Stateside: From Jack To John And Back
From Jack To John And Back
Besides Charles Dickens, two authors recommended to me as a child were Jack London and John Steinbeck. The recommender was me dad, who had emigrated to Canada in 1929 and worked in forestry and railroad camps before settling in the Canadian wheat belt where he worked the graveyard shift at a service station.
London wrote about the kind of environment Dad first worked in; Steinbeck about events similar to the ones Dad witnessed first-hand as the price of wheat went through the basement and the Great Depression kicked in. Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is about people forced off their farms, not just because of the fall in the prices of crops such as wheat, but by the drought that turned Oklahoma, Nebraska and parts of Kansas and Texas into a dustbowl. Many of them migrated to California.
Last Monday being the holiday commemorating the discovery of Christopher Columbus by the indigenous people of the Americas, I took the day off and travelled from Jack London Square in Oakland to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas for the day. Amtrak's Coast Starlight service leaves Jack London Square about 8:30 in the morning and gets into Salinas around midday. The northbound Coast Starlight (which runs between LA and Seattle) leaves around 6:30 in the evening--just in time to catch a movie in the lounge car. So it makes a great day trip from the Bay Area; for those starting out from San Francisco, Amtrak runs a coach over to Oakland and back.
The Grapes of Wrath is based on a series of articles Steinbeck wrote for a paper called the San Francisco News between October 5-12, 1936. The series was called The Harvest Gypsies, and in it Steinbeck quotes one little boy in a squatters' camp: "When they need us they call us migrants, and when we've picked their crop, we're bums and we got to get out."
Reportage about the Dust Bowl Migration opened many people's eyes to the way agribusiness - even in those days - was treating its workers. Suddenly that treatment mattered because the workers weren't Filipinos, Mexicans, and Japanese who could be deported or repatriated if they objected to the long hours, the pay, the working conditions; this new rush of migrants were small farmers of English, German and Scandinavian descent - born in the US.
And so it was that, with the California recall election fresh in my mind - in which drivers licences for undocumented migrant workers was one of the key issues - I arrived in Salinas, California. The Amtrak station is just a short walk from the National Steinbeck Center, which was built in the late '90s. I confess to not having read any Steinbeck since adolescence and even then, not much. I didn't even know, for example, that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature - and then was so vehemently pilloried by critics for having won it that he never wrote a word of fiction ever again.
The main exhibition hall about Steinbeck is arranged around six themes: his childhood in Salinas (growing up East of Eden); the agricultural world around him; the Great Depression and the Grapes of Wrath; nearby Monterey and Cannery Row; his travels around Mexico, Russia and Europe, including his time as a WWII war correspondent; and Steinbeck's America, an exhibit which includes the campervan he rode in with his French poodle Charley on a road trip to rediscover the land of his birth.
It was all fascinating and engaging stuff, but my favourite part of my trip wasn't in the Steinbeck Exhibition Hall at all. It was in the Valley of the World Agricultural Gallery, which is also in the Center. I got to sit in the cab of a big rig, and I got to design my own fruitbox label! (As you must have realized by now, I'm nothing more than a big curious kid, with all the sophistication of a wind-up squirrel.)
The Valley of the World opened just last month and is still seeking donors - you can buy a glass tile with your name and a picture of the produce of your choice on it for $250. Here in the States, agricultural products, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, are pronounced PROjuice and you buy them at a produce store, not a greengrocer. Well, of course, actually most people buy them at a supermarket and seem to have no idea they got there because of a whole chain of activities, businesses, and workers.
With that in mind, the exhibition designers have included a game show called "The Produce Game" and it asks some rather curly questions in each of the four categories of Grower, Worker, Buyer, and Shipper. Should you irrigate your lettuces ten days before you plan to harvest them? No, because then the soil will be too wet for the machinery to get in. Should you work for a grower/shipper conglomerate that will offer you a steady income and benefits but will ask you to leave your family as the season moves across the continent, or work for a labour contractor who will find you work locally but not offer benefits or a steady income?
The answer to that one is ambivalent, but seems to tend in favour of working for agribusiness instead of local contractors--although the quizmaster does say that if you choose the latter "your family will be happy you didn't move away." Should you buy at the going rate or a fixed rate? Going rate is the right answer. If the price is low, should you harvest and ship or plough under? Harvest and ship. Perhaps that last answer is there because this is, after all, right next to the Steinbeck exhibition where you see the tragic human results of the Depression philosophy of ploughing crops under because the price they fetched was so low.
All the exhibits in The Valley of the World are engaging, starting with the history of agriculture in the Salinas area. Nowadays more than 88 different crops are exported from there worldwide, and at the peak of the season more than 1,000 trucks a day leave the Salinas Valley. The 18-wheel refrigerated semis take 3 days to get to the East Coast, travelling 24 hours a day with 2 drivers on board.
In the gloaming, as the Coast Starlight headed north, we passed dozens of the 18-wheelers lined up at a packinghouse near the tracks, waiting for their loads. Later, my walk from the station at Jack London Square to my commuter bus stop in Oakland took me through the produce markets where a few workers were still sweeping out the debris of the day, and the round-town trucks were parked waiting for the next morning's arrivals.
If you want to know what California's recall election was really all about it is this, it is this: water resources and high-speed rail vs. trucking. But I'll leave you with the opening sentence of Steinbeck's newspaper series The Harvest Gypsies to remind you of how expendable human beings become when circumstances go against them:
"At this season of the year, when California's great crops are coming into harvest, the heavy grapes, the prunes, the apples and lettuce and the rapidly maturing cotton, our highways swarm with the migrant workers, that shifting group of nomadic, poverty-stricken harvesters driven by hunger and the threat of hunger from crop to crop, from harvest to harvest, up and down the state and into Oregon to some extent, and into Washington a little."
No, dammit. I won't leave you with that. Go and get yourself an atlas and look at where the great agricultural valleys of California lie, then look at who voted for the recall. And go look at the website of Larouche for President and the photo there (untouched, I do believe) of a young bodybuilder in a pose in which he gives a Nazi salute. And know that on Monday in Salinas - a city where the bank puts up a sign in English that it's closed for Columbus Day, and in Spanish that it's closed for Indigenous People's Day - the front page headline of the local paper read: "Stop. Show green card".
Apparently Congress wants police to arrest undocumented immigrant drivers - a move that police in many, many localities nationwide oppose because they rely on having good relations with the immigrant community in order to effectively enforce the local laws. And get tips of likely terrorist activity. Now the federal government is demanding local cops do the work of the immigration service too. Where do local police forces get their money from? Local bodies, whose budgets often need to be supplemented by the state. Whoever controls the state budget potentially has the local cops by the balls. Remind me who that is again and what issues he campaigned on?