Monday, April 22, 2013

American Dream, American Nightmare

I am sitting in the balcony of The Lighthouse facing the Big River which today sparkles blue-gray, reflecting the Sunday sun in the little river hamlet of Milestone.  I  can see the ferry Chicomacomico returning for its 10 A.M. discharge of cars and trucks at Milestone Landing. The regularity of the ferry's comings and goings, and the slow, purposeful movements of its crew calm me, and give me a window into the practical and unhurried daily life of the Big River and its people. I am happy that no one I know got shot or blown up today.

The Boston Marathon was bombed yesterday. My childhood friend Amy lives four blocks from where they finally arrested the younger bomber, bleeding himself out in a boat. I found out where they had cornered him on my smart phone in the dark, empty parking lot of a Food Lion outside of Bethany Crossroads in down-east North Carolina. I sms'ed Amy, but got no response. Less than an hour later, after the capture, the streets of Boston erupted in chants of “USA, USA” and “Boston, Boston”, and shirtless young men grinned and flexed their muscles for the news cameras to film.

The images were unseemly, uncomfortable, and completely unworthy of the suffering of the victims.  It was too loud, too proud, too much like a sporting event. It was as if this life of ours in America were one awesome continental Super Bowl and that our team had won. There was no winning in Boston. There never is when reason is abandoned to violence. There was only the panicked applying of tourniquets to blasted flesh and bone, ruined lives and the professional, self-sacrificing work of public servants who speedily brought this incident to a bloody close. There are no winners at such “events”, so why all the cheering? Was this response related to why the bombing happened in the first place?

Boston men chanting "USA, USA" after capture of Bomber
(photo: dailyfreepress.com)
After 9/11, New York City became for me a steel and concrete trap where one day I felt I would wind up unhappy -- or dead. The smell of burning buildings and mass death had changed me and had shown me how vulnerable urban citizens are to anyone with a mind to destroy. But I had also seen a decline in the city environment's ability to support the lives of ordinary citizens on a day-to-day basis. I had seen young students of mine, dedicated to living in what they believe to be the center of the world, mortgage themselves to the hilt for the next 30 years in exchange for the possession of a 1-bedroom apartment in a sought-after neighborhood. I had seen a one-hour disruption of train or subway service turn large crowds into a dangerous, growling mass of fear and loathing.  And I had not seen our "experts" devise or promote any major, creative solutions to this congestion, un-sustainability and un-livability. While I think rooftop gardens are lovely, I do not believe that they are going to save us from drowning in our own waste. 

So when I left New York, I was safely tucked into my husband's black truck with the last of my cardboard boxes containing my remarkably few souvenirs from 23 years of living in the city. I had turned the key in the lock of apartment 41 of 464 W. 152 Street Harlem for the very last time. I had smelled the dusty, gray perfume of those mud-colored mosaic floors and those humid plaster walls for the last time. I had felt beneath my feet for the last time the smooth surface of the pink marble risers worn down from a century of tired, black men and women trudging up the stairs with their sorrow and their bags of groceries. There was urgency to my movements, because I knew that the door that would allow me to escape from New York City was closing quickly. And I wanted out. Badly.

We now know that after Boston, the bombers' next stop was to be New York City. I am glad they didn't follow through, but I am equally glad that I removed myself from the natural path of their homicidal hurricane. I worry sometimes that my sister is still there.

Years ago, a vigorous young red-headed student of mine said,  “I have been in New York City for three years and I'm leaving before I make it to seven. If you don't leave New York before 7 years is up," he said, "you never leave.” Then and now, I found his words astonishingly mature for a 26 year old. Perhaps having cancer at 15 grows you up fast, but he was right and I took the lesson to heart. The city takes you like an alligator, and once you're in its grip for enough time, it pulls you into a death roll so slow and gradual that you barely know what's happening to you. You get used to filth. You get used to tough. You get used to the four flights of stairs and five block walk it takes to do your laundry. And it becomes impossible for you to believe that a life outside of the city limits is possible or desirable, just as for a prisoner it becomes eventually unbearable to live outside the walls of his cell.

I rescued myself from that death roll by deciding to travel abroad. Becoming a troubadour, I went to sing in the bars and the cruise lines of Europe. And there, in the cold clean air of Germany, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden and in the smoky, wine-stained venues of France, I woke up. I woke up from the illusion that New York was the center of the world. I learned that I could enjoy making music without any real hope of becoming famous or rich doing it, or eventually living in the clouds with the beautiful people to whom I had come so tantalizingly close when I worked at the big magazine. I learned all of that and more. Traveling through Europe with my guitar, I got over the American sickness of cultural narcissism and I enjoyed life for its ephemeral details, the moment to moment pleasure of simply living it.
The author with bandmates
onstage in Berlin, Germany

In the smallest towns of Germany there were men who sat all night on a bar stool gazing in silence at me for hours as I sang to them the songs of Carol King, Paul Simon and Iron and Wine. Beer after beer, they quietly worked to resolve their own internal conflict between their attraction to rock and roll and me, and their fierce disapproval of the American Way. "You. Disney Land," they would remark enigmatically.

