Roadtrip Forever

Roadtrip Forever

Sister of the Road, by Dr. Ben L. Reitman, is an entertaining twist on the usual male main characters most of these works have. I suppose it’s somewhat unexpected to think of women wanting to leave home and hoboing around. I would assume there be more danger for women and probably be much harder for them to find work. Boxcar Bertha started hoboing way before the depression was in full swing. Her character is very adventurous and really wanted to be on the road.

There’s a sense of wanderlust that makes the reader want to live this free and bohemian life, except it’s a sort of byproduct of a failed system. People are forced to travel around the country out of need, it just happens so that Bertha falls in love with this way of life. She wants to help fix things and make sure people can find permanent jobs, except I don’t think she would necessarily want that for herself.

“I’ve decided that the most frequent reason they [women] leave home is economic and that they usually come from broken or from poverty-stricken homes. They want to escape reality, to get away from misery and unpleasant surroundings” (13). Although she is saying this about hobo women in general, I think it partially applies to her as well. She doesn’t necessarily want a stable reality, and the hobo life is her way of escaping. She many times mentions the feeling she gets when she’s on the road. The sense of adventure and freedom, which I think we can all relate to. I think I would be more than willing to hitchhike around if it were safer or if there was a bigger culture surrounding it. It’s interesting because back home in Nicaragua many people hitchhike. I remember many times my father would stop and give random people rides along the way, except they would hop in the rear part of pickup trucks.

Let's Pretend to be Poor

Let’s Pretend to be Poor

Lauren Gillifan’s I Went To Pit College, “No Comrade” is a very interesting story. Lauren decides to go and live amongst miners to get a feel for their way of life. At first everyone is very welcoming and friendly, but things quickly change when they find out her true identity. The community has strong resentment towards those in upper classes and this is reflected in Lauren’s account.

Lauren positions herself in an interesting scenario being the only outsider within the community. She’s very adventurous and this gives the story a very unique undertone. Everything works fine for her until Jim Snyder questions her in front of everyone. She’s very witty in her answers to him, which is amusing to read but not to Jim.

“I felt a strange little pang beneath my breastbone. I had lived with these people, slept with them, shared their food, gone hungry with them. I felt a bond with them, I didn’t want them to dislike me” (69). As Lauren spends more time with these people, she can feel the growing discomfort and stares coming from them. By the time this quote takes place she’s becoming an outsider and there is growing resentment towards her. She represents all that these people hate–upper class oppressors; the capitalists. The reader can feel her growing anxiety as she tries time and time again to explain to these people that she’s on their team but they simply won’t accept it. They accuse her of spying on them for the enemy and this idea is like a speed that grows into paranoia for everyone in the town.

Gilifan is aware of the community’s feelings towards the capitalists and this helps her understand the treatment she is receiving. It’s somewhat unclear whether she is aware of how frustrating it is for the workers to be perceived as a “rich girl’s experience”. She’s giving them nothing in exchange for the lesson and story she is getting from them. “You make me mad. You’re just an adventuress, who wants excitement. You don’t feel sorry for these people. Their misery is just so much grist for your mill” (75). I agree with what Shirley said to Lauren before the town meeting, she’s only using them for her advantage. The community doesn’t get to choose whether they can return to a better reality or not.

American Road Trip

American Road Trip

I chose to focus on the Massachusetts state guide. I’m not originally from there, but one of my good friends from Venezuela moved there three years ago and I many times drove to visit her. Just to put it out there, I’m a huge fan of road trips, especially here in North America. While growing up in Nicaragua, my father would take us for road trips almost every weekend. Costa Rica was only a few hours away and was our frequent destination. We spent many summers in the states, and my father has always been fascinated with the American highway system. I assume my liking of road trips comes from growing up with them, along with the fact that I have a deep passion for road trips and automobiles.

“1)by mapping trajectories of consumption according to a progressive political narrative, thus suggesting that government could manage the economy where business failed; 2) by reproducing the region, disappearing as a locus of identity, as a tourist attraction or locus of consumption; and 3) by fashioning the citizen as a tourist or consumer and not simply as a member of a local community (2).” I found this quote from “American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification” by Andrew Gross, particularly successful in stunning up the main idea behind his paper. Gross examines the American Guide Series as a method to “mobilize consumer culture” and sell local culture as a tourist commodity (1). His comparison to automobile guidebooks helps the reader understand his message better. Although I’m not sure who reads these booklets, their purpose is to create a need for driving on the owner of the vehicle. They coincidently mapped the landscape in accordance with consumerist culture. “Automobile guidebooks are simultaneously stories and instructional manuals, combining symbolic and spatial registers into a single economic imperative: drive (2).”

