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Ivy Wrapped Around My Throat; or, Yale Culture Is Not My Culture

(This is the continuation of Raised Rural parts one, two, and three. And sort of my own Hillbilly Elegy.)

With degrees in hand, my husband and I moved from Chicago to New Haven, Connecticut, where I started looking for a job and he started a Ph.D. program at Yale.

In Chicago, people had been relaxed and happy to talk and connect. I found this to be true among the Midwestern students at my graduate school, undergraduate co-workers who would crack jokes at my retail job at a huge clothing store on the Magnificent Mile, strangers at the bus stop. My husband would meet up with University of Chicago graduate students – and professors would occasionally hold after-class discussions – at neighborhood bars, where non-drinkers would socialize over a water or soda. The U of C graduate students, and the recent graduates I encountered as well, seemed like normal people despite being educated at one of the best universities in the world. They were from all different backgrounds – immigrant families of modest means, wealthy families in Europe, regular lower-middle class Northeasterners, and with only one or two exceptions, the “cultural elites” with politicians, Nobel prize winners, and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in their families, didn’t wear their status openly. We talked about beer, outrageous anecdotes about professors and colorful relatives, pizza, terrible movies. We wore t-shirts and traded British comedy DVDs and tried, unsuccessfully, to create solutions for Israel and Palestine after a few drinks.

One block from our second apartment in Chicago, there was a much-loved chicken joint, bank, laundromat, liquor store, haircut place specializing in children’s cuts, independent grocery store with low priced produce, and chain pharmacy in the busiest shopping center in Hyde Park where students and non-university affiliates would do their business. In New Haven, the shopping area between our apartment and Yale’s campus featured the Gourmet Heaven corner store (known for high-priced groceries and illegal wage practices that eventually led to its shutdown), an Apple store, Origins beauty supplies, and clothing stores catering to the prep aesthetic: J. Crew, North Face, Gant, several boutiques. There was often a friendly middle-aged African American lady who sat on the corner all day selling flowers, who I have heard students refer to as “homeless.” In my first week, I saw a slim, naturally blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white-smiled, unblemished and perfectly tanned young adult wearing a blazer with boat shoes and rolled-up pants walking with a small group of other young men outside one of Yale’s architecturally-imposing residence halls. He was one of those men who is so impossibly handsome you feel not attraction, but an involuntary urge to punch them. He reminded me of a Ken doll parody I had seen in a commercial once, with a pastel-colored sweater draped perfectly across his shoulders. He practically dripped with privilege, his self-aware clashing fashion choice and genetics and smile saying “fuck you, I can have anything I want.” I had seen my first true WASP in its natural habitat. It would not be the last time.

Later I would learn the difference between “old money” and “new money.” If U of C represented the culture of new money, then Yale represented old money.

The drinking culture that typifies the Midwest – and might contribute to their casual affability – is simply not present in New Haven. While in Chicago I could buy liquor at the grocery chains, or pick up something at the corner store until they closed at midnight, but until recently Connecticut’s restrictive state laws prohibited alcohol sales on Sundays, most holidays, and after 9pm, with no ability to buy a 6-pack from a bar as you could under Pennsylvania’s laws. Many students at Yale didn’t drink, and there were few meetups at bars, so we couldn’t employ our usual strategy for making inroads into social groups. (I say “we” because I mainly leeched off my husband’s social life). I supplemented the scant social calendar with being conspicuously sunny to store clerks. Retail work and living among friendly Midwesterners in the previous couple years had made me an expert at being sunny around strangers. And many New England clerks, it turned out, were just as polite and happy to have little conversations as I was, despite the area’s reputation for chilliness.

When we did socialize at house parties, conversations were strained. My husband –  whose sharp wit, loud laugh, and unapologetic Philly-style swagger characterize his interactions with his friends and family (he’s singing Pixies songs to himself at this moment) – donned button-down shirts and leather shoes and tamped down his personality, bowing his head when we met gathered at the homes of faculty members. At informal parties at students’ apartments, conversation topics with a fair amount of back-and-forth were difficult for me to unearth. Students defaulted to talking about their research at Yale, or their professors, or other work-related gossip. I was neither researching at Yale, not working at Yale, nor even working full-time in my chosen career. I took the public bus to a retail job three towns away near the mall, later adding a temporary job in Stamford and then 19 hours a week at the local public library into my work rotation. My job search was completely alien to their experiences, and my despair made some of them visibly uncomfortable, not to mention affecting my own mood when I had to recount my economic setbacks multiple times in a single evening. Significant others, who were my usual go-to conversation partners when I accompanied my husband to his social events, were frequently graduate students themselves, so I didn’t have the common ground of the normal world to share with them. I became an expert at the blank, half-aware look of partners when they’re debating whether they should try to join the conversation they don’t understand, or risk moral judgment when people notice how many times they retreat to the low pressure and high carbohydrates of the snack table.

