Although I've argued in my books and at my blogs that I don't expect to see a repeat of the Great Depression, that doesn't mean there won't be hard times and tragic tales. In "Has Anyone Seen the American Dream?" the Toronto Star journeys through locales made famous in the 1940 film (and in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel), searching for the sad stories of today.
WEEDPATCH, Calif. – Like a latter-day Tom Joad, one of America's last Okies ponders a question that was 1,500 miles in the making. After a life spent climbing out of the Great Depression, perhaps he can tell us what has become of the American dream.
Still spry at 74, Earl Shelton is the most robust of a vanishing breed – one of the million-plus that scrambled out of the dust clouds of the American Midwest during the dirty thirties to seek salvation in California. His was the migration of desperation immortalized in the dark, foreboding Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's telling of the fictional family Joad.
Shelton too has been wondering about then versus now. Wondering whether this formidable country still has the stuffing his kind had. The sheer stick-to-it-ive spirit to crawl back.
"Times were harder then. Way worse than now. That's a fact," says Shelton, who claimed his share of the American dream the old-fashioned way. Decades of hard work that began at age 7 here in the San Joaquin Valley, filling 23-kilogram sacks of potatoes. He married, bought a house that is now his, not the bank's, raised a family bound for what everyone thought was a better life. Until now.
"So you have to say since we came back before, we'll do it again. The American dream is still there. It is who we are."
But Shelton has his brooding doubts, and in this, he does not differ from all manner of Americans met by the Star during this Dust Bowl journey from the backroads of Oklahoma to California – the same path Shelton rode with his dad and brothers after their mom died of tuberculosis and the farm blew away.
Americans are confused.
The U.S. Treasury says the country owes $1-trillion, a lot of it to the Chinese. Job losses are horrendous: 467,000 in June alone. But Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are pulling in millions of dollars. The U.S. government has had to bail out General Motors and inject a $787 billion, two-year stimulus package into the economy. The housing market has tanked, but consumer confidence is improving. Is America in recession, or not?
"Something's different this time," Shelton says. "Americans are different. I call it the 'Instant Generation.' All these years, people want something, they just go get it, even with no money to pay for it. And now look at the mess we've got.
"All these years, and I still don't have a credit card. Makes it hard to cash a cheque sometimes, but can't say I'm sorry."
You can write them off as the words of a grumpy old man. But there's nothing grumpy about Shelton, who remains a living signpost to history.
In this first summer of Barack Obama's presidency, you won't find many dancing the 'Yes We Can-Can.' Instead, there is more scramble than dance – like that telling nanosecond in a game of musical chairs, when the music stops and everyone rushes for a seat.
And many aren't yet sure whether – and for how long – they'll be left standing. All they know is the answer is no longer in California, the once promised land.
It didn't seem nearly so bleak five states back, when we knocked on the door of "Uncle" Dick Mayo, the unofficial keeper of Great Depression lore in Sallisaw, Okla.
Mayo is seventy-something, yet too young to remember when Steinbeck passed through town in the 1930s, fixing Sallisaw as home to the fictitious family Joad, whose jagged travails would ultimately win the novelist both Pulitzer and Nobel prizes.
But he vividly recalls the fall of 1939, when Hollywood came to town to film a somewhat sanitized version, starring Henry Fonda, of what was then considered a very dangerous novel.
"Why did Steinbeck choose Sallisaw? We've always wrestled with that, because the truth is, our part of Oklahoma survived better than others. Did he just like the sound of the name?" Mayo wonders aloud.
Until Steinbeck accorded it literary fame, Sallisaw was best known as the hometown of Depression-era bank robber Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd. Another Oklahoman, Woody Guthrie, would later romanticize Floyd in song, playing up his generosity to the poor with fight-the-power disdain: "Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen."
But you won't find even a whiff of such unrest in Oklahoma today. The farms are verdant, the soil is moist, and the living, if not easy, is as comfortable as any in America today.
On the open road, Oklahoma is a wonder of red clay and green harvest. Its panhandle hosts a forest of wind turbines that generate power to thousands of homes. The unemployment rate is about six per cent, compared with once-golden California's almost 12 per cent.
Mayo and others remind us that though the recession is biting gently in the Midwest, there was no housing bubble here waiting to burst. For whatever reason – collective memory? – middle America did not draw so deeply when the cheap credit flowed, inflating the coastal cities.
