Illustrations by David Plunkert
“All the magic isn’t in fairyland,” he said gravely. “There’s lots of magic in all Nature, and you may see it as well in the United States, where you and I once lived.”L. Frank Baum, Tik-Tok of Oz
My friend and I went to the Yellow Brick Road Casino, looking for a good time. We were not optimistic about this, but we thought it might be a laugh. Neither of us was a gambler. We set ourselves a $20 budget because we did not trust ourselves with more.
I had been driving by this casino in Chittenango, N.Y., for almost two years. It is painted emerald green and has a wide yellow awning. Above the awning, the Yellow Brick Road’s sign of neon bricks blink in a spiral. I was hoping that, inside, the YBR would have a little bit of Oz-y magic to it. You’ll think this was naïve of me, but I was 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.
In any given room, my grandfather would find the smartest, strangest child and put himself in league with them against the adults. He loved: hand buzzers, trick horses, fake vomit, squirting daisies, cowboy truisms, knock-knock jokes, and scatological humor. On grandparents’ visiting day in the third grade, he promised every child at my lunch table a strawberry-shortcake ice cream bar, against the wishes of their parents. Instead of simply handing out the ice cream, he gave us each a dollar, so we could feel the power of exchanging the currency ourselves.
I thought of him as a wizard. This is not a metaphor. The thing my grandad Ed Joyce loved most was The Wonderful 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 was nothing Oz-like about the YBR at all. It looked like clip art of a casino. Worse, it had been so long since I last gambled that everything about how a casino worked had 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, Miss., that looked like the set of Maverick, I’d received a foam 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 that had the power to multiply themselves into something more.
This was not the case at YBR. At the info desk, we were given loyalty cards with our legal names on them. We took these to the slots, which were mostly digital: Lobstermania, Snow Leopard, Sexy Viking Lady — none of them Oz-themed. I put my card into a slot and tried to load money onto it, only to discover the card did nothing other than earn rewards points at a local gas station.
I approached a pair of nicely dressed workers who were milling about the floor, to ask them how I was supposed to give the casino my money. The workers were called, I kid you not, munchkins.
The munchkins told me that YBR was now a state-of-the-art casino, just like Atlantic City, just like Vegas.
“What does that mean?” I said.
“It means,” the munchkins said, “you can put your cash directly into the machine.”
My friend and I returned to the digital slots, which, it turned out, were boring. You pressed a button to pledge your dollar amount, and the digital wheels spun. The button was unsatisfying. It offered no illusion of guiding my own fortunes.
The analog slots were better. Their tumblers rolled and glowed: bar, cherries, dollar sign. Was it the thunking of the machine that appealed, or was it that I had seen people win money this way in a movie? Or was it maybe that this machine had not a button, but a handle? It took some heft to pull it — you had to try. There was even some technique to it, I told myself. I developed a slow-then-quick maneuver that got me closer to the triple cherries than I’d come before.
I liked how the old-gen machines made it seem like maybe I was a tiny bit in charge of my own fortunes. I could decide how to pull the bar, and how hard, and each time I fed the machine a dollar, I became a little more convinced I’d gotten my technique down.
Soon, I was going to pull the handle and the triple cherries would come, because I’d earned it. I’d put in my time with this machine, and America had raised me to believe that time invested would always pay off. I lost again. I had found myself in the space where the reality of the American Dream collides with the truth that the House Always Wins.
My grandad’s Oz origin story was the Depression. He was the son of a war hero/ex-con called Cap, who, when his Arizona dude ranch went bust, took his family on the road. My grandfather spent much of his early life on the move, sometimes even living out of the family car, as Cap joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and ran his “wild west” magazine. My grandfather often found himself parked in 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 written by other authors.
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! After that there was a live children’s television show sponsored by a cake company, Breadtime Stories, which featured a real monkey named Cookie. There was a radio 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 breaking the story of Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. In the 1980s, he became the president of CBS News, 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 first-edition Oz books. He read them to his own children, and while we were 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 mad-cap, 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, Calif. I was 7 and my sister was 4.
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 grandad 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 began convincing us that Oz was real.
There is one bit of tape to this effect still extant. Mid-chapter, mid-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 make a date to hang out in a poppy field, assuring his caller, the 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. To even repeat what we had heard would break the spell.
