I drove fourteen hours one way, each way, to Orlando, FL this week. I left from Fredericksburg, VA in a little Hertz rental on Weds around noon to arrive at the Quality Inn, where I was staying, on International Drive around 4 AM. On Saturday, I left the Doubletree Hilton, where the conference was held, in Orlando and arrived back to my wife and my bed around 4 AM Sunday morning. I went to the Comparative Drama Conference to present a paper on tracing the tragic rhythm in the major musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. And, no, that is not the subject of this blog. No worries.
Driving alone gives you lots of time to think, to listen, to observe. I’m an avid podcast listener and almost never put on music in the car; it puts me to sleep. My business is often music, so listening to music can sometimes feel like work. No, I like the spoken word: podcasts, NPR, even talk radio in a pinch. Down and back I listened to several episodes of The Thomas Jefferson Hour (my favorite podcast) as well as podcast episodes of The Charged Life, Star Talk, Zig Ziglar, Wayne Dyer, The Tolkien Professor, Ben Franklin’s World, Back Story and NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t tell Me. I like to listen, I like to learn, I like to engage my mind. I recommend them all.
Most of my time was spent on I-95. It was congested in the southern middle states. It was often calm and clear from South Carolina downward. I was struck by how beautiful America’s landscape truly is; the trees changed, their beauty didn’t. I was dismayed by how many chain restaurants and fast food stops absorb the horizon. Mom and Pop stores, restaurants and the like, make up a very small percentage of the advertised businesses, and their signs often seem old, weathered, or downright archaic compared to the slickness that is the Whopper, the Arches, the Wal-Whathaveyou. I ate at a struggling Mom and Pop buffet called the Robbin’s Nest in mid-North Carolina. The food was amazing, and the price was dirt cheap: $8.75. The place was 9/10s empty, and the wait staff polite if rurally despairing. Once I got to Orlando, the prospects of eating simply and outside of chains practically dried up, and those that were there were largely out of my price range.
I-95, when you get away from the exit ramps, is littered with barns, silos, busted-up car garages, impound lots, go go bars, and lots of flat space in between. Don’t get me wrong, the landscaping is pretty and often custom-tailored to the weary traveler ‘just passing through’, but I was struck by how, well, poor hundreds and hundreds of miles of our great country looks, and along the scenic route no less! To see America, away from the clusters of chain shops by the exits, is to see a country wrestling with poverty, poor wages, and limited opportunities. It reminded me of the almost euphoric fervor people seemed to have around King George when the Wal-Mart started to go up. Now, five years later, over half of the existing family businesses pre-Wal-Mart have closed around town. What have we gained? What have we lost? I can’t imagine how I would feel if my highest aspiration for my son would be as a cashier at KFC, but I could sense that for many folks as I passed through, that would be ‘living the dream.’ Not really.
I don’t mean to be dour or a downer in my post this week, but I do mean to suggest that as a country we need to do better…by everyone. State legislatures across the country over the last several weeks have announced plans to fund education or healthcare or both for their in-state residents. This is in response to what they see as a national government not tending to the needs of all citizens. If this trend continues, I predict we’ll see a flight from states that don’t adopt similar policies to aid their constituents, effectively making some of the poorest states even poorer and the richer states richer. As one Virginia friend said to me this week, after the announcement that New York was going to start offering free tuition to its state universities for residents, “It’s time to move home.” I understand and sympathize with her position. But in a larger sense, the problem is contained within the statement. Too many Americans (not my friend) have been weaned on state’s rights rhetoric – the kind that nearly destroyed our country 150 years ago and is verged to do so again – and it’s time to put that failed ideology behind us. We are all Americans and together, not separate, we can all do better: better healthcare, better education, better opportunities, better infrastructure, better as human beings.
We just have to start caring about each other, and start seeing America both for what it has become, and what it can be.