Lobby ethnography

tidal pool.bmp

Hotels are tidal pools. Staying at the Westin hotel in Kansas City, I saw the tide come twice. (One of these days, someone will do a portrait of America based on lobby ethnography alone. I am deeply happy to say it won’t be me.)

The first was the Jack and Jill Association of America. The Westin lobby and elevators filled with magnificently dressed and appointed women. It was from their patient, disengaged, short suffering husbands at the bar that I got the details. Jack and Jill is designed to help African American families stay in touch with their roots, and one another, as prosperity takes them to the suburb.

One of the pressing questions: how to keep kids in touch with their culture even as they are firewalled against the siren call of the gangsta pose (and posse). It sounds like a tough piece of parenting. Suburban kids may well be vulnerable to the accusation that they have compromised their blackness. What better way to redress the balance than hip hop swagger (and swag)?

This task will be complicated, I’m guessing, by a collision of consumption styles. The move to the suburbs is traditionally a move towards a consumption style that is muted. Kids find this cautious and uninteresting in any case. But it must be stupefying compared to bling. What happens when bland meets bling?

The second was the FBI National Academy. A different crowd entirely. Now it was husbands who were the key actors, and wives who sat patiently in the bar. The Academy was originally known as the “Police Training School of the FBI” and it is designed to help Police Chiefs improve their law enforcement methods.

One of the pressing questions: what to do about methamphetamines? One Academy guy was kind enough to give me a detailed account. Methamphetamines are apparently cheap to make and they can be manufactured in rudimentary facilities by people who have no real training. Finally, they can be manufactured in the US. On all these counts, closing down distribution is tough.

Addiction is formidable, much more formidable than cocaine, with recovery programs taking several weeks. Addicts sign on for the long term. Criminals high on methamphetamines are exceedingly dangerous, so they are difficult and dangerous to collar.

Abundant supply has not lowered prices very much, and interestingly, one of the chief sources of income for the methamphetamine addict is identity theft. This is less violent than street crime, clearly, but the consequences for the victim are still severe. It can take people years to sort out the blot on their credit history. (Is this symmetry? Addicts give their identities to a drug and take identities from victims.)

This is another symptom of our dynamism. Intoxicants come and go: heroin, marijuana, angel dust, cocaine, crack cocaine, and now methamphetamine. It is as if we are seeing a disintermediation even here. Production and distribution is now decentralized. In any case, the Academy is dealing with wave after wave of new drugs, lots of different drugs, and they must come up with new solutions for each of them. So much for the small town sheriff who mostly had to deal with a handful of drunks and a couple of punks. Thank God for the FBI National Academy.

There is not much in common here, except that both groups are dealing with the effects of dynamism. They come to the Kansas City Westin to learn to manage change. They come to learn to live with a continually changing problem set. They can’t expect simple answers, just make shift solutions. And they are not here for stately deliberation. They are grappling with problems that demand that they respond in real time right now. The response will be fleeting. Before next year’s convention, the world and the challenge will have changed again.

The thing I like most about real tidal pools is that they are so easy to think. The ocean has given you a little aquarium, one star fish, a handful of barnacles, a minnow, some things that dart, some things that skim. Finally, you think to yourself, an ocean made manageable. This I can think. I am guessing that these two conventions gave their participants a ‘tidal pool” moment. But, living in a culture of constant turmoil, they can’t have had any doubts. They know that respite is fleeting and that next year they are going to have to do it all over again.

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