Ten years ago, I wrote my master’s thesis on a single poem: Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” The thesis was not very good. The poem, though, is spectacular: an investigation, through the eyes of its almost-seven-year-old speaker, of the dizzying, world-spinning, momentary sensation of individuality and connectivity–a fleeting, out-of-body, out-of-time reminder of the sheer strangeness of being anyone, anywhere.
At different moments in my life–but perhaps never so much as in literal waiting rooms, after having become a cancer patient at the age of 24–its lines have echoed in my mind:
How — I didn’t know any
other word for it — how “unlikely”…
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?
It’s an refrain I’ve found myself repeating more recently, having somehow homesteaded (how “unlikely”) in an economically depressed corner of a red state, two hours from the hometown I’ve spent over a decade attempting to escape.
How had I come to be here, like them?
The simple answer is, I was lucky: lucky, that is, against the backdrop of the bleak academic job market in the humanities, to have wound up in a tenure-track position anywhere — particularly in the single job whose ad I noticed on happenstance, and applied to as “practice.” It is the sort of luck Roxane Gay describes in her essay “Typical First Year Professor,” recounting “another long lamentation about choices and taking jobs in the middle of nowhere and the (relative) sacrifices academics often make. It is tiring to constantly be told how lucky we are,” she writes; “Luck and loneliness, it would seem, are very compatible.”
Although mine is, in ways that I will not enumerate here, an atypical institution, I have been, these past two semesters, the “typical first-year professor” — kept awake at night courting the near-constant feeling of failure, attempting to negotiate the knowledge of relative “luck” and privilege with the soul-crushing loneliness of living in a place I’d never wanted or intended to live, a life increasingly unrecognizable as my own, a life strikingly dissimilar from the one I’d imagined for myself — mainly in that it is too similar from the one I’d left.
And yet we are here. And the “we” of this is no less strange, by the way: the person you marry is merely the one who could have left, but didn’t.
Or as Jane Kenyon puts it, It might have been otherwise.
We are here: in a town, like many American towns, aspirationally named after an objectively more beautiful European place. Carved out of the Connecticut Western Reserve in the early nineteenth century (1799, the water tower insists), it earned repute as a locus for the manufacture of coaches and hearses. Like many midwestern small towns, it had its heyday in the age of manufacturing. Like many midwestern small towns, its Main Street is filled with abandoned storefronts: crumbling Italianate and Greek revival architecture, placed on the National Register of Historic Places back in the 1980s and left to ruin. It is seat of the county in which Donald Trump won 52% of votes in the last election, the site of a military training center, an abandoned GE plant, a Wal-Mart, a failing public school system, an alarming opioid addiction crisis. A Facebook group of local vigilantes vows vengeance upon neighborhood heroin dealers.
Apparently, it was once also the site of a chicken processing plant, as I learned from a colleague who grew up in this area, and could not disguise his sheer horror upon learning where I’d moved. The stench of smoking chicken carcasses, it seems, is not something from which one can easily recover. I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years; I get it. And yet disgust, cut through with patronizing pity, is the reaction I receive from most of my colleagues when they ask where I live–an inevitably that makes me dread the question.
Many of them have wholeheartedly committed to living in the rural village that surrounds the college–an option we had quickly ruled out, citing our unfamiliarity with septic tanks and wells and our inability to abide the paucity of reliable high-speed internet, but mainly rejecting the uncomfortable proximity to students. Others either commute from the Cleveland suburbs, or live in the county’s wealthier towns–the kinds my mother is wont to describe with appellations like “cute” and “quaint”–whose staggering property prices we could never afford, not when my salary is so shockingly poor.
“Well, we have children,” senior colleagues have explained to me on more than once occasion, apparently feeling it necessary to justify why their standard of living is higher than mine; “we moved there for the schools.”
I do not begrudge them their nice houses and nice towns. But I do begrudge the assumption that I must not have kids, because why would I subject another generation to a town like this? (I mean, I don’t have children — from a melange of both chosen and unchosen contingencies — but at the time of these conversations, they didn’t know this).
And I begrudge the assumption of choice. I have lived hand-to-mouth my entire life. I have never been eligible for my own credit card. I have an obscene amount of student loan debt. This is, apparently, a joke. One get-together, for instance, goes like this. People I have just met ask me where I live. I tell them.
“Oh…Why?” someone says.
“Yeah,” another adds, laughing, “What went wrong?”
It is not meant to be mean-spirited; I realize this. I grin along through gritted teeth. But at the next convenient opportunity, I collect my coat and leave, infuriated at the casual classism: How had you come to be here, like them? I mean, when you are, surely, not like them.
What went wrong?
Where to begin? My broken home? My irresponsible choices post-college? My year of cancer treatment? My decision to pursue a PhD in the humanities? What went wrong? It might as well be the slogan of the midwest rustbelt, with its misdirected dreams, poor investments, planned obsolescence, urban decay, capitalist tragedy. At the very least, it is the perpetual question of the botched election–one J.D. Vance recently tried to tackle in his best-selling memoir slash pop-sociological inquiry slash auto-ethnography Hillbilly Elegy, which I finally got around to reading this week in an effort to better understand my new milieu and some of my students.
After venting to my partner over an overpriced glass of wine at a bar in the Cleveland burbs, one that was trying way too hard to earn its hipster merit badge, I laid aside the macro-inquiry for the moment and concluded that what went wrong was attending that particular party in the first place.
We are here, however we came to be.
This is about learning how to be here.