The Man Behind the Curtain

My grandfather taught me to believe in the American Dream and the magic of Oz. Now, I don't know what to believe.

Photo by Schu

My friend and I have come to the Yellow Brick Road Casino looking for a good time. We are not optimistic about this, but we think it might be a laugh. Neither of us are gamblers. We have both set ourselves a twenty dollar budget because we value our money and because we do not trust ourselves. 

I have been driving by this casino in Chittenango, New York for almost two years. It is painted emerald green and has a wide yellow awning. Above the awning, the Yellow Brick Road sign’s neon bricks blink in a spiral. I am hoping that, inside, the YBR will have a little bit of Oz-y magic to it. You’ll think this is naïve of me but I am hopeful because I used to know the Wizard of Oz. We were in communication for many years. I had my eye on the casino because when the wizard died he left me short on a kind of magic I’ve been looking for ever since.

The thing my granddad loved most was The Wizard of Oz, and when I was a child he convinced me that the Land of Oz was real.

In any given room, my grandfather would find the smartest, strangest child and put himself in league with them against the adults. He loved: handbuzzers, trick horses, fake vomit, squirting daisies, cowboy curses, knock-knock jokes, and scatological humor of all kinds. On grandparents’ visiting day in the third grade, he promised every child at my lunch table a strawberry shortcake bar, against the wishes of their parents. Instead of simply handing out the ice creams, he gave us each a dollar, so we could feel the power of exchanging currency ourselves.  

I thought of him as a kind of wizard. This is not a metaphor. The thing my granddad, Ed Joyce, loved most was The Wizard of Oz, and when I was a child he perpetrated an obvious but persuasive prank upon my little sister and me in which he convinced us, methodically and across multiple media, that the Land of Oz was real.

Is it fair to call it a prank if he never hoped for a gotcha moment? If he hoped we’d believe in him forever? 

Inside, there is nothing Oz-like about YBR at all. It looks like clipart of a casino. Worse, it has been so long since I last gambled that everything about how a casino works has changed. At the problematic Disneyland that is Mohegan Sun I’d once been given a velvety pouch of chips, heavy with possibility. On a riverboat in Natchez, Mississippi that looked like the set of Maverick, I’d received a Styrofoam cup of golden tokens with a lovely jingle to it. There’d been a kind of magic in the transubstantiation of money into these new currencies which had the power to multiple and divide themselves into something more. 

This is not the case at YBR. At the info desk, we are given loyalty cards with our legal names on them. We take these to the slots, which are mostly digital: Lobstermania, Snow Leopard, Sexy Viking Lady— none of them Oz-themed. I put my card into a slot and try to load money onto it, only to discover it does nothing other than earn rewards points at a local gas station. 

I approach a pair of nicely dressed workers who are milling about the floor, to ask them how I’m supposed to give the casino my money. The workers, it turns out, are called, I shit you not, munchkins

The munchkins tell me that YBR is now a state-of-the-art casino, just like Atlantic City, just like Vegas.

What does that mean, I say.

It means, the munchkins say, you can put your cash directly into the machine. 

My friend and I return to the digital slots, which it turns out are boring. You press a button to pledge your dollar amount, and the digital wheels spin.

The analog slots are better. Their tumblers roll and glow: bar, cherries, dollar sign. Is it the hefty thunking of the machine that appeals, or is it that I have seen people win money this way in a movie? Or is it maybe that this machine has, not a button, but a handle? It takes some heft to pull it, you have to try, and there’s even some technique to it, I tell myself. I develop a slow then quick maneuver that gets me closer to the triple cherries than I’ve come before. 

I’ve put in my time with this machine and America raised me to believe that time invested will always pay off.

I like how the old gen machines make it seem like maybe I’m a tiny bit in charge of my own fortunes. I can decide how to pull the bar, and how hard, and each time I feed the machine a dollar I become a little more convinced I’ve got my technique down.

Soon, I’m going to pull the handle and the triple cherries will come, because I’ve earned this. I’ve put in my time with this machine and America raised me to believe that time invested will always pay off, no matter who you are. I lose again. I find myself in the space where the image of the Self-Made Man and the truth that The House Always Wins collide.

