“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, thought I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America from “America” by Paul Simon
With a full two years of teenage existence already in my back pocket, Christmas of 1968 would mark some degree of recognition on my parents part as to the direction my restless awakenings were taking me. On that particular December 25th, while they weren’t quite ready to give into my sense of fashion, they would at least accede to my musical tastes. Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and the Bookends album from Simon and Garfunkel would provide the early high-fidelity soundtrack of my adolescence. And in the summer of 1972, with only a few dollars in my wallet, some Paul Simon inspired optimism in my heart, and a touch of Bob Dylan’s cynicism in my head–I would take to the road in search of my own version of the “American Dream.”
The lessons of those wanderings would not be fully understood until much later in life. But after a few years, it did become clear that I would need much more than acquired wisdom, the generosity of strangers, the benevolence of friends, and part-time employment in order to achieve my share of our national ethos. So I decided to further my education at a New Jersey state college. And it was there as part of an assignment for a film class that I, like those adept marketeers at the Bernie Sander’s campaign, decided to use the song “America” as the basis for a visual statement about the country.
Armed with only an 8mm Bell and Howell movie camera, I would head onto those mean streets of Newark, New Jersey. Well actually, where I was the streets weren’t all that mean. My goal was to try and capture the faces of American diversity in the Portuguese section of the city. Here there was a thriving scene of ethnic restaurants that were reviving and bringing economic stability to a neighborhood that formally was suffering the ravages of crime and poverty. And luckily for me, there were a couple of decent bars in that part of town that would provide a break from the early March chill in between takes. One of those urban watering holes was the legendary McGovern’s, and the other was a comfortable corner tavern whose name escapes me after these many years. But it was that place that had the greater impact on me during my brief stint as an extremely amateur film maker.
During the two days of shooting, I made friends with an older woman (whose name I also cannot recall) that tended bar on most afternoons. In between eight-ounce Schaefers, shots of Rye whiskey, and decorating the place for St. Patrick’s Day we spoke about those things that were at the forefront of each of our lives. My challenges and issues were by no means as pressing as this human being who was then struggling to survive cancer. In the matter of a few short hours we had become very close. And I remember saving her the inconvenience of waiting for a bus by giving her a ride to a bowling alley where she would join her mom for league night. I was invited in for a quick beer, and to meet her mother and the other gals that comprised their team. And like a politician in a New Hampshire diner, I would shake a few hands, share a couple of fond embraces, and then part their company forever.
Looking back at those times, I remember the challenges and fears that tested our national fortitude: runaway inflation, recession, an ongoing energy crisis, Three Mile Island, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, and of course the individual sufferings and misfortunes that are visited upon all of us. But the courage and compassion of those that I met along life’s earlier journeys have hopefully served to bring about a greater kindness and empathy toward all as I negotiate, with now shorter strides, the paths that lie before me.
For the record, my pairing of Paul Simon’s genius to Super 8 imagery was judged to be worthy of nothing more than a B-. Whereas, Mr. Sander’s short musical take on the matter has been heralded by some as being one of the best political ads in history.
Hopefully, whichever candidate completes that journey to Pennsylvania Avenue they will bring to that coveted address those heroic and exceptional qualities characteristic of those better Americans that they have met along the way!
Posted by: Chris Poh for American Public House Review