The Last Resort

The Last Resort

Arvin, California circa 1994.

A common subject for the “Songs from the Valley Towns” photographs was bars, both active and abandoned. The bar exteriors were frequently poetic, and I fondly remember the Last Resort, on the outskirts of Arvin, California on Bear Mountain Boulevard.

I’m not sure exactly where it was, but as I recall it was on the far side of town as the highway headed into the mountains. It’s gone now, I’m sure. I looked around on google maps and located similar buildings in the area, but nothing quite the same as “The Last Resort.”

Bear Mountain Blvd 1

Love the happy face in the lefthand window.

The view, btw., just on the other side of this building, pretty much looks like this:

Bear Mountain Blvd 2

Bear mountain lies directly down the road, as is fitting.

That view, which I didn’t record on that day, is the reason why I remember the approximate location so vividly.

Nonetheless, many of the bar exteriors I took in those years are hard to locate in memory. The Central Valley is full of them. For example, I have no idea where the El Cha Cha Cha bar was. Best guess is McFarland or Delano, but I can’t really be sure. I do remember a second version of this photo with a woman crossing the front of this bar which is better, but I haven’t been able to locate it.

El Cha Cha Cha Bar

However, after writing about King Lumber Company and doing the research, I located the Estrella bar: it was just down the street from there on 166 W. Perkins street in McFarland (the address is above the door).

Estrella Bar

Flanking the door, the Estrella bar proudly proclaims “live music” and identifies itself as a dance hall. No doubt there were countless Saturday nights passed by people who had worked the fields all week. The location looks a bit different these days, according to Google street view, but the “pole” motif is still in evidence.

166 W. Perkins

That’s the curious thing about the fog of progress; sometimes you can see for miles and still not know what you’re looking at. All the lost dreams, all of the songs, disappearing along with the world that used to be. We depend on an increasing array of memory devices, like photographs and stories, which we summon as a last resort, like maypoles to wrap our dreams around.

Postscript:

I suddenly remembered that I could look for signs of a street address on the Last Resort photo. Bingo! My memory was within a block of the original location, which is now a Chinese restaurant.

120 Bear Mountain Blvd.

120 Bear Mountain Blvd.

And, locating the negative strip I can now say that the El Cha Cha Cha bar was also in McFarland. The sequence of photographs, King Lumber, Estrella Bar, El Cha Cha Cha, etc. was taken in March 1993.

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The Fog of Progress

January 17, 1982

Selfie in a library parking lot, Southwest Bakersfield, 1982

Bakersfield is famous for its tule fog. It’s literally a low flying cloud that just can’t escape the ground. Lots of people die in automobile accidents during the fog season, but growing up there, I loved it. Fog days!

Fog is a powerful metaphor, and random google searching brought a short summary lecture on YouTube to my attention. The fog of progress, a final lecture in an online class on machine learning and neural networks, describes why it is so difficult to predict the future in quite meticulous and scientific terms.

It occurs to me, though, that it’s just as difficult to see through the fog of progress to understand the past.

Looking through some more of the “Songs from the Valley Towns” photographs, I started scratching my head trying to figure out where I took a particular photograph. It isn’t one of my favorites from the series, but I distinctly remember trying to make it work (visually) but thinking of it as a failure. Intellectually though, it’s a new favorite.

King Lumber Company

King Lumber Company, McFarland, CA March 1993

The project I undertook in the early 90s to photograph odd bits of landscape in the Central Valley was inspired by a musician friend, Scott Sturdevant (a.k.a Slim the Drifter) who recorded a cassette called “Songs from the Valley Towns.” Most people thought of the valley disparagingly (as far back as 1873, it turns out), but when Scott looked around he saw the hopes and dreams of the people who lived there. I saw those same hopes and dreams in the landscape. When dreams are in ruins, it’s hard to see them through the fog. There are a lot of ruins along Highway 99.

This photograph was one of the first I can identify from the series. I drove up Highway 99 from Bakersfield to the first real exit worth getting off at, which might have been McFarland— yes, the same McFarland immortalized by Kevin Costner in the 2015 track movie. I remembered vaguely, revisiting this one, that it was King Lumber Company (hard to forget, given the “crown” cut in the sign.) Nothing much remained but the “Co.” One of the great innovations, in my opinion, of photography in the 21st century is GPS data. It’s hard to remember where you actually took photographs as the fog of years rolls in.

King Lumber was a big clue, it turns out. Looking further into it turned up this photo from Bakersfield, captioned as being a location on Union Avenue (old Highway 99, actually) from 1911:

c45f637ba573b371bf77b43b9a98dd96A bit more research turned up that King Lumber was founded by twin brothers Everett and Elmore King, circa 1904.

Elmore-King The California Lumber Merchant from April 1, 1923 tells a story of Elmore King slipping out of a posh dinner to exchange clothes with the chef, in order to confront his host and demand payment up front for dinner.

His lumber empire grew to be huge. He founded a brick company as well, and I found notices that he became an importer of straw hats, clearly a great opportunity given the Bakersfield sun.

The trade publications also noted that he loved to play golf, and there are multiple references to his performance as a golfer. He expanded King Lumber to at least five different locations up and down the valley.

I located the address of the McFarland location from an old ad from 1961. This is what it looks like now, courtesy of Google street view:

KIng Lumber McFarland

The telephone poles are still there, and Highway 99, but not much else. King was the founder of a huge empire that is now largely gone. One thing seems to have survived from the King empire, at least in spirit. Although it’s a different organization from the Kern River Country Club King helped found (which died in 1935) The Bakersfield Country Club is located on the same spot.

Bakersfield Country Club is the area’s most exclusive golf club offering a limited number of full equity memberships and non-equity tennis and social memberships. It has a friendly tradition that started with its founding members. These were families with great pride and values born out of the farmlands and oil fields surrounding Bakersfield. These same values and friendliness have survived into second and third generation memberships since the inception of Bakersfield Country Club. There are many golf, tennis, and social events that keep the calendar busy year round.

