Tag Archives: philadelphia

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 1

The Connecticut suburb where I live voted overwhelmingly for Clinton at 69%. But the rural township where I grew up in Pennsylvania voted 68% for Trump. I might have voted in Trump, too, if I had continued to live most of my life there.

When you think Pennsylvania Dutch, you might think of Amish folk in Lancaster County. I think of my family. The Dutch – or “Pensylfainya Tutch Nah” if you’re one of the old ones who grew up speaking the language and went to a Grundsau Lodge like my grandfather – are overwhelmingly Protestant, German immigrants who arrived decades before the American Revolution and settled in a swath moving west and north from where their ships landed in Philadelphia. Where I grew up is the very northern end of where they settled. Going through old documents and books from one side of my family, I know my first PA Dutch ancestor came here as a French Huguenot in 1738. His son became an officer in the Revolution and then a state representative, and the generations after him made their money off coal, slate, and other natural resources. There are pictures of railroads and factories in the old photograph albums, next to photos of round-faced women in fashionable dresses and stern-looking men. And pictures of the hotel that my great-grandfather owned but that didn’t get passed down to my grandfather, who I only know to be a bus driver with antiquated, oftentimes unintelligible speech patterns that were made worse over time by multiple strokes, calling homework “lessons” and fond of the phrase “gee almighty.” Picturing him, I see him sitting in his chair in the basement of the split-level, the chair draped in a sheet to protect it from doghair from the Golden Retriever, watching NASCAR with the volume up on Sundays but also Formula 1 on Saturday afternoons, and chewing flat toothpicks or Wrigley’s Doublemint that he bought in 5-packs and kept in a Christmas-themed, mailbox-shaped tin that once held Russell Stover candies, wearing a white T-shirt and shorts with a black belt, long legs out in front, mesh hat on his head, mostly quiet but sometimes vocalizing what might have been a complaint.

My dad inherited the bitterness, and once or twice as a kid he erupted about how someone long-dead in the family had squandered some sort of fortune. He would work at a company for 2 or 3 years before moving on to something else. There was the year or two that he worked in maintenance at the local amusement park. We got free season passes, and he would sometimes bring home sunglasses or hats for my brother and I that unfortunate roller coaster passengers had lost. When he worked at a place that manufactured diamonds for drill bits, he would bring home razor blade-sized plates of carbon with little diamonds growing on them and stress balls with the company logo. They lived on top of the microwave, next to a boom box whose dial never changed from the local rock station. There was the year he broke his leg falling down the old wooden stairs with the broken toilet he was replacing, the EMTs that came, the cast we signed, the metal pins in his leg, the explanation that the first doctor had messed up and he would need another surgery. Later that year, going to the supermarket and standing not at the checkout counter where I’d usually pester my mom for Chiclets or Fruit Stripes, but another counter with a glass window, no cart with us, my parents looking tense and ashamed. Kids at school making fun of me after I told them how the food fairy visited my house and delivered boxes of bananas and oranges. Going from paying 35 cents to the ladies at the lunch register to saying “free.” My younger brother and I being told to be on my best behavior while my parents, somber-faced, met with a well-dressed man in an office with leather furniture and a credit card company logo on his door. A report card where my teacher expressed concern that I constantly talked about my family being poor.

But later came my mom going back to work after my brother was in school, the housekeys, and once or twice, an afternoon with the nice old lady across the street when we forgot our key and the windows were also locked. Buying the acre of land next to the house and making garden plots, building a bridge across the stream on the new property where my brother and I played with our two Black Lab mix rescues, erecting a toolshed. Associate’s Degrees for my parents from the local community college. Replacing the old diesel Volvo wagon for a used F-150 that we would take camping to New York on vacation, then the excitement of trading in the other wagon for a brand new Jetta for my mom to drive to her payroll job at a construction firm. $1.25 for lunches, and a little extra for iced tea. Me turning 14 and getting a job at the same amusement park where my dad worked years ago. My dad’s promotion to supervisor, business cards, button-down shirts, and new stress balls that said “Move over, Silicon Valley. Here comes Lehigh Valley.” A trip on a plane to Disneyworld. Replacing the big blue stones of the driveway with asphalt and paying a company to construct a two-story garage. Then came the market crash, the layoffs, coming home to an unlocked door because our dad was inside, looking for jobs or doing coursework for his online university. My mom taking a second job, at that amusement park. Eventually my parents’ final split and divorce, community college for me when my hazily-planned dream of going to Ithaca for music fell through, and buying fruit and $0.50 misshapen loaves of French bread at the grocery store for a late lunch on my way home from campus because it was cheaper than a sandwich in the cafeteria, but sometimes I’d splurge on a $2.19 cup of soup. It took me several months to realize I had a PELL Grant in addition to my PHEAA Grant, and that I had money to put towards my books.

But that’s a lot of time I just covered. Let’s back up to my childhood again. My grandmother would take us to Sunday School in the mornings, and my mom or sometimes my dad would pick us up. My first years of Sunday School were spent in a trailer next to the UCC church on an aptly-named Mountain Road that wound past cornfields and single-story homes at the foot of Blue Mountain. As far as I could tell, everyone else at the church was also Pennsylvania Dutch. As were most of my classmates, who could choose between German and Spanish if they wanted to take a second language in high school. My high school had between 600 and 700 students over four grades, with less than 10 Black, Asian, or Latino students who were there throughout high school. In elementary school and junior high, kids with names like Desiree and Jaritza would appear for a year or two, tough girls from Allentown or Bethlehem with loud voices, low grades, lip liner, hoop earrings, and tight clothing, who hung around with the disruptive kids who smoked. They were different. We had a word for their difference: ghetto. The single cheerleader of color, a skinny pretty girl who wore Abercrombie like the skinny pretty white cheerleaders, wasn’t ghetto.

