The Travel Habit
As I read about the America Eats Project, I wondered if this was an early form of the food critic. Up until then there was no accepted position of a writer who wrote about food as non fiction. Food was food. If your friend said it was good you might eat it, but there was no market for celebrity judging. Now, the writers engaged in the WPA were not serving as critics, but as documenters, trying to preserve American traditions. Like the State tourism guides they helped to enforce the folklore of America. While they various regional food groups still do exist, there is much more overlap, especially in New York. And fast food chains, or chains in general have made it possible to go to the opposite side of the country and get exactly the same food you could have gotten a block from your house. Andrew Gross, in “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as name brand Identification” makes some great points about the WPA state guides which I think could easily be translated to the food guides. By making these traditional food stuffs, often based on the various levels of colonialism and immigration which occurred combined with the climate and local foods, into things to go try out, America eats made them something to be discovered, a meal to be conquered. It was no longer just what some populations in the area ate, it was what every one in that region ate all the time. People in Maine only ate lobster. People in New Orleans only at Gumbo. This is obviously just untrue, but it works like commercial advertising for clothing. All the cool kids wear this style or that designer. Anyways, Gross makes a number of good arguments, but also gives some of this history behind the WPA guides and connects them to other guides and books including Nathan Asch’s The Road: In Search of America. “The unregulated highway is a symbol of laissez-faire economics and a society that cares for profits over people; it is also the geographical complement to Texas' sprawling suburbs.” (gross)
Inspired by Boxcar Bertha, I found this article in the New York Times on child prostitution: For Runaways, Sex Buys Survival. The article discusses the blurred line between child victim and a teenage criminal.
Many kids who have run away from home have sex as a means to obtain food, drugs, and shelter. What’s happening is kids are essentially being conned into prostitution.
Many pimps are on the look out for young girls with backpacks that look like they are on the run. Though they hold a higher risk, young girls bring in more money and more clients.
Why are girls buying into this? They need to be taken care of. Pimps provide them with the shelter and food and hygiene they need, manipulating them into having sex with people. They also make the girls feel love, feel wanted. Something the girls also need.
On a lighter note, I think this video is hilarious. Watch Age Progression Technology Indicates Missing Child A Prostitute By Now on the Onion.
I had been thinking a lot about how especially tourists, but really everyone often missed so much of a place when they traveled there.
Then I saw this.
Slightly problematic of his sister, agent and Pratt in putting him on display but I still thought I should share :
There was something very haunting about You Have Seen Their Faces. I recently read a similarly haunting article in the NY TIMES: Recession Drives Surge in Youth Runaways.
With the recession, more children are running away from home. In this class, we’ve kind of discussed and personally I’ve been focused on the fact that this Hobo lifestyle in the truest sense of the word doesn’t exist anymore and we are all on this sort of journey to recreate the essence of the Hobo generation with road trips and camping trips and so on. However, the number of children on the run is growing. And not college students or recent graduates trying to find themselves, but children and teenagers. Some are barely 13. Some leave in search of adventure. Some leave because their parents beat them or have extensive problems with drugs and alcohol.
The article focuses on Clinton Anchors, now 18, who has been on the road since he was 12, escaping the clutches of his meth addict mother. He looks out for new runaways, teaching them how to be street smart. His first words of advice: Go Home. If you have somewhere safe to go or someone who can take care of you, go there.
There is no way to directly link to this video, but everyone should check out the video in the middle of the article.
