Thunder Road: Two Journalists & the "Journey To Nowhere"
Jerry Brown slammed his foot on the gas, and we were suddenly careening around a corner to beat an oncoming train. A headline flashed in my head: "Ex-California Governor and Writer Killed in Fiery Wreck." But Jerry was hearing things -- there was no train -- and he relaxed, an entire 240 seconds left before he had to be at a studio for a soundbite on the Republican primary bloodletting. The soundbite was a pit stop a couple of weeks ago on our way from his Oakland commune to an interview on his syndicated public radio show. The reason I was with Jerry was because of a fellow named Bruce. That Bruce's last name is Springsteen, and the reason Bruce was involved in my life, is due in part to Jerry. It is, as they say, a long story.The semi-quick version is that I drove from Ohio to California in 1979 to interview Jerry. It wasn't a big-budget assignment; I slept in a pear orchard off Highway 99 near Sacramento. The next day, I learned that the press guy scrapped my interview. But the trip had an upside; I saw a lot of California's underbelly, and I was hooked. I returned to find work, living for months out of my pickup before Sacramento Bee city editor Bob Forsyth gave me a break. It was the day after the 1980 election. Bob said, "I've got good news and bad news. The bad news is Reagan is president. The good news is you've got the job."The Reagan era coincided with my immersion in the world of those lost in unremitting darkness amid "morning in America." At my new job, I worked with photographer Michael Williamson. One day Bill Moore, the editor who replaced Bob, gave us an assignment: Go ride freight trains and document the new breed of hobos, set adrift by the changing economy. The trains were crowded. Michael and I ended up spending six months over a period of three years on the streets among the homeless. Our travels took us to America's industrial necropolis, where thousands of people lost their jobs with the death of steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio. We followed job seekers west, where many became hobos, shells of what they'd once been.This work became Journey to Nowhere, published in 1985. As far as I know, it was the first modern homeless book. This kind of first doesn't translate into riches. As columnist Bob Greene wrote about Journey, "Books about poor people in America do not exactly fly off the shelves into readers' hands." After exhausting a meager advance, we'd each spent some $10,000 to produce the book. And there was a big emotional cost. Anyway, we sold fewer than 15,000 books, and the baby that we'd bled and cried over was bleached bones, out of print and forgotten. Zip forward to Oct. 22, 1995: I'm teaching journalism at Stanford, Michael is taking pictures at the Washington Post. Michael was on this side of the country, so we met for a reunion in Sacramento. We toured our Sacramento, the hobo jungles, the railyard where I was taught hobo life by Alabama Tom, who was murdered a few weeks later. It was likely the last time we'd wander our haunts together.We recalled just how hard Journey had been. We were fueled by the knowledge that we were working a big story. Sure, we hoped for recognition, but you don't spend three years -- ruining your personal life, riding freights through snowstorms, seeing a guy you know murdered, having guns pulled on you -- on the maybe that there will be a tangible reward in the form of a book or a prize. The book or prize is a bonus. You do the story because the story needs to be done. Still, we ended up that day drinking beer on the Sacramento River shore, wondering if we'd had any impact. Most journalism occurs in a vacuum -- you just put it out there. I tell my journalism students that you never know who reads your work. All you can hope is to educate a few readers.Michael and I parted. The next morning, I awakened to a phone message. It was a woman claiming to work for Bruce Springsteen. Yeah, right. But when we talked, she said our book inspired Bruce to write two songs on his new album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. Bruce wanted to meet us. A few days later, we went to a benefit concert that Neil Young had organized, where Bruce was playing. When he came offstage, the first question I asked was, "How the hell did you get our book?" Bruce said he bought it when it came out; he then said it had to be back in print and offered to write an introduction. Armed with this, our agent, Gloria Loomis, found a publisher. And now Journey to Nowhere is back in bookstores.All this sounds like a wonderful fairy tale. There's a thing called hobo luck, and it can work both ways: Michael and I've had lots of the good kind. There's glamour: hanging out with Bruce and Jerry, like