The dollar was up to its armpits in quicksand, and oil prices had crept stealthily into the death-to-airlines range, and if, in the old slogan, "what's good for General Motors really is good for the USA", then destiny was dealing a harsh lesson to The Land of the Free -- while I made a drive on Thursday (in a Japanese rent-a-car) through the remotest ends of upstate New York State into the province of Ontario, Canada, to see what I could see. What I saw was pretty scary.
You get into these far reaches of upstate New York and your senses report that you have entered something like an H.P. Lovecraft story, where the sun comes up twenty minutes late, and the magnetic poles are not where they're supposed to be, and the few remaining denizens of the towns all have eleven fingers.... Even though I've seen plenty of desolation like it in other parts of the country -- the back roads of Ohio, the Mississippi River towns of the upper Midwest, the morbid stretch of blue highway between Memphis and Little Rock -- I've never encountered a landscape so shattered by the mere ravages of economic fate.
The most striking feature is how all the things once so "modern," all the roadside business enterprises designed along "space age" motifs -- the car dealerships with boomerang-shaped signs, the rocket-ship-style food huts, the schools that look like atomic power installations -- all teeter now in sublime decrepitude. The reversal of spirit from childlike exuberance of the 1960s to the senile sclerosis of today said everything about where America is at.
Much of what existed before the space age is not even there anymore, bulldozed decades ago in our haste to erase pre-drive-in living, as if it branded us a lower life-form than, say, our arch-enemy, the Soviets. I've wondered for many years what Modernism would be like when time finally passed it by, when it was no longer the sole thing it declared itself to be, up-to-date -- and there it was smeared all over the landscape like so much road kill.The most horrifying part of the trip was the old city of Watertown, a short hop shy of the Canadian border.
Named after the many falls located on the Black River, the city developed early in the 19th century as a manufacturing center. From years of generating industrial wealth, in the early 20th century the city was said to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation. Residents of Watertown built a rich public and private architectural legacy. It is the smallest city to have a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the celebrated landscape architect who created Central Park in New York City. -- WIKIPEDIA
All that industry is gone now, apparently, and all that's left of the town's economy is whatever it gets from nearby Fort Drum, the giant US Army installation. Nineteen year old soldiers-in-training are not so impressed by Olmsted parks and the civic embellishments dreamed up by timber magnates, bankers, and the owners of piano factories. The humanity visible on the downtown streets of Watertown looked like extras who wandered away from the latest Road Warrior location shoot -- semi-hominid creatures with strange loping gaits, arresting hair-dos, and enough tattoos to qualify them for harpoon duty on Herman Melville's Pequod. You passed by groups of them on the streets and wanted to make sure the car's doors were locked.
Image above: Scene in downtown Watertown NY. From http://www.city-data.com/city/Watertown-New-York.html
At the heart of the old town, everything possible had been done to erase the vestiges of pre-automobile living. I suppose this is because the first thing many young army recruits did until fairly recently was buy a car. If having to join the army (because there are so few other jobs) buys you a ticket to The American Dream, then getting a car is the consolation prize -- even if you have to make four years of "easy monthly payments" on it.
Very little of the town's physical history was left standing, and most of it stood in isolation, devoid of context, awaiting the next parade of the front-end-loaders.
What was left of "the action" had shifted to a ghastly franchise strip along the Route 3 connector to I-81. This stretch of highway was clearly where all the money had gone since, say 1976, though mostly to the pavement itself and its heroic furnishings of signage, light poles, multiple turning lanes, and curb cuts. The buildings were little more than packing crates with a few plastic doo-dads stuck on. You had to wonder if all this stuff would ever see another iteration of repair and restoration. I doubt it.
Burger King was doing some kind of promotion in its Watertown huts and the marquee in their several parking lots proclaimed -- I swear to God -- "Ask us about our Angry Burger." WTF? Is the rage of lumpen America so repressed now that it can only be expressed in menu items that turn people into hulking four-hundred-pound monsters?
It was, I'm sad to say, a relief to cross the border out of my own country. Once you got off the main highway of Canada, 401, along the north side of Lake Ontario, the landscape presented a disturbing contrast to what you saw on the American side. Unlike the slovenly, failing farms of New York State, the farms of Ontario looked successful and prosperous. The barns did not tilt at weird angles and the roofs were intact.
