New England in the

Charles Simic
London Review of Books
January 20, 2011

Only someone badly lost would find himself driving through a village as
unremarkable as this, I’m thinking. The lights are on in the post office,
but the parking lot is empty: no one, I imagine, is in a hurry to pick up
their mail when it consists, mostly, of bills. The two-storey elementary
school is quiet: it’s as if they’re waiting to hear the answer to some
question the teacher has posed and it’s been a long time coming. All along
the road there are small family graveyards. They have stones with barely
legible dates that coincide with old and mostly forgotten wars, the short
lifespan of the buried indicating that they were the casualties of such
conflicts, and their last names that their descendants continued to live in
this area and may rest in this same ground, next to these woods and these
fields covered with rocks they never quite succeeded in clearing.

Northern New England is beautiful in the fall. The leaves turn pretty
colours and the days tend to be bright and mild. Once the rains come and the
trees and gardens turn bare, one can see how modestly many people live,
their homes in need of paint and repair, the cars and trucks parked in their
driveways looking more than a few years old. Of course, when Christmas
decorations start appearing in doors and windows and on some of the lawns,
the small towns have a cheerful and welcoming air, especially after night
falls, although this year the decorations are less extravagant than in years
past. Everyone around here is broke and worried about the future.

The bigger towns in the area, except those on the coast, which lies half an
hour away, are in bad shape. Though they never fully recovered after the
last mills and factories closed in the early 1970s, they managed to get by and
recently even showed signs of recovery. Not any more. Formerly their
downtown streets were lined with modest, locally owned stores selling
hardware, stationery, medicine, newspapers and clothing; they have now
either gone out of business or are doing poorly. The people one sees in the
streets or in the remaining stores look downcast, unhealthy and unemployed.
The sight of a young woman pushing a wobbly stroller with a sickly looking
little girl past a boarded-up gas station is a sign of the future.

For sure, there are worse places in the United States. Towns like Detroit
with their abandoned neighbourhoods and gutted train stations, banks and
hospitals overgrown with weeds and littered with trash wouldn’t look out of
place in some country devastated by war. Is this where we are all heading?
One hears every day about towns and cities that are unable to pay their
bills, or the salaries and pensions of their employees, while they cut basic
services like street lighting, snow clearing and police work, as well as
funding for libraries and the maintenance of parks.

How anyone here can support a family is unfathomable to me since there are
no decent-paying jobs any more. The official national unemployment rate is
9.8 per cent, but everyone knows the real figure is much higher, since 9.8
per cent doesn’t include the huge number of Americans who can only find
part-time employment or who have stopped looking for work. Most larger
businesses have outsourced their jobs or moved them overseas, so that when
one calls for technical assistance about a malfunctioning cell phone or
computer one is now connected to a man or a woman in India. Given the
indifference of our corporations, banks and politicians to the plight of
American workers, it is hard to imagine where the salvation of these
communities will come from, particularly since many of those who suffer the
most don’t bother to vote, or give their votes to politicians who can be
counted on to ignore their growing despair.

Once in a while I drive past a courthouse where on weekday mornings there
is usually a small, unhappy group of people waiting for the court to open.
The accused have just been brought in from the jail, or have come along with
their lawyers and relatives. Most of them are young men, some still in
school, and they’re likely to be here because they’ve stolen something,
assaulted someone or used illegal drugs. No matter what happens to them in
court, they have little to look forward to. If they go back to school and
manage to graduate, their chances of finding work are slim. Their best hope
may lie in joining the army – as has now become feasible even with a
criminal record – so that they can eventually return home with some money
saved. They may also come back in a coffin, or maimed, mentally or
physically, but, again, in a country where economic inequality is now
shrugged off and where there’s no political will for shared sacrifice in
time of war, their fates, whatever they turn out to be, will barely register
in the public mind.

New York, or rather Manhattan, gives the impression that the economic
downturn is over and that we are again rolling in money. The restaurants and
bars are packed every night. A Spanish woman who lived in the city in the
1980s told me that New York now feels like a huge, crowded shopping mall. It
may seem like that in some parts of town, but even here there are millions
worried about their jobs, praying that they won’t get sick and be faced with
huge medical bills: so who are these carefree people in their midst? To get
back to reality, one must walk the streets at six in the morning, when the
poorly dressed and dejected human beings of all ages who do all the lowly
jobs in the city are coming out of subways on their way to work or lining up
for coffee at fast-food joints and grocery stores. It’s the cold weather, you
might argue. It makes everyone look grim, even those who work in offices
and fill these streets a couple of hours later, but I don’t believe that’s
the whole story.

‘I feel now like one of those men who used to stretch a wire between two
skyscrapers and set out to cross it, swaying in the wind as they made their
first hesitant step,’ I overheard an older, well-dressed man say on the bus.

