Grapes of Wrath: Chapter 5 (Banks and the American Dream’s Death)

John Steinbeck
Grapes of Wrath
Chapter 5
The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields. And at last the owner men drove into the dooryards and sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenant men stood beside the cars for awhile, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust.
In the open doors the women stood looking out, and behind them the children—corn- headed children, with wide eyes, one bare foot on top of the other bare foot, and the toes working. The women and the children watched their men talking to the owner men. They were silent.
Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company— needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained. “You know the land is poor. You’ve scrabbled at it long enough, God knows.”
The squatting tenant men nodded and wondered and drew figures in the dust, and yes, they knew, God knows. If the dust only wouldn’t fly. If the top would only stay on the soil, it might not be so bad.
The owner men went on leading to their point: “You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.”
The squatters nodded—they knew, God knew. If they could only rotate the crops they might pump blood back into the land.
Well, it’s too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. “A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that.”
"Yes, he can do that until his crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank.”
“But—you see, a bank or a company can’t do that, because those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t cat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.”
The squatting men raised their eyes to understand. “Can’t we just hang on? Maybe the next year will be a good year. God knows how much cotton next year. And with all the wars—God knows what price cotton will bring. Don’t they make explosives out of cotton? And uniforms? Get enough wars and cotton’ll hit the ceiling. Next year, maybe.” They looked up questioningly.
"We can’t depend on it. The bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size."
Soft fingers began to tap the sill of the car window, and hard fingers tightened on the restless drawing sticks. In the doorways of the sun-beaten tenant houses, women
sighed and then shifted feet so that the one that had been down was now on top, and the toes working. Dogs came sniffing near the owner cars and wetted on all four tires one after another. And chickens lay in the sunny dust and fluffed their feathers to get the cleansing dust down to the skin. In the little sties the pigs grunted inquiringly over the muddy remnants of the slops.
The squatting men looked down again. “What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of the crop—we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an’ ragged. If all the neighbors weren’t the same, we’d he ashamed to go to meeting.”
And at last the owner men came to the point. “The tenant system won’t work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster.”
"But you’II kilI the land with cotton."
"We know. We’ve got to take the cotton quick before the land dies. Then we’ll sell the land. Lots of families in the East would like to own a piece of land."
The tenant men looked up alarmed. “But what’ll happen to us? How’ll we eat?” “You’ll have to get off the land. The plows’ll go through the dooryard.”
And now the squatting men stood up angrily. “Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An’ we was born here. There in the door—our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and we got a little bit of what we raised.”
"We know that—all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster."
"Sure," cried the tenant men, "but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it."
"We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man." "Yes, but the bank is only made of men."
"No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it."
The tenants cried, “Grampa killed Indians, Pa killed snakes for the land. Maybe we can kill banks—they’re worse than Indians and snakes. Maybe we got to fight to keep our land, like Pa and Granpa did.”
And now the owner men grew angry. “You’ll have to go.” “But it’s ours,” the tenant men cried. “We—” “No. The bank, the monster owns it. You’ll have to go.” “We’ll get our guns, like Granpa when the Indians came. What then?”
"Well—first the sheriff, and then the troops. You’ll be stealing if you try to stay, you’ll be murderers if you kill to stay. The monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants."
"But if we go, where’ll we go? How’ll we go? We got no money."
"We’re sorry," said the owner men. "The bank, the fifty-thousand-acre owner can’t be responsible. You’re on land that isn’t yours. Once over the line maybe you can pick cotton in the fall. Maybe you can go on relief. Why don’t you go on west to California?
There’s work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why, there’s always some kind of crop to work in. Why don’t you go there?” And the owner men started their cars and rolled away.
The tenant men squatted down on their hams again to mark the dust with a stick, to figure, to wonder. Their sun- burned faces were dark, and their sun-whipped eyes were light. The women moved cautiously out of the doorways toward their men, and the children crept behind the women, cautiously, ready to run. The bigger boys squatted beside their fathers, because that made them men. After a time the women asked, What did he want?
And the men looked up for a second, and the smolder of pain was in their eyes. “We got to get off. A. tractor and a superintendent. Like factories.”
Where’ll we go? the women asked. “We don’t know. We don’t know.”
And the women went quickly, quietly back into the houses and herded the children ahead of them. They knew that a man so hurt and so perplexed may turn in anger, even on people he loves. They left the men alone to figure and to wonder in the dust.
After a time perhaps the tenant man looked about—at the pump put in ten years ago, with a goose-neck handle and iron flowers on the spout, at the chopping block where a thousand chickens had been killed, at the hand plow lying in the shed, and the patent crib hanging in the rafters over it.
The children crowded about the women in the houses. What we going to do, Ma? Where we going to go?
The women said, We don’t know, yet. Go out and play. But don’t go near your father. He might whale you if you go near him. And the women went on with the work, but all the time they watched the men squatting in the dust—perplexed and figuring.
The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects. They crawled over the ground, laying the track and rolling on it and picking it up. Diesel tractors, puttering while they stood idle; they thundered when they moved, and then settled down to a droning roar. Snub-nosed monsters raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground, but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, houses.
