May 17, 2010

An American Diary

This is a record of a trip I made to the United States during April 28-May 16. I was asked to give a lecture at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee campus; after which I spent two weeks in New York visiting friends and just wandering around. The decision to keep a record of the trip was prompted by a minor incident at Immigration at the Dallas Airport, which reminded me of the rudeness of everyday American discourse. Once the diary was begun, the rest followed quite naturally.

April 28: Arrival at Immigration at DFW. The Immigration official directs me to line #38. I walk over to line #38, where an electronic sign announces that this line is for non-US citizens. I return to the official, mention to her that line #38 is for non-US citizens. "I know that, sir," she says coldly, staring at me. Nothing more; no explanation for the obvious contradiction. Just simple, rude noncommunication. For me to reply, "I'm sorry, but I don't understand why you would send a US citizen to a line expressly marked for non-US citizens," would probably have gotten me detained. So I return to line #38, reflecting on how rudeness in everyday interactions in the US is simply coin of the realm.

April 29: Milwaukee.
a) In a coffee shop not far from the university. I get to the front of the line. The barista, a woman of about 20, says nothing and doesn't make eye contact. No "Hello, can I help you?"--nothing. She's almost hostile. I order a cappuccino; when she finally speaks, it's to tell me the price.

b) I get into a taxi. The meter is not running. I point this out to the driver. He mumbles something incoherent. I give him the address where I am going, ask again about the meter. He finally says it's not working. "Well, what are you going to charge me?" I ask. He says $4. I notice a sign inside the taxi that indicates that the maximum charge for a ride is $5. We get to my destination, and I offer him $4 plus a dollar tip. "It's $15," he says. "You said $4," I remind him. "It was farther away than I expected," he says. "I'm sorry," I tell him, "but you can't tell a customer it's $4 before the ride and then $15 after the ride." I put $5 on the handrest next to him and make to leave the cab; he locks the doors. "I'm going to call dispatch," he says. "Why not call the cops?" I reply; "they should be able to sort this out." This calls his bluff, and he lets me go.

c) Now out of the cab, I am approached by a woman standing near the curb, who seems very concerned, and asks me what happened. I tell her; she is very sympathetic. Then she asks me for $1.50.

d) Later in the day, I'm back at the coffee shop. I order orange juice and a muffin. The barista (a different one this time) tells me that in the afternoon they have a promotion: I can take another muffin or pastry for free. I reach for a danish; the guy behind the counter snaps at me, "Don't use your fingers!" Apparently, it doesn't occur to these folks to say to the customer, "Let me get it for you." Once again, the rudeness of “normal” American discourse (I can't really imagine a service person in Europe or Mexico behaving like this).

e) I am staying at a dormitory run by the University of Wisconsin. There are two computers with Internet connection on a desk on the second floor. Near them are posted two signs, in large block capitals: PLEASE KEEP YOUR FEET OFF THE WALL. Why would they need to be telling the residents not to be slobs?

Again, I couldn't help thinking of how all of this--with the possible exception of the taxi incident--is just part of the air we breathe. In order to protect yourself, you have to be on edge, "scanning" all the time, which is an exhausting way to live. Is it a wonder that although Americans comprise less than 5% of the world's population, they consume 67% of the global market in antidepressants?

April 30: Back at the coffee shop for breakfast (apparently I'm a masochist). It consists of a single room, not very large. In the center, some guy is talking loudly on his cell phone, so that everyone has to listen. The narcissism of this is astounding. "What's the margin on that?" he says. "Can you give me a 100% guarantee? What does Ellis say?" Etc. It never ends. I'm there for a half an hour, and when I leave, he's still talking. Nobody, myself included, can tell him to take the conversation outside, because (a) he would probably just tell us to fuck off, and (b) the management of the coffee house would surely not back us up; obnoxious customers are still customers, after all, and cash is king.

May 5: New York. I start talking to my taxi driver, who turns out to be from Senegal. He has lived in the US for 20 years, he tells me. I ask him how he feels about life in the United States. "Well, I've also lived in Europe," he says; "it's very different." "How?" I ask him. "Europeans tend to think about things," he replies. "Americans are basically robots; they just go through the motions, they really don't know what they are doing or why. I think they are sad people." No shit. (I left the cab with a sense of admiration for his honesty. After all, he couldn't have known that I would agree with him; it would be more likely, as an American, that I would take offense at his remarks, perhaps refuse to tip him.)

May 7: I'm on the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan. A kid of about 16 is sitting with both feet up on the seat, listening to an iPod. Again, I realize there is no way I or anyone can say, "Take your feet off the seat; you're not at home, for God's sake." When his stop approaches, he gets up and rearranges his pants so that they are completely below his ass, with his underpants showing. What to think? He's basically a trashy product of a trashy culture. I refrain from asking him if he's an utter moron.

