The most read article on my rather obscure blog is an analysis of the classic 1970s film Saturday Night Fever that I basically stole from my paternal grandmother. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the ideological and moral censors were much less sophisticated than they are now. As a result, children got to see a lot of things they probably shouldn’t have. How many middle-class suburban mothers bought their kids Village People albums without having the slightest clue about what the Village People were really all about? How many six and seven year olds saw horror movies that scarred them for life? How many gay teenagers in small town America in the 1980s watched Boy George and George Michael on TV and realized they weren’t alone?
While everybody has long since figured out that Saturday Night Fever is a brutal, realistic drama about misogyny, rape culture, and working class-despair in 1970s Brooklyn, it was originally marketed as a fun movie about disco dancing. So one day back in 1978 my mother and my grandmother decided to take me and my brother to the Ritz Theater in Elizabeth to see the movie the whole world seemed to be talking about, mainly because there was a consensus in my family that in his early 20s my father bore a striking resemblance to the young John Travolta. He kind of did. While I did inherit my father’s irritating tendency towards self-pity, I got none of his good looks. He was 6’3″ and died with a full head of hair. I’m (just about) 6’0″ and bald. In any event Saturday Night Fever was not the kind of movie I should have seen when I was 12-years-old. Even if I had not entirely understood what was happening, I still found the racism, violence, and the climatic gang rape deeply unsettling.
My mother left the theater still convinced that it was a lightweight movie about disco dancing. That the tall, stylish young Italian American played by the future star of Pulp Fiction was a deeply misogynistic, self-hating rapist seemed to fly right over my mother’s head, but my grandmother missed none of it. I still remember her rant on the way back home. That’s what men are like, she said. Most of them hate women. All they really want to do is impress their friends by how much they can score. In fact men spend so much time calling each other fags that every once in awhile they have to commit a gang rape just to prove to each other than they’re not. My grandmother was also upset that Saturday Night Fever had spoiled her memories of another movie she had seen in downtown Elizabeth 40 years earlier, Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Movies shouldn’t be about shoving your nose in the ugly reality of everyday life, she said. They should be about helping you forget it. Saturday Night Fever was about what life was really like. Swing Time was about how you wanted it to be.
Mary Anna Mazerkvech was born in 1908 in Lithuania, a small Baltic country that at the time was part of the Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II. In 1915, while the First World War was raging in Europe, my great grandparents somehow made it to Liverpool, and purchased four tickets to New York on the RMS Lusitania, which would be torpedoed by a German U-Boat on it’s return trip to the United Kingdom. Why her family decided to pick up and leave Lithuania in the middle of a World War I still puzzles me, but I suspect the crushing defeat that the Germans had inflicted on the hated Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg the year before had set things in motion. My great grandparents probably realized it was now or never, New York City or the Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten Deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten. Nine years later, in 1924, when she was 16, my grandmother married my grandfather, my namesake, then 20, who had moved to Brooklyn from the anthracite coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania where he had spent a miserable, impoverished childhood. I have no idea what my grandparents did the first few years of their marriage. I have a hard time imagining either of them young. More importantly, history for my grandmother began in October of 1929.
While English was my grandmother’s third language after Lithuanian and Polish, she always spoke the language with such a thick Long Guyland accent it was hard to imagine that she had ever lived anywhere but Brooklyn or Nassau County. At some point in the 1920s she and my grandfather moved back to Scranton Pennsylvania to live with his parents. I don’t have to imagine those years. I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories about the misery of the Great Depression. For my grandmother, history began and ended with the Great Depression. World War I, World War II, slavery, the United States Civil War, native American genocide, the American Revolution, Vietnam, the 1960s, Lithuanian nationalism, the Russian Revolution, the British Empire, none of it mattered. The Great Depression was history and history was the Great Depression.
