By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
I don't care about wealth. What seems to be upsetting is institutionalizing the advantages that wealth gives you. — Jon Stewart
As odd as it may sound, my life in New York began in Cleveland, at gate 3 of the Cleveland Greyhound station to be precise. It was July 2001, and I had decided to take a solo trip to the city after adventuring around the great American west with a few friends. We had just graduated high school, and had wanted to experience the world as a group before parting ways for our respective schools. We left with our unlimited bus tickets, rucksacks and what little money we had saved working our part-time jobs.
The trip to New York was free because we had returned to Michigan with a few days left on our unlimited passes. Furthermore, I felt that it would be important to see the city to which I would be moving in less than a month. My plan was to sleep on the bus on the way, float around New York for the day, and then sleep on the ride back to Michigan. It would have been foolproof had I made the transfer in Cleveland, but, of course, I didn't. This meant that my hour layover was octupled.
During the eight hours that I sat against the door that would lead me to the bus, and from there to New York, I thought about how much my life was going to change in the next few weeks, that I would be afforded a veritable blank slate with which I could do anything. I thought about how I would one day look back at the moment and appreciate the perspicacity of my seventeen-year-old self.
Almost a dozen years later I find myself in the same Greyhound station—though I am now waiting at a different gate, as the New York bus no longer departs from gate 3—and I don't marvel at my ability to understand that an individual changes during his time in college. What I do realize is that the summer of riding the bus around the country made me far more comfortable with others and myself, and that it introduced me to what the next eleven years of life would more or less be like.
My rather sheltered suburban life seems kind of strange to me now that I've lived in the city for so long. Like a night at a strange bar, each Greyhound trip introduces a cast of random characters whom you will probably never see again, and this is, no doubt, a theme that encompasses life in the city as one commutes to work on the subway, takes the elevator to one's office and returns home to one's building with its myriad tenants. Unlike my pre-college years spent in the suburbs, my life is now dominated by brief interactions with strangers, by cordial moments of small talk, by drunken bar conversations with people who will probably fail to recognize me, and I them, in the sober light of day. This type of life is one of anonymity.
Riding the Hound allowed me the opportunity to first see what it is like to exist in such a state. You realize very quickly that you, a bus rider, are not special. It was like this during the excursion in 2001; it was like this when I suffered the thirty hours to Miami; it was like this when I repeatedly traveled between New York and Detroit throughout Bush's first term; it was like this when I made it all the way out to San Diego in 2004. It is no different now. You are presumed to be part of that second America for whom the American Dream exists well beyond the horizon.
From such a vantage, one is witness to a broken system. When you walk outside of any station for a cigarette there will be a man with hatred in his eyes who will call you brother, ask where you're from, say that he grew up not too far away ("How d'ya like that?"), and then proceed to ask for one of your few cigarettes and one or two of your few bucks, and this will all take place without any semblance of sincerity or (should you share what little you have) gratitude. You will be offered drugs; others will expect that you have drugs for sale. The clerks inside will treat you and your fellow riders like criminals or children because it is assumed that you are poor, and poor people can't help themselves (if they could, they would, and then they'd no longer be poor). You, or one of your fellow riders, will become indignant when patronized in such a way, and then the whole situation will escalate into a screaming match or an assault. This moment of violence is not only against the seemingly capricious and condescending nature of authority, but, more importantly, against the sense of anonymity and impotence—what Žižek described, echoing Camus, as "a spirit of revolt without revolution."
(As I write this, one of the Greyhound workers is refusing to board us because a man with his two toddlers won't step far enough away from the door. And now that man has closed the door and won't let anyone on the bus. In a little over an hour it will no longer be Christmas. How much more draconian will it get then, when the repositories of Christmas cheer are dry?)
Such nuisances are, in a way, first-world problems. They are simply not that consequential. In fact, virtually no first-world problem is really all that bad. Having to deal with a lack of Wi-Fi pales in comparison to a lack of potable water. Having a bad job market is an inconvenience when one considers the life of a refugee who resides in a squalid camp under armed surveillance. Having to deal with sexual harassment is better than being stoned to death for being an alleged seducer.
However, deriding the plights some first-world individuals face by facetiously equating them to the struggles facing someone in the worst part of the third-world does more than constitute a plea for humility and patience; it can also convey an authoritarian demand to know your place. (Be happy that you have a minimum wage job because you could live in Bangladesh, a place where a worker in a textile mill makes just pennies an hour. Thank free market capitalism for the fact that Consolidated Edison delivers overpriced electricity to your home, whereas millions of North Koreans have to burn rations of cow shit to survive the winter.) When taken to the extreme, it becomes obvious that the underlying injunction is not simply to avoid biting the hand that feeds you, or to be thankful for what you have, but, rather, to acquiesce to a power structure that does not care about you, that believes you ought not to complain until you live in the worst conditions imaginable (and by that point you're so poor that your complaints really don't matter).
Such a worldview has become increasingly popular throughout the recession, and will probably persist so long as the distribution of wealth continues to favor the obscenely wealthy. Their message: You should be happy that we are not exploiting you more than we already are. You should acknowledge how good you have it. One such example occurred recently when Con Ed, which possesses a veritable monopoly in New York, took $20 off a friend's bill because she had lost ten days of power as a consequence of Hurricane Sandy. It seemed like a nice gesture, but her bill for the month was $120. Had she complained, she would have been told that she should be happy she didn't lose her house. True, she should be happy that her life wasn't ruined, but she's being told to look on the bright side by a company that is giving her $20 worth of refund for $40 worth of non-service.
This is life for many anonymous Americans. We are expected to say thanks to our bosses because the pay cuts protect us from layoffs. We are expected to say thanks to our politicians because the refusal to govern protects us from change. We are expected to say thanks to shadowy corporate forces that profit on our over-consumption, the resultant debt, and the fact that they can give us less service or product for a greater cost because they are really selling us something far more meaningful than a commodity—they are selling us a brand. We are expected to say thanks for…well, nothing.