Fort Henry Mall, Kingsport, Tennessee.

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Andy and I went to the Fort Henry Mall earlier today. It was the first time I had been there in probably at least six or seven years. In fact, I think the last time I went was on mine and Andy’s first double date with Kristina Garrison and Keaton Lawson back in 2009, so, it had been awhile.

I used to love going to the mall when I was a kid, and in high school, Mallrats became one of my favorite movies. Note, I never wanted to be one of the “cool kids” at the mall. I wanted to be one of those weird mall dwelling kids. Never buying anything, just hanging around. Possibly getting into some kind of most harmless mischief. Of course, we didn’t have a mall in Lee County, so getting to go to the mall was a pretty big deal for me and my friends back in the day, and the Fort Henry Mall was usually the destination of choice.

I also thought about all the times I had been there as a little kid with my mom and dad. That feels like another lifetime. I remember the old late 1980s aesthetic of the Fort Henry Mall included a lot of neon lights and dimly lit store fronts. They redid all of that for a more clean look in the mid 1990s, but stepping out of J.C. Penny’s into the mall proper used to feel like stepping into a neon wonderland of endless possibilities.

There was a pet store, two CD stores, two book stores, a KB Toys, and a store that sold grand pianos, basically every thing a kid with an interest in music needs. They also had a huge arcade called Tilt and a Spencer gifts that had a lot of lava lamps and stuff toward the back that my parents wouldn’t let me look at for some reason (reason being of course, as I now know, there are a lot of dildos in the back of a Spencer’s. No one covers my eyes now, though.) There were also a lot of clothing stores, but I was a kid. I didn’t care about that.

In high school, I do remember feeling disappointed that our mall didn’t have a Hot Topic. Johnson City got a Hot Topic. The mall in Nashville where my dad lived had a Hot Topic. They had Pink Floyd shirts at Hot Topic. And Radiohead. And Smashing Pumpkins. And Nirvana. Basically all the bands that a lanky awkward alternative kid would be into. The “real shit,” as the kids now days say, I think.

Anyway. The Fort Henry Mall holds a lot of memories for me. They’re currently remodeling the theater and they still have one of the CD stores (which now carries a large selection of Vinyl at outrageous prices), the grand piano store, a book store (though I don’t think it’s the same one that used to be there), and the arcade. I didn’t see a K.B. Toys anywhere. Just as well. I’m too old for toys and Andy and I don’t have kids yet.

We did get a couple of frosted sandwich cookies from the Great American Cookie Store, though. They were very good. It was a good day, and I shared it with the woman I love.

The Fort Henry Mall used to be a lot busier, though, than it is now, and parts of it are getting run down. Parts of me are also getting run down.

As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “So it goes.”

Gravy and Biscuits and the Garden of Eden

When I was a little boy, after church my mother and I would visit the farm where she had spent her entire childhood to visit her family. That farm is an eighty-eight acre tract of land that lies on the mountain between Woodway and Stickleyville down in Lee County, Virginia. My mother lives there now, much as my grandmother did when I was a boy. To this day, whenever I visit it, I am filled with an intense array of emotions, most notably longing. This place, with its muddy creeks rushing down the mountain and its barnyard smell of cow manure and its lush trees which canopy the whole area around the house, is not only a part of my identity as an Appalachian, it is a part of the daily context in which I live my life as a human being, as a person. When I think of the home I want to return to, I think of my mother, and I think of this beautiful stretch of land.

When my parents divorced, my mother and I moved onto the farm. I would spend my weekend with my father and my father’s relatives, but through the week, the farm was my home. My uncles, who had never left there, were farmers: tobacco, cattle, corn, apples, cherries. Mostly tobacco. And cattle. The old farmhouse was heated by a wood burning stove in the Basement. Family photographs covered so much of the walls that you couldn’t see the bare plywood underneath. Most of the photos were black and white, or had once been in color but had aged into that sepia technicolor hue that we associate with the 1970s. The parts of the walls that weren’t lined with photographs were lined with bookshelves and books. Some people might suspect that a pair of bearded mountain farmers would be unread men, and they would be quite wrong, blinded by stereotypes and prejudice. My grandmother, who wasn’t afraid to use a curse word or four when the occasion called for it, which was apparently often, would sit in her rocking chair and listen to the sounds of bluegrass gospel. The Christianaires and the Good Shepherd Quartet are two of the ones that spring immediately to mind.

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My grandmother refused to cook on anything but a wood burning stove, and so there was a second wood burning stove in the kitchen. One for heat. One for meat. My mother and her sisters had offered to buy her an electric stove. She always refused. And so every morning, at 5 AM, I would be brought from sleep, still groggy, by the sound of the morning fire being lit. Keep in mind, I am only twenty-eight as of this writing. It sounds very well as if I am speaking of a time long ago, but in truth, this was the mid-1990s, the age of the dawn of the internet, which, of course, we didn’t have. In fact, we didn’t have cable, either. We could pick up two stations on the television in the living room, which was the only one in the house. Channel eleven, out of Johnson City, channel five, though I’m not sure where it was out of, and a PBS station that you had to click the dial to the UHF setting to get to.

Soon after the fire was lit, I would begin to hear the crackle of bacon, its smell drifting into the bedroom where I slept. The air would still be cold on the winter mornings and the blankets would nestle me like a loving embrace. My grandmother cooked gravy and biscuits every morning on a wood burning stove, and that’s what I woke up to most days. Slowly, I would come around and wake up. I would get out of bed and feel the cool, linoleum floor beneath my feet. I would get ready for school and eat gravy and biscuits and rush off to the bus stop way down at the end of the driveway.

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I didn’t know it then, but that was a sort of paradise in and of itself, living in the slow paced way of life of my childhood. These days, my first instinct in the morning is to check my emails, then drink coffee, then check Facebook, then make sure that I haven’t neglected to reply to anyone. The great irony of humanity’s technological advancements is that even as we have grown more digitally connected, this digital connectedness has in many ways isolated us from some of life’s simpler pleasures, and from parts of ourselves: the smell of bacon cooking slowly on a wood burning stove, the unhurried rising of the sun through the homemade curtains, accompanied by the rooster’s crow out in the barnyard. These are things that were a part of my daily existence in childhood, and I confess that I often wish they were a part of my existence now. I’m sure I’m not the only one, young, old, or in-between, raised in the hills of Appalachia, who feels the same way. It seems at times as if the world has moved on, but in our hearts, we have not.

There are still some of us who remember what the Garden of Eden was like.

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Appalachia: The Great White Ghetto? Why I am Staying.

 

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.

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(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.

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(Newspaper article on Display at the Lee Theater in Pennington Gap, Virginia)