At Hinano Cafe on Venice Beach, they don’t serve hard liquor. That’s okay. After seven days of driving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, it probably was not what I needed even if it is what I wanted. And a moderately cold draft Bud never did anyone any harm.
America is elusive. When you go to seek it out, you find that you can’t find it. Rather, it finds you. So much of it is lonely and beat down, and so much of it is beautiful and spectacular that you start to wonder who Americans really are, and what America really is.
There is sawdust on the floor at Hinano. Is that authentic, or a wink at a once-real but long-gone common phenomenon? Are the Indian souvenir shops off Route 40 that used to be off Route 66 in New Mexico authentic? Are the cowboy hats in Texas or the Horseshoe sandwiches in Illinois? Is anything authentic anymore? Is America?
This is a complicated question, and I wish I had better answer for it. But I’ll give it a shot. I left Brooklyn on a 5 a.m. Monday that felt like the first day of fall. As I crossed the Verrazano Bridge, I made a point to gaze as safely as possible at the Atlantic on my left. Joyce called it the “snot green, scrotum tightening sea,” and it is. I hoped with a little luck and pluck I’d be at the Pacific by Sunday.
In many ways, the East is unremarkable. The same forested ground from New York to Ohio. The same dull highways, the same dull rest stops bedecked with Starbucks, Roy Rodgers, and Sbarro’s. Probably the place that felt most authentic was the little smoke and beer shop one exit into West Virginia. The regular routine of rural, exurb, suburb, and city repeats itself over and over.
Somewhere in Indiana the topography starts to change a bit — fewer trees, also different signs. Suddenly advertisements for gun shops and feed stores appear. These seem very authentic to me. In some sense we think of authentic as “not for tourists,” and these places did not seem to be for tourists. This is also where I would start hitting gas stations and restaurants and get the really clear sense that people instantly knew I wasn’t from around there.
It isn’t really until you pass St. Louis that the landscape starts to become very unfamiliar to a Northeasterner. Rocky and dry, and once again the signs changed. For at least 150 miles as you course through the highway in Missouri there are constant, like every two miles, signs for hotels, shows, and amusements in Branson. This confounds the “not for tourists” theory a little bit. Branson is definitely for tourists, but is also clearly important to this part of the country. And these long roads to promised fun felt very authentic.
The same can be said of the tourist stops that spot the Southwest. They are so over the top in most cases that they can’t even be compared to the cookie cutter rest stops of the east with their Pennsylvania snow globes and Maryland sweatshirts. Once or twice I pulled off modern Route 40 for gas in little old Route 66 tourist traps. It was exactly like being in the movie “Cars,” itself a meditation on authenticity. Is oldness what makes things authentic? Somehow that doesn’t quite work either.
In Tulsa, for example, there was a wine bar in a strip mall across the street from my hotel. I think my nine-year-old is older than the building and although it was nicely appointed, it felt like a wine bar in a strip mall. At first it did, anyway. I chatted with some people at the bar. A gaggle of girls wandered in celebrating something, and then, in the back room, a guy with a guitar started playing to a very small crowd.
He was very good. He was just doing covers, but he played and sang well, and he meant it. As I watched the people watch him, as I heard his sound fill the little room, two lights illuminating him, I had the strangest parallax feeling that this was not a very remarkable scene at all and at the same time that it was an incredibly remarkable scene. Suddenly the strip mall wine bar was every bit as authentic as my old Lower East Side haunts.
I came to the conclusion, or maybe just the thought, that authenticity is not a quality so much as a feeling. A quality can be defined — if something meets certain criteria it has a certain quality — but the criteria for authenticity seems almost endless. We know or think we know what isn’t authentic, but we struggle to know what is. The way we know is ultimately based in the way it makes us feel.
Today Americans are somewhat obsessed by authentic. We spend so much time in corporate confines meant to give us exactly the same experience wherever we are. We watch movies and TV shows based on the authentic movies and TV shows of our youth. We want to feel something like we remember or imagine Sunday dinners being so many years ago: a natural phenomenon, not a premeditated and prepackaged experience.
The good news is that in America authenticity is all over the place. You don’t have to go very far to find it, but you do have to honestly be open to it. You have to suspend judgment a bit and just be in the place where you are. Feel it. More than anything, our desire for authenticity is a desire to be alive, even more to be real, not be our Twitter account or our opinions, but just human beings in a world of care and comfort. If you learn how to do that, a whole new country opens up to you.