We were six months on the road, from February to August, traveling in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. We have been to towns large and small: Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Tucson, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Yuma, Blue Diamond, Ridgecrest, Barstow, Bishop, Genoa, Carson City, Reno, Grass Valley, Cambria, Monterey, Pacific Grove, Half Moon Bay, Pescadero, Montara, San Rafael, Santa Rosa, Jenner, Bodega Bay, Point Reyes Station, Olema, Novato, Petaluma, Paso Robles, Three Rivers, Mariposa, Midpines, Oakhurst, Fresno, Eureka, Arcada, Samoa, Willits, Trinidad, Crescent City, Brookings, Gold Beach, Bandon, Coos Bay, Florence, Reedsport, Springfield, Eugene, Klamath Falls, Bonanza, Lakeview, Winnemucca, Elko, Ely, Mesquite, St.. George, Cedar City, Baker, Wendover, Nephi, Provo, Centerfield, Salida, Richfield, Loa, Bicknell, Torrey, Caineville, Hanksville, Green River, Moab, Monticello, Cortez, Pagosa Springs, Mancos, Durango, South Park, Golden, Boulder, Estes Park, Cheyenne, Casper, Buffalo, Sheridan, Dayton, Ten Sleep, Hyattville, Lovell, Cowley, Frannie, Bridger, Laurel, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula, Silverton, Coeur D’Alene, Spokane, Moses Lake, Yakima, Packwood, Vancouver, and many more.
We have many impressions about the places we have seen and the people we have met, but a few stand out. First, it is night time in the United States. The mood of the people is sour, dark, depressed, confused. It is a rare face that greets you with a smile, much less says hello. We like to describe the public affect as passive/aggressive. It is astonishing to witness how passive our fellow citizens are in the face of economic collapse, mortgage defaults, bankruptcies, lost jobs, no health insurance, corporate criminality, and a corrupt political system. I don’t know what it would take to get working men and women angry enough to take action. A few do but not many. No one strikes anymore. The unions are in utter disarray. They couldn’t muster mass demonstrations for national healthcare, settling instead for the pathetic “reform” of the thoroughly pro-business Obama administration. There should be a massive, organized abandonment of mortgages; after all, businesses have reneged on their debts en masse. Yet no such thing seems imminent. We saw obvious signs of real estate catastrophe everywhere—from Las Vegas, Reno, and Tucson to Portland—but apparently today’s home buyers and a good many of those who have seen the price of their homes plummet are as deluded as ever, telling pollsters that they expect preposterously high future appreciations in housing prices.
I know that some will say that I am ignoring many local movements: immigrant organizing, healthcare workers in California, all sorts of environmental efforts, and the like. But taken as a whole, these are in no way challenging the powers that be. In the worst economic debacle since the Great Depression, the lords of finance have managed to keep their power and their fortunes intact and even make them grow. The distributions of income and wealth (and the power inherent in them) remain incredibly unequal, and there are no indications of a reversal anytime soon.
The lack of action doesn’t mean that Americans are not angry. Assert yuourself, even in a gentle way, and watch the anger erupt. When we were living in Boulder, Colorado, we saw this many times. A man told a skateboarder that boards weren’t allowed on the downtown mall. He was an older man, and he pointed to a nearby sign where the prohibition was clearly marked. The young man then began to harass him, followed him across the street, and, then, spat on him. We were in a grocery store with a $20 manufacturer’s coupon for organic chicken. The clerk tried to scan the coupon, but he could not. After several attempts, he said, “Sorry, it won’t scan,” and he continued to scan the items in our basket. We pointed out that the coupon was valid and from a local business whose products this store stocked. He immediately became angry and acted as if the $20 was coming from him. We asked to see a supervisor, and he said that wouldn’t make any difference. We insisted, and he finally called a manager. She came over and quickly resolved the problem. The computer had been programmed to reject coupons greater than a certain sum of money. The clerk could have asked for his manager right away, but he made a scene instead. In all likelihood, most customers would have given up when he couldn’t scan the coupon. We didn’t, and the clerk couldn’t handle this.
