5 cents

Leaving America Whilst Reading Don DeLillo's Americana. Chicago O'Hare Airport. August 1, 2008

I started reading Don DeLillo's Americana the last day we were in Albuquerque. Our final day in America. Five pages into it I was experiencing an oddly familiar déjà vu. Ten pages into I realized I had already read it, or at least started to read it. Or maybe I read an excerpt somewhere, but I had definitely read it. My memory sucks. I can't imagine all the books I've read or worse yet, experiences I've had that I can't remember. Memory is a strange thing. You only remember the things you remember and assume you'll remember everything. How can you know if you can't remember something? Some things pass through you without a trace. Not that Americana wasn't worthy of being memorable.

I remember reading White Noise and read a few other DeLillo books before that, but didn't remember reading Americana (hence why I bought it at the Borders in Albuquerque), until I started to reread it. Reading it triggered associations, flashbacks. I distinctly remember experiencing the opening pages on the blue 8th avenue A/C/E line, specifically around 34th street, and I'm pretty sure it was when we first moved to New York City. Back then I remember reading the protagonist David Bell's version of NYC and wondering if it really existed as I looked around me at the people on the subway. I still wonder now. David Bell is this hot shot TV executive on Madison avenue that takes long martini lunches and has affairs with all his co-workers and is a complete gossip monger. I've seen glimpses of his type (and his prey) riding in elevators in buildings shared with ad agencies or magazines. Snippets of conversation riding between floors that resemble DeLillo's dialogue. At least the post-Gawker evolution of it. But this is not a NYC I myself am personally familiar with. It's also a New York of the past, in the 70s or even earlier than that considering it was first published in 1971 (although I remembered an out of place reference to the internet or email towards the beginning, maybe added in a later addition). In any event, DeLillo captures or creates the Madison avenue of NYC of that time well, in all it's pretense and superficiality.

Below forty-second, people were able to choose their own pace and yet here the faces seemed gray and stricken, the bodies surreptitious in the scrawls of their coats, and it occurred to me that perhaps in this city the crowd was essential to the individual; without it, he had nothing against which to scrape his anger, no echo for grief, and not the slightest proof that there were others more lonely than he. It was just a passing thought.

In regards to my opening thoughts of memory, this is what DeLillo has given us in Americana: a historical documenting of America's collective conscious (as driven by unconscious subtext) at this time and place. I don't think I was ready for Americana at the time I was first reading it. Maybe I realized this and that's why I stopped reading it and chose to forget it until it resurface now. David Bell gets an assignment, or self-delegates an assignment, to go on a roadtrip to do a documentary on Navahos out west. I remembered this part reading it before, but I'm pretty sure I didn't read past when he actually got going on this trip, to when he actually left NYC. And it's a good thing, as now it's far more relevant and serendipitous. Even stranger is that when he leaves Manhattan, he first goes up through Boston and Maine, just like our last New England trip, before we actually left for good. That's as far as I am now. Sitting here in Chicago O'Hare. We've made it over the first hurdle, the domestic leg between Albuquerque and Chicago. Due to that new baggage policy spurned by high gas prices, we had to pay $25 each per bag beyond the one they allow you. And to add injury to insult, we had to pay $100 overweight charge for each of our two duffel bags that were over 50 pounds. If we had known this, we could've just shipped them from NYC and it probably wouldn't have been that much more, and far less hassle. The combined weight of all our baggage is 80 + 74 + 34 + 27 = 215 pounds, which is close to, but less than our combined body weights.


Since we booked the domestic tickets separately, we had to go through baggage claim and check in all over again. We thought it wouldn't be a big deal as we have five hours here. But unfortunately we flew United. Go ahead and say it. Now I know why I haven't flown United in decades. Complete nightmare checking in, took over three hours to get through the line. It almost degenerated into a complete crisis or mutiny of their despondent or hostile staff. Everybody pissed and the agents acting like complete pricks just arguing back instead of helping people check in. Fortunately though, the tranny agent that checked us in (the only pleasant United person we came across) didn't charge us for the extra bags and overweight, maybe because s/he wasn't aware of the new rules, maybe because s/he detected we were about to go ballistic, or maybe because s/he was just being nice. All the people before us in line we're unpacking their bags, shit spread out everywhere, and repacking, trying to get their bags to be exactly 49 pounds so they wouldn't be charged for overweight. Strangers in the back of the line bonding over what an incredulous ordeal it was, commiserating over the assholes in the front of the line. It was a fiasco, followed by the fiasco of going through security.

