Sunday, September 09, 2018

What It Means To Be From An Unimportant Liminal Place


Guardian |  When affluent urban men in plaid flannel shirts let their hair grow wild and unkempt across their face and necks to affect a laborer’s style for doing laptop work in coffee shops, I think of my dad immaculately trimming his beard every morning before dawn to work on a construction site. The men closest to me took meticulous care with their appearance whenever they had the chance.

Mom, too, presented herself like her main job was to be photographed, when it was more likely to sort the inventory in the stockroom of a retail store. Her outfits were ensembles cobbled together from Wichita mall sale racks, but she always managed to look stylish. My favorite was a champagne-colored silk pantsuit that was cut loose and baggy. She wore it with a scarf that had big, lush roses on it like the satiny wallpaper she had glued and smoothed across our hallway. She had married a farm boy but had no interest in plaid shirts.

For me, country was not a look, a style, or even a conscious attitude, but a physical place, its experience defined by distance from the forces of culture that would commodify it. That place meant long stretches of near-solitude broken up by long drives on highways to enter society and then exit again.

Owning a small bit of the countryside brought my father deep satisfaction. The state had seized some of his dad’s farmland through eminent domain in the 1960s to dig the reservoir and move water east in underground tunnels for the people of Wichita. Sometimes Dad would park his truck on the shoulder of the two-lane blacktop that ran along the lake dam and take my brother and me up the long, steep concrete steps to look at what would have been his and then our small inheritance, now literally underwater. We couldn’t use the water ourselves; it was for Wichitans to access by turning on a faucet. We thus had dug a private well right next to a giant reservoir on what once was our land. It’s an old story: pushing poor rural communities out of the way to tap natural resources for cities.

Witnessing this as a child had affected Dad deeply, and he shared Grandpa’s attitude toward the value of land: “They don’t make any more of it.” He had plans to buy the bit of land north of the house and build an addition when my brother and I were older and needed more room.
Mom was less sure of these plans.

Some evenings, I’d watch her curl and tease her dark hair at the vanity mirror that my dad had built next to their master-suite bathroom. She smelled of hair spray and Calvin Klein Obsession perfume. She left in the darkness and turned her car wheels from our dirt road on to the highway for Wichita.
When Mom went to a George Strait concert at the small Cowboy Club in Wichita, when Strait was newly famous, Dad sat at the stereo next to our brick fireplace, listening to a radio broadcast of the show on a country station. George would pick a woman from the audience to join him on stage, the man on the radio said. Dad held his breath, worried that Mom would be picked and swept away by a handsome celebrity in tight Wranglers and a cowboy hat. The men I knew more often wore ball caps stained through by the salt of their foreheads.

Dad didn’t even like country music. Too sad, he said.

In college, I began to understand the depth of the rift that is economic inequality. Roughly speaking, on one side of the rift was the place I was from – laborers, workers, people filled with distrust for the systems that had been ignoring and even spurning them for a couple decades. On the other side were the people who run those systems – basically, people with college funds who end up living in cities or moving to one of the expensive coasts. It’s much messier than that, of course. But before arriving on campus, I hadn’t understood the extent of my family’s poverty – “wealth” previously having been represented to me by a friend whose dad was our small town’s postmaster and whose mom went to the Wichita mall every weekend.

Even at a midwestern state university, my background – agricultural work, manual labor, rural poverty, teen pregnancies, domestic chaos, pervasive addiction – seemed like a faraway story to the people I met. Most of them were from tidy neighborhoods in Wichita, Kansas City, the greater Chicago area. They used a different sort of English and had different politics. They were appalled that I had grown up with conservative ideas about government and Catholic doctrine against abortion. I was appalled that they didn’t know where their food came from or even seem to care since it had always just appeared on their plates when they wanted it.

There was no language for whatever I represented on campus. Scholarships and student organizations existed to boost kids from disadvantaged groups such as racial minorities, international students and the LGBTQ community. I was none of those things, and professors and other students often assumed from looking at me or hearing me speak that I was a middle-class kid with parents sending me money.