Every morning the landscape outside my bedroom window changes. Sometimes I’m still asleep when it does; when we pull out of truck-stop, parking lot, side-of-the-road, campground, and meet the road at the beginning of another day. Today we are in the desert, tomorrow we’ll see evergreens and mountains again, and the next day the Pacific ocean.
By nine am the New Mexico sun is already hot on the skin of the Earth. Children play tag in the trailer park kicking up red dirt with dusty sneakers and bare feet. Mothers with dark skin tanned by the desert sun hang up clean washing to bake. They are breathing proof that life can be found between miles and miles of seemingly impenetrable vastness.
By noon we are racing the trains across the plains. Windows open, hair blowing in wind. Hours roll by. There are few cars at this time of day, just miles and miles of hot asphalt freeway, and a mirage of water glistening in the distance.
Billboards advertise Jesus and fried chicken on Exit 45, there’s also a Chevron station, casino, and a handful of run down looking motels where tattooed men puff cigarettes while their women pace from place to place.
Life on the road is unforgiving. Some people get lucky, others not. In Utah I checked a man into the hostel who carried only 35 dollars on a visa gift card in his left jacket pocket. I tried not to ask questions, but he told me anyways. Said he got robbed on the Greyhound bus traveling from Las Vegas. Said he’s trying to meet up with his girlfriend, they got separated and she went to jail but should be out soon. He pays 15 dollars for a bed and asks for work. TT and I bring him leftovers from the staff dinner even though we’re not supposed to. Who makes the rules here, that some people have everything and others have nothing? If some people get lucky, maybe we are the lucky ones.
My father is a semi-truck driver. I say is and not was because I think it’s the career that chose him, because even when he’s not in the truck he thinks of it, and because whenever he is on the road he feels at home. I try to see myself in the fresh-faced twenty-one year old who’s seen more of the country than I ever will, who by twenty-three drove thousand mile days with his wife in the passenger seat and baby asleep in the back. My parents are the sort of people who just don’t fit within the mold of conventional life. They know the system too well to be fooled into it. They know the road too well to give it up. No, not yet. We joke that maybe when they’re old they’ll apply for office jobs and tease the kids just getting started that retirement really is the best time to sit at a desk and do nothing. Perfect for my aching back, my father will say. Perfect since the kids have long since grown up and left, my mother will say. Go out and get some life experiences why don’t you!
On Wednesday morning I catch sight of a green sign with crisp white letters outside of my bedroom window. Welcome to California. Welcome to the place where dreams are made and broken, where people no different than us have been crossing the border for years seeking opportunity and a new life. Coincidentally, this is where we too have come to take the first step into our new life. It’s also the beginning and end of my last month in the USA.
Wispy clouds on a pastel blue sky hang overhead jutting peaks. It looks like another planet and feels like one too. The thermostat reads 119 degrees today in San Bernardino County and it’s only ten am. I can feel dreams melting off my body and evaporating into the dryness. Even the cacti are melting. This town looks like America does when I close my eyes and imagine it from oceans away. Stillness, palm trees planted into the concrete, interrupted only by an orange train passing over hot iron bars. There are convenience stores of a post-apocalyptic sort, manned by elderly women in spaghetti strap tank tops, and houses with peeling paint and cars permanently parked in the driveway.
17 years after my first taste of cross-country American freedom I sit with my three sisters at a truck-stop. It is nothing more than a standard gas station but the air conditioning is cold on our damp skin and the ice cream machine is functional. A sort of modern oasis between 50 miles north and south of anywhere. We sip our melting ice-cream and watch as people shuffle in and out. Road-tripping teenagers, families with young children, couples, vagrants from all walks of life, and lone truck-drivers with weather-beaten faces holding plastic jugs of Big Gulp.
The road brings us together, maybe it’s that and not football or the 4th of July that forms American patriotism. A car culture from the get-go, these freeways form the black skeleton of this country. Is there greater freedom to be had than on the open road? Certainly Rascal Flatts thought not singing life is a highway, I’ll go it my way. Certainly Steinbeck thought not crafting characters who traveled over state lines, living the raw life of migrants themselves.
Where the road brings unity the city brings division. LA from what I’ve seen so far is a city of ceaseless contrast. For two nights we slept in a car-park off Sunset Boulevard below million-dollar properties overlooking the ocean. A beautiful spot of an unconventional real estate shared between a dozen or so pro-surfers, hippies, and van-life enthusiasts. But a few blocks down, a family with three children no older than seven slept under the pier with just a few blankets and plastic tarps between them. Returning home from a walk to the grocery store, I watched a purple McLaren speed by a man with matted hair digging through a bin. Both parties obviously oblivious to the other, but the two figures together represent one of the many inconsistencies of this city.
