I remember the USA. When I first crossed it, we talked about how awesome it was over dinner, when the ladies who had been working the counter for thirty-five years, who had probably had countless affairs with truck drivers, and who were long past their prime, served us eight dollar steaks and split pea soup. These waitresses could be from Duluth or Spokane and it made no difference. They existed in and of existence. Their hearts worked and they drank coffee like the rest of us. They were us, except they had been born fifty years earlier. They had seen things I would never see. Most had never been out of the country but their eyes had levels. Depths. They weren’t hiding anything, but they had lived. It was as though their lives were their secrets, all of their experience, seemingly benign to the cityslicker, had only grown in importance and depth. They knew nothing and everything. They were far wiser than I after having studied so many thousands of faces, taken so many orders, and understood the habits of so many people. Whereas I, with my feeble book learning, had yet to understand what could make a person smile nine times out of ten, or the delicious pleasure of a really hot cup of coffee.
The coffee! Good god, to make coffee with the derelict simplicity of the American road diner. It is a paradox. Not only is it far worse than the Italian style we know and love, but it’s far more drinkable. It was made as a substitute for water. It is the fire and life of middle America and there is nothing we would trade it for. It allows men and women of all ages every morning to wake and do what they have to do, and in that it is unlike any other remedy or anodyne for human laziness the greatest conjurer could devise. Coffee sustained the settlers during the roughest winters, it is our lifeblood, it is mojo and energy and all of the forces that run through the great American continent. The way when you add milk it grits to your teeth and makes you count the colors in the sunrise, the way when you drink it black you feel guilty for taking the first sip because it is so good that when you finish it you know a second cup is inevitable and so is the feeble yearning for more your brain experiences three hours later when you begin to come down from the pleasurable high. Tea is for warmth, for cold winter afternoons, but coffee is for life, for hot, cold, early mornings and late nights, it is the blood that runs through all Americans and it is as natural to us as the Mississippi. The turbid streams that run through our veins are dark and muddy as American diner coffee. In the American mythos, right up there with cowboys and Indians, are rivers and coffee. Give me coffee and give me the great American rivers– they are inseparable and everlasting. The experience of these two foundations to American commerce and success will exist forever in the idea of America itself.
North, the Mississippi is like a child prince unaware of its future majesty. We drove south, past the river islands, the river no longer turgid and broad, its banks ochre and drying in the late summer heat. Borges once called the Mississippi the Amazon’s sister. It is clear why. It runs over and over again, draining the continent of all its filth and sediment. This is Huck Finn’s river, the river of slaves and cotton, of steamers and bridges. It is one of the world’s four great rivers. The Nile and the Amazon are more than 4,000 miles. The Yangtze and the Mississippi are 3900. These rivers represent the great continents. They represent human life in its different conditions, jungle, plains, mountains, swamp. They carry away the sorrows of the world, commingling them in the oceans. The Mississippi runs its bluesy course down, down, joining muds from Appalachia and the Rockies, thousands of years of rock coursing downstream in one quick splash. In it are legendary catfish a hundred years old. The river life is mild because the Mississippi is so muddy; it lends all its power to the surrounding land so that for hundreds of miles from its mouth you can see the thick loamy earth gaining force. The Mississippi is the land’s river, while the Nile is the people’s and the selfish Amazon exists only for the sea. The Mississippi gives back to the land, it rejuvenates and freshens the earth. When it rises the land must be patient. This river is powerful like its southern sister but it lacks her wildness. The Mississippi is your mother’s river; she has always existed and she will always exist. She is gentle and warm– she is for native sons and Indian daughters. And yet she is untamed. Like the American Continent, her wilderness lies in man’s puny attempt to control her, not in the naked blackness of her waters. She is calm and peaceful in her roiling, like the truckers driving with her grain, on her southbound odyssey, past houses, farms, and fields. Freightyards full of old black men, and graveyards of rusted automobiles, past antebellum homes and forgotten plantations, hundreds of miles, always south to the Delta, with the lonely hoot of whiskey and highway, cabooses and macadam. And past all the main streets, small towns, empty silos, aging conductors, and pickup lights, tar and gravel, to the sea, she goes like all of us, one gallon at a time to our merciful end.
Give me life like my Mississippi, unspoiled and quiet, big and grand, with islands in the middle and serpentine coils, all the way dragging out its languid stare to the sky, that’s how I want to die, with my life dragging behind me, pulling at my very being until I pour out of myself into the cosmic magma of time.