On the road again

Human beings are ever so different. Some people love lightning in the sky, others prefer it in a toaster. Some love city life, others have no inclination to leave their rural homesteads, ever, and again others may live in cities but are unrelenting dreamers of pastoral habitats. A few born and raised in the country at least when they are young cannot wait to move to the city. Many somehow just won’t be able to make it.

Other country bumpkins are rather happy to stay. Such as the schoolboy named Chris Small, who works in the Cattlemen’s Café on Main Street in Sublette, West-Kansas. ‘El Surf de Toro’, reads his T-shirt. A broad smile, a happy boy with a sense of humor bordering on what in general rural Americans may frown at. He is good looking and clearly in demand by the girls who are frequenting the diner, such as Summer, who doesn’t leave him out of her sight, and who considers to exchange playing softball for Greek wrestling, the sport Chris is active in. Chris, though, would prefer to go boxing. Why don’t you? “My grandma thinks it might provoke me.” Why? “There’s too much rage in me.” Is that so? “Everybody says so.” Like who? “Hey Jenny, is there much rage in me?” “Yes Chris, there is.” “See?”

The food in the Cattlemen’s Café? The names on the menu are more intriguing than the taste of the dishes. “In the Midwest cowards may be judged as deserving to hang, but chefs appear to be the exception which proves the rule.” The only seasoning is Chris himself. He wants to hear all about the Netherlands. Driver’s licenses not before 18? Retarded! Drinking alcohol at any age? Awesome! Marijuana for sale in coffee shops? You’re kidding! Chris is being home schooled because he was kicked out of the one remaining high school in the county. His goal in life? To make enough money to buy a 1960 Studebaker Hawk. And, as said, to stay in Sublette. “Why not?”        

            This encounter at the Cattlemen’s Café was described by Maarten Laupman in his book, a photo reportage titled (in my translation from Dutch), ‘The Great Longing for Nothingness’ (2010). He journeyed in the Midwest, from Texas via Oklahoma to Kansas, and on to Nebraska and the Dakotas. Maarten wrote, and everyone, Kansans and non-Kansans alike, should take due notice: “For us, Kansas is the state of hospitality. Unbelievable how nice these guys are, these Kansans. They appear to compete for the Congeniality Trophy. They are so nice that, often, you wonder if it is all part of a conspiracy, an unspoken rule to hug all strangers almost to suffocation. Of the three meals we have in Kansas we are not allowed to pay for two because we took all the trouble of traveling thousands of miles to come and visit their little restaurant. We can say whatever we wish, the response remains, ‘No.’ The first one is a restaurant owner who treats us kindly and ‘On the house’; the second time it is the waiter, this boy of barely seventeen, who puts his earnings of the evening into the till to pay for our check.” Chris Small, it is he who was the generous Kansas waiter. The state can be proud of him.

Not everyone who visits Kansas departs with unforgettable memories of great experiences. “Topeka was a scattering of lights, a series of warehouse walls broken by glimpses of almost deserted streets stretching drearily into darkness, then a quickly extinguished vista of neon lights grinning in many colors (…) One of a hundred such cities that one saw for the first time with remembering boredom, and left immediately with relief. My jag was running down like an unfueled engine, and I felt very sorry for all Topekans, whose city was a poor gathering of feeble lights in the immense darkness of the western hemisphere.” As wrote Kenneth Millar (aka mystery writer Ross Macdonald) in ‘Trouble Follows Me’. He wrote this in 1946, long, long before the Kansas state capital changed rather favorably into a decent though not exciting old town surrounded by mostly small, also quite decent though not exciting, but newer, suburbs. Other city centers in America remained, or became later in the 20th century, a gathering of feeble lights in almost deserted streets. Like Chris Small’s Sublette they practically died, and one still leaves them “with only relief as baggage.”
Main Street, Sublette, as well as many a much larger town’s center or even many a city center in America … they make me wonder, is the future still ahead of America? Or is the future behind us?

