Compass Points: How I Livedby Edward Hoagland
In a luminous memoir of a life richly lived, one of America’s finest writers explores the themes that have shaped his life and work: the glories of the natural world, the lure of working for a circus and fighting forest fires, the afflictions of temporary blindness and blocked speech, and the enduring influence of literary friendships, including John… See more details below
In a luminous memoir of a life richly lived, one of America’s finest writers explores the themes that have shaped his life and work: the glories of the natural world, the lure of working for a circus and fighting forest fires, the afflictions of temporary blindness and blocked speech, and the enduring influence of literary friendships, including John Berryman’s, Edward Abbey’s, and his mentor, Archibald MacLeish.
From his childhood in rural Connecticut to some of the earth’s last remaining wildernesses, Hoagland has traveled the world wielding his unusual gift for observation. In Compass Points he delivers an honest and lively accounting of his voyages through two marriages; the New York parties he attended as a precocious young writer; Vermont hippiedom and academia; his many vivid sojourns into Europe, Alaska, British Columbia, the Sudan; and, perhaps most unforgettably, his stint in the “Animal Department” of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fifty years ago. Leavened with Hoagland’s trademark humor and insight, Compass Points is an entertaining and moving account of the days and nights of one of our most eminent literary voices.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
“The precision with which Hoagland sees and the appetite with which he explores are staggering.”–Philip Roth
“A poignant and substantive summing up of the life and work of one of the finest writers this nation has produced.”–The Oregonian
“Compass Points is sensual, taut, pungent, and full of the hot licks of a vigorous, involved life.” Annie Proulx
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
In the Country of the Blind
"The blind eat many a fly," says a fifteenth-century proverb—familiar as recently as sixty years ago, when I was small and blind people were still all over, tap-tapping with their white canes and saddled with dark glasses. The cane, if waved peremptorily, with any luck brought traffic to a halt, and its rhythmic tapping could part a stream of pedestrians and function for the blind person like a kind of radar besides. Power and pathos: because dark glasses were not then an emblem of celebrity or of a fashionable alienation, but of the saddest, sharpest handicap. Ostensibly making it harder to see, they signified instead that the person couldn’t see and probably had a face so wooden or profoundly wounded by loneliness that he or she preferred to go incognito. Common problems such as cataracts or glaucoma were not often reversible, whereas today you need to fly to Third World outposts to encounter blindness on such a scale.
This phenomenon of adults who were helpless and pitiable, though in the prime of life, became one of the first moral puzzles children recognized. Old age they knew; jailbirds they knew about; real freaks—like the "waterhead" whom I once visited, painfully imprisoned in an easy chair in a dark cottage, his head bloated to double size—they might also have some vague acquaintance with. But the blind were ordinary folk, innocent of any crime or grotesquerie, of no specific age, who lived in crabby or long-suffering perpetual night. A mean individual I knew used to snicker when he told me how he had snuck into a blind man's house when he was a boy (having watched him leave for his weekly tap-tap trip to the grocery store), and shat into the sink where all his dishes were. And I could hear the desolate groan the blind man must have uttered, coming home, smelling the evidence of what had been done to him and searching for where it was, while he fathomed his impossible position from now on, living alone, as the story spread among the children of the neighborhood.
In the 1950s, however, when I reached my twenties, certain types of people began to adopt dark glasses to convey a different message and as a form of chic. Jazz musicians, for example, could dramatize the underground, persecuted, jokey character of their existence and telegraph the idea that even at night they already knew too much about what was going on to want to see much more. Better for the spirit to be self-absorbed, ironically bemused, optionally blind—a "spade" so savvy that he wore shades. Yet highway troopers, too, wore smoked glasses to mask their emotions and thus look formidably impassive as they delivered news as highly charged as jazz. And many of the newsworthy intellectuals of the era, cafe-based Existentialists on both sides of the Atlantic, likewise affected sunglasses as a means of demonstrating that a great deal of the passing parade was better left unseen. Impelled by the atrocities of two vast wars, and signature books like Nausea and The Stranger, they seemed to advocate disguising your identity to forestall repercussions and limit what you let yourself take in of a corrupt, demoralizing world in which the night was better than the day because of what it screened.
