Thursday, January 01, 2009

Secret Millionaire

Just got back from a Christmas visit to Pennsylvania, where one of the hot topics was a recent episode of the Fox reality TV series Secret Millionaire which featured the town of Shenandoah, just up the road from us. The concept behind the series is to take a millionaire and place that person in an impoverished environment so he can “see how the other half lives."

I hadn’t seen the episode, and the concept sounded disgusting to me. You can wikipedia Shenandoah to get their demographics
-- unfortunately, they don’t have crime rates listed. You’d see something very odd, actually with that part of Pennsylvania in comparison to urban areas with similar (or higher) per-capita incomes. You’d find the crime rates to be radically lower than what you’d find in urban America. People think the sky is falling when felony crimes occur back there, but in reality, crime is much less of an issue than you’ll find in most places in America.

Shenandoah has always had the image of being a rough town. My father told me the story of his father going to a banquet at the best hotel in Pottsville, the county seat, honoring World War I vets – this must have been in the late 1940s or so. The big controversy was a table full of Shenandoah vets stole all their silverware and had to give it back. Like many people back there, I’ve always referred to the place as Chendo for short, and 462 for the area code. The natives take a perverse pride in the hard image. But in reality, you pass through neighboring towns like Girardville, Mahanoy City, Tamaqua, Ashland and such, and those towns are a little rough around the edges, too. This happened to most small towns in Pennsylvania once shopping malls rolled in throughout the 1970s: the downtown areas fell apart as business centers.

I suspect the producers of the show picked Shenandoah because it made the papers this summer when a bunch of kids beat an illegal Mexican immigrant to death one night, and there was some controversy in the amount of time it took the local police to arrest the kids – which may have been the problem of determining prosecutable charges for X number of kids or may have been incompetence and racism – I don’t know. Whatever the case, they’ll go to trial soon, and the media machine will kick into high gear again over this issue. Shenandoah is less than half an hour south of Hazleton, the town that’s attempted to ban illegal immigrants and received much press and scrutiny as a result. A much better Secret Millionaire episode would have been to drop a hispanic millionaire into Hazleton, publicize that he came from Ecuador and spoke no English, and see how that panned out.

(Sidenote: I've since learned this episode was filmed last spring, i.e., before the murder took place. So I'm even more curious as to why the producers chose Shenandoah.)

But they picked Shenandoah which, in my opinion on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of rank poverty and unlivability, is about a 3, with 10 being unlivable. It gets a lot worse than Shenandoah, or any town in the Coal Region of Pennsylvania. The general reaction in the paper was outrage, particularly regarding how the montages showing the “poverty” of the region focused on the absolute worst the place has to offer: an infamous huge abandoned coal mine, some burned-out houses that haven’t been knocked down (which are eye sores all over the region …) minor displays of graffiti (graffiti in rural Pennsylvania is practically non-existent in comparison the mounds of graffiti I see routinely in the New York area) …

… and a few households that need some work, to say the least. I got news for you – I know people with homes in similar disarray. It’s rarely a money issue – it’s a personal lifestyle choice. One that I don’t make for myself – I like keeping my place in order – but I’ve been in more than a few homes that would give Sanford and Son a run for their money. The apartment this episode’s millionaire moved into in Shenandoah, all I could think was I would kill to have a similar living space in New York. Cruddy wallpaper? Mold? Dirty floors? I got news for you – a weekend of cleaning and house repair eradicates these issues. Bugs are easily taken care of. Anyone with minimal effort could have refurbished that place into a nice little apartment.

What’s more, a few months ago, I was in the apartment of a coworker who makes over a quarter million dollars per year – in a Manhattan luxury building with a doorman. I got news for you: his living space wasn’t much bigger than mine, and mine was cleaner and more homey. Of course, his location in Manhattan leaves him with a monthly nut that’s about 5-6 times the size of mine. But that’s how people are in Manhattan – they live in tiny little boxes of apartments that are a joke most places in America, but have convinced themselves that “everyone wants to live here” when reality is most people don’t. (And I am fearful that this previously working-class neighborhood I’m in now in Queens is going down the same shit road in terms of phony, over-priced exclusivity and “location, location, location” issues, thanks to twentysomething suburban WASPs moving here in droves, and local real-estate scumbags perpetuating this strange sort of acceptable racism related to grossly inflated property values due to the new landed white gentry.)

As for the locals’ sense of outrage, christ, give it a break. That area has suffered from a strange, totally unnecessary inferiority complex for decades now. You can’t say anything critical about the place without locals crawling all over you, as if you don’t recognize heaven when it’s right in front of you. The Coal Region isn’t heaven. I love being from there, love going back there on a regular basis, but the reality is I’d have a hell of a time finding good work back there. Granted, doing so with a job that paid anywhere over the mid-50s would be living like a reasonably wealthy New Yorker, as real estate and taxes are much, much cheaper back there.

But gainful employment, or lack thereof, has always been a major issue with the region, and probably the main reason why I moved out in my 20s. Frankly, I like the lifestyles of most people back there: laid back, no-nonsense, friendly in a good, genuine way. If other people don’t like it, or look down on it … who gives a fuck? Does it matter? Of course, it doesn’t. Take my word for it, these people should be elated that moneyed douchebags are looking down on them. Because, as I’m finding in Queens, if those moneyed douchebags take a sudden shine to your neighborhood, it will be a matter of time before they move in and force you and every other sane person out in favor of their exclusionary lifestyle that requires a much higher income.

But I digress. I just watched that episode of Secret Millionaire on the Fox website (it's Episode 5) and found myself strangely touched by it. Sure, the producers played a bad trump card with the montages of feigned poverty and destitution – the area is nowhere near that bad or hard. But the overall tone of the show was to focus on locals doing good, and they found some genuinely good people who could use a few thousand dollars to move forward with their charitable causes, which was fine by me.

The millionaire was a cheerleader for the Baltimore Ravens who, as my brother sagely surmised, might have sucked the right dick and won the lottery: she married a rich guy. (And I wonder if this guy saw her strutting her wares on the sideline of a Ravens home game and made his move, no doubt making it clear how much money he had straight out of the gate. Aint that America ... Big Pink Houses for you!) The show didn’t touch enough on this, but there was minor friction between her and her mother, who came from a humbler background in western Pennsylvania. (Her mother joined her on this odyssey to live in Shenandoah for a week.) Basically, this woman came from a town that probably wasn’t much different than Shenandoah, especially with its Slavic background, and you could tell by how she dealt with the locals that she felt at-home with them. Her mother could have passed for any random fiftysomething Potato Bomb (Coal Region slang for a woman of Slavic or Irish lineage who puts on double-digit poundage after the birth of her first child and children thereafter) with her short hair cut, mall glasses and sweaters. (I should also point out her mother had that look of rural kindness and understanding I know well from back there.)

The odd part of all this, of course, is the cheerleader could have left her suburban Maryland town and, within 15 minutes, been in living conditions that would have made Shenandoah seem like Shangri-La. Of course, those wouldn’t have been white people, the neighborhood would have had an astronomical crime rate in comparison, and I think if you watch a few episodes of The Wire, you’ll get the drift of the kind of neighborhoods that exist a stone’s throw from her wealthy suburb. I think that’s also why the locals back in PA resent the show – this woman could have encountered much worse poverty and hard times a few miles from her home as opposed to hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania.

What made the show worthwhile was a few of the locals this woman decided to help with big checks. In particular was the woman in Frackville operating what looks like a dog grooming place, who took it upon herself to buy groceries routinely for people having a hard time financially. I don’t know her personally, but her grooming shop is one door down from a nice Italian place, the OIP (Original Italian Pizza), where I’ll often have dinner with two old high-school friends when I go back. What this show doesn’t touch on is that I gather the owner of the OIP is probably making a fortune, as are a lot of business owners back there. The friends I have dinner with? One is making six figures as a plant manager in Harrisburg (he drives an hour south every morning on Route 81), the other making a good salary as a draftsman and a three-figure-per-hour figure in her spare time as a caricature artist. One of my brothers is making a great salary at a hardware warehouse after being there for about 10 years. Two guys in my small hometown are lawyers making six figures. More than few of my high-school classmates I met at the last reunion are well into six-figure territory with their jobs. Shenandoah? My friend who lives there, the plant manager, has a kid going to near-by Bloomsburg University … for almost no charge if he maintains a 3.0 GPA. The town has an endowment set up so that any kid who wants to can get a practically free college education if he really wants it.

In the Frackville portion of the show, the kind-hearted woman who buys groceries drops them off at what might be the only “bad” block in all of Frackville. (A friend of a friend just moved there and has been outraged at the town’s comparatively enormous tax base to other towns in the region.) I know that stretch of houses, right next to Boyer’s supermarket. One of my high-school English teachers, and his wife who taught in another school district, live just down the block, literally 20 yards away, in what looks more like an average suburban neighborhood. He was making around $70,000/year before he retired (remember, with summers off), as was his wife, and living in a house that probably had a property value of about $80,000, which they had paid off years ago on a mortgage that was half that current value.

This is poverty? Christ’s sake, if only that were true, and this was as bad as it gets in America! The cheerleader got a job in a supermarket in Mahanoy City – this used to be a stop on the line on my bus’ local route, but has since been bypassed it because it's on a hard-to-navigate side street. It’s a nice little market – clean, probably selling the same products this woman uses in her Maryland mansion. She could just as easily have gotten a McJob at the Walmart in St. Clair or Shamokin, or even better, Redner’s employee-owned supermarket on the edge of Shenandoah which, I guarantee you, is virtually identical to any supermarket she uses in her high-end suburban paradise. It was a bit disingenuous of the producers not to acknowledge or film things like this in an effort to make the area seem as down-trodden as possible. The truth is if you have a nice house and a good job in that part of Pennsylvania, you can have a lifestyle that will be virtually identical, even in terms of consumerism and all its products, to this woman’s life in Maryland.

What should they have done differently? For one thing, there are small coal patch towns around Shenandoah that appear much more ragged. I’m thinking Shaft, William Penn, Lost Creek, etc. You’ll find normal houses there, and series of crooked row houses, houses that literally lean like the Tower of Pisa and have coal banks in the backyard. What’s even more bizarre: these houses probably have a property value of less than $20,000. In front of some of these houses, you’ll see new SUVs of the type the cheerleader and her millionaire husband probably own. The car costs more than the house. And some of the shanty houses will have a satellite DISHes attached to them and 42-inch widescreen TVs in the living room.

This is how America rolls these days: even poor people can pretend they’re wealthy with these sort of bizarre product placements, most likely purchased unwisely on credit. Or, maybe some of the guys in those houses are pulling in $60K a year at some higher-end manual labor job they’ve stuck with for decades, and they just don’t feel like moving, or upgrading their homes in any recognizable way.

It’s always a different story – sometimes sad, sometimes just as I’ve described. All I know is Shenandoah – or any town in the Coal Region – isn’t that bad a place to live. You can see this in the show when the cheerleader and her mother drive around. The streets are clean. You look out their car window as they move, and you see well-kept lawns and homes. I recall things being much more basic and gritty from my childhood there in the 1960s and 70s. Now? I go back there and sometimes feel like I’m visiting a suburb, missing that deeply rural vibe that was so strong in my childhood. Of course, that’s still there, too. I’ve just traveled more since then and can see the vestiges of suburbanism creeping up ever so slowly on the place. And I’d rather not see it at all, as I know what it implies (a lifestyle requiring greed, which is the antithesis of my life these days, ergo why I often feel alien in urban environments, where money just walks around, as the saying goes).

Part of my routine when I visit back there is to drive my mom around on Saturdays to do her afternoon errands: bank, dollar store, drug store, gas station, and always end with pizza at the Pizza Place in Frackville. Almost every time, she’ll drag along a garbage bag filled with empty soda cans. Why? Because there’s a woman who lives at the top of town in Ashland who works for a local animal shelter, one that depends on donations to survive and also has an ongoing aluminum drive wherein they encourage people to give them their cans so they can trade them in for money. So Mom collects all the family’s empty soda cans and delivers them every Saturday. Doesn’t sound like much? It probably keeps at least a few stray dogs and cats in their pens alive in terms of food and services provided for directly by this. I'm just glad the producers of the show didn't see her in her windbreaker and funny hat, dragging those cans out to the car, otherwise they might have portrayed her as a bag lady. When reality is she's living comfortably off Dad's pension and her Social Security, in a clean, good-sized house with a nice backyard. The producers of the show did a great job of masking that far greater reality of the Coal Region.

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