They asked us about our lives in New York City, which was like Oz to them, a destination they considered beyond their ability to visit even for a short time. "Oh, New York! It is my dream", they would breathe. But it also happened sometimes that after passing the hat for the last time, a working man with a heavy gaze and a few too many pints in him would add 5 Euros to the tip jar and say to me in the slow, strong-accented tones of the German countryside, “You like Bush. Bush ist murder.” And in those moments, when I wanted to argue, to defend, to cheer for my team, I learned to practice silence. And I learned something equally important: That there is a universe of people who don't share my country's beliefs, values, or its feeling of "exceptionalism". Singing for my supper, I earned that scrap of humility that I had been unaware that I sorely, sorely lacked.

I viewed my country from a distance during the awkward years of Bush the Second, through the eyes of working class Europeans. I didn't always agree with what they said about America in those smoky, beery nights in Bordeaux, Cologne, Paris, Helsinki and Berlin and all the little towns in between where we stopped to sings a few songs, pass the hat and sell a few CDs of our music. And we saw no irony yet in the "car bombs" (a shot of whisky dunked in a glass of Guiness) that our audience was eager to buy for us to see if they could get us smashed (which they sometimes did). But I did finally get it, really get it, that I had been living in a bubble that reflected only an distorted image of itself, and that I was woefully ignorant of the gritty, smelly realities of most of the rest of the world.  Part of that distorted image was the American idea of what it really looks like to be a winner.

Or a loser.

Returning to New York, I no longer fit it. Yes, of course I still fit into my little apartment with its view of the flat asphalt roof of the police station and the white towers of the City University a few blocks to the south. Indeed, I was overwhelmed by the space available to me in my four rooms in Harlem after four years of living from a suitcase with my guitar on my back. But what I didn't fit into anymore was the illusion of New York. I couldn't be party to that silent agreement that is perhaps the only thing that binds the wildly rich and the desperately poor there, which is the belief that New York City is the greatest place on earth. I could no longer pledge daily allegiance to the words of Sinatra that “If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere.” Now I saw a terrible death dance every day between the hunger for fame and the debilitating feeling of failure shared by the many millions who hadn't “made it” and never would.  Take the illusion away and all winning was about was getting the big pile of hard cash and everything that flows from it. Take the illusion away, and the City just looks dirty. And I began to see that New York City was eating people, and that it found its casual snacks among the weakest of us, the low-hanging fruit. (Strange fruit, indeed.) If I could not make myself see fame and money as goals in themselves, then I would always be a stranger in New York City.
River ferry, NC.

During the time I have been writing these lines, the shadows on the balcony have shortened and the day is ripening toward mid-morning. The ferry Cape Point has arrived at the station and as the day grows older, more vehicles load the boat which will now head towards the military base in the piney forests across the Big River. What are these folks doing today? Are they going to have lunch with friends? Are they returning from morning services at one of the many tiny white clapboard churches that are scattered around these coastal woods? I know that down-eastern North Carolinians do not live for New York values, but rather to go fishing or hunting with their friends early in the morning, to go to church on Sundays and, afterwards, to enjoy a cold beer and a plate of shrimp and grits with their family. I know that for them, a nice clean trailer on a pretty piece of earth is a pretty fine way to live. I know that the chances are absolutely nil that a resentful youth in coastal Carolina who feels himself a loser will decide to blow up the ferry. And that will remain so as long as you can fish for free on this waterfront, feel the fresh breeze off the sound and go home to someone who loves you. Here, that makes you a winner.

A young man lies in a hospital in Boston with a bullet hole in his neck having done something unimaginably awful, presumably mentored in his evil by his own older brother. Does he think about his dead brother now? The one they say he ran over with a car in his haste to escape the police who were shooting at him? That older brother who wanted and failed to achieve the dream of becoming one of the most American of things, a Golden Gloves champion? Will he ever consider that he may have gotten roped into this awful affair not for Allah, not for jihad, but rather to take revenge on the American society that denied his big brother his shiny American Dream? America had promised his older brother that if he bulked up enough and hit hard enough he would be a winner, and then it left him stranded on the shores of the worst of all American outcomes: Loss, anonymity and mediocrity.

How do you live with the bitter pill of having lost your American Dream so early in life? Well, you might travel to another country to learn how to kill us. After all, such an option has been clearly marked out for you in living color and high-definition by numerous media outlets. And how many deaths does it take to compensate for a failure to win? How many bombs does it take to erase the horror of discovering that you're a loser at age 26? How many people's lives to do you have to destroy to prove that you're a man?

In Milestone, the ferry pulls out and makes a quick 180 with its single propeller. It heads cross-current to Cherry Point. And as the churning of the diesel engine fades, a calm falls on The Lighthouse. The tide, the birds, and the creaking of the old twisted oaks in the wind lull me and quiet my spirit. In this silence there is sense, there is peace, there is victory. In the exploding of bombs and the fist-pumping and shouting of the mob, there is none. 

3 comments:

jo(e) said...

Beautifully said.

Historiann said...

Nice connection to the failed masculinity of the elder brother, the one named after the great military hero. It's sad and pathetic all the way around.

Urban Exile said...

Thanks for that comment, Historiann, and for "getting it". It really seems as if the Age of Hard Power is dying with a bomb strapped to its chest and fury in its heart at the coming of the light.