Whenever early March drags cold, grayish days with no hope for Spring to change the season yet, I remember my first winter in the US. Oh, that long and forever lasting winter without a car; all shivering early days falling quickly into dark, walks while splashed by the tracks and cars from the busy roads, jumping over puddles, wondering what to do when the side-walk disappeared and walls of snow surrounded all options, finding oneself walking on the road along with the honking cars hop[p]ing for the best, and waiting on one hour circling squares of the bus routes from the University to home, under the laden, snowy Michigan sky. Getting a car would soon become my preoccupation under the pressure of the story I am to tell. This step seemed necessary in climbing towards the understanding that you couldn’t easily live without a car in the Midwest.
One of the hollow weekend afternoons that seemed to linger too claustrophobic on me as though time couldn’t move and despite all warnings not to walk too far from home without a ride, I decided to sneak out from my benefactor’s house and his family. Alone. I strolled in the winter-storm to see the new movie that everybody talked about at the Graduate school, American Beauty. Not trusting too much American movies, I didn’t expect any excellence, but after the show I happily thought “This is the best movie I had seen in years! This is, indeed, the best movie after Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire,” one of the cult movies of my generation, which subtly and lyrically showed how all black and white angel worlds fall and melt on the sun letting earnest love to juxtapose the eternity; and afterwords, the desires to dance in the rhythm of a finitude and colorful human mortality.
I smiled walking back home while crossing the big intersection and seeing the curious long wondering looks of drivers. I knew I was a rare, younger, well fit, woman walking in the suburban area during this snow stormy night alone. Everybody at home fussed and protested for me walking more than a mile during the night time to the supermarket store, to the Mall, the movie theater, the coffee shop, and Target and I couldn’t understand why walks would be a dangerous routine. Besides, it was not so late in the night, the change of the season painted afternoons dark. So what if I see an old person lurking strangely at the street curb? I came to the US after the war in Croatia and I was adjusted to surprises such as a few mislles hitting the city, or hearing the shots from nearby military barracks, or stunningly hearing the Yugoslav Army MIGs breaking the sound barrier. This would give a chill to any person, a profound fear, not an encounter with the less fortunate person crossing your path. We all know, not all people are equally fortunate, they happened to be here too. I didn’t want to make them invisible, I actually wanted to see who they were and speak with them, hearing their stories, but they would always keep their heads down with turned away eyes from my sight. I thought how all of the busy drivers avoided to see any less fortunate passerby, they didn’t want to face a person that had nothing to lose–this seemed to impose a strange feeling of insecurity and a profound suspicion to the majority of people I knew. I understood the reasoning, but I couldn’t let go my silly idea that everybody had, somewhere, even beneath all shaggy clothes and unclear minds, some sense of dignity, that naturally would flourish from being human and alive. Everybody deserves a hello and a sincere smile.
At that time, it didn’t bother me to face an old, drained face asking for a dollar, I’d give some change if I I had any, if not I’d give a smile. Oh, the significance of the smiley face for the American culture! Even when you have the sharpest argument arsenal in the class discussion, do not become too excited, just smile, otherwise people would think that you were mentally disturbed. Smile like Lester when he heard his wife and lover’s order on the drive-through intercom system. I learned this smiley-lesson fast. …… I just remembered my mother’s old plea when I was a child: “You always look so serious, smile, like all children in American movies….” As far as I could tell, this preoccupation with smiles came from her unique experiences; she attended the American schools throughout of her childhood due to my grandfather’s professional diplomatic career when he worked for years in Italy and South America. I couldn’t resist but to smile one more time, “Smiley face must be the American thing,” I thought.
American Beauty movie pushed me to deeply analyze all my impressions about the suburban life in the US. I felt empowered, happy, and so full of impressions–my thoughts winged like a free plastic bag dancing on the wind’s strings in the dusk of a winter storm. I wondered would I share the same thoughts about the movie quality if I would have been now in my old country. At that point, I could definitely relate to the movie because I lived in the best suburban part of Kalamazoo, the west side, and I heard that I should never try to go alone to the North side of the city. It passed some years before I could fully understand the significance of the whispering “divided” lines of the city. Despite all critique about the suburbanite lives, to me, it was like a daydream to walk through the neighborhood and see those large, enclosed backyards with perfect playground sets for children, occasional hot-tubs, swimming-pools, and the seemingly happy and ordered lives of other people.
Just before I turned to the Piccadilly Street, I decided to stop at the “Rite Aid” pharmacy and get a few groceries. Oh, the sales ladies and the gentleman manager loved to talk with me always asking about my old country. At the cashier’s desk the two sales ladies—one older woman and a young, good looking twenty year old girl–asked me if the movie I saw was good. “Oh yeah, you should see this movie; American Beauty is absolutely the best movie I’ve seen in the last decade!” I continued, “I studied film as art in the Comparative Literature studies, and this movie really gives a good critical analysis of the suburban US and you should enjoy this movie.” Both sales ladies reached for a paper and wrote the name of the movie and they promised they would go together to see it. I couldn’t ever predict that my advice would result in a huge mistake.
