• Notes on Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent

    May 1, 2014

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    Posted in: #99Percent, * Most Popular, Economy, Minimum Wage

    Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99PercentI grew up in Ohio, more in a suburb than a place just like Reeve, the fictional setting of my book, but I saw for myself the changes that I’ve written about.


    Our town had a sprawling factory, making big aluminum bodied semi-trailers. Nearby was Lorain, Ohio, the nearest “city,” which had a huge steel making complex, a shipyard building ships for the Great Lakes (like the famous Edmund Fitzgerald from the song) and a string of Ford plants that built cars and trucks. If you saw or drove an Econoline van in the 1970s, it probably came from there. I watched every one of those factories downsize, get sold off to foreign firms or just give up and close during my high school and college years.

    Lorain, Ohio

    Lorain, Ohio is a snapshot of our modern economy. Population is down more than six percent since 2000. You can rent a house with a yard and a garage there for under $600 a month, and the landlord will be glad to have you. The median income is only $30,526, low even for Ohio where the average is over $45k. About one third of the households earn less than $20k a year even as the poverty line for a family of four in America is $23,000. Nationally, the numbers are equally grim: more than forty-six million Americans – about one in seven – rely on food stamps, the equivalent of the entire populations of Texas and New York. The program now consumes two percent of the federal budget, or $78 billion in fiscal 2011. It is not shrinking, and there are few people who need food stamps who think they are getting enough.

    The town I lived in, before the factories closed, had a sizable blue-collar population. Those people lived on the same streets with my own white-collar family. They had above-ground pools in the back yard, two cars, took vacations and sent their kids to college. Economically and socially there was no difference between the white-collar families and the blue-collar families, something that existed in America for a couple of generations after World War II and is now gone. I cannot for the life of me see how it can come back.

    Everyone went to one high school, except for a small Catholic school that enrolled a few kids every year. About one third of my senior class graduated into the military, a third went to college (Ohio State was the overwhelming favorite though a handful went out of state, even Ivy League, every year) and about a third went to work in one of the factories. Those who had taken “vocational education” in high school typically got better jobs as machinist trainees, but there were jobs for the others, as long as they would show up, and learn to handle a broom, or stack boxes, or drive a forklift. It was all expected and understood.

    The town is still there, though the population has turned over significantly. Most now commute to white-collar jobs. Anyone who still works in town is in the service industry, doing a job that does not make or create anything, putting in hours at a nail salon or retail store or, for many, behind the counter at a fast-food restaurant.

    As does the main character in my book, I did work in retail for minimum wage, both at age 16 and again at age 53, and all the stories about “Bullseye” in the story are true events that either happened to me, or the people I worked with (I have disguised their identities). While I lived a life from teenager stocking shelves to older adult stocking shelves, the minimum wage only rose by a few bucks. The minimum wage today is $7.25—is a large latte really what an hour of labor is worth? What has changed significantly is who is now working these minimum wage jobs. Once upon a time they were filled with high school kids earning pocket money, or the archetypical student earning her way through college. In 2014, the jobs are encumbered by adults struggling to get by. Some thirty million Americans are trying to live on such wages, so something is wrong in what many still insist is the world’s strongest economy.

    Resources

    There is a rich body of fiction describing the darkest episodes in American economic history. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and the masterful film of the book, stand out, and both obviously informed my own writing. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is almost equally as well known. Two other books worth reading along these lines are Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. My fictional town of Reeve, Ohio is located “near” the more famous fictional town setting of Samarra’s Gibbsville, Pennsylvania and the actual Winesburg location of Clyde, Ohio. In most cases written contemporaneously, these books captured the uncertainty and fear of the, as no one writing knew how the Depression would end.

    The 1970s as a transition decade, an explanation of how we got from prosperity to despair, is the subject of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s, Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie and The 1970’s: A New Global History by Thomas Borstelmann. All are accessible contemporary histories that build elements of the popular culture into the larger socioeconomic narrative.

