Late fall has settled in southwestern Pennsylvania. From the top of the road that descends into Ohiopyle, russet brown, yam orange, and lemon cream patches quilt the calico ridges as far as the eye can see. Winds gust over rolling farm fields. A murder of bothered crows wheels and dives at a red-tailed hawk. It’s been perched on a telephone pole watching for an unwitting meal to stray from the wood’s edge. But the crows will have none of it and harass her into flight. Four of them, furious, caw and lunge. They chase her out like a group of mad peasants running someone out of town.
Every mile of this road sports at least one Trump sign. From here to Connellsville, dozens of them—sometimes a few per property—dot the road. And like the candidate himself, they shout simple messages from the roadside. Make America Great Again. Trump Digs Coal. Women for Trump decked out with pink ribbons.
I think of the jokes about Pennsylvania. It’s Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. Pennsyltucky. These are the places where white working class folks live and die. It’s also where people feel forgotten or neglected by the rest of us. And they’re kind of right.
Fayette County rests south of Pittsburgh but well away. It’s that part of PA that’s quite Appalachian, where life is slow on foot and fast in jacked trucks whipping around corners. It’s about 93% white and nearly no Asians or Latinos; they make up about 1.5% of the population. The median income is about 20% lower than the state average at just under $40,000 a year. Roughly 20% of people live in poverty. Most people have high school diplomas but few have college degrees. On most demographic measures, it’s a picture of the white America the news talks about but doesn’t talk with. It’s quite a bit like the town I lived in a few years ago.
Saltsburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a quiet town nestled at the confluence of the Conemaugh River and the Loyalhanna Creek, where the Kiskiminetas River begins. At one time it was a bustling hub of salt mining. Trains roared across the river over the old pillars, now just legs astride the shallow waters. Today, there’s not much activity. A couple of farms. The sycamore-lined Penn Heritage and Westmoreland Heritage Trail. A few miles along the trail, you can scramble up a gully to train tracks lined with knotweed and hardwoods. Back a ways there’s a tunnel a third of a mile long where trains carrying coal and tar sands oil rumble east. Back in town a steady canoe and kayak business that’ll drop you at the Conemaugh Dam to float down the gentle rapids of a river whose most recent distinction has been the receptacle of fracking brine. Down the river there’s a coalmine whose bounty goes to South Korea to make steel.
Across the river from town, juts the cliff. At its top sits Kiski, the boy’s boarding school where I worked. The headmaster’s and associate headmaster’s houses look down on the town, a downward gaze the town’s denizens no doubt feel more than figuratively, as if the cliff is a divide of more than just cracked rock, hemlock, rhododendron, sassafrass and oaks. Kiski probably has the highest concentration of diversity in Westmoreland County, with about 30% of its students come from China, Korea, Mexico and other countries. Ten or so African American boys from the city are sent there with the hopes of their working class parents on their shoulders. They will transcend urban poverty. At Kiski, rural poverty is up and down the roads.
Past the school there’s a gas station where ladies work in good cheer but resignation lives in their voices. There’s a general store where the light’s kind of dim, the owner smiles and chats, and you can buy gallons of hot peppers, lottery tickets, a massive hoagie on the whitest roll you can imagine. A trucking depot, a gun shop, a garage and a lumber store. Up 981 there are fracking wells. By the reservoir are more fracking wells. Fracktracker shows a history of spills, but no seems to care or know. Maybe both.
Every once in a while on a night off I’d walk down the metal steps by the trickling waterfall built into the cliff face and cross the river into town to get away and drink some beer at the town dive. It was a dark wooden place with cheap drafts of easy-to-swill all-American beer. The guys wore hats crusted with dirt or spangled with paint, shirts similarly spattered. Their hands were cracked like elephant’s skin from working drywall or cement. Some of them were quiet regulars with watchful eyes, inscrutably introverted or maybe suspicious of the flanneled guy reading books. Others were loud-mouthed, their guffaws erupting from smoke-cured throats. Occasionally people were passing through from working construction or at one of the drill rigs. The stereotypes you’re drawing up are probably about right but don’t do the cast justice. They were all white. All working class. Almost all men.
