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Two stories about tent cities

August 4, 2010

A picture of the tent city in Fresno, CA, that George Saunders lived in for his GQ story. (Photo by Joshua Lutz, originally printed in GQ)

This summer, part of what I’ve been doing is catching up on back issues of magazines that I fell dreadfully behind on thanks to the school year and my own laziness. I read chronologically, trying to catch on to the issues that the nation cared about whenever the magazine was printed, so I was was struck yesterday when I read an issue of Esquire and saw that there was a reference to “tent cities” in David Granger’s Letter from the Editor. When I read the story, Colby Buzzell’s “Unemployment in San Francisco and Fresno” (and saw Dave Glass’ excellent photography accompanying it), I realized that it didn’t focus so much on tent cities as it did on the increasingly adult reality of not making it in America.

The article reminded me of a similar story by George Saunders, from September’s issue of GQ, about living in a Fresno tent city for a small period of time. Saunders’ article, titled “Tent City, U.S.A.,” may have taken him to the same tent city that Buzzell briefly experienced in his article.

There are certainly differences between the two stories. Saunders’ is one of those stories as much about the author’s own realizations about himself and his safety as it is about the general economic plight, while Buzzell’s is purely about this group of people — including a grocery store owner and prostitutes — who make up the vitality of many cities and now are scraping by even thinner than usual. (It is safe to say that I enjoyed Buzzell’s story more than Saunders.’ Both were schizophrenic at times, but Buzzell’s succeeded more in painting a picture, while Saunders was tough to follow and seemed to detest his subjects by the end of it.)

My question, though, is why do journalists turn to this type of story only when the economy goes down the tubes and manages to punch us all in the gut? The reason Buzzell’s story worked better than Saunders’ is simple: It was easy to see the people he was describing thriving if the general economic circumstances had been better, while Saunders’ crew of junkies and general failures would likely have been next to the train tracks no matter what life decided to throw at them.

As a young journalist, I’m more intrigued in hearing about how the normal family has to buy generic instead of name brand, has to car pool with the neighbors because they can’t afford gas anymore, has to give up going to the swimming pool in the summer even though they can’t turn the air conditioning on than I am about a group that, according to Saunders’ tone throughout the story, would have found some way to bring the same plights no matter what.

In a different vein, however, I want to hear about the people who are making it in these difficult times, because it those people — the innovators of today — who will probably be the newsmakers of tomorrow. Also, it is their stories that are the difficult ones to tell in hard times, just as it’s tough to talk about someone failing when the economy is seemingly doing well. In both instances, though, the person seemingly bucking the societal trend may have just an important story to tell as the person who follows that trend to the highest peaks and straight into the deepest valley.

It is just as important to tell those stories, the outliers, as it is to tell the stories of the followers. After all, life works in cycles, and we could all use a reminder of that sometimes.

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