276 The Answer

[Jo Sleeping]

In the end, back home, after forty-seven cities, eighteen states, and hundreds of paintings and conversations, I realized that the real question I had been asking was not, "Do you feel that people in your community are isolated as Hopper's characters?" but rather "Do you feel isolated like I do?"

And the answer was yes. The way that I felt isolated was unappreciated and unlistened to. Perhaps because of this, my perception of Hopper's characters isolation was that they did not feel others would listen to them (certainly not sympathetically); and they did not feel like spanning the gap between themselves and others because they felt that they would not be heard. The people I met during my journey also felt isolated--from and by their fellow citizens and their leaders. They felt that their lives were not appreciated by others who did not take time to imagine what they might be going through, just as Hopper's characters seem to be alone and in trouble and in need of help, but we are not aware of that until we stand in front of them and imagine their lives. People were desperate to be heard and hoped I would help others hear them. Perhaps Hopper was so silent during his lifetime from fear of being misunderstood and/or dismissed. My journey was an attempt to give voice to Hopper, his characters, and the people that I met along the way. It was also a way to give voice to my own frustration at my feelings of isolation.

In February 2003, I gave a presentation as Artist-in-Residence at Chicago's Cliff Dwellers arts club about what I had experienced along the journey. I ended my talk by offering a bit of advice. "The next time you are in a diner with a bunch of Hopperesque characters, if you're wondering whether they feel as isolated as you, they probably do. What you do after that is up to you."

Later that night, I was at a bar for a friend's birthday party. I found myself beside a pretty woman who I felt a connection to. Before I could take my own advice and ask what she was thinking, a mutual friend introduced us, and we forged an immediate bond. She loved my idea for the book and felt that Americans were "some of the most isolated people on earth."

By the end of the year, we were married.

My friend Mike, who had encouraged me to undertake this book, came over to our apartment one night afterward to celebrate. "Do you realize how much this man has changed?" he asked my wife. "Why, five years ago he called me from his dusty hovel filled with milk crate library shelves and told me how unhappy he was. He probably wasn't capable of connecting to someone the way he has with you. That's when he got the idea to write the book about Hopper and isolation. By the way, Kevin, did you get your answer?"

I smiled down into my champagne glass and then looked at my wife.




275 Chicago, IL: Nighthawks

Chicago, IL: Nighthawks

Maybe it was that the thought of writing about the iconic Nighthawks was intimidating. Maybe it was just knowing that I could always visit this city and its Hopper painting, while I had to plan to see other cities and paintings. For whatever reason, I found myself putting off writing the Chicago chapter until the end, even though Chicago is the town I know best and the Hopper here (Nighthawks) is the one most people know best. (Those paying close attention will have counted to 46 cities. I had to cancel Philadelphia from my East Coast visit, and by the time I visited every other city, I said, "Somebody is going to have to publish my book and pay me to go to that last city." As this blog attests, that never happened.)

Perhaps you've seen it with dogs, or Santa and his elves, or one of many other parodies.

Or maybe you've seen it in its most famous appropriation with Elvis Presley, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, and Marilyn Monroe (titled Boulevard of Broken Dreams). But by now, the image in Hopper's painting Nighthawks of four city-dwellers around a café counter at night is burned into our nation's consciousness as surely as the fluorescent lights under which the characters in that painting sit.

A man with a hawklike face and hat, wearing a suit and tie, sits almost touching elbows with a redhead who looks like she escaped from a film noir cell. She stares at something in her hand. The man in turn stares straight ahead. The tension between them is thick. Behind the counter hunches a pale short-order cook or busboy in a white jacket and cap. Another customer sits with his back to the audience. The four people are arranged with a few spare objects signifying a diner (salt shakers, mugs, counter, coffee dispenser) in such a way that the sight lines all lead from one person to another. It’s like you can't take your eyes off of them, but you jump from one to the other to see what they will do, expecting or hoping (even rooting) that one of them will do something. Nothing converges. Nothing touches. Not the characters, nor the perspective lines. A cigarette burns but is never spent. Time is running out on the characters and the night.

At the bottom, a large swath of cool blue sidewalk not only makes the bright interior all the more mesmerizing, it also implies that you the viewer are walking along the street. You are in the picture, which may be part of why we feel we are these people in the painting. The café's window is see-through; it reflects nothing (much like the faces of the denizens). However, the glasses and salt shakers do cast reflections. In one preparatory sketch for Nighthawks, Hopper included the writing on the café window, so the see-through windows were a deliberate choice, another way to break down the barriers between the viewer and the viewed. There are no people in these streets, no trash, no cars, and most importantly no people. All the people in the painting are huddling inside. If we are indeed on the sidewalk, it seems to beckon to us to enter as well and commune with these lonely souls.

The diner in Nighthawks was inspired by one in New York City on Greenwich Avenue where two other streets meet. Hopper's friend and Whitney Museum director Lloyd Goodrich said its shape was "like the prow of a ship." It might also have been influenced by Chicago native Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers." In that story, two killers wait in a small-town café for the appearance of a local ex-boxer they have been sent to kill. Hopper wrote to Scribner's when they published the story in 1927: "It is refreshing to come upon such an honest work in an American magazine after wading through the vast sea of sugar-coated mush that makes up most of our fiction. Of the concessions to popular prejudices, the sidestepping of truth and the ingenious mechanism method of trick ending, there is no taint in this story."

Perhaps this painting is so associated with Hopper because he served as his own model for all the male characters. Also, as a bachelor until he was 40, Hopper got to know fast food places like this intimately. In a 1960 interview, Hopper said, "Nighthawks seems to be the way I think of the night street…. I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably I was painting the loneliness of a large city."

[Hopper's Excursion into Philosophy]

The first couple I interviewed, Hank and Gretchen, turned out to be from Hopper's own Cape Cod. He was short and stocky in a white turtleneck, a leather coat folded over his forearm. She wore a mauve sweater and dark blue blazer. They were about 50 years old. Like most people I approached, they said they didn’t know enough about art to help me. Also, like most people I interviewed in Chicago, they were from out of town.

"Did you know he lived in South Truro?"

"No," Hank avowed. "There are so many changing landscapes there. South Truro and Wellfleet and Provincetown is still old Cape Cod, very well-preserved. A lot of artist types and professional psychologist types from New York and Connecticut have summer homes there. I joke that there's plenty of work there for psychiatrists because of the artists.

"We have a print of a street scene of Hopper's in our living room, but this is my first time seeing him in person. Our youngest daughter is an art major. She liked him and got me kind of interested in him. Our daughter gave us a book that has all of his pictures in it. He really is saying something. Why do you like him?"

"His characters seem isolated," I said.

"They do, don't they?" Hank realized. "I think the U.S. is more isolated. Europeans have age-old national identities. Our identity is based on being a melting pot. We came in past [Chicago's] Chinatown and Little Italy: you see those in every town, whether it's here or Boston or New York. It's a terrific museum here."

Gretchen finally chimed in. "I get to see a lot of foreign museums with my job, and this is as good as I've seen. And this painting is also. He draws me in, makes me feel like I'm part of the scene. I want to be there and see, 'What's wrong with these people?'" She shrugged sadly and concluded, "I wish we could be more help," leaving me unsure whether she meant to me or the people in the painting.

[Hopper's East Wind Over Weehawken hangs in Philadelphia]

Another couple approached. He was burly, with a gray beard, and his glasses hung by a metal chain around his neck. She was pale-faced with big glasses and apple-red cheeks.

"Have you seen this painting before?" I approached them.

His voice was husky as if from brandy and unfiltered cigarettes. "Not this one. But we're from Philadelphia, and we have some Hoppers there. Also we've seen those at the Whitney. This is bigger than I expected. The lighting and the composition emotionally evoke the pathos, I think; the loneliness. I love the way he captures the color in the bricks. And the way he uses greens and oranges together is awfully difficult."

"You know your art," I said.

"I studied art, but too many years ago."

"So as a painter what do you make of this?" I asked.

"The lines draw your eye in from left to right as most Americans read, but the lines of the window converging right to left anchor your attention in that café. One reason Hopper might disconcert viewers is that his lines tend to go from right to left against the way we read."

"Why are you visiting Chicago?"

"To see this museum actually," he barked. "We spend time in France every year, and we try to get to the little museums there."

"I love small museums," I said. "I first saw Hopper in Toledo."

His eyes popped in recognition. "We stopped in Toledo on the way out to see the museum, and we were amazed. That great Rembrandt! And the El Greco!"

