“A man deserves to go and see his country.”
– Charles Bukowski
Several years ago, I walked away from a promising, comfortable life in Canada, to return to my own country. America.
I returned because, like Bukowski said, I felt I needed to see my own country. And I don’t mean major landmarks & tourist traps. I mean really see it.
The following years saw me traverse the land, coast to coast, more than once. It wasn’t always good, or fun, in fact much of it was downright reeling. Set against a backdrop of political & social tensions that were starting to boil over, I encountered much struggle & pain, not just in my own experiences, but in those I met along the way.
I’ve often wrestled with the question: Was it worth it to return?
And was it? Well, you’ll have to read to the end. Here are some stories…
Middle of Nowhere, New York
Even people who live in New York state don’t always realize just how rural most of the state is. Like, shockingly, brazenly rural. I’ve been through the deep south, the midwest, and well…this is as desolate as anything I’ve seen.
I get lost one afternoon in a dismal farming village, on some back roads. And when I say back roads I’m talking about the roads that nobody goes on, except if they live there. Roads where you attract attention merely for being on them, which is never a good idea.
I drive by a dilapidated farm with lots of cows in the yard, way way too many cows. I can’t look them in the eye as I drive by. I go a little further past; I see a disassembled motorcycle scattered across the grass of a decaying old house. A massive Amercian flag, partially eclipsed by a confederate flag, is draped across the sloping, crumbling roof.
The porch, bannisters, and siding are plastered with like-minded signs, profanity, and allegiance to a losing presidential candidate who need not be named.
Vile as it is, it’s not the first time I’m seeing something like this. Jarring & despicable, always – but uncommon? No. Particularly in the last five years.
There is one thing that stands out about this particular scene though, and it’s disturbing on a whole other level. And that’s the fact that whoever lives here put a ton of effort into broadcasting their contempt – for no audience whatsoever.
And that’s unusual, because the thing about most people who do this kind of shit, is that they’re doing it to be seen. It’s the whole point. To provoke, to incite reaction. Like violence itself, it’s an unearned, desperate demand that you Look At Me. YOU WILL LOOK AT ME.
But here, nobody’s looking. There aren’t any neighbors in sight, and no passing traffic comes thru. There’s the run-down house, a farm, a small barn – and that’s it. The only audience is a mountain.
I press down on the accelerator, wanting to get far away from here. But all day, I can’t drive off the sinister truth of it. Of how all-consumed & obsessed one has to be in their resentment and viciousness, to go through all this trouble, for the eyes of a mountain.
Central West Virginia
Freedom. Americans love that word, and you see it everywhere. No other nation loves to throw this word around as much as we do. And that right there is a huge red flag, forget the white or blue.
Because in my experience, when someone genuinely embodies a trait – they don’t need to tell you. A beautiful person doesn’t need to inform you that they’re beautiful. Talent, smarts, class, generosity – certain things need not be verbalized, for they’re self-evident.
And yet, I drive along and there it is – again & again. Another bumper sticker, another billboard, another slogan on a t-shirt. Incessant reminders of how free we are. You know, just so we don’t forget.
I pull over at a McDonald’s, in a small Appalachian town to fuel up & get some coffee. As I get out of the car, I see that – like many such places – McDonald’s is hiring. For 10$ an hour.
I’ve seen signs like this all thru my visit here – at the dollar stores, the gas stations, motels, grocery stores. That seems to be the going wage, and the wording on some of the signs makes it seem like this is a real opportunity, a real privilege, to work for 10 dollars an hour. After all, it’s 3 more than the Fed mandates. It’s a steal.
Except it’s 2021, and even in small-town Appalachia, nobody’s paying the rent on 10$ an hour. Nobody’s building a future or making a life on what’s on offer here, and this becomes increasingly, painfully obvious the more I look around.
As I stand in line at the McDonald’s, the guy behind me is telling his friend about his weekend. Apparently, he had to pull another infected tooth out of his mouth with a pair of pliers. “This one was easier than the last,” he says to the friend, his voice a bit slurred. “Last one was a motherfucker.”
And now, never more aware of my own teeth, I stand there rolling my tongue over them, in a mix of gratitude & horror. What this guy is talking about, it’s beyond my realm of reality.
As I approach the cashier, I forget what it was that I wanted to order. All I can think about now is my teeth, and his teeth, and everybody’s teeth. And as the cashier greets me, I’m thinking about her teeth too. But as I approach the register, and she goes to smile, I see that most of her teeth are gone. She barely has any.
As I drive through Appalachia, I become more irritated every time I see an homage to the Land of the Free pass my eyes. Because looking around, I’m not seeing much freedom. In fact, the opposite. What I’m seeing is person after person, life after life, completely trapped.
