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A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Wed Jul 14, 2010 12:09 pm
by Neil Foxlee
A few random impressions from a recent visit, taking in Pittsburgh PA, Charlotte NC, Charleston SC and Savannah GA.

Charlotte first. Having reinvented itself as a financial services centre with few of its older buildings intact, Charlotte is not a place for tourists, but if you go there, check out:

- the excellent Levine Museum of the New South (ie post-Civil War), which includes a section on popular music associated with (recorded in?) the city, such as tracks by the Golden Gate Quartet, Blind Boy Fuller and this classic;

- the Double Door club, which has a variety of live music and has hosted the likes of Buddy Guy;

- on Sundays, the United House of Prayer church, a centre for the wonderful trombone shout-band tradition ( and, though I don't know where the latter was recorded - the "Madison" of the band's title comes from a UHOP bishop, btw, not a place).

More later.

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Wed Jul 14, 2010 1:07 pm
by Neil Foxlee
Sweeping generalization: the US is a militarist society.

Two definitions of militarism: "a political orientation of a people or a government to maintain a strong military force and to be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests"; "an ideology which claims that the military is the foundation of a society's security, and thereby claims to be its most important aspect".

Token evidence (apart from a visit to Beaufort SC, a centre for the Marines, with posters supporting them) : a little card that I picked up in the famous Hyman's Seafood restaurant in Charleston. On one side, an advert for the same and a deli under the same ownership; on the other, this:

"It is the Soldier....
It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the right to demonstrate.
It is the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the soldier, not the pastor, who has given us the right to worship.
It is the soldier, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote.
It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, serves under the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who gives the protester the right to burn the flag.......

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Wed Jul 14, 2010 1:59 pm
by garth cartwright
Interesting report, Neil. I've not been to the places you visited for many years. The militarist propaganda u noted I did not see but I have heard - an Australian friend of mine told me of his parents travelling in the US and a pleasant couple (also in their late 60s) later posted them that same rubbish. So I guess it is something regularly given out by those of a simplistic conservative bent. Did u ask about it in the restaurant?

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Wed Jul 14, 2010 2:43 pm
by Neil Foxlee
No - I didn't see the back of the card until I was on my way out. Our experience in the restaurant was otherwise good, helped by the fact that their special offer wines were about half the price they would have been elsewhere. (For the record, I had catfish cooked cajun-style and fried green tomatoes; a breakfast in a Savannah B&B, on the other hand, included home-made blueberry pancakes and sausage on the same plate.)

Should perhaps mention that we had the chance to talk a bit in Savannah to a youngish recent recruit to the military on leave, expecting a tour of duty in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Asked whether she wasn't worried about this, his pregnant wife said she preferred to look upon it as a challenge. We also saw lots of places offering discounts to members of the military.

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Wed Jul 14, 2010 2:51 pm
by Des
I loved Texas when I went ten years ago. Black-capped Vireo and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were fab.

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Thu Jul 15, 2010 2:07 am
by Neil Foxlee
Saw quite a few cemeteries ("perpetual care lawn cemeteries" and "memorial parks "). The modern US cemeteries I saw tended to have very low-level memorials and not to have walls, so they're almost like an open field that you could walk on to from the road.

The ones I saw in the North round Pittsburgh were covered in small US flags; much less so in the South, where some guides on horse-driven tours of Charleston, for instance, sported Confederate caps: the Civil War remains an issue down there, and the South still feels hard done-by.

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Thu Jul 15, 2010 3:01 am
by Dayna
I love Pittsburgh. It's beautiful in most places, with all the mountains and very close to where I live; about an hour and half. I'd like to go back to see more of it some time. I remember driving through some parts that were more run down and seeing open fruit stands on the streets. That's not something we have around here. It's too bad you all can't come to Cleveland someday. That would be nice.

I'd like to explain some of the veiws of our military if you don't mind it. I think a lot of us just have a deep appreciation for how many men and women died over the past 200 years so the rest of us can have things as good as they are. They aren't perfect at all, but for the most part, we have a lot to be thankful for. They died in The Civil War to set slaves free, and there's others I'm not sure if they were right or wrong at times, like Vietnam, ect. I know in World War II was the one my grandfather and many others were drafted into to fight against an evil person like Hitler.

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Thu Jul 15, 2010 11:39 am
by Neil Foxlee
Yes, Pittsburgh is nice, though parts, as Dayna says, are run down and obviously feeling the effects of the crisis. One of the most notable landmarks is the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning ( - the tallest educational building in the Western hemisphere, and a massively impressive monument to the importance (once?) attached to university education in the US (see Adam's post on the Disappearing Intellectual).

Alternatively, it's a huge erection that testifies to the massive ego of the university chancellor who came up with the idea...

PS Dayna, I had no idea you lived so close - it would have been interesting to meet up.

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Sat Jul 17, 2010 9:15 pm
by jackdaw version
Neil is correct in observing the influence of the military in the US.

Two quotes from Wikipedia:

The U.S. Department of Defense budget accounted in fiscal year 2010 for about 19% of the United States federal budgeted expenditures and 28% of estimated tax revenues. Including non-DOD expenditures, defense spending was approximately 25–29% of budgeted expenditures and 38–44% of estimated tax revenues. According to the Congressional Budget Office, defense spending grew 9% annually on average from fiscal year 2000–2009.

The 2009 U.S. military budget is almost as much as the rest of the world's defense spending combined and is over nine times larger than the military budget of China (compared at the nominal US dollar / Renminbi rate, not the PPP rate). The United States and its close allies are responsible for two-thirds to three-quarters of the world's military spending (of which, in turn, the U.S. is responsible for the majority).

