Wonder Bread, New York City Real Estate,
And The Road To Proto-Fascism
by Phil Rockstroh
(Swans - April 11, 2005) Signposts can lie. Names can be deceptive. And these everyday -- deceptively trivial -- misapprehensions can diminish our lives.
A sampling of such:
The Manhattan neighborhood where I reside, the East Village, is a misnomer...its name was created by real estate hustlers...who, acting on the presumption that the marketing of the area, located north of Houston Street and east of Second Avenue, known previously as the northern section of The Lower East Side, or The Alphabets -- or just simply DON'T GO THERE -- at the time of its renaming, was undergoing a so-called "process of renovation" -- and the profitability (is that an actual word?) of the enterprise would be enhanced by said name change -- because the connotations of the name The Lower East would have had a tendency to scare off the sort of tenants who had the means to afford the jacked-up rents for the former tenement apartments that comprise a large percent of the area. The marketing move was made to attract faux hipster careerists and radical-until-daddy-takes-way-his-platinum-card Trust-Fundafarians whose pretensions and vanities led them to believe the designation "Village" invoked an artistic cachet to their corporate-controlled lives and who could not tolerate the risk and squalor inherent to the kind of neighborhoods that had been forsaken by all but poor working families, squatters, drug addicts, the mentally ill, non-conformists, and those renegade creative types who are too busy creating the future of art, music, and poetry to be much concerned with the risks of the area and the attendant low status of their address held among the uptown trendies.
For the next case in point, I'll travel southward and back in time, a number of decades.
I was born in the Deep South, industrial city of Birmingham, Alabama...another example of a place in possession of a deceptive name.
In this case, the causal fraud exists on two levels.
One: Birmingham was created by steel and coal barons from Pittsburgh, who, well aware of the worldwide perception of American southerners as being as dumb as dirt, backwoods, genetic retreads, too ignorant to hit the ground with their own piss, yokels -- hence, they christened their colonial creation with the name Birmingham, to give it a proper "city of industry" cachet...then the bloodsucking, Yankee bastards (I mean, visionary captains of capitalism) who were known in Birmingham as the "Big Mules" went about the business of exploiting (of course, they would say...giving gainful employment to) every dumb as dirt, backwoods, genetic retread, too ignorant to hit the ground with his own piss, yokel, who had the physical stamina and motor skills required to sacrifice their bodies and souls to the machine age gods of greed and death who ruled the pantheon of the industrial age (whom we Americans have never ceased to worship and give blood sacrifice to, up to this day).
Two: Which I'll address in the form of a question for the proud citizens of the state of Alabama, "The Heart of Dixie," Black Spleen to the Bilious World. What kind of a proper European name is "Alabama," in the first place? -- Because when the name is spoken aloud, far too many vowels tumble from one's tongue for the name to have been of civilized Anglo-Saxon derivation. What's that you say? It's an Injun' name. Huh? So then...where are those folks who gave your sweet home Alabama its name, today? That's not important now, you answer. That was a long time ago. What's in a name? -- That which we call genocide by any other name would smell as rank.
When my family left Birmingham, we moved to Atlanta, another city that bore a contrived name and that was (and remains) inhabited by a citizenry whose (for the most part) personal styles and cultural sentiments suit Atlanta's phony name perfectly. Whereas Birmingham's faux name was meant to evoke an aura of industry, Atlanta's was meant to conjure an image of the ancient grandeur of some great city of antiquity. Call it -- Classical Age Cracker.
The lives, fates, and legacy of two famous residence of the city, Blind Willie McTell and Margaret Mitchell, both of whom lived there during intervals of the first half of the twentieth century, I believe, are axiomatic of the cultural confabulation and communal delusions that Atlantans call a way of life.
I first heard the music of Blind Willie McTell in the mid nineteen-sixties, upon the occasions that my father brought me along with him when he visited friends of his who comprised about the half dozen members of Atlanta's "beatnik" community.
They were flopped in a run-down, mafia-owned building at the intersection of Peachtree and 10th...bizarrely enough -- in the building that contained the apartment that Margaret Mitchell had christened "The Dump" -- the location where she had conceived and written Gone With The Wind.
