This bearded, bespectacled man and I hovered over our Zombie Dust and Alpha King. “Detroit’s actually pretty cool, some of it,” he offered. “I mean, there’s the scary parts. But there’s some pretty cool parts — up-and-coming, you know.”
As we drove from Hartsfield-Jackson to downtown, crept up Highland, darted through Little Five Points, drew up to Druid Hills, my heart sank. My life has been all stucco and wood, and here, on that earthquake-free end of the country, everything was brick. Target is brick. The grocery store is brick. The gas station is brick. Shitty apartments are brick. His brick home — next door to glorious Stomp the Yard’s fraternity house stand-in — his brick home dwarfed me. But even those shacks on Moreland initially tricked me with their staid brick.
My best friend was orphaned during the Depression. Even before 1929, though, he was the youngest of nine children, his parents exhausted; his father split time between the mine and the bar and the home, and his mother managed. Every Christmas, he joyfully received apples, oranges, and books. He slept in the attic, and snuggled up with his dog, Jack.
So when he showed me his home, I was shocked at its largesse. Three stories? An attic? A basement? And a yard? Soon enough, I’d read more books and understand what a “company house” was. But at the time, shit didn’t make sense.
Clearfield, Pennsylvania would have left an impression, even if it hadn’t been my father’s hometown. When I visited in 1999, it still was the county seat, as it always had been. When my dad was a child, it was busy enough: the mines employed his father, and his grandfather, and maybe his great-grandfather; and dad took his turn, but as a means, not an end. There was a wealthy part of town — on the hill, on the other side of the Susquehanna — and the rest of the town. There was an Irish area, and an Italian area, and whatever the fuck area he lived in, where less-recent immigrants had already bred to create my own English-Welsh-French-German-Portuguese-Hungarian blood, a hundred years before I was born. The schools taught him French and Latin; and when he couldn’t afford basketball shoes, he flopped up and down the court in Clearfield High’s extra size 14s. There was an orphanage, and boarding houses for women teachers, and there were doctors, and well-educated men and their wives and their sons and daughters. For a time, dad was one of Andrew Mellon’s many stable boys. He admired my uncle, who had gone to UPenn (what dad firmly called “Penn” — sometimes I wonder if Penn State just didn’t exist to him) on a golf scholarship.
Wikipedia tells me Clearfield was one of the ten All-American Cities of 1966, along with Pinellas County, Malden, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Cohoes, Greensboro, Richmond, and Seattle.
When I visited in 1999, it was the county seat, as it always had been. The most recent census informs us it contains six-thousand, two-hundred and fifteen souls. The median household income is $27,414, and only 13.4% of the population lives below the poverty level. (“Only” — but, compare it to my Oakland — 19.4% — and the lack of economic opportunities generally, and you get my mild surprise.) In 1999, dad’s house — really, the right half of the house, the left for another miner’s family — still stood. We took a picture. The picture doesn’t show you that block after block after block is the same house: horizontal wood(?) paneling, baby blue, across the top half; weathered, intact shingles across the bottom half; a solid brick foundation. You walk up four stairs to the front step. In 1999, these blocks were deserted.
In 1999, the town looked deserted. Driving around for thirty minutes or so, stopping around old haunts, I counted approximately 14 people, including three working at the cemetery.
Which obviously brings me to the 2012 Presidential Election. Red and blue states? Yawn. Red and blue counties? Red and blue cities and towns? Much more interesting. Because as much as my Californian heart yearns to the contrary, we are of our smaller communities, not of our top-down sovereigns.
The morning after, eight other bleeding hearts and I breakfasted over the election. The usual culprits dashed about: racism, classism, fear, desperation, idiocy. Or you can take that NYT column about farmers v. ranchers. Fucking whatever.
But the thing is, the “higher” I climb in this world, the smaller it gets. I (almost) have a professional degree; I have worked in business before, and will again; in London, I meet friends-of-friends on the street. We, for all our smarts and our taste and our connect, we read the New York Times, and the Journal, and The Economist; we follow the Sartorialist; we know Jean-Georges and Thomas Keller and elBulli; we dance to Calvin Harris and hover-bounce to Grimes and we wear Ray-Bans and Converse All-Stars and we Go Running. We study and / or work abroad and / or have been au pairs and done gap years and we fucking travel to fucking “find ourselves.” We are in Chicago and New York and LA and Sao Paolo and Paris and Beijing and Dubai and Stockholm and we all want Obama to win and despite our different tongues, we all live and think the same.
And when people don’t want Obama to win, we cast aspersions. We say The Other (our own countrymen) are stupid, are bigoted, are mean, are cruel; they just don’t get it. They don’t get it. They’re “behind.” They need to catch up with the future. Before it leaves them behind.
But when I look at those county maps, I see people who live just like I do — who live just like everyone does, across the globe, iPhone 5 or not. People who try, pretty hard, every day, to do their best (cue Sean Connery admonition). People who love their families and their friends. People who want the best for themselves, and for their loved ones. Humans who try and fuck up and try and succeed and make lives for themselves, and some dream of fame and great wealth, and some dream of quiet lives and common victories, and all balance hunger to Be Something with happiness in being themselves.
So when I look at those county maps, the question isn’t: why are they so mean? But: why do we have different leadership visions?
I probably just have a chip on my shoulder because I love Oakland so much, but it’s unfair to break Detroit, or anywhere else, into “scary” and “pretty cool” parts. Because no matter how “ghetto” a neighborhood looks to an outsider, as long as there are people there trying to make it in America, you have individuals and families building their lives every damn day, making shit work, and, after a certain minimal point of material comfort, fairly happy. So who the fuck am I to call someone’s home “scary?”
The county map doesn’t show it, per se, but does remind me of what’s actually scary: that millions, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of Americans do feel left behind. What we accept — to get partisan, Mitt Romney’s fucking straight-up lies during debates — reflects that the world changes quickly, and on the grand scale, neither our economy nor our education system is at the vanguard. Barring unforeseen personal catastrophe, my friends and I can shift with the global tides, finding well-paying work as we want or need it. But I am lucky and hungry, and it is unjust to claim that those less lucky, or even those less hungry, now deserve butkus.
In 1935, my father was poor and orphaned; and he was lucky, and hungry, and even for him, nobody’s ninth child, the world was small enough that he got into college by writing personal letters to UChicago and Yale to give him a shot, despite his shoddy transcript and terrifying disciplinary record. (Arrogance and all, I am my father’s daughter.) I have a lot of trouble believing that a miner’s daughter could pull the same shit today.
In 1966, Clearfield, along with a handful of places I’ve never heard of and some still-famous, was an All-American City. Thirty-three years later, it was my first ghost town. But people still live there, raise families there; and shit, now that the mines are closed, they’re probably a hell of a lot healthier, too. So please remind me why, again, I’m supposed to look down on them?
“Your son . . . the oldest one. He goes to what school?”
“Jason’s at Princeton.”
“Princeton. And after he graduates, what’s he gonna do?”
“Whatever he wants.”
“Right, you sent him to Princeton to do whatever the fuck he wants. You know, back when we was kids, Danny Hare’s father stole a case of cognac off a ship. ‘Cept when he gets home, it ain’t Cognac; it’s Tang.”
“Just invented. TV was saying it’s what astronauts drank on the way to the moon. You drink it, well . . . ”
“You could be an astronaut, too.”
“All summer long, that shit was all the Hare kids drank. Tang with breakfast, Tang with lunch, Tang when they woke up scared in the middle of the night. What do you think they grew up to be?
“Stevedores. What the fuck you think?”