Thursday, December 15, 2011

Growing up tough

I grew up rural, white poor in Appalachia.  The town I grew up in was peculiarly violent, even compared to surrounding towns.  Despite being a small town, it was a slow year there wasn't a murder.  And it was a slow weekend there wasn't a guy seriously fucked up in a bar fight.

It was a working poor culture.  Every guy I knew was a big, scruffy, gruff and had thick, meaty hands.  You could pretty much tell if a guy was a criminal by how mangled his hands were.  A guy whose hands were anything less than callouses and burger and twisted fingers was probably someone who hadn't worked many honest days in his life.

Except for a handful of folks who came from established wealthy families (usually money from taking some type of carbon from the ground), everyone was poor.  Kids who wanted out went into the military.  A few went to college, but not as many as you would guess.

One thing I particularly think about now that I have money is that no one ever made a thing of it if they had money.  Whatever your background was, flaunting wealth was a quick way to get your ass beaten down.  That was about the only real code I can ever remember there being.  Whatever you do, you don't make another man feel poor, feel less of a man.

Other than that, it was a very live-and-let-live lifestyle.  No one really gave a shit about your religion, politics, sexual orientation, race or all the other shit that is characterized as Appalachian redneck hate generators.  The culture centered on the common bond of poverty.  Everything else was background noise.

The real question you faced was whether you were willing to make an honest living.  To a greater extent than you'd guess, the big divide was between working poor and those on welfare, particularly those who lived in the two housing projects in town.  Working poor, of course, was OK.  Welfare plus subsidized housing made you a scum.

It's funny, because to any outsider, we were all pretty much white trash.  One was indistinguishable from the other.  But, within the culture, it was a big deal.  Even at the bottom, people seek status and sort themselves and their neighbors accordingly.

What's funny about all this is that I still feel very weird living up to what I have now.  Even though I own a lot of suits, it's hard for me to dress well.  I come from an oil-covered flannel culture that says no man is better than anyone else so long as he works.  I still have a hard time thinking that anything that doesn't involve tools or heavy machinery is work.

It's something that I think adds to my aloofness.  I don't really feel a part of any particular culture.  I'm too soft for the working poor.  I'm too hard for the educated folks.  To some extent, I jumped the entire gap and went from poor to wealthy without really spending any time being middle class.  There were a couple years when I was struggling to get my business off the ground where I could have been middle class if I hadn't been pouring every dollar I had into making more money.

It's tough feeling connected to people when your experiences don't chart well with anyone else.  When the word "Dickensian" applies to you, life can leave you a bit standoffish. 

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