This is Chapter Five – “Aberrations” – of “The Nine Nations of North America” by Joel Garreau, as published by Houghton Mifflin in May, 1981.
“New Stuff” regarding Nine Nations can be found at http://garreau.com/main.cfm?action=book&id=3
ON FORTY-FIFTH STREET in Manhattan, there is a transvestite disco called G. G. Barnum's.
For ten bucks, its patrons get two unwatered drinks, the opportunity to exercise as many kinks as they can conjure up, and - unusual even by the standards of midtown - an air show.
The ceiling above the dance floor is perhaps thirty feet high. Just over the heads of the paying customers, cargo netting has been strung from wall to wall. Above the cargo netting are trapezes. Also, shiny chrome vertical and horizontal bars. And gymnast's rings.
Performing, on this equipment high above the dancers, are half a dozen people of indeterminate sex, wearing perhaps more costume than would be expected, considering the diversity of entertainment available in this part of New York. But the clothing does what nakedness could not: it offers a multitude of possibilities for the imagination to consider. The outfits are made of black leather. And studs.
To the thunderous dance beat, the paid talent contorts vigorously, and not without a certain amount of premeditation. Actually, it's rather startling. Olympic competitors may never know just how many athletic postures can be achieved with the help of trapezes, rings, bars, cargo netting, and the consent of two or more adults.
In fact, the evening I conducted my research, the boredom was relieved when I was nearly decapitated by a flying G-string. What happened is that a trapeze broke on its upward arc, catapulting its occupant into the balcony where I was taking notes. The landing was pinpoint - right into the glass of Scotch belonging to the black gentleman at the next table. It scattered shattered glass, Scotch, and black man in all directions as the gold-lame-clad far below danced on. Never missing a beat. Or even looking up. This place is so cool that management even refused to buy the patron a fresh drink.
Outside this dance hall, with its decor of torn linoleum, scarred paint, and much-kicked stackable plastic furniture, in what passes for the quiet of the city's streets, stalk the joint's own police force. They're in uniform, and they carry guns.
It's too hard, at three in the morning, to figure out all the possible reasons why these folk feel the need to carry pistols on their hips. There are, for example, too many possible combinations of people who might have to be separated forcibly. There are the people inside versus the people inside. Or inside versus outside. Or outside versus outside.
On the marquee are displayed a collection of quotes from various awed journalists who have visited Barnum's. One of them addresses this point:
The most bizarre thing is the absolutely unique mix of customers — every conceivable stratum of class, ethnic and religious origin, age and even gender. The sheer diversity is overwhelming.
I, for one, was most overwhelmed by the look on the face of the most surprised black man in New York City when the trapeze artist landed in his drink. But I understand what the reporter was trying to say. The range of exotica, like the air show, was three-dimensional, revolving from three-piece suits to cowboy shirts to very little to Carol Charming look-alikes.
I'm here to tell you that it's not like this in Oklahoma City, ever. In Oklahoma City, it's almost impossible to get barbecue after 9:00 P.M., and that's a fact.
I mention the above by way of conceding that there exist some exceptions to North America's rules. Not only are there places that refuse to act in ways their location and resources would predict. But their behavior is viewed as being in the weird-to-incomprehensible range by the standards of the rest of this diverse continent. When viewed from the perspective of Nine Nations, they can only be described as aberrations.
New York City is clearly one of these aberrations.
The fact that there are such places as New York City that just don't fit, however, is not the fault of the Nine Nations. It merely explains why some key parts of the continent are screwed up. Schizophrenic.
Take Washington, D.C., for example.
For almost two centuries, Washington was content to accept a fate dictated to it by circumstances. Less was it a nexus of any great import than it was a sleepy border town between the Foundry and Dixie, inauspiciously located in a semidrained swamp. John Kennedy said it best: Washington had all the charm of a northern city, and all the efficiency of a southern one.
Earlier in this century, pre-air-conditioning, the Congress evacuated the fetid city during the summer, and sometimes didn't bother to return until after the November election, if then, and the affairs of the Republic rumbled on. This was back in the days when United States citizens demonstrated that they cared who was president by voting in percentages so large as to be unthinkable today.
Admittedly, those were not the most democratic of times. Racism was institutionalized in the South, eastern industrialists could manipulate their work forces as they pleased, farmers were at the mercy of their banks, and the West was held hostage by railroad interests. It was in this context that men of good will came to the conclusion that only the conjuring of a powerful federal presence could offset these evils.
So rose the current welfare state, with its mighty regulatory tentacles. Its goals were undeniably worthy - uplifting the poor, protecting the environment, shoring up the cities. Unfortunately, it had a founding flaw: it didn't have much faith in democracy, either. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, it assumed that the citizenry was too stupid or too greedy to manage its own affairs satisfactorily, and thus had to be protected from itself.
Although this assumption is by no means insupportable, it has led, inexorably, to fundamental contradictions. A former Agriculture Department official has described the federal role today as "usually that of a martinet teacher toward a dimwitted pupil. It is executed in the most narrow, nanny-like and suspicious manner possible. In fact, with some programs, such as those of the Department of Health and Human Services, the rules are generally so strict and the surveillance so intense that you wonder why HHS doesn't just do the job itself."
It's beyond the scope of this book to detail why the idea that gathering continental power in one place, where it could be wielded by the educated and the enlightened, was once considered reasonable, possible, and in the best interests of the majority.
But that it has gone awry is undeniable. Washington today is an imperial capital. Its interests and those of the people whom it is supposed to be of, by, and for are commonly divergent. Only the residents of Washington, reaping the benefits of being at the center of the Imperium, fail to view this as bizarre.
Washington revels, for example, in the fact that the bigger the problems in the rest of the continent, the greater its growth. During the war on the Depression, the population of the Washington area grew by three hundred thousand. During the war on the Axis, another half-million were added, doubling the population of the city itself. Even greater growth was seen during the periodic recessions of the Eisenhower years. But the truly astonishing jump was during the most turbulent decade in recent history - the sixties. With both the doctrine of the "best and the brightest" and the air-conditioning revolution in full flower, eight hundred thousand new inhabitants flocked to Washington.
Growth during the seventies was a "mere" 12 percent, the metropolitan population leveling off at just under three million. But that was the decade that saw Washington truly become a metropolis of the wealthy. That was the decade in which suburban Fairfax County and Arlington County, adjacent to the District of Columbia, began to rank among the richest, per household, in North America.
This came as a direct result of Washington's affairs becoming increasingly incomprehensible.
It's not the paychecks of the bureaucrats that caused Washington real estate prices to double in five years. While hardly what you'd call niggardly, they don't pay for the great castles on Foxhall Road.
It's the subsidiary private industries spawned by the existence of the bureaucrats that have made the average home worth $100,000 in the District, at a time when $35,000 buys a fine house in Kansas, and $70,000 buys a palace in Indiana.
The three biggest industries in the Washington area, after government and tourism, are the government code-breakers: lawyers, communicators, and consultants. Depending on how you define consultant, that industry may actually be bigger than the federal government which spawned it.
