The Unemployed and Their Importance to the American Traveler
IN travel, those of us who are able to escape our homes, backyards, and city streets; go on the road, in the air, and across the sea to find out more about ourselves and the rest of humanity – at least, according to Caldwell, that’s what we ought to be doing.
Author Erskine Caldwell writes of his travels in one year from 1934 to ’35; all along the way, documenting his casual interactions with locals from gas stations in Kansas, to hamburger flippers in Illinois and what he absorbed along the way. On his cross-country journey spanning such time and place, Caldwell does well in exemplifying the everyman that every man could and should be during his travels across the America – one that is social, inquisitive, caring and above all, not on a particular path. Traveling.
To Caldwell, traveling is something more than taking a trip, more than seeing monuments, more than even the destination itself – to him as long as the frame is there, the masterpiece will paint itself. The man who travels, according to Caldwell, “is a stranger who gains a sympathetic understanding with the people he encounters.” It’s those encounters that he shares with his readers that define what it means to be a traveler, and to see how the rest of our fellow Americans live.
Though we live in a world three quarters of a century removed from Caldwell’s Some American People
, and even further from it’s rural, country life, his words speak to new generations of economically depressed Americans; the 99ers. These men and women aren’t from a pro football team, and no, their age is not about to cross into triple digits. Not too dissimilar to those roaming for work and means to feed their families, these unemployed men and women whom have been so for 99 weeks and can no longer receive their federally capped unemployment benefits. They are the hardest hit by our current economic downturn.
Their struggle lies not in heuristically finding themselves like Erskine Caldwell and the lucky few of us that still have a job, but in penny pinching, tightening their belts, and every other tired saying about being strapped for cash. These are our fellow Americans. They want to work. They want to provide for their families. Their unemployment rate doesn’t hover at a nationwide 9.6%; instead, their rate is at 100, every day, for the last two years. They are our brothers and sisters, and their immediate economic pain is our future agony. How will we help?
While in 1934 Marysville, Kansas, Caldwell sets that future out ahead of us while conversing at a gas station. The attendant, Bill, struggles to stay afloat amidst crippling depression. Though he is the man that owns the pump, and still has his job, selling a half-gallon of petrol every few hours means near zero profit for him. The same is true for our beloved unemployed. The less money they have to spend on the basics, the less each and every one of us is able to take home to our families and ourselves. The current unemployed are the life-blood to our own standards of living. The ditch is deep for the 99ers and the rest of the benefit-receiving unemployed; so deep, in fact, that we seldom see their calls for help and distress that could soon come knocking on our very own door. The journey, no matter how enriching, is not a luxury for many of us – it is the only way they and their families find work and have a roof over their heads.
Like Caldwell, those of us who can, must see how the other half really lives by traveling and meeting the great distressed in this country. Only then can we understand ourselves and the great project that is America – in Caldwell’s words, only then will we “come close to humanity”