo he cannot comprehend.  
            Barb arrives with catfish for Cheryl and me, a bacon cheeseburger with bleu cheese for the man-boy.  Barb has the doughy look of someone who waits tables in a place famous for its bakery, a menu in which the term “vegetarian” is un-American and where all fish must be dipped in batter.  But she is sympathetic to our plight which Cheryl shares as Barb stands and takes a short break.  It would seem that several years back when our waitress lived in California, she spent over thirty-five thousand dollars returning to Illinois to care for her cancer-ridden father who, as fathers all eventually do, cancer-ridden or not, eventually died.  Finally, when the flights became too expensive, she started driving the distance, only to learn that Sundays are dry in Nebraska and that Iowa’s isn’t much better, sporting its own weird blue laws.
            R Place takes on a warmth because of Barb and we listen thoughtfully over bite-fuls to a brief history of this place, a museum unto itself, its primary collection being that of old toys:  dolls, and rusted bikes, jacks and curious games all of which is woefully curated but fascinating in a pass-by way.  
            Joe finishes his burger and heads back to the bathroom before we leave and Barb returns with our check. 
            “I didn’t know that I would ever end up back in Illinois, she says, continuing a conversation interrupted regularly by the duties of diner world.  “But here I am and it was because I cared about my dad so much.”
            “Was it worth it?”  I ask at the risk of Cheryl possibly kicking me under the table. (Is my negativity showing?)
            Barb thinks for a minute, one arm folded across her ample bosom, the other in a pocket of her soiled apron.  The family next to us is shambling out of the booth and she turns to thank them.  Everyone here in this gluttonous space between Christmas and New Year’s seems gargantuan to me, men and women, mother and dads even grandparents are swathed in cotton Ts, levis and the ubiquitous shodding of “tennis shoes”—giant winter coats that make them all, in the argot of the day, even more “ginormous.”  She thanks them again for their business, then turns to us with a sigh.  “I don’t know yet.  It’s only been 12 years since I came back for Dad.  Maybe I’ll know when you come back this way to R Place.  Maybe I’ll know by then.”

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 9)

