Your Future is Behind You

by Maria Stabio

It’s an unseasonably warm Wednesday night in February and I’m buying two pints of ice cream from the mini-mart. The cashier warns me before I pay, “Now, are you sure you want this? Because this is already $7.30”. I ask, “$7.30 each? Or together?” She gives me a look. “Together”.

This is rural Pennsylvania, or Pennsyltucky: "Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in the middle."

I am asked frequently how I came here. 2014 was my release year. While recovering from a breakup, feeling frustrated with my artistic prospects in New York, and letting go of some tepid friendships, I made a decision to push myself towards self-reliance. Invite the isolation! I’ll homestead like Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain!

During the last days of 2015 I closed on an old 1920s four-room schoolhouse in Grier City, now Barnesville, Pennsylvania. The building was severely neglected but had a certain charm. Taking on a huge decrepit building and being an insomniac make for a terrible combination. Often, I’ll awake anxiously with a quickly beating heart, assembling to-do lists in my head and visualizing money just vaporizing.

Of course, there are merits too. Schuylkill County’s beauty is in its trees, mountains, rivers, and farmland. Driving on the backroads through the countryside and passing old homesteads and churches is a most scenic and relaxing experience.

If you’re in a city, it will most likely have an cultural hub and a commercial district. A place for people to gather and enjoy spending time together. Here, that’s often hard to find. The residents of the closest town, Tamaqua, have preserved its local architecture and landmarks in hopes of keeping some foot traffic coming through downtown. it’s not quite bustling, but it’s better than most of the surrounding area.

Take a ride to nearby Lansford in Carbon County. It’s hard not to miss the notices posted on windows announcing unpaid utilities and taxes threatening cancellation of water service and repossession. Often printed on bright fluorescent orange or pink paper, the notices stand in stark contrast to their bleak circumstances. Sometimes if a window or door is broken, a delicate stream of air flows over your face as you peek into the darkness, smelling the moisture and mold. In the winter, the moisture freezes and leaves intricate ice patterns all over the inside of the glass, like a beautiful transparent wallpaper. 

Anthracite coal is the reason this area was populated. It was discovered in the 1790s but didn’t really find its groove until late 1800s, reaching a peak in WWI. It’s a hard substance, with a color and finish similar to graphite. Anthracite is only found in a couple areas in the US, and the Northeast PA region is one of them. Mines still operate, although at a much lower capacity since oil and natural gas are more competitive.

The only memory I have of burning coal is tied to my Grandfather. Every few hours he would go briefly exit into the cold Montana winter and return with a full bucket of large rocks, carefully inserting them into the belly of the stove. Several years later, I now perform this same ritual on my own stove, slogging into my creepy basement and shoving the curved edge of the bucket into the coal pile underneath the steps. Mercifully, the stove can be tended only once a day during typical winter temperatures. The hopper contains a large amount of rice coal which has been processed into pebble sized pieces. It slowly goes down the chute, with a quiet gurgle noise as a motor pushes it into a metal tray within the stove cavity. After a little bit of effort and a lot of lighter fluid, the resulting fire takes the shape of a tidy rectangle, responding to the amount of air being blown from underneath it. The flames are a perfect blue and orange and the coal is red hot, like blacksmith’s metal. It is completely mesmerizing. 

Last summer a handful of people unexpectedly dropped by my house. As I worked outside, cars would slow and roll down their windows. This kind of behavior is unsettling to my city-dweller mindset. I think maybe I’ll be catcalled or insulted? But the tension dissipates when the drivers greet me with gratitude. “Thanks!” one driver says. I ask “for what?”. She replies, “for saving this place. My mom went to school here. No one has ever taken care of it. I’m glad you are.”

A man stops by in late summer. He has the build of a wrestler, stocky and all muscle with a thick neck. I am automatically nervous until he hands me a photograph. Says his family has original photographs of the house and he wanted to give me a copy of one. I see a large group of people standing in front, presumably students and staff and a small group of people in what appear to be military uniforms. The school was still functioning then, painted and proudly maintained with a flagpole in the foreground, the movement of the flag translated into a blur. 

In New York, I regularly work directly across the street from Trump Tower. We’ve witnessed several protests, tourists constantly lining up for selfies, and an ever present secret service and police presence. Approaching the building has become a challenge in itself.

Whatever territory I cross is his. This admission scares me. His protectors line the streets of midtown New York, overtly displaying their rifles. Surveillance towers and road blockades are there to remind us whose land we’re really on. In Pennsylvania, campaign signs still persist on lawns long after the race is over, along with the hilariously unfunny and terrifying “Hillary for Prison 2016”. 

Nostalgia plays a huge role in the mentality of the area’s residents. Go to any local entertainment venue and take a look at the bands coming through town. At least 25-50% of the shows will be cover bands. How often can one see Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin? Apparently indefinitely. 

I am a reluctant audience member at a Pink Floyd cover band concert in Jim Thorpe, PA. The requisite visuals playing during the song “Money” feature the 80’s in their heyday, complete with old pictures of HRC and DT. Someone shouts out in approval when Trump’s picture flashes. How did a British underground rock band become a hometown favorite in Trump country? Heavy with irony, the ability of the capitalism to turn something new and different into familiar and mainstream could not be better demonstrated.

While I have enjoyed the fruits of the women’s movement, proudly living as un unmarried, childless and self-supporting individual for the past decade, most people in rural Pennsylvania have seen their jobs and local economies displaced by Walmart, NAFTA, the rise of natural gas and alternative energy. While I have celebrated the supreme court legalizing gay marriage nationally, rural Pennsylvania has endured a pervasive opiate addiction and overdose epidemic.

If I believed that a brighter future was coming, this area saw that brightness fading. We do live in a divided country. One part envisioned more opportunity, more equality, more prosperity. It hadn’t yet arrived, but we could see the headlights of the approaching train, reflecting off the shiny surface of the tracks. The other part helplessly sees the train leaving, it’s rear red lights becoming smaller as the air settles and the silence takes over.

I’m reminded of the painting below from 2015 that seems more relevant than ever now. If you have nothing to lose, I suppose it’s easy to elect a despot.