At first I was really upset with the coming of the Second Great Depression, the one that began with the Crash of 2008 and maybe, finally, shows some signs of turning around here in 2016.
Our parents were kids and teenagers during the FGD, the First Great Depression, in the 1930s. They weren’t as bad off as the Joad family was, straggling out of dust-bowl Oklahoma in The Grapes of Wrath. But they had to make do. Winters in Berkeley my mom carried a baked potato to school in her coat pocket. It kept her warm, and she got to eat it for lunch. Ellen’s parents scoured lower east side Manhattan for stray lumps of coal so their families could heat their apartments. After school her mother helped Grandma Felicya string glass beads to sell. Nobody assumed anything about the future.
They survived, obviously, even thrived in spite of it all. But those lean times were a very long time ago. The institutional memory of depression had almost completely vanished when the banks started failing this time and the stock market crumpled in the weeks preceding the election of 08.
People felt betrayed. We were not prepared. For longer than I’d been alive everything was growing and was expected to keep growing: money, populations, energy sources, technology, optimism, progress, freedom.
The freedom to live where you want and do what you want. The freedom – the right, some said – to get a loan and own your own home. The freedom to drive to the mall and buy stuff. The freedom to retire comfortably. Nobody told us this could all go to hell in a hand basket overnight.
So, yes, at first I was angry. But then things started happening. People started planting fruit trees again all over Montrose County. Apples and pears and cherries and apricots, like they had in the 19th century. The local production of food, which had gotten a restart with the co-op and grass-fed movements in the years before the crash, became the norm. With cash now hard to come by, people barter what they can. Ellen sews dresses and vests in exchange for bacon and beets. Everybody pitches in. It may not be exactly the kind of “Yes We Can” unity that Barack Obama campaigned on back in 08, but it will do. Maybe it’s better.
I dug us a root cellar. Later I took a job with the FWP, the Federal Writers’ Project. President Obama revived the New Deal program at the start of his second term in 2012. As part of the WPA, or Works Progress Administration, FWP writers are charged with roaming across America and capturing stories that illustrate our roots, that tell who we are. John Cheever did it during the FGD. So did Saul Bellow, and Richard Wright, and Woody Guthrie.
I chose to write about the ski industry, how it got its start in the 1930s with a boost from Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. How it went through – as so many businesses did in the 90s and 00s – its period of heedless avarice. And now the abandoned condos serve as housing for union miners, and the CCC is once again building ski jumps and setting up drag lifts on the highest, best terrain.
What with gasoline being in short supply and private car travel a luxury, we have really enjoyed the visits to our Colona Stock Yard stage by the Federal Theater Project. Their most recent production, “The Revolt of the Beavers,” riled Republican critics who called it “Marxism à la Mother Goose.” I found it a delightful parable of the redistribution of wealth.
It would seem we as a society are experiencing an extraordinary burst of creativity. As for the federal government employing writers, musicians and actors, Obama paraphrased FDR in one of is Fireside Chats: “Why not? They are human beings. They have to live.”
Now we’re facing a choice Americans pondered in 1940. Should we re-elect a beloved president to a third term? In spite of the 22nd Amendment? Franklin Roosevelt served for 13 years, and he needed that time to establish Social Security and implement regulations governing banking and Wall Street – to re-establish trust in the system. A lot of people think this is just what we should do now.
Bob Dylan, who credits the resurgence in his writing to life in hobo camps, is all for the idea. We listened to him the other night on the radio reprising the old Bing Crosby/Peter, Paul and Mary tune: “Once I built a Hummer, I made it run/I made it run against time/Once I built a Hummer, and now its done/Buddy, can you spare a dime?”