"The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it." John Steinbeck, Grapes of WrathSteinbeck's historic novel chronicles the harrowing journey of the Joad family after they are forced to leave their home in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Trapped by the Dust Bowl, their poverty and the social injustices of the time, they leave Oklahoma City and travel west along Route 66 to Bakersfield, California - looking for jobs, justice, land, and a little dignity for good measure.
BBC Newsnight Economic Editor Paul Mason decided to retrace the Joads' route along the Mother Road. Of course, I-40 has replaced Route 66, but the forlorn two-lane highway of blues legend and folklore weaves along side the interstate. And this Brit has some choice observations about our American culture - or sub-culture. This article is basically a transcript of his very excellent film that is included in his article and which has a lot more color but can't be embedded.
Mason writes that with the Southwest in the grip of the worst drought in over 60 years, old-timers are beginning to revisit those Dust Bowl years in the Dirty Thirties. "To the red country, and part of the gray country of Oklahoma the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. . ." begins Steinbeck in his novel.
Mason comes across Brett Porter, who farms over 7,000 acres, as he unrolls the last of his hay in front of prime Angus cattle. When he runs out of the 18 bales he has left, at $200 per bale, he will have to sell the cows. "I already sold my mamma cows and I sent my calves to market early," say Porter who has been working on the herd's DNA for 12 years. If the rains don't come, he'll have to sell the rest for hamburger meat.
The percent of contiguous U.S. land area experiencing exceptional drought in July reached the highest levels in the history of the U.S. Drought Monitor. Mason drives through the Texas panhandle, which he describes as "scorched by drought so white that the grass crunches underfoot like a deep frost."
He drops into Albuquerque where he visits Joy Junction, New Mexico's largest emergency shelter and where 300 homeless families are staying. Founder British expat Jeremy Reynalds says that the mainstay of the place used to be people with drug, alcohol and domestic violence issues. "But as the years of crisis have dragged on," writes Mason, "there is a new phenomenon -- the homeless middle class."
Mason meets a few of the families who reside on about 80 mattresses on the gym floor.
-- Maurice Henderson and RoseAnne Ortice and their three kids. When Maurice lost his job as the manager of a car dealership, they moved to a motel. When his unemployment checks ran out, they came to the center.
-- Sonya and Tim, a former manager of a McDonald's branch and a Subway employee, lost their home and moved into an apartment, but they lost that when their unemployment ended.
-- Larry Atista and his 14-year-old daughter are bedding down alongside people they don't know. Does her school know she's homeless, asks Mason? "I didn't tell them. I stay there until six o'clock to do my homework."
Mason describes the anger these unwitting victims of a bad economy have -- something that gets lost in the mainstream media among Republican claims that the unemployed are just lazy. "They're wasting money on wars." "I'm Native American. My tribe runs a casino so where does the money go? Why don't they help their own people?" It's a safe bet these people would jump at the chance to go to work - if the jobs were there.
All along I-40 Mason curses the motelscape. "The inedible sludge of reconstituted egg, 'biscuit' and gravy that allows them to advertise 'hot breakfast' -- the coffee weak enough to read the Wall Street Journal's markets pages through." I don't think Mr. Mason understands that this is a staple all across the southern sections of the country, rich or poor. The greasier, the better. Just stop at a Cracker Barrell Old Country Store, Shoney's or Waffle House.
This is where America's hidden homeless live, says Mason. A 60 Minutes segment, Hard Times Generation: Homeless Kids, recently provided a close look at modern day motel living where school buses stop to load and unload children.
Mason leaves Albuquerque and drives beneath the mighty Mogollon Rim and into the pine forest and then the cactus-strewn desert on his way west. Steinbeck doesn't stop to enjoy the scenery, which must have seemed as "alien as the moon" to the 350,000 real life migrants during the Dust Bowl years. Steinbeck's landscape, biblical though the book reads, is about the conflict at the end of the journey. ". . . today you don't have to go to the end of the journey to find conflict."
Tent City Jail
Maybe because he gets bored with traveling along Route 66 that is now I-40, Mason cuts south for a guided tour of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's notorious Tent City Jail in Phoenix -- as good a place as any to see "conflict." Prisoners are forced to wear stripes, pink socks and underwear, and live in Korean War era tents. Even when the thermostat reads 114F, prisoners must remove their pink towels from their heads.
Leticia Ramirez, an activist with Puente Human Rights Movement, says the effects of the new immigration law is chilling. "Kids say to their moms, 'Mom, don't go to the store. Don't leave the house.'" Thousands stay home in fear, she says.
At a West Valley Tea Party Patriots meeting, campaigners for migrants are accused of being "communists." These patriots have documents proving that Obama was born in Kenya. They don't think deporting illegals will harm the U.S. economy.
Maybe if these good patriots would quit watching Fox News, they might learn about farmers in states with strict immigration laws who are crying for workers to harvest their crops, like this small town Republican mayor in Georgia who has nothing against immigrants anyway -- seriously. Or the problems associated with using another kind of slave labor -- convicts.
Meanwhile the economy declines and crops burn up on account of the drought or they rot because farmers can't find workers to harvest them.
Mason gets back on track and heads out across the Mojave desert, sliding into a truck stop in neutral. "The shop is full of stuff that is emblematic -- the stimulant drinks in yellow bottles that keep truck drivers going all night, confederate flag-themed headscarves to wear on your Harley instead of a helmet, Route 66 stickers. Like so much of American culture, the subtext -- if you dare admit it -- is 'we were great once.'"
Crossing the Mojave by night he gets to Bakersfield at midnight. "The economy of Kern County, where the Joads ended up, is dominated by the Air Force, naval weaponry, big oil and private healthcare." But the town still has an unemployment rate of 15 percent. It grew by 25% in the past ten years but now 156 homes out of every 1,000 are repossessed. A Mexican valet tells him that agriculture is drying up, the farmers are selling their fields for property, and a person can only earn a minimum wage.
Mason goes in search of the spot where Steinbeck must have seen this: "They drove through Tehachapi in the morning glow, and the sun came up behind them and then suddenly they saw the great valley below them . . ."
But the interstate obliterates the Mother Road here, so he drives into a vineyard to get the view that must have greeted the real-life Okies as they crossed the mountains into the San Joaquin Valley. "It is still beautiful. But hidden away from the mainstream media you can still find stories of social conflict and poverty that tell the other side of the story."
San Joaquin Valley
Note: Mason writes that Steinbeck, who had lived in California most of his life, was oblivious to the camps on his doorstep until he was alerted by Dorthea Lange's husband, an academic, who wrote one of the first field reports about the migrant problem. "Then as now, the poor had only a walk-on part in the mass media, and their script lines rarely reflected what they actually thought."