In 1935, a couple of retired police officers decided to throw a party. A sort of giant, expensive party that no one could afford. I can hardly imagine people with less reason for optimism than retired police officers in 1935. I can’t believe that retired police officers in 1935 were doing anything but drinking heavily. This winter, the monster winter of 2009-10, and our continuing economic malaise, has kicked us in the stomach pretty good, I think, but in 1935 they had more than double our unemployment. Comprehensive unemployment benefits had just been born. A lot of us are now looking at footage from the Great Depression now for some feeling of comfort or camaraderie. It does help, some. They had Hoovervilles, we have tentvilles. We both have breadlines. Their lines were longer.
I was watching footage of the Depression in Ric Burns’ “American Experience” documentary about the history of New York City. I recommend it. I’m interested in New York, of course, and there is lots of history that makes more sense when you draw that city into the discussion. Even more often than I had realized, New York led the way in dealing with urban problems and political movements. You are going to have to put up with a gratuitous use of the phrase, “In the years to come” and “In the decades to come,” as if prepositions were on sale that year, or the narrator’s pay was related to consistency of sentence structure. Mr. Burns also had the enormous misfortune of making a 15-hour documentary about New York in 1999. Sparkling helicopter views showing the World Trade Center appear over and over again, and clearly a hingepoint in history is just over the horizon of this view.
A few years ago, I had a student who was always quiet, and generally had a sullen look on his face. For the first month or so of class, I kind of wondered if he might punch me in the face if I said the wrong thing. Then I read some of his writing that was tender and haunted. He wrote about some unfortunately common family situations which troubled him. He was built like a bull, and stared at you like an SS agent. Underneath he was sad. He would do stuff in class most of the time, until this particular week when he stopped. “What’s the deal?” I would say. “Let’s get started. You want to do it this way instead?” throwing at him the small, baiting choices that can get people going. A week later, I caught up on reading journals, and I learned his friend had been shot and killed at the bus stop. I had read about it in the paper, without knowing I had this two-degree separation from the dead kid. In class the next day, I quietly told my student that I was really sorry. That it was very sad.
So they dug out this ash heap in Queens and built all these pavilions. They had cars already driving around in 1939. Cars were not yet drudgery and traffic jams and Jiffy Lube– they were leisure and freedom. They had an early television. Television was not yet aesthetic assault and battery everywhere you turn. You could see the Magna Carta. They had a dishwasher, which was about to make everyone’s life better (except for people who insist on living in minimally renovated pre-1935 housing like stupid, stupid me). They had a robot who smoked cigarettes. He was seven feet tall, spoke 700 words from the record player in his belly, and I would definitely go out on a date with him if his reconstruction goes as planned.
Fiorella LaGuardia and FDR has this idea that when times are tough, you invest. You whip up the money and pour it over your place and your people like meringue. It looks pretty, it tastes good, and I don’t know if it makes financial sense, but I know that you can’t talk yourself out of depression or tough your way out of depression. Depressed people can’t do anything. (The 1939 World’s Fair did go bankrupt.)
Financial depression and emotional depression have a lot in common. There’s a feeling of scarcity. Fear. Lack of energy. Getting out of depression takes time and an injections of sweetness and kindness and loveliness and inspiration. Depression, of either type, is a loss of the future, which is why I find the World’s Fair so brave. People had lost their future. They went out and built a meringue dream of what it might be, with so little evidence, so little data, to suggest that the future would be anything less painful than the present.
It wasn’t. It was Hitler and Hiroshima. We don’t know if our future is Hitler and Hiroshima. I don’t know if my student will lose more friends, or get lost himself. His friend’s future was lost forever. I lost my boyfriend this winter, and I feel like this winter will go on forever, icing me over.
I wonder why people are fighting this health insurance stuff so much. I wish they would let our government step in for us and take care of us, even in a screwy, half-baked way. I wish more people were dreaming big now. What if the government could help? What if they could do big things, like give us all electricity, or take back Europe, or go to the moon? It wasn’t corporations who did that stuff.
It doesn’t take any guts to dream with millions of dollars burning a hole in your pocket. The little romance we feel for the Great Depression was that some people did dream, even then, and build bridges and museums and parks. Many people were broken by it, crushed, and never recovered. A few dreams and some big inspiring work carried the whole mess forward anyway.