[This is the working "final" draft of New Hooverville. To see the original, go here. A lot has changed and I'm feeling pretty good about where it is now, but I still welcome feedback, either here in the comments section, or you can e-mail me at email@example.com.]
It is 2 a.m. and raining, but the fires outside my trailer are still burning. They call it the only guarantee here – that the campfires will always burn, every night, and all night long.
I envy their resolve, and struggle at starting a fire of my own, though on a much smaller scale. The half pack of Pall Malls I traded for earlier look beyond tantalizing, but my disappointingly wet matches refuse to bless me with even a single spark, and with every fizzle I feel God’s wrath and anger. Not just at myself, of course, for leaving the matchbook out, but also toward the flighty, pale-skinned girl who’d passed me the pack in exchange for the airplane glue I’d had on my person. The way she’d eyed that half-rolled bottle of adhesive, as if seeing some hidden potential, made me think she was keen on it for getting high. But I was new here then, and such mistakes were to be expected.
Giving up on the matches, I head outside, feeling as though I had been fleeced, even if all sane logic assured me this not that girl’s fault. She was without guile, a silly but brilliant private school beauty, just one of many here who’d had no interest in me until the revelation that I carried art supplies and stationary, all pilfered from my editor’s personal supply closet in an act of subordinate reprisal. It was the least that sad-eyed slave driver could do after sending me here, to uncover the great that was the bohemian tent city. “Go west, young man,” she had said, looking at me like an intermediary, thinking of this place like some commodity, “Bring back tales of this New Hooverville.” No, I wasn’t angry at that private school girl – I was projecting.
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 wish it had been called “The Bush,” and hold tight to the moniker, but it’s not heard often on the outside. 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 to ground.
Ah, this generation. Perhaps even that is unfair. Though New Hooverville boasts a population upwards of several hundred, all of them young, in their early-to-mid-twenties, it is a misnomer to categorize them as an entire generation. Indeed, among their age-group, many if not most stumbled out of college and took entry-level jobs far below the status their degrees had 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 noon to midnight, all for the compensation of paupers and the possibility of something better tomorrow. That is more likely an accurate depiction of this generation.
But that is not what the Media see. What the Media and the country at large has taken to noticing are these dissenters, this vocal minority, the residents of New Hooverville, or as it is so fondly called 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 it, 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 a single regret – that perhaps a shorter phrase could have been found.
Others feel the title is just as inappropriate as the camp town’s name. Shawnee Gratta is a recent graduate, and one of the few citizens of New Hooverville willing to offer a quote without badgering. “It’s easy to say we don’t care. That we’re too young, too stubborn, too jaded. That we can’t possibly be trying to make a statement. Or worse, that we’re just shiftless, and lazy.” Shawnee is a newer resident, but her former major in political science [shifted in her senior year, when she discovered pottery] left her unchallenged as the Hooverville’s spokesperson. She was quick to latch on to me, as much as she could to an outsider, claiming some significance in my arrival. It’s important to her that I don’t get it wrong.
The scene is like some sort of perverse Woodstock, the nigh-constant rain reducing the camp into a hell-blown mud pit, with hippies and hipsters and beat-wannabes standing, sitting, and shitting shoulder to shoulder among tents, lean-tos, and burnt-out trailers [mine was provided by the publishers, but here it’s more of a Mark of Cain than a journalistic perk]. Traversing the camp is what you might expect – huddled masses of muddy, half-naked 20-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.
Tonight, it is darker than usual, and in the fire-light even the most dependable eyes can play tricks on you. It is easy to get turned around here, but Shawnee reaches me before I’ve wandered too far in without her. She has something she wants me to see, and promises I’ll get my fix on the way.
On that way, I try to distract myself by looking for familiar faces, but it seems the longer I am here, the fewer I recognize. Before snubbing me completely, Ryan Sook, rumored to be one of the longest tenants of New Hooverville, tried to explain:
“No one should call this a home,” he said, eyeing me, nonetheless, like a trespasser. “We’re a half-way house, a check point, some place to stop over on your own journey.” Still, it’s hard to believe things are as temporary as Sook says – especially from someone so quick stress the convenience and community of the arrangement. “They’ll spin it lots of ways, but ultimately, it’s like roommates. Two living as cheaply as one.” He smiles, an uncomfortable gesture when directed at me. “And what are they going to do, throw us all out?”
I’m uncertain how much Sook knows, how much information gets in, but in Washington, that very thing had just recently been discussed. Before my pilgrimage here, I spent three weeks on Capitol Hill, listening to endless rhetoric about juvenile delinquency [ridiculous, as most in the camps were post-grads] and public nuisance, laughable 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 their votes – the youth movement.