at the interview show a few weeks ago. I should be very, very happy. But I am not.How can one find happiness when things are so bleak for so many? It isn't surprising that homelessness is worse than a dozen years ago, but the degree of the increased horror is staggering. The dispossessed have been accepted as part of modern society, so much so that movies feature them as a routine urban backdrop. Job loss has spread to white-collar workers as companies slim down to pretty themselves up for Wall Street. Meanwhile, more wealthy people today live behind walled enclaves.Yet there's something shining that came out of all of this, and it has nothing to do with celebrity glitz.When Bruce contacted us, I'd been going through a lot of soul-searching about journalism, which I've practiced for 20 years. I'd seen a lot of the bad kind of luck befall newspapers: the invasion of corporate clones, "customer service" programs (translation: let's be timid), the cheerful mantra of "tighter and brighter" (more room for ads), the maximizing of 20 and 30 percent profit margins, etc. Journalism transformed my life, and I can imagine doing nothing else. But in the late 1980s and 1990s, it became an increasingly bitter trip. How could I, a university journalism professor, justify sending young men and women out there to work in newsrooms when I was so doubting?About a month ago, however, Michael and I met up with Bruce in Youngstown, and the three of us waded through deep snow to visit a dead mill. As we stood inside the rusting blast furnace control room and talked, Bruce made me remember something I'd forgotten about the secret of journalism.The journey to the rediscovery of that secret started last fall, when Michael and I hit the road to update the book, to bring the journey forward to the present. We began in Youngstown, the poster child for downsizing, where some 60,000 jobs were wiped out. A dozen years later, mile-long mill sites were meadows studded with 20-foot trees. In 1983, we found people sucker-punched and confused. In 1995, there was a rage that, sadly, now only Patrick Buchanan seems to understand. At the last remaining mill, we visited some of its workers. Their mill was now owned by a venture capitalist, who, as rumor had it, was going to sell it. The workers all had tales of friends who blew their heads off or who became homeless after the other mills closed. Most had worked those mills, and some themselves were once homeless. These workers knew what could happen.So all but two of the 1,700 union employees walked out. The 54-day walkout was violent: a hotel for scabs was firebombed, bombs were lobbed, the workers battled company goon guards and smashed the windows of scabs' cars. The workers repeated cries of what was said at the peak of the action: Fuck you, you will not take our jobs! We will kill you! Someone is going to die tonight! Someone slipped us one of the bombs. It was painted black, filled with shrapnel.There are a lot of other Americans who are also angry, and because I happen to float in newspaper circles, I see it in my friends. The stories are endless. At the Los Angeles Times, there were massive layoffs after a clone from General Mills was brought in to run the place like a cereal factory. A friend at a Knight-Ridder paper tells of reporters being laid off after years of service, then escorted from the building by guards. The clones twist heads in other ways. One of my former students now works for Gannett and tells of a newsroom ringed with TV screens blaring messages from corporate headquarters; managers are rewarded for producing a "product" filled with seven-inch stories. My journalist friends all know those dead from suicide, weird accidents, sudden ill health. The lucky ones only have breakdowns.Meanwhile, the clones take dives. There are celebrated sellout cases, such as 60 Minutes killing the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation piece. The once-legendary Miami Herald is now deemed "a booster sheet" by the New Yorker. The worst whoring, however, is in the quiet everyday capitulation to the status quo, supposedly to appeal to everyone while being important to no one. I've worked for a few papers, longest at the Sacramento Bee. It's certainly not as bad as Gannett, but it's in line with many newspapers -- middling -- with flashes of brilliance. There are some great journalists at the Bee and these other papers, but in an environment where blandness is encouraged, many reporters end up censoring themselves. Take most any reporter out for a beer and you'll hear this. The clones will insist there are only a few malcontents. Of course, these are the guys with big-time stock options. It's not that they're ill-intentioned. They're merely part of this marching phalanx that is