Tag Archives: rural

Turned Urban: Raised Rural 5

(If you haven’t read Raised Rural one, two, three, and four, I recommend reading those first. Also consider checking out Ivy Wrapped Around My Throat about how my social life changed along with my politics at this time, and The Music Dies about my college dreams.)

To recap: in college in Philadelphia, I identified myself politically as an Independent, leaning libertarian, embracing social freedoms but concerned mostly with fiscal responsibility, economic freedom, and a watchful foreign policy. I supported moderate Republicans. Then, when I lived in Chicago – outside of the bubble of campus housing that I’d lived in while in Philly – I started seeing the cracks in the social systems that I’d thought were fair and just. This is how I came up close to those cracks, learned a vocabulary to describe them, and if I’m a good enough writer, how it changed me.

 

“Community” is not a word I understood until very recently in my life. Of course, I knew the dictionary definition, but I’d never been shown its actual meaning of community – in fact, I was raised by parents who were at times hostile to the surrounding community, and from a young age I knew the meaning of words like “nonconformist,” “small-minded,” “hypocrite,” and “ignorant.” So naturally, I didn’t invest in community. Not the public school, where I struggled to fit in and felt isolated. Not the church, where my grandmother took me to Sunday school and I prodded the teachers with questions they couldn’t answer to my satisfaction. Not among the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose heritage I shared but racial attitudes and small-town perspective I found abhorrent, and whose stagnation I found stifling. Not at community college, where I knew I would leave after two years, and not at La Salle where I didn’t fit in among the middle-class suburban kids who had attended private religious schools. It sadly wasn’t until 2013, when everyone was excited about the men’s basketball team and there were touching stories about the team members’ families and friendships, that I realized how awesome La Salle’s community was and allowed myself to root for the team and feel like I was part of it.

In Chicago, though, I took trips by myself downtown, for errands and for fun. After work, I walked my dog around the neighborhood and let her run around with puggles and Australian shepherd mutts. We walked her along the lakeshore, and we would pick her up to laugh at the sight of her eating mulberries right off the tree in Washington Park. I borrowed graphic novels and art museum passes from the local library branch. I read classic novels and Augusten Burroughs while riding the Green Line out to my graduate courses in the River Forest suburb, watched my breath come out in frosty puffs while walking and listening to Rilo Kiley and Wolf Parade, sat on a bench with crochet hooks and yarn in the lobby of the botanical garden until my classes in their library started, and wrestled with oversize WPA blueprints in the narrow archive of the African American History museum. A few months before I left, I bought a White Sox hat and wore it to represent the South Side. I could have lived there, happily, for much longer than two years. However, as in so many other places, I knew my time in Chicago had an expiration date. I was a temporary visitor, and my opinions wouldn’t mean much. And as a white 22-year-old student living in largely Black and then mixed neighborhoods, who couldn’t find Chicago on a map until after the lease was signed, I didn’t think it was truly my space to claim.

But I went to New Haven knowing I would be here at least six years, the minimum amount of time it would take my husband to get his doctorate in history from Yale, and with the possibility that he would need an extra year, or that we would land good jobs that would keep us in the area. I had a reason to care more about my community here.

Again, though, I’m jumping ahead. Thinking about community and involvement in these terms was something I had to learn. And I learned it from my job.

When we moved to New Haven in August 2011, I had hoped I would get a job in archives or special collections, or maybe a museum. I had the MLIS that qualified me for professional work as a librarian. We hoped that Yale might take an extra look at my resume, if I dropped in my cover letter that I lived in town because my fiancee was getting a Ph.D. from them. I applied to every position in the university’s library system that I could (not the ones that required fluent Japanese or an advanced degree in GIS), and I got a pile of rejection emails, and an interview for a job at the second-lowest tier of library clerk work, which amounted to nothing. I luckily found a temporary part-time job at a corporation in Stamford after a few months, and when it was extended from 3 months to 6 months, we finally set a date for our wedding and knew we could pay for it. For work, I was limited by what I could reach by the local bus system and Metro North, and when several part-time positions opened up in the city library a month after the temporary job ended, I had no choice but to go for it and keep applying for full-time jobs that would allow me to afford a car. That’s how, after a year in New Haven, I came to public libraries.

