By Kathryn Burak
I’m going to confess several things.
First, I confess I have been a fake.
When I was in high school in the late 1970s and people I didn’t know well would drive me home from my summer job, I would ask to be dropped off at a neighbor’s house. Their place, down the hill from our house, was an anomaly: built by a family and not the coal company that settled the town of Marion Heights, Pennsylvania, in the first several decades of the 20th century. That house I adopted, a small cape with a detached garage, was as likely in my town as a spaceship. To make it appear I lived in that spaceship, when strangers drove me home, I walked up to the brick steps and turned back to wave. Thanks. Bye-bye, now. I made sure their car turned the corner, so they wouldn’t see me turn and head up hill to my house — originally, a coal company house.
I’m sure other kids performed such theater in other towns for reasons something like mine, preferring not to share some pretty obvious information that’s available from a doorstep drop off. My home was a rambling place that was once a kind of mini-mall for the coal company — part beer-garden, part house. What later became a dance hall was initially a series of small shops and post office at one time. We lived in part of the building by the time I was in my teens — the rest was useless except for sheltering things most people would throw away: three old pianos, salvaged toilets and sinks, broken chairs.
Houses built by coal companies basically had no embellishment, and even though ours was meant to be a barroom, its only distinguishing features were the storefront windows and the neon sign that said COLD BEER. All coal company houses were large, with no front yards. Their front steps launched from the sidewalk. Our house was one of the biggest, and hard to maintain. At the rear of our house, my father — someone who never threw anything away that could possibly be repurposed — collected old wood and metal in a neat stack that took up a lot of the back yard. Over the years, the stack grew larger and messier. It was the size of the spaceship’s detached garage by the time I was old enough not to want to answer questions about it.
Another embarrassing feature of that house: there were barrels stationed at the base of rain pipes to collect water for the tomato plants that filled the little square of backyard that the wood and metal collection didn’t occupy.
Also, on Thursdays, all the clothing we wore during the week — everything from underpants to denims, would all be washed and hung to dry on clotheslines that ran from our porch to telephone poles: eight clothes lines, approximately a collective 100 feet of our clothing.
On the days the laundry was not posted for the world to view, my mother and father would hang plastic bags they would wash out for reuse, on those lines. The plastic bags ranged from bread wrappers through sandwich-sized. That our plastic bags were used again and again as they ran through the stages from clear through filmy through opaque was, like our unmentionables, a matter of public record.
My second confession: I laughed really hard when a town near where I currently live outlawed plastic bags at the grocery story because they take thousands of years to decompose, and consequently turned around and instituted a fine for people who wouldn’t scoop up their dog’s poo and put it into plastic bags, where it will remain for the thousands of years it would take to decompose along with the bags. I hope my laughter will be tolerated considering my history with plastic bags.
It goes without saying that when I was growing up we did not own or ever use a clothes dryer, not even at a laundromat. I’m not sure that counts as a confession, since I’ve already revealed so much about the laundry situation. But here’s another oddity about my family viewed through the lens of the way most people live in the modern world: we heated our home with coal. I mean this literally. We would shovel coal into a stove in the kitchen. We cooked mostly on a coal stove that would run all summer long, everyday, the 4th of July included, fed every few hours by a few shovelfuls of coal. Our hot water tank was warmed by its proximity to the kitchen’s stove. No burning coal stove — no hot water. Keep in mind this was not Little House on the Prairie. We had cable TV. I watched the Partridge Family, Love Boat, and Roots along with the rest of America. My friends’ families cooked on electric or gas stoves.
My next confession involves as much of my amusement as my embarrassment. It involves the word sustainable. Most likely the first few times I heard the word it was ambient and I paid little attention. Then, a student in the freshman writing class I was teaching told me she wanted to report on our university’s sustainability plans. I asked what she meant by sustainability. (I confess, I am abysmal with code words.) I asked, “sustain what?”
