THE BLOG
10/06/2014 03:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

First World, Third World: A Travel Essay

You travel a bit, and you wonder what happened.

(I)
Streets, laid out in the 19th century, are jammed with traffic that was never anticipated. Not just more cars; Americans traveled on foot or by horse the last time these were thought through. After moving two miles in 45 minutes, we cross a bridge built in 1901.

The bridge handles the traffic decently; it was built quite wide for the trains that used to transport Americans. The over-engineering on the bridge, common in the days before computers, would prove prescient as it would be several decades before the city, the richest in America, would build modern ones, and the last of those opened in the 1960s.

The infrastructure is old and tired but can't be fixed it seems. Too expensive. Though the current Iraq/Syria war has already cost over one billion dollars, and the previous one over two trillion dollars, somehow there is never enough money.

(II)
The subway might be faster, but the segment I'd use for part of the journey was first opened in 1904 and is a hodge-podge of patches and repairs today. The girders holding up the street have been painted by generations of workers over the last hundred years such that when a chip appears, it is deep and noticeable, a sort of archaeological find. Theodore Roosevelt was president when the first coat of paint was applied.

The subway isn't really an option anyway. Public transportation to the airport, one of America's busiest, is limited to a single bus that runs irregularly, with limited space for the luggage of the poor souls who need to check something, and drops off at stops at the airport equally convenient to no one. The bus isn't yours anyway; it is designed for persons commuting out of the areas it passes through headed to work at the airport, staffing your Cinnabon. Some smiles there that don't reach eyes. At least remember to say thanks.

On your way you pass through their crumbling neighborhoods where the open businesses are often check cashing places, we buy gold cubbies and pawn shops. Some fast food places, who pay minimum wage in the neighborhood while exporting profits to midtown banks. You can actually see over the roofs into Manhattan where the money goes, and where the morning newspaper has an article on "affordable" condos priced at over two million dollars.

(III)
The airport, originally built in 1939 (Franklin Roosevelt was President and WWII was just starting for the Greatest Generation) and randomly added to over since, is chaotic at best. At security, foreign tourists look around for validation as they are yelled at to remove their shoes. It all seems inexplicable to many from Third World places the U.S. can't bully into following America's security theatre script. The floor we walk on in our socks is still a bit sticky from some spill. Everyone holds their hands over their head inside the scanner, a position of submission prisoners assume. The analogy is only slightly an analogy. But people either believe in it for their freedom as they are told, or just put up with it to avoid the bullying that follows displays of even quiet resistance. Be glad you are allowed to fly at all and have not been put without your knowledge on the No-Fly list for some Josef K. offense.

Everyone on the plane, which departs late without explanation offered to you, is sorted into class. Those with the right credit card, or those who paid more, are treated one way, right down to a silly scrap of red carpet at check-in that to be fair does seem to validate something to some of them, judging by the smiles and the glances back into the lines. The other people are pushed onto the plane in a scrum of unintelligible "groups" to struggle against one another for the limited resources of space to sit, or to store giant amounts of luggage they are forced to carry to avoid usurious fees. The fee has nothing much to do with the airline's biggest cost, fuel, as the weight is the same in or under the plane. The fee just is there. It's a kind of modern icon, in other places called disingenuously a "convenience fee," a fee you pay to buy something else.

On the plane everyone speaks in a bully's (that word again) passive-aggressive verbiage. Sit down or we won't take off, and it'll be your fault, and God help you if the other flyers turn on you. You can't congregate near the restrooms, even though there is only a tiny space anyway, because supposedly 13 years ago that's what the 9/11 hijackers did. You are not passengers, or customers. You are all potential terrorists and will be treated as such. Here's half a Diet Coke as a reward for being compliant.

(IV)
Flying over the Midwest, even at 25,000 feet midday on a Tuesday, you can't miss the huge factories and warehouses, all surrounded by empty parking lots. No jobs it seems, even at this altitude. On the ground, in three different cities over a week, you see neighborhood after neighborhood that has been "gentrified" as part of what seems like a last gasp to salvage the hunk of America that isn't New York, the L.A.-San Francisco corridor or wherever the federal government is still hiring.

In these neighborhoods tens of thousands of skilled blue collar jobs that once paid a living wage have been replaced by only hundreds of minimum wage, part-time jobs for baristas and waiters, many serving a few. A lot of people now in America don't really make anything, besides a few apps maybe, so they serve a very few who only make deals. See it all the time. Did you enjoy your meal sir (please tip, I don't get paid much)?

The people on the ground still hope it might work. They are not stupid and this is not to mock; they know they have been handed the dirty end of the stick in the long con and are trying what they hope might work, though hope takes time and that is another thing they don't have. You don't have to be an economist to see how it can't really work, do the math, but you'll enjoy a decent cup of coffee on the way down.

There are exceptions, good ones. The young mayor of Louisville has dedicated himself to attracting companies to his city. He talks like a man running for his city's life, in about the best way you can run for your life. But it is a tough race.

(V)
Oh, these are "first world problems." That is the point. America claims to be the most exceptional nation in the first world, so the problems are worth talking through. And this all isn't nostalgia; it's history.

America also has its third world problems-- lack of equitable health care (The U.S. ranks 56th internationally in infant mortality, worse than Cuba, Poland, Bosnia, and Serbia), malnutrition among the poor (one of five kids in America is food-at-risk), homelessness, murder and drug abuse rates rivaling any outside of combat zones, the highest percentage of a population in prison in the developed world, acts of random violence in our schools and workplaces, racism and inequality that regularly erupt into violence suppressed by militarized police.

First world, third world, you see them all and you wonder what happened, now, to us.