I didn't agree with this, and didn't wear dark glasses. Believing in nature and an overshadowing beneficence even in its offshoot, human nature, I wanted to gorge on every waking sight. I loved the city like the country—the hydrants that fountained during the summer like a splashing brook—and wanted therefore to absorb the cruel along with the good. I knew that Americans had responded to the bloody ruination of the Civil War not in a fashion corresponding to Sartre or the theater of the absurd, but by turning west once again to seek the balm of the wild. And if in doing so they had gradually spoiled it, that eventuality was more through overpopulation than by greed or any other classic wickedness. I saw this because my own solution to a sad spell was also to head outdoors and climb a spruce, find a pond, or hitchhike west, where I achieved an acquaintance with the frontiers that were left. In the city, it was to seek the most crowded places, Coney Island, Union Square, the Lower East Side, Times Square, on the same instinctive principle that life in bulk is good. Embracing the fizz and seethe of a metropolis was safer then, as was hitchhiking, but my tropism to crowds has never changed. Rubbing shoulders with thousands of people, my spirits surge in the same way that I grin at seeing a one-year-old, or will approach someone elderly, optimistic at the prospect of talking with him. A basic faith kicks in. It's automatic, not ideological, though I believe life has meaning. I find diversity a comfort in the wilds and in the city—that there are more species than mine, more personalities than me—and believe in God as embodied in the earth and in metropolises. I believe that life is good.
So, night or day, in Alaska or Africa, Bombay, Rome, Istan-bul, New York, I never wore dark glasses. I can remember dazzling long wonderful days out in a boat in alligator refuges in Georgia—bird sanctuaries in Texas or Louisiana—scouting with wildlife experts who had some protection for their eyes. But I wanted to see everything just as it really was, in the full spectrum of colors, as a bird or reptile would. In the desert looking for a mountain lion I was the same, and in Greenwich Village, at Andy Warhol parties, I'd no more shade my eyes from the blitz of strobe lights than put in earplugs. I wrote for the purpose of being read in fifty years, and how could you describe a world whose colors you hadn't honestly seen?
But nature played a trick on me. Sunlight kindles cataracts (which I didn't know), and in my fifties I got them bad, compounded by bad retinas. At about the same juncture a bunch of my writer friends died before their time of lung cancer, emphysema, throat ailments, and the like—Edward Abbey, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, Richard Yates, and several lesser-known good souls—at least partly because they had ascribed to the equally romantic notion that writers ought to smoke, drink, fuck, carouse, get pie-eyed (whereas I only thought they should fuck). Not all of this chemical imbibery stemmed from the Gallic-Kafka-Beckett idea that life was shitty, which had been in vogue.
Nor was it simply macho, though the Hemingway-Mailer axis of behavior was as influential as the Europeans' despair. The hard-living ethos had its best argument in the idea that the mind, like a pinball machine, may need a bit of slamming to light up. Smoking like a chimney, drinking like a fish, or using pot or stronger dope might rev the mind, dramatize the vertiginous character of life, and wipe out humdrum thoughts for a while.
I didn't disagree with the proposition of slamming one's sensibility around. That's why I sometimes walked across the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, and had driven or hitchhiked across the country eight times. Strangers and the play of expressions across their faces, by the thousand in a single day, were what the city boiled down to for me—Hausa, Chinese, Irish, Navajo, Polish, Puerto Rican—just as it's the scores of species in the woods that make the country as rich as it is: Blackburnian warblers and moc-casin flowers, oyster mushrooms and oak worm moths, bigtooth aspen, squirrel corn, and hophornbeam. The city had its music and movies, at the Five Spot and the Thalia, and the emotions of a jam-packed tempo so much faster. Though the city hasn't worn quite as well for me in fifty years of loving it (I love it more at a distance now), from my twenties to mid-thirties I chose to spend the height of the spring and summer in the midst of New York as often as out in the country. Human nature, if cosmopoli-tan enough, with bodegas and storefront churches, and kielbasa eateries and elderly people sitting in folding chairs on the sidewalk, and numerous infants, was nature to me. I walked by the Hudson River almost daily, when the past night's paroxysm of violence or vomit had abated and the commerce of the day lent the city its terrific thrum: not just the million people, but the million trucks. I had a Bella motor scooter that I'd ride the length and breadth of Manhattan on; or I’d go to a Yankee game and walk all the way home from the Bronx to the East Village, one hundred eighty blocks, as the daylight darkened. Or nose along the classic portal side streets—Elizabeth and Forsyth and Mott and Eldridge and Orchard—off Canal and Delancey, where people were still beginning new American lives. Or amble under the financial towers at Nassau, Whitehall, Pine, and Wall Streets, with that wonderful lift that the beige and creamy and graystone downtown and midtown buildings can give you at midday, when they're so full of sunlight and strivers that optimism is lent to anybody striding through. High buildings: high hopes. Their enhancing identity was catching.
