When I was a senior in high school, I decided to attend a college that was in Pennsyltucky land. If you’re not familiar with that term, its what we inner city/suburban liberal folk call the rural areas of Pennsylvania that won Trump our state in the last election. Pennsyltuckians are often seen are racist, uneducated, and dumb. When people in my neighborhood found out what college I chose to attend, they would warn me, “You know the KKK is out there.” People were basically telling me that my college choice was not a smart one for a black guy from the inner city. I ignored them and went anyway and my experience did not jibe with the warnings I was given. Pennsyltuckians are not the dumb, racist, country bumpkins people a lot of urban liberals like to paint them as with a broad brush.
At college, we referred to the employees at the university as “townies.” Although they weren’t necessarily from the town the college was located in, some commuted over an hour, that was how us students referred to them. My first real, non superficial, interaction with “townies” came when I took a job working at the commons desk my freshman year. One worker, Maggie, I just clicked with right away. We only worked with each other about 8 hours a week but we just got each other. Maggie had relatives that shared my last name so every time she saw me she’d go “HEY CUZ!” The following semester when I switched to weekend overnights, when the Maggie was not there, I found myself stopping by during the day between classes to talk to her. I didn’t know much about her life and she didn’t know much about mine, but she made me feel seen and valued, she was always cheerful with a smile on her face. One day during my Sophomore year, she messaged me on Facebook and said “I just want you to know, it gets better.” One of her family members, I later learned, committed suicide. It pissed me off. I was angry both because she saw something in me I didn’t personally share with her and that she thought I was vulnerable enough to need to hear that. I deleted her from Facebook that day and never spoke to her again, I regret that decision. I needed to hear those words as much as she probably needed to feel like she was doing something proactive to help someone she saw as similar to her cousin to ease her guilt.
My Sophomore year I moved to a different part of campus, it was here that I met Debbie. I used to see Debbie in the mornings when I went out for my post-wake-up, pre-class cigarette. She was usually out there her other coworkers who maintained my dorm and I would acknowledge them but we never really talked. Me and Debbie started to form a relationship one morning when I decided to skip classes for the day. I just happened to go out to smoke at the same time she was on her smoke breaks her entire shift. I don’t remember the exact reasons, but her coworkers were all off for the day. The next day when I went out for my morning smoke Debbie told her coworkers that I came out to smoke with her because they were not there. They all thought it was a nice thing to do so I just let them believe it was intent and not chance. But it was through that, that Debbie became more of a worker and I became more than faceless student.
Over time I learned a lot about Debbie. I learned that she and her husband had adopted a special needs child because she couldn’t have children. That she once fell in love with a Turkish guy, who flew her to Turkey to romance her and wanted to marry her. She didn’t like the rules for women in Turkey and she loved her husband so she declined. I learned that she took that trip to escape domestic violence, I learned that she stayed when she should have left. Another worker overheard her telling me this, looked at me and said “He’s a good man.” That infuriated me, and that was my first experience with people making apologies for abusers. Debbie, bless her heart, always tried to impress me and assure me she wasn’t racist by telling me about the black kid from the inner city her family took in one summer while she was growing up. Debbie eventually became my “[college name redacted] mom.” I’d bitch to her about school, family, and friends, she’d give me cigarettes if I was out. Once, when I was between jobs and hadn’t spoken to my family in months; she brought me a cell phone and told me to call my family. I didn’t particularly want to talk to them, we weren’t on good terms, but she convinced me. It wasn’t all serious though, Debbie was a bit of a comedian, we spent most of our time laughing. Debbie was a huge comfort to me during years when I was struggling with depression and feelings of loneliness. Junior year, I stayed in the same dorm and she had the same assignment. When my friend dropped me off in the parking lot during move in day, she was out there smoking. We both ran towards each other and embraced, I knew I was home. Debbie and Maggie knew each other and somehow I became the topic of conversation between them during a staff meeting. Debbie kept trying to convince me to go see Maggie but my pride was still bruised from her message and so I never did.
Charlie was one of Debbie’s coworkers who started speaking after the day I kept Debbie company. Charlie was a real salt of the Earth guy. He was middle aged, had a beer belly, a gotee, and talked like Jeff Foxworthy. The thing I remember most about Charlie was a story he’d told me about the struggle he and his wife had trying to have children. They had always wanted a baby girl, and after trying for awhile, their dream came true, his wife was pregnant with a baby girl. I was almost reduced to tears when he told me she was stillborn. He carried a picture of her in his wallet.
