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Waking Up in the 1930s
Posted on Sep 2, 2010
By Howie Stier
In the year 2010, America once again embraced the bread line. That distant, faded, iconic black-and-white image of the Great Depression has re-emerged across the nation, waiting to be updated fully into HD color. Just as we seldom see pictures of American war dead returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, we seldom see newscasts of the struggling, jobless masses lining up for handouts. But they are lining up, and the scene is not one we are inured to, that of the disheveled homeless, the permanent underclass being ladled turkey dinners by apron-clad celebrities at Skid Row kitchens at holiday time. Rather, neatly dressed, solidly middle class, once working folk fill these bread lines as they become reconciled to a stark new reality. At the same time, this generation of jobless and the underemployed has yet to embrace what is shaping up to be nothing but the 1930s redux, and their voices murmur inconsistent notes of doubt, disillusionment and hope.
They listen daily to banal statistics—consumer indices, home prices, housing starts, unemployment insurance claims—intoned by newscasters batting the cycle of adjectives for up and down, and they hope for no sound reason that these same talking heads that propelled them to invest in stocks and homes that would only appreciate will imminently announce a combination of factors that will dispel this economic morass. It’s as if those contentious, post-ironic Shepard Fairey “Hope” stickers that remain plastered across the nation continue to radiate hypnotic beams convincing the viewer that prosperity is just around the corner. And so here are some voices of that doubt, disillusion and hope, culled from a region especially hurting: the megalopolis of Los Angeles.
Sylmar, Calif., as distant geographically from downtown L.A.’s Skid Row as you can get and remain within Los Angeles County, is visually too a sea change from Skid Row’s piss-stained concrete pavement. Hard up against the Angeles National Forest, the rugged ridgeline of the San Gabriel Mountains spreads majestically from east to west along the horizon, and here on a recent summer afternoon a breeze fragrant with citrus cools a crowd of people who sit quietly beneath the shade of churchyard trees. But this is no church picnic. There is no Frisbee being tossed around, no music being played; no one has prepared his or her favorite potato salad to share. They are here to get a box full of donated food from the First Baptist Church food pantry, a situation with which many of them have only recently become familiarized, and an overwhelming sense of apprehension prevails among the crowd, some 200 strong, akin to that among displaced persons in the aftermath of a building fire. They know this is not the normal order of things and fear the future.
A horseman wearing a white straw Stetson trots past astride a palomino and waves lazily, his hat contrasting strongly with his skin, and a scene straight out of Steinbeck is complete. He is brown, a campesino like the wiry, muscled young men in work clothes speaking quietly in Spanish among themselves in the bread line. There are mothers, too, trying to keep their place while controlling kids, a thin man with a military posture in GI desert boots, and a few sullen and obese cholo types sporting shaved heads and the “M13” inked into forearms displaying allegiance to the Mexican Mafia street gang. There’s also a clean-cut man with a pink face, the clean-shaven face of a banker.
Turns out he is a banker. A hedge-funder formerly with Bear Stearns, Matt, 39, lost his last job some two years ago. He is a soft-spoken man who used to buy and sell companies, and today he has no qualms with the bread line. “There’s no stigma attached to this anymore,” explains the Navy vet, who has simply given up on the idea of getting a job anytime soon. “I’m starting my own business. I take consulting work when I can, and I’m jettisoning my house.” (“You can’t be self-employed for this Obama mortgage refinancing, so I’m screwed,” he adds.)
In the meantime, his unemployment checks stopped coming, far short of the 99 weeks that lawmakers babbled about during the recent congressional vote on extending benefits to the long-term unemployed. For the past five months, Matt has been joining his 74-year-old father, Frank, a retired L.A. Unified School District teacher who took an unexpected financial hit, for weekly trips to the church pantry.
“I feel anxious about money,” he says in a measured understatement, as the banker has an insight shared by Wall Streeters, colleagues who remain at work and are overwhelmingly pessimistic. He has also become acquainted with free days at L.A. museums and free concerts, and he drinks at the Hollywood Legion Hall, where vets get $2.50 cocktails. Like others here, Matt doesn’t appear to be starving between food giveaways. “You know how a boa constrictor eats a whole goat? ’Cause it doesn’t know when it will eat again.”
“No one complains at the necessity of feeding the horse when he’s not working,” John Steinbeck noted in “The Grapes of Wrath,” describing the madness of starving people amid the agricultural bounty of California during the Great Depression. This time around the people are being fed—for now anyway.
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