American Tales

Approx 6,800 words
© Joel Seath (2000)

April/May 2000

Newtonville, MA.

Well, I finally made it to the USA: after all that scheming and after all those years of feeling the place being pumped into me, absorbing it, sucking it up like flowers in earth thru’ childhood TV, toys, adult imagery on screens, in books, the slow and gradual drift towards a total mergedworld globalisation.

Here I am, just outside of Boston, MA., sitting in an old timber frame house, creaking with every move I make; with all the elements of a New England/Mid-West American house I thought and knew somehow thru’ TV I’d find: the clapboard wooden cladding; the double front doors with the little lobby in between, the outer door flapping a little in the breeze; the old wooden porches (and even the rocking chair out front!!); basketball hoops in the yards outside.

It’s like stepping into a TV screen!! I look out the window here and see two or three of these wood houses. All detached. Lightblue and white. Cream and brown. Pastelgreen. All with their verandas. Walking down Newtonville last night, on the way back from visiting the local Y which is much bigger, nothing like our Y, we kind of walked down a distant memory: big old wood houses set a way from each other with their grass front lawns petering out in the road; wood verandas and rocking chairs: we thought we might see some old guy soon in denim dungarees, beer in hand, rocking out there, 12-bore across his lap. But we didn’t.

And it suddenly struck me about the space. This is just a tiny corner of New England but we saw there was no house built up against any other when it didn’t need to be and so, just how big must this whole country be?

It’s a little strange this place we think we know so well but which, at the same time is Aliensville, MA. I mean, we know its streets, the cars they drive here, the way the lights hang over the traffic, sometimes swaying in the tumblebreeze, the Stars and Stripes hanging like redblue flowers from posts. We know this, yet haven’t ever seen it. Like we’ve slightly shifted, we think, into an alternate universe where everything is everything we know but slightly to the left, slightly down the colour spectrum or with one letter dropped from the alphabet. You know? It’s a strange disorientation.

And stranger still when the locals can’t understand my accent. I have to slow down, speak clearer, stop my slur into London English as I’m prone to do in times of laziness. We went to a bar in Boston a couple of nights back. We were asked what we wanted and I didn’t think he wouldn’t understand me when I spoke. And yet, I understand Ian from Georgia perfectly (and he, me); even with his slow Southern twang: ‘Hey, what’s up, y’all?’

It’s absorption. Once the accent, the ways, the differences are absorbed, I guess, it all clicks into place, all shifts, all pops gently like your ears in an aeroplane. I thought we’d shifted already after all these years. Obviously not quite yet.

*   *   *

Stereotypes. I’m sure the whole of the States isn’t like this: like the imagery I’ve fallen into and seem to know so well. But then, what is a stereotype apart from something you’ve seen time and time before? Maybe we have seen it all. But I somehow doubt it. How can we have?: three thousand miles NY to SF; however many thousand Canada to Mexico.

I know England isn’t all London and little stone cottages, Shakespeare and rustic little country pubs with roaring fires and dark corners made of dark thick wood.

*   *   *

The train into Boston. Just rumbled past the Red Sox stadium on the top deck of the double-decker. Jumped off at Back Bay, Boston. Literally, jumped off. We waited for the footbar to swing up like we’d seen it do from outside but it never did. So we jumped – four or five feet down onto the platform. And, quick as you think, there’s this loud and angry guard behind us and she’s shouting: ‘Don’t you ever do that again, you hear?’ We hit the exit steps up and running. There’s living in an alien world for you!!

And the double-decker trains. What’s going on there? That’s a favourite phrase right now: What’s going on here? Everything we don’t understand, don’t know, haven’t quite understood: What’s going on here? No pubs in Boston except down Union and Marshall; glasses in the bars three quarters of a full English pint; crossing roads where, on every intersection, there’s a four square pattern of pedestrian rights-of-way (‘Hey,’ shouted one Bostonian at a taxi, ‘don’t y’know pe-destrians have right of way, you idiot?’) And the double-decker trains. What’s going on here? We sit up on the top deck because it begs us to. And the guard first time doesn’t understand my accent: ‘Newtonville to Back Bay,’ I say. But I pronounce it English ‘new’ as in ‘n’you’ rather than the ‘noo’ of America. So, of course, he doesn’t understand me. And we learn quick that if we want to go there and back on the same ticket, it’s a ‘roundtrip’ rather than a ‘return’ we ask him for. We pay him $2 each and prepare to have to pay again from Back Bay because he hasn’t registered exactly what it is we want. We learn from the ticket he’s punched and every little counts, every little bit of information and knowledge stacks up.

