by Jonny Craig
In his 2016 release, Interstate: Hitchhiking through the State of a Nation, travel-writer Julian Sarayer chronicles his unorthodox and remarkable journey from New York to San Francisco. As with many — perhaps all — great travel books, Sarayer’s account is as much about those he encounters along the way as it is about either breathtaking landscapes or personal travails. He weaves reflexively astute cultural analysis into a narrative which deliberately recalls Kerouac’s On the Road, spotlighting the often glaring gap between ideals and their flawed applications; between The American Dream and the meagre, sometimes desperate material realities of many of those who cling to it. ‘It’s not that modern America is the worst country in the world’, remarks the author at a Greyhound bus station in Ohio, ‘but where it reigns supreme is the gaping gulf between the way its citizens perceive the country and the reality’.
A few weeks ago, I moved back to the United States after a 12 month hiatus on England’s south coast. Short of cash and facing a delay of a month or more in updating the status of my alien residency, my first couple of nights back were spent trawling through Craigslist looking for likely under-the-table gigs. After several frustrating exchanges of emails and phone calls, I was offered work at a nearby warehouse, processing fruit and veg. As you could probably guess, the work is boring and repetitive. Staff are supervised via CCTV by a humourless and perennially pissed-off company manager and the breaks are few and short when they arrive.
Not unexpectedly as an Englishman in an Albuquerque fruit packing factory, I found myself, at work, in an ethnocultural minority of one. The most frequently spoken language on the work floor is Spanish, followed by Navajo, with English mainly used as a lingua franca between guys (and they are all guys) of different backgrounds, or else to accommodate my lack of linguistic versatility. Cutting and cellophane-wrapping a million slices of watermelon early one morning, I fell into conversation with a colleague who had grown up and spent the majority of his adult life on a reservation in northern New Mexico. Stopping short, I hoped, of what may have been regarded as saccharine, starry-eyed condescension, I asked about his life on the res, to which he replied with deadpan humour that automobiles had not yet made it to such prehistoric lands, and instead everyone rode horses, wore feathers in their hair, and never wore pants.
After he was through making fun of me and my patronising questions, my new work-mate contemplated his relationship to home and ultimate desire for return. His only current obstacle, he continued, was another 18 months of probation on account of an aggravated DUI (drink driving) charge. The first 6, furthermore, were to be spent in a local ‘halfway house’ – an institution, decidedly Victorian in ethos, designed to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders after serving time in prison. Here, grown men sleep half a dozen to a dorm, attend mandatory counselling, and have to be home for dinner at 7 o’clock every evening. Residents are not permitted to spend earned wages on groceries of their choosing, much less cook them independently. Even after the 6 months in-house are completed satisfactorily by my colleague, the city limits mark a boundary past which he cannot venture, lest his probation be reset to its original 18 months. It seems unsurprising given the variety and degree of restrictions to their personal freedom (not to mention the close quarters in which these men reside), that tensions would arise and fuses would run short. Indeed, a quick scan through some local news websites confirms that a man was killed in the halfway house this past summer after an altercation with a fellow resident.
Having covered all that was immediately explicable about his living situation, we returned our focus to the mind-numbing mundanity of slicing and packaging fruit for supermarket stands. After a few minutes without conversation, he inquired after my background, probably more out of courtesy than genuine intrigue. ‘In England’, he started, looking up from the cutting table, ‘have you got freedom and stuff like we have here’? I’m a little taken aback by the question – its bold generality, as if it were an absolute zero-sum, with no possibility of ambivalence or complexity. IS there freedom in England? In the moment it’s too much for me to think on and the flickering strip lighting above us is giving me a headache, so I tell him I guess so, to an extent, that we enjoy more freedom than in many other countries in the world, but maybe not some others.
But also, I’m taken aback by the assertion in the last half of his question. I am struck by his belief in the USA as a model nation, ‘the greatest in the world’, despite the extensive restrictions placed on his own personal freedom. That a fidelity to the country’s founding ideals persists in spite of his limited access to liberty I find part admirable, part confusing, especially in light of the history of mass-killing and forced displacement of his ancestors, so integral to the founding of this modern nation. As Sayarer suggests, it seems like something doesn’t add up. Between the bellicose, patriotic ideals of middle-America and the frustrations of those seeking, against lengthening odds, to embody them, there is a chasm. I don’t condone the crime for which he was incarcerated, but question whether – and for how long – adults can stand the energy-sapping trivialities of work and bullying bosses for an insulting $8.50 an hour. I can only conclude that up and down the land of this nation, the richest in the world, men and women are obliged by an ideology of wealth and its pursuit at the expense of others to respect those whose boots tread on their faces, or else fall into destitution. If this is freedom, it is so circumscribed as to be virtually meaningless beyond the right to despise those even less fortunate than oneself.
But of course, I don’t say any of that. He and I return to our slicing and dicing, preparing freshly pesticided fruit selections for the budget stands of Smith’s supermarket. In the next couple of weeks when my legal status is confirmed I can leave the warehouse forever, my prospects bolstered by education and establishment-friendly mannerisms, the inheritance and sheer fortune of a privileged upbringing. But felony charges and alien statuses mark many out for restricted lives defined by anxiety and hardship, for poverty-wages and only the faintest prospect of social mobility. When the odds are stacked like this, it isn’t surprising that a roulette spin or venture into some illicit economy should begin to appear like a decent bet. As I leave work that day I can’t help but admire my co-worker’s resolve, and marvel at the resilience of a still cherished idea – spun through generations and adapted to fit different times and places – defying the evidence of its surroundings, fraying but persisting in these febrile times.
Jonny Craig is a Sussex MA Anthropology graduate. His academic interests include the anthropology of neo-nationalism and whiteness. He currently spends most of his time chopping watermelon. One day he’d like to do a PhD instead.