Welcome to America!

When I was twelve, I took a ship across the Atlantic and, after weeks at sea, finally saw the arm of the Statue of Liberty poking through the early morning mist. Upon descending the gang-plank, I bought my first-ever can of Coca-Cola from a Sabrett stand on the pier. It tasted like America and. for the next four decades, that’s where I thought I was living. 

Now, after traveling 3,00 more miles, I’ve realized I was never actually in America — I was in a completely different country called “New York”. And now, finally, I’m in the U. S. of A. It tastes quite different.

In New York, if you need groceries, you go across the street to the corner deli. In a cramped room, you will find a fridge full of beer, some shrink wrapped fig-newtons, a lottery ticket machine, and way behind the counter, a recent immigrant who will barely acknowledge you as he takes your money.

In America, there are enormous buildings called “Costco”. In New York, such a building would be called “Madison Square Garden.” But here, it is filled with palettes of merchandise stacked to the distant rafters. And what merchandise! Many of the brand names are familiar but the products themselves seems to have been manufactured for giants. Twenty-five pound bags of jerky. Seventy-two rolls of Brawny paper towels, in a bundle the size of an East Village duplex.  Need some AA batteries? Here’s a footlocker full of 500. A bucket of Vitamin C tablets, an entire side of beef marinated an shrink-wrapped. I felt like Gulliver amidst the Brobdingnagians. I staggered around for an hour and a half and walked out with a box of hangers.

In New York, if you need to get somewhere, you walk there. If it’s far, you go down to the subway or hail cab. In America, you drive your own car. Everywhere. To Costco, so you can haul home your plunder. To the gym, so you can walk on a treadmill. To the mailbox, so you can collect your Costco coupons.

Now, I know cars and I know how to drive. I got my license at 25 so I’d have proper ID. But when we arrived at LAX with several big suitcases, Jenny went to Hertz and rented a Ford Explorer which is essentially an 18 wheel-truck with cup holders. Every day, I have chauffeured her to her new office and then I have spent the day setting up our house, unpacking boxes, filling the pantry, going to Home Depot and IKEA (oy!) and building my new studio (I’ll tell you more about that next time).

All of my chores have had me glued to my Neverlost GPS device and dragging up and down the 405, which is like the Nile, the Yangtze, and the Amazon only covered with asphalt, amphetamine-addled truckers, and Mexicans in pickup trucks delivering lawn mowers. Everyone slaloms back and forth across lanes, while I squeeze my fingertips deep into the Explorer’s leather steering wheel. I am in an advanced yoga class of some kind — one ear cranes towards the clipped orders of the Neverlast lady, the other twitches at every honk and siren, one eye is on the swarming lanes ahead of me, the other darts back and forth between the various mirrors and monitors arrayed around the vast landscape of my car’s interior, sweat courses down my ribs, my right foot dribbles back and forth across the pedals, now lunging toward the accelerator, then jerking to the brake.

On one horrific trip back from IKEA, somewhere near Mexico, I realize that I have ordered and paid for a gigantic stack of lumber that they laughingly called a shelving unit and in my frenzy and disorientation I have managed to leave it behind at the store. The Neverlast lady sullenly tells me she is recalculating as I exit the freeway only to be ordered to do a U- turn and head back to the distant blue store over the horizon. In New York, incidentally, you had to rent a car and then travel to another state or borough to get to an IKEA. Here in my new American city, there are five different ones, all crammed with those 3-D jigsaw puzzles with made-up Swedish names.

In New York, you are never more than seven feet away from another human being. Literally — above, below, or on one side of you, there is alway somebody. Somebody who is blasting their radio or calling the cops or getting drunk or clog dancing. In America, you can sit in your home and hear … nothing. You can walk down the street, and see … no one. My dogs are so confused by the silence, they sit on the back yard with cocked heads and looks of utter disbelief.

In New York, you put on your coat and your scarf and your hat and a sweater or a coat and a harness and maybe a muzzle and rubber booties on your dog, take a stack of newspapers and bundle him in to the elevator, travel down to the lobby, through several sets of doors and finally onto the sidewalk. Then you drag him away from chicken bones, abandoned big macs, broken glass, pit bulls, and sleeping homeless people. When he is finally ready to relieve himself, you scoop up the offering in the paper under your arm and drop it in the corner garbage can. Then you head back, hoping you have your keys.

In America, you can just open that back door and your dog runs out onto your gigantic lawn and pees while you stand in the doorway in your underwear holding mug of coffee.

In New York, you sprout an avocado pit and put it in a mayo jar on the window sill. In America, you have lawn mowers you can ride and lemon trees and orange trees and mandarin trees all groaning with fruit and your for th taking because they are growing in your own yard!  Two nights ago, Joe and Tim walked across our neighbor’s front yard and Jenny said, “What’s that weird sound they are making?”, a sort of swishing, crunching sound as they walked across the impossibly, perfectly manicured grass. I bent down to feel it. Astroturf.