After two years, I decided to adopt a scorched earth approach. I started skipping over the usual exchanges of “and what do you research?” or “oh, I love that cookbook you have,” not allowing time for their polite inquiries about my Yale affiliation and my reply of “no, I’m not at Yale” and the awkward pause that always followed, as if I’d yanked away their roadmap of follow-up questions. Instead, I headed straight into Louis C.K.-style self-deprecating jokes and references to episodes of Archer, simultaneously trying to inject the levity I craved and also rejecting the pressure I felt to pantomime refined manners. Yale manners. I was not Yale, and I was no longer going to let them assume I was Yale, or pretend that I wanted to belong to Yale. One time, I declared that I was happy I wasn’t accepted into the academic graduate program I had once dreamed of, that I would have wasted money and would have been completely unhappy. It only took a few seconds for the peripheral conversations to die and a complete silence to descend across the room.

My husband later told me that it’s because I had vocalized the exact anxieties that every single person in the room felt.

While we had friends in Chicago with socioeconomic backgrounds similar to ours, they seemed nonexistent at Yale, and we frequently encountered assumptions that Yale students were financially well-off. The grad students in the humanities received a stipend barely above MIT’s living wage, and students that didn’t find a roommate to help defray the high rental costs almost certainly have to supplement their student income with savings from past careers or help from relatives. Many of them had relatives with funds to spare, whose parents would be happy to help them out, as their own parents might have helped them. As I mentioned in a previous post, a faculty member once asked somebody if he had working-class friends, and lamented the difficulties he had expanding his social circle beyond his own class. Our own social circle at Yale included the children of faculty at world-class universities and Manhattan doctors and diplomats, former lawyers and scientists, and people with graduate degrees in hand who were switching careers, who got Bachelor’s degrees from the best universities in the world, whose families have second homes in different countries, who grew up bilingual or even trilingual, who think nothing of getting on a plane to travel across the ocean, and sometimes travel abroad just to see family and loved ones for a week or to take a break. Once I got to know them, I learned that they worried about their finances and debated if getting a Ph.D. from Yale was the right choice for them, or if they should go back to their first careers or take a different track entirely. I thought it remarkable that those who had been given a chance to earn a degree from Yale – beyond the wildest dreams of anyone from my hometown – could be second-guessing themselves.

This is a completely different world that I inhabit nowadays. Most people I know from my own college experiences and my jobs have lived in the same region, or even the same town, for all their lives. I am the anomaly among them, the one who has lived in three states and two major cities, the one who has vacationed abroad in a place that wasn’t resort-heavy or Western Europe. Five years ago, I was amazed that I would even get to touch the buildings of Yale. Now I’m constantly frustrated when I try to organize parties during holidays that fall on academic breaks, and I find that friends are doing research abroad or have moved to another country while they write their dissertations. I don’t have that life myself, but it’s completely normal to know people that do. I walk my dog in neighborhoods where famous literary critics live, and I attend church services with people who have edited versions of the Bible. My husband works with intellectuals who have been published in nationally-circulated newspapers and are visible, outspoken critics of Trump.

I find myself stuck in between these two worlds: close to what some would call the “elite,” but not quite part of it, but also no longer working-class rural Pennsylvanian. Middle class in income and profession, but without the characteristic middle-class drive to increase my material and financial wealth and attention to status markers. When I return to rural Pennsylvania I see people glancing at the out-of-state front license plate on my hybrid car. Even when I’m wearing my sweatpants at the grocery store, I look different. My sweatpants are better quality and more athletic-looking than the pairs from Walmart and Kmart. Dresses, boots, and cardigans from the internet are the staples of my professional wardrobe, not black pants and blouses from Kohl’s. I’m muscular, and it shows in the slope of my shoulders. Though I’m slightly overweight, I weigh noticeably less than many other Pennsylvania Dutch women, and we don’t choose the same entrees when we go out to restaurants. I wear thick-rimmed glasses. I don’t speak like anyone who grew up there, and my smiles and eye contact are often met with grunts. I walk my dog on a leash instead of letting her walk out the door.  But I’m not like the women I see in New Haven either, not elegant, not slim, not descended from Puritans or an ethnicity that stands out in rural communities but has achieved the normalcy of whiteness in cities, with no tradition of boarding schools or generations of education in my family. You can see my rural origins in my face and in the shape of my waist. In the torn-up, mismatched outfits I wear to the gym, the big canister of Chock Full O’Nuts in the kitchen, and the coarse, vaguely sexual curses that come out of my mouth when I’m angry at the copier at work.

