An Ode to America: You’re better than this, sweet land of liberty

James Parker in The Atlantic:

“Pretty good nose you got there! You do much fighting with that nose?”

New Orleans, 1989. I’m standing on a balcony south of the Garden District, and a man—a stranger—is hailing me from the street. He looks like Paul Newman, if Paul Newman were an alcoholic housepainter. I don’t, as it happens, do much fighting with this nose, but that’s not the point. The point is that something about me, the particular young-man way I’m jutting into the world—physically, attitudinally, beak first—is being recognized. The actual contour of me, or so I feel, is being saluted. For the first time.

America, this is personal. I came to you as a cramped and nervous Brit, an overwound piece of English clockwork, and you laid your cities before me. The alcoholic housepainter gave me a job, and it worked out pretty much as you might expect, given that I had never painted houses before and he was an alcoholic. Nonetheless, I was at large. I was in American space. I could feel it spreading away unsteadily on either side of me: raw innocence, potential harm, beckoning peaks, buzzing ions of possibility, and threading through it, in and out of range, fantastic, dry-bones laughter. No safety net anywhere, but rather—if I could only adjust myself to it, if I could be worthy of it—a crackling, sustaining buoyancy.

I blinked, and the baggage of history fell off me. Neurosis rolled down the hill. (It rolled back up later, but that’s another story.) America, it’s true what they say about you—all the good stuff. I’d be allowed to do something here. I’d be encouraged to do something here. It would be demanded of me, in the end, that I do something here.

Later that year I’m in San Francisco, ripping up the carpets in someone’s house. Sweaty work. Fun work, if you don’t have to do it all the time: I love the unzipping sound of a row of carpet tacks popping out of a hardwood floor.

More here.