Aboard a Winnebago in Search of Better Angels

(Bloomberg Opinion) — In Times Square on Sept. 11, a little before 9 a.m., time seems to have stopped, and not to mark the moment of the terrorist attacks 19 years ago. It’s just another quiet morning at the crossroads of the world, with barely enough traffic to keep the tumbleweeds at bay.

The giant billboards still flash, but not the desnudas. There are no Elmos or SpongeBobs, no Spidermen or Batmen, no Lady Liberty on stilts, no slow-moving crowds to dodge, no souvenir peddlers. It would be wonderful if it weren’t so awful.

At the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, a sign marks the beginning of the Lincoln Highway. I once spent an hour asking passersby if they could tell me how to get to the Lincoln Highway. The replies, from those patient enough to respond, were variations of the same refrain: Nope. Never heard of it. You mean the Lincoln Tunnel? Lincoln Center? Only one man — a South Asian immigrant — knew of it, having lived alongside it in New Jersey, he proudly told me.

The Lincoln Highway was dedicated in 1913 as the first road to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, zigzagging across the country from Manhattan to San Francisco. A group of auto industry leaders conceived it as way to demonstrate that traveling long distances could be done not just by train, but by car — cars still being a new phenomenon.

Calling it a highway was a stretch — the roads were mostly dirt — but the suits understood marketing, and soon they had a slogan: See America First. It was directed at well-to-do auto owners who might otherwise sail to Europe for a holiday, but it still holds meaning today as airplanes and interstates render much of America invisible to travelers, and as people buy political books to understand places in “flyover country” that they would never visit (Kansas and Appalachia, for starters).

So here in Times Square, I’m beginning a journey with my wife Laurel to see America by traveling the entirety of the Lincoln Highway, with the goal of reaching San Francisco by Election Day. Since we are in the midst of a pandemic and don’t want to be dependent on roadside accommodations, particularly if outbreaks get worse, we did something we had never before considered: We bought an RV — a 25-foot Winnebago, which we decided was the biggest thing we wanted to drive and the smallest thing wanted to live in.

This will be a journey of discovery centered on questions, not a polemic based on ideology. My goal is not to explain why America is the way it is, or why Democrats and Republicans think and vote the way they do. It’s simply to see America — a cross-section of it, anyway — using Lincoln as a lens, and to imagine where the road might lead from here, if we can find and follow our better angels.

We cross 42nd Street with the sidewalk to ourselves, save three men sitting against a wall with two 30-packs of Keystone Light beer. At the corner of 10th Avenue, where the Westies once roamed, two ironworkers talk outside the office of Local 580. At 12th Avenue on the Hudson River, we board a ferry, as the original Lincoln Highway travelers did — the Lincoln Tunnel didn’t open until 1937. Across the river, on the bluffs of Weehawken, the highway passes the site of the first and only murder by a vice president of the U.S., before it winds around to become John F. Kennedy Boulevard, the main drag through Jersey City, one of America’s most diverse and overlooked cities.

Unlike in Manhattan, where I have lived for the past 23 years, I have no basis for judging what is normal in Jersey City, or anywhere else. I’m a tourist with no clear sense of what came before — only what is here now. Some businesses are closed or closed to walk-in customers, which makes it only slightly easier to pass the White Mana Diner, a relic of the 1939 World’s Fair, where it was promoted as “the diner of the future.” If we don’t make San Francisco by Election Day, it may be because the Winnebago breaks down or we get sick, or just that we lose the strength to not stop at every burger joint and ice cream stand.

Jersey City is home to a statue of Lincoln by James Earle Fraser, who also designed the buffalo nickel. Called “Mystic Lincoln,” it portrays the president sitting on a bench, gazing downward. This is the Lincoln who bore the weight of an endlessly bloody war and the loss of two young sons to disease. It is a powerful and fitting backdrop for a conversation about Sept. 11 with Mayor Steve Fulop, who quit his job at Goldman Sachs after the terrorist attacks to join the Marines.

Fulop had two master’s degrees, but he didn’t enter the military as an officer, and he was glad for it: “I was exposed to a lot of people that I would never have interacted with, from different backgrounds that I would never have experienced, and I think a lot of people were introduced to somebody like myself for the first time. I mean, there were some people in my boot camp that never met a Jewish guy before.”

The military is still a force for integrating young people and breaking down racial and ethnic barriers, but the two groups that most need mixing — the poor and the rich — are both underrepresented. So too are Jews and Muslims, and both are routinely targeted by those who see them as threats to America. Jersey City has seen more than its share of this fear and loathing.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, rumors spread that Muslims in Jersey City celebrated — “patently false” and “totally fabricated,” says Fulop. But once accusations are hurled, suspicion lingers. The local government just to the south, in Bayonne, had long blocked a mosque from being built until a federal lawsuit finally cleared the way for its approval in 2018.

“We had a similar situation,” says Fulop. “We have the largest Coptic community here in Jersey City. One of the largest ones in the United States. … And so they were building a new church, and the Coptic community is similar to let’s say the Orthodox Jewish community. They dress differently. They look differently. They were building on a property that was desolate and barren, and underutilized by any objective measure. And they had pretty fierce community pushback with regards to building it. We approved it and we pushed it through, because I thought it was on the right side.”

It was the same way, Fulop says, “when the ultra-Orthodox community was moving into that part of Jersey City. A lot of the comments that you hear, and the types of things that people were saying, they weren’t anti-Semitic. But if you listen to the rhetoric, you could hear in the steady drumbeat that there was an undercurrent.” And when people get swept up in those kinds of undercurrents, no one is safe.

