Known Assailants

Stalking the white working class from within

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Back in the summer, I flagged for a crew of laborers and electricians working next to the tracks below Commonwealth Ave. in Boston. Their job was to dig trenches between signal houses and lay conduit. My job was to make sure they didn’t fuck up any railroad property or wander into the path of an oncoming train and mess with the schedule. In the slots of time between trains, when I could let my attention lag a little bit, I started to shoot the shit with one of the laborers, a younger guy with a thick red beard and sleeve tattoos on both arms. It went the way it usually does: both of us bitching about the nasty heat, the tight quarters. After the questions about the rules governing when they could and could not walk the tracks, we reached the point when he asked how long I’d been working for the commuter rail. Seven fucking years, I told him. Instead of my rote answer to the next inevitable question (What’d you do before this?) I decided to go in a different direction.

All morning I’d fought the urge, and lost, to stare at the familiar row of buildings on either side of Comm. Ave., visible from where I stood near the tracks, far below the grade of the street. My heart sank a little each time I stole a peek, until it sunk about as deep into my chest as it could fall. So when the younger laborer asked about my life before this job, I pointed up at one of the university buildings, the one with the tall spires at either end, and said, “I taught a class in there, when I was in grad school.” He removed his hardhat, covered in union stickers and scuffs and scratches, and wiped the sweat off his forehead. When he finally asked what the fuck I was doing down here on the tracks, with them, I smiled and said, “I’d explain, but you dummies wouldn’t get it.” The young laborer laughed and moved on. I haven’t. I can’t.

Credentialed and Abandoned

There are more people out there with stories like mine than you’d expect. Now they work as electricians, carpenters, laborers, plumbers, mechanics, and tin-knockers, but in their history are some years spent in college, racking up debt that would in no way contribute to increasing their yearly income. For a few, there’s a college degree hidden somewhere in the back of closet at home, gathering dust in the dark. There’s only one other guy I know who, like me, has two pieces of paper enclosed in frames, a bachelor’s and a masters. He’s a reformed track dog, now management; in fact, he’s my boss when I work in the territory he supervises. Sometimes we crack jokes about it, in his office or on some godforsaken stretch of track, when there’s no one else around who might take offense. We shake our heads because of the unspoken question and response that haunts the air between us.

How did we end up here?

Beats the fuck out of me, man.

My boss and I are just two of many working-class kids of a certain generation who were fed the same line by well-meaning parents and teachers: you won’t get anywhere without a college degree. They told us this not out of any malice but as a simple matter of faith in what was true once, long ago, in the years after the great boom that followed the Second World War. The historian Jefferson Cowie calls this brief interval “the interregnum between Gilded Ages,” a high-water mark for knowledge-based social mobility that ended in the mid-1970s or so. During that time, a college degree functioned as a ticket out of the drudgery and physical degradation spent in lifelong manual labor—a surefire entry into a stable, safe, middle-class existence. The aspirational, class-bound message went like this: working with your hands is for those kids who lack the brainpower to do otherwise: burnouts, fuckups, the products of asshole parents, kids without options. Not you.

I made another idiotic promise: I’ll be out in six months, a year at most.

This wasn’t a lie, not exactly. College is still a ticket into the middle class for a dwindling few. But the fetish of the college diploma as the symbol of success in the new knowledge economy conceals a host of inconvenient truths. For one thing, the baseline skills of construction in the brick-and-mortar world—wiring a conference room, framing a house, fixing a transmission—aren’t lesser forms of intellectual work; rather, they call on different types of intelligence than the kind necessary to compose a quarterly process improvement report or a PowerPoint presentation on category strategy. Neither brand of labor is better than the other. Work is work. Everyone toils beneath a boss; most of us will never earn what we’re worth. And now that we’re on the other side of the interregnum, there are some real advantages to blue-collar jobs, at least in my world. None of the guys or women I know who skipped college and went straight into the trades are burdened by student loan debt. They own houses and motorcycles and go on vacations; they have good healthcare and can expect to collect on a pension when they retire. They also don’t feel out of place every day when they show up to work, the way I do.

I know how lucky I have it. Don’t think I am unaware. Being born into a white, Irish-Catholic, union-affiliated household in a city that bordered Boston is a nice, unearned spot to land in the current system. I have two different college degrees, a bachelor’s in English and an MFA in creative writing, and I’ve held membership in two different unions: the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, respectively. I joined Local 223 of the Laborers’ back in college with the help of my dad, who recently retired after more than thirty years as a member. I have one younger brother in the Laborers’ still, and another in the electrician’s union. I logged long hours in the summer months to pay tuition and rent, hauling stock and tools for carpenters and riding jackhammers for eight, ten, sometimes sixteen hours a day. I had to go back after graduation when I couldn’t find employment with my degree, and then again for the exact same reason after living in D.C. for a year.

I scored my current gig as a track laborer with the commuter rail about a year after grad school, in the summer of 2011, with a hefty majority of the country still reeling from the sucker punch of the financial collapse. I discovered in short order that my new degree didn’t guarantee another kind of job—a position more suited to a person of my education, something involving a computer and a desk, indoor work safe from the rain and heat and snow and cold. After I’d been accepted to grad school, I made myself a promise, and I shared it with my very pregnant wife one rainy afternoon as we drove along Wollaston Beach in Quincy: No matter what happens, I’m never going back to manual labor. I’ve wasted too many years already. With all this unfettered time on the way, I’ll finally be able to write a book. I’ll get it published, then I’ll snag a teaching job at a little community college.

You’ll forgive my naivete. I lived in Quincy, not Brooklyn. I didn’t belong to a thriving community of artists and writers, and there was no one around to tell me that my plan was about as achievable as Elon Musk’s Mars colony: technically possible but not fucking likely. A year after wrapping up the MFA, I had written no book and found no job. Our first kid was about to turn two, my unemployment benefits were about to run out, and my wife’s salary wasn’t enough to sustain the three of us. I asked a friend who worked at the commuter rail to help get me an interview and she came through. Then, the night before I started, I made another idiotic promise: I’ll be out in six months, a year at most. That was almost eight years ago. One lesson working-class life teaches you is that promises to yourself are the first casualty when the rent is due and there’s no milk in the fridge.

Disciplined and Punished

I lucked out. I’d have to be a real asshole to suggest otherwise. As far as the best way to regroup after failing to achieve your goals, I can’t recommend highly enough living in an affluent blue-state and having really strong connections to what remains of organized labor. Because of my experience growing up in a union household and working a union job that involved manual labor, I had the option of taking the position at the commuter rail. Most unemployed graduates of MFA programs across the country, desperate for any kind of work, aren’t anywhere near so fortunate. I’d already spent years laboring, lifting and hammering and shoveling, side by side with guys from Boston’s southern neighborhoods and suburbs: Southie, Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain.

These workers were a striking cross section of working-class Boston: black and white, directly from Ireland or descended from those immigrants, suburban refugees of busing or victims who’d been left behind in Charlestown and Southie to survive the battle, and the waves of gentrification that followed. Nice guys, dickheads, liars, reactionaries, racial separatists, race traitors, proud Democrats, and avowed socialists. There were also those prone to engage in the city’s well-documented heritage of working-class rowdyism: violent men who enjoyed inflicting damage and gentle souls taught by city life to strike first lest they be struck, plus some maybe-murderers, convicted bank robbers, drunks both functioning and not, dope-sick addicts and those in recovery. Emotionally, too, they represented a vast spectrum of temperaments: men grieving lost fathers and children, reluctant car thieves, proud veterans of imperial wars and union picket lines. Mixing it up with a bunch of railroad mutants from parts unknown didn’t scare me. The rules are always the same, whether it’s a working-class neighborhood or a blue-collar job site: Don’t back down when challenged, and don’t start shit you can’t finish. Work hard when it’s busy, sit back and chill when the job gets slow. Always handle the problem from within; outsiders only cause problems. And no matter what, never be a fucking rat. The hardest part of the interview wasn’t convincing them I could hack it out on the tracks, swinging a hammer, digging ballast, cutting rail. The tough part was making them believe I wouldn’t be gone in a year. Even though that’s exactly what I had planned, I somehow managed not to let on. They hired me.

Getting the job and doing the job, that was the easy shit. The hardest part of each day was not getting up and leaving in the middle of it. It proved to be a tough transition, from MFA candidate to track dog. I wouldn’t be spending the prime hours of the day and night writing and reading, or in discussion about writing and reading. For some people, the ideal day at work is spent rebuilding an engine or dressing an injury, and that’s fine. For me, breaking my promise and coming back to the blue-collar world, while life-saving in material terms, felt like punishment—the kind of crucible that made waves of humiliation and shame radiate through my bones. This happened on a daily basis. The dialog in my head caromed wildly from one pole to the other: You don’t belong here / Shut the fuck up, you’re lucky to be here . . .

The Restless Natives

A long time passed before these feelings cooled and settled into the background. I kept reading. I carved out time to write here and there, mostly before work, in my truck. I ignored the confused stares and shaking heads when I was spotted with a book or notepad and pen in my hands. During my first tie job, on a nasty length of tracks littered with broken glass and used needles in Chelsea or Lynn, one of my fellow track dogs found out about the degrees and the teaching experience and started calling me “Professor.” The name stuck and spread and soon enough everyone on the job was using it. They still call me that.

Steely-eyed reporters detailed their expeditions into post-industrial regions famous for blight and ruin.

Meanwhile, life moved on. We had a couple more kids, we bought a little house in the only town we could afford, and my wife became a public-school teacher. At least when we retire we’ll do so with two pensions, if we aren’t roasted by climate collapse or a rain of nuclear warheads before then. I haven’t written a book; I probably won’t get to live the life I wanted, writing and reading and teaching kids like me, but who the fuck does? Time flows, indifferent to success or failure. The only thing to do is flow with it until, one way or another, time, like failure or success, is no longer my concern.

As for the more ephemeral benefits of my particular situation, one actually started to materialize in the wake of the most recent presidential election. All of a sudden, a certain segment of the enlightened ruling class, bemused and agog at the election result, began to focus on the denizens of one distinct subgroup of the coalition that was alleged to have brought the big, wet candidate to the executive branch. The psychological profile and political loyalties of this group, what motivated their actions and influenced their beliefs, became a topic of great interest and rueful pundit consternation. Articles written by steely-eyed reporters detailed their expeditions into post-industrial regions famous for blight and ruin. They made contact with the natives and fished for the right quotes. The finished stories were published by tottering, old magazines and newspapers and were then swapped across social media platforms where they were discussed and argued over until brain matter slid out of ears and nostrils.

Cable news anchors spit and prattled like they gave a shit. Honest-to-God books on the subject were written, published and reviewed in those same magazines and newspapers, as well as some newly sprouted websites catering to the same kind of nerd. The authors of those books were interviewed on dozens of different podcasts and NPR radio hours that supply commute-time listening for the same ruling class—together with my former comrades among the highly educated but poorly compensated, ruling-class adjacent. All this considerable output centered around the same questions: who are these people, this white working class, and what the fuck were they thinking, voting for that pig?

© Lyndon Hayes

Elegiac Feelings White American

My workweek runs anywhere from forty to sixty hours long, usually spread over six days. Per the union contract, every hour worked after eight hours is overtime, paid at time-and-a-half; that jumps to double-time after sixteen hours. Massachusetts is an expensive place to live, even in the kind of run-down, industrial-husk city where we ended up. The cars need extra upkeep because of the winters. The kids need new sneakers and jeans because they’re always growing, no matter the season. I don’t have available the amount of dedicated reading time that I’d like, but I haven’t yet lost the habit. I read some of the stories in the newspapers and magazines and nerdy websites. I didn’t get to read White Trash by Nancy Isenberg or Strangers In Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild. I haven’t been able to shake from my mind the op-ed Sarah Smarsh wrote for the New York Times, in which she defends those members of the white working class who didn’t vote for Trump and who support policies that would actually benefit the entire working class, rural or urban, white or otherwise. I loved it when she quoted her construction-worker dad in Kansas saying things like, “Corporations . . . That’s it. That’s the point of the sword that’s killing us.” Sarah’s dad sounds a lot like some of my family and I wish I could buy the dude a beer. I haven’t read her counter-narrative memoir on the subject, Heartland. It’s been a busy spring and summer. Time hasn’t been on my side.

One book I did manage to read was published way back in the heat of the primary season. It gained a lot more traction, and validation, after Trump cucked the rest of the Republican field and did his best interpretation of a presidential campaign run by Lex Luthor until he won the office, which most likely caused him to shit himself in shock. The book in question, Hillbilly Elegy, was authored by one J.D. Vance, and in a strange twist of fate became for a time a Rosetta Stone for understanding the lowly, uneducated, economically downtrodden, racially resentful, white voter who was said, often wrongly, to have delivered the upper Midwest to Trump. Vance is a former working-class hill urchin of Ohio and Kentucky, graduate of Ohio State and Yale Law, veteran of the Iraq occupation and current familiar to Silicon Valley tech whisperer and nosferatu regent Peter Thiel.

My mom gave me the book for Christmas. I don’t know how the hell she found out about it, and a couple of my more literate friends kept asking if I’d read it and what I thought, so I finished it in a lull between snowstorms. My impression of it diverged from its anointed status as explainer of Trump and the white trash psychopaths that love him. I didn’t grow up in Appalachia or anywhere near it, and my Irish-Catholic ancestors are of the more urban, coastal variety, not the infamous Scots-Irish of the inland hill country. Still, I recognize the working-class upbringing Vance describes. The big shipyard in my town shut down a few years after I was born, probably around the same time as the steel plants that sustained the part of Ohio where Vance spent his childhood began to go dark and shuttered. My town consisted of a less homogeneous population than his. We were city trash, not hillbillies, mostly ethnic whites: Italians, Irish, Poles, Swedes, Fins, some Portuguese, plus a smattering of East Asians and African Americans. The place was plagued by much of the same kinds of casual violence, widespread drug use, and family breakdown as any working-class city of the era.

Proximity to Boston saved Quincy from the same post-industrial nightmare that plagued the Rust Belt cities. The northern border of my hometown meets with Boston’s border at the Neponset River, close enough for the residents to ride the wave of the urban boom that’s been exploding outward from the nearby information, financial, and medical centers since the Clinton era. Someone had to put up the new buildings to house all those nurses and engineers and analysts as they plied their trades. Someone had to operate the trains and keep the tracks in good repair as workers poured in and out of the suburbs every day. Boston rose from the hills around that deep harbor long before the first great industrial detonation, and it flourishes again (for its wealthy children, at least) as those Midwestern factory towns struggle to rebuild themselves in the ruin of economic and cultural blast zones.

By pure luck of birth, my childhood mirrored Vance’s only in kind, not degree. That’s why I found it easier to grasp that Hillbilly Elegy isn’t a guide to understanding the mythic Trump voter. It’s also not a plea to heed their demands for a return to an imagined greatness. Vance has authored a loving critique of his people, those who have been left to fend for themselves as the twin tides of shitty jobs and opioid addiction threaten to drown multiple generations, while their neighbors from the middle and upper-classes keep the higher ground to themselves. Of course they have a right to be pissed off—who wouldn’t be, after what they’ve suffered? Still, Vance argues, that suffering is no excuse for those who have chosen acquiescence to moral rot, who cast blame at immigrants and minorities, who have indulged in the ugly stereotyping of these groups, tired aspersions of laziness, addiction to drugs and government handouts, infidelity, the same old shit. These are stereotypes, Vance makes clear, that can be leveled at poor whites as readily as poor blacks, poor Latinos, poor anyone, really.

In an interview with Ezra Klein, recorded shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Vance goes against type for much of the conversation. He espouses the traditional conservative belief in taking personal responsibility for one’s own choices but readily concedes that the government-financed safety net has a place in aiding those lost in the post-industrial economy. He offers a searing critique of the ACA and its lack of universality, a critique I agree with completely. His writing and interviews are thoughtful and nuanced, so much so that you could almost miss the biggest blindspot of the whole project, one shared by his Appalachian and Midwestern brethren, and mine in the Northeast. I suspect the omission has more to do with the complicity of the class to which he now belongs. Or maybe not—I don’t actually know the guy. I do know my guys, though, and I can tell you it is there, be it willful or be it unintentional; the same denial of the true threat.

