Saturday, 3 May 2008

Ripping Off Uncle Sam

After booking my final train ticket, I took a brief tally of how much I cheated Amtrak out of during my lemming-like dash around the continental United States.
My month-long pass cost $360. I used it fifteen times for rail travel that would otherwise have cost about $1400; by my fourth trip I was ahead. But other, invisible losses were incurred by America by my choice of travel: about half my trips were overnight and prevented me from spending greenbacks on accommodation.
Had I flown, I would only have made one trip with the same money and used the dubious services of security personnel twice, for departure and arrival. By train, I was able to suck up valuable National Security minutes thirty times over. While you can't really put a price on security, in the States it usually runs about $6 an hour if facial expressions are anything to go by.
Other expenses I ground under my freeloading heel were pamphlets, maps and the Prozac-assisted goodwill of information centres in my eleven major and five minor destinations. I would sail into the tourist-trap, blue-carpeted, middle-brow urban caves, gather fistfuls of glossy materials, resolutely refuse all tours and services, ask tricky questions, and slip out in a masterfully efficient series of maneuvers. I would later toss 90% of my magpie's hoard and tear all extraneous pages from the remainder, creating a burden for garbage collectors (if I was walking) or service staff (if I was sitting).
Other costs to America were less tangible. Going by the Peter Pan principle of "Every time you say you don't believe in fairies, a fairy dies", I tried to wangle an unpatriotic statement from anyone I talked with for any length of time. Most Americans, presented with the laundry-list of sins Global & Domestic their nation is responsible for, will crumple like a wet paper bag. They are alone; no-one is waving a flag at them; Fox News is switched off; apple pie is not on the menu; Mom is many leagues away; all the guys on the money are long dead; they don't remember half the words to the national anthem. Suddenly the figleaf of God Bless America doesn't stack up against a century of reckless colonialism, cronyism, nepotism, McCarthyism and Bushisms. If I can raise the self-awareness/-loathing in America just a little, their stock goes down, baby. And mine, by comparison, goes up. I figure.

Why would I want to hurt America? Because it's dirty, and self-aggrandising, and socially unequal, and gullible, and imbalanced, and uneducated, and immoderate, and fat, and noisy, and proud, and believes in things that every other First World country abandoned as medieval twenty years ago. It has a deadly pack instinct which makes it emotive and violent and a lightning rod for other emotive, violent countries. It engages in international relations with the wit, wisdom and reserve of a guest on Jerry Springer.
All of these things make it the carnie sideshow of the world. My Amtrak pass was really an admission ticket to the carnival. See the bearded lady! Watch the man jump through the flaming hoop! Laugh as the bear on the tricycle chases the midget on the bicycle! The glory and squalor of the nation were in plain view, waiting for me to be fascinated and repelled by their very strangeness.
I ripped off America. Now I have to ensure nothing stuck to me; though if I missed something, I'm sure I shall smell it eventually.

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