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(In which the author goes by plane, bicycle, train, and rental car from Europe and New York to the American South and Midwest. This is Part I – from Europe to Newark and New York City.)
Because I live in Europe, I need occasionally to recharge my American batteries—to smell the cut grass of summer lawns, to hear the sound of a fastball cracking into a catcher’s mitt, and (on the bad days) to confront a political system that, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, feels like a “bad edition of the Polish king.”
Although I moved abroad in the early 1990s, in many ways my last vivid memories of America (leaving aside the Boston-Washington corridor and certain beaches) date to the 1960s, when as a school boy I would go with my father on his business travels across America.
We moved by night trains, day coaches, commuter planes, and, occasionally, when all else failed, motor coaches (what Greyhound and Trailways call a bus). I have only one memory of him ever renting a car in our travels. We drove it up Pikes Peak.
To be sure, we lingered in Cleveland, St. Louis, Denver, and New Orleans, but most of the stops were in places such as Harlingen, Texas, Ogden, Utah, or Shreveport, Louisiana. Our preferred accommodation were berths on night trains or those stately station hotels that were often owned and operated by such railroads as the Rock Island or the Missouri Pacific.
Checking into the hotel late at night, I would collect ice from a machine down the corridor and, while lying on my bed, watch baseball games on television and drink Seven-Up.
It was a perfect way to spend some of my school holidays, and I developed an affection for the scrublands of southern Georgia at sunrise and the view along the Columbia River at dusk.
Little did I know that I would be in the last generation to see such an America—to eat breakfast in a dining car flashing across the Great Plains or to read my books (one was a boy’s book called Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) in a parlor car drifting alongside the Hudson River.
* * *
Pullman-car America has become as distant and abstract as Periclean Athens or the Missouri Compromise.
In its place, we have lines at airport security, rental cars barreling along faceless interstates, and motel television, on which reports of summer thunderstorms sound like acts of terror.
More than this, however, in my heartland rambles, I am reminded of what the country has lost—a political system grounded in reason.
In its place is a cowed electorate (removing both its belts and its convictions at security checkpoints) for whom the American dream is a night in one of Trump’s casino—complete with tilted roulette wheels (for the Koch brothers and their cronies) and fixed slot machines (at which only Jared wins).
I don’t mean to say that all American greatness has receded into memory. But I do see a correlation between the dreariness of American travel, and the country’s descent into a lockdown state, with Donald Trump as the warden-in-chief.
Maybe I persist in my travels in the hope of glimpsing America’s democratic past—that by good fortune I will come across Alexis de Tocqueville, in the lobby of an EconoLodge, eating a corn muffin and drinking coffee from a styrofoam cup?
Alas, I don’t think it will happen, anymore than Donald Trump will spend a weekend at Mar-a-Lago reading Democracy in America (or at least that part of Volume I in which the Frenchman attributes American greatness to the country’s endurance despite many mediocre presidents).
At least it allows me a distant connection to Mark Twain (when he “lit out” for the territories or drifted down the Mississippi) or John Steinbeck (in his travels with his dog Charley)—voices that embody the democratic spirit of the road.
* * *
I began my travels at Liberty International Airport, in Newark, New Jersey, where I arrived clutching a small bag (the size of a hobo’s roll) and a folding bicycle, packed into a cardboard box.
A customs officer had it in mind to make me re-assemble the frame in his presence, but he soon lost interest in this threat to the republic, on the assumption that terrorists don’t often ride something that looks like a circus bike.
Leaving Newark Airport, however, proved a three-ring exercise, as for more than hour I rode the bike aimlessly around the terminal, searching for an exit road that was not an eight-lane highway.
I was heading to downtown Newark, but the only streets I found ended in the dead ends of cargo lots. One road that looked quiet and unassuming turned out to be the on-ramp to an interstate, which forced me to backtrack on foot through a junk yard, as if I was hopping a freight.
Finally, I returned to where I started—Terminal C—and stopped a Port Authority policeman, who warmed to the story of the bike and my arrival from the far shores of Europe.
In his squad car the cop led me to a grassy knoll—had I become Lee Harvey Oswald meeting up with that Nash Rambler?—and pointed to a bridge that would spring me from the cloverleaf labyrinth, once I got past the Budweiser brewery.
* * *
I carried the bike across the median strip and soon was pedaling north on Frelinghuysen Avenue, a heart of darkness within the shadows of the Newark observation tower.
