For Peace and Freedom

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.

Houses and Graves

Of the famous homes I’ve visited, I liked FDR’s best. Of course I did.  I go for writers’ homes mainly– Poe, Dickens, Hugo, Keats, Thoreau– but I went up to Hyde Park, New York, to see FDR’s as well.

I’ve also visited some famous graves.  Chopin’s was the biggest deal to me, although Queen Elizabeth’s was pretty mind-boggling.  She knew Shakespeare.  She beat that Armada!  And she’s right there!  That was a kick in the head.

I went to Chopin’s grave as a thank-you.  I love those piano preludes.  I brought flowers, yellow gerber daisies.  It was March in Paris, so cold it wasn’t romantic or cute, and it took me forever to find him.  My feet hurt, I had a huge zit on my forehead, and I was starving.  I was pinching euros and freezing and malnourished the whole time I was there.  They don’t have whole-wheat bread or Mexican food in France.  Other than that, I loved it.

There were fresher graves than Monsieur Chopin’s in that cemetery.  It wasn’t strange that I had flowers.  A child had recently left a crayoned note on one tomb.  When I finally found Chopin, other people had left little scrolls of sheet music sitting there.  I am not musician enough to have identified the melodies.

It might have even started to snow, but I think that is a handy detail I added when I used this story in some fiction I was working on.  So, let it snow or not snow in the Parisian cemetery, on the grave of the great Romantic composer who has a white marble lady plucking a harp carved over his final resting place– whatever makes you happy.

No one else on the FDR home tour was about to wet herself with excitement like I was.  He sat in this room!  That was his lamp!  He pulled himself up this dumbwaiter!  (He did– even long after electricity, both to keep himself in shape and to assure himself he could evacuate in case of fire.)  Inside the house is neat– but you have to stay with your tour guide to make sure no one spits on the floor.

Outside the house is better.  I sat on the side porch for a while, sheltered from the misty rain, eating red jelly beans and admiring the gentle, sweeping view of the Hudson valley hills.  Then I walked down the driveway.

Here’s the thing about the driveway: Roosevelt promised himself he would learn to walk again, and he chucked himself down that driveway every goddamn day because he was going to walk again, and that was that.  He did this for seven years.  He tried and tried to make it all the way down, to the gate, to the road.  For seven years.  You know the man couldn’t walk, right?  And then he died.

FDR’s driveway is one of my favorite stories of all time.  It’s the saddest story and the happiest story.  It’s deluded and optimistic and tough and crazy and wrenching.  The most powerful man in the world (except Stalin, right?) has a driveway he wants to walk down.  He has a driveway he tries to walk down.  And he just tries and tries.  While he’s slipping arms to Britain and then turning the U.S. from a backwater to a 500-pound gorilla.  And taking a little time to look over his stamp collection and enjoy a cocktail or two.  He’s trying to walk down this driveway, and all he does is fail.

I felt really sappy about it, so all I can tell you is (puts arm over your shoulder), Son, we’ve all got driveways to walk down, don’t we?  Everybody’s got a driveway.

You can also see the graves of Franklin and Eleanor on the grounds of their Hyde Park estate.  I didn’t leave them flowers, since I have the social welfare safety net to remember them by.

Visiting the grave is a thank-you.  You hope someone will visit your grave, someday, so you can exist for a while after you die, and it will mean that they appreciated you.

Visiting the house is taking on the person.  Breathing them in.  Grasping their bannisters and sitting on their porches to weave your story in with theirs.  Knowing a famous person as a physical presence, a person who lived in a physical world as you do, and had to live by its rules.  Who wasn’t a symbol or a character or an idol.  Just a guy trying to get down his driveway.