Imaginarica:travels through an America of the mind
The other night I got to thinking, as I gazed out of my window
into the dusk, over the neon lights of Durban, across the dark bluff
with its mysterious military base, and up to the sky where another
plane lifted away with a load of London-bound visa applicants.
I got to thinking, here I am living in Africa, but have I ever traveled the Great Rift Valley, or boated down the Congo, or seen the storms over Virunga?
For my shame, I've never even been to the Bluff, two miles away from home.
Instead I have spent much of my life watching Hollywood films,
reading American novels, and listening to The Boss tell tales of
blue-collar disappointments, or the Jayhawks evoke golden dusk over telephone wires and corn.
Though I love Africa, most of my memory is replete not with crickets, lions, black taxis and Kwaito, but with the gangsters, skyscrapers and Thanksgiving holidays of the distant USA.
In my mind, if not in reality, I know the desert of Nevada and the streets of New York more intimately than my own nearby Umhlanga, or the informal settlement over the hill from Durban city.
It seems pointless to feel an affinity for places one has never, ever set foot in, while the sights and sounds of your immediate surroundings seem as ephemeral as the television that built your (fake) memories.
How is it that I can almost smell the mist over Golden Gate Bridge, can almost feel the blistering sun of Death Valley? How can I remember American places and smells and sights, if I have never been there?
I have become a willing victim of American cultural imperialism and it's too late to go back. Thanks primarily to Hollywood, I have cobbled together a vast geography in my brain, that all in all, almost adds up to the actual experience of a week in Georgia. If I close my eyes, I can travel for miles, from coast to coast.
My mental America has very little to do with the contrary tableaux that is the actual reality of the place today. I know that the USA is in a flux of change right now, with George Bush at one end, Michael Moore at the other, and a confused, questioning population in between. My mental America is the ideal - as all daydreams must be.
To delve briefly into my box (a U.S. Air Force provisions drop crate, circa 1941) of Imaginarica*:
1981, Cape Town. A little boy is hunched in front of a snowy black and white TV, thrilling to the thunder of hooves, as the Lone Ranger flies across a landscape of dust and cacti, bandits hot on his dust trail.
Every week I would ride alongside the masked hero who waved his popping silver gun around with total nonchalance - and never seemed to hit anything.
Back then there was Gunsmoke. The Big Valley. Silverado.
I imagined all of these exhilarating adventures unfolding across the plains of a giant, dusty America, maybe in a time before they had greened the land.
I actually thought that all of America was a desert. Having seen mainly Westerns, how was I to know otherwise?
Gunsmoke seemed to be set in about the Middle Ages, certainly some long-distant mythical age, rather than the 1800's, as my mother said it was.
Or perhaps the West even existed in an age after some cataclysm in the far-flung future (I had read Warday and watched too many episodes of The Ark...).
I became confused sometimes, as I pored over Louis Lamour novels I was still too young to read. Did Westerns take place in America or in Mexico - and then what was New Mexico? What had happened to the old one? Why were there 'Indians,’ or ‘Redskins,’ as the cowboys called them, in the desert, but also in the forests and mountains of Hiawatha? Were they the same people as the Indians in India?
Were the mayors of towns still called sheriffs nowadays? I had too many
questions. I couldn't decide whether TV programs were telling me the truth or not.
As I've grown up, some scattered historical foundations have fleshed out my Western imagery.
I know that there are large deserts in the regions of Arizona and parts of California (as I saw in Chinatown and The Mexican), deserts which extend right down across the border into Mexico. I know that New Mexico is a U.S. state, and that Mexico is independent of the USA.
I know all about the Alamo.
The Old West had existed all right, though perhaps not quite as I had imagined it.
My mental picture of the USA has been growing all my life, but unlike an atlas, it is filled with inaccuracies, thanks to fanciful scriptwriting and Batman comics.
Then there's New York...modern Rome.
Yellow taxicabs. Steam rising from vents in the road. Rollerbladers with headphones in Central Park. Loonies proclaiming the end of the world.
Newspaper stands. Buildings that scrape the sky. Ice rinks. City Hall. Madison and 5th. Macy's.
Italians and Greeks, Chinese and Hispanics. Bridges, lots of bridges.
These are the properties I now know to be true of New York.
But the New York of my imagination is another story altogether.
I vividly remember Godzilla plummeting into a dark river (the Hudson?) like a falling mountain. I remember climbing into a cab at the height of 1984's ghost infestation (if America had a queen, my vote would be for Sigourney Weaver); and having a zombie leer vacuously at me from the driver’s seat.
I saw crack troops jog ominously over the river into midtown during The Siege that nearly toppled the status quo.
I even know names like ‘Midtown' or 'Staten Island' - whereas the average New Yorker probably wouldn't know South Africa's Wilderness, Hogsback or Riviersonderend.
But then, South African movies don't screen around the world.
The New York of my mind is as unreal as it is inspirational, as free of scars and corruption as a child's first view of the sea.
