I’ve had a string of bad travel arrangements the past two weeks. On my way back from vacation in San Francisco, I had scheduled a flight with a layover in Dallas. As I sat in the airport reading about Proust, I was told that my flight would be slightly delayed because of mechanical problems. Because I am not attentive, I did not realize that this development might affect my connection to New York. It wasn’t until we had been waiting for about an hour and an announcement was made that we would be boarding shortly but that anyone with connecting flights to LaGuardia and a few other destinations may miss their connections, did I understand that I might have an issue. Naturally, the person at the desk wasn’t helpful and couldn’t handle the stress or the speaking skills to attend to the situation. Since my luggage was already on its way to Dallas, I figured I might as well follow it on its way. My flight was filled with people chattering about catching a flight to Fort Meyers from Dallas. One unfortunate man (who I had earlier been cursing due to the amount of questions he was asking at the service counter right in front of me) had to make his connection in order to meet his family to catch a cruise ship.
“Just get on board and get to that buffet,” said a talkative man from Alabama. “That’s what I always say.”
I sat making no real facial expressions, except maybe slight smiles of amusement or frowns of absurdity. Other than that, I sat thinking about what had just happened to me on my trip.
When I arrived in Dallas, I asked a woman at the counter in the terminal what to do now that I had obviously missed my flight.
“I know I’m not getting to LaGuardia on time,” I said casually enough.
“Gate C38,” she said.
“That’s a flight to?”
“Gate C38. That’ll help you.”
I figured I could sleep somewhere if this lead proved to be faulty, so I decided to go to C38 and see what that meant. The airport shuttle train worked fast and for the brief moment I rode on it, I looked out over the flat expanse of the area surrounding the airport. I thought about Texas and its bigness; of San Antonio and my father; of riding through Amarillo to Norman, Oklahoma where I was pulled over by a nice cop who told me where I could camp. From the train, I saw the sun setting over some small tributary I knew nothing about.
When I got to C38, a nice woman with an accent that wasn’t quite southern helped me get a ticket on the next plane to Newark. I texted a good friend of mine to see if he would pick me up there at 1:00 AM—he said yes. I took my tickets and called another friend to talk briefly about my trip.
“I’m watching Orlando play Atlanta,” he said. “I’m drinking a bottle of wine."
I paced near the gate, watching people type on laptops and drink at the bar of a T.G.I. Friday’s, and told him of all the tumult I had just experienced and listening to him talk to me on the other end made me feel at ease, though I was already calm. I was at ease, but excited to talk and to know he was out there. But I had to hang up and board the plane, so I did.
The plane made it to the runway when we were told that we would be delayed an hour due to terrible weather in New York so we’d be taking off at 9:30 Dallas time, or 10:30 in New York local time. As we waited, we had to return to the terminal because a passenger had gotten sick. Finally, we were in the air and I listened to music while my neighbor intently read The Winter’s Tale, making notes on the pages. During the flight, one of the flight attendants came on the loudspeaker to ask if there was a doctor or paramedic on board. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of panic in the passengers. I suppose it was the weariness of travel and the idea of arriving where they had to get that allowed them to think that this problem would be taken care of somehow—it also could have been because we were flying in the air. There was a doctor onboard and the flight attendants rolled out a large oxygen tank while the doctor did presumably whatever he could in the first class section. The doctor seemed to have done his work and before I knew it we were descending onto murky Newark and I could make out puddles of rainwater sparkling on the distant parking lots as we came closer to the earth. When we landed, a flight attendant told us that our plane would be met by an ambulance and paramedics to take care of the sick passenger and that it would be much appreciated if we would be patient in getting off the flight. It was almost 2:00 AM, so naturally the entire plane groaned. But it didn’t take long to get off the plane and soon I was walking through the terminal, after splashing my face with cold water and soap in the bathroom, feeling fresh with delirious energy. My friend was waiting by the baggage claim in a white sweater streaked with rain. I was happy to see him so I gave him a hug and patted him on the back. I filled out my luggage claim while a dog howled in its carrier, which rested on top of some boxes of human skin and organs for transplant. My friend and I shrugged this off as I was told my bags would be delivered the next day.
Then, we were in his fiancée’s car as rain poured down and clouds rolled across the New York skyline. I wanted a beer but I was relaxed as my friend told me stories. We passed through Tribeca, which was quiet and empty and gleaming from the rain. Tribeca was already preparing for the sacredness of one of its slow Sundays where the morning seems to last the entire day. Quickly we were over the Williamsburg Bridge and my friend left me on the corner with only my carry-on bag. I slid my skullcap back on my head and stepped into a place to get something to eat, knowing that I was back home.
