Innocent Bystander: The Bus Line in the Sky and Other Expensive Indignities

If I were to charge you several hundred dollars for the privilege of standing in line in a humid, crowded terminal, clutching two or three small but exquisitely heavy and awkward bags, in order to spend six or seven hours in the cramped steerage of a rumbling, lurching conveyance to the accompaniment of rattling dishes, screaming infants, flushing toilets, and the squeaking, booming sound track of a mindless GP movie, you would probably punch me in the mouth. With reason.

Yet this sort of humiliating slaveship treatment is what practically every long-distance traveler pays plenty for—in the name of pleasure, escape, and relaxation—today. There is a big bus line in the sky, dedicated to the proposition that Americans will put up good money (or good credit) to be conveyed, in maximum discomfort reminiscent of cross-country bus travel in the thirties or day-coach travel during World War II, to distant places. Nor does their ordeal end when they arrive at the promised (but not delivered) land. The first-class or deluxe hotels are carpeted with the serried BOAC bags of fellow travelers; the white and naked beaches of the tour brochures are discovered to be as populous as Coney Island; the gorgeous tombs and ruins swarm with ant colonies of unquiet Americans, not to mention even more vociferous Germans, Scandinavians, French, and Dutch; the browned-off natives, wearily supplying the immense demand, have little time for charm; at night, the fancy hotel dining rooms serve wizened New York sirloins while their orchestras play deceased Broadway show tunes for the dancing pleasure of couples in mink stoles and royal blue After Six tuxedos.

Thus the unhurried, edifying exploration of an alien culture has become instead the extension overseas of the worst aspects of our own culture, thinly but impermeably applied to the face of foreign countries. In our own cities, we studiously avoid the loud hotels and tourist traps; abroad, we find them inescapable. Our national genius for marketable simulation—tear down the real thing and build a bigger, better replica—has led us, in collaboration with the dollareager foreigners, to turn Europe and the Caribbean into flattened, distorted caricatures of themselves, overlaid by a flattened caricature of our worst excesses of American “good living.” Side by side with the domestic fakery of the Moulin Rouge, there is the imported fakery of a New Miami Beach in Paris, just as the flavorless American hotels, already flyspecked by the passage of thousands of junketing Willie Lomans, jostle such institutionalized London landmarks as the Cheshire Cheese and Madame Tussaud’s. And the process is even more advanced in such defenseless resorts as Palma, where the Majorcan culture has been virtually effaced by miles and miles of high-rise condominiums, discothèques, and souvenir stands; in the Son Vida, Palma’s premier hotel, there are no Majorcan dishes on the menu, and the chief recreations of the American guests are golf (on a bitty nine-hole hotel course) and snacking at the poolside (since there is no beach within walking distance). To get any idea of Majorca proper, it is necessary to hire a car and driver and take to the inadequate and precipitous mountain roads.

If this is true outside the continental United States, it is doubly true within our borders. It is entirely possible to travel to many American cities without getting any real idea of those cities, their life, or their people. Regional differences are stylized into the cute and kitschy tourist attraction: the Colonial South is embalmed in Williamsburg and Colonial New England in Sturbridge Village; Atlanta, New Orleans, St. Louis, and San Francisco have “redeveloped” areas that are supposed to give a potted, once-over-lightly view of their past; and Los Angeles and Miami have effaced their local character in favor of a tacky, tourist-oriented embodiment of the American dream: Disneyland and the Sunset Strip on one hand, Marineland and the sixtyfive miles of condominiums from Palm Beach to Boca Raton on the other.

How did it happen? If I remember rightly, it was Thorstein Veblen who first proposed that the ultimate effect of mass production would be a democratization of taste in which the lowest common denominator of goods and services would eventually be equated with the highest, and the consumption of the rich would differ only in degree—but not in quality— from that of the less affluent. This has largely come to pass. Your ordinary rich man now buys a Cadillac, a mass-produced item only marginally superior in quality to his employee’s Chevrolet; since his servants have left him for better-paying, less demeaning work, he relies, like his employee, on labor-saving appliances (and suffers the same service problems with them); his travel dollars, however numerous, do not buy him more peace, more privacy, or more insight into the place he travels to than his employee’s dollars do.

