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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 V – from Kansas City, MO to Chicago and New York City, with cameo appearances by John McCain, Satchel Paige, Louis Armstrong, Harry Truman, George Pullman, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and Adlai Stevenson III.
The best moment of my trip—driving from North Carolina to Oklahoma—was dropping off the rental car at the Kansas City Airport, which is fifteen miles north of downtown. I had prepped for the moment by giving the car one last power wash, as I did not want Avis to charge me for the speckles of fresh yellow road paint that had gotten into the wheel wells.
The car-return inspection went well, and I was happy to be back on the bicycle, even if I was only riding the contours of the airport, in search of a ride into downtown.
No one around the airport knew anything about a city bus into Kansas City. It was suggested that I take a taxi or an Uber. A limo driver near the terminal told me the ride would cost $60.
Finally I came across a man sitting Indian-style on the pavement near a bus shelter, as if part of a one-man sit-in. He said the local Kansas City bus would soon arrive, and that it cost $1.50 to ride into downtown. For a moment I thought maybe the man was homeless or paralyzed, as he resembled Gandhi at an ashram more than an airport traveler.
Only when we were on the bus, riding into Kansas City, did I learn that, far from being homeless, my new friend had gone to Harvard University and had worked as a distinguished lawyer.
From his Harvard class, he had kept up with the roommate of Senator Chuck Schumer, another Harvard man, who said that the Senate minority leader never bothered to return his roommate’s telephone calls. This was my new friend’s answer, when the conversation turned to the reasons why Democrats are so feckless in opposition to President Trump.
* * *
My last visit to Kansas City was in July 1981. I had a magazine commission to write about foreign soldiers training at the United States Army Command and General Staff College, located at Fort Leavenworth.
During the week, I had interviewed majors and colonels from countries such as Greece, Columbia, and the Philippines. Most came to the interview as if it was a parade ground.
I had hoped that I might gain insight into the imperial connections between the United States and various repressive regimes. But those I met had no interest in telling me the story. Instead I heard a lot about the army classes offered at the staff college.
Before flying home, I thought I would have a look around Kansas City, about forty-five minutes southeast of Leavenworth.
My base minder told me the place to go for a drink was the Hyatt Hotel, located in the Crown Center, then famous as the headquarters of Hallmark Cards (In towers of concrete, A place to meet / A chance to wink, And a $9 drink…).
Late on a summer Friday afternoon, I parked my rental car on a nearby street. As I was walking toward the hotel, it became engulfed with sirens. Hotel guests—some of them injured—were pouring out the doors and onto the surrounding lawn.
Waiting for ambulances to show up, I sat with a few of the injured. They told me what had happened—that several walkways in the atrium lobby bar had collapsed during the Friday evening tea dance, which had attracted several thousand guests.
Soon helicopters were floating over the hotel and landing on the gras to pick up the injured.
In those days I had an association with a Washington news service. Sensing a breaking story, I walked to the back of the hotel, where no one stopped me from going inside.
Figuring out that the accident had started on a higher floor, I walked up a fire escape to the fourth floor and exited—it felt like the void of a canyon—right where a walkway had earlier spanned the atrium of the hotel. Apparently, dancers had gone up to walkways, and the swaying had collapsed the lobby bridges.
For the next nine hours, from a nearby balcony railing that overlooked the lobby, I watched rescue workers pry away tons of debris that had fallen on victims. They looked like construction workers, but worked with the precision of surgeons.
Huge cranes were driven through the plate glass front of the hotel to lift the two concrete walkways that had pancaked on each other, and collapsed into the crowded lobby. The cranes might have been dinosaurs, feasting on tangled metal.
The falling walkways killed more than 100 persons, and injured some 200, and it took the entire night for the rescue workers to dig down to the lobby floor and remove the dead and injured.
* * *
I never left my perch, fearing that if I moved, someone might question my presence in the building. Nor did I take many notes. I jury rigged a name tag with the words “Washington investigations” (more or less true) and pinned it to my shirt. During the night other people gathered around me, but we watched in silence.
The only good news from the night of the dead came when a rescue worker would shout, “Hey, over here,” and someone still living would be dragged from the rubble. I remember a man raising his arms in delight when he was pulled from what looked like a mine disaster.
Most victims were not so lucky. In the triage of the rescue they lay scattered on the hotel floor for several hours, giving Crown Center an aspect of World War I trenches at Passchendaele. What glory is associated with dying at a tea dance?
In the morning, when I left the hotel and returned to my Leavenworth motel, I had a front page, wire-service story, which ran exactly as I wrote it on my portable Olympia typewriter.
The only passage that was changed in the edit was my description of the causes of the catastrophe, which I gleaned by standing in the fourth floor hallway and looking into the void, where the cables that held the walkways were dangling from the atrium ceiling.
To my untrained eyes, the bolts that connected the cables to the walkways looked tiny, in comparison to the weight of the concrete-and-steel that was now scattered on the lobby floor.
I described what I saw, but it was cut from the article (“you’re not a civil engineer…”). Later I read that a multi-year investigation into the tragedy had come to the same conclusion.
* * *
Thirty-six years later, I had a hard time even recognizing the building of the Kansas City Hyatt. Now it’s a Sheraton, and the Crown Center is but one of several large developments in downtown, which is built around a number of steep hills and focused on the convention trade.
To get my bearings on my bicycle, I stopped first at Union Station (opposite Crown Center), which has been reincarnated as a science museum, theater, planetarium, mall, restaurant, event center, and—at the back in a shabby corner—Amtrak railroad station.
Union Station was glorious, although disembodied from the business of trains. I drank coffee and picked up maps from the visitor desk where the volunteers were clueless in answering my simple question (“What’s the best to get to Independence, Missouri, without a car?”). In 2017 America, “drive” is the answer to most questions involving directions.
* * *
I rode my bike through the Crossroads Arts District (some galleries, many brick warehouses) to 18th Street and headed east to Vine Street to find what on my map was called the Historic Jazz District.
Once upon a time, when Charlie Parker was jamming in the neighborhood, it might well have been “a district.” Now it’s a few blocks set aside for the tourist trade—where white America on vacation goes to learn about African American music.
Before tackling the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum, I rode up the street to Arthur Bryant’s, the barbeque joint that has drawn the praise of New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, among others. (At least Trillin grew up in Kansas City, although his remark, “the single best restaurant in the world,” is boosterism).
The decor of Arthur Bryant’s is that of a mobile home, and inside it was packed. While the line to the ordering windows inched forward, I had plenty of time to study the photographs of celebrity meals.
One picture shows a smiling Barack Obama—suit jacket off, cuffs rolled up—smiling at the counter. He always reminds me of a talk-show host, ready to greet George Clooney.
Another picture shows a youthful Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, tucking into a mound of ribs.
My favorite framed picture was a triptych of John McCain and Sarah Palin sharing a meal at Arthur Bryant’s during the 2008 campaign. It has the air of a Republican last supper.
McCain is awkwardly trying to look like one of the guys. He’s not wearing a necktie and has on casual slacks, although he still has the McCain frown—more Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino (“I used to stack fucks likes you five feet high in Korea… use ya for sand bags”) than a compassionate conservative armed with root beer.
McCain is eating barbeque on a slice of white bread (the reason Arthur Bryant’s is not the “single best restaurant in the world”). Perched next to him is Sarah Palin, drawing on a straw. She is seated awkwardly, almost side-saddle, the way assistants sit near their boss if they feel uncomfortable.
McCain is joyless, perhaps wondering how he allowed a few snowmobilers to hijack his ambition to become president.
* * *
I loved the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum—with panels, cabinets, and photographs of players, including Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige. (Of Bell it was said he was so fast, he could turn off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark.)
The centerpiece of the museum is a replica of a ball field, about the size of a movie theater, where there are statues of Negro League all-stars at every position. You walk around the field and stand next to the players, as if in your dreams.
Touring the exhibits, I thought that on some level (not that of racial equality), it would have been great if the Negro Leagues could have continued, as they played a delightful brand of baseball.
Most cities between Kansas City and Boston with a large African American population had a team in one of the Negro Leagues, which lasted until the late 1950s and early 1960s. By then, the big stars were signing with teams in the major leagues, and the idea of a segregated Negro League was anathema.
In the museum, there is a quote from Buck O’Neil, the celebrated manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, who explains what the Negro Leagues brought to the game:
At the time [Major League] baseball was a base-to-base thing. You hit the ball, you wait on base until somebody hit again…but in our baseball, if you walked to first base, you stole second, they’d bunt you over to third, and you stole home…actually scored runs without a hit. This was our baseball.
In the 1950s, the National League was more aggressive than the American League in signing black ballplayers, which led those teams to play a brand of baseball familiar to the fans of the Negro Leagues.
Jackie Robinson might have been the first African American to play in the major leagues, but his style in the field and on the base paths was also that of Willie Mays, Lou Brock, and Roberto Clemente—all of whom were signed to teams in the National League.
Were the Negro Leagues still in business, more African Americans might be playing baseball. In 1975, some 27 percent of major league players were black; on Opening Day in 2016, that figure was 8 percent.
Below the major leagues, the numbers are worse. For example, in college baseball, blacks only fill 3 percent of the rosters.
Part of the reason, I am sure, for the drop in African Americans playing baseball is that the game must look to many kids as dated as the baggy wool uniform worn by the stars of the Negro Leagues.
Who wants to sit for three hours in a hot stadium watching baseball when pro basketball games have the feel of rap concerts or when the National Football League airs a parade of multi-million dollar stars?
* * *
I was interested in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum because I had just finished reading Mark Ribowsky’s Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball, about the greatest pitcher ever to put on a uniform (in any league). He is famous for saying: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
For years I had looked for an accessible history of the Negro Leagues, but I finished this one because Satchel recalls his life with the insouciance that he brought to the mound.
His windup included an extra loop of his arm, and he had a dramatic, high kick, a bit like Juan Marichal. He had a rubber arm. He liked to say: “All I have to do to get my arm in shape is walk up to the catcher and shake hands.”
Satchel had names for his pitches, including the Hurry-Up Ball, the Bat Dodger, the Four-Day Creeper, Long Tom, the Smoke Ball, Midnight Rider, the Nothin’ Ball, and the Hesitation Pitch. (He would say: “I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I would toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation.”)
Because he played most of his games in the Negro Leagues or barnstorming across the country, his record is unknown. Here’s one summary of his wins, losses, and games pitched:
Overall, it is estimated that Paige pitched more than 2,500 games between 1924 and his last professional game on June 21, 1966, for the Peninsula Grays of the Carolina League – recording 2,000+ wins, 300 shutouts and more than 50 no-hitters.
In 1948 he was about forty-one years old when he broke into the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians, and he pitched in his last game in 1965, when he was fifty-nine years old. (He gave up one hit over three innings, and that hit, a double, was to Carl Yastrzemski.) At age forty-six in 1953, Paige pitched 117 innings.
The reason Satchel wasn’t the first to break the color barrier in the major leagues is that, from the first day he picked up a baseball, he was a free spirit who preferred to march in his own parades. One teammate said: “He was like a Babe Ruth to us, but he was our Babe Ruth.”
* * *
Satchel was born and grew up in the shanty towns in Mobile, Alabama. “I went around,” he said, “with the back of my shirt torn, a pair of dirty diapers or raggedy pieces of trousers covering me. Shoes, they was somewhere else.”
As a pitcher, he learned to cue off a batter’s knees. He said: “When I …see his knees move, I can tell just what his weaknesses are. Then I put the ball where I know he can’t hit it.” His pitches always moved. Buck Leonard (known as “the Lou Gehrig of Negro ball”) said: “You knew what he was gonna throw you. You just couldn’t hit it. It came in down here, but it wound up up here.”
Satchel also enjoyed his reputation for womanizing, a sport he enjoyed as much as baseball. From his days in North Dakota, the Sioux Indians nicknamed Paige “the Long Rifle,” which he accepted as a multifaceted compliment.
He did get married, several times, but on many days, after the games, he was both the starter and the closer. In the company of an attractive woman, he was known to vanish for several days. One teammate said: “He’s bigger than the game, man. You can’t find him and you can’t fire him. What you gonna do with him?”
A teammate on the barnstorming Satchel Paige All Stars, Mex Johnson, said: “He wasn’t educated, but he had a whole lotta common sense. He was a born entertainer. He didn’t know too many verbs, but he should sure tell a good story.”
* * *
Satchel was the face of the Negro Leagues. He pitched the big games and filled the stadiums. Nor did he care about what others said or thought about him. In 1937, for example, to the frustration of the patrons of the Negro Leagues, he went off to play baseball in the Dominican Republic.
