Everything is dirty. Nothing works. But everything’s also more expensive. And oh, by the way, you don’t have privacy anymore.
That is how I described life in the US to a friend who had been living abroad for a bit more than a decade when we met up earlier this year during his brief return to the states.
We’re not a first world country anymore, I told him. Hopefully our decline stops somewhere around second world, I half-joked. That’s probably the best we can hope for.
Earlier that evening over dinner at what was once our regular spot, he told me of his life as a physician in Poland. I told him about my PhD work on the health effects of social isolation. He told me about the influx of young American soldiers into his current country of residence.
I described to him the dismal state of education back here at home. The lack of standards. The fetishization of boutique ideologies. The compulsory commitments to further favored political causes.
Now, after a mediocre movie intended for teenagers (or perhaps adults longing to be teenagers again) we meandered in the vacant parking lot of the Barnes & Noble we frequented when he’d return home from college, as well as in the years immediately following our undergraduate work when we were living at home, navigating our first few grownup jobs.
Standing under the sterile glow of aesthetically jarring LED lights, subtle symbols of our country’s progress, I told him about the drive through my hometown earlier that afternoon. The place where I’d grown up. The town where we both had attended high school.
For much of my life, it had seemed like a stereotypical suburb of the 90s, sort of akin to what you’d see in early episodes of The Simpsons. We were by no means Mayberry, but we were a largely clean, peaceful place populated by middle-class people going about their lives the best they could.
With time, yes, a plethora of mostly little changes occurred and accrued as they do everywhere. The video rental stores and comic book shops had closed long ago. The movie theater at which I watched Independence Day, Men In Black, and so many of the other major blockbusters of my childhood with my dad became a 24-hour gym.
The Toys R Us my parents or uncles would take me to for new video games and Nerf guns on random or special occasions was now an Indian grocery store. But for the most part, we retained many of the accoutrements of 90s suburbia well into the 2000s.
Yet, on the drive through that day, more stores just seemed abandoned. Everything appeared to have acquired a thin layer of grime I couldn’t recall being there in the Before Times or even on more recent trips home to visit family. There were also far more beggars than I had ever recalled seeing there at any time in the past. …