Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Zombies of the United States

Well here I am in a town so small it doesn’t really have a name. It’s a collection of houses by a motorway; my hostel's street address is 59,000 and something. I’m on the north shore of the most populous Hawaiian Island; Oahu, in a district imaginatively called North Shore. It’s the home of surfing's most prestigious international competition and, surprisingly, it’s as grey and miserable as a November morning in Leytonstone. This suits me fine as my shorts need a wash and I can bust out the denim.

I know it’s been a while since I wrote: I did do a short piece on the woes of American public transport but I decided no-one wanted to read a thousand word rant about trains. Suffice to say they have about three trains, which are very nice and modern, but they don’t join up to each other. Or the airports. Which makes them about as much use as a Play-dough drill-bit.

When I came back from San Diego on the Amtrak double decker to go to Venice Beach I couldn’t get from the biggest train station in LA to one of their biggest tourist districts on the underground and had to make a one-hour journey by public bus through some pretty damn ropey neighbourhoods. My subsequent journey to the international airport, which was only a very short distance away, again had to made on a special hotel/airport shuttle service (private minibus) as the state simply does not feel it necessary to enable these kinds of routine journeys by public transport.

The Botanical Centre in San Diego's incredible Balboa Park - imagine Hyde Park, but with all the South Kensington Museums, both Tate's, the ICA, the Globe Theatre AND Kew Gardens all inside it - stunning

You’ve all read many times about how dependant the USA is on the car. Let me tell you that it is no exaggeration. Even in the rich, populous, progressive towns and cities I have visited the infrastructure for a car free life simply does not exist. I can only imagine what it must be like in rural areas but I have only yesterday read a despairing account of a man who has to drive 40m between stores because there are simply no public crossings and his children are not safe.

What is strange is the way the drivers behave around the occasional pedestrian they do encounter. Whereas in London both foot and car passengers are always in a precocious rush, each exploiting any gap they come across, here all the drivers slow down and come to a halt for you at traffic-light free intersections. And it’s so strange because I'm used to just letting the cars go and then walking behind them, but here I’ve been locked into a number of traffic halting impasses where I’ve been waving at the driver to proceed and he’s refused.

I have come to the conclusion that it is because they feel sorry for the pedestrian, assuming he or she is either a lunatic lefty-liberal or one of the army of disenfranchised non-persons that populate every urban area.

Didn't have a suitably grim shot of an 'untouchable' so I've used a beautiful sunset to symbolise hope instead :P

Even here in Oahu where a two or three bedroom wooden house of unappealing and uninspired design can sell for over $3,000,000 (they say London has inflated property prices – San Diego and Hawaii laugh us out of town) and the average income is no less than $63,000 annually there are still the homeless by every retail outlet, on the beach and surprising you by being completely normal looking and then begging money, food and cigarettes on the steps of Starbucks.

More than the rampant safety culture, more than the sheep like pedestrians waiting for a signal to cross an empty road, more than the doggy massage parlours and relentless, insular, ignorant and paranoid patriotism; what has upset me again and again and made me sure I could never live in the United States permanently is its divisiveness, elitism and willingness to abandon its citizens. There are people and then there are non-white people and then there are the non-people. If you have an accident, and your arm is horrendously mutilated and your insurance will not cover it then the government will pay for the operation. But if you will never work again, you will never be insured again. And you will never be able to repay the government or pay taxes again. So you join the army of the disenfranchised untouchables forever cursed to remain outside of society looking in through beard and beer obfuscated rimy eyes, sleeping on cardboard with a jacket over your head.

Now, every country has its failings. America’s market systems have driven huge growth, globalisation, the creation of many technologies for which we are all dependent on a daily basis. Taxation is relatively low. But give me the Norwegian system any day. I’d rather pay high taxes and know that every human being is given at the very least all the chances they need to try and be who they want to be, all the healthcare possible to help them survive. And can probably get a bloody train to the airport.

Voodoo out.

ps. in response to my last post about Disney songs, two people requested 'everybody wants to be a cat' from the Aristocats, so here it is! I've never seen the film, but I think I might have to now :)

1 comment:

  1. I recall walking through Hollywood at around 9pm at night once on the way to an event. It was only a few blocks, but an interesting walk on a balmy May evening for someone who likes cities. Not only were the sidewalks totally deserted, but someone pulled up next to me and asked if I needed a lift. They weren't trying to get into my 19-year-old's pants, but were genuinely amazed that I was actually walking.

    It was in Los Angeles as well that I discovered how difficult it can be to cross the road, in an area that appeared to consist purely of highways, freeways and big box stores. I think the road I was trying to cross wasn't even special; but it was something like six lanes of roaring traffic sandwiched between massive parking lots fronting giant, anonymous-looking box stores. If I recall correctly, I ended up having to walk a block or two before finding a crossing.

    A good book on some of the problems with American cities is "Home from Nowhere" by Howard Kunstler. There's an excerpt online at which I can recommend spending a few minutes on.

    Oh! And since you're in Hawaii, when you're in the airport, look out for the "Wiki Wiki" shuttle bus! That's where Ward Cunningham got the name for the original WikiWiki software, leading eventually to the monicker of our favorite encyclopedia. :)