An American Journey

…And thankful to be coming in from the cold

By Raoul Pantin

Within 48 hours of my arrival in Washington DC on October 18 last year, via Houston, Texas, I was astounded by the heavy coverage, almost on a 24-hour-a-day basis, by leading television news networks on the US Presidential election, not due until November 2012. And this coverage only intensified over the next two months I remained in Washington.
Given that winter was on, I expected it to be cold. And it was. But it was also classified as one of the warmest early winter periods on record, a fact for which I was grateful. Because, for certain, I’m not a cold weather person. (I had similarly been blessed with warm weather during a one-week visit to London late last year).
The initial focus of that intense political coverage was the contest among various Republican party candidates, all vying to be selected by their party to run against President Barack Obama in what would soon be described as “the most volatile Republican race in decades.”
Several debates among those candidates were analysed to the bone over the following 24 hours.
One commentator noted that since May 2011 the lead in that Republican race had changed at least seven times. But when I was there in October the man out in front was Herman Cain, a black American businessman who seemed certain he would be selected to contest President Obama come November 2012.
That didn’t last long though. First, two former female employees of the National Restaurant Association, which Cain had headed in the 1990s, claimed that they had been given settlement payoffs by the Association after charging Cain with sexual harassment.
Cain publicly denied those charges. Then a third woman, who, unlike the other two, identified herself in public, made a similar charge. Once again Cain flatly denied it. A fourth woman then went public with the claim that she had had a 13-year affair with Cain—which he also hotly denied, appearing in public with his wife who appeared to give him her full support. (Though one wondered about the exchange between them in the privacy of their home).
It wasn’t his alleged womanising that did Cain in eventually though. It was his obviously appalling ignorance of foreign affairs. In one interview he suggested he was concerned about China developing “a nuclear capability”, which China had developed more than a dozen years previously.
“Cain ain’t Abel!” was the witty comment of one TV anchor, dismissing Cain’s political chances.
And finally there was his “brain freeze” moment when asked a question about Libya. Cain said “Libya?” as though he wasn’t sure what or where it was. And then his mind seemingly went blank – similar to another Republican candidate, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who had a similar “brain freeze” when listing government departments he would get rid off if elected President. Perry listed two, struggled to remember a third, then ended with “oops!
But the Cain gaffe was far more obvious and embarrassing. Cain finally announced that he was temporarily retiring from the race, saying he hoped to stay in the fray. But that was that. Herman Cain had had his 15 minutes of fame and was now consigned to the dustbin of history. Eventually, he would throw his weight behind the next leading contender, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who, in one controversial interview, said he would force judges to appear before Congress to explain their judgements if need be, even if meant sending a court marshall to arrest the judge.
Gingrich also suggested that young black male students should be made junior janitors in schools since they knew nothing about a work ethic – completely disregarding the fact that the single mothers of most of those boys worked at two and three jobs in order to make ends meet.
He also carried a lot of baggage – including once being fined by Congress for ethical violations in the past, receiving some heft y payments from a failed state housing agency. And some racy romantic adventures that led to divorce and re-marriage – all of which would become fodder for a series of negative advertisements being run by another contender moving in from the flanks, Mitt Romney. Gingrich kept his nose in front with a win in South Carolina, but by the end of January, Romney had cut in front with a big win in Florida.
My own feeling, based on conversations with a wide range of people in Washington over the two-month period, is that Barack Obama will win a second term – but it will be a really uphill struggle and Obama’s chances will rise or fall along with the economy. Unemployment stood at 9 per cent in my first weeks in DC but by early January 2012 jobs were once again being created at a fairly rapid rate.
But the United States also finds itself saddled with a US$15 trillion debt! And there are some who believe the United States government is heading for bankruptcy and another depression is on the way which will make the Great Depression look like child’s play.
I like Washington DC. It is a well laid-out, orderly and law-abiding city. No driver broke traffic lights. Pedestrians waited patiently for the signal to cross the streets. In stores, cafes and restaurants the service was exceptionally good.
There was not even a hint of rubbish on the streets. Garbage bins were strategically placed on almost every corner.
Americans live very private lives. In the neighbourhood where I was staying, the houses all shuttered against the cold, it was rare to catch a glimpse of even one neighbour. And walking in the streets, passers-by seemed startled if you said “good morning”, “good afternoon” or “good night”, though you would usually be rewarded with a warm smile.
One of my favourite people in the Chevy Chase neighbourhood was Jim, the proprietor of the nearby CVS Pharmacy on Connecticut Avenue. I walked in this area constantly, sometimes visiting the Starbucks cafe for cappuccino or dining at a nearby Greek restaurant.
I never talked politics with Jim, a tall affable man, but he always enquired how I, a Trinidadian, was feeling about the onset of winter. Whenever I told him I found the cold almost unbearable, he would assure me with a big smile: “You ain’t feel nothing yet!”
The sun. I noticed, seldom rose before 7.20 in the mornings. And it offered virtually no warmth.

