Tuesday, December 15, 2009

To the Rails!

Spent the evening watching Riding the Rails, a 2005 documentary about the quarter-million teenagers who took to freight trains in the Great Depression, the film's themes of hard times, hard work and hard traveling now reverberating into the night. There was a time in my teens--and beyond then, even--when what I longed for more than just about anything else was for another Great Depression to come along. Whether it was a book of Walker Evans photographs or the exuberant lilt in Jimmie Rogers' voice that did it, I developed almost a fetish for the Depression era. The people in the pictures had honest faces, even the poorest were so smartly dressed, and there always seemed to be at least a pot of beef stew boiling in the background. I found this peasant life infinitely more attractive than the hypercolor cyberdream which modern life had become.

My ignorance, in retrospect, seems striking. Not only my misreading of Depression-era struggle--the kids in Riding the Rails were perhaps, as they later recalled, hopping freights partly for the adventure of it, but quickly came to know real hunger, loneliness and suffering--but also my misconception of the modern age; times had changed, and economic hardship would not bestow noble virtue upon the nation any more than it would change out our ugly made-in-Taiwan sweatshirts for a rugged American tweed. This lesson did not really sink in until the fall of 2008, when the Economic Crisis came barreling along. Now that I have my very own modern-age Depression to observe--to say nothing of struggling through--I can begin to sense how profoundly different our world now is, and any pretensions as to the romanticism of economic collapse have been pretty well stripped away.

Suffice it to say, first of all, that teenagers are not flocking to the railyards en masse. I do have some friends who have worked as itinerant harvesters, working the beet harvest in Minnesota or the weed harvest in California, but these jobs were applied for months in advance, acquired through networking or good references. No, I think the modern work-for-food set has a different MO entirely, the down-on-their-luckers more likely to be found trolling the dregs of craigslist, working bizarre one-day gigs much more perplexing than picking peaches. I know because I'm one of them. To keep a roof above my head and food on the table, I sign up for "street teams," promoting shadow lobbyists or going to suburban shopping malls to pass out gift cards in the cold for $80 a day; I join market-research panels, evaluating products I'd never use; I hop aboard fly-by-night telemarketing operations, scamming money from clueless old people.

It's here that I've most recently landed, working a telephone bank deep in the bowels of the Harris Theater. On paper, I'm soliciting donations for a nonprofit arts organization, but in reality it's a shameless con game. To milk donations from the tightfisted theatergoers, we've concocted an utterly fantastical narrative, wherein the donations are spent bringing "disadvantaged children"--I can see them now, starving and sniveling in some cold back alley with nary a penny to their their names or a crumb to nibble on--to the theater for their very first encounter with High Art, that great ennobling feat of civilized man. "Aw shucks, mister, thanks for takin' me to that concert of baroque music," they squeak, a single tear of gratitude crawling down their grimy little cheeks. "I'm gonna get me a newspaper route, and work real hard, and save up some money to buy me a violin!" Our boss even referred to a theoretical patient at Children's Memorial Hospital--he's been in the cancer ward for almost a year, that brave li'l guy, and all he wants is to see a program of Steven Sondheim songs--as "Timmy"; I couldn't refrain from asking if this was the same Timmy who fell down the well last summer.

Qualitatively, if not quantitatively, my work feels on a par with the Great Depression farmers who, in an effort to keep prices stable, destroyed their crops while people starved. It's keeping the economy moving along, in a very superficial sense--money, at least, is changing hands--but more fundamentally it's futile, counterproductive; we lowly telemarketers are not providing any real service, we're certainly not bettering humankind, we're merely low cogs in the money-exchanging apparatus. There's one kid I work with that cracks me up endlessly. He's supposedly a guitar-playing college graduate from Kansas, but in his appearance and behavior he reminds me of nothing so much as the rail-riding wastrels of the 1930s. He stumbles in late, in dingy and wrinkled business-casual attire and proceeds to stare dumbly at the wall for the duration of our 4-hour shift, as if he were teleported here from a dust-bowl cotton patch and doesn't know the first thing to do with all these button-telephones and fancy papers. He goes out for a zillion cigarette breaks, sometimes disappearing for hours on end. The funniest thing is that no one seems to notice his long absences or comatose behavior, not even the boss whose desk is mere feet from his. The boss is struggling with serious medical problems, without the benefit of health insurance, and is busy being grateful that she has a job; she can hardly be bothered by the comings and goings of her ragtag minimum-wage-earners.

This is the Great Depression of 2009, not nearly as picturesque or maudlin as the dust bowl but just as poignant and pathetic, in its own way. The apparatus has changed greatly, but the spirit has perhaps not; at the end of the day, we're all just trying to keep food on the table. In the midst of a craigslist-fueled day-labor binge circa 2008, I noted in my journal that "the difference between moderism and postmodernism is the difference between working in an auto-parts factory and passing out samples for a yogurt company". As has become increasingly clear, the days of auto-parts factories are very much numbered; one can't help but wonder whether the world of yogurt promotions faces eventual extinction as well--discontinued, as the population explodes and real human issues bubble to the surface, in favor of more vital and pressing business. Should the apparatus fail completely, as it often seems liable to, I'm more than ready to grab a shovel and start digging in the dirt, performing actual labor in an unfabricated landscape. If this is what economic collapse ultimately leads to, then I still, as I did a decade ago, embrace it.

One last thought on the subject. Watching the film I was struck by one thing that hasn't changed considerably, and that's the trains themselves. Crisscrossing the country in greater numbers than ever, freight trains offer the same thrills, perils and outlaw adventures as in our grandparents' days; the same cold nights, the same majestic vistas, the same hunger and thirst and sense of grandeur. If teenagers haven't flocked to the railyards en masse, it's to their own detriment. I'd hate to see a whole generation of good young people go to waste, chained in dark rooms to their telemarketing jobs, or browsing craigslist for a buck. There's still a whole world out there, begging for fresh eyes and a sense of adventure. To the rails, young people!

No comments :

Post a Comment