Rust Belt reflections: The road I almost took

I finished reading Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance and it left quite an impression on me. I realized that it made me think about so many things I encountered in my upbringing that were similar, and there’s no way I could fit all of it into one post. So I’m breaking it down chunk by chunk.

Why Hillbilly Elegy was so significant and thought-provoking to me is because I grew up in a similar environment in the Rust Belt. My parents provided a stable environment, just depressed and inconsistent in their attention. I didn’t get much emotional support and didn’t learn how to develop social capital (more on that in another post), but I did at least have a stable home life and learning wasn’t discouraged.

Unlike JD Vance, I never had to deal with frequent upheavals and abuse in my childhood. But I certainly witnessed it in others in my extended family and even more so in my neighborhood.

Certain characteristics of generational poverty don’t change wherever you are. My parents were just above the poverty line for much of my childhood. I knew many people who were well below it in my neighborhood. It was weird going to a magnet school where kids had things I did not, like lots of lessons and engaged parents and nice clothes, since it was so opposite of what I was surrounded by in my home neighborhood.

I realized acutely while reading the book that I had one year of my life at age 18 when I was very close to slipping into a life of poverty and chaos. It scares me to think of how close I was–and how I could have turned out very differently.

When I was 18, I had this head-over-heels swept away sort of relationship with Jon F. We fell hard and fast for each other and moved in together within a month of meeting.

It was doomed from the start. He was technically homeless, and soon I was, too. We couch surfed our way through his various relatives and family friends, never staying anywhere for more than a couple weeks at one. It was usually some kind of ugly screaming match between him and his relatives that led to us moving on.

That was the first time I learned that some families don’t just stuff their emotions but express them loudly and irrationally. Arguments were laced with profanity, even with little children present. They threw dishes and glasses at each other. There was a lot of very ugly name-calling.

Although I tried to stay out of the way because I didn’t know these people and I was scared, I was often referred to in these arguments as Jon’s “slut girlfriend, just like all the others.” Sometimes they called me a cunt, even though I barely said a word and tried to stay out of their way. I remember being called a high and mighty bitch because I wanted to take a shower.

The cops were called on more than one occasion but no one ever got arrested. I still remember the haunted faces of some of the little kids as the screaming matches wore on. Like me, they seemed to want to escape. I wonder where they are now. Unfortunately, they’re probably repeating the cycle.

We stayed with Jon’s nuclear family for a while, and that’s where I really saw true violence. Siblings would get in fist fights with each other. Sometimes they’d try to drag me into it but I’ve always been a wuss and I just tried to hide. I remember Jon’s dad waking up in the middle of the night several times, screaming and waking everyone up. Apparently he had pretty bad PTSD from Vietnam and often had nightmares about it. But his reaction to the nightmares was to take it out on his kids and wife. It was definitely physical assault.

Two of his kids were over 18, including Jon. But in a weird sort of misplaced loyalty, they seemed afraid to leave each other. The kids would commit crimes and cover up for each other. By that point, all my belongings were in a trash bag for easy portability in case we suddenly had to leave again. Jon’s sisters regularly rifled through my stuff, stealing whatever they wanted. They also stole from local stores just to get some food.

Jon’s 14-year-old brother smashed out my car window and stole my car. His parents knew he did it but there were no consequences. It didn’t occur to me to call the police, either; already I’d begun to understand the social codes expected of me.

What I remember most about that house is that it was in shambles and there was never any food. The house was a mess because nobody cared to clean it, even though none of them had a job. And when I say there was never any food, I don’t mean that there was food in the cupboard that nobody wanted to eat. I mean that I remember a several-week span where the only thing in the cupboard was an open bag of spaghetti that Jon said to avoid because it had bugs in it.

It was around that time that I remember my dad sneaking over to see me and bringing me a 10-pound bag of potatoes and some oranges, saying that it least it would be something. I never told my parents how I was living but it wasn’t hard to assume, either. Jon’s family (and Jon himself, I came to find out) was pretty well-known for their shady and often criminal behavior.

Near the end, we were actually literally homeless. We were squatting in a vacant apartment with no electricity or running water. I remember that was winter because it was really cold without heat. We used the back porch as a makeshift refrigerator, packing snow around a couple small things we had for food.

Finally, I started to want out. We found an apartment to live in for free because it was otherwise considered not suitable for renting, and also because the landlord thought I was cute and that I should leave Jon. At least we had running water, heat and electricity again. And it was just around the block from where the first coffee shop in town opened up.

I got a part-time job. I first met my now-husband at that coffee shop. He and a lot of other kids from the coffee shop would hang out at our apartment when the shop closed up for the night. I remember my now-husband taking my side when Jon drank up all the milk I had purchased and didn’t save any for me.

While I was out working, Jon got himself permanently banned from the coffee shop. He also didn’t have a job, so he started having sex with Mrs. P., the married mom of one of our friends, for money and food. When I objected, he said I was being unreasonable because he got two cans of root beer from Mrs. P. and was thoughtful enough to give one to me.

A couple months later, I humbled myself and asked to move back in with my parents. They took me in and soon I had both a full time job as a receptionist and a part time job cleaning offices. Still, my dad suggested I also get a third-shift job in addition (which I never did.) I don’t think my parents ever knew what my life had been like in that year on my own. They just wanted me to work and not be a mooch.

I also realize that my life that year is why it has always been so important to me to donate both food and feminine hygiene products to food banks and shelters. Jon’s parents bought cartons of cigarettes for all their kids, including me and even the 14-year-old, even while there was no food in the house, on welfare check days and Christmas. That was the extent of how they took care of people.

I remember many times returning bottles and cans for the deposit money so I could accumulate enough dimes to get a box of tampons. I remember going to food banks and getting expired cans of stuff clearly nobody wanted to eat.

I realize how close I came to having Jon and his family’s way of life become my own. If I had stayed with him longer, I think I would have eventually become like that, too. I’m grateful that I didn’t get pregnant because otherwise I’d be tied to him forever.

I heard through the grapevine some years later that he did father a child, though he didn’t pay child support because he couldn’t hold down a job for long. The one time his kid was left with him as a toddler, Jon tried to get him high.

The story of his family was many generations deep and it would be a sociological study in itself to unravel why and how they came to be that way. Sure, learned helplessness was part of it, but it was also laziness. Literally no one in their household of five had a job. They constantly made one bad choice after another.

The scary thing is how I started to sink into it myself. I’m still relieved that I got out, that I made the choice to swallow my pride and go back to my parents. Taking some responsibility for myself was one of the significant differences between me and Jon’s family.

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