Later that day, I'm at the Museum of Modern Art. The MoMA literature indicates that the use of cell phones is forbidden in the galleries. Of course, I soon see some guy in his twenties talking on a cell phone. I go over to the guard, and nod toward the cell phone user. "Cell phones are not permitted in the museum, right?" I ask him. "Not permitted in the galleries," he says. "This is a gallery," I tell him; "we are in a gallery." I watch him struggling to work this out, as if he is considering for the first time that he is being paid to monitor the galleries, and is in fact in one. Finally, he walks over to the kid and tells him that he can't use his cell phone in the galleries. The kid pays him no attention at all, just keeps on talking. The guard doesn't ask the kid to leave or do anything at all. "I guess you really put the fear of God into him," I tell him. I don't wait for him to process this, as I figure it might be a while. Instead, I think about the Senegalese taxi driver's comment on robots, and how completely under water so much of the American population is. We seem to be turning into caricatures, parodies of ourselves. Marshall McLuhan once said that if a fish could talk, and you asked it what was the most obvious feature of its environment, the very last thing it would say is "water". We simply don’t see our culture for what it is.

May 9: I'm walking to a restaurant with a few friends in Jackson Heights (Queens) when the wind kicks up and something enters my right eye. Perhaps a particle of dust, although it feels like a piece of glass. Tears are pouring down my cheek. Somebody says, "There's a drugstore in that supermarket over there; we can get some Visine." We enter the supermarket, go over to the drug counter. A young woman of about 20 is talking to some guy across the counter. Someone in the group tells her, "We need Visine." She goes off and gets it, hands it to me while still talking to the guy. She makes no eye contact; the only thing she says to any of us (me) is "$6.45" (or something like that). I hand her a $20, she makes change, and in terms of her conversation with the guy, never misses a beat. I pour the drops into my eye; she continues talking. My eye seems to be a bit better, and we leave. Again, the unconsciousness of the whole thing impresses me. This girl would never regard her behavior as rude; probably, most of her customers wouldn't as well. Interactions with the staff of stores now boils down to nothing more than a cash transaction, for both parties; the idea that there once was, or should be, a human dimension to these interactions is off the radar screen.

I also found a sort of zombie-ish quality to greater New York on this trip. At any given moment, something like 25% of the people walking down the street are not mentally present in the environment. Instead, they walk (or rush) down the street with a cell phone pasted to their ear. It gives the city a feeling of a ghost town, as their bodies are present but their minds are 100 or 1000 miles away. Thus the environment is little more than a "receptacle" for their activity; it isn't something people have a real relationship to, any more. This seems like an icon for the culture in general, which is hollow, dying.

Below are some excerpts from Dick Meyer's book, Why We Hate Us, which I believe are relevant to my own experience.

"There is no longer much vibrant, living tradition and community to be born into, to inherit, or to bequeath." There has been "an erosion of socially shared ways of treating others respectfully, the ties that make community possible." "U.S. citizens are isolated because it is unhealthy to risk contact with one's fellow citizens. When bullies are free to act out their aggression and disdain for others--threatening behavior, in other words--road rage, cell phone calls at the top of their lungs, shoving in grocery stores are just a few examples--then others will act to limit their exposure to people. Humans wish to survive. It is healthier to be lonely than to risk contact with a society without decency and without mores."

"Boorishness and vulgarity are sanctified by public culture and thus omnipresent." "The social superego has been silenced or at least muted. Brothers have no keepers. Respectful, polite behavior can't be enforced by external, deliberate action, by vigilant etiquette and spontaneous censorship. It comes from shared boundaries and conventions, and they are disappearing." But "We don't see ourselves as belonging anywhere, in history or in community." As Pope Benedict XVI said, "We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires." "[American] Society is constantly urging us to give in to our impulses. It slowly erodes the maturity of us all."

One cannot be "an admired leader of a corrupt institution, a noble player in a decadent system, or a clean pool in a toxic stream." "Manners die in a vacuum of community...The lack of manners is probably the most constant and unavoidable source of why we hate us...Manners in a culture of narcissism are practically an oxymoron."

"Techno-boors are oblivious to others and to public space in a way that feels menacing and destabilizing. It's like living in a zombie world. A rude zombie world." And it has an addictive quality to it. "People touch their portable devices like rosary beads. They are compelled to check their e-mail when they could be talking to you face-to-face. Parents who roamed their neighborhoods at will when they were little kids now freak out if they can't have instant access to their own children by cell phone." "Wireless technology allows people to hook into the Internet umbilical all over, so coffee shops, airports, parks, and bookstores are populated by laptop hooligans...This kind of behavior also signals an egomaniacal message like 'I'm very, very important. I am more important than you. I must be connected at all times'." This form of technological social obliviousness is "absent presence...when a person is on a cell phone in a store, it seems to be acceptable for that person not to thank or exchange pleasantries with the cashier. Well, that isn't acceptable...'absent presence' and techno-aggression are more pervasive threats to social well-being and...destructive of social capital." "Much of what we hate in everyday life are the things that make us feel alone, invisible, disregarded, or dismissed. That's how we feel when someone is using a Blackberry in the middle of a conversation or talking loudly on a cell phone in a line for a movie."

Meyer concludes with two voluntaristic "projects" to change all this, based on individual initiative; he admits, however, that these projects are not achievable. The above description is, after all, what America is in its essence; it's not going to become a different country.