Well, I hope I'm back, at least for a while. The America trip really did nearly kill me. It's been too months since I got back to China and I am just beginning to recover. A few weeks ago I thought I was feeling pretty good so I went to the beach with a students family. That ended up with me unable to walk without extreme pain and the beginning of the realization that at 74, I can't run around as if I was 24 (some of us are slow learners.) Since then I have been seeing a “Shi Fu.” A Shi Fu is a healer and teacher trained by a Shaolin monk (the “Kung Fu” people) who does acupuncture, cupping, and massage. I will be learning a lot more this weekend when I can sit with him and an excellent interpreter and ask some more questions. Right now I have some pictures, including the therapy dog that hangs out in his office. The dog, belongs to a neighboring shop that sells medicinal Bei Jui (white alcohol) but comes to the Shi Fu's as soon as he opens. Here are a few pictures of the Shi Fu at work ….... they really aren't particularly flattering as far as pictures of me, but at 74 I shouldn’t expect to look very good in a picture that has my underwear at half mast and my butt full of acupuncture needles. I guess time does have it's way with us and photography can certainly show us what that way has done.
I have been back in China for two weeks but still haven't quite recovered from America. Hitch hiking and riding busses will show a person an America that isn't often seen in New York Times travel articles. I learned a lot. I learned how frightened Americans are, and how so many are living on the edge of American society. I hitch hiked from Virginia to New York and came face to face with that new and frightened America. I have loved hitch hiking since I was in the military many years ago. It is on the road that we really meet America, but this time I met an America that was new and strange. I don't like what I saw. America is now a prison nation and not at all embarassed by that fact. From the bar in the Mattoon IL Moose, to Greyhound busses travelling from Maine to Chicago, I met one person after another who had spent time in prison. It's one thng to see the statistics that show America as the world leader in prison inmates but the statistics come to life when you meet the people who are the raw materials for America's fastest growing industry. I rode from upstate New York to Indianapolis alongside of a guy who had just gotten out of prison. He had done 4 years for robbery. He didn't want to go back but the odds were already stacked pretty much against him. He was released from prison wearing a tee shirt and shorts. He was given the exact amount of money to buy a bus ticket to his home of record. I guess he was expected to somehow raise the money to eat while travelling then immediately find a job and a place to live without funds. He was lucky. His old cellmate had connected him to some bikers and when he arrived home he would have a place to sleep and some kind of support network. The real question was: will the support network be one that will help him stay out of prison? I'm not sure that it was a concern of the prison establishment. He was raw material. He was one of the walking wounded that justified larger and larger prison budgets.
I am 74 years old and have seen a lot of America in those 74 years but this was something new. It seems to be an America where there will soon be only three classes: prison employees, prisoners, and the "one percent" that the occupy movement talks about. That's not my America.
A Bus Trip Through America ..... and Coming Face to Face With Power
When I left the States I was probably getting used to the changes but still, it was a shock to face them now. It's not just the police. I knew that officer Friendly was just a piece of history but I wasn't prepared for the presence (and acceptance) of both armed and unarmed authority everywhere. I saw fear in America, and I saw it everywhere I looked. The security guards in bus stations were armed. Getting on a bus, I was asked: "Your papers please!" I was a little surprised that the bus company worker didn't attempt a German accent ..... I would have at least tried. It would be better if the worker was allowed to wear a black leather trench coat but that's probably asking for more of a sense of humor than the system allows. I think it was the drivers that struck me as most changed. The bus drivers sometimes sounded like 19th century ship's captains. "There will be no loud talk or cell phone use! You will have two warnings! If I have to speak a third time you will be put off the bus." ..... "There will be no profanity ...... profanity or foul language will get you put off the bus." I wanted to ask if we could be keelhauled for throwing paper on the floor but was afraid of being charged with mutiny. It's best to play it safe at 1:30 AM in the middle of what was once called "The Great American Desert."
I saw the authority of a bus driver at work when crossing the border into Canada. There was a man sitting a few seats behind me on the other side of the bus. He was unkempt and certainly needed a shave but so did I. The driver came back and loudly criticized him for appearance and personal hygiend. He told the man to sit in the back of the bus and take off the (badly wrinkled) jacket that he was wearing. When we got to the Canadian border I was in line behind the man. I found that he was a Canadian, but apparently of Middle Eastern origin. He had taken the jacket off and was wearing a clean white tee shirt. I noticed no body odor. When I returned to the bus after passing through Canadian Customs and Immigration the driver made an announcement that the man had been put off the bus for poor personal hygiene.
