Real America Is As It Is Made
Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley, he’s lookin’ for food
I am in the kitchen with the tombstone blues
— Bob Dylan, Tombstone Blues, Highway 61 Revisited, 1965
More than ever, today, we crave the real. We have always craved the real — or at least, a facsimile thereof; Milli Vanili is symbolic of the slipping of the illusion of reality in music even today, and in the Seattle circles navigated by a younger (or perhaps older, as Dylan phrased it in My Back Pages — I considered myself so well-read and wise in those days) self, the unlearned urgency and verisimilitude of rough and weird underground music held ascendency. Rough blues, hard punk, created by forgotten musicians in some mildewed basement. Few sins were so great as being seen to be trying, even though all things must require great effort to truly pull off, even as the best of these pieces of music reflect a deep and disciplined work under the messy veneer of the traveling folk musician.
And now we yearn for real touch, real talk, untouched by disinformation but ever beholden to our own ideal of what constitutes reality. Perhaps it is then wrong to say we crave the real, because even the best of us expects reality to conform at some level to the expectation; it is tied up in how we tell or fail to tell news of truth from news of lies.
I am sure you, like me, have seen, perhaps even read many of the popular genre of opinion piece that seeks to find the opinion of Real America — a conversation overheard in a diner that may not exist, a meal shared in a truck stop. While many of these Real America narratives strain one’s suspension of disbelief in phrasing and the rendering of the odd characters within, a handful may seem likely to be real — but the entire genre is predicated upon the rural, urgent, rough, and weird being more real than the polished humans we present to each other when we exist within the city streets. I am perhaps less well-travelled than some of those writers, but I have stood in strange truck stops at 3 AM, and the weird denizens within are no less really American than the young professional just now returning to a Phoenix bar, or the programmer and lapsed crust punk smoking after putting in their work at a Seattle technology company. Instead of the opinion writer, I find, perhaps, more kinship with poets in the vein of Bob Dylan — who sang about both the poor and the rich, simple joys and deep and complex ills. A writer who tried to see the entirety of America as it is, in reality, even if this was never a stated or conscious goal.
1,500 miles roughly separate the land in which I was exiled to continue my education and the jumbled pile of trees, airplane machinists, Microsoft executives, and the occasional bobcat that served as my childhood home. To return, one must leave the Valley of the Sun, populated in rebellion against physics, the sun, and God, and turn on to Highway 93 to Las Vegas — that great spire of fantasy and plastic, a physical manifestation bringing the petty dreams of one Bugsy Siegel into reality and etching it upon one of the many faces of Real America. From here, you are driven north — out of civilization, into deep and eldritch mountains.
It was there I found myself at 3 AM, exhausted and low on fuel, in the vast and empty space between Nevada and Idaho — where the very shades of being seem to slip, skip wandering at the edge of a pair of retrofitted LED headlights as I burned my heady way through 5,000 foot elevation changes. Seeing a gas station, I stopped — and encountered perhaps a realer form of America than one can find anywhere else. I filled my tank, and went in; a trucker spoke to the aged attendant to the dulcet strains of an iPod playing a Nightwish album through convenience store speakers. I asked for intelligence on the best route through the mountainous terrain, knowing a wrong turn would leave me without gas far from the convenience of cellular service, lost amidst ghost towns populated only by the shades of 19th century miners, no more to take part in the fabric of what is real. Directions secured, I retreated to the parking lot to sleep. I passed a few sweet hours there, watched over by phantom cats as they lurked around the dumpster and tended to the tiny kitten who was the youngest to join their blind order, before I returned to the road and faded from the land.
See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
— Bob Dylan, Blind Willie McTell, 1983
When I was an older man, I insisted the sins of the forebears were not reflective of the truth of the nature of America, and when I was younger, I held as an artefact of faith that they were all of the truth of this land. But the truth I see now is that perhaps it is more complicated than either, because both the great and lofty ideals and utter failure to live up to their standards put forth by founders, both great advancements in the name of these ideals and great injustice in bondage to their ugly and rusted brethren are equally ours to hold and rectify. But we alone may truly grapple with their meaning and find a way forward, because not only are we alone as a nation willing to grapple with the total and utter extent of both depths of evil and heights of altruistic good this nation has accomplished. We were willing to fight the most terrible form of war to ensure both our continuance and the liberation and equality of our fellows. We created the conditions in which this war was necessary. We marched for equality and we bombed those who marched for it and both things are fully, utterly, and in totality included in the soul of this nation, where the lettering above a water fountain reading “Colored Only” is only sixty years faded.
