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Headed toward the fiftieth state

Maybe the urge to wander was ethnically programmed...but the choice of territory? Perhaps it began the day the man who arranged illegal emigrations visited the home of Meyer Jakowitz, in Lithuania. Meyer had enough money only for Leeds, wherever that was. He could not afford London or New York.

He was despatched by herring trawler to Hull and train to Leeds, married a compatriot, had a son called Isaac and later a grandchild, Michael. By then, we had been anglicized to Jackson. My grandfather and my dad talked endlessly of "Next year in New York."


At 27, working on a magazine, I was given an assignment in New York, obtained a visa - necessary in those days - then was fired before I could go.


They bequeathed their dream to me. I spent much of my 20s on various journalistic projects concerned with a country I had never visited. At 27, working on a magazine, I was given an assignment in New York, obtained a visa - necessary in those days - then was fired before I could go. A week or two later, I was working for London Weekend Television, and having breakfast with David Frost. "I have to fly to New York in a couple of hours. Come with me, and we can continue this discussion on the plane," he suggested.

Once on the plane, he took a pill and slept for the rest of the journey. At Kennedy Airport, there was a message for him to continue on to Los Angeles. "Stay in New York for the weekend, and we'll have dinner on Monday," he proposed. My cab-driver into the city was black, but it soon dawned on me that his accent owed more to Brixton than the Bronx. He was determined to help a fellow Brit. By the time we reached Manhattan, he had my weekend my planned (these days, the cabbies are newer to the city than you are).

I did all the right things: ate pastrami at the Carnegie Deli and blintzes at the Russian Tea Room, and still lost weight in a city where almost everywhere is walkable. I visited the Metropolitan and Modern Museums; I saw a preview on Broadway; heard jazz at the Village Gate. My best efforts did not exorcise the ghost of Unfinished Business. No second chapters? There are no destinations in America, just the journey.

I graduated from trains and buses to planes. On commuter jets around the St Lawrence and Great Lakes, I was often the only passenger. Early one morning, at the snack counter of an airport, I was noshing into a bagel when the uniformed pilot at the next table nodded and asked: "Where are we going today?" It turned out he had flown me every day that week.

Everything is on the move in America. For three or four years, I had an annual lecture date in the Michigan town of Frankenmuth, a genuine Bavarian settlement that has turned into a kitsch purveyor of "world-famous chicken dinners" for tourists from Toledo. One year, the phone call did not come. Frankenmuth had largely been blown away by a typhoon.

Indiana, Illinois, Iowa. Those "I" states...people who fantasize about driving across the prairies risk being hypnotised by grain elevators. In Wisconsin, a friend and I often drove 200 miles for the distraction offered by the famous butterscotch pie at a Norwegian cake-shop in Osseo. The Norske Nook has more 100 types of sweet pie (there are no meat pies in the U.S.). The Scandinavian heritage weighs heavily places like Moorehead, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota. Remember Fargo the movie? They really do speak as though the cold has frozen their noses.


I worried when the pilot got a jump-start from another plane, and even more when he consulted a map in mid-air.


Stranded in the snows of Montana, I was approached at the airport by a man in the ticket line (there are no queues in the U.S.). He knew a pilot who was willing to fly, and suggested we hire a private plane. Between five strangers in the line, it was surprisingly affordable. I worried when the pilot got a jump-start from another plane, and even more when he consulted a map in mid-air. He was old enough to have flown in Korea yet young enough to have been in Nam. As we slewed to a landing in a windy Seattle, he sighed: "Thank God for that!"

In Fairbanks, Alaska, the cab driver used to a blowlamp to thaw his gas-tank. He raged about the uselessness of his degree in English literature. "What can you do with a qualification like that?" I did not suggest he write books. That would have come ill from a man with no degree in anything.

In Oregon, I was ferried from one lakeside brewery to the next in a veteran seaplane. An incipient ear-infection flared. We went to a drive-in doctor. "Don't fly or drink," he told me, hopelessly.When I said such a prohibition would ground me in more senses than one, he made me sign a legal document confirming that I had ignored his advice.

A friend with a degree in geology started a bi-monthly newspaper for beer-lovers in California. In his pick-up truck, we would drive from Eureka to San Diego, finding stories, selling ads and dropping off papers. We stayed at Hojos and ate at Ihops (Howard Johnson's and International House of Pancakes).


"Watch out for jumpers," the radio on Interstate 5 casually warned one day, referring to would-be suicides plunging from bridges over the freeway.


In Southern California, every short-order cook has the appearance of being in a screen test, but they do not all make the big time. "Watch out for jumpers," the radio on Interstate 5 casually warned one day, referring to would-be suicides plunging from bridges over the freeway. Survive in Los Angeles and you get to sit on a park bench advertising funeral parlors: tactless, but targeted.

How to avoid eating oneself to death? In New Mexico, there are green chiles with the breakfast eggs; in Texas, steaks; in Louisiana, coffee and beignets. Mississippi is the only state without a brewery, but I passed through, stopping to eat hush puppies at a "Family" Restaurant ("Family" = no alcohol).

Eventually, I was getting up as early as the "lazy" Mexicans who make America's breakfast. I had become what is known as a Road Warrior: leaving a Marriott or Doubletree at 6.0 in the morning, laptop in hand; with a fold-over suit bag on a shoulder-strap; looking for the complementary coffee-and-muffin in the lobby; grabbing a free copy of USA Today; exchanging half-awake greetings in the shuttle bus to the airport; checking in at the kerbside for some city in Oklahoma or Kansas. One day, reading USA Today on the plane, I came to the page that offers a paragraph from each of the 50 states. Checking those that I had visited, I realised there were only five or six to go. Over the next 12 or 18 months, I found excuses to visit the stragglers.


Published Online: SEPT 18, 1999
Published in Print: AUG 29, 1998
In: The Independent

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