It was possible to believe. Because my grandad 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. We collected pine cones bigger than footballs, which he soaked in Borax so that when we threw them into the campfire they turned the flames green. 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 your curly toes off.”
My grandad 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!
Late capitalism 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 some of 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 chose Judy Garland, who, of course, played Dorothy in the 1939 movie production of The Wizard of Oz. 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.”
“ When it comes to creative writing, I believe in creating a community, a think tank, where everyone in the class is invested in helping everyone else explore and realize their creative work. So many kinds of work emphasize efficiency and productivity — but making art, especially writing, is about the slow, the patient, the acceptance of small failures in the service of pressing on to the next iteration of the thing you’re trying to make. It’s about having a sense of humor about the process, but treating the result with a lot of dignity.”
My mother helped me locate Little Girl Lost: The Life and Hard Times of Judy Garland by Al DiOrio Jr., at the local library. 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 still chose to appear at school dressed as Dorothy that day, not as Garland. I was all pigtails, glitter-glue heels, and blue ankle socks when I stood in front of my fellow sixth 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 how 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 playact 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 ballplayers who were robbed of the chance to make good on their talent, or on 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. Given my predilection for fantasy, it might surprise you to learn that I was also the kind of kid who hated a lie. But I knew there was a difference between a fantasy and a lie even then. And that day in sixth grade, 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 am a teacher, and I once spent an entire semester, with my undergrad literature students in Florida, accidentally calling the American Dream the “American Myth.” It was November before a Cuban-American student I’d known for a couple semesters felt comfortable enough to correct me, mid-lecture. I thanked her.
“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 — in later stories she even brings her family with her, an uplifting example of chain migration — and Oz’s reality is asserted by these return visits. The movie sends a different message, not for lack of sequels, but because, in the end, Dorothy wakes up. It was all a dream, her family tells her. “But it wasn’t a dream,” Dorothy says, “it was a place.” All the Gales’ farmhands are gathered around her bedside when Garland says she saw them in Oz, as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. And yet here they are.
Bolger and Haley and Lahr, now in the reality of black and white. They are dressed sensibly, the dirt of their work on their gorgeous faces.
Were men such as them ever in such a place?
Oh, no honey, their looks say, not us — we never got to go anywhere like that.
They are still down on the farm.
I’ve always hated the way the movie gives 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 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 rougher, some of them were middle-class kids who never doubted they’d get a degree, some of them were scrappy farm kids, some of them survived lifetimes of hardship and were finally going back to school in their 60s, 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 think that all of 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 doors.
And maybe this is why my belief in the dream crashed and burned.
Because 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 that claim to be equally available to all of them. I cannot bring myself to tell them about the Technicolor future, and say, I see you there, and I see you there. Because, even if I do think I see it, there’s a chance that someday we’re all going to wake up and I will have betrayed them by dreaming too vividly at the front of the classroom.
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 a particular generation’s narrative-shape-of-choice 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.
When we were at the casino, we were in the current-day town of Chittenango, most of which 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 Woodman’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 I found 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 1890s 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 whomever I’d get on the other end of the line my awful question and to instead ask myself what to make of all this.
I ask myself: Why, if I’ve called myself an Oz-freak all these years, a superfan, have I never googled Baum?
Perhaps I knew better than to try to look for the man behind the curtain.
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. Because, as it happens, I do own a biography of Baum. The Real Wizard of Oz by Rebecca Loncraine had sat unread on my shelf since my grandfather gave it to me, years ago. When I flipped it open, my grandfather’s inscription read: “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.
For as long as my grandad and the rest of the greatest generation were still alive, recounting their greatest magic tricks, it was easy enough for me to believe in the American Dream. But without my grandad around pulling silks from his ears, hiding quartz in the garden, coaxing horses to nod and stomp with sugar cubes, the illusion falls flat. The chances of an 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 I am, in Chittenango, on Oneida land, in Baum’s birthplace, feeding my money directly into those state-of-the-art machines.
My friend and I called it quits and put on our winter coats. It was November and there was snow on the ground. On the way out, I asked him to take a picture of me. In the parking lot there was a larger-than-life, emerald-green mural of Dorothy’s friends: Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion. They were rendered almost like the old illustrations I knew. My friend backed up and backed up, almost all the way into the road, to take the picture. But they were simply too large. It was impossible to fit both them and me in the shot.