'Is This Your First Visit?'
BEFORE Mrs. Roosevelt started to write ‘My Day’ a lecturer’s life was simpler than it is now. Finding yourself alone in a strange town, you could look up an old friend and while away a lazy afternoon in talk. Or feeling tired, — yes, tired, — you could take a nap.
To a bench in the park or public square you could, weather permitting, carry a book. In a more energetic mood you could visit the zoo, browse in a bookshop or two, inspect the collection of arrowheads at the Public Library, or spend an idle hour in the local museum, art or otherwise. You could go to a movie and then saunter aimlessly up and down Main Street in the neon-light area.
But those indolent days are no more. Mrs. Roosevelt’s example has brought them to an end. It is she who in her charming person has effected an Industrial Revolution in the lives of all of us who also lecture. No longer can any of us claim to have seen a town if we have encircled the Civil War monument. An interest in art is not now enough.
If we would pattern our day on hers, we too must dash from Picasso to the picket lines. We too must vary Goya with the garment workers. We too must go down to the waterfront again and rejoice that morning’s at seven. We too must inspect the settlement houses, the Post Office murals, the clinics, the Federal Housing projects, and the local handicrafts.
We too must wake up — and stay awake. And, unless we wish to be recognized for the weaklings that in comparison we are, we too must dervish through our days, interested in every living thing, even if we have to deliver our lecture from a stretcher.
If, as lecturers, even now we dare to be lazy, often people can be found who are kind enough to lead us into activity. Should we falter as we fall off the train at dawn, should our beds at the hotels call us, should sleep be on our minds during a free day or indolence beckon, these good people are prepared to steer us down the First Lady’s path of virtue.
Sometimes they meet us at the station — in twos or threes. If they look tired, ten to one it is because as members of the Welcoming Committee they have not as yet recovered from that breathless, wonderful day they spent earlier in the week trying to keep up with Mrs. Roosevelt when she spoke before their forum. If we look tired when they have done their town for us, it is because they too are readers of ‘My Day.’ The strenuous life is something we all thus master.
As a lecturer you never know, of course, when you are going to be ‘met.’ This means you have to drop off the train in a fair state of order — shaved, eyes open, hair brushed, wearing a suit that was once pressed, and with a simper of salutation on your face. When, on the platform or at the gate, you spot two or three people as sheepish in appearance as you feel, who clutch a photograph between them, and when you notice that they keep looking up from this photograph to scan the features of everyone who has left the train, like Federal Agents about to pick up a bank robber, you can be fairly sure the Welcoming Committee is before you.
Needless to say, it would be easier for all concerned if lecturers wore white carnations in their lapels or carried yellow tickets. They really ought to. Because the only certain thing about lecturers is that they will never bear the slightest resemblance to the photographs — off or on the circulars — which their managers have sent ahead of them. This is the surest proof of their wisdom.
The young ones, wanting to be old as only the young do, are usually represented by scowling portraits, executed by one of those phrenologists of light who excel at making Penrod look like Von Hindenburg three days after death. The older ones, wishing to be young as only the old can, would send their baby pictures if they thought they could get away with them. Instead they forward either some misty and forgotten profile à la John Barrymore or pictures taken two weeks after their graduation.
It’s all very confusing, and can lead to humiliations, as well I know. Only last winter, for example, I found myself arriving in a strange town. The train was an hour late. No one was on the platform, but at the gate I did notice three people wearing that telltale look of welcome. I smiled vaguely in their direction, the kind of smile which shows itself in the eyes but does not dare to take possession of the mouth. One by one they looked intently at me. But as there was no sign of recognition, and as once I had approached just such a group and coyly whispered, ‘I am Mr. Brown,’ only to have the three good people composing this group say, ‘What of it? You’re not H. G. Wells, are you?’ I hurried on to a taxi.
At the hotel twenty minutes later there was a knock on my door. And the same three people trooped into my room. ‘So you are Mr. Brown,’ said the spokesman, smiling amiably. ‘I’m sorry we missed you. We saw you at the station, but did not recognize you. You see, your circular said you were red-headed, and though we looked hard at you, we all decided you couldn’t be you because your hair was so gray.’
Once they have recovered from their natural surprise at discovering how little you resemble your photographic self, and once they have come to understand the wisdom of the policy that makes this difference necessary, they can be charming, these good men and women who have had wished upon them the duty of inquiring, ‘Is this your first visit to —?'
They love their towns, and want you to love them, too. You may be bewildered by the stone bridge which they assure you is the longest stone bridge in the world. Among the wonders of this structure is that, though seemingly so immutable, it is migratory. It crops up in city after city, galloping ahead of you, you finally suspect, like a courier. If you cease to react to it quite as breathlessly as your guides desire, it is because (though you dare not say so) any loyal citizen of Pennsylvania’s capital will tell you that the longest four-track-stonearch bridge in the world is the one that spans the Susquehanna. After much ardent research devoted to this subject, I have convinced myself — and been convinced — that Harrisburg is at any rate this bridge’s point of departure.
Lover’s Lane in the local park, where the state bard wrote that poem which you say you have read after one of your hosts has recited it, may not appear as romantic when you rush through it in a car with a committee of strangers as it did to the boy who used to stroll through it at twilight in those far-off days, forty years ago, before it became a highway surfaced with cement and was so broadened that the sycamore bearing the heart-encircled initials of those swains had to be cut down.
