A month in America was more than
enough. The longer I stayed, the more layers of sheen peeled off to reveal
It’s surreal to watch a country
unravel the way America has. The land of opportunity, technology, the
nuclear power, the forays to the moon, the medical research, the protestant
work ethic, the meritocracy that has been held up like a glittering prize on
the world stage.
I saw the unravelling in the face of
the woman who was selling jewelry in a tiny shop in New York.
I stopped to look (as women do at
everything, driving men mad) and the woman surprised me by pulling
everything out from underneath the counter and insisting that I try it on.
I took it off and made to leave when
she shouted out: “For you, I will give you 20 per cent off.”
She got more desperate: “40 per cent
off, 60 per cent off. Just look, just try, just see you won’t get anything
like this anywhere in New York.”
Looking for quality
I felt profoundly sad for her. The
last time I heard entireties like that was in India, where vendors hassle
you and follow you around in busy markets, in the outskirts of cities, in
Not the India of the malls and high
streets where prices are now fixed. You don’t expect this in Manhattan.
In that jeweller’s face I saw the
desperation of people who have to feed their families and keep a roof over
She knows when there’s a credit
crunch the first thing to go are the luxuries.
It felt like walking around some
sci-fi film Speilberg set. Daily, we saw more and more shops having “closing
down” sales, restaurants and hotels offering unbelievable deals, counselling
for people who had lost their homes in department stores.
The very rich, of course, are still
immune as they are in Nigeria, Bombay, Lahore, Zimbabwe. People dressed in
furs still walked out of Trump Towers with past obsequious, liveried doormen
into their waiting limos.
An exhibition of antique art, which
I went to just to look, as that was all I could do, (who pays US$ 250,000
for a deep green emerald ring?) still drew in the hoi polloi.
The very snooty rep standing
handling a silver cigarette case owned by Napoleon looked down his nose at
me and my question of “are sales dropping after the Wall Street crash with
“the people who buy antiques aren’t looking for bargains. They are looking
for quality and one Wall Street crash won’t affect them.”
Naturally it won’t. Especially if
they were Wall Street CEOs with their $US 300 million pound bonuses and
golden parachutes. They were safe, as the greedy and corrupt tend to be.
The masses that the Statue of
Liberty promised protection were the ones who were huddling now.
The people lost thousands in
retirement savings, their homes, the families who live in their cars, and
the ones who are living in $150 boxes, the ones who lost their jobs and will
continue to lose their jobs are huddling in what Barack Obama has called the
worst recession since the great depression.
What caused it? Greed, yes, but
anyone and everyone can be greedy. Really what caused it was lack of
accountability, transparency and a conscience.
The boys club who drank champagne in
one another’s private planes and yachts and colluded to cream off the money
belonging to thousands of ordinary folk.
There are parallels at home in
Trinidad. Except most of our lack of accountability comes from the
Government. And when the oil prices drop, the shake-up will leave just those
in power standing while the Cepep workers, the people who should be educated
for the jobs now being done by foreigners will be huddling.
In the hospital where I had a
procedure, a health worker called Eva told me she earned US$30,000 a year.
Her rent alone in a tiny apartment in a rundown area of New Jersey is US
$1,500 a month which puts less than US$13,000 in her hand (she is taxed on
that) a year.
She is a single mother with two
grown sons to house and feed. Neither of them has proper jobs. She could
barely make ends meet and started a degree that put her in the red even
She works in the day, takes an
hour-and-a-half to get home, has classes or studies in the evening and
weekends, and lives on fast food. She has put on 30 pounds in the past year.
She says she learned in her health
education course that American health insurance is a scam, that America
ranks the 36th worst in the world for health care out of 100 countries.
We see that at home when young
healthy people emerge from Mount Hope in body bags, with no one
investigating or held accountable.
When Eva told me she was 37 years
old and felt her life was over, I didn’t know what to say. She said it. She
is originally from Cuba (where the health care is among the best worldwide),
and says the American Dream doesn’t exist any more.
We in Trinidad and Tobago, like the
rest of the world, have aped America so long and so consistently, that even
if our fundamentals were weak like America we wouldn’t know it.
Out in the country, in Vermont, I
encountered racists, some of whom crossed the road when they saw my husband
out on a run, and one who told me to my face that there was a time he would
not be seen talking to me, that he will be voting for the “N…” Even trailer
trash recognise they can’t afford to be racist.
At least the Americans had a solid
foundation—a work ethic to start with, invention, opportunity when their
Now they need a strong leader to
guide them back. Barack Obama, with his focus on the ordinary people, on
struggling American families, with his steady, intellectual, non-partisan,
humane grip on America is that hope.
What’s ours when our oil bubble bursts? And what do we go