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Growing Up Poor in ‘80s Mansfield

photo Bob Perkoski

photo Bob Perkoski

by Nina McCollum

The author's childhood home. Photo courtesy of the author.

The author’s childhood home in Mansfield, Ohio. Photo courtesy of the author.

I grew up in Mansfield, Ohio. Small enough to recognize the names on businesses as family names of schoolmates; a realty company, a dentist, a chain of funeral homes. But not so small that everyone knows your life. The urban city center is small and tight, surrounded immediately by suburban neighborhoods on one end and poor, multiethnic neighborhoods on another. My father grew up on the latter side of town, with immigrants working manufacturing jobs and the neighborhood as tough as the times. Strife between the immigrants and the African Americans, who had been there longer, was a reality. Dad and his brothers were in a lot of fights, which my father parlayed into boxing at the neighborhood gym. When you grow up fighting, it sticks—he was expelled from high school in the tenth grade for punching his gym coach. He taught me to be a fighter.

The middle-class girls acted friendly, but didn’t include me. The lower-class girls all wanted to fight with me.

Mom grew up in a Depression-era family in neighboring Ashland, a smaller, gentler, and closer town. Mansfield was never her town, but she did her best to make it her home when she settled with my father. My Mom had my sister in 1965 and me in 1969, the year of Woodstock. But there was no hippie idyll in Mansfield. Mom taught me to survive.

We were poor. There were those worse off, sure, but it seemed all my schoolmates had more than we did. Early on, clothes were homemade, and when Mom had to go to work and no longer had time to sew, we relied on Goodwill. Board games without key pieces, stuffed animals missing eyes; I never had the “right” clothes. In middle school, I had one pair of borderline “designer” jeans, de rigueur at the time. “Didn’t you just wear those a couple of days ago?” a girl sneered at me while we waited for class to start. Everyone stared. Instead of telling her to fuck off, I turned away, embarrassed. I wanted to desperately to fit in. I hadn’t figured out that I never would, because I wasn’t like them. The popular, rich girls, with their hot rollers and beautiful clothes, tolerated me but were never welcoming. The middle-class girls acted friendly, but didn’t include me. The lower-class girls all wanted to fight with me. I settled with the orchestra nerds, the viola an outlet for my creative side.

Poorer meant angrier. Endless Saturday school, a trip downtown in the back of a cruiser for “inciting a riot” after a big school game, where my fight with another girl turned into a melee.

Being poor made me angry. I felt it was the reason I couldn’t belong. I was teased about everything, all tied to money: my crooked teeth, my shitty, rusted bike. Mom tried to teach me that being different was good, but I didn’t get it for a long time. She bought me a beautiful outfit one year for my birthday: velvet, paisley-patterned gauchos, cream-colored hose, and a matching, cream-colored blouse. I was teased so mercilessly the day I wore it to school that I never wore it again. In high school, I was voted Worst Dressed, among other insults. By that time, “fuck off” flowed easily, so I told them to find someone else for their yearbook of humiliation and shame.

Money got worse after the divorce. Mom worked as a short-order cook at the L&K, and I got a job as soon as I was old enough, at Hardee’s. My temper got me fired after four days, so I went across the street and worked at Wendy’s for more than a year, until I had to leave because my boyfriend, who also worked there, beat me up in the parking lot, slamming my head against a telephone pole. I got written up because I was in uniform; time to quit. My paycheck went to Mom. Other kids bought new jeans or saved for college, while my money went to the electric bill or to reinstate phone service. We slept at my aunt’s more than once because we couldn’t pay for heat and it was too cold to stay home. We ate a lot of Ron Reagan cheese with spaghetti, and I was regularly humiliated in line with Mom at the grocery store checkout when she would tear out the food stamp coupons  from their little booklet. You had to tear them out at the register. I would furtively look around to see who knew me, if they could tell that I stuck steaks under the big bag of cat litter in the bottom so we could have meat. I got busted shoplifting at Woolworth’s and the guard wanted to know why I stole gloves and a hat. “I’m cold,” I exploded at the guy, and burst into tears. They let me go.

I grew up and moved on, while Mansfield shrunk. During my infrequent visits now, the city seems full of scars.

Poorer meant angrier. Endless Saturday school, a trip downtown in the back of a cruiser for “inciting a riot” after a big school game, where my fight with another girl turned into a melee. The time I ripped a two-by-four off the facade of a bar to chase a girl who was hitting on my boyfriend, who was in the band I lived with for a time. Things progressed—the fencing ring, the drugs, the time we went to someone’s house with rifles in the backseat. Idle hands.

