Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 7)

Part 7


            Tonight, I wake up with a start.  We are in an antiseptic Motel 6 outside Barkeyville.  I remember vaguely the movie I fell asleep to:  Adam Sandler and Kevin James are pretending to be gay so that they can sidestep civic red tape that prevents the James character from naming his own two kids as his life insurance beneficiaries.  This was how the wheel of fortune decided to send me to slumberland.  But that is not why I wake up.  I awake in a cold sweat with the sudden realization of just how long we have to go.  How big the country is.
            Driving around in our hybrid Ford Escort in Salt Lake City, it was easy to think of the whole nation circumscribed by…what?  National Public Radio?  A twenty minute drive across town to Morning Edition and All Things Considered on the way home, and I had this sense that I had grappled with America, toured its sites, plumbed its depths.  But now.  Lying in bed with the too-hot/too-cold unit grinding away, Cheryl’s soft snoring to my side, the TV blank, I realize, “My God.  We’re still in Pennsylvania!”
            This isn’t just a mental acknowledgement, but a fear-based one.  It is winter.  It is icy cold.  It is Pennsylvania and we have miles to go before we sleep. It is a sentiment I once wrote about for a newspaper, this airline age where we have forgotten that the distance is the same going from point A to point B.  But we have forgotten.  We have believed that we could scoot up from Dallas to Jackson Hole, WY for a skiing trip over a weekend and back to Dallas without a hitch.  Fresh cut limes in the Bloody Marys.  But the wild cards are still there. Weather hasn’t changed, just our ability to believe it isn’t a variable to what we have to do.  Where we have to go.  Mechanical malfunction?  Vulcanized rubber and its progenitors of Michelin and Firestone have “solved” that.  The FAA mandates certain foolproof measures so that at that critical point of nose up at 180+ mph our stomachs don’t turn over anymore, only the pages of our Wall Street Journals.
            Not so, I posited.  The distance is the same.  ATC delays are the Indian attacks of my pioneer ancestors.  The dried up watering holes they relied on for their oxen and horses are now weight and balances during a snowstorm at high-elevation Jackson and a short runway and too many fat Americans toting ski boots so that we have to take everyone’s luggage off and bus it to Idaho Falls for a flight out.  To be fair, in my rant, I also indicted the airline industry.  In their attempt to win customers, they make it sound like getting to Tampa from New York is as easy as crossing the street while watching a movie.  But the fact is that we fellow travelers, fat or not, are still reliant on space and time, energy and…luck to get where we’re going alive.  Or at least with the fresh limes in our Bloody Marys.
            Why is it that I forgot my own brilliant thesis when I stormed out of Logan International the night before last and into the freezing rain with little more than a credit card?
            This Pennsylvania night is scaring the shit out of me, and the debilitating enormity of our task ticks away in my head like a metronome.
In the morning, at breakfast, again at a truck stop that is starting to look like the DNA of America, the man-boy orders coffee.  This has never happened before.  He asks for honey.  I know for a fact that his father drinks his coffee with honey.  We sit at a table watered and fed by a solicitous young waitress who even styrofoams coffee for us to go.  (What would the country do without Styrofoam?)  When the waitress, juggling plates of foot, forgets to come back with the honey, he resigns himself to drinking it black, as I do.
The walls of the place are covered with letters and photos– memorabilia of local men and women who have served our country in Afghanistan and Iraq.  There is more than one poster signed by café regulars, offering condolences to families, to wives who have lost loved ones.  In one photo a helmeted soldier hardly older than our Joe, from the waist up, is grinning wildly, an ethereal landscape behind him.  Another, in full profile and stiffly shouldering his standard issue rifle, stands looking through wrap around sunglasses at the impenetrable blue sky,
            Across from us, in a booth, a couple sit facing each other over their table with coffee and the ruins of a half-eaten breakfast.  Leaning in, his soiled down vest over a flannel shirt bulges into the table edge, he is speaking to her in tones that I can’t hear.  Short, penetrating words that are making her turn away from the room, toward the wall.  She fingers a cell phone, her own bulky coat like armor, her liquid brown hair curling over the collar.  Both are in jeans, boots with laces hastily and half-tied and the air seems thick between them.  He lazers in.  She dips her head more, and runs a finger along the white edge of a plate.  The end of each of his syllables drives home with the lift of his chin.  He takes her hand.  She pulls in more, but in that way that indicates she is also drawn to him, unsure of what to do with what she thinks she desires.  Hopeless to help herself resist. It is seven in the morning during Christmas break.  A Friday.  And I can only imagine the back story.  Their separate cars outside, hers with an empty child’s car seat.  A receipt for one night in his jeans pocket, snug against his thigh.  The buttons on the phone she fingers thread immediately to her other life.  That that life is just one press-of-a-button away makes the sweet whisperings of this man through morning whiskers all the more thrilling.  Behind them on the wall is posted letterhead from the Department of Defense addressed to someone from Clinton, Pennsylvania.
            Dear Mr. and Mrs. Butler…
I carry the Styrofoam cups which our eager waitress has insured are pint-sized through the gift shop and out to the car, while Cheryl pays the bill and Joe looks at a Rolling Stone magazine.  Outside a thin skiff of snow has covered everything and the islands of gas pumps steam in the morning light.  It is taking both of my traveling partners longer than I expected.  Plus I have to pee.  I place the coffees on the trunk of the car, turning them into the snow, and head back in.  When we return, we see that they have melted through the snow and fallen to the ground, lids and cups forlornly lying in the chocolate covered snow behind the car.
“Shit,” I say.
“What were you thinking?” says Cheryl with an edge compounded by two days on the road.  Yes, she is the coffee queen—so much so that when we started dating two decades ago, I called the perpetual mug in her hand her “prop.”
            “She went to a lot of trouble for us.  What a waste!”
            I decide to remain silent this time, smart ass defensive verbal back though I am.  Admittedly.
            This time Joe, looking thoughtfully over the scene, comes to my rescue.
”It was an honest mistake, Nana.”  He pats her shoulder consolingly.  Sometimes he can seem so mature to me, this boy who has sat behind my seat in the car for the past two days and never complained.  But always, always he is kind.  Even when I took him, at age 11, three times a week to Muoy Thjai Boxing, he would sit with Dallas, a six year old terror and patiently play with  him and his Matchbox cars.  Building him up while his mother screamed at the trainer who had effectively dis-invited him from class because of Dallas’ acting out.  This boy of mine seems to know what it means to be treated unfairly.
            I scoop up the mess.  Return to the eternal truck stop where we can’t seem to escape this morning, for two more cups of java for the road.  Joe goes with me.  The fact is, my grandson does not believe at any moment of his life that he deserves anything.  Days after the fact, we will realize that he hasn’t had lunch money, that he’s just gone hungry.  Only when we find his converse top-siders torn through, tread-less on the bottom do we ask why he hasn’t told us he needed new shoes.
            “I don’t need new shoes,” he says.  And then when we press him, “They’re expensive.  I just didn’t think we could do it.”  They are expensive.  Kids are expensive.  But, in typical Dave fashion, I am first angry at him when this happens, then the Inquisitor, then sullen.  It is only in moments like this, outside Barkeyville, PA under a gunmetal sky, that I am heartsick, reminded of Exhibit A through C; F through N; X through Y.  Little stories about when he was with his mother and his father—first together then after they separated and we were still in New York.  He doesn’t feel he deserves better than whatever he’s got at that moment.  No one even has to tell him that now.  He calculates it out on his own.  Instantaneously.
“Where’s your I-pod?” I say.  Nana is driving, leaning forward and reading all the signs again out loud.  I’ve noticed in the rear-view mirror that Joe is wireless.
            “In my pocket.”  I conjecture that he forgot to re-charge it at the motel last night.  He isn’t going to volunteer that information.  Sometimes, especially with me (chronically with me), to admit a minor oversight to his Papa is to admit being flawed.  It pains me to think that this is our dynamic:  a teenager who has somehow picked up from the alpha male that he can’t even forget to do something as minor as charge his i-pod without having it reflect badly on his character.  I do the conjecturing after all (see above).  Then again, he is seventeen.  Maybe it just goes with the territory.
            I flip on the radio.  I fiddle with the knobs.  Not really sure anymore what the knobs and buttons are for on this factory-issue item.
            “You have the bass up kinda high,” he says, and I tweak it lower.  “That’s okay, “he continues.  The music has its own bass.”
            We listen to the music in our separate zones.  Then Aerosmith’s re-make of the Beatles’ “Come Together” arrives.  I had forgotten that they did that for the 1978 film “Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  Ironic that the film was my first real introduction to the oeuvre of the Fab Four—and it was all remakes of their songs, from Billy Preston to Elton John, designed, I suspect now, to get the disco-fed babies back up-to-speed with the “real rock and roll to me.”
            I decide to play the provocateur.
            “What the hell does any of this mean, anyway?” I ask.  I strike gold.  He leans forward, his left arm on the back of his Nana’s seat, and gives me a running exegesis on Ringo’s blues roots (“Here come ol’ flat-top”) to Lennon’s increasing drug use “bad production” and “You can feel his disease.”)
            The toe-jam football, Joe explains, has to do with barefoot soccer playing, which followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with whom George had become enamored, played while  worshipping at the yogi’s temple.
            Impressive!  Not the yogi, but the man-boy’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things Beatles, through the portal of the most heady of the them, John Lennon.
            “How do you know all this stuff?” I say, turning around to look at him in astonishment.
            “He’s reading that book,” offers Cheryl.  “He’s got a good memory, just like his folks.” She glances back at him in the mirror.  God bless her, she’s campaigning still to make sure there are admirable things about his absent parents that he can love.
            “Actually,” he confesses.  “I read it on the internet.  It’s amazing the number of acolytes the Beatles still have on there.”
            Acolytes?  Do I even know what that means?  And this is a kid whose GPA, though I admit is on the rise, hovers in the 2.5 range.
            On the radio it’s now time for more year-end review, a curious national pastime that, this year, promises to make me develop acid-reflux.  There’s mention of the Ground Zero Mosque mixed with the popularity of the TV show “Glee” and the BF Oil Spill playing off Lebron James’ insanely protracted decision to move from Cleveland to the Miami Heat, stretching his 15 minutes of fame to weeks.  (More evidence from Uncle Pete that the NBA has become a league of street thugs?)  Speaking of thugs, there’s also the riveting reminder of how Jay Leno gave up his late-night gig to Conan O’Brien only to renege when in his own new show Leno started looking like he was chasing his own tail, poor bastard (he’ll never recover).  They play a clip from Conan’s gracious farewell show in which he thanks NBC, the network that in true American fashion can spin a rationale for its greed over ethics faster than you can say “Enron” or more to the point of our most recent descent into The Great Recession, “Goldman Sachs.”
“Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show,” reported Conan “…and, for seven months, I got to do it!  I did it my way, with people I love. I do not regret one second. … I’ve had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we’ll find a way to make it fun.”  Even the Will Ferrell-led Lynyrd Skynyrd song Free Bird  couldn’t eclipse the sincerity of the lanky guy with the mop hair.  But do good guys ever really win in this world, or at best do they just get told, “hey, you played hard, but you didn’t play it right, dude?”
“If I leave here tomorrow…” the dudes sang in their crackpot way, and…I remembered that as I lay in bed next Cheryl, the glow of the screen filling the room on that late February night, they really did look like they were having a good time.  To me anyway, God bless ‘em.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue. (Part 1)