*   *   *

Boston, MA.

Found a bar yesterday in what I guess is the old town of Boston. Just off the Northend Italian quarter and a short distance from Boston Common. And it feels comfortable, kind of like an English pub, it’s on the tourist route, and, us not feeling totally at ease just yet, have to stick to what we know. English beer here. Why do we do this, us tourists? We come three and a half thousand miles and find a place here pretty similar to every place we always go in every other night back home and, when we’re here, we see they serve English beer and it travels kind of well (despite the three-quarter size glasses) so we order it and stick to it. Why do we stick with what we know? In the comfort zone. I guess it takes a few days to readjust. I hope, by the time we get to see New York we’ll have Americanised our former selves and we’ll be able to order some sandwich on rye with whatever filling, hold the mustard, double Columbian coffee, latte, to go. Or something similar. But I somehow doubt it. It’s our Englishness, you understand.

*   *   *

Americanisation. I find myself, despite myself, trying to adjust my accent and vocabulary to the American way of things; just to fit in. Why? Am I that unsure of myself? We talk to each other, my brother and I, about ‘restrooms’ not toilets; ‘bucks’ not dollars; ‘intersections’ not junctions or crossroads; ‘bars’ not pubs.

We’re in a kind of limbo here. And in Boston too. Near where our English forefathers started it all. Where the Pilgrim Fathers landed close to here, settled the place; where their descendants grew restless; where the Revolutionaries first thought about their independence from the British. In this very bar we sit in. Apparently. I always have loved history. If I squint a little I can kind of see it, but it’s difficult. You always see Americans in England waxing lyrical about the history of the place. But I’m in reverse here. Boston: birthplace of the Revolution. But, like I say, it’s difficult to see the history, really. The American Grid street system has taken over and, although I can kind of see the Pilgrims’ descendants on the Common, empty space in all directions, thrown up timber churches, long cotton gowns in the mud, carts, black capes, the Brave New World; I can’t see it in amongst the brickbuilt grid here: the ‘Cheers’ bar, the Expressways to NY, the BigDig out near the airport.

You have to slit your eyes, I guess. Like all places, the old self of the town is lying underneath.

*   *   *

Intersection. Way back, at architecture school, there was this guy, a lecturer, who’d absorbed America already by the time he’d got to us. He was passionate about the wide open space and painted it in abundancies from every angle. Huge empty skies above long wide streets; passive cars between the isolated gas stations with brightred Coca-Cola signs; the thin vertical intrusions of telegraph poles and wires strung across the roads; the trafficlight blocks hung over them like they were there to accentuate the hot soft wind easing thru’ the place, stuffing itself into the wide open space, ruffling the tattered-edged Stars and Stripes hung from posts in the middle of the road. The paleblue sky, the dustyred Coca-Cola signs, the pastel yellowgreen landscape. Like the whole painting had been washed in water specially stored in a jar since the Sixties.

Well, we walked into one of those paintings recently. Out here in Newtonville, MA. Over the railroad bridge, trains taking the quiet commuters rattling solemnly into Boston, I stopped and flashed back to those paintings a short time thinking there. Although not exactly a painting in itself, the intersection of Walnut and Washington made me slip back there and I could see how and why he’d absorbed and felt the way he did. God is in the details, we were taught back then, thru’ the wisdom of the architect Mies van der Rohe. And, although this is only an intersection, a dull little everyday sight with no exceptional qualities to the everyday American (like a row of stone cottages or a thatched roof to us), God is indeed in the details and that’s why it’s an exceptional sight when it isn’t taken just for granted.

So there it was: a wide four way intersection over the railroad bridge; four lanes of occasional passive cars; thin pokes of poles up between the blocks; the ubiquitous Stars and Stripes, limp but proud, tattered like a wartorn memory, hung from the post in the middle of the road.