I’m seeing bottom-barrel jobs with no escape route, and I’m seeing self-dentistry done with tools from the hardware store. I’m seeing a dope-sick teenager vomiting next to a dumpster, and I’m seeing an equally young, desperate girl asking for rides at the gas station, 2 toddlers at her side.
I’m seeing more & more evidence, of people running out of options. And I don’t see it just in Appalachia. Or just at McDonalds. Like the word FREEDOM itself – I see it everywhere.
It’s everywhere. If you take the time to really look, and listen, you quickly see the truth of it. It’s everywhere.
Second to Freedom, GOD is next, in terms of making ubiquitous appearances on roadside ads & SUV bumper stickers. Or at least, the word God. Because God themself I think would be shaking their head a lot.
I’m at a hair salon in Texas one morning when one of the regular customers starts talking to me about the Lord. I’m not sure at first why she centers in on me, as I’m not in a talkative mood and definitely not giving off an approachable vibe. But it doesn’t take long for me to figure out why she targets me. It’s because even the other bible-thumpers at the salon want nothing to do with her.
They want nothing to do with her, because this lady, she doesn’t shut up. And the poor Lord, well, turns out he merely serves as a cover, a segway of sorts. All of her stories are about herself.
And maybe because it’s morning and I’m tired and don’t have much fight in me, I don’t know, but for whatever reason – I let her roll. I resign myself, and I listen.
I listen to her tell me about her cheating ex-husband, the lying piece of crap. I hear about her childhood, her fallen sister up in Oklahoma. I hear about her upcoming trip to the Bahamas, and the nice insurance settlement that’s going to pay for it.
“The Lord put me in that crash for a reason,” she says to me, intensely nodding her head, in full agreement with herself. “The Lord knew I needed that money, and the Lord is IN CONTROL, yes he is.” She nods up at the ceiling as she says this.
I try to cut in and ask about the fate of the other car in the crash, the other victims, and how the Lord was handling things for them, but I literally can’t get a word in. She’s a tornado of talk.
The more I stand there, silent, the more she tells me. And the Lord – well, it’s like he got bumped off the flight, left back at the gate. Because, clearly, this isn’t about the Lord at all. This is about her.
And she’s struggling. I realize from the beginning that despite all appearances – for this lady is slender, diamonded, and blonde – she’s lonely. She doesn’t really want to talk about the Lord, what she wants is someone to see her, to listen to her. She’s lonely.
I continue to stand there, while she goes on & on, while everyone else has had the sense to scurry away. I stand there, despite her narcissism, her misguided ideas, her flawed logic. Despite every impulse in me to do the opposite, I stand there, and I listen to her.
I’ve never forgotten that lady, and I often think of her when I drive by the nation’s megachurches, or the local dealerships waving their banners, assuring you that God WANTS you in a new Buick. Come on in!
I wonder if she made it to the Bahamas, and how it went. Somehow, I doubt she had a good time. But I think about how confidently certain she was, that the Lord had orchestrated a dangerous car crash, just so she could go.
I drive past a billboard, the word HEARTBEAT scrawled in red over a dismembered fetus. GUNS SAVE LIVES, another announces. A giant cross glares from the side of the road.
I think about her, how singular yet universal she was, in her loneliness and her perspective. I guess that anyone can believe anything, if they want to believe it badly enough.
I think of her, and I think of how in spite of myself, against all logic and sense – there’s a part of me that’s glad I stood there & listened that day. Maybe there was a reason. I hope she at least had a safe trip.
Los Angeles, California
Often in life, the hope of something, the idea of something – far, far exceeds the reality of that something. Nowhere was this more true than Los Angeles.
I end up renting a tiny apartment in North Hollywood for a month, from a young, on-her-way-up tv host. She’s jetting off to Thailand for the winter; I meet her briefly when I go pick up the keys. She’s very pleasant, friendly, but I can tell she’s a climber. I like her, but my first instinct tells me that she’s everything I’m not.
And this instinct proves correct, as I move in the next day & discover the apartment is full of framed motivational quotes, mantras, and all things POSITIVITY. This is positive-vibes-ONLY land, where every day is gonna be an awesome day & ‘You got this!‘ screams from every corner.
Motivational self-help books line the shelves. One afternoon, I pick one up & give it a go. But I quickly abandon it, as the prologue alone makes me feel like the embodiment of un-ambition & failure.
One thing is clear. This tv-host is determined to keep all things negative, toxic, and otherwise unsavory – out of this apartment.
In a self-imposed rebellion against this, (or maybe it’s just me being me) – I begin a nightly ritual compiling some of the gloomiest, saddest, most brooding music I can hunt down. Each night, I sit at the tv-host’s small dining room table, while the sounds of sadness waft around me. It makes me feel a bit more at ease.
