@

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.

What bothers you?

Great question. Nations and states bother me. A few years ago, a friend was telling me that states should be dissolved in favor of cities. I didn’t grasp his argument until I started receiving hate mail from North Dakota. I wrote something unflattering about North Dakota on the internet and suddenly strangers were writing things like “Fuck you, man, I’m PROUD of North Dakota!!!” At first I thought, fair enough, what do I know about the Dakotas? But then something clicked or maybe it snapped because I got angry. You’re proud of a fictional rectangle? That’s insane. Be proud of Bismarck or Grand Forks, but not North Dakota or any state. Cities and towns are real things, the result of people getting together and doing business, whereas states and nations are abstract concepts that cater to our worst traits: paranoia, pride, isolationism . . . a never-ending sense of us versus them.


What are you afraid of?

I was terrified of mannequins when I was small. My first memory is sitting in a high chair in front of Happy Days, watching Potsy or Squiggy fool around with a mannequin at a drive-in theater. After that, I’d yell and burst into tears whenever I saw one. I couldn’t process the idea of plastic people. My mom would cover my eyes whenever we walked through a department store, and she’d apologize to the other shoppers while dragging me screaming through the Women’s department. A few years later, I developed an unhealthy fixation on shows like Today’s Special and Small Wonder.

Today my biggest fear is routine, of knowing where I’ll be in a year or exactly what I’m doing tomorrow. I think it’s healthy to always be looking at the front door (to paraphrase an old Main Source record). Keeps the blood up. Mannequins are stuck in a routine. Maybe there’s a connection.


What are you proud of?

I just said that I don’t like routines, but I’m very proud of my new Healthy Choices Morning Ritual. I’ve been following it for six days now. If I don’t pay attention, I’ll reach for my telephone the moment I wake up and start doing email in bed and suddenly it’s noon and I’m still in my pajamas. This is a rotten way to greet the day. So now I’m making an effort to make the bed as soon as I wake up, then I stretch, do some half-assed push-ups, shower, eat waffles, write for fifteen minutes with a pencil, and only then am I allowed to open my laptop and check my email. It frightens me how much discipline it takes to stick to this meager routine. It’s so hard because something exciting might be waiting in my inbox. And when I finally allow myself to check my email, I actually catch a little junkie rush — but there’s usually only an invitation to connect on LinkedIn from somebody that I don’t like.


What makes you happy?

The conversation about taking down the I-10 overpass in New Orleans makes me happy. In the 1960s, New Orleans followed the lead of many American cities and covered a beautiful, thriving neighborhood with a highway overpass. Clairborne Avenue was a dignified street lined with giant oak trees and shops, then it suddenly became a loud and scary wall of concrete that split the Treme into two pieces. In 2002, several artists painted oak trees on the giant pillars of the interstate, and it’s one of the most tragic things I’ve seen. Today the City is considering taking down the overpass and restoring the boulevard. Some killjoys say it won’t happen, but at least we’re finally having serious conversations about sidewalks rather than instinctively ceding space to the car.

It really wasn’t very long ago that we started doing horrible things to our cities, and my dream is that in twenty or thirty years we’ll look back and say, “Remember when lots of people left the city to live in ranch houses? That was weird.”


Who are your biggest influences?

My mom and the Electrifying Mojo.

My mom encouraged me to read constantly. She filled my life with books. She told me to see the world and she pretty much forced me to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast when I was too young to fully grasp it, but books like that made me start dreaming about living in great cities. I later learned that she struggled with agoraphobia and this made her insistence that I travel by myself seem absolutely brave. When I lost her two years ago, a bright light went out. I drove around for a month, unsure of where to go next. Whoever said that time heals your wounds was lying. It doesn’t get easier. Instead, I try to stay busy.

The other influence is The Electrifying Mojo. He was this phenomenal disc jockey in Detroit who hosted a show that ran from 1977 through the eighties and into the early nineties. He created an alternate universe called the Midnight Funk Association which was a mixture of music sci-fi, literature, and social commentary. He’d play techno, hip hop, punk, classical, anything — but it all fit his unique gestalt. Sometimes he’d play a solid hour of Funkadelic followed by an hour of Prince and invite listeners to vote for who was better, and he’d read poetry from a mysterious book called The Mental Machine. Although Mojo bounced from station to station because he wouldn’t follow the “urban radio” format, he was a constant presence in Detroit and I was lucky to grow up on the tail end of his show. Everything he loved was epic and amazing to him, and he made you feel that way about music, too. Like you were part of something. When he’d start his show, the Electrifying Mojo would say, “If you’re in the car, flash your lights. If you’re sitting on your porch, blink your porch light. And if you’re in bed, then dance on your back in Technicolor.” And at the end of his show, he’d say, “Whenever you feel like you’re nearing the end of your rope, don’t slide off. Tie a knot. Keep hanging, keep remembering, that ain’t nobody bad like you.” And now that’s sort of my guiding philosophy.