An EXCERPT from AMERICAN MANIA:
Peter C. Whybrow
From Chapter One
Adam Smith’s American Dream:
Of Desire and Debt
An old moon retreats before a December dawn. My taxi lurches forward, across the eight lanes of Wilshire Boulevard, and heads west. We pass the picture windows of LA Fitness and the rows of glistening bodies that run in place, preparing for the mental treadmill of the day ahead. The taxi driver, my instant friend from Odessa, lapses into animated Russian as his dispatcher calls. Cradling the phone at his ear, he speeds through two amber lights. Swiftly we are up the ramp and onto the freeway, nosing south into the glare of the rising sun. Ahead is a changing river of blinking color, as vehicles brake and weave. Without a moment’s hesitation we join the flow. The traffic is heavy, even in this pre-dawn, which comes as no surprise. America is the global nation and night and day Los Angeles is on the move. The flatness of the passing city is broken as a billboard looms into view and a smiling Santa offers an invitation. "Visit Disneyland, the happiest place on earth.” Today that’s not for me. This taxi to the airport, plus an early morning flight to New York, will be my only rides.
My 'plane east is delayed in its arrival from Tokyo. It’s just days before Christmas and the wave of seasonal travel is cresting. After running the gauntlet of security, I take refuge in the executive lounge and dose fitfully amidst the jingle and buzz of cell phones. Men and women in little cubicles are bent over the luminous screens of laptops. Coffee is in great demand. Through the lounge window I can see the bustle of the runway, choreographed in deceptive silence. It’s 6:30 a.m. and the sky has been repainted Californian blue.
Across from me sits an executive who has put aside her business chores for the moment and is speaking on a cell-phone with her young daughter. It’s a wake-up call. I’m struck, not for the first time, with how at ease we have become in airing private thoughts in public places. With technology running ahead of public decorum I’m now a confidant to the intimate details of this stranger’s family life. The daughter is unhappy. She doesn’t want to go to school. The mother’s voice is firm and reassuring, although from my privileged seat the furrowed brow and trembling lip that signal her discomfort are readily apparent. It is the promise of special gifts and a magical holiday that finally proves convincing and, finishing the call, the mother sighs to herself and turns to reading. Presumably to better scrutinize some detail she holds up her magazine to the sunlight that is now flooding through the window. An advertisement on the back cover catches my attention. It's for a luxury car and the photographs highlight the vehicle’s interior, a rich brown leather interior. "Think of it as chocolate, as another sweet spot in your life," is the drift of the spin-doctor's advice. Another sweet spot? I'm still only half-awake. Which magazine is this that blends appetites so freely? Intrigued, I shift my position to better decipher the lettering above the elegant Yuletide wreath that adorns the title page. It is a magazine of the good life -- Martha Stewart Living -- a special edition to bring delight at the holiday season. I’m prompted to ponder my neighbor’s life beyond the business suit; her dreams, her personal passions, the waiting family, and how she fits them all together in the world of turbo-capitalism. How does she balance the competing priorities, I wonder. But my musing is interrupted as a flight is called and the magazine disappears, along with the phone and the laptop, into a black attaché case. For the moment the executive is back, as a harried mother heads home to bestow seasonal joy.
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