Late last year, two Black residents in Jersey City targeted a kosher grocery store, killing four people, including a police officer. Nationally, violent hate crimes hit a new high last year, and Fulop worries that the undercurrents are being normalized in ways that will be hard to reverse.

It doesn’t take long for us to get lost. I miss the turn into Newark and end up God knows where. But Laurel gets us back on course and eventually we find the Lincoln statue in front of the Essex County Courthouse. I had hoped to interview the police chief here, but the timing didn’t work out. (I later spoke with him on the phone — more on that in a future column.) My contact in the police department said she had worked in that courthouse for many years but never realized a Lincoln statue is out front — just as almost no New Yorkers ever notice the Lincoln Highway sign in Times Square.

The sculptor of the Newark Lincoln was Gutzon Borglum, who also carved Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain, the monumental paean to the confederacy that he seemed to sympathize with, having been affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. Here at a government building where justice is dispatched, even a symbol of liberty and equality carries a reminder of subjugation and inequality.

Heading south from Newark, I’m too focused on the road to realize that I’m already 10 minutes past the Edison Memorial Tower, home to the world’s largest light bulb. How did we miss that?! After a moment’s regret, I begrudgingly accept that we cannot stop at every historical site. There are too many, and the whole point of this journey is to look ahead, to see America for what it is and might become, not for what it was. We are in search of Lincoln’s living spirit, and so we must spend more time in communities than museums. But that doesn’t mean we will ignore history — far from it.

At about 7 p.m., I meet Sadaf Jaffer, the mayor of Montgomery Township, New Jersey, the first female Muslim to serve as mayor of a U.S. city. She has just come from a Sept. 11 ceremony at the local firehouse.

Jaffer says that when she first ran for office, “My opponents also made flyers or campaign advertisements that said that I was dangerous and extreme. [When] my opponent had a concession post on Facebook, the first comment on it was, ‘I was born in this country and some Indian is going to tell me what to do. You can’t fix stupid.’ So it is an undercurrent.”

The same undercurrent that Fulop spoke of seems as likely to run through affluent neighborhoods as working-class and poor ones, and Jaffer said it has gotten much worse in recent years. I ask her why.

“I attribute that to the Islamophobia industry — a whole bunch of people who basically their main goal is to demonize Islam and to scare the American public. I think in 2001, first of all, we had a president who said, ‘This is not about Islam.’ That Islam is a religion of peace, and research does show that political leadership makes a difference. And if political leaders are using hateful rhetoric, then we see a rise in hate crimes. But also I think most Americans didn’t really know much about Islam and they didn’t think they knew much about Islam. … Whereas now I think that there’s been 20 years of people spreading misinformation as fact. And so a lot of people are convinced that they know more about Islam than I do, as someone who has a Ph.D. in Islamic studies. So I think that it’s attributable to that — to a whole industry of books, shows, movies that have informed people and misinformed them, and it’s very, very hard to correct misinformation.”

I had asked Jaffer to meet me at Rockingham Historic Site, a farmhouse where George Washington wrote his Farewell Address, just outside the neighboring town of Princeton. In 1862, Lincoln essentially created the first Presidents Day by declaring that Washington’s Farewell Address should be read across the nation, including to all enlisted troops. So began a tradition that is now long gone, while the holiday remains — just as it is now normal to hold Easter egg hunts without going to church. In America, all holidays, sacred and civic, get swallowed by commerce, our unifying religion.

But in his farewell address, Washington spoke of religion as a crucial part of the foundation of the country: “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Washington never referenced Christianity, nor — like Lincoln — was he devout, and his letter to Jews in Newport, Rhode Island, established an important precedent for religious tolerance. But he was firm in his belief that religion was important for upholding the morality necessary to sustain the nation. I ask Jaffer, was he right?

“I don’t think that it necessarily has to be through houses of worship or organized religion of a certain sort, but I do think that there is a lack of ethics education and just grappling with moral questions is certainly something that I think young people ought to do because otherwise people don’t have religion and they’re not left with any mooring to hold them down in terms of what are our values, why are we here, what’s our purpose?”

Jaffer says we can have ethics without religion, but what of religious organizations that play a crucial role in supporting their communities? If they disappear, who fills the hole?

By this time, the sun has long set over the field of solar panels across the street from the Rockingham farmhouse, and the two of us are sitting in the dark. I tell Jaffer that this is probably the strangest interview she’s ever done. She laughs and doesn’t disagree.

Laurel and I drive into Princeton, which is busier than Times Square was. Outdoor dining seems to be booming, tables look fairly tight together, and masks are hardly universal. The college students are back in session under strict safety protocols. But what about the adults?

There are no campgrounds nearby. So to end the first night of our journey, we try every RVer’s plan B: the Walmart parking lot. Except the Walmart has permanently closed, the parking lot lights are out, and two guys are lingering with a bottle of something. Maybe we better move on. We find our way to a Lowe’s and get ready for bed, only to realize the refrigerator has shut down and we can’t figure out how to get it back on.

To see America, we’ll have to start by looking more closely at the Winnebago owner’s manual.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, “Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads.” It features reports from Barry’s journey west along the Lincoln Highway, a zigzagging network of local roads running from Times Square to the Golden Gate Bridge, from Sept. 11 to Election Day.

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