The purposes of the lawyers are straightforward. They are supposed to understand, manipulate, and beat the purposes of the government. When they focus on the welfare of one particular client or economic interest group, they're called lobbyists, and, according to an executive research firm, each typically earns over $50,000 a year. Contrary to popular belief, they rarely resort to plying congressmen with bimbos and booze. Their most potent tool is information. On Capitol Hill, it's a truism that the biggest single problem faced, day to day, is figuring out exactly what the nature of a problem is, and then figuring out what the results of a proposed plan of action would be.
A successful industry lobbyist is capable of bringing far greater resources to bear on the researching of a narrow question than can the beleaguered staff of any one congressman or committee. An oil lobbyist, for example, has access to invaluable proprietary corporate information that the Congress does not. In the case of the impenetrably technical tax code, a well-argued case for the addition or deletion of a few words, slipped to a sympathetic legislator, can save a company millions of dollars.
Consultants, meanwhile. don't like to be called consultants, because it's become pejorative. "We never refer to ourselves as consultants. Never," Earle C. Williams, president of BDM, a major Washington federal contractor supplying technical expertise, research, and development, was quoted as saying. The preferred term is "professional services firm." The common term in Washington is "Beltway bandit," after the circulatory highway on which their shiny new office buildings are constructed. Due to politically popular lids on the hiring of more bureaucrats, they are contracted to perform government studies, write government pamphlets, translate government documents, hold government hearings, develop government specifications, and, critics say, make government decisions.
They cluster around their clients - life-sciences consultants, for example, locating near the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. And they analyze, experiment, test, design, research, and otherwise manipulate information in areas including defense, energy, communications, transportation, environment, and public policy.
In fiscal 1979, the Department of Defense handed $24 million to the aforementioned obscure BDM for its services. If the role of the consultant is unknown to most North Americans, it's because, as the vice-president of one such company candidly pointed out, "in this business, anonymity is an asset." If you don't know it exists, you can't cut its budget. Meanwhile, in the 1970s, government hiring remained stable while the federal budget increased $350 billion.
Finally, there is communications. The very first thing done by any medium-sized newspaper newly determined to prove its worth to its readers - in yet another noble attempt to figure out what's really going on - is to open a Washington bureau. The same can be said of any number of foreign news organizations. The size of some of these bureaus can be astonishing - larger than the entire staff of many dailies. And not without good reason. There are always more reaches of the Imperium than there are reporters. The Washington Post is the largest private employer in the District, and it routinely amazes itself by missing important stories.
Commercial television and radio are similarly garrisoned. Public broadcasting, of course, is headquartered in Washington. The Government Printing Office itself is the largest publisher on the continent, and somebody has to write all the stuff it prints.
In addition, the city is loaded with highly specialized newsletters - some of them dailies - providing tiny audiences in industries like banking with "inside" information, charging up to $ 1000 a year for the privilege. Most North Americans have never heard of one of the most influential and imaginative magazines commenting on politics and policy in Washington - The National Journal. A subscription runs almost $400 a year.
Sports Illustrated has suggested that news organizations are to Washington what organized sports teams are to the residents of other cities, and that's a defensible position. In how many other places do you ordinarily find self-described "media junkies" - not in the profession themselves - who readily and with sophistication discuss the styles and careers of reporters they've never met. Elsewhere, such effort is lavished on quarterbacks.
Each of these industries pays very well by the standards of any other city's major industries. That they should all be grouped in one place explains certain Washington truisms that have become casually accepted.
The Washingtonian magazine categorizes as "moderately priced" any restaurant you can get out of for under fifty bucks per couple.
Washington's hotel growth is tilted toward the self-described "luxury" range, the cheapest room pushing $100 a night.
The hottest race in retail trade is among outlets catering to the superdiscriminating, such as Neiman-Marcus, Bloomingdale's, and I. Magnin's.
The New York Times culture pages periodically ask, in bold headlines, CAN WASHINGTON LURE THE ARTS FROM NEW YORK?
The local papers routinely celebrate the city's uncommon appetites - for Japanese raw fish, or cocaine, or adults roller-skating from one boite to another.
Washington supports twice as many psychiatrists, per head, as any other North American city.
Don't get me wrong. It's a good life. Cosmopolitan trappings serve London and Paris well, too.
Washington's aberration is in its categorical refusal to recognize itself as an aberration.
"He realized, after two and a half years here, how isolated he'd become," one of Jimmy Carter's advisers told the New York Times of his boss. The occasion was an interview shortly after the then-president had announced to the world that "Washington, D.C., had become an island," unresponsive to the nation's needs - a characterization that, predictably, left Washington steaming.
"He had become an islander," continued the adviser, thoughtfully munching his breakfast at McDonald's on his way to work. "He had fallen prey to the same things he had talked about when he was running for president." Himself paying close attention to the details of Washington ritual, the adviser granted the interview only on an anonymous, "background" basis, apparently fearful of the explosive nature of his insights. Carter felt "in a mystical way," he said, that Washington "is out of tune with America.
"People here don't live the way the rest of the country does. Here, people are all relatively rich, and more or less equal. Leaving aside the black poor of the city, this town has the highest per capita income of any city in the country. And yet it's not a few billionaires that account for it. The money is spread more evenly. What kind of twisted idea does that give you about what the rest of the country is like?"
Apparently, the idea it gives you is not Copernican. There is simply no convincing Washington that the universe does not, in fact, revolve around it. Heretics who suggest otherwise are not even regarded as amusing, much less worthy of being burned at the stake. They're just quaintly uninformed.
This tallies with the suggestion that Washington's foremost pursuit is "rat calculus." The observation is that Washington has become such a parody of its own institutions that the techniques of running through its self-created maze have become far more important and interesting than asking whether the maze does any good. Broad, unquantifiable speculations as to whether the lot of the citizenry is being enhanced by certain actions, in this context, are considered at best naive. Even relatively straightforward considerations, like whether there'll be enough heating oil in New England to last the winter, are instantly subsumed by calculations professionally carried out to thousandths of a point as to the question's impact on the president's chances in the New Hampshire primary.
But actually, a calm, distant examination of this situation can demonstrate that there's a bright side to it all.
Serious and learned have been the lamentations that Washington is beset by paralysis. The president can't get a damn thing through Congress. Congressmen are quitting because of the inhuman strain put on them by constituents' demands. Agencies point with alarm to the way their initiatives are gutted by special interests. Citizens grasp at panaceas devoted to getting Washington to "work right." Constitutional amendments are offered to balance the budget, limit the terms of politicians, and - my favorite - to move the capital entirely to some presumably less polluted location, like Fargo, North Dakota.
The flaw with these proposals is that they are meant to render the federal government more efficient. Few seem to recognize the ominous implications of an efficient federal government. If the population rebels at the thought of the power the anonymous feds wield now, think of the horrors that could be perpetrated if the Imperium ever ran lean and mean. The last time Washington "worked," in the sense of its various appendages pulling in more or less the same direction, the United States ended up with half a million troops in Vietnam.
As a matter of fact, it can be argued that Washington's dilemmas and alarums are demonstrations of a smoothly functioning, generally benign, if unorthodox system - another proof of the political ingenuity of North America. Aware voters and perceptive private enterprise have sent high-quality representatives to Washington to ensure that power can be exercised there only in the negative. Nobody can get anything accomplished. Success is measured in terms of what horror has been blocked.