PART 9: 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

We’re taking our Cleveland detour for Joe.  But I also realize that being the third day now that I’m wearing the same cardigan, admittedly over one of the new T-shirts Cheryl has bought me and Joe, that I am indeed in need of respite.  The sky is clear today.  A good day to see Cleveland.  We shoot up north on I-77 and into the city where we inexplicably drive right to the  building designed by I.M. Pei on the south shore of Lake Erie.  There it is, all winged and white, the giant drum on its pedestal where the actual “hall” is.  We park at the adjacent Science Museum and walk across the winter-browned grass and up the stairs.  To the north a giant tanker lies anchored in the lake, the breakers for the harbor in the distance, the horizon of what looks like a sea extending forever away and north.  The wind.  There is wind and sun and the blanched exterior of the mecca of music we have pilgrimaged to, and I am revived.  Our world actually stops existing on the linear line west that will take us to familiar waters—salty ones to be precise—and suddenly the world is 360 degrees again, peripheral and vertical, scrubbed clean of truck plazas and the thrumming of asphalt.  This might have actually been a good idea.  Thank God for credit cards.    
                Despite Pei’s claim that it was energy—youthful energy to be more precise—he was trying to capture in glass and metal, the building inside feels institutional.  The organizers of the hall and museum got what they wanted, I suppose:  the cachet of a high-brow architect whose oeuvre includes the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in Washington to elevate a traditionally “low-brow” art form.  “I didn’t know a thing about rock and roll,” he is reported as saying when the famous, Chinese-American architect was first commissioned in the early 90s.  Born in China in 1917, Bing Crosby was Pei’s America—not Elvis Presley.  Still, the structure is striking, even heart-stopping when the light hits it just right and the angled glass and jutting wings suspended above the ground reassemble what seems like an infinite number of shifting lines. 
            And…institutional or not, this feels like the nonprofit home I have found myself in since leaving the airline in 2005.  Memberships.  Subscriptions.  The infamous, self-congratulating donor wall.  You can almost hear the squabbling of the volunteer board, the luncheons of development officers relieving the wealthy of their money.  Everything has the patina of being “mission-driven,” but like everything else, it’s a varnish over the only portal accessible to Americans these days whether into family, religion or politics:  corporate money.  “You can buy anything in this world for money,” says the minion of Satan in the Mormon liturgy of my youth.  Got that right. But even my own people have forgotten that, Utah being the scam capitol of the world.          
Even so…There are always these—the qualifiers.  
By the time the three of us have paid our 22 bucks a head (“Your visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum helps fund our efforts to educate the world on the social significance of rock and roll.”…have our picture taken in front of a digitized night view of “Rock Hall” as it’s affectionately known, we have fully surrendered.  Down the escalators we are greeted with ZZ Top’s red 1933 Ford Coupe “The Eliminator,” and all is right with the world.  The music video of “Gimee all your Lovin’” with its nineteen-year-old garage mechanic getting a ride (literally) in the Ford with the stylized “ZZ” racing stripes and, more importantly, three older incredibly naughty women drivers in three-inch heels and stockings, well…  It’s a reminder before you even enter the Rock Hall that rock and roll is a euphemism—popularized by the genre’s first disc jockey and concert producer Alan Freed–for fucking.      
Joe and I stand there agape while Cheryl reads through the map of the 150,000-square foot place and tries to plan our visit (she will eventually give up and take to treading water in the flotsam and jetsam of the genre with the rest of us).  The next three hours in the museum will demonstrate how even music based on the rhythmic beats of carnal knowledge can get if not calcified then definitely gentrified, just like boxing and blue jeans before, respectively, T.S. Eliot and Calvin Klein.  Or so I think.
            This is about Joe, I think.  We’re here for my grandson because it’s one of very few things that we can safely talk about, share and even celebrate.  His love of music.  I remember when he was six and seven it was Mozart for him.  I’m the non-profit dude who in high school won the Shakespeare prize from my drama teacher, the late Mr. Ray Jones, for being able to recite from memory nearly 90 minutes of the stuff.  So music supposedly of my generation—including the 70s burp of disco–was peripheral, mere background noise to the deposition scene in Richard II.  But here is our Joe.  Immersed in music he prefaces with the adjective “classic.”  Never mind that he was introduced to all of American culture through “The Simpsons” which he has memorized and recited as much as I ever did the Bard.  This is what he’s gravitated to with his replica John Lennon glasses, his 150+ vinyl records sitting on the floor of my home office, a thousand facts about guitars, death in small plane crashes and record labels.  And finally, I can sit back and watch him in his temple of delights, hungry to return to any small relic of the thing that gives his life meaning.  It’s more than worth the $22 per head, if you ask me.
            What I didn’t expect was that Rock Hall was my temple too.  Between Cheryl, who was born in 1950, and Joe who was born in 1993, there’s my generation.  Too young to have smoked weed at Woodstock, but too old to be considered the real “lost generation” of Gen X, my people got Donna Summer and the Bee Gees for our trouble, Watergate and the first raid on Grenada, where, perhaps the country got the notion that war could be antiseptic—like playing a video game.  And yet we were there, wading through the stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis and sort of waiting for the next big identifying American era which never came.  Our meaning was how many times one could change his or her major in college, what we could buy, and how early we divorced.  If you were gay it was whether you had dodged HIV and how you told your coming-out-of-the-closet story.  All of this is in Cleveland, heavily curated, yes, but there nonetheless.  It is the story of youth getting their first taste of power too fast and too early, of how “we” became an economic and social force to be reckoned with. And, like the generations we were reacting to, it was how we ended up fucking it up just as bad as our forebears. 