My grandad’s Oz origin story was the Depression. He was the son of a deeply charming military war hero and ex-con called Cap who, when his Arizona dude ranch went bust during the depression, took his family on the road. My grandfather spent many of the early years of his life living out of the family car as Cap joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and ran a wild west magazine. My grandfather often found himself parked at the library of whatever town they landed in, where he found his only friends: Dorothy and the Scarecrow and Tik-Tok and Polychrome and the whole cast of characters in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. He told himself that someday, if he ever had any money, he would buy all the Oz books. The 13 originals written by Baum, and 26 further written by other authors in the series. 

As it turned out, as an adult, he did have money. Quite a bit of it.

The story of how this happened is the sort of “up by his bootstraps” American Dream tale people can’t resist, and it was as ubiquitous in my childhood as the story of Oz. Ed Joyce went from being a child of the depression living out of a car to working in radio. He hosted a jazz program as Jazzman Joyce! (exclamation mark included). After that there was a live children’s television show, which featured a pet monkey named Cookie. There was an interview show, The Talk of New York, where he brought on guests like Malcolm X and Timothy Leary. When he moved into hard reporting, he was responsible for covering the story of Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. He became the president of CBS News in the ‘80s, where he gained a reputation for being so simultaneously brutal and charming that he was known as “the velvet shiv.” 

Across these years and successes, he went about acquiring a complete set of the Oz books in first edition. He read them to his own children, and growing up he read them to my sister and me. We all lived in the same small Connecticut town. 

There was nothing I loved more than these stories. He had a radioman’s flair and performed the chapters as a madcap, polyphonic one-man show. I can tell you exactly what the Nome King, and Princess Ozma, and Tik-Tok are supposed to sound like. 

The Oz readings were only briefly discontinued when my grandparents retired back west to a horse ranch in Santa Ynez, California. I was seven and my sister was four. The radioman’s solution to the distance, of course, was recording. 

Every day, after school, my sister and I checked the mailbox for a padded mailer with a cassette tape inside. An Oz chapter. My granddad included photocopies of the illustrations that went with the reading. He set the scene at the beginning of the tapes—telling us where he was sitting and whether any of his dogs were around. At the end he always let us know what he was doing next, normally feeding his horses, and then he told us to be good to our parents and stay “frisky and jolly.” 

This was when my grandfather truly began convincing us that Oz was real.

Has he told the kids that Oz is real? Oh no, no he hasn’t yet. But he will, when the time is right. Goodbye, wizard.

There is one bit of tape that survives to this effect. In the recording, he receives a phone call, the line bleating stagily in the background. He apologizes for interrupting our reading. “I think I have to take this…” he says, and pretends to turn off the tape. Then he says: OH HELLO, WIZARD in a tone of absolute delight. He proceeds to makes a date to hang out in a poppy field, assuring his caller, the fucking Wizard, that he has indeed been practicing the magic he’d taught him so he could perform tricks for us kids that coming Christmas. Has he told the kids that Oz is real? Oh no, no he hasn’t yet. But he will, when the time is right. Goodbye, wizard. 

When my sister and I first heard this bit of tape we turned to each other and said nothing. Not one fucking thing. Because to even repeat what we had heard would break the spell. 

It was possible to believe. Because my granddad did do magic tricks. He pulled scarves from his nose and guessed the color of dice in secret boxes and erased images from coloring books with flourishing gestures. 

Why wouldn’t we think he was in league with the wizard? 

With each trip to California, the illusion grew. He took us to Figueroa Mountain and led us waist deep into a legitimate poppy field. He pretended he could talk to animals (in Oz, animals talk) and taught his own horse to nod and stamp responses to his questions—an old dude ranch trick learned from his father. He hid gemstones around the garden, insinuating that the Nome King had left them there and would be very angry if we took his treasure. We always took the treasure, and often found notes in the same spot a day later threatening, thrillingly, to “stomp our curly toes off.”

My granddad was the sort of man who was always pulling your leg while simultaneously doing real things too amazing to be believed, so where the truth might lie was hard to parse. Back then, I think I knew I was supposed to believe… but only halfway, the way a good scene partner might. Instead, I believed it desperately, recklessly, as if asking too many questions might scare the fantasy away. 

I had my reasons for wanting to believe that the world my grandfather was spinning for us was possible. I was a very ordinary girl who feared I might never become anything different, and in the Oz books even very ordinary girls from Kansas could be whisked away from chores and schoolwork to have adventures with robots and queens. It didn’t matter that Dorothy wasn’t remarkable—she could still do incredible things. Back then, I made no distinction between believing in Oz and believing in an American Dreamish world where the poor son of an ex-con cowboy could rise through the ranks of American life. America would see something in you that no one else did and give you a chance at whatever marvelous future you aspired to! Oz was for everyone! 2019 is not a good moment for believing in either of these kinds of magic.

