A Dime-Store Apocalypse

Since anyone who’s wandered this far into Dogtown already knows that I’m less than optimistic about the future of the United States, and knows how I came to be that way, I don’t suppose it would do my arguments any harm to admit that I’m not as confident in them as it might seem — certainly not as confident as, say, William Kristol is in his. I know very well that there are optimists on the left who look at the same evidence I do and come to very different conclusions. Even though I disagree with them, I don’t ignore them. I read Krugman as well as Chomsky, and I listen to enthusiastic Organizing for America volunteers when they attempt to make a plausible case for their enthusiasm. Yes, I still think that the country is headed in the wrong direction, but I try not to demand that others share my misgivings, or foreclose the possibility, however remote it may seem to me at this point, that we may yet find a way to set things right.

Ours is a country of 300-odd million, after all, with immense, if not limitless resources, and a history of re-inventing itself as the need arises, even when the terrible cost of that reinvention is obvious at the outset to almost everyone likely to be involved in bringing it to pass. Why bet against all of that?

I don’t. What I do bet against is the idea that the superiority of our own age will allow us, unlike our less fortunate ancestors, to avoid breaking any crockery in the process. One of the advantages of being old at this moment in history is that being old makes it easier to see that the stability of the United States and the global Pax Americana in which I and my contemporaries grew up has for the most part been an illusion. Even the parts of it which were demonstrably real, such as our unprecedented domestic prosperity, were also indisputably the consequence of a unique set of political and economic circumstances which were — and are — fundamentally unsustainable.

Hardly anyone in the governing or managerial classes of the United States believes this. They argue, as people in power always argue, that their own success is evidence of a certain permanence in the world that they govern. Malthus believed that we would all starve to death, they argue, and he was wrong. The atomic scientists who put that famous clock on the cover of their Bulletin believed us to be facing a nuclear Armageddon, and they were wrong. Perhaps the peak oil, global warming, and species extinction doomsayers are also wrong.

Perhaps. I don’t consider myself a Nostradamus or a Cassandra, but you don’t have to be either to be aware that our rulers are by definition the custodians of the status quo. Whatever their virtues or vices, even the most rational of them have steadfastly opposed any substantive changes in the institutions which they currently control, and have refused under any circumstances to concede their own impermanence as a class. They seem to have forgotten that the more brittle a thing is, the more easily it can be broken. They wouldn’t think of asking themselves why the Roman Church still has popes, but France no longer has a king. Mind you, I don’t expect them to be anything other than they are, but I see no reason not to point out that, as a class, they’ve never, ever been the ones to ask what the future will bring.

150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln spoke clearly to anyone who would listen about what was coming, and what it was likely to cost, long before anyone else accepted it as inevitable. When it did finally come, his foresight had helped him to acquire the power to do something about it. We have yet to find our Lincoln. He may very well be waiting in the wings somewhere, however unlikely it may seem at the moment. I certainly don’t know, and if anyone else does, he’s been keeping the knowledge to himself. The one thing I do know is that we ought not to look for our deliverance to any of our current elected officials, nor to any of our judges, generals, envoys, think-tank pundits, or malefactors of great wealth. To all intents and purposes, we are — and most likely will remain — on our own.

Still, the optimists are right about one thing. Whether our own Lincoln is on his way or not, Jeremiahs are a dime a dozen these days, at least on the Internet. Having had my say, and added my own sour note to the chorus, I have to admit that it can’t do much harm to look at ideas and enterprises which work against the current darkness, and attempt to assess what, if anything, we might expect from them. Hoping these days may seem a far drearier, and far less audacious task than prophecy, but when all is said and done, the future has its own devices. While none of them is likely to match the elegance of our rhetoric, neither do they have anything to fear from our prophecy. If that thought doesn’t always inspire hope, it ought at least to counsel a little humility.

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When I was seven or eight, my grandmother would often take me shopping with her on Saturday mornings. No matter where we went, or what she bought, she always made sure that at the end of the outing we found ourselves at Woolworths. It was just about my favorite place on earth at the time, not only for the sights and the smells — the candy and popcorn mixed in with perfume and soap — but also because of the way its treasures were displayed. The slanted display cases, open at the top, with glass partitions between each item, and prices and descriptions on little metal-rimmed paper flags sticking up above them were at just the right height for me. I could not only look, but touch — I could pick things up and examine them, look at the prices, count my money, and make my choices without attracting any attention from adults, unless I dropped something, or needed them to answer my questions.

And what treasures were there to be examined — wax mustaches and lips, glossy black and red, tiny little wax bottles filled with sweet syrup you could bite the top off and drain in a single sip, paper packets of sour, fruit-flavored powder, row upon row of lithographed tin toys from Japan, which either shot sparks or rolled around in circles when wound with a key, or both. Choosing among them was always difficult, even when I had enough nickels, dimes and quarters to make sure that I’d go home happy no matter what choices I made.

