All contents © 2008 Philip Semanchuk.
...begins and ends just outside Newark, New Jersey with a lot in between. On Continental Airlines the pilot I swear he's going to use the word swell any second now he's just so damn chatty and smiley and friendly and cheeful like a 1950s television host all in black and white who will be back after a word from our sponsor. I like him. I feel differently about the stewardess who enters my universe as an acrid white towelette dangling beneath my nose. With my eyes I follow the towelette to gleaming stainless steel tongs to five perfect crimson fingernails to a hand protruding from the crisp scarlet cuff of a pressed sleeve held rigid by a fully extended arm commanded by dangerous dark eyes hooded with Maybelline Lash Extender. How grateful I am for the opportunity to disinfect myself. I decline because I do not want my hands to smell like Janitor-In-A-Drum for the rest of the flight. I get an enjoyable lunch of black beans, cous cous and friends. For breakfast on the flight out of Stockholm I was served black beans and potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce and my stomach now begins yoga.
While approaching Newark airport I count no less than nine baseball fields visible from my seat in the sky. Hallelujah! The Promised Land! I collect my bag and head for my connecting flight and it is 60° out and overdressed people are sweating and mopping their faces and laughing with one another in the sun. A huge man walks with me to the next terminal and we agree, who would be crazy enough to take the shuttle bus on a day like today? I am just happy to be in the open air where I can fart freely. Black beans are good but once per day is my limit. The airport staff is speaking giddy Spanish and I have three hours to kill in beautiful New Jersey.
I wander tentatively towards the bar and the woman behind it is grace personified: "Ya wanna beah?" Like a Yugo colliding with an 18-wheeler on the New Jersey Turnpike, her Colombian origins deflect her Jersey accent only slightly. How could one say no? She talks shit with the other bartender, neglects the customers, smiles when she notices that I am in love with her. Televisions blare in the background and foreground both. A woman stands next to me to order in a British accent "two more chardonnays, please, and another club sandwich with chips this time instead of pretzels." Pretzels? Lady, if you don't want 'em, I'll take 'em.
I am talking to everybody, reveling in the effortless pleasure of meaningless small talk, in the confidence that I will be understood. Yo howya doin haya doon haaya dowan?
On the flight out of Newark I am given, of all things, a cold black bean burrito. Hungry, I eat it and hope I do not cause an explosive incident that is misinterpreted in these terror-laden times.
The airport in Knoxville, Tennessee seems almost asleep when I get there, and in fact so am I. Night has fallen and ours is the last flight in. The terminal is quiet except for the two soldiers carrying assault rifles. Hello boys. Pete and Michelle drive me to Asheville and I sleep looking forward to the moment of waking up and wondering where I am.
The next day we go grocery shopping and I am dizzy. Peter is all efficiency and I have to explain to him that I am on hallowed ground and that we must stay for a while and not rush. Mustard greens, Asian red mustard greens. Of course they have them, organically grown, how many pounds would you like? I resist the urge to eat them in the store. I eat them in the car on the way home.
We see each other, the family, and talk important things: Pete's pear tree from Lowe's was mislabelled and is the wrong variety, too bad it's so vigorous. Steve has become addicted to Rold Gold Parmesean and Herb Pretzel Nuggets and soon I have too. Sophie the dog is growing old and deaf and slow, this means she has slowed down to a pace closer to our own and can be approached and even petted.
At Thanksgiving dinner there are nine people and two dogs. I make bread, Pete's garden provides butternut squash, Irene and Scott's sweet potatoes. We have an enormous dead turkey, stuffing, wine, food food food. We are happy we are happy we are happy.
At Mom's I split wood with her new ax and suck rich autumn in my nostrils; I swirl it around my spine and into my toes. Her place always smells of earth.
Now it is time to drive to Durham and I get a rental car at the Asheville airport. My rental is gratuitously supersized to a Whoa Big Daddy Ford Exponormous, a gleaming white gargantua that inspires a man to disregard his size issues (not that I have any) and coin neologisms. I consider refusing the vehicle on principle but curiousity gets the better of me. In the cabin I fiddle with the controls, turn on the wipers instead of the headlights, open the wet bar, spin the disco ball, roll out the red carpet and turn on the radio which plays The Jodygrind's version of Just Because You Wear Big Shoes That Don't Make You A Man and I feel so good just singing along. In Swannanoa I stop to shop for cowboy boots, not seriously you know but just to look around although I'm tempted by the red snakeskin ones. The flourescent lights inside the store buzz like an angry rattler who's been skinned for boots and I'm tempted to stay in that lonely outpost by a gray I-40 where so many animals have died to cover our insufficent feet and overly sufficient bellies.
I make no other stops. I drive straight to the Cosmic Cantina in Durham for a piping hot vegetarian black bean burrito with guacamole and sour cream and the indifferent college student who takes my order doesn't understand me, I can tell. He looks dim and asleep. I am tempted to drag him sharply across the counter by his shirtfront and scream, "Listen, man! I have come to this very spot desperate and salivating all the way from dark, soggy Sweden in a rented whore of a Hippopautomobile and I haven't had a decent burrito in thirteen months let alone cilantro or Monterey Jack cheese or a tortilla wrapped by someone who knows more Spanish than 'Hasta la vista, baby' and I am ready to fall on my knees and thank the god of cheap Mexican food, savior of vegetarians around the world, let's for the moment overlook the greasy hellpit of Taco Bell, may its soul if it has one at all be rubbed raw and basted in habanaro sauce until it screams for mercy and receives none, for this bounty which I am about to receive in the name of all that is protein-rich and flavorful Amen I am now so happy that I am about to cry. Förstår du?!?" But education is like a burrito. It only tastes good if you're hungry for it.