The Massachusetts guide definitely does a great job in selling the state as a quintessential place to visit and road trip across. There were many recreational activities listed which made the state sound as endless fun. Keyword sound. I don’t think there was any negative reference towards the locals in the state; they were represented in a neutral fashion. Overall, the guide does exactly what Gross warns us about, it sells the heart of Massachusetts as a tourist attraction. It also adheres to the national brand that is America and road tripping in America.

 

Early Travel

Early Travel

“A ‘New Deal’ for Leisure ” by Michael Berkowitz is a very interesting piece on the birth of paid vacations for employees. “Most employees, imbued with the ideology of the work ethic, saw little need to give either white-collar personnel or manual workers paid vacations. Wage earners, for their part, were uninterested in extended periods of time off that, for them, generally meant unemployment, not vacation” (188). I found it rather shocking and a bit hilarious that the travel habit was derived by captains of business that figured there was money to be made, rather than by the workers themselves. Workers wanted better working conditions and humane hours but wouldn’t even think of asking for vacations simply because they saw no purpose for it. The workers and unions fought for the most basic of needs and were not at all concerned with vacation time.

Berkowitz mentions a vacation advocate that testifies before Congress who claims that “a vacation is a builder of health, mind, body, and soul”, which ,if in a positive state, help the employee yield more productivity and thus profits (188). So, although it’s nice to think of the workers health et cetera, what’s important is that a happy employee puts in more hours which fuel American industrial growth. Although this seems like a great bargain it’s no surprise that companies had trouble accepting this and that by 1930 “only 10 percent of manual laborers received vacation benefits from their employees” (190). Berkowitz mentions how companies such as General Electric had bizarre requirements for those who wanted some sort of paid vacation time, for example two weeks were granted after 25 years working there. This surely gave workers something to look up to.

Nevertheless, captains of industry realized the power of travel and according to Berkowitz began pushing this idea aggressively to those in the lower and middle class. Instead of having workers not waste their money and stay at home for vacations, why not create a new sector to help boost the economy? This is what resulted and what has developed into the huge lot leisure sector we have today.

Lem's American Nightmare

Lem’s American Nightmare

Lem’s satirical story in A Cool Million is very intriguing and falls into place with the theme of the semester. Nathaniel West evokes a very whole image of the era by contrasting different American ideals and realities. Lem sets on a journey to NYC in search of the very seductive American dream. His family is struggling financially, as is the rest of the country, and his goal is to help his mother pay for mortgage before their house is foreclosed. The main character’s luck continuously manifests in very negative ways. He is beaten and robbed many times which creates a very dark and sorrowful story.

Lem’s naiveté is a strong force every time his trust is tested. He too easily follows Mr. Whipple’s advice and never questions the different scenarios he encounters. His lack of individuality, which coincidentally also happens to be fundamental to the American way of life, is his ultimate downfall. His persistent bad luck reminded me of childhood cartoon characters that were perpetually followed by a black cloud.

Mr. Whipple’s endless enthusiasm and campaign against shortcuts in life serves as perfect motivation for Lem. He is full of energy and ready to do whatever it takes to get ahead, this along with Mr. Whipple’s constant positivity lead to a heartbreaking end. “First we see him as a small boy, light of foot, fishing for bullheads in the Rat River of Vermont. Later, he attends the Ottsville High School, where he is captain of the nine and an excellent outfielder. Then, he leaves for the big city to make his fortune. All this is in the honorable tradition of his country and its people, and he has the right to expect certain rewards” (94). It’s tough as a reader to imagine anything but a positive ending to come from Lem’s drive, young age and overall setup that the author gives us. The author puts into perspective American values and ideals during the great depression, which aren’t as rewarding as previous eras. This reminds me of Tom Kroner’s Waiting for Nothing, where many of the homeless men would go to church and pray for better lives that never happened. Many of these people, like Lem, come from suffering and are still very willing and motivated to do whatever it takes to succeed, except it just won’t happen. The author is making a big dent on the American dream. “Jail is his first reward. Poverty his second. Violence is his third. Death is his last” (94).

Lem’s chase after the American dream has left him disassembled both emotionally and physically. One cannot help but wonder about the huge community that still has the same image of the American dream. The symbolism used by West is representative of the capitalist blood flowing through the American value system. The consumerist core has ultimately gotten the country to be the way it is. While Satinpenny is arguing against the ‘white man’ he says, “His final gift to us is doubt, a soul-corroding doubt. He rotted this land in the name of progress, and now it is he himself who is rotting. The stench of his fear stinks in the nostrils of the great god Manitou” (77). This quote makes  me think of the end of the American dream, which to some extent still holds today.

Family

Family

I really enjoyed the theme of community and unity that is pervasive throughout the book. Steinbeck’s characters are all at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. They are powerless and unfortunately have very little control over the outcome of their lives. Although these people are financially weak, between pages 432 and 437, Steinbeck establishes an interesting contrast between the upper and lower class. He wants the reader to really feel the frustration and anger felt by those at the bottom towards the people exploiting them. At the same time, Steinbeck is commenting on the fear felt by the bourgeoisie towards those suffering. There is only so much these people can take, and the upper class is aware of this. The poor are driven by their needs and will to survive, and there is almost a feeling of revolution provoked by the way their situations are described.

Although they are alone and separated from the world, there is unity in their suffering. It is almost comforting that at least the characters have each other for support and understanding. They can voice their hopelessness to each other and feel some sort of relief. The ending of the book reminded me a lot of my Latin-American roots because of the strong emphasis on familial support. It almost felt as if Steinbeck wanted the reader to realize that the strongest bond is from your family. This very similar mentality is pervasive throughout Latin America and can be seen even in business, where most of the largest companies are usually family-owned.

The Monster

The Monster

It is hard to believe that John Steinbeck’s The Grape’s of Wrath is a work of fiction. The account is extremely detailed and makes it very easy for the reader to get a clear image of the story. Steinbeck’s work portrays a very real image of the struggle and hardships many of these people had to endure while losing their beloved homes and land. There is something very human about the way Steinbeck describes non-human entities like the land–especially in its relation to man.

During chapter 5 we see the very unfortunate and frustrating interaction between landowners and tenant farmers. The tenants’ description of the land is very successful in that it conveys the very intimate role it played for these people. While attempting to convince the owners of not kicking them out, one of the tenants says: “…it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it and we got killed on it,  died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours–being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it” (22). In response, the owner says: “We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man” (22). I found the contrast in this description very brilliant. In reality the bank is indeed like a monster with human-like features with an insatiable thirst for profits and no regard for feelings or the well being of us humans.

The conversation between the tractor driver and the tenant right before his house is demolished is also very interesting. Steinbeck does a great job in exposing both sides of the coin, the good and the evil. At first I couldn’t help but be on the side of the tenants, and absolutely hate those kicking the people out, but the truck driver brings up many good points in regards to who is to blame for actually kicking them out. The tenant is always quick to blame whoever is right above the chain of command–even though he blames the tractor driver first. The tractor driver quickly reacts saying that if he doesn’t demolish the house, surely someone will be there to do it. He then explains that it isn’t his boss’ fault either, nor the person above him, and little by little turns the argument into the bigger who is to blame anyways.

There is another contrast Steinbeck shines light on that I found thought-provoking when he says: “The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love,  proud of the power he did not control. And when that crop grew, and it was harvested,  no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated,  it had no prayers or curses” (26). It immediately reminded me of our relationship with food in the present time, in which we have no contact at all with its production, nor do we really know where it comes from. It’s also interesting that he wants to comment on the nature of the driver of the plow truck who is so proud of what he’s doing, even though he doesn’t benefit directly at all.

We also get to experience familial relationships and the role of men and women within society via the Joads. In many instances the women always “stood next to” the men while they figured out what would be the next step. In some instances Steinbeck describes the men going through deep sadness and the women taking the kids and themselves into another room because “they knew that a man so hurt and  so perplexed may turn in anger even on people he loves.” Steinbeck’s commentary is brilliant in both making sure the reader feels as if he’s really suffering through the great depression,  and also making the reader contemplates the bigger picture of what was happening at the time.

Weaponless Consciousness

Weaponless Consciousness

I found the style in which Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is written particularly interesting, especially in contrast with everything we’ve read so far. Agee packs each sentence with gargantuan details and emotions—sometimes even difficult to keep up with. There’s a description in the introduction that pretty much sums up his way of writing, it says:  “He talked his prose, Agee prose. It was hardly a twentieth century style; it had Elizabethan colors. Yet it had extremely knowledgeable contemporary content.” For those familiar with Russell Brand, I feel that this description would also apply to him.

There is a unique dichotomy between the images and the text. The text is almost bubbly and very upbeat, but the images are dark, and serve to bring the reader back to the time period. The author makes an interesting remark about cameras when he says: ”This is why the camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time and is why in turn I feel such a rage at its misuse: which has spread so nearly universal a corruption of sight that I know of less than a dozen alive whose eyes I can trust even so much as my own.” His style of writing shines a completely different light on the characters he speaks about, making them sound better on paper than reality. The writing is successful in provoking very lucid images of the characters and their lives, but doesn’t quite convey the “depressive” feelings of the era.

Together the photographs and the text convey a more whole picture of what the author wanted the reader to see. The mediums they used do a great job in raising awareness on the people’s lives and what they were going through.

