Travelling is a really fascinating thing, but something that gets me about it is that it’s a way to notice just how screwed up the world can really be. I’ve just come back from the USA where briefly I visited San Francisco, stayed 2 weeks in a hotel prison stuck behind a highway in New Jersey, and eventually escaped into the Manhatten metropolis of New York City for about a week at the end. This will probably be the last post I write about my recent trip, since I’d like to keep the focus of this blog on walking and tramping related topics.
The entire trip was eye-opening for a variety of reasons. For instance, I finally know what people are talking about when they refer to Central Park in New York. It was quite interesting but to me, I guess it seemed like more of an afterthought of a design in a city of rectangles. The city’s architects realised they were building everywhere, so they carved out a nice rectangle in the middle where they’d grow a few trees, add some fountains and let the squirrels run around. Down the road, a billboard loudly proclaims a line from Frank O’Hara  stating “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes. I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” Gah! I just can’t get over how rectangular and artificial the whole place is. It’s so excruciatingly organised into squares and straight lines with no flow between two places unless it makes compete logical sense, and Central Park is just another part of the city’s jigsaw. I suppose I’ve grown up in a place quite different. Doubtless many people who come to Wellington or another area in New Zealand would miss the things that they were used to. Some of the park benches in Central Park are amusing. In Wellington they’re mostly boring, because they’re only ever dedicated to dead people (no disrespect intended). Central Park benches often have funny little creative quips on them. The most amusing that I found was “I love you very much and look forward to marrying you… but if we have a fight you can always sleep here.”
The Bell X-1 that Chuck Yeager flew,
becoming the first to break the sound barrier.
I actually had a nice time added up, and Washington DC was by far the highlight for me, especially the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The Spy Museum was also a lot of fun, and the Holocaust Museum was very eye-opening, though I’d only made it half way through the top floor of about four floors before I was kicked out at closing time. They suggested that about 2 hours was normally sufficient but I think I could easily have spent all day there. A quirk in DC is that the slogan they’ve been putting on most of their vehicle licence plates since about the year 2000 or so — “Taxation without representation” — is actually a protest as opposed to the glittery promotion slogans of most other states. The issue is that thanks to US constitutional anomalies, DC residents don’t actually get a voting representative in the US congress, and after a very large amount of arguing there’s still been no resolution about how to give them such representation, or even a clarification that they should have it. Interestingly one of the last actions of President Bill Clinton before he left office in 2000 was to have all presidential vehicles re-fitted with licence plates brandishing the “Taxation without representation” slogan. Clinton was a supporter of DC’s state-hood, and this might have made things awkward for George Bush Jr when he entered office, who was an opponent.
DC lights up its memorials at night, including the war memorials. Walking along the Vietnam memorial to arrive at the Lincoln memorial, then turning back and passing the eerily-lit Korea memorial which is made of many silent, dark and sombre statues of service-men sitting in a field, is a unique experience.
Back in New York, I did the main tourist things. The first time I visited Brooklyn I never went above ground, because I’d arrived there accidentally on the subway. I spent an entire day in the Museum of Natural History  (dinosaurs and meteorites), another entire day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  (ancient Rome and Greece, ancient Egypt, middle-age warfare), I spent an evening at the Museum of Modern Art  (just generally weird and choc-full of strange drawings of curiously shaped people missing their clothing by people like Picasso).
I went to see Wicked  on Broadway from what must have been one of the worst seats in the Gershwin Theatre, and from which I could see about a third of the stage. It only cost me about 140 New Zealand Dollars. Having seen it, I don’t think that particular Broadway show was any more spectacular than what might tour Wellington from time to time, but the telling difference is that New York has 39 major Broadway theatres just in the top tier that are always running flat out every night, whereas Wellington may have a couple that run intermittently at best. I walked to Brooklyn over the Manhatten Bridge, and back over the Brooklyn Bridge, I went to a lecture hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences on the 40th floor of the new 7 World Trade Center  about the science of taste , and I caught a train up north of New York and went for that hike around a place in which I wasn’t really sure about where I was going . On top of all of this, Shaun and Sarah spent a large amount of their spare time and money taking me around many of the places they enjoy in New York. Having friends in a place is a great thing.
I think the part I found very disturbing was something that seems typical for many large cities. A couple of years ago I spent a month in Santiago, where it’s quite common to see people living on streets. It was also very common to see people being employed in jobs that I don’t think would be available in New Zealand. The strangest of these that I saw were the people whose jobs involved sweeping leaves off the footpaths. It wasn’t specifically that they were employed to do this, but that they were being employed to do it even when it made no sense to do so. On several occasions I walked behind a person sweeping leaves on a windy day, only to have the leaves block straight back to where they were within seconds of the worker passing by. It was completely redundant in practical terms, but it was his job. The point to this kind of job, however, was to keep people in work in a country with no real social welfare system, where the only fall-back that many people have to losing their job is hoping that their family might support them, or begging on the streets. Those people were doing something that what absolutely pointless, but they actually had jobs, whereas many other people didn’t have anything.
Perhaps though naivety, I didn’t expect that New York would be quite like this, being within the USA and everything. In some ways, however, it was. In the middle of winter during which the temperature was often below freezing, there were a large number of people living on the streets. This is something I have trouble understanding, and I feel very uncomfortable about, particularly because it feels as if it’s being ignored by so many of the people who live there, even though I know it probably isn’t. There’s just something wrong about the whole thing when you see a guy settling down on the footpath in Times Square surrounded by tens of thousands of people racing away to their expensive Broadway shows and ignoring him. Huge neon signs light up the surrounding buildings, advertising some kind of telecommunications firm or telling everyone that the sign is powered by wind! There’s money flitting around everywhere, but it’s very selective about its destinations. Meanwhile, everything the guy owns fits in the shopping trolley in front of him, which he’s chained to his wrist. 50 metres down the road, someone else is having exactly the same problem. Meanwhile a woman’s riding around the subway system, hopping on and off trains and pleading people for any spare change they might have in their pockets to help her look after her family. Homeless people are begging passers-by for money frequently, sometimes struggling to reach out of the blankets they’re hiding under on a cold evening, or other times they might be quite jovial, smiling and just trying to get people’s attention and approval in any way they can. In the time I was there, I never met any homeless people who acted rudely towards me, and if I couldn’t offer them anything it was just accepted.
It’s as if there’s a disconnected form of altruism operating between people in similarly unfortunate situations, since they know if they’re as polite as possible to someone, then that person might donate to someone else in the future… and the favour will probably come back to them sooner or later.
I can’t help but feel that it’s a really disgusting thing that any society is able to get this way, but it happens everywhere and all the time. It’s not just an issue of people being homeless and there are many more problems of similar magnitude, not just in New York or the USA, but all over the place including New Zealand. What this particular problem does is to put itself where everyone has the opportunity to see it, and it’s discomforting to see how easy it is for people to become largely desensitised. This is why I don’t know if I could ever easily live in a metropolis. By the end of the trip and once I’d figured out how much money I actually had and what I needed, I started stashing a few dollars in my pockets to make it easier to give them to people who were really having a hard time. It wouldn’t have solved their problem, and by itself probably not even gotten them through another complete day, but it helped me to feel better. I really don’t know if that’s a very noble way of thinking of things, but at the same time I also don’t know what else to do.
An ironic note is that throughout all of history, we’re probably on average living in the best time one could possibly live in as far as prosperity, freedom and quality of life are concerned. Knowing this still doesn’t help people who don’t have that advantage of a reliable roof over their heads.