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Thoughts on the USA – 1968 to 2009   (John Kinsella, March 2009)

After visiting California at the beginning of 2007, it occurred to me it would be in order to revisit the south east of the USA for the 2008 year end vacation. For a number of reasons, the first being the weather – although there are plenty of places in the world where I could have found sunshine and high temperatures, such as India, where I spent a month last winter. Then there was the exchange rate, the dollar had fallen against the euro, making the vacation more affordable. It was also an opportunity to revisit New Orleans; a city whose history was interlaced with that of France’s, recently brought to the forefront of world news when tragedy in struck in 2005, where the efforts of America to come to the aid of its own under the Bush administration could be seen first hand. In terms of the present economic crisis it was also an occasion to see how Florida was coping; were things really as bad as the media portrayed them?

The USA is one of the countries I have visited on a fairly regular basis over the last forty years with almost yearly trips, and on occasions more. I have always liked and admired the USA, though with the years I have come to the realization I do not share the opinion of many of my compatriots: that is we Brits have many things in common with Americans. Of course there is the language, but beyond that so many other things are different. Neither do I believe we share the same culture, that of the US is that of the New World and very different from the UK or Europe, and whilst many Americans have their roots in Europe many others do not, which is a clearly visible fact.

As a child, growing up during and after WWII, I was fed with Westerns and American comic books, thus identifying with the imaginary world portrayed by popular culture, followed some years later by Bill Haley, Rock and Roll, and Elvis Presley, who we were told was serving in the armed forces in West Germany in defence of the Free World against the Soviet Bloc. Today, times have changed, the enemy is no longer clearly defined, and recent wars have opened the gap between the USA and Old Europe (which is incidentally all of Europe, and being pedantic includes all those countries that now form the European Union).

The cement that has held relations with Europe together has suffered from a divergence of interests, which have been further weakened by the economic crisis that is now affecting the world as a result of certain banking practices that originated in the USA, which were exported to our own naïve bankers who lacked foresight and independence of thought, blindly following Wall Street.

It is now forty years since my first visit to the USA. As a young engineer I travelled to New York, Pittsburgh and the Tri-Cities area of West Virginia. Times and values have moved on in those forty years. Then, somewhat dazzled on my arrival in New York, just before Christmas in 1968, I was met by the US agent of the company I worked for, a friendly and cultivated man, certainly older than my father, and a representative of the Westinghouse Company. I was delivered to the Biltmore Hotel and remember the next evening being invited to a fashionable French restaurant, which to my surprise was really like a Parisian restaurant.

I of course visited the mythical sights of a then vibrant city: Times Square, the Rockefeller Center, Fifth Avenue and Grand Central Station, but looking back what struck me most were the small things: the garrulous drivers of Yellow Cabs, the omnipresent wail of sirens and the bustling of the breakfast room in the Biltmore. Breakfast was a ritual, where, as in every other hotel I visited during my trip, waitresses in smart uniforms took guests’ orders, served in the time it took to start sipping the fresh coffee, with, to my surprise, eggs prepared in an astonishing variety of ways and to the letter: poached, boiled, fried, scrambled, eggs Benedict…. The Westinghouse representative told me to leave a twenty-five cent tip, which I did.

During the following two weeks I discovered the other side of the coin whilst driving through West Virginia and the mining towns of the Appalachians, where I also discovered the company store really did exist and where I saw the misery of the poor, but where gas stations provided service: filling tanks with a smile and wiping windshields clean, checking tyre pressures, without the presence of cameras or the furtive hint of late evening trepidation.

The next time I returned the States it was to Seattle and across the border to Vancouver, where I proudly signed a million dollar engineering contract, which prompted subsequent visits to other North American cities as far flung as Huston and Montreal.

A year or so later flying back from Brazil I made my first visit to Miami, where I spent a weekend in a motel without a single dollar in my pocket since all currency exchange bureaus were closed until the following Monday morning. A girl in an airport shop loaned me two dollars to pay the cab. At that time Miami was the new home to a great number of Cubans, many freshly arrived, fleeing Castro’s Cuba. I eventually changed my pounds and pesos in a bank where the employees and customers were all Spanish speaking. It was also my first encounter with African Americans; penniless (in dollars) I was forced to discover Miami on foot and wandered into a neighbourhood where I was greeted by a group of young men who addressed me as ‘Snowball’.

