Goldman, Interior Circuit jacket art 9780802122568From the air, on a flight in, what the eye mostly picks out from the megacity’s stunning enormousness is a dense mosaic of flat rooftops, tiny rectangles and squares, and a preponderance of reddish brown, the volcanic tezontle stone that has forever been the city’s most common construction material, also other shades of brown brick and paint, imposing an underlying coloration scheme. But there are also many concrete and metallic surfaces and many buildings painted in pastel and more vivid hues like bright orange, and rows of trees, and parks and fútbol fields, and modern towers rising here and there, in Polanco, Santa Fe, and the august Torre Latino Americano at the edge of the Centro, and the straight and snaking traffic arteries, beady and silvery in the sunlight, and an infinite swarm of streets. You think, of course, awed, of the millions and millions of lives going on down there. (I reflexively think, as I have for years whenever flying into the city, that she’s down there somewhere, living her mysterious life beneath one of those tiny squares, her too, and also her, Chilangas, female residents of the DF, who over the past two decades I’ve met only once or twice but who left an impression, women who almost surely no longer remember me.) From the air, perhaps because it is such a predominately flat city and almost all the roofs are flat and because so much of it is brown, Mexico City looks like a map of itself, drawn on a scale of 1:1, as in the Borges story “The Exactitude of Science,” which refers to “a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point.”

I am an American.

I say this to myself and marvel at the tangled
 reaction. There is the flush of embarrassment, the red tingling of
 some humiliation or slight that I cannot recall; I feel as though I owe 
somebody an apology. There is the apprehension that comes with 
knowing I am sheltered, a sense of being fattened up to be set loose 
among the hunters, the fierce entitlement of an only child. As for the
 pride and strength that are so often sung about these days, there is some 
of that; it is a small yet undeniable core that is muffled by the red-faced 
and jittery feelings, the sense of being foolish, of being misrepresented.
  Of being unprepared.

 

 

Road Trip.

In 1941, my grandfather drove across the country from
 Detroit to California to deliver a car and see the World’s Fair in San 
Francisco. There were no highways, the car broke down constantly, he 
slept in fields, and he said it was the best trip of his life. He hitchhiked 
home. Three years later he landed in France in World War II. Marched 
through France and into Germany. “Patton was right,” my grandfather 
told me. “We should have gone after Stalin when we had the chance.”

After the war, he got married in his uniform, finished a business
 degree at the University of Michigan, and took a job at Sears, where he
 would work for 38 years until his retirement in 1982. He moved into
 a house where the family fishery once stood and he served as township
 commissioner of Caseville, where he knew everybody by name.

My father followed in his footsteps. Except the war was Vietnam
 and Sears started offshoring its manufacturing. My dad changed after 
he lost his job, moving among various retail positions and the occasional pyramid scheme, and keeping to himself, hardly speaking at all.

And me? I spent a summer working the cash register in the
 lighting department at Sears, but I’ve had twenty-eight jobs since I 
started working at fifteen, ranging from the night shift at a gas station 
to selling oriental rugs to teaching graduate school to running a graphic
 design studio. I’ve never gone to war and I’ve never been punched.
  My life in New York City feels insulated, detached from responsibility,
 and the effect is compounded by the fact that most of my activities are 
conducted in front of a computer screen.

I am a million miles away from my father and grandfather, who
 played by a different set of rules: a belief in country and companies, a 
dogged faith in firm handshakes and settling down.



I decide to go for a drive.

And I keep driving, thinking I might learn 
a thing or two. New Jersey, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas.  
Whenever I can find some time and a cheap rental car, I pack a bag and
 drive. Oklahoma, Wyoming, California, Tennessee, Oregon, North
 Carolina.  Sometimes I’ll point the car toward the ocean, other times 
I’ll pick an interesting city or a small town along the border. Florida, 
Texas, Montana, New Mexico, Delaware, and North Dakota.  
I keep driving, thinking that I might figure out what I’m made of, 
that I might discover what it means to be a man in America.


 

What does it mean to be a man?

A man has politics. He knows
 where he stands. He takes charge. He’s authentic and genuine. An 
original. I’ve learned these things from commercials.  
Driving down a miracle mile, I see whiskey advertisements telling
 me that I’m a class act. A billboard for beer promises an exciting night.
  A deodorant company offers an embarrassing orgy.  An advertisement 
for a pair of khakis says that I need to be more rugged. Another poster
 tells me that I’m missing out on the excitement. The one next to it says 
that I don’t need to fit in. Every single piece of printed material is telling 
me that I’m a disaster.  
A real man ignores these messages. He’s busy making decisions.
  He’s breaking hearts and fixing things.


