Thursday, July 29, 2010

What an odd book! I didn’t even know I had it, to be perfectly honest, but it’s probably a good thing no one claimed it at last Friday’s Free-Sale.

I don’t blame anyone for not being attracted to it – it’s a hardback, dates from 1993, but has a very uninspiring cover, just bland. Mostly white, blue lettering, nothing to attract anyone’s attention. It’s by Irma Kurtz – previously unknown author, to me anyway – and the title is, “The Great American Bus Ride”, subtitled, ‘An intrepid woman’s cross country adventure.’

I can’t imagine where I would have acquired such a book, although I suspect it might have come from one of Hebrew University’s Friends of the Library book sales, when I have been known to pick up almost anything in English, seeing as how on the last day, everything sells for about a shekel.

Unclaimed as it was at the Free-Sale, it should have been tossed out. That’s what I promised myself. But when it came to actually throwing this nice clean book away, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I put it aside, one of those “I’ll think about this later” moments. But then a few nights ago, I idly picked it up and started reading.

It’s a ‘road’ book. Kurtz, pictured above, is an American-born ex-pat living in London, who decided to return to the US to ride Greyhound buses all over the US, essentially marking a “Z” for Zorro slash across the map. She offers casual commentary about what she sees, the people she meets and the oddities her travels offer – a nice blend of things that are truly odd (like “Vera”, who attaches herself to Kurtz at the beginning of the journey, and has to be almost literally pried loose) as well as things that are just snapshots of Americana, old and familiar, fun to be realize someone else remembered the same thing.

This isn’t a ‘Travels with Charlie’ book by any means, but still, it’s seriously addicting. Several times I’ve kicked myself, ‘I should stop reading this thing – what’s the point?’, only to follow that up with a second thought, ‘I will quit reading it, but not quite yet. Just a few more chapters….’

There’s no index, no preface of chapter headings, so you can’t pick and choose which of the hundreds of destinations she passes through, but I did get a few giggles out of the several pages she wrote about Fargo, North Dakota, a city (probably about 70,000 people when she was there) I know very well. While still plotting her journey back in London, Kurtz chose it as one of her destinations, because, she says, “I thought it was one of the least likely places in which I would ever have found myself.” In fact, Fargo ranked as such an oddity in her mind that before she left, she actually promised her son, still in London, that she’d send him a postcard from there.

“And what makes you think there are any postcards in Fargo?” the son asked.

“Listen to your mother and learn,” she replied. “There is no place on earth with a view, a church or even just a population of 25 that does not consider itself worthy of a postcard.”

Except Fargo, as she eventually found out. She ended up mailing a postcard from Fargo that featured a picture of London Bridge.

Not that she didn’t like Fargo – quite the opposite. “From the moment I arrived in Fargo, I felt happy and at home,” she wrote. “I love Fargo, North Dakota. Who can explain it?”

One of the things she loved was Duane Johnson’s used book store – she seems to have sought out used book shops in each location she visited, which might well account for my newfound affection for her book. Johnson, who passed away just last year, was an iconoclastic local hero -- one wonders the Coen Brothers didn’t hunt him down and make a film. With his long white beard and philosophical outlook -- “I am a skeptic, a pacifist, and a liberal in the Great Western tradition. I regard myself as a sane man,” she quotes him as saying. Johnson became known as North Dakota’s “bookseller emeritus” even though his shop was repeatedly threatened with closure by the fire marshals because of the fire hazard. Books and magazines were stacked and piled haphazardly everywhere, spilling into the already narrow pathways among shelves, something Kurtz loved. “At first it seemed like chaos,” she wrote of his shop. “But then gradually order emerged, shaggy, as a garden gone a bit to seed.”

One of Kurtz’s funniest stories involves the village of Elwood, Indiana, where her mother, Minnie Kessler, grew up, and of which her mother had few fond memories. Still, Kurtz wanted to see it for herself, to check out the actual locale where some of her mother’s stories took place, to see if the scenes she’d imagined were anything close to the real thing. Kurtz even went so far as to brave the cemetery in a monsoon-like rainstorm to hunt down the grave of one of her mother’s teachers, Miss Small.

She recalled her mother’s tale of what took place during a 4th grade school day. “To be a good American,” Miss Small announced to her class, “a person must be Protestant, white, and born here.” Whereupon the teacher whirled around and pointed her finger at Kurtz’ then nine-year old mother. “And Minnie Kessler, you wipe that grin off your face!”

Kurtz braved the rainstorm and found Miss Small’s grave. “Seventy-odd years later, I stood at the foot of the former teacher’s grave, and with the mud sucking at my heels, I pointed to her gravestone and said aloud, “Miss Mary Small, Minnie’s girl has come all the way to Elwood, Indiana, to tell you: Wipe that grin off your face!”

Back in her motel room, doing her best to dry off and warm up, Kurtz decided to call her mother – who was then living in Southern California – and tell her of Miss Small’s posthumous comeuppance. “Remember the story you used to tell me about Miss Small, in your 4th grade civics class?” she asked her mother. “So you know what I did? I went to the cemetery and found her grave. I told her from you that she should wipe that grin off her face!”

Kurtz’ mother paused, then said, “Well, that was a very nice thought, Irm. And I don’t suppose it makes any difference, seeing as it’s all in a good cause. But that teacher I used to tell you about? Her name was Miss Little.’

There now – aren’t you all sorry you passed up this book? You just never know what wonders lie a book might hold, even if the cover art doesn't look very interesting.


  1. I love this. I also love "trying out" books that seem innocuous. Wish I had made it to your free-sale. I would've been there with all my heart. I'm recovering from another surgery-- but I will rise again!! :-)

  2. Okay. This post makes me want to do two things: 1. read this book, and 2. travel in a Z across the U.S.!! :)