Gringos

Gringos

The texts and photographs that depict travel during the tough depression times are endlessly shocking. Coming from Nicaragua, it’s insanely surprising to believe that America went through such rough times. The photographs are very powerful in conveying a thousand different emotions into the different expressions in people’s faces. While the texts help us understand the situation and its various underlying characteristics, the photographs provide us with exact non-speculative snapshots of the era. Together the texts and photographs are very successful in helping the reader feel the desperation and pain felt back then. I really enjoyed Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip, it’s a shame most of their photographs have been lost.

I was surprised at how many of the characteristics they noticed on Americans still hold true today—particularly the overall foreign perception. In the introduction their all-inclusive synopsis of the US is: “The most advanced technology in the world and a horrifyingly oppressive, stupefying social order” (xiv). Throughout the text they kept mentioning that regardless of where they went, they continuously noticed Americans’ lack of curiosity.

“They are always ready to help. They are good comrades and easy to get along with. At the same time, there are a lot of annoyingly childish and primitive traits in the people’s character. But the most interesting childlike quality, curiosity, is almost absent among Americans. Americans just aren’t curious” (26). I couldn’t agree with this more today—the curiosity part. I was very surprised at the story immediately preceding this quote, in which they speak about driving by the scene of an accident. They immediately stop to help a flipped vehicle that was being driven by two Mexicans. One of them is gravely injured and as they are trying to help, someone driving by stops and offers help. They refuse and tell the passerby that they’re already helping. To their surprise—and mine—the passerby followed them all the way to the injured person’s home and then said that “Mexicans are hot-blooded people” and just wanted to make sure everything went alright (26). It was such a shocker to learn that the man went thirty miles out of his way just to make sure these complete strangers were okay, would never expect this nowadays.

Their description of Americans is quite positive and fully supported by their experiences with people at the time. I find the contrast with today very interesting, specially coming from the foreign community, whose perception of Americans is more like: antisocial, lazy, boring and usually wouldn’t help you. I wonder what’s happened in these past years to contribute to the general decline in quality of people. Is it possible to maybe ever have something similar again? Interestingly, I found their description of Americans at the time to be how people back home and throughout Latin America to be. It seems like the more I become involved with the international community the more I realize how general this perception of Americans throughout the world is.

Tough City

Tough City

Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing is a very touching and dark work. The story centers on the idea of ‘never losing hope’ but instead serves to shine light upon the powerless position of the working class. The style used to narrate the character’s day-to-day experiences is very powerful and really positions the reader in the shoes of a beggar. I couldn’t help but visualize myself in many of the situations in which he would force himself to ask for food. The phrasing he uses is very evocative and elicits many strong emotions. At times I could feel how uncomfortable the situation was turning for him, I could feel the anxiety starting to build, the judgmental stares destroying whatever was left of his confidence, his face building red and sweaty. Regardless of the story taking place during the great depression, experiencing this story in such a way reminded me of our homeless people nowadays and the treatment they have to go through.

I really enjoy the way he constantly repeats phrases, often times saying things that contradict whatever he previously said. There are many scenes in which the narrative almost exists in two worlds at once, for example when he meets Mrs. Carter and he is constantly repeating that a “stiff has got to eat”. The chapter when he meets Mrs. Carter is very intense and depressing. “I am ashamed of all this. I am sick to my stomach, I am so ashamed of all this. What can I do? What am I doing is all I can do. A stiff has got to live. (51)” This quote happens right before he gets into bed with Mrs. Carter. I can’t imagine how low and desperate you must have to feel to go against your sexuality and whatever you believe in, in order to survive. When they are walking to his apartment he is constantly saying how he would beat up anyone who dares to call him a queer, and how he can’t stand the thought of people thinking he might be a queer as well. The author does a great job in making the reader understand and most importantly feel the despair the character is going through. There is a slight hint of hysteria coming from his words, which isn’t surprising at all based on what he has to go through on a daily basis.

I do often wonder about what the life of a homeless person is like, how they got sucked into that lifestyle, where their family is, etc. But becoming desensitized to this issue happens relatively quick and easily in NYC. Often times when he would go up to beg to people they would reply asking why didn’t he got a job instead, this is something I’ve personally witnessed in NYC, but never really stopped to think about it. The stories in the book completely reshaped how I feel about the homeless population. I’m usually in a rush racing through the sidewalk and whenever I am approached for money I say, “sorry never have cash”, which is true about 88% of the time—good luck squeezing cash into a card holder. The story made me want to take a more different approach to these situations, not sure if necessarily giving them hella money, but maybe directing them towards help or start initiatives where people can get more involved.

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