My life up until this point had included little contact with the public library world. My mom got my brother and I library cards when I was eight or so, and we used them to check out old stories from the libraries near Allentown while my mother gathered sources for a community college paper. Sometimes in junior high school, I would spend my Wednesday afternoon in my hometown library, asking one of the two librarians for help finding Stephen King novels, or reading books on ghosts and the supernatural until a parent picked me up on the way home from work. I didn’t return until my senior year of college when I needed to use a scanner to complete a graduate school application for an academic program, several months before I considered turning my work-study archives job into a career path. This library was still a single room with a small staff, but I had been happy to see they had a number of modern computers and a group of boys playing games on them. A couple years later, I would run into the librarian at a summer fair in town, and her husband would step into the conversation and complain about the boys’ preference for Spanish, stating, “This is America. Speak English or get out!” with a violent thumbjerk. I had been too stunned to ask why he thought it was any of his business. In hindsight, I might have formed my response in Spanish.

I knew the issues facing city libraries from what I learned in library school out in Chicago, and from visiting my neighborhood branches and the big downtown Harold Washington Library for a weekly class. New Haven was an education unto itself. I got to know the regular patrons – disabled women who borrowed hundreds of books a year and ran a library out of their apartment for their neighbors, men who harmlessly flirted with the women workers and called my hijab-wearing coworker “sister,” elementary school girls in uniforms from the nearby private school whose appetites for books challenged my readers’ advisory skills, orthodox Jewish families with mothers who often seemed tired, exhausted elderly wives acting as constant caregivers to their husbands who were deteriorating from Alzheimer’s, young autistic adults who lived down the street and sometimes couldn’t control their emotions, single mothers who borrowed DVDs, retired Yale professors, men who used the computers every day to search for jobs, smiling middle-aged women who called me “honey,” high-functioning alcoholics, people who talked to themselves or who chronically spoke too loudly, quiet kids who weren’t in school and who hung out at the library all day until their parents returned home after work, and refugee families who barely knew English.

I was a very rule-oriented person for most of my life, an extension of my father’s parenting and his black-and-white worldview. It carried over into my work for years, and the public library challenged that. Adherence to the rules meant collecting sometimes exorbitant fines from people who I knew were receiving assistance or were unemployed. It meant stopping a child or homebound adult from borrowing a pile of books because of the limit on materials borrowed. It meant not getting interlibrary loans to curious adults because the limit was too low for their information needs. It took me years, and the wonderful example of my boss (who was also trying to balance internal problems in the workplace), as well as bosses and coworkers in other library systems, to learn the best way to deliver library services. You override the book limit. You waive the overdue fines, even if the person on the phone or in front of you might be lying about their extended hospital stay. You waive half the fees and let them borrow the book in their hand, even though their balance is technically still too high to allow borrowing. You let the wife take the newspaper out to her husband waiting in the car, even though the newspaper isn’t supposed to leave the library. When the city hasn’t plowed the street and your tiny parking spot is the only place where parents at the nearby preschool can put their cars, you talk to the head of the preschool instead of shouting at the parents. You let the person whose phone has run out of minutes make a call from your branch’s phone. You tell people you just want the books back that have been overdue for the past year, and you heap them with gratitude  when they return them while you waive their bill. The kid who is hanging out in front of your library in below freezing temperatures an hour before you open, you start a conversation with him and call his parents to feel out his situation. You order the rap CD or the Sister Souljah book even though you know it’s going to be stolen. You let the person you’ve never seen before pay you back next time for their printouts. You let the ESL learner, who takes classes in the basement meeting room with the literacy volunteers, renew the English-Arabic dictionary over and over and over.

It became clear to me that, contrary to what I’d believed before, we were not all on an equal playing field. I met people, primarily working-class African Americans from the area around the library, who searched for jobs for months and even years unsuccessfully, though I saw them in the library every day, and their friendliness never wavered. I saw cover letters rife with so many grammatical errors and so simple in tone compared to my own letters, that I didn’t feel like it was worth commenting, especially when my workday didn’t allow me the time I would have needed to help them. I once helped a young man try to navigate the online system to expunge a drug conviction from his record, and I heard over and over again from men in their 40s and 50s about how they had made mistakes in their past that prevented them from getting good jobs, or any jobs. I helped – or tried to help – a woman get on the waitlist for section 8 housing, a needlessly labyrinthine process that involved a hunt through the local newspapers to find the announcement that listed the website that would be open for a week, and the specific times she needed to be online to apply, times that didn’t coordinate with our open hours.

