Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Suck Creek Discomfort

My Baby Loves Malt Liquor - Roger Alan Wade (mp3)
Nighttrain - Public Enemy (mp3)

An acquaintance of ours celebrated her 30th birthday last weekend by renting out a cabin on the outskirts of Chattanooga. The place is called -- with no sense of irony -- The Pot House. In many ways, it was the antithesis of my own party a week prior. My party was about inviting everything but the kitchen sink to join me, cram human bodies into small spaces and gab away like some wrinkling gray attempt at recreating a frat party. Her party was about getting away from the crowds, renting the cabin for a night, and inviting 40 or so people to stop by and stay as long as they liked from morning to late at night.

Getting to this cabin required driving down four long miles of curvy, semi-paved road off of Suck Creek. If you ever wondered why they named it Suck Creek, you only needed to drive this stretch of road. I'm pretty sure the only other option was to name it Meth Creek. And "Suck" just had a better ring to it.

What I'm about to observe will say much about my own issues of race and class. It's not particularly pretty, so there's a level of discomfort in even writing this. Some would say, "That's 'cuz you're supposed to keep these thoughts to yourself." And maybe they're right. But the problem with where we are as a culture right now, it seems to me, is that we're all so afraid of sounding ignorant or racist or bigoted that we don't ever even try to express ourselves. We're so afraid of being excoriated that we never get the opportunity to exchange ideas and perspectives in a truly deep and meaningful way. And without that exchange, how are our beliefs going to change?

We drove down this pothole-filled, winding road at 15 mph. On one bend, the houses were all overrun with trash in all shapes and sizes, from cars on cinder blocks to broken lawn chairs to piles of traditional garbage. A few hundred yards later, we'd drive past fairly nice houses, some over 2000 square feet and well-tended. Then a few more dumps. Then a few more nice ones. Some in-between.

"I'm so nervous," I told my wife. "I don't like this at all."

I live on the campus of a school that is a stone's throw from some fairly poor housing areas. One of the city's two most crime-ridden districts is basically this school's neighbor. Prostitutes and dealers can be found walking down several of the streets within miles of our house almost any night of the week. We pass them regularly, and I rarely think much of it. But... most of the people who are involved in these shady activities around the school are black. Maybe a few whites and a few more Latinos in the mix, but primarily black. They don't make me nervous, and I don't fear for my life.

But you take me out into White Trash Honkeyville, and I start getting agitated and frightened.

"Why?" she asked. "It's not like some drug-addled Bubba in a Jason hockey mask was going to bound out of a house and kill our children in a meth-crazed frenzy." -- I'm paraphrasing and exaggerating her words, but that was the general gist -- "so why are you nervous?"

"Because these people could be my relatives," I said.

I can't deny the implications of what I said at that moment. My words implied I get more upset about poverty and dilapidation when it affects whites, that it's all fine and good when minorities are plagued by problems like this, but I see white folks suffer, and all of a sudden I'm bothered.

After I'd had some time to consider the weight and implications of my claim, I realized there was another factor involved that explained my discomfort that had nothing to do with race. I am a downtown Chattanoogan and have been for more than a decade. Inner-city issues are something I see every day. I served on the board of a local homeless ministry here, so I saw it close up at times. The white poverty I saw on the fringes is something I haven't seen much in the last 13 years. I saw it in Warner Robins, but not since.

My Suck Creek Discomfort was more about me being a stranger in a strange land. I can't deny race playing a possible factor; I've had several handfuls of relatives who've dabbled in meth and/or lived in plenty of rundown trailer parks. But they're relatives I don't see much, and it's a lifestyle I neither see nor easily comprehend. Meanwhile, if you want to try and comprehend the life of the inner city, you can watch The Wire or Boys N Da Hood or any of dozens of movies, TV shows, or any of thousands of songs. The poor black life is constantly chronicled. Stereotyped, perhaps, but chronicled nonetheless. The white trash life isn't, and nobody much wants it to be. (And no, kiddies, Roseanne doesn't count.)

Maybe part of the new racial paradigm will require that we acknowledge the extent of the problem of white poverty, that we recognize drugs and gangs and ramshackle existences aren't just a black thing. Maybe that part of America is ignored because, for most of us, it's more frightening when it's all that much closer to home.

The Roger Alan Wade song is from All Likkered Up. Public Enemy's is from Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black. Both can be found on iTunes or Amazon.com's mp3 site.


Bob said...

Billy, at the same time that I get what you mean and what you struggle with, I also have been to places like this and I find them to be pretty cool. You're not only safer than you think, you also get to spend time with a different class of people than you're used to, and, in my experience, they're good people.

My main point, though, is that I wish the River Inn were still around. I sure did like their catfish and their summer vibe out there drinking beer at the edge of the lazy river.

ErinT. said...

20/20 did a huge special on Appalachia last week. You should check it out.


Anonymous said...

I was just having this same conversation with a friend the other day. Only in reverse. I'm equally uncomfortable downtown with that group or "class" of socialites and the wanna be somethins. Give me a cabin on the lake, a fishin pole and a cold beer and I'm perfectly content. I have found that the people in these section are much more real and are not interested in putting on aires with the intention of being someone they are not. The simple life is what they are drawn too not the comlexities of the social classes downtown. They are concerned with putting food on the table for their families and keeping the electric on. I too am troubled by the garbage but more because of the long term effect that it has on our land. I don't judge the actual occupants or assume they are making meth behind those walls. I think your analogy is exactly what my friend and I were discussing. I'll stay over here where I'm not judged for the clothes I wear or the car I drive but for who I am inside. Over here where I can breath. Ya'll can keep whatever your pretending to be downtown.