 

Message.

There’s a big electric sign just before the Delaware Bridge 
on southbound I-95 that says If You Are in Crisis, Call 1-800-273-
TALK. I often think about this sign as I fall asleep, how right now it’s 
blinking somewhere out there in the big American night. I imagine all
 the different people zooming under it at eighty miles per hour and I
 wonder what kind of person might dial that number. Will I ever call?

 

Reprinted from THE ROAD TO SOMEWHERE: An American Memoir by James Reeves.  Copyright (c) 2011 by James A. Reeves. Used by permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Sometimes I leaned over the dash to rest my head on Paul’s shoulder. Pennsylvania was as flat and rocky as I remembered and we had to roll down the car’s tinted windows to see the sunset. I’d be falling asleep to the lull of music and conversation when suddenly he’d turn the stereo off and make everything go quiet. He’d hush me and slow down until the sound of the road, the hum of the heater, the clicking of CDs in the door became audible—each was part of the noise of travel. I never thought I’d be with a man like this—one who could flip his car almost sideways on a turn and name each fast car that passed by.

It was a nine-hour drive. When we stopped at a little BBQ joint where he liked to eat and refuel, he told me how a friend of his had made this drive with him before. She kept trying to get into the wrong car. In the end, all white cars were like every other white car to most of us. So she rapped on some guy’s window until he opened the door and let her in. Paul watched her from the window of the restaurant and laughed.

What he didn’t know was that for months I had lagged behind him as we headed back to his white Subaru; I was afraid he’d see me waiting at the wrong door for him to unlock it. Once he’d tried to teach me how to drive his car. I was an excellent driver if the vehicle was an automatic and hopeless otherwise. I once broke the transmission on my stepfather’s vintage Datsun roadster when he tried to teach me; that was the first and last time anyone tried until now. My feet felt unnatural as though I was trying to run on top of ice. This time, at least, nothing was broken. I pretended that I got the idea of driving enough that he’d stop trying to teach me. Or maybe to keep from seeing his disappointment when I couldn’t learn.

To Paul, a car wasn’t just a way to keep warm. It wasn’t just a way to get from one place to another. He heard noises—whirs and whispers—that I had to take on faith. It was like a sixth sense for the road. Whenever we got lost, I pulled out my phone to check our route with Google Maps and GPS. I could feel him cringing on my left; he never let me finish loading the map.

Faith was the word that I’d never associated with cars. Never trusted that when someone took the car at 100 mph through Michigan farmland that I might survive. I felt the rush of adrenaline and kept silent. I let him drive. I let the car keep humming even when I didn’t know why it did the things it did.

for danielle


something so small beneath the big bright sky

stands erect

in echo park

leaking tears from pores

from eyes & open mouth

all of us raining

everyone crying

soaking in the cruel los angeles light

watching her puddle the parched ground

rivulets of salt and bone

you imagine a new river to carry you both

to the pacific

past the vacant apartment buildings

toward the ghostly canyon

how many steps to the sea

how many graves

to ride this way

she can get you somewhere

a road trip through the painted desert

the amphitheatre rock of ouray &

unwashed backs of tractor trailers

lit like circus squares in the thin blank night

alone

from fingertips

all of us dying

you think

but now you see tied around her tiny finger

a string

and knotted to tie her

to what we’ll pull behind us

the shattered sound of summer thunderstorms

tearing beneath us

she’s sliced

the road

as we speed back by


Francine Prose is way more prolific than you or I.  She has written fourteen novels, three short story collections, one children’s book, and four books of non-fiction.  Additionally, she teaches, writes book reviews for the New York Times, is a a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard College,  has won a Guggenheim award, has been nominated for a National Book Award, and has been president of the PEN American Center.  Her subject matter ranges from her fascination with Anne Frank, to the sordidness of faculty affairs at colleges, to Caravaggio, to 911, to death, life, and love. Her work is often funny, sometimes irreverent, occasionally serious, and always smart and beautifully crafted.  I sat down with Francine at Japonica in New York City to chat with her about writing, publishing, her new novel, marriage, and the semester she was my teacher in graduate school.

The barefoot summer is nearly over.

My soles are dirty, maybe permanently so; they are also thick and somewhat wiser than they were when this summer began 2,714 miles east of here.

There are certain things one learns (or doesn’t learn) when driving the highway between New York and Montana.

PARIS, FRANCE-

I was pulled over by the French police today.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before it happened.