We leave Boston’s Logan determined to be self-directed, free. I’ll be damned if I am going to sit there for up to four days, we were told by surprisingly kind customer service representative at the other end of the airline’s “Need Help?” red phone. Cheryl had done all the talking while the man-boy and I sat, he plugged into his I-pod, me stewing moodily in my thoughts while trying not to be drawn in by the elevated screen flashing the inevitably bizarre landscape of American “news.”

“Did you tell her we wanted to buy tickets? On any airline?” I say when Cheryl comes back to our territory marked with coats and bags, an empty sandwich box, my beer on the floor next to my seat, just waiting to get kicked over. “I think this is a good time to use that emergency credit card, you think?” Cheryl is smiling her way over through the crowds. She can manage her wan smile even under duress while I feel that at a certain point of aggravation with things, I deserve the luxury of a frown. After all, I’m now retired from the airline. I don’t have to sport the molded plastic smile anymore.

“There are no flights,” says Cheryl and sits. She is rummaging in her tote bag for something, her thumb still in the book she’s reading—a fictional meditation on cholera… “No,” I say with impatience as well as a flourish. “We’ll just fucking buy full fare. We’re never getting out of here as non-revs.” I glance at the man-boy who is still plugged in. He gets upset sometimes when I punch up my language. Something that happened in his past. But he’s still plugged in, oblivious.

“You don’t understand,” says Cheryl. “They aren’t selling anything for today, or tomorrow. We’re looking at Jan. 1, the earliest.” Three days away.

“What about American? United? If we’re going to go full fare…”

“None of them are selling tickets, Dave” she interrupts emphatically and then looks at me, waiting for it to sink in. Our situation. The man-boy is trying to read our conversation through the clamoring noise of classic rock and roll. Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd? Or his favorite, the Beatles? Classic or not, the three have virtually nothing in common with each, I think. But the man-boy is far ranging these days. Perhaps he’s turned down the volume…or turned off the I-pod which he can do discretely with his hand gripping it in the pocket of the coat he never seems to take off.

Cheryl looks at me and gives me her smile. This is the critical moment when a decision must be made, and despite my forceful language, I am going to wait for her. Being the older of us, she is the decider. What do they call it? The one who is pro-active. That way if it goes badly I can complain as the put-upon-one. And if it goes well…well, I’ll always be able to find something to harp on. Either way I won’t be the reason we’re going back into debt. Plus, I have a back up. Even if we don’t rent a car or buy three, full-fare tickets back to Salt Lake City, we’re paying a dog sitter $50 a day at, already, 15 days. Cheryl’s insistence.

“Let’s just rent a car and drive,” she says with what I’ve come to think of as Yankee, non-Western determination. “Let’s just get in a car and get the hell out of here.”

This is what I wanted her to say. The thought of sitting in this chrome and carpeted concourse—eating $15 lobster roll sandwiches—and counting my beers is more than I can handle. We’ve already had to drive from Portland at the recommendation of the gate agent there who told us our chances of flying non-rev, short-hand for free passes for airline and retired-airline employees, are better out of Boston. The agent, with carefully arranged hair to look non-arranged and bust that her otherwise tidy uniform could not hide, was standing with me in the Portland, Maine baggage claim room, the smell of plastic and sweat in the piles of tagged, tipped over and sometimes mutilated luggage—some with dust on them–the buzz of a fluorescent light above us. She was being inordinately helpful, as fellow airline employees are to each other—giving the inside scoop, the way around the problem that only those of our tribe can access.

The three of us leave the airport, gathering up our stuff that has spread out over six seats in some kind of effort to stake a claim on airport real estate while we wait. And we are at a distinct handicap. Our level of technology is woefully inadequate. I have only an old LG flip phone. No access to the internet where we can roam the standby lists, make new listings, look up passenger loads. Strategize. (Thus Cheryl’s earlier phone call to reservations.) Half of my desire to get out of the airport is based on the embarrassment of not having at least a laptop I can tool around on. But this punching of numbers on a phone whose tones I haven’t learned how to silence for my fellow, more tech-savvy Americans, is too much for me to bear.

We leave. Cheryl and I rolling our carry-ons, the man-boy carrying his for the same reason I carried mine everywhere for the first five years as a flight attendant: to distinguish myself as somehow tough, not gay like the rest of the guys in my class at Western Airlines. And we head down the escalator, through the corridor that splits off between arriving and leaving passengers and towards the heavy metal doors, complete with sentinel standing guard, through which once we traverse there will be no returning. Check Point Charlie.

We move to the door. It whisks open. The sentinel follows us with his eyes, unsmiling or just bored, one leg up on the chrome bar of his black-cushioned bar stool. What are we supposed to give him? Some kind of secret handshake to pass through?

Whatever.

In Baggage Claim I am frantically calling from the car rental booth lighted by every garish and stylish car rental logo available—which is to say all of them in this great country of ours. Frantic, because I’m convinced that the hoards of stranded passengers will be doing the same thing and that cars will disappear quickly. Cheryl and the man-boy have gone to see if we can claim our luggage (we won’t be able to; all three of them have left for Utah without us) while I stand guard over our meager belongings while trying to figure out whether Hertz, Avis or Thrifty will be our rental of choice.

Armed with a plan but with little or no accountability for making the plan, I am driven to make that plan happen, and am driven to walk out of the airport and into the rain that is about to begin to freeze, into the New England night and into the shuttle, my little family with our modest belongings slung over our shoulders, hats pulled down, I-pod glowing. We will motor over to the Mass Pike with a figurative flipping of the bird to the massively disappointing airline industry, the inconvenience of East Coast life. Yes, we will flip a collective middle finger over our shoulder without looking back. The Great American gesture of defiance and entitlement, like the glass John Hancock Tower standing on the back bay of Shawmut Peninsula and flipping off Mother England. But this time we will be shouting the equivalent of Screw Fucking You! to someone infinitely closer than Europe, or the Middle East—our touted enemies–or that great, brooding non-touted enemy, China. Someone infinitely closer, indeed. But first we have to get out of the rental car parking lot.

The attendant looks at me blankly when I ask her how best to get to I-80. For some reason, I thought 80 ran all the way from Boston across the fruited plains all the way to the West Coast. She hands me a map of greater Boston with an inset of Logan International, and keeps typing up the details of our Toyota Corolla with an $800 drop fee. She is a large girl, with an almost practiced, put-upon frown that doesn’t put up with any shit. I am more than familiar with that frown, having walked the aisles of many a Boeing and McDonnell Douglas contraption, the frown gripping my face, the beacon of a full body composition that says you are a professional but only skin deep. Don’t fuck with me, a variation of “Don’t Tread on Me,” from colonial times, but contemporized.)

I pull out my old LG, the flip phone from another age as thick with its faux-leather sheath as a bean and cheese burrito but not so tasty. We call our daughter (and the man-boy’s mother) Julianne who lives in Salt Lake with her boyfriend Travis. For the moment we are on speaking terms with her.

