American Diary Part 1: The Land of contradiction

Compensation Culture

Cruising down the highway on a megabus from New York to Philadelphia I am bombarded by a series of enormous billboards advertising attorneys. They feature pictures of balding men with captions like “Had an accident? Get compensation! Call 15800COMP”. The first thing I see on the Long Island railroad from JFK to Penn Station is a poster of a vacant-looking woman with the accompanying text “Suffering health complications as a result of vaginal mesh surgery? You may be entitled to compensation! Call 1800MONEYBACK to speak to a professional with a track-record of payouts”. “What is vaginal mesh surgery?” I whisper to LSB, who looks bewildered and uncomfortable, because he hasn’t seen the ad I am talking about. “I don’t know, Katzi”, he replies, shifting in his seat. Another morning LSB and I are watching an excellent episode of Family Feud only to be interrupted by yet more flashy ads for attorneys promising to ensure you BIG $ compensation and no fee unless successful”. They all look offensively shifty and everything that flashes on the screen is aggressive and in your face. I feel my televisual aura being invaded.

Commercialism

We walk a total of ninety-five blocks all the way from Central Park to the centre of Manhattan. We hit upon Time Square: lights, colours, enormity; everywhere. It conveys an overload of sensation and an adrenalin rush to the pit of my stomach. The changing colours of billboard lights make it instantly addictive. I stare stupefied at my surroundings, and like all the others, I whip out my camera and add to the numbifying flashes of lights. Each skyscraper in Time Square is servant to an enormous screen, which casts rapidly-changing images onto the ground, where we as tiny human creatures stand as awe-struck consumers of a world we are too tiny to control. It’s an enormously impressive place: its size, its lights, its sensations. Forever 21 there is open until 2 am each night. From the store-front an enormous screen shows a live video of the people passing by on the street below. This video provides the backdrop to a dancing model, who pops up between the little speckles of real people behind her. We stand underneath the screen for a while, searching for ourselves as if we were in a “Where’s Wally” page and then, predictably – find ourselves in the corner, point excitedly and pull out our cameras.

Brilliance and its victims

Forever 21's live video of crowds below

The ‘New’ in New York sure lives up to its name. The skyscrapers and omnipresent screens are like something from the future. Genius entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin have changed the way in which we live. At the same time, they have created a culture of technological dependency and fuelled a society whose commerce feeds off a perpetual feeling of inadequacy, social comparison and greed. We have an accident and our immediate thought is: “I can make some money. Where is that Attorney’s number?” We want to look good all the time, so we vote with our feet and make it commercially successful to open a clothes store until 2am each night.
We ignore the little guy holding a hand-made globe on top of his head in Time Square to raise awareness about Climate Change because he doesn’t have flashing lights and isn’t tall enough to scratch the clouds. America is a story of brilliance and its victims.

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An Image of America

A woman perched atop a ladder is attaching a plastic bat onto the roof of a porch. Across the street from her, just in front of a park, a man in a wheelchair is rolling over to a haggard lady, who is doubled-over at the entrance to a tiny tent. I watch them speaking. He rolls his eyes, shakes his head slowly and says “Man, he’s worse than Bush. I’m sorry he ever got my vote”. He turns his head to a squirrel at his feet: “I’m sorry I’ve no nuts for you, buddy”.

The lady has been holding a vigil against America’s nuclear policy for over twenty years. She lost her husband two years ago. He spent twenty-seven years in the same tent. Today her home-made signs promoting peace are sopping wet and the squirrels sheltering inside her tent keep her company.

The woman descends the ladder. A plastic bat flaps its wings in the breeze: black against the gleaming White House.