RANDY COHEN WEEK.
(Please: Randy Cohen is a genius of America. He is a writer of rarefied satires (personal and political) and, accordingly, his work rarely appears in popular periodicals. He has written for the New Yorker, the Nation, and Late Night with David Letterman and, a few years ago, he was fired as head writer of The Rosie O’Donnell Show. He currently writes and edits the News Quiz for Slate, the on-line magazine. (Do visit!) He has also written books, but because the world is as it is, his classic collection, Diary of a Flying Man (Knopf), is out of print. As meager recompense, this week we are reprinting selections from it, for no good reason at all.)
I was exhausted. I needed to get away, to light out for the territory, to reconnect with the real America, the one along two-lane blacktop roads, preferably in disrepair. I craved the rough-hewn wisdom residing in towns with populations under 7,500 and willfully eccentric names: Gee Gaw Gumbo, Louisiana; Donkey Mustache, Utah; Inky Dinky Spider Down Your Pants, Kentucky.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a small town on the continent that didn’t have a contract with a major publisher, no colorful coot without a commitment to Charles Kuralt. And so, packing a few necessities into my car, a ‘79 Buick Electra I’d named Alexis de Tocqueville, I began a voyage that would take me from suburb to suburb, by backyard across America.
MAPLEWOOD, NEW YORK:
“Popsicle Pete doesn’t come around anymore,” Dee Dee Daniels tells me when she comes outside to say good night. I was surprised how readily the Danielses had assented to my request to pitch my tent out by their pool. Clearly, I’d underestimated the kindness and generosity of the American people. (Fully 82.6% of us in the USA are kind and generous, I read on the top of a pile of newspapers stacked by the Danielses’ garage for collection by the scouts. Now I had names.)
“Not for years. He was run out of town in 1975 when he got caught dealing fireworks and pornography out of his truck.”
These days, if you live in Rye and want a Fudgsicle, you drive over to the 7-11. Life is change. But it is still a Fudgsicle when all is said and done. The Danielses understand this almost instinctively; they shed no tears for the Popsicle Petes of bygone days. And I, after years of Haagen-Dazs rum raisin, am beginning to see it, too.
Lulled by the sound of trucks passing on the Interstate, as rhythmic and soothing as waves crashing on the shore, I sit on the Kurtz’s redwood deck, sharing a Tab with my hosts. There is serenity here, an ease embodied in every detail of their lives. Consider the aluminum-with-nylon-webbing lawn chairs on which we sit. Like the furniture in the traditional Japanese home, they are brought out only when needed; when not in use they are stored away in the garage, near Jack’s cache of automatic weapons. But America is a land of progress, and this virtue too is present in our lawn furniture. To clean, simply hose them down. What’s more, this chair is so light that a child can carry it, although when unfolding it, often as not he’ll pinch his fingers.
“A little Bactine and a Band-Aid soon put matters right,” smiles Jack Kurtz, a man unruffled by life’s little vicissitudes. How differently we’d respond in Manhattan. We’d sue.
PINE RIDGE ESTATES, INDIANA:
Resting on the flagstone patio of the Tilghman family, I use my binoculars to watch the 11:00 news through the window of their recroom. (My lip-reading skill, perfected while observing the marital squabbles of the couple across the air shaft from my apartment, is proving valuable.) I notice that my hosts eschew store-bought cigarettes in favor of rolling their own. There’s the frugality, the self-reliance so esteemed by Emerson and Thoreau! And to economize still further, the Tilghmans take deep drags and hold the smoke a long, long time. Wise husbanding of resources! Those who associate such thriftiness with a dour temperament are surely in error, for the Tilghmans are a frolicsome couple, giggling constantly, even at the weather report. Blithe spirits! Americans!
PLEASANT GLEN, IDAHO:
Up early for a brisk wash in the Lindners’ birdbath. It was necessary to crack the ice that coated the surface; conditions are rougher than I’d anticipated. Still, I had the fortitude to decline their offer to sleep in Oscar Lindner’s hobby room. (It is rare to see such an extensive collection of Third Reich memorabilia outside a museum.) Sticking with my plan to lead the outdoor life, I made camp over by the swings. I did accept Oscar’s loan of his Norelco cordless razor. I can share his enthusiasm for its rotary heads. A close shave! And how liberating to be rid of the cord, to cut the umbilical that would bind me to the house. I had a sensation of true freedom I’d not known since the day my final divorce decree came through. Here is unfettered man!
CASA BUENA ESTATES, CALIFORNIA:
When Bud and Betty Enslen took me to Cap’n Eddie’s Surf’n’Turfeteria, I expected only a break in my spartan routine of cooking on borrowed briquettes. But as we walked up to the salad bar, I saw not just the canned chickpeas, the pickled beets, the bacon bits, the creamy Roquefort-style dressing; I saw the limitless bounty of America. For the first time, I apprehended the phrase “amber waves of grain,” and I knew that our skies were truly spacious, our plains indeed fruited. Simple fare? Perhaps. But it was a decent honest meal, redolent with the productive might of our fields, farms and factories. And Cap’n Eddie offers identical dining in 32 states, a unifying force binding us into one nation, one folk, one culture, just like the pledge the Enslen kids say at school. From sea to shining sea. With a choice of beer, wine, or sangria.
SUNNY MEADOWS, TEXAS:
I lay in my sleeping bag in Stan and Janet Gilbert’s backyard, gazing at the stars and listening to the conversations from the cocktail party flowing around me, and hoping nobody would step on my stomach in the dark. Janet Gilbert says that a powerful backhand is essential to a good game of tennis and proudly describes her own progress in mastering this skill. Off to my left, someone suggests that it must be difficult to improve your game by taking lessons in a motel room. Surely this is so, and one must admire her all the more for persevering in such cramped conditions. The strength of will that enabled her forebears to settle this vast Texas prairie is still very much alive, over by the big satellite dish, sipping a blue margarita. (I later learned that Janet’s family never traveled west of Reading, Pennsylvania, but the theory still holds.)
As I listen to these people chatting and laughing, I feel a renewed confidence in our nation and its citizens. They abide, they endure. Each morning waffles are dropped into toasters, and kids are dropped off at school. Soon they’ll grow, apply for their learner’s permits and, if they pass the written test and can parallel park and nothing turns up in the urinalyses, be off into the world.
And tomorrow morning I too will be off to another suburb, another backyard — off into the heart of America.