Class Acts

The nation’s economic and cultural classes have drifted farther from each other over the last forty years, repelled by the magnetic force of wealth. Unless you’re here, living in this particular blue-collar, working-class world, it’s hard to see the fault lines or areas of overlap, beyond what’s been in the movies—and man, have the people in charge of the movies pushed their conception of my people down the collective throat of the country for going on twenty years now. In release after release—Good Will Hunting, Mystic River, The Departed, The Fighter—it’s the same story, over and over. The hero is ethnic and assimilated, working-class but not class-warrior, too smart for his station while not above it, wounded but reticent, tough. In his review of the latest entry in this pantheon, Manchester By the Sea, A.O. Scott hits the nail on the head when he described the subconscious function performed by these films: “In 21st Century American cinema . . . the Bay State is where the myths of post-ethnic-class white identity have been forged.”

Hollywood crafted a version of this identity it can sell, a half-truth, one in which the cultural norms of the white working class are walled off from the rest of the working class. The contradiction is never called out but it reflects something real. I’ve heard the complaints, the jokes, all the racist shit you can imagine. The drug use, the crime, the shitty life-choices, the family breakdown, the steady decline of economic clout in the political system, the dependency on government assistance: whatever sin they accuse another group of committing, it’s only because they know how much of that guilt they themselves bear. And they either don’t see it or they refuse to, just like they refuse to feel any solidarity with those other groups because it would mean losing the status this racial identity provides. It is what they believe connects them to the success and wealth of the ruling class, even though clinging so desperately to that status has left them weaker, more vulnerable as American capitalism slides further and further into its final-stage, cannibal mode.

It’s not as if that ruling class looks at someone like me or my family or the guys and gals at work and counts us among the same kind of white. They know it’s more profitable to keep shoveling that bullshit as long enough of the shitheads keep their mouths open wide and remain willing to swallow. Once the fiction no longer reaps the desired reward, the wealthy will erase it. And as the opportunities to extract plunder from distant colonies and occupied territories disappear or become too expensive, capital will about-face and set sights on the homeland, where it will employ the tactics of suppression, honed in foreign lands, on the native populace. It’s already begun. Look at how the cops dress when people hit the streets, and look at how they let cities drown.

The Story of Us

Most of what we learn about anything comes from outsiders. Historians pore over archival sources and abandoned documents to examine the way the long dead truly lived. Memoirists and screenwriters conjure up scenes from childhood to plot personal narratives of family trauma, escape from addiction, and systemic oppression. Each method is fine, for what it’s worth. I’ve already mocked the dipshit journalists who parachute into the post-industrial, opioid-ravaged heartlands, but the bards of today’s virtuous white working class are cut from much the same cloth. They went to the right schools and landed the big jobs, so they get to tell everyone else what they perceive as the crisis, the interests they believe are in danger. All the rest of us need to do is look out the fucking window. In other words, the people who position themselves as authorities are usually the kids who, like J.D. Vance, settled on the outside and decided to look back at the way they came. It’s considered a proven method. You don’t know where you come from until you go somewhere different. This goes for the people who produced you, as well as the place. It’s the oldest cliché imaginable, and like many clichés, it suffers the curse of being true.

American capitalism offers much less choice than the masters of capital would have us believe.

So let me take my own quasi-insider’s stab at the great pundit quandary of the Trump age. Who are these fucking people? They are always very tired, they are overworked and overweight, largely underpaid and uneducated on a scale that can only be described as criminal. They retreat in the warm embrace of tribal identities at the first sign of stress, no matter what this retreat may cost in the long run. It’s simply the easiest option available, and requires no real expenditure of cognitive energy. They are plagued by a very strong suspicion that the animating structures of American life were at some point in the past oriented to fulfill the needs of a class not their own. But they are too dumb, too stoned, too overwhelmed by the biblical flood of digital stimuli that incites primitive emotional responses of fear, anxiety, and alienation—all in the name of ad sales to enrich the creators of said stimuli—to be able to identify the parties responsible. Instead, they believe nonsense conspiracy theories and shoot up random pizza parlors, they beat up immigrants to please the leader, they vote for vampires who swear upon inverted crosses that drinking the blood of the villagers is the last thing on their minds.