The Argonauts, a book by a collection of college aged students from 1940, or at least the first few chapters anyways, should be examples of what not to do to experience real life. We follow Lillian Ross, George Whitman, Joe Wershba, Helen Ross, and Mel Fiske on their journey out of their cautious academic lives in New York City, into the rest of America. It gives way to much detail about how they saved money by working hard and scamming family members, and getting grants, and scamming friends and so on. Then once they finally make it onto the road, though before the even go through the Holland tunnel, they bore the reader with information about how they paid the toll to cross. Maybe a statistician would be interested in all of their daily and weekly budget plans, but I for one am not. Then the men drive and deal with money, while the women serve as secretaries/ and cooks even though she can’t cook. It is strange that they don’t compile a list of possible people to meet up with until after starting the journey. In fact it seems like a major oversight on their part, which, due to luck, doesn’t blow up in their face immediately. I think in today’s world fewer people create contact sheets of people they could stay with throughout the country, and they definitely don’t do it by memory. It is also strange that she just writes the name, city, and what they would be good for, as if they could walk into Cincinnati and ask the first person the see about where the contact lives. Also in the first few chapters, they travelers find them selves involved in a strike, and heroically go out to join the picket line. This does seem like something many people would do, but it is just written in a way that focuses solely on them and a select few people. The text would have been more engaging if they had talked much less about themselves, much more about the people they met, and had any discussion of their surroundings. At least in the first part of their trip, these students were more like slightly academically dedicated spring breakers than the Argonauts of lore.
In the excerpt from “The Tourist: Travel in Twentieth Century North America”, James Jakle discusses all of the ways that tourists were able o get around during the 1930s. First comes the car. Now just accepted as a road trip staple, affordable cars revolutionized travel. People were able to go anywhere they wanted. This very quickly led to a fascination with the car which left the places being driven though, quite literally, by the roadside. Smoother cars, and better highways meant that people didn’t have to think about where they were driving through at all, and could instead play games, sing songs or whatnot. I know that while I was growing up, playing car games was often done, even on shorter day trips in the car. But we also had the radio, and eventually tapes and CDs. Imagine what the tourists from the thirties would do if they saw minivan with a TV screen in the back for the kids!? Jakle also talks about how by making car travel easier, the road systems became more developed. Gas stations, diners, motels and so on, which very clearly led to the chain rest stops we have nowadays. But with so much comfort and new exciting things to see on the road itself, people became obsessed with the idea of driving travel without understanding what they were going to see. They rushed through the sites at the destination in order to DRIVE to the next one and on and on until they went back home. People still do this. I grew up in Albany, so in school we went to New York for a lot of field trips. Since coming to school here I have realized how crazy our trips were. For instance combining the Met, Ellis Island and the wax museum into one day is insane. Or doing the Bronx zoo combined with seeing a matinee show is a lot. As tourists we rushed through these landmarks which one should spend much more time at. Also, like many tourists, we did these things in strange orders. Going from one side of the island to the other and back again, as opposed to a more geographically logical procession. Tourists need people from the area to tell us what to do, but will continue to reject advice that does not fit into our preconceived notion of the place.
I consider myself something of a New England enthusiast…Having grown up in the same room, in the same house, in the same town, in the same state my entire life, it is completely central to who I am. I grew up in Hopkinton, MA, and went to Nantucket every single year of my life, including when I was in my mother’s abdomen. I went skiing annually for over 10 years on Sugarloaf Mountain, near Bangor, ME, and have the mountain nearly memorized. New England, for me, is a place I know well, a place I can measure my life and growth by, and a place I can measure time for the world outside myself by. I read the entire WPA guide, called “Here’s New England!” with incredible interest. Most of the photographs were of places I have been, places that still look the same…a covered bridge in Maine, harbors and docks off of Cape Cod, the town of Marblehead, the streets of Cambridge. I also have a book, published in the 1980’s, called “Nantucket Then and Now,” with side-by-side black and white photographs of places in Nantucket in the late 1800’s and in the early 1980’s. It wasn’t the most successful topic for a book, or maybe it was… all of