Penthouse Retrospective

by Studs Terkel Originally Published: October, 1980

The American Dream | 40 Years Ago This Month

Election-year rhetoric, television, and fan magazines have made us forget the greatness of America. These five stories are presented as a reminder.

Penthouse Magazine - October, 1980What, We Worry?

When in 1903 — or was it ’04? — my mother and father came to the United States from the old country, their dream was not unique. Steady work and schooling for the boys, who were born during the following decade. He was a tailor, a quiet man. She was a seamstress, nimble of finger and mind. He was easy, seeking no more than his due. She was feverish, seeking something more. Though she was skilled in her craft, her spirit was the entrepreneur’s. Out there, somewhere, was the brass ring. This was, after all, America.

When my father became ill and was unable to work, she made the big move. Out west, to Chicago. She had a tip: a men’s hotel up for sale … 1921. It was hard work, but she toughed it out. She was a hotelier, in business for herself. She was May Robson, Apple Annie, making it. These were no apples she was selling; she was a woman of property. They were pretty good years, the twenties. But something went wrong in ’29, something she hadn’t counted on. The men she admired, the strong, the powerful ones, the tycoons (she envisioned herself as a small-time Hetty Green), goofed up somewhere. Kerplunk went her American dream.

My mother’s gods had failed her; and she, who had always believed in making it, secretly felt that she, too, had failed. Though the following years didn’t treat her too unkindly, her fires were banked. Her dreams darkened. She died a bitter, cantankerous old woman, who almost, though never quite, caught the brass ring.

Failure was as unforgivable then as it is now. Perhaps that’s why so many of the young were never told about the depression, were, as one indignant girl put it, “denied our own history.”

During the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam, the St. Louis cabbie, weaving his way through traffic, was offering six o’clock commentary.

“We gotta do it. We have no choice.” “Why?”

“We can’t be a pitiful, helpless giant.

We gotta show ’em we’re number one.”

“Are you number one?”

A pause. “I’m number nothin’.” He recounts a litany of personal troubles, grievances, and disasters. His wife left him; his daughter is a roundheel; his boy is hooked on heroin; he loathes his job. For that matter, he’s not so crazy about himself. Wearied by this turn of conversation, he addresses the rearview mirror: “Did you hear Bob Hope last night? He said… “

Forfeiting their own life experience, their native intelligence, their personal pride, they allow more celebrated surrogates, whose imaginations may be no larger than theirs, to think for them, to speak for them, to be for them in the name of the greater good. Conditioned toward being “nobody,” they look toward “somebody” for the answer. It is not what the American town meeting was all about.

Yet, something’s happening, as yet unrecorded on the social seismograph.

There are nascent stirrings in the neighborhood and in the field, articulated by noncelebrated people who bespeak the dreams of their fellows. It may be catching. Unfortunately, it is not covered on the six o’clock news.

In my new book, American Dreams: Lost and Found, which will be published by Pantheon Books, are many American voices, captured by hunch, circumstance, and a rough idea. There is no pretense at statistical “truth” or consensus. There is, in the manner of a jazz work, an attempt, of theme and improvisation, to recount dreams, lost and found, and a recognition of possibility. Here, from American Dreams, are five of those voices.

The American Dream Retrospective:

Sen. James Abourezk

He has been a senator from South Dakota. He had decided not to stand for re-election. It is Saturday afternoon… two days before Halloween, 1977. We’re in his office in the Senate Office Building, Washington, D. C. He and Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio have been conducting a 13-day filibuster against a bill deregulating the price of oil.

As Sam Rayburn said, if you want to get along, go along. That’s the philosophy of most people around here. Very few people here stand for something. They have taken public-opinion polls to heart. There’s nothing wrong with polling, but it’s something else when you start calculating on every single little issue: How am I gonna be cute on this? How am I gonna gimmick this one up so I can go back home and not get in trouble? There are very few guys around here who are not afraid to get in trouble-on anything.

Either the American Dream has changed a lot since we first learned about it, or some people have some truly crazy dreams these days.