America: The Art of The Scam
I can't believe it, but I've been living almost entirely in America now for 10 years.
I've been to 48 states (all but Colorado and New Mexico, oddly). I've spent a good amount of time all over the South and on the coasts. I've observed the American ways with my Canadian brain, and the scams--big and small--that this beautiful, complicated country has to offer.
'Easy Money' Is A Scam
When I first moved to New York, I worked at a bar in Queens where I made $600/shift talking to heavy drinking locals, giving every 3rd drink free (with no record of this except the upside-down shot glass placed in front of the patron, a reminder not to charge), and pretending not to have a boyfriend. Yep, the number one rule for all the girls working in this sports pub off the E train, was no boyfriends. We could have them, we could talk about them in a limited way, but they could never come in the bar. I got fired after a month--the owner rooted out a slice of camera footage in which my ex ran in for an order of hot wings to-go, barely looked at or spoke to me, and left.
I was relieved to be fired. The bar maintained a culture of gentle, constant harassment and stalking by its patrons, and I wasn't a fan of getting home at 6am every day, no matter how fat the resulting cash stack.
A quick Yelp search shows management is the same...
my least favorite scam: Health Care in America
When Obamacare got passed, my ex and I celebrated with basic NY health insurance and our free, yearly check up. We found an in-network doctor, arrived, did extra paperwork as new patients, and did a bunch of 'required' tests. Two weeks later, we got billed $1300 for 'extra tests we had (supposedly) requested' and had to spend the following weeks arguing with the insurance company and 'health care provider' who tried to dupe us. We cancelled our $500/month insurance a month later. I went back to getting check ups once/year in Canada and paying 150/visit to Urgent Care when I needed antibiotics or asthma medicine.
The Urgent Care visits can be hit or miss--sometimes they seem invested in making the right call based on the evidence given. Sometimes they try to sell you extra tests they can bill you for or just slap any old low stakes diagnosis on the problem so they can go to lunch. Even my dentist, who is excellent at dental work, still tries to sell me extra sh*t I don't need or want (like a $450 mouth guard she insisted on that doesn't really fit, and that I found out later I didn't need because I already have a retainer, which she knew).
A lot of American adults I know don't have health insurance, life insurance, or retirement funds and are deeply in debt. They slide by, some how, every month, mostly on the kindness of family members and neighbors, or crowdfunding. Or just going deeper into debt.
I got roped in, in the beginning, by Instagram/Facebook ads for 'exciting new products' that turned out to be barely operational merchandise, made cheaply and shipped from China, complete with broken-english instructions, and a return policy that wasn't real. My sympathetic brain would think: Oh well, somebody in China probably needs that $15 more than I do. The recent storm of IG 'ambassador' scams tempted me pretty recently too... they message you with a torrent of 'OMG's and 'Babe!'s like they are some Cali-based swimwear brand, offer you 'free' ill-fitting bathing suits and sunglasses (sourced for cents on the dollar) that 'only require $20 in shipping fees'. No returns, of course. But they do follow up with a 'Sorry Babe!' when you complain in their DM.
It's so stupid and obvious now, but these IG scams are designed to get my dopamine-addicted, social-media-obsessed brain to give in, and I know if they worked on me once, they must work on thousands of other people just trying to find a cute deal.
Shane started a legitimate, licensed film company at the end of last year, and now we get 1 or 2 letters a week in the mail, all on official-looking letterhead, claiming he's past due on some required fee and if he doesn't pay it, his business will be shut down. Dozens of printed, paid-for notecards replete with total lies. Meanwhile people across America are being harassed over the phone by stern-sounding 'debt collectors' who claim they have a warrant out for their arrest unless they pay a specific amount down on their student loans. I know a highly intelligent, street smart, working female who gave her bank info to one such harasser years ago, and every dollar she had in her account was taken--never to be fully accounted for or returned.
College Can Be A Scam
I didn't fully understand the true obsession with College-Brag in America until last year, when the college-admissions scandal involving major American universities like USC and Yale broke public news. I had no idea that 'saying you went' to a buzzy, reputable school is often more important than actually being qualified to attend that school. When I looked closer at the details, I started seeing that wealthy Americans are buying status and education while the vast majority of underprivileged college kids are working multiple jobs and going into crippling debt, while attempting to find time to study...after already fighting just to get into college in the first place. But the OBSESSION with college degrees in the job market is hilarious. Receptionists and personal assistants and volunteer coordinators need a bachelor's degree just to apply...? No offense, but those jobs could be performed well by anyone who knows how to read and pick up social cues. Engineering, science, education, linguistics, medicine, and--maybe--tech...these are fields that would be basically impossible to work in without a post secondary degree, and they still require all kinds of skills you don't take courses on in college. Sorry if this is wildly controversial, but Business? Music? Theatre? Film? Dance? Management? Administration? Hospitality? These are things you should pay to study because you feel INSPIRED to study them at a renowned institution, not because you can't get a job in their fields without the degree.
I live in a constant state of wanting to go back to school--my brain benefits without question from learning in a structured environment. But at my age, it's not something people recommend, even though I easily have another 50-60 years of good health and work ahead of me. I'm a patient, organized, level-headed worker with a lot of deft physical/social skills, but I never finished my degree in a field I had no intention of working in (Biology), and now I live in American social status limbo: qualified without a college stamp of approval, and too old/poor to re-enroll. Meanwhile college graduates and I often compete on the same level in auditions. We have the same agents and the same show credits. We have the same industry connections, the same outfits, the same resumes, and the same chance of booking something based off of mostly our 'look' and 'vibe'. In my industry, nobody cares where you went to college once they've met you and worked with you. They just want you to be cool, capable and easy to work with (not a college course anywhere--I checked). I still look at college programs every month, though. Then I watch a Gary Vee podcast clip and think, nah I'm good. But then I think about campus grass and libraries and fresh pencils and think, "I want that." It's a cycle that never ends.
