Now that old fascination is back. Ad agencies are busily re-creating scenes from "Leave It to Beaver" and old Sears, Roebuck catalogues in a return to what Jennifer Steinhauer of the New York Times calls "perhaps the ultimate happy American decade." And self-described twentysomething Samantha Barbas, writing in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed piece, describes her generation's yearning for the era's "optimism and enthusiasm." To her credit, Barbas acknowledges that the Fifties had its share of social and political problems, but these are easily explained away by the naiveté of a people who got excited by fuzzy dice and big cars with fins. And some of the ad campaigns do manage to verge on camp, suggesting their awareness of a world gone awry just outside the cheery facsimile kitchens where models in Kenar dresses bake apple pies from scratch. Nevertheless, the appeal is there. Americans seem to be convinced that this was a time of sweetness and simplicity, an Eden before the fall.
But I knew the Fifties, and let me tell you, the period was neither simple nor sweet. In fact, it was remarkably similar to the late 1990s. Images of prosperity monopolized the press. But underneath the new coat of paint and the refurbished exterior, it was one of the most anxiety-ridden periods in U.S. history. For those who have forgotten, or those whose history classes were deficient, let me offer a quick sketch.
The Fifties was a nightmare, a pastiche of horrifying sounds and images. Paranoia was rampant. The devil outside our shores --- the Soviet Union --- was suspected of conspiring to destroy our country from within as well. The new medium of television not only provided entertainers like Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs to amuse us. It also kept us up to date on the progress of the apocalyptic battle being waged in Washington against the forces of evil. Day after day, a balding, sweaty-faced man worked himself into a frenzy, ruining lives as he whinnied, "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?"
People of color who had fought in Europe and Asia returned to a United States where they were shoved to the back of the bus, or worse. A group of policemen dragged six Chicano youths from a bar in Los Angeles one Christmas night and beat them until they had to be hospitalized. The governor of Arkansas allowed an angry mob to chase six black students from a previously all-white high school, prompting the federal government to send in an occupying force of a thousand paratroopers to keep order. Employers and landlords routinely chose white Americans over others who were equally qualified but darker in skin tone.
Women who had joined the wartime workforce were sent back home and, in an American version of Kinder, Kirche, Küche, redirected toward domesticity and motherhood. A 1995 photograph provides a reality check on the world of June Cleaver: a young housewife in the requisite checked cotton dress and black pumps balances a whimpering toddler on one hip as she pulls a roast chicken from the oven. Behind her, the baby is screaming and an older boy waits expectantly. Even though her wedding ring is not visible, we can be sure that she is married, for single motherhood usually brought the living death of ostracism, if not actual death by one's own hands or those of an illegal abortionist.
But we know all this, if only because it echoes in the xenophobia, racism, and sexism of today. What we tend to forget is that the Fifties really began in Japan on two days in 1945. In Hiroshima on August 6. In Nagasaki on August 9. By dropping two atomic bombs on civilian populations, we established ourselves as the premier bully of the postwar world and began an ever-escalating cycle of technological violence that has not yet ended.
In the Fifties a mushroom cloud hung like an umbrella over every Doris Day smile. Teachers drilled school children in the proper method of escaping death by bombing --- crouch under your desk and cover your head with your arms. Books and films like On the Beach explored nuclear annihilation in excruciating detail. We laugh condescendingly today at descriptions of backyard bomb shelters, but many people, including those in Washington, saw moving underground as the only possible means of survival if there was an attack.
For the danger was real, if not from actual planned nuclear warfare, then certainly from an accident or a failure of communication. And in the late 1990s, when the international nuclear club is expanding, the situation is even more urgent. Not only are we continuing to develop and stockpile nuclear weapons; we have created a multi-billion-dollar nuclear mess that needs to be cleaned up, and our earlier nuclear tests have brought about thousands of cases of cancer that require treatment.
Those Fifties folks may have been smiling over their new washing machines
and shiny station wagons, but they understood something that we've forgotten
--- that their suburban ranch houses were guarded
by a monster they themselves had raised. A sense of security and hope?
I don't think so, Samantha. Something more like whistling in the dark.
And we haven't yet reached the light at the end of the tunnel.
And the TL was anything but God-forsaken. Religious folks had come rip-roarin' into the inner city, ringing the changes on combinations of material and spiritual assistance, so that local residents would have had to travel far south of Market to avoid hearing the Word of the Lord. Even the weather offered a special mitzvah. The fog burned off early, leaving clear sunshine that enriched the colors of the buildings and a breeze that diluted the August heat.