They shared a look, and he apologized, "We have to keep moving if we're going to see all that we want to today."

[Hopper's Summer Evening]

The next couple that walked in front of the painting turned out to be on their honeymoon from Des Moines. That might explain his gaunt cheeks covered with two days' beard. His short wife with big brown eyes remained quiet and tucked against his side. He wore a checked cowboy shirt, and she was draped in a warm-up suit.

"Have you seen this before?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," he spoke quickly but distantly. "In reproduction. I had a college roommate who had this up. I think it was just the iconography of it. You come around a corner, and you see it: it's like when I saw the Mona Lisa. It certainly has a hold on everybody in the U.S. There are so many questions in his paintings. My roommate's poster cut off the left side of the painting. I think it's easy to see just the people and see that the characters are lonely or isolated or whatever. But to see the painting in full and the dead space over here, the whole painting as a whole becomes lonely. It's not just that scene, the restaurant, it's the whole city. Plus the café: how do you get in?" After a pause, he added, "Maybe they can never leave. Like Sartre's play No Exit."

[Hopper's Four Lane Road]

When they left, up walked a large woman with curly auburn hair piled atop her head. She wore a silver jacket with checkerboard racing flags down either side. I asked her about the painting. "It reminds me of the old days. I've been in diners like that." She paused and raised her eyebrows. "Years ago. It's just like you want to walk in there and ask, 'What's going on?'"

"Are you from Chicago?"

"We're from Seattle. We drove out and we're gonna do Route 66. My husband's got an old '39 Chev [sic] he had restored. We're gonna spend two weeks trying to find the old route." She smiled in anticipation, then pointed at the painting. "We might see some place like this."

[Hopper's Apartments Houses hangs in Philadelphia]

A hefty blond woman entered with her generic-looking husband.

"It's the only place open for blocks," she answered, "that's why it looks so bright I think."

"I was commenting,” he commented, "on the unusual green on the outside. It's almost eerie. And when you look at the ceiling in the diner, you can tell it's a fluorescent light. It's a feeling everyone can relate to."

"I would imagine," she wrinkled her brow, "that it's 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, maybe the middle of the week, even. Everybody in the apartment above the store is asleep, but for whatever reason, these people are awake and out."

"And up to no good," he tossed in.

"That's not a happy couple," the woman asserted.

"They may not be a couple," he countered. "They may be together just that night."

She said, "She's looking at her nails, thinking, 'I can't believe I'm going to have to do these again tomorrow.'"

"Or, 'I can't believe I'm here with this guy'," he offered.

"Her expression," she continued, "is complete boredom. Like 'I'd rather be anywhere but where I am right now.'"

"Are you guys from Chicago?"

"From Chicago, yeah."

"Do you think Chicagoans and Americans are isolated?"

They hemmed and hawed. "You want us to generalize," the woman shook her head, "and it's hard to generalize for Chicago because it's so big."

"It also depends," said the man, "on where in the city you are. Some parts they roll up the streets at 9 o'clock at night; other places are open 24 hours. You can be as lonely as you want to be."

"Have you seen this one before?"

"Well," she answered brashly, "anyone has seen it. This woman I work with: it's her absolute favorite painting, and she has a print of it right above her desk. But people come into the museum and see it and they think, 'Oh my God: it's the real thing.' They didn't know it really existed. They've seen so many variations of it. I don't know anyone that just says 'eh' and shrugs, which is interesting because the subject is pretty mundane: four people in a café.

"We moved away from Chicago for a while when I was a kid. Every summer, we would come back to visit, and one of the things we would always do is come back to the art museum. Nighthawks is always one painting that I want to see. Even now, we were just wandering through, and we weren't looking for it, but we saw it and both went, 'Ah! Gotta go look.' The pull of that loneliness on the inside every time I see it."

[Hopper's Summer Interior]

Another couple approached. A plump young woman with big brown eyes hung on the arm of her lanky husband. A widow's peak made in-roads into his spiked hair.

"We just recently moved [here] from Atlanta," the man responded in a nasal voice that made him seem sneering. "This is our first visit to the Art Institute. It looks very different in reproduction. It's bigger in real life. You know what it reminds me of? I studied in Vienna for 6 months, and we'd always go to coffee shops. And it reminds me of one we would go to. There was never anyone in there. What can I say? Artistically, it's perfect. It looks like a photograph. He tells a story."

"It looks," his wife continued in soft, measured tones, "like they've come together for some reason. He makes it so plain and empty. That's where you get your loneliness. It gets kind of depressing after you look at it after a while. It doesn't look like a city. There's nothing going on. We moved from a job change, and a city is mostly for working. Especially those who live downtown, they live there because it's close to business. But a city is exhausting."

I interviewed people in front of the painting in Chicago, as usual. But in Chicago, I also had the opportunity finally to interview myself. I was an average-looking man, about 5'10" 180, with an intense stare and light brown hair parted on the side. I wore a pair of slacks and a sweater on the day that I interviewed myself. "Do you think that people are isolated as Hopper's characters?"

"I do," I answered. "In fact, I wrote a book about it. I certainly feel isolated myself, and I think that Chicago is an isolating town. The people here are often mean to each other. And the town is without a doubt segregated and nepotistic."

"So you see this painting reflecting Chicago?"

"Well, there were still a lot of places like this when I first moved here, but now Mayor Daley does his best to run them out of business. In fact, there is a place up on Irving, an old diner (The Diner Grill), that they tried to shut down and put in condos. I have gone to that diner several times, and I can tell you that it does feel like walking into a Hopper painting. The grill is right there in front of the counter and you can watch the food cook as you sit there, and there are no tables, just the counter."

"I got an architectural guidebook to Chicago and started exploring all the neighborhoods. It's amazing how many there are. And people in one don’t know about the others. There are a lot of neighborhoods that people will tell you you can’t go. But I go on Sunday mornings. The only people out at that time are church-goers. You see a lot of Nighthawks-like scenes at that hour, too. The guidebook has helped me notice the architectural treasures I would have missed otherwise. I think this is a lot like what Hopper did: search for the unique and evocative.

"Chicago's particular form of isolation would be segregation. A recent report declared it the second-most-segregated big city in America. (A black friend of mine who lived in a traditionally black neighborhood on the south side, noted that when Mayor Washington, the first black mayor elected in Chicago, was in power was quote 'the only time snow in my neighborhood got plowed.') Also with the well-known patronage system of big machine politics, there are two tiers of people politically, those with clout or at least access to city jobs and those outside."

"You said you felt isolated. In what ways?"

"Well, in many ways. I mean, I tried to make a living as an artist here. And the irony is that it is the third-largest city in America, so it draws a lot of people from the Midwest who want to be artists, but it still does not have a great artists' community--not powerful and visible like New York's. So you come to the big city for the art scene which is better than your town's, but it still is not a great art scene. I think artists and thinkers are sort of sneered at in this culture. If you have culture, it is not immediately visible or something that you can buy. I think it's just easier for people to make snap judgments based on people's belongings. Even people who say this painting and other Hoppers show people isolated are just jumping to a snap judgment. I mean, the people in here might be happy; they might not feel sad about being isolated or even feel isolated. But you know that's what you have been told about Hopper. So I guess I feel isolated in that way; I feel judged.

"Actually, I overcome isolation in this city by coming here. The museum and the people in it, even the dead artists who have stuff that I can relate to, that's where I find my community."

[Hopper's Dawn in Pennsylvania]

Nighthawks hung in Chicago, in a museum better known for its extensive Impressionist collection. Collectors made wealthy by rebuilding Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 went looking to buy the city some class. East Coast collectors thought the Impressionists brash flash-in-the-pans. Chicagoans quietly and eagerly amassed the best collection of Impressionists in the country.

Hopper's Gothic scene in Nighthawks could easily have been titled American Gothic, the title of Grant Wood's instantly recognizable picture of the old man in overalls holding a pitchfork and standing next to his daughter (many believed it was the man's wife). That painting can also be found in Chicago's Art Institute, a truly great collection of often-seen classics: Sunday on Isle Grand Jatte Van Gogh's Bedroom, 1889, Caillebotte's Rainy Day in Paris.

(The Terra Museum of American Art, headquartered in Chicago, also owned two Hopper paintings, but I was informed when I started that both were on permanent loan to their sister institution in Paris. By the time I finished the project, the Terra had gone under, and Dawn in Pennsylvania hung beside Nighthawks.)

Nighthawks is so well-known and prototypical of Hopper's paintings that it is the hardest work to talk about. Similarly, Chicago is the hardest town for me to talk about because I know it so well. As I visited all the Hoppers in the U.S., Chicago, my hometown for more than 20 years, was the touchstone against which I measured the other cities.