In New York, if your clothes are dirty, you put them in a bag, and take them to the laundromat on the corner where a lady shrinks and mangles them for you for ten bucks. In America, you interrupt your writing for two minutes, walk to the laundry room, take them out of the dryer, fold them and go back to your blogpost.

So far, I find America lovely and exhausting. I have to rethink so many basic things — walking, eating, slices of pizza (I have yet to see a single pizzeria in America). Even though I have visited LA many times, living here is a whole new kettle of balls of wax and fish. And so many things I thought were basically made up or exaggerated in the movies and on TV are all around me all the time.  Jenny, who grew up in Arizona and lived for nearly a decade in LA is quite used to America and rolls her eyes at my epiphanies and at my apparently dreadful driving.

With all of the new experiences I’ve had exploring America this week, I haven’t made a single piece of art. But next week, I can’t wait to begin my travel journal in earnest.

Okay, I have to stop now as tonight we are going to the movies. In America, they have movie theaters in which they bring you dinner and beers while you are in your seat watching the film. This I gotta see.

50 thoughts on “Welcome to America!

  1. As one who moved from NY/NJ to America (Arizona) I feel your pain/joy. Thanks for giving me the best laugh I’ve had all month and welcome to the west!

  2. Well there’s NY and there’s America and then there’s Texas. (where everything is, of course, bigger-including the bugs) Buckle up for the ride, Danny.

  3. Oh God, I am laughing so hard I’m going to pee my pants!
    Indeed, welcome! Oops! Gotta go change, put the wet ones in the washer across from one of my three bathrooms! Yes, only in America!

  4. There is a book here. As someone who always yearned to live in NYC–I was there once for 5 whole days!–I love reading your observations and comparisons. Like the book, “Paris vs. New York” I would totally love to read a book by you on “NYC vs. America.” Please do it!

  5. Oh how I loved reading this! I was born and raised in LA and love, love, love it! The art supply stores are great! Let me know if you need any tips, advice, etc… Welcome to the neighborhood!

  6. Ohhhhh…! You must have gone to the ArcLight! Most excellent! However, driving the highways and byways of California (aka “America”) nearly gave me hives the first six months after I moved there. I’m glad that the city I now live in (north of the border) has a very good public transit system! Oh… but I so do miss the perpetual sun. Enjoy your new digs. :)

  7. Having been born in So Cal and lived there until ten years ago and moving to an even quieter place of Oregon, but with all the same big box stores, I cant fathom ever living in a crowded place such as NY. Claustrophobia comes to mind big time. I got a huge chuckle from this. :)) Enjoy your new life and I look forward to your new Art & stories. I wonder if your new America will inspire a new kind of art.

  8. Did you keep your NY apartment , even for occasional visits?
    During a visit to New York, once, I met a guy who lived near Hell’s Kitchen but still kept his old rent controlled apartment near the Village. He used it as a closet/ storage area.

  9. After living a few years in New Hampshire, moving to Los Angeles was like moving to a different planet for me, I got to experience the America you describe in NH, but LA was a complete culture shock nevertheless, I felt like a fish out of water for a lack of a better expression. I cannot wait for your depictions of LA, hope you enjoy it over there!

  10. It seems you need a trip to Holland: small houses, small cars, bicycles.. Still planning to come in november or was this a plan from your ‘old life’?

  11. Hi Danny, thank you for your observations.
    For me (from Germany) it’s very interesting (and amusing) to read this. When I read about IKEA, I felt down on the floor…laughing…hahahaha… I’m sitting in a small village (the next IKEA is about 40 kilometers from my home—> Ulm… but – to be honest: the next McDonalds only 20 kilometers :-)).
    I’m still Dreaming of California (beside my bed, there’s hanging a “map of california” on the wall and I will see, if this dream comes true, one day…), but I don’t want to watch IKEA or McDonalds etc. in California – I have the same in my region.
    What a “different” world… :-)

  12. Oh, I needed to laugh this morning, and you obliged! Thanks, Danny! As a complete and utter contrast, I wonder how you would experience my tiny little town on the south shore of Lake Superior in contrast to both NYC and LA. It is, as they say ” a whole ‘nother world” again! Enjoy your stay in America!

  13. Thank you for this post, Danny! I’m still laughing – and forwarded it to friends. As a native Oregonian who just returned from three years in the DC area, I can so appreciate your culture shock. After living my life in suburbia, I was blown away by the Pentagon Costco. Shoe-horned into its location, you either ride the subway (a new experience) and buy nothing (no one carries 88 pounds of t.p. in a backpack) or drive and then pay unhappy attendants to spar with the other 8000 drivers for one of 200 parking spots. If you win that lottery, then you get to fight the hoards inside for the last 600 lb. bag of pancake mix! … Welcome to America! Can’t wait to read about your trips to the Redwoods, Crater Lake, the Oregon Coast, or the Pendleton Round-up! And if you really want to see wide open spaces, take the Oregon Outback Scenic Highway (http://web.oregon.com/Byways/outback.cfm) in late spring or early summer when the wildflowers are blooming.

