If you have been reading my blog, then you know that I am a Southern wanderer. I have lived in KY, TN, TX, and VA, but the place that calls to my heart and I call home is North Carolina. I volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign, and on Friday I received an email from the campaign putting out the call for out of state volunteers to travel to one of the states voting on March 15, 2016. North Carolina needed my help and I have a sister there, free lodging, and a son who made my trip financially possible. I left Saturday morning to canvass for Bernie in the Asheville area.
I have traveled I-40 many, many times on my way home. During my drive Saturday, as I stopped at the exits I always stop at because I am boring like that, I started noticing a sickening trend; gas station after gas station closed. Old haunts with good sandwiches and clean restrooms closed. Side roads and main roads full of pot holes. Overgrown lots and empty storefronts were aplenty.
When I finally arrived at my sister’s house, in the small town where I graduated from high school, my heart sank further into the pit of my stomach. Nothing of my youth is there in its former glory. A few businesses are still there from days gone by, but most are long gone. The shiny buildings of my youth are empty and the windows stare at you in a dull haze. The grocery store my Nanny and I shopped at once a week, locally owned and operated, has been gone for years, but now some of the big grocery stores are gone, too. The only businesses that seemed to have any traffic were Sonic and KFC restaurants. Over the few days I was in the area the waves of nostalgia hit me more than usual. Not nostalgia for the past I do not like or cling to, but for the very American small town. Small town anywhere. People say when you go to a place you called home as a young person, that place will be smaller than you imagine, but no one warned us that it would be gone.
There is plenty of blame to go around.
When I was a kid and teenager we shopped at our local stores, walked our main streets, and generally held in high esteem the working people in our factories and fields. The grown-ups talked about that good paying job at the paper mill or tool factory. Our local grocery store and gas station let you write a check with next Friday’s date. Some of the merchants let you run a tab and as long as you paid it off every couple of weeks, no one said boo to you about it. We knew the tellers at the local bank and they would ask about your uncle they heard was sick. The lady at the local clothing shop remembered you and knew just the thing you would like.
We all helped each other in a way that was below the surface. It was community organizing without the label. It was good for all of us. We kept our heads well above water, the man who owned the grocery store did a little better than that and we all went about building lives and thinking about the future.
Then suddenly it all seemed to change. Those tellers you saw were replaced by voices in a box. The local grocery store stopped being able to compete with rock-bottom prices at the big box stores. Your local convenience store closed and was replaced by slick gas station chains with so much employee rotation that Susan today Gary tomorrow became the norm. The little clothing shop became the giant fast fashion shop of my landfill nightmares.
The list goes on. You get the point.
This is not the usual suspects hit piece. Walmart, Exxon, Bank of America (along with hundreds of other unnamed suspects) are all villainous traitors to the very idea of what made America tick.
The grocery store owner didn’t let you write that check or run a tab because he had a heart of gold. He did it because he was smart and understood that scratching backs means winning loyalists and repeat business.
Big corporations went another route.
They went big. They went for broke. Bottom lines and stock numbers became King.
It is cozy in here with that comforting thought of a giant monster I can’t fight and who rules the world. That is the lie we must stop telling ourselves because that lie leads to ruin.
We did this. We have got to come to terms with that and stop blaming these faceless enemies.
There was no great conspiracy afoot.
We saw cheap and went insane.
This journey is right next to the road of “the government sucks and works against us”. We are the government. The same holds true for every major corporation in America. Robots have not taken over yet.
We are the corporations. We are the problem.
Until we stare into the mirror and take a hard look at the truth nothing will change. Nothing.
We cannot continue to rationalize the reasons why we shop the big box stores, why we buy foreign instead of domestic, or any of the things that we do now that are easier and more convenient.
We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the hundreds of ways in which the struggling among us are struggling even more because that grocery store owner no longer exists to let you write that post-dated check or run that tab.
My mother went from buying secondhand at the local thrift, to buying at the local Roses, then Kmart, and finally parked the station wagon at Walmart. She had 4 kids and the deals were good. It made sense. Who could it hurt?
My sister and I made our lists, checked them twice, and then headed to Walmart to get our children their Santa Claus gifts. It made sense. Who could it hurt?
I stopped getting my gas and a cold drink at the corner market. The Exxon and BP were bigger and their gas was 5 cents cheaper. It made sense. Who could it hurt?
Yes, there are some hidden parts of our country that we need to tackle and dismantle if we can, but, by and large, this is a mess of our making.Remember the 80s when Dallas and Dynasty were on TV. Big hair, big shoulder pads, and big money were the rage? The Hippies turned into the Yuppies and greed was good. Anything went in the name of money. We took it too far. We got in deep. Caring about your neighbor became competing with your neighbor and nothing good can come from that.
The world you see in America is a façade folks. Those huge skyscrapers have empty offices gathering cobwebs. People are living in the suburbs sitting on furniture they do not own and that will fall apart before it is paid off. Those cars you see zooming about eating up our environment are hard to pay for and even harder to keep maintained and filled with gas. That job at the paper mill that used to pay $20 base pay now pays $14.
We did this.
Mr. and Mrs. Jones have left the neighborhood because they never could afford it and the bank with the intercom instead of the teller who asks about your sick uncle no longer gives a damn if they shook your hand or not. No one is trying to keep up with the Jones’ anymore.
The first step to solving the problem is admitting that we are all part of the problem and the second step is to stop looking at each other with jaded eyes and competition in our hearts.
If selfishness is a fallback go-to position that we hold in our hearts and minds, we must purge that instinct. We must all come to grips with the fact that we look to the struggles of other people and think to ourselves that we are better than they are. We are not, because every person who is struggling has a story and a life that we know nothing about. We should seek to lift each person up instead of using their struggle as a prop for our own selfish hearts.
Drive through your towns, look at the destruction. SEE. Really SEE. Digest the heartbreak and turn it into action for when we let anyone fall we all fall. That is the lesson of allowing this to happen.
None of us are safe from the destructive force we have unleashed. Some people call this being a bleeding heart liberal. Let them. The truth is those people are going to fall, too. It is inevitable. When everyone slides down into the abyss of economic uncertainty then there will be no people left to buy those goods, shop those big box stores, or finance that new car, and everyone will pay dearly tomorrow for the inaction of today. That is common sense. I am a pragmatist and realist, so call me a bleeding heart liberal all you want, but one day your stubbornness and selfishness will lead to the same road everyone else is on.
The traffic jam will be tremendous and you will have no one left to look down upon.
We did this. We can fix it, too.