Counter-culture Journals (文革)

Counter-culture Journals (文革)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Journals of a Lumpen-Proletariat—Life among the trailer parks

“Now reigns pride in price [wealth]
And covetousness is deemed wise
And lechery without shame
And gluttony without blame.
Envy rules with treason,
And sloth is in great season [is popular]
God help us, for now is the time.”—John Ball
(1338-1381)[1]

Most of us have heard the expression “trailer trash.” Anyone who has watched the Jerry Springer Show has heard that label almost every time they watch the show. But that brings to mind an interesting question. Why would poor people from the “trailer trash” class come on a show where they know they will be surprised by a wife/girl friend/ best friend or a family member who is stabbing them in the back? Outside of any money to be made—why would anyone go on a show were they know they will be ridiculed by millions of people watching television and waiting for someone to make a fool of him or herself?[2]
The theme of this lumpen-proletariat journal entry is: ‘Life among the trailer parks.’ The first thing to point out is that the stereo type promoted by Springer and others is obviously false. There are some trashy people living in trailers—prostitutes, drug users and dealers and welfare queens—but there are also regular working class people who work a 40 hour week and live relatively normal lives.
Trailers are cheaper than other buildings that people commonly rent or buy, so a lot of poor people do live in them. Some trailers are quite large and those who live in them are not that poor. I once had a friend who worked as a full-time cook, making good money, and he lived in a large well furnished trailer. He did not fit the stereo type of a poor “white trash” trailer park person. He was a regular skilled proletariat.
I have lived in trailer parks twice in my lifetime. In the mid 1980s, I had just earned a BA in Journalism and I moved to Osceola, MO, in order to begin working at my first newspaper job for the St. Clair County Courier. I found a trailer to rent for a reasonable amount of money. I moved in and shortly after that, my wife moved in with me—about six months later. I was working full time, earning a professional salary. I was a law abiding citizen, even though I drank a lot, at that time. But drinking is legal. At that time I did not consider myself a lumpen-proletariat. By that time I had risen up to become a regular proletariat.
I was a lumpen-proletariat the first time I lived in a trailer park in Lawrence, KS, during the 1970s, when I was still married to my first wife, I will call Diane (not her real name). It was September and Diane thought she had a new apartment lined up for us to move in. I was working at a minimum-wage, part-time job washing dishes at a restaurant in the Kansas Union, a building at Kansas University, and Diane was still getting some unemployment. She found an apartment she wanted to move into, but the land lord, a middle aged woman, kept stringing her along, telling her “I might be able to rent this to you, but I haven’t decided yet.”
“It’s humiliating,” Diane said. “She obviously looks down on us and wants to find someone she thinks is better than us. She is looking for a better renter, possibly someone who makes more money. I take offense to the fact that she is stringing us along and will only rent to us if she can’t find the renter she wants. This is an insult to us. I’m tired of her stringing us along as chumps.”
I agreed with her. The woman was being an elitist snob. So we didn’t take the apartment and we stopped asking her about it.
We spent day after day racing to the newspaper office and then running to see the rooms, apartments and homes the towns people had for rent. At the same time we were trying to beat the other students, in town, trying to compete with us for the same spaces to rent. We finally got an offer to rent a very small trailer.
Once we signed the papers and money changed hands we were living in a trailer park court. It was a long driveway shaped like an oxbow lake. There were probably 30 trailers in all. Ours was one of the smallest.  It was a small metallic trailer and very cramped. It had air conditioning and yet on a hot August day, it just didn’t get very cool. There were no trees in the park—nothing to break the sunshine and the heat it caused in the little metal capsule.
When we first moved in it was a rainy and cloudy day. It was a cool day, so it was a few days later when we had a good dose of what the rest of the summer would be like. Even if we had known, it would not have mattered. We couldn’t afford to wait around anymore. We needed a place to live. So we would have moved in regardless of how hot it was inside.
It was also cramped. We barely had room to invite people over and since I was in my mid 20s and we had just moved to Lawrence a few years before, having guest over was important to us.
In just a few days we met our closest neighbors. They were Rob and Molly with their 9 year old daughter Amy. They were Native American Indians. They were at least 99 percent assimilated to life in the trailer park and the ways us white folks live. There was nothing wrong with that. They never discussed what tribes they were from or anything to do with their Indian heritage. One thing we all had in common was our fondness for drinking alcohol (except the 9 year old).