Vince was something I never expected to come across; an openly gay middle aged man living in a rural area. At that time of my life, I just took for granted that gay men fled the country for suburbs or cities. That’s what pop culture would lead you to believe anyway. Vince was a bit of a pervert. He’d lust after all the cute college boys. I wasn’t his type thankfully, he liked white athletic jocks. He’d go above and beyond for them in his job duties trying to get into their pants, I don’t know if he ever succeeded. But when he didn’t succeed with the college boys, he’d invite men to the university to have sex with him in empty dorm rooms.
There were a couple of other university employees that I had a repour with. There was Jeff, who had a very fatherly disposition about him. He was a little effeminate and I thought he was gay until he told me he had two daughters. Jim would always greet me when I was walking through the commons on his shift and we’d chat. There was Julie who always seemed done with everyone’s bullshit even though she never did anything to infer that. She had a raspy “I’ve been smoking since I could breathe voice” and she was a proud grandmother.
One day, Debbie invited me into the breakroom because the university had catered some food for the employees. I meant to just grab some food and leave, but Debbie told me to sit down. All the workers there knew me so I just hung out and talked. After that day, I would occasionally be invited into or stop by the break-room to hang out with them. I learned so much about the goings on of the university through them and most of it made me angry. One thing that sticks with me was that these workers only made eight dollars an hour and my tuition (in state) was over 20,000. Along with the university behind the scenes goings on I also heard hilarious workplace gossip.
On weekends when Debbie and Charlie were off, we would all meet up in Yoville. Yoville, was a facebook game where you create an avatar and interact with other avatars in the town called “Yoville.” Me and Debbie would create Jerry Springer events and other Yovillian’s would come in and watch the drama unfold. We used to recruit people to play the guests. It sounds silly, but it was a lot of fun.
And then there was Sue. Sue was not a university employee but managed a local convenience store off campus I frequented to buy cigs. One day I applied for a job and she hired me on the spot. Sue was a bit of a hippy. In her youth she had been a deadhead, she once lived in a commune, and she loved to smoke weed. She invited me to come on a roadtrip during the summer with her and her husband to go to a concert. I declined because I couldn’t find another student to commit to go with me. I think me and Sue clicked because I respected and liked her eccentric nature. I’ve always been inside, what she was outside, I just didn’t really express or live it. Sue valued me as an employee, she fought her boss to get me a raise, and I got it. I was the highest paid non-management employee at whopping 7.75. It wasn’t much but I appreciated it nonetheless. One day, it got back to Sue’s manager that she smoked weed. Sue’s manager was a total C U next Tuesday. Anyway, her manager told her she had to take a drug test or resign. Sue resigned, but being the free spirit she was, she smoked a bowl in front of the store in peaceful protest on her last day. The manager who followed Sue also respected my work ethic and invited me to live with her for the summer when I expressed I didn’t want to return home but couldn’t afford an apartment.
These middle age, white, blue collar, “uneducated,” Pennsyltuckians made me feel a sense of community, value, and belonging. Me, a young black guy from the inner city. Given everything that’s said about Pennsyltuckians this should not have happened. Although I do admit its a bit unlikely. I’m sure some of these ones not mentioned here who I liked were just doing their job but the ones I connected with really touched me. They let me into their lives, invited me into their breakroom, and even into their homes. They never treated me with anything but kindness and respect. I was struggling with depression and they kept me out of my head. Gave me something to look forward to every morning when I woke up, and gave me someone to talk to during the darker periods when I needed company and my friends were too busy to make time for me. Even though I never talked about my depression with them, just joking, shooting the shit, and hearing workplace gossip was enough to make me feel better. Or if not that just them seeming happy to see me in passing could improve my mood. There was a connectedness with them I never really felt with my peers.
We never discussed politics, so i’m not sure what theirs were, but I highly doubt they were out to support the far right if they voted Trump. I felt kind of smug for getting to know these townies. Like I was doing something good because most students didn’t give them a second thought; but the truth is they may have saved me. And to be clear, these workers didn’t live in the town that was the liberal oasis surrounding my college. These workers commuted over an hour to get to the university. To put the area of the state into perspective, a black teaching assistant told me a story about a realtor in the next town over who asked her if her children were mixed. The words used were “are they like you?” The realtor told her if they weren’t at least mixed, it probably wasn’t a good idea to move there.
I hope this isn’t coming off as something similar to “not all men” but this has been on my mind lately and I wanted to share my version of Pennsyltuckians vs. how the media paints them.