Chicago playwright Lynn Rosen, who wrote a play called Nighthawks, said, "A lot of Chicagoans connect with Hopper, even though he was a New Yorker, It's because the Art Institute has Nighthawks. New York is on a different planet. Chicago is more American." Chicago institution Studs Terkel said, "I love that Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. When I was a kid, I lived in this place: The Wells Grand Hotel; it's still there. There's an all-night restaurant down below. My God, it was Nighthawks in every way."

Like with New York, there is no way to summarize the people, events, and superlatives that made this such a significant and American city. Founded by French priests where the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan at a swamp filled with reeky onions that the natives called "cheecagou," the town became a hub due to its placement at the nexus of the waterways and roads of the North American continent. Its identity really solidified after the Great Fire in 1871, when there was money and infrastructure in place but no buildings. The "second city" that was built on top of the rubble was a showcase for the leading architectural wonders of its day: indoor plumbing, gas lighting, elevators, and other modern marvels made this town immediately more modern than any other. Chicago architect Louis Sullivan invented the term "skyscraper" to describe the building he was designing for the new city.

When I moved to Chicago in 1977, I was told that it was home at the time to the world's first, third and tenth tallest buildings. Chicago has always been trying to be the biggest and the best. In fact, it was the politicians who lobbied so hard to have the nation's Columbian Festival in Chicago in 1894 that gave it the nickname "The Windy City" (not the lake winds as many now believe). They got their wish, and the fair was so well attended it made the city famous. The Midway down the center of the White City created for the exposition to show off the most modern achievements in every science or art was so famous that the Chicago Bears became nicknamed "Monsters of the Midway."

Having always striven for the biggest and best, it is no surprise that Nighthawks is here: the pinnacle of Hopper's work. It is a surprise that it almost did not end up here. The original buyer swapped it for one that the Art Institute had. It almost seems like a mythical creature, like the man who broke the bank at Monaco: the man who let Nighthawks out of his possession. Yet here it is: in perhaps the most typically American city because it is the largest American city not on a coast. It is the swaggering giant of the heartland, due to its position at the bottom of the great lakes and halfway from the West to New England.

I spent a lot of time with Chicago's night hawks. Both the people and the famous painting by Edward Hopper. I lived here for 25 years starting in 1986, when no one wanted to live here. I first got an apartment in an old Hopperesque three-story Greystone with massive rough stones bulging out of the façade and a wooden door with cracked paint. When I first moved in, on my walks home from shows or waiting tables, a hooker would call out at every other corner (a professional courtesy of territory, I learned). Now, when I walk down the same street, a Starbucks calls out from every other corner (the opposite of territorial courtesy for business). Since my move into the city, the neighborhoods that used to be exclusively left to young college grads, artists, and hippie urban-renewal types (the term "gentrification" had not yet been invented) disappeared. Since then, people and their real estate dollars have flocked here. But I don’t think that more people has resulted in better community. Just the opposite. The types that moved here demanded parking lots and got them. They wanted the chain stores they knew in their former cities: Chicago suburbs or other metropolises. We are becoming more isolated like the people in Hopper's painting. As long ago as 1996, a friend of mine moved away form here and said she was doing it partly due to the "New Yorkification" of Chicago. When I was in Europe one time, I saw a magazine that highlighted the hottest neighborhoods in the world: Hong Kong, London ... and my neighborhood in Chicago. I had moved there because it was affordable and had longtime German householders lending stability. Now, it was overrun with yuppie couples and families, holding barbecues in the back yards and beer frat parties on the public ways.

When Mayor Washington was mayor is when the arts flourished. Washington's reign was the glory days for independent theaters. When Daley's men took over they shut down one theater where I had done a show because it was in an art gallery. When the director argued, "Theater is art," the city's henchman grunted, "Lady, it ain't art if it don't hang on a wall." Under Daley, things started changing in Chicago. Maxwell Street, long-time home of Chicago's blues culture, was demolished for a condo development. Housing projects tumbled without replacements. Lifeless high-rise cinder-block condos replaced quaint old single-family homes. I lived in this city when my family thought that it was gang-ridden. Now my family wants to come down to Navy Pier because that's the best mall in town. We've gone entirely the other direction. And I laugh because all my artist friends are moving to the suburbs which ten years ago they hated.

I could go on with examples, but trust me. I have lived here long enough to know the city. And the city is not the downtown that the tourists see. Most of the living is done in the neighborhoods and not downtown. Neighborhoods here used to be towns that were swallowed by the ever-growing city. That is why they retain separate names today: Lake View, Hyde Park, Austin, Bridgeport, etc. And allegiance is to the neighborhood first and the city second. Read Nelson Algren about how viciously people fought over the imaginary borders certain streets constituted between neighborhoods of rival ethnic groups. Algren actually knew Chicago better than almost any other writer and his opinion was, "[Chicago is] the only major city in the country where you can easily buy your way out of a murder rap." And about the Greek philosopher who went walking with a lamp in daylight to see if any man were honest enough to tell him his mistake, Algren said, "If Diogenes came to Chicago, they’d steal his lamp."


274 Utica, NY: Camel's Hump

Utica, NY: Camel's Hump

Stephen King once said he got his ideas from Utica. I got the idea where to start exploring the town from the landlords who had put up my niece when she was at nearby Hamilton College. They recommend a place that my web research did not turn up: Domenico's. In a mob town known for family networks, mine was paying off.

The space had brightly-colored walls filled with original paintings, as well as reproduction portraits of famous writers, musicians, and artists. A bullet hole pierced the back window. I couldn't have picked a better starting place. Within his first three sentences, Orin, the owner working the counter, mentioned some of my favorite philosophers, like James Hillman and Joseph Campbell. "The coffee shop," he related, "from the beginning, was kind of envisioned both as a business and a place to address isolation." Orin was a bit shy of six feet, paunchy and gray-bearded, draped in a black apron with a small black-and-white peace sign pin on his lapel.

"There just aren't places for people to meet face to face and to talk to each other anymore. There's a quotation by James Hillman in an essay that he wrote about cities that I used in the first letter I wrote trying to raise funds to start this place. (I ended up doing it without raising these funds.) He talks about the need for places in the city where people meet 'at eye level.' I tried to make a place that would appeal to a cross-section of people, so that different sorts of people would end up talking to each other. Boy I get 'em! I get everybody from the mobsters to the peace coalition. It's fun.

"I had people saying to me when I started this, 'Oh, the best thing is you'll make out real well and Starbucks will buy you out.' I said, 'I'm not interested in starting another Starbucks; I'm interested in this place and keeping this great.' We're very interested in promoting the idea of local economy. These items you see for sale in our display case, this milk and eggs, are from a nearby organic farm run by a retired airline pilot and an Ivy League economist.

"There is an isolation in Utica," he mused in answer to my question. "Part of it is just modern life; that's a better word than culture. I don't like to use culture to describe what we have in this country. There's another element here, and that's that a lot of people in the community come from Southern Italy originally. You tend to run into a lot of dysfunctional cynical attitudes. There's been a lot of in-fighting and back-biting for years in politics here that I think contributes to the isolation. I have a friend who calls people here 'Utaricans;' that's his way of saying they have small, stubborn politics. And that further increases the kind of distance that exists between groups. For a small place, there's a lot more of that here than there needs to be.

"A whole hell of a lot of people have left Utica," he lamented. "You had kind of an economic catastrophe. When I was growing up around here you had Griffiths Air Force Base, which was very much a product of the Cold War. My father worked as an artist who ran the graphic arts department for the air base. And besides that there were mills. They're all gone. General Electric sold out; they're gone too. And with that went a large lump of the population. I lived within three to five blocks of both of my grandparents, several uncles, bunches of cousins, and there was this kind of fabric of the community. You knew everyone. There isn't one of my uncles who lives in this area anymore.

"There's several good things happening right now," he noted. "I see a lot of people who are starting to look for places like this to get out of big cities. We've got two guys, just for instance, from Los Angeles who've bought the church up the street here and put in a recording studio."

A woman who had stepped in to the café and ordered several coffees to go, jumped in, "Yeah, he's my dad; I'm the studio manager. He's from San Francisco actually."

"People would love it here if there was more opportunity, don't you think?" he asked her.

"Absolutely," she agreed. "You've got gorgeous architecture. It's like traveling back in time."

