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 3,000 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.