That visit to Florida led me to Maine where I was hired some time after by a local engineering entrepreneur, who asked me to open an office for his company in Europe, which I did in the east of France near to the Swiss border and town of Basel. This led to a good many trips to the USA, again New York, followed by Boston, Portland, and towns further west that I no long remember. In New England I could easily eat a first class ‘Surf and Turf’ dinner for a few dollars and afford to bring live lobsters home to France.

Things moved on and I ended up with another American firm and travelled to Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and other places. America always seemed prosperous compared to Europe, wealthier, more material things with an enviable way of life.

In the eighties I travelled to the World Bank in Washington on several occasions and witnessed government ministers of vast countries like Indonesian treated with disdain by world class local and expatriate functionaries.

About that time I took my family to Florida with the Disney treat for my children, then motoring down to Key West and the beaches. The gloss had not worn off America and we returned home delighted with the trip, the hotels, entertainment and food.

In the course of the following years I returned on many occasions for business: Atlanta, Austin, Seattle and other destinations, and then for vacation driving down to Mexico from Houston. It was about this time that changes started to occur, the service was not what it used to be, and America was changing as was observed in Brownsville.

Later I visited Miami on several different occasions as it was a convenient stop over on the way to South America, a Miami that was still prosperous but seemingly more eccentric. More recently, two years ago to be precise, I spent a month in California where the changes had become salient. Hotels were shoddier, in restaurants it was pay and move on, food was faster and the human environment had changed with great numbers of the poor and forgotten living on the streets, late in the evening I was reminded of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ as the abandoned wandered through the streets of downtown San Francisco hurling out their pain. As we travelled down the coast to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego we discovered the two faces of America today, before heading back via Palm Springs to San Francisco. I discovered people drove faster, gas guzzlers still existed in the form of SUVs and were driven by rich and poor alike, and a country where the court of miracles had spilled over from Venice Beach into every town and city.

My visit to the South East spanned December 2008 and the first two weeks of January 2009, starting in New Orleans continuing on to Mobile, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, Key West, Naples, St Petersburg, Pensacola and finally back to New Orleans.

I now knew that America had definitely changed. New Orleans still bore the scars of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the city at the end of August 2005, and a new urgent hedonistic form of tourism had taken over; drink, shout and be merry for tomorrow the fun could suddenly end. A twenty-four hour Casino drew the not only tourists but also a good number of the citizens of New Orleans, who by the appearance of many could certainly not afford to lose the little money they possessed. A moving moment was a Christmas service at a Baptist Church where people seemed to genuinely celebrate the real meaning of Christmas. As for the rest it was a rather brutal form of tourism: eat, pay and move on, where little warmth or sincerity existed.

In Jacksonville we saw the first monuments to the Subprime crisis: uncompleted condominiums and the same sorry sight was repeated all along the Florida coastline, Atlantic and Gulf coasts alike. The New Year was greeted in Coconut Grove, where the festivities faded soon after midnight and a taxi driver told us it was almost deserted compared to recent years. Key West bustled in comparison, but in Naples we discovered endless lines of empty homes overlooking golf courses, forlornly awaiting elusive buyers.

The TV spoke of bailouts for the automobile industry, the press spoke of Madoff, but hope was there, Obama would save America if sufficient money could be printed. Shopping malls seemed dismally vacant whilst shops and restaurants laid off staff as business prospects dimmed.

Florida is of course very different from California, the former being in my eyes more a state than a country, the opposite being true for the latter, but both are sorely affected by the economic crisis that questions the American model, which had been presented as an enviable ideal to the rest of the world for the best part of a century.

Over the forty years since my first visit to the USA my travels have brought me to at least thirty different states and a great many towns and cities, where I met a fairly broad cross-section of Americans, including casual acquaintances, colleagues and friends, all of whom helped me develop a fairly well informed though very personal opinion of modern America.

In January 2009, the questions that enter my mind are: is this the end capitalism as we know it? Is it the end of America? The response is certainly no, but what I have seen does show the way to a future world where things will be very different. The kind of freewheeling capitalism that has dominated US economic policies and society is almost certainly a thing of the past. Will the confident America I discovered when I first arrived in New York in 1968 return? I’m not at all sure.

John Kinsella The Independent New York Times.

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