One week later, as usual, I walked cheerfully to the “Rite Aid” Pharmacy and I spotted immediately that the field of my presence caused some disturbing resonant coldness and distance. I could feel in the air that I am guilty and something went very wrong. I wandered what’s wrong? When I approached to the cashier’s desk the two sales ladies confronted me with their color blue stare eyes—“How could you suggest to us to see this heinous movie?” At first I couldn’t really understand what they were talking about. “You know, the movie you suggested to us to see, American Beauty?” Finally, I remembered “Ok, now I remember. So, did you guys like the movie, wasn’t the critique of the American suburban life ingenious?”
The cold spring hatred look poured onto me and the fiery words followed: “How could you say this was a good movie? An older man wants to have sex with a teenage girl? Lots of homosexuals, twisted minded military man, the unfaithful wife, dysfunctional families, a dorky young man, and wife kills her husband at the end? Do you really think that we have enjoyed this? We thought at least three times to leave the movie theater “ Obviously, I was in trouble, so I thought that irony would bridge the thin ice of conversation: “ Well, you never know with these movies that present reality in the big cities like Chicago! We are happy here in a small town. Oh, by the way, I think that you totally misinterpreted the end of the movie. Do you really think that the wife killed Lester?” Oh my. This was even worse: “You really think that we Americans live like this in Chicago? This is the total misinterpretation of our culture! And yes, the wife killed Lester! How horrible!” cried the older lady. The younger girl continued: “We are not so sick! No men look for teenage girls, this is a sin, and I was so upset to see this morally disturbing movie.”
Now, they both talked to me, each firing frustrations: “I would never ever guessed you would be so sinister and suggest such a movie for us. We both wondered what is in your head if you approve of such movies?” Oh my, I looked away to check if some other person stood beside me. “Me?” I didn’t know what to do, so I offered my smiley face. “Now, we really wonder. You smile on all of this? You really think this movie was so good? But the middle-age man wanted to have a relationship, let me say straightforward, sex, with the teenage girl!” The women looked at me with a puzzled worry. I answered very wrong: “Yeah, but that sex was never realized. And the teenage girl looked at Lester too. They both realized at the end that their thoughts and desires were wrong. It is like in Plato’s text The Symposium you climb the ladder and reach the higher spheres where true morality resides, which is a true mirror understanding of who we are.” The old woman raised her voice, “So, you still think this is a good movie? You really think so? Do you?”
The manager approached and he took over the cashier’s duty, and coldly commented: “You never know when dealing with the Eastern European women…” This was it for me. I left and that night I wondered where was I. ‘Am I the heretic?’ with a feel of guilt I asked myself. Hope, I didn’t do anything wrong. I puzzled–if this is some other time, like the eighteenth century, would these people hesitate to accuse me for being the heretic and burn me at the stake?”
I began teaching in the winter semester at the University and some students asked me if I had ever watched any comedy late-night shows, but I didn’t dare to answer, although I watched every night Bill Mahr’s daily show. I kept my mouth shut, I learned my lesson–a new/old version of being a politically correct.
That summer I bought an old car by working four jobs—three cleaning house jobs and, ironically, a cashier’s job at the campus cafeteria’s McDonald’s. I cleaned the local Catholic priest house, the Jewish family’s house whose lady was recovering from breast cancer chemo-therapy, and I stayed for two months with the Episcopalian lady, the music professor who was a great personality and plentiful of a free spirit, a mystic, but needed the assistance due her illness that drove her last decade in in the wheel-chair. After that “jumping from hill to hill Summer” I achieved the first step in earning my independence—a car and an apartment!
A few months after the American Beauty heresy dispute I proudly drove my first car through the West Main street, which was a dangerous activity considering that my driver’s training only lasted little bit over two weeks. Some friends from the graduate school gave me driving instructions, taught me how to speed-up to get on the highway and how to push the breaks on a slippery road. No wonder they feared the time in the car together with me, which followed their nightmares of me crushing. I would agree that there is providence. My friends, me, and that first car survived!
Every time I would smile when passing the “Rite-Aid” sign and drove to a bigger supermarket store. One early Fall late afternoon, while I still nervously drove around, I heard for the first time the Prairie Home Companion show. I still remembered that specific show and Garrison Keillor’s weekly reading “News from the Lake Wobegon.” When I returned to my apartment I could still see in the distance the flashing advertisement for the “Rite Aid” pharmacy where I had never returned. The thought suddenly hit me—“Ohh, these two women, they didn’t mean anything confrontational or bad, they were just the lake Wobegon people…..They came from the ‘above the average’ place, the closed communities and their retreats of private, far away Snow Queen, lakes….” and I laughed. It was time to walk again. Soon, I entered to the “Rite-Aid” pharmacy ready to rebound, but the two women were not working there any longer, the business seemed to be slow, and the manager forced his smile to the face, “How are you doing, I had not seen you for some time…..” Last year when I visited the same area, there was no more the “Rite-Aid” pharmacy, only the memory reverberation filled my heart.
Ooops! Too much!!! Heresy!
Lester: Feeling sedated!
The Rose Patel Dream “It’s the weirdest think, I feel I’ve been in a coma for twenty years and I am just now waking-up”
Coldplay-Viva La Vida Lyrics
News from the Lake Wobegon