Generally speaking, I’m not fazed by poverty, at least not anymore. I understand it to be a reality of any post-agricultural revolutionist society. 11,000 years ago when groups of humans started to trade their nomadic hunter-gather lives for stationary agricultural ones, social class systems and by consequence poverty became realities of life. There are never enough resources to go around, and what resources are available are often not dispersed equally to everyone.
However, for some reason, I continue to find poverty in the USA harder to swallow than in Morocco, South-East Asia, or in the gypsy slums of Macedonia. Maybe it’s the fact that none of these nations claim to be ultra-wealthy, first-world countries, and none other boasts of a level of economic prosperity above nearly everyone else. But poverty in principle can’t be that different a thousand miles away…Or can it?
At the heart of American society is the individual. This is why capitalism thrives. The individual has the opportunity to succeed, or alternately, to fail through their choices and actions. For a select few, this is highly productive. These select few create multi-billion dollar companies, engineer revolutionary new technology, and to no one’s surprise, they are also the ones driving the fancy cars. The majority of the rest of society falls somewhere in the middle, doing what needs to be done and living comfortably, but not excessively. But the bottom tier of society is where we find a stark contrast. Those who have been ostracized, and left to fend for themselves. Maybe it’s because of drugs, criminal pasts, or mental illness, but these are the people who ask for money on the highway and dig through rubbish bins for their next meal.
In addition to the separation of people, individualism creates isolation. In general, social circles in American culture don’t extend much further than closely knit family relationships and friend groups, the people who truly and mutually benefit your life. It’s easy to see if social status was lost, and in some way or another these relationships with it, you would have little to support you. Falling into poverty can be painfully simple.
A few days ago I overheard a conversation in passing between two women on the Santa Monica Pier. One was an obviously higher class woman and the other a homeless lady who yelled at the other in response to some nasty comments, “You can say what you want to me, miss perfect, but you don’t know how easy it is to lose everything!”
You don’t know how easy it is to lose everything. This statement, despite the context, resonated deeply with me. I like to think that it takes a lot of bad luck, some hard drug abuse, and a few unfortunate circumstances to become homeless, but really it is so much easier than that. If you lose your family or lose your job, who’s to keep you from ending up on the street. The answer is no one. As a society, we are so focused on our own lives and day-to-day happenings that we don’t do enough at all to look out for one another.
In Morocco, even when unemployment is high, you don’t see homeless people in mass hordes in every public park and on every street corner. Instead, they fill the cafes or do odd jobs in the Medina. The majority are still supported by their families, one of the local teachers told me. And the rest of them are supported by the community. Elderly women or poor children are given leftovers from the bakery, and no Moroccan drives up to the Atlas Mountains without a bag of food to give to the isolated and impoverished Berber families who live there. Yes, some Moroccans receive no support and have to fend for themselves, but this percentage is exponentially smaller than it is in the States.
In Macedonia there is a powerful stigma against the Romani “Gypsy” people. 12 million Romani live in Europe, creating the region’s largest minority, yet most face harsh inequality and segregation from greater society. Even so, the Romani survive through strong community and cultural ties. While I wish they didn’t face inequality and isolation to begin with, there’s some relief in the fact that these people are not left completely to fend for themselves or are ostracized from their own culture.
In the States homelessness seems to equate loneliness. Seeing lone figures wandering the streets and sleeping on park benches is the norm. Maybe there are some communities of homeless people, but it seems the vast majority are left completely by themselves, something that makes American homelessness unique to other countries and cultures.
The challenge of poverty isn’t something that can be solved with a simple answer, but the sufferings of a large group of people could be alleviated substantially by collective action. If people would only pause from focusing on their own life and see those around them a bit more often. Respect everyone, because you don’t know what has happened in their lives and no, you don’t know how easy it is to end up on the street. Understand your privilege and do a bit to share it with those around you. This could be leaving your leftovers on top of the bins instead of throwing them away. This could be buying an extra burrito to give to the man you know lives in the park by your apartment complex. LA is a city of four million people. If everyone who could afford to help someone else did, there would be so much less space here for the division.
Published 1/8/2018 from Los Angeles, California