Years and years ago, I read the novel IRONWEED (1983), by author William Kennedy, winner of The Pulitzer Prize (1984) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. You never hear of the book today, so it must not have stood the test of time. I think Kennedy’s novel came to mind because of all the discussion about possible consequences for our future of the “Coronavirus lock down”, which has thrown so many people out of work worldwide. Even here in Switzerland, I am noticing businesses that have closed, empty storefronts. The setting of the novel IRONWEED may have been Albany, New York in 1938, but the vocabulary, “bum” or “hobo”, as it was used back then to describe people, whom today we might class as “homeless” or without a roof over their heads, was still current twenty years later in my youth. The novel’s merit would seem to be in explaining the complicated reasons for human tragedy, which were not simple to sort out back during the Great Depression and for decades thereafter. What is involved today in making an economy function or prosper is certainly even harder to grasp.
As per IRONWEED, from the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s, when my family lived in Moorhead, Minnesota, I retain vivid memories of riding in the car with Dad or on the public bus with Mom over to Fargo, North Dakota. Right after the bridge across the Red River, you passed a long line of old taverns and liquor stores, with men plopped along the curb or on the sidewalk leaning against the buildings, no matter the hour of the day. I had no problem picturing the novel’s protagonists and their sad lot. That street from the bridge into Fargo downtown was called “skid row”. The Wikipedia definition of the term is not bad, even if Fargo was far from urban back in the 1950’s (just over 40,000 people): “A skid row or skid road is an impoverished area, typically urban, in English-speaking North America whose inhabitants are people "on the skids". This specifically refers to the poor, the homeless or others considered either disreputable or forgotten by society... Urban areas considered skid rows are marked by high vagrancy, and they often feature cheap taverns, dilapidated buildings, and drug dens as well as other features of urban blight. Used figuratively, it may indicate the state of a poor person's life.”
You have guessed my question or puzzlement, no doubt. How many people will lose their homes and livelihood because of the “lock down” or because of how our leaders have chosen to mismanage or confront this pandemic of our day? By the 1950’s the soup kitchens of the Great Depression, the WPA projects which gave jobless work building highways across the Midwest and sculpted Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota were no more. Because of the War (deaths) and war industries, life had improved a lot. Skid rows, however, endured, as I say, even in towns like Fargo. They were a factor in smaller towns perhaps because Mid-America was less cruel than the big cities. These people were still down and out, because nobody had much left over to dedicate to those men sprawled out on the sidewalks of skid row. The word “liquidity” (spare cash assets) was not in my parents’ vocabulary. Odd jobs for a meal were not exactly the rule of the day.
Permit me with these ramblings just to make a simple point! Poverty, even misery, is not the end of the world. Perhaps subsistence farming (the childhood experience of both of my parents) was not so bad. Would it be so devastating of we were forced to return to the countryside, to living hand to mouth, getting by with a bit of egg or milk money, as they did? Granted, the memory of having money for this that and the other thing, supersized meals and endless entertainment does not convince. Even back then, such frugality was not idyllic. My point would be, that we need to discover or rediscover the sense of human flourishing. Grandma would have preached about living within our means (cash and carry – no plastic!).
Please, God, spare your people from undue hardship and want! Teach us, O Lord, the path to righteousness!