Every time I see the police here I actually physically cringe because I’m so afraid of them.

But this morning I didn’t see them. I didn’t know they were there.

I also didn’t know I’d done anything wrong.

Frenchpolice

I had just gone through a yellow light, only to go about one car length to the next yellow light where I stopped.

Yes, there were two stop lights one after the other. About 10 meters (yards) apart, if that.

So I’m sitting here at the light when I see a cop walking toward me.

My stomach sinks. I begin replaying the last scene in my head. Was the light red? Did I forget to signal? Was I driving too fast? What’s he doing?

Oh no! He’s knocking on my window.

He doesn’t even wait for me to finish unrolling my window before he demands that I pull over across the street.

“OK,” I say.

But I continue to wait at the red light because I have to do a u-turn to pull over to the spot he’s pointing to.

“You ran a red light back there. Did you see all the other cars stop? Why did you keep going?” he asks me (in French of course).

“Oh. I didn’t realize it was red. I thought it was a yellow light.”

Yellowlight

“Are you trying to be smart with me?! If you’re going to get smart with me I can be a real asshole! Is that what you want?”

“Erm. No. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be difficult.”

“Well, why are you driving if you don’t know your colors. If you can’t tell the difference between green and red you shouldn’t be driving. Now pull over across the street.”

“I am. I mean, I’m going to. I’m just waiting for the light. Oh, there it is.”

So I pull over across the street where he had indicated. And at this point I have absolutely no idea what I said to upset him so much. My hands are shaking and my eyes are tearing up.

Once I’m pulled over he starts in on me again.

“Garbly, garble, blah, blah, garble, the bus … récoule.”

“What? I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be difficult but I really don’t understand.”

“Garb-ly, gar-ble, BLAH, BLAH, GAR-BLE, THE BUS … RE-COULE!” he says it slower and louder, as though I’m in some kind of comedy show where they’re making fun of people who do this. Saying it louder does not help me to know what the words mean, it just scares me.

Now I’m really crying. I have no idea what he’s asking me to do. I pulled over where he asked me to. I don’t see a bus in my rearview mirror.

I am parked in a bus stop area though, so maybe he wants me to back up? Yes. Let’s try that.

I begin backing up and I say, “Like this?”

OUI!

He instructs me to continue backing up. When I finally am told to stop, he asks me for my license and registration, which I give him.

The registration cards here are in fancy little plastic blue billfolds and I didn’t know I needed to take it out for him.

He throws it back through the window and demands that I take it out of the plastic, which I do, hands shaking.

Everything I do seems to only make this situation worse. I know I’m not trying to be difficult, but for some reason he’s convinced that I am.

Traffictree

He looks at my license and asks me where I’m from.

I look at him confused. Did he really just ask me where I’m from? Or did I hear him wrong? Because it says right on my license in all caps: CALIFORNIA.

“Erm.”

Again, with the slow loud talking, he asks me where I’m from.

“California, is that it?!” he asks.

Oui. Je viens de Californie.

At this point a second officer comes and I think I’m saved. He must be here to translate for me.

The first cop turns his back to me and speaks in the direction of the translator cop.

Il faut faire attention ici,” he says.

Il faut vraiment faire attention ici,” translator cop repeats.

Il y a des piétons partout ici, et les véhicules d’urgences aussi.”

And again translator cop repeats IN FRENCH.

Trafficlight

At this point I’m really beginning to feel as though I’m on candid camera or something.

This looks like a comic sketch.

It goes on for several minutes: The first cop lecturing me, and the second cop repeating the lecture word for word, translating it from French into … French … as though hearing it twice will suddenly make me understand French better.

The imaginary bus I left space for should drive up right about now and hit both of them. Or maybe someone will come running down the street with pies for me to shove in their faces.

Are they going to break into song and dance next? I wonder.

“Is this really happening right now?” I’m thinking, when suddenly something translator cop says catches my attention.

Meme si le feu est orange il faut arrêter.

LIGHT BULB! Ah, so the first cop thought I was being smart because I called it a yellow light. Well, how was I supposed to know it was called an orange light here? Aren’t orange and yellow pretty much the same anyway?

“Sorry officer. I didn’t realize I had to stop for orange lights as well,” I say through my tears.

“Well, driving in Paris isn’t like driving in Provence. There you may be able to do that, but here it’s much more dangerous,” says translator cop, who is the only one talking anymore.

The first cop hands me back my papers and license.

Then translator cop smiles and says, “This isn’t the United States. We aren’t as severe as the police in the U.S., are we?”