Other sources put the proportion of the federal budget spent on the military much higher. See — excerpted below:


It is utterly insane and undoubtedly one of the two great challenges America faces if it's not to sink into a state comparable to Rome in about AD550. The other challenge is the role played by corporations, particularly media businesses, in the political process. Am I an optimist? No way!

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Sat Jul 17, 2010 9:27 pm
by Neil Foxlee
Thanks, JD. It's one of the great paradoxes of the US that so many of its citizens are against "big government" and what they see as wasteful federal government spending, and yet this doesn't seem to apply to the military (in some cases, perhaps, because jobs depend on it). But just think how much could be done (or how much taxes could be cut, if you're that way inclined) if you cut out unnecessary "defence" spending...

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Mon Aug 09, 2010 2:59 pm
by Neil Foxlee
And another thing: why is it so fiendishly complicated to tip when you're eating out in the States? Apparently 15-20% is normal, but what they do if you're paying by card is present you with the bill without tips, then get you to add a tip on top, so you're left trying to work out how much to put on and wondering whether a round figure will produce an appropriate amount. If only they'd include service, leaving the customer to make an extra gesture if they see fit.

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Mon Aug 09, 2010 6:33 pm
by jackdaw version
Did your credit card statement just come in or something, Neil?

Yes, the tipping situation in the US is incredibly, utterly annoying. The only excuse for it that makes sense is that it allows employers to underpay their workers — but the only excuse I have ever actually heard is that it encourages good service. In practice, some waiters, etc. at fancy places can make good money 'cos 20% of a $100 bill is pretty good — but all those high-school students working jobs at fast-food joints after school or baristas in coffee shops get shafted with their pathetic little tip jars on the counter. The idea of tipping at a counter without table service is still not really acceptable, and I sure don't drop 20% for being handed something over a counter. Pay the staff! It all makes food and drink look very cheap. A well-known side effect of the whole thing is that Europeans are widely known as lousy tippers. Then, of course, Americans also get to look stupid by attempting to tip in pubs!

By the way, as regards the militaristic nature of the USA, it did occur to me that if you went to Portsmouth, Plymouth, Aldershot or somewhere there's a major RAF base, you might come away with a warped impression of the role of the military in the UK. You went to places with large military bases — during war time! — and if you'd got to Oregon, say, where there are no military bases in the entire state, or the San Francisco Bay Area where almost all the military bases have been closed down, you might have formed a somewhat different impression.

But the overall expenditures on the Pentagon remain obscene.

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Tue Aug 10, 2010 10:58 pm
by judith
Hi Neil. American tipping practices are something I took for granted until I went to London or have tried to explain them to visitors from other countries. Here's some information explaining why the tip not being on the credit card is associated with such as federal income taxes and the likes of minimum wage laws. Some customers prefer to put cash on the table in a show of sympathy - a gesture of sticking it to the man. I know people who carry cash for an evening out so they do not have to include a tip on the credit card and leave a paper trail, so to speak. Also, due to some restaurant practices, there is the consideration that the server will not receive the tip if it's run through on a credit card.

As JD comments and this Wikipedia article demonstrates, those who work in jobs that receive tips do not qualify for minimum wage in more than a couple of states - receiving as little as $2.13 an hour in Mississippi, for example.
Or, check the paragraph on the US states in the following article, $0 per hour in Virginia.

Many Americans have been in disfavor of the federal taxation of tips since they were first implemented. I might be wrong but I remember it as being called the waitress tax and it was in the 80's, Reagan's time. I googled 'waitress tax' and discovered that Minnesota is arguing over minimum wage/tips right now (note: I am unfamiliar with the following blog or its politics)

Servers can be charged taxes on what the government perceives they are receiving as tips whether they receive that amount or not. The government will take amounts from credit card tips as 'proof'. The article I list sites that amount as %8 of gross sales (post sales tax I believe)

I have been told of restaurants (posh, SF Bay Area) where %20 of gross daily sales are automatically deducted (I can't remember how much is withheld) by the employer, whether the worker receives it or not. Whether the employer withholds pay (as going towards income tax and how much the employee thus pays on this for taxes depends on whether the employer helps with the amount that is taxed for social security and medicare) depends upon the region (touristy/urban up top) and the size of the establishment. So, in America, in the end, people can be literally working for their tips. Some employees must out their tips every night in front of their employers, the amount due for taxes deducted from their paycheck and some casino workers (dealers, for example) actually go in the hole, have a minus amount, on their paychecks though it wouldn't take much as in their pay is minimum wage to begin with.

[When the tip is included in the bill, it is usually in hotels, high end restaurants or those with parties over a certain amount (eg: 6 or 8). Also, if it is called a service charge it is not subject to Federal taxes though some states would like to tax these service charges.]

An article on tipping from The New Yorker

I hope this gives you somewhat of a picture though attempting to show reason may only add to the muddle.

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Tue Aug 10, 2010 11:39 pm
by Neil Foxlee
Judith, thank you for going to so much trouble to enlighten me (and others, I suspect). The situation you describe is shocking, especially as regards some states. I prefer to give cash as a tip to try and ensure that it's the server who gets it, but when abroad, tend to carry little cash and rely mainly on cards for convenience, security and a better exchange rate (it was bad while we were over there).

Over here, btw, 10% is pretty standard.

Re: A fortnight in the States

PostPosted: Wed Aug 11, 2010 12:00 am
by judith
10% is pretty much the standard where I live and I suspect much of 'rural' America as well where the standard has always been at least %5 less than the major cities. I don't know if that's to do with the economic times though, the impact of which has just begun to be felt in the county and city government levels, by the way.