I try to remain as apolitical as possible here on my blog, but it was hard to remain apolitical during the election, and becoming increasingly hard now, just in life, where it seems every choice or conversation can trigger some sort of debate, or side drawn. I in no way, shape, or form supported, or continue to support Donald Trump for reasons I’m not going to get into here (for a brief explanation, simply look at his Twitter). At the same time, I could somewhat understand his appeal for people in this area. I want to be clear, not agree, but understand. And this may seem like a bit of a cop out, but bar writing an entire treatise on the subject, I don’t know that I could properly articulate that understanding in a short summation, because well, the short of it, is that it’s not simple. But it does take understanding, embracing the grey in a black and white world, and some empathy.
I remember staying up late, and watching the country slowly turn red on the night of Nov 8th with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I woke up early the next day, and felt physically ill when I confirmed what had been pretty much fact when I’d passed out. I’m not being hyperbolic here either. I had actually stayed home from work that day before with what may have been the worst flu I’ve ever been privy too. I think I would’ve felt sick regardless though. I called in sick the day after the election as well, and lay around wallowing in both physical and existential misery. I was madder then I thought I would be. I guess this election showed me I was also more political than I ever considered myself. My father came home that night and asked me what was wrong. He’s a lifelong Republican, and though we rarely discuss politics in my family, I knew who he’d voted for. I wanted so badly to say how disgusted I was with his decision, but couldn’t even spit that out. I just said I was still sick.
I don’t hold my dad’s Trump vote against him. I don’t agree with it, but I don’t think it makes him a shitty person. I don’t think it makes him backwards, or stupid, or ignorant, or even deplorable either. I’ve been acquainted with the man for 31 years, and in those 31 years he’s proved himself to be an empathetic, caring father; an amazing role model who at 31, I still consider to be the man I’d like to grow up to be; and a very intelligent person I frequently rely on for advice. He’s the type to who raised me to have my own thoughts and opinions, and didn’t expect me to blindly follow and support whatever he did, which is why I’m completely comfortable disagreeing with him in a public forum at this very moment. My point is that I was pissed for a day. I got over it, and there hasn’t been any resentment towards him since. The election hasn’t caused me to simply dismiss him.
The same can be said of NEPA. Sure, did I realize that there are maybe more people here that I disagree with, than agree? Yes. Was I maybe living with my head in the sand, not realizing, or maybe just not wanting to acknowledge the racism and misogyny that course through NEPA’s blood? Probably. Do I think mindsets here need to change? Yes, absolutely. Are there people who voted for Trump for really ignorant, dangerous reasons? Sure. But all these things could be said, about any locale, anywhere in our country. Do I think people are inherently bad? Honestly, no. Do I think the majority of people here voted for Trump for less than nefarious reasons? Absolutely. Do I think painted the “Trump voter” with wide swaths is dangerous, and dismissive? Yes, absolutely. Maybe some truths about my home came to light a bit, but nothing fundamentally changed, and again, nothing I really didn’t know. NEPA has always had its faults. Anyone who lives here will tell you that. But it’s also been an amazing place to grow up, despite its flaws. It’s somewhere I enjoy living now. It’s somewhere I missed when I was gone. It’s somewhere that’s shaped me for better or worse, and for better or worse, it’s been home, and at least in my experience, good or bad, home just feels a certain way. It makes you feel a certain way. And you don’t divorce yourself completely from home simply because in one facet it disappoints you. The fact that NEPA is more or less Trump country, isn’t going to change that homey feeling.
That familiar, homey feeling crept up on when I saw the header image for a Vice article entitled Lonely Photos of Daily Life in the Rust Belt the other day. I didn’t think the article would be about Northeast PA, or even Scranton, when I just saw the headline, because despite having many similarities, I’ve never considered my home to be part of said Rust Belt. That’s Pittsburgh, and western PA, Ohio, West Virginia, and parts of the midwest. Coal was king here. And unlike the rust belt, which declined in the recent past, or is currently still declining, coal hasn’t been a factor here since my grandparent’s generation. There’s a touch of hubris here at play, too. We’re not those people. We’re a little bit more sophisticated. We could take a bus, and be in Manhattan in 2 hours, for God’s sake! , Then I saw the photo, which was depressing, yet familiar, tied in with the rust belt moniker, and I felt disapointed. I felt indignant. I felt misunderstood. I sort of felt like how I’m sure the middle-aged, female Trump voter I work with feels towards those “coastal elites” people have been bashing over the past year. We’re not the rust belt, I thought. We’re not those people. Stop projecting your outrage at us. Stop commenting on what you really don’t know. Don’t dismiss all of us because of him. Don’t dismiss those who voted for him, because of him.
While my middle class upbringing, over-priced liberal arts education, and somewhat bougie tendencies probably skew pretty coastal elite, if I were in say, a high school gymnasium, and a hypothetical principal asked who here has ever felt victimized by said coastal elites, I’d raise my hand tall. Growing up in NEPA, you learn to be defensive about your home, the people and places you care about, and grow used to others looking down on you a tad, because of where you grew up. It’s it not that I can’t take a joke. I joke quite consistently that growing up in NEPA has similarities to growing up in a 3rd world country. Some of my college friends have adopted the same outlook. But, I grew up here, I’m allowed to shit on my home all I want. My college friends, in turn, went to the University of Scranton. They spent between 3-6 of their formative years here, and thus have also earned the right to shit on my home, because they do it with a nostalgic fondness.
