A SURE THING
I’ve begun to slide my coat off, and my hands are still caught in the sleeves of my jacket when a sallow face appears, looming just above and to my right.
My inquisitor’s name is Mikey, and he is a former partisan of many causes, current proponent of none. The swastika is old, he explains. Somewhere on his trunk he has a hammer and sickle tattoo, also out of date. He takes me for a fellow traveler. “I like that,” he slurs, jabbing his finger into my shoulder where the phrase, “We Fought So Long Against Small Things That We Became Small Ourselves” is tattooed.
After a round of introductions, Mikey welcomes us to Albany, and Iffy’s, with one caveat. He turns to my friend, Makis, and says, “You need a new name, too close to Mikey. I’m the only Mikey here.” The three of us drink together a moment in silence. Mikey sneaks a closer look at us over the top of his pint glass—dirty jeans, undershirts, boots and tattoos—and nods. He puts an arm around my shoulder and says, “You shoulda come through here a few years ago. This place used to be better. Every night we used to throw people through windows, through doors.” Anticipating our concern he assures us, “We’re trying to get it back.”
It’s May 2009, and the world economy is dying a slow, tubercular death. There are no jobs, people are losing their homes at a pace and with an efficiency Walmart must envy, no one has any savings, and the country just learned that credit card companies weren’t giving away all that stuff. Unemployment is almost 9%. Soon it will be 10%. Then, higher.
For reasons that have proven difficult to explain to our loved ones, Makis and I have decided to take a road trip into the Rust Belt, visiting areas devastated by the economic crisis, and some that haven’t recovered from crises past. We’re driving west in a cheap rental car; despondency and wonder share our backseat with two bottles of rum and one of vodka. With any luck we’ll see rural New York, parts of Pennsylvania, and most of northeastern Ohio before we run out of money and time and have to turn around.
Our trip is equal parts investigation, denial, and affirmation. We want to document what the country looks like as it wakes from the American Dream. But like the country, our futures are tenuous and we want to hit the pause button for a few days. When our trip ends, Makis will return to Boston where he’s praying he still has a job waiting. He expects to be a public defender, but the funding for his position is in question. And I’m heading to New York City, to continue pursuing the improbable career of a freelance writer in a country that is doing to journalism what Salk did to polio. On the road, we are seeking what all angry, worried, misanthropes seek—the affirmation of our world view. We’ll be in the Rust Belt by tomorrow night, but for now Iffy’s—sick, lonely, belligerent and faithless—feels very much like home. Here, we think, are people who understand everything is going to hell.
When we emerge from the bar the afternoon is fading. The sky is a weak red, like blood thinned with water, and we decide to wander until our heads clear. In a few blocks we find New York State’s capitol building, a grotesque, overbuilt behemoth that looks like the final refuge of a feudal lord. We climb the building’s wide staircase, and then shamble back down. On the last step we rest, and take a slug of rum from my flask. There are three boarded and derelict brick buildings across the street, the neo-Romanesque capitol—built with stone cut by prisoners at Sing Sing—is behind us. I indulge in a moment of glib satisfaction, and imagine the scene has metaphoric import: the truth is ahead of us, we’ve turned our backs to artifice.
We drive late, rolling through upstate New York in our loud, smoke-filled rental—a late-model four-door Hyundai—with no destination for the evening. We don't say much to each other. We don't have to. Our friendship is like a long, well-negotiated marriage where speaking runs the risk of ruining the communication. We sing along with the stereo, and stare out the windows. The world recedes into the inky sky, sometimes returning in a flash: the lighted window of a single house, the gaudy neon of a truck stop. It never gets this dark in the city.
“What have you been telling people?” I ask, breaking the silence.
We have not discussed what we expect to find on this trip, but I imagine we have similar visions. Mine is an amalgam of New York City in the late 1970s and Dante’s third circle of hell: bedraggled street gangs caroming though gutted neighborhoods covered in black snow, wailing for blood while being pelting with hail. I imagine the Rust Belt as an angry, raked over place where no one has anything left to lose, and acts accordingly.
