Sometimes it begins with the toothpaste. Whenever I go back to the United States from Europe, where I’ve lived for more than half my adult life, I’ll often find myself in a jet-lagged fog at a huge American drugstore staring at the toothpaste aisle. Why? I ask myself, or anyone who’s around. Why are there so many kinds of toothpaste? Whitening, baking soda, clean mint, fresh mint, gel, paste, swirls of gel and paste, kids’ toothpastes, sensitive-teeth toothpaste. Why?
It’s not that there isn’t a variety of toothpaste in Paris, where I live. France is a developed country with a market economy—well, mostly a market economy—and its own large supermarket chains. But there’s something about the toothpaste aisles of the United States that I always find jarring, and that I find emblematic of America’s over-the-topness: the dozens of varieties of everything—everything!—when fewer varieties might suffice. New York City may be the logical extreme of this. Is there any other city in any other country on Earth that’s so accustomed to shopping for anything at any hour of the day (and I mean in stores, not online)?
Of course, other things leap out, too, on first impact back in New York: glacial air conditioning; cars that seem as big as studio apartments; chirpy customer service—any customer service; cheese that’s not so much cheese as oil poured into plastic; Amtrak, a national train service roughly twice as expensive and twice as slow as that of any self-respecting (albeit debt-ridden) European country. And then there are the significant social differences: gay people being super out and proud; people of color, and women, in positions of actual authority.