“Julie?”

“Where are you?”

“Boston. We’re driving home.”

“To Salt Lake?”

“Look. I need you to do us a favor.” There is little that suggests that which is life-affirming in a parking lot at night. Even less in an east coast parking lot at an airport. Something about plopping down behind the wheel of a car while vibrating to the sound of jet engines.

“Can’t you just buy a ticket?” she says. “You guys are going to be a week…”

“I need you to look up the northern route to Utah. I-80.”

Outside, the night converges as I remember dark, dirty Boston nights did when I lived here 24 years ago. Cheryl looks at me with patience. She is in trooper mode. Gonna get out of here in one piece.

I can hear Julie talking to Travis who is clicking away on his keyboard. The two of them in protracted, internally-heard cyber-speak…coaxing, thinking out loud with all the markers of our shared, webbed world.

“It’s I-90,” she says finally. You need the Mass Pike, I-90.

“Then where, where is I-80?”

“You sure you don’t want to go south to DC and across through Tennessee? The weather, you know. Freezing rain, snow…”

I persist. “I thought I-80 was a straight shot west to the Rockies, north of Denver.” Really what this is all about is that I don’t won’t to have to think beyond the nose of the car about what direction to go. Plus—and this is something I don’t really want to admit—I need the comfort of something familiar. “I wish I had a road that I could skate away on” to quote the warbling Joni Mitchell, and that road has to be I-80.

Julie gives me the directions. Cheryl scribbles them down, her glasses perched precariously on her nose, and I snap my phone shut.

There was a time when I was completely charmed by this, the colonial town of bean-ness. So charmed I didn’t want to return home after my two-year stint going door-to-door and canvassing in Harvard Square and Boston Common. But now there is only one way through my mental fix. One way out. And it is west.

The Mass Pike is broad and steely cold, be-lining in a concrete trough below the street level of the city. There are billboards flat against the cement walls on either side, one, I see out of the corner of my eye, touting the Goddamned-given rights to own a gun–a too-tidy reaction to the election of Obama over two years ago, if you ask me. Even so, in the yellow city crime light and dingy concrete canyon, there is a moment where it actually seems to make sense, this owning a gun out of some inchoate fear.

The man boy is in the back seat, legs folded sideways in the best Japanese-made car made in the U.S.A. (sort of) for our money (and good mileage to boot). It’s too dark to read his book on Lennon so he is just sitting in the alternating bands of light and shadow. He’s watching as Cheryl and I are, the world opening out in a thin ribbon of road. I am not above projecting what he might be thinking, and I am there—the man in charge—with a quick judgment of him. He can’t possibly know what lies ahead of him. For this, my live-in grandson, he can only be thinking that this is a drive a little further than Evanston, Wyoming where we have taken him to buy illegal fireworks; or Arizona where we visit Cheryl’s sister when the Maine winters get to be too much for her.

We take a pit stop at Gulf Mart, in West Framingham (or so the sign says). One of the infamous private/public partnerships: exclusive rights to road-weary interstate travelers in need of gas, or a hot dog on a limp white bun. The Pike reverberates behind us, and as the three of us cross the damp parking lot and into the brittle light of the shop, I am still in charge, having just spent more money than we have. We walk towards the chrome and glass bay of refrigerators. I can tell the man-boy is waiting for permission of some sort. “Whatever you want,” I say as off-handedly as I can. I am performing a kind of swagger motivated by a sense that I am the wagon leader here.

Cheryl is humming along in survival mode. She’s picking up huge bottles of water, one for each of us. Trail mix. Dried fruit, as if we’re in need of pioneer stores to load into our covered wagon. The next thing, I think, will be matches and a poncho. I head to the wiener department, snagging a road atlas on the way. We haven’t had anything since the $15 lobster roll sandwich at Logan, and the man-boy won’t figure out he’s hungry for something other than a candy bar until we get back on the road. I load up two hot dogs for him. One for me. Ketchup on his, but no mustard—the way he likes them. The dogs are my rough, inarticulate caring gesture for the one now taller than I am.

We get in line. The clerk is not much older than the man-boy and he is intolerably cheerful to the flannel jacket amassed in front of us, blue jeans and scuffed work boots with the metal showing through on the big toe of each. The clerk is smiling. Red vest in place. (“Can I help you find anything else.”) Eyes aglow. The man in front of us—in his late 30s—at least ten years my junior, is grizzled. Leaving work late. Probably drives a truck. The kind of Bay Stater you forget populates Massachusetts even three miles outside of the capitol. While the man-boy and I wait for “Nana” still eyeing the lip balm, I look at him and give him a tight smile. He pulses his eyebrows up, once. It is our short hand for acknowledging one another without giving away where each of us is. Our aerial handshake that, like a gangsta—knuckle bumps and fancy grips—speaks somehow as much of our distrust and suspicion of each other as it does any kind of familial intimacy. Nana arrives with everything, it seems, but a bathtub quickly filled with water.

“What?” She says sheepishly. The man-boy and I exchange another look, consummately sexist. But it is as good as it will get tonight, between him and me. A conspiracy of ridicule to elevate ourselves. The kind of vaulting brotherhood, hard-wired, even for me, a recently retired flight attendant for a major carrier who walked proudly the line between the sexes for twenty-five years without seeming condescension to the other half.

Back on the Pike, just before it starts looking like the Berkshires, we pay the exit toll and then angle south on I-84 towards Hartford. If we can just get beyond there, we can look for a place to overnight—maybe even get as far as PA. Compared to the Pike, our way now seems to be through the wilds, the Mass.-to-Connecticut countryside forbiddingly dark, towering pines on either side. Is this the real start of our journey? I tilt my head back into the narrow headrest. A sigh is in order. The way is now calmer.

I reach out to grasp Cheryl’s hand, still tight as a nut around her other hand, a fist. She isn’t ready to take my hand in return. Not yet. She pats me and says something about the number of miles we will need to log (490) if we are to make it home before we both have to go back to work on the 3rd. She is very much in charge here. What she says, we will do. I know that, and it is both a relief as well as an irritant. A contradiction that you would think I would work around, transcend, resolve here in my 49th year of life. It often means that I have to be on guard whenever we are in real, decision-making time: where to buy a house, how to think, and when to change lanes. On guard because I have to appear as though I have my own opinions, and more important, compelling reasons for them that sing with clarity.

But we are set in our ways. “Wicked” set, as her nephews back in Rhode Island would say. And so I do not, or cannot at this point, realign the dynamic. What drew me to her nineteen years ago was her certainty. Something that I was desperate to flee from after the end of my first marriage. All the certainty that had collared me into a bad marriage, a bad life and an impossible view of the world. But what is strong enough to wrest one from a certainty, of one’s youth, and of one’s family and of…everything, than another, equally certain certainty?

But all of that seems irrelevant now as we follow our headlights through the New England countryside because I am not only ordering the sigh after our harried jettison from airline land, I am inured by my beloved. It is the countryside, I confess. The land from whence she came coupled with the time that has passed—oh, I’ll just say it, nostalgia. I’m adrift in it, remembering how freeing she had made me feel and therefore how everything that spawned her settled sweetly in me. The hoary pilgrim homes, myriad hardwood trees and pine that grew without anyone having to plant them. The abrupt conversational style. Her father’s working-class-turned-upper-middle-class penchant for doing all things for himself, risking life and limb re-roofing that hoary pilgrim house with the 20 percent slope.

Cheryl, who is eleven years my senior, sometimes says that perhaps I would have been better off left alone after my divorce. That what she brought into my life has made me older before my time. But for me there is daylight in her smile even here in the dark. Even though her worried state leaning forward in the car and peering into a past life has yet to bend into a smile. And I remember that this is the place that she left by choice. This is her desert, just as Utah is mine—the place I entertain for the express purpose of someday leaving. And what has ostensibly made me older—the man-boy in the backseat, his head jacked back and to the left against the window, his mouth wide open—is, I’m sure something more than just an agent of age. But what I’m still not sure.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 4)

