Anywhere, USA

Change. It’s a word we hear a lot of these days, especially those of us in the US during the run-up to the presidential election. But, it seems to me that people here are actually craving sameness more than ever. Conformity.

One day last spring, in the non-fiction writing class I teach at Emerson College, I noticed that four students sitting next to each other all had the same exact white Mac notebook. And this is a place known for individual expression! There’s a choice of not just one, but two, Starbucks, each within a stone’s throw from the building. Inside Starbucks, people drink their four dollar coffee while listening to their iPods. In many American cities it is, both figuratively and literally, a Starbucks/Apple world.

Even Barack Obama, despite his historic bid for the presidency, has been rightly identified as a Starbucks/Apple man: youngish, well educated, technologically savvy, in shape, ironic, cool. He’s trying to usher in a post-racial, post-feminist, post-ethnic world.

Being post-all the things that divide us sounds good, but I’m wondering whether qualities like warmth and soulfulness and even quirkiness are being lost the more we insist that everyone and everything fit within a narrower and narrower range of acceptable appearance and behavior. Got an accent? Get rid of it. Got some wrinkles? Fill them in. Don’t drink coffee? Better start. Smoke cigarettes? Better quit. What! You don’t have an iPod?! A Blackberry? High Def TV? How do you even get through the day?!!

The homogenization of American culture becomes most apparent when you travel within the US. Of course, with soaring gas prices and airline fees for “meals”, extra leg room, headsets, baggage, and now even coffee and soda, leisure travel is getting tough. But, let’s suppose you’re on a corporate trip with a little free time to explore on your own.

You arrive at your destination, settle into your hotel room, and decide to take a walk to get a cup of coffee. You pass by a local coffee shop, one with a witty name like “Uncommon Grounds” (which you know assures excellent coffee drinks), but you walk on past and head straight for Starbucks and order your usual grande vanilla latte. Why? Because you know exactly what you’ll be getting, even if you have a sneaking suspicion that what you’re getting might not be as good as what you could have gotten at the local, unpredictable shop.

Then, much to your satisfaction, you find another familiar haunt, Bruegger’s Bagels, a few blocks down, and you’re hungry for a sesame bagel with lox and cream cheese. But, they don’t have anything called lox because, you see, that would be too ethnic. So, instead, you order a smoked salmon sandwich because you don’t want to appear too “ethnic”, and, besides, the young person behind the counter has probably never heard of lox—why would she have?

Afterwards, you return to your hotel and lay beside by the pool with whatever book Oprah told you to read. You look around and see three other people reading the same book. After awhile, you become bored and sit up to check out the other hotel guests. Something strange is going on: the men come in a variety of shapes and sizes and ages, but the women all appear to be not a day over 35 — every last one of them! They all have thin thighs and toned arms and perky boobs and blonde highlights and toes polished a deep shade of red called something like Slut for a Day. It’s only when a little boy and his sister come running up to one of the women, shouting “Grandma”, that you realize you’ve been had.

You lie back down and eavesdrop on the conversation to your left. The couple is talking politics, and at first you think they’re quite expert until you realize they’re simply parroting the jargon of the day: “Blah blah maverick blah superdelegates blah blah endorsement.” You eavesdrop on the conversation among three women to your right: “Blah blah independents blah wedge issue blah blah vetting.” Same conversation you’d heard on the plane on the way out. Same conversation you’d had with coworkers the day before you left for this little getaway.

You close your eyes and groove to the Caribbean steel drum music playing over the speakers, and, sure, it’s pretty and relaxing, but, nevertheless, you reflexively pull out your iPod, plug the earbuds in, and listen to the same three or four Playlists you’ve been listening to repeatedly—some might say obsessively—back home: in the car, on the subway, walking down the street.

Back in your hotel room, you turn on the local news. The anchors—a white, middle-aged man and a biracial, younger woman—are nearly clones of your local news anchors back home. You flip the channel to reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond, and even though you’re not a fan, you appreciate the ones with Marie, Ray’s mother. She’s Italian and nosy and infuriating and lovable, and she knows how to manipulate with guilt.

She reminds you if Ida Morgenstern, Rhoda’s mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show from the ‘70s, who is Jewish and nosy and infuriating and lovable, and knows how to manipulate with guilt. And, try as you might, you can’t think of any current TV shows where the characters’ ethnic or racial or religious or sexual identity matters. And you think maybe that’s why there aren’t many good sitcoms, anymore, and that’s why you prefer old reruns.

You drive to the coast or the mountains or the desert, and there, finally, you experience the grandeur and variety of America. And you take it all in and think about nature and eternity and infinity…until your cell phone goes off. The cell phone you considered turning off, but didn’t…couldn’t.

It’s your boss. She wants to know if you finalized the edits to the PowerPoint presentation. (After all, you can’t address a business audience without bullet points restating the very points you’re verbally making). And whether you’ve heard back from the consultant who ensures only positive reports on your company show up on the first two pages when someone Googles them. (After all, Google defines us). And, by the way, whether you saw the You Tube video of Celebrity X making out with Celebrity Y at Celebrity Z’s power wedding. (You’re not in the know if you’re not on You Tube every day.)

And you’re right back where you always are…Anywhere, USA.

Photo from C&EN