Charlene Smith
Charlene Smith

Living in the US: Snow, illusion and snow

Outside lies snow almost two metres deep. Snowfalls across the United States have hit record levels this month, with New York receiving an all-time record of 37 inches so far. That is a lot of shovelling off sidewalks — you get fined if you don’t shovel your sidewalk — and digging out cars, garages are for the super-rich.

On television, which is so awful I watch it only for weather forecasts, is a physicist on CNN, warning that a super-volcano that erupts every 600 000 years and has not erupted in 640 000 years could blow any moment. But then again, he says, the volcano, under Yellowstone National Park, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere in US geographical terms, may only blow in another 100 000 years. It will destroy the US, he says. He then explains that the extent of the volcanic eruption will destroy everything in 100 miles and cause serious damage over 500 miles, small potatoes in a massive country of hundreds of thousands of miles.

Some people will say anything; even contradict themselves, to get onto television.

And here television is about fear. Before the first blizzard I experienced (in my eight weeks here there have been three blizzards and two snowstorms, with another about to hit) the television broadcasts were filled with such fear-mongering I could barely sleep. When I did, I woke to absolute beauty, a slightly pink-tinged, silent world of white. I ventured out in it, very timidly, a little later, after seeing others walking their dogs in it, and while I, as a bang-broek South African wouldn’t have gone walking in it, it was just fine.

Now, I just stock up on salt to melt ice on walkways and do some shovelling. It’s manageable and the days have glorious bright sunshine. The buses mostly run on time, but for yesterday when tram wires started collapsing under ice. What I hate most are the layers and layers of clothes one wears to go out and then strips off in warm shops, offices and homes.

Yesterday, as an example, I wore thick tights, thermal underwear, thick wool slacks, a shirt, a light jacket, a thick wool coat and over that another calf-length down-filled coat I refer to as my sleeping bag — it looks like it, padded gloves, a sheepskin hat with ear muffs and sheepskin-lined suede boots. I will wear the same today when I leave the house later; work starts four hours late today to give city workers time to clear snow. There is no glamour in a Boston winter. I’ve never looked worse in my life and I don’t care. Dressed like this I have stood waiting for busses in the open (there are no covered bus shelters here), in minus 10 deg C, with snow falling and been fine.

Why don’t I have a car? And dig my way out of one, two or three feet of snow each day? You have to be kidding.

Everything is constructed toward helping people cope; buses can drop to make it easier for those with prams, wheelchairs or the infirm to board. For R300 a month, I have a card to use any bus, train, tram or ferry in greater Boston as often as I want. My electricity bill in December was $22 (for a two-bedroomed apartment, big kitchen, dining room, living room, basement the size of the apartment, tumbledryer and heat in sub-zero temperatures). This month, with colder weather, it is $111 (about R777), but is still a third of what I paid in South Africa for a home only slightly bigger, during summer. One rents homes that come stocked with good tumbledryers, stoves, fridges and dishwashers.

Before a heavy snowfall, the city sends out alerts to citizens giving advice. Snow ploughs work day and night clearing roads. Citizens shovel walkways into pavements. We all work together and yet, Americans too rarely realise that. Nowadays they focus too much on what separates them and not enough on how co-operative much of this society is, and how that has always been the factor that has made the US powerful.

Crime is low, although you wouldn’t say so judging by an obsession with crime shows on TV. Boston had 47 murders last year, less than SA has in a day. When I get deliveries, the items are left on my porch, which is on a busy street, and no one would dream of stealing the parcel. My only security is a thin chain on the front door; I have no burglar bars, no fence, no high walls, and no alarms. I walk safely on the streets at night, catch subways with no sense of threat and here the cops, if you are bad, are a force to be feared; if you’re a law-abiding citizen, you know they are there to help. Heaven forbid you park inappropriately though; they will tow you, faster than ticket you. You don’t always see them, but put a foot wrong and they, apparently magically, appear.

There are some very clever people; Boston alone has about 40 universities. I live in Cambridge, home to Harvard. At the bus-stop a guy was complaining: “I told him, I am tired of freezing embryos.” A young busker in answer to a question said, “I just do this at weekends, I’m studying planetary science at MIT (Massachusetts Institute for Technology)”.

Last week I had lunch with two illegal (undocumented, is the politically correct term here) immigrants. I speak Spanish, so could converse with them. They flew from their home countries to Mexico City, from there they were picked up (they paid $15 000 each, about R105 000 to smugglers) and were taken in vans to the border where they had to swim, holding onto inflated tyres, across the Rio Grande river. One said four children in his group drowned.

They then walked to Boston; look at the map, to see how many thousands of miles that is. It took one a month, the other 20 days. Sometimes they earn as little as $3 (R21) or $5 (R35) a day; in winter, they battle to get work because most work as labourers. One has been here for four years, the other five; they send most of their earnings home. They can’t return home for holidays or funerals like illegals in South Africa because the border is so tightly managed, and so many die or are arrested sneaking across, that they dare not risk a trip home.

And so children grow up without fathers. The fathers, as they describe it; work, sleep, eat, work, sleep, eat — when they can find work. They live like cockroaches, scuttling back into holes for fear of being arrested. It tells you how hard life is in their home countries that they do this. Shame on every corrupt, inept politician for the suffering he or she allows.

I believe that refugees, whether economic or political, are the slaves of the 20th and 21st century, especially economic refugees. They come to South Africa or the US by very dangerous means, some die on the journey, and then they are mistreated and exploited in new countries. These are very often the world’s greatest parents, they sacrifice everything, even their lives for the sake of their families.

By contrast, I am privileged, I sit in a warm home writing this and I have a job. They’re not friendly in Boston, they’re very Cape Town in their manner, but if you ask for assistance it is given with warmth. I am safe, I’m probably eating the best food of my life, but for when I lived in Japan (no country eats food as fresh or as good as the Japanese), and although it is much easier to rise in the small pond that is South Africa, here opportunities are as big or as small as you make them. It’s a much harder hill to climb, but I brought hiking boots. I know how blessed I am.