In the middle of the morning, I walked up Jones Street. A group was already beginning to gather outside St. Anthony's Dining Room, waiting to go inside and eat their dinner. The line, composed mainly of white men, sitting quietly or leaning against the building, rounded the corner at Golden Gate and stretched past St. Boniface's Church.
In contrast to the near-silence outside St. Anthony's, Glide Memorial Church was having a fine old time. The floor and balcony of the sanctuary were bursting, and so was the overflow area in the basement. Visitors wandered in and out --- this is a tourist stop recommended by several guidebooks --- babies fidgeted, and congregants happily clapped in time to the music. The music was extraordinary. At one point, the plump grandmotherly woman standing next to me expressed what many other listeners must have felt: she threw back her head and stretched out her arms, bathing in the liquid contralto voice that was washing over her.
Glide is not just a church, but a huge social service organization. Cecil Williams, its minister for the past 35 years, has deliberately incorporated San Francisco's changing cultural scene into its services, from the free-form dancing of the 1960s flower children to the gospel singing favored today. The whole approach is energetically practical. As I left, staff members seeking volunteers for the health clinic and the free meals program (serving 3,000 people a day) had set up tables on one side of the room; on the other, in a creative twist to the story of Jesus and the money changers in the temple, there were tables selling T-shirts and coffee mugs to take back to Aunt Susie in Des Moines. The astonishing thing was that, in the midst of this unabashed fund-raising, the atmosphere was caring and somehow uplifting.
Once outside, I headed back along Jones. The line outside St. Anthony's now stretched all the way down Golden Gate and around the corner at Leavenworth. By midafternoon, some 2,000 people would have followed this dusty path.
At the Civic Center the Farmers' Market was filled with another kind of congregation. An African-American woman in a bright green dress preached a little fire and brimstone from one of the stone slabs in front of the fountain, but no one seemed very interested. Instead, this assortment of God's chillun had found their own ways of observing the Sabbath, sitting in fine fellowship on the newly unfenced grass or sampling the loaves and fishes, as well as lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.
I joined them for a while and then wandered back up Jones to the San Francisco Rescue Mission, which had taken over a block to celebrate the dedication of its new building, the former home of the Musicians Union. The place was packed. Every one of the 600 chairs in the middle of the street was occupied, and another 400 people stood along the sidewalks. There was music, although less lively than at Glide. Visiting luminaries were everywhere: ministers from other San Francisco churches; delegates from the mission's parent organization, the evangelical Assemblies of God; representatives from the mayor's office; the omnipresent John Goldberg, captain of the Tenderloin Task Force. And the guests went home laden with bags of food, watermelons and berries and potatoes and other good stuff.
Founded --- the story goes --- when a young man named Roger Huang had a flat tire in the middle of the Tenderloin and began to wonder how he would feel if his son lived there, the mission employs the same mixture of social services and spiritual guidance that the big guys use. Pastor Roger began by distributing sandwiches in Boedekker Park. Now, in addition to worship services and bible study, the group serves about 300 meals a week and provides coffee and doughnuts to 900 more; its thrift shop is visited by about 1,500 people. It also takes in groups of squeaky-clean young people from affiliated churches in other parts of California, sending them out onto the streets in what must be an unforgettable training program.
As I watched the ceremony on Sunday, I had the odd feeling that I'd fallen into a Damon Runyon story, partly because the mission stands right next door to the Campus All-Male Movie Theater. And partly because this happy band of pastors punctuate their speech with "Praise God" and "God Bless" as though they've found a replacement for commas and periods. But they're also obviously wise to the ways of the world, because the door to the mission was carefully guarded against intruders.
I'm not sure how many souls were saved on this
particular Sunday, either at the mission or in other parts of the TL. But
surely the road to heaven is paved with nourishing food, good music, and
the pleasant company of friends on a summer day.
Mythically, Western End of the World imagery comes from that pesky, controversial, dreamy windup of the Bible: Revelations, a.k.a the Apocalypse. "Apocalypse" doesn't mean The End; it gets confused with that meaning because its namesake volume concerns visions of how the world as we know it will meet a fiery death. For some, this news has been very positive --- this world where they suffer persecution will expire; from its ashes will rise someplace gleaming and perfect, a blend of earth and heaven, a place where all is as it should be --- fair, right, true. Horsemen will arrive with sealed orders, Revelations predicts; then cities will be sucked under, mountains will fall, fire will rain, insects will fly around and kill, things will get counted and measured and judged, the riffraff will die off.
