tripping in america (excerpt)

Tripping in America

(excerpt) Written in 1981; published in 1984)

Indians, gooks and niggers, queers and deadbeats—what do they know about America? About Americana? But they’re learning. Everyone is learning. Even the gays are getting with it. In some places the gays are getting with it so well they’re taking over. In other placed blacks grow shifty-eyed as the unesy awareness comes over them that they’re becoming double-breasted reactionaries. And they’re black now, not niggers, and gooks are Asian Americans Hear me out! The flag waves in the same old breeze, and those who look to such barometers for a sign of the weather see no great change in store.

America was built on a rock and the Constitution was drafted by men of vision. There’s room under this canopy for all of us to get in out of the rain. All you gotta do is love them. That’s what they said to Yossarian in Catch 22. But no one wants to hear that anymore. Everyone loves them. And once you love them, you’re part of them, and they disperse tiny nuggets of power like communion wafers.

Fifteen years ago I drove around D.C. In a convertible on a warm summer’s day, drinking beer and listening to the Rolling Stones on the radio. Fifteen years later I’m racing over the 14th Street Bridge, just inches ahead of rush-hour traffic. What’s new? What’s different? Nothing and everthing. I’ve left Sandra wandering thru centuries of art. Teresa and Hans are up on Capital Hill, waiting for their work day to end. The tourists swarming around with their cameras and their misconceptions…

Listening to a tour guide taking a bevy of tourists around, listening to the stock explanations she has for the likes of Rothko and Pollock. The war, you see, changed things…changed values…the Second World War, that is. And so these men began to…to paint like this. She gestures to a Pollock. The halfmoon of faces stares expressionless. “Any fool can do that,” a black girl says, but there’s an uneasiness in her voice. She knows that somehow power is mixed up in all this.

We’re in the new wing, the west wing of the National Gallery of Art. All the trophies on the walls. The walls trophies in themselves. A tapestry done by Miro bolted to the marble with bridge bolts —-maybe two storeys high and as wide as a shrimp boat. Perhaps five tons of woven hemp. Beautiful, but I know Miro didn’t do it. Maybe he did a pastel under sunny Spanish skies and sent it off to Mexico where twenty weavers from the provinces worked it out for room and board and twenty pesos a day, returning home heroes to their wives and children and plunging the village into three days of festivities. A huge bonfire in the square, the light attracting Indians down out of the hills; butchered and roasted pig; music! Young boys and girls slipping off into the shadows…

Meanwhile a team from the museum is getting quietly drunk in the lounge of the Hilton in Mexico City. In the morning they’ll fly in, landing on the red dirt strip that’s thirty minutes away from the village by four-wheel-drive. In flight a woman on the team will get violently ill. Because of the turbulance, she’ll say, but also because of the Scotch she drank in the lounge the night before, and the Scotch she drank later in someone’s room, the new man on the team, the intense young restoration expert from Paraguay… And there it is, bolted to the wall in the National Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Tourists move about cautiously, crane their necks, fumble in their pockets for their instamatics…

Heritage. Culture. One girl I saw, she blitzed thru a room of van Goghs, Cezannes and Gauguins and never looked at a single painting. She went from one small data card to the next. She was getting off on the data cards. The names of the artists, their life span, the titles they decided on for their works. She was modern art in motion. She got thru the museum in 35 minutes flat and then went off with a boy who was doing back flips on roller blades on the sidewalk out front.

It’s not natural to have these works of art crammed together in this expensive building. The building is a power display. Power mucks around with art. It imposes itself upon art. It says: This is a painting done by a man who went out of his skull and died at the age of 36; he never sold a painting while alive except to relatives; this painting is now worth $10,000; it’s worth a million.

Power dictates value. People who are intimidated by power quickly lose their ability to make independent judgement. People who are intimidated by power are turned from niggers into blacks. Fags into gays. Hippies into junior executives. They are given a token nugget of power in return for their cooperation, their love. They forget how to discern the beauty from the beast. They proliferate like lemming.

It’s a string of individual failings that will bring us to our knees, our heads resting on the chopping block.

TRIPPING IN AMERICA — a series of observations made on a three-month round-robin trip across America. It is the book that opened the door on my Shard writing. Click the following link if you’d like to purchase the book…

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