Flying in America has become the biggest public indignity there is. We are forced to go through this rigamarole if we wish to travel. And now waiting here in the terminal, we are being forced to listen to other's cell phone conversations. I heard some guy seriously say (as he was pacing on his handless headset): "I think I knocked that one out of the park, Bob." This college girl that came and sat next to us is talking about how she and her friends Buffy and Benny consulted the Ouija board last night, every sentence of every overheard sentence punctuated by it was like... it was like ... it was like .... On the plane here, these women behind us were talking loudly the whole way. One was a history teacher and was giving the whole plane a history of the Indus river valley civilization. Americans are really annoying. It's not a passing annoyance I can shrug off or laugh about anymore. I think I actually despise most Americans and their American ways. I'm so glad we are finally leaving. Delillo, or his David Bell, is far more tolerant. And he is guilty of this annoying behavior, though it's forgivable in the 70s and he did most of his gossipping on land lines. And DeLillo's dialogue is far more interesting than how most Americans speak. David Bell and his cheating ways are not something you'd aspire too, but that's the whole point of fiction is to let you live vicariously in his shoes. Good fiction idealizes and contextualizes, simmering and reducing down to only the juicy morsels of art.

For our last meal in America, we ate at McDonald's. It wasn't intentional, and nothing Jess would want to admit, especially on her You Are What You Eat blog. But that's all that was available and it seemed appropriate enough. It was the first time I've eaten there in five or ten years and each time like this one is a sarcastic relapse. I had a Big Mac, fries, a diet Coke and a milkshake. Now we're getting ready to board our plane to London and I'm going back to reading Americana.

En Route London to Nairobi, August 2, 2008

Said adios to America. A big bird-flipping out our porthole window to the Chicago skyline. Read more of Americana on the plane. I kind of got bored reading part 2. Maybe that's why I stopped reading it before. Or maybe I wasn't ready to leave New York at the time. Though part 2 is more a flashback to his formative years. By part 3, David Bell was on the road through the midwest (just like our trip) through the midwest to New Mexico (Arizona actually, which is also personally relevant in that that's where we lived for 10 years before New York). And his descriptions of America back in 1971 are still accurate. "We must realize we are living in Megamerica," says Sullivan, in an interview with Bell, "Neon, fiber, glass. Plexiglass, polyurethane, Mylar, Acrylite." And she goes on to describe what America is becoming, after it's great cities are leveled and razed:

In their place we would construct motels and houses that were identical in every detail. The new San Francisco would have no hills. The coast of Maine would be indistinguishable from Des Moines, Iowa. In the new gray Washington all the senators would spend eight hours a day in their identical offices, chained to radiators, being flogged by French tarts. This is known as the philosophy lesson, wisdom of the old world, the culture we so badly lack. Nobody would ever sweat. Sweating is wastefulness. If you were caught sweating you would be shot on sight. The air conditioners in every room in the country would be permanently set at fifty degrees Fahrenheit. There would be no way to turn them off.

This is indeed what America has become.

The sun rose quickly and we landed in London. My first time in London. Not that the airport counts. All I can say is that Heathrow is complete crap. And outside was as drizzly and gray as I imagined it.

I'm not drawing parallels because I think David Bell's version of America is like mine. To the contrary, his is more character-driven and scene is not important. As he's traveling through America with his cohorts, rarely does he reveal details of the landscape outside of New York City. It's mostly character sketches, and his random interactions with these characters. If you know your physics (like I suspect DeLillo does), Americana is a bubble chamber (or Bell jar if you will) of particles (characters) and the spiraling trails their collisions and interactions. David Bell nonchalantly and haphazardly flips through his mental rolodex and calls people from his past out of the blue. The physics of the interactions is non-linear. There's no predicting what will come next, and what the outcome of a collision (typically sexual) will be. One of my favorite characters, Binky, his secretary was especially endearing. Especially when she curls up for a drunken nap in his office. But nothing "physical" happens between them, which is fine in it's mounting tension. But ultimately, in the end, nothing happens with her character. And actually, although things pick back up with parts 3 and 4, and it has great moments of clarity and witty dialogue and monologues, nothing really happens. Which is fine. It's DeLillo's composite sketch of America told with documentarian eye. Like my Marsupial, it's really a book about the making of a fictitious movie, in his case a documentary, that takes on its own life as it evolves and ends up being nothing like what it sets out to be. Along the way, DeLillo spits out such epiphanies (in regards to the meaning behind American advertising):

It encompassed all those things which all people are said to want, materials and objects and the shadows they cast, and yet the dream had its complexities, its edges of illusion and self-deception, an implication of serio-comic death. To achieve an existence almost totally symbolic is less simple than mining the buried materials of other countries or sending the pilots of your squadron to hang their bombs over some illiterate village. And so purity of intention, simplicity and all its harvests, these were with the mightiest of visionaries, those strong enough to confront the larger madness. For the rest of us, the true sons of the dream, there was only complexity. The dream made no allowance for the truth beneath the symbols, for the interlinear notes, the presence of something black (and somehow very funny) at the mirror rim of one's awareness.

Now we're flying over Ethiopia. Earlier we were over the alps of Switzerland and then over the Mediterannean. In two hours we'll be landing in Nairobi with no return ticket. It all started early yesterday morning, 5 a.m. Albuquerque, New Mexico time. Got an 8 a.m. flight to Chicago. A five hour layover in Chicago, most of which was spent in line just to re-check our bags and get a boarding pass, witnessing the utter incompetence of United. Still not out of earshot of the fucking fat, big-boned American girls on their way to Greece in their sorority sweats, yacking at a volume that can't be drowned out by B.R.M.C. at full-volume even though they are on the other side of the plane and three rows back. I am so looking forward to not hearing English of the obnoxious American variety.