One night, I’m sitting there at the table when the haunting piano of Béatrice Martin’s version of the Weeknd’s ‘Wicked Games’ comes on. And these two Canadians, they trigger a mourning for my old life in a way I am not expecting.
As Béatrice and her piano quicken, so too does my mind. I see flashes of my former life, a life I abandoned, a life I would never get back. A life I traded in for…what? This?
And it’s like all the grief and loss and sadness of the past six months finally reaches its peak, and I see it before I feel it – one, two, five, ten teardrops falling onto the mahogany wood of the tv host’s dining room table.
Like a torrent, an unleashed flood of sorrow and shame. Guilt creeps in & joins the party.
Guilt, not for me. For her. The tv host.
I can’t help but feel sorry for her. Because somehow, against all her efforts to secure this apartment in a protective cocoon of positivity – somehow the antithesis had snuck in. And now sat here in a bubble of gloom, defiling her dining room table.
Never feeling more an intruder, I know I don’t belong in this apartment, or in this city, or anywhere really – and the truth of this just makes the torrent worse.
I can still see them, the teardrops. The way they quickly joined with each other & turned into shiny regret-ridden puddles on the dark mahogany.
I get up and find a cloth, try to erase them away. Béatrice’s haunting voice echoes off the cold walls of the apartment.
”Just tell me you love me”, she pleads.
”Even though you don’t love me.”
Las Vegas, Nevada
The funny thing about state-lines, is that even though they’re man-made constructs, the energy really does change when you cross them.
On a desert highway, I know I’m back in Nevada before the GPS tells me, before I see the welcome sign on the side of the road. Before I have any confirmation whatsoever that I am no longer in California – I know.
I know, because for the first time in months, I am smiling.
I look up in the rearview so I can get a glimpse of myself, because it feels so strange. Strange the way my face feels, but it’s more the way my heart & lungs feel. I realize the reason I’m smiling, is because I’m breathing again. I can breathe again.
And the relief and gratitude for feeling this way, it makes me smile even more. Each breath in, a merciful injection of life, as each breath out purges the remnants of California away.
About 30 seconds later, I see the blue sign up ahead, and the GPS confirms it.
“Welcome to Nevada.” they say. Welcome back.
I head right to downtown, even though it’s getting late & I haven’t slept much. It’s Saturday, and all manner of crowds and raucousness will be in full gear, but for once I don’t mind. I want to be in the fray of what it feels like, to return.
It’s not that I feel at home. Or happy, or content, or safe. I don’t feel any of those things.
What I do feel is something more valuable to me than any of that. In Nevada, I feel ok as I am. I feel accepted.
Under the garish, flashing neon of the downtown streets, I blend out to the edge of the crowds. The pulsing casino lights and endless blare of the slots gives me a headache, but I don’t care. I breathe it all in.
I light up a Parliament, look into the crowd. There’s a ragged old woman outside a casino, her lips caved in, holding a cardboard sign. “Suck My Dick” it says.
Every scam, every mistake, every human folly imaginable is on full display down here. But that’s the thing. Here, nobody expects you to be your better self. The bar is low, and the pressure’s off, and sometimes – that in itself feels pretty fucking good.
I take a drag of my cigarette, give the old woman some money, and walk into the neon night. I breathe, and I smile. I’ve returned.
I traveled on, and I’ve gotten to see a lot of my country…things I never wanted to see, and things I never knew I did want to see.
I’ve seen the landscape change before my eyes, the ocean turning to desert, turning to mountains, turning to cornfields.
I’ve seen a different kind of landscape changing too, a much more ominous one. I’ve seen the tides changing socially, economically, politically. I’ve seen what happens when struggle & despair have no where else to go, and rage & isolation start to snake in.
Along the way, I’ve seen dreams dashed & divided, both my own and of others. But the thing about dreams, is that they’re not always good.
When you think about it – actual dreams, real dreams of the night – they’re a real mixed bag. Confusion, violence, hope, horror, lust…dreams are the mind’s way of showing you what’s really there. Whether you want to know or not.
Many nights, on dark forgotten highways, when it’s just me and the moonlight and a mind full of memories – I often ask myself if it was worth it. To return. Because this journey, it’s not always fun, it’s not always good.
But I also know that good was never the promise, good was never the point. The point was that I had to go and see my country. Not the myth of it, or even the dream of it – but the truth of it. And that I have.
When I’m out there on another freeway, wondering if it was all worth it, I remind myself that real life, and real dreams, are a real mixed bag. But I like to think that in the end, life is worth it, and dreams are worth it. So in that sense, yeah, I’d stand there and say – absolutely. It was worth it.