Loiterers

2020-04-01T15:59:39-04:00February 28, 2020|

By Jake Maynard

Here’s a small-town Pennsylvania summer, circa 1999:

Early, before we woke, our parents took off for the sawmills and paper plants and oil fields, leaving us under the watch of older siblings or neighbors or the television. We ate ice cream for breakfast and dipped popsicles into glasses of generic Coke. We watched Jerry Springer and left dirty dishes on the floor for the cat to lap. Then, when the dew had dried from the grass, it was time to hound for cigarettes.

My cronies and I would meet at some pre-arranged stoop or tree and start the hunt by searching for my friend Brett’s grandfather’s bear-brown pickup truck, where he kept enough cigarettes to survive some sort of nation-wide ban. There were three bars in town then, and he was probably at one of them. If we found his truck, we’d orchestrate an unnecessarily complicated plan to snag a pack or several. One boy would serve as lookout, another as distraction. The bravest kid would run to the truck and steal. If Brett’s grandpa couldn’t be found, we’d look for some older teens to sell us cigarettes for change, and if that failed, we’d go find the man we called Bobby Cigarette.

Bobby was one of a few hang-arounds who liked to bum around Main Street, which then consisted of sixteen brick buildings flanking an uneven sidewalk and separated by a rural two-lane highway, log trucks rattling the windows as they passed. The buildings once held banks and department stores and bakeries, and by the Nineties held a second-hand store, a diner, a laundromat, and a beauty salon that changed hands every few years. There were also the bars, a cluttered hardware store, the best bowing alley in the county, and a Christian-owned pizza shop that rented movies but nothing smutty or violent.

Like my friends and I, the downtown hang-arounds had to make their own fun during the day. They didn’t resort to activities like dart leagues or employment. They just watched and waited for whatever came along. Among them were Frank, a short, smiley man with one arm who’d usually ask how me how my mum and dad were doing (he’d give chewing tobacco to teens but not to children); a teenage dropout who sat on the stoop of an abandoned building and listened to rap cassettes on a Walkman; a man with a flame-patterned headband who liked to ride his lawnmower downtown to sit on it. There was also a man whose brain tumor had left him wheelchair-bound. When he acquired a new electric wheelchair, he gave the old one to us kids and the older boys drove it around until it died, leaving it to rust near the train tracks.

There was one woman among the hang-arounds—a sex worker, we understood—who walked back and forth from the little grocery store to her tumbledown house at the end of my street, stopping at the fire hall where some of her clients volunteered. She always carried a wide-mouth bottle of Mountain Dew, which at that time was new and exciting technology.

Like a lot of the hang-arounds, Bobby Cigarette was disabled. During my middle school years he was likely in his forties or fifties, but at the time he felt much older, hunched and shuffling as a walked. He’d spend hours standing in front of the post office near a bench that read VÄLKOMMEN. Everything in our town—Mt. Jewett, Pennsylvania—said VÄLKOMMEN. Our town slogan was “The Swedest Place on Earth.”

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When we’d see Bobby, someone would approach and say, “Hey Bobby! Cigarette?” To which he’d repeat, “Hey Bobby. Cigarette!” Then he’d pull a few Winston 100s from a fresh cigarette box in his drooping shirt pocket. Fearfully, like campground raccoons, we’d take the cigarettes and tear hell to the nearest abandoned building to smoke. There were more abandoned buildings all the time.

My friends and I looked to the hang-arounds with awe and fear. They alone knew what we were up to on those hot summer days when our parents stacked lumber or sweltered in factory stink. They could tell on us, and sometimes they did.

I heard you were riding a wheelie down Main Street, my father would say.

I heard you were standing on the stoop with the older boys, my mother would say.

I heard your buddies got into a little bit of trouble the other day, my grandma would say.

Eventually, we acquired easier and more reliable methods of getting cigarettes, and soon began pursuing pot instead. Around the same time, the bowling alley burned and took some neighboring buildings with it. Frank was paid in cases of beer to take the burnable rubble to his yard, one trunk-full at a time, to burn it in a fire pit. He had a bonfire almost every night for a year.

The structure fire was essentially the death rattle for downtown. It felt sudden, but in truth it had been happening as methodically as aging, and I was just too young to notice. The hardware store and diner had recently closed. The bank had moved to a new spot at the edge of town, one of the bars lost its license to sell liquor. And as the businesses were shuttered, most of the hang-arounds disappeared with them. I can’t say exactly when Bobby Cigarette stopped standing in front of the post office, though. In truth, I never noticed that he was gone.

 

My friends splintered in high school. Some took to driving jacked-up trucks through the woods, looking for small animals to beat with baseball bats. (“Critter-beating,” they call it.) Some took to girlfriends and quickly to fatherhood. Some swapped pot for opioids. A couple of us liked to drive around in my 1995 Buick Century, stoned, listening to punk rock cassettes on dark shoestring roads sidelit by the eerie glow of deer eyes in the dark.

I went to college, the only Mt. Jewett male in my grade to do so, and in my absence the shuttered buildings back home began to fall or burn with the type of regularity usually reserved for seasons. Each visit, I’d find myself startled by a new gap in the landscape. Three houses on the corner of my dead-end street, including one-armed Frank’s, were razed in the span of a year. I remember arriving for a visit one night and turning onto my dark lane with an ineffable feeling that something had changed. The next day, I stared at the nub of a foundation stone hiding behind a perfect rhododendron. It was obvious that nothing would be built there again.

During those years away, there existed in my mind two iterations of my hometown: the one I remembered from the childhood—the one with the hang-arounds and the swaybacked buildings with their storefronts switching businesses every few years, like a game of musical capitalism—and the reality of the downtown that I saw every time I returned home. The one that looked like a mouthful of missing teeth.