Duham is buzz. My house, my home, my bed, my cat. She recognizes me, tentatively. A cat's memory lasts at least thirteen months, I can tell you that. Returning the Miasmamobile at the airport was like turning in my manhood. I am now impotent, anchored at home in public-transportationless America. I have plenty to do at the house. The lawn has not been raked through a deciduous month of fall, the chores that I left behind are still undone. I have phone calls to make, transactions to complete, business to get done. I dial and get Muzak. Baste its soul in habanaro sauce.
Every morning I walk over to Bean Traders and have a cup of Sumatra Mandheling and a toasted pumpernickel bagel with cream cheese. The owner is affable as ever and I try to talk her into selling me her ticket to the Strokes concert but instead I settle for reading the comics. It this it? It is enough. It is not even Sunday, when the comics are in color. It is enough. For lunch I have Middle Eastern hummus, cheddar cheese and broccoli rabe on Jewish Rye bread. I am eating America. Buzz bang bliss. I rake my hands blistered and it feels great. I am sucking autumn again.
I spend a little time in downtown Durham and the usual crew is there. Yo, haven't you panhandled from me before? Yeah, I remember, I bought you a burrito, your name is Louis, right?...Oh man, love that bigass white SUV. I probably wouldn't have noticed you if it wasn't for the awesome subwoofers you got in there. Isn't that a Kool Jo DG remix? Yeah, you cool...Man, you really that fat or you just impersonating Saturn? Yeah, OK, it's true, this is not a skinny solar system. I do not belong here...
The person who drives me to the airport is a new friend to me. I am not comfortable crying the tears that I cry in front of her but I bite my lip to no avail.
The used book store at the Raleigh-Durham Airport rocks. When I am king, every airport will have one. What would you rather have, a used book store with an inexpensive cornucopia of sour, magnificent, boring, lovely, disgusting and spicy, or do you prefer the monochrome safety of the latest New York Times best seller in paperback? How about a compilation of Russian curse words with English translations for $3? John Updike's Pigeon Feathers for $2? Taylor Branch's Martin Luther King biography Parting the Waters for only $8? Mystery drawers full of books unshelved for lack of space? Can you imagine a better way to kill time in a place where killing time is a necessity?
The art installation takes second place to the bookstore only because of the bookstore's incomparable appropriateness. The installation has free postcards. Says Olga Valle-Herr on one of them, "First of all, I am American because I was born in the United States. But my heritage and my ancestors were from Mexico, and some were from France, from Spain, from Indians. I'm like a Heinz 57, or a potpourri, like the flowers that you mix. All those differences make a person interesting".
In Newark again I have four hours to kill. No used bookstore and no art installation unless you count the accidental sonic party that is the New Joisey accent. In the Garden State Diner the knives are all plastic; sharp metal ones are a pre-9/11 memory. I order a vegetarian burger and a beer. The burger is marvellously too much - a hefty vegetarian patty on a kaiser roll with lettuce, tomato, melted provolone, grilled onions and grilled mushrooms to which I add mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup. I may as well just smear it on my shirt now since it is going to wind up there eventually. The guy next to me deliberates hesitates ruminates over the menu and I recommend the Philly cheesesteak, assuming they will know how to make it here with too much of everything on an Amoroso roll. But I find out that he already knows cheesesteak. He is originally from South Jersey but has moved to some barren, cheesesteakless region of the country. Martha serves him a cheesesteak and he is happy, she is happy, we are all happy. I can't tell where Martha's accent is from and she is equally unsure of mine. She speaks knowledgeably about the closed vowels that I don't even know I have. She puts my tongue under the microscope of her ear but finds ambiguous clues. I sit in the restaurant and listen to flights announced by a man whose Jamaican accent is so strong that I can barely understand him.
We taxi north and once in the air are treated to a magnificent view of downtown Manhattan at night. There is a singular blackness along the shoreline, a fresh smoking hole instead of a tooth, and my stomach does yoga again.
On the flight back I sit next to a pleasant agronomist from Canada. He gives me a tip about non-chemical aphid control invented by a farmer in Honduras. (Spray them with a white flour and water solution; when it dries out it will dessicate the aphids.) Continental Airlines has no vegetarian meal for me as if to say, "Welcome back to Europe!" The flight attendant suggests my travel agent is at fault. In Schipol Airport I am exhausted and hungry while I wait for my tardy flight to Stockholm. There is no place to sleep that is away from the loudspeakers announcing departures. That's a design feature the Schipol architects should probably be congratulated on so that no one misses important messages. I am not in a congratulatory mood. Every announcement comes across in Dutch, then in English, and sometimes in the language of the country of the flight's destination - Chinese, French, German. When I can fall asleep I dream that everyone talks to me in a foreign language that's not Swedish, so instead I stay awake and try to learn to count from 1 to 10 in Dutch by listening to the announcements of flight numbers. Eventually I am in Arlanda Airport and eventually the Arlanda Express rushes me home in its noisy way past Karlberg station where I spent so many chilly mornings waiting on the platform for the train that eventually took me to the job that I eventually quit. Eventually I am home in the gray rain that is December in Stockholm and eventually sleeping in a bed that is mine, dreaming dreams of peaceful confusion.
1) The art installation I mentioned is online at Indivisible.org.
2) This piece was inspired by Superchunk's song Press.