My first travels in America were in 1980 when I discovered California. Ans and I were living in Carmel-by-the-Sea for six months and, no wonder to those who know the Big Sur Coast from experience, we believed strongly that America was just … paradise. Later in the 1980s, we traveled inland: to Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska; then, after 1994, during an unforgettable three-year Odyssey, to all twenty-five states west of the Mississippi before, after a one year lasting discovery of the treasures of the Flint Hills of Kansas, we settled in New Mexico. The longer we traveled, the better we understood that most of these united states are no California, let alone competitors to the elegant and charming (but after our final departure from the Netherlands rather unaffordable) Carmel-by-the-Sea; I never will forget how, day in, day out, the Carmelites enjoy the magnificent sunset; well-dressed and well-coiffed they stroll to the beach, a glass of cool Chablis in their manicured fingers, to quietly observe the red ball sink into the Pacific Ocean. The end of another day of civilized leisure.

Again later, after settling in Abiquiu, New Mexico we learned how little united these United States really are. It is not only my opinion that the union is on the road to breaking up, to slowly balkanizing into separate nations — but more about this later.

On the road again. We sang along with Willie Nelson hundreds of times. What we discovered over time, and what this younger road traveler from the Netherlands, Maarten Laupman, recently also noticed, is the duplicity of America: on the one side the affluence that still seems to predict a wonderful future, on the flip side the decay even a lazy eye cannot miss to notice. Others, American citizens who do not hesitate to say, “I am weeping for my country and its people,” now call large areas of America, “filled with the ruins of civilization.” I am quoting one of the many shocked reactions on Facebook after the French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre published hundreds of haunting images of the City of Detroit’s decline, this once so booming industrial hub that over the past ten years lost 25% of its population and even more of its businesses. Once lively neighborhoods have died, once magnificent buildings –richly decorated theaters, splendid hotels, elegant ballrooms, proud banks, holy churches, prime schools– today are empty shells, sometimes still full of furniture, rotting away. Parts of Detroit, and other American cities, cannot but remind the visitor of Berlin after WWII or towns in former USSR vassal countries. Similar images can be collected along many of America’s by-ways. “Small Town America” can look as desolate as Detroit now does, and Hungarian, Ukrainian or Bulgarian towns more than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall still do. They all bring tears to one’s eyes, the American ruins even more so than the eastern European ones because this is the last thing one would expect in “America the Beautiful.” Road trips teach one to understand what Ry Cooder and John Hiatt meant when they wrote their song ‘Borderline’, about “the broken promised land.” And they wrote this already in the 1970s … long before it was thought possible that even the suburbs in America could be hit by financial disaster, leaving them with boarded-up family homes hurting almost every by now potholed street, and here and there more than 50% of their inhabitants living below the poverty line.

What does one see when on the road again? Essentially what one discovers are the effects of years of governance by ideologically disparate politicians who, Democrats alas as well as Republicans, were all guided by just one and the same capitalist principle and obsessed by one and the same capitalist culture, and were (as they are) hammering: “Fast growth first, whatever the cost and whatever the loss of previous gains, and my growth comes before your growth anyway.”

My eyes cannot believe, my brain cannot comprehend, but then I was born a European and grew up in different circumstances (not that Europe didn’t get its share of shortsighted and narrow-minded politicians). I, like Maarten Laupman and so many others I meet, or read of, was raised in the tradition of cherishing and respecting the past. In Europe old buildings are restored and re-used. Old towns and villages are kept nice or soon after a decline made healthy and lively and neat again. Empty buildings, or districts, do not remain so forever. Even after they have deteriorated, maybe are almost falling apart, they are revitalized. They regain beauty. They get a new career, have a new future. Partly this is because space is such a different issue in Europe compared to most parts of huge America. Empty lots in Europe are worth their size in gold. In America anything old is thrown away or left dying because it is the new where the gold, be it the short-term gold, is. And everyone wants his share of this gold now, and fuck future generations. I believe there is no excuse for the nonchalance, the neglect, for the general acceptance of loss of beauty and history. I believe there is no excuse for the rot so visible all over the early 21st century United States.

