Arts Listings

Grapes of Wrath Revisited

By Marianne Robinson
Friday December 28, 2007

It’s still the same, Tom Joad, 

“everybody might be just one big soul” 

and people need food for their bellies 

and clothes on their backs 

and a safe place to sleep 

and this morning I wondered 

just how far we’ve come since 

the 1930s when the dust storms 

and the banks 

drove people off the land 

and the Okies and the Arkies 

were the immigrants 

lured by handbills that promised 

work for good wages 

picking peaches and harvesting grapes 


families of three generations  

a fourth on the way 

lived and died and gave birth 

in jalopies and jungle camps 

along Route 66 

chased by vigilantes with clubs 

“keep moving, you can’t stop here...” 

crossed the dry desert  

made it to the California line 

turned back by border guards 

outlaws in their own land 

desperate, hungry 

willing to take any kind of work 

pitted against each other 

by unscrupulous contractors 

hired by the big landowners 

to keep wages down 

keep people from organizinG 

to fight for their rights 

feed their families 

hold onto their pride and  



These days, Tom Joad, it ain’t much  


In Eureka California county officials 

evict homeless families and demolish their encampment 

inventing a health crisis to win public sentiment 

(in the 30s vigilantes burned down  

roadside camps) 

In Palo Alto “creek dwellers” are  


by the police from under a bridge  

their sleeping bags and few belongings 

thrown into dumpsters as so much trash 

(deputy sheriffs clubbed Preacher 

Casey under a bridge) 

In Santa Cruz sleeping under a blanket is a crime 

(like they told the Joads, “don’t let us 

catch you here after sundown”) 

In San Francisco homeless veterans fight  

for housing in The Presidio, former home of the military 

and elder tenants are evicted  

as building owners use any means  


to increase profits 

and people who’ve paid many  


of hard-earned dollars in rent 

have nowhere to go... 


...and this morning in Berkeley  


on the main street in rush hour 

while well-dressed people  

on their way to jobs 

hurried into the coffee shop 

and back to their cars  

an old white man in tattered pants 

ragged shirt and mud-caked shoes 

shuffled in for his cup of coffee  

and shuffled off silently 

bearing his bundle of earthly goods 

(people reading their morning paper 

turned their eyes away) 

and a homeless black woman  

took up her corner position 

as rain clouds threatened 

and a rainbow filled the sky 

with no pot of gold at the other end 

I lent her my umbrella 

and drove my old Chevy  

back to my apartment 

to look for work... 


...and I don’t have a farm to lose 

or even a house 

I’m one step over the line 

from being out on the street 

afraid to let my daughter know 

my friends know 

how close to the edge I live 

how much I feel in common 

with Tom Joad and his Ma  

and little Muley and Preacher Casey 

and how good that WPA camp looks 

and what a struggle it is to pay the bills 

and take care of my health needs 

and how scary it is to get old 

where there’s no place to fall 

and all those years I worked to support 

myself and my daughter 

and marched and sang out  

for human rights and liberty and justice 

and like Karl Marx said 

all I have is my labor power 

in this land of the brave 

where freedom does not include 

the right to a roof over your head 

or health care for all who need it 

or dignity and security in your old age. 


Woody Guthrie, it’s like you wrote 

after Steinbeck’s big American saga  

when Tom Joad says goodbye to Ma: 

“Everybody might be just one big soul 

Well it looks that way to me 

Everywhere that you look in the day  

or night 

That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma, 

That’s where I’m a-gonna be. 

Wherever little children are hungry  

and cry 

Wherever people ain’t free 

Wherever folks are fighting for their life 

That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma, 

That’s where I’m a-gonna be.”