    Left Out in America, by Pat LaMarche, is a sensitive, sympathetic look at the lives of homeless women in modern America. Pat, as part of her campaign as the 2004 Green Party Vice Presidential candidate, spent several weeks living in homeless shelters to educate herself and raise awareness for the special issues women face on top of the daily struggle to simply feed themselves and their children. Though I spent some time myself living out of my car to prepare for this book, Pat offered a perspective unavailable otherwise to me. Pat lost the election that year to Dick Cheney, but continues her work as a journalist.

    Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is an evocative picture of life lived at minimum wage. Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Walmart salesperson. She discovered that one job is not enough; she needed at least two to live indoors.

    For those wishing to learn more about America’s working class, the very best nonfiction on the subject are the books by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, particularly Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression. Maharidge as the writer, with Williamson as a photographer, chronicle the new landscape of the working poor in America, and focus specifically on Youngstown, Ohio and its former roll as a steelmaking town. Working this topic together since 1980, the two Pulitzer-Prize winners have followed the lives of several families over the thirty-year span to present a devastating portrait of joblessness. Short of growing up in the Rust Belt as I did, these books give you the most authentic feel for that time and place available.

    Bruce Springsteen wrote two of his more poignant songs about working life, The Ghost of Tom Joad (Rage Against the Machine offers a much rougher, more angry version, though the take with Tom Morello on Bruce’s new album is quite raw) and Youngstown, based on Maharidge and Williamson’s work, and contributed the foreword to their most recent book. Springsteen is the most relentless and prolific chronicler in popular culture of the plight of the working class, picking up the job from Dust Bowl singers like Woody Guthrie, and carrying the idea forward that America’s workers are resilient. Angry but ebullient, Springsteen echoes Maharidge and Williamson in believing that a new era will follow deindustrialization and that the men and women they write about will survive into it.

    The Future?

    For me, I am not as sure about the future.

    I wrote a piece of this story as a college student in 1981. I got an B+ on the assignment, the professor insisting people would not care to read about Ohio’s troubles. We’ll see if he was right or not. The details changed a lot over time and the current version is different from what I originally wrote (I am hoping for an A- this time around). The takeaway is that since I scribbled down those ideas, we invaded Iraq and the Middle East twice, along with Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan and a score of other places. In between wars I have heard commentator after commentator, politician after politician, talk about reviving the middle class, bringing back jobs, returning manufacturing to America, rebirthing the working class, how high-tech industries would solve everything, how green power initiatives would solve everything and on and on.

    None of it was true, none of it happened. Instead, over the forty years between then and now, America seems to have changed for the worse, with more people in poverty, less money devoted to education and fewer jobs. There’s still a lot of hope out there, young people so smart, older folks working true. It has been a long bus ride for me, for us, but right now I am not sure where the journey will end.



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

  • Recent Comments

    • Guy Montag said...

      1

      Ordered your book yesterday. Thanks for the reference to “Someplace Like America’ (just placed a hold on it at my library) and Bruce’s “Youngstown” song (bought the CD 20 years ago for that song).

      From 1955 to 1965, my Dad lived near Youngstown, OH. He moved up from the MS Delta and worked at Packard Electric and some steel mills to get through college at Youngstown University.

      I drove through Youngstown last month for the first time after my Uncle Jame’s funeral (submariner for 6 years, at Pearl Harbor, worked for 40 years at Lordstown). The place reminded me of Detroit (as a firefighter, I tend to notice lots of empty lots where houses once stood). Almost got homesick!

      I graduated from a Renaissance high school in Detroit in ’83. The place has really gone even more downhill since ’08; my old house on the West side has been stripped out (dead dog carcass in the dining room), probably a 25% vacant rate.

      I don’t see things getting better anytime soon. I’m doing OK as a firefighter in Western MI, but I’m making less than I did 13 years ago and the powers-that-be have been doing after the public unions (now that less folks are in private unions than before the Great Depression).

      05/1/14 11:00 AM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...

      2

      Thanks for your story Guy. There are so, so, many, too many such stories out there, good people who believed what they had been told only to find themselves discarded when companies found they could make more money somewhere, somehow else. I won’t spoil the book for you, but they all are the ghosts of Tom Joad now. I keep trying to be optimistic but so far, I simply cannot.