 

The thing about a place like Mt. Jewett is that it sticks to you, or at least it stuck to me. While I wasn’t what scholars call “placebound”—obligated to my hometown due to any one concern or responsibility—no matter where I went, I seemed tethered to it. If I spent too long away or traveled too far, some tension would build inside me until it slung me back. It was a place where things made sense, where they always went in one direction. Down.

After college and some time traveling, I returned home with seventy-five dollars to my name, planning to spend the winter with my parents while I decided what to do next. I applied for local jobs—sawmill, UPS, group home—and reconnected with friends who hadn’t left. A few of the downtown buildings that remained had been converted into apartments, the storefront glass covered with thick, black curtains. Now, when people loitered downtown, they were no longer hang-arounds, social and publically known. They were tenants, and Main Street was their front porch. It was not uncommon to see a child’s tricycle or toys left on the sidewalk, the once-public spaces privatized by poverty.

I took a job the next town over, at a group home for adults with developmental disabilities, which gave me the opportunity to see an even less visible population within my community. Each day, I would help my clients climb into a passenger van and drive them thirty miles to a day program, where they stuffed envelopes. While they worked, I had time to kill in Bradford, an Art Deco oil town of eight thousand, hemmed by hills and the refineries of American Refinery Group, which makes motor oil. In the middle 1880s, our area produced nearly all of the world’s oil. A hundred and ten years later, and little to show for it, oil was still a point of pride.

Sometimes I’d go to the parking lot of a defunct shopping mall near the refinery and nap. Other times I’d go to Wal-Mart and walk laps, listening to my iPod and buying nothing. Often, while wandering the aisles, I’d come across people from my hometown. Neighbors who only saw each other twenty miles away.

I’m gettin’ groceries, they’d say.

I’m just gettin’ new tires, they’d say.

There is where I work now, they’d say.

This is all too common in small towns. When journalists discuss the migration of people from rural areas, they talk about young people moving away. That condescending term “brain drain” gets tossed around a lot. But there’s another, more localized migration—a long commute down two-lane roads—that happens every day after rural economies fail. This, as much as anything, fractured Mt. Jewett.

 

That winter I was asked to take my clients to the holiday party at their day program. There was a dance party and a mound of cookies as tall as a toddler. When the party wound down, I went to the coat closet and found my jacket missing. The keys to the van were inside of it.

“Yeah, you never want to get your stuff mixed up with the clients,” one of the caseworkers told me. He stopped and thought for a minute. “I bet I know who has it,” he said, directing me to follow him through the building.

We stepped outside to a smoker’s patio that looked out at the belching refinery smokestacks, stark against the white hills behind them. On the patio, some of the day program clients stood shivering. Among them was Bobby Cigarette. He was wearing my black jacket. He’d aged but still wore a stocking cap above his ears, protruding the lobes.

“Robert,” the caseworker said. “Is that your coat?” Bobby just smiled. “Give it back, please,” the caseworker said.

Bobby shucked off my jacket, dropping his lit Winston onto the concrete and bending slow to pick it up. Did he remember me, one of those townie kids who pestered him for cigarettes when there was still a downtown to hang-around? I doubted it, but in the moment, I hoped he did. In the moment he felt like an integral part of my hometown. While I had been lamenting the loss of our buildings, I realized that I hadn’t thought much about the people who spent their days leaning on them.

I didn’t ask Bobby if he remembered, though. I didn’t ask him anything at all.

He returned my coat and I put it on, still warm and smoky from the man I’d forgotten. I patted the pocket for the keys and felt something hard and heavy inside. Cigarettes? No. Bobby had smashed cookie after cookie into both pockets, packing them into wet dense lumps. In order to start the van I had to pick sprinkles from between the key’s teeth.

 

Driving the snowy hills back to Mt. Jewett, something between nostalgia and grief fell over me, a feeling I’d been churning for a lot of that winter. It wasn’t my hometown I’d been missing, but the combination of place, time, and ignorance I had as a kid there in the Nineties.

Bobby was probably better off in the day program than he had been standing in front of the post office. But I wasn’t sure how the other hang-arounds spent their days. I’d see them occasionally, rucking groceries from the store or loitering at fire hall fundraisers, but they rarely stopped to talk with the same vigor. The routines of their lives had been changed.

Most of the hang-arounds did a lot for us. Some of them helped keep their eyes on us town kids. They served as the purveyors of gossip, the ambassadors of the sidewalk, the town’s concierges and janitors. They disposed of bark shed by passing log trucks, helped old ladies navigate crumbling sidewalks, and served as witnesses for traffic accidents and DUI stops.

And even when they weren’t doing those things for the town, they were helping keep it alive. They filled the streets when the rest of us were elsewhere. Just by standing there, they kept Main Street looking active for years longer than it otherwise would have. And they helped make Mt. Jewett’s decline a spectacle. They brought camp chairs and snacks to watch the wrecking balls fold our buildings into themselves.

More than anybody else, the loiterers bore witness.

If I took their role in the community for granted, I wasn’t alone. In our shared narratives about small-town ruin, we always seem to focus on business owners, local politicians, and jaded millennials bolting for better jobs in the city. When we do so, we’re reducing our idea of Main Street to economic participation—to the same forces that fracture it in the first place. By those measures, the hang-arounds weren’t key community stakeholders. But, in my town, the hang-arounds needed Main Street as much as anybody. And, it turns out, we needed them too. ■

 

 

Jake Maynard’s essays appear in The New York Times, Slate, Inside Higher Ed, Chattahoochee Review, Catapult, River Teeth, Backpacker Magazine, and others.

Cover image of Mount Jewett, Pennsylvania by Doug Kerr (creative commons).

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