Part 4

Down out of the Berkshires, winding on 84 still desperately seeking I-80, down towards the Hudson River which I announce so that the man-boy will see the important geographical features of our trip.
            “Cool” he says in response.  “Cool.”
            Someday, I think.  He will remember all of this.  Or will he?  He will remember the crazy trip we took in the same clothes for four-five days with his grandparents, and he will remember it with some kind of fondness, I hope.  That is my hope.  It really is.
            On the bridge, I get a glimpse of the mighty Hudson, and then it is gone.  Back into the trees, but we like to think that New York is substantively different than Connecticut.  These days, post post-modernist days, culture which is perceived is reality, right?  The social construction of reality.  Isn’t that what we were bandying about in graduate school in the late 80s?  So, yes.  New York is materially different than its neighbor to the east because culture makes material.
            I decide not to share this insight with the man-boy.  Maybe if he goes to graduate school himself.
            New York state is short-lived.  And just as well.  We’ve done our time in the Empire State.  Seen it all.  Or at least that’s how we present it to others out west.  Been there, done that.  Burrowed about for our seven years in the subways.  Sampled all the diners from Washington Heights to Park Slope.  Done the proverbial upstate swing through the Catskills, Albany, Ithaca, Syracuse, Rochester, the Finger Lakes and Mormon Country (Important to me.  Or is it?),  Niagara Falls, then south to mid-PA where we are headed now for an extended segment of the trip designed to show the airline industry just how much we don’t need it.
            I-80 must be around here, somewhere.  The way west.  The way home.  As we turn south toward Scranton the hills pile up, the rail yards pool up against the interstate, the factories lie fallow.  The mill town struggling to re-invent itself, like Pittsfield, Mass when I was knocking on doors for the Gospel According to Joseph Smith.  Or the Irish Catholic symmetry of South Boston, row houses guarded by bathtub Marys, corner shops guarded by tattooed men sitting on plastic milk crates.  But, in the spirit of Derrida, Scranton is defined as much by Steve Carrell’s “The Office” as it is by its disposable history of anthracite coal and Joe Biden.  Anyone care to disagree?
            This is a show that we cannot share very successfully with the man-boy, though admittedly, he has eclectic tastes in film and video from “The Simpsons”—which he spent over a decade enthralled by–to “127 Hours” in which Aaron Ralston’s walk-up to sawing his arm off in a Utah slot canyon is as much about the fever dream as the detachment of flesh and bone.  I think this boy, who has his generational if not gender-specific appetite for gratuitous video violence, sees for the first time in this feature film the articulated path for why blood and gore is the necessary expression of something internal.  The terror and terrain of his life, generically adolescent but unique to his circumstances.
“The Office,” with its penchant for celebrating the inanities of life amongst the same group of fictitious Dunder-Mifflin dunderheads is the only television show that at the end of 2010 can make me laugh out loud at the end of the day.  And it is the only show that will keep me from migrating to PBS at the end of the day, after Cheryl has fallen asleep amidst shows that spend more than 50 percent of their time lingering over an autopsy.  Steve Carrell is the guilty pleasure I indulge in when I’m not turning over every stone funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and “Viewers Like You.  Thank you!” to fund my perpetual complaint-based inner dialogue with America and Its Woes.
Then, before I know it, before I’ve left the ubiquitous Levelors opening and closing as framing devices around the characters in a Scranton paper company–that regularly features cameos on Skype of the Texas CEO Kathy Bates–we are suddenly leaving 84 and the short-lived connector, 380 through the Poconos, and merging with Interstate 80.
Hallelujah! Praise Jesus and Glenn Beck.
Cheryl and I trade off in White Haven where we gas up.  I can’t tell you how good it feels to be on the asphalt that extends west through PA, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming…to Utah, “Star of all the West” to quote an old 19th Century hymn.  It’s a thoroughfare that beelines for home and allows me to go on an automatic of sorts.   No more poring over the atlas, scoping out the tangled freeway signs in green.  Now I really can settle in on cruise control:  2,080 miles.
“We’re going to want to do something fun, something rewarding,” repeats Cheryl for the third or fourth time.  “Otherwise, we’re going to hate this.  It’s going to fry us.”  She’s right of course.  What that field trip might be, however, baffles me.  As a flight attendant for twenty years, I was oriented through airports, not freeways.  You’re not really in Chicago unless you’re at O’Hare, in the shuttle or at the nearby Ramada with a report time of 5:00 a.m. Chicago is the Palmer House for longer layovers and a ride on the El to a Giordano’s for pizza or a bar in Lincoln Park.  Chicago is a walk in your layover clothes along Michigan Avenue past the Wrigley Building and the river dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day or a jog along the lake.  It’s the descent over that lake on a winter day where through the port hole, the noon-day sun is glinting off the white caps, the ice and the Sears Tower looking like a giant, latticed cattle prod black against the sky.  Chicago is the destination, not the destination plus the road to, wherever that may be.
Since I’m riding shot gun, I break out the atlas.  Other than knowing that this is our yellow brick road home, I don’t know where the yellow brick wends.  We are moving at a good clip, making good time.  The roads are dry, and even though it’s cold the light is good, lowering in the southwest, rising in inverse proportion to us above the hills of hard wood forests as we sink repeatedly into vales, mist rising above fallow fields backed by red Pennsylvania barns, dotted with houses persistently white.  We are quiet through these picturesque scenes, humbled by the static beauty that we are somehow skirting, even violating by our speed.  These are not towns, but homesteads, linked by country roads   Here and there, metallic silos, some whitewashed to match the more angular homes pin down the roads, anchor the fields…Repeatedly, I look in turn to my charge now at angles to my seat, to see where the man-boy is, what his expression holds.  Who he is.  But always, when he catches my eye, and we bump our eyebrows up in acknowledgment of each other, sometimes with a smile, it is the yellow light of a semaphore:  proceed with caution; clear the intersection.
What do I want from this boy sitting just inches from me?  What do I need?  Is it okay to need anything from a seventeen year old who is riding nearly all the way across country with you? One who depends on you and your wife for virtually everything? Filtered through the windows, the sun lies scattered on his fair complexion.  At times the light strobes.  He is there.  He isn’t there.  He is there.  He….
“Everything good?” I ask.
He nods.  “Everything’s good.”  And then he does that thing he does.  He reaches out casually and pats my shoulder.  Once.  Twice.   Now I am glad that we chose the Toyota Corolla, a small car even with its potential accelerator that might stick as we risk flying off I-80, elevated as we are on a mountain south of a scene so mysterious that it is as likely to eat us alive as it is to continue to enthrall us.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 5)

Part 5

Robert Bly

The man-boy not only knows all the lyrics of classic Rock and Roll songs, but the names of the musicians, the dates of most songs and the cultural milieu.  It’s a walk through American history.  How that is possible, I don’t know.  This musical terrain is only vaguely familiar to me; was only ever vaguely familiar to me when I was his age.  Snatches of lyrics, the steady stream of groups’ names—Kiss, Boston, Def Leppard, Mettalica, Megadeth—at which point I changed the proverbial channel for the next two decades.  It was a stream that went underground and then re-surfaced when Joe’s mother came to live with us in 1991 and she had a CD by a group called Nirvana.

