Read the headlines these days and you can’t avoid concluding that the United States is in an awful mess. A partisan feud that would put the Hatfields and McCoys to shame shuts down the government of the world’s most powerful nation. The ongoing plague of gun violence reaps its daily toll. National debt climbs. Inequality deepens.
Yet when a guy from Toronto visits the United States, the first thing he notices is not the dysfunction but the efficiency. Sad to say, Americans do many things much better than we do back home.
“Good enough” does not cut it down here. From the grooming of sports fields to the mustering of marching bands, Americans take on simple tasks with astonishing zest and skill.
What a traveller notices first is the service. For someone accustomed to the indifferent, often outright contemptuous treatment customers get in Toronto, it is a revelation.
Eager car jockeys positively dash to retrieve your vehicle or find you a cab. Beaming hotel clerks offer to help you out and actually mean it.
When a colleague and I enter a Mexican-food restaurant in Austin, no fewer than five servers meet us at the door with a smile and a “how y’all doing.” (Do they want something?) A bowl of free nachos appears instantly on the spotless bar. When I ask about a local craft beer on tap, the friendly, professional young bartender gives us each a sample.
A couple of days later, stuck in the enormous parking lot of a football stadium without a car, I flag down a stadium golf cart and ask the driver if I can pay him to take me somewhere that I can hail a cab? No, he says, but jump on, “I’ll take care of you, don’t you worry now.” He spots a taxi driving away and bombs after it, hollering till it stops for me.
If Toronto wants to improve its so-so performance as a tourist destination, it could learn a lot from the way they work it down here. It could learn a lot about interesting street food, too.
Toronto has been trying for years to move beyond hot-dog carts. Its latest attempt, in which city hall told vendors precisely what kind of cart they must buy, was an embarrassing flop.
In Austin, by contrast, they have scores of food trucks and carts in all shapes and sizes offering everything from Mexican to Thai to Jamaican to “Navajo frybreads.” They even have a cupcake food truck with a giant pink cupcake on top.
The trucks, some stationed semi-permanently in parking lots or on street corners, don’t block traffic or threaten public health, as officials back home fear. They haven’t destroyed the restaurant business either, judging by the thriving indoor-eating scene.
When Toronto city councillors visiting with Mayor Rob Ford tried to explain the struggle to get our own food-truck business into gear, local officials looked at them blankly. What, they wondered, was the problem?
The attention to detail, the “why-not?” sense of possibility, is distinctly American. You see it even in something as apparently superficial as that all-American pastime, tailgating. At a Dallas Cowboys football game, you pass scores of pre-game parties equipped with everything from big-screen TVs to full DJ setups to big barbecue smokers brought in by trailer hitch. Serious tailgaters spend weeks on the logistics of everything from pitching the tailgate tent to preparing the best beer can chicken.
Crazy, yes, and the drinking and eating to excess is all-American, too, but it’s a happy, orderly scene and you have to admire the inventiveness. Who but an American would invent the “beer bong,” a two-metre-tall apparatus with six hoses dispensing suds?
In the United States, nothing is too much. Everything is possible. And when they do something, they do it right.