Archives For America

Jackson road

After spending a day amid steaming geysers as Yellowstone prepared to shut down for the winter, it felt like a shift had occurred. The first days of our road trip — day after day after frikkin’ day — we trudged through stifling late-summer heat. Now we were scraping frost off the windshield in the mornings. It suddenly dawned on me how long we’d been traveling, and I was nervous about crossing the wide swath of flyover country that lie ahead. I’d driven it before in the opposite direction in 1989; it floored me how you could drive all day and still be in the same damn state!

The original itinerary was to swing southward into Colorado, which Mtuseni wanted to see. But I hadn’t planned anything, and my head was too frazzled to do any research or just wing it. So we began the long trek eastward.


Mtu JH cafe

The beginning of our last day in the West.


Before heading out, we took one last walk through Jackson Hole. We had breakfast in a cafe that felt a little incoherent — man buns in Wyoming? C’mon! But the food was good, and I soaked up my last taste of classic old Western decor. We picked up the requisite souvenir t-shirts. And of course we got a photo at the antler arch. I felt sad pulling out of town; like much of the American West, there’s an energy in Jackson that just captures me.

Jackson arch

For some reason I remembered this antler arch stretching completely over a street in Jackson in 1996. Is it a trick of memory? Did I imagine it? Am I losing it? Still pretty cool.


Jackson arch night

It’s pretty cool at night too. I think the purple was for Halloween.


Heading south on Rte 191, a sparkling river meandered alongside us through emerald hills and rocky passes for miles. Mtuseni said he couldn’t believe how clean the rivers were. It felt like we were in the Alps; I thought I’d see Julie Andrews singing and twirling around the next bend. 

After descending through the mountains, we drove across the most beautifully desolate terrain I’ve ever seen. Flat. Dry. Just a few tufts of scrubby grass here and there. In all directions. For miles. There weren’t even many cars on the road. It felt like we were the only people on Earth. We pulled into a nondescript turnout for a pee break — and as we stood in the middle of nowhere facing the western horizon and leaving our manly marks, a prairie dog popped up out of a hole and watched us. I’d never seen one before — and we never saw another. It was so cute, and I marveled that he could live in what looked like a wasteland of nothingness. He had no inkling of all the crap going on in the world; he was perfectly content in his empty patch of land. It’s probably the most profound piss stop I’ve ever had. 

In a tiny blink-of-an-eye place called Daniel Junction, I pulled into a gas station/store to grab something to drink. The place had the typical tall false front of old west commercial buildings — like something out of Gunsmoke — and a little cafe in front, just a few tables. Opening the door, the intoxicating scent of barbecue and grilled meat instantly made my mouth water — and I’m not a big meat eater.

I bought a couple of freshly made tri-tip burritos from the guy at the counter. I swear each one weighed five pounds. As I got back to the car, I looked up and was overcome by a beam of light from the heavens and a chorus of angels. A tall, trim, tan guy in his 30s — in jeans and chaps, boots and spurs, and wide brim cowboy hat — was walking up the steps to a cafe side door in front of the car. Honestly, he looked like a model from the Ralph Lauren western collection. He looked directly at me, smiled, and in a deep, warm radio voice said, “Hey. How’re you doing?” For a second I imagined us riding off on horseback together into the sunset. And some other things. I replied with my usual terse Boston “Hey.” He nodded and went into the cafe. I felt weak-kneed and woozy, like a schoolgirl. God, I love the West!


rockys fading

This snow-capped stretch of the Rockies stayed in view for hours, before finally fading away.


From the time we left Jackson, I kept looking back at the snow-capped Rockies — the same stretch of mountains we’d seen leaving Yellowstone. They were so beautiful and, corny as it sounds, majestic. I was amazed that we could see them for hours. Then suddenly they were gone. I felt sad; the Western leg of our road trip was truly over.

We continued east through scraggly, uninspiring country. I’d booked a hotel online in Rawlins, but when we got in the entire place smelled like cigarettes. The guy at the desk told me that was impossible; we were on the first floor and the second floor was the “smoking floor.” It’s been years since I’ve been in a place where magical invisible boundaries keep cigarette smoke contained — like the farce of “smoking areas” in restaurants. I cancelled the hotel and went to another place in Rawlins… which also reeked of smoke. Evidently when cigarettes are still 50 cents a pack, people smoke like chimneys everywhere. 

