THE OTHER AMERICAS
Three thousand two hundred fifty miles in eight days. The Attic has been through the heart of America. Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, upstate NY and home.
Contrary to what some say, this is not “the real America.” These states are no more real than Manhattan or Chicago, but the phrase resonates because of the Other Americas that so many confuse with the real nation. Three, to be exact. The imposters are:
The Country of Interstate.
The Country of Airport.
The Country of Television.
Let’s take them one by one.
In the Country of Interstate, America is a long, skinny nation, no wider that a strip of asphalt. Your fellow citizens are fellow drivers — truckers hidden high in their cabs, RVs from out of state, pickups roaring past. It’s easy to loathe your neighbors in Interstate. Easy to curse them. Impossible to know them.
But although many drive along it to “look for America,” Interstate is a mirage. The difference between it and the actual America lies in what you never see along that strip. For here is a country utterly lacking in humor, homes, children, pedestrians, leisure, history, hope. Even when Interstate cris-crosses a city, its citizens see only shadows — tall buildings that seem empty, glimpses of streets below, and more unknowable neighbors, bumper-to-bumper. Crossing America by interstate, you see only Interstate Country.
A satellite of Interstate is the Country of Airport. Been to Dallas? No, but you’re no stranger to DFW. Spent time in Atlanta? Sure, five endless hours at ATL. Likewise for the cities of LAX, ORD, JFK, DEN. . . Airport has better food than Interstate, and more to buy. But don’t bother searching for: fun, friends, front porches, back alleys, or people who don’t get in the way of your own private hurry. Crossing America by airport, you see only Airport Country.
And then there is the biggest imposter, the Country of Television. Unlike Interstate and Airport, this one has a past — old shows on cable. It has humor, homes, sometimes even hope. Like the others, much of Television Country seems real. Cooking shows and “reality” TV and life shot with a hand-held camera show us actual people doing actual things. But where is the thought, the nuance, the sense of limits. And where is the future?
The capital of Television is Cable News, a place in constant chaos. The America it portrays is imploding. Cruelty is its currency, scandal its sustenance, outrage its stock in trade. And the world beyond its borders is a world at war, facing famine, poverty, plague. Lucky you. You live safe within the Country of Television. We’ll have weather coming up in a moment. Now this.
Though the Country of Television might seem vast, expanding every year, when was the last time you visited it and saw: Books? Teachers? A sunset? Someone change their mind?
These Other Americas have divided us. Not into red and blue, nor into rich and poor, but into the Programmed and the Deprogrammed. The Programmed think other Americans, who don’t think like they do, are “the enemy.” “Those people,” they believe, “don’t love America.” They cut us off in the center lane of Interstate. They take up too much room in Airport. They are stupid, or elite, or just wrong.
There is no kinder, cooler America in these other countries. That’s why their citizens are so angry, so divided, so confused. And that’s why The Attic dodged all three to journey through the heart of America. The people along the route did not seem like the enemy. Whether it was a tattooed barista in Tucson, a kind librarian in Abilene, or a laid off miner in Harlan County, their love of America was plain to see. They were not “the other.” They were us.
Home now, the trip lies behind. 3,250 miles in eight days. The Other Americas are still distorting the nation, setting its citizens on edge. But the America I found far from TV, Interstate, and Airport is also out there, rolling on. Like Walt Whitman, it seems to say:
You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.