The farm houses were freshly painted and the grounds generally not strewn with the sort of dingy plastic effluvia Americans like to deploy around their dwellings to give the impression of plentitude. You wondered: how did all the IQ points below the Great Lakes somehow migrate over to the Canadian side? Had they invented some kind of quantum spirit vacuum, run perhaps on dark matter, that sucked all the vitality out of their neighbor-to-the-south? (If so, maybe Canada should take over our dreary duties in Central Asia.)
All this was occurring against the background of General Motors looming bankruptcy, an epochal moment in US history, like losing a limb or a loved one. The US Government has decided to drive a Chevrolet off the cliff Thelma and Louise style. We were heading there anyway, so why not make the trip in air-conditioned comfort, with plenty of room for all the family members, and on-board video entertainment for the little ones. In fact, it may not be the bankruptcy of GM itself that will amaze and appall the other nations of the world, so much as the US government's pretense that the company can return to health in just a little while and pay back all the money that the citizenry has allowed to be sucked into its black hole of losses.
My daddy bought Chevrolets in the 1950s, marvelously crazy-looking machines with winged tail-lights that handled like pontoon boats, broke down after 30,000 miles, and were tossed out every couple of years not on account of their mechanical failures so much as their obvious lack of up-to-the-minute styling. The post-war prosperity dazzled his generation with its democratic cornucopian bonanzas. The innocence of all that is truly lost now. There is a dark sense of things shifting out there now in a major way. The tectonics of history are taking us to a strange place. Maybe Mr. Lovecraft had it right.
Four things greater than all things are,—Women and Horses and Power and War.Insert another "power" after the horse and the verse was as true in the suburbs of my 1950s boyhood as it was in the Khyber Pass. Horsepower is not a quaint leftover of linguistics or a vague metaphoric anachronism. James Watt, father of the steam engine and progenitor of the industrial revolution, lacked a measurement for the movement of weight over distance in time—what we call energy. (What we call energy wasn’t even an intellectual concept in the late 18th century—in case you think the recent collapse of global capitalism was history’s most transformative moment.) Mr. Watt did research using draft animals and found that, under optimal conditions, a dray horse could lift 33,000 pounds one foot off the ground in one minute. Mr. Watt—the eponymous watt not yet existing—called this unit of energy "1 horse-power." In 1970 a Pontiac GTO (may the brand name rest in peace) had horsepower to the number of 370. In the time of one minute, for the space of one foot, it could move 12,210,000 pounds. And it could move those pounds down every foot of every mile of all the roads to the ends of the earth for every minute of every hour until the driver nodded off at the wheel. Forty years ago the pimply kid down the block, using $3,500 in saved-up soda-jerking money, procured might and main beyond the wildest dreams of Genghis Khan, whose hordes went forth to pillage mounted upon less oomph than is in a modern leaf blower. Horses and horsepower alike are about status and being cool. A knight in ancient Rome was bluntly called "guy on horseback",or Equesitis. Chevalier means the same, as does Cavalier. Lose the capitalization and the dictionary says, "insouciant and debonair; marked by a lofty disregard of others’ interests, rights, or feelings; high-handed and arrogant and supercilious." How cool is that? Then there are cowboys—always cool—and the U.S. cavalry that coolly comes to their rescue plus the proverbially cool-handed "Man on Horseback" to whom we turn in troubled times. Early witnesses to the automobile urged motorists to get a horse. But that, in effect, was what the automobile would do—get a horse for everybody. Once the Model T was introduced in 1908 we all became Sir Lancelot, gained a seat at the Round Table and were privileged to joust for the favors of fair maidens (at drive-in movies). The pride and prestige of a noble mount was vouchsafed to the common man. And woman, too. No one ever tried to persuade ladies to drive sidesaddle with both legs hanging out the car door. For the purpose of ennobling us schlubs, the car is better than the horse in every way. Even more advantageous than cost, convenience and not getting kicked and smelly is how much easier it is to drive than to ride. I speak with feeling on this subject, having taken up riding when I was nearly 60 and having begun to drive when I was so small that my cousin Tommy had to lie on the transmission hump and operate the accelerator and the brake with his hands. After the