The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Seventy years after The Grapes of Wrath, Chris McGreal recreates John Steinbeck's famous fictional journey to reveal life in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression
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Tulsa has seen its share of poverty and desperation over the years. In the 1930s, it saw a tide of hundreds of thousands struggling west along Route 66 to escape economic collapse in the north and the notorious dustbowl of drought and wind across the Midwest. Whether they had lost their land or their jobs, that flow of desperate humanity – chronicled so devastatingly through the fictional Joad family in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath – struggled hard to find enough to feed and clothe their children as they trekked towards an illusory dream of prosperity in distant California.
To travel the old road today – stumbling across crumbling ghost towns and half-abandoned communities, across the sprawling Native American desert reservations, through cities where people work all the hours they aren't sleeping and still cannot afford to go to the doctor - is to encounter new despair, some of it still recognisable to the Joads.
The banks are once again evicting. Foreclosures plague the parts of northern Arizona and New Mexico traversed by the evicted 70 years ago.
But the monster – as Steinbeck described the financial system – has spawned modern beasts unknown to the Joads, such as the vast multinationals discarding American workers in favour of cheaper labour in Mexico and the health insurance companies that cut off the medical lifelines to the gravely ill.
~ Chris McGreal
It ain't that big. The whole United States ain't that big. It ain't that big. It ain't big enough. There ain't room enough for you an' me, for your kind an' my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country, for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat.
Like so many in Oklahoma and across the south, Levy has a visceral distrust of government – not just President Barack Obama's administration but any of them.
In the heart of the Bible Belt it is often religious organisations that step in to the breach. Evangelising courses through Oklahoma and charity healthcare comes with God thrown in.
..."You see a lot of children in need here," said Veronica Banks, the minister at Friendship church. "You see a lot of elderly in need, a lot of single mothers and a lot of the working poor. Even though they're working they cannot afford medical care, the cost of healthcare the way it is. They're on minimum wage jobs or only working part time. We know the faces, we know the names."
Friendship church has a mostly black congregation. But the clinic draws white faces across boundaries that many in the city would not normally cross.
Before I knowed it, I was sayin' out loud, 'The hell with it! There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing.' . . . . I says, 'What's this call, this sperit?' An' I says, 'It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust, sometimes.' . . . . I figgered, 'Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,' I figgered, 'maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of.' Now I sat there thinkin' it, an' all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it."
"I pretty much hold back from going to the doctor," she said. "I was raised in a very poor family and never had insurance all the way through high school so for me it's normal. Thank God I've never been really super sick. If ever I needed something somehow it was provided.
God willing, whatever way it came, it came. It was just one of those faith, trust in God kind of things. If the needs not met there's a reason, I guess."
...The patients are encouraged to pray while awaiting treatment. The medical staff introduce God as part of what the organisation describes as holistic care.
"We find a lot of people who come to us with a medical need but wouldn't set foot in the door of a church," said the mobile clinic's nurse, Lynn Hersey. "They want to check and see if someone who is a Christian can be trusted with one little thing, if they're going to shove Jesus down their throat because they ate the bait and came in through the door."
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.
I voted for the other guy. McCain," she said. "Something grated against me [about Obama]. I really don't know what it was. I'm not racist. It's just one of those things where he's a good speaker, he talks very very well, even better than Bill Clinton I would say. But I wasn't about to go there. I went the other way."
Banes said she doesn't have confidence in the government to look after her interests even if the state of Oklahoma is providing free healthcare to her children.
"If for some reason Oklahoma state's healthcare failed then I would have something to worry about because of my children, I know. But I'm really not going to worry about it because that's one more thing to put on the plate. I don't really trust the government," she said. "The Lord has a plan and if anything happens, then it's meant to be".
Levy, too, voted for McCain.
"There's a lot of people with health problems who really need help and they have no place to turn," she said. "But the government? People who run government don't care about people like us. And there's a lot of people need to know that there's someone who cares about them."