I visited the Bakersfield Country Club once around the time that the photograph at the top of this post was taken, somewhere between 1980-82. The club is located near the Kern River, next to Lake Ming in a fairly deep valley, traversed by Alfred Harrell Highway. In the early years, the highway lead right to the golf course that the King brothers were instrumental in founding. Elmore King contributed redwood saplings from Eureka to the project. But when I was there, the highway ran from the bluffs on Panorama Heights to Highway 178, the Kern Canyon Highway. Notably, the county dump sat midway between, with oil fields on the other side of the river to the north, where my father worked until he retired in late 1982.

I wasn’t a member of the country club, but the lumber and hardware store where I worked, Sackett and Peters, threw a Christmas party there. I remember that party well, because it was the first and last time they ever booked the country club in the fog season. Down in the river basin, the fog was about a hundred times worse than it was in the city. By the time we stumbled out of the party around 2am, the fog was so thick that you couldn’t, without exaggeration, see the end of your own car from the driver’s seat.

Most people gave up and slept in the parking lot. However, my girlfriend Lisa and I braved it, along with Jim Powell, a nursery salesman and good friend of mine. Lisa and I were in my old Ford, and Jim had a small pick-up truck. It seemed like it took around an hour to locate the exit to the parking lot. I was reduced to driving with my door open, following the curb around the perimeter. Jim followed my tail lights, because my car was lower to the ground and it was easier to see the curb. When we got out of the parking lot (the toughest challenge of the night) the road up to Alfred Harrell Highway was easier; as you got higher, the visibility improved slightly.

Jim and I parted ways at the highway. I remember trying to convince him not to go his normal route back to his house in Panorama Heights (because the road dipped down lower from there), but he decided to brave it anyway. I turned left, toward the relative safety of the mountains. Jim headed towards the dump. I knew those roads like the back of my hand and felt like even if I couldn’t see, I could still drive them, and I’m sure Jim felt that same confidence of youth. Lisa and I made it home fine, as did Jim.

It dawned on me, as I went through the trouble of remembering this foggy story, and using arcane resources to locate addresses lost decades ago, that “the fog of progress” works both ways. While we are in constant danger, moving forward, of hitting the car that rides just ahead of us, we also flirt with the problem of running into the cars we used to be in, colliding with the past just as surely as we might crash into the future. After all, today is yesterday.

Oddly enough, this also implies the rota fortune, a distinctly medieval, rather than progressive, concept.

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Mom’s Motel

From the series "Songs from the Valley Towns," circa 1994

From the series “Songs from the Valley Towns,” circa 1994

Scanning some photographs I took in the mid 1990s, I located an interesting detail. There’s a B-17 parked near the edge of my photo. In twenty years, I never noticed that before. I might have, when I took it, but I’ve slept since then.

Mom's Motel (detail)

What always intrigued me more was the name of the hotel, adjacent to Highway 99 in the Central Valley of California. We’ve all stayed at mom’s motel, haven’t we? Growing up in the Valley, I spent a lot of time driving around, and quite to this day I feel that the highway is my home. It’s the landscape I know, and in most ways, my favorite book. There’s always something interesting to read.

2008

2008

Before I could drive, I used to ride my bicycle down to Milt’s Coffee shop, just across Highway 99 from Oildale, California to sit and read.  One of the books I distinctly remember reading there was On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Milt’s seemed like the natural place to read it; the view was perfect.

 

Milt's Coffee ShopThis was always my landscape— weeds and freeways. It’s been a strange transition, to go from this to the mid-south, to the upper midwest, and finally to the east. I’m going to visit Maine next week, for the first time. It’s a long way from Oildale. I’ve never understood why others weren’t as fascinated as me by the man-altered landscape. I never found it ugly at all.

I feel as if I’ve really discovered a kindred spirit in J.B. Jackson. His obituary in the New York Times spells it out succinctly. I look forward to reading the next chapter out there on the highway.

Whenever we go, whatever the nature of our work, we adorn the face of the earth with a living design which changes and is eventually replaced by that of a future generation. How can one tire of looking at this variety, or of marveling at the forces within man and nature that brought it about?

The city is an essential part of this shifting and growing design, but only a part of it. Beyond the last street light, out where the familiar asphalt ends, a whole country waits to be discovered: villages, farmsteads and highways, half-hidden valleys of irrigated gardens, and wide landscapes reaching to the horizon. A rich and beautiful book is always open before us. We have but to learn to read it.

John Brinkerhoff Jackson, “The Need to be Versed in Country Things,” Landscape , Vol. 1 No. 1. Spring 1951

I’ll never forget opening up Ed Ruscha’s books when I started college: Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, Thirty-four Parking Lots, and especially Every Building on the Sunset Strip. BC actually had a copy, thanks to Harry Wilson.

These books taught me to pay attention to something besides pornography. Landscape porn, in particular, has overshadowed the way most people look at the world and I find it awfully sad. This was the primary lesson I learned as a young adult, staying at mom’s motel.

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Knowledge and Power

And underneath the flutter leaf
The reams of dreams array
Melting into make-believe
I hear you gently say
Oh please let our people say
Just how hard they want to play
For you know very well Judas is betraying them tomorrow

I’ve been thinking about the imagery in this tune for a while. It was a work in progress when this was recorded, and in his lyric book, The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper omits several of the lines, including “melting into make-believe.” There is a line that he added that explicates the image more deeply, “I hear our likeness say.”

“Flutter leaf” is either a metaphor, or an English variant of fly leaf (the blank page that begins a printed book). In The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper doesn’t comment on the lyric much but does illustrate it with pictures of protest marches, and given the timing of the song it’s easy to see it as a celebration of the great “hippie” awakening in the late 1960s. The way I read these lines, it’s as if “today” is a book which begs to be read optimistically, and “our likeness” (the representation of our world as it is, as in hippie solidarity and the power of people) invites us to dream of a better world, as futile as that might be.

The literature of power, to use Thomas DeQuincey’s term, is powerful in that it invites us to dream of things beyond ourselves; it is polysemous, filled with multiple meanings that invite us to play with them. The working title of the song, “The Garden of Gethsemane” is taken from the site where Jesus rested before he was crucified, a place where 900 year old olive trees are said to grow. Cultural traditions, religious and otherwise, exert a sort of gravitational pull.