In our travels, we also witnessed passive/aggressive behavior. In a motel parking lot, a man was rummaging around in his car with the side door open, blocking my access to my car door. I waited patiently while he continued, oblivious to my presence. When he noticed me, his face showed disgust and he curtly said that he’d move for me. I quickly stowed my gear, but he continued to glare. I asked him if he was upset about something. He said no, he was just trying to find something in his car, but he said it with a nasty tone. What he really meant was how did I have the nerve to interfere with him. Earlier on our trip, we left the Albuquerque Art Museum and walked to the parking lot, where an elderly man was leaving a note on our car window. His wife had smacked into the side of our car while parking next to us. He said that he didn’t want to notify his insurance company and would pay for the needed repairs. We insisted on his insurance information and agreed to contact him when we settled somewhere and could arrange to have the work done. After he and his wife went into the museum, we took pictures and marked down his license plate number. Three months later, I called him twice to say that we would soon be in Boulder, Colorado and would get an estimate for him. He didn’t return my calls. Karen phoned him and left a sharper message telling him that we would notify the insurance company if he didn’t contact us. A few hours later, he left a pointed message informing us that unlike most people, he had written a note admitting that he had damaged our car, the implication being that we were the lucky ones. He said that we should fax him two estimates. We went to a body shop in Boulder and got an estimate, a little over $1,300. He was none too happy; this was too high for just a “scratch.” He eventually paid us, but not before painting himself s the victim.
Our worst encounter was at a Motel 6 in Ridgecrest, California. Ridgecrest is a nondescript military town, which we used as a base to explore Death Valley National Park. Motels were expensive, so we took refuge in the Motel 6. Over the weekend, we were surprised to see many nice cars in the parking lot, and we guessed that the economic slump had travelers looking for cheap places to stay. During the week, however, the motel fills up with construction laborers doing work at the gigantic China Lake Naval Weapons Center. We needed to stay an extra day to take the car to a garage for maintenance, but when I asked at the desk about another night, I was told that the only room available was a room set up for persons with disabilities. We had no choice but to change rooms. The room was a mess–dirty, smelling of urine, with ratty bed linens, and reeking of tobacco smoke. Karen left to go to the grocery store, and while she was gone, I discovered that there was no hot water in the sink and shower. I notified the front desk, and the clerk called their maintenance man. This poor soul arrived about twenty minutes later and spent the next five hours in and out of our room trying to get hot water flowing. The motel manager came waltzing in at one point and promised us a quick resolution. When that didn’t happen, I asked for a different room, to no avail. Finally, the repairman restored the hot water. The next morning Karen sought out the manager to complain and told her that she had noticed some empty rooms in the motel. Why couldn’t we have switched rooms, she asked. The manager erupted. Karen withstood the verbal assault calmly and then said to her that she should be ashamed to rent, to handicapped people no less, a smoky room reeking of urine and with no hot water. The manager lost it completely, hurling a string of epithets at Karen, which included “fucking bitch.” She told us to get the hell off her property and threatened to call the police. We filed a complaint with the company and now have a coupon for a free night at any Motel 6!
The anger felt by so many individuals can turn into mass anger. This can be and has been encouraged and manipulated by right-wing media, which have directed it at the most vulnerable members of society, especially Mexican immigrants. When there are no social movements bringing the masses of working people together in battle against the owning class and their allies, those whose lives have been turned upside down by economic crisis and those who find that their former privileges as white persons are threatened find easy scapegoats in “illegal aliens,” in racial minorities, in Muslims, in the poor. Or they are convinced that the government is engaging in some gigantic conspiracy to separate them from their money. Just as a man who can’t meet his mortgage payment might become irrationally angry when you accidentally bump into him on a city sidewalk, so too masses of people beset by problems might vote for the most draconian legislation or the most deranged candidates or engage in mob violence. There is even talk now that the Fourteenth Amendment, the cornerstone of our civil liberties, should be severely amended, removing the guarantee of equal protection under the law for all who live here. A passive/aggressive people can do dangerous things. If we want these things to challenge the powers that be, we have our work cut out for us.
To be continued . . .