This has created a vacuum into which local government has stepped. Many state governments are now running a budget surplus. Legislative initiatives are coming almost solely out of local government. "Sunshine" laws, which force public decisions to be made in public, were first enacted by state legislatures. So were "sunset" laws, which require that a law be rendered automatically defunct after a certain number of years unless it is actively renewed. Even currently hot topics in the Imperium, like budget-cutting, never would have penetrated Washington were it not for local initiatives, such as California's Proposition 13.
There's a lot to be said for this federal paralysis. A reasonable portion of miscreants continues to tread that much more lightly for fear of being bankrupted by a mindlessly interminable battle with Environmental Protection, Occupational Safety and Health, or Securities and Exchange. The truly innovative, meanwhile, are freed to direct their energies to local problems and solutions.
Granted, this benefit is at the formidable expense of feeding the coffers and power fantasies of the Imperium. But a close examination of the virtues of government deadlock, and the grouping of the most aggressive lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, and other practitioners of rat calculus in one geographic location, where they can do only limited harm, and then mainly to each other, offers a most consoling thought.
We've ground the bastards to a halt. If government that governs least governs best, the United States seems to have triumphed in crafting the best government money can buy.
Alaskans - whose judgments about anything must be measured against their decision to live in a place where tomatoes won't - think that theirs is a separate nation.
They go to elaborate lengths to burnish this theory.
Practically by the time a newcomer gets from the baggage-claim area at the Anchorage airport to the taxi stand, he's picked up the local habit of referring to the rest of the world as "Outside," as if coming into Alaska were a hitch in Vietnam.
Since Alaskans wallow in their apparatus, and the number of Anglos living in Alaska who were actually born there is virtually nil, one keen-eyed administrative assistant in Juneau has considered marketing an immigrant's kit. No banker wants to look like anything except a bush pilot, so the kit would include the requisite twelve-pound insulated boots for the walk from the office to lunch. Bumper stickers proclaiming the local theologies - such as WE DON'T GIVE A DAMN HOW THEY DO IT OUTSIDE - would be part of the package. As would the small-bore cannon with the elaborate telescopic sights, suitable for bringing down grizzly bears, avalanches, small aircraft, whatever. That's something for the Fairbanks lawyer to carry into the supermarket when he picks up a quart of milk.
Nonchalance in the face of exotic circumstances is worshiped. In Alaska, the ultimate expression of professional detachment is displayed by what you attempt to carry on board a regularly scheduled commercial jet as under-the-seat baggage. A white-eyed, inscrutable, Asiatic dog used to be good. But not since every Eskimo with half a brain recognized that snow machines work a lot better than a sled team. Mining equipment still humming and beeping remains solid. But I liked the short, squat Native patiently standing in line, eyes down, for a Wien Air Alaska flight out of Anchorage with a substantial Evinrude outboard motor digging into his shoulder.
Yet none of this commends Alaska as a nation. If it were one, it would not stand as - hands down - the most conflicted and confused place in North America. Alaska is this continent's most endearing aberration. The only really predictable thing about Alaskans is that they will disagree about anything - politics, religion, economics. history, sex . . . They can't even agree on what constitutes "good" weather.
We're so polarized up here, [said Alaska governor Jay Hammond], that one end of the spectrum has got half the people saying that we should secede from the Union, and anything less than that is an unacceptable capitulation sell-out to the federal government.
The other end of the spectrum is insisting that Anchorage be returned to wilderness. or it's unacceptable environmental degradation. Really. there's no middle ground.
It really is astounding why anybody is ever elected, to say nothing of being re-elected, under those circumstances. Everybody ends up shouting in high decibels. Frankly. I wouldn't vote for anybody, including Hammond, if I believed half of what I heard and read. It's just terrible. I wonder how anybody survives it.
In Alaska, uncommon political alliances are commonplace. The far right is so far right that it has been known to link up with the left on some issues (although for completely antithetical reasons). Private possession of marijuana, for example, is legal. Conservatives allowed as how the hippies ought to have the complete right to poison their bodies as long as they didn't ask the taxpayers to pay for the consequences. (The only two Libertarian Party members in North America elected to state office live in Alaska.) Similarly, the titular left has been known to side with the right-wingers when it comes to property ownership. Homesteaders wanting the opportunity to settle a piece of land have sided with the oil companies - against environmentalists - on the issue of opening up federally owned wilderness.
But apart from that, Hammond is right in pinpointing the decibel level of all arguments as the most identifiable Alaskan trait. It's all the way up. Every time. The moral and emotional energy expended on any controversy is pause-giving.
The reason is simple. Alaska is the land over which three nations are warring, and it's entirely too soon to know which, if any, is winning. The three nations are the Empty Quarter, Ecotopia, and that of the Trans-Polar Innuit (about which more shortly).
Most of Alaska, in terms of physical geography, is part of the Empty Quarter. Picture Alaska as a man's face, looking left. Subtract the throat, from just south of Anchorage to the capital, Juneau. That's the relatively temperate area, where it rarely gets much above 70 or colder than 5 below. The rest has a continental inland climate, like Wyoming, only worse. (In Fairbanks, the temperature range is from 90 above to 40 below.) It is also desperate for water.
You may have a mental image of Alaska as lush and green when it isn't covered with snow, but that's misleading. The hundreds of thousands of lakes manifest in the summer of the far north are the result of only four inches of moisture a year - less than that in the Sahara. They collect because the earth, from eighteen inches below the surface to a depth of about two thousand feet, is permanently frozen, so the water does not percolate. Similarly, because at the very top of Alaska it is never really warm - not even in August, as I can personally testify - evaporation is impeded.
So you end up with enough water to sustain caribou and small bands of Natives, but when man decides to do something exotic like build a large Native village (Barrow - population, twenty-five hundred) or a large Texas village (the oil camp at Prudhoe Bay - population, two thousand) on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, the first thing he runs into is water problems.
All over Alaska, of course, there is mineral wealth of such magnitude that it brings tears to the eyes of geologists. From gold to molybdenum to petroleum - it's all there.
To make the Empty Quarter credentials perfect, the land is rugged, vast, and short on people. The question of scale is a constantly disturbing one in Alaska. Observing a simple operation like widening a two-lane road to four lanes, a visitor, a swim in the cavern of a full-sized American sedan, is dwarfed by the Caterpillar construction equipment far more appropriate to mining than to road work. The wheels are taller than the car. The cab is the equivalent of an attic on a two-story house. Yet these trucks seem pitifully inadequate to the job of moving all the rubble being blown off the side of the mountain for the right of way. At the same time, the scar man is making on the mountain with his dynamite is a mere scratch on these structures, which offer scale to the clouds. Both photographically and metaphorically, it's tough to pick your lens in Alaska. A wide-angle, which gets it all in while losing detail? Or a telephoto, which dwells lovingly on the particular without offering a sense of how untouchable it all seems?
In Alaska, it's easy to succumb to the urge to make a mark on the land, just to prove that you exist. Otherwise ordinary young people own a ten-wheel flatbed truck. Or a crane. Or a wide-blade bulldozer. You never know when they may come in handy. It makes you wonder what the frontier West would look like today if the pioneers over a hundred years ago had had Cats instead of Conestoga wagons.