A little backstory to help me earn this moment: After I got married and moved to the suburbs, each summer I was introduced to another kind of class self-consciousness when my neighbors would take turns renting gigantic garbage dumpsters that would be filled up with toys and lawn furniture and old bicycles and other trash before they were hauled away by trucks. My husband and children — my family — like the one I descended from, has little to throw away. I wanted to say to my student — who really did not deserve this kind of scrutiny — are you hoping to sustain this sort of thing — that every few years, you pull the dump truck up to your detached garage and fill it up and take it to the landfill and things start all over again? Is that the status quo you want to sustain? But I know better than to dump all that baggage on a student. I realized that even as I have evolved financially and climbed the socio-economic ladder, I am doomed by a point of view that I formed looking out our kitchen window: all our dirty laundry, alternating with our plastic bags, waving like flags. Like lots of frugal/poor people were practicing sustainable lifestyles out of necessity as much as choice, certainly not out of concern for the world.
Confession four: I’m not altogether comfortable with outing myself as someone who grew up more or less poor. I am also someone who grew up in the 1970s. I don’t have to mention how much people liked plastic then. Old, used stuff was ugly and bad. It connoted failure. It was embarrassing. Even before I went to college and saw more of the middle class world that was remote to me growing up, I understood that all families, but particularly families who straddle the line between frugality and poverty, offer their children the possibility of a specific kind of embarrassment. I understood that my life in the small pocket of the Appalachians where I was raised was really more third world than first and I felt shame about that. I’m a horrible person. A shallow person. Or at least I was.
Another confession: though I write novels and teach writing I obviously don’t understand some words. This fall one of my writing students wanted to explore recycling clothing. I had to stop myself from saying — don’t you just call this second-hand stuff? Oh, I know my parents were more frugal than most other parents. At a very young age, I was aware other people from other families threw out clothes that could no longer be patched without stripping them of their zippers and buttons and then tearing them into squares we could use as rags. I was aware that people owned washing machines that looked like large boxes instead of tubs with rollers mounted on top, that they didn’t hand-feed each item of clothing through those rollers to ring out first the soapy water, then the rinse water. That they didn’t pour the rinse water onto the garden after all that.
So you might really understand how funny it was when I learned that the water from your laundry that you tap off for a garden has a cool name: greywater. I think it’s a beautiful word, greywater — as mellifluous as cellar door — but every time I hear it, I imagine push lawn mowers and ringer washing machines and candy tins filled up with salvaged buttons and hooks-and-eyes and buckles. I imagine collections of salvaged bathroom fixtures and chairs missing legs. I picture Wonder Bread bags (reused so often those circles of blue and red and yellow have flaked off) fluttering in a breeze, taking up a little bit of 100 feet of clothesline. I picture what was normal for me, but what also might look like a life on the edge of poverty. A family preparing for the worst. I have to confess that every time I hear sustainability I grit my teeth. It’s not that I don’t believe we need to be conscious of our consumption. On the contrary. But the way it’s discussed, in the context of entitled consumerism? Well, I become a meme, a joke on the internet, a picture of a fifty-something person with the recurring tagline: #THAT’SSOFIRSTWORLD!
Next, I’m going confess visions: I see things others don’t see.
I mean this literally, not metaphorically. For example, I have seen a carbon footprint.
I saw it every day for the first eighteen years of my life, until I left for college. That house where I grew up was the highest point of the small town. It was town built on the side of mountain. A marble dropped alongside our house would roll directly down to the end of the town — four streets, total — without stopping, the hill was that steep. From the top floor of the house, you would have a view of the valley below. This is what you would see: trees, of course, a two-lane road, and miles upon miles of slate-gray waste: strip mines that made it look like the landscape of the moon. Most roads that led away from my town, in any direction, were surrounded by strip mines — heaps of shale, the byproduct of turning the earth upside down instead of tunneling into it (a whole mountain of it towers over the town, Shamokin, PA, where I went to grade school), and the occasional scrappy birch tree that grows out of the waste. From the windows of our house, swathes of earth were barren. This is what a carbon footprint looks like: in summer, green, interrupted by a gigantic gray scar. Like a falling meteor skidded across the earth.
