Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Americas

I am haunted by the opening lines of an old novel: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

Lately, I have been watching hours of scratchy black-and-white film about my childhood years, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and seeing through very old eyes a different America, peopled in turmoil by those who don’t resemble their descendants today.

Instead of fighting for bargains on Black Friday, they stand patiently in breadlines with gaunt faces and hopeless eyes, waiting for food. Instead of blaming government for their poverty, with 25 percent unemployment, they look hopefully to it for salvation.

In FDR’s First Hundred Days, politicians work day and night, shuffling papers at warp speed to pass legislation in a frenzy to get the economy moving. Some of what they do will work, some will fail, some will be called unconstitutional, but there is little legislative in-fighting by politicians blaming one another.

Without 24/7 media chatter, there are parades supporting the National Recovery Act (NRA) but, behind the newsreel scenes, farm families are driven off their land by the Dust Bowl and city dwellers are sleeping in the streets.

In those days, my father worked in a Harlem pawn shop 60 hours a week for $16, a dark place where people sold their soles, trading dress shoes and suits or furs and jewels for cash.

When I was old enough, I would sometimes go with him on a Saturday for the fourteen hours he spent there. Tan-coated men behind cages squinted through jeweler’s loops and raised their heads to shake them side to side at hopeful smiles and hopeless eyes across the counter. The patrons came parading through, most of them well-dressed, almost all black, carrying clothes, jewelry, musical instruments, cameras, binoculars, as hostage for the few dollars they had to have for a few days or weeks.

Some seemed down and defeated, but many were jaunty, with the aliveness of people dancing on the edge. Seeing me, they flashed white smiles from their dark faces, surprised and amused to find a kid among the forbidding figures guarding the pawnbroker’s cash box. I always smiled back, trying to drink in some of their joy in that place of a sad business profiting from human misery that was almost universal.

In that different America, politics was more an expression of hope than a set of beliefs. Although my father worshipped FDR, his voting reflected a longing for something more.

In a 1960s hotel ballroom, I was on the dais at a dinner to honor Dr. Benjamin Spock for his efforts to avoid nuclear war. Sitting next to me, tall and thin and clear-eyed in his eighties, was Norman Thomas, the idealistic clergyman who became a perennial presidential candidate for the Socialist Party between the world wars.

As we bend over fruit cups, I tell him my father voted for him six times. Norman Thomas grins. “Ah,” he says in a dry midwestern voice. “So he was the one.”

In that other America, it was still possible for politicians to make self-deflating jokes.

7 comments:

Screw Chart said...

In Another America, people wouldn't have to consider the world their children would grow up in before they decide to have the child.

In Another America, people cared about one another and helped rather than consider what they get out of it for helping. Great post.

Dave B said...

Anyone who thinks it's not "possible to joke about politics" hasn't watched Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert-- two of the most popular programs on TV!

Between those and other TV shows and blogs, YouTube, etc., I'd suggest that there's much more joking about politics today than at any time in U.S. history.

Schosh said...

Having just become a sexagenarian myself I have one thing to say...

I wanna grow up to be to be as wise as Mr. Stein

coachirisblogs.com said...

My parents spoke about that America. I saw glimpses of it growing up in a family that perpetuated what I consider true American values but that would be considered radical, then and maybe more so now. I fear my kids and grandkids will never see that kind of country again.

Edmund said...

Incredible post, with the kind of telling narrative that can only be attained by living through those circumstances for oneself.

I have to agree that the cynicism (much of which arose out of the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War and the revelations of Watergate) has left our nation's people feeling that not only is there little to hope for, but much to rally against in dealing with our own government. Sadly, without a unity through patriotism and love of fellow Americans, we may never fully recover from all the damage that has been done to our country. Many of us may never trust our own government ever again, particularly following this most recent quagmire in Iraq.

However, as somewhat of a dumb, young pup myself (mid-twenties), I still have hope. I refuse to let that cynicism overwhelm and consume me, if only because I am an American who deeply loves his country. And I will cling to any semblance of hope when it chooses to rear its head. Because when times are tough, as they were during the Great Depression, clinging to hope is what one must do.

Jacalyn Mindell, jd said...

Incredible article! As a journalist I have to wonder whether we share a lot of the blame. I often wonder where did the "objective" news source go? I believe even the "credible" news sources feed the frenzy these days. They haven't adapted to this new age. They don't provide any perspective, and just allow everyone to spew hatred back and forth rather than work toward mutual solutions. I wasn't around then but did the media play a part in expressing that feeling of hope rather than playing on people's fears and anger?

Carrefour Ofertas said...

Nice article. Good information! Thank you.

Greetings
Leticia