Paige followed the money, either by playing for one of the established teams (such as the Kansas City Monarchs) or for his own team, when barnstorming. Ribowksy calls him “the game’s first free agent, with an attitude.” About one contract he turned down, he said: “I wouldn’t throw ice cubes for that kind of money.”
During World War II, Satchel flirted with the major leagues, but wondered out loud if they could afford him. He said: “They’d have to offer me what I made last year—$37,000.” (In the words of European footballer George Best: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”)
Nor in 1948 did Paige think much of the Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson, with whom he had played a season. Ribowsky writes:
Though teammates for the last year, Satch had hardly spoken with Jackie, not having much reason to believe that the muscular twenty-five-year-old was much more than a good hitter, an unspectacular fielder, and a rather hard guy to be with.
How could Satchel not have felt the sting of being overlooked to integrate the major leagues, especially as he had struck out so many big-league all-stars while barnstorming. The same could be said of Josh Gibson (who hit 800 home runs), although Gibson died tragically of a stroke the year Robinson broke in with the Dodgers.
In 1948, Paige did sign with Bill Veeck (“as in wreck”—a colorful showman) and the Cleveland Indians, and he had a respectable few years in the major leagues (especially when you consider that as a rookie he was in his forties).
In those years Satchel was less confrontational than Robinson. As a grand old man of baseball, he had an easier time crossing the color barrier. He could banter with his teammates and his opponents. When the Indians could not figure out whether or not he was married, he finally said: “Well, it’s like this. I’m not married, but I’m in great demand.”
In the 1950s, he continued to pitch, both in the majors and at exhibitions. When someone asks him why he stayed in the game, he said: “Cause of money and women.”
Satchel was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1971, but the honor meant less to him than it did to others. He quipped: “Baseball has turned Paige from a second-class citizen to a second-class immortal.”
His fame came from the freedom that the Negro Leagues afforded him. Compared to that, his plaque in Cooperstown must have looked like a Pullman porter’s white jacket.
* * *
Next door to the Negro Leagues Museum is the American Jazz Museum. Because the sun was shining outside, few were making the rounds of the exhibits, which have interactive features, besides many trumpets and clarinets.
I listened to snippets of Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker, and wrote down this quote from Duke Ellington:
This city of jazz does not have geographical location. It is anywhere and everywhere, whenever you can hear the sound…Europe, Asia, North and South America, the world digs this bung….I think I will stay here in this scene.
While walking around the museum, I thought a lot about the geography of jazz, where it began, and to which cities I might go if I were in search of its early days.
After consulting some maps in the museum, I decided on a trip through the Mississippi Delta. I would begin in Kansas City and move south through Memphis and small-town Mississippi, and end up in New Orleans, which remains my favorite city for American music.
Such a tour would bypass Harlem nightclubs in the 1930s and 40s, not to mention the journey that Miles Davis made from outside St. Louis to the clubs of New York, and finally to the West Coast. But I am drawn to New Orleans, where the streets remain alive with music.
* * *
I last went to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when most of the restaurants in the French Quarter were closed, because the houses where staff lived had been washed away.
During my time in New Orleans, I toured ruined neighborhoods (I heard that the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals got there sooner than did the Federal Emergency Management Agency).
At night, I sat outside in the spring weather and took in the street music, which spilled out of bars and clubs, with the randomness of wild fires.
Sometimes groups would play in bandshells, but mostly they roamed along the streets of the French Quarter. Some of it was hokey and tourist-driven; but some of the pieces were a delight, especially when paired with the French provincial architecture. I am sure it helped that New Orleans was largely empty of tourists.
While there, I even tracked down a center for what is called the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park, the country’s first virtual national park. Preserved is an idea, a chord, or a memory as opposed to a specific theater or club. It made me think: if jazz can have its own national park, what about baseball, night trains, or the American short story?
* * *
In a gift shop related to the park, I bought a copy of Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. Armstrong was an excellent writer—he traveled with a portable typewriter—and in the memoir he writes eloquently about how he learned his music from the street.
As did Babe Ruth, Satchmo grew up in a home for wayward boys. While the Babe learned how to pitch and hit, Louis heard only music. He writes of childhood nights lying in his bed: “Those nights when I lay on my bunk listening to Freddie play on the cornet and smelling the honeysuckles were really heaven for a kid of my age. I hated to think I was going to have to leave it.”
Of his neighborhood he writes: “There were all kinds of thrills for me in Storyville. On every corner I could hear music. And such good music! The music I wanted to hear….”
He lived in rough neighborhoods, but said: “One thing I always admired about those bad men when I was a youngster in New Orleans is that all liked good music.”
The memoir introduced me to the idea of “second lining,” which is probably as close as I will come to understanding American jazz. Satchmo writes:
When I was in church and when I was “second lining”—that is, following the brass bands in parades—I started to listen carefully to different instruments, noticing the things they played and how they played them….
These people are known as “the second line” and they may be anyone passing along the street who wants to hear the music. The spirit hits them and they follow along to see what’s happening.
Armstrong loved a song played at funerals, “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” which—much like jazz itself—begins as if a dirge on the River Congo and ends in the enthusiasms along Bourbon Street.
* * *
Kansas City is sprawling, at least if you get around on a bicycle. To get to the house where I was staying, I rode south on Vine and west on 31st Street, cutting through Penn Valley Park, where people were out walking their dogs in the early evening.
Not far from downtown are neighborhoods of old Victorian houses, with wrap-around porches. Thanks to Airbnb, I was staying in one of them, which turned out to be close to Southmoreland Park, where that night the Heart of Shakespeare Festival was putting on Hamlet. I got there on my bike.
It was a perfect evening for Shakespeare, if not Hamlet. Elsinore Castle was set up under some towering trees, and the audience sat on chairs and blankets arranged on a hill that sloped toward the stage.
Without a blanket or friends with bottles of wine, I sat in one of the chairs, rejoicing (despite Hamlet’s misfortunes…“Good night, sweet Prince…”) in my good luck to be in a delightful city park on a summer evening, listening to the words of Shakespeare (“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder…”).
