Cumulus drifted south-eastwards in a Wedgwood sky that faded off to grey-white on the horizon. The sun was bright and warm on the window, casting a green pattern where it passed through my bottle of Seven Up. In the glass beside it, bubbles rose gently. There was a bright cuspate glow projected from the glass onto the paper napkin from The American Café. I could hear every bubble burst as it hit the surface, for I had turned off the air conditioning in my fifteenth floor hotel room and the only other sound was the murmur of a Hispanic language from some maids way down the corridor.

What could I see from my ivory tower? In the immediate foreground, Cadillacs – acres of them – with their double headlights and that angular look. The Cadillac dealership was massive and the rectangular blocks of autos fused together like pixels in those blur-outs they use on TV when they want to hide someone’s identity. I could see buildings of concrete and glass in both curved styles and sharp, deep-shadowed cubist. I could see condo buildings on a slight knoll, screened by a long copse of trees, bare, for spring had not yet sprung. I could see the Toyota dealership and the Dodge; then Oldsmobile, Buick, Mercury-Lincoln. Then the RV specialists, the Exxon gas station and the car wash. I could see Macdonald’s, Wendy’s, Hardees, Popeye’s, KFC, Roy Rogers, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s Seafood Shoppe. I could see the Golden Human restaurant – which struck me as an odd name until I later discovered it was actually called the Golden Hunan. It was cheek by jowl with Paddy’s Bar, all trimmed up for Saint Patrick’s Day, which was today. Sprawling in the further distance was the Babylon Center Mall, with Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom et al. I could also see the more down-market Pike Plaza, with its video and drug stores. And everywhere I could see Old Glory, rippling in the same direction as the cumulus.

Slicing through it all was the modern reincarnation of what had once been an old turnpike but was now six lanes of grey asphalt plus frontage roads, with verges and medians of dried-out grass. On it the traffic moved like blood corpuscles, released in arterial spurts by the action of red lights turning green. Race then still, race then still. The brake lights of the vehicles rafted together in a dense mass and then dispersed in a sweeping motion. I had to go out on foot if I wanted to hear the turnpike, for in my room the red cells moved in silent limbo. Then there was a new sound: a soft voice with a bird-like sweetness.

‘Servibar-ar. Serr-vibar.’ The owner of the voice tapped gently on the door of the room next-door. Then silence. A while later he tapped on my door. ‘Servibar-ar.’

I was too slow in getting up and he opened the door with his pass key before I could reach it. I was faced with a small, slight man of indeterminate age, from an indeterminate country of Central America. Mortification was written over his features as he backed away from me. ‘I ... I come back,’ he stammered. ‘I come back.’

I tried to give a reassuring smile, say that everything was fine and that I hadn’t even used my minibar, but it was to no avail. I had ruined his day. For whatever reason, he did not like to encounter guests. He scuttled off in embarrassment, which was pretty much what I was feeling myself. The previous day I had said good morning to a pair of Hispanic maids in the corridor and was met with a wall of blankness and a tinge of suspicion. I immediately realised that I had put my foot over a line that should not be crossed. That brief exchange had left me feeling uncomfortable and awkward. Now I felt doubly so.

I was in the heart of Babylon for the major three day event. The venue was standard corporate and came with all the trimmings. The doormen wore immaculate uniforms and top hats; the cocktail waitresses in the central rotunda bar wore a full slap of make-up and long skirts with a slit from the ankle to the thigh. All around the hotel the engines of commerce hummed. The dealerships and stores were doing brisk business; the fast food joints were Now Hiring; the high-rise buildings were Now Leasing. And I was a part of it – a tiny cog in the system. I had people to meet and books to sign: the very books that earned me a few dollars and kept my wheels rolling. I had no problem with that. I had to earn an honest crust and to do that I had to play my part and look it too. When groups of American women meet me they usually look first at my face, then straight down to my shoes. It always pleases and intrigues them to see something stylish but slightly exotic – especially in the shoe line – and I don’t like to disappoint. Today I wore a knitted top of my own design and a fitted Vivienne Westwood skirt in lightweight tweed. The all-important shoes were pointy, rather witchy, green suede kitten heels from Pied à Terre. I was happy to dress to impress, then smile and meet and greet just as much as the doormen in their hats and the waitresses in their split skirts. But my encounter with the maids and the servile servibar attendant discomforted me and threw me off balance. I suddenly wanted to be out of there and heading west. I wanted to be two thousand miles away behind the wheel of the Bird, watching a lonely road fading before me to a distant mountain range, listening to Steppenwolf rocking out that song on my compilation tape that included the line, ‘I’m nobody’s slave and nobody’s master.’

The bubbles in my Seven Up had all but ceased. I recovered my poise and rode the elevator back down to the function suites. I enjoyed meeting the people I had to meet and later spent a pleasant evening having trout with almonds and a couple of Mooseheads with friends from the US publishing industry. I retired early, for I had another day’s work to do before I could check out in the late afternoon and start the push west. I was far away in dreamland when I suddenly found myself sitting up in bed with adrenaline pumping. Someone was trying the door to my room.

I was once asleep at home in Scotland when lightning struck a power line pole nearby. I have never woken so quickly in my life. It was the fizz of the bolt that woke me, not the thunder. I was already wide awake – literally and metaphorically galvanised – when the thunder practically knocked my head off. That night in the hotel was similar. My fight or flight organs had done an effective job and I was off the bed, claws out and ready to scream the place down. It was then I heard the voices, one male and one female.