The gravity of these literary images is refracted by the other reading that I’ve been doing. As DeQuincey puts it,  “No man escapes the contagion from his contemporary bystanders.” Or, better still, I keep viewing them through  a Claude glass. There was a series of blog posts initiated by Joshua Klein, on “Real  Craft.” It’s not an academic discussion, and academic precision and pedantry is anathema to most craft workers. Interestingly, Peter Follansbee took great exception to a minor point of definition:

He “state(s) the obvious: craft implies tradition.” His words, his emphasis. I don’t necessarily understand why or how that’s obvious. Nor do I think it’s true. To me, craft/crafted means made by someone – the action of someone making things. Pretty broad definition.

Klein says that “craft implies tradition.” If he were writing academically, would have said “craft connotes tradition.” It’s in the cultural baggage that attaches itself to the term, a baggage that Follansbee wants to distance himself from, as he continues:

“Traditional” is one of those terms that means one thing to one person, something else to another. I make 17th-century style furniture, using only hand tools – but some of mine are now/have always been, more modern versions of period tools. I know I have used the term “traditional” before, I might still. But I’m nowadays pretty careful with the use of words like that – because of their shifting and varying meanings. Or perceived meanings.

Commenters (perhaps of an academic bent) suggested that using the term techne might be better than “craft” to resolve things more finely; I’ve written on that extensively over the years, and in a nutshell it means an ability to make with an awareness of the thing being made. That’s only slightly more specific than what Follansbee suggests, leaving room for interpretation but transferring craft from verb to noun; craft is, I think, more than just an action. But that’s just a substitution of a specific word for a general one, it doesn’t address the relationship between craft (as a knowledge) with tradition.

I think that Klein was not nearly so off base as Follansbee suggests; it’s polysemy at work. But, his point is an interesting one and a point echoed numerous times by Roy Underhill. In essence, he wants to be thought of as a woodworker of today, not yesterday. However, I think it’s inescapable—today is yesterday, as Roy Harper so succinctly puts it.

For some people, “tradition” connotes stability, strength, and connection with heritage. For others, it connotes rigidity, inflexibility, and slavery to an idyllic conception of the past. Choosing words carefully matters, because when you invite people to dream you don’t want them to have nightmares. But the oscillation between two different sets of connotations can be simultaneously true and false. It’s a paradox, and a productive one; in a sense, it’s the power, or “wind” that fills our sails, as DeQuincey would have it, demonstrative of words (literature) to move us to deeper understanding.

The literature of knowledge is different. To “know” things rather than drawing strength and inspiration from them means having a precise understanding of what the words you’re using mean. DeQuincey’s benchmark for that is the encyclopedia. Not fun to read, but useful. Much of craft literature falls in that category, but as DeQuincey also notes, there is a hybrid literature that qualifies as both.

It isn’t pedantic to consider definitons. Even when we’re not composing dense academic treatises, it isn’t counterproductive to insist that words denote things. Their likeness (which shifts across time) says volumes about what matters to us, but their metaphors, the riddles of connotation, gives us the space to play until our definitions collapse, replaced by new and improved ones.

I have no interest in defining “real craft,” because it suggests a false dichotomy between authentic and inauthentic craft. However, I am interested in paging through the book of craft both seeking precise meanings and spaces where the reams of dreams melt into make believe. Continuing Harper’s biblical motif, I’m also drawn to DeQuincey’s reference to a prayer box in summarizing the literature of knowledge:

The knowledge literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. An encyclopedia is its abstract; and, in this respect, it may be taken for its speaking symbol — that before one generation has passed an encyclopedia is superannuated; for it speaks through the dead memory and unimpassioned understanding, which have not the repose of higher faculties, but are continually enlarging and varying their phylacteries.

Devout Jews literally bind their tradition to their bodies, but for everyone, response to tradition is inevitable. This entire exercise, I suppose, is best summarized by the central paradox: Today is yesterday.

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From Thomas Jefferson to Henry Knox, 1 June 1795

Have you become a farmer? Is it not pleasanter than to be shut up within 4. walls and delving eternally with the pen? I am become the most ardent farmer in the state. I live on my horse from morning to night almost. Intervals are filled up with attentions to a nailery I carry on. I rarely look into a book, and more rarely take up a pen. I have proscribed newspapers, not taking a single one, nor scarcely ever looking into one. My next reformation will be to allow neither pen, ink, nor paper to be kept on the farm. When I have accomplished this I shall be in a fair way of indemnifying myself for the drudgery in which I have passed my life. If you are half as much delighted with the farm as I am, you bless your stars at your riddance from public cares.

Thomas Jefferson

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Get out the vote

Frank Zappa, 1988, photograph by Lynn Goldsmith

Frank Zappa, 1988, photograph by Lynn Goldsmith

AP, Associated Press

(AP) _ Rock ‘n’ roll singer Frank Zappa has pledged to register fans at his concert here tonight to vote, and the League of Women Voters couldn’t be happier.

The alliance prompted one elderly league member to joke that he would turn down the volume on his hearing aid during the concert, said Pittsburgh League President Marsha Bingler.

”I consider that an upbeat comment,” said Ms. Bingler. ”The gentleman who said that is about 70 years old. He does have trouble with his hearing.

”I’ve had no one in the league say anything other than that this is a worthwhile effort,” she said. ”The league encourages the widest participation in the electoral process.”

Zappa said 400 people registered at his recent concert in Boston, and about 380 registered at a stop in Hartford, Conn.

”The only way to change what is going on is to vote,” he said. ”Unless young people get involved, their decisions will be made by people older than them who don’t know or don’t care.”

In 1972, when the age requirement for voting was dropped to 18 years old, Frank Zappa began printing “don’t forget to register to vote” on his LP sleeves. I wasn’t aware that his huge voter drive, which began around 1985, was in partnership with the League of Women Voters. I’ve been thinking about voting in these perilous times, and about Frank Zappa, amongst other things.

Listening to the Looking Backward podcast with Chris Schwarz a few days back, he brought up an issue that I hadn’t heard him reference in any of his books or articles—the right of a workman to own his tools. During the time of the guilds, only “authorized” people could possess and use certain tools. To be truly free, access to tools is important. Frank Zappa famously quipped, “communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff,” but at the same time, he also railed against the abuses of capitalism and fetishizing property. There really isn’t an either/or decision to be made about this issue. There is, however, a big decision to be made about participation.