As an adult, the real world often disappoints me. I am a person who prefers to live in my head, in books and fantasies where everything shines slightly brighter than reality. I’ve often wished to go back to the times when the Nome King’s rocks might appear on my front stoop, when some animal would speak to me its secret. 

The first cracks in the illusion came in the sixth grade, when we were asked to read a biography by a significant person. It is perhaps telling that, in my Oz-mania, I did not choose to read a biography of Baum and instead read Little Girl Lost: The Life and Hard Times of Judy Garland by Al DiOrio, Jr., which my mother had helped me locate at the local library. We were meant to come to school on Biography Day dressed as the subject of our chosen book and to report to the class about our lives in the first person, in character. We would then go on to mingle with our famous compatriots at a “Character Brunch.” 

I was horrified and obsessed by Garland’s tragic biography and was determined to bring her truth to the people. And yet, in a totally warped choice, I chose to appear at school that day dressed not as Garland, but as Dorothy. I was all pigtails, glitter-glue heels, and blue ankle socks when I stood in front of my fellow six-graders and introduced myself as “Judy, Judy, Judy.” I told the class that the rigors of my film shoots required me to take “uppers,” which were drugs, which also helped me lose weight, which was “good for Hollywood,” and about the difficulty I then had sleeping which required “downers,” (also drugs!) and this cycle of uppers and downers eventually killed me. I then whispered that there were rumors that my death wasn’t really an accident but a suicide.

When the bell rang, my teacher suggested I play-act as Dorothy instead of Garland at the impending character brunch.

Can I at least tell people about Carnegie Hall? I asked.

Sure, she said.

I understand now that I was meant to read and report on something uplifting, to behave like the other children who’d come dressed as Jackie Robinson and Marie Curie and whose families had presumably found them biographies that did not dwell on the other black and brown ballplayers who were robbed of the chance to make good on their talent or the effects of radiation exposure. We were all meant to be Dorothy and not Judy that day—to recite the shiny, Oz-y dream version of our biography’s subject. I love fantasy, but I hate a lie, and even then I knew there was a difference between the two. That day in sixth grade, I was pretty sure which one I was dealing with. I smelled a rat. 

Hi Grandad, I was Dorothy at school this week, I told him on our regular phone call. 

How did it go? he asked. 

Not too great, I said. Not too great at all. 

When I told him what had happened he positively cackled.

I once spent an entire semester accidentally calling the American Dream “The American Myth” to undergrad literature students in Florida. It was November before one of them, a Cuban-American woman I’d grown close to, gently corrected me. 

“What an embarrassing and strange thing to get wrong,” I told the class. 

“I mean you were wrong but you’re not wrong,” she said, plonking her copy of Winter’s Bone on the desk. We all laughed. It was funny but it wasn’t funny.

I suppose something about the word “dream” doesn’t sit right with me.

In Baum’s books, Dorothy’s adventure with the Wizard is only the first of many times she goes to Oz—later, she even brings her family with her, an uplifting example of chain migration—and these return visits make it clear that Oz is a real and literal place. The movie sends a different message—because in the end, Dorothy wakes up. It was all a dream, her family tells her. “But it wasn’t a dream,” Garland says, “it was a place.” All the Gales’ farmhands are gathered around her bedside when Dorothy claims she saw them in Oz. And yet here they are, Haley and Bolger and Lahr, with their gorgeous faces, now in the reality of black and white; they are dressed sensibly, the dirt of their work on their faces. They are still down on the farm.

Were men like them ever in such a place? 

Oh no honey, their looks say, not us, we never got to go anywhere like that. 

I’ve always hated the way the movie gave us the promise of Oz only to snatch it away in the end, and the three friends break my heart most of all. 

I’ve always hated the way the movie gave us the promise of Oz only to snatch it away in the end.

I’ve taught undergrads at five very different schools over the past decade. I am essentially an optimist and I earnestly believe in my students’ futures. Some of the students I’ve taught came up rough like my grandfather, some of them were middle-class kids who never doubted they’d get a degree, some of them were farm kids, some of them survived lifetimes of hardship and were finally going back to school in their sixties, some of them were veterans, some of them had escaped gangs, some of them came from intense privilege, and many of them were first generation Americans. I know that all these different kinds of students wound up in my classroom in no small part because they had bought into an American Dream that promised a college degree would open professional doors. And maybe this was why my belief in the dream crashed and burned. It is easy enough to believe a dream for yourself, and quite another to speak it out loud to a room of students who trust you to tell them the truth.