There was also the lunch counter, invariably our final stop of the day. I’d perch myself on the stool next to my grandmother’s, and the paper shopping bags gathered in a circle on the floor under her, and order what I always ordered, a pimento-cheese sandwich on white bread, with a handful of potato chips — not a bag, a handful — accompanied by a soda in one of those classic flared glasses with the Coca-Cola logo around the middle, and two straws. I’d savor the tangy cheese, blow bubbles in the glass with one of the straws (the other was always kept for later) and watch the orange juice fountain, or try to figure out what kinds of pies were in the glass case at the end of the counter. It was a simple paradise, this — a dime store, and an indulgent grandmother — but I’ve never found another to equal it.

Twenty-five years later, when it came time to take a child of my own on weekend excursions, the dime-store paradise of my childhood had vanished. Woolworths was still in business, but only just, so my daughter and I found ourselves playing Pac-Man in noisy video-game parlors, visiting the toy store at the shopping mall, and eating lunch in a local hamburger palace already threatened by a McDonalds and a Taco Bell less than a block away. Raising children doesn’t ordinarily leave you much time for nostalgia, but these dismal replacements for the remembered happiness of long-ago Saturdays with my grandmother often depressed me, and made me wonder if my eight year-old daughter might one day come to blame me for the poverty of her childhood experiences.

Ah, earnest parenthood. Earnestness in general. A recent conversation with my now grown daughter revealed that her memories of our Saturdays together aren’t so different from my own memories of those Saturdays many years before with my grandmother. As it turns out, the dime-store apocalypse of my parental fears was part of a set of cultural references which, for all of my reliance on them, have simply been replaced by others, just as my daughter and her generation will inevitably replace me.

It would be nice to think that every apocalyptic scenario is as inconsequential as the disappearance of Woolworths. Whether it is or not, contemplating such a thing in the abstract can be as misleading as reflecting on a vanished paradise. The future belongs to those who’ll inhabit it, and whatever else you believe, it would be foolish to believe that they aren’t at least as well-equipped to confront what they’ll face as those of us who’ve already had our wrestle with things now past and gone. As Bob Dylan once said: …he not busy being born is busy dying. What he didn’t say is that it’s often difficult to tell which is which, something that everyone who writes about weighty matters like End Times ought to keep in mind. In my own future, brief as it may turn out to be, I intend to do exactly that.

10 Comments

  1. cocktailhag says:

    My grandmother, Etta, took me to Woolworth’s too, and when I was old enough to go on my own, I liked it even better, because Etta was too congenitally cheap to let me buy anything, even if I had my own money. The butter toffee peanuts or KarmelKorn were better elsewhere, but Woolworth’s was the place for Swedish Fish, and there were always little tchotchkes I could afford. It’s now a Dollar Store, and I imagine it stocks the modern equivalents of the things Woolworth’s sold, but I’ve never walked in, because it would be too sad. I’m certain that the lunch counter and the pet department, my favorites, are long gone.

  2. RMP says:

    Wonderful post. Having spent a lot of time with youth in the inner-city of Chicago and after that my grand children, I do have faith that they will do a better job than we mature types have done. We are leaving them an incredible challenge. They have far better technological tools than we had. They medically can live a far longer time. The increasing population and diminishing resources not too mention wars, floods and droughts can only be handled if the world learns to work together. There isn’t much chance for that to happen, but it is possible. You’re absolutely right that the unknowns that we can’t presently conceive of will be the real deal breakers.

    • William Timberman says:

      Thanks, RMP. Yeah, we’ve left the kids a mixed legacy. What haunts me, of course, and many other commenters of our generation, even those far more accomplished and far higher up the food chain than either of us, is that genuine apocalypses do happen. The fact that we haven’t known any of the people who’ve suffered them, except for the occasional ancient with a tattooed forearm, or a friend who was never quite right after Viet Nam, is small comfort.

      We have a lot to be proud of, but none of it is enough to engender a sense of complacency when we look at just how stuck our leaders are. The smartest of them have outsmarted only themselves, and are now trapped in the dysfunctional system which they themselves have created, as much so as we are.

      The force necessary to break the logjam in Washington will have to come from outside the city, and from minds that haven’t been acclimated to the insanity inside the Beltway, of that much I’m sure. What it will look like I have no idea, nor do I know how long we’ve got before it arrives. It’s hard not to fear the worst, though, when you realize that none of the people who should be leading the search for solutions have any clue about the peril they’ve put us all in.

      That’s why I want to go have a look for myself.

  3. Pedinska says:

    My grandmother worked in a local department store, similar to Woolworths called Reeds. She worked in what was then called ‘Foundations’, selling those lovely contraptions that all women thought necessary for presenting their physical selves in the best possible light, bras and girdles. I often spent time with her there amidst the sea of white cones, straps and stretchy panels.

    She’s 97 now and, at times, even the sight and feel of my still-long hair, hair she used to brush endlessly, isn’t enough to allow her to recognize me. But I often think back on those times and wonder what she would have to say if she were able to visit Victoria’s Secret. I’m just guessing, but I think it would be curt, pungently acerbic and very, very funny.

    Thanks for sharing that memory, WT, and for triggering memories that I haven’t had for far too long.

    Happy New Year to you and yours!

