From Chapter 1, White Niggers Have Feelings Too
Being white trash is akin to cult membership in that you don't realize what's happening until you get away from it. The neighborhood of my youth seemed perfectly normal...until I left it. Just like all other rednecks, I gathered my belongings into a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, tied it to the end of a stick, and set off for the big city. After being called white trash what was it? sixteen or seventeen thousand times, I started to think that the city slickers might be onto something. It was gradually painful, yet eventually glorious, for me to admit they were right: I come from a class of economically disadvantaged white people. But I'm not asking for food stamps. I don't even want forty acres and a mule. A little sympathy for the redneck would be nice, though. Otherwise, my mutant hillbilly brethren and I will have to kill you.
Like Marie and Donny Osmond, I'm a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll. I'm equal parts city slime and country vermin. My mother was urban Philly garbage; my father was rural Vermont scum. Together they fled to a concrete dogpatch five miles outside the City of Brotherly Love to live the halfbaked consumerist dreams of post-World War II suburban trash. I am the direct product of miscegenated, cross-pollinated trash.
In block after block of brick tract housing, a Levittown-style Lego bummer, our neighborhood was a repository of working-class ruffneckism. The cheap houses, featuring basement dens proudly paneled in grade plywood, always smelled like methane and rotted fruit. Toenail clippings and balled-up boogers lurked beneath the sofas. The men were very hairy and dumb, while the women were somewhat hairy and dumb. I remember portly men in grass-stained T-shirts fistfighting on their front lawns. I recall Christmas trees being knocked over as drunken families slugged it out. My eyes get all misty as I think of gum-snapping teenage girls who wrote phone numbers on the kitchen wall and hoped for some speed-dealing biker to give them a gold-plated ring, a one-bedroom apartment, and a litter of babies.
Genetically, my neighborhood was evenly split between wops and micks, with nary another ethnicity apparent for miles. You were either a freckle-faced jig-dancer such as myself or an olive-hued dago. The Irishmen on our block did little to dispel the stereotype that their breed was a besotted lot of pugnosed fuckups. Snarling Popeye characters were everywhere. A shillelagh-wielding passer of cirrhosisravaged leprechauns in brown work pants, shiny black shoes, and white socks. A rarely tilled potato field of unschooled, flinty-eyed, barbershop-smelling, alcoholic human shamrocks. Although my mother's ethnic canvas was also speckled with British and Scottish, and my father was a ragged quilt of Dublin, London, and Quebec, in our neighborhood we were considered Irish. Therefore, we drank and stayed angry.
It was the Italians and their bleedingly gaudy manifestations of papism that gave our neighborhood the tang of city-tenement trash. The Italian families I knew tried to mask their just-off-the-boat, low-dog social status with tinsel mountains of store-bought glitz. Walking into one of their homes was like strolling into the Liberace Museum. Beveled ceiling mirrors. Chintzy statues of naked, laurel-crowned water boys. Clear plastic slipcovers and golden shag carpeting. Sunday-afternoon dinners at friends' houses with thin, sugary spaghetti sauce and a hot, air-conditioner-exhaust cloud of Roman sexual guilt. Rotund, pathetic Pagliaccis. Always a scarf-swaddled, half-deaf grandmother wearing thick stockings that led down to swollen, old-world ankles. Impossible virginity and a thinly disguised fürer in the Pope. They'd revel in the bloodlust of full-color, ultragory antiabortion tracts our church distributed in the vestibule outside Sunday Mass. The Italians seemed otherworldly and much more theatrical than the Irish.
They seemed almost black. And for no other apparent reason than the fact that we reached America's shores first, we considered ourselves eugenically superior to them. The dagos were our niggers.
Trash starts at home, and my aesthetic soup bowl has always been smothered with a fat ketchup splotch of white-trash flavoring. This is thanks mainly to the cultural tutelage of my older brother. Back in the mid-sixties, he trained me to keep my bowels awash in lard-soaked, hot pepper-spiked Philly junk food. I ate smashed-'n'-burnt scrapple and learned to mangle my diction. I gobbled hoagies crammed with deadly lunch meats and strained to fart on cue. My brother took me to the drag races, tripped me to the flesh-melting gore of DC Comics, and made sure I knew all the words to "Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts."
One summer night in 1965, a year or so before the government sent him to Vietnam with a gun, he let me tag along for a triple feature of slasher flicks at the local drive-in. Thirty years later, I still remember those films. The first, Color Me Blood Red, was about a psychotic painter who killed women and used their blood to match his desired crimson tint. The last movie on the bill, Blood Feast, concerned an Egyptian caterer who extracted human body parts from mostly live subjects to prepare a feast for the goddess Ishtar. Strong stuff for a four-year-old's eyes, but really not much worse than what my father was doing to my mother and older siblings at home.
Consanguinely sandwiched between Color Me Blood Red and Blood Feast was the redneck-revenge epic Two Thousand Maniacs! The film is set in the mythical Southern town of Pleasant Valley (pop. 2,000), said to have been decimated by conquering Union soldiers in 1865. A hundred years later, the massacred villagers resurrect themselves and capture six Yankees as sacrificial offerings for their centennial celebration. While the Yankees mutter in their hotel rooms about the mysterious hospitality of Pleasant Valley's "backwoods Daniel Boone" and "overblown Daisy Mae" denizens, a britches-clad hayseed named Rufus rhapsodizes about how "classy" one of the female Northerners had behaved earlier. "By tonight, all that class is gonna be drained out of her, Lester," he drools to his sidekick. Sure enough, the woman's arm is axed clean off of her body that afternoon...and barbecued at a banjo-pluckin' hootenanny later that night. Her boyfriend's limbs are fastened with rope to four horses, who rip his bean-pole frame in four directions. The next day, another Yankee woman is crushed under a massive boulder called "Teeterin' Rock." Her beau is forced into an open barrel spiked on the inside with nails and then rolled down a hill, puncturing him to death. As I stared at the giant, bloody screen and all the hooting redneck caricatures, I said to my brother, "They remind me of the people where Grammy lives."
I was referring to Grammy Goad, our paternal grandmother, who looked and dressed almost identically to Granny Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies. Grammy lived and died in Windsor, Vermont, my direct connection to country trash. The people of Windsor also reminded me of the characters on Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, or any of the other Cracker Comedies from the sixties. But economic pressures simmered behind the laugh track. Since Grandpa Goad, the town drunk, abandoned Grammy with four boys to feed, she made money by cooking for lumberjacks. Thoughts of her peanut-butter fudge, salt pork, jelly biscuits, and "yeller" gravy still make my saw-toothed mouth water. I'll probably never taste cooking like that again, for there will never be white people like that again.
Our family would typically spend a chunk of every summer up in Vermont, either at Grammy's, Aunt Berle's, or Uncle Junie's. Are THOSE names redneck enough for ye? We'd sleep as snug as tater bugs in splintery old shacks with rusted screen doors. Clean, wood-redolent air contrasted nicely with Philly's gag-spew. A rotted covered bridge spanned the Connecticut River, over to New Hampshire's sinsemilla-green hills. While my uncle was off slaving at the local Goodyear factory, we Goad kids would chase stray dogs or hunt tadpoles. Sometimes, Vermont was nearly perfect. Its loggers and earthworm salesmen were the friendliest and most honest people I've ever met. They never learned to be ashamed of what they were.
I wasn't so fortunate. I don't remember being explicitly instructed, but I somehow sensed that I wasn't supposed to be proud of my yokel kin in Vermont. This instinctual shame perhaps first saw blossom when I began attending grade school. The local Cadholic youth indoctrination camp, Holy Cross Elementary School, sat at the crossroads between the blue-collar/redneck Clifton Heights and whitecollar/whitebread Springfield. I was from Clifton Heights. Springfield had a country club with a golf course; Clifton Heights had corner bars with dartboards. The men in Springfield drank cocktails; the men in Clifton drank their lives away. Springfield had college deferments; Clifton had Vietnam casualties. Springfield was happy, orderly, and quiet; Clifton was loud, sloppy, and miserable. The men in Springfield were allowed to fuck up a hundred times; the men in Clifton, only once. When you turned twenty in Springfield, life was only beginning; that's when life ended in Clifton.
The Springfield boys would scoff at Clifton as if it were Harlem, and their class-based condescension initially surprised me. I spent my early youth thinking I lived in the center of the universe, only to realize it was the other side of the tracks. I had grown cozily accustomed to a two-tiered social hierarchy the omnipotent working Irish and the skeevy working Italians only to learn that I was someone else's nigger.
While driving through Springfield in our bottlefly-green Chevy Impala, I remember Mom and Pop pointing at huge, razor-cut lawns and houses that seemed as big as Graceland. They mentioned that these were middle-class houses, and I wondered what class that made us. I wasn't really sure why other neighborhoods were more affluent than ours, only that they had somehow strayed from our flock. When my father did plumbing work for the owner of the bar where he drank, we drove out past Springfield onto a rolling estate. The place even had a private stream artificially stocked with sunfish. While my father scraped shit out of the bar owner's copper pipes, I swam in the backyard pool with the man's son. Up until that time, I didn't know that some people had pools in their backyards. We didn't even have a backyard, we had an alleyway.
While my father acted like Mussolini at home, he was an eager bellhop around his wealthy client. I remember seeing the bar owner pull out a two-inch-thick clump of bills and start peeling off individual notes for dad. My father just stared at the money in the man's hands. So deferential. Accordingly, I behaved with unusual politeness around my swimming playmate and didn't splash him once. I never acted that way around the kids in my neighborhood.
I slowly learned to disown my roots. Media images of white trash began to repel me. Country singer Porter Wagoner seemed to embody everything I was starting to hate about my white-trash posterity. Why, I'd leap through a hoop of flamin' turnips if Porter wasn't the ugliest human I'd ever seen. Standing there alongside impossible-breasted hillbilly belle Dolly Parton on his mid-seventies syndicated TV show, stiff and stiltlike in his rhinestone red peacock suit, wearing a gilded pompadour on a head thinner than a peanut, Porter Wagoner made me feel ashamed.
The last time my parents dragged me up to Vermont, it was the summer of '78, right before my senior year in high school. Since I had fully ingested the faux-nig blues of the Rolling Stones and the muddied politics of an FM-radio generation, my paternal kinfolks' skeetshooting, pond-paddlin' ways embarrassed me more than ever. For my "What I Did on Summer Vacation" speech in English class that fall, I lampooned the "Goad Clan," painting my Vermont relatives as crude hillbilly wolverines. It drew gales of snot-nosed guffaws from the mostly female class members, young poetic girls who all looked like Ben Franklin.
Class consciousness was becoming somewhat of a full-time obsession for me. I entered college a little too late to enjoy being white, and just in time to be blamed for what dead white people I'd never met had done. It didn't matter if my ancestors had installed plumbing in the pyramids I was still the oppressor. I fit in with neither the preppy butterbuds nor the henna-haired spider-rockers, opting instead for the unconscious white-trash gesture of retro rockabilly. And no matter how much deodorant I wore, I still gave off eau de garbage blanc. My girlfriend of the time, whose father snagged a quartermil a year drawing blueprints at home, initially told me she thought I was some poseur from the suburbs. She, with her high-acreage home and summer classes in Paris, was indubitably punker than I. She encouraged me to read Ms. magazine and to acknowledge my role in her systematic oppression. At one point while we were shacked up together, she griped that she was tired of living "hand-to-mouth." I didn't know why she was complaining, for I had always lived that way. Then, when she had flown back to Pittsburgh to get more money from daddy, I drove a cab in the snow to earn my half of the rent.
For it wasn't until I started to WORK for a living that I realized being white trash wasn't something to be ashamed of...it was something to get angry about.
I hated my parents as people, but I've come to appreciate their social predicament and how it may have fed their bitterness. Both Mammy and Pappy used to browbeat me with Great Depression horror stories. My father who loved to read was forced to quit high school in order to help support his brothers and mother, selling chocolate milk to rock-quarry miners. My mother told of ceaseless weeks sipping thin gruel and wondering if she would starve. Both wore tattered clothes because of other folks' untethered speculative greed. These "other folks," as you might surmise, aren't the kind who are likely to be called "white trash." And then, as the Depression was ebbing, these same other folks sent my father into Germany with a rifle, offering his life to protect military-industrial interests beyond his comprehension.
For as long as I'd been alive, the old man worked eighty-hour weeks forty wearing a hard hat under the harsh refinery flames of Gulf Oil, and forty as a plumber, allowing rich white families' shit and rust and termite spray to seep into his blistered redneck hands. To help meet the bills, my mother and sister worked as country-club waitresses, scooping up the half-chewed egg-salad sandwiches of wealthy white women. Although a crabby prick, my father was a reasonably bright man, seemingly suited to something better than plumbing or oil-rig work. Part of it, I can't help feeling, is because no one ever expected him to be anything better. As he realized he'd never get any further than shoveling shit or refining oil, he started acting like trash. He became a slave to booze and racetracks and cigarettes and coffee and stomach remedies and short, intermittent blasts of desperate violence.
The bacon-addled old coot died long before my 1987 Las Vegas marriage inside a Tropicana Mobile Park trailer home. The man who tied the knot was the Reverend Walker Goad, whose name we found in the white pages. Suffering the same lack of ancestral perspective as many American whites, I wasn't even sure of the ethnic origin of "Goad" or when the first Goads came to America. Walker, a big bald linebacker of a reverend, amiably explained that the name was British. He said the first Goads in America were convicts shipped over from England to work their jail sentences as indentured servants on plantations In other words, my ancestors were white slaves. After slavery ended, these were the people who became the hill-scrubbers and corn-crackers, the assembly-line insects and truck drivers, over three hundred years of hopeless shit jobs dripping down on my head.
If Walker's statements were true, that would give me an entirely different heritage from wealthy whites. It would mean that my ancestors were niggers in the U.K., and they haven't stopped being niggers here. Is it fair to say I was born with the same chances as Thomas Jefferson? Or even a wellheeled Taiwanese expatriate or a Kuwaiti immigrant? Trash-bashers haven't seriously pondered such questions, arguing fallaciously that the rednecks had their chance and blew it.
About three A.M. every morning, I rip myself from sleep like a fetus aborting itself. Sometimes I have to smack myself in the face to assure I won't nod off again. Another ephedrine tablet, another mugful of shit-thick coffee. My ass squirts blood from all the speed variants I imbibe to stay awake and work. I'm often such a fatigued dishrag, I'll just stare at my notes for hours. But I can't afford to close my eyelids. I'll try to write until around seven, when me and the missus get ready for work. She's a typist in a steel mill. I do pre-press work in a print shop. In the early evening, I try to squeeze a few more written words out of myself before I drop. And then I instinctually awake myself again at three A.M. I'm pulling two full-time shifts, just like the old man did. If I didn't work a day job, I'd starve. And if I didn't write at night, I'd die.
On my way driving to work, I take a shortcut through a well-tended suburban quadrant that reminds me a lot of Springfield. Heavy fortifications. Tall cubist bushes. Lawn sprinklers chugging in arrogant circles White women in white sweatshirts, white shorts, white anklets, and white tennis shoes waiting at the roadside for a bus to whisk their marshmallowy children away to prep school. At work, I'm doubly reminded of class differences among whites. My boss has hired his wife and daughter to answer phones, eat doughnuts, and file their nails while I toil for eight hours without stopping. As my limbs robotically perform their blue-collar mambo, my mind drifts back to all the jobs where I've taken orders from trust-fund ferrets with half my brains and a hundred times my money. Those bloody stints as busboy and french-fry chef and taxi driver and shoestore clerk. The times when I slept in my leaky car and let my teeth rot because I couldn't afford a dentist. The part-time gig at an alternative weekly newspaper where I listened to the limo-libs constantly dumping on white trash, silently enduring their barbs as if they were telling polack jokes and didn't realize I was Polish. So sometimes on my way to work, I fantasize about those rich white women and their children bleeding all over their white clothes.
Because it was always the people in THEIR neighborhood who were the primary trash-bashers. Because poor blacks remind them of their sins, they refrain from nigger-bashing; because poor whites remind them of their successes, they shit on rednecks and laugh. What should I call the nontrashy Caucasians? White Gold? The Valuable People? The true profiteers of white imperialism? These are the same class of folks who create negative media images of white trash, the writers who use "redneck" as an adjective. They disparage white trash much as one insults an embarrassingly drunken relative. And in so doing, they shunt nonwhite resentment away from themselves and toward white trash. It's some sort of guilt projection, almost like a father who rapes his next-door neighbor and then blames his son for the crime. For it isn't the Ivy League multiculturalists who serve as cannon fodder in our wars, it's the niggers and rednecks. It isn't the condo-owning East Village social theorists who die of black lung, it's the West Virginia miners. The incessant media disgust for white trash may be, consciously or not, a mechanism for richer whites to scapegoat poorer ones. It's an easy, effective, divide-and-conquer stratagem. For most of America's history, they worked at getting the rednecks to blame the niggers. For the past thirty years or so, they've encouraged the niggers to blame the rednecks. This is for certain: If the niggers and rednecks ever joined forces, they'd be unbeatable. But the people in their neighborhood don't want it that way.
Copyright ©1997 by Jim Goad