These days, I cannot bring myself to sell my students any kind of American rhetorical goods which claim to be equally available to all of them. I cannot bring myself to tell them about the technicolor future, to say, I see you there, and I see you there, because there is a chance that even if I see it, and I believe in it, someday we’re all going to wake up and I will have betrayed them by dreaming too vividly at the front of the room. 

I think my mouth said myth when it couldn’t say dream because to describe our collective American story to students as an available goal and not as a fantasy, bordering on a lie, makes me feel like I am back in the sixth grade, Dorothy on the outside but Judy on the inside. Like I am smelling a rat, and the rat is me.  

Most of the current day town of Chittenango is on Oneida, or Onyota’a:ká, lands. Chittenango is also the birthplace of L. Frank Baum. Presumably, it is for this reason that the Oneida Nation decided to name its casino Yellow Brick Road, and its adjoining liquor store the Tin Man’s Flask. 

Had I read a biography of Baum, instead of a biography of Garland, back in sixth grade, I would have learned what I found out the morning before our casino journey, when I looked up his Chittenango connection.

At the top of my search results was this, from a recent NPR story: “L. Frank Baum, before he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz ran a newspaper in South Dakota. This was in the early 1890’s during the Indian Wars. When Baum heard of the killing of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee, he wrote editorials calling for killing each and every last Native American. From his Sitting Bull editorial:

The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.

Why would the Oneida Nation create a casino inspired by the work of the man who’d published this monstrous op-ed? I’m dumb enough to hope someone decided turning Baum’s world profitable for native people would be a satisfying irony. Dumb enough to hope maybe no one knew. I have the good sense not to call the Oneida Nation or the casino and ask. To spare whoever I’d get on the other end of the line my awful question and to instead ask myself what I’m supposed to do with all this.

I ask myself: why, if I’ve called myself an Oz-freak all these years, a super-fan, have I never googled Baum? 

Perhaps I knew better than to try to look for the man behind the curtain. 

Stories of someone rising up are usually at the expense of someone else we don’t talk about.

I’m sure my grandfather wouldn’t have been surprised by the facts of Baum’s life and prejudices. There are inconvenient truths behind the curtain of most American Dream stories. Capitalism seldom offers a free balloon ride. Stories of someone rising up are usually at the expense of someone else we don’t talk about. That’s the wizardry of most lovely stories—the sleight of hand, the misdirection, the look over here not over there

I think these were ideas my grandfather understood. He was the wizard who broke Chappaquiddick and took the shine off Kennedy. His father had traded with tribal members across the United States to sell ad space in his cowboy magazine for mail order rez crafts. 

As it happens, I do own a biography of Baum. The Real Wizard of Oz by Rebecca Loncraine has sat unread on my shelf since my grandfather gave it to me, years ago. When I flip it open, my grandfather’s inscription reads: “I know you thought I made up all those stories. But this is really the guy. Love, Grandad.”

I don’t know what to do with Oz anymore. I want to tell you that it was real when I was small, when my grandfather was alive, but that would mean that it was only real so long as it was easy to believe in. So long as my granddad and most of the greatest generation were alive, performing for us reenactments of their greatest magic tricks, it was easy enough to believe in the American Dream. 

I want to tell you Oz was real when I was small, but that would mean that it was only real so long as it was easy to believe in.

But so many of them are gone, and now it’s harder to believe. Without my granddad around pulling silks from his ears, hiding quartz in the garden, coaxing horses to nod and stomp with sugar cubes, the illusion falls flat and the chances of American-Dream-Style success in this world begin to feel dinky, random. 

And yet, even though there’s nothing beyond the façade of the Yellow Brick Road casino that promises any kind of Oz, here we are in Chittenango, on Oneida land, in Baum’s birthplace, feeding our money directly into those state-of-the-art machines. 

We call it quits and put on our winter coats. It is November and there is snow on the ground. On the way out, I ask my friend to take a picture of me. In the parking lot there is a larger-than-life emerald green mural of Dorothy’s friends: Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion. They are rendered almost like the old illustrations I knew. My friend backs up and backs up, almost all the way into the road to take the picture.

When I look at it the next day, I realize what a stupid idea the photo had been. The Oz folk are simply too large, and I am lost in the shot. A puny thing who can’t compete with the storybook people behind me. 

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