An impressionistic account of an American journey by UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA.
Frankness on the freeway in Los Angeles.
OUTSIDE the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, there are tourists in dark glasses, with arms outstretched and maps unfolded, children jumping up and down, joggers thudding past, and the Washington Monument rising up steeply ahead. Inside, the 1960 Woolworth sit-in, and Julia Child's kitchen, and the 1967 Pontiac that has driven all over America.
Outside, down the road, is the Au Bon Pain where I grab the last freshly squeezed orange juice of the morning, and a mozzarella-pesto-tomato sandwich on a baguette, and listen to Norah Jones singing, "Come Away With Me".
Ah, to be on the move.
My journey had begun several weeks earlier, at the Beverly Center in LA, when I cracked open my Panda Express fortune cookie and read: "Do not follow the path. Go where there is no path to begin the trail." Good advice for a traveller who had come prepared with no itinerary, no Visit USA coupons even only several weeks stretching into the wide-open spaces of America. I don't know what I am looking for; mostly I am just looking. Am I looking for familiar faces in unfamiliar places? Am I really expecting to see Seymour Glass lying on the sand? Or Woody Allen and Diane Keaton having dinner, talking like bon vivants about relationships and plays? Am I expecting Huck Finn to show us around Dream Lake? Joan Didion, to take me to Ground Zero? De Tocqueville, perhaps, sitting before the Vietnam Memorial, taking notes?
What am I expecting to see that I haven't already seen before, vividly, in film, books and song, and in the hopeful eyes of young boys, girls and parents waiting patiently in line outside the U.S. Consulate, just down the road from our house on Mumbai's Bhulabhai Desai Road?
It's a more interesting time than ever before to travel here. I've just read Fareed Zakaria's new book, The Future of Freedom a passionate argument for less democracy rather than more; an argument that is impossible to agree with. It led me back to read that earlier, perceptive traveller, Alexis de Tocqueville: "I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or hope from its progress."
Some travellers have taken the highways; others, the backcountry roads. Bill Bryson hates the small towns; Steinbeck loves them. "Maps are not reality at all they can be tyrants", he wrote in his Travels with Charley. Charley was his aging French poodle; and Rocinante his three-quarter ton pickup, in which he drove around the country. William Least Heat Moon, author of the classic Blue Highways, named his truck Ghost Dancing.
I have only my Eastsport backpack, an Orbitz e-ticket, a couple of Greyhound will-calls, and innumerable computer printouts of mass transit routes across the U.S. I check my backpack once again: an Olympus camera, a Chapstick, several packets of methi khakras, a second-hand Steinbeck picked up at Churchgate, two PBJ sandwiches, two Granola bars. I'm again reminded of Steinbeck: I feel like "a kind of casual turtle carrying his house on his back". Though that's not quite true: everything else has gone in my suitcase, which I have checked in.
We travel in opposite directions, it seems, to understand ourselves. On the flight to Los Angeles I find myself sitting next to a middle-aged American woman returning from Rishikesh. She is reading The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Her son, eyebrows pierced and jeans cut halfway at the knee, is reading The God of Small Things. I take out my copy of Steinbeck. Soon we are all engrossed in our books.
Steinbeck: "Why... do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a customs barrier?"
Did it always take this long at Los Angeles airport, I wonder. A young man comes up to me and starts talking rapidly in a language that I cannot understand. I realise in a moment that he thinks I am Spanish, and is speaking to me in America's second language. I shake my head regretfully. I soon learn to say "I don't speak Spanish", in Spanish for his happens again, and then again.
On to Denver, where my sister is waiting, a book in hand. We are soon on the dark windy stretch of Interstate 70. The speed surprises me. Can't you slow down a bit, I ask my sister. This is the Interstate, she replies: I have to go at this speed. Headlights flash in the rear-view mirror. There are a lot of people going somewhere, even at midnight on a weekday. And soon we are off the Interstate and onto the local roads, driving to the 24-hour King Soopers to pick up Raisin Bran and lo-fat milk. I am hungry, for American airlines serve only drinks on board, along with a packet of tiny salt-crusted mini-pretzels that taste like salted plastic. Finally we are in Lakewood, up a flight of wooden stairs, and home.