Spend enough time in the 'land of the free' and you start to see patterns of fuckery everywhere... when you search for a job or a new home, check your email, buy something online, speak with a company representative, sign up for a class, get your car fixed, shop for insurance, and scroll through any app. I, personally, have experienced corrupt, shady, often illegal practices with immigration visa lawyers, travel companies, carpet cleaners, acting classes/casting seminars, commission based salespeople, dishonest drivers skilled in avoiding fault, restaurant chains under fire for harassment/break violations, production companies, cruise ships, bank loans, jewelers, any business on the Vegas Strip, cell phone companies, Amazon purchases, and real estate brokers... oh, and Bikram is a rapist who ripped off his whole yoga curriculum, targeted ads full of non-facts can change the way people vote, and the McDonald's monopoly promotion was a giant heist involving the New York mafia. And I wonder why I don't want to leave the house some days.
The Bigger Picture
The whole system that is America is designed to keep us in debt, to keep us looking for short cuts and lotteries and back doors. Keep spending money we don't have on stuff we've been conditioned to want. Keep eating junk food and bingeing shows and signing up for subscriptions we'll forget about. Even self-help, spiritual, and therapy books/apps/gurus have an often inflated price tag for a lot of empty promises. I'll be the first to admit that I sometimes drink the Kool-aid, then get angry and depressed when it turns out to be just another scam in the fertile land of scams.
Underneath the scams lies a lot of systemic, old traditions of racism, homophobia and misogyny that have thrived, unchecked, for generations in every industry...baked into school curriculums, news media, and hardworking, traditional small-town values of families just trying to stay afloat themselves. Aside from attending one Women's March and watching Patriot Act, I'm not sure how to go about solving this--but 'cancelling' human beings without giving them a chance to converse and grow doesn't seem like the way.
Yesterday I interviewed a renowned dancer/choreographer/teacher over Facetime (he was on a teaching gig in Barcelona), for an article I was pitching to Dance Plug. His insights on dance and the dance industry fascinated me--he offered me so much more to think about than I had initially asked for. In speaking on artistic development as a native New Yorker, he said: "It's different because we live in America. Our system is designed to tell us we're free and headed to happiness, but actually force us to make decisions way before we're ready, way sooner than we should be making them. [The system says] we don't have time to decide." He observed that many other countries don't put that pressure on kids to figure out what their whole life should be about when they finish high school. There is time and space designated for exploration and learning the life-stuff you can't take a college course in. He also pointed out that America, more than maybe any developed nation, "puts inflation into things people need for their livelihood...things they need to survive." And he's right.
Health care, childcare, groceries, education, community support. America screws over the people who can't afford to pay inflation on their basic needs, then creates a breeding ground for the world's most layered, creative, criminal scams. From clickbait headlines to global corporate webs of exploitation.
I recently started reading articles from a nonprofit, UNESCO-affiliated group called Transparency International. Their only job is to root out and report on government corruption (defined as: the misuse of public power for private benefit) across the globe. Their typical report on America is staggering. Shell companies from all over the world use America's no-questions-asked banking policies to hide and spend dirty money. Billionaires fund candidates and policies that cater to their personal greed and bottomless power-hunger, while taking away crucial programs protecting the basic survival and humanity of the other 99%. Something called a Corruption Perceptions Index reports on the overall trustworthiness of 180 countries. The 2019 report ranks Denmark and New Zealand at the top, with scores of 87 (out of 100). Somalia (9/100), South Sudan (12/100), and Syria (13/100) round out the bottom. Canada has moved down in recent years, ranked 12th with a score of 77. America sits at 23rd, down 7 points to 69 (lol) since Trump took office. Saudi Arabia, Italy, Malaysia, and Rwanda are all tied for the 51st ranking with a score of 53. In many cases, evidence shows a correlation between a lower corruption index and a more powerful and booming economy (Jesus).
For some reason, I can't get enough of these statistics...
Maybe it's the fact that they aren't splashed across mainstream American news. They can't be used to make me buy more things. They are extensively researched, fact-checked statistics uncovered by people from all over the world (the main office works out of Berlin) working together to communicate the state of things as clearly as possible. Is Transparency International immune to controversy and the very human trend of deceit for personal gain? Likely not, but they're showing up to work anyway, constantly moving towards incremental improvement... which is something I can relate to. I'm not perfect, universally accomplished, or even consistently kind... but I'm trying to get better and figure it out and forgive and use my mistakes as launchpads to move forward, better. I'm using what resources I have to empathize and understand, rather than blindly join the criminal shit heels OR fold up shop altogether. I will not ignore the shitty things, BUT I will never give up on the good things, either.
Don't Lose Hope
This is where I need you to know... America is not an inherently bad place. Americans are generally kind, collaborative, smart, driven, good humored folks--all of them patiently navigating the scams themselves and trying to figure out how to make things better. Also, the scams I've reported on here are BY NO MEANS limited to America alone. They are just one powerful player in a very corrupt world. Canada is certainly not immune to the scams I've mentioned (or real estate money laundering, or foreign bribery). I have experienced genuine, selfless friendship, open dialogue, and acts of generosity probably daily in my life here, and more often than not, I feel utterly inspired to pay it forward. So, that's where I wanna take this: the scams are there, but they are just a complex result of a complex human system, and we can make honest, more helpful choices every day, out of our awareness of that system.
America, I refuse to give up on you--although I might have to move if I develop any pressing medical needs. Also, please don't cancel me.
If anyone needs me, I'll be engaging in some proven non-scam activity, like meditation, or deep, wordless love, or a burrito.