I’m just back from four absolutely lovely days in the Carolinas, two in the Charlotte, North Carolina area, where I attended the wedding of two delightful people who I hope will share a long, happy life together, and two just outside Columbia, South Carolina. Gorged myself on Carolina barbecue, easily the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten. Lots of pulled pork with this amazing, thin, very spicy barbecue sauce. I worry that I will never be able to eat at any of my beloved local barbecue spots again without secretly longing for something a bit more refined (in my mind, I’ll be wishing I were going to Carolina, I suppose). It was an extraordinarily nice way to spend a long weekend. Except for one thing.
Whenever I travel to new parts of America (I’d been to Raleigh-Durham before, but never to the western part of North Carolina, and not to South Carolina at all) I get very excited to check out the local culture. I’m not expecting anything so radically different from what I know, really, just a bit of regional charm. And I’m encouraged by the fact that you can still find it if you look hard enough. But I’m increasingly discouraged, bordering on depressed, at how hard I have to look. And I think that’s actually less to do with the places I visit as the place I live. That is, driving past endless lines of shopping malls and chain restaurants, I’m forever struck by the oppressive sameness of modern America. I’m saddened by the fact that while I have to scour the back roads for something authentic and local, I’m never at a loss to locate a Starbucks, an Outback Steakhouse or a Chili’s. (This, of course, leaves out the obvious fast food stuff. We can talk about the McDonaldsization of America without getting bogged down in Filet-O-Fishes and Big Macs, can’t we?) And I recognize that this is happening at home just as it is everywhere else. We’re all losing our individual and cultural identities to the inescapable onslaught of corporate culture.
Ultimately, I have nothing really against any of those food chains. Eat at them from time to time (though not nearly as often as my corporate masters would like — sorry corporate masters). Nor do I really think America has anyone to blame but itself for the ongoing steamrolling of its regional cultural differences. We can blame those chains. We can blame Westinghouse and Disney and their broadcast media arms. We can blame whomever we like. But in the end, these companies thrive because we feed them, happily sacrificing the local, the flavorful, the colorful in favor of comforting ubiquity, the bland and empty, the endless seas of eggshell, taupe and ecru.
It’s just saddening to me that there’s so little left that’s different from one place to the next. And while I go to consumer culture to illustrate the point (yes, because it’s easy and, yes, because I am a consumer, a sad seeker of happiness in the material world, knowingly doomed to spend my life seeking that which is attainable only through the discontinuation of the search — all while the mantra of truth, like a set of GPS directions to the realm of earthly contentment, echoes softly in the back of my ever-softening melon — softening, apparently, to the extent that I sometimes get to thinking I’m Tom Robbins) it goes well beyond consumer culture. We focus on our differences, to distract ourselves, but in reality, we’re mostly all the same. I’m certain I can even hear our accents fading into that Midwestern monotone that the TV networks so favor.
I don’t know what the solution is. Actually, I don’t think there is a solution, short of complete societal collapse (which may be inevitable). And maybe it’s all for the best. Maybe this is how that legendary melting pot that seemed never to materialize actually functions. Maybe the American melting pot has just been hidden in the back of the kitchen of a TGI Fridays somewhere, slowly cooking us down into a happy flavorless mush without anyone realizing it was happening. Maybe, that is, this thing that makes me so depressed is simply destiny at work. If that’s the case, I suppose I shouldn’t be so sad. And still, I am. And I suspect I will be. Until they finally manage to stir some Prozac (the spice of modern American life) into my corner of the pot and I melt into a blissful and utterly unremarkable state that may not be nirvana but probably seems close enough. I can almost taste the cheese fries already. I want my baby back, baby back, baby back … .