I admit reading Americana made me sort of nostalgic for NYC. Already. His details of NYC are convincing. Not only would I be surprised if DeLillo didn't spend significant time in NYC, but I wouldn't be surprised if he actually worked as a TV or advertising executive. But it is a convenient and serendipitously glorified Manhattan he describes, where one thing leads perfectly to another in perfectly choreographed debauchery, as in Scorcese's After Hours. Not that it hasn't been done before by Brett Easton Ellis, Ray McInerney, and a host of others. But DeLillo's prose is what seals it.

Somewhere along the way, Bell's ex-wife says "New York is the most exciting place in the world to work. London is fun to walk around in and New York is fun to work in." Seems like another writer once said this as well, but I can't think of who off the top of my head. Although I haven't walked around London, New York is a pretty damn good walking city as well as a fun city to work in.

We got into London at 8 a.m. and again spent our two and a half hour layover in the "in transit" line to get a boarding pass. Finally when our flight was boarding, everyone going to Kenya stampeded to the front of the line to forcibly demand our boarding passes. There was no other way. I have no idea what time it is now, but it's starting to get dark. We are scheduled to get into Nairobi at 9:30 PM but we we're late taking off. And then sitting here thinking about it, it's not like we get picked up and taken to a hotel. We need to exchange money and get some food and water as our cabinets will be empty and it's not like NYC where you can just pop down to a bodega to get coffee and milk and bread. Especially being as we've eaten very little since McDonald's. The only option United gave us was some sort of gross beef thing. When I bitched they finally gave me some old crusty pasta that was still frozen. We are almost there though. Assuming our bags are on the plane with us, which I'm assuming the worst. But once we throw our bags down on the floor of our new home in Nairobi, oh what a feeling that will be.

Nairobi at last! August 3, 2008

Woke up to a symphony of birds before it was even light out. Followed by the dogs barking once they sensed I was up. I looked out the window and there was some iridiscent bird with a probiscis beak out on the lawn. We're here! Weird to arrive in the dark and now, slowly watch the rising sun "shed light" on the scene.

Of course they lost our bags. All four of them. As I expected, so not much disappointment. The flight was late, we got in around 10 PM Nairobi time. Took a while to get through immigration and then it was a complete circus waiting for our bags. We weren't the only ones with lost bags. The baggage claim was like a morgue for baggage, rows and piles of bags and suitcases strewn everywhere. We walked up and down the rows, trying to identify our baggage to no avail. There's a reason baggage is a common metaphor. They are "possessions" that possess us. It's interesting to think on such terms.

Fortunately, our driver was still waiting. It was the same driver that drove us out to Dertu last November. At least he was the one holding up the placard with our names in the thriving mob of people awaiting outside customs. He passed us off to this younger kid who drove us out to Runda, after stopping in Westlands for some water and bread. Our driver couldn't find the place. Jess put our landlord on the phone with him, and he tried to talk him through it. Eventually we riled some sleeping cops and after a 10-minute debate on where Mugumo road was, they wiped the sleep from their eyes and guided us to it. Everything here appears to turn into a 10-minute conversation, even if you are just asking a simple yes or no question. I suspect certain pleasantries have to be exchanged, feelings gauged, and it sounds like everything is repeated three times. I'll definitely make it a point to learn Swahili as I'm dying to know what everyone is saying.

By the time we got here it was past midnight. We felt bad, but our landlord wasn't even here, he was out at a party. He came back to greet us though and made us some tea. Solid guy, a Sikh. Nice and accommodating and our place is awesome, but more on that later. I'll have plenty of time to write about that. Now I need to see how to get myself back on the grid so I can post this. It's very quiet here. Jess is still sleeping. It's also surprisingly cold and we have no extra clothes. I want some coffee but there is none. I want to wash my hands but there's no soap. We need to venture out somewhere to get such things, but we don't know which direction to venture to. I don't know what time it is. The clock on my computer still says 12:20 AM, which is still NYC time. I'm finally unraveling from New York City time. Slowly, but surely, unwinding. All the tension uncoiling. Another passage from Americana that I must admit reflects my (hopefully past) ways:

You know how people jockey back and forth, the fast walkers trying to overtake the slow walkers. There's always a lot of shoving and the fast walkers are always stepping on the slow ones and knocking their shoes off. I was a fast walker.

7 PM Afterword: still no bags. Our landlord took us to the market to get essentials, then took us to the airport. Still no bags to show for it, and they don't even know where they are, but after an hour or more of negotations, finally managed to at least get $160 for our troubles. At least I have this computer and a change of clothes, Jess didn't even pack a change of clothes.



(c) 2008 Derek White

Five Senses Reviews