In America, I was no longer who I thought I was; one time in America, I was a white person helping an elderly black woman with her heavy suitcase across the platform. A tall black man holding a Bible bowed his head at me, and said, ‘God bless.’
In America, I was often God blessed –
The rest of time I got things wrong – ordering a pot roast in East Texas, that was a mistake.
And maybe that time in San Francisco, in a Greyhound bus station waiting room late at night as a man in his forties played a loud game of football with a small and exhausted boy lugging his sleeping blanket. The father’s eyes were on fire. His involvement way too loud. He wanted everyone to see what a good father he was. Look. I am playing ball with my son. I don’t know. Maybe he’d just gotten out of jail.
In America, I turned back into a white person, this time at a cafeteria counter when in a moment of inattention I stepped back and foot-tripped a black man hurrying by. His hand plunged into his pocket for his detective’s badge. His eyes wild with the whole dark history of that country – I had unwittingly stepped into a role I never asked for.
As I happen to be reading about aliens in They Came to Schenectady, guess where I washed up? In State Hotel on Main Street, Schenectady, where old men had come to die and at night vets prowled the corridors – crazed as cats on battery acid. Word reached the old crone on the front desk about the bin in my room overflowing with screwed up paper. One morning, she said to me, ‘Hon, if you want someone to write to, you can write to me.’ Her broken white face peered up at me over a desk fan that gently shook the ceiling cobwebs.
It is still the best advice I’ve ever heard on how to write – you need to address yourself to a pair of ears. And so, I did for a while. To a woman whose garage mechanic husband had been crushed by a car – not by accident did I write of a big-game hunter squashed by an elephant.
But then I turned back into a white person again when the vet I’d gone to the diner with spoke crassly to the waitress who was black. It was time to move on.
In freefall the log rolls over
The crag and plummets
on to new prospects at dawn.
Baldy Mountain, Phoenix, Sacramento, Davis, Oakland, Little Rock, Denver, LA, San Francisco, North Beach, the small café where a tremendously fat Italian boy in a blue tracksuit sang like Caruso, City Lights where I bought poetry I couldn’t afford.
Back on the bus, outside Eugene, I woke to shouting, and the woman next to me nudged and said, ‘She’s gone stabbed him,’ and she had too, with a pair of scissors. At the next stop the boyfriend limped down the aisle looking oddly pleased with himself – relieved, I thought, at being invalided home from the war. Outside the bus the tearful girlfriend fell into the arms of the waiting cops,
A limpet unstuck from its
World has nothing left
But providence and chance
And off we went, back on to the freeway, into the desolate night of truck lights and billboards.