All these elements, under the widescreen panoramic sky, caused a pause and a reflection back to those paintings where, the scene soaked in ordinariness and branded at the subtle edges with dusty palered Coca-Cola signs, Mies van der Rohe’s God is in the details.

*   *   *

Ocean. We travelled out north up thru’ Salem to Marblehead. I stood on the rock which sliced up out of the sea, the white frothcold steam fizzing and spraying up forty, fifty feet against the stone slabs beneath the houses. I stood in the icecold wind and saw the Atlantic Ocean from the opposite side. Like looking in a mirror.

Just a small piece here on a thought as short and tiny as an ocean. The wind got too cold and we headed on back.

*   *   *

Whilst we’re driving downsouth from Salem thru’ the outer ‘burbs of Boston (Waltham, Watertown, Newton), looking out the window thru’ the rain, counting ‘out-of-state’ plates, I watch the streets stream by and stack up the names of the stores in my head as we go (Tony D’s, Marty’s Liquors, Frank’s Smoke Shop, Gordon’s, Paul’s Garage, Andy’s Superette: what is a ‘superette’?!) I think: why the commonplace familiar? We pass Microsoft’s huge Prospect Hill palace of a building up high over the Freeway. If Silicon Valley was out here in Massachusetts, would Prospect Hill have been called Bill’s? Bill’s Electrical Emporium? Bill’s Soft Wares?

Are all these trade names actually huge conglomerates managed by a quorate of twenty sat around a glistening marble table somewhere high up over Downtown NY? ‘What’ll we call this new garage chain, gentlemen?’; ‘Something . . . scaled down, y’know?’; ‘Hey, right. Yeh. How about . . . Pete’s? Sounds like one guy and his truck . . .’ So Pete’s Local Autos gets its small town feel and two hundred thirty other national Pete’s spring up: the Burbsville, MA. branch, just out of Boston, sits neatly in between Joe’s Pizzas and Jilly’s Laundromat on the corner of Lexington and Washington (because there’s a Washington Street in every place I’ve seen so far); just down the block from the intersection where the Stars and Stripes hangs on its slanted pole and reminds the residents of Burbsville to take pride in their country and to not let anyone else take it from them.

Just observations here.

*   *   *

On The Road

Thru’ Bridgeport, Connecticut, halfway to New York City, south on Interstate 95. We’re on the Greyhound travelling down to the heaving Metropolis dream I thought I’d never see.

And the sky out here today is crystal blue. Bluer than I’d ever written about in all my dreamscheme tales of fiction tripping on thru’ the Arizona desert. Blue and wide over the Smalltownvilles of America: Bridgeport gives way to a railroad complex hunkered flat and low and wide; billboard signs grow like jungle flowers tall up above the mass of telegraph poles and wires; roadside eateries like scattered stones flat on the edge of the Freeway, lit up high for all to see for miles around, no doubt, by tall thin pokes into the sky by lozenge signs on sticks: ‘Denny’s’, just that. No more communication needed.

*   *   *

Americanisation: The other night we ended up at a bar/club out near Fenway Park. Feeling kind of English, in a way. Thinking how we gotta fit in.

‘Y’all gotta ba-throom, here?’ I said to the coatcheck girl.

Perfect drawl, balanced out well. Understood straight off. Americanisation setting in. I’m thinking with an accent sometimes out here too!!

*   *   *

Out in Newtonville, we sat out front of the StarMarket watching the world go by, munching thru’ a bag of Veggie Sticks just because they caught our eye (orange and yellow and green potato chip sticks: sitting eating them thinking these have absolutely no flavour, no taste, no protein, no nothing and yet, they’re strangely addictive). Sitting out front of the StarMarket and I thought of [one of the characters I’m writing]; how she might be sitting here too . . .

Left leg up on the plastic bench, arms loosely folded over them, camos and untied DMs, gazing out to the middle distance, out near the railroad tracks, honeyblonde strands of hair over her eyes, back up against the faded ‘USA Today’ vending machine, a pale indigowhite silkchecked headscarf square on her head.

[Another character] maybe sitting opposite her: both feet up on the bench, redblack shoes, laces undone, mostly dressed in black, red hair hiding her downbent head. Blowing and popping bubbles from a stick of pink gum.

