The Price You Pay for The American Dream By Sean McCallum I have always loved traveling throughout the U.S. As a kid, it seemed as though my dad was constantly packing my brother and me into the back of the old Buick wagon, the three of us heading south of the border in search of a kind of fleeting summer fun to go along with the inspirational sniff of American Dream we couldn’t help but to absorb. It never really mattered where we were going or for how long. Be it small-town Pennsylvania or bright lights, big city, the idea of our cruising the highways of Springsteen’s balladry was good enough for us; immersing ourselves in the places and ideas that made Uncle Sam’s famous land the professed touchstone for this world’s civilizations never seemed to get old. Of equal allure for us was the grandiosity of The American Way. The gas was always cheaper, the supermarkets endlessly stocked with fascinating products ranging anywhere from margarine in a squeeze bottle to Easy Cheese from a spray can, and you could walk into an Exxon station and buy a thirty-pack of beer for eight bucks. As a Canadian kid from a working class family, I simply couldn’t get enough of it. Fifteen years later and, despite the fact that we’re mostly grown up and the old wagon has since been exchanged for something more practical, there still exists a small part of us that gets excited by the prospect of living in absurd American largeness for a week. Hitting up the local IHOP at two in the afternoon for the Chicken-Fried Steak (tender beef, dipped in batter and fried to a golden brown then smothered in country gravy and served with a trio of eggs and three buttermilk pancakes: $8.29) was practically covenantal. Like I said, it never seemed to get old. It was mid-September and the three of us had decided to head south once again. I have a sister who lives with a family friend in Nashville, Tennessee, so Music City seemed a logical destination. It had been a little more than two years since I’d last been below the Mason-Dixon Line, and in light of my having spent the better part of the last six months traipsing through South America; a continent chock-full of countries not entirely unknown for their anti- American sentiment; I was unsure as to whether this land of Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet could continue to conjure those childhood visions of a Good Ole USA. But we were willing to give it a try. We arrived in Nashville just before dawn, eventually making our way into the rolling hills of Antioch, a suburb ten minutes east of the city where our family friend resides. Our host had been married earlier this year, and in the wee hours of that September morning he welcomed us into what is customarily referred to as; in that part of the world, at least; his starter home: a 2,900 square foot, five bedroom, detached two-storey, complete with two-car garage and wraparound porch on a quarter acre lot. The inside is furnished with a 60-inch High Definition Television to compliment the other four TVs throughout the house; the garage with a brand new SUV to compliment the slightly less- new Acura. By all accounts, this friend of ours is living the American Dream. He is twenty-five years old. I find myself wondering how all of this is possible. How this friend of mine is able to sustain this lifestyle. How he can come from the same type of working class family as I do, yet somehow be able to afford all of these things. I try to tell myself that this affluence is a result of the racial inequality inherent in his country. That the white man is exploiting the Black man and the Hispanic man and the East Indian man to such a degree that it allows for this surplus of wealth in the white middle class; that this house and these TVs and these cars are the consequence of a loosely veiled system of latter day serfdom; that these material items come at the price of living in a society characterized by blind hatred and willful ignorance. I try to explain it to myself, to rationalize it, but the numbers don’t quite add up, no matter which way I skew them. While in Nashville we do most of the things one might be expected to do whilst in Music City, USA. We go to the Grand Ol’ Opry and then we go to the Opry Mills Mall. We go to a show at the Bluebird Café and then we go shopping for souvenirs at Ernest Tubb’s. My sister plays some new material for us, and then she takes us for a tour of music row. We drink twelve packs of Rolling Rock and Bud Light. We watch the entire first season of Entourage in one sitting. We eat monstrous portions of unhealthy food. The Olive Garden. Cracker Barrel. Krystal Burger. Deep fried everything at a place called The Bunganut Pig. All of the shopping and eating and drinking and DVD watching has me feeling somewhat lethargic, if not a little unhealthy. It is a beautiful day outside, sunny and 86 degrees; the kind of day we no longer get in Southern Ontario at this time of year. I find myself yearning for the fresh air of this plentiful countryside, and believe that a bike ride through the forested hills enveloping Old Hickory might do the trick. But neither our host nor his wife owns a bicycle. ‘Everyone drives here’, they explain. I decide to take a stroll around the neighbourhood instead. It is garbage day, but there are no blue boxes to be seen. ‘Nobody recycles here’, I’m informed. It occurs to me that the Kroger’s didn’t even charge a deposit on the beer we bought. On Thursday night we experience our quintessential American moment. While lazing around the house and looking for something to do, we decide that we’d like to take in the second season of Entourage. When I ask where the nearest video store might be, our host only shakes his head, rhetorically asking why we would ever rent Season Two when we could purchase it outright for $30. I find it difficult to believe that we’ll be able to find any place open at so late an hour, but we pile into his SUV nonetheless, driving off into the warm Tennessee night, eventually arriving at the local Walmart Superstore. As we walk through the sliding glass doors, I realize that I have never been inside a bigger store in my life. The place is gargantuan, and what’s more, it’s half-filled with people piling their carts to the brim with everything from video games to groceries. I can do nothing but stand stonelike in utter disbelief, silently wondering why these people would ever be shopping at this time of night. It is a few minutes past twelve. Our host looks at me and laughs. As if reading my mind, he says: ‘Land of the free, baby.’ The next day we awake early to take a misty-morning drive through the hills of Brentwood, gawking at the mansions of country music legends that line the lush greens of The Governor’s Club of Tennessee. We eventually arrive in the picturesque little town of Franklin, Williamson County’s one-time plantation economy center. Franklin is one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S., and its idyllic, picturesque streetscape speaks to this. The town’s fifteen immaculate blocks feel more like the façade of an archetypal small Southern town than they do an actual avenue on which to conduct business. None of the stores are open at this hour; after all, it is only 8:30; but even if they were, you get the impression that these aren’t the kinds of businesses capable of selling you anything you might actually need. Unless of course you need a painting. Or an antiquarian first edition copy of a book concerning antebellum architecture. The people who promenade Main Street in Franklin do so because it is a nice place to be, and because promenading Main Street is what they do. I do not see a visible minority promenading Main Street. It dawns on me that this isn’t so much a town as it is a metaphor. We eventually stumble upon a small park on the outskirts of town. On this bright September morning, with a warm sun having already burned off the dawn’s early mist, we see hundreds of American flags lined up row on row. When we come closer to see what the flags are all about, we begin to understand. Under each flag is a laminated photograph, and under each laminated photograph is the laminated newspaper article announcing the death of that particular soldier. Each of the soldiers has died in Iraq. Each of the kids are from around here. Each of the kids are kids: 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years old. There are hundreds of flags. We stand there in silence. I feel the lump in my throat. In his speech on September the 11th of this year, President Bush urged Americans to unify as a country so as to defeat their enemies in the Middle East. He declared that this particular military conflict was the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century. He proclaimed: “We are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations.” It wasn’t until I was standing silently in front of those flags, looking down into the faces of those who had been sent to die for a way of life they would never get the chance to enjoy, that I finally realized what the President had meant: that he was fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by his own free nation. That this was ultimately the price you pay for the things that constitute the American Dream. In that moment, with the tears beginning to well in my eyes and the flags slowly dancing with indifference in the breeze, I began to recognize that that American way of life that had so enchanted me as a child had finally gotten old.