Joan Didion wrote that she spent her high school days, not by accident, with the kind of people who hung out at gas stations. I’m thinking of that now because of two watershed experiences I’ve had at gas station/convenience stores in North Carolina. I’ve lived in Raleigh since 2002, teaching at East Carolina University.
The first was the day after Thom Tillis defeated Kay Hagan in 2014, and I was standing in line to buy a Coke while my car was gassing up. In walks a young man somewhere between 18 and 20-something, dirty clothes, not looking well. He asks the cashier for some matches and she says that she has none. He spots a 99-cent lighter at the counter and asks if he can take it. The cashier looks at him quizzically, and she replies with an insistent, no! The young man leaves without making eye contact to anyone in line.
When I go to my car, the young man shouts, “Get your Goddamn Prius out of here. Thom Tillis won!” I look at another fellow gassing up and we both shrug.
Driving away, my first thought was that he was venting at me because I had witnessed his humiliation. Misplaced anger. But as the traffic slowed, I realized that young guy saw me as his problem, maybe even his enemy, and Thom Tillis was, if not his savior, at least his commander. Because I drove a Prius, that young guy probably made a lot of bad guesses about me. I was part of some elite that couldn’t possibly understand him. He would have been surprised to know how much more in common he has with me than Tillis. Along with my brother and sister, I am the first in my family to go to college (my mother returned in her 40s to get a bachelors and masters in social work). I grew up in the Bronx and five of us lived in a one bedroom apartment. My brother and I shared the bedroom, my parents slept on a pull out couch in the living room, and my sister slept in an alcove off the kitchen. Both of my parents worked. When we moved to Chicago, we had our own rooms. My dad was earning more, but my mom still worked.
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He might also be surprised to know that many of the students I teach are the first in their families to go to college. Some of them come from small towns in North Carolina. They do not see themselves as part of any privileged elite. They want to earn a middle-class living. They want to raise families, eventually. They worry about paying off student loans, and they worry about their job prospects once they graduate. They struggle with the views taught by their parents and what they are learning at a university.
I’m thinking about that boy at the gas station after Trump’s victory because I remember guys his age from factories I worked in over the summers when I was an undergrad in Chicago. Work was plentiful those summers, just open a newspaper. I worked in a pipe factory with skilled and less skilled workers. The foreman always eyed me with curiosity and never called me by name. I was the college kid. He also made sure that if there was a dangerous job, I was partnered with a seasoned worker. The young guys had longish hair, liked to get high. I was a socialist in those days and would “rap” with the guys my age. Early on, I was warned in an ominous voice by a co-worker that he was going to spread the word around: the college kid is a commie. I was worried for a few days that a large pipe might fall on my head, but I soon realized that I was being teased. As long as I did my job and worked as hard as everyone else, the guys couldn’t care less about my politics. Pretty soon, baseball and girls also became part of the conversation. I was being accepted. At quitting time, a lot of the older guys went to a corner bar which was the ground floor of a clapboard bungalow house where the owner lived upstairs. The talk was of the fall hunting season in Wisconsin. Yes, there was racism, against the Puerto Ricans who lived in neighborhoods next to them (black people live on the South Side—Chicago is the most segregated city I have ever lived in). And, no, they didn’t gush about clocking in every day, but they valued their work. There was a fabric to their lives.
I did a Google search for that company, today. It moved to a small town in Wisconsin. At first, I was elated that it still existed. Then I called and found out there was no longer a union. I wonder if the workers earned the same wages and benefits. Was their fate the same as mill workers in New England who saw their jobs go to the South with lower wages, (and then southern workers who saw their jobs go overseas)? Could these workers live on one salary? Of one thing I am sure: If the sons of the displaced workers in Chicago stopped short of college, they’re stitching together their lives with multiple jobs. This is not a hypothetical. I recently posted an ad on Craigslist for some help with yard work, thinking I’d find a college student needing some extra money on the weekends. I received thirty replies in an hour, and after emailing several back, none of them were going to college. All of them were hungry for work. So I get the anger, even the rage of the men from Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and even the outlying towns near Raleigh, the Silicon Valley of the South. And I get the anger of their wives and daughters who still live where they grew up.
My second memorable North Carolina experience at a gas station was in Oxford soon after Bush defeated Kerry in 2004. Some guys were shooting the breeze making fun of Kerry as a poor little rich kid. I stuck my two cents in and said that Bush came from even more money. One guy looked at me and said, “Shoot, we don’t have anything, anyways. At least he sounds like us.” I realized these guys weren’t going to listen to me. I was a Yankee, a Jewish one at that. I thought of a friend from school who has a thick, working class, southern twang which he even exaggerates at times for effect. He’s sharp as the proverbial tack, but his pointed barbs are more playful than hurtful. Send a hundred organizers like him into North Carolina’s small towns and they might cut through all the noise that keeps those guys at the gas station from voting in their self interest.
Brooklyn, where I lived for many years before gentrification, had a saying: paybacks is a bitch. So the more outrageous Trump became and the more he offended, the bigger the paybacks for those feeling left behind. And “get your goddamn Prius out of here”, is just another kind of payback. I get that.
Here’s what I don’t get. A PhD, emigrated from Mexico as a child, good professional job, his wife also earning an excellent income. He was going to flip a coin on election day. Another colleague at school, emigrated from China, now a citizen, told me his Chinese friends, also immigrants, also earning top notch salaries, went ballistic whenever he tried to reason with them about Hillary. A friend of my wife’s from New York, graduated high school, started out as a secretary at a major Wall Street bank, worked her way up to a vice president position, owns her own home in Brooklyn, and makes more money than my wife and I combined. America worked for all of these people. How could they place their faith in such a dangerous man? Speaking of faith, the vast majority of evangelicals who show such concern for unborn life, how could they vote for someone who has shown so little mercy for those already living outside the womb?
The fat cats and the right wing operatives licking their chops at returning to power, I get it. When I see them, I keep hearing the gangster Johnny Rocco from the old Bogey movie Key Largo. Rocco was asked what he really wanted and he replied, “Yeah, that’s it. More. That’s right! I want more!” Perhaps I’m over dramatizing. I didn’t sleep well right after the election. I felt dazed, kind of like after 9/11. I thought in a few weeks, I would gain some perspective. Maybe next year, there will be infrastructure jobs. Maybe we’ll even develop an apprentice program for skilled labor like Germany and working-class people will have those better paying jobs again.
Maybe this man I so disliked will come through for America. Maybe I’ll run into the boy at another gas station and he will have work, and he won’t be so angry, and he won’t be so susceptible to a belligerent angry leader, and a country that he feels has turned its back on him.
Bob Siegel is an English professor at East Carolina University.