In the late 1930s and 1940s, things got better, much better. My grandfather, who had been reduced to stealing coal and selling it on the black market to pay for groceries eventually found a good paying job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a welder. Since he was already 37 in 1941, too old to enlist, he took advantage of the labor shortage, putting in 80 and 90 hour weeks working on famous vessels like the USS North Carolina and the USS Franklin Roosevelt. By the time I was born in the mid-1960s, my grandparents had savings, investments, and a well-kept 5-bedroom house in Linden, New Jersey with enough property to allow my grandfather to maintain what basically amounted to a working farm in the backyard. That my grandmother had been as deeply scarred by the Great Depression as most Jews had been by the Holocaust, that my grandfather had always been determined to grow enough food on his own property to be entirely self-sufficient, had always confused me. To my mind they seemed rich, even upper-class.
Why not just buy groceries at the supermarket? I would ask. Why was my grandfather always complaining that it was illegal to keep chickens in Linden? Why did he even want to keep chickens? When I was a child, I had always found my grandmother a harsh, moralistic woman. Now that I’m in my 50s, I realize that she was probably the one person in the family who wasn’t afraid to let me talk, who didn’t feel the need to follow me around at family reunions and watch me like a hawk lest I make a fool of myself “talking about politics or religion.” The oil shocks of the 1970s, which signaled the end of the New Deal and the beginning of neoliberalism, had reminded my grandmother of how bad it had been in 1930. The reason my grandfather wanted to keep chickens in his backyard, she explained, was to make sure his family never had to depend upon the rich asshole who owned the supermarket chain to buy food. “Do you have any idea,” I remember her saying, “what it’s like to hear your kids crying for something to eat and knowing that you can’t buy it? If you have chickens in the back yard and a garden you might not even have any butter but you’ll always have hard boiled eggs. If you have chickens and tomato plants, you’ll never go hungry.”
Now that Coronavirus has made the world a scary place, perhaps as scary as it was during the Great Depression, I finally understand what my grandmother was always trying to tell me. New Deal America, the world of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, was the exception to the rule. We will not see another Franklin Roosevelt again. The rich, even for the self-interested reason of preventing a communist revolution, don’t care if the working-class, or even the middle-class, live or die. The rich don’t care about you. They don’t give a fuck about you, at all, at all, at all. Our American privilege is gone. The bubble has finally burst. We have once again entered history. We are very soon going to find out what it’s like to be a Lithuanian in 1915, a Palestinian in Gaza, a Central American on the Mexican border, an American in Scranton Pennsylvania during the Great Depression.
My expenses are low. I can live for a few years on my savings. I don’t have to stay on the phone for hours calling the unemployment office hundreds of times just to file a claim. I don’t have to risk death every morning just to go to a minimum wage job I desperately need. But let’s face it, if there’s no food in the grocery stores, my savings won’t do me any good. I’m also 54 years old. If I get coronavirus, even if I’m lucky enough to get a hospital bed and a ventilator, my savings are gone. There are people right now, as I type this, staring at medical bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, just for getting getting their pulse taken and maybe an MRI. The health care industry in the United States isn’t about health care. It’s about extracting wealth from the working class and the middle-class. The reason people are hording toilet paper, eggs, and canned tuna fish is because they don’t have chickens, tomato plants, and blackberry bushes in the backyard. If the supply chains break down completely, most of us are only a week or two away from starvation.
If my grandmother left one thing out it was the idea of solidarity. As many stories as she told me about the Great Depression, she never told stories about unions, about wildcat strikes, about left-wing agitation. For that I had to go to Michael Moore, for whom the Great Depression wasn’t about hearing your children cry out for food where there was none, but about his grandfather helping to organize the sit down strikes at General Motors in Flint. As Noam Chomsky has often remarked, as scary as the Great Depression was, there was always an underlying optimism, the idea that somehow people would come together to rebuild the economy and defeat fascism. Right now, in 2020, I don’t feel the same confidence. If the supply chains break down, if the healthcare industry collapses, if Trump and Biden both die of Coronavirus this fall and the oligarchy simply cancels the election in November, will we go into the streets to resist? Or will we all simply retreat to our own little suburban fortresses, if we’re lucky enough to have them, and worship our household gods as we all starve? I don’t know, but at this point, I can no longer afford pessimism and despair. It’s self-indulgent self-pity. My grandmother, who was right about so many things, never quite understood that at some point fear, the very realistic observation that the world is a very scary place isn’t enough. It’s not enough just to say that people are assholes and the world sucks. We need to imagine that the world can be a better place. We need to imagine revolution.