Fight Club

I did manage to escape, a couple times. In each of the places I fled to, the bubbles of higher education and the bigger bubble of economic and familial and physical security they promise will bear you aloft once you complete their programs and wander into the world, I wasn’t allowed to stay. I had to come back. Now I’ve returned, and I can’t pretend like I haven’t crossed over once before. I speak with an accent in both places; it’s harsh and hard to ignore to either set of ears. I stick out, no matter what I do.

Last winter, I got to the headquarters early one morning and went inside the trailer instead of my usual routine: sitting in my car, sipping coffee, reading a book until the clock showed 7:00. I had to get a head start on some paperwork, production reports and time cards—the responsibilities that come with being the gang foreman. The weathermen predicted a nor’easter carrying a lot of snow, so the day ahead would be busy with driving over and back from our three stations, making sure the boxes were full of salt to keep commuters from slipping and suing, and checking that the snow blowers were full of gas. One guy from the crew was inside already, legs crossed at the knees, staring at the screen of the phone in his usual chair, the one near the door with a good view of the TV. We offered each other good mornings and lamented the coming storm as I stepped into the foreman’s office. A busy winter can be good for the bank account, but all those sleepless night pushing shovels and blowers across platforms take years off your life. It gets old.

I sat down at the desk and started scribbling names and numbers into the appropriate boxes. After a few minutes of quiet but for the wind rattling the wire mesh that covered the office windows, the guy in the chair called out to me. I had an inkling about what he was going to say.

“Hey Professor,” he said. “Tell me, really: what you still doing here?”

I laughed. We’d been talking about politics the day before, so I should’ve seen this coming. I had referenced some book, maybe one of the volumes of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography, and the guy in the chair, who isn’t formally educated but knows more history and political theory than your average college graduate, got that familiar look in his eyes. During our first winter working in the same gang the guy in the chair, a black dude who immigrated here from an island as a kid and spent his formative years in some of Boston’s tougher neighborhoods, found out about my leftist political leanings—despite my very conservative, very white outward appearance. Since then, there have been a couple times when this bemused look would come over his face at something I’d said, that he’d pose the question.

What can I say? I wish there was somewhere I could go, but I’ve been in the wild too long. Even if I did get a teaching job at a high school or a small public college, we couldn’t afford the pay cut. Not only that: I know the language spoken here, the rules that govern interactions between coworkers. How am I going to switch it up, go somewhere I can’t call my boss an asshole and still keep my job? How would I survive in a place where conflict isn’t resolved by direct confrontation in the plainest language possible but by talking around every problem, with anyone and everyone except the person you’re at odds with? That’s the most disrespectful approach I can imagine, and that’s how the world outside of mine operates, from what I’ve heard. Well, fuck that. If that’s the barrier to moving up the economic ladder, maybe I’ll stay down here. I don’t like it, I’m not particularly good at the work, but at least I don’t have to pretend.

American capitalism offers much less choice than the masters of capital would have us believe. It forces much of the educated world into a life of insincere smiles and forced enthusiasm if they want to keep eating. And this elaborate pantomime exists mostly so that the profit margins of glorified sociopaths can swell and swell upward. They’ve destroyed the unions because they are the only bulwark against total control over every facet of our lives by capital. In their world there’s no place to fight, for conflict to be truly resolved. Sometimes I think that’s what my white working-class brethren are missing. They either don’t listen to me or don’t understand when I tell them stuff like, “Yes, the Civil War was really about slavery,” or “No, Obama’s not a socialist. I’m a socialist.” On the other hand, one time I watched as this guy in a former crew, a functioning alcoholic who tells racist jokes with ugly abandon when drunk, took his knife from his pocket, opened the blade and said, “Someone needs to get to that motherfucker,” at the sight of Scott Walker on the morning news. Then he slammed his knife into the top of the table next to his seat. It’s depressing, but I think the only way to deactivate racial identity and activate class identity is to give these crazy motherfuckers something, or someone, to battle.

“Come on, come on, be real,” the guy in the chair said. “Why you still here?”

“Same reason you are,” I told him. “They keep paying me.”

John Tormey is a writer and a track laborer for the commuter rail in Massachusetts. His work appears in RabbleLit, Riverteeth, and elsewhere.

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