It was already dark. And it being Wyoming — still, after hours of driving — there wasn’t another hotel mecca just down the road. So we drove another 100 miles to Laramie. I’d have to check my Expedia account to remember what the hotel was like; I was beyond tired. 

Finally in the room, I unwrapped my burrito and tossed it after a couple of bites. The tri-tip — whatever that is — was like chewing leather. Mtuseni devoured his. He’ll eat anything that’s meat. As much as I lamented leaving the West, this delicate Easterner was ready for some sriracha noodles or oysters with mignonette or braised radicchio and orange salad.  

Yeah, it never would have worked with me and the Ralph Lauren cowboy.   

liberty close

A year ago today was Labor Day, and our first real adventure day on the Long-Distance Dad road trip. 

At the hotel in Jersey, we waited a half hour for a lost Uber driver who clearly never heard of deodorant. While it was hot that day (actually, it was brutal the whole month!) it was only 9:00 a.m. I would have appreciated wearing a mask in that tiny Honda Civic!  

After the most zig-zagging, convoluted drive ever, we finally arrived at Liberty Park to catch the ferry. Was fascinated by an abandoned railway station there, with an ornate wrought iron roof, and the old track signs. Mtuseni wasn’t that impressed.

liberty park stn both

Still trying to erase the stink of the Uber driver from our senses.


train station roof

I can picture this station once bustling with travelers on their own journeys to near and far. 


liberty ghost tracks

Paths to nowhere now… but once to many somewheres.


antique railroad destination track sign


Discovered the new Empty Sky 9/11 Memorial at Liberty Park, which points to where the Twin Towers had stood. Mtuseni knew surprisingly little of that event. A New Jersey reporter interviewed me about that day and my personal connection to it. Tough memories; simple but powerful memorial.


empty sky 9-11 memorial in new jersey


Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty were new sights for both of us. Ellis Island is so impressive. I got emotional thinking of my grandparents arriving from Eastern Europe. Such courage — they were only teeneagers! I want to return and dig into the archives, find their records.  

Check out our Instagram greeting from Ellis Island!


ellis sign mtu


ellis island outside

What immigrants must have thought — and felt — as they approached this grand building!


ellis sign

Crowds… I miss them now. 


great hall crowd

The Great Hall where my grandparents were processed. Just… wow.


great hall michael

Maybe before I die I’ll figure out selfies and selfie sticks. (Actually, I really don’t care.)


There is a room with walls covered in citizen documents. Just randomly scanning them, this one caught my eye. The woman lived in my hometown way back when — and I had just ridden my bike past her address days earlier. Crazy!


citizen doc

Butters Row was the road to my kindergarten. It still has a one-lane wooden bridge!


Mtuseni has wanted to see Miss Liberty since his first US visit seven years ago. He was so excited. It is a beacon of America, still — and forever, let’s hope. Exciting for me too as I had a small replica of it on my desk as a kid.


liberty boat

Crowds on a boat — the good old days.


liberty sky


mtu liberty front

Probably never imagined being here growing up in a shack in South Africa.


statue of liberty

Goober alert. (But hey, why not?)


liberty shop girls

My funny gift shop pals. I tried to be Mtuseni’s wing man on the trip; he wasn’t buying it. American girls intimidate him, I think. 


Took the ferry to Manhattan and walked to the World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial. Ogled at the Oculus. (And got lost in it — the first of several times. Cool architecture, dumb layout.) 


outside wing of oculus in manhattan


oculus inside

Damn, I look exhausted. And it’s only the first full day! 


Took the subway to the Port Authority Bus Terminal … from the sublime Oculus to the armpit of the universe… and a quick shuttle bus back to the hotel. A great day… with so many ahead of us!


skyline from liberty both

I so wish we were there now. And that Mtuseni wasn’t 8,000 miles away.   


Back to Manhattan tomorrow!

Weight of the World

November 23, 2014 — 3 Comments

Mtuseni Nov 19, 04It’s hard to pinpoint when I reached that state of parenthood where every picture of my kid fills me with love and emotion. It doesn’t matter whether Mtuseni looks happy or grouchy or sick or bored: when I see a new photo of him my heart melts. But the photo he posted on WhatsApp the other day hit me another way. He just looks sad, and it nicked my heart. I asked him later if everything was okay and he said “I’m well” as he almost always does. But I know that with my taciturn son the still waters run very deep. Mtuseni looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders — and in many ways he does.

