… to know the difference between real life and ‘a sitcom in endless reruns’
An election is a telling moment in a country’s story. For that reason I chose the autumn of 2012 to make my ambitious driving trip around America to write my book Home Free: An American Road Trip.
I was bringing home a global awareness achieved over 13 years travelling almost constantly overseas, mostly around Asia. In 1993 I had run screaming away from America, appalled by the ersatz stability of a triumphalist and smugly middle-class country. My parents were sympathetic and supportive; indeed my father had inflicted my disaffection on me in the first place, by taking me to Haiti at age 16. He should have known better, if he wanted me to turn out a normal, middle-class American.
But that wasn’t what he wanted. His own parents had worked hard just to become middle class in the first place, and my father had benefited from the advantage of being white in America in the 1950s, when mortgages, university degrees, and such were much more widely available and affordable than they are today or ever will be again. Lucky him, to have been born in the right place at the right time.
But his working-class parents had also blessed and/or afflicted my father with the bigger picture, by taking him and his sister on long family driving trips from their home in Texas. “My parents were committed to showing us that the world was bigger than Dallas,” he told me. It was my inherited suspicion that boring American suburbs are, well, boring, and that the rest of the world must therefore be more interesting, that propelled me through the meta-media membrane that used to smother the American soul and out the other side, as far afield as India and Pakistan.
I saw for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities
Society fraying at the edges
The American meta-media membrane is still there, but I do think it has become less soul-smothering than it was when I was young. That’s partly a function of American society fraying at the edges, but it’s a good thing. Anyone who lives in India knows the difference between real life and the “as seen on TV” fictions that we Americans have long foisted on ourselves. In Alive and Well in Pakistan I describe America as “a sitcom in endless reruns”; I’d rather live in the real world, thank you.
In 2012 I was gratified to find America more real than it used to be. On the road from my home in remote Seattle I took with me my acquired awareness of the outside world. My first destination was Wisconsin, the Midwestern state where I grew up. As Jeff Nelson, a Methodist pastor in Detroit, reminded me, “Wisconsin used to be known as the nice state. Whenever you had a character in a movie who was a naïve rube, he was always from Wisconsin.”
But by 2012, Wisconsin had become a byword for the intractable divisions afflicting the whole country. For weeks in early 2011, tens of thousands of Wisconsinites had peacefully occupied the state capitol building in defiance of heavy-handed attempts by Scott Walker, the right-wing state governor (and likely 2016 presidential candidate), to strip teachers and other unionised state employees of the collective bargaining rights they had cherished for decades. Overt parallels had been drawn between Wisconsin and Egypt, whose revolution was happening at the same time, and many observers believe Wisconsin ignited the entire worldwide Occupy movement.
The subsequent effort to oust Walker in a recall referendum fizzled, but the larger takeaway was how neither faction could claim a complete or definitive victory, given how divided and confused Wisconsin was. The first person I interviewed for my book, a Wisconsin farmer named Barry Ott, told me, “My wife’s a schoolteacher, so she hates Walker. I think what he’s doing is just fine.” My high school classmate Jill Radi told me, poignantly: “You just don’t enter into the conversation, because it’s just so painful. The emotion’s so high because you can’t even listen.” Jill remembered how unified all Americans had seemed just after September 11, 2001. “Is that what it takes?” she lamented. “And will we ever get there again?”
From Wisconsin I drove on to Detroit, whose story of rapid industrial triumph followed by precipitous and irreversible collapse says a lot about where America has been and where it’s heading. In Pittsburgh I bought lunch for Bill Steigerwald, who documented, in his brilliant road book Dogging Steinbeck, how the great novelist and his editors essentially faked much of his 1962 bestseller Travels with Charley in Search of America. I confided that I fretted about the topicality of driving around America during a presidential election. “Steinbeck had that same issue,” Steigerwald told me. “He travelled in the fall of ’60, and he had the historic Kennedy-Nixon thing. If you read his original draft of Travels with Charley, he watched all of the debates, he commented on them. All of that was taken out.”
I told Steigerwald that I was collecting predictions.
“It will not surprise me if Obama gets crushed,” he offered. “In 2008 there were millions of Americans who said, ‘He’s a nice young man, he’s got a nice family, he’s black.’ And he got students and young people energised, and that’ll never happen again.”
Political views, stances, and propaganda were in the air throughout my drive. Outside Washington, D.C. I asked my friend Lenny Miller, an enterprising graduate of Atlanta’s Morehouse College, whose venerable purpose is to develop African American leadership, if he would do things differently than President Obama. “Oh, I would,” he said. “I’m Morehouse College. He’s Harvard.” In Florida I asked a teenage survivor of Haiti’s earthquake for her views. “Why would you choose somebody who’s already rich [Romney], that don’t have a clue what it’s like for the poor?” she asked.
Like Steinbeck I was in search of America, but I daresay I paid closer attention to the actual Americans that I actually met. The point of my trip was to show up, pay attention, and listen. In New York, a young Pakistani writer named Taimoor Shahid told me: “If you’re speaking in support of Muslims too much, you don’t know what kind of person you’ll be perceived as being. You have to tone it down.” In Miami, the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat told me: “What it means to me to be an American has always been hyphenated and diverse, because I’ve always lived in these melting-pot cities. When I first came to New York, I went to Brooklyn and so, to me, that was America: people speaking Spanish, people speaking Russian, Korean.” And in Houston, Sherron Watkins, who blew the whistle on the infamous Enron Corporation scandal of 2001, told me: “It’s like Abu Ghraib! It really is from leadership, you know? When we as a society let the bad stuff happen to the privates, we are fouled up.”
Not different from the world
To drive west and north across Texas is to spend many hours alone, and there comes a point when the open road induces a kind of trance and your car becomes your world. I even began entertaining a fanciful notion of driving around America again, to see everything I had missed the first time. But I knew the best I could hope for was to catch history on the fly. One of my motivating premises was that America is not separate or different from the rest of the world. I proved that point, at least to my own satisfaction. And I saw for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. And whether the centre will hold is an open question.
Many stories, told in many voices, were in my mind and notebooks as I limped home up the West Coast. Perhaps the most eloquent words were those of a Native American woman I met in the village of Old Oraibi in Arizona, the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America. “We Hopi, we just do what we do,” she told me. “And if people don’t know us, we like it. The world can just go by, and we’re here, and we live our life.”
(Ethan Casey is the author of Home Free: An American Road Trip and Alive and Well in Pakistan.)