The car is silent, we drink, and wonder who will say it first.
Youngstown, Ohio is a touchstone for us. If you've got real questions about how things are run in this country you can't do much better for evidence. No city has been scarred more indelibly by our boom and bust economy. In the 1930s it was “Steeltown, USA,” forty-fifth largest city in the country, largest steel producer after Pittsburgh, frequent stop for top big band jazz acts. But by the 1990s, steel was rust, Youngstown was “The Struggle City,” car bombings had become known as “Youngstown tune-ups,” and Bruce Springsteen, adopting the persona of a laid-off foundry worker, was accusing the country: “You tell me the world's changed/ Once I made you rich enough/ Rich enough to forget my name.”
And now Youngstown is an enigma. Its decline has not been bemoaned the way Detroit's has, and it hasn't been well documented. We have no real idea of what we'll find. Before leaving Boston we looked at Census data: it is now the 434th largest city in the country. We know how many people live there, what they earn, how many have left; but who lives there, and what they do are mysteries.
What do 70,000 people do in a city built for 170,000?
Our vision blurry from the long hours and the alcohol, we pull off on an anonymous exit that dumps us onto a thin road that leads to Dilaj’s Motor Inn. We park in a gravel lot, enter through the door of a bar that takes up the building's ground floor—the only one where any light is visible—and stop just inside the entrance, waiting for our eyes to adjust.
The bar is covered with wallpaper that depicts hunters aiming long-barreled shotguns at ducks flapping above their heads. About two dozen people sit in clusters, scattered about a cavernous room. Every head is turned toward a large projection screen hung from the back wall. On the screen, a singer named Daniel O’Donnell skitters about on a concert stage surrounded by sock hop girls. Smiling like a lunatic, he sings “Love Me Tender” through teeth so straight they must be dentures. Transfixed by the screen, no one notices us gaping. We walk around the side of the horseshoe bar and tap the bartender’s shoulder.
“We need a room,” Makis says. The owner, a wombat of a man sitting two seats away, hears and waves us over. His shirt is hanging open, and a bushel of chest hair is climbing his neck, fighting for air. “Fifty for the night,” he says, pockets the cash I hand him without taking his eyes from the screen, and hands me a key.
Our room is above the bar. The long hall leading to its plywood door smells like wet dog, and the air is heavy and stale. From the room’s window, which looks out onto the parking lot, we can see a twelve-foot-tall flood-lit plywood beach chair. In the morning, we will watch as several cars pull into the lot and empty so that families can pose together seated on the edge of that rotting precipice.
Back in the bar, we drink hard liquor for $2.75 a shot. To our left a middle-aged biker with a handlebar mustache and a voice like a sputtering engine leans heavily on a brunette who looks about three drinks shy of being in his league. At the table nearest us, a retirement-age couple wearing matching plaid shirts stare at the projection screen. The owner, all wide grin and friendly hugs, is working the room and finds us among the crowd.
“Elvis didn’t show, is why we have the TV on,” he says in greeting.
“What happened?” Makis asks, leaning in conspiratorially.
The scene is too much for Makis, who heads outside to smoke. A minute later the owner follows and corners him under a sodium lamp where they talk, Makis with his hands and the owner with his belly. I’m content to stay inside and keep quiet, drinking.
I think about how we’re on this trip searching for a more “real” experience of the recession—the only thing our Boston friends talk about are declining fortunes, but on some level it’s all just chatter. Most of the worries that reach my ears don’t lilt with the blind, existential terror of losing everything. That city might be in decline, but no one believes it’s going all the way down. The most desperate person in Boston has nothing to say to someone stuck in Albany or Youngstown, we reasoned; the only way to really understand what’s happening to the country was to leave the coast. Mikey and Iffy's were validating, but here at Dilaj's there's no way to ignore the fact that mine is the only dour face. Squinting to see through the dim light, sitting alone in a bar where no one knows me, scribbling in a leather bound notepad, my shirt unbuttoned and my brow furrowed, I must look like a man whose name will soon follow the phrase before he turned the gun on himself.