The new building of the Denver Public Library, with its 540,000 square feet of space, was funded with $65 million, through a bond issue. But even as I tell myself that something must be going right in a country that values its reading space, I see a notice that says the Public Library is cutting down its working hours for want of funds.
Inside the library, a man eating a Wendys salad notices my stack of books: "Hey, you read a lot. I like a smart woman". I bury my head deeper into my book, but not before noticing that he is reading "Represent Yourself in Court".
Outside, a man is pushing a battered shopping cart filled with flotsam from the road: crumpled cans, a discarded flask, a pillow. He finds a Coke can, steps on it crrrrunch and tosses it into the cart.
The Denver bus drivers are the friendliest in the country. Raoul, an Ethiopian, tells me why he came here: "I like Ethiopia but not the government there." And Omar, an Afghan bus driver from Kabul, tells me that Indians and Afghans have always been friends. He is sometimes homesick, and America is still an alien land. "But Denver is safe," he says with a shrug and a smile.
Safe? I wonder. I read in the Rocky Mountain News that the parents of five teenagers killed in the Columbine tragedy have settled their wrongful death case against the parents of the two teenage killers. Outside the dusty windows of the bus, I read the cardboard signs that the sad, shabby destitutes wear, sitting on the pavements: "Space Aleins (sic) coming. Need Bus Fare." "Christian Father of Five Out of Work Sad Helpless". "Vietnam Veteran Please give $1, 2 or 3".
A man in a wheelchair plays the harmonica. He wears a sign that says, "25 cents ++ will help".
At the Boulder Bookstore, I notice that the Central Park Jogger, the Wall Street executive who was raped and left for dead in Central Park in 1989, has just chosen to reveal her identity. "I Am The Central Park Jogger", says the cover of this book by Trisha Meili. In her prologue, she quotes from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet: "Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."
Finally, armed with advice from both Rilke and the Central Park Jogger, I travel east, to the Big Apple, and I recall Didion's words about what it's like to be young in New York, the city that is "an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself". And I walk about the streets and avenues, looking at the brownstones, sitting outside the Chinese laundries, letting the rain wash my hair and eyelashes, sipping black coffee and biting into a sesame bagel.
I have already passed through eight airports, and in each of them, everyone is going to Vegas. I give in, book a cheap room at the Howard Johnsons, and book my Orbitz e-ticket to the Casino City. Vegas airport is a throbbing, pulsating riot of noise and colour. It is the coin machines, hundreds of them, going click-clickety clack, whirring with greed.
Valerie, the bus driver from Hojo, helps me with my luggage. She is from Uzbekistan. She met her husband in Greece, and has now been in Vegas for over two decades. Life is more difficult here, she says: "In Russia we didn't have so many things, but no one had them, so it was okay. Here you want more things, because everyone has them." She shrugs. "Tropicana!" she calls out, ready for the hourly shuttle to The Strip.
I sit at the Nevada Phone Service phone that claims to offer calls anywhere in the U.S. for a dollar, three minutes time. I call Denver. The first three times, I don't get through, and get my money back. Then I get a wrong number, and somebody's recorded message. And the machine swallows my money. That is the extent of my gambling in Vegas.
Los Angeles is just a short flight from Nevada. California, I have been told, will be everything that the rest of the country hasn't been so far: the end of the frontier, the land of crazies, of earthquakes and fires, of glamour and decadence. Paradise and hell. And it is. It is the bookshop named "Read It Again, Sam"; the Kodak Theatre, the Walk of Fame, and the man in the ten-foot tall Frankenstein costume shuffling about in front of it, offering free tickets to a Universal Studios movie show to tourists who are too excited to care. And it is also the red and white Metro Rapid 720 that goes west to east and east to west all day long, along Wilshire Boulevard, taking the Hispanic and coloured housekeepers and gardeners and nannies, who work in the rich Beverly Hills houses, to their workplaces and back. Like America itself, it is all of these things, and more.
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