My only regret that night was that we don’t have a Shakespeare (so far) to deconstruct The Madness of King Donald . Who better than the Bard could make sense of his maligned wives (Ivana, Marla, and Melania), his brow-beaten children (Ivanka, Donald, Jr., and Eric), the paymasters of his fortune most foul (the Saudis, Qataris, or Russian oligarchs), the petty jealousies of his chamberlains (Jared, Bannon, the Steve Miller Band, and Kellyanne), and the specter of death that looms in the guise of his attending generals. (Was it Hamlet or Hallmark who said: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”)
* * *
The next morning I biked by the headquarters of the Pendergast machine (the political boss who guided Harry Truman through his career as a political hack) and set my sights on Independence, Missouri, ten miles to the east.
A train connects Kansas City to Independence, but the schedule did not work for me. There is also a city bus, but when I found a stop near the convention center, a transit worker said it was “experiencing delays” that morning.
Out of mass transit options, I decided to get there on my bike and rode east on Highway 24, through Northeast Kansas City, a sprawling African American neighborhood.
Because of the long hills, I was reminded of my summer bike rides in Maine, although the landscape was tire shops and convenience stores, not pine trees and lakes. Nor were there signs for Independence. Once I had to sprint over a bridge that was part of an expressway.
Because of the mid-summer heat, I stopped often for water, once at a creepy gas station where in the parking lot the entire cast from The Longest Yard seemed to be drinking Red Bull.
To book a tour of the Harry Truman House—from which he took his famous walks—I first had to ride into downtown Independence and buy a ticket at the visitors’ center. (His library is elsewhere, on the edge of town.)
I was lucky to find space on the 1 p.m. tour, although the ranger on duty gagged when I proposed leaving my bike inside the Truman’s fenced garden. Harry might have been an informal president—enjoying his bourbon, books, and piano at off hours—but his house has more rules to follow than those of the Internal Revenue Service (started while he was president).
* * *
Harry Truman lived nearly his entire life (save for time away as a farmer, as a soldier in World War I, as a senator, and as president) in Independence. The famous Victorian house belonged to his wife’s family, the Wallaces. (He said: “After eight years in the White House and ten years in the Senate, I found myself right back where I started in Independence, Missouri.”)
Harry grew up around the corner, but moved into the Wallace house when he married Bess in 1919. (They were classmates in school and he courted her for years.) He lived in the house, on and off, until he died in 1972; she lived there for another ten years, dying in 1982, after which the house was turned over to the park service. Inside it has the feel that they have just stepped away to church.
The Trumans returned to Independence in January 1953, when he left the presidency. But Harry had no presidential pension, nor protection from the secret service (that only came in the 1960s, when President Kennedy was assassinated). They lived as simply as most of their neighbors.
Harry and Bess took their breakfast in the linoleum-themed kitchen (the cabinets are painted a nauseous green), and had lunch and dinner in the dining room (gloomy Victorian).
Sometimes they received distinguished guests (presidents and prime ministers), but the visits usually lasted no more than thirty minutes, after which Bess and Harry could retreat to his library study, where he read a book a day, and where, after dinner, he was known to enjoy his bourbon.
* * *
Although it wasn’t mentioned on the house tour, my favorite Truman-in-retirement story involves Harry taking Bess on an extended car tour in 1953, which is described in Matthew Algeo’s Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip.
In 1953, out of the presidency, Harry accepted a gift from the Chrysler Corporation of a large New Yorker (I suspect it had whitewall tires), and drove Bess from Independence to New York and Washington, and back home to Missouri.
By contrast, on leaving office, the Obamas stayed near Tahiti at a resort costing $14,000 a night, hobnobbed on David Geffen’s yacht with Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen, and flew on a private jet to Richard Branson’s private island, Necker, in the Caribbean. (I console myself with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “There was nothing, it seemed, that grew stale so soon as pleasure.”)
Some nights on their road trip the Trumans stayed with political friends. Otherwise they checked into $15-a-night motels. Sometimes they were recognized and given a police escort to the town line; at other times they were an anonymous elderly couple in one of the motel cabins.
Harry carried their suitcases to the rooms, pumped his own gas or chatted up the service station attendants, and bought Bess her meals in roadside diners. Once he was pulled over for speeding (although he was let off with a warning).
I would like to report that it was something of a victory-lap tour, except Truman left office with a popularity ranking around twenty percent.
* * *
The Harry Truman of the Presidential Library and Museum is more ambitious than the puttering-at-home Truman, who was eternally up at 6 a.m. to take his spats and walking stick on a spin through town.
The library is about a mile from the house, on a spacious campus, which includes a replica of the Oval Office (there must a factory in China, turning these out for presidential libraries).
In the museum, there is a detailed timeline of Harry’s life, which includes struggles at farming and haberdashery, service as a combat officer in World War I, and a succession of political patronage positions (as a local judge and in the Senate) that led to the presidency.
Harder to discern in the museum is whether Truman was Everyman in the White House—making decisions with common sense—or whether we have his poor judgment to thank for the waste of the Cold War.
The Truman sipping bourbon in his study or reading Douglas Southall Freeman’s three volumes of Lee’s Lieutenants by the fireplace is easy to like and admire. But Museum Truman, buying into the assumptions of perennial conflict with the Soviet Union, has the air of Gen. ‘Buck’ Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, who said: “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”
* * *
In World War I, Truman commanded Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, and his notable engagement was in the Meuse-Argonne sector, between September and November 1918, which cost the United States 117,000 casualties.
Several years ago, while working on a book about France, I biked the length of the Meuse-Argonne sector, riding from Verdun to Sedan, and I came close to the lines in which Captain Harry Truman commanded his battery (with bravery and distinction, I might add).
The last American offensive of the war was butchery, in which the (to me) incompetent General “Black Jack” Pershing sent his men across farmland that was spliced with defended forests, fortified hilltops, and ravines laced with barbed wire, all of which accounted for the campaign’s horrific casualties.
What’s remarkable about Truman is that he could have endured such a bloodletting, and yet remain, for the rest of his career, so committed to militarism and the army. Through his adult life, Truman remained an officer in the reserves.
* * *
Because of his modesty and common sense, I want to admire Truman as the quintessential American, who dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a just cause to end a horrific war, and who stood up to Stalin along the Iron Curtain.
Instead, I left the Truman Library—an Astrodome of egotism, on some levels—discouraged that a politician as mediocre as Harry could be so inflated in the American imagination. (Inside there is statement from General Dwight Eisenhower, who said about Hiroshima: “…I voiced to [Secretary of War Stimson] my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary…”)
Try as he did, Truman misunderstood the European threat from Russia, errantly backed the French in Indochina, misplayed the postwar hand of George Marshall, who was sent to China to broker a settlement in the Chinese Civil War, and botched the diplomacy on the Korean peninsula that led to war.
