Saturday, March 24, 2012

Letter to Twelve on the Occasion of Spring Break Travels

My Dearest Twelve,
R and I spent today driving along undivided highways across the middle of nowhere, stopping at junk shops in tiny desert towns along the way. R found a solid brass pipe wrench (used for gas lines because it won't throw a spark), I found a couple of our little bread plates for 39 cents apiece, and we drank a tremendous amount of peach nectar mixed with fizzy water.

I want to tell you about these small towns in the middle of nowhere, my dear, because you have lived your entire life in a college town not too far from a major metropolitan area in an affluent region of our state and your considerable travels have been mostly by air. Between where you've been and who you've known, you've been kept so very ignorant of so many realities. As you may know (if you've been paying attention at key points in your informal education), while poverty is most culturally visible in inner cities, more poor people live in rural areas.

In small towns in the middle of nowhere, you would be surprised at the spaces in which human beings live. Many of the dwellings are falling apart: Porches sag, broken windows are patched with plywood, paint peels, roof panels are held down with tires against the wind. Trailers and decrepit mobile homes count as houses and have junk piled around them. Dogs live in dirt yards. Empty bottles and trash are scattered about.

Many - perhaps even half - of the storefronts and buildings in these towns are empty. Many are in disrepair. Businesses have gone out of business. All kinds of historic buildings are rotting, unremarked and not likely to tell their stories to coming generations. In my imagination, I've turned many of them into lovely hotels, shops, and restaurants, but for now they are for lease, boarded up, abandoned. For whatever reasons, these towns seem breaths away from achieving ghost town status.

In small towns in the middle of nowhere, there doesn't seem to be anywhere to purchase food. We passed one major supermarket today, hours ago. Note with me, in indignant astonishment, that this supermarket did not offer organic apples. At gas station convenience stores, drinking water is not available via a little button on the soda fountain, like we're used to; it comes in jugs, at four dollars a gallon. The clerk looked at me like I'm crazy when I asked him to fill my stainless steel bottle with tap water. Because it is crazy to drink tap water that contains chlorine and sulfur.

In small towns in the middle of nowhere, the cashiers and hotel clerks are not the familiar hiply dressed college graduates waiting for the economy to improve so they can get real jobs. The cashiers, hotel clerks, and junk shop proprietors with whom we have interacted tend to speak grammatically creative English. Many are missing a tooth or two. If they have fillings, and many of them do, they are the dark kind that show. Even I, knowing as little about fashion as you assure me I do, can tell that their clothes are hopelessly uncool.

Perhaps these are the people politicians euphemistically call the 'salt of the earth' - the better to treat them as an inexpensive commodity. Certainly, these are the people who believe their interests are better served by the Tea Party than the Progressive party - if the worn placards posted in several of these junk shops are any indication. Equally certainly, these are the people rendered foreign to you by the bubble of privilege in which you live.

I'm not sure what I think I'm going to do about this; I'm not sure there's much I can do. As you know, if you're not interested in something there's not a whole heck of a lot I can do about it. (Yes, you're kind of a stinker like that.) I guess I could take you on a road trip designed to show you rural poverty. The goal would be what, though?

I want you to have a well-rounded understanding of how the world works, yes. I want you to be empathetic toward other people, of course. I want you to be able to interact authentically and comfortably with anyone, naturally. I want you to get that you're a member of a group that gets benefits in most contexts and the benefit of the doubt in every other, indeed. But is treating tiny, impoverished towns along a lonely stretch of highway like zoo specimens the answer? Doubtful.

I would like to take a road trip with you one of these years; I've been thinking about this for awhile actually. Perhaps we will end up along a route that allows us to see a reasonably varied sample of the communities that make up our nation. Perhaps you will encounter people and places that make you think twice about something. Perhaps the trip, like the time you first saw urban homeless folks in San Francisco, will be a bit eye-opening. Perhaps we will have time to talk about things that are important to you at age twelve, and perhaps we will just save conversations about solving national economic injustice for another year.

Twelve, my dear, I miss you, and I wish you were here with us at the century-old hotel in the middle of nowhere that we've lucked into for tonight's stop. I wish we could take you on tomorrow's self-guided tour of the mining camp on the mountain behind the hotel. I wish I could make you roll your eyes by starting conversations about how differently people live a few states and a socioeconomic stratum away, and I wish you were here to help us eat our way through this giant box of snacks. I hope you're having a great time at your dad's house, and I'll see you when you get home.
With best love,
Mother of Twelve

P.S. Postcard to follow.

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