It’s Christmas morning, 2001 and I’m fifteen. I unwrap a record player, but am more immediately captivated by the record collection that comes with it. It’s my parents’ entire collection that was divided when they split up in 1987. Two milk cartons, separated for all this time, are suddenly rejoined on my bedroom floor. Originally split alphabetically when things were truly dire, more acrimonious times led to the cartons’ reunion and storage in a closet somewhere. But now they are mine. In the first milk carton, my father’s, I flip through Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, Zeppelin and AC/DC. In my mom’s I find the singer-songwriters: Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel. (It seems momentarily obvious why they couldn’t make the marriage work.) I ditch the Carly Simon, the Carole King, as well as the Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. One particular album catches my eye: Simon and Garfunkel’s Wednesday Morning 3 AM, with the title in blocky, stenciled letters across the top half and Paul and Art leaning against a subway wall, both in suits and skinny ties.
A commercial flop upon its release in 1964, it was only re-released in 1966 after the success of the re-recorded, electric, movie version of “The Sounds of Silence.” The original was much less produced: no electric 12-string arpeggiating or cavernous reverb, just a plain folk song. The record company added an epigraph to this new, repackaged version: “Exciting new sounds in the folk tradition!” The album itself is not as interesting as the tagline suggests. A mixture of traditionals, folk standards, and new material, I know most of them from when my mother strummed them for my sister and me when we were small. Her guitar skills were limited mainly to the Pete Seeger songbook. We grew up singing peace anthems like “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” both of which appear on Wednesday Morning 3 AM.
I am learning to skip tracks, learning to pick the needle up and place it back in the groove without a bounce or shudder, without the shriek of a scratch. I skip the old folk songs but am transfixed by “Bleeker Street,” third track, first side. It has the kind of fingerpicked opening I tend to gravitate toward, reminiscent of “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.” Rife with biblical allusions (Canaan, sacraments, church bells), Simon describes the New York City neighborhood in a mythic tongue. He shoulders Garfunkel’s harmony line as they move through the song, their voices harnessed tightly together. There’s something in the dreamy way Paul Simon nails the physical landscape, the grittiness of New York City (“thirty dollars pays your rent”) and places it immediately beside the heavier religious lines (“Holy, holy, is his sacrament”). At fifteen, I connect to things I listen to in a physical way. I feel my breath catch on the line: “I saw a shadow/touch a shadow’s hand,” in the second verse. It places a finger on a kind of loneliness that I, at fifteen, live with, settling it into a groove like the record it’s been stamped into.
Buoyed by the discovery and by Paul Simon’s gorgeous tenor, I flip forward to the seminal Bookends LP. Released in 1968, it was the first album that followed the massive success of The Graduate soundtrack and premiered a new sound for the group. It featured the re-recorded version of the now massively successful, “The Sounds of Silence” and the hit single, “Mrs. Robinson.”
The slow, cooed harmony in the intro to “America,” immediately captures me. Amusingly, I myself have only recently become an American—my mother went through the whole process, took the test and swore to rescind loyalty to any foreign potentates. I am not yet sixteen, and in the eyes of the law, a minor, so I was grandfathered in.
On the surface it’s a song about exploring, about a road trip two people take to find America, or themselves. The song only references trivial events taking place inside a bus. The real story lives in its borders, slightly outside the audience’s eye. We know the couple, the narrator and Kathy, are on a Greyhound headed for New York City from Saginaw, Michigan. The trip starts on the side of the road in Michigan, where the couple hitchhikes over four days to get to Pittsburgh. We don’t meet them until they hop the Greyhound somewhere outside of Pittsburgh. They finish a pack of cigarettes over the 350-mile trip—they buy it in the first verse and it’s gone by the third. The pilgrimage is over when they reach the New Jersey turnpike and New York appears before them.
They eat Mrs. Wagner’s pies, which were discontinued within a year of the song’s release. Kathy reads a magazine and looks at the men on the bus, at their suits and their bow ties, inventing secret lives for them. These are important details—the raincoat, the cigarettes, a gabardine coat. How many rock songs have ever so succinctly (in fewer than 200 words) provided that many textures, that many tactile objects the listener can reach out to cup or to hold?
My best friend is a blonde, distinctly Germanic-looking girl named Meredith. She has recently moved to our small town in the western foothills of Maine from the bustling Suffolk suburb of Long Island. Her parents wanted a change in scenery for themselves and their two daughters, so her mother secured a job in Skowhegan, a dying mill town thirty miles outside of Farmington, where we live and attend school. She arrives the same year as my parents’ record collection, our ninth grade year, and she is glamorous in a way I can’t quite define. She smells of Ralph Lauren Romance. She already skims the J.Crew catalog for perfect argyle sweaters, dog-earring page after page, ready to weigh the benefits of lambswool versus cashmere at a moment’s notice.