When I was there I would talk with a friend or mind my own business, my face buried in a book until spoken to. No matter what, I’d pay for a mix of 80s hair metal, 90s hard alternative and some Megadeth and Metallica on the juke box. If I was with my friend Rick, we were just two dudes sitting there talking about whatever, mostly sports or students, nothing heavy. Maybe something about family. Never politics. It was escape to another world away from the school.
Tommy was there most of the nights I was. He was a few years older than me, a little pudgy and boisterous. Don’t know what he did for a living or even if he worked at all. But he liked Metallica’s Master of Puppets, devoted his life to the Black and Gold of Pittsburgh sports and liked to give everyone a playful hard time.
One night, he got on his phone. He was jabbering away about this and that. Loud as hell. At some point he asked where one of his friends was. Some answer. Who knows what it was. Then he said, “He’s been working like nigger.”
The bartender just kept watching TV. A pair of friends jabbered away across the bar. No eyelashes batted.
“Like a fucking nigger,” he says for emphasis. Whatever came next is gone.
Not a slave. Not nose to the grindstone. Not hard.
It’s hard for me to place the feelings I had at that moment. What I heard was someone insulting his buddy, a casual reference to someone as three fifths of a person, to someone as a subhuman, a piece of property owned by white men, as the forebear of men playing out his football fantasies, an implement good only for labor or entertainment, a piece of equipment but worse because he’s a human but not a person. A nigger.
Another night I was taking my second pass through the climate change chapters of Naomi Oreskes’ and Eric Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. While I was reading, a guy named Scott started chatting with me. He’d been watching a game and talking with the bartender. Then he turned to me, a few beers into the evening, and asked me what I was reading.
I showed him the cover. “Climate change? You believe in that shit?” he asked, lighting a cigarette. Scott knows climate change is a hoax, that Al Gore made it up and that government-funded scientists are using it to make themselves rich, to take away our freedom and to plot with the United Nations to undermine American sovereignty.
No response made any difference.
Science? Made up.
Climate scientists I personally know who are not rich because grants don’t work that way? Nothing.
Competition among scientists leads them to attack one another’s work? The government controls them. The emails from “Climategate” prove it.
We don’t have to use big government if conservatives just stepped up to the plate right? Nope. It’s a hoax. The polar vortex showed it’s all a sham.
Now this wasn’t all that contentious. It was actually pretty funny. We didn’t agree on a single thing related to climate change. In Scott’s world, facts are things that come from whatever his social milieu is and, no doubt, a heavy dose of conservative talk radio and Fox News. Somebody at work said something. A site on the internet revealed this or that.
But Scott lives in a world that’s very concrete. On the one hand he has work and life and the doing of the day. At the same time it’s nonsense, gut-level affirming fictions and conspiracies that make sense of the complex shifting world outside. They’re what P.Z. Myers would no doubt call “whackaloonery.” They are the stories of Asimov’s “armies of the night.”
Since steel crashed and the railroads left, alcohol and insularity moved in. As their jobs exited the country or obviated by mechanization, the immigrants moved in and the religions changed. Even if they didn’t that much they did. As uncertainty became more certain, the terrible certainty of nationalism and tribe became real. As the multi-ethnic intelligentsia made headway, the rural white worker lost ground. Scott and Tommy are guys who are losing in a transforming America. Where they live, there’s no talk of how so-called “wicked problems” or risk analysis and perspective-taking on global energy and market shifts.
What’s my job gonna be if I’m not allowed to frack or burn coal but the Chinese can? Someone is to blame. Who is it?
And I have to say, those are great questions. But they don’t have simplistic answers. They may have fairly simple answers at the top but they’re really complicated behind the curtain. And can the answers meet these guys where they are? On their economic identities, we might be able to speak to them. But what about as white men? That I don’t know. Who do they think they work like? Like…I can’t even say. Because I don’t know. And who do they work for?
“But Pete, you’re alright man. I like talking to you,” Scott said to me before he walked out of the bar. “You got some crazy ideas. But I like you.”
I can’t help but wonder about that conversation were it to happen today. Am I the hawk and him the crows? Or if the positions were reversed and he were here in a university town where I live now in a little sea of blue in the ocean of red, would he be cast out?
Scott’s alright and I like talking to him. He has crazy ideas. But I like him.