Yes, I could see him up there too, flapping his arms like a scarecrow in a
storm, while the crowd below gasped and cheered, some of them wanting
him to keep his balance, others wanting him to fall to his death.

I’ve heard friends say this holiday season that they are beginning to hate
family reunions because the talk inevitably turns to the economy and
politics. Arguing with relatives who get all their information from Fox News
is as much fun as driving nails in with your head. Transforming once
reasonable human beings into gullible idiots is one of the biggest businesses
we have. One could call it our chief national product. To make someone
unlearn everything they’ve ever learned about their country’s and
their family’s history, and come to believe the opposite, requires that they
be subjected on a daily basis to misinformation and lies about everything
from our domestic problems to the wars we are fighting until they have no
opinions of their own.

It’s fairly common nowadays to meet individuals who not only parrot the
ravings of right-wing radio hosts, but do so with the serious and confident
air admirers of the Soviet Union used to have when quoting something Stalin
or the Daily Worker said. I have been told by men and women who get all
their information from such sources that we should invade Mexico in order to
stop illegal immigration, that we should let prayer and not government dole
take care of people who go hungry, that Hitler and the Nazis were liberals
like Franklin Roosevelt, and that Obama is a power-mad Muslim who wants
to bring socialism and sharia law to the United States.

In an atmosphere of growing fear and hysteria, it is easy to understand why
the money men are funding these peddlers of ignorance and hatred. They
want to confuse the voters who suspect that something is fundamentally
wrong with their country, conceal from them the causes of our economic
decline, set them against one another by reviving old bigotries and force them
to look for scapegoats. What I find incomprehensible is that so many of them
don’t care if we end up with a huge underclass or the kind of suffering
we saw during the Great Depression. You’d think the prospect of riding in a
limousine past soup lines of miserable-looking human beings would make
them reconsider, but all they dream of is making a killing and turning the
social security and pension money of the retired over to Wall Street to gamble
with. In the past, one could count on the Democratic Party to put up some
resistance. Not any more. Now that getting elected for public office costs
so much money, everyone who runs must prostrate themselves before the
bankers and pretend to find virtue in their reasoning.

My brother said to me the other day: ‘If only business wasn’t taxed, didn’t
have to provide healthcare for employees, and wasn’t in any way regulated,
and was immune from lawsuits for wrongdoing, and if there was no
unemployment insurance for the unemployed and social security for the old,
this would be a wonderful country.’ He was summarising what the
Republicans were saying in the last election, when the Americans who would
be most hurt by these policies overwhelmingly voted for them. The unions
used to remind their members at election time of the bosses’ undying wish to
find some new way of screwing them out of their salaries and their pensions.
Today even the old union members who depend on government
programmes like social security and Medicare have come to believe that
their problems are the fault of big government, undeserving minorities and
illegal aliens. If government would only get off our backs, they keep
shouting, things would be swell once again. One finds oneself reminding
people that we pay taxes so planes don’t collide in the air and our rickety old
bridges don’t fall when we drive across them.

I wonder what those early explorers who left us their accounts of coming
into contact with previously unknown cultures, or their fictional counterparts
like Swift’s Gulliver, would make of today’s Americans. Delegated by God
to be the masters of the universe, convinced of their moral superiority, they
find it easy to slaughter both the guilty and the innocent with no remorse
and continue to maintain, despite all the evidence, that there is no relation
between cause and effect. Even stranger is their belief that never taking into
account the consequences of their actions is a road to happiness. Otherwise,
the natives are hardworking, usually friendly, enamoured of sports and
their various pets, and fond of a good laugh now and then.

The gunshots of a hunter frighten the poor old dog, so he hides in the
corner, as does the small boy left at home with his old grandmother. Outside
her small, two-storey house, yellow leaves fly in the air. It’s Halloween.
The crows look bored strutting past coffins and skeletons and the big fat
pumpkin flashing a toothless smile someone set in the yard. The shots she
hears in the woods do not alarm the old woman. Living in ignorance of what
her country does in the world has been the secret of her lifelong cheerfulness
and confidence about the future.

Now that we are in a permanent state of war, we are no longer permitted to
see the carnage we are the cause of, either on television or in the newspapers.
I’d like to believe that a month of images of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and
the tribal areas of Pakistan would bring back the peace movement, but I’m
no longer sure. I mentioned to both strangers and friends the video
WikiLeaks released of a helicopter in Baghdad gunning down Reuters
journalists and civilians while its crew whooped with delight. They either
hadn’t watched it, or just wanted to talk about what a bad man Assange was
and whether he ought to be taken out. They also confessed that they
preferred not to think about war in order not to get depressed. Putting
aside both reality and morality, they imagine that our wars have nothing to
do with them. This I find especially true in some universities, where the
students are the first generation I have known who have no desire to question
their government’s policies. A friend who teaches at a local college told me
that his students find Emerson and Thoreau troubling for the dissent they
showed from conventional opinion. Dissent is difficult when not a single
politician in November’s election, as far as I’m aware, mentioned the more
than a trillion dollars that have already gone into the maintenance
of our global empire, or hinted that this may have something to do with the
state of our economy. We are like a family that sits around arguing about
its finances, the need for mother to get a part-time job, sis to quit college and
junior to stop taking ski vacations, without daring to mention that dear
old dad has a serious and expensive drug habit he has no intention of doing
anything about.

