the harsh reality of the American dream
Editorial rewrite of this thoughtful column. Curtosey Ace's place.
Just beyond a stretch of grass where people lay with books and lovers, blah.
It turned out to be four men outside a cafe, blah blah blah.
The Starbucks logo of the cafe struck me as a little old-fashioned until someone mentioned that this was the first Starbucks ever opened anywhere in the world. That isn't really relevant to the column, just throught it was interesting.
I had come to Seattle because of a recent survey by the Centre for Economic Performance in London, on how easy or difficult it was to get rich in different parts of the world - or if not rich, at least move out of poverty.
"If you are born into poverty in the US," said one of its authors, "you are actually more likely to remain in poverty than in other countries in Europe, the Nordic countries, even Canada, which you would think would not be that different." This study shocked even me, as it flew in the face of all the facts regarding unemployment and creation of wealth. But surely, who knows more about life in America than the Centre for Economic Performance in London? I know that I, for one, am convinced.Possibilities
The study, together with general anti-American sentiment which has become more prevalent since the Iraq war, raised for me a question about the American dream. Armed with this factoid, I ventured forth in to the hamburger joints and Wal-Marts of our inbred cousins across the pond.
I had chosen Seattle not only because Starbucks was created there, but also because Microsoft and Amazon Books and Boeing airliners all come from this small city. Dreams, if you want, which began small but are now global brands. And because they are probably one of the most European of American cities, so I wouldn't feel too uncomfortable, like I would, in, say, Texas. And because the pot is cheap here, and the girls are easy.
I wandered into the poorest section of town, looking for success stories. Surely, if the American Dream were to be found, it wouldn't be in suburbia, land of small business owners and up-by-your-bootstraps self-motivators. Instead, I focused, laser-like, on the people who, surely through no fault of their own, just couldn't make it.
"Great day, isn't it?" I turned to see the lined, and drawn face of a man I will call Dave. He was wearing a Che Guerva shirt and smelled of Patchouli; as American as Apple pie.
"Are you getting what you want?"
We had met a couple of days earlier when he was having breakfast at a charity for the broke and homeless, where he was protesting with some Communist party friends for higher wages for the homeless and unemployed. I had asked him if he believed in the American dream.
"The American dream," Dave said, eating a muffin and wiping his lips with a paper napkin.
"Well, it comes and goes. It will come again. As soon as we get rid of the Fascist right wing, and my communist brothers can begin creating Utopia."Winners and losers
In a low-ceilinged eating hall, maybe 100 men sat side by side along trestle tables.
They had queued up since five, registered in case there was any work, then ate while security guards watched over them in case there was trouble. I don't know what trouble they expected from a bunch of drunk, drug addled, possibly insane homeless people, but I could feel the weight of their gun-toting eyes on my back as I waded into the smelly throng.
In Europe or just across the border in Cuba, they would get social security, but this was America, where society is starkly divided into winners and losers.
Strangely, though, there seemed to be little resentment or blame of government. This may seem a strange concept to educated Europeans, but American culture is about self-reliance and the individual fighting a way through. Weird, huh?
"The American dream," said one of the men, his eyes dartingly alive, his nose so skewed it must have been broken many times in different fights, a testament to his character.
"I guess you are talking about a home, wife, children and all that."
"Do you have it?" I said.
"No. No. I don't. I had my opportunities, but I lost." I wanted to ask him just how he lost those opportunities, but couldn't stand the smell of Thunderbird wine any longer, and moved on.Pain
I ran across some construction workers, good blue-collar American types, and explained to them that I work for the BBC and asked them what they thought of their potential for reaching the American Dream. They called me a "Liberal Homo" and "Commie" and suggested I get myself back to Edinburgh, even though I'm obviously Welsh. They then gave me a sound beating.
Just up the road in a small print shop, a fit, thoughtful former air force officer, Bobby Ray Forbes, was slotting calendars into envelopes.
In America, I felt a sentiment that the more say the government has over you, the more you carry a sense of failure. I considered the possiblility that this was obviously, blatently, patently true for a while, but didn't get far with that line of thought.
His life collapsed when his marriage went wrong. He had ended up on the street, but recently had managed to get a job and keep it.
"Oh sure, I have had the house, picket fence, two cars," he said.
"But I put myself in a position where the government could take control. Right now I am happy just being back in control. You see, what a lot of people do not know is that the key is not getting the American dream. It is holding onto it."
In Europe, the government is entwined with a lot of what we do, yet in America, I felt a sentiment that the more say the government has over you, the more you carry a sense of failure. My USAF friend let the government into his domestic life, and became a failure for it. This certainly couldn't mean that...no, no, nevermind.
At the landscaped Seattle centre, using cards and newspapers to shield themselves from the sun, rows and rows of immigrants at a naturalisation ceremony listened to local officials speak about various aspects of the American dream.
They came from everywhere: Britain, France, Iran, Iraq - the name of every country read out, to cheers, as if we were at the Oscars and, of course, the waving of American flags. I had to retreat to the lavatory to vomit, and when I returned it was thankfully over.
"Why do you want to live here and not in Europe?" I asked a young woman from Ethiopia, who tipped back her Seattle Mariners baseball cap and looked at me as if I were completely mad.
"Europe," she said disdainfully.
"What do they ever hope for in Europe? There they have laws prohibiting unhappiness. Here they have a law that you can dream to be happy. Now get out of my way, you dope-stinking hippy, before I give you another black eye. I plan to make that dream into a reality, and I have work to do."