Monday, March 28, 2011

More for Your Money

We’ve passed a lot of fireworks big box stores in South Carolina. “Badder than ever,” one sign claims.

Another one says, “More bang for your buck.”

The Swamp Fox

In South Carolina, we passed marshy, swampy places, and I thought of Francis Marion, referred to by his British enemies during the Revolution as The Swamp Fox.  I think I experienced my first crush as I read about him.  He would raid the British camps, drive off their horses, steal their supplies and then disappear into the South Carolina swamps.  The British could never track him back to his camp.  He was swift, he was deadly, he was a leader, he practiced unconventional warfare, and I adored him.

He has a state park and a college named after him.  I sure know how to pick ‘em.

World's Most Beautiful Cities

Live oaks, which keep their leaves all winter,
with gray-green Spanish moss dangling from
branches and azaleas at their feet.
Leaving Savannah now and quite sad about it.

Several people who've been lots of places told me they thought Savannah was one of the most beautiful cities in the world, on the short list with Paris and Quebec.  I thought Venice was pretty special, myself.

I took pictures of some live oaks in Savannah today, glad the sun was in and not bleaching out the colors of the azaleas at their feet. 

Now, on the road northward in the Georgia Low Country, I see big palm trees lining the road and short fan palms growing wild that would survive only in a greenhouse in New Jersey.  A cab driver told me when I arrived that it goes below freezing here several nights a year, but it doesn’t stay that cold for long; that’s how the palms survive.

A palm in front of a beautiful downtown
Savannah commercial building.

In Savannah

Running around, trying to cover a lot of ground and see lots of historic squares and houses in Savannah, I talked to fewer people.

On a one-hour Savannah River cruise, I met Elizabeth, a nurse who had worked in New York City for years at a frantic pace, trying to make money.  She got sick and decided “financial security” wasn’t worth dying for.  She moved to Knoxville, Tennessee and works there now as an operating room nurse.  She goes to Boston to see her ex-husband once in a while, but she prefers spending time with her parents there.

She was raised Buddhist and believes people are basically good.  I compared that in my head with Jeremiah’s statement that the human heart is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things.  And with Jesus’ statement:  “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…”  I like people, but we’re a dangerous lot, really.  We all could be like the German people under Hitler.

I challenged her to read the Gospels and see what she thought.  And I said I believed there is Absolute Truth and that we all fall far short of it.  She wanted to give me a hug as we parted ways, and of course I thought that was a wonderful idea.

Friday, March 25, 2011


I haven’t been this deep into Virginia since I was in college at University of Virginia, which I would say with pride except I screwed up royally there, left after three and a half semesters, and didn’t finish my BA for 37 years.

I remember my time at U. Va. with much sadness.  I squandered my youth there – I’m not sure I’ve recovered yet.  I don’t think I’ll ever want to go back to Charlottesville; I was so painfully lost there.  It was one of the worst periods of my life.

The girl in her 20s who sat next to me in DC answers questions but doesn’t volunteer anything.  Her voice sounds like Ursula the Witch.

“You have a dramatic voice.  Are you a singer?”


After many awkward silences, many attempts to ignite the conversation, I learned she was “a picture and runway model,” in her words.  She was on her way from the Bronx, where she lived, to Charlotte, North Carolina for a fashion show.  I asked if she had an agent, or did she have to dig for work?

“It’s not that serious,” she said.

I told her I had long debated moving into New York City, but I was afraid of moving into a place and having someone move in below me who smoked marijuana day and night.

“You’d be high all the time,” I said.

“That’s New York,” she said.  

We passed the Pentagon. 

“The ten-year anniversary is coming up in six months,” I say.  “What were you doing when 9/11 happened?”

“”Sleeping.”  She closes her eyes a few minutes later and keeps them closed until Richmond.

I did find out that her dream for herself is to be a psychologist.  She doesn’t volunteer ANYTHING to strangers on the bus, but she got at least twelve phone calls the first half hour of our trip, so she offers some people something.

What is her dream for America?

“Love and peace,” she said, just like the DC cab driver.