Mute because of a bad stutter, I'd wandered Boston's night neighborhoods with hungry yearning throughout my college years, supposing that just to stare at a single mysterious light in a lonely house with enough longing might cause the woman inside, whoever she was, to sense my presence and slip to the front door and summon me in. In a sensible world, a just and passionate world, it shouldn't be necessary to be able to talk to find a lover. After all, bad guys tend to be the best talkers of all. But I wasn't bold, I was shy, and such adventures didn't happen to me. I was a walker, a witness, but didn't close. For example, I remember a waitress in a cafe near the old North Station, where the trains from Maine arrived, who left me an extra dessert one time, but I couldn't bring myself to use this as an entree to better things. I'd just walk for five, six, or a dozen miles, feasting my eyes on the lights of the oil refinery in Everett and the half-darkened State Street mini-skyscrapers and the harbor from Commercial Street, where the glistening water, like all ocean water, seethed. Boston's sourball sweetness, with its softer darkness, orangey streetlights, miniature but meta-ethnic neighborhoods—Italians back-to-back with Irish, blacks with Portuguese and Chinese, North End, South End, West End, the weekend street markets at Faneuil Hall, yet Skid Row nearby, Charlestown, East Boston, Roxbury, Somerville, Cambridge, Back Bay—five years of walking in Boston helped prepare me to reassume my native New Yorker status after my teenage years in suburban Connecticut.
Then during my two years in the draftee army, mostly stationed as a lab technician at a hospital in Pennsylvania, I had hiked roundabout Philadelphia. After being discharged in 1957, I lived in and explored the hills of San Francisco, the prettiest of local cities. And after marrying, for two and a half years in the early 1960s I'd walked extensively in Paris, London, and Rome, plus wilder environs in Sicily and Spain, with my first wife, Amy. As a writer too, I was visual. My first novel had been set in a circus; the second was about the cruel, graceful art of boxing.
But then, as a family man, I began to forsake the city for wilderness areas during the next quarter-century, in pursuit of ideas for books that excited me. I continued to live in New York, as Audubon, Frederic Remington, Albert Bierstadt, and so many other artists who have made wild places their subject matter have done. (You generally accomplish more in the city because of that inexorable thrum.) It was where my wife's career and lovely daughter's school were. But I did spend three or four months a year drinking from a spring, bathing in a pond, heating with wood, lighting with kerosene, in northern Vermont, and this kept me reasonably honest when I went foraging for stories—my husky in the car—to the Far West and Deep South. When we stopped for gas the dog would jump out the side window to pee and jump right back in.
"Better than havin' a pistol," one hillsman said, when we were halfway through Tennessee. "A pistol can snap, but a dog like that’ll go right attum."
When an old-timer who lived by a lake would tell me he moved his difficult bowels every morning by wading hip deep, I knew what he meant. If he loved the frogs' songs as much as the birds', "Same here," I could say. They were, what, three hundred million years old? I had learned to shoot in the army, so I was up to the tin-can contests we sometimes had; or scrambling up a mountainside to an old mine hole. I knew dogs, and therefore wolves; goats, and therefore deer; parrots, and therefore ravens and crows; big exotic wildlife, and therefore little homebody wildlife as well. I knew what I wanted—pristine lore—and that is half the battle.
