I’ve walked First Avenue South several times lately but I can’t find the place.
There’s one building that might be it, but the main entry seems wrong. The windows in the upper floors, where I spent most of my days working at the furniture factory, look right, but I can’t be sure. It’s been a long time.
The street is the same and yet different now. O.B. Williams is still there, right where it was when I walked by on my lunch breaks in the early 70s, the last time I worked in this industrial neighborhood of the city.
I ran an internet search to see if the address of the old furniture factory was recorded somewhere. It moved from the First Avenue South building not long after the summer I was there. But no such reference came up, not even to the new location where the factory moved. Nothing.
Records of the locations are not the only thing absent. The company itself seems to have vanished. The only internet hits were auction house listings of a few pieces of the furniture made in the 70s. It could have been me who applied the finish to those walnut tables.
Not only the company and its furniture, but the owner himself seems to have no online presence. He was a fixture in this town, successful in business and notable in the arts community.
It seems a short interval from then to now, well within living memory. Mine, anyway. It seems too soon for there to be next to nothing left.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I have enough other evidence of the reality of impermanence.
I’m reminded of the fleeting nature of the radio shows I did each morning, years ago. Each day, at the end of my five-hour shift, as I unplugged my headphones and left the main broadcast studio, all traces of them had already evaporated. A good many days, I was grateful. Unlike print, embarrassing moments on-air leave no trace.
I did leave behind tapes of some of the interviews with members of the community I broadcast, people telling of their lives, their work, who they were, what they did, what it meant to them, why it was important.
At that time, in that community, I could make an appointment with anyone who I found interesting, or had an interesting story, show up with my palm-sized tape recorder, say “Tell me about what you do” and come away with an hour or more of raw interview tape. I talked to people who flew a hot air balloon, learned about milk production from a dairyman in his barn and milking parlor, chronicled the tulip business for which the valley is best known, visited with the owner of an operating steam locomotive and railway.
The inspiration came from Studs Terkel. Walking past a used bookstore a few years earlier, I saw a copy of Working, sitting in the shop window. Looking at it through the glass, the authors name meant nothing to me, but I was fascinated with the idea of people telling their stories. I read it from cover to cover.
Terkel wrote: “My turf has been the arena of the unofficial truth, of the noncelebrated one on the block, who is able to articulate the thoughts of his/her neighbors, inchoate, though deeply felt.”
Terkel grew up at his mother’s boarding house in Chicago. He listened to the conversations between the tenants, over games of cribbage, arguments over politics, the tales of their lives. At first, the stock market crash 1929 brought little change at the Wells Grand house, but as the Great Depression deepened, these working people lost their jobs and left.
The Works Progress Administration was one of the New Deal programs enacted to get people back to work. Most of the work was what Studs called “hammer and shovel” jobs. But in 1935, the Federal Writers Project was created, providing opportunity for thousands whose tools were the pen and typewriter. Studs applied.
I knew about the WPA but not the Writers Project. The information came to me a couple months ago while ratcheting through cable channels. The black and white Depression era images caused my finger to lift from the remote. It was the 2009 Smithsonian documentary Soul of a People, about the people and the works of the Writers Project. I was transfixed.
I’m sitting here with two books beside me, Remembering America: A Sampler of the WPA American Guide Series and the companion book to the Smithsonian channel documentary. The Writers Project people were unemployed teachers, typists, clerical workers. Only a few had been employed before the crash as writers and editors.
The resulting publications were a wildly disparate array. Most are now long out of print. The best-known are the 48 Guides to each of the States. First editions are still available on the websites of rare book sellers. But there were other projects; local histories, ethnographies, children’s books, pamphlets.
In the WPA folklore division under Ben Botkin, the emphasis was on oral histories. Botkin’s interest spanned the gamut of cultures; opera singers and jazz musicians, writers of literature and pulp fiction, society figures and former slaves. Botkin described his job as “helping us respect one another.”
Interviews, folktales, songs, and other materials gathered by WPA fieldworkers in words and sound preserved first-hand accounts of daily life in the 30s. In a 2003 article by Douglas Brinkley published by the New York Times, the director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress was quoted as saying “…the collection offers the best examples of local history and oddball anecdotal stories ever amassed.”
Locating them now is a different matter. After seventy years, some of the works are starting to disappear from bookshelves and from living memory.
The importance of those people, the meaning of their words, and the preservation of them, depends upon point of view, I suppose, having to do with the usefulness we find, or fail to find, in preserving the past, the value, if any, in knowing something about those “noncelebrated ones on the block” who came before us.
I’m content with the ephemeral nature of the radio features I aired at the small radio station. They were created on a whim, existed for a moment in time. In intent and execution, nothing about them was ever intended to be lasting.
And yet, I find myself fascinated to learn of the WPA Writers Project, and learn of the people who told their stories.
It’s tempting to look through the lens of our individual lives and tell ourselves “it’s always been this way”. It’s tempting to believe our individual experience is unique, lasting, of primary importance.
Perception is myopic. In one sense, there may be peace and security in the perception that the way I see it, the way life is for me, that my experience of it is objective, empirical. But there’s more. In pulling the lens back to get a wider view, more is revealed. The knowledge of how it was before informs my own time, that which I accept as reality in my personal experience of living.
In Working, I don’t remember the specific individuals, although they are still there, ready for me to pull down from the bookshelf to revisit as I please. But I remember well the feeling, page after page, of finding some nugget expressed by one of Terkel’s interviewees, something which found a place within me, a recognition, a kinship, a realization that I was not alone, that there existed something shared, a connection between these unknown people and myself, some thread that informed me I was part of a larger, longer legacy of humanity that my perception alone might have indicated.
In youth, I quite sincerely believed the knowledge and experience of my parents to be irrelevant, that I was part of something else, part of something new, something my folks could never understand. The piling up of years has eroded such hubris. I now find myself wishing I had known them better. It’s not sentimentality.
The utility in knowing the words, thoughts, feelings and lives of the people recorded by the WPA writers, or the people of Terkel’s interviews, or even the people I interviewed, is the way in which they add to the sum of my experience and appreciation of it. They have things to tell me, things that add to my understanding. The warp and weft of their lives adds texture and color to mine, contribute to the fabric I continue to weave each day.
It is as Robert Cole said in his forward to to Terkel’s My American Century, these voices have “…in essence, presented us to ourselves”. They present us with “…another chance to look back through the memories of those who lived it and made it, in their respective ways, what it has turned out to be”.
Past is prologue. I can, if I choose, become part of a continuing consciousness. If I am attentive, I can see these people are part of who I am.