I love Americans’ kindness, generosity and energy but am often thrown by their exaggerated politeness and euphemistic speech. They use ‘passed’ for ‘died’ and always say ‘excuse me’ if they brush against you in a shop. They sentimentally refer to ‘your puppy’ when the dog is patently over three years old. They refer to a dog’s ‘going to the bathroom’. And why say ‘a grown man’ instead of just ‘man’? Wads of paper napkins are handed out unnecessarily in cafés and at parties (where one is sometimes offered ‘a beverage’ instead of a drink). But Americans can also be unexpectedly bloodthirsty and violent and I find this contrast disconcerting.
On my recent visit to Key West, once a town with a reputation for lawlessness and bohemianism, but now, owing to the influx of tourist couples in their late seventies and eighties, somewhat twee and overpriced, I was shocked by the aggression shown by otherwise warm-hearted friends towards the wildlife. Iguanas — not indigenous to Florida — are hated, as they eat garden plants and poo in swimming pools. Betty, raised on a Midwest farm with no electricity, who now lives in Key West with her husband six months a year, shocked me and our animal-loving friend, a retired professor, by declaring: ‘You have to shoot them so that they bleed from the belly!’ My friend murmured a protest but Betty maintained that iguanas had no right to destroy her garden.
Another cheerful winter resident was hellbent on killing a tree rat (a squirrel) who’d eaten left-out food and the strap of her best sandal.
I visited my friend Roxanne. It should have been less than a two-hour drive to her house from Miami airport, but that morning a ‘grown man’ had abducted and shot his own partner (I’m not sure in what order), before driving the wrong way down the I-95, causing at least three accidents. That highway was closed, causing motorists to divert. Drivers, crazy with frustration, weaved in and out of the lanes and once Roxanne had to slam on her brakes as the car in front of us, in the middle lane, simply stopped. He began swerving and we saw him having a physical fight with his male passenger before he swerved again, onto the hard shoulder.
Roxanne sensibly took me into a bird sanctuary for a break, but there was an undercurrent of death and violence even there. The nesting storks were bereft of the shelter of leaves — the trees unnaturally bare after the hurricane — and Roxanne said on one visit she had seen a nestling fall into the jaws of a waiting alligator underneath.
By way of passing the time, she told me a story she had heard recently at a Palm Beach dinner party. It just wasn’t the sort of dinner-party story you’d ever hear in England. The Palm Beach lady had been on a diving trip with another woman who, having used up most of her oxygen supply out of nerves, had had to surface early, whereupon she’d had both legs bitten off by a shark and had died. Her body was put in the boat’s deep freeze for the group’s 38-hour journey back to the mainland. The storyteller, furious to have her holiday truncated, complained to Roxanne that such a nervous woman should not have chosen that trip.
At Roxanne’s seemingly quiet home, half-feral cats (abandoned after a neighbour’s divorce) roamed outside, causing her sister’s terrified indoor cat to lose its fur. That evening at Flanigan’s in West Palm Beach — cheaper than almost anywhere in Key West — an almost servile politeness prevailed when both a waitress and a young manager reacted violently to Roxanne’s tactfully worded complaint that we had been kept waiting 20 minutes instead of ten.
I started wondering whether this excessive politeness is partly out of fear of the restless violence that lies just beneath the surface of American life. After three weeks in the States, I realised that if I didn’t say ‘excuse me’ during an accidental encounter, I was considered rude and aggressive. Anger might flare up. It’s a precarious balance.
What did all this seesawing between civility and violence imply? Perhaps, more than in England, survival of the fittest applies. Apart from fearsome weather such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, America has dangerous predators, both human and animal — alligators, bears and in some areas, wolves. An older woman I know was in a life-and-death struggle with a rabid raccoon on Long Island. It chased her, she locked herself in her bathroom, it started rattling the door handle. Finally a neighbour heard her yelling and the raccoon was shot by police.
At Key West airport, when it was announced that five military persons were to board the plane before the rest of us on our flight to Atlanta, each one (including two young women) was applauded separately by everyone in the departure lounge. I don’t think this would happen here. We’re not so sentimental about violence.
Before I left came the news of the frightful school shooting in Florida, which left 17 dead. Now, students are going to march on Washington on 24 March, demanding political action on gun control. Let’s hope they get satisfaction.
Elsewhere, on Big Pine Key, which unlike Key West was so badly affected by Hurricane Irma that some survivors are still in tents, a couple in their fifties who were living in a trailer ‘passed’ — violently, I’m afraid. The husband shot his wife and then himself. She had a terminal illness, and it appears that they had no insurance to help repair their badly damaged trailer.
Roger Kimball on the real threat to the US, also in this issue.