"We don't depict the Grapes of Wrath anymore. Now it's California's turn," said Judy Martens, executive vice-president of Sallisaw's Chamber of Commerce. "We're not saying it's perfect, but it is beautiful. There's hunting, fishing galore. And there are a pretty large number of nursing homes here that provide plenty of jobs. That's not slowing down, that's a growth industry."
Most people don't think Great Depression when they conjure Route 66, but long before Nat King Cole and the Rolling Stones sang "get your kicks," this quintessential American highway was the corridor of 1930s deliverance, even as its first concrete slabs were being poured (with the help of federal stimulus dollars). The term "Okie" never captured who they really were – not just Oklahomans, but destitute farmers from Kansas, Missouri, Texas and beyond – all spilling upon this road, Westward-bound, their worldly goods piled high on ancient jalopies wired together with hope.
In the 1960s, Route 66 evoked glamour: many boomers will recall the TV series, Route 66, in which two young men drove across America in a Corvette convertible.
But even then the highway's days were numbered. Someone was dreaming up faster routes, the Interstate Highway System.
Moving west into the Texas Panhandle, distress is soon found in Amarillo's burnt-out north end, where we encounter drifters by the dozens sheltering in the shade of the Tyler Street Resource Center. Here is an oasis the Joads never found 75 years ago – a place where those who wash up or wash out in Amarillo can go for a hot meal, a hot shower, and a gas voucher to get them somewhere else. Here's your hat, what's your hurry?
Talking to the drifters yields spasms of personal misery. Steve, 37, rode a 12-speed bike all the way from North Carolina. Bad eyesight, he tells us, cost him his driver's licence back home. And that's about when his house renovation work dried up. He sold his stuff, bit by bit, to pay rent. And when all that remained was a bicycle, he climbed on top and ended up here. "This is just a rest for me. I'm headed northwest, Oregon. I'm still young. I've got my BA," says Steve. "I figure I can make a life up there. It's gotta be better than where I've been."
Richard Ware, head of the Amarillo National Bank, has just crunched a new run of numbers that suggest his corner of Texas is weathering the downtown rather well. Texas' unemployment rate is two points below the national average, according to The Economist.
"We still have a circle-the-wagons mentality," says Ware, who notes 7-Eleven can't make a go of it in Amarillo because locals favour the homegrown chain of convenience shops, Toot `n Totum.
Ware estimates Amarillo's present downturn to be one-fourth as severe as that of the dirty thirties. More tellingly, he says the early 1980s recession was twice as bad as this.
"We learned a lot, not just from the `30s but from the pain we went through in the `80s," says Ware. "We try not to attract businesses that boom because whatever booms eventually busts. We don't bet the ranch, we don't speculate excessively – and so we entered this downturn with less debt and a lot more financial strength."
New Mexico, one state westward and several notches poorer. Another crossroads.
We enter the desolate ascent to Santa Fe. This is where the original Route 66 ran before it was rebuilt in 1937, when the Dust Bowl blew worst. Here, Steinbeck's family Joad blew a rod bearing in the '25 Dodge and found themselves stranded, without water. Where Ma Joad, fearing the family was about to break apart, seized the tire-iron and promised to go "cat-wild" on any in the clan who would dare go it alone. "All we got is the family unbroke," said Ma. "I ain't scared while we're all here, all that's alive. But I ain't gonna see us bust up."
What would Ma Joad make of today's Santa Fe: a multicultural bastion of liberalism, adobe art galleries, tony boutiques and cafes, dressed up and waiting for the tourists. Santa Fe is inoculated from the recession's worst ravages by the sheer surfeit of government jobs – but it depends also on the deep pockets of an international jet-set on the wane. A year ago, you might bump into an Italian race car driver in these parts, dropping thousands on a vintage wristwatch and retreating to his southwest vacation condo to admire the acquisition. It's that kind of place. Nowadays, the watchmakers are hurting like everyone else, victims of the credit crunch.
"Santa Fe looks like it's thriving, but right now it's terrible," said Paula Scarpellino, a United Way official who stresses she is speaking as a citizen, not on behalf of the agency.
The "galleries are hit real hard because the tourist dollars just aren't coming in," she added. "I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. It's made us take a step back and think about our place in the world. It is scary when China owns almost all your debt. This is forcing us to reflect on what is really important, what we actually need to survive."
But away from Sante Fe, the going is less rosy. We veer left to the gritty workaday city of Albuquerque, where low wages have long been the prime attraction for new business, and the people we meet share fears that their grip on the bottom rung of the middle-class ladder is starting to loosen.
