If West were a character in A Cool Million, he would have been Snograsse. Both writers feel rejected by the American people and decide to expose them by each putting on a show of sorts as revenge. “The Pageant of America or A Curse on Columbus,” tries to draw parallels between inanimate objects that are made to seem like something else and the poor and exploited minorities, widows, and children. Yet our “hero,” the dopey, all-American Lem Pitkin, suffers all the same (if not worse) injustices as the marginalized. I guess capitalism makes everyone equal in that way. Snograsse expressed this to Pitkin in the beginning of the novel, but Pitkin is unable to comment on the sentiment because of the terrible pain he is experiencing. Just as the all the rest of the poor suffering through the depression, Pitkin is too preoccupied with his own troubles to express his condition and so relies on a writer to do so- and just as the writers during the depression, Snograsse uses Pitkin to draw in a crowd so he could rob them of their money. Fortunately for Snograsse, Mr.Whipple is a stark foil, leading us to forgive the writer/poet’s mild indiscretion in favor of presenting us with astute commentary.
Besides who hasn’t hated America at one time or another? It’s practically a rite of passage that transforms the negative into constructive and perhaps even revolutionary (except more Occupy Wall St. than National Revolutionary Party).
“Shouldn’t we then try to dissuade Mr. Snodgrasse from continuing his show?” asked Lem innocently.”
‘“No,” replied Shagpoke. “If we try to he will merely get rid of us. Rather must we bide our time until a good opportunity presents itself, then denounce him for what he is, and his show likewise. Here, in Detroit, there are too many Jews, Catholics, and members of unions. Unless I am greatly mistaken, however, we will shortly turn south. When we get to some really American town, we will act.”’ (West,167)
The Depression created an era in which the utter meaningless-ness and emptiness of the present was underscored profoundly on a daily basis; and so it is perhaps fitting that it is this era that would strive to find success in the future way of life. The streamlined products of tomorrow could create a new lifestyle for their buyer and even provide social mobility. For the creators of the fair and its participants, controlling the future and obtaining economic prosperity were guaranteed, as long as they believed in it.
The fair was in many ways a success. The idealized American family and society with all its comforts was soon adopted and made into a national identity. The 40s, 50s, and 60s are marked by those ideals and products and modern day exampled can still be seen in places such as Disneyworld. Nevertheless, The World of Tomorrow as it was imagined to be in 1939, was not for everyone. The African American community was largely excluded from the fair and that is not the kind of progressive socially inclusive future that could benefit a society. Also, the corporate doctrine dictated consumption that could prove too expensive for an American family causing shame and discomfort in the absence of “things.”
In its short run, New York’s World Fair managed to leave a significant impression on the minds of an entire generation of Americans. Images of the fair can be seen in Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith and envisioned in E.B. White’s essay “The World of Tomorrow.”
I wonder if the World Fair was around today what it would look like. As our country sinks deeper and deeper into economic, social, and political despair, a fair such as this would probably unite us all in hope, just as it did in 1939- now all we have to do is agree on what the future looks like.
“Down so far I don’t know how far,” I say (Kromer,10).
Kromer as a young man, only a few years out of college probably could not have imagined a destitute existence such as the one he paints in Waiting For Nothing; he must have truly lived it. This is apparent in the subtle shock lining his unnerving account of his time as a stiff. In his short, simple sentences, Kromer tries to relate a true sense of his experience- attempting to close the gap between his reality and our understanding of it (Solomon, 806). From Kromer’s poignant anguish however, comes a kind of surrealism that holds the reader’s imagination captive throughout and not always to the reader's liking. The desperation takes my mind to edges of reality and this I'm sure a reader in the '30s would find unfamiliar. The part where the main character gets picked up by a homosexual in the park illustrates that point well.
“‘Did you ever go out with any fellows?’”
“‘I never did.’”
“I am lying, but if this queer wants a virgin, that’s what he gets” (Kromer, 45).