The girls both not talking. Just waiting. For the day to go on.

*   *   *

Sign for Queens and Long Island and we’re still an hour out of New York. Man, I need a coffee. The occasional drifting smell of cinnamon ebbing down from the back of the bus: cake or drink? I can’t tell. Been coming down over me since we crossed the Massachusetts state line.

*   *   *

First sight of Manhattan: the city waiting there for us like a silver tiger, lying in the glass and metal grass, watching us over the river.

*   *   *

Entering the city thru’ Harlem and the Upper East Side. Slowly being swallowed up by the place. Slipping down its throat.

*   *   *

Down 5th Avenue on the East Side of Central Park and even on a Sunday this place is struck truckpacked full with yellowcabs and people. Past the fringes of the park and I get a fleeting glimpse, a snapshot image inside this place, of ordinariness. Of this being a place populated by people after all instead of images or robots or . . . what?

It’s almost as if the city, legend in itself, has a life of its own. (But then, I’ve always known that). It’s as if the people have always seemed to be mere instruments, tiny mechanisms in the creature’s gut; enzymes which keep it living; breathing on; choking out smog and fumes as it lies in its cave of putrid shallow water in the bay cut out by New Jersey and Long Island. The Manhattan Monster. The silver tiger skulking. Something dark and gothic.

But now we’re back in the realm of legend, lore and the fantasy of NYC.

It’s an ordinary place, I tell myself. Yeh, right.

Capital of the world.

*   *   *

Ian says: ‘Hey, look. Times Square.’
But I’m too busy writing.

*   *   *

New York City
April 30, 2000

Dear Kat

Just had to drop you a line from NYC like Jack [Kerouac] did back in ’41. Just had to think about you here and think of him and think of this place; thinking ‘bout me in this big, mad almost city state of its own. It’s huge but small, Groupykat. Does that make sense? Tripped out onto 5th Avenue and onto Broadway Uptown and, it’s a Sunday here, but there’s people starting to pile up in the corners. What’ll tomorrow be like?

It’s huge but small. It’s a finite place, this Manhattan Island. And I know Manhattan’s not the be all and end all of NYC, but it feels like it just right now. It’s a finite place with city edges made of liquid lines, the Hudson and the East Rivers squeezing millions inward on top of each other all on one island. And that gives the place some tangability. Not like London or Paris or Frankfurt which all sprawl out, radiate like rubble thrown up after a bomb’s hit the middle of town. New York spreads out down organised brick, metal and glass canyons till it hits the water, then bounces back. But it’s got no place left to go so it just winds up piling up on itself.

Huge but small. Not nearly as imposing and fearful as I’d thought. Where has all the fear of the place gone? Maybe it’s because I’m with an American here. I kind of feel safer that way. What would I feel, just an Englishman in New York?

Downtown, round Wall Street and Battery Park, you get a short fleeting feeling of Manhattan piling in on itself: the brick built warehouses and tenements a couple of blocks up; the old colonial buildings scattered few and far between, like gemstones. Then, wave after wave, Uptown, of progressively taller, thinner, metallic, glassy stacks of shards like the city is an animal after all (like I’ve always thought it to be) feeding on itself: sacrificing whole blocks of dead buildings (like shedding skin), replacing them with newer, taller, hungrier, healthier spikes with which to protect itself.

And yet, the people seem calm. Almost superfluous to needs. Or, they’re so very needed, almost like bloodcells clotting thru’ the avenue arteries of one-way five-lane veins.

I’ve seen post-apocolyptic films showing vast vistas of empty streets in huge urban swathes and often wondered if the cities might just gasp on a few days, after all the people have been vapourised to ash; breathing like a floored old dragon, too weak to walk any more, surviving on the last remnants of its ebbing life-force which used to be the blood of people.

I’ve often wondered these things.

Gotta go now, Groupykat. Gotta see NYC. Riding high, ma’am. Riding high.