      05/1/14 11:53 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      3

      “I keep trying to be optimistic but so far, I simply cannot.”

      I know things are looking down for US, but hey, our worst day compared to most of the world is pretty fucking great. Keep the faith. L’Shana Haba’a B’yerushalayim

      The realist in me thinks Barack Obama will get his dream job as a drone jockey. Then we should all watch the skies.

      05/1/14 1:00 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      4

      If nothing else, the USA is still Number 1 in creating ghosts:

      AP: In 1995, the United Nations reported that U.S. economic sanctions against Iraq had brought death to 500,000 Iraqi children below the age of five. Asked about that by Lesley Stahl on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on May 12, 1996, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright answered, “We think the price is worth it.” Apparently that was the correct answer, at least for Official Washington. A few months later, President Bill Clinton nominated Albright to be Secretary of State and she was confirmed unanimously by the full Senate. No one asked about the children.

      05/1/14 1:16 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      5

      05/1/14 2:08 PM | Comment Link

    • jo6pac said...

      6

      I don’t see it getting any better in my life time and at 65 I’m afraid it’s only going to get stranger. I feel sorry for the young.

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/white-house-opens-door-to-tolls-on-interstate-highways-removing-long-standing-prohibition/2014/04/29/5d2b9f30-cfac-11e3-b812-0c92213941f4_story.html

      05/1/14 2:29 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      7

      Let US not be Ghosts then. If half the people who are getting shit on by our Wall Street masters would go down to the National Mall and take a big crap, the “media” would have to make a stink about it…once they find that missing plane of course.

      05/1/14 2:41 PM | Comment Link

    • Lisa said...

      8

      The latest OECD report released this week shows the U.S. at the top of income inequality among industrial states, with the top 1 percent of earners getting 47 percent of all pre-tax income growth (excluding capital gains).

      Read it HERE and HERE

      05/1/14 6:46 PM | Comment Link

    • Lisa said...

      9

      Oh, and yes, Rich, next year in Jerusalem.

      Your book is so provocative, and this “issue” is so large, I think I will have to address it soon in a post at RAW.

      05/1/14 7:23 PM | Comment Link

    • Lisa said...

      10

      (Re. Springsteen, don’t forget Billy Joel’s “Allentown”.)

      Peter writes in the tradition of the American Naturalists at the turn of the last century. City life was harsh, and the romantic idealism of bucolic country life was gone; nature is indifferent to the plight and strivings of man, and nature is his milieu.

      It’s a hard truth that capitalism favors the bottom line. If a machine can do it better, faster, cheaper, why not? If people will work sans unions, why not exploit them?

      The only thing I can see to argue against such harsh pragmatism is a sense of decency, a moral sense. Yet most liberals are so advanced and free of dogma (=religion), and I think do not realize that it is a certain kindness — a certain responsibility — which is born of a sense of duty to one’s brother, which is the only thing to counter disinterest towards those who are falling behind.

      Religion is not the only way to get there, but it’s hard to argue for an economically inclusive society when we’ve already lived through the “success” that is outsourcing and offshoring, and we have so many other disconnects now with those who used to do those jobs.

      05/2/14 6:15 AM | Comment Link

    • Michael Kuser said...

      11

      Thank you for your reporting on TomDispatch and good luck with this book. This blog resonates with me as I grew up in Troy, Ohio in the 1960s and ’70s before moving to New Jersey in 1974. I experienced small town America with Soap Box Derby races and Memorial Day parades and watching 4th of July fireworks from the levee on the Miami River. I went to college in Bethlehem, PA, where “The Steel” ran the longest continuous steel mill in the world, something like 11 miles. A few years ago I read that the foundry part downtown had been turned into a casino and I knew that the US was dying of capitalist rot.

      I’ve been a journalist and writer forever and living outside the US since 1991 – in Italy and Turkey. Saw freelance journalism go down the toilet, but can still make more than $50 an hour doing specialized reporting – not quite hack work but close.

      One book that would go well on your list is Studs Terkel’s “The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream” – published in 1988. I read it again last year, 25 years after publication, and it’s amazing to see how things got worse over a generation. I have hope for now and the future – and maintain a balanced perspective on life through comedy. Thanks again for your great work!