Makis and the owner return fast friends. They reenter the bar just as the biker succeeds in persuading the brunette to join him in a room upstairs and the bartender drapes a musky sheet over the liquor bottles. When they reach me, the owner says “I’ll put a movie on channel 11.” Leaning in close, he whispers “And there’s porno on Channel 7. I mean, if your beds are far enough apart,” he nudges Makis, and smiles like a Cheshire cat.
In our room we click on the television. On Channel 7, an Eastern European with a mullet is fisting an 18-year-old in the cement backyard of a ranch-style home while she howls with a mix of camp, boredom, and fatigue. We blink to make sure we’re seeing what we’re seeing and, having no idea what to make of it, we laugh hysterically and pass out fully clothed.
The next morning, heads thudding, we drive through the remainder of New York and enter Pennsylvania, back roads most of the way. Traveling along the clotted remains of what were once commercial arteries, we pass the Steppin’ Out Lounge, an unadorned cinder block building with a sign on its door that reads “No Weapons Allowed Inside;” a church with half a roof, re-purposed as an antiques shop; rusted cars propped up on cinder blocks; rotting barns. Fake chrome testicles hang off the trailer hitches of US-made trucks. Three times, we see grown men peddling children’s bike frantically, their feet whipping around like fan blades.
It’s drizzling when we enter Erie from under a railroad bridge. Ahead of us, empty office towers, buttressed by crumbling brick buildings, greet us like the city’s “Welcome To” sign. On the side of a YMCA, the legend “A Proud History and a Promising Future,” is painted in 30-foot-high letters.
Weather-beaten and half-asleep, Erie is one of the most damaged cities I have ever laid eyes on. Walking through downtown at 4pm we see no one. Every third building is abandoned. A stiff, biting wind comes off the eponymous lake just north of the city and tears around, searching for someone to drive indoors, and finds only us. A light rain bathes the For Sale signs and boarded doorways that pock the center of the city. This is the point where we first feel the quiet, dysthymic throb of a promiseless future settling in. We walk with our hands in our pockets, sad and deferential. It takes a while, but we find lunch and a couple of pints. Then we drive away slowly, snapping pictures. They are images of nothing: an abandoned store front, empty, weed strangled lots. A door hanging off its hinges, a porch rotting off the front of a house. Another empty store, another. Finally, a store open for business. It sells liquor.
We head West on cracked two-lanes that take us through small towns whose Main Streets are lined with boarded buildings that flank us like color guards. The quiet engine of America's cultural machine in decades past, when clapboard two-stories were bought with GI Bill benefits, these hamlets have been hemorrhaging relevance for 40 years. If you grew up in one of these towns you wanted something else. You fled to a city, any city, and you shed the place you came from like you were sloughing an old skin. You left behind the bars and VFWs, the tanning salons, white-washed churches and empty sidewalks. When someone asks, you don't bother with the name of the place that raised you. “I'm from Pennsylvania,” you mutter and change the subject. Self-satisfied, stifling and oppressive when my parents were growing up, there's no way not to pity these places now. What's left of them, that is.
There is scattered rain, and the low hills that roll across the flat lands are hugged by steam like a stew pot. The scene is sublime, but inside the car we're in our own world. We drink, and curse numbly. The comfortable quiet we enjoyed at the beginning of the trip has an edge now. We're living our idea of the historic moment, punishing our bodies theatrically, acting out our prediction for the future. It's only been two days of yellow-lined miles, cheap liquor, and empty towns, but they've already taken a toll. We are beginning to feel it. Bile burns the backs of our throats. My chest is tight and ideas come slowly, like I'm reasoning with a brain deprived of oxygen. There is less chatter by the mile.