The Wiener King in Mansfield, Ohio, is still open. Photo courtesy of the author.

The Wiener King in Mansfield, Ohio, is still open. Photo courtesy of the author.

My sister practically forced me to leave and go to college, which frankly saved my life. I grew up and moved on, while Mansfield shrunk. During my infrequent visits now, the city seems full of scars. The camera shop my Dad’s friend ran, where we would hang out, is long gone. The plant where my grandfather worked is nothing but a rusting, empty hulk. My middle school—torn down, and the pool behind it where I spent every summer nothing but a big patch of grass, as if it never existed. My childhood home is condemned and boarded up, with stray dog shit all over the huge, sad yard. The L&K closed long ago; an internet betting shop sits directly across the street in an old Pizza Hut building. But some things still remain, including some of the people I went to school with, who resolutely hold up the American Dream by virtue of their very existence, working their asses off, raising their kids and grandkids and doing their best. I went into my elementary school after it had closed for the year and was amazed how little had changed in the forty-odd years since I started there. It was so small and quiet as I walked the halls. I could smell my 2nd grade teacher’s perfume. Kingwood Center still bursts with flowers every spring. “The Coney,” where I spent many hours with my Dad and his friends, has been renovated with shiny, art-deco sparkle. I bet they don’t give you a paper straw anymore.

Nina McCollum is a writer living in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

Top photo by Bob Perkoski

28 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 01, 2014

    Very well-written, my friend. Your vivid comparison/contrast of our city and its dynamics then and now brought to me feelings of familiarity mixed with sadness and compassion. These feelings were for you, me, and for the city in which I still live.

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    March 01, 2014

    Beautifully written. A wonderful glimpse into an angry girl- who easily could have come from my poor Midwestern town- and the talented woman she has become.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    March 01, 2014

    Mansfield was never described more clearly. There are bright spots, but those are primarily reserved for those on the bordering city limits and income levels. I moved back here 12 years ago and we’re moving out this year. It’s a sad, sad town.

    Reply

  4. Avatar
    March 01, 2014

    Very touching. I went to Appleseed as well. Born in 1968, I’m sure our paths have crossed.
    Thank you for storing some old emotion about my hometown.

    Reply

  5. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    It is somewhat bittersweet, to know someone else went through simular experiences growing up in the same town, even some of the same schools and not having race as the catalyst.

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  6. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    I read this and it was like reading words from my own mind.

    Reply

  7. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    Nina,

    This article hit home. I’m so proud of you. I felt each word as I read it because I understand. Home has changed but yet it is still home.

    Reply

  8. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    Love This. I Grew Up In Mansfield Too, And I Feel Like You Could’ve Been Writing About Myself And My Sisters.

    Reply

  9. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    I spent my summers in Mansfield with my cousin. We walked all over that town . We would walk downtown and go to the movies every weekend. I will never forget when we saw the movie Billy Jack! We walked to the public pool and went swimming a lot. Some of my best memories are from Mansfield . I was in the Girl Scouts and we had a sleepover at the YMCA. I loved Kingwood Center. I went to school one year at Johnny Appleseed. I didn’t see it as a sad town. It was wonderful and magical for me. I lived on a farm outside Bellville.

    Reply

  10. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    I grew up in Mansfield and a member of the class of 1984. I left Mansfield to go to college and I never went back. My memories of Mansfield are mixed but grow more tainted each time I visit. I remember signing up for Southwest Little League Baseball and being told I couldn’t play because I lived on the wrong side of town; I was in the 3rd grade. I grew to despise anyone that would discriminate anyone else because of that experience. I lived near Kingwood and as a boy, I would go walk the grounds and take in the sights, smells and sounds. When I drove past it a few years ago and saw it fenced up, my heart sank as I thought about how I loved to just walk on the property and now it’s all fenced in, just like the rest of the town; locked out of the world and dying on the vine. Mansfield’s fence is its economy and the fence is growing taller. The prison and the hospital are about the only game in town.. Eventually all the manufacturing jobs will go and Mansfield will die on the vine that made sour grapes. R.I.P. Mansfield, may your death be all that you deserve. In many ways, what is happening to Mansfield is a microcosm of what’s happening to this country. When tough economies meet poor leadership and mismanagement, you get Mansfield, Ohio.

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    • Avatar
      March 02, 2014

      What’s even worse, is that along with the fence surrounding Kingwood, you also now have to pay an entrance fee. I used to go there to study in between my college classes to soak up some sun and relaxation with what little time I had, but now you have to pay for it. It’s not worth my time to pay $5 to study for an hour. It’s sad.