And my institution was playing a part in keeping that playing field uneven. The kids with unstable home environments, who walked to the library by themselves and who couldn’t give a permanent home address, were kids who might take materials out and never return them, but they were also the kids who needed the library the most. Those who couldn’t afford a home computer and internet connection, let alone a printer, had to pay high printing fees for paper applications for food or housing assistance. Many libraries don’t put much of their budget into hip-hop albums or urban fiction or blockbuster films due to the high rate of theft, even though they often reflect the interests of many patrons more accurately than National Book Award winners and foreign films. Computers filled up fast at the main branch, so people would take the bus to our branch – but the time limits on the computers were too low for those who were looking for jobs, and there were still too few computers for us to always extend their sessions. And I noticed that patrons who didn’t share my skin color – the color of most library workers, cops, aldermen, teachers, politicians, and other authorities – were more likely to acquiesce to the rules instead of ask for an exception. I could see in kids’ eyes how they calculated the answer they thought I wanted to hear, or the simplest answer they could give, even if it wasn’t the most truthful answer. I realized that the Dewey Decimal system includes at least 73 numbers for topics in Christianity, but only one – 297 – for Islam, that most books on racial discrimination usually get filed under current events instead of under history, that it gives preferential treatment to Western European languages and even ancient languages over those from Asia, and that it shows its limits as the product of a 19th century British Christian male.

I fucked up, plenty of times, and perpetuated the injustices that I was only beginning to understand. I waived the fines for the patrons who challenged them and let meeker patrons pay them. When I had to reiterate library policies to unfamiliar patrons, I sometimes lapsed into a casual tone with who looked like me and stayed formal with those who didn’t. The well-behaved kid who wasn’t in school and obviously had a chaotic home life, once when he hit his daily computer limit and he jumped on somebody else’s computer session after she stepped away for a moment, I canceled the session from the admin computer and without a word he got up and wandered the stacks, when I should have just let him use the computer to play games and been happy he had a warm place to be, or better yet, I should have asked him if there were books or movies I could get him and show him I was a safe adult. I let one of the autistic young adults have a meltdown because I told her she needed to wait her turn when the desk was busy. I didn’t always give my full attention to reference questions from patrons whose minds jumped from one subject to another before my first search was over. When I heard two boys calling another boy stupid, I should have stepped in and told them that treating people well was much more important than intelligence. Sometimes, I myself struggled to kill with kindness.

But I know I made a difference in lives, too. I would talk to one of the regular ladies about movies, and when I found her a certain film one day, she was so happy she gave me a hug. One of the curious adults spent a long time in the local hospital, and he gave us medallions with the Serenity Prayer from the hospital shop when he came back. I gave directions to GameStop to a refugee family’s father who wanted to buy one of his children the handheld game system they had seen their friends playing. I made friends with another refugee family’s daughter, a six-year-old with moxie to spare who asked me to help her with her math homework. I looked up services that were available to full-time caregivers and printed them out for the exhausted wife. I found a food pantry for a patron who had lost his housing and who couldn’t get some necessary medication, and he appeared several months later looking much healthier and holding down a steady job.

Throughout this whole time, I had become deeply curious about issues of race, and I started seeking explanations for the realities that I’d only started seeing at 20 years old when I moved to cities. Freakonomics had included a chapter by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, and I finally got my hands on his book Gang Leader for a Day, where he talked about the economic system of gangs in one of the decrepit housing projects not far from where I’d lived in Chicago. I learned in Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. that being able to code-switch between street language and school language hinted at a linguistic prowess that I, as somebody who speaks in one mode, do not possess – and I also learned that when I’d said Obama was articulate, it came with an unspoken asterisk: “for a Black man.” At one of my library jobs I was lucky enough to maintain that current events nonfiction section, and I pulled together a display on racial discrimination in our country after Michael Brown was shot, and I earnestly scouted new titles to add to the collection. I read Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and learned how she received messages of her sub-worthiness as a Black girl, and listened to audiobook versions of Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore and Alex Haley’s gigantic Roots: The Saga of an American Family. I watched documentaries and read Wikipedia articles on Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, the more violent parts of the civil rights movement which had never, ever been discussed in my high school, ever, and which had been spoken of with negative, dismissive, or hostile tones when the terms were used in rural Pennsylvania. I came to understand the necessity of those radical strains within the fight for civil rights. I learned the phrase “making a way out of no way” and how it related to the perseverance of African Americans. I learned how nuclear families were intentionally separated in public housing projects, shedding understanding on the statistic I’d heard that African-American women have a high rate of single parenthood. I learned that the non-charter public high schools in New Haven graduate less than 70% of their students, and that it was a significant improvement from five years before.

