Flipping channels in my hotel room the other night, I caught ten minutes of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, a film I like enormously. It’s an “old” movie, from the Fifties, but Cary Grant’s suit is pretty much identical to the suits around today. Likewise, his shirt and tie. The architecture is familiar. To a viewer from 2011, a film from the 1950s is a glimpse of an earlier version of what’s still recognizably our world.
But what would a visitor from Eisenhower’s America make of our time? He might eventually get around to marveling at the iPod and Twitter, but I would bet his initial reaction would be complete amazement at the people. Instead of the sober suits and hats of a 1950 Main Street, men and women crowd the sidewalks in brightly colored leisurewear that, to his mid-century eyes, gives them the air of overgrown children, especially when slurping sugary drinks through straws from containers not dissimilar to baby bottles. He would observe that a remarkable number of these people are extremely large, waddling along like supersized moppets. The actual children are also strikingly overweight. If he went into a big-box emporium, he would be struck by how unhealthy many of the inhabitants are, cruising the aisles in motorized carts. If he were in almost any American city, he would notice that almost everybody serving him — at the newsstand, at the coffee shop — appears to be an immigrant of ethnicities barely present in the United States 60 years ago.