The Latitude News Op-Ed column is a space where people from all walks of life can share their opinions on the links and parallels between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Piero Ribelli is an Italian photographer whose recent work “50 Main Street: The Face of America” documents 50 people in 50 towns across the 50 American States, all found at the same address. In telling the stories of everyday people in disparate places, the book, he says, “inspires us to focus on the fundamental similarities we experience as humans, rather than dwell on our differences.” Latitude News brings you a visual tour of the U.S. in honor of Presidents Day Weekend.
Growing up in Italy, I was inspired by the lessons of my parents, who taught me to see the world as one big painting combining many shades and colors. Sadly, my father passed away when I was just a teenager. I felt compelled to help my mother and sister and soon went to work as an electrician. My work schedule didn’t allow for much dreaming, but I was fascinated by American icons like Clint Eastwood and Marlon Brando; I was intrigued by the writings of John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac and captivated by American music — from The Doors to Jimi Hendrix, from Otis Redding to Nina Simone and Johnny Cash and even the classic Coca-Cola song: “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony.”
I was entranced by the young people of all races singing together on a hilltop, and I longed to experience such a multicultural society.
That dream eventually took me to New York City, the ultimate melting pot, where I found a liberating spirit and a feeling of belonging that made me fall in love with it instantly. At the age of twenty-seven, I felt like I was given the chance to reinvent myself in a vibrant, diverse and fair world. All the American myths and legends — etched in my mind through music, books and movies — became more familiar as I grew more comfortable with the new environment.
My world seemed ever-expanding. My new friends were from places I had only heard about in my youth: Wisconsin lawyers, Brazilian mathematicians, Chinese designers, Californian photographers, Iranian economists, Floridian architects and New Jersey actors. I heard new points of view on religion, politics, economics, race, gender and sexuality.
I also noticed similarities in our histories. I still chuckle thinking about when, at a typical reminiscing dinner, Miki, a Romanian friend, showed me her childhood photo album. The pictures taken on the Black Sea looked just like the ones my sister Nora had taken of me on the beaches of Lake Garda. When my friend Shari described the guilt trips that make Jewish mothers so infamous, I saw the image of my very Catholic mother. It was emotional to meet Muhammad Ali, my father’s greatest hero; I wished I could share the moment with my dad, and I was moved when I discovered that my Indonesian girlfriend felt the same way about her own father.
And then I took a trip out west.
My friend Peter invited me to meet up with him in Texas and drive back to New York. We spent a couple days around Dallas, eating at barbecue joints, listening to blues music in smoky bars and learning line dancing with people wearing cowboy hats. In my wallet I still carry a Good Luck Winner coin from Billy Bob’s Honkytonk in Fort Worth.
On a seemingly endless highway out of Texas and into Arkansas, an immense landscape was in front of us with huge dark clouds hinting at the storm looming ahead. Yet I was in a great mood. “This is the real America,” I told Peter, still excited from the previous night at the honkytonk.
His reaction seemed a bit over the top at the time, but it became a life lesson.
“That’s nonsense!” he said firmly. “America is made as much of the desert of Arizona as of the forests of Vermont, as much of the cowboys of Wyoming as the Wall Street brokers in New York. The BBQ in Texas, the jambalaya in New Orleans, and the mojitos in Miami. America is all these things; that’s why America is so great!”
Peter’s point made me realize that, in America, doing things differently does not mean doing them wrong. I realized that, no matter our race, origin or upbringing, we all have a personal profile and history — we might speak different languages or practice different religions, but what we have in common is more fundamentally important than what separates us.
In recent years I have noticed an increasing worldwide polarization, whether it be about North and South, religious and political beliefs, or racial and social backgrounds; sexual orientation has become the reason for endless diatribes. Having lived in the United States for over 20 years, I decided to use America as the subject of my observation in my book “50 Main Street.” After all, America is still the country that, more than any other, has assembled people from all over the world.
And what could represent America more than Main Street?
Main Street is the heartbeat of the American small town, the place where the country’s pulse is measured. For generations, the mythology of Main Street has fed the social, economic, moral and political discourse in America. Main Street is often lauded as the home of a sensible majority, the country’s moral compass. At times it is also disparaged as the home of like-minded thinkers who resist change and progress.
Regardless of one’s ideological position, Main Street U.S.A. is still the frame of reference most often used to weigh the vices and virtues of American society. Tinged with nostalgia, Main Street’s imagery and architecture — the mom-and-pop shops and the close-knit communities — embody the spirit of moderation between the extremes of the chaotic urban jungle on one hand, and the shallowness of strip malls and suburban sprawl on the other.
I made it a goal to visit all 50 states before I turned 50 years old. While I am proud to have achieved that goal, I am prouder still to call all the people in “50 Main Street” my friends. I felt a connection with Jack in Arizona, a fellow music lover and Jim Morrison fan. I understood the pain of Tony in Minnesota, who lost his wife to breast cancer, and I thanked God for helping my sister and my wife survive the same experience. The portrait of a young soldier who left the plains of North Dakota to sacrifice his life in World War II brought tears to my eyes; I remembered my mother’s stories about life during that war and, all of a sudden, the price of freedom had a face.
We all strive to express ourselves freely, to practice our religion, to find a decent job and an opportunity to provide a better future for our children. Whether it be the thrill of the first day of school, the happiness of graduation, the excitement of a wedding, the joy of the birth of a baby (twin boys in my case) or the pain at the loss of a parent, what we have in common is more important than our minor differences — the fundamental aspects of life that we share as human beings are much deeper than the individual beliefs that sometimes become our main priority.
The fifty stories in “50 Main Street” are windows into the lives of everyday folks, representing the soul of the people of that Main Street that is much discussed but is rarely given a face. The landscapes and the architecture in these pages might be distinctly American, but the experiences of these people reflect universal sentiments. Though the small moments that make up their lives are often humble and ordinary, they indeed do become exceptional when viewed as a whole.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on October 2, 2012.