"I never called in sick a day in my life. And then I was laid off in November. Now I'm scared," says Gilbert Chavez, 49, a father of three who was accustomed to $27 an hour as a paint-and-body man, fixing fender-benders. We find him in Albuquerque holding a picket sign at a union protest site. He's not actually in the union, but he's getting $8 an hour to hold that sign and, barring anything better, it will do.
"Right now, people with skills will take whatever they can get. But you can't feed a family on $8 an hour. I could register for food stamps, but I'm too proud to ask the state to feed me. This is bad."
At Albuquerque's Storehouse food bank, a sign on the front door forewarns that demand exceeds supply, discouraging new applicants. But inside, aid workers arranging heaps of canned and dry goods say they are breaking their own rules to provide whatever help they can.
"The needs have been steadily increasing since 2008," says volunteer Dana Todd, 24, who deals with the hungry as they enter for help. "What we're doing is designed to take some pressure off the working poor – laid-off architects, teachers, all kinds of people. If we can take $30 of pressure off them with a bag of groceries, in some cases, that can be the difference between having a home or ending up on the streets."
Kitty-corner from the Storehouse, we find dozens of homeless men and women milling about, awaiting their turn at a church-sponsored soup kitchen. Most are from elsewhere. Joseph Forshee, 42, has been living city to city, mostly on the streets, ever since Hurricane Katrina blew him out of his hometown of Biloxi, Miss.
"I'm an experienced casino worker. And there are plenty of casinos around but nobody is hiring." He's going to try Denver next. He hears there may be work there.
California. The Promised Land. Where authorities this month began issuing promissory notes – IOUs – in lieu of hard cash. Already, these notes have made their way to Craigslist and other online sites, trading upwards of 80 cents on the dollar. The buyers believe "Governator" Arnold Schwarzenegger will make good, once he ferrets a way around that $26 billion state budget shortfall that has paralyzed politicians of all stripes. Deep cuts are inevitable.
Unemployment is at 11.5 per cent – crippling numbers for a $1.8-trillion California economy, larger than Canada's or any other state in the union. A full 40 per cent of respondents tell the L.A. Times they have "seriously thought about leaving Los Angeles," citing traffic, joblessness, crime and poor public schools.
And, adding insult to injury, drought. This is year three of the ongoing California water crisis, with rationing extending now to the San Joaquin Valley itself.
In Barstow, an early morning visit to a U-Haul shop provides anecdotal evidence to suggest the exodus has begun.
"Lots of people are going to Texas," says shop clerk Vernon Ausby Jr., 38. "Better chance of work there and cheap rent. Like $575 for a three-bedroom place. Pretty tempting."
Ausby was a plumber until three years ago, when the housing market went south. And then he burned through every dollar of his 401(k) retirement plan, making ends meet for his wife and four daughters, aged 11 to 18.
And now here he is at U-Haul, earning $8 an hour helping people flee the state. Ausby's voice rises as he describes the indignity of working for a third of his former salary. But he is grateful. "Without this, Lord knows where I'd be."
Our last Okie, Earl Shelton, is waiting at the gates of Weedpatch at the end of the road: Wide-brimmed Stetson on his head, a silver buckle beaming "Earl" from his belt for all the world to see.
This is the actual camp from which Steinbeck gathered the bulk of his reportage for Grapes. And the camp where Shelton stayed from age 7 till adulthood, tucked away in "class" isolation with fellow Okies. Despised by Californians, they were safe inside the federally protected tents and tin shacks. The local law couldn't enter without a warrant.
And though its name has been changed to Sunset, Weedpatch is still a migrant camp. Soon the mostly Mexican field hands will arrive to begin harvesting the valley's irrigated seasonal fare. Conditions are better now. The tin shacks are long gone, tidy single-storey, wood-framed cabins in their place.
Shelton remembers the journey with his father, Tom, and three brothers in the old Model A. Losing a wheel on the way to Needles. And pulling up short in Arizona, where his dad was down to his last nickel – only to be saved moments later with the offer of paid work as a ranch hand. The barriers eventually broke down, as they always do. The Okies spread out, married. And nearby Bakersfield took on a sound of its own in the hardscrabble country music inspired by the transplants, Buck Owens its best-known exponent.
"I don't have any answers about where this country is going," says Shelton. "But I know this: you don't need a lot to be happy in this world. And here at Weedpatch, we didn't have much – but we were happy. That's the thing I want to say most. This was a good place. It made me who I am."
This is the first in a series about Hard Times in America.