In case, dear reader, you haven’t figured it out by now, the glass is always half empty for Dave.  (At least at the end of 2010.)  Or, in the words of Woody Allen, it’s actually a glass half full, but it’s poison.  So why, then, as I stood watching the looped video of Elvis Presley in one of those blessed PBS-styled, drill-down tapings in a close-up studio with a live audience did I start to come unhinged?  The man-boy is gone, cut loose to ramble through the displays with abandon, as is Cheryl, and I’m left standing, transfixed by the magnetism of the King, his talent for conjoining the electric with the baleful, all suffused with an unaccountable trans-gendered sex appeal?  It was late in my father’s life before I realized that, born in 1929, he too was a huge fan of Presley. This surprised me since Dad is uber-religious, intractable, even, in his Mormonism.  In the end, I think my father, a handsome man in his own right, saw himself in the star’s smoky good looks. Even so, it felt strange buying my father the complete collection one year for his birthday.  What would all of his disciples back at the ward think?
But it isn’t just Presley.  It’s the whole slew of them.  Telling the story through the early days when Rock was the devil’s music, through all its co-option of gospel, the blues—country western.  It’s Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and scandalous-sounding Little Richard.  And it was the Beatles.  When I turn the corner, I am in the shrine of the Fab Four.  Fevered Joe is already there.   He beckons to me, even pulls my arm at one point. “Poppa, it’s his glasses!  John Lennon’s glasses!”  Under glass themselves, the spectacles are thin, fragile-looking really with no nose pads.  The man-boy has a replica of this pair, known, apparently, as the Windsor style that came into vogue in the late 19th Century and remained popular through World War I.   Joe’s, however, are sunglasses, and he looks fey in them, the green lenses round as the moon on his long face, instead of slightly oval as the ones here.  These, however, are the real things, and he is entranced. 
Word is that Lennon, horribly near-sighted, wouldn’t wear his government-issued black rims when he was a school boy.  Rather, he would sit at the back of the class at Quarry Bank School and resolutely flunk his classes largely because what was happening up front, including on the black board, was all a blur. 
We will be here for a while in this side chapel of the Rock Hall Cathedral.  There is clothing, sketchbooks of both Lennon’s early and later caricatures and other drawings.  There is a studio piano at which he is said to have composed while away from the city on Long Island, and the wax from a melted candle is still pooled here and there, hardened now of course, on the black veneer.  To me it seems careless and prima donnish of him—this abuse of the implements, to reference Lily Tomlin’s ringy-dingy operator from Laugh-In.  Maybe it’s just that what Cheryl and I call a piano—her mother’s spinet, schlepped across the country not once but thrice, and pretty much ruined because of it—has been inadequate for years, and I am envious.  Or maybe the bile in me is surfacing—again!—as I am reminded that today along with a pre-nuptial it is the American dream to be able to live like a rock star, the eternal child.  (“He’s a rock star!”)
            For Joe, none of this registers.  Or at least I don’t think it does.  In a place such as this, he’s in a pinball machine, bouncing off relics ranging from a faded yellow report card (pathetic marks) to the man’s British passport.  There are scribblings galore of lyrics that would become world famous and corroborate the cliché that Lennon was the spokesman of a generation.  While Joe approaches a series of guitars pinned to the wall like icons in the form of a triptych, I am drawn to a faded copy of the special Beatles issue of the National Record News.  “Anthony Corbett, a noted English psychologist,” it reads, “praised the Beatles as having provided a ‘desperately needed release for the inhibitions which exist in all of us.’” 
            What was new and thrilling is now this:  thrilling because it’s old, it’s passed, it’s under climate-controlled whatever.  But this retrospective of the last half century or more through the lens of a single musical genre is how we pass it all down the line.  How Joe will make sense of the world—or not.  It gives him the talking points in a vast conversation that both elevates and erases itself.  My impulse here is sincere.  I want to believe that, unlike me, in the conversational flow he will be able to hear himself.  And maybe, just maybe he can make a contribution to the world that is currently both our terror and our hope.
In another room, Cheryl is looking at a costume worn by Patti LaBelle, the mannequin with a finned headdress that, frankly, reminds me of the architecture of Rock Hall, but black.  “Joe is really enjoying this,” I tell her. 
“And you?” 
“It’s…it’s surprising me.”
“In what way?”  I have to think about this for a second.  Suddenly I’m looking at the crowds milling about, cameras dangling.  Every size and shape imaginable of my fellow Americans shod in Nike and blue jeans, spandex and down.  A small child has caught my eye as she hangs from a chrome barrier, a little pig-tailed thing not aware that, as with me, she is looking away from the displays and at something else.  Me.  Something live.
“I find it moving,” I say, and something catches in my throat.  This is the first time we have had two minutes to reflect on anything, it seems, other than getting the hell out of New England and out west where we belong.
“I’m not surprised,” she says sensing my emotion. She slips her warm hand under my arm and I’m suddenly self-conscious of what is apparently my visible reaction.  Cheryl never seems to suffer from envy.  Patti LaBelle’s glamour and wealth—she doesn’t covet it.  She has the uncanny ability of seeing past our projections on the people we deem celebrities.  She sees something else in all of it.
            “Nostalgia?” I ask.
“Maybe some of that,” she says.  “But I think there’s something more going on here.”  She looks around in thought.  Playing to its strengths, Rock Hall has recordings of music playing everywhere and where we are standing now we can hear the keening of someone that I can’t name, and yet it’s so familiar it almost makes me swoon.  The only thing missing is the smell of a rancid night club or the tang of a mosh pit.

