An American Journey -- Peter Leyland
One August during the 80s my friend David travelled to America. He had been invited over by Arthur, who he had met in his student days when he was in New York and who was then driving yellow cabs. Arthur had contacted him by ringing his mother to find out where he was and what he was doing. She had told him about David’s divorce two years ago and his need for friends at that time. Arthur was by now a steward with Pan-Am and made routine flights to Heathrow, staying at The Sheraton Hotel in Knightsbridge. The upshot was that they met up in London a few times. They even went to see Bob Dylan together.
Anyway, I digress. The result of the Sheraton visits was that Arthur invited David to his apartment in New York, where he lived with Sandra and their son, Jesse, and he suggested that David launch out on an American journey. They went together to Jansport to buy a rucksack for the trip, which believe it or not he still has, and a 15-day Greyhound Ameripass. Arthur then drove him to the Port Authority in Manhattan one August evening and waved him off at about midnight. His advice was that on entering and leaving bus terminals he should always appear to know what he was doing. David was later to remember that advice.
Anne was blonde and attractive. She wore red shorts with a white stripe down the side. He was pleased with the companionship and as they toured around, they talked quite freely about their lives. As they both lay side by side on their stomachs in one of the parks, David wondered whether he should kiss her, but the moment passed. He stayed in Washington with Anne for two or three days and finally parted from her to travel south. She was going north to New York. As he left, he noticed that she was talking to an American with a beard and he wondered if this would be her next travelling companion.
He made a stop in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he stayed at Wah Floy. It was run by a woman who seemed to be part of some religious sect, so David quickly decided to make his escape and head down to New Orleans. He was by now becoming familiar with Greyhound Bus travel and if it was possible to take up two seats he would. Also, he could sleep on the bus, something he found useful if he didn’t want to make an overnight stop. At various points on the journey things happened to him.
The first was when he intervened to stop a man from harassing a girl on the bus. There was a commotion from the back, and she came rushing down from her seat to where he was sitting and flopped down next to him. A moment later a heavily built white man appeared and tried to get her to return to the back of the bus with him. David half stood and in his best English accent told the man to leave her alone. He fully expected to receive a punch on the jaw for his trouble, but it didn’t happen, and the man returned to his seat. The girl was from the Middle East. She was very flustered and, although he tried to find out what had happened, she didn’t want to talk about it. He decided not to press her.
The other event was that he lost his plastic wallet containing about $12 and his Access card. This was a real blow for, although he had travellers’ cheques which he had kept separately, he had already realised that he was going to run short of money and would need to use this card. The way it happened confirmed all Arthur’s warnings about being careful in bus stations. David had just got off the bus. He was hot, tired and sticky from travelling. In the queue for coffee he put the plastic wallet down on his metal tray for a moment and when he went to pick it up it was gone.
Leaving the queue, he went over and sat at the side of the bus station café, feeling both stunned and incredibly stupid. He must have sat there for half-an-hour, feeling helpless and vulnerable, before he summoned the strength to do something. He had noticed two police officers sitting on the other side of the café so he went over and asked if they could help him. Their advice was to use the phone in the bus station and report the loss to his bank.
He looked around and found the Greyhound office. To his surprise the officials at the station were really helpful. They assisted him in making the call and the Access card was cancelled. Much later, when he returned to England, he found that it had not been used. He had only lost the $12. He had lost something else though, his traveller’s innocence. He realized that now he was going to have to be a lot more careful about getting around this country. He sat, weighing up his options and counting up the money that he had left in travellers’ cheques. It was about $200, he worked out that to get to the end of his Greyhound journey he would have to exist on $20 a day.
This required that he sleep on the bus whenever he could, which really wasn’t too difficult to do. In this way he progressed down through Atlanta, Montgomery, Mobile, and finally curved around the Gulf of Mexico along to New Orleans. On the bus he met a German guy named Gunther who was going there to research the ‘blues’ sung by Robert Johnson. They went around together: he played guitar and David read some of his poems. You may remember that I told you how he used to read his poems at pubs in English towns. Anyway, people gave them money – dollar bills were scattered on the ground at their feet. That night at the hostel David wrote his poem, Until Waiting Fills, about the café where he and Gunther drank Earl Grey tea together after their performance.