Why? As best as I could judge on my rides around Independence, the level of Harry Truman’s competence was to fix asphalt deals at city hall.
Harry was a competent local judge; in world politics, however, he remained the failed haberdasher, forever trying to make world politics conform to the suits in his shop window (which no one was buying except his fellow boosters in the Pentagon).
* * *
To get from Kansas City to Chicago, I boarded Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which left Union Station a little before 8 a.m. I was happy to be back on the rails, even though the conductor demanded that I sit in a crowded car, when other cars had free seats by the windows.
The Chief had left Los Angeles two days earlier, and the cars on the line were double-decker. Before 8 a.m. in the morning, it had the air of a rundown rooming house. Many passengers were curled under blankets. Most seats had the small mounds of the trash that come with Amtrak take-away meals.
I paused at my seat long enough to stow my bag and folding bicycle, and then retreated to the dining car, where the steward seated me at a table with three other passengers.
At my table were a father and son who were heading home to Ohio from Las Vegas, where they had competed in a bowling tournament. The third passenger at the table was a real estate agent from Los Angeles who was traveling with her step-daughter from the points the mother had earned with an Amtrak credit card.
Everyone at the table had a full breakfast. The conversation moved from bowling to California real estate, with no intermediate stops in the Trump presidency. I said little. I was pretty sure that my seat mates wanted to make America Great Again, and for me it was too early in the day to conjugate or define the word Jared (slang, from NewJersey – 1. to stand vacantly in a state photograph; 2. a hollow boast about solving the problems of the Middle East, opioid addiction, government bureaucracy, or corporate innovation; 3. any empty suit).
* * *
Toward the end of the meal, I fell into conversation with a man at the next table. He had an affable laugh and had been telling those at his table about how he had played for the San Francisco 49ers when they won the 1989 Super Bowl.
In that Super Bowl, Joe Montana had led the 49ers from behind in the last two minutes. He won the game with a touchdown pass (to John Taylor) in the last 30 seconds. It remains a historic football game.
From my new Amtrak friend, Kim Locklin, I was happy to hear first-hand accounts about the 49ers coach Bill Walsh and Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice.
When the head waiter cleared the dining car of passengers, Kim and I went into the lounge car. For most of the five hour trip across Missouri and Illinois, we talked football.
Kim grew up outside Austin, Texas, in a professional football family. His father had played for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1960, the first year of the American Football League, and Kim had brothers and uncles who had also played the game at the college and pro levels. He played college football at New Mexico State, but, unusually for a professional athlete, earned his Ph.D at the University of Utah.
I have only ever met a few professional football players, and Kim was eloquent on the racial politics of the game. Answering my endless questions, he talked about agents, salaries, injuries, gambling, drugs, CTE, and coaches (such as New England’s Bill Belichick), in descriptions that made professional football sound like a pre-Civil War cotton plantation.
As Kim explained the game, the stars are those who endeared themselves to management, who then design plays for them to succeed. Yes, Tom Brady is a good quarterback, but many others are just as good, if not better. His genius is to ingratiate himself into the corporate world of the New England Patriots. The same toadying explained the success of Peyton Manning.
I found Kim to be a man of eloquence and humor, much of which turned on football’s plantation attitudes toward African Americans. He laughed in explaining the “3-4-5 rule” of college football: that is, “to play thee blacks at home, four on the road, and five if you are behind.” He quoted Knute Rockne, saying: “The only qualifications for a lineman are to be big and dumb. To be a back, you only have to be dumb.” Kim was a running back.
* * *
As Missouri farmland flickered to the horizon, I had Kim diagram offensive and defensive formations (my notebook now looks like a high school playbook) that insured success in certain situations (he had worked as an assistant coach at the pro level and referred to celebrated coaches, including Rex Ryan, by their first names).
He talked about the Friday Night Lights of his high school career, near Austin, Texas, and even his mother’s death. I asked him about his Super Bowl ring (“I keep it in a safe”) and how he was dealing with permanent injuries from a lifetime in the game (he said the NFL did very little to help former players, i.e., field hands).
I liked talking to Kim. I had never spoken to anyone at length who had won the Super Bowl. Plus he was eloquent. By that point in my travels, I was happy to have engaging company, especially from someone who could tell me that, overall, Bill Walsh was “just a guy” and that Joe Montana was, well, average.
I had with me my digital recorder for interviews, and at one point I offered to record Kim’s observations for radio. He demurred, however, saying that he had had bad experiences with the press, and I didn’t push it.
As the train approached Chicago—it loomed on the skyline on the prairie horizon—Kim and I said good-bye. I promised to send him one of my books, and he said he would keep in touch, although it was all a bit vague, as he said he didn’t have email and didn’t have a full-time address. He sounded like a character in a Harold Pinter play, heading to Sidcup “to pick up his papers.”
Again, I didn’t press it, although when I got home and looked up his career NFL statistics, I realized that most of what Kim had told me was a dream, wrapped in an illusion.
He had never played a down in the NFL, nor had he won the Super Bowl with the 49ers. He had played at New Mexico State, but that was it. Calvin and Hobbes have as many NFL first downs as does Kim.
For a while I thought that I had been conned. But Kim’s stories about the NFL had carried me across the plains from Kansas City to Chicago. I was grateful for that. And he was as engaging as a performer in a one-act play.
He spoke well, laughed often, told jokes, and rolled his eyes when I asked innocent questions. Best of all, he evoked the culture of professional football as a variation on cock fighting. All it had cost me was a cup of Amtrak coffee.
In the end I decided that Pinter would have understood the soliloquy. In Old Times he writes: “There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened.” It would kill me to find out that professional football is real.
* * *
I spent two days in Chicago, catching up with friends from my childhood. We ate dinner in an out-of-the-way Peruvian restaurant and told familiar, often funny, stories of our parents, long departed.
On my last morning in the city, I took my bicycle and a commuter train from the Loop to the Metra 111th Street station on the South Side.
When I got off the train, I discovered that Pullman remains a large Chicago neighborhood, with model housing, in addition to its historical monuments. (I had gone only in search of a statue.)
The parks service even has a visitors’ center, where I watched a film about the 1894 strike, a fight between Eugene Debs’ American Railways Union and the Pullman Palace Car Company.
