Photos recall days before Americans had to take sides

November 27, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WASHINGTON -- Robert Frank's America is nothing like the country I keep hearing about on the radio. Frank's is a lonelier landscape. People stand behind window shades and stare out at the world. They get all dressed up and have no particular place to go. It's an America of isolated souls doing the best they can in a difficult season.

The country I hear about on the radio is a land of big hatreds. A senator named Helms warns that a president in the White House had better not show his face in North Carolina without a bodyguard. A congressman named Newt talks of "normal" Americans, whoever they are. The talk show mouths on the radio, the Limbaugh clones hungry for a little taste of his action, even if it's only the backwater bilge, stir up the venom every day, cashing in on every vulnerability, every midnight fear, looking for the petty things that divide us instead of the big stuff that should bond us.

Robert Frank's America arrives at a good time. It's here at the National Portrait Gallery, scores of photographs he snapped in the 1950s, gray and grainy shots from the nation's margins: the desolate view from a hotel room, the mourners at a funeral, bus riders and bench sitters and a television playing in a room where nobody's watching -- the work product, Frank once said, "of lying wait, pursuing, sometimes catching, the essence of the black and the white. . . ."

In Frank's America, two women in Hoboken, N.J., gaze at a passing parade from adjoining apartment windows. An American flag is draped from the edge of one window all the way across the other one, so that it obscures the face of the second woman.

You want to know "normal" Americans? Here they are, folks: It's those who revere the country but don't have to prove it at the top of their lungs, who stand at their little windows on the fringe of the action, who treasure the flag but don't have to wrap themselves in it, who have their loves and their fears but don't try to shove them at anybody who might feel a little differently.

Everybody's a target today. We've just emerged from a slum of a political season, in which the campaign commercials weren't messages of hope but knives in the gut. We turn on the television and see one minister, named Falwell, hawking a videotape suggesting the president of the United States is a murderer, or a second minister, named Farrakhan, calling another group's faith "a gutter religion." We watch the nightly news and see an effigy of Hillary Clinton mounted on a stake and ignited.

Here in the nation's capital, a woman named Schwartz runs for mayor against a former convict named Barry and is warned by a late-night radio personality that she could catch "a hot one in the chest." And on radio stations in Baltimore, and in cities across the map, the language is only marginally more civilized.

Robert Frank's photos remind us of another America. It's an America before everybody was told to choose up sides. When you choose up sides, nobody's left in the middle. Everybody's on the edges, taking their shots, establishing a position, ducking for cover and then retreating further to the edges when things get rough.

Frank's photos tell us things are rough for everybody. Old people wait on benches in cocoons of loneliness. A jukebox in a dim dance hall holds ballads of sorrow. A factory assembly line offers a deadening of the senses for all who work there. A fellow gives a shoeshine in a lavatory, his little work stand ringed by walls of urinals.

The language of the radio today -- the bile on the talk shows, the crass vulgarities of the worst of the rap groups, the mean manipulations of the Newts and Helmses, some of it blunt and some of it code language to divide us by race or religion -- suggests a different America, a country where each side suspects the other is getting away with something, is faking it, is having a great time of it while our side's stuck carrying all the weight.

Life's a struggle for everybody, and it'll only get rougher as long as we insist on seeing the worst in everybody who isn't just like us. Who's just like us? Nobody, actually. We used to tell ourselves that that was the beauty of America, how we took

a piece of everybody's best and made it a piece of our own. Now we look for everybody's worst, and throw it in their faces.

It's nice to come here and find Robert Frank's America. It's not that it's such a pretty place. But it's a place where we notice everybody's got problems, loneliness or boredom or the various impersonalities of the landscape, and we do what we can to struggle through them quietly, without always looking for

someone to blame.

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