Since she had included herself, I asked her my question. "I don't feel isolated," she shook her long blond hair. "My whole family's here. I'm Italian and Irish, and I have five hundred cousins and aunts and uncles, and they all stayed here. My mom and I are the only ones who left. For two hundred years my family's been here. Both sides. 1803. I felt way more isolated in San Francisco because it's such a transitory city. This city: talk about roots, they're here. People would come back, they definitely would. It's just there's no economic opportunity for them."

Orin continued, "I would like to see my kids make it [Utica] somethin'. Have my grandchildren around. If corporations start looking seriously at putting things like chip plants here, it's because we've become third world. Your wages have to be so low, and they have to give away so many things for them environmentally and tax-wise and so forth that you don't even want 'em here. And besides which, there's no loyalty. You guys set the studio up here, with all the work you put into it, you're not just going to leave next month."

"Right," she said enthusiastically. "I'm gonna inherit that studio."

The Hopper here, Camel's Hump, shows a series of Cape Cod hills, bright in the foreground, darker in back, under a pale blue sky with one white cloud. The slanting hillsides converge like arrows. There are no figures, no architecture, just the light catching the camel's hump. Jo described it in the ledger as "Bare saddle shaped dune (Indian campground) on skyline." Hopper had painted the same subject from a different perspective the year before in Hills, South Truro, now in Cleveland's museum. Cape Cod was still new to Hopper as a subject when he painted this in 1931.

The painting hangs at the Munson William Proctor Institute (MWPI), whose mouth-garbling name is shortened by locals to "Munstitute." I was at the museum the day that artists were dropping off submissions for the annual art contest. I asked one who had stopped in front of Camel's Hump her thoughts about isolation in Utica. She was a sturdy 5'8", with big round face, crooked teeth, short black hair, and lots of eye shadow ringing her brown eyes. She leaned away from me at a forty-five degree angle suspiciously.

"Definitely yeah, I agree," she began.

"Isolated from each other?" I probed, "or isolated from the rest of the state and country?"

"All of those," she exclaimed. "I grew up here, but I was away for twelve years. I just now came back. I've seen isolation like this. But my perspective comes from my life experience. You know, you talk to someone else, and they might feel completely different. And if you had interviewed me fifteen years ago, I probably would feel very differently about a lot of things because I was doing very different things."

"Would you have been more or less inclined," I wondered, "to agree that people are isolated at that point?"

"Less inclined," she said, "because my life was very different then. I was married. I was busy all of the time. I had virtually no down time, no time for myself. So I wouldn't know if people were isolated, because I was not isolated. Now things are very different, and I just want to spend time with myself. Art is an isolating work. I don't have the same kind of money I used to have, you know what I mean? It's just the way my life went. I was alone at the time. I had a bunch of time. I've been sketching and all this stuff since I was a toddler. Until the last six years, I never really had time to put into that. Now I can."

"Is there a place in town where I might interview other artists?"

"Oh gosh," she ahemed, "you know, that's the thing. Nah. Everybody's got their own schedules. There're a couple artists friends that I have conversations with, but there are other artists around town who I don't know. Some I don't want to."

I found in the files an original hand-drawn map by Jo Hopper of how to get from the local train station to their studio. Another note told me who had gained possession of Jo's journals. A letter from painter Phillip Koch, who had a residency in Hopper's studio in 1996, reported that the hill known as Camel's Hump was bulldozed after Hopper's death.

Camel's Hump was bought by Edward Root, son of Elihu Root, who had been born in a cottage on the campus of nearby Hamilton College and went on to become Secretary of State and 1912 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Root admired Hopper's "feeling for the brilliant sharply defined iconic appearance of the American Landscape."

Out in the galleries, I spoke with a short, stocky woman in droopy jeans and a "Get Art?" T-shirt. She wore a backpack and had frizzy light brown hair, several ear rings, chubby cheeks, and gaps in her teeth.

"Um, I'm not sure isolated," she mumbled, She was always moving and held a Coke in one hand and candy bar in the other. "But you know I think they must really [be] on a level. Location-wise, I think maybe [they are isolated] because the valley area is definitely out of the way. It's kind of in an area where there's farm lands all over the place, and there's the city right in the middle of it. I think a lot of people can relate to this painting just because they see hills and stuff. So I think maybe even though he may not have painted it around here, people say like, 'I kind of seen that around here, too.' There's definitely serenity about the painting, too. I think maybe people relate to that kind of green serene feelings around here. What kind of isolation I like is in the woods. Someone from around here?" she balked. "If they saw this? I don't know if this is isolation; this is just home."

Stephanie's sister, Jennifer, worked at the museum and came over to us. She looked similar because they were part of identical triplets, but her green eyes were framed by fashionable oval glass frames, and her dark hair was cut in a short pageboy.

"From what I know of his characters," Jennifer responded, "they do seem very caught up in their own business, and Utica can certainly be like that!" She and her sister both laughed at this. "There is a sense that people are only looking out for themselves. Certainly, if I needed directions to go somewhere, I wouldn't feel totally comfortable just asking any random person off the street. I would want to make sure I was asking a respectable person, someone in a respectable position anyway."

The building housing the MWPI collection's decorative arts was Fountain Elms, an 1850 Italianate mansion from Utica's prime that was the ancestral home of the institute's founders. The tour guide there gave me a history of the place and explained the origins of its long name.

"Okay," she began, "Alfred Munson came from Connecticut and he gets in on the Erie Canal that's just about to open. Mr. Munson makes a ton of money. He's the first millionaire in Oneida County in 1823. He has a lovely daughter Helen. This is her portrait here. She falls in love with a local attorney, James Williams. She becomes Helen Munson-Williams. They raise two young ladies, Rachel Williams and Mariah Williams who marry two Proctor brothers. So now we have Munson-Williams-Proctor."

I asked her, "Do you feel that people in Utica are isolated like Hopper's characters?"

"Uh," she hesitated, "no I don't, not at all. I don't feel an isolation like that exists here. Maybe it's just because of the fact that I work here, and we see people on an international basis. But even the city itself, we have a lot of different ethnic groups. It's a very friendly community. "

I said, "In a town of 60,000, you probably see your neighbors fairly regularly, too."

"Oh, I know all my neighbors," she said. "You know names from high school and grammar school, and they're still here. If you don't know them, somebody else does. So it's a close-knit community. Very friendly people here, very generous people. Well certainly these people [the Munson-Williams-Proctors] are, right?"

The town's name was chosen out of a hat with 13 names in it. If that number wasn't a bad omen, the source of the name was. During the Roman Empire, Utica was a North African state overrun alternately by Romans, Carthaginians and Arabs. New York's Utica began in 1758 with the establishment of Fort Schuyler. It was chartered as a city in 1832 and became a manufacturing hub, halfway along the Erie Canal from New York to Buffalo. As the economy crumbled and the population dwindled, the town gained a reputation as a haven for the Mafia. Even today, mob hits don't raise eyebrows here. They had to call in the Federal Arson Squad recently because so many buildings were being torched.

Knowing Utica's staunch Italian history, I expected the Italian delis and stores to be in thriving neighborhoods. Instead, they were the only businesses left amidst blocks of homes burnt, boarded or for rent and storefronts now derelict or colonized by ad hoc pawn shops, small grocers, etc. The Italian Heritage Center had even packed up and moved to Syracuse. One storefront had nothing except black tinted windows and signs on the walls that blared, "For Members Only"!

I had read online about Utica's mysterious "pusties," the favorite food of townies. I learned that it was short for pasticciotti, an Italian pastry. The name comes from Naples and means "big mess" (a potshot metaphor for the town). When I stepped into Caruso's to order one, I asked for one second to see whether I wanted anything else as well. After a count of two, the flabby-armed woman behind the counter said, "Time's up."

Seeing that the Italian neighborhood was not what it used to be, I headed for the heart of downtown, lorded over by a bank's huge gold dome. Genesee Street, the main artery, sloped up from the Mohawk River Valley and passed the Hopper-era Stanley Theater: whose sign read "Stacey, we love you so much, The Amigos and Me." You can also rent the lobby, and it has become a local tradition for wedding parties to have their photographs taken on the grand staircases in the lobby--though that might not be a lucky thing because legend has it this one was designed to resemble the grand staircase on the Titanic. The theater tradition in Utica began (of all places) on Hopper Street, where, in 1914, the Players Theater produced an evening of plays at the New Century Club.