In 2008 I started embracing my formerly secret love of hip-hop, and with burned CDs from my husband’s brother (who people had called some stupid racist words in high school for his love of Black rappers) and my husband’s admission of his own love of rap, I began understanding how it worked: some rappers spoke to a reality they’d faced, some used the language and imagery of samurai films to express violence in their neighborhoods, some sold fantasies of endless money the same way rock bands sold fantasies of endless sex, some were fascinated with gang life the way the rest of our culture was fascinated with the Italian mob. I channeled Jay-Z’s swagger before going into interviews, felt trapped with Tupac when I thought I’d never escape working shitty jobs and living in shitty apartments, got angry with Nas, and blew off steam with ridiculous Ludacris songs. Parts of Black culture became my culture.

 

After two years working part-time in the city library, and living in the city myself, I could no longer ignore the realities of my patrons and my neighbors. I could no longer believe in equality. And that’s why I could no longer subscribe to libertarianism, or vote only for fiscal issues while ignoring the social.

 

Addition on February 20 when I realized I completely forgot to talk about the neighborhoods in New Haven:

During this time, I saved money by mostly walking the mile and a half from my downtown apartment to my workplace, instead of constantly taking the bus. My path down the major street took me past multiple Dunkin Donuts, hair braiding salons, chain pharmacies, soul food and fried chicken stands, liquor stores, bank branches, quiet rowhomes, and a Jamaican place that pulled a gigantic smoker out onto the sidewalk on the weekends for jerk chicken and made the block smell heavenly. The neighborhood visibly changed when I got close to my branch, to brunch places, art galleries, salons with European models on their signage, the section of the large park that held a weekly farmer’s market, an optometrist, yarn-bombed bicycle racks, and pubs beloved by longtime residents. On my lunch breaks, I would take walks around the neighborhood, passing cute single homes with cats lazing on porches, Tudor woodwork, magnolia trees, and bougainvillea spilling from planters.

Sometimes coworkers or Yale students I knew mentioned locking their car doors at night when driving through other neighborhoods at night, or avoiding them entirely. They were neighborhoods whose mostly African-American demographics were similar to the neighborhood I passed through on my commute, where I had never felt in any danger. Passing those supposedly dangerous neighborhoods during the day, I felt bad for the people who had to live next to decrepit abandoned houses, without a trash can or a bus route or a well-stocked grocery store in sight. One night in my early days of running, I ended up taking a wrong turn and passed right through a street that people avoided. My big takeaway from my journey – aside from noticing the crumbling sidewalks that characterized every block in New Haven that wasn’t part of Yale – was that there were a lot of churches. Another day, when I stopped for groceries on my way home from work, I saw a memorial for a teenage boy who had been killed by gunfire from a rival gang outside the store a few days before. I put some money into a collection at checkout for funeral costs, knowing it wouldn’t lift the grief from his family and classmates – and not once having the thought cross my mind that my store was unsafe.

When conversations drifted to the high rate of violent crime in New Haven and eyebrows shot up in disbelief at where I walked, I brushed off my conversation partners’ concerns by reminding them that I’d lived in south side Chicago and north Philadelphia. And I remembered an orientation at La Salle, when an older student pointed out that the neighborhood around the university was working-class regular people and the threat of looming danger was blown out of proportion. There was crime against students, for sure, but most of the incident reports related muggings late at night against kids who were almost definitely coming back from parties. I wasn’t wandering around backstreets drunk out of my mind at two in the morning, and potential muggers would have been disappointed to find only a few dollars in my wallet anyway.

 

Raised Rural 4: Rural Politics

I’ve been trying for weeks to get to the point where I can talk about how my culture and politics have fundamentally changed. Before I get there, though, I think I have to spell out exactly where my politics were. I have to take a step back so I can dissect exactly how they changed.