While this democratizing of goods and services may have had a salutary effect on plutocracy and elitism, it was also hell on the quality of life, as a peek at commercial TV, an airplane ride, or a visit to Miami or Honolulu will quickly show. It takes a positive effort of will and a strong detective sense to avoid plastic food, plastic living, and plastic entertainment these days—to avoid, in a word, becoming your own credit-card number. There are three logical if unsatisfying reasons for this. First, our masters’ assumptions about taste (by our masters, I mean all those often obscure people who are responsible for the form and content of our daily lives). As I pointed out in a recent column about advertising, the admen of the thirties and forties operated under the mistaken assumption that “mass” was the opposite of “class,” and that in order to sell a product in large quantities it was necessary to make it flashy, cheap, and gaudy, in the manner of trade goods for the natives. This idea—that the mass of the public reveled in the tawdry and even preferred it to the tasteful—unfortunately caught on and infected our whole life. Now the generation that grew up on it have themselves become the tastemakers for the masses—the middleaged minor executives in half-sleeve shirts, Slim Jim ties, and drip-dry suits who decide to put Muzak in elevators, portion-controlled chicken croquettes on Howard Johnson’s menus, laser stripes on musclecars, The Smith Family on television, and inspirational pep talks on the stereo channels of United airliners. These people are in no sense innovators; they are simply dedicated to giving us more of the same, the safe, the nonwavemaking pap they themselves were reared on.

Unfortunately, though, the annoyance factor of their works is rising perceptibly, year by year, because of two other developments. The first is, simply, population growth. There are more people in elevators, in the lines at movie houses, in the streets, in the parking lots at shopping centers, in the hotels and restaurants we visit on vacation. To the mild affront of Muzak and bland, pastel decor is suddenly added the grave affront of being herded, like the sheep it is tacitly assumed we are, into and out of all the small occasions of our lives. The shepherds are the signs and arrows of outrageous fortune, the recorded announcements on busy telephone circuits and moving sidewalks in airports, the live announcements urging us to buy in discount stores and urging us to see the awful movie (at $2.50 extra) on transatlantic airliners. Moving in long, snakelike lines, jostled fore and aft by the bags and packages of our neighbors, we suddenly realize, at the moment that nasal, amplified, inhuman voice cuts in, that we have lost control of our lives and destinies, that, no matter how far we run or how much we spend to escape, our vaunted individuality is a fiction and a joke. At home, we may congratulate ourselves to the skies and hug ourselves with secret, sinful pleasure at our eclectic taste in music, paintings, books, and furniture; abroad—at the shopping plaza or in the Place Pigalle—all our selfish intransigence falls to the ground, and we take our preordained place in those shuffling gray lines of sheep again. (Joseph Reed, a professor of English at Wesleyan University who is also a painter, recently had a oneman show of his meticulous miniatures in London. Each painting depicted some glorious, or vainglorious, public occasion of the last hundred years; in each—a formal diplomatic banquet, a victory parade, the opening of the Burbank Airport, clouded by a phalanx of tiny Ford Trimotors, in 1931—the crowds of people were replaced by swarms of ants. This struck me as a pretty good metaphor for what I’m talking about, except that ants may have too much racial purposiveness to be quite as passive as crowds are today.)

The third thing that makes our subjugation to institutionalized indignity increasingly hard to take is our rising expectations, our growing awareness of an alternative. Though we may have given too many hostages to fortune to break out of our circumscribed lives and join those who have become street people, professional vagabonds, or members of self-sufficient communes—and though we may indeed deplore the damage to their personal development entailed in dropping out—the young, the disaffected, and the intentionally rootless have demonstrated publicly that such an alternative exists, and that mass humiliation need not be our eternal lot.

It is all part of our general subjugation to a machine, a multifarious machine that may simultaneously be a war machine, an economic machine, a teaching machine, a pleasure machine—in short, like Le Corbusier’s famous (and I suspect unworkable) house, a machine for living. But if we need a machine for living, then we are living for a machine, pledging our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor, if there’s any left, to a mechanism and not to life itself. While the logistics of providing a decent, private, edifying life to three billion people are properly staggering, I think we may reasonably fight for— and get—more serious consideration for the human principle in daily life.

In a time when every institution is being openly challenged with increasing vigor and impatience, we must shortly challenge the validity and humanity of those long, gray styrene corridors, resonant with “The Sound of Music,” where we wait out our days on our way to the air bus bound for plastic Paris, Palma, Honolulu, and all the other shrines of the inhuman spirit.