Politics & Policy

Down East and Out West, Part I

I’ve come to New Hampshire, but I’m not running for president. I’m just about the only one who’s not. I am covering the presidential campaign.

Ah, well. I’ll wait to be drafted (and wait).

‐I’m glad to be renting a car, because, for the first time, I have the license plate. You know what license plate I’m talking about: Live Free or Die. America’s greatest license plate.

That sort of talk — “Live free or die” — drives Western Europeans and others crazy. But it’s very American.

I’m afraid it’s getting more symbolic, or more quaint, all the time, but still . . .

(“Live on Government Benefits or Die”? “Live the Life of Julia or Die”?)

‐What is the city of Manchester? It’s “New Hampshire’s Downtown.” That’s what a sign says.

‐When you eat at the Airport Diner, you’re eating in “The Common Man Family of Restaurants.” I find that Aaron Copland is running through my head. (He is the composer, you remember, of the Fanfare for the Common Man.)

‐“Hon” never grows old, to me — I mean, being called “hon” by waitresses and others. New Englanders are known for reserve. But they’ll throw “hon” at you sooner than a southerner will throw “honey chile.”

I appreciate it (both).

‐If I had to draw up a top-ten list of Bad Things about America, the following would make it. Hell, I think it would make my top five.

You can’t open a window in a hotel room (many of them). A case in point: It’s a beautiful New England night. Maybe 60 degrees. And, of course, you can’t open the window. So you have to have air conditioning, and bad air conditioning, with a smelly carpet.

Oh, to open that window, with that glorious air!

Come on, America, you moron!

‐But I salute Main Street — Concord’s Main Street. It is an American Main Street out of a picturebook, and I’d like to spend a couple of afternoons strolling down it (up it?). (Both.)

‐Visiting Salem, N.H., I think, “There are lots of Salems in America. Probably be easier to draw up a list of states that don’t have a Salem.”

‐Reflecting on all the English place-names in New Hampshire, I think, “I am really in English America. Same as there is a French Canada, there is an English America.”

But then I think, “Nah, not really. The entire country is studded with English place-names — Salem among them.”

‐I visit the Old Meeting House in Hampstead — established in 1745. The meeting house, I mean, not Hampstead. Beholding this place, Thornton Wilder would blush.

(By the way, I once knew an old man who, when a young man, was propositioned by Thornton Wilder. My friend was not the type to be receptive — far from it. Really far from it. Still, a fun story, a fun fact.)

‐Some New Hampshirites have accents, some don’t. I’m talking about the native-born. If your parents came from elsewhere — you probably don’t have a New Hampshire or New England accent.

I’m always kind of disappointed when they don’t. Sort of feel cheated, if that makes any sense.

‐Manchester has a Red Barn Diner, and the building really is a little red barn. You can’t not go in — at least I can’t.

The waitress — the only waitress on duty, the only one necessary — is out of a movie. She’s like an actress, planted there. To play a crusty, superficially rude, heart-of-gold Down East waitress. Everyone else in the joint is a regular, by the looks of it. They, too, seem out of a movie. Planted there, for the amazement and enjoyment of strangers who wander in.

One of the pops on offer — I speak of “sodas” — is Moxie. I’ve never heard of it. The waitress and another customer are shocked at my ignorance. I have a Moxie, a diet Moxie.

Is good.

‐At the airport, a voice comes over the PA system to announce, with a touch of pride, that we’ll have an “on-time departure.” Shouldn’t such a departure be the norm? Rather than announceable? Shouldn’t the late departures merit the announcement?

A couple of weeks ago, I was on an Amtrak train. We were delayed — stuck on the tracks — for two hours. No reason for this long, long delay was given. Instead we were told, repeatedly, “Thank you for your patience and cooperation.”

Patience and cooperation? What else were we going to do? What other choice did we have? What would noncooperation have looked like?

A day or two later, I was stuck on a New York subway train, for a comparatively little while. The recorded voice kept saying, “We will be moving momentarily.” I thought, “You only get to say this four or five times. Then you should really have to stop.”

‐At the Denver airport, I see a sign for a tornado shelter. Never seen one of those before — not at an airport.

‐Subway riders used to be called straphangers — because they hung on to straps, up above. There haven’t been straps in years. But on the train at the Denver airport, there are. So we riders are straphangers. Actual ones.

‐I’m in line at the Hertz agency. A family approaches the line (which is a little nebulous). The Hertz lady, indicating me, says, “Stand behind this gentleman.” And the father in the family says, “That’s no gentleman.” I say to the lady, “He must know me!”

Later, this thought occurs to me: Only in America, probably, would a complete stranger make such a crack — “That’s no gentleman.” That is part of what I love about this country: its openness, its familiarity, its equality, its easy intercourse (pardon the expression). (Intercourse is all too easy these days.)

I could write a long essay on this subject, but instead will move on, in this lil’ journal . . .

‐The sky out here in Colorado is immense. Absolutely immense. I think of a song from On the Town, for I have just seen it, on Broadway: “New York, New York, a visitor’s place, / Where no one lives on account of the pace, / But seven millions are screaming for space . . .” There is plenty of space out here.

‐I have trouble keeping my speed up to 75 mph. That’s the speed limit. I’d better explain: For years — for decades — I have been conditioned, first to a 55 mph speed limit, then to 65. Seventy-five, I am not real familiar with. So I have to put lead in my foot.

Which is a pleasurable task to do.

‐Also a pleasure is to drive on . . . the Ronald Reagan Highway. Oh, yes. Thank you, Colorado (and thank you, Gipper).

‐I ask a hotel clerk in Colorado Springs what to eat around here. Are there any local specialties? She gives me a funny look and says, “Well, there are Rocky Mountain oysters.” “Really?” I say. “What are those?” She says, with just a half-second’s hesitation, “Buffalo testicles.”

Ah. Anyway, I’ll conclude this journal tomorrow. Thanks and see you. 

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