As she walked off the bus in Richmond, I saw that her belt was threaded through half her pant loops, and half the belt dangled down her butt to her knees.  She was six feet tall, wore a black do-rag over her hair, and thin silver and gold etched bangle bracelets.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


I tried to Google Map directions from the bus terminal to the HoJo, but I couldn’t connect with the internet in the terminal, though the sign says you can.  I went out just as a taxi pulled in.  I put my bag in the trunk and asked for the HoJo on New York Avenue.  “It’s a mile away,” I said, to discourage a roundabout route.  The driver had beautiful copper skin and a soft, far-east accent.  He set the meter at $3 and off we zoomed.

The silence between us felt like no fun to me, so I said, “Where are you from?”

“The Planet Earth,” he said.

“Me, too,” I said when I stopped laughing from surprise.

“How long have you lived in this particular part of Planet Earth?” I asked.

“I’ve lived in this particular part for – I don’t know how long, because the planet keeps spinning and I’ve lost track.”

So he defied my efforts to categorize and define him.

He got my bag out of the trunk, charged me $4.75 for the fare and $2.00 for the bag.  But he made me laugh so I gave him a tip on top of the questionable bag fee.

“Everybody on the planet living in peace and love,” he said as I stepped out of the cab.

“That would be nice,” I agreed, and I went to check in.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


One week later, everything has changed.  Dad walked around his home with the aid of a walker today.  He’s not coughing – he beat pneumonia, or whatever it was.   He sat up with us for hours on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning.  I left Monday noon thinking he was in okay shape.

He’s tired of being so disabled – he’s gone blind, among other problems – but he’s courageous and usually patient with his weakness.  You don’t want to be around him when he’s exasperated.

So on Tuesday afternoon, after checking on the status in Mystic, I relaunched my plans for the trip.  On Wednesday, my bed became Central Pack.  It’s snowing, in the low 30s here; it will be in the low 80s in Savannah on Saturday and Sunday, so it’s a matter of taking layers.

I opened the maps.  If I stretch my hand as wide as possible, I can touch New York City and Savannah. 

It takes four handspans to reach San Francisco.

The Consolation of Maps

The fountain at Bryant Park and the back of
the New York City Public Library.
On March 11, I was in New York City again, waiting to take the train to Mystic, Connecticut because my Dad’s health took a turn for the worst.  I’m not sure – I might have to cancel my Savannah / American dream / book road trip.

A favorite, the Grace Building.

I sat in Bryant Park, slurping up a decaf cappuccino, and immediately spotted the Staples at 39th and Sixth Avenue.  I needed a map of the U.S., not an atlas with each state isolated on its own page.  I wanted to see the whole picture, the whole country, on one page, and I wanted to compare the distance between New York and Savannah to the distances out west.

I wanted to eat a brownie, so I went into Staples.  This makes sense.  I can’t eat brownies, but I can have office supplies.  The pens (gel, rollerball, ballpoint, exclusive, everyday) and all the colorful things you can buy to organize your work, nearly drive me as insane as brownies do. 

A building on 40th Street topped with gold,
gleaming in the afternoon sun.
So I browsed in there, found the maps and atlases.  They offered one of the Eastern U.S. and one of the whole country.  I liked seeing the big expanse, the whole West that’s waiting; I liked seeing just the Eastern seaboard, because the map was more detailed since it covered less ground.

I’d like to open the maps now, now that I’m rocketing on MetroNorth from Grand Central up through the Bronx and Westchester toward Mystic to see my Dad.  But I would annoy the passenger next to me.  I will open the maps and cherish them when I get home.

Grand Central.

Eclipse of the American Dream?

“We are such stuff
 as dreams are made on,” Shakespeare said in “The Tempest.”  Have Americans revised their individual versions of the American dream, after America's 9.0 earthquake in the financial and mortgage markets, after a devastating recession?

Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the early 1830s, when America extended only from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River.  Americans had a whole continent ahead of them to conquer and exploit.  The optimism – frankly, the greed – was palpable. 

We no longer want to strip our continent of every natural resource, at least the best parts of us feel that way.  How have Americans revised their dreams for their lives as a result?