The police were another thing. Police and security guards seemed everywhere. I have been living in a society where armed police are rare and when they are armed, it is ususally with a very small pistol, probably not much larger than a .380, but these police were armed for military level confrontations. A security guard supervisor in one bus station was carrying a Glock pistol, in a fancy poly holster, with an extended magazine. At first glance i thought he was some kind of swat team cop. Then, I saw his shoulder patch that identified him as belonging to a private security company. Is America so terrible a place that this kind of protection is necessary? The repeated demand for identification reminded me of movies of Germany in the Nazi period, but above all I was frightened by the acceptance of this kind of life by Americans. Apparently the war on terror has terrorized America much more than the war on European Fascism and Japanese imperialism ever did. America is a frightened country. For Americans to accept being searched by an armed security guard to ride a bus, says a lot about the way people are thinking. Above all, it is a mark of fear. Even Canada has been infected. Crossing the border before 9/11 was a simple process of showing identification (sometimes not even being asked to show it,) and going on your way. When I crossed this time, there were more questions than I am asked when crossing the border into China. It is time for "conservatives" in America to ask what it is that they would conserve, and the Dept of Defense to ask what they are defending. They are not maintaining or defending those things that Emma Lazarus described when she wrote:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
That was America when I was young and it was quite secure ........ Why isn't the Dept. of Homeland Security defending that America ?
Well, I'm back in China:
I haven't done much writing because of computer demons ...... I have managed to lose "Word." In spite of that, I have finally managed to grasp the courage to go foreward without spell check so I will at the least, try to describe what I saw in America. It wasn't always nice.
There is much good in America now but the fear is overpowering. Bus drivers have the authority of 19th century sea captains and bus station security guards look llike armed superheros from old comic books. I had intended to tell this story as a kind of travel log but it doesnt seem to have turned out that way. Some stories must be told as stories. and I heard and saw many stories in America. Some were like the one of the punk rockers in Georgia are amusing. They were arrested riding a freight train and had to appear in a Georgia court. When they finally were in front of the judge, the only question he asked was: "Do you know Woodie Gutherie?" They responded by singing This Land is My Land and were released on time served. There are many other stories, most of them not as pleasant but all of them are small slices of what America is today. I will try to describe what it was to see the new America with eyes that are accustomed to seeing an America that is apparently dead and gone now.
TorontoSalvation Army hostel
Well here I am, in the USA (Mattoon Illinois.) On my way I stayed in Toronto for a few days and learned a lot. I stayed in a Salvation Army hostel and found Toronto to be amazing. What would be called “Skid Row” in most cities, is in Toronto (at least on the surface,) a mixed commercial and residential area. The skid row that I once knew, was the Bowery of New York City, forty years ago; Toronto is different. The first and most noticeable difference is the level of street violence and the visible police presence. The second is the drug of choice, crack cocaine. Forty years ago, the doorways of the Bowery were filled with semi conscious alcohol abusers and there might be a half dozen fights in progress at any time. In my four days in Toronto I only saw one fight. The are constant police bicycle patrols seem to work pretty well. While I only saw one fight (and it was short,) there is a constant, intense awareness of the potential for deadly violence that lies just below the apparently calm surface. Crack is not a drug that calms internal rage. The awareness of a police presence controls it.
I sat in the park on a couple of evenings with people I met in the shelter. One was a Serbian traveler on his way to India. Another was Tom. I learned a lot from both of them. Tom is a recovering crack addict. He did 12 years in prison for bank robbery. His fiancée, Tara, was living in a woman’s shelter. In the popular language of our world of individualism, both made “bad choices” and while that may be true, those choices were the result of options that may have at least perceived to be limited. Tom certainly made a bad choice when he took a very real looking gun into a bank to make a withdrawal. He also made a bad choice by becoming a crack head when he was fifteen years old. The question is: what options did an abused fifteen year old, living in a “project,” see as realistic at the time he made the bad choices? He also made “good choices” as well. He was trained as a cook while imprison and hasn’t used crack for two years. Sadly, when he applies for a job, most of his competition trained in places other than prison. Tara is a woman with a childhood history of abuse and an adult history of rape. She carries all of that pain and struggles against a picture of self that was (to a great extent,) painted by abusers. I also saw great strength in both of them. Will they make it? I don’t know. They are in a city that has services for men and women with needs like theirs, and compassion as well. I think their chances are pretty good, but they have a long tough fight ahead. It won’t be easy but Toronto looks like a good place to try.
Mattoon, the Moose, and America
Mattoon Illinois, is a town about three hours south of Chicago and a window into 21st century America. The population is under 20,000, less than the number of people living in YiTian Village, the housing complex that is my home in China, but Mattoon is now just a skeleton of its once healthy body.
Mattoon began as a railway town in the 19th century. It was surrounded by miles of fertile prairie and quickly developed into a manufacturing center surrounded by healthy farms. Those days are gone. There are still hard working men and women in Mattoon, the men and women who once made the USA the manufacturing heart of the world. Now most of the factory jobs are gone and only the people remain in a town of low paid work in service sector jobs. I met many people in the Legion, (the American Legion,) and the Moose bars and saw a mixture of anger and patriotism that was new to me. Mattoon isn’t a happy town and America doesn’t seem to be a very happy country now. The factories that drove and supported their lives are gone and unlikely to return. There is anger with a mix of objects: “the Chinese, the illegal aliens, the Muslims, Iran …..” More and more threats, and more and more fear without focus. Anger and fear are bubbling just below the surface of America. These are good people but they are very different from the Americans of forty or fifty years ago; they no longer believe the American Dream.
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