In 1968, on the untrammeled Omineca River in north-central British Columbia, for example, I met up with a paradigmatic first white family who had settled at the head of a gold rush trail near the last Sekani Indian family to leave this traditional homeland of theirs for a reservation to the south. The Sekanis weren't able to understand why the Canadian homesteaders were taking exclusive possession of the river bench that for generations had been their own special home. But it was an unequal dispute because the Indians had become squatters from the law's standpoint, living on moldy rice and not much else, and able to hold on at all only by doing the washing, shoveling, nail-pounding, road-clearing, firewood-hauling, and garden-digging for the whites. Yet the white family—hard-drivers, intolerant, with the berserk but self-thwarting energy of people who had failed elsewhere and fetched up here—still wanted them out. Whether it was in order to salve their consciences by forgetting that the Sekani tribe had ever existed or because they didn't like dark-skinned folk, they kept up a constant sneering refrain about "dirty, filthy, smelly" Indians in the windowless log hovel down on the gravel-bar beach. They’d built their house a hundred feet higher and a hundred yards back, with the result that the three white kids snuck out at all hours, concealed themselves on top of the embankment, and threw stones down on the Indians' roof, or at their children if they were playing in the dooryard. The savagery of the prank lay of course in the fact that the Sekanis must only grin and bear it. They could neither complain nor retaliate. To throw stones back or even go and protest to the parents would hasten their eviction from what was now a piece of "private property." They were the "niggers of the North," their presence a constant temptation and amusement to the under-entertained white children, and an irritant to the gunsmith/marksman father who wanted to be master of all he surveyed, not to mention his hard-pressed spouse, who hardly needed to imagine spurious dangers—there " were enough real ones, like grizzlies—but did so anyway, and who wanted some neighbors, but not these neighbors, "hanging from the trees.The pressure was such the Sekanis were succumbing. That's how the West was won.
The nearest store, ten miles away, was a log cabin with staples like rice, beans, sugar, flour, salt, and tea that a lone placer miner panning for gold in a mountain creek and living off the land as much as he could, would need. I stayed upstairs for a night or two here and wandered the footpaths to visit several of these mild guys, bachelors who’d been living around for at least a decade and had no need of visitors, but were not rude to me. When they went out for a long walk, the old hope of blundering upon a strike would well up again inside them, but otherwise it was like wage labor. So many hours with a shovel and a pan meant so many grains of gold. Each piece of the creek could be counted on for a certain payback. Then I returned to Manson Creek and Fort Saint James and Vanderhoof and Prince George, and home again. It was my third trip to northern British Columbia, in pursuit of my first nonfiction book, Notes from the Century Before.
In the guise of a wildlife man, a hook-and-bullet writer for Sports Illustrated, I went south also, to Baton Rouge and beyond. People there might tell me how they had "treed a coon" and not mean a raccoon. A plain old hook-and-bullet writer must most likely be a good ole boy, too, so I was privy to the sort of blathering that ostensibly political journalists seldom hear. I went, for instance, to Leander Perez's moored houseboat, south of Venice in one of the hidden tall-marsh-grass "passes" in Plaquemines Parish, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, in 1973. Leander Perez was a fearsome figure, an actual plantation boss and dictator of his county-sized fiefdom south of New Orleans during the 1950s and 1960s, a throwback terrorizer of the local blacks—who set up a kind of mosquito-plagued, barbed-wire "concentration camp" in an old Civil War fort on the river, where he planned to throw "outside agitators," instead of in the county jail. This houseboat was for duck hunting, deal making, whisky drinking, move plotting, card playing, however, and though Perez wasn't there at the time—just his Colombian houseboy—I did get to see the inside anyway because I was traveling with a game warden and a duck biologist, to look at snow geese, garfish, muskrats: things like that. And the decor of the place revolved around the famous trio of little monkeys with their paws fixed to cover either their eyes, mouths, or ears. See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. Every flat surface had a set of these, carved like chessmen from jade or some variety of malleable wood or semiprecious material to represent the conspiracy of silence that had made his reign possible. The blacks one talked to on the road walked and spoke with an engrained flinch, their faces roasted in a crucible.
