The American dream may not be what it once was, but it is still there.
Entering small towns, from California to Maine, you may be struck by how similar they appear, displaying again and again the natural gallimaufry of a single culture that spans a continent. But this awareness is even greater when you stop and speak to the people themselves. Some of this continuity is frozen in the outward brass of the chain stores, of course, but it goes far deeper. The culture you can still find beyond the suburbs was not invented by Ray Crock and Sam Walton. Most of these people are conceived and raised to a behavior that is at once sweet and pleasantly sour, churned by the dash to butter as well as buttermilk.
This consistency of variation in character can be first seen in the hodgepodge of architectural styles popular through the generations that survive or stand proudly amidst a salmagundi (another goulash) of ‘more affordable homes,’ (i.e. trailers). The remnants of foreign cultures that have taken root here and flourished, having bequeathed their larger palate of colors as well as a stew of smells and sound that is no longer just local, or regional, but now American, and can readily be seen and smelled and heard. And their language too is the distinct American variant of English, from coast to coast, no matter the peculiar turn to the vowels where the roads are not so straight.
True, Federal rules of behavior govern. Public buildings, be they neoclassical bastions, Romanesque redoubts, or Stalinesque stalags, all have ramps for wheel chairs now, public toilets have steel hand-bars above the commode for support while being large enough in square footage to house a vagrant (as I once found), road signs are uniform, even to the similarity of graffiti by the vandals.
And yet, still, the common culture is not identified by those procrustean Federal measures, nor by the warts and scars of oddity–the bright purple house with the refrigerator on the porch, or the folks with a front yard crowded with eight foot tall sunflowers amidst others with toupees of neatly trimmed grass. Those eccentricities are simply folded in the mix as well, and almost expected. They are in fact the very reason that you pass by the Disney neighborhoods so quickly, with their artificial confection of grass and their absolute dogmas of zoned style, prohibitions on flags, lemonade stands, etc., offering no enticement to stop.
That is why the people in the Disney neighborhoods tend to fly to their destinations. They are easily disturbed by oddity. They are overcome with confusion when asked a simple question while they water their mums, such as, “Do you know the best local place to get lunch?” When forced to drive any greater distance, they stop at the familiar chain restaurant rather than chance the local places. They have been properly educated to behave in proscribed ways, and to think their prescribed thoughts (yet, in their own way they too have become a part of the larger homogeneity, albeit a boring one and a bottom portion).
The overweight woman in her husband’s short sleeve shirt (a tattoo peeking at the opened upper buttons) and the jeans she bought too small several years before, with skin tanned to a deep brown (from her daily work in the orchards you just passed) and a puffiness in her features that bespeaks one too many stiff drinks of an evening (or else a greater quantity of beer swallowed through the years, or both), with the teeth of her smile browned by cigarettes, and the soil beneath the blunt edges of her fingernails dark almost to black, may have worries you have never imagined, or many of the very same ones you know too well, but she grows five kinds of apples on the same hill her daddy once worked but never could get a good crop from, and raised four sons (and by the bumper sticker on her pickup, at least one those boys is or a was a Marine), and she once harbored dreams of college and making something more of herself and marrying a man who liked to dance and had a taste for the finer things, but most sadly she has failed to notice that she has done well after all (of a morning she can always hear the birds sing and the silence of the nights thereabout makes the stars harder and diamond bright), while the man in the overalls sitting in the chair beneath the tree, fixing the lawnmower motor, may prefer barbeque to steak, and never learned to pee straight, but he has staid the course and been there through the bad times (even those he caused), and she can sell you two good apples from her stand for a dollar and give you good directions to the closest gas station.
The professor at the university who expresses disdain for that woman’s ability to vote, or take care of herself, cannot grow an apple, or fix a lawn mower. He can quote an approved text in class and predict calamity if something is not done to control that woman’s habits because her lifestyle ‘squanders the earth’s resources,’ (while assuming it is his job to define those controls), but he does not know where the electricity he uses for his Prius comes from (a coal driven car!), nor does he have a clue about the cost of shipping apples to market. He is paid more in a year than that woman earns in a decade, but he will disparage money as an artifact of the rich, even while demanding a raise so he can keep up with the payments on his second home on the Maine coast.
Our professor does not catch lobsters, though he loves lobster roll, and does not consider the plight of the lobsterman who must live several miles inland from the coast now because the cost of shore property has been driven so high by the same government that taxes them both. (How is that?) But by financing those second homes for the professors, lawyers, stockbrokers and bureaucrats; by covering the insurance on the house (that was never covered when the lobsterman lived in a more modest structure there); by taxing the shore property at a rate affordable only by those who earn far more than a lobsterman can (the taxes being necessary of course to pay the bureaucrat and the college professor and enforce the controls envisioned by the professor and written by the bureaucrat) the lobsterman’s children are educated in public schools to believe in the standards of a dark Disney world of faux this and post that, and to think badly of their parents for believing in ‘America’.
But fairly speaking those particular professors and bureaucrats, lawyers and stockbrokers are all part of the American mix now. You see their houses there on the coasts above the waves and you wish you had one. You see their townhouses in the cities where neighborhood kids once played stickball on the streets, and wish you had one. (Give them some credit. At least they don’t live in the Disney neighborhoods that carve the hills in Fairfax where farms once flourished—better to ship the gas-ripened tomatoes from California).
Great swaths of farmland are fallow now by Federal edict. Scrub trees block the view from roads that once offered a prospect that made the driving a joy. The government finances Cargill and Monsanto, Dole and Purdue, and the publicaly concerned (so I hear on PBS) Archer Daniels Midland, with a cornucopia of tax incentives, plus special allowance for shipping by truck on roads financed by the lobsterman and the apple grower. Paperwork alone makes it impossible for the smaller farmer to compete without a full time financial advisor and accountant.
Environment regulations are written by lawyers with special provisions for the mega producers who can afford the lobbyists. The public demands milk at a price per gallon, which is below production cost, so taxes are used to maintain the ‘appropriate’ levels. Sugar prices are sustained by similar subterfuge. Corn, which can only be profitably grown by larger holdings is used to make ethanol instead of feeding the hogs (even though ethanol is a crummy and wasteful fuel and the cost of barbeque for the apple grower’s husband has become ridiculous). Government edict now dictates that a farmer cannot even make the flour for his bread from the wheat he grows on his own land because it is contrary to the ‘spirit’ of interstate commerce regulation. Yes?
Anyway, most of the less than 5% of Americans who farm the food we all eat now work for the mega companies and they vote for their own bondage for fear of losing their jobs.
Driving from state to state you will now see enormous white structures churning the air (or more often just standing idle for lack of needed maintenance) designed to kill birds and replace the mining of coal. The fact that without tax incentives and allowances, these windmills cannot produce electricity at an affordable rate, and will break down and require servicing so often they will never pay for themselves, is apparently unimportant in the greater scheme of things. Coalmines are already being closed in anticipation of this great boon. Tens of thousand of coal miners are now living on welfare and wonder what is next. What is next, of course, is that their children (having been properly schooled) will also live on welfare but slowly forget the feeling of self-reliance engendered by honest work and the values their parents once took for granted. But the professors think this is for the best. Despite the drugs and crime and illegitimacy, it will all work out for the better. With a liberal application of birth control and educational modifications, those unfortunates will slowly disappear from the mix. Problem solved. (An echo of Margaret Sanger’s great wish to eliminate the inferior people with birth control.)
There are too many people anyway. Don’t ‘cha know, there are only so many waterfront lots available before the whole place starts to look like Winnipesaukee.
Israel Zangwill’s great American dream of the melting pot continues apace. And the fire grows hotter.