America–A musical interlude

During my last semester at Saint Mary’s in 2011, I was lucky enough to take a class with Alex Green. We read and wrote about music, and chose two songs to write about each week–songs that had some personal significance to us. I enjoyed writing these so much, I think I’ll post a few every now and then. Good times… And here it is again, on Paul Simon’s birthday. 

America by Paul Simon

A young person’s song, full of hope and promise and loneliness and angst.

Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together…

When I hear this song now, I hear the wistfulness and confusion, the forced gaiety, the longing.

When I first heard it, in 1968, did I hear those things too? Or was it mostly the romantic notion of a boy and a girl being able to hop on a Greyhound bus with a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies in search of …what? Real life?

They went out of business a long time ago

I’m not sure where the boy and girl in this song come from or where they’re going. It doesn’t matter.  It’s the beginning of a journey, destination unknown.

It’s a young person’s game: laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces. “She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy. I said be careful, his bow tie is really a camera…”

The world is yours to mock. Other people are just fodder for your imagination and sense of humor: teachers, parents, strangers on the bus or the street. Make things up about them and laugh yourselves silly. You’re young, right? People understand this, don’t they? They should cut you some slack.

Wasn’t that what it was like? Just killing time, wishing and waiting for life to actually start? For me, it wouldn’t be on a bus ride from Pittsburgh to New York. It wouldn’t be a bus ride to anywhere.

I looked for America right here. I stayed here.

Toss me a cigarette…


Now, “let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together” sounds like a child’s vision of adulthood, a fairy tale that will have to end with happily ever after, won’t it? My boyfriend and I used to marry our fortunes together, amounting to maybe three bucks on a given day. That was enough to buy a stack of pancakes at Red’s Shutter Café, a few blocks from our high school. The guy behind the counter had to know we were cutting class, but he never gave any indication that he knew or cared. We were two kids on an adventure, on our way to becoming lovers and starting life for real. Just a few more months till graduation and then, off to look for America. Or ourselves. Or who knew what.

And what about being empty and aching and not knowing why? Too many unknowns, too much hidden around a corner. And I wondered: Is this it? Is he the one? Am I making the right choices? Who else is out there? Where in the world do I belong? What’s on the other side? Will I live long enough to get old one day? Toss me a cigarette. We’ll live forever. Love lasts forever.

And the moon rose over an open field…
Time has passed on this journey, and we’re out of cigarettes now. Have been for many years.
I’m like the man in the bow tie to kids I see today. If they look at me, as I stare out the window of a bus or a train, they have no idea how much I remember about being that crazy and that young. Mostly, I am invisible.
“They’ve all come to look for America” is a cry of longing, the song of a seeker. The song of people on the brink, on the cusp, on the way up and the way out. We’re all explorers.
And anyway, it’s the journey, not the destination, right? We’re all here to look for America, one way or another.


5 Responses to America–A musical interlude

  1. AR Cribbins says:

    Okay, so this post basically made me jump up and down! This is one of my favorite songs too and your write-up with all its perspective is just wonderful 🙂

  2. thebowlerhat says:

    I thought you should know, I’m sticking this in my course reader as an example of the kind of critical thinking and real world observations about their own lives that I want my students to get used to writing about in their journal assignments this semester.

  3. Risa Nye says:

    I’m flattered!!

  4. John Zussman says:

    Lovely! So many of your stories explore the wistfulness of looking back on youth and wondering where the time went. I have no doubt that you understood that then. We were young and carefree, but we could see the roads ahead and knew that we stayed young in none of them.

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