For the trip down to Gettysburg, we picked a slightly roundabout scenic route. We headed west on Route 2 to the Mohawk Trail and the Berkshires then turned south when we hit Albany, stopping overnight at Port Jervis on the Tri-State border.
From there we meandered south through the Susquehanna Valley communities — Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Harrisburg, York — before rolling west into Gettysburg and Chambersburg (the closest spot to the battlefield with motel vacancies that weekend).
It’s beautiful country, with topography on a far greater scale than the familiar landscape of eastern Massachusetts. The Charles River looks a sluggish brook compared to the mighty and ancient Susquehanna, and the Blue Hills might as well be flatland when stacked up against the Poconos.
The region also the marks the eastern rim of the Rustbelt — the Miss Havishams of the American Century, jilted by the Compeyson otherwise known as global capitalism. Formerly the engines of America’s economic prosperity, they’ve since been put up on blocks and left to rot in its back yard.
It’s not just Pennsylvania. There were plenty of towns in upstate New York and western Massachusetts in similar straits — old milltowns and regional manufacturing hubs long since deprived of their economic backbones, inhabited by folks in decaying rowhouses which haven’t seen a coat of paint since the Nixon administration.
These post-industrial Ankgor Wats and Tikals really bought home the point I made to a evangelically neo-liberal macroeconomics professor during my undergrad days — that that relentless pursuit of cheap goods and cheaper labor came at a massive human cost, and assumptions that a middle-aged worker who’d been doing semi-skilled labor since high school could miraculously transform into a biotech engineer overnight constituted wishful thinking of the most ludicrous kind.
(My dad was laid off from his job at a print shop when he was sixty years old. Unemployment referred him to an underfunded IT training facility where a bunch of grizzled blue-collar folks were supposed to learn the ins and outs of the Web 2.0 world. “Why would anyone hire an old man who took a shitty crash course in the subject when there are fuck knows how many college grads with degrees waiting to be hired?” The guy running the training sessions didn’t have an answer.)
Hazleton, located in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County off of I-81, was the most emblematic of these discarded communities. My brother and father spent the night there while driving a UHaul down to my sibling’s temporary digs in Chapel Hill a few years back, and wanted to see how their grim menories of the place matched up to the present reality.
Besides being a poster child for post-industrial malaise, Hazelton also received some national notoriety after its Republican mayor enacted punitive laws aimed at Latino immigrants and making English the “official” language of the community.
Formerly a mining and manufacturing hub, Hazleton still bears the imperfectly sutured scars left behind from its glory days — partially reclaimed lands abutting stunted patches of scrub growth and the rusted hulks of abandoned machinery. The city center is a depressing patchwork of faded Victorian grandeur and tarnished post-war moderinism, and sports billboards for a local bail bonds service.
Ironically (or perhaps not so ironically) enough, the only signs of vibrancy and renewal were the businesses run by or catering to the immigrant population. (The Chamber of Commerce staunchly opposed the mayor’s actions, for the record.)
The thing I’ll remember most about Hazleton occurred within ten minutes of my arrival and a few hundred yards from the off-ramp. We pulled into a gas and sip to top off the Gustang’s tank. My dad felt a headache coming on, so he went inside to buy something to wash down a couple of tabs of the ibuprofen (the liver-damaging salvation for chronic tooth pain sufferers) I’d brought with me.
As Greg worked the self-service pump and I rooted around in the trunk for the pill bottle, a toothless dude in the opposite berth loudly proclaimed to his waxy-skinned and rather amorphous girlfriend that “this is why those fucking towelheads need to go back to Iraqistan if they can’t fucking understand this fucking shit.”
It wasn’t until we were back in the car that Greg — who was in a better position to eavesdrop — revealed that the rant was the result of the South Asian clerk accidentally giving the gentleman an oatmeal cookie when he asked for a chocolate chip one.
Not every rat chooses to flee a sinking ship, it seems.