I find it completely beyond my understanding that somehow, starting in the late nineteenth century, many anarchists insisted that it was wrong to participate in the voting process. Schwarz is among the contemporary anarchists that abides by this today. Watching another Ken Burns documentary, this time on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over the last few days reminded me of some parts of history that I had somehow let go of. The struggle for a woman’s right to vote began first as a property struggle.

I still remember fondly teaching, in first year composition at the University of Arkansas, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. It’s an astoundingly powerful document, penned by Elizabeth Cady Stanton for the First Women’s Rights Convention held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19th and 20th, 1848. It’s written with a kind of force that should resonate to audiences then and now, and an outstanding gateway to teaching persuasion to writers. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence penned by Jefferson, it provides impeccable Lockean logic for the struggle which began there. The incredible thing is that only one of the signers of this declaration was alive at the time that women finally achieved the right to vote in 1920, as the crowning moment for a movement that began there in Seneca Falls.

The movement didn’t stop there. In 1919, before the amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified, the women of that struggle banded together to figure out how to continue the fight after achieving the right to vote. The new organization formed was the League of Women Voters.

In a democracy, voting isn’t the beginning or the end of the struggle for human rights. It’s simply a pivot point, and an important one at that. What’s the first step to freedom? The right to not be classified as property, e.g., the Emancipation Proclamation. Not far beyond this though, is the right to own property. This was a right that women in New York didn’t have until just before the convention. The New York Married Women’s Property Act was passed April 7, 1848:

Sec. 1. The real and personal property of any female who may hereafter marry, and which she shall own at the time of marriage, and the rents issues and profits thereof shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts, and shall continue her sole and separate property, as if she were a single female.

Sec. 2 The real and personal property, and the rents issues and profits thereof of any female now married shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband; but shall be her sole and separate property as if she were a single female except so far as the same may be liable for the debts of her husband heretofore contracted.

Sec. 3. It shall be lawful for any married female to receive, by gift, grant devise or bequest, from any person other than her husband and hold to her sole and separate use, as if she were a single female, real and personal property, and the rents, issues and profits thereof, and the same shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts.

Sec. 4. All contracts made between persons in contemplation of marriage shall remain in full force after such marriage takes place.

Step one was a hard fought battle—this law made it possible for women to own businesses, like newspapers, to attempt to get the full benefits of civil society. Step two, the vote, took another 72 years. Step three, equal opportunity, stalled in 1982. The history of this battle is full of reversals of fortune, and advances followed by movements backward— losses of rights. It can, and does happen. The only thing that changes that is the ballot.

The thing that struck me the most in the Ken Burns documentary is the voices of those early women voters who proudly proclaimed that they had voted a straight republican ticket. Since that time, the parties have of course exchanged positions. My father and mother generally voted a straight democratic ticket, and my father remembered fondly that he managed to vote for F.D.R. once; he didn’t remain in office long, but at least my father felt like he had made a difference.

I got that same feeling when I managed to vote for Al Franken in my last vote before leaving Minnesota. Then I knew what my father really meant. That particular election was a hotly contested fight with an incumbent, which went through an arduous recount. It mattered, and Al has hung onto that seat and spoken out for issues that really matter to me. It hurts, physically hurts me, when people like Schwarz claim that this sort of civic participation doesn’t matter because they prefer to “opt out” of the system. There is no “outside” the system.

I note with terror that Donald Trump briefly formed the “Lions Guard” to protect people at his rallies, a direct analog to the brown shirts. I had suspected that this was coming. My wife just pointed out to me that the comparison, as far as efficacy goes, must be handed to Hitler because at least he had a coherent agenda. And the first move of any dictator is to suspend elections; first that goes, and soon your right to property disappears. The pathway to human rights can lead both ways. How can anyone opt out?

1B161047-155D-451F-67E1850C97F43AD5-large

Home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, NY. Park Service Photo

Yesterday, my wife and I stood in front of this house. It’s a small house, really. Apparently it was larger when she lived there, with an equal wing with front porch on the opposite side. Just down the street is the Seneca River, just past the falls. We both marveled that besides being such a profound writer, she also raised seven children in this house, and at least one of her daughters continued the fight into the twentieth century.

Voting is central to freedom, not something that you can simply ignore while you dream of a better world. I was amazed to read her daughter, Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch’s book Mobilizing Woman-Power from 1918. Obviously, it central concern is World War I. The pragmatism of the women’s movement, 70 years on, is well considered:

Let us admit the full weight of the paradox that a people in the name of peace turns to force of arms. The tragedy for us lay in there being no choice of ways, since pacific groups had failed to create machinery to adjust vital international differences, and since the Allies each in turn, we the last, had been struck by a foe determined to settle disagreements by force.

Never did a nation make a crusade more just than this of ours. We were patient, too long patient, perhaps, with challenges. We seek no conquest. We fight to protect the freedom of our citizens. On America’s standard is written democracy, on that of Germany autocracy. Without reservation women can give their all to attain our end.

There may be a cleavage between the German people and the ruling class. It may be that our foe is merely the military caste, though I am inclined to believe that we have the entire German nation on our hands. The supremacy of might may be a doctrine merely instilled in the minds of the people by its rulers. Perhaps the weed is not indigenous, but it flourishes, nevertheless. Rabbits did not belong in Australia, nor pondweed in England, but there they are, and dominating the situation. Arrogance of the strong towards the weak, of the better placed towards the less well placed, is part of the government teaching in Germany. The peasant woman harries the dog that strains at the market cart, her husband harries her as she helps the cow drag the plough, the petty officer harries the peasant when he is a raw recruit, and the young lieutenant harries the petty officer, and so it goes up to the highest,–a well-planned system on the part of the superior to bring the inferior to a high point of material efficiency. The propelling spirit is devotion to the Fatherland: each believes himself a cog in the machine chosen of God to achieve His purposes on earth. The world hears of the Kaiser’s “Ich und Gott,” of his mailed fist beating down his enemies, but those who have lived in Germany know that exactly the same spirit reigns in every class. The strong in chastizing his inferior has the conviction that since might makes right he is the direct representative of Deity on the particular occasion.

