Friday, August 27, 2010

America: A Report

4966 miles later, a report on America

Just got back from spending two weeks driving across America. I had the chance to take the pulse of a country I last crossed in 1996. Both of us have changed in the 14 years since then.

In this America, big pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles fly down the highway at 80 miles an hour, stopping at drive-through liquor stores (South Dakota, Wyoming) and drive-through fast food restaurants.

The American small town was always a bit of fiction, conjured up in Norman Rockwell paintings and forties Hollywood films (propaganda). Years ago, chains like Ben Franklin opened on the corners of cities like Thermopolis, Wyoming. They were the previous generation of corporate conquerors. These days it is Walmart that has replaced the town square. Small town residents push carts down the aisles of a huge building housing everything from milk to tires to televisions to underwear (the low-rent version of Walmart is Pamida, which pales in comparison). The people look dazed and unhappy, like they don't really recognize where they live anymore. They stop and chat in the grocery section, or the appliances section, leaning on their carts the way the men once leaned on the hoods of their pickup trucks while chatting with a neighbor.

Others sit at the bar in an Applebees, where a giant stein of beer caled a Brewtus accompanies steaks smothered in Lowry's seasoning or pasta smothered in cheese. Applebees is where the young people of the town work.

Work in small town America is limited. Clerking in a Walmart, serving food in an Applebees, or running the counter in a convenience store in a gas station near the highway are the only options, unless you own a ranch or an oil well. Road construction is booming, funded by the federal recovery act.

The women of small town America have a hard look in their eyes. From the stooped, gray-haired matron working the cash register at the Walmart to the young blonde waitress in Cody, Wyoming, they have a closed nature from too much work and too few choices.

Retired men work as campsite hosts. In the Black Hills I met a man who'd worked in the oil fields of Wyoming for 30 years. Outside Peoria, Illinois I met a man who'd worked for Caterpillar for the same amount of time. He was angry that his son had been laid off and rehired through a temp agency at 15 an hour, no benefits. He blamed "Obama" (he held up his fingers in quotation marks when he referred to the president).

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Bob Dylan 1966

Excerpts from a 1966 Playboy interview of Bob Dylan
PLAYBOY: "Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock-'n'-roll route?

DYLAN: "Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I'm in a card game. Then I'm in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a 'before' in a Charles Atlas 'before and after' ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy - he ain't so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I'm in Omaha. It's so cold there, by this time I'm robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain't much to look at, but who's built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything's going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?"

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Who Lived In This House?

From Boyd's Directory of the District of Columbia:

1887 Charles Morrison, clerk and John H. Martin, porter.
1892 John Martin, laborer.
1903 Charles R. Martin, porter, and Della Martin, washer.
1908 Charles Martin, laborer