American Reality Gaps

Now that the 9/11 celebrations of memories, oaths of determination, endless renditions of God Bless America and Nowhere else, and flying of flags have become old news, my wife and I take an overnight vacation. Driving north on scenic Highway 29 in Napa County, admiring the endless acres of grapes which will magically – and with lots of labor – become wine, I wonder who will drink the millions of gallons, and who can afford to even think about buying a bottle of fermented grape juice costing $15 to $300; if you want to experience a quick sensation of liquid velvet flowing through your mouth and oozing down your throat.

Some of the workers – illegal aliens for the Tea Party or undocumented workers if you’re politically correct – who pick and process these grapes earn less than minimum wage. Yes Virginia, in flag-flying California’s wine country and other patriotic agricultural zones, American bosses hired lots of low-wage foreign labor. But there’s an upside: lower food and booze prices. The underpaid Mexican worker who picks the grapes helps Mommy afford the smooth white wine she drinks from late morning on as well as the mellow red one she shares with Daddy when he comes home.

I assume Tea Partiers would accept $6 an hour doing hard fieldwork – or know solid American citizens who would. I don’t. At that wage, you could fast for two days and not afford a “good” bottle of Napa Valley wine!

Well, who needs to drink expensive wine? I ask myself. “Not me,” I answer, as we stop in St. Helena and watch tourists sip high-priced local wines to wash down expensive brunches. Some drop into organic olive oil shops dip French bread into exotic greases ($22 – for a small bottle). Then, they cut the oily taste by dipping bread squares into rare – how else to explain the price? – Balsamic vinegars; or try unusual homemade jams. After getting almost a meal’s worth of tasting I feel guilty and buy a four-ounce jar of jalapeno jelly – a gift for a relative. I hate my own gregarious impulse – spending so much on so little. Minimum wage workers in the store couldn’t afford to indulge such whims. I try to imagine millions of poverty-stricken people with the aftertaste of sugar-flavored jalapeno on their tongues!

Fashionably and casually dressed tourists drop in at tasting rooms at the Napa wineries. None fall into the category of the one in six U.S. citizens whom the Census Bureau’s annual report describes as “poor.” Moreover, the report also refers to some 6 million former wage earners who have fallen into a category called “long-term unemployed” – more than half a year without a job. Many of those have no immediate prospect of getting one. They can’t make their mortgage payments, have lost their health insurance and often the integrity of their families.

In 2011, 46.2 million Americans (more than 15% of the population) officially live in poverty, the largest number since the government began counting that category in its census in 1959. As of 2006, only 32 million people lived in all of Canada.

The medically uninsured population reached almost 50 million. Most of the so-called “Obamacare” doesn’t kick in until 2014. A sample of Tea Party Republicans on CNN would rather let patients die than treat them for free. (Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul if he would let an uninsured patient die. He said “No,” while members of the audience screamed “Yeah.” Sept. 12)

Diego, an uninsured, non-union janitor from Michoacan in Mexico, works at a Lake County resort. He describes his experience with American health care. “Last year,” he told me in Spanish, “one of my kids got a really high fever, and I had to take her to the Emergency Room. They hit me with an $800 bill for their services. I negotiated with them and they gave me a discount, but it took me months to pay the bill and I received threatening letters. Now I worry ‘what if my kids need to see a doctor?’”

“That’s crazy,” he concludes. “Eight hundred dollars for a visit to the emergency room and not even an X-ray!”

I ask him about work possibilities in the area. “There are grapes, of course. But only for a few months a year.” He emptied ashes from the BBQ grills behind the tourist cabins and laid fresh aluminum foil at the bottom of each.

“Tourists don’t come so much in bad times as they used to. I’m lucky I have my job and my wife has hers. She cleans houses and watches other people’s kids.”

He asked where I learned Spanish.


“Wow, I hear people are very poor there, but they have good medical care. Maybe poor is better than sick.”

A young waitress at a BBQ joint in Lakeport on the west side of Clear Lake said, “Health insurance doesn’t come with the job, but as soon as I enroll in college I’ll have some protection.”


“Tourism sucks,” she said, referring to the declining numbers of people who can afford to take vacations. “A lot of people here without jobs and no prospects.”

You wouldn’t know poverty existed at St. Helena gift shops and overpriced restaurants – I mean bistros. The conversations (I eavesdropped) did not include the newly released poverty figures.

The richest nation in the world rewards its affluent minority with exciting food tastes, ever-new clothing styles, cars with the comforts of their penthouses, super yachts and unimaginable luxuries – and very low taxes. The unpleasant news doesn’t enter their conversations and indeed it must be hard for the ultra rich to imagine that almost 50 million people living in the same county with them have scant access to medical care and will never get a pension.

Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND is available for theatrical showings and on DVD from cinemalibrestudio.com. He’s an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. Counterpunch published his BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD


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SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.

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