Two wrecked cars. Glass strewn like a seasoning of salt across the unforgiving tar seal, metal twisted and bent and groaning in disfigured agony. Serious damage has been done here. In front of the tragedy stands a woman. She has an open mouthed, almost sensual smile on her face and a wad of $100 bills fanned out below her chin.
Another woman stands in front of a house which is in well engulfed in flames and raises her hands above her head, her face contorted in a triumphant scream of joy. She's not going to have a particularly long or successful career as an arsonist.
But she is not an arsonist at all, and nor will she need any form of career in the short term- although she is going to need a new house. Why are these people so thrilled by their own misfortune? Because in America, misfortune is endlessly profitable for the law firms who plaster advertisements like the ones above onto bus stops and billboards.
Below their faces is declared in big bold letters a truly American mantra: "Don't be stupid- Get paid".
I come to you this week from Sacramento, California, USA. Half of the place looks like every bit of American television or cinema ever created; the other half looks like Cops.
As a side note, I don't actually spend my life swanning around the world, as this column in conjunction with the column I wrote from Croatia a few weeks back may lead you to believe - it just so happens the only two trips outside of NZ and Australia I have made were only a few weeks apart.
Europe was expected to be different- experiencing European culture is like meeting another family and meandering through a cordial conversation with them about niceties.
America is like meeting a stranger and shaking their hand, only to find they've got an extra finger, and something stuck in their teeth, and they talk at a volume better classed as yelling while they repeat themselves endlessly.
It has the 'uncanny valley' effect. Vaguely similar when compared to our own culture: within the warped, inflated, precarious mess, you can spot a streak of familiarity, but the surrounding area is so smudged that it seems out of place and unlikely to even be real.
In reality, is it the same, but just ramped up about 5 notches, blown out of proportion. Like one of those quiz questions where you have to guess what you are looking at, zoomed in so closely it in unrecognisable. Like going from being around people who joke about being addicted to coffee, to walking past people smoking crack on the side of the road at a bus stop. Oh wait, that's not a simile, that's a literal comparison.
Before this, all I knew of America was what I had absorbed via media. Their music- and particularly the music within the genre of rap, which has had such a fusion with pop and the mainstream over the past 5 years as to have become commonplace not only within the US but worldwide, as tends to be the case with anything America does- is inexplicably braggadocious.
Rappers rhyme and word play with lines about their going rates for appearances and shows as though singing a contract negotiation. They list assets and values like they're meeting an insurance appraiser.
And to a New Zealand ear it's very noticeable, because for your average kiwi (regardless of whether they are the richest of the rich or the poorest of the poor), being asked to spend four minutes discussing (let alone bragging about) their net worth, assets and salary is a cold sweat, gasp inducing, startling awake nightmare situation.
Americans finance cars up the kazoo: a third of them don't pay them off fully before they upgrade again, which is not a surprise when the average loan term is nearly 6 years with options up to 9 years plus, and so nor is it a shock that 7 million Americans are more than 90 days late on their (average ~$600NZD) monthly payments.
You notice it very quickly. The lower class drive shining brand new staples of the NZ middle class (Ford Mondeos, Toyota Camrys, Honda Civics), the middle class drive muscle cars and pick-up trucks, and the rich drive the kind of cars which made me excited to go to Auckland when I was a kid, because we didn't see them in Christchurch pre-earthquake. The properly poor push shopping trolleys.
This is for no other reason than appearance is everything. In a place this big, you have to make it, or else you are nothing but another one of the three hundred and twenty seven million. You have to make it, because the television and radio don't display an alternative. Then when you make it, you have to advise people that you have done so.
And when you have the chance to sue someone, you'd best lawyer up and "not be stupid- get paid"- because guess what? You've just made it.