      05/2/14 7:10 AM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...

      12

      @ Lisa: “Yet most liberals are so advanced and free of dogma (etc)”

      I think you wrote that with an ironic inflection, in which case I would agree. But in any case, I would add:

      It’s not that they have no dogma, it’s that they choose not to acknowledge the origins of their own dogmas. Neither did Thomas Jefferson – whom I mostly admire – when he wrote that certain truths about Humanity were “self-evident.” The discomforting fact is that the desiderata of equality and human rights are NOT “self-evident”, they’re ultimately matters of faith, matters of chosen beliefs. And to regard those beliefs as self-evident is a kind of dogma after all.

      When you say, “Religion is not the only way to get there”, I PARTLY agree, for two reasons:

      1. Historically, MOST religions have never posited any belief in essential, univeral human dignity. Judaism was the first to do so, albeit in halting and backsliding ways; it took the Jews centuries to develop any belief in the equality of Gentiles. Its successors Christianity and Islam do teach human dignity and essential equality but are easily subjected to distortion such as when the “Christian” Sarah Palin made a blasphemous “joke” about baptising Muslims by waterboarding. Dante would place her in the Inferno, and Pope Francis would tell her to repent from her blasphemy.

      2. I do believe that the natural light of Reason CAN and does get us very far. But not far enough, because “Reason” is also subject to convenient distortion. It’s easy to make logical cases for torture and genocide, if you just adapt your premises.

      And all logic and science ultimately rests on some kind of faith. So what we’re really talking about here, is not “dogma”, but what kind of faith one chooses, and even if it’s not a formally religious faith, still it’s based on some kind of CHOICE of what to believe about being Human – including whether there is any essential Human nature at all.

      05/2/14 10:38 AM | Comment Link

    • jim hruska said...

      13

      Peter,
      My long dead friend Joe Urbas was the son of the owner of Urbas bar in downtown Lorain.
      My Polish friends had fathers that worked the steel mills.
      My high school used to play Admiral King ,and my trip there was to the other end of the universe.
      The last several times in Lorain the major bridge was out for repair and it sure took a long time to fix it.
      I used to drive 6 and 2 driving to BGSU. Joe commented while dying that he remembered us tooling down that road doing 120 mph in my Detroit iron/389 Pontiac.Both of us were immigrant stock and soldiered for this country.
      Joe is still buried in Lorain with his parents.
      In Oct/13 Lisa and i stayed at Port Clinton and it was depressing. Half the business district was depressed. Tourism is down. A condo in town sold for 20$K.
      Bowling Green town is dull and needs a paint job and new roofs. Cleveland is a slum, as is Euclid where my folks lived.The house i grew up in has been demolished.The inner city is every bit of what you wrote about, but worse. If that’s possible then things are really bad.
      jim hruska
      Your story rings my bell.
      jim hruska

      05/2/14 1:10 PM | Comment Link

    • jim hruska said...

      14

      @ meloveconsul:

      Yes, you see my irony. But it’s in a Lennonian sort of way (“Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV / And you think you’re so clever and classless and free /But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.)

      I thank you for commenting, for these thoughts are precisely mine this week, and I intend to write on it, soon.

      Think of the irony of the Deists, who rightly wished to put a break between Church and State, yet writing that we are “Endowed by our Creator …”

      Creator? Huh?

      “Inalienable rights”? Only insomuch as you believe that particular dogma, as you say, and the State and its body of jurisprudence will back you up in it.

      Yes, it comes down to faith, choice and reason. As Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.” We may well be able to attain a humanity devoid of dogma, but we get there via the conduit of all to which we have been exposed.

      Krishnamurti can write, as a modern 20th century man, “Truth is a pathless land”, but the landmines of mistaken truths lie all ’round in the rubble.

      05/3/14 2:36 AM | Comment Link

    • lisa said...

      15

      attn. Meloveconsul:

      Sorry — cmt. #14 is mine, NOT jim’s.

      (I failed to change the identifier.)

      05/4/14 3:25 AM | Comment Link

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