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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
The first week of January is always a time of curious reflection for me, not because we all look back on the year that’s been but because it marks the anniversary of my arrival in the United States.
You see, I arrived in New York City on New Year’s Eve, quite late in the day, and was one of the last airline passengers to be processed by the passport authorities before JFK Airport closed for the night in a frightful blizzard. From there, it was an expensive taxi ride to Times Square, where the Greyhound bus terminal used to be (maybe it still is), and I was rolling down the snowbound New Jersey Turnpike in an enormous aluminum-plated interstate coach called an Americruiser when the new year struck.
I was wakened from fitful slumber by a complete stranger who handed me an apple and wished me a happy new year. Not having eaten much on the Kuwaiti jetliner from London or in the criminally overpriced pizza parlor in a shopping center above the bus station, I was ravenous and ate the apple with the sort of guarded gluttony one associates with a hyena that’s just found a mortally wounded zebra.
America rolled past my bus window in flashes of yellowy streetlights, wide frost-blanketed meadows, lines of boarded shopfronts, distant grey factories, and jumbles of clapboard suburbia for days. The country’s sheer size was daunting to behold, made all the more eerie by being almost entirely shuttered for the holiday. Only the foul-smelling truck stops and an absurdly decorated shop called Piggly Wiggly showed any signs of life. Within them, Americans swaddled in thick winter plaid were doing American things, eating pancakes, drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows, fueling their Chevrolets, calling each other names like Chuck and Biff, buying meats as big as babies, and offering heartfelt holiday wishes to anyone they encountered.
I reached Memphis on a bitter-cold morning and bought one of those Chevrolets from a dealer beside Sun Records, where Elvis had been discovered, and I ate some of those American pancakes in a diner where the waitress called me Honey.
The car cost $400 and was eighteen feet long. Up front was a 5.7-liter engine that could have purred all the way to the moon, and inside there were two vinyl-upholstered sofas big enough for me to lie on or eat dinner on. Thanks to cruise control, I could do both and see all of Arkansas at the same time.
Since the national speed limit was 55 miles per hour, it took rather longer for Arkansas to pass than I’d have considered necessary.
Texas welcomed me with a clutch of happy highway signs, rambling villages arranged around wooden church steeples and jaunty-hatted water towers, barbecue restaurants that all claimed to be the best west of somewhere I’d never heard of, and a jukebox that played the same Ronnie Milsap tune over and over again. By now the terrain had become flatter, the ground more stony, and the East’s deep forests but a memory. The sun shone here, the people were friendly but didn’t give me apples, and the highways just went on forever. The sunsets stretched across a horizon wider than I’d ever seen in a single glance, and miles upon miles of open country were simply empty, devoid of life or manmade structure.
I was barely 20 years old, virtually penniless, looking and feeling entirely out of place in a strangely barren land, had never tasted Velveeta or Chips Ahoy, couldn’t say “Y’all” and didn’t know why everyone was fixing to do everything, and I’d neither ever sat inside a pickup truck nor given its usefulness any consideration.
By some peoples’ standards, it’s been a very long time since I finally made it to Texas, but it seems to me that in the very big picture that this place is, I’ve only occupied a smidgeon of its ages.
This, then, is my enduring memory of America, and this is the reflection upon which I cast my mind when the anniversary rolls around. I don’t do it out of some sappy nostalgia for a time that’s been and gone, but rather to remind myself that I still believe today the way I did on that first day: “I think I’d like to stay a while.”
As long as you’ll still have me, that is.