Home sweet homeland

Former Sacramento journalists traveled the country searching for the truth about post-9/11 America

Fourth of July on the American River in Sacramento.

Fourth of July on the American River in Sacramento.

Photo By Michael Williamson

At age 19, Dale Maharidge took a month-long solo backpacking trip across Canyonlands desert in Utah and realized with a bolt that he was meant to become a writer. He forthwith moved to the town he considered most overflowing with untold stories: Sacramento, California. After living for three months out of his Datsun pickup, he got hired, in 1981, as a low-level cop reporter at The Sacramento Bee.

It was there, on assignment to cover breaking news—a trailer fire!—that Maharidge first was paired up with the photographer fated to be his professional collaborator for the next three decades. Michael Williamson, who didn’t own a camera until age 18, somehow had managed to land a job in the Bee’s darkroom. The two rookie journalists met, in fact, while running side by side down the halls of the newspaper plant on their way to cover that first story together.

They haven’t stopped running since.

For almost 10 years, the pair worked the “poverty beat” at the Bee, focusing their words and photographs mainly on the stories of the dispossessed who lived along the Sacramento River and hung out at local rail yards. (The term “homeless” was not yet in the vernacular; the pair was tracking the early signs of this new aspect of modern American life.) In the duo’s off-duty hours at the Bee, they authored three books. One of them—And Their Children After Them—won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1990. Another—Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass—helped inspire Bruce Springsteen’s album The Ghost of Tom Joad. The pair left Sacramento and the Bee in the early 1990s, but since then, they have proceeded basically to do the same work nationally that they had begun doing locally.

And this month, there’s more.

As the nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day 2004—in its current state of distress over issues of war, terrorism and the economy—Maharidge and Williamson have a brand-new work, Homeland, in bookstores. It chronicles post-9/11 America. Like their other projects together, Homeland attempts to chart—through feet-on-the-streets journalism—the trends in a restless America, especially in aspects relating to poverty, race and working-class people.

But Homeland is different; it comes with portent. In fact, thousands of miles and hundreds of interviews later, Maharidge believes he saw signs of something genuinely new and disturbingly un-American erupting in the homeland after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

“What I was seeing was a new nationalism,” Maharidge told SN&R point-blank while visiting his mom in Sacramento a few weeks back. “The flags that sprouted after 9/11 cover a wound that’s been festering for decades.”

Three weeks before America changed forever, Maharidge moved from the West Coast to Manhattan. In the early hours of September 11, 2001, the soon-to-be journalism professor at Columbia University stayed up until 4 a.m. talking on the phone to Williamson—who had become a staff photographer at The Washington Post—about life, loves and upcoming projects. The pair had been known in their Sacramento days for working full throttle into the early hours of the morning, exulting in their self-dubbed discipline of “NS” (no sleep!), and apparently they’d taken their all-nighter tendencies with them to the other coast.

A farmer’s truck in Winchester, Virginia; the truck owner’s neighbor’s son was killed in the war in Iraq.

Photo By Michael Williamson

Finally, they hung up. A few hours later, Maharidge was startled awake by another phone call from Williamson. Told about the planes and the World Trade Center, the writer raced to the roof. “I saw the second tower crash from my rooftop,” said Maharidge. “I knew that a genie had been uncorked.”

From his home in Washington, D.C., Williamson knew he needed to get to ground zero. Having won a second Pulitzer in 2000 for his work in Kosovo, he was well aware by then that a photographer’s first job was simple: Get there, be there and stay there. Despite the fact that no members of the media, no politicians and not even the pope probably could have gotten through the seven checkpoints set up to stop people from crossing the Manhattan Bridge in the days following the terrorist attacks, Williamson managed. After speeding to New York, the photographer reached the forbidden bridge, placed his thumb over the word “press” on his laminated Senate ID badge and, somehow, convinced officials at each station to let him pass. “I have to get to the bureau,” he told them urgently. Checkpoint by checkpoint, they believed him. When Williamson finally made it to the site of the demolished towers, he stayed there shooting pictures for 27 hours straight.

One of those shots, taken as the sun came up over the surreal scene—with its mangled steel and awful ruin and virtual human wreckage—is the first photograph in Homeland. “Michael was shooting for the book before we even knew there was a book,” said Maharidge later.

As it had with many Americans, 9/11 caused the pair to change everything (because everything had changed) and nothing (because they both knew they should mostly keep doing what they already did). Williamson would take pictures; Maharidge would talk to people and write about it. Soon, another book—this one to be published by Seven Stories Press—was in progress.