We pass two grown men on a trampoline, boxing each other with oversized gloves as they bob up and down and totter like children learning to walk. A small airfield with a hand written 'For Sale' sign by its entrance. A level and barren dirt lot with a sign in front that reads: “66 new homes: Opening Spring 2008.” There is nothing behind the sign but pink flags, marking the limits of foundations that were never poured. Ramshackle downtowns, identical homes, American cars, tanning salons, hobby shops and VFWs, all peacefully quiet, vacant but not ruined, unobtrusive, intentionally homogeneous.
Youngstown is different, the emptiness here is malevolent.
We pass the crozzled hulks of steel foundries, left to rust and decay. The streets on the edge of town are flanked by burned or rotted homes. Only their frames remain, sun-bleached skeletons. Debris scattered along the side of the road threatens our tires and we swerve to avoid it as if we’re on an obstacle course.
There are no hotels downtown, so we stop on the city’s outskirts. We are the only “guests” in this Travelodge, and most of the building’s 100 or so rooms are empty and gutted. Mold hangs in the air. Plywood barriers block off entire wings of the hotel complex. We climb over them, and press our faces to sliding doors like peeping toms. On the other side of the glass, rooms have been stripped to their cement walls, cracked furniture and frayed copper wiring are strewn about. We spend half an hour exploring the discomfiting ruins of the hotel, shaking our heads.
Across the dandelion-speckled lawn is a Holiday Inn whose sign has been removed. There’s a “For Sale” sign taking up the third and fourth floor windows, pleading to drivers on the freeway just to the North. Everything for three days has been For Sale, everything. We set chairs in our room facing the open door. The highway is obscured, nothing moves, and it does not seem fantastic to imagine ourselves the last people in this dead place, in the country.
A stiff drink to get us moving and we drive into Youngstown. We wander through the city on foot for hours without seeing a dozen people. There are only three open businesses: a Bail Bonds, a bar, and a Taco Bell. Outside the jail (the most modern looking building downtown) five people mill about, waiting. They are the only group we find anywhere. Our steps echo off the walls of buildings on either side of the street. Empty office towers prick the sky, parking garages sit empty and boarded over. We pass an abandoned rooming house covered by graffiti, with dozens of parking spaces painted onto the lot in front.
Decades ago, Youngstown bet its future on a 'sure thing' and watched it collapse coming around the last corner because its trainer juiced it too much. As we criss-cross the city, loping down the middle of the street because there is no traffic to obstruct, I wonder whether the whole country is on the line for the same kind of sucker bet.
Every few minutes a squad car rolls by, a lazy predator eying sluggish prey. And we keep walking, muttering to each other stupidly.
“You see that?”
Just north of downtown we find a large park ringed by empty or emptying houses. Its cement paths are cracked; the lawn is reclaiming them. Ankle-high grass is choked with weeds. There is no one else in this expanse and for the first time we are uneasy being alone in a strange place. Our eyes dart back and forth like hunted animals, and we trade stories about street fights long since won, lost, or averted, in loud voices. Braggadocio. Our way of reassuring ourselves that we can handle what comes. Cold comfort in a hollow place where no one would miss us.
Back downtown, we round a corner and see three cars scatter like roaches when the lights go on. Their drivers look over their shoulders as they tear away. Twenty feet up the block we pass a sturdy man in motorcycle leathers packing his panniers hastily. We read his hungry eyes like a Caution sign, and know enough to hang our heads after a courteous nod. This drug deal is the only significant economic transaction we see all day.
The rest of the day is more of the same. We wander. We find a bowling alley and make fools of ourselves. And when it’s time to eat we have to drive out past the city limit to find an open restaurant. By the end of our meal, night had fallen. When we ask, our waiter tells us to head back downtown for drink and company.
We drive past Cedar’s Lounge twice before spotting it. There are too many dark store fronts in this town to tell them apart. The street lights in the alley have burned out or been smashed, the door handle is cold when I grab it. It’s 10 PM and the place is empty. At the back of the room there is a stage; there’s another room off to one side, and a patio in back. The bar top is 30 feet long. A thousand people would fit in here, but at the moment it’s just us. The room is decorated with plaster molds of mythological creatures. The wood frame of the mirrored bar has been covered by thousands of bottle caps, arranged in a sclerotic mosaic. We are sitting quietly, trying to discern the pattern, when a bartender emerges from a back room, notices us with a start, and pours the first drinks of the night.
