Sunday, November 25, 2012

(New entry at the Socialist Cooking Tips page: Post Industrial Poultry)

I bought myself some Cornish game hens last week at my union Smith's Supermarket and cooked them tonight. They were supposed to be my Thanksgiving meal but I never quite got around to it. When I make game hens I make them like Nora did, so I have to think about Nora, who made them for me. This is that story, and the story of why I decided to call them Post Industrial Poultry.

Flint, Michigan is known for being the hometown of Michael Moore, the radical filmmaker and bigmouth activist the Right loves to hate, and the home of some of the worst of the rust belt de-industrialization set in motion by Ronald Reagan's offshoring, anti union, anti American Neoliberalism. It's where the huge gaping empty factories are where the people of Flint once made Buicks, Chevrolet engines, bodies for Chevys and Buicks, AC spark plugs, Chevrolet parts, much of what once made GM the biggest corporation in the world.

Only Detroit, the once jewel of the American automobile empire, is worse off than Flint, because Detroit is just that much bigger and was home to even more car manufacturing than Flint.

Flint's beautiful downtown with its excellent art museum and convention and sports complexes and high class motels and restaurants and beautiful parks and banks and commercial buildings, and its many nice working class neighborhoods up and down the Flint River and spreading out across the rolling Midwestern prairie, were prime manifestations of the post World War II economy in which the US working class achieved the highest standard of living in the history of the world.

1936-Guarding a window at Fisher plant #3, Flint - US gov. photo
Flint is where the Flint Sit Down Strike took place, where in 1936 and 1937 GM workers occupied the factories, and united the United Auto Workers, the mighty UAW, and set in motion the American Labor Movement and the rise in living standards that brought us out of Gilded Age poverty and the Great Depression, the Labor Movement whose heart, the auto industry, was the heart of our, then, industrial economy. What's happened to Flint, and Detroit, and Cleveland and Toledo and all the rust belt cities are stark examples of what Conservatism has done to America, and are a harbinger for every town in America that hasn't ended up like Flint has yet.

If you wonder why Moore, who first became famous for his documentary Roger and Me, the story of the deindustrialization of Flint, is angry and anti Capitalist, you only have to visit Flint.

I knew a guy from Flint. His parents still lived there. I was living in Southwest Michigan, where I grew up, and one weekend John got a bunch of us together to go with him to Flint to paint his parents' house. They were retired. His father made jewelry, his mother, Nora, was a writer, Nora Wood. When she heard I was taking Journalism, and creative writing, she took an interest in me. We began corresponding, and when I transferred to the four year college in Mount Pleasant, not far from Flint, Nora, who had in the meantime been widowed, would sometimes invite me to spend the weekend.

Nora used words I had to look up later, like fie. She said interesting things and had the most interesting little house, full of paintings and sculptures and things she'd collected or had been given. If I looked at something on a shelf and asked her about it she'd often give it to me.

Breakfast with Nora was toast, cream cheese, peanut butter, and fruit that she peeled and cut into bite sized pieces and served in glass dishes on a stem. There was a cloth table cloth and cloth napkins. It was simple and elegant. I loved eating with her. Several times, for lunch, Nora cooked Cornish game hens stuffed with fruit. I'd never had anything like it.

Breakfast was sometimes held in the back yard. She had one of those back yards surrounded by bushes and overgrown with flowers and plants that made it a little oasis from the noise of the street and the sunlight and the humid Michigan summer. While her big gray cat patrolled the perimeter we'd have our breakfast and talk. Actually she'd talk, and I'd listen. I'm not the same person in conversation as I am in writing, so after holding forth for awhile she'd send me off with instructions to go visit the art museum or the aviation fair. In the evenings, we'd sit in the living room for awhile, then she'd push a stack of scrap paper and some felt tip writing pens into my hands and send me to my bedroom to write.

Shuttered GM power train plant, April 2012, since torn down. Joe Dennis photo

It was five, or maybe seven years after I'd left college, got a job at the Texarkana Gazette, got a wife, moved to South Carolina, that I made it back to Flint. I found Nora's house and knocked on the door. A young woman surrounded by young children answered and stared silently. Nora's house had been transformed. No paintings, none of the things Nora had collected and been given. Instead of uneven plastered walls covered with tapestries and paintings there was white painted sheet rock with sharp, white corners. There was light-colored wood flooring, bare, with sand tracked in by the kids, instead of a dark wooden floor and colorful throw rugs and decorative old runners.

The woman said she thought Nora had moved into an apartment. She didn't have the address. I walked back to the car wondering what to do. I'd lost touch with John. He had married and moved to Grand Rapids. Or maybe it was Battle Creek.

My wife and I were headed to Canada. I wanted to drive to Hudson Bay. We drove out of town, past the vacant Fisher Body plant on Chevrolet Avenue. The grass was still being mowed. The sprawling buildings hadn't begun to deteriorate. There was glass in the windows. It was the mid 1980s. Moore's Roger and Me would come along in 1989.

I never saw Nora again. I've made Cornish game hens the way she made them for a long time now. She was one who just threw things together, didn't use recipes. Sometimes I picture her whisking around the kitchen, quickly tying up her long gray hair, whisking things onto the table, whisking things off, commenting on what popped into her mind, always saying interesting things, talking about the status of the short story she'd sent out, leaning back in her chair at the table in the back yard, pausing to point to a bird, jumping up to water some flowers, jumping up to feed the cat.

Flint was already in economic trouble, but no one ever imagined they'd keep moving factories to the South, where workers are proud of their right to work for less and overseas, where there are no labor laws, that the UAW would have to concede to pay cuts, benefit cuts, the elimination of retiree health care, a two-tiered wage scale so that now, instead of being to raise a family on your salary you start out at not much more than the minimum wage, that there would come to be something called the rust belt and that its decline would continue, relentlessly, that there'd be NAFTA and the WTO, that through Republican and Democratic administrations and congresses alike the American standard of living would continue, relentlessly, to decline. No one imagined that the auto industry we Americans were so proud of, and took so much for granted, would disappear from the collective consciousness, that the fact of its disappearance would become just another part of the American landscape, in some ways normalized, in some ways already forgotten.

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