Photographer Piero Ribelli went across the country to all 50 states to gather 50 separate stories from 50 different individuals. The common thread is that all of these subjects lived at the same address: 50 Main Street. The resulting collection, “50 Main Street,” is a poignant, telling look into the very soul of America, punctuated by Ribelli’s stirring photography. Here’s an excerpt.
This is a book about people. Fifty people in fifty towns across the fifty states, all found at the same address. In telling the stories of people with something undeniably in common, the book inspires us to focus on the fundamental similarities we experience as humans, rather than dwell on our differences.
Growing up in Italy, I was inspired by the lessons of my parents; I was taught to look at the world as one big painting combining many different 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 the music—from The Doors to Jimi Hendrix, from Otis Redding to Nina Simone and Johnny Cash. 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 and religions 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 had a chance to start a new career, learn a new language, and embark on a new life adventure. I found a liberating spirit and a feeling of belonging that made me fall in love with it instantly. I was no kid anymore but, at the age of twenty-seven, I felt like I was given the chance to reinvent myself, in a vibrant, diverse, and fair world. Instead of prejudice and judgment I found interest and curiosity. The more I learned the new language, the more I understood the mechanics of the place. All the American myths and legends that were etched in my mind through music, books and movies, became more familiar as soon as I became more comfortable with the new environment.
I was missing my family but I found a strong support system in all the new friends that seemed to be in the same boat that I was trying to navigate. My world seemed ever-expanding. My new friends were from places that I had only heard about in my youth: Wisconsin lawyers, Brazilian mathematicians, Chinese designers, Californian photographers, Iranian economists, Floridian architects and, of course, New Jersey actors.
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I started to hear new and different points of view on religion, politics, economics, race, gender and sexuality issues; while noticing how enriched these experiences made me feel, I also realized how similar our histories had been.
I still chuckle thinking about the time when, at a typical reminiscing dinner, Miki, a Romanian friend, showed me her childhood album. The photos taken on the Black Sea looked just like the ones that my sister Nora took of me on the beaches of Lake Garda. I saw the image of my very Catholic mother when my friend Shari described to me the guilt trips that make Jewish mothers so infamous. 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 finding out 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. He picked me up at the airport, we spent a couple of days around Dallas, eating at barbecue joints, listening to blues music in smoky bars and learning line dancing with people wearing cowboy hats. I still carry in my wallet a Good Luck Winner coin from Billy Bob’s Honky Tonk in Fort Worth.
The locals tried very hard to understand my heavy accent, just as hard as I struggled to understand their Southern drawl. People welcomed and embraced me with curiosity and generosity —and I loved it!
On a seemingly endless highway out of Texas and into Arkansas, an immense landscape was in front of us, 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 honky tonk.
His reaction seemed a bit over the top at the time, but it soon became a life lesson that stayed with me ever since.Slideshow: Celebrating Old Glory (on this page)
“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!”
Looking at it from my newly acquired point of view made me appreciate the country and its people even more. It made me realize that, in America, doing things differently does not mean doing them wrong. I learned how important it is to maintain your own identity and, at the same time, how important it is to continually learn from others. I discovered how enriching it is when different cultures combine. I realized that, no matter our origin, upbringing or race, we all share the same basic principles. We all have a personal profile and history—we might have different religions, different skin color and speak different languages, but what we have in common in our lives as humans is much more fundamentally important than what separates us. And America is the country that, more than any other, has been able to assemble 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. The mythology of Main Street has for generations fed the social, economical, moral, and political discourse in America. It is often lauded as the home of a sensible majority, and 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 serves as a symbol that is central to the ethos of the nation; it is the frame of reference most often used to weigh the vices and virtues of our society. Tinged with nostalgia, Main Street’s imagery, architecture, the mom-and-pop shops and its close-knit communities came to embody the spirit of moderation between the extremes of the chaotic urban jungle of the metropolis on the one hand, and the shallowness of strip malls and suburban sprawl on the other.
On a personal level, the six years that I spent working on this book have been a tremendous growth experience. I made it a goal for myself to visit all fifty states before I turned fifty years old. I am proud to have achieved that goal, and most of all I am proud to call all the people in the book my friends. They are now part of my life, and I often refer to them in my conversations and reflections. I still wear and cherish the turquoise pendant that Kevin gave me after our hike in Utah. 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 that 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.
In addition, marrying into an African-American family has given me a chance to experience first hand just how similar our lives are, as we share, ultimately, the same fundamental needs, despite the differences in culture and upbringing.
We all strive to express ourselves freely, practice our religion, 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, or the pain of the loss of a parent, I realized that what we have in common is more important than our minor differences—that the fundamental aspects of our life that we share as humans are much deeper than the individual necessities or beliefs that sometimes become our main priority.
This book is another addition to the wealth of contributions that immigrants have provided to this country. Some of us have been here for only a couple of decades, like Prasop Kiewdara in New Jersey, while others, like Angela Fischer Brown in Rhode Island, are sixteenth-generation Americans—and in California, George Silva’s Yaqui ancestors have a connection to the land that is older still. In all our individualities, we each offer our own testimonial to the global aspect of the American spirit, that unique spirit built from a common human experience of people from all sorts of backgrounds.
These fifty stories are an honest observation of who we are as Americans, a reminder of our roots, values and history, based on immigration, opportunities and hard work. They are windows into the lives of everyday folks, representing the soul 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.
Excerpted from 50 Main Street: The Face of America by Piero Ribelli. Copyright © 2012 by Piero Ribelli. Excerpted by permission of Cameron + Company Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive