Money In The BankIssue: Section:
he’s standing at the curve in Vergil, KY showing us where he lost control trying to break the speed record. a guy called “racer” had made it out of the curve and into the straightaway at a reported 92 mph. Conniston, who is universally known as “Bat” (or alternately “Uncle Bat”, “Bubby Bat” or sometimes “Batso”) hadn’t had a clear run up and hit the curve doing a relatively mild 86 mph.
there’s the gravel he hit. there in front of what was once a theater is the spot where he began spinning. this is where the sign he plowed under stood, on the opposite side of the road.
here is where the stone wall used to be, the one that ran all the way down to Pharo Thompson’s house (no relation), where he came to rest, grill first, in his sister’s until-recently brand new oldsmobile.
we’ve been walking Vergil on a burly summer day. on foot, we made it up and around The Curve, briefly saw an example of the original coal camp housing, then turned back.
there’s not a lot of Vergil left to see.
i love the man. this is important work i am doing, and i am honored to be entrusted with his legacy. he has written a draft of a book about eastern kentucky in the first half of the last century (and beyond), and for some kooky reason he has included me in the team that he hopes will realize this document.
i’m sweet on his youngest daughter, the one that’s built like a long tall gangly hillbilly like him. the one with the bad thompson eye, which makes the acute lack of vision look so much like a kindly, avuncular concern when they squint at you...
i’m convinced this plays no small part.
Bat, who is still Mr. Thompson to me, is an incredibly wise, acutely intelligent and fiercely independent old coot. he was the youngest of eleven children raised right here in the hollows (pronounced “hollers”) of Vergil in pike county, kentucky. he survived a boyhood of firearms, blasting caps, drunken rages at the hands of a dad who died when he was nine, coal mines, freight trains and an occasional run-in with the legendary Sookeys Cat that is said to prowl these environs. he got out by dint of good luck and quick wits, managed to score a gig as a chemist at General Electric, nearly died when the moonshine ate out half his stomach and some of his intestines, then hooked up with a gorgeous Vanderbilt grad, settled down to raise a family, and wound up retiring as the head of GE’s Customer Service Division.
and right now, there’s a storm crawling over the top of John Antic Mountain (pronounced “Ginantic Mountain”, like you started to say “Ginormous”, thought better of it, then ended with the last half of “Gigantic” again), the heat is wilting the intrepid party he leads, but Bat stands amid the massive coal trucks in the lot at the mouth of Garage Hollow (pronounced “Grojholler”), more composed and spry at 76 than his children and grandchildren about to faint around him.
this despite the fact that he spent most of yesterday and a good deal of the night sitting around a fire at Grandpa’s Bottom (named for the store on the property owned and operated by his grandfather, GF Thompson, who, incidentally, died from a fall taking a piss off the back porch when he was 86. you pass the abandoned store and the fateful porch as you enter the property) with “the Vergil Boys”, his contemporaries from childhood who still live in Vergil, drinking rum and telling stories. and, on account of his stomach, he hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours.
earlier he showed us the stretch of railroad line where he and his buddies would lay16 penny nails (filched from GF’s store) on the track. after the coal train would flatten them, they would retrieve them and use them as arrowheads for their bows.
out here in front of the scavenged carcass of a truck that has been parted out to keep the others running, i look at Bat and see one tough ass nail forged into an arrowhead.
as much as i love and admire the man, his politics sometimes make me squirm. essentially he’s a skeptic. in kentucky in general and the coal counties in particular, politics is a patronage sport. Bat has seen too many individuals attain political office and enrich themselves, their friends and families to retain any faith in the system.
and he doesn’t make many exceptions.
to be fair, though, he is not a knee-jerk conservative. he surprises me sometimes. swear to god, just the other day i heard him say that universal healthcare, a single payer government system devoid of for-profit insurance companies, was the ultimate and ethical goal for our country. and, get this, he affirmed that President Barrack Obama did the right thing to get the ball rolling with the Affordable Care Act.
he despises our senior senator, Mitch McConnell (R), and sees him as the poster child for the politics that impede governance (full disclosure: he says Mitch is “no better than Pelosi and Boxer,” but i’ll take it). he knows corporate citizenship is a travesty and a crime against humanity, and that corporate money is the poison in the civic well.
in short, he has a critical eye & a cynical mind laid over a bedrock of conservatism.
