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On the Perils of Looking West

As the U.K. was forced to shift focus westwards, away from Europe, I returned this summer to America. On venturing across ‘the Pond’, my excitement at seeing New York City was as undiminished as when I was 10.

In 1970, at my first Queens elementary school, I was impressed by a poster displaying myriad faces and proclaiming ‘Black is Beautiful, Brown is Beautiful, Red is Beautiful, Yellow is Beautiful’. This was outside the school canteen, where, together with children on Welfare, I queued for a hot mid-day meal. (Meat-balls being the usual offering, I longed for the tastier school dinners at my Oxford primary school.)

“…Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…” The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus

In the New Year of 1971, we moved to another part of Queens, and another grade school. In addition to taking her class to the Van Gogh exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, my new teacher raised her pupils’ awareness of the impact of pollution, on the one hand, and looming budget cuts on the other – and exhorted us to write to local elected representatives. A child of radical parentage, it felt good to be encouraged to express opinions, and to be taken seriously in class (at the same school, in attending a meeting on feminism, Edie had been finding her voice).

By the time I returned to New York in 1998, I knew from UNISON colleagues that, under General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe, they had lobbied the new Labour government-in-waiting hard to bring in minimum wage law, like that in the U.S. But unlike there, we wouldn’t see targeted publicity.

Poster on Coke machine, French’s Diner, Marlinton West Virginia (1997)

Arriving in New York this year, I was struck by the extreme roll-back of the state.With subway infrastructure crumbling, and homeless folk sleeping next to me on trains, any semblance of a welfare safety net had gone. Basic incomes are so paltry that guidance to tip a quarter of a bill confirmed there’s no living minimum wage, with enforcement seemingly ineffectual. Never before had I come across such ingratiating deference as that I encountered in the U.S.: slight bows evoking the English servant class, the humble silence of the American precariat – and the racial hierarchies around which the U.S. is built.

To traverse America by train is to witness just how far behind its public transportation lags behind Western Europe’s – where, in addition to good metropolitan connections, high-speed routes whizz passengers through ‘the Continent’.

Union Station, Chicago

All the more shocking for a visiting Brit – already appalled by increased homelessness back home, including tents on streets and parkland – was the American acceptance that life on the margins is normal. Etched on my memory of Sacramento is a large woman in a crimson sun-dress, walking away from her family’s tent, baby buggies at the side, perhaps on her way to work from her home – one of numerous encampments by railway sidings.

Tent in park

On my first visit in 20 years, I felt the West had become a libertarian’s dreamland. When a fellow Amtrak traveller attributed homelessness on the West Coast to drug abuse – and so each person’s individualised problem – I countered that was not the whole story, but didn’t have to hand relevant data. On reviewing the evidence she had amassed*, Barbara Ehrenreich noted the ubiquitous fear of losing the roof over one’s head. Moreover, since 2000, certain states had criminalised the destitute – making it unlawful to give help or hand out food to the homeless on public space.

In other curious contemporary signs of ‘Manifest Destiny’**, Big Tech has colonised tracts of land on the West Coast; their workers’ settlement of neighbourhoods pushing up rents, and ousting poor local folk into insecure accommodation. And in tandem, insatiable demand for land presses others out of their homeland: fearful of imminent instability, super-rich businessmen are now founding private fiefdoms of swathes of states.

Not only other humans are pushed aside. Journeying west, it was odd to spot four solitary deer, each 500 miles apart – and to ponder the whereabouts of the rest of their herd.

As e-mobility takes off, to avoid a free-for-all, Boulder municipality imposed an emergency moratorium on the issue of business licences to e-scooter rental companies. Meanwhile, home-made e-skateboards, custom-built e-unicycles, or brand new e-skates, as well as franchised e-scooters threaten the safety of those exiled to the streets of San Francisco.See: Der Spiegel https://www.spiegel.de/plus/e-scooter-e-skateboard-e-einrad-so-kreuzt-man-jetzt-in-san-francisco-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000162162968

Two libertarian surprises awaited us on the Oregon coast. In Astoria (population 10,000) three stores sold marijuana and related products. With scant regard for the conditions in which workers harvest ‘weed’, cannabis is big business.

Cabinet of curiosities

A few blocks away, on display in a run-down Astoria store-front I spied two abhorrent objects: traps for sale – for one or two small animals respectively. Is it any wonder, then, that the Coastal Martin – lawful to hunt in Oregon – is critically endangered?

Further down the coast, the joy at sighting a Gray Whale foraging feet away on the shoreline jostled with data obtained by Monterey monitors that migrating whales were emaciated. The researchers said this was likely due to a decline in food, in turn attributable to a warming Pacific Ocean. Of course it is not only mammals, for which one feels distress: away from nature reserves, the West was bereft of bird-song.

And yet – it’s imperative, to dispel despair, to be awe-struck by the natural world.

Yaquina Nature Reserve, Oregon

Andrea Wolf begs us to be enthralled by Humboldt’s enchantment with nature***. Only by holding on to a sense of wonder, and pushing back against the making marginal of all things living in the world, can we envision an alternative to all-consuming capitalism.

Garbage barge, East River, New York City

*Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, first published, 2001, republished Picador,2011

** “The right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us…” John L. O’Sullivan, 1845

*** The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, Wulf. A; The Adventures of Alexander Humboldt, Knopf, 2015 Andrew Wulf, illustrated by Lillian Melcher, Penguin Random House, 2019

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  1. What an interesting childhood you had, Michele! This account is both fascinating and worrying, reminding us of both the speed and the magnitude of the changes your generation has lived through. Here’s to hope for the future.

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