Except for Huey Long’s skyscraper at Baton Rouge, Nebraska’s proud tower at Lincoln, and the gold-domed old structure in Boston, the state capitols may in retrospect become at times as hard to tell one from another as are the Mesdemoiselles Dionnes. Your scalp may ache as you try to keep clear the tribal distinctions of the Kiowas, the Sauks, the Onondagas, the Blackfeet, the Flatheads, the Shoshones, and the Tuscaroras. The battlefields of the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and the Civil War may merge like the Seven Cities of Troy in your itinerant mind. Your head may reel as, passing through the beautiful residential sections that fringe American cities, you try to remember who lives in the huge house behind this fence or hedge, and what it was that its owner’s great-grandfather stood for when he was a defeated candidate for the Vice Presidency. State histories and local legend may at times prove more adhesive to themselves than to you, as nightly you hopscotch across state lines and daily change towns.
If city-bred, hence country-blinded, you may be surprised, when being shown through a course in animal husbandry at a Western university, to discover it has nothing to do with divorce. If you have forgotten your geology, you may, as a happily married man, be a little shocked when a respectable lady asks you without blushing if you wouldn’t like to drive out to the edge of town and see a butte.
But you do learn. More and more you realize what a giant delusion is the self-sufficiency of those proud towers which are New York. In spite of its fascinations, Manhattan, you come to see, is no more than a man-made delta deposited at the mouth of the endless river of enterprise and hope, of energy and defiance, which is America. It is the biggest of our towns — indeed, a huge anthology of friendly villages-withinvillages brought together to make the largest and seemingly most impersonal of our cities. But, great as New York is, America is its absentee landlord. And we who proudly call Manhattan our home prove ourselves to be the greatest of all provincials when New York tempts us to forget this, as it often does.
Up, down, and around the country are millions of things to see, if your curiosity is not dormant and your energies are not drained. Jostling with the strivings of the present — with gasoline stations, hot-dog stands, hideous road signs, and tourist camps where Cupid no less than motorists can rest; with eating places doing their best to look like dining cars, grounded battleships, brown derbies, or anything but restaurants; with the shacks of shanty towns, the neglect of forgotten sections of cities now pushing into wooded suburbs, the roar and smoke of factories, or the greater competition of natural wonders of the out-ofdoors — are reminders of the past. Old houses, instructive plaques, charming reconstructions, historic shrines — these are the sudden spokesmen for different days, for conflicting civilizations, forgotten issues, and those arduous battlings, inch by inch, which have made possible the way of life so many of us, in our unearned softness, now take for granted.
If these places with conjuring names from a past incredibly near are neither as numerous nor as old as the ones that beckon in Europe, it is because the greatest monument of them all is the country itself: the country and its people.
As you listen at every turn to those countless accents and vocabularies that color the voice of Uncle Sam; as each morning brings a new landscape as easily before your Pullman window as a fresh backdrop is lowered on the stage; as elms turn into palms and palms into oranges; as wheat changes into cotton and race horses into cattle; as the snow by the Northern lakes melts in a few hours into spring in Texas; or as you leave behind you the East’s cool, manicured green to cross the great muddy inland rivers and traverse the granaries, and the Rockies suddenly rise from the plains, you cannot help sensing the differences in race, class, and region of those millions who have either become or are becoming that new people, the Americans, and marveling at the miracle which is their country.
You cannot help thinking of the bent backs, the raised axes, and the sweat which every house and cleared space and humming railroad tie and car-filled highway and proof of ease represents. You cannot help being amazed at the patience and the impatience, the bravery and the sacrifices, the huge geyser-like burst of energy which, beautiful or hideous in its æsthetic results, the whole conquest of the continent stands for. And you cannot help having a fresh faith in America’s new frontier, which is the future.
Above all, you are bound to wonder how all these diversities in nature and in man, in interest and tradition, were ever fused into a union or have been held there. But the more you see of the United States, the more you realize that the greatest reality of the American dream is the vague common hope which has enabled all of these people and all of these sections to speak of themselves as ‘we,’ and mean it.
The Welcoming Committees do not hymn America when they meet you. They are not wrapped up in bunting. Their spirit is anything but Rotarian. They are pleasant people, delegated to do a job, who in the kindness of their hearts seek to make a stranger feel at home. They want to fill your empty hours, to have you see what you should see and should want to see.
Their hospitality does not end with history or with sights. They also want to share their houses and friends with you. So genuine and warm-hearted and amusing are most of these men and women you have met shyly at the station in the early morning that for you America soon becomes people no less than places; people you look forward to seeing again because, with reason, you have come to count them among your friends. From them you learn as much as from the places, if not more. They give you the country’s temperature better than does any Gallup poll.
It is only when they are too arduous readers of ‘My Day,’ or when you have tried to build your yesterday on Mrs. Roosevelt’s plan, that the sight above all sights you crave to see in a strange town is your hotel bedroom. It is then, and then only, that sheer exhaustion can give you the courage to say to yourself (and others), regardless of what Mrs. Roosevelt might be doing, that bed is the heaven which is your destination.