New Hooverville

[This is the original, unpolished version of "New Hooverville." I left it here as a curiosity, so people can see how the work progressed if they want to - however, the version I consider finished, and the piece I'm really proud of, can be read here under the heading "New Hooverville DX" ... though naturally, the DX (for "Deluxe") isn't actually part of the title. -- The Management.]

It was 2 a.m., but the fires outside of my trailer were already burning. I, meanwhile, struggled with my own fire, or lack thereof, my disappointingly wet matches refusing to spark and give me a proper shot at the half pack of Pall Malls I traded for earlier. With every fizzle, I felt god’s anger, not just at myself for leaving the matchbook out, but also at flighty, plain-looking girl who’d passed me the pack in exchange for the airplane glue I’d had on my person.

I tried again, to no avail. Each defeat seemed somehow her responsibility, as if the very idea of having an evening smoke would not have occurred to me, had she not provided me with the object of my addiction. I pictured her, braless in her parka, squinting at that tiny, half-rolled bottle of adhesive, not blind, but studious. My first thought was that she was keen on it for getting high; but I was new here. Such a mistake was to be expected.

Anxious and out of matches, I curse Surtr and head back outside, not entirely sure if the rising panic in my throat was in desire for a light, or a chance to swear wildly at the girl who’d done this to me. A stupid, brilliant private school beauty, just one of many with no interest in me, at all until she realized I carried art supplies, as though they were relics straight from my editor’s personal supply closet. And they were, of course, as much as I could carry, and it was the least that sad-eyed slave driver could do, after sending me out here. Go west, young man, she said, and bring back tales of the bohemian tent city. Explain to us this New Hooverville.

Four weeks later and the only thing I can say for sure is that no one in the camps likes the title “Hooverville.” The best of them of them wish it had been called “The Bush,” and hold tight to the moniker, using it not unlike a forty-five year old hitting his midlife-crisis would use "cool," so sure that with enough repetition, it will stick. A few of the more history minded among the camps appreciate the reference, of course, though even they agree that if the depression era cardboard cities were to bear the name of the man responsible – Herbert Hoover, then it is only fair that these stand in eponymous tribute to the ex-President who drove this generation into the ground.

Ah, this generation. Perhaps even that is unfair. Though New Hooverville boasts a population of upwards of 5,000 people, all of them young, from twenty to twenty-five, it is a misnomer to categorize them as an entire generation. Indeed, among their age-group, most stumbled out of college to get entry level jobs far below the status their degrees promised. And though insulted, these new adults were willing to swallow their pride, clock in, and join the real world – nine to five, or eight to seven, or even twelve to twelve, all for the compensation of paupers, and the promise of something better tomorrow. Indeed, that is likely this generation.

But that is not what the media sees – indeed, what the media, and the country at large has taken to noticing is this vocal minority, the residence of New Hooverville, called fondly by the more risqué publications “Generation Couldn’t Give a Shit.” It, like the name of the makeshift camps, is an identity everyone is still getting used to. Some here proudly claim in, emblazon it on parked vans, paint it on canvas tents, and even self-tattoo it, with borrowed ink and improvised needles or, if supplies don’t permit, any sharp object that might make the mantra permanently visible on the skin. And those I’ve met with such scar tissue have intimated to me but one regret – that perhaps a shorter phrase could have been found.

Others feel the title is just as inappropriate as the camp town’s name. “It’s easy to say we don’t care,” Shawnee Gratta, a recently graduated Political Science major claims. “People just look at us, and decide that we’re too young, and we can’t possibly be trying to make a statement. We’re just lazy.” Shawnee is one of the few citizens of New Hooverville willing to offer a quote – her background in sociology meant she was quick to see significance in my arrival. She tells me she considered journalism, after graduating, but in her last year had discovered pottery was her real passion. She wants to make sure I don’t get it wrong.

Exiting my trailer, I see her from across the way. The rain has turned the camp into a ridiculous mud pit, but Shawnee is more than able to get to me before I’ve wandered in too far without her. It is, of course, my own fault; remembering weekend getaways from my youth, I was too busy recalling the great pain and colorful language it took my father to light a fire even in a metal pit. But the water has not seemed to stop the people here. Indeed, they call it the only guarantee of New Hooverville – the campfires will burn every night. Gratta reaches me before I make a move to light a cigarette in one. She has something she wants me to see, and promises that on the way I’ll get my fix.

Traversing the camp is what you might expect – huddled masses of muddy, half-naked twenty-somethings, swearing and shivering and smiling, and yes, even making out, under quilts and parkas and torn sleeping bags, all of which have seen better days. The scene is like some sort of perverse Woodstock, hippies and hipsters and beat-wannabes standing, sitting, and shitting shoulder to shoulder among tents, burnt-out trailers [mine was provided by the publishers], and lean-tos. I look for familiar faces, but it is dark, and in the fire light even the best eyes can play tricks on you. It seems the longer I am here, the less folks I recognize. Before snubbing me completely, Ryan Sook explained it.

“No one should call this a home,” he said, eyeing me, nonetheless, like a trespasser. “We’re a half-way home, a check point, some place to stop over on your own journey.” I pause, remembering someone told me that Sook himself had been here almost three years – since New Hooverville first appeared. When I put this to him, he only grimaces.

“Look, I wasn’t here, if that’s what you’re saying. But the folks before me? They had it figured. I mean, it’s like roommates. If two can live more cheaply than one, with no threat of eviction…” He smiles. “What are they going to do, throw us all out?”