In my anti-modernist ebullience I was not, I think, a Pollyanna. I saw the South with a Yankee's acidulous eye and the North with Thoreauvian impatience. (In my teens I'd been more drawn to the Tolstoyan mode, but couldn’t sustain such exalted idealism or the literary aspirations to go with it.) Yet acidulousness is not Absurdism. Sunshine and drifting water under a shifting mosaic of leaves, with alligators in the bayou and otter in a creek—I mean, what more do you need to believe? In my travels I was seeing so many alligators and otters (once an alligator eating an otter), and waterfowl in flocks of thousands, whales, seals, walruses, moose, elk, caribou, then African lions and elephants, warthogs, horned toads, striped skunks, black and green porcupines, painted turtles, white-tailed deer, ruby-throated hummingbirds, black-throated cliff swallows, blue warblers, red newts, golden eagles, water buffaloes, desert dromedaries, and little swerving brown bats, how could I not believe? So many creatures in a matrix of ethology that when I was out-of-doors there was never a day I doubted life's divinity. In the city, I went to and loved Beckett's Krapps Last Tape, Waiting for Godot, and Pinter's, Ionesco's, Genet's, and others' brilliant plays—but didn't actually accept the premises of Absurdism. To a naturalist, Absurdism is ultimately absurd. It’s a subway/sidewalk/basement philosophy, a starless-moonless-cloudless-night philosophy. But there are few cloudless, starless, moonless nights, and people living in basements and subways for more than a few years have constructed an uncommon life for themselves.
Absurdism was like a stopped clock, but time doesn’t stop.
My sense of divinity was visual, so I'd never bothered to learn many of the birdcalls in my neck of the woods, and knew my friends by their faces, not the barometer of the voice. I played great music drawn from several centuries all day long, but didn't think of it as a radiant expression of humanity’s unique genius—not as great as the visual drama of the clouds and sun, the Hudson or another river rushing by, the pointing firs, fuzzy tamaracks, sheeny willows, generous sweet-sapped maples, or a hawk in a basswood tree.
By 1988 I lived in the country year-round, and as my sight dimmed, I found driving becoming difficult, and began plac-ing sets of binoculars next to the windows I looked out of, or wore them around my neck, using them dozens of times a day. I focused, too, on bookish pursuits, as if my time were short, but postponed thinking about what was wrong with me because I'd always lived for the sake of my work and as if I might die before it was finished anyway. Even in my twenties, I'd made sure each night that the day's accretion was legible enough for somebody else to decipher if I kicked off. I've always anticipated a "disaster" (faith in nature implies that you accept death as natural, often proper), and have always had weak eyes. Nature did not expect us to live to be eighty-four, or even sixty-four. Nature did not expect us to see so much, either—the daily TV catalogue of scandals and catastrophes, far-flung tearjerkers and utter outrages that you'd think some year would end. You'd think that when the massacres of ethnic cleansing are broadcast everywhere, or simpler, accidental tragedies like school buses hit at railroad crossings, they simply would never happen again. People would see the horror on the screen worldwide, and never do it again. Not slaughter thousands of people because of their tribe, nor stop a school bus on the railroad tracks.
The doctors I went to for my blindness weren't sure what was really wrong because the underlying culprit, beneath the cataracts, was that my retinas were in terrible shape—"pitted and bulging like a bald tire about to burst," as one surgeon put it. He didn't want to operate; the ordinary cataract procedure would be more dangerous because of the pressure that it would engender on the back of the eye. Indeed, the first three doctors I consulted declined. And they mistook the primary problem I was having with my vision. They thought it must be the retinas, not my clouded lenses, because they could see through my lenses to the back of my eyes so much more clearly than I could see out.