It's exactly this thought around which the argument over Alaska's future gains volume. All sides view Alaska as perhaps the last place left in North America where fresh opportunity is available - where the mistakes of the twentieth century can be forgotten. It's what constitutes a "mistake" around which the controversy swirls, for everyone here is trying to invent his or her own Alaska.
Due largely to the most expensive and concentrated political effort continental environmentalists have ever brought to bear, less than 1 percent of Alaska's land is in private hands. Some belongs to the state of Alaska, and a great deal is assigned to the Native tribes, but the bulk is operated by the notorious federal government, which has banned hunting, homesteading, mining, logging, drilling, and even motorized travel in blocks so huge that envious Alaskans charge that the bureaucrats couldn't have realized, by looking at a map, the size of the areas they were talking about.
To some who see Alaska as a last opportunity to practice self-reliance, escaping the mistakes and madnesses of civilization - the crowding, the powerlessness, and especially the slavery to a nine-to-five paycheck - this is a dream-crusher. Visions of being part of a special breed, which measures human worth against a harsh but essentially rational nature, evaporate in a real estate market where, in the midst of unthinkable emptiness. a five-acre homestead five hours south of Anchorage can cost as much as it does in the Blue Ridge Mountains, less than two hours west of Washington, D.C.
Advocates of this arrangement say they were blocking a different mistake. They were saving fragile and pristine natural wilderness from depredation, taking advantage of the last chance for North America to protect entire natural habitats from the twentieth century.
They claim that the rights of Alaskans must yield to the rights of future "Outsiders" to the "unspoiled." They don't get too worked up about the plight of the inhabitants, saying that the majority of Anglo Alaskans are essentially transients, anyway. Not only were they not born there; they will not die there.
The average age in Alaska is the lowest on the continent until you get to Mexico. The adventurers it attracts are young; the environment is too harsh for the old. Few Alaskans retire there - they head to warmer climes after one too many winters has seeped into their bones. (For that matter, there is a brisk traffic in air tickets to Hawaii among even the young and hardy.)
This argument points, with justification, to the mess that most Alaskans make of any habitat they touch. Even John McPhee, in his sympathetic, astute, and best-selling study of Alaska, Coming Into the Country, points out that the authentic Alaskan landmark is a dump. Rare is the Alaskan home outside which is not a pile of weather-ravaged junk, saved because "it might come in handy."
The view from the ocean side of the Top of the World Motel in Barrow, three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, is of the town's pile of derelict hardware.
The locals don't apologize for that. The ground is frozen, so the stuff is impossible to bury. And because of artificial freight tariffs, it's far more expensive to haul out the junk than the value of the scrap would return. If any extra funds are available, they say, they will be spent on schools and sewage systems before they're spent on trash removal.
In fact, the only really tidy settlements to be found in all Alaska are in the oil fields of the North Slope. Sohio, British Petroleum, and Arco are the only enterprises wealthy enough to cart their detritus out. During the few weeks when the Arctic Ocean ice floes recede from the shore, oceangoing vessels rush in gear far too bulky or heavy to fit into even the ubiquitous air freighter. On the return trip - and at the same extraordinary freight rates - machines ruined by their exposure to the elements are hauled out.
Of course, Sohio, BP and Arco are also the only enterprises that have to cope with the never-ending - and justified - surveillance and suspicion devoted to oil companies. They are so conscious of their image that they hire a few dozen teenagers in the summer to pick pieces of paper off the tundra, to the amazement of the Eskimos. The Natives never cease to be astonished by some of the tribal rituals of the white man.
It's a fact that the most eloquent distillation - or parody - of television-standard North American culture you'll ever want to see are those Sohio-BP and Arco installations at Deadhorse, near Prudhoe Bay.
It's not just the existence of toasty swimming pools this far north. Nor the carefully sealed-off world of saunas and the jogging tracks and the basketball gym and the volleyball court and the universal exercise machines and the first-run movies amid the caribou.
It's not the videotapes for the eighty-five-inch-screen television sets. Nor the T-bone steaks cooked exactly medium rare and the three fresh vegetables and six fresh desserts - free to all comers, and seconds encouraged. Nor is it the garden at the Sohio-BP installation, in a two-story tall atrium, in which flowers are carefully tended thousands of miles north of their natural habitat.
It's not just the people who joke about how much easier it will be when they're asked to drill for oil on the far side of the moon. There'll be no wind there, they point out, and no ice and no environmentalists. Transportation in and out couldn't conceivably be much more difficult.
And it's not even the creepie-crawly moon machines that they use right now to move - intact - entire apartment buildings, prefabbed in California, into place. Similar gigantic tracked vehicles are used in Florida to shlep space shuttle rockets slowly around.
Nor is it that these apartment units are placed high above a man's head, on pods locked into the ice of the permafrost, and that they look a great deal like the set for a science-fiction movie. These buildings look perfectly capable of flying. (After all, how else did they get way the hell up here?)
It's not even the RCA communications dish that completes this all-time macho technological fantasy. Designed to make telephone calls to your girlfriend in Texas a routine matter, this dish antenna is so far north that in order for it to link up with a satellite hovering over the equator, it must be aimed almost flat at the horizon, its beam barely clearing the mountains, skewing your sense of which direction is "up."
The statement this all makes is really one reflective of an entire Anglo world view. The assumption it makes is that no right-thinking, sane human would do it any other way. How else would you live?
The Natives, of course, have considered this question closely for several thousand years. And have come up with spectacularly different conclusions.
The Natives of the North - ranging from the Innuit (which is what most Alaskan Eskimos call themselves and other Eskimos; it's their word for "people") to the Anathapsa to the Metis to the Cree - offer a vivid reminder that Sohio's is only one vision of humanity. The world does not end at the limits of The Rand McNally Road Atlas. There are tens of thousands of people up here, beyond the white man's highways. And, as Willie Hensley says, "the Eskimo's foremost character trait is the ability to survive.”
Willie Hensley's thoughts on the subject are not to be ignored. Time magazine may have got it right, for once, when it declared this Innuit, in one of its typical presumptions, one of America's fifty leaders for tomorrow, or some such designation. He is a leader of NANA, the Northwest Alaska Native Association, one of the most successful Native corporations. These corporations were established in the early seventies to help clear the claim the Natives had to the state's oil wealth. That settlement, ultimately backed by the oil companies because without it they couldn't build the Alaska oil pipeline, also ceded great tracts of land to the Natives, and a lot of money. Hensley, from remote Kotzebue, is young, George Washington University-educated, smashing in his Pierre Cardin suits, and the chairman of an $8o million Native-owned bank.
I hope he's right about the Innuit surviving. The twentieth century has certainly screwed up a lot of Indians, as reflected in the question of a Fairbanks Anglo who amiably asked me if I wanted to go down to Second Avenue "to watch the subsistence hunters swing on the parking meters." There are a lot of burned-out, drunk Natives on Fourth Avenue in Anchorage, too, and in most villages, sad to report.
