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I Have Known Americas

I have known America. I lived in it, of course, except for the briefest of periods away, which was not often. A man doesn’t always know the country he lives in. It is a fluid you swim in. It passes limpid past your eyes and silently past the gills of your awareness, and you don’t notice it.

The parts and pieces of America I haven’t known in my lifetime I’ve marinated in, in uncountable libraries, some made of stone and brick, others assembled like webs spun directly in my head by the men who bound books and sold them.

The portion I loved best dozed under a curtain of ice as centuries ticked by. It retreated and returned and ebbed again just out of memory, while Jericho might have still had a wall and the trumpet wasn’t invented yet. Wonderful men drifted in on bridges gone from memory and even geography and wandered the solitudes to find the game and elbow room they coveted. They made a thousand Spartas, probably before Sparta was even a dream, and respected each other enough to kill and be killed by their neighbors in turn.

Eventually came men so crazed with adventure they’d go half a world away to bring their own version of Sparta to life under strange constellations. How could maybe 1,000 men conquer a people? I don’t know. William knew, and Cortes, and Garibaldi, and Cochise and Zapata, ragamuffins in red shirts all. People manufacture opinions about such men, good and bad, as if opinions matter. They were wonderful facts, enough for me.

There is a statue in the harbor in New York with an inscription to insult everyone who stays here, but then again women are not among my favorite poets. I knew Americans. The wretched refuse stayed where they were. The brave and brilliant and industrious came, and most couldn’t read the plinth anyway. I have known their children, and grandchildren, and the trickle of descendants they adumbrated.

I’ve known and sometimes loved some Irish, and Italian, and French, and Britishers, and Dutch, and Finns and Swedes and Norwegians. I’ve rubbed elbows with Syrians and Lebanese and Russians and Germans and maybe a brazillion Brazilians. Azoreans and Greeks. I went to high school with most of the people I’ve already named, plus the Yoruba and Jews and assorted WASPs sprinkled over long, undifferentiated rows of desks. I’ve slept on an Apache’s reclining chair, and in a Tonawandan church basement. I’ve done business with Afghans and South Africans and Slavs of various kinds, plus of course Canadians, although they’re just a different admixture of the same ingredients we are. I’ve laid brick with Caribbeans and painted houses with Poles and welded with Mexicans. I’ve forgotten to mention a few dozen more, I’m sure.

I was asked once, at a conclave of people who styled themselves as intellectuals, if it wasn’t weird to have a parent who was Irish and another who was Italian. I was flummoxed. The answer wasn’t hard, exactly, the question seemed impossible. I was being interrogated in a foreign language, the language of the Thirty Years War, not proper American English, about a topic no decent person contemplated when I was a child. Everyone I mentioned was simply American, and that’s that. We all did the same sorts of things in the same sorts of ways and kissed or fought with each other over things solely because we were human beings, who do those sorts of things whenever we get the chance.

I left the United States for the first time in 25 years, and returned. The water was drained in the plane going away, and the aquarium of life was filled with another country’s fluid. I became acutely aware of my gills. I was transformed into an imbecile, a wonderful gift, because I spake only as a child, and looked at the world like a child.

When I returned, I looked around, and realized the world I was born into was completely gone. I’d been watching it sluice down the drain for so long, that I wondered if I was some sort of involuntary antichrist, making each tomorrow worse than today, every day since I was born. The whole 200,000,000- way handshake seems to have been totally replaced with nothing but a Balkan competition to see which sect could pull themselves to the top of a greasy pole with nothing but a Netflix login screen at the top. The competition was desultory, because no one wanted any job but greasing the pole. Climbing is a lot of work.

I’d been to a country filled with babies, the airport filled with cherubic faces peering over their mom or dad’s shoulders filled with wonder and confusion, same as me. I returned to a dead terminal where the only creature there to meet a traveler was a pit bull.

The Seven Cities of Cibola was a myth, of course. But I swear there is an entire country with no vinyl siding. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Day: March 29, 2024

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