Harlem hospital is three blocks from my house. For me, it’s a three minute walk, but for a disconcerting number of the locals it’s a much more arduous hop, limp or roll. In this neighbourhood, the average number of limbs per resident is significantly less than four. Last-resort amputation is the first and only resort for all but the best insured. The resultant street scenes seem to owe apologies to Hieronymus Bosch. I have to weave through this throng en route to Bank of America, the custodians of my wealth and the beneficiary of significant and ongoing public bailouts since it fell foul of an arguably unlucky bout of financial illness based on poorly considered loans that it surely wouldn’t have offered under the influence of rude business health.
Taken as a whole, the effect makes me feel akin to Higgs, the protagonist of Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon, who finds himself in a topsy-turvy world where illness is considered a crime and crime an illness.
Many of the physically and economically debilitating personal amputations could be prevented if medical intervention was available at an earlier stage, or if prescription medication was priced at a level commensurate with personal incomes, or if the price of the worst food wasn’t held artificially low via subsidy payments to farmers, or for any other reason that would make perfect sense in a different world. Instead, I doubt many local eyebrows would be raised at the judgment imposed by the Erewhonian court on defendant who was sentenced to hard labour for contracting pleurisy. The judge refused to contemplate leniency in light of the defendant’s poor living conditions and family history of illness. His logic was that by setting such a precedent, he would be encouraging the illegal actions of others.
In contrast, Erewhonians consider crime to be a temporary malady that afflicts one through no fault of one’s own and is to be managed and ultimately cured through public relief. Higgs finds accommodation and friendship with Senoj Nosnibor, a wealthy merchant who has the community’s sympathy and well-wishes as he recovers from a recent bout of fraud. He’s doing much better, but still has the financial equivalent of the odd sniffle.
In the USA, sickness is a personal responsibility, while business crime constitutes a public concern. Individuals can mitigate the worst consequences of ill-health through personal insurance, which runs at about US$400 a month for the cheapest policy, calculated on the understanding that you have no preexisting conditions. If anything has previously gone wrong with your body, then the financial sky is the limit of what you pay, and the actions of Walter White in Breaking Bad begin to provide inspiration rather than entertainment. Business, on the other hand, can conduct any transaction that takes its fancy on the understanding that if anything goes awry, the government will intervene to remedy the losses.
The basis of Erewhonian philosophy is that children choose to be born, therefore any bad things that happen to them are their own fault. The message emanating from this shining city is that truth and fiction are strangers no more.
Halloween is everyone’s business in America. Standing along sixth avenue for the annual parade, the only distinction I can make between the spectators and the participants is that if you’re in the parade, you’re able to move. Everyone is in costume; if you look at me you’ll get a flash of vampire teeth. The usual explanation for everyone’s enthusiasm is that Halloween is a secular island in a sea of otherwise religious festivities. This is rubbish. Like Christmas and Easter it has clear, if barely observed foundations in Christianity and paganism before that. A more compelling theory is that dressing up is just plain fun.
Whether consciously or not, however, something deeper is going on. Like so many things American it seems to occur on a mass scale with minimal direction or oversight, but despite the incredible variety of approaches to costume, a binding theme emerges: Halloween affords Americans the opportunity to confront and ridicule their obsession with fear. On this day, you quite literally are what you are what you’re scared of.
The first and greatest American fear is death, the second is pain. Combine the two and you have the majority of costumed people rolling around with fake gashes, knives sticking into and out of them, ribcages peeled open, and/or dolled up as skeletons and zombies. Others dress as scary things that kill you. The dude standing next to me was done up as an impressively toothy shark, while a number of people made the bold and uncontested decision to sport the clothes and fake weapons of the archetypical campus shooter. In a jittery country like the USA, where irony is less popular than cricket, the only possible explanation is that for one day a year, nothing is taboo.
Despite its prominence in popular culture, sex and sexuality remain great areas of discomfort among the general public. Perhaps in honour of this, or perhaps cos it’s a hoot, some gals get their slut on, dressing skimpily in tight satins and lace, while some guys stamp around dressed up as loose women.
Political protest and satire stride confidently in this parade, as thoughtful wags take the chance to expose and ridicule the most current purveyors of fear. An enormous puppet eyeball, labelled ‘NSA’ makes sinister sweeps of the crowd. Others dress as policemen, medical doctors, soldiers, the statue of liberty. A black man saunters along costumed simply and unfussily as an eighteenth-century colonist. Idealised Disney characters walk side by side with a family of fat suits. Behind them waddles my personal favourite: a man dressed as a dollar bill. The most topical allusion comes from a number of men in black, tightly-drawn hoodies in somber homage to the murdered Trayvon Martin.
It’s also interesting to note what is missing. I was surprised, after more than a decade of wars foreign and domestic, that terrorism, drugs and immigration don’t rate an overt mention.
Fear, like any habit, is a difficult thing to sit with every day. Ancient societies had regular blow-outs to upend the general order of things. In Greece, one festival saw masters become servants and servants become masters for the day. Another gave the female folk the chance to set aside the mantle of preservation and responsibility in order to charge around the countryside in a bacchanalian frenzy snaring wild animals and tearing them apart. Here, the lack of sobriety is purely sartorial. The celebrations are characterised by a maximum of dress and a minimum of drink. But in affording Americans the chance to acknowledge and mock the things that scare them, Halloween seems to do an important public service. Long live the night of the faithful departed.
 CF the annual willingness to allow local children (supervised to within an inch of their lives) to go from door to door, collecting sweets from strangers.
PROFIT & DELIGHT
What I'm thinking about what I'm doing. This blog aspires to a more profound definition of 'profit' and the bog-standard sense of 'delight'.