It is as inaccurate as some Americans' view of the Namib desert, yet full of names and places and icons that all add up to a gigantic cultural stew. I remember the gremlins, and a giant gorilla in monotone, and Spider-man swinging through rain-slicked concrete canyons.
For me, though, the memory of this great city that most stands out would have to be a simple one:
Autumn leaves falling like rain onto an avenue in Central Park where Tom and Penelope laughed under a vanilla sky, themselves living in a dream that felt all too real.
Talking of dreams, I had this one last week. I was walking down a two-lane blacktop in a gentle drizzle, through a haven of tranquility. Some tiny town in...New England? White picket fences, huge front yards, rusty Ford trucks in the 'yard,' and little mailboxes with red flags on them.
The road was Sorority Avenue. What a place. So alien to an African. I vowed, when I awoke, that one day I would simply have to find and walk down that road, in the rain.
Just be there, for a moment. If, that is, it actually existed. It had felt real to me.
Another time, I dreamed I was standing outside a roadside diner
somewhere in Ohio. Just standing there, thinking Wow, I¹m actually in
I'm really here. I made it.
I was looking at a faded poster advertising a Johnny Cash gig in Cincinnati.
When I awoke, it was with a sense of loss. I had been there, dammit. Funnily enough, I noticed later that my bed was smattered with soil, the kind you might find on the fringes of a small town in Ohio. Or maybe I had walked it into the house before bedtime.
These travel dreams are so vivid, I can't tell you. I think if I ever did land in America, I'd experience profound disorientation; the feeling that I am dreaming and need to wake up.
It's as if I never actually need to fly there, since, in my head, I have already seen about twenty states. In one long dream I had, I spent two weeks in a condo just off Venice Beach, crashing house parties with Jim Morrison.
I'm fascinated by America's wide-open spaces, as well as the cities.
There must be vast tracts of unexplored wilderness in that huge puzzle map of the States that hangs lopsidedly off my mental wall. I'd like to see the Grand Canyon. Montana. The Great Lakes. Alaskan wolves in the wild.
I often think, what does it really look like as you drive North out of Seattle?
What is the quality of the air in Chicago?
In Maine, how does it feel to sit with your legs dangling off one of those flaking white wooden jetties, gazing out over the fishing boats that have carried fathers and sons? If you were in Maine, could you locate a small twilight town called Derry, where the mayor (sheriff, what have you) sported a badge saying S. King?
Of course I'm being flippant; I'm making believe.
The America my mind wanders through is inaccurate in so many ways.
I have probably put all the state lines in the wrong place. My New York is way too big and I just know that I forgot to include a whole bunch of one-horse towns in Texas.
What astounds me about Imaginarica is that I must share it with millions of Laps, Nepalese, Swedes and Kenyans. There is no other country in the world that has been so over-exposed in popular media.
Hollywood truly is the dream works.
I imagine that, in my sleep, all the people I come across in my America are others from far away, who have watched so many American movies that, like me, they now have a huge country growing in their heads, one they can visit almost at will.
Think how different everything would be if Gone With the Wind had been set during the Russian Revolution. Or if Superman was an Australian superhero, famed since 1939 as the guardian of Perth?? What I mean is, imagine the world if America was simply a small country south of Canada, Russia ruled the globe culturally, and Hollywood was instead Moscowland.
Imagine if Brad Pitt was a Bollywood screen idol, or everyone on earth watched Chinese movies. Think how different the world might be if so many of us foreigners were not, of our own free will, Americanized?
In the last decades of the 20th Century and the early years of this one, America has colonized the world from within its own borders.
The knowledge is quite jarring, because unless American cultural dominance is eternal (and what is?) then one day, in a few centuries, we might well be speaking Mandarin Chinese - should China be a world power at that time.
Would Thai Bo be the new baseball?
Will millions glorify Shanghai streets and Beijing girls and live the Asian dream?
Right now, at this moment in history, America is the fantasy to millions, and myself merely a dreamer, deluded into travelling without moving the bizzaro world of Imaginarica. I know the real America is up there somewhere on the top of the globe, a gigantic, all-powerful, imperfect land in motion.
But sometimes I think about flying up over the Atlantic, west from Ireland, cruising for miles and finding...nothing. Perhaps discovering that America was after all nothing but a mental construct, and that the Atlantic simply met the Pacific in a swirl of deep-ocean currents.
I continue to mull over mythical America just as perhaps, thousands of years ago, a beet farmer in the North of Europe might have pondered on mighty far-off Rome.
Maybe I’ll never actually go to the States, you know. After all, the actual reality of it might be too much to assimilate. If America wasn't like the land I had visited in thousands of movies, I might have some sort of fit, or cognitive dissonance, and be found one day by the LAPD, drooling and wandering the back lot of a K-mart in Philly.
No, it's safer to keep cruising alongside Frisco bay in a blue Pontiac, a young Brooke Shields at my side, with The Boss singing about glory days. Yeah, I know. That's just make believe.
But you know, isn't that what the American dream is all about? To many like me, around the planet, America is a dream.
* Imaginarica: Seemingly authentic memories of geographic locations, which one has not visited in reality.