There’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirmin’ like a toad
Take a long holiday, let your children play
If ya give this man a ride, sweet family will die
Killer on the road, yeah

            “In the Fifties, this was all very new.  Very threatening to some.  My Dad hated Elvis Presley.”  I picture my own father.  The man who admired Presley in the only way you could admire him—infatuation—but had to hide it.  Unlike my late father-in-law Frank who seemed to have no problem telling at least himself the truth. “You know Gary put himself through school playing in bands,” she continues, referring to her Ex…Josiah’s blood grandfather.  “He was actually really good.  Probably still is.” What she’s not saying is that she also sang for many years—at weddings, parties—but that she kept to the ballads and the folk songs, Joan Baez stuff.  The Standards, even.  I know she was good until, as she says it, she ruined her voice to smoking.   
The song continues.  I look around for Joe, thinking we ought to head out.  Or maybe upstairs for some lunch, a cup of coffee and a quick peek, if there is such a think as “quick” here, up stairs at the actual hall of fame.
Girl ya gotta love your man, girl ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand, make him understand
The world on you depends, our life will never end
Gotta love your man, yeah
There is music and then there is “the only thing that makes sense,” to quote Lennon when as a young man he was craving the American stuff—Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis–and trying to get the ubiquitous Skiffle bands of Liverpool to go Rock.  The only thing more nuanced, perhaps, more potent is breathing in a scent.  And it means something even when you don’t know what it “means.”  

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan
Riders on the storm

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm
Riders on the storm, riders on the storm

Maybe Bruce Springsteen said it best.  On Level Five he’s featured in an exhibit emblazoned with this quote from him:  “People deserve the truth.  They deserve honesty.  The best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with.”
We may not be faced with the world right now, per se.  Not the whole world as Bruce Springsteen seems to be implying.  But we are faced with part of it.  The rest of Ohio, all of Illinois and Indiana and, getting to Iowa.  So we leave the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, angling south and west toward I-80 where we will pick up our trail.  Once we pass Chicago and bi-sect the northern fifth of the Hoosier State, I will feel as though we’re really making progress.  Something about crossing the Mississippi and getting lost in the corn fields of Iowa that makes one feel the barometric pressure falling, from East to West.  And yet Rock Hall has an aftertaste.  And it is strangely lingering in us across Illinois, as we skirt south of what is supposed to be Chicago through traffic that has an unmistakably urban aura.  Something in the air that’s aggressive but somehow aimless at the same time.