Meeting Myself in Bucks County
'Execute All of Them'
The Quakertown Farmers Market, deeded in 1764 by the sole American-born son of Pennsylvania's founder William Penn, sits just east of Route 309, a four-lane road that connects Bucks County to Philadelphia. All along its narrow corridors are signs on which a Quaker in buckled shoes raises an auctioneer's gavel, a reminder that farmers used to gather here to sell their goods and that this was once among the leading agricultural counties in the country.
The market's once-robust trade in livestock is now a distant memory. An eclectic assortment of discount shops and cheap food stalls lines the corridors that cut through this quarter-mile-long structure, with names like The Teriyaki Chef, Latin Flavor and As Seen On TV (which offers, just as its name implies, cheap goods advertised on late-night television).
There's even a Kenyan restaurant, not to speak of shops selling all the fake leather cellphone covers anyone could ever desire. It's a vision of the new Bucks County, and maybe even a new America: a community and a nation increasingly inhabited by new immigrants and charmed by cheap goods made by other underpaid workers halfway around the world. It's a political universe that, this year at least, the Republican Party seems not to have a clue about how to tackle.
In aisles where classic Philly cheesesteaks are served up next to lo mein noodles and discount plastics from who knows where, Allie, a registered independent and a strong supporter of Pennsylvania's senior senator, Republican Arlen Specter, shows no Republican-style either/or equivocation. She's going to vote for Obama, even though, as she rushes to assure me, she's "not crazy about either side." She actually expresses relief, though, that someone "intellectual" might preside over the country after eight years of George W.
At the opposite end of the mart, John Lewis becomes irate the moment I utter Obama's name. "I don't believe in Robin Hood," he says emphatically, "taking from the rich in order to give to the poor. Obama, he's an unknown quality. There's too much we don't know about him." Then, in a sudden burst, John exclaims: "Execute all of them for what they've done with this bailout! Frank, Pelosi and all those guys. They should get the guillotine. Enron--those guys did one one-hundredth what they did and they all went to jail. My kids, my grandkids are going to be paying for this. Those people that took out those mortgages couldn't afford the houses they bought."
Here he was--the man I had expected to meet and who, in abstract form, has been at the center of my recollections of Bucks County since the day I left. But I had been here for a weekend, talked to dozens of people during a hotly contested election in a time of widespread anxiety, yet only hours before I was to head home did I finally meet the angry white man.
Everyone else I ran into seemed strangely subdued at the very moment this nation is supposedly on the cusp of historic change, if not at the precipice. Had all the rest of the angry white guys of my youth taken momentary shelter beneath rocks in the county's much-diminished hinterlands?
Leaving Home Again
It's always tough visiting home. On my last day, I strolled with my mother around a shopping center nestled in one of the county's more upscale areas near the Delaware River. Perhaps it was a sign of bleak economic times, but--eerily enough--the two of us were just about the only ones there late on a Sunday morning. As we walked by brand-name discount stores vacant of customers, we began to talk about why I split all those years ago. It was, of course, a private conversation, but interlaced--as I suspect so many are right now all over the country-- with comments about the upcoming election, about whether race will really matter, whether those working-class white votes will go to Obama or not, and whether any of it matters down the road, when it comes to wages or the possibility that, someday, decent healthcare will really be widely available.
Our private discussion was old hat for us. She insists I left town because the big city beckoned. I insist my flight represented a gut urge to find something more than a job in a factory that would shutter sooner or later and a desire to find a place where people weren't always calling the few blacks or Asians in the area any number of epithets, or simply pretending they didn't exist.
She swore I was overplaying both the racism and the economic distress-- that the problem was me, not where I grew up.
By now, as mothers facing obdurate children are wont to do, my mom was seething and so she began walking ever faster, clutching tightly at the strap of the handbag slung over her shoulder. Having outpaced me, she suddenly turned and blurted out: "You know, not everyone here is like that. Why do you want to focus on the bad stuff when lots of things have changed since you left?"
It was, in truth, a good question. And then, uncoiling from her anger, she gave me a brief personal history lesson: "You know, when I was a kid, there were two girls who dated black guys. People treated them like hookers. Today, you see mixed couples walking around all the time and nobody says anything." And who can deny it--except the Republican Party? We are in a different world.
Still, I wasn't completely convinced, not by her, or even by my weekend on the Obama trail. Still, as sons are wont to do, I let it go. After all, I was back in Bucks County and puzzled by what the undeniable recent political shift there meant--beyond an indictment of the Republican Party. And, maybe, that's all I can say.
With the exception of the fellow who wanted to "execute" them all, there was such a muted, tamped-down feel to my encounters, made only more awkward by the fact that I was walking around like the other journalists scouring the county, pad and pen in hand. No longer a hometown boy visiting mom and dad, I had morphed into a college-educated thirty-something exploring anthropological oddities from a bygone era of manufacturing jobs and Reagan conservativism. And yet that was hardly the way it felt to me as I crisscrossed that haunted landscape.
Of course, the Obama supporters were pumped up on canvassing day, while the air in the sparsely staffed Republican offices I visited was filled with the desperation of an animal caught in a trap. If Obama doesn't take the county, judging by the number of new, energized voters and the radioactivity of the Republican Party, I'll be shocked. But of one thing I'm sure, that's only part--maybe the least part--of what's going on here.
The rest, I don't know. And that includes myself. I no longer feel at home here, if I ever did, among my people--the white working class-- at the very moment when I probably should. After all, I know something no reporter from elsewhere knows. I know that the past is always buried in the present, and if I need a reminder, I only have to look at my mom--and then myself. For her, however much Bucks County is changing, in basic ways it hasn't changed very much at all. She still works six days a week, often ten hours a day, at a job that may be gone tomorrow and, as I did at age 17, I'm again hopping on a train, leaving Bucks County behind.