Around the museum, for more than twenty square blocks, are the grid neighborhoods of a model community, which George Pullman built with the hope that it would end the conflict between labor and capital. Instead, it became a metaphor for its ugliest confrontation.
From a neighborhood conflict, the fight escalated nationwide, as Debs and his co-workers did their best to shut down Pullman service around the country. In response, President Grover Cleveland (a Democrat and nominally sympathetic to working men) called out the army to protect the strikebreakers and maintain railroad service. Many were killed and wounded in the confrontations, as close as America came to a Russian-like revolution.
The strike lasted for three months, divided America, and ended with Pullman workers back on their non-union jobs. Debs made the point to the members of his union. He said: “The paternalism of Pullman is the same as the self-interest of a slave-holder in his human chattels. You are striking to avert slavery and degradation.”
In this labor battle, however, the capitalists had access to the strike-breaking talents of the U.S. army.
* * *
The irony of the Pullman strike is that it began at factories and in neighborhoods that were designed to eliminate the conflict between workers and management.
Seen today, the Pullman neighborhood appears as an offshoot of the Utopian movements in the nineteenth century. Rows of brick houses are on tree-lined streets. Nearby are churches, parks, schools, and smaller neighborhood touches, such as a band shell.
In such a gated community workers were to share with management the spoils of a bountiful corporation, and together they were to build not just the finest railroad cars but live the American dream in houses that were affordable, spacious, elegant, and modern.
The Panic of 1893 reduced orders for Pullman Palace Cars. In response, George Pullman decided to lay off workers and cut wages, but he refused to cut the house charges for rent, sewage, water, and maintenance. (Even the churches in Pullman paid rent; spiritual salvation came on the installment plan.)
Pullman laid on the backs of his workers the costs of the 1893 economic recession. Many piece workers, after paying Pullman his rent (it was deducted from paychecks), had little or nothing on which to live. Who would not strike if it turned out they were working twelve hour days and had no money left over to buy food for their children?
While in Chicago, I picked up a copy of William H. Carwardine’s The Pullman Strike, an account of the strike written during the summer of 1894. He was a minister with a Pullman congregation and sympathetic to his parishioners. In the book he makes the point that the utopian vision of Pullman was an illusion:
To the casual visitor it is veritable paradise—to the passing student of the industrial problem, it has a fascinating appearance; but like the play, there is a good deal of tinsel and show about it. It is a sort of hollow mockery, sham, an institution grilled with red tape, and as a solution of the labor problems a very unsatisfactory one.
Reverend Carwardine blames the strike on Pullman for cutting wages while continuing to pay dividends to shareholders and refusing to lay off middle management. Only the goons of President Grover Cleveland bailed out the capitalist system.
Carwardine concludes: “Mr. Pullman spent much money in building his ideal city, but laid it out in accordance with the feudal system, everything belonging to the lord of the manor.”
In a biography of Eugene Debs, I came across this quote from a Pullman worker, who said: “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shop, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church, and when we die we shall be buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to the Pullman hell.”
* * *
For twenty minutes on the bike, I rolled up and down the shady streets of the historic Pullman district. Because I was what Carwardine calls a “casual visitor,” I liked the utopian neighborhood, at least the residential section, which has a Market Hall, the Bay Front Apartments, the Hotel Florence (now closed), Greenstone Church, and even Pullman stables.
South of 111th Street, I found the Administration Building and Tower, which in 1998 suffered a devastating fire at the hands of an arsonist. Nevertheless, it remains the dream of the parks department to convert the massive headquarters building (it looks like a turn-of-the-century railway terminal) into a museum and visitors’ center.
Less elegant Pullman neighborhoods stretch south from the clock tower. I rode past the small row houses—so typical of Chicago’s South Side—until 103rd Street, where I began picking my way west to 95th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway, where I hoped to find the Trinity United Church of Christ.
Looking for the church west of the expressway, I turned my bike into the Lowden Homes (a housing project), and asked directions from some people packing their car. They gave me a strange look, as if to say, “What are you doing here on that circus bike?” But they pointed me toward South Eggleston Avenue, where I found Trinity United.
Barack and Michelle worshipped at the church during their Chicago years. Their friend Reverend Jeremiah Wright had been a mentor to Barack when he got out of law school. Wright had married the couple and baptized their children.
When a transcript surfaced during the 2008 presidential election of Wright saying “God damn America!” and suggesting that American policies were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the Obamas dropped him from their Rolodex and eventually left the church.
They said in a statement: “Our relations with Trinity have been strained by the divisive statements of Reverend Wright, which sharply conflict with our own views.”
* * *
On the bike in the parking lot of the church, I chatted with a few parishioners about Jeremiah Wright. Most didn’t know him personally and told me that he had been retired for many years. They had heard good things about his work in the community, and they pointed to a stretch of 95th Street named in his honor.
After my bike ride, I went online and read his offending remarks. Here is what Wright said:
We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism. We bombed Granada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers, and hardworking fathers. We bombed Qaddafi’s home and killed his child. Blessed are they who bash your children’s head against a rock. We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to payback for the attack on our embassy, killed hundreds of hardworking people, mothers and fathers who left home to go that day not knowing that they would never get back home. We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye. Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children from school, civilians, not soldiers, people just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.
Conservatives denounced Wright as racist and anti-American, and they condemned Obama for being close to the pastor for more than twenty years. In response, Obama gave a speech on race, which has since been given the title, “A More Perfect Union.” In it he said:
…we’ve heard my former pastor… use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely—just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America…
In the aftermath, Wright was sentenced to purgatory from the jet set—for the commission of soundbite sins—while his erstwhile disciple was elected Celebrity-in-Chief.
Yes, Wright challenged some assumptions about American exceptionalism, but so what? Isn’t that part of his job, especially in a neighborhood that lives on the edge of despair? And should Obama, himself, have been disqualified from his future job when he kowtowed to “all that we know is right with America?”
Biking away from Trinity United I was reminded of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Elmer Gantry, about a preacher’s moral compromises for material success. In this case, I wasn’t comparing Gantry to Reverend Wright, but to his disciple, community-organizer Barack Obama.
In the novel Lewis writes of the Zenith, Ohio, preacher that: “He had learned how to assemble Jewish texts, Greek philosophy, and Middle-Western evangelistic anecdotes into a sermon. And he had learned that poverty was blessed, but that bankers make the best deacons.”
By the same measure, Obama also learned how to give soaring sermons (“the greatness and the goodness of our nation…”), and when to throw his friends under the bus.