      Reply

    • Avatar
      March 02, 2014

      You grew up in the 80’s ??!! I say this with respect and courtesy, and no animosity or negativity, but Nina, you are just a child. Mansfield, Ohio of the actual “old” days was quite rough (1930’s’40’s), but Mansfield since the 50’s has been and still is a relatively harmless, little, rural, Ohio town. Most communities of this size in Ohio are much more poor, dangerous and wild. Most Ohioans consider Mansfield a farm town, a rural village. People outside of Ohio just consider Mansfield as “flyover” country.

      Reply

  11. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    Awesome perspective on Mantucky, as we used to call it. My mom grew up in a trailer in Mansfield. She and my father married as teenagers, shortly before Dad was drafted into the army for Vietnam. He was stationed in Fort Lewis, WA, where my sister was born in ’72. They moved back to Mansfield shortly thereafter, then to Ashland, where I was born (1976) and raised. We were poor as kids, but my dad’s factory wage was still just barely enough to own a tiny little house, a rust-colored Ford Pinto wagon and support a wife and two kids. Mom picked up the odd second and third shift job to help makes ends meet. Being poor in Ashland was very different from being poor in Mansfield. Virtually all of my mother’s friends’ children (and most of my cousins who grew up there) ended up getting into trouble and had a lot of shit to contend with that my sister and I didn’t. Ashland is also a bleak, depressing, barren little town these days, but I’m glad my folks couldn’t afford a house in Mansfield back in 1974 (or was it 1975?).

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  12. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    I grew up middle class in Mansfield, worked in high school to pay for my own things and had a student loan for college. I’m glad I didn’t have a life of luxury. It makes me grateful for things I work for. I’m sorry your experience is so bitter. I look back with a totally different perspective. I think it’s about relationships. Forming relationships with caring friends can make any town a better place. There are “Mansfields” all over the place. If you want to move away from the poor and decaying problems of any city and look down on Mansfield as one of them, you are looking down in the same way you felt you were looked down upon. There is as much good here as there is anywhere. It’s in the hearts of who you choose spend your time with, money or not.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 02, 2014

      Melissa you put my feelings into words. Thank you. I realize this article is from the author’s perspective and perception, but there are still many good people in this area. People who bust ass everyday to provide for their families. People who try to enrich the lives of their neighbors. People who grew up the same way as the author, excepted it for what it was, moved on, and created their own lives as adults.

      Reply

  13. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    While I didn’t grow up in Mansfield, I did move there from Cleveland in the winter of 1985 as a full fledged adult at the age of 18…..to be with the ‘love of my life’, ugh.
    Mansfield was a tough place for a punk rock musician in the mid-80’s, as the live music venues still had 70’s cover bands and the crowds did not understand original music whatsoever. It was a constant battle getting stage time at the jam nights, let alone a show so we could play more than 3 songs before either getting booed off stage or having the power shut off on us. The hour drives to a ‘real’ venue in CLE or Columbus were brutal, but a necessary evil to combat my growing disgust with the shitheel locals in the town I picked to move to.
    Getting a job there looking the way I did was no picnic either. Most places would just tell me that they weren’t hiring. I couldn’t even get a job at Long John Silver’s or Burger King, finally hitting the jackpot with a busboy job at Ponderosa on Lexington Ave……as long as I kept that shitty little hat on that was part of the uniform so customers couldn’t see my hair. After being fired from there because I had to attend the funeral of my best friend in Cleveland, I lucked out again with a backroom stockboy job at 16 Plus at the Richland Mall. I think the ladies that worked there felt bad for me because I was different and isolated from the norm. I actually enjoyed working there, and I truly loved those ladies and our misfit little family.
    Short story long, we moved out of there and back to Cleveland…..for as many faults as this city has, it still has culture, a nightlife, and is still my hometown. I still have a few very good friends in Mansfield, but I won’t go back. even to visit. My friends can come here, we can always find something fun to do.
    Plus, the ghost of my anger still roams the streets and businesses of that town, and I don’t want to meet that face to face again.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 02, 2014

      Hi Tox! Nice to see you survived Mansfield and moved out and moved on. Though I’m still here. How’s that for stupidity? Don’t answer that. Nice to hear you are still alive. And now I know why I have not heard from you in many years. take care ~Mike

      Reply

  14. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    Very well written. Your story brings back memories…..good and not so good!

    Reply

  15. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    This article is more about the authors own personal struggle than an article about Mansfield ,Ohio. I have lived in several places in the United States,but none compare to the hearts of the people of this town.