Gunther didn’t stay long in New Orleans, whereas David was there for four nights. The hostel was a large one with a number of different nationalities staying: Australian, British, French. Eventually a few of the group put together food they had bought and had a general cook-in. This produced a feeling of bonhomie and they all went out to listen to a local band named Rockin’ Dopsie and the Cajun Twisters. This was magical for David. One of the numbers they did was Blueberry Hill: ‘To this day I still shiver with returned memory when I hear it,’ he said to me.
When he resumed his Greyhound bus travel, he decided to make his way up to St Louis, passing through Jackson and Memphis. He now had to sleep on the bus all the time, taking breaks at the frequent stations on the way, and being careful not to be caught out again. In this way he reached the city: It was 6 am on an August morning, he said, when the bus drove into St Louis and dropped him off at the central terminal. He walked down to the Mississippi River and saw workmen collecting driftwood from its banks and because he had no film left in his camera, he wrote the second poem of the trip which he called, The Gateway to the West. When he later researched this, he found it was the name given to St Louis because it was traditionally the spot from where pioneers set off towards the Pacific Ocean. The poem describes the ‘catenary curve’, the shape of the arch designed by Eero Saarinen, which now presides over the city. The stainless-steel arch is taller at its peak than either The Statue of Liberty or The Empire State Building.
After St Louis he headed towards Pittsburgh, passing through Indiana and Columbus, Ohio. On the bus he got into conversation with an American, Eduard, who was a sculptor and who lived there. Like David, he was recently divorced, and a friendship developed between them. He stayed with Eduard in his Pittsburgh apartment for two nights and they talked incessantly about their lives. Eduard told him that he had spent the last two weeks ‘in the desert’, creating sculptures. They bought and cooked food together, listened to music, shared cigarettes. They were the first David had smoked since giving up at the beginning of the year, but they were Camels so he couldn’t resist.
Pittsburgh is of course a city of heavy industry, but it also has a fantastic Museum of Modern Art which at the time housed Picasso’s Guernica. When David was ready to move on, he visited there but the piece that inspired him most was not the Picasso but Night by Aristide Maillol, a sculpture of a woman sitting with her head in her arms. The piece was set in front of a waterfall and he told me that it had inspired his third American poem, Images of Night, which fused ideas from the sculpture, the memory of a girl he had talked to during a game of pool in New Orleans, his meeting with Eduard and night-time Greyhound bus travel. It is his favourite of the three poems which seemed, he said, to capture what the American journey was all about so I will print it out for you.
Images of Night
She sits by the waterfall
Head on her arms
Arms on her knees
Her face is hidden
She leans on the bar
She is wearing shorts
And drinking Budweiser
Straight from the bottle
It is 3am
When I fall from the bus
And drop 60 cents
In the coffee machine
The bronze sculpture
Is hard and smooth
It curves in my hands
Like the desert
His final stop before returning to New York was Boston, where he was hoping to meet up with Marianne, a girl that he had become acquainted with while attending a course about radio playwriting in England. She was an unusual girl who was partly Russian and taught it too. She had spent a number of years suffering from anorexia and always seemed a very dreamy and insubstantial person. She was clever though and was the one who had initiated the group poem, Wild Strawberries/At the dacha, that they had performed at the writing centre. Richard with whom he had become great friends called her ‘the ubiquitous Marianne’.
He stayed with her at her sister’s house in Boston. They went to a Chinese restaurant where he had his first encounter with crispy aromatic duck and the next day he returned on a bus from Boston to New York where he went back to Arthur and Jesse’s apartment. There, having travelled across the United States on his own with very little money he had a great sense of achievement. As he was getting on the plane back to England a Sikh gentleman stopped him and asked him if he would sit next to his elderly father on the flight and look after him. David told him gladly that he would.
A coming of age story: during his journey David had gradually become aware that life was about more than being married and having children, something that he had always valued before his divorce. When he arrived back in England it all seemed much smaller and more manageable. He decided to put his house on the market and his life began again. It would take some time before he became what he wanted to be, but then 'life is a long song' as I'm sure you all know.
Peter Leyland – revised 24/08/20