The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat. The thunder of the cylinders sounded through the country, became one with the air and the earth, so that earth and air muttered in sympathetic vibration. The driver could not control it—straight across country it went, cutting through a dozen farms and straight back. A twitch at the controls could swerve the cat’, but the driver’s hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tractor, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow got into the driver’s hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him—goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest., He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was nothing. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.
He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land. He could admire the tractor— its machined surfaces, its surge of power, the roar of its detonating cylinders; but it was not his tractor. Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades— not plowing but surgery, pushing the cut earth to the right where the second row of disks cut it and pushed it to the left; slicing blades shining, polished by the cut earth. And pulled behind the disks, the harrows combing with iron teeth so that the little clods broke
up and the earth lay smooth. Behind the harrows, the long seeders—twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses.
At noon the tractor driver stopped sometimes near a tenant house and opened his lunch: sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, white bread, pickle, cheese, Spam, a piece of pie branded like an engine part. He ate without relish. And tenants not yet moved away came out to see him, looked curiously while the goggles were taken off, and the rubber dust mask, leaving white circles around the eyes and a large white circle around nose and mouth. The exhaust of the tractor puttered on, for fuel is so cheap it is more efficient to leave the engine running than to heat the Diesel nose for a new start. Curious children crowded close, ragged children who ate their fried dough as they watched. They watched hungrily the unwrapping of the sandwiches, and their hunger- sharpened noses smelled the pickle, cheese, and Spam. They didn’t speak to the driver. They watched his hand as it carried food to his mouth. They did not watch him chewing; their eyes followed the hand that held the sandwich. After awhile the tenant who could not leave the place came out and squatted in the shade beside the tractor.
"Why, you’re Joe Davis’s boy’!" "Sure," the driver said. "W ell, what you doing this kind of work for—against your own people?"
"Three dollars a day. I got damn sick of creeping for my dinner—and not getting it. I got a wife and kids. We got to eat. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day."
"That’s right," the tenant said. "But for your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can’t eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?"
And the driver said, “Can’t think of that. Got to think of my own kids. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day. Times are changing, mister, don’t you know? Can’t make a living on the land unless you’ve got two, five, ten thousand acres and a tractor. Crop land isn’t for little guys like us any more. You don’t kick up a howl because you can’t make Fords, or because you’re not the telephone company. Well, crops are like that now. Nothing to do about it. You try to get three dollars a day someplace. That’s the only way.”
The tenant pondered. “Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.”
And the tenant pondered more. “But let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take time to get his fingers in, or can’t be there to walk on it—why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he can’t think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big—and he’s the servant of his property. That is so, too.”
The driver munched the branded pie and threw the crust away. “Times are changed, don’t you know? Thinking about stuff like that don’t feed the kids. Get your three dollars a day, feed your kids. You got no call to worry about anybody’s kids but your own. You get a reputation for talking like that, and you’ll never get three dollars a day. Big shots won’t give you three dollars a day if you worry about anything but your three dollars a day.”
"Nearly a hundred people on the road for your three dollars. Where will we go?"
"And that reminds me," the driver said, "you better get out soon. I’m going through the dooryard’ after dinner."
"You filled in the well this morning."
"I know. Had to keep the line straight. But I’m going through the dooryard after dinner. Got to keep the lines straight. And—well, you know Joe Davis, my old man, so I’ll tell you this. I got orders wherever there’s a family not moved out—if I have an accident— you know, get too close and cave the house in a little—well, I might get a couple of dollars. .And my youngest kid never had no shoes yet."
"I built it with my hands. Straightened old nails to put the sheathing on. Rafters are wired to the stringers with baling wire. It’s mine. I built it. You bump it down—I’ll be in the window with a rifle. You even come too close and I’ll pot you like a rabbit."
"It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’II lose my job if I don’t do it. And look—suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy."
"That’s so," the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill."
“You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.’ “
"Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank."
The driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.’ “
“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”
"I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all. Maybe, like you said, the property’s doing it. Anyway I told you my orders."
“I got to figure,” the tenant said. “We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.” The tenant sat in his doorway, and the driver thundered his engine and started off, tracks falling and curving, harrows combing, and the phalli of the seeder slipping into the ground. Across the dooryard the tractor cut, and the hard, foot-beaten ground was seeded field, and the tractor cut through again; the uncut space was ten feet wide. And back he came. The iron guard bit into the house- corner, crumbled the wall, and wrenched the little house from its foundation so that it fell sideways, crushed like a bug. And the driver was goggled and a rubber mask covered his nose and mouth. The tractor cut a straight line on, and the air and the ground vibrated with its thunder. The tenant man stared after it, his rifle in his hand. His wife was beside him, and the quiet children behind. And all of them stared after the tractor.

A Poem on Youth

fragile like a beaker
bored like a blade of grass

the summer is not so far away
in milk stained bowls
the wallowing of stinking sinks
rumbles with tectonic shifts
plates crackling
beneath broken toenails

I want to give thanks
thanks for this job I spend too much time at
for the dreams I’ve watched in the windows of my eyes fade into the distance
for poetry, like a lover that’s slighted me
for William Burroughs
and the ideas that nothing is worth a lick because we’ll all be dead

In the boulevards of Hollywood the crown weighs heavy
wealth is the language of love and adoration
multiplying children
scatter over granite sidewalks
unaware of their parents broken marriage
and the ideals of a whole country crumbles

I miss the rivers of my youth
The Hudson and Harlem River
The Mississippi
the peacefulness of water, cool
breezes cutting splinters down the spine

supine memories
undone by adulthood
coming to on the shoulder of some freeway
wearing coffee stained clothes
and water filling green eyes
unsure of the future
and attached to history

fragile like a glass spine
bored like a redwood. 

Some shots from the new show, READ ALL OVER, opening Saturday, February 12 2011 5 - 8 PM, 2255 India Street, Los Angeles, CA 90039.

Come check out some great art.

Even if she were true…

Texas radios
telecaster guitars
the element of chance on a
subway ride home from Brooklyn
with some fat bike messenger type
with tattooed legs and a chain
loosely belted around his waste

you’re in new york city kid
from the day you arrive
til the day you die
no salt water pacific sunset
is gonna change that, the N
train on September 11th
nursing a monster hangover
after another

night spent at the Cedar
some freckled girl angrily awakened
in a red morning sun rise
end of summer gaminess
and the responsibility
of early adulthood
commenting on your sore back.

The early sunrises of Santa Monica
come on like a bad cold, gradual
and gentle, nothing like those
blistering summer Sundays
on Avenue A with Doc Holidays and
Niagara pouring 2 for 1s
and little hip chicks
wearing spaghetti tops
and jean shorts,

waiting for the brunch in some
outdoor cafe
heads floating like balloons
and their eyes dark and sunken
like jack-o-lanterns
on a humid indian summer night.

I am alone
i was alone
i will always be alone
even when you are in my arms
even when i can hear you in the other room
even when you’re banging pots and pans and making a squash soup
even when you weep and i stare blankly at the cracked paint on the wall
even when you leave and you say you just need time to figure it out.

and oh those new york city nights
when i’ve walked the 40 blocks home
and I have cold sweat on my back
and the apartment is hot and dank and
miles above the taxi cabs and car horns and pedestrians
smoking and screaming and stumbling with hands knotted together all fumbly and weird
like copper wires in an old home wired by a cataract-ed ex-marine named Carl

and still, drunken and stumbling and slurring words
at the typer there was purpose, she was in the bathroom
and you sat down and just started telling a story
with no purpose but to make something up no matter
how ugly or depressing or pointless it was,

just to create the rhythm of phrases
and butting up against one another
like a fevered fight when everyone is screaming
like a pack of wolves.

She is gone, the memory of her
isn’t even real, it just was something
you/I made up and even if she were true
she’s back in New York City or more likely moved out to a brownstone
in Brooklyn with her new husband
and they baby they dressed up like a pumpkin
for Halloween.

~ Craig A. Platt, 11.1.2010

New Poem: A Trip By Train

A Trip By Train

I left the train
behind, it was snowing
and I was tired, so I didn’t
go and meet anyone at
any bar and countdown to
the new year

It’s occurred to me
more than once
that seasons are segments
of time meant to cure
or cause
it’s only natural

I was in bed when the planes hit
I was in bed when the space shuttle blew to pieces
I was in bed the day we started the invasion
I was in bed while she went into labor
I was in bed while you fell in love again
I was in bed when I was supposed to be at work

and the avenues are like
shallow canyons outside
my window,
not the bottomless
crevice of nightmares
but the shallow pools of youthful

The trains are all iron and
aluminum, silver screeching
bullets loaded with worriers
headed for different destinations
with a platform, a bad cup of
coffee and the USA Today in common
the weather meaning
a slide show in between

A soundtrack would
be nice for these types
of situations… Another
distraction from the eyeless
face that is your memory
crying babies
kicking feet
and a cold window
against my cheek

C. Platt, 9.14.2010
Los Angeles, CA

New Poem: Our Intellectual Satchels by Craig A. Platt

That book that I was
reading wasn’t very
good and I’m sorry that
i snapped at you when
you were only trying
to be helpful by
turning on the
lights and offering me
a beverage

I was alone, for
the first time in a
while, and you came
up from behind
scaring me
half to death.
The nightmares

continue to wash
over me like warm
water in a dirty swimming
pool, you and I
and all the people
we used to know

when we were social
and interesting
and interested in
the ideas in the atmosphere
that we could snatch and stuff
into our intellectual
satchels. This

is not an apology
but an admission
that perhaps life
hasn’t turned out

as we’d planned
and come to think of
whose really does,

the book I was reading
when you surprised me
with your voice, which used
to sound like a song bird,
and now like a siren,
was not very good
despite the rave reviews

and the websites dedicated
to its excellence
the author wears sportscoats
i bet, while teaching at an expensive
University with talented students
thinking he’s a Jesus-y type
able to teach them

how to turn
and wine into
and then they can buy
their own sports coats
and smile at their

minions. When you surprised
me I guess I was
lost in the filth and
the dirt
and the waste of time
I had been convinced
to partake in
by the cute bookstore girl
that looks like a pixie

you know the one.
So while I am not sorry,
why should i be?
I will say that when you surprised me
i was reading another book
I wish I’d never
but couldn’t

I was reading Mira Schor’s A Decade of Negative Thinking and watching to make sure my son didn’t fall into the lake. I was also intermittently following Twitter and saw Craig Platt’s invitation to submit work to him for a show called “Stay at Home.”