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Susan Straight Headshot

On the American Porch

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Ground Zero is the term usually used to locate the epicenter of an explosion or earthquake, as in the World Trade Center and its leveling. Can the term be used to describe the place where an implosion occurs, where soil meets interior combustion? Right now, as our economy falls apart again, I think of The American Porch as this place.

Depression, recession - each talking face on the television warns of one or the other, and so finally my youngest daughter, who just turned thirteen, asked, "What's the difference?"

During these weeks of politics and presidential candidates, and the everpresent obsession with Governor Sarah Palin and how she is meant to represent the ordinary American in ways other candidates do not, has anyone thought about how we're looking to kids? All these kids are feeling the anxiety as keenly as many parents, since they have to hear doom and gloom reports hourly on the radio, on TV, and especially on the Internet. The stock market is crashing! (It doesn't help that my mother, who used to work for Citigroup, is fond of calling on my birthday, Oct 19, and reminding me that it will always mean Black Monday to her.) The state of California is in dire condition, with our governor calling for a $7 billion loan just to able to pay educators and state workers - people like me (I loved getting those emails that we might receive only minimum wage in September if our legislature didn't pass a budget) and my neighbors across the street - he's a principal for an adult education school, a school which stayed closed all summer because of budget cuts. His wife, our Neighborhood Watch block captain, the woman you go to for everything because she stays home to care for her autistic son, told me that they can't make their house payment this month.

On Saturday, when Governor Palin came to southern California, to a rally at a tennis stadium in Carson, where she talked about women supporting women, and went for the joke every time, people on my block were insulted.

While Ms. Palin was speaking, my neighbor was sitting in her driveway selling things she loved, things I'd seen in her house - her collection of antique vases, her daughter's theatre costumes, and many of her husband's shoes. She apologized to me, because we'd once had another neighbor who survived for a year with a "perpetual" yard sale; in fact, we both used to donate things to that woman, who eventually lost her house.

"I just don't know what else to do," my neighbor told me, as another car pulled up and people peered down the driveway at the things arranged on tables.

**

As politicians vie to prove who cares more about "Main Street," and Governor Palin regales the nation with anecdotes about small town America, we in this part of the world are bemused. "Joe Six-Pack?" my youngest said. "Someone who drinks a six-pack every night? That's a good thing?"

"Cousin ___ drinks a twelve-pack every night," my middle daughter said. "That must be better."

"Maybe she means abs," I said. "Like she represents the hard worker at the gym."

We joke because that's how we get by - that and taking are of each other. At the store, we ran into Cousin T, who hasn't had a car in several years. She's a home health care aide with five grown kids and six grandkids. When we gave her a ride, and bailout news was on the car radio, she told me her son had said, "Wow, Mom, all those millionaires are pretty worried about losing their money," with his most serious straight face, and then they both started laughing. We joked about her mother, sister to my father-in-law, and the stories we'd always heard about the Depression. "Remember what black folks used to say," she said. "Depression? We had a Depression? I didn't even notice."

This week was bad, and it came time for our family legends have to be told again, the stories of shot and eaten squirrels, desperation, and siphons.

This week, I cooked for my closest friend and neighbor, whose mother-in-law had major surgery. Wearing my ancient apron and juggling potholders, I told my youngest that I would be right back. Since she turned thirteen, and her sisters taught her about YouTube, she likes to be home and independent at night. I didn't even take my phone, since I was only driving four blocks away.

Things felt desperate and unsettled at my friend's; we talked for fifteen minutes about the election, about our kids' educations, about healthcare. Her mother-in-law had a leg amputated from diabetes. We are both single mothers with three teenagers each. Her husband passed away from a brain tumor twelve years ago, the same year I was divorced, the same year we began to share meals. She lives across the street from the house where she grew up; I live three blocks from the hospital where I was born.

When I came home, parked in front of my house was a battered small truck with an American flag planted in a plastic laundry basket full of clothes. I got out and studied the truck. Full of clothes, household items, metal junk. Arizona license plates. Camouflage clothes. An Iraq war vet? But an IE baseball cap on the dash.

Inland Empire. My native county of Riverside, butt of many jokes about smog, methamphetamine, Blink 182, the 909, and our recent bill to limit roosters in yards. But at this moment, we're also the fourth highest in the nation for foreclosures, having previously been number one. I hate that we're frequently number one in newsworthy items like that, but I love my home.

