New York

American Idiot?


Good Morning Edinburgh!

Yes, the title of this little column is a rip-off of a popular song. ‘The best ideas are stolen

…’ says Picasso – and they still worshipped his work. Only the title is lifted…

I arrived in Scotland last September and was thrilled to put some distance between myself and the likes of George Bush, corporate expansionists and the stinking residue of Rudolf Giuliani, who single-handedly destroyed middle class culture in New York City. After fifteen years in the Big Apple I needed to taste some strange, foreign fruit, and I am still figuring out the flavors – however the actual distance isn’t as far as I’d like it to be.

In starting to make my way around your fair city, I rejoiced in its sheer beauty, a place that I imagined would help me let go of my American east-coast bitterness. I found the gardens outstanding, the air clear and the scenery captivating. Don’t get me wrong, I love New York with all its insanity, late nights and a cross section of people from drag-queens to uptight Wall-Streeters. What I don’t love about New York is what, since Giuliani, it’s in the process of becoming a playground for posh (as you say) corporate executives and their spoiled children. Get out of New York before you get too hard, as the old saying goes, was a good thing. During my first few days in Edinburgh, I also imagined a smooth transition. Wrong – the cultural differences are very much in place. Getting used to them would be a real adjustment.

Shops closing (literally throwing you out) at 6pm is unheard-of to a New York son of capitalist upbringing. Purging my wardrobe of anything bright blue, orange or maroon (to avoid being beaten up on the street) would prove to be a chore. Remembering not to extend my index and middle finger together, in the air (to indicate the sum of ‘two’) would take effort. But there’s more.

How about things like TV Licenses? While I find it refreshing to be in a place where defense contractors like General Electric and Boeing (manufacturers of planes, bullets and bombs bound for Iraq, courtesy of our King George and your Mr. Blair) don’t own and run the airwaves, I must say I find your publicly-funded TV programs intriguing.

Bargain Hunt is certainly meant for what you folks call ‘pensioners’, because they repeat the same information about the same six antiques over and over for the aged and hard-of-hearing. Who else could sit through an hour of silver ashtrays and oak jewelry boxes? I’ve never made it to the actual live auction segment – if there really is one – I fall asleep, as goes with my reaction to the endless parade of decorating shows. Then there’s the soap operas, and this comparison comes out in a disastrous dead-heat for rock-bottom. From what I can tell your River City, Coronation Street and East Enders are equivalent to our As The World Turns, Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless – but there are some key differences, other than bad acting.

UK soap operas seem to revolve around groups of people who spend an inordinate amount of time in pubs: drinking and preparing for or recovering from various sexual encounters. US soap operas tend to revolve around groups of people who spend an inordinate amount of time at work: engaging in drinking and various sexual encounters. All make thinly-veiled, drivellous attempts at addressing melodramatic social issues, to legitimize their ratings.

Curiously, on both sides of the pond, these soaps usually air just before or after news programs which regularly attempt to shock our wits with stories on the horrors of alcoholism or juvenile delinquency. Toss in some Simpsons reruns and badly imported bilge from Aaron Spelling (The OC, 90210, Melrose Place) and we have the BBC – a robust mixture of your crap and our crap. Cover your noses.

Speaking of delinquent juveniles, methinks SuperNanny needs to invest in a paddle for WimpyMommy and FlakeyDaddy. I guess the kids rule the roosts in the West – behavior we reward with the poorest of nutrition, no exercise and TV in bed. Now, I put forth another question: What would your Mr Dickens have to say about our contemporary society which feeds its children gruel, confines them in small spaces and refuses them proper access to fresh air? Oliver, keep twisting baby!

And who could have a proper discussion about TV pop crap without a wee mention of that one load of pure shite: Friends. Time to mix in a hint of fact: People in New York don’t live like that. Giuliani thinks they do, but that’s about the extent of it. Fallacy number one, the apartment they share, which would cost around 4,598 US Dollars per month to rent. Yes, rent. Fallacy number two, no one pays a 4,598 dollar a month rent working in a coffee shop. Get real.

Fact number three, I am not much criminal, but I must say, if I, or any like-minded New Yorker happened upon such a bunch of mealy-mouthed, whiney, snot-nosed adolescent hang-overs, I’d mug them. That’s right: just for the FUN of it I’d gather a gang of my own friends and beat the living hell out of them. And while doing so, I’d sing ‘Start spreading the news, you’re leaving today, we don’t want no part of it, in New York, New York’. I’m sure I could find a few red-blooded Scots to back me up on this one. The ‘gang’ from ‘Friends’ wouldn’t survive a minute in New York, and I would pay to see them try to make it down Princes Street at 3 am on a Saturday. Now that would be good television.

However, even with all this considered, it was neither the television programming nor the clothing-color rules that disturbed me the most about my first 100 days in the capital of Scotland – it was some keen similarities with American culture that began to raise my left eyebrow.

First would be the indifference between folks on the streets. While New York City has a reputation of being ‘rude’ or ‘unfriendly’, its people are actually some of the friendliest on earth. Albeit simple, direct and to the point, a true New Yorker loves a chat. It’s in the wannabe middle communities and suburbs of the United States where you find folks suspicious and reserved. And it’s no wonder people in such places won’t talk – the American news media has them frightened to death of terrorists, killer-flu epidemics, sexual predators and muggers. Fear abounds although the chance of actually being in a terrorist attack is pointless to calculate.

No local person I can find here in Edinburgh will argue the fact that folks in this town just aren’t very friendly. It seems no one will speak to a stranger without good reason. Some have even told me, ‘You have to go to Glasgow to get friendly’. My question is: Why? This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, what’s with the standoff? Not to suggest that everyone should go around acting like a talk-show host, but I’d like to see what would happen if something did melt the social frost a wee bit.

Second is your imported love-affair with the automobile. Cars take precedence over people. Traffic here is much like traffic anywhere, along with the traffic behavior: terrible. Road rage rears its ugly head in the US from New York to Peoria to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the motorists of your fair city have followed suit. I’ve witnessed delivery van drivers running through crowds of pedestrians on Princes Street, cars barely missing school children in crosswalks and an old lady almost dragged down the street while caught in a bus door. I’ve come within millimeters, literally, of being hit head-on by a driver on Nicolson Street, who, although I had the ‘green man’ and no other car was in sight, felt it necessary to speed up and run toward me. Thank God you don’t have guns here, like they do back in the states – half your population would be dead. What’s the big hurry?

Yet another, and most unfortunate, similarity between here, my current home, and the United States is rampant alcoholism and drug abuse, especially among young people. The abuse of booze and drugs should not be a right of passage. In America I’ve had two cousins arrested for driving under the influence, seen too many friends ruined by addiction, and even had a young girl overdose in my arms at a music venue I used to run, while waiting for an ambulance. It’s just not funny anymore. Never was. We’ve all just been goofed by the powerful Madison Avenue advertising agencies into thinking it is, via commercials for football games with dancing beer bottles, magazine adverts with sexy girls & boys wrapped around beer bottles, nonstop talk of ‘going out’, ‘pubs’ and ‘partying’ in movies and shows targeted at adolescents.

I’ve performed a few nights here in Edinburgh, and I found some of your other sights disturbing: young boys beating each other ’til covered in blood while cops look on, young teenagers intoxicated beyond measure. I think everyone needs to wise up and admit addiction is a disease, not simply a night out gone wrong. Our young people are smoking, drinking and dying like never before. All of our elected officials put forth a collective belief no one is invalid or dispensable however, we teach young people how to do away with themselves at every turn.

All this reminds me of an old Hindu mantra ‘Where the mind goes, the body will follow’. Are we there yet?

As America continues to bash itself in the teeth with neo-conservatism, unbridled capitalism, phony pop culture and an unreal sense of urgency I hope that the rest of the world will take note. You have the space, time and choice to do as you like, not as we do. If you import our crap and mix it with your own, don’t complain when you find yourself sitting in shit. It’s a very subtle process. Maybe a smile to your neighbor could start a dialog…

But what do I know? I’m just an idiot American.

Martin Belk is a writer, performer and producer. He is co-editor of One magazine.

Copyright Martin Belk 2005