Three days after I landed in Washington, the big news story on TV was the capture of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, caught hiding in a drain after French NATO jets bombed his fleeing convoy. The TV showed a clip of Gadaffi being roughly handled by his captors – and within an hour it was reported that he was dead, from a bullet to the head.
And the so-called “Arab Spring”, which had begun in Tunisia, then spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria (where protestors continue to be killed by security forces), was in full flower.
One morning my hostess, a friend of some 30-plus years, took me to visit the Washington Zoo, where I spent a good part of the day gaping at cheetahs, lions, tigers, elephants, zebras, camels, gorillas.
And even squirrels, including the black squirrel, which was listed as “endangered”. But black, and brown, squirrels were ever present in the neighbourhood. With black beady eyes and bushy tails, they turned up on tree branches, skipping across lawns, darting out of hedges and across the street.
Another day my friend and I walked some 20 blocks, going past the gleaming White House, to visit the newly-established Martin Luther King Memorial, an impressive 50-foot tall stone replica of the late civil rights leader. On a wall there was posted an excerpt from King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirit.”
There were hundreds of visitors surrounding the Memorial that day, many of them white Americans with their children.
I interviewed two eight-year-old twins who were there with their parents. One of them said: “I believe he’s a great person.” The other said: “I think he was a good man because he understood the need to keep peace in the world.”

One story that regularly made the news was about the Occupy Wall Street protestors, who were frequently being routed and arrested by the police though that didn’t stop them from continuing to demonstrate, proclaiming themselves the 99 per cent poor Americans vying against the one per cent wealthy at the top.
If the OWS movement, which had spread to several American cities, represented rage against big business it was complemented by, even if radically opposed to the very conservative Republican Tea Party, which represented rage against big government.
In late October, I had a visit from another old fried, Leon Dash, a former ‘Washington Post reporter now teaching journalism at the University of Illinois. Leon had come to Washington to take part in a conference on digital media and that evening called on me for a warm and wonderful reunion.
In early November, I also discovered a Trinidadian restaurant on Georgia Avenue in Washington, known as Crown Bakery and run by the brothers Selman (brothers of securitu specialist Lance Selman). There I bought, a couple times, curry chicken and rice and introduced my American friend to some very basic Trinidadian food.
That same month a major sex scandal story dominated the headlines with charges that Pennslyvania State University football coach Jerry Sandusky had been assaulting young boys. Sandusky was arrested and faced trial on 40 charges of child abuse – feeding a scandal that the preoccupied the news for weeks.
Then at 4 am on the morning of November 24, my hostess and I left Washington for the three-hour drive to Williamsburg, Virginia, where she planned to host a Thanksgiving dinner (complete with the de rigeur turkey, cranberry sauce and all the trimmings) for her elderly mother. Going past a place called Rock Creek Park, a deer suddenly emerged from the bush and sauntered across the road in what was a regular occurrence, judging by the signs urging drivers to proceed cautiously along this route.
On the news that day it was reported that some 45 million Americans would be travelling for Thanksgiving.
Williamsburg is a small, quaint, “colonial” town, a site for tourists. My first American Thanksgiving dinner was a wholly pleasant experience, never mind my reservations about turkey. Thanksgiving Thursday was followed by Black Friday, so named because it’s the day when many consumer retail outlets go into the black, thanks to the 152 million Americans going shopping, some of them lining up for hours before stores open.
The United States economy might be said sputtering but on that Black Friday alone shoppers spent US$58 billion!
I returned to Washington to the news that Trinidad-born Dr Conrad Murray, charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of super pop star, Michael Jackson, had been found guilty. Dr Murray sat in court with a stoic face as the judge gave him a stern lecture before sentencing him to the maximum four years in prison.
A persistent theme on television and radio talk shows was American self-examination. It was the mark of a new society, still uncertain of itself, still searching for the right tone and modus operandi.
In his 1995 autobiography former Secretary of State Colin Powell summed it all up neatly:
“We are a fractious nation, always searching, always dissatisfied, yet always hopeful. We have an infinite capacity to rejuvenate ourselves. We are self-correcting. And we are capable of caring about each other…We have to start thinking of America as a family. We have to stop screeching at each other, stop hurting each other and instead start caring for, sacrificing for and sharing with each other. We have to stop constantly criticising, which is the way of the malcontent, and instead get back to the can-do attitude that made America. We have to keep trying, and risk failing, in order to solve the country’s problems. We cannot move forward if cynics and critics swoop down and pick apart anything that goes wrong to a point where we lose sight of what is right, decent and uniquely good about America.”
It remains an on-going, virtually every day quest in the United States today.
I had a quiet Christmas dinner at home with my hostess and her son. So in one year I’d had both my first Thanksgiving and my first Christmas in the United States. All too soon, I boarded my flight for the trip home, again going via Houston, Texas. All I could think of on that seven-hour flight from Texas to Trinidad was warm weather. And I will admit, when the lights of Piarco International Airport loomed out of the darkness, I could only feel a sense of relief.
My American journey at its end.

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