In Timothy Egan’s, The Worst Hard Time, the dustbowl tragedy of the 30’s is chronicled in painstaking and heartbreaking detail. The ‘Okies’ that Steinbeck later brought to life in the Grapes of Wrath are stranded in farms that have been blighted by drought and duststorms that turn noon into midnight. This, combined with The Depression, sends hundreds upon thousands of teenagers to the road and the rails to itinerant and uncertain fates and entombing sadness. Walker Evan’s photographs are a testament to the fates of our grandparents’ generation in America.
My parents were children of The Depression and my mother still remembers it viscerally. In our house, it was unheard of to waste food; even the slop some of my sisters cooked. My parents often cautioned us that there were starving people in the world. As kids, we thought it was just an effort to get us to eat our meatloaf.
One of the books I constantly return to is Hard Times, Studs Terkel’s exquisite oral history of The Depression. How fortunate we were to have Studs keeping these histories; forever preserving the human voices from a century in audio amber. Many of these interviews are available through the Chicago Historical Museum’s website where Studs had these tapes transferred digitally so that they would last. “Vox Humana“– the human voice–is what he called this amazing archive, where he lets the American century speak to us in its own voice.
People have asked me since I started these, “What is contemporary about these?” Maybe everything, maybe nothing. . .and it doesn’t matter. I see hungry people in my neighborhood in the wealthiest country on earth. The hobo alphabet is a language of hunger. Before Studs left this world he often despaired of the collective amnesia of our culture–a”National Alzheimer'” he called it–Studs was an FDR man. He witnessed and benefited from the New Deal; a bold plan that put Americans back to work. A great many people didn’t like the New Deal (libertarians still lose their mind over it) but at the time, it lifted our nation out of a Depression. It gave working people back their dignity.
This one is the hobo sign for ‘This town is hostile.”