I’m still mired deep in writing, though the treacle has got somewhat less sticky and I can see the end from where I am.
However, for several days now, I’ve had this song stuck in my head:
Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin’ trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.
Good morning America how are you?
Don’t you know me I’m your native son,
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.
I know the song echoes of bitterness and all that, but the thing is, I’ve always loved that opening because I’ve always loved early morning America seen from car or bus. The little houses by the side of the highway, the fast foods opening up, traffic slugishly trickling out onto the highway.
I fell in love with America twenty eight years ago, when I was an exchange student. The first week was… interesting, but not American as such. They gathered a large batch (there were three batches) of incoming AFS students, from all over the world, into WC Fields in NY for an orientation about basic things like manners, how to ask for things and such.
And it was very interesting. Did you know that released to the wild, adventurous young people cling first to people of their country, then people of the same linguistic grouping, then to people with whom they perceive a cultural relationship. Take Portuguese, for example — first they clung to other Portuguese and then in order were willing to group with Brazilians, Spaniards, all South Americans.
Except for the outliers, of course. Those of us who were there to discover the different mingled freely. There were very few of us, but we had great fun. And it was interesting, at a thinking level, realizing how many of the things we used to judge people on first meeting were built into our culture and not universal. Take my group-leader-orientation manager, Chris Jacobsen (wonder how life has treated him?) from NYC. He was I think in his second year of college and what I then considered cute but I was sure there was no point playing up to him. Why? Well, he wore a thick, visible silver chain. So, of course, he was gay. (Hits head on desk, forcefully.)
With all that, there were hints that week of what America was — the things it was that were not part of any other country I had experienced. Take the volunteers. One of my favorites was my house father, Keith (and these years later, I can’t remember his name.) who was a long-distance trucker (and who for reasons known only to him woke us up with loud renditions of George Washington Bridge, in the morning. Much more pleasant than an alarm clock.) He was taking his vacation time to come shepherd a group of lost duckling foreigners through their adaptation to America. It was a thankless task, with no pay and no perstige. I can imagine very few countries in which someone would volunteer that cheerfully to give up their free time. As did all the other volunteers, probably a hundred of them, from all walks of life.
Still, that week was about the world and about all the different people. It didn’t — to me — relate to America. And then they put us on the bus to send us to our host families. I think I fell in love with America when breakfast was handed to me. Why, you’ll ask? Well, this was the late seventies and fast food breakfasts weren’t ubiquitous. What they handed us were boxes from some hospitality service. But the box contained a sealed orange juice cup, a sealed cup of fruit salad, a stick of French toast with the syrup for dipping and — I think — a cup of coffee filled hot by the volunteer at the door to the bus.
Before you think I fell in love with food… None of what I was handed was my favorite. But it was so ready, so self-contained and so perfect for the situation, that I was charmed. And then when I thought that at that time in the morning there were these little packets ready for any travelers who might be setting out, I was captivated.
In that Greyhound Bus, crossing PA — I did my exchange student year at Stow, Ohio and graduated from Stow High School — I saw the little houses, the cars trickling onto the highway, and I was finally bowled over by the energy, the determination, the… joy of America, where each person got up and went to work that early…
You could say you — all of you — had me at hello.
During the year, rough spots and all, my love for America grew and though I was eventually lucky enough to fall in love with an American and end up here, I suspect I would have ended up here anyway, even if I had to trail a foreign-born family behind me.
It is not a grandiose love. When it comes to the constitution — as I believe I’ve said before — I’m a fundamentalist, and I love the idea of America — "o kings, no queens, no lords, no ladies, we won’t be fooled again." However, like all true love that leads to a long term relationship and stays around as you both change, it is a more humble and work-a-day emotion and what I love about America is a more everyday sense and feel… Those things that don’t change beneath the trappings of governments, fads, and the latest cultural turmoil.
Three –?– years ago I was disgusted with something or other at the Federal level, and generally depressed. And then I went to pick up Robert at middle school (Okay, more than three years. Eh.) The middle school is close enough to walk to, and it was spring. I passed families playing on the front lawn, people working on their cars, students sprawled on lawns with their books, and many, many, many people involved in some home-improvement project. And I fell in love with America all over again.
I don’t remember the book — eh. I’m mid writing — but PJ O’Rourke, in one of his books has something about a restaurant in Russia at the end of the Soviet era and about how most of the issues with the place could be solved by an American, a bottle of lysol and a rag. I remember it, because I often find myself thinking the same when I travel abroad.
The plane landing on the Hudson brought this home to me. All those passengers helped each other out, in scene much different from what Hollywood — who often doesn’t GET the miracle that is America — would have portrayed. All of those boat owners, individually rushed to the rescue.
America is what Americans are, and Americans are people who get up early and go to work, and who are interested and creative enough to antecipate situations like a bunch of kids being packed in a bus early morning, in need of breakfast…
Good morning, America, I love you. And I always will.