Updated: Dec 20, 2022
The highlight of many a childhood summer began shoehorned into the backseat of my father’s Chevy with my brother and a cousin, squabbling our way to Queens, New York. The New York State Thruway was mostly finished, but there was Route 9 through the Adirondacks and then, strung along the shiny Interstate 87, were rest stops with restaurants called Hot Shoppes. It was marvellous.
In the roadside Hot Shoppes I discovered the gastronomy of Salisbury Steak, mystery meat and filler buried in brown gravy. And, in Manhattan, the miraculous Automats – soup to dessert for the taking behind glass doors. Amazing. The States was a wondrous place, worth the misery of what invariably turned out to be a 14-hour undertaking.
My mother would berate my father for always getting lost and he would always get lost. Was it the Lincoln Tunnel, the Queen’s Midtown Tunnel, Verrazzano or George Washington Bridge? Inevitably, he steered across the wrong one and the temperature in the car rose along with the thickness of second-hand smoke.
But, through the backseat window, life shimmered under multi-coloured neon – so many stores, so many different-coloured people, everyone so busy, everyone on the move, garments on racks rolling from I don’t know where to I don’t know where. The subway screeched and rattled underground and overhead, people packed nose-to-nose. Extraordinary.
When I was older, rolling under Manhattan, I asked a fellow strap hanger during rush hour, “How do people do this every day?”
“You gotta be stoned, how else?” he said. He wasn’t smiling. Horns and sirens and tens of thousands of people talking, hustling, rushing, was orchestral. What a town.
My family’s goal on these expeditions was to visit my mother’s sister and her kids, my cousins. My aunt scratched compulsively at huge psoriasis lesions on her forearms. Dried skin cells fell like snow as she squinted and coughed from one of about 80 cigarettes she plugged into her mouth daily. Her favourite greeting was to pinch my cheek and ask how I become so ugly. Hack. Wheeze.
She lived in the biggest apartment complex I had ever seen. We took a train from her place to Manhattan, home to the biggest buildings I had ever seen. And when I was of legal age, I stayed with my cousins there, in the same apartments and took the same train to Manhattan to eat exotic street food – sausages and knishes and noodles – buy $5 joints at Washington Square, bathe in the salaciousness of 42nd St. before it became a branch plant of Disneyland and went to porn theatres, illegal in Quebec back then. How can you live until you’ve seen a penis 30-feet long?
And when I earned a little money, I loved a quiet spot in the Keys, explored San Francisco. The Golden Gate bridge, Chinatown, Monterey and Sausalito, and everywhere was the Pacific. Worked a bit in L.A. and the Mojave desert, the land of Steinbeck and Marlowe and Hammett, movies and fantasy.
Drove through the Badlands and Yellowstone National Park. What a country.
The U.S. was Sky King and Sea Hunt and Route 66 and Ed Sullivan and Kojak. Miles Davis and B.B. King. It was full of good guys and great artists. If you could make it there you could make it anywhere.
With news easily accessible only a few minutes a day on TV or in the papers, you could choose what to read and when and if. I could be vexed at the headlines for a few minutes and still almost believe in the America I was being sold since being jammed into the backseat of those Chevies.
God Bless America and America the Beautiful. What a country. The greatest in the world. The greatest democracy. Justice was the American Way. Send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.
Didn’t they win the Second World War? Liberate the concentration camps? And when firebombing Japanese cities didn’t stop the war, they nuked a couple. We were weaned on Americans as winners. They were the world’s most powerful country, most powerful military, on the right side. And then McCarthy, before my time but the slaughter in Vietnam began and the long and steady erosion of the myths.
The U.S. still had glorious cars, blues and rock ‘n’ roll, moon shots and astronauts, Cinerama, Super Bowl, World Series, Perry Mason and Miami Vice, iPhones – the U.S. was way cool.
Of course, much was filtered, hidden and ignored. Yes, it was armed and dangerous as a nation – man, what aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines – but now everyone’s packing guns large and small and a good part of the population is dangerous. And plain nuts. White Christian nationalists belief in loving their neighbours and turning their cheeks has morphed into loading their guns and and standing their ground.
The people I loved that lived there are gone as is the country I naively celebrated. The reality of America can’t hide from the iPhones and cameras and the twisted posts and violent streams of online democracy. It can’t hide its true ugliness and monumental failures anymore, the vaunted technology it championed spreads poison faster than a crop duster, overwhelming the star-spangled illusion, crushing the myths like cigarette butts underfoot.
Sleep was easier when I could believe in good guys like a bedtime story.