Bat is nobody’s fool.
which is why it pains me, just back from the edge of the coal camps, when he starts mouthing stuff that, to me, sounds an awful lot like Fox News talking points.
when he was growing up, Vergil was a thriving little town on Shelby Creek. his family sold parts of its ancestral holdings to the coal companies. the coal companies mined the coal with the local labor, and support industries sprung up to employ the others. there were bars and pool halls and restaurants and soda fountains; feed stores, grocers, barbers and hairdressers, department stores, churches, more churches, doctors and dentists, a filling station and the garage. for a while there was even a theater right in the Vergil Curve (its proprietors, a couple of german trapeze artists, were run out of town on the unfounded suspicion that they were nazis on the lam).
it was postwar america, business was booming and coal fueled it.
but the readily accessible coal seams got played out. the coal got harder to extract. always a dangerous and unpredictable job, mining deeper into the hills became an even more precarious proposition. faced with unsafe conditions at increasingly stingy wages, the miners turned the United Mine Workers into a major political force.
now here’s where the history gets murky. some would say that the UMW got too demanding, that the poor beleaguered coal barons just couldn’t be expected to turn a profit if they had to pay exorbitant wages and support a cushy insurance system.
now, others might counter that what the UMW wanted was but a small piece of the incredibly lucrative pie for the people who baked it, the people who set timbers miles inside of mountains and faced flash floods, cave-ins, fires, explosions, runaway jolly cars and a lifetime of black lung and arthritis once they were no longer fit to send down in the holes. inequity is a hallmark of corporate capitalism, to be sure. i would argue that nowhere is that inequity more stark than in the coal industry.
at one time Pikeville, Ky, up the road from Vergil, had the highest concentration of millionaires per capita in the country. coincidentally, Pikeville is where the coal companies have historically maintained their corporate offices.
meanwhile, even at the peak of the coal boom, with near full employment, the 13 coal counties of kentucky were (and still are) consistently ranked as the poorest places in the country. that’s including the squalor of detroit, the reservations of the southwest, what’s left of east new york and the muddy shacks along the mississippi delta.
to my mind, the only thing trickling down to the miners was the groundwater seeping through limestone overburden onto their carbide headlamps at all hours of the day and night.
but there is more to the equation than the price of labor variables. technology was also making it easier and cheaper to get at the more truculent coal seams. mine operators could now send mechanized augers into 12 to 18 inch seams and reliably pull the coal out on conveyor belts. they didn’t need hillbillies with pick axes and strong backs. they needed engineers and machine operators and mechanics. and lawyers.
in a place where kids regularly got work deferments after the sixth grade to work in the mines, it’s really no surprise that a couple generations failed to produce a lot of engineers, machine operators, or mechanics. or ethical attorneys, for that matter.
in all this, the one thing that Bat and i agree on is that John L Lewis, the head of the UMW from like 1920 to 1960, was a megalomaniac (and a megaloceph, it so happens. the guy had an enormous noggin!) who set labor relations back a hundred years. but while Mr Thompson will tell you that his nationwide strikes crippled the economy and tarnished the reputation of his honest, hardworking cohort, i call old John L out for turning the UMW, at one time the mouthpiece for the dirty miner boys, into a personal fiefdom, rife with the kind of paternalism and patronage that Mr Thompson himself so despises. at the expense of the people he was supposed to be advocating for.
in Vergil, Bat is telling us--black clouds spilling over John Antic, sweat being pressed out of every pore, kids playing in toxic hydraulic puddles--you either work for the state, work for the schools, work in the mines or you’re on government assistance.
the state is bankrupt, the schools are consolidating, the mines practically don’t exist thanks to MTR (mountain top removal), and yet there are a lot of people, relatively speaking, up in these hollers.
“what are all these people doing?”, i ask.
“most of them are waiting on a check,” is the reply. and then comes the o’reilly bromide. the people in Vergil, as Bat sees it, have fallen victim to “a culture of dependency.” Bat is a mesmerizing speaker with a real gift for the well-turned phrase, but i believe this is a phrase he borrowed from someone.
they no longer have any motivation to work because they know they’ll be taken care of by the federal government, he opines. “there’s no incentive to better yourself,” as he puts it. he mentions that when he and his buddies graduated from high school, they went where the jobs were. Brine (aka Jimmy Allen Johnson) went to ohio and learned to operate heavy machinery. Squire (born Odie) tracked down a job in a steel mill further up the road in ohio. Lester got on with an asphalt and chain link outfit in michigan and wound up owning it. “the people of Vergil have got to realize that there is nothing for them here. they have to go to where the work is.”
i resist the temptation to ask if, by “where the work is”, he means china or cambodia or laos?
i suppose the bus fare would be cheaper to the motor city, the res, east new york or southern mississippi.
it’s a familiar accusation from the right these days, a sort of blame game designed to justify gutting federal relief expenditures. i guess the thinking goes that if you yank these moochers off the government teat, they will suddenly scramble to find their succor elsewhere.
that kind of thinking (if it can be called that) is wrong on so many levels i feel silly trying to list them. what makes me feel equally silly is that, as wrong as it is, i don’t have any better, competing ideas.