the photographs look the same. It is as though nothing has changed. The tips in the WPA guide remain legitimate. There are still pies and cider where it says there are. The same roads are beautiful. You should still drive to Provincetown and it is still mostly sand and very surreal. I’m unsure if this speaks to the timelessness of the WPA guides or the timelessness of my homeland. Hopefully both, definitely one. My enthusiasm and longing for Massachusetts is a point of ridicule for my New York City inhabiting friends. My love of barns and disdain for NYC’s “fake autumn” are two others. And this guide speaks to nearly all of it. To talk about the reasons one loves New England is to sound like an antiques collector, like someone who burns vanilla candles in jars in their salt-box colonial house. When someone who loves New England tells you what road to drive and they ask you why, it will probably either be because of a view of trees/lakes/ancient houses or because of some historical significance. And it sounds absurd and outdated and charicaturish- because it seems to me like New England is the only place that has stayed this way for so long. I’ve met so few people who love their hometowns in the same weird historical way that I do. That love their areas because they look the same way they did so so long ago, and rarely because of artificial preservation and “historical societies.” Mostly because people just still enjoy living in old houses and barns. And hanging out in forests, and having dangerous roads, and having creaky furniture, and eating cranberries, and growing cranberries, and picking apples with their families. It’s not an effort to get back to our colonial past – it is the present. Somehow us people still like these things. That was a digression. What I’m trying to say is, reading this WPA guide made me think about the reasons I love New England, and that people have loved New England for the same reasons since 1930. And before. It wasn’t a sudden attraction a-la Disney World, or cheap subdivision prices, or the presence of celebrities, or anything new that could be placed anywhere. Perhaps everyone, reading about their homes, felt these things. I hope so. I don’t know how they could (sorry, my colonial Plymouth-rock snarkiness and pride is coming through) but I hope they do. Because then, unlike any Lonely Planet or Frommers ever could, the WPA succeeded in getting down to WHAT IT REALLY IS that makes these places, these places. The good and the bad. But what really matters, living there, to the people who grew up there. They seemed to ask the people who knew, or have been the people who knew. The good friend you want to have when you visit someplace, so you know that you’re seeing everything that a real person-who-lives-in-that-place-and-is-tied-to-it loves. For better and for worse. Thanks, WPA. Hire me next time you need someone to write about Massachusetts.
Reading about the birth of mass tourism during the depression was incredibly fascinating, especially the part about the start of paid vacations. We had an interesting discussion in class about how paid vacations weren’t even on the radar of unionized workers (who were fighting for higher pay, protection, etc) and how absurd it is that paid vacations are so standard to us now. What I find absurd is how much Americans currently work in comparison to the rest of Europe; we have less paid vacations, work more hours each week, and so on. In contrast to the union workers of the Depression, paid vacations are often foremost on our minds. Many of my friends and peers muse about moving to Europe after college to be able to live a life free of the American work-mania. But it seems almost as if the desire to have time off has reverted back to its Depression-era priorities, or similar; it is possible to get a job with weeks and weeks of paid vacation in America, if you’re lucky and/or hardworking. That isn’t exclusive to Europe. But it is nearly impossible to avoid the long days and long weeks of the American workforce if you aren’t working in Europe or living check to check etc. The priority seems to have shifted from leisurely travel back to wanting time to do “life” activities – in other words, live a life outside of one’s work.
This is far from exactly the same desires of the Depression era workers. But it is a desire to have a life AND a job, rather than just a job. It is a shift in lifestyle rather than a shift in how one spends one’s leisure time. And this shows: the travel industry is suffering, white-collar workers are having a huge number more clinically recognized mental health problems, and so on. So as we distance ourselves from the constructed, hyped travel-all-the-time-get-all-your-relaxing-done-in-one-week desires, we’ve been re-realizing how nice it would be to have a life and a job, rather than a job with a week of life once a year. It makes me wonder how American work habits would be different, and how the infrastructure of America would be different, and even how the mentalities and priorities of Americans would be different, if the travel habit hadn’t been pushed and successfully promoted. (Despite my love of driving, America, diners, the road, travel, photography, and so on, I think it might be a little better. A little more relaxed, a little less obsessed with money, a little more home and family focused.)