Frelinghuysen is the name of a prominent political family in New Jersey—one of them was a senator who was a poker and golf pal of President Warren Harding; another is still in Congress. But the street bearing its name is a heart of American darkness.
Potholes were everywhere, as were boarded up storefronts, abandoned warehouses, and burned out housing projects. Homeless men idled near sheltered doorways.
My little bike pitched along the asphalt as if a canoe navigating the rapids, although here the falls were an economic or political system that can tolerate such a wasteland.
* * *
I was heading into downtown Newark—a mixed bag of urban renewal projects and more homeless. But on the way I wanted to find the house at 37 Emmett Street where my grandmother was born in 1889.
She was the granddaughter of a Judge Mills (my middle name), who presided in a Newark court, and the daughter of an ambitious businessman, who settled his family on a block close to downtown Newark. Maybe they had a carriage to take them into the city?
Emmett Street is now part of a vast tract of neglect that stretches from Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Newark. Some of the houses near to number 37 were boarded up. A few of the lots along the street were vacant.
My grandmother was among the first women to earn a Ph.D from New York University (her field was anthropology) and she grew up in the high noon of the American Empire (William McKinley was the first president she could remember). Now her childhood home could well be a safe house in immigrant America—where the refugees from Trump’s American hide on the margins.
I wanted to like Newark more than I did. It has a new arts center, leafy parks, high-rise business towers, and some trendy bars and cafés. Sadly, the Newark Bears, a minor league baseball team folded, leaving the new downtown stadium empty. In another day, the Newark Eagles were a fixture in the Negro Leagues.
But there is something forced about the renewal effort, as if to keep the watchdogs away from the dying scents along Frelinghuysen Avenue.
* * *
I could have ridden my bike across the Meadowlands (RIP Jimmy Hoffa) into Manhattan. Instead, I took what my father would have called “the Lackawanna” from Broad Street Station into New York’s Penn Station and rode my bike out to Brooklyn, which took more than an hour in rush-hour traffic.
I was born in New York, and lived there before moving to Europe. In those days, the only people who biked around the city were messengers. Now New York has aspirations to bicycle greatness, with paths across the river bridges and thousands pounding the pedals—although the city remains a car paradise.
On this stay in New York, most of what I did was bike around Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan—to update myself on the Great Outer Borough Revival.
Several times I crossed the Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Brooklyn bridges, which have become the gateways from old money Manhattan to hipster Brooklyn.
I also hopped the East River ferries, including one that took me to Governor’s Island, in New York harbor, which, until recently, was a fort and barracks for the army; now it’s a national park of abandoned military housing, where you can bike around and enjoy the views of both the Manhattan skyline and the broken windows on the base.
* * *
Having lived in brownstone Brooklyn for ten years (from 1981 to 1991), when places like Boerum Hill and Prospect Heights felt like strategic hamlets, I appreciate the borough’s renaissance—sad only that we sold our house when we moved to Europe. (We got $186,500 for it; now it’s worth $2 million, and it was in a marginal neighborhood off Flatbush Avenue.)
In the 1980s, even on my old Raleigh bike, I was reluctant to explore neighborhoods such as Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Red Hook, and Fort Greene, all of which were poster children for urban neglect.
Back then, I stuck to Park Slope, Ocean Parkway, and Prospect Park. Now much of the borough is the People’s Republic of Latte, where it is possible to follow a path of ground beans and steamed milk from Sunset Park (near the new cruise ship terminal along the Brooklyn waterfront) to Greenpoint (where Polish kielbasa is an endangered species).
The big losers in this urban migration have been African-Americans, who often lived in rent controlled Brooklyn apartments dating to the 1950s and 60s (when whites and the Dodgers fled the borough).
Now every pre-war apartment building in places such as Crown Heights is looked upon as a potential gold strike.
All the landlord has to do is drive away the rent stabilized tenants (usually black or Puerto Rican), do up the lobby with a few coats of grey and white paint, and suddenly an apartment that rented monthly for $1105.87 to a black family is worth $3200 a month to a nesting flock of hipsters.
Even more remarkable is that Brooklyn is creating its own identity as a city. In the 1980s, new Brooklyn was a satellite of Wall Street and Manhattan, a dormitory for those dreaming of cutting jackpots with Carl Icahn.
Now downtown Brooklyn (still a retail district for African Americans) has its own high-rise office towers, Hilton (it was decades before Brooklyn got its first hotel), sports stadium, orchestra, and, best of all, local jobs for people in places like Bensonhurst and East New York.
Manufacturing Brooklyn, however, isn’t coming back to Williamsburg or Bushwick—except as luxury lofts.
