“Here was a gorgeous triumph; they were missed; they were mourned; hearts were breaking on their account; tears were being shed; accusing memories of unkindnesses to these poor lost lads were rising up, and unavailing regrets and remorse were being indulged: and best of all, the departed were the talk of the whole town, and the envy of all the boys, as far as this dazzling notoriety was concerned. This was fine. It was worth being a pirate, after all.”[i]
Mississippi carries colorful reminiscences and plenty of monochrome thoughts. Like a snake it squeezes its eternal way through the solid ground of the American heartland. It dictates the even rhythm of life – slow and sore …like a blues.
These grubby, noisy characters (Sawyer and Finn) have never been as fiercely mourned as now. And there is nothing gorgeous about that. The stranger, wandering around Muscatine (Iowa), impatiently waits for the ragged, sunburned kids to appear around the corner with a bucket of oil-paint and pockets full of childish treasures, whistling imaginary song.
This is the lost America. On and behind the close-up shots one could see a lot. The story is over, the actors are gone… The only thing left is the theatrical scenery. The town looks like an abandoned movie set, sugared like colorful sweets, naive as the note on the church’s window display, but also brutal as a backstage mattress.
“All young people leave Muscatine”, a guy who presented himself to be a “street pharmacist”, told me in a bar next to the river shore three evenings ago. “There is just nothing to do here.”
It was obvious that the locals have grown too comfortable in their silence.
Silence, Solitude, Sarcasm – a holy Trinity the locals started worshiping after the U.S. 61 Route skirted the town several years ago.
Why do I care about Muscatine?! Because it played on the tense strings of my genes. The other day I saw it as a reflection of my hometown. I don’t feel like going into statistics right now. Sometimes I don’t give a damn about numbers. This is the case now. “Unemployment”, “recession”, “debt” and “emigration” are only words. But I know too well what it means to celebrate family holidays in three different time zones (now try to imagine Bulgaria on the map of Europe). I know too well how cold the bathroom’s floor is at 3 a.m. as well as how crappy the oversea calls could be. I am too familiar with the taste in the mouth after the operator tells you the prepaid card is out of minutes (in SKYPEless times). And I know the silence, the complete lack of sounds in the room while trying to put the pieces together afterwards. A puzzle of words and whispers in which you don’t take part anymore. I know the loss as I know the feeling of going back home and there is nobody to call to.
Maybe, this is how it is - all boys leave the town at some point. This is how grownup scamps play their timeless game of manhood. Game of pirates, pioneers and old-fashioned lovers... I followed this legend. And just as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn several years ago I prolonged my childhood with a few months on U.S. soil. Impatient to throw my young corp into the ecstasies of being I was doing my best – I travelled on highways of inexplicable, unreserved happiness, surrounded by the young vivid bodies of all summer girls under the neon skies of the East coast, hasty grabbing and collecting marvelous stories, talking in English – the language of Kerouac, Capote and Fitzgerald, whose words have taste and odor, a language in which “happiness” was defined by a few shabby small bills in my back pocket – enough to buy couple of apples, one rose and a train ticket to a place I used to call “home”.
I ended up in New York, in love with the worriless summer evenings in Garden City, the sunsets above Long Beach, the humidity and the smell in the subway, the ready-to-go cups of soup and the open skies of Long Island… In love with a city and a girl who was living in it…
It was the Promised Land.
“The American dream is dead”. I keep facing this statement everywhere now. I have always doubted it having my image of the land intact, untouched by any disappointment. People say that gates in front of the brave ones are closed now; the stares are not leading anywhere and the guardian angels have flyed away from the wasted shore of the American youth, of Tom’s and Huck’s rusty, neglected tenderness.
Being in Muscatine made me uncertain.
But maybe I am wrong. I’m just a traveler on a journey to wisdom.
[i] Mark Twain, The adventure of Tom Sawyer, chapter 14
Sam Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, lived in Muscatine, Iowa, during the summer of 1855. Some 30 years later he wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, to which many refer as to the first great American novel. In 1883 Twain wrote “Life on the Mississippi” as a recollection of his stay in the city and its heavy influence on him while writing his most famous publications.