The first time I see her room the floor is littered with vinyl sleeves. Her collection was also inherited from her parents. Her parents’ collection is packed with light ’70s rock: Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra, the Doobie Brothers. She is smart, while also dreamy and romantic—it seems sometimes if I were to leave her unattended, she’d float away to the stars.
I quickly see she comes by these tendencies honestly. Both of her parents have good jobs with healthy salaries, yet for the year after the move, they live in a dilapidated farmhouse midway between Farmington and Skowhegan—in other words, between nowhere and nowhere. The house is creaky, has a burgeoning squirrel population living in the walls, and impossible to keep warm. Six months of living in the woods, and they’d moved to a more sensible house. At one point I asked her father why they’d ever bought the derilect house.
“There was a gorgeous pasture outside the house,” he tells me. “I saw it in the middle of winter, so it was already dark in the afternoon. The moon was high. Do you know the song, ‘America’?”
Of course I do.
“You know the part where he says, ‘a full moon rose over an open field?’” he continues. “That was that field. I was sure of it. That was the America I wanted to live in.”
It’s reckless and I love it. I am fifteen and want to believe that seeing a song suddenly appear in front of you could make you buy a house, or uproot your life and family. It seems intensely American. It’s so in line with the song’s message—board a bus, hitchhike, get out of your own shadow, and go to another city to find something more meaningful.
But what of the sacrifices you make when you live life this way? We are most often told that to pursue happiness fully, we must drop all but the lightest and most essential baggage, and move forward alone. When the narrator tells Kathy in the opening verse,“I’ve got some real estate here in my bag,” there’s a hope there—that perhaps very little could still be enough. But in the final verse, loneliness creeps back into the narrator’s voice:
“Kathy I’m lost,” I said,
though I knew she was sleeping.
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”
In “America” we never hear what the two pilgrims are carrying, but we know it’s very little—whatever few bags they could sling across their bodies to stand on the side of the Michigan highway. Whatever could fit in the back of a car or above the seat of a Greyhound bus.
I love the romance of those little wax-paper wrapped pies, of smoking on a Greyhound. Though the idea that a Greyhound could be romantic is funny—the ones running in and out of New York are particularly awful. I spend a good part of my weekends on the Boston-New York Greyhound line. My sister is a classical vocalist and her coaches are in New York. The New York buses only ammenities are cup-holders and bathrooms. Every bus has an odor on the spectrum between “vomit” and “Pine-Sol covered vomit.” No one ever wears a bow-tie or gabardine suit.
I come from a line of frugal French Canadians, and buses have always fallen directly in our travel wheelhouse. What I don’t know, at fifteen, is that ten years later my great-uncle will have a stroke in New York City. Since his Canadian insurance won’t cover him for an American hospital visit he will decide to try to take a Greyhound upstate to Albany, where his car is parked. He will believe he can make it back to Montreal. His face won’t be moving well, he is sick—dying, though he won’t know it then. Months later, they will open him up and find cancer cells choking almost every organ in his body, and ten months later he’ll be dead. But in Albany, after a quick glance at his passport, they will let him on the bus.
That’s why it’s so important that they’re on a bus. The ugly stepbrother of mass transit; the vagabond loser of transportation. Every ticket is one-way, full of despair and promise of no scheduled return. The ultimate form of democracy. I’m empty and aching, and I don’t know why.
I am fifteen years old, alienated and isolated from myself in a way that is new but quickly rooted. I am a newly-minted American citizen, prone to ruminations on what it means to live in, and belong to, an entirely different nation than the one in which I was born. Ten years later, I I listen to “America” and feel no differently. I will never outgrow that part of me that feels that alienated, isolated and vulnerable. I am right to believe in this rendering of America—I am beginning to sense as a teenager that the heart of this country beats with loneliness.
Peter Hessler writes about the “impressive appetite for loneliness” in America, says that there is “something about this solitude that frees conversation.” It’s why we will talk to the guy at the bar who looks like he’s having a much worse day than we are, in all those moments I wake up on some form of mass transit, after all that shuffling and following and herding and realize that in all this searching, I’m finding very little.
So what is the answer; what is the key? Maybe to shake off this emptiness and escape the highway’s ghosts, to barrel toward a new, more accepting landscape. To look out the window, watch the moon rise over some distant, fresh field, and embrace the city skyline that greets you from the horizon.
Have you never found yourself on some interstate—between Pittsburgh and New Jersey, or Des Moines and Lincoln, or Sante Fe and Las Vegas—out of cigarettes, out of money, with the sudden desire to confess to the stranger asleep next to you, a shadow reaching out to another shadow, just to have someone to touch?