There’s a lot wrong with the United States of America but there’s a lot right with it too.
We’re halfway into a fortnight’s trip, starting with New York and Chicago and ending in Arizona at the Grand Canyon. So far it’s going well.
The good news is that the presidential brand is going downhill fast. The first building you notice in Chicago is a hotel with TRUMP written across the front in silver letters 20ft high.
The city authorities told him he could have letters 10ft high but he defied them and put up the size he wanted. When they complained, he said “sue me”. They didn’t. What cheered me up was hearing that nobody’s booking rooms there since Trump became president.
They don’t like him much in New York either. A party of schoolkids asked me to take a picture of them at the Whitney Gallery. To get them to smile, I asked them to say “Beyoncé”. Instead, they started chanting “Impeach Trump, impeach Trump!”
The friends we’re visiting live in Forest River, a suburb 30 minutes from Chicago city centre. If you ever watched Desperate Houswives, you’ll know what American suburbs look like: wide streets with no two houses looking the same and those green, open front lawns where the little guy throwing the newspaper needs strong arms to get it as far as the verandah.
There are one or two houses where the Stars and Stripes flutters from a flagpole but a more common sight, fixed into the grass, is a sign with the Stars and Stripes squished into a heart shape and the slogan “Hate Has No Home Here” in big letters.
Beneath it, to reinforce the message, are the same words in five different languages including Hispanic and Arabic. The Donald would do well to stay in the White House. They don’t like him in America’s big cities.
Scotland’s hospitality industry could learn a lot from America too. The service in bars, restaurants, museums and art galleries is impeccable. When they say “Enjoy” or “Have a nice day”, they really mean it. This comes with a smile as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge and if you chat a little longer, suddenly the waitress has her phone out showing you pictures of her kids and asking to see pictures of yours.
Visiting’s one thing. Actually living here is something else. We’re staying with my pals Pete and Leigh and their wee girl Lois, who moved here from Edinburgh. It was a steep learning curve for them. Pete explained: “Obviously I knew people carried guns here but I never imagined I’d nearly get shot in my first week.”
Naturally enough I want to hear how that happened.
“We’d just arrived in the country. Our motor needed a wee repair so we had to get a rental car. We still hadn’t sorted out our American car insurance or our driving licences.
“I’d just dropped Lois off at the school in this hired car when Leigh phoned me and I did that silly thing and picked the phone up.
“As we chatted, I drove past a parked police prowler and he saw me. There was a ‘whoop-whoop’ from the siren and he followed me round the corner.
“I parked up, thinking this is great, how am I going to explain myself to this guy? I’m driving a car that isn’t mine. I’ve no insurance. No driving licence. I thought, I’ll get out and speak to him, just be honest, explain the situation.
“So I open the door and get out. Soon as I step out, there’s a voice from the speaker on the roof of the cop car. ‘Get back into your vehicle. Get back in the car. Do it NOW.’
“Next second he’s opening his door and coming towards me. The first thing I notice is both his arms held stiff and straight and his hands clasped round a black pointy thing. A gun. Aimed at me.
“By this time I’m getting back in the car, my legs shaking, my heart thumping. ‘Get your hands on the wheel!’ he yells.
“By now he’s up at the window still pointing his gun at me and shouting. He says ‘What do you think you’re f*****g doing? I could’ve f*****g shot you. What do you think you’re up to, getting out of the car?’
“I stutter back ‘Look, I know I was on the phone, this isn’t my car, I haven’t got a driving licence and I’m not insured. I’ve just moved here.’
“He wasn’t bothered about that. He was concerned about the fact that he had been actually thinking about shooting me for getting out of my car. ‘You don’t get out of the car when I stop you. That’s an aggressive act. I’m not going to give you a ticket for the phone and everything, that’s a lot of paperwork for me. But you gotta promise me that if you get pulled over for anything from now on, you stay in your vehicle and wait till you get told what to do next.’”
Staying alive in a country full of guns is one problem, especially if your skin isn’t white. The other problem is staying healthy, especially if you’re poor.
Now this is an Edinburgh newspaper. That means that some of you are Conservative voters.
With an election coming up fast, you might want to reconsider that position in the light of what I’m going to tell you next. Because in Britain, the Conservative Party have begun to privatise our NHS.
Why would they want to privatise the best health service in the world? Quite simply because they are the friends of privilege, entitlement and big business and they will always put those interests above the concerns of ordinary people.
So what happens when a country’s health service is run by big business? I put this question to my niece Chloe when I visited her in New York last week
She’s a midwife who used to live in Northern Ireland, so she knows both the American and the British health services inside out.
She said: “Living in the States made me really appreciate the NHS. When a public health system becomes a for-profit system it devalues the first principle of medicine, which is the art of healing.
“For example, epi-pens here have just been priced up from $100 –already way too expensive – to $500.
“Epinephrine is an inexpensive, life-saving medicine for people who suffer from anaphylactic allergies. If your kid has an allergy you better make sure you have an epi-pen in their back pack, in their classroom, at your home, at your grandparents or up your sleeve, because going into shock can kill someone in 20 minutes. Epinephrine is a simple, synthetic hormone that costs $5 to put in an epi-pen. So the mark-up is criminal.
“American pharmaceutical companies have HUGE influence on governments. Any level of privatisation will see them get their tentacles on YOUR government officials. This is very real in America and seemingly unstoppable.
“When your kid breaks an arm, you don’t want your second thought to be – is this going to cost me $20,000? When you get pregnant you don’t want to be asking yourself am I going to have to pay $10,000 for routine care in the hospital. And all this when you already pay about $1000 a month for basic health cover!
“That’s what health insurance costs ordinary folk unless they have Obamacare, which Trump has promised to get rid of.
“American pharmaceutical companies have a gun to the US government’s head. If you don’t want that to happen to your health service too, better not vote Tory.”