‘To Look for America’ – three sketches

Hartford, Connecticut is a hard town and, truth to tell, we only stayed there because it was halfway between the airport and where we were going.

Walking back from the Mark Twain House, where our guide was a boy called Ben, who said witty things in a beautiful but uninflected voice and whose face and hair made it likely he was the lovechild of Tiny Tim, we had just reached St Joseph’s Cathedral and its extraordinary stained glass, when two people walked past in single file, a man then a woman, looking like extras from ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, carrying a lot of stuff in plastic bags, weary, worldblown, focussed only on the pavement in front of them. They were talking loudly to each other, trying to be heard above the traffic – many, many horn blasts – and the chilly wind laced with a little cold rain.

‘So,’ the man said, ‘in Hartford people aren’t supposed to talk to each other.’

‘No, they don’t,’ the woman said, ‘or they get fucking shot.’

Just as well we didn’t talk, I thought, as we passed a little park, with signs not to loiter – well, who would, among the litter and drug detritus? There were few people moving about and no-one seemed inclined to loiter. So we moved quickly on to the Wadsworth Atheneum to admire the gorgeous paintings of the Hudson River School, then back to our smart, old-fashioned hotel.

The next morning I went to get bottles of water for our long drive. The little grocery was run by cheerful Hispanic gentlemen and served breakfast. An enormously obese man, in a sleeveless T Shirt and little round specs held open the door for me. I thanked him, and as I walked to the back of the store to get my Poland Spring he ordered his breakfast – ‘a white sub with bacon and ham and scrambled eggs, and some arugula and one piece of tomato and lots of cheese, and some German mustard  – do you have German mustard?’ This is the most powerful country in the world. Why are so many people poor and fat??

People pay a lot of money to see Vermont in the Fall. The leaves, the trees, the colours. So many things in life are disappointing. Niagara Falls, I think, is disappointing. Rome. Caviar. But Vermont in the Fall is stupefyingly beautiful. As we drove further and further north the trees changed colour with our journey. Distant blocks of russet, bright red, orange, pale yellow and every shade of green melded into one huge quilt, holding the leaves up just for a few more days. Closer, some trees were impossibly red, as if they were internally lit – a trick by some homesteader to make you stop and buy his maple syrup. We had gone to see Arnold and Annie and Warren and Phil and Belinda; I wanted to see the church on the common in Craftsbury again and it was exactly the same as it was in 1983 when I first saw it, when I was young. The sky was the same deep blue. But I had never been in the Fall, soon to be the winter, long and full of snow so deep that outbuildings disappear beneath it. Vermonters have these leaves to hold against their hearts through the long winter.

I have never been away from Edinburgh for more than six weeks. And that was just the once. Otherwise, three weeks is my limit. I could not live in Vermont because of the winter, but sometimes I imagine I could live in New York City, no matter how dense the uproar, how sweaty my shirt, or how the air is always slightly spiced with danger, no matter how safe the city supposedly is. We stayed in Brooklyn and toured the new ritzy places – we ate at a great restaurant called Meadowsweet in Williamsburg on Yom Kippur, our Uber sailing through waves of Orthodox Jews; Mr F did not like ‘The Dinner Party’ at the Brooklyn Museum, Judy Chicago’s great feminist work and it did seem past its time, important as it was then; we went to the Museum of the City of New York in torrential rain and it was really good; and we ate ramen at Ivan Ramen with Clark and Richard, the broth like distilled chicken noodle soup turned into nectar. And all of this accompanied by traffic signals imploring you to ‘wait wait wait’ in an insistent voice and the presence, on every corner of an old-fashioned diner, ours being The New Apollo with bottomless coffee and a menu with 300 things on it, so many of its customers like extras from Scorcese movies. Mr F had the number 4, three days in a row, roughly enough food to feed a small school.

The cream on this enormous cake though, was seeing my friend and former pupil Emun Elliott in his Broadway debut playing alongside Marisa Tomei in ‘The Rose Tattoo’. This is Tennessee Williams, between ‘Streetcar’ and ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ – dirty, salacious, very funny, well over the top, a joy. And then a beer in a bar with a handsome star; reader, for a moment I almost felt cool.

And so much talk of Trump, and Ms Warren, and Mr Buttegieg, whose name I cannot pronounce, and people asking about Boris and Scottish Independence and Brexit. This was America in the fall of 2019, beautiful and simmering.

1 Comment

  1. So beautifully written, made me want to go to Vermont & return to New York immediately! I love the images that came to mind in this piece.

    Like

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