Who was this guy? I walked toward the front door and my daughter tumbled outside, crying hysterically, her face swollen, clutching the old black cordless phone from Target. I knew it was dead because about thirty telemarketers had called that day, since I've apparently forgotten to re-do something vital about not-calling, and I'd left the phone off the base.

"There was a man!" she cried. "He kept knocking and knocking and he wouldn't go away. He saw me on the couch, and he was scratching at the door. Scratching. I tried to call 911 and the phone was dead."

The heavy old door has five panes of glass. She said he was young, white, bald, with a jacket, and he'd gone down the street. "Maybe he ran out of gas," I said. I sent her inside and got my neighbor, the block captain, along with our other neighbors, two burly men across the street, a retired military man and his son. We walked the street looking for him, and our block captain called the police. Then a shirtless, disoriented man walked past us with a gas siphon dangling from his hand, muttering and angry. But he was about fifty.

The patrol car showed up about five minutes later, and the officer headed down the avenue in the direction of the walking man. "If this guy comes back, don't approach him," the officer said. "Call us." He gave my apron and potholders a bemused glance. Yeah. I didn't look too official.

My high school senior came home from basketball practice. We told her the story, and then remained in the dark watching television news, hoping the guy wouldn't come back. Big mistake. Depression, recession, bailouts, President Bush lecturing us sternly, and me thinking, OK, I've lived in the same small hundred-year-old house for twenty years, drive a fifteen year old van. The TV we're watching is a garage rescue from my ex-husband, since ours broke in June. Our long dead-end street, which a former neighbor used to call "Leave it to Beaver on mescaline," has over two decades been up and down. We're really down now, with for sale signs everywhere, and two repos boarded up. At the end of the block, a slumlord owner has a rent house with no running water or electricity, and he has an Iraq war vet living in it under the pretense of "fixing it up."

Hmmm. Bailout.

Then the big question came from my seventeen-year-old. "Wait, Mom, how do you know what a siphon is?"

I had to re-tell a few of the legends of our recessions. Their father and I were high school sweethearts in the 1970s, married in 1983, divorced in 1996, and he still comes by the house nearly every day. We've lived here in Riverside all our lives except for college. In fact, the first op-ed piece I ever wrote, published by the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner when I was twenty-one, was about the deep recession that had gripped the Inland Empire back in 1981. My then-fiancée was looking for work, and saw an ad for "Security Guard - White Only." Yeah. Just a little illegal, insulting, and illustrative - that's what I wrote about. Six of his family members had been laid off from Kaiser Steel and other manufacturing jobs that year.

I worked at a Mobil station in 1979, I'd told the girls, back when we had a gas crisis that necessitated "Odd-Even Plate Days." Plenty of people used siphons to steal gas.

"Wait - what?" they said.

Yeah - the concept that you could only get gas on days when your plate was right was astonishing to them. Even more astonishing was how often people tried to steal gas from the station (the reason for Pay Before You Pump, another lovely invention of my era) and I yelled and pointed while my manager leapt onto their hoods with his baseball bat and smashed their windshields.

Good times, as my girls like to say.

We've told our three daughters these stories for years. In our early married life, we had broken down cars, furnished our apartment with a couch and mattress and table we found on the street, and lived through "the Mild Recession" of 1990-91 and 2000-2001. In our area, those were accompanied by "The Crack Wars" and "The Methamphetamine Explosions," when we were at the epicenter of those wonderful drug manufacturing and distribution areas.

They lived a few of those stories. "That's when you and Daddy and cousin Nygia used to have to bring trash cans and hoses inside, right?"

Yup. People would steal anything from your yard, car, porch, garage, or school. Along with our neighbors, we lost bicycles, strollers, garden sheds, sprinklers, shovels, sunglasses left on the porch. Thieves dug out sago palms from gardens. They stole trashcans and painted over the address numbers people had spray painted to deter them.

But this desperation seemed inevitable and inescapable to us, partly because our area of the nation has often suffered hard. This is the land of Route 66, after all, populated with many Dust Bowl refugees. And partly because we'd grown up with little, and heard worse legends from our own parents. My father-in-law's family of six children nearly starved with his own father died young and his mother was hospitalized for various illnesses relating to malnutrition. He and his brothers used to tell us there wasn't a squirrel left in Oklahoma by the time the siblings were brought to Los Angeles. "We'd eaten every one of them," he liked to say. "We shot and ate anything."