The building was located a short distance from where, according to local bohemian (all seven of them) lore had it, that an aging, increasingly disconsolate from poverty, racism, and his own obscurity, McTell used to busk for change from redneck Babbits and country-come-to-town parvenus, shortly before he gave up playing the blues and took up lay preaching and gospel music. The apartment buildings had a live-in manager, the recently deceased Bud Foote, a professor at Georgia Tech., author, poet, and all around Beat polymath...who played a half dozen or more musical instruments and whose turntable spun rare and exquisite tunes. It was there I first heard the work of Mctell and other Blues, Folk, and Jazz greats.
The Margaret Mitchell House (as it is now called by the Atlanta Tourism Board, who conveniently ignore the fact the building has thrice burned to the ground -- only to be rebuild by the city -- and doesn't, presently, in any way, shape, or form resemble the original structure in which the epic racist, bodice-ripper Gone With The Wind, was hallucinated and inflicted on the page) is now a city landmark.
Not far down the road exists a bar named Blind Willy's, a place frequented by southern-style yuppies and suburban rednecks, most of whom being the sort who, had they lived in McTell's era, would have ignored or spat upon him when he was busking on Ponce De Leon Avenue.
The irony shields of the city of Atlanta are impenetrable when there are dollars to be made from the creation of a safe, business-friendly false mythology out of the stuff of the city's racist and tawdry history.
Perhaps if we were to take a closer examination of these sorts of everyday misperceptions, distortions, and lies -- that, over time, grow into cultural delusions -- it would reveal a great deal about Atlanta, as well as, much about the contemporary South, and present day America.
When I wrote of these matters to an expat friend, one Mr. John Steppling, currently a resident of Krakow, Poland, he wrote back saying that as a child in the Eisenhower era, his grade school had taken a field trip to a Wonderbread Factory...and he mused that perhaps Americans would not spend their live in such benumbed, stressed-out, perpetually distracted obliviousness to realities of the larger world -- if all school children were, instead, required to take field trips to the City Morgue.
And I thought: How right and perfect for that era -- a Wonder Bread factory and its product -- a bland, bleached soft dough facsimile of bread that had been processed (read: industrially tortured) until it losses its texture, taste, as well as, most of its nutrients -- but nevertheless, though a triumph of marketing, was sold (read: cunningly lied about) to a generation of post War World II mothers, bamboozling them into believing that they were providing their baloney-breathed brats with essential nutrients. And those Baby Boom brats were bamboozled into believing that this is what bread actually was. All and all, providing a nearly perfect metaphor for the incipient proto-fascistic corporate blandness of the early Post War years.
What would be the equivalent of such a field trip, nowadays?
Maybe, a field trip to a Big Pharma plant that manufactures Ritalin?
Is it possible for some scion of the corporate state to wail-out the blues of the present era...for some bluesman born of the hybrid lawn-seeded soil of our nation of vast suburban subdivisions and weaned on its pharmacological subsistence crops -- perhaps going by the moniker Medicated Willie McMansion -- to sing out, "I got the medication blues/ from my iPod head to my sweatshop-shod shoes..."
But more likely, the progeny of Margaret Mitchell, now news writers and producers at CNN, will continue to create the narrative of the present era -- one that is about as accurate as the one their forbearer, Miss Mitchell, confabulated about the Civil War era American South within the pages of Gone With The Wind -- both narratives being vain, shallow, narcissistic, self-serving spectaculars -- inane, melodramatic mélanges comprised of cultural clichés and casuistry, soul-defying rationalizations, and pulp novel plot devices that mask the realities of brutal classism, blood drenched racism, and wars waged on behalf of a corrupt ruling class.
So where does this leave us? Are we utterly defenseless against this pervasive and pernicious narrative that diminishes the world? I don't believe so -- if, that is IF, we: Question everything. From street signs to sacred assumptions. From the cant of local boosterism to the hagiography of dead popes...if we face down and call out those everyday, soul-numbing lies that begin the process of acceptance of -- hence complicity in -- so much the preventable tragedy that has come to define our times.