When people ask how I got to Connecticut and I’m not meeting them at a Yale function or somewhere in New Haven, I almost always say my husband is getting a graduate degree, and only volunteer the words “Ph.D.” and “Yale” and “Iranian history” if my conversation partner leads us in that direction. Whether they’re from rural Pennsylvania or from the relatively affluent town where I lead storytimes, I recognize the power behind those words and how they can stop the flow of conversations the way my lack of Yale affiliation did within Yale circles. I’m afraid those words can lead to undeserved admiration for my non-accomplishment of marrying somebody who chose to do academia, or even worse, those words can mistakenly lead people to think I’m better than them. I’m not better than them. I am not Yale. I am not even New England. But I am also not rural Pennsylvania, and I never fully was. I don’t know if I’m fully anything.

 

BONUS RANT ABOUT YALE AS AN INSTITUTION

At an institutional level, it seems that Yale reinforces the notion that Yale is for those with financial means. Yale provided health insurance to my husband, but insurance was not available to me at all until my and I were officially married, despite the fact that we lived in the same household (which is the language used by many insurance policies including those offered by the Affordable Care Act). Yale also did not offer employment support for graduate spouses or partners, which I had hoped to find, given the amount of money the university was investing in my husband. It was assumed that graduate students with families that moved to New Haven with them had the means to support themselves. Later, when my husband had fellowship funds denied to him due to a technicality in the disbursement – a fellowship that he needed for academic progress during the summer – a clerk at one of the Yale offices asked him if he had a family member that could pay the $2500 difference. My husband, an independent adult, a graduate student who had not lived at home for years, was deeply offended. He and I both came from families where teens eagerly looked for work when they reached legal working age, not where adults in their twenties asked our parents for thousands of dollars.

Yale’s campus buildings and history are designed to awe, and they seem to carry on traditions I had only read about in World War II-era literature about all-boys English boarding schools, or in children’s books about wizards. There are historical sites on campus dating back to the American Revolution, and the headstones in the nearby cemetery bear names that are found in dozens of history books. Undergraduate students live in residential colleges with a faculty member who lives on-site with their family and acts as a mentor to the undergraduates, instead of an undergraduate resident assistant who is getting a tuition break for their service. Each college has their own dining hall and social facilities, instead of sharing them with everyone on campus as I’d encountered at most college campuses I’d toured or attended, and I saw gorgeous wood-paneled study rooms through the windows of residences when I would pass by. Students take classes, practice for orchestra recitals, and get books from tall, Gothic-style stone buildings. Their Payne Whitney Gym holds the Squash Hall of Fame, a sport I hadn’t known existed until a friend at La Salle mentioned that he played it at his family’s country club. Sometimes, Yale alumni and professors host dinners at Mory’s, who tout themselves as “A Yale Tradition c. 1849,” on their website. There is apparently a membership fee to pay, and membership is approved by a Board of Governors. I have never been in, but rumor has it there is a dress code. In my mind, Mory’s represent the pomp and elitism of Yale culture, and I am still somewhat amazed that nobody rolls their eyes when the name comes up in conversation.

As a kid, I heard a fair amount of conspiracies, especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. I heard about how the Skull and Bones secret society was controlling the world, and how George W. Bush joined the society when he was a student at Yale. From the vantage point in rural Pennsylvania, where I hadn’t even heard of the World Trade Center until the attacks toppled them and New Haven was just as foreign a location as Manhattan, it was easy for people to give credence to the conspiracies. But living mere blocks from the Skull and Bones tomb, the Wolf’s Head tomb, and other secret societies, I quickly learned an alternative narrative: they’re a drinking club for the kids of rich folk. The late-night screaming, sounds of breaking bottles, and packs of bare-chested boys roaming in freezing temperatures were more commonplace in New Haven than in my residences at La Salle. Our apartment was near a residence hall and next to a fraternity house, and there was almost always rotting garbage on the sidewalks in front of their building. Once, a burned-up couch appeared in the middle of the sidewalk and stayed there for weeks. At first, I couldn’t believe that the same kids who took classes at an Ivy League university in gorgeous buildings would simply dump their trash on the sidewalk and expect somebody else to clean up after them. Then I had to believe it.

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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.