There seems to me to be a yearning for a sort of Real Hero, a person who has done great things and no wrong, who may be looked up to without fear of the pain of finding out one’s idol is rotted and chewed by the termites of human behavior. But this Real Hero cannot exist; every person who accomplishes great things has also accomplished evils, either unintentionally or on purpose. Who, after all, has not said some cruel word to another? Yet we also crave real consequences for those who do great harm, as we rightly should; what good is a slap on the wrist for someone who by nature of their power and respect be held to a higher standard than the average? Many solve this with nearly-nihilistic tribalism, defending their hero because of the good they did with no space for the bad; or else claiming that no good was done after all. But every life saved by a doctor has meaning even if the doctor also did great harms to others. Does this make this doctor a good person? Perhaps not, but it erases neither the good nor the evil, nor does it make either less real. Perhaps it is better to not consider the person but rather the act, and judge each act according to constant principle — a reliability not even the greatest thinker may successfully achieve, but striving is better than resignation to base instinct.
Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull, I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
— Bob Dylan, My Back Pages, Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964
I am the son of an immigrant, himself the son of an immigrant. My grandfather came to these shores seeking Real America and found it in a land where a son of another land who once ran between the fields of rice and the tilapia farm now passes his final years surrounded by family in southern California, old bones warmed by the sun, and perfumed by the scent of a thousand cuisines colliding in the shade of a Kalamansi tree and a few palms. This idyllic peace is no less real than the elder of the Nightwish Gas Station, the child of old Harlem, or the West Virginian come home to family and a filling meal. But this is a depth — and breadth — of experience and place far wider than any one mind can truly comprehend. It is easy to become over-focused on one victory or defeat, one good or ill, and lose perspective of the depths and heights of this nation in every way and corner; to treat it as an irredeemable monolith when even in our darkest days there were those who opposed evil. And what is there to redeem? This suggests the history of a place has an ultimate morality instead of being made of the myriad and contradictory moralities of the individuals and groups who live within it. What is there to condemn? Only the evils perpetrated by some groups, while recognizing their grandchildren are often a wholly different people, with different ideals, different qualities, values, and flaws, who must one day be judged by their own successes and failings. Only then may we begin to approach the reality of the great tapestry of what is and is done, what was and was done.
Interstate 10 is nearly perfectly straight between Tonopah and just before Quartzsite, passing through a drab and simple valley that looks as if a videogame developer wished desperately to go home on a Friday night and was tired of dealing with the performance problems of having things like ‘trees’ and ‘scenery’. As you tie your steering wheel straight and nudge a brick into its place on your gas pedal, a town that hardly existed a hundred years prior in your rear-view mirror, it is easy to feel as if one is slipping out of reality into a sort of slip-space, more liminal than a hallway in a Motel 6 as experienced at 2 AM on a Tuesday. But the road behind you was unpaved when your grandmother was a child, and may again become so before you ride that final highway in that long black modified Cadillac station wagon, as we all must someday travel. Perhaps it would be best to plant a geographically appropriate cactus, so it will no longer be so empty. The things that exist in our reality are first as they are made and then weathered by time and wind, the chisel and hammer of God upon our rough works — monuments to that which is now past. Real America is as it is made.
One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee ’fore I go
To the valley below
–Bob Dylan, One More Cup of Coffee, Desire, 1976
When you leave the house of my Ate (or — Americanized — Auntie, though not necessarily an aunt by the traditional western reckoning), you do not leave emptyhanded. It is impossible to leave without a full belly and food for the road besides, pungent and warm and seasoned with care and abandon. I remember the house of a Black pastor, a friend of my father’s, in similar terms; there is a kindness and love that transcends all cultural boundaries, and I pray the things they wrought in their communities last long after there is none left alive who remembers their names. These things are also deeply real — and powerful, and good. Though it seems impossible to me, I would perhaps like to create something that remains so real and makes things perhaps a little better for some as they have — not to be remembered, for I do not wish to be remembered, but rather that my descendants, or the descendants of my friends, or the descendants of good people whom I do not know may find some good in this world, and be heartened, and create their own good things, and make them real, and carve them deep upon the pages of this land and of their peoples such that a thousand years cannot erase it. Today, we desire something more real than what we experience. Meet me tomorrow, in the valley, to make something real for the future — a new thread in the vast fabric of Real America, and the world in which we live.