Throughout the next two years, the duo traveled the country and found what they believed to be a divided, deeply troubled America. The already existing gap between rich and poor seemed to have increased. New waves of immigration had created elevated racial hatred. The journalists followed the court trial—gavel to gavel—of a teenage girl, Katie Sierra, who became the object of hatred at her West Virginia high school for writing an antiwar slogan on her shirt and wanting to form an anarchist club. They followed the trail of a white mob that charged a mosque in Chicago with the intent of burning it to the ground. They found that, underneath much of the race hatred and flag-waving, were often men who’d lost jobs, and single moms with unpaid medical bills. They trailed the story of a priest who informed his stunned parishioners that their intolerance must end. They tracked the resurgence of the American flag (100 million flags were purchased in 2002) and attempted to explain a new brand of nationalism that flag had come to represent after the terrorist attacks. The book includes several “news diary” chapters—a kind of pop-culture clock— in which the author attempts to take the reader back in time, especially in regard to post-9/11 media coverage.

Michael Williamson

All along, Maharidge makes clear his findings that 9/11 seemed to amp up an our-country-right-or-wrong sense that actually had been growing for decades, due mostly to globalization and economic changes that have left many Americans confused, angry and fearful. Williamson’s dramatic 40-photo essay at the book’s front almost gets at the phenomena best: a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for a solder killed in Iraq; a beltway shot in D.C. with a sign reading “Report Terrorism: Call Tip Line"; a Stars and Stripes beach towel in use by riverside sunbathers in Sacramento on the Fourth of July; a Stand Up For America rally held in a depressed coal-mining region of Kentucky.

Maharidge admits the book probably will be most popular among “the left ghetto,” i.e., those who already agree with his progressive analysis of what’s going on in America. But inside Homeland, he doesn’t hesitate to dig deep, even when it’s not politically correct. Interestingly, the left-leaning weekly In These Times gave Maharidge the feedback that the book was “too kind” to white supremacists.

Soberly, toward the end of the book, Maharidge turns to history and evokes a comparison between what’s happening now in the United States and the pre-World War II Weimar culture in Germany. Maharidge is regularly dissected in reviews and on the book tour for having the audacity—even hypothetically—to compare the United States to pre-Nazi Germany. But the author has no regrets about raising such concerns. “It may seem inconceivable to us that a new Hitler could emerge in modern times,” writes Maharidge. But he urges his readers to consider such possibilities anyway and insists that some of the warning signs present in the Weimar period—rampant poverty, racial intolerance, a government perceived to serve at the behest of the very wealthy—are present in America today. “Of course it’s not likely,” he said. “But even if there’s a 10-percent chance of it happening here—that’s too much.”

Maharidge worries about overreaction: “We should ask ourselves: What if there’s another terrorist attack, like they blow up the Mall of America? Or what if the economy really tanks?”

Today, some of the duo’s past books are in “development,” as they say, and may take on lives of their own. After Springsteen wrote the songs based on Journey to Nowhere, which documented Rust Bowl refugees looking for work, that book was reissued with a new introduction by the Boss. HBO has optioned Journey, too, and hopes are high that someday there’ll be a film based on the work.

Dale Maharidge

Still, nobody’s kidding themselves. “Books about poor people in America do not exactly fly off the shelves,” Maharidge deadpanned.

Now completing a cross-country book tour for Homeland, Maharidge is already deep into his next book, what he calls a “micro-portrait of a small town in America.” When the Homeland tour is complete, he’ll keep writing, living out of a room in a decrepit, near-abandoned mansion in Iowa. After that, he’ll return to teaching at Columbia in New York. He wonders how many more books he has left in him. “Maybe 10,” he predicted with excitement. “Who knows? Maybe it’s 10.”

For his part, Williamson—who has been almost buried in honors and prizes for his photography this past decade—remains on staff at The Washington Post. He’s into his next project, too, a book about the Lincoln Highway. The pair expects to be joining forces on another book again soon.

Asked whether he has any regrets about the course his professional life has taken, Maharidge paused a minute and then laughed and shook his head. (He left the Bee while in a downward spiral with that paper’s management despite his Pulitzer and quit a lucrative journalism teaching post at Stanford University just to “shake things up.") Asked if the personal sacrifices have been worth it (Maharidge has never been married and has no children), the author shook his head again. “Life is choices,” he said. “You want it all; you don’t get it all.”

Then he laughed: “If you want a balanced life, don’t do this.”

In the next moment, though, Maharidge reverted to speed-talking about Homeland, the urgent need for the country to get back on track and the necessity for editors and journalists to show some guts and tackle the tough subjects more often. “The next three to four election cycles are critical,” he said. “November is big, but it’s not all.”

Famed author and oral historian Studs Terkel remarks on Homeland‘s book jacket that Maharidge and Williamson are “true journalists"—the kind who seek out “small truths in large circumstances.” But it also can be said that these two have sought out large truths in small details.

And perhaps it was with the early details in mind that Maharidge and Williamson held a two-man reunion in Sacramento in 1995. Their goal back then—long before 9/11 and Homeland—was to catch up as friends and figure out what it all had meant so far.

“We toured our Sacramento,” said Maharidge. He meant the “hobo jungles” along the river, the desolate rail yards and the homeless hangouts. At the end of that long day, the pair drank beer on the shores of the Sacramento River and wondered aloud whether their journalistic journey, thus far, had been worth it. Had their books made any difference at all?

They wondered, yes, but deep down they knew.