I laughed because just that day I was riding an escalator up the tunnels of the tube and saw 50 Cent, the hack that he is, sitting back with his feet up on the control panels of a studio advertising his new brand of shoes….”
by joel van noord
On July 11, 2005, a handful of misfit university British terrorists drove or took a metro south to one of the postcard, economic, social, capitals of the world-London-and rocked four tube stations… death, hysteria, and a stoic British American-esque reply that had something to do with: “what’s up fuckers, remember the IRA? Do you remember our history? We’ll do what the fuck we want, when we want, and how we want.”
Ok. I was reading Chomsky at the time and resigned to the idea (through Chom’s insatiable drive for what decent people call truth and successful people call “collateral damage”) that England is just America’s little buddy, their “junior partner” in the rueful words of a senior British official.
The price of plane tickets to the UK dropped precipitously as American tourists cowered in fear of another 9/11. But, I heard Blair say before he learned the terrorists were Brits from Leeds, “we won’t let them change our way of life.”
Everyone’s irrational when empathy is so foreign.
I bought a ticket with my best friend, coincidentally an Arab-American who finds his home and roots in American hip-hop; a kid from Detroit, rocking Eminem and MF Doom with a Tigers cap turned and pants dropped low on his waist and so forth. But he was my friend because he was smart and we shared much in common. We’d gone to the University of Michigan and he majored in philosophy and we’d discuss Sartre and Nietzsche and walk around our campus in elaborate discussion and then traverse the bars in pursuit of titties in the practice of our existential thought. His name was Hussain-I don’t have to make this stuff up.
Tickets were only $225 for a round trip out of Dulles airport, near where I was living at the time; it was $450 for a flight to San Francisco where my brother worked as an MD. It was foolish not to go with those prices. We ended up buying a package deal to London with five nights in a Holiday Inn and round-trip airfare for $450. Just near Russell Square where the Tube was temporarily derailed.
I’d been to London before and thought of myself as somewhat worldly and traveled. I’d been around Europe, studied abroad in Amsterdam and thought that topped almost all anyone else had to offer.
But the most vivid memory of our short jaunt and the terrorized aftermath of London is that of a bar where I first introduced my Arab friend to absinthe. We were tossing them back with an irresponsible, American abandon, watching as thick cataract-like layers developed over our perception and caused everything to take on a rather comical and safe aura; like we were wearing thick rubbery suits and everything was padded for us to gently bump into and experience.
We somehow met and ended up deeply in conversation with these Dutch South African girls. They were gorgeous girls, tall and blonde with blue eyes, ancestors directly shooting their lineage to slave ships and colonialization and the worst humanity had to offer. But they were nice.
“You could have the best standard of living in the world. If you only wanted to,” this one Dutch girl kept saying. ‘If you only wanted to’ was interesting to me. The words were like a shock of cold water that sobered me up a little, at least enough to become cognizant of my surroundings.
“Baby, I do want to,” I kept saying.
“No, I’m serious,” she’d repeat in her unique bottom-of-the-world accent. “You Americans have such great potential, you could all have health insurance and all of that. Cuba, a third world country, has better coverage for their nation.”
I didn’t know whom she thought she was arguing with, preaching to the star pupil of the choir-so to speak. I mean, did she see the chocolate tint of my hip-hop friend? “400 billion a year.” I told her.
She looked on, confused.
“Think about that. Counting the annual defense budget and Iraq and Afghanistan… and soon Iran!” I slurred, “Around a billion a day…we spend on huge guns and helicopters and soldiers and night vision and Hummers and tanks and nukes and ammunition and helmets and B-52’s and combat boots and bombs and missiles and shells and… all that shit. Isn’t that hilarious?”
“Hilarious?” She leaned back pondering. It obviously wasn’t, especially from her vantage point tucked down at the bottom of the dark continent, clear from the dizzying lights of endless civilization and its blessings. It was sad and depressing. But when you live under the umbrella of such blatant disregard for humanism, sanity, and an environmentally sustainable world, you develop a callous, almost apathetic shield against the absurdity.
“But what about our musicians and artists?” I asked her. “They’re the best. Right? I haven’t heard one non-American pop-song yet in London.”
She had to agree with that, the only British musicians they played were Sting and Oasis and they were more American now than anything else.
“That’s just because you’re just such a fat bastard country and have so much more money to put that shit on TV and radio and plaster our cities in propaganda.”
I laughed because just that day I was riding an escalator up the tunnels of the tube and saw 50 Cent, the hack that he is, sitting back with his feet up on the control panels of a studio advertising his new brand of shoes. He’s an MC, not a basketball player… but in these America-days what’s the difference. “I don’t really like it either,” I said.
“But you Americans used to be a hope for the world, democracy, and popular movements and all that, being able to change. And now all you do is fuck with everybody and make the world a more dangerous place. George Bush is more dangerous than Saddam Hussein ever was,” she told me and I listened with a distant absinthe smile.
“I’ll let you in on a secret.” I leaned in, almost dropping my heavy head on her massive breasts. I inhaled and she smelled delicious. “Well… since you mentioned Cuba… It’s been U.S. policy for nearly sixty years now to one day get our hands on Cuba, turn it into Puerto Rico, and we got that embargo and it’s comical, the massive U.S. afraid of tiny little Cuba, smaller than Miami. But Cuba and Castro are threatening because… I’ll tell you. This is official U.S. documents released from… years ago, under the Freedom of Information Act, Castro is like a virus, his idea of “taking matters into your own hands and having social change in one generation” is dangerous and could spread throughout Latin American causing…whatever… problems for the U.S.” I stumbled through it, but impressed myself nonetheless, recalling the speech in the state I was.
“And democracy?” I continued, swaying on my feet and leaning close to her porcelain-like face, “at least spreading it-that’s another myth. In Latin America and the Caribbean, especially Guatemala and Haiti, whenever there is a democratically elected President, we enter the country and support some right-wing coup to overthrow him and install a military dictatorship.”
She shook her head. I think I surprised her. She’d wanted to tell me something about my great country and I let her, then I took her hand and we jumped off the deep end together. “You could just have such a high standard of living if you only chose to,” she said again, focused. As if my speech threatened to overwhelm both of us.
“You got to remember who America is, baby, it’s not Americans, who are steadily losing jobs and earning less than they did in the ’70s. America is the one percent of the population which owns 50% of the stocks and 20% of the wealth and the richest 10% who own almost everything else. America is a taxpayer-subsidized faceless corporation, with workers in Mexico and India earning pennies, keeping its money in the Cayman Islands and their strategic headquarters on the outskirts of emptying urban areas…. That’s America, baby,” I said, feeling good about our conversation. I thought for sure I’d soon be in her white African panties.
Then I turned and pulled the shoulder of my Arab friend, bringing him closer. “This is an American,” I said and pointed at his startled face, squeezing his shoulder into mine, the stupid brown bastard that he was, like me, with a marginal job and no health insurance and little job security.
It was too funny. I couldn’t help laughing at my own greeting-card statement and let out a few stinking belts of absinthe-laced laughter. The girls just looked at us as we smiled at them, as I held lamely to the shoulder of my best friend, he of the Arab hip-hop personality.
The South African girls’ South African boyfriends soon arrived and put their hands on their shoulders and smiled widely at me and my fellow American, and we nodded and walked away. I stumbled onto the dance floor as a DJ-mixed version of Britney Spears began blaring out of the speakers, “…you know that you’re toxic.”
Joel Van Noord was born in Costa Rica and now lives in Washington DC. He teaches Spanish and English at a city college.