PHILLY FORGET ME NOT
I’ve been living outside of Philly
Yeah, I’m so far away
I’ve been gone for more than a minute
Is the neighbourhood the same?
Philly forget me not, forget me not, forget me not
(Come on Philly don’t forget me now)
Hall and Oates
I turned seventy-five last summer. My husband is long dead. My only child, a son, is gainfully employed, happily married, and the father of four. The relationship I’ve been in for fourteen years is on life support. I’ve been teaching psychology at the same college for fifty years and have written four textbooks on the subject – enough for any career. I have a coronary stent, diabetes, and leukemia, all holding their own. I am white and Jewish.
Tanya was happily married and enjoying her life until her husband came home and confessed to having a three-year-old child with another woman. Tanya is now the single mother of two teenagers. She is thirty-five, African-American, and a Muslim.
The Urge for Going: A Jewish Girl, Two Muslims, and a Playlist Drive Across America, gets its title from an old Joni Mitchell song that has played in my mind since 1966 when Tom Rush originally sang it. I get the urge for going But I never seem to go has haunted me through graduate school, career- building, marriage, motherhood, and now grandmotherhood. Over the years, I either didn’t have the money, or the time, or the person I wanted to travel with. John Steinbeck’s 1960 book about his road trip across the country with his “mind-reading” French poodle Charlie, also propelled me. I recently reread Travels With Charley and was struck by the line, “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.” Steinbeck was fifty-eight, near the end of his career, and having heart problems when he took Charley on the road. I’m seventeen years older and feel my soul retreating, so I need to get going. It has to be now because, as Philip Roth put it, old age is a massacre. I know the battle is coming.
After her husband’s revelation, Tanya and I made a plan: we’d go off the grid for a while. We are not going to replicate Steinbeck’s trip, but rather we are going on our own journey. I have friends across the country that I haven’t seen in thirty or more years and I plan to stop and say hello.
To prepare for this trip, like Jack Nickelson in As Good As It Gets, I’ve created elaborate playlists for each state we will be traveling through, the music to be played in the khaki blue Subaru Crosstrek I recently bought because I like the company’s dog love commercials. There is no getting by Tennessee without Dolly Parton’s My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy. I named the car Clara, after my paternal grandmother, because my grandmother was a traveling lady – all the way from Russia to Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century. If it hadn’t been for Clara I’d be standing in line in Kiev today wearing a babushka on my head with newspaper lining my coat.
Tanya was my student but now she is more a daughter. There are long. spindle-shaped cells in the brain rich in serotonin, dopamine and vasopressin, the chemicals of bonding and feelings of love. They hold the secret of social intuition and the reason we make instantaneous social judgments. These cells tell us within one-twentieth of a second how we are going to feel about another person. I loved Tanya the instance she walked into my classroom. She was older than everyone else in the class, pretty without makeup, tall and slim, wearing a patterned headscarf that identified her as Muslim. I was fiddling with the smart machine, trying to get my flash drive to work so that I could show a power point presentation. Tanya took over, and I never had to deal with the wretched machine the rest of the semester. I rewarded her with lunch at a French restaurant in Philly, where, over escargot and omelets, she told me about her love for her husband, who was “the nicest, most considerate guy” she had ever known.
The college professor in me necessitated doing proper research. I bought an MTV road trip guide so that we could hone in on music festivals across the country, a Lonely Planet best trips guide for its side commentaries, Road Food because James Beard recommended it, and a United States road atlas. Jayda’s job is to do the actual mapping, figure out the mileage between one place and another, and find the most interesting routes by which to get there. A video diary of the trip, using my Go Pro camera, might be her ticket to Cornell or Princeton or Harvard.
Selecting books to read on the trip was my next order of business. I checked out the pile on my bedside table, some half-read, others waiting to be opened. I am in the habit of reading up to five books at a time, choosing one each night and another the next morning, depending on my mood, or which is closest to my hand when I get out of bed. The books scattered on the floor next to my feet have to wait. How light or heavy did I want to get into during this journey?
A must-take is Isabel Allende’s In the Midst of Winter, a novel about human rights and connection. Allende has been a favorite author of mine since I cried through her memoir of her late daughter, Paula. Also, I’ve had a framed print on the wall of my office for forty years; I read Albert Camus’ words every day: In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” It has been my life’s motto based on too many dark days.
I am two-thirds into a biography of Jane Goodell but I don’t think the story of Kenya’s chimpanzees and the woman who loves them suits this adventure. I’ve rejected Steven Pinker’s book about violence as too depressing for this trip and considered his latest, focused on reason and science, but decided it was a book I’d use in the classroom, a setting I am determined to escape.