He wasn’t alone. Whether only a vocal minority or not, the last thing anyone in DC wanted was the National Guard busting heads and uniting the rest of America’s disaffected youth with these art school yahoos. Mostly. 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 Altamont, or even better, Spahn Ranch, thus giving Congress a Sharon Tate-sized reason to get rid of these kids. And like with the name of the camp, those watching and commentating seemed to only be showing their age.
Meanwhile no such violence took place. Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone willing to do violence in the camps – unless it’s against their selves, with frustrated self-flagellation a fairly common occurrence. It was what drew me to the otherwise 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 and covering both 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 a few months. Put a lot of stuff together in the time, and had only really started sending it out.” But the rejection letters soon came, a reality of the outside world that was easy to forget in the camps. “I sort of lost it. What I mean – 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 screw up – not as a writer, not as a creative, just at being an adult.”
It’s a sentiment echoed often in New Hooverville. One girl, nameless, whom 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 a grown-up. So now, I paint.” 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’re just not sure how, not without trading their passions for a place there.
Rather, they have decided if the 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, among friends, where financial aid dare not tread, away from debt, and parents, and the future. They 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 sacrificed to keep dream alive, the secret of their ever-burning fires bright from the fuel of canvas and turpentine. But that, to them, is their own sacrifice to make, and not one put upon them by others. They starve here for the only reason starving artists should – for their principles, and their passions.
Eventually Shawnee and I come to an overhang, where 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 is an emaciated man I knew only by reputation, whom everyone called “Twitch” with such a look of concern on their faces, as if he were very ill and needed tending. And with good reason, though tonight he seemed able-bodied, even hardy, from working diligently on whatever we couldn’t yet quite see. Vulcan made flesh, on background of sparks which flew from his enclosure.
A month here and scenes like this had become commonplace to me, and I needed a cigarette more than I needed to see one more sculpture forged from trash only to be dismantled the following day. But Shawnee insisted, less that I stay, and more that I stay with her, and hold her hand – a bold gesture as a part of this community, to so intimately and publicly embrace an outsider. Perhaps her days here are numbered and my coming in has signaled to her that someone needs to venture out, to spread the word of what’s been started here. But tonight there was just Twitch and his entourage – and Shawnee, looking over to me as if to illustrate that what went on now had far greater weight than any byline New Hooverville might provide me or my editor. And as if with this realization, Twitch threw down his torch with a finality befitting his performance, and shrank back, enfeebled again, skulking off to the side.
The ratio had shifted heavily female without me noticing, and there was an audible shudder with his conclusion. In that moment I realized, had he wept or fallen, they might have all run to his side. But Twitch did not, and when sure of this fact the crowd shifted forward, like a wave, bearing down toward 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, Twitch’s masterpiece stood revealed. And there were gasps; and finally, Twitch cried.
The sculpture itself was nothing I hadn’t expected, and yet somehow I felt touched, moved by the great rusted ball of iron scrap and copper wire standing before me – a perfectly round metal monolith, just under a story tall. It was tragic to look at, if only because the materials might well have fetched enough money to feed the entirety of New Hooverville for a few days more. But that was, of course, the point, that here they had built a new world, a cobbled together planetoid that did not turn because it was not made to, where if they wanted to choose life or art, there was always time to try both. Where the choice was a choice, to a whole generation who thought it hadn’t been.
Shawnee left me with the morning, no doubt feeling she’d imparted her lesson, and maybe wanting, one last time, 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 with my assignment and the demands of my editor, breathing down my neck in the manner she liked best – from thousands of miles away, wielding the threat of my looming deadline. Because I, like many, had been here too long, and the only resistance I could think to muster was to stay just a little while longer.
Eventually, I am rejoined not by Shawnee, but by Twitch. He is not here for company, but has decided after only a few hours of rest that something is not quite right, that despite his theatrics he has not yet finished, and that another day without food, without sleep, without the amenities he would not have any way is ahead of him, and he will not be deterred by this, nor the fact that the rain has started up again. As if by magic the sculptor relights his wet torch, and in the absence of his harem he does not seem to need coddling.
The only thing that truly seems to give him pause is I, your humble journalist, standing silently transfixed by his butane fire. He measures me as though I might take it from him, seeing a want in my posture I had forgotten was there, a yearning in my staring, unprotected eyes. I am surprised to see the sudden recognition on his face; I am more surprised when he finally shrugs, and asks: