Tag Archives: economy

But it’s really not my home

I just finished The Third Plate by Dan Barber, and though I’d like to be able to reflect on that, what’s on my mind right now (aside from the possibility that white supremacist Steve Bannon is the most influential voice in American politics at the moment) is the introduction and the first chapter or so that I audiobooked of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It sparked a conversation with my husband about where we grew up, what we inherited in our culture, why we left and what changed in us, and why our relatives who stayed behind feel the way they do and thus voted for who they voted for.

To be certain, the Appalachian Scots-Irish are not my people, and the violence and instability that Vance talks about so far do not ring true with my experience of the rural East. The heavily Pennsylvania Dutch town where I grew up, though, does absolutely have that sort of clannish-ness. And the same deep drug problems. But I never saw it as a positive thing. I never felt like I really belonged to the Pennsylvania Dutch, and I wasn’t taught to believe that I belonged to them, either. My parents may have actively rejected the culture, even. They didn’t inherit the consonant-heavy accent that all four of my grandparents had, and they didn’t socialize with anyone in town. I would hear vitriolic stories of old Pennsylvania Dutchmen with limited vocabularies or unintelligible accents, and I was told how the townspeople rejected changes, even those that would improve the overall quality of their lives, such as a turnpike exit or a festival celebrating local history. (Of course, I was also not shown how to support these changes myself, or how to enact them.) I was taught that my town was a cesspool that needed to be evacuated.

Or was I?

In an awkward, strained conversation I had with my father, who’d moved out near Lancaster soon after the divorce, my nearly-complete English major came up. He asked me, “Are you going to teach the ignorant Dutch kids?” There was irony in his question, overtly hinting at his belief that the area was completely and utterly hopeless in its lack of intellectual ability. I bared some verbal fangs when I said no, I was planning to get a master’s degree, maybe even a Ph.D., and do lofty academia, simultaneously rejecting the idea that I would ever come back to my hometown, and that I would only amount to a teacher after being told I was smarter than everyone else in town, including some of the teachers.

But his question presupposed, without irony, that I wasn’t going to move far away. Despite his condemnation of the Pennsylvania Dutch, he’d assumed I’d stay in the Lehigh Valley. And as I write this, I realize that I myself was dismayed several years before when I’d learned he moved a 90 minute drive away from my brother and I.

Similarly, when I talk to my grandmother on the phone, she asks when I’m coming home. My brother, who never aspired to have the type of desk job to which a college education channels the constructively-minded, takes in a handsome pay as a steamfitter. He constantly references backroads I’d long forgotten, colloquial names of landmarks that I’d never learned, and people I’ve never met whose families have lived in the area for generations. I tried for years to convince him to downsize his belongings and get an apartment, but he and his wife bought an historic farmhouse made in the same vein as our childhood home, dark-wooded and with plenty of space for their belongings and potential future children.

Our social circles were different, though, and they helped to reinforce these ideas in us. His friends throughout school mostly stayed local, working in trades, security, retail, and other fields that don’t require a college education, or just a degree from the community college. His singular way of speaking is undoubtedly reinforced by the time he spends around older tradesmen on the construction sites. Lots of them, after all, are Pennsylvania Dutch and share the same familiarity with the area.

My social circle, on the other hand, tended to have more outsiders, or at least people who wanted out. Here, a friend who went to a Catholic elementary school who never batted an eye at driving 45 minutes in search of entertainment. There, musically-talented kids with Italian and Syrian surnames. The boyfriend-turned-husband descended from working-class Philly area Irish Catholics – he embraced and even embellished his outsider status. Most of them went to private or prestigious colleges, moved to completely different regions of the country, or both. When I go back to my hometown, I can visit my family, or I can get together with the one friend who fell in love with Philadelphia but who intentionally moved back in order to bring local, sustainable agriculture to the area. Or I can drive to Philadelphia to see my college friends.

Anyway, back to J.D. Vance and the frustrations of rural working-class. My own mother seems thrilled that, at 30 years old, I have surpassed the expectations she had for herself when she was my age. But she never bought into my hometown’s culture, and I think many people did, and it was a rude awakening when their children grew up, moved away, and changed their culture and values. Of course we were going to change and elevate our expectations. We rent little apartments in cities instead of buying houses in the country far away from our jobs. After the rash of foreclosures, we see mortgages as burdens, not assets. We spend our money at new Korean restaurants instead of on soggy wings from the local hotel restaurant. We take spinning classes in chain gyms with shiny facilities instead of local warehouses that were converted to independent fitness studios designed for practicality instead of aesthetics. We buy our cleaning supplies from Amazon instead of driving to the Walmart two towns away. We bring microbrews and lavender mead to family picnics. We run on the new rails-to-trails cutting through town, training for races when we go back home. We question why a discussion about a coworker includes information on their race or religion or orientation when it doesn’t seem relevant to the story, and we use newer, different terms for race, religion, or orientation when it is relevant, and we don’t think those jokes are funny anymore. If our parents wanted us to succeed, didn’t they realize that this was the cost?