grown-ups had gone to bed, Tommy and I shifted the Buick into neutral, pushed it down the driveway and out of earshot, started the engine and toured the neighborhood. The sheer difficulty of horsemanship can be illustrated by what happened to Tommy and me next. Nothing. We maneuvered the car home, turned it off and rolled it back up the driveway. (We were raised in the blessedly flat Midwest.) During our foray the Buick’s speedometer reached 30. But 30 miles per hour is a full gallop on a horse. Delete what you’ve seen of horse riding in movies. Possibly a kid who’d never been on a horse could ride at a gallop without killing himself. Possibly one of the Jonas Brothers could land an F-14 on a carrier deck. Thus cars usurped the place of horses in our hearts. Once we’d caught a glimpse of a well-turned Goodyear, checked out the curves of the bodywork and gaped at that swell pair of headlights, well, the old gray mare was not what she used to be. We embarked upon life in the fast lane with our new paramour. It was a great love story of man and machine. The road to the future was paved with bliss. Then we got married and moved to the suburbs. Being away from central cities meant Americans had to spend more of their time driving. Over the years away got farther away. Eventually this meant that Americans had to spend all of their time driving. The play date was 40 miles from the Chuck E. Cheese. The swim meet was 40 miles from the cello lesson. The Montessori was 40 miles from the math coach. Mom’s job was 40 miles from Dad’s job and the three-car garage was 40 miles from both. The car ceased to be object of desire and equipment for adventure and turned into office, rec room, communications hub, breakfast nook and recycling bin—a motorized cup holder. Americans, the richest people on Earth, were stuck in the confines of their crossover SUVs, squeezed into less space than tech-support call-center employees in a Mumbai cubicle farm. Never mind the six-bedroom, eight-bath, pseudo-Tudor with cathedral-ceilinged great room and 1,000-bottle controlled-climate wine cellar. That was a day’s walk away. We became sick and tired of our cars and even angry at them. Pointy-headed busybodies of the environmentalist, new urbanist, utopian communitarian ilk blamed the victim. They claimed the car had forced us to live in widely scattered settlements in the great wasteland of big-box stores and the Olive Garden. If we would all just get on our Schwinns or hop a trolley, they said, America could become an archipelago of cozy gulags on the Portland, Ore., model with everyone nestled together in the most sustainably carbon-neutral, diverse and ecologically unimpactful way. But cars didn’t shape our existence; cars let us escape with our lives. We’re way the heck out here in Valley Bottom Heights and Trout Antler Estates because we were at war with the cities. We fought rotten public schools, idiot municipal bureaucracies, corrupt political machines, rampant criminality and the pointy-headed busybodies. Cars gave us our dragoons and hussars, lent us speed and mobility, let us scout the terrain and probe the enemy’s lines. And thanks to our cars, when we lost the cities we weren’t forced to surrender, we were able to retreat. But our poor cars paid the price. They were flashing swords beaten into dull plowshares. Cars became appliances. Or worse. Nobody’s ticked off at the dryer or the dishwasher, much less the fridge. We recognize these as labor-saving devices. The car, on the other hand, seems to create labor. We hold the car responsible for all the dreary errands to which it needs to be steered. Hell, a golf cart’s more fun. You can ride around in a golf cart with a six-pack, safe from breathalyzers, chasing Canada geese on the fairways and taking swings at gophers with a mashie. We’ve lost our love for cars and forgotten our debt to them and meanwhile the pointy-headed busybodies have been exacting their revenge. We escaped the poke of their noses once, when we lived downtown, but we won’t be able to peel out so fast the next time. In the name of safety, emissions control and fuel economy, the simple mechanical elegance of the automobile has been rendered ponderous, cumbersome and incomprehensible. One might as well pry the back off an iPod as pop the hood on a contemporary motor vehicle. An aging shade-tree mechanic like myself stares aghast and sits back down in the shade. Or would if the car weren’t squawking at me like a rehearsal for divorce. You left the key in. You left the door open. You left the lights on. You left your dirty socks in the middle of the bedroom floor. I don’t believe the pointy-heads give a damn about climate change or gas mileage, much less about whether I survive a head-on with one of their tax-sucking mass-transit projects. All they want to is to make me hate my car. How proud and handsome would Bucephalas look, or Traveler or Rachel Alexandra, with