The question hits me right out of the airplane: Did I change? Or did the country I left behind?
I’ve now lived full time for 14 months in Colombia. I return to the United States every six weeks or so for a writing assignment, a holiday, a funeral. The punctuated intervals give me glimpses of the U.S. as a series of snapshots, moments in time. I’ve come to think of my visits as real-life postcards. Some postcards give pause.
On one, my mother’s hair grows grayer. The next postcard, she’s grayer still, and the twinkle in her pretty blue eyes looks more distant. Gradually, one visit at a time, I see mama leaving the world on a one-way ticket.
Other postcards show my Uncle Bruce back in Dothan. First, he’s dynamic and strong. On the next, he’s in a hospital gown, sick with his heart and kidneys. Last, my bereaved Aunt Nancy and my dear cousins shake hands with people waiting in a long line to pay respects. Some touch handkerchiefs to their eyes.
One set of postcards chronicles the recent fate of my house in Atlanta, on the market more than a year.
The first postcard, 2014, shows a century-old Craftsman bungalow with a crowded, candlelit front porch, people happily singing by honest light, wooden guitars beating out the three chords always strummed on southern porches on late-summer nights. In the next postcard, 2015, a new FOR SALE sign stands out front. Ominously, across the street, a no-man’s land of red churned earth turns to mud under heavy yellow equipment. An unexpected, long-term, noisy construction project begins only days after my house goes on the market. The 2016 postcard displays a monstrous, six-story, gray concrete parking deck rising from the red mud. After a year, the price tag on the FOR SALE sign in front of my beautiful two-story home of 25 years has been reduced $129,000.
Here’s a postcard showing the neighborhood coffee shop. Last year, I stood at the condiment bar and chatted. I knew most folks by name. We shared caffeine dreams.
In this year’s postcard, after my year abroad, I stand with a sugar dispenser in hand, alone and anonymous. I see how friends and faces come and go so fast in Atlanta. I feel vain, a little disappointed: I had foolishly worried I might not be able to get any writing done for all the distractions of well-wishers and book fans and old friends.
The postcards changed another way this past year. Something’s different here. I see it in the faces. Or maybe it’s in me.
Postcard: I sit at lunch in a little place I like. Tandoori chicken. Hot baked naan, the tasty Indian bread. Spicy chole, chickpeas like brown bubbles in hell-hot chili oil. I savor the tastes and temperatures. On the way out, I speak Spanish to the manager without thinking: Gracias, señor! A year ago, the gringo in the postcard would simply have said: Thank you!
Colombia has changed me.
In last year’s postcards, I walk by a North Highland Avenue bagel shop. I pass a big walnut tree and then stroll slowly by a busy spa to steal a glance at a pretty receptionist. (She sometimes let her eyes meet my own.)
This year? The bagel store has disappeared, not a taste of lox or cream cheese to be found, the Jewish doughnuts replaced by a bar selling bourbon shots. The walnut tree may be a bookcase somewhere; it’s gone, and so is the shade. The pretty girl has vanished from the spa window.
My travels from Bogota take me most often to Atlanta and Alabama. I sense something else on these trips back that postcards don’t pick up. From 2,000 miles south in Bogotá, I click each morning on CNN for headline news. I read the online The New York Times. I click links for USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Dothan Eagle, my hometown newspaper from peanut country. The spectacle of national politics dominates U.S. headlines, except for days when ISIS murders dozens somewhere or scientists discover gravitational waves a billion years old humming Kum Bah Yah out in the universe.
Maybe the supercharged political atmosphere accounts for a thing I perceived on my last trip home. It began when I arrived in Miami, and it continued as I connected to Atlanta’s hustle and bustle. In past postcards, my fellow U.S. citizens generally seemed relaxed, cheerful, confident. The whole world admires Americans for these qualities, and they mostly earn respect abroad.
This trip feels … different. I sense a tension here I never felt before. My good old USA feels like a country on the verge of something ugly.
Postcard: Two white middle-class couples at the domestic baggage claim in Atlanta’s gigantic airport yell blood-curdling obscenities at one another. The baggage carousel slowly carries their suitcases around and around.
Postcard: A worn-out, bleach-blonde mom strikes her son when he can’t manage to keep up with her in a crowded concourse.
Postcard: A driver flips a bird at a young tattooed woman crossing the street in front of him, even though she crosses at a clearly marked pedestrian walkway. Atlanta drivers in my past experience showed great courtesy. I can count on one hand the times in my 25 years in the city that someone refused to let me into a line of traffic. The guy at the wheel of this car? Something other than courtesy is driving him.
My biggest postcard surprise on this trip, though, was my experience with African Americans I encountered. I came into contact with 20 or 25 during the flight from Bogotá to Miami, and during a four-hour weather layover, and on the last leg to Atlanta, and then along the path from terminal to rental car to my house. (Yes, still for sale.)
Only one—just one—of those 25 or so black people engaged with me, a white guy with freckles, in any cordial way. Just one: Thank you, Mr. Jackson from Boston, in seat 39C. Thanks for the conversation, the kind words to a returning American. The others two dozen glared through me … or ignored me … or gave only the barest perfunctory attention to my tired travel questions (Where can I find the bathroom?) or idle small talk. (Geez, it’s cold in Atlanta!)
Even a year ago, these postcards were different. The famous good humor of so many Southern African Americans seemed very close to the surface. I remember courtesies. I remember feeling: Hey, I feel home here. We’re all on this third rock from the sun, pulling together.
Maybe I’m seeing a freeze-frame racial moment that results from all the accumulated Freddie Gray moments, the slow drip of cop killings and indifferent comments by politicians and the death-by-a-thousand-cuts from slights and injustices black Americans feel that others never even comprehend. Maybe it’s a new militancy emerging in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Whatever it is, whatever the reason, this postcard disturbs me. What will the next ones be like, those postcards from the future? Last trip, for the first time since moving abroad, my country didn’t feel like home.
Photo: Alexander Kelly, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.