Our host’s name is Billy. He has a soft face and a gentle, muted smile. He makes small talk like a guy who needs the tips, but he’s good enough to make it seem genuine. Standing beneath a Medusa’s head, Billy tells us that he has lived in Youngstown his entire life, and has no plans to leave. He credits Cedar’s with transforming him from a jock into a well-rounded, arts-loving, underground music fan.
Makis and I talk about our day, and Billy shakes his head at our account. What happened to Youngstown is sad, he says, but there is no hint of pain in his voice. It’s just the three of us till midnight, and Billy pours freely from a tap labeled Rust Belt Red. The beer is brewed just a few blocks away, and it tastes like dirt.
“What’s there to do around here?” I ask.
A half dozen regulars trickle in after midnight and find the seats that belong to them. For a long minute we drink in silence. The Clash is playing—Death or glory, becomes just another story—andwhen the song ends I clear my throat.
“We’re only in town for the day,” I tell the room. “How should we remember Youngstown?”
I think this is ridiculous. I stew on it. Thirty-two percent of the people in this city are living below the poverty line, the per capita income is only $14,000, the murder rate is more than five times the national average—and the patrons of Cedar’s Lounge are trying to sell us on the city’s art scene. The conversation goes on without me while I talk to my beer, glance at the Red Sox game on the bar TV, and eavesdrop. These people really know each other. The chatter that reaches my ears is about spouses, work, children. The ponytail has money tonight, and he’s buying for anyone that can’t afford a taste. A couple at the end of the bar are not even drinking, they’re just here to see friends.
After Dilaj’s, we diagnosed the country with false consciousness. We imagined the people we met were unable to contemplate their circumstances, unwilling to accept the country’s fate, too scared to sight in on the truth and ride it down roughshod the way we were. We have been acting like human rights observers touring a prison, armed with big ideas. We ask the inmates what they think of their cells, the food, the guards. When they tell us everything is fine we roll our eyes, and never consider that complaining won’t take a single filthy hour off their sentences.
But the crowd in Cedar’s is softening my view. These people, settled in a clutch in the corner of a nearly empty bar, in the forsaken downtown of a once regal city, are among the most affable I’ve ever come across. There is no honest way to feel imperious toward them. This is not false consciousness, it’s satisfaction; not at all what we expected to find. And now I am the soggy drunk that haunts every bar in every city in the world—weepy, over-earnest, swollen with the need to confess—I drop my glass to the bar top and profess my love. “If I lived in Youngstown, I’d drink at Cedar’s Lounge and tell strangers about our art scene too,” I tell whoever’s listening.
Outside, the city is still forsaken. Makis and I wander through downtown at 2 AM with our necks bent back to see the brightly lit top floors of empty office buildings. The lower floors are dark, there are few street lights, but the sky is lit marvelously. From a distance, Youngstown is a gorgeous mirage. But here on the ground it's a Potemkin Village—an abandoned movie set whose electricity was never cut off—I can't settle on the right metaphor.
We find the city's police station, piss into the street facing the front door, and then scamper away like giggly truants. We follow the yellow line at the center of the road and round the corner at a half-run. Ahead of us, a group of homeless people are huddled in a bus shelter, piling together for warmth and companionship. One of them is trying to find a station on his battery-operated radio. The hiss coming from the small speaker spreads like a puddle and trails out into the night. The shelter is in a large plaza created where four wide avenues join. Above it, a twenty-story building stands empty, its windows dusty like a can left on the shelf too long. The doors of the ground level are chained to prevent trespassing.
Colin Asher is a writer/freelance journalist. His work has appeared in nearly twenty publications, including: The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The American Prospect, and The Progressive. He can be reached at Colin.Asher@Gmail.com.