* * *
All anyone in Brooklyn or Manhattan wanted to talk about is why Hillary lost and whether Trump is on the payroll of Russian gangsters.
I will spare you any more election analysis, but on the subject of Trump, I did due diligence by getting my hair cut by Leon, whose shop used to be in a building at 40th Street and Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
Twenty-four years ago, his landlord, aka Donald Trump, raised the rent on the barbershop by a factor of 2.5 times. When Leon complained to his client and nominal friend (he once went to Atlantic City as Trump’s guest, for a casino opening), The Donald said to him: “You have a lot of customers. You can swing it.”
Trump also said it was “his people,” not him, who had raised the rent.
Leon moved his trimming tools to central Brooklyn (where his mother lived in the same building as did the mother of Mayor Ed Koch). Leon also seems to know Mayor Bill de Blasio well—he’s the Forrest Gump, if not the Walter Mitty, of barbers. (All good ones are.)
As for his Trump relationship, Leon said (while clipping away) that he rarely, if ever, actually had cut Trump’s hair. “Marla did that,” he said. But he did shave Donald twice a week. Why not daily? Apparently because Trump’s beard never advanced beyond the peach fuss stage. (Leon: “I told him he could shave himself by rubbing a towel against his cheek.”)
* * *
When I asked what Trump was like, Leon said he was chatty, full of jokes and asides, and generous (except when it came to raising the rent and evicting his friend).
Leon claims credit for “inventing” Trump’s off-ramp, blow-dry look. He said he figured out the on-ramp, interstate swirl one day when Donald was in the chair. It’s a shame he didn’t get the copyright.
Working at 40th and Lexington in Trump’s building made Leon friendly with many of the limo drivers who used to drive for Trump and his entourage.
During Trump’s affair with Marla Maples, one of the drivers was tasked with ferrying the femme fatale to their assignations, which, according to Leon, took place on West 39th Street, which in those days had to be the least romantic place in Manhattan (a decrepit warehouse district).
Their furtive meetings sound like a plot line in a Theodore Dreiser novel. His moguls, all Donald Trump look-a-likes, were forever meeting their mistresses in rundown apartment buildings and hotels, where the likes of tycoon Frank Cowperwood could remain anonymous.
Dreiser ought to be the poet-laureate of the Trump administration. Read The Financier if you have any doubts.
* * *
As I always do in New York, I spent a few hours in the Strand bookshop, stocking up on histories for my travels, if not my reading for next winter. Fred Bass and his daughter, Nancy Bass Wyden (wife of Oregon Senator Ron Wyden) own the discount bookstore, which used to advertise “8 miles of books,” but which recently added on another ten miles.
It works best for me when I show up with a list in hand of desired books; otherwise, it is a hard bookshop in which to browse, because of the overwhelming volume, although books are shelved by topic.
On this occasion, I found a diary that Senator Henry Cabot Lodge kept during the Versailles negotiations (he had no time for Woodrow Wilson’s treaty or the sanctimonious president); a history of the Pullman strikes (my last stop is Chicago); a biography of Ernest Hemingway’s boat and last years; a novel about the fighting during World War II on New Guinea (my father was there); a biography of Mickey Mantle’s early years in Commerce, Oklahoma (on my route); an account of writer Jane Jacobs taking on the Port Authority’s Robert Moses over the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway (which would have turned Broome Street and Little Italy into an autoroute); and a “lid-off job” (as in, “blow the lid off…”) on the duplicitous diplomacy of Nixon and Kissinger during the 1970 India and Pakistan war, over what became Bangladesh.
It used to be when I came away from the Strand with a haul of books, I would walk around the corner to 4th Avenue (it only becomes Park Avenue further up) and mail my stash (for a reasonable cost) home to Europe.
All that ended when a recent president (I have my eyes on George W. Bush and Barack Obama) did away with the overseas media rate for mailing books abroad.
He also did away with M bags, which were canvas sacks, owned by the U.S. Postal Service, that could be filled with up to sixty pounds of books and mailed abroad (by sea) for about $35.
Now books sent abroad are considered the equivalent of first-class air mail, and the postage is no different from that for a heavy letter. To mail hardback book abroad costs about $20, which makes it prohibitive for small book publishers to compete in international markets.
Benjamin Franklin believed the postal service was a vital element of the democracy and its continuing education; in Trumpworld, it only exists to move around catalogues and Amazon boxes.
* * *
To me what makes New York City great is not the towers or the designer dress shops, but dinner-table conversation, especially when it touches on the vanity of politicians.
