I grew up poor. In a poor community.
At twenty-seven I still am still considered poor. In a poor community.
Of course, I should preface this by saying that this isn’t a cry for help, or for a handout, or for any other such thing. There seems to be at this time in America a sort of expectation that poor people should keep quiet about poverty; that all poverty is the result, at least in America, of character flaws inherent in the poor person themselves; of habits and addiction; of ineptitude and stupidity. I want to continue by saying that I do not plan to stay poor for long, but I doubt that anyone who has ever lived in poverty ever does. I am luckier than most, however, and there are people I know personally whose situations are far more dire than my own. At least as of this past weekend, I am now a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and some very clear, if rather unorthodox, career aspirations. I also have managed to surround myself with a group of amazing friends and family who support and help each other in every way imaginable. And, due to the kindness of a relative, I don’t have to pay rent right now. The house I live in is a small block house that relies on a wood burner for heat and is certainly nothing fancy, but it’s free, and I am free from that financial burden that has led to economic anxiety for so many. So there’s that, and that is a huge relief.
I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia, in a tiny town called Pennington Gap. When I was a child, Pennington Gap was small, but it was not on the verge of collapse as it seems to be today. We had several locally owned small businesses: a couple of grocery stores, a coffee shop, two or three restaurants downtown plus several fast-food chains on the outskirts. My great-grandfather, who I was blessed with the opportunity of being able to know and to learn from for the first fourteen years of my life, was a local merchant and respected businessman who owned a hardware store that was located right beside the home where he and my great-grandmother raised three daughters, and then went on to help raise two additional generations under that same roof, including the generation of which I am the eldest male cousin. My father worked as a maintenance man at the local hospital when I was an infant; eventually he would start a furnace repair business that failed, (“I just did too good of a job of fixin’ em; I never got repeat customers” is the defense my father gives for the collapse of his business to this day) and would later go onto work for the Virginia department of corrections. My mother was an LPN and served under Kelly Taylor, a local physician who owned the local rural health clinic as well as several other businesses.
It’s hard for me to recall exactly when I noticed things going downhill, both in my life and in my town. Was it after my parents divorced? Was it after Dr. Taylor died of cancer? Was it after my mother suffered a debilitating back injury on the job and had to file for disability? Was it after my father left his job as a correction officer, unable to deal with the ever increasing stress? Was it after my own first three failed attempts at pursuing a college education, the failure caused mainly by own lack of ambition and drive at that point in my life but certainly not helped by the lack of real academic guidance provided me by my high school education as a poor kid in southwest Virginia, a lack of guidance that is all too common in the regional educational system?
Was it after the town’s old Main Street became an empty alley rather than the bustling community space it once was? Was it after the only car dealership in town closed down, followed by the only hospital in a nearly thirty mile radius? Was it after the occasional kid getting busted for pot became a drug roundup list of at least a dozen names every week in the local paper, their addictions becoming ever increasingly devastating drugs, like the crystal meth cooked in some junky’s basement? We had a meth lab blow up, by the way, in Pennington Gap about two years ago. It was located in an apartment building that was located directly across from the police station. And, of course, other meth labs have blown up since in town. I can’t remember if that all happened before the chief of police was arrested for breaking and entering the local Rite Aid to steal prescription medications from behind the pharmacist’s counter.
I guess you could say that both myself and my hometown have endured some hard knocks over the course of our lives. In my own case, I simply say, “Who hasn’t?” Life is hard, and unfair, and often unkind. In the words of my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “So it goes.” I am thankful for both the hardships I’ve endured at times in my life as well as the victories, and this past weekend, ten years after graduating high school, I finally earned my bachelor’s degree. My first three attempts, full of bad grades and the symbols of a lazy and misspent youth, pulled my GPA down enough to keep me from receiving honors. But my GPA over the course of the past six semesters has consistently been in the 3.6 to 4.0 range. I’m proud of that. And so were my parents and my fiancé, which is what made me truly happy.