    • William Timberman says:

      The same to you and your family, Pedinska. We all have our list of things that aren’t there any more, I guess. One of my friends was the official oral historian at our library, and I used to help him edit transcripts. Fascinating stuff. Studs Terkel and even Charles Kuralt had some idea of just how rich the world is, but most people don’t even think of generalizing on their own experiences, or comparing the things they’ve experienced with the pap we’re fed on TV. God knows what would happen if they did. Epiphany is probably a pretty tame description of what would happen next.

      Come to think of it, the feeling of being trapped in their own impoverished reflections might explain some of the rage of the teabaggers. (Whatever you do, don’t tell Sarah Palin.)

  4. KarenM says:

    Hey, William! I don’t have the same Woolworth memories with my grandmother. Mine were on my own, but she did take us on outings that I still remember fondly.

    There was also a sundries/drug store in the (once) sleepy village where she and my grandfather used to live. One of my friends from high school and I used to stop in there for hot fudge sundaes some times, best sundaes I ever had anywhere. If that store is still there, I doubt it has the same ambiance it did then.

    What resonated most with me, though, about this post was your comment about being old enough to recognize that the Pax Americana we grew up in may not have been what we thought it was. When I was a child I used to wonder how/why I was lucky enough to be born in the U.S. Now, I wonder the opposite. I suspect that what has changed the most is just my own perspective.

  5. bystander says:

    Speaking of Woolworths…

    via BoingBoing

    Woolworths stores follow uncanny geometrical patterns

    My grandmother was a hoot. Long after she should have given up driving – and, she was never good to begin with – she had an accident in an intersection right in front of the big old Roman Catholic church, which was her destination. Somehow, in giving her report to the nice policeman, she got her super-sized handbag entangled with the cop’s arm. In getting untangled, he wound up with her handbag, and she wound up with his gun!

    As an immigrant who came though Ellis Island – an orphan born somewhere near Rome, Italy – she was one of those ubiquitous, small statured, tightly corseted, elderly European women who dressed in dark dresses, sturdy shoes, and had her hair coiled in a U-shaped bun at the nape of her neck. She was barely able to write in English, but she diligently answered every letter I sent her my Freshman year in college. Phonics was never so useful as when it came time to decipher her letters. And, she loved Woolworths. Getting to Woolworths with her, however, was always an adventure.

  6. Casual Observer says:

    Malthus wasn’t wrong, but he has been improved-on somewhat when it comes to realistically modeling what humans are. I think Malthus assumed that human foodstocks would increase only in linear fashion, whereas pop. growth would be geometric. He also, I believe, failed to see the causative relationship between population growth and technological change.

    We now think we understand that humans are unique among all critters because we, in response to the pressures Malthus defined, are able to geometrically increase food supply. The agricultural revolution being the textbook example. The greater the malthusian pressure, the greater the pressures/incentives become for technological change.

    Interestingly (at least to me), when we look at the invention of agriculture in the middle east many millenia ago (it was also invented in at least 3 other global regions, independently), it appears to have been born at the fringes, by those in the most trouble, rather than at the big centers, where the religious and managerial elites would have been.

    There may be some generally-held bullshit generalization (aka scientific consensus) that human technological and social change generally works this way–beginning at the margins, and then marching inwards to the “center”, driven by necessity. An example in the social realm might be the fact that three of our major world religions “were born in the desert”.

    So we have thousands of years of change coming from the fringes and margins, struggling against the stability that dwells in the center. And any elite centrists who argue that Malthus was all wrong (as they eat their morning cereal, or pancakes, or corn grits), are now living in a world completely rocked and re-created by those exact pressures that Malthus defined.

    • William Timberman says:

      Yes. This is the fulcrum of most of my thinking, that in our own age the institutional imperative to control events can, and usually does, overwhelm the impulse for local adaptation. Only temporarily, perhaps, but when we say temporarily, we’re taking the long view. In the short term, the resistance of our current political leadership to that-which-must-be-done may well be serious enough to destroy the very forms which are the source of their power, and not coincidentally, a lot of us as well.

      Your point is a good one, but my own view is that change, or adaption, was geographically-based only very early on in human history. In the centuries since desert religions arose, we’ve seen other metaphors for what I think of as the control-adaptation dialectic. Think democracy-aristocracy, or working class-oligarchy, or science-revealed religion.

      The key to our dilemma, it seems to me, is to find a way to incorporate chaos into our control systems. On the level of individual psychology, this means finding a way to encourage the ego to be less paranoid, more able to define itself in fluid terms. On the level of politics, it means finding our way toward what SDS once called participatory democracy.

      It’s always seemed to me that living in a Heraclitean universe, which our previous successes at adaptation, and the technologies which they’ve engendered, have forced upon us whether we will or no, obliges us to reconsider much of what we think we know about stability in human society. The real question, though, is this: Do we have the time to reconsider?

      I don’t know the answer. I fear the worst, but I also know that no matter how dark the answer proves to be, we nevertheless have to ask the question. If you hang around Dogtown long enough, I promise that I’ll ask it in places which our current political leadership has already written off. More than that, I can’t promise you.

      • Casual Observer says:

        I think the fringes are always with us, WT.

        * Disruptive technologies being built in suburban garages…
        * Teabaggers…