Though I’m not sure Sook knows, it was certainly discussed. I spent three weeks on Capitol Hill, listening to endless rhetoric about juvenile delinquency – ridiculous as almost no one in the camps are anything but post-grads, and public nuisance, which might have made a better case if not for the fact that they all mostly kept to themselves. And the President wasn’t about to come out against them, especially when so much of his election seemed to have hinged upon that youth vote. And vocal minority or not, the last thing anyone wanted was the National Guard busting heads and uniting the rest of America’s twenty-somethings with these art school yahoos. Though sources will go unnamed, right up until the night of the final vote on the “Public Dispersal Bill,” which ultimately failed, several high ranking officials were hoping that New Hooverville might go the way of Spahn Ranch and give DC a Sharon Tate-sized reason to get rid of these kids.

No such violence took place. Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone willing to do violence in the camps – unless it’s against themselves. One friend I’ve made here, besides Gratta, was the relatively down-to-earth Ron Twill. Ronnie caught my eye mostly for how odd he looked among the residents – baggy pants, a hooded sweatshirt, and medical bandages – wrapped tight around both hands and covering down his forearms.

“I just got down,” he said, seemingly sure anyone would understand how that connected to the boxer’s breaks in his hands. Unlike others, he didn’t mind me pressing him. “I was writing. I mean, I’ve been here about a year. Put a lot of stuff together, and had only really started sending it out.” But the rejection letters soon came, a reality of the outside world which was easy to forget in the camps. “I just sort of lost it. I hauled off and took it all out on a tree. I think we were in the emergency room all night. I felt like such a child.”

It’s a sentiment you hear often in New Hooverville. Perhaps not in so many words, perhaps not even in the negative, but this question of who is an adult, and who is a child permeates this place. One girl, who I saw more my first few days, claimed she was only here because of her lack of success in the job market, post-college. “I sort of fail at being an adult,” she said, and now she spends her days here, painting. Shawnee too is always expressing to me how she doesn’t want this place to be viewed as some kind of “collective temper tantrum.” No one is here because they don’t want to be on their own, because they don’t want to live in the adult world. They just don’t want to trade any of their passions for a place there.

Rather, they have instead chosen to trade pieces of the adult world for their passions. This vocal minority, art school graduates and Shakespeare majors, writers, and painters, and sculptures have decided if the economy of the post college world has no room for them to make a living at what they love, then in the name of their loves they will make no living. They stay here, in New Hooverville, and trade paints and booze, and drugs and food, build homemade kilns and makeshift print machines. They hide here, among friends, where financial aid dare not tread, and protect and help each other. And they go penniless, and many go without food, and yes, for the sake of necessity, so much of their art is lost, as to keep their dreams alive they must spend nights huddled around fires burning bright with fuel of canvas and turpentine. They starve here for the only reason starving artists should – principle and passion.

Shawnee eventually leads me to an overhang, where perhaps a hundred or so citizens of New Hooverville stand around a much different fire, this one handheld and emanating from a butane torch. Wielding it was an emaciated man I knew only by reputation, who everyone called “Twitch” with a concerned look on his face, as if he were very ill, and needed tending after. In this moment, he was working diligently on something I couldn’t quite see, but the crowd stood transfixed as sparks flew out from under his enclosure. This Prometheus did not seem to need coddling.

Scenes like this were not hard, and I wanted a cigarette more than I wanted to see one more monolith made of scrap iron, and then dismantled for a different project the following day. But Shawnee insisted, less that I stay, and more that I hold her hand, and we watched for hours, her occasionally looking over to me, as if to illustrate that what went on now had far greater weight than any interview New Hooverville might provide. So we stayed, far into the night, until finally the torchlight began to fade, and die. And with the finality befitting his performance, Twitch threw down his torch, and shrank, skulking off to the side.

In that moment I realized, had he wept, they might have all ran to his side. But Twitch did not, and instead crowd moved forward, like a wave towards the weak pillars of the overhang. And as all those artists, writers, failures, and deviants crested against it, and the wood twisted and shook, and folded before them, while Twitch’s masterpiece stood revealed. And there were audible gasps; and finally, Twitch cried.

It was nothing I hadn’t expected – a great ball of scrap, welded panel to panel, rusted and perfectly round. A metal monolith over a one story tall, tragic to look at, but only in the sense that the materials might well have fetched enough money to feed the entirety of New Hooverville for a few days more. And that was, of course, the point, that here they had built a new world, where when the decision came down to life or art, the choice was always the latter.

Or, at the very least, the choice was a choice, to a whole generation who thought it hadn’t been.

As morning came, Shawnee left me, feeling she’d imparted her lesson, and needing desperately to be a part of the harem that looked after the ailing Twitch. Returning to the trailer crossed my mind, but I suddenly felt dissatisfied by my assignment, my deadline, and the she-beast of an editor, breathing down my neck from thousands of miles away. So I stayed there, by their new world, and waited.

Eventually, I am rejoined by Twitch, not for company, but for the sake of his work, which several hours later he has decided is far from finished. Something to him is not quite right, and he has decided it is worth another day without food, without sleep, and he is not deterred that the rain has started again. The weather especially seems to make no difference, as if by magic the sculptor manages to relight his torch again.

Indeed, the only thing that seems to give him pause is I, your humble journalist, and we stand in silences, studying each other for a moment. Finally, I just ask.


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