seat and shoulder belts, air bags, 5-mph bumpers and a maze of pollution-control equipment under the tail? And there’s the end of the American automobile industry. When it comes to dull, practical, ugly things that bore and annoy me, Japanese things cost less and the cup holders are more conveniently located. The American automobile is—that is, was—never a product of Japanese-style industrialism. America’s steel, coal, beer, beaver pelts and PCs may have come from our business plutocracy, but American cars have been manufactured mostly by romantic fools. David Buick, Ransom E. Olds, Louis Chevrolet, Robert and Louis Hupp of the Hupmobile, the Dodge brothers, the Studebaker brothers, the Packard brothers, the Duesenberg brothers, Charles W. Nash, E. L. Cord, John North Willys, Preston Tucker and William H. Murphy, whose Cadillac cars were designed by the young Henry Ford, all went broke making cars. The man who founded General Motors in 1908, William Crapo (really) Durant, went broke twice. Henry Ford, of course, did not go broke, nor was he a romantic, but judging by his opinions he certainly was a fool. America’s romantic foolishness with cars is finished, however, or nearly so. In the far boondocks a few good old boys haven’t got the memo and still tear up the back roads. Doubtless the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation is even now calculating a way to tap federal stimulus funds for mandatory OnStar installations to locate and subdue these reprobates. Among certain youths—often first-generation Americans—there remains a vestigial fondness for Chevelle low-riders or Honda "tuners." The pointy-headed busybodies have yet to enfold these youngsters in the iron-clad conformity of cultural diversity’s embrace. Soon the kids will be expressing their creative energy in a more constructive way, planting bok choy in community gardens and decorating homeless shelters with murals of Che. I myself have something old-school under a tarp in the basement garage. I bet when my will has been probated, some child of mine will yank the dust cover and use the proceeds of the eBay sale to buy a mountain bike. Four things greater than all things are, and I’m pretty sure one of them isn’t bicycles. There are those of us who have had the good fortune to meet with strength and beauty, with majestic force in which we were willing to trust our lives. Then a day comes, that strength and beauty fails, and a man does what a man has to do. I’m going downstairs to put a bullet in a V-8. Note by Juan Wilson: Born in October 1963 as a $295 option package, the Pontiac GTO put a 389-cubic-inch V8 in a Pontiac Tempest body -considered a "compact car" in its day. As the song by Ronny and the Daytonas goes:
Little GTO, you're really lookin' fine. Three deuces and a four-speed you gotta a 389. Listen to her tachin' up now, listen to her why-ee-eye-ine. C'mon and turn it on, wind it up, blow it out GTO. You oughta see her on a road course or a quarter mile. This little modified Pon-Pon has got plenty of style. She beats the gassers and the rail jobs, Really drives 'em why-ee-eye-ild. C'mon and turn it on, wind it up, blow it out GTO. Gonna save all my money and buy a GTO. Get a helmet and a roll bar and I'll be ready to go. Take it out to Pomona and let 'em know, That I'm the coolest thing around. Little buddy, gonna shut you down, When I turn it on, wind it up, blow it out GTO.The GTO is considered to be the first factory-built "Muscle Car." The GTO was produced from 1964 through 1974, when high insurance rates and emissions regulations forced the reducing its legendary horsepower down to a meager 200 h.p.
- A moratorium on GM food, implementation of immediate long term safety testing and labeling of GM food.
- Physicians to educate their patients, the medical community and the public to avoid GM foods.
- Physicians to consider the role of GM foods in their patients' disease processes.
- More independent long term scientific studies to begin gathering data to investigate the role of GM foods on human health.
"Multiple animal studies have shown that GM foods cause damage to various organ systems in the body. With this mounting evidence, it is imperative to have a moratorium on GM foods for the safety of our patients' and the public's health," said Dr. Amy Dean, PR chair and Board Member of AAEM. "Physicians are probably seeing the effects in their patients, but need to know how to ask the right questions," said Dr. Jennifer Armstrong, President of AAEM. "The most common foods in North America which are consumed that are GMO are corn, soy, canola, and cottonseed oil." The AAEM's position paper on Genetically Modified foods can be found at http:aaemonline.org/gmopost.html. AAEM is an international association of physicians and other professionals dedicated to addressing the clinical aspects of environmental health. More information is available at www.aaemonline.org.