    Reply

  16. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    Memories…good and bad! And, I agree! I went back for my 20 year to my high school being a middle school, my middle school gone. A daycare in the new high school that stood where Senior used to be just so girls can continue to go to school. So many changes in the shrinking town. I considered going back, but the distance between the poor and the rich seems only to have lengthened and the thought of all the changes (that I wasn’t a part of) scare me! Thanks so much for sharing!

    Reply

  17. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    My experience of Mansfield was and still is a lot like yours Nina. Though these days I keep to myself and don’t have to go out and see the pain and devastation that is Mansfield. I identify with your story, though mine started in Mansfield one or two decades before yours. I see the town as depressing and full of faded memories, some good, some bad. Many things, like land marks and places I hung out at have changed. Been torn down and the memories with them. In 1969 there was a Hippie ideal here, but you had to hang with the right people. Mansfield’s underground, so to speak. And we were shunned by all the conservative population of Mansfield. But that was a form of pride as we lived around the edges of it in our own rebellious way. We were most certainly “Counter Culture” compared to the overly conservative populace that was and will always be Mansfield. I had trouble fitting in, in school to and all the bad stuff that came out of that. In some ways Mansfield will always be that strange universe that I never escaped from.

    Reply

  18. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    I read this article and it’s amazing the feelings it brings back. 6 months ago I drove from Arizona, where I live now, back to Mansfield, I had a track event at Mid Ohio, it was my dream to race there, and I got to do that. After the event I spent a few hours driving around Mansfield, I won’t lie I got pretty choked up, so many good memories, but seeing that there is so much pain there. I hope and pray that one day the city lives again like it once did.

    Reply

  19. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    Born & Raised in the ‘field. .. I left the day I turned 18. Raised on the very same Food Stamp books and hand me down good will outfits… all I wanted was to be accepted. I was… in my new community. My family still lives there and times have changed. I visited recently and seen the new Madison monster. I parked my car and cried. I went for a walk in the no longer free Kingwood Center… where I had my first kiss from the man I married. I walked thru the changed mall… where once everybody knew my name…. to the shabby food court without a choice of cuisine. As I drove from Mansfield. .. I looked into my rearview mirror. And as one last tear escaped I turned up Y105 And told my hubby and kids… as I floored it… “there’s no place like home” … how true that statement is.

    Reply

  20. Avatar
    March 02, 2014

    I’m not from Mansfield, but I moved there in 1989 from Chicago and to tell the truth it was kind of weird moving from the fast city life to the slow life. But I really enjoyed staying there for a year and 3months…..but as for jobs it was so hard for me to get a job everywhere I put in and application or call they were not hiring , that is why I never move back to Mansfield because of the jobs are really hard to get unless you had a degree….

    Reply

  21. Avatar
    March 03, 2014

    I grew up in Mansfield during this time frame, and if you think it was quiet and peaceful, it’s only because it wasn’t broadcast. I saw racial fights, fights between Lexington and Mansfield kids, etc… Maybe the same sort of violence between labor unions and striking workers or scabs didn’t exist there by the 80s, but there was no shortage of unrest, of that I will assure you. I left there to go off to college, rural is not one description ever given by anyone I met that wasn’t from there. The state prison was all they new of my home town. My whole family still lives there, I visit when I can, but it is a quite sad, dying little town. It’s a shame because it could have been so much more.
    Andy S.

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  22. Avatar
    March 03, 2014

    Careful, you’ll start attracting artists with all that talk of Mansfield in its death throes. I hear they can’t resist abandoned but beautiful architecture…

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  23. Avatar
    March 07, 2014

    Excellent piece, Nina. I had a similar upbringing, insofar as I grew up in Hunting Valley and matriculated through the Orange school system, except the only reason we were there is because my parents worked on the estate we lived on.

    From one kid who was picked on for their clothes/lack of cool stuff to another- I wish you continued success.

    Reply

  24. Avatar
    March 13, 2014

    Nina, you provide an excellent and accurate portrayal of my teenage years as well. I was born in Shelby and moved to Mansfield in 1977 at age 12. A social worker convinced my single mother that Mansfield would provide more “opportunity” for work and a chance to get off welfare. It provided only a slightly better life. Like you, I too, moved away for college; only much further to Los Angeles. However, most Whites here were brought up rich and privileged. Thank you for providing some evidence that there are Whites who had it (and others who still have it) rough. I am going to show your article to my non-White friends and colleagues who think that I can’t relate to them and that I had a perfect childhood because of my race. Congratulations on your success. I look forward to reading more of your work.

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