And for those that stayed, some are doing well with their degrees from the local state college and their jobs in the schools or at rehabilitation centers. They’ll probably stay in town where the cost of home ownership is low, and they’ll keep commuting to their jobs. But lots of kids from our high school are slowly dying from heroin addiction. If our parents aren’t losing us one way, they’re often losing us another way.

I don’t know why or how the opioid epidemic hit my hometown so badly, but I know it was there long before we started talking about it on a national level and calling it a crisis. In high school, it was no secret that the kids who perpetually hung around on Main Street or in front of the corner store were addicts, or were well on their way to addiction. For those of us that left, it was often a catalyst – we didn’t want to see it every time we drove through town or stopped for a gallon of milk. Like the crumbling sidewalk or the storefronts with dusty “for rent” signs in their windows, they were a blight. And maybe some of us, deep down, were afraid we might be staring into our own futures. So we ran as far away as we possibly could.

Our parents told us we were on a sinking ship, and they handed us a life preserver in the form of education and the promise of good jobs, and they told us to swim for safety. And now they alone remain, witness to the sidewalks and signs and addiction and loss and decay, or to the unfamiliar faces who are now serving drinks at the newly-renamed corner bars or opening yoga studios that will shut their doors in a few months when they can’t rally enough community support. If our parents are to be upset about the deterioration of small towns like my hometown, so be it, but they should also examine how they contributed to its downward acceleration when they failed in their words and actions to give us a reason to stay.

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Raised Rural: Part 3

I established what it was like growing up rural, white, lower-middle class / working class, and conservative as a result. Here I’ll try to lay out how that changed. I imagine it’s going to be just as navel-gazing as the other posts.

While at La Salle, I felt like an outsider. Most other students were urban or suburban, well-off, and Catholic, a denomination that I had grown up knowing very little about, and certainly nothing positive. I was rural, overweight at a time when Pink was blowing up as a brand, and making some of my own clothing out of necessity since I couldn’t afford trendy brands or shop at many regular stores, and I was years past the point of asking my mom for money that I knew she didn’t have, while living among a sea of slim girls with credit cards whose balances were paid by their parents. I didn’t have the money for regular Starbucks runs, impractical Ugg boots, or Apple products, and I didn’t want to identify with that group of people anyway.

In classes, I explored American and British literature and took religion courses, and I learned a little Russian and improved my Spanish. I performed in the jazz and pep bands, and I sang in choir and was an officer at one point until some other students and I pushed our choir director, an older man whose day job was teaching at an all-boys Catholic school, to perform not just for nuns in a nursing home an hour away but to bring our music to children in the local public schools, and the ensuing arguments got so nasty I had to leave choir. I tutored kids in Camden and south Philly once a week, until constant motion sickness from the long van rides forced me to stop. I got work-study in the university archives and every other weekend, I went back home to work a few hours at Kmart. During the summer, I would go back to the Lehigh Valley and take jobs with temp agencies, doing data entry for a beer distributor one summer, then warehouse work alongside women and men mostly in their thirties and forties, and a few stints in factories making boxes or assembling lotion containers. My husband and I both worked in the same warehouse one summer, and we heard over and over that we needed to finish our degrees so we wouldn’t have to come back and work there permanently.

I chafed against the very vocal far left students, who came off to me as smug, shallow caricatures, taking great pains to conform to a stereotype of ultra-liberal college student and who seemed condescending towards those whose political opinions differed from theirs and who had no desire for open discussion. It was easy to poke fun at the socially awkward, intense anarchist, and the artsy atheist vegan who listened to British punk and who wanted everyone to know she was an artsy atheist vegan who was into British punk. I wrote an article criticizing the slant of the college newspaper and bemoaning the lack of balanced viewpoints. I considered myself a moderate, socially fairly liberal but economically conservative and concerned about national security and government spending much more than social issues, a position shared by several college friends who also came from modest backgrounds and went back to work during school breaks. When we openly criticized Obama’s foreign policy during the 2008 election and took his cheer of “yes we can” as a hollow message lacking any substance, I remember a liberal Democrat friend remarking something like “well, they hate Democrats.” The language of this remark placed us into a box, created an artificial binary where one didn’t exist, and shut down any sort of discussions we could have had. My moderate friends and I supported McCain, the moderate Republican, therefore in my Democrat friend’s eyes we were against Democrats, despite our Independent status on our voter registrations.

In truth, this creation of binaries, this idea that I encountered from many Democrats that they were somehow superior, and the automatic assumption by many of my Democrat peers that I shared their viewpoints and political affiliation (and the consequent underlying assumption that if I were Republican, I had differing viewpoints that were also inferior), played a large role in why I stayed away from the left as long as I did.

 


 

This broke down when I moved to Chicago with my now-husband and I truly became an adult.

Graduating in 2009 with more debt than we’d expected and with a terrible economy, we both went directly into graduate school. He fled turmoil in his family, and I followed him. We weren’t insulated by a college campus as we were in Philly, but actually living among real people now, first in Kenwood and then Hyde Park, both on the south side. Our neighbors were mostly working-class Black folk.