Bat’s youngest, my sweetie, spends a lot of time in the far west end of louisville, where she conducts a Trap/Spay/Neuter/Release campaign for feral cats, educates the public on responsible pet ownership, hooks folks up with free or low-cost vet care and provides food for all manner of critters.
there’s a lot of need in this area known as Portland.
whereas eastern kentucky has creeks poisoned by mines and filled with MTR overburden and a pervasive film of coal dust, Portland has rubber and chemical plants hugging its stretch of river (imagine a really big, long Gowanus Canal, Brooklynites) and a pervasive odor from the factories’ stacks.
during the second world war, Portland was a boom town. when imports of natural rubber from southeast asia dried up, Portland was a logical location for the new synthetic rubber trade. it was situated on the river in a crossroads town full of rail lines, and it was just up the road from some of the highest volume of ethyl alcohol being produced in the country. ethyl alcohol is the essence of our bourbon whiskey as well as a key ingredient in synthetic rubber.
so for a while, it was a good place for working class families to set in some roots. a lot of folks from points east and south did just that, and the concomitant culture and services sprung up to accommodate them. . there were bars and pool halls and restaurants and soda fountains; feed stores, grocers, barbers and hairdressers, department stores, churches, more churches, doctors and dentists, filling stations and garages. as far as i can tell, there were at least three theaters n Portland at one time.
but with cheaper labor markets overseas, greater regulation from government agencies concerned with trivialities like safe water and air, and, again, advances in mechanization, most of the companies downsized or pulled up stakes outright.
Portland never recovered. it has been on the downward slide ever since.
today, it’s depressed and depressing.
on some streets, i count that a full 1 in 3 houses are abandoned—plywood in the windows, weeds run riot and all the copper and other recyclable metals stripped clean.
Portland is a food desert. sometimes in a lot by the expressway during the summer a couple of enterprising central american truck farmers will post up, but besides that fresh food of any sort is nonexistent. if there is a grocery store still operating, i haven’t seen it.
there is a Dairy Queen, a fried chicken joint and a McDonalds, however. they do a cracking business.
and if you asked me what all these people in Portland are doing, i would have to answer, “most of them are waiting on a check.”
the place is so poor that even the folks who hold down one of the scarce shitty fulltime jobs they can get to reliably also need some sort of supplemental assistance to keep their heads above water.
i can’t speak to the daily lives of the dependents in Vergil culture, but if conservatives think people on government assistance are living on Easy Street, they cannot possibly have in mind Slevin Street or 25th Street or St Xavier Street or Portland Avenue.
these are not the streets people with a lot of options choose to live on.
drugs, booze, diabetes, mental illness, truancy, prostitution, puppy mills & dog fighting, illiteracy, visits to the ER, crime and endless petty drama are more common than shade trees and picket fences.
there are old timers. mostly retirees, who are exceptions, still hanging on, but the majority of families don’t stay in one rental property for more than a couple months in Portland. either the utilities get cut off or the rent goes unpaid for too long or Child Protection Services starts an investigation and they stiff one slumlord and move into another slumlord’s place. (often as not, whatever pets they’ve accumulated get left behind.)
the absentee owners play along with the musical homes game, too, but for a lot of money up front. when the roof leaks, after a while they may send someone over to toss a tarp over it to protect the investment. if the stove craps out, it’s either cold food or more Big Macs for the foreseeable future. they keep the gas and electric in the tenants’ names because they know that the houses are shoddy and uninsulated and it gets burly hot here in the summer and wicked cold in the winter.
so if your idea of the good life is standing around in front of a roach-infested, dilapidated house in a second-hand pair of UK shorts waiting for your neighbor donnie to come back from wherever he is (he’s been gone a while, and hasn’t he been awfully friendly to your old lady lately, and how long does it take for her to walk up to the Dollar General and back for paper plates, anyway?) to see if he wheedled some meth out of the guy who owes him for the beer that one time while your shoeless filthy children bait the pit bull chained to a tree on the corner and it’s six days til the first of the month and you sold too many of your oxy script last week to get a phone card when you were high so you could call your ex wife and tell her that you wanted to get back together so she would stop harassing you about the missed child-support payments and it’s the middle of the day wednesday so you know pretty soon the air will change from that banana smell to the burnt coffee one...
