There is nothing more quintessentially American than hitting the open road on a sunshiney day, zero humidity, a nice breeze blowing. Being on roads you don't know, and blasting music you do is one of life's more ephemeral pleasures, and it something as intrinsic to the national character, as much a part of national mythology, as Sears & Roebuck or any painting by Norman Rockwell. As Chandler Bing might have once mused, Could it BE more American?
Yes, it could. Heres how.
Along the way you pass billboards extolling the virtues of returning to a religious life and also for Pfizer. You pass acres and acres of farm land with adorable humble looking farm stands sitting at their frontiers and count the dozens of migrants working the field, they can't be making too much the blueberries are 2 pints for 3 dollars. You pass furniture stores, Hardware stores, gas stations, and car dealerships that used to exist and are now just signs reminding you of what was until they are swept away in the tides of progress. You drive on roads with signs about how your tax payers dollars funded the beautiful thick rich black as night asphalt (is it asphalt any more? I have no idea someone once tried to tell me it was all used tires now, that seems unlikely) just so you'll take a moment to think, okay good, my government did something for me. You pass hundreds of places to buy a burger, 2 of them are unique. All this while on a mission to replace a stolen spinner rack from the store that you work at that is going out of business by taking one from another store that is... going out of business.
Clearly, for most people, this recession, or contraction, or double dip or hour glass or whatever the heck people who get paid to come up with names for bad things have decided to call it, is not quite as dire as the Great Depression. But i can't help but see paralells. Driving past an abandoned farm stand will do that to you. Driving through the parts of jersey that still largely look like they did then, with the exception of Cellphone towers and the aforementioned asphalt, will do that to you. And when i was getting this impression of the depression during the recession i began to think of the WPA and the CCC and FWP and i got wondering when we will get our acronyms? When will this generation create something during this time of need that is as enduring as the climbing trails in Acadia National Park or Richard Wright? Are we doing it now? Am i doing it?
For those of you who don't know the CCC is the civilian conservation corp, during the depression it put people to work building trails and cabins and roads to make the American wilderness more accessible to Americans. It was the beginning of our car culture, in a way, because suddenly you could drive to Yosemite. You could shower at a bath house in Crystal Lake state park in Vermont. For those of us not intrinsically horrified at the idea of government, it was one of our countries shining moments, for the rest well...i guess it wasn't. I'm not entirely sure the CCC was a branch of the WPA, the Works Progress Administration a government run agency designed to create jobs for out of work Americans, many of them doing things you would never think of a government employee doing. But what was a part of the WPA was the Federal Writers Project, or FWP. These folks, including many black writers who wouldn't really be given much of a chance elsewhere, traveled the country writing about what they saw. Imagine that, a country documenting life at that moment in time. One of the gloomiest periods of our history. One of the amazing things to come out of the FWP were slave narratives collected from all around the nation from people who were alive during slavery and lived to see it eradicated in it's original form (who also lived through reconstruction and Jim Crow) without the FWP we would be missing vital and intense detail of the lives of property-humans who built this country. Maybe someone in the publishing world would have said, "you know what? Slave narratives would make hot selling books" because you know...early 20th century affluent book buying Americans loved to think about slavery.
I don't bother getting into "role of government" arguments with people whose politics and mine don't converge, because frankly some bridges are bridges too far. But i for one am quite proud of this little moment in government history. Although i don't think it needed to be the government who did it, i think it was only going to be the government. Unlike now.
We live in a country so polarized about the role of government that i can't ever see a CCC or WPA coming out of washington. So what i began to think about is, is anyone filling that role? And immediately I thought of myself. And immediately after that i thought, you cocky bastard. Did you just put yourself in the same category as Zora Neale Hurston? You're eyes are watching sweaty people from LA fitness buy knockoff cologne and greeting cards(BTW i think a bookstore centered blog is the only place i could use that joke)! But we both are documenting something. We both see a moment, and declare it to exist. And i guess in that respect, and in that respect alone, we have a commonality. I am participating in my very own FWP. I'm not trying to be conceited, it's just true. Its not my fault FDR employed some of the greatest writers of the 20th century to do what I'm trying to do not a fraction as well and for free. Langston Hughes, Andy Kaufman, Richard Feynman and Ho Chi Minh were all Busboys just like me too. well not just like me...anyway, you see where i'm going. Maybe you don't, If Richard Wright were writing this blog you'd get it.
Anyhow, the Middle point of my American Journey (tm) was the store where i was picking up the new spinner rack. For starters, the name of the shopping center adjacent to the Borders was Consumer Square, I'm not kidding you. I mean talk about calling a spade a spade. The parking lot was packed to the street with people. I struggled to find a spot. I walked in and it was a crowded mess. I mean it looked like they were trying to keep up on the merch, but they didn't have the Loris hovering about as much as we did beautifying the place. And they had bumper to bumper people. And these people looked ravenous. They were just pouring over the place, looking through every cd, blue ray, pillow pet and calendar. You couldn't move 10 feet without tripping over someone sitting on the floor as someone above them scanned the spines of books. Before i entered the store i noticed a man sitting on a park bench outside, his hands holding his head, his elbows resting on his knees, a cigarette burning between his index and middle finger...just smoldering. He was clearly a staff member, and letting it smolder, as any smoker knows, is how you get just a few more minutes of time out of a cigarette break.
The staff was rude. They were just plain unpleasant. Even to me. And I'm one of them. But you know what, i cannot blame them. Not for a second. I wouldn't, even if I could muster the tired "you must always be professional" mantra that the managers of the world expect of their workers. Myself included. We had some trouble sorting out the initial requirements of transferring a spinner rack. Turns our there arent any, because i'm pretty sure no one has ever done it before. Huzzah an American First! Anyhow, when i got outside i got to talk to one of the angry booksellers and she apologized, something i promised her was entirely unnecessary. But she told me all about the chaos and the loading bay filled with a dozen pallets of merchandise, and how moving perfume and scented soy candles was making her ill. She told me about the sheer volume of business they are doing, and the lack of staff. She told me about how hard she was working and still getting nothing done. She wasn't angry, she was heart broken. She just wanted to do her job, and do it well. Thats something i feel like is being lost in all of this. We want, something i think is another great American tradition, to be good at what we do for a living and to EARN our money.
I think the thing that we all lose in this is that desire to be good at what we do from the start of our shift, until it's end. Most of us just sort of wander in now, do what we need, and go home. That feeling of pride in a multimedia section well kept has transformed to anger over a multimedia section ransacked and rejiggered into something completely nonsensical, and ultimately into apathy. Some people let go of that sooner than others. I think at my store, we have a pretty good sense of humor. I think we're handling this well, and i think it shows. But i think our store we have kind of collectively agreed without ever saying officially, We're over it. We are going to do what we're told, do our jobs, and go home. Spend time with one another. What that means is, for the most part, our customers have no idea how pissed off we are that our sections have disappeared and that we have a dozen palettes of godknowswhat in the back. Our customers, with just a few exceptions, are all treated just as kindly as they were 6 months ago, or 6 years, they are just given less. THEY have to earn a bit of it now. This other store i traveled to, they aren't there yet. They may never get there. They may end their days with this fine old eccentric lady angry and stretched to the limit. All they want is to be good at what they do. To earn their money. To get their job done. But this circumstance doesn't allow for that.
That right there, is an American tragedy.