It started in different areas at different times, of course. In Kansas, for instance, the decline began not long after WWII when agriculture changed from family-honored to industrially propelled. Soon after, ranches and farms –until then treasured homesteads– were deserted and neighboring towns were emptied because of the loss of business. I can see it in western Kansas, where Maarten Laupman also traveled, where the land is flat and uniquely desolate, and where one does not see trees for miles on an end. I can see it in “my” Kansas, in the Flint Hills, where we are lucky enough to be surrounded by eye-gratifying, splendid prairie. All over the Midwest, though, once proud homes are falling apart, are rotting. Everywhere I go I pass through “clapboard towns” where 30%, 60%, 90% of the old buildings along “America’s Main Street” are empty, boarded up, rotting away. Old movie theaters, opera houses, churches, courthouses, stores, homes. If there is still any life it is transplanted to the outskirts and put into architectonic monstrosities of appalling quality, into cheap boxes without a trace of a soul where all ornament is excommunicated. And nowadays, with the American economy hurting, it is the turn of these ugly, shoddy and banal boxes to become empty, to have a miserable afterlife as giant skeletons of the prefab fast-and-furious culture. Shopping centers lose stores and are partially boarded up, leaving the remaining stores to fight a losing battle, then close. Borders Books and Music closes hundreds of their oh so welcoming and comfortable stores and leaves tragic boxes behind. Radio Shack is hit, with similar effects. Macy’s is hurting. Many smaller retail companies go belly-up, leave empty shells. I predict that in many areas suburban commerce will soon leave behind dead streets and dead malls with grass growing in those huge parking lots, streets comparable with the dead streets left behind in the city centers and town centers of previous times. All in all, the nonchalance of Americans must have left as much destruction in their towns and cities as the blowing-up of cities by bombing in the preceding wars in Europe and Asia, the effects of which are no longer visible because those societies cleaned up. Americans are superb creators of permanent eyesores and ghost towns. Most citizens appear not to be bothered at all by the rot allowed to remain and grow all around them. They can find the resources for endless warfare anyplace in the world, but not for conservation and for nation building at home. And now it is too late.

More than buildings and town centers was without much of a thought mortally hurt. “Today, it is little known that the United States once had the finest system of public transportation in the world,” wrote Bill Bryson in ‘Made in America’. When Berlin had the most extensive streetcar network in Europe, in America it would have come twenty-second. “By 1922, the peak year, the United States had over fourteen thousand miles of track (…) It was the streetcar that opened up suburban life.” By 1950, no public transportation was left, only ever-declining bus lines were scarcely available. Not that the advance of the automobile could have been stopped, not even by the brain-dead politicians of the day, the many ones who for long years refused to spend a penny on highway construction. Or were these guys the true prophets? Hm. If they were, and had reigned, today they would receive the gratitude of those suburbanites who cannot afford to drive their cars anymore and lack a public transportation system.

Anyway, no one could stop Americans sing merrily, in Gus Edward’s words:

Come away with me, Lucille
In my merry Oldsmobile,
Over the road of life we’ll fly
Autobubbling you and I.

Then Oldsmobile disappeared, to be followed by the automobile age’s Pop-and-Mom motels, those “hotbeds of crime” in the words of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. The “Mr. and Mrs. Jones trade” must be one of the few things Americans decided not to do away with, although now they have to practice their illicit sex in franchise box motels, which too, of course, will eventually end up as eyesore ruins on the highway. If one was told that the monkeys had built these boxes all one could say, with Lutyens (when describing Simla), would be: “What wonderful monkeys … they must be shot in case they do it again.” 

            Don’t tell anyone, but often I find myself being not bothered at all by the rotting or boarded-up buildings. Even after living in the United States for more than seventeen years, I suffer from the same disease as many visiting European tourists who, not accustomed to ever-lasting, modern-time ruins, are charmed, sort of, by the presence of practically deserted towns, lifeless former mansions, leaning-over barns, broken windmills, empty bars, closed schools and doomed gas stations. I, as many another European, have the time of my life photographing the decay, and call it picturesque. Coffee table photo books are made of this, and documentary films. Not so much as a rebuke but, like Maarten Laupman’s book with page after page presenting emptiness, destruction, a rambling infrastructure and primitive architectural “solutions,” almost in praise … The beauty of decline is enticing us. It’s unreal, but the images the American rot produces are as astonishingly beautiful as … as the images of devastation we all were so fascinated by after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the tornado in Arkansas, the blowing away of Greensburg, Kansas. That place, at least, is being rebuilt and moreover designed to be a completely “green town.”

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, April 2011

Photo: Not of the rot. I prefer to show you it can be different. Broadway in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, may not be as lively as it used to be, but “my Kansans” proudly took care that the town’s main street remained pleasant and that the facades of the buildings, including the empty ones, are kept neat. The Chase County courthouse (from 1871, a Louis XIII style jewel) is still in full function.