* * *
From Trinity United, my ride from 95th Street to 63rd Street had aspects of a sail into a stiff wind. For more than an hour, I tacked from side street to side street, hoping to find bike lanes or at least quiet roads to get to Jackson Park, along Lake Michigan.
On 87th Street I crossed over the Dan Ryan Expressway, and farther east under the tracks of the Metra Electric Main Line. I rode down streets of rundown houses and low-rise apartment buildings, trying to equate the neighborhoods with the nightly roll call of gun shootings in Chicago. Still, I also saw many row houses with cars parked in the driveway and well tended lawns.
Around 75th Street and Cottage Grove, a man pulling a shopping cart blocked my passage. To escape heavy traffic, I was riding on the sidewalk and assumed that I was upsetting him. But as I drew closer, this complete stranger rolled his hand into a ball and offered me a fist bump, saying: “I love ya, man.” It made up for the accelerating car, a few minutes earlier, that had tried to run me off a narrow road.
* * *
In Jackson Park, I stopped my bike at the Fieldhouse, now a park headquarters, and asked directions to the site where the Obama Presidential Library is to be built. I had thought I might see a sign while biking around the park, but when I did not, I asked a ranger to lead me to the promised land (in which the Cook Country machine played both God and Abraham).
She pointed me in the direction of two baseball fields and some wetlands, in the center of Jackson Park, that will be paved over for the greater good of Obama’s legacy—a 225,00 square foot museum, presidential library, and ego stroke that will cost $300 million.
On the inside, the Obama center will look like the corporate headquarters of Facebook or Apple—with conversation nooks for the world-saving presidential center and a cafeteria serving kale salads. From the outside, however, the library looks like a half-melted ice cube, wrapped in some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s stone.
The Obamas are hoping to raise $1.3 billion for their presidential tomb. The press releases are full of upbeat forecasts as to what it will mean for employment on the South Side (although on my ride south from Trinity United, I didn’t pass too many job centers training archivists).
In the end, I suspect, the Obama center will do for the South Side of Chicago what the Truman Library has done for Independence, Missouri—for which the answer is, “Not much.”
Think of the storyboards, interactive videos, and glass cabinets telling the heart-warming stories of the Affordable Care Act, the diplomatic thaw with Cuba, the extension of LBGT rights, the treaty with Iran, and the rebound of the stock market (as opposed, say, to that of the economy). Perhaps the Osama bin Laden snuff film will come with its own theater.
There will be a replica, of course, of the Oval Office, an upscale restaurant, and a gift shop, no doubt selling copies of his $60 million memoirs and bronze statues of the first family.
Had Obama planned to put a modest building somewhere on Chicago’s South Side, I might have believed that he would be helping a depressed neighborhood come back to life.
By building it in Jackson Park, away from the blighted South Side neighborhoods, the Obamas are simply putting up yet another lakeside mausoleum. Personally, I would stick with the baseball diamonds.
On this trip I had been to the presidential libraries or centers of Presidents Polk, Clinton, and Truman. The one I liked most was Polk’s, in Columbia, Tennessee, where the library books fit comfortably onto a few shelves (and this for a president who added Texas, California, Oregon, Washington, and much of the West to the continental United States).
The Truman and Clinton libraries, by contrast, are variations on King Tut’s burial chamber, crammed with presidential artifacts, including limousines, that might be useful in the afterlife.
* * *
From Jackson Park, I followed Lake Michigan into downtown Chicago and headed north to Lincoln Park. My plan, for my last evening in the city, was to have dinner with friends, and to catch the 9:30 p.m. Amtrak train to New York.
Tight on time, I didn’t get the chance to browse in the used bookstores around the University of Chicago. Nor could I hunt near the old stockyards for any remnants of the International Amphitheatre, site of the 1968 Democratic national convention, at which Mayor Richard J. Daley shouted at Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff “to fuck himself.” (Ribicoff had denounced the “police riot” against antiwar demonstrators, and Daley took exception.)
The ride along the Chicago lakefront took more than an hour, and to use a Tour de France expression, I “blew up” (needed water and food) around the McCormick Palace, another convention center.
On a bike, however, lakeside Chicago is as splendid as many paintings in the nearby Art Institute, so I didn’t mind stopping at the concession of a public beach and buying a Powerade drink the color of Superman’s cape (maybe some of its powers would wear off on my tired legs).
* * *
My dinner was with Nancy and Adlai Stevenson III. He’s the former U.S. senator from Illinois and son of the presidential candidate in the 1950s, of the same name. We ate at a Japanese restaurant in Lincoln Park, and spoke about politics—past and present.
What interested me most was a story that Adlai III recounted about living with his family in post-World War II London. Adlai II (his father, who later ran for president) was then working to organize what became the United Nations, and the family lived in a mews house in central London.
Because food was rationed in postwar London, and because the Stevensons had access to the army’s PX concessions, their house became a magnet for many informal dinners among the leading diplomats of the great powers.
In particular, Adlai III remembers seeing around their kitchen table the Russian minister Andrei Gromyko; the Canadian (and later prime minister) Lester Pearson; and the future foreign minister (later killed by the Russians) of Czechoslovakia, Jan Masaryk.
Adlai III was a schoolboy, and rather than take part in the conversations, he would hover near the edge of the gatherings. But he took in much from the evenings. He said that what was remarkable was how all the leading diplomats at these informal dinners spoke freely and openly—a quality that dissolved when the Iron Curtain descended across Europe.
When our dinner conversation shifted to the Trump administration and the rise of partisan politics, he spoke at length about the Senate in the 1970s, when senators from both parties felt little animosity toward colleagues because of their party affiliation.
“I never had one disagreement with [Republican Senator] Chuck Percy, my colleague in Illinois,” he said. “We worked together on everything.”
He blames the collapse of the modern Republican party for the rise of Trump, who came to office with little, if any, support from the party—if not from a dismal swamp.
Adlai III despaired that, as a candidate and president, Trump has no ties to American political traditions—Stevensons have been serving in public office since the 1850s—and he spoke for a long time about how much pleasure his father got in his campaigns “trying to inform voters” about specific issues, especially foreign affairs.
Adlai III makes politics sound like a public trust, not a casino wheel.
When his father, Adlai II, ran for president (1952 and 1956), he did so without the benefit of any polling. The speeches that he gave reflected what he thought was best for the country, and he would spend hours laboring over each sentence (one of the reasons he might have lost to Dwight Eisenhower).
