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Scenes From a Weird and Angry America
We were back in the U.S. after six years away. Here's some of what I saw.
After almost six years of traveling the world as nomads, Michael and I returned to America in the summer of 2023 — to our “home state” of Washington.
What we saw over the course of our latest visit home was sometimes shocking, sometimes weird, and often very contradictory.
Here are three “scenes” that happened to us that I think might say something about America right now.
EXT. DOWNTOWN ALLEY - NIGHT
Michael and I met two of our friends at a high-end restaurant in the city center. Because valet parking was full, I parked about a block from the restaurant.
After dinner, we walked back to our car.
We passed a man rifling through a Dumpster, clearly very high. When we glanced his way, he said, very aggressively, “What are you looking at?”
When we ignored him, he started following us, screaming obscenities. He trailed us almost to our car, and several times he made like he was going to charge us.
Honestly, we didn’t know if he had a knife or gun, or what he would do, and it was really scary.
Michael and I saw this kind of social breakdown everywhere in America: mentally ill people screaming in public places, a truly shocking number of asshole drivers, equally asshole kids openly flipping bystanders shit, very public drug use and dealing, evidence of widespread shoplifting, and rampant homelessness.
Some of my progressive friends say that social breakdown in America is fabricated or grossly exaggerated by conservative media in order to scare older voters.
There may, indeed, be some irresponsible fearmongering going on — and the evidence is that crime is now falling again. But it seemed to me that some kind of social decline was — and is? — very clearly happening.
INT. FRONT ROOM, SHARED AIRBNB - MORNING
Since August lodging rates were insanely high, Michael and I spent part of our time in America in an Airbnb “room,” sharing common areas with the hosts and a few other guests.
The room itself was great, and the whole facility was incredibly well-run: efficient, spotless, and hospitable.
Except that every time I chatted with one of the hosts, the subject of race came up. Once morning, I casually mentioned it seemed as if their house was located on a Native American reservation.
“Yeah, and you better not get on their bad side,” he said. “They control everything. But you should see their houses. Dead cars in the yard, couches on the porch.”
The next day, I asked about a different neighborhood, and he said, “That place used to be lily white, but it sure isn’t now! If you drive through, go fast, and you better lock your doors.”
I am certain this man thought he was simply making very obvious observations about certain people and places.
I thought he was engaging in textbook racism.
Some of my conservative friends think that racism in America in 2023 is greatly exaggerated. Some charges of racism may, in fact, be exaggerated or wrong. But the casual racism that this guy repeatedly spoke to me, someone he didn’t even know, suggests to me it’s still more widespread than many people admit.
(Yes, I spoke up at the time. Yes, we also gave the facility written feedback.)
INT. CAR RENTAL COUNTER - DAY
Since a car is essentially required to get around in most parts of America, whenever we’re back, Michael and I always rent one.
This time, the cost was four times what we usually pay. But hey, it was August, and usually we visit America in winter, post-Christmas.
But when we arrived at the Avis rental facility, we also found a very long line — a hundred or more people in front of us. We were told the wait might be up to two hours.
People were very frustrated and huffy — even, I admit, me.
To the company’s credit, they had an employee whose sole job was just to go up and down the line explaining the situation: they were processing 1400 reservations in the space of four hours, and they couldn’t give anyone a new car until an old car came in and was cleaned.
After the woman moved on from us, I said to Michael, “Man, that would be a tough job.” But we both agreed she was very good at it, “like Counselor Troi from Star Trek,” I joked.
Incredibly, almost two hours later, when we finally did arrive at the rental counter, we learned that our reservation was invalid: I had made it while living in Bangkok, and though it was not disclosed, it was supposed to be for Thailanders only.
In fact, the price for our car was actually six times what we usually pay.
(With some pleading and lots of finagling, we were able to keep our “good” rate. But the woman at the counter was considerably less pleasant than Counselor Troi.)
But I also couldn’t help but note that despite these sky-high prices, business was absolutely booming: the line extended out the door, and they couldn’t keep any cars in stock.
So there you have it: my take on America in 2023 in three scenes.
Currently, America is:
Experiencing a pervasive and sometimes shocking social breakdown. I don’t think this can be handwaved away.
Sometimes paranoid and racist. I don’t think this should be handwaved away.
Pissy and angry in general — sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.
Ridiculously expensive but also economically booming, at least for some people.
I found all this very weird, mostly because we didn’t experience any of this in Southeast Asia, where Michael and I lived for the first half of this year. We didn’t really see it in Europe either, where we’ve spent most of the previous five years (though Europe has its own problems).
I don’t have answers about any of this, but I’m definitely willing to provide more questions.
Is this all about income inequality? Unfortunately, while inequality in America is still egregiously high, it’s been stable or maybe even declining for a decade now. Yes, it ticked up again during Covid, but the evidence suggests that since 2021, wages have risen fastest for the poorest among us.
So maybe this is all about Covid? You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to predict that we would pay a very high price for the pandemic for many years to come.
So why didn’t it seem like the other places Michael and I lived this year — Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia — are paying the same high social price? On the contrary, it often seemed like Covid brought those countries closer together.
Is it fentanyl? The pervasive and toxic nature of social media? Out-of-control consumerism and corporatism in general? America’s rampant individualism and the long-term breakdown of community? Police reform gone wrong? Political polarization and the lingering effects of the Trump insanity?
Or is it…all of the above?
It’s not in anyone’s imagination: some weird shit is happening in America right now, and I don’t think it has a single or simple cause.
I suppose the answers will become clear in time.
But in the meantime, how do you solve a problem when you’re not quite sure what it even is?
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out my new newsletter about my books and movies at BrentHartinger.com.