The overbearing spirit of the Prussian military caste has drilled a race to worship might; men are overbearing towards women, women towards children, and the laws reflect the cruelties of the strong towards the weak.

Whether the comparison is with the conditions leading to the first, or the second world war, we have no need for another tyrant who places the strong over the weak. The head macho-man himself, Teddy Roosevelt puts it succinctly in his introduction:

No man who is not blind can fail to see that we have entered a new day in the great epic march of the ages. For good or for evil the old days have passed; and it rests with us, the men and women now alive, to decide whether in the new days the world is to be a better or a worse place to live in, for our descendants.

In this new world women are to stand on an equal footing with men, in ways and to an extent never hitherto dreamed of. In this country they are on the eve of securing, and in much of the country have already secured, their full political rights. It is imperative that they should understand, exactly as it is imperative that men should understand, that such rights are of worse than no avail, unless the will for the performance of duty goes hand in hand with the acquirement of the privilege.

I was taught that voting was a basic “performance of duty.” Without that sense of duty, we stand to lose whatever privileges we have gained so far. Being a member of civil society means that you fulfil your duty, even if you may have “a tendency to mistrust organizations.” Without organization, the law would still sanction (as it does in many parts of the globe) women being bought and sold or being treated as the property of a husband.

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Tempora mutantur

How fish out of water find their feet

How fish out of water find their feet: A 19th century line engraving by W Cooke demonstrating the gradual evolution of fish to human.

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis! Times change and we change with them. Our feet do the same. Sometimes they are small, sometimes large, sometimes pointed, sometimes wide. And so the shoemaker sometimes makes small, sometimes large, sometimes pointed, sometimes wide shoes.

Of course, the form of our feet does not change from season to season. That often requires several centuries, at the very least a generation. A large foot cannot get smaller at the snap of the finger. Here the other clothing artists have it easier. Wide waistlines, narrow waistlines, broad shoulders, narrow shoulders, and so much else—changes can be easily made by means of a new cut, cotton padding, and other aids. But the shoemaker must adhere closely to the form which the foot has at the particular moment. If he wants to introduce the small shoe, he must wait patiently until the race of men with large feet has become extinct.

Adolf Loos, Neue Freie Presse, August 7, 1898

I’ve long been frustrated by my large wide feet. It’s hard to find decent shoes, and when I do manage to find things in wider widths they are frequently in the form of really garish brightly colored tennis shoes. It’s irritating, to say the least. Adolf Loos’s thoughts on the matter were of great interest to me, particularly since he highlights the possibility, comic as it is, that social and technological changes may indeed inevitably change our appearance, not just because of fashion but also because of our work, and pastimes.

Recently the revival of Germanic culture has again made riding respectable. All those who thought and felt modern in the last century bought English riding shoes and boots, even if they did not own a horse. The riding boot was the symbol of the free man, who had won a final victory over the buckled shoe, the air of the court, and the glistening parquet floor. Feet still remained small, but the high heel, useless for the horseback rider, was left behind. The whole of the following century, our century, that is, was taken up with the pursuit of the smallest possible foot.

But in the course of this century the human foot began to undergo a change. Our social circumstance made it necessary for us to walk more quickly each year. Saving time meant saving money. Even the most elegant circles, people who had plenty of time, were caught up in it and accelerated their pace. The normal gait of a vigorous pedestrian of today matches that of the footman running in front of the carriages of the last century. It would be impossible for us to walk as slowly as people did in earlier times. We are too nervous for that.

When I moved from California to Arkansas I was utterly shocked with the change in walking pace. I found myself routinely walking straight into automatic doors, because in the south they actually opened more slowly than they did in California. I had no idea that there were such profound regional differences in gait. I’ve slowed down a lot, after years in the South and the Midwest, and I must say I’m much happier for it. Curiously though, now that I live in New York, I find that I walk far too slow for many folks around here. Oh well, I’m comfortable with it and don’t feel much need to keep up with the New Yorkers. I can pick up the pace, if it causes a traffic hazard, but I’ve found that if you slow down you see more, and enjoy life more.

I can see the impact of social custom, to be sure, but I find it a bit difficult to buy into the idea that walking paces are altered by technology. Nonetheless, Loos’s essay moves from the impact on the transition from walking, to horseback, to mountain climbing, to the latest social catalyst: the bicycle.

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The bicyclist is the mountain climber of the plains. That is why he dresses like the climber. He does not need high boots and long pants. He wears pants that are wide around the knee, ending beneath it in cuffs on top which are folded-over stockings are worn. (They are folded over in both Scotland and the Alps so that they will not slip down the leg.) In this way the leg has enough free-play underneath the pants so that it is possible to go from a stretched-out leg position to a bent-knee position unimpeded. Incidentally, let me mention here that there are individuals in Vienna who do not at all understand the purpose of the cuffs and who pull their stockings up underneath their cuffs. They make the same comical impression as do the many false natives who render the mountains unsafe every summer in the Alps.

For footwear, the bicyclist wears laced-up shoes like the mountaineer. Shoes with laces will dominate the next century just as riding boots dominated this century. The English have discovered the direct transition; they still wear both kinds today. But we have put out a hideous hybrid for the transitional period: the ankle boot. The most unpleasant thing about the appearance of the ankle boot became obvious when short pants came in. It was clear immediately: one could not wear ankle boots without the beneficent camouflage of long pants. . . .

Most of the Loos’s contemporaries (that I’ve located, at least) are far more concerned with women’s bicycle fashions rather than men’s. For men, exposed ankles mean the death of ankle boots, but for women, there’s another side effect: a new female body part to evaluate, as noted in a Chicago Sun article from May 30, 1897. It takes a city by city tour, offering illustrations and commentary on women’s ankles from various cities.

BostonAs you are all so well aware, Boston for her intellectuals, and no more than a cursory glance at this really attractive view, which the artist has appropriately labeled “A Pair of Spectacles,” will show to any one that there is far more of the psychical than the physical in what we now have before us. There is a delicate grace and refinement limned upon the canvas, so to speak, that is as transcendental in its esoteric concept of the metempsychosis of a plate of beans as there is in the sacred codfish that flutters its ichthyological tail  over the dome of the State House.

