Nomads

His forthcoming book is City of Second Sight: Nineteenth-Century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). Many nomads are determined, however, to see themselves as part of a longer story. Last month, the city of Los Angeles, the automobile fantasy incarnate, intensified its campaign against people living in cars. He and my great-grandmother had six children. We’re no longer much interested in the tragic or macabre endings of Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, let alone the ecstatic, amphetamine-fueled celebration of freedom of On the Road. She talked my father into buying a series of motorhomes for a trip to Idaho, much discussed but never executed. For all its dreams of travel, the nation just can’t seem to imagine that a better destination exists. Almost imperceptibly, the road trip genre itself has decayed, the road demoted these last decades from an object of desire into mere plot complication. Undriven, the enormous boxy vehicles depreciated in our suburban driveway, serving no clear purpose. And as the memory of those economic boom years fades, it has increasingly become a privilege to imagine that there is freedom in mobility. Our wanderers rarely set out, as they once did, without the comfort of a fixed destination. More recent films have treated the fantasy of the road as abject. A Columbia University journalism professor, Bruder spent three summers traveling across the western United States, living with a small but growing subculture of Americans who now live permanently out of their cars, vans, and RVs. As documented in the works of Bruder’s own literary ancestor, Jack London, the working-class victims of the Panic of 1893 encountered the same dirty looks, vagrancy laws, and union-busting bosses as Don and his companions do today. My great-grandmother faced such difficult circumstances that she was forced to abandon her ancestral home and head out west with my young grandfather to California, where she worked as a maid (her first job ever) and fed my grandfather from the discount canned food bin (so discounted because the labels had slipped off, so you never knew what dinner was until right when you opened it). This for me is the hardest question posed by Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, a revelatory nonfiction investigation of broke Americans living their post-recession lives on the road, mobility their sole possession. Instead, they scrape by, traveling between temporary and seasonal jobs, working as campsite hosts in California, harvesting sugar beets in the Dakotas, fulfilling Amazon orders at remote fulfillment centers in Arizona. Bruder’s nomads are almost entirely white and middle-aged. When we think of seasonal laborers in the United States, we almost always imagine migrants from Mexico and Central America. As one 69-year-old bankrupt former software executive, “Don,” explains, the nomads are nothing new:
You may think that workamping is a modern phenomenon, but we come from a long, long tradition. There is no evidence it did for my grandfather. In the near view, the nomads represent a new and unprecedented phenomenon: the disintegration of the American dream for its traditional beneficiary, the white middle class. Somehow she managed to see her youngest son climb into the lower middle class in the good postwar economy. So far as I know, my grandfather never romanticized his journey west; he’d had a difficult childhood and didn’t like to talk about the home he’d left, or the leaving of it. Can you blame them? ¤
Justin Tyler Clark is assistant professor of history at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. They got here thanks to the greased slope of our unequal economic recovery, their downward slide greased by medical bills, bad divorces, and a generalized neoliberal precarity. They will end up in public institutions, die on the job, or, as some candidly declare, commit suicide somewhere out in the desert. As a suburban child who rarely went anywhere, I read Twain and Melville and Kerouac with a sense of wonder and longing, the same I felt in the mall cineplex watching Thelma & Louise and a dozen other road trip movies. We followed the emigration west in our wagons with our tools and skills, sharpening knives, fixing anything that was broken, helping clear the land, roof the cabin, plow the fields and bring in the harvest for a meal and pocket money, then moving on to the next job. In the most common instances of the genre (e.g., Transamerica, The Guilt Trip, Little Miss Sunshine), a couple of estranged family members, friends, or even colleagues must reconcile with one another while contending with eccentric minor characters, vehicular breakdowns, and brushes with law enforcement and Hell’s Angels. Most fantasies are strengthened in proportion to their distance from reality. Without disavowing the hard realities of poverty and American capitalism, neither writer could deny that there was something romantic about the freedom and courage that desperation brings. Like Don, the hobos preferred to think of themselves as pioneers of a “new” land rather than unwanted surplus labor, or harbingers of a Mad Max–style apocalypse. And so there’s an important difference between these films and their 1960s and 1970s predecessors: the latter contemplated what it meant to live and die on the road, while the contemporary road film treats the American highway as the scenic route to a more settled existence. In any case, now that we have the internet and cheap international airfare, who wants to meet strangers in Trump’s United States? His death in the early years of the Depression was a calamity. In those pre-mobile days, no one I knew hitchhiked or sped into the wild yonder without telling someone first where they were going. Few other journalists have taken note. Up in the Air pathologized its consultant character’s obsession with travel as a symptom of his intimacy issues. Perhaps that fantasy subconsciously drew me to study the 19th century, an age of astonishing external and internal migration: itinerant peddlers, California-bound wagon trains, footloose emancipated slaves, Native Americans refusing the fiction of the white man’s maps. We followed the Roman legions, sharpening swords and repairing armor. Our civilization is even less comfortable with the unconventionally domiciled than with the truly homeless, so it is little wonder that the former are even more invisible than the latter. In their own eyes they are not homeless, but “houseless”; not helpless victims, but self-reliant “workampers.” Like actual nomads, they stay connected on the internet and at annual camp meetups, maintaining friendships, exchanging valuable information on the best places to find work or avoid law enforcement, and lending each other moral support. Maybe that ugly RV suggested dissatisfaction with what they had given us, a mortgaged middle-class existence in the Golden State, a week’s freedom from work every year. Unlike the homeless and the conventionally domiciled, the nomads go uncounted in the census, occupying a landscape that our cultural imagination has largely surrendered. We roamed the new cities of America, fixing clocks and machines, repairing cookware, building stone walls for a penny a foot and all the hard cider we could drink. Is that something to celebrate? Unlike Foley, Bruder’s subjects take a proud and defiant view of themselves as individuals and as a class. They must, in order for us to survive. So far as I can tell, his silence on the subject was precisely what led his daughter, my mother, to speak of his journey so constantly, repeating its imagined details to her children, many of them I suspect drawn from her favorite book, The Grapes of Wrath. Yet part of me wonders how much of that allure actually remains in 2018. But life in the United States, like everywhere else, can be disappointing. When some freedoms are taken away — the freedom to make a permanent home and earn a decent living — those that remain loom all the larger. Few of these modern nomads have any substantial savings or fixed residence. I must have plenty of Idaho kin, but I’ve never met any of them. Don may see his ancestors as the settler-colonialists of the mid-19th century, but his truer forebears may be the American hobos who hit the road in search of work at the end of the century, just as historians declared the frontier closed. Danger, tragedy, and the possibility of freedom have ever been the allure of nomadic life in the American imagination. And more than one critic has rightly noticed how few women survive Hollywood’s road trips, which have never even infrequently included people of color. He didn’t see much of God’s Country. Even my mother gave up her unused RVs; today, she’d rather watch House Hunters International than leave the house. Our forebears are the tinkers. I can’t decide. The book is a portrait of both the economic decline of the United States and the cultural fantasy that makes such decline tolerable, even ennobling. We were proud Californians, with no family left in Idaho. The road was somehow supposed to draw us back to our ancestors. All the while, they are clear-eyed about their future: many if not most realize that they will never enjoy a secure and stable retirement. For my mother the road had romance. But Bruder’s subjects are another disheartening testament to how the United States shrugs off its more vulnerable citizens. As a historian of the United States, I’m impressed by how much we Americans romanticize the open road. London and Steinbeck were socialists, something no one told me when I read their books as a child. But how should we think of that “privilege” when it is the last thing many Americans own? ¤
Thanks to Hollywood, Detroit, and policies such as the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the postwar American dream got paved, literally and metaphorically. The last memorable representation of their class was Chris Farley’s old Saturday Night Live motivational speaker character Matt Foley, who warned his high school audiences not to end up like him, living in a van down by the river. He lived in a cheap apartment complex in Orange County, surrounded by flat tract houses, many of which had RVs parked out front. Like the homeless population that has multiplied for decades on the streets of downtown Los Angeles and other American cities, a surprising number were at one time middle class, even well off — but no longer. APRIL 4, 2018
IN THE EARLY 1930s, my Idahoan great-grandfather, who worked for the railroads, got so drunk that he drove his jalopy into the Snake River and drowned. When my grandfather died in the 1980s, he left behind $700 and the paintings he made of the California desert, which he loved, which he called God’s Country.