But I like the Innuit, if for no other reason than that I find enormously appealing the Trans-Polar Innuit Conference, one of the more clever regional political consolidations around.
The Trans-Polar Innuit Conference was designed to unite all the people at the top of the world who share the Native language, culture, and problems (that is, the white man in general and the energy companies in particular). Those people aren't just Alaskans. They live in Canada, Greenland, and even the Soviet Union, and their ancestors were there millennia before these national distinctions were established. In fact, the Trans-Polar Conference could easily be the tenth nation of North America if it did not include so much of Europe and Asia.
But it does, and I have to cut off this regionalization process somewhere, and here is where I so choose. I simply am not going to get involved in explaining how the Greenland Innuit used this Trans-Polar Conference politically to block Danes who wanted to trap them into entanglements with the European Common Market that were not in their interest.
But nonetheless, the conference exists, and it is centered in Barrow, the largest Eskimo village on earth and the capital of the North Slope Borough, whose fifty-five hundred Natives occupy eighty-seven thousand square miles of territory (just a tad smaller than West Germany), most of it just lousy with oil. Its mayor, until his recent death, was Eben Hopson. Hopson delighted in driving white men crazy.
Undoubtedly, the late mayor's associates would object to that assessment. Their position is that establishing a historic preservation district in the middle of what the casual observer might characterize as godforsaken tundra merely shows reverence for their traditions. They would maintain that their act is no less sacred to them than preserving the Alamo is to those damn goat-roper Texan oilmen.
They would further maintain that the fact that the rezoning would block the construction of those Texans' multibillion-dollar gas pipeline was the sheerest unfortunate coincidence.
They would say that they were surprised and grateful that the pipeline company began paying a great deal more attention to their opinions about how many Eskimos should be employed in the construction after this brush-up. They would certainly deny that it was anything other than coincidence that they dropped the rezoning idea shortly after they and the energy company began to see eye to eye. They might even try to deny that had the pipeline company not capitulated, the borough would have taken them all the way to the Supreme Court, after hiring the best lawyers money could buy, and after raising the property taxes at the Prudhoe Bay oil bases to pay for them.
Whatever the real story, the North Slope Innuit have an unassailable point, which for once has stood the test in the white man's courts: they were here first. It's murky, exactly what rights that now gives them. And it's unkind to suggest that they have exploited that murkiness for all it's worth, promulgating laws and taxes first and asking questions later.
Be that as it may, Barrow is a fascinating laboratory. While nothing like the typical tiny Native village, it still contains many who consider it obvious that walruses have spirits that must be treated with respect, and who continue to hunt the whale for meat. All have been shaped by the experience of seeing uncountable clouds of waterfowl fly over the spit on which they have pitched a summer camp. It's in Barrow that unusual accommodations with the twentieth century are being formed.
Barrow, like much of Alaska disturbed by humans, is covered in the summer with a fine talc dust. It's blown up from the glacial gravel that, in this town, makes up the streets, the sidewalks, the yards, the parking lots, the runways, and the Arctic Ocean beach.
There are two kinds of buildings: those that, in the words of Governor Hammond, point up the relative affluence of Appalachia, and those the borough built. The latter look more grand the longer you think how hard it was to scrape together the scraps to build the former, given how close to the Pole you are.
There are a lot of white men around, considering that this is an Eskimo capital. A lot of them hold jobs of high responsibility in the borough government, which infuriates some of the younger Innuit. The whites respond by referring to the young Turks as the "Red Guard."
The Red Guard is fundamentally in opposition to the U.S. Army National Guard, which, believe it or not, is the white institution that acculturated many of the older Innuit who are now in power. Eben Hopson held rank in the National Guard. He, like many in the village, traced a portion of his ancestry to European whalers who used Point Barrow as a port in the late nineteenth century.
The Anglos working for the village, though slightly embarrassed that there are not more Natives in middle management, would have you believe that different cultures operate in different modes. White culture, they claim, thinks that making beds and cleaning rooms is a bad job, and so pays what the Eskimos consider a lot of money to have the Natives do it. Eskimos think; that being chief of police is a bad job, so they pay whites a lot of money to do that.
Young Eskimos say that that's a crock, and that it reflects racism on the part of older Eskimos who don't think their people can do the job.
The older Eskimos, who over the course of the last few years have figured out that they don't have to pay an undue amount of attention to what the younger Eskimos think (times may have changed, but not that much), end the discussion with the observation that any chief of police native to Barrow. one time out of three, would be put in the position of arresting somebody to whom he was related, which would be culturally inconceivable.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of on-the-job-training (OJT) for Eskimos in Barrow. The "Beluga building" is referred to by one sympathetic white as "another of our $80,000 OJT mistakes." The Beluga building is an enormous inflatable dome, so named because it resembles the white whale of that species. It was erected without a floor, because who needs a floor on frozen ground? Unfortunately, when heated, the balloon building melted the permafrost underneath it, and the vehicles meant to be garaged inside sank irretrievably into the muck.
Similarly, there's the high school at Anaktuvuk Pass that ended up costing $7 million. Serving no more than some handfuls of students, it is one of the few educational facilities in the world that included as part of its construction budget the creation of a full-length jet airstrip. Every nail of that building was flown in on a C-130 Hercules. It's so remote, said one of its planners, "that we almost had to fly in the water for the swimming pool." Expensive?
"We spend fourteen thousand, seven hundred, and eleven dollars a year per pupil on operating costs," I was told. "That doesn't include construction costs.
"For that kind of dough we could give these kids first-rate educations any place they wanted Outside and still fly them home for duck, whaling, and caribou season."
This last was a very impolitic remark. One of the reasons the Innuit no longer fly the children out is that, several years ago, an entire generation was lost when the plane they were riding to their schools Outside piled into the Brooks Range.
But the remark is also a Prudhoe Bay way of looking at things. Prudhoe Bay, culturally, is incapable of operating without T-bone steaks and eighty-five-inch television screens. The money it spends on making its people feel at home is orders of magnitude more than what the Innuit spend.
Yet Prudhoe would no more question the wisdom of shipping entertainment - or, for that matter, fresh broccoli - from Southern California to the Arctic Circle than it would question the wisdom of endangering a few marine mammals that some Innuit still believe are sacred.
It's a study in the contrast of cultures to realize that the oil companies are boggled by the idea that these Innuit are interested in very expensive systems to ensure running water, sewage disposal, central heating, electric power, and modern schools-while continuing to live in the Arctic. They hold the Innuit up to ridicule for their ideas. But the Innuit persevere. Ninety-eight percent of the money raised to pay for these new conveniences comes from the oil companies anyway, as property taxes to the North Slope Borough. For that, Arco is entitled to its opinions.
It's the poor, embattled Ecotopians of Alaska whom the Innuit really drive up the wall. The apparent irreverence with which Natives are capable of indiscriminately blowing away the wildlife with the latest in twentieth-century firepower doesn't square at all with the Anglos' intellectualization of the Plains Indian concept of "walking lightly on the land."
Ecotopians are appalled by the idea of a gut-over-the-belt desk jockey in Anchorage whose tour of duty isn't really complete until he's "killed one of everything." On that, they have an internal consensus.
