Then And Now

Or Perhaps Here And There

June 6, 2006

The New America. From the MARC train between DC and Baltimore.

Yesterday I got back to Mexico after visiting Washington for a week. Returning to the United States at long intervals is like watching a flower wilt in time-lapse photography. As with the slow but inexorable growth of a tumor, the changes leap out if seen infrequently. Though in historical terms the rot goes fast, very fast, it is not easily noticed day to day.

Perhaps the decay is the inevitable destination of mass democracies. One can’t be sure. America is the first instance.

In Washington the stage-managed paranoia leaps to one’s attention, the tightening embrace of government of all things. Washington’s subway illustrates the point. Admonition is constant, typically in a scolding female voice from the loudspeakers. “Children! Do not run…play…or sit on the escalators. Hold your parents’ hand….” Parents are not to care for their offspring. Mother Metro will do it. Or “Stand Back! Doors are closing!” in a calculatedly bossy tone of voice as the train prepares to pull out of the station. Over and over and over, at every stop. Sometimes the doors couldn’t close for some reason and for minutes the hostile voice repeated its idiot warning. Is there not somewhere in the country a woman who speaks pleasantly?

The recorded hectoring is very different from a laconic and practical “Doors closing” from the driver. We are now herded by automated nannies. “Please listen carefully because the menu options have changed….” Anything to save a buck.

Between stops come the warnings to watch other passengers, to report any strange behavior immediately to Metro. Oh. Report strange behavior on an urban subway at midnight. Now, that’s a good idea. Does this mean the para-schiz arguing with the little voices? The dark brooding men talking in unknown languages? The bag ladies with those suspicious bundles? The Arabs speaking in, of all things, Arabic?

The last time I was in the city, Metro had removed trash cans from the stations because someone might put a bomb in one. Now, I’m told, they have special explosion-absorbent trash cans. Presumably this mummery is fear management to drum up support for an unpopular war. The fact is that you could leave a steamer trunk of TNT on the car and no one would notice.

In a restaurant I saw a warning at the bottom of the menu, which I can’t reproduce from memory. It said something like, “The consumption of raw or uncooked fish or eggs or whatever can do bad things of some sort.” Why is this here, I wondered? Is there anyone on the planet that doesn’t know this? Was the implication that the restaurant was likely to serve putrescent food, requiring a warning to the public? Then why not close it? Later I saw the same warning on the menu of The Village bistro, a classy restaurant in Rosslyn, Virginia, where I have eaten for years. I concluded that it must be governmentally mandated mommyism, presumably from brainless affirmative-action office proles with little to do.

The Sovietizing of America runs apace. It is not imaginary. The Department of Homeland Security? KGB stands for Committee for State Security.

Driving south and then west toward Laredo, we passed through Athens, Alabama, where I lived for a couple of years around 1957. My father was a mathematician working for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville. Athens was then a different America, and to an extent still is. I hadn’t seen the town since I was eleven.

After fifty years it had changed remarkably little in its center, though it was surrounded by the usual hideous malls and strip development that blight the country today. The philosophy of unrestricted rapine, whether denominated free enterprise or capitalism or communism, is utterly without esthetic sensitivity. So it was in the Soviet Union. The differences between Russia and America are small, and much fewer than those between France and America.

The town square with its courthouse was much as it had been, though the town itself seemed smaller and more drab than I remembered. The tight segregation of the Fifties had gone. The water fountains on the square were then labeled White and Colored, and gas stations recognized in their bathrooms three sexes: Men, Women, and Colored.

As an unscientific observation the South seems much more genuinely integrated than does the North. In Washington’s restaurants frequented by whites, you see the occasional black, but not many. They are sufficiently rare as almost to be objects of curiosity. In restaurants and catfish houses in Louisiana perhaps half of the clientele were black, which seemed to interest nobody. Black waitresses dealt with us with an easy friendliness that contrasted with a certain wariness noticeable in the North. Blacks are easy people to like when they don’t carry a chip on their shoulders.

The Limestone Drugstore was still on the square. (Athens is the country seat of Limestone County.) As a Tom Sawyer simulacrum invariably carrying a BB gun, perhaps with my fielder’s mitt slung on the barrel, I once passed a slow summery infinity of afternoons there, reading comic books and drinking ice cream floats. The owner at the time, Mr. Chandler (universally called Coochie, perhaps seventy then, with red Harpo-Marx hair) liked little boys, and kept a rack of comic books on the principle of a bird feeder.

Today, liking little boys would be considered prima facie evidence of what would be called a “pederasty problem,” and the comic books would doubtless have to carry warnings. In a less admonished age, Coochie just liked little boys. We carried great piles of comic books to the tables, Superman and Batman and the Green Lantern and Archie, and read them ragged. I doubt that the Limestone ever sold a comic book. It wasn’t why they were there. Today some green eyeshade at corporate would notice that those books cost twenty bucks a month, and demand that they be kept in a locked glass case. Unrestricted rapine….

But the Limestone wasn’t a chain, so Coochie was corporate, and ran his store as he pleased. Freedom, you might call it.

The inside of the store had been expanded and looked like most drug stores, but…lo!...the soda fountain was as it had been these many years ago! Apparently someone had a fondness for the past. It was empty, no comics were in evidence, and of course no pile of BB guns (mostly the four-dollar Red Ryder kind, though mine was an upscale Daisy Eagle). These, like everything, would today be illegal. It still had the marble bar, the stained glass behind, the black-and-white checkered floor.

I ordered an ice cream float in memory of the splendid, variegated, and free country that I had been born into, and that somehow disappeared, and then we got in the car and headed for Mexico, still free.

The Old America. Limestone Drug.