At home, I had a politically disengaged mother who would have voted for Ralph Nader if she had been registered, and a father who was deeply distrustful of government. He told my younger brother and I, in no uncertain terms, that we should never trust a government that wanted to take guns away from the people. On his desk, he had a “stop scabs” button protesting the temporary workers who come in when unions go on strike, and a MAD magazine cartoon picturing a museum docent in the background, explaining to a tour group that vikings believed they would be rewarded in heaven for their barbaric and violent behavior, and in the foreground, a crazed-looking man with “Arab terrorist” written across his machine gun strap exclaiming “Sounds perfectly reasonable to me!” The desk was a heavy metal thing that looked like it belonged in an office somewhere, and though I remember seeing his business textbooks from his courses at community college sitting on the desk, I have no memories of my mom using the desk when she was enrolled.

Sometime after we got a computer in 1996 or 1997, but before my father started taking online classes at the University of Phoenix, he shared a printout of racist jokes with my brother and me. It wasn’t our first time encountering them, of course. I had heard them traded at holiday dinners, especially when the pastor of my grandparents’ UCC church would join us. The pastor recited his contributions with a slight Pennsylvania Dutch accent, one that wasn’t nearly as heavy as my grandfather’s accent was when he interjected comments while listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Or when he told me to “turn that crap off” when found me watching Janet Jackson’s “You Want This” on MTV in the living room one afternoon. Or when my brother and I overheard mutterings about “the Mexicans” drifting back to us from the passenger seat of my grandmother’s minivan. We had learned about the evils of racism and prejudice in school when we studied the Civil War, and we were both shocked that it still existed, let alone in our own family and in the leader of the church where we went to Sunday school. Coupled with statements from my parents about how the Pennsylvania Dutch around me were ignorant and backward, it bred in me a low-grade revulsion that lasted for years and years.

In school I learned that the Republican Party was business-focused and the Democratic Party was people-focused, and at home I learned that all politicians were corrupt. In the high school sociology elective that I took after my parents’ sociology and philosophy textbooks piqued my interest, I got more information in the the form of a handout explaining the demographics of each political party. Republicans were generally rural, had a high school education, and were working-class. By contrast, Democrats were generally urban, had college degrees, made more money, and/or were often non-white.  In my interactions with outspoken high school girls who were dressed in trendier clothing than me and had “the only bush I trust is my own” on their MySpace pages, I also learned that Democrats tended toward self-righteousness.

Because of the timing of my 18th birthday, I was late getting in my voter registration, which would have declared me an independent and given me the ability to vote for Bush in 2004. I didn’t do much research aside from a cursory Internet search, but I knew Kerry claimed to represent the interests of of the people while being one of the wealthiest men in Congress. Shortly after the election, my grandfather said something about boycotting Heinz products.

I became slightly more engaged with politics after my boyfriend (and later husband) and I got together that fall. His parents hailed from Catholic working-class and middle-class families in the Philly suburbs, and they moved around the Philly area and the Midwest before landing in our town when my husband was a toddler. We’d first met in the elementary school gifted program when he was a quiet fourth grader and I was an awkward sixth-grader, and in high school he sometimes came to football games and traded Monty Python quotes with mutual friends who sat with me in the marching band section. Instead of music clubs, he pursued debate team and scholastic scrimmage. The way he explains it to me, he was an “elite nerd” who enjoyed arguing with peers, and since his peers were primarily liberal, he had to take a conservative stance in order to have arguments. At some point, he started believing in the persona he had formed. It was reinforced by the beliefs of his parents, who often watched Fox News when we hung out in the evenings, and other respected adults in the area, who presumably understood the world better than teenagers.

My boyfriend/husband read political theorists like Machiavelli and Rousseau, as well as lots of history books, and he argued his stances with refreshing pragmatism instead of the unexamined gut reactions. For example, such-and-such government program sounded great in theory, but it would be prohibitively expensive. Or, so-and-so federal law was basically a good idea, but lawmakers had hidden a bunch of junk in it to appease their constituents. Or, so-and-so senator shouldn’t be writing this bill because he has no expertise, or so-and-so is saying this strategically but he actually votes that way. Or, this-and-this government program targeting that-and-that problem created dependence and actually perpetuated the problem instead of solving the root cause. Socially pretty liberal, but skeptical of implementation of social policies. He rolled his eyes at mainstream conservative media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Bill O’Reilly. He was knowledgeable and impassioned, and his libertarian-esque beliefs and concerns mostly became my own. We believed everyone had equal opportunities for success and just needed to use their own talents accordingly, as we had.

