On any land but mine grows a greener grass in every shade. In matters of both the heart and the bank account, we all at one time succumb to that all-too-common thought; a collage of despair, desire, and fear. Some choose forever to wallow before they accept the truths of their realities, while others, well . . . it don’t take no nerve to do somethin’ when there ain’t nothin’ else you can do.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about moving out of San Francisco. Out of California. Out of my eternal adolescence. I went through the teenage years twice; once as a straight kid, and once as a gay man in his 20s, navigating gingerly through a revised set of social rules and regulations. The Bay Area has been more than kind to me during that second leg of the journey, but a distance has started to form, and the city and I are beginning to outgrow one another. I said these very words to a friend who has listened to me grumble for months about the details of my self-inflicted stagnation. After flunking yet another round of job interviews, it was with a heart full of love when this person said to me, “You’re doing everything right, so maybe you just don’t belong here.” Those final six words ricocheted back and forth in my mind for days, until I did what any other red-blooded American man would do when he demands a moment of mental clarity. I went shopping.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) had been sitting in my queue at position five for about a month, only to be demoted continually due to the release of critically important television shows (I’d blame Jessica Lange, if I weren’t so affectionately terrified of her). While shopping for the above mentioned mental clarity, I happened upon a DVD of John Steinbeck’s banned and burned tale, reduced to $4.99 for surface scratches but guaranteed to play. The film felt more or less compatible with the CD I held under my arm – I considered turning to Jesus after hearing Dolly Parton’s Golden Streets of Glory, but it would have to be Dolly’s Jesus, not the Jesus who sits in on the Fox News weekly board meetings. I have a fairly good memory when it comes to the novels I was assigned to read in school, and I believe the only Steinbeck that ever cropped up on my syllabus was The Pearl. My Steinbeck background is regrettably limited, so purchasing a used copy of The Grapes of Wrath was a prudent decision in more than one way.
I’m in no position to compare my life to those who endured the Great Depression, for I have not even a sliver of their strength or survival skills. I’m extremely fortunate never to have known hardship the likes of an Oklahoma man who is released from prison, hitchhikes back to his family’s farm, and finds it deserted due to dust storms and eventual foreclosure. When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda wows us again) reunites with his family, they load their lives into a rickety old truck and head for California in search of employment and a sunnier future. The nomad in me who’s screaming to break out of his Golden Gated cradle cheered with enthusiasm for Tom and his family’s journey down Highway 66. As if I were watching a 129-minute “Oregon Trail meets NASCAR,” I needed desperately to see Tom cross whatever he deemed his final finish line.
The family’s stops at various migrant camps yank at the heartstrings, especially when the children come running up to the camera, hunger in their eyes. On the road they meet a man who is on his way back from California, a temporary dashing of Tom’s hopes for what awaits him on the coast. Regardless of the cards dealt by my past (or by my future), the authenticity of the Joads’ intertwining of hope and frustration brought this audience member, at least for a moment, right into the back of their truck. In all likelihood, Highway 66 is filled with cars that travel for miles and get nowhere, delivering its passengers to nothing.
The road to opportunity is paved with, well, nothing, because our state has no money for infrastructure spending. At times we kneel and thank our lucky stars; at times we can’t help but kneel on the greenish grass and pray to . . . where, oh, where is Dolly’s Jesus?
Academy Awards for The Grapes of Wrath (1941): Best Director and Best Actress in a Supporting Role