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February 27th, 2006
Mon, Feb. 27th, 2006 04:58 pm

"I'm always very interested in my first impressions of Japan after I've been away for a while, because in a way they're the strongest and most revealing ones, before it all becomes familiar and habitual," I wrote on December 31st. So, before it all faded into habituation, I scribbled down a bunch of adjectives. Japan was "soft, breezy, floral, sensual, efficient, uptight, northern, tidy, neat, well-organised, superlegitimate, pristine, theatrical" and so on.

Well, I've just arrived in New York (after stops in Milan and Berlin... it's all a blur, my eyes feel like they're lined with lead), and I'm scribbling down my first impressions of this city just like I did last year, when the billboards on the road in from Liberty International airport seemed to proclaim that "we're all criminals of one kind or another. Potential criminals or sinners..."

This year it's a related impression I get: winners and losers, we're all obnoxious mavericks. It's the impression you get of America when you've just arrived from Japan, before it all settles down and comes to seem normal. When you're a bit jet-lagged, either fuzzier than usual or, perhaps, somehow, clearer.

I take the train in from the airport; it's the first time I've taken it in from Newark (which is what I insist on calling this airport, although it's probably called "Operation Enduring Democracy Shining Liberty Torch" by now), and I'm slightly surprised there even is a train, or that there are toilet facilities in the station. Because, after Japan, my impression of this society is that it's a place where the idea of being in public doesn't really work. Although it's undeniably a society in every normal way -- a place where people congregate, work together, follow the rules, co-operate, work in teams -- America doesn't seem to like to think of itself as that. It prefers to think of itself as a big mass of individuals... mavericks.



The message is right there on a billboard for Hennessy cognac. Beside a sepia portrait of Marvin Gaye the copy line reads "Never Blend In". It looks like Gaye's late, slightly tragic period, the time when he was living in exile in Oostende, making "Sexual Healing" with drum machines, seeking sexual healing himself. Now, forgive me for thinking it's a bit odd to use Marvin Gaye as an image of the supposed greatness of not blending in. Gaye surged to fame with records like "What's Going On?" -- very much a news bulletin about the collective life of the black community at the peak of its radicalism. His individualist phase is him in exile in Belgium, or him being shot dead by his own father for being, apparently, too defiant and cocky. Is that what the poster is alluding to? It's a pretty tragic symbol of the life of a "maverick".

The next sign I see on the train is a notice about what happens to customers who don't co-operate with the conductor, refuse to pay, or threaten violence. They'll be put off the train at the next station and handed over to the police. It must happen a lot. Mavericks, you see.

There are lots of adverts for a car insurance company called Geico, whose mascot is a horrible slimy green gecko. Three million divers switched to Geico last year, he says. He loves saving you money on your insurance claims. When you crash, presumably, into another obnoxious maverick.

There are other ways mavericks can clash, of course. The train passes a big billboard which just says "Divorcing?" and gives a number. Conflict is making a lot of people rich in America. Conflict, crashes and fights. 1-800 I-CAN-DIVORCE!

Then there's a billboard that says "Jail is a 4-letter word. Call this number to find out how to avoid ending up there." How many young American men between 20 and 30 are in jail at any given point? This article says that in some cities (like Baltimore) more than 50% of the population in that age range are either in prison, on probation or on parole. Mavericks.

Winners and losers are both mavericks. They resemble each other here in their refusal to play by the rules. Some end up in jail, others running companies. My flight has featured lots of personal announcements from the founder and CEO of Continental, telling us how he started the company, how everyone working for it is exceptional. Mavericks. Give 'em a big tip! Because they're individuals, and so are you. There follows a song with so much virtuoso soul melisma the singer manages to put 12 syllables into the word "I". I counted them.

The train is confusing. Everybody who's just arrived at Operation Enduring War on Terror airport is looking for Penn Station New York, but many must descend on the platform at Penn Station Newark, which is in Jersey City. It does have a couple of skyscrapers, although all you'll find on the platform is one drunken bum. Another maverick.

The train is full of people making cell phone calls. Something people don't do in Japan, so you don't have to hear people endlessly telling invisible partners "I'm on the train" in a loud voice. Outside there's another billboard: some New York Times number one best-selling author (Janet Brown?) poses in slacks, as skeletal as Joan Rivers, the scalpel-thin face of someone who's battling the ageing process with lots of plastic surgery and "winning". Her books are about murder.

On the subway train there's a young black guy selling candy "to put myself through college". It's a slick ploy; he's not a loser but a potential winner. He's not asking for charity or admitting weakness, but showing how well he can play the maverick game. The carriage is full of mad-eyed loners in jeans and padded jackets. Just how badly disconnected from the social network is the guy opposite you, eyeing you with a strangely manic, desperate look? Well, he's talking to himself. The women are also "mavericks" -- just rather more nervous ones. They too wear jeans and padded jackets.

As I approach East Broadway station, suddenly the carriage fills with sane people. Tall, thin people who talk to each other warmly and animatedly, people who look poised and intelligent, people who look as if they live in groups and realize that society is all about obligation, and achievement comes collectively. They're the Americans of the future, and they're Chinese.

So here I am sitting in a cafe on Orchard Street. Stipe is singing on the radio "Nobody tells you what to do, baby... Hey kids, rock and roll, nobody tells you where to go, baby". It's a tragic view of society, and Stipe sings it in a tragic way, the sad image of Marvin Gaye floating above his voice.

Later this week I start work at the Whitney, where I'm very afraid I'll be taken for an obnoxious maverick myself. I'll blend right in.

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