Near Hopper Street was the appropriately Hopperesque Triangle Café, a tiny greasy spoon diner shaped like the one in Hopper's Nighthawks because it was at the tip of a triangular building. A sign advertised a special price for a "hamburg," which in Utica comes without the final "-er." The walls were covered halfway up with wood paneling, halfway down with dingy plaid wallpaper. Fluorescent lights buzzed on the dropped ceiling. A spacey-eyed, wiry character to my right smoked a cigarette with zombie-like slowness. Three women mindlessly rubbing lottery tickets with their spoon ends talked weather, taxes, and lottery. I sat at the counter and leaned on my elbows. The transformation was complete.

Some things remained vital downtown. The Hotel Utica had been saved and restored with a lobby decked out in Tiffany lamps, crystal chandeliers, and caged birds. A live pianist and violinist played classical music from one corner under the balcony ringing the room. As I jotted down the day's notes, the candle at my table burned out, the only one to do so, like some Sicilian curse, malocchio.

My waitress's gold nameplate read, "Tina." She was tall and trim, wearing black pants and a white shirt. She had a fresh pale face and brown heavy-lidded eyes beneath reddish-brown hair pulled tight behind her head. She looked sweet and young, but she approached with the self-assured, square-shouldered walk of a man and spoke with a strikingly husky tone.

"The answer to the question," she asserted, "is yes. I've been out of this country, and I feel more warmth [elsewhere]. I've been to Italy and seen a different way. I grew up with a family community that was stronger than most Americans because it had Italian heritage. My father moved here when he was 17. I feel they are different from my friends' families, and that's why I say, absolutely."

I asked, "Did you notice when you grew up in Utica that this was isolated?"

"No," Tina pondered, "I think I learned that as I got older. I've been more isolated places. At least people here will acknowledge if you say something in the store line. And Monday Night Utica is a great tradition; different ethnic groups take each one. My father claims that Genesee Street was formerly so packed on a Saturday night that traffic was at a standstill."

"Why are you back?" I asked.

"This is where my family lives," she shrugged.

Another still-vital Utica institution was Utica's 1914 Union Station, the last grand station built by the New York Central Railroad. I visited in the evening, and the cavernous hall was empty, save for a teenage girl slumped on a long bench and an East Indian man in a business jacket standing beside his luggage. Three workers were sweeping up one corner. One was a paunchy, white guy with a gray-haired buzz cut. His partner was a tight-lipped muscular young African American. Their supervisor was a middle-aged African American man who had the ease and fleshiness of a Buddha, calmly smoking a pipe beneath a dark mustache.

The supervisor said he didn't really have an opinion, then turned to his workers and explained what I asked him.

"Oh yeah, we get along," the paunchy guy said. "We've been talking to each other all day. If you look on a State of New York map, we're right in the center of the state, between New York City and Buffalo, New York."

"Unfortunately," the African American supervisor said, "we haven't been able to capitalize on it, on our location. Well," he amended, "we've been getting a big influx of individuals from New York. This afternoon we had a Hispanic gentleman who was here with his son who looked at Utica College campus, and he was trying to decide whether he wants to move up here. And, you know, he said, 'well, where's all the people?' Well, you probably said the same thing when you came in here. But we're getting a lot of Bosnian immigrants; you know, Russian immigrants, Hispanics, people from Nicaragua, you know? Vietnamese.

"Matter of fact," he perked up, "I wouldn't say that I'm isolated, but I have some Vietnamese neighbors; they've been living next door to us, I would say for about five or six years, and they pretty much keep to themselves. We have some Hispanic people on our block also, and they pretty much keep to themselves, too. I don't think that's healthy, but I guess that's their culture. And I guess that's they way they want to live. In fact, the case is the neighbor that I have who's Vietnamese, I do his lawn, when I do my lawn, and the guy has never said, 'Thank you.' And my daughter said, 'Well, why do you continue to do his lawn if the guy don't even say thank you?' but, you know, my house would look as dumb if my lawn was done and his lawn wasn't done.

The lobby housed the Adirondack Scenic Railway office. The man who ran it was just over 50, had a gray beard and a big nose, and wore a blue shirt with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad logo on it.

"This place," he informed me, "is the middle of the New York State Rustbelt. I mean it's taken a beating. Somebody said they took down five hundred homes in the same night just because people walked away from them. This is something I know about, and I'm just recently here ten years. That's funny, this town probably by default has a lot of its original structures. Nobody wanted to build anything there, so they didn't take anything down. So we have more beautiful downtown, a fairly intact Main Street here. Take this station for instance. It's one of the grand old railroad stations, the only one left between New York and Chicago. It's all the marble and stuff; some of these columns came out of the original Grand Central that was taken down in 1908. Some day I'd like to turn it into The New York State Railroad Museum. I mean it's empty now. It's a shell, but it's still there.

I said, "The painting I'm here for is called Camel's Hump, and it might have the New York-New Haven-Hartford track in it. You should check it out."

"Ha," he exclaimed. "There's a spot on this railroad they call 'The Camel's Hump', too. I mean, if you want a story, this is a story. It was saved by a bunch of volunteers with hard heads that wouldn't let the state rip this railroad up, and they have a world-class railroad going back to Lake Placid. There's a story for you; put that in."

The station also housed a taxi company, barber shop, restaurant & bar, and newsstand, where the woman working the counter was fiftyish and a stout 5'5". When I asked if she though people in Utica were isolated, she said, "Yes, I really do." She had a big friendly pale face with freckles, brown hair, and kind brown eyes. A gold cross with inset diamonds dangled on her white T-shirt beneath a plaid soft short-sleeved shirt. "It never ceases to amaze me that little pleasantries that used to occur twenty-thirty years ago just don't happen. You can say something funny to the person in front of you or behind you, and they won't answer back. It's like everyone is just scared of their own shadow. It isn't because of 9/11. This happened earlier than that. I think that it's the tremendous media coverage making the smallest things and the most random and infrequent things appear like everyday occurrences. People perceive threats around them that just aren't there."

"Every once in a while," she continued, "you'll be in a grocery store or somewhere, you know you'll see a little kid struggling with something; you'll just give 'em a hint how to do it. And I was here tellin' a little girl, next to her mother. And when they're walking away, the little girl said, 'Do you know that lady?' and she said 'no.' And she said, 'Then why was she helping me?' And she said, 'She was just a nice lady.' But, you know, even the kid noticed the difference.

"I help out people who come through here," she continued. "There was a gentleman who told me he had come to town to visit his long-lost daughter, and he came in here and he got a cab to the address, and then was back in an hour. And I said, 'Didn't it go well?' And he said, 'I got there; it was an empty lot.' And I said, 'Stay right there,' called the police department, had them work backwards and found her, and she was one number off across the street. And he went back and had Christmas with her. You never know when someone's gonna need something.

"One time I gave somebody a ticket. Someone came in had a ticket to New York on a voucher, then got a ride; his girlfriend came and picked him up. So I had the voucher. And there was this woman in the lobby, and I asked if she needed help because I just had a funny feeling. And she said, 'Oh, I just have to get to New York, and I don't have enough for a ticket.' And I said, 'I guess you're the lucky one. Here, use this ticket. And if the driver asks if you're just being released from jail, just tell him yes! Because that's what the ticket is for, and you have to pretend you just got released.' So she went down to New York, and two years later her daughter was up here and came to thank me and explain. That was her mother, and she had lost her medicine, was stuck in Utica, and was starting to have problems because she didn't have her medicine. And had lost her money. And she said, 'You saved my mother's life because you gave her a ticket that day.' So you just don't know how far-reaching some of the things you do really are until the people come back and tell you about them. It's like It's a Wonderful Life."

"Corporate America," she cautioned, "is out to get everybody. I started a bus ticket company from nothing. I had a two-million-dollar business here I started from nothing. And, on thirty days notice, they took the business that I spent all those years growing and gave it to the drinking buddy of the Greyhound area sales manager. And I'm stuck in a long-term lease. So, I had to make the best of it, so I added lotto, and I'm about to add Internet access in the back, expanding into fancier coffee and things. 'Cause you gotta do something. I own two houses two-thirds paid for. I wouldn't have anywhere to live. So you just gotta keep doing what you have to do. And I don't lose my outlook. I don't know why everyone else does," she laughed, "I'm the one who has the reason to.

"People are struggling. They're not banding together yet, but we gotta. My husband and his brother are making a big attempt. They're starting a club, Internet-wide, that we're gonna push for an amendment to change income tax. So that the people who have the money are paying it. Instead of hiring lawyers and accountants to not pay it. But I'm only here because I wanna be, you know, I could be elsewhere."

"Did you grow up in Utica?" I asked.