*   *   *

New York City

This place feels weirdly natural. Walking thru’ Greenwich Village, things don’t seem out of place. And the people here, there’s all sorts; calmer on Sunday, all mixed up and carefree: Spanish, Jew, Black and Chinese and everything in between; Polish, Russian, Irish we hear. But everyone and everything’s all, like, squashed on up together. In the books, they talk about ‘the Blacks’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Russians’ and how they populated this neighbourhood or the other. But being here, it’s like they’re all fused in together; like a mound of clay; all the red, brown, yellow earth all pushed up against each other, mixed up: Spanish voice on Italian on English American on English British. NYC’s rebounding off the waters: in geography, geology and demographics.

This place is a mad old quiet loud huge small contradiction city central.

It’s an outdoor city. Where the locals and the tourists tread the sidewalks under cover of the neon nights watching out for the buzz of bright places.

On West 24th Street here, we’re all off to sleep. I thought my first ever night in NYC would be all fire trucks and police cars screaming sirens Uptown Downtown, loud nights, bright nights where the city screams dark. But here, right now, on the Lower West Side, I hear a car or two, no louder than back home. It’s weirdly natural here in Chelsea, NYC. I’m thinking maybe I could live down in Greenwich off of Bleecker or West 8th or 9th Street. Maybe, if it wasn’t for the island’s finite borders pushing me inwards; squashing me up against the Broadway spine; 5th Avenue vertebrae; East West 1st thru’ 132nd Streets or so, ribcage NYCity skeleton grid.

If I lived here, I’d maybe slot right into Bohemia a few blocks from here in the Village. But then, Central Park asides, I’d maybe long for the coutryside and quiet still.

Central Park: dipped just inside today, just on the south side for a while: but where’d all the peoplenoise go? I heard birds and the grass took over and I had to think: this works. Respect to the city planners who knew about the greenbelt areas to put inside Metropolis. Central Park, maybe more tomorrow. More of NYC. But for now, this city’s totally worn me out: Battery Park, Times Square, Fifth Avenue, Central Park, all the names. The strip grid on the back of the hunkered silver tiger, lying low now, down beneath the neon grass.

*   *   *

The subway, sub-city. Tangled web of lower New York. Different city, different place. Subterranean maps like they’ve been washed in coffee, wrapped in ink, crumpled out and chewed. Mixed up sour mash of Downtown Uptown routes. Get lucky on the lower grid subway where the redbluegreen lines merge and take you anywhichway. Tubes and snakes of coils, pipes and open ductways writhe beneath the overhead place like a mirror image of the calmer, much more rational place up above. Like the subway’s New York thru’ the looking glass. Like the place is a kingdom of its own. The iron girders hold up the city up above. Strained invisible supports. Like a slave city down below. Like a hot air stuffed thru’ some dreamplace subterranean town. Like a city stuffed underneath some other city place. Like a quiet loud unknown place. Where people live; where the unknown thrive; where legends are born and grow. Where New York City sprouts from the clod of dirty earth like a glass and metal jungle. Where the beast backs up and rears its head. Where the world around it looks on from a way and knows about the city, doesn’t touch, stays back a certain distance, just knows.

Where NYC breathes; hot and always. Lungs of the place way on down below.

*   *   *

Washington Square, NYC. This is like the Thinking Well: a wide and shallow circular concrete pit, a fountain never turned on; where denizens of the place come to sit like leaves blown up against the edges. Sitting, thinking in the Thinking Well.

I’m whispered at by a dealer ghosting past: ‘Smoke?’ he says. Maybe some of the thinkers are Dopeheads sitting staring at the dry fountain grill. Maybe they see things on the sunken hologram stage. Maybe the Thinking Well is the Non-Thinking Well. Maybe. Who’s to know?

*   *   *

Walking Downtown on a Monday afternoon; feeling the noise, not so much loud, but constant: the dull hot throbbing, padded pulsing of yellowcabs and buses, horns and nauseous wave after wave of people. Millions coursing down each Avenue, every Avenue and Crosstown East and West Streets. Millions, or so it feels. The heat of the city. Only 62 degrees say the digital clock thermometers flashing up here and there. But we all know it’s really more.

Turn down Wall Street and the stone and glass bank canyons round here act as a natural air conditioning unit. Cool soft air flows thru’ the Downtown machine several blocks wide and high; a cool wind slipping down the deep channels where the sun doesn’t reach and shadows spread like spilt chilled white wine.

