From the Big Orange to the Big Apple! It’s still the longest road trip I’ve ever taken. Our YMCA leaders were a married couple who, along with their two young children Brian and Judy, had signed on to see the New York World’s Fair. Most of the dozen teenagers stayed kippered into the van singing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” But I often rode in the RV with Brian and Judy, where I could stretch out and watch the scenery from the big picture window in the back. We saw so many tumbleweeds I began to think of us as tumbleweeds.
But once we hit Oklahoma City, we veered north into the Ozarks’ deep piney greens. We also saw blacks and whites. People, that is–carefully separated. I was stunned to find “White” and “Colored” bathrooms at a little mountain general store. I also saw boxes of leftover 4th of July firecrackers, including one brand featuring a crude caricature of a “colored boy” on a split-rail fence scarfing down stolen watermelon while an angry white farmer brandished his pitch fork.
The Voting Rights Act had passed into law just before we left, but no one here seemed to have heard of it. It was the first time I’d seen racism openly displayed, and it preyed on my mind for the rest of the trip. Later that day, as we passed the two towering halves of St. Louis’s not-yet-connected Gateway Arch, it seemed a more apt metaphor for America than the single, completed arch would be.
We stayed in the basement of a Baptist church in Queens, rolling out our sleeping bags on the hard linoleum floor, just blocks away from where West Side Story had been filmed. “Walk in threes,” they warned us. “One or two is an invitation to a mugging; more than three is an invitation to a rumble.” The gangs here were defined by ethnicity, we were told: Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, Asians. The church was making progress in ethnic reconciliation, but there was so much left to be done.
The World’s Fair was a short ride away, and yet in another galaxy. The motto on the iconic Unisphere read, “Peace Through Understanding.” This is the way the world should be! I thought, full of cool new cars (the Mustang was introduced here), push-button phones (!), know-it-all computers (a bedroom-sized mainframe analyzed my handwriting and told me I was “moody” and “opinionated”), and singing children. But then those children only got along, I suspected, because they were animatronic.
We squeezed in everything we could, Rory and I: the Empire State Building, Nathan’s hotdogs, Lindy’s cheesecake, the cheapest sandwiches on the menu at Sardi’s, the Radio City Rockettes. I loved NYC. But the most indelible moment came at the end of a train ride to Connecticut.
Rory had promised to visit his aunt. She was dignified and gracious, serving the New England version of high tea. Everything went swimmingly until I mentioned the segregation we’d seen in the south. Her husband quietly informed me that the only solution was to “send those people back to Africa where they belong.” Once I realized what he’d said, everything I’d been chewing on rose like bile in my brain. I jumped up and shouted, “This is their country too, as much as it is yours!” He shouted back. It got worse, much worse. Rory’s aunt began to cry. So Rory quickly thanked her and dragged me out of the house.
Later, on our way back to California, we slept under a prairie sky exploding with stars, and I realized that America was both uglier and more beautiful…
Than I’d ever imagined.
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