After a decade of living in the United States I left Boston to move to France. First I had to attend a conference in England. It was late summer. Gravity forced me back into my seat as the plane’s engines burned up fuel at a fantastic rate in their attempt to gain height quickly, sending us hurtling away from the tarmac.
The August sun lay sprawled over the waters of the coast and the city looked still and sultry in its pall. Our evening flight circled over Boston harbor before heading north up to the coast of Labrador. As I watched the former terra nova recede below me, as I had dozens of times before, I did not know when, if ever, I would return. All the way up the coast I watched as the day failed and we rushed eastward into its night, and further, into tomorrow. Around me people fidgeted, shifted, twitched; children cried, the cabin crew bustled about, organizing, and the faint smell of food floated through the interior as foil-wrapped dinners were heated. Outside the air passed us at four hundred miles per hour. The plane carried us, seats, life jackets, toilets, in-flight entertainment systems, all insulated in its metal canister towards the other coast, thirty thousand feet above the darkened, rolling Atlantic Ocean.
My neighbour was a tall young man with a thick dark beard, long greasy hair and a battered leather jacket. For the first half-hour of the flight he perused a piece of fax paper with “American Express” printed across the top in big black letters. The content seemed to refer to a lost ticket and the credit card company’s assertion that he had paid for it.
After he had thoroughly scrutinized this, somewhere over Greenland, he got up and left his seat. I read the papers, napped and watched the movie, aware of my pleasure over my neighbor’s absence. It was not until an hour before our stopover in London that he returned, reeking of whiskey and smiling broadly, winking suggestively (but not without some charm) at one of the flight attendants. He was talkative now: “Bet you never thought you’d end up sitting next to a drunken Paddy,” he exclaimed in a thick Irish brogue. He was an Irish carpenter, he soon told me, who had just spent six months traveling the States on a motorcycle, a Honda Gold Wing, to be precise.
He had slept on beaches in Baja California, with itinerant hippy communities, cruised with militia groups in North Carolina, shacked-up with golden-haired beauties in Minnesota, become blindingly drunk in Irish bars in Chicago, and stayed that way for several nights. He had lived off hunks of meat roasted over his primitive campfire, often not talking to anyone for days. He had, in other words, toured the country toe to tip, coast to coast, mixing with the underworld, the counter-culture, the foot loose and fancy free, and now his money gone, his bike sold, and his last traveler’s check stolen at the bus station (along with his Texan cowboy boots and his new pair of Levi’s) he was heading home to Dublin, by way of London and a girl he met (and had sex with) on the plane on the way out.
“I’ve been hanging out with the gals at the back there,” he gestured towards the aft galley, then stood up to receive more miniatures of Scotch and Bailey’s from a passing attendant; “Oh, she’s a nice one, that!”
I told him about the various jobs I had, and that I was currently on my way to a conference. This completely floored him: “What, you mean you fly all this way to sit in a room with a bunch of guys in suits listening to them read to you? For days! Jeesus, I just can’t get me head round that one!”
America for Paddy had been one huge, wild, fulfilling fantasy. It had delivered exactly what he had expected and hoped for. He had lived the Easy Rider life, the life of outlaws, freedom, dust and leather and whiskey; the America of Brando, of Jim Morrison and Dennis Hopper; the America of the sixties and seventies, of movie posters on adolescent bedroom walls. As I listened to him I considered my experience: of graduate school, of apartments and taxes and jobs involving desks and coffee and fashion concerns; the America increasingly defined by The Gap, Starbucks, by Seinfeld and Frasier, the America of commuters, computers, and therapy, to make it all bearable. Urban middle-class America where people were tied to desks and tied down by the debt they had taken out to become tied to their desks, and I wondered where I had lost that original vision of America, the vision I had while growing up, had associated with, informed by Jimi Hendrix and Apocalypse Now.
Where along the line had I traded Woodstock for Cats? When and how had the kind of raw experience I had craved when in my teens become the indolent and banal security which was, apparently, so highly valued by the American public? Was this just a sign of the times? The sixties are over and that kind of America doesn’t exist anymore, I told myself as I watched Paddy sink another Baileys and Scotch, except for a few aging hippies hanging around student cafes in Berkeley and Cambridge, selling magazines full of conspiracy theories and railing against the military-industrial complex. The rest of them, the sixties kids, settled down and had their own families and at best were running B&Bs in Vermont or used bookstores in the Napa Valley. Even bikers, I thought, did not really exist as they had done in the seventies. Now they all had full time jobs and on Sundays took the old lady for a spin on the Harley; suburban bikers, respectable bikers, or bikers rich enough to afford a Harley — which meant corporate bikers.
Or perhaps this America did live on, outside the borders of the United States in the imaginations of people like Paddy, or other Amerophiles who came looking for Janis Joplin and Abby Hoffman. Perhaps it did live on even within the contiguous states themselves, but as more of a backwater than ever it was, a quiet class of the itinerant, the politically sidelined, the culturally and economically alternative which once was news, was young and vibrant and different, and now was dated and nostalgic and excluded from the middle class dream of suburbia.
As Paddy talked I saw all of this in him. He had come to America with a vision firmly in mind, and he had gone out there and found it on his Honda Gold Wing. For him America was still empty bus depots at dawn, beer in an urban park by the Mississippi at sundown, highways running to their disappearing point between two buttes. It was the America of modern lyricism, of Thoreau on a Hog with Marijuana. It was a place of Freedom, or at least the dream of Freedom as it has been etched into the landscape throughout its relatively short history. But with all of this nomadic beauty and wildness came its nemesis: insecurity.
And it was this, ironically, which gave Paddy’s experience its piquancy, which infused it with the essence of life, the knowledge of one’s own precariousness and ultimately a closeness to death. My existence lacked this, being inside the white-collar gilded cage where certain things were guaranteed and certain other things unthinkable. We were insulated from danger, surrounded by air bags, health warnings, insurance companies, police departments (there for our protection, not incarceration). Our coffee cups were even insulated so as not to burn (although under the surface of this maniacal need for safety was the even more maniacal power of capitalism and its army of lawyers ready to find responsibility somewhere other than where it ultimately lay). Paddy’s experience, I thought, as our plane came into Heathrow, was in a sense a trip back in time, to a society in which security was not so guaranteed, where danger lay under bushes, behind doors, in the very food we ate. And how well they understood life, those who were about to die; they could not count on the deus ex machina power of an ambulance, an insurance policy, or, for that matter, double cups at Starbucks.
As we walked through the long corridors toward customs, Paddy made comments to young women who passed by, wafting scent from Paris or Rome; always they turned around and offered responsive smiles at the sound of his voice. Then he burst into a rendition of a Pogues song, his great mane of black hair flowing around him as he strode down the carpeted corridor in his leather boots: I have acres of land, I have men I command, I have always a shilling to spare; so be easy and free when you’re drinking with me, I’m a man you don’t meet every day.