Sitting on the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street, at the left foot of George Washington, where the canyon cracks open a little way to let the sun pour in, we watch the tourists and the police officers mill beneath us, the latter leaning on ‘NYPD Do Not Cross’ barriers like they’re waiting for some bomb to go off; us watching the officer high up on something like the 32nd floor, on a balcony, watching all of us, like a sniper. Us thinking about the dark windows high up all around us and all the dark eyes watching us invisibly; us in our paranoid conspiracy theory thoughts. Us sitting on the steps of the Federal Hall, slowly baking in the drip of sun thru’ the crack of Wall Street canyon.

*   *   *

Out on the very tip of Manhattan Island, on the quayside of Battery Park; watching the Staten Island ferries; looking out into the bay at the distant Statue of Liberty, thinking how small she is, so far away. Almost like not part of NYC at all.

*   *   *

Pier 17, walking the boards in the sun; looking out on Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn itself. Eating on Fulton Street near here. And the beautiful girl who served us. Her bright clear eyes. We talked about her as we waited for her to bring us our food, drinking English beer in this English bar we found, the Northern Star. We christened her ‘Lara’ because it’s a soft sweet name. And I said I’d write her in my notebook sometime (she struck me beautiful). And so here I am, travelling Upstate New York on the Greyhound back to Boston, and here she is, trapped in my memory now in scribbled roadbounced spiderwritten ink.

*   *   *

Yesterday, 86 floors up the Empire State and it’s so high up, your ears pop in the elevator. And it’s not as wide up there on the balcony as when I watched Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. And the camera never lies!!

The Chrysler Building shining silver toothtipped and easily the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen.

And I think: what happens in these buildings, these squares, these parks with their famous legend names? Who lives here, works here, sweats and loves here? The city legend lives and breathes thru’ the pores of the monuments stuck up thru’ the ribgrid: the Chrysler; the Empire State; City Hall; Grand Central Station.

Even the streets breathe. At architecture school we were told: ‘a city has it’s monuments and it’s toothpaste’. The toothpaste streets squirted like infill between the blocks of concrete, stone, metal, glass. But in NYC, even the streets breathe like monuments do: 5th Avenue, Broadway, 42nd Street, Wall Street, Madison.

*   *   *

And the island is a bucked beast. I didn’t realise Manhattan wouldn’t be anything but perfectly flat. But the land is curved up, Downtown and Uptown, Crosstown, walking on the back of the silver tiger, lying dragon; all its streets and monuments breathing.

*   *   *

And the people don’t seem to realise they’re walking down world renowned thoroughfares. I sit and watch them like they shouldn’t be taking it all for granted like they do. They walk without awe or respect. But then, they’ve known this town too long, no doubt.

*   *   *

Grand Central Station. There’s a scene in the film The Fisher King, where the music kicks in and all the masses of the crowd start dancing in perfect synchrony thru’ Grand Central. And the place is huge and domed up above them and there’s thousands of people there and then the music stops suddenly and everyone disengages, NYC kicks back in and people go about the bustle of their day. It’s a beautiful choreography.

We stood in the middle of the main concourse of Grand Central Station and thousands of people bustled past in all directions. We set up a photo of us from the balcony, left the shutter open for something like a minute, stood dead still amongst it all; so, when we get the pictures back, we hope, we’ll see us, still, in amongst the blur of openshutter travelchaos. We’re artists now in NYC.

*   *   *

Walking East down 42nd Street, in amongst the tide of a Crosstown million people, swarming round us; us up against the flow; us in the flow, both at once. The hot stream of the street. It’s like swimming thru’ flesh.

*   *   *

Turned on the TV this morning at the Y where we stayed. Man got shot yesterday down on the Lower East Side. We passed thru’ there at some point. I think: this is a real place after all, not just the fantasy Metropolis I see and write it as. I don’t feel unsafe, necessarily, but something at the back of my head distantly warns me, quietly.

*   *   *

I don’t feel unsafe in this place, walking thru’ it. Not like I thought I’d feel. But even then, I don’t know what I thought it would be like. Whatever preconceptions I did ever have have now been smeared from my memory.

NYC was always a patchwork place to me, I think. That is to say, a place built up out of a fusion of years of constant images: from the TV, films, newspapers, secondhand snippets scrapped together, cut and pasted by others who’d been there, others who’d seen it. A patchwork legend grew.

