by Owen J. Traylor
Whenever I travel by bus in the USA, at some point the Simon and Garfunkel song “America” comes into my mind. That’s the official title of the track on their 1968 album Bookends, but the title in my head is the recurring phrase in the song, “To look for America.”
You must have heard it. It tells the story of a young couple travelling from Michigan to New York City. Maybe the song has added resonance for me because “Kathy” in the song refers to Paul Simon’s teenage girlfriend in 1964, and she was a Brit who came to America, like me. But unlike me, she went back to England, whereas I have stayed since coming here as a teenager.
That early January day last year I boarded a Greyhound, just like Kathy and Paul, except this Greyhound was headed away from the Big Apple, not towards it. I had flown in on New Year’s Eve from London where I had spent Christmas visiting my mother and brother. After spending a fun couple of days with artist friends of mine in their Greenwich Village apartment, it was time for me to return to Yale and resume my duties as a pitifully-paid visiting professor of British art.
It was just before 11:30 a.m. when I got on the bus at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 9th Avenue. As is my custom, I made my way to the back of the bus, in the hope of securing a double seat all to myself for the two-hour ride up to New Haven. The seat at the back also enables me to watch everyone as they board the bus. People-watching and -sketching is one of my hobbies.
The usual motley crew boarded behind me: long-haired and bearded students, teenage girls with dubious fashion sense, older couples carrying plastic bags that would rustle irritatingly throughout the journey. I was on the point of putting my sketchpad away and focusing on a catalogue I had picked up from the Met, when the final passenger boarded. A tall, slim, grey-haired man who looked to be in his late fifties, dressed in a dark suit and smart overcoat, he looked quite out of place on a Greyhound bus. To round off the image of a debonair gentleman, he was wearing a bow-tie, a “Churchill” of navy blue with white polka dots. He came down the aisle towards me, folded his overcoat, placed it in the overhead compartment and sat in an empty pair of seats two rows ahead of me.
The man’s appearance intrigued me, and he was an obvious target for my sketch-pad. As my pencil formed his outline, Simon and Garfunkel began singing in my head.
Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces.
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy.
I said be careful his bow-tie is really a camera.
I let the words of the song take over my consciousness. They say life is stranger than fiction. Well, I couldn’t be sure that his suit was indeed made of gabardine, though it looked like a winter-weight cloth. And of course these days cameras can be concealed anywhere.
But what would a spy be doing on a Greyhound? Especially an elderly spy, who should either be long-since retired or stuck behind a desk somewhere. Perhaps he was on a final assignment, hoping to meet a suspected terrorist who was known to use the Greyhound to New Haven. Hmm, not very likely, unless the suspect was a student at Yale. Anyway, surely a spy wouldn’t dress like that if he wanted to stay incognito.
I carried on sketching the man; as he spent most of the time gazing out of the side window, I was able to draw a good likeness of him in profile. After twenty minutes or so he grabbed at an inside pocket of his suit and withdrew his cell-phone, which was evidently vibrating. He whispered “Hello”, listened for a few seconds, said “At two o’clock” and snapped the phone shut. He had spoken in hushed tones, presumably out of concern for his fellow passengers, but his voice was clear enough for me to detect an unmistakeable British accent.
Curiouser and curiouser. A dapper Englishman in a bow-tie riding a Greyhound, looking out at America passing by the window, with what sounded like an appointment to meet someone at 2:00 pm in New Haven, Connecticut. How did that song continue?
So I looked at the scenery. She read her magazine.
Why did Paul and Kathy lose interest in the spy? Shouldn’t they have at least tried to get a closer look at his bow-tie, just for the amusement value on a long bus journey? I was very far from losing interest in my fellow-countryman.
I decided on my course of action. As the bus came to a halt at New Haven Union Station and everyone stood up to disembark, I moved forward and tapped the man on the shoulder. He turned around to face me much faster than I had expected from a man of his apparent age, and seemed ready to punch me if he didn’t like the look of me.
“Yes?” he snapped.
“Excuse me” I croaked, my nerves catching my voice halfway up my throat. “I couldn’t help noticing your Churchill bow-tie, and I was wondering where you got it.”
“Well, in Jermyn Street of course,” he replied, his voice clipped like Alec Guinness’s in that movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. He looked me up and down, and added, “At Turnbull and Asser. As an Englishman you should know that!”
“Ah yes, I thought so,” I lied. “Forgive my impertinence, but I wondered what brought you to New Haven. I’m at Yale, myself.”
By now he had retrieved his coat from the overhead compartment and began moving towards the front of the bus. He half-turned to reply: “Are you now? Well that’s interesting. Perhaps you can tell me the best way to get to the Yale Center for British Art from here?”
“By all means,” I replied. “In fact, we could share a cab there if that would suit you.”
And so it was that we left the bus together and I hailed a cab for the one-mile trip from Union Station to the Center.
“So you are here to look at the art exhibition?” I asked once we were settled in the back seat of the cab.
“Not exactly,” he replied. He hesitated before continuing. “If you must know, I’m here to pay a surprise visit on someone. Probably my last chance. And I think I’ll find him at the Center.” He turned his head away from me and gazed out of the cab window.
“So he’s at Yale?” I asked. I immediately regretted the idiocy of my question, which was asking the obvious and which failed to pick up on my travelling companion’s revelation about a last chance.
He turned back to face me, frowned and replied, “Well, he’s not here to wait on tables, is he?”
“No, I suppose not,” I replied. I tried to make light of things with a chuckle, but the frown intensified.
“What’s the chap’s name? I might know him....” My voice trailed away.
“Look here,” he said, his voice becoming a growl, “do you always make a habit of asking so many questions?”
I could feel my face turn red. Before I could try to make amends, he continued, “But since you ask, his name’s Thomas.”
I saw an opening to rectify matters: “I’m really sorry for pestering you with my questions. Incidentally my name is Thomas too, like your friend. Thomas Harris, delighted to meet you.” I put out my hand, and looked across at him in the back of the cab.
He stared back at me, apparently lost for words.
Suddenly I knew why the bow-tie had drawn my attention, why it had somehow looked familiar to me. I had last seen it when I was about five years old, the day my father had left home for good. Mother always told my brother and me that he had gone to fight in the Falklands War and had died there.
Simon and Garfunkel ended their song in my head:
They’ve all come to look for America...
“Father?” I whispered.
I saw a tear forming in his eye.
Copyright © 2013 by Owen J. Traylor