Day 2: Welcome to God’s Country
On Friday morning I decided to get a haircut, as I was a bit overdo. I kind of like getting my hair cut when I’m at home because it’s cheaper than it is here, and there isn’t (much of) a language barrier, so it’s easy to explain what I want done.
So I headed to the crumbling center of despair that is the local mall (Retail space available! Nearly 70,000 square feet!). At its peak, it was never exactly huge, but these days it’s just depressing. Not counting the five-theater multiplex, there are only about ten businesses actually operating there. This is part of the reason that, when I talk about what it’s like back home, I describe it as being like the opening scenes of some gritty documentary about a town where the factory shut down, except that every town is like that.
I went to the old barbershop, walked in, and sat right down, as there were no other patrons. The owner, who recognized me, did the job. He asked the usual battery of questions, such as, “Where you livin’ now?” When I said Virginia, he responded, “Virginia! That’s why you talk funny now; you’re livin’ out there with them hillbillies!”
Yeah. I live 40 miles from the seat of government of the world’s only remaining superpower, in a huge tech sector where many of the world’s most successful companies have a presence, in the most affluent county in the country, with a diverse population, surrounded by thriving businesses and cultural centers, and I work for the second-largest cable provider in the country.
We’re hillbillies, all right.
In the course of our delightful conversation, I was informed that “them Indians don’t know no better,” and got to hear such sophisticated – to my hillbilly sensibilities – terms as “fuckin’ niggers.”
In the days leading up to my trip, I’d wondered aloud to my friend Dan what I was going to do for eight days in “God’s Country.” He asked, “Is there anywhere you ever wanted to go growing up? Or anything that you always wanted to do?” I shrugged, and thought, “Yes, and yes: somewhere else and get the hell out of there, respectively. And I already went there and and I already did that.”
I suppose I’m not being fair. The racist fucktard barber isn’t really a representative sample of the – oh, who am I kidding?
Still, it’s not like there aren’t good people there; of course there are.
Even under the layers of stupidity and bigotry, that barber is probably a pretty decent guy. And I don’t mean to suggest that I think that I’m better than they are, because anyone who knows me can tell you that I have plenty of faults – and there are probably many people who would be more than happy to expound on those faults in great detail – but…well, in some ways, I am better than they are.
But here’s the thing: so are they. They don’t have to be the ignorant, close-minded, hateful, fearful bigots they so frequently – and casually, and proudly – show themselves to be. They’re also polite – for a given value of “polite” – hardworking and industrious, and generally a pretty hardy bunch. If they could just…well, you get the idea.
And that's the other thing. Sure, I’m a thousand miles – and in some ways, a whole world – away from them, but I’m also them. They are an indelible part of me. That’s where I came from, that’s where I grew up and became the person I am. As different as I may be on the surface, underneath it all, I’m the same.
Despite what I’ve said above, you might still find yourself wondering, especially if you’re one of the people who still lives there, “Seriously, Jon; why do you hate your home so much?”
If ignorance, coupled with an unearned feeling of superiority, and casual racism, along with a depressed economy, shitty winters that last way too fucking long, and pure, unadulterated contempt for anything and anyone that is even slightly “other” aren’t enough, how about the sheer, mind-numbing boredom? The soul-crushing despair?
Just being there makes me sad, down to my very core. It breaks my heart, especially since there are people there whom I love deeply – they are, after all, the only reason I keep going back – and I hate thinking that they might feel like I’m judging them somehow – because I’m not – just for staying there, and for living their lives and finding whatever happiness they can. I get that. I do. It’s their home.
But that’s another thing that makes it all so painful; the fact that is home. I should be happy to be there. But I just can’t do it. I should feel safe, and comfortable, and at ease, but all I can think about when I’m there is getting as far away as fast as I can.
Everywhere I look I’m reminded of some bitter resentment that I thought I’d let go and moved past a long time ago, but which I find is still just as raw and fresh as the day it was formed.
And maybe it is just my problem. Maybe it’s not so bad as I make it out to be. After all, the ruined buildings and soon-to-be closed new businesses aside, it really is beautiful there. There is, as an artist I once spoke to said, a quality to the light that you can’t find anywhere else. In the summer it’s green as far as the eye can see; in autumn it’s like the whole world has been set ablaze, and even the interminable gray winters have a stark beauty that is nothing short of magnificent.
Day 3: Life’s a Beach
On Saturday we had a picnic with my brother-in-law’s family and others. It was a nice day, but it was hot and extremely windy.
Throughout the course of the picnic my sister kept pointing out some guy every time he walked by and asking me if that was Abel – my best friend from when I was a kid. I told her that it wasn’t, because I thought he looked too young.
Later, he came over to us and said, “I knew I recognized these people!” Turns out my sister was right and I was wrong.
I’d never seen – or heard of – the car I had as a rental before getting into it in the parking lot at the airport, but as we were leaving the beach where we had the picnic there was another one parked right next to the rental. I’d also seen one at Wal-Mart the day before.
On Sunday we were having another picnic, as my other sister and her husband were coming up. They were also bringing my brother’s son with them, which was why I decided that my nephew Jeremy was going to get hosed: I hadn’t bought a shirt for Todd, as I hadn’t expected to see him, but upon learning that I would be seeing him, I decided that he’d get the shirt intended for Jeremy.
Jeremy ended up getting a better deal, though, as I slipped him a twenty, which is what all three shirts had cost me.
That evening I headed over to my sister’s house to watch the family set off their fireworks a day early, and then it was back to my mon’s apartment to get ready for round two.
Day 4: Life’s Still a Beach
And so we found ourselves back at the beach for another picnic. My sister, brother-in-law, and nephew made the drive up and we sat around – on a slightly cooler and less windy day – and did the picnic thing.
This time around we had steaks – which was my idea, and which were a big hit – rather than hot dogs and brats.
At one point I decided to go for a swim, which is when I learned that I’m getting wimpy in my old age. First of all, for someone who spent a good portion of his early years running around barefoot at pretty much all times, I found myself doing a lot of, “Ow! Dammit! Son of a – “ as I walked over the sticks and rocks on my way to the water.
For another, that water was cold. I nearly turned around and walked out, but then I thought, “This is the guy who used to routinely swim in Lake Superior, where the temperature below the surface seldom gets above 37 degrees? This is like bathwater in comparison. Suck it up, hillbilly.”
When I was a kid, if I could have found a way to live in the water, I would have done it in a heartbeat. At 38, I soon found myself thinking, “Okay, I’m in the water…now what?”
So I got out and changed back into my clothes just as it started to rain and we had to bring the picnic to a close anyway.
That evening, despite having no interest in seeing it, I went to see The Last Airbender with my brother-in-law Dean and my nephew Jacob. I wasn’t impressed, but none of us had any interest in attending any of the local 4th of July festivities, so what else was there to do?
Later that night, I could hear some fireworks going off somewhere distant, but couldn’t see them. It was fine; the sun was actually putting on a brilliant display of its own.
See what I mean about the beauty thing?
And as the sun sets on Day 4 of my trip home, so too does it set on this entry. Come back for the – hopefully less dour – Homecoming 1 & 2: The Third Part.