             It is a terrain which has been documented, for better and for worse, in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  Having the excellent catalogue in my acculturated head that I do, I am reminded of this and mention it to get points with the boy.
“Maybe we should stop in.  See what it’s like.”
“Awesome!” he says.  Since I’m riding shot gun at the moment, I return to the atlas, madly calculating the triangle route from I-80 northwest and back while subtracting the hypotenuse.
I, the 49-year old, too-young-to-be-a-grandfather –to-a-seventeen-year-old can win points in a way that no one else can.  My above-it-all perspective from flight attending resulted in a kind of guerilla-styled touring across the nation during two decades, and it yields this:  we can make the man-boy exceedingly happy as we barrel down I-80 to home by first announcing that the hall of fame of his dreams is within a short detour of where we we’re going and that I am game enough to make it happen.  That’s what I do. It’s what we used to call “gumption”:  I’m the one who makes it happen.
“Awesome!”
The light is fading, exquisite shadings on the vast PA hardwoods.  We will not make it to Ohio this evening, so we start looking for a place to stay.  This is the beauty of America.  Drive anywhere and virtually within the time it takes to start needing to take a wazz, or feel the next pang in three squares a day, and there’s a truck stop, a convenience store and–if you’re lucky–a bona fide mom-and-pop diner.  Emlenton, Pennsylvania is one of these, but better.  The Plaza is both a truck stop and a restaurant/diner famous, we are about to learn, in these here parts.
By the time we pass the famous Emlenton Bridge which I get the impression was built first followed by the town itself, it is dark.  We pull off onto Clintonville Road then parallel I-80 West, turn left into the Plaza, move around to the south, pull into a parking place and our little Corolla quiets itself.  We are far enough from the yellow brick road so that it emits the pensive, Doppler sound that elicits reflection, and for a moment none of us move, the engine ticking, a collective sigh rising in us. None of us is particularly hungry, I realize.  It’s just that it’s that time of the day, and if we don’t find sustenance now we’ll be raiding the candy machines at the next Econo Lodge.
While Cheryl and the man-boy head in, I head out, around the edge of the sprawling complex baked in what seems like acres of asphalt where trucks the size of small  buildings feel right at home as they turn around in an arc that seems as wide as Arkansas.  I need to stretch my legs, get my lungs pumping something other than the stale air of fatigue.  Around the back of the place there’s a dumpster, old restaurant fixtures a stack of badly upholstered chairs.  The place is bigger than I think, and when I round to the north side the pavement seems to expand through the gas pump lanes and to that idling place that trucks go by default off the interstate.  The night is quiet but the darkness at the edges of the massive lot is like a wall, the trees beyond claiming a kind of prerogative for the space we have yet to claim for progress.
One more corner to round and I’m in front of the convenience store, attached to the restaurant, this not-so-clean, well-lighted place that both draws as it repels the weary traveler by its utter predictability:  the usual display of cellophane-ed bread-like artifacts that claim to be pastries, the waning end-of-day coffee against the back wall next to the bank of coolers featuring plastic bottles in a riot of thirst-quenching colors.  Seven kinds of beef jerky.
I ditch into the men’s room, and a stall worn-down with a recent coat of off-white paint.  Public bathrooms, I submit, are where American males first feel the charge of their collective manhood—like what I imagine prisons and maybe military bunkhouses elicit in young recruits.  Since Title 9, the public bathroom is one of the few (and continually receding) places where the lure to merge with what makes one hormonally male and the inchoate shame that accompanies that impulse is still obvious.  That is why the man-boy and others when they are eight or nine, often won’t go to the urinals, but hide away in the stalls.  They sense that in a public lavatory, mankind—and I mean that term “genderly”—enters a liminal space that is charged because it is unstable.
The forlorn men’s movement of the 80s tried to address that.  Poor Robert Bly.  Both were shot down by women and, most importantly, other men, who operate out of a rarified and now moribund feminism.  The men’s room has become a cross between a sports bar and a locker room, strutting and straining.  Elimination and critical comparisons made with side-long glances over porcelain.  It’s a place that has become feminized in that literal hand-washing is done in the men’s room by men first because other men are there policing and then because of the internalized thing that happens in reality-producing culture of the new century.  Real men don’t wash their hands because they’ve held their dick to piss.
I’ll take Camille Paglia any day over Gloria Steinem.  I’m not sure if this is news to me, but that I am reminded of it in rural Pennsylvania and with Lysol stinging my noise should be peculiar.  Maybe it’s just the exhaustion showing.
In the stall, behind the metal box housing the rolls of toilet paper is scrawled “BJ Tap Foot.”  But not being a senator from Idaho, I resist.  It’s nice to know that some things have never changed since junior high.
Someone enters the bathroom, and I’m brought out of this reverie.  (Don’t knock me.  The notoriously constipated father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, is said to have done a lot of thinking about things while sitting on the crapper for hours at a time.)  There is stillness in the tiled room which is strange.  I peer through a space between stall door and wall.  On the opposite, mirrored wall is the man-boy.  These days he spends a good time in bathrooms both at home and when we’re out.  It’s a rite of passage I suppose, and it buttresses my theory of bathrooms, especially public ones, as an unstable, exploratory space.  He is arranging his increasingly long bangs that spill out from under the bill of his baseball hat.  The hat is the only thing that now keeps his hair out of his eyes.  When his hat is off, in fact, the dented hair falls with some grace across his face which appeals to me.  But the hat is part of the ensemble.  At least for now, and I watch as he almost tenderly pulls at the strands, pushing them up under the bill and band while his mouth drops open slightly in concentration.  Often he ditches the hat entirely, bends over the sink and splashes water into his face and hair.  When he comes up for air, dripping everywhere, he is a different boy indeed, the oblong shape of his head in clear outline, the bones of his cheeks higher, it seems, and suddenly shiny.
Actually, Cheryl and I are often annoyed by the time it takes him to go to the bathroom as we wait with menus at hand. Sometimes as long as ten minutes.  But here, as I watch him lost in his own world, I recall my own long hours in front of the mirror, locked behind the bathroom door in my parents’ home, my shirt off, my chin tilted so that the light would reveal that new whisker coming in.  The necessary longing for myself to emerge through my body.
Suddenly I am a voyeur.  And I turn my gaze away.  I will wait for him to leave so that he doesn’t know I was here.  So that there is no risk of any kind of shame.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 6)

Back through the convenience store, I enter the Restaurant.  The place is a abuzz with locals sitting at the counter, at tables and at perimeter booths one of which, apparently, is ours, dwarfing Cheryl who is sitting with a plastic menu the size of a motorcycle windshield.  This is definitely an “experience” as we are fond of saying in the United States.  Not for the locals out on a Thursday night for a pie and company, but for the tired travelers who have stumbled in.  Over my own windshield, I notice the angled wooden beams holding up the vaulted ceiling.  On each is stenciled a different quote—from Socrates to Will Rogers.  They look like quotes that have been pulled out of a quote book.  Fair enough.  At least they aren’t scriptures from the New Testament.
            The waitress arrives.  A woman whose plastic name tag announces “Dot.”  I feel the need to imbibe.  I ask if they have a wine list.  She looks at me wryly.  Then smiles and says, a little too loudly, “Wine?  If there was wine do I think I’d be standing here?”  Because of her smile, I am inclined to think she is saying that if there were wine here at the Emlenton Plaza Restaurant, she’d be in the back drinking herself into a stupor instead of waiting on dog-tired feet for customers to decide between baked or mashed potatoes.  I smile with understanding about over liquor laws.  After all, I live in Utah.  But then, after we’ve ordered, it occurs to me as I look deeper into this place now glowing against the PA darkness outside, that perhaps she meant it literally.  “If we served wine, I wouldn’t be working here because I don’t drink and I don’t think anyone else should.”  That is a certainly a sentiment I am not stupid to.
Redux:  I grew up in Utah.
            But there are other tells that this is a place that I should not feel comfortable in.  Perhaps it is the all-white crowd of jeaned and booted men and bouffant-haired women who eye everyone, including each other, with a kind of sterility.  Perhaps it is the glass-paneled lamps on shelves next to the cashiers, each panel featuring the etched or painted image of a U.S. Marine in full-dress, sword upraised.  Perhaps it is the T-shirts for sale emblazed with “Wise Men Still Seek Him” in a biblical font at 200 point.
            The man-boy looks miserable sitting across from us, his hair still damp…but in place.  But I have come to learn that he is also the kind of boy who believes he doesn’t deserve any better than what he gets, whatever he is getting.  So he suffers silently and drifts away in his head to a place where I’m not allowed to go.  We’ve talked about it before, this place he goes.  And the longer he lives with us the more he is able to recall some of those occasions—exhibit A through Z—that aggregated for me, congealing into this modus operandi.
