America

 

This large latte set me back… $3.25. That enormous burrito shrank my bank account by… $6.25. A full tank of gas… $34.75.

 

What is this place? Did that overnight flight from New Zealand deposit us back in the developing world, back in Nepal where we paid $2 a night for our guest room way up high in the Himalayas?

 

That’s one impression of America, that it’s an affordable place—or rather, that the wages are so low and stagnant that this is what the market can bear. In Australia where the minimum wage is $16.25, the mason with caulk beneath his fingernails has the disposable income for a $14 pancake.

 

 

We return to an awareness of the enormity and isolation that is America. 320 million or so, spanning a vast land mass that is too far from other languages and customs. New Zealand is 4 million. It’s a lot easier to keep your rivers tidy when only 4 million are messing it up.

 

But that’s not what’s on my mind this morning. I need to catch up on some of the events from these past 5 days as we’ve gradually returned to California.

 

I’ll start with AAA.

 

Early Monday morning I borrowed Peggy’s Ford Fiesta and, remembering to drive on the right side of the road, drove to the local AAA office to begin the process of reclaiming our cars. For the past year our beloved and wrinkled cars—the Subaru with 335,000 miles on it, with the heavy dent on the driver’s door from the hit-and-run scoundrel on that rainy night; and my 1992 Toyota truck, with the same fragment of paper towel inserted in that portion of the steering wheel that was squeaking before the turn of the century—our two cars have been sitting in the driveway of our friends, Allen and Karen. Now it was time to revive them, to give them CPR and to cough them back to life. Our cars, that is—not Karen and Allen.

 

I entered the office and searched for Katie. A year ago Katie advised me about dropping my DMV registration, about how and when to stop my car insurance, about acquiring my International Driver’s License. At the time Katie was excited about my jaunt around the globe, and as I suggested that she should give exotic travel a try, her shoulders sagged a micro-inch and the tight coils of her permed hair tightened. “I’ll live through you,” she said, in a light smile that did a poor job of hiding all the sorrows of her life. I felt for her, this American creature sitting beneath fluorescent bulbs for a lifetime, she with her manicured nails clattering on the keyboard, she with the poorly permed, poorly dyed hair that made her more a sheep than a starlet.

 

“I remember you,” I said, and strode toward Katie with my hand outstretched. “I’m back.”

 

She blinked. She did not remember me. How could she not remember me?

 

She passed me off onto Derdre, whose name is spelled just like that: Derdre. Like Katie, Derdre has her hair permed into tight blond springs and has her nails manicured to a fake length, colored pink with tips of white. I wondered if her toenails were the same pattern, and I wondered if she’d slap me if I asked, “Before we get to the insurance, could I hold your toes in the palm of my hand?”

 

Derdre sat behind a desk that surrounded her on three sides. The desk was that hard, cheap plastic, and though her computer monitor was large and impressive, it was by Dell and therefore cheap as well. If the whole tableau could speak—permed hair, white-tipped nails, desk, computer, the name “Derdre”—and if the whole tableau went to therapy and could speak honestly about its situation, it’d say, “Times are tough but I’m doing the best I can.”

 

Tacked onto the wall—no, not a wall, but a moveable head-high section made for tacking—was the life of Derdre. Pictures of a baby, pictures of a horse, a small canvass square of a green heart painted on orange.

 

“That’s pretty,” I lied, pointing to the heart. “Did someone make it?”

 

The nano-second before her reply was enough time for me to consider two very clear thoughts from many angles. One, why was I lying? The painting was not pretty, was a collision of two grim colors, could be done while chatting on the phone. And two, really? “Did someone make it?” What, did it spontaneously appear one morning, a creation of the air? Of course someone made it, fool.

 

“I love it, too,” Derdre said, and I was immediately pleased that I’d lied. Why not? Why not spread a little cheer on the planet in any way we can? If life itself fails us, if life throws a butt-ugly green heart against our retinas, all it takes is a puff of air that we call language to declare it “pretty.”

 

Derdre got down to business. It was time to insure my two trash-heaps of cars, a requirement in a country that squawks about insuring people’s health in the same way. “Now,” she said, sitting up taller, “what’s the mileage on the cars?”

 

“About 160,000 on the truck and 330,000 on the Subaru.”

 

She spoke while typing. “160 thou on the Toyota…. 30 thou on the Subaru–”

 

“No, that’s 3 HUNDRED and 30 thousand.”

 

She raised her fingers above the keyboard and recalibrated who I really was. Hardly a jet-setting fellow with money to burn. More a lowlife, a loser. This guy probably sleeps in hostels. 330… thousand! Did he say… thousand!