But they go into paroxysms when, after all they've gone through to get the international Whaling Commission to stop the Japanese from spearing the endangered bowhead whale, some university-educated, reasonably well-off Eskimo announces that he has to go "subsistence" hunting for that very species.
The Innuit respond by trotting out Jon Buchholdt, their Anglo mouthpiece.
All the villages in the Arctic [he explains with great force] are strategically placed to go out after the walrus or the whale. or whatever. They're there because of the traditional interaction with an animal or two. They will always exist. I don't think we can do anything to put a stop to that.
Questioning this has become offensive to the Eskimos. Kind of like asking somebody in Iran why she has returned to the chodor – complex reasons behind that, and probably none of them defensible in your frame of reference. And the social and cultural conflicts are apparent right in the question. It's as though you were going into an agricultural area and trying to get the farmers to leave to build a Levittown. They just don't want to talk about it.
This has to be understood as casting aspersions upon the legitimacy of religion. Subsistence hunting has to be understood as a religious act, insofar as religion or religiosity distinguishes one culture from another. It's sacred. It's bound up and inseparable from all of the other sacred institutions of the [Innuit] society. No other political or social situation can compete at all with the sacredness of what we're talking about. And everything you see around [Barrow] would gladly be given up tomorrow if it had to be traded off for subsistence.
"At the risk," I stumbled, "of asking a, a . . ."
"An irreligious question?"
"Ah, this works pretty good at nailing the white liberal guilt feelings about Indians right between the eyes, too, doesn't it?"
"Un-huh! Un-huh! The attack upon the subsistence hunting in the Arctic, or its displacement by oil and gas development, has to be seen as a continuity of a rather shameful American tradition of killing Native people."
And you wonder why the debates are so raucous in Alaska. Try to explain the above to the Oriental who's losing his whaling job, or to the Anglo Alaskan for whom hanging a freshly stuffed walrus head on the wall of his den is an extremely serious felony.
While I don't deride the Ecotopian reverence for earth consciousness, I wonder if it's any accident that the stiffest concentration of Ecotopians in Alaska - in Homer - settled in a region that is not only wooded and hilly and water-surrounded and beautiful.
It's completely devoid of Natives.
It's really not fair for me to characterize Hawaii as a North American aberration.
Hawaii is as much an Asian aberration as it is a North American aberration.
This is not to say that "paradise" is what you'd really want to call screwed up. Although the potential is certainly there. Its development pace is exceeding that of Southern California; most of the high-rise construction that is now choking Waikiki came not only after statehood in 1959, but in the late seventies, after the introduction of jumbo jets that could dump 350 tourists from North America and Japan at a clip. Hawaiian prices are astronomical by North American standards. It's 92 percent dependent on foreign oil for energy. Crime is on the rise, although it still lags well behind the Mainland, especially in terms of violent crime; the aloha spirit isn't dead yet. (By the way, CBS notwithstanding, Hawaii Five-O doesn't exist.) It has a restive, and rightfully so, Native population that keeps threatening violence. (The U.S. military, meanwhile, continues to practice its aerial-bombing techniques on islands the locals consider sacred; the U.S. judiciary and Congress flatly refuse to compensate the Polynesians for allegedly stolen land in amounts commensurate to what they pay the Eskimos and Indians.) And the phones have an annoying habit of not working right.
But when it comes to schizophrenia, Hawaii's got it.
Isolated cultures always develop in distinctive, idiosyncratic ways, and Hawaii is as far from any continent as it is possible to be in the northern hemisphere. It's a good twenty-four hundred miles to either the coast of California or Alaska. As the attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated, it's not that much farther to Japan. Its eight major islands are the beginning of an archipelago that finally peters out in dots of uninhabited rock two thousand miles to the northwest.
But Hawaii's schizophrenia lies in such things as priding itself in its cultural diversity while harboring racial tension. It lies in being utterly dependent on the Mainland for goods while harboring the hope of becoming totally energy independent. It lies in having the wettest spot on the planet, Mount Waialeale, which garners 486 inches of rain a year, while many spots in the islands, surrounded by vast ocean, thirst for freshwater. It lies in being the only state in the West to vote Democratic in the 1976 and 1980 presidential elections. But most of all, it lies in a future in which, as Joni Mitchell sings, you "pave paradise / put up a parking lot."
Hawaii is a place of Ecotopian possibilities, with MexAmerican growth values and limits, run by Asians.
It's an aberration.
The main reason it is not widely perceived that way on the Mainland is that, as Robert W. Bone put it, "As delightful a destination as are the islands for an upbeat vacation, many Hawaii-philes who return year after year still feel that you can get too much of a good thing - that there is an enervating surfeit of surf, sun, sand, and somnolence which is fine for a vacation but not conducive to efficient and productive living on a year-round basis. Some call the disease 'Polynesian Paralysis.' " This affects journalists too. So the word doesn't tend to get out.
Hawaii is the first place in modern North America in which residents of European stock are a distinct minority, both numerically and in terms of political power.
It is thought that before the turn of the century, Anglos may well become a minority in California, outnumbered by Asians, Hispanics, and blacks. (The lack of Anglos is already a pressing concern in the Los Angeles school system. Its busing plans are plagued by there simply not being enough Anglos to go around.)
The ancient Spanish culture of New Mexico may soon be reinforced by enough Old Mexicans to make it a third.
But right now, Hawaii is the first and only place in the United States and Canada where not only are Anglos a distinct minority (as in Quebec and Puerto Rico), but where people of Asian descent are in the majority.
Asians and Asian-Americans comprise more than two thirds of the permanent population of Hawaii. Almost all the rest is English-speaking Caucasian, usually called haoles, although this has begun to take on a somewhat derogatory overtone. (The number of Hispanics and blacks has risen from negligible to very small, the Hispanic population growing the faster of the two.)
As of this writing, the Hawaiian congressional delegation is studded with names like Inouye, Matsunaga, and Akaka. (The fourth is Cecil Heftel, a Mormon.) The governor's name is Ariyoshi. Senators Daniel K. Inouye and Spark M. Matsunaga fought in the most decorated and wounded American military unit in World War II. It was the Nisei 442d Infantry Regimental Command Team. Nisei denotes second-generation Japanese-American in Japanese.
The lieutenant governor, the president of the state senate, the speaker of the house, the president of the University of Hawaii, and most school principals and state judges are also of Japanese descent.
While the haole population is slightly larger than that of the Japanese-Americans - each comprises a little over a quarter of the population - the Japanese-Americans represent a far larger proportion of the registered voters - 42 percent.
You can get into a raft of arguments trying to describe the pecking order in Hawaii, especially because there are large cultural chasms between the first, second, and third generations of any ethnic strain. To use the Japanese-Americans as an example, those who were scarred by the shameful racial backlash of World War II obviously have different perceptions from those who did not. For that matter, with Hawaii's 30 percent racial intermarriage rate, figuring out who is what is not always easy.
Hawaii's unusual economic triad of tourism, the military, and agriculture, to complicate the picture further, is suffused by absentee money that can come from anywhere. Australians, Japanese, and Canadians are among the non-United States citizens that are thought to have $600 million invested in these small specks of land. When you then factor in the persistent reports that pakalolo - Maui Wowie, marijuana - has become Hawaii's number one cash crop, passing pineapple and cane, who knows where the ends of the economic strings pulled on these islands are.
