I started working on some stories late last year. I don’t know if the project would have gone anywhere. The premise of the project was that I still love America, because I’ve traveled it by road, seeing it and feeling it, and most importantly I’ve met people along the way who really seem to represent the places where I met them. Specifically, I was going to claim that we are not as divided as Facebook would have us believe.
Obviously that premise needs re-working. I was wrong, we are divided.
That being said, I’m trashing that intro and throwing up some of these essays, because I haven’t done a show in months and if I don’t put something creative out into the world I’m going to lose my mind. (I’m coming closer than I’d like to admit.)
I’ll put ’em up one by one at random. I hope you like these looks at places and people. I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with a style of writing I haven’t done before, embracing my manic side. These essays have too many commas and run on sentences, but I was enjoying not caring. It’s definitely fake Kerouac/Hunter S. Thompson style writing, not nearly as good, and no editor has seen or touched them. Basically what I’m saying is these essays are energetic but not quite good. I know it and don’t care.
(Images are public domain and acquired via hasty Googling.)
The flyover states used to be drive through states, and I bet that was better for everyone.
In Missouri, you can feel the last dying heartbeats of Route 66. Neon and signage and hotels blur the past and the present, in fact the past along these roads still is the present, and the dim lifeline of the mother road thrives here more than most anyplace else.
The real highway looms. You can hear it from most of Route 66, or at least sense its vibrating efficiency. It’s the easier choice. Route 66 isn’t even a road anymore in Missouri, it’s a series of roads, confusing turns that want to chase you away. You can lose its scent. It’s hiding, this Route 66, what America was. We’re paving it over for something that moves faster and makes a lot more sense, but it’s still there. Nonsensical America, full of ambition and bold-faced ploys for attention, good natured cash grabs with a smile and a nod, not hiding what they are, non-corporate, where the person who greets you is part of the family that’s owned it for generations, who refuses to give up on the place even though it was never likely, and is less so now that the powers that be paved its relevance away, survivors, hustlers, stubborn as mules and fierce individuals, capitalism at its best.
The past isn’t the past on Route 66’s Missouri, not just yet. These businesses survive, these signs still beg for your attention and money, those caverns want you to visit them, these people have animals in their backyard and you can see them for just a few dollars, there’s things to eat and places to crash and part of it is named Cuba, which is the most American thing of all. They’re not settling for a nostalgia play quite yet, not when it comes to the most American road there’s ever been. What we think of as the past is here still the present, at least for now, though as you drive it you know, you feel, it’s built on an un-firm foundation. At any moment the today in Missouri could become tomorrow’s nostalgia — but for now thank God, for all of us to see and feel that what we romanticize is still somewhere real, thank God that the promise of this place we pretend survives at large is still somewhere made true, thank God this road remains.
I was in Ohio when I got the call that I might have a big time writing job and I needed to get to an airport in case they wanted me to fly back and start in the next few days. I was told by the bigwig agents not to turn the car around. If it didn’t happen I’d still need to complete my journey to Los Angeles. So I made it to Chicago, where my girlfriend’s parents lived, and where I knew if I had to get home fast I could ditch my car in their garage and fly, the dreaded option, because I like to drive. I can recognize the romance in seeing things from above, but give me eye level any day. You can see from the sky but you can feel from the road.
I knew in my guts that I would not get the writing job; I was too good a fit for it, and in the entertainment industry that seems to never be what they want. So I sat alone in my girlfriend’s backyard, her parents in the house, and I pored over a map I laid out on their picnic table, and I traced the route that would take more time than the highways, since I knew I wasn’t getting the job in New York and I was in no rush to find the next one in Los Angeles. To keep us sane they tell us my industry is about the journey, so I figured I’d say screw it and for once have a real one. And so I headed south to St. Louis, and so I made the twisting series of turns, and so I saw the signs of Route 66, at eye level, as I like it.
I drove alone with my thoughts, and though I am good at letting things go I dwelled on how close I came to getting a big job, yet again. Another one where I was the last man cut. The first one sent home. The king of coming close. And while I did, and do, take a sick sort of pride in being just past the edge of what the mainstream would like to consider, the sting was still fresh. I don’t mind money, and validation isn’t half bad either.
