DEAN CODY CASSADY OFFERS AN EXCERPT FROM A TRIP TO THE EAST COAST OF THE STATES.
I finally made it to the USA, after years of sucking up the place through childhood TV. Outside Boston, MA., in an old timber frame house, it’s like stepping into that TV screen! Lightblue and white, cream and brown, pastelgreen detached houses, all with verandas. Walking down Newtonville at night, it struck me about the space: no house is built up against any other when it doesn’t need to be; just how big must this whole country be?
It’s strange, this place we think we know so well but which is Aliensville, MA. I mean, we know its streets, the cars, the way the lights hang over the traffic, swaying in the tumblebreeze, the Stars and Stripes hanging like redblue flowers from posts, yet we haven’t ever seen it: it’s like we’ve slightly shifted into an alternate universe.
Strange that the locals in a Boston bar can’t understand my accent. I slow down, speak clearer, stop my slur into London English, as I tend to do when lazy; yet, I understand Ian from Georgia perfectly (and vice versa), even with his slow Southern twang: ‘Hey, what’s up, y’all?’ I thought I’d assimilated after all these years. Obviously not yet.
We rumble past the Red Sox stadium on the top deck of the double-decker train into Boston, jumping off at Back Bay, literally: waiting for the footbar to swing up, like we’d seen it do from outside, but it doesn’t. Four or five feet down onto the platform. A fat, angry female guard behind us shouts: ‘Don’t you ever do that again, you hear?’ We hit the exit steps, running.
A favourite phrase right now is ‘What’s going on here?’: no pubs in Boston, except down Union and Marshall; bar glasses three quarters of a full English pint; on every intersection there’s a four square pattern of pedestrian rights-of-way (‘Hey,’ shouted one Bostonian at a taxi, ‘don’t y’know pe-destrians have right of way, you idiot?’) The double-decker train. We sit up on the top deck: it begs us to. The guard doesn’t understand my accent: ‘Newtonville to Back Bay,’ I say, but I pronounce it English new (n’you), rather than American noo. We learn quick, from the ticket he’s punched, that if we want to go there and back, it’s a roundtrip rather than a return. We pay him $2 each, preparing to pay again from Back Bay because he hasn’t registered what we want.
We find a bar in the old town, just off the Italian quarter. Kind of like an English pub, it’s on the tourist route. Why do we tourists do this? We come three and a half thousand miles and find a place that serves English beer: so we order it, stick to it. It takes a few days to readjust. I hope, by the time we get to New York, we’ll have Americanised our former selves: we’ll be able to order some sandwich on rye with whatever filling, hold the mustard, double Columbian latte to go. Or something similar. I somehow doubt it though. It’s our Englishness, you understand.
Americanisation. I find myself trying to adjust my accent and vocabulary, just to fit in. Why? Am I that unsure of myself? We Englishmen talk to each other about restrooms not toilets; bucks not dollars; intersections not junctions or crossroads; bars not pubs. We’re in a kind of limbo here.
You see Americans in England waxing lyrical about the history of the place, but I’m in reverse here. Boston: birthplace of the Revolution. It’s difficult to see that history though. The American Grid street system has taken over; I can’t see history in the grid: the ‘Cheers’ bar, the Expressways to NY, the BigDig out near the airport.
Way back at architecture school there was a lecturer who’d absorbed America already by the time he’d got to us. He was passionate about the wide open space, painting it from every angle: huge empty skies above long wide streets; passive cars between isolated gas stations, bright-red Coca-Cola signs; thin telegraph poles, wires strung across roads; trafficlight blocks hung over them, insinuations of hot soft wind easing through the place, stuffing itself into the wide open space, ruffling the tattered-edged Stars and Stripes hung from posts in the middle of the road. The paleblue sky, the dusty-red Coca-Cola signs, the pastel yellowgreen landscape: like the whole painting had been washed in water specially stored in a jar since the Sixties.
Well, we walked into one of those paintings out in Newtonville, MA. Although not exactly a painting in itself, the intersection of Walnut and Washington, over the railroad bridge, made me flash-back; I could see how and why he’d absorbed it. God is in the details, we were taught (the wisdom of architect, Mies van der Rohe). Although this is only an intersection, a dull little everyday sight with no exceptional qualities to the everyday American, it’s an exceptional sight when not taken for granted.
This wide four-way intersection over the railroad bridge; four lanes of occasional passive cars; thin poles up between the blocks; the ubiquitous Stars and Stripes, limp but proud, tattered like a wartorn memory, hung from the post in the middle of the road. Under the widescreen panoramic sky, the painted scene soaked in ordinariness and branded at the subtle edges with dusty pale-red Coca-Cola signs, Mies van der Rohe’s God is in the details.
– Dean Cody Cassady