My mother-in-law's mother was so destitute and her life so transient that her own history remained secret, within her, and no one ever knew where her third of four daughters was born - Mississippi, Arkansas, or California.

My own mother survived privations during World War II in Switzerland, and my natural father grew up on desolate sheep ranches during the Depression. Some of the few stories he would tell me of his childhood involve cattle who ate cactus, watching hundreds of sheep dying of starvation, and surviving himself on old mutton.

**

Last night my youngest didn't want to be left alone when I went to the public library. She's convinced that the man, or someone else equally desperate, will come back. Today I cleaned out a pile of magazines and found The Atlantic from December 2007, when the articles are revealing: one is about how homeownership for all might not be a good idea, and the cover story is about Barack Obama and whether he'd make it as a candidate. John McCain is mentioned in two lines. The economy is mentioned a few times, but most of the piece focused on perception, Boomers, religion, and Iraq.

Then I looked up a CNBC.com report about recessions. It's funny, how in August 2007. when it was published, the author quotes Ben Bernanke forecasting "moderate" growth of 2.5% in the Gross Domestic Product that year, and a slight expansion in 2008. Mortgage rates are mentioned as a plus, since fixed-rate mortgage interest had gone down.

Uh-huh. "Housing did not lead the economy into the last recession in 2001," the article states.

The most fascinating part was realizing how impossible it is to look at economic recession with a general glance - at least, it's impossible for someone like me, who lives somewhere like this. The title: "Recessions: A History Lesson on How Few We've Had." The list during my cognizant lifetime (I was born in 1960 - not a boomer, really, but I'll get all that crap), with dates and durations:
Nov 1973 - March 1975 16 months
Jan 1980 - July 1980 6 months
July 1981 - Nov 1982 6 months

Wait - what? How convenient. Here, on the American Porch, it's not so easy to proclaim that something was all better for a year, and then it wasn't again. I don't remember the year between those last two as particularly rosy. That was when everyone here was laid off with several manufacturing plants closed, including the aforementioned Kaiser Steel, which is now owned by China, by the way.

That led me to think of how arbitrary all this feels to me, even now, and how truly arbitrary it must feel to my kids, who already know we're leaving them huge bills.

Here in the Inland Empire, and elsewhere in the nation, metal theft has gone crazy. Thieves are stealing catalytic converters from parked cars, stealing brass plaques from headstones and monuments, faucets and bushings from fire hydrants, copper wire from schools and parks (a local ballfield had to cancel baseball games this summer because thieves stole the wiring from the lights, and a local school had no AC for awhile because of theft of wiring). For the past two months, we've had an epidemic here of thieves stripping foreclosed homes, identifying them by Bank-Owned signs in the dead lawns. Water heaters, copper pipes, electrical equipment - all torn from walls and floors, homes destroyed.

The thieves are selling the metal to China. Where they're building factories. The truck parked in front of my house that night had in the back, along with the flag and the laundry baskets, two boxes of random metal parts.

But how do you steal gas with a siphon?" my girls asked that night, and I told them. They regarded me incredulously, a familiar look. I've had a good job for twenty years, but their father and I have a lot of not-good stories. Our daughters are mostly comfortable, though lately, they've been very worried about being able to go to college like my eldest, whose tuition bill I paid last week using much of my savings, since her small college fund is, of course, shrinking like water on the sidewalk here in southern California. My oldest two share a 1994 Honda. Gas has been hurting them a lot.

It was late, and we stood in the hallway, where my youngest again showed us how she'd held the phone, and looked out at the man, and she was able to laugh now that what really set her off was the commercial for "Quarantine," featuring screaming girls and unknown assailants. Then I heard screeching, and I ran out to the porch to see the young man peeling out angrily from the curb.

He wasn't from around here, because he raced all the way to the end of the street and then we heard more screeching, and he revved the ragged misfiring engine and sped toward us. All my neighbors were on their porches, watching now, and he shouted something as he peeled rubber around the corner. He'd found gas somewhere, and the flag flapped wildly in the wind.


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