In the next column of the large format newsprint there is a similarly slender, and stylish write-up of Chicago. Directly above that, and as a foil for the obviously attractive Chicago ankles, is Albany, New York:

AlbanyTo one who in love of nature holds communion with her visible forms, she speaks a various language, as a rule, but in this instance she doesn’t say a word but “hills, hills, hills,” and adds a cuss word now and then, not only for the labor involved, but for the unbeautiful results of the wheel in daily use. We can imagine from what we have seen here how Hendrik Hudson must have looked when he got out of his boat and walked up the bank to see what kind of country his posterity would have to live in. Had Gretchen Hudson been there then she would have simply said “Oh papa!” and made the old gentlemen go West until he struck the level.

8143102_rubio-mocks-stumpy-mctrumpfingers-and-it_632057b1_mObviously, this Chicago writer didn’t see larger feet and ankles as being attractive. I suspect having odd-sized  extremities has long been a source of humor. Small hands on men are as taboo as large feet on women.

 

One suspects that Loos’s attitude was satiric:

In fashionable circles feet are no longer as small as they used to be because of pedestrian activity. They are constantly increasing in size. The big feet of English men and women no longer summon up our mockery. We too climb mountains, have bicycles, and—horrible dictu—now have acquired English feet. But, let’s take comfort. The beauty of the small foot is slowly beginning to fade, especially for men. Recently, I received a letter from America with a description of Rigo; it ended by saying “A pair of revoltingly small feet! That sounds convincing. The new teaching begins in America: revoltingly small feet! Holy Clauren, if you had only lived to experience it! You, whose heroes could never have small enough feet to appear as paragons of noble manhood in the visions and dreams of a hundred thousand German girls! Tempora Mutantur. . .

1896 Stearns Bicycle ad

1896 Stearns Bicycle ad

Loos’s article caused a stir, apparently, and he responded to it in a follow-up article. It wasn’t the thought that the size of feet would be changing that bothered people, but because it was seen as professing the end of ankle boots and the ascendancy of lace-up shoes. Like the loden hat, the ankle boot was seen as the “national shoe” of Austria. The witty conclusion of that article merits saving:

Our minds may be set at rest. We Austrians will be able to step out smartly in our shoes in the upcoming century. And good shoes will be necessary in the next century because we are going to be on the march. The American Walt Whitman, the greatest Germanic poet since Goethe, has seen this century with prophetic eye. He sings:

Have the elder races halted?

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

No, we are not standing still, old Walt Whitman. The ancient Germanic blood still flows in our veins, and we are ready to march forward. We will do our best to help change the world of sitters and standers into a world of work and marching.

Neue Freie Presse, August 14, 1898

When I read this, I immediately thought of Frank Zappa’s piece “America Drinks and Goes Marching,” but there isn’t the time and space to discuss that today.

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The Hat Makes the Man

Aufmarsch der oesterr. Heimwehren in Wiener Neustadt

Aufmarsch der oesterr. Heimwehren in Wiener Neustadt

men-franz-bittner-austria-loden-crush-hat_766969_175The Heimwehr [home guard] was an Austrian nationalist paramilitary group founded in the later part of the 1920s as an answer to the rise of socialism. There organizing uniform included a distinctively Austrian hat, the loden. I didn’t know what a loden looked like until I started researching hats in an effort to understand an essay by Adolf Loos.

How is fashion determined? Who determines fashion? These are clearly very difficult questions.

The Vienna Hatter’s Association reserved the right to solve these problems in a playful matter, at least in the area of headgear. It meets twice a year around an official green table and dictates to the whole world exactly what model of hat will be worn in the following season. To the whole world, mind you. It will not be a hat that belongs to the Viennese local costume; it will not be a hat that our firemen, cabbies, idlers, dandies and other Viennese local types will make use of. Oh no, the members of the Hatter’s Association does not worry their heads about these people. For hat fashion is intended strictly for the gentleman, and everyone knows that the clothing of the gentlemen has nothing to do with the sundry apparel of the masses—except, of course, in the area of athletics, which is, as we know, an earthier activity. And as gentlemen all over the world dress alike, the Vienna Hatter’s Association sets the style for the entire Western cultural world.

(“Men’s Hats,” Neue Freie Presse, July 24, 1898)

imagesSome things change, some things don’t. Hats often become an organizing element of cultural groups. There’s also frequently an element of nationalism. Of course the Viennese Hatter’s Association would meet around a green table, echoing the green felt loden hat. And Trump would pick the baseball cap— a surrogate for the national pastime. These days, it’s sports fans that dress alike, not gentlemen.

The Hatter’s Association has only to publicize the form of hat which is accepted as modern all over the world, and especially in the very best circles, rather than passing off as modern a hat created by the whims of one of its members. As a consequence, exports would increase and imports would decrease. Finally, it would also be no misfortune if everyone, down to the man in the smallest provincial town, would wear just as elegant a hat as the Viennese aristocrat. (ibid, 52)

Curiously, if most people these days adopted wearing the signature baseball cap, the result would be a “leveling down” rather than an upgrade in social station. Of course, this is idle conjecture—as it was in 1898.

The times of dress code regulations are really over. But many of decisions of this Association gave a direct impact on our hat industry. The top hat will now be worn somewhat lower than last season. The Association, however, has decided that next season’s top hat should be heightened once again. And the result of this? The English hatters are already preparing now for an extraordinary volume of exports of silk hats to the Austrian market since modern top hats will not be able to be had from the Viennese hatmakers next winter. (ibid, 52)

In my hat research, I was more than a little shocked to find that Loos was right—indeed, English hatmakers had conquered the world in the late 19th century. The most popular hat in the American West was not the stetson, but rather the ubiquitous bowler.

The Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy

The Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy

If only the Viennese Hatmaker’s Association would have followed Adolf Loos’s advice:

The activity of the Association could also be aimed in another direction to good effect. The national hat of Austria, the loden hat, is beginning to make its tour of the world. It has already appeared in England. The Prince of Wales encountered it on a hunting trip in Austria, became enamored of it, and took the style home with him. Thus the loden hat, for men as well as women, has conquered English society. It is truly a critical moment, especially for the loden hat industry. The question is, of course, who is going to make loden hats for English society? The Austrians of course—as long as the Austrians produce those styles that English society desires. But an infinite amount of sensitivity is necessary for this, an exact knowledge of a society, a feeling for elegance and a good nose for what is to come. One cannot impose styles on these people by the brutal majority decision taken around the green table. (ibid, 52)

'The Avengers' - TV Programme - 1967Unfortunately, the loden hat never did quite conquer the world. Growing up, I didn’t really attach any sort of revolutionary or outlaw significance to the bowler. If anything, John Steed was a role model for elegant conservatism, but with the same sort of sensitivity regarding society that Loos was on about.

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In the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a dapper young Hungarian revolutionary named József Tibor Fejes who captured an AK-47 posed with his rifle and bowler hat. It’s the rifle that catches most people’s attention rather than the hat.

The use of hats as nationalistic symbols is deeply troubling. In fact, the entire concept of a “national” style is fraught with peril. Adolf Loos nails it precisely, with his concern about nationalism and wall building:

It would, however, be desirable for our Hatter’s association to try to develop contact with other peoples of culture. The creation of a national Austrian style is an illusion; to cling obstinately to it would cause our industry incalculable damage. China is beginning to tear down its wall, and is well advised to do so. We must not tolerate the effort of people to erect a great Chinese wall around us out of a false and parochial sense of patriotism. (ibid, 53)

One thing is certain though, the bowler is a bit of a universal symbol for those who have made it. C.C. Baxter, in The Apartment, dons his bowler when he gets a promotion, because now he feels worthy of wearing it.

Lemmon-MacLaine-and-MacMurray-in-The-Apartment-1960

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The Apartment

The_Apartment_Shirley_MacLaine_as_Fran_Kubelik_uniform
It’s been hard to collect my thoughts about Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Lately, I’ve been drawn to movies that seem like real life. People are complicated, and though it’s fun from time to time to watch sci-fi or action adventures, real life isn’t usually about “adventures.” It’s about dealing with mundane, but important, things. I was listening to Looking Sideways yesterday, and I really couldn’t get into Pascal Anson’s project, Ordinary Made Extraordinary. The ordinary is fine just the way it is, as far as I’m concerned.

There is a certain sense of comfort in driving a car that looks like every other car, rather than a contact paper “masterpiece.” It may be a clever joke to cover one in contact paper, but having grown up in a bit of a “ghetto” where people often customized their cars with stickers that peel and fade, in an effort to give them personality, this art project seems forced and faux—faux rebellion, rather than introspective evaluation of our day to day habits and routines. It’s those routines, and deviations from them, that make The Apartment such a magical film.

Some of the most meaningful commentary on the magic I’ve found is from writer and comedian  Hallie Cantor. She begins by discussing the writing of Christmas episodes for TV, and the quality found in the film:

It’s hard to put into abstract descriptive terms this very specific way in which The Apartment, the last day of classes, and Christmas episodes make me feel happy. It’s something to do with the sense of being stuck in a group with people you wouldn’t necessarily choose, but feeling a part of something anyway. Something to do with a good, cheerful kind of sadness, the sense of romance and coziness and hopefulness this movie lends to mundane crappy nights spent eating frozen pizza and watching TV alone. A satisfaction that even if your heart has been broken and you’re walking home in the dark from the library and it’s a ridiculously early hour for it to be dark out, it’s all going to be okay because good things will happen and for now you can just enjoy being romantically sad in the snow and twinkly lights.

I hadn’t really thought that much about the “film within the film” where Jack Lemmon sits alone in the apartment, eating chicken and attempting to watch TV while being constantly interrupted by commercials. It’s details like that which hold the brilliance of Billy Wilder’s satire. Yes, it’s sad—but it’s also okay. The same could be said for those tired moments at the desk at the office, brought on not by overwork but because he had surrendered his apartment to his superiors at work—it’s sad, yes— but it’s also okay if he gets what he wants out of the arrangement: a promotion.

The moment when it becomes “not okay” is when Jack Lemmon becomes a mensch. And he becomes a mensch when Fran Kubelik is no longer an elevator operator in her uniform, but a real person. The setting matters, and not simply the office set that I described previously, but the “home” space, the apartment at the center of the film. Hallie Cantor puts it precisely:

There’s a location in the film that’s even more impersonal than the office with its rows of desks and crowds streaming into elevators: the apartment itself. It may look homier than the office, but no one is special to anyone there. Lovers are interchangeable (“Before me there was Miss Rossi in Auditing, and after me there was Miss Koch in Disability, and right before you there was Miss, um, oh, What’s-Her-Name on the twenty-fifth floor”). You have an affair with someone and then you send them a fruitcake every Christmas.

The fantasy of this movie, and of thousands of romantic comedies that are less romantic and less funny, is that you will be special to someone. You will be singular and adorable and the only one out of 31,259 people that somebody wants to love.

Everyone in this film is being traded or sold in one way or another, frequently to mutual advantage. The settings, and the people, are brought to life by the use of tiny details. Fran Kubelik is an elevator operator because she failed the typing test—she couldn’t spell. I immediately empathised with this myself. I’ve always had a love of literature, but my mechanical writing skills came to me late in life, in my late 30s as a matter of fact. I was hopelessly inept. This detail, and other little details make the film memorable.

A non-standard feature of the apartment kitchen was the tennis racket. Just as contact paper would make a crappy surface for a car, a tennis racket isn’t a very good colander:

The Apartment Jack Lemmon

The apartment kitchen is interesting on a couple of levels. Like a typical apartment or Frankfurt kitchen, it doesn’t really hold two people. It’s a solitary space, echoing a solitary lifestyle. Fran can really only stick her head in, while Mr. Baxter is working. And he works with abandon, with joy, in putting together their meal. The choice of the tennis racket is idiosyncratic, but it doesn’t come across as a “forced” rebellion in the same sense as strangely decorated commonplace objects—it’s a pragmatic choice to reuse a piece of sports equipment. The plot doesn’t suggest that Mr. Baxter has many opportunities for tennis, so why not put the racket to use?

