Right away, I apologize for yet another gas price joke. Although getting a Walt Whitman reference into anything unrelated to public radio is pretty good. One wonders if there would be puns if Whitman himself were to somehow sit down next to Jay Leno and start gabbing about the current economic pickle. Leno: Tell me, Walt, what do you hear at the gas pumps? Whitman: I hear the public being played like an Egyptian harp of many strings, The primitive chants of the Exxon boatmen; The sacred imperial hymns of China bemoaning V8 engines in hastily purchased American showboat cars, To the delicate sounds of the king who will soon be dethroned… Leno: Uh, yeah. We’ll be right back with Howie Mandel…
That public is singing, or at least speaking out. Vermont junior Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders has released e-mail responses sent to his office after he asked people on his mailing list to tell him what was going on in their lives economically. Says Sanders, “Frankly, I expected a few dozen replies. I was amazed, therefore, when my office received over 600 responses from all across the state, as well as some from other states.” Sanders offers a collection of the mails as a free download to anyone interested in hearing those voices.
The senator’s website doesn’t sugarcoat the current economic reality. “It is one thing to read dry economic statistics which describe the collapse of the American middle class. It is another thing to understand, in flesh and blood terms, what that means in the lives of ordinary Americans. Yes, since George W. Bush has been in office 5 million Americans have slipped into poverty, 8 million have lost their health insurance and 3 million have lost their pensions. Yes, in the last seven years median household income for working-age Americans has declined by $2,500. Yes, our country, for the first time since the Great Depression, now has a zero personal savings rate and, all across the nation, emergency food shelves are being flooded with working families whose inadequate wages prevent them from feeding their families.”
That level of darkness rarely seems to throw a shadow over life in sunny Santa Monica. Last week I had a kind of “Gas Price Moment,” if anybody is thinking of writing that book. Pulling into a station I realized I had fifteen bucks cash in my wallet. Normally that wouldn’t be an odd amount of gas to buy. But now it’s barely three gallons. After asking for 15 dollars worth of gas, the guy behind the counter stood up to see if I was driving a riding lawn mower.
Contrast that cute little story with lines like these from Sander’s responses: “We would like to not have to worry about where our next meal will come from.” “My husband and I followed all the rules…. Slowly, though, we have sunk back to the ’poor’ days.” “It costs me so much money in gas that my wife and I live on $6 per day to eat.” “My mortgage is behind, we are at risk for foreclosure, and I can’t keep up with my car payments.” “We have at times had to choose between baby food and heating fuel.”
What should startle here is that these are tales from a constituency that, for the moment, has homes and computers for writing e-mails to Bernie Sanders; these are accounts from the American middle class.
Southern California is so drenched in sunshine we might think that stories like these can’t come from around here. But there are scary tales aplenty following the writer’s strike and a slowing of production that may or may not be related. There are people wringing their hands to point of soreness from deep inside lovely homes in Pacific Palisades. In the back yard oranges grow on trees; back-to-back jobs in production and post-production do not.
While I was in Wisconsin recently General Motors laid off 3,400 employees, 750 of them at the plant in Janesville. The story had the usual gruesome footnote: The day before the layoffs GM restored Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner’s pay to $2.2 million, bringing his total 2007 compensation to $14.4 million. That, on the heels of a year in which GM lost a record $38.7 billion. But we hear that exact “Us vs. Them” storyline so often now that it washes over us like Iraq war statistics. What caught Bernie Sanders by surprise was the impact of having numbers turn into stories from the actual people who are “in country” fighting to stay afloat. There is a battle raging right this minute, and if just turn your ear away from late-night gas price jokes…you’ll hear the voices of the soldiers.