 I remember one afternoon, I thought back to a documentary by some Disney outfit were a young boy went to visit some Indians on a reservation and he got to observe their many traditions. I thought about what it would look like if I made a documentary about Indians I knew living as every other American—what they ate for food, what they did for a living, their living quarters—all the same as any other American people only they are assimilated Indians. It seemed kind of funny—not hilariously—but good for a chuckle just the same.
“I should be able to get unemployment in a week or two,” Rob said. “I don’t see any point in looking for a job when I can just collect unemployment for a few months.”
As with any proud lumpen-Proletariat Rob was willing to take free money from the government for as long as he could and felt no obligation to get a job and contribute to society. That was especially true for those of us who were under 30. When we are younger, six months sounds like a real long time. As we get older, it seems as if that time seems to get shorter and shorter. By the time we are in our 40s, six months seem very short and being laid off creates a sense of panic in us. We worry that we will not get a job before the six months ends. It is a purely practical reason for us to look for a job.
However, avoiding work is more than simple laziness. Rob probably learned as I did that we rarely get a decent vacation unless we keep the same job for at least five years. With all the lay offs and the instability of the working world, it is best to take at least a few weeks off before seriously looking for a job. It is also a way of getting back at the establishment for treating us as if we are just expendable machine parts rather than working people who have value for what they contribute to the various corporations we work for.
By the time I got divorced from my fist wife, I had developed a bitter streak in me that is still there today. My brother and I noticed that going to work for the first time is when we learn that the companies we work for want to get as much out of us as they can for as cheap as they can. They constantly run a scam off of us to take as much from us for as little money as they can get away with. They don’t trust us and for those of us who wise up to them, we never trust them. Part-time, full-time, minimum wage, higher pay—it all boils down to a relationship that is never fair and we never actually trust each other. That was the one constant of everyone in the trailer court and it never changed as I went from being a lumpen-proletariat to a full-blown proletariat.
We got to know the other people in the trailer park. There was a mother and daughter two trailers down. The mother is on welfare and going to school. She told me she would rather work, but she needed health care for her seven-year-old daughter and welfare was the only way to afford it. If she got a job she could not get or afford health insurance.
At the other end of the trailer park were Vicky and James. They had a little girl about three-years-old. Vicky was dark haired, part Indian. James had blond hair and was tall and stocky. He dressed as a bicker with a vest and a wallet with a chain on it. He would come over from time to time when I bought a friend’s Talwin[3] scripts. We both had a taste for that drug, which resembled the affects of morphine, and we all liked beer. They two were married and they ran with a rather Rough crowd. James was working at the pork and bean factory I had once worked at. But James hurt his back and was on disabilities.
The trailer structures are not suited to withstanding tornado and hurricane attacks, which has led to the stereo type label “tornado food.” So some of the people fit the stereo types of “trailer trash” and many did not. I remember an old man in the town of Clinton, MO, who I interviewed  for a newspaper I worked for after a drug raid staged in that town by the police, during the mid 1980s:
“They don’t have decent jobs here, many people are on welfare, they have nothing to do—what they (local authorities) expect them to do?” he said loudly. “Of course people are going to use drugs.”  

"Wig in a Box" - Hedwig and the Angry Inch




[1]John Ball's letter to an unidentified community, 1381, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Letter_to_an_unidentified_community
[2]“Better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime."—Rupert Pupkin, character from The King of Comedy, 1982.
This quote above says it all. Desperate and poor people with little to show for their lives can become instant celebrities for just one afternoon. As the above quote suggests, it is better to be the center of attention and a celebrity for one after-noon—than to be a poor person who will live their whole life unnoticed by anyone. Even being the butt of jokes and playing the fool is better than being unnoticed. So Springer takes advantage of that desperation by poor people to make his fortune and ratings.
[3]Pentazocine is a synthetically prepared prototypical mixed agonist–antagonist narcotic(opioid analgesic) drug of the benzomorphan class of opioids used to treat moderate to moderately severe pain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentazocine


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