I never shopped at Abercrombie, being taken instead to Sears, Kids R’ Us, and the Vanity Fair outlets in Reading for nice school clothes as a kid with my mom and grandmother (who worked as a teller at a local bank) and sometimes my aunt (who worked at a travel agency), and going to Old Navy, Deb, Kohl’s, and JC Penney as a teenager. Band concerts and Sunday clothing usually came from the Fashion Bug in town, which specialized in dark-hued, shapeless, uncomfortable polyester dresses and pants. When I wasn’t forced to look nice, I was wearing oversized t-shirts. There was the t-shirt with wolves in the woods from the Woolrich outlet, where I also got a rabbit pelt. There was the tie-dyed shirt I got from the Independence Day celebration in north central PA where relatives had a hunting cabin, and where I also got a second rabbit pelt and attended the rattlesnake hunt festival one year. There was the Bob Marley t-shirt from the boardwalk in Maryland (a camping trip), soft hand-me-downs, a tie-dye wolf shirt from a flea market, marching band t-shirts I had to wear to football games when I took off my jacket.

For fun, my brother and I watched Disney movies on VHS, either rented from my mom’s sister’s video store, or materialized in our house probably as extra stock from the video store. Or we played with the toys given to us mainly by our grandmother and aunt. Sometimes we went outside, but living out in the township next to a busy state route two miles outside of the actual town meant we had no local playmates. Our house was a farmhouse built around 1908, the farm itself long gone, and the living room never completely finished. Eventually we put drywall up along the walls, but the ceiling is still exposed beam, 100-year-old white hatchmarks on the wood. Because of its location outside of the town lines, among woods and scattered farmlands, whenever we called the police we needed to wait around 40 minutes for a state trooper to arrive from Bethlehem. The cities in Captain Planet showing trash cans were unknown to me, as were the city blocks in Sesame Street. I didn’t recognize the lush suburban streets in Wishbone, or in the bicycle safety videos I saw in school. Looking both ways and dismounting near crosswalks meant nothing to me. I could only ride my bike alone in the following places: on the quarter mile of back road that led to a steel fabrication company (my brother and I could see the welders’ torches from our bedroom windows), a defunct paint mill, and the crumbling foundation of a railroad station that had been abandoned decades ago; the rocky track next to the wooden railroad ties left behind after the steel had been ripped up; or the dirt track next to the fabrication company where four-wheeler enthusiasts had made loops and hills. Sometimes my brother and I would walk on the tracks looking for metal stakes or other strange-shaped rusted things, or look for owl pellets and rocks by the river. When he was old enough, my brother got a BB gun, and sometimes he could get me to shoot at empty soda cans with him. When my parents got handguns and my brother got a .22 rifle, we set up paper targets at the dirt track and took turns loading and emptying clips and learning how to operate the safety controls and load the chambers, the sound of exploding rounds dampened by foam plugs from my dad’s work or earmuffs. Sometimes I could be talked into spending an afternoon shooting at bottles and cans thrown in abandoned quarries, or at the rod and gun club where I took the hunter’s safety course and hit every clay pigeon they threw during my test, but I preferred the precision of the smaller caliber rifles to the loud shotguns that bruised my shoulder.

We lived near the Appalachian Trail, and my mom took my brother and I hiking sometimes. There was a shelter where sometimes we would find hikers with expensive-looking equipment. Most people from the area who ventured up to the trails didn’t venture far, hanging out at the Knob or by the cleared-out powerline towers, and both areas were spray-painted with graffiti and had green shards of Yuengling bottles strewn among the rocks. You could see fireworks in Allentown and Bethlehem from up there. When my husband and I first started dating, we would go up and walk around sometimes, and then run around chasing each other in the baseball fields where he’d played Little League, drive around on the rural roads and pass occasional memorials at the foot of trees or telephone poles, stop in cleared cornfields and beat each other with dead stalks, and make an occasional trip through the woods to check out any of the numerous abandoned, water-filled slate quarries where my parents and their friends would drink and hang out and sometimes jump and sometimes drown. Sometimes he used the money he saved from working at Taco Bell near the mall to buy Chinese takeout, or I paid for breakfast at the rural diner with money from my retail job at the mall.

The mall wasn’t technically in Allentown, but the suburb north of it. My family occasionally ventured into affluent parts of Allentown for doctor’s appointments and suit rentals, but there were never any trips into the center of the city until I had college classes downtown. Allentown was dangerous, it was said. The dark-skinned loud people I encountered at the nearby amusement park, teenagers with their pants hanging below their buttocks, brought to mind the word “ghetto.” (And we had a word for white kids who emulated that kind of dress and attitude.) In my young mind they were ill-mannered at best, and maybe dangerous, and this was reinforced by the adults around me. Bus trip to musicals in New York were prefaced with grave warnings to keep my belongings with me at all times. A childhood trip to Philadelphia with my grandmother (who has never left the U.S. as far as I know) and aunt, a 70 mile trip, merited a stay in a fancy hotel – but 70 mile trips to Hershey Park or Lancaster were done in a day. The country, the rural towns, that was where it was safe. That’s where I was supposed to belong.