And now, heading north someplace thru’ darknight Connecticut, I know NYC is a patchwork city after all; just like my writings about the place: the city grid coloured pastel purples, blues, greens on the tourist maps, demarcating the blockpatches of Chelsea, Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown, Lower Manhattan, Central Park. Threaded together at the tattered overlapping edges by the East West Street stitches (‘Greenwich Village’, says one book I read, ‘traditionally starts at W 14th Street with its southern boundary at W 8th or 9th’, like it doesn’t really know for sure; like the patch was overlaid, sown down over the partial edge of another).

And the Spanish you hear on the streets overlaps the English, occasional patches of Italian, Black Street Talk, Jewish, thick nasal New York accents, sweeter softer other State sounds thru’ American voices.

People jammed together like a patchwork quilt, side by side in the multi-million stitch peopletides: traditional Jews, immigrant street beggars; Hispanic, Latino, European, Americano melge.

*   *   *

Sitting here now, bumping north on Interstate 95, two hours from Boston, I’m almost sad to see the back of New York City. Being pushed along 42nd Street towards the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I caught a sight down one of the Avenues, 7th, 8th, and saw the distant skyslice at the very far end of a long long street canyon, looked the other way and saw the same. Miles in both directions. I thought: we don’t see that at home.

I always said one day I’d buzz in, buzz out of NYC. Well, now I have. That’s exactly what I did. I saw a dreamscheme come true. (‘Everybody got a dream’, said a character at an intersection of NYC in a film I saw once but whose title I now forget. Everybody got a dream).

I’ll be back, one day. I have walked on the back of the beast; down at the base of its spikes; along the breathing streets; over the slumbering dragon in the shallow bay; over the silver tiger lying low between the glass grass reeds.

And I’m no longer afraid of the fantasy city, legend told me I should be anxious of.

*   *   *

Plymouth, MA.

I’m sitting out on the balcony of the motel room we’ve found here. The cool evening air, I have my feet up on the railing, two legs of the chair swung up. Out in front of me, the motel parking lot: an old dustplum coloured Chevy, a Buick, a ‘50s styled motorbike, couple of other cars; and, out over the wood New England colonial-style rooftops of this village-town, Plymouth Harbour, still and smooth: milkwhite water into turquoise up thru’ the lightblue pale pinkpurple of the smeared cool early East Coast evening. God, this is a beautiful place. It’s so absolutely quiet after New York. It’s beautiful and still and I feel at total ease here, feet up, watching the occasional car slip past on Main Street out front.

Today, one day out of New York, in this still alien American land, we walked down the streets of Plymouth tall and quietly loud; we can do anything out here now; we’ve done New York; we’ve travelled to the huge Metropolis, fought the throb and pulse, slipped out of Manhattan unnoticed, unharmed. We’re loud and bright now, this side of NYC.

We rented a car and drove out thru’ the Boston ‘burbs before we hit the highway and headed south thru’ Norfolk and Plymouth Counties. And it all felt bright and right slipping into Plymouth, the world got warmer and the clouds got fewer the farther south we headed.

And now, there’s not a cloud to see, this beautiful wide blue sky arced above the birds and me like an ocean up there.

We got off the train in Newtonville last night, after the Greyhound nighttrek from New York to Boston, and I looked up and saw the huge black sky and realised I hadn’t seen the sky for real in New York, or hadn’t noticed it, only slices and squares of the distant stuff here and there.

But, here in Plymouth, there’s an oceanful of sky up there, the pale pinkpurple, distant, last tinge of Earth-hidden sun slowly smearing up as the Sun itself slips down somewhere unseen from here.

This feels sweet and fresh and as far from New York as you could hope to be out here.

*   *   *

Plymouth Rock sits like a caged old animal, smaller with age, in its own shelter, with bars fencing it off, on the harbourside walkway. The Pilgrims probably never even set foot on the thing itself, way back in 1620. It’s become a token, a symbol, a legend of its own. They should never have moved it around like they did, although I can understand the sentiments hundreds of years ago for doing so.