My second bad travel experience was far less involved than the first one. This past weekend was Easter and my father and I would be spending it together. I took the train home on Saturday evening. The train from New York to my hometown on Long Island is fairly tedious, though on some summer evenings it can be quite enjoyable. This was a spring night, so the ride was bearable. When the time came to transfer at Huntington, the conductor said that the train to Port Jefferson had broken down and that it would be replaced with bus service. I got off the train and joined the rest of the confused masses as we aimlessly waited in one area that seemed to be the right place for a bus to stop. After about fifteen to twenty minutes of waiting the crowd started moving—naturally I followed. A man in an MTA uniform informed us that buses would be arriving to go to each individual station. Luckily, since my hometown houses a state university and is usually a popular stop, my bus was first. I boarded with the throng of Asian students and sat in a seat by the window. I wasn’t upset at my circumstance and as the lights in the bus went out and the gears jerked to a start, I felt that this short period of travel would be a good chance to just sink into the moment, disappear into the complete anonymity of being on a dirty bus on a misty spring, Long Island night, pretending to be whoever it was that a stranger might take me to be, even though I was on my way to that most common of places, home. And when I got there, I was indeed home, talking with my grandparents and being whomever that person was who talked to his grandparents and enjoyed those moments. The next day, I cooked the lamb leg for my father and I to eat along with potatoes, sautéed kale and salad. And I was that person.
Last week, I wrote that I was past the 1967 and 1968 of my life and into some era I wasn’t quite sure of, but for the time being I was calling it “dad-rock.” Those distinctions made sense in the moment for that post, but as I’ve thought longer on them, they don’t particularly apply to anything. We want to split our lives up into complete and packaged eras and times that we can look back on and say, “that’s when I was like that” or “that’s who I was then.” However, eras never end and neither do our different selves. Who I am now, carries completely with it the ghost of who I was then, the ghost of me with long hair who believed he could recreate 1967 in the year 2002 among all his friends.
Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel has left me thinking about all of these things: travel, identity, time, love. Bookends is very much an album about an end of an era and the beginning of a new age. “Bookends Theme” and “Bookends” are both songs of loss and memory, while a song like “Save the Life of My Child” looks towards modern time and what will be coming in the future. The lyrics to “Bookends” are “Time it was, and what a time it was, it was/A time of innocence, a time of confidences/Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph/Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” If that isn’t heartbreaking or melancholy enough on paper, then listen to the melody of the song and you will feel the worn collar of your pea coat walking through the park on an early November afternoon or perhaps a late March morning. The sky is a murky pink and grey and people walk with strollers and kick soccer balls. And maybe you’ve just walked away from someone you love, someone you can’t see again. Or, you’re drunk at dawn in Spain somewhere after sitting at a bus stop for two hours, hugging someone for dear life and knowing that you’ll be leaving them for a long period of time. The song was used to great affect in 500 Days of Summer.
Bookends is a fantastic album, though slightly schizophrenic, considering the first side represents more of a suite or song-cycle while the second half is based on singles like “Mrs. Robinson,” “Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo,” and “Fakin’ It.” However, we never really criticize Abbey Road for having the same, but opposite structure. But the song that seems to resonate the most from the album is “America,” which serves as the centerpiece of the suit on the first side.
When I was younger, I used to think “America” wasn’t a great song. It seemed overdone and lacking in any, for lack of a better word, balls. This feeling was only compounded further when Stella used the song to great effect in an ongoing gag in their sketches. So, I overlooked it just as I overlooked Simon & Garfunkel for so many years. Though I’ve enjoyed Bookends in the past few years, its only been until recently that I’ve grown to love the song “America.” Where in my younger days I would have thought that the song diverged from my idea of America, I see now perhaps that it is more in line. There are still plenty of lines that are classic Paul Simon in that they are overwrought, over-literary and over-sixties: “Let us be lovers and marry our fortunes together,” “She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy.” However, the final two verses are what really work:
“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat”
“We smoked the last one an hour ago”
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America
That first verse is simple and powerful writing at its best. We have a good piece of dialogue that evokes and actual conversation that occurs when one travels. Then a direct line of narrative that features a nice change of object or observation when we move from the magazine to a larger, more profound and thought provoking image of a moon rising over an open field. Do we need the color to be explained to us? No, because the simple description of a moon rising over an open field allows us to create the scene and image for ourselves. We’ve known that scene.
