A favorite song of my teenage years was America by Simon and Garfunkel. I loved the humble way it begins and the lyric’s, which I still say without shame, constitutes some of the most enigmatic and beautiful poetry I know. At the time I didn’t know what a New Jersey Turnpike was, or why someone’s bow-tie was really a camera, but like adolescents the world over I understood the line – I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why. However the part of the song I love the most was done by the engineer : It sounds like it was recorded in a vast warehouse, the drums are like the sound of far distant thunder and the deep guitar riff could have come from inside a vast cavern. Who knows how intentional this was, but it promotes the idea of wide open space, central to the promise of the song, and a momentary escape from the grey confines of the sometimes claustrophobic country I’m from.
Several years ago Mary and I drove right across Texas in a single day. I had been expecting an uneventful drive but instead the road took us by surprise as it was lush and winding at first, with working farm land, deep sun dappled valleys and rivers walled in by predatory plants like Japanese Knotweed and other unfamiliar exotic bamboos. It then became dusty as we went through flat desert with brush blowing over the road just as we had seen in the Movies. And finally as we approached our destination it became mountainous and red as the sun began its slow decent
At one point we saw signs to Waco and I joked that we should go and see Chip and Joanne, the hosts of a popular TV show where the we watch the weekly drama of turning a broken down house into a “dream” home, as long as the dream doesn’t extend beyond the comforting boundaries of a Restoration Hardware catalogue.
When we arrived in Marfa I was shocked to see how many miles we had driven – it was the equivalent of going from the southernmost point of the UK to the northernmost point, with only a 30 minute break in a diner. We had listened laughing to religious stations, raced in unison to change the channel when we accidentally encountered a right-wing station and searched restlessly for the civility of NPR. When I stepped out of the car my body was stiff and my legs were numb. For a few moments I walked up and down the west Texas sidewalk in large strides as if I was wearing spurs and a gun belt until I noticed quizzical looks from a pair of real cowboys sitting on the hood of their pickup.
Before we checked into our James Dean room we walked down the one street town and found to our surprise the NPR station itself. Thinking it would be amusing to buy a Marfa NPR tee-shirt I went in and before we knew it were sitting in the recording room and were live on a NPR fund raiser. It was a bewildering experience in this sleepy town with people rushing and running and despite the generous invitation I found it impossible to get a word in amongst these caffeine fueled A type radio personalities. It was a relief for me pass the headphones to Mary. I spent the time in the gift shop and someone came out to tell me what a pro she was in front of the mike. I replied in a bad Texan drawl that they should probably call the sheriff because that’s the only way you will get it from her. She looked back at me doubtfully and moments later we were both back on the street walking to the hotel. Marfa, by the way, is one of the wonders of the world.
Falling in love with the USA is a slow process; the landscapes of the National Parks obviously, the plainness and simplicity of the art and architecture and visits to former Shaker communities are unforgettable, thanks Mother Ann Lee. But the pivotal moment was 4 November 2008 where late on a frigid night at our friends East Village apartment we drank champagne and could hear the wild disbelieving yelps and cheers coming from apartments around us. By the time we were on the street, horns were blaring, someone was up a lamppost waving Obama posters and a pair of African America women were hugging anyone and everyone, we were all so full of hope and much of it was fulfilled, until exactly eight years later when all that energy was sucked away.
I have a friend who I could talk to and, without fear of retribution, complain about all things American when I first arrived. At one point he turned to me and said, Neil, this is America you have to love or leave it. I didn’t have a response until a few hours later when I was coming home to New York on the late night train which hugged the dark coast of Long Island sound admiring the pretty houses lite up and sail boats in harbors, and I realized I could almost, but never quite, do either.