But one thing can be said for sure. While corporations still control a staggering amount of Hawaii's land, the days when five great Anglo companies divided unquestioned control are gone.
The resident haoles, it can be argued, are a close second in power to the Japanese-Americans. Then come the Chinese and, farther down the line, others from the Asian mainland, such as Koreans and Vietnamese. Next to last are the more recently arrived Filipinos and Samoans, to whom is relegated much of the scut work. At the very bottom, as always in North America, are the Natives - the Polynesians whose land and pride has been taken from them at every opportunity.
The result is more a mixture than a blend. Hawaii is by no means distressed Haiti, where a vacation can turn out to be downright depressing. But it is a mistake to think that the leis and grass skirts of the ancient Polynesian culture with which one is confronted at the airport is reflective of any modern reality other than a savvy tourist industry. The Kamehameha School, which accepts only students who are at least partially of Hawaiian ancestry, until recently refused to teach such aspects of the Hawaiian culture as the hula, on the grounds that it was an antiquated obstacle to assimilation.
What the tourists don't see are the Marines who from time to time get beaten to a pulp - even killed - by locals, especially of the lower classes, who resent the presence of armed guards keeping them from military recreational facilities and beaches. Also not publicized is the fact that a lot of Anglo schoolchildren tend to stay away from classes on the school year's last day, which is affectionately referred to as "kill a haole day." Nobody actually dies, but nobody on the receiving end considers the experience pleasant. It hardly mitigates things that similar festivities exist aimed at "Japs" and "Flips."
This is not meant to paint an unrelentingly bleak portrait of paradise; merely to indicate that Hawaii is not just the land of four-colored brochures. Real people live here in some very strange circumstances.
Actually, the best news on these islands, torn between the realities of late twentieth-century North America and other distant places and times, is that there is more local control and vision when it comes to the islands' problems than you find in some parts of the continent.
The most hopeful example is energy. Right now, there is no part of North America more dependent on imported oil than Hawaii; continuous tanker landings from Indonesia are needed to light Honolulu, refrigerate food, and fuel the all-important airliners.
Though long-term contracts for adequate supplies exist, nothing is forever. Meanwhile, the islands contain no oil, gas, or coal, and nuclear power is impractical in a land with power demands that are relatively small and scattered.
What the islands do have are prime conditions for virtually every kind of "exotic" energy development. If ever there were a place where solar energy was practical, Hawaii is it. The same goes for geothermal; Hawaii is, after all, a volcanic chain, the geology of which as a matter of course generates great quantities of free steam. Hawaii will probably be the first place on the hemisphere to see an army of industrial-sized wind machines on its mountains and ridges. Little is more dependable than the trade winds, which prevent smog from building up despite Honolulu's plethora of internal combustion engines. The waste from this fecund tropical garden is perfect for conversion into alcohol. Finally, there's ocean thermal conversion - generating electricity by exploiting the difference between the sun-warmed water on the surface and the chill ocean depths. Hawaii is the location of the first large-scale experiments.
John Shupe, dean of the University of Hawaii's College of Engineering, sees in the near future a society on the islands that other parts of North America really would consider paradise. He sees the day when Hawaii's energy imports will be cut in half, and the lucrative and exportable technology for generating exotic energy will be a bigger industry than sugar.
"Of course," he says reassuringly, "oil will be important to us for many years. But I believe the islands can be self-sufficient within this generation."
This gets us back to New York. New York City, for the purposes of discussing aberrations, does not include the six or so million people jammed into the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Harlem. Those places are perfectly well understood as part of the Foundry.
"New York" is Manhattan south of Ninety-sixth Street on the West Side and south of Eighty-sixth Street on the East Side, with a few major colonies scattered throughout the suburbs.
That's the area the rest of the continent views as the alien and dangerous headquarters of such fabled, insulated cliques as the Wasteful Unions, Profligate Politicians, Surly Help, fast-talking jive artists, subway spray-painters, sin merchants, Foreign Policy Establishment, Banking Establishment, East Coast Liberal Media Establishment, and so forth. That's the area the commentators are talking about when they suggest that "New York" be allowed to float out to sea.
New Yorkers accept the same geographic demarcations, but to them they define the unmatchable glory of charged ideas, dazzling talk, money, art, beautiful faces, and high-quality all-night delicatessens that make the garbage, violence, power blackouts, cramped apartments, and great expense all worthwhile.
New York is an aberration because, though, in the dark ages, it would seem to have been a logical place for a border town between New England and the Middle Atlantic civilizations, it's been clear almost from the start that that is hardly the role it had any desire to play.
If New York was going to be the border town between anything, it would be between North America and the rest of the planet (read Europe). In the course of this pursuit, it acquired such muscle at the expense of the rest of this continent that it convinced even Chicago to refer to itself as the Second City, which seems an odd point of pride.
Washington at least always paid lip service to caring about what went on west of the Potomac. New York never dreamed of such hypocrisy. Civilization ended at the Hudson. If it hadn't happened in New York, it hadn't happened. In the sixties, what started as an in-joke among literary barflies ended up, as these things do when the self-anointed start talking to no one but each other, as a semiserious campaign: New York City should become the fifty-first state. The logic was impeccable. It's the least that could be done. The whole world, after all, was divided into New York and not-New York.
Thus, the greatest psychic jolt to New Yorkers was the attempt to wipe the civic sneer off their face as the city's bankruptcy loomed in the seventies. It's hard to judge what came harder: turning to the rest of the continent to beg, hat in hand, for bail-out money, or having to launch the "I Love New York" campaign to explain to the ignorant damn rubes why they should be grateful New York existed.
The classic New Yorker's mental map was drawn by Saul Steinberg for TheNew Yorker magazine. It looks west and carefully labels 8th, 9th, and 10th avenues. Then there's the Hudson; a thin strip labeled New Jersey; an only slightly less thin strip labeled Texas, Utah, and California; the Pacific; and then China, Japan, and Russia.
It's almost self-parody that this map, blown up to poster size, should hang in the cramped offices of Bobby Zarem, "superflack." Zarem, like so many New Yorkers, has a hard time explaining exactly what he does for a living that results in so many other New Yorkers showering him with money and adulation. But what he does, essentially, is figure out what perceptions people hold toward his client and alter them, favorably, and usually through an intuitive process. He was the perfect person to promote the "I Love New York" campaign, which he did.
Zarem, who is very spacy (his conversations are punctuated by long silences as he sorts through his skull, attempting to come in for a landing on the same psychic plane that you're on), is from Savannah, Georgia. But he is now wildly a New Yorker, and he defines that in the term most real to him: fantasy.
I have lived in New York, as many people have, for practically nothing. I was doing some graduate work at Columbia and I was living off about two hundred dollars a month. I found cheap theater tickets; I found inexpensive or free concert tickets. There's very little I didn't find a way of doing. I used to stand at the opera twice a week. It wasn't very comfortable, granted; one can't do that for life. But it sure as s*** can give some meaning to life and it sure can lift you the f*** out of the day-to-day sort of rough, irritable aspects of life.