Our apartment was robbed within a week of us moving in, and our landlord, a tall Irish man who never seemed to make much eye contact with me and reserved it for my husband, assumed it was a mentally ill tenant on a floor above us and he tried to enter his apartment to look for our items and take my husband along with him, who refused to help. Over the next several months, though, we would have to confront our landlord’s practices for the racism that it was. We overheard him treat the Black tenants – who were trying to raise families – dismissively and listen to us, the two stupid college students who would be gone in a short time. We befriended the spunky, talkative 12-year-old girl upstairs, who was one of the only people our new dog tolerated, and we heard about how the landlord treated her and her mother. We grew so uncomfortable with this favoritism and his general terrible practices as a landlord that we moved when our lease was up, despite the reasonable monthly cost.

During the two years we lived in Kenwood and Hyde Park, I made small talk with men and women who were waiting at the same bus stop or who wanted to greet our dog or who waited on me in stores or who wanted to tell me they were extras in the Blues Brothers.

We got dirty looks when we climbed aboard packed buses, full bags hanging from us from a grocery shopping trip, two white kids taking up aisle space among tired women who appeared to be on their way home from work.

We loaded up a gigantic suitcase every two weeks with our dirty laundry and wheeled it eight blocks to the laundromat and watched People’s Court while women folded white t-shirts.

We came across a man laying on the sidewalk, soaked to the bone and unmoving, and I reached out and shook him to wake him from what we guessed was an overdose, and after he rose, bewildered, the ambulance we called refused to come out and make sure he was okay, because he was able to walk.

I was spat upon by a disturbed, angry man who also spat upon an older white lady working in the laundromat – I knew it was ridiculous when the enraged woman said she wanted him to be charged with a “hate crime,” and I stood in court next to her and the white student who witnessed it and the white cop who wrote up the incident, while the white judge talked to the man as if he were a child and made him apologize to the laundromat lady, and outside the courtroom the cop told us the man would be back out in the streets in a matter of months because the jails were overcrowded and it was warm outside.

We saw how the neighborhoods became dusty and litter-strewn and boarded up immediately south of the University of Chicago, package stores the only thing open for blocks and blocks.

We heard how the college kids raved about Harold’s, the chicken joint in Hyde Park at 53rd and Kimbark, but were too afraid to venture out beyond the bubble of the university, though we knew you could get vastly superior chicken at Golden Fish and Chicken at 45th and Cottage Grove, near our first apartment.

We were approached one cold night close to Thanksgiving by a man who asked us if we could get him something in the supermarket, and we bought him sandwich supplies to feed himself and his family for a couple days.

We were asked by a suspicious bus driver one night, after a long day downtown, if we knew where we were going and we replied “home,” though the driver didn’t seem to believe us.

We took a bus transfer on our way to a nice dinner and found ourselves waiting on a trash-strewn intersection, deserted except for several men and women, high and stumbling around as if they were the walking dead.

We saw the devastation from the earthquake in Haiti and learned that an immigrant we knew, a former coworker of my husband, lost his entire family in Port-au-Prince.

I waited 40 minutes for a late bus one day before I decided to walk to my green line stop on 47th, and as I got closer to the station, I saw dozens of people standing utterly silent on the sidewalk as a woman screamed, full of grief, in a vacant lot across the street, a news camera trained impassively on her, and I later found a news article containing a photo of a bloodstained White Sox hat lying on the macadam.

When I finally found a job at a research library, my boss told me that the workplace barely ever closed for bad weather, because it only closed when the schools closed, and the schools stayed open because they were the only place that many kids in the city would get a meal for the day.

I waited for a train one day and heard two young men threatening each other across the platforms, and an older gentleman quietly turned to me and said, “excuse me, do you think there’s a lot of hate in this world?”

I overheard a woman with scarred, scabbed, picked-over skin and a clear, angelic voice talk to somebody only she could see.

I read about how a girl who had sung at Obama’s 2009 inauguration and who lived in our first neighborhood had been shot and killed on a nearby playground.

I stood as one of the only white folk at the Easter Vigil at the church in which my husband was being received, and without any hesitation, the parishioners grasped my hand during the Lord’s Prayer and shook it, smiling, during the Sharing of the Peace.

I was told to kill with kindness at my retail job on the Magnificent Mile.

I was told that the old lady who made an extended fuss and exasperated my patience was probably lonely and looking for somebody to talk to.

I felt guilty that, in the middle of summer, I could only point the Muslim woman and her daughters to the clearance floor and hope they could find something modestly cut from the early spring leftovers.

I realized that no matter how little money I had, there were always those in much worse shape than I.

I saw men and women relieve themselves on State Street, a boy throw up on himself at 8 am on a Saturday morning, and a man with pink stubs where his fingers should be.

I touched eugenics journals from 1930s Germany, and washing my hands didn’t remove the deep feeling of unease I had or the image of the swastikas on the cover, and I cried when I stumbled upon an article from an 1880’s medical journal where a doctor wrote luridly and in great, gratuitous, tabloid-like detail about a severely deformed infant girl.

 

 

 

This is how I became an adult.