His family ties to the Philly area – and the desire to go somewhere much more exciting than our town – led him to enroll at La Salle University and work towards a history degree, while also working 30 to 40 hours a week at the restaurant his father managed in the suburbs. I needed desperately to get out of our town too, and I joined him at La Salle after I finished up at community college. Through his social circle I met religious conservatives, a branch of conservatism that I hadn’t encountered in our hometown of mainline Protestants whose politics were completely detached from their religion, as well as business-oriented conservatives from well-off families. As mentioned before, I became friends with other socially liberal, fiscally conservative, moderate independents. We wondered at the narrow aims of our outspoken Democrat friends, who seemed solely concerned with social issues. My friends and I liked Obama’s personality but distrusted his message (and felt more than a little alienated by his dismissive “clinging to their guns and religion” statement), and we voted for McCain, the war veteran with years of experience, a message of ‘reaching across the aisle,’ and an immigration policy that was to the left of the GOP party line and more palatable to us and the undocumented workers we knew from our jobs.

During our time in Chicago and in New Haven proper, my husband fell into political nihilism, refusing to acknowledge any position at all. After what I’d experienced in Chicago, I wasn’t sure what to think, either. The Tea Party movement had gained traction within the GOP, and it quickly morphed from a libertarian opposition to excessive taxes into refusal to compromise with Democrats, calls for Obama’s birth certificate, statements that he was a Muslim with the implication that a Muslim president was a bad thing. It was a movement with racist undertones that I did not want to be part of. I didn’t register to vote in 2012, but I found myself somewhat happy that Obama got a second term. Despite my initial hand-wringing and the passing of the controversial Affordable Care Act, he had gotten us out of Iraq and started withdrawal from Afghanistan, slowed and stabilized the economic recession he’d inherited, and he had proved tougher than expected in foreign policy. He hadn’t been terrible, and might have even been good.

Plus I’d liked living in his neighborhood.

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.

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.

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.

Raised Rural: Part 2

In part 1, I more or less established what it was like growing up rural, white, and more or less working class. But I didn’t want to stay that way.

I spoke about my father’s Pennsylvania Dutch family in detail. The family name goes back to my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, whose grave I located eight miles from the house where I grew up, and maybe three miles from my grandparents and five from my aunt. Not far from the grave is a little village that bears the family name, where his trading post was.

My mother’s family, also Pennsylvania Dutch with supposedly some Swiss and other assorted heritage, doesn’t have any towns named after them. As they tell it, my grandparents came from alcoholism, neglect, and abuse and managed to rise above it to become fine people. They were active in the Lutheran church in their hometown as long as I can remember, and they frequently packed up their six children for camping trips across the eastern U.S. and Canada. As a young child, it was normal for them to visit places like Alaska, Iceland, Caribbean Islands, and Scotland. My grandfather would have spent a winter in Antarctica like my aunt and cousin, if not for his doctor’s recommendations against it.

My aunts and uncles, like my grandparents, were lively, talkative, funny people when I saw them at family reunions and holidays, and their houses were much newer than mine and nicely decorated. They went to the Renaissance Faire and traveled internationally, wore wooden pendant necklaces, and one of my older cousins got a Bachelor’s degree. She, as well as all my older cousins, moved away to different states or south into the cities or suburbs. The second wave of cousins – the wave to which I belong – quoted the Simpsons and Seinfeld, had tarantulas and ball pythons as pets (we asked for years to get a python too, and after my brother spent his own summer at the amusement park he bought his own), and owned current game systems like Sega Genesis and PlayStation. They introduced me to Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, and Final Fantasy 7. Most of us have wandered around different parts of the country, too, or managed to get a work visa to New Zealand for a couple years.

Awareness of the world outside of rural Pennsylvania is what I inherited from this side of the family. It bordered on – no, it crossed over into arrogance, and I remember an occasion as a teen when an adult outside the family called me out when I said I was better than somebody in town. It was a terrible thing for me to say and think, but I inherited it nonetheless. It might have been given to me as a coping mechanism for my difficulties socializing with other kids. (Or maybe it incited my difficulties. As a 30-year-old who hasn’t had to feel the sting of peer rejection for many years, I can’t tell.) I didn’t have friends in my elementary school, so books filled the void at recess and in my spare time at home.