I don't mean to sound like some Pollyanna, but every once in a while I stop to think, oh my God, I'm building a life off nothing very concrete. I don't own any property; I don't have a lot of cash. I'm building a life on fantasies. My own and other people's.
New York is once again what it always was, which is a hubbub of energy and excitement and tension and creativity and hard work and results. I mean New York is all the things right now that it ever was. I don't know if it's permanent. I have a feeling that it could be. I don't know much about the financial side of things. I never did figure out why the city was bankrupt; how it got back the money to continue functioning. I don't know if it's out of the woods now or not. I just know that by reinforcing those very, very positive, wonderful things that New York always was, we were very, very effective in helping to stem the tide and turn it around.
Everything's relative. When I was eight, I used to go to Atlanta just to go to the opera and the theater, but it was still only a cheap substitute for New York.
I could go to Atlanta because there was a train that took seven and a half hours and was twelve dollars round trip and I had four hundred relatives there. My mother would put me on the train with a chicken or egg salad sandwich and I'd go to Atlanta and I went up to see anything I could. I went to Atlanta as a child to see Joan Blondell in some f***ing play. I didn't even give a s*** the name of it, screw what it was about, who wrote it; I just wanted to see anybody I could see on the road. But I was still aware that what I was seeing was not the real thing. It was a travesty. It was almost depressing, that I had to go to Atlanta to see Joan Blondell and that Joan Blondell had come to Atlanta to perform it.
In my mind, in any case, whatever it was, it wasn't the real thing. I belonged to New York. I've never liked Atlanta. Sure, Atlanta's hot now. Look at sleazy Jerry Rafshoon [Jimmy Carter's dogged former public relations man]. I mean, come on, he has a business there. Anybody that sleazy who could have a business in Atlanta, I could have had five times the business. He's a cheap copy of what's coming out of New York.
I came to New York for the good, not for the bad. I did not come to pull some deal over people's eyes and make a fast million. I did not come to New York because you can pick up hookers every night two blocks away, or to f*** little boys or anything. I did not come to New York for that, although all those things are fine.
I didn't give a f*** about them. I came to New York for the uplifting aspects of the town.
New York as a fantasy is interesting in the study of regionalism. One of the central ideas involved in thinking of North America as Nine Nations is that power is being dispersed as the continent matures. Now, so the theory goes, you can plausibly fantasize about making an important dent in the world from Los Angeles or Houston or Dallas.
Bobby Zarem is the perfect New Yorker to the extent that this idea has no meaning to him whatsoever. When he saw New York at what he calls "the all-time pits rock-bottom low," when the Stock Exchange was talking about moving to New Jersey, when the advertising agencies were going to move to Bayonne, he said, "If you guys move out of the city it is the final step for any of the creative processes that also have a commercial value. The ad agencies go, writers and directors and whatnot for the commercials go, it's the exodus of the last remaining heavy industry here. And I sat down and wrote letter after letter . . ."
This was a time when the garbage was piling up, the subways stuck, the newspapers struck, and the only surprises left were what bizarre new urban way there was to die, like being fire-bombed in a telephone booth by a stranger.
But it clearly never occurred to Zarem to leave.
It never occurred to him that New York might be a bad idea, that it might be caving in under the artificiality of its existence. What was life without a thousand Chinese restaurants? Where did the concepts civilization and Denver intersect? New York had habitually soaked up the cream of so many different regions that it seemed there could be no other way. For it to be else was for there not to be a New York. It was inconceivable that Georgia might oppose bailing out New York as a revenge among nations. It was shocking that Atlanta might cheer the New York Daily News headline FORD TO NYC - DROP DEAD. But sure enough, New York pulled it off again. With what is always described as a "massive infusion of federal funds," New York, as we've defined it, has come back strong. (The Bronx is still a bombed-out moon base, and Puerto Ricans are moving back to San Juan because it looks so good by contrast, but those are details, details.)
As Fortune magazine authoritatively described it:
New York City these days has the look and feel of a boom town. Cranes hoisting girders for new office buildings and hotels hog the sidewalks of Manhattan, snarling traffic. And the acres of office space vacant only a few years ago have been settled upon by international banks and others. Office rents have almost doubled. Apartment prices are going through the roof, bid up by foreigners flush with dollars and by the growing number of two-income families who can afford the high costs of city living.
All this is a far cry from the dolorous days of the early seventies, when the real-estate market was on the skids and corporations were making their publicized exits from the city . . .
The half-mile [of Madison Avenue] between Sixty-first Street and Seventy-second has become a brilliantly cosmopolitan urban shopping center, with far-out window displays. exotic merchandise. and celebrities as customers . . . Even the upstairs shops draw the smart set, from River Oaks [megabucks Houston], Bogota [drug-wealthy Colombia], and show business.
The article goes on to mourn the flight of manufacturing from Manhattan, but who cares? The point is that New York continues to do what New York has always done best: find the angle.
Eddie Epstein understands the real thing when he sees it. Eddie Epstein is the New York supermarket maven. He's the consultant Coca-Cola comes to when it's having trouble pushing its bubbly into your shopping cart.
And Eddie, despite the fact that he's a New Yorker, can see some possibilities in regionalism.
What you're doing, he told me, is segmenting the market - re-packaging America.
Yeah, he said, that's what you always have to do to extend the life cycle of a mature product. America is just like Coca-Cola. Like Coca-Cola?
Yeah, people get bored with the same old thing. They know Coca-Cola, and they like it, but they come to the supermarket and they say I want to try something different. Live a little. They've seen the ads for Doctor Pepper, so they say I'll try a six-pack of that.
So what do you do about it? Well, it's a problem. See, this is how it's like America. You can't up the name recognition. Every-body knows Coke; everybody knows America. Everybody knows what they think of both. Very difficult to get anywhere in terms of name recognition.
You also can't reformulate. If it were detergent, you could come up with New! Improved! Tide!
But New! Improved! Coke? What's that? Apart from all the people in Atlanta who would slit their throats before doing something like that, what would you end up with? Something that ain't Coke.
So whaddya do? You repackage. You have the twelve-ounce bottle. You add eight-ounce, sixteen-ounce, twenty-four-ounce, thirty-two-ounce, sixty-four-ounce, and tank truck. You put it in six-packs, eight-packs, cases. You put it out in plastic, metal, and glass. You put it out in returnable and nonreturnable.
And what do you get? In Texas, you sell lots of returnables. In Texas, the four cents means to them. They care about the money. They've also got houses big enough that they accumulate thirty, forty empty bottles; it's no big deal. People usually wash the bottles, stack 'em up, sooner or later they shlep them back in their station wagon.
In New York City, returnables die. You live in New York, you've got bigger problems than worrying about the four cents. Also, you add a six-pack of empty bottles to a New York apartment, and that's the final straw. You have to sleep in the bathtub. There finally is just no more room in the bedroom.
Eddie Epstein leans back in his swivel chair in his home office, an aerie thirty feet above his swimming pool and tennis court, half an hour from the City, paid for in the classic New York way - finding the angle.
Repackaging America, Eddie muses.
I like it. I think it would sell. You and me we go on the convention circuit together. This could sell a lot of Quaker Oats.