Monday, September 6, 2010

Waking Up in the 1930s

Waking Up in the 1930s

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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.

“We have an increasing demand, and a variable supply … and we’re not meeting demand right now,” says Darren Hoffman, communication director of the L.A. Regional Food Bank, a warehouse complex in South-Central so cavernous a squadron of Blackhawk helicopters could maneuver in it. The food bank is the wellspring for more than 575 food pantries, like that of the Sylmar church, throughout L.A. County. The past 24 months has seen a huge jump in demand.

“The Food Bank distributed 54 million pounds of food in 2009. From July 2009 to July 2010 we’ve seen an increase amounting to 34 percent over that,” says Hoffman. Two years ago the same number of pantries needed 34 million pounds to feed clients. So who is driving the demand? “People who earned 50 to 70 thousand dollars a year. Now they’ve depleted savings, gone through the 401(k).”

Meanwhile, Beverly Hills gears up for a four-day festival of wine and gourmet food, hawking tickets that run at $149 for a day of sampling.

In July of 1932, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur led armor, cavalry and infantry against hungry Americans—veterans of the Great War—ending the Bonus Army march on Washington, D.C., at bayonet point. Today his doll-like, pigeon-shit-patinaed sculpture stands in his eponymous L.A. park, a showpiece of the city long fallen into a hangout for the down-and-out, where at dawn each day the general again faces ranks of hungry Americans.

“I just didn’t know, I didn’t know you had to do this shit for food stamps,” a bewildered black man in his early 20s grumbles after being handed a shovel by a parks worker. He has arrived at 6 a.m. to put in his hours for the state’s workfare program, which demands that able-bodied recipients without children labor to maintain their benefits. But this is no shovel-ready job. “This is bullshit, I could be out looking for work,” he continues, leaning on his shovel. It actually is the make-work that soldiers in garrison are given to keep them from fighting each other.

The new food-stamp recipient is counseled by an older man who has been on welfare the past two years. “Tell them you’re homeless, you sleep on a friend’s couch. Then you can get relief. That’s $200 a month. Tell your [aid] worker you deserve a check.”

The men fan out, flanking the general’s statue, and as the sun rises higher they find shade. After a couple of hours, a parks worker drives by in a golf cart and explains, “When the park is clean, you can go shopping, go to McDonald’s—just come back in the afternoon to sign out, and bring back the vest.”

Jennifer Williams is 32 and smiles broadly, radiating energy as she bounces among the shoppers in the Hollywood women’s boutique where she works selling the type of gear Jessica Simpson wears on magazine covers, where women who just seem to have money are taking advantage of the store’s deep retail discounts. Williams appears to be in her element, offering help or a glass of wine (this is Hollywood) to shoppers. But after ringing up a sale, she turns stone-cold serious, the smile vanishes. “I wake up and feel like I’ve failed,” she says.

Williams spent the past 10 years working her way up in the core industry of this creative capital: film production. She’s been making 5 a.m. call times, putting in the grunt work that propels a career in production, meeting people and building a reputation for getting things done. She found her niche in production coordinating, producing TV commercials—the first thing to go when the credit dried up.

Williams says she feels “like when someone in a relationship cheats on you and you look inward and blame yourself—what did I do, what can I do?” Her dream was a modest, accessible one: to be a production manager in the producer’s union, where one can earn a scale of $500 to $750 in a day of shooting. She’s “day-playing” for TV, filling spots when someone with a job can’t make it. Two days a week if she’s lucky—but not in her slot as a coordinator, instead starting at the bottom as a production assistant.

“People who produce commercials for television have a nice life, they can take in $20,000 in a few weeks of shooting and go on to other projects, or vacation,” she says wistfully. Taking the part-time sales position was the first step to realizing the production work might not come back. “I hope things change; I don’t want to give up on my dream yet.”

“The ’30s was a time when people had very little and there was nothing to hide behind … it was a glorious non-bullshit time,” wrote Charles Bukowski, the poet and author who grew up in Los Angeles during the Depression, and who was moved by the image of the unemployed men, the fathers of classmates, killing the day sitting on the porches of east Hollywood.

Today, in his old neighborhood, he’d find the unemployed, mostly young creative types who came to L.A. to work in TV and film, filling the cafes, the ubiquitous shops emblematic of L.A. culture. Noon and you can’t find an open table in any of them. But the coffee shop-goers don’t come here to socialize, to discuss politics or movies, or even to have coffee. These are offices for those without a reason to be in an office, where they sit silently, staring at laptop screens, poring over Craigslist job offerings, firing off résumés into cyberspace, pecking away at pipe-dream projects. And they are filled with hope and unable to share the poet’s sensibility and embrace of a non-bullshit time.

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