Missouri spoke to me, Route 66 whispered truths that I knew; that job was fake, the world I dwell in is fake, and the things we beam out to satellites on the coasts are at their best when they entertain Missouri anyway. I was lured in by the signs for Meramec Caverns, but when I got there the admission price scared me off. I smiled, knowing that for anyone with kids who was similarly fooled they do not have the option of turning back, back on the road with crying kids who spent hours seeing the signs for the caves, how you can’t deny kids those caverns after those signs, not unless you want those kids to hate you from the backseat, and with a smirk I understood how Meramec clings to life, its business model being “suck the families in too deep, they need a bite and a piss break anyway so they’ll pony up the cash and avoid all the pissing and moaning. Suck them in and grind them up and have your way with them and only then let them leave.” At the end of the day a cavern’s pretty much a big pit anyway, so it seems fitting.
I stopped along the road, not at a cavern or any other grimy spot sucking me in with a hand painted sign or cartoon mascot. Just a random place on the road, unassuming. I was hungry. It was hot. Air conditioning is usually my style but I’d been in the car all day and real air felt good, sticky and humid and bug ridden as it was. Ordered my food, sat outside and watched cars go by, only once in a while, and off in the distance I could hear the highway, the one that choked this road but couldn’t quite kill it, and the cars out there were constant, still choking it, it refusing to tap out, to submit, challenging the highway to kill it, after all these years, kill me if you can.
That’s when she sat down next to me.
I had just turned 29, and while who’s to say for sure, I sensed she was much younger. She was going for something, since there were many tables outside and exactly one person outside of herself at any of them. Sitting at my table was a choice, and I knew it. She had pink hair and a nose piercing and looked serious behind her sunglasses. She smelled like cigarette smoke. She straddled the bench, on my side, and stared at me.
I turned to her and before I could speak she spat out, “What do you do?”
I smiled. I liked her.
“I’m a comedian,” I answered.
“Really? I’ve never seen you.”
“You haven’t seen most of us. There’s a lot of comedians.”
“Tell me a joke.”
“Because that’s not how it works and if I told you a joke at this picnic table on this sidewalk it wouldn’t be funny anyway, and you’d think I was unfunny, which you already do because of this answer, so why waste time proving it?”
“How do I know you’re good?”
“Well,” I said, “Jimmy Fallon almost hired me to write for his show. But two or three days ago I got word that my ideas are just a little bit too weird.”
“I like that.”
“I had a feeling you might.”
“Where are you going?”
“I had a feeling,” she said. “Are you going there to make it?”
“Well,” I said, “that’s the idea. But these things have a habit of not working out. So I’m taking my time getting there and mostly I’m just enjoying this drive.”
I was younger then, and in general I worried more, but I have often found that I am at my best when I am by myself. This is probably why I have very few friends.
“Do you live around here?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “And there’s nothing to do. I’m leaving.”
“Where are you going?”
“What’s there for you?”
“I want to go to George Washington,” she said.
“Good school. Good luck.”
“Don’t you want to know why I want to go there?”
“To get an education?”
“I’m going to their forensic science program,” she said. “They have one of the best in the country.”
“What’s forensic science?”
“Cracking cold case files,” she said. “But a big part of it is learning things from dead bodies. I really like dead bodies.”
“I think you can learn a lot about a person after they’re dead,” she said. “And I want to learn how to read their bodies.”
“Read their bodies. Huh.”
“So, I’m going,” she said. “I have to. I find out soon if I got accepted.”
“Accepted by the dead bodies.”
“I think you’re going to pull it off,” I said. “Soon you’ll be looking at more dead bodies than you can dream of.”
“I can dream of a lot of dead bodies,” she smiled. “I think you’re going to make it too. Maybe not right now, but someday.”
She took down my number. I felt uneasy giving it to a kid, but she badgered me a few times, and I was driving away anyway. She texted me a few weeks later, asking if I’d made it in Los Angeles. I told her not yet. I asked how the dead bodies were going. She told me she got in.
I think of her when I think of Missouri. Pink hair, smelling of smoke, hidden by sunglasses, not who you’d expect to sit down next to you boldly at a picnic table in a parking lot, waiting to talk to anyone while sitting in the sticky air beneath the summer sun, bored but not boring, surprising in her vibrancy, more exotic then you’d assume; which is all to say that she is existing and alive, while staring at death, enjoying it, studying it, learning to read it like the confusing map of Route 66, and by knowing it intimately managing to avoid it, staving it off, the roaring highway and its chokehold be damned, she still breathes, the authenticity still breathes, the real Missouri still breathes.