In the case of my hometown, though, it’s a little different. I’m attached to that place and still defend it on a regular basis. I’m part of a Facebook group called Resurrect Lee County who are dedicated to improving Pennington Gap and the surrounding county of Lee. I’ve met with town leaders to discuss the town’s future. Though I’m currently living in Norton, a small city about forty-five minutes from Pennington from where I have been commuting to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise for the past two years, I still try to make it down to Pennington as often as possible. And even when I see groups of men and women my age, most un-or-underemployed, some clearly using or dealing illicit substances on the streets during daily business hours (not that there are many businesses left on the streets of Pennington Gap), some trying to harvest whatever scrap metal they can to take and sell up at the scrap yard or find some other means of alternative economic conveyance, the whole scene looking vaguely of a ghost town in a Spaghetti western crossed with a Kid Rock video and one of the nuclear war torn villages that might litter a post-apocolyptic video game like the Fallout franchise, I still hold within the core of my being a sense of intermingled urgency and hope for my hometown.
(The Great Stone Face, just outside of Pennington Gap, Virginia)
And it isn’t just a local phenomenon. The entire regional economy is in shambles. I could sit here and blame the decline of the coal industry, but Appalachia’s history of poverty extends far beyond the time when Obama supposedly declared a war on coal and extends also beyond the time when LBJ declared a War on Poverty with the Appalachian region the poster child for American poverty. And while that history is no doubt itself a fascinating one, it is perhaps best suited to another time and most definitely another blogger who is better versed in that history than I am.
There is a noticeable defeatism in the Appalachian spirit, as well as a tendency of those outside the region to look at is as an impossibly lost cause. I wonder if we would be so willing to write-off Appalachia as a “great white ghetto” if we considered it more akin to a depressed city like Detroit or to a foreign third-world country? While it is true that there is a sense of apathy among some people, and while we face our struggles with various chemical addictions as well as an often under-educated and change resistant population, our violent crime rate is considerably lower than the national average. We do also have a small but dedicated professional class in our mostly rural mountain communities. We also have some remaining miners and blue collar workers. These are not lazy, drug addled free-loaders, but many of them are still “working poor.” These are people dedicated to their families, their communities, and their places of worship.
But in Appalachia, as in far too many parts of this nation that prides itself on being a land of opportunity, far too many people are falling between the cracks even as the income levels of those at the top of the mountain climb to ever exponentially higher levels. A house divided against itself cannot stand, but a house with its kitchen in the Marianas Trench and its pantry on Mount Everest can’t either. We can look at the rural wastelands that dot many parts of southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee, West Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky as a portrait of what other parts of the nation may soon be facing if income inequality in this country isn’t reduced. These places that are already economically vulnerable are often the first to be hit growing economic inequality, and the results are never pretty.
(Video for my song “Die Laughing” which juxtaposes images of Lee County, Virginia from its “glory days” with images of Lee County today.)
As for my hometown of Pennington Gap and myself, I do have hope for both of us. The town recently opened its newly renovated theater, and concerts and shows are regularly scheduled there, drawing a small amount of tourism to the community. (My fiancé and I will be getting married there in three weeks). The car dealership is in the process of being reopened under new management. The hospital remains closed but there are rumors of possible buyers. And the town’s local elections resulted in some new blood taking leadership of Pennington Gap’s political processes. For my part, I just finally graduated and celebrated the weekend with my parents, my fiancé, and some close friends. I just applied for a job with a regional non-profit in eastern Kentucky that I have desired to work with for some time. And I am in the process of writing a proposal for something that I hope will come to fruition and help to further the economic and cultural recovery of my hometown, which I hope to present to one of the newly elected town council people in the next couple of weeks.
People tell me all the time that I would be best off leaving this place, this whole general region, but roots are roots, and many times in this modern world, we have a tendency to lose touch with those roots. In doing so, we lose a part of who we are, a part of our identity, part of the uniqueness of our human experience. We lose touch with something that is fundamentally real and important. We lose touch with ourselves.
I am determined to spend my life fighting for this region in whatever way I can. Because it’s worth fighting for. I know it will not be easy, but if there is one thing I have learned in my twenty-seven years, the most worthwhile things usually aren’t. I have been lucky enough to encounter other people, both young and old, rich and poor, highly educated and under educated, who feel as strongly about fighting for this region as I do, and I can only pray I will be lucky enough to continue to encounter others like them.
(Newspaper article on Display at the Lee Theater in Pennington Gap, Virginia)