In my head I say, “Well, in all the times I’ve been pulled over at home I’ve never been yelled at by a police officer, nor have I cried.”

But I say, “Erm. I don’t know.”

“No, we’re not so bad,” he says.

And then they take a few steps back from my car and begin pointedly ignoring me.

What is going on here? Does this mean I get to go?

“Can I go then?” I ask.

“Go ahead.” they say. “Just make a left at the next street and a left at the following light and you’ll end up back where you were headed.”

“OK. Thanks.”

I wipe away my tears and begin slowly driving away, unsure whether they’d suddenly change their minds and begin running madcap after my car, holding onto the bumper as I drag them behind me.

P.S. I looked for the word “recouler” in the dictionary when I got home and it wasn’t in there. I guess it means “to roll back” but I can’t be certain. I do know it doesn’t mean, literally translated, “to back up,” nor does it mean “to move in reverse.”

PARIS, FRANCE-

California is fairly notorious for having really aggressive drivers and a lot of traffic.

But after three weeks of driving in Paris I have to say, Californians are sissy drivers by comparison.

Our problem: We’re too law-abiding.

It’s not so much a problem really. I rather enjoyed the comparably chaos-free driving I experienced in California. There weren’t horns honking at 6 a.m., waking up the entire neighborhood because a moving van is double-parked in the middle of an already barely wide enough one way street.

You never have to worry that if you go down a street you’ll find it blocked and be forced to drive in reverse down the entire length of the street and look for another route to your desired destination.

But in Paris these things happen more often than anyone would believe.

Emergency lights here are not used for real emergencies. They’re used instead as the “Hi, I know I’m not supposed to park here, but I’m going to anyway so please don’t give me a ticket” lights.

I asked a French friend about all the cars double parked on the streets, telling them that it’s illegal in the U.S. to double park like that because it causes too many traffic problems. Not only that, but it blocks in whoever you’re parked next to.

She said it’s illegal here too, just nobody cares. And, when getting my official Paris driving lessons, I was instructed to double park if I can’t find other parking.

So, what I guess I’m saying is that the French, or at least Parisians, don’t take Traffic Laws to heart really. They look at them more as a kind of loose guideline, only to be followed in exemplary driving conditions, or when they aren’t in a hurry.

To illustrate, here’s a diagram of the street in front of the school I have to go to each day:

Diagram

A. The no parking sign.
B. The “We’re serious, don’t park here or we’ll tow you sign.”
C. The car illegally parked in front of the no parking sign, with emergency lights on of course.
D. My car, also illegally parked with emergency lights flashing.
E. The guy who parked legally and paid for parking, but is now blocked in by cars C and D.
F. A school bus parked in the middle of the street, now blocking all oncoming traffic, because the whole row of cars in front of me have parked illegally in front of the school.


Since I’ve been here I’ve double parked nearly every day, I’ve blocked intersections regularly, I’ve purposely driven the wrong way down a one-way street, and I’ve driven in reverse down an entire street after the moving van guy told me he’d be there for at least another half an hour and had no intention of moving.

I’ve also seen quite a few accidents involving cars and motorcycles. Because if cars have no traffic laws, motorcycles really don’t have any traffic laws here.

I think another part of the problem is the lack of dividing lines. There are lines right at the stop light to kind of divide up the traffic, but they disappear as you begin driving up the road. This means people are left to decide whether they want to have two lanes or three. And they will make their own lane whether you like it or not.

They will also park dangerously close to your car, so that you’re stuck in a reverse-forward-reverse-forward mess for about fifteen minutes trying to get out of the space.

Look_at_how_close_they_park

I don’t know how they do it. It’s almost as though Parisian cars are an extension of the driver. Somehow they’re able to park as close as possible to anything without actually hitting it. I don’t think I’ll ever master this though. I’m constantly driving in circles looking for a larger parking space.

I was looking forward to continuing my car-free lifestyle here in Paris, but I’m getting used to the idea of driving here now. It’s unfortunate because I feel like it takes away from my experience of the city. Suddenly Paris doesn’t seem quite so huge. And I’m learning my way around much quicker than I did before.

But one thing to be said about it is that driving makes me feel more at home here. It’s making Paris familiar in a way it never was before. I have a routine of taking the children to school and picking them up from school everyday, which includes a dangerous trek through the Charles de Gaulle Etoile, famous for car accidents and having L’Arc de Triomphe at its center. But this week I went through it without even holding my breath or saying, “We made it,” to the boys afterward.

I haven’t decided whether I’m glad or disappointed about this development. It’s growing on me though.