Sound gloomy? Well, what is royalty to some is riffraff to others. Gloom to potentates, the of the world has been good news to the downtrodden. Thus, lovers of the End have traditionally been exiles: colonists of strange lands or oppressed people so wholly unable to reconcile the world with their self-esteem that they take comfort only from fantasy.
In the dimension of time, these dreamers have insisted, the End of the world is not for now --- it is a future event. Prediction of exactly when that future will arrive has proved a stubborn problem --- so far, Ends of the world have been discredited exactly as many times as they have been dated. In the dimension of space, dreamers have believed, the destroyed old world will give way to a new Eden. Having reached the coast of South America, Columbus quoted passages from Revelations and told his patrons he had located that very Paradise.
Devotees to the End have sometimes made awkward bedfellows: Sometimes, it is conquerors like Columbus that other zealots hope to see gutted from the world. In the late 19th century, a Christianized Paiute named Wovoka preached the Ghost Dance Religion to members of dozens of American Indian tribes. He taught a circling dance meant to literally cause a revolution: the end of white rule and return of the land, replenished, to its natives. He and his followers danced adamantly --- at the expense of their worldly tasks. Some wore sacred Ghost Shirts that were supposed to stop bullets. They didn't, and the Ghost Dance Religion threatened white leaders enough that it led to their shooting bullets through hundreds of Ghost Shirts at Wounded Knee.
Which proved one of the Ghost Dancers' points: they diagnosed the world as impossible and insane, then were proved right by being insanely massacred. Similarly, another group of prophets of the End, the South African Xhosa, were decimated after 1857, when they abandoned earthly for heavenly concerns and starved, only to then be further wrecked by the Europeans they had believed their God would soon drive back into the sea. Heaven's Gate was another group of outcasts --- a bunch of UFO geeks alienated by the American Dream, they invented a future where they would be vindicated, triumphant. Maybe they were right --- they're out there freed of our civilization's incipient demise. Maybe they were wrong --- in which case, they never knew themselves to have erred.
Of course, visions of the End of the world have not always featured Gods, angels or little green men; nor have they always required an abandonment of common sense. Good Marxists will tell you that religion is the opium of the masses, but what was the promise of a future rise of Communism if not a promise of Paradise on Earth reached through the rise of the just over tyranny? Revolution, Revelation --- what is the difference when they remain specters, real only in the abstract space of some always advancing future? Future worlds --- political, cultural or religious --- have always been carrots on sticks. Such worlds are the great hope of pariahs who trample on history's disfavor, insisting that the present is not all, that the future will treat them better.
But what if ardent faith in a better future makes impossible the time-bound efforts that might produce the very change so deeply desired? Does the promise of a kingdom come breed complacency?
America has long seemed to promise the End of the world. Early Puritan settlers favored a long poem called The Day of Doom, which narrated punishment of the unworthy and the ascendance of worthy people who looked forward to the End. Indigenous American religions are notorious for their unusually literal interpretations of Revelations. (Both the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses cut their teeth on the teachings of William Miller, a 19th-century self-proclaimed preacher whose prediction that Christ would smother the world in flame in 1843 at first earned him tens of thousands of converts. Many of them kept the faith when the world, like a wily soap opera character, survived its plotted End in 1843, and again in 1844.) Meanwhile, those who have built their versions of Paradise in America have, in the process, made enough Hell to inspire plenty of visions of better fates. Especially here, especially now, shouldn't we be hearing promises and threats of all kinds of radical revolutions?
If the horsemen of the Apocalypse are within range, they assume some strange forms: marketers, computer users, witnesses of little green men, people wary of rocks in space, people compelled to book New Year's Eve beach vacations two years in advance. We buy soap with a futuristic image (what better way to get leverage on slippery 2000?); we fret that digital confusion between 1900 and 2000 will prove carcinogenic to the records and blips that hold the universe together; we fear damnation by almond-eyed aliens and rocks from space. Inspired to figure out how to behave when all four digits attached to our numbered days roll over, we think: Vacation! Reservations!
Maybe our moment features all the complacency of past prophets, but
none of their hope. Or maybe it's just that ours are the best of times
--- so satisfying to all that no one can dream of
anything better. Who needs hope for a wholly new reality when we can make
toasts on reserved beaches?