"No," she said, "I grew up in Long Island. I went to Clarkson on full scholarship. I was one of the ten smartest girls in the country in 1965. So I had every expense plus spending money if I'd go to Clarkson over MIT and Duke. And Cornell didn't have enough dorms for women then in sciences. Only if I would take Home-Ec. So I wouldn't do that. And now I'm thinking about going back and getting my master's and getting back into research. The kids are all grown, and I've lost a quarter of a million dollars in the last three years because I was committed to these huge things."

I said, "Is there anything specific to Utica that would make people here more or less isolated than other Americans?"

"I think around here it's the old, y' know, mafia history," she opined. "And people being afraid of who they might say something to or about. Because there have been people blown up; there've been people hit. There was a man who worked in this lobby who was found beaten to death with a baseball bat. And, you know, when it strikes home like that, it makes people more cautious."


273 Montgomery, AL: New York Office

Montgomery, Alabama: New York Office

"We don't date our cousins down here," I was reassured by Jina, the woman running Montgomery's visitors center in the pretty old Union Station, a train station Hopper might have portrayed. She was a freckled twenty-something, with an elfin nose and brown eyes. A diamond pendant necklace graced the black T-shirt beneath her white, broad-lapelled shirt. "We get people from all over the world in our visitors center, and they're all surprised how nice Alabama is." As if to prove it with a dose of southern hospitality, she presented me with a Montgomery T-shirt. I felt like it was a bribe, but maybe we Yankees just don't get it. Everyone down here told me as much.

A city of slightly more than 200,000 souls on a sharp turn in the Alabama River, this was one of the last places I went, but it was one of the friendliest. Montgomery was also the only city in the Deep South that had a Hopper, so it had to shoulder the load for a large part of the country. I found certain clichés true about Southern hospitality and willingness to talk for a long time. The clichés were also true about secrecy and racism.

Jina insisted that people in Montgomery were not isolated, but when I asked, "What about from the rest of the country?" she hemmed, "Ooh, well there you're on to something." When I asked about African American relations, she said things were much better now, but conceded, "That didn't start till after the bus strike. After that, we began to think maybe we should try working together rather than butting heads."

When I asked where I might find artists, she looked baffled but eventually ventured, "Maybe '1048' would be a good place to go. They have jazz." Then she added, "They have artsy types there; you know, berets."

I took her advice and started my exploring at the coffee house 1048, where I found three guys who were studying at Maxwell Air Force Base, the Air Force's biggest school. One was boyish, with chubby squirrel cheeks, a recessed chin and big blue eyes. He wore on his balding head a blue cap bearing an insignia of Athens, Greece and pins of each the American flag, Greek flag, and Olympic flag.

The second was tan, with jet black hair, dark heavy eyebrows and a strong chin colonized by five o'clock shadow that he must have had to work hard to keep in line with his trim military look. He wore a primly pressed blue-checked shirt with a pen in the breast pocket and never turned entirely towards me, as if I was something he did not want to acknowledge or was suspicious of.

With them sat an Asian man with a very long face that ended in a black goatee. A small fanglike tooth grew beside his front upper teeth. He wore a tight black T-shirt, and had short feminine fingers. He was a hairdresser friend who had tagged along here with the other two, all friends from DC. He said he owned a Hopper poster, and all of them knew his works.

When I asked whether people in Montgomery were isolated that way, the military-sharp guy answered, "That's been my impression. Gosh, people tended to interact more in DC, I think in part because there were more places like this. This is the only coffee house in Montgomery, and in DC we had one every block. Rather than just people sitting at an individual table being engrossed in their book, there was a lot more interaction, not only with folks from DC but also folks from everywhere."

"There really is not a place here," the guy in the Athens cap offered, "that offers any kind of mixing or cosmopolitan nature. If you visit the downtown area of Montgomery, you're going to find [like in Hopper] the stark office buildings and almost no city life at the sidewalk level, especially after five or six o'clock. If you go to a more cosmopolitan area, like DC or New York, a whole different crew takes over in the evening."

"I agree with them both," the soft-spoken Asian hairdresser chimed in. "I lived in DC for twenty years, and I would sit in coffee shops and see total strangers, and we would just have conversations, and I haven't been able to do that here with anyone. And we've been here for about eight months."

"You're very lucky," the military-sharp guy said, "to find this place so quickly 'cause this is in an odd area. It's kept its character, and it's vital. It's not, you know, mass-produced, pre-assembled housing. It struck me when I moved into the apartment complex: the people who introduced themselves to me were just like me. They were in the area for just a short time, and they were much more apt to reach out and introduce themselves. I've yet to really get to know any native Montgomerians."

"Like in DC," the Asian explained, "if someone from South Africa moved in next door you might be like, 'Well, I only have one year to get to know them; we'd better have dinner.' As opposed to, 'Oh these guys are just going back home, so…' I was very interested to talk to people who were not from DC. No one's from DC anyway. When I moved into the neighborhood here, nobody really came around and introduced themselves. I had one neighbor did stop by, but that was because I had a downed cable."

"Now," Athens man cautioned, "what I find interesting is that some place like New York, it maybe the transients who are isolated and the locals very tight. There may be that strong community here; it's just something that we're not a part of, and haven't been invited to be a part of. There are ways that people come together here. Churches are very strong here. But those tend to be long-term residents. And that may be part of the problem we're having is that we're transient, and everyone knows we're transient, so they're not going to bother getting to know us 'cause we won't be here very long."

"So," I said, "for places to go that I might interview people, I guess church on Sunday morning."

The man in the Athens cap laughed, "Or Saturday nights or Wednesday nights. They go all the time.

"Places I've lived or visited," he mused, "they have some common bond. In Washington, so many people work for the government. In New York, it's Wall Street, or maybe the theater. In LA, it's definitely the film industry. So when you meet a stranger there's a good chance you have some common interests. Here, and a lot of smaller cities, there isn't necessarily something that everybody shares. So here maybe it's the locals who find themselves isolated. If there is a common industry here, it's military. I've moved around because I grew up as an Air Force brat, and in some places you have a lot of conflict between the military and the townies (as they call it). I lived in Minot, North Dakota, and the base was fifteen miles out of town. So there was definitely 'wing-nut vs. townie' competition. Not always friendly competition. It's easy for military communities to be isolated within themselves because we have our own services provided on base, as far as groceries, stores, and churches. Here, the response that we get when we go out into the community and they find out that you're in the military is positive."

The military-sharp guy said, "The military move so frequently. So they're very accustomed to short-term relationships, and they recognize making them as valuable. Because isolating yourself is miserable. And they realize that the relationship they establish, even though it may end in two years, you're going to see it emerge again and again. I can foresee meeting these two again. I mean, career paths do that."

"I was walking through a neighborhood in Paris," the military-sharp guy interjected, "and in the middle of a very urban area there was a park. It couldn't have been more than a hundred meters by a hundred meters, but in that park there was probably a hundred and fifty people. And there was a cluster here of old men playing cards; they had ping pong tables made of concrete; and kids playing soccer over there; and a game of cricket over there; and there were probably five different nationalities. You don't see those kind of parks in [U.S.] neighborhoods. If there's a park, it's a kiddy lot kind of park, and you take your kids there to play ball and you leave." He shook his head. "The character of a city changes so much if people rely on their automobile like in Montgomery. When you're on foot, and you pass people, and you walk past the stores, you're more apt to look in them, go in them, and you greet people; there's much more sense of community. When you get in your car and drive to the Starbucks, you don't feel any ownership of that store."

"I've never really studied Hopper," the Asian hairdresser offered, "but I just like that painting." [Nighthawks was on my T-shirt]

"A lot of people," I said, "feel that it does portray something about a very American isolation. And I started this book in 2000. A lot's happened since then to muddy the waters of isolation."

"Now that would be interesting, too," Athens cap pointed out. "Well, that's another book I suppose; pre-September 11/post-September 11. How attitudes changed. Do they connect more because they feel the need to be connected? Do they isolate more out of fear?"

I noted, "You're an Air Force brat, and you're from DC; it's easy to have a holistic view, but I don't think somebody from Nebraska necessarily ever thought or cared about what someone in Afghanistan thought of us. Now you have to care what the rest of the world thinks of you."

"Right, exactly," the military-sharp guy said, "That's, ironically, the very stuff that we're studying. Strategically, what's going on in the world? And how do those forces interact to affect the security of the country?"

A little boy stopped beside our table and tried to pick up a quarter on the sidewalk.

"Can't get that quarter?" the military-sharp guy asked. And the little boy walked off defeated. "I already tried picking it up."