Meanwhile, as my sight dimmed, I began swallowing flies that might be swimming in my juice or soup, and other foreign matter, and voluntarily quit driving and gave my car away because bicyclists now looked like mailboxes posted beside the road, dogs like cardboard boxes, and pedestrians like poplar trees. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to see a child playing there at all. Living in Vermont, I perforce became a long-distance bus rider, and the local line, called Bonanza, was my carrier when I went to Manhattan or Boston. By great good luck, Bonanza happened to have been founded some forty years before by one of my ex-schoolmates, and he still headed the company and was esteemed as a good boss. It was my luck because I'm a shy person and in my previous spates of riding buses for long distances, during my roving youth, I'd never been able to summon the courage to sit up front, surmount my stutter, and strike up a comfortable conversation with the driver to hear his story and gather tales of the road. I'd looked out the window for hours instead, which was its own reward, or observed my fellow passengers. But now that I couldn’t see much of anything I needed an opening to help change my habits, engage the driver’s interest in this blindish gray-haired codger who had difficulty talking anyway because of an impediment.
Therefore I'd simply say the name "George Sage," my schoolmate from decades before, whom I'd never seen since, and the driver perked up. Bonanza was headquartered in Providence and ran New Englanders from town to city and back in competition with Trailways and other large lines, and nobody but an insider would have reason to know the owner's name. Then from one driver I would pick up updates on George and his family—the suburban town he lived in, how many kids he had, where they'd gone to college, what they were up to now, how the business was doing, how in midlife he'd invested in a little airline out in Nevada by way of a change from the business he'd started practically in prep school, and eventually been squeezed, but won an out from the Howard Hughes airline that did it to him, which made his losses good—to employ as conversation fodder with the next, when I rode again.
I learned quite a bit about the drivers too—the guys from Vermont, the guys from Massachusetts, each of them above fifty by now, with two or three decades of service to Bonanza, and the inevitable back pains, periodontal problems, heart tremors, asthma, emphysema, or arthritis to contend with. One had developed an allergy to diesel fumes, but it was too late in life for him to find another job with benefits or a decent wage. Four times a week he'd spend some thirteen hours on the road, crossing Massachusetts both ways, stopping at every town he came to, coughing and wheezing all the while, and with kidney troubles to boot, in order to keep his family functioning—though he exacerbated his difficulties by standing outside and smoking at stops and drinking heavily at home. Thanks to the environmentalists, the nuclear power plant near his home was closing down; a lot of jobs had vanished there. Maybe a gravedigger's position at the cemetery was going to open up, he thought, if one of the nuclear workers didn't get it. He was worried, although stoic, fatalistic, boisterous, and bluff—a hefty man who loved his CB radio and turned to it for solace on the highway, warning the truck drivers of a rig upended in the westbound lanes by nonchalant lingo: "Yeah, an eighteen-wheeler, and you can see the dirty side."
Another driver, a lifelong Vermonter, made the New York City run from Bennington regularly. He was slim, neat, refined, precise, soft-spoken, happily married, and otherwise with all his ducks in order, only concerned that the yuppie summer people and well-heeled retirees flocking to the lovely scenery around Manches- ter to buy homes were driving up property values, store prices, taxes, and forcing the regular citizens out. He was self-contained, middle-class in manner, not at all a sort of tethered long-haul trucker like the Boston driver, and his problems related to his budget and style of living or retirement plans, not his job security or health. The Calcutta carnival of homeless people at the Port Authority bus terminal near Times Square, where he spent a two-hour turnaround every weekday afternoon, didn't ruffle his composure. He read a newspaper in the drivers' subterranean lounge or napped in a cubicle, then would pilot a new batch of passengers back to Vermont. Once you cleared Danbury, Connecticut, and left the thruway for a two-lane road—old U.S. Route 7 running up the valley of the Housatonic River—it became white clapboard towns again, almost like home.
