I travel west with a sort of Mr. Bleaney — that’s not his real name, but it does pop into my head when I hear his story. I listen with some sympathy, too, for don’t we all sometimes fear we are Mr. Bleaney? The original Mr. Bleaney was a boarding house tenant in Philip Larkin’s 1955 poem, and he has nothing to show for his life than his presence in a shabby rented room:
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature
My own Mr. Bleaney, the one sitting beside me on the bus, was a former bricklayer, but he has just been fired from a caretaking job in an old folk’s residence because: “I was drunk on the job.” His grin is rueful. “Doesn’t matter because I hated the place anyway. Now I’m on my way to Washington for a cure paid for by my veteran’s pension. It’s not a bad place: I’ve been there a couple of times already.”
He has been married four times, once for one day only. His next marriage lasted a month: “She was beautiful, a German, but on the first night, she tells me she already has a boyfriend. I tell her I’ll kill both of them if I ever see them together, so what does she do? She calls the police, and I go to jail. Later on, I met a few of her ex-boyfriends, and they all told me she was nuts.”
Everything he owns in the world is in four shapeless bags. He’s sixty years old, but still hopeful, and disarmingly cheerful: “Life can only get better.”
In Berkley, California where I’m to give my talk, the room is packed with people but the atmosphere is miserable.
“The woman who was in charge of book talks just died yesterday,” her replacement informs me. “Everyone loved her, and they’re all here, seeking comfort.”
Definitely not a book talk. But I soldier on — what else can I do? — then, go recuperate in a café across the road where a bird struts around the room as if his presence is perfectly normal.
“Free Range,” says one local wit sitting in a corner.
At a table beside mine, a man orders a full meal — hash browns, ham, three eggs, toast. He eats one egg, one piece of bread, throws his used napkin on the plate, pushes it away. The waste shocks me, reminds me of one early morning in the train station restaurant of Kosice, Slovakia, when five skinny gypsy children swarmed in, began shoving all the leftover food on plates and in rubbish bins into their mouths… until the waitress and cashier began screaming, threatening to call the police.
In small-town northern California, things do get better. Here are sleepy streets and wooden houses. Squirrels leap from tree to tree, and huge self-confident birds peck like chickens. Even the coffee shop where I breakfast is right out of a 1950s movie: local cops sit at the counter chewing the fat with a chubby warm-hearted waitress, and plus-size cook. On the menu is the message: “Thank you so much for making our dreams come true. We love it here.”
Ukiah, Willits, Petaluma, and Eureka: people show up for my talks. I’m wined and dined, driven to the coast for sightseeing, and I’m even asked to give another talk in a long-abandoned synagogue tucked into an empty, misty valley. This is what a book tour should be: exchanging ideas, meeting new people, seeing another way of life, and finding beauty.
The area, the welcome, both make me want to pull up stakes, come live here immediately, wander each day along these tree-lined streets, eat good food, inhabit a frame house. However, in my life, this is just a stop along the way.
On the long journey up to Washington, I travel along roads I knew half-a-century ago. Where I once saw fields, there are ugly strip malls, chain stores, fast food joints, and the traffic is bumper-to-bumper. Look what we’ve done to the world.
The woman responsible for book talks in the cultural center in Mercer Island is hostile. Clearly, she hates her job.
“We don’t have much of a turnout for these things. Fifteen came to one last week, and that was a big crowd. Anyway, I’m on my way home.”
Thank you, ma’am.
The auditorium is huge… and empty: half-an-hour to go. A nice man comes in with fresh coffee for the crowds that will soon be pounding down aisles, but he’s looking at me with pity, as if he already knows this will be a dud. He leaves.
The room is still empty when, at ten minutes after eight o’clock, an elderly couple shuffles in; they’re followed by a younger man in glasses, wearing a heavy overcoat. An audience, at last. The talk should have started ten minutes ago.
“Good evening,” I say. The faces in that big space out there are unreceptive. Well, to quote Herodotus, neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can stay me: the show must go on. So I give my very best to these three impassive people who never laugh, never smile, and never nod. At least there’s the possibility of selling two books, isn’t there?
Half an hour later, I conclude, mention that a signed copy of my book is available for purchase. The man in the overcoat gets up and quickly exits. The old folks stand.
“We didn’t come for this,” says the sour coot. “We came for a film about Brazil. We must be in the wrong room.”
And the two of them shuffle up the aisle and disappear.
Leaving me, and my suitcase of books in the empty auditorium. And, once again, I think of Mr. Bleaney.
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