They should have left it where it was. We could have seen for sure the place we thought the Pilgrims came ashore; squinted a little to see the Mayflower in the water, the women’s long gowns trailing in the sea as they were carried ashore or walked out along a plank slung between boat and land. We could have made our own minds up, seen it for what we think is real, instead of what does not feel real at all.

But, this rock is the heritage of the place and the country must protect its own, I know.

*   *   *

Sitting in a bar in Plymouth watching the Red Sox on the TV; feeling like we’re just passing thru’ this coast town like tumbleweeds just tripping in and out. We watch the baseball trying to figure out the rules and say: ‘Where’ll we go tomorrow?’ We don’t know. Maybe south towards the Cape. Tomorrow’s another day. I think: I could live and write this way, just tripping thru’, place to place, like Kerouac did. Feels good, feels right.

*   *   *

Sandwich, Cape Cod, MA.

Another day, another place, another motel. We headed south on the highway not really sure or caring where we’d wind up. Slipping down thru’ fir and pine forests, double yellow lines at my left heel all the way like a faithful dog. This is how I always imagined my roadtrips thru’ America would be: wide long straight roads, miles of sky and clearheaded till we find a motel we like the look of three or four counties on from here.

We found the place in the middle of a strung out backroad which stretches out from the canal in the West to Orleans on the Cape in the East. Dead smack in the middle of it we see a gas station half a mile up the road, a liquor store, couple of shackhouses quarter of a mile in between. And that’s all. Nothing else here but strings of trees sprouting out from the edges of the flat salt marshes cut thru’ occasionally by little tributaries where the moisture in the soft land oozes out and finds a place to go.

We walked a couple of miles down past the marshes and the odd timbershacks, over the bridge and out East towards nowhere in particular. And, when we’d found nowhere, we thought we might just head West again, trailing a stick in the sand-dusted roadverge as we went.

No place to go, no place to be, Hobo-wandering, but for making it back to buy some beer before the store closed.

I sit out front by the parking lot in an old roughwood seatswing, bottle of cold beer in hand, watching the road, couple of geese fly over, the creaking metal sign saying: ‘Help Wanted’. Sweet, no cares and no thoughts except maybe entertaining the notion of staying on a while; saying to the motel owner how I’ll clean rooms, run errands for her, few dollars in my hand in return. Then I’d take my pay after a couple of weeks, hitch a ride into town, buy beer and stock up on candy bars, find another motel needing help (they all seem to), start over. Writing all the while.

Maybe one day. Maybe.

*   *   *

Newtonville, MA.

Back in Newtonville, last day in the States, sitting on the wood front step outside the old creaky timber frame house where we started.

I kind of like full circles: they balance out well and please me.

Sitting here in the lightwarm sun just exactly warm enough, I feel balanced out in me. It’s peaceful here. The slowsoft breeze brushing over me and causing blossom to fall like yellow snow from the limegreen leaves onto the shadowspeckled path in front of me. I look out here at the creambrown, pastelgreen, paleblue wooden houses; the lightgreen, firgreen, pink and raspberrypurple leaves of the trees which overhang these steps I sit on; the dancing birds with brightred heads; the old man smoking, sat on the step of his porch just across from here, looking out and thinking out like me. I smell the warm wood and the softheated air as I hear the bird-idle talk and see small bugs skip past here and there, this early day in May.

I’ve found the calm me I know I am, out here. I’ve found the quiet in amongst the chaos of my city self. I know I’ve got to break the chains to balance out like this more often.

Earlier here, I thought about the roadtrips we’ve made here; about the journeys of Kerouac; about a book I read once called ‘Hideous Kinky’, which influenced me much more subtlely than I knew at the time (about a woman who takes her children to Morrocco in the Sixties/Seventies, or thereabouts, on the hippy trail, on the road).

The other night, Ian said: ‘You didn’t come back last night. You know, I thought you’d just decided to drive on out to San Francisco like you always said you would.’

And here, balanced out, thinking about my city self, about Kerouac, Hideous Kinky, New York City, San Francisco, the romance of my other, true self . . . it’s a thought that so pulls at me.

I shall be kind of sad to leave America: I’ve seen a different side to the place. I’ve seen a different side of me; one I always knew was here, hidden in me, always driving me, on the road.

Thank you kindly, Jack

Newtonville, MA., USA
May 5, 2000
 
 

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