  14. Great! When I left New York in June to relo in Chicago, I drove. America isn’t in the major cities or dense population areas, it is “out there!” And they have very different habits and rituals.

    Traumatic!

    When I finally got to my new city and was able to have some decent food I saw a fellow diner who wasn’t wearing socks with his low cut sneakers. I nearly wept with joy…I was back in civilization. He was geeky, but at least urban.

    I lived in Rochester, NY and when the first big box store opened everyone in the neighborhood made a trip. As it turns out we all (individually) came home with a large jar of Dijon mustard. Except for my teenage son who bought a staggeringly large jar of mayonnaise. Perhaps he was planning on inviting his entire school over for mayonnaise!

  15. ACK! Now I can’t get the “America” song from “West Side Story” out of my head! It’s your fault! It’s there all day & night! Danny, you must tell another story to relieve my suffering! LOL! Best of luck in “America”! ;)
    HRH CC aka Minerva

  16. VERY funny post, but also very disturbing somehow. I am a born West Coaster (SF Bay Area) now living in gorgeous Oregon for the past 30 years. Been to LA several times and driving there, bumper to bumper at 70 mph, is beyond scary. Never been to NYC and little desire to go (‘cept for the museums!) One of the most profound metaphors of my life learned at age 18: Disneyland castle – it is an empty shell. Just concrete, a mere facade, with no furniture, princes, tinkerbell, nothing at all. I have never forgotten it and I think it might sum up the LaLa lifestyle pretty well. Thanks for the laughs with underlying food for thought. Costco…omfg.

  17. I am rolling about in fits of giggles here and I am an Aussie! I know what you mean I think!
    Great post – loved it and read it out to my husband who was also laughing

  18. Good stuff, Danny

    I moved a away from a city (in Scotland) quite a few years ago. When my family recently came here to visit they were amazed that most people had log fires! We also have central heating but when things go wrong there is usually a backup in place. In particular I noticed that my family members who visited just didn’t know how to dress for the outdoors – the flimsy clothes and shoes and lack of headgear made me smile. I recognised myself from a long time ago when there was a bus or a taxi or a train or a shelter or a house nearby.

    I had forgotten what a culture shock it was for me at first. People had mud on their shoes! Crazy. The locals were totally unaware of current fashion!

    I have a feeling that New York and Glasgow, Edinburgh and all other big cities may actually be an unsustainable phase in our civilization’s development. Relying on your local deli for food is perhaps a little optimistic when increasing complexity in technology – not to mention debt instruments – make a disruption increasingly likely.

    Sometimes it’s good to have a taste of both worlds. I have experienced small-mindedness in some small places and also hubris and vanity in larger ones. Finding balance is what it is all about.

    Anything that is unsustainable finally comes to an end.

  19. Everything’s been said in the way of praise & appreciation. Hilarious post. Wild, inspired writing, terrific imagery – “a different kettle of balls of wax and fish” ha ha! I hope you live forever & will write a book about ALL of America, like Bill Bryson. With drawings.

  20. Your writing is the art you made. Sometimes it’s better to sketch images in words, sometimes it’s better to write stories in drawings. This is a fantastic picture of adjusting to a new place. Thanks for sharing!

  21. Danny, I laughed so hard that I cried reading this. You nailed it. NYC is an island of its own. Good luck to you out there in ‘America’. I feel like I’ve just lost a neighbor.

  22. Hilarious! Since I lived in LA for almost 20 yrs, this makes me roll with laughter! Now in AZ and another “America” to experience! Have fun!

  23. Gotta travel to the “other America” Danny, between LA and NYC. LA is it’s own fantasy land as its NYC, I’m sure. I’ve lived in New England, Oregon (a few months) and Northern CA many years so I know the contrasts. Also, having driven across the U.S. several times you definitely get the “flava”. It’s all a trade off. In NE I get the seasons and people being “real” (not fake). Don’t like to make generalizations, but there you have it. There are good people everywhere, but there is a pattern of behavior! Enjoy the lack of snow, beautiful flowers (bougainvillea esp.) and hummingbirds.

  24. OH! How this post made me laugh. Having lived in So. Calif. from age 5 I can’t relate to your discovery of America. I can give you my version of visiting NYC many years ago: I felt like I’d landed on another planet that was too crowded, that every fifteen minutes vomited up hoards of people from underground where they temporarily lived in order to leave some room for the people above ground. I was like trying to maneuver in a sardine can. I felt like I was suffocating. I couldn’t breathe, felt dirty, and couldn’t take the incredible noise generated by NYC. For the past 36 years I’ve lived in NV…now if you want to experience America as it was over 150 yrs ago, visit The Big Empty! Travel highway 50, America’s Loneliest Road. If you pass three cars you’re lucky. Wouldn’t live anywhere else.

    I call L.A. the Planet of Insanity….never want to so much as visit the area again.

  25. Most captivating (and true to life) blog I’ve read in a while. You’re city through and through.

    I’ll be interested to see how the change in living reflects in your journaling in the coming years.

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