WORLD: First Impressions
I arrived in America early in the
evening of May 4th, 1978. This was my
first visit there and I was dressed in the discrete "going through
Customs" white shirt and black tie which I kept especially for such
occasions. I carried all my
possessions in Jeffrey’s old black suitcase.
I had a return ticket to London and almost $150 in cash. The official who processed me at Customs
quickly spotted the mark that the Immigration Dept. at the U.S. Embassy had
surreptitiously made in the back of my passport when my first application for a
visa had been denied. She asked what
the problem had been in London and I shrugged.
When I showed her my return ticket, she wished me a pleasant visit and
casually waved me through the Airport entry doors into the vast unknown
beyond. I was finally in America!
This was the home of junk food and junk
culture, the birthplace of Tricky Dick Nixon, McCarthyism and the Ku Klux Klan
and although I had lots of great American friends, they were all exiles who had
chosen to live in Europe. I had always
felt that I wanted nothing to do with the States and that I would never go
there. But here I was and going out
through the doors, I instantly spotted a grinning Bruce waiting for me. I pushed past the crowds and we hugged each
other hard. "It's been a long
time, man", he said. So it had
been, perhaps two years since we had last seen each another in Ibiza. Although I had known Bruce for a long
time, we hadn't seen each other very often.
He had come to Ibiza at the end of the Sixties, had found his lovely
little house, Can Rafaela, and had gone back to the States to make money to pay
for it, leaving Phillip and Ana to live in it.
He generally showed up once every couple of years, spent most of his
time running madly around the island until his cash ran out and would then
split back to New York with a bag of dirty clothes and an empty wallet. He was a few years younger than I, a
charming and attractive under-achiever who had never found out what he wanted
to do with his life. He periodically
came up with scams to earn a lot of money very quickly which never seemed to
exactly work out. I was very fond of
him and I often thought of him as a younger brother. Life in Ibiza had the effect of bonding people closely together
and our houses had been side by side in the Valley.
A few years before, Bruce had taken
a collection of batik to New York to show for me. Unfortunately he had been stopped at the Customs coming in and
had had to pay import taxes so that neither of us had made much money out of
the whole business. But his parents
had bought some of my work and he still considered himself my unofficial
agent. Right now, I was delighted to
So we walked down through J.F.K.
Airport and out into the mild early night air of the parking lot. Bruce unlocked the door to a long sleek
blue car, a Ford Gran Torino. We got
into it and I remember feeling very dazed and excited and talking a lot. We sat there for a few minutes looking out
at the multi-coloured shimmering lights of the Airport and the planes which
landed and took off every few seconds.
"Uh, one thing, Jon,"
Bruce said, " This is my mother's car.
She only let me borrow it if I let someone else do the driving. I owe about $900 in speeding and parking
fines and they suspended my license three months ago. Do you mind doing the driving?.
Half an hour later, feeling very disorientated and higher than a kite, I
was driving us through the garishly glittering world of Times Square en route
to visit Michael and Gene.
"Welcome to Central Babylon " said my passenger. "You certainly took your time getting
My first night in America could not
have been more different from my last night in England. Bruce's parents Al and Lorna had kindly
written me a letter of sponsorship while I was in Europe and it was to their
house in Larchmont, suburban Westchester, that I first went. This was the very heart of Middle Class
America, a safe and affluent area populated mostly by white people who
generally commuted into Manhattan to work each day. Bruce's parents were extremely welcoming and invited me to stay
with them. I know that I could never
have stayed and survived in America without their help and support. Although Al died of a heart attack a few
years later, I still consider that household very much part of my extended
family. The first thing that I saw
when we arrived at the house late that evening was the small batik screen with
flower studies that I had made in Ibiza the year before. That was somehow very comforting and made
the whole experience much less alienating than it might have been. The house was quite large with four
bedrooms and four or five televisions, one of which was always on. I was given the library room next door to
Bruce’s room but I don't believe that I slept more than two hours a night
during that first week in Larchmont. I
found everything incredibly exciting.
Even the small commonplace details of life there like the accents, the
food, the cars, the streets and the warmth of late Spring weather were
endlessly fascinating. The tulip
trees were in bloom and the air smelt heavy and exotic.
Bruce and I hung out in the basement
of the house, in the 'Den' with its dusty bar, its huge colour TV with its
twenty five channels, its old books and the National Geographical magazines
from the 50's and 60's which still lay around. Bruce would sneak out after dark and "liberate"
firewood from the neighbours' woodpile for our stove. In the Den, we were cocooned in the warm arms of comfortable
security. Down there, America relived
its golden years forever. I learned a
lot about the country from watching television. The news, the advertisements and the old movies said far more
than any books or articles I had read could say. It was information bombardment time and after so many years in my
isolated ivory tower in Ibiza, I was definitely ready for it. The family treated the Den as our private
domain and rarely even came down there.
I got into some heated arguments with Al, a staunch Republican, but the
feelings were always good on both sides.
Bruce had an older sister, Lynne, who was as strongly motivated as he
was not and who lived in Colorado where she ran a well-known restaurant called
At this point, Bruce lived at home
and spent occasional nights in Manhattan at his girlfriend's apartment while
earning an irregular living working with his friend Pieter, doing odd jobs
around the local community. I too
slotted quickly into the Larchmont landscape, going out to jobs with them,
cutting lawns, mixing cement, chopping firewood, cleaning gutters and climbing
up on roofs.
But all that came a little later,
for first, inevitably perhaps, I had to crash at the end of that first
thrilling week in America. I was there
to see the manager of Nettlecreek Industries, an interior decoration chain
store to work out the details of the big batik order that he had told Michael
he wanted to make. Predictably, the
whole deal fell through completely.
The manager quibbled about prices, about materials and about
designs. He told me that he would get
back to me but of course, never did. I
fell from a great height at that point but was saved from great harm by my new
Larchmont family who put me to bed for a couple of days and kept those regular
meals coming. I felt very depressed
and disappointed at first but soon realized what I should have known all
along. If I were to succeed in
America, I would have to do so by sheer hard work and true British
endurance. But most importantly, I had
got into the country and would never have gotten there without that lure of
gold. I've always thought of myself as
a natural survivor, someone who was prepared to take a chance. I had never been afraid to put myself out
there and to trust that I could make the right decisions at the right time. It worked then and still works for me
now. In Ibiza I had learnt how to go
with the flow and that far from trying to make long term plans, it was
achievement enough to get through each day in one piece.
So survival mode kicked in and I
went to work in the Great American Suburb with Bruce and Pieter. The first job that I did was for a neighbour
of the Heutchys. We spent a dusty day
cleaning out their basement, which was perfect work for an old anal compulsive
like myself. Housecleaning was
actually right up my street for I had long ago learned to maintain order in my
life and in my surrounds and to never knowingly add to anyone else's
workload. I've been called the perfect
house sitter, which is a very useful skill for the itinerant artist and
adventurer. This talent has taken me
inside some very interesting and glamorous households, as I shall later
that the second job was not so easy or pleasant. We had to empty the old leaves out of the gutters of one house
and then clean under the eaves before painting them. I found myself balanced precariously on the top rung of a long
ladder, straining upwards to wipe the underside of the eaves with a rag dipped
in bleach to remove mildew. The bleach
dripped down the sleeve of my coat onto my arms and burned them and then fell straight
down onto my upturned face. That was
pretty awful work but I enjoyed earning some regular money and had enough to
make trips down to Manhattan in the trusty Torino. I would chauffeur Bruce to his girlfriend's house and then go on
to see friends or visit galleries and museums.