Returning to Ms. Kubelik, it’s worth noting that she isn’t simply a drone at the mercy of those with power over her, it’s not so much a case of succumbing to the power of Mr. Sheldrake (as is the case, with C.C. Baxter) but believing in the fantasy that he will leave his wife. Billy Wilder accentuates this with the curious detail of a paper crown:

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This is the scene when Fran decides to keep her date with Mr. Baxter, when she decides to give up on her fantasy. She removes the crown. As she leaves the restaurant, she is spotted by Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary, reinforcing the idea that the danger of public spaces is surveillance. This disclosure, confirmation of their intimacy, is significant. From this moment on, the illusions are shattered.   Shirley MacLaine recalls that this was the most difficult scene for her to get right, to meet Billy Wilder’s expectations.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”

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That’s the terse Austrian temper that I’ve grown used to in Adolf Loos. The critique offered isn’t candy-coated, it’s served up like a sharp shot of battery acid. MacLaine, as she tells the story, withstood the pressure:

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

That scene grounds the later disclosure, at the Christmas party, that Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary is aware of what has gone on; she puts Fran in her place by the litany of others who had also succumbed to his fantasy. The mechanism driving the plot is systematically furthered, but with healthy touches of humanity—and the ultimate in human frailty, the suicide attempt.

Elsewhere in the interview, MacLaine remarks on the scientific precision that Wilder brought to the pacing of these scenes, while at the same time it’s clear that he kept his approach to the film “loose” in the sense of incorporating ideas from the actors, and details from their real lives. The gin game, for example:

“I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

The power of observation Billy Wilder brought to bear on human frailty is astounding, and the proof is in the details— even the smallest of details, like hats.

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Work places

Amazon warehouse workers, Peterboro UK

Amazon warehouse workers, Peterboro UK

Constructions of the workplace vary, but one thing that is critical is the “moral” component that people often take for granted. The open floor plan, dominant during the twentieth and even twenty-first century lends itself well to surveillance. By itself, this isn’t new, but the sheer scale of it is becoming more and more mind-boggling. William S. Burroughs once quipped that the US was a “nation of finks” and I suspect he was essentially correct.

But there is more to it than that. Let’s not forget “shame” as a motivator. A recent story on the BBC repeats a Bloomberg report that Amazon is going to extremes of shaming to reduce shrinkage. The gist of it is that they are posting videos of employees caught stealing on large screen tvs, with faces blurred, as a warning for potential criminals.

“Lost stock is a massive issue affecting all retailers regardless of whether they are online or store-based,” commented Bryan Roberts from the shopping consultancy TCC Global.

“There are lots of measures in place, such as searches to make sure that stuff doesn’t go missing. But this perhaps does sound slightly extreme.”

Another expert was more critical, saying Amazon’s practices appeared to be “profoundly emotionally unintelligent”.

“What sort of an organisation has got to the point that it thinks this is a satisfactory or commendable way to be behaving?” asked Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today.

“It reminds me of Ben Hur with them standing over the rowers with a whip.

“I find it extraordinary that its relationships with its workforce have reached such a low point that it would do something like that.”

I find it interesting that in the U.K., where public surveillance operates more openly and is more accepted than perhaps anywhere in the globe, workplace shaming is a bridge too far. In America, the reporting doesn’t quite take the same moral tone:

Former managers in Amazon’s loss-prevention department say the use of theft stories was widespread during their tenure. Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Many of the workers say the screens aren’t a top concern compared with wages or workload. “Only people that would have something to say about it is people that’s doing wrong,” says Maurice Jones, a warehouse worker who left Amazon in February. “It’s just letting people know that you’re being watched.”

Yet the tales of theft and punishment are hard for workers to ignore—like a car crash, Jones says. “It could be one lane that’s blocked, but all the traffic slows down because everyone wants to look at it,” he says. “Like, ‘Who was stupid this time?’ ”

For some of the workers, the practice carries a whiff of prison. “That’s a weird way to go about scaring people,” says James McCracken, who, like Jones, used to work at Amazon’s warehouse in San Bernardino, Calif. “I think that’s offensive.”

. . .

Antitheft tactics have advanced with technology, Murphy says. In the 1980s retailers tried embedding subliminal messages in the music played in their stores to deter customers from stealing. Today, break-room warning posters and anonymous hotlines are commonplace. “The types of methods used by warehouses and fulfillment centers are only limited by your imagination,” Murphy says, “and whatever the law allows.”

Ground zero, perhaps, for this is the creation of large-scale high rise workplaces in the middle of the twentieth century. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment establishes its setting there. It’s issue isn’t workplace theft, but immorality of a different sort.

the_apartment
In order to achieve the sort of scale he was looking for, Wilder constructed a set that shrank the further back it went to exaggerate the receding horizon. The script details how the elevators and shifts were timed, to allow all 31,259 people to enter and leave the building without encountering bottlenecks in the elevators. Technology, while not featured in the story, provides a backdrop which situates things. The behavior of the worker drones is fiercely regulated in ten minute intervals, while the upper echelon receives the ultimate reward: the private office with more flexible scheduling.

In exchange for a promotion, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) allows the executives access to his apartment to conduct sexual affairs, often with the female staff of the corporation. Everyone, ultimately, is trying to negotiate their way free from surveillance and achieve privacy. Baxter respects that, and never asks for details regarding who or what is introduced into his home, now an extension of the workplace.

larkin-soap-companyThe scale of workplaces, even in the mid twentieth century, was massive. Watching Ken Burns’s documentary from 1998 on Frank Lloyd Wright, not long after watching The Apartment, I was struck by similarity in the office spaces betwen Wilder’s imagined space, and Wright’s Larkin office building:

inside-larking-adminThe primary difference between Wright’s office and a New York high rise is the lack of a low ceiling, which transforms this office into a different sort of moral space—a church. In an interesting Orwellian twist, Wright’s office also features slogans to motivate the workers:

murals-inside-wright-larkin
Workplaces were, and are, moral spaces. The morality is dictated, both by design and by the desires of management. The cathedral atmosphere is disquieting, especially when you try to figure out just what god they honor.

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