The author, in spite of his blatant homophobia, is quite nonchalant in his admission simply because “a guy’s got to eat and what’s more, he has got to flop” (Kromer, 53). Now look, I’m no stranger to stories of prostitution but this one was unexpected. Maybe it was the way he was recounting it all, so straightforward, but its truth surprised me. It seems when you’re down and out you have no limits and anything can happen. In a way, that can set you free as you have to answer to no one but yourself and the prospect of seeing new things can be exciting; or it can rob you of everything you thought you stood for. A bum has no self-respect, no dignity, and no moral boundaries. He goes from day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year thinking only of “three hots and a flop” (Kromer, 131). His existence becomes animalistic, but unlike an animal, he knows that things can be better, that they could be different; and this is perhaps more painful than going hungry. Surreal is this departure from humanity into a world devoid of happiness and hope. Sureal is Kromer's reality.
Reading Sister of the Road is a truly wonderful experience. Every paragraph is a mesh of hope, philosophy, worldly knowledge, love, respect, kindness, and, most importantly, freedom. In one of the earlier discussions held in class, we tried to figure out why traveling with nothing in tow was a more authentic experience; why being poor was in a way authentic itself. Well, Sister of the Road answers that question (and many more) in beautiful prose. “The rich can become globe-trotters, but those who have no money become hoboes” (Reitman, 13).
Out on the streets, on the road, a person is stripped down and left with only with himself. And there are so many just like him, with nothing. And we are all the same. And when we all look up, we are looking to the same sky. But most of all, we are all still people.
So many of the characters we encounter in Reitman’s novel are lost. They know what they want, but they can’t find it- so they wander. As long as they keep moving, as long as they keep searching, they know there is a chance that one day they will find it. I was sure that I had found what I was looking for on page 15.
“We found there thirty-five families, socialists, anarchists, and free thinkers, all opposed to was, weary of the struggle for existence, blaming capitalism for their difficulties, all wanting economic security and mental peace without too much effort” (15).
This sort of rhetoric reminds me of the hippie communes of the 70s minus the drugs and the kool-aid. Come to think of it there are hundreds of instances throughout history when people shared these very same principles and thoughts [as Boxcar Bertha] in their tired, desperation and came together to do something about it. These days, similar socialist ideals are considered naïve and unpatriotic. Our sheltered American lives are largely filled with days of ease and leisure, and to stray from that is to spit in the face of the opportunity handed to you on a silver platter. But what if I didn’t apologize for turning down a road of hardship instead of going to work for Wall Street? And what if I traveled across the country getting in cars with strangers, getting to know people- really know them- what would I find? Would I find a thousand stories that could spark this generation’s own revolution? I want to. And in the end when it’s all over, will I come home enlightened and ready to use my vast knowledge of the human experience to better the lives of those around me? Maybe only then I would truly arrive in a place of harmony, in sync with the country’s many faces.
"I had wanted to know how it felt to be a hobo, a radical, a prostitute, a theif, a reformer, a social worker, and a revolutionist. Now I knew" (199-200).
I was born in the last six months of an era. That summer the air was tense with anticipation and when the first winds of fall came they brought with them change. Come December, the Soviet Union would become a thing of the past; a story before bedtime of a place far away, a place my family could only return to in memory.
My Great-Uncle had escaped to America by way of Italy in the '70s and my father had been waiting for the right moment to join him. For Jewish families like my own, the dissolution of Soviet power meant we were free to carry out the plans we had long dreamt of: leaving the country legally. So we began to draw up the papers needed and sell our belongings off in secret. Secrecy was crucial to the whole operation because it was common for a family set to move to be robbed and beaten upon their neighbors discovering their departures. They did not take kindly to the opportunities of others and like the pawnshop owners and used car salesmen in Steinbeck’s novel, they had little regard for what a family had to endure to obtain money. Our last day in Russia was marked by this event when a group of bus drivers surrounded us and demanded our money. As luck would have it, my father is a large, intimidating man with a talent for straightening out the misguided and we managed to escape money in hand. If we had lost it then, we'd be losing nearly 2 years of work selling good that amounted to nearly 1,000 American dollars. Privatization was slow to come and in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union selling off goods was still very difficult. My parents sold most of our things on the black market in the local schoolyard. They got very little for it, but not because they were cheated like the families escaping the Dustbowl; but because, a good's worth in Rubles paled in comparison to the value of the dollar.
With us we packed things of sentimental and cultural value: a large, expensive green carpet, beautiful china, books that we could not live without, all of our family albums. My mother took her knitting supplies in case she could earn some extra money making woven goods. Each of us had a bag and a suitcase. Our group consisted of me, my mother, father, brother, grandfather, grandmother, and uncle from my mother’s side. The rest of our extended family would go on to live in Israel and other parts of the world. My grandparents, who were not well, wanted to stay behind; however, like the Joads’, my father insisted we leave together.