He’s been out of college classes now for a year — and it’s been almost five months since he graduated. He’s shocked that he can’t find a radio job. Not even an interview. Hell, not even a Christmas job. What shocks me is that he somehow thought he’d be handed a job ten minutes after graduation. I’ve told him that college grads in the US don’t even find jobs that quickly, but somehow he thought the very-real accomplishment of finishing college would carve a golden path through the mess of South Africa’s 60 percent youth unemployment rate.

Young people want everything right now, if not yesterday. And when you’re living in a shack, in a settlement where people resent you for opportunities you lucked into, that desire for quick change becomes desperation. There’s no more money from mom — just food and a bed — so his expenses all fall on me, which gnaws at his pride. The nearby community center where he could go online and job hunt no longer has Internet, and there are no library computers or wifi spots around. There’s no secure mail, so that application option is out.He seems to be more cut off just as he needs to be reaching out and branching out.

He’s frustrated and said he feels like South Africa is becoming a joke of the world. I don’t see things there getting much better any time soon. Was I naive and misleading to put him through college, telling him he’d have better opportunities? Even if a great job is far off, the experience helped him grow in so many ways that it was clearly worthwhile. And he’s resourceful and driven. He’s been helping set up a new community radio station in Diepsloot township… for free, but it’s experience. And we’re waiting to hear on his upcoming interview with City Year-South Africa. We met with the VP and toured the headquarters this summer in Boston, and Mtuseni was impressed with the people and the organization’s philosophy.

I’m lobbying hard for him to join City Year because it will greatly expand his network, give him more maturity (and a monthly stipend), and will add an impressive credential to his resume. Mtuseni told me that kind of thinking is a middle-class American luxury, and that when you’re living on the edge you just need a job now.

Because it’s tough being young and carrying the weight of a hard world on your shoulders.

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Two Sides of 50

January 19, 2014 — 2 Comments


An ongoing item in the news this month has been Michelle Obama’s birthday — noteworthy because she turns 50. She celebrated with an extra week of me-time in Hawaii after Christmas when Barack and the kids left. And she had a posh cocktail-and-dessert party in the White House. Happy, sad, or scary — it’s a milestone; might as well celebrate in style if you can.

I saw an article about celebrities turning 50 this year. It’s weird to think of people who in your mind are frozen in a certain younger time hitting the half-century mark. If they’re that old, how old am I? Rob Lowe is turning 50. I hated his smarmy character and Peter Pan pretty-boy face in St. Elmo’s Fire — and I still hate him. Sandra Bullock is gonna be 50. Wasn’t she just a young ingenue driving an out-of-control bus a couple months ago with Keanu Reeves (also 50 this year)? Add to the list Courteney Cox, Matt Dillon, Melissa Gilbert (isn’t she still in pigtails running across the prairie?!). Even Brad Pitt is hitting the Big 5-0 this year. Lately I’ve noticed his face looks as lined and tired as mine — and I’m four years older. Sweet!!

And in all this birthday talk of celebrities — and us regular people, too — is the idea that 50 is the new 30. It’s just the beginning of a wonderful new chapter in our amazing, privileged American lives, and we have decades ahead of us to fulfill dreams and create new ones. Hell, some guy in California just went skydiving for the first time on his 100 birthday! Maybe 50 is the new 15!

Mtuseni's FamilySomeone else turned 50 this month — Mtuseni’s mom, Nester. She’s a pretty, petite, gracious woman. I can’t wait to spend more time with her on my next visit to Johannesburg. She has probably asked god to bless me 10,000 times for all I’ve done for Mtuseni; she could not offer him the same on her meager salary. She has a hard life, raising three kids alone in a brick shack with no electricity or plumbing. Her oldest son Moses was killed by a car a few years ago. She’s had a few health scares lately — I think from stress and exhaustion — but there’s little money for doctors and certainly none for regular checkups. And of course the first 30 years of her life were spent under apartheid.

If 50 is the new 30 in the US, the calculus is a little different in South Africa. The average life span for a black woman in South Africa is 49. Does this mean Nester is living on borrowed time now, at age 50? When I pass the US male life expectancy of 77, I’m sure it’ll feel like the rest are lucky bonus years. How many bonus years does Nester have left? The number of people in Mtuseni’s community and circles who have died in the four years I’ve known him is shocking — and I haven’t heard about everyone, I’m sure.

So in addition to worrying about Mtuseni getting an internship, getting a job, and staying healthy — there’s always a small knot in the back of my mind worrying about Nester’s health. Because that precious family depends on her — and 50 has a different meaning in their corner of the world.

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