 

Within minutes all was complete. I was paying the bare minimum for insurance for two cars, about $550 for the year, that covered nothing really. I remember a long time ago when a car insurance woman sold me on a $10,000 addendum in case one of my fingers got cut off in an accident. Isn’t that hilarious? What’s the likelihood that a finger will get sliced off, still twitching on the side of the road? Yet I bought it. That’s right, for some piddling sum like $18 I signed on the dotted line for finger protection. “This coverage won’t bring your finger back,” she said at the time, “but it’ll sure make recovery a lot easier.”

 

 

Wow on many levels, beginning with my astonishing willingness to buy such an absurd policy. I can imagine the agent confiding with her coworker as I came through the door, “Hey, just watch, I’m going to sell this clown… earlobe protection.”

 

“No, too ridiculous. Make it Imagination Protection—in case an accident robs you of clever thoughts.”

 

“Too abstract. Hmmm… yes! I got it! Fingers! A finger policy, for $10,000! Just you watch me work my magic.”

 

Ahh, but I digress. Where was I?

 

Derdre. Lovely Derdre, she of the clattering fingernails, clattering at breathtaking speed. Out came my policy, and that’s when Derdre leaned in toward me.

 

“I’ve always wanted to travel,” she said. “Scotland, Ireland—always wanted to look up my family. And you know that I’m a water baby.”

 

“No, I didn’t know that.”

 

“The water baby in me wants to go on one of those river cruises that goes all through Europe, on the rivers. You know the rivers.”

 

“The Seine? The Danube?”

 

“One of those rivers, doesn’t matter which one to me, just as long as I’m on water. And I’m like you, I’d like to go for a long time.”

 

“A whole year?”

 

“A year, a month, I’ll take anything at this point. You know, I’ve always thought that when an American turns 18, he or she should travel the world for two years.”

 

I knew it was coming. I just knew it.

 

“And then when they came back to the homeland,” she continued, and I braced myself against the curl of a wave, “they’ll know that America is indeed the greatest country in the world.”

 

I nodded. I nodded some more, just to buy a little time to decide if I should keep my mouth shut or set her straight. Guess which one I chose?

 

You’re wrong, and you too are wrong.

 

“Oh sure,” I began, “there’s so much to appreciate about America that becomes clearer when you’ve been away. Like the national parks, like—“

 

“We take our houseboat out onto Mellones all the time, fire up the barbecue, have a good time.”

 

“Yeah, that and Yosemite and Tahoe, some of the most gorgeous places on the planet. And at the same time we need to work on some things. Take pollution, for instance.”

 

“One of the reasons we live up here, these clear skies.”

 

“Well, to be honest, Derdre”—yes, I’ve started to call her “Derdre”—the air is pretty grainy here, a brown haze that’s probably from the fires and no rain but still, it’s there and it’s pretty bad. We flew into LA and really it’s as bad as Athens, can’t even see the mountains.”

 

“That’s LA for you.”

 

“And here too, not as bad as LA but—“

 

“My sister lives in LA and I don’t visit her no more.”

 

“Up here in Sonora it’s bad too, just look at the line of haze across the horizon and at sunset, it’s that deep red for a reason.”

 

“Love our sunsets up here, ‘specially out on our houseboat.”

 

“So yeah,” I concluded, “the good and the bad, travel always helps to see the good and the bad and everything in between.”

 

“Amen to that,” Derdre said, pushing my policy toward me. “Amen, and you have a nice day now.”

 

+++++++++++++++++++

 

My first 35 hours in America:

 

-$231 for groceries at Trader Joe’s

-$550 for car insurance

-$171 for car registration

-$81 for gas for two cars

-$37 dinner for four at Chipotle

-$2200 mortgage and insurance and tax (or $73 per day of the month)

-$146 for phone and internet service

 

In the next 35 hours…:

 

-$800 school registration for Liam and first month’s tuition

-$320 for carpet cleaning

-$178 for Liam’s sports camps

-$172 more groceries

-$42 more gas

-$150 service to cut down a tree

-$150 for weed wacking

-$32 for a parking ticket

-$100 for end-of-year gift for Liam’s teacher

-$29 for a book

-$6.00 for two cups of coffee

 

On another day I’ll pay those bills I stacked on the corner of that table, bills for… well, you know, for life.

 

Now, I give you all these details to make one very important point about traveling. When you decide that it’s too expensive to go anywhere, remember that your everyday life right here in your hometown has its expenses. How much do you spend every day, every month? It’ll vary for each of your circumstances, but this much I can guarantee for all: Once you’ve detached yourself from the usual daily costs of life and hit the road, you’ll realize that it’s cheaper—or at least no more expensive—than staying put.

 

After 70 hours back home, I’m wondering how I can afford to NOT travel.

