Readers familiar with my blog Pentimento will know that two autumns ago, my family moved from New York City to a small city in northern Appalachia for my husband’s work. It was hard to leave our longtime home, as these things always are, but the move and its effects were baffling, even shocking, to us in ways we hadn’t anticipated.
Except for a few nice neighborhoods, the city we now live in, being the county seat, has a reputation for urban decay and for being a beacon for the rural poor. I have to confess that I was unprepared for the ravages of rural poverty; the beautiful countryside surrounding my town is scarred with them, as are the people I see wandering around downtown. There is poverty in New York City too, obviously, but New York is a place with infinitely more opportunity and energy than the place where I now live. I had to get used to the sight of beautiful young girls with no teeth from meth abuse, and haggard young mothers in the local park meeting their many children for social-worker-supervised visits.
When we first moved here, we were urged to move to the suburb where the professional class lives. I demurred, because there were no sidewalks, and not only do I prize walking among most other activities, but I also don’t know how to drive (I’m learning, sort of). The city we now live in was suburb enough for me, and it has sidewalks; but often I feel as if I am the only person walking them who is not forced to do so by virtue of poverty — as I’ve learned, in the rest of America outside of my erstwhile home, not being able to afford even a beater car is a sign of real poverty, and this kind of poverty enforces real isolation upon its members.
My preschool-aged son has a neurological disability, and this, too, has cast me in among the poor of my community, to whom I must seem as strange as they are to me. The proportion of children with disabilities, for a variety of reasons, is exponentially higher among the poor than among other social classes here and, I suspect, elsewhere as well. He is in a special integrated pre-K run by a wonderful agency that serves the needs of these children, which happens to be in the local barren post-industrial ghetto. He received occupational therapy there over the summer, and one of the scariest experiences of my life was taking the bus as close to the place as I could, and then realizing I would have to walk with him through a half-mile of vacant factories and warehouses, over an abandoned rail line, where there were no other people around, and where it would have been worse if there had been. And I’m from the Bronx.
Our first Christmas here, my husband and I looked at each other in dismay when we realized that no one would be out walking around on the street past our house, no one walking down to the non-existent pub, no one walking from house to house to call on friends and family, who would set out the Barry’s tea and Jacob’s biscuits that were the entertaining staples of our old neighborhood, at least during the day, before it was a decent hour to serve the Powers Irish whiskey. Of course, we knew it was not going to be like New York here. But it really sank in on that day, or, possibly, on the day of the first snowfall, when my husband drove to the nearest pub. Like Pavlov’s dogs, when the first snow fell, we remembered how nice it was to go down to the corner pub that had a gas fireplace and hearth (the one where we had our wedding reception), and to sit in the window with a pint and watch the snow fall. Everyone would soon be in — the carpenters, electricians, and sandhogs, the young mothers with little children — and the atmosphere would be festive. Here, though, as my husband soon found out, since one has to drive to go to a pub, the only people driving there through the snow are the loneliest alcoholics.
There are good things about my community too, of course. Nevertheless, I miss New York. I miss it for all of the obvious reasons, but also because it was a place where I had freedom, direction, agency, and independence. Here, though I am not poor, I have learned, simply because of not driving, something of the dependency and isolation of the poor, and it’s a difficult cross for someone like myself, used to — for want of a better word — power.