Columns » Bob Lancaster

Bread line



On the same day last week that unemployment went over 10 percent, we had our first bread line at the little community center here.

It was like something out of the Great Depression.

The whole scene was black-and-white. Even the autumn leaves raining down were black and white. A black and white stray cat on the periphery. November sunlight and shadows were black and white in the photos that Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange — I'm sure it was them — were here taking with their early Leicas.

Ragged, unshaved, demoralized-looking people shuffled along in the long line. They wore mittens that were more holes than fabric, and dirty cotton jackets, and iron work shoes with the laces gone, and battered caps with the earflaps pulled down. A glum bunch. Little talk. No signs, chants, mugging for the TV. Some carried tin cups, a good idea inasmuch as the breadlines always have soup or stew, but not always bowls to serve it in.

The big iron kettle of stew was a gesture of a local benefactor, a Socialist no doubt — or not — maybe just embarrassed into the gesture by his own good fortune here in New Hooverville, or appreciative to the extent of wanting to give back one pot of stew. Though most of the bailiwick's moguls aren't conscience-bothered.

ACLU-looking matrons in long dresses and dun head covers ladling out the portions, one dollop per idler, per deadbeat, along with a hunk of coarse black Solzhenitsyn bread. The bread had to serve as push — as both fork and spoon. Jostle and slurp at the line's head. This was not Miss Manners. It was not “No coffee, tea, or punch, thank yew.”

At one point, a cauldron tender looked up, said something,  all very newsreely, and what I heard her say, or imagined I did, was,  “By the pricking of my thumbs, something piggish this way comes.” And what I thought was, “You don't want someone with pricked thumbs serving your vittles these days. Not with all that's going round.” A telling bourgeoise sentiment in the context, I realized later.

First thing Pig did when he and his toady arrived — disgorged from a long black car — was to issue a bull (good word for it) demanding that the length of the serving line be inflated in the news accounts.

“Make it one point seven million desperate people,” he told Toad.

Toad made a note and said nothing, though a skeptical look passed over his countenance — if indeed toads can be said to have countenances.

Because, make no mistake, Toad is a genuine toad, and not just in the sycophantic sense of a Fox News or Associated Press reporter being ordered by a metaphorical pig, a Limbaugh, say, to inflate a partisan crowd count. A real toad, one that mightily favors Charles Krauthammer or a spoilt cheese.

And Pig was a real pig — I'd guess of the faux major middlewhite breed — though he could talk, or rather bloviate, and walk about upright on his hind legs, if you call a pig's legs “legs,” all the while peering snootily down his snout at those he considered his inferiors, which is to say, everyone else at the scene.

If Toad had peed on you, in other words, you'd have warts. And despite Pig's haughty manner, you half expected him at any moment to drop down on all fours and run off squealing like Ned Beatty in “Deliverance.”

Pig appeared ecstatic to see the breadline. He saw hundreds and thousands of beaten, hungry people for every one that stood in actuality there before him, and he sighed with delight and satisfaction

“Just the failure we've been hoping for, Toad,” he said. “For us, you know, failure equals success. Their failure, our success.”

“Ignorance is strength,” Toad said, obviously repeating something he'd heard earlier from Pig. “Their ignorance, our strength.”

 “Indeed,” said the $400 million pig.

Then Pig said, “They say we got nothing but we got this. To show the power of no. The party of no. No, no, a thousand times no. [Prompting] And after that what?”

“I give up,” Toad said. “More noes?”

“No, no, no, no, no. Then Hitler, Hitler, Hitler, Hitler, Hitler.”

Toad glanced guiltily at the long line shuffling past. He didn't think they looked like Nazis — black and white not brown — but he kept the thought to himself. Toads rarely challenge Pigs on the judgment calls. Toads toady and pigs wind them up with keys in their backs.

Pig said, “Three months ago, all you heard was how fat we were. ‘A  nation of the obese.' Now look at these scarecrows. What do they do with the big fat unemployment checks they get? Buy lottery tickets?”

Someone could ask them, Toad thought without saying it. But it wouldn't be Toad.

Etc. Etc.

Submitted for your consideration. Postmodern street scene, with caricatures.

 Or it might've been just ordinary-looking Century 21 people in the flu-shot line. Or some other ad hoc 15-minute matrix gatherum here in the Epoch of No We Can't.

A black and white sunset at the end of the day.

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