I’ve decided to take White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class In America because I figure we’ll pass a lot of trailer parks and mobile homes along the highways of the country and I want to understand the people I hope to meet and talk to along the way. Just as poor whites were instrumental in bringing Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party to power in 1861 – can you believe their platform was human rights? – their descendants thought they’d take a chance on Donald Trump and the Republican Party in 2016. I want to see how this is working out for them. I’m going to try again to read Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club. I don’t know why I’ve put this lauded memoir down three times without getting past chapter one, but on this trip, I’m going to figure it out.
I am of a generation of Jewish women who never leave the house without their hair in place and makeup intact. I can still hear my mother, dead thirty-seven years, telling me that “you never know who you are going to run into in the drug store. It could be the love of your life and if you are not wearing makeup he won’t even notice you.” My father concurred, telling me once, “Makeup makes a homely girl attractive, an attractive girl pretty, and a pretty girl a knockout.” All of my life I’ve been told I’m a pretty girl, so makeup it was. No one told me that lipstick or no lipstick, after forty I’d become invisible in Rite Aid.
Here is my chance to free myself of the daily grind of mascara, eyeshadow, eyeliner, rouge, lipstick and the rest of the L’Oréal line. I’ll let my hair go gray. I’ll take my most comfortable, raggedy clothes. I’ll stop painting my nails. I’ll give my ears a break from the chandeliers I hang on them every day.
There is a concept in psychology called functional fixedness, a cognitive bias that forces people to see things in a set way. If you want to hang a picture on a wall, you use a hammer to drive in a nail. If you don’t have a hammer, you don’t hang the picture, although you could use the back of your shoe or a pan or a wrench. Most people wait until they find a hammer because this is what you hang a picture with. I am a psychologist’s dream subject when it comes to functional fixedness and my face. I’ve set aside enough cosmetics to fuel the cast of La Cage aux Folles, a group of guys who know the value of a good cream foundation. I threw in gold hoops and silver dangles, and two bottles of nail polish, one pink and the other purple. I’ll get a manicure and pedicure just before leaving town. And dye the gray out of my hair.
With the important things settled, I’ve made a list of the medicines I have to take with me: Invokana, metformin, Victoza, meloxicam, gabapentin, losartan potassium, duloxetine, Praluent, oxycodone, oxybutynin, aspirin, Aleve, vitamin D, biotin, Cozaar, CoQnol.
The hardest part about heading out of town is leaving my five dogs and two cats behind, albeit they will be cared for by my aforementioned companion. Elliott doesn’t love them as much as he loves the Eagles, the Phillies, the Flyers, the 76ers, Penn State football, and every major and minor team of any persuasion that plays on the planet Earth, but I trust that he will get up from watching ESPN at least once a day to feed the animals, let them into the yard, pat them on the head, and remind them that I miss them. I considered taking Toby with us, the love of my life, a black Shih Tzu, but at fourteen he is deaf and tired. Like Argos, Odysseus’ dog in Homer’s Odyssey, Toby will wait for me, and I hopefully live twenty-years as Argos did.
What clothes should one take when driving West through the northern part of the country and East through the southern? A girlfriend of mine once told me all one needs in life is one long black skirt and five different tops, all black. She never understood why women have a closet full of clothes they never wear. I have one of those some-day-I-might-wear-this closets, jam-packed with outfits I bought starting with my first teaching position in 1964. I have my mauve wedding gown, hidden under a cover, and the veil I wore on my wedding day tucked into a box on the top shelf. There are high heels I haven’t worn since having knee and back surgery ten years ago; no question I’d topple over and kill myself if I put them on today. For the life of me, I can’t remember why I once bought a pink dress with polka dots on it.
I’m taking four pairs of LLBean casual pants and six tops, one of them slightly dressy. Two pairs of shoes, one loafer-like, and the other sandals. One jacket, one sweater. Three nightgowns. Undies. No dresses.
My iPads are coming, both standard and mini, and my iPhone. Also, my Apple laptop, my Kindle, and my Sony camera. I’m leaving Alexa home. I’m wearing my iWatch.
Reading glasses, two pairs, just in case, and sunglasses.
Perfume. Obsession by Calvin Klein, which I’ve been wearing since it was invented.
A straw hat. It’s sunny in Arizona.
An umbrella. It rains someplace.
I am what I am, I told Tanya, definitely not a pioneer woman.
The thought of not seeing my grandchildren for as long as the trip takes pains me, although even the one-year-old knows how to Facetime. Tanya and I have no idea how much time it will take us to get centered and back to our lives, hopefully, different lives than the ones we are leaving – but I’ll be a better grandmother when I return because I will feel freer and accomplished. And especially because I will have satisfied a fifty-two-old- year dream. I will have finished the song: But she’s got the urge for going, So I guess she’ll have to go.