a kind of safety word

Travels with Charley is John Steinbeck’s memoir of his road trip around the U.S. with his big poodle Charley in 1960.

“We could not go fast because of the ice, but we drove relentlessly, hardly glancing at the passing of Texas beside us… We stopped for gasoline and coffee and slabs of pie. Charley had his meals and walks in gas stations… The blue-fingered man who filled my gas tank looked in at Charley and said, ‘Hey, it’s a dog! I thought you had a nigger in there.’ And he laughed delightedly. It was the first of many repetitions. At least twenty times I heard it - ‘Thought you had a nigger in there.’ It was an unusual joke - always fresh - and never Negro or even Nigra, always Nigger or rather Niggah. That word seemed terribly important, a kind of safety word to cling to lest some structure collapse.

And then I was in Louisiana, with Lake Charles away to the side in the dark, but my lights glittered on ice and glinted on diamond frost, and those people who forever trudge the roads at night were mounded over with cloth against the cold… I scudded on toward New Orleans… So, well on the edge of town I drove into a parking lot. The attendant came to my window. ‘Man, oh man, I thought you had a nigger in there. Man, oh man, it’s a dog. I see that big old black face and I think it’s a big old nigger.’

‘His face is blue-gray when he’s clean,’ I said coldly.

‘Well I see some blue-gray niggers and they wasn’t clean. New York, eh?’

It seemed to me a chill like the morning air came into his voice. ‘Just driving through,’ I said. ‘I want to park for a couple of hours. Think you can get me a taxi?’

‘Where you from?’ the driver asked with a complete lack of interest.

‘Liverpool.’

‘Limey, huh? Well you’ll be all right. It’s the goddamn New York Jews cause all the trouble.’

I found myself with a British inflection and by no means one of Liverpool. ‘Jews - what? How do they cause trouble?’

‘Why, hell, mister. We know how to take care of this. Everybody’s happy and getting along fine. Why, I like niggers. And them goddamn New York Jews come in and stir the niggers up. They just stay in New York there wouldn’t be no trouble. Ought to take them out.’

‘You mean lynch them?"‘

‘I don’t mean nothing else, mister.’”

- John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 1962

(Red Country Reading List)

I take the woods

My Side of the Mountain is about a teenaged boy in the 1940’s who runs away from his home in New York City to live in the Catskill Mountains.

“While I prepared trout baked in wild grape leaves, Matt sat on the bed and told me the world news in brief. I listened with care to the trouble in Europe the trouble in the Far East, the trouble in the south, and the trouble in America. Also to a few sensational murders, some ball scores, and his report card.

‘It all proves my point,’ I said sagely. ‘People live too close together.’

‘Is that why you are here?’

‘Well, not exactly. The main reason is that I don’t like to be dependent, particularly on electricity, rails, steam, oil, coal, machines, and all those things that can go wrong.’

‘Well, is that why you are here?’

‘Well, not exactly. Some men climbed Mount Everest because it was there. Here is a wilderness.’

‘Is that why?’

‘Aw, come on Matt. See that falcon? Hear those white-throated sparrows? Smell that skunk? Well the falcon takes the sky, the white-throated sparrow takes the low bushes, the skunk takes the earth, you take the newspaper office, I take the woods.’”

- Jean Craighead George, My Side of the Mountain, 1959

(Red Country Reading List)

this isn't really a small town

I finished this book on the day Robert M. Pirsig left this earthly realm. He's riding through Montana in this part:

"We ride down out of the pass onto a small green plain. to the immediate south we can see pine-forested mountains that still have last winter's snow on the peaks. In all other directions appear lower mountains, more in the distance, but just as clear and sharp. This picture-postcard scenery vaguely fits memory but not definitely. This interstate freeway we are on must not have existed then. 

The statement "To travel is better than to arrive" comes back to mind again and stays. We have been traveling and now we will arrive. For me a period of depression comes on when I reach a temporary goal like this and have to reorient myself toward another one. In a day or two John and Sylvia must go back and Chris and I must decide what we want to do next. Everything has to be reorganized. 

The main street of the town seems vaguely familiar but there's a feeling of being a tourist now and I see the shop signs are for me, the tourist, and not for people who live here. This isn't really a small town. People are moving too fast and too independently of one another. It's one of these population-fifteen-to-thirty-thousand towns that isn't exactly a town, not exactly a city - not exactly anything really."

- Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974

(Red Country Reading List)

what you were supposed to do was get in your car, drive twelve feet down the street to another parking lot, park the car and get out

At times guiltily, I found Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent enjoyable. He is an irreverent white American straight man on a road trip across his home country in the 1980's after having lived in England for years. He is baffled by race and the book has plenty of sexist comments that, like the book, come straight from the 1980's. Thankfully he focuses his scrutiny mostly on other white American straight men; he is ruthless and it is funny. This is the first book I read for this project in the genre of White American Male Sets Out To Explore His Country. 

