I recently went to one of the country’s holy sites, which involved driving there from the city and back, so I had many hours and an interstate’s-eye view of the country. Since I stayed in a hotel, I had a nighttime journey, click by click, of the country’s televised mind.
Once the towers of the city, the cranes of the container port, and the signs to the airport shrink in the rear-view mirror, country proper begins. Sound fences and median strips try to pretty it up, like scarves and makeup on an aging actress, but these soon give way to the utilitarianism of the road, and its trucks and commuters. What do they see as they fare forward?
The hills were not the Rockies, or Hannibal’s Alps, but General Forbes trying to get to Fort Duquesne or General Lee trying to sack Philadelphia had to be mindful of them. They lie in ridges like fingers, often perversely perpendicular to the way you have to go. The semis labor going up them, then roar with gravity’s help going down. Cars play tag in and around these behemoths. Police, heralded by everyone’s sudden observance of the speed limit, wait on side roads to catch the careless.
The town names are filled with consonant clusters, the result of German immigration — not the wave that brought the Brookhisers, but the wave that brought the Hoovers and the Eisenhowers, before there was even a country. Who was it who said that Germans make good Americans, though of course they make bad Germans? I pass East Berlin, which, since the fall of Communism, must be the only one left in the world.
Where there are rivers there will be cities. Quick, an office building. Factories or warehouses, lower but larger, receive a longer glance. I don’t recall any smoke; we must have put it in containers and shipped it to Malaysia. In between, cows confer at round bale feeders, dry cornstalks shiver like devils’ toothpicks. McHouses eat the farmland up, but there is still plenty left.
When we make something, we have to sell it, which means we have to advertise. Offers of gas, food, and lodging are segregated at exits, but rogue messages intrude. There is the signage on vans and pickups, mostly offers to build or fix. The occasional outlet store goes all out: There was a big push for sheepskin products of all sorts, including Seat Covers — Truckers Welcome. One lucky entrepreneur hardly needed a sign, for his scrap-metal yard sat right off the shoulder: a pyramid of blasted metal bits, and 20 truck cabs, lined up like old folks in the parlor of an assisted-living facility. Libido was served: Keep Your Eyes on the Road warned one sign, dishonestly, while flashing a bare back under a shower head. This cleanliness was not next to godliness. That’s all right, because godliness came soon enough. A Mennonite church declared, You Will Find God. Not “Come and” but “You will”: That’s more definite than the pope these days. Then, a big hand-lettered message: God Made You Lovingly. Transgender Is Humanism.
Do this twelve times east to west and seven north to south, with some multiplier to fill in the gaps, and you have the country. But at night you can travel the flat-screen highway without leaving the hotel duvet cover.
They say the big sports channel has been losing viewers, but there is still plenty of sports on offer, most of it now football. I hate the superimposed lines which show the viewer how far until a first down. The players don’t see them, or the fans in the stands — what is this, ectoplasmic football? There was also a fictional basketball game. Black coach to scrappy players: Just because you deserve to win, doesn’t mean they will let you. Inspired, they score. But then, the rival’s hotshot throws at the buzzer . . .
What would we do without police procedurals? Cops fight for prostitutes. The pimp wears a feather in his fedora, he don’t know those girls. Keep talking, you’ll get yours. A young Al Pacino has robbed a bank, but a cop sneaks a pistol out of a hiding place and shoots his partner in the head. He got his. A real-life show shows a cop grilling a young woman who has stolen a car. She has broken parole, and she is transgender. The wages of humanism.
On a news show sits a table of foxes. Two short skirts, two suits, one guy, a comic, in dress-down. Postulants are visiting the president-elect. Saint-Simon at Bedminster. The comic has the best line: Better not tap the senator, his father has a record of assassination. Local news: forest fires. The graphic shows a pile of burning leaves, which is what you’re not supposed to do.
But most interesting — so interesting I actually stopped to watch, for at least ten minutes, which with a TV remote in hand is holding eternity — most interesting are the stories. One kept reappearing. I will give you two iterations.
An ordinary young American boy cowers under a spaceship. Then we cut to a remote solar system, a dead world. A star voyager eases down his craft, explores. Computer lights flash at his glance, dart from his hands. Then he presses a button and we hear — ’80s soft rock. It is the boy, grown up. Villains appear: They have blue or charcoal-gray skins, one cuts off someone’s head. They are after the boy/man, but they will get theirs.
A different boy/man, comic. He looks like a pizza-delivery guy who ate all the pizzas. His foe is a supervillain in a jungle lair. Orientalist clichés abound; the executioner is a negress with a bare back. It is all in fun, of course. The supervillain challenges the hero to a game of ping pong, sudden death, but guess who gets his?
Moral: The boy/man wins in the end. And so he has. The country has spoken.