There was a fisheye spyhole in the door and through it I surveyed a middle-aged couple in dark business suits. She wore heels to match. Thin. Blondish. Scraggy. He was a matinee idol gone to seed and he was fumbling in his pockets. It was obvious that they were – choose your own expression – elephant’s trunk, Brahms and Liszt, three sheets to the wind, etc. Since I was a Scot rudely roused from her bed I tended towards calling them rat-arsed. Presumably they were flotsam and jetsam washed up from some other convention taking place in the huge hotel; they had formed a liaison, had more than a few drinks and were now hot to trot. The fact that he had brought her to the wrong room didn’t bode well for the blossoming of their relationship.

At first she was amused at his ineptitude: quite giggly and supportive. ‘Come on,’ she exhorted him as he rattled his key in the lock. It was all to no avail and he muttered and mumbled while she grew less giggly and more impatient. ‘Jesus Christ, we can’t stand here in the corridor all night.’ Her voice turned into a hiss and she grabbed the key and tried turning it herself. The rattling increased in volume and echoed around my room. At this point I wanted to fling open the door and yell that if they couldn’t even get the key in the right hole then maybe they should abandon the entire amorous enterprise, but I was in my nightie and thought better of it. Besides, she had obviously groped her way to a similar conclusion and was now on the borderline of becoming fizzing mad. ‘I am not standing here!’ she informed her would-be Lothario after yet another futile attempt to turn the key in the lock, and then flounced away down the corridor. A curt ‘asshole!’ came whizzing back from her departing direction.

Academic interest had overtaken my initial fear, alarm and annoyance, for it was notable how quickly the woman had gone from horny to hornet. Less than five minutes I reckoned. Her wounded beau managed a few more feeble attempts with the key but it must have slowly dawned on him – even in his befuddled state – that there was something wrong. ‘Shit,’ was all I heard as he slumped against the door, blocking the fisheye. ‘Asshole,’ he said plaintively. ‘All men are assholes.’ He then tottered away and the night staff must have sorted him out, for he did not reappear.

Sleep was impossible. The adrenaline had not subsided and I felt, light, fit and ready to run laps. I wondered if the pool stayed open all night. Probably not. I could have thrown something on and gone down to join the nighthawks but I didn’t fancy the idea of talking to anyone. In my darkened room I went over to the window and pulled back the drapes to reveal a landscape of artificial light. There before me was the same corporate super-scene made super-real by the glow of neon and sodium. The Irish bar was still open and there appeared to be some kind of altercation going on, for blue lights were flashing and there was a tangle of movement. I couldn’t make out exactly what was happening and I couldn’t hear anything of course, so my attention wandered over to the turnpike. It obviously had a bad bout of insomnia also, for waves of restless traffic swept along in a kinetic lightshow, headlights one direction, tail lights the other, blending into continuous lines. It was the blood cells again, pulsing along in steady rhythm: the heartbeat of America. For a few minutes it seemed I could even hear it but that heartbeat turned out to be my own, fast at first but then slower. The lightshow had a soothing effect for I felt I might just sleep. I went back to bed but left the drapes open so I could see the glow. I slept eventually, but it was that kind of sleep where you do not submerge deeply enough and you dream strange, confusing dreams. In one of them I dreamed I was back home, in the southern, hilly part of the island called Harris. It was a lovely day and the sea sparkled. Across dunes of marram grass the couple who had been at my door carried a massive seashell the size of a couch. They disappeared from sight. Outside a little seaside house on a twisting road, a large, beautiful blue cat did tricks for me on a unicycle. It smiled shyly and finished with a little bow. I awoke to a square of grey where the undraped, rain-spattered window framed a dishwater sky. A front must have come in during the latter part of the night.

I showered, put on a touch of make-up and decided what to wear for the finale of the event. I decided on a blue woollen miniskirt and matching tunic, both of which I had made myself. I knew that nobody would have seen anything quite like it. Then black opaque tights. For shoes I chose a pair of black Manolo flatties with a broad anklestrap.

It was not raining anymore but there was a wet hiss from the turnpike when I tentatively put my nose outside the hotel. A damp wind messed my hair but I didn’t mind. I embraced the fresh air and decided to breakfast on coffee and a croissant at The American Café. The Saint Patrick’s Day fracas at the Irish bar must have been quite something, for workmen with a truck were taking out the shattered remnants of a large front window and there were bits of green glass shamrock all over the place. The wind blew harder and all the suspended traffic lights and road signs swung together in a wiry dance. While I ate my croissant I watched a pendant red light doing a gavotte with a sign that said LEFT TURN YIELD ON GREEN. That sign was new to me; it was telling you to do something so patently obvious that I couldn’t understand why it was there at all. It reminded me that the road west was beckoning. The day went well. I signed my hand off for Queen and country, and the gods of commerce were appeased. I checked out of my room and loaded the Bird during lunch, so all I had to do at close of play was go to a ladies’ restroom, swap my glad rags for jeans and then slide out the side door. After three static days it felt good to be part of America’s bloodflow once again – one little cell among millions. On Babylon Turnpike I shifted drive and whispered the mantra of all restless spirits who incessantly surf the freeways ... Motorvato Ergo Sum.

With Babylon in my rear view mirror I decided that I must get that put on a T‑shirt sometime.


Babylon Turnpike is a chapter from Road Movies Volume 1 by Alice Starmore

BABYLON TURNPIKE by Alice Starmore
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