Of Richard Nixon, Adlai II said: “Nixon is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump for a speech on conservation.”
* * *
From the restaurant, I rode my bicycle to Union Station. On a warm summer evening, I pedaled south on Halsted Street. Closer to the Loop I began navigating from the Sears Tower, which for Chicago bike riders works well as a lighthouse (even if it is now called the Willis Tower).
Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited to New York left ninety minutes late; I need not have sprinted away from desert and coffee at the Japanese restaurant, nor the Stevensons’ warm company.
The train sat for a long time in the station while Amtrak conductors berated passengers for sitting in the wrong car.
I slept without waking for eight hours, only opening my eyes near Elyria, Ohio. No sooner was I awake than I heard the conductor going after another passenger, confirming that the train was still on lockdown.
At least, when I looked out the window, I could take comfort in the sunrise over Ohio farmland. (Poet Mark Van Doren wrote on a train: “I feel the roll of the land.”)
Because we were late, all the passengers had to get off the train in Albany-Rensselaer and stand (pointlessly) on the platform for an hour, while an Amtrak switcher shunted cars.
We were about three hours late into New York’s Pennsylvania Station, where the conductors opened one door for all passengers and departed the platform.
I am sure the Underground Railroad had better service. At least it brought freedom to its slaves.
Maybe Amtrak’s motto should be: “We told you to fly.”
* * *
My travels ended two night later when, after a dinner in New York, I biked across the Manhattan Bridge to the house where I was staying in Brooklyn. It was close to midnight when I rode south on Second Avenue, and picked up the bike path on Chrystie Street that leads to the East River bridge.
At midnight the bike lane on the Manhattan Bridge was a lively affair. Asian and Latino messengers were scootering home on their electric bikes, after a long evening delivering Seamless food around Manhattan, and there was a steady stream of bicycle traffic behind and ahead of me, a peloton in the rat race on the skyline.
To my right I could see the silhouette of the Brooklyn Bridge—a string of lights along its cables and the stately stone arches now dwarfed by nearby condo towers.
Across the bridge, I rode through downtown Brooklyn until turning left onto Dean Street, in what gentrification realtors call Boerum Hill (it isn’t much of a hill).
I was reminded of 1985, when my wife and I—then living in Brooklyn—had tried to buy a small row house on Dean Street from a Mr. Pacheco. He spent most of the negotiations tying our bid on the house to the pigeons that he kept caged in the backyard. I wanted the house, but not the birds.
My friend L.J. Davis, who lived on Dean Street and who helped to bring gentrification to Brooklyn with his New York Magazine articles in the late 1960s on the lost brownstone borough, cast the problem of my negotiation in a modern, almost 2017 Brooklyn light, when he consoled me: “They’re not pigeons. They’re squab.” We didn’t get the house or the birds.
Riding up Third Street to Park Slope, I was amazed, as I am on all such rides deep into Brooklyn, how much the borough has changed since I lived there in the 1980s.
Fourth Avenue was then a shooting gallery and Park Slope had aspects of a tribal homeland (the tribe in those days being urban pioneers). Now Park Slope might well be New York’s Upper West Side (although that is shabby by comparison).
Nor did I have any problems riding through Prospect Park at midnight, something I had never done when I lived across the street from the park in the 1980s. Then it was the River Styx, flowing toward a Hades of crime and violence.
Now the park has the feel of a genteel English garden. Even in the middle of the night, I rode with the abandon of a third grader heading home from school for summer vacation.
* * *
My bike ride, and my American travels, ended on the far side of Prospect Park, in Ditmas Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood of stylish Victorian houses.
First I had to get across the no man’s land of the Parade Ground, in the 1980s the scene of grisly crimes and murders. Now, on a summer night, only a few dog walkers were about. I felt safe moving briskly on my bike, encased in the darkness. When I turned right on Rugby Road, I was practically home—and on a road lined with trees and soft street lights.
In a way, I had begun this particular ride not after dinner on Manhattan’s East Side, but at the 111th Street station in Pullman, Chicago. In between Jackson and Prospect parks—both of which Frederick Olmsted designed to keep out the intrusions of the city (including presidential libraries)—I might well have been riding in a time warp, if not trying to get across the lonely chasm that divides the present from more distant memories.
I could imagine Brooklyn in the 1980s as clearly as I could now see Rugby Road and its Victorian houses, all built with the same dreams (and possibly the same illusions) that George Pullman brought to his model homes.
In the meantime, the sleeping car business has collapsed, while buyers are putting up $2.5 million to live in Ditmas Park, which says something about the cost per square foot of land in Utopia.
* * *
Alas, in my travels I could never figure out what I was looking for: was it the America I remembered from my childhood (be it from my history classes or on family travels) or was it Trumpworld, a theme park of angry tweets and lurid headlines, most of which sound dystopian.
These worlds are as far apart as is the 1980s Brooklyn of my mind from “the new Brooklyn,” with its bank towers downtown and $6 million condominiums overlooking Flatbush Avenue.
Traveling around the United States, I felt a similar disconnection—that between the America of my books and memories, and what I found on the South Side of Chicago or in Bentonville, Arkansas.
My divided feelings sometimes reminded me of a passage in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, in which he writes: “Part of me was absent. That mental feeling of being in two places at once affected me physically as if the mood of secrecy had penetrated my soul.”
Being out on the road means endlessly crossing the borders of two American worlds: one has the likes of Abraham Lincoln or the Adlai Stevensons while the other looks like those convenience stores along Highway 24 on the way to Independence, Missouri—strip malls of despair, with Red Bull empties thrown into the bushes.
On the bike and in the rental car, I wish I had found—as we say so confidently in the Pledge of Allegiance—“the Republic for which it stands.” It would have been nice to get there or at least to find out if Amtrak makes the connection.
But whenever I got close, as, for example, when I was following the Trail of Tears into Oklahoma, I found the horizon disappearing into a mist, no doubt of my own clouded imagination.
Think of Route 66 ending not down the street from Mickey Mantle’s boyhood home in Commerce, at a drive-in diner, but in the parking lot of a Walmart or in a booth at Dunkin’ Donuts, the false flags of our daily allegiances.
Alas, I no more believe in that American republic than I do in Oz or in the redemptive qualities of Pullman’s show rooms. Both are a long way from Kansas, and probably only accessible in dreams of the open road.