            When he gets like this I feel compelled to rush in.  I know I probably shouldn’t, but I do anyway, determined that he articulate something for me.  Probably so that I feel less afraid of what’s going on for him.
“How do you like this place?”  I ask.  He looks around.
“It’s okay I guess.”
“You going to order the usual?”
“What?”
“You know.  The usual–bacon cheeseburger?”  He looks vacantly at the menu.
“She’s coming back in a minute for our order.  Are you ready?”  His Nana lowers her menu, looks at me.  The man-boy flips the menu over to see what’s on the back.  He’s already taken his sweet time in the john looking in the mirror, and he’s not going to be ready to order when Dot returns, which she does at that moment.
“Had a chance to look things over?” she says clicking her pen and taking an inventory of what’s on the table:  salt, pepper, ketchup and a wire holder with sugar and sweetner packets.
“Are you ready?  I ask him.
“I’ll have the Caesar salad, with shrimp,” says Cheryl.  She is asked about sides and salad dressings, the latter of which she declines, preferring wedges of lemon.  She looks at me.
            I say, “Go ahead, Joe” for that is the man-boy’s name.  Short for Josiah.
            He doesn’t say anything.  He is stuck somewhere in one of the lower levels of his hell and isn’t having much success clawing his way up for air.
            “Do you need a little more time,” she says.  She could be here all night.
            “Is that all right?” he says, and looks at me.
            “Sure,” I say, good-naturedly.  For Dot’s sake. Don’t want her to think I’m one of these red-necks in the place.  Someone who disrespects kids to hide their own insecurity.  But, in fact, it’s not okay.  This happens all the time.  He takes off for the bathroom for ten minutes while we wait, then he can’t decide what he wants to eat. Nana gives me a warning look, which I resent.  What does she know about raising a boy?  Never mind that I’ve never raised a child—boy or girl–and that this child is not one I’ve raised, even though I, not his father, was the one who made it to the ultrasound of his mother, to see the two-dimensional wedge of protoplasm that was to become our Joe.  Our man-boy.
            But I defer to her.  I am now fuming at the menu that announces boldly that the Plaza is the winner of the regional pie contest, five years running.
I recommend the pot roast, and stab at it on his menu.  He looks at me annoyed.  Even though it is I who seek to take his emotional temperature, to understand where he is, the man-boy figures me out before I do him.  He knows I’m on a train.  It’s one of the compensations, I suppose, of his traumatic past.  He can sense what’s going on in others.  It’s a survival technique.  But what it means to me in this moment is that he’s winning the game.
When Dot returns with “Ready?” a.k.a. “Get your shit together guys, I got things to do,” I order pot roast.  “What kind of lettuce is in your dinner salad?”  She looks at me like she’s about to say something like “green lettuce, you moron” in and around the chewing of her gum.  “Good old iceberg style.  That okay?  You want Thousand Island with that, or ranch?”  I order oil and vinegar which she writes down on her pad without saying anything.
“How about you young man?” There is a pause.  The man-boy is pushing it, I think.  Seeing how far he can go.  “I’ll have the double bacon cheeseburger,” he says, and hands Dot his menu.  He orders a root beer, and we’re off.  I sigh.
On the television hanging from the ceiling over the counter, Glenn Beck is holding court.  I have only one thing to say about Brother Beck, the demagogue of our convulsing age:  fuck him.  Okay, maybe that’s two things. In fact, I have never watched a single segment of his on television, nor listened to an entire program on the radio.  All I know is that my parents in Provo, Utah watch him religiously, and that their anxiety levels over the state of humanity, the earth and the horsemen of the apocalypse are off the fucking charts.  Visit after visit, I am regaled by the latest racism of the nation’s first black president, the latest attack on the family and the latest conspiracy involving socialists.
            But. I am not going to say anything more about Brother Beck, a man who converted to the religion of my childhood because, he said at one point, he wanted to have sex with the girl he was dating, and she insisted on it.  (Of course, the first time I got married was because as a 25 year-old sort-of-virgin, I wanted to have sex too and couldn’t, without tipping over a very large apple cart, without first getting married…but that was entirely different.)
            Fortunately, Brother Beck’s show is captioned, and we can ignore him over our dinner with no wine by simply averting our eyes.
            The meal is passable and passed over by the three of us with little conversation.  After he eats half of his hamburger, the man-boy excuses himself to go back to the bathroom.  I wait for Cheryl to say something to me.  Something about not picking on him.  About, “why are you so angry?  You look like you’re about to jump out of your skin.”  Instead, she decides to excuse herself to go browse the consumable and totchkes—key chains, shot glasses and posters of American Eagles wrapped in Old Glory.  I am left to collect the bill.  And in that split second of Cheryl’s leaving and my signaling Dot, I am struck with a foreboding sensibility.  In my determination to counter what I feel is the lunatic fears of civilization’s collapse—of apocalypse—I think perhaps that I have also discounted the reality and realities of the losses to be experienced as the country and to some extent the world transforms itself into an, as yet, unknown place.
            I think this first began to take shape—from feeling to abstraction–three nights earlier, Christmas night after all the gifts had been opened, the girls gone to bed and my brother-in-law Pete and I have retired to watching the John Wayne version of “True Grit” on cable in the middle of the Maine woods.  But we’re not really watching it.  We’re drinking whiskey and, speaking of trains, Pete gets on his, his strong Rhode Island accent feathering his words.  His voice getting louder as the booze sets in him.
            Pete who retired after 30+ years as a teacher in the Massachusetts public school system, has a perspective nevertheless drawn from the trenches of the working class bloke.  Though now turned so-called middle class, he and his wife, Cheryl’s sister, are teetering on the brink of a slap-down by the powers that be—the super rich, the government, the banks and other financial institutions and corrupt politicians.
            “They don’t get it,” he says.  “They don’t understand that you can’t fuck the American middle class without starting a revolution.”  Pete is more than rankled.  He’s built more houses than I can count, including his second home in Arizona with his own hands.  Clambered through as a shop teacher for the boys who can’t manage to pass in that academic way; served his country in the army reserve.  Raised three of his own boys; managed a rest home—knocking the wind out of at least three consecutive jobs all the while smoking like a chimney.  When we took him and his wife Diane to Paris one year and Barcelona another, the wiry guy with the full shock of black hair that’s just recently gone gray, walked the streets with that kind of sprung athletic look, almost like he was walking on his toes.
I envy his full head of hair the most.
            But now he’s pissed.  Worked hard to retire early and, among other things, has been told that the money he put into his Social Security is being “off-set” because at times during his frenetic work life, he worked double duty for the Bay State.  His conclusions on the state of the American state are not rooted in the popular, ever alternating demonizing/lionizing rhetoric of the day, but are surprising to me in that they are freshly informed by careful analysis and scorching pragmatism.  He never cared that he was going to have to work like a dog.  He only cares that the government in cahoots with big business way-laid people like him and somehow convinced half of the nation that the super-rich deserve to be treated by another standard.
            “This trickle down shit never worked.  Ever since Reagan they’ve been selling us this shit and hoodwinked the lot of us.  It’s nuts.  It’s fucking nuts.  And if they don’t think that there won’t be riots in the streets before this is over, they’re dreaming.  America isn’t going to escape revolution just because it’s America.”  He finishes his drink, his thick glasses making his doe-like eyes bulge in the dim light of the candles and tree lights that Diane has so carefully arranged—but that her husband made happen.  The can-do guy from Warren, Rhode Island turned resident of Riverside to retiree in backwoods Maine and Arizona.  A guy who likes to hit the casinos now and play black jack after felling fifty trees on his thirty acres outside Farmington, Maine.
            “And you want to know something else?” he continues.  Usually when I hear rants about the government and the country it’s red-state-styled bullshit about how the constitution is a static document that the “liberals” have incrementally disassembled and that the proofs of all of this are the moral corruption of welfare moms and abortionists. But Pete is different.  “You know what else?” he repeats.  You can’t tell me that the opposition to Obama isn’t just based out of good old fashioned racism.  They hate that guy because he’s black first and everything else follows.”
            Here, Here.
            The staggering part of all of this train wreck is that the Republicanists have abandoned honest-to-god conservative paradigm—much needed, I might add, in a two-party system such as ours–for the knuckleheads of the tea partiers.  They abandoned the party of William S. Buckley and Dwight Eisenhower and convinced the lot of us on a steady diet of lunatic consumerism and reality shows that it is un-American to hold the super-rich in this country to the same standard as people like Pete.