"It's attached," the Asian hairdresser explained to me, "someone soldered it down."

The man in the Athens cap got a quarter out of his pocket and laid it atop the stuck one, then called the boy back to try again. The boy pulled it off and dashed inside to show his mom.

"How sweet," she cooed. "You are so lucky. Collin, you go poke your head in there right now and thank the man for the extra quarter."

At the next table, a bearded construction worker about 30 wearily tossed down his dusty bandana from his head to beside his hard hat. He wore a white T-shirt dirty from work, jeans, and sleek sunglasses. He said his name was Eldon, and he spoke methodically with a deep resonant tone maybe made more so by the Camel cigarettes he nursed constantly throughout our interview.

"Yes," Eldon answered, "we are isolated as a people. In Montgomery, I noticed this more financial thing. Competing with the Joneses. Half of our neighbors haven't spoken to us, and it's because I work for a living. I don't sell insurance, I'm not a doctor, I'm not a lawyer. As a result, they see me as scum of the earth. My neighbor next door, he's a working man, and we get along really well, you know, we help each other out."

"It's definitely a class structure, " he continued. "It's not quite the chain of being of the Victorians, but it could be. On the other hand, I choose not to associate with the soccer moms in the SUVs, either. So it goes both ways. But I like watching people. You learn so much by watching your fellow citizens. If you sit at this little coffee shop and watch as people go by, there's some that won't look at you. There's others that will sit down and talk with you all day long. Good with the bad."

"I don't suppose," I ventured, "you'd find people sitting in a city diner late at night in Montgomery, this type of isolation." I pointed to Nighthawks on my T-shirt.

"The closest thing we have to that," Eldon answered, "would be if you go to the Waffle House at two or three in the morning. There's usually that old man who sits by himself. He drinks coffee all night; he chain-smokes; and he might know the waitress; but he does not want to speak to anybody. He just wants to sit there. And that's every Waffle House I've ever been to. I've been that guy.

"In Montgomery," he said, "as I'm a new face on the scene, my wife and I are very isolated. We're 27 both of us. We've been here for almost two years, and we have no friends in our age group. We hang out with people that are 50 years old. But we have yet to meet anyone our own age that is actually willing to stay in touch with us. If you didn't go to high school with these people and haven't known them your whole life, it's really hard to break in with the group."

"I work for a little Mom-and-Pop company," he explained. "It's one of the best I've had the pleasure of working for. You have a company that is all black guys or all Mexicans, but very seldom do you have a racial mixing in the construction industry. Some of my fellow workers live out in the country and have their sheets. I lived in a neighborhood where my friends were afraid to come visit, and I would walk up to the store on a Saturday night and talk to the guys and never have a lick of trouble, you know. It's all about your attitude. I've been to New York, I've been to Boston, I've been to London, Paris, Berlin, Frankfort, Hawaii. People are the same everywhere you go. There are good people, and there are bad people. And it's my humble opinion that there are a lot more bad people than there are good people out there. You have to really watch your back. And take everything with a grain of salt that you hear.

"There's skeletons in every closet, and it's a general rule that you got to keep it hush-hush and quiet. You don't ask, you don't tell. Keep the crazy aunt upstairs, you know. That's the way it is down here. We take care of our own problems. It's that need to keep up appearances. You know, the lawn's got to be perfect; the cars have to be washed. Never mind that daddy's smoking crack; the grass is level. The hypocrisy is blatant. And like I said, there's good people that'll bend over backwards to help you out, you know. But my philosophy in life is balance. I feel that extremes are bad, and few people have any balance in their lives. And they're the ones with the ulcers and the crack, what have you. Just stay spiritually and mentally balanced and keep an open mind."

"Which way do you think most people go out of balance in Montgomery?" I asked.

"Chasing after that almighty dollar," he said, inhaling smoke. Then breathing out, he said, "The almighty dollar: whereas it's necessary, that's not the answer. You've got to look after relationships with your wife, your parents, your children; you've got to look after your own people instead of squishing their little heads to get ahead."

The Hopper here, New York Office, shows a woman in bright sunlight standing in a great cavernous first-floor office window boxed in by rusticated façade columns. Along the impossibly high ceiling, a line of yellow oval lamps trails off into the distance. She holds a letter at arm's length, as if apprehensive about its contents. There is no glass in the window, so she almost seems to be standing on the street or where we could reach right into her office and touch her.

The Blount Collection also included two Hopper watercolors: Lighthouse at Two Lights and a view across a strange dark rust-colored trawler bow called Deck of Beam Trawler. Thus, they have an example of each of Hopper's major series: women alone in urban settings, New England landscapes, and sailing scenes.

Hopper's fellow Jazz Age artist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was an army lieutenant in Montgomery and married local girl Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. Like Hopper's, F. Scott's marriage was turbulent, and Zelda was occasionally institutionalized. She had three paintings in the museum: squiggly dancer-like figures in theatrical settings.

After being housed for its first sixty years at first a school and then the town library, The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts moved in 1988 to its current location in the Winton M. Blount Cultural Park in a domed red brick building with Greek columns lining a terrace overlooking a pond. Blount forged a contracting company that built the New Orleans Superdome, Cape Canaveral launch pad, and King Saud University in Saudi Arabia (at two billion dollars, the largest construction contract in history). Blount's company proudly advertised that they sell "almost everything needed to build an old-time fort and defend it:" lumber, power equipment, and ammunition.

A cheerful African American woman was working as the security guard. She had a round face, round nose, and thick curly black hair. When I asked her about the painting, she said, "You know it's very cold. And there are plenty of, I mean, the majority of people I meet, especially that come here to the museum, are not warm individuals: first impression. They are kind of cold like she is. And I spend five days a week here.

"I like the lines," she added. "We were learning from the docents how these lines move directly to her. And the other thing I like is just the colors. Bright. A pretty blue. I love his light. His watercolors are just totally different. I just like his work; he's just got so much talent to me. At least compared to a lot of stuff I see. I don't like junk. But Edward Hopper has something I enjoy. He's strange, but... I would like to have met him."

"Is part of why you relate to his paintings is that you relate to that sense of being alone?"

"You know," she thought, "it could be. Because I feel alone, I just lost my son. I mean, I'm still married, but you know. Even married, I'm pretty sure he must have felt like that still. But I don't mind that feeling; some people find it lonely, but to me it's just good quality time. I'm not afraid to be alone myself."

"Is there an isolation between African Americans and whites here?" she asked herself, rhetorically repeating my question. "Yeah, for sure. To be honest with you, yes. I think so. My opinion is."

Afterward, she drifted into other galleries, and a pair of teenage girls came to look at the painting.

One girl was beefy with too much blue eye shadow around her dark green eyes. Her thick frizzy brown hair and refusal to meet my eyes as she clutched her black purse to her blue top gave her the impression of being a bit on edge. The other one was bony and pale with insect bites on her neck and forehead. She had green eyes and squiggly blond hair bunched up atop her head.

When I asked my question, the beefy one answered suspiciously, clarifying my motives. "What do you mean isolated? You mean just from, like, general people, like stay to themselves and like? Nah," she sneered, "they might, individuals, stay by themselves. That's basically it. But a lot of the youth stay close."

Her bony friend ventured, "Just like all people, if they see you walking down the street, they won't say 'hi' unless they know you."

"Well, it's kinda like all people," the beefy one defended. "It varies. The youth group, like the youth and teens, isolate into groups."

I asked, "Why are the cliques not interrelated?"

"People are too different," she answered. "And they're shy, and they think that they'll be okay if they stay in their own groups with the people they already know. People don't like to really get to know other people, to be friends with them. 'Cause they might think what their other friends will say if they saw 'em out with someone different. So, they just stay in their own little group."

"Do you think that teenagers today are isolated from society?"

"To a certain degree, kinda, maybe," she conceded. "They stay in their own world, in their own little group. They don't really venture out, and they don't really know what's going on in the world."

"Would you find someone in Montgomery isolated like this?" I asked of a man whose spine slouched into a paunch of stomach, and whose sleepy brown eyes showed off long feminine lashes. His soft blue terry shirt was halfway unzipped. "Gosh," he drawled from the back of his raspy throat, smelling of smoke, "I'm sure there's a few. Just like this one person here? Oh, I'm sure. But in general, it's probably less isolated than other cities. You know, we're the South, and I think we've got good values, and I think we're just very friendly in this town. We have a couple of major Air Force bases, so we get an influx of, you know, at any one time probably ten thousand people from all over the world, different areas. And a lot of those folks, they come back and retire here or close by, so I suspect we're doing something right.