"I got a room in the Heritage Motor Inn, then went out for a walk to try once more to find Carbondale. But there really was nothing there. I was perplexed and disillusioned. Before I had left on this trip I had lain awake at night in my bed in England and pictured myself stopping each evening at a motel in a little city, strolling into town along wide sidewalks, dining on the blue-plate special at Betty's Family Restaurant on the town square, then plugging a scented toothpick in my mouth and going for a stroll around the town, very probably stopping off at a Vern's Midnite Tavern for a couple of draws and a game of eight-ball with the boys or taking in a movie at the Regal... But here there was no square to stroll to, no Betty's, no blue-plate specials, no Vern's Midnite Tavern, no movie theater, no bowling alley. There was no town, just six-lane highways and shopping malls. There weren't even any sidewalks. Going for a walk, as I discovered, was a ridiculous and impossible undertaking. I had to cross parking lots and gas station foodcourts, and I kept coming up against little white-painted walls marking the boundaries between, say, Long John Silver's Seafood Shoppe and Kentucky Fried Chicken. To get form one to the other, it was necessary to clamber over the wall, scramble up a grassy embankment and pick your way through a thicket of parked cars. That is if you were on foot. But clearly from the looks people gave me as I lumbered breathlessly over the embankment, no one had ever tried to go from one of these places to another under his own motive power. What you were supposed to do was get in your car, drive twelve feet down the street to another parking lot, park the car and get out. Glumly I clambered my way to a Pizza Hut and went inside, where a waitress seated me at a table with a view of the parking lot. 

All around me people were eating pizzas the size of bus wheels. Directly opposite, inescapably in my line of vision, an overweight man of about thirty was lowering wedges into his mouth whole, like a sword swallower."

- Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, 1989

(Red Country reading list)

 

as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the result of weeks James Agee (writer) and Walker Evans (photographer) spent living with poor, white sharecroppers in Alabama in summer 1936.

Agee writes about this church that he and Evans come across on the side of the road, which "shocked us with its goodness straight through the body." It is closed, and they want to get inside, to document its loveliness: 

"While we were wondering whether to force a window, a young negro couple came past up the road. Without appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for, and without altering their pace, they made thorough observation of us, of the car, and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling as if casually; they spoke and nodded, gravely, as they passed, and glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. They made us, in spite of our knowledge of our own meanings, ashamed and insecure in our wish to break into and possess their church, and after a minute or two I decided to go after them and speak to them, and ask them if they knew where we might find a minister or some other person who might let us in, if it would be all right. They were fifty yards or so up the road, walking leisurely, and following them, I watched aspects of them which are less easily seen (as surrounding objects are masked by looking into a light) when one's own eyes and face and the eyes and face of another are mutually visible and appraising. They were young, soberly buoyant of body, and strong, the man not quite thin, the girl not quite plump, and I remembered their mild and sober faces, hers softly wide and sensitive to love and to pleasure, and his resourceful and intelligent without intellect and without guile, and their extreme dignity, which was as effortless, unvalued, and undefended in them as the assumption of superiority which suffuses a rich and social adolescent boy; and I was taking pleasure also in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, which was incapable of being less than a muted dancing, and in the beauty in the sunlight of their clothes, which were strange upon them in the middle of the week. He was in dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow, soft straw hat with a broad band of dark flowered cloth and a daisy in the band; she glossy-legged without stockings, in freshly whited pumps, a flowered pink cotton dress, and a great sun of straw set far back on her head. Their swung hands touched gently with their walking, stride by stride, but did not engage. I was walking more rapidly than they but quietly; before I had gone ten steps they turned their heads (toward each other) and looked at me briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field, and faced front again; and this, I am almost certain, not through having heard sound of me, but through a subtler sense. By the time I raised my hand, they had looked away, and did not see me, though nothing in their looking had been quick with abruptness or surreptition. I walked somewhat faster now, but I was overtaking them a little slowly for my patience; the light would be right by now or very soon; I had no doubt Walker would do what he wanted whether we had 'permission' or not, but I wanted to be on hand, and broke into a trot. At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel, the young woman's whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and of my horror and pity and self-hatred; and so, smiling, and so distressed that I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence: 'I'm very sorry! I'm very sorry if I scared you! I didn't mean to scare you at all. I wouldn't have done any such thing for anything.' 

They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than for me. The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet. That impulse took hold of me so powerfully, from my whole body, not by thought, that I caught myself from doing it exactly and as scarcely as you snatch yourself from jumping from a sheer height: here, with the realization that it would have frightened them still worse (to say nothing of me) and would have been still less explicable; so that I stood and looked into their eyes and loved them, and wished to God I was dead. After a little the man got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without conviction that that was all right and that I hadn't scared her. She shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; she did not yet trust her voice. Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking, and because I could not walk away abruptly, and relieve them of me, without still worse a crime against nature than the one I had committed, and the second I was committing by staying, and holding them. And so, in this horrid grinning of faked casualness, I gave them a better reason why I had followed them than to frighten them, asked what I had followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and was seized once more and beyond resistance with the wish to clarify and set right, so that again, with my eyes and smile wretched and out of key with all I was able to say, I said I was awfully sorry if I had bothered them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces, their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward, and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back."

- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1939

(Red Country reading list)