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

    May 1, 2014 // 15 Comments »

    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.


    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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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage