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An up-close and intimate look inside the lives, hearts, and minds of America's working-class families.
The Invisible Americans
The scene is a northern California morning in late June. I'm irritated and impatient as I maneuver my car through the San Francisco traffic and ease my way onto the Bay Bridge, where headway often is measured in yards, not miles. Finally off the bridge, I turn onto the freeway and head north, past Berkeley and some of the smaller communities beyond that college town. A few miles farther along, I come to the turnoff that will take me to my destination--Antioch, a small, semirural, working-class city about forty-five miles from San Francisco.
I'm on my way to interview Marianne and Tony Bardolino--part of my new research on working-class families. I don't know much about the Bardolinos, only that she's thirty-two and works nights at the telephone company; that he's thirty-four and has been unemployed for some months; and that they must have been married young, since they have two children, ages twelve and fourteen. But I've already interviewed about sixty families of different ethnic and racial groups in various cities around the country, so I have some idea about what to expect. As I drive along, therefore, my mind is humming--sorting out what I know from what I still need to understand, trying to anticipate what I'll find when I arrive at the Bardolino home.
As I have made my way from place to place and from family to family during these recent months, I keep comparing the lives of the people I meet today with those I interviewed two decades ago. In some ways, twenty years is a long time; in others, it seems too short to have been the incubator for the changes in family andsocial life that have taken place in these years.
When I turn onto the road that traverses the hills to Antioch, the heavily residential areas that line the main highway are quickly left behind, exchanged for rolling hillsides with their scrub oaks clustered in every gully and ravine--trees so gnarled by age, wind, and lack of water that they seem darkly, mysteriously beautiful in their deformity. I'm only minutes away from the noise and crowds of city life, yet there's little to disturb the tranquil scene here--no people in sight, only an occasional car passing in the opposite direction. In this setting the world seems too beautiful, too peaceful to be real, and the buzzing in my head abates as I relax into the quiet around me.
Since it's the dry season, the hillsides have turned an almost indescribably subtle, honey-colored brown, the insignia of summer throughout the state. With every bend in the road, the color changes; sun, clouds, and wind all create different shadings, from golden honey to deep taupe. Each new hue has its own claim to beauty; all take on a soft, velvety cast that makes the hands itch to touch.
"Antioch NEXT RIGHT," the sign says, jarring me back to my mission. I exit the highway and check the directions Tony Bardolino gave me. Looking around for signs that will point the way, I'm struck by the changed scene. On this street, crowded with all the detritus of exurban life, the pastoral beauty of the drive fades quickly.
It seems to me this could be Anytown, U.S.A. The same shabby shops along a main street that probably never saw better days; the same small houses that long ago gave up trying to put on a show. But here, after several years of drought, there are only dry, brown patches where lawns once thrived. Here, too, I see the signs of neglect that go with hard times--a rickety fence; a rutted driveway; a pick-up, once painted a proud, bright red, now dented and bruised, almost colorless; a child's tricycle lying forlornly on its side, its handlebar pitted with rust, a rear wheel askew.
Five miles and a few twists and turns later I pull up in front of the Bardolino house. It's a small house, old, somewhat ram-shackle--a house whose sagging parts announce that it hasn't aged well despite the cosmetic efforts of its owners. The front porch, which shows signs of a recent application of paint, provides an incongruous accent to the peeling exterior elsewhere. A sign, faded by sun, wind, and rain, proclaims that the Bardolino family lives here.
As I look around, I'm reminded about how different hard times look on the East and West Coasts. The first time I saw the poor districts of Los Angeles and San Francisco, I wondered why people thought they were slums. To my eastern eye, they looked like more pleasant places than the densely populated working-class neighborhood in the Bronx where I was raised. And compared to Harlem, Watts, with its single-family houses, looked downright inviting. It took years of living in the West before I could look at poor and working-class neighborhoods, no matter what the color of those who lived there, and not think, No matter how hard it is here, it's nothing compared to surviving in the East. And even now, perhaps because I've spent so much time living and working in New York City in recent years, the contrast strikes me again.
With these thoughts spinning around in my head, I ring the bell and wait. No answer. I try again. Still no response. Damn, did I drive all the way out here only to have them forget? I think irritably.It happens sometimes, one of the aggravations of doing the kind of research where you have to depend on others to be in a certain place at a specified time. I long ago learned to call ahead to confirm the appointment before starting out. But I had set up this interview only three days earlier, and the Bardolinos had been so open to my request that I was certain there'd be no problem.
I decide to look around back. Land used to be cheap out here, so older houses like this sometimes stand on large lots. Maybe they can't hear the front doorbell ring back there, I tell myself reassuringly. As I round the corner, I see them. Tony is driving a fence post into the ground; Marianne is trying valiantly to keep her vegetable garden alive and producing under drought conditions. I call out; they stop their work, wave, and come to greet me.
We introduce ourselves, make some chitchat about the weather, the drive from San Francisco, the drought. Finally, we get around to the subject of my visit. "Who goes first?" I ask.
"I thought we were going to do this thing together," Tony says, looking a little puzzled.
"No," I reply. "I'm sorry if I wasn't clear enough when we spoke, but I like to interview people separately."
They look at each other, waiting for a signal. Finally, Marianne laughs, "I get it; you want to see if we both say the same thing. You want to go first?" she asks her husband.
"No," he answers. "I've got plenty of work out here; you go ahead."
I smile to myself; his answer doesn't surprise me. I've been interviewing all kinds of people for nearly twenty-five years, and it almost always works this way. The woman goes first. Sometimes a man-- especially a working-class man for whom this usually is a wholly alien experience--won't agree to an interview until after I've talked to his wife. Then, generally because she has found the experience interesting, perhaps even useful, she becomes an ally and helps to convince him. But even when, as is the case with the Bardolinos, they both agree in advance, he's likely to hesitate, to have some reservations, to want the reassurance of seeing her go first.
"Okay, let's go on in," says Marianne, her voice cutting through my thoughts. I follow her up the back steps and into a well-worn kitchen, the linoleum so old its pattern is faded beyond recognition, the once-white tiles on the countertops now a cracked and mottled gray.
She notices my glance and says wistfully, "Some day I'm going to have a decent kitchen. That's my dream, to have one of those really nice modern kitchens, you know, the kind that always looks all sparkly clean. I try to keep this place up, but no matter how much I scrub it never looks clean anyway. So it gets kind of discouraging sometimes."
We talk for a moment about the kitchen of her dreams while she pours out two glasses of iced tea. Realizing she hasn't asked if I want a drink, she turns to me questioningly: "You do want some, don't you? It's so hot out there; I just assumed." On hearing my reassurance, she turns and, carrying both glasses, leads the way into the small, sparsely furnished living room. She settles herself on the couch; I pull up a straight-backed chair so that my computer, on which I'll record the interview, can sit comfortably on my lap, and the work begins. Families on the Fault Line. Copyright © by Lillian B. Rubin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.