People like me, I might add.  Okay.  Maybe not people like me.  After all, I had it good.  For twenty years I flew around the world, literally.  Three days on/Four days off before the towers came down and the industry “reorganized.”  And now?  Now, God willing, I’ll collect a pension in a few years.  And right now I have the privilege of at least having a fighting chance of getting on a B-757 for free and flying over 2,000 miles for one week of vacation over Christmas.  Not bad for an English major.

            A fighting chance most of the time.  With 10,000 flights cancelled, we didn’t have a prayer getting out of Boston.  And now we are in Pennsylvania in a rented Corolla, with three to four days ahead of us still.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 2)

 

We manage to get to Southington, Connecticut by 9 p.m., and, since this is Connecticut, there will be no cocktail or glass of wine tonight.  By law, we can’t even buy beer as it is after 8 p.m. This is not hospitality even by my Utah standards, especially for the “Microcosm of America” which Southington was apparently billed by the War Department during World War II.  Photographers, we are told, roamed this small town on the Quinnipiac River, and published their photos of busy residents at work, and in their homes and churches in a pamphlet which was then dropped by the thousands from military aircraft over Nazi-occupied Europe.  This to highlight just how bucolic and value-driven Americans were in a land that also inspired the illustrator Norman Rockwell.
We find an EconoLodge on the edge of the American Microcosm, in a neighborhood known as Milldale famous for its American Clock and Watch Museum, which we won’t be seeing.  Being without alcohol, we can nevertheless log in and tune out on the internet which the motor lodge happily provides.  So while the man-boy collapses in front of the TV upstairs, his boots tumbled to the floor at the foot of his bed, I navigate Google Maps.  I-80 stretches across the screen in blessed digital format, the yellow brick road home that in my imagination has come to represent a lifeline out of the wilderness of the East.  Oh to see a vista!  To shoot across the prairie in our little Toyota.  To be home.
We have 2,250 miles to our driveway in Salt Lake City…by car.  Thirty days and one hour if we are to walk on a carefully planned path that will take us through a section of Canada and require that we board a ferry. (“Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.”)  If we prefer to bicycle it home, it will take us a mere 9 days and 2 hours if we follow the 1,341 points of direction filtered by Google and provided by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy with the following disclaimer:
These directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, weather, or other events may cause conditions to differ from the map results, and you should plan your route accordingly. You must obey all signs or notices regarding your route.
Hell yeah, we’ll obey all signs or notices.
We decide to stick with the Toyota, despite the recent dangers, real or imagined, of sticking accelerator pedal recalls.
            Still there is some weird comfort in knowing that one can Google every configuration of how we will cross the country with the exception of going by camel. Weird because the internet is paradoxically home and an alien space craft the longer we traffic in it.  A Niagra Falls of the utterly inane and, at the same time, the utterly absorbing, so that when we leave life on the screen we are reminded—most of us are reminded—that it is virtual. Unreal.
            It is also the Great Facilitator to resisting work.  Somehow I feel as though sending an email is the same as getting work done when most of the time after clicking “send” what I’ve really done is just contributed to the debris of inner space.  Compounded by the ability to pull up whole threads of emails, one can show definitively (in a cyber kind of way) that WORK HAS BEEN DONE.  Not so.  Work has been delayed, flayed, held up under fluorescent lights as a monument to the similitude of work, of thought, of even, perhaps, real connection.  Email is where we go to avoid work or at least delay it.  It elevates TO, FROM, RE, SENT to a scream of productivity and self-importance.  Some offices, I’ve heard, have a quiet competition going on to see how long one can avoid talking to another, live person.
I have a theory:  here, at the end of the year 2010, the majority of us are so damn happy to think of ourselves as on what we use to call the “superhighway,” and no longer trying to figure out why we can’t get a dial tone on our AOL, that we are now doing what we always do.  We are digging in, making the collective groove that, as in unbridled “growth,” as in trickle down economics, as in the discovery of the wheel, for god’s sake, will eventually turn out to be a problem so acute that we are sitting around with our thumb up our ass and some long-haired pinko commie fag will have to batter us over the head for two decades to get us to wake up and smell the coffee.  As in global warming.
            My burrito rings.  It is Cheryl, upstairs.
            “Where are you?”
            I want to tell her somewhere over the news now pulsing on Comcast, our server of choice, about missile strikes inside Pakistan and how short weekly bouts of eccentric exercise may offer big health improvements, according to a story in the LA Times. http://articles.latimes.com/keyword/news
            “Still on the computer.  Google maps.  I’ll print it out and be right up.”
            The man boy and I have to wash our underwear in the sink for tomorrow.  She is probably playing good cop with him.  I am to show up, rapping on the door with my Billy club and demand that he roll his lank off the bed and away from the television showing a re-run of Rocky Balboa, which we’ve seen thrice and now own, but which is nevertheless the balm of the hour.  Demand that he strip off his boxers and wash them in the sink with shampoo.  And, with my boots and gear clanging at my imaginary policeman blues, I will need to be ready to counter his remonstration with: no you cannot just turn them inside out.  Actually, that’s what I would just as soon do myself.
            The room’s temperature, in typical Econolodge fashion, is impossible to get just right.  By morning we’ll be either sweltering under our starched sheets and polyester bedspread, or freezing our asses off.  Or, more predictably, the man-boy, who is closest to the unit (and in direct line of the massive TV) will be sweltering and we will be freezing.  No matter.  We are here for only our short 8 hours and then, as Cheryl has planned out, we will be on our way for the next 490-mile stretch.
            I will drift off into a fitful sleep in the Philadelphia of Rocky the boxer-turned-restaurant-owner.  Then being the light sleeper in the crowd, the insomniac even, I will wake, either sweltering or freezing, to turn the TV off.  Cheryl will be struggling to breath and the man-boy will be lying there, one arm pulled up over his head, his boxers drying on the towel rod.  He will have the half-levitating look in his young face of one who dreams about John Lennon in 2010.
The eight hours of rest turn into 10.  We were more tired than we thought. Outside, Connecticut is cold.  Snow banks in the parking lot now ice across from the plastic orange and Day-Glo mauve of a Dunkin’ Donuts that this morning in the frigid air shattered by the air brakes of nearby tractor trailers looks incontrovertibly unappetizing.  The Corolla looks forlorn next to the snow, its New York plates giving it instant contrarian definition in this otherwise sad sack excuse for a Microcosm of America.  Can one make a fair assessment of any place from the parking lot of a donut shop and an Econolodge?  Probably not, but assess we do.  What else can we do in late 2010 America except peer out from a temporary static point on the superhighway and take a snapshot with our camera phone?
            I load the car with our luggage then shiver back inside to join Cheryl and the man-boy for the free breakfast that comes with last night’s accommodations. To approach the breakfast nook of an American Motor Lodge is to approach an obstacle course.  Into this vortex one becomes a high school sophomore all over again.  Where do I go?  How do I act?  Mini bagels…toast with or without schmear?  The other two are already seated at a teetering table, everything in Styrofoam, plastic spoons barely concave enough to snare two Cheerios at a time.  Two men, one young one old, one thin, one fat, are at the next table, leaning against the wall, each with a white disposable cup designed to provide a token of coffee or tea before the MotorLodge bids ye farewell.  Cheryl, wearing the same black patterned dress with black leggings and boots as the day before, has a way of ingratiating herself to strangers, prematurely if you ask me.  She is already smiling and solicitous to them, eyes bright and inviting.  They are working stiffs, cuffed at the dungaree ankle, booted, flannelled both.  Grizzled as on-the-road men become, especially when only in the company of other men.  I twist my cornflakes out of the plexiglass dispenser, back and forth.  It takes one and half turns before the sheeny white disposable bowl is filled with no room for milk, sized to be held between fingers like a thimble:  “Eat thy morsel then Fare thee, well!”
            The two men are on the road, the younger, David, driving the rig with a double-wide pre-fab home, and the older, Clayton, driving the lead vehicle with “Wide Load” emblazoned on it.  This is their moment of repose, together, the backs of their chairs leaning against the cheesy, breakfast nook wall-paper.  It would appear that because of a recent stroke Clayton is no longer allowed to drive the rig.  He must wait a year before being allowed to drive and now, at age seventy, is following the much younger David who says less, is less sure of himself and seems ready to hit the road.  But Clayton, taking his cues from the inquiring Cheryl, recalls driving his rig in Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001.
            “Been there thousands of time, but never…never seen it like that.  Chaos.  The traffic either stopped still or racing like the devil.  Cop finally come up to me says, just get the hell out.  Get the hell out of New York or you’ll be here for a long time.”  He clamps down his teeth, looks thoughtfully at the floor.  Cheryl is a good listener.  She’s told him how she and I heard the second plane hit the towers in our Brooklyn apartment, before we moved back out west.  How we watched it on the television after a phone call from an out-of-town relative alerting us to what was going on.  For Clayton, as for all of us, I suppose, the story of 9/11 has migrated into an archive.  To retrieve the memory means to hazard re-living something that makes the throat catch, the heart race, the future to recede as fast as the past normally does.
            David nods in time to the story.  His left boot tips to the side, resting on the floor.  There is a hole in the sole.  The two of them look as ungainly as I feel, thrown together in a room of wobbly, pressed wood breakfast tables with fellow guests readying for the ride in the three-day old wake of Christmases past, the lobby tree, tumescent below a holiday cheer banner as flaccid as the tree is artificially erect, humming with lights.
            The man-boy has left his I-pod in the car the night before and is without wires.  Hunkered down over his tiny, inadequate bowl of Fruit Loops look-a-likes, he is listening to the conversation.  His long, light brown hair is still wet from the shower and shooting out from under his soiled blue baseball cap.  He was eight when America was attacked in 2001.  And being the thoughtful grandfather living in New York City at the time, I squirrled away the New Yorker (whose somber cover is completely black except for the merest hint of the twin towers) along with the front page of the Times.  For posterity, I thought at the time.  But it’s hard for me to think of him as caring for anything material like that in the age of Google.
            We’ll see.
            We bid the men goodbye.  Cheryl all smiles.  Warm.  If they could, the two of them might take her to lunch just so that they could keep talking to her.  I think of myself as a good conversationalist, friendly with strangers, always doing the asking.  But Cheryl’s authentic while I’m a performer.  Genuine while I just work the room.  It occurs to me that she is grounded by their regionalism—upstate New York for both of them but close enough to Yankeeland which she misses, although she is quick to say that she does not.  Most of the time.
Earlier, while I was showering, Cheryl had gone out and picked up a couple of T-shirts for me and the man-boy.  While she was wise enough to carry extra under things, and even another dress and tights, the man-boy and are what we wore out of Aunt Diane and Uncle Pete’s house the morning before.  Now he and I are twins, pocketed T’s that have that starched, creased look to them right off a hanger or a box.  We both wear a size large and I can’t help but notice as the man-boy slips his on how much he’s filled out in the shoulders.  And though I have forty pounds on him now, I realize that very soon he’ll not only be taller than I am, but larger.   This is not what I want to hear.  The boy has been living with us full-time for four years and, in typical male fashion, our bodies have been the nexus of our competition with each other.  It wasn’t that long ago, perhaps eighteen months or so, that the rough-housing had to stop.  We were standing in the tiny bedroom where Cheryl and I don’t make love anymore due to our sudden full-time parental duties in a tiny house, and the boy was slugging me in the arm.  Hard slugs, really, at age 15+, proving for the hundredth time where he ends and I begin.  I had taken to hitting him back, all in good fun.  Right?
It’s the way we show affection for each other, I had told Cheryl who whenever she heard us grappling, would scold us and the dog would start barking.
“It’s just our competitive nature coming out.”
She looked at me worried, unbelieving.  “Your father used to overpower you to the point that you hated him,” she reminded me.  “You’re doing the same thing with him.  He doesn’t like it.”
That was early on when the man-boy was first hitting puberty.  So early on I set a policy for this boy who was often trying to get a reaction out of me through his fists:  don’t ever start it.  But there was another policy I decided on that, even still, I’m not so sure about when it comes to the boy turned man-boy who lives with me.  It doesn’t do him any good to handicap yourself, to hold back, or the man-boy will never know what he is capable (or not capable) of.  He’ll never know what it means to have and honor a worthy opponent in life.
That worked for a while.  He would give me his best shot, to the arm or to the chest, and I would give it back, both of us ever-calibrating in that tussling way males have when muscle was being flexed and where the kidneys lay.  But, as in that tussling way males have, calibrations make way for besting the other, at times at any cost, and emotions flood the plains.  Perhaps it was that, or perhaps it was just that sometimes we could not decide when the other was game for the game, and heartily resented it when a fist came out of nowhere in the hall, the car, or, on this particular fateful day, in the bedroom.
“You hit me harder than I hit you!” he exclaimed, eyes flashing in a head whose hair still sported a buzz.
“I hit you as hard as you hit me,” I said.  “And I wasn’t expecting it.  You always start these things but then you get pissed when I fight back.”
He slugged me again.  Hard in the shoulder.  I hit him back, my frustration growing.  “Cut it out!”  He said, rubbing his arm.
“You cut it out.”

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.          
But…
However…
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. 