Another driver, though, was sometimes rattled by his daily trips to Eighth Avenue and Fortieth Street in the crazy city. He was the most traveled of them all, oddly enough, and once or twice he characterized himself to me as "kind of longhair, a little bohemian," as if, because I was a college professor, he knew I'd understand. He was less of a roisterer than the first man but less white-collar in his body language than the second, and said that he had been in the air force, stationed in Japan, as a young man. He had "lost his innocence" there. For a serviceman in the Far East, the prostitution had been wide open, and what had gradually happened to him, he said—as we rode for several hours through the darkening night, the temperature outside falling, Connecticut having given way to Massachusetts, and then approaching Vermont—was that, with no limits on what you were enticed and entitled to do, and every temptation available outside the base on your weekend passes, he had developed a taste for enjoying small boys. Afterwards, when his hitch in the military was up, he had come home, married, had some children, and put those experiences forever behind him, he hoped—if not, unfortunately, the occasional surge of unsettling memories, as incongruous as those of combat which other veterans were subject to at family picnics, school soccer games, and the like. Yet these were not of combat; they were unsanctioned, secret, and his career as a bus driver in rural New England, too, at first had kept a cap on them, till he was assigned the New York run. Times Square, with its hungry side street waifs offered for sale, black children or brown and a few white urchins, who could be mauled or sucked for twenty bucks, was like lurid Japan all over again. Eventually he succumbed, and it was souring to his marriage and made him wish that he had never enlisted in the air force and gone abroad in the first place. Yet he had rather a good marriage, it seemed to me. His wife often met our bus, as we passed through their town, and rode with us to the end of the line and drove him home.
I hadn't ridden buses much since the cross-country Greyhounds of the hobo summers of my youth. They had still been a hardscrabble mainstream means of travel then, but with cheap air travel, that's over. Long-distance buses have become the habitat of busted souls who've lost their cars to the finance company or lost their licenses because of driving drunk; of childless, indigent old people; or frightened new immigrants from Laos or Nigeria or Guatemala, who have too many kids to manage and be able to sleep at the same time; of people who have just been released from an institution; of legally blind people like me. I met several others who couldn't see beyond the end of their nose; and elderly widows who had outlived their money; and frightened children who were being shuttled solo between a terrible-faced mother who stuck them onto the bus at one end and a terrible-faced father who picked them off at the other; and gently retarded individuals who saw the world as cloudily as I did but by a different process—a woman who carried herself like the Queen of England but, always smiling, fell down a lot; a man with stained pants whose feces smelled of whiskey.
On planes out of desperado places such as Alaska I've sat next to haunted-looking people—a young woman crying throughout the flight down to Seattle with absolutely bottomless grief; a man desolately sucking the tail of his two-foot gray beard. But buses are a kind of bottom rung, beneath even the panic of an airport departure lounge, when your life has suffered a tumble. It takes so long to get away from what you’re trying to escape and get to where you're trying to go that most of us would much prefer jumping on a plane and arriving in the clean anonymity of the exurbs of our chosen city, with bustly business people all around, renting cars, calling home with credit cards, conferencing here and there, sipping margaritas, snapping the locks of attache cases, accessing their laptops and PowerBooks. In a gritty bus station, with derelicts on the benches trying to pretend that they are travelers in order to snatch a nap, and the mean streets of an inner-city ghetto just outside, it's not like anesthetically arriving at an airport. I remember once being seated on the Bennington bus next to a tough-faced, diminutive man who looked to be in his sixties and whom I'd first noticed in the New York bus terminal because he had been hobbling about with chest pains, suffer- ing agonies in the queues. He turned out to be a racetrack groom, just cashiered from his pick-up job in Florida because of angina attacks. He spoke in muttered bursts, half-collapsed in his seat as he anticipated the stabbing shafts of pain—although of course he was a lean, fit, hardbitten-looking sort of guy in other respects. Now in desperate straits, he was making his way back to Pittsfield, the Massachusetts town he had left in anger twenty years ago, to throw himself upon the mercy of a son who still lived there, and whom he hadn’t seen since then. We arrived in the December chill at ten o’clock at night, but no one met the bus for him.
However, the night was not unlike the day for me, because I couldn't see either the stars or birds, neither a plane's lights nor a fox ranging a roadside field, or even read with my two eyes at once, because I had to hold a book or magazine so near that I was not able to focus both of them upon the words; I'd close one and rest it for a while, while using the other. But my straits weren't desperate. I had a lifetime of preparation for this, in the sense of jiggering my finances into position for long-term survival and remodeling the furniture of my mind for life’s later stages. Goodness knows, I hadn't wanted to be blind, but neither had I wanted to be young forever.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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