 

++++++++++++++++++++

 

I want someone to be thrilled that I’m home. I want a woman—mother, child, girlfriend, sister, wife—to run onto the porch at the sound of my car engine pulling up the driveway, and there she is, wiping her hands on her apron and then across the bottoms of her eyes. She runs to meet me and wraps her arms around my neck, pulls me closer, tells me with the clutch of her forearms around my upper back that I’m home, that I’m back home.

 

++++++++++++++++++

 

How do you return home?

 

How do you deal with the sameness, after 330 straight days of so much change—of a new language and shape of eye, of new monkeys and new ways to cut open a coconut?

 

++++++++++++++++++

 

From my perspective, America is frayed around the edges. Still a miraculous country with all these mini-cultures under one flag, but it’s frayed, this flag, left out in a storm too long until its edges tatter into strips.

 

Take its reputation. It’s frayed, it really is. Out there is a world full of people who regard America as too violent to visit. That’s right, too violent, too gun crazy, too full of lunatics who can get their hands too easily on weapons that no one, not even policeman, have in their own countries. You know it’s bad when a street juggler in Perth runs through all these national stereotypes—the drunk Irishman, the lazy Greek, the hyper-sexual Frenchman—and then when he gets to America, he pulls out two pistols and aims them at our heads.

 

America is violent, its government is militaristic, its people are nice, its music and movies are the best, its health care and education are a shambles, it executes criminals, it doesn’t care to learn other languages or get to know other cultures.

 

It’s frayed.

 

“You probably heard about Tom and me,” Kim said (names changed). “Last January we decided to separate and well, it’s for the best I guess.”

 

The next day: “Peter,” Maryanne said, “just one day told me he’d had enough and I don’t know if it’s a midlife crisis or what but yeah, it was a surprise to me too.”

 

The next day: “It’s going to be so weird this Friday night,” Carol said, “going out on a date…. Oh, wow, I guess you didn’t hear, yeah, Bill and I…–“

 

The next morning was Jeff, the next afternoon was Maria, the next evening was Josh.

 

The fraying of America, a fraying in many forms.

 

++++++++++++++++++++

 

Liam returned to school on Monday afternoon in a box.

 

Ooh, that sounds macabre.

 

Wow, such a great word, “macabre,” a word that I may never have used before. How thrilling it is to carry around a brain.

 

Anyhow, the box has been the plan for a long time, ever since Nepal when comfort for a bout of homesickness came from imagining the homecoming: a box delivered to his classroom from Liam, a big box this time, with “Handle with Care” written on the side.

 

How remarkable that the future exists. How remarkable to buy a ticket on February 12th for a concert in November, and then sure enough, November 8th arrives and there you are in the balcony for the concert.

 

And how remarkable that an idea about a box hatched long ago in a faraway land—an idea, just the firing of neurons—can become a real thing, a real square of cardboard and a real black marker that smells so intoxicating as you write, “From Liam Toner, Indonesia.”

 

On Monday afternoon our friend Andrea, who could wrestle me to the ground and smash me into a gooey paste, lifted a 100-pound box out of the back of her Subaru and placed it in the shade in the garden. 15 children surrounded the box. Some guessed what was in it. One opened it. One shrieked at the feel of hair, at the sight of a rising boy. And out he popped, my son Liam back in the embrace of his classmates.

 

Thus began his week of reconnecting with his community, and along the way Dolora and I have been doing the same with our Waldorf friends. A little here, a little there, and a lot on graduation night and again a lot yesterday at a lake among the pines at an end-of-the-year picnic.

 

Best I can tell, people like hearing our stories. I’m always on the lookout for the eyes that shift over my shoulder or begin to drain of light, but so far, so good. I’m fascinated by some of the questions that aren’t the ordinary questions. “When were you most afraid?” “How do ATMs work around the world?” “Are you here yet?”

 

I’m here. Not all of me, but enough to keep my eyes open about America and to tell you about it. Which reminds me: Next installment, the thrilling news on what phone company we settled on.

 

America. Give me your tattered, your flapping, your shredded souls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Lainie

    Do you have a picture of Liam popping out of the box?

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      Yes, I’ll get it posted today. I’ve been lazy about photos in America.

  2. shannon

    Love it! Oh the suspense about the telephone! I’m hoping that you found some ninja telephone/internet access secret on your travels. My hope is that AT&T suffers a humiliating death at the hands of a kind hippie-chick organization that is able to provide cheap internet to the Motherlode (and the world, of course).

    Miss you all!

    Peace out!

    Shan

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      Hilarious! Come over for coffee this instant, Lovgren! Now!

      Ok, the mystery of the internet is that I ended up getting… Oops, coffee’s ready. Tell you in a bit.

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