Nathaniel West’s A Cool Million reminded me a lot of Kafka’s Amerika: protagonist is beaten to a pulp by the new world he thought he could handle, with only enough relief in between to get our hopes up enough to have them become crushable again. What was satire and what was sincere was hard to discern, for me – there were some awful racist quotes up front, said in sincerity (within the book) but debatable insincerity (from the author possibly writing a satirical book.) The time period, I think, is what made this less discernable – I had to google “Nathaniel West + Racist” to find out for myself. West seems to take the opposite strategy of Kromer in his attempt to convey the truth: he spins a completely bizarre, over-the-top tragic and nearly slapstick tale that is just plausible enough to still have us emotionally involved. In a way, it is a reductio ad absurdum: reducing the depression and its events until it becomes absurd. But the absurdity of it is the depression’s true absurdity: it is actually there. I started feeling indignant, almost, at the way he treated his characters, and I believe that was his motivation: for us to want to demand that he stop this nonsense, let go of the necks of all his characters and leave them alone. The same could be said about the depression, about the police, about the swindlers, the corrupt, all those beating down the already beaten down. It also had the feeling of a sort of twisted, perverse fairy tale; the characters were idyllic, basic: beautiful girl, endlessly sacrificial young hero-lad, trusty “Indian” sidekick, blundering but useful old man. This served to make the narrative even more offensive when it was so unrelentingly brutal and base, and provided the basis for our suspension of disbelief – that it all would be okay in the end, because this is a fairy tale – being destroyed in the end because absolutely nothing was alright. There was no moral, no reward of the right, no punishing of the wrong as in a proper fable. I loved reading this, because its absurdity and the whimsical form it took served to make it all the more brutal and offensive. What a fun and horrifying way to make a point about the Depression.
I’ve been struggling with the concept of romanticization vs. brutal realism throughout this class and our readings. Which has more power for catalyzing social change? Is one more of a valid work of art than another? Is realism possible and is it possible to ever make a work of art (writing, photography, even journalism) that doesn’t romanticize the subject in some way? These questions seem so much more urgent and vital because of the state of our economy as well as our entire world today. When I think of the trend of budding “photographers” (read: trendy kids who like expensive cameras as accessories) taking “edgy” photographs of graffiti and slums and of course, homeless people, I get goosebumps. But then, who is “allowed” to take those photographs? On the global scale of things, I’m upper-middle class. What am I allowed to write about or take photographs of? And I always conclude the same thing: myself, and my life. What I know. Things that I, personally, want to remember. And here’s where the first of many divides between today’s and the depression era’s photographers comes in. The people who were experiencing homelessness, slums, etcetera, didn’t have the equipment to photograph their own life. Their stories, if they were going to be told by photographs, would need to be told by “higher-ups,” upper class people looking down on them, reporting on them as a population foreign to them. This was not only true with photography: many of the nation’s impoverished were illiterate, too desperate/busy trying to stay alive to have time to write, etcetera, leaving people like Steinbeck to fill in the gaps. To tell their story, from a wealthier, separated, distanced point of view. Occasionally, a pure, from-the-source expression will come out; i.e., Woody Guthrie. But only when someone wealthy happens upon him, happens to record him, etcetera. And so begins the efforts to steer clear of romanticization and its debatably inevitable connection to condescension, to separation, to dishonesty. We give cameras to child prostitutes so that they can photograph their lives. We provide computer access to the impoverished, we try to spread literacy, we sponsor music production classes in prisons, and things start coming out- music, books, political movements, paintings, photographs, exposé’s, and so on. But we can never escape these questions of truth, of sincerity. The art that comes out of the oppressed can be just as romanticized: perhaps it is perceived that a good story will bring more attention and support to the cause. Fame is always a question. The only answer I can come up with is this: artwork that is in complete sincerity, total personal honesty and truth, is art that is created without the knowledge that it will be shared. Anne Frank’s diary. The notebooks and photo albums of an abused teen. Letters between illegal lovers. When it isn’t about the public, the publicity, and so on, when it is intensely and deeply personal, especially when only for oneself, and somehow the world discovers it, this is when truth is revealed. It is a specific truth, the truth of one person, but it is their total and complete honesty. And if total and complete honesty is that specific, I want to drop the debate between romanticized and not romanticized, politically motivated and not. That sort of honesty is reserved for things the public was not meant to find. Anything public has another sort of truth: the truth of exactly what the creator wanted the world to hear, and what it wants back from the world. It is an exchange instead of purely an expression. And I want the conversation to be about that. Transparent issues of condescension, of the fitting of a plot arc, of political motivation, are all simple – it is easy to find them, easy to know they’re there, and the debate is only ever about what quantity. I would rather have the conversation be about what the exchange was. This person created something to give to everyone else. Did they want money, everlasting fame, to change an opinion about their demographic? And how did the rest of the world respond to them? It is not just about what is in the work – it is about what answer the world gave back. And in a way, that’s the motivation for any art – a response.