We had no idea what awaited us, but we knew what we were leaving behind could not be worse. We had heard of the great prospects and success that awaited anyone who wished to work for it and that overpowered our fear of the unknown. We imagined just as Grampa that “come time we’ll have a bunch a grapes in our han’ all the time, a nibblin’ off it all the time” (91).
We arrived in New York on December 2, 1994 and spent that night sleeping on the floor of a Jewish Center in Brooklyn overlooking the Belt Parkway. The next couple of years would prove to be the hardest and most interesting of my life thus far as my family assimilated into everyday life in an entirely new world.
Ma: “Up ahead they’s a thousand lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll only be one.” (Steinbeck, 108)
I enjoy Steinbeck’s storytelling because it described to the reader a time in history through a series of personal vignettes. The characters conversations, mannerisms, and living conditions shed light on the desperation the 30’s brought to America; so I naturally wonder: what was it like to be a teenager during those trying times? Youth, so full of opportunity and naïve optimism, surely could not ignore the crumbling world around them for long with their families losing their jobs and their schools closing down. How did they deal with it? What were their lives like starting out in the world on their own only to find there wasn’t much out there for them?
Millions took to the road, catching the next train out of town and turning into vagabonds, hobos. For some it must have been exciting and adventurous, but for others it was the only choice left as their families could not afford to support them any longer. Imagine a time not too long ago when you could see children as young as 10 fending for themselves out on the open road where anything could happen. This is the way many of our grandparents and their parents grew up and lived. Jumping trains rose to such great heights that Warner Brother’s put out a movie in 1933 warning kids about the dangers of riding freight trains; this of course only peeked their interests.
Just as the characters in Steinbeck's novels, the young vagabonds rode the frieght trains to big cities, where they could ship out abroad, or out west, where many settled and earned jobs picking fruit and vegetables. But the cities didn’t offer much help either, except for the missions, which provided food and a place to sleep in exchange for saving your soul. Most towns were hostile towards outsiders; some towns even denied medical care to transients, choosing to dump them outside of the cities lest they get the others sick.
These young transients developed a hobo culture using slang and sign code and creating their own stories and songs. The bulls were the police. A sit-down was a meal with a family. A tray was food brought out to you. More importantly however, they had seen and heard things that would forever change their young lives. The road was a terribly lonely place, one that could break your spirit and leave you feeling defeated. They began to question the government, society, and the world at large. They struggled to find direction but yearned for it greatly. They came out of the experience to form a generation of great men and women who value(d) stability, hard work, and good pay. For some the end of the road would come during WWII, for others it was just the beginning of a long life that would come to shape the America we know today.
My travels often take me to the outer boroughs of the city as I shuffle back and forth from home to school. On my way I tour some of the best and worst this city has to offer and the people who often define these parts. The economic disparity is astounding: homeless laying out in front of million dollar townhouses, those less than fortunate soliciting the very Wall Street businessmen who have cost them their jobs. I hear their pleas for help but I can only think of my own financial troubles. That is why I choose who I give to carefully. I take into account their age, the way they are dressed, any evident disabilities, and the story they present to somehow fit a stereotype that is certainly not accurate. “It happens that men have no shoes, that men here who have families go home at night to hungry, crying, children, to sordidness, to cheap, unhealthy living, and it is not true, dear reader, that these men, these Americans, are necessarily in any way inferior to you and me” (Anderson, xiii). Unfortunately, however, an overwhelming number of our politicians don’t believe that, forming an ineffective government similar to that of the Great Depression. Is it because, like the well-to-do man in Anderson’s introduction, they think, “Isn’t this the land of opportunity?”(xi) But politicians will always be the same. I am more surprised at the general passivity of the public. Are we desensitized entirely? Is it as Asch says; we don’t understand one another across the different regions of America.
Where are the writers and reporters who want “to exhibit not so much the statistics as the people whose current dilemmas the statistics fail adequately to express”(Rorty, 10)? Rorty suggests they simply do not have the time. I think we have all in a way come to accept some of the crippling truths recited to us from our television screens daily.
With the future looking bleaker that ever, I wonder whether the American Dream will persevere or whether our hope will diminish along with all the wonderful opportunities and democratic ideas we were raised on.