eating away at America. Newspapers are supposedly the fourth estate, something apart. But they're no different.So I sat there listening to the steelworkers, and I could understand. We took their bomb and placed it in the trunk of our car, heading west toward California. Michael and I ended up in our old work routine, talking to people, listening, taking notes and pictures -- practicing basic journalism no different than when we started working together in our early 20s. Something began to dawn on me. It happened near the end of the trip, on a closed section of old Route 66. As we were searching for a place to blow up the bomb, there materialized on the horizon a lone man. As he grew larger, we saw he was on crutches. The West is full of men wandering desolate highways, a hundred miles from anywhere.We stopped. The crutches clicked against the pavement, followed by his dragging foot. Over his shoulder was a bindle. His head was nearly a globe and his frame was gaunt. He resembled a bulimic U.S. Marine. I offered grape juice and a box of granola bars."It is much appreciated," George said. "I haven't eaten in four days. You are very kind."I gave him all the other food that we had. I asked if he was hitchhiking. He shrugged. "No one stops. I don't even try."He lost his leg in a hobo accident. George had been prospecting for gold in California. He'd heard there was better mining in Arizona, and so he'd been walking for two months, making about five miles a day. We bid him farewell. George crutched off into the creosote bushes to set camp. We watched until he vanished. At the crest of a mountain between desert basins, we took the bomb out of the trunk.We weren't sure of the fuse, so to be safe, we lit a cigarette and poked it over the wick. We ran over the crest of a hill and waited. Just as we thought it might be a dud, there was a satisfying blam!George is part of the reason why journalism is not dead. There's no limit to the power of a story about a guy like George and the impact it can have. You never know who is going to see it. Most of the time, you don't know whose life is affected. Sometimes, a guy named Bruce calls. And who knows whom Bruce will influence?Anyway, we ended up with Bruce inside the dead steel mill. In that place of ghosts, rusting and studded with icicle daggers, Bruce talked about the role of the artist -- to present a truth. You put it out there and let things happen. But this is not the lesson Bruce taught me.Talk turned to what's happening to workers. I brought up the Grapes of Wrath and the part where John Steinbeck writes about tenant farmers crying they wanted to kill the people behind the bank, the enemy, but it wasn't men, it was a "monster," something ultimately amorphous. It's worse today. How do people get together to change things when the monster is even more untouchable? Bruce nodded. It's hard for people to connect to do anything. He laid a lot of blame on modern society."That's the problem: We are getting more and more isolated and we have more ways to be isolated," Bruce said. Even music is niched -- more stations are narrow-cast. Few have a format that fits his new album. I noted that few seem to be playing it. "Yeah," he said. He grew excited and said no New York City stations air it. But he grinned, seeming pleased. "I'm not in the mainstream anymore," he said, adding, "there are a lot of 20-some-year-olds at the shows, so they're getting it somehow." Music is corporate. In the current issue of Mother Jones, Bruce said it isn't the music business, "it's the money business." But he told us they cannot replicate the critical ingredient: They still need the kids practicing in a garage, the raw talent. Those kids can still say something.Bruce's observation applies to journalism: Newspapers are also the money business. But the clones still need talent, reporters who go out and ride freights, hang out with gang members, abused women, immigrants, etc. It's their money. Let them suckle on that. But it's our journalism, an interaction between a writer and a reader. It's a sacred bond. The journalist goes out and lives the story and shares that secret with the reader. This makes us all part of a bigger thing, an educated society that can counteract the marching phalanx. Even at most mediocre papers, good material can still be shoehorned in. If more mainstream newspapers copy Gannett's shorthand, alternative weeklies such as this -- which have blossomed as the daily press has gone blander -- will only grow stronger. There will always be a home for a good story, on paper, on the Internet, wherever. And even if somehow in 50 years we get our news from chips implanted in our skulls, it's still going to take old-fashioned listening, note-taking and picture-making to tell stories on that chip.