The second verse is where the song matches up with my vision of America. The line, “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,” is something I always associate with America, or at least the America I see when I walk around my neighborhood at dusk or when I ride in a car through suburbs or country roads at night when I see lights shining from homes that peek out through the passing trunks of trees. When I was in San Francisco, I walked around the streets of the city alone some days and some nights. The West Coast is obviously very different from the East Coast and I could use plenty of space describing that difference. But what I mainly want to describe is the smell of the flowers and the trees that were already in bloom out there, or seemed to be perpetually in bloom. Each day was sunny and each night was cold, but not in an uncomfortable way. It was cold in that way I can only describe as refreshing, that is to say, as if walking the streets were the same as swimming in a pool in the height of summer. And in the day and in the night, trees stood tall next to the bright colors of apartment buildings and planters were placed outside of homes in neat little patches with benches next to them—safe, clean little spots that could almost never exist in New York. And many apartment buildings had gated entrances that concealed open-air hallways that led to the doorway inside—a completely West Coast phenomenon. The smell of flowers drifted through these gates and above my head. I thought I smelled honeysuckles or hydrangeas, flowers I had seen before. The smell of flowers can only be described in so many ways: different levels of sweetness, freshness; through the memory of a girl, a loved one, a room. But these flowers and the overall scent of the air reminded me of a time or a place that I wasn’t quite sure of. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to get back to it. There were flashes of Saratoga in the spring or the backyard by my pool in the dead of summer. However, those images weren’t what were pulling at my heart. I was in California, presumably in love and trying to understand that, yet thinking of my college, my home, or of houses along Henry Street or Noe Street or the great rolling hills of Dolores Street that I knew nothing about but had to understand no matter what. Needless to say, I was empty and aching and I had no idea why.
One day, I climbed up Bernal Hill by myself. I brought a beer with me to the top and I sat on a rock against an old chain link fence, watching people walk their dogs and make them roll over for treats. I walked out to one of the flat levels of the hill where you can get a good panorama. There was a pretty girl with sunglasses letting her large, standard, white poodle, Buster, trot around off the leash. Suddenly she rushed over to Buster and started grabbing at his mouth. I was walking by so I stopped.
“Everything alright?” I said.
“I think he swallowed a dead mouse.”
“Need any help?”
She smiled. “Can you hold him while I try to pull it out?”
I nodded. She tried to get the mouse out of his mouth, but it was no use.
“You ate the mouse, Buster,” I said, letting him go.
The girl laughed.
“Sorry, I heard you calling him before.”
“It’s fine,” she said.
I walked down the hill with her and into the Mission. I told her I was visiting San Francisco and why. She thought it was a good story. I told her I liked to write but didn’t know what my life would end up being and she told me that sounded OK too. We stopped for a beer and I asked her what she did.
“I’m studying oceanography, but I work as a secretary in a law office.”
“Oceanography,” I said. “Maybe you’ll be an environmental lawyer.”
“Who knows, right?”
She was quite pretty when she took off her big sunglasses in the shade of the bar. We had two drinks apiece and in the middle of the afternoon and not being who I normally was, I wanted to kiss her. But, I realized that maybe I shouldn’t. I drained my beer and then pet Buster on the head, even giving him a kiss. Claire laughed and we walked back out into the sunlight.
“If you end up coming out here,” she said. “Look me up.”
I took out the book I was reading. “I’ll write it down here.”
“Don’t you just want to put it in your phone?”
“I kind of like this.”
So I took down the number, we hugged and I waved goodbye to she and Buster. Then I walked to Dolores Park, sat down, tried to read, but instead napped in the sun, getting a terrible sunburn.
What I mean to say is that what actually happened on my trip doesn’t matter, because like Claire or like all those cars sitting on the New Jersey turnpike, I’m constantly out looking for “America.” I wanted to go to California and be like Don Draper. To take on some different persona for even a short period of time—to be a hobo for a week. And even though America more than any other country had no true identity, all people want to do that. We want to break our lives up into different eras. We want to surprise people and never be pinned down. But that’s not how we actually live our lives. Things carry on. 1967 fades in 1968 and then all of a sudden its 1990 and you still have to answer to those ghosts of yourself that you encounter each day and lay in when you go to bed at night, hopefully next to someone you love.
Bookends is about the end of an old era and the beginning of a new era. We can break up America into different eras or different regions, but its all the same longing and restlessness from coast to coast. We can try to figure out the things we don’t understand or need to understand—why we don’t love something the same way we used to—but it can never be forced. We say "break up" or we say "cut off" or "quit" but that’s never what happens, things carry on, people do things.
Nothing that happened on my trip mattered because all of the same things could have happened on your own trip. We want to lose ourselves in the journey. We say the destination doesn’t matter; it's the journey that’s important. I’ve always believed in that phrase and you can argue that the journey is what ultimately determines the destination. However, as someone who has most closely associated himself with a train ride or a bus ride where he doesn’t have to speak to anyone, where he can be as many identities as he wants to be, all I can say is that we eventually end up somewhere and have to be somebody. And very often that means being Don Draper, Dick Whitman and even a version of yourself you don’t even know all at one time. It means surprising yourself, but never cutting off what is possible or what has happened before.