[blocktext align=”right”]It was like gods stomped all over the place, footsteps crushing everything down to stone, only it wasn’t gods.[/blocktext] But, as I said, this was where I was raised, so it was normal. It was like gods stomped all over the place, footsteps crushing everything down to stone, only it wasn’t gods. Nowadays those illusions of gods are also plentiful: the tops of mountains are complete cut off.
I must admit there is an air of the supernatural about the un-natural disaster of it all, mountains missing tops is just part of it. As part of the mining process, years ago — when my now 93-year-old father was in the mines as a teenager — pillars of stone were left intact to hold up the works, but after the coal vein was mined clean, some wild man would go in and take all that was left on the way out. They called it robbing the pillars. The act required a kind of recklessness that was a mix of fearlessness and foolish and bravery. It surely has a great name.
As a result of all this — mining, robbing, depleting — sometimes whole cars would disappear when roads above the mines caved in. I’m totally serious when I say we avoided a certain back road leading out of Marion Heights because it was known to collapse under the weight of a car.
You could be swallowed up.
In a far off land, where I now live, people talk about sustainability. They do so passionately. Meanwhile back in my native land, the strip mines are being loaded up with their castoffs. It turns out you can recycle a strip mine by making it into a landfill. I can only imagine what the naturally occurring radon gasses out there will become when they mix with all that garbage. I mean, it’s already a cancer pocket out there. You can see it on a map, how many different kinds of cancer sprout in so many different people towns like that. But here’s the thing: we aren’t really talking about these small, out-of-way places like Marion Heights when we talk about sustainability. We don’t even refer to them as collateral damage leftover from the past. We ignore these places. The folks who don’t succumb to cancer have a lot of emphysema. The decimated downtowns of those little villages once left belly up when the coal was all mined are now dried up for good by the arrival of the Wal-Mart Superstore. The only lighted storefronts are populated by the booming industry of portable oxygen supply companies.
My last confession: I thought my mother was a liar. She told me stories about ponds with lily pads in the woods down the hill from our house. When I was old enough to go off on my own, I swam in some of the water holes left when the coalmines found the water table. There was no mud there because the shale was hard. There was the dust of anthracite coal, sharp as glass. Maybe she didn’t lie, but I never saw lilies. Still, I didn’t know any better. Honestly, I thought it was pretty in those man-made caverns. It was my normal. Water makes everything more picturesque, and, as I said, there were white birches, leaning alongside of the gray slag heaps. Birch trees grow out of pretty much any heap of junk, rock, waste, even in a place so bereft of nature, it could be the surface of the moon. What I say is: not everybody has a chance to know the world through a lens like the one I was given — how, inside your own normal, even unlikely things can reveal beauty, if not truth. I, for example, know that if you break off a birch branch and chew on it, it’s sweet. I know canaries die of carbon monoxide poisoning before people will. And I know which road that leads from my hometown is more likely to swallow me up.
Kathryn Burak is a Boston-based writer.
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Loved this piece, Kathryn! I went to school in Central PA, thank you for sharing your story.
I am Your cousin.
Johnny Sweepers Grandson.
That picture of the church in Marion Heights, the building to the right of it was my grandfather’s garage. He used to buy and restore classic cars. One night at 2am the fire department called him, because there was a fire on that street and their only fire truck could not handle the blaze. This was about 1980. He had an old 1940’s fire truck the one firefighter saw and called him. My grandfather raced to the scene and didn’t know if this truck would even start let alone pump water. Well, it did! And it helped save the town from a fire that would have easily engulfed this town. My grandfather’s name was John Wargo and lived on Warsaw St.
June of ’95 I happened to be driving through the coal regions, going south on PA rt. 61, when I saw that culm bank on the left, just before Shamokin. What a mind blower that was!