Driving through the USA

Departing Nicosia for Larnaca Airport, it was the first time I noticed the stickers on the plastic facades of the GSP roundabout; a black bird with open wings stuck on each panel.

They made me smile because in this instance, I was also getting ready to fly some 10,000 kilometres away, transiting in Dubai, heading for New York City.

Driving a silver, bulky Ford Explorer and keeping Route 66 as my guiding trail, my plan is to spend the next 28 days getting to know the United States – or at least parts of it – via a sloppily planned out route which is expected to take some thousands of kilometres, through approximately 16 states, leaving behind the north-west and south-eastern quarters for another journey, perhaps.

It was a quote I read as I boarded an impressive double-decker Airbus 380 that carried me for some 14 hours in the air that instilled the perspective of my journey: “There’s no present like the time.” Indeed, time and the present was all that was essentially needed in the small suitcase that accompanied me.

With this in mind I settled in a boutique hotel on Times Square, a hip welcome that gave life to Deborah Masters’ artwork which adorns JFK’s new Terminal 4; set high above the custom booths, her painted reliefs depict scenes of New York’s five boroughs. Residing smack in the centre of a city that doesn’t sleep made it effortless for me to get the nuances I was looking for, although the 6am jet-lag morning call had me understand that ‘never sleeps’ is an exaggeration; there is a short period of time where the floods of people and eyesores diminish for a while; a soothing moment to take in a silence that is however permanently threatened by the city’s architectural whims and advertising frenzies.

The August Wilson Theatre on Broadway, Manhattan, an art deco building of 1925 had me experience my first standing ovation in the country. ‘Jersey Boys’, a musical about how Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons went from being unknown New Jersey kids to international pop superstars, mesmerised me; a musical so alive it had me acknowledge the magic of a team so passionate for what they do and the legacy behind the art form.

But the underlying notion of ‘making it’ or perhaps even more simply, ‘getting through’ in life, regardless of one’s ambitions, carried me forward way beyond my brief experience on Broadway. That same evening, a one-legged man on a mono skate, using crutches to push himself along and gain speed instilled that very paradox: life always takes you places. Same goes for the lady who sat at the table next to me at dinner that night.

“Keep on dancing Jo,” she said to the owner of the Thai restaurant we were sitting in. It was obvious that she pursued the same appreciation for the man who had obviously fed her more than once, as I had for Vincent Piazza, the lead actor of Jersey Boys.

And while on the subway the following morning, it was a group of youngsters collecting money for the homeless, ‘coaching’ the public as the bustling wagon moved from side to side, that drew the line. “It’s hunger that makes us equal,” one of them pointed out. I was happy to leave New York with that notion; for yes, however grand this city may be, its millions of people can’t live in oblivion to what keeps them ticking every single morning.

Just like its history. Standing in front of the two inverted fountains that have taken the place of the Twin Towers, the names of each person that lost their life in the tragic event are inscribed on its circumference.

A lady, obviously very much a tourist like I, stood silent listening to the sound of water plunging in the hole that once held the foundations of the buildings. With a glance, I caught her stroking one of the names inscribed on the metal plate. I guess what I’m getting at is the affluent ‘functioning’ humanity that can be grasped in New York City, even though I was quite happy to leave; I never was a true city girl.

Moving on from NYC

I left New York City on a rainy day. Heading north-west, Chicago was my next destination, although I knew I would split the 12-hour drive with at least one pit stop.

This was destined to be Youngstown on the suburbs of Cleveland. The long drive had me booked in an Express Holiday Inn off the highway, a bleakish hotel that looked more like an old people’s home than a trendy international chain. I was served chilled wine over the reception counter as though they were checking how much I drank and smiled when they said the 40-minute open bar time was over. I was beginning to recognise the realities of offbeat American culture.

Looking for a bite to eat, I discovered a ‘popular’ pub in what looked like the industrial quarters of town; a red brick box in the middle of nowhere owned by a young bubbly blonde who, when not working in her mother’s pub, studies criminology to ‘get to know those b******s’, as she put it.

There weren’t many of us, about 10; sat on the L-shaped bar after I was greeted with an intimidating ‘what is she doing here’ look. Drinks settled, the conversation revolved around Caitlyn Jenner’s (Kim Kardashian’s father) sex change which according to the outnumbered men sat around me, is a disgrace to the male gender. Pop culture has never really interested me, never mind making a fuss of it. I sat back and listened as I ate super chilly popcorn out of a greasy machine provided. It was ‘throw your head back’ time, there was nothing more for me to say.

Meeting Chicago

Chicago. What a beautiful city. Its people, its architecture, its parks, the mood, the lake, the vibes. Looking for safe parking in the centre of town, I’d parked behind a lady who apparently was the chef of the joint next to the lot. Little did I know she would be cooking dinner for me that very evening. The joint I refer to is known as Buddy Guy’s Legends, a place owned by Buddy Guy himself, known as a genuine American treasure and one of the final surviving connections to a historic era in the country’s musical evolution.

Our dinner set was entertained by Matt Hendricks, an advocate of the blues and a great musician. His combination of covers, as well as his own songs, led by little stories about the blues’ scene in Chicago set the motion for my musical urges.

One of my morning strolls had me confronted with two lion statues outside the premises of the Chicago Institute of Art dressed with helmets. As quirky as they looked, I wondered whether this was some kind of intervention by art students or Banksy-style frenzy.

It was when I was approached by a WBBM 105.9FM reporter that light was shed on what was going on. Ironically, as opposed to interviewing me, I interviewed her. The Chicago Blackhawks logo on the side of the helmets should have given some kind of insight, but – not being an avid sports fan – she revealed that they had qualified for the finals of the Stanley Cup and were to play that very evening.

Needless to say I made sure I found myself in a sports bar that evening. Neither the national anthem nor the hockey game enthuse me to be honest, but okay, I was part of that city’s pride and was happy that they won the match. I’ll be keeping an eye on them from now on. Go Chicago Blackhawks!

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London