-Book Tour Reflections and Photography by Jeffrey F. Barken–
The same day I booked my ticket to Israel five years ago I also stole a book; Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory. The folk singer’s autobiography chronicles his tragedy-filled childhood and later life on the road. I’m not proud of my theft and certainly wouldn’t repeat the crime again today, but it’s strange how often I still think of this book in connection with my travels and later writing. It’s fitting that I also lost my stolen copy somewhere along the way, and have no recollection whose hands it’s in now. Maybe Woody would be pleased? Some books are meant to wander.
In New York, I sometimes worked two to three jobs in a day—commuting in between. One job was in an office. I can’t remember what floor the non-profit was on, but it was in a high-rise, a block south of Penn Station. The company helped develop music education programs for New York’s under-served public schools. I was “the Intern,” and having a rough time. On a good day, they’d give me a prepaid Metro card and send me out to deliver children’s instruments to schools in Harlem and the other boroughs. On a bad day, I’d be stuck inside, facing a wall, and watching the space on my desk disappear as papers stacked up for me to file in various binders.
My sister’s friend got me the job. I suppose I should have shown a little more devotion and respect, but I was beat down, exhausted, and losing my grip. The wireless card on my old laptop from college was shot, so I’d started doing all of my web surfing and personal emailing while I was at work. Unhappy with my life in the City, I’d search for tickets abroad.
It was easy enough to hide my rotten work ethic. I was the only man in the office and the four girls I worked with were chatty—all day long gossiping about dates with men and planning an after work “happy hour” that somehow never seemed to materialize. I made jokes and flirted to keep the days interesting, but most of the time I was on Orbitz, weighing my options.
My decision to go to Israel became a daunting dare. I’d arrived at this conclusion only after endlessly considering visa requirements, my meager savings, and what I thought I could achieve in a foreign country. For fun, I thought I’d bring my banjo along and play some music.
I had a terrible cold. I blew my nose and refreshed the browser. I selected the cheapest, a $500, one-way fare operated by a Ukrainian airline. All I had to do now was click. I remember it was raining. The girl who shared my cubicle was frustrated with me. I’d procrastinated on a project all morning. The office air was too warm and static to breathe. The room was spinning.
Then I clicked, setting in motion all the events that inspired my collection of stories, This Year in Jerusalem, and indeed everything that has happened in my life since I departed New York in 2009. Finishing my work later that night, I was the last to leave the office. Having forgotten my umbrella, I waited for a lull in the rain and browsed titles on the bookshelf behind the secretary’s desk. That’s when I discovered Woody’s volume and snatched it up.
In Bound for Glory, Guthrie passes through so many towns, looking for work or a place to sleep while he sings the common man’s plight, that his song-saying; “So Long, Been Good to Know You,” sticks and rings nostalgic.
Jack Kerouac’s prose is less colloquial but toys with the same emotions:
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
The oft-repeated image of a no-account traveler swinging his rucksack over his shoulder, telling yarns and singing dust-bowl ballads to all the good folks he meets along his way evokes an American romance that certainly inspired my trip to Israel. Soon I heard a voice that was ready to leap off the page. Myles became my instrument for singing about the people I met while I lived and worked abroad. I gave my hero a world of his own and everything that happens to him in This Year in Jerusalem is fiction, but when it came time to conjure other characters, I couldn’t resist evoking some of the strong personalities I’d encountered on my travels.
Satire is a clumsy knife that can knick nerves if the writer isn’t careful. Returning to Israel three years later, therefore—published book in hand—it took me a while to come to terms with what I had done. The biggest challenge of the book tour this past year was not learning Hebrew or getting up the nerve to introduce myself to so many strangers, but rather, facing the friends I’d met on my first trip. I was terrified showing them my writing. What if I’d spoiled memories with my words and somehow hurt them all?
Time proved I was wrong to be afraid.
The other day I said goodbye again to one of my Israeli friends who didn’t make it into the book. His story was too troubled and complicated at the time I was writing, that I didn’t have the words or imagination to create a fiction around his experience. He’s since begun a medical process to change his sex, becoming a woman.
“Why did you keep in touch,” she asked me last Monday when we met for a drink in Tel Aviv. Then she told me how other friends had disappeared when she began taking hormones.
I’m not sure if I explained myself so well when I answered. I’m always better with a pen. But if I could answer again now, I’d say that was the point of writing the book. I wanted to prove to the people I’d met and to myself that I wasn’t just passing through their country, destined to change back to my old self the moment I got home. On the contrary, I was ready to change with them. My eyes were wide open. Every last glimpse I stole contributed to the stories, and was colored by a longing to relive the entire experience. “So long, been good to know you…” That line echoes sweet in the soul but isn’t good enough for me. I think we ought to never say goodbye. It’s not like we mean it.
The book tour in Israel is finished. I hope to retrace this trail again some day soon and to keep in touch with everyone. For now, however, I’m happy to be a-homecoming again; Chicago bound. I’ve got a lot of old friends scattered across the USA whom I want to see. Time to tell the other half of Myles’ story and sing a verse I cut from the original title of my story collection; Myle’s optimistic refrain, “Next time in America.”
-Jeffrey F. Barken
Haifa Israel 2013-2014