"Montgomery, it's a big town, but it's got kind of small-town ideals, you know. I guess we've got about 200,000 people, but if you live here you can get a chance to know everybody in this town if you get out there and walk."

"Do you like Hopper's stuff?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, I do. I saw, and I walked over, and I was thinking, 'Oh, they've got an Edward Hopper.'"

I said, "Do you think Americans are isolated like his characters?"

"I don't know," he mumbled. "I think we go through swings. Sometimes we are a little bit more than other times, but to a big extent I don't think so. I'm trying to think of an office building in Montgomery that would have a person in a window that big right up front like that. You know, when I was a kid, Montgomery downtown, that's where you came. There were no malls. You shopped downtown; you came to see Santa at Christmas downtown. All the movie theaters were downtown. I remember being a little kid lookin' at the big buildings. You could see things like this. You know, it was like, my New York. And the way I knew about New York mainly was 'Family Affair,' just watching that show when I was a kid."

I said, "What would you say about isolation between African Americans and Whites in this town?"

"Ahh, yah, you know I think it's like a lot of towns, like a lot of towns. Whether it's at school and you're in the lunchroom, or it's, you know, one group goes this way, one group goes this way. And then there's a group that's together. And it's like that here, and it's like this way everywhere. You have a predominantly black section, a predominantly white section, and then there's sections that are all mixed up."

In 1540, Hernando de Soto explored this area and battled with Choctaw Chief Tuskaloosa. Some claim that Alabama is a Native American word meaning "campsite" or "clearing," but other groups interpret it as "Here We Rest." Montgomery was named for Richard Montgomery, the first American general killed in the Revolutionary War. An Irishman, he led the American troops that took Montreal but died New Year's Eve 1775 in the battle of Quebec. In 1818, Montgomery's body was transferred here from Canada.

The town of Montgomery was settled where the Alabama River takes a hairpin turn around where a meteorite hit and fused such hard rock that the river had to flow around it. The Alabama license plate says, "Stars fell on… Alabama." Montgomery evolved from a merger of two rival towns: Court Square stands where New Philadelphia's Market Street (now Dexter) once met East Alabama's Main Street (now Commerce).

Commerce Street had a series of preserved old Hopperesque storefronts. The Montgomery Theater opened 1860 but now had a 1950s tin and yellow plastic façade. A sign noted that John Wilkes Booth performed there and the song "Dixie" was debuted there. The city's "Lightning Route" was the world's first electric trolley. Nat King Cole's birthplace still stands here. Country singer Hank Williams lived here 1937-1953, and his 1952 Cadillac that acted as his hearse was on display here in a museum dedicated to him.

A Montgomery office, as opposed to a New York Office, would probably be a state government office in one of the town's many large, whitewashed, Greek Revival buildings. Montgomery became the state capital in 1846 after three other towns had proved undesirable due to geography, politics, or flooding. The 1850 state capitol building is commonly referred to as "Goat Hill," due to the property's original use as a pasture. February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederate States of America here. The Confederacy White House nearby, built by William Sayre (one of Zelda's relatives), was a dead-ringer for the one in Hopper's Pretty Penny: green shutters, white wooden sides.

One Court Square, the building all the locals said was most like the one in the Hopper painting, was a huge faceless modern building home mostly to government offices. Older, quainter buildings surround Court Square, which in the 1800s was the slave market called "Artesian Basin." It was from Court Square's Winter Building (still standing) that the telegraph demanding the evacuation of Fort Sumter was sent, essentially starting the Civil War.

Court Square is also where Rosa Parks began her famous bus ride, and Dexter Avenue leads from there up to Capitol Square, where the National Historic Landmark Martin Luther King Memorial Church stands kitty-corner to the entrance of the State Capitol where until 1993 still flew a Confederate flag. (The Confederate flag still flies across the way on the Confederate memorial, which is surrounded by scaffolding and sports a sign saying without irony that it was under reconstruction.)

The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (as it was called when Reverend King was pastor here) was a modest church, with pews haphazardly resined and varnished and hackneyed from years of use. The windows had been replaced after being knocked out by rioting mobs during Civil Rights times. From this church, Reverend King led a boycott of the local bus system for trying to make Rosa Parks sit in black for being black. It grew into a civil rights movement that swept the nation in the 1960s. In a sign of how much things had changed, a movie celebrating Rosa Parks was filming in Montgomery during my visit. I planned this visit in a hurry and didn't pay much attention to my itinerary. But when I began my walk around Montgomery on April 4, 2003, one of the monuments reminded me that I was here on the 35th anniversary of MLK's assassination in Memphis. I asked the woman leading a tour of schoolchildren through the church about racial isolation in Montgomery today. She had short heavily oiled hair and a round face dotted with dark brown freckles.

"Yes," she began formally, holding her hands together in front of her blowsy white top. "It's not so much as out in the open, but it's still here. Like for instance, a couple of years ago me and my husband moved up to the east side of town, which is, which was predominantly white, and I'll never forget it, I had a daughter - she was about three. And this lady came down the street, she was a white lady, and my daughter said, 'Well, hey, how're you doing?,' and she kept on saying, 'Well, hey, how're you doing?' This lady looked back at my baby, when she was only three, and she just kept going. And I'm like, 'I don't understand it.' It's difficult for me to explain to my children because, like I told some of the children, if you cut me and you cut a white person, we gonna bleed. We go to church every Sunday; we say we're parishioners, but yet we don't like people because of the color of their skin? I guess that's been true all during the bible days. I thought I'd teach my children not to hate people just because of the color of their skin; judge people by their character and the way they carry themselves. But yes it's still isolated, very much so."

That night, I went to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Theater (ASF), home to the world's fifth-largest Shakespeare festival. The man who bought the painting also brought the town ASF. Blount's gift of the theater building was the largest donation ever made to an American theater company, and in appreciation in the circular driveway before the entrance stood a bronze statue of Blount in a business suit, one hand on a horse's-head-topped hitching post.

I interviewed an older woman working one of the shops. She was mousy with a girlish quality, though her thinning gray hair curled around her ears. She wore a white tuxedo shirt with a round gold braid around her throat punctured by a white pearl at its center.

"That depends," she answered through slightly crooked teeth inside a small round "O" of bright red lips, "on where you go and what you bring to it. People are here to see the plays. If you go to the mall or something? You do your own thing. But if you happen to run into somebody, then you're like, 'Hi there,' Because we will talk a lot."

"But here I don't think isolation is that prevalent [pre-VAIL-ant]. My parents moved here when I was like in third grade, and except for going off to school a couple times, I've pretty much been here. And, I'm happy. This is my motto: 'Land where you've landed.' Wherever you are, just take advantage of it, and do your thing there. If something takes you someplace else, you do it there. So, I'm content.

"I've gone to New York, and that was exciting. But, a lot of people that work here [at ASF] come from New York, and they really like it here for a while, then they end up going, 'It's so slow here.' And sometimes I'm going, 'It's too fast!'

"I teach school so I'm working with kids and meeting a different set of parents each year. Working with kids, you have so much to do. And I just want to sit and do nothing but look off into space. And it's hard to have time to do that, you know, but you have to do it.

"I feel there's a little more stress on the females, especially if you're a single mom. Or even if you're married. Because you've got wife, mother, job, house. And if you try to do anything extra for yourself, is it fair? That's not a put-down to the guys; that's just the difference in men and women. Women accept the responsibility, especially of children, a bit stronger than sometimes men do. At least now it's a choice. In the old days, it was assumed that was what they were doing.

"I think sometimes as a teacher, when you see kids all day, and you don't see adults, you feel isolated. That's why I work here part-time, so I get to see adults. You know, people who are well-mannered and polite. Working here is my chill down."

"So" I asked, "if you saw Hopper's people sitting alone and not doing anything, you would think, 'Great, they're getting their chill-down time' instead of they look so lonely and sad; maybe it would be a good thing to be alone."

"Right, sometimes it is. I guess if you feel it's not permanent. Sometimes you just want to have time by yourself. I don't think I feel isolated, 'cause I'm one who I go out and get involved anyway. I'm not gonna stay isolated. That's just not me. I've had a couple situations in my life where I was like single again. And I didn't stay at home. I mean, I didn't go out and party. But I did things, and life goes on."

"I hope you enjoy the play," she said in parting. "We're real proud of our theater. A lot of people think, [with exaggerated accent] 'Montgomery, Alabama got something like that? Uh-uh.' You know? But you're in for a heck of a surprise when you come down here."