I also want to be open to any other theme that might arise and eclipse that plan.

People who have no dreams

I’m worried about meeting people from the lowest income strata, people who feel they do not – and possibly really do not – have a single resource to put into making their dreams come true.

A friend at NYU said he’d never take the Greyhound bus from New York to Washington, DC again.  Why not? 

“Those people have no agency,” he said.  “They see themselves as victims.”  He takes the Bolt bus instead, full of 20-somethings who are over-educated and under-employed.

I tried to transfer to the Bolt bus, since these passengers might have more thoughts on their American dream and how they can achieve it.   But Greyhound already had me in its grasp and wouldn’t allow it.

What can I say to people who have no dreams?  Should I try to re-ignite the ones they lost, and encourage them to keep trying?  I’d like to be of some service to the folks I meet. 

I’m still hopeful of my dream, being published, having several spines with my name on them on the bookshelf, reaching the right audience.  I can’t imagine living without a dream, what a sagging, demoralizing succession of days life would be.

I'm wishing along with Brett

I made hotel reservations today.  Brett at was cheerful and helpful, searching for the closest place to historic downtown Savannah at the best price.  I decided to practice my questions on him.

“I’m going on a bus tour to ask people what their dream is for their life and their dream for this country.  What is your dream for the country?”

“For everyone to be more friendly,” he said.  “Everyone is running around busy doing their own thing.”

“What’s your dream?”

“To finish college at this point.  My wife loves to bake and she’d like to own a bakery.  We want to work together.  I’d do logistics and bookkeeping.  Then we would have more time and money to travel.  We want to see all 50 states and go from there.”

I told him my dream.

“May your book turn out even much better than you expected it to.”

That was a beautiful thought.

Trip to Savannah

The South is a “society that is rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in speech,” Flannery O’Connor wrote.  These are “the gifts of the region.”  I’ve got to be SEEING constantly, picking out people who seem to have some whereabouts about them, ask for stories, dreams for their lives, dreams for America.  I’ll have two full days to sit in the historic squares of Savannah and ask people on the benches questions.   

I’m taking a digital recorder.  I hope, after the ice is broken and the conversation rolling, that people will accept being recorded rather than asking me to take notes, as this tires my arm out.

40 days before my trip to Savannah!

I want to write a book on the American dream.  Has it been downscaled?  Or has it died completely?  Or been substantially revised?

I’m also open to absolutely any other theme arising.

I’ve been longing for a camper to drive around America for 20 years.   When I pass them on I-95 to Mystic, Connecticut, to see my parents, I study them and dream about the layout inside.  But I’ve always worried about pumping out the tanks and hooking up electricity and being safe overnight as a woman alone and being too lonely for hours on the road alone every day.  Steinbeck camped beside rivers, and people drove up and talked to him wherever he stopped.  Personally, I would not like to be approached by male strangers.  It wouldn’t make my day.  So I wondered how I was going to do my road trip.

I got laid off in September 2010.  I was enrolled in night school at the time, and I decided to finish my degree by December.  After my last final exam, a few students hung out with the professor, enjoying a conversation.   I said I finally had the time, I had some money, I was thinking of a trip around America, did anyone have any ideas for me? 

“Take the bus,” my professor said.  Being with people on a bus would solve the loneliness problem, hopefully; being contrary, I checked into taking Amtrak.  A train ticket is more expensive than the bus, but you don’t need motel rooms.  The problem is I would miss huge expanses of the landscape while the train rocketed through the night.  So I checked out the bus, recognizing there was probably a difference between bus and train travelers.

Forty days before departure, I bought the tickets, from New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal on 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, to Washington DC in one day, and from there to Savannah, GA, the deepest South I’ve ever been.  I’ll see Savannah and Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home for two days, and then head home in two legs, stopping in DC overnight again.

I’d like to do the whole country by bus.  Greyhound has a $535 hop-on hop-off 30-day pass, go anywhere in the country.  I’d rent a car and see Yosemite and Grand Canyon.  I want to drive the length of Route 2 in Montana.

To write a great story about my travels, I have to have history, humor, philosophy, theology, personal sketches and anecdotes.  That’s all.