28.06.2010 - 28.06.2010 34 °C
My stay in Washington concluded today and with it also my stay in the north. In my last few hours in the city, as I was leaving a pharmacy I bumped into Elena Kagan, the Solicitor General of the United States and President Barack Obama’s nominee for the US Supreme Court. I’m sure she is an incredibly intelligent lady, but I find it remarkable that a person with no previous judicial experience whatsoever is a nominee for the nation’s final court of appeal, but I suppose it adds variety of experience to the institution which can bring dramatic social and political change to America in a way that the UK Supreme Court doesn’t.
Today I moved into the South-proper. I caught a morning train; my destination was Charleston, South Carolina. As I moved south tall oaks were replaced by flat arable farmland, green swamps and palm trees. Not only is there a discernable difference in the geography of this place, but also in the people. More noticeable in the small communities that the train passed through were towering wooden churches and gone was some of the stiff impoliteness which some say characterises the north. Here in the south the people are more comfortable with unfamiliarly and will readily sit down with you at a table to talk to you and find out about where you’re travelling, where you’ve been and where you’re going. Folksy charm isn’t just being told, “Y’all have a good day now,” the people seem far more interested in others and they seem to a gentler and more considered existence.
To be frank, it’s contagious. I got talking to two elderly black women about where they were going and, spotting me taking my antibiotics, we soon began discussing broad social issues in America; principally healthcare and education. Their perspectives were interesting. What was particularly fascinating was to hear them talk about how these issues were affected by race and the wider issue of race relations in the United States. When I told them about my momentary fear of not being able to afford healthcare, they told me how that moment is more often than not an existence for most African Americans. If that were not disheartening enough, I was then to hear how these women were told when growing up, and what they to some extent still believe, is that they would have to work ten times as hard and achieve ten times as much as white Americans to be considered as being in parity with them. I wonder how many white Americans have felt that burden or come to think of it, know that that state of mind exists among African Americans? From the way these women described how it had affected them, it sounded as though it was a challenge engineered to be incapable of being accomplished. It was with these thoughts in mind that I found it so irksome to be addressed as “Sir” by an elderly black lady as she was manoeuvring her grandchildren off the train and humbling that on seeing me struggle taking my plastic shopping bags off the train one woman gave me her brand new bag-for-life.
Talking with these people about their experiences in America, experiences that I expect are very typical, they have confirmed what I have observed since seeing elderly and disabled homeless people on the streets of New York - America does not judge itself by how well it treats its most vulnerable; the poor, the elderly, or the fairness of the deal meated out – the yardstick by which America judges itself is by how quickly a dollar can be earned, by how big can a margin be mad and by whether, with enough hard work, you can pull yourself out of poverty.
Charleston was a city General Grant described as being too beautiful for the Union Army to raze to the ground as the Confederate Army retreated. When I initially arrived in Charleston I wouldn’t have been in a position to confirm or deny that statement. You see almost as soon as the train pulled into Charleston rain so torrential that it could rival any monsoon the Far East could conjure and thunder and lightening to match commenced. That was why I was so relieved when a taxi driver introduced himself and pointed me to his car on the other side of a road that now resembled a stream with a fast current. I was waiting for perhaps ten minutes in the taxi when another passenger jumped in. I wasn’t particularly concerned about this because the passenger who came in was also the passenger I sat next to on the train and he was a US Federal Marshal. He has shown me his gun and badge so I was confident that if the taxi driver was trying to pull anything, he wouldn’t be particularly successful. Also, as I have done before in Eastern Europe, more passengers equals less fare to be paid. We eventually got on our way and dropped off an elderly lady at her hotel. Then about fifteen minutes later we pulled down a dead end where the Marshal’s house was located, he jumped out and paid his fare. We did a U-turn to pull back up the road when it happened. Out of nowhere three marked police cars and one undercover police car sped up to the taxi and blocked us off at all sides. The officers in them, perhaps six or seven, jumped out of their vehicles, unholstered their weapons, presented their badges and pointed them both at the taxi whilst edging toward us. What the hell I had got myself into? I wasn’t sure whether to pull out my camera, throw my hands in the air, take for cover on the back seats or jump out and just run. Somewhere between all of these options I just stayed where I was, incredibly bemused at was going on around me. The officers then opened the doors and began asking the driver questions; how many passengers had he carried, what fares had we been charged, how much was he going to charge me? Then they turned their attentions to me and began asking me questions; had he told me what he would charge me, did he say I’d have to wait and have other passengers and so on? Well I was still very wet, my journey was now delayed and I was still in a state of ignorance as to what was going on, so I didn’t feel too satisfied with answering questions. It is remarkable that for the nation that self-proclaims it was conceived in liberty, how illiberal its traditions have become. I explained to the officers that no one had shown me their identification, I had not been informed of the process that was currently underway and I still had a journey to complete whilst being asked to incriminate the man who was supposed to drive me and he was sitting just centimetres from me. Upon not getting the answers he wanted from me, the lead officer pointed to his blue polo shirt with a police badge embroided on it and said that was his ID. Well it looked like something from Toys R Us, so I insisted that the undercover officer show me something, which he did. They then properly informed me that there is a problem with scam-taxi drivers in Charleston and they had been following us from the station to check this driver. We then overcame my most pressing concern – how would I get to my hostel? Well the officers clearly weren’t too put out by my questions and insistence on due process and offered to take me in one of their cars - perfect! Now I was more than happy to answers their questions and into town I rode at the front of the police car.
I’m conscious that most of what I’ve been writing over the last four weeks has been negative, maybe because its easier to tear something down than build it up properly, but to the extent that I’ve failed to properly represent the places I’ve been visiting and the experiences I’ve had I need to reiterate the great positives here. What brought me here are the same things that have brought millions of others; its optimism, opportunity, variety of culture and people and its stunning natural beauty. It was therefore very appropriate that when one woman got off the train she said, “I hope you take away from the United States more positive impressions than you do negative.” I hope I do too.