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 3)

The on-ramp to I-84 is a bobsled chute that propels us away from the Microcosm, temporarily southwest towards Waterbury and away from the ESPN headquarters in nearby Bristol.  Ah…ESPN—a microcosm through cable unto itself.  A place where a programming team sits around all day in complimentary Nike gear and continues to split the imaginary syllables of the word “Sports”—like we are fond of doing with atoms.  Twenty-two TV stations, 19 internet sites and 9 radio stations later and we are watching everything from scrabble competitions to Rollerblade Hockey, some on SKYCAM, and Fantasy Football to the real NFL  (if there is a real football league anymore) which ESPN paid 8.8 billion dollars for 8 years of broadcast rights.  It’s not easy to imagine what the propaganda dropped over Europe would say if it were written today: “Family first in this bucolic town on the quaint Quinnipiac River, where Mrs. Brown serves her famous cherry pie to her hard-working men decamped for 40 hours straight in front of homegrown ESPN on a tulip-filled spring day in Southington, Connecticut–Microcosm of America.”
            These are the sorts of rants that pickle my brain these days, still stinging as I am from our self-imposed jettison from air travel.  If we can’t make it home before our luggage and our Christmas gifts, by damn, I get to cast aspersions on The Worldwide Leader in Sports, including its coverage of spelling bees and outhouse races. (Shit!)
            By the time we straighten out to a more westward-ho direction, passing Danbury, I am less cantankerous.  Having traveled the world at 40,000 feet, I can’t really say that I’ve ever been to Danbury, a.k.a. “The Hat City.” Even so, Danbury is the site of a federal prison where during the Second World War one in six inmates was a conscientious objector.  Obviously Danbury is not the microcosm we wanted to front to the Germans. One in six inmates in the United States’ federal prisons was a conscientious objector.  Suddenly this relative outpost had a population of highly educated men who enlisted other prisoners in their cause.  It is because local laborers began protesting in solidarity with the conscientious objectors that Danbury started desegregating its inmates.  One of the nation’s first to do so.
            Armed with even this trivia, I still wouldn’t recommend picking up a hitchhiker outside of Danbury.
            Still no sight of I-80, the continuous thread that pulls Utah in our direction as much as guides us westward.  It occurs to me that if its eastern terminus isn’t in Boston, where the hell is it?  San Francisco is its western anchor, that I’m sure of because of family vacations to nearby Palo Alton when I was a child.  It is the second-longest Interstate Highway, second only to I-90 and its first iteration of the Mass Pike.  I-80 is also the closest to the nation’s first cross-country road, the august Lincoln Highway.  It’s the great American West that cared the most about transcontinental travel, for obvious reasons. 
To date, there is a still a geographical inferiority complex in Westerners, from sports teams to publishing.  The only way to compete with the Eastern Seaboard, and to a lesser extent, the Pacific Coast states, is to build one’s own communities, start one’s own universities, start a symphony.  Build a damn Lincoln Highway that connects the homeless tempest tossed to homesteads in the great Mid, Mountain and Desert Wests.  Endure the quips and quotes from Mark Twain.  Celebrate one’s own, whether it be Edward Abbey or Wallace Stegner.  Stake a claim much like one does in the Sierra Nevada. 
            This is what one is reminded of when crossing the country at the end of 2010.  The hierarchy of place.  And only those of us from the West—or worse, from the sub-West (Utah)—even register the insult which smarts all the more.   No one comes to visit us in Salt Lake City compared to when we lived in New York.
            At this point, what hasn’t registered is how long it will take to get home.  Four to five days—it’s just one day after another over Christmas week.  So what?  Get er done, as they say.  Pedal to the metal and get er done.  It’s the American way, like going to the moon or executing a hostile corporate takeover to lay off thousands.
            Eighty Four takes us to the Connecticut/New York line.  Progress.  We are going North by Northwest toward the Hudson River and Newburgh.  When Cheryl drives she narrates everything, reading signs aloud, saying whatever pops into her head, which can be annoying.  She also drives painfully slow and hesitates dangerously whenever trying to pass another car or truck.  This is just my opinion, of course.  And I know that I am in dangerous, dangerous territory when I fault women drivers.  But it’s true.  And what makes it okay in my humble opinion, is that she finds fault with me as well, but for opposite reasons.  I drive too fast and am too distractable.  For this reason, we have come with a brilliant preamble whenever we get in the car together.  We both simply say to the other:  “You are the worst goddamned driver in the world and someday you’re going to murder us.”  The rule is we can say this as loudly and forcefully as we wish, but we cannot say anything for the duration of the road trip.
            I am reminded of this when we come to a grinding halt on the freeway for reasons that neither of us understands.  You’d think that not moving would be relaxing to a backseat driver, but it’s not.  Cheryl instantly starts calculating how much time we’re losing; how many miles we’ll have to add to the next day to catch up.  We turn off the engine.  A cop car with its lights flashing scurries by on the breakdown lane to the right.
            We turn on the radio.  Jesus, country western, Glenn Beck. Rock.  Next?  A little NPR please?   
            “Hey, that’s Foreigner dude.”  The man-boy speaks.  I thought he’d drifted off, absorbed by his I-pod.  But here he is.  I flip past Foreigner not realizing that “Hot Blooded” is as good as it’s going to get for a while here outside of  Pawling, New York, home of the oldest municipality-owned golf course in America and not one but two Metro-North train stops.  Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires, it is “[a] compelling, stable community” reads its website.  This is what I need.  Stable ground that is equally compelling somehow, and not just because I play golf.  (I don’t.)
“But you’ve got to give me a sign,” the song plays…
Come on girl, some kind of sign
Tell me, are you hot mama? You sure look that way to me
I vaguely remember this song.  It came out the summer after my junior year in high school when I was just starting to feel a biting superiority to popular culture.  Of course it didn’t hurt that the song was overtly salacious.  Nothing more appealing to an insecure 11th grader than the double shot of esthetics-mongering and the righteousness of the religious.  Even though this is from my era, the man-boy can rattle off names of band members, like the vocalist Lou Gramm whose hard-edged, high-strung voice pummels this song with sexual fire… 
Well I’m hot blooded, check it and see
I got a fever of a hundred and three
Come on baby, do you do more than dance?
I’m hot blooded, I’m hot blooded
…and even controversy. 

Are you old enough? Will you be ready when I call your bluff?
Is my timing right? Did you save your love for me tonight?

More waling guitars. 

“This is going to really slow us down,” says Cheryl looking out the window at the wall of woods.  Funny how when one stops on a high-speed freeway, a complete stop, the world first takes on the scent of not only inconvenience, but inconsequence.  How dare the world conspire to stop me, is the sentiment.  But then there’s the resultant wake bumping you up and a little sideways on a swell from behind, the wake you were once leaving behind as you sped west suddenly.  It catches up with you, and there is a kind of regret in its aftermath that you have categorically let slip what was propelling you forward.  And its costs.  You regret that too.  At least the sun is out for a minute, limning clouds as it temporarily seeks a place from which to hang. 
We finish out with Foreigner, grateful, actually, for a conversational “in” with the man-boy.  This is where Cheryl and I come together as I imagine we wouldn’t be able to as easily if we were the man-boy’s biological parents.  Holding hands we routinely enter the openings provided by his expressed interests, even when they materialize as discourse about the “radness” of Monster Trucks, or, in this case, a genre of music the two of us claim to have transcended—or just misplaced to be more accurate–at this, the end of the first decade of the 21st Century.
            In the rear view mirror, I notice he has been reading U.S. Today, which he picked up outside our motel room door that morning.  He has written all over the Life section, scrawled words and dizzy designs in pen that make the paper look worn, thin. 
            “What are you writing?” I ask.
            “Stuff,” he says.  A conversational stopper for sure. 
            “Do you like that paper?”
            “It’s pretty cool.”  As a former freelance journalist, I consider launching into my staid-old diatribe about how Gannett’s flagship national paper experiment successfully bled dry its other city newspapers across the country during the 90s.  (Bastards.)  But I elect to forgo that for a potential teaching moment on the joys of reading print, fast disappearing.  Instead, in the silence he surprises me with:
            “Just some of my thoughts, you know.  That’s what I’ve been putting down.”  He laughs nervously, a laugh that both inures me to him and breaks my heart at the same time.  Cheryl is listening, good grandmother that she is, probably thankful for the diversion from calculating mileages.
            “Do you read many newspapers at East High?”
            “Not really,” he says.  Another stopper?
            “How far are you in your book?”
            “I dunno.  He’s still in Liverpool.  They’re talking about his mom.”
            “What about his mom?”
            “She gave him up.  And then she took him back later.”  Nervous laugh.  “Then she got hit by a car and died.”
            “Ouch!”  Cheryl has opened the atlas that is proving woefully inadequate.  It’s best if only one of us carries one-on-one with the man-boy, the other feigning disinterest.  For his sake, we presume.  To keep him talking.
            “Yeah.  It kind of sucked.”
            “Who raised him?  I mean after she gave him up.”  He is looking out the window on the driver’s side.  I can tell, even though I can’t see him without craning my neck.  It occurs to me that maybe he’s perched behind my seat so that he doesn’t have to give me eye contact.  This even though he has to sit sideways behind my seat to accommodate his knees.
            “His aunt.”  He says.  Now I know that the conversation is over.  At least for now.  And it’s just as well.  The traffic is starting to move again.  The sun has disappeared for the rest of the morning.