‘God bless war,’ a man I know said. ‘Otherwise we’d spend all our
hard-earned money feeding the poor.’

One night before Christmas in New York, a thin, sickly-looking man whose
hands shook badly, as if he were playing a pair of maracas, asked me for
money. ‘Hands clutching wounds to staunch the flow of blood, wherever you
go,’ he said mysteriously as he pocketed the dollar bills, backlit by a
store window full of magazines with fishing-rods, cars, guns and enormous
naked breasts.

In the area where I live, on plots of newly cleared land, there are several
houses, some of palatial dimensions, built in the last ten years, most of which
sit unoccupied. What the builders had in mind has always been unclear
to me and to my neighbours. Yes, it was easy to get a mortgage, often with
no down payment, but who could possibly afford to heat that many
bedrooms, bathrooms and a huge kitchen? Too far from Boston and the larger
Massachusetts and New Hampshire cities to commute to work, and with the
long, cold winters making them undesirable vacation homes, they made no
sense except to the banks and construction companies. Some claimed that
these smart folk know what they are doing, that there are many young
couples with highly paid jobs who don’t mind commuting two hours each
way to Boston, but it seemed unlikely, and still left the question why one
would pay between $400,000 and $800,000 for a home and spend so little
time in it.

Now we have our answer. Not many bought, and the few who did either
gave up their homes or were evicted by the banks. We are left with these
monuments to the greed and foolishness of the last decade. As the gap
between the well-to-do and the rest of us widened, credit became easier to
get and people took on a staggering amount of debt, putting themselves
in the position of being one paycheck away from financial ruin. ‘When your
bank says No, we say Yes,’ one mortgage company used to say. Even if one
had a decent salary, once in debt to a bank, a credit card company or a store,
it was near impossible to pay off the full balance of the loan, because of the
exorbitant interest rates and hidden fees and penalties. Still Americans kept
borrowing, accustoming themselves not to think about the consequences,
living from month to month and often taking out second mortgages and
endangering whatever equity they had in their homes to pay the bills.

They lost their jobs, their health plans and had their home foreclosed,
someone says of one family in the neighbourhood. No one has any idea
where they went or what happened to them. The last time the mailman saw
the husband, he was sitting on their porch still in his pyjamas, staring into
space, while a small white dog kept running in the front yard, barking at
the leaves falling from the trees. He waved to the man, but the man, who was
usually so friendly and eager to have a chat, did not wave back.

Only the bereaved mother, some neighbours and a few old schoolfriends,
I was told, came to the wake for a young man who died in the war, and they
left quickly because of the freezing rain outside, while an unknown girl
remained at the back, seated in a row of empty chairs, acknowledged by no
one, still wearing her coat, engrossed by something invisible to anyone
else in the ugly brown carpet, which grew more and more intriguing to her
as the hour passed and the men about to remove the coffin and put out the
lights finally asked her to leave.

A letter in the New York Times on 23 December, from a Mr John E. Colbert in
Chicago, defended the White House’s recent compromises:

President Obama is a realist who gets things done: he makes his case,
counts votes, makes his best deal and the country moves forward. That’s
progress. He doesn’t gloat or count enemies but moves to the next task.

In contrast, others hold to principle and accomplish nothing. Purists for
healthcare reform, for example, insisted on the best solution in 1993
and came away with nothing. Mr Obama took the best he could get and
came away with sweeping improvements.

I hear this argument from liberals every time Obama capitulates to his
opponents. Having no principles and not living up to any promises he made
to the people who got him elected is now regarded as the height of political
wisdom. I wonder what kind of pragmatic compromise the president would
have urged Martin Luther King to make with the segregationists in the

After putting aside the Sunday papers after lunch and peeking out of the
window at the snow beginning to fall, I closed my eyes in my chair and
concluded that clearly there hasn’t been enough misery in the world for some
people out there. The early darkness makes it difficult to chase away such
thoughts and look for a book, to find again, perhaps, that passage in Thoreau
where he speaks of the grand old poem called winter, coming around each
year without any connivance of ours, or that other one where he pleads
to heaven that there be birds on days like this with rich, colourful plumage,
recalling the ease and splendour of summer days, among the dead bushes
and frozen trees in the yard.

Charles Simic has a new book of poems, Master of Disguises.

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