But I get defensive when people not from the area, or who have never visited, or have simply driven through, or spent one night are derisive. I get defensive when people who left, and never come back, talk about what a backwards, hillbilly, place they grew up in. I get pissed when people view NEPA as a monolith, because like any area, it’s more nuanced, and complex than that. And while I think Trump’s war against the media is 100% the most dangerous thing he’s got going, I can’t exactly argue with people around me who feel themselves misaligned by that media. The New York Times is one of my favorite publications. I repurchased a subscription during the election to show my support. The New York Times has mentioned my hometown of Forest City once. They called it a “depressed region of old coal mines and small farms.” They likened patrons of the town liquor store to residents of a Siberian gulag. Scranton became famous as the setting of The Office. I will defend that show to the end, even its shittier later years. And The Office skewered NEPA in the best ways. “She was a dental hygienist from Carbondale, and she made love like one,” will forever be one of my favorite lines uttered on TV. Still, as an avid fan, who’s viewed the series multiple times, and read many in-depth think pieces on its creation, you’d be daft if you didn’t realize it was laughing at NEPA, just a smidge more than it was laughing with us. Then there was two elections ago, on SNL, when Jason Sudeikis, as Joe Biden said, “So don’t be telling me that I’m part of the Washington elite, because I come from the absolute worst place on Earth: Scranton, Pa.” All of this is good fun. But NEPA’s always the butt of the joke. Recently though, it’s not just jokes, but rather think pieces highlighting the area in a “how to understand the mind of a Trump voter” way. It makes people into caricatures. Wide generalizations are drawn. There was a Daily Show segment filmed in Wilkes-Barre that I genuinely thought was very funny. But after multiple viewings, I soured a bit. People think that people here voted for Trump because they are uneducated and uncouth, and frankly, white trash. That, frankly makes me sad. Because if you haven’t already picked up, despite its flaws, I have so much affection for NEPA, and its people. I have an undying affection for my home. It’s akin to having a problematic family member. You’ll make any excuse in the book.
So I cringed a bit, when I started reading the Vice piece, and realized it was a profile on the work of Niko Kallianiotis, a photographer who grew up in Scranton, and photographs life in small town PA. If you haven’t already linked to the original piece I’m speaking of, the header photo is an older, shirtless, overweight gentleman sunning himself on a cement porch, with black painted wrought iron railings, peeling to show the rust below. As soon as I saw “Scranton,” I knew why it looked familiar. One, I grew up in a home with the same style railings, complete with the peeling black paint. I’ve seen them my whole life. Two, the hills in the back are unmistakably the Lackawanna Valley. I drive a highway on that mountain to work everyday.
I’m embarrassed to say I was unfamiliar with Mr. Kallianiotis’s work, or impressive resume. And I was expecting for him to lambaste the area, and somehow politicize the people in a negative way. What was surprising was that he didn’t. In fact, he echoed my sentiments. I found myself nodding in fervent agreement, and I mean, it makes sense that one guy who lives here, would relate to another who does too. The Vice author notes how Mr. Kallianoiotis saw news people flocking here after the election. “Don’t make me political,” he said. That wasn’t what he was trying to do. He also said people who haven’t been immersed in life here, shouldn’t pretend to understand it. One photograph isn’t going to do that. Spending one weekend interviewing people on these street corners isn’t going to do that (and let’s be real, it’s a certain type of person who agrees to those interviews). But back to the photographs. While they absolutely skew more depressing, they are realistic. They are what NEPA looks like. And they aren’t political. They’re real. And what struck me most, is that I’ve never seen a photo story or exhibit about Pennsylvania that felt this familiar. I’ve seen Scranton’s “Electric City sign”, or the “Welcome to Scranton'” sign The Office made famous, but those don’t necessarily feel home, in the same way residents of Philly probably don’t respond to pictures of the Liberty Bell, or Pat’s, or Geno’s. Seeing underpasses that say “Jessup,” or eerie shots of Carbondale City Hall’s clocktower feel real. The peeling iron porch railings ring true. The shots of places I can’t place, or haven’t even been, capture the aura of where I live. And one could argue that there’s certainly much more objective beauty in the area, and that there are shots that highlight that NEPA is less flawed than it is, but you know what? I don’t think that would be a fair representation either. I don’t think that’d paint an accurate picture, especially now in 2017. NEPA looks economically depress, and old-fashioned, and run-down, because it is. And it’s been since I’ve been born. That’s not a critique, and it’s not a political statement. It’s just the way the cookie crumbled.
I’m glad I stumbled upon this piece when I did. . These are the scenes that I grew up with, and the scenes that still surround me today. This, and not the think pieces and critiques are what NEPA is. They aren’t cartoons. They aren’t caricatures. They aren’t political, and I my hope is that people can view them without that slant. More importantly, they aren’t whitewashed, or filtered, and that takes guts. They are simply a slice of Northeastern PA. Mr. Kallianiotis did a great job capturing the essence of this somewhat misaligned, what certainly can be beautiful, and let’s be frank, somewhat ridiculous place. Photographs don’t move me often. These ones did. And though I’m writing this from my childhood bedroom, and will see these sights in 5 minutes when I leave to drive down to work, even though they are my daily reality, this photographs still somehow made me feel so very home, a home which by the way, I still unequivocally love.