Down but not out
Dale Maharidge’s Someplace Like America chronicles generations of poverty—and hope
I used to run into Dale Maharidge in the Sacramento Bee newsroom after midnight in the 1980s. Then, I listened to him tell stories of hobos like Montana Blackie, Crazy Red and No Thumbs, rapt in the way that a 21-year-old covering high-school sports listens to an older reporter who jumps freight trains and camps with hobos and gets to write about it. Here was a college dropout in threadbare white T-shirts; a wiry mash-up of Woody Guthrie and the street-dog newspaperman in the 1930s movies mold who bleeds for the people whose stories he tells.
A “bum reporter,” as one of his editors used to call him, Maharidge is a blue-collar guy from industrial Ohio who slept in his truck before landing full time in journalism.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he worked with former Bee photographer Michael S. Williamson, who grew up as an orphan and foster child living in trailers, documenting the journey of America’s dispossessed and working poor for the Bee, Life magazine and their own books.
They won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for And Their Children After Them, which as a continuation of James Agee and Walker Evans’ seminal 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, chronicled the rise and fall of cotton in the South.
Their new book, Someplace Like America: Tales From the New Great Depression, is an update and continuation of the pair’s 1985 book, Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass. I recently called Maharidge in New York City, where he’s a professor of journalism at Columbia University, to talk about Someplace Like America and the job he calls “the Third-World beat in America.”
“You can’t phone this kind of story in,” Maharidge said. “Going out there and being an eyewitness, a roving eyeball and ear … that’s how you’re gonna convey what’s really going on with real people. You’ve got to get close enough to hurt.”
What began as tales of hobos on the rails morphed into a saga of an American underclass on the road: blue-collar people from rusting steel towns and shuttered factory towns migrating for work, living in tents, sleeping in cars. Economic nightmare dawned; the clock read morning in America.
Flash-forward three decades: There is mourning in America. The middle class is an endangered species. The new American underclass includes families, working people who rely on food banks.
“We did not meet working homeless when we started this [in the 1980s],” Maharidge said. “Working homeless is so common now it’s like, ‘What else is new?’ You go down to the food bank in Sacramento and you’re gonna find people who have full-time jobs, who budget well and who, [on] the last week of the month, they’re hungry.”
When I last spoke to Maharidge in early 2010, I’d called seeking advice for a personal story I was writing about being a jobless food critic living on food stamps. This time out, I was armed with more insight into his work; I’d spent most of the past year homeless, living in my car and looking for work.
(Disclosure: Maharidge mentions me in Someplace Like America—although not by name—commenting that these days he has several journalist friends who are hard up for work.)
“We found in the new material that the people we’re writing about, more than ever, ordinary people can see themselves in the mirror,” Maharidge said. “Michael [Williamson] said [recently] it used to be people would be out doing something that 20 years ago would have been embarrassing: begging for a job or begging for food.’ Now he says he finds people all the time who are like, ‘Everyone knows I’m screwed.’”
Among the profiles in Someplace Like America is an account of the Alexander family, whom Maharidge first wrote about in the ’80s. Maharidge met the Alexanders in 1983 and reunited with them in 2009. Their story seemed prophetic then and is all too familiar today.
“Man, we met them in the tent in Texas,” Maharidge said. “They were hurting. What’s great about them was that they were so wonderfully ordinary. They had it all, and they fell off the bottom rung. What a powerful story of survival.”
Bonnie Alexander died months before Maharidge tracked the family down again, but Jim Alexander—he’s holding the revolver in Williamson’s 1983 photograph (reprinted in Someplace Like America), suggesting he might use it to feed his wife and two kids—now lives in Michigan, where he built a house with cash he and Bonnie saved after attending school and stitching together a series of jobs.
“Jim’s a hero to me for pulling his family out,” Maharidge said. “He didn’t go off drinking and vanish. He didn’t melt down. He bucked up, and he and Bonnie made it happen for those kids. They are your prototypical American family who works hard, doesn’t want anything for nothing and just got whacked. And they’re still getting whacked.”
Ultimately, Maharidge said, Someplace Like America is about hope.
“I think we’re gonna come out of this,” Maharidge said. “Even in an apocalypse, the sun comes up the next morning. … We’ve been through shit before. We had a lot of good years in this country, and now we are facing a river of shit. It doesn’t mean that because you lost your job, you’re going to be in this state forever. We move on and we rebuild.”
After 30 years on the Third-World beat in America, the book is partly the 54-year-old author’s personal exorcism, too.
“I have lived a holy terror of having to confront these things myself,” Maharidge said. “What would I do? Goddamn, you know, it’s on my brain, in the forefront of my thoughts all the time. I hope I can be as strong as them. That’s all I can say.”