Bored with The USA?
A letter from America
On leaving Seattle airport and being driven out to my brother Phil's in Bellingham,WA, there were two things I noticed that confirmed my stereotypes of America. The first of these was the miles and miles of malls; lining either side of the freeway for almost the complete two hours of our journey was nothing but shops. Shops for shoes, shops for clothes, shops for cars, shops for prebuilt houses, gun shops and 24 hour shops for everything; drive in banks, drive in movies, drive in lawyers, drive in poodle parlours and doggy diners, drive in chiropractors, drive in churches, drive in weddings and even drive in funeral parlours, standing alongside the ubiquitous drive in fast food restaurants. It's surprising that in all of the USA there's enough people to staff all these shops, let alone to shop in them, and it's easy to see why it's easy for Americans to perceive themselves as consumers first and foremost, with no concern for society.
The second thing that struck me was the sheer volume of traffic. Almost everyone owns a car in America,if not 2 or 3, and they're gonna fight for their right to use them. Forget broken heroes, the highway was jammed with broken and working cars, particularly the unnecessarily large and intimidating ATVs - what is the point of having an All Terrain Vehicle if you're only going to drive 3 blocks to the shops, as many Americans do? They're just status symbols, and thanks to their extra height and crash bars, very effective kid killers. No wonder pedestrians are looked on with suspicion, as I found out on several occasions.
Judging on first impressions, it would be very easy to get depressed by the States of America. The most powerful nation on earth has a lying idiot in power, and it seems that his doting, dozy, corpulent electorate may yet still re-elect him, despite having no faith in what he is doing. The people can seem to have lost the use of their brains, as well as their legs. There's no obvious youth culture, with kids being watched over permanently by zealous parents eager to keep them on the straight and narrow America way. In fact, there could seem to be little in terms of culture at all.
But of course there's much more to American society than this. Even on that first drive, a lively opposition to Bush and his war was obvious. Many amusing bumper stickers spoke of their disgust at 'Bush and Dick' (snigger snigger), while the 'Support our Troops' posters were countered by many anti-war ones. I know that the people I mixed with were unrepresentative, but all of them were disgusted with 'their' president, had a go at me for letting 'my' prime minister snuggle up with him, and were also disappointed with Democrat Kerry for having such similar policies to Bush. The question for them wasn't whether to vote for Bush or Kerry, it was whether to put their lot in with the Democrats, or to look for something more radical. A simple glance at what our so called left wing leader has done over here should answer that question for them. But Americans certainly aren't a lardy lump of pro war rednecks, some of the views I encountered showed a deep unease with the whole system.
Shop workers were some of the most vocal people I met in expressing these opinions. Not only were they all friendly and helpful, but they were also really eager to start a discussion laying into the Bush'n'Blair destruction wagon. And away from the miles of malls I mentioned above, there were some far more interesting shops dealing for more than just the passive consumer. Bellingham has a Co-op, which unlike the British sham version, is run by and for the members, who share the profits in terms of cheaper prices. There you can buy all manner of organic goods, and there is a children's play area where Ally, my niece, and I were happily amused. Recycling is more advanced than it is here, and in the non profit making 'Re-Store' you can buy second hand everythings - Phil, for insytance, bought a second hand toilet! And although the States is obviously covered in Burger Joints from the worst of the multinational chains, there are good places to eat. We went to a great Burger bar called Chuck Wagon, a Mongolian eat all you can restaurant where they lightly cooked all sorts of delicious vegetables for you in front of your eyes, and a pizza place where you could help yourself to piles and piles of fresh veg. Yum!
It didn't take long to find some sort of lively cultural scene as well, and I didn't have to go as far as Kurt Cobain's memorial bench in Seattle to find it. In Bellingham there are several big record shops, selling an impressively wide range of CDs and vinyl from a lot of left field British and American bands, as well as the more obvious chart stuff. I was surprised and impressed to find albums by The Libertines, The Darkness, Marion, 60 Foot Dolls and many other R*E*P*E*A*T favourites (but, alas, none of our own releases, although I am reliably informed that Miss Black America have a section devoted to them in New York's Tower Records) sitting alongside Public Enemy and Eminem, all very cheap. Better, these were being looked at and discussed by American youths.
The other place where I found there to be cultural activity going on (apart from in Phil's house, where even the affable ex-junkie builder Bill, star of The Virgin Suicides ep artwork, spends his spare time composing classical music and punk rock songs) was in the many coffee shops that populate the area. We went to a poetry reading at one called Stuarts, and while some of the stuff being read was a bit like embarrassing sixth form verse, some of it was original and thought provoking. One such reader was Jimmy Henry whose rants expose a lot of what is wrong with contemporary, consumerist America and its people. You can read an interview with Jimmy Henry on our website here.
So that's what I found in America. Although the stereotypes we are fed are very much alive, there is also another very different side to the place. There are millions of people with the same hopes, fears, aspirations and interests as us. Which is obvious really, but just needs to be restated every now and then when we risk losing our faith in the possibility of changing that country as we try to change the world.
So thanks to everyone I met over there (apart from the US immigration guards) for being so friendly and open. And especially to Phil, Andrea and Ally for putting me up and showing me all these things - you are by far the best thing about America!!
Rosey R*E*P*E*A*T, August 2004
Stickers and badges from Democracy Means You, perhaps the best website on American politics (but don't climb into bed with Kerry, he won't even wake you up before he go-goes!)