or if your idea of the good life is the above, but substitute enormous coal trucks rumbling by your house for the toxic change on a wednesday, and add a brimming sludge containment pond itching to spill on the hill above the house you live in...
i say if that is the good life on the government teat, you are welcome to it, critics one and all.
you are creating a straw man.
it’s ridiculous enough that the media perpetuates this myth that vast sections of the population are getting something for nothing. fact is, they’re getting next to nothing for nothing, and that little bit multiplied by millions still is a comparative mole hill stacked against the mountain of taxpayer dollars that go to industry every year.
what galls me about this theatrical misconception is that for every apocryphal, anectdotal “news” story about some seedy scumbag coasting comfortably for years on the “backs of hardworking americans”, the fat asses who actually sit on these backs continue to operate with impunity, unmolested by the media and elected officials they own.
hundreds of people in Vergil drawing a check to keep the lights on and food in the cupboard may offend the sensibilities of Bat, who still buys the legend of american exceptionalism and its purported meritocracy.
the zombie parade in Portland may piss me off because sometimes i wonder, “with all this fucking time on their hands, why can’t they be bothered to put out clean water for their pets? why can’t they walk the dog around the block a few times a day?” i might want to remind them, “just because YOU have given up doesn’t mean the cats have, too,” or something similar.
but this is a symptom of the malaise, not the disease itself. that we are turned against one another, pointing fingers and assigning blame, is the most insidious pathology of this disease.
while we stand in the streets and accuse one another of getting something for nothing, the ones who need help the least are running away with the store.
the very industry that once sustained Vergil is now robbing it blind. kentucky supplies the coal industry with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the form of direct subsidies. add to that the millions they take out of the state’s coffers in the form of tax breaks, tax credits, breaks on royalties, payouts to black lung victims (very little of which makes it to the hospitals) and other sweetheart deals, and we should begin to wonder why the benefits aren’t making it back to the people of Vergil.
the factories in Rubbertown are posting profits every quarter, so why don’t any of them pay taxes? a story in the news here described the anger Portland residents felt at one of their corporate neighbor’s lack of sympathy following the release of solvents into the streets. when the company had its feet held to the fire, they were fined $115,000, or roughly 1/600,000th of their yearly profits.
that’ll teach them.
and for all the favorable terms and conditions these industries are getting, including the lowest corporate tax rate in the history of the world and the loosest regulations ever considered, for all that, who is benefiting?
consider that executive compensation in this country has risen 876% in the last 35 years.
or the fact that in 1965 the CEOs at these corporations earned about twenty times what their average employee took home. today it’s more like 270 times the average worker’s (NOT the lowest-payed worker’s, mind you) income.
or think about this: today, 40% of the wealth in this country is held by 1% of the population. 80% is in the hands of 10%. that leaves the 90% below them to divvy up the remaining 20% of the wealth being created.
but, then, these people are those vaunted “job creators”, right?
i won’t insult your intelligence to point out the inherent fallacy of that claim.
i will merely point out that if these executives created jobs at a rate that kept pace with their compensation, HR reps with clipboards would be thick on the ground in places like Vergil and Portland.
that’s not what i’m seeing.
what i am seeing is a division along these lines of wealth.
as the top 10% solidifies their handle on the money of this country, they also solidify their stranglehold on the political process.
it takes a lot of money to run a campaign for office these days, no matter your ideological persuasion . as the number of people with the requisite ducats decreases, the number of voices reaching the ears of our politicians diminishes in direct proportion.
and what are these voices murmuring in the ears of our representatives?
are they saying, “studies have shown that wind farms in appalachia would employ 12 times as many workers and create 10% more energy. how about we fund a pilot program”?
or, “nutrition has been proven to be the essential building block, the foundation, of economic recovery. how about we give a fat tax break to trader joe’s”?
no, their message is: “those hillbillies/white trash rednecks are too lazy and stupid to bother with.”
it’s a catchy concise message. it gives everyone something to point a finger at.
it plays well with politicians concerned with raising funds.
it plays well with a media juggernaut that thrives on—no, owes its existence to-- conflict.
it plays well with people who are working their asses off and still have to decide which bills to pay at the end of the month.
it plays well with the fortunate few who grew up with connections and think they made it solely by dint of the sweat of their brow.
it’s money in the bank.
consider that it might be as wrong as the day is long.