During my stay, a friend took me to dinner at one of the clubs (neckties required) to pick my mind about an article that I had written about the brothers Kennedy (wondering if they had been closer to Caligula or Cicero).
In turn, over dinner, he told me his own story of the Kennedys, which dated to a dinner party given in 1962, on the occasion of Teddy Kennedy’s birthday.
The party was given at the Fifth Avenue apartment of Stephen Smith, a Kennedy brother-in-law; he was married to their sister Jean.
Three tables of eight were arranged in one of the Smiths’ salons, and the pre-birthday party dinner included Bobby and Teddy, but not Jack, who would only arrive about the time the dancing girls came out of the cake.
My friend had no association with the Kennedy family, except that, for that evening, he was “the beard” for a woman romantically involved with Bobby. She was rich, intelligent, and good company, and Bobby would take her along sometimes when he on the road.
Since Ethel and Joan Kennedy (Teddy’s wife) were on the birthday guest list, the paramour had to show up with someone who looked like a boyfriend (aka “a beard”).
The dress designer Oleg Cassini brought Teddy a gift of three women (he could have his choice once Joan was driven home). Cassini had suitably outfitted the three young women, but asked one of them, a redhead, to come that evening as a blonde.
The highlight of the evening was Teddy’s judgement of Paris, choosing among the three models. (Presumably the other two became party favors.) I never did hear to whom he had given the golden apple.
When he came to New York as president, Jack stayed in a suite at the Hotel Carlyle on the East Side, largely because his rooms came with a connecting outside staircase, where he could exercise his own Parisian judgements, beyond the prying eyes of the Secret Service.
According to one of the guests at the party—a fix it woman in social circles—Jack was devoted to Vogue magazine. He would circle the pictures of promising models, who would then be approached with the proposition of state business. Not all of them said yes to being part of history, but many did.
It reminded my friend of France’s Second Empire, in which Emperor Napoleon III would approach women at one of his levees, twirl his mustache, and say in his most debonaire accent: “Until tonight.”
On the evening of Teddy’s birthday, Jack arrived after the dinner, which was the only time my friend ever saw the president in close quarters.
When I asked him his impression of the President—Was he a man of political idealism or just in the game for the girls?—he answered by saying: “I saw an idealistic man about to be taken down by the wolves.”
He didn’t say whether the wolves were women, insiders, or Kennedy’s own weaknesses.
* * *
Another question on everyone’s mind in New York was the extent to which the Russian mob has an I.O.U from the Trump presidency.
Everyone had an opinion about whether Jim Comey or Michael Flynn could bring down the president, and if and how Putin’s oligopoly could have funded its call options on Trump in power.
I never tired of these parlor games—after all, the Parker Bros. game Monopoly is set in Atlantic City, and Trump’s haircut, courtesy of Leon, could well be a piece in a future edition—but after week of riding my bike around Bushwick and dressing for several dinners, I had my reservations to get out of town and I boarded an Amtrak train that headed south.
Not even I am sure why I persist with Amtrak. I do like writing in its Amcafés (more than its Amburgers), and even when the trains are late (as this one was) I enjoy listening to the engine whistles at the grade-crossings and looking at the pastiche of Americana outside the window. It’s a connection to my childhood that I am loathe to give up.
In about ten hours of travel (while the rest of the nation was glued to the Russian investigation on television), I took in fleeting images of the Delaware River at Trenton (not far from where Washington crossed); Rocky’s art museum in Philadelphia (“Yo, it’s the giant worm…”); Wilmington station (where it is easy to imagine Babbitt Biden glad-handing with the conductor); the capitol dome in Washington (but not the Wilbur Mills Tidal Basin); the Marines Corps base at Quantico (lots of water for amphibious landings); the Rappahannock River and Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg (the Somme of the American experience); the siding at Guinea Station, Virginia, near Chancellorsville, where Stonewall Jackson died (his severed arm is buried elsewhere); the banks of such rivers as the Chickahomminy and the James (on which Lincoln’s unified republic almost foundered); and in Enfield, North Carolina, the rows of small wooden frame houses, with their porches that evoke the timeless isolation in the pictures of Walker Evans (“Let us now praise famous men”).
The only hard part was trying to figure out whether I was digging deeper into Trump’s America or leaving it behind, once the train crossed out of Washington to what F. Scott Fitzgerald described as “where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”
(Coming next: North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.)
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including Letters of Transit and, most recently, Reading the Rails. He lives in Switzerland.