Friday, August 15, 2008

G-d Bless America

My family and I spent the night on a Greyhound bus from New York City to Pittsburgh. The enforced solitude of random strangers thrown into close proximity creates an interesting energy. It always feels like different orbits at a rare point of intersection. The bus driver spoke an elegant and collegiate English. She outlined the schedule of the trip and some common sense rules for being considerate of other passengers. Despite being a regular driver on the route, she appreciated the newness of the trip to most of her passengers.
"Federal law prohibits smoking anywhere on the bus . So please, no smoking, or consumption of alcoholic beverages. And whatever you do, please don't smoke in my bathroom." Her use of the word "my" created the feeling that the condition of our space was of personal pride to her. Her assertiveness created a sense of intimacy and security.
The bus went through the Allegheny Mountains. In the total darkness of the coach, I could see the outline of mountains in the heavy fog. Lights from buildings and houses in the distance were thinly spread, not like the carpet of light in large cities but thinly scattered dots in the hills , like braille haiku in a language foreign to me.
In the still of night , details of the world around you unfold in slow motion that are normally a blur. Mile after mile of smoothly paved roads , bright lights and signs. All were planned, all were designed. Toil in the winter and sweat in the summer. Every mile of road was days of work. I look at the pavement and street lights as useful fossils of a day's work, years ago.
The English spoken at road stops has a different accent. You can travel hundreds of miles and spend the same money. You can ride for hours through a land connected by the a common tongue.
"E pluribus unum". "Out of many, one". I look at a vast array of ethnicities. People came from Ireland, from Italy and from all across Latin America. I imagine the grandparents of our driver, seated at the back of a bus. Today, their granddaughter sits in the driver's seat, working hard for her dreams. Her accent and language bespeak an education that was far more elusive in years past. My mother tells me about those years. In her part of Pennsylvania, children of Croatian immigrants were steered away from higher education. There were many forms of prejudice to overcome in those years.
Why do I think of these things? Day dreams of my ancestors are never far from my waking thoughts. Children in pictures of civil war in Bosnia always remind me of my own children. So many times during those years I silently thanked my grandparents for coming to America, where a shift in accent marks the miles on a highway and not the face of an enemy. A common currency symbolises peace. A patchwork of banknotes issued by different ethnic enclaves symbolises fear. A toll booth is a place where you can stop and ask for directions. There are no armed checkpoints. Over there, the wrong accent, a scrap of paper in your wallet written in the wrong alphabet could add up to a death sentence. Over there, broken and scorned men set sail for our shores, all but stripped of hope. Over here, they own houses and cars, passing business and connections from parents to children.
In the solitude of night , the shadows of my past mingle in the bus window's reflections with the lights of distant houses flickering in the fog. By the light of dawn, the dew of memory evaporates from my thoughts. As the sun rises in the sky, I open a book about the Jews of Spain. As I read, another set of ghosts peeks from between the pages as I read of our golden years in Sefarad. I look in the index for a name that my grandmother mentioned to me. At the highway road stop, I hear Spanish spoken in front of me in line at the cash register. I hear Spanish spoken by a stranger, a reminder of a fork in the road so many years ago. Sphere: Related Content

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