We had Sesame Street and Disney picture book series, books that I loved from Ollie’s Bargain Outlet on ocean life and natural disasters, world fact books that I read cover to cover, a children’s dictionary that I browsed for him, books on predatory animals and poison dart frogs that I would swipe off my brother’s shelves and read jealously. I would read every word on the cereal boxes, move on to the beaten-up coverless copy of Ferdinand the Bull that appeared in our house from seemingly nowhere and which I was particularly fond of, then I’d go read the cards on F-14 Tomcats and Apache helicopters and B-5 stealth bombers that my grandmother ordered for my brother. I spent hours studying the Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds. When the Scholastic catalogs were distributed at school, sometimes I could beg my mom into ordering a book or two if they could afford it. I read books my grandmother got from church sales, her old encyclopedias, and my father’s Strange But True books we found in the attic one day at her house. I loved my elementary school librarian, and she loved me back, letting me pick out chapter books too advanced for most of my classmates and allowing me a steady diet of Hank the Cowdog and paranormal stories. When she retired, we all made cards, and mine included a drawing of me clinging to her leg and crying with a sign for the Trail of Tears (and recent topic on social studies) in the background.

I was markedly different from the other kids in my elementary school. I dressed like a boy with shapeless jeans and oversized t-shirts and sneakers, and I was seriously absentminded and awkward and prone to daydreaming, but I also got straight As, won a poetry contest run by the local newspaper, and after a couple tests I was put into the gifted program. The three other gifted kids in my grade had entered the program before me, the trail possibly blazed for them by older, academically successful siblings. We never became friends. I was teased so badly, there were times when I pleaded with my mom to somehow get me into a private school, thinking it would be better socially. My mom pointed out that the kids in private school would probably be worse.

In junior high, the kids from the township and borough were thrown together with kids from the district’s other elementary school – which was adjacent to the “rich” suburban school district – and I found acceptance among the kids from the mobile home park and eventually formed my clan with anime nerds and fellow marching band members, choir members, and the people in their orbit. Most of the band kids lived in housing developments from the 70s and 80s, and like me, many of them had been in gifted. We would quote Monty Python sketches and Mel Brooks movies. Most of us played the student instruments we’d rented in fourth grade and eventually bought, or instruments that had been living in the band closet for years, but once in a while an unblemished, rose-tinted piece of brass would appear.

Though most people in my school district who continued their education went to community college or commuted to the rural state university 40 minutes away, the band kids with the newer houses tended to choose places like Penn State, Gettysburg, Muhlenberg, Temple, West Chester. Big state universities or private colleges where they’d live on campus. When I attended my future husband’s Baccalaureate, there was a palpable gasp when it was announced that one of the graduates – not even the valedictorian or salutatorian – was going to the University of Pennsylvania. It was unheard of that someone from our district would get to go to an Ivy League.

A prestigious university wouldn’t be in my own future, either. When I toured potential transfer colleges in the Philadelphia area to be close to my now-husband, I did visit Penn (I even remember the short Catholic school-inspired skirt from Kohl’s I wore, because it seemed academic), who might have taken some of my college credits but couldn’t offer me a scholarship. Neither could Bryn Mawr, who wanted to count my father’s income in their need-based scholarship calculations despite my parents’ divorce and my complete lack of financial support from him. Haverford had a 3% acceptance rate for transfer students so I didn’t bother applying, and Swarthmore wouldn’t have accepted any of my transfer credits.

So I applied La Salle University, the same place my husband was attending. A regional Catholic college, not nearly as well-known as St. Joseph’s or Villanova, it was attended primarily by kids in the Philly area who had gone to Catholic school and received a partial grant from the university. Coming from a family of working-class lapsed Catholics from Delaware County, it made sense that he gravitated towards those three colleges. La Salle just happened to offer the best financial aid package to him.

Lucky for me, they also accepted all my transfer credits and gave me a scholarship… even if I was as far from a suburban / urban Catholic as you could imagine. This was apparent before classes even started. I remember I was made to participate in the orientation weekend designed for incoming freshman, and we played Jeopardy. When I correctly answered several questions including one about John James Audubon and the magazine he founded, a frustrated freshman boy burst out some comment about how he didn’t spend all of his time birdwatching. I thought to myself, incredulously, how had he never heard of Audubon mazagine?

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.